Archive for March 30, 2015

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Pimento”

March 30, 2015

When Jimmy finally confronted him with the truth, Chuck’s usual open-book of a face snapped shut, his mouth a tight grimace, his eyes narrow slits. Even before he delivered that final devastating monologue — “What a joke! I worked my ass off to get where I am, and you take these short cuts and you think suddenly you’re my peer?” — his feelings were clear: When he sees his brother, he feels nothing but resentment, fury and contempt. The work being done by both Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean is absolute dynamite. Who’d have thought one of the most powerful dramatic scenes of the year would take place between two comedians?

“Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun,” Chuck concludes, condemning his kid brother’s con-man past. “The law is sacred. If you abuse that power, people get hurt. This is not a game! You have to know, on some level I know you know I’m right. You know I’m right!” Thanks to Breaking Bad, so do we. The tragedy is that the older sibling had the opportunity to prevent that awful outcome by letting Jimmy go legit. By stabbing his brother in the back, he’s creating the very future he sought to avoid.

I reviewed tonight’s punch-in-the-gut Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone.

Suppressive Persons: “Going Clear,” Scientology, and the Appeal of Absolutism

March 29, 2015

In Hubbard’s native territory of science fiction, “worldbuilding” is a term used to describe the way writers construct the elaborate sociopolitical, scientific, geographic, and historical framework for the imaginary world in which their stories take place. In a way, Hubbard may well have pulled off the greatest act of worldbuilding in history. Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien, or George R.R. Martin, or Stan Lee & Jack Kirby had not stopped at merely creating and writing about Middle-earth and Westeros and the Marvel Universe, but overlaid those fictional worlds atop our own until they became indistinguishable not just to their tens of thousands of followers and fans, but to the creators themselves.

It’s reminiscent of Going Clear’s showstopper scene, a Machiavellian game of musical chairs Miscavige imposed on disgraced Church officials to determine their fates, played to the tune of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” Going Clear’s central assertion is that in art and life alike, thinking people must make that determination, and must be trusted to do it for themselves. It denies its viewers the certainty Scientology itself promises to provide, which may be its most subversive act of all. Heroes to be worshipped, villains to be eradicated—Going Clear asks us to leave them to the pages of fiction and the fever dreams of fundamentalists. Neither are in short supply, inside Scientology or out.

I reviewed Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for the New York Observer, with a focus on how the film dismantles black-and-white thinking both as journalism/activism and as art. The movie airs tonight at 8pm on HBO, and I hope you’ll watch it.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”

March 27, 2015

Once upon a time, Carmela Soprano walked into a psychiatrist’s office. Her mobster husband Tony was depressed, angry, unfaithful. Could their marriage be saved? Her therapist’s answer was not one she wanted to hear: To hell with the marriage — it’s her soul she should be worried about. Tony is a monster, and she’s morally responsible for helping him feed. “You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself,” this Dr. Krakower tells her, “never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talk about as long as you’re accomplice.” Carmela equivocates, backtracks, rationalizes, wriggles away from the words, but with no more success than a worm on a hook. “What did I just say?” he says, not budging, not allowing her to budge either. “Leave him. Take the children—what’s left of them—and go.” She frets about child support, and he interrupts. “I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money, and you can’t either.” Then comes his final line, the last one we ever hear from this character, who never appears again and whose advice ultimately goes unheeded. “One thing you can never say: that you haven’t been told.”

On “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”, tonight’s grim episode of The Americans, Elizabeth Jennings met her Dr. Krakower, and killed her.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans, which keeps getting better and better, for the New York Observer.

“Better Call Saul” Thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “RICO”

March 27, 2015

Better Call Saul: the feel-good hit of the season? It was tonight, anyway. This week’s episode, “Rico,” administered a mainline hit of happiness from the start. Hard work, brotherly love, sticking up for the downtrodden, sticking it to bullies in business suits — if you didn’t know better, you’d think you’d tuned in to Disney movie about an underdog sports team. But the cinematography, pacing, and performances kept this surprisingly sweet Saul from sliding into schmaltz. You get to watch characters you like do something good, and do it very well. If that doesn’t put a grin on your face the size of a James Morgan McGill Esq. billboard, your case is hopeless.

I reviewed this week’s refreshingly chipper episode of Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone.

Identity Crisis

March 22, 2015

Back in my Comics Journal messageboard days I was friends with a guy who was kind of a famous or infamous character on that famously or infamously argumentative comics site. This was during my morally indefensible “liberal hawk” period, and we bonded over that among other things, but aside from the hawkishness he always seemed like he was, indeed, otherwise a liberal, like I was. Then during the Obama/McCain election he essentially chose Sarah Palin over our friendship — he went completely berserk over how she was made fun of, he was one of those people who pretended to believe David Letterman made a joke about the Yankees gang-raping one of her daughters and waxed outraged about it for weeks, that kind of thing. Eventually I had to tell him not to contact me anymore, block him from commenting at my blog, and mark all the emails he ever sent me as spam just to get him to leave me alone. This was, you know, six or so years ago and I hadn’t spoken to him since.

After that he got this second career as a “funny” conservative writer for a rightwing online publication, specializing, I guess, in calling black people and anti-racist white people “the real racists” and shit like that. He made a ton of jokes about how Obama eats dogs, Michelle is an ugly person who looks like a Klingon, etc. This whole underground reservoir of racism inside him burst forth like a geyser. It’s horrifying. Every once in a while he’ll spend hours trolling a progressive writer I happen know via Twitter or wherever, and I’ll get in touch and tell my story and warn them they’ll never outlast him if they engage him, best to just ignore him.

Anyway, yesterday I went on twitter, which I’m basically off of now, to monitor reaction to my Scientology article, which I did for a few days. So I saw via retweets and progs making fun of him that he was having some back and forth with another Rolling Stone writer, whose work I admire a great deal. I saw people saying that my former friend had blocked them despite never having interacted with them in any way and wondering if he just preemptively blocked people. So I checked and, sure enough, he’d blocked me even though I hadn’t said a single thing to him in years. Sad.

I bring this up because guess what his avatar was? That’s right, it was the now-canceled Killing Joke homage Batgirl cover with the Joker menacing Batgirl. I just thought to myself, christ jesus, this is what it’s come to now for these people? Taking a cover that was disavowed by its artist, who made it in tribute to a comic that’s been disavowed by its writer, and waving it like it’s the Gadsden flag? Or more accurately the battle flag of the Confederacy? Just because it’s supposedly infuriating to the right people, in this case the dreaded SJWs? Can you imagine anything less macho and more pathetic than building your life around that kind of thing? And they’re the ones who think they’re fighting AGAINST identity politics! It’s like the nerd equivalent of supporting the Duck Dynasty neanderthal.

I actually happen to think there’s a lot of stuff that falls under the “SJW” rubric that is indeed excessive and reactionary in its own right. The Charlie Hebdothing, for example, was almost incomprehensible to me, that you’d look at a pile of corpses and your reaction would be “but the cartoons they drew before they were massacred were really problematic.” People were murdered for drawings! That’s an awesome, in the old-school sense, act to contemplate.Cerebus creator Dave Sim is an insane misogynist and Islamophobe whom I think gets way too much leeway about this to this day, but I can’t imagine having the fucking chutzpah to write a column lambasting him for this the day someone blew his brains out. You know? And I know that for a lot of alternative cartoonists older than, say, 28, the recent thing where people shut down their whole webcomic set in Japan because people on tumblr complained about it was really shocking.

But this? Running around like it’s the second coming of Wertham because a massive corporation recently retooled one of its properties and decided that visually referencing the most unpleasant part of a 27-year-old story was off-brand for its current target demographic, most of whom weren’t even born when that story came out? Insanity. I hope the SJWs make these moral morons cry themselves to sleep every night and wake up with ulcers and teeth ground to shit every morning.

“Clear” and Present Danger: Alex Gibney on His Bold Scientology Doc

March 19, 2015

Though it helps humanize many current and former believers, Going Clear pulls no punches against Scientology’s biggest “celebrity megaphones” — especially its superstar public face, Tom Cruise. Both the book and film allege that Cruise, a close friend of Miscavige (who was the best man at the actor’s wedding), has benefited for years from a labor force of Sea Org clergy members. “I’m singling him out,” Wright says. “More people got interested in Scientology because of Tom Cruise than any other individual, and he knows what’s going on. He could effect change, and it’s on his shoulders that he should.”

Gibney is harsher still. “For [Cruise] not to denounce, or at least investigate, what’s going on seems appalling to me,” he says. “He gets a lot of money and a lot of privilege from a lot of fans, and the idea that allows the vulnerable to be preyed upon in his name seems reprehensible.” In fact, Going Clear claims that Cruise’s own ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, fell victim to Scientology’s excesses herself. According to high-ranking defector Marty Rathbun, the Church wiretapped Kidman as part of a multifaceted campaign to drive the couple apart when Miscavige felt she was pulling him away from his faith. Even to readers of Wright’s book, this is breaking news.

“That was something Marty told me in my interview,” Gibney says. “When he spoke to Larry for the book, emotionally, he still had one foot in the Church. [Rathbun] had been a key enforcer for them. To unravel those big lies takes years, and to undo the psychological damage that was done to him by the Church is a slow healing process. He was able to say things now about how aggressive the Church was, in terms of trying to get Cruise back, that he might not have been willing to say before.”

I interviewed Oscar and Emmy–winning director Alex Gibney, Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, and high-ranking Scientology defector Mike Rinder about thir upcoming HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for Rolling Stone. I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “Divestment”

March 19, 2015

Philip and Elizabeth are not the only members of the Jennings clan capable of digging into the lives of others. When Elizabeth paints their daughter Paige a very selective portrait of their pasts in the civil rights movement, the kid does some digging of her own. Using the microfilm machine at the local library — a skill as lost to time now as telegraph operating or alchemy — she investigates her mom’s claims, discovering that their activist ally Gregory had a lucrative second career as a drug kingpin. When she confronts her mother with this information, Elizabeth insists “he never stopped fighting for what’s right.” “So was he a criminal or wasn’t he?” Paige asks. “Things aren’t that simple,” Elizabeth replies.

In “Divestment,” last night’s episode of The Americans, things rarely are. Right and wrong, justice and vengeance, loyalty and betrayal, love and blindness: The boundaries between these qualities are fluid, porous, rendering the states they separate not so much contrasts as complements. Those who straddle these crooked, dotted lines are right to believe that there’s at least as much overlap as opposition between them. But when they act to blur those lines themselves, they raise the question: Is their moral universe truly illuminated by these shades of gray, or is this merely a sophisticated pose they strike to hide their crimes in the murk?

I reviewed last night’s typically excellent The Americans for the New York Observer. As I wrote it I thought “this is one of the best things I’ve written in a long, long time,” and that does not happen very often. I dunno if it’s true, but there you have it.

HuffPost Jinxed

March 17, 2015

I appeared on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert tv talk show today to discuss the finale of The Jinx, the return of Community, the trajectory of Better Call Saul, and the tangled web of spoiler culture. It was a lively and informative discussion, I think. Check it out, but be warned if you’ve never watched The Wire, as our host Ricky Camilleri blew like four major plot points just to prove he could, bless his trollish heart.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Bingo”

March 17, 2015

Once again, Jimmy’s done the right thing at his own expense, robbing clients to save their bacon and then ordering them to re-hire Kim to save hers. But this unexpected career rebound makes her less likely than ever to leave the firm and partner with him, legally or otherwise. So he walks into the corner office he’d hoped she would one day occupy, closes the door, and flips out. Yelling, crying, punching the wall, venting years of personal and professional disappointment — who is this man, and what has he done with James Morgan McGill?

On Breaking Bad, Saul had three settings: greed, fear, and entertaining bullshit. The larval form we’ve come to know in BCS is a good deal more nuanced, yet he’s still been driven by a limited number of factors: frustration, finances, fraternal affection for his sick brother Chuck. But while we’ve seen him get bent over plenty of times, we’d never seen him break. Beneath the bluster is a human being in enough pain to make him literally lash out at the world. That’s the kind of hurt a person will radically remake their own life to avoid. It takes way more than a new name or a fancy new office, however, to leave yourself behind.

I reviewed last night’s Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. The verdict: beautifully shot, way too much Kettleman.

The Perfect (Spoiler!) Crime: Art, Justice, and “The Jinx”

March 16, 2015

I wrote a lengthy, pretty much unexcerptable piece on The Jinx for the New York Observer in light of last night’s finale and the surrounding news stories. It touches on Serial, Capturing the Friedmans, Mea Maxima Culpa, Going Clear, Gimme Shelter, The Thin Blue Line, America’s Most Wanted, True Detective, Goofus & Gallant, spoiler alerts, hubris, justice, and art. I’m proud of it and I hope you enjoy it.

Lord of High Places

March 12, 2015

Lord of High Places is my new tumblr collecting images of monstrous birds, for purposes to be revealed. Watch the skies.

Goodbye, Bowie Loves Beyoncé

March 12, 2015

I started bowielovesbeyonce, my first tumblr, in February 2009. I always said that if the two of them ever took a picture together, I’d happily retire the tumblr, my work done. Tonight, searching for header image for the site’s mobile layout, I discovered that they’d taken two pictures together — at the Met Gala a year ago, and on the cover of Vanity Fair fourteen years ago, eight years before I even started this thing. I’m stunned and chagrined that I missed these photos for all this time, but still, I’m so happy to see Bowie and Beyoncé together. I love them both; they mean so much to me.

I’m going to go ahead and keep that promise to myself. It’s a shock to the system, coming coincidentally just one day after I decided to stop using twitter except for very minimal professional upkeep — I’ll have so much free time in my day (and free space on my dash) that I won’t even know what to do with. But this was the plan all along, and I want to see it through. And who knows: If David can come back after a decade of silence, anything is possible.

All thanks to David Bowie and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, my very favorite pop stars of all time. You have given me a better life.

STC X Twitter

March 12, 2015

I’m stepping away from Twitter, or as I said over there, I’m retiring undefeated. Posts will be minimal (for purposes of professional updates/upkeep) and interactions nonexistent until the inevitable comeback. If you’d like to reach me, please do so by email.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “Walter Taffet”

March 12, 2015

Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours is a crystalline collection of immaculately produced pop-rock that has sold in the neighborhood of 40 million copies. That’s approximately 8 million copies per each of the five members of the band whose romantic partnership ended during the album’s recording. Given that there were only five people in Fleetwood Mac, including a pair of couples, that’s one hellacious track record. Count ‘em: Guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and his longtime partner Stevie Nicks, two of the band’s three main songwriters, broke up acrimoniously. The third songwriter, Christine McVie, left her husband, bassist John McVie — for the group’s lighting director. Finally, drummer Mick Fleetwood got a divorce from his wife Jenny Boyd. (PS: Boyd had conducted a lengthy affair with the band’s ex-guitarist Bob Weston; Fleetwood would go on to have a secret relationship with Nicks, which ended when he broke up the marriage of Nicks’s best friend by having an affair with her. BuzzFeed’s Matthew Perpetua has the best summary of the turmoil if you’re searching for a scorecard.) Lindsay, Stevie, and Christine all chronicled their changing fortunes with savage honesty and/or dizzying romanticism in the songs that formed the album. And in the only instance of the entire group collaborating as songwriters, all five band members co-wrote the record’s centerpiece, classic rock’s most vicious anthem of romantic recrimination: As they all fell apart, “The Chain” quite literally kept them together.

It’s well worth thinking about Fleetwood Mac in the context of The Americans. In a sense, the two are inseparable, and not just becauseMatthew Rhys is Lindsey Buckingham’s spitting image: The show’s pilot began with an eight-minute espionage sequence set to an extended remix of“Tusk,” Buckingham’s bizarro paean to sexual paranoia. And tonight’s climactic use of “The Chain” will, yes, keep them together as well. But the songs are on the soundtrack for a reason. Long before Mick’s opening stomp emerged from your speakers tonight, this was a show obsessed with the ways in which couples in varying degrees of estrangement could nevertheless come together to achieve something greater than they ever could individually. “Walter Taffet,” this week’s episode, contained enough examples to make the Mac’s Behind the Music blush.

I reviewed Fleetwood Mac tonight’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Five-O”

March 10, 2015

The alchemists of Europe had a saying that’s still popular among mystics and spiritual seekers: “As above, so below.” The idea is that the macrocosm and microcosm are mirror images; by understanding the forces that animate mind and body, we can unravel the mysteries of the universe. It’s a concept not without its uses, art-wise: Style and substance are indivisible. Writers, musicians, and filmmakers make both large and small choices that are reflective of one another. Major themes can be glimpsed through minor details, visuals can echo dialogue, and the point of view of a character might hold the key to an entire TV show.

It’s this process that powers “Five-O,” tonight’s stunning episode of Better Call Saul. In shifting its focus almost entirely from hard-luck lawyer Jimmy McGill to aged ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut, the show also alters its look, its sound and its feel — all of this a mere six episodes into its first season. Characters are bathed in darkness and immersed in long stretches of silence, while the editing fades from one scene to the next like a dream…or a nightmare. And we see a side of Mike himself — multiple sides, even — that we’d never come close to discovering before.

I reviewed tonight’s absolutely wondrous episode of Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. I cannot overstate the power of Jonathan Banks’s performance.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Six: “Born Again”

March 6, 2015

Getting outsmarted by a TV show: It’s a high I chase like Ahab chased the white whale. It’s not that I’m some supergenius drama savant, or conversely that every series, even in the New Golden Age of Television, is #actually dopey. Rather, it’s that even the best, smartest, most surprising shows pull their shocks and showstoppers from a painstakingly assembled deck of dramaturgical cards. When you get past that initial jaw-on-the-floor reaction to a particularly impressive or unpredictable scene, you almost invariably follow that feeling up with “Ohhhhh, of course.” Whether transcendent moment or twist, it was retrospectively inevitable. That’s exactly what makes for a good show, usually! So when a show completely laps your ability to click its pieces into place, when it does something you know you could have sat in its writers’ room for months and still never have come up with, hoo boy, chills. That’s something special.

With a lede graf like that, it has to be good, right? I reviewed this week’s brilliant episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Alpine Shepherd Boy”

March 3, 2015

But it’s the Mike material that sees the episode really come alive, though it does so with barely a whisper. After some 40 minutes of funny old folks, space blankets, and poop jokes, things suddenly get somber. Mike sits a lonely vigil in his toll booth, an illuminated island in a sea of parking-lot darkness. He eats alone, rubbing his furrowed brow. He parks outside a woman’s home (his daughter’s?), exchanging a drawn-out glance with her as she drives away. He returns to his own house, watching old movies and drinking a cold one by his lonesome. The stately pace, steady camera work, and lack of dialogue throughout the sequence create an atmosphere of tension and menace; when a shadow moves past Mike’s window, you half expect a cartel assassin to burst in, guns blazing.

I reviewed last night’s Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone.

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 18: “Everyone Has a Cobblepot”

March 3, 2015

The Scarecrow. The Joker, maybe. Fish Mooney carving her own eye out with a spoon. Gotham has really been cooking lately, and the madness and mayhem of its villians are what’s kept the fire burning. In that light, the prospect of an episode about bad apples in the GCPD is about as welcome as a VIP pass to a nightclub performance by the Penguin’s mom. But on the mean streets of Gotham City, miracles, like full-body transplants, can happen. And tonight’s cop-centric installment “Everyone Has a Cobblepot” was the latest in a long line of beautifully berserk hours of pseudo-superhero TV.

I reviewed this week’s Gotham for Rolling Stone.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Nine

March 3, 2015

I’ve made no secret of my ongoing enjoyment and appreciation of Downton Abbey. It’s a show that mines subtle yet deep and rich rewards from exploring the emotional nooks and crannies of fundamentally stable long-term relationships. It’s sumptuously costumed, beautifully shot (think of the strong, stark imagery of the slate-gray prison that opened tonight’s episode), and performed by a cast with some of the most striking faces and voices on TV. Yes, it’s a soap, but we’re all adults here, capable of understanding that when it comes to “guilty pleasures,” the pleasure ought to overpower the guilt. It’s a fine show.

Yet by the end of this giant-sized 90-minute episode, I found myself wondering what, exactly, I’d spent the past two months watching. Season One introduced us to the setting and depicted on the culture class between middle-class Matthew Crawley and the aristocrats to whom he’d suddenly become the heir. Season Two showed us the Great War’s effect on the household and resolved the abortive romance between Matthew and Mary at last. Season Three gave us their wedding, forced Lord Robert to face the modern world, and of course produced two of the most shocking deaths in television history, Sybil’s and Matthew’s. Season Four focused on how Mary, Tom and Isobel slowly overcame their grief. Season Five…had some awkward dinner parties?

I reviewed this week’s Downton Abbey and offered some thoughts on the season as a whole for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Five: “Salang Pass”

March 3, 2015

Symbolically speaking, secret rooms are always full of treasure. Whether the door opens to reveal C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, Willy Wonka’s chocolate forest, or Bluebeard’s slain wives, the hidden chamber is the heart of the story, the source of its power, the place where it all really begins. The effort to suppress the secret only reinforces its importance.

In “Salang Pass,” this week’s episode of The Americans, we get a glimpse into Phillip Jennings’s secret room, and inside we find sex. This is not uncommon. But it’s sex endured rather than enjoyed, sex performed rather than participated in, sex made to “feel real” rather than be real. In subsuming his sexuality into a series of KGB-mandated liaisons with partners of all ages, appearances, body types, even genders, Philip, we learn, honed the techniques of seduction that have helped make him such a formidable deep-cover agent. But this means that he entered the secret room not to find something, but to lose something instead: the core part of himself that can assert, with certainty, that yes, these is his want, his need, his desire, his identity. While a necessary loss, perhaps, for the purposes of his protean career, it is nonetheless a grievous one. As a spy, he is well served by an ability to shape-shift to the needs of the moment, both sexually and ethically. But as a husband, a father, a human attempting to draw moral distinctions? Where do the chameleonic contents of his secret room leave him then? This is the central dilemma of The Americans. And as even Philip’s avuncular handler Gabriel points out, its resolution has rarely been of such immediate importance.

I reviewed last week’s The Americans for the New York Observer.