11. The Prisoner (1967-1968)
When mercurial writer-actor-director Patrick McGoohan parlayed his experience playing a secret agent on the British show Danger Man to create an espionage thriller of his own, he unexpectedly created the prestige drama 30 years ahead of its time. The Prisoner is a frightening, funny, philosophical, absolutely mesmerizing allegory in which McGoohan’s nameless title character, a retired spy dubbed Number Six by his mysterious captors, is imprisoned in a bizarre place called the Village. While crafting an escape plan, he’s subjected to psychological experiments designed to break him by a series of interchangeable superiors all named Number Two. It’s one of the mot visually striking and bracingly bleak shows ever; everything from Lost and Twin Peaks to The Americans owes it a debt.
Is it the Word of God that has come unto Jesse Custer, or is he merely possessed by the spirit of the ‘90s? Preacher, AMC’s new readymade blockbuster series — it’s got the nerd pedigree, the nonsensically titled Chris Hardwick postgame show Talking Preacher, a superstar co-creator in the form of Seth Rogen, the whole nine — is based on the comic book series of the same name by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon (and, though he’s not credited, tone-setting cover artist Glenn Fabry), which ran for 75 issues or so during the pre-millennium tension of the last five years of the 20th century. This was perhaps the last era during which taboo-busting for taboo-busting’s sake could get a comic over with an audience; a quick visit to the Preacher wikipedia page reveals more inbreeding, cannibalism, anal rape, and Kurt Cobain references than you can shake a crucifix at.
And judging from the pilot episode, the TV show is just as indebted to the signature filmmaker of the era, Quentin Tarantino, as were the “cutting edge” mature-readers-only comic books of the day. There’s a redneck-laden setting, a madcap vampire, a soundtrack full of hipster-revered square singers, a series of self-aware title cards (OUTER SPACE / AFRICA / TEXAS / ETC.), and mutilation galore. If you mashed up Natural Born Killers, the “bring out the gimp” sequence from Pulp Fiction, and the “Stuck in the Middle With You” scene from Reservoir Dogs, then sprinkled in some post-9/11 elements like the Budd segment of Kill Bill Vol. 2, the Death Proof half of Grindhouse, and the cartoonish graphic design of Scott Pilgrim (itself a comic-book adaptation) and Zombieland (starring Natural Born Killers leading man Woody Harrelson in what I insist to this day is a reprisal of his role from that Tarantino-story-credited film), you’ve got pretty much the whole show nailed down. To paraphrase a conversation I had about the show with critic Eric Thurm, you’re a Bill Hicks monologue away from reliving the second half of the Clinton administration.
So is the bloody thing any goddamn good?
I’m reviewing Preacher for the New York Observer, how about that? I started with last weekend’s pilot, which was audacious and entertaining but at times worryingly glib.
Professional wrestling jargon is a gift to the thinking student of politics and pop culture. How could I understand Kanye West’s post-808s and Heartbreak career without the concept of the heel turn? How to comprehend the mutually beneficial feud between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican news network anchor Megyn Kelly withoutkayfabe? And how to get a handle on “Dinner for Seven,” the antepenultimate episode of The Americans’ fourth season, without attempting to answer the question: In the aftermath of her betrayal of Don and Young-Hee, is Elizabeth’s warming-up to Pastor Tim a work or a shoot?
I reviewed last night’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. I’m unsure about the ending, but there was much else to recommend it.
Indeed, there’s something tactile, sticky, greasy about the whole affair. We first glimpse Rachel McAdams’s Detective Ani Bezzerides seconds after she cuts off sex with another cop, who freaked out after an apparently unorthodox request on her part; she never quite shakes the unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed look of someone interrupted during an afternoon delight gone sour. For his debut, Taylor Kitsch’s CHiPS Officer Paul Woodrugh pulls over a parole-violating actress for speeding, who wrongfully accuses him of soliciting a sexual favor; he runs home to his randy girlfriend and insists on showering before they have sex. This is primarily an excuse to chug back Viagra and let chemistry take its course, since he’s secretly gay, but this scene too conveys the notion that there’s something dirty about Woodrugh he’s desperate to wash off. As for Velcoro, the stench of failure and frustration clings to this guy like the smell of Modelo and American Spirits; it’s hard to look at him, especially in the first half of the season, without your eyes watering. In other words, characters get under your skin in large part because of the emphasis placed on theirs.
Sean and Stefan are joined by a very special guest to talk about a very special episode! Emmett Booth, the ASoIaF analyst behind the widely read Poor Quentyn tumblr and a maester at ASoIaF University, hops aboard the BLAH train to discuss the shocking revelations of “The Door,” this week’s episode ofGame of Thrones, and use this mid-point opportunity to take stock of the season thus far. What do the secret origins of the White Walkers and Hodor mean for both the show and the books? What does the current political status quo portend for the future, in terms of both plot and theme? What’s wrong with the Game of Thrones critical discourse? Is the show…evil? We’re answering all these questions and more. If you like what you hear, subscribe, rate, and review us on iTunes to help the Boiled Leather Rebellion emerge victorious!
WHAT’S THE BIG PICTURE
In a word: Magic. Game of Thrones may have made its initial impression as an epic fantasy without much fantasy, saving its dragon hatchlings for the final shot of its first season. But it’s always been about both the public power plays and the game behind the Game — specifically, that all this scheming and warring is a tragic distraction from humanity’s real rip-it-up-and-start-again foe, the White Walkers. Jon Snow’s revival, Daenerys’s fireproof triumph, and Bran Stark’s increasingly powerful visions are a surefire sign that the endgame is approaching, and that certain characters may have a literally messianic role to play.
So it’s no coincidence at all that if and when the Walkers breach the Wall or Daenerys takes wing to Westeros, they’ll find conditions incredibly grim. Bloodthirsty killers control three of the Seven Kingdoms. Self-interested sociopath Littlefinger has command of the continent’s single largest intact army. The Riverlands appear poised for battle between the Red Wedding planners in House Frey and the Blackfish, saved from the massacre by a fortuitously timed bathroom break. King’s Landing is on the brink of full-scale civil war in the streets. Winter is coming, but good old-fashioned human cruelty and greed has set the thermostat close to zero already.
Yet the other big theme of the season so far has been reunions. Brienne and Sansa, Theon and Yara, Dany and Jorah, and especially Sansa and Jon: Each of these long awaited meetings sends the message to the audience that sometimes hope is rewarded, and good things happen to people who deserve them. Nowhere is this clearer than in its supernatural form: Bran’s visions may well get him the informational ammo he needs, particularly concerning Jon Snow’s true parents, to destroy the White Walkers for good. In other words, armies and dragons be damned: Human connections are humanity’s flame against the coming cold. Ice, meet fire.
“Look at me!” Chris Manawa yells at his father Travis, minutes after holding a child hostage at gunpoint and moments after trying to stab his old man to escape. “I’m no good! I’m no good!” He may not be wrong—he’s directly threatened the lives of his stepmother and stepsister multiple times—but nor is he alone. “Shiva,” the “midseason finale” (ugh) of Fear the Walking Dead, offers the clearest demonstration yet that there’s something rotten in the extended Clark-Manawa-Salazar-Strand clan. Too bad the only people capable of seeing it are batshit insane.
I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. Lots of fire, but not so hot.
We learned no less a secret than the origin of the White Walkers, but tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones had an even more gut-wrenching revelation in store. When Bran Stark discovers that the benevolent Children of the Forest created the army of ice demons as a doomsday weapon against the human beings who were slaughtering them in turn, it’s a first-hand lesson in blowback. Little does he know he’s capable of a similar moral blood-sacrifice: It’s his own psychic abilities that turned a towering teenager called Willas into the mentally disabled man he knows as Hodor. Mentally time-traveling to the past even as he and his companions flee the Night King and his undead army in the present, the boy burns the defensive command “Hold the door” so deep into his companion’s brain that a truncated version of the phrase becomes all he can say.
The message of tonight’s installment (“The Door”) is that this is the cost of war, even if it’s a battle against pure evil. Half a world away, Daenerys prepares to ride; Tyrion makes alliances with the Lord of Light’s High Priestess; and Euron Greyjoy preps the Ironborn to conquer the world by the Dragon Queen’s side. But even supernatural saviors leave broken bodies in their wake. Hodor’s crippling — along with the loss of the Three-Eyed Raven, the Children, and Hodor himself — shows that the ends may justify the means, but the means are all but unbearable.
I’ll be reading Hottest Chick in the Game, me and Andrew White’s comic about Drake and friends, at the HiFi Bar in NYC at 8pm tonight as part of Zachary Lipez & Michael Tedder’s Words and Guitars reading series. A whole bunch of other luminaries will be reading too, so heed the words of the man himself and come thru!
The HiFi Bar is located at 169 Avenue A between East 10th & 11th in Manhattan. I hope to see you there!
Every week, The Americans plunges its cold hands into my chest and squeezes my lungs a little tighter. For such a quiet show, the tension each new episode generates is simply remarkable; the tone, rhythm, and volume level may be totally different, but the series’ suspense is currently on par with the likes of Breaking Bad Season Four, and it’s closing in on the equally self-assured menace of late-season Sopranos to boot. All this from asking the same simple questions over and over, with absolute unblinking clarity: How long can Philip and Elizabeth Jennings get away with doing this, and how many people will they do it to along the way?
Hakeem and Laura had the big wedding planned, and Lucious and Anika wound up tying the knot, but it was Boo Boo Kitty and Rhonda who really took the plunge. And as the pair took their battle over the edge, it wasn’t just Andre who looked on in dismay and disbelief — the audience did too. When the warring women fell off that balcony for Empire‘s season-ending cliffhanger, they took the show’s usually sure-footed storytelling instincts with it. Cutting to black before we could find out which character died was the culmination of a series of decisions that made the series’ final installment till next September — entitled “Past Is Prologue” — a reason to worry about the future.
To understand a show full of natural born killers, sometimes it pays to consult the original article — specifically, Oliver Stone’s hyperviolent, hyperstylized 1994 mass-murderer movie. There’s a very funny exchange between Robert Downey Jr.’s tabloid-TV sleazeball Wayne Gale and one of his show’s editors, played by a young, pre-Sex and the City Evan Handler. The exasperated staffer complains that they’ve shown the same over-the-top reenactment of one of superstar serial-killer couple Mickey & Mallory’s murders over and over again; Downey’s character barks back “Repetition works, David” — at which point Stone cuts backward in time, so the line “Repetition works, David” repeats all over again.
Much of what happened on tonight’s oddly off-kilter Game of Thrones episode — “The Book of the Stranger” — depends on whether you believe the point of the joke. Yes, repeating ideas and imagery can heighten their impact, reveal subtle variations, or emphasize the cyclical nature of events. But there’s also such a thing as diminishing returns; if you go to the same well too many times, eventually it’ll run dry.
I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone. I was of two minds about it, as you’ll see in the review. As I say later in the piece, “Whether these scenes worked is an ultimately open question, determined by the resolution of the storylines — one reason among many why it’s best to engage each episode as it comes, rather than attempt to predict the future or put your faith in fan theories.” I wanted to include “or saying ‘here’s what they should have done’” in that list of Don’ts, but it got cut.
Fear the Walking Dead just served up one of 2016’s great doomed romances. Show of hands: Who the hell saw that coming? Before today, this largely superfluous spin-off’s idea of tenderness was…well, who knows, since it never showed us. Travis and Maddie have all the chemistry of a wet firecracker, Daniel’s love of his late wife seemed primarily a matter of wanting to save her life and/or determine the time and place of her death, whichever was necessary, and Alicia’s two love interests either died in the initial outbreak or were part of a crew of pirates who nearly got them all killed. Enter Victor Strand and Thomas Abigail, two he-men with hearts of gold, separated by the apocalypse itself, tragically reunited just in time to say goodbye. Their love for each other made “Sicut Cervus,” this week’s episode, the best Fear the Walking Dead yet.
You’re not gonna believe this: I really liked last night’s Fear the Walking Dead, which I reviewed for Decider. It shows how easy it would be to defuse the franchise’s fascistic overtones simply by introducing alternatives to “kill or be killed.”
When the time finally came for someone to take a shot at Lucious Lyon — not with a federal indictment or a backroom bargain, but a bullet — there was no way Empire would half-step it. It went down on an awards-ceremony red carpet in front of hundreds of cameras broadcasting live, shot in slo-mo, with a child of the intended target getting caught in the crossfire. If you could splice the DNA of the final scenes of New Jack City and The Godfather Part III, you’d get something like what last night’s high-octane episode (“Rise by Sin”) delivered.
The centerpiece of the episode, the sequence that gives it its title (the second in a row to be named after a television special), is a group viewing of the real-world dramatization of nuclear war called The Day After. The Jennings and Beemans watch it together as families and neighbors. Oleg and Tatyana watch it together as lovers. Young-Hee and Don watch it as spouses. William and Arkady from the Rezidentura each watches it alone. Russians, Americans, Koreans, officers, agents, double agents, civilians, a teenage girl balancing driving lessons with being forced to spy on her pastor and his pregnant wife for her parents—all of them sit riveted as frightened men trigger the end of the world, as terrified people scream and run and fall and die during it, as two old people clutch each other in the rubble afterwards. They’re as moved as you or I are, as shaken, as convinced that this is a horror that must be avoided at all costs. And despite the misgivings the movie gives them, they change nothing. Philip and Elizabeth talk about their doubts regarding the virus, regarding Young-Hee’s husband, and then dutifully ignore them.
I cried during this sequence. The antiwar message of the film the characters watched, the sense of colossal, avoidable loss and waste and tragedy, covered my brain like ashes. The power of art to communicate the awful truth was palpable. But art can only influence, not dictate, human behavior. It reflects that behavior like sunlight off clouds and has no more control over how that reflection is interpreted than do the clouds themselves.
I reviewed last night’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. This show is on a very special run.
We’re analyzing the new sample chapter from The Winds of Winter available at GeorgeRRMartin.com this week, and it’s all about Arianne Martell! In this episode of BLAH, Sean & Stefan investigate the latest sneak preview of the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, which Martin has previously read aloud at live appearances, as it takes us further into the future adventures of the Princess of Dorne. What do her discoveries tell us about Aegon and Jon Connington’s invasion? What do they portend for the South now that it’s torn between so many rival forces: Lannister, Tyrell, Faith Militant, Martell, the Golden Company, potential Targaryen loyalists, and who knows what else? And what do they teach us about Arianne herself? In just under half an hour we tackle everything from the likely condition of the Seven Kingdoms when the Others invade to whether or not releasing this chapter was a subtweet of the show’s handling of Dorne and more. Enjoy!
Jon Snow returned not with a bang, but a whimper. Resurrected last week after his murder by mutinying members of the Night’s Watch — not to mention a year of furious speculation by the audience and half-hearted denials by the cast and crew — the Lord Commander reentered the land of the living less like a triumphant messiah and more like a guy who’d just come to after a horrendous car accident. His breath came in gasps. His eyes were wide with confusion and distress. When he stepped off the slab, he couldn’t even walk without an almost equally stunned Ser Davos holding him up. And what did he learn on the other side? As the saying goes, he knows nothing. His rebirth was basically one big supernatural panic attack.
I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone. One parallel that got cut from my review of last night’s episode is that in the show, Ned and Howland kill Arthur Dayne in much the same way that Jaime Lannister killed his boss, the Mad King; one was celebrated, the other reviled.
Break out your Dungeons & Dragon alignment chart, folks: “Captive,” this week’s episode of Fear the Walking Dead, spelled out this show’s versions of good, neutral, and evil in no uncertain terms. “Good” came from Travis, held prisoner by chef-turned-pirate Connor and his not-so-merry men: “I’m sorry,” he tells Alex, the woman Strand cut adrift a couple episodes back. “I’m so sorry for all of this. We can…we can be more than what we’ve become, can’t we?” Though neither he nor Alex necessarily believe the answer is yes, he’s at least striving for than the vicious cycle of violence he and his companions have embraced during the course of the series. “Neutral” arrives via Ofelia, while she’s mopping up the blood of the imprisoned pirate Reed whom Chris had just shot to death. “This is what we do now,” she says: “Spill blood, clean it up, and spill it again.” She sees the horror in this but neither embraces nor rejects it — it just is. And before he dies, Reed gives voice to “Evil”: “Blood’s all that matters now,” he tells Chris, articulating the blood-and-soil pseudofascism that underlies Fear’s central survival tenet: To protect you and yours, you must do whatever it takes against all potential threats. If you can’t guess which ethos wins out, you haven’t been paying attention.
I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. This was the calmest I’ve been while writing about the show in a while, and it wound up being an interesting episode to pick apart, even though I still feel the same about the series.
“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Eight: “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”May 9th, 2016
Yet Elizabeth saves her most baleful visage for her daughter. Discovering that Paige has blown off Bible study with Pastor Tim and Alice because, given the stress of their shared secret, it’s hard to “get in the mood” to be open and honest, her mother orders her to get in the mood. “We’ve been trying to be nice to you,” she barks, “trying to forgive you for what you’ve done” — as if Paige committed the real crime, not the parents who spent a lifetime deceiving her. “I can’t control how I feel,” Paige responds, exasperated to have to explain a plain truth. “You can control what you do,” Elizabeth says, with the clipped cadence of a military officer, “and from now on you are going to.” With mounting fury, she issues instructions to an increasingly cowed and cowering Paige — that she must see Tim and Alice every day, that she must go to all their activities, that she must come up with whole new activities to go to, that she must issue full reports to her parents on everything they say and do every single time. “Thanks to what you did” — and by now she’s shouting, her face a fiery red, veins bulging, eyes wild — “that is all that stands between us and this family being destroyed!” A look in the mirror might lead her to the conclusion that it’s too late.
If you watched last night’s Empire, you got more than an excellent hour of the series — and a rebound from last week’s misfire. As a bonus, you also got pretty decent episodes of Better Call Saul and Hannibal in the bargain. The opening scene depicted Andre Lyon visiting his long-lost grandmother Leah, stashed away in a nursing home for decades by Luciousafter she abused him; the setting, the old-folks humor, the off-kilter camera angles, and the telltale bingo game were all reminiscent of similar sequences in which Bob Odenkirk’s shifty lawyer wooing elderly clients in the Breaking Bad prequel.
Meanwhile, the final minutes, featuring an awkward mother-and-child reunion in which the mentally ill old woman serves her frightened son dessert in the middle of the night (at knifepoint), had a febrile orchestral score and a tense dinner-table psychodrama vibe that evoked the tragically canceled saga of cannibalistic Dr. Lecter. Maybe co-creators/co-writers Lee Daniels & Danny Strong and director Millicent Shelton constructed these parallels deliberately; maybe they didn’t. But the episode — “The Lyon Who Cried Wolf” — proved that this show can do all kinds of things very, very well, even stuff other shows have done well themselves.