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Not to get all Beavis and Butt-head about it, but bad shows suck because, well, they suck, not because they are insufficiently episodic in structure. This is why calls from the critical community, leading many of the fan conversations on these shows, to eschew unified, serialized storytelling in favor of tight arcs and standalone episodes feel like a misdiagnosis. For one thing, they fail to consider that noticeably self-contained installments of series like Game of Thrones and Girls are as memorable as they are precisely because those shows don’t usually work that way.
These claims fall into the same trap of cinematically minded showrunners who insist that “it’s not TV” by agreeing with them, setting up a false dichotomy between what constitutes the proper use of the medium and what doesn’t. In its maturity, television has proven capable of countless things: TV dramas alone can be as densely serialized as The Wire Season 4, as memorably episodic as Mad Men Season 5, as sweeping as Fargo Season 2, and as sensation-driven as Empire Season 1. Sometimes they can be several things at once; Black Mirror, like its groundbreaking antecedent The Twilight Zone, tells a different story with a different set of characters every single episode, making it simultaneously one of the most movie-like and most episodic shows on television. Saying any of these series is closer or farther away from The One True Way to Make TV obscures the fact that there’s no such thing.
In fact, this array of options, this wide-open landscape of different structures and tones and techniques, is the truest indicator that “prestige TV” is not a contradiction in terms. Problems with the execution aside — and problems with the execution is all they really are — television can do whatever you want it to do at this point, and declaring one approach or the other superior is a procrustean blunder — like arguing The Godfather is less great a film because you can break it down like a television series, if you’re feeling particularly perverse (ahem). If that means some showrunners get to declare their series a double-digit-hour movie, so be it. The proof will be in the pudding, or the cannoli. You can have it both ways. Why wouldn’t you want to try?
What was your favorite episode of The Godfather? “Khartoum”? “The Thunderbolt”? The pilot, “I Believe in America”? I presented a modest proposal about a cinematic classic in order to talk about where all the “no, your TV show isn’t a 73-hour movie” structuralist reprimanding gets us for Thrillist.
“Weird” and “like nothing else on television” are two descriptors that need to be purged from the critical vocabulary immediately. Believe me, I’d be first against the wall were that to happen, because quite frankly a lot of stuff on the air these days is weird and isn’t like anything else on television and at a certain point you have to call it like you see it. But simply saying so sells the work short, even before those descriptions are used to, say, lump an empty-calorie sci-fi and/or superhero and/or horror pastiche like Legion together with the trailblazing surrealist exploration of abuse and exploitation that was (and hopefully will be) Twin Peaks. The best “weird” shows aren’t just zany or confusing — they deliberately mess with your head to sneak difficult ideas in there while your guard is down. Shows that truly are “like nothing else on television” are, by definition, doing something so unique that an equally unique description is warranted.
So without further ado, let us discuss “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, which was indeed both weird and like nothing else on television. Let’s talk about the title sequence, which reintroduces the memorable family-photo fade-outs of the previous season but drops the jaunty country-music accompaniment in favor of … the theme song from the cornball ‘80s sitcom Perfect Strangers? Let’s talk about the credits, which list the writers of the episode as … Tha Lonely Donkey Kong & Specialist Contagious? Let’s talk about the first thing we see after this disorientingly goofy stuff draws to a close … Jardin’s resident old hermit plummeting to his death?
What we’ve just witnessed is the proprietary blend of utter emotional devastation and madcap audio-visual trolling that has made The Leftovers what it is.
Bobby Axelrod has come undone. For my money, this week’s episode of Billions (“With or Without You”) gives us a more convincing glimpse of the damage he can do in crisis mode than when he destroyed his own office building to look for nonexistent bugs last season. Bobby spends the episode in near-constant motion, driving and walking and pacing and flailing around in the search for Lara. A lot of shows waste time on their characters’ perambulations as a misguided matter of course; Billions shrewdly instrumentalizes them, giving the show the pacing of a thriller and making Bobby’s physical movement a metaphor for his racing and restless mind in his wife’s absence. And by making his first trip of many a visit to Wendy Rhoades in which he uses his sinister private investigator Hall to strong-arm her off the street and into his car (!!!), the show demonstrates just how far he’s willing to go.
Actor Damian Lewis is no stranger to playing characters who are so tightly wound and terrified they could snap at any moment thanks to his show-defining stint on Homeland. Here, he does his best work since that show’s darkest moments, slowly but surely revealing himself to be an abusive, controlling, contemptuous creep in a series of increasingly unhinged voicemails to Lara. He starts out upset, but not necessarily unreasonable; he may spend a bit too much time trying to shame Lara into regretting her snap decision to bolt rather than talk it out and to take the kids in the bargain—and a bit too little time actually apologizing for his role in prompting that decision—but he at least seems like someone she could have a conversation with were she calm enough herself. He shifts into remember-when mode (proving Tony Soprano right once and for all), comparing his feelings for her when they first met to “the thunderbolt” that hit Michael Corleone when he first laid eyes on his mild Sicilian dream girl Apollonia in The Godfather, then fast-forwarding to a trip they took to Paris where they couldn’t even bear to get out of bed long enough to stop “With or Without You” from playing on repeat.
But both of these fond memories are inverted with gut-punching force later on: “Apollonia got blown up by a fucking car bomb,” Lara points out to Bobby with appropriate venom when he repeats the comparison upon her return, while the iconic, romantic U2 hit plays as he surreptitiously deletes all the angry messages he left her while her phone was off over the course of the day. Good thing, too: By the end of it all he was screaming into the phone about how he was gonna teach her a lesson, how he could “operate you by remote control with a flick of my fucking finger,” how he shouldn’t have passed up the countless opportunities he had to fuck other women if this was all the thanks he got. Watching all this play out, you can see what Chuck Rhoades likely sees every time he looks at the guy: an entitled menace, with limitless resources to back it up.
Fargo Season Three has arrived, and Noah Hawley is back on his bullshit.
After the weightless sci-fi psychedelia of Legion — a seemingly sincere but ultimately empty exercise in the superhero genre — the writer/director/showrunner has returned to the moral snowdrifts of the Upper Midwest for the third season of Fargo. The sudden chill has done him good. Legion did all sorts of rad tricks with lighting, editing, cinematography, narrative structure, and found-music pop-rock soundtracking, but for all its freneticism the end result was inert; tied to a hoary X-Men x-tended-universe story about a crazy telepathic mutant and his not-as-creepy-as-it-could-have-been psychic parasite, it felt like stagecraft rather than communication.
But as an East German interrogator puts it in the flashback (?) prologue to “The Law of Vacant Places,” Fargo S3’s season premiere, “We are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth. Understand?” This is followed by the show’s usual “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” chyron — but Hawley, directing from his own script, then fades out the word “TRUE,” and eventually leaves nothing behind but “STORY.” This is already a far more effective disquisition on the difference between “true” and “real” than a season’s worth of Legion astral-plane hallucinations, because it’s rooted (literally — the words are overlaid across a shot of bare winter trees) in places and people rather than in an ersatz examination of The Mind or what have you. No matter how much Fargo owes to the Coen Brothers’ quirk-noir classic and the rest of their black-comedy crime films (some more black than comedy, some more comedy than black), it comes down to murder — the story of human bodies and what they’re capable of doing to one another. Here, heads are far more likely to get smashed by a falling air conditioner than explored like a memory palace.
I reviewed the season premiere of Fargo, which I enjoyed a great deal, for Decider. I’ll be covering the show there all season. Please do not believe a word of the backlash you may have seen to the show this season, which when compared to the freakout for Legion provides the clearest illustration I’ve ever seen of how TV critics overreact to novelty over quality. The stars of Trainspotting, Naked, A Serious Man, and The Leftovers are now all on the same show. If you suspect it’ll be good, congrats, you win.
The Americans is a great show for faces. Most great TV dramas are, of course—to name two currently running examples, if you can think of Better Call Saul without mentally counting the crags in every Jonathan Banks closeup or talk about The Leftovers without describing the way Carrie Coon choreographs her eyes and lips and brow in a complex dance of grief, just go ahead and delete those shows from your watchlist. But those shows’ warm and expressionistic lighting transforms those faces into works of art. The Americans is all about the gray-white light of a suburban afternoon or the harsh fluorescents of official spaces. Faces here look raw, inseparable from the physical reality of the human beings beneath them. When Paige Jennings tears up in “The Committee on Human Rights,” this week’s episode, because she’s dumping her boyfriend, it’s an action she doesn’t really know how to do, over reasons she doesn’t really know how to explain to herself much less to him. In those moments, her baffled but resolute face is recognizable to anyone who’s shared that terrible into-the-void pain. When Matthew Beeman stares at her, eyes growing dull with confusion and shock as he offers to do basically whatever she wants to keep the relationship going, you recognize that too. When Stan Beeman’s face lights up because his friend’s life has been spared and his boss has unexpectedly gone to bat for him, you really do see a guy who just got good news at work. Does this make sense? There’s something unadorned about The Americans’ faces, is what I’m getting at. They’re not staged for us. They feel more like something we’re peering through a window to see.
Which brings me to my favorite face of all. Matthew Rhys is such a pleasure to watch in this thing. Counterintuitive, I know, given that his job requires him to look constantly miserable. (It’s what made his cameo as a sleazy hotshot novelist during the final season of Girls such a perverse thrill: Finally, we get to see him enjoy doing terrible things instead of moping about them!) But within that range of facial expressions that stretches from exhausted to nauseated he’s able to locate so many variations and nuances. Other actors are a 12/3/6/9 wall clock with an hour hand and a minute hand; he’s able to pinpoint fleeting emotional beats to the millisecond.
I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. Writing this review helped me push past some internal obstacles to my work lately, and I think it shows.
To grab an analogy from a different fleshed-out universe, it’s quickly becoming the case that Better Call Saul is to Breaking Bad what Rogue One is to the original Star Wars trilogy. Tonally, it’s not the same thing, and it’s not trying to be. It’s subdued and small-scale instead of boisterous and universe-spanning. The lighstaber-duel-style action set pieces are deliberately absent. Hell, you even know how it’s going to end.
But just as seeing old favorites like Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Mon Mothma, and Grand Moff Tarkin in a new and unusual context managed to provide a familiar thrill without feeling like a retread, so does watching friends and foes from Vince Gilligan’s meth masterpiece pop up on BCS. It’s familiar, yes, but the familiarity serves, somewhat counterintuitively, to keep the show fresh and distinct.
As it’s done with Saul and Mike before, throwing Gus Fring into the mix will allow us to see him from a whole new angle. And we all know the kind of payoff seeing Gus Fring from a new angle can deliver, don’t we? Ding ding ding ding ding!
“Witness” is the episode Better Call Saul viewers have long been waiting for, the one in which Gustavo “Gus” Fring finally makes his debut. Gus was—or is that will be?—the primary antagonist of Breaking Bad, the series to which BCS serves as a sequel. Watching Mike Ehrmantraut and his occasional partner of convenience Jimmy McGill work their way through their relatively petty crimes toward this apex predator’s stalking ground over the course of the past two seasons has been like hearing the longest, most morbid version of “The Aristocrats” ever told.
There was every risk that the introduction of such a massive figure, a mainstay in any list of the greatest villains the medium has ever produced, would throw this relatively quiet show’s careful balance of black comedy and quiet menace out of whack. But as it happens, we needn’t have worried at all. Gus doesn’t make the kind of grand entrance that would overwhelm the show’s dual-narrative structure, in which Jimmy’s love-hate relationship with his more successful but mentally ill brother Chuck slowly drags him into criminality on one half of the ledger while Mike’s natural talent for skullduggery and bloodletting push him deeper into the underworld on the other. Smartly, the show reunites the two characters for Gus’s introduction, sending Jimmy into his restaurant for a failed reconnaissance mission at Mike’s behest. By the time we realize who he is, the Chicken Man has been milling around in the background of the shot for several seconds, sweeping up like the conscientious manager of a fast-food place he pretends to be. As Jimmy sits and looks around for a sign of the man behind Mike’s pursuers, that very man slowly, slowly, slowly draws near to him, almost brushes up against him, and passes him by. His face is always either out of focus or out of frame entirely. The effect is like you’ve gone swimming in deep water, and you’re watching a friend float around obliviously as the silver-gray shape of a shark swims right past him.
Comedy, tragedy, horror, symbolism: The Leftovers fires them at you one after the other and doesn’t much care whether you’re able to field them. To find another show this confidently manic in its creativity you’d have to turn to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope — minus its emotional ambiguity and gorgeous European pomp and camp, perhaps, but with a relentless focus on grief, trauma, and all-American God and guns and self-improvement schemes that make for a pretty fair trade. For Lindelof (co-writing with Patrick Somerville), a creator who once seemed debilitatingly preoccupied by the reactions of his audience, this show is an absolute breakthrough. For director Mimi Leder, it’s a showcase for a steady hand and keen eye that keep all the disparate parts working as a powerful, often beautiful whole. For its very lucky viewers, it’s a sign from television heaven that rumors of Peak TV’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. That crazy frisson you feel while watching the best shows, where you start each episode having no clue what will happen, but every confidence that it will somehow feel right? The Leftovers is one of the chosen few that can give it to you.
Bobby Axelrod’s personal fortune would shame a Roman emperor’s. Shouldn’t his memento mori be equally upscaled? “Sic Transit Imperium,” this week’s episode of Billions, begins with his right-hand man Wags’s delivery of a birthday present: “The Arc,” a secure facility for billionaire survivalists and their families to hole up in the event of armageddon. The key comes in the shape of a fake Roman coin, “So goes the Empire” written on one side. L’état, c’est Axelrod—if he goes, the world goes with him.
But the episode ends with Bobby declining the gift. “I’LL NEVER ACCEPT THIS” reads the note that accompanies the coin-key he sends back to Wags in lieu of attending his own birthday party. The idea is that Bobby sees through it all. Sure, he’s obligated to do at least a little pro forma legacy-building and image-burnishing, as he does when he hires a “stuffed shirt” to direct his charitable efforts to the tune of $500K a year. But a lavish birthday party where his loyal subjects pay him homage and celebrate all they’ve built together? A luxury doomsday bunker so he can ride out the apocalypse in style? Avoiding a sure thing involving a soon to be scandal-plagued car company over paltry, mortal-human concerns like “it’s illegal” and “the tip comes from an ex-employee with an act to grind”? The hell you say! Attempts to ensure a smooth and safe future are a waste of his time and talent. As he says to Taylor in one of the episodes many surprisingly sincere exchanges, “The moral of the story is you get one life, so do it all.” Sic transit imperium can take a back seat to carpe diem.
I reviewed this week’s Billions for the New York Observer. I have no idea if people are watching this show this season or what, particularly in what is by now one of the most crowded fields for good tv in as long as I’ve been doing this—at some point or other during the season’s run it will have competed for attention with Big Little Lies, Girls, The Americans, Taboo, The Leftovers, Harlots, Better Call Saul, Feud, Veep, Legion, American Crime, American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, a tonal and qualitative mixed bag to be sure but all of them serious efforts—but boy did it get good.
The teaser sets the tone with its very first image: a twinkling starfield that’s soon revealed to be a patch of dirt on Luke’s remote island hideaway, in which grains of sand and rock catch the light. This is the place where the elder Jedi (Mark Hamill) is training his new protégé, Rey (Daisy Ridley), in the ways of the Force. We see her training with her blue lightsaber. We share her visions of “Light” – a shot of the late Carrie Fisher’s General Leia, her back to the camera in the Resistance command center; “Darkness” – the mask of her nemesis Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), shattered to pieces, with Darth Vader’s trademark heavy breathing in the background; and most intriguingly, “Balance” – a huge treelike chamber that we’ve never seen before, housing an empty platform, and a map with the symbol of the Jedi emblazoned on it. “It’s so much bigger,” Luke tells her, making it sound like the Star Wars Universe’s world-building is about to expand considerably.
We’ll never know what caused the Sudden Departure, the instantaneous disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population at the center of HBO’s critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers. Series co-creator Damon Lindelof has said so, repeatedly, and if anyone knows the danger of promising answers he’s in no position to deliver, it’s the guy who did Lost. It’s a smart move, too. By taking “What happened?” off the table, it leaves the show free to explore a far more open-ended and rewarding question: “What happens next?”
But here’s the thing. We in the audience may know that the Sudden Departure will always be an unsolved mystery, but the people in the world of the show itself sure don’t. Much of The Leftovers is driven by the theories, belief systems, religious doctrines, mystical mumbo-jumbo, and out-and-out nihilism embraced by its various characters to explain the world-changing event and give life meaning afterward. Below, you’ll find the major schools of thought through which the people of The Leftovers attempt to understand their weird world.
Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux)
Kevin is the handsome, brooding, handsome, mentally ill, handsome, dead and resurrected, and last but not least, handsome patriarch of the fractious Garvey family. Kevin served as the chief of police in the sleepy New York suburb of Mapleton, a job he inherited along with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia from his father, Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn, whose character is currently holed up in Australia). Kevin’s “is it real, is it supernatural, or is it a hallucination?” visions and misadventures have driven much of the show’s action.
At the moment of the Departure, Kevin was cheating on his wife Laurie in an impulsive one-afternoon stand; his lover disappeared from their motel bed. During season one, the increasingly unstable family man and a local gun nut named Dean graduate from shooting stray dogs to kidnapping Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the local leader of the Guilty Remnant cult. When she kills herself in front of him, he covers up her death, comes clean months later, and is told not to sweat it by the government, which in The Leftovers’ world has very little problem at all with the murder of cult members. This is cause for concern, since all three members of the family Kevin had before the Sudden Departure have done time in cults themselves: His ex-wife, Laurie, joined the Guilty Remnant and eventually helped recruit their daughter, Jill, while his adopted son, Tommy, took up with the British healer and harem-keeper known as Holy Wayne.
By the start of season two, all three have left their cults, but only Jill remains with Kevin. They’re joined by Lily, the infant daughter of Holy Wayne and one of his many ersatz wives, a young woman named Christine, left on the family doorstep by Tommy. Together with his new girlfriend Nora Durst, whose loss during the Sudden Departure was catastrophic, they move to the town of Jarden (see above). While there, his dissociative sleepwalking episodes lead him to attempt suicide in the same water where three local teens disappear that very night. Guilt-ridden and cracking up, he’s also literally haunted by Patti, who is either a hallucination or an actual ghost. (The Leftovers isn’t big on answering such questions.)
In order to purge himself of Patti, Kevin poisons himself with the help of a local shaman (more on him later) and travels to a purgatorial “other place” — a luxury hotel where, in the guise of an international assassin, he stalks and kills an alternate version of Patti who’s running for president. He then learns that her “real” self in this world is a little girl, whom he pushes down a well before falling in himself to finish the job. Once resurrected in the real world, he winds up getting shot by the father of the disappeared girl (again, more on him later), travels back to the hotel purgatory, and escapes by singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” at karaoke. Season two ends with Kevin and his whole big crazy extended family reunited.
Eddie Lane has been anointed the Guardian of the Light, but the burden sits uneasily on his shoulders. Cal Roberts remains in charge of the Meyerist movement, but his emotional instability ensures that his grasp on power is a shaky one. Sarah Lane’s feelings toward both men exist are a paralyzing maelstrom of love, loyalty, and loathing. Her family, themselves members of the Meyerist inner circle, send her conflicting messages about where their own loyalties lie. The other major players in the movement have been momentarily marginalized, yet still seem capable of shifting their support from one leadership candidate to another should circumstances warrant. Eddie and Sarah’s children Hawk and Summer, the former in particular, are caught in the emotional and ideological crossfire. FBI Agent Abe Gaines is a man without a country as his undercover investigation into the movement causes him to question his personal and professional priorities. And the fate of a small town called Clarksville, its water supply poisoned by a corporate polluter, hangs in the balance as the Meyerists hash out their legal, political, and financial future. Yes, the Season Two premiere of The Path has — I’m sorry, I’m <puts finger on earpiece> I’m now being told that this was the Season Two finale of The Path? Did I get my notes mixed up or something?
Upon further review, the answer, unfortunately, is no. “Mercy,” the final episode of The Path’s maddeningly meandering second season, returns us pretty much exactly to where it started. Sure, the show may have added a dozen or so Deniers, now that Eddie has kinda-sorta accepted his role as a potential leader for a Meyerist reform movement, and subtracted one Richard, who lit himself on fire in what turned out to be an entirely unsuccessful attempt to shake the corrupted faith to its foundations. Other than that, though? It’s like the intervening twelve episodes never happened. All those changes of heart and reversals, all that business about blackmail and Clarksville, the very existence of Kodiak and Chloe (remember them?), the constant stream of Seinfeld pop-ins (for god’s sake, Abe pops in on Eddie and Sarah while they’re fugitives from the law in Canada in this episode) — none of it wound up mattering at all. Cal is twitchy, Sarah is torn, Eddie is facing the world with a grimace, and for all its up-with-people rhetoric Meyerism is a psychological disaster area. Situation normal, all fucked up.
It’s weird to spend this much time concerned about Philip, in a way. Even though he’s long been the conscience of the couple—the show began with him trying to persuade Elizabeth to defect, remember?—he’s spent most of the past few seasons worried about others: his duped “wife” Martha, for example, and his daughter Paige most especially. But Paige has worries all her own. I’m still wrestling with that odd scene where she and her mother talk to a Mary Kay sales rep at the front door. Paige seems delighted, but Elizabeth is disgusted, and even if the Mary Kay lady is too seasoned a pro to acknowledge it, that disgust shows. “You weren’t very nice to her,” Paige tells her mom afterward, perplexed. “Well, we weren’t gonna buy anything,” Elizabeth says. “Being nice would just be a waste of her time.” Indictment of how capitalism commodifies time and human relationships and objectifies human beings? Yes, as Paige’s late-night readings of Marx would help her understand. Indictment of her own mother’s instrumentalization of other people based on whether or not they suit the needs of the moment? Also yes, as Elizabeth’s instruction to hide Capital among other books so as not to arouse suspicion from outside observers would help Paige understand in turn. There’s something awfully ugly about that scene, short and subdued and murder-free though it may be.
The slowness and silence of Mike’s side of the story is a stupendous choice for several reasons. First, it aims the spotlight directly at the facial expressions and body language of Jonathan Banks as Mike. As an actor, he doesn’t perform so much as he oven roasts, slowly and quietly allowing the characters skill, determination, ruthlessness, patience and weariness to flavor his every move. Second, it provides composer Dave Porter with a blank canvas on which to paint an engrossing post-rock musical accompaniment, miles away from the jaunty country-western kitsch of the soundtrack. Third, it gives director Vince Gilligan—working here with cinematographer Marshall Adams—the chance to let the visual dimension do much of the talking. Mike’s sections of the show are basically oceans of darkness, surrounding islands of warm yet sickly yellow glowing light in which Mike moves or sits like a castaway; that yellow color beams “CAUTION” at our brains like the lights from a roadside construction project on a rainy night. It’s a powerful contrast with the black and white of the flash-forward opening sequence, showing Jimmy’s eventual fate as Gene the Omaha Cinnabon manager; with the Office Space aesthetic of Jimmy’s 2002-era material; even with the dark wood paneling and bright “natural” daylight that characterize scenes starring Jimmy’s Luddite brother Chuck. It’s tough to think of a series with as distinct a visual aesthetic as Better Call Saul which is also willing to vary that aesthetic so much in a single episode.
Finally, Mike’s slow and steady story gives lie to the claim that Better Call Saul is becoming Breaking Bad Redux. Perhaps Breaking Bad’s magisterial final season (minus that regrettable punch-pulling finale, of course), which moved toward the destruction of Walter White with the grace and grandeur of the inevitable, makes the chaos of that show harder to remember. But from literally the first scene of the first episode of the first season, Walt’s story showed him careening from one calamity to another, creating new disasters to extricate himself from the old ones nearly every time. Mike’s story may involve Breaking Bad heavies like the Salamanca Family and, presumably, Gus “The Chicken Man” Fring; it may have more in common with that show’s violent stock in trade than the white-collar crimes of Jimmy McGill or the mental illness of his hotshot older brother Chuck; but in pacing and in tone it remains a very different proposition indeed.
I reviewed the season premiere of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. Eff what you heard about the show getting too close to Breaking Bad; other than the characters and the overall skill involved they have very little in common.
Before we really get into this, I want us to take a moment—you and me, just us two—to talk about David Costabile and Mike “Wags” Wagner.” I want you to think about the way his face crinkles with joy when he learns his boss Bobby Axelrod wants to take on Black Jack Foley, the most powerful man in New York. “Rough him up?” he says, beaming like a kid on Christmas morning. “I’m all for it!” I want you to consider how, when his underling Maffee razzes him for his pathological partying, he not only verbally menaces the guy but raises his leg and puts his foot on his desk while he does it, like a dog about to mark his territory. I want you to savor the way he turns to the brokerage goons who are courting Axe Cap’s business, insists on ditching their boring business dinner for something more…exciting, and fucking says “Fire walk with me” like a David Lynch demon. I want us, you and me, to treasure this man, this character, this performance. He is a delight undeserved, and yet here he is.
That’s more or less the way I feel about Billions in toto. How this show became one of the tightest, smartest, and most entertaining series on television this year is a mystery I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of, but I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. As of “The Kingmaker,” this week’s episode, Billions is serving up a type of tight, aphoristic writing we haven’t seen since Mad Men. It’s not looking to tear your guts out the way Matt Weiner’s classic drama was, (though as we’ll see, it may occasionally do so anyway), but that’s fine. We could all use an unimpeachably written drama about the evil that capitalist men do right about now, don’t you think?
I reviewed this week’s Billions for the New York Observer. I’m just apeshit for this show this season. Never seen a turnaround like it before.
FLASH FORWARD by me and Jonny Negron. Final 10 copies. $8. First come first served. Click here and note your mailing address.
“I’m lost, man,” disgruntled undercover FBI agent Abe Gaines tells disgruntled ex-Meyerist/messiah Eddie Lane at the beginning of this week’s episode of The Path. “I’m in someone else’s story.” He’s not the only one. I have one question for The Path at this point: Why isn’t — excuse me, why wasn’t — Richard the main character?
“I’d like to lay a little bet / That you don’t even know the meaning of regret / And if I’m even just a tiny bit correct / I doubt that you would ever think to pay your debt / I’m suspicious / Suspicious of you.”—Psychic TV, “Suspicious”
“Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”—Nirvana, “Territorial Pissings”
“It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”—Joseph Fouché, frequently misattributed to Talleyrand
“Lotus 1-2-3,” this week’s episode of The Americans, had me reaching for my mental quote book. (Not many physical ones contain Psychic TV.) It’s hard to narrow down which of the above phrases best encapsulates what went on here, so we’ll take them one by one.
We’ll start with the last, though it’s a quote I’ve always hated. No, actually, a mistake is not worse than a crime. A crime is bad enough in and of itself. This is the sort of blustery self-justifying bullshit that enables bad actors in political conflicts across the centuries to push morality to the side as, if not entirely irrelevant, then at least incidental to the allegedly more important practical considerations. You’ll recognize this mentality from the 2016 presidential debates, perhaps, when Donald Trump responded to a question from a Muslim member of the audience with his usual senile-dementia neofascism about evil Islamic fundamentalists, only for Hillary Clinton, the supposed avatar of American progressivism, to say that no, actually, we need to be good to Muslims…so that they’ll serve as our eyes and ears among the aforementioned evil Islamic fundamentalists. The idea that fomenting Islamophobia is itself evil, that it’s bad in and of itself, that it’s morally wrong and therefore curtailing it requires no practical justification, was nowhere to be found.
This week Philip Jennings shoots this whole way of thinking down with a sardonic facial expression and a flatly incredulous sentence. It turns out that their investigation into American attempts to destroy Soviet crops was completely off-base, and that the virulent strain of midges they’d discovered is being used to make wheat more resistant to pests. This means that the lab tech whose spine he snapped in Kansas for the crime of looking the other way had really done nothing wrong at all. “That guy in the lab,” Philip says to Elizabeth, as they sit wearing the clothes and wigs of fake people in a fake house. “That can’t happen ever again.” “We’ll be more careful,” Elizabeth reassures him. “ ‘More careful’?” he repeats, the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice making his concern and contempt clear. To Philip, who says he’s been having problems with the wetwork they’re required to do for a long time, “careful” doesn’t enter into it. The problem wasn’t that they were sloppy, it’s that they murdered an innocent man. It was worse than a mistake, it was a crime.
You can’t swing a gatefold Dark Side of the Moon album cover without hitting a TV music cue meant to BLOW YOUR MIND these days. What a joy it was, then, to stumble across a needle-drop on Billions meant to do nothing more and nothing less than make you crack up? The honor goes to “Sex and Candy,” the ‘90s alt-pop staple from Marcy Playground that turned lust into something that sounded sleepy and skeezy and, well, smelly. In that sense, it’s perfect for the sex scene it soundtracked: a poolside oral tryst between the Axelrods’ skeezebag personal chef and his tattooed lady friend. But did Billions start the song when it first cut to these two hardbodies getting it on? Hell no—those first “only ‘90s kids will remember” notes rang out, incongruously and ironically, over Chuck Rhoades and his son Kevin and their football, posing for the all-American photo shoot intended to launch his political career. The moment I recognized it I started literally lol’ing. Deflating Chuck’s pretensions to righteousness and segueing into the show’s filthiest romp so far this season (Wags’s tattooed ass notwithstanding)? Take fucking notes, Legion and Stranger Things—that’s how music direction is done.
And as far as the kind of “the part stands in for the whole” moments that we TV critics can’t get enough of, it’s almost too good to be true. Directed by John freaking Singleton and written by Alice O’Neill and series co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, “Victory Lap” is the episode in which this extraordinarily, improbably entertaining season of Billions rips off the capitalism scab to reveal the exploitation pus beneath.
I reviewed this week’s Billions, maybe the best of its very strong season so far, for the New York Observer. Okay, so Legion was still irritating me, but that aside this had one of the most gut-level upsetting story turns I’ve seen in a long while. Great stuff.