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Review: Mad Men: Season Six

Don’s Hawaiian “experience,” as he calls it, is so intense and unsettling that it creates a noticeable breach in his disposition.

3.5

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Mad Men: Season Six

Don Draper is dead. The man we see in Mad Men’s season-six opener might look like him, but he’s not Don Draper. At least that’s what the two-hour premiere, titled “The Doorway,” is all about. The episode opens in sultry Hawaii, with Megan (Jessica Paré) and Don’s (Jon Hamm) torsos radiating vivid color and light against a cool blue Pacific Ocean, and a voiceover line about a man who’s lost his way. Ostensibly, this is a business trip, but the couple also engages in some determined pleasure-seeking. There’s a clear reference to Don’s current book of choice: a translation of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first section of his medieval epic poem, The Divine Comedy, about one man’s allegorical journey through the afterlife. But the most peculiar thing that happens in Hawaii is a spectral encounter between Don and a young American GI about to be married.

If all this sounds like heady stuff, it’s also what makes “The Doorway” an excellent reintroduction to the series. Mad Men premieres tend to work like narrative sleights of hand, reshuffling central ideas and themes—always represented by Don—into fresh arrangements after a break in the show’s chronological flow. Starting each season like this might be off-putting to some viewers, but the pleasure of Mad Men has always come from the tension between its cultural context and its peripheral course of forward movement.

Last season offered us some of the show’s most confident flourishes of character development and thematic exploration, giving the feeling that Matt Weiner and his team of writers hit a creative stride not unlike the Beatles did circa 1966. A year ago, the discontents and ambitions at the center of Don’s character took a stark turn halfway through “Zou Bisou Bisou,” signaled in that moment by his beaming smile. Key episodes like “Mystery Date,” “Far Away Places,” and “Lady Lazarus” were imaginative dramatizations of Don’s slowly fracturing psyche, modulating from vulnerable to violent, broken to ravenous. If the idea of Megan as muse was conceived in the Tomorrowland of Los Angeles, the reality of her pursuit of her own creative aspirations, separate from Don’s, forced him to confront his own gaping desires of the present. He was thrown back onto himself. In the world of Mad Men, happiness is never a destination; it’s a stop on the way to somewhere else.

One of season five’s key through lines showed us how Don’s defining drives and appetites became so intense they were no longer containable in one character. By the end of the season, his attributes were transposed onto the people surrounding him, infusing some, such as Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks), with new life and compelling others, such as Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Lane (Jared Harris, toward self-destruction. So when the nubile young woman propositions a companionless Don in the bar in the final scene of last season, her question (“Are you alone?”) isn’t just a narrative cue, but something like a final detonation.

Don’s Hawaiian “experience,” as he calls it, is so intense and unsettling that it creates a noticeable breach in his disposition, which is developed throughout “The Doorway.” At one point in the episode there’s an especially grim evocation of what Don would look like in a coffin. When he returns to a now bustling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, he’s both wistful and oddly sociable; the junior copywriters and Joan take moments to comment on his glow. Perhaps the most telling clue that this is a different Don, however, is his rant about a set of Dow Oven Cleaner ads featuring the word “love” in the tagline. Where the former Don could turn lacerating cynicism into sentimental currency, this man is offended by his junior copywriters’ trivialization of the word; he wants “love” to be charged with 10,000 volts of electricity.

A preoccupation with the threshold between life, death, and rebirth is everywhere in “The Doorway,” expressed artfully as an encroaching, bewildering winter coldness and through the visual contrast of reds against blues during the Christmas of 1967. The death of a family member causes Roger (John Slattery) to confront his own feelings about mortality. After a very awkward eulogy, he and his daughter, Margaret (Elizabeth Rice), have a serious discussion about family legacy in which she raises the possibility of investing in refrigeration technology with her husband. In another storyline, Betty (January Jones) is troubled by her acquaintance with a talented young woman who reminds her of her younger, brighter years as a model. When this girl goes missing, Betty, wrapped in blue tones, pursues her to no avail through a derelict inner-city building inhabited by homeless young people who scrounge for sustenance like creatures in its hellish, freezing darkness.

Elsewhere, the episode explores the question of whether death is something to laugh about. At Cutler Gleason and Chaough, Peggy shines in a creative crisis set off when a stand-up comic’s appearance on The Tonight Show stirs up controversy with a gruesome joke about American GIs in Vietnam and severed ears, causing Koss headphones’ brass to doubt a planned Super Bowl television ad that turns on the humorous use of the phrase “lend me your ears.” In a therapy-session scene loaded with subtext, Roger is frustrated when a joke he makes about the meaning of life fails to get a laugh. Though these scenes effectively introduce the idea of comedy into the show’s historical framework as an increasingly relevant, even transgressive cultural presence, the actual humor feels a bit strained and intellectualized.

“The Doorway” closes with a powerful scene showing Don in a familiar post-coital repose. The difference here, though, is a shot of his aquamarine eyes transfixed on the bedroom ceiling, anxiety heaving silently behind them. As always, there’s no predicting where all of this is headed, but if one last reference to The Divine Comedy is any sign, this season’s journey toward the final act of Mad Men’s American epic promises to be its most challenging and rewarding.

Cast: Jon Hamm, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jessica Paré, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Robert Morse, Kiernan Shipka, Christopher Stanley, Jay R. Ferguson, Ben Feldman Airtime: AMC, Sundays @ 9 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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Review: Amazon’s Hanna Quickly Exhausts the Novelty of Its Premise

The series fails to uphold, subvert, or otherwise comment on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

1.5

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Hanna
Photo: Amazon Prime

Like the 2011 film upon which it’s based, Amazon’s Hanna follows the eponymous teen (Esme Creed-Miles) as she embarks on a revenge mission against a shadowy spy agency. The series milks visceral thrills from Hanna’s fight skills as she kicks, punches, shoots, and kills burly adult men. But where Joe Wright’s film was distinguished by its thumping Chemical Brothers score, bluntly filmed and brutal action scenes, and strikingly lensed locations, the series neither carves a unique path for itself nor upholds, subverts, or otherwise comments on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

After an opening sequence that sees Hanna’s parents fleeing for their lives from the spy agency, the series flashes forward to regard Hanna training with her ex-military father, Erik (Joel Kinnaman), in the woods where they live in solitude. When the duo is eventually forced to flee their safe haven, Erik reveals to Hanna that he’s actually been preparing her to hunt and kill a villainous C.I.A. agent named Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos). While Marissa is shown in flashback to be nefariously connected to Hanna’s childhood, Erik tells Hanna nothing else about her target. Consequently, the central mystery of Hanna’s origin, and Marissa’s role in it, is predicated on the secrets that Erik keeps from her for reasons that are never made clear.

Every episode of the series more or less follows the same format, as slow-burning cloak-and-dagger spy games eventually yield a few more revelations about Hanna’s past before leading to an eruptive and often incoherently filmed climax. The season’s middle stretch is particularly dull, as Erik and Hanna’s first attempt to kill Marissa goes awry and the teen finds herself stranded with a vacationing English family. Hanna attempts to use the relationship which emerges between Hanna and the family’s daughter, Sophie (Rhianne Barreto), to yoke a violent revenge plot to a coming-of-age teenage drama—which doesn’t work, chiefly because it’s impossible to understand why the otherwise unremarkable Sophie would be suddenly obsessed with Hanna, who’s nearly feral and prone to extreme violence.

Of course, Sophie’s fascination with her new friend is mysterious in part because Hanna herself is purposefully difficult to know, with Creed-Miles uses her open face and wide eyes to portray Hanna with a faraway look and a curious intelligence. The girl is inscrutable by Erik’s design, but less understandable is why the adults in the series, particularly Marissa, are similarly vague. Throughout, Hanna goes to great lengths to make its villain, who’s shown committing heinous acts, more sympathetic to the viewer. Certain plot twists suggest that Marissa may be ready to deal with her guilt over the nature of Hanna’s being, yet Enos’s severe, unsmiling performance and the season’s hectic third act go a long way toward muddying our sense of whatever change of heart the woman may be experiencing.

This muddled depiction of Marissa’s ostensible moral transformation, along with the introduction of a cabal of more menacing villains operating alongside her, rob the season finale of catharsis—which is about the only quality otherwise still preserved in the vicious retributions doled out by Hanna. Just as the series struggles to define Marissa’s motivations, it doesn’t hint at what might eventually happen to the rest her shadowy organization. The season’s conclusion asks as many questions as it answers, appearing to exist only so that Hanna may sustain itself, offering more henchman bones for Hanna to snap without wondering whether the character should, or even wants to, keep snapping them.

Cast: Esme Creed-Miles, Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Khalid Abdalla, Rhianne Barreto, Benno Fürmann, Sam C. Wilson, Félicien Juttner Airtime: Amazon Prime

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Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date

Welcome to fucking Deadwood!

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Deadwood
Photo: HBO

At long last, we’re finally going to see more of Deadwood. Very soon after the HBO series’s cancellation in 2006, creator David Milch announced that he agreed to produce a pair of two-hour films to tie up the loose ends left after the third season. It’s been a long road since, and after many false starts over the years, production on one standalone film started in fall 2018. And today we have a glorious teaser for the film, which releases on HBO on May 31. Below is the official description of the film:

The Deadwood film follows the indelible characters of the series, who are reunited after ten years to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.

And below is the teaser trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAcftIUE6MQ

Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31.

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Review: What We Do in the Shadows Struggles to Carve Out Its Own Identity

The series struggles to find a distinct voice that isn’t beholden to the original film.

2.5

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What We Do in the Shadows
Photo: Byron Cohen/FX

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows seems like a natural fit for episodic television. The film was somewhat episodic itself, less an ongoing story than loosely arranged chapters of modern vampire life: going out on the town, having virgins over for dinner, dealing with the cops when there are bodies in the basement. For their FX adaptation, Clement and Waititi mostly succeed in translating the film’s comedy into half-hour chunks, albeit sometimes to a fault, as frequent echoes of the film leave the series feeling like it’s still in search of its own identity.

Both the characters and the New York setting of the series are new here, but the setup is the same, with a documentary crew filming the lives of a group of vampire roommates. All of the vampires are hopelessly behind the times, their shared house a dimly lit den adorned with antique furniture, old-timey portraits, and clothing that’s centuries out of fashion. Though the vampires still maintain the otherworldly allure that guides mortals to their demise, vampirism’s sheer flamboyance hardly meshes with the most banal facets of the present day: The local supermarket doesn’t take ancient coins, and one junior member of the Staten Island Borough Council can’t quite hack it as a vampire’s doom-saying herald.

It’s familiar material to be sure, but going back to the film’s bloody well still yields plenty of goofy, memorable personas. Matt Berry’s commanding presence as Laszlo sells the vampire’s oblivious pomposity when he insists on wearing a cursed hat or says something like, “You are a credit to the women’s suffragette movement.” Human servant Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) carries out his grim work with an excitable verve, insisting, “I’m not a killer. I find people who are easy to kill.” At its worst, though, that same familiarity leaves some scenes feeling like they were lifted from the film’s outtakes reel. Certain traits of the film’s characters seem to have been divided among Laszlo, Nandor (Kayvan Novak), and Guillermo, which can lead to the actors seeming to outright channel Waititi and Clement’s performances.

The acerbic Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) adds a more observant dynamic to the general buffoonery of her housemates even as she’s still prone to similar moments of profound silliness, like stalking someone with an old camera that uses a vintage flashbulb. Elsewhere, Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) emerges as the show’s most memorable creation: a caricature of a milquetoast, nasally desk jockey who’s revealed to be a day-walking psychic energy vampire. Colin, a sentient mound of dull khakis and sweaters, roams the cubicles of his day job, absorbing people’s boredom and irritation, which he amplifies with mind-numbing small talk. When he feeds, his eyes glow and his mouth gapes in an orgasmic snarl that would be frightening if it weren’t hilariously juxtaposed with Colin’s unassuming appearance.

The vampires’ goal is to conquer the “new world” of the United States (or maybe just Staten Island), which opens comic possibilities like a meeting at the aforementioned city council. There are other bits of continuity between episodes, like LARPing enthusiast Jenna’s (Beanie Feldstein) ongoing transformation into a vampire after Nadja took pity on her, but the series isn’t burdened by a serialized plot. For one, the third episode covers a werewolf feud totally unrelated to the group’s fumbling attempts at conquest of America.

Even with such departures, however, these episodes can struggle to find a distinct voice that isn’t beholden to the film. The series certainly offers some amusing additions to this occult universe, but the comedic value of its more familiar material has begun to diminish now that the concept must sustain not only a feature-length movie, but multiple episodes of television.

Cast: Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch, Beanie Feldstein Airtime: FX, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.

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