If the United States makes it easy to follow a certain path to some form of success, it also makes it a little too easy for someone to get lost. “Down,” written by Sam Catlin and directed by John Dahl, is evenly split between two deliberately paced stories that converge at the end. In one, a man tries to reconcile with his wife after his secrets and lies take their toll on his marriage. In the other, the man’s partner in crime confronts the fact that he’s being cast out of the place he’s been staying and he doesn’t really have a backup plan. Like last year’s much-acclaimed film Wendy and Lucy, his descent into some American underbelly becomes a story about just how easy it is to blip off the map, to find yourself completely and utterly gone.
“Down” is the first episode of Breaking Bad’s second season to not spend significant amounts of time following the investigation into the Albuquerque drug trade. The show already feels fairly methodically paced but removing that cat-and-mouse aspect of the show’s template makes it feel even slower, in a way. For those of us who love how the show gets into the claustrophobic psychologies of its characters, it was yet another highlight in a second season that’s improved on the abbreviated first season in almost every way, but for those who think the show is just a molasses-like soup of depressing moments, it must have been well-nigh unbearable.
Our A-plot, as always, has to do with the beleaguered and backsliding Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who’s trying his best to put the events of the season’s first three episodes, when he found himself abducted by violent drug dealer Tuco (Raymond Cruz) and trying to cook up an alibi to cover for his disappearance during same, behind him. He’s trying, as if nothing happened, to go back to being the good family man he was before his cancer diagnosis, cooking up a full breakfast for his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and his son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte); taking Walter Jr. out for driving lessons; and apologizing for just how strange he’s seemed lately to Skyler. All of this might have worked to smooth the waters over somewhat, but Walter has a tendency to overcompensate, offering up an elaborate excuse for why he has a second cellphone that’s so clearly a lie that Skyler just walks out on him mid-explanation and takes off for the day with no real announcement of where she’s going. (At episode’s end, she even goes out for a cigarette despite being pregnant. A woman in a neighboring car gives her a judgmental glare as she is about to light up, and you can see Skyler almost not indulge, but she finally just needs her own tiny rebellion and she lets out a big mouthful of smoke. In some ways, Skyler is as trapped as Jesse, whom we’ll get to in a moment.)
Walter’s attempts to provide for his family via his meth production would break up his little unit if anyone found out (though he always seems to be on the verge of telling Skyler), but they’re already doing a pretty good job of that in advance. Because he has this secret he’s keeping from his family, he’s unable to really level with Skyler in a way that might bring her back into the loving partnership he clearly misses, and because he’s spending so much time off with his new business venture, he’s also missing lots of what’s going on at home, including his son’s new nickname, Flynn, and much of what his wife has been up to. Neither Gunn nor Mitte has gotten a lot to do this season so far, but both are wonderful here, showing Walter just how they’re moving on from both his diagnosis and him, how much they miss him but also how much they just want him to stop giving them reasons to be suspicious of him. Maybe Walter could get out of the meth game since Tuco’s gone and there’s probably not enough evidence out there to tie him to the city’s drug trade, but the missing weeks when he was seemingly losing his mind would always come between him and his family, and he could never offer an adequate explanation to them as to what, exactly, he was up to in that missing time. Walter seems chipper enough in this episode to make me wonder if he’s not seeing some success from the treatment he entered last season, to the point where perhaps he’d enter remission, even as he really had no way to get out of the world of the drug trade. “There’s the easy way, and then there’s the right way,” Walter says when he’s trying to teach his son to drive and not use both feet on the pedals. Walter’s tragedy is that he too often confuses the two for each other.
There’s a marvelous little bit of editing early in the episode where Walter is preparing omelets for his family, still trying to win his way back into their good graces. Walter Jr.’s friend comes over to take him out to teach him how to drive, and Skyler is going out, so neither will be there to eat the omelets. His frustration growing, Walter answers the ringing phone to hear Jesse (Aaron Paul), his partner, on the other end. He attempts to lie his way out of the phone call, since Skyler’s there, but she seems on to his game, and, even if she wasn’t, the fact that the phone starts ringing again just as quickly as Walter hangs it up would surely tip her off. Jesse’s being tossed out of his aunt’s house, the place where he was able to find a sort of safe haven and set up a rudimentary cooking lab and also the place where he had some memories of an aunt who seemed concerned for his well-being when most of the rest of his family did not. As he attempts to convey the seriousness of his situation to Walt, he keeps getting rebuffed by the other man, who’s far more concerned with saving his family life for appearances and for staying low just long enough to get the investigation of what happened to Tuco to calm down. The sequence cuts from Walter watching his family wander off in all different directions and growing increasingly angry, even throwing out the freshly prepared omelets in a fit of frustration, and Jesse, calling Walter over and over to try to figure out some way out of his predicament and turning to the only person he knows he can trust. The editing grows more and more frenzied (unusual for this show), almost seeming like an action sequence, until the final cut, when Jesse slams down the phone after one last hang-up from Walt and the movers emptying his aunt’s home snatch it up just as quickly as he can set it down. He throws the ice trays from her fridge, the last remaining vestiges of the place as it was, after them as they go, but the damage is done. He has no place to go.
It’s the Jesse story that really drives this episode, even if the episode spends more time following Walt’s attempts to patch up his family. We’ve met Jesse’s parents a few times in the past, but here, we see them trying to get their son to fly straight again by kicking him out of the house after his mother found his lab in the basement. But it’s also clear that they’ve long since lost track of their son, that they don’t really know who he is anymore. They clearly have dreams for him (of data entry positions, if last week’s episode is any indication), and they’re also clearly tired of him putting them off with lies (as he tries to do again in this episode by telling his mom he’s looking into business school). It certainly doesn’t help that Jesse’s essentially a grade-A screw-up. His mind, addled too often by drugs, is never quite able to keep up. He’s got some street smarts, clearly, to have gotten by this long, but he’s also unable to make the $600 Walt loans him last for any real amount of time. There’s a moment late in the episode when Jesse tackles Walt and chokes him, raising his fist in anger to punch him, and it seems almost as if he’s striking back at everyone in his life keeping him on the bottom rungs of society, turning on the one last ally he has left. But he blinks and lives to fight another day.
It’s hard to blame Jesse for lashing out like that. His tackling of Walter came after the older man laid into him with a verbal tongue-lashing that was meaner than anything his parents or friends could have said to him but managed to externalize almost everything Jesse must feel they think about him anyway. Walter questioning just what Jesse DOES to help him in his burgeoning drug empire certainly must have stung as well. It was also the final indignity in a long string of indignities that led Jesse to that point. Among other things, the guy saw his bike and all of his worldly possessions stolen, couldn’t find a place to sleep, couldn’t get Walt to talk to him and broke into the impound lot where the mobile cook lab RV was being kept only to find himself falling into a PortaPotty and getting covered in the chemicals from the thing, his skin winding up blue. (Walter asking, in disbelief, “Why are you blue?” was a comic highlight in a very, very grim episode.)
Breaking Bad always has money concerns at its heart. Walter just needs to make enough money, he thinks, to keep his wife, son and unborn child safe and cared for after he dies. Jesse spends most of this episode just trying to find a way to keep his head above water, to have a place to sleep, to not completely disappear, and he decides the way to do that is to get half of Walter’s money, after his half of the drug sales was confiscated from his car in the wake of the Tuco shooting. Walter’s right that the money is technically his and that Jesse just lost his half through his own incompetence, but he’s also missing that Jesse is in dire straits and that he should be helping the kid who’s helped him so much. (It’s sort of telling that when Walter splits up the cash bundles finally at the end of the episode, he has an odd number and gives the extra cash bundle to himself.) It’s probably the right thing to do, but it’s certainly not the easy thing to do.
Centering the episode on Jesse’s dire financial straits really drove home just how easy it is for someone like him to fall off the map. Ideally, we hope, someone like Jesse will have friends or family who will care enough to reach out and pull him to shore, but Jesse’s parents seem to have long since given up on him, and Jesse’s friends (represented here by a former bandmate, who has moved on to a fairly typical mid-20s life, complete with house, wife and toddler) are just too far removed from his current situation to really understand just how far their friend has fallen. The show presents these both as ways that Jesse is able to slip off the radar of the world at large but also as admonishments that Jesse hasn’t quite made as much of his life as he might have. We don’t see that Jesse’s friend is significantly different from him. He just managed to pull his life together, while Jesse did not. Jesse has too much faith in being able to skate by at any given moment, and when that lets him down, he puts on a gas mask and collapses in tears.
In a way, Jesse’s downward spiral starts to feel inevitable after a while. He laid the seeds for this a long time ago, and now they’re just paying off. We may feel for him, but there’s also really no way it wouldn’t have played out this way. Inevitability just might be Breaking Bad’s major theme. It’s there in the way Walter’s choice to turn to crime has played out with him getting sucked in further and further. It’s there in the fact that Walter’s death lurks around every corner. It’s there in the idea that Walter is going to have to break with his family and already has begun that process. And it’s there, lurking, in every flash-forward we see at the start of these episodes, tantalizingly offering hints of what is to come down the road. We see, tonight, Walter’s glasses among the pieces of evidence at the crime scene with the floating teddy bear, and we know that, inevitably, there’s only one way this can end for Walt.
Some other thoughts:
• I love the way the writers on Breaking Bad give Jesse things to say that make sense on one level but make no real sense on the level of having all of the words fit together into coherent English. Having him call Walter Daddy Warbucks and then refer to his problems as “testicular” was another humorous highlight of the grim episode.
• I’m starting to wonder just how long the show can play out the very deliberately paced dissolution of Walt and Skyler’s marriage. I’ve been pleased with their slowly escalating fights so far, but how many times can they play out the same argument in roughly the same way? I guess we’ll find out.
• I just now found out from some other Internet comments board that AMC is developing the fun novel Carter Beats the Devil as a series. I’m not sure how it would BE a series, but it’s a novel that deserves a good adaptation, and AMC’s about as good a place to try it as any.
• In other network news, I’m amused that Showtime is now just selling the trying-too-hard bodice ripper The Tudors with lots of blood and a shot of bare breasts in the commercials. It’s almost as if they’re just giving up and saying, “Listen, we know why you watch, and none of us has to be ashamed about it.”
• I traveled quite a bit in New Mexico last fall, and Breaking Bad really nails the atmosphere of the place, which often feels like some weird outpost on the very edge of civilization. The scenes at the gas station felt very of a piece with the state. I’m not sure if the show films on location in Albuquerque (it feels like it does, but I’m often wrong about these things), but it’s doing a very good job of approximating it if not. And Walter cooking with chiles made me hungry for the Bobcat Bite of Santa Fe.
• I think I’ve announced this in every other recap I’ve done, but for the two of you who read my Breaking Bad pieces and nothing else, I’m on Twitter now.
• Loved the little montage of shots of Jesse’s aunt’s belongings still haunting her house. It really gave you a good sense of a woman long since departed.
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Review: Netflix’s Space Force Is a Toothless Satire of Political Ineptitude
The series informs sitcom hijinks with a bit of political tension, but the punchlines are diluted for the sake of likability.2
It’s distracting when a TV series or film pivots on conflicts between politicians whose party affiliation somehow goes unspecified. The motivation behind this vagueness is obvious, as showrunners and filmmakers don’t wish to mire their stories with specifically right- or left-wing baggage, especially in these hyper-partisan times. Greg Daniels and Steve Carell’s Space Force suffers from a similar malady. The Netflix comedy imagines the realization of President Donald Trump’s oft-mocked plan for a sixth branch of the U.S. military, to which over $700 billion has already been allotted. Yet Trump is never explicitly mentioned, referenced by the characters only as POTUS, and his whims are so consciously bland that one wonders if another president has been elected within this show’s world.
The showrunners’ skittishness over the heated subject of Trump is best embodied by a number of gags in which the commander in chief texts Mark R. Naird (Carell), the four-star general newly appointed to lead Space Force’s development. The texts are curt and macho, but they sound like regular sports coach-speak, which is to say that they’re too coherent to suggest the way Trump actually writes or talks—at least in public. If the show’s writers had the daring to imply that Trump’s garbled mixture of slogans and defamation was a public stunt designed to inflame his base, they might have fashioned a resonant recurring joke.
Space Force’s premise, in which a country that’s been in perpetual war for decades develops a blood lust so great it must try to conquer space, boasts a certain Dr. Strangelove-esque potential. Rather than tap into that potential, Space Force proceeds as one of those Daniels/Carell shows, like The Office, where Carell’s blowhard is revealed to be a nice guy underneath. It took The Office a while to lose its teeth and become a perpetual meme and cuddle-fest, while Space Force goes soft within just a few episodes before limping to an embarrassingly inspirational family reunion finale. Daniels and Carell have little interest in the Space Force as a concept; for them, it’s a backdrop for a special effects-driven workplace sitcom, replete with supporting characters who embody the usual sitcom stereotypes.
In Space Force, even potentially scathing punchlines are diluted for the sake of palatability. For instance, a congresswoman, Bryce Bachelor (Tamiko Brownlee), obviously meant to resemble Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions Naird about Space Force’s ballooning budget. Like Trump, Naird (initially) shows contempt for research and has done no preparation for this hearing, spiraling off into amusingly ludicrous grandstanding that the congresswoman, astonishingly, just accepts. In such moments, the series wants it both ways: offering lightweight jokes for liberals while essentially validating the Trump playbook of bluffing minute by minute with Naird’s unexpected victory, though the character’s bluster does lead to one prolonged, uproarious sequence involving a chimpanzee astronaut.
Political confrontation is also superficially offered up via Naird’s duels with the chief scientist of Space Force, Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), who derides America’s hard-on for the military and contempt for intellectual reason. Malkovich, who’s accorded the show’s most confrontationally partisan dialogue, gives an elegant, thorny performance that’s gradually compromised by the plotting, as Naird and Mallory will, of course, bond, and Naird will learn the errors of his reactionary ways, embracing reason over violent confrontation. In another example of pandering wishy-washiness, the series eventually goes out of its way to celebrate Space Force, un-ironically, after spending so much time mocking it.
Similarly, Carell is so uncertain in this role that he can’t even settle on a voice. Early on, Naird talks in a gruff military-man fashion that suggests George C. Scott’s general in Dr. Strangelove. Otherwise, Naird is just sweet old Steve Carell, though sometimes his voice changes within a scene, suggesting that this device might be an intentional joke. The character, like Mallory, also suffers from increasingly random storylines that strive to humanize Naird in clichéd terms. For some reason, he has a wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), who goes to prison so that Space Force may offer callbacks to the opening season of Netflix’s own Orange Is the New Black.
Space Force renders the architects of our world’s destabilization, like Trump, his enablers, and military hawks, into lovably misguided dads—a common entertainment trope. In 30 Rock, a conservative billionaire gradually became besties with a liberal TV producer, allowing her to feel better about distracting America with pop-cultural detritus. In The Office, the initially moving misery of a group of corporate drones was steadily dialed down for the sake of feel-good sentimentality, as a once-contemptible manager became a poignant goof. Even in an ostensibly edgier film like War Machine, a general’s atrocities are downplayed for the sake of easy caricature. These entertainments suggest that the unmooring turmoil of modern life isn’t so bad, giving us an excuse to write off our blossoming dystopia with a semi-amused “eh.” An act of satirical heartlessness would be more compassionate than fortune-cookie uplift.
Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Tawny Newsome, Ben Schwartz, Diana Silvers, Jessica St. Clair, Fred Willard, Don Lake, Noah Emmerich, Lisa Kudrow, Owen Daniels, Alex Sparrow, Jimmy O. Yang Network: Netflix
Review: Hulu’s The Great Revises History with Riotous Irreverence
The series takes on Catherine the Great with off-kilter comedy and startling poignancy.3.5
Tony McNamara’s alternately riotous and poignant Hulu miniseries The Great begins with the future Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) leaving Austria for Russia to marry the country’s emperor, Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine wants to bring the Enlightenment to her new home—to abolish serfdom, proliferate literacy, and embrace art and science—but Peter is a doltish man-child more interested in philandering than leading. His governing style is self-serving and myopic; for one, he refuses to pull Russia out of its disastrous war with Sweden, as he’s desperate for a victory akin to those of his late father, Peter the Great. What little progress the young Catherine makes in reforming Peter is fleeting, and because she’s confident that she’s destined to save Russia, she plans a coup.
Like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, which McNamara co-wrote and features Hoult in a supporting role as a sycophantic politician, the series rejects the commitment to historical fact that burdens many period pieces. Catherine channels the empress’s ambition and relatively liberal bent, but the characters around her are composites and fabrications; Peter, for instance, is only loosely based on Peter III, and provides a vehicle for Hoult’s unnerving blend of youthful earnestness and wanton cruelty. This historical freewheeling feeds into The Great’s broader irreverence, which comes through in every jarringly crass line coated in period-drama affect—like when Peter tells Catherine, over a meal, that he’s set on producing an heir. “I’d do it now, but I just blew my bag on Madame Dimov,” he says, causing Catherine to nearly choke on her food. “My God,” she says, “a phrase I have never heard.”
The delectably off-kilter dialogue highlights Catherine’s alienation. She first arrives to court a naïve idealist, prim and proper, but as she develops into a skilled politician, she demonstrates growing comfort navigating the crudeness surrounding her. She eventually attempts to win over Grigor (Gwilym Lee), Peter’s best friend, who can’t stand the emperor’s dalliance with his wife, Georgina (Charity Wakefield). “He eats fruits various from your wife’s cunt on a daily basis,” Catherine says to Grigor, egging him on. Grigor’s eyes bulge and his jaw clenches. It’s an almost revelatory moment for Catherine in her quest to wield a less bloody sort of power.
Catherine’s co-conspirators initially consist of Marial (Phoebe Fox), her maid, who hatches the scheme; Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), an influential but meek bureaucrat in Peter’s inner circle; and Leo (Sebastian de Souza), the compassionate and winsome lover gifted to Catherine by Peter in accordance with the court’s libertine ethos. These characters contextualize Catherine’s idealism and innocence. Where she’s eager to take the throne and launch her virtuous reign, they recognize that deposing an emperor is slow and messy business.
One of the central elements of Catherine’s political education is figuring out how to seize power as a woman in a thoroughly misogynistic environment, one filled with oafs such as the frequently drunk General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), who’d rather try to seduce Catherine than hear about her ambitions. Catherine and Marial commiserate about the sexism they face, but their discussions expose Catherine’s ignorance of how class difference shapes their distinct experiences. These interactions subtly and effectively cast doubt on Catherine’s claims of readiness by showing that her lofty goals of egalitarianism are far clearer to her than the nuts and bolts of classism, let alone the complexities of ruling an empire.
Catherine’s blind spots come to a head when she addresses a room full of powerful men at a time of profound uncertainty. It’s a crucial opportunity to win their respect, but she flounders: Her instincts are off, she knows nothing of Russia, and the men spurn her. Fanning deftly embodies Catherine’s distress as the character’s sense of self shatters, her breaths turning into gasps and her dreams of leading Russia slipping through her anxiously fidgeting hands.
Catherine’s true exemplar at court is Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), Peter’s bohemian aunt, who largely shares her progressive politics. Elizabeth is totally unconcerned with what others think about her, and while her boldness can feel unremarkable given the cushy position she occupies at court, it’s marvelous to witness. She airs her perspective most compellingly in scenes with “Archie” the Archbishop (Adam Godley), who represents the church and abhors Catherine’s humanism. The pair are two of the The Great’s sharpest minds, and their absorbing conversations spill tantalizingly into blasphemy and treason, as when Archie floats the possibility of Elizabeth replacing her nephew on the throne.
As for Peter, he tries to better himself under Catherine’s influence—unbanning the printing press, holding art and science fairs—and he shows signs of sweetness, but nothing sticks. The series elucidates his behavior with sympathetic reflections on his inner workings. Peter lives in the shadow of his late parents, suffocated by his father’s outsized legacy and scarred by his mother’s disdain. In one of The Great’s most stirring moments, a shot of Catherine and Leo kissing by firelight cuts to a dark room and pans to reveal Peter curled up on a statue of his father. Such sequences stop short of excusing Peter’s vileness, but they do render his arrested development more tragic than laughable. They also make the tension nestled in the series’s title increasingly plain: Great is both what Catherine will become and what Peter will never be.
Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Sebastian De Souza, Sacha Dhawan, Phoebe Fox, Adam Godley, Belinda Bromilow, Douglas Hodge, Gwilym Lee, Charity Wakefield, Bayo Gbadamosi, Louis Hynes Network: Hulu
Review: HBO’s I Know This Much Is True Is an Unrelenting Catalog of Tragedy
The limited series is a carnival of horrors weighed down by moralizing, hysteria, and cross-associations.1.5
Based on Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel of the same name, Derek Cianfrance’s I Know This Much Is True offers an unrelenting carnival of horrors. Throughout the limited series’s six episodes, there are instances of rape, child abuse, death, self-mutilation, suicide, several brutal accidents, even allusions to a family curse. At a certain point, those new to Lamb’s story may anticipate intimations of incest, as that’s about the only shock left for Cianfrance to spring on us—and the subject is eventually toyed with, if ultimately abandoned, in a deeply expendable subplot. If Cianfrance had approached this convoluted narrative as the pulp that it truly is, in the key of, say, Ryan Murphy, the series might’ve emitted a disreputable spark. Unfortunately, I Know This Much Is True is supposed to be “about” something, and so the outlandishness is weighed down by moralizing and fancy cross-associations.
Set primarily in a small Connecticut town in the early 1990s, with flashbacks that span from the 1800s to the 1980s, I Know This Much Is True vaguely parallels a family’s legacy of misery with America’s launching of the Gulf War. President George Bush is seen frequently on televisions in various backgrounds, as are vintage MTV music videos, which Cianfrance will occasionally emphasize to enhance the series’s pervading anti-nostalgic mood, especially in the numerous depictions of people arguing and couples breaking up and storming out on one another. Our narrator and tour guide is Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo), an aspiring writer who never left town because of his unstable and dependent twin brother, Thomas (also Ruffalo), who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic as a young adult. Dominick describes his brother as an “anchor,” but it’s evident early on that he loves playing the role of savior as a way of evading his responsibility for the general disappointment of his adult life.
In the series’s ‘90s-era thread, Thomas becomes convinced that he must make a blood sacrifice to end the Gulf War, and he does something shocking that lands him in a high-security mental health hospital. This appears to be a rational decision on the part of the facility’s board, as Thomas is clearly mentally ill, though Dominick is determined to get his brother returned to a low-security hospital. Cianfrance squanders the wrenching potential in this conflict with macho sentimentality. If we were allowed to understand that Dominick’s quest for Thomas is vain and dangerous, rooted in his guilt-ridden hero complex, then we might have been pulled in recognizably contradictory emotional directions, empathizing with both brothers while fearing Dominick’s recklessness. However, this emotional response is only inadvertently triggered, as we’re supposed to see Dominick as trashing his own life to defend his brother against the Man. And in a shameless twist, Dominick’s ire with the new hospital is validated.
Cianfrance is less interested in mining the nuances of mental illness than in wallowing in existential male angst, as he did in films like Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. In much of his work, Cianfrance appears to be trying to conjure the mood that might arise if one listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run while watching a production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. Like those artists, Cianfrance is fixated on the idea of the ever-tormented working-class male representing the heart of the American psyche, but Springsteen and Shepard offered poetry and, in Springsteen’s case, humor and authentic rapture. By contrast, Cianfrance lingers on misery as a signpost of his integrity. The many flashbacks in I Know This Much Is True, involving Dominick and Thomas at various ages (as well as other family members), assert the same point over and over: that this family hurts itself, dashing every moment of hopefulness. (In fairness, the flashbacks are filtered through Dominick’s embittered sensibility, though their validity is generally meant to be taken at face value.)
Other long portions of I Know This Much Is True abound in shaky close-ups of Dominick’s face as he rants against largely caring family members and professionals who’re simply trying to help him. Disturbed individuals like him are certainly capable of irrationally lashing out at their loved ones, but that’s the only quality of such interactions that Cianfrance seems to recognize, and over a several-hour period these sequences come to embody a form of sensory deprivation, which is compounded by the filmmaker’s general aversion to humor. Given the extraordinary images that cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes has fashioned in the past, the self-pitying crabbiness of Cianfrance’s vision is practically offensive.
Still, Ruffalo’s casting was astute, because if Cianfrance had hired an actor with a more conventionally closed-off masculine mystique, the series might’ve been totally unwatchable. Ruffalo gives sensitive, impassioned performances, and he differentiates his characters without making a show of it. Thomas’s slouched, defeated physicality is heartbreaking even in the series’s most categorically insane moments, while Dominick’s thinner, straighter frame signifies his tightly coiled willingness to pounce upon the slightest provocation. Yet, it’s unseemly to watch an actor as thoughtful as Ruffalo submit himself to all this thrashing about, and you may find yourself pulling back from him in a manner akin to how Pauline Kael resisted Robert De Niro’s self-torturing exhibitionism in Raging Bull. (There’s even a reference to the Martin Scorsese film here: a close-up of Dominick’s twisted and gnarled face that’s held for a self-consciously ugly and interminable length of time.)
The most maddening thing about the obviously talented Cianfrance is his refusal to get out of his own way (come to think of it, Kael wrote something similar about Scorsese in her review of Raging Bull). For all of the ostentatious negativity of I Know This Much Is True, there are haunting and subtle flourishes. When eight-year-old Thomas (Rocco Masihi) humiliates himself on a school bus, we casually see another child give him a hug as he walks dejected up to the front of the vehicle. And when Dominick and Thomas’s semi-abusive, sort-of-loving stepfather, Ray (John Proccacino), suffers a heart attack, he speaks to Dominick in a halting manner that suggests his and Dominick’s worst fears of deflated masculinity, and it’s of course at this point that the two men start to bond. As predictable as they might be, these moments come as a relief from the hours of redundant emotional violence and disappointment. It was also astute to cast Rosie O’Donnell as an advocate and Michael Greyeyes as a mysterious janitor, as their poignant underacting briefly offsets the show’s chest-thumping masochism.
But I Know This Much Is True is still a shambles, a catalog of tragic events that’s meant to rhyme the Gulf War, the catalyst for the current endless American war machine, with the modern ennui that’s signified by Dominick’s irritability and Thomas’s madness. And even all that undigested subtext isn’t enough for Cianfrance, who keeps throwing things at the screen, from period flashbacks to an Italian grandfather (Simone Cappo) who’s meant to suggest the seed of American racism, to a missing girl who anticipates the reveal of Dominick and Thomas’s unseen father, who references our nation’s legacy of genocide. In this numbing, ludicrous production, Thomas’s paranoid fantasies become virtually indistinguishable from the hokum that Cianfrance offers up with solemn sincerity.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Kathryn Hahn, Rob Huebel, John Procaccino, Melissa Leo, Rosie O'Donnell, Philip Ettinger, Archie Panjabi, Michael Greyeyes, Tom Stratford, Donnie Masihi, Rocco Masihi, Simone Coppo, Aisling Franciosi, Matt Helm, Zaria Degenhardt, Marcello Fonte, Irene Muscara, Agatha Nowicki, Roberta Rigano Network: HBO
Review: HBO’s Bad Education Paints an Ambiguous Portrait of Greed
Though it needlessly withholds certain details for dramatic effect, the film resists embellishment or caricature.3
Everybody seems to love Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), superintendent of the Roslyn, Long Island school district. He’s personable, impeccably groomed, and responsible for getting the district ranked number four in the state. And over the course of HBO’s true-crime film Bad Education, he scrambles to cover up a potential scandal that could torpedo the school board’s budget: Assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) has been embezzling from the district for years. To complicate matters further, an intrepid school newspaper reporter, Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), is sniffing around, which might just unearth the wide scope of the operation.
Accompanied by ironic classical music cues, Bad Education paints an unattractive portrait of its main characters. The film’s color palette is muted, and the wrinkles on the actors’ faces are featured prominently in close-ups. Their actions are even less flattering: As ludicrously underpaid as teaching may be, the crass extravagance of the town’s embezzlers is made abundantly clear via house renovations, pieds-à-terre, first-class flights, facelifts, and more—all on the school’s dime, written off as some ambiguous charge from a suspicious company.
Though the film needlessly withholds certain details to artificially pump up the drama through eventual plot twists, Bad Education resists embellishment or caricature. Instead, by probing the truly thankless task of teaching kids while under the thumb of district rankings, school board demands, and an endless parade of antagonistic parents, the film presents educators like Gluckin and Tassone with a surprising degree of sincerity and dedication to their jobs. They remember the names, the parents, the hobbies, and the siblings of all the kids who come through Roslyn. They really did get the place ranked number four.
There is, of course, more to Tassone than his composed, genial exterior suggests, most of which should be left for the audience to discover. And though the embezzlers are explicitly in the wrong, their justifications are not so easily shaken off; they are right, after all, in observing that the director of the school board (Ray Romano) makes seven figures selling real estate with values directly tied to the success of Roslyn, while the teachers and administrators remain underpaid and overworked. Rather than a simplistic, straightforward parable of greed, Bad Education depicts its true events with a surprising amount of depth and ambiguity.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Stephen Spinella, Annaleigh Ashford
Review: Beastie Boys Story Is Part Memorial, Part TED Talk
Billed as a “live documentary experience,” the film has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation.2.5
In Beastie Boys Story, the band’s surviving members, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, describe their gradual realization that Def Jam executive Russell Simmons embraced them only because he thought any group of white rappers could become superstars in the mid 1980s. The Beastie Boys could have easily become defined forever by their first pop hit, 1986’s “Fight for Your Right,” and the misogynistic spectacle of their early performances. Instead, they showed a remarkable ability to reinvent themselves: Their sound evolved from the minimal beats and metal riffs of their debut, Licensed to Ill, to the dizzying, sampledelic collage of Paul’s Boutique, after which their music became harder to pin down, as they returned to their punk roots on early-‘90s hits like “Sabotage.”
That song’s iconic music video was directed by longtime collaborator Spike Jonze, who’s also at the helm here. Billed as a “live documentary experience,” the film has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation, with Diamond and Horovitz speaking to a live audience on stage alongside props like a reel-to-reel tape machine playing a loop from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” which forms the basis of 1986’s “Rhymin & Stealin.” The duo runs through the bullet points of their professional history, recounting the regret and disgust they felt over their early stage shows, in which they acted out the characters of the beer-guzzling bros they created for Licensed to Ill, and lamenting how the record executives they considered friends refused to pay them royalties despite the massive success of the album.
As different as is from, say, Tayor Swift’s Miss Americana or Beyoncé’s Homecoming, Beastie Boys Story fits into the recent trend of music docs in which the subjects exercise almost complete control over the way their stories are told. The 572-page Beastie Boys Book, published in 2018, covers the same ground as the film with a more innovative approach. Instead of writing a conventional memoir, Diamond and Horovitz published a collection of essays from friends and cultural critics, laying out the band’s history in both photos and prose. Beastie Boys Story feels stiff in comparison. The book’s essays by drummer Kate Schellenbach and others examining the group’s attitude toward women make a far more compelling case than clips of Diamond and Horovitz criticizing the lyrics of “Girls” or pointing to the more feminist sentiments of their latter-day music.
The Beastie Boys called it quits in 2012 after the death of founding member Adam Yauch. Throughout the film, Diamond and Horovitz credit Yauch with some of the group’s biggest changes in direction. “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through” he raps on 1994’s “Sure Shot,” effectively signaling the trio’s move toward more progressive politics. His conversion to Buddhism, friendship with the Dalai Lama, and turn toward pro-Tibetan activism helped completely overhaul the band’s public image in the early ‘90s. Beastie Boys Story returns to stories of Yauch’s creative influence and unpredictability, and its final act turns into an outright tribute to the late rapper and musician. The film, then, often feels like a cross between a TED talk and a memorial service, but one gets the sense that Diamond and Horovitz are finally getting years’ worth of grief off their chests. The cumulative effect is, at the very least, touching.
Cast: Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch Network: Apple TV+
Review: Mrs. America Reckons with the Squandered Potential for Women’s Rights
The series suggests that winning hearts and minds is a naïve pipe dream, a strategy more fit for TV than for electoral politics.3.5
In the 1950s, two decades before FX’s Mrs. America takes place, future congresswoman Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) braved death threats while appealing the case of Willie McGee, a black man convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death in Mississippi after a mere hours-long trial and a jury deliberation that lasted less than three minutes. Late in the series, Abzug recalls her past idealism as she mulls cutting the contentious gay rights resolution from the 1977 National Women’s Conference. Visiting Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Abzug asks, “Does it bother you that no one calls you a radical anymore?” To which Friedan answers, “The movement is getting down to middle America. We’re mainstream, that’s a good thing.” The congresswoman nods with heartbreaking subtlety, recognizing that what’s become mainstream remains insufficient.
Mrs. America, the creation of writer-producer Dahvi Waller, deftly reckons with decades of squandered political potential, both in its depiction of the ‘70s and in the parallels it draws with the present. At the core of the series is the Equal Rights Amendment and the vigorous opposition it met from conservative author and activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), first in Illinois and then around the nation. The series charts Schlafly’s mobilization of housewives against the amendment out of a purported belief that the women’s liberation movement rivaled the Soviets in the danger it posed to American life. Over the course of Mrs. America’s nine episodes, she builds the “pro-family,” doggedly anti-abortion, predominantly Christian coalition that helps thwart the ERA and land Ronald Reagan in the White House.
Of course, that same coalition has played an instrumental role in Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency. Here, Schlafly resembles Trump in her truth-flexing fearmongering, but unlike him, she’s not a man and must deal with the consequences. Though Schlafly mentions at one point that she’s never been discriminated against, her interactions with chauvinist politicians like Republican congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden), and even with her well-meaning but insensitive husband, Fred (John Slattery), serve as nauseating evidence to the contrary. Schlafly’s face regularly strains under the forced smile she wears around these men, and the consistency with which she masks her responses makes the moments in which her façade briefly cracks all the more evocative. At times, her smile gives way to a blankness that suggests frustration, quiet anger, or despair—or, perhaps, resignation.
Mrs. America reflects on the injustices that Schlafly experiences but refuses to romanticize her or her work. Plot beats expose Schlafly’s intellectual dishonesty and tacit acceptance of the Ku Klux Klan’s endorsement. Schlafly’s conversations with Lottie Beth Hobbs (Cindy Drummond), a collaborator based in Texas, particularly shatter the duo’s claims of moral high ground. Hobbs gives strikingly lucid insight into reactionary strains of Christianity, a faith she argues relies not only on love, but also on hate.
The sober approach of Mrs. America’s historical accounting extends across the political expanse. The series highlights the failings of the women’s liberation movement in the ‘70s, namely its solipsistic centering of whiteness. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) serves as a primary vector for the series’s exploration of race as she mounts a presidential campaign, competing against frontrunner George McGovern in the Democratic primary—and becoming the first-ever black candidate for the Democratic or Republican nomination. In the third episode, with her run collapsing around her, Chisholm vents in her hotel room and rails against the allies abandoning her. Aduba wondrously channels Chisholm’s frustration, inhaling sharply between lines and raising her voice as she builds momentum, each incremental increase in volume giving fuller form to her ire.
Mrs. America chronicles endless missed opportunities in U.S. politics but also includes a more hopeful and inspiring personal journey: that of Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson), Schlafly’s best friend and supporter. Initially a Schlafly stalwart up in arms against the ERA, Macray gradually exhibits an openness to new perspectives and compromise. Her growth is admirable but proves to be a false comfort; it turns out that she’s a fictional character created for the series. In one of its most intriguing political statements, Mrs. America suggests that winning hearts and minds is a naïve pipe dream, a strategy more fit for TV than for electoral politics.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Tracey Ullman, John Slattery, Ari Graynor, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Melanie Lynskey, Kayli Carter, Niecy Nash, Cindy Drummond, James Marsden, Adam Brody, Jay Ellis, Bria Samoné Henderson Network: FX
Review: Will & Grace Effortlessly Channels the Spirit of I Love Lucy
The episode is a reminder of just how influential I Love Lucy still is, and a testament to Will & Grace’s own legacy.3.5
By the end of its original eight-season run, Will & Grace had long since jumped the shark, plagued by stunt casting, back-from-the-dead husbands, and, of course, that finale, which the 2017 revival of the show wisely sought fit to pretend never happened. Prompted in part by the 2016 election, Will & Grace found new purpose in the Trump era, thoughtfully navigating topics like conversion therapy, the Me Too movement, and religious freedom—the latter of which was depicted in a shrewd inversion of recent wedding cake discrimination cases, with a lesbian baker refusing to fill an order honoring the president.
With only three episodes left, however, Will & Grace has decided to pull one last stunt, and it’s one that, surprisingly, the series has never tried before: a tribute to I Love Lucy. Since the show’s inception, critics have been wont to liken Debra Messing to Lucille Ball, not just because of her fiery red hair, but her deft mix of self-deprecation and broad slapstick. The latter quality, best exemplified in a season-two episode in which Grace’s water bra springs a leak to uproarious effect, would eventually become the province of dysfunctional sidekicks Jack and Karen, played by Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally, respectively.
It would have been easy enough to simply recast Will & Grace’s central foursome as Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel. But the reverently titled “We Love Lucy” gives Messing, Mullally, and Hayes each their own crack at Lucy, as their characters spar over which one of them is most similar to the famous ‘50s TV wife. (Ever the straight man, no pun intended, Eric McCormack plays Ricky—with a dubious Cuban accent—for the entirety of the episode.)
“We Love Lucy” faithfully reconstructs iconic scenes from I Love Lucy, with Mullally stomping grapes with perennial archrival Beverley Leslie (Leslie Jordan) and Hayes, in Lucy drag, stuffing chocolate bon bons in his mouth like a squirrel hoarding nuts. But it’s Messing, who’s always been Will & Grace’s unsung secret weapon, who pitch-perfectly fills Lucy’s shoes in a recreation of the famous Vitameatavegamin bit from I Love Lucy, in which Lucy drunkenly stumbles her way through a TV commercial for the elixir.
For this episode, Will & Grace’s production team painstakingly created replicas of I Love Lucy’s sets, costumes, and props (including 1,200 pounds of black grapes), and the scenes themselves are nearly shot-for-shot recreations of the originals. Messing’s mimicry is similarly uncanny: Her performance pays tribute to both Ball and her own gift for physical comedy, right down to her quivering grimace and inebriated slur.
Recent episodes of Will & Grace have fallen back on old tricks: Guest stars abound, from Gus Kentworthy to Demi Lovato, who plays a surrogate-slash-cam-girl throughout the season, but aside from a clever cameo by Lucie Arnaz, “We Love Lucy” lets its four leads shine as they alternate roles. In contrast to Messing’s spot-on embodiment of Lucy, Mullally hilariously imbues every character she plays with a little bit of Karen Walker, deadpanning a signature quip about Lucy’s quilted frock and playing Fred in full makeup and martini in hand.
Will & Grace hit its stride during the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, serving as a weekly declaration that—despite the administration’s campaign to erase LGBTQ people—we’re here, some of us are queerer than others, and we might just help your daughter get her shit together. While Karen’s casual pill-popping feels out of touch in the age of rampant opioid addiction, the show’s revival has confronted hot topics more unapologetically than ever, most memorably in last season’s “Grace’s Secret,” in which Grace tearfully confides in her father about a sexual assault. So it’s both ironic and fitting that “We Love Lucy” is one of the show’s final episodes—a reminder of just how influential I Love Lucy still is, and a testament to Will & Grace’s own, albeit very different, legacy.
Cast: Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, Megan Mullally Network: NBC
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
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