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The Wire: Season 4, A Narrative



The Wire: Season 4, A Narrative

[Editor’s Note: The following is a compilation of House contributor Barry Maupin’s recaps of The Wire, Season Four, arranged chronologically. We hope this will serve as an extended summary of the events of last season, as well as confirmation of the series’s unusually cohesive long-form narrative. To read individual episode recaps in their original form, click on episode titles within the text.]

Ep. 38: “Boys of Summer”

On The Wire, everyone’s in school. But when it comes to learning, Baltimore’s cops, teachers, street hustlers, politicians, and students all have at least one thing in common: they reject instruction they deem irrelevant to the job at hand. A sequence early in “Boys of Summer” bounces between training seminars for public school teachers and police officers, who listen impatiently as droning bureaucrats with slick slide show graphics offer news they can’t use. The teachers and cops, fed up with the charade, pelt the speakers with real-world problems and derisive wisecracks about the value of the lessons. At the precinct house, when the government envoy prattles about emergency procedures in the event of biochemical agents, Sgt. Carver interjects a dose of perspective. “Them al-Qaedas were up on Baltimore Street planning on blowing up the chicken joint,” he volleys to guffaws from his fellow officers, “but Apex’s crew jacked ’em up, took the camels and robes, buried their ass in Leakin Park. Least that’s what I heard.”

Those who bring the specialized knowledge to deal with a complex environment, on the other hand, engender quick respect where it might not otherwise be forthcoming. Early in the episode, a group of 13- or 14-year old boys gather in a vacant lot to try to capture what they think is a white homing pigeon, which they hear might fetch several hundred dollars from Marlo Stanfield, an emerging drug kingpin with a bird habit. They’ve tied a string to a stick that props up a box over some food, and the bird they desire comes near the bait but flies away when a bottle breaks nearby. The boys accost Dookie, the runt of the group who threw the bottle to squash a bug, and batter him with insults. When they walk away, Randy stays back to give Dukie a chance to explain himself. Dukie tells him that their prey wasn’t a homing pigeon, and when he elaborates by describing the metal band around the leg of actual homing pigeons, Randy’s posture shifts from one of disdain to pride that his friend possesses such valuable information. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Snoop, one of Marlo’s assassins, shops a hardware store for a more reliable nail gun, which she uses to board up her victims in vacant houses. She describes the drawbacks of her current tool to the salesman, who patiently details the merits of various nail guns until Snoop knows which one best suits her purpose. Hearing that the price is $669 plus tax, she peels off eight hundred-dollar bills from a roll and tells him to take care of the sale and keep the change. When the salesman, flummoxed by her generosity, hesitates, she declares, “You earned that bump like a motherfucker.”

Useful knowledge is valuable currency; those who know what can’t be taught sit in high demand. In another juxtaposition of the public schools and the police department, middle managers make stopgap personnel arrangements in back-to-back scenes in a losing battle to cover the holes in their fading institutions. As the principal and assistant principal of Edward J. Tilghman Middle School try to figure out who can supervise lunch, much less teach math and science, former detective Roland Pryzbylewski reports for duty as the new math teacher. Prez lacks certification to teach, and the beleaguered assistant principal doesn’t even bother to introduce herself until he informs them that his last job was as a cop in the city. No matter that he left the police force in disgrace; his experience dealing with violent and unpredictable elements automatically vaults him to the head of the new crop of teacher recruits. A parallel scene goes down at the police department as Maj. Cedric Daniels and his top assistant, after a meeting spent bemoaning the lack of qualified officers, practically beg one-time detective Jimmy McNulty to abandon his uniformed radio car patrol and join a short-handed special case squad. McNulty politely declines, having found temporary peace as a beat cop after growing disillusioned with detective work’s 24-hour grind, oppressive chain-of-command rigidity, and powerlessness against the top brass’s penchant for folding cases that reach too close to Baltimore’s power elite. Daniels knows McNulty’s disgust, having been burned himself by McNulty on multiple occasions, and yet he’s still desperate for his services, because McNulty possesses a passion and genius for tracking down the city’s top criminals that few others can muster.

Throughout the course of the show, The Wire has charted with a wary eye the role of institutions in the life of Baltimore, and none has been skewered with as much pure cynicism as the city’s political theater. Councilman Tommy Carcetti, having decided in season three to launch a bid for the mayor’s office, now finds himself four weeks out from the Democratic primary in a race against incumbent Clarence Royce that is beginning to look unwinnable. Royce is embedded in the pocket of the city’s real estate developers and raising money at a staggering clip, including under-the-table contributions well beyond the legal limit. But Carcetti’s main hurdle in his mind is being a white candidate in a majority-black city. A pair of exchanges with Norman, his black deputy campaign manager, disavows Carcetti of his victim status. In the first, Carcetti rides in the back of an SUV after a long day campaigning and fishes for hope. “You really think they’re gonna vote for the white guy?” Norman, from the front passenger seat, replies bluntly, “Black folk been voting white for a long time. You come correct, we listen. It’s y’all that don’t never vote black.” Later, exasperated by his handlers’ positive spin on his tepid poll numbers, Carcetti fumes, “And by the way, who can tell me when the fuck did the sixth district become 64% black?” Norman again sets him straight. “’About five years ago in the last redistricting. Mostly, as I recall, to give your ass more white votes over there in the first (district).”

Candidates or cops, the characters leaven the stress with a running braggadocio, usually jokes about sex acts with each other they’re going to have, could’ve had, or have already delivered. Carcetti comes home midday to change his sweat-soaked shirt, and when he gets back in the SUV, his driver scolds him for burning six minutes of valuable campaign time. “Six?” Carcetti ponders in disbelief. “Shit, I coulda got laid.” Over in the homicide division, Detective Bunk Moreland watches ex-partner Lester Freamon walk away after conferring on a murder case. Bunk turns to his new partner and boasts, “Look at that bow-legged motherfucker. I made him walk like that.”

The stories may be bullshit, but the affection is real, not least because Lester gives Bunk the name of his shooter, gleaned from a separate wiretap investigation. The victim is Fruit, one of Marlo’s top lieutenants in his growing drug empire, a turn which perplexes the detectives, since they haven’t been able to tie any bodies to Marlo’s syndicate in several months, and the first related victim is one of his own men. Bunk wonders, “How do you hold that much real estate without making bodies?” The answer is that Snoop and her hit-man colleague, Chris Partlow, run a disciplined shop, minimizing blood splatter and decay odor and entombing the bodies in Baltimore’s omnipresent vacant row houses with the aforementioned nail gun. Marlo keeps his profile low by applying a lesson learned from the demise of his predecessor, Avon Barksdale: it’s the bodies that bring the police. When Fruit’s crew vows to avenge his death by wiping out the whole crew of the shooter—an independent dealer named Lex whose beef with Fruit was over a girl, not business—and taking their corner, Marlo shakes his head at their lack of foresight. “What I want with some off-brand hilltop corner?” he theorizes. “And why I need to be stacking bodies when everyone know no one trying to war with us?”

Marlo’s acumen for knowing who not to kill and hiding those he does has kept him out of the sights of the police thus far, but Lester, the resident master of the wiretap’s possibilities, is building a case against Marlo from the street level up, puzzling out the drug operation’s web of conspirators by tapping their cellphone network. Lester, unaware of the rotting corpses in the vacants, views the investigation as a pedestrian one with a mathematically inevitable conclusion. He and Detective Kima Greggs are essentially running the unit themselves under the nose of their clueless lieutenant, whose head is already in retirement, and they exploit the freedom by chasing the Barksdale money trail from a year ago on the sly. The two principals from that case are out of the game (Barksdale in jail, Stringer Bell dead, betrayed by each other), but their assets reach into every corner of the city, including key political figures, and Lester can’t stomach letting the case die with Bell.

Off the grid sits Bell’s protégé, Bodie Broadus, virtually the only street-level soldier left from the Barksdale enterprise. He oversees a dead corner and a ragtag team of castoffs and nepotism hires, who execute what business they see with an imprecision that drives Bodie nuts. He learned the game in West Baltimore’s low-rise housing projects and jumped through the ranks to run the tower projects by showing tight managerial skills and savvy even his police adversaries grew to respect. Now, driven from his previous real estate by Marlo, Bodie is grinding to reenter the action at the echelon he’s earned.

Though Bodie may be relegated to the bush leagues for the moment, the game swirls on, sucking in passerby whatever the innocence of their intentions. Randy sells candy bought at a discount from a Korean grocer, working a cart near drug corners or dice games. One of Lex’s crew buys some Skittles and bribes him with the change to go tell Lex that his ex-girlfriend (the one he shot Fruit over) wants to meet him at the playground. Later that evening, Randy learns that Snoop and Chris killed Lex on that trip to the playground. That night, as Randy sits on his front stoop on an otherwise empty block, a slow zoom captures his look of cold resignation at where this summer, and life in this neighborhood, is heading. One day he’s throwing urine-filled balloons with his pals—the “Boy of Summer”—and the next he’s setting someone up for murder.

Ep. 39: “Soft Eyes”

Marlo Stanfield has maneuvered to the top of the West Baltimore drug trade, and he’s executing a broad campaign to stay there. Early in “Soft Eyes”, Marlo takes a tour of the neighborhoods to show concern for his constituents, in this case clusters of children wringing one more week from summer. His deputy approaches a group, reminds the kids they’ll need new clothes for school, and hands them each a pair of bills from a stack of hundreds while Marlo stands by the vehicle, acknowledging their cries of thanks with a regal nod. As he climbs into the backseat of the SUV to head to the next stop, posters on the wall behind him advertise candidates for city council, state’s attorney, and mayor, but the most influential position in the neighborhood belongs to Marlo. His deputy, Monk Metcalf, turns around from the front passenger seat and affirms the value of what they’re doing. “Your name gonna ring out, man.”

This tableau recalls the nearly identical physical trappings of the scenes from “Boys of Summer” of Councilman Carcetti campaigning for mayor (right down to the seating arrangement in the SUV), one of many occasions on The Wire when pairs of characters from different worlds strike an eerie resemblance to one another, if only for a moment. While Marlo and Carcetti massage the citizenry, Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman and Officer “Herc” Hauk each navigate internal office politics wildly complicated by unexpected events. Herc, once a narcotics detective, now reports to the mayor’s security detail as driver and bodyguard, an assignment short on action but a pipeline to promotion. Hoping to make the next sergeant’s list, Herc rationalizes the soft duty to his new partner, admitting, “Shit, if you can make rank the right way, I’ll still be working Western drugs.” All the waiting around gets to him, though, so he wanders through City Hall looking for his shift lieutenant and some work, opening doors in increasingly indiscriminate fashion until he stumbles on the mayor catching a blow job from his secretary. Spooked by the career ramifications of this jackpot (“Fucked in the ass with a pineapple,” is how he puts it to his ex-partner) and in over his head about how to play it, Herc seeks the counsel of Maj. Stan Valchek, a veteran chit trader who sees the upside immediately. Valchek tells him to say nothing and act like the whole thing never happened. “It just lays there like a bad pierogi on the plate,” he envisions, “both of you pretending it ain’t there.” Once Herc demonstrates the requisite amnesia, he writes his own ticket. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be in your shoes right now,” Valchek chortles with such relish he can barely get the words out. “Kid, careers have been launched on a hell of a lot less.”

ASA Pearlman has her own pineapple dropped in her lap, and, like Herc, her focus goes straight to the trajectory of her career. When Detective Lester Freamon arranges a batch of subpoenas targeting high-level political and financial allies of the mayor as conspirators in the Barksdale drug empire broken up last year, Rhonda implores him to hold back, noting the calamitous timing of doing this three weeks before an election in which her boss is in a tight race on the mayor’s ticket (“The front office is gonna go batshit,” she laughs helplessly to her boyfriend in bed). As she sees it, either her boss wins re-election as State Attorney in spite of the scandal and jettisons her for her role in it, or his loss ushers in a new administration wary to trust her with the narcotics division. “It’s Baltimore, Lester,” is how she finally frames the inevitable political blowback, the only apparent consideration for Rhonda or Herc as they formulate their strategies.

One of the subpoenas in question lands on the desk of State Senator Clay Davis, who years earlier midwifed an exchange of Barksdale drug money for advance notice of which Baltimore neighborhoods were slated to receive federal redevelopment grants, allowing the cartel to snap up seemingly worthless real estate before the HUD money made the properties valuable again. Davis also funnels bribes into Mayor Royce’s campaign chest in his capacity as deputy campaign chairman, an arrangement he assumes inoculates him against any city narcotics investigation reaching all the way to the statehouse. This betrayal of quid pro quo sends Davis into a tirade on Royce, who pleads ignorance of the investigation and is essentially powerless to squash it with the eyes of the electorate trained on him (Royce, as he always does when talk turns to his illegal fundraising, snuffs the discussion of the money’s origin with, “I don’t wanna know”). Davis cloaks his crimes in magnanimity, arguing that he took the tainted funds for “the team,” and that to raise the money they need to hold power requires doing business with those who have it. He articulates the strategy by braying, “I’ll take any motherfucker’s money if he giving it away.”

Across town, Namond Brice, a pony-tailed soon-to-be-eighth-grader, utters those exact words to his neighborhood buddies. Nay, like Davis, is a beneficiary of the Barksdale largesse, sporting pricey throwback jerseys purchased from a monthly stipend given his family to ensure the continued silence of his father, Wee-Bey, a former top soldier in the Barksdale operation who pled to multiple unsolved murders tied to the syndicate. A reunion at the prison visitors’ center turns the standard family-time lesson on its head. Wee-Bey teases Nay about his new facial hair, then grills him about his job working for a local drug gang, alternately offering advice, encouragement, and a stern lecture on work ethic, summarizing, “Either you real out there or you ain’t, Nay.” When Marlo and his entourage roll up on Nay and his friends to hand out more cash, one of the boys, Michael, refuses the offer. Nay can’t comprehend the principle, but Michael explains later, “That owin’ niggers for shit, man, that ain’t me,” prompting Nay’s word-for-word recitation of Davis’s motto.

Two guys not looking for any handouts are Cutty and Bubbles. Cutty finished a 14-year prison bid last year with no legitimate entries into the workforce, so after floundering briefly as a day laborer, he accepted a position as muscle for a weakened Barksdale gang gearing up for a turf war with Marlo’s comers. He proved a reluctant strongman, flinching when he drew a bead on Marlo’s lieutenant in a failed ambush. As he explained afterward to Avon Barksdale himself, “It ain’t in me no more.” Barksdale respectfully cut him loose, seeing a man who lost a chunk of his life to the game and owed no one. Now Cutty is back riding the truck to day jobs as a landscaper, which buys him the opportunity to spend every night training fighters at a boxing gym with his name on it, opened with the bureaucratic assistance of church and state officials trading political favors (“How y’all regular folk get it done in this town?” Cutty asks in wonder as the political players steamroll the permit process with a game all their own). The gym fills with neighborhood boys, many drawn from the corners, along with a growing crowd of their single moms looking to get with Cutty through home-cooked coercion. His boss at his day job, noting Cutty’s dependability and improving Spanish language skills, offers to go in together on a second truck with Cutty as crew chief so they can cover twice the ground. Cutty doesn’t even consider the proposal, though; his chance to be a mentor to kids like Namond and Michael feeds him more than any business partnership ever would.

Bubbles hopes to make an identical offer to franchise a second cart for “Bubble’s Depo,” essentially a convenience store stocked with dice, condoms, playing cards, Phillie blunts, and paint cans that Bubbles rolls through the neighborhood with his young “intern” in tow. A longtime heroin addict, Bubbles is generous with his accumulated wisdom, whether he’s mentoring his greenhorn running buddy, or a narcotics detective trying to go undercover with junkie verisimilitude, or now the young man, Sherrod, he claims is his nephew. His plan to split up and double their “market share” is put on hold, though, when Sherrod proves incapable of handling the sales arithmetic. As Bubbles warns, “You gotta step up them math skills if you wanna advance here in this here enterprise.” The boy questions whether a return to school is fruitless at this point, remembering how his last teacher never even looked his way. “So you roll out,” Bubbles taunts. “Who get hurt behind that, huh, the teacher or you?”

That night, Sherrod lies in bed in a dank, candlelit cinder block room and startles Bubbles mid-fix, telling him, “If you want, I could go to school some.” The next day, Bubbles puts on a tie and escorts the boy to the local middle school for registration, self-consciously patting down his own hair to validate his guardianship. As the assistant principal walks the pair back to her office, Bubbles passes Prez, a former narcotics detective turned teacher. Having once known each other from Bubbles’ periodic work as a confidential informant for Prez’s unit, they share a look of pure confusion as to how a junkie and a failed narco might find themselves crossing paths in the back offices of Edward J. Tilghman Middle School. The coincidence isn’t so puzzling after all; on The Wire, lives intersect and influence each other in improbable combinations.

Ep. 40: “Home Rooms”

“What happens when you ain’t around to translate?” Bunny Colvin asks Deacon after they meet with a pompous university professor who is considering Bunny as a research partner for a clinical study of repeat violent offenders. Bunny’s claim not to speak the language of the social scientist belies his 30 years as a Baltimore policeman, during which he negotiated with groups of drug dealers and manned the podium at COMSTAT meetings while the upper brass hounded him over crime figures. Deacon shrugs off the call for an interpreter. “Don’t play ignorant on me, Bunny. You can back and forth with any of these guys.”

Bunny needs the work, having lost, in succession, the full pension due a retired police major, his golden parachute running security for Johns Hopkins (both casualties of his experiment, “Hamsterdam,” to legalize drugs in his district, which yielded both a 14% drop in violent crime and a massive political shitstorm), and his security job at a downtown hotel (the result of his failing to give special treatment to a “friend of the hotel” who beats up a hooker). The academic is Dr. David Parenti, who seeks a liaison to the corner, his own training being insufficient for navigating, as he calls it, ” the urban environment.” Go alone, Bunny agrees, “and they sell your tenured ass for parts.” Parenti’s project aims to study rehabilitation options for criminals ages 18 to 21, that is until Parenti interviews an actual 18-year old in custody and encounters a level of menace that sends him scurrying from the room. “Look,” he bargains, “I’m ready to acknowledge that, um, 18 to 21 might be too seasoned.” Hoping to sidestep the cycle where the subjects only spark the outside world’s attention after they enter the justice system, Bunny steers Parenti’s project to Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, where they might find subjects more receptive to a little social engineering.

Former detective Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski experiences his own translation problems as Tilghman Middle’s new math teacher. During homeroom period on the first day of classes he can’t even manage the seat assignments. Not that he lacks the capacity; though he entered the Major Crimes unit in season one an alleged knucklehead, he turned out to have an uncanny aptitude for number puzzles and deciphering knots of obscure dialogue off the wire (he proved the first by dissecting the code on the corner boys’ pagers, the latter by reciting the garbled opening lyrics to “Brown Sugar”). Prez is due a taste of what drug magnate Stringer Bell went through in season three when he tried to recast his craft in another arena (real estate development), only to get “rainmade” by State Senator Clay Davis and his superior handle on political bribery. For Prez, having the vocabulary isn’t enough; the math and language skills don’t convert from the wire room to the classroom.

Randy Wagstaff, on the other hand, is in his element. Walking to the first day of eighth grade with his friends, he notes Prez’s unfamiliar Polish name on his class listing and lights up at the opportunity. “Yo, he new and white,” Randy chirps. “We got it made.” He shows technique from the opening bell, enthusiastically introducing himself to Prez, calling for quiet among his classmates, and jumping to Prez’s defense when the other students bog down a simple math story problem with suspicious and irrelevant questions. The ruse gives him cover to swipe a stack of hall passes, which he uses to escape to the lower grades’ cafeteria to sell candy, gaming the system of color-coded uniforms by wearing the other grades’ colors in layers under his shirt. Prez has the detective pedigree, but Randy is the master of this mode of operation.

Omar Little rules his own cottage industry robbing stash houses and drug dealers, discriminating among targets based on who the king of the moment is. He lives with Renaldo, his boyfriend and stick-up partner, in a boarded-up row house, more to disguise his whereabouts than for any lack of resources. When he wakes up to discover his supply of breakfast cereal tapped, Omar heads out in his pajamas, pausing to yank a campaign poster off his building (the coming election having no bearing on his existence). As he strides up the alley, the neighborhood children scatter in all directions and holler his name, a warning tinged with glee. On his way back from the store, he stops to light a cigarette and a bag of street-ready vials comes sailing down from an upstairs window. The deal is consummated on brand recognition alone; whoever mistook Omar’s intentions would rather give up the stash than risk Omar’s gun in his mouth. Though the fear for the dealers is legitimate, Omar runs his business by a strict code: he turns his gun on players only, never a citizen. This distinction reaches comical proportions when he tracks Marlo Stanfield’s re-up to a mini-mart, where Omar robs the package from the clerk at gunpoint, then takes the time to pay for his Newports. As Omar explains to Renaldo over breakfast, “It ain’t what you takin’, it’s who you takin’ it from, you feel me?”

Officer Jimmy McNulty keeps hearing from everyone where his niche is supposed to be, professionally and personally. He’s traded in his quixotic quest for mind-blowing cases (and casual tail) for a set schedule as a uniformed patrolman and a cozy domestic set-up with Beadie Russell, the Port Authority officer from season two, and her two young kids to whom he’s just “McNulty.” He helps prepare a modest family meal to share with Detective Bunk Moreland, McNulty’s ex-partner in homicide and tag-team adultery, who arrives toting a “double digit” bottle of wine. Bunk angles to replace dessert with a night of unattached drinking; Jimmy hesitates, but Beadie encourages him. “She trusts you,” Bunk gathers with astonishment when Beadie goes to check on the kids. Still, Bunk has trouble making out the new Jimmy. The two lean against Bunk’s car drinking Rolling Rocks and Bunk poses a metaphorical conundrum regarding a chain of fried-fish joints called “Lake Trout.” “No lake, no trout…all dressed up like something it ain’t.”

McNulty’s change of environment is voluntary, but Bodie Broadus and Slim Charles, two holdovers from the busted Barksdale drug regime, have new business circumstances foisted on them. Boadie, using Slim Charles as his middleman supplier, has transformed an off-brand corner into a busy strip with quality dope and attentive service, but the increased traffic draws the interest of Marlo, who arrives on the corner with his muscle in tow, recognizes Bodie as a “rightful hustler,” and lays down his terms with his usual brevity. “Two choices: start taking our package or you can step off.” Bodie knows if he walks away he gets nothing from what he’s built and if he starts peddling Marlo’s weaker product his numbers won’t hold. Incensed by the no-win hand, he barks at Slim Charles, “I’m standing here like a asshole holding my Charles Dickens, ’cause I ain’t got no muscle, no back-up. Shit, man, yo, if this was the old days….” A resigned Slim Charles cuts him off. “Yeah, now, well, the thing about the old days—they the old days.”

A bigger problem for Slim Charles than losing Bodie as a sub-contractor is a group of New York dealers that is systematically gobbling the east side real estate, chasing off the local crews. The top Baltimore dealers, minus Marlo, meet in a conference room at the Holiday Inn under the guise of the “New Day Co-Op (Tomorrow’s success stories start today),” with Slim Charles now holding the seat assigned Barksdale’s ruined legacy. There, they spitball solutions to industry issues, sounding at times like a conclave of independent booksellers fretting over the encroaching menace of big-box retailers. “Me personally,” Slim Charles offers, “I think it’s time Wal-Mart went home.” They vow to band together to hold their territory, even encouraging Marlo’s participation against the interlopers.

Meanwhile, Marlo is doing Marlo’s bidding, keeping an eye on new talent as he expands his reach. During his visit to Bodie’s corner, Marlo spots Michael—the eighth-grader who refused the goodwill cash that Marlo’s lieutenants spread among the neighborhood children—working as a runner for Bodie’s crew. Intrigued that Michael would turn down a handout on principle when he needs the money enough to work for it, Marlo remarks to his henchman, Chris Partlow, that Michael’s “good signs” bear watching. “Big paws on a puppy,” Partlow concurs. Marlo isn’t the only figure of influence to notice Michael’s potential, setting up a tug-of-war over where his talents will be directed. Cutty recently made Michael a failed offer to be his personal boxing trainer after seeing him hit the heavy bag at the gym, while Bodie desperately wants to retain Michael as a runner (the one who fetches the drugs from the stash and makes the actual handoff some distance away from the point of sale) for his unflappability. When a wily trio of buyers tries to con Michael into giving up more product than is due, he never relinquishes control. After the biggest one strikes a threatening posture, Michael calmly warns, “You need to rethink what puttin’ a hand on me is gonna get you.” He turns to the others and caps the charade. “You can thank your friend here for snatchin’ away y’all highs.” Despite his natural aptitude, Michael has no ambition to rise in the game. He considers this a temp job taken only to pay off his and his third grade brother’s school clothes, and wants to quit now that school is starting. Bodie genuinely can’t understand the strategy, circling Michael while he makes his pitch. “C’mon, man, what the fuck you wanna go to school for? What you wanna be—astronaut, dentist…?”

Like Michael, Detective Lester Freamon bumps up against the larger forces of an organization. Lester is the architect of an asset investigation that connects major players in the city’s political and drug establishments, culminating in a raft of subpoenas issued weeks before an election. Deputy of Operations Rawls, furious over the political damage to his ally, the mayor, replaces Lester’s absentee Major Crimes supervisor (who unwittingly allowed the subpoenas to go forward) with his “Trojan horse,” Lt. Charlie Marimow, a hatchet man sent in to shut down the investigation from the inside. Marimow, the kind of guy who uses phrases like “24/7/365,” not only aborts the drug asset trail, he puts a deadline on Lester and the team’s meticulously constructed wiretap case against Marlo’s outfit. When Lester objects, he buys himself a meeting with Rawls, who reminds Lester of his “gift for martyrdom,” referring to a time early in his career when another Deputy Ops banished Lester to the Siberia of the police department, the pawn shop unit, for thirteen years (and four months) for refusing to back off of a politically sensitive case. Lester grudgingly requests a transfer out of the unit rather than subject his colleagues to the blowback his rectitude would surely hasten. He knows institutions aren’t in business to nurture or to squash the talents of individuals; they’ll do either according to their purposes. Their ultimate mission is self-perpetuation.

“Ep. 41: “Refugees”

Chris Partlow looks around him and sees an organization getting used to things being a certain way, and with that the first creep of indiscipline and hubris. Chris runs the muscle for Marlo Stanfield’s West Baltimore drug trade, but, like Slim Charles did for fallen kingpin Avon Barksdale, he adds the value of a sense of proportion and history. Marlo, otherwise sober and circumspect, is feeding a gambling habit, which Chris reminds him is getting expensive. When Marlo ends a business meeting at the rim shop by suggesting that Chris might need to kill his poker nemesis if Marlo keeps losing, the distaste in Chris’s eyes recalls Slim Charles’ response late in season three when Stringer Bell arrogantly ordered him to kill a state senator who’d picked his pocket. Slim Charles bucked at the sloppy logic. “Shit, String, murder ain’t no thing,” he clarified, “but this here is some assassination shit.”

Marlo emerges from his latest poker game into the Sunday morning glow and reasserts his prerogative after having his ass handed to him. He buys a bottle of water and baldly swipes two lollipops in front of the market’s security guard, who rubs his head and follows Marlo out to the sidewalk to exercise some self-respect, summing up the point of the confrontation by declaring, “I’m here.” “You want it to be one way,” Marlo repeats until Chris arrives to fetch him, “but it’s the other way.” Marlo salves the sting of his loss by commissioning the murder of the security guard, a deed Chris and his partner Snoop execute with all the enthusiasm of co-workers slogging through busywork they know doesn’t have to be done. “What he do again?” Snoop asks on the stakeout, having trouble keeping all the hits straight. “Talk back,” Chris answers, his tone slightly mocking the slip in standards. After they finish disposing of the body (via their usual strategy, boarding it up in a vacant row house), Snoop holds up the guard’s shiny badge like a pelt. Irritated at the immature gesture, Chris tosses the souvenir away. Snoop misses the notoriety stripped by their covert and anonymous methods, prompting her to sheepishly admit, “The trouble with doin’ it this way, disappearin’ ’em and shit: nobody knows.”

Marlo views his running poker match as a sort of tutorial, a way to glean strategic wisdom from the older players (in contrast to Mayor Royce’s card game, in which the invited fundraisers grudgingly throw hands so the mayor can have some extra “walking around money” to put on the street come election day). During one high-stakes hand, Marlo’s chief rival gently taunts him about his youthful taste in cars, instructing him to use his potential winnings to buy a Lincoln Town Car so he can ride around with dignity. Marlo loses the pot but maintains his resolve. “One day soon, I’m walkin’ out with a Rolls, hear?” The adversary rakes in the chip pile and quips, “Way you been goin’ to school up in this here room, son, I suspect you gonna walk outta here with Morgan Fucking Freeman to drive it for you, too.”

This relationship is one of a series of complex mentorships running through The Wire. Bubbles, a heroin addict and honest entrepreneur, is acting guardian for Sherrod, an eighth grader who hasn’t been to school for three years. Bubbles convinced Sherrod to go back so he could learn math to help Bubbles run his business selling convenience items out of a shopping cart, but Sherrod is ill-prepared for the schoolwork and already skipping out in the first week. When Bubbles asks the assistant principal, Marcia Donnelly, whether Sherrod can go back a few grade levels to make up for missed time, she explains how the system works in overcrowded public schools where maintaining control is the primary goal, telling him flatly, “Your nephew has been socially promoted.” At night, Sherrod pretends to do homework by candlelight in the vacant room they share without electricity, trying to play off a dictionary and an algebra book as study companions. Bubbles goes along for the moment, feigning, “So you read from the small one and answer questions in the big one?” but he’s starting to see the futility of his efforts.

Michael, another eighth grader, has several suitors for the role of mentor. Cutty, an ex-con with a boxing gym, is trying to get Michael, who hangs around the perimeter of the gym with his buddies fooling with the heavy bags and such, to train seriously as a boxer under his tutelage. When one of the boxers fails to show for a sparring session, Michael asks if he and a friend can get in the ring for one round. Cutty concedes, on the condition that Michael spars with Cutty instead, telling him over the jeers of his friends, “I’m a show you as gently as I can how much you don’t know.” Michael’s sunken look quickly turns to relish at the opportunity; like Marlo (who overrides Chris’s objections to his poker losses by acknowledging, “Learning them ways requires some patience”), Michael knows he has to be willing to take the occasional beating to get where he wants to be. Later, Cutty takes Michael and another young aspirant from the gym to a night of prizefights and sits between them pointing out the subtleties of the game. Afterward, when Cutty drops off the other boy at home and prepares to do the same for Michael, Michael bolts from the van, claiming over Cutty’s protests, “I’m good from here.”

Michael may be ashamed to let Cutty see where he lives, but Chris and Snoop are keeping close tabs on Michael’s home life at the behest of Marlo, who sees in Michael the makings of a future drug dealer. From a distance, they watch his front door in the early morning as the adult male of the household drinks on the stoop while a woman bitches at him. “Fucking Huxtables and shit, man,” Snoop comments. After school, Michael walks his third grade brother home, sets him up with a snack and gets him started on his homework with words of encouragement while the adults bicker over control of the remote. Chris and Snoop, meanwhile, go looking for him at Bodie’s corner, where Michael once worked as a runner. Bodie, an independent dealer who is strong-armed into joining Marlo’s fold, tells Chris that Michael was just a temp working off a debt and wants to know why they’re asking about him. “Never mind you ’why’,” Chris coldly retorts. “’Why’ ain’t in your repertoire no more.”

The dealers know the kids, and the kids know the cops. When Bunny Colvin, a retired policeman participating in a research project on juvenile violent behavior, walks down the hall at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School (where Michael and Sherrod attend), a sixth grader passes him without a second glance and announces, “Yo, he police.” Roland Pryzbylewski, himself a former cop who is now a math teacher at Tilghman, fares no better at hiding his association with the police. On a Monday morning, he attempts a discussion with his class after agonizing all weekend over how to delicately frame an incident where one girl cut another girl’s face in class on the previous Friday, a useless gesture given the kids’ regular exposure to violence. “Yo, my head got a big old gash,” Namond blurts out to a ripple of laughter (another girl offers a more practical take over the buzz of voices in passing period: “If you start shit, you can’t complain how somebody finish that shit”). The intended lesson dissolves completely when one of the students tells the others that Prez was a cop, at which point they all demand to hear details of Prez shooting someone, deriding his protests that police work is about more than carrying a gun (and still unaware that he left the force after mistakenly killing an undercover cop).

The institutions in Baltimore cross breed. Or, as Deacon puts it, “A good church man is always up in everybody’s shit. That’s how we do.” This justification responds to the suspicions of Cutty, who, though not a churchgoer, is a regular recipient of Deacon’s inside dope on job openings in the community. This time Deacon comes to the gym (itself given legs through Deacon’s political connections) on his way to Sunday services to tell Cutty, who is still landscaping as a day hire, about a union wage job as a sort of custodian at Tilghman. As when Deacon brokered Bunny’s role as “liaison” for the violent offender study, he lays out the terms with a hint that the position has already been arranged and isn’t merely a suggestion.

The church is a source of votes as well as jobs, and with the primary approaching and the polls showing a decline in his base, Mayor Clarence Royce has redirected his campaign at the black vote. When his handlers get too obvious with the Afro-centrism, Royce offers in exasperation, “You want me to start wearing dashikis, go all Marion Barry and shit?” His closest opponent in the race for mayor, City Councilman Tommy, isn’t expecting many black votes, but those he gets he knows will likely come from the affirmation of the pulpit, so he visits an interfaith council of ministers to make his pitch. His campaign team sees the trip as misdirected energy, but Carcetti holds firm with the backing of his deputy campaign manager, Norman, who allows, “At least they get to see a beggin’ ass white man on his knees. Always a feel-good moment for the folks.” Even the drug dealers defer to the church on certain grounds. In Season Three, Avon Barksdale made a pair of underlings buy a new church crown for Omar’s grandmother after they shot holes in the one she was wearing during an ill-advised ambush of Omar as he escorted her to services. It was the least Avon could do given his staff’s flagrant violation of the longstanding Sunday morning moratorium on drug-related gunplay.

A temporary reprieve in the violence doesn’t make life much easier for the homicide detectives, who view so many dead bodies through a clinical lens that their collective sense of humor bears hard to the macabre. When Detective Shakima Greggs, the most recent refugee from the disintegrating Major Crimes unit, gets transferred to the homicide division, her most pressing training is in how to deflect the relentless spate of puerile practical jokes perpetrated by her new colleagues. She accompanies veteran Detective Bunk Moreland to a murder scene, where he makes a preliminary inspection of the body then invites Kima to take a look for herself, teasing, “It won’t bite.” When she spots something in the victim’s hand, the other detectives pass her tweezers, which she uses to extract a note that reads, “Tater killed me.” “Is it typed?” Bunk asks in mock seriousness. “’Cause that would hold up a lot better in court.” Everyone except Kima falls out laughing. As a newcomer and a female, Kima takes the usual ration of shit, though her known status as a lesbian at least inoculates her against conventional sexual harassment. Her training protocol is to tag along with experienced detectives for a few months, but that plan is scrapped when Commissioner Burrell personally assigns her to replace the seasoned detective who was working a politically sensitive case involving a murdered witness, a gambit intended to delay progress on the case and protect Burrell’s ally, Mayor Royce (who failed to claim matching funds for a witness protection program), until after the primary election.

Burrell’s ploy to pull a skilled employee off a job for ulterior motives is a regular institutional practice in Baltimore, as when the school system reallocates resources to milk government funding. When Cutty reports to Tilghman to claim his “custodian” job, he learns that the position is really as a truant officer, paid for out of the janitorial budget. He heads out in the “roundup van” to start collecting students off the street, but one boy stands his ground, nonchalantly informing him, “I was just in school on Friday, so I’m fat ’til October.” It’s at this point that Cutty learns from his partner that the school gets a certain amount of money for each student who attends one day in September and one day in October. The charade reaches its cooperative apex when the other truant officer calls out to a group of kids spending their day breaking bottles in a vacant lot, “Alright, which one of y’all still needs your September day?”

Ep. 42: “Alliances”

Proposition Joe has been trying for the better part of two seasons of The Wire to get Marlo Stanfield to join his New Day Co-Op, a coalition of Baltimore’s drug honchos, but his various approaches all fail until he demonstrates to Marlo what’s in it for him, the magic equation that runs through all the show’s ad hoc alliances.

The co-op was devised as a way for the city’s drug wholesalers to operate in a mutually beneficial environment, sharing intel, muscle, and supply connections on the understanding that they stay away from each others’ established markets and the spotlight of violence that always accompanies beefs over corners. The arrangement is undermined, though, when Marlo, the biggest player on the West side, opts out, stealing real estate with old-school strong-arm tactics. Prop Joe’s arsenal of carrots (his superior dope that comes straight off the boat uncut, and the umbrella protection of influential associates) holds no sway over Marlo, who doesn’t need the good stuff when he’s got all the best corners and the muscle to protect them himself.

Prop Joe, with his trademark brevity, patience, and savvy, turns to his remaining asset—human intelligence—in a complex scene where he gives Marlo a far richer understanding of what an alliance might yield. Prop Joe tells Marlo that he knew ahead of time that Marlo’s high-stakes poker game would be robbed, but withheld the information, coyly explaining, “A man learns best when he get burnt.” He then offers evidence more tangible than street-level hearsay of his intelligence network, showing Marlo a packet of confidential grand jury summons for the crew of an unaffiliated rival dealer to be executed in the coming days. Piqued by the high-grade goods, Marlo inquires whether Prop Joe has heard anything about the video camera an underling found trained on Marlo’s outdoor meeting space. Prop Joe seizes the upper hand: “Had no incentive to listen.” Marlo’s eyes flash with recognition of the moment’s arrival: “You do now.”

Allying with rivals to thwart a third party is the cold calculus of the city’s politicians as well. With the primary a week away, Councilman Tommy Carcetti is running second in a three-way race for mayor when he learns that the investigation into a murdered witness has been hindered by the replacement of a veteran detective with Shakima Greggs, a rookie homicide detective only recently transferred in from the wiretap squad. Obviously, Carcetti wants to leverage the scandal against the incumbent, Mayor Royce, who is already vulnerable on the issue of witness protection; but the tricky mathematics of demographics lead him to feed the scoop to his third-place opponent, Councilman Tony Gray, who can take the bigger bite out of the mayor’s base as a fellow black candidate (addition by subtraction). Gray is suspicious of the gift, having been burned before when his former friend Carcetti jumped into the race, but Norman, Carcetti’s deputy campaign manager and the self-confessed “devious motherfucker” who hatched the scheme, sets Gray straight: “Look, Tony, you ain’t gonna win, so the only question is whether you want to lose with 24% of the vote or 28%. You bring the numbers up, you look good for the legislature, maybe a congressional run.”

The police department is itself rife with cynical political maneuvering, as anyone within sniffing range of a better job toadies up to city hall. The higher they rank, the more odious the affront to their better instincts. Commissioner Ervin Burrell, whose tenure depends on Royce’s continued employment, is behind the attempt to sabotage the witness investigation as political cover for the incumbent. Deputy of Operations Rawls, Burrell’s “loyal subordinate,” positions himself to succeed the commissioner whatever the outcome of the mayoral election, first by whitewashing the scuttlebutt over the detective switch with sure-handed damage control on behalf of Royce, then later by privately informing Carcetti that the mayor’s most influential grassroots organizer has broken with the campaign (the latter tidbit coming courtesy of Rawls’ spy within the mayor’s security detail). Maj. Stan Valchek leaks company secrets to Carcetti since he has no truck with Royce, telling him with a wink after his latest revelation, “Remember, anything you need.” Sgt. Thomas “Herc” Hauk abandons his post on a stakeout to make campaign calls for Royce, Herc’s meal ticket ever since he saw the mayor getting blown by his secretary. Herc brings enthusiasm, if none of his superiors’ chops, to his pandering, asking a black likely voter over the phone, “When do you think the last time a white man voted for a black man when there was another white man in the race?” Sgt. Jay Landsman, ever amused by the gamesmanship, chomps on his fast food lunch as he explains bureaucratic reality to Kima, who feels humiliated by getting assigned to the murdered witness case, only to be replaced by the original veteran detective and told to lie about it as the scandal breaks. “Now, I didn’t like it when they came to me and told me to dump Norris,” Landsman admits with rare seriousness, “but dump him I did. And it’s not like I want to carry water for them now that they’re pretending they never told me to do any such thing, but carry the water I will. And in the end, when everyone else in this unit is buried and beshitted, this detective sergeant will still be standing.”

“Carry the water” is also how Rawls describes to Carcetti his role in the current administration, a term suggesting grunt work that’s beneath them but necessary. Landsman and Rawls, like most of the grownups on The Wire, understand what they want from the world around them and will bend over to get it. The kids, on the other hand, know neither, sucking them into the self-fulfilling dichotomy of “corner kids or stoop kids” proposed by Bunny Colvin. Their options leave them in a sort of self-respect Bermuda Triangle, as when Zenobia gets reprimanded in math class for not doing her work. “I want to,” she tells Prez, her teacher, “but I ain’t got no pencil.” Prez hands her his stubby pencil from behind his ear and turns back to the chalkboard with a satisfied grin. Zenobia briefly regards the pencil then shoves her desk clean in a spasm of disgust, declaring, “I don’t want no damn welfare pencil.”

The kids don’t understand what’s happening around them, so they fill in the blanks with their imagination. In the opening scene, several boys sit around at night in an urban version of the campfire story and theorize about what becomes of the people who get marched into vacant houses by Marlo’s enforcers but never come out, their notions ranging from zombies to spies to dead. “Nah,” Donut counters with equal assurance, “there’s dead and there’s special dead.” Nearby gunshots provide a respite from the mystery as they analyze by ear the weapon’s likely caliber, a subject about which they actually know something. Having worked each other’s fears to a hair-trigger, they bolt at the approach of a “zombie” lumbering down the alley, who turns out to be nothing more than a runny-nosed addict with a junkie shuffle.

In the final scene of “Alliances”, a trio of the boys investigates one of the vacant houses in question on a rainy night, led by Dukie, the one with both the worst life and the best grasp of his existence. He pulls off a piece of plywood marked with a reminder (“If animal trapped, call 410…”) that an animal, unlike the moldering bodies inside, has some recourse. Dukie illuminates a body by candlelight, which the others examine and acknowledge is dead. “He dead, they all is. Feel better?” Dukie asks sourly. “Donut wrong, yo. Ain’t no special dead. There’s just dead.”

Ep. 43: “Margin of Error”

Dennis “Cutty” Wise is out of prison, getting paid, jogging down the street with Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” throbbing on the headphones, nobody chasing him, out among the other citizens on Election Day (“Into the steeple/Of beautiful people/Where there’s only one kind”). The picture of freedom, he’s just skipped out on a fine lady’s morning plea to come back (“Take nothing less/Not even second best”). He’s doing his thing, teaching his beloved boxing at his own gym (“Remember your dream/Is your only scheme/So keep on pushing”). Then he slows to a walk near a polling place, takes his headphones off, and gets a two-fisted reminder that the taste of freedom is an illusion. He calls out to one of his boxers, who went AWOL from the gym last month, as the boy, Spider, hands out election fliers. Spider spots Cutty coming his way and bolts in the other direction, his face creased with disgust. Cutty’s serial sexual conquests, among them Spider’s mom, come with a cost, in this case the respect of a prized student. An overeager campaign volunteer creeps up on Cutty’s disconcertment and forces him to admit that, as a convicted felon, he can’t vote. The music now barely audible from the headphones, his reverie turned to menace, Cutty snarls, “Move on, man.”

In the episode’s opening scene, Rev. Franklin refers to the vote as “our blessed franchise,” but hardly anyone on The Wire, from the corner kids to the politicians themselves, reveres the sanctity of the democratic process. Two days before the decisive mayoral primary, the campaign machine of Baltimore’s Mayor Royce papers the battleground precincts with a Photoshopped image of his top opponent defending a notorious slumlord, knowing that word-of-mouth trumps the establishment channels in the black neighborhoods. Elsewhere, Detective Edward Norris rushes to complete a politically sensitive murder investigation involving a witness in order to “cause a major shit stink” for one or another of the mayoral candidates. His partner, Detective Kima Greggs, asks his preference for which way the damage falls. “I don’t give a shit either way. I don’t even vote,” Norris admits with glee. “But it’d be fun to fuck with them downtown suits.” On Election Day, Councilman Tommy Carcetti pounds the pavement on his home turf, where an old man who claims to have known Carcetti’s father assures him of his vote for mayor. “(We) expect politicians to steal,” he concedes to a dismayed Carcetti, but implores him to “leave something for the city” by stealing one dollar out of three and not two. And in perhaps the most honest response to the election circus, eighth-grader Michael refuses easy money hanging campaign fliers on the grounds that “It’s bullshit, man.”

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Review: Legion’s Unhinged Final Season Plunges Us into an Unknowable Mind

The show’s third and final season is a visual achievement, typified by imaginative flights of absurdism.




Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

After Legion’s shocking second season finale, in which it was revealed that David (Dan Stevens) had sexually assaulted his girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), the series enters its third and final season with a lingering ambiguity: Is David, the show’s titular telepath and diagnosed schizophrenic, redeemable? Furthermore, to what extent is he responsible for his actions? Throughout season three, in which David is hunted by the Shadow King (Navid Negahban) and Division Three while he attempts to travel back in time to rectify his misdeeds, Legion struggles to answer these questions, which serve as the crux of the series.

Certainly, by framing David’s efforts to alter the past as self-serving and expedient, Legion maintains one view of its protagonist as an egomaniac and probable sociopath. In conversations with a rightly unmoved Syd, David’s protestations and glib promises to simply undo the past reflect his inability to grasp the gravity of his crime. And the character’s first effort at time travel, in which he attempts to protect his infant self from the Shadow King, is tinged with both self-interest and an attempt to shift the blame for his actions.

From this perspective, Legion’s depiction of David is a trenchant critique of toxic masculinity. But the series also suggests that David, while impurely motivated, might not be wrong to seek an excuse for his behavior. Nothing in the season dispels the notion that he could, by preserving his own innocence from the Shadow King’s influence, prevent himself from becoming a manipulative and self-obsessed person—or one who would commit sexual assault.

This conflicted portrayal at least makes Legion extremely effective as a plunge into sheer narcissism. To engage with David, and the show’s ever-shifting reality, is to experience the sensation of being gaslit firsthand. His passionate pleas when enlisting the help of a young time-traveling mutant, Switch (Lauren Tsai), are backed by rousing strings on the soundtrack, which imply virtue in his determination. Similarly, when David professes his love for Syd, Stevens strips David of his usual guile, offering an earnest portrayal of heartbroken regret. Such moments, which tempt us to empathize with David, and maintain the idea of him as the show’s hero, are contrasted by deflating glimpses of his selfishness. When he thoughtlessly implores an exhausted, injured Switch to bring him back to the past after a failed attempt, the series punishes us for having trusted David to consider anything beyond his own self-interest.

Legion remains a visual achievement, typified by the imaginative settings and flights of absurdism which, at their most effective, serve to illuminate David’s mental state. Season three finds David with a new cult of followers, who surround him in a ramshackle house that acts as both plot device and canvas for his volatile emotions. The house’s exposed pipes, which resemble veins or synapses, glow neon blue with a substance revealed to be a sedative drug created by David. While the drugged cult evinces David’s craving for any kind of admiration, the claustrophobic space is a realization of his addled mind. When the character is at one point consumed by rage, the pipes turn a foreboding shade of red, and his followers begin to froth at the mouth—an effectively unsettling metaphor for David’s chaotic instability.

Some of the season’s other oddball incursions are less thematically coherent or informative, especially as the series builds toward its ostensible conclusion. Series creator Noah Hawley has publicly cited David Lynch as an inspiration for the series, and while Legion does possess a Lynchian sense of unmooring suspense, the weirdness can also merely forestall whatever intelligible vision of David’s arc the series is approaching. In one such instance, a confrontation between Switch and David pushes him toward self-assessment, but the conversation quickly evolves into the entire cast singing a melancholic version of “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” In a series with so little peace, love, or understanding, the wry song choice is clearly meant to be ironic, but the whimsical indulgence serves no purpose except to reinforce David’s already well-established inability to learn.

Season three includes more than one such musical number, which consistently resemble escapes from the character resolutions the series simultaneously inches toward and avoids. Surreal tangents once provided crucial insights into David’s mind, yet now they just as often distract from the show’s emerging assessment of the character. Legion alternately views the very act of telepathy as a violation, and David as a victim of his own abilities. Crucially, the series, by building toward a conventional showdown between David and the Shadow King, seems unsure as to which character is ultimately responsible for David’s past actions.

As the season approaches its conclusion, Legion occasionally hints at offering elusive truths about David’s nature, but just as often seems to be building toward an opaque conclusion for the character: one in which David, and his fragmented mind, simply might not be understandable in any conventional sense. Still, in its attempt to provide both character study and pure, unhinged abstraction, Legion has fashioned yet another visually distinct and uniquely bizarre season around a man’s unknowable mind.

Cast: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Amber Midthunder, Bill Irwin, Jemaine Clement, Hamish Linklater, Navid Negahban Network: FX

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Review: City on a Hill Is a Bonanza of Character Detail and Hammy Thrills

When the series isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire.




City on a Hill
Photo: Claire Folger/Showtime

Not since Gerard Butler’s riotous, bloody doughnut-eating turn in Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves last year has an actor plumbed the scumbag depths quite like Kevin Bacon does as wayward F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr in Showtime’s City on a Hill. Everyone within the show’s various layers of Boston law enforcement seems to know Rohr, and not a single person likes the guy—not the co-workers who bristle at his presence, not the people who return his greeting with an immediate “fuck off,” and certainly not his mother-in-law, Rose (Catherine Wolf), who threatens to expose his serial infidelity by telling his wife, Jenny (Jill Hennessy), about his recent STD test. In retaliation, he grabs a model Red Baron plane—a memento from Rose’s late husband—from the mantelpiece and makes like he’s going to smash it. “You put me in the fucking doghouse,” he growls in his hoarse Boston accent, “and I’m gonna be like Snoopy and blow your shit right the fuck out of the sky.”

When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in such pulpy shenanigans, which find the casually racist Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire. The series, set in the early ‘90s and based on an original idea by creator Chuck MacLean and executive producer Ben Affleck, constantly keeps one eye on the systems that contribute to the city’s rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the “Boston Miracle” police initiative that statistically reduced violence in the city. One-eyed District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) is an idealist beaten down by what he sees, given to statements such as “I like what my job should be” to justify why he thanklessly works to improve the system. He’s black, so he gets the kind of scrutiny that doesn’t afford him any goofy bad-cop antics, but Hodge dials up the searing intensity with a wide-eyed stare, the only window to the drive and the outrage bubbling beneath his no-nonsense exterior. Every so often, it leaks through with a shouted line like, “I’m not their boy.”

Rohr and Ward fall into a mismatched partnership that’s surprisingly absent any of the explosive confrontations that typically characterize odd-couple pairings in film and TV. Their hesitant camaraderie just sort of happens as they recognize their mutual interests; even if they don’t like each other, they understand one another. And from there, the series unfolds the complications (of which there are many) and the key players (of which there are even more) that will figure into a wider arc that begins with a simple armored car robbery. Laying out all the different systems that figure into the story, though, makes the first few episodes somewhat slow-going; some scenes tend to devolve into a lot of bureaucratic jargon and off-the-cuff mentions of Boston locations that might lose anyone unfamiliar with the city.

Where the series excels, however, is in the level of detail it brings to its individual characters. Armored car robber Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), for example, works stocking a grocery store, and he’s often seen doing lottery scratch cards as if constantly on the lookout for alternative cash flow. When he cuts himself putting up a bathroom cabinet, it figures into foreplay with his wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton); he holds up his bandaged hand to say he’s not afraid of a little blood while she goes to pull out a tampon “the size of a friggin’ bus.” And when Cathy suspects her screw-up brother-in-law, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), of absconding with their money, she yanks the cabinet out of the wall to reveal the nook where they keep unlaundered cash. Here, Frankie’s cut hand, bathroom cabinet, and working-class lifestyle converge to describe his relationship with Cathy and the exact degree of her complicity in his operation. Elsewhere, Rohr’s menacing of the model plane neatly (and hilariously) outlines his living situation and the strained relationships that encompass it.

While it’s true that none of these characters are particularly unique even within the setting (Affleck’s own The Town features a similarly honorable robber stuck with a volatile sidekick), they feel dynamic enough that their familiarity ceases to matter. They all know their way around a punchy, profane turn of phrase, and they’re usually good for some kind of amusing sight, whether it’s Rohr’s coked-up air-drumming to a Rush song or Jimmy driving to see his kids in a car filled with balloons, singing along to Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations” with a mouthful of Bubble Tape. Such a confident grasp of character goes a long way toward smoothing over the show’s somewhat clumsier big-picture narrative, as City on a Hill proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills.

Cast: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton, Jere Shea, Kevin Chapman, Jill Hennessy, Blake Baumgartner, Catherine Wolf Network: Showtime

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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.




Years and Years
Photo: Matt Squire/HBO

In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike describes his early adulthood by saying, “I turned thirty, then forty,” and in doing so skips over a decade’s worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Davies’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 developments—a landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisis—before settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.

We experience these changes through the perspective of Britain’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 Years’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 world’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 Rook’s appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rook’s straightforwardness—the series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—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 he’s made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isn’t really about them, but about Rook. It’s about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rook’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 she’s on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when she’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 cast’s performances similarly ground the series’s socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that façade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesn’t cry solely because of the loss; he’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 Rook’s debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness that’s jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rook’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 Edith’s presence should, in theory, render Rook’s beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pair’s attraction to her.

Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the series’s sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosie’s newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if it’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 that’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, doesn’t burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what he’s personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve all—and more than—the help they receive. Here, Daniel’s dialogue and Tovey’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 personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—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, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO

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Review: Euphoria’s Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid

Euphoria’s central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.




Photo: HBO

Sam Levinson’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 Rue’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 it’s tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinson’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 Euphoria’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 Levinson’s consciously “attitude”-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what today’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 who’s largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the show’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 don’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 characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’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 “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” “The world is coming to an end,” Rue says to justify her drug use, “and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”

Euphoria’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 Rue’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 she’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 façade, 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 “cash pig.”

The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the show’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), who’s still reeling from Rue’s overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nate’s long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so they’ll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While it’s realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Kat’s storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isn’t totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.

The success of Euphoria’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

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Review: Hulu’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.




Das Boot
Photo: Hulu

One of the strengths of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel of the same name, is that it’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 it’s also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the margins—at beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returns—and non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the film’s purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.

Johannes W. Betz’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 ship’s port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betz’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, “New Paths,” we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type who’s been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedt’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 Tennstedt’s U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the ship’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, “Secret Missions,” it’s revealed that Frank’s mission had something to do with a French girl he’s been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)—well, only “mysterious” 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. “Probably better if you don’t know,” she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.

It’s in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to show—or, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the show’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 Monroe’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 he’s drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activities—though, naturally, episode four, “Doubts,” ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.

This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheim’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 Petersen’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 violence—a death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailors—feel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series can’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 D’Arcy, Thierry Frémont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu

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Review: Jessica Jones’s Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought

As it nears the end of its run, the series doesn’t seem to have much more to say about trauma.




Jessica Jones
Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

The third and final season of Jessica Jones feels more like an afterthought than a farewell, an unevenly written retread that’s uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix show’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-lover’s telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive mother’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 show’s previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), who’s the embodiment of misogynist male geekdom—which is to say, that corner of the internet that’s predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.

In the season’s first episode, “A.K.A. The Perfect Burger,” 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 “Mary Sue”—or, as Salinger puts it, for “cheating,” for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a “feminist vindicator.”

This new season’s use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isn’t the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. It’s an intent undermined by its characters’ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the show’s message. In contrast to David Tenant’s chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesn’t convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salinger’s often blandly scripted rants against women’s empowerment.

Salinger also targets Erik’s wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessisca’s neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolm’s subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarth’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute who’s sexually available to Malcolm simply because she’s hiding out in his apartment. She’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 isn’t there.

Malcolm’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 Jessica’s ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trish’s story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, and she’s given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed “A.K.A You’re Welcome.”

Jeri’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 season’s most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeri’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 can’t shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The season’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 Salinger’s initial attack, she’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 she’s brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, “The Double Half-Woppinger,” it’s clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesn’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

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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.




Photo: Macall Polay/FX
Editor’s Note: This review may contains spoilers.

One notable arc of the second season of Pose traces the success of Madonna’s “Vogue,” 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 song’s lucid appreciation of the ballroom as an aspirational space. Madonna’s dance-pop anthem was like a lifeline to those in the house-ball community, and almost all of Pose’s characters celebrate it without reservation. “Everything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!” says Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), emboldened by the song to chase after her dreams.

Which is to say that Pose doesn’t bow before the altar of wokeism, at least not in the four episodes made available to press ahead of the new season’s premiere, knowing that the conversation about the song erasing voguing’s roots in a community’s daily struggles wasn’t one that many people were having in 1990. But the show does seem interested in the idea that the global success of “Vogue” was blinding to some in the drag-ball community. Can a queer person of color living on the fringes of society actually harness Madonna’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 singer’s “Express Yourself” personas, the answer would seem to be a resounding no.

There’s a sense that Pray is being rough on Candy because he recognizes what we’ve long known about her, and what the season’s third episode makes sure that we don’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 Abundance’s (Dominique Jackson) shifts at the Hellfire Club. Tonally, the episode walks a high-wire act that’s empowering—for the way it regards Angel and Lil Papi in their bliss as stars of a Hollywood melodrama that never was—and ballsy—for the way it unearths humor and pathos in equal measure from everything that leads up to Candy convincing Elektra to not report her client’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-lover’s dead body in a closest inside her apartment for approximately 15 years. (The man’s mummified corpse was only discovered after Corey’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 isn’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 Angel’s pursuit of her modeling career, that are beholden to all manner of coming-of-age and aspirational clichés.

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 they’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 isn’t concerned with putting any allies on blast. If you’re in the know about the history of New York and the AIDS crisis, then you’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 audience’s scorn for threatening Blanca after discovering she’s trans. But it’s an invitation that feels too easy, too cartoonish, especially in the context of the show’s almost Disney-fied—or Glee-ful—depiction of New York during this time period.

There’s a disconnect between the show’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 Deuce’s first season when a john throws Pernell Walker’s Ruby out of a window like a piece of trash. Director Ryan Murphy knows that you can assert such a woman’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 character’s investment in changing ball culture, to tailoring it to her strengths, the moment that she’s celebrated for influencing that culture feels unearned. If hers wasn’t a dream that ever felt like it was her own, that’s because it’s the stuff of narrative convenience, a setup for a fall that, in the depiction of its aftermath, ironically links Pose to Madonna’s “Vogue” by making reality seem a little less dark than it really is.

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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.




Black Mirror
Photo: Netflix

Season five of Black Mirror offers three new episodes that envision a predictably worrisome slate of side effects to humanity’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 show’s promise of nightmarish hypotheticals. While the series has on occasion veered toward alienating, high-concept bleakness—as in season three’s “Playtest” and season two’s “White Bear”—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 season’s overarching theme, which generally concerns the unforeseen fallout of our shifting media diets. In the melancholic “Striking Vipers,” a marriage is endangered by the husband’s new obsession with a virtual reality game. Brooker moves his focus to social media in “Smithereens,” a claustrophobic hostage thriller, and to the music industry in the darkly comic caper “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” Each episode envisions upheavals in a different social construct, from traditional masculinity to celebrity culture, but Brooker’s consistent focus on media as the trigger for transformation lends the stories a foreboding thread.

The show’s directors match Brooker’s ingenuity, tailoring an immersive style for each episode. In “Striking Vipers,” 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; it’s a pointed contrast to the colorful environments and dynamic camera movements Harris employs when Danny is gaming. In “Smithereens,” 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 man—as a terrible curiosity—and his own intense sense of victimization.

The relationship between perspective and perception is similarly central in “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” 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), “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” fosters our genuine concern for Ashley’s mental state—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 show’s grimmest installments to date, they remain imbued with snarky, topical satire and dogged cynicism. “Smithereens” 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 platform’s man-bunned creator, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), who’s clearly a sketch of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Brooker doesn’t veil his view of the real-life tech mogul: When Bauer’s service ignites (and acts as a livestream of) an international hostage situation, he’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 show’s broad anxieties with a tinge of righteous anger. Coupled with the season’s character-driven focus, the specificity of the show’s grievances represents a welcome evolution. With stories that recall the most human elements of Black Mirror’s past episodes, while levying urgent indictments of the present, the series that’s always worked to imagine a dark future seems to be wondering if we haven’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

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Review: Season Five of Luther Is Undermined by a Sense of Inevitability

As the series has continued, it’s grown more outlandish, oppressive, and removed from the things that made it so captivating.




Photo: Des Willie/BBC America

Time has not been kind to John Luther (Idris Elba), the wool-coated supercop haunted by the horrors of all the things he’s seen on the job. To be fair, what detective wouldn’t be traumatized living and working in the version of London offered up by BBC’s Luther? It’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 Elba’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, it’s only grown more outlandish, more oppressive, and more removed from the things that made its inaugural season so captivating. And the show’s belated fifth season, coming over three years after the two-part fourth season, hardly closes the distance.

It’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 Luther’s professional and private life. Wilson is, expectedly, adept at selling her character’s amusing sociopathy with every thin, dark smirk. Unfortunately, though, Alice’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 season’s murder investigation to the side in favor of various square-offs with Cornelius’s gun-toting goons.

Luther has always worked best as a trashy mystery series because its main character’s explosive, extralegal tendencies contrast most sharply with the show’s depiction of a structured, by-the-book police world. The supporting characters, when they aren’t being killed off with alarming frequency, marvel at Luther’s alternately clever and outrageous attempts to flout the rules. However, writer and creator Neil Cross’s growing reliance on action elements has come to mean abandoning the contrast between Luther’s methods and expected police procedure in favor of throwing him into a murky criminal underworld. There’s simply less dramatic intrigue and less of an audacious thrill when he’s breaking out of his restraints to fight a room full of gangsters than when he’s punching a murder suspect in the street to get a sample from the man’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 aren’t surprised so much as left to ruminate on the diminishing returns, remembering just how many names have already been scratched out of the show’s opening credits. The show’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

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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.




Big Little Lies
Photo: Jennifer Clasen/HBO

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriarty’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 show’s second season—directed by Andrea Arnold and based on a story by Moriarty and Kelley—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 cast’s continued strong performances, they’re weighed down by heavy-handed writing and an inchoate grasp of what powered the first season—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 Wright’s (Alexander Skarsgård) death. Some of the group’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 (Zoë 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 doesn’t quite know how to grieve for the man she still loves.

Perry’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 Perry’s death wasn’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 character’s critiques of Madeline with a quiet monotone that’s at once grandmotherly and acidic. Even among a cast as strong as the one assembled here, the veteran actress commands every scene she’s in. But as Mary Louise resists Celeste’s narrative of abuse—she wonders, for instance, why her Celeste didn’t tell the police that Perry beat her—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 conflict—and the series doesn’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. Bonnie’s mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), accurately remarks that there aren’t many black people in Monterey, but then it errs uneasily close to stereotype by giving her—one of only a small handful of black characters—possibly prophetic visions and an affinity for healing crystals and other talismans.

The show’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, it’s as if the scene is relying solely on Madeline’s zeal to hide its trite writing. Later, a young field-tripper at the aquarium asks Jane why pretty things tend to be dangerous. It’s a lazy exchange that’s similarly emblematic of the show’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 show’s soundtrack serves as a way to squeeze more words in: While the songs featured throughout these episodes are definitely capable of generating mood—as was the case last season—their lyrics regularly and agonizingly describe the drama that we’re witnessing. The spectral cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You” 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, Zoë Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, 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

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