Margo Martindale (#110 of 10)

The Americans Recap Season 5, Episode 6, "Crossbreed"

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The Americans Recap: Season 5, Episode 6, "Crossbreed"

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The Americans Recap: Season 5, Episode 6, "Crossbreed"

Can you imagine The Americans without Frank Langella's Gabriel, who's emerged this season as the shoulder angel to Margo Martindale's devil-like Claudia? This much is clear: Levity will be in shorter supply. In the opening of this week's episode, “Crossbreed,” Elizabeth (Keri Russell) informs Gabriel of her almost certain belief that Alexei Morozov is trying to feed the world's hungry, to which he replies: “Just like Miss America.” Gabriel, in the moment, seems completely unperturbed by the news, concerned less with the next stage of Elizabeth's sleuthing than he is with Philip's (Matthew Rhys) mental well-being in the wake of the lab director's death. Gabriel may make room here and there for a good joke, but like the series itself for the last few episodes, he's obviously burdened by the emotional collateral damage caused by spywork. “The same as me, it's upsetting,” Elizabeth tells her handler after he asks her about Philip, and by the end of this finely detailed episode, she arrives at a place where those words come to actually feel true.

The Americans Recap Season 5, Episode 5, “Lotus 1-2-3”

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The Americans Recap: Season 5, Episode 5, “Lotus 1-2-3”

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The Americans Recap: Season 5, Episode 5, “Lotus 1-2-3”

In my “What's the Matter with Kansas?” recap, I refrained from describing one important yuk that played out in the Jennings' kitchen that receives a very pointed rejoinder in “Lotus 1-2-3,” tonight's episode of The Americans. Last week, upon sensing that Henry (Keidrich Sellati) was getting sassy with her, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) admonished him: “Don't be smart, Henry.” To which a frazzled Henry blurted out: “I'm not!” This week, in a meeting with Henry's math teacher (Don Guillory), Elizabeth and Philip (Matthew Rhys) learn that their son is so good at math that his school is considering placing him in Algebra II. The parents' joy is the son's sadness in a subsequent scene, which very casually brings to the fore how Elizabeth and Philip's grooming of Paige (Holly Taylor) into a next-generation spy has unconsciously done a number on Henry, a wallflower of his parents' creation who deflects the praise heaped on him by retreating into the world of his video game.

The Americans Recap Season 5, Episode 1, "Amber Waves"

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The Americans Recap: Season 5, Episode 1, "Amber Waves"

Patrick Harbron/FX

The Americans Recap: Season 5, Episode 1, "Amber Waves"

The season-five premiere of The Americans is an insant reminder that the series is an edifice brilliantly constructed of contrasts. “Amber Waves” begins with the setting up of the pieces of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings's (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) latest spy game, as a young cohort, Tuan (Ivan Mok), pretending to be their adopted son ingratiates himself with a Russian-born teen, Pasha Morozov (Zack Gafin), at school. Blaring on the soundtrack is Devo's “That's Good,” anthemically attesting to the ease with which Tuan exploits his own difference to bait Pasha: “Everybody wants a good thing/Everybody ain't it true that/Everybody's looking for the same thing.”

The Americans Recap Season 4, Episode 8, "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears"

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The Americans Recap: Season 4, Episode 8, "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears"

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The Americans Recap: Season 4, Episode 8, "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears"

Behind the blue curtain, the lady vanishes—Lady Liberty, that is. As David Copperfield explains in the TV special that gives tonight's episode of The Americans its title, the illusion is meant to remind viewers to cherish their rights and freedoms, to appreciate the opportunities of which their immigrant ancestors dreamed. It is, as Elizabeth (Keri Russell) might say, “very American”: a manipulation, an elaborate trick, mistaking the profit motive for much higher ideals. In “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” after all, another lady vanishes, and in her wake what might have seemed like liberty turns out to be a prison, one of the characters' own design.

The Americans Recap Season 3, Episode 12, "I Am Abassin Zadran"

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The Americans Recap: Season 3, Episode 12, "I Am Abassin Zadran"
The Americans Recap: Season 3, Episode 12, "I Am Abassin Zadran"

After weeks of preparations, including a tap on the hotel switchboard, tonight's episode of The Americans witnesses Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) intercept one of the three mujahedeen commanders brought to the United States to discuss the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Posing as CIA officers, Philip and Elizabeth propose that the man (George Georgiou) betray his compatriots to secure a more favorable agreement, but it's the freedom fighter wary of both Soviet and American motives who sets the consequences of the Cold War in starkest relief. “I am Abassin Zadran,” he says, describing his brutal killing of young Soviet soldiers, probably no older than Philip's long lost son. “I am the one who cuts the throats of the communists.”

Oscar Prospects August: Osage County, Or That Time Julia Roberts Stole Meryl Streep’s Show

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Oscar Prospects: August: Osage County, Or That Time Julia Roberts Stole Meryl Streep’s Show
Oscar Prospects: August: Osage County, Or That Time Julia Roberts Stole Meryl Streep’s Show

A funny thing happens during the course of August: Osage County, a film many would label as this year's Meryl Streep awards vehicle. Though Streep, who plays the story's drug-addled matriarch, Violet Weston, has ample moments of alternating grief, delusion, vileness, and humor, all delivered in a swirl of characteristically calculated theatrics, it's Julia Roberts who walks away with this thing. Playing Barbara, the one of Violet's three daughters who's most distanced from, yet most similar to, her warts-and-all, “truth-telling” mom, Roberts is gifted some of the greatest language in this adaptation of the play by Tracy Letts, who won a Pulitzer and Tony Award for his efforts before shaping his work into a screenplay. In the rare role that actually demands she exude more fire than glee or grace, Roberts brings just the right amount of harsh, poetic cynicism to lines like, “Thank God we can't predict the future; we'd never get out of bed.” The key bit of dialogue, though, comes just after the film's resentment-baring emotional peak. Gathered around her mother's table with her sisters, her aunt, her uncle, her cousins, her daughter, and her two-timing husband to commemorate the death of her father, Beverly (Sam Shepard), Barbara finally tackles Violet to the ground, fed up with the woman's rant-fueling pill abuse, which may well have prompted Beverly's apparent suicide. “I'm running things now!” Barbara barks at Violet while snatching a bottle of painkillers, and the sentiment couldn't be truer here in regard to Roberts and Streep.

Poster Lab: August: Osage County

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Poster Lab: <em>August: Osage County</em>
Poster Lab: <em>August: Osage County</em>

Since the film is so anticipated as both adaptation and buzzy ensemble piece, the poster for August: Osage County would have been an event no matter what it looked like. Directed by TV vet John Wells, who made his feature film debut with The Company Men, this dark comedy marks the first-ever onscreen pairing of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, who play Violet and Barbara Watson, the mother and daughter who lead the clan in Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning tale. All who know the play know the importance of the work's vast cast, and such is the major selling point here.

Stacked high like an actorly steeple are names both established and up-and-coming: Streep, Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, (the great) Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Misty Upham, and more. It's a very tempting mix, and despite the overly genial, all's-well-that-end's-well nature of the trailer, it helps to know that Letts has penned the screenplay too, and hopefully hasn't watered his work down to Hollywoodized dysfunction (lord knows no one needs another The Family Stone). Presumably, Letts's script also holds the promise of avoiding the trap of multi-character dramedies, which serially fail to develop individual personalities amid the crowd. It's a grating trend that couldn't be better visualized here, and let's hope the packed-house symbolism reflects the film's ability to overcome it.

Justified Recap Season 3, Episode 1, "The Gunfighter"

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Justified Recap: Season 3, Episode 1, "The Gunfighter"

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Justified Recap: Season 3, Episode 1, "The Gunfighter"

In many respects, the third-season premiere of Justified, “The Gunfighter,” is a difficult episode to love. The show's second season was incredibly strong, and went out with a powerhouse finale and a masterpiece of a final scene in which Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) commits suicide with a poisoned glass of her “Apple Pie” moonshine. It was easy to get lost in the world of Mags and the Bennett clan, enough so that one might wish that Justified never leave the confines of Harlan County.

By contrast, “The Gunfighter” takes place almost entirely in Lexington, broken up only by Ava (Joelle Carter) and Devil's (Kevin Rankin) failed attempt to sell the now-spoiled pot Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) raided from the Bennett compound. Even Boyd and Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies) are separated from Harlan County on account of their respective incarcerations. In place of Mags, we're introduced to Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), a well-dressed and cold-blooded mobster from Detroit who seems to be making a power play in Kentucky. Personally, I like Justified best when its stories are steeped in the tradition and mythology of Harlan County, and the idea of a central villain from Motor City isn't as immediately compelling as Mags and her family's tyranny.

The Conversations: Alexander Payne

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The Conversations: Alexander Payne
The Conversations: Alexander Payne

Jason Bellamy: Alexander Payne films don't have the distinct visual styles of movies by Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, to name two other filmmakers of his generation, but they are quickly recognizable just the same. Payne's five feature films are quasi-tragic comedies with hopeful but not fully redemptive conclusions about people struggling with significant life changes. Protagonists in Payne's movies are always flawed. Relationships are usually difficult, distant, damaging, or all of the above. And deception is commonplace. On the face of that description, Payne's movies mustn't seem distinct at all. In fact, I think I just described every crappy romantic comedy from the past decade or more. But what sets Payne apart is the way he applies these themes—unflinchingly exposing his characters' worst tendencies before ultimately regarding them with great sympathy—and, even more so, who he applies them to. If Payne's films are known for anything, it's for being about average Americans, emphasis on the “average.”

Of course, at the movies, where Jimmy Stewart can be considered an “everyman” and Kathrine Heigl can be cast as the proverbial “girl next door,” “average” is never ordinary, which is precisely why Payne's characters generate so much attention, because they're often ruthlessly unexceptional. Ruth in Citizen Ruth (1996) is a promiscuous glue-huffer who becomes a pawn in an abortion debate. Jim in Election (1999) is an awarded high school teacher who can't outsmart his students or pull off an extramarital affair. Warren in About Schmidt (2002) is a retiree with no interests or usefulness. Miles in Sideways (2004) is a writer who can't get published, a wine snob who can't control his drinking and an introverted romantic who can't move on from his divorce. Matt in The Descendants (2011) is a husband who doesn't know his wife and a father who doesn't know his kids. And those are just the main characters.

Because Payne's characters tend to live modest lives (some of them in modest Middle America), and because Payne is so fearless in his examination of their faults, and often uses his characters' shortcomings as mechanisms for humor, his films have often been attacked as condescending. In this conversation we'll go into each of the five films mentioned above, as well as Payne's memorable vignette from 2006's Paris, Je T'Aime, which does little to deflect the accusations of condescension. But let's start by addressing the elephant in the room. Ed, does Alexander Payne look down his nose at his characters, or ask us to mock his characters, for being unremarkable? Is his humor mean-spirited and class-conscious? In short, is he condescending?

2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions

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2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions
2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions

On September 18, Bryan Cranston will not win his fourth trophy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, as Breaking Bad's fourth season fell outside the award show's eligibility period—and if you think that bodes well for the AMC program's chances for Outstanding Drama Series in 2012, remember that Mad Men's much-delayed fifth season is still slated to fall within the upcoming Emmy calendar. Standing to gain from Cranston's absence is always-a-bridesmaids John Hamm—unless Steve Buscemi's Golden Globe and SAG victories earlier this year, and the chillier-than-Mad Men Boardwalk Empire's surprise showing at the Creative Arts Emmys last weekend—weren't just flukes of nature. A three-time winner for Outstanding Drama Series, Mad Men may have to move over for the new HBO prestige drama on the block, and if Betty White doesn't win her 3,897th Emmy for acting saucier than your grandmother, that may be enough for this Sunday's telecast to go down as the Year of the Passing of the Guard. Below, my predictions in a handful of the major categories—brought to you with less than my usual dash of wish-fulfillment.