Adam Whitman makes his secondâ€”and lastâ€”appearance on Mad Men in â€śIndian Summer,â€ť checking out of the series at the beginning of an episode that favors plot and narrative momentum over the thematically self-contained brand of storytelling that has prevailed in recent weeks (and which couldnâ€™t have been timed better in light of todayâ€™s humid 86-degree weather). Each of the last few episodes has had more references to earlier ones than the last, and the increasing number of callbacks, combined with the way narrative strands are converging, suggests the season will play fairly differently on DVD when viewers don
The package that Adam sends his brotherâ€”which presumably contains something other than whatâ€™s left of the money from â€ś5G,â€ť otherwise Adam wouldnâ€™t have so much cash on hand when he slips the noose around his neckâ€”is like the gun that Anton Chekov spoke of so memorably: If it shows up in act one, the writerâ€™s doing something wrong if the trigger isnâ€™t pulled in act three. Peteâ€™s acquisition of the package is close enough for government work where Chekovâ€™s maxim is concerned: It doesnâ€™t give us a climax, but it does end the episode with the seriesâ€™s most significant cliffhanger yet. Pete has the gun in his handâ€”now, the question is how much damage he can do with it.
For the most part, Iâ€™ve shied away from specific prognostication in these recaps, but itâ€™s hard to resist where the next two episodes of Mad Men are concerned. Next weekâ€™s will reveal a lot about what we can expect from the series in future seasons: On The Sopranos, where Matthew Weiner earned his stripes, the seasonâ€™s most eventful episode was always the penultimate one, while the finale was usually something of a coda that reflected on the seasonâ€™s preceding twelve installments. Given that the title of next weekâ€™s show is â€śKennedy vs. Nixonâ€ť, the pattern seems likely to hold. If it is the seasonâ€™s climactic episode, then one of two things will happen: Don will succumb to blackmail and appoint Pete as Sterling Cooperâ€™s head of account services, or Bert Cooper will learn that Don Draper came into this world as Richard Whitman.
My personal hunch, fostered by this weekâ€™s revelation that Bert Cooper isnâ€™t just an admirer of Ayn Rand but is apparently a satellite member of her circle of followers, the Collective (though Cooper is significantly older than key Rand devotees such as Alan Greenspan, Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff, not to mention Rand herself, who was 55 in 1960), is that Cooperâ€™s opinion of Don would only rise upon learning just how much of a self-made man Don is. Since weâ€™ll have our answers soon enough, Iâ€™ll refrain from further attempts to divine Weinerâ€™s intentions and will return to the episode at hand.
Although Betty and Peggyâ€™s shared sexual frustration plays a big role in â€śIndian Summer,â€ť the link feels more coincidental than thematic; Bettyâ€™s scenes are there to remind us that Donâ€™s pursuit of Rachel (and before her, of Midge) is not without consequences at home, while Peggyâ€™s feel like groundwork for a later exploration of the changing role of women in an office such as Sterling Cooper. Peggyâ€™s increasing role as a copywriterâ€”which gains her more respect from Don, Fred Rumsen and Ken Cosgroveâ€”is paralleled by a plunge in her self-esteem, courtesy of Peteâ€™s callous behavior, that leads to her putting on weight (Elisabeth Moss, by the way, deserves kudos for her lack of self-consciousness while wearing the fat suit that simulates Peggyâ€™s physical expansion). Peggy initially thinks sheâ€™s being asked to write about the dubious weight loss device because sheâ€™s fat, not because she did well with the Belle Jolie account, and the realization that it has more to do with the latter (a little more, at least) clearly gives her an ego boost, as we see from her date with the truck driver. Even so, it also reminds us how naĂŻve she is, via her chirpy conclusion about why people in Manhattan are â€śbetter.â€ť Nonetheless, the scene at the end where she straps on the vibrating belt is less sad than it is, arguably, a display of an admirable pragmatism that makes me very eager to see what will become of her in future seasons.
Betty, on the other hand, still has a ways to go with sorting out her sexuality. I loved how she kept herself from going through with her potential Penthouse Forum scenario with the salesman by telling him Don would probably rather buy an AC from Sears, a comment that aims a howitzer right at his balls (to borrow a phrase from Roger Sterling) by invoking the new model of consumerism that would soon torpedo the door-to-door biz. The specificity with which she invokes his sales pitch while in bed with Don later suggests that, subconsciously, she wanted to let Don know that she has options and could easily stray if she wants to. Don doesnâ€™t pick up on this, however, and reads the situation as an attack on the sanctity of â€™his houseâ€™. With a lot of men, that would be equivalent to a potential attack on their wifeâ€™s virtue, but for someone who moved up in the world as Don did, being lord and master of a middle class household probably means a lot more to him (and means different things) than it might for many other men of the era. The scene where Betty tells her friend about the salesman takes the point about men and property a little too far via Francineâ€™s observation that her husband would break her arm for letting a salesman into the house, but Iâ€™ll let it slide since Iâ€™m just so relieved that Francineâ€™s baby apparently turned out OK despite all of the anvilicious drinking and smoking we saw her due during the pregnancy (although their circumstances are totally different, Francineâ€™s bearing as she fired up a Kent in her milk- and sweat-stained housedress couldnâ€™t help reminding me of the young Livia Soprano we saw in â€śDown Neck,â€ť who, about 45 miles south of Peggy and Francine, would then be tending to the six- or seven-week-old Tony).
Finally, thereâ€™s the fate of Roger Sterling to chew on. When Roger arrives at Sterling Cooper, he seems a completely changed man, a development that seems a little too pat to be true. It is: His confession to Joan that sheâ€™s â€śthe best piece of ass he ever hadâ€ť brings to mind a certain clichĂ© about old dogs and new tricks. I was pretty dubious about the need to bring in Roger to serve as â€śboth dog and pony,â€ť as he puts it, especially in light of Lucky Strike Sr.â€™s relatively muted reaction to Rogerâ€™s second heart attack. Mona Sterling tears into Bert Cooper for being more cynical than she thought was humanly possible, and Iâ€™m wondering if perhaps he was even more cynical still: Could he have deliberately been setting up Roger to take a fall in order to more easily persuade clients to accept the necessity of bumping Don up to partner? I certainly wouldnâ€™t put it past the guy.
The weekly grab-bag:
I was briefly taken aback by Rachelâ€™s sister invoking the name of Robert Morgenthau without specifying who he was (he was mentioned by surname only), which seemed surprising for the time. Morgenthau has been Manhattanâ€™s district attorney for more than 30 years, but in 1960 he was still in the private sector, as a partner a the firm of Patterson, Belknap & Webb (now Patterson, Belknap Webb & Tyler). In 1961, JFK appointed him U.S. Attorney for the southern district of New York (the job that made Rudolph Giulianiâ€™s career), and he was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1962, losing to Nelson Rockefeller. The Nixon administration forced him out of the Justice Department seven years later, and, following a stint as deputy mayor under John Lindsay and a failed attempt to score the Democratic gubernatorial nod a second time, he became district attorney in 1974. His name isnâ€™t mentioned in the lede of a single New York Times article in 1960, which suggests that the only way the Menken sisters would know who he was would be if their family did business with Patterson, Belknapp & Webb (at which potential future U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey is presently a partner).
The Nixon-Kennedy bebate mentioned by Roger was presumably the first of the candidatesâ€™ four such events, which took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960, about a week to ten days before tonightâ€™s episode. Roger must have seen the debate on a TV in his room at the hospitalâ€”which seems kind of extravagant for 1960, though as Don points out, â€śHeâ€™s richâ€”theyâ€™re taking good care of himâ€ť.
Somewhat to my surprise, the season premiere and ABC press info on the next few episodes of Desperate Housewives, it doesnâ€™t seem lke John Slatteryâ€™s going to be leaving Fairview anytime soon. Depending on when Mad Men wrapped for the season, he must either have been shooting both shows simultaneously or segued from one to the other with no more than a couple of days off in between. Hereâ€™s hoping the quality of his work on Mad Men inspires the DH writers to give him better material this yearâ€”it pains me to say it, but his long courtship with Eva Longoria last season was one of the dullest patches that
series (which, when itâ€™s on top of its game, I really like) has ever suffered through.
For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.
Review: Years and Years Is a Captivating Dystopian Family Drama
The series manages to pile on the cataclysms without taking pleasure in the pain of its characters.3
In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike describes his early adulthood by saying, â€śI turned thirty, then forty,â€ť and in doing so skips over a decadeâ€™s worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Daviesâ€™s miniseries Years and Years, which will launch on HBO following its run on BBC One, similarly makes economic use of time, but where Updike jumps into the future, the series sprints. Every so often throughout the four episodes made available to press, a searing montage pushes the world a few years forward, relaying key geopolitical developmentsâ€”a landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisisâ€”before settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.
We experience these changes through the perspective of Britainâ€™s Lyons family, which includes tough but caring matriarch Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid) and her grandchildren: Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a banker; Daniel (Russell Tovey), a housing officer; Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a school cafeteria manager; and Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist. The siblings, their partners, and their children are Years and Yearsâ€™s primary concern, and with each lurch into the future, their lives tend to get worse rather than better. All the while, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a fear-mongering pseudo-populist, launches and advances her political career, deploring the worldâ€™s degradation and promising to represent the true wishes of the British people.
At one point, the Lyons siblings hop on a conference call to react to one of Rookâ€™s appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rookâ€™s straightforwardnessâ€”the series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflictâ€”Daniel is horrified by it, and others lie somewhere in between. Rook is more than a little Trumpian, a resonant representation of the crassness that heâ€™s made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isnâ€™t really about them, but about Rook. Itâ€™s about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rookâ€™s ascent and leaves people like the Lyons family staring slack-jawed at her demagoguery and electoral swashbuckling.
As Rook, Thompson seems to multiply the minutes she gets on screen with the ferocity and sheer gravitational pull that the actress brings to the politician. When sheâ€™s on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when sheâ€™s participating in a local debate, she defiantly stands at the center of the stage, in the middle of the screen, her opponents surrounding her like planets stalled in orbit.
The rest of the castâ€™s performances similarly ground the seriesâ€™s socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that faĂ§ade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesnâ€™t cry solely because of the loss; heâ€™s also grieving a financial crash along with his increasingly fraught marriage, which together contribute to the gulf separating what he thought his life would be and what it has become.
Though thoughtful and moving in its exploration of such suffering, both individual and collective, Years and Years occasionally stumbles by insufficiently using its characters to contextualize its political world-building. At Rookâ€™s debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness thatâ€™s jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rookâ€™s victory feels artificial, like she manages to sway her doubters purely because the series needs her to in order to demonstrate the shortsightedness of voters. Rosie and Edithâ€™s presence should, in theory, render Rookâ€™s beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pairâ€™s attraction to her.
Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the seriesâ€™s sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosieâ€™s newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if itâ€™s right to bring a child into a deteriorating world. As Daniel bemoans the banks and the corporations and fake news and more, he ceases to blink, his voice rising and quickening. He becomes a machine unleashing a diatribe thatâ€™s too neat to be convincing, the character of Daniel giving way to a Daniel-shaped megaphone. Later, though, Daniel tells off a xenophobic visitor to the refugee camp he works at in his capacity as a housing officer. This scene, in contrast to the earlier one, doesnâ€™t burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what heâ€™s personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve allâ€”and more thanâ€”the help they receive. Here, Danielâ€™s dialogue and Toveyâ€™s performance are vastly more organic, emerging from within the character as opposed to simply flowing through him.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personalâ€”nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelitiesâ€”to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of the Lyonses. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it.
Cast: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, Tâ€™Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO
Review: Euphoriaâ€™s Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid
Euphoriaâ€™s central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.2.5
Sam Levinsonâ€™s Euphoria announces its self-consciously provocative nature within its first minute, when Rue Bennett (Zendaya) says that she was happy once, over an image of the girl, in fetus form, about to be born. Airplane engines begin to howl alongside baby Rueâ€™s POV as she exits the birth canal, at which point the episode transitions to a shot of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. She was born three days after 9/11. The juxtaposition here is loud and in-your-face, and though itâ€™s tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinsonâ€™s film Assassination Nation, it has the benefit of some actual thematic coherence, for the way the open-with-a-literal-bang image acknowledges 9/11 as the unmistakable divide between Euphoriaâ€™s teens and everyone else.
Rue characterizes the world she grew up in as a chaotic, aimless place devoid of much understanding for her people her age, which leaves her generation concerned mainly with wringing out as much enjoyment from it as they can. And the series, which is adapted from an Israeli drama of the same name, depicts such teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The nature of these occasionally graphic depictions is complicated by Levinsonâ€™s consciously â€śattitudeâ€ť-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what todayâ€™s young people go through, or both? Regardless, the series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain.
Rue, we learn, is a drug addict fresh out of rehab whoâ€™s largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the showâ€™s other teens feel their way through seedy meet-ups with older men, pursue self-actualization through porn, and cope with invasions of privacy, Rue provides the perspective through which we view nearly everything and everyone else. She narrates even the events that donâ€™t involve her, lending them a general vibe of playful, sarcastic worldliness. She determines the flow of the action, freezing a sex scene outright for a digression on modern porn habits or summoning a cutaway gag, like a lecture on dick pics complete with projector slides. Zendaya plays Rue with a perpetual murmur and effortless remove, like an observer sitting on the sidelines watching the world go by, until she succumbs to a desperate, drug-seeking freak-out or one of the panic attacks those drugs are meant to distance her from.
The series tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the charactersâ€™ ears, the result is that Euphoriaâ€™s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no â€śnext.â€ť Thereâ€™s only the all-encompassing â€śnow.â€ť â€śThe world is coming to an end,â€ť Rue says to justify her drug use, â€śand I havenâ€™t even graduated high school yet.â€ť
Euphoriaâ€™s best scenes are its oases of joy and humor, particularly the luminous relationship between Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new-in-town trans girl whose sunny disposition contrasts Rueâ€™s overall remove yet masks a deeper restlessness. The chemistry between Zendaya and Schafer paints a believable portrait of a companionship only possible before adulthood, when you have as much free time as you have affection to distribute.
The two might have sustained the series by themselves, though Euphoria struggles to develop its other characters. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), for example, is largely undefined beyond the sexual history sheâ€™s trying to move beyond, while her boyfriend, Chris (Algee Smith), seems to exist only to express discomfort about that history. Beneath his football-playing faĂ§ade, Nate (Jacob Elordi) has a streak of violent calculation that dances on the edge of caricature. Only Kat (Barbie Ferreira) seems to develop beyond her basic template of virginal angst, mainly because the series resolves the issue almost immediately before sending her down a Pornhub rabbit hole on an amusing journey of self-discovery; her burgeoning sexuality comes to encompass an attractive classmate as much as a man on Skype who wants to be her â€ścash pig.â€ť
The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the showâ€™s development of the teens. As the camera glides between multiple perspectives at the same carnival event, Jules has a scary revelation about an older, married man, Cal (Eric Dane), she recently hooked up with, while a panicked Rue searches for her sister, Gia (Storm Reid), whoâ€™s still reeling from Rueâ€™s overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nateâ€™s long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so theyâ€™ll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While itâ€™s realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Katâ€™s storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isnâ€™t totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.
The success of Euphoriaâ€™s teen drama ultimately depends on which teen it focuses on at any given moment. With Rue and Jules at the center, you feel the exhilaration of their friendship as much as a real concern for their growing troubles. But with its less fully developed characters, the series can feel like little more than a lurid performance of teenage pain.
Cast: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Nika King, Storm Reid, Hunter Schafer, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Austin Abrams, Alanna Ubach Network: HBO
Review: Huluâ€™s Das Boot Forfeits the Telescoped Focus of Its Source Material
The series transforms a story that captured something of the experience of war into a familiar melodrama.1.5
One of the strengths of Wolfgang Petersenâ€™s classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-GĂĽnther Buchheimâ€™s novel of the same name, is that itâ€™s no glorification of the German war machine. Indeed, its shocking ending underlines the absolute senselessness of war and the meaninglessness of heroism. Das Boot is a war film that could only be made in a country where virtually everyone had experienced the horror of war firsthand, whether it was on the frontlines or cowering in a bomb shelter. But itâ€™s also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the marginsâ€”at beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returnsâ€”and non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the filmâ€™s purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.
Johannes W. Betzâ€™s new series solves this problem by flashing back and forth between the crew of a U-Boot captained by the young Captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon) and a plot of betrayal and subterfuge in the shipâ€™s port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betzâ€™s Das Boot eschews much of what made the original film effective: the feeling that the viewer is stranded in the narrow gangways of the submarine on a mostly blind journey through treacherous waters.
Forfeiting the telescoped focus that keeps the film engrossing, the series substitutes hidden backstories and interpersonal melodrama that feels like it was pulled from the prestige-drama handbook. As the crew is assembled in the first episode, â€śNew Paths,â€ť we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type whoâ€™s been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedtâ€™s simmering resentment plays out, over the course of the four episodes available for review, as an escalating crisis of authority, as he grows increasingly bold in his defiance of the noble-minded Hoffmann, and sways the minds of several (rather easily convinced) enlisted men.
Meanwhile, Simone arrives in La Rochelle, where she expects to live and work alongside her younger brother, Frank (Leonard Scheicher), a radio engineer. When an accident on board Hoffmann and Tennstedtâ€™s U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the shipâ€™s engineer, Tennstedt summarily decides to assign Frank to the vessel. With no choice in the matter and suddenly facing an uncertain fate, Frank hands over to Simone a cache of materials he was supposed to deliver in a post-curfew rendezvous later that night.
In the second episode, â€śSecret Missions,â€ť itâ€™s revealed that Frankâ€™s mission had something to do with a French girl heâ€™s been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)â€”well, only â€śmysteriousâ€ť inasmuch as the series clumsily cultivates an air of mystique around her, all oblique camera angles and vague dialogue. On the brink of explaining her intentions to Simone, Monroe stops herself, mostly, it seems, to extend the mystery for another episode or two. â€śProbably better if you donâ€™t know,â€ť she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.
Itâ€™s in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to showâ€”or, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the showâ€™s main focus, is an exaggerated contrivance. In a scenario painfully familiar from a dozen cable dramas that have pulled it off more convincingly (see The Americans, Breaking Bad, Barry), Simone conducts her illegal dealings with Monroeâ€™s resistance cell under the nose of Gestapo inspector Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha). Forster has a professional relationship with Simone, and, he hopes, a burgeoning personal one. As heâ€™s drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activitiesâ€”though, naturally, episode four, â€śDoubts,â€ť ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.
This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheimâ€™s 1995 novel Die Festung, transforms a story that endeavored to capture something of the experience of war into an overly familiar melodrama of obscure motivations, hidden backstories, and broadly sketched interpersonal conflict. The series may try to address Nazi terror in a way Petersenâ€™s film leaves beyond its margins, but even its depiction of atrocity serves merely as a convenient motivator for familiar twists and turns. The sense of cheapness and naked commercialism that pervades the series makes its explicit depiction of disturbing violenceâ€”a death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailorsâ€”feel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series canâ€™t be counted on to deliver any insights on history or war, but compelling drama may be even further beyond its capabilities.
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, Lizzy Caplan, Vincent Kartheiser, James Dâ€™Arcy, Thierry FrĂ©mont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu
Review: Jessica Jonesâ€™s Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought
As it nears the end of its run, the series doesnâ€™t seem to have much more to say about trauma.2
The third and final season of Jessica Jones feels more like an afterthought than a farewell, an unevenly written retread thatâ€™s uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix showâ€™s world, with the eponymous superpowered private eye (Krysten Ritter) having conquered the lingering pain of sexual abuse and childhood domestic strife across the first two seasons. And it being a Marvel Comics property, Jessica Jones predictably scrutinizes such personal trauma through the lens of highly literal metaphor: In the first season, an evil ex-loverâ€™s telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive motherâ€™s super strength stands for the seemingly indominable power parents have over their children.
The new season saddles its hero with more trauma, both psychological and physical, but loses the real-life resonance of the showâ€™s previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), whoâ€™s the embodiment of misogynist male geekdomâ€”which is to say, that corner of the internet thatâ€™s predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.
In the seasonâ€™s first episode, â€śA.K.A. The Perfect Burger,â€ť Jessica is taken by surprise when Salinger shows up at her apartment in the middle of the night, hunting her one-night stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker). The encounter leaves Jessica injured and newly traumatized, and Salinger psychotically obsessed with his incidental victim. Salinger resents Jones for being what real-world toxic nerds would call a â€śMary Sueâ€ťâ€”or, as Salinger puts it, for â€ścheating,â€ť for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a â€śfeminist vindicator.â€ť
This new seasonâ€™s use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isnâ€™t the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. Itâ€™s an intent undermined by its charactersâ€™ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the showâ€™s message. In contrast to David Tenantâ€™s chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesnâ€™t convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salingerâ€™s often blandly scripted rants against womenâ€™s empowerment.
Salinger also targets Erikâ€™s wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessiscaâ€™s neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolmâ€™s subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarthâ€™s (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute whoâ€™s sexually available to Malcolm simply because sheâ€™s hiding out in his apartment. Sheâ€™s characterized as a nuisance who becomes a kind of punching bag for the other characters, who talk about her poor life decisions in front of her as if she isnâ€™t there.
Malcolmâ€™s is one of three major subplots that take up much of the run time of the eight episodes of the new season made available to press. In the others, both Jeri and Jessicaâ€™s ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trishâ€™s story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hellâ€™s Kitchen, and sheâ€™s given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed â€śA.K.A Youâ€™re Welcome.â€ť
Jeriâ€™s subplot, on the other hand, adds very little to a character already understood from previous seasons as self-serving and morally compromised. This arc, hardly more than filler, also features one of the seasonâ€™s most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeriâ€™s former lover, Kith Lyonne (Sarita Choudhury), badly faking a cello performance as Jeri caresses her and the low-angle camera slowly tracks around them.
As for Jones herself, the series canâ€™t shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The seasonâ€™s opening shot, which has her leather boot stomp into the frame in close-up against the unaccustomed environs of a sunny beach, even evokes the way her personality is summed up by tattered jeans and grimy leather. In the form of Salingerâ€™s initial attack, sheâ€™s given a new trauma to work through, but after three seasons, this form of motivation seems more like an obligatory gesture than an exploration of character. By the time sheâ€™s brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, â€śThe Double Half-Woppinger,â€ť itâ€™s clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesnâ€™t have much more to say.
Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rebecca De Mornay, Jeremy Bobb, Benjamin Walker, Sarita Choudhury, Jamie Neumann Network: Netflix
Review: Pose Season Two Looks to the Future with Its Head Held High
The series empathetically attests to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence.2.5
One notable arc of the second season of Pose traces the success of Madonnaâ€™s â€śVogue,â€ť from the song premiering on radio in March 1990 to the moment it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart less than two months later. The show understands the songâ€™s lucid appreciation of the ballroom as an aspirational space. Madonnaâ€™s dance-pop anthem was like a lifeline to those in the house-ball community, and almost all of Poseâ€™s characters celebrate it without reservation. â€śEverything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!â€ť says Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), emboldened by the song to chase after her dreams.
Which is to say that Pose doesnâ€™t bow before the altar of wokeism, at least not in the four episodes made available to press ahead of the new seasonâ€™s premiere, knowing that the conversation about the song erasing voguingâ€™s roots in a communityâ€™s daily struggles wasnâ€™t one that many people were having in 1990. But the show does seem interested in the idea that the global success of â€śVogueâ€ť was blinding to some in the drag-ball community. Can a queer person of color living on the fringes of society actually harness Madonnaâ€™s blond ambition? And from the spectacle of drag emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) reading the riot act to Candy (Angelica Ross) for coming to one show as a simulacrum of Madonna, voguing while dressed as one of the singerâ€™s â€śExpress Yourselfâ€ť personas, the answer would seem to be a resounding no.
Thereâ€™s a sense that Pray is being rough on Candy because he recognizes what weâ€™ve long known about her, and what the seasonâ€™s third episode makes sure that we donâ€™t forget: that she has no problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. Witten by Our Lady J and directed by Janet Mock, the episode splits its time between the budding romance between Angel (Indya Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and the aftermath of a client (Frank De Julio) dying during one of Elektra Abundanceâ€™s (Dominique Jackson) shifts at the Hellfire Club. Tonally, the episode walks a high-wire act thatâ€™s empoweringâ€”for the way it regards Angel and Lil Papi in their bliss as stars of a Hollywood melodrama that never wasâ€”and ballsyâ€”for the way it unearths humor and pathos in equal measure from everything that leads up to Candy convincing Elektra to not report her clientâ€™s death to the authorities.
The episode is perhaps too easily understood as an imagining of what must have led to one Paris Is Burning participant, drag performer and dressmaker Dorian Corey, possibly murdering and storing an ex-loverâ€™s dead body in a closest inside her apartment for approximately 15 years. (The manâ€™s mummified corpse was only discovered after Coreyâ€™s AIDS-related death.) But the point of the episode, like some long-delayed eulogy, is to empathetically attest to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Too often, though, the series goes one step further by blaring that message out loud, with dialogue that suggests a kind of PSA speak. That isnâ€™t so much an issue in scenes that see the characters fighting the menace of AIDS, as Pose knows that the gay community raised awareness of the disease in the bluntest of ways, but in various scenarios, like Angelâ€™s pursuit of her modeling career, that are beholden to all manner of coming-of-age and aspirational clichĂ©s.
The cast list for the new season reveals that Charlayne Woodard, as Helena St. Rogers, will be returning at some point, which goes a long way toward explaining why it appears as if Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are just hanging around in the background of the first four episodes as if theyâ€™re waiting for something, anything, to bring them to the foreground. The stage may be lovingly ceded to Angel and Lil Papi, but after a while, it just feels as if the lovebirds are going through all the same soap-operatic motions that Damon and Ricky did in the first season: Angel is so desperate to be a star that she opens herself up to being exploited by a smarmy photographer (Alexander DiPersia), and after she and her friends hand him his ass in a proud show of unity, Angel gets her first break, which just so happens to occur at the exact moment of a date she has with Lil Papi.
Something, though, that we do know for sure by the end of the fourth episode is that Pose isnâ€™t concerned with putting any allies on blast. If youâ€™re in the know about the history of New York and the AIDS crisis, then youâ€™ll instantly recognize nurse and activist Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) and dog-toting real estate agent Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone) as stand-ins for Linda Laubenstein and Leona Helmsley, respectively. And if Judy, who joins Blanca in a crusade to get Pray Tell to start taking AZT, is celebrated for being a small-scale hero, Linda very easily invites the audienceâ€™s scorn for threatening Blanca after discovering sheâ€™s trans. But itâ€™s an invitation that feels too easy, too cartoonish, especially in the context of the showâ€™s almost Disney-fiedâ€”or Glee-fulâ€”depiction of New York during this time period.
Thereâ€™s a disconnect between the showâ€™s aesthetics and its subject matter that feels especially apparent when one major character shows up dead in episode four. The moment certainly lacks the immediacy of the horrific moment from The Deuceâ€™s first season when a john throws Pernell Walkerâ€™s Ruby out of a window like a piece of trash. Director Ryan Murphy knows that you can assert such a womanâ€™s humanity in more than one way, but the sentimentalized theater of this episode is the stuff of cognitive dissonance. Because the prior three episodes give the short shrift to the characterâ€™s investment in changing ball culture, to tailoring it to her strengths, the moment that sheâ€™s celebrated for influencing that culture feels unearned. If hers wasnâ€™t a dream that ever felt like it was her own, thatâ€™s because itâ€™s the stuff of narrative convenience, a setup for a fall that, in the depiction of its aftermath, ironically links Pose to Madonnaâ€™s â€śVogueâ€ť by making reality seem a little less dark than it really is.
Review: Season Five of Black Mirror Regards Our Grim Future with a Smirk
The new season recalls the most human elements of past episodes while levying urgent indictments of the present.3.5
Season five of Black Mirror offers three new episodes that envision a predictably worrisome slate of side effects to humanityâ€™s technological reach outpacing its intellectual grasp. But in offering dystopian visions that hew closer to reality than they have in past seasons, these episodes exceed the showâ€™s promise of nightmarish hypotheticals. While the series has on occasion veered toward alienating, high-concept bleaknessâ€”as in season threeâ€™s â€śPlaytestâ€ť and season twoâ€™s â€śWhite Bearâ€ťâ€”season five maintains an empathetic focus on the characters struggling to navigate grim new worlds.
Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker employs a variety of familiar storytelling models to construct the seasonâ€™s overarching theme, which generally concerns the unforeseen fallout of our shifting media diets. In the melancholic â€śStriking Vipers,â€ť a marriage is endangered by the husbandâ€™s new obsession with a virtual reality game. Brooker moves his focus to social media in â€śSmithereens,â€ť a claustrophobic hostage thriller, and to the music industry in the darkly comic caper â€śRachel, Jack and Ashley Too.â€ť Each episode envisions upheavals in a different social construct, from traditional masculinity to celebrity culture, but Brookerâ€™s consistent focus on media as the trigger for transformation lends the stories a foreboding thread.
The showâ€™s directors match Brookerâ€™s ingenuity, tailoring an immersive style for each episode. In â€śStriking Vipers,â€ť Owen Harris fixates on the alienation felt by Danny (Anthony Mackie), a man experiencing a crisis of conscience, by framing the character in wide shots set against drab backdrops and cityscapes; itâ€™s a pointed contrast to the colorful environments and dynamic camera movements Harris employs when Danny is gaming. In â€śSmithereens,â€ť which follows a distraught rideshare driver (Andrew Scott) who takes a customer hostage (Damson Idris), director James Hawes presents the driver either in tight close-up or from the far-away perspective of police and gawking onlookers, highlighting the gulf between how the world perceives the manâ€”as a terrible curiosityâ€”and his own intense sense of victimization.
The relationship between perspective and perception is similarly central in â€śRachel, Jack and Ashley Too,â€ť the episode with the most complicated premise of the season. Miley Cyrus stars as Ashley, a singer who wants to transition from glittery pop to more challenging material, much to the horror of her exploitative handlers. As the episode evolves into a scathing indictment of the celebrity industry (and offers a startling vision of artificial intelligence), â€śRachel, Jack and Ashley Tooâ€ť fosters our genuine concern for Ashleyâ€™s mental stateâ€”in part as a result of the savvy casting of Cyrus, a transformative pop star herself, but also, and more crucially, because the episode reveals much of what happens to Ashley from the relatable perspective of Rachel (Angourie Rice), a lonely and adoring teenage fan.
While none of these episodes are as nihilistic as the showâ€™s grimmest installments to date, they remain imbued with snarky, topical satire and dogged cynicism. â€śSmithereensâ€ť portrays a social media network that, with its scrolling newsfeed and reliance on hashtags, is unsubtly modeled after Twitter. Even less subtle is the character of the platformâ€™s man-bunned creator, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), whoâ€™s clearly a sketch of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Brooker doesnâ€™t veil his view of the real-life tech mogul: When Bauerâ€™s service ignites (and acts as a livestream of) an international hostage situation, heâ€™s pictured peacefully meditating in Utah, both figuratively and literally above the fray he helped create. When eventually called for help, the communications magnate is powerless, no longer able to grasp the magnitude of his creation, and reduced to speaking in platitudes.
By targeting forces (and people) who already exist in reality, Brooker couples the showâ€™s broad anxieties with a tinge of righteous anger. Coupled with the seasonâ€™s character-driven focus, the specificity of the showâ€™s grievances represents a welcome evolution. With stories that recall the most human elements of Black Mirrorâ€™s past episodes, while levying urgent indictments of the present, the series thatâ€™s always worked to imagine a dark future seems to be wondering if we havenâ€™t already crossed into the dystopian abyss.
Cast: Andrew Scott, Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Damson Idris, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Network: Netflix
Review: Season Five of Luther Is Undermined by a Sense of Inevitability
As the series has continued, itâ€™s grown more outlandish, oppressive, and removed from the things that made it so captivating.1
Time has not been kind to John Luther (Idris Elba), the wool-coated supercop haunted by the horrors of all the things heâ€™s seen on the job. To be fair, what detective wouldnâ€™t be traumatized living and working in the version of London offered up by BBCâ€™s Luther? Itâ€™s a concrete sprawl where every crack in every grimy back alley seems to conceal some ultraviolent psychosexual serial killer. This is a gloomy, frequently ridiculous series that survives on the back of Elbaâ€™s staggering intensity as a volatile, obsessive detective more than willing to skirt the law as long as it catches him a killer. But as the series has continued, itâ€™s only grown more outlandish, more oppressive, and more removed from the things that made its inaugural season so captivating. And the showâ€™s belated fifth season, coming over three years after the two-part fourth season, hardly closes the distance.
Itâ€™s not for lack of trying, of course. For the first time since the beginning of the series, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) returns to the center of the story to throw a wrench into Lutherâ€™s professional and private life. Wilson is, expectedly, adept at selling her characterâ€™s amusing sociopathy with every thin, dark smirk. Unfortunately, though, Aliceâ€™s storyline entirely concerns her attempted revenge against East End gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), whose repetitive, nonsensical attempts to murder Luther were the most tiresome element of the prior season. With Luther now caught in the crossfire, the resulting feud is so central to the season that it all but pushes the seasonâ€™s murder investigation to the side in favor of various square-offs with Corneliusâ€™s gun-toting goons.
Luther has always worked best as a trashy mystery series because its main characterâ€™s explosive, extralegal tendencies contrast most sharply with the showâ€™s depiction of a structured, by-the-book police world. The supporting characters, when they arenâ€™t being killed off with alarming frequency, marvel at Lutherâ€™s alternately clever and outrageous attempts to flout the rules. However, writer and creator Neil Crossâ€™s growing reliance on action elements has come to mean abandoning the contrast between Lutherâ€™s methods and expected police procedure in favor of throwing him into a murky criminal underworld. Thereâ€™s simply less dramatic intrigue and less of an audacious thrill when heâ€™s breaking out of his restraints to fight a room full of gangsters than when heâ€™s punching a murder suspect in the street to get a sample from the manâ€™s bloody nose in an absurd evidence-planting gambit.
Alice previously served a similar juxtaposing function. Despite her chemistry with Luther and their mutual attraction, her teasing, nihilistic amorality and even-more-extreme methods conflicted with his determination to protect life; their developing relationship threatened his job, his loved ones, and his own beliefs. But at this point, the two simply know each other too well for her wild-card antics to surprise Luther, and by extension the audience. Her ability to throw him off balance is muted since he mostly just seems tired of putting up with her rather than shocked at her insistent, ultimately predictable attempts to lash out at Cornelius.
That same sense of exhaustion and inevitability hangs over the entire season, undermining its usual attempts to shock us with plot twists that bring death and violence. The serial killer this time around, a surgeon (Enzo Cilenti) with a fetish for turning people into pincushions, may have strong visual iconography through the eerie combination of a clown mask and a glowing hood meant to fool CCTV, but his grisly compulsion is more of the same for a series that loves to plumb the depths of how gory a series can get. Once Cornelius becomes the umpteenth person to seriously threaten the lives of the supporting characters, you arenâ€™t surprised so much as left to ruminate on the diminishing returns, remembering just how many names have already been scratched out of the showâ€™s opening credits. The showâ€™s concept has long revolved around how everything Luther has been through has left him haunted, but now, in the fifth season, it does little more for viewers than leave them numb.
Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Dermot Crowley, Michael Smiley, Wunmi Mosaku, Enzo Cilenti, Hermione Norris, Patrick Malahide Network: BBC America
Review: Season Two of Big Little Lies Fails to Justify Its Existence
The series works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on broad social critiques.2
Directed by Jean-Marc VallĂ©e and adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriartyâ€™s novel, the first season of Big Little Lies told a complete story, resolving the murder mystery that drove its primary storyline and successfully exploring the bleak underbelly of the affluent coastal city of Monterey, California. As such, the foremost question facing the showâ€™s second seasonâ€”directed by Andrea Arnold and based on a story by Moriarty and Kelleyâ€”is an existential one: Is this follow-up really necessary? Though the three episodes made available to press are enjoyable enough, thanks largely to the castâ€™s continued strong performances, theyâ€™re weighed down by heavy-handed writing and an inchoate grasp of what powered the first seasonâ€”namely, its subtlety, surprise, and emotional murkiness.
Season two begins about a year after the so-called Monterey Five conspired to cover up the circumstances of Perry Wrightâ€™s (Alexander SkarsgĂĄrd) death. Some of the groupâ€™s members have fared better than others in the time since: Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is thriving as a real estate agent, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) has settled into a job at the aquarium, and corporate hotshot Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is being featured on magazine covers. But Bonnie Carlson (ZoĂ« Kravitz), who pushed the abusive Perry down a flight of stairs to protect his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), struggles with the guilt of her actions, while Celeste doesnâ€™t quite know how to grieve for the man she still loves.
Perryâ€™s mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), has come to stay with Celeste and help her care for her twin sons (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). She also suspects that Perryâ€™s death wasnâ€™t a total accident and works to find out the truth. Mary Louise is a master of aggression, both passive and active, and Streep delivers the characterâ€™s critiques of Madeline with a quiet monotone thatâ€™s at once grandmotherly and acidic. Even among a cast as strong as the one assembled here, the veteran actress commands every scene sheâ€™s in. But as Mary Louise resists Celesteâ€™s narrative of abuseâ€”she wonders, for instance, why her Celeste didnâ€™t tell the police that Perry beat herâ€”her dialogue grows so tired, so backward, as to feel purely mechanical. Mary Louise as an acerbic grandma is compelling, but Mary Louise as a Me Too bogeywoman is a bore, little more than a repository of eye-roll-inducing, reactionary pushback against abuse victims. Her symbolic significance comes at the cost of her personhood.
Which is to say that Big Little Lies works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on the social critiques that it clumsily handles. For one, watching Madeline and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), face a personal reckoning is engaging because we care about these characters and understand the stakes of their conflictâ€”and the series doesnâ€™t compromise their interiority by forcing them to represent a broader social issue. The poignancy of their disillusionment suggests that the season might, in fact, justify its own existence. But the series consistently undercuts that potential. Bonnieâ€™s mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), accurately remarks that there arenâ€™t many black people in Monterey, but then it errs uneasily close to stereotype by giving herâ€”one of only a small handful of black charactersâ€”possibly prophetic visions and an affinity for healing crystals and other talismans.
The showâ€™s themes of abuse and sexual violence are urgent and timely, which makes its shoddy treatment of them all the more disappointing. Big Little Lies also takes on matters of desire, wealth, and sexism, but does so with brute force and repetition. When Madeline rails against the unfairly different expectations people have for fathers and mothers, she offers no original perspective on that common double standard; in the end, itâ€™s as if the scene is relying solely on Madelineâ€™s zeal to hide its trite writing. Later, a young field-tripper at the aquarium asks Jane why pretty things tend to be dangerous. Itâ€™s a lazy exchange thatâ€™s similarly emblematic of the showâ€™s insistence on shouting its themes.
Save the occasional cinematographic flourish, the non-spoken tools of film and television have come to kneel before the power of the word in the second season of Big Little Lies. Even the showâ€™s soundtrack serves as a way to squeeze more words in: While the songs featured throughout these episodes are definitely capable of generating moodâ€”as was the case last seasonâ€”their lyrics regularly and agonizingly describe the drama that weâ€™re witnessing. The spectral cover of REO Speedwagonâ€™s â€śKeep on Loving Youâ€ť that plays during a conversation about a crumbling marriage is haunting, but its beauty is shorn by how on the nose it is. The song, in this context, is exceptionally pretty but ultimately meaningless, a bunch of notes vanishing into the nearly hollow shell where Big Little Lies used to be.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, ZoĂ« Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander SkarsgĂĄrd, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton, Sarah Sokolovic, Crystal Fox, Iain Armitage, Darby Camp, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Ivy George, Chloe Coleman, Robin Weigert, Douglas Smith Network: HBO
Review: The Handmaidâ€™s Tale Remains Captivating and Tedious in Its Third Season
The series successfully creates an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty, but its withholding of catharsis can be wearying.3
In his review of Volker SchlĂ¶ndorffâ€™s 1990 film adaption of The Handmaidâ€™s Tale, Entertainment Weeklyâ€™s Owen Gleiberman called Margaret Atwoodâ€™s fantasy of a reproductive dystopia â€śparanoid poppycock,â€ť and the authorâ€™s fear of a totalitarian regime birthed from religious fundamentalism â€świldly overestimate[d].â€ť Itâ€™s easy to forgive Gleiberman for his skepticism and naĂŻvetĂ©, even at a time when the conservative forces that currently drive our countryâ€™s discourse had already firmly gripped the body politic. Few could have imagined that the social progress weâ€™ve made since then would not only unearth the rot festering beneath the surface of civil society, but that the backlash from a small yet virulent minority of white nationalists and their silent enablers would be so corrosive.
No, America isnâ€™t Gilead. But it might be something altogether more insidious. That Huluâ€™s The Handmaidâ€™s Tale came when it did, premiering in the months following Donald Trumpâ€™s inauguration and the birth of the Womenâ€™s March movement, was a perverse sort of kismet. And in its third season, the series remains unsettlingly relevantâ€”a harbinger for the consequences of complacency and the slow, oppressive creep of authoritarianism.
By the start of its second season, The Handmaidâ€™s Tale had already begun to expand beyond what was conceived in Atwoodâ€™s novel. Early on in the new season, it becomes apparent that, while June (Elisabeth Moss) continues to be our eyes inside the Republic of Gilead, this is no longer her story. When her lover, Nick (Max Minghella), learns that she remained in the country after he helped arrange for her escape at the end of last season, he warns her, â€śYouâ€™re going to die here.â€ť She knows it, and in some ways, it feels like her story has died too.
Though Juneâ€™s quest to save her daughter, Hannah, is still one of the showâ€™s implicit and explicit objectives, itâ€™s no longer the principal driving force. Instead, itâ€™s the stories of two other women, who have the potential to destroy Gilead from within and without, respectively. Emily (Alexis Bledel) is adjusting to life in Canada after fleeing Gilead with Juneâ€™s baby daughter, Nicholle, and small momentsâ€”like her nonplussed reaction to being told that her cholesterol is â€śa little highâ€ťâ€”are revelatory. Whether or not her character will emerge as a political force in opposition to Gilead, sheâ€™s a hero to those still held prisoner there, and her very existence as an openly gay, highly educated woman, is itself an act of resistance.
First and foremost, though, this season is Serenaâ€™s (Yvonne Strahovski) story, as June gently but persistently nudges her to take more control of both her fate and that of the women and female children of Gilead. In the exquisite fourth episode, â€śGod Bless the Child,â€ť the two conspire together at a neighborâ€™s house; Serena offers June a cigarette and the pair lean back in their lounge chairs alongside the indoor pool. A shift has occurred: The women have control nowâ€”if fleetinglyâ€”but rather than cut to a wide shot, director Amma Asante opts for a close-up of June as she takes a drag, the smoke wafting in front of her fuming face.
Perhaps thatâ€™s because Asante knows what we donâ€™t: that Serena will, once again, flip on June. What can make The Handmaidâ€™s Tale so tedious isnâ€™t necessarily its paceâ€”after all, progress is rarely linear and part of the showâ€™s genius is the sadistic way it forces us to endure Juneâ€™s perpetual captivityâ€”but its charactersâ€™ inertia. Thatâ€™s why watching Serenaâ€™s evolution has been so satisfying, and her backsliding so maddening. Strahovskiâ€™s carefully calibrated performance has made Serenaâ€™s transformation from oppressor to freedom fighter feel inevitable, but the showâ€™s writers seem determined to keep her as a foil for June.
In the climax of the otherwise enervating sixth episode, â€śHousehold,â€ť June and Serenaâ€”two women utterly subjugated by a fundamentalist patriarchy that Serena helped designâ€”quietly and devastatingly tear each other down inside the Lincoln Memorial, desecrated during the Second American Civil War. Itâ€™s a powerful juxtaposition that feels understated compared to the heavy-handed (or, rather, winged) imagery from earlier in the episode that recalls the instantly famous shot of Daenerys and Drogon in the Game of Thrones finale.
Bradley Whitfordâ€™s Commander Joseph Lawrence, the founder of the colonies where sterile women are forced to excavate toxic land, is almost as frustratingly capricious as Serena. He may have tried to help June escape last season, but now heâ€™s content to toy with her like a cat would a helpless mouse. During a riveting argument with June in the third episode, â€śUseful,â€ť Joseph articulates perhaps the most compelling case yet for the motivations of those who created Gilead. Despite his obvious contempt for people, he sees his cause as noble: Heâ€™s â€śsaving the planet,â€ť and â€śreplenishing the human race,â€ť he tells her, before seething, â€śWhat did you do to ever help anyone?â€ť Itâ€™s a question she canâ€™t answer.
Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), too, continues to show glimmers of humanity, and as always, theyâ€™re prone to evaporating in often-explosive instants. Itâ€™s only in â€śHousehold,â€ť when she sees the methods with which handmaids in D.C. are silenced, that the empathy she clearly has for June and the other handmaids lingers for a spell. The moment hints at some deeper truth about Lydia and one imagines a peek into her former existence would go a long way toward making her feel less like a one-dimensional villain. Even merely having one of the girls under her charge ask her about her past would provide an opportunity to humanize a character whose backstory and motivations seem to be richly drawnâ€”if only in Dowdâ€™s own head.
June is given ephemeral moments of empowerment, like at the end of â€śUseful,â€ť when she ruthlessly turns Josephâ€™s attempt to implicate her in his crimes into a power play for the resistance. But one gets the sense that stasis is the showâ€™s endgame. Hulu has suggested The Handmaidâ€™s Tale could continue for 10 seasons, and Gileadâ€™s increasing brutality and fanaticism adds new layers to our macro understanding of this oppressive societyâ€™s evolution. But while the writers have successfully created an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that echoes that of the showâ€™s characters, the withholding of catharsis can be wearying. Like society itself, the series resists progress at its own peril.
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Joseph Fiennes, Alexis Bledel, Bradley Whitford, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer, O. T. Fagbenie, Samira Wiley, Amanda Brugel, Ever Carradine, Clea DuVall Network: Hulu
Review: AMCâ€™s NOS4A2 Adaptation Is Television As Psychic Vampire
The series visibly struggles to spin an enveloping atmosphere around its ideas.1
The title of AMCâ€™s NOS4A2 is seen on the vanity plate of a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith in the seriesâ€™s first episode, immediately clarifying the specific nature of this vehicle, which saps the life from passengers in order to refresh its driver, Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto). It also establishes the showâ€™s somewhat cockeyed sense of horror, which filters decidedly non-spooky concepts through more sinister overtones. Christmas carols play as warnings of approaching doom, snowmenâ€™s heads turn of their own accord, and the chief bad guy, of course, drives around with a license plate that sounds like a cheesy joke one might find inside a Halloween greeting card. If this interplay between creepy and eccentric worked in Joe Hillâ€™s source novel, itâ€™s hardly survived the transition to this drab, bloated adaptation.
When the camera first settles on Quinto, heâ€™s buried under gobs of old-man makeup. His long gray wig is matted and greasy, his voice a laborious wheeze. Manx becomes young and handsome again by kidnapping children, luring them into the Wraith with promises of candy, presents, and a trip to the magical Christmasland. In the six episodes made available for review, what becomes of these children once he deposits them at Christmasland isnâ€™t yet clear, though their newly gaunt faces and sharp teeth suggest they arenâ€™t going to be partaking in any holiday cheer. Into this cycle of kidnappings rides Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), whose dirt bike lets her access a rickety magic bridge that leads her to lost things: a watch, a wayward father, perhaps even a missing child. The idea of that last one, naturally, sets her on an inevitable crash course with Manx and his vampiric Rolls-Royce.
The showâ€™s idea of dramaâ€”aside from too many scenes where characters decide theyâ€™re outmatched by Manx and briefly give upâ€”is mostly Vicâ€™s preoccupation with the rest of her life. Dad (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is a violent drunk, Mom (Virginia Kull) wants her to scrub toilets instead of attend art school, and the only friends she has in Small Town, Massachusetts are a little girl, one of those guy friends with â€śnotice meâ€ť written all over his face, and a middle-aged school janitor (Ă“lafur Darri Ă“lafsson) whoâ€™s into comic books. If these seem like background details, NOS4A2, whose first season is meant to cover only the first third of Hillâ€™s 700-page tome, doesnâ€™t treat them as such. But to what end?
Indeed, for as much space as the series allows its characters to develop idiosyncrasies and inner lives, no one is released from the confines of their archetypal functions. That Vicâ€™s father truly cares about her and her future even though he hits his wife when heâ€™s had too much to drink is what passes for complexity here. The showâ€™s depictions of working-class struggle, small-town alienation, and abuse are so lacking in specificity that they feel more like shorthand for what it means to really be down and out. In NOS4A2, people say things like, â€śThereâ€™s good and bad in everyone,â€ť as if nuance can be created by simply speaking it aloud.
Worse, these moments arenâ€™t even worth gritting your teeth through to get to the supernatural intrigue that ostensibly anchors NOS4A2, which peels back mythology and mysteries over time in the build-up to some climactic Vic/Manx showdown. The problem here isnâ€™t so much that the series is short on ideas: Manxâ€™s Christmas iconography is a memorable calling card, and the showâ€™s wider universe includes other supernatural flourishes, like a girl (Jahkara J Smith) who predicts the future with the tiles and rules of Scrabble (no proper nouns). Itâ€™s that NOS4A2 so visibly struggles to spin an enveloping atmosphere around these ideas.
Given how many Christmas-themed horror films, from Gremlins to Krampus, opt for some degree of comedy and camp, the showâ€™s choice to play things straight is almost refreshing. But NOS4A2 is utterly devoid of dread or menace, and its artistry fails to compensate for its otherwise complete lack of dramatic momentum. Occasionally, the series flashes mildly perturbing images across the screen for a few secondsâ€”bloodied bodies, faces contorted in painâ€”before returning to its usual gray daylight and the tight handheld shots that frame faces against it. The backgrounds fall out of focus with extreme frequency, in what seems to be some shaky depiction of disorientation and disconnection. But the result is less a world thick with foreboding, impenetrable smog than one seen through an irritating, bleary-eyed haze.
Cast: Ashleigh Cummings, Zachary Quinto, Ă“lafur Darri Ă“lafsson, Jahkara J Smith, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Virginia Kull, Darby Camp, Rarmian Newton, Asher Miles Fallica, Dalton Harrod Network: AMC
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