“Well. This was time well spent.” Indeed it was Joe. Not that the residents of Imperial Beach, California are likely to have much cognizant memory of the events, mind-blowing all, of John from Cincinnati’s sixth installment (“His Visit: Day Five”). But certainly an interconnected impression has been left, set in stone by John Monad’s (Austin Nichols) final commandment to the gathered masses (in both body and spirit) at the rundown Snug Harbor Motel: “You will not note my Father’s word. Nor remember Cass’ camera. But you will not forget what we did here.” The divine emissary has tipped his hand, revealing the machinations and, at least in part, the intentions of the man behind the curtain.
Or the camera, as the case may be, since John’s proposed trinity invites such a Brechtian metaphysical reading. By this formulation, we might see series creator David Milch as the Father to a kino-eye Son, both working in tandem to bring forth the Artist’s longed-for Holy Ghost. What is this phantom they seek to reveal? For me, there are no sufficient descriptive words, only implications and actions that mark the way to epiphany and revelation. When Steady Freddy Lopez (Dayton Callie) and Bill Jacks (Ed O’Neill)—characters originating from markedly different backgrounds and inhabiting, in this episode, two vastly contradictory space-time continuums—perform a duet that owes equal debt to the saxophone stylings of John Coltrane and the spiraling sketches of M.C. Escher, the sense of wonder comes, primarily, from their interaction, from the simple and unassailable fact that they make beautiful music together.
Like Coltrane’s cover of “My Favorite Things” (this week’s end-credits song of choice), John from Cincinnati is an extended riff on things familiar, now made strange. Per the dictates of the medium, Milch is making things up as he goes along, but in this context it’s a vivid and viable artistic choice. The sense of the series as a composition—as an extended ballet of suffering and redemption—was never so strong as in “His Visit: Day Five”, which opens with a brilliantly self-referential scene in which filmmaker Cass (Emily Rose) avoids any direct contemplation of the footage she shot of John in the previous episode. There’s a history of Godot-like figures in Milch’s work (Deadwood’s Hostetler and Nigger General being, perhaps, the ultimate, tragicomic examples), though he recognizes that Vladimir and Estragon’s dual sense of impatience and entitlement exists in us all. Any artistic type should be able to sympathize with Cass’ plight; the creative process is rarely a straight line—more a formless, engulfing void given as much to intense lulls as to fresh bursts of inspiration.
Similarly lost in the abyss is Cissy Yost (Rebecca De Mornay), whose live-wire manic-depression is this week given context. A visitation by John, who, it’s now definitively revealed, can be in more than one place at a time, exposes a horrible truth—an acid-fueled instance of molestation, by Cissy, of her son Butchie (Brian Van Holt). Whatever criticisms I leveled against De Mornay last week are here rendered moot. She’s exemplary in this scene, practically vomiting her pain as John confronts her in the parroted tones of a radio huckster (“Act now Cissy. Baptize that fuckin’ pistol!”), though one genuinely pointing her toward a righteous path.
Salvation comes in the form of a semi-reconciliation with her grandson Shaun’s (Greyson Fletcher) porn star mother Tina (Chandra West). Before her encounter with John, Cissy selfishly enlists Butchie (who teeters on the edge of drug-addled madness) to call his ex-lover back to Imperial Beach, mainly to satiate an angry and unforgiving Shaun. Cissy subsequently comes around, ever so slightly, and offers tentative advice to Tina on how best to prepare a tuna fish lunch for Shaun. She lists the ingredients as if the weight of the world rests on each syllable, then delivers the heartbreaking kicker (“It’s how I make it. I don’t know how he likes it. I never asked him.”) Interestingly, Milch, writer Alix Lambert and director Tom Vaughan deny us the moment of Shaun and Tina’s first meeting, choosing instead to focus on a near-silent lunchtime ritual as both characters playact the roles of mother and son.
As the goings-on at the Snug Harbor Motel reveal, everyone has a role to play in the monad’s grand design. In the ninth season X-Files episode “Improbable,” Chris Carter explored the idea of a universe controlled by numbers, patterns, and rituals, with a benevolent deity at the center who tried, almost always unsuccessfully, to get his creatures to see the configurations (to grasp the design, so it is implied, is to understand one’s rightful place and mission, even if we are no more than a twinkle in God’s eye). Milch’s take on this idea is no less complicated, tinged as much with paranoia (are we really little more than Pinocchios at the mercy of a divine Stromboli?) as with potential (a near-subliminal flash of the entire Yost family, lined up as if for a definitive portrait, hints at one of the many goals of the monad’s ongoing mission).
It would require a separate essay to break down every beat of this episode’s climax, which I will hyperbolically state to be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Faced with the dreadful possibility of killing it with both analysis and over-praise, I find I’d rather go off on a tangent and mention how cool it is that Meyer Dickstein’s (Willie Garson) fiancée is played by Baby-in-a-corner Jennifer Grey, or how awesome it is to see Deadwood’s Trixie, Paula Malcomson, doing tight T-shirt waitress duties. Such greatness, you see, strikes me fanboy dumb, leaves me gasping for air in its wake. I wouldn’t dream of ruining such a potentially profound experience for others with my inadequate words. Better, like Shaun with Tina, to trust in the quiet gaze, in the hope that—by merely bearing witness—the mystery, the miracle, shall reveal itself.
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.