Friday, June 26, 2015

Orphan Black 3.09-3.10: “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow," "History Yet to be Written"

Even though the last two episodes of Orphan Black’s Season 3 play independently, they really could be considered Part 1 and Part 2 - halves of the same whole, setup and payoff, plot and character, in a final expression of a bisected season focused on duality.

(But then we couldn’t get two cool titles, and I can’t argue with that.)

ORPHAN BLACK 3.09-3.10: “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow,” “History Yet To Be Written”

Truthfully, I have little to say about 3.09 independent of the finale.  The events of “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow” play largely for plot and setup, and individually the episode doesn’t carry much emotional weight.  I spent most of the hour squirming in my seat under the duress of suspense and the conviction that everyone was making the dumbest decisions possible in their situation.  Yes, they were hard decisions, as Cosima pointed out in the finale, but as they were happening, there was a bewildering sense that no one had the right information and everyone was pushing forward without hesitation.  STRESS.

There were markedly fewer character moments in the penultimate episode, as the hour was overtaken by reveals, plot twists, and the natural culmination of the Delphine-Cosima-Shay love triangle - Delphine threatening to stage Shay’s suicide and leave her bleeding out in the bathtub.  Ah, l’amour.  We also got the Big News that Siobhán Sadler’s mother is the Original - of both Castor and Leda, thanks to some fun science I know cursory-Google-search-levels about.  Then there’s the convenient expiry of Alison and Donnie’s time as Drug Dealers, thanks to a well-placed threat against Alison’s kids that triggers Helena’s murder button.

But none of this really lands in any emotional resonance until the episode after, which is all I really want to talk about.  “History Yet to be Written” makes the most of its emotional moments, and succeeds in wrapping up a scattered and inflated season in a grounded way that makes me excited for Season 4.

The main difference in Season 3 was borne of the fact that this is really no longer a chase show, after two breakneck seasons of pushing our heroes into a corner.  This worked!  This was wonderful!  It was a fitting expression of its main character, a young woman who was a little too good at running.  Plot echoed character.  But as the villains have shifted, Sarah is not back on her heels.  She’s gained some power.  And it took the first half of this season to figure out what to do with a main character whose instinct to fight has overtaken her instinct to flee.  This is no longer a chase show.  Now what?

The key, of course, still lies with Sarah Manning.  The second half of Season 3 has proven that that the show’s structure changes best with the natural evolution of its main character.  Yes, this isn’t a chase show anymore because logistically, there aren’t as many pursuants.  But also, this is not a chase show anymore because Sarah Manning isn’t running.  Sarah Manning is choosing to stay, and fight, and protect her family.  This is now a show where Sarah Manning calls the shots and negotiates with enemies - and allies - and has to make sacrifices because she wants to keep her family safe.

Much like “Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method,” “History Yet to be Written” exhibited this new structure to great effect: Sarah & Co. hatch a Plan, everyone in Clone Club contributes to Plan, Plan goes awry with new information, Sarah & Co. live to fight a new enemy.  It’s a solid structure because it allows our heroes to do things, with the added bonus of involving everyone (yay!) and building in natural tension and opportunities for twists.  Emotionally, this has evolved organically into the Family Show it has intended to be, and it’s now operating logistically as a Teamwork Show.  It’s like the Partridge Family!  If the Partridges were all genetic identicals and their music career were a concerted effort to protect their bodies and minds from scientific corruption.

Regardless, this is the word of the season: taking information we already knew and bringing it back in new situations and with new interpretations.  Season 3 has shone when it grounds new situations in familiarity with its original premise and characters.  We need a lifeline in the rabbit hole, after all.  “History Yet to be Written” continues this exercise, in ways both big and small.  There’s Sarah’s toast to Beth, as well as sly staging throwbacks - a standalone shot is dedicated to Delphine putting down her briefcase before meeting her untimely end, much like Beth in the pilot, and we see Virginia Coady react to a driver’s seat murder much like Sarah in the pilot - through the windshield, with a violent blood splatter.

But narratively, the biggest grounding device is the return of two symbiotic elements: 1) the Neolutionists, and 2) the subsequent reminder that HEY YOU’RE WATCHING A SCIENCE FICTION SHOW.  I think we forget all too often that a character in the first season HAD A TAIL.  (And we’re not talking about a monitor.)  Looking back, it’s easy to see that Orphan Black perhaps dissolved Neolutionism as a potential villan too soon, as it killed off Leekie and focused instead of DYAD, Topside, and the military.

But this is not to say that that decision was a mistake, because the revival of Neolutionism is well-crafted in a way that suggests that was the plan all along.  It refreshes the stakes, revives the villains, and reminds us that we are, in fact, in a science fiction show that lands moments of off-kilter body-horror like nobody’s business.  There’s now an instant lightning rod to the first season, and it twists our previous information into fresh story fodder.  Until now, Orphan Black has traded largely in systems - the group vs. the individual.  There’s the corporation, the military, the church, science, the private sector, the public system; we have characters that represent each outpost, and lines are divided and crossed very purposefully.

But Castor and Topside and DYAD are under attack from within: Neolutionists do not act as a group, but rather as a parasite.  They are everywhere, infiltrating every system from within to destroy it.  They shapeshift as necessary to achieve their goals, in an echo of their eugenic purposes.  The enemy is no longer identifiable by group, the Goliath villains of seasons past.  Nah, we have individuals to worry about now, and the secret affiliations that define their agendas.  This gives us new paranoia, new villains, and a new set of bedfellows - like Ferdinand.  (Who, by the way, has the most hilariously disturbing reaction to the Neolutionist reveal.  He’s like a mad Jeff Goldblum character who’s not above murder by bludgeoning and sulfuric acid bath.)

The Neolutionist poison provides a new interpretation on everything we’ve already learned: Rachel’s own mother turned away from science in favor of neolutionism; Rachel was raised by a man who was operating on neolutionist agenda; Delphine skirted awfully close to the cause while working for the same man, and again while working with Nealon; Rachel’s new eye is the product of hi-tech bionic retrofitting typical of neolutionism; Rachel herself is at the hands of the neolutionists now.  (Okay, a lot of these are about Rachel.  Can you tell I’m excited for her arc next season?  I’m delighted the writers have succeeded in finding ways to keep her in the narrative.)

Beyond the logistical plotting, “History Yet to be Written” also dealt some solid emotional work in the episode - in both cases, as payoff to the bombs dropped in “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow,” and relationships that have been developing since Day 1.  Of course, we have the dinner party, where the World’s Best People sit together to celebrate Alison’s school trustee win.  Clone Club in harmony is the happiest, most wonderful thing this show can put forth, and “History Yet to be Written” finds countless tiny moments to do this.  From Alison and Donnie’s inclusion of Helena in the family - finding Jesse Towing!  letting her make Babka Cake! - to Mrs. S’s soft “we’re so proud of you” to Alison, I repeatedly want to curl up in a ball and cry about how much I love these people being a family.  (SOMEBODY GO GET KRYSTAL GODERITCH AND PUT HER AT THE TABLE.)

There’s also the emotional grounding of last week’s big reveal: it’s no coincidence that Sarah Manning, Kendall Malone’s female genetic identical, went into the custody of Kendall’s own daughter.  Kendall chose for the lost clone to be sent to her daughter, as a last vestige of herself to give her daughter, who wanted out of her life.  Written out, it seems like a fairly logical conclusion, but major props to Maria Doyle Kennedy - a continuing MVP - and Alison Steadman for selling this to full emotional capacity.  Never did the words “Jesus, Ma” ever make me so verklempt.

Then, of course, there’s the whole other TIDAL WAVE OF EMOTIONS this episode brought about.  Aren’t you proud of me for waiting FOURTEEN PARAGRAPHS to talk about Delphine?  Sweet Delphine, brave Delphine, BADASS DELPHINE.  In her potential curtain call, Delphine worked with Sarah, passed on crucial information for the clones’ survival, got punched in the face, gave her blessing for a new relationship, tried to atone for her mistakes, killed a man, kissed the girl, and got shot in a parking garage.  THIS IS THE KIND OF CONTENT I WANTED FOR DELPHINE.

Finally, finally, we got more from Delphine’s point of view than just moody scotch drinking and words left unsaid.  She was deployed into the narrative in full embodiment of her position, negotiating her role as DYAD’s New Rachel (is there a title for this job?  Would I even use it if there were?) and her care for Cosima.  That’s been constant tension in Delphine’s worldview, as a “double agent” - can she do what is best for the Leda sisters, on their terms?  Can she respect their right to make their own decisions?  Can she protect them without abusing her avantage in power?  Delphine has long struggled with this gray area, a writing choice executed to excellent effect.  There’s never any question that Delphine loves Cosima.  She’s not a mystery.  Instead, she’s a tough choice.  Can she love Cosima in the right way?  She went against Cosima’s wishes in S2 to deliver her DNA to DYAD, in an effort to find a cure.  And in S3, with the crisp emotionless exterior of New Rachel on her shoulders, she went full-fledged monitor - tailing, investigating, and ultimately threatening torture to Shay in an effort to keep Cosima safe.

“History Yet to be Written” allows Delphine to live in these sins, and demonstrate that she has done terrible things for the one she loves - and still sells it, flaws and all, as the genuine peak of Romance this show will likely ever ascend.  She atones for her sins with Shay, and gives Shay and Cosima the foundation that Cosima and Delphine were never able to have: honesty, on Cosima’s terms.  Delphine and Cosima began their relationship tangled up in a lie, and never quite succeeded in maintaining a relationship that didn’t hinder Cosima’s personal power, because of Delphine’s affiliation with DYAD.  Delphine’s sins were lying, and making decisions for Cosima - and here she is, offering the truth, and giving complete power to Cosima over the choice to tell it.

It’s difficult, in retrospect, not to compare Delphine’s potential exit with Paul’s earlier this season.  Here we have two monitors who continued to work with their respective groups despite having developed personal relationships with their subjects.  Here we have two people who revealed themselves to be squarely Team Leda in the episode leading up to their demise.  Yes, there are many similarities between Paul and Delphine.  But Paul was a mystery.  Delphine is a tough choice.

This difference is manifested in clear, sharp focus: Paul’s last words to Sarah: “It was never Beth I loved.”  Delphine’s to Cosima: “Give your sisters all my love.”  Paul’s moment played like a reveal, and isolates Sarah as the recipient of his love.  Delphine’s, however, plays as a payoff - to the conversation in Season 2, where she first tells Cosima she loves her.  And when Cosima replies that she comes with a small army of clone sisters, Delphine says, “Then I love all of you.”  On a Family Show, with a table of World’s Best People sitting in solidarity with the sisters they’re fighting to protect, this is the only declaration of romantic love that has any weight.  This is not a show about boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, or husbands.  Remember, Kendall Malone took away her daughter’s husband and gave her a little girl.  This is a show about moms and daughters.  Delphine loves all of them.

It’s incredibly sad, then, that Delphine could very easily be dead.  My first instinct - if it’s not a shot to the head, then anything’s possible.  At the same time, her narrative was very neatly wrapped up, with a balls-out heroic ending.  It could be a question of, “Is there any story left?”  Even so, getting shot certainly would provide new material, and I still want to see Delphine operating in the narrative, in her point of view and complicated position.  Sure, you can’t sustain a mystery, but tough choices are always the stuff of good story.  You just need to let the audience see her do more than drink scotch and brood.

Of course, this all leads to the question: who shot Delphine?  Given the focus on neolutionists hiding in plain view, it is likely that the person who pulled the trigger has ties to the movement, making it fairly full-circle for Delphine as well.  It is also probable that we already know this person.  Shay, perhaps?  Who knows.

Because, truly, I’m not in it for the mysteries.  The third season ends on Sarah’s reunion with Kira, as they take Kendall Malone to hide in Iceland.  Four generations of moms and daughters defying the odds, and a little girl with her mom in the snow - not unlike little Rachel Duncan and her mom at the start of the hour.  It’s choices like this that set Orphan Black apart - yes, this is a chase show, a mystery show, and don’t forget, a science fiction show.  But at its heart, this has always been, and will always be, a show about family.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • I really love Sarah teaching the Castor boys a lil’ somethin’ about clone swap.  Castor may have been trained for strength and power, but Leda knows how to use what they’ve got to get themselves out of a sticky situation.  And even though they’re much more varied than Castory, they stick together, and work together.
  • I mentioned nothing about Helena shepherding Rudy through his death, but it’s a lovely moment in that plays in both genuine sadness and honest truth - Rudy is to be both pitied and loathed, and that’s okay.  That’s human, sometimes.
  • God bless Jesse Towing.  Neolutionism couldn’t reach a simple country truck driver, right?  RIGHT???
  • I really love the little detail of Donnie saying “we” found Jesse for Helena, like he and Alison did it together.
  • Kudos to Ksenia Solo for rocking what could otherwise be a thankless, one-dimensional role.  Shay has the narrative misfortune of being the unpopular leg of a love triangle, as well as the mystery of POSSIBLE THREAT or POOR UNSUSPECTING GIRL WHO JUST GOT EMOTIONALLY ABUSED BY HER NEW GIRLFRIEND’S EX.  It’s a tough hand to get, and I think she makes a great choice playing the seeming reality of the situation with 100% honesty, and letting the narrative work the audience’s suspicion.  
  • Helena and Sarah exchange exactly two words in the episode and they’re perfectly delivered.  The way Sarah says “Sugar?” is both fond and strict - perfectly older-sister.
  • The only moment from 3.09 that I really want to talk about is Delphine’s face when Cosima calls mid-torture with important information and opens with “Hey, how’s it going?”

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Orphan Black 3.08 - "Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method"

The structure of Orphan Black’s third season is, fittingly, a story of two halves - a first and a second, paired together to complete a whole. Where the first half was Castor, the second half has been Leda - perhaps too literally, as the focus shift from one to the other has only served to highlight the audience’s greater investment in our lady clones than their (creepy-ass) brothers.

As such, the second half of Season 3 has delivered three great episodes in a row. 3.06 accelerated quickly and explosively, 3.07 featured all the Leda clones in an Alison-centric ‘burbscape, and 3.08 combines the the best elements of its two predecessors and spins a fantastic hour grounded in characters and relationships we care about, with the quick twists and turns of a classic OB outing. For me, it easily dethrones 3.06 as the best episode of the season thus far.

ORPHAN BLACK 3.08 - “RUTHLESS IN PURPOSE, AND INSIDIOUS IN METHOD”

A major reason this episode works well is the continued focus on the Leda clones - not just on the sisterhood as a whole, but equally distributed on its individual members, and the relationships they have with each other. Every clone is deployed in this episode, and they co-exist in the same space in a way that makes the world feel more intimate, instead of spiraling out of control. Even as the show reveals yet another layer of power by episode’s end, we, as an audience, still feel tight to the core group of clones under pressure from outside forces.

Yes, the group is as together as ever. Helena and Gracie move in with Alison to help with the soap front, Cosima and Sarah devise a plan to reclaim Duncan’s code, and Felix and Sarah carry out morally grey errands at the behest of Rachel - who’s with everyone, until she isn’t. All three of these aspects are wonderful choices, for different reasons.

First, it’s lovely to see Alison’s previous declaration of “mother hen” being taken seriously in an effort to move these characters around in believable ways. Alison graciously bringing Helena and Gracie under House Hendrix also allows her story sphere more relevant screentime, by sheer force of numbers. Not only that, but it allows Helena the opportunity to demonstrate her mom skills, simultaneously letting us actually see the Hendrix kids, a clamor I may as well tattoo on my forehead. Cherry on top: it’s a comedy goldmine.

Cosima and Sarah also have a sweet Skype conversation, in a fond callback to their main communication of seasons past. This scene was a lovely way to deploy some exposition and outline Clone Club’s intentions for the situation, and the writers sweeten it with Cosima opening up a bit to Sarah about her relationship with Shay. Later, these two are the brains behind the plan to trick Delphine and Rachel into getting Duncan’s book back. Altogether, this dynamic is one of my unexpected favorites - while relationships like Sarah and Felix and Sarah and Helena are more outwardly meaningful, the interactions between Sarah and Cosima are quietly poignant. They’ve grown to love each other at a distance, with mutual admiration for both the traits they share and the traits that distinguish them. Some of my favorite scenes in the second season belong to Cosima and Sarah interacting (the phone call in “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings,” and their conversation in “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” both come to mind). It’s always nice to see their dynamic deployed in another quiet moment of unity, and even used to position them as two strategic brains of the operation.

Sarah and Felix’s task in the episode also provided a lot of material, refracting into a spectrum of well-developed threads and choices. On a base level, it’s lovely to give Felix something to do, especially when it involves the trappings of a Sarah con - deceit, theft, identity swap. It’s also fundamentally delightful to see these characters play different versions of themselves, reiterating the same face in a range of dynamics. With this notion, “Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method” gives us a glorious gift: we meet a new clone, and she interacts not only with Felix, but also Delphine.

Krystal Goderich is perhaps the episode’s greatest success, simply because of the redirect that happens with limited screen time. Here is a character purposefully introduced as a somewhat vapid Leda clone - she works in a nail salon, talks with a Valley-ish affectation, and spills her scandals to anyone who will listen. She is designed to be poked fun of, a study in contrast - this woman has the same DNA as Sarah the Grifter, Cosima the Scientist, Alison the Mom, Rachel the Ice Queen, and Helena the Feral Assassin. What a world! Krystal is little more than a show pony to emphasize the power of nurture over nature.

But in less than seven minutes of relevant screentime, the OB writers pivot Krystal Goderich, and make her perhaps the most sympathetic character this series has ever developed. Not only is she actually smart, but she’s confused, and alone, and destined for a life of disappointment without understanding. She’s fully aware of her bizarre life, but unable to identify what exactly is conspiring around her. Not only this, but she has no idea that her DNA has fated her to fall victim to Rachel’s growling bid to leave the country and assume a new identity. And despite these horrible things in her life, she’s rationalized everything with a tragically optimistic motto: You can’t crush the human spirit. Um, how is this not the most heartbreaking character? The writers do a beautiful job not only dimensionalizing Krystal, but also affirming her through Felix’s fond encouragement for her, and his revulsion at doing something so horrible to a good person in order to appease Rachel, of all people.

Maybe the Mexican cantina owner can swoop in and save Krystal Goderich from her fate. ¿Por favor? La Camarera: ¡Salvando a las clones Leda, una a la vez!

Beyond the character work, “Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method” employed a classic Orphan Black plot structure: the world spins madly underfoot as Sarah & Co. make difficult decisions trying to keep their power when it’s under direct threat of DYAD. It’s difficult to go wrong with this outline, although I have to imagine it’s probably challenging to reiterate it in fresh ways. That being said, this episode used the structure to great effect. The stakes were both comedic and horrific at once, even more so than Alison’s disturbed suburbia. Through Rudy’s threat to Scott’s cat, OB created a really low-level danger that actually operated in a huge, frightening way. I was screechingly terrified for poor Scott and his cat in that moment, even through the slight absurdity of the situation. The fact that we have a clear, consolidated villain in Rudy and Coady is also welcome, and the focus helps immensely.

The levels of manipulation also worked well in the episode. For one, it was interesting to see Rachel squirm through the hour as both an unempowered victim, and a powerful woman who still holds all the cards - and uses that to her advantage. Rachel’s place this season has been nothing short of fascinating in that she has been both heartbreaking and fearsome, not a shadow of who she was but of the security she was privileged with. She is still the same coiled snake, ready to strike at anyone who gets too close. The fact that she is in many ways trapped by her own body is a tragic manifestation of her own emotional restrictions and her discomfort with a lack of personal power.

The manipulation of the hour also brought us another layer of DYAD to fear - Dr. Nealon, and whoever the hell oversaw Rachel’s surgery at episode’s end. This is certainly welcome, from a plot standpoint, but I’m more concerned with the third result of manipulation: the scene with Cosima and Delphine. These two are playing a fucked-up game of chicken that is unfortunately quite grounded in real feelings. It’s more and more evident that their circumstances are destroying their relationship, slowly, certainly, and incontrovertibly. The show has done such a good job believably breaking them apart, without it feeling like an unmotivated romantic obstacle as story fodder for an ultimate endgame.

Cosima and Delphine have very real issues, and at the same time, very real love. That Cosima confessed her near-death experience as a way to distract Delphine from her plan is a perfect embodiment of their complicated relationship. The core sentiment is nothing less than true, and perhaps the most romantic thing any human could say to another - and yet circumstances conspire to wield that moment in complete deceit. The question with these two is always this: is their situation insidious enough to nullify their true feelings? Can they survive the amount of mistrust that’s permanently wearing against their relationship? Or are they doomed to their consequences, where their power imbalance will tear them apart?

Thankfully, Cosima lives another week to perhaps answer these questions in future. But, we have much before us in the last two episodes. Rachel is now in a coma, Shay is perhaps a Castor mole (for some reason), and the team is little closer to breaking Duncan’s code, which is not only encoded, but also in RIDDLE FORM. Goddammit, Duncan. I don’t know why I expected anything different.

Regardless - after three solid episodes in a row, and with a homecoming field trip to London in front of us, I am altogether excited for the last two episodes of Season 3. Though it was slow going at the beginning, the Leda half of this Janus season has turned towards great character work, plot development, and unique expansions of the world we’re in.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • “Identical twins are so creepy,” says Krystal. Tell me about it, Delphine thinks. One time I totally made out with my girlfriend’s genetical identical and that was really weird. And this coming from someone who enjoys lovers!
  • Donnie continues to be an unsung hero used perfectly in relation to Alison. “I may be a bitch, but I’m Alison’s bitch!” Bless you, Mr. Hendrix.
  • “How are you gonna know without me?” Cosima and Delphine’s relationship flirts with toxicity again through this vaguely threatening imposition of Delphine’s power in Cosima’s life. I mean, we’re pretty sure you mean DYAD, Delphine, not you… but… this just reiterates Cosima’s restricted access to treatment and knowledge in a totally unsettling, fuck-you-Delphine kind of way.
  • Half an episode later it’s impossible not to feel all fluttery and emotional about their kiss. FINE, Orphan Black. You win!
  • Scott’s cat is named Denise. Internet, I love animals with very human names.
  • Speaking of, shout out to Josh Vokey, who plays Scott. He’s already done a great job playing small but impacting moments as a tertiary character, but this episode cemented some fine work as he becomes more integral to the story, as well as Cosima and Rachel.
  • Gracie wears Alison’s checked pajamas from the house party in Season 1. Hopefully no one told her Alison tortured Donnie in them.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Orphan Black 3.07 - "Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate"

Step right up, folks, it’s time to review Orphan Black’s annual circus event! Mundane situations contrasting dangerously high stakes! Wacky clone swaps! Pastels! Yes, it’s our traditional return to Planet Alison, and the only thing missing on this year’s carousel was glitter torture.

ORPHAN BLACK 3.07 - “COMMUNITY OF DREADFUL FEAR AND HATE”

Given the episode title and the fact that this is an Alison-centric endeavor, I was expecting something far more sinister than what actually transpired. Alison’s storylines are usually marked with high absurdity and tragedy, as she’s completely disenfranchised and struggling to exert her independence. A control freak in a uncontrollable world, Alison is frequently the narrative’s fool - to great comedic and empathic effect.

Yes, the hallmarks of Hendrixica are there - at its most basic, this is a sidecar episode set in a domestic environment, where high-stakes dangers threaten the picture-perfect suburban normalcy, rendered broadly in hijinks and clone swap. And of course, in traditional OB absurdist fashion, a lot of ridiculata is mined from Donnie - the fact that his name is Donnie Chubbs, the reveal that Alison’s mother is poetically named Connie, and, naturally, Donnie’s basic fluency in Portuguese.

But this episode balances these little choices with two very weighty reminders, that are grounded very purposefully in theme and character.  Number one: Alison chose Donnie.  Number two: Alison is capable as... well, holy freakin' Christmas cake. “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” stays put and stays sentimental where previous episodes have swerved into tragedy: it allows Alison a moment to defend her choices not only verbally, but in action. She sticks up for Donnie, she stands up to her mother, she gives Cosima advice not out of ego but compassion, and she nails her school trustee speech and gets a standing ovation. Not a bad episode for ol’ Ali, eh?

From all angles, Alison doesn’t just provide the setpiece for the hour, this time she’s actually the hero of it. Sarah doesn’t swoop in and save the day; Cosima doesn’t take over and hold down the fort. Alison keeps everything together, meeting her own needs and extending herself to the people around her. She is finally the main character. As such, it’s the perfect opportunity to showcase her character in a way the show hasn’t yet tackled - and generally, the episode did exactly that.

First - back story. This arrives in the form of her mother, the woman who raised her, and we quickly realize that Alison was brought up in a tightly compressed childhood of unachievable expectations and constant negative commentary. Alison is very much the product of her upbringing - nurture prevails - both in propagation and reaction. However, with Sarah and Cosima - her “cooler” sisters - out of the way, we are shown that Alison’s weaknesses can be her strengths. She can meet demands; she can check boxes; she can organize and command and prepare and succeed. Not only this, but the episode goes out of its way to portray these characteristics as not only fundamental skills, through compliant medical reporting to DYAD, but also attractive, through her potential romance with Jason Kellerman.

So we get a new light on Alison’s pre-established characteristics, and on top of that there’s a huge sign of character development, one I wish were underlined, highlighted, and circled in the episode. Point an enormous flashing arrow at three little words: “My clone, mother.” This is spoken by a woman who refused to use to use “the ‘c’ word” at the beginning of the show, and lived in deep denial about the reality of their situation.

It's true that Alison’s choice to introduce Cosima is motivated by defiance, given that it follows another attempt by Connie to belittle and control her daughter's life. But I don’t think that makes the choice any less earnest, or important for Alison. If anything, infusing that moment with a defiant act of rebellion only serves to show us what Alison is truly made of: moxie. Remind us of anyone else? For all the disparate characteristics of our Leda Ladies, there’s at least one thing they all share: nerve. Ali gave her mom a test, and her mom failed by refusing to acknowledge her daughter’s point of view. It’s almost as if the moment cements Alison’s place firmly in Clone Family - she didn’t choose them, but they’re hers.

Considering the layering triumphs in this moment, I do wish the episode emphasized just how big this was for Alison. Yes, she got a standing ovation, saved her man, stuck it to her mom, and even technically got another guy to kiss her - but there was one important element of Alison’s involvement in the episode that I would have liked to seen punched up and made more noticeable: her level of empathy.

Alison’s behavior in the episode is hallmarked at every turn by a fairly uncharacteristic level of outward compassion. This is not to say that Alison hasn’t been a compassionate person, but she’s thus far been shown as largely uptight, discerning, and manslaughter-y. Yet, in “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate,” Alison really does live up to her self-bequeathed title of “mother hen” - particularly towards Cosima. She’s downright nurturing to her, most notably after Cosima completely effed up her trustee speech. Alison’s a mom too, everybody! Welcome reminder!

I found myself wanting “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” to take a pink highlighter to these moments, to draw particular attention to this development for Alison. Perhaps if Ali were a bit impatient with Cosima before understanding the situation, or less willing to talk about Clone Club goings-on at the venue; perhaps if she and Cosima had a longer conversation about Cosima’s health, or if her kids actually made a meaningful appearance in the episode - these little things could have served to punch up her genuine care for her family.

It’s a minor quibble, but of particular importance, because not only is this - family - the theme of the episode, it’s also delivered directly through Alison’s trustee speech, in a rather sweeping grandiose moment. It would have been nice to see that theme more clearly embodied in her actions, not just her words. Even so, it’s a very sweet theme, and it’s always lovely to see a unified front between the Clone Club. Mrs. S. is gonna be a granny! May she be added to the guest list of Helena’s fantasy baby shower.

Of course, “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” also dealt with Cosima’s trust issues, and the renewed seriousness of her condition. I’m still wanting more straightforward insight into Cosima’s emotional state this year, although it makes sense that Cosima would hold back her true feelings. Her trajectory is interesting; in the first two seasons, she was entirely complicit with DYAD, submitting herself not only to testing but also the monitor system. She knowingly began a relationship with her monitor, and has largely been okay with that, because her feelings for Delphine were real. Cosima the Scientist has always let discovery and passion guide her open heart.

Now, though, she stubbornly refuses to even submit to a urinalysis. This begs the question: does Cosima’s change of heart correlate to any new information about shady DYAD, or is it exactly that - a change of heart? Delphine’s clearly attempting to exert her power over Cosima not only at DYAD but in their relationship, and the two spheres remain as overlapped as ever. Cosima still can’t separate her emotions from the relationship with DYAD, even with a differently-defined situation. If Delphine thought anything about her position would be easier without dating Cosima, this is looking entirely naive in retrospect. The anticipation that comes with waiting for this to blow up is one of the more deliciously tense aspects of the season.

But, there were no meltdowns or blow-ups in the episode, as “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” honored the traditional hallmarks of an “Alison episode,” yet added the rather genuine and grounding elements of theme and character development for the most-fringed clone. Alison’s success in the hour is welcome, given Cosima’s worsening condition, and the inevitable messiness of Rachel, Sarah, and Delphine coming together to decode Duncan’s sequence. With only three episodes left, we should be ramping up nicely for the end of the season.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS
  • Admittedly, it felt a bit odd to focus on Helena’s forgiveness of Mrs. S. when this season has thus far made a point of Sarah’s grudge against her. I would have loved a beat of forgiveness before the “I’m so tired, mum.” Nothing fancy, just a lil somethin’.
  • We talked about mundane situations with dangerous stakes, but were the obstacles also a touch mundane? The “wrong briefcase” trope is pretty tired, especially given that they devoted a specific shot to “grabbing the wrong envelope.” We all saw it coming. Other obstacles: nebulously faked panic attack, and the time necessary to count money. Hm.
  • I am ENDLESSLY FASCINATED by the role the cantina owner plays in this episode. Surely this was foreshadowing, right? Surely she’s going to bust out with something awesome in a future episode, right? There was so much attention paid to her understanding of and involvement in Helena and Sarah’s situation… but why?
  • I want to meet Cosima’s family now too. I’m guessing they don’t know she’s dying. They could also be halfway across the world doing research projects to benefit developing countries, and therefore with limited internet access. Still. Cosima could totally send an e-mail.
  • “There are not two Pouchies, darling.” Line delivery of the season? Also, Felix + Alison 4-ever.
  • Sarah Stubbs loves Alison so much. What an angel.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Orphan Black 3.06 - "Certain Agony of the Battlefield"

Before airing, there was a lot of hype surrounding the sixth episode of season 3.  Excitement!  Intrigue!  Promise!  And yes, it lived up to the expectation.  “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” is the best we've seen since the beginning of the season, and there are two main reasons for this: movement, and connection.

ORPHAN BLACK 3.06: "CERTAIN AGONY OF THE BATTLEFIELD"

Movement is the most basic reason this episode works as well as it does.  Things HAPPEN, and they happen to characters we care about.  We learned things, and this new information spins events in a new direction, stimulating characters to make choices and DO things.  The episode had not only ACTION, but REACTION, from Felix’s torture of Rachel, to Delphine’s return, to Paul’s discovery and subsequent sacrifice.  We are given refreshed stakes, a new villain, and reiterated themes.  This is the episode that revitalizes the season.

But this episode proffers more than movement; it gives us connection.  And this, I would argue, is what truly sets “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” apart from its in-season predecessors.  Connection is what gives us meaning, and grounds us in characters and relationships we care about.  As this show sprawls bigger and deeper, connection is what holds the far-reaching pieces tight to center.

The biggest connection of the episode was the tether to the original construct of the show: runaway girl steals identity of suicidal woman.  During Season 1, learning more about Beth was intrinsic to the plot, so that Sarah could believably live her life -- but as the show has developed outward, it’s been altogether too easy to forget who started this investigation in the first place.  Yes, Sarah is our main character, but she is carrying a blood-stained mantle.  “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” reminded us of this death toll, as it confronted us with Beth in Sarah’s fevered hallucinations, and what happened to send her - and us - on this journey.

The entire Beth sequence was fantastic, simply because there were a lot of layers to parse.  On a fundamental level, the stakes are refreshed for Sarah: the woman who came before her, a sister she never knew, fell victim to this pursuit.  She will not be the last.  Moreover, Beth is a projection of Sarah’s own point of view.  This Beth contains shades of Sarah, and it’s fitting that Beth screams at Sarah and calls her a liar.  Sarah herself is frustrated and disappointed and disbelieving in herself - in her ability to be a leader, compared to a cop with a nice house and beautiful life.  After all, Beth chose this fight.  Sarah just got sucked into it, in a moment of desperate self-preservation.  Will it consume them both?

But it’s through the divine anything-goes nature of dream sequence that we were given some truly lovely details of connection and meaning.  It’s not only a question of who, but where.  Sarah is led to Mrs. S's kitchen by a young Leda clone - herself?  A young Beth?  Or perhaps even a young Rachel?  As she finally arrives home after the journey from her prison cell, she’s greeted with Helena’s drawings on the fridge, and Beth holding two cups of tea.  This is a projection of Sarah’s family, fractured and fucked-up as it is.  At home with Mrs. S, with her sisters; these are the people who truly created her.  And this is, too, a happy ending, a drawn and dark surreality of what could have been.

Now, contrast that to the bright opening sequence in the first episode of this season, “The Weight of This Combination,” and we have another connection to draw meaning from.  Sarah’s fantasy both parallels and contrasts Helena’s, fittingly, and it seems that this season’s structure is therefore bisected into two halves.  It also serves as an extension of fantasy and reality that's been used throughout this season, from the very first moments of episode 1.  “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” defines this motif more in surreality vs. reality, but Alison and Donnie’s rap video sequence, Helena and Pupok, and Sarah's fever dreams still all contribute to a disorienting and delightful tension between what is real and what isn’t.

Finally, these moments of connection trickled all the way down to the editing.  During Sarah’s dream sequence, they match cut Sarah’s horror-stricken face to her shots from Beth’s suicide in the Pilot.  Holy shit.  Even moments of reveal were stitched together across the continent, as Paul and Mark reached the same conclusion about the Castor STD at the same time as Cosima and Delphine.  Little choices like that help to connect the disparate characters and locations.  For me, the flashback cutaways to Paul felt a teensy bit less motivated, but I did appreciate the “What kind of guy am I?  You know what kind of guy I am” snippet simply because it’s such a non-answer that reminds us that Paul was so good at vaguely defining himself in a way that could easily be perceived as charming.  What a line, Major Dierden.

It bears stating, though, that Paul was deployed to best effect in this episode - which is the least they could do, since they were going to kill him off.  But in all seriousness, I love that Paul sprang to action when he realized that Coady was experimentally sterilizing women without their consent.  While Paul’s loyalties were purposefully nebulous throughout, this is a story fundamentally about women fighting for the right to their own identity and decisions - and to see Paul go out blazing in support of that was both rewarding and resonant.

Even beyond Paul, “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” used its characters and the story around them to excellent effect.  At the most basic level, it was lovely to have all clones at play and in action - we had substantial moments with Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima, Rachel, and Dream!Beth.  (Did Tatiana Maslany sleep at all when they filmed this?)  One step deeper, the specific choices regarding these characters were grounded in emotion, and not plot.  Felix tortures Rachel because he loves his sister, and he’s afraid she’s in danger.  Rachel breaks down because her life is in pieces now, and she’s left only with her own memories and a paintbrush.  Helena returns to save Sarah because they are sisters, and the guilt was too much to bear.  Cosima acts with compassion towards Gracie because she is not just Geek Monkey - she is life, and humanity, and warmth.

Actually - let’s talk about Cosima more, because I wish the show would.  I admit, I yawned a bit at the idea that she has a new love interest, because, well, lady-loving aside, who cares?  The start of it was a bit sudden, and looking too much like a Triangle for me to be truly engaged.  But the choices being made about Shay and how the relationship develops are providing some welcome insight to Cosima’s emotional landscape this season.  With both Delphine and Shay in the episode, the contrast becomes apparent: Cosima went from dating Science Chic, who is currently flat-ironed to within an inch of her structured wardrobe, to Zen Buddhist Babe, who specializes in spiritual counseling, flowy robes, and juicing.

This leads me to a desperate, begging, impatient question: when are we going to see more of Cosima’s spiritual arc this season?!  If you’ll excuse the inelegance: I want it.  Gimme it.  Please???

In all seriousness, I am 100% invested in where Cosima’s storyline goes from here, even with regards to Delphine and Shay.  They are, after all, the two polarities of her personality, and therefore relevant to her seeming negotiation of science and faith.  Even on a logistical level - how exactly does one date outside the Clone Club and its extended monitor pool?  This can’t end well, right?  It seems inevitable that Delphine will make some emotional decisions that will not be well-coiffed when under the pressure of hair straightening, tight zippers, and missing your girlfriend that you’re still in love with but sacrificed for the wrong reasons.  Messy Delphine Breakdown: we are a go.  (Maybe Shay can help her with some spiritual counseling afterward.  I feel so much more at ease with a spiritual counselor in the ensemble.  Everyone on this show needs it.  Which means that Shay is not long for this narrative, sadly.)

Even with these impassioned pleas, it’s near inarguable that “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” was the best outing this season.  Not only does the episode push forward with new stakes and mysteries, it put forth an ensemble of emotional connections grounded in the show’s own strengths.  More than anything, “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” reminded us not only of the original premise, but also of its central and dire themes, surrounding that with the characters we love trying to do the right thing in chaotic situations.  What more could we want?

STRAY OBSERVATIONS
  • Blah, blah, Paul loved Sarah and not Beth.  This felt a bit too easily-worked, especially in conjunction with Art talking about how he loved Beth.  Romance tradesies only really works on sitcoms, methinks.  Also: poor Beth.
  • What would Beth think about Sarah and all this new information?  I'd love a kinder, more compassionate Beth to eventually come to Sarah in hallucination, just to tell her poor sister she's doing okay.  This shit ain't easy.  Both ladies deserve some peace.
  • We got mention that Mark was on Sammy’s team - not Paul’s, in a bit of clever cover-up for their scene last year that made no mention of dying Castor clones.  Double cleverness - Sammy is presumable Tony’s buddy that sent him to Beth Childs last season.  (CONNECTION!)
  • I love Dr. Virginia Coady in all her villainy.  Is she still alive?  Because from the previews, we got another mama in town, and I want Mrs. S. to get her groove back.
  • If Rachel knows Duncan’s code, then why the hell did she go to such great lengths to get them last season?  I assume the brain injury has something to do with the sudden information, in a dark bit of irony.
  • Delphine’s taking this “monitor” thing way more seriously than she ever did when she was actually a monitor.  Babygirl is so non-threatening that she may as well have been swigging scotch out of a sippie cup.  (I say lovingly.  I'm actually really worried about Delphine.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Orphan Black Season 3 First Half Review

Forgive me Clone Club, for I have dropped the ball. In a perfect world, I would have every review individually posted the day after the episode airing, analysed corner-to-corner, free of awkward run-on sentences and full of quotable insight. Alas, the reality is this: I spent the entire premiere review babbling about Delphine and then she disappeared for four episodes and I couldn’t get my act together and write anything else. Am I that transparent-slash-lazy? (Apparently.)

So, in an attempt to make up for my absence, and a compromise on the amount of content I’d otherwise have to saddle myself with -- please accept this humble review of the first half of Orphan Black Season 3.

ORPHAN BLACK 3.02 - 3.05 - Half-Season Review

With Season 3 halfway complete, it’s a bit easier to have some perspective on the shape of the story and how it’s being deployed. It was clear from Episode 3.01, though, that this season is ticking at a different pace. And even though it’s intentional, and organic to the current story, it also presents some issues about the way this season is forced to develop.

The challenge is in the change: I would argue that this show’s DNA is built on showing Sarah Manning on the run or kicking and screaming. This fight-or-flight instinct has worked beautifully for OB in the past two seasons, because its main character is defined by a storytelling element that organically raises the stakes and demands audience investment. Yes, we are searching for answers, but we are also being chased, and this influence from both directions means that the show can speed forward easily with mystery and danger.

Now we’re in Season 3, and every pursuant threat has been neutralized: the police are no longer on Sarah’s tail, DYAD and the Proletheans have been eliminated (thanks to a well-placed pencil and some fire), and Cosima’s illness is mysteriously ebbed. What exactly are the elements of danger urging Sarah and Co. forward?

Enter the boy clones.

The boy clones exist in a strange space on the show, because they are both villain and mirror to our Leda clones. This is, of course, not a bad thing - look at Helena and Rachel, after all. But this abstract is not quite to maximum effect in execution. From a plotting perspective, their existence alone doesn’t really amount to a threat level on the Leda clones comparable to what we’ve known. And on a character level, I fear we just don’t care about them. Selling their content in Season 3 has been contingent on the audience caring about them. They are in a position much like the Leda clones in Season 1 - they are dropping dead from a mysterious genetic deviation, seeking answers as the clock runs out. We should care! Hell, we did care!

So why aren’t we caring now? I have no doubt that the OB writers know how to make an audience engage with a character. I think the bigger issue is a conflict of focus. With the Boy Clone Reveal (™) of last season, much of the audience flipped out, and we were reassured that the Boy Clones would not steal focus. (We were given no warning about Delphine and her hair straightener.) But… if the Castor Clones going to occupy the screen with Leda-style stakes and obstacles, propelled by the driving elements of mystery and danger… then we have to care about them, or else it all collapses.

It feels like there’s a reluctance to give these clones more screentime than absolutely necessary, so we get plot-relevant information about Castor, but no emotional anchor or barometer. It’s the Paul Problem, but multiplied - the characters fall flat, so we are kindly not invited to care about them, but they’re still around. And even though the boy clones are experiencing similar dangers as the girl clones, our earned love for the Leda ladies doesn’t really translate to Castor compassion. It’s more something along the lines of Why the hell aren’t my favorites onscreen more?

This isn’t helped by the fact that the Leda clones are largely sequestered into their own storylines right now. Scoot Alison out any further and she’s basically on her own HBO show. Cosima’s dissecting dead guys and going on dates, and Rachel is re-learning how to speak. They’re not working together on anything, because there’s little to work on. There’s nothing behind them chasing them forward, and the only character being pulled into action is Sarah. But even to find Helena, she gets tangled up in the Castor narrative point of view for three episodes.

There are, of course, interesting elements both at play and emerging. I love that Cosima appears to have a question of science and spirituality running undercurrent in the wake of her recovery. I love that Orphan Black continues to proliferate its active characters with a spectrum of badass Mothers holding shit together - the latest of which, Dr. Virginia Coady, is yet another brand of tough. Where Mrs. S. is a rebel and Marian Bowles is an executive, Dr. Coady is military. She is clearly Mom-with-Sons, and wields her motherhood with weaponized grit and guilt. I’m curious to see what she’s capable of, to achieve her goal.

The interaction between Helena and Sarah will always remain a core dynamic on the show, and their reunion and subsequent teamwork is full of depth and nuance. The push-and-pull of their love is a fitting manifestation of the individual frictions in their own personalities, and their inexorable tether to each other.

Helena herself remains a showcase this season, pivoting yet again into another dimension of her character. Season 1 saw Helena as a monster, then a victim. Season 2 showed us a victim, a fighter, and a kid sister. Season 3 is synthesizing these ideas, keeping every aspect of Helena alive and tangible, in a fascinating dance. Helena takes two lives in two episodes, and the dichotomy sums it up: one is a mercy kill, to allow a suffering soul some peace. The other is a sudden strike, to eliminate a body standing between herself and the exit. Helena is capable of both love and torment, wrapped messily in the same package.

Not only this, but Helena’s actions tell us more: she betrays Sarah, because Sarah betrayed her. Helena has been caged for much of her life, and brainwashed to recite the lines of an institution. In Season 1, she acted for the Proletheans. In Season 2, she acted for Sarah - her family. Helena’s connection to her sisters is a driving force for the character, but her role as watchdog and protector is not a huge deviation from her participation with religion. She just readjusted her faith, and devoted it to her sestra.

But with Helena’s choice to leave Sarah at the compound, we see Helena acting of her own feelings. This is a different wound, and harder to identify. But she recognizes betrayal because she now also recognizes true love. There’s this wonderful thread happening with Helena’s emotional independence, that really kicked off last season with Jesse. She is beginning to seek love, and independence, and relative normalcy, in a way that allows for her own wishes and desires and feelings. And while the narrative is reminding us that Helena is capable of terrible, monstrous things, Helena’s betrayal of Sarah is the most human we’ve ever seen her.

In all, the first half of season 3 sprawls far and can’t quite pull its weight into momentum. I suspect, though, that like other intricate world-heavy mysteries before it, this season of Orphan Black might be best devoured in one sitting, binge-style. Waiting week-to-week for each episode is a challenge, and certainly not an advantage to the plates they’ve got spinning.

Even so, the characters at the core of this show remain wonderfully developed, performed, and beloved, and any stumbles or stretches are grounded by Tatiana’s performances and the dynamics in the Leda clone sisters and their allies. As this show sprawls further and plots deeper, the family story at the center is always the best investment and reward.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • Art being in love with Beth is not something I didn’t want, but also not something I needed? I’m delighted to have Art in the fold but giving him a romantic reason after all this time feels a bit false. If you show us his dedication, it’s not necessary to declare his motivation.
  • The reveal of the Castor Clone STD is interesting and horrifying by the same token, in an extended grim horror about tampering with the clones’ reproductive systems. It also twists the story back into the realm of violation of womanhood, a theme this show handles with fire.
  • The “us vs. them” philosophy is taking new meaning in this third season. The military clones are purposefully designed to be part of a whole, to the point where they are branded with their affiliation. They are not individuals, but simple participants. This also translates to a level of exclusivity. Dr. Coady tells Mark about Gracie: “She’s not one of us.” Meanwhile, Sarah’s acting like the boy clones’ genetic brother status means they’re doing Thanksgivings together now, and Mrs. S. is taking in more wayward kids like family-expanding is going out of style. I’d like to see this friction and shift explored more in future episodes.
  • I’m excited for Delphine’s return, but I’m not sure it could have as much impact as I had expected for the season. She hit the scene hard in the first episode and then disappeared, taking my dreams of a focused character breakdown with her. But maybe it’s not too late.
  • I’m curious if the reveal that Cal designed and sold weapons will be paid off in the second half of the season. Hopefully in a non-tragic, Kira-is-safe kind of way.
  • Strange feelings about Art and Mrs. S. interacting with shared concern towards Sarah??? Please play with this more, writers. (But mostly, I’m highly invested in getting Mrs. S’s groove back and patching things up with Sarah.)
  • Sarah’s plea as Helena left her only served to heighten the horror and heartbreak we all felt. Though desperate and reactive, “Without me, you have nobody,” is also a bit cruel.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Orphan Black 3.01 - "The Weight of this Combination"

Remember last season, when Project Castor was introduced, and we all had a collective stab of panic about Boy Clones stealing focus? WELP, turns out we had nothing to worry about, at least for the present moment. Yes, Boy Clones wreaked havoc through the Season 3 opener - BUT. There was only one party turning heads and snatching the spotlight, and she looked good.

But more on that in a moment.

ORPHAN BLACK 3.01 - “THE WEIGHT OF THIS COMBINATION”

It’s clear from the first moments of “The Weight of this Combination” that we are staring down a different kind of animal than led the previous two seasons. Where the first two Orphan Black premieres share a similar tone and structure, the third kickoff burns at a different pace, with new elements at play and at stake. Where Seasons 1 and 2 both begin with a cataclysmic event that spins the world into a desperate chase, Season 3 rotates slowly on its own axis, requiring its characters to stand still and endure as they embark on a mental long game. Ruse, tension, and fear all mark the hour, instead of shock, acceleration, and pursuit.

With things momentarily settled in agitation, “The Weight of this Combination” wisely invests in two different ventures: 1) wishful thinking, and 2) anticipation. We see the first immediately, through Helena’s fantasy baby shower, perhaps possible if only she weren’t boxed up by the military. It’s heart-breakingly earnest, with Helena as the glowing recipient of fond smiles and thoughtful presents. In this happy place, she can live peaceably with her Sestras, and Kira, and Brother Sestra, as she awaits the newest member of their family. No Thomas, no Henry, no DYAD. Wouldn’t it be nice, indeed.

But alas, this ideal is impeded by an unfortunate reality, and when you go seeking heartbreak in the premiere, you find more incidents of real life splintering fantasy. The truth that Mrs. S. gave Helena to the military finds Sarah quickly, and Siobhán can do little but stand guiltily on her wartime decision while Sarah bruisingly casts her out of “her people.” To Siobhán, Sarah is choosing an extremist who tried to kill her over the woman who raised her and protected her, and it seems as though the family these two created is disintegrating as a result of the onslaught of circumstance. A happy possibility thwarted by reality.

The next sighting of painful truth comes with Delphine and Cosima’s break-up. If you’re looking for one ultimate single moment of heartbreak in this episode, look no further than Cosima's devastatingly vulnerable “I love you,” a half-hearted protest that she knows is not enough. The irony of Cosima and Delphine’s love story is the fact that it’s so unlikely, in such unlikely circumstances, but this element that brought them together is also going to tear them apart. Like Mrs. S., Delphine is being pushed out of the Clone Circle, because they are not clones. They cannot truly be allies, not because they’re not clones, but because of what being a clone means.  It’s no accident that Cosima also offers up a quiet “I love you” to Alison and Sarah, and is actually reciprocated.

In these elements of insidious reality, we begin to see slow shifts and stage-settings for what might come. Anticipation laces through the hour, and is echoed in the structure of tension and suspense. The first half of the episode awaits Ferdinand, the cleaner, and the second half awaits his realization that Delphine is tricking him by imposing Sarah as Rachel and Alison as Sarah.  We learn that two glimmer-eyed Boy Clones are skidding along a mission of violence and chaos, and we learn that Topside is also working on taking out the remaining Leda clones. We get a hint of some kind of rage trigger for the Castor Clones, perhaps a side effect in the same vein as Leda’s issues stemming from the eugenic infertility. And we even get a hint of a hint at Kira’s possible magical properties, perhaps linking her miraculous survival of being hit by a car in S1 with the dream retrieval of Cosima from death’s door. (Am I reaching here? Weigh in.)

But perhaps the most interesting anticipation comes in the shift with Delphine. With her newly straightened hair and ambiguous morals, Delphine skyrockets onto the scene as a Major Player of Season 3. It’s swift, it’s sudden, and it’s terrifying.

This change is even more drastic when I consider the fact that I personally have never felt compelled to delve into the character, simply because her existence on the show could be summed up as a well-meaning soft-heart who loves science and Cosima and is thus very bad at being a monitor and/or double agent. I actually want to take a moment to bring in one of the few things I’ve put down about Delphine, from last season’s premiere review:
…it bears stating that Sarah’s enemies affiliate with a tribe, whereas her allies are all individuals. It’s more apparent than ever in the “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed.” [... ] The help that Art, Paul, and Delphine provide to the clones relies on the idea that they’re betraying the organization to which they belong by acting of their own individual accord. [They] know the clones as humans, largely because they share human relationships with them. Art sees a partner, Paul and Delphine see lovers, Helena sees a sister. Like Delphine said: they’re invested. The humanity afforded the clones directly correlates with the help these people provide, which fosters the idea that they are thinking free of - and acting against - their embedded tribe. 

Of course, OB is still playing with the idea of loyalty, particularly with Delphine and Paul. Does loyalty to Cosima mean heeding her verbalized wishes, or does it mean turning over blood samples to DYAD because they’re the ones who can save her? The cast and writers have been very clear that Delphine’s feelings for Cosima are genuine (mercifully side-stepping the evil/manipulating/doomed lesbians trope) and so what’s interesting is how Delphine processes these feelings and how that manifests in her choices. This particular decision clearly indicates that she still has some faith to her tribe, in spirit if not motive. Delphine is not being blackmailed, unlike Paul, and therefore her lingering loyalty to DYAD and Leekie speaks more of her faith in science than anything else. Ironically, this characteristic that’s “betraying” Cosima is probably also what connects her to Cosima. Even more ironically, Delphine’s approach thus far in S2 is very reminiscent of S1 Cosima: she knows she’s being played, but she still plays, through some faith in the system and her own power. She believes she can use her affiliation with DYAD as an advantage. But this is group vs. individual, and it’s difficult to be optimistic about that in this universe. It seems inevitable that Delphine’s conflation of science with a group of scientists is going to burn her this season.

Damn!!! In last season’s premiere, it seemed inevitable that Alison, Rachel, and Delphine would experience harsh breakdowns because of an inability to cope with messy entanglements. Alison and Rachel have already experienced theirs, but Delphine…? Season 3 may be her time. The shift from Being Played to Major Player is huge, and it happens quickly. How much time has passed from 2.10 to 3.01 - a week? In this time, Delphine swiftly ascends the cold throne of DYAD, straightens her hair, and assumes the role of Rachel. “We all have our part to play,” she tells Cosima, and we can safely infer that Delphine believes this is hers, and the only option for her.

The fact that this realization and transformation is offscreen is a damn shame, because watching Delphine learn to inhabit the skin of Rachel Duncan would not be unlike watching Sarah Manning learn to inhabit the skin of Beth Childs, an iconic montage in the original Pilot. (Sarah’s makeover into Rachel is a half-callback, certainly welcome but not weighty. You’re damn right.) Delphine begins to straighten her hair, and dress differently - more structured, more crisp, more severe. But more than the look, Delphine has the walk. Who has two thumbs, speaks unlimited French, and made Rachel Duncan cry today? Au revoir, chiot.

There’s another detail of note that embodies Delphine’s shift - in 2.01, she stands apart from her organization because she sees the clones as individuals. Cosima, and her sisters. However, by 3.01, as The New Rachel, she must see them all as equal. They are a group, and for the purpose of self-preservation and larger goal, Cosima can no longer be unique upon Delphine. These are their parts. It is also Delphine’s part to ask Rachel’s doctor to prioritize Leda as a project over the individuality of its components. Delphine’s perspective has forcibly shifted, from individual to group, as she steps into power in the only place it exists in this narrative - with the group.

The fundamental question here is this: can Delphine sustain this level of armor? Can a woman who tripped and fell in her own feelings for a test subject really separate her heart and her reality? What is she capable of, and will it be the thing that finally breaks her - an inevitability set up one season ago? She can barely contain her sobs until Cosima retreats into Felix’s apartment, and while Cosima is certainly a soft spot, it’s still a glimmer of weakness in Delphine’s sleek facade. The holograph flickers, and we see reality underneath. And because this image is clearly adopted, it begs the final question of this shift: how will this change her? Will we lose another ideal happiness to the cold clutch of circumstance? The answer, standing at the start of the season, points drearily to yes.

And we were worried about boy clones. Although. We probably should be worried about Boy Clones because two of them are picking people off and exercising naked, and neither of these threats can be ignored. Regardless, The New Rachel Delphine was the surprise magnet of the episode, and this transformation is poised to be a fascinating and complex time bomb throughout the season.

In all, “The Weight of this Combination” keeps its hand steady as it tasks our clones with new challenges and dangers, surrounding them with fresh enemies and an ever-shifting circle of allies. Even though this premiere breaks pattern, it still holds promise, as the first gulp of a breath-held season filled with difficult choices, unavoidable circumstances, and the inevitable interplay between reality and what we want.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS
  • Guess Alison and Donnie are gonna take out a School Trustee this season.  I really hope they just mean metaphorically.  #littleHendrixThings
  • "I don't want to participate in any more Secret Shit," says Scott.  "I see your point," Cosima nods. "But what about THIS Secret Shit?"
  • I want to know what kind of store Bubbles is.  I MUST know.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Season 2 Review

One thing that I didn’t initially realize about Avatar was the scope and pace of the show - all three seasons span one overarching story, with a consistent narrative pull. Most TV shows segment their plot into individual seasons, and it seemed unexpected to spread one large plot across the whole show. Then somehow it was equally unexpected that Korra does quite the opposite. After finishing the S1 finale, with the villains vanquished and the protagonist embodying new powers, the question is immediate: what’s Season 2 going to be about?

Well, turns out there was no possible way that anyone could have accurately predicted what was coming next. Because HOLY NARRATIVE SHIFT, BATMAN.


THE LEGEND OF KORRA, SEASON 2

Okay, let’s get it out in the open: Book 2 has some flaws. It’s definitely an imperfectly-executed season, that’s top-heavy in content and overstuffed with side plots that either a) aren’t unraveled with maximum interest, or b) ultimately don’t matter. This leads to a strange paradox where the whole thing is somehow both rushed and slow to pace, both thematically intricate and undercooked. This also makes it very difficult to parse, and even harder to evaluate unilaterally.

For my purposes, the shining core of the season belongs to Korra, her relationship with the spiritual world, and the mythos of the Avatar role. Korra’s spiritual development is something that was touched on in the first season, and Book 2 evolves her even further, with deliberate and organic growth. The season doesn’t start to gel until Korra is swallowed by a dark spirit and connects with the Avatar lineage, and from there, this thread is the strongest through to the finale.

What I love about Korra in Book 2 is the way the narrative handles her. She is very purposefully a flawed protagonist. The first we see her in this season, she uses the Avatar State to win a race with Tenzin’s kids. Not exactly the picture of responsibility. More than that, she’s decidedly stubborn with her parents and Tenzin, and puts her faith in the wrong guy. She’s belligerent with authority, argues endlessly with Mako, and she definitely makes some mistakes. But what’s lovely about her arc in Book 2 is the subtle transition that is best identified simply as maturity. I love a good growing-up arc because its hallmarks are difficult to identify, and therefore more challenging to devise and track from a writing perspective.

In doing this, Korra develops its main character without deploying the oft-used device of “one fatal mistake.” Yes, there is inherent tragedy in the fact that Korra has fundamentally altered the lineage of the Avatar - but there’s also the solace that she really didn’t do anything wrong. Some shit went down, she did her best to stop it, and even though she was ultimately successful, some bad consequences snuck through. She didn’t have a fatal flaw; she didn’t make that One Doomed Mistake; her weaknesses weren’t her undoing. In fact, the show takes time to develop her out of her weaknesses, and doesn’t rub her face in her shortcomings. The narrative teaches her by guidance, not through punishment. Korra is not humiliated or shamed; she tries, and she learns.


This is beautifully supported in the origin story of the Avatar. It would be very easy to dramatize Wan’s mistake of helping Vaatu, and to portray his subsequent responsibility as tortured penance for his errors. It would also be very easy to invent an Avatar back story where the first Avatar is blessed with powers because he is Chosen, Special, and Good. Korra isn’t interested in unilateral incarnations of Good and Evil in stark contrast to one another. Why else would Vaatu and Raava be intertwined? No, there is no good or evil - there is only choice. Wan made a choice with some bad information, and his eventual responsibility of power is directly correlated to this concept of human error anchored by good intention.

What’s fantastic about this decision is that it’s echoed thematically throughout the season. If you ignore everything else in Book 2 but Korra’s spirit-related storylines, this shit is tight. (A bit heavy, yes, but TIGHT.) The key learning point for Korra is that the spirits are neither good nor evil, but rather a reflection of the humans they interact with. “A New Spiritual Age” is the best episode of the season for me, simply because it’s such a keystone moment for Korra’s development. A surreal dreamscape painted with metaphor and parable, Korra’s journey to the spiritual world is actually a journey within, illuminating the relationship between fear, faith, and the reality you manifest from inside yourself.

That your world is colored by your own perspective brings to light another of Book 2’s strongest storylines - the explored dynamic of Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi. Like with the origins of the Avatar, it would be all too simple to portray Aang as an amazing hero, person, and father. The Aang-and-Katara family is in prime position for fawning and glory, given their roles in Avatar (and also that they’re awesome). But Korra once again doesn’t dally with flat dynamics where it counts - Aang’s family is not perfect, and many of the issues stem from his role in it.

It is so refreshing to see a protagonist and all-around narrative hero portrayed critically and dimensionally, without judgment. I loved watching the push-and-pull between Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi, and each new way that their issues surfaced. Of course, Bumi’s experience is unique because he isn’t a bender. Of course, Tenzin’s experience is unique because he carries the airbending tradition. Of course, Kya’s experience is unique because she played a strong caretaking role, especially with Katara. And I love that Katara isn’t used as a wizened motherly figure to step in and sort all this out. She sits back and lets it play out, which is maybe bad, maybe good - but definitely real, and imperfect.


Tenzin’s spiritual storyline is also strong, and full of refreshing choices that reflect Korra’s commitment to dimensional and thematic storytelling. First, it’s a lovely choice to give Korra’s spirit guide role to Jinora, not the traditional spiritual mentor. Then we learn that Tenzin’s never actually been able to visit the Spirit World, which is another fantastic choice. The resolution comes with Tenzin in the Fog of Lost Souls, fittingly, where he reconnects with his true identity and sheds the self-imposed burden of his father’s legacy.

Were this not already an excellent convergence of theme and metaphor, its effect extends from Tenzin to Korra, when Korra rises to the occasion even after the spirit of Raava is pulled from her. As Tenzin is not Aang, a powerful good who came before him, Korra is not Raava either. Their worth is not wrapped up in the legacy of Good, because good versus evil is a complicated concept. Good versus evil only exists because people make decisions to look for the light, or only see dark. People with good intentions make mistakes, people with misguided ideas try to apply them to everyone, and everyone struggles with a false perspective that limits their light - their true selves.

So, that’s the good stuff - and oh, is it amazing-level good stuff. It handles archetypal ideas with such light and shade, and grounds its mythos in theme and character. But chances are if you are not Korra, a blood relative of Aang, or directly tied to the myth arc of the Spirit World, then your part in Book 2 was some iteration of well-intentioned mess, theoretically awesome but effectively underwhelming by comparison. A brief run-through:

Issue 1. The social politics of Northern and Southern Water Tribes are ultimately lost on the season. It should be interesting, but the story affords very little time to understanding the cultural context for each place, and altogether it’s not enough to resonate. It is not promising when you have a Civil War in the first act of your season that peters out in relevance halfway through. What works really well about the social politics is the idea that the Northern condemnation of the Southerners having abandoned their connection to the spirits, but unfortunately this barely even serves as relevant backdrop.

Issue 2. Connecting Korra to the conflict through her family didn’t work for the same reasons - why do we care about her parents? It’s unfortunate, but there’s no time to care. Ma and Pa Korra are standard parents without any defining qualities, and their presence feels flat and unnecessary. To boot, staging another brother-vs-brother waterbender conflict seemed a bit thin, especially when the Big Bad is the protagonist’s uncle. Could be interesting, yes, but it wasn’t made unique or individually developed in the narrative. Unalaq and Tonraq’s conflict didn’t connect to Korra in any meaningful way except the baseline that they’re family - but this choice never has any life breathed into it.

Issue 3. Varrick is another example of a potentially-interesting political and social thread. He is a delightful deployment of chaotic capitalism, funding both Team Avatar and the Southern Water Tribe to instigate the capital’s involvement in the Civil War. His use of propaganda is another interesting facet on the season’s brief exploration of the powerful mindlessness of public entertainment - but there’s not enough commentary there. The narrative spends too much time trying to create mystery about him being Good or Evil when it just doesn’t matter. Isn’t it more interesting if we know all along that Varrick serves his own needs, for better or for worse? Isn’t it more interesting to posit a flawed and narcissistic force technically acting for Good? And isn’t a runaround detective plot revealing that Varrick might be a Bad Guy counterintuitive to some of the main themes of the season?



Issue 4. This same need for “mystery” plagues Unalaq’s villainy storyline as well, primarily in the beginning of the season. It’s painfully obvious, given Korra’s stubborn rebuke of Tenzin and Tonraq, that the Avatar is making a Huge Mistake with her alliances. The audience is screechingly aware that Unalaq is not going to have good intentions. So why not lean into that and show us some of his scheming? With both Varrick and Unalaq, it would have been better to not waste time with intrigue and skip straight to dramatic irony. Show us their maligned plans so that we can feel fear for what Team Avatar doesn’t yet know and what possibly might befall them.

Issue 5. Another bad side effect of “concealing” Varrick’s alliances is the fact that Mako chases a remote for four episodes. Mako as a hardboiled detective is a mostly useless story thread, because it’s tied to many things that narratively don’t weigh enough - the Civil War, Varrick’s evil plans, Asami losing her business. The sting episode is completely pointless, as it not only tangles dramatically with plot threads that don’t matter, but it also hints at Mako’s past gang affiliation without actually acting on it. Most importantly, it affords us only the briefest glimpses of Lin Beifong in Season 2, so what’s the point?

Issue 6. This leads me to the last issue - the season does its best to incorporate supporting characters, but the execution just isn’t there. Bolin’s character takes a turn for the south with his stint as a self-important actor/lovesick boyfriend. Asami is barely relevant, showing up when it’s time to pilot something or cause romantic tension. Lin Beifong’s shining moment is swinging the president to safety, which is awesome, but otherwise she is a mere accessory to the season. And it’s definitely a challenge - I don’t know that there would be an organic way to push Korra forth on her spiritual journey and effectively include the rest of Team Avatar, given the overarching themes of the season.  That being said, it was especially disappointing to see the reduced screentime for Asami and Beifong, considering the strong moments afforded them in Book 1.

Ultimately, though, this season went hard and did a massive amount of storytelling. It set out to change the show’s universe as we understood it - and it achieved that. It created real stakes for Korra and Tenzin, and let them experience failure and undoable consequences. Once again, I’m left at the end of the season wondering how exactly the show will spin this world anew. We move forward into the unknown, choices made, Avatar lineage severed, and the worlds connected to bring spirits and humans together again. Even with the issues of execution, Korra Book 2 puts forth a damn impressive display of character, theme, and storytelling - all in pursuit of a massive narrative shift that fundamentally alters its main character and the world around, and within her.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Season 1 Review

Recently, I started watching The Legend of Korra.

And I love it.

So, in the interest of writing about things I love - I’m endeavoring to jot down some of my ideas as I watch. At first, I planned on a casual liveblog, as a new format that encourages brevity and faster updates… but then I consumed the entire first season way too quickly to give any kind of play-by-play.

The good news is that I’ve pressed pause between Seasons 1 and 2 so that I’m able to write a season review! Half live-blog, half-analysis, I intend on it being a bundle of my thoughts and feelings in season-long batches. Those of you who have seen the whole show can point and laugh at all the things I don’t know yet, and all the emotions that haven’t yet destroyed me. (I do know the final shot though. I don’t live under a rock.)


THE LEGEND OF KORRA - SEASON 1

A dear friend of mine introduced me to Avatar: The Last Airbender maybe four years ago, and I’m embarrassed to say it took me a stupid amount of time to get through the show. (Three of those four years, basically. I told you it was embarrassing.) For some reason, I needed time to adjust to the world, and my fondness for the characters was a slow build - almost as slow as me getting around to watching each next episode. But eventually, something hooked, and I started snowballing. I’m happy to say that, in the end, I love the show dearly. It does very lovely things with its characters and themes, and there’s so much heart and humor at its core.

I tell you about my experience with Avatar not because it’s particularly interesting, but because it’s necessary. At first Avatar was presented to me on the mere premise of I think you will like this show, but then Korra premiered, and the recommendation leveled up to you must watch this show because Korra is waiting for you. And after just one season of Korra, I can say that this is true. Korra feels like a heart-and-soul show for me, but I can’t imagine loving it as much without the foundation that Avatar built.

This is absolutely part of the show’s construction, though. Korra picks up 60 years after Avatar left off, giving itself perfect opportunities to cash in on the immediate questions the scenario entails. What happened to each of our kids? Where are Katara, and Sokka, and Zuko, and Toph? What kinds of lives did they lead? What kind of world did they help create? How do the events of Korra relate to the events of Avatar? Katara shows up in the first five minutes, as if to say, “Don’t worry, friends. You’re home.” Then we meet Tenzin, and Lin, and eventually Iroh, and we have connections to the old world that immediately draw us in and make us want to learn more. The mere premise of the show invites devotion, and as it marches on, the showrunners employ this emotional engagement with panache.

Have I mentioned I love the art of this show?

But it’s not like Korra relies solely on its history without creating anything of its own. The show wastes no time expanding its world in one swift motion - and oh, what a world it is. Republic City is brand-new and bustling, gleaming with art deco extravagance and looming threats of danger to come. (I love the STYLE of this show. It’s so unique and dynamic and textured.) There’s organized sports, organized crime, social unrest, and a well-orchestrated police force - all introduced and made breathing within the first two episodes. Korra takes its pre-existing world and isn’t lazy with it; rather bursting it forward with its own life and unique conflict.

With this distinct world comes distinct differences, mixing uniquely with distinct characterizations. The role of the Avatar in Korra is not the same as the role Aang played. Aang, as a hero, functioned in the narrative as an “only hope,” with extinction behind him and a long path to rebuilding a world of promise. This is a classic hero’s journey - he is chosen, to vanquish an evil and restore balance to a burning world. But by contrast, Aang’s emotional journey isn’t as archetypal. As any hero, he has to overcome internal obstacles, but unlike most heroes, these fears are connected largely to guilt and grief.

Korra, on the other hand, is inverse. She is not chosen in the embers of a once-great civilization - she inherits a vibrant world that may still be too new to stand strong. She is burdened not with building, but with maintaining, and where Aang was tasked with staying hidden, Korra must exist in the spotlight. The Avatar is a public position, and she is in full view of an entire civilization, with its own political strife, criminal robber barons, and social division. Her mistakes are on display for all to judge, next to the expectation of her status and the yet-developed mastery of her skill.

Korra smash!  Korra has archetypal Hero weaknesses!

What makes this even more interesting is that Korra is the one with the classic hero’s flaws - her emotional obstacles align more closely to archetype. She is impatient; she has a temper; she struggles to connect with the spiritual world. She is fearful of her mortality, headstrong - maybe even a little arrogant - and she occasionally rebels against the teachings. This is the Young Hero as we know him - which is why Korra is even more unique; this is the Young Hero as we know her. Plug that into her context of maintaining a civilization instead of building one and we’ve got ourselves a fresh and dimensional take on the typical tropes we’ve seen before.

Between Korra’s role in a fully-developed new world, and the conflicts created by the Equalist movement (Amon), the government (Tarrlok), and the corporation (Hiroshi Sato) -- Korra excels at dimensionality right out of the gate. What’s frustrating, then, is the one part of the show that is disappointingly flat: the love triangle.

Love triangles are tropy, risky business. They are often sexist, boring, trite, and oversimplified. Rarely are triangles a worthwhile endeavor, purely because there’s little to do: Character A likes Character B! Character B likes Character C! Character B is confused! Character A’s feelings are hurt! Character C feels awkward! Character A doesn’t hate Character C, but maybe a little bit! There’s no easy resolution, and yet that doesn’t necessarily propagate compelling drama along the way. Triangles are best when no one’s a bad guy, everyone’s developed, and all the relationships are earned. (Bonus points if the relationships connect thematically to the narrative. But not too much. They’re supposed to be people, not ideas.)

The love triangle on Korra is not ship-shape (no pun intended) with this criteria, frankly. Yes, no one’s really a bad guy. Two-thirds of the characters are developed. But… none of the relationships are earned.

Asami knows a bad triangle when she sees one.

Let’s start with Asami and Mako. They just seem to be paired off because they had a nice meet-cute and two hot people start dating, right? Especially if it will anger the main character. (Sucks to be you, Character A!) They have a mildly charming date, sure. They seem to like each other, sure. But nothing’s really constructed for them. They’re just… there.

But hold your sky bison: Mako-and-Korra is equally left-field-adjacent. Mako’s original brooding-grumpy-guy facade fades into… generic attractive talented guy? Korra’s a catch because she’s… the Avatar? There’s not enough to support the relationship. There’s not even a moment where Mako makes a choice to help Korra fight the Equalists. At first he needs to save his brother. Then, after that, he just… does.

So both suggested sides of this triangle suffer from a complete lack of deservedness, and during most triangle-related scenes, I found myself chanting “you haven’t earned this” at my screen. Thankfully, I know how this all ends, so my patience wears a little stronger than it would otherwise. (The anticipation also helps.)

There’s the fact too that Mako hasn’t quite earned his place as the Romantic Lead and Alpha Male that the show has tried to bequeath him. This wouldn’t be so bad, except he’s the hinge Character B, which frankly is the load-bearing element of a Love Triangle. Character B has to be well-developed and sturdy. We need POV, we need motivation, we need backstory, we need empathy. With Mako? We have little. He has the typical orphan origin story, but the show didn’t find any reason to give us more information. He makes no real choices that define his character, and the only time he’s shown any exceptional pluck was fighting off blood bending to save Korra’s life. (In episode 12 of 12. We waited awhile.)

Same, guys.  Same.

Meanwhile, supporting characters are far outshining. Namely, Asami Sato, daughter of the city’s richest businessman. The city's richest businessman who also happens to be funding the bad guys, and a super terrible dad to boot. When Asami forsakes her relationship with her father and chooses instead to fight directly against him - well, this kind of choice skyrockets her one step down from Main Character status, impeded from full target mostly because the show is called The Legend of Korra, not The Legend of Asami. She defies stereotype, is sharply-defined, and makes a Big Choice. And, awkwardly, she’s the other leg of this triangle. Character B, our load-bearing character, is officially the weakest.

But even despite the flaws of the triangle, Season 1 deploys a well-developed, richly-detailed, and emotionally-resonant batch of episodes. It has a strong point of view, fleshed-out characters, and the same brand of heart and humor that its predecessor embodied. Both connected to its past but rumbling towards its future, The Legend of Korra stands on its own as a series, with a fantastic Hero at its center. I’m endlessly curious about where things will go from here.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have more episodes to watch. But first, a Season 1 Round-up:

  • FAVORITE CHARACTER
To quote several text messages that I sent during the course of my viewing: LIN BEIFONG IS MY EVERYTHING. Set up as both curmudgeonly and heroic, Lin is a badass pillar of noble stoicism and justice. She steps down from Chief of Police not because of injury or shame, but because she needs to pursue her enemies without the restrictions of her position. DAMN, WOMAN. And even though she gruffly dismisses Korra and keeps Tenzin’s family at arm’s length, she ultimately throws herself headfirst into danger to protect them. What a lady. 
  • FAVORITE DYNAMIC
For a serious answer, probably Tenzin and Korra, or Lin and Tenzin. But I’m not saying I wouldn’t watch a show where Asami drives around the city while Bolin creates ramps for her to speed off of.
  • FAVORITE MOMENT
Moments of choice will always be one of the most powerful tools that you can include in a narrative, and the biggest choice in Book One goes to Asami. That beautiful airless moment where she seems to accept her father’s offer to join the Equalists - only to refuse, and turn his electrified glove back on him. DAMN, WOMAN. This moment tells us everything we need to know about Asami, and jettisons the character into a new realm. Someone give this lady more scenes. The emotional content is too good to be left alone.
  • FAVORITE SCENE (Look, I’m cheating. So sue me.)
What I love so much about the final scene is the message communicated about the role of the hero in this narrative. So often, heroes, as Chosen Ones, experience a burden of isolation. From Buffy to Harry Potter, a destiny of greatness has long signified emotional alienation and disconnection. No matter the Rons or Willows, Gileses or Dumbledores - the Hero is the Chosen One. When the chips are down, he or she walks alone.
For the Avatar, however, deep personal challenge results in spiritual connection. When Korra is faced with her Dark Night of the Soul, she doesn’t have to be alone to weather the tumult. Instead, she has the full lineage of Avatar history at her spiritual disposal. When she is in the crucible, so are they, and our Hero is not truly alone. She is connected to power through solidarity, not isolated in her power from normalcy. What a comforting expression to impart to the audience; what a thing to show young people about enduring pain and finding strength.
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