I have a feeling The River may be the Mitt Romney of television shows. It has all the makings of a great series, but like Romney, inching ever closer toward the Republican nomination while at the same time moving further away from being elected president, The River is telling better stories while completely wearing out its basic premise. What a great analogy.
I’m assuming the Magus will find Emmett within the next couple of weeks**, considering that its finding members of his crew strewn up and down the Amazon. This week they stumble upon a g-g-g-ghost ship, with none other than Lena’s father, Tobias Beecher — who’s found himself in another sort of prison hahahaha that’s not a joke — trapped onboard. This turns out to be really fortunate, as it comes at a time when Lena’s really feeling the loss of her dad. Russ (Lee Tergesen isn’t really playing Beecher) was Emmett’s cameraman on The Undiscovered Country, but whenever anyone ever talks about Emmett, or how desperate they are to find him, Russ for some reason gets lost in the shuffle. Lena’s taken to long bouts of sitting up deck and playing her accordion to deal with the pain.
(**And the next few weeks may be the only chance the show’s got, considering its ratings.)
Lena and the rest of the crew find Russ aboard the Exodus, a ship appearing out of the fog and bringing with it much needed spare parts. Spare parts to get the Magus’ engine working again, after being run aground by another ship, on this unusually high-trafficked stretch of the river. The crew of the Exodus seem very friendly. And in return for their generosity, Tess and the others invite them to dinner, which the Exodus crew are very eager to take them up on. But while they’re eating, Security Chief Kurt spots two of the crew talking about getting everyone over to their ship and all manners of related skulduggery. And when Kurt pulls the Exodus captain aside and tells him he and friends best make their way back to their ship DOUBLE TIME QUICK, he turns into a monster or something and transports him to the other ship. I think. So their all ghosts, doomed to forever sail the Amazon, until they’re able to find some poor souls to replace them. The reasons for all of this are never really gone into. Which is both a little frustrating and a little refreshing. Frustrating because we’re just asked to accept it. Refreshing because, since they’re never explained, we don’t have to sit through Jahel and those dead eyes of hers explaining some obscure myth or legend. So you give a little, you get a little.
By the time Kurt shows up on the ship, Lena’s already there, having gone over earlier with Jonas after the two of them see a shadowy figure watching the two of them from one of the other ship’s belowdecks portholes. That shadowy figure turns out to be Lena’s dad, and the two of them spend a bit of time hugging and tearing up, and also not realizing the gravity of their situation. At this point in time, Lena doesn’t know that her dad’s dead, DOOMED TO FOREVER SAIL THE AMAZON. But still, she finds him looking a little roughed up, stuck in the hold of this ship, and I’m not seeing a red flags being waved. But once they see Kurt, they realize something’s not right, and try breaking out of the ship’s hold. This is where the episode begins to wear a little thin.
One of the Exodus crew tells Tess that they’ve got an accurate map of this section of the river, and why don’t they pop on over to the other ship, just for a few minutes, to get it. Well, they do, and Tess ends up the third the newest member of the Exodus’ CREW OF THE DAMNED. Lincoln and Snape realize that something’s amiss and mount a rescue mission. Now, this entire time, A.J. is running around the ship, following them or walking right in front of them, in all his gear, with that damn camera in their face. I understand the show has painted him as that guy whose attitude is, “Who cares? I got the shot.” But, really? Everyone’s packing heat, getting ready to go to this other ship, ready to KILL PEOPLE, and he’s running around with his camera? Yes, these people are making a TV show. And if there’s one thing reality television has taught us, it’s that networks will film all sorts of human suffering and repackage it as entertainment. But there’s got to come a point where these people are facing such weird — not to mention life-threatening — stuff, and they’ll put the cameras down and say, “Let’s just focus on getting through this without getting killed.” Especially when the crew’s split up, and it’s completely possible half of them are dead. But then again, Toddlers & Tiaras has been on the air for five seasons, so what the hell do I know?
I never thought I’d seriously consider buying a horse. But after watching Luck, I just might start saving my pennies. Not to race them, but to do what I imagine David Milch does, which is sit in quiet contemplation of the animals, doubting my own significance and place in the universe. He probably does that.
The characters on Luck are all rich and layered, but the horses kind of are, too. And while there may not be a ton to differentiate one from the other, the show has done a great portraying them as some sort of conduit through which everyone’s able to tap into some sort of divine power. Even hardass Turo softens when he sees Ace sleeping outside Pint of Plain’s stall. Later that night, Ace wakes up to find his horse hovering over him, and as he — and by extension the audience — stares into the globe of his eye, we get the sense that this is what it’s all about for Milch and his characters. They find God in small moments like these. Now, I wouldn’t say the show is overly concerned with those moments. It’s not trying to throw spirituality in our faces. But like the overall je ne sais quoi of the sport, it is one aspect of it.
I’m glad the show is giving us little moments like that to take away from each episode, because we’re now halfway through the season, and I’m still waiting to see what — or even understand — I’m a huge idiot — how Ace’s master plan against Mike is supposed to play out. That whole side of the show gets pushed to the back burner this week whenever Ace wakes up to find that Pint of Plain’s been entered in a race without he or Gus — Pint’s legal owner — being told. When they call Escalante, he tells them he entered the horse’s name in the race as a favor to another trainer just to fill out a race roster, and that he’s about 90% sure the horse won’t actually race. Ace isn’t buying it, and is convinced Escalante is playing them, entering the horse in the race to make some money off of it. They’re actually okay with the horse racing, but if he’s going to race, they want to make sure the best jockey Escalante’s got is riding him. And while that whole thing makes for a really bad for Joey and Leon, it turns out to be good luck for Ace and the gang. When another horse throws a shoe during the race, which flies back, cutting one of Pint’s legs, I don’t know that Leon would have been able to keep control of the horse and finish out the race.
Of course, that’ll be little comfort to Joey, who’s forced to give Leon Escalante’s bad news. Leon grows a spine for all of five minutes to tell Joey he’s kind of sick of his shit before stomping off. And the downward spiral begins. By the end of the episode, we see Joey in tears, leaving his ex-wife voicemail after voicemail. This is a guy who’s kind of got no one left. Escalante screws him over (although he really can’t be blamed for it), he’s on Leon and Ronnie’s shit list, he can’t even get a sympathetic look from the bartender when he tells her he’s just feeling sorry for himself.
Fortunately, things aren’t so doom and gloom for everyone on the show. Marcus and Jerry get into another fight over Jerry’s gambling after the security guard from the racetrack — did anyone else notice the dried vomit stain on his shirt? — stops by an tells them he was fired after someone ratted him out for loansharking. Jerry’s had about all he can stand so he tells Renzo and Lonnie that they can take Marcus to the heart doctor. The doctor prescribes Marcus Valium, and it’s probably only because of that that he and Jerry are able to have their little heart-to-heart once Jerry cools down and comes back to the hotel. Those few minutes may have been the most real, not to mention funniest moments of the series, with Marcus telling Jerry that he only gets so pissed off at him because he cares and worries about him, therefore he’s got to be “queer” for Jerry, because straight guys don’t have these sort of feelings for each other. It’s kind of amazing that whenever these characters have some sort of emotional breakthrough, or when they’re able to knock down the barriers they surround themselves with, it feels like such an event. The race with Gettin’ Up Morning in last week’s episode. Ace’s moment with Pint of Plain earlier this week. These people are so used to putting up fronts with everyone around them that when they actually level with people and allow their feelings — or more specifically, their care and concern for each other — to come through, they really come through. You see the same thing earlier that morning, while Ace is waiting for Clair to drop by and pick up her check. I guess the question you have to ask is whether or not you can blame them. They’ve all been burned before.
Once all is said and done, I think we’ll all look back at Luck and remember it as a show that was much greater than we gave it credit for at the time. Yes, it’s taking a while for whatever the hell Ace is planning against Mike to get going, but that whole side of this story isn’t what’s great about it. It’s these characters, their relationships to each other, and their relationship to the racetrack. Everything, from their connection to the animals, the quiet moments we see them when they’re completely alone, their constant bickering, even Ace and Gus chilling out in the hotel every night, sipping Scotch and talking about life makes this one of the greatest character studies we’ve ever seen on TV. And yes, that’s taking shows like The Wire and (forgive me) Deadwood into account. Everything these guys do is plot, but the absence of plot as we might generally define it isn’t an issue in a show like this. The beats in between the beats are just as important as anything else. I’m kind of happy to watch it all.
“18 Miles Out” could have also been called “The Gaping Plot Hole.” Even in the middle of Rick and Shane’s slap fight, all I could focus on was the nerd minutia, like how the two of them could cut their hands open, run around sticking their them in dead people’s mouths and knife wounds and somehow not get infected. Some might call this a trifle BUT IT’S NOT. If the zombie virus is transmitted through blood, are you going to be in any rush to tear another person apart and drape their intestines over your shoulders? What an absurd show.
When I looked back on the episode, I felt that my focus should have been on Rick and Shane’s fight, and where it left the two once it was over. Conflict is good, but I do enjoy seeing these two guys working together. And for a moment there at the end, I thought that they may have come through this whole thing with a new understanding for each other. Then I thought about it, and the sun sank toward the horizon, and I realized that these are two men who will never again understand understand each other. I realized that what Andrea said about Lori is also true of Rick. He’s living a blessed life, here at the end of the world. He came out of nowhere to find his wife, his son, and his one-time best friend alive. And while he’s lost people, those losses haven’t been close enough to change his worldview the way it has Shane’s. While I’m sure Shane has lost people close to him, the biggest loss he’s suffered, at least that we’ve seen on the show — is his relationship with Lori. That’s the rest of his life.
So while Rick will tell Shane that he wants to take a night to debate whether or not to kill the kid they have tied up and blindfolded in their trunk, Shane will be stomping his feet, pissed off that he doesn’t get to shoot the kid RIGHT NOW. Things will remain this way until Lori and Carl are eaten or something.
Of course, this is assuming the show can keep itself on some sort of semi-rational track. I was kind of surprised to see Rick taking this kid to dump him off in the middle of nowhere in the first place. And in the middle of town, no less. He tells Shane that he’s looking for a place that’ll give him a fighting chance of survival. So instead of cutting him loose in the middle of nowhere, he stops off at an abandoned bus depot. Letting him go like this already seems to be going against his philosophy. AND THEN, when Rick and Shane find out that this kid went to school with Maggie, they start debating whether or not to shoot him in the head. How does this make sense?
Back at the farm, Lori and Andrea are also throwing down. And after their argument, I have to say I had a hard time figuring out which one I agreed with more. I agreed with Andrea in that neither Lori or anyone else could butt in and tell Beth or whoever that they had to carry on in a world like this if they were dead set against it.** What’s the point? If someone is that determined to kill himself, he’s probably going to find a way to make it happen. But I also agreed with Lori in that Andrea wasn’t really doing anything to protect the camp besides shoot people like Daryl in the face. I’m not saying Andrea needs to settle into a long life of washing shirts in the creek or cooking the men’s dinners, but her grabbing a shotgun and jumping on top of Dale’s RV does seem a little overexcited. In the end, the argument between these two is the argument between Rick and Shane. It’s just being played out a little differently. And while they’re both likely to come down on the side of their respective man, Lori does admit that Andrea’s little stunt with Beth — leaving her alone long enough to make the decision whether or not she wanted to kill herself — worked, and everyone now and then you had to do something crazy and over the line like that, for great justice. Maybe Lori and Andrea will be able to see past their differences and work together. Women truly are the more sensible sex. But that “boyfriend” remark Andrea made to Lori? Not cool, man. Not cool (Lori kind of had it coming).
(**And speaking of which, how selfish is this girl? I understand her wanting to kill herself. But how to do you go and beg someone else to kill herself, when two seconds before she was asking you to give life another chance? “Hey, how about instead of your idea, you go a million miles in the other direction and commit suicide instead?”)
While the ladies may be able to put their differences aside, I don’t think the same can be said of the men. Shane’s got too much skin in this game. And Lori throwing him to the curb, parading around with Rick on one arm and Carl on the other is just too in his face to be swept under the rug. I guess the question we have to ask now is who’s going to land on whose side. Maybe Rick should take notice, keep himself from killing that kid. As Bert Cooper said, you never know how loyalty will be born, but you have to imagine not killing someone is a pretty good start.
There are a lot of parallels between The River and Lost. Forget the fact that both shows share Oahu as a filming location. After you hear everyone on board the Magus — sorry, just Jahel — talk about ancient tribes living in the jungle and the source of all magic — aptly referred to as “the source” — you begin to think you’ve heard all this before. But forget all that for a second. I think that if you put the mystery aside, at its core The River has a lot more in common with Battlestar Galactica. Why, you ask? Well, you’ve got a small group of people cut off from the rest of society. The deeper into the jungle they go, the weirder the stuff popping out at them becomes. Their situation becomes desperate, and cracks in their morality begin to appear.
Overall, I thought “A Better Man” was much better than last week’s “Los Ciegnos,” although it highlighted a number of problems the series is still suffering from. One of those is Jahel. The show’s use of her was the clumsiest it’s ever been, as we watched her attempt to explain the tribe-of-the-week the crew had run afoul of by jumping in Lincoln’s face, out of the shadows with a Tarot deck. Lincoln’s response seemed to be, “The hell?” and wasn’t much unlike our own. It’s awkward and always feels like it’s been shoehorned into the scene, but her “Oooh! Oooh! Oooh! Pick me!” attitude wouldn’t be so hard to stomach if she could find it within herself to talk about something other than magic. Although this week wasn’t as bad, characterization is one of the problems the show generally suffers from. But just when I think the characters are beginning to move beyond the boxes the show stuffed them in in the pilot, they go out and do something like take their guitars and accordions out and start singing songs, because what the hell?
But there was one thing I really liked about this week’s episode, and think the show could be so much better if it expounded on these themes a little more. Introducing Jonas — one of Emmet Cole’s cameramen who’s gettin’ his Peabody — into the mix I thought was a good idea, and not because he came along at just the right time, when, as Tess says, the crew needs a win (it turns out he can’t remember anything so it’s a moot point anyway). But because the crew almost immediately recognized what a threat he was to the rest of them and decided to pitch him overboard. I thought it was interesting to see the crew get the eff real, in a kind of show in which characters choose some of the worst times to make moral stands. Everyone turning their back on Jonas felt right. And he came off as kind of a douchebag, so, you know…
Still, even this side of things proved problematic. I’m not sure there was a single person out there who wasn’t rolling their eyes when they saw that Jonas had captured the dying tribesman’s soul inside his cellphone. Seriously? And once Jonas saw that everyone on board the Magus had turned against him, he was pretty quick to throw himself on his sword and wrap that noose back around his neck. And this was five minutes after begging everyone not to make him go back out there. So, the show is still trying to figure out exactly how real people act. It’s getting some of the scary stuff down — the birds and the roaches this week were nice touches — but it’s only scratching the surface on how these people would react to it all.
Good shows demand patience. And for those of you who were able to hold on through the first three episodes of Luck, despite the snail’s pace at which its world was being set up, you were heartily rewarded this week. If you happened to be one of those who watched the first few episodes and figured the show just wasn’t for you, there’s still time to come back. We’ll welcome you back into the fold, but we’ll never forget who you are or what you did.
Man, Luck’s really TURNED THE CORNER, huh??? LOL. I liked this show right from the start, but it wasn’t grabbing me and beating me over the head the way Deadwood did. All that changed this week. And Rosie’s first race with Gettin’ Up Morning wasn’t even the best of it. Although it definitely was a testament to how, in the end, a show’s subject matter can always be trumped by strong character development. Rosie definitely deserved her little fist pump after coming from behind to win her race, but it was Walter Smith who really stole the show, pouring out his heart to Delphi — Gettin’ Up Morning’s sire — after the race, telling him, “I don’t know if I could lose two of you.” Whenever I find myself getting choked up by something like this, I figure the people doing it are doing it right. There wasn’t much to dislike about that entire sequence. The way the audio dropped out and was replaced by the music. And the way the race united everyone at the racetrack. Well, metaphorically, anyway.
For fans of David Milch, the way this scene was constructed probably came as no surprise. One of the themes he seems to hit on most is community, and Gettin’ Up Morning’s race really showed how all of these separate characters really aren’t separate at all, but connected by an unseen bond that’s brought them (and bound them) to this place. This is a theme Deadwood hit on quite frequently, as that show was about building a community from the ground up. And just like the bad guys and the good guys were all integral to Deadwood’s success, Turo, Gus, the shitbirds, Rosie, and Walter are all integral to making the Santa Anita Racetrack such a special place. Although I suppose that “special” here is a relative term. But it does produce its own, unique magic. And Rosie’s race was definitely a piece of that. You can see it in the character’s faces as we watch them watching the race, that what’s unfolding before them is incredibly rare, maybe even transformative.
Definitely transformative for some of them. While the closeups during Gettin’ Up Morning’s race show us how awed everyone is by what they’re seeing, one scene later in the episode show’s us how devastating it is. After falling off the horse and breaking his collarbone in last week’s episode, Ronnie’s forced to hand the reins over to another jockey — in this case Rosie — meaning that he and Joey, as Ronnie’s agent, lose out on the prestige, not to mention the money, that comes with riding a horse like that. We see Joey, alone in the bar as everyone else is packing up for the night, drunk off his ass, talking to himself. I guess I’d be feeling the same way if I had just come from a race like that, and only that morning had seen Ronnie drinking and doing drugs.
I’ll probably refer back to the Gettin’ Up Morning race several times over the coming week, so if you’ve got any problems with that, best to just get the hell out right now. I think it’s funny that for those few minutes, the race kind of had everyone let their guards down. Everyone’s bullshit show just kind of melted away, but right after the race was over, it went right back up again. Except for Marcus, who gets it in his head that, even though Jerry’s a deadbeat degenerate gambler, he’s their deadbeat degenerate gambler and they’ve got to help get him out of this thing with Chen. So Marcus, Renzo, and Lonnie load up and head out for Chen’s restaurant, where Chen’s high-stakes cash-only poker game is going on. Seriously, I didn’t think things like this existed outside of Simpsons episodes. That kind of show of camaraderie seemed a little uncharacteristic for Marcus, even knowing when to cut his losses and get out was just as uncharacteristic for Jerry. Later that night, when they’re all safe at that roach motel they’re staying at, Jerry takes a few seconds to stumble out of his room, look over at the guys who just saved him and say thanks. It warms the cockles of my heart, that stuff.
After watching Michael Gambon as Eddie Temple in Layer Cake (if you haven’t seen it, run out and get it NOW you damn fool!), I see how perfect he is in a role like this. Remember, Mike is the reason Ace spent three years in prison. Or rather, Mike’s coke is the reason. And Mike realizes that Ace may have come out the other end of all that time in prison bearing him and a few of his friends some ill will, and lets Ace know that he knows in typical Milch fashion. My biggest complaint about the show at this point (next week and we’ll be past the half-way point) is that Dustin Hoffman — billed as the show’s lead character — is the one I understand the least, and his ultimate plan for the racetrack and what it means for Mike et al, I understand even less. Slowly but surely, it’s all making itself clear, but… c’mon, I wanna know already. I bet if we got Joan Allen at one of those meetings with Ace, we wouldn’t need to see him during the show at all. He’d have told her every bit of what he was planning, and then scrapped those plans and given all his money to her horse/prisoner program. That’s how the ladies getcha.
I’ve said before that the biggest problem the first half of this season was that the payoff — zombie-Sophia stuck in the barn with the other walkers – didn’t justify all the time we spent at Herschel’s farm. And if there was any doubt about that before, I think “Triggerfinger” finally put it all to bed. The first half of the episode was great. Lori got into a wreck, and her escape from the two zombies trying to bust their way into her car was pretty cool. And we saw Rick, Glenn, and Herschel almost get lit up by the rest of Michael Raymond-James and his fat friend’s group (and didn’t they get their asses handed to them?). But as soon as these guys got the hell out of Dodge and back to the farm, the episode just kind of heaved over, like a beached whale taking its last water-breath (sorry, I’m not a water magician).
Now, there are lessons to be learned in both halves of this episode. One, despite the action, tension, and all the cool blood and guts stuff of the first half, there isn’t an infinite amount of good material to be mined from these sorts of situations. In its first season, The Walking Dead paid attention to the uber-arc of the show — Rick getting out of Atlanta, hooking up with the other survivors, etc. — but each week it gave everyone a smaller task to accomplish, something they’d be able to do by the time the episode ended. That sort of thing is a good way to draw in new viewers who may otherwise be wary of jumping into a serialized show. But you draw even those sorter beats out just a little too long and they can get to be a bit of a slog. There was a moment there where I was watching Rick and co. trying to sneak out of that bar where I asked myself, “Do we really need to be seeing all of this?” Fortunately, I thought the show pulled it out in the end. This kid you who got left behind by his posse was a nice bit of business, if only to see Rick rip his leg off that fence.**
(**Although even that had me rolling my eyes a little. If Herschel’s the one telling you that things are hopeless, that the zombies are almost there and can we please just shoot this kid in the head and be done with it, maybe you should listen.)
The second half of the episode rehashed the same lesson we learned from the front half of the season. Even though the dynamic at Herschel’s farm has changed a bit — hopefully Herschel’s had some sense talked into him, and Shane is more overtly hostile to the rest of the group, a little crazier in his obsession over Lori — I think we can say with some degree of surety that we need to be moving on now. Yes, the dynamics have changed, but these pissed off conversations between Shane and Dale, or Shane trying to convince Lori that WHAT THEY HAD WAS REAL just aren’t offering us anything new. And at this point — the season’s only got four episodes left — I’m not even very particular on what the season needs to switch to. It just needs to be something else. Leave the farm. Have Shane make a move against Rick. Whatever. I’m not picky.
The biggest problem with the show marking time like this, besides the fact that it’s marking time, is that after this long it begins to stretch the show’s credibility. The sort of feelings we’re seeing Shane broadcast to the rest of the group can only be kept under control for so long. The guy’s gonna blow sooner or later.
Or, I suppose it’s possible Rick grows a pair and goes after Shane first. Listening to Lori whisper all sorts of fiendishness in Rick’s ear at the end of the episode filled me with hope that we wouldn’t have to wait another year to watch those two throw down on each other. Rick constantly talks about all that sentimental bullshit, how important it is to protect each other, that the group is essentially all the group’s got right now. If someone — in this case Shane — comes in and threatens that, what sort of hero is Rick if he refuses to put him down? He didn’t think twice about drawing on the two guys in the bar. What’s he going to do when his family’s in danger? I’m sure we’ll probably have to wait longer than we’d like to find out. But I’m confident the show will finally deliver in its customary bloody, gratuitous fashion.
It’s over. It’s really over. And now, the long slog to January, 2013 begins. It’s a hard life we live, us fans of these British dramas, content to produce a paltry six or seven episodes a season. But, it is the life we’ve chosen. We’ll make do. Or as the Brits say, jog on.
But despite the hiatus, I imagine there will be enough debate about Downton Abbey season 1 vs. Downton Abbey season 2 to last us a while yet. Even before the new season premiered in the US, I was reading reviews that said that this year just didn’t live up to the high standard set by the show in its freshman season. It was still great, to be sure, but it wasn’t as great. Well, after watching, I have to say the nays have it. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was because of a drop in the quality of storytelling. I think that in its second year, the show just started telling a different story.
In its first season, Downton Abbey was all about contrasts. We had the rich and privileged, and then we had the people who cleaned their house and cooked their food. But the show was never going to be able to keep its premise as clean cut as that. If the Crawleys were just horrible people, content to live in their ivory towers with blinders strapped to their heads, then maybe they would have gotten away with it for a few more years. But they’re not. They’re good people. Rich and endlessly worried about arranged marriages and keeping the aristocracy intact or whatever, but also determined to do right by the people they employ. Even Maggie Smith — who may very well be the best thing about this show — the most set in her ways, lets Mr. Moseley take home the blue ribbon at the Downton Village Flower Show. So this divide between the rich and the poor was never something the show was going to be able to singularly focus on. And in season 2, a lot of those contrasts went away, and the show turned more into a soap opera. That’s not a knock against it. Soap operas can be good, too. And in the case of Downton Abbey, they’re really effing good.
(I’ll try and make this next bit as simple as possible, because even now as I’m writing it it sounds confusing to me.)
But as the show focused less on class divisions and put all its characters on more equal footing (because all their skullduggery was so inextricably wrapped around one another), it also turned Downton itself into a character by showing us how, during the war, it was used as a convalescent home. By using historical events – the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the Influenza Pandemic — to orient viewers who may be a little thrown off by the show’s jumps in time from episode to episode, Downton Abbey isn’t only telling stories about these characters, but also giving us a history of this place. As if you’re taking a guided tour. For some, it’s a bit grander a portrayal of things. For others, the show still won’t be as good as it used to be. I came out of season 2 feeling satisfied. Your mileage will vary.
Regardless of any dissenting voices, however, I don’t think Julian Fellowes is going to feel like he has reason to right the ship going into season 3. The show’s ratings have increased since its premiere, and it’s now a huge international hit. As a matter of fact, I think there’s reason to believe the show’s success may have spooked its creators just a bit, to the point of making sure they change as little as possible about the way they tell their stories. This season of Downton suffers from what I call Star Trek Voyager Syndrome. For those who never got into that show, Star Trek: Voyager was about a starship — the titular U.S.S. Voyager — that was knocked thousands of light years away to the other side of the galaxy. It’s stuck in uncharted, sometimes very hostile territory, and it’s going to take something like 75 years to get back home. With supplies, not to mention the crew, in very limited supply, you can imagine the ship is going to take quite a beating on its way back home. Well, you’d be wrong. No matter what happened in any given week, and I mean no matter what, you could be sure that at the start of the next week’s episode, that ship was going to look like it had just rolled off the assembly line. At the end of every episode, the show hit a reset button, and every bad thing that had happened to the ship was magically undone. More than a little annoying. And really ruined whatever stakes the show may have had at its start.
Downton Abbey has got its own reset button, although they manage to hit it with a little more style than Voyager did its own. Some big things happened on the show this year. Bates’ wife came back. Matthew, Thomas, and William went off to war. Matthew loses the use of his legs. Matthew and Mary both got engaged. Cora came down with the Spanish Flu. That’s a lot to shake up the status quo. And by the end of the season, almost all of that had been swept under the rug. Mrs. Bates kills herself. Matthew, Thomas, and William come back to Downton (although William doesn’t stick around for long**). Matthew’s legs get better. Lavinia dies. Cora recovers. Mary is still engaged, but now that the show has jumped through so many hoops to free up Matthew, I can’t imagine that’s going to last much longer.
(**And I know some will point to William dying as real and lasting change. But really, does anyone give a crap about William?)
I don’t think the show needed to take a bat to everything that made it so great in the first place. I do think it spent a lot of credibility keeping everyone within arm’s length and more still when you consider the fact that in two seasons we’ve covered seven years). And I wish it would take a few more chances with its characters. If next season, Sybil and Branson get married but have found some way to stay at Downton, the show may be beyond hope as far as all that stuff goes. In the end, it’s okay. Let’s remember the show we’re talking about, and how much better it is compared to so much else out there. And, if in season 3, Matthew and Mary finally get married THEN ALL IS FORGIVEN.
Wellll, this week’s episode was not so great. Which is kind of surprising, after the pilot showed us that The River was capable of some pretty cool stuff. And “Los Ciegnos” had some cool stuff in it, it’s just that the show doesn’t know how to present it. Mainly because at this point it’s still populated with Post-it notes with things like “hot female lead” and “hardass” written on them instead of actual characters.
And while I can deal with “hot female lead,” a few of the others kind of have me rolling my eyes. The show’s biggest repeat offender has to be Jahel, who’s comes off as the answer to the unasked question, rattling off the supernatural significance behind every twig or bug the crew steps on. What a tortured effing existence that girl must live, with those dead eyes of hers. I’ll be happy just to hear her talk about something other than magic. But judging from the show’s ratings, it’s entirely possible it will have been canceled before then.
Coming in behind Jahel is Kurt Brynildson, who handles security on the boat. You may know him as the guy with the guns who’s always glaring at everyone, who’s obviously up to no good with that sat phone he keeps stashed in his bag. If there’s a bigger mystery to what this guy is doing on the expedition, then the show should drop hints about it. I just wish he was able to do it and not come across as so one-dimensional. And if that’s as complex as some of the characters are going to be, I wish the show would give it’s subject matter due deference. This week’s episode had the gang stumbling onto land claimed (Owned? I don’t know.) by a tribe of natives called the Morcegos, or the Guardians of the Forest, while searching for Emmet. They wake up one morning to find that their camp has been visited in the night, with the tribesmen having left small altars of stones in the night. And very mysteriously, the crew begin losing their sight.
Eventually the Morcegos make their way to the Magus, pounding on the doors and windows while the blind crew cowers inside. Lena, Kurt, and A.J., the only ones unafflicted, take off into the jungle to hunt down the plant that will reverse the blindness. And this is where the episode most noticeably stumbles. Most characters in shows like these are supposed to grow, hopefully becoming better people than they were when we first met them. We learn about who they are, and then watch them as they confront and overcome their fears. So when we learn in the beginning of the episode that A.J. was a miner before becoming a cameraman, and that he had once been trapped inside a mine that had collapsed, a giant neon sign floating above him began flashing: PAY ATTENTION. And it comes as no surprise when we see him have shimmy his way underground when he finds the tree they’re looking for, after leaving Lena and Kurt for dead of course. Yes, A.J. should make the right choice, jump down that hole and get the magic plant that will give everyone their sight back. It’s just that that journey should last more than 20 minutes. But then again, I’m an English major. So what the hell do I know?
We see similar problems on the Magus, with producer Clark running out, putting himself in between the Morcegos and everyone else like a human shield. This is the guy who, just last week, was smirking to himself, rubbing his hands in anticipation as he watched that look of uncertainty wash over Lincoln’s face when he heard his father might still be alive. Sure, the revelation (it wasn’t a revelation) that he and Tess used to have something going on the side makes things a little more believable. But only a little.
The biggest problem with all of this — race-to-the-finish character development — was that the episode took its scariest element, the Morcegos, and relegated them to a few fleeting glimpses at the edges of the cameras that ship is strung up with, instead focusing on the House-style mystery of everyone going blind. And we all know the House-style mystery is really no mystery at all. There’s always some magic plant or whatever. Hopefully, going forward, the show won’t always resort to taking the easy way out. I think there’s an opportunity for a really good uber-arc about what the ultimate fate of these people is. I noticed that in the very beginning of the episode, after introducing the premise and the search for Dr. Cole, we see the words, “This is the footage they left behind…” implying that these people, too, go missing. That story is going to be a lot more interesting than those tree roots.
Luck’s first season is nine episodes long. So if we chop that up into thirds, this week’s episode marks the end of the season’s first act. So while the name of the game is still “setting things up” (sounds like a pretty crappy game), don’t expect it to last too much longer. I enjoy a little bit of downtime as much as the next guy, but I’ve got that itch. The one that says the show needs to show someone getting brutally murdered. If for no other reason than to take my mind off of Walter’s soul-crushing depression over what happened to Delphi. That stuff gets me every time.
At this point in the show, Ace is still working on the fringe of the action, setting up stuff that will come later. But when his parole officer sees Ace in the gym and hears that the hotel has closed it down just for him he says, “People make adjustments.” He couldn’t have been more right. Ace is a person people live in fear of. The best example of this comes when he visits the board of his company that trades stocks and makes Ace money, I guess. As soon as he marches in that room and starts barking orders, you can kind of see everyone’s sphincters instinctively clench, just waiting for him to get the hell out of there. Nathan Israel, the only one of Ace’s lackeys who may turn out to be not much of a lackey at all is the guy he takes notice of. And Ace invites Israel back to his hotel to grill him and ultimately offer him a job. There’s something I really like about the fact that Ace is a mover and a shaker, out in the world doing big things after being locked up for three years. But every time he hooks up with Gus he turns into just another old guy, taking the piss with everyone he comes in contact with. The two of them falling asleep while talking to each other at the end of the day isn’t really doing much to help things.
One of the things I love about David Milch is illustrated really well in the opening credits of that great cop drama, NYPD Blue. In the middle of this loud, clanging drum beat, everything gets quiet and we hear these very calming synthesized strings and, I don’t know, an oboe or something. What I’ve always taken from that is that in the middle of all the craziness we’re seeing on screen, there are moments of great beauty, when everything else just kind of falls away. We saw the same thing this week with the four shitbirds, after they buy Mon Gateau from Mulligan. After Turo runs down this laundry list of expenses (it turns out owning a horse costs a lot of money), Renzo asks if they can pet him. Now, I know I’m taking this way overboard, but there’s this sense that walking up to this animal and petting him is some sort of cleansing ritual. Almost like its innocence rubs off in some small way on those who surround it. Even Turo drops his hardass act for a few minutes to watch, and hands them all carrots to feed the horse, telling them all to make sure and keep their hands open when they give them to him. It was a nice moment. But of course, it could never last, and it isn’t long before Marcus is calling everyone an asshole and Jerry’s back at the poker tables, losing money to Chan.
It’s only now, six years after Deadwood’s gone off the air, that I realize how truly unique its dialogue was. And six years on, we see that Milch hasn’t completely been able to shake off that voice. In a way, Walter is this show’s Swearengen; the old man who’s given to spontaneous monologuing, either when he’s alone or in front of an audience who can’t really respond to him (just replace the whores with horses (and yes I realize what a cute turn of phrase that was (don’t worry I’m going to kill myself))). This week we hear him rehearsing his pitch to Rosie, asking her to come back to Arcadia to ride Gettin’ Up Morning, after turning her down when she asked after the job in last week’s episode. Then, Walter was all about Ronnie Jenkins riding the horse, but after taking a fall in a race and breaking his collarbone, he’s out and Rosie’s in. Which I suppose is just as well, as we see Ronnie take to DRUGS to deal with the pain.
It’s funny, the things that will humanize a character. Turo Escalante is obviously a mid-level player at the track. He shows deference to people like Ace and Gus, while thumbing his nose at everyone else. But in this week’s episode, we get a a chance to see the man at home. See where he spends his free time. And then we see Jo, the woefully underused vet from the track, and hear Turo utter those four words that really put us inside his head, let us know who he is: “Want to do it?” He’s a person. He wants what I want. It turns out there’s a little bit of Turo in all of us.
The Walking Dead has improved by leaps and bounds since its debut in 2010, although getting from there to here has been a bit of a rocky road. The end of season one left kind of a bad taste in my mouth, seemingly leaving behind the characterization which has been a hallmark of the comic series in favor of the Lost-style mystery that in the end, will never be a satisfying story.**
(**Now hear me out. Lost taking six years to explore the ins and outs of what the island was, why the island was, and why Jack, Kate, and everyone else had been brought there was interesting because there was an actual mystery to explore. And the answers to that mystery would inform the characters’ lives and the decisions they made once they got off it (the ones who got off it). There’s no mystery on The Walking Dead. There was a virus. It may have been created on purpose, or it may have been created naturally, like that weird pig-bat thing on Contagion. But beyond that, what else is there? Also, who cares? There is no life after the plague, that we’ll see in this show, anyway. Everyone’s dead. Hopes of some survivor oasis evaporate almost as quickly as they appear (tonight, we learned that Fort Bennington had been overrun by “lamebrains”). So, episodes like “TS-19″ seem like mostly buildup with very little payoff. You see what I’m saying? I’m glad we were able to spend this time together.)
Season two has seen a huge jump in quality. The way I see the show now, it’s standing right at that line between great and just really good. “Pretty Much Dead Already,” the show’s mid-season finale, was great. But the show’s still got some splainin’ to do for the first half of the season. The payoff hasn’t really justified the amount of time we’ve spent on Herschel’s farm (although it was a really good payoff), so I’m hoping the show moves on and still keeps up the quality of these past few episodes.
“Nebraska” picks up right where “Pretty Much Dead Already” left off — Sophia dead, the smoke still rising from the barrel of Rick’s gun — and concerns itself almost entirely with the aftermath of Shane’s Great Zombie Massacre. With his wife now well and truly dead, Herschel takes off to an old bar he used to frequent in his wilder, rowdier days, turning to that brownest of the brown liquors to help dull the pain. But not before telling Rick and co. — in true old man fashion — to get the hell off his lawn. Now things between Rick and Shane look like they’re really going to blow up. Rick’s still concerned with making nice. Herschel, crazy old man he may be, still owns the farm and was nice enough to let Rick and everyone else stay on it. Shane sees the entire thing as having put the group in danger.**
(**Although I’m not really sure of what. Yes, they were all camped out right next to a barn full of walkers. And there was always a risk that they’d break out and wreak all sorts of havoc. But what’s new? Another one of Shane’s complaints was that the group wasted time looking for Sophia when they could have been on the road to Fort Bennington. But as we learn later, it’s been overrun. So, you could make the case that Rick’s bleeding heart kept the group safer than they would have been otherwise. Just sayin’.)
So while Rick goes off with Glenn to bring Herschel back to the farm, the job of getting rid of the dead is left to Shane, T-Dog, and Andrea. And Dale is there, too. Slinking around in the shadows. Telling Lori that he can’t prove it, but he’s pretty sure Shane shot Otis and used him as bait so he could get away from the walkers. Which as it turns out is right on the money. Who knows where that’ll go. Characters in these sorts of shows have an uncanny knack for taking huge revelations like that and putting them completely out of their minds to focus on some other stupid thing. And what Lori chooses to focus on in this case is truly stupid. Rick’s gone out to get Herschel. But he’s just taking too long, so Lori sets out to bring Rick and Herschel back. We’ll go ahead and chalk this one up to PREGNANT HORMONES. Although how much longer those will afflict her is unclear, since the first thing she does after getting out on the road is smash right into a walker a flip her car over. In these past few episodes, Lori was worried about bringing another child into this brave new world**, but I think there’s a good chance the entire thing is going to turn out to be a nonstarter.
(**Sorry for all these asides. It’s just that I’m so full of feelings right now. Anyway, part of the reason Lori’s so nervous about having another kid is that she sees the effect their situation is having on Carl. She gets all spooked when he tells her that Rick made the right decision, shooting Sophia. That he would have done the same thing given the chance. I can understand her being upset at the whole thing, but what does she expect? In a world where shooting/bludgeoning people in the head has become a commonplace thing, you’ve got to expect that the kids you’re raising are gonna have a few problems.)
After Rick and Glenn find Herschel (that was easy) and listen to the man lament what an idiot he’s been this entire time, they’re met by two fellow travelers (PLAYED BY MICHAEL RAYMOND-JAMES FROM TERRIERS and some fat guy no one cares about). Now, you know things with these guys are going to go south right from the start, but it’s all over much faster than I thought it’d be, and gave Rick a chance to show the world that he isn’t all hugs and sunshine with every survivor they come across who’s got a sad story to tell. This sequence, and the one right after it, with Shane and the other burning the pile of dead walkers, was a lot moodier than a lot of what we’ve seen on the show so far. This batch of episodes were done well after Frank Darabont had left the show, so I’m wondering if this is EP Glen Mazzara’s (a Shield alum) influence on the show rearing its head. If so, more please. A big part of this show is always going to be these people’s decline. Their slow, gradual breakdown in the face of the apocalypse. It ought to look really cool while it’s playing out onscreen.