Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x09 - "The Puppet Show"

A horny puppet's
also a demon hunter.
Um, wiggins indeed.


The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is chockablock with ridiculata, from preying mantis teachers to principal-devouring hyena cliques to cyber-dating book demons.  “The Puppet Show” is little different, featuring a sentient dummy who’s fighting against an organ-harvesting demon hiding amidst the cast of a high school talent show.  It’s a lot to take in - and take seriously.  Because unlike the previous endeavors of the outlandish, “The Puppet Show” doesn’t quite elevate itself out of the bizarre.

The main issue with “The Puppet Show” is, frankly, the puppet himself.  While it’s a worthwhile twist to make him friend instead of foe, it doesn’t exactly shift him into actual hero territory.  The problem?  It’s near impossible to empathize with a puppet, even if we know his tragic back story.  (He used to be human, and was cursed to live the rest of his days as a puppet.  If he kills the final demon, he’s free, and by free, we mean dead.  See?  Plenty tragic.  But it means well nothing when the face emoting it is wooden.  Literally.)  The fact that Sid the Puppet was also a weird 30s-era gangster film stereotype - complete with sexist overtones - didn’t help make him any more likeable.  Add this to the fact that Sarah Michelle Gellar is literally grappling with a doll in their fight scenes and it’s way too easy to check out from even TRYING to take it seriously.

But even when Sid was meant to be creepy, the episode somehow missed the mark there as well.  Spooky puppets are a long-established horror trope, and “The Puppet Show” did its best to capitalize on that.  Buffy reasonably had the wiggins, and so did we.  The head turning to look at her, the unsettling noise of something skittering across the floor, Sid’s face appearing in Buffy’s window?  All working hard to be skin-crawlingly awful.  But using those conventions just made everything feel extra campy.  There’s a difference between taking advantage of commonly-held fears and repeating commonly-used beats.  Overdramatic cinematography with heavyhanded music didn’t help, and so the tone of “The Puppet Show” emerged somewhere in the region of horror soap opera.

One thing “The Puppet Show” did reasonably well was delineate its own mystery.  As a “whodunnit,” it succeeds in its twists and turns.  We naturally believe that Sid is the demon, because, well, creepy wiggins puppet, and it turns out he’s actually a demon hunter.  The episode simultaneously introduces the new principal, Snyder, and does a good job making him a plausible suspect.  Even without lurking in the shadows, ears aglow with backlight, Snyder actually poses a real threat to Buffy - he’s got his eye on her.  Where Principal Flutie was basically harmless, Snyder vows to monitor Buffy’s behavior at school, believing her to be delinquent.  There’s even a delicious hint that maybe he knows something of Buffy’s supernatural life, which could be doubly as damning.  “The Puppet Show” does a great job setting up Snyder as a potential problem for Buffy and the Gang.

Other than that, “The Puppet Show” falls a little bit short.  The final act is a bit wacky, as somehow Giles, being of sound mind and able librarian, willingly straps himself into a guillotine contraption and asks WHAT IT DOES minutes after being shown a cleanly bisected melon.  Honestly, Giles, if it weren’t for your meddling kids, you’d be naturally selected right out of the Hellmouth for that one.  This clumsy oversight could possibly be forgiven on account of the clever moment where Buffy pushes Mark the Magician Guy into his disappearance box only to be greeted with a Human-Harvesting Demon when he reemerges.  But then Buffy couldn’t push a chandelier off of her in the same episode as she obliterates a locker dial, so we may be back in the lose column on episode logic.

Anyways, “The Puppet Show” is a weird hour of supernatural television.  That’s really all can be said about it.  Oh!  I feel as well that we should pour one out for dear Morgan, who operated with the aura of a decade-straddling Ben Savage-Michael Cera hybrid, then turned out to not only be completely innocent but also have brain cancer, and then was needlessly slaughtered.  Poor Morgan, man.  That has to be a contender for the coldest incidental death on Buffy.  Except maybe Principal Flutie.  Season 1 goes hard, I guess.
Stray Observations -- 
  • Cordelia was working overtime as comedic relief!  You can start to see the writers trying to figure out what to do with her.  This works.  (It will work even better in future muahahaha.) 
  • How fitting that Xander play Oedipus opposite Buffy’s Electra?  Awkward. 
  • Xander and Willow’s complete stage fright in contrast to Buffy’s case of Over It and Gives No Fucks is hilarious, and actually something worth keeping an eye on in the dynamic.  This rewatch has started me thinking on Xander and Willow’s insecurities, and how those traits manifest in each character as they grow - for better and worse.  It’s an interesting exercise!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The RBI Report: "The Quarterback"

A few words to preface this review --

After the end of last season, I decided to step away from reviewing Glee - the main reason for which being that I wasn’t finding much enjoyment in it anymore.  I was tired of giving the same criticisms of the show, and in some way it felt like my time could be better spent.  I could review a show that was less frustrating, more rewarding, and better at storytelling.  Glee felt tired, and I felt tired of Glee.

Over the summer, Cory Monteith died.  And even though I was tired of Glee, it felt very much like a friend had left my life.  Television is strange that way; it brings people into your living room and makes them feel like family.  Glee is particularly notable for this, as its swift rise in the cultural zeitgeist forged a deep connection between those who participated in its story.  And Cory Monteith seemed particularly notable for this singular familiarity and connection, on this special show in this special medium.  The guy with no singing background, cast specifically for a singing show - simply because he looked into the camera and connected with those on the other side of the lens.

It’s frustrating to see people’s cynicism in response to his passing.  Those claiming that he wasn’t “famous enough” to merit such an outpouring of grief from those who didn’t even know him.  Or worse yet, those reducing him to “just an addict” who doesn’t deserve the love of those who are mourning.  But the fact of the matter is that Cory Monteith was a special guy on a special show in a special medium, and those who say otherwise just didn’t experience the feeling.

I’ve held Glee with a lot of cynicism during my time reviewing it.  It’s a show that never quite capitalized on its own potential, and instead overinflated its ego with self-congratulating spectacle.  It is often maddeningly reductive, thoughtless, and insensitive.  But in its best moments, it is immensely powerful, and the fact that viewers hang on for season after season is a testament to just how good this show was promised to be.

So I try to let go of a little of my cynicism, and return to review “The Quarterback.”  It’s worth my time to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of a grieving family doing their best to move forward, in effect laying their sadness bare for the benefit of millions who only knew Cory Monteith through a television show, and loved him all the same.

“The Quarterback,” written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, directed by Brad Falchuk

I confess, before watching the episode, that I had mixed feelings about the confluence of fiction and reality.  Finn Hudson wasn’t the same person as Cory Monteith, and watching an hour of Glee where everyone talked about how much they loved Finn seemed exhausting. ( Or at least just like every other episode of Glee.)  At best, Finn Hudson was a catalyst who bravely took a chance on connecting with his true self, and encouraged others to do the same.  At worst, Finn Hudson was a self-righteous buttinsky who had far too much agency in others’ storylines and not enough agency in his own.  Glee flattened an otherwise uniquely flawed yet likeable character and used him as a cardboard hero and romantic lead.

But honestly, you can’t extricate this episode from reality.  You just can’t.  Reality is the only reason this episode happened.  Reality runs as a painful undercurrent to the whole hour, because Finn’s face is Cory Monteith’s face, and the pain onscreen is not made-up.  The performances aren’t performances at all.  Even though the circumstances were fictional, the emotions that underpin every moment are very real.

And truthfully, painfully, that’s a large part of what makes this episode good.  It felt organic, authentic, and soul-driven, in a way that Glee hasn’t managed since Season 1.  It focused on emotions, and connections, and tastefully allowed each character his and her own stories and points of view.  How difficult to commend these particular storytelling strengths, knowing that they are borne from heartbreak.

It’s near impossible not to be reminded of reality when watching the fiction.  But even so, I do think the writers created a solid hour of fiction.  There were conceptual decisions to be made, and storytelling execution decisions to be made, and most of the choices made were good, and felt right.   Rather than focusing on the details of Finn’s death, or daring to show immediate reactions, Ryan Murphy & Co. instead devoted their attention on the different grieving processes of those who knew Finn.  Particular focus was given to the Hudson-Hummels, Santana, Puck, Will, Sue, and of course, Rachel.

What worked incredibly well about these stories was the idea that they were grounded to the characters, and the plot surrounding them didn’t get in the way of the emotional journey.  Small obstacles and conflicts underscored the larger emotional issues, and the writing got a lot of mileage out of using symbolism and subtlety to convey them.  Items such as Finn’s letterman jacket and Kurt’s ornate lamp became artifacts of protection and poignance in the midst of grief.  Puck’s plot centered on the theft of the memorial tree, but the “mystery” of who stole it was never the point of the story; it was more about Puck’s inability to move forward without something of Finn’s to hold onto.   Santana’s storyline featured a huge argument with Sue over Finn’s memorial, but it wasn’t really about Santana’s feelings towards Sue, or the memorial itself.  It was more about Santana’s struggle with vulnerability in the face of incredible, laid-out pain.

Certainly, these character-driven emotional journeys reflected the way the relationships that each of them had with Finn.  But what was more resonant, for me, was the idea that grieving Finn served as a specific and meaningful reflection on each character.   Santana struggling to be vulnerable has defined much of her character’s journey.  Puck accepting responsibility and leadership from beyond Finn’s shadow is a classic Puckerman theme.  Burt’s monologue dealt with masculine affection, and lessons in tolerance.  Rachel’s showed her focus on her plans and her dreams, and the tragedy of losing a big part of them - and having to cope.  Carole’s centered on the strength of a woman dealing with so much loss in her family.

What I appreciated about this pattern was the idea that Finn, as a character, served largely as a mirror to others.  I do think this concept has been there in some incarnation from the beginning, in his role as catalyst for glee club coming together.  Over the years, it’s submerged and resurfaced at random, as the writers gave over his character to lesson-making and narrative privilege.  Like most characters in this show, Finn became a puppet at some point - a puppet designed to impart lessons and seem super likeable at the same time - but a puppet nonetheless.  Season 4 actually started unraveling Finn from this Football Hero Ethos, and set him adrift in a world without anyone to mirror or influence.  Finn was always something to somebody - the ideal father and perfect husband to Quinn, the unattainable dream guy for Rachel, the alpha male to Puck’s omega, the glee club leader for the new kids, Will Schuester’s younger self.

Finn Hudson was a lot of different things to a lot of different people - especially within the high school social structure.  And after graduating, Finn struggled with losing this identity.  He tried to be something for Rachel and attend acting school in New York.  He tried to be something for Burt and work in the tire shop. He tried to be something for his father and enlist in the army.  Even where he found his place is an echo of Will: in the classroom, with the glee club.  Finn’s barely-there, lost arc is the idea that he was someone trying to be his own person, and fundamentally clueless as to how to do it because he’d rather be important to others.  “The Quarterback” connected Finn’s original role as Catalyst with his developed role of Lost Soul, and came out with something textured, appropriate, and resonant.  It didn’t glorify the teenager, or shine a light so bright it cast away shadows.  It focused on the best part of Finn Hudson, and acknowledged the devastation of losing a good soul too young.

My main quibble with the episode is how it handled Tina’s grief.  With Sue having directly stated that grief brings out the irrational in all of us, it seems like a given that each character would be allowed his or her grief, no matter how extreme or alienating.  And from Santana’s meltdown to Puck throwing insults at Kurt, that rang true.  But for whatever reason, Glee tried to milk a comedy moment by painting Tina as “callous” and self-centered in her grief.  Truthfully, calling back Tina’s original devotion to wearing black seemed like a smart way to underscore Tina’s grief.  It’s not unrealistic for someone to tunnel-vision back on their own meaningless problems during grief, as a form of denial or transference.  It makes complete sense that being “forced” back into black clothes would make Tina feel overwhelmed.  There’s tons that you can do with that to make her relatable and sympathetic.  And instead, Emma gave her a pamphlet called “Wait, Am I Callous?”  If that weren’t enough, it’s also terrible counseling, and goes directly against what Emma probably would have done considering her previously-established eagerness to help the kids with their grief - and Tina being the only one who showed.  Bad decision all around.

Dismissing Tina’s grief as self-centered also stands out when you consider that Will’s actions concerning Finn’s letterman jacket were completely self-serving, and yet narratively overlooked.  After the jacket goes missing from Santana, everyone assumes Puck took it, but it was actually Mr. Schue, who never copped to the “crime.”  And look, that’s the thing - it’s not a crime to want Finn’s letterman jacket.  If Will had asked Kurt or Santana if he could have it for a day or two, it’s almost inarguable that they would have said yes.  The fact that Will doesn’t even consider the idea, the fact that he hides his grief makes me incredibly sad for him, in a way I don’t know if the writers intended.  One of the more powerful lines of the hour was from Kurt: “Shame is a wasted emotion.”  Given the way the writers delineated his storyline, it felt like Will Schuester hasn’t learned that lesson yet.  I hope he came clean, and gave the jacket back.

Stray Appreciation:

  • Everyone’s musical performances were top-notch, but for some reason I felt particularly affected by Puck singing “No Surrender” to the empty chair. And it almost goes without saying that Rachel’s tearful rendition of “Make You Feel My Love” also had me reaching for a fourth and fifth tissue.
  • I appreciated as well the sound mixing for the group number. I don’t remember being able to pick out individual voices as much in previous multiple-voice songs, and yet in “Seasons of Love” you could hear the levels shift to highlight certain voices in certain moments. It was a nice touch.
  • Speaking of “Seasons of Love,” the reveal of Finn’s photo at the end was a gutwrenching visual. In one single moment, you understood with horrific clarity the entire context for the song. No dialogue, no set-up. Just music, emotion, and a single picture.
  • Kudos for pointedly avoiding a “lesson.” The minute Santana brings up the possibility of one, Sue tells her to cut the crap. “There is no lesson here. There is no happy ending. There’s just nothing. He’s just gone.” It’s a powerfully real sentiment, and helps to underscore the necessity of expression, empathy, and togetherness as a lifeline in difficult times. Those traits, without a lesson in the way, are when Glee’s at its best.

In the end, there’s little possibility to judge this episode as a fictional entity separate from reality.  But I think that’s okay.  The fiction that was presented was mostly done well, and showed emotional depth and tasteful humility.  It’s more than Glee has offered in awhile.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful that such an exemplary episode was created in Cory Monteith’s honor.  On the other - how painful, that it had to be created at all.  Were that we could just focus on fiction, and ignore reality completely.  But at the end of the day, there’s a gaping hole in this cast - this special show is missing one of its special people.  Watching that terrible truth acknowledged onscreen is nothing short of heartbreaking.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Retro RBI Report: "The Rhodes Not Taken"

Most Season 1 episodes of Glee usually involve soapy teen storylines that all play out under a broad theme of the week, usually decreed in the episode's title, often in the form of a pun.  Okay, okay, that could describe all of Glee, with varying quality of execution.  Upon rewatching "The Rhodes Not Taken," though, the theme isn't so clear-cut.  While we talk vaguely of dreams and talent and identity (it's Glee; we'll never not) -- the main theme of this episode is actually something a lot more nebulous: decisions.

"The Rhodes Not Taken," written by Ian Brennan, directed by John Scott

It's clear that "The Rhodes Not Taken" was designed as a vehicle to show off Kristin Chenoweth as Glee's first bonafide singing guest star.  But it doesn't feel hamfisted or inorganic, even though the plotline is ridiculous: without Rachel, Will realizes they need star power to propel the New Directions to Sectionals, and so resurrects the near-completed high school transcript of a talented dropout to resume her glee club tenure.  This is classic Glee - the stakes come from the pending competition, the obstacle is a lack of participation from one or more members.  Insert poorly-conceived-slightly-outlandish-but-well-intentioned plan by Mr. Schuester, let disasters happen, and bring everyone back together to realize that togetherness is better than winning.

While this all seems like old hat now, it's actually still new in Season 1, Episode 5.  "The Rhodes Not Taken" echoes the spirit of the Pilot,  as it uses "Somebody to Love" like "Don't Stop Believing" as an episode-ending group number signaling resolution and unity as everyone finally comes together despite their backgrounds.  Of course, that style of closer is fated for rinse-and-repeat, but there's definite magic in its early incarnations.  

And so I wondered: does it only work because it's new?  "The Rhodes Not Taken" features several hints of future frustrations to come: a Rachel so woefully in love it's painful, a Will who accidentally puts his own goals before the good of the students, a Finn who's confused about his feelings and doesn't exactly behave honestly, and an acute presentation of Bitches-Be-Crazy feat. Rachel, Emma, Terri, and April.  These aren't that unfamiliar, in the long run.  Do these paradigms only become tiresome when they're recycled so frequently in subsequent years?  Can we really give Bitches-Be-Crazy a free pass when it's only the fifth episode?  Or am I just looking at yesteryear with Rose's-Turn-colored glasses?

I suppose these questions can be answered a few ways.  For starters, I'm not so fussed with the early incarnations of oft-repeated storylines.  They did come first, after all, and there's merit in the original conflicts and constructs.  The issue is that the conflicts are reused multiple times, and therefore reduced.  The characters never grow if they keep making the same mistakes and claiming they've learned from them.  And then they just seem stupid, and Glee becomes a show where the slate is wiped clean after each episode so it can start over with the same issues for its once-developing characters to puppet (which it did).  The Bitches-Be-Crazy construct is still somewhat unfortunate, in that nearly every main lady in the narrative clings desperately and deludedly to a relationship with Will or Finn.  But really, what sets "The Rhodes Not Taken" apart from "Glee now" is execution of character and theme.  

When I realized this, it astounded me: the hour is devoted to exploring wrong and right decisions, and then creates a narrative wherein nearly every character makes a bad decision.  Everyone in this episode behaves pretty poorly.  But they're not exactly wrong, or unjustified.  They just choose the wrong path.  Will probably shouldn't have recruited April Rhodes instead of encouraging a current member to step up, but he wanted to believe in second chances and couldn't see past his idealized view of her.  It was good that Emma had objections to Will's plan, but she doesn't really have any leg to stand on in terms of trying to direct Will's attention away from her when he's, y'know, married.  Finn was wrong to lead Rachel on and manipulate her feelings to get what he wanted, but hey, he's gonna be a dad soon and the chips are down for getting a scholarship.  Rachel, like Emma, has very little moral high ground for chewing April out when she herself has no claim to Finn, or the glee club she's abandoned, for that matter.  But she's also not entirely wrong about April, who certainly isn't the model of best behavior.  And of course, there's April herself, who endears herself by teaching the students how to shoplift and drink, and somehow remains likeable.  

What's remarkable about this design is that no one's entirely right or wrong; each character is doing the best they can with their misguided feelings and good intentions - and no one is narratively shamed for it.  Sure, Finn gets slapped by Rachel, but he admits he that what he did was wrong.  Just like April admitted what she did was wrong, just like Will admitted what he did was wrong, just like Rachel basically admitted that leaving the glee club was wrong when she returned at episode's end.  Everyone made wrong choices with a best-laid plan, and the narrative let them all play out without judgment.  Each character was decidedly imperfect, and allowed to be that way.

This gray area allows for something larger to happen, thematically.  Take, for example, the episode's inclusion of "Maybe This Time."  The song is basically about being a loser, and wanting to come out on top for once - a Glee staple.  It's sung by April Rhodes, who is perhaps the most imperfect of everyone presented.  She's squatting in houses drinking box wine and deluding herself about her glory days.  But Glee presents these shabby imperfections, these rough-edged real people, and inserts them into high-gloss musical situations to impressive effect.  April was the queen of glee club, who still has dreams of Broadway... but can't seem to get sober.  She and Will sing a fantastic rendition of "Alone"... at the local bowling alley.  It can be both funny, and poignant, to constantly contrast fantasy to reality, and Glee does it so well in its early days.  It's the absurdity and tragedy of these characters and their circumstances that allowed for Glee to carve out its own kind of genre beyond "musical comedy."  

Eventually this wonderful tension went astray, and now everything is inexplicable fantasy, and the reality that peeks in is drastic and jarring, like school shootings, confessions of child molestation, and Rachel accidentally getting pregnant by her gigolo boyfriend.  This just contributes to the tonal confusion of the show; no longer is there an engaging mix of comedy and tragedy, there's just a really dark show where bad things happen and everyone's still talking about how their dreams are going to come true one day.  

(Another notable difference with "The Rhodes Not Taken," which was also apparent in "Preggers," is a deliberately methodic pace.  The episode does not move forward at breakneck speed, threatening to veer right off the tracks.  The plotting is therefore allowed to be a little bit less formulaic, as the scenes don't have a get-in-get-out-and-move-on quality to them.)  

But I suppose it's not really fair to review the early episodes solely against the later ones, and it's not really my modus operandi.  (She says after having written 10 paragraphs doing exactly that.  Oops.  Bear with me, gang.)  It's just impossible to watch Season 1 and not wonder how exactly it became the show it is now.  In some ways, it's completely different, and yet, the signs are there if you look for them.  Ah, hindsight.

Anyways.  I really didn't mean for this to be an exercise in then-vs-now, but "The Rhodes Not Taken" presented an interesting case in similarities and differences.  

I do want to talk about the episode in and of itself, though, namely in what the narrative does with Rachel and April Rhodes.  They both qualify as characters who make wrong choices under tough circumstances, but "The Rhodes Not Taken" goes further to specifically tie the two together.  They duet "Maybe This Time," through the magic of cross-cutting, and therefore the real comparing-and-contrasting of the episode is meant to be between these two enormous - and tragically isolated - talents.  April Rhodes speaks of her squandered past by saying, "I hitched my star to the wrong wagon," and it's hard not to see that as a foreboding statement for Rachel,  who has forsaken the glee club and struck out on her own in the school musical.  The narrative seems to be telling us that April Rhodes is a cautionary tale for Rachel, to a certain degree.  That's not to say there's overt evidence that Rachel Berry could end up a woman soaked in corn booze, as Emma might say, but rather the insinuation that talent doesn't always mean success, and that any rising star should mind her choices.  This is, of course, concluded with Rachel reversing her previous decision, and coming back to glee club at episode's end.  

I hate to say it, but I do wish the logistics of this decision played out a little differently.  I have two quibbles: it feels a little unearned, and it feels entirely related to Finn.  The show constructs Finn and Rachel's dynamic so that both parties represent the glee club to the other person: Rachel is the personification of what it means to be in glee, for Finn, and Finn is the personification of what it means to be in glee, for Rachel.  The former means that Rachel connects Finn to his true identity; the latter means that Finn connects Rachel to social acceptance.  When looking at it this way, it's fine that Rachel chooses to return to the glee club because Finn wants her to.  The issue is that Finn's motives are entirely selfish, and the link he provides to social acceptance turns out to be a lie.  Basically, I get enormously sad seeing Rachel cling so desperately to even the promise of Finn's romantic interest that she makes choices for the wrong reasons.  

Again, this interpersonal conflict is temporarily neutralized by Rachel calling Finn out and Finn apologizing.  But in terms of Rachel's season 1 acceptance arc, I think rejoining the glee club at this juncture is a bit premature.  I think it would have worked better to delay it another episode, simply because Rachel still chose to return to glee after rebuking Finn's lie and after Sue offered her full creative control of Cabaret.  What's the point of that?  It doesn't quite make sense.  Alternatively, it might have been good to build another (or at least the promise of another) glee club dynamic for Rachel in addition to the one with Finn.  Rachel's return to the glee club hinges entirely on the lie that Finn tells her: the club misses her, and not just for her talent.  While it's obviously he likes her, he's also confused and still knowingly manipulating her feelings.  Rachel's returning because she didn't want to put the spotlight before friendships, but the truth is that she has no friendships in the glee club.  Everyone, including Finn, really wants Rachel back in the club so that they can succeed.  They value her spotlight, not her friendship - and it's awfully sad to see Rachel believe the opposite simply because Finn Hudson told her so, and sadder still to see her hanging on the hints of feigned interest from him.  In an episode exploring the consequences of choice, is this really the wagon Rachel Berry wants to hitch her star to?

Actually, this is what makes Rachel a tragic character.  The insecurity flitting compulsively behind her overconfidence is all-too-apparent, thanks to Lea Michele's acting choices, and it's another example of Glee mixing reality and fantasy, imperfection and glossy cover-up.  Rachel's perceptions of her relationship with Finn, her relationship to the glee club, and her relationship to the spotlight are all very different from the reality of the situation, and she's almost the narrative's fool for it.  She basks in being the best, but nobody likes her for it, and she's designed as someone who desperately longs for acceptance more than applause.  In effect, she can't win for losing - much like April Rhodes, and Cabaret's Sally Bowles.  I did take heart, though, with the line of foreshadowing: "If I let you down when you needed me most, I'd never forgive myself."  Don't worry, babygirl.  Sectionals is coming, and you'll save the day.

Finally, I feel like I can't finish this review without making note of the dialogue.  The joke count is high in this episode, likely because of Ian Brennan and his askew sense of humor.  "Oh, Bambi.  I cried so hard when the hunters shot your mommy," is still one of the greatest Kurt moments, and I will never not cackle when Emma warns of the dangers of reconnecting with old acquaintances through the internet.  "Two months later, Versace was dead."  Bits like that are tossed out so casually that processing them takes a few moments, to riddle out the absurdity behind the line.  Also: corn booze.  And nearly everything that comes out of April Rhodes' mouth, including that little dribble of box wine when she realizes she's found out by the realtor.

So, upon rewatch, "The Rhodes Not Taken" proves to be a solid episode, that explores an interesting theme for Glee, exists in a gray space, and allows each character to make their mistakes without alienating the audience.  It's got damn good numbers, a great guest turn from Kristin Chenoweth, and continues to establish the tone of the show and its episodes.  It's not perfect, in how it slots into the larger plot arc of the season, or in its obstacles and stakes, but it works well and is certainly enjoyable.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+
Dance Numbers: A
Dialogue: A
Plot: B+
Characterization: B+
Episode MVP: April Rhodes

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x08 - "I, Robot... You, Jane"

Hey, Miss Calendar!
Tease Giles and be awesome?
All in a day's work.


Last time, on Buffy, I didn't have have much to say, about the introduction of Buffy's major love interest and the reveal that he is, in fact, a vampire.  This time on Buffy, Willow unwittingly cyber-dates an ancient demon that's been uploaded into a computer and chats with teenagers so they'll do his evil bidding - and somehow, I have a lot to talk about.  File under: things I did not expect.

Of course, what's great about "I, Robot... You, Jane" is not the plot.  The entire premise is pretty laughable from start to finish, especially with all the 1997 computer technology on display.  Willow couldn't be online, her phone wasn't busy!  The computer demon could reach anywhere connected to a modem!  That webcam!  That laptop!  But it's not really about the technology, or the premise, or the plot.  It's about what all of those things mean.  The execution on these concepts finds an interesting debate about technology, an allegory about unhealthy love, and still keeps its characters at the foundation of the heightened plot they're enacting.

Obviously, the debate about books vs. computers is meant to be at the forefront of the episode's discussion.  It shakes out in the interactions between Giles, who is firmly in Camp Printed Word, and the computer programming teacher Jenny Calendar, who embraces the benefit of the inevitable digital revolution.  This friction between traditional and progressive houses the main theme of the episode, and creates a timely debate not so much about books and computers but about knowledge, information, and change - which makes it actually quite timeless.  It's easy to forget, after all, that books - and the widespread production of them - were once considered technology.  No coincidence, then, that the flashback showing Moloch the Love Demon's original entrapment was set in 1418 Italy, thirty-two years before the invention of the printing press in the western world.  (China was well on this shit about four hundred years earlier.)

When Johann Gutenberg invented the European-access movable type printing press in 1450, he also gave way to a revolution in communication.  The ability to print material en masse brought information to a wider spread of people, simply because the production of a book took less time, and could therefore ensure a larger effect.  Before this bit of technology, the communication of knowledge was restricted, as the production of books was tedious and time-consuming.  Hand-copied illuminated manuscripts were a painstakingly slow endeavor, usually completed by monks, and therefore written in High Latin.  This was also a barrier to knowledge at the time - if you didn't speak church Latin, you didn't have access to that information.  It's why Dante's The Divine Comedy (ca. 1320) was such a big deal; he used an amalgamation of colloquial Italian dialects to reach more people.  In making his work more accessible to the masses, he helped bring information to the larger culture, instead of making knowledge contingent on the reader making education gains beyond their opportunity and means.

So, with this history lesson in mind, it's beyond delightful that Jenny Calendar sasses Giles for his library-centric view of knowledge, and advocates for digital information in that it's much more easily spread to those less privileged than well-off white dudes.  After all, isn't the advent of the internet breaking down the same barriers in communication and knowledge that the printing press did in 1450?  The limitations of information spread are less of an issue, as are the geographic barriers separating social and cultural lines.  Obviously, the machine that facilitates this access is not free, but computers are more and more commonplace, and places like libraries are offering use of them for free, to those who may not be able to afford one in their home.

In delineating Miss Calendar's and Giles' idealogical differences this way, "I, Robot... You, Jane" doesn't really take a side in the debate.  When taking the premise at face value - Willow cyber dates a dude who turns out to be bad for her - it'd be awfully easy to jump to a conclusion along the lines of "the internet is evil."  But the episode doesn't even come close to putting forth this basic reaction, simply because books and computers are treated as more or less the same, when it all comes down to it.  Giles gets in his romantic view of book smells, sure, but Moloch came from a book before he went on the internet, so in terms of villainy, we're 1-1 on technology-gone-evil.  Plus, Jenny Calendar's role as a modern techno-pagan is just so cool that the audience can't really help but immediately fall in love with her.  Follow suit, Giles!  She's just like you, except digital.  It's the books-vs-computers debate manifested in human form: they're made of the same stuff, they just use different means.

No, "I, Robot... You, Jane" never condemns the pervasiveness of the internet, but it does warn against something much less newfangled, and much more threatening: the dangers of unhealthy love.  Willow's interactions with Malcolm are not icky because she doesn't know what he looks like, or because he could be lying to her - they're icky because they bear all the hallmarks of emotional manipulation and unhealthy investment.  They're slyly infused with a level of absolutism, and designed to prey on the unempowered.  The promise of Moloch is repeated three times: I can give you everything.  All I want is your love.  The idea that love is a trade and not a benediction speaks volumes.  Not only that, but it's pancaked into vague absolutes - if you love me, you can have everything.  Whatever you want, you can have - only if you love me. 

What's unsettling is that this interpretation of love isn't all that unfamiliar in popular love narratives - especially with teenagers.  Willow's initial description of Malcolm is an insidious giveaway of this sweeping, flat love: "He's romantic, and we agree on everything."  Are these the only necessarily qualifiers for a partner?  We agree on everything runs a neat parallel to I can give you everything if you love me.  Agreeing on everything is hardly a reasonable standard for long-lasting relationships, and implies some level of self-sacrifice to make the partner happy, which can therefore be twisted as a sign of romantic devotion.  I love you so much, I have all the same opinions as you.  Then, the recipient of that gesture owes you big, because you've erased your own identity to replace it with the "love" that benefits them.  That's the payment that Moloch requires, as he turns on both Dave and Willow when they rethink their devotion.  "But I love you.  You are mine."  In other words, you are owed to me because I gave myself to you.

It's creepy, right?  Absolutes and payment and possession wrapped up in generous words that make the recipient feel special.  "You know me better than anyone.  I can't believe how comfortable you make me feel."  It's hard especially for Willow not to respond to that.  "I, Robot... You, Jane" is very smart about keeping their characters' insecurities at the surface, so the audience can both understand why they might get wrapped up in a bad situation, and still feel empathetic to them.  How heartbreaking is Willow's admission that boys don't really chase her, and she's probably not Malcolm's ideal?  (Again with the expectation that love hinges on being perceived as perfect to your partner!)  It makes so much sense that Willow, with her low sense of romantic self-worth, would engage with blind and strings-attached promises of love and connection.  

Xander too demonstrates an interesting (albeit sidecar) display of low-self worth in "I, Robot... You, Jane," as he claims wanting to go to the Bronze to make fun of people who don't talk to him.  Xander's manifests a bit differently than Willow's, though.  Willow's low self-worth makes her vulnerable, gullible even, as she often embodies the "damsel in distress" role in the Buffyverse.  Her disempowerment puts her at risk, and eventually drives her towards witchcraft - which alleviates the issue, since she's damseled far less frequently after that point.  Xander, however, wields his disenfranchised status as both a shield and a weapon.  Self-deprecating to the point of self-loathing, Xander uses humor to keep people from preying on his vulnerabilities, and has no problem dropping a mean comment against others to balance the perceived injustice.  This point of view also hints at Xander being incredibly self-centric, as he's focused mostly on his own suffering at the hands of others.  After all, he reacts to Willow's love interest by saying: "Everyone deserts me."

Anyways, this episode isn't about Xander's insecurities - it's about Willow's.  And naturally, when it comes time for Moloch to be fought off, Willow is allowed an empowered chance to swing a punch at him - or a fire extinguisher, as it were.  What's notable about the moment, though, is that Willow only gets a hit at Moloch when he's a threat to Buffy.  This is also true for the greater episode narrative; Willow only becomes suspicious of Malcolm when he tries to turn Willow on Buffy.  On the one hand, it's great that the general message is that Willow doesn't allow for unhealthy love to isolate her from her loved ones; she still puts Buffy before Malcolm.  But on the flip side of this is the sad realization: Willow also puts Buffy above herself.  She's instigated to fight back only when it's protection over Buffy, which is both endearing and slightly tragic.  Any way you interpret it, though, whether good or bad, it's very telling about Willow's level of self-worth, and the value she places on her association with Buffy, who she sees as a pillar of strength, coolness, and looks.

So, you didn't expect to get all that out of an episode about a lovelorn Windows '97 cyber demon, did you?  Me neither.  But Buffy has a way of mining human interest out of stories about the supernatural, and that point of strength is what keeps it enshrined as one of my favorite TV shows.  "I, Robot... You, Jane" may be laughable in its premise and plot, but the execution of character, theme, and social commentary is pretty stellar.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Orphan Black, Motherhood, and Humanity

The television series Orphan Black is about a lot of things: nature vs. nurture, science vs. religion, the concepts of identity, humanity, belonging, and individualism.  In that this is a story of a woman's quest to understand her existence as one of a group of genetic duplicates, it makes a certain amount of sense for these ideas to be explored.  However, Orphan Black also pays careful and close attention to one other fundamental meditation on life and birth: motherhood itself. To call it “attention” would actually be an understatement; Orphan Black not only populates its universe with devoted mothers and daughters, it almost sanctifies the construct, by placing it at emotional center.  This world, in which science and religion cannot be trusted, devotes itself to only one holy truth: motherhood.

Let’s start with the very first moments of the show.  We meet three people in a very brief amount of time: Sarah, and a mother and daughter on the train.  It’s the tiniest moment, to show a mom’s reproach of Sarah swearing in front of her daughter, but it communicates so much.  We assume Sarah’s not a mother, because she doesn’t behave like a mother might in front of children.  And we quickly learn that she is on the run.  Her decisions in the first episode are extreme, impulsive yet calculated.  She drinks soap!  She drinks soap as a method of escape!  She is in survival mode, backed into a corner, and reacting out of defense.  We don’t know this woman’s compass, because she’s not centered on it.  That is, until, we learn that Sarah in fact is a mother, and that seemingly incongruent identity is almost the only thing that defines her.

By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that Kira is designed to be Sarah’s compass, beating heart, and soul-tethered motivator.  More than running away, Sarah wants to have a life with Kira; Sarah wants to be a mother.  She prizes her motherhood over all else, even if it’s a role that might terrify her, or not quite seem to fit her.  So, every decision Sarah makes over the course of 10 episodes is both informed and directed by her relationship with Kira.  It’s everything.  She begins a character intent on running away, and becomes a character who stands and protects.  As she eventually tells Paul: "I don't do run."

Orphan Black takes this principle of Sarah’s protection of Kira, and uses it to codify motherhood on the show.  ‘Motherhood’ and ‘protection’ are practically synonymous, and are wielded together as the backbone to several characters and their actions.  They’re utilized as a motivating force not only for Sarah, but also for Mrs. S., Siobhán, Kira’s primary caretaker at story’s beginning and Sarah’s foster mother herself.  Mrs. S. is clearly defined as a mother of deep and enduring devotion.  She took in foster children in England, until it became imperative, as she was told, that she hide young Sarah further from her birth environment.  When that happened, Mrs. S. basically sacrificed, blindly, her entire livelihood for Sarah’s benefit, and moved them, with Felix, to Canada.  Currently, she protects Kira from Sarah herself, as Sarah skipped out for 10 months, and also from the potentially violent threat of Sarah’s clone associations.  Orphan Black makes it very clear that Mrs. S. is fundamental to the nurture and safety of her children, none of whom were born to her biologically.

In that Sarah was raised by a foster parent, the narrative comes with the built-in idea that there’s a duality of motherhood, tapping into the show’s theme of nature vs. nurture.  There’s Sarah’s birth mother, and there’s the woman who raised Sarah.  We actually get the chance to meet Sarah’s birth mother, Amelia, a woman who carried two babies for a couple before realizing she was being paid by scientists to incubate an experiment.  In an act of blind protection, she gave both babies over to higher institutions that might keep them safe from harm: one to the church, and one to the state.  The most important decision that this woman makes is framed entirely by her motivation of motherly sacrifice.  In this way, the concept of nature vs. nurture doesn’t quite fit the dichotomy between Amelia and Siobhán; they both contribute to the nurture of the children in their care.  Because of this, both mothers are held in high regard, as Orphan Black never ventures any stance in the definition of a “real” mother.  A mother is simply someone who cares for a child, and both Amelia and Siobhán qualify.

Not to go all T.Lo on your asses, but notice that these are the first and last appearances of Alison in Season 1.  In the first, she is actively fighting, and wearing a very saturate pink.  In the last, she is surrendering, and wearing a much less saturate pink.  The intensity of the color, like the fight, is drained out of her.

A third key character is defined strongly by fierce protection over her brood: Alison Hendrix, Sarah’s seeming foil.  Alison’s identity as a mother is wrapped up neatly in her original stereotype: “soccer mom.”  She is initially an obstacle for Sarah, as she attacks any perceived threat to her pack (her children, her family, her clone sisters).  Not one to sit idly when her family might be at risk, Alison’s protection almost always manifests in violence (often to hilarious and disturbing ends).  She demanded Beth teach her how to shoot a gun so she could keep her family safe; she maces and tasers Vic when he mistakenly harasses her; she tortures her own husband under suspicion that he might be monitoring her.  Alison goes to any length to protect her family, and at season’s end, she shows exactly that by signing away her identity for the sake of her family’s safety.  She says it herself early on: "My bottom line is my children can't know their mother is a freak."  Alison’s actions are almost always extreme, but we understand because the show codes her using motherhood as a motivating force, as it does with Sarah, Mrs. S., and Amelia.

But Orphan Black wields motherhood even beyond its role as a motivating force.  Motherhood is also defined as a connecting force.  Obviously, it connects the actual mothers with their own daughters.  But it’s more than this; it also connects mothers to other mothers, and mothers to non-mothers simply through an overwhelming plea for empathy.  Every ally that surrounds Sarah and Kira is devoted by virtue of Sarah’s devotion, whether mother or not.  Felix is practically a parent to Kira.  Paul risks his personal safety to keep Sarah safe.  Delphine keeps the knowledge of Kira hidden from Dr. Leekie.  Cosima blows up at the possibility that Delphine could have turned over the information.   Kira, as a child, a daughter, is at the center of a clutch of individuals ensuring no enemy breaks the line and threatens her security.

Of course, there are three other key figures in Kira’s protection, and all three are developed as core dynamics of season 1, entirely founded on the motherly connection.  The first is, naturally, Sarah and Mrs. S., as their rift is healed slowly with the understanding that they both put Kira as top priority.  Mrs. S. offers up as much information to Sarah as she knows about her identity, and Sarah refuses to lie to Mrs. S. about her involvement with the police, choosing to wait for the right time to introduce her foster mother into the fold.  After all, she’s already one of Kira’s sworn protectors; may as well give her all the information.  By the end of season 1, Sarah and Mrs. S.’s relationship is one of the more emotionally affecting, even though the narrative hints at Mrs. S. possibly being involved with Sarah’s creation.  Hopefully the writers choose to shade this association with mitigating circumstances, keeping Mrs. S. in her role as devoted mother and still fleshing her out as morally complicated.

The second key relationship connected by motherhood is one of the least likely: Sarah with Alison.  They may not be all that similar, but they are constructed on one very fundamental principle: protect the family, at all costs.  It is this idea that creates a bond between Sarah and Alison, that pushes them individually towards one another, and that serves as the backdrop for them to ally themselves to each other.  The story can be told in three simple steps: Sarah chooses to return Alison’s money, her ticket to freedom, to do right by Kira.  Then, Alison steps up to impersonate Sarah in front of Kira, and even goes further to earn Sarah the chance to reconnect with Kira.  And then, Sarah steps up in return, not so much by torturing Donnie for Alison, but for defending her to him when he lashes out at her.  It’s important to note, too, that Donnie’s attack of Alison is framed entirely by her femininity; he accuses her of “irrational nonsense,” then tells her to get her “frazzled, PMS shit together.”  The fact that Sarah immediately shuts that down and defends Alison specifically for her role as mother to the family is glorious, and a shining example of where this show centers its values.  Motherhood is sacred, and synonymous with protection.  The end.

The final crucial relationship bound by motherhood is actually the least likely, considering the murder and kidnap attempts: Sarah with Helena.  Sarah and Helena both feel a unique connection to one another which is explained with the knowledge that they shared a womb.  Thus, the concept of motherhood tethers them to one another biologically, and even extends further to Helena’s relationship with Kira.  Sarah and Kira become a fixation for Helena, as she was raised in the absence of motherly love.  She can’t go through with kidnapping Kira, choosing instead to disobey at the risk of personal abuse.  She treats the little girl almost as a sacred being, and this actually becomes a motivating force for Helena as well.  For better or for worse, both Sarah and Kira are connected to Helena through the idea of motherhood, and through Amelia herself.  Helena’s compass becomes directly tied to Sarah and Kira, and their relationship to her.

Thus, of the four main clones, Sarah and Alison are both understood individually in the narrative by their roles as mothers, as both a motivating force and connecting force between them.  Helena is also closely related to this concept, as she is motivated by her relationship with Sarah and Kira, and tethered to them both by the same token.  But Helena also exists, structurally, in conjunction with Cosima in their roles representing the institutions that Sarah and Alison, as mothers, often have to protect their families against.  The first, of course, is religion, personified by Helena.  And the second is science, personified by Cosima.

Religion and science are the closest things this show has to real villains, and Orphan Black smartly treats them not as inherently good or bad, but twisted to be good or bad based entirely on the human wielding the power of conviction.  It’s important to note that while Helena and Cosima represent their higher concepts, neither of them fall absolutely under that category.  Instead, they both are under threat of manipulation by the actual villains: Tomas, and Dr. Leekie, respectively.  Tomas holds power over Helena through contempt and abuse, disguised as protection and love.  Dr. Leekie uses Delphine, under the guise of protection and love, to gain access to Cosima.

What do these two villains, wielding a false promise of love, have in common?  Both represent larger social institutions, and both are aged white men of high standing.  This is no coincidence, because both science and religion are built with the power structure of patriarchy.  Orphan Black goes out of its way to find intentional similarities between the two seemingly juxtaposed constructs surrounding our heroines, and results in a narrative structure that reveals an underlying gender paradigm reinforcing the story.

Stick with me for a moment: many monotheistic religions, including Christianity, are founded on the principle that a god, a masculine entity, has the power to give life - something biologically feminine.  Similarly, the nature of Orphan Black’s science, “neolution,” hinges on the idea that nature can be defied to create a self-directed evolution.  In very basic terms, this is “womb envy” and “the God Complex,” respectively.  These concepts also tie in directly to the cloning project that gave life to Sarah, Alison, Cosima, and Helena.  Both principles, spawned from science and religion, tether strongly to the masculine creation of life through “unnatural” means, proving capability - and power - greater than the supposed “sacred feminine" nature.

This specific choice creates a heavily gendered construct throughout the entirety of Orphan Black.  In choosing for their legion of clones to be women, and putting them at the hands of two patriarchies, the show is making a hard statement not only about the challenges of empowering the feminine in a masculine society, but also about the fundamental role of femininity in humanity.  After all, every clone struggles to assert herself as a “real” person, an individual human.  Sarah boldly declares, “there’s only one of me,” despite her genetic duplicates.  Alison, after purporting herself to be a horrible person, follows it up with a tragic, “I’m not even a real person.”  Helena’s entire worldview is constructed on the idea that the clones aren’t human at all, simply perversions of science.  Cosima’s research even results in the disheartening realization that the clones are identifiable by an ID tag, a series of numbers and letters.  The easiest way to revoke someone’s humanity is to reduce them to a number, and the reveal is gutwrenching.  These women are all technically property, designed to exist in this world only as the spoils of ownership.  Nothing about their identity, their humanity, their individualism, is truly their own.  The shadow of the patriarchy strives to deny them that, to monopolize the creation of life and stamp out the humanity resultant of it.

But Orphan Black denounces the idea that these women could be anything but human, as they stand together at the center of the story, protecting their daughters, their families, the sacred feminine in themselves and others.  It’s denounced by the virtue that we see every clone character in a full range of emotions, each demonstrating her own spectrum of varied characteristics and behaviors despite being genetically indistinguishable.  And it's denounced because of the emphasis placed on the the sacred humanizing power of motherhood that motivates and connects its female heroes.  The implication is that humanity is femininity.  In a world created by Father God and run by white men with god complexes, that's huge.  In effect, this show could be summarized with one simple description: mothers and daughters fighting against a patriarchy that aims to control their bodies.

So while Orphan Black delves into the scientific, religious, and philosophical implications of cloning as thematic explorations, there is only one emotional core to the show: the role of motherhood.  It is a motivating force, a connecting force, held sacred and synonymous with protection, femininity, and humanity itself.  It burgeons through characters, between characters, and in the overall construction of the show’s conflicts.  Orphan Black is about nature, nurture, DNA, birth, and life: so why wouldn't it also be, at its core, about mothers, women, and femininity?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x07 - "Angel"

Hey, Salty Goodness.
When it comes to Angel's looks,
Cordy's got it right.


Okay, so I'm officially BACK with Buffy, She Bloggo, and... I wish I'd left off with another episode other than "Angel."  It's not that I don't like "Angel" (or Angel, for that matter) -- I just... it's all about a Buffy love interest and teen romance feelings, and that's rarely what I find most interesting about any narrative.  More still, "Angel" brings the Master and the Anointed One to the villainous forefront again, which basically feels like a whole lot of wasted screentime (especially knowing how underwhelmingly their opposition plays out).  It's really Darla who does anything of value to create external conflict in the episode, which helps to bring out the real issues in a Buffy-Angel romance.

In fact, "Angel" effectively manifests an idea that isn't quite so overt until later episodes: feelings are bad.  Feelings are complicated!  Relationships will never be easy on a Joss Whedon show, and "Angel" demonstrates the stirrings of that truth.  Where "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date" showed the difficulty for Buffy to have a normal dating life, "Angel" really solidifies the idea that feelings are pretty much nothing but trouble for these characters in their heightened supernatural circumstances.  Or rather, it signals to the audience that the big sources of conflict will always be tangled up with complicated emotions.

For example: Buffy's feelings for Angel complicate her duty to stake him, and she shoulders the guilt about Joyce's bite.  Angel's feelings for Buffy complicate his ability to protect her from a distance.  And, notably, Darla's feelings for Angel complicate her evil plan, as she's not anticipating that he's going to, well, stake her.  "Angel" also serves up clear reminders that Willow's feelings for Xander and Xander's feelings for Buffy are still simmering beneath the surface, bound to have negative consequences.  Feelings, feelings everywhere!  And they're all doomed.

Speaking of doomed, "Angel" also reveals that Angel is a 240-year-old vampire cursed by gypsies to have his soul intact, left to turmoil between his desire to hunt and his will to keep humanity.  Obviously, this is setup for a huge source of conflict, for Angel himself, as well as Buffy's relationship with him.  Since they have gooey doomed feelings for one another, this can't end well.  Like Willow said - think of the kids!  So, naturally, by the end of the episode, Angel endures a burning cross on his chest, simply because he gets to be close to Buffy.  And the question stands: will they get closer yet, or will the inherent complications in their roles as vampire and Slayer keep them apart?  After all, "Angel" finds Buffy and Angel both making out and physically sparring.  It's not gonna be simple.

Of course, Buffy represents, to Angel, another dichotomy.  It's not just Slayer vs. vampire, it's human vs. demon.  Angel is trapped between worlds; he walks like a man, but he isn't one.  It's a smart device to introduce Darla as an important figure from Angel's past, as she represents his vampire self trying to pull him back from the light.  (Or burn him with it, as it were.)  The core conflict for Angel is on full display in this episode, and it will fuel his existence as long as he's cursed.  Will he stand by his human soul or his demon impulses?  And so, "Angel" externalizes that conflict as Buffy and Darla face off, blonde v. blonde, human v. demon, two women pulling Angel in opposite directions.  But it has to be Angel that stakes Darla, thereby signalling to Buffy and the audience that he's made his choice.  It's Buffy, it's light, it's humanity.  Now kiss!

Something that's jarring about "Angel," having watched the complete series, is the fact that Darla uses guns to go after Buffy.  We don't often see guns on Buffy; the weaponry tends to trade in stakes and crossbows and the occasional hacking device.  Guns don't quite fit in on a supernatural show, and when guns are used, it's done so with an underscore on this point.  Yet Darla uses two guns with seemingly endless ammunition, intending to blow Buffy to pieces and claim Angel as her own again.  Honestly, I don't read too much into it, as "Angel" is still early in the series and the show is still defining its rules and boundaries.  Hell, the episode kills Darla off before she's made completely useful in the narrative, and (spoiler alert) they have to bring her back for story fodder on Angel.  (The series, not the character.  Or episode.  This is confusing.)  So the use of guns appears to be a glitch in the pattern, since the pattern hasn't even been established yet.

To be honest, "Angel" plays now as a somewhat dull episode, thanks to hindsight.  It sets up a lot of future conflict with Angel's backstory, and continues the season 1 arc with the Master and the Anointed, but since we know where these things go, it's not quite entertaining enough to be of rewatching interest.  But it's an important episode in showing the early stirrings of how emotions will always complicate on this show, and further demonstrating that things aren't going to be easy for the inevitable feelings that will happen in a supernatural narrative.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

H.G. Wells, "Instinct," and Embracing the Painful Truth

Last night’s Warehouse 13 saw the re-re-re-introduction of H.G. Wells, the long-suffering character boomeranged in and out of the show’s narrative for three seasons now.   So of course, she also seems to be gone again.  This shouldn’t really be surprising, but it’s still mildly frustrating that the Warehouse writers have never quite gotten H.G.’s story together onscreen.  Trying to piece together the offered fragments of this woman’s past, present, and future is, fittingly, a maddening riddle.  Last night’s episode did little more to solve the puzzle.

Last we saw H.G. Wells, she was running off with an astrolabe to protect the inhabitants of the Warehouse, instructed to isolate herself and keep the others safe.  This was a convenient way to remove her from the narrative, and so H.G. whisked away on her own adventure.  But as it turns out, this adventure has led her to Boone, Wisconsin, where she has a job as a forensic scientist and is playing house with a single dad and his precocious 8-year-old daughter.  It’s a little like watching a dog walking on its hind legs, intentionally so, and yet it’s what H.G. still chooses - or is left with? - at episode’s end.

The concept for H.G. escaping from the Warehouse Life (™) isn’t a bad one.  I’ve long loved the show’s dedication to the idea that it’s inevitably painful to devote one’s life to the Warehouse.  Lives are lost, hearts are broken, relationships complicated, estranged, and cut short.  With endless wonder comes the risk of living in a world of pain.  Artie’s back story with MacPherson illustrates this, as does the history of Jack and Rebecca.  It’s also demonstrated notably with Myka and H.G. herself, as she betrayed her trust and tried to destroy the world.  Committing to the Warehouse involves accepting the inevitability that you will hurt, and be hurt.  H.G. Wells, having been on both sides of that Janus coin, knows better than anyone.

So it makes sense, conceptually, for H.G. Wells to abandon the Warehouse and assemble a life for herself in 2013.  And of course, it makes even more sense that the life she creates involves caring for a precocious little girl not unlike her dearest Christina.  But the real question that Warehouse 13 leaves unanswered is this: is that truly where H.G. Wells, genius, inventor, agent, scientist, belongs?

It’s a difficult question to tackle, and unfortunately, “Instinct” doesn’t quite turn over all the rocks on this path.  H.G. delivers as much expositional and explanatory dialogue as possible, and Myka pushes but ultimately retreats.  “Instinct” feels distinctly dissatisfying because it never forces H.G. Wells to reassess her choices; it just blows holes in her charade and leaves her to pick up the pieces.  It never demands that H.G. Wells ask the question “Is this really where I belong?” until the damn car is driving away, and we get a hint of uncertainty on her face.  And of course, she bows out from the narrative again.

She’s not the first person to step away from Warehouse duties in the wake of emotional turbulence.  Myka’s arc for two seasons was about bringing her to the brink of that Warehouse-specific emotional upheaval.  The writers purposefully developed the skeptic into a believer, until believing in H.G. undoes her faith and drives her from her home.  Mired in shame, disappointment, and emotional exhaustion, Myka steps back.  But she is a central character on the show, and defined heavily by her sense of duty, so ultimately she returns to the Warehouse.  It is indeed where she belongs.  And it bears stating that she only does this after H.G. reminds her who she really is, a conversation that is just as much about absolving past sins as it is a reiteration of Myka’s truth.

So this question must be asked of H.G. at some point.  Where does she belong?  For the audience, it’s difficult to see her anywhere but involved in the activities of the Warehouse.  Paralleling H.G.’s part in redirecting Myka back to the Warehouse, Myka insists that this life in Wisconsin is not who she is.  After all, H.G. said herself that Myka knows her better than anyone, and Myka can’t not believe in H.G., after all this.  She has too much invested in her.

But “Instinct” raises a compelling question in the idea that maybe H.G. would be completely happy to hide in a fantasy.  After all, the beating heart behind H.G. Wells is not a sense of duty, like it is in Myka.  H.G. Wells is driven by the love for her daughter.  For all that we identify H.G. Wells as a genius, inventor, agent, scientist - the show has given enough evidence to support the idea that H.G. herself identifies primarily as a mother.  Christina’s mother.  But she hasn’t been Christina’s mother for over 100 years, so what is she supposed to do now?  Find a new Christina, and live happily - if simply - until death finally takes her?

It’s difficult to embrace this, however, considering how all-wrong it seems for H.G. to be playing house in Wisconsin.  Doubly damning is the B-story inclusion of Claudia’s line, “I smell apples.”  If there’s one piece of evidence to overturn Helena’s identification of mother and support her belonging at the Warehouse, it’s the echoing of that line, which signifies when the Warehouse takes a special liking to an agent.  So far as we know, it’s only happened to H.G., and now Claudia.  Even Myka, whose truth is at the Warehouse, has never smelled apples (that we know).  Are we really meant to believe H.G. when she says she truly feels like she belongs for the first time in a century?  The Warehouse may choose H.G., but H.G. chooses Christina, and her own personal fantasy.  

Of course, H.G.’s existence is evidence to the idea that one can be genius, inventor, agent, scientist, and mother.  But it’s not even really about that.  Helena’s story isn’t about choosing the Warehouse versus her identity as a mother.  It’s about grief.  H.G.’s story has always, always, always been about grief, and her inability to grieve properly.  Running away to Wisconsin falls right behind “starting another Ice Age” in the long line of ill-devised H.G. Wells coping methods.  So even though H.G.’s truth may be Christina, her story is about grieving her.  Does that mean that H.G. belongs at the Warehouse?  Probably, if she’s meant to face those emotions and work through them.  She has to step forward.  The nature of the show demands it.  Myka did, when she returned to her post and embraced the inevitability of imperfection and pain.  Artie did, when he emerged from the recesses of his own mind to brave the grief and shame of what he did to Leena.  And now H.G. herself must finally stop running from her burdensome past and step into the pain of loss and guilt.

But “Instinct” didn’t force H.G. to do that.  And if she lingers in Wisconsin forever, she’ll be the show’s ultimate tragic figure, a woman choosing to wander the desert with a friendly face instead of moving deliberately forward in a painful world of endless wonder.  It's entirely possible, given H.G.'s come-and-go treatment, and considering the willingness of the writers to truncate supporting characters' development (RIP Leena), that H.G. Wells may never come home to the Warehouse.  But if they want to finish Helena’s story, as they’ve finished Myka’s, at some point she must return to the narrative and embrace the truth.  It may not be her truth - her truth was taken from her in 1899.  But the truth is that H.G. can’t get that back, and the closest to home she’ll have is at the Warehouse.  She smelled apples, after all.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The RBI Report: "All or Nothing"

For my money, the best possible combination for a well-executed Glee episode involves Ian Brennan writing with either Brad Buecker or Eric Stoltz directing.  Brennan does better than his fellow writers in balancing the absurd comedy and the darker drama that's meant to define Glee's tone, and Buecker and Stoltz both direct with an editor's eye and a penchant for interesting creative decisions.  With Brennan and Buecker teamed up for "All or Nothing," this fourth season finale was about as "all" Glee's ever gonna get these days.  And while there were glimmers of potential - even a few flashes of success - within the hour, the episode couldn't manage all its loose threads, and fell victim to its own overlong, inflated agenda.

"All or Nothing," written by Ian Brennan, directed by Brad Buecker


Ship off Brittany.
So, with Heather Morris pregnant and presumably leaving the show, the Glee writers invented an early admissions offer from MIT, and therefore a reason for Brittany to permanently make her exit.  Now, this "Brittany is a secret genius" angle has been circling untouched basically since the inception of the character.  If Glee really wanted to do this, it should have been done before Season 2, to create an exaggerated supporting character always intended to be a joke.  Instead, Glee developed Brittany into a strength of emotional intelligence through her storyline with Santana - which wasn't necessarily the wrong decision.  It implied that while Brittany was certainly a bit dim, she still had feelings and the ability to understand not only herself but also others' feelings.  Ultimately, this decision made Brittany a real, three-dimensional character, which again, is certainly not a bad thing.

If only the Glee writers had stuck with it.  Because from there, Brittany was rendered as literally, actually, 0.0 GPA-having, non-graduating, unintelligent.  Basically an undeveloped child, she was babied by the characters around her, sexualized by the narrative, and shown to be bitchy, vapid, stupid, arrogant, and disinterested in others.  Of course, there have always been faint and fleeting wisps of awesomeness - from her teardown of Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)" as she campaigns for school president, to her tacit support of Santana's struggles, to her successful dinosaur prom.  But by and large, Brittany's representation onscreen can be summarized by two overriding factors: infantilized ("dumb"), and sexualized ("slutty").  Even glimpses of genuine character emotions, like her rather believably heartbreaking crisis during "Britney 2.0," are erased in favor of something much more shallow and head-scratching.

So, it's too little, too late to really believably make Brittany a secret genius.  But on the other hand, she's had no consistent characterization anyways, so why start now?  And weirdly enough, through the pen of Ian Brennan and direction of Brad Buecker, the episode's opening segment almost worked.  Because they had to go so far beyond the realm of human understanding anyways, Brennan and Buecker exaggerated Brittany's genius to impossible extremes, for the sake of comedy.  It was almost a spoof, and it therefore almost worked.  Brittany casually writing down numbers that are key sequences in quantum mechanics is so far out there that it comes as close to working as this secret-genius idea ever possibly could.  I got the distinct impression that the MIT professors would do far better to study Brittany's brain than try and engage it in academic discourse, but maybe I've just been watching too much of Touch.  (I think I'm the only person who watches that show.)

Brittany's part in "All or Nothing" probably should have been limited to this first scene, and then allowed its earnest goodbyes towards episode's end.  Don't get me wrong, the idea that Brittany has an emotional crisis after being offered early admissions isn't entirely unprecedented.  Hell, the episode itself makes a sly wink to her conveniently-timed moments of emotional overhaul during Britney Weeks.  But these deep throes of anguish that Brittany covers up with casual spirals of narcissism seem to hint at quite a bit of distress, and "All or Nothing" didn't exactly benefit from or even explore that detail.  In fact, there wasn't actually any content in Brittany's scenes - particularly with Santana.  Everything here was simply half-baked, intention clear but only partly delivered.  The idea that Santana rushed to Brittany's emotional aid would be more powerful if, y'know, we actually saw the content of their conversation together instead of cutting to commercial.  The idea that Brittany saved Santana's goodbye for last would weight more heavily if they actually, y'know, communicated something.  The idea that Santana waited for Brittany after the performance would be poignant if they actually spent any lingering time on the specific actions or emotions.  

The problem is this: the writers tried to skimp on words to show that these two don't need them, but they forgot one necessary supplement: the communication that took the place of words.  In seasons past, this used to translate in touching hands and sidelong glances, which served to say more than words (especially words from Glee writers) possibly could.  It was a bastion of Santana and Brittany's emotionally-heavy sidecar interactions, and when used properly, this silent communication was - and is - powerful.  "All or Nothing" was obviously trying to achieve that effect, but fell foolishly short of the standard by failing to supply the communication in the silence.  When Brittany tearfully turned to Santana, there was no moment of held eye contact, no closeup on either face allowing us to watch them simply look at one another, clearly saying their goodbyes without words, and understanding each other perfectly.  They just hugged, and offered a stilted cop-out piece of dialogue that Brittany didn't have to say anything.  Then show me, Glee.  Just because she doesn't have to say anything doesn't mean that she isn't saying something.  This is an important relationship you're wrapping up.  Something needs to be said.  The same issue befell their exit arm-in-arm.  As soon as Santana approaches, we cut away into a wide shot, where we can't have any intimate moment to understand what the emotion is other than 'sad.'  For a couple that was so consistently defined by the gravity of their "in-between" moments and the weight behind seemingly casual touches and glances, this "wordless" goodbye was hollow and disappointingly off-mark, however well-intentioned.

It also bears stating that it's an awfully self-congratulatory oversight to claim that glee club let Brittany believe in herself and how smart she actually is.  Sorry, Glee.  Not every kid fits into your glee-club-as-savior device, and it feels cheap when you force it.  That's not to say that glee club isn't or wasn't important to Brittany - but it perhaps came in another way.  Thinking instead of her season-ending speech to Santana a few years back, the club's value to Brittany is not dissimilar from its true value to Rachel: it gave an already self-confident and misunderstood young woman a group of real friends.  Brittany was assumedly friends with offscreen cheerleaders, and Santana only, and emerged as an affable member of the glee family, and a connecting friend between many of them.  

Well, okay.  Sometimes.

Reveal the Catfish.
If you weren't suspicious before the episode, the visual placement of Unique in the foreground of Marley's confession was a clear giveaway that she's the lady behind "Katie," Ryder's Mystery Girl.  But it's little surprise anyways, because "Katie" first makes her appearance in "Feud," where Ryder and Unique initially air grievances over Ryder's transphobia.  At the time, I actually hoped that Unique would be Ryder's Catfish, to illustrate a sad but salient point about trans* acceptance in society, and the challenges faced by Unique as a young transwoman trying to find love in a world that puts up every obstacle in front of her.  

Unfortunately, while the basics of this storyline came to fruition, the execution was a bit left of center.  Because Ryder's Catfish was a "mystery" for the last act of the season, we've been primarily with his point of view.  So the framing on the Catfish story was really about Ryder's emotional betrayal, and not about Unique trying to connect with a crush behind the innocent ease of anonymity.  "All or Nothing" did selectively do its best to show us Unique's POV, to some level of success.  My heart broke when Unique explained to Marley how good it felt to be a part of a real human connection without her gender identity being an obstacle.  And Buecker made a great choice in filming Unique's confession straight to camera.  While you can argue that the decision only serves to highlight Ryder's overriding POV, I think there's something to be said about being visually confronted, eye-to-eye, with a black teenage trans* kid telling her side of the story.  It's here where I wish the POV was given over to Unique almost entirely, and she was allowed a real scene with Ryder to apologize for lying, and earn a do-over on their human connection.  But Ryder was still pissed, and announced he was quitting the glee club, so it doesn't look great for any recovery on a Ryder-Unique friendship.

Which begs the question: then what was the point?  If it wasn't to illustrate how the physical body complicates issues of gender identity and how others stubbornly adhere to their visual perceptions of truth instead of listening to someone's authentic voice, then why do anything at all?  Especially if the outcome doesn't appear to be a road to recovery for Ryder and Unique, or the promise that they can be just as emotionally intimate in real life as they were when Ryder thought his soulmate was a cisgender, straight, thin white girl.  Instead, what results in a confirmation that Unique will only be able to be herself when there's no physical presence to confuse, incense, and alienate people who might otherwise offer genuine companionship, or even romantic or physical love.  It's assumed as out-of-the-question that Ryder could actually be attracted to Unique.  And what a crappy message that is.  I don't care if Unique lied - she had a completely understandable reason to, and there needed to be at least the hint of sympathy and forgiveness from Ryder's side of things.  (Not an exuberant-then-awkward hug.  Unless these two are going to be genuine love interests next season, then it's not necessary.  And even then, it's not the best action to set out with.)

Oh, yeah, Regionals happened.  The main problem with competition episodes these days is that no one, not even the writers, care in any real way about content.  We all just go slackjaw and glass-eyed during competitions, as we listen to misfits sing for ten minutes.  The issue is that there's no story in any of the performances this season, and since there's so much other storyline nonsense going on in competition episodes anyways, Glee uses the special stage time almost as a palette cleanser, a built-in moment to disengage and presumably enjoy.  There are no stakes anymore, because none make sense, and the obstacles they've invented in the past have been terrible and gone nowhere (see: Marley fainting).  None of this really matters, and yet we all have to put in the time and hear the songs.  And inevitably, the writers accidentally give us a group that out-performs the New Directions, and still somehow loses.  (As soon as Jessica Sanchez and her fierce posse of WOC started singing the empowerment lyrics of "Wings" I knew there was no chance in hell for the Hoosierdaddies to win, even if they sounded pretty damn great.  The ghost of Troubletones predicted only disappointment.)

Rachel's Big Audition.
Rachel sang "To Love You More" for her Funny Girl audition, which came in one scene only, and wasn't addressed again.  The episode deftly transitioned to Rachel's performance through a bit of clever cross-cutting with the McKinley set, but that was about the most interesting thing to it.  Untethered from everything else, it felt like the scene's importance had to be hastily constructed through editing, and Buecker overdid it.  The whirling camera and cuts to impressive shots in a tiny room didn't quite work for me; I wager the performance might have held more power if it were kept small in one continuous take, as though we ourselves were sitting at the audition table and listening to a tiny hopeful Jewish girl sing her best Barbra (or Celine, I suppose) to the drab ceiling.  But as soon as Rachel was done singing, she bowed out of the episode anyways, and it was a pretty ho-hum season-ender for the Main Character Formerly Known as Berry.  

Blaine's Big Question.
I seem to remember Blaine being denied fatherly permission to ask Kurt to marry him, and yet here he was ring shopping in the very next episode.  Sigh!  Apparently the thrill of legalized gay marriage is cotton in that boy's ears.  Yes, it's all very exciting, as a larger issue.  It's a wonderful world-widening for the LGBT community, which fictionally comprises Kurt, and Blaine, and new characters Jan and Liz (and Unique and Santana and Brittany, let's not forget).  But it felt very much like an exercise in pointlessness, aside from giving due screentime to guest stars Patty Duke and Meredith Baxter.  There was very little story here, and so much of the time was given over to dusting the current non-(dating)relationship of Kurt and Blaine under the rug and cooing over Patty and Meredith and how times have changed.  It also felt self-indulgent enough that I half expected Liz and Jan's list of Game-changing Gay Events to end with "the episode of Glee where Kurt comes out!"  (I would not put it past these writers to be so self-congratulatory under the guise of meta.)

Anyways, it makes very little narrative sense for Blaine to propose to Kurt, as discussed last week, and yet here we are moving forward with it without any real effort taken to make it mean anything in the story.  There's nothing to suggest that Kurt and Blaine would get married now, and there's no suggestion of consequence if Kurt says no or yes.  It's poorly-designed from all angles, and seems to exist only as a flat and misguided celebration of gay marriage and also proposals during sweeps and finales.  Ah, the sanctity of television ratings.

Finally marry off Will and Emma.
After their botched nuptials, we can apparently assume everything is hunky-dory between these two last-we-checked lovebirds and they can live happily ever after in the complete bastardization of their original fairy tale construction.  Surprise wedding, y'all!  Let's pinch this into the last seven minutes.  Disregarding the complete random and hurried inclusion of this wedding, it still didn't quite ring true.  While I'm all for Emma doing the big speech, I'm just not sure about the choice to describe Will as her "hero, one true love, and inspiration."  I'm also not sure how I feel about so explicitly referencing their scene from the Pilot, which seemed inevitable as soon as Emma said "I remember."  It's a personal pet peeve of mine when characters reminisce together onscreen, to pretty much any shared event, whether we saw it or not.  It just falls flat for me, and with the added rushing of Will and Emma's vows, I couldn't really get in the moment.  I wish that they'd chosen different specifics for the callbacks, like how Emma was the one to convince Will to stay at McKinley in the Pilot, reconnecting him to his passion.  Or how Will was able to get Emma comfortable just by having a conversation with her, as friends.  Or how they both went through a lot of heartbreak to earn each other.  But no, they went with the gum-on-the-shoe story, and somehow despite the reference, their vows felt oddly formulaic.

Oh yeah, reveal Sue's baby's paternity.
Randomly, it's Michael Bolton.  He owed her a favor.  Brittany figured it out, using common logic and hard evidence instead of heretofore-undiscovered number sequences.  Strange.

"All or Nothing" tried to do it all, and somehow still came up with a lot of nothing.  It's not really off-par for the bulk of Glee's fourth season, though, and so I've made the choice to step back from reviewing the show.  With two seasons stretching in front of us and so much messy storytelling laying in their wake, I just can't drum up the enthusiasm to keep parsing the episodes.  Ideally, though, I'd like to end my Glee run on a high note (as it were) and will spend the summer hiatus filling in the final reviews for Season 1.  I will also be renewing the Buffy Rewatch.  It feels a bit like this blog is in transition, and I do hope you'll stick around as I regain my footing and set off in a new direction.  

Oh god, I swear that's not a Glee reference.

With that -- thanks very much for reading, and having read.  

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B
Dance Numbers: B
Dialogue: B
Plot: D
Characterization: B
Episode MVP: Unique
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