Tuesday, June 25, 2013

In Which I Review Under the Dome (1x1)

Confession: I've never liked Stephen King. I know, I know. To many of you, this is the equivalent of not liking ice cream or puppies. And yes, I do recognize that two of my all time favorite shows--LOST and Once Upon a Time--were heavily influenced by King and his works. Horror has never been my forte. While I'm ok with some horror elements embedded in my sci-fi or fantasy, straight up horror tends to give me nightmares and thus I avoid. However, the trailer for the CBS take on King's work "Under the Dome" was intriguing enough that I knew I wanted to check it out. Summer TV is a bit of a drag: nonsense reality shows and repeats. If I have to wait until September for my favorites to return, then I'll gladly sit back and sink my teeth into this show. 

 Because I've never read the novel, I can't do a point-by-point tv vs. text analysis so instead I've decided to just look at the TV show as its own separate thing. I'll be tracking not only the mystery but also our main characters arc through the story. Most of them are pretty standard as far as TV tropes go, but I do hope they get to deviate somehow from the norm in order to make this show fresher. The town of Chester's Mill is in Maine; it's your standard small town known for "rich, fertile land and warm, inviting people." Everyone seems to know everyone else but unlike the placid small towns in other TV shows, even before the dome falls, there is a built in mystery. For some reason, propane has been coming into the town in large quantities. I'll keep our eye on who knows about the propane and their reaction to it. Now on to our tropes:

--The mystery man: Dale "Barbie" Barbara. The show opens with Barbie burying a body out in the woods. It seems fairly obvious that Barbie killed this man but as of now we do not know why, how, or even why he is in Chester's Mill. As expected, Barbie has a military background--he is the first to encounter the dome after it falls, and snaps into action, alerting those on the other side to call in the Feds. The encounter with the dome is pretty fantastic. The animals get spooked, the ground shakes and suddenly it just falls. It even splits a cow in half, long ways, which was both really gross but also kind of hysterical. Despite being a murderer and our mystery man, Barbie appears to be a good guy; he has a very pretty face and thus far has not done anything menacing. I don't think he'll turn out to be any kind of villain. He saved a boy from a falling airplane and has gone out of his way to rescue others.

--The Sheriff: "Duke" Perkins. Every small town needs a sheriff, preferably one with an impressive hard sounding yet lovable nickname and a strong desire to protect the town. Check and check. Duke seems fairly competent in his duties; when the dome falls he does his job. Yet, like most lawmen, he is obviously hiding something, keeping secrets "for the good of the town." He knows about the propane being stockpiled but he has turned a blind eye for the sake of the town. At the end of the first episode, he tells his lieutenant, Linda, that he has been hiding things from her and is about to go into detail when, naturally, his pacemaker malfunctions and we are left wondering if he'll make to the next episode!

The Politician: "Big Jim" Rennie.  Local small time politician and car salesman who obviously considers himself to be a much bigger fish than he really is. Big Jim sees himself as powerful but is always craving more power. In the opening moments, he gives a waitress $100, buying her vote in the next election, even though he always run unopposed. He has been stockpiling propane, though we don't know why. He becomes a 15min hero when he takes over the local radio station and sends out a general distress broadcast, urging everyone on the road to stay where they are so that they don't run into the dome (die, in other words). He seems almost delighted that the other councilmen are on the other side of the dome and that he alone remains standing. There is quite a bit of tension between Big Jim and Duke, as is to be expected in typical TV trope land; when Jim offers to make citizens into policemen to ease Duke's burden, they get into a very polite fight in which Duke tries to make it clear that he's in charge, not Jim. Jim is at the top of the list of "suspects who know more than they should" but if this show is anything like other TV shows, it's all a red herring.

The Lovers: Angie and Junior. Our young teenage angst will most likely come from these two. Angie is a candystriper who has ambitions of getting out of Chester's Mill. All summer she's been hooking up with Junior (turns out he's Big Jim's son) who is our resident psycho. Junior is cruel and vindictive and ends up locking Angie in a fallout shelter in his backyard when he spies Angie and Barbie having a smoke together. Junior even carries a knife with him, twirling it in his hand like some sort of evil mustachio.

The Plucky Young Reporter: Julia Shumway.

New editor of the town's (probably only) newspaper, Julia is apparently the only reporter inside the dome with it falls. She strikes up a tentative "friendship" with Barbie and invites him to spend the night at her place instead of sleeping in the woods. She was tipped off about the propane before the dome fell so if there is a connection between the two (despite Big Jim's assurance that there isn't) she'll be the first to figure it out. Julia is also married to the local doctor Peter, who hasn't been seen all day. Why? Because Barbie killed him and buried him in the woods. Cue the dramatic music.

There are some other miscellaneous characters like:
--Phil and Dodee who work in the radio tower and thus will probably be the first ones to make some sort of outside contact. Also, our resident hipster/nerds, and from Dodee's perspective, maybe a bit of a conspiracy nut.

--Linda, the deputy who is worried about her fiancee on the other side of the dome.

--Caroline and Alice Hill, a lesbian couple traveling with Alice's teenage daughter Norrie. They are the "Outsiders" in the town and when Norrie encountered the dome, she began to have seizures and mumble "the stars are falling in lines."

--Joe, brother to Angie who will be the first to notice her missing and will employ Barbie's help to find his sister as Barbie saved him from a plane after it crashed into the dome.

As with LOST before it, there are a lot of characters that all have some sort of story to tell and will be affected by the dome in different ways. My hope is that character development is given to the core cast, the ones I fleshed out in greater detail, and that the mystery is really what focuses the show. So far my only working theory is the government. Despite the final moments of the episode showing the outside and a radio broadcast assuring the rest of the world that this is an "unparalleled event in human history" someone out there knows something. The question is, does someone on the inside know something.

Overall Rating: check it out. It's a short 13 episode series, so the producers know they have to solve the mystery while making it entertaining. I was intrigued enough to watch again next week. The visuals of what the dome did to the town are stunning.

Monday, June 24, 2013

In Which I Review Mad Men (6x13)

Confession: Once upon a time, Don Draper could get away with anything. He could show up late--or not at all--he could drink, sleep, and berate this way through life because at the end of the day he was charming, sexual, and undeniably good at his job. He excelled at it; Don was one of the best ad men in New York and everyone knew it. Remember the first time we saw him really pitch to a client? It was in the pilot episode and it was to Sterling Cooper's biggest client--Lucky Strike. Don literally comes up with the ad on the spot; the client is walking out and out of nowhere, Don comes up with a stroke of genius that saves everything. That was what made Don Draper valuable to his company; they'd put up with just about anything because he could land the gig. That Don Draper, now a full six seasons later, is buried under booze, cigarettes, regret, fear, self-loathing, two failed marriages, and the destruction of his relationship with his daughter. In other words, ladies and gentleman, Don Draper has left the building. 

"Going down?" In more ways than one,  this season of Mad Men has ultimately been about Don's rapid decent to the point of no return, the lowest of the low, his own rock bottom. We should have seen it coming; that's the beauty of Mad Men, once you've reached the end, the beginning becomes clear and you realize what has been happening all along. Of course this season was going to end with Don losing everything and circling back to where all his issues began. You have to pass through hell in order to get to paradise; the opening of this season showed Don on a beach (a false paradise as Don is not at all happy in his idyllic surroundings) reading what can only be called "not beach reading material." Seriously, who reads the Inferno on their vacation? But now that Don has reached what is perhaps his lowest level of Hell, the Inferno fits better contextually.
"Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark/For the straight-forward pathway had been lost."
Don has always been a lost scared little boy, looking for that missing piece of himself and now that he has hit middle age, it's becoming far more elusive and the path has been lost altogether. This season, Don has tried everything he could think of to locate his way: drinking, a whore/mother mistress, merging his company with their biggest rivals, speed, hash, toying with moving to California, and pitching ads that reek of desperation and despair, hoping someone might notice (and being Don, rebuffing someone when they did notice).

This episode was full of big moments for Don, but I want to focus on three: the pitch, the fall, and the homecoming. Hershey's wants to advertise (come to think of it, Don is right. Does Hershey even advertise to this day? They don't really need to, do they?) The pitch--the initial one before it all goes to Hell--is very reminiscent of Don's greatest pitch of all times, the Carousel Pitch. It's nostalgic and emotive and, reversely, unlike the Carousel pitch where Don is actually speaking from the heart and speaking of something that is actually true, the Hershey pitch is a boldface lie. Nothing Don says about this happy father and son is even remotely true. Don's father, as we have seen in flashbacks, was cruel and vicious; he beat Don, he kept any kind of affection from him. There was no tousling of hair, no buying of a candy bar after doing a job well done. Don really sells this lie by reminding the client that "the wrapper looked like what was inside." In other words, you know exactly what you're getting. This is perhaps when Don looses it; the line resonates with the client but Don begins to shake; it is one lie too many. The product that is Don--the real Don, the emotionally scared, suicidal, love starved little boy known as Dick--does not look like the wrapper, the cool, charismatic, sexy Don, and so he tells the truth. The truth of Don is not something potential clients want to hear; it's not something you can advertise to anyone, it's dark and sad and you can tell that it scares the clients and Don's so called friends and associates. One of the things that makes Mad Men is the extreme acting ability of its central character played by Jon Hamm. If he doesn't get the Emmy for this moment, then there is no justice in this world. His acting cues were spot on; like the episode where Sally found Don and Sylvia, Don rests his head in his hands, too disgusted and too horrified to really even look anybody in the face as he lays it all out on the table. The line "I dreamt of it...of being wanted" and his confession that the Hershey bought with stolen pick pocketed money as "the only sweet thing in my life" were heartbreaking and for one shinning moment, we remember what it was like to love Don, to not care that he is a self absorbed asshole who destroys lives.

Part of me doubts that Don was actually surprised by the partner's meeting and the "leave of absence." He played it like he didn't see it coming, but that's the great irony of Don's life: his fear that if people learn about who he really is, what his past was really like, they will leave him, turns out to be true in almost every case. Bert Cooper may not have cared in season one that Don Draper was really Dick Whitman, but after the failed Hershey pitch and a season's worth of under-performing as Creative Director, "the verdict has been reached." Take your hat, take your briefcase, and take your mountain of issues and go regroup somewhere that isn't here. Everybody agrees with this decision, even Don's best friend Roger who has always admired Don for being wonderfully creative but also as depraved as he himself is--but even Roger, spoiled, upper class, rich boy Roger--has his limits. Right before this momentous moment, Megan storms out of the apartment because she has once again been screwed over by her husband; she was ready to move out to California and begin again and now Don has taken that away from her. This is the end, I would imagine, of Don's second marriage. Betty left when she learned who Don really was ("would you love you?" Betty asked coldly) and Megan finally sees the light; there is no fixing this marriage and she is gone. Now, Don has lost his daughter, his friends, his second wife, and his job. He has nothing and when we feel at a total loss, we go home.

Round and round and back home again. Don's homecoming is a first for him and for his family. No one has ever seen where little Dick Whitman grew up. This is not a place where he was loved, this is not a place full of happy memories. But this is how Don Draper came to be the man he is. He has revealed the truth to his coworkers and now, he needs to tell the most important person in his life: his daughter. Yes, Bobby and Gene were there too, but that scene was purely for Sally and Don. The look on Sally's face as realization struck was wonderful: horror, disgust, but also sympathy and understanding. Sally told Don earlier this season that she doesn't know anything about him and now she does. Sally is old enough to grasp that something happened to her father a long time ago that damaged him, and while it will take a long time to forgive him for what he did, it will come--after all, she is her father's daughter. While Don is rapidly falling further and further down, Sally is mimicking him. She is buying beer with a false ID, getting drunk and acting just like Don. Her moment of seeing Don and Sylvia has damaged her in the same way that Don was damaged by living with mother/whores. The question now becomes, will Sally run away after she's learned the truth about her father?

The other two plots this episode were Peggy and Pete and how they may have finally gotten what they wanted, but at a step cost. Peggy, after an entire season (ok, many seasons) of being ordered around and used by men (Don, Ted, Abe, ect) finally got that office view, but to do it, she had to lose the one thing she really wanted: love.  Ted is officially scum and I'm glad he is moving out to Los Angles. Peggy was never anything more than a possession, he "never wanted anyone else to have her." Peggy and Ted's final meeting was acerbic and harsh; Ted has options, Peggy doesn't think she has any. Ted can start over in California with a family, Peggy must stay behind. Did anyone else notice what she was wearing in that final encounter with Ted? I'm almost 100% certain it was the blue and orange suit she wore in season five where she meets Ted in the diner and he basically offers her the world if she comes to work for him. Ted giveth and Ted taketh away. In the end, because of Don's blowup, Peggy gets her corner office--she becomes the boss, the wearer of pants (that pant suit was HOT and I want it.) I love that our final image of Peggy for this season is the back of her head as she stares out her new window, very Don Draper like. But it is also a little melancholy. That's not her job, not really. Don will be back someday and what happens then?

Pete now has nothing tying him to New York; he has lost all the anchors that once tethered him to the city. His father died several seasons ago and now his mother is dead at sea (probably at the hands of Monolo, which is hilarious and tragic all at once). Bob Benson managed to squeeze Pete out of the Chevy account (it was a terrible move on Bob's part, even if Pete is a really bad person). Pete's marriage to Trudy fell apart and he has very tenuous relationship with his daughter, Tammy. Unlike Don and Sally, we've never seen Pete and Tammy in any real father-daughter moments, so while the final scene of Pete and his child was very tender, it also felt very out of place. Pete finally gets to be free of everything and the only client man in the business, but as he told Trudy, "it's not how I wanted it."

Miscellaneous notes from In Care Of
--Joan lets Roger into Kevin's life, but not hers. I wonder if that will last; I'd like to see Joan and Roger together. Also, Joan, in that pumpkin and spice outfit, her leopard shirt, and green Thanksgiving day dress. Damn.

--Betty and Don have reached a new point in their post-marriage relationship. Betty isn't interested in getting back at Don for all the pain he caused and now she realizes that the divorce had some pretty nasty effects on her children. Despite her efforts, "the good is not beating the bad." I think Don and Betty will be more friendly from here on out, if only for the children.

--Pete may be a slime ball, but Vincent Kartheiser is a great actor and his, "Not great, Bob!" line was maybe the his best delivered line ever.

--Sassy Sally is Sassy and I love it. "I wouldn't want to do anything immoral. You know what, why don't you just tell them what I saw" she tells Don. BURN.

--Vixen by night Peggy. That was some dress.

--Pete and Ted are heading out to LA to start the SC&P west coast branch and I have a hunch Harry will be out there and a partner before long.

--Bob's apron is fabulous. I want it, if only because of its absolute ridiculousness. 

--One more season and it's over. I protest this so much.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

In Which I Reivew The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

Confession: myths, fantasy, fables, archetypes. If you were to ask me to make a list of things I like in books, those four words would top it. Ever since I was little, I've liked stories that are otherworldly. Children editions of Homer's Odyssey, Disney's fairy tales, epic poems of knights and heroes and dragons--these sorts and more lined my bookshelves and were the recipient of that most magical of gift, my public library card. From the Animorphs to Harry Potter to Kushiel's Legacy to A Song of Ice and Fire, I wraped myself in a mythic blanket, seeking shelter and warmth from the cold harsh and decidedly unmagical world. Among the greats of fantastical magical mythic storytelling, Neil Gaiman has always stood out as one of the quintessential--dare I say archetypal and elemental--best. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first Gaiman adult novel in almost a decade. Following in the wake of his landmark American Gods, I bought this book with a sort of desperate need, an unyielding desire to be transported out of the mundane and in to another world, one that only Gaiman can create. I have never felt so close to a protagonist than when our little seven year old narrator utters, "I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were."

Typically, before recommending Gaiman to anyone, I feel the need to point out a few things. First, magic exists. Don't argue with the author on this; it is a fruitless uphill battle and you will lose. Second, magic exists and neither you nor I have the mental ability to understand it. How does one sit down and try to apply any kind of law or logic to magic? It's nonsensical. The mere attempt of explaining magic--sussing out its "hows" and "why"--only renders the magic as nonmagic and in doing so you've ultimately lost the poetic beauty of the magical act. What this means in the course of reading a Gaiman book is that, by the end, you will probably walk away with very little in the way of answers. There is no grand exposition in which the central character is given a revelation of everything that has occurred in the book proper, boiled down into an easy-to-understand bullet point list. The magic will not explain itself to you; it doesn't have to. It's magic.

The "plot" (oh, such an ugly word that means almost nothing in good honest storytelling) is fairly straightforward once you release any reservations you have that by the end you will posses a clear line of progression of beginning, middle and end. Time doesn't work that way and neither does memory and thus why should storytelling. However, a bare bones sketch to at least entice you.  A man in the middle of his life returns home for a funeral. Our unnamed narrator, wishing to delay the uncomfortable and awkward wake of the dead relative, drives around his former hometown, unknowingly searching for something to make him whole. His childhood house was demolished many years ago, modern uniform neatly trimmed houses replacing the romantic sprawl. He finds himself driving toward the end of the lane, where he remembers the Hempstock family lived--a triumvirate of females (grandmother, mother, and daughter). He recalls, vaguely, that he was friends with the little girl, Lettie, who insisted that the duck pond out back behind the farmhouse was really the ocean. Having gained permission to visit the non-ocean/duck pond from the still living grandmother, our narrator sits by the waters edge and, much like Narcicuss from the Greek myths he loved to read as a boy, examines his reflection and dips into the past, back to his childhood where magic and myth collided in his own backyard.

Our narrator is a very lonely seven year old boy, the kind that doesn't even realize the extent of his unhappiness. He rarely makes friends, no one comes to his birthday parties. Instead he has found solace in fantasy and myth; his prized possessions are his books.  One fateful day he and his father discover a dead body and that one event sets off a chain reaction, magic having slid into our world where it proceeds to cause all sorts of havoc. At this time our little narrator meets the Hempstock family for the first time (all Maiden/Mother/Crone overtones are deliberate and intentional). Like Gaiman's other works wherein our main character finally meets the magical beings, the conversations are riddles that are hard to puzzle out--but again, don't try. Just let the magic flow. The narrator trusts them almost implicitly, but he's seven, he has no reason not to trust the very kind women. They seem to know more about what is happening than they care to explain, but they've also come up with a plan to send the magical spirit (referred to as a flea) back to its world. As one might expect, the plan goes wrong--due in large part to our narrator's inability to follow instructions--and the situation only gets worse. The magical being decides it wants to reshape our world to match its own, and uses our narrators family as a means to do so. The family is turned upside down and the horror of this is almost too real. While Gaiman uses magic and myth to examine what happens, somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered if these events were real to Gaiman--reinterpreted, like so many traumatic events are, in language that is more accessible and more easy with which to grapple. What follows is the meat of the story, so I won't spoil it, but it comes down to sacrifice and eventually memory and how clouded the latter can be, how no two stories are the same and that part of growing up is learning to tuck those memories away in the nooks of your mind, rationalizing them as the distant echos of a childhood long since past. Bu as Gaiman writes, "The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world." On the inside, we are all still children.

The non-ocean/duck pond is perhaps the biggest symbol of the book, bookending two of the more prominent moments in the story. The non-ocean/duck pond (that is really an ocean and barrier between our world and the universe that exists beyond this world that is populated by myth and monsters and magic) serves as anchor for our narrator, his inexplicable return to the shore never fully understood to him. It is a home where he can return but where he cannot stay. The ocean is bigger on the inside in more ways that one. It severs as a vessel for rebirth and as a link to answers we all seek: who am I? How did we lose that magic inside of ourselves? Where do I belong? Where is home? It is always just outside our grasp and just when we think we have latched onto it all, it slips--like so much water--between our fingers. This feeling of happiness beyond the pale is articulated best by this line:
“How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine…” Something always calls him back, something always calls all of us back, that hole in our heart that yearns to be filled.

If this book does one thing specifically well--and it does a great many things well--it is in calling up some long forgotten distant pain of your past. Whether you had a happy childhood or not, this book will drudge up some memory that has alluded you in the years since, tugging at your minds eye, beckoning to be revisited. It could be a traumatic one--the fear of adults and adulthood, loneliness--or a good one--the joy of a new book, the act of playing with your first pet on a sunny afternoon. All memories are painful, because of the memory itself or because of the pain of loss, of knowing that you aren't that child anymore. At one point the older narrator waxes nostalgic about how he may not miss childhood, but he does miss how he never took anything for granted: the small wonders we experience as children that our jaded adult selves blindly toss aside as common and normative.

In the end this book flows wonderfully; I easily read it in four hours because the sheer act of putting it down meant I was no longer in that world where I so desperately belonged, that has called to me since I was a little girl. Gaiman's words are lush, you can taste the honeycomb and cream on the porridge. The villain of the story is cruel and petty for the sake of being evil, and I relished it. She was perfectly terrifying--the mythic monster that seeks to destroy a family by her mere presence.

I fully recognize that this is not a typical review. I will not analyze any elements that were "bad" because there were none. I'm sure others will find fault in the pacing or the narration or certain deus ex machina plot devices. Not so with me. This is a panegyric, a paean, a sacrifice lovingly offered up to Neil Gaiman as a token of appreciation for yet another hauntingly beautiful book that moves and tugs at the soul. This book is unquestionably Gaiman and I would not have it any other way.

Overall rating: A

Thursday, June 20, 2013

In Which I Talk About Zombies

Confession: I have an addiction to technology. Or, at least, the technology I am able to own given that I am a poor graduate student. My laptop is turned on first thing in the morning, my smart phone is never more than a few inches from my fingertips and I spend a vast majority of my afternoons either staring at Facebook, Twitter, random Tumblr's, and YouTube. With most of these social media sites, I am not creating anything--nothing significant at any rate. A tweet is only 140 characters and is either bemoaning boredom or song lyrics. My status's on Facebook are to-do lists or schedules. I scroll through Tumblr pages looking for pictures and gifs I like rather than uploading anything innovative and I have never made a YouTube video. In other words, I am a technology zombie. 

"Wait wait wait." I hear you cry, " a technology zombie? Isn't that rather antithetical and oxymoronic? Zombies are mindless killing machines who are only out for one thing: food. Technology develops and changes, ergo cannot possibly relate to zombies. How does that correlate to technology?" In their recent video, PBS Idea Channel proposed that zombies are actually a symbol for our over reliance on technology.

In this new video, host Mike points out that in the past other creatures/monsters like aliens, vampires, Godzilla, and unrepentant murderers have arisen in TV and literature during times of social or political upheaval and reflect society's fears about said upheavals. Overtime, once these upheavals have been calmed, the monsters that grew up around them also change; vampires are no longer horrifying "others" but instead have been re-imagined as lonely souls desperately seeking human companionship and integration into society--they just happen to drink blood.

I was instantly reminded of one of my favorite Vlogbrothers videos in which John (in a stunning turn of events) is in an airport and yells about how we now live in a world full of shout-y walls. John also points out that if the shout-y walls don't dull your fear of silence, then we all have smart phones where the voices of billions on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are just a swipe away. We don't actually need to have these devices; our lives were perfectly normal without them, and once upon a time we were capable of functioning without needing to have our iPhones and Droids locked in our tight grips. It is the fear of silence, the fear of disconnect that we seek to avoid. Even now, trying to type up this blog, one of the tabs of Firefox is open to Facebook, and I occasionally pop over to check my news feed (incidentally does anyone else remember when Facebook changed over to the news feed way back in 2006 or so? I was a sophomore in college and for the longest time we called it the "stalker" feed because we thought it was creepy and wrong. Now, if you took away my news feed I'd probably go withdraws like an addict. I need my news feed).

We live in a world of shout-y walls and zombies have come to symbolize our over dependence on one thing, in this case the need to be linked into the technology we find so hard to live without. We crave it, like zombies crave brains, but the sad part is we aren't fully congnizant of this desire. We've become dull to it and perhaps ironically, in order to make our selves feel better about the dullness, we go deeper into need for technology, updating our phones, adding new aps, buying pads so that we now have a small arsenal of technology, because having a laptop and smart phone was one thing but you aren't complete until you have an iPad.

So, yes I would agree with the PBS Idea Channel that zombies symbolize our over dependence for technology but what I'm most interested in is the question of what comes next. What monster is lurking around the corner, what foe will our heroes and heroines have to face in the future? I would propose that it will not be a monster in the traditional sense. Vampires and zombies (and to a much lesser extent, aliens) have been or are on their way to being essentially neutered. I think the next big foe is the government. Now, let me be clear: I am very much a liberal. I believe in big government and the power of the feds. I think small government is ineffective and useless and creates more headaches than solutions to problems. But where I draw the line is in super big, controlling, shadowy oligarchy type of government. In recent weeks, reports of security leaks (NSA and Verizon, spring to mind) and the government "spying" on people have surfaced. How many of you saw headlines with words like "Big Brother" "1984" or "Orwellian?" I would contend that this is the next big monster for literature and TV: some sort of government that not only spies on its inhabitants but, going further, dictates and controls every aspect of human existence: what job you can have, who you marry, where you live, the times you are allowed to be outside, to what music you can listen, what books you can read, what art you can view, what movies you can watch, ect. Look at the state of juvenile fiction right now and tell me we aren't headed there, or maybe already on the cusp. Series like Divergent, the Hunger Games, Delirium, Uglies, and Matched all portray governments that have strict control over the land. In some, like The Hunger Games, the government is given a voice and a face, but in many the government is felt but remains unseen. In the series Delirium (a series I fully intend to review in a later blog post) those outside the tightly controlled confines of the world call it Zomibeland and refer to the passive, uncaring, unfeeling people as Zombies. In Matched the government controllers are never met and when rebellion comes the controllers seem to simply float away on air. Often times the scariest monsters are the ones that aren't seen.

So how do we combat this? In the novels already out and I suspect in the ones to come, it's up to a few individuals, a small band of people who can barely eek out an existence outside of society but somehow--almost miraculously--manage to turn the tide and live without the oligarchy interfering. Often times the oligarchy doesn't even fall; the freedom fighters just manage to create a separate would outside of society. All in all, it's not very hopeful. I am reminded of Aldus Huxley's phenomenal work Brave New World--a book I had to read in high school and one that has stayed with me ever since. Maybe there is no stemming the rising tide of bigger than big government headed our way. Maybe the only thing we can honestly do is hunker down and try to survive: resistance as rebellion morphed into invisibility as rebellion. In the end the Savage just wants to be left alone. He wants all the horrors of the world thrust upon him and he takes them willingly:
"But I like the inconveniences."
"We don't," said the Controller. "We prefer to do things comfortably."

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."
"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."
"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."

And that, PBS Idea Channel, is what I suspect is coming next: a return to where we've already been in literature come to life in the real world. 

I recognize that this a very different post from my Mad Men television reviews, but I saw the PBS video last night and all these ideas turned in my head while I slept. Had to write them down somewhere. Fear not, back to deconstructing Don Draper next time.

Monday, June 17, 2013

In Which I Review Mad Man (6x12)

Confession: I would like to write a letter to one Mr. Ted Chaough. 
Dear Mr. Chaough:
We don't know each other but please allow me to explain what exactly happened to you on this weeks episode of Mad Men. You see, my friend, you just got Draper'd. The act of getting Draper'd has happened to many characters on this show over six years--from clients to coworkers to wives. Everybody at one point gets the full on Don Draper. What exactly is getting Draper'd? I'm glad you asked. Getting Draper'd is when you are beaten into submission by Don; in which you are pulled apart, string my string, until you acquiesce to Don's demands. You are humbled and highly confused. Using words like a surgeon uses a knife, Don manages to humiliate you all while looking dashing, confident and incredibly charismatic; somehow he manages to sell you an idea you didn't want, all while making you look small and petty. In this case, Don managed to sell your idea and point out that you are not as noble as you might imagine, and that Don takes a perverse delight in taunting you with your clandestine affairs. So congratulations, Mr. Chaough. You're officially part of Mad Men! 

Don likes to ruin people's lives, doesn't he? Sometimes he does it intentionally (Peggy and Ted) and sometimes it is an honest accident (Sally)--but whatever the reason, he is awfully good at it. The title of this weeks episode, The Quality of Mercy, is a bit ironic as the stories revolve around people who show no mercy, do not offer apologies or contrition for their actions, but instead wield knowledge and power for the betterment of themselves, not others. In other words, the quality of mercy demonstrated by Don, Sally and Pete this week is zilch. Don has no mercy when it comes to ripping apart Ted and Peggy's happiness--though he'll hide behind the lie that he's "just looking out for the company." Sally has no mercy when she lies her way through an uncomfortable situation and realizes that she has the power to turn men into little boys; she has no mercy when she declares that she doesn't want to see Don again. Pete has no mercy when it comes to belittling Bob and turning him into a plaything, an object he can toy with and use for his own ends.

Let's start with Don, Peggy and Ted. Don's in a bad place at the start of this episode; it's obvious that he's been on a long bender after Sally found him "comforting" Mrs. Rosen in last weeks episode. His wife, Megan, is so oblivious to everything that has been happening that her only advice is to "pull back on the throttle a little." Wow. Even by this point Betty would have recognized that something has gone horribly wrong with Don. The gulf between Megan and Don continues to grow; in their last scene together, Don can neither see nor hear his wife. She stands in the background of their living room, blending into the surroundings and can't tear him away from his darkness. Why is Don so dark right now? In the wake of losing Sally, Don is also confronted with other people's happiness, specifically Ted and Peggy's budding (maybe full on) affair. Ted and Peggy have no idea how to keep this a secret; it's painfully obvious to everyone: Joan, Don, Ted's secretary, Megan (IRONY ALERT). Whatever jealousy and emotional disconnect Ted and Peggy experienced in last weeks episode, they've moved on from it and have become way too cozy with each other. Running into Megan and Don in the movie theater highlights this: they might claim to be on a work project, but that scene read "date night." How uncomfortable were Ted and Peggy trying to quickly lie their way through the encounter? Of course, we are reminded of last years movie theater scene where Peggy and Don run into each other while on legitimate work projects. It's "their thing" and now Peggy is stepping out with another man! Hussy! (and we all know how Don feels about prostitutes). This is the first step toward Don's building anger at the two. Having figured out about Ted and Peggy, Don then learns that the new ad pitch for aspirin, inspired by Rosemary's Baby, has gone over budget and that Ted doesn't want to pull back the throttle because he wants Peggy to get a Clio. How sweet. Don's perfect opportunity to ruin Ted and Peggy's relationship is now presented. At a board meeting with the client, Don takes over the pitch and lays out--in no uncertain terms--that he knows all about Ted and Peggy and he wants to make sure everyone does to. Also, cheating whore-ish Don, does not approve.
Why does this affair bother Mr. Draper so much? Does he have romantic attachments to Peggy? No. At least, not in the traditional sense. He doesn't want Peggy for himself as a romantic partner, but Peggy has become a substitute daughter in the wake of the loss of Sally. In this episode, the editing and scene structure play up the connection between Peggy and Sally. Directly before the boardroom scene where Don and Ted more or less fight over Peggy, we are treated to a young Sally Draper receiving unwanted advances from a very creepy boy. She calls for Glen (hi Glen!) and the two boys get into a scuffle over Sally. This scene is reiterated in the next scene where Peggy stands in for Sally. Having lost the most important woman in his life, his daughter Sally, Don is now confronted with losing his substitute daughter, Peggy, who is also the woman he needs the most. Peggy is the woman who knows him, understands him, and has been with him at his lowest (when he lost Anna). Not only is the Sally/Glen/creepy boy scene replayed, we are also treated to a reinterpretation of the Sally and Don scene from last week. Don lies through his teeth as to why he just Draper'd Ted and Peggy in the board room.
Last week he was "comforting" (or looking after) Mrs. Rosen; this week he's "looking out for the company." Peggy, older than Sally, does not buy it. She flat out tells Don, "you're a monster." This is an exact echo to last week where Sally screamed, "you make me sick!" to Don before running off to her bedroom, slamming the door behind her, just like Peggy does in this scene. The episodes opens with Don in a fetal position in Sally's bed, mourning the loss of his daughter, and it closes with Don in the a fetal position on his work couch, mourning the loss of his substitute daughter.

In another part of Sterling Cooper and Partners (did everyone catch the new logo, by the way? Very groovy and late 1960s with all its flourishes) Pete is dealing with his Bob-problem. Ken Cosgrove wants off the Chevy account and the partners appoint Bob to be his replacement. Small problem, Bob is totally infatuated with Pete and has made this clear. This revelation causes Pete to turn to Duck (hi Duck!) to get Bob a new job. Duck starts checking into Bob's background only to discover that Bob is not who he says he is. He did not go to Wharton, he did not work in finance, he did not do a partnership at a prestigious company. Bob is a fake; he is from rural poor West Virgina and spent the past few years as a manservant to wealthy men. In case you were wondering if we're supposed to be thinking "Dick Whitman/Don Draper" doppelganger, you're right. Bob Benson is Don Draper 2.0. Bob may not have adopted another man's persona, but Bob did make up his life. He went after what he wanted by lying and fooling everyone. The Bob = Don symbolism is complete when Pete confronts Bob on this information and decides that instead of turning Bob over the company, he'll keep Bob's secret but only so long as Bob does exactly what Pete wants. This scene literally could have come straight out of season one where Pete discovers who Don really is. Realizing that Pete knows, Don fears for his carefully constructed life (so did Bob), Don thinks about running (so did Bob). The change here is that Pete has learned from his past mistakes. Pete won't be played for a fool like with Don. He tells Bob that he has learned "not to tangle with  your type of animal." Instead of doing the right thing and turning Bob over to Bert (like he did with Don in season one) Pete works this angle to his advantage, which is what he should have done with Don.

Miscellaneous Notes from The Quality of Mercy 

--Kenny got shot! And if you didn't yell, "Oh my god! They killed Kenny! Those bastards!" then I pity you because you clearly have no concept of American popular culture.

--Sally is going to rebel in the worst way possible: she is going to become her mother. The scene between Sally and Betty at the end may have been the saddest moment in the entire episode, and not because it was actually sad. Betty is delighted that finally she and her daughter are the same age, mentally at least. They are both adolescents who have figured out that how men see them and having men fight over them is simply the best! Now they can gossip and gush like best friends.  Sally is not going to become a hippie; she is going to become Betty Draper 2.0. One of the running themes this episode was the idea of doppelgangers; Bob is Don's and Sally is Betty's, cigarette and all.

--Betty's line, "It's overwhelming to raise a young girl. I don't want to be one" had me laughing for a good three minutes. First off, Betty, when have you ever raised your children? Second, your entire psychological profile is that you see yourself as a young girl who needs a man to care for her. Don't fool yourself, you wish you were applying to boarding school.

--Sally's line, "my father's never given me anything," was heartbreaking. This relationship isn't going to be repaired anytime soon and the only thing Don has given Sally is a future as a therapist's patient. Note Sally's utter horror at the idea of sex. Sex has forever been cemented in her mind as something dirty, done behind closed doors by cheating, lying, adults. Like Don spying in the whorehouse and his traumatized psyche looking for a mother, Sally will probably spend her life looking for a father figure in her romantic partners.

--Holy matchy matchy outfits, Batman! Could Peggy and Ted have been dressed anymore alike? Especially in the final board room scene, both are dressed like the picked out each others outfits: and to drive home the adultery symbolism, both are in blue and green.

--Not nearly enough Joan this episode, but she makes the most of her time. The look Joan gives Ted and Peggy as they flirt with each other was priceless, full of "my god. I work with morons."

Season finale predictions:

We know no one is going to die this season, Matt Weiner has confirmed that at least. However I think the following will happen:

--Megan finds out about Don's affair with Sylvia and the married couple has a huge blow up.
--Sally continues to embody her mother with her hair and clothes
--Peggy, Joan, Ginsburg and Ted leave SC &P to form their own company.
--Don hits absolute rock bottom and our final image of him is drinking, whoring, and drugging his way through the last moments of the episode. This will set us up for the final season of Mad Men, in which our much beloved cast enters 1969, the final year of Don's life. I maintain that Don Draper cannot and will not enter the 1970s. He will throw himself from the SC&P building and become our falling man in the final moments of the show. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

In Which I Review Mad Men (6x11)

Confession: There is an image in my head that, after seeing this weeks installment of Mad Men, I cannot shake. The image goes a little something like this: Matthew Weiner, creator and head writer, is sitting in the AMC offices and says, "I've got an idea for a Mad Men sequel. It takes place in the late 70s/early 80s and follows the adventures of Sally Draper, who is trying to lead a normal healthy life but can't because her parents royally screwed her up and she needs intensive therapy." If you take anything away from this weeks "Favors," it's that Sally Draper is the most pitiable character on the show. 

There is an axiom that states, "no good deed does unpunished" and this weeks episode, Favors, was all about people doing favors for others and having it come back to hurt them. As always with Mad Men, there are several plots running concurrently that all somehow mirror each other. The main thread follows Don as he attempts to find a way for his ex-lover's son, Mitchell, to escape his dreaded placement as A-1, meaning that in the next draft he'll be shipped out to Vietnam. Sylvia, we remember, broke up with Don after he humiliated her and turned her into a whore, red dress and all. Don, of course, was very upset at the ending of their relationship because all relationships must end on Don's terms, so this was the perfect opportunity to sneak back into Sylvia's good graces. If you have any allusions that Don is doing this to be magnanimous, leave them at the door. When told of Mitchell's A-1 status and his desire to become a draft dodger, Don simply tells Megan to leave it alone because, "he can't spend the rest of his life on the run." Don is an expert on this philosophy. It's only after Don and Arnold have drinks and Arnold confesses that he has caught Sylvia in little acts of lying lately that Don decides to assist the Rosen family. The conversation between Arnold and Don is an interesting one: both served in the previous war, both knew it was the honorable thing to do, but this war is different. This war does not make sense in the minds of Americans who are feeling the effects of the cultural revolution--whether they are fighting those changes or moving with the times. Don's agenda may be to help out a friend--his only friend as Ted points out later--but he also knows that Sylvia will be indebted to him for saving her son. After a series of awkward interactions with Pete (who can't help) and the Chevy executives (which is bad for business) Don finds a helping hand in Ted who strikes a bargain: Ted will assist Mitchell in getting out of being a soldier but Don must "be better" at this business; he can't fight Ted anymore, they must work together.

SIDENOTE: Anyone else think it's significant the merger of SCDP and CGC happened this season, when Vietnam has become inescapable? The war has escalated this season, its become a presence in almost every episode--whether it's the news being on in the background of the Draper home, a brief conversation of it at dinner between the Draper's and the Rosen's, the riots at the DNC, or even someone losing a family member to it. The war is slowly taking over 1968 and our new company. The war is a historical reality, of course, but that's not to say that Weiner isn't playing up the metaphor. Two sides who you would think could get along because they are so similar and should be able to work together--in statehood, in advertising, in being able to govern, in being able to pitch to a client--can't. Don and Ted can't see eye to eye on anything except that they needed to merge in order to win the big Chevy account. They have different takes on butter and margarine and they can't agree on which juice company they should represent. Last week Jim Cutler wanted to start thinning the herd with SCDP because it's an "us vs. them" mentality. Ted has been working overtime (to the dismay of his wife) trying to make a unified company, and this week he finally gave in and realizes it may not happen. His (excellent): "I don't want his juice, I want MY juice" line perfectly demonstrates the gulf between the two companies. It may be "all your juice" according to Cutler but the lines between the two companies are as clear as a border between North and South Vietnam.

Don, having saved the day, calls Sylvia to tell her that her son is safe. Sylvia is overcome with gratitude and forgets Don's past terrible behavior. She tells him, "You were good to me, better than I was to you." Really? Did Sylvia make Don wait in a hotel room all day just for her pleasure? Did she make him crawl across the room to fetch her shoes? Did she purposefully dress him in colors and clothing that remind her of a whorehouse, turning Don into a object instead of a person? And of course, this is all Don needs. He can reenter the Rosen residence and sleep with Sylvia, secure in the knowledge that she has learned her lesson: one does not break up with Don Draper. And this is where poor, young, innocent, sweet, hasn't-been-to-any-bases-yet, Sally comes in. In an effort to save herself embarrassment from Mitchell (because Sally has a horrible friend), Sally sneaks into the Rosen house and discovers Don and Sylvia, undressed and having sex in Sylvia's bedroom. Goodbye innocence. Last season, poor Sally discovered Roger and Marie in a compromising position in At The Codfish Ball; that season 5 episode found Sally trying to be a grown up, with her gown and makeup and little go-go boots, but the realization that she is not ready to be an adult came crashing down around her when she caught Roger and Maire. The final lines of the Codfish episode are Sally telling Glen Bishop that the city is dirty, as smog and smoke billow in the background. Sally is still a child; she's growing up and becoming interested in boys, but she is still young. And catching her father in the act of sex with another woman has thrust her into adulthood before she was ready. This is going to have serious repercussions on Sally. There will also be repercussions on Don as well; after almost 6 seasons of being the philanderer, Don has finally been caught in the act, and not by one of his wives. It has often been said that Don is a good father, if not a good man. This is a sentiment with which I used to agree; Don's an absent father, but he does deeply love his children. Now I wonder if I only see him as a good father because he was contrasted with Betty, who is a horrible mother. Sally and Don have always had a special relationship, in many ways she is the most important woman in Don's life besides his mother who's life and death hang over everything Don does and says. And now, Don has probably lost Sally.

The other person this week who's good deeds do not pay off is Bob Benson. The mystery man of season 6 is finally revealed as...GAY. And in love with Pete Campbell? While I am very confused as to why anyone would love Pete, it's nice to have the mystery solved, though I remain hesitant that the full mystery has been put to rest. Bob being gay is fantastic (though it makes me miss Sal from season one through three a lot) and it's about time they had a more out of the closet gay man on Mad Men, but I think there is more to this story. Bob has done Pete the favor off setting up Pete's mother, Dorothy, with Monolo, a Spanish (and obviously gay) nurse. Dorothy finds herself smitten with him and is confused about their relationship; and because it's 1968 and the understanding of dementia is really that poor, Pete believe that Monolo is a pervert who is taking advantge of Dorothy's confused mind. When Pete confronts Bob about it, Bob reassures him that Monolo is not after Dorothy but then transitions to talks of love. Bob asks Pete, "when there's true love, does it matter who it is?" followed by the obvious knee touching. Instant rejection and "it's disgusting" are what Bob is rewarded with from Pete. His good deed of being the bright, chipper, helpful guy has just outed him as a "degenerate" with romantic ambitions toward one of the junior partners. I wouldn't put Bob Benson in the "solved" category yet. We've got two episodes to go and we all know how Weiner likes to play with us. For example, I may be reading way too much into this, but did you notice that the two times we heard--significantly heard and saw--the TV (Peggy's apartment and Don's apartment) the show had something to do with spying? I still think Bob is a spy.

The next two episodes were probably set up by this one: will Sally tell? Is Bob really just a gay man? Will Meghan and Don be able to repair their marriage? Is Meghan going to die? Will Peggy and Ted start something? My only prediction right now is that Ted, Peggy, Pete and Joan will leave SC&P and start their own company. Ted's line, "this is the company I always wanted" over dinner with Pete and Peggy seemed to scream that people are going to jump the SC&P ship.

Miscellaneous notes on "Favors"
--No Joan. I don't like it when Joan's not around.

--Peggy vs. the rat. Hello my life. I can't handle mice in my house, but she got herself a cat. Very nice. I really hope she gets out of that apartment soon.

--Peggy and Pete. There was a lot in this episode I wish I could unpack, but the conversation between Peggy and a confused Dorothy followed by the conversation at the restaurant between Peggy and Pete was well written and acted and a definite highlight. I don't know if Peggy and Pete are ever going to rekindle their brief and very tumultuous office romance of season one, but this nice little scene showed what might have been if Pete was not married (and a terrible human being); because Pete is right: Peggy knows him. She really does. I also really enjoyed the line "at least one of us turned out to be useful." How true! Peggy was the little secretary who rose in the ranks to become a very integral part of SCDP, CGC, AND SC&P. Pete may have been on his way up at one point, but like Don his life is falling apart at the seams and he too is becoming that iconic falling man.

--Ted is jealous of the obvious history and connection between Pete and Peggy. I hated being reminded that Ted is married with two kids, because I really like the idea of Peggy and Ted. Despite shutting the door in her face two episodes ago, Ted is in love with her, but is it only because, as Ted's wife says, he "loves a challenge?"

--Major props to Kiernan Shipka who played a devestated Sally perfectly, even mirroring Jon Hamm's acting while he was in the elevator, later when she was in her bedroom.

--The ending song is always a way to tie up the episode as a whole and it is very significant that the ending song was, at first, several seconds of silence (signaling the death of Sally and Don's special bond) and then very maudlin.

--Who finds out about Don and Sylvia next? Megan, the wife, or Betty, the mother? And which reaction will be worse? I really hope there is a showdown between the Draper women and Don.

--I'm not very good at deconstructing the clothes of this show, but I have been following Tom and Lorenzo's "Mad Style Blog." The color palette this season has been blues and greens and yellows. The other important color is red, which is always a call back to Don's childhood in the whorehouse. Now that I know to look for it, it's everywhere. Everyone was in some green or blue or yellow this episode. Sally's dress, upon discovering Don, was both red and blue: symbolizing the depraved sex she witnessed and the power (royal blue) she now has, whether she knows it or not. Peggy is in green while talking to Dorothy and then Pete, who has on blue in his tie, two colors that together symbolize adultery, which is appropriate as they talk about their past in oblique terms.

Monday, June 3, 2013

In Which I Review Mad Men (6x10)

Confession: I am almost one hundred percent positive that Don Draper is not going to live to see the 1970s. It's a fairly well known fact that the hit AMC series will end after its seventh season in 2014. Given that in the Mad Men universe, we are currently in 1968, I suspect the seventh season will find our cast slowly marching toward 1970, and Don Draper cannot enter the new decade. I've been toying with this idea for awhile now. This season has been about death and Don's almost pathological desire for it; his latest ad pitches have had some (not subtle) hints of suicide, and thus far several off screen unimportant characters have died which have had tangible effects on Don (Roger's mother dying led to binge drinking, the death of partner Gleeson and Peggy's subsequent comforting of Ted causes Don to flashback to his molestation at the hands of a prostitute). Last night's A Tale of Two Cities all but confirmed that Don Draper is fantasizing about death as a release from his so called life.

If last week's theme of The Better Half was "everything as it was" then the theme presented in the tenth episode of season six, A Tale of Two Cities, is "dying does not make you whole." Before I delve into the actual episode, I reflect that it's an interesting title. An obvious reference to the Dickens classic, Weiner might be trying to cast our Don Draper as the cynical, alcoholic yet ultimately heroic Sydney Carton. The book is classic enough that I don't have to worry about spoiling anything, but the final moments find Sydney romanticizing his death--a death he goes to willingly and gladly. I always had a hard time telling if Sydney's death was murder at the hands of the French guillotine or if I could consider it a suicide, after all "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Sydney wants to die; we cast his sacrifice in a romantic light because he is saving Darnay and Lucie but he also longs for this sleep, this gentle repose, this death. The literal and less metaphorical implications of this title are fairly straightforward: New York, where everyone works at a neck breaking pace all the time, and the cities of California, where the flower children of the late 1960s have come home to roost, hash and all. The dress and mannerisms of both cities are different, and while for Roger, "New York is the center of the universe" Don has always been more at home in California. California is where Anna was, where Don could be himself--that all important self that is always just out of reach when he's in New York. California is where Don gets to be Dick, and let's not forget the all important baptism scene of Season 2 (image above) that occurs in California. The water in this episode does not herald such glad tidings as a baptism, however.  

Bearing all these literal and metaphorical implications in mind, let's take a look at Don's voyage into yet another drug(hash this time) induced psychotic breakthrough(breakdown?). At a party where Don's ability to make connections is clearly failing, he wanders into the wrong room and I am instantly reminded of the episode Nixon vs Kennedy (1x12) in which Burt Cooper utters, "The Japanese have a saying. A man is whatever room he's in." Confronted with a room full of hippies smoking hash, Don decide so to join in, to become the room, in essence. The prequel to the hallucination is Don kissing the blonde hostess, which I somehow doubt is real. The conversation between the two is too metaphorical, less drugged. Her line that the pool is full of water he can drink and his response that Don is not his real name, seem to set up the appearance of perfect wife-mother Meghan and the dead soldier, which are the real meat of this hallucination.

 His hallucination begins with Meghan suddenly appearing, clad in hippie threads, in the California house. She proceeds to tell Don exactly what he wants to hear: she has quit her job and is expecting a baby. The revelation of Meghan's miscarriage earlier this season is significant. At the start of their relationship, Don envisions Meghan as the perfect mother, she is great with his kids and manages to keep calm in the face of mundane motherly tasks in contrast to Betty's shrill unmother like attitude. Megan inability to carry a child resonates with Don, at least subconsciously, that she cannot be that perfect mother and wife he so longed for. Meghan leads Don to the bar where she becomes Private Dinkins, whom Don met in the season premiere. The Private is now missing an arm and Don questions what happened to him. Dinkins responds, "My wife thinks I'm MIA but I'm actually dead." This is a clear call back to last weeks episode where Meghan tells Don that she has missed him for a long time now, that she feels alone in her marriage. What Meghan doesn't know (at least metaphorically) is that she too is married to a dead man. She may know that Don is really Dick but she doesn't understand the resonance of that life changing act. Meghan just thinks Don is missing, but he is really dead. Dinkins then gives Don the perfect sum of the series and Don's life as a whole: "dying doesn't make you whole. You should see what you look like." This both plays on the idea of the real Don Draper and his obvious state of decay following the 15+ years since his death in Korea and it plays on the idea of our Don who keeps falling apart because he is not a whole living person. Flash to Don watching his body float in a pool, foreshadowed by Meghan telling him earlier to go for a swim, only to realize that this event is happening in real time not in the drug addled mind of tripping Don. Don is saved by Roger and while it would be nice to think this is a wake up call, we know Don too well at this point. He will only retreat further into his tortured soul instead of seeking any kind of help; and all of this leads me to conclude that Don, who is always stuck in the past and can't ever quite get out of the bygone era, will die. He is not the Don we knew in Season One. His creative genius has plummeted lately--think back, when was the last time Don pitched an ad that was good or powerful? He's not this guy anymore. Don's standing still and everyone else moves forward and soon he will literally drown under that pressure.

Back in New York, the most significant moments are given to us by Peggy and Joan--best frienemies. Their interaction this episode was probably the best interaction they've had all season and one of the top Peggy/Joan moments all series. Peggy has come a long way from the timid mouse like girl in season one with her Catholic schoolgirl plaid skirts. She's in creative now, no longer a secretary. Joan may be a partner now, but she didn't climb the corporate ladder like Peggy did. She got where she is through sex, and all the other partners take every opportunity to throw that in her face when it suits them, especially Peter Campbell. Joan has brought in new business--correction, new lucrative business, the cosmetic company Avon. Excited about being more than the "executive secretary extraordinaire" Joan gets advice from Peggy and the two go to Ted together, who instantly passes the new business off to Pete. Joan feels neglected and though Peggy goes to bat for her, Pete insists that Joan not be present at the next meeting. Joan, however, perhaps inspired by the youth rioting at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, upstages Pete and attends the meeting anyhow (wearing a simply gorgeous blue power suit). Peggy is uncomfortable the entire meeting and back at the office the two hash it out. Peggy wants Joan to respect the chain of command, the way the business runs, but Joan is tired of being on the sidelines and in the climax of the scene Joan accuses Peggy of sleeping with Don, thus ensuring her success in the business. We all know this isn't true, but it's interesting that Joan honestly thought that's how Peggy got to where she is. Joan wants so bad to believe that Peggy did want she did, but instead Peggy got her new position honestly. In the end, Joan is caught in the deception she played on Pete, who is livid, but it is Peggy who goes to bat for Joan, saving her from Pete and Ted's wrath. In the end, the company only cares about the money and if Avon comes through, it is sure to bring in a lot.

Miscellaneous Notes from A Tale of Two Cities
--Roger Sterling is one of the best things to happen on TV. More Roger all the time! His shrink's axiom about "the job of your life is to know yourself and eventually you'll start to love who you are" is so trite I almost laughed. Roger is right about himself, of course; he is a curious child and always will be, but it's so ironic that he's telling this to Don who doesn't know himself and can't know himself because he isn't a complete person. Also, it's worth noting that if any of the old guard are going to make it to the 70s, it's Roger. He was made for the dizzying drug filled decade.
--Another theme replete in this weeks episode was the ever growing gulf between generations. From Ginsberg's tirade to Cuttler to the riots at the convention Meghan and Don watched while in separate cities (and having different reactions to them), this episode dealt with the fact that the young see things in a different way. Meghan is clearly distraught over the riots, even though she can't vote, but Don's reaction is more conservative; he is the one who points out that the protestors started throwing rocks and the police are doing their job whereas Meghan is concerned with the emotional and physical brutality of the police. This theme is summed up perfectly, and perhaps unintentionally, by the Avon marketing head who says, "Should we be groovy or nostalgic?" He's discussing the ad campaign but all around the episode people find themselves trying to decide if they stay with convention for if they dare branch out.
--Bob. Freaking. Benson. Who is this guy??? FBI? SEC? All around brown-noser who is just there to create mystery where there is none? We probably won't find out until the last episode of this season but I'm leaning toward an agent investigating the Don Draper/Dick Whitman story. The line from Meghan of the hallucination, "Everybody's looking for you" doesn't fit within the context of the drug state. It seems to be something from the outside. I would guess it's a pointed reference to Bob.
--Rumors have been circulating this past week about Meghan and if she is going to die. Thanks in large part to the picture on the right, which is an exact replica of Sharon Tate's outfit, who was murdered by Charles Manson. Meghan's costuming this season has been getting progressively more Tate (see the Tom and Lorenzo "Mad Style" blog ) and these all could be signs that Megan is going to die. Of course it could all be red herring's too. Last season, Don was drawing nooses in his margins and Pete was man handling his rifle and people laid odds that one of them would die, and it turned out to be Lane.
--The new company name is ridiculous. Sterling Cooper and Partners? Man, overly offensive to half the staff. And totally ironic as Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper are the two people who do very little in the company anymore. Roger's job is to drink and Bert's job is to occasionally become a Zen philosopher with his jarringly resonate wisdom, but neither of them actually do the job of the company. And of course Pete is livid about this; I highly suspect he will be leaving SC&P before the seasons end.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

In Which I Review Hemlock Grove

Confession: When it comes to potential scary and/or supernatural monsters, werewolves have always been my least favorite and in recent literature, they've stopped being truly scary and started being the best friend of the heroine or a misunderstood creature--declawed as it were. They almost always have the identical sob story: young boy afflicted with lycanthropy who becomes an outcast in society, longing to just be human. *yawn* They rank up there with the continued neutering of vampires as soft and cuddly friends instead of the terrorizing badasses they are supposed to be (give me more Spike and less Edward Cullen, is what I'm saying here). So when Netflix announced a new original series that revolved around the supernatural and clearly involved werewolves as evidenced by the trailer and poster, I added it to my instant queue with some reluctance, deciding that if it was really terrible I could always bypass it. What Hemlock Grove turned out to be was a whole different kind of creature. 

 If you were to combine the absolute craziness of Twin Peaks, the absolute creepiness of American Horror Story, and the campy, overly dramatized soap opera feel of Dark Shadows, you'd probably come up with something a lot like Hemlock Grove. The series is based on the 2012 novel by Brian McGreevy, who wrote or co-wrote a majority of the 13 episodes. The story itself is fairly labyrinthine in nature, twisting and turning at times speeding up the story and sometimes slowing it down to a down right bore. Hemlock Grove is a small town in Pennsylvania which at one point was dominated by a steel mill factory, run by the wealthy Godfrey family, which has since shut down, the Godfrey's having decided to go into biomedical (and quite Fringe-y) research. The story opens with a young girl being murdered by a creature that rips her open, exposing all her innards. The murder shocks the very small town where it seems everyone knows everyone and everyone has at least one secret (sound Twin Peaks-y yet? Don't worry. No Red Room or dancing midgets). At the same time as the murder, a gypsy family comes to town, the Rumancek's. The take up residence in a long forgotten trailer and it is implied that they have a not-so-friendly connection to the Godfrey family, who live in their mansion up the hill. Peter Rumancek (Landon Liborion) is quickly suspected of being the killer, due in large part to Christine Wendell (Freya Tingley from Once Upon a Time) spreading the rumor that Peter is a werewolf. The other character who comes on the cops radar of potential murder suspects is Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard)--who mainly serves as the resident hottie and mystery boy, brooding blank stare and all. Peter and Roman form an unlikely alliance to take down the real killer, what Peter calls a vargulf (insane werewolf who kills for pleasure instead of food). From there it gets...complicated.

To start there are several other characters connected to Peter and Roman, all of whom have secrets. There is Roman's Uncle Norman (Dougary Scott, who is sadly sardonic, delivering his lines in a cold and detached manner), Roman's cousin Letha (Penelope Mitchell) who has been impregnated by an angel (yes, an angel...sounding American Horror Story yet? Don't worry. No leather cat suits), Roman's sister Shelly (a literal Frankenstein's monsters--hence the clever name--who is a giant with two different sized eyes and the ability to glow. Also, like Frankenstein's monster, she'll be our Messiah figure), and finally Roman's mother, Olivia (deliciously played by Famke Jansenn, tortured British accent and all) who is the real standout of this super angsty supernatural murder mystery.

 To save you all the trouble of wondering: yes, Peter is a werewolf. This is made clear in the second episode during--what has to be--the best werewolf transformation I've ever seen, the boy literally shedding his skin to become a wolf. And no, he is not the killer. The search to find the killer is often interrupted by the outside mysteries that all serve as part of the large mythology of the show. For example, the biomedical White Tower headed by the Godfrey's and run by super-human Dr. Johann Pryce (our resident Dr. Frankenstein) is conducting something called the Ouroboros trials, symbolized by a snake eating its tail. Dr. Pryce seems obsessed with raising the dead and creating artificial life. This involves extensive scientific trials which has left one resident in town particular crazed and making Dr. Norman Godfrey's job as a clinical psychologist very interesting. Another mystery centers on what exactly Olivia and Roman Godfrey are. Peter and his gypsy mother Lynda seem to know that the Godfrey's are not human, constantly referring to them as upir's. I am admittedly not as familiar with Eastern European mythology as I should be, but the mystery of the upir's isn't solved until the last episode, so I won't ruin it for you here. The final big mystery involves the supernatural God-squad known as the Order of the Dragon, the face of which is Dr. Clementine Chasseur, a not-so-recovered alcoholic who is deeply religious but haunted by her past. Dr. Chasseur's main role is to hunt down the monster responsible and send him back to Hell.

There is plenty of teenage and adult angst along the way. Peter and Letha strike up a romance--despite her immaculate pregnancy--which bothers her cousin Roman, who has a bit too strong of an attachment to his blood relative. Peter and Roman have an incredibly awkward friendship, their dialogue is campy and over the top and at times you can tell the writers wanted lines to be pregnant with meaning, and thus are short and pithy but frankly devoid of all emotion and thus come across as just bad acting. But at the same time, there are extensive homoerotic overtones to the two and I kept wondering if they were going to give in a make out (fair warning: lots of sex in this series, NC-17 rating). They even dream together! All this on top of a twenty plus year affair between Norman and Olivia that is both degrading and a little hot (and if you can't guess what this little affair means for the family tree, then you don't watch nearly enough television). Olivia is the femme fatale trope in the flesh; Janssen plays it perfectly: she is cold, detached, seductive, and altogether creepy with her jet black hair and constant white clothing.

The question of who murdered the girls of Hemlock Grove is finally answered in the penultimate episode and I'll admit, I didn't see this one coming. Unlike the question of Twin Peaks's who murdered Laura Palmer, this answer did not feel rushed, but made sense once viewed in flashbacks and lead to a fairly intensive battle scene before our Messiah figure swoops down to save the day--and like any good savior, perhaps sacrificing herself. The final episode deals with the Godfrey mystery and the outcome of Letha's pregnancy. The show is clearly angling for a second season, and I'm almost positive they'll get it--while not as critically acclaimed at Netflix's other original series House of Cards (which you all should watch RIGHT NOW)--it did make the streaming movie site a fair bit of money. Many of the bigger mysteries are left up in the air, enticing the viewers to come back for a second helping next year.

I know it sounds like I'm telling you all not to waste your time, but honestly, I'm about to change all that. Should you spend the 13 hours necessary and watch Hemlock Grove? Yes. Why? For one thing, because it is trying to be many different things at once (murder mystery, small town drama, film noir in flashbacks, teen angst, supernatural showdown, and coming of age tale) it almost can't be a cliche because of its pastiche nature. It can't decide what it wants to be, and that makes it entertaining. The acting is stilted and the story totally contrived, but it's FUN. I found myself laughing and pondering the outcomes at the same time. The episode "Catabasis" is particularly interesting, though I admit I love a good trip to the underworld (Katabasis is Greek and it's a standard trope in which the hero goes to the underworld to learn something important)--and this one came complete with a Skype phone call between Norman and Dr. Freud! There is magic and myth and weird science and archetypes run amok! And some fantastic visuals; and Roman Godfrey is pretty hot in a tortured soul, probably going to kill you type. Watch it. If only for its absolute ridiculousness.

Overall Grade: B-

Saturday, June 1, 2013

In Which I Review The Great Gatsby

Confession: I first read The Great Gatsby a number of years ago, and like many people when they read (probably forcibly in high school) Fitzgerald's classic novel, I hated it. The characters are vapid and shallow, too idly rich to care about anyone but themselves and their money. There is very little in the way of plot and the central character--the so called GREAT Jay Gatsby--is a racketeering swindler hell bent on reconstructing his perfect past. He also has the habit of calling everyone "old sport" all the time, much to the annoyance of the reader. It took one of my favorite authors, John Green, discussing the book in a less pretentious but still pedantic way for me to investigate the book again (see John's excellent discussion of the novel here--part one and part two). And this time, to my surprise and pleasure, I liked it...a lot. I was cautiously optimistic for thew new version of the film; I say cautiously optimistic because, for me at least, Baz Lurhman films are hit or miss. His aesthetic is highly distinct: bombastic, colorful, at times overly indulgent, and depending on story can work for the film or do it a disservice. It works amazing well for Moulin Rouge but not so well for Romeo + Juliett. The former of these two films is set at a time when Lurhman's artistic temperament of flash and color are acceptable, the latter not so much. Fully prepared to hate this film, I was pleasantly surprised.

The novel The Great Gatsby is considered one of the classics of American Literature--perhaps ironically so, as the novel focuses on the so called American Dream and how the ideals of that dream are crushed under the weight of expectations and limits of opportunity. The story itself is simple and rather straightforward; Jay Gatsby, an incredibly wealthy man of "new" money, about whom no one can say anything factual, is in love with his neighbor across the bay, Daisy Buchanan, whom he met five years ago at a party. Daisy is married to Tom, a wealthy man of old money who's glory days are long behind him (he's also an entitled racist misogynist and it is perfectly ok to hate him). The novel is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway (get it: CARE...AWAY) who lives next door to Jay Gatsby and befriends him--in as much as anyone can befriend Gatsby. Gatsby throws a lot of parties and in the style of the 1920s they are crazy: drinks, dancers, drugs, back door deals, flappers, secret affairs, and illicit gambling. Nick manages to get caught up in the raucous world of the 1920s, but also gets caught up with the affair that begins between Gatsby and Daisy. The affair ends tragically, Nick retreats back to the Midwest, and Daisy and Tom live out their lives as the careless rich people they are. The novel has several important symbols which every English teacher points out and students are expected to remember: the green light at the end of Daisy's dock that Gatsby is forever reaching out toward (symbolizing the great American Dream and the fulfillment of all of Gatsby's desires), and the color yellow which liters the work (symbolizing wealth, the past, and to some extent decay).

The movie is a strong showing. The characters are just as unlikable as they are in the book. Daisy is vapid and silly and altogether useless. Her most famous line about her daughter: "And I hope she'll be a fool — that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool," is believable because even though Daisy has only been present for a few moments on screen, the audience can tell that she is a beautiful little fool. Jordan Baker, the golf player, is aloof and almost cold with her ice white skin. Tom is perfectly despicable. My one complaint is Nick; he is portrayed in a naive manner, as if he too is a poor boy from the Midwest (thus paralleling the true Gatsby) but this is not true. Nick may work for a living, but his family is rich, their ill gotten gains courtesy of an ancestor who paid off someone to fight for them in the Civil War, thus freeing the ancestor to become so wealthy. This is never mentioned in the movie, though it's an important part of Nick's character. On the subject of Nick, another aspect I was not overly pleased with was Lurhman's placing Nick (in the future) in an institution. While Nick is definitely haunted by the events in the summer of 1922, we do not know that he wound up seeking professional help, and this bit seems indulgent and insignificant; Nick's voice overs would have played better than watching him write the book. Gatsby himself is wonderfully portrayed by Leonardo Dicaprio. Gatsby is perfectly put together, trying to present himself as upper crust and rich, a man of breeding and taste who can mingle with senators and police commissioners, throw the loudest, most expensive parties on his bootlegged liquor, and obtain his American Dream: the life of an ideal rich man and the love of Daisy Buchanan. However, like all the lies Gatsby tells about himself, this is only a ruse and slowly over the course of the film and novel, unravels as he slowly looses everything.
One of the highlights of the film are the great parties at Gatsby's house/mansion/castle; in true Lurhman style they are feasts for the eyes. Explosions of color and music, it is sensory overload. I found myself grinning just watching the flappers in their gorgeous gowns drink way too much champagne as men in elegant tuxedo's danced the Charleston and applauded how simply fabulous they were. Everyone wants to live in the 1920s, provided they can live like that. At this point, it would be smart to mention the soundtrack to the film, one of the more hotly contested bits of the movie. Some critics loved and some hated it. Lurhman pairs these party scenes with modern music, something that may have been innovative if it wasn't so obviously derivative of his previous work in Moulin Rouge--where it worked exquisitely. Personally, the music neither added anything nor took anything away. Half the time, I barely noticed what song was playing, I was more focused on the set pieces, the costumes and the dialogue. And make no mistake, the costumes are to die for. Oscar nomination for sure if not a win for the costume designer.

The movie capitalizes on the famous enchanted objects; the green light is shown over and over again from several perspectives, both at day and at night. The color yellow is everywhere, not just in the places where it should be (Daisy's dress, Gatsby's car) but all throughout the scenes and at several points, objects or times or items are referred to as "golden." While I don't consider myself a Fitzgearld scholar, I am a purist and I love it when movies based on books drop exact lines from their sources and this film did that a number of times to an extent. The opening line is so important and well written (its got a beat and a certain cadence) but the movie cuts it off at the head, though I suppose I should just be grateful it's in there at all because one of the other very important lines doesn't even make it into the film (Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elation's of men). The most important line in the book is faithfully recreated and delivered superbly:
"I wouldn’t ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can’t repeat the past."
"Can’t repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
"I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before," he said, nodding determinedly. "She’ll see."

For the past five years, Gatsby--a man who has an extraordinary gift for hope--has been trying to recreate the perfect past. In his mind, Daisy will leave Tom (after declaring she never loved her husband at all) and she and Gatsby will go back to her home and be married from there as if it was five years ago. A recreation of the perfect past--the golden age in Gatsby's mind--is the final puzzle piece of Gatsby's great American Dream. But what Gatsby wants is always out of reach--Daisy cannot admit that she never loved Tom for she did and this realization-this loss of his enchanted object--is the true tragedy for Gatsby. His American Dream is crushed, burnt, gone to rest among the rest of the ashes that lie under the eyes of T.J. Eckelburg (which represent God, by the way). The city of ashes was really wonderfully depicted, the hopeless despair of being between the working party-goers in New York City and the idle party-throwers of those in West and East Egg, with only God watching.

In the end, what makes the novel great--and Gatsby himself--is how applicable it is, no matter what era. We all have our own green lights, our own American Dream that we are forever trying to reach. It could be the perfect career, the perfect spouse, the perfect reputation. We believe in our enchanted objects so intensely and with such conviction that we are convinced that when we reach them, our lives will finally be fulfilled. We will have everything. But Gatsby teaches that achieving your enchanted object ipso facto means losing it, and once the object has been had, you can never reach for it again. Perhaps one fine morning we will all wake up and have our dreams, but they will be empty and meaningless.

Some things I did not enjoy about the film (briefly)
--The funeral scene is completely wrong. Nick devotes the last chapter to trying to bring people to Gatsby's funeral but no one comes except Gatsby's father and Owl Eyes. In the movie, the funeral is nonexistent, and only Nick mourns the loss of Gatsby. The funeral is important as it is a reminder of the emptiness of the American Dream--Gatsby seemed to have it all, but in the end he had nothing and no one missed him; Gatsby is remembered in the novel by outsiders as a murderer, a lair, and a cheat. The only people unscathed are the ideal rich, who neither contribute or make anything for society, but simply live off their liquor and money. (Owl Eyes, by the way, is another substitute for God).
-- There were some indulgent scenes that try to emphasize Nick's dislocation of both being within and without, but they come across as odd and hard to decipher (Nick standing outside looking up at himself, one version clean and sober, the other dirty and drunk just did not play well.)
--The drunk driving scene is redacted, which is minor issue but tragic as it is one of the finest drunk driving scenes in literature. 
--No consideration is given to the romance between Nick and Jordan, which perhaps makes sense as it is a one way street.

Some things that I really enjoyed about the film (briefly)
--The costumes! Simply spectacular. I loved Gatsby's pink suit, every man should be required to wear a light pink suit.
--The final lines of the movie are the final lines of the book, and those lines resonate with the reader and the audience(Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning —So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past). Not ending the film with those lines would have been a great mistake as they sum up the themes of the book and I'm glad Lurhman did not ignore them.
--Great acting all around, especially from Dicaprio. 
--It was faithful to the novel, which is really the hallmark of any good film derived from a classic. Artistic spin is one thing, but classics are classics for a reason.

Overall Grade: A-, whether you've read the book or not, it's a very good film.