Wednesday, May 31, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x5)

Just in case any viewer feared that the show was trending downward and wouldn't get back to being a crazy feast for your eyes and senses, Gillian Anderson dressed up as David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe in this week's episode "Lemon-Scented You." In other words, it's safe to say that the insane trip factor of American Gods is back on. If the major story last week took a deep pause to examine one particular character, then I think it's fairly obvious that the story ramped itself back up to an eleven as Shadow finally and truly falls head first into the world of the gods, at last really gleaning that Mr. Wednesday is not just some strange old griffter and whatever is going on behind the scenes is really and actually happening. There is something much bigger, much older, and much more bizarre at play here. The enemies Mr. Wednesday speaks of and has alluded to are real, live and in living color for your (and his) viewing pleasure; they come, at least so they say, not in war and battle but with a merger: join us. Become new again, let us show you how. All it will cost you is your soul. Grab a happily trotting unicorn and let's go!

Can old and new exist side by side? I'd wager that many of you would say sure, of course it can. After all, you might argue, I have a laptop and a smart phone but I also kept my landline. Alright, I counter, but how often do you use that landline? Is it a part of your everyday life? Or is it there because you've always had a landline and to not have it would feel strange, alien, and wrong somehow in a way you can't quite put your finger on. That's the power of nostalgia. The landline phone isn't in and of itself important, but it has a symbolic resonance of a different time in your life when the landline was important; when it was the height of technology and to be without one would be as absurd as being without your Android or iPhone now.  Evolution is key to survival; Darwin was right. The smartest and fittest among us live on to see another sunrise and sunset. If you're not part of that select group, you will fall behind; you will wither and you will die. Nature is kind of a bitch, am I right? But it's not just nature; it's everything including, as it turns out, the gods. History is built on the rise and fall of different religions. Not so long ago, Christianity was in its infancy and the polytheism of the Greco-Roman cultural empire had the world in its grasp. Imagine what life will look like 2,000 years from now, especially in a country like America, heavy with immigrants from every other corner of the globe. Evolution is what truly sets the New Gods apart from the Old ones. It's not that they are brand spanking new--after all Not-Really-Lucy-Ricardo manages to morph into whatever form she needs to be over the course of this episode, from music legend (and god in his own right) David Bowie to 1950s Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. Both of these figures, especially the former, were known as chameleons; they could change depending on any number of factors. Bowie's music and style never stayed in one comfortable place but instead bounced from rock to pop to metal to psychedelic, his outward appearance changing right along with his sound. This is why Media likely takes Bowie's look in our first scene with her; to her, David Bowie represents the ever changing, ever evolving, ever re-branding outlook on life that she, Technology, and Mr. World are advocating for.  This is where the Old Gods, like Wednesday, Czernobog, and Anansi, falter; they cannot see past their own....well, past. Czernobog is the best example of this mentality; striking bargains with Shadow that involve gruesome murder over a checker game. They want the grand old days back, when they were worships, sacrificed to, adored, and most importantly needed and revered. We may worship and sacrifice to Media and Technology in our own ways, but like Mr. Wednesday tells Mr. World, these moments of worship and sacrifice are just a distraction and the New Gods do not give back in the same way that old ones do. I think the question we really need to ask--and one Shadow should also ask himself--is if those old days were really all the great? Or, like the landline phone, are the Old God stuck in the nostalgic past of yesteryear, afraid to move forward?

That is certainly the through-line the New Gods take. Their pitch to Mr. Wednesday is pretty interesting and it hits a lot of Mr. Wednesday's sweet spots. Mr. World begins by praising him, talking about how didn't realize just who Mr. Wednesday was or how big he really is. When it's clear that this pitch isn't getting any lift (honestly, Mr. World needs some lessons from Don Draper), they turn on the pizzazz and promise Mr. Wednesday the thing we know he wants: to have his name on everyone's lips. Of course people uttering Mr. Wednesday's true name (more on that later!) in Media's dynamite presentation are doing so in fear and abject horror not true worship which is a heady combination of awe inspiring love and awe inspiring terror. This "lemon-scented you" newness the Gods offer to Mr. Wednesday isn't what he's after; it's not enough to have missiles with the name Odin carved on to the side, lighting up the sky and dropping on the unsuspecting North Koreans. That's not how Mr. Wednesday was worshiped in the olden days and it's not how he wants to be worshiped now. If the Old Gods like Wednesday, Cznerobog and Anansi are stuck in the nostalgic past then it's fair to say that the New Gods don't understand the draw of the way things used to be, namely individualized. Old gods had very specific rituals and flavors to the way people worshiped them. Yes, there are certain commonalities found throughout most religious practices but the way you worship a goddess like Bilquis wouldn't be the same as the way you worshiped Odin. A goddess of love and a god of war are different creatures, both revered and respected, but with different expectations of what they want and what they will do for the worshiper. It was all harmonious, however. Worshipers knew when it was time to offer up a sacrifice to Odin--before a battle, let's say--and when they needed another god, like fertile Freyja. It's this individuality that the New Gods do not understand or even want to understand. Mr. World represents globalization, a hegemony wherein people are ruled and controlled as one singular entity by the god they created by allowing and supporting such wide spread rule and connectivity. Ironic, yeah? The New Gods view religion and worship in different terms but it's all the same thing; for Technology religion is the operating system, it controls the rest of the network made up of people who are no more interesting and unique than a series of ones and zeroes, but this operating system can be programmed, perfected so it runs smoothly and without any hiccups or quirks. For Mr. World, religion is a product that can be honed and tweaked until it becomes "a single product made by a single company for a single purpose for a single market." As long as Mr. Wednesday can give up wanting to be worshiped as Odin, the actual god Odin, then he too can join the ranks of these new gods. But, man, does that sound unappealing or what. I don't blame Odin for wanting to be worshiped in all his complex, nuanced, and differentiated glory. Try as the New Gods might, the pitch falls flat and Odin seems more determined than ever to get what he wants: war.

Miscellaneous Notes on Lemon Scented You

--The CGI/stop animation/whatever it was of the opening "Coming to America" was amazingly well done. There's a takeaway from this scene that the old cannot stand against the new, at least not without a great sacrifice.

--"The gods are great, but people are greater for it is in their hearts that gods are born and it is to their hearts that gods return."

--Laura's heart beats while kissing Shadow. That's a bit different than it is in the novel. I enjoy that her role has been expanded in the TV series to make her more complex, not just a literal ghost who shows up wherever Shadow might be.

--Media has been around since at least the 1930 "War of the Worlds" drama, one of the first (if not the first?) time millions of people gathered around a media outlet--radio--and not only listened but truly believed what the media was telling them.

--Media as Bowie is also fairy ironic, no? These new gods wish to strip Mr. Wednesday of his individuality. Bowie was nothing if not an individual.

--In Gaiman's novel, there are more new gods than just Mr. World, Media, and Technology but it's a smart move on the TV show to really focus on those three and make them out to be a sort of dysfunctional family. Mr. World talks about how everything is a system interlaced and surely globalization is helped--and perhaps even caused--by media and technology. Could the world be as connected and known without those two?

--"You're a fucking asshole, dead wife!" I enjoy that, so far, Mad Sweeney's only role is to get beat up.

--"All you do is occupy their time; we gave back, we gave them meaning."

--Know Your Gods: It seems that this week, more than any other week, is really the best to meet the real Mr. Wednesday. The show has been giving certain subtle hints that he is really an incarnation of Odin. Okay, the two ravens flying around and eventually knocking on his hotel door to speak with him aren't subtle but there are other clues. The first is in his name: Wednesday. In the first episode, he claims that's "his day" and that's true. Another name for Odin was "Wotan" or "Wodan." We actually hear Czernobog call him Wotan in the Chicago apartment. So, Wednesday is literally "the day of Odin." Other hints are smaller but you might notice that Mr. Wednesday has one eye that is ever so Cloudy and somewhat unmoving. One of the more popular stories about Odin reveals how he lost his eye in order to gain wisdom, a quest that Odin seems particularly obsessed with given the number of legends about such a venture. For example, those ravens that keep fluttering around the scenes? Hugin and Munnin--usually translated as Thought and Memory; these two familiar spirits constantly fly out through the Nine Realms of Norse mythology, bringing back knowledge, stories, and information for Odin. In the above mentioned eye-story, Odin goes on a quest to Mimir's Well; Mimir isn't well known but he seems to be the guardian of all cultural knowledge and tradition which is attributed to his well and the water found within. It is likely that the well and water is that which feeds the World Tree, Yggdrasil, one of the most significant symbols in Norse mythology (more on that in a moment). Odin came to Mimir and demanded water from the well but he was unable to partake until he had sacrificed something of value. Thus, Odin gouged out one of his eyes and dropped it into the well. Being pleased with this sacrifice, Mimir gave Odin a drink from the Well and Odin obtained knowledge and wisdom of a higher nature. Odin isn't just after common knowledge and wisdom but sacred wisdom which is a nice way to dovetail into the other hint the show is giving about who Wednesday is.

He often wears a small pin, either on his hat or his jacket of a large tree who's branches run deep into the earth. This tree is the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which is said to hold the nine realms of the universe together. From the Voluspa: "There stands an ash called Yggdrasil/ A mighty tree showered in white hail/ From there come the dews that fall in the valleys/ It stands evergreen above Urd’s Well." The tree, then, is at the center of the cosmos and it too has a story of Odin's quest for knowledge. In this case, his quest to understand the mysterious runes of the Norns, the female maidens who spin out destiny and fate while sitting at the base of Yggdrasil. Like with his eye, Odin had to sacrifice something in order to obtain the wisdom of the runes. This time he didn't just sacrifice a body part; he sacrificed himself. Odin hung himself from Yggdrasil, pierced his side with a spear and hung there for nine days and nine nights slowly dying, waiting for the universe to accept his "sacrifice of himself to himself" and eventually he was rewarded with knowledge of the runes. There is nothing stronger in mythology than a god sacrificing himself; it's a moment of intense mythological significance that usually heralds a new era (think, Jesus on the Cross or any iteration of a John Barleycorn vegetation god). There are other stories about Odin and his importance is not just as a seeker of wisdom. He's also a creator god; he built this realm's land and sky out of a giant called Ymir. Odin also created the first man and woman out of an ash tree and an alder tree. He's also at the head of countless lineages of gods; it's because of this that he is often referred to as the All-Father. Popularly, Odin is known as a war god though not necessarily as a god who enjoys strategy and the outcome of war; Germanic men and women offered up prayers and praises to Odin before a battle in hopes that he would grant them victory but Odin was more concerned with the chaotic frenzy that war inspired. The famous berserkers were held in particular regard by Odin. When a hero or warrior of renown fell in battle and had died a good Viking death, they would be transported to Odin's hall Valhalla in the realm of Asgard where they might drink and play war games for all of time. There are many more stories about Odin, more than I could relate here. He is also associated with poetry (there's a nifty tale there too!), kingship, and with the dead. He has several other animal familiars, a unique relationship with several of his children (like Thor and Baldur) and his ultimate demise at Ragnarok is also fascinating.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x7)

One of the my all time favorite shows is "The West Wing" and, in a early season one episode, the Deputy Communications Director Josh Lyman tells us all how the next world war begins: "That's how it's gonna be, a little test tube with a... a rubber cap that's deteriorating... a guy steps out of Times Square station...smashes it on the sidewalk... there is a world war right there." One tiny mistake, one slip. It's not an abundance nuclear bombs and it's not the Cold War; it's infiltration of everything humans need to live: the air, the water, the food. That's how the world ends. Not in an inferno but with small bacterium that infest everything. In this week's episode "The Pyramid at the End of the World" we learn more about the mysterious Monks encountered last week and the Earth shuffles closer to its end all while begging the question if it's better to die free or live a slave. Grab your consent forms and let's go!

I don't believe this one requires too much thought. It's the second installment in our "Monk Trilogy" and if last week was our introduction then this week is setting the stage for the conclusion, whatever that may be, of next week. We learn very little about the Monks except that they operate much like the Muses of Greek (and other) mythology. The simulation we were in last week's episode looks, to these Monk-ish aliens, like thousands of threads woven together and branching off; this is something only they can read and it allows them to scan the history of the Earth, from the past and the present and the future. These corpse-like creatures have the ability to tell when the world will, effectively, end. The idea of the world ending is often played up in science fiction but here it means less the end of the actual planet and more a global disaster that causes all living things to be turned to "gunk" as the Doctor called the pile of green goop that was once a drunk scientist named Douglas. This, then, is where the Monks come in, offering help and safety if only the human race will give up their freedom and consent to being oppressed. Can you actually consent to oppression? After all, how can it be oppression if those in power asked for it? If the consent to remove free choice was given out of love, and neither fear nor strategy, then it's not tyranny or a dictatorship; help was asked for and it was given. The Monks are like looking at the Doctor through a mirror, darkly. The Doctor too comes along and saves the world on a needed basis and when asked, a point he makes quite a bit in this episode when everyone around him wants to consent to the "hostile" takeover and he has to stand firm that there must be another way. But the major difference is that the Doctor never asks for anything in return; he doesn't want the human race to worship him or give up their free will. He might be the President of the World but it's only when the World really needs him. Other times, he's just an idiot, flying around, helping out. The Monks on the other hand demand that the consent come from love, from a deep need to make the world great again despite the overwhelming horror that would come with that. It's hard to say how much of the current political climate is playing into this week's script but given that the President of the United States got a shout out and that the show introduced the Doomsday Clock as part of its play--which famously moved one second closer to midnight after a certain Presidential election--I think the writers are consciously playing with the fallout from November. It might not have been a majority (three million people voted a totally different way!) but our democratic system--and the untold millions who did vote a certain way--consented to our current political, social, economic, and foreign environment. In the end, it's not the U.N. or the armies who hand over the planet to the Monks. It's Bill. It's scared, sad, and extremely human Bill who's worried not for the planet, but for her friend and mentor. To hell with the world, with personal freedoms and with free will, as long as Bill's friend and confidant are saved, then it's worth it. It's not our planet anymore; it's theirs. We've consented to it.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Pyramid At The End Of The World 

--If the Monks can choose to look like anything (in this case, corpses) then it follows that they can make their ship look like anything. So why a pyramid?

--"I wouldn't have voted for him. He'"

--"The end of your life has already begun."

--There's a nice ticking clock music that plays throughout certain sections of this episode. It's a nice touch given the countdown to midnight.

--"It's not my first dead planet."

--"What do you depend on?" "Air, water, food, beer."

--The sonic glasses can do everything possible except see numbers on an old fashioned combination lock. That's some pretty silly writing, sorry.

--"Hello, I'm the Doctor! Saving the world with my eyes shut."

--"Enjoy your sight, Doctor. Now see our world."

Monday, May 22, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x4)

It's time to slow the journey down, take a load off, and look at the map--where have we been and where are we going? This week's episode "Git Gone" is fairly different than the first three installations of the series; it moves away from the gods--though they are, of course, always there lurking just out of sight in some neat visual cues--and instead focus on the mystery of Laura Moon and her remarkable, perhaps miraculous, return to the world of the living after dying in a car crash. This episode serves two purposes; first it's a nice breather after three straight episodes of crazy hijinks and mind blowing visuals; second it ponders the question that naturally arises on a show that has the concept of belief as its cornerstone, namely what happens when you don't believe in anything? Grab your favorite brand of bug spray and let's go!

Laura Moon is dead. And then, suddenly one night on a dark road, Laura Moon died. Okay, those two sentences make zero sense when read back unless you get inside Laura's head while she was alive which is exactly what this episode is. In order to understand why Laura is following Shadow around in the present, trailing after him like a metaphorical and, as it turns out, literal ghost, you must first understand the woman in question. It turns out long before she died, Laura was already dead on the inside. I don't even know if ennui is a strong enough word to describe Laura's internal workings because ennui suggests that the person affected will eventually get over it and return to their previous disposition. With Laura there is no such assumption. Her life is best characterized as lifeless; she has a crappy job, lives in a crappy home, has neither excitement nor passion for anyone or anything, and the only way she knows to break out of this mind numbing tedium and, in essence, take her life into her own hands, is by risking said life. There are people out there who take risks, daredevils and the like, who say that they only feel alive when they are pushing the limits of their safety. But Laura's not propelling down a mountain or jumping out of a plane; the actions Laura takes aren't just dangerous physically but also emotionally. She climbs into her hot tub, covers it up, and sprays highly toxic bug spray, letting the fumes wash over her and almost take her last breath before breaking through to the surface. This isn't to say that Laura wants to die; there are easier ways to kill yourself. Laura likes really rough sex and there's certainly nothing wrong with that but it's part of her need to feel alive that, one, she enjoys the rough sex with a stranger she picked up in a dark parking lot and two doesn't seem to enjoy traditional love making with her husband. Every major action we see Laura take, from the bug spray, to planning to rob the casino, to her affair with Robbie is all designed to make her feel alive because Laura has never felt alive. Marriage and life with Shadow were simply going through the motions and happiness only comes in a hairbrained plan to rob a casino, something Laura swears she has the perfect plan for but actually lands her husband in jail. What's great about this episode, though, is not just that we get inside Laura's head for the first time this season but that her lack of life during her life is wrapped up in belief. Like everything else on American Gods, belief plays a central role, but this is the other end of the spectrum. Laura doesn't believe in anything. She went looking for belief once because her parents fed her all the traditional stories and those tales were like magic to her. But when she really went looking for the root of belief, Laura found nothing and so nothing is what she believes in. It's not just the gods that escape her worship, she doesn't believe in TV or love or family or happiness. There's nothing in this world that can capture her heart and so at the moment of her death, Anubis (who serves as her guide into the next life even though Laura is not an Egyptian nor had any Egyptian upbringing?) tells Laura that her afterlife will be nothing; she believed in nothing so to nothing she will go. There won't even be peace, only darkness. It's that fear combined with the coin Shadow threw on Laura's grave that calls her back to the real world and suddenly, for the first time in probably her entire life, Laura is alive. Sure, she's still technically dead and her body is decomposing and falling away, but Laura Moon finally has something to believe in. She believes in Shadow.

  Miscellaneous Notes on Git Gone 

--There's a nice moment early on where Laura learns that she and her card shuffling talent are going to be replaced by a machine. It's a continuation of the through-line established with the likes of Czernobog. Even humans are being replaced by the new god, Technology.

--"All I know is there's more than I know."

--There are a few really great visual touches throughout the episode, like a fly constantly buzzing around Laura before she actually dies and, on the night Laura and Robbie take off on their last car ride, two ravens are perched just outside Laura's house, watching and possibly following.

--Also, a not so subtle visual, but Laura Moon kicked a man in the balls and his entire brain and spinal cord shot out of his head. It was maybe one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

--We meet Anubis's other half, a tall thin man with spectacles. More on him in future weeks, I'd wager. Also, if you were looking close enough we actually met the third companion of this Egyptian trio of gods.

--"Are you haunting me?" "Not on purpose. I needed craft supplies."

Sunday, May 21, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x6)

If the season premiere episode was Steven Moffat at his most restrained, stripped down, and quiet then this week's episode "Extremis" is Moffat not quite at his most over the top, heightened, and bombastic but close enough. Both types of Moffat writing are good-Moffat, but there's no denying that one of those types--the latter--has been the predominate feature of Moffat's tenure as show runner on Doctor Who. This isn't a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. After all, Doctor Who is a science-fiction program and that means that you are going to have a your fair share of over the top, loud, theatrical episodes. Probably with lots of lens flairs. So while this week's episode is decent enough and there's certainly nothing wrong with combining loud theatrics with experimental writing--it will likely not feature at the top of my list when we reach the end of this year. It also does quite a bit to remind me why I'm more okay with Moffat exiting the show than I was when former showrunner Russel T. Davies left. Get ready to question your own existence and let's go!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if the Doctor watched his own show? That is, basically, the main narrative conceit of this week's escapade into time and space. The Doctor watches an episode of Doctor Who while he's contemplating his life and the choices he's made, including his decision to lock Missy up (yes, it's Missy) in a Vault for 1000 yeas. You take out the part about watching over a Time Lord living deep inside of a Quantum Fold Chamber and it's not like I haven't spent many Saturdays doing the exact same thing. This episode revolves around the idea of meta fiction--that there is a text and then there is a TEXT. The text is what is happening inside the Vatican, inside the simulation in which nothing is real. Bill isn't real; Nardole isn't real; the Doctor isn't even real. They are all a series of zeros and ones programmed to think, act, and respond like the real Bill, Nardole, and Doctor. This fake Doctor has all the hallmarks of our real Doctor; he's perfectly rendered, in other words. It's not until Nardole explains the simulation to Bill that we even put the pieces together that the Doctor--this Vatican based Doctor--doesn't exist. This is the story within the story and because none of it is real the show doesn't bother to linger long on the existential crisis that is cropping up in our three main characters. Doesn't mean we can't give it a go, though! How do you prove your own existence? This idea of real vs not real is becoming a theme throughout several of our TV shows, isn't it? Are robots programmed to mimic human kind down to the smallest detail real (Westworld)? Can simply believing in something strong enough make it literally real, make it manifest in the real world (American Gods)? And can you exist as a person inside a computer simulation when you are a series of inputs designed and uploaded by an outside force that you've never heard of nor encountered (Doctor Who)? It's a fairly common staple of science-fiction, especially post-Matrix trilogy, but I don't believe Doctor Who has ever tackled it this forcefully and twisted, which brings us back to the answer to the question of proving your existence. You have memories but those can be falsified; you have independent thought and agency but that can also be part of the computer program. No, the way to prove your own existence in this simulation is to end said existence. Inside this simulation there are consequences but they are pros over cons. If you kill yourself inside the simulation, then you've proven your own existence because, of course, you were never real to begin with. Even though this is text (as opposed to the TEXT) it's not an elegant solution to the problem and I'm worried about how it might be projected to anyone who's troubled or sees suicide as triggering. It's messy and weird and it takes us down several rabbit holes of what exactly constitutes being real but that's what Doctor Who is going for. It's quintessential Moffat who likes to take big messy complicated themes and ideas, shove them at the audience, and then sit back and watch us scratch our heads trying to figure out what the point of the last hour was. The season has been a fine return to tits more basic form; the episodes are slower, more relaxed which isn't to say boring or without themes and ideas. But contemplating something like institutional racism and white privilege doesn't quite belong in the same category as questioning the entirety of reality and whether or not you actually exist. Often times this heavy handed meta fiction can go terribly awry (look at last season's horrible "Sleep No More" that also had stories within stories). But this week's episode tried to correct some of those blunders by having a clear reveal that allows the audience to understand the meta-ness of this fiction. Could I have written this review as soundly as I am had the Doctor not pulled back the curtain and revealed that the real Doctor was watching his own episode? Probably not. I would have wondered what the point of this entire hour was--is the alien invasion real or just part of the simulatoin?--and probably done a fair bit of Moffat bashing.

Now, unlike past big-Moffat episodes, Extremis does have several salient narrative points. Missy is just the tip of the iceberg (provided that iceberg is real....just kidding; the iceberg is real. Probably). Turns out the Earth is about to be invaded. Cool? This sort of big multi-episode plot twist had to come sooner or later. It's fun to fly around the universe with the Doctor and Bill but at some point we've got to have a seasonal arc. The aliens who set up and run the simulation(s) are coming and they plan on using their collective research of these various simulations to their advantage when they take over Earth in the real. There's not really a whole lot to say about these guys either than I'm sure they'll fall flat on their (already flat?) faces because of course the Doctor will stop them. Keeping the Doctor blind is an interesting choice because it allows him to be metaphorically and literally in the dark, something I touched on last week. He makes that subtext rather textual when he declares that he doesn't know how to fight what's coming because he's in the dark (bit on the nose there, Moffat). But that's the other point of this week's episode--virtue is only virtue in extremis. It's only when it really matters, when the stakes are astronomical, when you're literally and figuratively in the dark that the person you are, at your core, at your center, is revealed. The 12th Doctor's tenure began with him questioning the kind of man he is--a good one or a bad one? The question may never be answered because people are never any one thing and they aren't one thing the whole time; the Doctor says he's an idiot with a box, flying around, helping out and that's about as close to self actualization that he's likely to get. But still that question of what kind of man is the twelfth Doctor has hung around the past three years and now it seems Moffat is going to give the answer another go. We've seen the 12th Doctor angry and disturbed and jovial and grandfatherly but when it matters most, when Earth is depending on the Doctor to really stick his landing, what sort of man is he? Really?

Miscellaneous Notes on Extremis 

--In a move that is shocking to almost no one, Missy is in the Vault. The Doctor has agreed to watch over her for 1000 years instead of taking the easy path out and killing her.

--Bill's face when the Pope entered her kitchen moments after comforting a skittish girl about them being together was hilarious and felt, if this is at all possible, like classic Bill.

--"You're an idiot." "Everyone knows that."

--I always suspected the Pope had a secret tunnel to get to and from the Pentagon. Didn't quite think it'd come out in a broom closet, however.

--"Are you trying to get rid of us?" "What makes you say that?" "Cause you're sending us into the dark after a man with a gun."

--Surely these aliens have an easier way to learn about Earth? This is not the first time it has been invaded.

--I know the aliens are monitoring everything but their attention to detail is almost a bit too much for a computer game. It was Simulation Nardole that spoke truths to a Simulation Doctor about why the latter won’t tell Simulation Bill about the blindness.

--"I am doing what everyone does when the world is in danger...I'm calling the Doctor."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x3)

Does God exist because there is a physical entity somewhere in the universe with independent thought and agency or does God exist because we believe that He exists? Conversely, if everyone in the world stops believing in God, does He (or She!) stop existing? Yeah, "Head Full of Snow" is that type of episode. Belief is a powerful thing; it fuels cultures and societies. It doesn't have to be religious belief per se, ie: belief in a specific deity or deities. It could be a belief in a code or series of laws, belief in what the culture stands for. This sounds cut and dry but anyone living in any sort of society will know it's not. The problems are several fold, most notably the variations in strength of belief. In this week's episode we saw just how powerful belief can be as Shadow literally made it snow just because Wednesday asked him to believe in it. It might be one of the more laid back episodes but at its heart is the crux of American Gods: if you believe in it, it becomes real. Hold on to your hearts (Anubis wants them) and let's go!

How do you get to the top of a roof when there is no ladder? You climb the one your mind conjures up, of course. It's powerful image to start off this episode; Shadow, during another one of his powerful real-but-also-maybe-not-real dreams needs, for whatever reason, to get to the roof to meet Zorya Polunochnaya. It's all very mystical and otherworldly as the youngest Zorya, the "Midnight Star," explains that she keeps watch over the great bear in the sky because if it ever escapes the world is over. She then proceeds to give Shadow the moon in the form of a coin. It all seems absolute nonsense, all metaphors instead of reality. Maybe, for instance, Shadow mythologizes his meeting with the youngest Zorya sister because it stood out as special and when we have an encounter that changes our lives, we cast it terms of myth. Colors become richer, people speak in a higher language. For example, in reality, after the ill-fated checker game, Shadow and the youngest Zorya had a weird conversation in which she revealed how to defeat her mean relative and it possibly lead to a more romantic moment and in Shadow's tired, confused, grief-stricken and terrified head it turned into a midnight roof time excursion where a woman in a long white nightgown looked at the stars with a stuffed bear perched on her telescope. After all, the idea that this encounter didn't really happen the way Shadow remembers matches the reality of the world around him. There is no ladder from the window to the roof; we still have yet to see Zorya Polunochnaya in the house during the daytime. And yet...and yet there is a coin, another game of checkers, and a reversal of fortune. Somehow Shadow comes out victorious because whatever the encounter with the youngest Zorya really was, and wherever it really was, Shadow believed in it enough to take Czernobog on again and win a game of checkers, cocksure and just a little bit arrogant. This is very much a prelude to what happens with the bank robbery--a near perfect recreation of what Gaiman wrote in the novel, as a brief aside. Shadow's role during the robbery, something he's dreading given his recent incarceration, is simple. He answers the phone when it rings and pretends to be the head of a security company who employs Mr. Wednesday. Shadow's belief once again comes up, this time twofold. First, Shadow has to believe and think "snow." That's all. It's a weird mindless task but one that Shadow manages to fall headfirst into, staring at his marshmallow laden cocoa. Suddenly, it's a small blizzard in Chicago. Now, logically, you could say that this is simply a weather pattern; the dark clouds were already on the horizon, Wednesday even points them out to Shadow. Shadow's belief had nothing to do with moving the clouds closer and causing the water vapor inside to freeze to the point of fluffy white flakes. But doesn't it seems passing strange that the moment Shadow really starts to believe in snow, puts all his mental efforts into imagining hilly banks of white powder, Mr. Wednesday jokes that "that's enough. We don't want close down the city" because that imagined snow? Oh, it arrived. And just in time. Second is Shadow's other task, to answer the phone. Again, it's a very simple act. But like all method actors, it'll help the performance if Shadow really believes that he works for this security company, that he really is some put-out boss worried for the safety of his lone man sitting out on the streets of Chicago monitoring the ATM. And suddenly, Shadow really gets into his performance. He creates a bit of drama behind the scene, lamenting the cheap bank that won't pay for another worker; the conversation becomes personal as he offers a job to the cop on the other end of the line. In the novel, the conversation is quite a bit longer and we see just how much Shadow really puts into this banal and simple con man role. Again, it's the power of belief. Shadow must believe in the lies he's spewing and suddenly that story becomes just a little bit real because of his belief. The question becomes what happens if people stop believing?

Mr. Wednesday more or less dances around the answer to this question in a frank and weighted conversation with Shadow after the bank robbery. He doesn't even use the word belief, but instead talks about remembrance. The two--belief and remembering--go hand in hand. When you believe something, you automatically remember it. When beliefs pass out of practice, they likewise pass out of remembrance. They become antiques of yesteryear; archaeologists find mementos of these remembrances scattered in long forgotten cities, like the city in Oman where the djinn/taxi driver hailed from, and those are only the lucky belief systems. There are probably countless belief systems that are, simply, lost to time. This is Wednesday's greatest fear. "We remember the things that are important to us," he tells Shadow and of course he's right. If a thing is forgotten, it's because it is no longer important and it usually follows that, whatever is being forgotten, has been forgotten in light of something else. Something more important, something that can give the people believing it more than the thing forgotten. A shiny toy came along and people placed it first in their hearts and memories. Not-Really-Lucy-Ricardo said as much to Shadow last week from the TV set: these new entities, these new gods--Media, Technology--that people are sacrificing their time and each other to, are the new wave of belief. Whatever things like Wednesday and Czernobog and Anansi are, they don't stand a chance when people, quite simply, no longer remember or believe in them.

Miscellaneous Notes on Head Full of Snow

--I have to applaud the djinn/human sex scene in this episode. It was deeply erotic, but also deeply passionate, without being pornographic.It was not meant to titillate nor was it meant to be seen as unnatural. There was a sense of connection and intimacy that is usually not found in cable TV sex scenes.

--Kissing, according to the youngest Zorya, is like blue cheese.

--"You'd rather die than live in a world with bears in the sky."

--"We're gonna rob a bank. You want some coffee?"

--Ricky Whittle's delivery of the line, "Yeah, I like marshmallows" was damn near perfect. For a guy best known for a CW teenager centered show, he's doing some amazing and next level work here.

--"That's a lot of Jesus."

--"The fuck is this?" "You the fuck is this." Wednesday and Shadow could theoretically have their own comedy sitcom in the vein of The Odd Couple.

--Without giving anything away, I would start making note of anytime Mr. Wednesday enacts or speaks of cons, con-men or how to pull off a really convincing con.

--Oh dear; Mad Sweeney lost his coin. And Laura Moon appears to be out walking about. Hm, that's troubling.

--Know Your Gods: Again a lot of different gods to pull from this week, but I'm going with a personal favorite, Anubis of Egyptian mythology. I'll also talk a little bit about the ritual we see him perform with the dead woman. In popular culture, Anubis gets wrapped up as the god of the dead, but this isn't exactly right. He's more of a guardian than an actual lord of the dead, that right is most commonly reserved for green-faced Osiris. Anubis is depicted as a jackal-headed god and along with being the protector of the graves, Anubis also played an important part in embalming and ushering souls into the afterlife, a role we see him fulfill here in this episode. The ceremony we see with the old woman on the slopes of the desert is the weighing of the heart and, if you're of the western influence, it probably looks and sounds a lot like St. Peter tallying up your deeds and deciding where you ought to go (up? or down?). If it helps to think in those terms, then okay, but the ceremony of Ma'at is a bit more complicated. The scales of justice and truth are brought out and on one side goes the feather of Ma'at. We translate Ma'at as truth but it's richer than that. The concept is wrapped up in truth, justice, order, harmony, and balance. I don't even think we have a word for it in English. If you've maintained these principles during your life then your heart should be light, as light as the feather of Ma'at. The scales should balance and thus you've proved that you've upheld Ma'at. Note that the woman in question begins to speak of some of her misdeeds while the scales are settling so it's not as if you had to live a perfect life but rather everything in balance. If your heart was as light as Ma'at (or lighter) then, congratulations, you get to go to a sort of heavenly paradise. If you're heart was heavier, not in balance with Ma'at, then so sorry for your luck but you're about to meet with Ammit, a female demon who is a third lion, a third hippopotamus, and a third crocodile. She is called the eater of souls and because you have not lived a life in balance, Anubis will toss your heart to her and Ammit will gladly and happily devour it up. Sorry for you luck!

Monday, May 15, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (6x21 and 6x22)

The end. It's how all good fairy tales finish their tales. The villain defeated, the lovers reunited, the world of chaos righted into a world of order; and they all lived happily ever after. The end. While it is true that OUAT has been renewed for a seventh season, in so many ways this year's finale "The Final Battle part 1 and part 2" felt like a series finale. It was designed to wrap up the story of Snow White, Prince Charming, their daughter and how she, a lost, lonely, orphan saved an entire people. What comes next is really anyone's guess. There's a new generation, a new storybook to open and explore. But for six years we've been a part of this story, this family and suddenly it's time to say goodbye. It feels...weird, to be perfectly honest. I know I'm pretty critical of OUAT and what I feel are some truly poor stories but, at the same time, they were my stories. I knew Emma; I knew Rumple and Snow and Regina. Not liking the stories presented doesn't mean that I don't have some sort of attachment to them. After all, I'm still here with my little reviews week after week, aren't I? Seeing so many of these characters leave--and knowing that next year is something I can't predict or seeing coming like I have in the past--is a strange sensation. Am I getting sentimental? I suppose I am. For the Charmings, then, one last time. Let's go!

Happy Endings 

If there has been one major through-line for the entirety of season six, a season that has jumped around from plot thread to plot thread more than other seasons before it, it was Emma Swan. Emma has always been at the center of the story as Savior, Mother, Daughter, and as just Emma, but this year she's come more into focus as large portions of the story were devoted to giving Emma her happy ending, pushing her past those final hurdles to self-actualization. I suppose it's appropriate then that this finale, this final hurrah for Emma Swan, is derivative of season one. Around and around and back home again, the circle of the heroes journey goes like meticulous clockwork. But before you can reach the final destination, it's important to look back from whence you came which is really what this season finale is; Emma Swan this is your life! Yes, there's some plot nonsense about the Black Fairy but this finale could easily swap in any old villain into this story because it's less about the actual villain and more about what she represents: isolation, loneliness, those things that Emma has been fighting for six years. In order to show how far Emma has really come, the writers take her--and us by extension--back to an inverted season one. Emma's cursed this time around, a new set of memories in which believing Henry about fairy tale characters, magic, and curses put her in the mental hospital. This new curse also has the neat effect of casting all her family members (except her son, tellingly) into another realm. Once again, like she was for the first twenty-eight years of her life, Emma is seemingly alone and cut off. Except, of course, she's not and never was, which you'd think the Black Fairy would note and remember given that Emma literally sang her way to togetherness last week but that's all of apiece with the (and here's that word again) haphazard approach to this season. Nothing quite gels the way it should even though the writers are reaching deep into their and our collective memory to make everything feel like a nice full circle back to season one. If there was one reaction I constantly had during this two hour finale, it was "huh?" Emma's belief keeps all the realms alive and active (but wasn't affected by the 28 years she didn't believe in anything or for the whole span of human history before Emma was born); only light can snuff out light and Gideon is apparently light enough to go up against the Savior; the Black Fairy's curse is broken with her death not by any true love's kiss and Emma is saved from her sword wound by true love's kiss even though she's no longer cursed! All of it was rushed and sloppy and really underwhelming but the intent behind it softens the blow a bit.

Snow White says it best (she often does) when she remarks that The Final Battle isn't a literal battle but it's a battle for Emma's soul. Both episodes hinge on one critical moment and it's not the moment Emma faces down Gideon and it's not the moment the final Curse is broken with the Black Fairy's (super easy) death. No, it's the moment Emma, in her red jacket, chooses to come back to Storybrooke and tells Henry that while she doesn't believe in fairy tales and magic and curses and saviors, she wants to be the person that does believe. That is some serious self-actualization right there. Emma could have easily left, lived in Boston forever, totally un-bothered by any of this weekly nonsense. She could have had that day off she lamented about back in season three's finale "Going Home." Emma would be none the wiser about what was going on in Storybrooke or any other realm that pops out of existence with her dying belief. If this season began with Emma lamenting being the Savior and learning about the fate of all Saviors and wanting to run from it, then it's absolutely fitting that it ends with Emma wanting to be the Savior, choosing that path that is hard and largely untrod upon that really makes her the Savior. So sloppy, haphazard, and frankly a little boring in places, yes, but fitting. A fitting end to Emma Swan. Her reward isn't glory or ascension or apotheosis. It's something much smaller, something much calmer, and something much more human. Emma is, after all, a human Savior. Her mythicness is concrete but she is first and foremost of this world; she's a new fairy tale, one that is grungy and dirty and a little bit sad in places. No, Emma's reward isn't to achieve godhood; it is, quite simply, to live. Emma gets to live a life she never thought she'd have. And, it's cliche and it's overwrought, but surely....surely to live would be an awfully big adventure.

All of this is to say that it's time to leave Emma aside. Her story is over, that book is closed (sort of literally there at the end). We're moving into a different territory and to borrow from one of my favorite franchises, welcome to OUAT: The Next Generation, staring Lucy Mills! Hey little girl, are you the new Savior or the new Author? The show didn't really make it clear, but I suppose that's the point. If it was clear I might not tune in. I don't know what to do with a lot of this, honestly. It's not surprising that the show is gong back to its roots with a little kid showing up at a door and demanding that the adult inside follow them. It's a new heroes journey (though, who's exactly?) and I'm sure it will follow much of the same pathways that Emma's hero journey followed. The new Savior has to save a realm, a people, the happy endings and there will be talk of true love and hope and belief. That's the nice thing about archetypes: change the characters, keep the story the same.  It's another call to adventure! Are you coming along?

Miscellaneous Notes on The Final Battle part 1 and part 2

--I suppose we need to discuss the elephant in the room, huh? OUAT has been renewed for a seventh season but with a massive cast shakeup. The actors and actresses who play Emma, Snow, Charming, Henry, Belle, and Zelena will not be returning for another year. This leaves Hook, Rumple and Regina as leading the series. I have committed myself to watching (and reviewing) OUAT until the (possibly bitter) end but for the record, I'm not sure this revamped and rebooted series is going to be the fresh start the writers and network are hoping for.

--“If she thinks she can rip this family apart…curses have never stopped us before.”

--The musical cues while Hook was walking around the giant's table were really cool.

--How does Emma have third person omniscient memories? She actually remembers seeing herself walk down the aisle!

--Holy horrible outfits, Aladdin and Jasmine! Wow those getups the costume department forced on to them are miserable.

--"Hello there, Mummy.”

--Sven is my very favorite character. More Sven. Always.

--“Truthfully? The beanstalk that fell on me gave me pause” (I will miss Snowing. I will miss them, miss them, miss them.)

--Belle’s cursed personality is a shut in. That actually makes loads of sense given that she’s famous for wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere.”

--Belle and Rumple get a fresh start without having to actually talk through their issues! So many healthy relationships on this show.

--As is tradition, here my final thoughts on season 6B. It's really hard to grade this arc since the first several episodes were devoted to wrapping up last arc's dangling threads: Charming's father, the Evil Queen, Aladdin and Jasmine. The real story of 6B, Gideon and the Black Fairy, didn't get properly off the ground until episode 16 so, in effect, we only had four episodes of Black Fairy plot before the big musical episode and then the finale. That's simply not enough time to build a believable and coherent plot. Jamie Murray did good work as the Black Fairy, as did Giles Matthey with Gideon, but when you look back at the more well rounded villains, like Cora, the one thing the Black Fairy and Gideon didn't have was time. It's that haphazard approach I keep bringing up; if the Black Fairy is supposed to be the biggest and baddest evil in this universe, then she needed tobe built, explored, and fleshed out in more than just two flashbacks. I'm still not sure what her motivation for anything was; just because she's "evil" and Emma's good? How vague and asinine is that! Her reasoning can't even be rooted in her son, Rumple, because she severed him from his Savior destiny when he was only a few weeks old. On top of a frustrating villain, the magical MacGuffins really ran amok this time around. Every single week there was a new one, each more eye-roll worthy than the last, the worst being the True Love Flower that awoke Snow and Charming in the middle of the original Cursed years, retconning a large portion of not just season one but the entire premise of the show. I have my typical complaints about out of character and anti-feminist moments from the likes of Emma (who really took a turn toward the horrifying with each new terrible outfit and overly clingy moment); some squicky moments from Belle who goes back and forth in terms of attitude about her husband more than any sane (or well written) woman should. This isn't to say that there weren't some good pieces here and there, though. The musical does stand out as a big shake up and invigorated the show, if only for an hour. The actors are mostly still hitting it out of the park, especially Robert Carlyle as Rumple in any scene he had with Gideon. It was also nice to see a lot of returning characters, probably for the last time, like Archie, the dwarves, Tink, Malcolm, August and Gepetto.

Final Episode Ranking for S6B (lowest to highest):

12. "Awake" (6x17)
11. "A Wonderous Place" (6x15)
10. "Ill-Boding Patterns" (6x13)
9. "Where Bluebirds Fly" (6x18)
8. "Mother's Little Helper" (6x16)
7. "The Final Battle, part 1" (6x21)
6. "The Final Battle, part 2" (6x22)
5. "Tougher Than The Rest" (6x11)
4. "Page 23" (6x14)
3. "Murder Most Foul" (6x12)
2. "The Black Fairy" (6x19)
1. "The Song In Your Heart" (6x20)

Final Grade for S6B: C

--See you all in September!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x5)

It's amazing how deceptive promotional material can be. When the ad for this week's episode "Oxygen" aired, following last week's episode, I internally groaned quite a bit. It appeared to be a bottle episode, set almost entirely in space, where there's some sort of countdown until everyone dies and the Doctor and Bill just happen to stumble into this problem even though
"space station" wouldn't be on anyone's list of places or times to travel when the entirety of universal history is open to them. It seemed a fairly standard piece of NuWho, a one-off that doesn't leave any lasting impressions and is quickly forgotten a few days after airing. Boy, was I wrong about all of that. It's true that this is a very classic episode of Doctor Who with a whole lot of running down corridors and an inexplicable and close save at the end of the day, but there are a few points that make this week's episode more than just a typical danger-in-space sort of romp. Take a deep breath, monitor your oxygen levels and let's go!

On one level, this week's episode works as a commentary against the dangers of a modern capitalist society. Like any good science fiction story, Doctor Who doesn't stray from meta naval gazes that reflect the world we, the audience, currently live in. Remember two episodes back when the real crux and villain of the week was white privilege and the otherization of anyone who did not fit into the white hetero nomenclature (like Bill). This week's enemy is less tangible because they are unseen, though I would argue the villain goes hand in hand with the white privilege thesis set up two weeks ago for surely the overlords who decided that their workers lives are expendable, because they are no longer making as much money as they were previously, are members of that white privilege sect. In this case, however, the workers are from all races, genders, and at least in Bill's case, sexuality. These workers are not "others" because of any visible difference but rather by station and circumstance. Workers versus job creators, as it were. These unseen but deeply felt overlords get to decide how much human life matters and how much it's worth; it's the final line in a capitalist society where we make commodities out of everything. Human beings become objects, goods that can be exchanged and are easily expendable when their worth has depreciated. Our capitalist society is already set up like this, though many are loathe to admit it. Workers give their time, their effort, their labor, their blood, sweat, tears, their bodies, and their creative genius in exchange for wages. If the worker stops being productive or is no longer able to give any of the above, they are terminated. Granted, terminated in our society does not mean death but instead "firing" but the end result is largely the same. The worker's life has been deemed not valuable for the company anymore and whoever is in charge gets to determine the worker's net worth. Doctor Who is making a very bold political and social statement here where even the oxygen we breathe costs money and humans can be gotten rid of when they are taking up space and resources. It seems absurd except that it also felt too real and too likely. What I like most with this particular salient point is that the Doctor bests the overlords not by waving his magic wand but by beating them at their own game. If the overlords want to save money, it's now cheaper to keep the workers alive because the alternative is to lose their space drill, which I'm sure costs more than a pretty penny. It's not emotion, it's practical. The Doctor does not convince the overlords of the value of a single life, but speaks to their profit and loss,the language that matters for these job creators. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Doctor Who is advertising we all storm Wall Street and overturn tables of money and hold the exchange hostage but the episode does make a compelling point about being alert to how these sorts of mentalities--the expendable nature of human life--comes about. Given that the current American President is a multi-millionaire "job creator" who hired other business men to fill the most important positions in government, I'd say it's a lesson well learned.

The second item of interest in this week's episode is whatever the hell is happening with the Doctor. I've been sitting on my hands for the first four episodes of this season, only making random mentions of Checkov's Vault and the Doctor's great oath in my notes but not lingering on it more than that. I'm still not sure how to unpack this year's major plot points except to note that Nardole isn't just a nag; he's absolutely determined to keep the Doctor on Earth for the safety of said tiny blue planet! It had seemed like an exaggeration, that some figure behind a locked and impenetrable set of doors could so ruin the Earth, but given Nardole's final speech to the Doctor in the school office whatever is behind those locked doors could cause irreparable harm. Which brings us to the Doctor and his newest condition: he's blind. There's a fairly famous axiom that says there are none so blind as though who will not see and I have to ponder if we can apply it to the Doctor here. Whoever is behind the Vault--Master, Mistress, some other figure from the great Who lore--has gained a certain amount of affection from the Doctor. He speaks to the person; he tells them stories; he's given him or her a piano to keep them company. The Doctor is not a cruel Time Lord, though with his godlike powers he certainly could be, but there's something genuinely sad going on with this figure behind the Vault, as if the Doctor hates what he's doing and is trying to atone. His blindness might not be literally and directly associated with this looming mystery but its placement in the story--at the end when Nardole is reading the Doctor the riot act--is telling. The Doctor is blind to the repercussions of not keeping his oath; the Doctor's blindness is working not only on a literal level but on a metaphorical one too. He can't see the danger that lurks just downstairs, silently tucked out of sight but not so out of mind.

Miscellaneous Notes on Oxygen 

--"Space....the final frontier." Yes, let's combine all my favorite science-fiction things into one. I approve!

--The BBC should probably get the rights to the idea of "The Walking Dead in Space" before AMC snatches it up and makes it into a seven series show.

--"What do you want from me?" "The truth." "Don't be unreasonable."

--I've been questioning what Nardole's purpose is, and I still don't quite know, but he's got excellent comedic chemistry with Bill and the Doctor so that's a step in the right direction.

--"I thought I sent you to Birmingham for a packet of crisps!" "Yeah. I saw through your clever ruse."

--I don't have much to say on Bill this week but she continues to shine as our new companion. I thought her "death" scene was very emotional. I also like that the Doctor doesn't seem bothered by all the hugs.

--"Do people ever hit you?" "Only when I'm talking."

--So, what does dying in space have to do with crop rotation?

--"I've got some spare eyes somewhere. I think they're from a lizard..."

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x2)

"Angry," says the African spider god Anansi "is good. Angry gets shit done." When people discuss gods and their characteristics we tend to think of them as benevolent figures full of love and warmth. After all, the most popular metaphor for god in the western world is that of a father. What I think is often missing from the conversation about godhood is the raw power and how these cosmic figures wield said power. This is also where it's pretty handy to know some non-western traditions about gods and the awesome energy that emanates from them. I'm using awesome here not in the colloquial sense of something being "cool" but awesome in the classic sense of stunning to the point of fear. The gods of the classic world weren't just archetypes for farmers and fathers; they were warriors, patrons of blood and battle. They rode mythical beasts into the fray. They controlled every aspect of the world and their wrath was seen in the flashes of lightening that flickered across the sky and their anger was heard in the rolling thunder claps. Gods are not devoid of emotion; they are emotion. Unfiltered, unrestrained emotion. And the gods in this week's episode "The Secret of Spoon"? Oh, they are angry, my readers. Very angry. Grab your checker board and let's go!

Shadow Moon has a lot of reasons to be angry. After three years in prison, he's released early only to learn that his wife died in a rather compromising position; Mr. Wednesday puts it a little more aptly, bluntly, and frankly crassly than I shall. In the wake of his newly found freedom, Shadow is tasked with the thankless job of cleaning up Laura's mess. It's a dirty and sad job but Shadow is almost clinical and methodical about it. He has to be; if he pauses in his tasks then he remembers what Laura did to him while Shadow served his time. He packs the boxes, he tapes them up. He puts everything that was the Moon's life together in neat little packages that he can safely store away. Until, that is, Shadow comes across a photo that reminds him that while he was off serving time in jail, missing Laura and counting the days until their reunion, she was getting erect penis pictures from Shadow's best friend. When confronted with these (ahem) hard truths--that Laura claimed to love him but was also screwing his best friend--Shadow has two options. On the one hand, he can process the grief slowly, go through the motions as they come from sadness to confusion to regret to anger. On the other hand, he can bottle it all up. Suppress the rage because as Mr. Wednesday says, "you only obligated to feel bad about this for so long." It's an interesting way to look at this whole sorry situation because Mr. Wednesday is equally angry. Not about Laura Moon, to be sure, but about the situation he and his people are in. The show is still dancing very vaguely around what these plans are, why Mr. Wednesday is so enraged, and even what exactly Mr. Wednesday is so I'll refrain from laying out his grand plan but make no mistake that under this calm, jovial, and charming exterior Mr. Wednesday is all thunderclaps and lightening bolts. He's on a mission; this is a mission he needs Shadow for and when he hears that aberrations like Tech Boy and Not-Really-Lucille-Ricardo are talking to him, engaging him, tempting him to their side of whatever war is going on, Mr. Wednesday is pretty angry. And that gets shit done. This week, we get to see more of Mr. Wednesday's opening gambit. It has something to do with recruitment of old friends; friends who, like Czernobog and his relatives, aren't exactly thrilled to see him.

If Shadow Moon is fighting an uphill battle to keep all his emotions over Laura in check, then Mr. Wednesday is fighting a much more visual uphill battle against his rather stubborn, obstinate and morose friends. Our introduction to Czernobog isn't the same as our introduction to other larger than life characters. Anansi on the slave ship was breathtaking in his anger and hatred; Mr. Wednesday is charming and mysterious, almost Santa Claus like with his his full bellied laugh and twinkling eyes. Czernobog though? No, Czernobog isn't even remotely charming, covered in dried blood and smoking a cigarette down to the last few ashes. He's definitely angry, like Anansi, but his anger is less powerful, soul stirring and more subdued, a sort of ennui that makes everyone around him roll their eyes. Anansi's anger is a call to action; Czernobog's anger barely registers. Czernobog's anger boils down to his own self image and self worth as it directly relates to his own strength and job in the modern world. There was a time, claims Czernobog, when his mighty arms and steel hammer got the thankless jobs done. His position as cow-killer required brute strength but with a delicate touch. After all, in his line of work, you need to be able to kill a cow with one blow, not multiple. Because he was able to do this, Czernobog's manliness was intact. This subtext becomes text quite rapidly as Shadow visualizes Czernobog stroking his (very phallic) hammer as blood spurts from the head. Czernobog once felt useful, needed. Now? Not so much. That's what at the root of Czernobog's own anger. His utility, and by extension his manliness (dare I say, godliness), is long gone, replaced by a machine that can do what once only he could do. It's the same message Not-Really-Lucy-Ricardo gives Shadow in the aisles of a pseudo-Walmart: these creatures, these Media and Tech creatures, are the new wave of the future. They can do whatever Mr. Wednesday and Czernobog did for mankind eons ago, but faster and better. These machines and whirl and give instant satisfaction and gratification; they are replacing whatever Mr. Wednesday and Czernobog were/are. People don't really need Mr. Wednesday and Czernobog anymore in the way they once did. And that's really why Czernobog makes Shadow the deal over checkers. He needs to feel that control over another life again, to know that he still has it in him to take a life with just one swing of his hammer, swung from his powerful and some might say godly arms (plus, he's kind of just an asshole). The anger of these various men--Shadow, Mr. Wednesday, Czernobog--radiates off them. Shadow's anger is fairly human in its nature, but as for the other two? Well. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what really lurking behind all this anger.

Miscellaneous Notes on the Secret of Spoons

--"Take swimming lessons. This is how we get stereotypes!" Everything about Anansi's introduction was breathtaking and I'd love to quote the whole speech but to pick up the social commentary of last week with Shadow's lynching we have the extra powerful, "you don't even know you're black yet. You just think you're people!"

--Did the show try to find the smallest bathtub possible for Ricky Whittle to sit in?

--It's a nice touch that the icon for "Motel America" is a buffalo, similar to the one Shadow saw in one of his dreams last week. Though, the one on Shadow's t-shirt is lacking in the whole fire-from-his-eyes thing.

--"I'm not going to steal from you!" "If you can't look out for yourself how the hell are you going to look out for me?"

--Gillian Anderson as Not-Really-Lucy-Ricardo was magnificent.

--"We are now and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow; and he's ain't even yesterday anymore."

--Know Your Gods: I had quite a slew to choose from this week but because of Orlando Jones's defining and eye popping opening, let's meet Anansi, the West African and Caribbean spider god. Anansi is often wrapped up in the archetype of the trickster but this isn't quite accurate. He's not the African version of Norse mythology's Loki, in other words. His cunning and trickery do set him apart but Anansi is, first and foremost, the spirit of storytelling and stories. There's a very famous legend on how Anansi came to have all the stories of the world in his possession and it goes a little something like this: the sky god Nyame, who is often Anansi's father, held all the stories of the world and there were no stories on Earth. Given that West African and Caribbean mythologies (where Anansi hails from) are largely oral cultures, not having any stories to tell is a bleak world, indeed. So Anansi went to his father, the sky god Nyame, and asked if he could buy all the stories of the world. Nyame set an impossible price; he wanted three other creatures brought to him, creatures that would surely gobble up a little spider like Anansi. But Anansi was a clever spider god. He managed to trick the python, the leopard, and the hornets and delivered them up to Nyame. As a reward, Anansi was made the god of storytelling. A god of storytelling played a vital role in a culture that was so alive with oral mythologies. Anansi also becomes so heavily associated with slavery and the slave/master relationship because, after all, Anansi is a small creature who usually manages to overpower a larger more formidable one; Anansi shares certain characteristics with Br'er Rabbit, though the latter is a predominately African-American legend.

Monday, May 8, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (6x20)

Musical episodes are tricky. If music and random bouts of singing are not built into the DNA of the show, a musical can feel like a shark jump moment or so totally disconnected from the universe of the show that it becomes cringe worthy. There are some non-musical shows that make singing and dancing work for them. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Once More With Feeling" is, hands down, one of the best episodes of TV you'll ever see. Grey's Anatomy's own musical episode, "The Song Beneath The Song," is an example of a failed musical venture that didn't make sense. What set those two apart? Quite a bit like genre for a start--I can easily believe that a demon comes to Sunnydale and curses everyone to sing\--but also that Buffy's musical was heavy with development. The episode did not stop the flow of the story but actually pushed everything forward with some very big, very deep moments of clarity for multiple characters plus it utilized darker themes the lend themselves to song anyway, like depression, isolation, and abuse. I think it's fair to say that OUAT's own musical venture, "The Song In Your Heart," tried to be more in line with Buffy's than with Grey's; it's an Emma-centric episode that pushed its leading lady into the next stage of her on-going journey by way of personal revelation. This isn't only to sing the praises (pun!) of this episode because it was rather sloppy and (here's that word again) haphazard in its execution of deploying the same tired themes and story beats for the characters. Also, frankly it has a bit of a misogynistic overtone. In other words, it's an OUAT episode. But with singing. Warm up your own vocal chords and let's go!

Sing Me A Song

Let's face it: this episode was always going to be a tough one for me to blog. I'm not exactly CaptainSwan's biggest fan (lolz). But, I was an Emma Swan fan from the beginning and while I believe her character has undergone a radical and negative transformation over the past three years into someone I don't particularly like, I do believe the show can be at its best when it focuses on Emma's journey into both being a true Savior and into selfhood. With that said, I was delighted that this episode did not turn into a full on, no holds bar, CaptainSwan love-fest but instead was really about Emma, her parents, and her son. It's where the show began and it's still the sweet spot for OUAT. I do want to start with some negative aspects of this episode first before dovetailing into the more positive moments of the show so let's consider why this final hurrah for Emma's character is happening on the day of her wedding. The culmination of this week's plot is Emma realizing that she's never been alone, that she's carried her parents, and everyone's, magical "song" in her heart; she does this with Henry's help. All of this is in the wheelhouse of OUAT's own specific brand of family relations. The issue happens that directly following this moment is Emma's wedding, in fact the scene transitions from Emma's triumph to Hook standing at the alter as if the final moment of selfhood is marriage and that for Emma to truly complete her journey she has to be unified with another person, while wearing a (truly ugly) white gown. It's fairy heternormative and misogynistic that a woman's big moment is a wedding; the question to ask is did this episode and this moment in Emma's journey need a wedding to feel complete? No; it didn't. Emma's emotional growth would still have happened if the wedding had not. So, you might be asking yourself, why not have the wedding if the emotional growth would happen regardless, the answer is that the wedding adds a sour note to that emotional journey.

Please understand that I'm not suggesting that Hook and Emma shouldn't be married (though, long time readers will know my feelings on that subject well). I am suggesting that the wedding should have happened before Emma's big moment of self-actualization so that it does not feel like the proverbial cherry on top of the Emma-cake. Emma's big moment is realizing that she's never truly been alone and that moment against the Black Fairy, singing her heart out and breaking the spell on her whole family was powerful. It was an incredibly powerful visual (true story: I cried a lot during that number). I know I've been hard on Emma these last few years but right then, right there, that's the Emma I loved back in seasons 1 and 2. Emma is important because she's Emma Swan; she is full of the indestructible love from everyone in her life. She's not just someone's mother or someone's daughter or someone's wife. This has noting to do with walls or not being open to love; it has to do with Emma looking in the mirror and liking herself, seeing herself as a healthy, happy person. This is why the wedding is such a disconnect here in this episode! The show is promoting a rather conservative viewpoint (no woman is complete until she has a man!) that is perfectly encapsulated by Emma's wedding dress which is not only plain hideous but, because it's an exact replica of Grace Kelly's 1950s wedding dress when she married Prince Rainer of Monaco, it also pushes Emma back into a bygone era when women were defined by their marital status. If you're curious about what kind of outfits Emma used to be dressed in, and get a rough idea of how Emma's wedding dress should have been imagined, I'd suggest looking at the season two promotional photos of Emma in her father's armor but made female. Emma putting on a white 1950s dress and marrying a man should not receive a Super Special Episode and, let's face it, a large part of this episode is about that event. There's some retconish (and highly enjoyable) plot salad about magic songs in the heart or something but this episode is specifically designed to get Emma and the audience the alter. And that's my biggest issue with this week's episode. The culmination of Emma's character journey when she realizes that she matters, when she truly accepts herself as Emma Swan with all her faults should get the Super Special Episode. This episode should end with Emma singing her solo, driving back the Black Fairy, and standing shoulder to shoulder with her entire family. But tacking on the wedding makes Emma's journey all about this particular matrimonial final moment.

Since I've riffed on some of the social commentary within this episode, let's move on to what did work this week. First, how about a huge round of applause for the cast who gave this musical their all and looked like they were having the time of their lives? That sort of enthusiasm is infectious and I would be lying if I said I wasn't smiling through a lot of this cheesy escapade into singing and dancing. There are a lot of good moments like Hook's pirate rock song which is cheeky and clever and done exceptionally well by actor Colin O'Donoghue. Lana Parrilla was born to play the over the top crazy that is the Evil Queen hamming it up in song and dance and even the tiny musical moments--like Jiminy Cricket getting an insect solo--were heart warming and endearing. A musical episode needs to be entertaining; it needs to not be solely bogged down in the muck and misery of what the characters are going through with the arc villain. You need Tara singing to Willow in the sun and a guy celebrating the fact that the dry cleaners got the mustard out. "The Song In Your Heart" has those moments in spades so that even though the flashback is the exact same kind of flashback we've seen so many times before--The Evil Queen getting ready to destroy Snowing; Snowing realizing that their love is enough to save the day someday--it felt different; it felt fresher and more invigorated, like the actors weren't simply just going through the same tired motions. It's cheesy and it's campy but it's perfectly inline with the over the top type of drama and character OUAT does best. Everyone really stood out this week and, yes, good performances can absolutely override some questionable social themes. There are times when shaking up the status quo is a good thing and while I wouldn't recommend that OUAT ever try this format again, this was a proper shake up that gets us ready for the final two episodes of this season.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Song In Your Heart

--For the sake of my own sanity, I am going to skip over even thinking about discussing yet another memory wipe.

--Emma's wedding dress isn't the only unfortunate outfit here. Putting Hook in velvet takes the tux to a cheap place and makes him look like a black hole. Also, Snow? Get rid of whatever you're wearing...quickly.

--Favorite song? Probably the opening number "Powerful Magic;" Hook's pirate rock song "Revenge Is Gonna Be Mine," and Emma's solo "Emma's Theme"

--Least favorite song? "The Charmings vs The Evil Queen" because it's just a rehash of two previous songs. Something new there would have worked better.

--"And my! Do I sound...good!"

--Oh, hey. The Black Fairy cast the Dark Curse and apparently Emma now has to do what it once took her a year to do in two hours. Cool.

--Speaking of, does anyone really understand the motivations of the Black Fairy? Why is she even doing any of this? Simply because she's dark and Emma's light?

--"I'm sorry, dearie. Do you think the Dark One sings? I'd rather scratch my eyes out with a rusty fork."

--A big ol' whatever to the nonsense that is Hook and Rumple reigniting their feud.

--So was Belle not even invited to the wedding? Even after she went through the trouble of finding Snow's wedding dress for Emma? You know for a season that focuses heavily on her son being controlled by the most evil being in all of existence, she's had shockingly little to do or say.

--Two to go! See you all next week for the season six finale!