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The Wire: Season 4, A Narrative

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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: Truth Be Told Is Uninterested in the Malleable Nature of Truth

The series attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances.

1.5

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Truth Be Told
Photo: Apple TV+

As Octavia Spencer’s journalist turned podcaster Poppy Parnell leads her listeners through the shadowy histories of gruesome criminal cases in Truth Be Told, the actress perfectly mimics the warmly grave vocal delivery that’s a hallmark of the true-crime podcast genre. Yet, while the Apple TV+ series understands this genre’s allure, it fails to replicate the enduring insights of podcasts like Serial—insights which pertain to the opacity of fact and the idea that the truth can be shaped by the whims of institutions, such as jury selection and the preservation of crime-scene evidence. Truth Be Told eschews the fixations of the nonfiction works that it apes, focusing on lurid gossip and incredulous plot twists and, as a result, proving uninterested in the malleable nature of truth itself.

Truth Be Told follows Poppy as she reassesses a grisly suburban murder from 20 years ago—one she mined for professional success at the time, penning a series of columns which helped turn the public tide against Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), the teenager who was convicted of the crime. A nagging flaw in Truth Be Told emerges early on, as the series fails to elucidate exactly why Poppy is convinced of Cave’s innocence. Reference is made to a key witness who may have been coached, but that inconclusive new development seemingly confirms Poppy’s long-harbored suspicions, which exist for reasons that are never made clear.

The show’s contrived central mystery, then, pertains to who really killed Chuck Buhrman (Nic Bishop). It’s a question that’s far less complex than that of many high-profile true-crime mysteries, and Truth Be Told attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances. Indeed, the direction given to a majority of the actors seems to have been to glower more, act shiftier, or seem more agitated. The series suggests Buhrman’s killer could have been any of the figures Poppy encounters, but because they’re all so obviously creepy, a pervasive sense emerges, unintentionally, that they’re all engaged in some kind of conspiracy.

Paul bizarrely plays Cave as a feral presence, growling and tilting his head during his character’s interviews with Poppy. Incarceration, the series unsubtly suggests, has made him an animal. Likewise, Buhrman’s daughters, Josie and Lanie (both played by Lizzie Caplan), are a pair of incessant liars who’re still grappling with the trauma of their father’s death. Other characters seem to simply be evil, none more so than Cave’s father, who’s the show’s plainly obvious red herring. All of these figures are suspects, yet the persistent suggestion that that we might also empathize with many of them results in Truth Be Told vacillating between conflicting viewpoints: one that sees these characters’ flaws are the resultant damage of Buhrman’s murder, and one that sees their flaws as inherent and may have led them to kill. But the series lacks the tact or nuance to investigate the idea of inherent evil, and what’s left is a rather muddled whodunit in which the answer ceases to be very interesting.

While the show’s reliance on easy misdirection and incredulous plot dynamics are an understandable hallmark of its genre, Truth Be Told similarly fails to distinguish itself in cinematic or thematic terms. Shot in an exceedingly workmanlike fashion, the series is designed to offer boatloads of information and little else. Every conversation unfolds in rote over-the-shoulders shots, and exteriors are plagued by the copious drone shots that have become a kind of shorthand for high production value in prestige television. Even the rare bursts of action unfold mechanically, with twists telegraphed by the show’s performances and scenes either being marred by slow motion or shaky-cam obfuscation.

Coherent cinematic flourishes would have been a welcome addition, because much of what’s being captured here seldom exceeds matters of exposition. For instance, every discussion between Poppy and her private investigator, Markus (Mekhi Phifer), includes clumsy references to their past romantic history, as if we might forget. Seemingly every conversation that Poppy has with anyone includes a statement of their current emotional dynamic. While Spencer’s warmth and wit hint at Poppy’s skill as an investigator, the actress is too often left delivering dialogue that merely states what’s happening around her or in her head.

Throughout Truth Be Told, Poppy constantly explicates her guilt, yet the series doesn’t seem sure what exactly is prompting those feelings. The show flattens its performers’ unique personalities, utilizing them simply in service of engendering suspicion. Ostensibly about the nature of fact and the spiraling effects of dishonesty, Truth Be Told is actually much less thought-provoking than all that, and simply erects a byzantine rumor mill around one man’s death and then mining those rumors for cheap thrills.

Cast: Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzie Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thoms, Ron Cephas Jones, Nic Bishop Network: Apple TV+

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Review: Joe Pera Talks with You Digs Into the Truth About Our Preoccupations

Season two of the series explores how our preoccupations bring us comfort when we might need it most.

3.5

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Joe Pera
Photo: Adult Swim

As a comedian, Joe Pera is a bit of an enigma. With a hunched-over, ambling gait and a slow, soothing voice, he may be the youngest old man on TV. How much of this is an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt is an open question; Pera is certainly committed to not totally breaking character even outside his TV series Joe Pera Talks with You, as he sustains his grandfatherly persona through stand-up routines, promotional interviews, and appearances on the local news. His website provides a form for fans to guess his age. He’s almost painfully polite and modest, brimming with a shy, nervous energy, using pauses and stumbling over words to disarm viewers right before he jams in some unexpected joke.

In other words, how much of Joe Pera the man is in Joe Pera the performance art character, and which parts are specifically turned up for comedic value? Watching Joe Pera Talks with You is to simultaneously ponder this question and be so taken with his sweet, earnest persona that the answer seems not to matter. The show’s 11-minute episodes are ostensibly structured around the middle-school choir teacher’s interest in mundane objects and activities: speaking directly into the camera, he discusses beans, hiking, shopping at the grocery store, and other things around his home in Marquette, Michigan.

Other topics and concerns inevitably creep into each episode, whether because Pera is easily distracted by things like the effect of jack-o’-lanterns on one’s soul or because other forces—a boisterous co-worker, an awareness of consumerism, or a disagreement with band teacher Sarah (Jo Firestone)—briefly throw him off course. Following from the previous season, he and Sarah are newly dating, though their viewpoints sometimes differ as Pera’s apparent frivolity clashes with Sarah’s status as a committed end-of-the-world prepper with a fortified basement and a handgun; in one episode, she asks him if he’s willing to kill to defend his garden.

In another type of series, Pera might be some wacky side character or otherwise relegated to the butt of a joke to contrast a more cynical protagonist, but the brilliance of Joe Pera Talks with You is how he instead provides the dominant perspective. No matter how seemingly insignificant, Pera and his interests are presented with complete sincerity through gentle music and loving close-ups of objects and processes, creating an atmosphere of reserved but infectious passion through his dedication and attention to detail. With a mix of serene images, oddly well-researched facts, and understated visual comedy, episodes play like a mix of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ASMR videos, and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.

An extreme self-awareness fuels the show’s comedy, from the subtle tics and timing of Pera’s speaking style to the use of subtitles and careful compositions that do such things as gradually reveal that he’s wearing shorts. He walks silently in one episode, and as soon as that silence begins to feel awkwardly too long, he begins his monologue about hiking to reveal, simply through impeccable timing, that the silence stems from a weird, adorable belief that before he can discuss hiking, he must first demonstrate what it is. He’s thorough, this guy. And he makes sure to inform you that he’s just kidding when he says cold beer is nutritious.

Joe Pera Talks with You never feels like it’s making fun of Pera’s demeanor. Though the character is almost childlike in his perpetual wonderment, the parts of him that initially come off as absurd also feel truthful and even aspirational, in how this man has thought long and hard about things like the societal value of beans. He’s a master of conveying miniature stories in just a few words, like how he has “been devastated in the past” by experimenting in his garden or how classifying Easter as “the third most romantic day of the year” suggests a considered ranking of dates by such values.

Many of Pera’s observations ring true for their cutting, hilarious simplicity, though much of the comedy comes from how he’s not some inaccessible guru or unsung sage of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some of the show’s funniest lines are when Pera brings up something his outward naiveté suggests he might be ignorant of, like American interventionism. He has his own worries; they’re just often about whether his beans will grow properly around the wire arch in his garden. He focuses on the beauty in the mundane, the things that bring him quiet joy. Employing warm cinematography, gentle narration, and its lightly absurd portrayal of everyday life, Joe Pera Talks with You digs at a larger existential truth about our own preoccupations and how they bring us comfort when we might need it most.

Cast: Joe Pera, Jo Firestone, Conner O’Malley, Pat Harris, Jo Scott Network: Adult Swim

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Review: Servant Is an Unrelentingly Strange Examination of Grief and Denial

The show’s control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the story’s mystery itself.

3

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Servant
Photo: Apple TV+
Editor’s Note: This article contains plot spoilers.

On paper, the premise of Apple TV+’s Servant sounds simple enough: New parents Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) hire a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to take care of their infant son in their Philadelphia home. It’s a ritzy place, with a fully stocked wine cellar and a spacious kitchen for chef Sean to test out his elaborate recipes. When coupled with the show’s musical score of discordant, jittery strings and atmosphere of uneasy stillness created by long takes and peculiar camera angles, however, everything simply feels off, even before it’s revealed that the child, Jericho, is dead.

What lays motionless in the crib is actually just a silent, unblinking doll meant to placate Dorothy, who suffered a psychotic break following Jericho’s sudden death. Beyond a handful of instances throughout the season where she stares listlessly into the distance as if on the cusp of some revelation, she treats the Jericho doll as though it’s alive and well. The bitter, curmudgeonly Sean plays along, but when he’s alone, he’s content to drop the thing on the floor or knock its head against the crib. Hiring Leanne is just one more part of the charade, until one night Sean finds a living, breathing, crying infant in the doll’s place.

Much of the series follows Sean as he tries to figure out what’s going on, and with the help of Dorothy’s high-strung, perpetually wine-drunk brother, Julian (Rupert Grint). They investigate where the baby could have possibly come from and dig into the background of the prim, devoutly religious Leanne, whose presence coincides not only with the return of the new Jericho, but with Sean getting splinters from nearly every surface he touches. Dorothy resumes her work as a newscaster none the wiser, but her bright, outgoing demeanor—an extreme contrast with the sullen, dickish Sean—keeps putting their newly living baby at risk of discovery when she invites people over or insists on bringing him to work.

It’s a supremely weird setup for a series made only weirder by the way it builds atmosphere through the use of jarring sounds and an austere visual language. Though most of the season’s episodes noticeably lack the ambitious directorial hand of M. Night Shyamalan—who’s an executive producer on the show and helmed two episodes—cinematographer Michael Gioulakis maintains an unnerving mood through close observation of seemingly mundane actions. By holding so long on faces and often employing overhead angles, the camera lends a sort of voyeuristic, almost alien-like tinge to the proceedings.

And the close-ups are uncomfortably close, particularly with the constant focus on Sean’s cooking that finds him meticulously pulling apart the flesh of eels, lobsters, and squids. At other times, he’s seen tugging splinters out from his neck or inside his mouth. Whether something actually does happen when the camera lingers on Sean shoving something into the garbage disposal, the potential for disaster always seems to loom large. In such moments, it’s as though grief, denial, and pain coalesce into one suffocating presence.

Servant’s mystery unfurls at a satisfying clip, since it’s broken up into brisk half-hour chunks that always present some new complication. Episodes rarely leave Dorothy and Sean’s home, locking us inside to watch everyone seethe and fall apart. In the absence of traditionally horrific imagery, the show emphasizes an unrelenting strangeness not only through Sean’s increasingly odd recipes, but through things like a man vigorously dabbing sauce from his slice of chicken before, for no apparent reason, wrapping it in napkins and then squeezing the food between his fingers. The season ends, perhaps expectedly, with more questions than any particularly satisfying answers, but in similar fashion to shows like Twin Peaks, its control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the mystery itself.

Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint, Phillip James Brannon Network: AppleTV+

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Review: Season 3 of The Crown Makes Progress Look and Feel Wearisome

The series homes in on the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms.

2.5

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The Crown
Photo: Des Willie/Netflix

Season three of The Crown lacks the urgency that previously made the Netflix series so engaging. This is partly due to the more subdued relationships between the older members of the House of Windsor, now settled into their various roles as sovereign, husband, sister, and wife. Only a few years have passed between seasons, but Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), her husband Philip (Tobias Menzies), and sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) have accumulated a deep weariness that can be enervating to behold.

This season, the countercultural politics of the Swinging Sixties nurtures a new sense of awareness around the myriad hypocrisies and criticisms of aristocratic life. The series homes in on both economic inequality and the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms, with the British crown’s traditional nonpartisan position becoming increasingly detrimental to its image. The antiestablishment spirit of the time seeps into Buckingham Palace via the small rebellions of Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), now a miniskirt-wearing, David Bowie-loving young woman. And it’s through her that the monarchy makes small but significant steps toward changing its perception as an outdated institution.

The Crown’s first two seasons tapped into the allure of a world insistent on formality. The ‘60s, though, bring a new set of societal challenges that redefine the relationship between the Windsors and their American counterparts, especially in the episode “Margaretology,” in which Margaret takes a tour of the States. Her spontaneity and charisma—the very qualities that make her a liability to the monarchy’s rarefied image—help Elizabeth to win over President Johnson (Clancy Brown), who dreads the codified etiquette that dictates their countries’ “special relationship.” Johnson doesn’t care about exclusive invitations to Balmoral Castle; he’s happy with dirty jokes and drinking contests that fly in the face of royal protocol.

The crown’s relationship to the British people is also changing, as highlighted in “Bubbikins,” which chronicles the impact of the infamous 1969 BBC documentary Royal Family. One of Philip’s public relations projects is to make the Windsors seem more appealing to the masses, but in his vanity, he fails to understand the importance of mystery and ritual to their public image. Royalty is the ultimate spectacle, and The Crown valiantly attempts to illuminate the psychological and emotional toll it takes on those who have little control over their lives. But it’s more than a little difficult to feel sympathy for the royals when the prince consort is seen trying to explain why the queen deserves more taxpayer money.

Despite Philip’s efforts to sweeten their image, the Windsors’ most likeable member is as un-royal as it gets: his mother. At turns fragile and fearless, Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) is a welcome mid-season addition, providing a much-needed contrast to her son, who’s still itching to find meaning in his life. Where Alice is selfless and warm, Philip is consumed by the need to micro-manage everything around him. As the younger Philip in the show’s first two seasons, Matt Smith was palpably angsty, but in Menzies’s hands, the neurotic prince is drawn ever inward. And a highlight of the new season is an entire episode concerned with his midlife crisis. Set during the events of the 1969 moon landing, “Moondust” is a sensitive exploration of masculine insecurities, and in no small part for the way Menzies calls upon reserves of pathos to chart his character’s miserable descent into self-pity and spite.

The most prominent thread running through The Crown’s third season is the dualities in people’s lives. It’s in the juxtaposition of the royals’ public and private selves, the ever-present chasm between aristocratic and common society, or the much more personal struggle of characters reconciling individual desires and duties. There’s plenty of fertile ground to explore this dynamic, as almost every character is in a state of conflict, from Elizabeth, who struggles to show genuine humanity to her people, to Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), who reckons with his destiny as the future king. Within their rigid world, the royals pursue their desires in their own little ways—Charles with his love of the performing arts, Elizabeth with her beloved racehorses at Sandringham, Anne with a casual fling that surprises her family.

Toward the end of the season, even Margaret has a fleeting taste of happiness outside of the public eye, before getting sucked back into the vortex of her unhappy marriage. It’s impossible for the Windsors to fully escape the demands of the crown; several extended family scenes see even the most individualistic characters obediently falling in line. Elizabeth is ultimately the only character who digests and accepts this reality without much drama. Colman brings a hard-won confidence to the queen, who weathers changes and hard decisions with the mettle of a ruler who recognizes the importance of self-reliance and stability.

The title of the season’s first episode, “Olding,” is a play on Elizabeth’s age (and the code name of a K.G.B. spy), setting the tone for the queen’s private musings on the trajectory of her reign. The episode is an exploration of appearances and what they conceal, with a number of pieces of fine art and literary metaphors hammering that point home. During a pivotal moment in the season premiere, the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), gives an overblown lecture about the layers of deceit and multiple meanings lurking within Renaissance art—and the moment is followed by a longwinded scene that overcomplicates an otherwise simple allegory about hidden identities and trust.

The Crown presents a network of relationships that are more meaningfully connected by ringing telephones, newspaper headlines, letters, and electric buzzers than face-to-face communication. The show’s royal family is “alone together,” settled in their identities and the demands of their station. Philip only reconciles with his mother after reading an article about her in the papers, and one of the season’s most heartening scenes depicts Alice and Philip walking arm-in-arm together in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Young Elizabeth once confronted Philip about what he does and where he goes, but she’s since risen above these small concerns. Given the queen’s inability to show her feelings, it’s fitting that the season closes on a note of solitude and isolation. In her own words, “One just has to get on with it.”

Cast: Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Ben Daniels, Marion Bailey, Josh O’Connor, Charles Dance, Jane Lapotaire, Erin Doherty, Emerald Fennell, Gillian Anderson Network: Netflix

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Review: For All Mankind Prioritizes Cynical Alternate History Over Character

The series suffocates its promising characters with the tedium of backroom politics.

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For All Mankind
Photo: Apple TV+

According to For All Mankind, if the Soviet Union had landed humans on the moon before the United States did, the space race would have continued at full speed, escalating from moon landings to the building of lunar bases to cosmic subterfuge. But the Apple TV+ series, created and written by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame), Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi, sluggishly leads to little of interest. For All Mankind prioritizes its alternate history’s tedious political maneuvering over its characters, suffocating their development and deflating emotional payoffs.

Navy veteran and astronaut Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is the primary focus of the series. In an early scene, set in 1969, he’s sitting in a bar in Houston, watching on TV as a Russian cosmonaut steps on the moon. Ed was on Apollo 10, a trial run for Apollo 11, which in the show’s alternate history is a footnote in the space race. Now, he and crewmate Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) strive to get back to space and break new ground.

Most of the show’s supporting characters come and go as if at random. For one, steely astronaut Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) and her endearing hippy husband, Wayne (Lenny Jacobson) become central figures and then inexplicably, and disappointingly, disappear. Often, characters exist less to provide a human perspective on the space race than to represent issues, a problem that’s more acute when it comes to the show’s women. Some of them—like astronaut Danielle Pool (Krys Marshall) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), Gordo’s wife—propel more substantial narratives whose social commentary informs, rather than supplants, their personhood. But others, such as engineer Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) and Ed’s wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), are merely stand-ins for forces and experiences like sexism in the workplace and the trials that servicepeoples’ families endure.

After the Soviets land a woman on the moon, President Nixon—who’s depicted via archival footage overlaid with recordings, both authentic and fabricated—wants to do the same, which sets up an episode about the training of female astronauts. When the Soviets are expected to establish a military presence on the moon, Nixon and the Pentagon move to ramp up their own, which cues an arc about the creation of a lunar base. Throughout For All Mankind, NASA higher-ups, beholden to the president, ceaselessly relay his demands to Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) and Flight Director Gene Kranz (Eric Ladin) over in mission control, but all their exhaustingly repetitive policy debates siphon attention away from the human beings whose lives they shape.

As For All Mankind proceeds, however, it shifts its focus from broad political mandates to the specificities of its characters. One episode that centers around three astronauts penned up in a claustrophobic lunar base is among the show’s most evocative. The astronauts spend nearly half a year sleeping in cramped bunks, pickaxing moon rocks, and eating goo. When they intently and gravely tinker with an off-screen item, the stakes feel life-or-death, but a cut to the subject of their concern reveals a damaged VHS tape, one of their six episodes of The Bob Newhart Show. The crew watches the episodes on repeat, eventually reenacting one in a welcome act of catharsis. But later, when an astronaut feverishly acts out all three parts in a scene from the Newhart series, we see how much these people have given up, how profoundly it can hurt to be so far away from home.

One of the show’s notable revisions of the historical record is its portrayal of Ted Kennedy having succeeded Nixon as president, along with the former’s triumphant push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Kennedy initially wants to bring the moon-marooned astronauts home—a relief crew is repeatedly delayed from replacing them—but he ultimately tolerates their stranding because the lunar outpost distracts the nation from his ongoing sex scandal. These and other dynamics fuel the show’s deeply cynical framing of the space race not as a struggle for key geopolitical advantage or a fight for national principles, but as a conflict as fruitless and myopic as a dog’s quest to catch its own tail.

Cynicism suffuses the series both subtly, with its framing of NASA as a pawn of the
president’s administration, and overtly, with Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore), the German aerospace engineer who designed the Saturn V, saying that “every political system is flawed, and every bureaucracy is corrupt.” Soviet points of view are almost entirely absent from the series, but the American cronies on hand justify his mistrust.

Such disenchantment occasionally generates intriguing reflections on imperialism, discrimination, PTSD, and more. It also renders the earnestness of a side plot about a young girl, Aleida Rosales (Olivia Trujillo), and her father, Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto), jarring in contrast. The pair immigrates to the U.S. from Mexico, and Aleida develops a fascination with rockets and space, as well as formidable skills in math. She’s poised to become an engineer, maybe even an astronaut, one day. The suggestion, here, is that the American dream is alive and well. But it seems that Aleida will have to leave Earth to find it.

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Shantel VanSanten, Chris Bauer, Sarah Jones, Colm Feore, Wrenn Schmidt, Sonya Walger, Krys Marshall, Jodi Balfour, Nate Corddry, Eric Ladin, Rebecca Wisocky, Arturo Del Puerto, Olivia Trujillo, Lenny Jacobson, Dan Donohue, Wallace Langham Network: Apple TV+

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Review: Apple TV’s See Feels Startlingly Uncommitted to Its Bonkers Concept

The series struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of its post-apocalyptic feudalism.

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See
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV’s post-apocalyptic drama See will undoubtedly be sold on the credentials of those involved, from director Francis Lawrence to star Jason Momoa to writer-creator Steven Knight. Knight is best known for TV dramas like Peaky Blinders and Taboo, but his most relevant credit is one that will certainly go unmentioned in trailers and other marketing materials for the series: the stupefying, bonkers Matthew McConaughey fishing-centered noir Serenity, as See suffers from a similarly bizarre, overreaching concept.

In See’s vision of the future, only a couple million people are still alive, almost all of them blind. Society has, for some reason, gone feudal, with everyone decked out in furs and living in huts and broken up into different tribes. They call the sun the “god flame,” and, at the behest of tyrannical Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks), they burn heretics who espouse the mostly forgotten idea of vision. The three-months pregnant Maghra (Hera Hilmar) is taken in by a remote community headed by Baba Voss (Momoa), who marries her. When she gives birth, it’s to twins who can see just fine. This, of course, being heresy, Baba Voss and the rest of the village flee from Kane’s witchfinders, building a new home in a remote location to keep the children safe.

The show’s opening credits display wispy yellow shadows of things like horses and spiders to suggest recognition even through blindness. Beyond that, though, See feels startlingly uncommitted to its gimmick of a blind world. The series is filmed in bog-standard fantasy style, all wide vistas, expansive greenery, and ominous smoke in the distance with seemingly no concession for how its characters’ perception of the world might differ from the audience’s. There’s a near-total absence of subjective camera work here, a sense of how the characters might have to rely on touch, sound, or smell to navigate. Barring a person’s occasional stumble to find their footing or moving a hand along a guiding rope tied across the top of the village, everything unfolds so expectedly that it’s easy to forget the show’s concept entirely.

Even with interminable amounts of exposition in the three episodes provided to press ahead of the show’s premiere, Knight struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of this post-apocalyptic feudalism in terms of government, social hierarchies, and basic navigation between settlements. Everyone is incongruously well-groomed and color-coordinated, even going so far as to wear hoods when burning people at the stake despite no one being able to see their faces. Gory battle scenes include someone like Voss groping around for a handhold only to swing his blade to perfectly meet an enemy’s throat the very next moment.

See is at its most engaging when it allows itself to get truly silly and weird: A naked woman in white paint follows people unnoticed because she’s said to purge herself of thought, and Queen Kane prays via masturbation, concluding each invocation in the throes of orgasm. But the majority of Knight’s series is a self-serious dirge, where sight-based wordplay like “So they just walk around with their eyes closed?” is delivered with a straight face. In the end, See’s myriad absurdities somehow add up only to a run-of-the-mill dystopia, where the children are the “chosen ones” and the tyrant must be overthrown.

Cast: Jason Momoa, Sylvia Hoeks, Hera Hilmar, Alfre Woodard, Christian Camargo, Archie Madekwe, Nesta Cooper, Yadira Guevara-Prip, Josh Blacker, Christian Sloan Network: Apple TV+

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Review: The Morning Show Boldly Navigates the Nuances of the “Me Too” Era

The series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our current moment.

3

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The Morning Show
Photo: Apple TV+

In the third episode of The Morning Show, two disgraced men sit down after a spirited tennis match and chat over scotch and Chinese takeout. One, a film director of apparent renown (Martin Short), tells the other—Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), a TV anchor recently accused of sexual misconduct and fired from his job co-hosting the nation’s most beloved morning show—that he feels bad for people coming of age in the #MeToo era. “There’s nothing sexy about consent,” he says. When Mitch responds with visual discomfort, the director revises his statement: “I guess what I’m saying is, humanity happens in the unspoken moments.”

Mitch claims that his only sin was engaging in consensual “extracurricular sex.” But while the three episodes provided to press ahead of the show’s premiere don’t confirm exactly what Mitch did or didn’t do, and while he expresses genuine contempt for unequivocal predators, we’re granted hints of the unspoken moments he may have orchestrated. At one point, Mia Jordan (Karen Pittman), a producer on Mitch’s former show, enters Mitch’s abandoned dressing room and presses a button under his desk, which automatically closes the door.

Earlier, Mitch receives a surprise visit from Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), his longtime co-host. He’s been cooped up in his house, surrounded by reporters, for days. The two clearly adore each other, and when Alex starts to leave, Mitch begs her to stay. His pleas are unnervingly murky: They may be the innocent symptoms of his loneliness and isolation, or they could be glimpses of the tactics he uses to keep women where they don’t want to be.

Alex is furious at Mitch for leaving her on her own, at executive producer Charlie Black (Mark Duplass) for keeping her in the dark about the allegations, and at the network itself for the bitter contract renegotiation it’s putting her through. The network is represented largely by Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), an executive who’s dismissive of hard news and devoted to entertainment. He’s a delightfully odd highlight of the series, less traditional suit than android: unblinking, unreadable, and teetering on the edge of going haywire.

The rage that Aniston summons as Alex is beguiling. She slams her fists on conference tables and roars at her staff, achieving a catharsis that’s at odds with the passive aggression that permeates The Morning Show. But when she interviews Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a firebrand reporter from West Virginia who’s gone viral thanks to a candid video of her passionately telling someone off at a protest, Alex demonstrates a subtler wrath; thinking that the viral video was part of a scheme for fame, she asks increasingly antagonistic questions. Bradley, though, stands her ground, and the electrically pointed but within-bounds exchange escalates like a polite knife fight. Bradley’s resolution, verve, and popular appeal catch Cory’s eye, making her, unknowingly, a candidate to replace Mitch.

Bradley is predominantly limited to her outsider-ness—being a moderate conservative from a rural locale—and clichés about both-sides journalism that undercut her supposed radical streak. But Witherspoon infuses the character with scrappy charm and complexity, namely in Bradley’s uncharacteristically tender interactions with her brother, a recovering drug addict. Mitch, meanwhile, is thoroughly ostracized. Carell delivers bursts of pathos that disconcertingly temper Mitch’s grotesque rants, but the series uses Mitch as too broad a stand-in for the fallen man. A conversation between him and Charlie feels as though it’s meant purely to squeeze in boilerplate talking points about “McCarthyism” and “the court of public opinion” (and to make the insufferable Charlie even less sympathetic).

In its introductory episodes, however, The Morning Show mostly avoids trite, glib, or otherwise thoughtless writing. The series takes on the risky goal of humanizing Mitch—albeit inconclusively, for now—and carefully navigates the minefield of its sensitive subject material. Propelled by its magnetic performances, the series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our still-unspooling current moment.

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell, Karen Pittman, Desean Terry, Janina Gavankar, Bel Powley, Jack Davenport, Victoria Tate, Tom Irwin Network: Apple TV+

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Review: Season 2 of Jack Ryan Leans Hard on Generic Action and Stale Plotting

The occasionally thrilling series relies on generic action cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction.

1.5

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Jack Ryan
Photo: Jonny Cournoyer/Amazon

Early in season two of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, C.I.A. analyst Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) lectures a rapt audience of college students, defining for them the meaning of the term “failed state,” and warning them of the looming threat of economic collapse in Venezuela. Ryan has an easy charisma, owing to the amiable presence of Krasinski, and he describes the South American nation in overly simplistic terms that fit the show’s polarized, good-versus-evil worldview: Its strongman president, Nicolas Reyes (Jordi Molla), is “an asshole,” and the country is destined for ruin. And so begins the new season, with the series in thrall to its title character—and, by proxy, America—and concerned with its South American setting mostly as one more Banana Republic to be saved from itself.

Pitting moral opposites against one another for an occasionally thrilling eight episodes that place the fate of a nation in the balance, Jack Ryan harkens back to the anodyne action thrillers of the 1980s and ‘90s. It’s also clearly influenced by the Reagan Doctrine of interventionism, which encouraged guerrilla wars against left-wing governments. The show’s paternalistic vision of Venezuela, like season one’s notion of the Middle East, leans toward portraying the nation as one inherently incapable of self-management—thus necessitating the help of Jack Ryan, a character who moves, frustratingly, into messianic territory here.

Ryan finds himself in Venezuela on a diplomatic mission to question Reyes regarding a mysterious shipment deep in the jungle, which is being guarded by notorious weapons traffickers. His earlier warnings about the country are quickly justified, as he’s ambushed by a mysterious hitman after the meeting with President Reyes seems to ruffle political feathers. The season’s winding plot spins out from this point, as Ryan and C.I.A. colleague Jim Greer (Wendell Peirce) must attempt to find out who ordered the ambush and what’s in the jungle.

Jack Ryan’s loose grasp of U.S. foreign relations, while providing a poor representation of our history in Latin America, is a feature of its action-hero formula. Yet because the series has little unique to convey about the world Ryan inhabits, it’s composed solely of the brand of generic action and manipulative reliance on cliffhangers cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction. Jack Ryan is the Bourne series without the well-honed, if pummeling, stylistic brio; it’s James Bond minus the elegance; Mission: Impossible without the gonzo stunt work. What joys can be derived from it come mostly from Krasinski’s affability and his character’s prickly chemistry with Greer, to whom Pierce lends a warm grouchiness.

Throughout Jack Ryan’s new season, its relatively meaningless story doubles back over itself with a number of twists before, inevitably, the “good guys” win. Right out of the gate, you sense the show’s creative regression, as Ryan has transformed from a fish-out-of-water C.I.A. analyst to a natural superhero—one comfortable liberating prison camps in the jungle, spying on weapons caches, and invading foreign government buildings. The season stretches credulity even by the show’s own standards, culminating with Ryan and a small band of black-ops cohorts invading the Venezuelan presidential palace on election day—and its laughably unrealistic final climax includes Ryan fist-fighting with President Reyes.

Though Ryan is sketched loosely, and strictly in terms of his heroism, Krasinski’s everyman persona and knack for sarcastic comedy assures that he’s believable as a smart guy with hidden ambition and untapped potential, as well as a dash of ego. But despite Krasinski’s effort, the series remains most engaging when the season’s action turns away from Ryan. A secondary plot, involving a foursome of American black operatives invading the jungle, provides some of the season’s most suspenseful action sequences—and its most potent source of pathos, when Marcus (Jovan Adepo), one of the young soldiers, is lost alone behind enemy lines.

As in its first season, the series is still better at assigning motivation to its antagonists than it is at developing its title character, as the palace intrigue between Reyes and his chief advisor, Miguel Ubarri (Francisco Denis), efficiently gets at their motivations, revealing the history of their corruption and foreshadowing a dark fracture in their alliance. In stark contrast, Ryan is merely good, and his goodness is seen as a function of his profession, blank personality, and nationality. While season two is never boring, the series nonetheless has little new to say about Jack Ryan or the world, and while it doesn’t lack for suspense, the fate of the latter is never really in doubt. The season’s length strains the effectiveness of its throwback sensibilities, passable action choreography, and formulaic characters—attributes which may be better suited for standalone feature films.

Cast: John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, John Hoogenakker, Jordi Molla, Eduar Salas, Francisco Denis, Michael Kelly, Cristina Umaña, Jovan Adepo Network: Amazon

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Review: His Dark Materials Is a Coming-of-Age Tale Dressed in Retro-Futuristic Garb

The series underlines the loss of creativity and boldness that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.

2.5

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His Dark Materials
Photo: HBO

HBO’s His Dark Materials is a beautifully orchestrated reminder that there’s life after Westeros, albeit with airships, science, and sensible sweater vests. The first of Philip Pullman’s iconic trilogy of novels springs to life in the show’s first episode, “Lyra’s Jordan,” effectively erasing the memory of Chris Weitz’s 2007 film adaptation of The Golden Compass, which failed to embrace the depth of the universe Pullman created.

Dafne Keen slips naturally into the role of orphan Lyra Belacqua, who’s eager to explore beyond her home at Jordan College in an alternate version of Oxford. The actress brings a bristling restlessness to the young girl, who’s much more into stealing wine and sliding down rooftops than reading books and doing chores. In this world, all humans have talking daemons, physical manifestations of their souls that exist outside the body as animal companions. Children’s daemons don’t take on a fixed form until their humans reach puberty, so Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon (Kit Connor), constantly morphs between a moth, wildcat, ermine, and a blur of other creatures. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor for coming of age, but it lays a crucial foundation for the story’s existential exploration of knowledge, individuality, and truth.

A visit from Lyra’s absentee uncle, Lord Asriel (James MacAvoy), throws her life into chaos. Asriel is cold and calculating, showing cool indifference even when Lyra saves his life. However effective MacAvoy is in his five minutes of screen time, though, he’s ultimately forgettable—unlike Ruth Wilson, who unfurls like a carnivorous plant as Marisa Coulter, a powerful “friend of the college” who hires Lyra as her assistant and takes the girl to London. Wilson’s performance is a study in expertly controlled layers barely concealing a well of rage and cunning; there’s also the inscrutable face of Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey daemon, an unnerving extension of her formidable will. In episode two, the full thrust of this relationship is on full display in a traumatic incident involving the monkey and Pan, while in episode four, a wickedly primal scene blurs the line between Coulter and her daemon.

Jack Thorne, who adapted the series from Pullman’s trilogy of novels, takes a balanced approach to world-building without drowning the audience in minutiae. The version of Britain imagined by the series is ruled by the Magisterium, the theocratic government that clashes with colleges that provide traditional academic sanctuary. Given the anti-intellectual inclinations of current real-world politics, it’s frustrating to watch the long arm of the law curl around those that would challenge it, even within its ranks. Thorne generally does well at crafting dialogue that reveals thoughtful bits of backstory, as well as the sociopolitical context of the characters’ struggles. Given that there are so many elements to cover—such as the concept of Dust, which consists of subatomic particles that tend to gather around adults, which the Magisterium views as controversial, even heretical—Thorne pares down the novel’s science-magic descriptions without diminishing their importance.

Expository scenes detailing the history, science, politics, and arcana of the show’s alt-Britain might be necessary to understand the machinations of this world, but they’re at times weighed down by clunky dialogue, as in a scene in which Ariyon Bakare’s Lord Boreal circles around a Magisterium priest, threatening to reveal his depravities if he doesn’t help him. But where the writing can drag, the show’s visual style is efficient, as in the warm, earthy textures associated with the downtrodden and the sleek jewel tones that mark the powerful. Familiar motifs, from the foreboding pseudo-Brutalist architecture of London to classically framed scenes depicting the apron-clad laundrywomen and busy servant class at Jordan College, succinctly key us into the power dynamics of this universe. And while the show’s retro-futuristic setting hews to a mainstream steampunk aesthetic—a genre that’s historically rife with European colonial associations—it’s encouraging to see a diverse cast, including Bakare, Clarke Peters (as The Master), and Lucian Msamati (as John Faa), playing characters in positions of power.

The main catalyst for the story of the show is the kidnapping of the children of Gyptians, a semi-nomadic people who live in houseboats, bringing simmering class politics to a near-boil, especially when evidence leads back to the Magisterium. In its timely depiction of a grassroots investigation into the disappearance of vulnerable children, His Dark Materials invites comparisons to the banal acts of evil that flourish in a corrupt system. At one point, Mrs. Coulter visits the children to help them write cheery letters to their loved ones before they’re brought northward, and the camera follows their slight frames down a dank, narrow hallway. In this moment, the visual allusion to concentration camps is unmistakable.

Thorne’s character development falters slightly in the scenes set in Trollesund, a gateway port to the north, home of armored bears and as-yet-unseen witches. Throughout, Lyra’s small victories here are almost effortless: She wins over the exiled bear Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) a little too easily, and Byrnison, while suitably gruff and jaded, comes off as a one-dimensional outcast with little at stake. And it’s in Trollesund where the audience is introduced to the tedious theatrics of Lin Manuel Miranda, thinly disguised as a Texan aeronautist named Lee Scoresby. It’s an ongoing struggle to get past Scoresby’s overcooked Texan accent and constant rambling, and he ends up more caricature than comedic relief.

His Dark Materials underlines the loss of creativity and boldness that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. As Lyra intuitively learns to read her alethiometer—an arcane truth-telling device that requires years of study—she starts growing into her own identity. Keen shines when she’s at her most defiant, giving stubborn, righteous life to a child struggling to understand the complexities of the real world. At the end of episode four, the series has barely begun to unpack its more fantastical elements, instead choosing to draw us into its well-rounded interpersonal relationships and emotional connections, all of which add an extra sense of profundity to an otherwise straightforward coming-of-age story.

Cast: Dafne Keen, James MacAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Clarke Peters, Lucian Msamati, Ariyon Bakare, Archie Barnes, Kit Connor, Joe Tandberg Network: HBO

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Review: Season 2 of Castle Rock Favors Family Drama Over the Supernatural

There’s little apparent benefit to how the show’s second season foregrounds its interpersonal relationships.

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Castle Rock
Photo: Dana Starbard/Hulu

The first season of Castle Rock was essentially a basket of Easter eggs. With an assortment of peripheral Stephen King characters and locations, Hulu’s horror anthology series revolved around an entirely original but ultimately uninspired plot. The second season dives more visibly into the King universe, sending one of the author’s most famous characters, Misery’s murderously obsessive nurse Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan), on a collision course with another King staple: the undead-inhabited town of Jerusalem’s Lot. Employing these more famous King touchstones, however, hasn’t narrowed the show’s focus so much as it’s left it feeling scattered and unmoored.

At the start of the season, Annie drifts from town to town with her teenage daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher). She works as a nurse long enough in each town to gain access to its hospital’s array of anti-psychotics in order to continue self-medicating, at which point she and Joy hit the road, swapping out license plates as they drive across the country. A late-night car crash strands them in Castle Rock, Maine, where their skeezy landlord, Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks), clashes with his adopted brother, Abdi Omar (Barkhad Abdi), over business with the local community of Somali immigrants. There’s clearly meant to be some social commentary here about racism and even, to some extent, the opioid epidemic, but even after the five episodes made available to critics, the season has yet to really dig into these thorny topics.

Castle Rock uses neighboring town Jerusalem’s Lot and its witchy history for a new set of mysterious resurrections. But compared to the first season’s supernatural hook, there’s a much stronger focus on family drama here that spreads the story thin across so many characters; the series struggles to cover not only Annie and Joy settling into town, but the bad blood between Ace and Abdi. Ace and his biological brother, Chris (Matthew Alan), are the nephews of the unscrupulous, hard-nosed, but fair “Pop” Merrill (Tim Robbins, who unearths an intense weariness in the role). Out of a desire to make amends for his military service and no small amount of white guilt, Pop fostered both Abdi and his sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), who’s the head doctor at the hospital where Annie now works. It’s a tangled web, but the drama never boils to a degree that explains the eventual violent escalation. A shot of a younger, jealous Ace and some snippets of a right-wing radio program are an unsatisfying shorthand for his decision to start lobbing Molotov cocktails at his adopted brother’s house.

The most engaging drama here is actually the one with the lowest, most ordinary stakes, in Joy reaching the age where she’s grown restless under her mother’s wing. She starts to seek out friends her own age, but Annie is, as one might imagine, not an easy person to leave behind. The first season tackled dementia with surprising sensitivity, and there’s a similar undercurrent of palpable pain to watching Joy struggle with the mental illness of a loved one, sorting out what’s best for herself even when she loves and cares for her mother.

Unfortunately, Annie isn’t nearly so easy to empathize with as Joy. She’s such an outsized presence, with her torrent of childish pet names and G-rated curses delivered in an odd folksy accent, that it’s difficult to view her as anything but a caricature. Originally conceived as a strange Other in Misery, Annie has been thrust into the role of protagonist with few apparent changes beyond her dedication as a mother, which nevertheless has its roots in her obsessive tendencies. It seems telling that, in a mid-season flashback episode meant to make young Annie more of a sympathetic character, her conspicuous tics are significantly dialed down.

There’s little apparent benefit to how Castle Rock’s second season foregrounds its interpersonal relationships. Deemphasizing a strong supernatural mystery leaves only a cast of characters that alternates between the dull and the exaggerated. Opting for more recognizable, overt King references hasn’t enriched the show’s storytelling so much as clarified the gap between the author’s best work and this TV imitation.

Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Tim Robbins, Paul Sparks, Barkhad Abdi, Elsie Fisher, Yusra Warsama, Matthew Alan, Abby Corrigan, Chad Knorr, Owen Burke, Paul Noonan Network: Hulu

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