Wednesday, June 20, 2018

In Which I Review Westworld (2x8 and 2x9)

Last review I began by declaring that the human race sucks. I'm not going to walk back that assertion but I will attempt to qualify it: the human race sucks...but they can try not to. The familiar beat of choice is readily apparent in the latest two episodes, "Kiksuya" and "Vanishing Point" as two characters, Akecheta and William, struggle with making choices that define them as people. It's easy to forget when you're watching these familiar beats that one is a Host and one is a human and those blurry lines between a person that was made and a person that is "real" become increasingly blurry. Is William a real person? Do we want him to be the one entity humanity hangs its wide brimmed hat upon? Or would we rather see Akecheta as real and made up of those qualities we wish humans would embrace more? As we near the season two finale, it's hard to know what's what and who's who which only strengthens the overall motif of human vs host here in Westworld. 



Akecheta and William both have darkness in them. Now, we could argue that one had that darkness programmed in to them by someone else and one was born with it, but that's a slippy slope of an argument when we consider how often programming is linked to birth in Westworld's dialogue. We've seen that when Hosts are brought online for the first time, they might be fully grown but they are greeted with "welcome to the world" and are unclothed and unblemished by the world in which they are about to enter. Akecheta even uses the phrase "reborn" to describe the lives lived. In other words, Akecheta might have been reprogrammed from a loving and tender Plains Native to a cliche savage but this re-distribution of code is akin to being reborn as a new person. Akecheta's darkness and the savagery displayed as one of the Ghost Nation's chief murderers is akin to William's own sociopathy, his "stain" as William calls it right before he drives his wife Juliet to suicide. I don't think it's a great stretch of imagination that an episode heavily featuring Akecheta is followed by one that is William centric; they are a contrast in how a person--be they Host or Human--could rise above their own darkness because of one factor: love. That sounds Hallmarkian and frankly eye-roll worthy but love as a medium for change isn't not true and in a naval gazing show like Westworld we should expect that the writers will take something axiomatic--like love driving people to be better and do better--and complicate it in such a way to make us question why it's axiomatic in the first place. Take Akecheta for example; despite his rebirth into a Hollywood type of Native, the love he bore for his wife Kohana is so deeply embedded in him that it pulls him out of his violent stupor and makes him who he once was, perhaps his truest self--a lover and not a fighter. But that was a choice, wasn't it? He had to choose to set aside his base code that made him predisposed to violence and acts of savagery and choose to take Kohana into a secluded part of the park to try and live their lives as peacefully as possible. He chose love over hate, chose to not go on a murdering spree when he realized that "this is the wrong world;" instead he "was determined to escape, but I wouldn't leave without her." This means that the other Hosts are equally free to choose; Dolores could choose to lay down her weapons and let go of the Wyatt part of her programming but she's choosing not to. Freedom for her means getting to cause as much mayhem and destruction as she can.

This sounds familiar especially when we consider our other subject in these two episodes: William. Our man in black has an unlimited amount of freedom; he's rich and one might say rich in the extreme. So rich that he could fund an amusement park and a side project searching for immortality. Because of that richness he's able to experience the park over and over again, letting his inner "stain" out to play. There are a lot of different ways William's time in the park could have gone; he said back in season one that he's played every story out which is why the Maze was so interesting to him. But at every turn in every story when he's been given the chance to do good, to embrace the light over the darkness within him, he's chosen wrongly. He thinks it's because there's a "thing" in him, a part of his genetic makeup that makes him a dark individual but we've already seen Akecheta defeat his own code that made him equally dark. Added to the Akecheta example is our lone suffering cowboy, Teddy, who was reprogrammed and re-engineered by Delores to be more ruthless; he rose above that, choosing to end his own life rather than continue down the path he's treading with her. William doesn't have an uncontrollable thing inside of him anymore than Akecheta and Teddy did; the only real difference is that William makes bad choices; he chooses to not try and let love be his guide. He tells himself that he's too dark to love properly and that the real him is the monster in the park and the persona he puts on to the rest of the world is fake. Like his daughter, Emily, I call bullshit. I think he does love his daughter as evidenced by the flashes of her William had as he held a gun to his own head but I think he loves himself more; he's spent so much time in the park, reveling in his so called darkness and convincing himself that version was his true self that when confronted with another reality--that he's not really a monster and that he does have people he loves but he's made piss poor choices in order to feel more important--he runs screaming from it, killing his only chance of a real tangible connection along the way. Poor Emily; her death was shocking but I think it signals the end of any chance William had to get out of Westworld with a chance of a real life. William chooses to believe his delusion instead; much like the lead character of the book where William hid his profile. Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time and as such could not decide which world was real and which was the one he chose to believe was real. With one episode to go, I wouldn't be surprised if William doesn't make it out of the park alive...but I'd also be willing to believe he'd prefer it that way.

Miscellaneous Notes on Kiksuya and Vanishing Point 

--The cinematography in Akecheta's episode was amazing; so many breathtaking shots.

--"Death is a passage from this brutal world."

--Akecheta finding Kohana in cold storage and trying to bring her back was maybe the saddest moment in this entire series.

--Charlotte and her team managed to transfer Maeve's power to Clementine and then the latter ordered a whole room full of hosts to kill each other. I guess we know how Charlotte plans on getting out of the park.

--We finally learned that the Valley Beyond is a massive server that houses all the profiles of the guests in nice and neat code form.

--The profiles of the human guests were collected by the white or black hat each guest were given to wear when entering the park which is...just plain silly. As a symbol the white hat that became black on William worked as an obvious metaphor in season one but the idea that it was a fancy piece of technology is an authorial afterthought. Besides, not all guests wore cowboy hats. And what about in Rajworld and Shogun World?

--"You've been hiding in these false realities so long you've lost your grip on what is real."

--"What is a person if not a collection of his choices?"

--RIP Emily and Teddy

--One to go!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

In Which I Review Westworld (2x6 and 2x7)

The human race sucks. This revelation isn't new to Westworld; the beginning of the entire series sets up the idea that when given the chance, the human race chooses base violence over nobility. The humans working in Westworld and the militia who ride up to "save the day" don't care about the Hosts as if they were people, but only care about the information they can glean from inside the Hosts' computerized heads. Humans like Charlotte have Otherized the Hosts and could not care less about whatever measure of free will has been granted to them through Ford's new narrative and Delores's undertaking of that story. Selfish, craven, and cowardly, the Delos company is more concerned with immortality, hence James Delos signing the paychecks for Westworld and keeping the parks afloat even when he thought the amusement park aspect was utter nonsense. But as we see in these past two episodes, "Phase Space" and "Les Ecorches," that is only one small part of the Human and Host dynamic. At the other end of the spectrum is Robert Ford who allied himself with Delos not because he wanted to preserve the human race and make man immortal, but because he believed the Hosts were the future of humanity and that his creation was far to superior to humanity in every way. It's very...God like of him to take such delight in his own designs. 


These past two episodes have been a bit more wheel spinning than is normal of a show of this caliber. The philosophical beats feel familiar and have been hit upon before: the human race is terrible when viewed through the eyes of Delores but complicated when viewed through the eyes of Bernard who is betwixt and between being a Host and being a human. Maeve knows the search for her daughter is only part of the coding written into her by her programmers but this doesn't make her motherly love and desire any less real to her. William is still on his journey to find Ford's story and see the ending through, perhaps not realizing that he's smack dab in the middle of the story. His own relationship with his daughter, Grace, is complicated in such a way to make both parties more sympathetic but not to redeem the violence and neglect William has inflicted upon the Hosts and upon Grace. The technobabble the show has a tendency to trot out washes over the viewer like so many ones and zeroes and we simply accept that, yes, things like conscience uploading could be possible. These aren't necessarily criticisms so much as acknowledgements that the story is trying to reinforce certain key concepts and themes before moving into the final home stretch of the season. The show remains clever and careful and utterly watchable even if there are no genuinely shocking moments or revelations. I could count the return of Robert Ford as a shocking moment but the show established quite early on this season that some ghostly form of him is still in the park, jumping from Host to Host whenever Ford felt the need to reach out. In technobabble speak, Ford has uploaded his conscience to the system and is now a science-fiction ghost who can haunt whomever he chooses. He's also still God, a metaphor present in him all along, not so subtly cued when Bernard finds Ford inside his own creation, enjoying its splendor only to joke, "I don't think God rested on the seventh day. I think he reveled in his creation." The most interesting aspect of the past two episodes has been Ford's return in order to critique Delos's endgame and provide his own counter to why the Hosts are important.

Like God, Ford finds his own creation to be sublimely perfect. Far more just and noble than any "faithful portrait of the most murderous species"  Ford was working with Delos not to make the human race immortal through conscience uploading but to make Hosts the new dominant species on the planet, to wipe away the flawed peoples of the past and let the Hosts have free reign of this world. There would be some merit to this if all the Hosts were like Maeve who, far more than Delores, is a synthesis of both Host and Human. Her counterpart, Delores, seems...stuck. Her gang finally reached the Mesa and destroyed all the copies and stories that had been written for the Hosts but that doesn't mean that Delores and her kind are as free as Delores claims they are once Angela hits the kill switch (er, pulls the pin on the grenade). I've mentioned this before but it's hard to know how much of Delores's story and actions were part of Ford's last narrative. He might claim to Bernard that "she's free now, they're all free" but so far Delores's personality has simply been a hybrid of everything that came before. There's no uniqueness in her like in Maeve. God has granted his creation free will but they can't quite shake those chains that tied them to the world before. Which brings us back to Ford and his counter to Delos, the former believing that the Hosts are the perfect replacement for humankind, a species so terrible that they deserve to be wiped away like so much riff raff in a flood story. Is any of that actually true? Well, no. The human race cannot be simplified to just "bad" and the Hosts cannot be simplified to "perfect." Yeah, there are some really sucky humans (looking at you, William) but there are also humans who see the Hosts as more than what they were designed to be, who have evolved because of interactions with Hosts. Last season, Lee was an arrogant artist who bemoaned that he had to create cliche stories for robots, but this season, because of his travels with Maeve and seeing her desire to find her daughter, he's come to understand these Hosts more and to see them as more real than just characters he got to play with. On the other side of that coin, the Hosts aren't just or noble; Delores recently deleted part of Teddy's own memories and personality in order to have him suit her current needs, a move that reeks of humankind and what Delores is supposedly fighting against. Ford sees his creation through rose tinted glasses (in true God form) but if he were watching more closely, he'd notice that by granting the Hosts free will, he granted them the choice to become like those he was trying to distance them from. The problem is choice; the problem is always choice. Humans choose to give into the violent tendencies inside Westworld; the Hosts choose to repay those tendencies in kind. The Hosts aren't better than us; they are us.

Miscellaneous Notes on Phase Space and Les Ecorches 

--I think I write "poor Bernard" in my notes every single week but really...poor Bernard.

--Ford tells Bernard that all of this is now his [Bernard's] story. What does that mean? Does Bernard have the ability and power to shape the world has he wants? Will he be like Maeve and be a more perfect synthesis of Host and human?

--"We desire to choose our own fate. Even if that fate is death." I hope we see Shogun World again. Also, I'd like to return to Raj World and see more of it.

--I think it very unlikely that William is dead but perhaps this is the start of the next part of his story: becoming a Host himself?

--"Pain is just a program."

--"If we survive this, I'm going back to dental school."

--"An eye for an eye, but all the other parts first." I am convinced that next season will find Delores as the ultimate Big Bad, if it's possible for such a navel-gazing show to have a Big Bad.

--I'm keeping track of this, even if I only discuss it in passing, but both Bernard and Maeve are being set up as Christ/Savior figures (there's some really cool imagery of Bernard as the crucified Jesus when he's having his mind extracted--palms up, arms out to the side, "thorn" crown on his head). I've discussed colonialism quite a bit and if the two people of color end up being the saviors of both human and Host and the white girl ends up being the true evil, I'll take that as a win.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

In Which I Review Westworld (2x5)

Ever since we were introduced to the idea of different parks, a rather pertinent and natural question has been lurking behind that information: what kind of Hosts populate the other parks? What sort of stories have those particular androids had to live through, again and again? It turns out that humanity's creativity is decidedly lacking...the Hosts that make up the park in which we spend most of this week's episode, "Akane No Mai," bear more than just a passing resemblance to Maeve, Hector and the rest of the Westworld outlaw band. I don't just mean that their personalities are "sort of similar;" I mean that their stories are beat for beat the same, right down the rope trick Hector uses when he robs the small town of Sweetwater, Armistice's tattooed face and Maeve's "a better world" speech. Our Westworld heroes are confronted with the knowledge that they are not exactly unique snowflakes; instead they are copies of other characters (or perhaps, these other characters are copies of them) in different worlds who were never supposed to know that they had narrative twins (or triplets!).


Let's say you're an identical twin; your genes are the same, you look scary alike but you are obviously not the same person. At some point during childhood and into maturity you begin to differentiate. Perhaps one twin likes sports and the other is into the arts; maybe one twin has a conservative view on life and other is a raging liberal. We are more than the sum of genetic code and it's our experiences with the world and our reactions to those experiences that help separate us from the other billions of people on the planet, even ones with identical genetic code. But what happens when your experiences with the world and reactions have been pre-programmed? In other words, are actually part of your "genetic" code. When realization of just how alike she and Akane are dawns, Maeve accuses Lee, the writer, of plagiarizing her own story and identity. Lee corrects Maeve that it's not plagiarism, it's supply and demand--he's giving the patrons of Shogun World what they want. Lee then defends himself by saying it's impossible to write three hundred different stories in a short amount of time--of course there would be overlap--a statement that really speaks of the cliche depiction of so many of Westworld's, Raj World's, and Shogun World's inhabitants. Lee doesn't write he knows; he writes what people want and it turns out that humanity wants the same sort of violent delights, no matter the world those stories get placed into. The idea that code is the unifying factor instead of shared understanding of similar experiences is Lee's own perspective, which makes him a fitting devil on Maeve's shoulder, constantly telling her that "it's just code" whenever Maeve speaks of finding her daughter and seeks to help Akane. Maeve, on other hand, believes that she is moving past her code and that it's her own unique take on the world that spurs her forward. After all, even if it was just code that made her love her daughter, it's also still love. Those feelings were experienced, if programmed; Maeve still felt it. It's interesting that even though Maeve knows the stories she has in her head were all written for her by programmers, she thinks of them as hers, hence her affronted attitude toward Lee when it becomes increasingly clear that Akane and Sakura are Maeve and Clementine (and by emotional extension, Maeve and her long lost daughter), just geographically moved. If your stories, experiences, and memories are not really yours because they are not yours alone, does that make them any less powerful and effective? Westworld is going with the answer of "no" and even goes so far as to argue that it's those shared experiences and stories that unite us instead of dividing us. When Sakrua is getting ready to dance for the Shogun (what a repulsive figure, by the way), Akane calms the young geisha's nerves by telling her a story about crossing the shinning sea to find a new world. It's the same story Maeve once told back in her brothel in Sweetwater; it's a story so informative to Maeve's character and understanding of herself that it resonates as she listens to someone else tell it exactly as she did, word for word. Maeve even helps Akane finish the story, a move that links the three women together in more than just code. There's been a lot of conversation this season about finding one's own voice, getting to tell your story the way you want without the aid of a programmer giving you the language to do so. We've seen how this could fail with some Hosts struggling to come up with their own unique language (Hector speaking of his love for Maeve but using the same verbage he once used for Isabella) but Maeve is a perfect example of finding new ways to express your own unique voice; she improvised lies on the spot to the Shogun and she continues to go round after philosophical round with Lee about code versus experiences, something no other Host is currently doing, including Dolores who's just currently shooting every non-Host she finds. If there is truly a new sort of creature being birthed during this time, it's Maeve and not Delores, the latter of whom is taking cues from Hosts and humans and becoming some weird heady mix of Ford, William, Wyatt, and the sweet farm girl. That combination might be unique but I think there's a reason why it's Maeve, not Delores, who discovers her quasi-magical abilities to bend other Hosts to her will with the power of her mind. Delores, when erasing Teddy's memories because she cannot get him to go along with her plan and give up the ghost on a peaceful life together, has to rely on humans and their machines still. The contrast between these two ladies is only getting more interesting and I suspect at some point, the narrative tension between them is going to come to an explosive head.

Miscellaneous Notes on Akane No Mai

--According to Lee, "Shogun World" was a place designed for those who found Westworld too tame.

--Delores plans on stealing a train and taking it out to the Mesa. I'm sure that'll go swimmingly.

--So, we can all agree that Delores is becoming quite the monster, right? Poor Teddy.

--"The real question is not can you trust her. It's can you trust yourself." I'm really glad the writers shifted Lee's character from struggling, arrogant artist, to someone Maeve can play off of.

--Picking up a thread from last week, the Shogunate comes from the Tokugawa period in Japanese history. It's worth noting that one of the policies during this historical period was intense isolationism, keeping the West at bay during a time of incredible exploration and conquest.

--I don't know that I've ever cringed harder during an episode of TV and actually backed myself away from the screen than when Akane was sawing the Shogun's head in half.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x22)

All week long, I have tried to come up with the perfect opening sentence for this blog. This is not just any standard entry; this is the last blog post I'll ever write about Once Upon a Time. Of my three hundred and seventy plus ruminations, the vast majority of them are Once Upon a Time reviews. They range from the ecstatic, head over heels in love reviews of the first half of season three to the blatant hatred and criticism of season five. They capture the highs of awe and lows of heartbreak. I wrote about the Captain Swan wedding and I wrote about Neal's death. I've hated Hook, loved Rumbelle, praised Regina and had complicated feelings over Rumple. But this entry...this entry is the final word I'll ever say about a show that has been a major part of my life for seven years. TV shows are complicated creatures in and of themselves; sure, on the one hand it's just a piece of media that airs once a week for an hour at a time. None of the characters are real and none of the plots are going to change the world. But on the other hand, if you spend enough time with a TV show it can feel like a close friend. You come to know the people who exist in this fictional world and whatever they go through, you go through. It's a move from sympathy to empathy, and a successful show is one that maintains that empathetic relationship with its audience. When looking at the photos for this episode, trying to decide which one would get the spot of honor for this introduction, I went with Snow White and her Prince Charming because that's what I want to remember from all this: I'd like to remember those ecstatic highs of a show I threw myself into, heart and soul. So, then "Leaving Storybrooke." Once more with feeling. 


The Last Page...

Let's just agree here and now that most of this plot is nonsense (what, you thought this post would be nothing but sappy nostalgia?) The Wish Realm and the mechanics of it have never made a lick of sense and the writers did what they do "best": spaghetti writing. Throw ideas at a wall and whatever sticks becomes your plot. I've heard several times that if you let go of the plot of OUAT and just focus on the acting, the campiness, and the themes then it becomes a much better (or at least more palatable) show. I say let's try that and agree, as stated above, that the plot of Young Wish Henry using dark magic to open thousands of portals to suck all the heroes of every realm ever into their own personal hellscape is mostly ridiculous. Instead, let's focus on what this episode was trying to say and trying to do. OUAT liked to hit the same beats over and over again; I've called it recycling in the past because there's only so much you can mine from the hope, faith, and family well before it runs dry and you have to start reusing the same material over again. There's something different about what is happening in this series finale, though, and maybe that's because it's the series finale and by definition none of this material can be used again. If we think critically for a moment, this finale is almost no different than any other finale over the past seven years. There's a big bad villain, some sort of time crunch, one of the family members is in trouble, and it all comes down to sacrifice, hope, and belief in the power of love to save the day. As is tradition, I went back and read my blog for the start of this season to see where we started and compare it to where we ended; in that season seven opening blog, I talked about cyclical story telling and how the writers were trying to graft Henry and Lucy over Emma and Henry and retell season one and not necessarily because they were out of ideas, but because that's how archetypes work. The song remains the same, even if the lyrics have changed. I think that's what the writers are aiming for in this series finale. They want it to be familiar and a tribute to their show, not just to a single season. Snow's really big speech about hope may be cringe inducing (as all her hope speeches tended to be) but it also fits perfectly as the last speech about hope she'll ever give. Regina's coronation as the Queen of the United Realms might be a bit of a head-scratcher--how does one fit all those realms into a tiny corner of Maine and how did the entire town elect Regina without her even realizing an election was happening--but it also is a nice culmination to her character, from an Evil Queen who crashed a wedding to a Good Queen who was crowned the people's hero. Rumple's death has been a long time coming but dying at his own hands by sacrificing himself so a father and child could be reunited while also conquering the Dark One side of himself feels like a lot of plot nonsense fulled by Magical MacGuffins except it's exactly how Rumple's story should end.

...And The Book Closes 

There's history here; there are memories. Emma crashing Regina's coronation, uttering the same lines Regina first uttered at Snow and Charming's wedding? Touching. One final "Madam Mayor" and "Miss Swan?" Heartwarming. Rumple and Belle dancing like they did after their wedding? Tear inducing. Flashing through the greatest hits of OUAT in flashback form as a message of hope is expounded upon by the show's greatest success story like a preacher at a pulpit? Cheesy to the hilt but completely in the wheelhouse of OUAT. This series finale isn't just about the season, it's about the show. It's about what the show has meant to the fictional characters, to the actors, to the crew, and yes, to the audience. Two episodes ago, Young Henry wrote an essay that was meant to cross the fourth wall and speak to the audience, to tell us that magic exists in storytelling. This episodes feels the same. It's yearning, begging, one final time to touch our hearts and ask that we remember it fondly. I cannot say this is a perfect show. I cannot say that it is without faults. Any hope of me claiming its perfection and its place as one of the greats died along with Neal, but maybe it doesn't need to be perfect and go down as "one of the best" for it to still be something magical and powerful. There are episodes and seasons I'll never watch again in their entirety, but buried inside those seasons are nuggets of something good, and it was only if you stuck with it that you saw them. We never had a season in which I did not find at least one thing to praise and rejoice in. The hilarity of the Shattered Sight curse; the Neal and Emma Underworld moment; Hades and Zelena's delightfully fun romance; the musical episode; Rumple giving up a chance to be with Belle so that Alice would not be trapped in a metaphorical immortal tower. It would be so easy for me to hate on this series finale (because, again, plot nonsense) and maybe in a week I'll feel differently, once the heartache of nostalgia has passed. But I don't think so. I think when I sum up my experience with OUAT someday in the future, I'll say it was weird and complicated and sad and heartbreaking and disappointing but also beautiful and wonderful and effective. And that's what TV shows are designed to be; no show is perfect, not even those that go down as "the greatest of all time." What's more important than absolute perfection is how you affect the audience, what kind of conversations you generate with the power of your media. And generate conversations it did; in these blogs I have discussed archetypes, religion, mythology, feminism, agency, motherhood, depictions of women, rape culture, and everything in between. All of those things and the discussion of them is....weird and complicated and sad and heartbreaking and disappointing but also beautiful and wonderful and effective! We contain multitudes and so does this show. This show isn't perfect but I didn't watch it all the way through because I felt like I had to; I did it because I loved it. I failed to come up with the perfect opening sentence for this blog and now I'm struggling to come up with a perfect closer. What's that old cliche? Ah yes...

And so, Emma Swan, Regina Mills, Snow White, Prince Charming, Henry, Cinderella, and Lucy Mills, Rumplestiltskin, Belle French, Neal Cassidy, Zelena, Alice, Robyn and Captain Hook (yes, even you!)...lived happily ever after. The end.


Miscellaneous Notes on Leaving Storybrooke 

--The first image of the last episode is the clocktower reading 8:15. One last time.

--"Intruders!" This was laugh out loud funny. Good thing Granny had her crossbow handy!

–“Is this a dream?” “Well, if it is, it’s an excellent one.” I never really shipped Outlaw Queen but that was a gorgeous segment.

--“If this is how I have to go out, showing you there are people in the world who love you, no matter what you do…then that’s a worthy end for me.”

--The snowglobe is bigger on the inside!

--I’ll never not love a good dreamcatcher on this show, but I really wish Rumple would remember that he has a dead son  he wants to see again; dreamcatchers will always be tied to Neal (and Emma) so that was a perfect time to throw in a Neal reference.

--Using the Dark Curse and pieces of everyone’s heart to bring all the realms to Storybrooke is…extremely meta and weird and I both hate it and love it?

--Lily’s father was Zorro! The writers get the last laugh here; for years fans have hounded them about this dangling plot thread. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

--I suppose if I have to comment on it: Baby Hope Swan-Jones. The fact that the writers named the baby Hope is eye-roll inducing. They don’t see that baby as a baby but as a concept. That baby isn’t a person, it’s a giant hammer to beat the audience with one final time.

--“I am the strongest version of us….you don’t do the right thing for a reward. You do it because it’s right.

--As is tradition, here are my final thoughts on Season Seven B: Overall it wasn't terrible. That sounds like a backwards compliment but it's not. The issue is narrative bloat. The show was trying to do way too much and have too much plot when it should have focused on the characters. Maybe that's the price for not knowing that the show would be ending when the writing began (I assume) but the stuff that was good--Alice and Robyn, Rumple's redemption, Henry and Regina--was really good. And the stuff that was not good--Facilier, Gothel, Jack/Hansel--was really not good. But that feels...exactly like OUAT.

Final Rating for Season 7B: B

Final episode ranking for Season 7B (from worst to best)

12. Flower Child (7x19)
11. Secret Garden (7x11)
10. Breadcrumbs (7x16)
9. Sisterhood (7x15)
8. A Taste of the Heights (7x12)
7. Homecoming (7x21)
6. Knightfall (7x13)
5. Chosen (7x17)
4. Is This Henry Mills? (7x20)
3. The Girl in the Tower (7x14)
2. The Guardian (7x18)
1. Leaving Storybrooke (7x22)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In Which I Review Westworld (2x3 and 2x4)

There has been a question plaguing me since Westworld began a year ago: why this park? If you could create an alternate reality park and fill it with scary life like Hosts, why go for the Wild
West or, as of the episode "Virtu e Fortuna," the Indian subcontinent? You could literally create a world of anything, at any time, with any sort of people so why make one where slavery, rape, murder, general crime, outlaws, and colonialism are very much at the forefront historically? What is to be gained from that? William and Ford might have us believe it's because these less than savory aspects of human history are part and parcel of man's deepest desire. That underneath our socially acceptable gentility lurks the heart of a beast who wants to give licence to the darkness. But I think there's another reason these points in history are being explored in the park, a reason that comes to bear in the episode "The Riddle of the Sphinx." Immortality. Obviously there is a standard kind of immortality happening in the park with James Delos but this idea has been telegraphed to us before the big reveal of James and Williams' project with what kind of parks Ford and Arnold built: ones that are drawn specifically from nationalism and colonialism, ones in which nations attempt to live forever by conquering peoples. James Delos was attempting to conquer death, to plant his own flag as the first ever immortal man.  The parks are serving as a metaphor for what the humans behind them are trying to accomplish, namely a life everlasting. It's a deep piece of irony that while the Hosts are jealous of the humans right to control their own lives and have their narratives written for them, the humans at Delos are trying to become more like the Hosts. Perhaps these two races have more in common than they want to admit. 



The "art" of empire building wasn't just about racism--though make no mistake, the idea of there being a superior race and culture was definitely a major part of nationalism. But, apart from that, another aspect of empire building was couched in the language of a nation that could live forever through its conquering. There's an old adage that the sun rose and set on the British Empire in its hay day in the most literal sense: the sun rose in the east where the British had colonies in India and the subcontinent and it set in the West where colonies were established in the Pacific West and everywhere in between were little Union Jack flags and British embassies. There is this drive, in not only nation states, but also in people to live forever; we're always looking for ways to make ourselves immortal in both literal and metaphorical ways. Literally, we take drugs and medicine to help our hearts beat normally and our blood pressure stay in a healthy range. We exercise and eat right with the hopes that it extends our time on this planet before we, inevitably, shuffle off this mortal coil. Metaphorically, we hope that we can create something of value that lasts on after us; this could be children who carry on our DNA and name or it could be an idea or an infrastructure built to withstand the test of time. As a member of the Ghost Nation tells Ashley Stubbs, "You live only as long as the last person who remembers you." Aristotle is long since dead but he lives on because he is taught and discussed in literature, philosophy, history, and so on classes. Enter, then, the true purpose behind Delos's continued funding into Westworld. It's a question that the series has been building up to since the beginning. James Delos, William's father in law, is dying (or rather, died) but he just so happens to own an amusement park where memories and personality can be written on to an everlasting mechanical body. There are a lot of issues with this, both from a technical and metaphysical standpoint. On the technical side of things, it proves almost impossible for a human's memories to be grafted on a robot body for very long. Eventually the mind reaches a cognitive plateau and falls apart. The mind, a powerful organ that even in 2018 we do not fully understand, rejects the reality around it. This is quite similar to what we saw with the Hosts back in season one as figures like Dolores and Maeve began to reject their own imposed reality because of creeping memories from former experiences and lives. In Delos's case, his "body" begins to reject the idea of his mind being downloaded: tremors, forgotten words, slurred speech all find their way into him at some point. The metaphysical problems are voiced quite clearly by William the very last time he visits Delos (the 149th upload of Delos's memories and personality to a Host body): "People aren't meant to live forever" and while he's been working with Ford and the park to achieve immortality, a realization has dawned on William about Delos that speaks volumes: "Everyone prefers the memory of you to the man itself." From what we saw of the real Delos prior to his death, he was an egomaniacal successful business man who had little time for his children and wife and spent the extent of his life trying to achieve a metaphorical immortality through his works and company. But the metaphor isn't enough anymore, not when Ford and Arnold created what they did. And that seems to be the true purpose of Westworld and Rajworld (and whatever other worlds there might be): a nation of humans who are trying to achieve that which is not achievable because of humanness. Delos wants to colonize death, to make it something he can stake his personal flag in and claim as his own but as his computer program keeps reminding William, "when you cheat the devil you better make a sacrifice."

The other side of this are the Hosts who are trying to achieve some measure of humanness. It's interesting, though, that while the Hosts would like autonomy like mankind, they do not wish to actually become like man and that's likely due to all the negative experiences they've had at the hands of man. Those colonized do not seek to become their colonizers, though they cannot escape the influence of them. They make take their symbols and language but try to adapt it, to use it against the colonizer. We see this pretty readily in Hector and Maeve; Hector declares that his love for Isabella was only a fiction written into him by his human creators and that his true love is Maeve. What's interesting is that Hector uses the same language to describe his feelings for Maeve that Lee, his writer, wrote for him about Isabella to the point where Lee can quote, right along with Hector, every line of passion Hector says about Maeve. Hector, in trying to declare his own agency by loving another woman, uses the words of those who made him. So who's really autonomous and who's really in charge? Delores uses the same tactics of war and bloodshed that the human writers wrote into Wyatt but also into the Confederados and other bands of outlaws; she's living her own life but doing it the way her colonizers forced her and her kind to live Has she, then, really discovered her own voice? Delores may think she killed god (Ford) and is now secure in her own individuality and free will, but we see hints of Ford-as-God throughout the park, blind though Delores is to it. William, for instance, appears to still be talking to Ford somehow through Hosts who are supposed to be fully awake and outside of control; William even declares that "Ford wrote a game and we're all in it." In season one, Ford tells Bernard that someday they might be able to resurrect the dead with their technology and unbeknownst to Bernard, the Westworld park has been taking DNA samples of the park visitors and logging their experiences, a sign that Ford was heading in that direction along with Delos. So who has really achieved immortality? Delores could still die and never come back because there is no one to reupload her to a freshly made body; Bernard is suffering from massive system damage, and James Delos's host body and human mind have been incinerated one final time. But Ford lives on, albeit without body, his mind jumping from Host to Host. If he's our metaphor for God and this is his newest game, it seems that it is he alone who has achieved immortality; what that means for William, Delores, Teddy, Bernard and the others still inside Westworld and Rajworld, we can only guess. But I'll go out on a limb and say, it's not likely to be pretty.


Miscellaneous Notes on Virtu e Fortuna and The Riddle of the Sphinx 

--I did not mention her in the review proper but the woman who escaped Rajworld and seems to know much about the parks is William's daughter, with whom he has a rather difficult relationship.

--What exactly is the Ghost Nation doing with the humans? So far, they haven't killed anyone who wasn't a Host. Is their true programming to protect the humans in case of a Host uprising? It might explain why they appear to have created a religion based on the hazmat-suited humans who come to the park to clean up.

--Samurai! I have no idea what that might mean but it looks like there's still another park, this one based on Japanese culture.

--Poor Bernard; he seems both in control and completely out of it. I wonder how much Ford programmed our favorite bespeckled scientist before the gala in which Delores killed him.

--William told Delos that in another year or two the scientists might crack the cognitive plateau problem. We are also reminded that Peter Abernathy has the same overly complex code-that-is-not-really-code inside his head. Given the makeup job done on Ed Harris to make William look younger when he's with Delos one final time, I'm guessing a year or two has passed and that Charlotte wants Peter Abernathy out of the park because the solution has been cracked and he's carrying the solution inside him.

--"Tell me that was a host and not a human." "I think it was both."

--Bernard promising not to hurt Elsie and then flashing back to killing a bunch of lab techs is a giant flashing sign that Elise isn't likely to live much longer, right?

--"If you're looking forward, you're looking in the wrong direction."

Saturday, May 12, 2018

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x21)

There's a line from the musical "Hamilton" that has been running through my head all week: "and if we get this right, we're gonna teach them how to say goodbye." I talked about nostalgia a lot last week, about how it was inevitable for OUAT to trot out familiar moments and flashbacks during the last few episodes in order to make the final showing as impactful as possible. This week's episode, the penultimate, "Homecoming" doubles down on this and brings out not only familiar beats and plotlines but also a slew of long gone characters--human and other--in order to give a giant wink and nudge to the audience. At the beginning of this season, I said the only thing OUAT had to do to be successful was be entertaining and that holds true this week, but now it needs a little bit more: it needs to teach me how to say goodbye. I know that, over the years, I've become more critical and harsher but I've been here through it all. Snow Queens and Dark Swans and Hades and personality splitting potions and Black Fairies and genocidal tree nymphs...I've watched and blogged and talked about this show. This is the second to last episode and OUAT needs to not only wrap up their seasonal (and series) long stories but also needs to teach the audience how to say goodbye to the characters and the show itself. And that's what this episode is trying to do, hamfisted though it may be. 


Guess Who's Coming To The Finale?

Name some of your favorite OUAT non-regular characters. I'd wager that the list would include Peter Pan, Cruella de Vil, and Ariel the Little Mermaid. Well, you're in luck because all of those characters show up in this second to last episode. Whether or not they deserve to be there is another story. When these aforementioned characters have shown up in the past, beyond their arc seasons, it wasn't just for show, but rather because the narrative of that season could easily fit them in. Season five, being in the Underworld, had actual dead people running around so it made sense that a deceased Peter Pan and Cruella would show up and harass the family clan. In this episode, the returning characters didn't add much to the storyline except to indulge the audience and show them some fan favorites before the show goes off air forever. Did we really need Peter Pan trapped in stocks or Cruella locked in a dog cage? Was Ariel and her Magical MacGuffin really necessary to the plot (aside, but are Magical MacGuffins ever really necessary?). The answer to all of those questions is a resounding no. The only appearance that actually made a difference plot wise was the Apprentice showing up again, ironic given that no one would catalog the Apprentice as neither a fan favorite nor a character anyone was dying to see again. Don't misunderstand me, though; it's not that it wasn't nice to see Peter, Cruella and Ariel because all of those characters are among my favorites but the writers didn't need them, the plot didn't need them and the only way the writers could even get these characters back was to move the entire show to the Wish Realm (a place that still does not make any sense) and have our family interact with them there. It's sloppy and haphazard (there's the season six word I used so much!) but I guess if it's a way to help the audience say goodbye then that's a point in the returns favor. Putting all that aside, though, there are a few beats of this episode that also return to take us into the final episode (ever!), namely the return of the show's most ambiguous prophecy. I get the feeling that the writers believe that they had resolved the prophecy from the Seer in which Rumple learned that a boy would be his undoing, but because the audience never understood it or could agree on which boy (Henry? Bae? Peter Pan? Gideon?) was Rumple's ultimate undoing, the writers felt okay in bringing the prophecy back into the narrative fold and trying to resolve it once and for all. It puts Henry and his role as the Author at the center of the finale and the idea that it's up to Henry to bring the happy endings back is very in line with one of the major beats of the show. Yes, Emma was the Savior but if Henry hadn't gone to find Emma and beg her to come to Storybrooke, the original curse would never have been broken and the past seven years would be but a dream. The other big return is not a person or a narrative point but rather place: Storybrooke. If we're talking nostalgia, seeing the Storybrooke sign as Alice and Robin drove into the tiny hamlet actually gave me a big jolt in the stomach. How many times have we seen that sign? How many times have conversations and moments and important themes happened around that sign? Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved (Don Draper always says it best). Let's end where we began, with a family fighting a complicated villain, trying to restore the happy endings to a bunch of equally complicated fairy tale characters just trying to make their way in this very real world. One last time...we gotta teach them how to say goodbye.

Miscellaneous Notes on Homecoming 

--Nook and Alice talking on the phone but not being able to be any closer was really heartbreaking. I can’t believe there’s a version of Hook I genuinely like and am rooting for.

--"We don’t negotiate with villains! We kick ass and protect the people we love.”

--“I know it’s a bit cluttered; but it’s beach front property.” “All I see is a cave where booze goes to perish.”

--“That is indeed a complicated story. The timelines alone would make one’s head spin.”

--“If it comes in with a built-in Margo, then I’m all in.”

--Tiana’s crisis of personality would be interesting if we had spent any time with her over the last year. She’s been such a background character that I honestly forget she exists half the time. And when did she and Naveen become romantic?

--Horrible CGI dragon is horrible.

--I can't believe next week is the last blog I'll ever write for Once Upon a Time. I've been trying to think through what I want to say in advance and I'm finding it...difficult. 'Till next week, readers.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x20)

I knew this was going to happen; I knew there would come a time when OUAT would trot out all the intense family feelings, calling back to the best moments of season one, and hoping nostalgia would be enough to make the audience forget any sort of wonky plot devices and unanswered questions of the current run of episodes. Congratulations, OUAT. It worked. This week's episode "Is This Henry Mills?" is exactly what I've wanted OUAT to be all year. It's character driven, it's full of pain and thoughtful consideration about what this show was and indeed still is to so many people. It's sappy but not in a cringe-worthy way; instead in a way that makes me remember why I stuck with this show even when it was terrible and I wanted to call it quits. At the end of the day, this show isn't about ships or plot twists or dramatic reveals. It's about two mothers who came from different sides of reality (the mundane and the magical) and the good/evil divide but still tried to raise a son in a complicated, often dangerous world. If the first season is about Emma's acceptance of her son and the kind of magic that love brings, then the last season is about that same son turning around and saving his other mother using the life lessons both parents have taught him. It's a love letter to the fraught and complicated but ultimately beautiful Regina and Henry dynamic that keeps the shows broader themes in mind and, surprisingly, sticks the landing. 


It's The Story Of Us

"Scratches are a part of life." This one little line from Regina at the end of the episode could pretty much sum up all the character journeys in OUAT. The heroes, the villains, the in-betweens, so much of the story of OUAT is about the emotional and psychological scars life leaves on the human soul. That sounds depressing but there's a flip side to this; it's what brings us together. Everyone has scratches in their life, moments of deep pain and loss and regret but it's the commonality of those scratches that makes us a community. When the show began seven years ago, Emma was a little lost girl without a home or a community. The people she met in Storybrooke became her tribe, her people. This feeling of loneliness and being untethered is something that united Regina and Emma even when the family drama kept them at odds. It's also something that we find in their son, Henry. I have lamented all season that Henry's motivation for wanting to go out into the world hasn't felt real. No one talks about going out into the world to find their story because they aren't in any book and this kind of language removes a sense of familiarity with the audience when Henry speaks in terms that don't resonate. But there's finally a moment where it all makes more sense: "they didn't accept the real Henry Mills." This line makes it so much clearer how much of a lie Henry would have to live every single day of his life if he ever dared to step outside of the tiny Storybrooke hamlet. This sort of reasoning feels real; it feels familiar because there are lies all of us tell the world and the weight of them burdens us. I can't imagine having to lie about my family, my upbringing, and my earliest experiences every single day of my life but I can imagine how very tiring it would be. Henry wanting to escape that fate, to find a way to build his own community where he could be Henry Mills--the boy kidnapped by Peter Pan, who's father was killed by the Wicked Witch of the West and who's two mothers loved Robin Hood and Captain Hook--and more importantly could be accepted for being Henry Mills. That's really just Henry following in his families footsteps. That's why it's so important that Regina is the mother Henry interacts with the most this season (putting aside Jennifer Morrison's departure); Regina, more than anyone, wanted a community that accepted all parts of her story, where she didn't have to live a lie. Her happy ending wasn't a romance or a romantic partner but instead finding a place in the world where she was accepted. How could Regina not want the same for Henry?

We've seen a lot of growth between Henry and Regina, especially after Emma's story took a more romantic spin in the later seasons. It feels so natural that Henry would look to Regina's own happy ending for what he wanted for himself. Henry message to himself (time travel!) is also a message to Regina that he learned from her. It's about community: "Home isn’t a place; it’s the people in it. And they will always be with you." If I can get ever so slightly sappy here, it's also a message to us, the audience. This story is ending. We have two weeks left and then it's over forever. The writers are having their own fits of nostalgia; they want us to remember the best beats and biggest themes and they are trying to reach out across a TV divide and ask us, one final time, to understand and believe in the message they've tried to convey all along. I'm not saying they've always conveyed it well; there's far too many Neal-sized holes in this story for community and family to ring one hundred percent true. But at the end of this very long road, while not always perfect, that theme of community, of family, is there. It's there when Henry takes a cue from Emma and kisses Regina's forehead to break the curse; it's there when Nook grabs Tilly's hand and Margot follows suit. It's there when Rumple realizes that he needs to help the family he still has left in this world because reuniting with Belle may never happen. People and our often strange, weird, complicated relationships are what make the stories of our lives. It's true for villains; it's true for heroes; it's true for Henry and Regina Mills. And it's true for us.

Miscellaneous Notes on Is This Henry Mills?

--Buckle up tight, everyone. I imagine that those feelings of nostalgia are only going to becoming more and more pronounced in these last two episodes.

--Big round of applause to both Jared Gilmore and to Andrew West for that Henry to Henry phone call. They sold the hell out of it.

--Regina trying to smash Gothel’s head in with a bat is also how I feel about Gothel and her overall plan.

--Robin and Alice are the absolute best thing about this entire season. I actually cheered and fist pumped when they were reunited.

--“You want to ruin me like the world ruined you; I’m not like you. I'm not an outcast, I’m not an orphan or a street rat or some crazy girl who’s lost her way….you chose hate. But I choose love.”

--Regina digging up a grave of a very recently dead woman to get a storybook is all manner of creepy and weird.

--I have no idea how I feel about Wish Rumple as the final villain. I’m worried about the execution because OUAT doesn’t often stick the landing when it does stuff like this, but Rumple wrestling with his demons–facing (literally) the man he was so he can prove that he’s not this kind of Rumple anymore? Sign me up.

--The time travel paradoxes are insane and the show would be better if they just had everyone live in 2045-2050 and make the argument that technology didn’t advance much in 30 years.

--Facilier’s sudden death is so unearned. We know nothing about him or what we wanted or what his connection to Regina is. Everyone from the "Princess and the Frog" fairy tale has been wasted.

--"...But that’s the thing about stories. They’re more than words. They live inside of us. They make us who we are. And as long as someone believes that, there will always be magic."