“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Four, Episodes Nine and Ten: “Search” and “Ten of Swords”

Halt and Catch Fire is one of the best shows ever made. Judging from the reaction to its two-part series finale this weekend, that’s uncontroversial now, which is an amazing thing to contemplate. From its rough start in Season One to its skin-of-the-teeth renewals for each subsequent year to its status as a critics’ darling that far too few people other than critics were talking about (and even critics let down the side a bit at the beginning of this season), it felt like the Little Engine That Almost Could. But there’s never been a show like it: generous of spirit toward its characters, yet always ruthless about their shortcomings and never sappy in its optimism that they might overcome them. Rooted in genuine moral dilemmas—not black and white choices, not even the shades of gray “I know it’s not the right thing but kinda I want to” stuff of the best antihero shows, but legitimately difficult choices between two strong options, neither of which is a sure thing. The sense that for all its focus on transformative technological advances and for all its temporal and geographical sweep (its four short seasons began in Texas 1981 and ended in California 1994), it all could have taken place in a single room between five characters. Co-creators Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers and actors Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis, Toby Huss, Scoot McNairy, and Lee Pace did what their characters could never quite do but never stopped dreaming of doing: They built something that will last.

[…]

I had another TV dream. They don’t happen frequently, but when they do they’re usually about a show that’s got me on the edge of my seat with anticipation for its next episode—a season finale, say, or the next installment in a particularly momentous stretch of the story. When they happen, my brain will conjure up an entire imaginary episode from the ether and play it for me, start to finish, as I “watch.” This has happened to me with shows I loved: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, Lost. It’s happened with shows I didn’t love, too: True DetectiveSeason One was never one of my favorites, but I dreamed not one but two separate terrifying season finales in a single night, so it must have done something right.

But this one was unlike the others. It happened after I’d watched “Search” and “Ten of Swords,” the two-part series finale of Halt and Catch Fire. I went to bed late that night—early that morning, really—and dreamed I was at a cafeteria in midtown Manhattan. I was getting lunch with old friends, beloved coworkers from a job I had ten years ago, who were in town for a convention. Our awful old boss was there too, I guess because we couldn’t think of a way to get rid of him.

Suddenly I feel a tap on the shoulder and hear a cheerful greeting, I turn to my left and see Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace from Halt and Catch Fire sitting down to join me. It’s after the finale aired, and they’re all smiles. They just wanted to thank me for my writing about the show over the years. I turn to hug Scoot and congratulate him on the work they’d all done, then reach across him to shake Lee’s hand; the handshake gets weirdly botched and we joke about it as we try again. Turning to my coworkers (and studiously avoiding my old awful boss) I gesture to the two actors. “These are my friends,” I say.

Then I woke up.

I reviewed the series finale of Halt and Catch Fire, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, for Decider. Writing about this show for the past four years has been one of the great pleasures of my career. I’m so grateful to everyone who made it possible.

Wet Nightmares: a conversation with the editors of erotic horror comics anthology ‘Mirror Mirror II’

What are your thoughts around criticisms of erotic horror as a genre that sensationalizes and glorifies violence, or abstracts violence as an idea rather than damage done to real people?

J: In my life I’ve experienced and witnessed enough violence that I don’t consider my feelings about violence to be an abstraction. My experiences are my experiences. My responsibility to write something honest takes priority.

I think we we can be overzealous in condemning creators for making work about trauma – Sean and I are both abuse survivors, but we’re sometimes criticized for insensitivity towards sexual violence and doing harm to survivors in that way. And no doubt many of those critics are survivors too. It’s tiresome to have to produce a resume of trauma to prove you’re allowed to discuss it, and when you do you get it from the other side – from people who think you’re too close to the subject to handle it well. What I’m getting at is that there’s no correct way to deal with violence in art, and what harms one reader can be healing to another. I’d rather give artists the benefit of the doubt.

S: Julia pretty much says it all here. I’ll just add that it goes back to what I said earlier about different approaches within horror – similarly, there are different ways to address and convey the pain and suffering experienced by real people. Certainly my work as a writer and now as an editor is an attempt to do so, with my own pain just for starters. The great power of fantastic fiction of all kinds, perhaps horror most of all, is that it can give voice to everyday feelings, emotions, and experiences the magnitude of which is beyond the ability of everyday language to express.

My partner and co-editor Julia Gfrörer and I spoke to Minh Nguyen about our comics anthology Mirror Mirror II for AQNB. I’m ashamed of myself for not thinking of “Wet Nightmares” sooner.

“Suburra: Blood on Rome,” Season One, Episode Six: “Garlic, Oil, and Chili Pepper”

You’re not watching Suburra to find out who comes out on top of this particular dirty deal; let’s face it, the show only gives you rooting interest in the young guns….Rather, you’re watching Suburra just to watch it — to see three incredibly handsome dudes try to pull one over on the world in a series of striking shot compositions across the length and breadth of the Eternal City.

I reviewed the sixth episode of Suburra: Blood on Rome, which you should probably be watching instead of whatever other Netflix show you’re watching, for Decider.

“The Deuce” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Why Me?”

Last week, The Deuce staged a war of words that saw its combatants, Candy and Rodney, criss-cross their stretch of 42nd Street. This week’s episode (“Why Me?”) tries a different but equally effective tactic: From the big-picture meta-plot to the individual storylines, everything seems headed the same way all at once. It’s the first installment of David Simon and George Pelecanos’s period piece that doesn’t feel like bits and pieces stitched together, but a cohesive whole.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Deuce, basically the first one I enjoyed, for Rolling Stone.

“Mindhunter” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two

Edmund Kemper is not your average pop-culture serial killer. That’s the point. Mindhunter’s second episode may be dogged by many of the same problems as its premiere—we’ll get to that later—but its decision to cast “The Co-Ed Killer” at the Hannibal Lecter to restless FBI Agent Holden Ford’s Clarice Starling is as smart and sinister as the man himself. Played by actor Cameron Britton, whose performance is already one of the most chilling of its type, Kemper is the embodiment of Ford’s argument that this new breed of killer is too crazily complex for the existing rulebook to cover.

The “we’ll get to that later” is doing a lot of work in the above paragraph, but nevertheless I enjoyed the Ed Kemper material in episode two of Mindhunter, which I reviewed for the A.V. Club, a great deal. Just be prepared for my very different thoughts on the music cues and the female lead.

“Mindhunter” thoughts, Season One, Episode One

“It’s not like there’s some magical machine that makes identical copies of things.” To its eternal credit, Mad Men got the single worst line of dialogue in the entire series out of the way in its pilot episode. Don Draper’s brief aside about the state of the art in office equipment functions as a gag only from the perspective of its 2007 audience, at the expense of its 1960 characters. What we know, and what Don doesn’t, is that of course there are magical machines that make identical copies of things, or that there will be eventually. The poor sap has the temerity not to have journeyed via time machine to an era where photocopiers are a thing. Joke’s on you, buddy!

I thought of this line a lot while watching Mindhunter, Netflix’s new serial-killer procedural from writer-creator Joe Penhall and producer-director David Fincher. The difference is that while Mad Men relegated its “look at these troglodytes who haven’t even heard of Xerox yet” hindsight to one brief, bad joke, it’s Mindhunter’s entire premise.

Based on the influential true-crime book Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, and featuring analogues for Douglas and his fellow Fed Robert K. Ressler, it chronicles the birth of criminal profiling and the concept of the serial killer as we know them, during an era when law enforcement’s skepticism of such notions—and of psychology in general—was ingrained and endemic. In other words, it’s a war story written from the perspective of the winners, one which enlists its audience as recruits for the retrospectively inevitable victory. That’s the problem, really: It’s a tale of bone-deep uncertainty in uncharted territory, told with the quiet confidence of a sure thing.

I’m covering the first season of Mindhunter for the A.V. Club, where believe it or not I’ve never written about television before! Here’s my review of the premiere, which helped me realize there’s basically a whole subgenre of “based on a true story” that I don’t care for: the origin of something everyone thought was wrong but which we in the audience know turned out to be right. Also, you gotta hear the dialogue in this thing. It’s like an alien wrote it.

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode One: “eps3.0_power-saver-mode”

That’s why I insist to this day Mr. Robot Season Two was a tremendous creative success. With the possible exception of Game of Thrones and its allegorical brutality, no show on television last year had the courage to be so honestly discouraged by human nature. That pessimism proved prophetic just a few months later, when Donald Trump’s installation as president ushered in a wave of corporate rapaciousness and white-nationalist belligerence by which we all continue to be battered day after day. Trump and the forces he represents didn’t come out of nowhere, though. While the rest of TV culture was consumed by a dozen different adorkable sitcoms and the Reaganite nostalgia of Stranger ThingsMr. Robot blazed a bleaker, truer path.

In this relatively low-key premiere, that’s the path it continues to tread.

I reviewed this week’s season premiere of Mr. Robot for Decider. I know I said it’s low-key, but there’s one major exception. Let’s put it this way: Here’s how I started the review…

Did…did Mr. Robot just do what I think it did?

“Suburra: Blood on Rome” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “She Wolf”

At the risk of constructing an inelegant metaphor, what do you do when you it a pothole in your plot? Here’s one strategy: Put the pedal to the metal and just drive right the hell on. That’s the approach adopted by Suburra: Blood on Rome.

I reviewed episode 5 of Suburra: Blood on Rome for Decider. My concerns about the previous episode evaporated almost instantly.

“Suburra: Blood on Rome” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Enjoy Your Meal”

So maybe it’s just me. Maybe I want these three crazy mixed-up kids to all get along. I certainly get my wish with Aureliano and Spadino. It’s hard to isolate the sweetest moment in their relationship this episode. Is it Lele telling Aureliano it wasn’t a miracle that saved his life, but Spadino? Is it Spadino asking if Aureliano is alright when Lele comes to the Anacleti compound to set up the meeting, and their shared smile of relief when the answer is yes? Is it the way Spadino and Aurelinao joke around at their meeting, and actually just come right out and say “I probably like you. Can’t I like you?” “Yeah. I like you too”? Is it Spadino’s look of obvious romantic affection for his enemy turned ally when the latter’s not looking? Is it the fact that both of them have ridiculous teenage-boy bedrooms, like college kids who moved back in with their parents and never left? Can I just go with “all of the above”?

I reviewed the fourth episode of Suburra: Blood on Rome for Decider. This one has a plot twist that concerns me.

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’: Breaking Down the New Trailer

The Last Jedi occupies the equivalent position in this new trilogy of The Empire Strikes Back, one of the most resolutely downbeat blockbusters ever released. Rian Johnson is no stranger to that bleak emotional palette – the man directed Breaking Bad‘s devastating final-season episode “Ozymandias.” When you add these hints at a heel turn from Rey with those grim fourth-wall-breaking shots of Carrie Fisher’s warrior princess on the verge of death, at the hands of her own son no less, the Dark Side is strong with the result.

Still, this is Star Wars Episode IX, not The Godfather Part II. The new AT-ATs, lightsaber, and little furry cute thing are all in keeping with the franchise’s fun side. Meanwhile, the Finn/Phasma fight and the Falcon flight remind us that from A New Hope‘s Death Star attack run to The Phantom Menace‘s “Duel of the Fates” to Rogue One‘s suicide-squad beach battle, this saga has always blended sci-fi/fantasy with rock-solid action filmmaking.

I wrote about the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer for Rolling Stone.

STC x Drunk Ed: MONSTERS

monster-collage

Wanna see something really scary? I’ll be giving a talk about Clive Barker as part of “Monsters,” the latest in the Drunk Ed lecture series. It’s happening this Wednesday, October 11th, from 8-10p at Littlefield, 635 Sackett Street, Brooklyn. The other speakers include Meredith Graves, Arabelle Sicardi, and Eric Thurm (I think merritt k had to bail but who knows), so come on by!

‘Mr. Robot’: What to Remember Before Watching Season 3

Stylish cyberthriller. Anticapitalist agitprop. Cassandra-esque prophecy of doom. Experimental canvas for the auteurist creator-writer-director Sam Esmail. Surprise-twist generator. Think of “Mr. Robot” as a gadget capable of running all these programs and more simultaneously, making it one of television’s most engrossing shows.

It can also be one of its most complex and confusing. Esmail and company weave conspiracies into conspiracies, shift points of view and bury them beneath elaborate hallucinations, and rely on tricky hacker plots for their action sequences. Season 2, which aired in summer 2016, spent more than half of its running time immersed in a reality that only existed in the head of its main character.

Worried you won’t be able to follow when Season 3 debuts Oct. 11 on USA? (You can watch the new season on the network’s app and digital on-demand platforms.) Here’s a quick refresher on the main players.

The Mystery Men: Elliot Alderson, Mr. Robot and Tyrell Wellick

Technically, Elliot Alderson is Mr. Robot. Played by Christian Slater, the title character exists only in Elliot’s head — a mental projection of the hacker’s dead father, embodying all the rage Elliot feels against the colossal conglomerate E Corp for its role in his dad’s untimely death from environmental toxins. As a separate personality existing within Elliot’s head, Mr. Robot can hijack their shared body to advance his militant agenda, leaving Elliot himself in the dark about the plans everyone else believes he, not his imaginary alter ego, devised.

Season 2 embroiled them both in two main mysteries. The first involved Elliot’s short stint in prison after copping to a minor charge following the 5/9 hack — which the show kept secret for seven full episodes, depicting a false reality Elliot constructed to protect himself from the truth.

The second mystery centered on “Stage 2,” the mysterious next step in the war against E Corp that Elliot’s Mr. Robot personality helped organize in collusion with the sinister cyberterrorism organization the Dark Army. He discovers the truth from an previously hidden co-conspirator: Tyrell Wellick, the disgraced and unstable E Corp executive who was blamed for the 5/9 hack, and who had been missing ever since. (Elliot assumed he’d murdered the man and disposed of his body during a three-day period of amnesia following the hack itself.)

Wellick informs Elliot that they plan to hack into the secret storehouse where E Corp’s paper backup records are kept, blowing it up and destroying the company once and for all — but also killing everyone in the building. When Elliot balks and tries to shut down the program, convinced Wellick is just a figment of his imagination, Wellick shoots him, following the by-any-means-necessary instructions that Elliot had issued himself while under Mr. Robot’s control.

I wrote a quick-and-dirty refresher course for Mr. Robot in anticipation of Wednesday’s season premiere for the mighty New York Times.