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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: Chambers Liberally Borrows from Horror Tropes to Uneven Results

Netflix’s latest horror offering only rarely assumes a form greater than its individual elements and references.

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Chambers
Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

Among the centerpieces of Netflix’s Chambers is the terrain of the American Southwest. Featuring wide shots of desert topography, blue-pink sunrise horizons, and cracks of lightning in the gray distance, the series is set in Arizona but was actually shot in neighboring New Mexico. It’s thus built on a doppelgänger of a landscape, a fitting geography given its premise: After high-schooler Sasha Yazzie (Sivan Alyra Rose) undergoes a heart transplant, she gradually absorbs the memories, traumas, and impulses of her organ donor, Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Scarlett Reid), until the line separating the two teens vanishes.

As Becky exerts increasing control over Sasha’s body, thoughts, and dreams, Sasha ropes her best friend, Yvonne (Kyanna Simone Simpson), into an investigation of Becky’s supposedly accidental death. Their sleuthing initially targets Nancy and Ben Lefevre (Uma Thurman and Tony Goldwyn), Becky’s wealthy and creepy parents. Meanwhile, Big Frank (Marcus LaVoi), Sasha’s uncle and sole guardian, doubts that anything otherworldly is afoot. Skeptical of the supernatural but worried about Sasha’s apparent hallucinations, he seeks aid from doctors instead of the spiritual healers in the Navajo community from which he has distanced himself and his niece. But medicine doesn’t help Sasha, and she’s too far removed from her tribe to consider turning to it for guidance, so she keeps digging into the Lefevre family’s secrets.

Beyond suspicious deaths and ghostly doubles, Chambers is waist-deep in the tropes and fixations of so many horror films and TV shows: stalkers; demonic possession; the linking of sex with hellish fates; a wise old man; an arguably wiser, inarguably more disturbing old woman; and so on. Photos of Becky regularly worm their way into scenes, and you can feel the series straining to conjure its own Laura Palmer. This speaks to the predominant problem with Chambers: It only rarely assumes a form greater than its individual elements and references. There are moments late in the season that demonstrate the kind of gravitational pull that good horror can generate, but for the most part, the series claws at its inspirations, making confused and superficial gestures toward the works it imitates.

The show’s messiness is on full display in its wildly inconsistent characterizations of Nancy, Ben, and their son, Elliott (Nicholas Galitzine), all of whom are suspects in Becky’s death. Chambers aims to create mystery and suspense, of course, but it feels gratuitously manipulative to give selective glimpses of characters that paint them a certain way prior to a big reveal, only to offer vastly more fleshed-out depictions later. It’s not a sin of which Chambers is uniquely guilty, nor is it especially damning. But combined with the fact that emotional climaxes and important character developments are frequently rushed or too easily achieved, it diminishes the payoff. Instead of amplifying momentum and adding thoughtful layers to the narrative, the season’s various revelations undercut what came before them.

Chambers is often more graceful in its depiction of interpersonal drama. As Nancy, Thurman exquisitely vacillates between unsettling and heartbreaking. Rose, too, impresses with her measured depiction of Sasha. Almost everything involving Yvonne, a computer prodigy who cares for her dementia-struck mother, is poignant, funny, or both. “I’m glad you have my back,” Sasha tells Yvonne at one point, to which Yvonne replies, “Front, back, both sides, and the middle, girl.” And when Sasha’s boyfriend, TJ (Griffin Powell-Arcand), consults a medicine man about her plight, the scene lends real depth to the two characters’ releationship.

It’s worth noting, particularly in the context of novelty, the show’s focus on the experiences of indigenous and black people. It’s remarkably satisfying to watch a series in which every single white character must actively earn the audience’s trust—as opposed to its non-white characters, who receive the benefit of the doubt that whiteness usually affords. Unfortunately, Chambers’s fresh perspective and more organic moments serve to amplify the contrasting artificiality of much of the dialogue, as well as how rote the horror is.

By the end of the season, many questions remain unanswered—and the writers deserve credit for refusing to tie too neat a bow on everything. But the conclusion ends up over-explaining some things and under-explaining others, leaving the show’s unsettled dust to read as less intentional than haphazard. The medicine man, when speaking about Sasha, tells TJ that there’s “somethin’ bad there. Really out of balance, but…it’s not from here. I don’t think our medicine can take care of all of it.” He may as well be diagnosing Chambers itself: admitting to its unevenness, surrendering to the not-from-here ghost trapped between the show’s bones.

Cast: Sivan Alyra Rose, Lilliaya Scarlett Reid, Uma Thurman, Marcus LaVoi, Tony Goldwyn, Nicholas Galitzine, Griffin Powell-Arcand Airtime: Netflix

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 1, “Winterfell”

The episode has the good sense to respect our familiarity with these characters, and as such it doesn’t beat around the bush.

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Game of Thrones
Photo: Helen Sloane/HBO

Given the sheer number of still-living characters that remain caught in the tangled web of plot lines that Game of Thrones has delighted in spinning across its first seven seasons, the show’s final six episodes have a lot of wrapping up to do. And the eighth season’s premiere episode, “Winterfell,” suggests that will occur at a reliably steady clip.

Take Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who doesn’t waste words when he sees his ex-wife, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner): “Last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding. Miserable affair.” Her response is even more to the point: “It had its moments,” conveying her satisfaction at the poisoning of Tyrion’s nephew, Joffrey. The episode has the good sense to respect our familiarity with these characters, and as such it doesn’t beat around the bush.

This approach, though, isn’t always successful, as in the clipped depiction of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) effortlessly infiltrating his uncle Euron’s ship in order to free Yara (Gemma Whelan) from captivity. The scene is conspicuous as much for its compressed nature as it is for closing a plot thread and allowing Theon to finally return to the North, where almost every other character on has converged, and where most of the episode’s action takes place.

Speaking of which, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) badly needs an excuse to head North; her scenes, so isolated from the rest of the show’s stakes, feel as if they’ve been beamed in from an entirely different show. Headey is given little to do at the start beyond smirking and telegraphing her character’s evil, but in Cersei’s interactions with Euron (Pilou Asbæk) we’re reminded of the complexity of this woman’s nature. It’s in the way she scoffs at, then indulges Euron’s sexual demands, and never without ever relinquishing her power.

Fan service also occasionally gets the better of “Winterfell.” Little is accomplished by having Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) exchange grim pleasantries with The Hound (Rory McCann), her one-time captor. The scene serves only to emphasize the obvious: “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you? Guess that’s why you’re still alive.” Far richer is just about every other reunion, especially Arya’s with Jon Snow (Kit Harington). The Hound’s words exist to underline who Arya has become, while Jon, who hasn’t seen Arya since the first season, offers her the rare opportunity to be the mischievous little girl she once was. Arya’s brutally honest with everyone she meets, but when Jon asks if she’s had to use the sword Needle he gifted her, she lies, so as to stay that little girl just a little while longer in his eyes: “Once or twice.”

Both the opening and closing scenes of the episode depict two very different returns to Winterfell, and they intentionally echo those of the very first episode of Game of Thrones. This time, however, it’s not a king arriving in the North at the start of the episode, but rather a new and suspicious queen, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Her darkly attired retinue doesn’t approach Winterfell neither in festive nor raucous fashion, marching instead in fixed and rigid columns. It’s important for a sense of scale (and spectacle) that we see just how many troops are present, but in mirroring this earlier episode, director David Nutter achieves more than just a dutiful tally: He evokes the funereal mood of how things have changed now that winter has finally arrived in Westeros. And right at the end of the episode, we see Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) staring down Jaimie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as the latter attempts to sneak back into Winterfell. It’s a kind of flip on the moment from the show’s pilot where Jaimie pushed Bran out a window for catching him and Cersei having sex.

Game of Thrones excels when it puts weight behind its words and artifacts, because without such history—George R. R. Martin’s imprimatur—the show would be a tawdrier fantasy: pomp, sans circumstances. Yes, there’s a bit of gratuitous nudity in the scene where the mercenary Bronn (Jerome Flynn) at last receives a three-prostitute reward for his loyalty to Cersei. But the scene is swiftly, mercifully interrupted, so as to focus on the significance of the crossbow that Qyburn (Anton Lesser) gives to Bronn. Though it’s only implied by Qyburn’s mention of “poetic justice,” eagle-eyed fans will certainly recognize that this is the weapon Tyrion used to slay his father. Now it’s the one that Bronn is being hired to use in the event that either of Cersei’s “traitorous” brothers somehow survive the war in the North.

Consider, too, the weight carried by the crypt in which Jon at last learns the truth of his parentage, as well as the blood-brother connection he shares with Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), his best friend and the bearer of this news. Jon isn’t just a man learning that he’s been lied to his entire life—that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen, the rightful heir to the throne—or that the woman he’s fallen in love with is actually his aunt. In that tomb, he’s once again a boy—a bastard—trying to live up to the legacy of the dead statues that surround him. This isn’t some M. Night Shyamalan-like twist-for-twist’s-sake, but a genuine revelation that’s been years in the making. That viewers have known this since last season, or predicted it for even longer, takes nothing away from the moment at which Jon at last knows something.

If it seems at all odd that the series lingers on Jon and Daenerys’s courtship—they kiss in exhilaration after taking her dragons for a ride—it’s to better set up not only the confirmation of Jon’s dragon-riding heritage, but the likelihood of this love being doomed by the whole incest thing. (That may be a Targaryen thing, but Jon’s got a pretty sturdy moral compass.) Likewise, it’s no mistake that moments before Sam tells Jon what he and Bran have discovered, Sam is turned against Daenerys as he learns—from her own mouth—that she murdered his father and loyal-to-a-fault brother. Earlier conversations with Sansa and the young spitfire Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), who at first just seemed resentful or distrustful of Jon’s abdication of his title of “King of the North,” now take on an entirely new light.

What’s most remarkable about all this squabbling over lineage is just how much it actually matters, given that an army of the dead is only days away, seemingly determined to kill everyone in its path. And as if we need another reminder of this existential threat, Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), trapped behind enemy lines, encounter a gruesome sigil hewn of human flesh in the recently ruined Castle Umber, a taunting (and still partially alive) message from the Night’s King. It remains to be seen just how far Game of Thrones will bend the knee to full-on body horror and fantasy in its remaining five episodes. But something that’s as true now after this premiere episode as it was throughout any that have come before it is that the show is at its most frightening when it grapples with the political realities that connect its characters’ lives.

For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.

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Review: Native Son’s Anguished Howl Lacks the Rage of Richard Wright’s Novel

Once an accidental act of violence sends the main character’s life into a spiral, the film unfortunately spirals with him.

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Native Son
Photo: Matthew Libatique/HBO

This modernized adaptation of Richard Wright’s iconic 1940 novel Native Son is full of people who believe they understand the story’s African-American protagonist, Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders). They assume that he marches for some unnamed cause because he’s outraged, and that he’s outraged because he’s black. They believe he’s desperate for a “respectable” job opportunity, and that he’s into hip-hop.

As adapted by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by conceptual artist Rashid Johnson, Native Son makes a number of changes to its source material, many of which dilute the story’s power. The most successful tweak is how Bigger, who goes by “Big” and pointedly not “Biggie,” is conceived as a listless punk-rock type. At a record store, he asks for a Bad Brains album. He cuts a wiry, towering figure topped with dyed green hair. He wears a jacket stuck through with pins and sprayed with words that might be lyrics or slogans that, though they mean something to him, don’t mean the world understands him any better.

He’s less angry than he is lost, pulled in every direction. A friend wants him to help rob a convenience store, but Big opts for another job: as the driver for the wealthy Dalton family, whose daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), is an activist—the kind of white liberal who would certainly have voted for Obama a third time if she could have. The awkward exchanges between Big and Mary quickly become the discomforting heart of the film, a suffocating performative wokeness on her part worsened by fumbling attempts at solidarity. “You’re outraged, aren’t you? He’s outraged,” she says at one point. She doesn’t mean any harm, of course. She’d probably consider him a friend. Her boyfriend (Nick Robinson) certainly does.

Nobody in the film truly “sees” Big for anything other than a concept, the dehumanized stereotype of a young black man, and Native Son builds that point from a subtle hum to an anguished howl through Big’s striking appearance. Sanders plays Big with the easygoing confidence of someone who knows that confidence is a performance to some degree, a mask for inner turmoil. You see the confidence drain from Big’s body when he’s dragged into uncomfortable situations; his body language goes rigid, like someone who’s gritting his or her teeth and praying for the end. As if in response to James Baldwin’s noted critique of the character as a stereotype, this version of Bigger Thomas is tormented as much by casual racism as by how it drowns out his constant assertions of individuality.

Eventually, an accidental act of violence sends Big’s life into a spiral, and Johnson’s Native Son unfortunately spirals with him. The film’s initial confidence at examining the weight of stereotypes falls away, as if such self-assurance were a mask of its own. Ominous whirs and drones on the soundtrack stand in for the fact that we never truly get inside Big’s head. So much of his character is only defined by situations he’s thrown into, and Matthew Libatique’s camera shoots all of them at a sort of neutral, objective remove. That pivotal act of violence cries out for some subjectivity to seem plausible, but despite being true to the source material, it feels outrageous and contrived because it’s filmed with the same clinical distance.

When Big subsequently acts out, his actions feel incongruous because this version of Native Son hasn’t shown us the thought process that fuels them. The Bigger Thomas of Johnson’s film lacks the rage of his literary counterpart, but because the novel climaxes in explosive violence and terror, the film seems obligated to replicate it (albeit to a much less extreme degree), despite so many other changes. As a result, what understanding we have of the character seems to slip through our fingers, as if the filmmakers and viewers alike are the next in a long line of people who don’t truly understand Bigger Thomas.

Cast: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, KiKi Layne, Bill Camp, Nick Robinson, Lamar Johnson, Sanaa Lathan, David Alan Grier Airtime: HBO

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Review: Fosse/Verdon Struggles to Capture the Sensual Fanaticism of Its Subjects’ Art

The miniseries at least gives ample space for Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams to richly inhabit their characters.

2.5

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Fosse/Verdon
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon comes with more than a bit of baggage. First, it has to compete with the electrifying work of its legendary protagonists: choreographer, theater director, and filmmaker Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer and choreographer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), who collaborated on stage in Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Chicago, among others, while living out a volatile love affair and marriage that would inspire each artist’s career. But Fosse/Verdon is particularly haunted by the legacy of Fosse’s monumental and similarly plotted 1979 film All That Jazz, in which he fictionally recreated his efforts to stage his iconic Chicago production while editing his third film, Lenny.

All That Jazz mixes mythmaking with an intoxicatingly, and disturbingly, sensual study of addiction, as Fosse fashioned an editing syntax that remains influential, especially to films about drug use. All That Jazz’s quick, repetitive, exhilarating montages suggest the rigid schedule of uppers that are ingested by Fosse’s stand-in, played by Roy Scheider, so that he may work for days at a time while seeking late-night solace in women and alcohol. This editing comes to suggest a cinematic equivalent to the jagged movements that Fosse favors as a choreographer to express the exertion of power for the sake of satiating erotic hunger. Fosse’s characters, like the man himself, always wanted more. Like Fosse’s Cabaret, All That Jazz informs the musical genre with a modern, free-associative cynicism and luridness.

Fosse/Verdon emulates All That Jazz’s freneticism, as the series is constantly hopping around in time so that we may experience only the highs and lows of these lives. It opens in the late 1960s, when Gwen is helping Bob fine-tune the film version of Sweet Charity, which would become a financial and critical disaster. A lovely scene makes a point that theater and film buffs will already know: that Gwen wasn’t allowed to reprise her role for the film, which went to Shirley MacLaine, who bears a striking resemblance to the dancer. Bob reads the New York Times review, which asks “Where’s Gwen?” and Gwen is put in the weird position of having to comfort her husband for his complicity in not hiring her. Meanwhile, Gwen is trying to get Chicago off the ground while also reinventing herself as a dramatic actress for straight plays.

All That Jazz played Chicago and Lenny off of one another, suggesting how Fosse derived his creative energy from working in multiple mediums at once while deliberately spreading himself thin, courting physical and mental collapse as an implicit declaration of his integrity, as well as a way of servicing his addiction to the various substances necessary to sustain such a lifestyle. Similarly, Fosse/Verdon is driven by various comparisons of productions that are being simultaneously considered or created. One such pairing is Children! Children!, a doomed play Gwen takes out of desperation to prove her acting chops, and the film version of Cabaret, which appears to be the nail in the coffin of Bob’s languishing film career. Cabaret’s producer, Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser), thinks that Bob is all style and no substance, fighting the filmmaker’s taste for darkness and decay. Later, Bob looks at a four-hour rough cut that he describes as “unwatchable,” leaving him to save the film in the editing room—a process in which he discovers how to use cutting to adjust his aesthetic for cinema. Learning to cut both with and against the movements of the dancers, depending on the mood he wishes to evoke, Bob outgrows the stagey sluggishness of the Sweet Charity film.

Fosse/Verdon could’ve spent more time in the Cabaret editing room, as Bob nearly loses his mind on booze, pills, and women while trying to save the film that would eventually win him a best director Oscar. It’s also a pity that a series about dancers doesn’t have more dancing. (There’s a sexy sequence in which Bob and Gwen meet over a discussion of Damn Yankees, their rehearsal of “Whatever Lola Wants” coming to represent their own attraction.) And a touching point is conventionally over-emphasized: Gwen is “always there” for Bob, apparently inventing the sexy black outfit that Liza Minelli wears in Cabaret on the fly, while Bob fails to give her notes on Children! Children!, coddling her with banalities that are meant to disguise his distraction and self-absorption. Such threads risk reducing Gwen, a colossal figure in her own right, to “Bob Fosse’s wife, lover, and champion.”

Fosse/Verdon is boxed in by a “have-it-both-ways” quandary. Cinephiles will probably want something more dynamic and less sentimental, with more formalist fireworks and nuts-and-bolts texture about Bob and Gwen’s modes of creation, while others may prefer a simpler and talkier melodrama about a couple torn between their ambitions, vices, and respect and love for one another. Despite its showy flashback structure, the series leans more toward the latter mode, with romantic pop psychology and jokey cameos by Bob and Gwen’s friends and fellow legends-in-the making such as Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) and Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz). (In fairness, there’s also plenty of pop psychology in All That Jazz, as the narrative is another of those Great Self-Destructive Genius numbers that Hollywood pumps out on a regular basis, but Fosse’s formal audacity transcends such gimmickry.)

If Fosse/Verdon lacks the obsessiveness and sensual fanaticism of Fosse and Verdon’s art, though, it nevertheless gives ample space for Rockwell and Williams to inhabit their characters. Rockwell conjures Fosse’s almost paradoxical sexiness, emulating the man’s stooped posture, which somehow conveyed power, and speaking in a voice that’s fey and raspy working-class masculine at the same time—a combination that suggests confidence and years spent hustling. Rockwell also reprises one of Fosse’s signature moves, in which he would crouch near the bottom of the dance floor and look up at the dancers, seemingly drinking them in on a molecular level, which is an act of submission as domination. Most importantly, Rockwell captures Fosse’s general bonhomie—the sense the man gave of taking pleasure in everything—which fuses with Rockwell’s own infectious energy as a performer.

Williams is subtle and heartbreaking in a role that’s often more thankless than Rockwell’s, as Verdon’s artistry is given short shrift here compared to Fosse’s. That very sense of being overlooked is built into Williams’s performance, however, as her voice contains multitudes of insinuation that communicate Gwen’s desires to men on nearly subliminal levels, so they can hear her without them knowing it, especially as Gwen fights to keep Chicago alive. Throughout the miniseries, Williams merges Verdon’s voice with her own, grounding an impression in behavioral curlicues, switching from humor to rage with musical fluidity.

Williams is given the finest scene of Fosse/Verdon’s first five episodes. Rehearsing Children! Children!, trying to give a stodgy monologue juice, Gwen accesses one of the most painful moments of her life, turning exposition into confessional poetry. Gwen fillets herself for the rehearsal, and Williams allows you to see the toll this takes, as well as the transcendence of being able and willing to pay that toll. Williams doesn’t foreground the pain, but the surprise of rediscovering an emotional wound that has never healed, the sort of wound the drives artists—and people of other trades as well—to keep working, consuming, screwing, all in the hope of feeling as if they’ve satisfied their inner demon, the harshest and least satiable critic.

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Paul Reiser, Aya Cash, Nate Corddry, Norbert Leo Butz, Blake Baumgartner, Juliet Brett, Susan Misner, Margaret Qualley, Evan Handler Airtime: FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

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Review: The Sprawling Unspeakable Simmers with Rage But Lacks Resolve

The miniseries fails to tackle the unseen forces which enable and encourage the institutional rot that wrecks people’s lives.

2

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Unspeakable
Photo: SundanceTV

With a title like Unspeakable, one might imagine that Sundance’s miniseries about Canada’s contaminated blood scandal, in which thousands of hemophiliacs were infected with HIV and hepatitis after receiving tainted blood, is concerned primarily with the stigma surrounding those diseases. Yet the series, which attempts to narrativize two separate books about the scandal, as well as creator Robert C. Cooper’s own experience contracting hepatitis from hemophilia treatments, resists homing in on any one aspect of its sprawling story. The result is an untidy and cursory overview of a 40-year saga.

Unspeakable certainly simmers with rage, and Cooper’s disgust is palpable. Throughout, the series solemnly depicts each negligent decision made by parliamentary politicians and Canadian Red Cross bureaucrats, who ignored warnings from United States health officials and distributed potentially infected blood in order to save money. But while this staggering malfeasance provides an opportunity to interrogate a complex example of institutional failure, Unspeakable’s point of view is more incredulous than curious: The series is packed with characters who are consistently shocked and angry, yet it fails to tackle the unseen forces which enable and encourage the institutional rot that wrecks people’s lives.

Unspeakable attempts to underscore the tragedy of the scandal by offering its broad historical account through an intimate lens, following five separate Canadian families effected by the tainted blood supply. Yet because of the sheer breadth of the saga and the multitude of perspectives, the series often feels like nothing more than a dry historical outline. As the breakneck narrative breezes over entire years, we aren’t afforded the opportunity to connect with any one character. A pattern emerges, with short successions of scenes that dutifully lead to a consequential event, before action shifts to a new year, and the cycle is repeated. The effect is distancing, and made even more so by unceasing title cards that clumsily herald new locations with information that should ostensibly be provided by the scenes themselves. (One such mouthful reads “Heat-Treated Factor Concentrates Consensus Conference, Ottawa.”)

Because Unspeakable moves so rapidly through its timeline, much of the dialogue is composed of stilted exposition. Lines like “The way the two of you still don’t speak is fucked up!” and countless instances of characters announcing the parameters of their professions are jarring reminders of the constantly shifting landscape. In other instances, the series glosses over seemingly important developments, leaving the viewer without context. Ex-reporter Ben Landry (Shawn Doyle), the father of an HIV-positive, hemophiliac son, at one point resolves to take action, declaring, “There’s only one thing I’m good at.” Years pass by in the narrative before it becomes clear that he wrote a book about the scandal, which, ironically, seems based on one of the books which provided the inspiration for Unspeakable.

Unspeakable’s subject matter is self-evidently grave, but the series is filmed in a procedural style that lacks distinctiveness. The lighting is creamy and omnidirectional, and episodes are edited with a utilitarian devotion to plot. The quick pace does result in a sense of urgency, if only because the series never fully resolves one narrative tangle before it introduces another. Ben, still working as a reporter, attempts to expose the scandal in its early stages, while Will Sanders (Michael Shanks), the father of another hemophiliac, tries to convince the Red Cross of the impending crisis. Their efforts are portrayed as the kind of earnest journalistic persistence seen in films like Spotlight, but while Unspeakable’s emphasizes the failure of public institutions, it ultimately stops short of interrogating exactly why they failed.

Cast: Sarah Wayne Callies, Michael Shanks, Ricardo Ortiz, Spencer Drever, Shawn Doyle, Camille Sullivan, Levi Meaden, Aaron Douglas, David Lewis, Caroline Cave Airtime: SundanceTV

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Review: In Season Two, Killing Eve Still Thrills Even When Spinning Its Wheels

The show’s greatest strength is still the way it upends our expectations via tonal shifts and amusing personal details.

3

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Killing Eve
Photo: Aimee Spinks/BBC America

The second season of Killing Eve commences immediately after last season’s conclusion, during which MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) unceremoniously shanked the object of her (mutual) obsession, the flamboyant assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). It’s a disorienting and totally engaging starting point for the new season, a confirmation that the two women are still very much entangled in the web of desperation and lies that led them to one another in the first place. But for how much the season focuses on the show’s obvious strengths, it also gets off to something of an uncharacteristically slow start.

Much of the two episodes provided to critics is devoted to the fallout of Eve and Villanelle’s actions: the firings, the confessions, the stabbings, the shootings. Thankfully, the acts of violence that capped last season’s finale do nothing to flatten and clarify the complexity of their relationship. Instead, they only deepen their infatuation, each one still enraptured with the other’s intellect and style and incongruity within their respective personal spheres. “Sometimes when you love someone, you will do crazy things,” Villanelle says at one point. Though the first date (of sorts) may have gone bad, it hardly closes the door on a second.

The knife wound, however, is quite serious and, hand clutched to her side, Villanelle stumbles to a hospital. It’s a continuation of the shift in the pair’s power dynamic, with Villanelle as elusive and inscrutable as ever yet now quite literally vulnerable. The first two episodes of the season are keen on reinforcing her newfound weakness while Eve deals with feelings of her own, a wide spectrum of emotion that manifests in manic cooking, vacant moisturizing, and stress-eating. Eve’s emotions have practically exploded in every direction, and the debris is strewn all over Oh’s terrific expressions, an equal spread of thrill, regret, and confusion.

Killing Eve’s greatest strength continues to be its dark comedy, and the way it upends our expectations via tonal shifts and amusing personal details. “How do you always look so good?” an exasperated Eve asks her unflappable MI6 boss, Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw). The series never undercuts its drama, instead using such specificity to humanize characters thrown into worlds they scarcely understand at the behest of truly thankless jobs.

Comer again embodies the bulk of Killing Eve’s wicked sense of humor, conveying Villanelle’s cheerful but irritable psychopathy through a combination of simmering rage, an eat-your-peas level of childlike disgust, and a still-shocking capacity for violence. And the new season gives Villanelle a host of oblivious characters to play off of who are nevertheless not so easily taken in: One woman at a grocery store shoos the cut-and-bruised hitwoman away, protesting that she doesn’t have the change that Villanelle didn’t even ask for.

The thrilling cat-and-mouse suspense of the show’s best moments, however, is largely absent from these initial episodes. Rather than build on many of the developments from the end of last season, Killing Eve cobbles back together some approximation of its status quo, and quite slowly at that. It’s perhaps an expected, if disappointing, development, and there are some tweaks to the formula—chief among them the ongoing suspicion of Carolyn’s true colors. But the start of the second season eventually begins to spin its wheels, lingering a little too long on Villanelle’s weakness while providing various sounding boards for emotions that Oh is perfectly capable of conveying with no more than a furrowed brow.

Cast: Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, Fiona Shaw, Owen McDonnell, Sean Delaney, Nina Sosanya, Edward Bluemel Airtime: BBC America, Sundays, 8 p.m.

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Review: The New Twilight Zone Is Stuck Chasing Rod Serling’s Shadow

There’s an unsteadiness to this return to that certain dimension of sight, sound, and, of course, mind that dulls whatever impact it intends.

2.5

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Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

Despite occasional successes, no incarnation of The Twilight Zone has quite stood up to Rod Serling’s iconic original. Two revivals on television and one feature film are more footnotes than notable successors. But Jordan Peele seemingly has the artistic credibility to ensure that this third TV revival is more than just a brand-exploiting ploy.

Peele certainly slides right into the besuited presenter’s persona once occupied by Serling, delivering verbose narration at the beginning and end of each episode in an impassive drone that suggests inevitability yet ends in a slight, mischievous half-smirk. But like previous versions of The Twilight Zone, there’s an unsteadiness to this return to that certain dimension of sight, sound, and, of course, mind that dulls whatever impact it intends.

The four episodes screened for press have a variety of supernatural focal points: a comedian’s stand-up routine that makes people disappear; a future-predicting true-crime podcast that anchors a reimagining of the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; a man (Steven Yeun) who mysteriously appears in an Alaskan holding cell; and a camcorder that turns back time. The best of these episodes is the last one, “Replay,” which finds a black woman (Sanaa Lathan) using the camcorder’s unique powers in a desperate attempt to evade a racist police officer (Glenn Fleshler) while she drives her son (Damson Idris) to college.

It’s the most overtly political episode of the bunch, though every moment of the series is placed in a cultural context. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” plays on anxieties about terrorism, while the stand-up conceit of “The Comedian,” which parallels an episode in the original series, alludes to the performative, confessional nature of social media and influencer culture.

The elements that make “Replay” such a standout, however, reveal a distressing void in other episodes—that is, a firm grasp of the intended social commentary, as well as an ability to build that commentary into the episode’s hook without compromising drama. Each rewind of the camcorder creates a distinct, suspenseful scenario in its own right. “The Comedian,” on the other hand, fails to use its multiple stand-up performances to forge new insight into its protagonist (a credibly unraveled Kumail Nanjiani). Though it features an outstanding turn from a sinister Tracy Morgan, the episode merely belabors an obvious, simplistic point that hardly justifies the outrageous 50-plus-minute runtime.

Other episodes lose sight of their themes altogether: “A Traveler” and even the relatively brisk 35-minute “Nightmare” trail off on tangents with multiple characters. As if to acknowledge that they muddy their intended messages, each episode concludes in excruciatingly didactic fashion. Characters say things straight into the camera even before they’ve ceded the stage to Peele’s final narration, which somehow seems subtler than much of the actual dialogue.

The rebooted Twilight Zone suggests a larger problem than mere inconsistency. This version lacks the original’s storytelling economy and, in the process, loses the direct impact of whatever themes it means to convey. It often looks good, with fantastic performances by Lathan, Yeun, and others framed in oblique close-ups to augment the paranoid, aberrant atmosphere, but the muddled, on-the-nose writing is stuck chasing Rod Serling’s shadow.

Cast: Jordan Peele, Adam Scott, Chris Diamantopoulos, Kumail Nanjiani, Amara Karan, Tracy Morgan, Sanaa Lathan, Damson Idris, Glenn Fleshler, Steven Yeun, Marika Sila, Greg Kinnear Airtime: CBS All Access

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Watch: Hold on to Your Obsessions with the Final Trailer for Season Two of Killing Eve

The new season may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

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Killing Eve
Photo: BBC America

We’ve already seen the first two episodes of the new season of Killing Eve, and since the embargo on reviews has now lifted, we can tell you that the series embraces a formal adventurousness in its second season that blows the first season out of the water. Season two picks up at the exact moment that the first left off, with Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) escaping in tense and almost balletic fashion from the bloody clutches of Villanelle (Jodie Comer)—or is it vice versa?—before the two are once again caught in a prolonged game of cat and mouse that plays out throughout much of Britain and, presumably, beyond.

Today, BBC America has released the final trailer for the new season. Titled “Obsession,” the clip begins with Villanelle, healing from her injuries sustained from being stabbed by Eve last season, sneaking out from a hospital. I won’t tell you where she ends up, only that it may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

See the trailer below:

Season two of Killing Eve premieres on April 7.

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Review: In Season Two, Barry Draws Dark, Heartfelt Comedy from a Man’s Trauma

The season’s storylines cohere around the myriad factors which comprise the masks people present to the world.

4

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Barry
Photo: HBO

Right out the gate, the stakes are high in the second season of HBO’s Barry, which begins with Barry (Bill Hader) desperate to maintain normalcy after having murdered Paula Newsome’s Detective Moss in last season’s finale. As soon as police begin to suspect Barry’s involvement in the crime, the new season settles into a propulsive narrative that, similar to the first season, unfolds as a comedy of errors. And while the new episodes maintain the show’s satiric view of self-interested Hollywood types, a poignant theme emerges which represents an evolution for the series. As an introspective Barry takes inventory of his past misdeeds, the show’s storylines cohere around the reflexive lies people tell themselves, and the myriad factors which comprise the masks they present to the world.

Barry’s world is in flux as he attempts to avoid the police, dodge the Chechen mob, and abstain from violence. He even offers to train soldiers for the Chechen mob’s new leader, Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), rather than carry out another hit himself. The conceit leads to a scene that derives much humor from the Chechen trainees’ ineptitude at shooting, and while similar comedy abounds in Barry’s attempts to extricate himself from the crime world, the series is ultimately more interested in why Barry is so desperate for change. Though in the first season the character strove to mimic the people whom he viewed as good, this season finds him grappling with, and motivated by, the idea that he’s inherently evil.

In one of the new season’s central storylines, Barry must craft a one-man performance based on his first kill in Afghanistan as a member of the Marine Corps. While he resolves to portray the event as a moral reckoning, flashbacks reveal that it was actually one of the happiest moments of his life—a fact which places an upsettingly irreconcilable paradox at the heart of Barry. In an inspired bit of absurdism, the series underlines the extent of the man’s denial when his acting coach, Gene (Henry Winkler), appears in one of Barry’s war flashbacks, offering notes on his student’s recollection. Hilariously, the other soldiers in the flashback chime in as well—a chorus chiding Barry for his attempt to whitewash reality.

Such surreal flourishes lace the show’s new season, conveying in exacting but moving fashion how Barry’s trauma has caused him to live in a fugue state. But the show’s dark comedy is still largely derived from stark juxtapositions of violence and humor. When Barry finds himself in a shootout with a Burmese gang disguised as monks, the incongruity of the gang’s costumes adds a dash of farce to the proceedings. And when Barry declines a job offer from the bald and tattooed Hank, the spurned mobster asks in his characteristically fragmented English, “What do you want me to do, walk into John Wick assassin hotel with ‘Help Wanted’ sign?”

While the series portrays its underworld as the province of bumbling and affable lords, its directors frame violence with a matter-of-fact sensibility, emphasizing the yawning gap between whimsy and outright danger in Barry’s world. When Barry flees a shootout in the season’s second episode, director Hiro Murai embeds his camera in the car alongside Barry, eschewing adrenalized, eye-catching flourishes in favor of stark naturalism. Relatively peaceful moments pass before the first bullets come, and then, without fanfare, they arrive in a hail. The effect is startling and gripping. The discord in Barry’s life similarly informs the way Barry captures Los Angeles, with wide shots that juxtapose the city’s beckoning blue sky and towering palm trees with the generic, nondescript buildings that ensconce Barry. In such moments, the gap between his reality and his ambitions is rendered literal.

As Barry reaches for and clings to a sense of normalcy, Hader portrays the character with a mixture of fear and shame. During one monologue, in which Barry’s girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), triumphantly declares that she’ll never date another violent man, the camera lingers poignantly on Barry’s quietly downcast reaction. The crux of this season isn’t whether Barry can find happiness from acting, or whether he’ll outsmart the cops, but whether he’s inherently broken and capable of repair. As he strives to bridge the gap between the person he is and the one he wants to be, the show’s central source of pathos is his (and our) dawning understanding that it may not be possible, and that he may not even deserve it.

Cast: Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, D’Arcy Carden, Darrell Britt-Gibson Airtime: HBO

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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