If there’s one thing I find a touch annoying about Breaking Bad, it’s that the show will occasionally lean on a too-easy symbol or two. It doesn’t do this incredibly often, but it will every so often use some mundane object to make a Larger Point about What’s Wrong with the Characters, and while the show is getting better at it, it often has the stink of something you might find in a too-proud-of-itself short story in a college lit journal. On a first viewing, I thought the idea of Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) foundation on his house being full of rot was one of these over-obvious symbols. Walt’s built so much of his life now on an empire of lies that the conceit of his own house literally not being in order felt too much like the parable of the wise man building his house upon the rock. After a second viewing, however, I’m not so sure. There actually might be more there there to this symbol than first meets the eye.
“Over,” written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Phil Abraham, is probably a necessary breather episode. It opens with another haunting image from what seems to be the rapidly approaching future (this time featuring two bodies covered by sheets and lying in a driveway), but then it substantially ramps down the tension, turning into an episode about how Walt deals with the knowledge that he’s almost certainly going to live and how his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn); son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte); and partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul) all deal with that seemingly happy news.
The episode, if nothing else, confirms that the news that Walt’s cancer was in serious remission isn’t going to paint the rest of the season as a show about a guy trying to extricate himself from the life of crime he hastily threw together. If anything, the show just got bleaker, as Walt realized that his old life was now somehow inadequate, that he couldn’t share in others’ joy for him because the knowledge that he was going to die freed him to finally give in to the blistering resentment boiling at his core. He was an angry little man, yes, but he, paradoxically, felt alive.
That’s where the idea of the rotting foundation started to improve for me on a second viewing. At first, I thought it was just a rather simple suggestion that Walt couldn’t put his house in order very easily because the way he had made his riches was so shaky and unsound. While the symbol DOES point to that, it also gets at another, deeper layer that the whole season has been pointing at—Walt thought he had a simple problem (his water heater was corroding; his health was going), but when he tried to fix that simple problem as easily as possible (by replacing the water heater with a state-of-the-art new one; by making and selling meth), he discovered that the problem was larger because the ground where the problem sat was so full of holes that it would take real corrective work to repair.
The water heater sat on a floor filled with fungus and disease, ready to give way and create even bigger problems soon enough. The water heater and, possibly, anyone standing near it could very soon find themselves dumped into the small crawlspace beneath the house if they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Walt’s willing to do the work to fix the floor, to install the new water heater that will correct the problems that led to the shaky foundation in the first place. However, while he’s grudgingly willing to fix the surface level problem of his drug-dealing empire (he’s going to cautiously sell off the product he and Jesse have and then retire from the game), he’s not willing to fix the shaky floor it sits upon, the floor of his own resentments and bitterness at the world he feels has constantly dealt him a losing hand. Because he’s not, his rather sensible plan plunges through the rotted-out floor of his own anger and heads into the depths. And there’s no reason to believe Walt isn’t going with it.
Of course, this much was obvious just from watching the episode, where Cranston had less to say than he has in maybe any episode of this show yet. He spends much of his time glowering, trying to get under the skin of everyone who’s happy for him, working on his house in silence to the accompaniment of his power tools. When he talks about his reaction on hearing his tumor was in remission, he says it was the same as when he first found out he had cancer—“Why me?” Walt maybe wasn’t the world’s best criminal, but he was finally awake after decades of torpor. That being awake woke him only to the kinds of spiritual rot that will do a man in, well, that didn’t matter much to him. So now, now that he has to settle down again and live a respectable life and make trips to the home improvement store and take naps, now he’s realizing just how much of himself he kept shut off all those years.
Here, again, the show invites the audience to make our own bleak choice: Do we root for Walt to go back to a life of respectability and become dramatically uninteresting again, or do we hope that he embraces the blackness inside of him more fully, dives back into the brackish deep end? Of course we opt for the latter, because we’re TV fans, that’s how we’re conditioned to behave, but all that does is make us very, very, very indirectly culpable for everything that follows.
So what are we to make of Walt, then, having decided to give up the game and sitting, suffering, having to put up with a party full of his friends and family, people he seems deeply angered to even be around now? He sits at a table with Hank (Dean Norris) and his son, drinking shot after shot of tequila and glowering into the distance, listening as Hank AGAIN tells stories of his DEA adventures. Walt Jr. listens, drinking in these tales of action and derring-do, and Walt lets his resentment at hearing these stories of a life he’ll no longer get to be a part of continue to fester, until he silently reaches over and pours a little tequila for his son, who drinks it down with a hearty cough. At first, it just seems like a rite of passage, but he keeps pouring and pouring and pouring, and Walt Jr., just wants to keep up.
This mostly wordless sequence between Norris, who wants to stop Walt, and Cranston, who wants to keep pouring is a beautifully ugly thing. Check out the expression on Walt’s face as he pours the tequila OVER Hank’s hand as Hank tries to cover Walt Jr.’s cup. Walt keeps pushing the standoff, driving Hank to slowly back off on his laconic attempts to defuse the situation and take action. The situation is only defused by Walt Jr., leaning over and throwing up in the pool.
When Walt apologizes for all of this, he doesn’t seem to really MEAN it, though. He’s just saying that because that’s what you DO in situations like this. If Breaking Bad is, at some level, about just what it takes to unleash all of our hidden, tamped down desires, “Over” is a necessary episode about just how hard it is to step back from all of that and resume a normal life, to repair that floor underlying your own darkest impulses. Now that Walt has had a taste of a life where he is feared and respected and unquestionably part of something much, much larger than himself, returning to a life where he merely lives the way he’s supposed to is almost more than he can bear.
Which is why when he finds himself at the home improvement store, coming across a methhead buying up products to go and cook, he steps in and offers a corrective. But he can’t just stop there. Repairing his foundation is going to take real, solid effort, and he’s just not up for that sort of work. So he storms out of the store to the tune of TV on the Radio, finds the methhead in the parking lot (as well as his big, bald counterpart—a parallel to Walt himself?) and corners them both. “Stay out of my territory,” he says, and he doesn’t seem particularly concerned with staying concealed. He’s out in the open now. He’s completely exposed all of the dark pieces of himself and rather embraced them. But if Walt’s hubris was what led his foundation to rot from resentment, it also seems likely that it will be what takes him down in the end. He’s no longer playing this game cautiously. He’s playing it because he can.
Not so with Jesse, who reacts happily to the news that Walt is getting better and getting out of the game. Jesse, obviously, is happy for the good news for his father figure, but he’s also seemingly relieved to be getting to a point where he can get back down to being a smalltime crook instead of the big blowfish Walt wants him to be. Paul spends most of this episode sidelined off in a plot where he hangs out with his girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), and they dance around the issue of whether they are or aren’t a couple, particularly when her dad, the building’s owner, comes to check on her (and doesn’t seem terribly concerned with his daughter’s privacy) and Jane will only introduce Jesse as a new tenant and not the guy she’s sleeping with. Jesse’s basically sensitive soul is bruised by all of this, but I’m not sure this subplot was all that needed.
Every young relationship needs to have this moment when the two partners clarify what, exactly, they are to each other, and Breaking Bad’s basically process-obsessed structure fairly demands we devote an episode to it, but since not as much weight has been invested in the Jane/Jesse relationship, it feels a bit like a time-killer, a way to give Jesse something to do when he has no real reason to be hanging out with Walt. Still, it was interesting to get further looks into the lives Jesse might have lived had he been just a bit more ambitious. His comics characters were pretty well-drawn (I mean, at least as far as I could tell) but weren’t terribly well thought-out on a creative level. This is kind of a pattern with Jesse. He has the raw talent much of the time, but he doesn’t always have the best of foundations to rest that talent on. So, hey, maybe that water heater stood for a multitude of things.
Finally, there’s Skyler, who’s back and working with the guy we know at least touched her when she worked there several years ago. Now, however, she seems so thrown by the fact that Walt’s improved condition hasn’t similarly improved her marriage that she’s coming up with reasons to bump into that guy, until he finally squeezes her hand and the two seem to be playing a game of who-will-seduce-whom or its like. The question that seems to be making itself more and more prominent is this: Did Skyler just attract this guy’s attentions a few years back, or was she actively engaged in a flirtation or even an affair with him? This episode dances right up to the line of that question but never quite answers it, choosing instead to ground itself in the thought that Walt and Skyler’s relationship will not be fixed so easily by an external problem being solved. Once again, there’s a bad foundation, waiting to give way.
Obviously, then, if the foundation announces itself too blatantly as a symbol in the episode, at least it stands for a great many things and manages to stand for all of them at once. We humans are not built to fix external issues and then let go of the internal ones. We let them continue to eat away at what’s below us until we find ourselves plunging ever downward. Similarly, this season of Breaking Bad, which has seen the characters plummeting downhill rapidly for a number of weeks now needed this moment for the RV to level out just a bit, seem to slow. It needed to give the characters (and us) a chance to pull the escape hatch and make a dive for the soft sand beside the road. But nobody’s bailing out, not us, not Jesse, not Skyler and certainly not Walt. We’re in this until the bitter end, and that end looks more and more like it’s going to feature lots of blood.
Some other thoughts:
• The natural speculation is to ask what’s up with the flash-forwards, which resurfaced here (and, indeed, wonder if they ARE flash-forwards, though I don’t see how they aren’t). I think the safest assumption is that the cartel catches up to Walt. We’ve been building to that all season and to have it be a faultily installed water heater (as Alan Sepinwall suggests it might be) is anti-climactic in a way that’s not terribly evident in this show nor in the previous work of creator Vince Gilligan. As far as who the bodies belong to, I’d place even money on one of them being Jane, since this show is not going to bump off two regulars. I just hope the other isn’t Saul Goodman.
• In addition to that point, have we ever gotten an idea of just how far along Skyler is? It definitely seems like she’ll be giving birth any day now, which might give us a hint of who that burnt, pink teddy bear is actually for.>
• Take sides in comments: Backwardo or Rewindo? Which do you prefer?
• I find hidden spaces vastly fascinating, so I enjoyed seeing Walt disappear into the space beneath his house, and Abraham’s camera captured the eerie quality of the light and shadows down there.
• I was going to suggest the rather generic identity of the home improvement store suggested that maybe the show doesn’t go in for product placement, but then I remembered that some weeks it seemingly has. More likely, I guess, is that Home Depot just didn’t want everyone to know you can go there for the vast majority of your meth-cooking needs.
• Man, I love me some TV on the Radio, and their track “DLZ” is completely apropos for this show. Good choice, music supervisors!
• Over-obvious symbolism I DID like? Walt’s money having actual blood on it. Those stains ain’t coming out as easily as you’d like, Walt.
For more Breaking Bad recaps, click here.
Review: Tales from the Loop Explores the Complexities of Human Connection
The series is a character study in which wounded introverts wrestle with their inability to connect with others.3
Amazon’s Tales from the Loop is set in a pastoral farm community that seems to simultaneously embody the past and future. There are no cellphones here, and bars and diners have a rustic ‘50s-era feel. However, large robots also populate the area, often seen in the backgrounds of compositions, suggesting solitary guards. The robots also feel rustic, nearly forgotten, like broken-down tractors. Rather than serve as conventionally awe-inspiring special effects, the robots appear to be taken for granted by the human characters, and the casualness of their presence is one of the show’s enchantments. The robots have a metaphorical weight, echoing the uncertainty and melancholia of the humans.
High-concept sci-fi is often heavy with exposition. By contrast, Tales from the Loop’s creator, Nathaniel Halpern, and his various collaborators allow the mysteries of the central premise to hang, barely explained, throughout the three episodes made available to press. The town exists above a secret lab, created by Russ (Jonathan Pryce), which is said to explore the properties of the universe. And at the center of the lab is the sort of mystical huge orb that’s been featured in countless genre stories, and which can apparently alter the space-time continuum.
The town’s citizens have come to accept the extraordinariness of certain things as ordinary, which also spares the series from having to spell things out. And the sci-fi window dressing is gradually revealed to be misdirection anyway, as Tales from the Loop, which is based on Simon Stålenhag’s 2014 narrative art book, is mostly a character study, in which wounded introverts and workaholic intellectuals wrestle with their inability to connect with others.
A major theme of the series is the relationship between children and their parents, the latter of which spend long hours obsessing over projects at the lab. In the premiere episode, a young girl, Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson), loses her mother, Alma (Elektra Kilbey), who’s disappeared after stealing a crystal from the orb. In a haunting image, potentially a vision, or maybe a projection or a memory, Loretta sees her house floating upward toward the sky in pieces. Distraught and homeless, Loretta is helped by a boy, Cole (Duncan Joiner), and his mother (Rebecca Hall). Eschewing the cuteness of other kids’ quest series like Stranger Things, director Mark Romanek fashions an earnest, somber portrait of neglect and regret, in which a woman is afforded the ability to see herself through the lens of the past. Forston and Hall hit striking notes of despair, each dramatizing a war between intellectuality and emotion.
Each episode of Tales from the Loop is standalone yet interconnected. A minor character in one episode, seemingly a background actor, becomes the star of another—a device that casually illustrates how we are all alternatingly the protagonists of our own lives and bit players in the lives of others, and how many of us are dogged by similar existential issues. The series suggests that we’re together in our aloneness, an idea that’s reminiscent of the stories of Raymond Carver. At one point, Cole’s mother is revealed to be Loretta as a grownup—a twist, in the key of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, that’s telegraphed by Fortson and Hall’s remarkable resemblance to one another, and various other characters are brought, via the lab’s technology, into confrontations with alternate versions of themselves.
In another episode, Cole shouts into a hollowed out thing that resembles a wrecked miniature Death Star. The echoes he hears are his voice across the various stages of his life, which director Andrew Stanton fashions into a moving symbol of a boy’s grappling for the first time with aging, loss, and impermanency. Given center stage, Joiner, like Fortson before him, offers an unsentimentally stoic portrait of yearning.
As themes go, “life goes on” would surely rank as one of the least profound, but Tales from the Loop continues to offer details that resonate. We’re allowed to understand that Cole’s father and Russ’s son, George (Paul Schneider), resents the connection between Cole and Russ, as well as between Russ and Loretta, a prized employee at the lab. This resentment is barely articulated, but Schneider informs George with a heartbreaking dwarfed quality, which is affirmed by the show’s most poignant special effect: the mechanical arm that George, an amputee, wears. The arm physicalizes his sense of being eclipsed by everyone around him.
Such body language is also evident in Gaddis (Ato Essandoh), a guard at the lab. Gay and terminally single, Gaddis tells Loretta that it must be nice to come home to an already lit house, signifying familial presence. She says what many married people have said to lonely-hearts over the years, in TV and real life: It’s not as easy as it looks.
Tales from the Loop recalls the spirit of the films of executive producer Matt Reeves, especially Let Me In, which could serve as the title of this series as well. Both productions imbue familiar genre tropes with restlessness, with a wandering sense of irresolution. The landscapes of Tales from the Loop are beautiful but somehow unwelcoming in their sense of lonely sparseness—echoing the imagery of the source material, Simon Stålenhag’s illustrated book of the same name—while Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score practically subsumes the series in longing. For Tales from the Loop, the mysteries of the universe play second fiddle to the perils of giving up, of resigning oneself to solitary nights in a town that suggests a perpetual past.
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Paul Schneider, Jonathan Pryce, Abby Ryder Fortson, Duncan Joiner, Ato Essandoh, Jane Alexander, Elektra Kilbey, Shane Carruth, Jodi Lynn Thomas, Victor J. Ho, Brian Mallard, Leann Lei Network: Amazon
Review: HBO’s Run Doesn’t Sustain Itself Beyond Its Initially Thrilling Premise
The long-form storytelling obligations of a TV series soon overwhelm this simple but compelling premise.2
Ruby (Merritt Wever) once made a pact with her ex-boyfriend, Billy (Domhnall Gleeson): If both text the word “RUN” to each other within a certain period of time, they will drop everything and travel together across America for one week, after which they must decide if they want to part ways for good. Commencing right after they exchange that fateful texts 17 years after college, HBO’s Run plays like a consciously frazzled version of Before Sunset. Like that film, Run depicts romance as messy and complicated, especially on such short notice: Not only is Ruby in a parking lot when she receives Billy’s text, prompting her to open the door of her minivan and hit an adjacent vehicle, but she’s also married.
Once reunited, Ruby and Billy fall easily into flirty old habits, but the series keeps an intriguing focus on the tension and awkwardness of their situation. “Who does this?” Ruby says aloud at one point, in disbelief of their impulsive behavior. They’re desperate to get away from their humdrum lives, and they’re doing their best to make a good impression on each other while gingerly broaching the potential for sex, which leads to one of Run’s most amusing scenes: the pair flailing around in a private train compartment, accidentally turning on sinks and bumping against the top bunk in the heat of the moment. Full of fraught, longing looks and palpable chemistry, the start of the series sweeps us up right alongside the characters, who rediscover one another while dancing around the developments of the intervening years.
But the long-form storytelling obligations of a TV series soon overwhelm this simple but compelling premise: Billy has larger problems than he initially lets on, and those reveals trickle out in piecemeal fashion alongside his former assistant Fiona’s (Archie Panjabi) determined attempts to halt his escapade. There’s a sense that the series doesn’t quite trust itself to subsist merely on the lower-stakes drama of Ruby and Billy running away together. Run’s tone abruptly shifts after the first two episodes, with the introduction of more urgent, suspenseful elements like Billy inexplicably fighting to keep the sizable contents of his bank account away from Fiona. Much of the interpersonal humor gives way to wackier situations meant to heighten both the stakes and the characters’ reactions, but the results are too broadly comedic while nudging the characters to new heights of self-absorption.
Many of the sillier comic situations simply involve being shitty to wage workers, but Run also tosses off issues about the morality of Billy’s self-help business with little mind for their seriousness. Though the series certainly isn’t blind to Ruby and Billy’s rather pronounced sense of entitlement, the chaos piling up in their wake becomes far less endearing than it’s seemingly meant to be. Ruby and Billy’s actions make them harder and harder to root for, and Run becomes unable to sustain itself beyond the initial thrill of their reunion.
Cast: Merritt Wever, Domhnall Gleeson, Archie Panjabi, Rich Sommer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge Network: HBO
Review: In The Virtues, Transience Is a Path to Personal Redemption
The series is a reminder that facing up to one’s problems doesn’t guarantee release, but does allow for the possibility of moving forward.3.5
Transience is a recurring motif in Shane Meadows’s The Virtues. The four-episode series is filled with scenes in which recovering alcoholic Joseph (Stephen Graham) trudges through city streets and countryside roads toward an uncertain future. Unmoored after his ex-wife, Debbie (Juliet Ellis), announces that she’s moving with their son, Shea (Shea Michael Shaw), to Australia, Joe relapses in a big way. Seeking to regain some hold of his life, he decides to return to his native Ireland to track down his sister, Anna (Helen Behan), whom he hasn’t seen since he was sent to an orphanage after their parents’ deaths. Joe’s return home triggers confrontations with traumatic memories warped and repressed by time, suggesting that the only way to overcome one’s past is to confront it head on.
Meadows’s work as a filmmaker has charted how misery and hopelessness manifests in post-imperial Britain. He’s always had an intuitiveness that transcends the ostensible realism of his desaturated palettes and handheld camerawork, and here he shows a new level of aesthetic subjectivity. When Joe is sober, his tremors rhyme with the shaking of the camera; when Joe drinks, however, the camera turns sedate, swaying more slowly as the relief of intoxication washes over him, followed by sudden, erratic cuts when he inevitably blacks out.
Meadows visualizes Joe’s repressed memories with snatches of home-video-grade images of the man’s childhood. The blotchy, low-resolution of the video, redolent of Harmony Korine’s early work, manifests Joe’s hazy grasp on his past, and the escalating intercutting of such clips with the present-day material as the series progresses mimics the overwhelming rush of his recalling the full extent of his trauma. Meadows parcels out this footage with precision, teasing us with the indecipherable images until what’s being depicted becomes all too clear.
As nervous as Joe is in conversations with others, he’s also quick to befriend strangers. And he has a special affinity for children, at once playfully immature and genuinely tender and caring toward them. In his farewell with Shea, Joe humbly reassures him that it’s okay if he calls his stepfather, David (Vauxhall Jermaine), “dad.” Like many an addict, Joe can be overwhelming and caustic, but Graham foregrounds the man’s unending attempts to tamp down his worst impulses, focusing less on Joe’s capacity for overbearing behavior and more on his shame and ability to charm people in spite of his withdrawn, nervous energy.
As the series progresses, Joe’s struggles are contrasted with other characters dealing with their own suppressed issues. His sister-in-law, Dinah (Niamh Algar), is introduced as a brash, sarcastic self-starter who can punch out any man who hassles her, but she nurses a brooding shame over having to give up a baby she had as an unwed teen. Meanwhile, Joe gets a job at his brother-in-law’s (Frank Laverty) construction business, where he meets Craigy (Mark O’Halloran), a tetchy worker with a checkered past who remembers living with Joe in the orphanage as kids. Craigy is even more of a nervous wreck than Joe, often barely able to get to the end of a sentence without circumnavigating the globe to get to the point. Joe and Craigy are kindred spirits, as they understand each other’s pain, but they’re also triggers for one another, leading to as many moments of strife as camaraderie.
With This Is England and its various TV spinoffs, Meadows tracked the political and social upheavals of modern England through an intimate network narrative of closely entwined stories. The Virtues isn’t particularly concerned with the political history of Ireland, but rather the lingering pressures of the religious shame and abuse that shape addled individuals. The finale brings the tacit influence of such personal and institutional manipulations into clarity along with the full extent of the characters’ trauma in a tautly edited climax that bridges Joe, Dinah, and Craigy’s struggles into a series of tense confrontations in which grace is either bestowed or brutally withheld. Like much of Meadows’s work, the series has a clear ending, but the characters remain irresolute. It’s a reminder that even facing up to one’s problems doesn’t guarantee release, but it does at least allow for the possibility of moving forward.
Cast: Stephen Graham, Niamh Algar, Helen Behan, Mark O’Halloran, Frank Laverty, Juliet Ellis, Shea Michael Shaw Network: Topic
Review: One Day at a Time Remains a Comforting Mix of Head and Heart
The show’s fourth season serves as a reliable and comforting balm suited for the current moment.3
In the aftermath of 9/11, audiences sought solace in familiar shows like Friends, which took place in a world untouched by the tragic event and populated with beloved characters who were confronting more mundane, everyday problems. Today’s television landscape is too diffuse to point to a single, obvious source of comfort, but as Americans face the expanding COVID-19 crisis, self-isolating and assessing the risks of death and economic disaster, shows like One Day at a Time, now in its fourth season, serve as a welcome balm.
The series follows the Alvarez family as they confront social issues that, while timely and relevant, feel entirely manageable when compared to a global pandemic. The tight-knit family reflects on topics like sex, relationships, and money through an intergenerational lens, as Penelope (Justina Machado) absorbs blows from two age-divided fronts: her teenage children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), and her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno).
In one episode, Alex walks in on a family member masturbating, triggering a discussion about female sexuality and self-pleasure. “Sex is between people who are married,” Lydia says. “It is Adam and Eve, not ‘bzzzt’ and Eve.” As in previous seasons of One Day at a Time, Moreno’s riotous line readings and her character’s hijinks—shopping for crabs at the fish market, catfishing Penelope’s potential suitors—imbue the show with endearing archness. But every member of the family gets their fair share of deviously funny verbal jabs, punching up or down a generation to reject what they deem naïve or reactionary.
When the blowups cool down, as they always do, Penelope summarizes the takeaways with a blend of sweetness and didacticism that falls just on the right side of a public service announcement. Real-world context renders these resolutions reassuring rather than trite: No difficulty in the series is impossible to overcome, so long as the Alvarezes stick together.
The promise of unconditional unity that permeates One Day at a Time comes through not only in grand apologies and lessons, but also in subtler interactions. In season one, Lydia worked through her religious objections to Elena’s coming out in less than a minute; here, when she speaks to Elena and her significant other, Syd (Sheridan Pierce), she refers to Syd by their preferred pronoun. Lydia’s casual use of the word “them” reflects her ability to internalize practices and behavior that make her loved ones feel safe. The moment understatedly captures Lydia’s radical personal growth, the kind people achieve when they demand the best of each other. That, One Day at a Time insists, is what love looks like.
Cast: Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Todd Grinnell, Stephen Tobolowsky, Sheridan Pierce Network: Pop
Review: Devs Is an Exposition-Heavy Rumination on the Nature of Humanity
The series’s synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart in its exposition-heavy second half.2
Alex Garland’s Devs is the writer-director’s latest rumination on the nature of humanity in the face of both technology and the unknown. As in much of Garland’s prior work, the Hulu limited series uses speculative fiction to address both contemporary social malaise and deeper metaphysical questions on the nature of human life.
The show’s title alludes to the deliberately generic, misleading name of a supercomputer capable of peering into the past and predicting the future, a MacGuffin that allows for a treatise on determinism. Using quantum algorithms, Forest (Nick Offerman), the mysterious owner of a computing company named Amaya, can trace the chains of cause and effect that guide our lives beneath the illusion of free will. Or, as Forest himself says to a new programmer, Sergei (Karl Glusman), our lives aren’t chaotic, but rather ordered “on tramlines.”
Sergei is swiftly revealed to be a corporate spy who infiltrated Amaya to steal code for Russia. Outed almost immediately, he finds himself confronted by Forest and Amaya’s head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), who kills the would-be thief and stages his death as a spectacular suicide, much to the confusion and grief of Sergei’s girlfriend, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a software engineer at Amaya who sets about digging into the truth.
At first, Devs’s straightforward murder mystery and broader philosophical questions dovetail seamlessly. Lily’s amateur sleuthing around Amaya’s compound and a thoroughly gentrified San Francisco positions the series as pure noir, a genre quite conducive to exploring existential and metaphysical quandaries. It’s especially fitting for a consideration of determinism, with Lily’s attempt to work out what happened to Sergei aligning with the supercomputer’s ability to reconstruct the past based on behavioral clues. This represents the ultimate endpoint of technology’s capability to reshape humanity’s self-conception, demonstrating that you can program software so intricately that it can disprove free will. As Lily struggles to make sense of her life being turned upside down, Devs regularly returns to Forest and his sedate, wizened calm, that of a man who sits upon the mountaintop and sees all.
Garland, as ever, devotes a great deal of care to the show’s sense of atmosphere. Set in and around Silicon Valley, Devs reflects the modern look of the tech industry in much the same way that Spike Jonze’s Her used hazy, soft lighting and warm colors to evoke the sleekness and comfort of Apple’s aesthetic. People arrive at Amaya’s main building, all glass windows and open desks, as if to a college campus. The Devs building itself, with its Brutalist exterior and series of cube-shaped rooms and gold-lined walls, is a radical break from reality that nonetheless manifests the internal logic of tech culture. At heart, it’s a giant computer that programmers work within, a windowless space where humans are at once spying and being spied upon in an extreme visualization of our surveillance society.
This initial synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart, however, as Devs drags into its second half. Garland frontloads the series with narrative exposition, revealing to the audience (and Lily) most of the mystery behind Sergei’s death, the depth of his clandestine connections, and the totality of influence that a mega-rich CEO like Forest can exert in the late-capitalist Shangri-la of Silicon Valley. That leaves the series to start spiraling into stranger and ever more forced twists, from an awkward romantic subplot between Lily and her cybersecurity ex, Jamie (Jin Ha), to Kenton’s increasingly ludicrous omnipresence and seeming invulnerability to physical harm (one starts to expect a Westworld-like twist to reveal him as a robot). Similarly, Forest’s motivating obsession over his lost child is telegraphed by the colossal statue in the girl’s image that looms over the Amaya compound.
Early on, the balance between open discussion of Devs’s themes and the use of setting and tone to convey said themes is a careful one, but soon the series gives itself over to long-winded monologues that make the subtext text. The later episodes grind to a halt as the contours of a philosophy that were already neatly summarized in the pilot are more arduously explained to viewers. The series momentarily rebounds when it starts to consider the role that chaos plays in shaping the supposedly absolute tramlines of existence, using clever editing and doubling effects to show all the various permutations that any given moment of a person’s life could have gone depending on small variations of behavior. Soon, though, this provocative visualization of unpredictability and random chance gives way to characters standing around debating such ideas, reducing the surreal to the academic.
Devs frustratingly comes too sharply into focus at the expense of leaving some of its more evocative ideas unsaid. The story’s metaphors become increasingly obvious, such as Forest’s long hair and beard turning him into a cult-like leader, an image regularly juxtaposed with his team’s repeated projections of Christ’s crucifixion. As the show’s visual storytelling is increasingly subsumed by explanatory dialogue, the more tragic insinuations of Forest’s obsessions become lugubriously spelled out as others tie the Devs project ever more explicitly to his personal trauma. There’s plenty to chew on in Devs, but the protracted serial format robs Garland of his best trait, of knowing when to let the audience fill in the gaps on their own.
Cast: Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Alison Pill, Karl Glusman Network: FX
The 25 Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now
These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality.
Like Google, Netflix has evolved over two decades from a Silicon Valley venture to a legitimate verb in the cultural lexicon. Ten years after expanding from DVD-by-mail to streaming service, and four since debuting its first original series with House of Cards, Netflix all but dominates the online TV landscape. While competitors like Amazon Prime and Hulu certainly vie for our time with their own in-house programs, the sheer inundation of Netflix originals requires its very own examination. The animated seriocomic genius of BoJack Horseman, the tech horrors that Black Mirror situates on the near horizon, and the earnestness and dramatic sprawl of Sense8 are merely a few of the storytelling pleasures available to anyone with a WiFi connection and a (potentially borrowed) Netflix login. These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality. Nathan Frontiero
25. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson
Social discomfort leaks out of each and every sketch of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, as characters constantly double down, then triple down, then quadruple down on their inane schemes and insecurities. Throughout, already bizarre situations escalate to truly profound degrees of obstinance and delusion: denying responsibility for a crashed hot dog car while dressed in a hot dog costume, incessantly responding to a “honk if you’re horny” bumper sticker, vowing revenge on a magician who publicly humiliated you, attempting to assassinate baby bad boy Bart Harley Jarvis, and defiantly, inexplicably singing about the reanimation of some skeletons. The series reaches such dizzying, quotable absurdity that it seems to inhabit an abrasive and uncomfortable universe all its own. Steven Scaife
24. Luke Cage
The way Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero. Chris Cabin
23. Lady Dynamite
Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Elise Nakhnikian
22. The Crown
Once again, The Queen‘s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queen—and into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role. Nakhnikian
21. Seven Seconds
The dichotomy between Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and Latrice Butler (Regina King) and the police is rooted in privilege, and while Seven Seconds resists a systemic view of Jersey City’s racial landscape, it’s thorough in its outlining of the biases that affect the Butlers’ lives. And none is more insulting than the way Brenton, even in death, is denied the same benefit of the doubt that’s readily afforded to his killer. The series presents a sympathetic likeness of real-world victims of police brutality, but by eschewing a broad view of race relations in our nation, it risks affirming the ubiquitous “few bad apples” apologia that’s often put forward when police wrongdoing comes to light. Ultimately, though, the detailed character portrayals at the heart of Seven Seconds invest us into the Butlers’ search for justice, while poignantly illustrating that in the real world, that justice is rare. Haigis
Review: HBO’s The Plot Against America Offers a Flattened Take of a Prescient Novel
The series feels ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television.2.5
Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America imagines a world in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D. Roosevelt to become president of the United States in 1940. In the author’s terrifying alternate history, Lindbergh forges an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler in Iceland, and the Axis powers gradually take over the world while America celebrates its isolationism and economic robustness. And Roth adds to this high concept a meta-textual wrinkle: The narrator of the book is himself as a young boy, and the protagonists are the Roth family, whose names correspond with the author’s real relatives. The book, then, is an imagining not only of a global atrocity, but of the atrocity’s effect on the psychology of a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey that increasingly feels the threats of a country turning to fascism. The use of real names suggests that Roth is wrestling personally with the lingering emotional effects of his country’s not-so-hidden possibility for evil, memorably calling these emotions a “perpetual fear.”
The Plot Against America scans differently in 2020 than in 2004, now that Americans are familiar with the consequences of electing a famous person with fascist, purposefully divisive tendencies to the presidency. Roth’s prose, especially pertaining to how quickly an electorate rationalizes once-forbidden behavior, now feels eerily prescient—until one considers that rulers with fascistic tendencies often follow the same playbook. In HBO’s six-episode adaptation of Roth’s novel, showrunners David Simon and Ed Burns have occasional, wicked fun rhyming Lindbergh’s America with Trump’s. The characters here talk of what is “presidential,” and someone remarks of how the press repeatedly promotes Lindbergh’s signature publicity stunt, and no matter how many times he does it—a pointed reference to the gargantuan amount of free press that Trump continues to enjoy. The series’s ending also delivers a sick punch, referencing contemporary voter fraud and gerrymandering while denying the viewer the reassuring closure that Roth offered his readers.
In many fashions, however, Simon and Burns vastly simplify Roth’s vision. There’s a sense of casualness in the novel, a casualness that Simon and Burns conjured in The Wire, that’s missing from this production. Much of the book, written in a kind of oratorical style that’s characteristic of Roth’s work, is devoted to the quotidian of American life, especially from the perspective of American Jews. There are ritualistic celebrations of every element of day-to-day routine, from the buying of food, to the performance of chores, to the nightly listening to the radio, to strange sexual urges, to the tensions that arise when some family members are more successful than others. Above all, Roth celebrates America even as it succumbs to insanity, dramatizing the allure of actualization and improvement, bolstered by the sensuality of pop culture, which continues to be the nucleus of the American ideal. Such rituals often occur in the background of the limited series, but Simon and Burns are more concerned with narrative, and as a result they iron out many of Roth’s fascinating ambiguities and details. Roth created characters of many contradictions and particulars as well as a society of many procedural contours, while Simon and Burns move markers through a great tangle of plot developments.
This is no longer a story of the Roth family, as Simon and Burns have given them the surname Levins, and Lindbergh’s ascension is no longer framed as a haunted reminiscence. Philip (Azhy Robertson), the novel’s central consciousness, is now a cutely wide-eyed boy who observes much but says little. His father, Herman (Morgan Spector), is furious with Lindbergh’s rise, though the man’s fury is also linked to his struggles as a low-paid insurance man living in the shadow of his mercenary brother, Monty (David Krumholtz). Simon and Burns dial down Herman’s anger, positioning the father in hero poses, and his rivalry with Monty is referenced but minimized. Philip’s mother, Bess (Zoe Kazan), a source of great, powerful reverence for Roth in the book, is imbued by Kazan with masterful vulnerability, though the character’s great scene—a phone call that potentially saves a boy’s life—is intercut with other moments for the sake of an efficiently momentous climax. Philip’s cousin, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), a scoundrel turned patriot turned scoundrel again, is also sentimentalized into a more or less conventional hero, while the flirtation of Philip’s brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis), with Lindbergh worship—that is, a desire to live as a gentile or a “normal American”—is also reduced.
Two other pivotal characters are also flattened, further sanitizing Roth’s fury. The true villain of the novel isn’t Lindbergh, but Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a Jewish intellectual who allows himself to be used by the Lindbergh administration so as to “kosher” the president, giving Christians permission to vote for the candidate and indulge their anti-Semitism. Roth’s portrait of Bengelsdorf verges on a Dickensian caricature of opportunism, though in the series he appears to authentically believe in Lindbergh. This alteration renders him a poignant yet vaguely defined fool, as Simon and Burns have largely elided the character’s frustration and near-contempt for lower-class Jews—a thorny and resonant conceit that Roth acutely dramatized. Meanwhile, Bengelsdorf’s wife and Bess’s sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is sapped of the ugly shrewdness that she possessed on the page. (A brilliant scene in the novel, in which Philip feels stirrings of sexual desire as he hugs his aunt, while simultaneously understanding her to be a traitor, has been unforgivably jettisoned.)
The novel serves to explain why HBO’s The Plot Against America feels so ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television. Collectively, Simon and Burns’s alternations serve to contort the narrative into a story of good guys against bad guys, flattering our distanced 21st-century perspective and comfortably preaching to Americans who’re fed up with Trump’s cruelty and incompetency. Roth uncomfortably understands that for people who aren’t white male Christians, there can exist an either/or divide between “American” and whatever portion of their identity that’s easily vilified by the Lindberghs and Trumps of the world. The quest in Roth’s novel becomes a desire to unify Jewish with American, which leads to much internal turmoil in the community. By contrast, the series is more concerned with the quest to stop Lindbergh. The neurotic, hallucinatory, surreal power of Roth’s prose vanishes, and is replaced by forgettable televisual stylistics (that distinctly gauzy, over-produced period HBO atmosphere) and quite a bit of speechifying. Though Simon and Burns at least understand that the sleeper-cell hatred that Lindbergh unleashes is intensely real, and has been unlocked by another enterprising charlatan.
Cast: Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Anthony Boyle, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis, David Krumholtz, Ben Cole, Steven Maier, Michael Kostroff, Ed Moran, Graydon Yosowitz, Keilly McQuail, Lee Tergesen Network: HBO
Review: Little Fires Everywhere’s Study of Race and Class Is Doused in Melodrama
The show’s strength lies in the rich context that surrounds its occasionally melodramatic conflicts.2.5
The Shaker Heights of Little Fires Everywhere is the sort of suburban hamlet that requires homes to keep their grass below six inches. Its duplexes are even designed to disguise themselves as single-family homes, as upstairs and downstairs entrances are quietly consolidated behind a single outward door in order to, as Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) explains to artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), “avoid any stigma of renting.” But Elena’s own unacknowledged prejudices—against people of color and the lower “class”—are matched only by her white guilt. She recognizes Mia’s dirty hatchback as the one she reported to authorities earlier that day after noticing someone who appeared to be sleeping in it. So Elena rents one side of her duplex to Mia, and from there, everything changes.
The biggest change, of course, is the mysterious fire that consumes the separate, much-larger Richardson residence in the flash-forward scene that opens the first episode. But much of the Hulu series, based on Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name, covers the various smaller changes in the leadup to the fire. For example, Mia’s daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), falls in with the Richardson kids, enchanted by their comparative lux lifestyle. Until settling in Shaker Heights, Mia and Pearl lived a transient lifestyle, with Mia taking odd jobs like waitressing to supplement sales of her art. Pearl has never, until now, even had a room of her own.
Mia is thus confronted with the byproduct of her hectic lifestyle, where Pearl has been left lonely and quite susceptible to the Richardsons’ glamorous upper-class privilege. She grows wary of the family that so enraptures her daughter, though she also takes a shine to Elena’s youngest child, Izzy, (Megan Stott), a rebellious and artsy kindred spirit. The tensions between these characters—along lines of class, race, and wherever they intersect—simmer and eventually boil over, landing the families on opposing sides of a legal battle that only tangentially concerns them. Bebe (Huang Lu), Mia’s co-worker and an illegal Chinese immigrant, fights for custody of the daughter she once abandoned with a white family, the McCulloughs, who are friends of the Richardsons and eager to adopt.
The show’s strength lies in the rich context that surrounds these occasionally melodramatic conflicts, rendering Mia in particular with vivid detail. In its best moments, Little Fires Everywhere resists drawing clear lines between who’s right and who’s wrong: Mia’s reservations about the Richardsons are totally justifiable, though her reactions sometimes feel overprotective, like when she takes a job in the Richardson house primarily to keep an eye on Pearl. She can be cold and even cruel, but she’s also given to a quiet kindness toward Izzy and Bebe due to a sense of solidarity. Far from some angelic portrait of the lower class, Mia is a fascinating, complex character, and Washington modulates her stoicism with no small amount of disdain, anger, and apprehension.
The series, however, too often paints with a broad brush, particularly where the Richardsons are concerned. Fleeting anecdotes tossed off in the novel by an omniscient narrator to shade in the characters’ backstories feel goofy and extraneous when depicted here via full-fledged, fleshed-out scenes, like when Izzy refuses to play a concert and writes “NOT YOUR PUPPET” on her forehead. Elena’s tidiness is meant to signify her upper-class privilege; she has more than enough means to micromanage every facet of her life. When she does things like strictly schedule sex with her husband (Joshua Jackson), though, the series ventures into caricature.
For however much Elena’s own habits are clearly tinged with privilege and solipsism, she provides refuge for Pearl and the McCulloughs in a way that doesn’t seem entirely self-serving. Yet some of those nuances dissipate as the custody battle consumes the series. Though Bebe and the McCulloughs initially feel like pawns in the larger Warren/Richardson feud, the conflict eventually flattens into a more rigid portrait of right and wrong as the script reveals Elena and Mia’s backstories and motivations. Little Fires Everywhere never quite resists the occasional hokey flourish either, from sappy dream sequences visualizing Mia’s fears to the various on-the-nose cover songs that conclude each episode. The series never loses sight of its fraught interplay of race and class, but the initial intensity with which it explores those subjects dims as melodramatic coincidences and speeches accumulate.
Cast: Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, Joshua Jackson, Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, Jade Pettyjohn, Gavin Lewis, Jordan Elsass, Huang Lu, Rosemarie DeWitt Network: Hulu
Review: Breeders Finds Catharsis Amid the Agony of Parenthood
The lighting-strike chemistry of the show’s central couple fuels its exploration of parenthood’s highs and lows.3.5
Throughout FX’s Breeders, golden-hued flashbacks contrast the idyllic past of Paul (Martin Freeman) and Ally (Daisy Haggard) with the couple’s present, an epoch marked by the din of their sweet, utterly exhausting children: seven-year-old Luke (George Wakeman) and four-year-old Ava (Jayda Eyles). Paul and Ally used to wake up with giddy energy, eager to call out of work in order to stay in bed together. Now they start the day defeated, having barely rested after soothing Luke’s nighttime fears of being burned or burgled to death. Which is to say that, for Paul and Ally, parenthood has meant giving up a great deal of things—not just sleep, but also romance, liberty, and impulsivity, to name a few.
The series, co-created by Simon Blackwell, Chris Addison, and Freeman, primarily deals in dark comedy, with much of its humor stemming from Paul’s often vitriolic parenting style. Where Ally is cool and lighthearted, Paul suffers from an especially quick temper: When the kids are too loud for too long, he shouts at them with riotous zeal that he instantly regrets. Paul’s outbursts are hilarious and relatively rare. More common are his equally funny, gentler rejoinders to the kids. Freeman skips the beats that usually separate stimuli and responses, making each yell and hiss feel particularly authentic and acerbic—like when Luke asks to go home while Ally sobs at a deceased pet’s burial, and Paul urges him to “sense the tone.”
Paul’s and Ally’s behavior is contextualized by the presence of their own parents, who weave in and out of the show’s episodes. Ally, for one, both channels and rejects the parenting methods of her itinerant father, Michael (Michael McKean), who was absent in her youth but whose beatnik chill we recognize in her calm and unwavering devotion to her children. Elsewhere, Paul’s parents—the endearingly foul-mouthed Jackie (Joanna Bacon) and Jim (Alun Armstrong)—are regular springboards for his ruminations on life. In conversations with them, he wonders if the elementary school he went to led to his uninspiring career and if his father’s approach to discipline inescapably shaped his own.
The latter line of thought comes to a head when a doctor expresses her concern about Luke’s oddly frequent accidents (he fell down the stairs this time), forcing Paul to face the possibility that he’s abusive. Paul’s resultant introspection misses the mark by a bit: Instead of reconsidering his verbal tirades, he ponders whether he could be hurting his kids by subconsciously creating an environment rife with potential slips and trips and batterings. The series takes this sequence seriously, and initiates a compelling tonal shift from grim humor to pensive reflections on trauma and psychology. Though Paul and Ally face the risk of governmental intervention in their family, the predicament does little to change Paul’s parenting—an acknowledgment of the near impossibility of change, or of the way that one’s upbringing can permanently shape one’s inner circuitry.
With the abuse arc and other storylines, the series grows increasingly capacious over the five episodes made available to press. It moves from the clamorous frenzy of its opening scene—in which Paul goes on one of his most extreme and delightful screamologues—to more tender examinations of characters and relationships. Flashbacks begin to not only explore the myriad repercussions of childbirth, but also touch on quotidian interactions between Paul and Ally, and between each of them and their parents—the exact kinds of unexceptional moments in life that tend to linger when one’s memory stretches years into the past. In addition to lending a striking layer of poignancy to the series, these flashbacks add nuance to Paul’s and Ally’s inner lives. Despite Paul’s apparent lack of growth, he truly does try to be better, and despite Ally’s nonchalance, she does have fears and regrets and hang-ups.
This fleshing-out is crucial given Paul and Ally’s place at the core of Breeders. Their relationship is the show’s unifying thread, cutting through time and tone. The audience observes the couple in multiple phases and modes: blissful courtship, childbirth, acute grief, grief-induced horniness. Haggard and Freeman’s lightning-strike chemistry fuels their supersonic banter and warm, softer exchanges. Perhaps most charming are the instances in which Ally teases Paul, homing in on a deep and undeniable flaw, and Paul smiles in full recognition of how right she is, then and always. Such moments are reminders that these two could never really hurt each other—not even by damning themselves to parenthood.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Daisy Haggard, Michael McKean, Joanna Bacon, Alun Armstrong, Stella Gonet, George Wakeman, Jayda Eyles, Patrick Baladi, Tim Steed Network: FX
Review: The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez Stokes Outrage but Fits a Predictable Mold
The Netflix miniseries suggests a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page.2
Netflix’s The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez will stoke your outrage, and it should. The six-part limited series provides what feels like an expansive primer on one of the most horrific child abuse cases in the history of the United States, and there’s a sense that it wants to fill in gaps for those who might have been swept up by some other outrage shortly after eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez’s death made national news in 2013, or just weren’t privy to the ins and outs of the case as reported by Los Angeles news outlets.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez suggests, like the recent Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page about an infamous case, though it arguably goes further by indicting the faceless systemic forces that aligned in cruel harmony to crush a human life. At one point, the series even delves into the 2018 abuse case of Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old Lancaster boy who was also tortured to death by his mother and boyfriend, to get at how the cracks in the child protective services system that cost Gabriel his life in nearby Palmdale were barely patched up in the five years following his death.
Gabriel died on May 24, 2013 after years of torture and abuse at the hands of his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. As detailed by various individuals, including Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, Pearl and Aguirre starved Gabriel, fed him cat litter, shot him with a B.B. gun, and burned him with cigarettes all over his body. They even bound and gagged him in a cubby. The series isn’t shy about providing us with photo evidence of that horrifying abuse, and it spends much time simply sitting with people and those photos, trying to fathom how a parent could do such things to a child. In one episode, Hatami opens up at length about his own abuse at the hands of his father, and in the moment, the prosecutor’s outrage in the courtroom is tinged with a wrenching melancholy, as if he’s fighting on behalf of a pain that he only recently came to understand.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is at its strongest in such periods of reflection, when it’s trying to understand that which would appear to defy understanding. It lingers on the visible pain of those who came into Gabriel’s orbit, in life and in death, from those who tried to give him a chance at a happy life before he was placed in his mother’s care, to those who tried to report to police and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) that he was being abused, to those who wanted justice for his torture and murder. Impressively, too, it makes space for interviews with a character witness who testified on Aguirre’s behalf and several jurors in his case, including the man who couldn’t initially bring himself to sentence Aguirre to death. The series has us grapple with questions of justice and morality, and there comes a point in the final episode where calling Aguirre “evil” feels as if it has no meaning given that the word can just as easily be applied to so many who turned their backs to Gabriel’s abuse.
Throughout The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, you will know how responsible some of those individuals probably feel for the little boy’s death simply by their not having given interviews to the filmmakers. But those aren’t the only elisions here, and some aren’t so easy to rationalize. For one, the series never really gives a particularly concrete sense of who Aguirre was before he met Pearl, and after a while it feels as if the only systemic issues it cares to confront are those that prevented police and DCFS from properly responding to reports of Gabriel’s abuse. Though it mounts a strong case for why the boy and not his two older siblings were targets of their parents’ abuse, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez doesn’t contend with the systemic social contexts that made Aguirre and Pearl’s violence an inevitability. And had it done so, the series might have reached the magisterial heights of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, which found new ground on the oft-reported case of O.J. Simpson by framing the fallen star’s life against the violence of L.A. and the ideals of a nation, its moral rot.
During Aguirre’s trial, Hatami argued that the man not only liked what he did to Gabriel, but that he did so because he perceived the boy to be gay, though the series tells the story of that perception in half-shades. From birth, Gabriel was raised for several years by his gay great-uncle, Michael Lemos Carranza, and his boyfriend, David Martinez, so we can intuit that the boy’s torture was at least in part an attempt at a correction. While Gabriel was in Pearl’s custody, someone reported that Michael molested the child, and it’s an allegation that journalist Melissa Chadburn states hasn’t been confirmed nor disproven. There’s a sense that no one in Gabriel’s family who had his best interests at heart seem to believe the allegation to be true, and while the series attests to the kindness Michael and David showed Gabriel, it does conspicuously glance past discussion of this matter, as well as the methods, legal and otherwise, by which the boy was able to land and remain in their care for so long.
Nor is mention made of Michael and David’s advocacy work as part of Gabriel’s Justice, or that Michael died of cancer in 2014. In San Salvador, the filmmakers interview an agonized David about what happened to Gabriel, and you may be frustrated by the missed opportunity to explore why and how David came to be deported by ICE and connect that to the other systemic forces of race and class that contributed to Gabriel’s death. There are times throughout the series where it’s difficult to tell if a story—like the one about Gabriel’s first-grade teacher posing with a noose alongside three other teachers—was swept under the rug because the filmmakers simply didn’t know how to incorporate it into the series or because it might have undermined the dominant narrative they’re seeking to put forth.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, though, does find time for the sort of aesthetic bells and whistles that have become de rigueur for projects such as this since The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, whose lurid reenactments could at least be justified because Andrew Jarecki’s entire project was to ascertain the exact nature of Durst’s crimes. But the uncomfortably ominous reenactments of this series—by and large suturing devices between interviews and courtroom footage—do nothing to enhance our understanding of the Gabriel Fernandez case. At times, they even work against what we already do know, such as the sight of the actor who plays Aguirre mostly from the neck down quaking in his cell with the sort of fear that’s never evident in Aguirre’s body as he sits still and silent in court.
But that’s nothing compared to the tactlessness of the show’s title sequence, which heavy-handedly literalizes the idea that Gabriel “fell through the cracks” before ending dramatically, distastefully with the sight of the cubby where he was imprisoned by his torturers. In such moments, when it’s trying to summon an aura of mystery—that there’s something here that’s waiting to be cracked open, something to be solved—it’s as if the desire of The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez to entertain, to ensure that we are as spellbound as possible by yet another example of the atrocities that humans are capable of, is greater than any need to inform and educate.