Set, as it is, several decades before women won the right to vote in the United States, one might be forgiven for expecting the women of David Milchâs Deadwood to fall into the seemingly set roles women have held in western after western. Thereâs the supportive frontier wife and the feisty prostitute, the nearly regal madam and the schoolteacher, even a woman who seemingly wishes to take on the role of a man to survive a male-dominated world.
But the women of Deadwood are more than types. Just as the men of Deadwood remade themselves in the process of transforming a piece of land into a mining camp, the women likewise came to begin anew. But where Deadwoodâs men may have reinvented themselves once, the women of Deadwood have done it several times over.
Alma Garrett Ellsworth (Molly Parker) may be the Deadwood citizen who is the least like the person we first met. She has gone from a perpetually drugged trophy wife to one of the townâs foremost powerbrokers who clearly has the upper hand in her second marriage. When she first arrived in camp, Alma was deeply dependent on her husband, a stereotypical East Coast dandy who knew nothing of the ways of the frontier. She was weak, reliant on crutches of all sorts. But a string of events pushed her into the mainstream of Deadwood society. First, her husband was murdered, and she dealt with the calamity by breaking her addiction. Second, she found herself caring for a child, the victim of a massacre by agents only vaguely under the control of the seriesâs central character, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Third, she was adopted into the body of Deadwood as a whole, and forged friendships with the prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson) and various men, including Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carridine) and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), whom she would eventually take as a lover. Finally, Alma discovered that her gold claim (inherited from her dead husband) was extraordinarily rich, giving her by default plenty of leeway in her dealings with the locals.
An appearance by Almaâs father toward the end of Deadwoodâs first season highlights how far the character had come by that point. He arrived on the scene to attempt to beg money from his daughter (he had previously pulled the strings that led to her cold, distant marriage he hoped would benefit him financially). Alma does not want to do what he asks, but fears she will slip back in to her old patterns. When Bullock gets word of what is happening, he beats her father horribly. She has awakened passion in him and he in her. By stripping away every bit of her comfortable life in East Coast society, Deadwood has forced Alma to be reborn as a calculating wheeler-dealer.
At the start of season two, Alma finds herself pregnant with Bullockâs child, even though he has left her for his wife, Martha (Anna Gunn) who has arrived at the camp. She decides to keep the baby (against Trixieâs counsel), and immediately throws herself into the affairs of Deadwood with renewed vigor, financing a new bank and arranging a new marriage that will both offer her and her children protection and allow her the maximum amount of maneuvering room. Alma seems to treat this second marriage (to her underling Ellsworth, played by Jim Beaver) as almost another form of negotiation.
The opening episodes of the third season find Alma mostly sidelined by a health problem. But her misfortune ripples throughout the town, evoking concern from a wide cross-section of its citizenry.
Curiously, my wife likes Alma the least of any of the female characters on Deadwood. She finds Alma to be, in so many words, a tremendous bitch. While this may be the simple byproduct of how the role is written and performed, I suspect it has more to do with the fact that Alma has had to make herself more like a stereotypical businessman than any other woman in the series. She has to to be taken seriously. While her money would get her to the table, to get what she wants she has to take the initiative; that requires her to sideline her emotions (the trait we most tend to associate with women, even in our ostensibly modern society). Gifted with the economic freedom she didnât know she needed, and the ferocity of motherhood she thought would be denied to her, Alma is unafraid to take whatever is within her grasp.
If Alma is divisive, another female character is perhaps the most warm-hearted character on the show (as well as the most foul-mouthed). Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), based on a historical figure who lived in the real Deadwood, is the citizen of the town who is most open to other human beings. Sheâs willing to sit down with men of all races for a drink or two, and she cares for the plague-ridden Andy Cramed when heâs left to die in the middle of the forest. Indeed, as Milch points out on the commentary track for the pilot, Jane gained the nickname âCalamityâ because she was willing to put herself in harmâs way. She scouted for Custer and helped the townâs reverend and doctor care for disease-ridden residents during the smallpox outbreak that began with the wastel Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier, whose character reinvented himself as a reverend).
If thereâs one thing I dislike about the second season, which I generally consider superior to the first, itâs that Jane doesnât have as much to doâsheâs quite possibly my favorite character, or at least the character who is the easiest to love. Jane comes into sharp focus in the second season when she shares a drink with the Nigger General (Franklin Ajaye). While itâs jarring enough to hear the general tossing around a racial epithet most of us would never utter as a part of his name almost casually (even in our hip-hop-steeped culture), when Jane uses it, it feels almost as though the show will comment on the casual racism of the 1800s too overtly. Instead, Jane treats it as just another name, just another person she could turn in to a friend (itâs worth noting, perhaps, that Jane is drunk for most of the series, and perhaps thatâs why sheâs so accommodating).
Curiously, Jane is the seriesâs most outwardly masculine female character, but inwardly, sheâs almost stereotypically female. Sheâs a romantic in many ways, still pining for her beloved Wild Bill, standing vigil at his grave and reporting the latest news of the town. Sheâs pining for a man who never could have been hers, one of the few in Deadwood actually devoted to his absent wife. Jane carries with her a whiff of the romance of the Old West, which may be why she was gradually marginalized as the series went along; she represented a world that was no longer still with the residents of Deadwood.
Jane seems utterly without a self-promoting motive (unusual for this show), able to be trusted by just about anyone in Deadwood. Bullock calls on her for law enforcement purposes (she has guarded prisoners on a few occasions). And in the Season Three premiere, when Joanie Stubbs, at her lowest point, needs someone to turn to, she turns to Jane. Jane is as able to cuss out a wrongdoer as she is to recount her exploits with the Army before an audience of schoolchildren. Despite having one of the foulest mouths in Deadwood, she ranks with the whitest of the seriesâs murky white hats.
While Alma and Jane both represent, in many ways, the ways in which women of the frontier could learn to exist as separate individuals in a male-dominated society, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) acts as a cautious reminder of just how fleeting that sort of power could be. While she also tries to build a life for herself that will be separate from, but equal to, the lives of the men around her, the world foils her. Joanie came to town with saloon owner and pimp Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), a man who has trouble shifting with the times. At first, she was Cyâs prizeâhis lover and his finest working girl. Despite this, Joanie began to stand out from the gaggle of whores at Cyâs place. It was clear she had ambition (she colluded with other employees to make sure she would escape any untenable situation), and she also seemed to harbor desire for other women (in particular a teenager who came to Deadwoodâplayed memorably by Kristen Bell). When that teenager was cruelly slaughtered by Cy, Joanie began to separate from him, even announcing that she couldnât work for him anymore.
In the second season, Joanie sets up her own brothel, Chez Amie. At first she prospers, thanks to her natural business sense and help from friends. But she is soon trapped when Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt), the advance man for mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), takes a liking to her girls. But something is not quite right with Mr. Wollcott, and he soon kills three of Joanies employees, including her longtime friend Maddie (Alice Krige), who betrayed Joanie moments before Wolcott slit her throat. When Cy sides with Wolcott, Joanie is isolated and made powerless, forced to send her girls away and nearly bankrupt herself. She has no choice but to return to Cy, and when the third season begins, she is in a dark place.
The story of Joanieâs brothel might seem a mere plot mechanism (a glimpse of Wolcottâs evil depths here, a little prostitute intrigue there) if not viewed within the context of Deadwoodâs feminist aspirations. Women can be free in Deadwood only up to a point. Once that point is reached, a woman needs money (Alma) or a guileless personality and sharpshooting abilities (Jane) to be taken seriously. Otherwise, itâs far too easy to end up as collateral in the ever-twisting machinations of Deadwoodâs men. This would seem to be a statement by Milch and his writing staff on how the mechanics of institutions, from business and politics to war, often hurt societyâs most vulnerable members.
Still, Joanie, like the other prostitutes of Deadwood, is resourceful. One can only assume sheâll bounce back. Indeed, sheâs roughly at the same point as Trixie (Paula Malcomson) when the series began. When we first met Trixie, she was a bit of a shell, just another girl Swearengen could sleep with (though, admittedly, his favorite). But she, too, is jarred out of her state of being by young Sofia, Almaâs future adoptee. In caring for the girl, Trixie finds strength. She goes against Al for the first time and helps wean Alma off of laudanum, even though Al wanted her doped up to make it easer to wrestle away her gold claim. When Al threatens Trixie, she stands up to him; soon sheâs defying him with regularity. By season two, Trixie seems largely free of Alâs control, learning about accounting from her lover, Sol Starr (John Hawkes). As season three begins, it seems that she and Sol may settle into something approaching a domestic lifestyle.
But Trixie isnât just a âprostitute with a heart of goldâ or someone who manages to embrace the semblance of a dream and rise above a miserable situation. Sheâs also a bit of a mother figure to the other women of Deadwood. Sheâs the de facto leader of the Gem girls, and when Alma fears sheâs pregnant and wonât be able to deliver the baby, or needs general counsel, she turns to Trixie. The latterâs reinvention is just as pronounced as Almaâs, but since sheâs doing it largely under a manâs supervision, itâs not as noticeable. But sheâs seized control of her life, finding a way to rebuild herself as someone who will be useful to the community evolving from lawlessness to civility. And thatâs what sets the women of Deadwood apart from the men and makes the show quite possibly the most feminist program on television: Theyâre always reinventing, rebuilding, forcing themselves through painful processes of rebirth. And they tend to look out for each other.
While most of Deadwoodâs men havenât changed remarkably since the series began (journeying mainly from conflict to compromise), the women are all noticeably different people after two full seasons. Theyâve improved their situations and made better lives for themselves. If Deadwood is a metaphorical journey through America (as many have argued it is), the most American characters of all are the women, which is a truly radical notion for a Western.
Even Martha, who could have so easily become the quiet schoolmarm from westerns stretching from Stagecoach to Back to the Future III, singlehandedly takes on the task of educating the townâs children. And we see in the third season just how difficult a task like this would be. While the men of Deadwood fight, the women make peace, forming unlikely alliances that prove unusually strong (Alma and Trixie, for example). One could even make the argument that if the men of Deadwood suggest what America actually is (brutish, only willing to compromise when thereâs no other option), the women represent Americaâs best self-image: kind, capable of reinvention and agreement with others.
The women of Deadwood are passionate, fully realized human beings. While thatâs not an unusual notion for HBO (the women of The Sopranos and even Big Love are complex and complete), itâs a rare sight elsewhere on TV. Just look at at Rescue Me, in many ways a fine show (and one thatâs funnier than any sitcom on the air right now). But its treatment of women is ridiculous. It canât even be bothered to take the path of least resistance and categorize its female characters as virgins, mothers or crones. Theyâre all shrews, demanding, and taking, everything from their men and giving little back. One could claim this is a subjective viewâthat weâre seeing the women as the showâs men see themâbut that argument doesnât hold up when you consider the fate of Diane Farrâs character, who was built up as âone of the guysâ in the firehouse but still eventually succumbed to shrewâs disease. Rescue Me understands a lot about the interplay between men better than almost any show on the air, but its depiction of women borders on sexist.
This gender imbalance at the script level can also be seen on House. This medical drama suffers from a general inability, or unwillingness, to offer supporting players as intriguing as its title character (Hugh Laurie). But the women, in particular, are poorly drawn. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) is just a dewy-eyed innocent who vainly waits for our hero to realize how nubile and loving she could be (ironically, Cameron is more like a Victorian heroine than any woman on Deadwood, a show that is actually set during the Victorian era). If Cameron is the aforementioned feministsâ virgin, then Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) is the crone, constantly butting up against House and making his life miserable. While these characters occasionally manage snappy rejoinders (their interplay with House is always entertaining), they arenât as developed as they should be. Not so the women of Deadwood. They point the way forward from their 19th century frontier camp life all the way to the suffrage movement and the Equal Rights Amendment. Milch has taken stock Western characters and made them breathe.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Servant Is an Unrelentingly Strange Examination of Grief and Denial
The showâs control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the storyâs mystery itself.3
On paper, the premise of Apple TV+âs Servant sounds simple enough: New parents Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) hire a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to take care of their infant son in their Philadelphia home. Itâs a ritzy place, with a fully stocked wine cellar and a spacious kitchen for chef Sean to test out his elaborate recipes. When coupled with the showâs musical score of discordant, jittery strings and atmosphere of uneasy stillness created by long takes and peculiar camera angles, however, everything simply feels off, even before itâs revealed that the child, Jericho, is dead.
What lays motionless in the crib is actually just a silent, unblinking doll meant to placate Dorothy, who suffered a psychotic break following Jerichoâs sudden death. Beyond a handful of instances throughout the season where she stares listlessly into the distance as if on the cusp of some revelation, she treats the Jericho doll as though itâs alive and well. The bitter, curmudgeonly Sean plays along, but when heâs alone, heâs content to drop the thing on the floor or knock its head against the crib. Hiring Leanne is just one more part of the charade, until one night Sean finds a living, breathing, crying infant in the dollâs place.
Much of the series follows Sean as he tries to figure out whatâs going on, and with the help of Dorothyâs high-strung, perpetually wine-drunk brother, Julian (Rupert Grint). They investigate where the baby could have possibly come from and dig into the background of the prim, devoutly religious Leanne, whose presence coincides not only with the return of the new Jericho, but with Sean getting splinters from nearly every surface he touches. Dorothy resumes her work as a newscaster none the wiser, but her bright, outgoing demeanorâan extreme contrast with the sullen, dickish Seanâkeeps putting their newly living baby at risk of discovery when she invites people over or insists on bringing him to work.
Itâs a supremely weird setup for a series made only weirder by the way it builds atmosphere through the use of jarring sounds and an austere visual language. Though most of the seasonâs episodes noticeably lack the ambitious directorial hand of M. Night Shyamalanâwhoâs an executive producer on the show and helmed two episodesâcinematographer Michael Gioulakis maintains an unnerving mood through close observation of seemingly mundane actions. By holding so long on faces and often employing overhead angles, the camera lends a sort of voyeuristic, almost alien-like tinge to the proceedings.
And the close-ups are uncomfortably close, particularly with the constant focus on Seanâs cooking that finds him meticulously pulling apart the flesh of eels, lobsters, and squids. At other times, heâs seen tugging splinters out from his neck or inside his mouth. Whether something actually does happen when the camera lingers on Sean shoving something into the garbage disposal, the potential for disaster always seems to loom large. In such moments, itâs as though grief, denial, and pain coalesce into one suffocating presence.
Servantâs mystery unfurls at a satisfying clip, since itâs broken up into brisk half-hour chunks that always present some new complication. Episodes rarely leave Dorothy and Seanâs home, locking us inside to watch everyone seethe and fall apart. In the absence of traditionally horrific imagery, the show emphasizes an unrelenting strangeness not only through Seanâs increasingly odd recipes, but through things like a man vigorously dabbing sauce from his slice of chicken before, for no apparent reason, wrapping it in napkins and then squeezing the food between his fingers. The season ends, perhaps expectedly, with more questions than any particularly satisfying answers, but in similar fashion to shows like Twin Peaks, its control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the mystery itself.
Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint, Phillip James Brannon Network: AppleTV+
Review: Season 3 of The Crown Makes Progress Look and Feel Wearisome
The series homes in on the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms.2.5
Season three of The Crown lacks the urgency that previously made the Netflix series so engaging. This is partly due to the more subdued relationships between the older members of the House of Windsor, now settled into their various roles as sovereign, husband, sister, and wife. Only a few years have passed between seasons, but Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), her husband Philip (Tobias Menzies), and sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) have accumulated a deep weariness that can be enervating to behold.
This season, the countercultural politics of the Swinging Sixties nurtures a new sense of awareness around the myriad hypocrisies and criticisms of aristocratic life. The series homes in on both economic inequality and the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms, with the British crownâs traditional nonpartisan position becoming increasingly detrimental to its image. The antiestablishment spirit of the time seeps into Buckingham Palace via the small rebellions of Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), now a miniskirt-wearing, David Bowie-loving young woman. And itâs through her that the monarchy makes small but significant steps toward changing its perception as an outdated institution.
The Crownâs first two seasons tapped into the allure of a world insistent on formality. The â60s, though, bring a new set of societal challenges that redefine the relationship between the Windsors and their American counterparts, especially in the episode âMargaretology,â in which Margaret takes a tour of the States. Her spontaneity and charismaâthe very qualities that make her a liability to the monarchyâs rarefied imageâhelp Elizabeth to win over President Johnson (Clancy Brown), who dreads the codified etiquette that dictates their countriesâ âspecial relationship.â Johnson doesnât care about exclusive invitations to Balmoral Castle; heâs happy with dirty jokes and drinking contests that fly in the face of royal protocol.
The crownâs relationship to the British people is also changing, as highlighted in âBubbikins,â which chronicles the impact of the infamous 1969 BBC documentary Royal Family. One of Philipâs public relations projects is to make the Windsors seem more appealing to the masses, but in his vanity, he fails to understand the importance of mystery and ritual to their public image. Royalty is the ultimate spectacle, and The Crown valiantly attempts to illuminate the psychological and emotional toll it takes on those who have little control over their lives. But itâs more than a little difficult to feel sympathy for the royals when the prince consort is seen trying to explain why the queen deserves more taxpayer money.
Despite Philipâs efforts to sweeten their image, the Windsorsâ most likeable member is as un-royal as it gets: his mother. At turns fragile and fearless, Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) is a welcome mid-season addition, providing a much-needed contrast to her son, whoâs still itching to find meaning in his life. Where Alice is selfless and warm, Philip is consumed by the need to micro-manage everything around him. As the younger Philip in the showâs first two seasons, Matt Smith was palpably angsty, but in Menziesâs hands, the neurotic prince is drawn ever inward. And a highlight of the new season is an entire episode concerned with his midlife crisis. Set during the events of the 1969 moon landing, âMoondustâ is a sensitive exploration of masculine insecurities, and in no small part for the way Menzies calls upon reserves of pathos to chart his characterâs miserable descent into self-pity and spite.
The most prominent thread running through The Crownâs third season is the dualities in peopleâs lives. Itâs in the juxtaposition of the royalsâ public and private selves, the ever-present chasm between aristocratic and common society, or the much more personal struggle of characters reconciling individual desires and duties. Thereâs plenty of fertile ground to explore this dynamic, as almost every character is in a state of conflict, from Elizabeth, who struggles to show genuine humanity to her people, to Prince Charles (Josh OâConnor), who reckons with his destiny as the future king. Within their rigid world, the royals pursue their desires in their own little waysâCharles with his love of the performing arts, Elizabeth with her beloved racehorses at Sandringham, Anne with a casual fling that surprises her family.
Toward the end of the season, even Margaret has a fleeting taste of happiness outside of the public eye, before getting sucked back into the vortex of her unhappy marriage. Itâs impossible for the Windsors to fully escape the demands of the crown; several extended family scenes see even the most individualistic characters obediently falling in line. Elizabeth is ultimately the only character who digests and accepts this reality without much drama. Colman brings a hard-won confidence to the queen, who weathers changes and hard decisions with the mettle of a ruler who recognizes the importance of self-reliance and stability.
The title of the seasonâs first episode, âOlding,â is a play on Elizabethâs age (and the code name of a K.G.B. spy), setting the tone for the queenâs private musings on the trajectory of her reign. The episode is an exploration of appearances and what they conceal, with a number of pieces of fine art and literary metaphors hammering that point home. During a pivotal moment in the season premiere, the Surveyor of the Queenâs Pictures, Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), gives an overblown lecture about the layers of deceit and multiple meanings lurking within Renaissance artâand the moment is followed by a longwinded scene that overcomplicates an otherwise simple allegory about hidden identities and trust.
The Crown presents a network of relationships that are more meaningfully connected by ringing telephones, newspaper headlines, letters, and electric buzzers than face-to-face communication. The showâs royal family is âalone together,â settled in their identities and the demands of their station. Philip only reconciles with his mother after reading an article about her in the papers, and one of the seasonâs most heartening scenes depicts Alice and Philip walking arm-in-arm together in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Young Elizabeth once confronted Philip about what he does and where he goes, but sheâs since risen above these small concerns. Given the queenâs inability to show her feelings, itâs fitting that the season closes on a note of solitude and isolation. In her own words, âOne just has to get on with it.â
Cast: Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Ben Daniels, Marion Bailey, Josh OâConnor, Charles Dance, Jane Lapotaire, Erin Doherty, Emerald Fennell, Gillian Anderson Network: Netflix
Review: For All Mankind Prioritizes Cynical Alternate History Over Character
The series suffocates its promising characters with the tedium of backroom politics.2
According to For All Mankind, if the Soviet Union had landed humans on the moon before the United States did, the space race would have continued at full speed, escalating from moon landings to the building of lunar bases to cosmic subterfuge. But the Apple TV+ series, created and written by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame), Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi, sluggishly leads to little of interest. For All Mankind prioritizes its alternate historyâs tedious political maneuvering over its characters, suffocating their development and deflating emotional payoffs.
Navy veteran and astronaut Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is the primary focus of the series. In an early scene, set in 1969, heâs sitting in a bar in Houston, watching on TV as a Russian cosmonaut steps on the moon. Ed was on Apollo 10, a trial run for Apollo 11, which in the showâs alternate history is a footnote in the space race. Now, he and crewmate Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) strive to get back to space and break new ground.
Most of the showâs supporting characters come and go as if at random. For one, steely astronaut Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) and her endearing hippy husband, Wayne (Lenny Jacobson) become central figures and then inexplicably, and disappointingly, disappear. Often, characters exist less to provide a human perspective on the space race than to represent issues, a problem thatâs more acute when it comes to the showâs women. Some of themâlike astronaut Danielle Pool (Krys Marshall) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), Gordoâs wifeâpropel more substantial narratives whose social commentary informs, rather than supplants, their personhood. But others, such as engineer Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) and Edâs wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), are merely stand-ins for forces and experiences like sexism in the workplace and the trials that servicepeoplesâ families endure.
After the Soviets land a woman on the moon, President Nixonâwhoâs depicted via archival footage overlaid with recordings, both authentic and fabricatedâwants to do the same, which sets up an episode about the training of female astronauts. When the Soviets are expected to establish a military presence on the moon, Nixon and the Pentagon move to ramp up their own, which cues an arc about the creation of a lunar base. Throughout For All Mankind, NASA higher-ups, beholden to the president, ceaselessly relay his demands to Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) and Flight Director Gene Kranz (Eric Ladin) over in mission control, but all their exhaustingly repetitive policy debates siphon attention away from the human beings whose lives they shape.
As For All Mankind proceeds, however, it shifts its focus from broad political mandates to the specificities of its characters. One episode that centers around three astronauts penned up in a claustrophobic lunar base is among the showâs most evocative. The astronauts spend nearly half a year sleeping in cramped bunks, pickaxing moon rocks, and eating goo. When they intently and gravely tinker with an off-screen item, the stakes feel life-or-death, but a cut to the subject of their concern reveals a damaged VHS tape, one of their six episodes of The Bob Newhart Show. The crew watches the episodes on repeat, eventually reenacting one in a welcome act of catharsis. But later, when an astronaut feverishly acts out all three parts in a scene from the Newhart series, we see how much these people have given up, how profoundly it can hurt to be so far away from home.
One of the showâs notable revisions of the historical record is its portrayal of Ted Kennedy having succeeded Nixon as president, along with the formerâs triumphant push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Kennedy initially wants to bring the moon-marooned astronauts homeâa relief crew is repeatedly delayed from replacing themâbut he ultimately tolerates their stranding because the lunar outpost distracts the nation from his ongoing sex scandal. These and other dynamics fuel the showâs deeply cynical framing of the space race not as a struggle for key geopolitical advantage or a fight for national principles, but as a conflict as fruitless and myopic as a dogâs quest to catch its own tail.
Cynicism suffuses the series both subtly, with its framing of NASA as a pawn of the
presidentâs administration, and overtly, with Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore), the German aerospace engineer who designed the Saturn V, saying that âevery political system is flawed, and every bureaucracy is corrupt.â Soviet points of view are almost entirely absent from the series, but the American cronies on hand justify his mistrust.
Such disenchantment occasionally generates intriguing reflections on imperialism, discrimination, PTSD, and more. It also renders the earnestness of a side plot about a young girl, Aleida Rosales (Olivia Trujillo), and her father, Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto), jarring in contrast. The pair immigrates to the U.S. from Mexico, and Aleida develops a fascination with rockets and space, as well as formidable skills in math. Sheâs poised to become an engineer, maybe even an astronaut, one day. The suggestion, here, is that the American dream is alive and well. But it seems that Aleida will have to leave Earth to find it.
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Shantel VanSanten, Chris Bauer, Sarah Jones, Colm Feore, Wrenn Schmidt, Sonya Walger, Krys Marshall, Jodi Balfour, Nate Corddry, Eric Ladin, Rebecca Wisocky, Arturo Del Puerto, Olivia Trujillo, Lenny Jacobson, Dan Donohue, Wallace Langham Network: Apple TV+
Review: Apple TVâs See Feels Startlingly Uncommitted to Its Bonkers Concept
The series struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of its post-apocalyptic feudalism.1
Apple TVâs post-apocalyptic drama See will undoubtedly be sold on the credentials of those involved, from director Francis Lawrence to star Jason Momoa to writer-creator Steven Knight. Knight is best known for TV dramas like Peaky Blinders and Taboo, but his most relevant credit is one that will certainly go unmentioned in trailers and other marketing materials for the series: the stupefying, bonkers Matthew McConaughey fishing-centered noir Serenity, as See suffers from a similarly bizarre, overreaching concept.
In Seeâs vision of the future, only a couple million people are still alive, almost all of them blind. Society has, for some reason, gone feudal, with everyone decked out in furs and living in huts and broken up into different tribes. They call the sun the âgod flame,â and, at the behest of tyrannical Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks), they burn heretics who espouse the mostly forgotten idea of vision. The three-months pregnant Maghra (Hera Hilmar) is taken in by a remote community headed by Baba Voss (Momoa), who marries her. When she gives birth, itâs to twins who can see just fine. This, of course, being heresy, Baba Voss and the rest of the village flee from Kaneâs witchfinders, building a new home in a remote location to keep the children safe.
The showâs opening credits display wispy yellow shadows of things like horses and spiders to suggest recognition even through blindness. Beyond that, though, See feels startlingly uncommitted to its gimmick of a blind world. The series is filmed in bog-standard fantasy style, all wide vistas, expansive greenery, and ominous smoke in the distance with seemingly no concession for how its charactersâ perception of the world might differ from the audienceâs. Thereâs a near-total absence of subjective camera work here, a sense of how the characters might have to rely on touch, sound, or smell to navigate. Barring a personâs occasional stumble to find their footing or moving a hand along a guiding rope tied across the top of the village, everything unfolds so expectedly that itâs easy to forget the showâs concept entirely.
Even with interminable amounts of exposition in the three episodes provided to press ahead of the showâs premiere, Knight struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of this post-apocalyptic feudalism in terms of government, social hierarchies, and basic navigation between settlements. Everyone is incongruously well-groomed and color-coordinated, even going so far as to wear hoods when burning people at the stake despite no one being able to see their faces. Gory battle scenes include someone like Voss groping around for a handhold only to swing his blade to perfectly meet an enemyâs throat the very next moment.
See is at its most engaging when it allows itself to get truly silly and weird: A naked woman in white paint follows people unnoticed because sheâs said to purge herself of thought, and Queen Kane prays via masturbation, concluding each invocation in the throes of orgasm. But the majority of Knightâs series is a self-serious dirge, where sight-based wordplay like âSo they just walk around with their eyes closed?â is delivered with a straight face. In the end, Seeâs myriad absurdities somehow add up only to a run-of-the-mill dystopia, where the children are the âchosen onesâ and the tyrant must be overthrown.
Cast: Jason Momoa, Sylvia Hoeks, Hera Hilmar, Alfre Woodard, Christian Camargo, Archie Madekwe, Nesta Cooper, Yadira Guevara-Prip, Josh Blacker, Christian Sloan Network: Apple TV+
Review: The Morning Show Boldly Navigates the Nuances of the “Me Too” Era
The series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our current moment.3
In the third episode of The Morning Show, two disgraced men sit down after a spirited tennis match and chat over scotch and Chinese takeout. One, a film director of apparent renown (Martin Short), tells the otherâMitch Kessler (Steve Carell), a TV anchor recently accused of sexual misconduct and fired from his job co-hosting the nationâs most beloved morning showâthat he feels bad for people coming of age in the #MeToo era. âThereâs nothing sexy about consent,â he says. When Mitch responds with visual discomfort, the director revises his statement: âI guess what Iâm saying is, humanity happens in the unspoken moments.â
Mitch claims that his only sin was engaging in consensual âextracurricular sex.â But while the three episodes provided to press ahead of the showâs premiere donât confirm exactly what Mitch did or didnât do, and while he expresses genuine contempt for unequivocal predators, weâre granted hints of the unspoken moments he may have orchestrated. At one point, Mia Jordan (Karen Pittman), a producer on Mitchâs former show, enters Mitchâs abandoned dressing room and presses a button under his desk, which automatically closes the door.
Earlier, Mitch receives a surprise visit from Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), his longtime co-host. Heâs been cooped up in his house, surrounded by reporters, for days. The two clearly adore each other, and when Alex starts to leave, Mitch begs her to stay. His pleas are unnervingly murky: They may be the innocent symptoms of his loneliness and isolation, or they could be glimpses of the tactics he uses to keep women where they donât want to be.
Alex is furious at Mitch for leaving her on her own, at executive producer Charlie Black (Mark Duplass) for keeping her in the dark about the allegations, and at the network itself for the bitter contract renegotiation itâs putting her through. The network is represented largely by Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), an executive whoâs dismissive of hard news and devoted to entertainment. Heâs a delightfully odd highlight of the series, less traditional suit than android: unblinking, unreadable, and teetering on the edge of going haywire.
The rage that Aniston summons as Alex is beguiling. She slams her fists on conference tables and roars at her staff, achieving a catharsis thatâs at odds with the passive aggression that permeates The Morning Show. But when she interviews Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a firebrand reporter from West Virginia whoâs gone viral thanks to a candid video of her passionately telling someone off at a protest, Alex demonstrates a subtler wrath; thinking that the viral video was part of a scheme for fame, she asks increasingly antagonistic questions. Bradley, though, stands her ground, and the electrically pointed but within-bounds exchange escalates like a polite knife fight. Bradleyâs resolution, verve, and popular appeal catch Coryâs eye, making her, unknowingly, a candidate to replace Mitch.
Bradley is predominantly limited to her outsider-nessâbeing a moderate conservative from a rural localeâand clichĂ©s about both-sides journalism that undercut her supposed radical streak. But Witherspoon infuses the character with scrappy charm and complexity, namely in Bradleyâs uncharacteristically tender interactions with her brother, a recovering drug addict. Mitch, meanwhile, is thoroughly ostracized. Carell delivers bursts of pathos that disconcertingly temper Mitchâs grotesque rants, but the series uses Mitch as too broad a stand-in for the fallen man. A conversation between him and Charlie feels as though itâs meant purely to squeeze in boilerplate talking points about âMcCarthyismâ and âthe court of public opinionâ (and to make the insufferable Charlie even less sympathetic).
In its introductory episodes, however, The Morning Show mostly avoids trite, glib, or otherwise thoughtless writing. The series takes on the risky goal of humanizing Mitchâalbeit inconclusively, for nowâand carefully navigates the minefield of its sensitive subject material. Propelled by its magnetic performances, the series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our still-unspooling current moment.
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell, Karen Pittman, Desean Terry, Janina Gavankar, Bel Powley, Jack Davenport, Victoria Tate, Tom Irwin Network: Apple TV+
Review: Season 2 of Jack Ryan Leans Hard on Generic Action and Stale Plotting
The occasionally thrilling series relies on generic action cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction.1.5
Early in season two of Tom Clancyâs Jack Ryan, C.I.A. analyst Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) lectures a rapt audience of college students, defining for them the meaning of the term âfailed state,â and warning them of the looming threat of economic collapse in Venezuela. Ryan has an easy charisma, owing to the amiable presence of Krasinski, and he describes the South American nation in overly simplistic terms that fit the showâs polarized, good-versus-evil worldview: Its strongman president, Nicolas Reyes (Jordi Molla), is âan asshole,â and the country is destined for ruin. And so begins the new season, with the series in thrall to its title characterâand, by proxy, Americaâand concerned with its South American setting mostly as one more Banana Republic to be saved from itself.
Pitting moral opposites against one another for an occasionally thrilling eight episodes that place the fate of a nation in the balance, Jack Ryan harkens back to the anodyne action thrillers of the 1980s and â90s. Itâs also clearly influenced by the Reagan Doctrine of interventionism, which encouraged guerrilla wars against left-wing governments. The showâs paternalistic vision of Venezuela, like season oneâs notion of the Middle East, leans toward portraying the nation as one inherently incapable of self-managementâthus necessitating the help of Jack Ryan, a character who moves, frustratingly, into messianic territory here.
Ryan finds himself in Venezuela on a diplomatic mission to question Reyes regarding a mysterious shipment deep in the jungle, which is being guarded by notorious weapons traffickers. His earlier warnings about the country are quickly justified, as heâs ambushed by a mysterious hitman after the meeting with President Reyes seems to ruffle political feathers. The seasonâs winding plot spins out from this point, as Ryan and C.I.A. colleague Jim Greer (Wendell Peirce) must attempt to find out who ordered the ambush and whatâs in the jungle.
Jack Ryanâs loose grasp of U.S. foreign relations, while providing a poor representation of our history in Latin America, is a feature of its action-hero formula. Yet because the series has little unique to convey about the world Ryan inhabits, itâs composed solely of the brand of generic action and manipulative reliance on cliffhangers cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction. Jack Ryan is the Bourne series without the well-honed, if pummeling, stylistic brio; itâs James Bond minus the elegance; Mission: Impossible without the gonzo stunt work. What joys can be derived from it come mostly from Krasinskiâs affability and his characterâs prickly chemistry with Greer, to whom Pierce lends a warm grouchiness.
Throughout Jack Ryanâs new season, its relatively meaningless story doubles back over itself with a number of twists before, inevitably, the âgood guysâ win. Right out of the gate, you sense the showâs creative regression, as Ryan has transformed from a fish-out-of-water C.I.A. analyst to a natural superheroâone comfortable liberating prison camps in the jungle, spying on weapons caches, and invading foreign government buildings. The season stretches credulity even by the showâs own standards, culminating with Ryan and a small band of black-ops cohorts invading the Venezuelan presidential palace on election dayâand its laughably unrealistic final climax includes Ryan fist-fighting with President Reyes.
Though Ryan is sketched loosely, and strictly in terms of his heroism, Krasinskiâs everyman persona and knack for sarcastic comedy assures that heâs believable as a smart guy with hidden ambition and untapped potential, as well as a dash of ego. But despite Krasinskiâs effort, the series remains most engaging when the seasonâs action turns away from Ryan. A secondary plot, involving a foursome of American black operatives invading the jungle, provides some of the seasonâs most suspenseful action sequencesâand its most potent source of pathos, when Marcus (Jovan Adepo), one of the young soldiers, is lost alone behind enemy lines.
As in its first season, the series is still better at assigning motivation to its antagonists than it is at developing its title character, as the palace intrigue between Reyes and his chief advisor, Miguel Ubarri (Francisco Denis), efficiently gets at their motivations, revealing the history of their corruption and foreshadowing a dark fracture in their alliance. In stark contrast, Ryan is merely good, and his goodness is seen as a function of his profession, blank personality, and nationality. While season two is never boring, the series nonetheless has little new to say about Jack Ryan or the world, and while it doesnât lack for suspense, the fate of the latter is never really in doubt. The seasonâs length strains the effectiveness of its throwback sensibilities, passable action choreography, and formulaic charactersâattributes which may be better suited for standalone feature films.
Cast: John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, John Hoogenakker, Jordi Molla, Eduar Salas, Francisco Denis, Michael Kelly, Cristina UmaĂ±a, Jovan Adepo Network: Amazon
Review: His Dark Materials Is a Coming-of-Age Tale Dressed in Retro-Futuristic Garb
The series underlines the loss of creativity and boldness that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.2.5
HBOâs His Dark Materials is a beautifully orchestrated reminder that thereâs life after Westeros, albeit with airships, science, and sensible sweater vests. The first of Philip Pullmanâs iconic trilogy of novels springs to life in the showâs first episode, âLyraâs Jordan,â effectively erasing the memory of Chris Weitzâs 2007 film adaptation of The Golden Compass, which failed to embrace the depth of the universe Pullman created.
Dafne Keen slips naturally into the role of orphan Lyra Belacqua, whoâs eager to explore beyond her home at Jordan College in an alternate version of Oxford. The actress brings a bristling restlessness to the young girl, whoâs much more into stealing wine and sliding down rooftops than reading books and doing chores. In this world, all humans have talking daemons, physical manifestations of their souls that exist outside the body as animal companions. Childrenâs daemons donât take on a fixed form until their humans reach puberty, so Lyraâs daemon, Pantalaimon (Kit Connor), constantly morphs between a moth, wildcat, ermine, and a blur of other creatures. Itâs a heavy-handed metaphor for coming of age, but it lays a crucial foundation for the storyâs existential exploration of knowledge, individuality, and truth.
A visit from Lyraâs absentee uncle, Lord Asriel (James MacAvoy), throws her life into chaos. Asriel is cold and calculating, showing cool indifference even when Lyra saves his life. However effective MacAvoy is in his five minutes of screen time, though, heâs ultimately forgettableâunlike Ruth Wilson, who unfurls like a carnivorous plant as Marisa Coulter, a powerful âfriend of the collegeâ who hires Lyra as her assistant and takes the girl to London. Wilsonâs performance is a study in expertly controlled layers barely concealing a well of rage and cunning; thereâs also the inscrutable face of Mrs. Coulterâs golden monkey daemon, an unnerving extension of her formidable will. In episode two, the full thrust of this relationship is on full display in a traumatic incident involving the monkey and Pan, while in episode four, a wickedly primal scene blurs the line between Coulter and her daemon.
Jack Thorne, who adapted the series from Pullmanâs trilogy of novels, takes a balanced approach to world-building without drowning the audience in minutiae. The version of Britain imagined by the series is ruled by the Magisterium, the theocratic government that clashes with colleges that provide traditional academic sanctuary. Given the anti-intellectual inclinations of current real-world politics, itâs frustrating to watch the long arm of the law curl around those that would challenge it, even within its ranks. Thorne generally does well at crafting dialogue that reveals thoughtful bits of backstory, as well as the sociopolitical context of the charactersâ struggles. Given that there are so many elements to coverâsuch as the concept of Dust, which consists of subatomic particles that tend to gather around adults, which the Magisterium views as controversial, even hereticalâThorne pares down the novelâs science-magic descriptions without diminishing their importance.
Expository scenes detailing the history, science, politics, and arcana of the showâs alt-Britain might be necessary to understand the machinations of this world, but theyâre at times weighed down by clunky dialogue, as in a scene in which Ariyon Bakareâs Lord Boreal circles around a Magisterium priest, threatening to reveal his depravities if he doesnât help him. But where the writing can drag, the showâs visual style is efficient, as in the warm, earthy textures associated with the downtrodden and the sleek jewel tones that mark the powerful. Familiar motifs, from the foreboding pseudo-Brutalist architecture of London to classically framed scenes depicting the apron-clad laundrywomen and busy servant class at Jordan College, succinctly key us into the power dynamics of this universe. And while the showâs retro-futuristic setting hews to a mainstream steampunk aestheticâa genre thatâs historically rife with European colonial associationsâitâs encouraging to see a diverse cast, including Bakare, Clarke Peters (as The Master), and Lucian Msamati (as John Faa), playing characters in positions of power.
The main catalyst for the story of the show is the kidnapping of the children of Gyptians, a semi-nomadic people who live in houseboats, bringing simmering class politics to a near-boil, especially when evidence leads back to the Magisterium. In its timely depiction of a grassroots investigation into the disappearance of vulnerable children, His Dark Materials invites comparisons to the banal acts of evil that flourish in a corrupt system. At one point, Mrs. Coulter visits the children to help them write cheery letters to their loved ones before theyâre brought northward, and the camera follows their slight frames down a dank, narrow hallway. In this moment, the visual allusion to concentration camps is unmistakable.
Thorneâs character development falters slightly in the scenes set in Trollesund, a gateway port to the north, home of armored bears and as-yet-unseen witches. Throughout, Lyraâs small victories here are almost effortless: She wins over the exiled bear Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) a little too easily, and Byrnison, while suitably gruff and jaded, comes off as a one-dimensional outcast with little at stake. And itâs in Trollesund where the audience is introduced to the tedious theatrics of Lin Manuel Miranda, thinly disguised as a Texan aeronautist named Lee Scoresby. Itâs an ongoing struggle to get past Scoresbyâs overcooked Texan accent and constant rambling, and he ends up more caricature than comedic relief.
His Dark Materials underlines the loss of creativity and boldness that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. As Lyra intuitively learns to read her alethiometerâan arcane truth-telling device that requires years of studyâshe starts growing into her own identity. Keen shines when sheâs at her most defiant, giving stubborn, righteous life to a child struggling to understand the complexities of the real world. At the end of episode four, the series has barely begun to unpack its more fantastical elements, instead choosing to draw us into its well-rounded interpersonal relationships and emotional connections, all of which add an extra sense of profundity to an otherwise straightforward coming-of-age story.
Cast: Dafne Keen, James MacAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Clarke Peters, Lucian Msamati, Ariyon Bakare, Archie Barnes, Kit Connor, Joe Tandberg Network: HBO
Review: Season 2 of Castle Rock Favors Family Drama Over the Supernatural
Thereâs little apparent benefit to how the showâs second season foregrounds its interpersonal relationships.2
The first season of Castle Rock was essentially a basket of Easter eggs. With an assortment of peripheral Stephen King characters and locations, Huluâs horror anthology series revolved around an entirely original but ultimately uninspired plot. The second season dives more visibly into the King universe, sending one of the authorâs most famous characters, Miseryâs murderously obsessive nurse Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan), on a collision course with another King staple: the undead-inhabited town of Jerusalemâs Lot. Employing these more famous King touchstones, however, hasnât narrowed the showâs focus so much as itâs left it feeling scattered and unmoored.
At the start of the season, Annie drifts from town to town with her teenage daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher). She works as a nurse long enough in each town to gain access to its hospitalâs array of anti-psychotics in order to continue self-medicating, at which point she and Joy hit the road, swapping out license plates as they drive across the country. A late-night car crash strands them in Castle Rock, Maine, where their skeezy landlord, Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks), clashes with his adopted brother, Abdi Omar (Barkhad Abdi), over business with the local community of Somali immigrants. Thereâs clearly meant to be some social commentary here about racism and even, to some extent, the opioid epidemic, but even after the five episodes made available to critics, the season has yet to really dig into these thorny topics.
Castle Rock uses neighboring town Jerusalemâs Lot and its witchy history for a new set of mysterious resurrections. But compared to the first seasonâs supernatural hook, thereâs a much stronger focus on family drama here that spreads the story thin across so many characters; the series struggles to cover not only Annie and Joy settling into town, but the bad blood between Ace and Abdi. Ace and his biological brother, Chris (Matthew Alan), are the nephews of the unscrupulous, hard-nosed, but fair âPopâ Merrill (Tim Robbins, who unearths an intense weariness in the role). Out of a desire to make amends for his military service and no small amount of white guilt, Pop fostered both Abdi and his sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), whoâs the head doctor at the hospital where Annie now works. Itâs a tangled web, but the drama never boils to a degree that explains the eventual violent escalation. A shot of a younger, jealous Ace and some snippets of a right-wing radio program are an unsatisfying shorthand for his decision to start lobbing Molotov cocktails at his adopted brotherâs house.
The most engaging drama here is actually the one with the lowest, most ordinary stakes, in Joy reaching the age where sheâs grown restless under her motherâs wing. She starts to seek out friends her own age, but Annie is, as one might imagine, not an easy person to leave behind. The first season tackled dementia with surprising sensitivity, and thereâs a similar undercurrent of palpable pain to watching Joy struggle with the mental illness of a loved one, sorting out whatâs best for herself even when she loves and cares for her mother.
Unfortunately, Annie isnât nearly so easy to empathize with as Joy. Sheâs such an outsized presence, with her torrent of childish pet names and G-rated curses delivered in an odd folksy accent, that itâs difficult to view her as anything but a caricature. Originally conceived as a strange Other in Misery, Annie has been thrust into the role of protagonist with few apparent changes beyond her dedication as a mother, which nevertheless has its roots in her obsessive tendencies. It seems telling that, in a mid-season flashback episode meant to make young Annie more of a sympathetic character, her conspicuous tics are significantly dialed down.
Thereâs little apparent benefit to how Castle Rockâs second season foregrounds its interpersonal relationships. Deemphasizing a strong supernatural mystery leaves only a cast of characters that alternates between the dull and the exaggerated. Opting for more recognizable, overt King references hasnât enriched the showâs storytelling so much as clarified the gap between the authorâs best work and this TV imitation.
Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Tim Robbins, Paul Sparks, Barkhad Abdi, Elsie Fisher, Yusra Warsama, Matthew Alan, Abby Corrigan, Chad Knorr, Owen Burke, Paul Noonan Network: Hulu
Review: Daybreak Depicts a Unique but Indulgent Apocalyptic Wasteland
Insipid comedy aside, the Netflix series offers evocative reflections on the premature death of a generationâs childhood.2.5
The universe of Netflixâs Daybreak, based on the graphic novel by Brian Ralph, is both familiar and indulgent, as far as post-apocalypses go: Its wasteland is roamed not only by zombie-esque figures, but also by themed packs of survivors sporting rides decked out in spikes Ă la Mad Max. The showâs doomsday premise, however, features a unique twist: The apocalypse was triggered by a bomb that turned onlyâand, seemingly, allâadults into trudging undead âghoulies,â leaving children and teenagers mostly unharmed.
In the six months since the bomb dropped, the young survivors from Glendale, California have responded to the nuclear familyâs disintegration with the entrenchment of the chosen family, turning their social circles into tribes: the Cheermazons, the STEM Punks, the Disciples of Kardashia, and others. The tribes largely keep to themselves throughout the five episodes provided to press; only Baron Triumph, a mysterious, motorcycle-riding cannibal, and the Jocks, led by the grunting Genghis Khan wannabe Turbo Bro Jock (Cody Kearsley), resort to gratuitous violence. The post-apocalypse is, as a result, a relatively peaceful place.
Our guide through the cataclysm is Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford), a tribeless loner looking for his girlfriend, Sam Dean (Sophie Simnett). Throughout the series, Josh often breaks the fourth wall by introducing flashbacks, cuing montages, and contextualizing the apocalypse for the audience. These meta moments are less charming than lazy, rejecting subtle world-building in favor of information dumps. Much of the Daybreakâs comedy is similarly uninspired: While Glendale High Schoolâs Principal Burr (Matthew Broderick) hilariously evokes a certain kind of white, bubble-blinded progressivism in Joshâs flashbacks (âWeâre all woke here. Uh, wide awokeâ), the teenagersâ dialogue relies on meme-y jokesâlike one about never skipping leg dayâthat result in a stilted representation of Gen Z.
Insipid comedy aside, Daybreak offers evocative reflections on the premature death of a generationâs childhood. After one of Turboâs underlings fires a homemade gun, Mona Lisa (JeantĂ© Godlock), Turboâs right hand, declares, âYou broke the Emma GonzĂĄlez Accords. Weâre not playing with guns.â The throwaway line briefly hints at the trauma that the kids have experienced. They wonât use guns, even at the worldâs end, because school shootings have scarred them. They canât reckon with the apocalypse because theyâre still processing the horrors of their old lives, still fettered by a social order that canât see beyond jocks and nerds and cheerleaders, still reeling from the damage caused by neglectful parents and bullies.
Daybreak most formidably juxtaposes the past and the present in an episode following Joshâs newfound companion, Wesley Fists (Austin Crute), a jock turned ronin seeking redemption for his sins. Director Sherwin Shilati and writer Ira Madison III have created a remarkable samurai-flick-style exploration of Wesleyâs various personal apocalypses: his relocation from Compton to the much-more-white Glendale; his falling-out with the cousin (Frederick Williams) he used to do everything with; and, now, his need to choose between a forbidden love and his friends. It all unfolds beneath an astonishingly versatile voiceover by RZA, whoâs both very funny and very capable of hitting the episodeâs dramatic beats.
When, toward the end of the episode, Wesley speaks directly to the narrator, the exchange avoids the triteness of hollow fourth-wall-breaking. It reads, instead, as an honest confrontation between the character and his psyche, a clinging to selfhood all but reduced to rubble. In such sequences, Daybreak flexes against the mechanical writing that constrains it elsewhere, exploring forces and fears powerful enough to render the apocalypse insignificant.
Cast: Colin Ford, Austin Crute, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Matthew Broderick, Sophie Simnett, Gregory Kasyan, Krysta Rodriguez, JeantĂ© Godlock, Cody Kearsley, Jade Peyton, Rob H. Roy, Austin Maas, Chelsea Zhang Network: Netflix
Review: El Camino, a Breaking Bad Sequel, Is a Manâs Rueful Lament for Past Wrongs
The film mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail.2.5
Writer-director Vince Gilliganâs El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is driven by a structural perversity. The storyâabout a man fleeing from the aftermath of the events of the AMC showâs finaleâis rife with flashbacks, often resisting to answer the âWhat happened next?â question that drives most follow-ups. Young meth-cooker Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was last seen at the end of Breaking Bad driving a stolen El Camino into the desert darkness, hysterical after escaping imprisonment and torture at the hands of white supremacists, whom his partner, Walter White, ultimately killed. We last saw Jesse in a sort of propulsive extremis, which one assumes might bleed into a sequel, but Gilligan conjures in El Camino a rueful tone that bears more of a resemblance to the recent seasons of Better Call Saul than to Breaking Bad. Before Jesse can move on to the next stage in his life, he must reckon with the abuse heâs just fled, with the wreck his life has become.
El Camino mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail. Gilligan hasnât lost his talent for narrative invention, especially for rendering subterranean criminal worlds hidden in plain sight. One of Breaking Badâs most chillingly casual, self-rationalizing henchman, Todd (Jesse Plemons), returns in flashbacks, and is revealed to have acted as a kind of gaslighting partner to Jesse, offering him breadcrumbs of kindness in order to use him to carry out side errands. In the present, Jesse is on the run, trading the El Camino for a friendâs car, staking out Toddâs now abandoned apartment, which he knows contains a large stash of cash. Jesse has this information because he helped Todd remove the corpse of a housekeeper that the latter killed. Todd views this disposal as just another errand, and Jesse drops the body from several floors up like a bundle of laundry. In an especially macabre flourish, Todd removes his belt from the dead womanâs neck and re-loops it into his pants.
Of all the Breaking Bad characters who briefly return in El Camino, Todd seems to stimulate Gilliganâs imagination most. He suggests a modernization of a Donald Westlake characterâa thug whoâs selfish and intelligent enough to wall himself off from the implications of his actions. Gilligan goes to town finding various ways to express Toddâs callousness, which Plemons plays with extraordinary understatement. When Jesse finds a gun and briefly toys with escaping from Todd, the latterâs understanding of his own power and entitlement is truly unnerving. Todd says, âIâll have that gun now, Jesse,â with condescension, and, more audaciously, with something resembling actual pity.
Gilliganâs aesthetic also appears to be influenced by Westlake, as El Camino has a crisp, streamlined, matter-of-fact sense of framing that suggests the pared-down prose of the legendary crime writer, while recalling the confident visual style that Breaking Bad grew into and that Better Call Saul inherited. Thereâs also a bit of Twin Peaks, and Breaking Bad itself, in Gilliganâs chronological hopscotching, which shifts oneâs focus from the plot at large to individual scenes. El Camino is ultimately concerned with a simple narrative thread: Jesseâs attempt to find the money to pay Ed (Robert Forster) to help him disappear into a kind of witness protection program for criminals. Jesse couldâve went with Ed in Breaking Bad and didnât, and so El Camino often suggests a long act of atoning for one essential failure of self-preservation, as Jesse remembers pivotal details from his past to pry himself free from his current predicament. Forster, in his final role, is a master of the implicitly emotionally charged deadpan that Gilliganâs characters use to protect themselves and to launder atrocity.
Yet Gilligan somewhat outsmarts himself in El Camino. For all the filmâs invention, for all its trickiness, it doesnât really move. Jesse isnât an interesting enough character to connect the filmâs various tangents; heâs certainly not a Walter White or a Saul Goodman, criminals who dare the audience to like them via the visceral nature of their inventiveness and need to succeed and dominate. Audiences whoâre âTeam Jesseâ will probably enjoy El Camino more than those who always found him to be somewhat tediousâa youth-flattering character whoâs divorced of complicity from the plot of which heâs a part. Gilliganâs love for Jesse doesnât do the protagonist any favors either, as El Camino is composed of a series of riffs in which heâs continually upstaged by characters whoâre allowed to be true to their maliciousness. Breaking Bad ended with Jesse discovering himself in chaos, El Camino reins him back in.
Cast: Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Bryan Cranston, Jonathan Banks, Krysten Ritter, Todd Bower, Robert Forster, Gloria Sandoval, Tess Harper, Michael Bofshever Network: Netflix