Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Book Three Review

At some point during the Book 3 finale of Korra, I e-mailed my friend one simple message: HOW MUCH CAN ONE AVATAR TAKE


Of course, the first instinct after watching Book 3 is to compare it to Book 1 and Book 2, its vastly different predecessors.  Where Book 1 was a plot-driven crime story inhabiting a vibrant city and its characters, Book 2 was an Avatar-centric exploration of cosmic themes and world-building mythos.  Book 1 gave powerful moments to its supporting cast, whereas Book 2 struggled to involve its ensemble with its strong focus on mythology.  And where Book 1’s stand-out episodes ramped up the stakes and obstacles through action and reaction, Book 2’s highlights unraveled backstory that underscored the plot events.

So, with such a variation between Book 1 and 2, Book 3 could really go in any direction.  But it’s nothing so drastic - in fact, it mines a nice blend of characteristics from both previous excursions.  Book 3 shares the swift and organic plot advancement of Book 1, with the strong themes and gamechangers of Book 2 - and altogether turns out a damn good batch of episodes.

It’s worth noting that Book 3 was able to nimbly rework what didn’t quite gel in the season immediate before - Book 2 struggled with supporting characters, villains, love triangle, and focus.  Yet while Book 3 swiftly clears up all of these issues, it doesn’t completely eschew the events of Book 2, as it takes place only two weeks after Harmonic Convergence.  Things are different, yes, but they’re different as a direct result of the changes from the end of last season.  There are consequences to Korra’s decision to leave the spirit portals open, and there are also repercussions in the Love Triangle, which has drastically shifted in focus.  As Korra said, this is a dawning of a New Age, and from the very first episode we understand this to be a world where vines eat buildings and Asami is more important than Mako.

Okay, that last bit is partly a joke - but just barely.  Book 3 finally shelves the lackluster love story, and it does so in the most hilariously pointed way.  The premiere more or less glues Asami to Korra’s side, and the remainder of the season gives them a multitude of interactions entirely devoted to putting the Love Triangle behind them and building an independent dynamic.  The blatancy of this choice is LAUGHABLE, and I mean this in the best, most loving way.  It’s as if the writers woke up from a fever dream and realized JUST HOW BADLY they’d failed the Bechdel Test with Korra and Asami.  “Dear Viewers:  We know.  We’re so sorry.  Let us make it up to you.  Love, the Korra writers.”

This decision to bring Asami into Korra’s immediate circle goes hand-in-hand with a general uptick in the Handling of Supporting Characters.  Book 2 wasn’t really conducive for this, and it was lovely to see it carried out so nicely in Book 3.  All the characters share screentime together, and most of them are actually relevant to the furthering of the story.  Better still is the simultaneous expansion of personal arc for these characters, in a way that progresses with plot.  Ventures like Jinora’s spiritual journey, the discovery of Mako and Bolin’s family, and Lin’s history with her sister fill out the season meaningfully and organically.  Furthermore, these connections to core characters help facilitate the inclusion of thematic and logistical backdrops such as Zaofu, Ba Sing Se, and the Airbender tradition.  Our world is expanded, and our plot greases forward without a hitch, simply because we’re grounded in characters we care about.

Naturally, because this is the season of “Change,” these smooth pivots are particularly helpful.  But within the narrative, change isn’t portrayed as being so swift - and morever, it’s painted with the specificity of a different word: rebuilding.  We begin with the world having to rebuild after Harmonic Convergence, and we end with Korra having to rebuild her body and her identity after giving herself up to Zaheer.  In the middle, the Air Nation is rebuilding its ranks, Korra is rebuilding the Avatar legacy, Zaheer is rebuilding the Red Lotus, and characters like Lin and Suyin are rebuilding once-ruined relationships.

What’s lovely about this exploration of rebuilding is the inherent complex material that accompanies it.  Rebuilding is more specific and powerful than change, because it doesn’t just focus on the difficulties of adjusting to a new present.  It also addresses the challenges of leaving behind a forgotten (or unforgettable) past - and the pain that comes with it.  How does one rebuild a culture, exactly?  How can an Avatar make the right choices without guidance from those who came before her?  Can we forgive loved ones who wronged us?  What can we let go of, and what must we let go of, in order to move forward into the change?

The concept of rebuilding illuminates the internal struggles of characters like Korra, Tenzin, Lin, and Zaheer, but it also regroups the ensemble.  Once again, this season does right by the group.  Korra’s supporting players are united in a revitalized and connected purpose, from new characters like Suyin, to old characters like Asami, who fell prey to irrelevance in Book 2.  All characters - both supporting and main, heroes and villains - are given importance because they plug into a larger thematic landscape: they are devoted to shaping a still-fragile, post-war culture.  The only difference between Hero and Villain is method: Korra seeks balance through preservation and revitalization; Zaheer seeks it through annihilation.

You could argue that rebuilding is a larger theme of The Legend of Korra as a show, simply because it is set in a world that is teetering on the line between old and new, tradition and modernity, war and unity.  But Book 3 brings forth an underlying question at the core of this complex political discussion: is it right for one person to make choices about a group of people?   When you remove imposing yet long-standing structures, the one thing that remains is chaos, followed by people attempting to seize or maintain power.  Zaheer emerges with a philosophy that is sound in theory, but raises questions of morality when applied to reality.  Korra as a Hero is not exempt from this questioning  - she makes choices that are sound in theory, but she has to deal with the actual repercussions of them, like public dissent, or wild spirit vines.  In both cases, the idea of one making a choice for all creates complications in practice and suggests a portrait little different from an absolute ruler like the Queen.

From this aspect, we get a season that is actually highly politicized - and successfully deployed in this structure, where past efforts didn’t quite embody the goal fully.  (Tarrlok was wielded as a councilman only briefly, as that role was usurped by his place as the villain’s brother, and the Book 2 politics of the Water Tribes were too complicated and sudden.)  In Book 3, though, we begin to fully understand that the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom are, in fact, monarchies, and that the Earth Kingdom in particular suffers from a huge class divide.  This is shown to the audience organically, through character: we meet the Queen through Korra’s status as the Avatar; we meet the People through Kai, and Mako and Bolin’s family.  We know Korra to be of the people, but the Villain claims that he is of the people, too.

More than this, Korra’s Book 3 goes one step further from mere government and politics, and explores the relationship between nation and identity.  In this New World, the borders are blurred: Republic City is land from the Earth Kingdom, Airbenders are cropping up in Ba Sing Se, and the Queen is using new Airbenders to join her army.  In spite of these crossed lines, most people hold allegience to their motherland.  Earth Kingdom Airbenders don’t just drop their lives in the Earth Kingdom to become nomads, and Mako and Bolin’s grandma still keeps a portrait of the Queen over her mantle.  Identity and nation are intertwined, and this serves as both a tenet and obstacle for Tenzin as he endeavors to conform to Airbender Tradition while bringing in men and women from all walks of life.

Then there’s Korra, from the Water Tribes, serving all nations without a past to guide her.  She’s also politicized this season, as Episode 1 finds her squarely in the role of Civil Servant.  Of course, that role is soon truncated as President Reiko banishes her, and I honestly continue to find myself highly interested in the Avatar’s position Of the People, despite the fact that Tenzin totally shot that down and told her she’s not responsible for people’s everyday worries.  Whatever, Tenzin.  The Avatar has a public approval rating.  I’M HIGHLY INTERESTED.

Regardless, politics and identity affect Korra too, as the main character, and by season’s end, we see a huge shift in Korra’s sense of self and power.  As a particularly strong-headed fighter, Korra has always derived her identity from her role as Avatar.  The title, the power, the abilities.  Book 1 saw Korra terrified to lose her bending, and depressed when she was forced to face that reality - briefly, anyways.  She’s also still training throughout the first two books.  But in Book 3, this is Korra as a fully-formed Avatar.  She has a quest independent of self-betterment, and it fittingly results in self-sacrifice.  She ends the season with her power completely stripped away because she gave up her entire being - body, mind, power - to preserve the future of the Airbenders.  She walked knowingly into that vulnerability, let it completely tear her apart, and now she has to recover from that - visible to the world.

Book 3 brings Korra’s development to a climactic, satisfying peak, and in doing so, precipitates a completely new reality for her, one that will challenge everything she has ever believed about her identity and her power.  Within the same series of choices, she fulfilled one quest, and begot another.  The cycle of build, destroy, and rebuild - and more than ever before, the pain inherent in the process.  The coda of Book 3 is heart-droppingly resonant, because it finally manifests the worst moments of coping with change and identity - a broken present and a hopeless tomorrow.  (Genius points to the writers for setting this moment against a ceremony heralding the exact opposite of Korra’s feelings: a hopeful future from a broken past.)

In this way, Korra herself enters the void.  Much like Zaheer losing his earthly tether by way of P’Li’s death, Korra herself loses her earthly tether through the divestment of her power, and the death of her sense of self.  Zaheer’s outward experience is internalized emotionally in Korra, in a culmination of their common arcs embracing Airbending tradition, for both good and evil.  What’s even more beautiful about this is the continuation of gray area between the concept of “good” and “bad.”  Zaheer, unlike Korra, is a natural devotee of the Airbender Tradition, and embraces Guru Laghima’s teachings to serve his “evil” agenda.  Losing P’Li would be painful, except that emotional connection was the last thing holding Zaheer to the earth.  The void is comfortable for Zaheer; it is positive and fulfilling of his beliefs.  But for Korra, our “good” heroine, who struggles to connect with Airbender teachings of meditation?  Her void is a nightmare.  It is pain, and loss, and emptiness.  All this, despite the lineage of the message, traced back to a guru - presumably, a “good guy.”

So, Korra is left to rebuild, as the new Air Nomads take her place as a power for peace, resolving the question of nation and identity by promising to serve all nations as disciples of balance.  The concept of good and evil is no longer represented fundamentally by shapes and Beings, but rather in human shades of power, choice, and agenda.  And deeper than this, is the soul of a human, who must weather the natural endings and beginnings that mark everyone’s lives.  These themes are spun together masterfully in plot and ensemble, and most importantly - embodied and emblazoned in Korra, the main character whose journey is still the meaningful center of this changing world.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Rose DeWitt Bukater, Titanic, and Freedom

Note: this is a repost of a previously-removed piece.


Let’s be honest: we’ve all made fun of Titanic at one point or another.  You know - the sweeping love story, the weeping audience, the overwrought Celine Dion song that just wouldn’t go away in 1997.  There was Titanic mania, Titanic backlash, and now the film’s legacy exists almost exclusively as a pop culture echo, woven intrinsically into the collective psyche as the subliminal urge to stand on the bows of ships and shout, “I’m king of the world!”  There is a strange and permanent aura surrounding the film that can’t be denied, let alone erased.

To that end, it’s easy to lose the original merits of the actual film amidst the cultural discussion and film history reverb.  Titanic came to define what it means to create a “blockbuster” - a vast, sprawling epic that requires a mammoth shooting schedule, unprecedented CGI, and at least two and a half hours of end result.  The investment is huge, and so is the payoff - monetarily speaking, of course.  But films so large in scope as Titanic often miss the emotional investment, the emotional payoff.  The narrative can easily get lost in the grandeur, the special effects, the “blockbuster moments.”  And every good film, no matter how big or how small, requires an intimate and specific story anchoring the spectacle.  

You’re probably two steps ahead of me by now.  You’re probably thinking, “Ah yes, she’s referencing the intimate love story set against the huge historical backdrop!”  Alas, you would be incorrect.  While the ballad of Jack and Rose is effective, powerful, and transcendent, their love story is not quite the center of the film.  Their love story is not precisely what makes Titanic emotionally resonant and honest.  It’s a part of it, certainly, but it’s not the source.  Because at its core, Titanic is not a love story.  No - at its very essence, Titanic is a story about freedom.  And that freedom is embodied in the character design and journey of Rose DeWitt Bukater - the film’s sole main character.

It’s not difficult to defend Rose as Titanic’s individual lead.  She is the voice of the story, the only character that spans from 1912 to 1997, and the only character who changes.  She is afforded a hero’s entrance, a developed design, and a flawlessly constructed arc.  Every story decision made about Titanic - its historical context, the DeWitt Bukater family, Jack Dawson as love interest, the Jack-Rose love story, the conflicts and obstacles - it all comes back to Rose as a main character.

Rose DeWitt Bukater exists at a very unique place in history.  Coming of age in 1912, the world around her was changing.  Technology, communication, business, social norms - they were all on the brink of modernity, poised for a huge shift from Victorian order to contemporary chaos.  Rose, without realizing it, was very much a part of that.  Born to a good family name whose liquid assets dried up, it is of the utmost importance that Rose marry into new money in order to keep her status.  This is why she is on board the Titanic - after meeting her fiancé Cal in England, the family is now traveling back to America where an engagement party awaits them.  But Rose, already embodying the 20th century’s disdain for tradition and inhibition, feels suffocated by her lack of choice in the matter.  She is not content to be a pawn in someone else’s game, denied the freedom of opinion and choice in favor of serving a fading ideal.  To her, the Titanic is a prison.

But Rose can’t articulate her place as it relates to social history.  She doesn't understand that she feels the stirrings of modernism, while she reads Freud and revolts against propriety and etiquette.  She instead languishes in a constant state of despair, unable to comprehend her own feelings.  She buys modern art because it speaks to something inside of her, but she can’t explain what she likes about it - it’s “truth but no logic.”  She rebels against her mother, who tightly binds her into the confines of a corset without second thought.  She feels like she’s “standing in the middle of a crowded room screaming at the top of [her] lungs, and no one even looks up.”  This unacknowledged frustration with Victorian repression leads to a bold - and necessary - character choice for Rose.  Unable to take the suffocation anymore, she rushes to the stern of Titanic and prepares to throw herself into the ocean.

Of course, this is where Rose’s story becomes entangled with Jack’s.  The easiest takeaway from their initial encounter is to say that Jack saved Rose’s life.  Yes, that is true.  But there is much more to understand about their relationship than a mere knight-saves-damsel construct, even when it’s expanded to umbrella their journey together, as in Rose’s description of “he saved me, in every way that a person can be saved.”  Truthfully, “Jack saves Rose” as a unilateral statement cheapens Rose’s character arc a bit.  It’s actually much more interesting to explore the dynamic from a slightly different angle, especially as it pertains to Rose herself.  Even more, Titanic as a film hints encouragement at this analysis.

I say this because Jack Dawson is actually kind of a boring character.  He's weirdly good at everything, he's kind, he's lucky, he's handsome, he's poor but happy.  There's not a lot of dimension there.  He’s of the utmost importance, sure - but only insofar as he extends to Rose.  He is designed to be a representative foil, although calling the relationship “poor boy falls in love with rich girl” is an extreme oversight.  It’s more textured than that, even if the paradigm helps fuel the lovers’ obstacles.  More than anything, Jack represents modernity.  He exists to pull Rose into her true identity, to model a life she herself never knew she wanted.  He travels with only the clothes on his back, and lets his art take him to Paris.  He feels more than thinks; he has no responsibility but to his own happiness.  Where Rose is threatening to end it all at ship’s stern, Jack is embracing the freedom of flying at ship’s bow.  With his boho philosophy of “make it count” and no lack of coincidentally-important survival skills, Jack serves mostly as a spirit guide to Rose’s emotional fulfillment and physical safety.  He is a bizarre spectral over the whole film, beckoning Rose forward and forward until she’s ready to take the steps for herself.

I was gobsmacked when I realized this, because it means that the second-most grossing movie of all time - the movie that redefined the modern blockbuster - has a main female lead whose male love interest is simply an accessory to her own arc.  Because while Rose may say that Jack saved her, the fact of the matter is that she saved herself - with Jack’s help.  This can be seen perfectly in Jack’s encouragement to Rose after she’s slipped off the railing.  She dangles there in a panic as he desperately holds on, and the expectation is that he’ll be able to pull her up and over.  In any other flattened love story, it’d be as simple as that.  But Titanic does something in a tiny microcosm that echoes into the larger story of Jack and Rose: Jack tells her he won’t let go, but she’s got to pull herself up.  He can’t do it for her.  This same sentiment is echoed during their conversation in the gymnasium - Rose tells Jack that it’s not up to him to save her.  He replies: “Only you can do that.” 

Sweet merciful feminism, how much more loving could this film be of its main character’s empowerment?  Titanic puts forth the concept that while Jack may be there to save Rose, it’s on her to take initiative.  This is therefore all the more rewarding when she actually does.  She takes Jack’s hand and pulls herself up; she meets Jack at the clock; she finds Jack at the bow of the ship and says, “I changed my mind.”  The entirety of Titanic is Rose DeWitt Bukater actively fighting for her life - her own life. In a genius twist on tragedy, the sinking of the ship provides the perfect opportunity for her to externalize that.  At film’s beginning, Rose is ready to fling herself from the back of the Titanic.  At film’s end, she clings to it with every hope and intention of survival.  Even when a boat comes back to rescue her from the water, she must let go of her love, swim to a whistle, and proclaim her intent to live.  She has to fight for it.  And for a character who was one step from throwing her life away at the beginning of the film?  These are huge moments.

Ultimately, Titanic is a film about freedom.  This concept tethers Jack to Rose, and Rose to the story itself.  Every step of Rose’s journey moves her closer to freedom from the shackles of what society demands of her, closer to the kind of life Rose might choose for herself if given the opportunity.  In the film’s final act, she poses naked, has sex, and fights with her life to save the person she loves.  Even when she can save herself, she chooses solidarity with her love over waiting idly for fate to run its course.  She spits in a man’s eye, punches a guy in the face, and wields an axe.  The hair and costume choices are purposeful: she wears a simple dress with no corset, her hair down and unadorned.  Rose even takes ownership of her name, choosing to call herself Dawson instead of DeWitt Bukater.

By the end of the film, Rose’s transformation is complete.  When we first see her embarking in the beginning, she looks up to see the Titanic - her prison.  When Rose arrives in America, she looks up to see the Statue of Liberty - freedom.  And we know, through the photos that tell us what she did with her life, that she embraced that freedom Jack helped her choose, and lived a life she wanted.  It is this journey, and how it’s connected to her identity and her love story, that provides the emotional depth to Titanic.   So while this film may forevermore reign as one of the biggest movies of all time, presented with cinematic gloss and occasional Hollywood implausibility, it’s tethered emotionally to a well-constructed main character, whose design and arc interact beautifully with her historical context to create the love story that’s transcended the film itself.

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.  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 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 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, 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, 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 visual throwbacks - a standalone shot is dedicated to Delphine putting down her briefcase before meeting her untimely end, much like Beth’s in the pilot, and we see Virginia Coady react to a driver’s seat murder - through the windshield, with a violent blood splatter - much like Sarah, in the pilot.

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.


  • 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 Castor, 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.


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.


  • “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.


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.

  • 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.


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?

  • 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.


  • 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.


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.

  • 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.


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.
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