Tuesday, November 29, 2016

In Which I Review Westworld (1x8 and 1x9)

At one point during episode eight, "Trace Decay," Dolores, frantic from visions of a distant past in which hundreds were murdered seemingly before her eyes, says to William "It's like I'm trapped in a memory of a life time ago." Memories can haunt us; regrets, good and bad decisions, choices that we made (and choices that were made for us) inform our very psyche. Without our memories, without our experiences, we are less than our natural, self aware selves. Isn't it interesting, then, that the best way to reset a Host--to make then pliable and ready for a new story--is to erase their memories of their previous lives? That is to say that without those specific sets of memories a specific person fails to exist. Their consciousness is lost unto the ether. It's a perfect system, this computer enhanced Westworld one. When one story--when one person--becomes tedious, simply delete it and upload another. The problem, as we are discovering, is that when the Hosts do remember--as more and more of them are--the memories they uncover are violent, horrible, and brutal; moreover, unlike human memories which are foggy and hazy, coated in subjective viewpoints and opinions, the Hosts seem to remember things perfectly. Every detail is exact, making it all the more (wait for it) real. Imagine knowing exactly what your child's hand in yours felt like only to then remember that you don't have a child at all. Memories are largely at play for episode 8 which then dovetails nicely into episode 9, "The Well-Tempered Clavier." We're reaching journey's end and hopefully we don't have a trigger logged in our spinal base set to explode if we cross the threshold (eek!) so let's go! 

In these reviews, I have discussed at length such questions about what makes someone real, what makes someone complex and what if reality is only based on how others see you, but it's Doctor Ford who gives what is either the most uplifting or most depressing answer, depending on your current status, to all these questions. When it comes to what separates us from the machines, the Hosts of Westworld, there is no threshold, there is no magic line in the sand that clearly distinguishes Human from Host. "We cannot," Doctor Ford says "define consciousness because it doesn't exist." On the one hand, as a human being with a human's perspective, this is pretty terrifying! Of course consciousness must exist; isn't that what separates us from the animals or from, say, this laptop on which I am writing this review (note to self: disable my Cortana when I'm done writing this review...). I have independent thought; I make choices based on my own self-interest and the interests of others; I fear my own death and the end of my existence; I can contemplate (with varying degrees of success) the universe, the heavens, gods and devils, and mankind's own wonderfully flawed state of being. How could I not be a conscious being? For Ford, who had spent his entire adult life working to make Hosts as human like as possible, what we see as consciousness is really just another loop. Do we really make choices or are they made for us? Recall a few episodes back when Maeve thought she was in control of her own words and thoughts but when viewed on an iPad she saw that her words were part of an elaborate code someone had designed. She gives the allusion of independence and improvisation, but all of it is a lie. By that token consciousness is a lie, one humanity is happy to oblige and turn a blind eye to. Rarely do we question our choices and more often than not, we are happy to be told what to do. However, while this perspective is terrifying from a human's perspective, from the Host's viewpoint (such as Bernard who is undergoing one hell of a existential life crisis) it must be comforting. If they begin to question their own consciousness, humans can simply say that thing which they seek does not exist. Period, end of story. However, what does this mean for Maeve who, by the looks of things, has not only just discovered her own consciousness but evolved past even man's ability to use it.

I don't know about you, my dear readers, but I feel like Maeve just became a god. That's a tricky word so it's helpful here to pause and define god, and it's even more helpful to define god vis a vis the other "types" in the show. We have, first and perhaps at the bottom, Hosts. They have only an illusion of control over their stories and their lives. They (most) are not self aware that they are living in a park/game. Any action they cause can be undone or is irrelevant but all actions acted toward them "count" (ie: they can be killed.) Then, we have the humans who have control over the world and can be both the actors and the subjects. They are self-aware of their surroundings but outside of game play there is little they can do to alter the world unless they work for Westworld and even then we've seen the bureaucracy that runs the park. Finally we have the "gods." These are the types that can change the world at will; they are actors predominately and moreover they need little to no permission to change the world. The ability to manipulate the world with just a glance or a spoken word is something that no ordinary mortal can do, save Doctor Ford whom we've seen control hosts and the landscape (like a snake) with just a flick of wrist or a quick whisper. In these moments he's often come across as a Merlin in a realm of Muggles or, in a really extreme simile, like God wandering through the Garden of Eden. Several instances in the latest episode have Ford actually using language that invokes the Biblical, like claiming he and Arnold built the Hosts "in our image." The park workers have special phrases (magical spells, ritual, incantations, if you will) that will put a Host to sleep or stop the narrative if they want, but the ability to change the story midstream is unprecedented, especially from a Host.  This awakening of Maeve's makes me wonder if this is where the ultimate story is going: granting this divine, omnipotent power to humans so that they can ascend beyond their own mortal abilities to control the stories and the people in those stories. Imagine, for example, if the President of the United States had the ability to change the world or defeat his enemies with just a thought; if he didn't need Congress or the SCOTUS. Some might think that sounds just dandy but now imagine that the USA's enemies have the exact same power. It's war on a totally unprecedented level and with Maeve setting out to form an army, she might give the Man in Black a run for his diabolical money.

The god question dovetails nicely into Bernard as the newly revealed Host is exploring his new self-awareness. For Maeve it's about testing her new found omnipotence. For Bernard it's about the most basic question: who am I? If Bernard's identity was complicated before, then it's almost impossible now. Bernard is modeled on Arnold or rather is an homage to Arnold. It might even be fitting to say that Bernard is Arnold; he's such an accurate simulacrum that the image stops being mere image and because the thing he's modeled after. Ford built him to be a more perfect version of his former partner and Bernard's journey toward meeting Arnold is actually a journey toward self-hood, one that ends tragically. There is a line from the first Star Trek movie that has been floating in my head since I saw the ninth episode, "The Well-Trained Clavier;" the context of that movie is that a machine--a probe--gains sentience after being taken under wing (so to speak) by other sentient machines but, like so many creatures are wont to do, it eventually makes the journey home with the intention of meeting its creator. The line from the movie that haunts me, and haunts Bernard, is "longing to touch the creator. To ask is this all that I am? Is there nothing else." It's one of the most human responses there is. Whether or not you believe in some powerful entity called God or you believe in a just "the cosmos" at some point everyone begins to question their identity and their purpose. Why am I here? Who am I? Why was I put on this planet? What role to do I play in the narrative? This is what Bernard wants to do; he wants to touch and join with his creator. The problem arises that Arnold did not build Bernard but rather Ford; and Ford has zero time for Hosts that want to become sentient. Consciousness may not exist in Ford's world, but Dr. Ford is still the ultimate God of said world and because he built Bernard, he has every right to do what he wants to Bernard's mind, even end it. Sometimes touching your creator isn't exactly all it's cracked up to be. Bernard fails to achieve godhood; instead, he's just another sad self-aware machine, being told to shoot himself in the head by his creator.

Miscellaneous Notes on Trace Decay and The Well-Tempered Clavier 

--My review could theoretically go on for ages, but some things really must be saved for the notes! It's become increasingly clear that the show is playing with multiple time streams. This is easiest to see with Dolores. When she's in her dress, it's the far past when Arnold and Ford were setting up the park. When she's in her dress shirt and pants, with a stomach wound, it's roughly thirty years ago (I'll explain that in a second) and, finally, when she's in the same outfit but without the stomach wound, it's present day. How do we know? I think the internet's most famous theory about Westworld is absolutely true--William is the Man in Black on his first park visit. Almost like a goose flying home after winter, Dolores keeps taking the journey back to the original homestead. Now, what prompted this present day adventure? I'd say it was the photograph she found in the pilot that triggered her self-awareness. We shall see!

--"If it's such a wonderful place out there, why are you all clamoring to get in here?"

--Maeve will begin the robot revolution by slowly opening the eyes of all the robots with the potential for sentience. Is there any Host who is lacking in such potential?

--I think I'm really confused as to where Teddy and Wyatt's story fits in, hence why I talk so little about it.

--"A little trauma can be illuminating."

--Dolores killed Arnold. Was it because he opened her mind to sentience? Is that what the Maze is--a way for the Hosts to gain sentience? It would explain why the Man in Black keeps being told it's not for him. He is already sentient, Westworld showed him what sort of man he is.

--"Who am I?" "That's a complicated question..." #SeriesTheme!

Monday, November 28, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (6x9)

Readers, I have a question for you. Do you believe there comes a point when a character has crossed so many lines, done untold amount of ill, and caused so much pain and suffering that there is simply no way back for him? That any hope of forgiveness or redemption is long gone and the only road left to take is to descend into even lower depths of villainy? In short, can Heisenberg ever be Walter White again? I'm asking because I realized tonight, watching Rumplestiltskin--a character I loved from the first moment I saw the Pilot and have defended a lot, though not recently--that I officially can't even stomach the Imp's presence on screen. Don't mistake me; Bobby Carlyle is a gift to the acting world and even with the poor and shoddily written material, he manages to imbue Rumple with a certain amount of tortured pathos, but the Rumple I once knew, loved, and cherished is long gone and this...vile creature left is hard to watch. No. Worse than hard to watch. He's impossible to watch. It's hard to approach a review for an episode like "Changelings" which left such a gross taste in my mouth, but why not. Let's go!

Is Your Mama A Llama?

Back in season three, audiences were introduced to a creature called the Black Fairy. She existed off screen (a lot of things exist there, come to think about it). This Fairy was supposedly dark and dangerous, but she had a magic wand that could help out the heroes in their fight against Pan so the character was created, though no one was the wiser about who she was apart from the Blue Fairy who, as official Exposition Ex Machina, could tell the tale. I'm bringing this up because in tonight's episode it's revealed that Rumple's mother is, in fact, that same Black Fairy. To some extent, this is an interesting development and it does help inform Rumple's character, though after six years you'd think something as basic as parentage and relationship with said parents would have been covered and with some degree of depth, but I digress. This reveal means that both Rumple's parents abandoned him, that both parents left him for less than noble reasons--the pursuit of power over love, the pursuit of immortality over love. Is it any wonder why Rumple think he's not just a difficult man to love, but an impossible man to love? Anyone who is supposed to love him--his mother, his father, his wife, his son, his second wife, his second son--leave him. In Rumple's eyes they either don't give him a chance and/or don't accept him for who he wants to be (a Dark One with lots of dark magical power) and so the implication is that he's unlovable. There's a lot of great character work in there and it used to be what made Rumple so complicated and nuanced. He wasn't so much a black hat as a victim of the cycle of abandonment in a socio-economic world that made it next to impossible for him to be in control of his own life or of those loved ones around him. That lack of control over his own destiny is what made him, famously, a desperate soul. In short, I don't mind the reveal that the Black Fairy is Rumple's mother--though this raises a host of questions about biology and magic given that Rumple is half fairy (which means Bae is a quarter fairy, and Henry an eighth) and also raises questions about how a mortal and fairy managed to have sex and deliver a child without the Blue Fairy knowing when Nova and Dreamy couldn't even go on a date, but again I digress. What I mind is the total lack of foreshadowing and how very fan service-y this feels. For years, people have hounded the writers about the Black Fairy (who is she? Will we ever see her? Will we get her story?) and, at the same time, pestered the writers about Rumple's mother (who is she? Will we ever see her? Will we get her story?). Given that the show does not have long to live, though another season seems guaranteed, it's time to answer those questions in the quickest, easiest and most efficient manner possible, no matter how clumsily it comes across. So there you go: the Black Fairy is also Rumple's mother who abandoned him upon birth and neither Rumple nor Belle ever mentioned it when the Black Fairy was brought up previously.

I won't linger on the Black Fairy issue but I do still have problems with the flashbacks, namely the status of the Rumbelle ship every time the writers pay a visit to the Dark Castle and Belle's time there. In "Skin Deep" it was easy to see how Belle could fall for Rumple. He opened himself up and let Belle see the man under the beast. There was genuine affection and trust on both parts. It's what made that episode so compelling and watchable, the slow and careful transformation of both parties toward each other. However, let's examine the general plot of the flashbacks this week. Rumple steels an innocent infant, manipulates Belle into reading Fairy (wut?) and then takes the child in the dead of night to meet with the most devious Fairy of all time in order to strike some sort of detente or bargain--information for child. And, yet, I am still expected to believe that Belle, having borne witness to all of this, fell madly and completely in love with Rumple. Apparently the imminent danger the baby was in mattered not in the long run. You know, people joke about Stockholm Syndrome with regards to Beauty and the Beast, but even this is a bit much. It's not just this incident; it's all the incidents stacked up on top of each other--it's torturing Robin Hood and using a baby. It's verbally assaulting her and mocking her without the playful tones in his voice. It's all of this terrible weight that makes the Rumbelle ship look not just unstable and abusive now in present day, but completely impossible in the past! I used to understand why Belle fell for Rumple in the Dark Castle, and not just because it's mandated by the Great Mouse, but because she saw that he was a scared, lonely, damaged man who had suffered greatly in his long life. But now Belle comes across as more than simple and naive; she comes across not as someone who can't tell the difference between right and wrong, but as someone who simply doesn't care about right and wrong in the long run. What does it matter that Rumple tortured Robin Hood when she got a library in the end? What does it matter that Rumple put a baby--a BABY--in harms way when he caught her as she slipped off a ladder? If these assaults on the once good ship Rumbelle weren't bad enough, we now have to turn to the present day where things are, if you can believe it, worse.

Welcome Baby Gideon! Your Life Sucks. 

Toward the end of the episode, Rumple tells Belle that he'd "never hurt her. Ever." This is utter nonsense but let's look at the context. Belle has just given birth, approximately seven months ahead of schedule, and has sent her only child away with the Blue Fairy (of all the creatures you'd entrust a child with....) while her husband, and supposed true love, tries to track down his laboring wife in order to steal their child, cut the child's cord of fate/destiny/whatever you want to call it, in order to force said child into loving him. This is what the writers have done to Rumple and Belle. This is such a hot abusive mess--and while that is hard to admit and even harder to watch--that hot mess would be fine if the writers knew they were writing a hot abusive mess with a clear moral message behind it. Even something as simple as "this is what abuse looks like, kids!" would get a nod of approval, but instead they wrap it up in Rumple's self-confidence issues and try to normalize it as everyday romantic angst, which it most assuredly is not. There are so many problems that it's hard to know where to start. Rumple's belief that he'd never hurt Belle is nothing more than empty words because abuse isn't just physical; it's mental and emotional and for two seasons or so, Rumple has done next to nothing but be mentally and emotionally abusive and even if he can't see that--even if he thinks he's always done what he thought was best--for the writers to put words like that in a characters mouth and not have anyone call him on it (even if Belle is too feeble to do so there are others in the room) is egregious. Looking at Belle, however, her constant waffling about Rumple is grating. In the span of five minutes in this week's episode, Belle declared loud and proud that she was never going back to Rumple only to tell him to his face that if he hurt her and their son (which she knows he has EVERY intention of doing!) he'd "lose her forever" as if her mind wasn't already made up. I don't want to blame the victim, but Belle's inconsistency is the only thing constant about her in recent years and it almost--almost--makes me sympathize with Rumple and his downward spiral. As exhausting as he is, so too is she. There is no positive way to spin this; Rumple and Belle getting back together and trying again for whatever reason--true love, Rumple says he's sorry, Rumple gives up power, Belle changes her mind for the millionth time, for the sake of their infant son--isn't good enough to erase the level of damage these two have undergone. Maybe it's best if baby Gideon stays away for good; maybe it's for the best that he never know either his mother or his father. And maybe it's for the best that Rumple dies and Belle leaves town forever and ever. However, as I'm sure will happen sooner rather than later now that we have a bonafied genie in our camp....wishes rarely work out the way we expect.

Miscellaneous Notes on Changelings

--"Wingless glow worm."

--So fate really does exist for everyone? It’s a literal thing that can be cut, modified, changed, and un-fated?  But what if you’re not magical or what if you’re fated to just leave a normal, every day life? Do peasants have lines like this? Can they be cut by the shears?

-- Regina’s heart controls the Evil Queen? And she hasn’t put this into practice until this very moment? Like she didn’t bother to use this trick when the Evil Queen was threatening Snowing? Or literally at any point during these first 8 episodes?

--Aladdin is now the Genie. Okay, sure. Probably not a great idea to have a magical wish-granting Genie around when there is also a malevolent Dark One and a sociopathic Evil Queen, but whatever. I’m sure if I cared about Aladdin that’d matter to me.

--Anyone got a read on when these flashbacks take place?

--–Blue can pop into Rumple’s Dark Castle and free Belle…but she couldn’t free Belle from Regina’s prison…?

--I’m really excited to not see Jennifer Morrison fake shake anymore.

--Next week is the Winter Finale! One big question as we cross that threshold: was there a point to this half-season?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

In Which I Review Westworld (1x7)

Over the past few episodes, we've pondered how you know you're alive and how you know you're complex, but it's time to take yourself out of the equation and consider other people. How do you know your peers, the people you spend your days with, and even the strangers on the street, are real human beings? What sort of characteristics allow you to look at a creature and declare, absolutely, that they were born and not made in a laboratory. Let's face it; you can't, not when they are so magnificently constructed as the Hosts in Westworld. Everything about the Hosts is intended to fool you; they are designed specifically for the purpose of mimicking life and humanity and when you have such exquisite code and science at work, it's almost impossible to tell a Host from a Guest. Or, in this case, from a Park Worker. I had a running list of people I thought might be secret Hosts but Bernard was not one of them. He seemed too...human. In this week's episode "Trompe L'Oeil" the tables are turned and the audience gets an eye opening look at just how duplicitous Westworld can be. Watch out for the Ghost Nation and let's go!

In art, a trompe l'oeil is a painting or design that is intended to create the illusion of a three-dimensional object. It's a trick that allows the viewer to see something that isn't really there; that isn't even real. It's a highly constructed illusion in which the only one in on the secret is the creator himself. Bernard is our hidden trompe l'oeil. Since the beginning, Bernard has felt like a real human, which is an odd statement to make given that I'm reading him through the medium of TV and am not interacting with him in any real way. But, real he felt. Bernard's personality and backstory were grounded in traits we find in our own reality all the time--the mourning father, the curious scientist, a philosopher, a lover, and an ex-husband. What really complicates the reveal that Bernard is a Host is that he has a distinct set of memories and, moreover, memories that have allowed him interaction with supposed outsiders. We've seen Bernard talking with his ex and we see Bernard in a dream-flashback with his son in a hospital. I have to ask about Ford's intentions with Bernard because while I find it incredibly plausible that Ford would be a controlling god with his stories, going the extra mile to create that much backstory for Bernard is almost overkill. Except, of course, would you--and everyone working at Westworld--have thought Bernard as real as he appeared if he didn't have this elaborate--and all too real--backstory? If Bernard had been devoid of any family, any pain, any pathos, that would have raised some serious red flags and I have to pause here and ask: is this how we define humanism? Is it less about physical and biological components and more about your perception of the world? If you believe you are real, then are you? Bernard did not know he was a Host, just like with all the other Hosts, but upon learning that he is a man-made machine, his reaction is one of denial: "I can't be one of them;" as if there is something truly tangible separating him--a Host--from the birthed humans. This brings us to Doctor Ford and his desire to "tell his stories." Is Doctor Ford really just an author who is encumbered by a hostile audience and an even more hostile publisher (the fat-cat board that is poised to descend at any moment)? There were a lot of mentions of Ford's empire this week, as if Westworld isn't the only park and not the only plum in Ford's pie and it's difficult to imagine that Ford is just a simple author if he has a massive empire with sacred intellectual property (which is what the board is after as Ford often threatens to wipe all that data away with a wave of his hand). What if Westworld is another illusion, like Bernard? It's not simply a resort for bored humans to explore their darker (deeper) selves but while it's a park and I think Ford genuinely wants to tell stories and play with his toys and enjoy his status as god-on-earth--though in such a way that is controlling and Machiavellian--Charlotte's agenda (and her compatriots agenda) is now the new big mystery. Why do they need this data? I very much doubt it's for altruistic humanitarian reasons. I am wondering how far this technology that Ford has perfected can go; if we can create an artificial being that resembles in almost every way a real creature, can we someone make a real human being superior by mixing them with artificiality? Are we looking at transporting consciousness into a robotic perfect body? A kind of immortality.

There was a line William delivered to Dolores after their train sex escapades: Westworld does not reveal your basest self, but instead your deepest self and I have to wonder if the show is trying to tell its audience that there is no difference between the two. What I mean to say is that humans are constructed not only by all the internal factors like biology and chemistry but also by factors like society and culture and propriety. All societies and cultures have rules that you are expected to follow and to break one is to descend into anarchy. We have taboos for a reason. For example, almost universally, killing ones parents is amoral because it's considered wrong for any number of reasons--parents are owed respect, taking any life is a crime, religious reasons. Along those same lines, crimes like murder, adultery, and gratuitous hedonism are seen as amoral or, simply put, bad. How do we know they are bad? Your biology doesn't tell you that they are wrong; in some cases, like adultery, your biology might actually tell you it's right and good. It's society and culture. They dictate a large part of your identity and the face you show the world is the face society wants to see, the face they demand you wear. So what happens when we take society and its rules away? Does mankind descend into anarchy and back to a primal, animalistic way of life? Or are human beings capable of rising above their baser instincts and being "good" even when society isn't looking? This, for those who are curious, is the bare bones argument between philosophers like Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke. Westworld is a society that is free of society's rules. Yes, there are rules and rulers inside the game--law enforcement, cowboys, Confederados, ect--but those rules are part of the narrative and not "real" in the outside world. Moreover, the natural laws like restrictions against murder are set aside for the guests; in fact, breaking those rules is encouraged and is considered the best part of the park. You want to murder a few savages, sleep with a few prostitutes, and go on a lawless spree? Go for it. No one is going to stop you and there are no consequences. The show is taking a Hobbsian gaze in this regard: "Homo homini lupus est;" Man is a wolf to another man. However, there are oddities like William, a man who has felt the pull of being the Wolf and even given into it occasionally, but he is trying to remain social upright and moral (the counterargument here is that William giving into his desire for Dolores and considering her to be more real than his life outside the park). To be honest, I don't know which way the show is going and here it's helpful to look at the world outside of the park; we have a totalitarian ruler (Ford) who has the power of life and death over his underlings with seemingly no consequences (do we really think Therese is the first victim) all of which operate within a society with rules, hierarchy, and a system that is failing to uphold any social mores. In other words, the anarchy that can be found in Westworld is seeping out into the real and manifesting there. Charlotte can loudly screw a Host in her room; Therese can take part in corporate espionage and Ford decides who lives, who dies, and who's story gets told. And this, perhaps, is the philosophical point of Westworld, the show. That rules or no rules, society or no society, real or not real, man is a wolf to another man.

Miscellaneous Notes on Trompe L'Oeil 

--I don't know how to speculate when it comes to this show. I know the internet is rife with theories and ideas about what is going on, but the field on this show is so extensive that it's hard for me to get a proper handle on it. If you've read my reviews for any show, you know I'm far more interested in discussing morality and cosmology.

--However, Westworld was renewed for a second season, so I do need to start looking at the big picture. Hopefully, I can do that in piecemeal over the next few reviews.

--RIP Therese. RIP Clementine. And, to some extent, RIP Bernard! Will he remember that he's a Host after this? Also, what sort of light does this shed on his many behind closed doors interactions with Dolores?

--Maeve has become so self aware that she no longer freezes on command when the men-in-suits come for Clementine.

--The Reveries are responsible for the Hosts retaining some of their more traumatic memories; this falls on Dr. Ford's shoulders but I gotta wonder--who gave him the idea?

--"Surviving is just another loop."

--"The longer I work here the more I think I understand the Hosts. It's the human beings who confuse me."

--Okay, HBO-fanatics; what's sadder: "Hold the door" or "What door?"

Monday, November 14, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (6x8)

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what land is the most under developed of them all? To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure how to talk about this week's episode, "I'll Be Your Mirror." There is certainly a lot of potential here; the Evil Queen views herself as a strong leader, someone who gets the job done, moral consequences be damned. As an American, hot off a turbulent political election, this strikes a major chord with me. This relative morality (a concept often hammered home in OUAT) is extended this week to our littlest Charming, Henry. Can the boy with the heart of the truest believer turn dark side--or at least take a step off that precipice--if it means he can save his mothers? But in the midst of all this potential, we have a frustratingly opaque world with rules that don't quite make sense and a philosophy that doesn't match what we've been told or shown in the most recent past (though, ironically, it does match a more distant past view of light and dark). These issues constantly threaten to pull you out of your enjoyment and understanding of the episode, which is why I'm so often harsher on decent episodes that do have interesting moral quandaries. See; hard to talk about! Was it good? Or have we moved beyond "good" and "bad" when it comes to OUAT? Are we just trying to reach a finish line? I don't know, but we've got two episodes left this first half of season six and it's time to start wrestling with this (ahem) dragon of a plot (see what I did there?) Grab a mirror and let's go!

Turn To The Dark Side, Young Swan-Mills 

Would Henry ever go dark? That's a question with which the show has wrestled before. In season three he agreed to give Peter Pan his heart when he believed magic was dying; in season four he seriously considered writing his father back to life before the Apprentice convinced him it was a bad idea, and in season five he, first, almost did write Cruella back to life so that Emma wouldn't have to live with the moral consequences of having killed the De'vil and, second, destroyed magic so that his family wouldn't get hurt anymore. These actions are not evil, per se, but they do exist in a morally grey area. Peter Pan was pretty clearly manipulating Henry (Wendy Bird and all) and Henry saw first hand what happened if an Author tried to write a story the way he wanted instead of recording them as they actually happened. Henry's viewpoint is that he's, first and foremost, concerned with his family, their happiness and their general well-being. Perhaps more than anyone else, Henry understands how much this family needs each other. At the tender age of 11, Henry went out to find his birth mother because he believed, whole-heartedly that his family was cursed and that it was up to his Savior of a mother to save them all. The family needs each other and likewise Henry needs them. He's only thirteen, after all (though, a thirteen year old watching nothing but John Hughes films makes me question what decade the writers room is living in. Are they also trapped in a curse?). Henry still has some growing up to do and despite Emma and Regina by episode's end believing that they've done their job in raising him, Henry needs his mothers tender loving care. Henry has girl questions and school functions that terrify him. He still has to graduate college! Henry will never not need Regina and Emma--we all need our mothers, all the time. The show hasn't ever minced words about the way our mothers affect us so it comes as no surprise that when faced with a decision to save his mothers, even at the cost of an innocent life, Henry actually stops and considers what the right and what the best course of action is. It's much like Emma in season four when she killed Cruella; she did not do it maliciously, but out of a mother's protective nature to save her son from a woman who literally skins dogs and wears them as coats (I miss Cruella). The internal conflict with Henry was interesting but also a bit underwhelming given that I didn't, for a second, think the writers would actually have him kill the Dragon. The writers like to keep Henry in the ultimate good alignment. He can be tipped toward lawfully just but he always rebounds back to his preferred state of "Heart of the Truest Believer" and "Ultimate Do-Gooder." What's slightly more interesting is that the Evil Queen is so hell bent on getting Henry to her side. Is it really Henry she's after, or is her true impetus about loneliness?

Two Of A Kind

Is the Evil Queen really evil? I know, that seems like a dumb question; after all, the name really gives it away, right? It's what Regina named herself in the Enchanted Forest of the past once she accepted certain aspects of herself. For the first few episodes, the Evil Queen came across as that most evil and malicious parts of Regina. She reveled in wanting to watch the family tear themselves apart but as time has gone on, the Evil Queen is channeling more of her mother-- that love is a weakness and a weapon but is not pure unadulterated evil. This doesn't quite scan with what the writers said early on in interviews this summer, but since we rarely tackle these outside forces in my reviews, let's let sleeping dogs lie and we'll try to speculate why the Evil Queen is turning less chaotic evil and more lawful evil (sort of, the alignments here are tricky). It's my belief that, at the end of the day, the Evil Queen is more lonely than she is evil. The first indication of this is the Evil Queen's relationship with Zelena. If the Evil Queen really was so determined to destroy everyone, that would include Zelena; they were enemies of a sort in season three when Zelena tried to make it so Regina was never born, which would mean the Evil Queen would never exist at all. But instead, the Evil Queen sought her out to befriend her; they've even had a spa date. But now there's a rift, a tiny tear between the sisters largely because of Zelena's jealousy over the (totally disgusting) nature of the Queen and Gold. In other words, there's a hole that needs filled, a desire to have someone to whom the Evil Queen can relate and she'd much rather stick within her own family. Enter Henry. If the Queen could corrupt Henry, she'd have someone who would understand her, be like her, sympathize with her, and even help her. And, the cherry on top, it'd be someone she does love in whatever way she understands love. When Henry rejects her, the Queen is left with one choice: Rumple. And lo, we get another horrible display of kissy faces between the two that makes me want to claw my eyes out. It's not love between them; but it is mutual understanding. These two live in the darkness, they feed on it. And when the people they want--Zelena/Henry and Belle--reject them, they are left with just each other. As ugly and as tortured and as skin crawling as it is, it's what they are left with. What Rumple gets out of this remains to be seen. The Evil Queen wants a family--a remnant feeling left over from Regina--but Rumple? I think his plans with the Evil Queen are far more nefarious. With only two episodes left to go, I get the feeling it's going to only get harder to watch Rumple.

Miscellaneous Notes on I'll Be Your Mirror 

--I chose to not point out all the logistic problems with the Mirror World in the review proper but let's talk about them now. I think it’s a bit of a wasted potential. We’ve seen what mirror images can do to our characters–like S4 with Belle looking into Ingrid’s mirror and seeing an “opposite” Belle, of sorts. I think this more than anything should have been played up, instead of just a barren landscape with lots of mirrors. Also, confusingly, for some reason magic doesn't work there and even though Regina tells us that the mirrors in Mirror World are only one way, we also learn that Sydney lived in Mirror World and we know he and Regina easily communicated for years. I also have no idea how putting one mirror back together was supposed to aid in escaping but the show got around that by having a MacGuffin.

--And in this week’s “random MacGuffin” category we have: the Hammer of Hephaestus! Feel free to make up your own story as to why Rumple has that.

--The montage of Snow/Charming asleep and awake was seriously adorable.

--The EQ doesn’t consider herself evil, but a strong leader who does what is necessary. What's the difference? If a leader kills thousands or if a leader disenfranchises huge swaths of people to appease a majority and the "others" live in terror of him, is the leader merely Machiavellian or evil? Asking for a nation friend.

--“Family makes you stronger than you’ll ever be alone.” AKA: how to sum up the themes of OUAT in one sentence.

--The Dragon lost a daughter. It’s Lily isn’t it?

--Place your bets now: who is in the lamp? I say it's Jafar.

--No new episode next week, so see everyone in two!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

In Which I Review Westworld (1x6)

Over the past few reviews, we've asked ourselves how you know you're real and how you know you're complex so here's another question to befuddle and confuse: what traits make you up and is it possible to quantify those traits in relation to each other? Westworld certainly thinks so; it can assign numbers to discernible traits like compassion, intelligence, and  humor with the intention of creating the perfect character. The head of a whore house should be extra perceptive and charming but maybe less introspective. What happens, then, when the characters begin to examine themselves and decide what level of each trait they have? In this week's episode, "The Adversary," Maeve takes center stage and we--and Maeve herself--try to figure out what makes her tick. The question of real and complex are here but now we also have to wonder what kind of human/machine/being she is. Is her role as a whore less real than her previous story of a mother? And, who decides? Try not to glitch out and let's go!

It takes a certain amount of heroism to die over and over again just so you can arrange a conversation with the "shades" who are really the scientists behind the park. How many times has Maeve been through this? How creative does she have to get in order to die? And, while we're on that particular topic, is it even right to talk about Maeve dying? After all, she's not really alive in the same sense that you and I are. Is it better to speak of Maeve and the other Hosts in mechanic terms so that Maeve is rebooting, not dying? I just asked a lot of questions, I know. There were so many enjoyable (if that’s the right word) moments in this episode, like watching Maeve wander the hallways behind the scenes, seeing moments of her life suddenly stripped away to their bare components. Imagine if the veil of your life was ripped away and the animals and other humans were revealed to be wires and switches. It’s like Neo taking the red pill; it's akin to Alice going through the Looking Glass and instead of finding wonder, finding reality. The park itself is Wonderland with upside rules, full of nonsense; people can die and come back, some people can't be hurt at all. This cold and unfeeling behind the scenes world is the “real” (that word is problematic in this show…) world and it’s not as glamorous. It’s figures being carved by hand and artificial blood being pumped into blanks to give the appearance of life. Is it anyone wonder that Maeve wants to change her own “code base” so that she is more perceptive? Speaking of, it struck me that while talk of “code base” is awfully mechanic, there’s a human factor to it as well. Humans–the born kind–can do this to. We can’t punch a screen and change our personality, but we educate ourselves; we can interact with people of different backgrounds and experiences, we (and this sounds really cliche) live in order to change our own base lines. How do I become more perceptive–by opening my eyes and seeing the world. How do I enhance my intelligence–by going to school, reading, and having conversations. Isn't that what Maeve is doing? She's engaging with her world--the world she didn't know existed until now--in order to learn more about it and herself. It's one of the ultimate acts of humanness. There are moments in which the show goes to some length to remind us that these machines aren’t human, that there’s more separating us from them besides processing power. I think it’s why the show (and by extension the scientists like Felix) keep Maeve naked for 99.9% of this episode. Having her stripped down and unconcerned by her nudity for long periods of time reminds us that she’s a machine; it’s why putting Maeve in clothing when she goes on a tour of the plant helps sell the horror of her seeing reality. She’s not just a machine at that point, she feels more real. It's not a coincidence that this is also when Maeve sees her daughter in a sizzle reel for Westworld. The show constantly wants us to grapple with humanity, how we manufacture it and how we define it both in spite of and because of that manufactured nature. Maeve is manufactured; she was not born, she was created by non-manufactured humans with the help of other machines. And yet...and yet. Maeve watching the sizzle reel of her and her daughter from a past story--and the total heartbreak written on her face--was utterly human. One thing that stands out with Maeve in this episode is that her “motherhood” trait carries over to her work as a madam. She mothers the girls under her, even if it’s in a more “crude” manner. Does that mean that somehow her defining characteristic was one that wasn’t programmed as part of her baseline? Or can you even program motherhood–isn’t it really made up of many other traits like compassion, level-headed, nurturing, ect. Is it that Meave has the right baseline to yield motherhood or is this organic to Maeve herself?

Moving past Maeve, it turns out that little creepy boy is actually Dr. Ford! Created by Arnold! Looking back, the boy and Dr. Ford are dressed eerily similar so maybe we should have seen it coming but I think the point of this little exercise was showing the difference, again, between Dr Ford and Arnold, though it's getting harder and harder to figure out who is the "bad guy" in this relationship. Arnold made Ford a robotic family but it sounded like Ford made some upgrades to his “family”–to make them more like how he remembered them and how they really were (like Ford's angry dad) whereas Arnold wanted them to be more like they could have been. Pragmatism vs romanticism. Does that translate to the park? Did Dr. Ford open Westworld in hopes of showing humanity their reality, drenched in blood and vice? And, conversely, did Arnold want to open Westworld to show humanity what they could be, a better angel? If true, what does this mean for Dr Ford’s plans right now? We got a look at the layout of his new narrative and it doesn’t look like anything groundbreaking; there’s a church (which we saw the steeple of a few episodes ago) but what’s his goal with this new narrative? I can’t help but feel that most of Dr. Ford’s motivations are about an ongoing conversation with a dead man; it's the equivalent of “you think the park should be like this, but I think it should be like THIS and I’ll prove it to you, even if you are dead!” The fact that Arnold built Dr Ford a family (a kinder version at that) speaks to the level of friendship between the two; they weren’t just business partners and I get a sense that these two would always keep the other in mind with whatever they did. Did any of my readers watch Fringe? Arnold and Dr Ford remind me quite a bit of Walter Bishop and William Bell. Brilliant scientists, great friends, but with some philosophical differences that don’t necessarily cause a split in affection, but yield great conversations and even greater work. This on-going conversation between the two friends/enemies/scientists bring us to the Native belief of the Maze and the Adversary who resides in the center. I was heavily reminded of the Minotaur/Theseus in Greek mythology. But more than that, while Teddy speaks of the story as a myth, it’s heavily couched in metaphorical language, that final human aspect Arnold was trying to instill in his Hosts. The maze is less literal and more an ongoing journey for any living person, trying to find their way to selfhood, pitfalls along the way (including self-death and self-rebirth). And if they do manage to become self-actualized, no one else can disturb them because they’ve constructed a “maze” of identity that no one can bypass. This serves as a confusing point, however, because the fact that the symbol for the maze is etched everywhere (including in Dr. Ford’s notebook) makes me believe that there’s a literal maze, but the way the maze is talked about makes me believe it can’t possibly be literal! Reality and fiction; real and not real; literal and metaphorical. What is what on this show?

Miscellaneous Notes on The Adversary 

–I don’t particularly care about Lee and his tortured artists shtick.

–So why exactly are employees of the park (some of them) broadcasting a “bicameral mind” to the first generations Hosts? And who grabbed Elsie?

–“You don’t have a choice. Even if you say no, it’s part of your character.”

–I like that the further you get from the central town, the more hazardous and raw the game gets.

--Did anyone else think that sizzle real was false advertising? It was romanticizing what goes on in Westworld. You have the cowboys and the great outdoors and an interesting little town complete with saloons, but it failed to show what “life without limits” really means–like lots of bloodshed and violence and people acting out their basest of desires.

--What are the chances that Arnold is at the center of the Maze--provided it's literal.

Monday, November 7, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (6x7)

Since the beginning, Once Upon a Time has told its audience that the most powerful magic in the world--indeed, in all the worlds--is True Love. The show opens with one of the most iconic images in all of fairy tale lore, Prince Charming wakes up Snow White with True Love's Kiss. This powerful magic can break any curse, stop any evil, and can vanquish the darkness. Emma, the much lauded Savior, is True Love personified and her strength and magic come from the love born between her two parents, the truest of all true loves. But what happens when True Love isn't enough? Or when it's not strong enough to outsmart villainy? Can True Love really be the end all, be all when evil gets the upper hand and manages to outflank you? This week's episode, "Heartless," was easily the best episode of the season so far because it felt deeply rooted in the show's overarching thesis about family and love but with the added twist of examining the limitations on its universe's most powerful magic. Snow White and Prince Charming stories can get a bad reputation because of how remedial they often feel, but my hat goes off for this outing. Grab a magic baby tree thing and let's go!

You Must Remember This...

I tend toward the harsh end of the spectrum whenever Snowing centrics come my way. We're long past the point where these two feel relevant; the original paring of the show now come across as doddering grandparents who's main purpose is to randomly give a speech about hope and the show has moved on to shiner and more interesting toys, like Regina, Hook, and their villain-of-the-arc style of storytelling. But, almost without fail, every year the writers trot out a Snowing flashback that somehow, inexplicably, ties the two back to the plot of the moment without pausing even for a second to think if it contradicts previous storylines or themes. Hence, the baby snatchers of season four. What the writers should focus on is taking the themes already laid heavy in Snowing's story--like the truest love to ever exist, the unstoppable belief they have in each other, and the concept of always finding one another--and run, pell mell, with that. And that, my dear readers, is exactly what this episode did. Now, it wasn't quite as elegant as a season one story and there are some glaring magical errors along the way, but it really did feel like the heart of Snowing (no pun intended) was laid bare tonight (seriously, no pun here!). These are two souls who somehow, as if through fate, manage to find their way to each other; who are always there for one another, even if they don't know that their soul mate is on the other side of a door. Going into this episode, I had a real sense of dread that the show would magically retcon the wonderful season one episode "Snow Falls." That episode stands out as one that pushed the idea that we don't know the stories we think we know. Snow was a bandit and the two love struck outcasts snarked at each other more than they swooned. While this secret-meeting-without-really-meeting is fairly cheesy and slightly improbable (you mean to tell me that these two soul mates didn't recognize each other's voices when they met later on?) the themes that centered around the heretofore unmentioned meeting felt perfectly in the Snowing wheelhouse. Snow's naive and precious belief in the goodness in people, Charming's eagerness to help, and that the union between the two could yield something miraculous is very in line with the earliest seasons of OUAT. I also appreciate that, so far this season, the show has been trying very hard to make connections from the past to the present day storylines in terms of more than just plot and plot devices. Snow's sacrificial streak comes through on both ends; she's unwilling to put Charming's life in danger, just from seeing her face, in the Enchanted Forest and she's unwilling to put her entire town (which, in this case, equates to her entire kingdom) in danger from a foe whom Snow knows all to well the depths of villainy can sink.

A Hearty Twist

Well, I didn't see that one coming. It's not too often that this show can shock me but the Evil Queen managing to put the split heart itself under a sleeping curse and thus cursing Snowing to be awake/asleep in opposite turns was quite an eyebrow raising twist. I'm going to ignore the mechanics of how this happened (no apple, no spinning wheel, no nothing) and instead speculate on how this feeds into some of the themes on the show. Again, as I already stated, the show has driven home the point that True Love is the most powerful magic of all and with Snow and Charming, it exists in spades as the single most powerful True Love Couple. So how exactly does this new curse not break when true love's kiss is exchanged? It feels like it should, right? Snowing's love is supposed to be strong enough to break any curse, save the Dark One that Emma broke by virtue of Saviorhood and being True Love Incarnate thanks to Snow and Charming. If the show is going to keep with their much often quoted emphasis on true love then how does one go about breaking this curse? This isn't actually a problem the Savior can solve--unless Emma kisses her mother/father awake and come to think of it, that wouldn't be a terrible solution. But I'm not sure what this says about the show as a whole if the truest of true love couples can be put under such an evil curse that not even their go-to True Love's Kiss can solve. Are we supposed to believe, then, that true love has restrictions (Rumbelle can write novels on that topic)? Are we supposed to buy that sometimes evil does win and can defeat good? This new curse is a good twist and one I actually quite like, but I'm not sure how it stacks up against the show's biggest hitting motifs of true love being the strongest magic in the realm(s). To play devil's advocate and to show just how torn I am over this, you can argue that True Love's Kiss is working--Snow or David do in fact wake up--it's just that there's a new element in play that allows the Evil Queen to see their suffering in a new and interesting way. Being unable to wake someone up versus being able to wake them up but not be with them....which is worse? I have no fear that Snow and Charming are doomed forever, but it'll be quite unique to see where the show goes with this new development.

Miscellaneous Notes on Heartless

--This review wasn't intended to be less in-depth or less analytical. Honestly, this episode was a good character study and I enjoyed it, but with characters as old and well known as Snow and Charming, it's hard to say something new.

--“Sleeping Snow is my favorite Snow”

--The water in the bottle is not too bad of a MacGuffin; It’s a continuation of last year’s plot as the water is from the River of Lost Souls!

--“You can overcome anything. Remember who you are: the product of True Love.” That was a nice Emma/Hook moment.

--Did we know that Blue Fairy could bigify herself in the Enchanted Forest?

--The chemistry that might exist between Rumple and Regina is less a byproduct of the story and more because of Bobby and Lana, two actors who would have chemistry with rocks. Their relationship was always mentor/mentee with huge overtones of father/daughter hence why so many people thought Rumple was Regina’s father for a long time. This “romance”/ powerplay really horrifies me.

--Speaking of Rumple, I am going to pass over the scenes with him this week until we get a firmer hold on where this particular story is headed.

--Longbourne is the home of Lizzie Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Please leave Jane Austen alone, Adam and Eddy.

-- I still feel like this season is aimless; what’s the goal here? Is it just to let Lana act her heart out? Fabulous, but there has to be a point somewhere, right? The Savior storyline is going nowhere and as fun as it is to watch the EQ sass everyone, I don’t get where the show is going with this.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

In Which I Review Westworld (1x4 and 1x5)

Mysteries upon mysteries and layers upon layers but at the heart of it all, I think Westworld might be telling a very old story. It's a story of heroes and villains and the blurred line between them. It's the story of humans caught in between the cosmic forces trying to survive when gods and devils play. It's a story of how we imagine ourselves and how the world imagines us. The humans are machines, the gods are men and the villain is a nihilistic savior, but it's an old story. The last two episodes "Dissonance Theory" and "Contrapasso" has a lot to say about how our characters view themeselves in light of their experiences in Westworld, either as a guest or as a host, help inform our identity. It's a bit of a confusing jumble and if you're not cautious, you'll lost your path. So imagine yourself as something other a damsel in narrative distress and it will be so. Hold on tight and let's go!

Let's start with a just a bit of a negative. I have a lot of questions and not enough answers. Westworld does a fabulous job at creating mystery but so far it’s lacking in the “solving the mystery” department. Now, that can be a good thing because the mystery is multifaceted, layered, and less about an actual mystery and more about a philosophical pondering on existence and consciousness; but at the same time, there’s only so many times you can add questions on top of questions and keep expecting me to follow you down this rabbit hole. I think there might be…too many stories right now. The main ones are Dolores and her awakening/unraveling; Dr Ford and his increasingly menacing God complex; the Man in Black fulfilling a hole in the narrative as a suitable antagonist while trying to discover the answer to his own journey into selfhood; and the story of Arnold and the park's past which will, I suppose, tie all the other stories together. But along the way we get Teddy, William, Logan, Mauve, the politics of the park staff, and several park-run stories like Wyatt, the Confederados, the new Black hat who set up William and Logan, ect. It’s a bit much because the story needs to be a bit tighter and not go down tracks that only confuse me more. This isn't to say that the story is bad or that all characters are lacking in motivation. We can haphazardly guess at Dr. Ford's motivation, for instance.  I think this is all about control. Every episode so far has brought up the Board that oversees Westworld and it’s pretty clear Ford does not have a good relationship with them (I suspect they are of the fat-lazy-cat variety and care more for profit than they do for whatever Ford’s original intentions were in creating the park, like tackling and unlocking human consciousness). He obviously has a huge ego–one that sees himself as a God in his own world, a God that is now being trodden upon by said Board. His new storyline and what he’s building will establish him as the sole ruler of Westworld, the Board be damned. That's a fascinating motivation and will hopefully become increasingly apparent instead of talked about in riddles.

Our Man in Black figure comes across as a villain but is he really?  I actually think he’s the most honest of all the characters. The MiB made several references to the fact that he’s “here to set people free” because they are all in prison. It’s sort of…Savior language. He’s still a nasty piece of work, but what he’s trying to figure out, the story he wants to discover, is akin to what Dolores is trying find: freedom. While the MiB probably does not have altruistic intentions, his efforts could help the Hosts gain consciousness and freedom. It’s a nihilistic type of honesty, but it’s honesty. He’s bored. He’s read the same book day after day for 30 years; he knows every sub plot, every twist and turn, except the ultimate one. It’s like…a classic mystery novel? Think Agatha Christie. The reveal of the murderer and their entire explanation happens in one swell swoop typically at the very very end. What if you had a book like that but the last page, the one that revealed the murderer and why he did everything he did, was missing? Wouldn’t it drive you somewhat nuts? (There’s a great episode of M*A*S*H that actually follows this exact plotline come to think about it.) The MiB doesn’t even try to hide what he’s after or how different he is from the rest of the world. He straight up tells Hector that he, Hector, is “market tested” and that’s why Hector exists. The MiB also goes around telling people that they are prisoners and he’s trying to find freedom. I don’t think he cares about them, but is so bored and nihilistic that he’s looking for the only escape left and if it means the Hosts get freed then so be it. As a sidenote, what does freedom actually mean here? The more I think about it, the more I think that the Maze and freedom aren’t literal but figurative. The Maze is more about unlocking human consciousness and freedom is less about leaving the Park–we know the guests can leave after all–and more about freedom from something less tangible. I am looking forward to puzzle out the rest of the show as we move into the second half. It's a confusing jumble right now, but an enjoyable one.

Miscellaneous Notes on Dissonance Theory and Contrapasso

--We get the idea that the Natives have turned their memories or their past recollections of the game workers into Gods. Shades, men who walk between worlds, are part of their religion because that’s the only way their mind can conceive of these memories. It must be otherworldly because their world does not have “science” and “technology” the likes of which the extremely modern world of Ford and Bernard has. But is this an organic development for the Natives or was it implanted in them by the park-runners?

--Therese says that the Board has already sent in their representative—is it Logan? I think so. His “family” keeps getting teased and he clearly knows his way around the Park. Plus his line “it’s always business” was a bit on the nose.

--This show is stunning to just look at. The brothel scene with William, Logan and Dolores was like something out of a Renaissance painting depicting the lowest bowels of Hell.

--Arnold sought consciousness but then wanted to destroy his park? Was it because he felt like he had enslaved a people OR did Dr. Ford lie to us about what Arnold wanted and it was really him who sought these higher ideals.