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.
“Don’t be afraid to care,” advises the Pink Floyd singer-guitarist David Gilmour in the prog-rock titans’ dreamy anthem “Breathe.” It’s a signature track on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” the perpetually best-selling concept album about modern life and mental illness that has soundtracked many a dorm-room bull session and chemically enhanced “Wizard of Oz” screening.
And given the propensity of “Legion” to make subtext text, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised that the show would use this jaw-droppingly literal music cue for a pivotal scene in its season finale. Why not use a song with the lyric “All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be” for an astral-plane confrontation in which David Haller’s life literally flashes before his eyes? Why not mesh the lyrics’ fatalistic take on the inescapable nature of death with a sequence in which David discovers how lethal it would be to free himself from the grasp of his nemesis, the Shadow King? Why not cap off a show renowned for its surreal, spacey visuals and structure with a song that comes pre-loaded with four and a half decades of psychedelic nostalgia?
The answer is right there in Gilmour’s line “Don’t be afraid to care.” Creator Noah Hawley and company crafted a show that stood out against its drab and unadventurous superhero peers, to be sure, and maybe that’s good enough. But it could have been great with a little more willingness to avoid the obvious, to go for magic rather than parlor tricks, to not use one of the most famously trippy songs in the history of rock ’n’ roll to tell the audience, “Wow, man — trippy, isn’t it?” A little more care is exactly what this episode, and the show in general, really needed.
I reviewed the season finale of Legion for the New York Times last week. I didn’t like the finale, or the season. I’ve seen semi-convincing arguments that the show is enjoyable when looked at as a silly fun superhero show with some unusual visual flair, but as that’s neither how it was sold nor, quite clearly, what its creators intended it to be, they must remain only semi-convincing.
Some pics from Day One of MoCCA Fest 2017 in New York, where me and the MIRROR MIRROR II crew (that’s Laura Lannes, Lala Albert, Julia Gfrörer, and me in the middle picture) sold and signed the book. I had to leave early due to illness but I hope to be back tomorrow and I hope to see you there if i am! Either way, the kickstarter for MMII and the rest of our publisher 2dcloud’s spring lineup is entering its final hours. Now’s your chance to snap up the whole line for a pittance, but whether or not you order the books, of course every bit donated helps!
BLAH is for the children! In this episode, Sean and Stefan take a look at two issues uniquely relevant to the younger characters of A Song of Ice and Fire: bullying and education. Inspired by our recent re-reads of A Game of Thrones, our conversation touches on the pervasiveness of verbal and physical bullying, the degree to which it is or isn’t encouraged by adults, and how the ideas passed on to children by their parents and teachers through the official education system (for nobles, anyway) impact those receiving them. It’s a topic close to our hearts, and to our understanding of what the whole series is really about. Enjoy!
And remember, if you like what you hear, subscribe to our Patreon to hear more of it via our subscriber-exclusive Boiled Leather Audio Moment mini-podcast!
It takes Alison Goldfrapp more than a full verse into Silver Eye’s leadoff track “Anymore” before she utters a single word with more than one syllable: “You’re what I want. You’re what I need. Give me your love. Make me a freak.” Reductive? Considering her and collaborator Will Gregory—whose past lyrics would gussy up their earthy emotions and desires in hazy surrealism like, “Wolf lady sucks my brain” and, “Now take me dancing at the disco where you buy your Winnebago”—you might be tempted to think so. Prior to “Anymore,” Goldfrapp hid their most verbally explicit expression of lust (“Put your dirty angel face between my legs and knicker lace”) in an elaborate fantasy about a tryst with a traveling carny titled, appropriately enough, “Twist.”
But the direct approach suits this new album, the group’s first since 2013’s Tales of Us. Ever since the pair swapped the John Barry ambience of their debut album Felt Mountain for the electro-glam of its successor Black Cherry, they’ve staked their identity on being able to assume new identities at will. Wanna double down on that sexy “Spirit in the Sky” shimmer? There’s Supernature. Wanna go pastoral? Check out Seventh Tree. Wanna trade Gary Numan and Marc Bolan for the Pointer Sisters and circa-“Jump” Van Halen? Head for Head First. By contrast, Silver Eye is a synthesis—a combination of all the things the group has done well. “Become the one you know you are,” commands a key track, and they’re teaching by example. Who needs many syllables to express something so fundamental?
Max Morris: Your most recent project is co-editing Mirror Mirror II with Sean T. Collins, which is set to be released by 2D Cloud for their Spring 2017 collection. To my knowledge, this is the first anthology of comics work you’ve edited, but please let me know if I am incorrect. How was your experience of putting this book together?
Julia Gfrörer: It certainly deepened my empathy for people who regularly curate anthologies—it’s a lot of work, like herding cats. But it was also really a pleasure to work on, and gave me and Sean an opportunity to hone our vision of what matters most to us in art, writing, and comics. We’re honored to be able to work with so many incredible artists, many of whom are already well-known but have very different audiences, and get new eyes on their work.
Julia spoke to Max Morris at Bad at Sports about Mirror Mirror II, which you can purchase via our Kickstarter.
First off: wow! I haven’t had a book challenge me this much in a long time, in the sense that it tapped into some deep desires that I most often prefer to keep in the back rather than the forefront of my mind. Is this an effect that you were hoping to have on your readers?
Since I take that all as very high praise indeed, I suppose the answer is yes, it’s exactly the effect we were hoping to have. Julia and I share a lot of things—in addition to co-editing Mirror Mirror II, we live together and have a family as well—and one of them is the belief that when done right, dark and difficult work can push the reader in the direction of empathy. And our conviction is that it’s precisely by forcing the reader—and the artist, too—to confront parts of both the world and their own minds that they’d perhaps otherwise ignore or prefer to remain hidden that this kind of work makes real empathy possible. Instead of coming away reassured that you and the artist are in a sort of Good People Club where you agree that Behavior A is bad and Behavior B is good and aren’t we all enlightened to think so… I dunno, you can coast on that kind of work, you know what I mean? It lets you off the hook—again, meaning both the creator and the audience here. So in that sense we hope that the comics and art in Mirror Mirror II keep you on that hook, and I’m glad to hear it seems to have turned out that way for you.
I talked to Sarah Miller at Sequentialist about Mirror Mirror II, which you can order via our Kickstarter.
Rob: There are so many awesome horror comics. It’s one of my favorite genres, too. What makes comics such a great art form for horror?
Sean: That’s a tough question for me, because a lot of what people think of when they think of “horror comics” don’t move or frighten me at all. Mirror Mirror II is basically a who’s who of the artists who have scared us–Al Columbia, Uno Moralez, Renee French, Josh Simmons, and Julia too. Have you ever watched a horror movie, gotten to a really intensely scary part, and then been unable to resist rewinding and watching again? I definitely have, and I think the best horror comics make that compulsive instinct to face what frightens and disgusts us easy to give in to. You control the speed at which you pass through the images, so when something really sinks its claws into you, it’s entirely up to you how fast you pull those claws back out by turning the page.
I spoke to Rob McGonigal at Panel Patter about Mirror Mirror II, the horror comics and art anthology I co-edited with Julia Gfrörer. The kickstarter where you can order the book is right here.
While Lynch gets the “Legion”-related headlines, another director named David seems to have left an even deeper mark. That would be David Cronenberg, who made a name for himself with a series of body-horror films that depicted the disturbing interplay between mind and matter, often with a conspiratorial backdrop of sinister secret agencies or killer corporations out to harness psychic power for their own ends.
“Legion” paints in shades of Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” with its pulsating inanimate objects; “Shivers,” with its parasite imagery; “The Brood,” with its story of a powerful telepath under the care of a manipulative therapist (played by Oliver Reed, who may have lent both his name and his machismo to the guru figure Oliver Bird); and most especially “Scanners,” with its all-out war between rival psychic factions and a protagonist who’s telepathically tormented by the voices in his head. (“Scanners” also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from a very familiar-looking deep sea diver suit).
I wrote about David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Legion’s other major horror influences for the New York Times. I have my beefs with Legion, but it’s porting its horror references into a whole different genre, as opposed to Stranger Things, which is just reheating them in the microwave and trying to pass of leftovers as a fresh-cooked dish.
But all the business-y bullshit that everyone has to go through to get to any of these points — all the car rides and hallway lurkings and door knockings and arguments on the threshold — it’s just pure wasted space. As a practical matter it makes next to no sense in a world where phones exist. But more importantly, it posits a world in which human beings only interact with one each other for reasons of righteous indignation or naked duplicity. You go to someone’s house, you bully them or bullshit them, and you leave. It’s a lot like Eddie’s silly blindfolded needle-threading exercise — the focus is on getting everything where the story needs it to be rather than asking why it’s going there in the first place. For a show that’s ostensibly about the deep truths of human existence…well, I kinda want to pop into the writers’ room and tell them what’s going wrong.
I counted damn near a dozen Seinfeld-style “pop-ins” used to advance the plot of this week’s episode of The Path, which I reviewed for Decider. This is no way to write a show, man.
I’m concerned about Renee. You know, Renee—Stan Beeman’s beautiful blonde gym buddy and new girlfriend, played by ex-Walking Dead lead Laurie Holden? The woman whose magnetism ate up a ton of Stan’s screentime through his descriptions of her to his buddy Philip Jennings and his partner Agent Aderholt alone, even before she made her on-screen debut? The woman who, during a double date with Stan and the Jennings, provides the kind of highly detailed backstory that we’ve learned from experience with our Soviet spies in this very episode (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) is just the sort of bubbe-meise secret agents concoct for their false identities? The woman who elicits weirdly stiff smiles from Philip and Elizabeth, implying that they sense something is off, but without the show ever confirming that implication by having the Jennings say something like “Wow, that was weird, wasn’t it?” during the car ride home or whatever? Yeah, that Renee. The beautiful thing about all this is that it all works no matter what pans out. Maybe we’re right to be suspicious and this person is up to no good—KGB, CIA, or some other alphabet agency seeking to compromise one of the FBI’s best and brightest. Or maybe our years-long immersion into the lives and lies of Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, Oleg et al have us jumping at shadows. Either way, you couldn’t ask for a finer demonstration of The Americans’ power to generate paranoia.
Isn’t it nice to have a show that can legitimately outsmart you—not just bury some easter-egg clues in a storyline and wait for you to find them, but convincingly construct characters whose intellect, talent, and emotional acumen keep them several steps ahead of your own?
My partner Julia Gfrörer has really opened the floodgates for amazing things to purchase this week. In addition to the MIRROR MIRROR II kickstarter, she’s selling a host of t-shirt designs through her newly opened Threadless shop, including the coveted MISANDRY shirt (now available in black, white, or pink!). She’s entered a contest at Threadless for her leggings design, TEN OF SWORDS, as well, so please go vote for her. Finally, she’s selling the original art for her MMII contribution, her illustrations of medieval French heraldic devices by Claude Paradin, at her Etsy store. These things are unspeakably gorgeous up close, and it’s rare for Julia to part with this much original art all at once, so take advantage!
And please, if you haven’t done so already, consider ordering MIRROR MIRROR II through our kickstarter, or simply donating to it, and spreading the word far and wide across social media or to your friends. We’re about 65% of the way through with 9 days remaining, and we need your support. Just look at those beautiful books up there!
Fortunately for David, diagnosis is nine-tenths of the cure. Now that he knows the source of his sickness, he’s able to shake it off and break through the barriers of his mind. With a little help from his mutant friends, he shuts down the hospital hallucination they’ve all been experiencing, seizes control of his own body, subdues the Shadow King, stops the bullets fired at him and Syd mid-flight and lives to fight government mutant-hunters another day. Simple, really!
No, seriously. The real secret of “Legion” is that it is a simple story, when all is said and done. Unlike, say, “Westworld,” none of the show’s countless Easter eggs, deliberate details and plot-twist trickery are essential to understanding the story. They’re aesthetic elements, not narrative ones; they exist not to convert the show into a puzzle-box but to make it an objet d’art, successfully or not. The simplicity of David’s origin and of his nemesis, as revealed in this episode, should make that clear. (Even a passing knowledge of the Marvel comics upon which the show is based — in which the writer Chris Claremont established the founder of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier, as David’s father and cocreated Farouk as one of their most powerful enemies — would have made it clear to a sizable chunk of the audience already.)
But while this simplicity allows “Legion” to cut through the Gordian knot of needlessly byzantine plotting that has plagued other genre shows of recent vintage, the blade is double-edged. Lacking narrative necessity, the show’s stylistic flourishes are free to sink or swim on their own. By that standard, they too often hit bottom.
The climax of tonight’s episode is a case in point. It’s an all-roads-converge kind of deal, in which Syd and Kerry’s battle with Farouk’s alter ego Lenny in the hospital simulation; Cary, Melanie and Oliver’s struggle to shield Syd’s and David’s bodies from the bullets in the time-frozen real world; and David’s attempt to psychically shatter the doors of his mind-prison all sync up successfully at the last second, saving their skins and stopping the bad guys simultaneously.
But all that action should be enough to stand on its own without the cutesy context the filmmakers provide. What is gained by having the fight play out like a silent movie, shot in black and white with dialogue printed as intertitles and Lenny gussied up in Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp meets Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands drag? Why is the musical accompaniment an EDM version of Ravel’s “Boléro”? Irony has its place in the frequently too portentous superhero subgenre, but here it undercuts the tension and terror without providing much compensatory value.
I reviewed this week’s penultimate episode of Legion for the New York Times. This show isn’t the worst thing on TV or anything like that, but at this point I am truly stunned that anyone thinks it’s great and am starting to mistrust critics who allege that it is.
This week on The Path, it’s Meyerist Yom Kippur. After meditating on their transgressions over the past year, the members of Doc’s movement write those they wish to relinquish down on a piece of paper and place in in a tiny wooden coffin they build and decorate for the occasion. They then take these coffins to the edge of an unnamed body of water and toss them in, as if consigning their sins to the depths.
Unfortunately, if you toss tiny floating wooden boxes into the shallow water of a lakeside beach, you’re not really gonna get rid of anything. So after the bulk of the group departs, a handful of Meyerists stay behind to—god, I feel stupider just typing this out—to fish the little coffins back out of the water and set them on fire. Which, again, is not a form of destruction to which they’d be amenable, since they’re made of wood that’s been soaking in a lake for a few hours.
Be that as it may! The real purpose of the sequence, and presumably the reason writer-creator Jessica Goldberg concocted the cockamamie “We cleanse our transgress so we can burn the sins of last year” two-phase ritual in the first place, is so Richard can get his hands on Sarah’s little coffin, open it, and uncover her transgression to use against her—which he does by providing it to Eddie, so he can learn she’s trying to stop feeling guilty for getting together with his rival Cal.
Again, I’d imagine that tiny pieces of paper folded up and placed inside a non-waterproof wooden container before getting chucked into the fishpond or whatever are not the most reliable sources of intel. But Eddie had to find out about Cal and Sarah somehow, so by god, the ritual is going to involve throwing dark secrets into the water and then retrieving them just to destroy them—except, in this particular case, just to save them instead.
Every so often a show provides you with a perfect encapsulation of all its strengths or all its faults; this needlessly convoluted and rickety ritual is The Path writ small. Like those little coffins, the show’s characters get tossed in one direction before getting yanked back in the other, then get pried open for big emotional revelations that make little sense.
I reviewed this week’s episode of The Path for Decider. This show, man.
“Why are we looking at this for so long? Ohhh, that’s why.” The Americans loves to set us up like this, drawing out scenes and storylines for as long as it can before pulling the trigger on our understanding of what the show is doing and why the show is doing it. “The Midges,” this week’s episode, features what’s bound to be one of the most talked-about examples of the technique yet. As KGB agent and reluctant CIA asset Oleg Burov exits the Soviet supermarket he’s investigating for corruption, the camera follows him through the aisles for a while but eventually allows him to exit the store alone. While he leaves, it stays behind, watching the shoppers browse the sparse shelves. Most prominent in the frame is a woman in a headscarf, one of many in the store. But the shot lasts too long for her to be just another extra. Is she a spy sent by the US or the USSR to keep tabs on Oleg? Is she about to do something unusual or unpleasant, or is something unusual or unpleasant about to be done to her? Wait—is she…familiar looking? Her face turns toward the camera just as the scene’s focus on her becomes impossible to ignore. Behold: Martha, Philip’s wife and asset and victim, going about her new life in the country that took away her old one. “Is it hard, pretending to be other people?” Paige asks her parents elsewhere in the episode. Philip tells her yes, it is. Martha could no doubt do the same.