Friday, June 26, 2015

In Which I Review Under the Dome (3x1 and 3x2)

It's baaaaaaack. Like the proverbial bad penny, Under the Dome has returned for its third season which means 9 weeks of my snark, my eye rolls, and my silly nicknames for characters I can't be bothered with. I've had almost a full month off of real reviewing but now is as good a time as any to dive back in--lest we forget, Under the Dome was one of the first shows to appear on this blog of mine. The season three opener "Move On" and "But I'm Not" (oh, so many jokes. So little time) has everything right where we left it. There's Barbie and Julie still doing their BBQ-ing; there's Little Crazypants Junior and Papa Crazypants Big Jim; there are Joe and Norrie--the incomparable Jorrie--making moon eyes at each other and acting like their love struck teenage shtick is real and will last. In other words, the opener for the (most likely?) final season of Under the Dome is a big giant mess full of weird pacing, weird acting, and weird plot lines that feel as though they are going nowhere. Ain't it great to be back? When we last left the residents of Chester's Mill, Barbie was about to lead them through an underground tunnel (of love?) full of butterflies (naturally) until Melanie (our residential Gollum) appeared and told everyone to follow her. Crazy is as crazy does, so of course everyone happily trotted after Gollum through the Cave of Wonders. What's on the other side? Answers? No, of course not. Suspense? Not really, mostly confusion. New characters that I really don't care about? You betcha. Oh Under the Dome...I am prepared for the terrible writing and overused cliches. Are you ready for my sass? Let's go!

Pod people! Like, actual pod people! Normally when we talk about pod people in media, it's a commentary on the poor character representation based on what has come before (see for example: Emma Swan in OUAT S3B and beyond. Too soon for OUAT snark?). But with Under the Dome, it's scarily literal. Let's be up front on this: these two hours of TV were weird. And confusing. And like something out of a bad 1980s science fiction film, complete with purple goop and cocoons. It felt like a hot mess because it was a hot mess. Future alternative realities that are being controlled by Gollum in an underground lair which houses the real residents of Chester's Mill, asleep in giant larvae? What were the writing tripping when they came up with this one? However, I will say this: it was so bad that it was almost good. This was campy; ridiculous camp that wasn't trying to elevate itself above campiness. I am fine with campiness; what I am not fine with is when a campy show forgets that it it's supposed to be grounded in the absurd.  This episode, thankfully, had that going for it. Basic premise: everything you saw in "future" Chester's Mill is fake. The Dome did not come down; Julia and Little Crazy Pants are not dead; Norrie did not join a a cult--sorry, sorority. Everyone is not "moving on" (and yes, you should take a shot for every time someone on the show mentioned the idea of moving on.) The concept of moving on seems very important to the aliens (can it really be anything other than aliens at this point?) in charge of the Dome. They want the residents to feel like they've moved past (shot!) the trauma of living in a fish bowl. Why exactly? Why create a false life for the people that you're....harvesting, or doing whatever to. Is there an empathetic streak to these aliens? Possibly, but I think, rather, that it's easier to control livestock if they think everything is perfectly normal. If you introduce an agent or stimulus into a carefully controlled environment, the animals can tell. They panic. For example, Junior suddenly showing up in Fake! Chester's Mill when everyone believed him to be dead causes Barbie to realize that things in this new, shiny, un-Domed town in Maine are not quite up to snuff. What is frustrating, though, is that none of this Fake! Chester's Mill is real so therefore anything that you learned isn't going to matter because it was all a construct. They're inside the Matrix, in other words (I'm pretty sure I made a lot of Barbie = Neo jokes last year...). Joe and Norrie? Not a struggling young couple trying to figure out how to be friends in the wake of romance. Junior? Not a Dudley Do Right who is out building homes for the poor and saving the world. Barbie? Did not go to Yemen to take down terrorists, one cell at a time. Any development the characters are perceived to have had is just that...a fraudulent perception that falls once the cocoon has hatched its new butterflies. Once I realized that the Future Chester's Mill was really Fake! Chester's Mill, nothing mattered in that timeline or that story. It all becomes muted and superfluous. Well. Maybe not everything--or everyone.

Remember what I said about new characters that I don't care about? Well, here's one of them. Now, granted this New! Red (whose real name is apparently Christine Price) is probably going to be pretty important. More so than Max No-Last-Name, Science Teacher Pine and Papa Q (ah, memories) at the very least. You don't go and hire Marg Helgenberger for a one off annoying role like all the above listed characters were. So, in my mind, a cocoon hive needs a leader, a Queen. Thus New! Red is going to be Queen Bee. I have decided that is her new nickname. She was carefully manipulating a lot of the situation in the Fake! Chester's Mill from Joey and Norrie to Sam and even to Junior once he joined the party. Queen Bee was also wearing a very loud purple ring that matched the purple goop that was "feeding" the livestock back in the underground caverns. If I had to guess, I'd say she's the leader of the alien race that crashed in Chester's Mill some indeterminate time ago (though, probably around the same time that those eggs began to drop) and has been waiting for some secret confluence of events to rebuild her race using the humans in Chester's Mill. After all, Gollum kept saying that the people in the cocoons needed to become what "they" needed. Oh, I don't think that's really Melanie. I assume the real Melanie is either dead or never existed at all given her obvious otherworldly quality in this episode. But Gollum did kill Papa Q, so I have to thank her for that. In other "new random characters that I don't care about" category there is Eva, Barbie's imaginary squeeze inside Fake! Chester's Mill who turns out to be not-so-fake and very probably very-really-pregnant. Because Barlie need drama like they need a hole in the head (and they do need a hole in the head) and in TVLand drama means love triangle. I am so excited. Can you tell? And finally, we have Mysterious Corporate Man Who Gave Exposition About Alaska to Papa Q. That's a long nickname, so I'll have to find some way to shorten it (it might just be Benton given that this new man is being played by Eriq la Salle and thus will always be Dr. Benton from "ER"). Raise your hand if you think Alaska is going to come back up along with Mysterious Corporate Man Who Gave Exposition About Alaska's back story about the eggs, the cocoon, and why the Dome fell? What I'm ultimately trying to get at is this: these first two hours of TV gave us a lot of questions, almost no answers, quite a few deaths--though few were real--and enough eye roll worthy moments to make it all taste funny in my mouth. The plot did not advance much and our characters were essentially back where they left off at the end of season two, under a Dome, with lots of mysterious things happening, not trusting one another, and unsure of how to continue living in this giant fishbowl. So...it's business as usual in Chester's Mill. 

Miscellaneous Notes on Move On and But I'm Not

--I will say that the CGI for the Dome falling in the alternative reality was quite stunning.

--Big Jim please stop shooting people, especially your son. I know Junior is Little Crazy Pants but putting a bullet in him is not the answer. Also, please stop declaring that "this is my town!" You're a tool.

--"We have to have the egg!!" Yes, Gollum. We know it is the Precious.

--Someone is going to have to explain why simply setting the egg on top of the largest cocoon caused it to shoot off fireworks.

--If the writers wanted the reveal that Chester's Mill was Fake in the future alternate reality, then they needed to not use the very obvious "purple haze" for each and every single transition to Chester's Mill.

--Obviously Ava and Christine are not natural citizens of Chester's Mill, and probably not of planet Earth. But what is Ava to Christine? Daughter? Lieutenant? Rival?

--How many times was "move on" uttered this episode? I'd really like a tally.

--"There's nothing good on TV anymore, anyway." Meta. Meta as hell, y'all. 

--Actual. Pod. People.  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

In Which I Review Game of Thrones (5x10)

I promised a season finale review when I wrote my season five opener review for Game of Thrones and I like to keep my promises, like Ned Stark (if you don't know what that means, then please spend the summer reading A Song Of Ice And Fire). But here we are at the end of another season. Jon is dead (maybe), Dany has flown, Arya is blind, Cersei took a walk, and no one has any idea what is going on with Brandon Stark. I am going to be fairly blunt up front: I thought season five of Game of Thrones was the worst one to date. This isn't to say that there weren't shinning moments of brilliance--the episode Hardhome comes to mind--but rather that season five slowed down the narrative to an almost standstill and open gaping plot holes every which way, while refusing to take that opportunity to present an introspective look at what is going on Westeros and the lives of our favorite characters. Let me unpack that a bit. The fourth and fifth book of A Song of Ice and Fire, "A Feast For Crows" and "A Dance With Dragons," respectively, are significantly slower than the first three books. For two or three characters, AFFC is essentially one giant travelogue and for the rest it's about feeling stuck in situations you can't control--the mean streets of Meereen, the turbulent religious zeal of King's Landing, The Wall and daggers in the dark. You could make the argument that the reason season five of A Game of Thrones felt so much slower was because their source material, the work of George RR Martin, was significantly slower. It's an argument that holds water and has merit EXCEPT in what GoT does not do, but Martin does. AFFC and ADWD might be slower than the three previous books but GRRM takes that time to allow for philosophical, moral and ethical ponderings as well as intense character development, be it of the good kind or the bad kind. And why not? Is that not how war and trauma work? Yes, war is loud and in your face and there are dates and events that become solidified in the public conscious as important, normally circled in red sharpie, but there is also the "after" of war. People wonder why did we do this as they begin to look past the actual conflict and look at the toll it has taken on the world and its people. That is, essentially, what A Feast For Crows is. And it's important. It's essential to have Ellaria Sand speak against the blood lust and vengeance that fuels her family in the wake of Oberyn's death. It's essential to have Septon Maribald speaking about broken men who never return home from war. In a lot of ways, GRRM is writing an anti-war narrative and thus when Game of Thrones only shows the horrors of war and men in general but not the characters reflecting on said horrors, it only gives one side of the story. 

Instead of these introspective and quiet moments, the characters this season simply moved from plot point to plot point in order to reach the desired endgame. I have come to believe, after watching the whole season, that the show runners worked backwards in order to write all of season five. They knew they wanted the final three episodes--Hardhome (Jon's battle against the White Walker), The Dance of Dragons (Dany's flight), and Mother's Mercy (Cersei's Walk and Jon's death)--to be the final images of this season. All three are incredibly powerful in text and certainly could be watchable TV designed to generate buzz. The problem is that the writers still had to come up with enough plot to get the characters to those points. I guess that's one way of writing--instead of letting your characters lead you where they want to go, you come up with their final endgame and then write the narrative to get them to point X. Whether or not that is an acceptable way to write fiction is a debate for another day. In brief, those are my overall thoughts on season five of GoT. Lack of introspective, meaningful, conversation and thought that lead to some awkward storylines full of plot holes and bizarre turns up until the the final three episodes which ranged from spectacular to rage inducing to confusion. And of course this is to say nothing of the continued sexism and torture porn GoT is becoming so famous for. So what in particular worked? And what did not? Grab a flying lizard and let's go.

I have written this review three times now--and deleted it each time. Thus the lateness and the somewhat scattered nature of this final attempt. As I said in the introduction, I thought this season was simply....bad. One great episode does not a season make nor does it endear me toward the other 9 episodes which were either slow and boring or offensively bad. I wasn't sure if this was going to turn into a season review or an episode review, so I think it's going to turn into a bit of both. All I can say is that I don't know if I can continue to watch Game of Thrones; I don't know if I can continue to watch HBO and the two show runners hack George RR Martin's world to bits the way that they are doing. There are adaptations that work when you taken differences in medium into account (say, for example, the first season of Game of Thrones) and then there are adaptations that remove the heart and soul that it is adapting from. It is like the show runners decided that the best way to craft their narrative was to do the opposite of whatever was going on in the books and add in elements that were never there to begin with, which always--always this season--ended up being a nightmare of epic proportions. Book readers get a bit of a bad wrap in this fandom when we launch criticisms at the show because we are told that we are being snobbish and that the books aren't the show but here's the deal: the characters and the narrative should at least resemble the books in something more than name. Yes there is a Doran Martell in Game of Thrones but his resemblance to the book version ends there. Yes, there is a "For the Watch" in Game of Thrones but the spirit and impetus that lay behind the book version of the same event is lacking to the point of being non-existent in the show. The Brienne of Tarth in the books in no way resembles the kind and caring and somewhat naive Brienne in the books. I considered breaking this review down into "stories that worked" and "stories that did not" except that in each case--from Meereen to the Wall--there were elements that worked and did not work. Except for Dorne. That was just drivel from start to finish. I am only going to hit a few stories and a few points because talking about this episode as a whole would (and already has) left me exhausted. It was bad, guys. It was just bad.

I know that was a lot of text to set up what I'm getting at but here's the crux: Game of Thrones more often than not relies heavily on shock value that is too dissociative from its narrative framework and how they've presented the characters thus far. It is done with very little explanation or understanding of Martin's world and is increasingly being done for no other motivation that to claim to be innovative and shocking and pushing the envelope when in reality, the show writers are relying heavily on some fairly old and redundant tv themes. Is there any agency left for any woman in this series that feels natural and organic? Sansa was raped and tortured and in the end it did not push her to save her own skin or take down Ramsey Bolton like many claimed it would, but instead it opened the door for Theon Greyjoy to become a hero who saves Sansa from her sad fate; a fate that she is more or less accepting of and passively prepares herself for when she is confronted by Miranda in the final Winterfell moments. I have never denied the violence of Martin's world, though a large portion of that violence happens offscreen and is related through various POV's who are either at the center of (but after the fact) or on the periphery of said violence. However, when violent acts do take place, they are not random nor haphazard; they fit into an already established narrative arc that also aligns with the characters as we uncover their multifaceted layers. Arya walking the Riverlands shows the horrors of war and her hardening heart toward such bloody acts, as an example. After the rape scene in episode 506, the internet was abuzz with both praise (for realism in this medieval setting) and outrage at having yet another rape scene for what seemed like pure shock value. I happen to agree with the latter stance but let's work through the former. In one regard, yes this rape kept in line with Ramsey Bolton's character--a non POV sociopath who is only ever seen through the eyes of another, mostly Theon-turned-Reek. Ramsey is known for his ill treatment of beast and man alike and is probably as close to "pure evil" as one can get in Martin's grey speckled world. With regards to the realism debate, I will never deny that marital rape is a very real part of Martin's world: to do so is to deny Cersei and Robert and to deny (the beginnings at least) of Daenerys and Drogo. It is also to deny what happens between Ramsey and his Book Bride, the Fake Arya Stark. The marriage and subsequent rape in the show, however, did not make narrative sense nor did it have any sort of satisfactory conclusion or emotional follow through. It was also heavily cliched. Sansa's rape was for Theon's character development because Hollywood continues to deny the female agency and perspective and instead myopically focuses on the male. I hated the rape aspect as a whole, but from an objective standpoint it is part of GRRM's world, rape in general and marital rape specifically. But during a time when we're supposed to be focused on Sansa's trauma, heartache, and pain...they went to Theon and instead we focused on how Sansa's rape was affecting him. That's a big no-no for me. And in the end, it is Theon who is the hero to poor defenseless Sansa. Nothing about the rape of Sansa and her situation furthers her character. It makes her pitiable but after 3 seasons with Joffery, Sansa is already pitiable. It makes Ramsey a monster but after watching him flay and slice up Theon, he is already a monster. It makes the Bolton family the enemies of the Starks, but after Roose betrayed Robb at the Twins and then took Winterfell for himself, the Boltons already are the enemies of the Starks. In other words, packing Sansa off to Winterfell and having her married and raped by Ramsey Snow served no purpose in furthering Sansa's arc or the arc of the grand narrative. I'll just keep reminding myself that Sansa is really in the Vale, eating lemon cakes, and toying with Harry the Heir at Littefinger's insistence.

Daenerys is presented as a bad ass who feeds men to her dragons when they piss her off (something Dany in the books never does; hell, she barely goes to see her chained up dragons in the fifth book) and forces men to marry her while they cower on their knees in a dungeon. Except, you know, Dany is actually a far more complex and complicated individual than that. One who sends traitors to be tortured, who is constantly trying to renegotiate her own identity in light of ruling Meereen but ends up chaffing and chained under the conventions placed upon her by the patriarchal slavery society. A woman who feels like an avenging dragon after crucifying 163 slavers but then also can't stand the smell and sounds of their dying and tells herself that it was for the children. A woman who avoids her literal dragons once they are chained; a woman is talked into marrying Hizdahr zo Loraq because he can bring her peace even though it is fairly obvious that he too is a Son of the Harpy. A woman who finally, at the end of the fifth book, rips off her veil and takes off her floppy ears and saves her dragon by taming him with nothing but a whip and words because "he is fire made flesh and so am I," who finally remembers her house words and comes to realize that she doesn't belong in Slaver's Bay and that dragons plant no trees because the soil in her new kingdom is rotten and it's her job to be both destruction and creation, two forces living together in one being, a never ending cycle of death and rebirth and...Ok, look. I could go on forever (and have done so in other places) about how much I flipping love Daenerys Targaryen. That is my QUEEN. Yeah, she's got a violent streak and is morally gray and probably the most controversial character in ASOIAF, but she's got a vision of the future and I'll follow her where she goes. Show Daenerys is nothing like this. To the show writers, Dany only works for them if she's being "a badass" like randomly feeding men to her dragons and telling Hizdahr that they're going to be married, no ifs ands or buts and with no outside counsel. Because oh! It's shocking! Dany is a woman but look how strong and badass she is! Let's only ever show her being strong and badass cause she's a woman and it's unexpected and trope-breaking! Please. Woman can be strong and independent and powerful and still be faulty, wrong, morally complex, and be plagued by self doubt. If the writers of GoT actually read the books (because I am no longer convinced that they have) they'd know this. See for example: every single woman in the series!

What irks me more, though, is that they can't carry that line of thought--Dany is a badass--through when it matters. Dany riding Drogon for the first time is a badass moment; it's a self empowering moment for her. But instead the show made it all about how Dany has to be rescued, so thank god she has a male dragon around (along with her brave knight and sellsword/lover of course)! The wrongness of Dragon's First Flight was followed by the complete and utter bastardization of Dany's final POV chapter in ADWD in which she remembers who she is while out on the Dothraki Sea. In the books Dany is literally walking back to Meereen in the hot sun, while sick and while having a miscarriage. Her walk back to Meereen is all about "vs": Peace vs War, Dragon vs Harpy, Meereen vs Westeros, Monster vs Mother. And all of that--ALL OF THAT--was cut from this "adaptation." They want Dany to be a badass except when it comes to the really important non-dragon, non-fire and blood moments when they clearly find her boring or something (or maybe they don't get her). If I look back I am lost, to go forward I must go back, dragons plants no trees, sitting next to Drogon waiting for the Dothraki, remembering that her house words are "fire and blood...." ALL of those are so incredibly important to who Dany is: she is the balance of life and death, the harmony of the never ending cycle of rebirth and loss of life. She is the Mother and The Dragon. She is war and she is peace. She is Brahma and Shiva. She can create a new world ONLY after she has destroyed the old one. But if you were just watching the show you'd only know that 1) she's hot 2) has dragons 3) has a lot of men that are in love with her and 4) is in deep shit cause oh no! the Dothraki found her! I bet they are mad or something! Golly, I hope those two men who love her so much find her quick cause otherwise she's doooooomed! Poor Sad Female! 

Fun fact: in the books, Shireen and Stannis are about 1,000 miles apart from each other. While I've always seen Stannis as an Agamemnon figure, I've also seen him as someone who subverts Agamemnon, especially where his daughter is concerned. Where Agamemnon kills Iphigenia, I've often predicted that Stannis will arrive too late to save his daughter from his own wife and his Red Woman (who has stopped wearing red in the show...odd). Once again, Stannis burning Shireen at the stake without so much as a blink is a disconnect from what was previously established for the character of Stannis. A few episodes prior to the conflagration, Stannis gave the most passionate speech I think we've ever heard from him about how Shireen is his child, two weeks ago he sent Mel away for even suggesting that they hurt Shireen. And then he decides to burn his only child--his heir--why? It doesn't make narrative sense for Stannis to go from point A to point Z without a layover in point B-Y. How did he get to that emotional point? HOW?! Just because of the lack of food? Because in ADWD, they are at that point and know what Stannis says: "pray harder." Also, they aren't lacking food given that Stannis orders the slain 100+ horses to be cut up into meat. In the books, those he burns are traitors or his enemies, not his own men and not his own family. If Stannis were to arrive back to Castle Black (where Mel and Shireen are in the books) it would be just right after Mel sets Shireen ablaze. That's Stannis's tragedy. He's always just off by a bit. So why have Stannis burn Shireen? Because the writers don't want us to cheer for anyone except Tyrion, Jon, and Dany. Those are their three big damn heroes and everyone else be damned, never mind the very carefully layered book construction that paints all three as far more grey than white hatted heroes. So Stannis burns his child because it's shocking; because it would set the audience's heart aflutter and make them talk and tweet and watch next week to see if the sacrifice was worth it--never mind the fact that R'hllor does not actually exist in Martin's universe. But it was an unearned scene; the situation was not that horrible, no more so than it was the previous episode unless I am willing to suspend all my disbelief and accept that Ramsey Bolton really stormed into an entire army encampment with 19 men and killed hundreds of horses and burned all the foodstuffs without anyone noticing (really...not one person noticed or captured one of the Northmen?) And finally to have it be Selyese, who all season has been Queen Burn-All-The-Things, be the one to suddenly turn into the considerate parent who doesn't want her daughter burned and then kills herself in the finale. It was like watching a Greek farce in which one bad thing happens, one right after the next: Stannis burns his daughter, men desert him, his wife kills herself, and Mel leaves. Why did Mel leave exactly? Mel in the books wouldn't abandon her Azor Ahai (even though he's clearly not Azor Ahai). The writers on GoT just straight up hate Stannis for some inexplicable reason and don't seem to understand him. It isn't ambition that drives Stannis; it's duty. His final words to Brienne (whom I'll be skipping since she is so far removed from Book Brienne I don't even think we can call her Brienne) "do your duty" are actually perfect so I applaud the writers on that, but otherwise they don't get that Stannis is the best commander in Westeros, knows how to conduct war and what it takes to win a war and win a siege, and doesn't actually want the Throne but feels that he has to take it because it's what his duty requires of him since he is Robert's true heir.

The other and last aspect I am going to talk about are the events of the Wall (because I can't touch Dorne with a ten foot pole). If I just said go read the books would that be enough? No, probably not.  There was no build up, no time spent on why the men of the Night's Watch are angry, why this is "for the Watch." In the books, there is a moment--a singular moment--in which Jon chooses something that casts him as an Oath Breaker. Up until that point, the men under him are upset with Jon's decisions but they don't oppose him violently. But when Jon makes his decision to, essentially, break his oaths to the Watch, that's when the men decide to kill him. And it's powerful and sad--the men doing the killing are actually crying. And of course Jon's not really dead but you wouldn't know this from the show. In the books it's clear based on clues to what--or who--Jon really is and it is his final words, "Ghost," that indicate that Jon has most likely warged but we don't even know where Ghost is here in GoT! Does Ghost still exist for Jon? He appeared once this season for Sam..... There was none of this Emo Olly nonsense in the books and this "Olly" insertion is the best example of something that is straight from the minds of the show runners that just abysmally fails. But what angers me more than the messed up For the Watch moment were the final moments between Sam and Jon. In what universe does Sam leave Jon willingly? In what universe does Sam ask to be sent away from the danger? None. There is no universe in which that is true. It is so so so so important to both characters that it is Jon who orders Sam to go to Oldtown and become a Maester. He does it to keep Aemon Targaryen (already dead now) and Mance Rayder's son (who does not exist on the show) safe from Melisandre and her obsession with King's blood. Sam goes to learn more about the Walkers, but it is Jon making a very cold, hard decision that is all about killing the boy so that the man can live. But Sam asking to go to Oldtown reeks of desertion and fear and being a coward. And while Sam might be a coward, he'd never willingly abandon Jon Snow. It just goes to show that the show runners don't understand the characters GRRM handed them on a silver platter. 


Overall, season five was a mess. It really was. It relied far too heavily on shocking moments and titillating out of character events to ever be considered concise storytelling. It continues to move further and further away from the books that GRRM has crafted, and that everyone should read! Shock and titillation have their place so long as they contribute to character development and a cohesive plot. This season failed in that regard. There were so many times when the show just missed the point of these huge moments that happened in AFFC and in ADWD. Honestly, did any of the character move forward emotionally or realistically? It felt as though at the end of 10 episodes they were right back where they began, having never moved forward at all. No one was really pushed or challenged. Almost all the plot lines felt stalled and remedial and in some cases far outside of GRRM's universe. I'm struggling with my continued viewing of the show since so much of it is coming back to torture porn (Meryn Trant, anyone?) or rape or violence for the sake of violence with no careful consideration of what happens after. Be realistic; be gritty; be tough. But be realistic, gritty and tough in all matters, not just when you want to assault a character on screen. Don't just rely on shock value and ignore the narrative at play. I doubt I'll review a GoT episode or season again; being a book snob gets me into far too much trouble with this show. But I keep my promises.

Monday, May 18, 2015

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x14)

And then there were none....

Do you know what I did this week? I re-watched (almost) the entire series of Mad Men. AMC aired the whole shebang and I found myself drawn in, like the proverbial moth to a flame. What can I say? I can't resist the heady dose of complex characters, narrative, symbols and themes. Here we are at the end of everything Mad Men. The last Old Fashioned has been drunk, the last cigarette has been lit, the last ad has been pitched. What did I expect from the finale? I think, in my head, I expected something like Don traveling back to New York and having conversations with those he left behind. After all, the finale is called "Person to Person." But, as usual, Matthew Weiner subverted my expectations (remember when I firmly believed that Don Draper would die before the 1970s?) and gave me something that was out of the box, weird, and little bit confusing. That's Mad Men, though. In no universe, thinking about it now, would Weiner write something so introspective as what I just proposed. People don't work like that in Weiner's world--and indeed, do they really work that way in the real world? I've been saying for a long time that 'people do not fundamentally' change is the central tenant of Mad Men. The best they can hope for is to accept their own issues and learn to live within them. Don staying a self absorbed asshole who is also a mad genius when it comes to advertising? He doesn't change. He becomes only mildly self aware and uses this new found moment of clarity not to heal but to sell hope and love to the starving American public. Because at the end of the day, he's still Donald Draper. And he'd like to buy the world a Coke. One more drink for the road? Let's go. 


I suppose, looking at the finale as a whole, there are really three stories, three people who have to decide what their future is. Isn't that really what this was all about? We can't follow these characters all the way through their lives but at least we can glean what might become of them. Joan, Peggy, and Don are all question marks. Pete got his happy ending with Trudy and Tammy and they're off to conquer Wichita; Roger is going to make the most of what time he has left by marrying Marie and seeing the world with a new girl, forever the child at heart. Sally is going to step up and take her mother's place as head of the Francis household (soon to be the Hofstader household since she and her brothers are going to live with Betty's brother?) But Joan, Peggy and Don are at a crossroads, unsure of where to go. And that's what the finale wants to answer. For Joan, she's torn between love and career, something that shouldn't surprise us too much given that Joan has forever been trapped between those two. Joan has been held there more so than Peggy, I'd say, since Joan has always been searching for love whilst Peggy has been, more or less, content to give herself over to her work (oh yes, we'll get to Peggy.) The new man in Joan's life, Richard, is awfully demanding isn't he? He wants all of Joan and he wants none of her to go toward her career or her dreams and her ambitions. Joan had a guy like that once; Greg, her husband, once told her that she should be sitting in front of the TV eating Bon-Bons. Joan, though, is fed up with living in that world--a world that says she is nothing more than a body and she shouldn't partake in the pleasures of business. It's a bit shocking to find Joan back on the business end of things, though as a producer this time around. She was miserable at McCann and even feeling a little empty at SC&P before the merger, but looking back it was less about the business and more about the fact that Joan was never seen as being capable or having the same abilities as men. Joan got where she was thanks to her body--literally prostituting herself for her partnership. In this business, Joan answers to no one and is beholden to no one. Joan is her own boss; her successes and failings are her own and she's going to make the most of it. What is Joan's future? Probably pretty bright, even if it doesn't include love. At least not yet. It's Joanie. I imagine she'll find romantic love eventually. And even if not, she's got Kevin, she's got her business, and she's got a pocket full of money. You go, Joan Harris. Take on the world and look fabulous at the same time.

Peggy Olson got the true happy ending, didn't she? I never doubted she would. I have to admit that I squealed when she and Stan declared their love for each other, not necessarily because I have been hard core rooting for them but because it meant that Peggy made it after all. She gets the golden goose egg--the job, the money, the guy. I think Peggy learned very early on how to live not only in the world and its rules but live within herself. She's knows she is not going to fundamentally change--she'll always be driven and hard and myopic and obsessive. But that doesn't mean that, to quote Stan, Peggy can't find more outside of work. It was nice to see Peggy struggling with her future; she has always wanted everything and always wanted it now. She's an eager beaver, our Peggy Olson. So when Joan approached her about going into business together (someone fanfic the hell out of that, please) Peggy was understandably eager to take it and run, but not because she wanted to do it but because it would get her "there" faster. Where is there? Success, recognition, money, power, prestige. Everything Peggy Olson wants could potentially be fast-tracked if she up and left McCann and embarked on this new adventure. But what grounds her, ultimately, is that someone loves her and wants a life with Peggy, even if it means that her name won't be on the door until 1980. I think Peggy accepted long ago that she would never find love, not after so many failed attempts: Pete, Duck, Abe, Ted, and various other men. Peggy was too career driven, too focused on her upwards climb. She never realized that Stan was climbing up with her. Did you notice the wonderful "here and there" part of Peggy and Stan's conversation? Whenever Peggy has an intense heart to heart with someone and she has to try and explain her emotions, she tends to talk in location: "it's like one day your here..." she says to Peter in Season 2. Just two weeks ago she told Stan, with regards to the child she gave up that he's "there" and she's "here." But with Stan, he is both here and there. A distance between them doesn't exist. What's Peggy's future? You better believe she'll get her name on the door somewhere at some point, though probably not McCann. She's too talented to be left in that sausage factory; three years down the road and she'll leave and go someplace else to be a partner and a creative director before getting to put her last name above the door. And Stan will be there for it. Throw your hat in the air, Peggy. From a secretary in the steno pool to copy writer to copy chief. From the girl who got pregnant and didn't realize it to the woman who pitched how starved we all are for a connection---you made it.

And finally, at long last, we come to Don. What is there to say? A lot, I'm sure. But I'm going to restate the thesis of Mad Men one more time: people do not fundamentally change. Did Don change? Nope. He's just looking for the "new you." This new him is really just Don Draper 2.0 (or hell, maybe 3.0 or even 4.0 at this point); perhaps a slightly more self aware and self enlightened Don who has learned a little bit about himself as a product that sits on a shelf waiting for love, but Don Draper nonetheless. He did not become Dick Whitman again; he did not re-baptize himself. I have no doubt that Don, having cried his manly cries, having chanted his 'oms' got in a car, went back to New York, back to McCann and said, "I have a great idea for Coke." That commercial at the end about buying the world a Coke--that was Don's last pitch (that we'll see anyway). It was hippie-tastic and shows that Don did gain some wisdom from his retreat in California and everything he's experienced this season, but it also shows that Don still understands people and how to get them to want and desire and long for the products he's pitching. The world needs love and this product--Coca Cola--is just the ticket for what ails you. And that is pure 1960s Donald Draper. But how did he get there, to this juxtaposition between the new you and the old him? Slowly. Achingly. Step by stumbling step.

Don is the only person in this episode who actually made a "Person to Person" phone call, the most significant of them being to Peggy. Can I just say, there was some ugly crying going on during this phone call? Don reached out and really talked to three women (the three women in his life): Betty, the dying mother, Sally, the up and coming daughter, and Peggy, the woman who really understood him, far more than the Anna 2.0 clone-wannabe, Stephanie, who openly declares that Don is not her family. But Peggy? Peggy is his family. I was going to be pretty upset if Don and Peggy never spoke again but Peggy told Don what he needed to hear: "you can come home..." It doesn't matter to Peggy if Don isn't the man she thought he was; it doesn't matter to her if Don broke all his vows and took another man's name and never made anything of it. Peggy doesn't care, even if it's all the truth; she's seen Don at his disastrous worst and at his shinning best and she knows him, in and out, because he's seen her too. Don had to call and say goodbye to Peggy. He never said goodbye to Anna, but by God, he's going to say goodbye to Peggy. That broke my heart. But in the end, Don reaches some measure of peace and self-awareness, as much as a man like Don can find peace and become self-aware. He sits on a beach, in his beloved California, in a business shirt (not the plaid he was sporting all episode) and a smile lights up his face: he's got it--his next great idea, the idea that will define his career forever. He might be a "new you" but he's really the old new, just with some polish but it's up to you, the viewer, to decide how much polish and what he can do with it. After all, the Wheel moves forward and backwards and then takes us home again. Does Don now know what love is? He spent his whole life looking for it, after all. Maybe, but that doesn't mean that he's magically cured of all his ills. I don't think it really matters. Mad Men was never going to spell it out for you whether or not Don has a bright future. For all I know, after the Coke ad, Don went on a bender, picked up some whores and went back down his self-torture road of misery. Only to come up with a great ad afterwards, of course. Or maybe he decides he will make a better go of it this time around. Maybe Don will be a better father, a better boss, a better man. Isn't it pretty to think so?

I want to end this (last ever) review of Mad Men on a sappy note, if I may. Two years ago, when I began this little blog of mine, it was really for one simple reason: I wanted to talk about Mad Men. I had been watching the show for years and found it highly stimulating and engaging and thought provoking, but I had little to no outlet for discussion. I had toyed with the idea of a blog for awhile and finally, one fateful day, sat down and decided to just dive in. I told myself, at the time, that it would be a blog for just about anything: TV, movies, politics, books, whatever. As you might have gathered, my focus became decidedly more narrow and now is almost exclusively about TV. Mad Men has a lot to do with that. My reviews have vastly improved since then and I became more comfortable talking about TV and the way I read texts. Again, Mad Men has a lot to do with that. I don't know that I'll ever tire of talking about, thinking about, or even just simply watching this show. Twenty years from now, it will still feel fresh and innovative, quite a feat for a show that spent its run in an era long since passed. I'll always find something new in the re-watches and something worth examining. Even though this is my final word on the show as a whole, it's not my final thought. Can I quote Don? Is that too passe? "...There's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product." That's me and that's Mad Men. A sentimental bond has formed with this TV show, one that won't easily or quickly go away. So to Bert and Roger, to Megan, Betty and Sally, to Joan and Pete, to Peggy and to Don (to them most of all), from the bottom of my heart, I will be forever grateful for you, your story, and what you gave me for ten years. And I will miss you.

Miscellaneous Notes on Person to Person

--"I translated your speech into Pig Latin..."

--"And this...is a cactus." I have a lot of love for the final Pete and Peggy scene together. They've come so far, from the married man who seduced Peggy on her first day to having a very healthy level of respect. The fact that Peggy parrots back Pete's, "a thing like that..." to him was touching.

--Roger actually wore something other than a three-piece suit and Don wore jeans! I die of shock, y'all.

--The phone call between Betty and Don was quite heartbreaking, especially when Betty gave him the cold slap that him not being around is just "normal."

--"It'll get easier as you move forward." Really Don? Has that been you experience?

--"You have to let him go; it doesn't mean you don't care about him..." And with that, I bow out.  

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x13)

Well, Happy Mother's Day to you too, Matthew Weiner. Only Mad Men would essentially kill off the original mother of the show on Mother's Day. There is only one episode left and while there is a sense of finality to all the characters--you better believe that's the last time we'll ever see Betty Draper-Francis--there is still an underlying tension of not knowing how all this will end and where we, the TV hobos, are going. This weeks episode, "The Milk and Honey Route," was one of those rare Mad Men episodes where I sat, slack jawed, staring at the screen wondering what I was watching. Most penultimate episodes of shows build toward something; there is a sense that the audience needs to prepare to take a giant leap forward in the following week by revving up the drama or the intrigue. Mad Men would never be so passe, though. Instead this weeks episode was very much about people being stuck, either in a certain location, in a situation, or an emotional mindset. This isn't to say that this weeks episode wasn't good--it's Mad Men; it's always going to be good. But rather, once again, Weiner and company subvert my expectations of what TV is supposed to feel like. In any other universe, the second to last episode of a series would have been loud and full throttle. Instead, it actually felt incredibly slowed down. It's hard to believe that we only have one episode left, forever. I'm not ready to say goodbye. So, instead, grab all your belongings and shove them into a Sears bag, hug your mother one final time and let's go. 

Is this the last we're going to see of Pete Campbell? It doesn't feel right that Pete and Don wouldn't interact one more time given how Pete has spent the past ten years attempting to become Don, but at the same time, this storyline is as close to happily ever after as Peter is likely to get. I'm just going to say it: the storyline for Pete this week was confusing. First, hello Duck. I never liked you so please go away with your drinking shame and your hat in your hands. Pete is quite happy at McCann/Erikson. He brought back in some clients after SC&P moved; he's obviously well liked and doing his job well. He's a cog in the machine; more important than some, less important than a whole lot of others. Don's prediction back in season one that Pete would eventually become a balding, middle aged executive with only moderate success seems to be coming true. Pete could spend the rest of his life at McCann and be adequately successful and happy. However, that's never what Pete wanted for himself. He wants to be King; it's literally his fantasy as we saw several seasons ago when being declared a King by a prostitute was what it took to get his motor running. Right now, Pete is a middle sized fish in the Ocean. What Duck Philips is presenting is a chance to be a shark in the middle of a duck pond. I guess I'm not one hundred percent sure what this new job is--account man for a luxury air travel agency? Sure. But what matters is that the opportunity to move to Wichita affords Pete a rather grand view of his life so far and what is missing from it: his family. Pete and Trudy were always dynamic together when their marriage wasn't falling to pieces, and to be fair it was often falling to pieces. But here, ten years after we first met Pete--wide-eyed, egotistical, eager beaver, dour Peter Campbell--he seems to have come to a conclusion about himself. He wants to be petted and admired and Pete can't be that at McCann nor even in New York. This latter part is important since Pete has always held New York in quasi-romantic terms. The suburbs of Cos Cob bored Pete; California turned into a nightmare, but New York was where he felt most at home, until it too turned on him and became "a toilet." Am I happy that Pete and Trudy got back together? I don't know in all honestly. It does feel a bit too saccharine for Weiner, someone who's never tried to present the world with kid gloves nor with cotton candy tinged experiences. Trudy and Pete were realistic as two well-to-do, upper class socialites who ultimately made each other miserable because their life together were never enough, at least for Pete. If Don is what Pete would become someday--divorced, mediocre, burnt out and bored--then it seems as though on some subconscious level, Pete is taking Don's departure as a the key to his happiness. Run west, Pete, with your family, become the King of Wichita and luxury airline travel and embrace the morning.

 I never expected to cry over Betty Draper, a character that I've never liked and stopped pitying after season one. Or maybe I cried over Sally and how broken she was, knowing that she was going to lose her mother very soon. I've said this so many time but I'll say it once more, the underlying thesis of Mad Men is that people do not fundamentally change, but they can learn to live within their own set of behaviors. Of course Betty's final letter to Sally was instructions on how to make her look at her funeral. Of course Betty included a picture of what she wanted to buried in with details on her hair and makeup. That's Betty Draper for you: vain, shallow, and pretentious. But sometimes, Betty Draper can be surprisingly deep. In the midst of all this vanity, Betty finally told Sally that she loved her. Betty has accepted her fate that she is going to die of lung cancer (finally someone on this show pays the price for smoking as much as they do). She's not going to fight; she knows it's over and she doesn't want to put Sally, Bobby, and Gene through what Betty herself went through watching her own mother die. Instead, Betty is going to march to the beat of her own slightly vainglorious drum. Betty will go to school, continue to be a mother and a wife and not be drawn into the morbidity of her final days. Betty matured quite a bit didn't she? She's still childlike with her haughty list of demands about her lipstick (something that reads more teenager instead of child), but she's accepted that this is who she is and the best thing she can do is to live in her own expectations of self. And, touchingly, tell her daughter one final fundamental truth: you are going to be okay. Sally might be the amalgam of her father and mother, the conservative yet hobo-esque beautiful girl, but like Betty said in her goodbye letter, she marches to the beat of her own drum and while that worried Betty, she understands now that it is Sally's strength. Embrace your drum, Sally. You are going to be okay.

And then there's Dick. Don? Dick. He keeps introducing himself to others as Don but at this stage of the game, Don is a mere shadow, a bad memory even. Dick Whitman has shed almost every single possession or construct that made Don who he was. No family, no wife, no friends, no job, no house, no business suit, and in the end no car--something he bought years and years ago as a sign of his status and wealth as Donald Draper. When asked how he earned his money, Don replied "I was in the advertising business." Past tense. It's over for Don and he has no intention of going back. He's a hobo and it's not even subtle anymore. There was one other construct that Don let go of in this episode: the secret of who he is. It's not that people before don't know that he's not really Donald Draper--Betty, Anna, Bert Cooper, Pete Campbell, Sally, Megan. They know. But the one thing no one has ever got was Don's true telling, that he was responsible for the real Don's death. It's always been couched as an accident, but here, in front on men who understand war and loss and survival, Don let's go of his greatest secret: "I killed my CO." Don's whole life has been plagued by the notion that he killed people--his whore mother who birthed him, his drunk father, his CO, and his brother Adam. By letting go of some of those burdens, by confessing, Dick Whitman is emerging from behind Don's carefully laid veneer. But back to being a hobo: it's not just that he's running; his possessions are in a bag, he's doing odd handy jobs around a home to earn food and board and in the end, he has no car and must rely on the bus and other forms of transport to get around. That's a hobo. That's what the hobo who showed up on Young Dick's farm in PA (one of the most significant episodes for Don) did and that's what Don is going to do. I don't think it's a secret that Don is slowly making his way out to California. California is his bliss. The final shot of this episode is Don sitting all alone at a bus station with a huge grin on his face. He's in heaven, finally, having emerged from McCann and New York hell. But here's the underlying tension now: what will Don do when he learns that Betty is dying or dead and that his children need him? Will he high-tail it back to New York and be a father or will he pursue his own pleasures and continue to head out west on the open road? People do not fundamentally change; Don is a runner. He runs from his wives, his family, his job, and he has been running from a Death denied (only to find it everywhere he goes...). So what will he do? Well, Sally has always been Don's saving grace on this show (her and Peggy) and I really want to believe that Don will turn around and go back to be with his children but....people. They don't fundamentally change.

And then there was one....

Miscellaneous Notes on The Milk And Honey Route

--Can we take a moment to appreciate how good Jon Hamm looks in 1960s/1970s casual drag? I mean, damn.

--Sally and Don were wearing the same colored shirts in their first phone call, with Sally wearing plaid, mirroring Don's plaid shirt in the final scene. Even half a country apart and those two are linked.

--"I walked into town and it's hard for me. I got flat feet." I didn't particularly care about Andy and his grifter storyline but it does serve to show how self aware Don can be. He knows this kid is him at a younger age, looking for a way out the only way he knows how: by conning people, something Don is an expert at doing. Don's best life advice: "you'll have to become someone else. That's not what you think it is." Quite a change from telling Peggy that "this never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened."

--Yes, Donald Draper got beat up with a phone book after he told his secret. It was a big bold move for him but it does rather reinforce the idea that he should keep his mouth shut.  

--Loved Sally's orange coat. 

--"You just do what you gotta do to come home." Or: Mad Men Season 7B in a nutshell.

--So, what is the final image of the show? Is it Don "Drapering" (the iconic shot of him lounging)? Is it a parallel to the first episode of Season 1 in which he sits by his children's beside, holding their hands (but this time with no Betty in the doorway?) Is it Don standing in the ocean, being re-baptized and reborn as Dick Whitman?

Monday, May 11, 2015

In Which I Review Once Upon A Time (4x21 and 4x22)

Hello. My name is Jacquelyn and I have very conflicted feelings about Once Upon A Time. That's a bit of an odd statement to make, I know, especially since I opened this S4B (Drag) Queens of Darkness arc by declaring myself to be someone who Anger-Watches OUAT. Now, I don't know what I am. Very slowly, over the past few episodes, my anger, bitter resentment and, yes, sometimes hatred, for this show has changed. I don't quite know what it has changed into but it has changed. I guess I have an entire summer to figure that out. All I've ever wanted was a good story; something campy and clever, something light and dark, something relaxing and thought provoking. OUAT was all that for me for a long time. And then they went and screwed it up and pushed plot and romance over heart and family (and, if you think about it, that's exactly what we got in this finale. First half: heart and family. Second half: ALL THE SHIPS).  The season four finale, "Operation Mongoose part 1 and 2" (epically stupid name, by the way) was a good story. There. I said it. The first half of this two part season finale was incredible. It felt exactly like the show that I had fallen in love with all those years ago. I couldn't tear my eyes off the screen: It was a good--nay--a great story. It was exactly the sort of thought provoking, philosophical discourse I once expected from this show. It took concepts that are far older than you or I and recast them to engage their audience in an almost Socratic way; what is a hero? What is a villain? What is love? What is sacrifice? The story of the season is one of the oldest there is--light vs dark. It's archetypical; it's universal; and I can't help but say that I enjoyed it. And then the second half happened and it was all I could do to not rip my eyes from their sockets, Oedipus style. So, I guess that evens it all out, right? Does a good first half mean that I forgive OUAT for the banality of season 3B or season 4A? No. Does that mean that I forgive them for killing Neal? Certainly not. It doesn't even mean that I'm looking at the show differently, but rather that for one hour--one shinning hour--it felt magical again. So, grab your favorite hero, villain, morally grey, intricately complex character, hug them tight and let's go! 

The Author Is Dead 

Let's not mince words: Issac is the avatar of Adam and Eddy into their own fictional universe. When it came to the Author in this two part finale, everything felt incredibly self aware and so very meta. I mean, this might be the most meta I've ever seen on any show outside of Supernatural. Isaac actually said #NoSpoilers (and if you follow the writers on Twitter then you know why that's significant). I honestly expected Adam and Eddy to appear, walking merrily along, waving and grinning. It's...interesting. I'll give the writers that. Isaac's story is pretty remedial in the end: he was a bitter employee who didn't like being taken for granted and denied what he thought was his bright future. He had a mean dictatorial boss who wanted Isaac to do things a certain way (or else!) and Isaac had to kowtow until one day he was chosen by Star Publications and started crafting his own stories--with a magic quill that made everything come to life. I am going to say this as clearly as I can: this is the story of Adam, Eddy, and ABC. Writers are clever and as much as I harp on Adam and Eddy and their now tawdry, soap opera filled show, they were (are) clever. They know how to say something without really saying it. The Author has always been Adam and Eddy's insert into their own story but never more so than now when they wrote Isaac making villains heroes (AKA: season two of OUAT and onward) and the heroes villains (just look at what they did to Snow White and Prince Charming this season). The Author even has rabid fans who demand that their favorite character(s) get happy endings while dressing up in cosplay.  But in his heart, the Author is bitter that he wrote stories that no one ever wanted to read--that what he originally had to say wasn't good enough. What Issac ended up writing was a book that took all his frustrations over being told that his original ideas weren't good enough and used them to get some of his own back a little. If you know anything about this fandom and its politics--or anything about TV as a business--then you know that rumors circulate (and to be fair I don't know if any of this is true) that ABC demanded that Adam and Eddy push certain story lines over others because of fandom, because of popularity, because of what the media consumed and reported on, even though it wasn't what Adam and Eddy had in mind. A lot of that played out, I thought, in Isaac's story.

All Isaac wanted to do was tell his story--the story he probably dreamed up in some hotel in Boston (again, if you know the story behind the story of OUAT...)--but he was denied that because of forces greater than himself. However, unlike Isaac, Adam and Eddy aren't going around and killing children or trying to feed them to ogres. There's reality and then there's fiction and the fact that this episode ended the way it did--the world "righted" so that the changed, non-original story staying the same--felt like Adam and Eddy surrendering to their fate. It might not be the story they wanted to tell, but it's the story they are going to tell fervently and zealously. I'm trying to figure out if how I'm reading Issac's story grants me any peace. I've always believed that ABC more or less demanded a change in the story; it's no secret that the show has morphed into something else. Even if you still love it (and, for the record, that's fine!), the writing and the style and way the story is being told has become markedly different. There is a lot more plot, a lot more focus on the hot and new, and a lot less focus on what was the heart of the show: a family trying to heal from years of conflict and strife who just so happened to be fairy tale characters. So Adam and Eddy may be inserting the real life situation, the story going on behind the scenes, in a very meaty and meta way and at least it gave me some measure of peace and understanding that the show wasn't supposed to go like this. But...doesn't that hurt more than never knowing? It begs the question, if the writers had never hit the reset button, if they had never done XYZ...what show would I be watching?

Both Sides Now

I just spent a fair amount of time trying to understand if the writers of this show were inserting their own personal drama into their own creation, so let's turn the page and go elsewhere: an alternate universe. In this AU, I am going to praise the living daylights out of the writing, the acting, and the story. I know. Shocking. This AU was amazing. I mean, actually amazing. Hello Dark Snow, can you stick around and be totally cool cause OMG! Here's a question, was this really the villains happy endings? Not...really, right? Regina was kind of miserable living her bandit life in a forest where she didn't feel welcome. Robin (a hero) was marrying a woman he clearly loved until he laid eyes on Regina. Hook (a villain) was a ship's mate who didn't know how to use a sword and spent his time scrubbing floors, which I would say is not his happy ending even if it was comedic gold. How exactly did the villains win and the heroes lose? I think ultimately it wasn't about the villains winning but about Rumple winning. This was, more or less, his happy ending--everyone else be damned. Rumple's AU was a life in which his dead son could be proud of him; he was married to Belle, and had a new family. He fought ogres, he saved little boys and whole villages, and he was a white knight (and apparently the Light One). It was everything Rumple has always wanted: to be the dashing hero and to get the girl. He's always been jealous of Charming. The most fascinating character, to me, was Snow White. Or Dark! Snow (Tar Pitch?) Finally, the writers let Ginny Goodwin out of the tiny box they've been keeping her in and let her have some fun. I wonder if they got the idea for this after seeing Snow during the Curse of Shattered Sight and how much fun Ginny obviously had during that. I'm not even bothered (much...) that we were never given any reason for how Regina upset the James and Snow (ew!) love story; I guess we're supposed to understand that the beginning chapters don't matter much, only the final (which might say something overall about the (Drag) Queens of Darkness plot this season). However, it doesn't matter because Ginny played Dark Snow so wonderfully that I found myself grinning every time she was on screen--who cares about the backstory, it was fun. Along with Dark! Snow, I loved the Dark Dwarves and Charming, the heartless boy toy in all black. Bandit Regina with the heart of gold who sacrifices herself for a kid that claims to be her son (but whom she doesn't really believe) was incredibly powerful and fits with what I've always believed Regina's happy ending should be: Henry. I'll even say this--Hook's character in the AU even made sense. Rumple made him a coward, unable to hurt anyone with his sword, the same sword used to taunt Rumple, the humble spinner, back in the day. That all fits in line with this reality actually being Rumple's happy ending and not the more general "villains happy ending."

Emma's story in this AU did feel a little lackluster since she was robbed of all her Savior-hood. I don't think a person's fundamental makeup should change--after all, even as a hero, Rumple chose the wrong path, the selfish path, something we've now seen him do time and time again. He was still the same man, hero title and clothing notwithstanding. No one should be able to alter Emma's heart and status as True Love Incarnate and render her moot. But for some inexplicable reason, Isaac was able to change that and so Emma's main role was flirting and setting the stage for Regina's big moment. Instead of Emma saving the day, it was the heady combination of Henry (go Henry!) and Regina that undid Rumple and Isaac's story. The one thing I could have easily done without was Zelena, a character so annoying that her insertion not only into this finale but this entire season was beyond unnecessary. Zelena and her pregnancy and her miraculous resurrection added nothing to this story, either the Queens of Darkness tale or the Author one. It was just for OutlawQueen drama but doesn't do anything except make Robin look bad and make the entire situation look incredibly squicky. One of the hesitations I have about AU's in TV shows is that there are often little to no consequences. The world is righted by the end and none of the characters are the worse for wear, sometimes they don't even remember their AU lives and thus never learn any kind of valuable lesson. I am so happy to say that this was not the case with OUAT this year. Everyone remembers, which means that now heroes know what it's like to be villains and villains know what it's like to be heroes. It changes the dynamic of the show in an interesting way. I think we're now officially past any reemergence of drama between the so called heroes and villains. I wouldn't expect Snow and Regina to be anything other than family at this point, for example. That's exciting because it does mean that there has been a modicum of growth and development (though, I'd argue that a lot of that happened at the 11th hour and with some bad storytelling along the way) but on the other hand, doesn't this mean that the show is going to have to continuously introduce new big bads over and over ad nauseum? Yes, it probably does. Which takes us to....

Black Swan 

Emma Swan, new Dark One. Shocking, right? No, not so much. They've been setting up all season that Emma could go dark and, full disclosure, but I knew in advance since I keep track of all the spoilers. But even if the writers hadn't hinted at it, and even if I didn't know all the spoilers, I still wouldn't be surprised. Why? Monomyth. There is a road and Emma's walking down it. Ease on down that Monomyth Road Emma Swan. Ease on down.  At its heart, the monomyth is a basic pattern that has found its way into stories all over the world by using universal themes, symbols, and archetypes. From the Natives of north America to inhabitants of Mesopotamia, certain stories are repeated time and time again without the any interaction between these cultures telling the same story. The most popular outline of this pattern was codified and described by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 work, “The Hero With a Thousand Face.” It is, easily, the most popular way to understand the heroes journey and is readily used by storytellers who want to tell the oldest story there is–one of light vs dark. There are a lot of stages in the monomyth and while the hero does not have to undergo them all, there are some ones that are more important than others. I'd argue that what we saw from Emma tonight, tethering the darkness to her using the dagger, was the first stage of her apotheosis. Coming from the Greek, apotheosis recalls the move to divinity, normally preceded by either literal death or metaphorical/ spiritual death. The hero is raised to a god like status.  For Emma this step is where the season is took us. Emma died, metaphorically, and once reborn she will become a fully realized savior. All the fantastical, divine, magical powers that a Savior can wield, she’ll wield. We might also expect to see some sort of descent into the Underworld here where the Hero meets with dead loved ones and gains knowledge needed to move forward (Odysseus, Gilgamesh and Aeneas travel to the Underworld in their epic poems, for example). This is often called the katabasis from the Ancient Greek and is a fairly common theme in the hero journey. I would note here that modern interpretations often have the hero undergo a metaphorical katabasis instead of a literal one: a dream, a journey to a crypt or tomb, some sort of vision that takes them to the great beyond, ect. In this case her first step toward true Savior-hood is to fall prey to the darkness, but that's okay, all Saviors walk a fine line between being light and being dark, between temptation and resilience. 

I am going to admit this rather freely: I find this to be exciting. The idea of a Dark Savior (and one we care about since I don't particularly care about Lily in the end) is fascinating. All the powers of the Dark One coupled with how powerful Emma already is has some fascinating overtones. Where did Emma go? How will she come back to Storybrooke? Can her new Curse be broken (and not by the pirate, even though I know that is where this is going)? Personally, I think Emma was taken to Camelot. With the (super heavy and awkward) plot dump of the dying Apprentice (handy!) we learned that the Sorcerer is Merlin, for....reasons. Is there a new Arthur movie coming out by any chance? It turns out that the Sorcerer fought the Darkness long ago and in order to defeat it, tethered it to a human vessel (um, that was rather shitty of you Merlin, geez) and thus the first Dark One was born. If Merlin has been keeping an eye on things for awhile (and that appears to be the case) then I think it's likely that Merlin zapped Emma to his realm because she's the new Dark One and I'm sure that upset some sort of cosmic balance or something. Honestly the whole Merlin reveal felt like a let down because I honestly expected something more, less cliche and more meaty. But isn't that the story of OUAT in general? How will she return to Storybrooke? I'm not even sure if she will. I can see Hook, Henry, Regina, and Snowing going to find Emma in season five (which, yes, is official). We haven't world traveled as a group in a while, so why not now? Go to Camelot together. I'm sure there's a plot device they could use!

Miscellaneous Notes on Operation Mongoose Part 1 and Part 2

--Obviously over the course of two hours, there was a lot of plot. So my notes will be more extensive than normal. Let's start with Henry. I love this kid. He has come so far and I wish the writers would give him more to do now that we've really seen his acting chops. Henry asking the Apprentice if he could use the pen to bring back Neal gave me a lot of complex feelings. On the one hand, I cried a lot because it’s about TIME Henry finally talked about how much he misses his dad. But on the other, it was rather heartless for the writers to bring up Hook’s non existent death in that moment and compare it. From a purely fandom perspective, that’s…going to create waves. People can talk about how Hook wasn’t really dead since it was in a book and thus doesn’t fall into “dead is dead” (and I get the argument) but, again, from a fandom perspective, it’s only going to make matters worse. And in a lot of ways, it felt like the final slap that we can’t let Neal’s sacrifice be in vain (to quote Emma last season) but Hook’s sacrifice can be reversed and Emma is even begging for it to happen. I’m not even asking for SF….sail on CS, go be true love. I’m asking for Henry to have his father back. And yes I am well aware of MRJ's commitments to another show and that he will never come back.

--EXCUSE ME BUT NEAL TAUGHT HENRY HOW TO SAIL A SHIP, NOT HOOK.

--Forgive me for what I'm about to say, 'shippers, but seeing Captain Hook die was one of the greatest joys I've ever gotten from TV.

--I am literally going to ignore everything about CaptainSwan for my own sanity. 

--And now I have to talk about Rumple. Well. Here goes: I hate the way his arc was finished this season. Having all the darkness sucked out of him is *so egregiously* hand wavey, it's insane. You mean to tell me that Rumple couldn't have figured out a way to do that himself to save his own life? Really? So Rumple can raise hell for an entire season but all it takes is a magic sucking hat and now he's human again? They couldn't even give him the "beast" ending from Beauty and The Beast. Also, why do I get the feeling that he'll be in that coma for a good long while?

--What was the point of Will Scarlett this season? What. Was. The. Point.

--Mal doesn't know who Lily's father was cause it was done dragon style. I can't even. However, OUAT isn't exactly a deep story so it's obviously Merlin.

--While the dragon and black tornado were graphically good, the background towns of the Enchanted Forest continue to be cringe worthy.

--Are Snowing just going to throw Isaac in a jail cell and that is that? What happened to August? Can he be turned back into a boy? Does Blue know anything about Merlin? If Emma had all her darkness removed then why did the Chernabog chase her? Where was Mal during all this? Henry is still the Author but broke the pen, so is he the Author in name only?

--Final thoughts on S4B: the Queens of Darkness were a mere distraction to the real story: the Author and the role reversal of the heroes and villains. Ursula and Cruella were really just around to kill time. Mal got more screen time and more development but that was only because of her ties to Lily who, after her own centric, ended the season with a whimper and not a bang. So much for that anti-Savior idea. This season felt far more organic and natural to the series as a whole because it tried to distance itself from the villains of the arc (who were, again, not really the point of the season) and focus more on the fundamentals of good and evil. However Adam and Eddy and the show continue to get bogged down in their own shipping drama and in their need to have big shiny Tweetable moments as opposed to quiet and introspective ones. But, it was a hell of a lot better than Frozen and Oz. 

--Overall Rating for S4B: B

--Episode Ranking

Operation Mongoose Part 1
Sympathy For the De Vil
Darkness On the Edge of Town
Operation Mongoose Part 2
Lily
Best Laid Plans
Mother
Poor Unfortunate Soul
Unforgiven
Enter the Dragon
Heart of Gold

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x12)

Do you get the chance to start over? That's the question on everyone's mind as the doors of SC&P close, as the building is decimated, and as the Mad Men take the slow and long elevator ride up to their so-called heaven at McCann/Erikson. The question is easily answered if you've been paying attention to how the TV show Mad Men views change and whether or not people can truly begin again: no of course they can't. They are always stuck at the beginning. In this weeks episode, "Lost Horizon," the audience (and the characters) very quickly come to the conclusion we suspected at the end of last week--going to McCann/Erikson is the equivalent of dying and going to hell where everyone looks, talks, and acts the same; creativity is squashed and squandered and all women are secretaries and sexual objects that men can use and dispose of as they see it. The episode teased that this move to the so called big leagues might actually work but quickly put the kebash on that within the first few minutes. This isn't advertising heaven. It's hell. You are now a cog in the machine; the shiny veneer through which McCann/Erikson wants you to see them is dirty and tarnished, closed up and closed in. It was another great (if weird) episode so grab a pair of roller skates and let's go!

There are really three main McCann/Erikson journeys this weeks--people coming and going, deciding whether or not this new adventure is going to work for them. Let's begin with Peggy Olson who is my personal hero. Damn. She makes killing your lungs and body slowly look good. First off, this unbelievable moment of her walking down a hallway, box in hand, toward her new office is a total callback to season one, the very first episode in which Peggy is the new steno girl. She's not much to look at and she doesn't fit in. The best piece of advice offered to her is to find a way to make her darling little ankles sing. It's 1960 and Peggy entered a man's world only for her to shake up that world by demonstrating that she was just as good (if not better) than the male ad writers. So here we are, at the end of her time at SC&P, entering her new life at McCann and what is she doing? Strutting. Like a proverbial peacock. She is loud colors and she is smoke in everyone's eye and she is carrying a painting of an octopus pleasuring a woman (that was owned by Bert and given to her by Roger because Peggy Olson is the real heir of the SC&P world). This is how you show character growth. During that parallel scene back in season one, Peggy was invisible except for the male sexual eye. She was a new treat, even if one that none of the men particularly were hungry for. In this final saunter, Peggy demands everyone's attention but not by virtue of being a female and pretty and sexual--nope, she demands your attention by taking on those classic male traits, living her life like a man as she explained to Stan last week. She's got a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, she's obviously hung over with the black glasses, she's deliberately showing off a highly provocative and highly sexual picture and Peggy Olson doesn't care. Peggy is not here to make the men of the world comfortable. You're not going to put a label on her; you're not going to reduce her down to secretary status; you will not make her less than what she is. Peggy could easily take over McCann if she played her cards right--in other words, acted like a man. My bigger question is, will she? It's interesting that the show kept her from going over to McCann until the very end. Every time she was ready to go, something got in the way--her office wasn't ready; the leadership treated her badly and rudely; she had to help Roger cope with loss. Fate kept interfering, as if telling Peggy not to go gently into that good night. Will Peggy stay or will Peggy go? Either way, I think she knows how to exist in this world now. But as her fan, I want more for Peggy than an office that looks like every other office; I want more than tired old board meetings with nothing but stuffy withered white men who will always look at her and see something that scares them, a reminder that the times, they are-a changing. I want Peggy to go be her own boss and be a creative director in her own right, not a cog in the machine (however impressive a cog she might be.)

First off, this can't be the end of Joan's story right? It's not like she's exited the stage forevermore? Please tell me I get more Joan before the show takes its finale bow. Joan's storyline this week broke my heart and made me see Feminist Red. Joan is nothing to this company but a good time fun girl with big boobs. She is there only for two reasons, she was part of the package deal as partner at SC&P and because the men of McCann think they can toy with her like they toy with all the secretaries. Joan has been absolutely reduced to nothing but a sexual object, her worst fear. In the eyes of the higher ups, she's a girl and she doesn't matter. It's a very sad state of affairs that, in so many ways, this is exactly the mindset that Mad Men opened with back in 1960--but again, people do not fundamentally change and especially not a towering monolith like McCann/Erikson that churns out business like a well oiled (slimy oil at that) machine. Joan upsets the balance; she was expected to come in and play nice with the boys and be subservient to them in every way. She has come so far since her days as head of the gaggle back at Sterling and Cooper. Did you ever imagine that the woman who's perfect piece of life advice was "men love scarves" would be name dropping Betty Friedan or the ACLU? Of course, lurking behind all this is the fact that Joan mostly got as far as she has because she prostituted herself; she can never escape that knowledge. It's no surprise that when confronted with the most vile form of misogyny at the hands of Jim Hobart she is wearing a gem green dress, calling back to the emerald she got for her one night of pleasure with the Jaguar executive. Ultimately Joan's story is a tragic one; she's right on the cusp of the first real waves of feminism and the feminist movement, but for her it's probably too late. The men of the world who only ever saw her body have won. Peggy walked into McCann like a man, Joan leaves like McCann like a defeated and deflated woman. I know it's a lot to hope for, but here's hoping that we get one more shot of Joan being happy and finding love and acceptance.

Speaking of love and acceptance, Don Draper what is your major malfunction? No, don't answer that. I know what your major malfunction is. But at least you're keeping true your (hobo) nature in this episode. The beginning looked so positive, did it not? Maybe Don could make McCann work. Hobart is obviously thrilled to have finally landed Don ("you're my white whale!") and everything seems designed to make Don be the best he can be, including killer business that Don would have been chomping at the bit for a few years ago. However, what Hobart fails to realize is that this isn't the Don Draper he's longed for. That Don Draper pretty much died and now Dick Whitman is walking around in a Don Draper meat suit trying to keep his rotting insides from falling out. Jon Hamm, incredible actor that he is, gets that look of intense fear when Hobart asks him if Don's introduced himself yet. "I'm Don Draper for McCann/Erikson." Totally lifeless, devoid of all Don's charms, an attempt that barely earns him a passing grade. More than that though, Hobart's attempt to make Don feel special is anything but; he's simply one of many, a truly horrifying life for Donald Draper. And in the end, the weight of all this is too much for Don. He can't live in this new "paradise" world where the creative department flips absently through research and clinically listens to pitches about cliche men as consumers (with set behaviors) drinking beer while Don and his fellow cogs eat white cardboard lunches. There is no soul there and for all his faults, Don wants advertising to have soul. He needs to believe that creativity can flourish but creativity died in the factory that is McCann. The great beyond is calling to Don instead. Side note, but I did love the image of the Time and Life building fading into the background as Don turned to look out the window. His horizon is lost. So what does Don do? He leaves. It's not like Don hasn't done this before; in fact, I'd say it's what Don does best.

When faced with something challenging that ruffles his internal feathers, he runs. Going back home and facing a life of being Dick Whitman? He runs. Having a bit of a breakdown in season two? He runs. And, like Don normally does, he ran west. Also, did you notice? Don ran but took on another man's name and life to get where he was going, all hobo style. People do not fundamentally change! So where did Don go? To Diana--yeah, that was a bit odd but again, keeping in line with Don's character. He has become myopically obsessed with Lady Di (death metaphor alert!) and is now following her to parts unknown. Will Don Draper catch his white whale (or in this case, sad brown waitress)? Probably not. And even if he did, would the having be as great as the pursuing and catching? Nope. What happens to Don now? Well, I don't think he's going to return to New York yet. I think he'll go West some more, probably all the way out to California to see if he can find his happiness there. Back to Ana's house one final time. The question is, will it work? If Don't horizon right now is a lifetime in the sausage factor of McCann where he becomes just another creative director in a sea of creative directors, can Don escape that and find his real horizon, the one he lost? The one where he is Dick Whitman and free from the lies and the image of Don Draper. People cannot fundamentally change, but that doesn't mean that they can't accept that they can't change. So...maybe. Maybe Don, out on his hobo trail, will find some sort of freedom in living the Dick Whitman life of running and running and running. Go Don. Find what you're looking for.

Miscellaneous Notes on Lost Horizon     

--"Advertising is not a comfortable place for everyone." Shirley is on POINT with that line. Love that a black female finally got to tell a white older man how it feels to be "other."

--"From now on, no one comes between me and your business." I hope Ferg gets pushed out of a window.

--"Maybe you're getting old." That was an incredibly sweet scene between Betty and Don. They were happy once, before Don Draper's inevitable pile of crap surfaced.

--BERT!! Sing for us!! But of course Bert appears, like Marely's ghost, to drop some Kerouac on Don: Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night? Like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, Don Draper is heading west to trying to find his lost bliss.

--Peggy on roller skates is my life now.