I won’t say that Fear the Walking Dead’s very, very occasional brushes with insight and intelligence are the most frustrating thing about it — you know, that “why can’t they be like this all the time” kind of frustrating. No, the most frustrating thing about it remains how everybody acts like brownshirts the moment they meet another group of people, and how the show presents this as fundamentally sound behavior. (Unless someone’s doing it to our heroes, in which case it’s bad, and our heroes therefore have every right to murder the perpetrators, which isn’t a whole lot better.)
But still! Fear the Walking Dead’s very, very occasional brushes with insight and intelligence are pretty frustrating. The doomed romance between Victor Strand and Thomas Abigail, Nick’s wordless journey through the wilderness, Strand talking the bereaved newlywed in the hotel through his loss — this stuff is restrained and thoughtful enough to make you imagine a zombie show that was like this all the time, a wish we know is no more likely to come true than a cure for the zombie plague itself. “Date of Death,” this week’s episode, added a few more moments to the “Okay, that was actually good” pile. Not a lot, and not enough to outweigh the usual allotment of idiocy, but enough for said idiocy to feel like a real slap in the face instead of business as usual.
I was delighted to become (I think) the first ever recurring guest on Shallow Rewards, the enormously insightful podcast from music criticism’s adulte terrible Chris Ott, to discuss the use of standout pop songs on the soundtracks of prestige television shows. We focus on Mr. Robot and Stranger Things (so watch out for spoilers) but touch on Halt and Catch Fire, The Sopranos, and The Wonder Years, with plenty of digressions into film soundtracks and film in general (Cameron Crowe, Martin Scorsese, SLC Punk, Under the Skin) as well. Chris is one of my favorite critics of any kind and it’s a pleasure talking to him. I hope you enjoy the results!
We’re turing the podcast Upside Down this episode with an in-depth discussion of Stranger Things, the hit summer thriller series from Netflix and the Duffer Brothers. Wearing its many, many genre influences on its sleeve so proudly that said sleeves might as well have had “STEVEN SPIELBERG” and “STEPHEN KING” directly embroidered on them, the show gave its fans an ‘80s nostalgia fix like few others. But is there more to the whole than the sum of its parts? Sean and Stefan explore that question at length, touching on related issues such as the nature of horror, the hegemony of nerd culture, the ever-increasing prominence of the ‘80s in contemporary entertainment, and of course the show’s similarities with and differences from the approach to genre taken by A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Grab your D&D dice and roll for initiative with us!
I was one of the voters drawn from across the television landscape — actors, directors, writers, producers, critics — and polled to put together Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. My man Rob Sheffield did a bang-up job with the write-ups.
The second key quote is a question, and a musical one at that. It’s posed by Kenny Rogers (and his duet partner Sheena Easton, by way of original writer-performer Bob Seger) over the season’s closing minutes: “We’ve got tonight — who needs tomorrow?” To focus solely on the answers, or lack thereof, the finale provides about the show’s future is to ignore the many dark delights on offer even now. There’s actor Martin Wallstrom as Wellick, a presence withheld from the screen almost entirely until this final episode, when he is called upon to unleash a lifetime of mind-warping fear, frustration, ambition and emptiness as he tearfully turns on the one man he’s ever felt understands his drives.
There’s Brian Stokes Mitchell as Scott, in an oddly similar place of devastation and dread, sobbing and begging for forgiveness one moment, exploding in a graphically brutal assault the next. There’s Stephanie Corneliussen as Joanna Wellick, a supremely loathsome cocktail of vulgarity and cruelty, who begins her meeting with Scott by graphically describing her arousal over his latest mind game and ends it with shouting how glad she is that his unborn baby died. There’s Carly Chaikin and Grace Gummer as Darlene and Dom, two “Jersey girls” who could not look and sound more exhausted by the cat-and-mouse game they’ve played.
There’s Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson and Christian Slater as his Mr. Robot persona, and the ultrarare use of a hand-held camera, swirling around them as they argue about who was really calling the shots — as vivid an illustration of our inability to control our destructive impulses as you’ll find on TV, if you stop taking the split-personality aspect so literally and see how it speaks to so much more.
Would any of this be materially improved if the E Corp building were blown to bits, or if anything similarly definitive and prosaic happened? Like the singer of the song, this season finale (literally) turned out the light and (figuratively) asked us to come take its hand — a risk, but one eminently worth taking. “We’ve got tonight, babe. Why don’t you stay?”
“Empire” wasn’t built in a day — it was built one jaw-dropping, Twitter-ready moment at a time. Fox’s blockbuster drama about the Shakespearean dynamics between a family of performers, producers and businesspeople at the pinnacle of a hip-hop record label is, or was, simply very good at being a ritzy prime-time soap opera. It moved its many story lines along at breakneck speed, careening through multiple shocks and twists each episode with little of the plot-prolonging wheel-spinning endemic to the genre. For an instructive comparison, viewers should watch not just any entertaining daytime soap, but even a relatively sharp and setting-specific nighttime serial like “Gossip Girl”; the ruthless efficiency of “Empire” is unparalleled. And from corpses in cars to main characters behind bars, it always knew how to end an hour, a stretch of episodes or an entire season on a strong note.
Then suddenly, last season, things went sour. The decision to stretch the smash hit’s second outing to a relatively lengthy 18 episodes from 12 necessitated a midseason break, after which the show returned feeling, for the first time, out of step with the musical and political moment. While the series had tackled issues as pressing and powerful as the Black Lives Matter movement with both genuine passion and thoughtful humility about entertainment’s role in it all, the presidential primaries and the rise of Donald J. Trump had passed it by. Meanwhile, the soundtrack’s trademark use of confessional lyrics to reflect the characters’ “real” desires and dilemmas were eclipsed in the real world by Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” a visual album that blended diaristic candidness with barely veiled political fury more deftly than Hakeem and Jamal could ever do.
But those events were, of course, beyond the show’s ability to control. Its decision to bog itself down in the hoariest soap clichés — pregnant women getting pushed down staircases, long-lost family members materializing out of the ether — was a self-inflicted wound.
Ditto the second season finale’s sudden shutdown of long-running plotlines and potential stunners: Annika gets grabbed by the feds but tells Lucious immediately rather than serving as a secret snitch for any length of time; Jamal gets shot by his friend Freda Gatz when she tries to assassinate his father, but heals offscreen; Lucious’s mentally ill mother resurfaces in front of the paparazzi but is pulled away before she can damage his reputation, also offscreen. The ostensibly climactic wedding between Hakeem and his girlfriend and collaborator was disrupted by a character we’d never even heard of until that episode (Xzibit’s vengeful Lucious associate Shyne, who returns this season). By the time Rhonda and Annika took that plunge over the balcony, leaving us with the kind of “someone died … tune in next season to find out who!” cliffhanger that drove viewers of “The Walking Dead” to distraction this year, it was hard to know if the show would rise again intact.
I’m covering Empire for the New York Times this season, starting with my review of last night’s season premiere, which I kicked off with this preamble about what the show’s done right and wrong in the past. Here’s hoping the juggernaut rights itself.
And think of how these people look! The physical energy between Gordon and Cameron is thick and inviting enough to eat like a pastry. Both of them wear comfortable white shirts — Gordon’s a tee, Cam’s a tank — that make you want to reach out and feel the firmness of their shoulders. Joe and Ryan make a point of getting the finest suits they can to impress their prospective business partners; they are just radiantly confident and handsome in them. John and Diane’s now-easy chemistry is displayed while they’re framed against the brick wall of the gay bar they escape to for drinks; you can all but feel the cool air the bricks retain even as things heat up for the people sitting near them. (This makes the evening’s eventual souring, when John fucks things up by passing on going back to her place after they’ve fooled around in his car, feel like an almost physical affront to how things ought to be.) Donna, finally, is so taken by the opulence of her new surroundings that she literally takes off all her clothes to wear it all like an expensive sweater, or slip into it like a bath. And she was drifting through the backyard, and she was taking off her dress. Our princess, in another castle.
Halt and Catch Fire has hit its imperial phase. Everything is working. Goddamn, this show is good.
Despite its portentous, Lot’s-wife-referencing title, “Pillar of Salt,” this week’s Fear the Walking Dead had little more on the docket that simply showing us where everybody is (except Chris; thank heaven for small favors) and what everybody’s doing. A “surprise” ending that features one of the show’s top-billed actors getting closer to the other top-billed actors, after an episode filled with more of the same, is all too fitting. There’s was nothing going on here, good or bad — the episode simply existed.
Nearly every scene in Wednesday’s “Mr. Robot” consists simply of two characters talking. But these scenes, as with the conversations these characters have, involve two distinct and indispensable sides. There are the pairs doing the talking, yes: a prisoner and a child, an executive and a government official, an F.B.I. agent and her electronic home companion, a prisoner and her captor, a prisoner (now liberated) and her lawyer, and a madman and a dead man, to name a few. But this is no parade of talky two-handers. In addition to the actors and their dialogue, each of these tightly constructed exchanges involves set design, sound design, cinematography and editing so distinctive, so breathlessly bold, they might as well be from different shows.
Only the courage of this series’ second season to follow its artistic convictions-cum-obsessions as far as they’ll go ties them together.
I reviewed tonight’s penultimate episode of Mr. Robot Season 2 for the New York Times. Filmmaking so self-assured it made my jaw drop. We should thank our lucky stars a show with this level of confidence in itself even exists.
At the beginning of the episode, Agent Murphy contextualizes Pablo’s seemingly overnight downfall by misquoting Hemingway, saying Escobar lost everything “slowly at first, and then all at once.” But he’s not the only one taking a sudden, near-total L. There’s a new kingpin in Colombia, it seems: Bill Stechner, the disheveled CIA black operator who secretly orchestrated the Los Pepes offensive. He forces DEA chief Messina out of office for helping Agent Peña work to dismantle the group and start moving in on the Cali cartel. He announces plans to burn Peña via a Miami Herald interview with Judy Moncada, who’d threatened to rat on her associates to save her own skin and is being exiled to the States for her troubles. And while the outcome is uncertain, it looks like Peña may be joining both women on a one-way trip out of country. “You should have stayed in your lane,” Stechner lectures him; the clarity of the point makes the anachronism of the idiom forgivable.
It might be tempting to apply the same lesson to Pablo himself. Isn’t his story a case of a guy getting too big for his britches, sticking his nose in where it didn’t belong, and getting his whole face blown off? I submit that the answer is actually “no.” It’s true that Escobar’s excommunication from Colombia’s House of Representatives is what touched off his cocaine-fueled civil war against the state, and that he feels this took place because “the men of always” saw him as an interloper. But the behavior of the CIA, the DEA, the Search Bloc, the anti-communist guerrillas, and the various elected officials assigned to oversee them all are proof that there’s nothing unusual about what Escobar did other than whom he did it to. This is how everyone behaves. They’re all right at home. The only real rule Pablo broke was the one against being on the losing side.
I reviewed the penultimate episode of the ever more impressive Narcos Season 2 for Decider, and used a Clive Barker short story title for the headline to boot.
Gordon and Donna Clark experience a similar discrepancy of desire, where Gordon, like Boz, learns he never had the relationship he though he had at all. Giving up on an overly taxing camping trip, the Clarks opt for a staycation; with the kids out of the house, this mainly means the chance to stay in and fuck all day. (“We haven’t had sex twice in one day since the Ford administration!”) Their chemistry is warm and sweet and sexy and wholly convincing…until the camping trip comes up again as pillow talk. To his unvoiced but readily apparent horror, Gordon learns from a laughing Donna that she found their annual outdoor excursions tolerable at best, “insanity” at worst. When she wakes the next morning, Gordon’s passive-aggressively cleaning the mess they made in the kitchen and unilaterally canceling the plans they’d made to continue the romantic weekend by going out for breakfast together. “Everything alright?” Donna asks, sensing that the answer may well be no. “Yeah,” Gordon lies. “Everything’s fantastic.” Suddenly their relationship seems doomed in a way that not even Gordon’s affair and hidden illness, Donna’s secret pregnancy and abortion, or their countless workplace clashes made plain.
I reviewed last night’s Halt and Catch Fire for the New York Observer. This show consistently surprises in the way real life surprises.
By now it should be clear just how methodically, I mean Breaking Bad Season Five–level methodically, Narcos is dismantling its main character’s ambitions. In eight episodes, he’s gone from the world’s seventh-richest man to just some dude in a jeep being driven around by a cabbie named Limón. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.
I reviewed the eighth episode of Narcos Season 2 for Decider. Getting close now.
But the real star of this soul-crushing show is Wagner Moura’s Pablo, whose slow-moving swagger has almost imperceptibly morphed into just plain slowness, a sort of walking-wounded shuffle. His family is gone, beyond his reach whether they’re in Colombia or abroad. The stress causes him to pass out. His attempt to strike back is a catastrophic case of overkill. His disintegration is encapsulated in a version of the signature shot in which the camera swirls around his unsmiling face, a shot we’ve seen time and time again: This time, that shot’s out of focus.
No one believes me when I tell them this — no one except other critics, anyway — but I’m in the liking-things business. When a television show is bad I’m going to say so, and when it’s really bad I’m going to say so hard. But the pact I’ve made with myself to stay relatively happy and sane is to assume, at the start of every episode, that there’s every probability that I’ll have considered it time well spent by the closing credits. If I didn’t want to enjoy myself every time I sit down to watch a TV show, I wouldn’t watch them for a living, you know? Bad shows don’t fulfill my pessimistic expectations, they disappoint my optimistic ones. Even in the case of Fear the Walking Dead, a series I think is not just “bad” but also ethically and politically noxious, I’m out here every week looking for diamonds in the rough. If the best I can come up with is cubic zirconium, hey, I’ll take it.
As he followed her inside Mother Abagail’s house he thought it would be better, much better, if they did break down and spread. Postpone organization as long as possible. It was organization that always seemed to cause the problems. When the cells began to clump together and grow dark. You didn’t have to give the cops guns until the cops couldn’t remember the names…the faces…
Fran lit a kerosene lamp and it made a soft yellow glow. Peter looked up at them quietly, already sleepy. He had played hard. Fran slipped him into a nightshirt.
All any of us can buy is time, Stu thought. Peter’s lifetime, his children’s lifetimes, maybe the lifetimes of my great-grandchildren. Until the year 2100, maybe, surely no longer than that. Maybe not that long. Time enough for poor old Mother Earth to recycle herself a little. A season of rest.
“What?” she asked, and he realized he had murmured it aloud.
“A season of rest,” he repeated.
“What does that mean?”
“Everything,” he said, and took her hand.
Looking down at Peter he thought: Maybe if we tell him what happened, he’ll tell his own children. Warn them. Dear children, the toys are death–they’re flashburns and radiation sickness, and black, choking plague. These toys are dangerous; the devil in men’s brains guided the hands of God when they were made. Don’t play with these toys, dear children, please, not ever. Not ever again. Please…please learn the lesson. Let this empty world be your copybook.
“Frannie,” he said, and turned her around so he could look into her eyes.
“Do you think…do you think people ever learn anything?”
She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, fell silent. The kerosene lamp flickered. Her eyes seemed very blue.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. She seemed unpleased with her answer; she struggled to say something more; to illuminate her first response; and could only say it again:
I don’t know.
–Stephen King, The Stand
Netflix, September 30
Ooh baby, we like it raaaaw. With trailer music and episode titles alike nodding to classic New York hip-hop, the latest of Netflix’s street-level Marvel superhero shows (it follows Daredevil and Jessica Jones and precedes Iron Fist and team-up series The Defenders) looks like it will make good on the promise of its lead character, the pioneering African American superhero-for-hire created in the 1970s. Actor Mike Colter’s cameos on Jessica Jones were among the show’s high points; let’s see if his solo turn is as bulletproof as his skin. STC
I wrote about a whole bunch of upcoming or just-debuted shows for Rolling Stone’s big Fall TV Preview feature, along with a whole bunch of talented writers. Enjoy!
What follows is a gruesome shootout in full view of Pablo’s beloved family. Shot in a pair of long takes in order to emphasize the chaos, it’s a deliberate contrast with the similar long take that highlighted Pablo’s relative security at the beginning of the previous episode. It’s a smart choice in that it keeps the focus not on the Boss but on his terrified family, outgunned employees, and invading enemies. As a viewer, you get to see and feel what life is like in Pablo’s orbit — you’re an expendable bit player in the drama centered on him.
The result is, at times, genuinely moving. There’s a moment when Tata, her daughter in her arms, rushes through the kitchen where Pablo’s exchanging gunfire with Los Pepes; he’s just a blur with an absurd “Golf Masters” sweatshirt and a machine gun, frantically waving his arms and shouting “Get out! Get out! Get out!” between rounds as his family flees for their lives.
And when the family reaches safety — sans Carlos, who’s dead, and with Pablo’s mom humbled and his wife devastated — his daughter asks a brutally naive question: “Daddy, how will Santa still know how to find us?” Kudos to Wagner Moura for making Pablo’s reaction not a controlled emotional implosion, but a weird, awkward, trembling hiccup. That feels much more true to the unbearable experience of having to account for your failure to a child you love.
I reviewed the sixth episode of Narcos Season 2 for Decider. The show is doing very smart things with mirrored shot set-ups, as hopefully this review and the last one taken in tandem indicate.
By now it’s no secret that Narcos doesn’t do flashy. So far this season I’ve seen this mostly leveled at the show as an insult — it’s trying to do for Scorsese what Stranger Things did for Spielberg and company, with a similarly shaky grasp of everything that makes the filmmaker in question not just Fun but Great. For me, it’s what separates this show from Stranger Things. If Narcos were simply trying to ape Marty, Francis, et al, it’d have all the surface-level razzle-dazzle but none of the black-hearted soul.
So it’s worth pointing out when the show genuinely does do something Scorsese-esque. In episode five of its second season, “The Enemies of My Enemy” (these titles are getting really cheesy, incidentally), we’re treated to a long tracking shot that would make Henry Hill on his way into the Copacabana proud. With Col. Carrillo in the ground, Pablo is living, well, the life of Pablo — giving his adorable kids diving and swimming instructions, joking around with his jolly sicarios, cheering on his favorite football team, goosing his lovely wife’s bum. (Tata Escobar’s posterior is as much of a costar this season as Joan Holloway’s décolletage was in Mad Men.)
The intent of this multi-minute shot is to show that for Pablo, everything is in its right place, at least for the moment. You don’t need to be flashy if your rare instance of ostentatious camerawork is as communicative as this.
The worst part, by far, is Elena, the mad fascist…hotel manager. Yes, this winner of a character willingly sentenced an entire wedding party to death when one of their number turned zombie. Why? “I had the hotel to think about. We were at capacity.” Oh, well, alright then! “I contained the situation,” Elena explains. You know who else “contained the situation,” Fear the Walking Dead? You might say that Elena found the final solution to the guest question in her hotel.
It’s not inconceivable that Elena might react to a sudden zombie outbreak in her hotel’s ballroom by locking everyone at the party in with the dead. Had she been shown to be panicked, preoccupied, or even just a little nervous about reports of “the sickness,” that kind of snap decision would make sense. On the contrary, she blows off the mother and father of the bride’s concerns about the dawning apocalypse mere seconds before the dad drops dead. (A tidy bit of plot-hammering right there!) In that light, her reaction to the infection of a paying customer, and his sudden decision to chew the face off his child in the middle of their father-daughter dance, looks either insanely sociopathic or insanely poorly written. But hey, this is Fear the Walking Dead — why choose?
I reviewed this week’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. This show is fascist, right down to the philosophical incoherence.
It’s long been my contention that the single greatest act of cinematic revenge belongs to Robert De Niro’s bank-robber character in Michael Mann’s crime epic Heat. (Spoilers ahead, though really this is just a signal that you should go watch Heat immediately.) Discovering the location of an associate who betrayed him, he risks everything to infiltrate the hotel where the man is being kept under guard, distract his protective detail, break into his hotel room, and kill him. But does he just shoot him in the back of the head, like so many mobsters from The Godfather to GoodFellas have been content to do? Hell no. “Look at me,” he demands, then shoots the guy in the gut, then in the head. If the point were simply to kill him, none of this would be necessary. But the point is to make sure he knows he’s about to be killed — knows he’s in the process of dying, in fact — and knows why. Otherwise, what’s the point?
This is a lesson Pablo Escobar has clearly internalized. In “The Good, The Bad, and The Dead,” the cornily titled fourth episode of Narcos’ second season, Pablo quite shockingly gets the drop on Colonel Horacio Carrillo, the ruthless Colombian police officer who’s been his nemesis from the jump. Though he and his men are peppered with bullets, Pablo insists on delivering the killing blow himself. “Look at me,” he says. “Look at me,” he says again, repeating himself just as De Niro’s character did. He then fires the bullet Carrillo sent to him as a warning into the man’s leg before finally delivering the coup de grace to his head. Pablo understands that there’s no point in simply defeating your enemy. He has to know he’s being defeated, he has to know he has no hope of not being defeated, and he has to know who has defeated him. Death isn’t enough. Agony is paramount.