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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 1, “Block Party”

The third season premiere episode of Big Love is, in many ways, a microcosm for the series itself.

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 1, “Block Party”
Photo: HBO

The third season premiere episode of Big Love, “Block Party,” scripted by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Daniel Attias, is, in many ways, a microcosm for the series itself. It dabbles in the show’s most pertinent themes (the clash of modern society and religious fundamentalism, the role of women within fundamentalist traditions and the hard work of building a functional marriage). It offers up a story that tries to cram in one plotline too many (the series is usually better when it focuses on two or three storylines per episode, and it almost always tries to focus on four or five). And it’s only fitfully interesting when it focuses on the hardcore polygamists at the Juniper Creek compound (a setting that grew marginally more interesting in season two but still feels like the only thing in HBO history to be in a series thanks to network notes) or the business world of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, aging surprisingly quickly in HD), but it comes to life any time it focuses on Bill’s three wives or his teenage children. The series also proves again how much of a haven it is for a bounty of actresses Hollywood has just never been able to utilize all that well, and it even fits in a few sly polygamy-as-gay-marriage commentaries around the edges. It isn’t a perfect episode (it’s not a perfect show), but it is a good one and a very entertaining one (which, again, would describe the show itself).

If Big Love’s first season was simply about getting all of its pieces on the sprawling chessboard that is its very premise and the second season was all about examining internal threats to the Henrickson family, season three seems as if it will be about the Henricksons banding together to survive outside threats, from neighborhood gossip to the lure of the outside world to the attempts to bring down Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), the head of the Juniper Creek gang and a man Bill has never had much love for but with whom he has to keep making alliances to hold off other, greater threats. Fitting, then, that if season two was a showcase for Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Barb as she questioned her decision to allow her husband to take multiple wives (that Tripplehorn wasn’t even nominated for an Emmy was probably that perpetually out-of-touch award show’s biggest blunder last year), season three would appear to be a showcase for Chloë Sevigny’s Nicki Grant, Bill’s second wife. Nicki was perhaps the show’s most problematic and least fully realized character in its first season, when she often simply seemed to be slotted into a villainous role, but Sevigny and the writers found a more interesting center to the character in season two, making her a woman who is as out-of-place in the suburb she lives in as she possibly could be.

It’s appropriate that a third season dedicated to observing outside threats to the Henrickson lifestyle would take Nicki as its focus. Not only is she Roman’s daughter and the subject of most of the aforementioned neighborhood gossip (mostly stemming from who her father is, since he’s the subject of a massive investigation into his sexual proclivities and his taking of child brides), but she’s also literally the person who clings the most to the creed her family lives by within her family, more so, it often seems, than even Bill. If there’s always the sense that Barb feels a bit frustrated by the turn her life has taken and that Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) is simply a little too immature to fully grasp the life she has landed in, there’s absolutely no doubt that Nicki is committed to the cause. She really believes every word of the spin on LDS that Bill preaches, and she’s deeply committed to not only this religion but also to her family. It seems the conflict this season will stem largely from Nicki’s attempts to balance her new life as a Henrickson with her old life as Roman’s daughter, and in the premiere, she spent much time using Margie’s identity to obtain a job at the county building and out the identities of the anonymous witnesses in Roman’s trial so Juniper Creek could threaten them. When Big Love sidles into this Sopranos-y territory, it often feels a little too forced, but there was something so niftily incongruous about Nicki being the one involved in the intrigue that it’s the sort of thing you can let slide for a few episodes, so long as it doesn’t dominate the show.

The neighborhood gossip about Nicki came to a head in the beautifully filmed titular block party at episode’s end. As Nicki took to her roof to repair it (something she’d been complaining about throughout the episode), a series of misunderstandings between Bill, Barb and the neighbors led to Bill nearly disclosing the family’s polygamist nature in front of everyone as things got heated between him and a neighbor. The sequence risked being hackneyed, blending as it did a series of somewhat improbable misunderstandings and a “Will Bill be stopped in time?!” ticking clock sequence, but the whole thing concluded with Nicki addressing the whole neighborhood from atop her house, which is the sort of appropriately grand gesture this show does so well and which Sevigny played perfectly. It helped that the whole block party was a testament to how well Big Love uses color to create the Henricksons’ Eden. It never pushes things too far, a la Pushing Daisies, but the Henricksons very obviously live in a stylized world of mostly solid, primary colors (look at the way the costume designers use those colors to help the Henricksons on the ground stand out against the green, green lawns and yet keep Sevigny almost camouflaged against her roof until she stands straight up and stands out against the blue sky). Even when it’s not working on all levels, Big Love is usually a joy to just look at.

Bill, for his part, hatched a scheme to partner with an Indian tribe to build a casino in Idaho that would be pitched to Mormons. (I’m not the world’s foremost Mormon expert, but would this sort of thing REALLY be all that feasible? Mormons have a pretty hard-won reputation for clean living. Would gambling fit in with that credo at all?) His whole plot seemed to encompass the themes that make Big Love the unique, occasionally superb show that it is—the clash of fundamentalist religion with modern society. The moment when the Indian tribal representative’s wife (Noa Tishby) voiced her concerns with the Book of Mormon’s condemnation of Native Americans was just perfectly pitched and played, Bill trying to say that it didn’t REALLY say that, then being called on his misstatement with a direct quote, then being saved by Margie haltingly speaking in Shoshone. Any fundamentalist in modern American society will be forced to confront some things their religious texts say that don’t jibe with the plurality of ideas and peoples we live in (the entire debate over Prop. 8 here in California essentially boils down to supporters of gay marriage finally getting angry enough to have a conversation much like the one in this scene on a national level), and attempts to try to skate around this are often deflected. But these arguments tend to be won on the personal level, and Bill certainly is no racist, even if his religious book says some racist things. For one thing, Bill will work with anyone who will make him money, and for another thing, Bill’s religion has almost entirely been about what most benefits Bill, not some deep path to enlightenment.

It’s Bill’s OTHER plotline—where he continues to court the waitress Anna (Branka Katic)—that REALLY intrigues, since it calls upon more of the nuts and bolts of the polygamist setup, which are always fascinating to learn, and also confronts these questions of personal desire versus religious creed that make the series as a whole interesting. Bill and Anna succumb to their passion and have sex, even as Bill becomes pretty sure that Anna’s not the best fourth wife choice (the lonely Margie seems ever more certain that she is, and Barb, dealing with a health crisis, is ready for just about anything). The strange moral conundrum of the scene (did Bill just cheat on his wives? Is such a thing possible?) and the way Paxton plays the discombobulation of the moments after he removes himself from Anna are perfect. It’s nice to see this plotline be a holdover from season two, where it was one of the best things going.

If there’s a major problem with Big Love at this point, it’s that the Juniper Creek stuff just never rises above the level of occasional interest and occasionally gets downright irritating. There’s an attempt to shoehorn a half-brother of Bill’s into the premiere, but it comes off as a slightly less interesting version of what the show did with Rhonda (Daveigh Chase) last season. The Juniper Creek plotlines are just played too broadly and always have been. Stanton is a compellingly oily presence, but too many of the other characters are still stereotypes and ciphers. This is also true of the scenes set in the world of Bill’s business, but at least Joel McKinnon Miller has made Don Embry another sign of how polygamy can go very, very wrong but in a friendlier guise.

Never mind all of that, though. Big Love is still one of the few shows on television that’s willing to tackle issues of religious devotion (and one of the few that’s taking a hard look at the price the credit crunch is demanding of citizens who coasted along on a long line of easy loans). It’s also about the only show on TV that would do things like have Barb tearfully try to pray her cancer away again and then later sit, wordlessly, rocking Margie’s baby and have Margie peacefully look on. Big Love is good at giving us these tiny moments of paradise and then unleashing the snakes.

Some other thoughts:

• About midway through the episode, there was an absolutely gorgeous establishing shot of what I imagine is the Salt Lake City skyline, a tiny dark cloud drifting across fluffy, white ones. Those tiny, dark clouds are always gumming up the works on this show.
• I didn’t get to say anything about Amanda Seyfried in this episode, but if you mostly know her from Mamma Mia!, check her out here. She’s another talented actress with a very unique look that feature films will probably never really figure out how to utilize, but she’s absolutely terrific as the Henrickson most likely to bolt (and I hope she doesn’t after this season to pursue her film career; I doubt she’ll have it this good again).
• Ginnifer Goodwin is the world’s most perfect woman, and I will not cotton to naysayers. I’m sincerely hopeful that if the show gets a fourth season, it follows the established pattern and focuses on Margene, as the occasional hints dropped about the character’s past are more than fascinating.
• I’m hopeful that the show examines repressed homosexuality more in the weeks to come. Olsen and Scheffer are a couple, and they’ve often used the show to both tweak the slippery slope arguments against gay marriage and also subtly argue for legalized gay marriage. But their portrayals of deeply religious people trying to repress their homosexuality have been haphazard at best, mostly in the form of the too-broad Alby (Matt Ross). I’m intrigued, though, by tonight’s hints that Alby is finally giving in to his desires and by the way the show is playing Heather (Tina Majorino) as someone who is clearly in love with her best friend but has yet to develop an emotional vocabulary to even comprehend that. If the series continues going down this road, expect much more on it in the future.
• Favorite line: “But Bill’s the hot dog man!”
• Teeny’s the latest Henrickson child to be enticed by the sexual mores of the larger society (both Sarah and Ben have been or are involved in sexual relationships), as she’s using porn mags to entice neighbor boys to give her money to look at them. One of the show’s better continuing comments is on how fundamentalists can never fully sexually isolate their kids from the world at large (even Bill’s half-brother was having a sexual awakening on the compound), so it’s nice to see this won’t be dropped any time soon.
• Few shows provoke the kind of mixed critical reaction Big Love does. There are a few folks who like it well enough but don’t get all the fuss, but most people either really, really dislike it or really, really like it. I suspect the premise is just too divisive.
• So how’ve you all been? We haven’t talked since, what, summer of 2007? I have another cat since then! I’ve left my job and found my freelancing dry up since then! I hope you’re all doing better, but lemme know what’s up in comments. Oh, and talk about the episode too, of course.

For more recaps of Big Love, click here.

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Review: Years and Years Is a Captivating Dystopian Family Drama

The series manages to pile on the cataclysms without taking pleasure in the pain of its characters.

3

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Years and Years
Photo: Matt Squire/HBO

In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike describes his early adulthood by saying, “I turned thirty, then forty,” and in doing so skips over a decade’s worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Davies’s miniseries Years and Years, which will launch on HBO following its run on BBC One, similarly makes economic use of time, but where Updike jumps into the future, the series sprints. Every so often throughout the four episodes made available to press, a searing montage pushes the world a few years forward, relaying key geopolitical developments—a landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisis—before settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.

We experience these changes through the perspective of Britain’s Lyons family, which includes tough but caring matriarch Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid) and her grandchildren: Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a banker; Daniel (Russell Tovey), a housing officer; Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a school cafeteria manager; and Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist. The siblings, their partners, and their children are Years and Years’s primary concern, and with each lurch into the future, their lives tend to get worse rather than better. All the while, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a fear-mongering pseudo-populist, launches and advances her political career, deploring the world’s degradation and promising to represent the true wishes of the British people.

At one point, the Lyons siblings hop on a conference call to react to one of Rook’s appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rook’s straightforwardness—the series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Daniel is horrified by it, and others lie somewhere in between. Rook is more than a little Trumpian, a resonant representation of the crassness that he’s made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isn’t really about them, but about Rook. It’s about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rook’s ascent and leaves people like the Lyons family staring slack-jawed at her demagoguery and electoral swashbuckling.

As Rook, Thompson seems to multiply the minutes she gets on screen with the ferocity and sheer gravitational pull that the actress brings to the politician. When she’s on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when she’s participating in a local debate, she defiantly stands at the center of the stage, in the middle of the screen, her opponents surrounding her like planets stalled in orbit.

The rest of the cast’s performances similarly ground the series’s socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that façade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesn’t cry solely because of the loss; he’s also grieving a financial crash along with his increasingly fraught marriage, which together contribute to the gulf separating what he thought his life would be and what it has become.

Though thoughtful and moving in its exploration of such suffering, both individual and collective, Years and Years occasionally stumbles by insufficiently using its characters to contextualize its political world-building. At Rook’s debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness that’s jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rook’s victory feels artificial, like she manages to sway her doubters purely because the series needs her to in order to demonstrate the shortsightedness of voters. Rosie and Edith’s presence should, in theory, render Rook’s beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pair’s attraction to her.

Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the series’s sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosie’s newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if it’s right to bring a child into a deteriorating world. As Daniel bemoans the banks and the corporations and fake news and more, he ceases to blink, his voice rising and quickening. He becomes a machine unleashing a diatribe that’s too neat to be convincing, the character of Daniel giving way to a Daniel-shaped megaphone. Later, though, Daniel tells off a xenophobic visitor to the refugee camp he works at in his capacity as a housing officer. This scene, in contrast to the earlier one, doesn’t burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what he’s personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve all—and more than—the help they receive. Here, Daniel’s dialogue and Tovey’s performance are vastly more organic, emerging from within the character as opposed to simply flowing through him.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of the Lyonses. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it.

Cast: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO

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Review: Euphoria’s Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid

Euphoria’s central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.

2.5

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Euphoria
Photo: HBO

Sam Levinson’s Euphoria announces its self-consciously provocative nature within its first minute, when Rue Bennett (Zendaya) says that she was happy once, over an image of the girl, in fetus form, about to be born. Airplane engines begin to howl alongside baby Rue’s POV as she exits the birth canal, at which point the episode transitions to a shot of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. She was born three days after 9/11. The juxtaposition here is loud and in-your-face, and though it’s tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinson’s film Assassination Nation, it has the benefit of some actual thematic coherence, for the way the open-with-a-literal-bang image acknowledges 9/11 as the unmistakable divide between Euphoria’s teens and everyone else.

Rue characterizes the world she grew up in as a chaotic, aimless place devoid of much understanding for her people her age, which leaves her generation concerned mainly with wringing out as much enjoyment from it as they can. And the series, which is adapted from an Israeli drama of the same name, depicts such teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The nature of these occasionally graphic depictions is complicated by Levinson’s consciously “attitude”-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what today’s young people go through, or both? Regardless, the series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain.

Rue, we learn, is a drug addict fresh out of rehab who’s largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the show’s other teens feel their way through seedy meet-ups with older men, pursue self-actualization through porn, and cope with invasions of privacy, Rue provides the perspective through which we view nearly everything and everyone else. She narrates even the events that don’t involve her, lending them a general vibe of playful, sarcastic worldliness. She determines the flow of the action, freezing a sex scene outright for a digression on modern porn habits or summoning a cutaway gag, like a lecture on dick pics complete with projector slides. Zendaya plays Rue with a perpetual murmur and effortless remove, like an observer sitting on the sidelines watching the world go by, until she succumbs to a desperate, drug-seeking freak-out or one of the panic attacks those drugs are meant to distance her from.

The series tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” “The world is coming to an end,” Rue says to justify her drug use, “and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”

Euphoria’s best scenes are its oases of joy and humor, particularly the luminous relationship between Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new-in-town trans girl whose sunny disposition contrasts Rue’s overall remove yet masks a deeper restlessness. The chemistry between Zendaya and Schafer paints a believable portrait of a companionship only possible before adulthood, when you have as much free time as you have affection to distribute.

The two might have sustained the series by themselves, though Euphoria struggles to develop its other characters. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), for example, is largely undefined beyond the sexual history she’s trying to move beyond, while her boyfriend, Chris (Algee Smith), seems to exist only to express discomfort about that history. Beneath his football-playing façade, Nate (Jacob Elordi) has a streak of violent calculation that dances on the edge of caricature. Only Kat (Barbie Ferreira) seems to develop beyond her basic template of virginal angst, mainly because the series resolves the issue almost immediately before sending her down a Pornhub rabbit hole on an amusing journey of self-discovery; her burgeoning sexuality comes to encompass an attractive classmate as much as a man on Skype who wants to be her “cash pig.”

The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the show’s development of the teens. As the camera glides between multiple perspectives at the same carnival event, Jules has a scary revelation about an older, married man, Cal (Eric Dane), she recently hooked up with, while a panicked Rue searches for her sister, Gia (Storm Reid), who’s still reeling from Rue’s overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nate’s long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so they’ll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While it’s realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Kat’s storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isn’t totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.

The success of Euphoria’s teen drama ultimately depends on which teen it focuses on at any given moment. With Rue and Jules at the center, you feel the exhilaration of their friendship as much as a real concern for their growing troubles. But with its less fully developed characters, the series can feel like little more than a lurid performance of teenage pain.

Cast: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Nika King, Storm Reid, Hunter Schafer, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Austin Abrams, Alanna Ubach Network: HBO

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Review: Hulu’s Das Boot Forfeits the Telescoped Focus of Its Source Material

The series transforms a story that captured something of the experience of war into a familiar melodrama.

1.5

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Das Boot
Photo: Hulu

One of the strengths of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel of the same name, is that it’s no glorification of the German war machine. Indeed, its shocking ending underlines the absolute senselessness of war and the meaninglessness of heroism. Das Boot is a war film that could only be made in a country where virtually everyone had experienced the horror of war firsthand, whether it was on the frontlines or cowering in a bomb shelter. But it’s also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the margins—at beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returns—and non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the film’s purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.

Johannes W. Betz’s new series solves this problem by flashing back and forth between the crew of a U-Boot captained by the young Captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon) and a plot of betrayal and subterfuge in the ship’s port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betz’s Das Boot eschews much of what made the original film effective: the feeling that the viewer is stranded in the narrow gangways of the submarine on a mostly blind journey through treacherous waters.

Forfeiting the telescoped focus that keeps the film engrossing, the series substitutes hidden backstories and interpersonal melodrama that feels like it was pulled from the prestige-drama handbook. As the crew is assembled in the first episode, “New Paths,” we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type who’s been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedt’s simmering resentment plays out, over the course of the four episodes available for review, as an escalating crisis of authority, as he grows increasingly bold in his defiance of the noble-minded Hoffmann, and sways the minds of several (rather easily convinced) enlisted men.

Meanwhile, Simone arrives in La Rochelle, where she expects to live and work alongside her younger brother, Frank (Leonard Scheicher), a radio engineer. When an accident on board Hoffmann and Tennstedt’s U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the ship’s engineer, Tennstedt summarily decides to assign Frank to the vessel. With no choice in the matter and suddenly facing an uncertain fate, Frank hands over to Simone a cache of materials he was supposed to deliver in a post-curfew rendezvous later that night.

In the second episode, “Secret Missions,” it’s revealed that Frank’s mission had something to do with a French girl he’s been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)—well, only “mysterious” inasmuch as the series clumsily cultivates an air of mystique around her, all oblique camera angles and vague dialogue. On the brink of explaining her intentions to Simone, Monroe stops herself, mostly, it seems, to extend the mystery for another episode or two. “Probably better if you don’t know,” she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.

It’s in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to show—or, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the show’s main focus, is an exaggerated contrivance. In a scenario painfully familiar from a dozen cable dramas that have pulled it off more convincingly (see The Americans, Breaking Bad, Barry), Simone conducts her illegal dealings with Monroe’s resistance cell under the nose of Gestapo inspector Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha). Forster has a professional relationship with Simone, and, he hopes, a burgeoning personal one. As he’s drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activities—though, naturally, episode four, “Doubts,” ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.

This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheim’s 1995 novel Die Festung, transforms a story that endeavored to capture something of the experience of war into an overly familiar melodrama of obscure motivations, hidden backstories, and broadly sketched interpersonal conflict. The series may try to address Nazi terror in a way Petersen’s film leaves beyond its margins, but even its depiction of atrocity serves merely as a convenient motivator for familiar twists and turns. The sense of cheapness and naked commercialism that pervades the series makes its explicit depiction of disturbing violence—a death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailors—feel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series can’t be counted on to deliver any insights on history or war, but compelling drama may be even further beyond its capabilities.

Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, Lizzy Caplan, Vincent Kartheiser, James D’Arcy, Thierry Frémont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu

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Review: Jessica Jones’s Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought

As it nears the end of its run, the series doesn’t seem to have much more to say about trauma.

2

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Jessica Jones
Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

The third and final season of Jessica Jones feels more like an afterthought than a farewell, an unevenly written retread that’s uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix show’s world, with the eponymous superpowered private eye (Krysten Ritter) having conquered the lingering pain of sexual abuse and childhood domestic strife across the first two seasons. And it being a Marvel Comics property, Jessica Jones predictably scrutinizes such personal trauma through the lens of highly literal metaphor: In the first season, an evil ex-lover’s telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive mother’s super strength stands for the seemingly indominable power parents have over their children.

The new season saddles its hero with more trauma, both psychological and physical, but loses the real-life resonance of the show’s previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), who’s the embodiment of misogynist male geekdom—which is to say, that corner of the internet that’s predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.

In the season’s first episode, “A.K.A. The Perfect Burger,” Jessica is taken by surprise when Salinger shows up at her apartment in the middle of the night, hunting her one-night stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker). The encounter leaves Jessica injured and newly traumatized, and Salinger psychotically obsessed with his incidental victim. Salinger resents Jones for being what real-world toxic nerds would call a “Mary Sue”—or, as Salinger puts it, for “cheating,” for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a “feminist vindicator.”

This new season’s use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isn’t the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. It’s an intent undermined by its characters’ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the show’s message. In contrast to David Tenant’s chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesn’t convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salinger’s often blandly scripted rants against women’s empowerment.

Salinger also targets Erik’s wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessisca’s neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolm’s subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarth’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute who’s sexually available to Malcolm simply because she’s hiding out in his apartment. She’s characterized as a nuisance who becomes a kind of punching bag for the other characters, who talk about her poor life decisions in front of her as if she isn’t there.

Malcolm’s is one of three major subplots that take up much of the run time of the eight episodes of the new season made available to press. In the others, both Jeri and Jessica’s ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trish’s story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, and she’s given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed “A.K.A You’re Welcome.”

Jeri’s subplot, on the other hand, adds very little to a character already understood from previous seasons as self-serving and morally compromised. This arc, hardly more than filler, also features one of the season’s most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeri’s former lover, Kith Lyonne (Sarita Choudhury), badly faking a cello performance as Jeri caresses her and the low-angle camera slowly tracks around them.

As for Jones herself, the series can’t shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The season’s opening shot, which has her leather boot stomp into the frame in close-up against the unaccustomed environs of a sunny beach, even evokes the way her personality is summed up by tattered jeans and grimy leather. In the form of Salinger’s initial attack, she’s given a new trauma to work through, but after three seasons, this form of motivation seems more like an obligatory gesture than an exploration of character. By the time she’s brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, “The Double Half-Woppinger,” it’s clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesn’t have much more to say.

Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rebecca De Mornay, Jeremy Bobb, Benjamin Walker, Sarita Choudhury, Jamie Neumann Network: Netflix

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Review: Pose Season Two Looks to the Future with Its Head Held High

The series empathetically attests to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence.

2.5

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Pose
Photo: Macall Polay/FX
Editor’s Note: This review may contains spoilers.

One notable arc of the second season of Pose traces the success of Madonna’s “Vogue,” from the song premiering on radio in March 1990 to the moment it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart less than two months later. The show understands the song’s lucid appreciation of the ballroom as an aspirational space. Madonna’s dance-pop anthem was like a lifeline to those in the house-ball community, and almost all of Pose’s characters celebrate it without reservation. “Everything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!” says Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), emboldened by the song to chase after her dreams.

Which is to say that Pose doesn’t bow before the altar of wokeism, at least not in the four episodes made available to press ahead of the new season’s premiere, knowing that the conversation about the song erasing voguing’s roots in a community’s daily struggles wasn’t one that many people were having in 1990. But the show does seem interested in the idea that the global success of “Vogue” was blinding to some in the drag-ball community. Can a queer person of color living on the fringes of society actually harness Madonna’s blond ambition? And from the spectacle of drag emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) reading the riot act to Candy (Angelica Ross) for coming to one show as a simulacrum of Madonna, voguing while dressed as one of the singer’s “Express Yourself” personas, the answer would seem to be a resounding no.

There’s a sense that Pray is being rough on Candy because he recognizes what we’ve long known about her, and what the season’s third episode makes sure that we don’t forget: that she has no problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. Witten by Our Lady J and directed by Janet Mock, the episode splits its time between the budding romance between Angel (Indya Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and the aftermath of a client (Frank De Julio) dying during one of Elektra Abundance’s (Dominique Jackson) shifts at the Hellfire Club. Tonally, the episode walks a high-wire act that’s empowering—for the way it regards Angel and Lil Papi in their bliss as stars of a Hollywood melodrama that never was—and ballsy—for the way it unearths humor and pathos in equal measure from everything that leads up to Candy convincing Elektra to not report her client’s death to the authorities.

The episode is perhaps too easily understood as an imagining of what must have led to one Paris Is Burning participant, drag performer and dressmaker Dorian Corey, possibly murdering and storing an ex-lover’s dead body in a closest inside her apartment for approximately 15 years. (The man’s mummified corpse was only discovered after Corey’s AIDS-related death.) But the point of the episode, like some long-delayed eulogy, is to empathetically attest to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Too often, though, the series goes one step further by blaring that message out loud, with dialogue that suggests a kind of PSA speak. That isn’t so much an issue in scenes that see the characters fighting the menace of AIDS, as Pose knows that the gay community raised awareness of the disease in the bluntest of ways, but in various scenarios, like Angel’s pursuit of her modeling career, that are beholden to all manner of coming-of-age and aspirational clichés.

The cast list for the new season reveals that Charlayne Woodard, as Helena St. Rogers, will be returning at some point, which goes a long way toward explaining why it appears as if Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are just hanging around in the background of the first four episodes as if they’re waiting for something, anything, to bring them to the foreground. The stage may be lovingly ceded to Angel and Lil Papi, but after a while, it just feels as if the lovebirds are going through all the same soap-operatic motions that Damon and Ricky did in the first season: Angel is so desperate to be a star that she opens herself up to being exploited by a smarmy photographer (Alexander DiPersia), and after she and her friends hand him his ass in a proud show of unity, Angel gets her first break, which just so happens to occur at the exact moment of a date she has with Lil Papi.

Something, though, that we do know for sure by the end of the fourth episode is that Pose isn’t concerned with putting any allies on blast. If you’re in the know about the history of New York and the AIDS crisis, then you’ll instantly recognize nurse and activist Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) and dog-toting real estate agent Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone) as stand-ins for Linda Laubenstein and Leona Helmsley, respectively. And if Judy, who joins Blanca in a crusade to get Pray Tell to start taking AZT, is celebrated for being a small-scale hero, Linda very easily invites the audience’s scorn for threatening Blanca after discovering she’s trans. But it’s an invitation that feels too easy, too cartoonish, especially in the context of the show’s almost Disney-fied—or Glee-ful—depiction of New York during this time period.

There’s a disconnect between the show’s aesthetics and its subject matter that feels especially apparent when one major character shows up dead in episode four. The moment certainly lacks the immediacy of the horrific moment from The Deuce’s first season when a john throws Pernell Walker’s Ruby out of a window like a piece of trash. Director Ryan Murphy knows that you can assert such a woman’s humanity in more than one way, but the sentimentalized theater of this episode is the stuff of cognitive dissonance. Because the prior three episodes give the short shrift to the character’s investment in changing ball culture, to tailoring it to her strengths, the moment that she’s celebrated for influencing that culture feels unearned. If hers wasn’t a dream that ever felt like it was her own, that’s because it’s the stuff of narrative convenience, a setup for a fall that, in the depiction of its aftermath, ironically links Pose to Madonna’s “Vogue” by making reality seem a little less dark than it really is.

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Review: Season Five of Black Mirror Regards Our Grim Future with a Smirk

The new season recalls the most human elements of past episodes while levying urgent indictments of the present.

3.5

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Black Mirror
Photo: Netflix

Season five of Black Mirror offers three new episodes that envision a predictably worrisome slate of side effects to humanity’s technological reach outpacing its intellectual grasp. But in offering dystopian visions that hew closer to reality than they have in past seasons, these episodes exceed the show’s promise of nightmarish hypotheticals. While the series has on occasion veered toward alienating, high-concept bleakness—as in season three’s “Playtest” and season two’s “White Bear”—season five maintains an empathetic focus on the characters struggling to navigate grim new worlds.

Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker employs a variety of familiar storytelling models to construct the season’s overarching theme, which generally concerns the unforeseen fallout of our shifting media diets. In the melancholic “Striking Vipers,” a marriage is endangered by the husband’s new obsession with a virtual reality game. Brooker moves his focus to social media in “Smithereens,” a claustrophobic hostage thriller, and to the music industry in the darkly comic caper “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” Each episode envisions upheavals in a different social construct, from traditional masculinity to celebrity culture, but Brooker’s consistent focus on media as the trigger for transformation lends the stories a foreboding thread.

The show’s directors match Brooker’s ingenuity, tailoring an immersive style for each episode. In “Striking Vipers,” Owen Harris fixates on the alienation felt by Danny (Anthony Mackie), a man experiencing a crisis of conscience, by framing the character in wide shots set against drab backdrops and cityscapes; it’s a pointed contrast to the colorful environments and dynamic camera movements Harris employs when Danny is gaming. In “Smithereens,” which follows a distraught rideshare driver (Andrew Scott) who takes a customer hostage (Damson Idris), director James Hawes presents the driver either in tight close-up or from the far-away perspective of police and gawking onlookers, highlighting the gulf between how the world perceives the man—as a terrible curiosity—and his own intense sense of victimization.

The relationship between perspective and perception is similarly central in “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” the episode with the most complicated premise of the season. Miley Cyrus stars as Ashley, a singer who wants to transition from glittery pop to more challenging material, much to the horror of her exploitative handlers. As the episode evolves into a scathing indictment of the celebrity industry (and offers a startling vision of artificial intelligence), “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” fosters our genuine concern for Ashley’s mental state—in part as a result of the savvy casting of Cyrus, a transformative pop star herself, but also, and more crucially, because the episode reveals much of what happens to Ashley from the relatable perspective of Rachel (Angourie Rice), a lonely and adoring teenage fan.

While none of these episodes are as nihilistic as the show’s grimmest installments to date, they remain imbued with snarky, topical satire and dogged cynicism. “Smithereens” portrays a social media network that, with its scrolling newsfeed and reliance on hashtags, is unsubtly modeled after Twitter. Even less subtle is the character of the platform’s man-bunned creator, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), who’s clearly a sketch of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Brooker doesn’t veil his view of the real-life tech mogul: When Bauer’s service ignites (and acts as a livestream of) an international hostage situation, he’s pictured peacefully meditating in Utah, both figuratively and literally above the fray he helped create. When eventually called for help, the communications magnate is powerless, no longer able to grasp the magnitude of his creation, and reduced to speaking in platitudes.

By targeting forces (and people) who already exist in reality, Brooker couples the show’s broad anxieties with a tinge of righteous anger. Coupled with the season’s character-driven focus, the specificity of the show’s grievances represents a welcome evolution. With stories that recall the most human elements of Black Mirror’s past episodes, while levying urgent indictments of the present, the series that’s always worked to imagine a dark future seems to be wondering if we haven’t already crossed into the dystopian abyss.

Cast: Andrew Scott, Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Damson Idris, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Network: Netflix

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Review: Season Five of Luther Is Undermined by a Sense of Inevitability

As the series has continued, it’s grown more outlandish, oppressive, and removed from the things that made it so captivating.

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Luther
Photo: Des Willie/BBC America

Time has not been kind to John Luther (Idris Elba), the wool-coated supercop haunted by the horrors of all the things he’s seen on the job. To be fair, what detective wouldn’t be traumatized living and working in the version of London offered up by BBC’s Luther? It’s a concrete sprawl where every crack in every grimy back alley seems to conceal some ultraviolent psychosexual serial killer. This is a gloomy, frequently ridiculous series that survives on the back of Elba’s staggering intensity as a volatile, obsessive detective more than willing to skirt the law as long as it catches him a killer. But as the series has continued, it’s only grown more outlandish, more oppressive, and more removed from the things that made its inaugural season so captivating. And the show’s belated fifth season, coming over three years after the two-part fourth season, hardly closes the distance.

It’s not for lack of trying, of course. For the first time since the beginning of the series, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) returns to the center of the story to throw a wrench into Luther’s professional and private life. Wilson is, expectedly, adept at selling her character’s amusing sociopathy with every thin, dark smirk. Unfortunately, though, Alice’s storyline entirely concerns her attempted revenge against East End gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), whose repetitive, nonsensical attempts to murder Luther were the most tiresome element of the prior season. With Luther now caught in the crossfire, the resulting feud is so central to the season that it all but pushes the season’s murder investigation to the side in favor of various square-offs with Cornelius’s gun-toting goons.

Luther has always worked best as a trashy mystery series because its main character’s explosive, extralegal tendencies contrast most sharply with the show’s depiction of a structured, by-the-book police world. The supporting characters, when they aren’t being killed off with alarming frequency, marvel at Luther’s alternately clever and outrageous attempts to flout the rules. However, writer and creator Neil Cross’s growing reliance on action elements has come to mean abandoning the contrast between Luther’s methods and expected police procedure in favor of throwing him into a murky criminal underworld. There’s simply less dramatic intrigue and less of an audacious thrill when he’s breaking out of his restraints to fight a room full of gangsters than when he’s punching a murder suspect in the street to get a sample from the man’s bloody nose in an absurd evidence-planting gambit.

Alice previously served a similar juxtaposing function. Despite her chemistry with Luther and their mutual attraction, her teasing, nihilistic amorality and even-more-extreme methods conflicted with his determination to protect life; their developing relationship threatened his job, his loved ones, and his own beliefs. But at this point, the two simply know each other too well for her wild-card antics to surprise Luther, and by extension the audience. Her ability to throw him off balance is muted since he mostly just seems tired of putting up with her rather than shocked at her insistent, ultimately predictable attempts to lash out at Cornelius.

That same sense of exhaustion and inevitability hangs over the entire season, undermining its usual attempts to shock us with plot twists that bring death and violence. The serial killer this time around, a surgeon (Enzo Cilenti) with a fetish for turning people into pincushions, may have strong visual iconography through the eerie combination of a clown mask and a glowing hood meant to fool CCTV, but his grisly compulsion is more of the same for a series that loves to plumb the depths of how gory a series can get. Once Cornelius becomes the umpteenth person to seriously threaten the lives of the supporting characters, you aren’t surprised so much as left to ruminate on the diminishing returns, remembering just how many names have already been scratched out of the show’s opening credits. The show’s concept has long revolved around how everything Luther has been through has left him haunted, but now, in the fifth season, it does little more for viewers than leave them numb.

Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Dermot Crowley, Michael Smiley, Wunmi Mosaku, Enzo Cilenti, Hermione Norris, Patrick Malahide Network: BBC America

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Review: Season Two of Big Little Lies Fails to Justify Its Existence

The series works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on broad social critiques.

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Big Little Lies
Photo: Jennifer Clasen/HBO

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriarty’s novel, the first season of Big Little Lies told a complete story, resolving the murder mystery that drove its primary storyline and successfully exploring the bleak underbelly of the affluent coastal city of Monterey, California. As such, the foremost question facing the show’s second season—directed by Andrea Arnold and based on a story by Moriarty and Kelley—is an existential one: Is this follow-up really necessary? Though the three episodes made available to press are enjoyable enough, thanks largely to the cast’s continued strong performances, they’re weighed down by heavy-handed writing and an inchoate grasp of what powered the first season—namely, its subtlety, surprise, and emotional murkiness.

Season two begins about a year after the so-called Monterey Five conspired to cover up the circumstances of Perry Wright’s (Alexander Skarsgård) death. Some of the group’s members have fared better than others in the time since: Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is thriving as a real estate agent, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) has settled into a job at the aquarium, and corporate hotshot Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is being featured on magazine covers. But Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), who pushed the abusive Perry down a flight of stairs to protect his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), struggles with the guilt of her actions, while Celeste doesn’t quite know how to grieve for the man she still loves.

Perry’s mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), has come to stay with Celeste and help her care for her twin sons (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). She also suspects that Perry’s death wasn’t a total accident and works to find out the truth. Mary Louise is a master of aggression, both passive and active, and Streep delivers the character’s critiques of Madeline with a quiet monotone that’s at once grandmotherly and acidic. Even among a cast as strong as the one assembled here, the veteran actress commands every scene she’s in. But as Mary Louise resists Celeste’s narrative of abuse—she wonders, for instance, why her Celeste didn’t tell the police that Perry beat her—her dialogue grows so tired, so backward, as to feel purely mechanical. Mary Louise as an acerbic grandma is compelling, but Mary Louise as a Me Too bogeywoman is a bore, little more than a repository of eye-roll-inducing, reactionary pushback against abuse victims. Her symbolic significance comes at the cost of her personhood.

Which is to say that Big Little Lies works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on the social critiques that it clumsily handles. For one, watching Madeline and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), face a personal reckoning is engaging because we care about these characters and understand the stakes of their conflict—and the series doesn’t compromise their interiority by forcing them to represent a broader social issue. The poignancy of their disillusionment suggests that the season might, in fact, justify its own existence. But the series consistently undercuts that potential. Bonnie’s mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), accurately remarks that there aren’t many black people in Monterey, but then it errs uneasily close to stereotype by giving her—one of only a small handful of black characters—possibly prophetic visions and an affinity for healing crystals and other talismans.

The show’s themes of abuse and sexual violence are urgent and timely, which makes its shoddy treatment of them all the more disappointing. Big Little Lies also takes on matters of desire, wealth, and sexism, but does so with brute force and repetition. When Madeline rails against the unfairly different expectations people have for fathers and mothers, she offers no original perspective on that common double standard; in the end, it’s as if the scene is relying solely on Madeline’s zeal to hide its trite writing. Later, a young field-tripper at the aquarium asks Jane why pretty things tend to be dangerous. It’s a lazy exchange that’s similarly emblematic of the show’s insistence on shouting its themes.

Save the occasional cinematographic flourish, the non-spoken tools of film and television have come to kneel before the power of the word in the second season of Big Little Lies. Even the show’s soundtrack serves as a way to squeeze more words in: While the songs featured throughout these episodes are definitely capable of generating mood—as was the case last season—their lyrics regularly and agonizingly describe the drama that we’re witnessing. The spectral cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You” that plays during a conversation about a crumbling marriage is haunting, but its beauty is shorn by how on the nose it is. The song, in this context, is exceptionally pretty but ultimately meaningless, a bunch of notes vanishing into the nearly hollow shell where Big Little Lies used to be.

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton, Sarah Sokolovic, Crystal Fox, Iain Armitage, Darby Camp, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Ivy George, Chloe Coleman, Robin Weigert, Douglas Smith Network: HBO

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Review: The Handmaid’s Tale Remains Captivating and Tedious in Its Third Season

The series successfully creates an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty, but its withholding of catharsis can be wearying.

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The Handmaid's Tale
Photo: Hulu
Editor’s Note: This article may contain spoilers.

In his review of Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman called Margaret Atwood’s fantasy of a reproductive dystopia “paranoid poppycock,” and the author’s fear of a totalitarian regime birthed from religious fundamentalism “wildly overestimate[d].” It’s easy to forgive Gleiberman for his skepticism and naïveté, even at a time when the conservative forces that currently drive our country’s discourse had already firmly gripped the body politic. Few could have imagined that the social progress we’ve made since then would not only unearth the rot festering beneath the surface of civil society, but that the backlash from a small yet virulent minority of white nationalists and their silent enablers would be so corrosive.

No, America isn’t Gilead. But it might be something altogether more insidious. That Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale came when it did, premiering in the months following Donald Trump’s inauguration and the birth of the Women’s March movement, was a perverse sort of kismet. And in its third season, the series remains unsettlingly relevant—a harbinger for the consequences of complacency and the slow, oppressive creep of authoritarianism.

By the start of its second season, The Handmaid’s Tale had already begun to expand beyond what was conceived in Atwood’s novel. Early on in the new season, it becomes apparent that, while June (Elisabeth Moss) continues to be our eyes inside the Republic of Gilead, this is no longer her story. When her lover, Nick (Max Minghella), learns that she remained in the country after he helped arrange for her escape at the end of last season, he warns her, “You’re going to die here.” She knows it, and in some ways, it feels like her story has died too.

Though June’s quest to save her daughter, Hannah, is still one of the show’s implicit and explicit objectives, it’s no longer the principal driving force. Instead, it’s the stories of two other women, who have the potential to destroy Gilead from within and without, respectively. Emily (Alexis Bledel) is adjusting to life in Canada after fleeing Gilead with June’s baby daughter, Nicholle, and small moments—like her nonplussed reaction to being told that her cholesterol is “a little high”—are revelatory. Whether or not her character will emerge as a political force in opposition to Gilead, she’s a hero to those still held prisoner there, and her very existence as an openly gay, highly educated woman, is itself an act of resistance.

First and foremost, though, this season is Serena’s (Yvonne Strahovski) story, as June gently but persistently nudges her to take more control of both her fate and that of the women and female children of Gilead. In the exquisite fourth episode, “God Bless the Child,” the two conspire together at a neighbor’s house; Serena offers June a cigarette and the pair lean back in their lounge chairs alongside the indoor pool. A shift has occurred: The women have control now—if fleetingly—but rather than cut to a wide shot, director Amma Asante opts for a close-up of June as she takes a drag, the smoke wafting in front of her fuming face.

Perhaps that’s because Asante knows what we don’t: that Serena will, once again, flip on June. What can make The Handmaid’s Tale so tedious isn’t necessarily its pace—after all, progress is rarely linear and part of the show’s genius is the sadistic way it forces us to endure June’s perpetual captivity—but its characters’ inertia. That’s why watching Serena’s evolution has been so satisfying, and her backsliding so maddening. Strahovski’s carefully calibrated performance has made Serena’s transformation from oppressor to freedom fighter feel inevitable, but the show’s writers seem determined to keep her as a foil for June.

In the climax of the otherwise enervating sixth episode, “Household,” June and Serena—two women utterly subjugated by a fundamentalist patriarchy that Serena helped design—quietly and devastatingly tear each other down inside the Lincoln Memorial, desecrated during the Second American Civil War. It’s a powerful juxtaposition that feels understated compared to the heavy-handed (or, rather, winged) imagery from earlier in the episode that recalls the instantly famous shot of Daenerys and Drogon in the Game of Thrones finale.

Bradley Whitford’s Commander Joseph Lawrence, the founder of the colonies where sterile women are forced to excavate toxic land, is almost as frustratingly capricious as Serena. He may have tried to help June escape last season, but now he’s content to toy with her like a cat would a helpless mouse. During a riveting argument with June in the third episode, “Useful,” Joseph articulates perhaps the most compelling case yet for the motivations of those who created Gilead. Despite his obvious contempt for people, he sees his cause as noble: He’s “saving the planet,” and “replenishing the human race,” he tells her, before seething, “What did you do to ever help anyone?” It’s a question she can’t answer.

Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), too, continues to show glimmers of humanity, and as always, they’re prone to evaporating in often-explosive instants. It’s only in “Household,” when she sees the methods with which handmaids in D.C. are silenced, that the empathy she clearly has for June and the other handmaids lingers for a spell. The moment hints at some deeper truth about Lydia and one imagines a peek into her former existence would go a long way toward making her feel less like a one-dimensional villain. Even merely having one of the girls under her charge ask her about her past would provide an opportunity to humanize a character whose backstory and motivations seem to be richly drawn—if only in Dowd’s own head.

June is given ephemeral moments of empowerment, like at the end of “Useful,” when she ruthlessly turns Joseph’s attempt to implicate her in his crimes into a power play for the resistance. But one gets the sense that stasis is the show’s endgame. Hulu has suggested The Handmaid’s Tale could continue for 10 seasons, and Gilead’s increasing brutality and fanaticism adds new layers to our macro understanding of this oppressive society’s evolution. But while the writers have successfully created an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that echoes that of the show’s characters, the withholding of catharsis can be wearying. Like society itself, the series resists progress at its own peril.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Joseph Fiennes, Alexis Bledel, Bradley Whitford, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer, O. T. Fagbenie, Samira Wiley, Amanda Brugel, Ever Carradine, Clea DuVall Network: Hulu

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Review: AMC’s NOS4A2 Adaptation Is Television As Psychic Vampire

The series visibly struggles to spin an enveloping atmosphere around its ideas.

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NOS4A2
Photo: Zach Dilgard/AMC

The title of AMC’s NOS4A2 is seen on the vanity plate of a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith in the series’s first episode, immediately clarifying the specific nature of this vehicle, which saps the life from passengers in order to refresh its driver, Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto). It also establishes the show’s somewhat cockeyed sense of horror, which filters decidedly non-spooky concepts through more sinister overtones. Christmas carols play as warnings of approaching doom, snowmen’s heads turn of their own accord, and the chief bad guy, of course, drives around with a license plate that sounds like a cheesy joke one might find inside a Halloween greeting card. If this interplay between creepy and eccentric worked in Joe Hill’s source novel, it’s hardly survived the transition to this drab, bloated adaptation.

When the camera first settles on Quinto, he’s buried under gobs of old-man makeup. His long gray wig is matted and greasy, his voice a laborious wheeze. Manx becomes young and handsome again by kidnapping children, luring them into the Wraith with promises of candy, presents, and a trip to the magical Christmasland. In the six episodes made available for review, what becomes of these children once he deposits them at Christmasland isn’t yet clear, though their newly gaunt faces and sharp teeth suggest they aren’t going to be partaking in any holiday cheer. Into this cycle of kidnappings rides Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), whose dirt bike lets her access a rickety magic bridge that leads her to lost things: a watch, a wayward father, perhaps even a missing child. The idea of that last one, naturally, sets her on an inevitable crash course with Manx and his vampiric Rolls-Royce.

The show’s idea of drama—aside from too many scenes where characters decide they’re outmatched by Manx and briefly give up—is mostly Vic’s preoccupation with the rest of her life. Dad (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is a violent drunk, Mom (Virginia Kull) wants her to scrub toilets instead of attend art school, and the only friends she has in Small Town, Massachusetts are a little girl, one of those guy friends with “notice me” written all over his face, and a middle-aged school janitor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who’s into comic books. If these seem like background details, NOS4A2, whose first season is meant to cover only the first third of Hill’s 700-page tome, doesn’t treat them as such. But to what end?

Indeed, for as much space as the series allows its characters to develop idiosyncrasies and inner lives, no one is released from the confines of their archetypal functions. That Vic’s father truly cares about her and her future even though he hits his wife when he’s had too much to drink is what passes for complexity here. The show’s depictions of working-class struggle, small-town alienation, and abuse are so lacking in specificity that they feel more like shorthand for what it means to really be down and out. In NOS4A2, people say things like, “There’s good and bad in everyone,” as if nuance can be created by simply speaking it aloud.

Worse, these moments aren’t even worth gritting your teeth through to get to the supernatural intrigue that ostensibly anchors NOS4A2, which peels back mythology and mysteries over time in the build-up to some climactic Vic/Manx showdown. The problem here isn’t so much that the series is short on ideas: Manx’s Christmas iconography is a memorable calling card, and the show’s wider universe includes other supernatural flourishes, like a girl (Jahkara J Smith) who predicts the future with the tiles and rules of Scrabble (no proper nouns). It’s that NOS4A2 so visibly struggles to spin an enveloping atmosphere around these ideas.

Given how many Christmas-themed horror films, from Gremlins to Krampus, opt for some degree of comedy and camp, the show’s choice to play things straight is almost refreshing. But NOS4A2 is utterly devoid of dread or menace, and its artistry fails to compensate for its otherwise complete lack of dramatic momentum. Occasionally, the series flashes mildly perturbing images across the screen for a few seconds—bloodied bodies, faces contorted in pain—before returning to its usual gray daylight and the tight handheld shots that frame faces against it. The backgrounds fall out of focus with extreme frequency, in what seems to be some shaky depiction of disorientation and disconnection. But the result is less a world thick with foreboding, impenetrable smog than one seen through an irritating, bleary-eyed haze.

Cast: Ashleigh Cummings, Zachary Quinto, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jahkara J Smith, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Virginia Kull, Darby Camp, Rarmian Newton, Asher Miles Fallica, Dalton Harrod Network: AMC

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