“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “By the Pricking of My Thumbs”

April 13th, 2015

A partial inventory of things that made me say “This is exactly why the good Lord gave us pay-cable period pieces” on tonight’s episode of Outlander:

  • Opening the episode with a full minute and a half of simulated cunnilingus
  • Fart jokes
  • Half-naked pagan sex-magic rituals
  • Morbid Game of Thrones–style magic baby abandonment
  • A duel at ten paces devolving into a bloody swordfight over “yo mama” jokes
  • Simon Callow in stockings

If it’s entertainment value you’re after, you could do a whole lot worse than “By the Pricking of My Thumbs,” this week’s installment in the ongoing unstuck-in-time adventures of Claire Beecham. Let’s start with the sexy stuff, because hey, if the show can do it, why can’t we? Unmoored from the overhyped wedding-night episode and the baffling tone-deafness of last week’s sex-and-violence cocktail, Jaime and Claire’s chemistry is at last free to just kind of establish itself as its own thing. And from Claire’s high-pitched sighs of pleasure, to Jaime’s refusal to answer the door until they’re finished, to the non-TV-standard positioning of their bodies at the beginning of the scene, that chemistry burns hot. But once you’ve finished fanning yourself, you realize it communicated character, too. Jaime goes down on Claire with the same earnest eagerness and insistence with which he does pretty much everything in life; Claire is relaxed and languid on the receiving end, comfortable and confident in her own skin, just as she is in virtually every situation she encounters. By all means, Outlander, keep ripping those bodices if you’re gonna find that kind of quiet insight underneath.

I reviewed this week’s Outlander, now with 100% more Simon Callow, for the New York Observer.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode One: “The Wars to Come”

April 13th, 2015

It begins in the mud. A girl who would be queen trudges through the muck toward a witch who sucks her blood and sees her future — and if you want to tap that kind of magic, you’ve gotta get your hands, (and your feet) dirty. By the sound of things, young Cersei Lannister is used to having her way. But she has no idea that getting exactly what you want can be the worst thing in the world.

Cersei will be queen alright, the witch named Maggy tells her, but she’ll marry a loutish philanderer to get there. Her reign will only last until another queen, “younger and more beautiful,” sweeps her aside. And her three royal children? “Gold will be their crowns,” the witch coos, before adding her cackling kicker: “and gold their shrouds.” She’ll get to the top, but the royal won’t like what she finds there.

Like all of Game of Thrones’ season premieres, this episode — titled “The Wars to Come” — is a largely utilitarian affair, showing us who’s alive, who’s dead, who’s on top, and who’s on the lam. But Cersei’s flashback (the first in the show’s history) both sets the tone and provides the theme for the big Season Five kickoff. Once you’ve seized the power you’ve spent a lifetime fighting for, what do you do with it — and what does it do to you?

I reviewed the Game of Thrones season premiere for Rolling Stone. Back on the beat, baby!

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eleven: “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov”

April 8th, 2015

Agent Frank Gaad is making a list, and with the help of Stan Beeman, he’s checking it twice. He knows there were times he discussed highly sensitive information in his office, when such conversations are supposed to be held in the Vault, a soundproof, bugproof room designed for just that purpose. His office may have felt like a sanctum sanctorum, but the security provided by its closed door was just an illusion, shattered by a microphone hidden in his pen. So now he’s in the Vault, (un-bugged) pen and paper in hand, writing down everything he remembers about everything he shouldn’t have said outside its confines.

To Stan’s surprise, his boss isn’t doing this at the behest of the inscrutable internal security officer Walter Taffet, but out of his own guilt and desire to reform. To put it another way, he’s taking the fourth step for any counterintelligence workaholic and making a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself. “I coulda been more careful, a lotta times,” he explains. “Well, you assume you’re okay in there, we all do,” Stan reassures him. “Yeah, well,” Gaad retorts, “that’s why we’ve got rules. They built us a vault for it.”

It’s a striking line, and an ironic one: a paean to secrecy that reveals so much about this show. The concept of the Vault is the key that unlocks “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov,” tonight’s predictably great episode of The Americans, and many other episodes besides. It cracks the code of how many scenes in the series are shot and staged to emphasize the structures, literal and metaphorical, people employ to keep others out, and their secrets in. Breach them at your peril.

I reviewed tonight’s preposterously good episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. That was one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever seen on TV, by the way.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “Marco”

April 8th, 2015

The shit didn’t hit the fan. It just slid through the sunroof.

Nothing shocking happened during Better Call Saul‘s season finale. No one was murdered and no one was betrayed; no one poisoned a kid, caused an aircraft collision, or blew a drug lord’s face off. The show’s inaugural go-round ended not with a bang but a guitar riff, as Jimmy McGill sped away from the square life and toward “Saul Goodman, Attorney-at-Law,” singing “Smoke on the Water” all the while. Ironically, this refusal to be daring is the most daring thing the show could have done. Written and directed by Peter Gould, the co-creator of both the character and his solo series, tonight’s episode — “Marco” — played out with the confidence that we didn’t need to see fireworks to enjoy the show. And you know what? That’s probably right.

I reviewed the Better Call Saul season finale for Rolling Stone.

What to Know for “Game of Thrones”‘ Season Five Premiere

April 6th, 2015

Back in King’s Landing…
In the words of Ser Paulie Walnuts, bannerman to House Soprano, it’s fuckin’ mayham out there. King Joffrey is dead, courtesy of a conspiracy between Littlefinger and Lady Olenna Tyrell, leaving his kid brother Tommen to take the crown and his uncle Tyrion Lannister to take the rap. Tyrion nearly escaped his death sentence when he tapped Prince Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell to take his side in a trial by combat — a resident the Southern kingdom of Dorne who, you’ll remember, had come to the capital seeking vengeance against the Lannisters. (His previous go-to guy, Bronn, was bought off with the promise of a castle and a lordship of his own.) Oberyn mortally wounded his opponent, the towering murder machine Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane — but the big man ended up squashing the Viper’s skull.

In the aftermath, Oberyn’s girlfriend Ellaria Sand fled to her native city. (Which is where, you might recall, Tyrion sent his niece Myrcella as a goodwill gesture.) Queen Cersei handed the dying Gregor over to her creepy new pal, the Mengele-like ex-maester Qyburn, for experimentation. And the Imp himself was saved from execution by his brother Jaime, who ordered the spymaster Varys to help his fugitive sibling get the fuck outta Dodge. Unfortunately, Tyrion made a pit stop on the way, murdering his ex-girlfriend Shae and his all-powerful father Tywin Lannister for their involvement in his conviction. He and Varys were last seen aboard a ship, secretly sailing to parts unknown. That means no one’s left to keep Cersei and her son’s bride-to-be, ambitious beauty Margaery Tyrell, from each other’s throats.

The annual tradition continues: I wrote a Game of Thrones Cheat Sheet for Rolling Stone, perfect for anyone who wants to catch up or brush up before Season Five starts this Sunday.

“Mad Men” Thoughts, Season Seven, Episode Eight: “Severance”

April 6th, 2015

Webster’s Dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment; joy…a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” It offers an obsolete definition as well: “good fortune; prosperity.” Here it draws close to the definition articulated by Don Draper—Draper’s Dictionary, so to speak—back in Mad Men‘s very first episode. “Advertising,” he tells his clients, “is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” Whatever else a life of safety, comfort, and new cars involves, good fortune and prosperity are certainly key ingredients.

But this is itself an obsolete definition. In Season Five, the revised edition of Draper’s Dictionary presented a more up-to-date version, aimed at skeptical DuPont executives who didn’t understand why they’d hire Don to blow up their marketing strategy when they’re on top of the market. Don’s answer? “Because even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten…. You’re happy because you’re successful—for now. But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” The goal can never be reached, because it is, by definition, unreachable. A moment of happiness is just that: a moment. When it ends—and it always ends—the hunt begins again.

I reviewed the final Mad Men season premiere for Wired, once again viewing the show through the ad campaigns the characters are working on. This show is a feast, and I’ll be sorry when it ends.

“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “The Reckoning”

April 4th, 2015

Bad as “The Reckoning” was — and it was bad, alright — this episode merely illustrated problems Outlander has displayed for most of its first surprise-hit season. And many of those weaknesses lie precisely where supporters of the show locate its strengths. This makes for a hugely frustrating, even confusing viewing experience. How can a show that supposedly gets so much right go so wrong?

Granted, not everything’s a misfire. It genuinely is pretty great that Claire’s enthusiasm for sex is depicted as, you know, fun. In the immortal words of Maude Lebowski, sex can be a natural, zesty enterprise, but too often highly sexed people are depicted only as sluts, freaks, addicts, or predators. Don Draper, Theon Greyjoy, and Elizabeth Jennings are all well and good, but characters like Claire Beecham, Ilana Wexler on Broad City, and Martha Hanson on The Americans treat sex as a central and important part of their lives not out of compulsion or self-destruction, but due to the simple fact that fucking is a fucking awesome way to spend your time, like reading or brunch. Just as some people use their library cards or drink mimosas more often than others, there are folks who build perfectly normal, happy lives around frequent orgasm opportunities, and there shouldn’t be shame in that.

Similarly, there’s nothing inherently wrong, or even odd, about BDSM, an integral part of the make-up sex Claire and her Scottish husband Jamie have after that horrible long day finally ends. You don’t need dress up, lash out, or invest millions of dollars in a private playpen called the Red Room of Pain to employ power dynamics and extreme sensations in your sex life. Nor does emotional, psychological, or sexual trauma of any kind necessarily preclude you from exploring this aspect of sexuality. On the contrary, consensual and safe sadomasochism can help its practitioners take difficult, destructive parts of their lives and harness their power in a positive way. As a very wise person once told me, we think about these things, we talk about these things — why can’t we fuck about these things? Think of it as psychosexual judo, where you’re using the weight and momentum of your opponent — in this case, your own bad experiences and emotions — to win. BDSM can help people earn a black belt against their own suffering.

Moreover, I’m even open to the idea that Outlander, as a romantic fantasy, can get away with behavior we wouldn’t accept in real life. Such an acknowledgement always seemed strangely absent from the great debate about 50 Shades of Grey. Discussing issues of consent, abuse, and stalking as if Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele were real people instead of characters in a work of pornography doesn’t make sense. In fantasies, we can think about and get off on doing things, and having things done to us, that we’d never want to actually experience. 50 Shades is just such a fantasy. Safewords and restraining orders are as out of place there as a physics lesson in a flying dream.

So the problem with Outlander isn’t in addressing these complex, adult issues. Rather it’s in wedging them into a show that otherwise displays all the sophistication of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. (Posh medical expert journeys to the frontier and falls for a long-haired he-man? The parallels are seriously uncanny.) Quick: Name a difficult or demanding moral or ideological topic the show addresses when the characters have their clothes on. Ye ken as well as I that there’s no such animal, sassenach. And no, “Black Jack Randall is really fucked up” doesn’t count; tone down the gore and the gleeful sociopathy and he’s just one of those Army guys who chased the A-Team. A show with ideas as wafer-thin as Outlander’s simply can’t handle heavier fare.

Spanks but no spanks: I reviewed the return of Outlander, which is not good, for the New York Observer. Covering the show this season is going to be…interesting.

Blood Caffeine Sex Magic: Co-Producer Bryan Cogman on How “Game of Thrones” Gets Written

April 2nd, 2015

You’re just about to hit the end of the story that George R.R. Martin has published so far. Did you see this coming?

Well, I think, in the first couple of years, it was really just about getting each season right and hoping people would watch. By the time we got to planning out and shooting Seasons Three and Four, David & Dan started really thinking about the overall shape of the series, since we knew we were going to be able to see this thing through. In the end, the show has to go at its own pace and George has to write the books at his own pace. He and D&D are obviously in close communication the whole time about both. But the show is its own thing, as it has to be.

There’s a segment of the fandom that’s freaking out about this, saying that the TV series will “spoil” the remaining two volumes of the book series. Is that a concern the show shares?

I think we just have to make the best Season Five, Season Six, and beyond that we can. Not sure I’m at liberty to comment more specifically than that.

“New” material aside, it also seems from trailers and casting and locations and so forth that this season will change some existing storylines sort of dramatically. When you do stuff that’s not in the books, for whatever reason, what’s the vibe, creatively? Is it a “with great power comes great responsibility” thing, or “woo-hoo, we’re goin’ off-book!”

Well, I think at this point, we do have great responsibility to the viewing audience, whether they’ve read the books or not, to try to produce 10 hours of outstanding television. All sorts of factors go into why a particular subplot, character, story beat, etc. might differ from the books. Again, it’s all tackled and debated on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, it always has to come down to what David & Dan feel is best for the show.

I interviewed Game of Thrones co-producer/writer and friend of the blog Bryan Cogman about the process behind the coming season for the New York Observer.

Julia Garner on Her Difficult Role on “The Americans,” and Kimmy’s “Daddy Issues”

April 2nd, 2015

In tonight’s episode, there’s a moment after Jim brings Kimmy home drunk from a frat party where he tells her, “unlike your friends, you’re very real.” You get the sense that as much as anything else, she’s just desperate for someone to talk to who will listen.

Absolutely. He’s kind of the only one, it seems to her, who’s paying attention. That’s huge, especially for someone who’s 15 years old. They’re not a kid, but they’re not an adult, they’re at a really weird age. She’s like, “he’s giving me what I want, and I’m feeling satisfied. It’s the attention that I want someone to give me.” It’s not even attention, it’s care. It’s being acknowledged. If a person feels like “they’re not acknowledging me” … That’s a very important feeling in life, even if it’s not romantic. She doesn’t get that acknowledgment at home.

I interviewed Julia Garner, the actor who plays poor young Kimmy Breland on The Americans, for Vulture.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Ten: “Stingers”

April 2nd, 2015

…at this stage in its evolution, The Americans is a show that can not only sustain but reward a close reading of its formal technique — never empty formalism, always a method of revealing character and articulating the unspoken, occulted moral and emotional meaning of a scene. From my notes: “god this is good”; “keeeeee-rist”; “these fades are killing me dog”; “jesus that was harrowing.” I’m talking about camera movements, not chase scenes. This show excels at both.

I reviewed last night’s The Americans, which, hoo boy, for the New York Observer.

The 20 Best “Game of Thrones” Episodes

April 1st, 2015

20. “Winter Is Coming” (Season One, Episode One)
Here’s where it all begins. From the opening image of the Wall to the closing shot of Bran Stark’s fall, Game of Thrones‘ premiere episode confidently created the world we’d be inhabiting for five seasons and counting. Getting there wasn’t always pretty: The sprawling cast and complex fantasy setting required a heaping helping of exposition, while an earlier version of the pilot was replaced and reshot with a new director, new costumes, and even new cast members. But strong performances by Sean Bean as noble Eddard “Ned” Stark, Mark Addy as blustery King Robert Baratheon, and Emilia Clarke as tormented Daenerys Targaryen proved from the start that thisGame would be worth playing.

I listed the 20 Best Episodes of Game of Thrones, according to me and Rolling Stone. I am right about this.

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

March 30th, 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 29th, 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 27th, 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 27th, 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 22nd, 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 19th, 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 19th, 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 17th, 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 17th, 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.