‘Girls’: The “Goodbye Tour”

Girls is, essentially, over. There’s still one episode left to air, but according to several sources the season finale may be a sort of fast-forward coda. If true, this annoys me, as I have always disliked series-finale time jumps. I prefer it when a show closes the doors on a world I am familiar with, on characters I understand (if not love) – as opposed to a future that I barely recognize. So this past Sunday’s episode “Goodbye Tour” is essentially Girls‘ true swan song. Like the rest of the series before it, it is frustrating, funny, uneven, annoying, and often gut-punchingly poignant.

I think it’s fascinating to go back to the start of this show, when Girls was more of a millenial ethnography. It took a more detached view of Hannah, her world and her friends, while simultaneously exploring their flesh and blemishes and cramped apartments with such an intimate camera gaze. Lena Dunham unapologetically wrote social commentary and diary-like confessions into the mouths of the characters, and that expository self-portrait style is what made a lot of people really hate the show. I think Girls has many, many problems, but the first season is very unique in its approach to character-piece television, and it’s grown on me more and more as a modern classic.

Then Girls began to change. More and more, it moved away from representing realism through dialogue, situations, and tangible bodies. The show evolved into a more HBO-ish series: plot-based, forward-hurtling, with “very special episodes” and an emphasis on the visual aesthetic of quality. There’s nothing realistic about the people and the stories on Girls anymore, if you’re using the rubric it began with. Kathryn VanArendonk wrote an excellent piece for Vulture that explores this point:

Girls has always had a fraught relationship with realism. It’s been a fundamental part of both the show and the critical response to it — is the series trying to argue that this is what millennial life is really like? It’s a show that’s laudably and unusually grounded in elements of realism you don’t often see on TV, especially stuff to do with women’s bodies, with how it feels to break up with someone, with the kinds of jobs someone might have in her mid-20s, with the food people would actually eat, with what sex might actually look like between two people who feel awkward with one another. Its realism is physical, bodily, fleshy…Hannah’s writing is all about gritty physical realities…It’s a realism born out of conceiving of women as both bodies and minds. It is not a realism that’s grounded in economic or social reality.

In reflecting on the episode “Goodbye Tour,” I think Girls‘ evolved, warped concept of “reality” is at its most obvious. The plot literally makes no sense, from Hannah’s pregnancy to her improbable new job as a professor of Internet studies at an upstate New York college. Shoshanna denounces every choice she’s ever made during the course of the series, essentially erasing all character growth. Ray is nowhere to be seen at the engagement party for his ex-girlfriend and, presumably, closest friend.

I don’t believe all this sloppy wrap-up writing is intentional, but juxtaposed with the absolutely beautiful final scene and montage (above), it does achieve a striking “late ’20s” feeling. The story makes no sense, but there is still a moment of transcendence reached through style and feeling. I was really touched by the sensory editing and heart-rending soundtrack (Julia Michaels’ “How Do We Get Back to Love” and Banks’ “Crowded Places”). Very telling are the cuts between Hannah’s gaze and Marnie, dancing for the delight of anonymous men; Shoshanna, goofily reeling in her fiance; Jessa, mocking fancy cupcakes with strangers. I’ve had a lot of moments like this, when I look around and see, with sudden clarity, where I and my loved ones might be in 10 years – who we’ve always been and who we will be. What was Girls doing for the last 6 seasons? What was I doing? I can’t remember for the life of me! But suddenly, all at once, we (and these characters) are closer to 30 than we ever thought we would be. I love the way this last silly, sad, joyful dance represents this show’s final grab for girlhood; it’s a moment of emotional realism that is internal and beautiful, and representative of all this show achieved.

Girls wasn’t perfect, but it was always better than bad, and it was sometimes very f*cking good. I’ll really miss it.

Now I Am Become Slut, Destroyer of Worlds

The host is alive. She is sentient. She is self-aware. And she knows you have programmed her to attack herself and the others.

Nope! Not a blog about Westworld! At least, most of it isn’t. I want to talk about The Bachelor and I want to explain why this show is the place to be, if you’re into the shock of watching creations outsmart their creator-controllers.  The more I read this Bach season as a rumination on feeling fictional and clawing for “reality,” the more I was reminded of HBO’s ambitious series on gnosticism, humanity, and the function of storytelling. Might even go so far to say that these two shows share a soul; Dolores Abernathy would be right at home at a rose ceremony!

Please follow me, down into a fake mansion that houses a harem, where we can take a closer look at the things that made The Bachelor so distinctive in its 21st season: existential female anxiety, textual reflexivity, and the peculiar journey of Corinne, a single trope that managed to awaken and rewrite herself.

Born into an apocalyptic Trumpworld, this iteration of The Bachelor became something kind of dark, dreadful, and a little bit out-of-control. Of course, The Bachelor is always a circus, and that’s why so many people hate it: for a television fan, it takes a strong set of stones to follow something so vapid, so dependent on tired stereotypes and romantic wish-fulfillment, so misogynistic, so corporate and disingenuous. How many different ways can producers arrange 30 beautiful women in a Love Thunderdome as they compete for the affections of one bland white man? But there was something poisonous in American culture at large that made Season 21 into something else, something crazier. Perhaps the 2016 election left a vacuum of hope that encouraged The Bachelor producers to lean into self-destruction as an aesthetic. Perhaps we, the audience, are evolving to watch ourselves watching TV, and we prefer everything to be kind of about storytelling – ergo the timely popularity of diverse “meta” shows like WestworldAmerican Horror StoryFleabag.

Either way, the new Bachelor was defined by these new and distinctive notes:

  1. Contestants who bristled inside their assigned story cages and pointedly drew attention to the process of being written as characters.
  2. The season’s primary “villain,” Corinne, who transcended the confines of the Bach with a Joker-like sense of chaotic sexuality and stunningly re-branded her arc as sex-positive feminist heroism.
  3. An unwilling Bachelor whose weird charisma relied on his apathy, nihilism, and constant critique of the format. Nick undermined our reception of the Bachelor experience by positioning himself as a bored observer – distancing himself from the contestants and the ideological underpinnings of the show.

First, I want to take on Bullet Number One – the Westworldian crises of self that entered this season of the Bachelor early on and began the process of destabilizing narratives and the women forced to live them. Take a look at what happened to Jasmine G on Night 1. Now, it’s not unusual for Bachelor women to immediately recoil from the uncanniness of this environment –  to be a Bachelor contestant, to be on a reality dating competition, is to be subjected to spirit-breaking. These women are tested every moment with the pressures of self-criticism, of being filmed, of being beautiful, of being charming, of systematically attacking and defeating your stunning competitors. But something about Jasmine G’s body language and wording struck me as a crisis of self, a dissociative episode which bespeaks her sudden awareness that she is performing and this whole thing – maybe any love-hunt – is theater without meaning.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do. Holy shit. Who the fuck am I? I’m blown away right now. Who am I?”

Night 1 would be the first of Jasmine’s many system failures, glitches in her personality and physical affect which provided an alarming counterpoint to the self-policing composure we’re used to seeing on these women. Nick eliminated her because of her unpleasant urge to question the “realism” of herself, of him, of the experience. And this was not the only instance of unusual meta-awareness amongst the women. Many of the others expressed a certain repugnance at the roles in which they were pigeonholed – at their status as storylines. Liz’s only mission, with mounting desperation, was to rewrite her way from Nick’s opportunistic ex-fling all the way to romantic legitimacy. Taylor realized too late that her Bachelor persona and “real” professional life were being mapped onto one another and she’d dug herself into the “bitch bully” hole (with the help of her nemesis Corinne). Taylor also literally theorized that some women are better-programmed for love! What could be more Westworld than attempting to parse the resident slut’s “emotional intelligence”?

So there was a significant change in the show here, in which the women’s grasp or ignorance of “being produced” was of paramount importance to how we perceived them. To compare these women to WW characters like Dolores and Maeve – remaining basic, guileless, and easily overwritten ensured a measure of success in the competition and preserved their classic Bachelor likeability factor.

So with that said, I’m dying to get back to Corinne. Here was a contestant who really jumped off the screen for reasons I’ve never seen an antagonist “pop” before. Unlike a villain such as, say, Season 20’s Olivia, Corinne worked to distinguish herself as a breakout character – not just through behavior but through actual world-building. Starting the show out by mentioning her current nanny Raquel was a stroke of genius; Raquel was a framing device that indicated Corinne inhabited a bizarre fantasy world inside and outside the show. In so many ways. Corinne deliberately ate endless blocks of cheese on camera. She feigned naps, eyes closed, smiling beatifically as she “dreamed” of Nick. She self-consciously and joyfully delivered dialogue she knew would light up the internet. Clutching her breasts and huffing, “Does this seem like someone who’s immature?” Staring soullessly into the lens and intoning, “My heart is gold, but my vagine is platinum.” Luring Nick into an inexplicable bounce house and toplessly dry-humping him with abandon. Corinne’s promiscuity, and her persona, were over-the-top but deliberately, defiantly, and delightfully self-choreographed. We know the floozy never wins, but when the floozy knows it, ignores it, and enjoys her role, she transcends happy endings.

And most interestingly, Corinne elevated her self-awareness and self-programming into a magnificent final act. During “The Women Tell All” (a reunion episode which airs before the finale) Corinne, in one fell swoop, ret-conned her entire Bachelor journey as a feminist rumspringa. “I was just doing me,” she demurely insisted, while the other contestants fought to defend her sexual agency. They leaped to defend the resident slut as the bravest and most authentic person amongst them. Corinne sat, resplendent, her eyes bearing no trace of the mischief and malevolence that had been her character cornerstones. She’d accomplished a rewrite akin to “it was all a dream.” Later, women sobbed while Liz declared her sexual encounter with Nick had not “defined” her, and they took turns praising their sister for her humanitarian work. The thematic tide-turn from “a search for true love” to “an inner journey toward female unity and empowerment” made for the most overtly political and topical episode The Bachelor has had, maybe ever – and it bespoke the malleability of reality fiction in a way the show has never previously approached.

In many ways, it was Bachelor Nick’s abdication of his role that allowed the TV text to refocus itself on the women “waking up” and growing through their relationships to one another. It’s hard, as a viewer, to engage with story about passive female players being driven toward romantic fulfillment, when the end-goal is a guy who’d be content to go home immediately and eat cold pizza. As we know, the guy had already been through two seasons of The Bachelorette and one summer of Bachelor in Paradise – his entire narrative was “last-ditch effort for love.” Nick made it his business to call out the fakery of The Bachelor, and the futility of it: “Let’s try to be as normal as possible in an abnormal environment.” “I’ve been in their shoes, and I know how much it sucks.” I certainly like Nick as a person – I like that he cries when he feels stuff, and I like that he hates being The Bachelor but loves being famous, and I like that he let women who were too good for him go, so they could fly and be free and be the first black Bachelorette. But if Nick did anything other than represent a neat resolution of the presented Bachelor narrative, he effectively denied our suspension of disbelief and exposed this particular season as “reality farce with no point.” Prince Charming was just in it for the international travel and the free food. I sympathize. And it’s fun to watch The Bachelor pretend that this isn’t a huge problem.

SO! I posit here that, at least for this season, The Bachelor evolved beyond the story of single women and their search for love. You might say that instead of being about singlehood, this show became about “the singularity” – that moment when program/character/trope/story/world comes alive and begins to adapt and change itself. I wonder: is it a better ride for the reality-consuming audience, when “we know they know”? At what point does watching a character with meta-awareness become confusing, or tiresome, rather than thrilling? And most importantly, what are the differences between watching reality television and prestige drama when we’re grappling with these issues? This question, perhaps, is of paramount importance for TV fans as we go forward; if there’s something in the water that’s poisoning every genre of narrative experience (or making it tastier), we have to put our fingers on it. Why do I watch so much television about women in traps, whose self-actualization and creative escapes are catalyzed by patriarchal violence? Why is it so easy to find that story?

I think it’s easy to brush aside shows like The Bachelor precisely because they are so heavily consumed, across political and cultural lines, and “mass appeal” television has the reputation of reifying harmful structures of power. For really good reason. But it’s important to locate these small moments of medium-transcendence within these TV texts. More and more, the characters we use and abuse are turning directly towards us. These fictional delights have real ends, and it’s never, never about the final rose.

Game of Thrones S6E3: “Oathbreaker”

Months and months ago, I fell off the Hodor and kind of stopped blogging about current TV. It’s possible that I lost my mind a little after Mad Men concluded. A girl had no quality shows. A girl had no passion. But because I found myself looking forward to Game of Thrones season 6 much, I promised myself that I’d climb right back on and post some reviews.

Call me Oathbreaker. I missed out on the first two delicious, well-crafted episodes of the season, and it’s clear that grad school is to blame (for everything). But let’s not dwell. Let’s instead rise up together, as nude confused fans, and get back into GoT together!

jon snow rises

The thing about third episodes – of most TV seasons – is that they’re not supposed to be standout. A third episode is a dust-settling point in televisual storytelling during which plot wheels start to creak, slowly. “Oathbreaker” allowed us to exhale and watch the season construct its primary conflicts and paths: the (spectacularly) resurrected Jon Snow cuts his ties with the Night’s Watch, Bran starts to get the significance of his flashbacks, The High Sparrow casts a pall over King Tommen’s burgeoning leadership, and Daenerys realizes she’s caught between the Dosh Khaleen and a hard place. Everybody’s watching their choices shimmer into view, and thus “Oathbreaker” was both kinda boring and kinda exciting. We have so much season to go!

First up: Snowbunny.

melisandre wtf

hey

Jon’s comeback was handled with simultaneous grace and explosiveness in Episode 2, with an incredibly taut buildup and cathartic final shot (loved the wild drummy music that ushered us into the credits after his gasp!). So now that he’s alive, for real for real, Kit Harington and the writers have to facilitate a smooth transition. Though Jon’s first scene back on the mortal coil wasn’t terribly well-written (“I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it”) the decision to make Reborn Jon a teary, frightened mess was a solid way to go. He is rightly bewildered by his second chance at life, and Harington is at his best when he’s vulnerable. It’s very grounding for us, the audience, when Game of Thrones characters are also frightened by the supernatural insanity around them and struggle to understand it. For this reason and this reason only, I could watch Jon Snow run naked into Davos Seaworth’s arms for hours.

On that note, it was nice to see Jon reunite with his old squad, even as his detachment from and distaste for mortal culture became clear. There was an uncomfortable sense of surreality that ran underneath best-bud exchanges, like this one with Mance Rayder:

not a god 1not a god 2

It’s not super-surprising that after being touched by Melisandre’s Noodly Appendage of Magic, Jon is pretty done with the violence, in-fighting, betrayal, and petty management that comes with the Lord Commander job – especially during this testy time of Night’s Watch/wildlings detente. He handles the executions of his murderers with swift justice, but the experience of killing, so soon after experiencing it personally, proves to be a breaking point.

hanging1 hanging2 hanging3

I found this scene really disturbing myself. Game of Thrones has a way of making visual and aural room around death; sliced flesh gets a nice crisp sound, empty unseeing eyes fill frames, and the camera trains on the dancing feet of hanged men for far too long. I’d include the shot of poor young Olly in the noose, which I thought was the strongest of the episode, but I honestly can’t look at it again. These particular deaths got a more somber treatment than many others that have come before them, and this makes me hopeful for S6: less juicy eye-gouging, more devastation through stillness and silence.

Anyway, Jon’s reanimated as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore, so he ditches his handsome Lord Commander parka and walks away from the duties of his past life with a killer shot: “My watch has ended.”

watch ended

Not too far away, his little brother Bran is experiencing the joys of Oculus Rift, getting a front-row seat to the back-story of his family. I myself have had many hopeful visions involving nice strolls through the past with Max von Sydow, and Bran doesn’t seem to understand lucky he is to get actual information as opposed to the hints and prophecies that everyone else has to make do with.

tower of joy

The Three-Eyed Raven is currently in the process of revealing what happened so many years ago at the Tower of Joy. He has Bran watch his father Eddard and Aunt Lyanna work up to the incident that kind of sets this whole GoT operation off, which is obviously (SPOILER ALERT) Eddard arriving at Rhaegar’s stronghold just in time to watch Lyanna die while giving birth to Jon Snow. You know this. I know this. It’s hard for me to imagine that none of the characters have yet arrived at the same conclusion. Are Redditors really better at synthesizing Westerosi gossip than, say, Varys?

bran yelling

ed stark wat

Either way, Bran is pissed that there’s only so much time in an episode and he doesn’t get to 11/22/63 this whole thing and just weasel his way into the past. I’m having a hard time investing in Bran’s journey; I don’t think the show is spending enough time on who this kid is as a person. Bran has transformed from a “let go and let god” type, back into a normal teenage boy who aches desperately to connect with the father he lost. I’m still not really getting how Bran’s whininess and impatience is going to enhance the historical exposition of the Tower of Joy plotline.

I will say that flashbacks are a completely new storytelling device for Game of Thrones, and it’s smart to cloak them diegetically, in the form of these Three-Eyed dreams. I watched an interview in which one of the show creators called flashbacks “lazy,” and while I think that’s a little pretentious, it’s true that rewinding the clock is a really dangerous game for this show. One of Game of Thrones‘ greatest strengths is its strong commitment to forward momentum. Even as history saturates the characters’ motivations and activities, many of the inciting incidents that drive the show result from the way people in the present decide to elide the past and forge forward with originality. Look no further than Daenerys Targaryen, first of her name! Game of Thrones has a novelistic immediacy that cannot be denied, so it will be fascinating to see if the current moment truly can clash with the past through these Bran-visions.

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I have never been of the opinion that Emilia Clarke is a poor actress, and I’m holding out hope that Season 6 gives Daenerys the same agency the character had in Seasons 1 and 2. I’m getting tired of watching this woman walk through foreign civilizations of fools and letting her reputation – and occasionally her dragons – make persuasive arguments for her own empowerment. Now we see Daenerys out of the reach of her protectors (toxic Nice Guy duo Daario Naharis and Jorah Mormont) and facing two equally unappealing options: execution at the hands of the Dothraki, or a place in the interminably dull Khaleesi First Wives Club.

daenarys

I find it irritating that her captors are calling back to Daeny’s more powerful, earth-shattering story moments (“I remember when you ate the stallion heart”) because I have a feeling that her current predicament can only be solved by a deux-ex-machina rescue. The Stormborn Queen boasts one of the most mishandled storylines on GoT, but there’s still something so special about this character that is unlocked every time the show gives her room to develop, takes her seriously. I’m about ready for her to cast off the shackles of her male handlers (both evil and benign) and start making inroads towards the other entangled stories of the show. Critics have been saying this for like, four seasons already! Why must this storyline so consistently spin its wheels? In this third episode, she’s basically in the same predicament we found her in during the premiere; that definitively sucks. Bring Daenerys back into the fold, please.

arya drinksarya eyes open

Of course, we did get a nice fist-pumping moment as Arya unlocked the final level of her apprentice-assassin training. After besting her salty superior (following many, many rounds of “hit the blind girl as hard as you can with a stick”), Arya is allowed to begin some sort of Potions class under the tutelage of Jaqen H’gar. Maisie Williams, stellar as Arya from the series premiere, has grown into this character with incredible poise; she plays powerlessness without weakness, triumph without showiness, and projects maturity with a heartbreaking hardness that is never not watchable. A girl has me as a forever fan.

In contrast to Bran, Arya has had a complex journey toward reconciling her many losses and devastations. She wasn’t blind quite long enough for us to heart-attack over her I CAN SEE moment, but that doesn’t matter much. Arya’s succeeding, and the audience is always right by her side and pulling her ever upward.

Here are some other things that happened during “Oathbreaker” that I care much less about:

sam and girl

1. Sam and Gilly and Tiny Sam take a watery trip towards Sam’s ancestral home. Being on a wet, bilgey passenger boat seems awful. They all love each other.

slaves awk

2. Varys attempts to set up some shady governmental structures in Daeny’s absence, by flipping a local leader into an informant. Tyrion waits for him, passing the time by making up proverbs about “history being made in elegant rooms” and threatening Grey Worm and Missandei with an awkward, drunken game of Never Have I Ever.

3. The creepy new version of The Mountain continues to freak people out in King’s Landing. Jaime and Cersei are still trying to make progress back into the ranks of power. Tommen attempts to intimidate the High Septon, who slides closer to him on a bench and implies visually that he’s probably going to have him murdered soon.

I think that’s it! See you for next week’s episode, which I’m sure will at least look beautiful. Dan Sackheim’s direction was excellent for “Oathbreaker” and he has a lovely sense of light and composition. Next up: “Book of the Stranger”!

We Were All Rooting for You: The Gorgeous Grotesque in ANTM

Tyra Mail! It says…

If a model falls on an abandoned runway in the middle of an empty stage, does she make a sound? And when Tyra Banks falls while no one’s watching, does she just slip quietly into unsmizing nothingness?

America’s Next Top Model has been canceled after 12 years and 22 seasons, and it’s really okay that you do not care. If you do feel something, like I do, it’s probably just the sad sensation of time passing and culture changing. Just as the end of American Idol made barely a pop culture ripple (despite its massive impact on the TV landscape), ANTM probably won’t be recognized as a watershed program with a long-legged legacy. For my money, it deeply altered the possibilities of the reality genre – and, at its accidental best, was an incisive magnum opus of female psychology. Tyra the Creator knew she’d birthed something amazing in Top Model, and over the next few years she methodically destroyed it.

So let’s take a moment for America’s Next Top Model…a love-hate letter to beauty, with a singular viciousness and vision.

There’s really two stories being told during every episode of ANTM: the petty day-to-day existences of the model-contestants and the larger godlike arc of Tyra Banks herself. As a transcendently perfect but savvily commercial supermodel, Tyra was perfectly poised in 2003 to launch a show like Top Model. As creator and curator, she brought industry cachet and as host, she brought built-in ratings and popularity. To watch ANTM‘s first cycle – Tyra’s known for compulsive branding-by-renaming, so her “seasons” are “cycles” – is to watch a fascinating exercise in first-time showrunning. Everything about ANTM 1, from production to casting to editing, showcases Tyra’s charming self-empowerment and zeal. There’s a sweet earnestness, an openminded experimentalism, to cycle 1; mundane moments like the girls’ first bikini waxes, cigarette breaks, a judging chamber that’s clearly a hotel conference room. Tyra imbues her presence with a self-conscious approachability, showing up at the tiny models’ hovel for dinner in a velour sweatsuit. No one seems to have expectations about being on a reality show. The girls are incredibly diverse: Adrienne is a rough white-trash urchin, Robyn is a conservative Christian caught between skinny and plus-size, Elyse is the elegant smart-ass who is allowed to actively bash the idiocy of modeling on-camera (and remain a front-runner till the end!). The judges have real credentials, and painfully differing opinions (I miss you, Janice Dickinson). It all seems possible in Cycle 1. Legitimacy and enduring fame seem very real. We see all the ugly boring parts of beautiful, these glimpses of the modeling experience (and the female experience) that we never see again after the flagship cycle.

However, most of the hallmarks that make Cycle 1 truly compelling continue to exist and morph over the next few cycles. Fans and detractors alike can’t deny that Tyra had an eye, even early on, for world-building. She parlayed her skill sets in modeling and public performance into an expanding vocabulary for fans (and the media): “smizing,” “tooch,” “H2T.” Tyra’s ANTM is an auteur’s funhouse, a paradise of sirens, a place where the beauty industry finds transcendence beyond its boundaries. Big girls, strange girls, dark girls, they all stand a chance. In the beginning seasons, she had a savvy eye for casting girls who echoed her physically and in personality, and these girls were consistently rewarded (look no further than Cycle 4’s supremely bland Felicia, who lasted four episodes too long). These ideal contestants became disembodied walking signifiers of Tyra herself, scattered amongst the latest crop, reinforcing her omnipotent and omniscient presence as the Author-God of the ANTM universe. She hooked us in with a phenomenally clever and suggestive tagline: “You wanna be on top?” And as dystopian and weird as Top Model gets, its first few cycles are bursting with startlingly astute observations about what happens to women when they’re isolated from the male gaze but haunted by it, devoted to it. Every single episode has the same naming convention: “The Girl Who…” The Girl Who Cheats. The Girl Who Everyone Thinks is Killing Herself. The Girl Who is a Visual Orgasm. It’s an unabashed commentary on culture, and meta-commentary on reality culture. Each cycle becomes more and more claustrophobic, even as the contestants’ living quarters are upgraded to sprawling estates that the Cycle 1 wretches could never have dreamed of. Every successive cycle shines a burning spotlight on a tightly monitored, hermetically sealed powderkeg of women – and we, as the audience, quickly got that the goal wasn’t really to be the best, the most beautiful, the most superhuman. The goal was survival.

And in Tyra’s dogged pursuit of her own legend, her own legacy, she stumbled on the show’s most iconic moment, what I would argue is its beating heart and the key to its twisted vision of womanhood. Sandwiched in between the naturalistic early cycles and the bloated, vapid later cycles is Cycle 4. Tiffany.

Tyra’s epic freakout on the hapless Tiffany Richardson is by far the most-quoted clip of ANTM, and it elevated the show out of its creative niche into mass reality entertainment. On the surface, it’s basically just a host berating a participant for not taking the competition seriously enough. Beyond the scene’s histrionic trash-TV value, however, it also exposed Tyra’s endgame all at once, in a shocking reveal of her pathetic vulnerability and maniacal control of not only the Top Model project, but her own narrative. Tyra’s speech is absolutely littered with the charred remains of a real female human being. It’s a coded story about the way the beauty industry’s been Dementoring her since her childhood. “When my mother yells like this, it’s because she loves me,” Tyra spits, hitting a hysterical sound outside pitch on the word “love.” “When you go to bed at night and you lay there, you take responsibility for yourself, ’cause nobody’s gonna take responsibility for you.” How many beds do you think Tyra Banks laid in all by herself, surrounded by identical beds filled with identical women vying for her life? “You have no idea where I come from,” she tells Tiffany, apropos of nothing. “You have no idea what I’ve been through.” Perhaps most telling is the indelible phrase “We were rooting for you, we were ALL rooting for you! How dare you?” The amount of context contained in that vitriolic indictment is incredible. Every woman is rooting for you even when she hates you, even when she’s against you, Tiffany. You owe HER your successes and your failures, even when you’re selling your face and your body to men. LEARN something from this!

In taking this tack, I obviously am showing my hand a little. I think Tyra Banks is a sympathetic figure, but also an absolute psychopath. The vision she built with ANTM is a danger to society – but in both the straightforward anti-feminist way AND the subversive-to-patriarchy way. Sometimes it’s hard to want the misery that these women want; sometimes we want to kill them for wanting it. ANTM certainly does encourage us to hate beautiful, ambitious women, to despise their delusions of grandeur and gaze-greediness. I could write a whole separate blog post on Jade Cole, who is hands-down the most interesting contestant in ANTM history. She’s a reality addict’s dream and was definitely Tyra’s nightmare, as she expertly (and self-reflexively) played to camera and became Cycle 6’s breakout star, the emblem of all that was insane about model ego and and ANTM specifically. “This is not America’s Next Top Best Friend,” crowed Jade, framing the decorative wall letters “A N T M” with her hands. She was right; she just didn’t know yet that those letters stood for “America’s Next Top Meme.”

I would argue that Cycles 1-8 are the meat of Top Model, the oevre we’re really talking about when we dissect the importance of this show. Because Tyra is the auteur and Tyra is insane, the show slowly but surely begins to crumble after the mild but still accessible wackiness of Cycle 8 (whose standouts included the heavily-accented first Latina winner Jaslene and the mail-order bride Natasha). The winner of Cycle 9 was rumored to be pre-fixed by Tyra. Contestants were forced to film “viral videos,” which anyone familiar with the internet knows is a comically absurd proposition. The judges were cycled in and out at a rapid pace until Tyra had assembled a panel of sycophants – empty and under-qualified personalities, most of them not even of the fashion world (i.e. the universally despised “PR Maven” Kelly Cutrone). By the time the first “gimmick” cycle – 17, the All-Star season – rolled around, ANTM was not ANTM anymore. It was Top Model only in name, and that dream was a farce, evidenced by the complete professional invisibility of almost every past winner. The death gong tolled around Cycle 18, the first cycle to pit teams against one another (British and American) and Cycle 21’s inclusion of male models was simply a phallic stab into ANTM‘s long-cold corpse.

The full lifespan of great TV is really quite poignant: when a show becomes successful, it’s immediately pumped full of creative and stylistic hormones that overstrain its heart. Then when it experiences brain-death, it’s kept on life support. And when it finally dies, almost no one comes to the funeral. They’re at a party with the show’s hot younger siblings. That’s the story of America’s Next Top Model. And even if ANTM‘s demise as a show isn’t unique, its legacy is.

Never before did we get to watch such a vivid portrait of mean. Never before did we get so close to the bleeding scalps and swollen toes of America’s most beautiful women, or see them cry and routinely be crushed despite their model faces, their model smiles. Never did we get front-row tickets to dozens of closed rooms like this, studies in female group dynamics engineered by one of its seminal victims, a mastermind who both kept us at arms-length and desperately tried everything she could to hold our attention. America’s Next Top Model is over forever, but we all still wanna be on top.

Mad Men S7BE1: “Severance”

“Is that all there is?”

Peggy Lee, you said it. This premiere episode was a tough nut to crack – a lot of unsteady philosophical meandering leading to a casual ending. It was a visually dazzling hour (What color! What mustaches!) but…inscrutable. What just happened? What does it all mean? How is this episode going to set up the finale? Is that all there is?

I have oodles of faith that the rest of Season 7B will be vastly more enjoyable. The Mad Men premieres have always been weird and uncomfortable and slightly creaky under the weight of theme introduction (remember “The Doorway”?). So let’s talk about this strange episode – its fast-paced structure, strained dialogue, time-jumping, and sense of cheerless nostalgia.

“Severance” followed four major storylines: those of Don, Joan, Peggy, and Ken. Let’s start with the big D.

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The opening scenes give us a full blast of voyeuristic discomfort, without the usual pleasure that used to come with watching Don go all Draper on some girl. It’s an audition for a fur campaign, a very intimate roleplay – and, the camera reveals, it’s happening in front of a roomful of other men. At this, I admit my heart sank. After the tenderness of the 7A finale, I wanted to believe we’d advanced past Don’s super gross side. He’s always needed to dominate and decorate women in order to define himself; this first scene is meant to prepare us for a disappointing Don rewind. It’s an interesting way to begin the half-season; a faithful callback to what we first loved about our protagonist. But now, in 1970, in this clinical brown office, it’s not so sexy anymore. It’s a regression. It’s pathetic and it’s sad.

Don goes through a lot of back-cycling during “Severance.” It’s an episode that interrogates the way he’s built an identity through sex and intimacy, a cobbled-together Perfect Man built from the dreams and projections of so many women, so many loves, so many first kisses.

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Two women from his past confront Don in a compressed period of time. One of them is Rachel Menken – we all remember her from Season 1 (and I screamed out loud when we first saw her because I’d missed her so much) Rachel was the first woman in the series whose emotional magnetism truly prompted Don to consider abandoning his facade and starting anew. She’s a powerful symbol of nostalgia in Mad Men, as it was Rachel’s presence that brought out the Don we first came to love – his iconic poeticism (“Love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”) and his wild romanticism.

But Rachel’s already dead by the time she reappears (in a dream sequence which, no matter how beautifully it’s done, always makes me feel betrayed). Her avatar in Don’s mind is pretty on-the-nose – she smiles mysteriously, glimmers in her fur, and tells him, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” She wasn’t his only chance to live passionately and authentically, but she might have been his first. When Don attempts to reconnect, inspired by his vision, we find out that she’s only just succumbed to leukemia a week before. The cosmic devastation throws Don off for the rest of the episode. He attends shiva at her apartment, struggling to make sense of the loss, staring at her young children knowing that in another life, they could have been his. He’s frightened and needing answers about the coincidence of her reappearance in his subconscious. She was gone as quickly as she returned. Is that all there is?

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Don’s assisted in his existential crisis by a sad-eyed waitress named Di (I mean, talk about on-the-nose). He’s convinced he knows her from somewhere, and they share a soulless quickie behind a diner. Di does look like a lot of girls Don’s pulled over the course of the series – she’s got the hawkish beauty of Midge, the mysticality of Rachel, and the uniform of the dozens of waitresses he’s winked at for decades. For God’s sake, Don’s already shtupped a random flight attendant during the course of this episode! He’s deep in the throes of dark neediness, repeating his romantic cycle. Don doesn’t know Di, but he knows how this starts and how it ends. He’s fucking a memory.

It’s an extremely depressing setup for the rest of 7B.

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Another character who’s grasping for a do-over is Ken Cosgrove, who makes a really welcome return in this episode. The title alludes to Ken’s unceremonious firing by Roger and the head honcho at McCann. Said honcho is an Irish brute named Ferg, who’s long had a professional vendetta against the company-hopping Ken.

Kenny has always been a unique character on which to map the war between creativity and pragmatism. He’s a rare kind soul amongst his colleagues, who hid his idealism and writerly spark in order to advance in the accounts department. Although he’s Head of Accounts, his wife thinks he ought to go back to penning beautiful science fiction novels and leave the ad game altogether. And just as he’s made the decision to bow out gracefully and follow his dream, he’s canned by McCann. Ferg is cruel about it and Roger is cool about it, and both approaches fill the normally level-headed Ken with bewilderment and rage.

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“The life not lived” is Ken’s succinct restatement of Don’s problem (and Peggy’s as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Ken could just walk away from this sour turn of events and begin to build the existence he always wanted – a farm, a family, a writing career. But it turns out that for Ken, the best revenge isn’t living well, or living differently. It’s just revenge. His corporate maneuvering provides the absolutely high point of the episode, a fun bit of comeuppance that’s quick and lively and a phenomenal hint of a very amusing storyline to come.

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Let’s move on to Peggy and Joan.

First of all, Peggy’s on a bit of a backslide as well. She’s back in a mental place of ennui and self-pity – single but too busy to mingle. She’s set up on a date with her coworker Mathis’ brother-in-law. WHO IS BRIAN KRAKOW. PEGGY’S ON A DATE WITH BRIAN KRAKOW. I know the rest of the internet shares my delight.

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It’s a cute storyline, but frankly not one I feel like spending much time on. Their chemistry is easy and fun, and Stevie (that’s his actual name) seems to like Peggy for all her stubbornness and brilliance. It’s nice to see Peggy’s flirty side, because both she and we have forgotten that workplace satisfaction isn’t quite the same as happiness. Her “life not lived” is the life of a girlfriend, a mother, a second fiddle – and although that’s never going to be her style, Peg seems to enjoy roleplaying once in awhile.

Peggy’s trouble in “Severance” stems from the fact that she’s unable to be spontaneous and fly off to Paris with Stevie at a moment’s notice (because her passport is in an office drawer, surprise surprise). She finds every excuse in the book not to trust this stranger or the genuine connection she’s made with him.

It’s hard to be sympathetic towards Peggy, though, because of The Elevator Scene. A watershed moment for the episode.

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Some background: Peggy and Joan are tasked with pitching Topaz pantyhose to their superiors at McCann, who are a bunch of sexist assholes. Their crude jokes are nothing new to these two, but this is the first time they’ve been working together as a team in a professional setting.

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Unsurprisingly, Peggy handles the toxic atmosphere much better than Joan does. She’s been in conference rooms for years enduring similar blows to her dignity, and has learned to emphasize her “masculine” side to cope – more conservative dress, a harder exterior, swift judo chops to halt any small talk.

But that’s simply not the way Joan is built, so to speak; Joan thrives off her own sexuality and finds power in deploying her femininity and emotional instincts in business dealings. We, as fans, love to see Peggy and Joan find common ground and use each other as lifeboats in their male-dominated war ground of an office – but this is 1970. This is not a time when women lived their personal truths in the workplace and lifted one another up. And Peggy and Joan’s heated conversation in the elevator as they leave that meeting is a short, terrible microcosm of that. Peggy basically calls Joan a slut, and Joan tells Peggy she’s too ugly to even be a slut. It’s a saddening interaction that recalls their Season 1 relationship in all the worst ways.

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As a coping mechanism, Joan engages in a little retail therapy – playing up her assets rather than taking Peggy’s harsh advice to hide her curves and bury her sensuality. In this scene, Joan also shows us the narrow gulf between her life and the life she could have lived – as the salesgirl points out, Joan’s spending thousands of dollars in the same dress department she once managed (forced, by her rapey ex-fiance, to quit Sterling Cooper in disgrace). “You must have me confused with someone else,” says Joan coolly. No one’s going to write her story, ever again. Is that all there is? If so, she’s damn well going to be dressed to the nines for it.

Loose ends…

  • I mustache you a question, Roger…WHY?tumblr_nmdab07a401qhmg1fo1_1280
  • Ooh, Pete’s former secretary Clara is now pregnant out of wedlock! Juicy.
  • Speaking of Pete, he’s living a new/old life too. He’s back in New York, and says of his long and lovely LA vacation: “At the time it felt so real…”
  • Ken’s father-in-law Ed (who memorably once told Don that he’d never get hired again after he screwed Philip Morris) has an amazing advertising voice. He could sell me Pop Tarts any day.
  • Stan. Looks. So. ’70s. Hot. That beard is BITCHIN’.

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So, what did you all think of “Severance”? Did you feel confused and kinda bitter (like I did, and apparently the rest of Tumblr)? Did you love the episode? What DOES it all mean?

The End of an Era: A Guide to Mad Men’s Final Season

Whether or not you’re ready for Mad Men to end (you’re not), tonight is the premiere of Season 7B: the second half of episodes comprising the show’s last season. They have the potential to be some of the best aired on television, period – and you know me, I’m not usually prone to histrionics. Here to debrief you on this once-in-a-lifetime cultural phenomenon is myself: public Mad Men debater, obsessive, and recent rewatcher of Season 7A. Let’s ride this zeitgeist together. Do you want some ice in that?

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Different TV shows call for different modes of analysis and enjoyment. You have to set your mind at a certain frequency in order to really GET a show (this is why I had such a hard time on Sunday nights in 2013 – very difficult to shotgun Breaking Bad followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey). The thing that I find most groundbreaking and mesmerizing about Mad Men is that it operates on many more levels than the average TV narrative – even The Sopranos, to which it’s historically been compared most often. Like SopranosMad Men is a series of complex interweaving character studies. They’re both period pieces. They’re about male anti-heroes. And they’re epic poems – full of rich allegories and cultural callbacks.

But there’s something very special about Mad Men that really differentiates it and makes it so of-the-moment: it’s art about making art. It’s more meta than any television drama that’s come before it, with perhaps the exception of Six Feet Under. But while SFU only occasionally touched on the creative process, Mad Men‘s an ode to it (and if it’s taught us anything, it’s that advertising is the most romantic and important creative outlet there is). It’s an excavation of the creative mind and the human impulse to weave and consume fiction.

I think it’s an extraordinarily special piece of work – and I really mean piece of work. It takes a metric fuckton of brainpower to absorb Mad Men in all its glory. So let’s reset our minds to Season 7A. Here’s a review of where the last half-season’s going to pick up:

Themes to keep in mind…

The first half of Season 7 took us in a (blessedly) new direction from a strange, frightening, and often aimless 6th season. 7 had a few core themes that sewed it together and began to steer the show into its final harbor.

  • Sentimentality. From Bert Cooper’s touching musical farewell to Peggy’s Burger Chef epiphany about family, the show played up what has always been one of its greatest strengths. The ad work, and the characters, were at their best when they spoke from the heart, and Don and Peggy’s strained relationship was seemingly resolved with one tender slow dance. 7 started off sad and ended up kind of triumphantly sappy. Mad Men believes in love.
  • Cycles of change. Back in Season 4, a man from Heinz told Don that “food is cyclical: there’s a time for beans and there’s a time for ketchup.” In Mad Men, there’s a time for dreams and a time for fuck-ups. Season 7 has deeply explored the way we helplessly repeat ourselves (i.e. Don blowing up his marriage to Megan in the same spectacularly slow, coolly cruel way he did Betty) and also how the mistakes of the old echo in the lives of the young (Sally is now, psychologically, a frightening composite of Betty and Don). Talk about a carousel.
  • Time. Probably the most crucial theme of the entire show. Mad Men is a hyperreal depiction of aging, learning, growing, and dying – for everyone, not just Don. From the commonplace time jumps to the more recent aesthetic markers of Season 7 (Pete Campbell’s bitterly receding hairline) it’s clear that this last season will deal with the inevitable march. Death is this show’s sexiest and most interesting recurring bedfellow.

Where are they now?

In case you haven’t caught up (even though Season 7A is now on Netflix, FYI), here’s where we left the primary players and various bit characters.

  • Don is back as SC&P’s de facto head of creative, after a demeaning season of writing coupons for his replacement Lou Avery (and a hurt, vengeful Peggy, who memorably served as his direct superior for most of 7A). He briefly struggled with a relapse of his ever-latent alcoholism, connected with the collapse of his bicoastal sham of a marriage – and a long struggle to rebuild his professional relationships after the infamous Hershey Pitch of Season 6. Don found his groove by the end of 7A, his creative zest sparked by the emotionally overwhelming moon landing of 1969, shown in the finale. This half-season humbled him greatly, and his Wild West iconoclasm of earlier seasons has given way to a practicality and a Dick-Whitman-like commitment to hard work. He now seems to fully support Peggy as the heir apparent to his crown, and in a show of maturity, agrees readily to a deal that will make SC&P a subsidiary of their long-hovering rival agency McCann.
  • Peggy spent a lot of 7A fighting Lou Avery’s poor leadership of the SC&P creative team. She’s now Copy Chief and thisclose to pushing out one of the Creative Directors – my money’s on Ted, considering that the half-season ended with Don convincing a very reluctant Ted to keep his job. Peggy also struggled with a lot of working-woman insecurities, exemplified by her attachment to her young neighbor Julio and her tearful admission to Don that her single, childless status makes her wonder “what she did wrong.” I’m not a huge fan of this trope with Peggy, but whatever. This is a recap. Peggy is otherwise starting Season 7B with sizeable power and confidence: she absolutely murdered the Burger Chef pitch, with a performance that evoked Don’s classic conference room magnetism. The show is beginning to figure out that Peggy’s journey towards finding her voice has less to do with the novelty of her female perspective in a male-dominated workplace, than with the fact that she’s simply a genius.
  • Roger took a bit of a backseat this season, offering his usual workplace wit without much growth or character development. He experimented with free love (it was 1969, after all) and spent a confusing, sad 24 hours with his lost daughter at a commune upstate. His most notable role was as office peacemaker, arranging for Don’s return to SC&P and eventually brokering the deal to join McCann and eliminate his rival partner Jim Cutler. Bert’s death hit him hard. It’s my belief that he and Joan will be endgame in 7B.
  • Joan continued to soar to new heights in her relatively new position as partner. She’s a little older and wiser and has largely outgrown the corporate missteps that plagued her after she sexed her way into the job (as evidenced by a quick scene in which she mistakes a financial expert’s proposition for a, well, proposition). She spares no love for Don, angered by his disregard for the consequences of his actions, which constantly “cost [her] money.” Thrillingly, Joan completely transitions out of her role as office manager towards the end of 7A, handing off the job and the awkwardly placed cubicle to Don’s secretary Dawn. She’s essentially the new Lane now. Personally, however, Joan’s starting to exhibit a hard edge and a panic in her romantic life – she turns down a desperate marriage proposal from her Gay BFF Bob Benson. In one of her most beautiful and vulnerable moments on the show, Joan declares: “I want love…and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some kind of arrangement.” Seriously. Joan and Roger are endgame.
  • Pete spent most of 7A finding inappropriate places to sex up his smokin’ real-estate-agent girlfriend, a perk of his lucrative work as SC&P’s dedicated LA account man. He’s evolving into an ever-savvier, ever-seedier character: he now sports a deep tan, a growing bald spot, and a lascivious twinkle in his eye. In my opinion, Pete has experienced very few narrative missteps throughout the entire show – his evolution into a rich sad sack has been steady, sure, and blackly humorous.
  • Megan is (hopefully) beginning to be phased out of the main narrative, as of the conclusion of 7A. We left her at an uncertain moment in her acting career – not starving but not even close to famous – and she’s visibly hardened as a result of the slow but inevitable decline of her marriage to Don. A mechanical threesome involving her actress friend, and a jealous rebuff of Don’s niece Stephanie, were not nearly enough to salvage the wreck of romantic idealism that the two of them created. Megan is not a mystery anymore, nor is she a fantasy or a blank creative canvas. She’s a girl who’s had a very rude awakening, and has been left to muck through it alone in the Hollywood Hills.
  • Betty and Henry are useless. I’m sorry, but they are. It’s not really Mad Men‘s fault, when there are so many more interesting characters and places to be than Senator’s Manor. Betty is still a terrible mother, keeping the Season 5 weight off but plagued by food issues. Although she occasionally chafes at her role as Henry’s gorgeous Stepford political wife, she’s still as well-adjusted as we’ve ever seen her.
  • Sally has grown into a beautiful cipher, the mutant superhuman you’d expect when you combine two slightly sociopathic and very attractive parents. Her jaw-dropping teenage debut in 7A – all short skirts and cynical, morbid digs at her mother – was coupled with a welcome character evolution, separate from her relationship with Don. We spent a lot of time with Sally at boarding school and at home, getting some fascinating insights into the cultural and sociopolitical uncertainty that molded baby boomers (what Sally is destined to be). More and more, she has been presented as the embodiment of the passage of time, indicating that her role in 7B will be crucial and probably disturbing. She’s very much in the throes of darkness and budding sexuality.
  • SC&P players like Harry, Jim Cutler, and Ginsberg had a lot of great spotlights in 7A. The season saw the introduction of an office computer, a huge and humming behemoth that many employees interpreted as a harbinger of doom and the automated destruction of creativity. The computer drove all three men to distraction: Harry used it as leverage to change the face of SC&P’s media division; Cutler drove it as a wedge between himself and the rest of the partners; Ginsberg tipped over the edge with his latent mental illness and made the computer his enemy. Ginsberg’s descent into madness was frightening and poignant, concluding with him handcuffed to a hospital cot, being wheeled out of the workplace that fostered his talent and broke his spirit. At least he managed to coin “Free The Nipple” before his departure.

Moving forward…

So yeah, I’m pretty goddamn excited for 7B. There was so much going on in 7A, and yet it retained the tightness and emotional immediacy that had really made Mad Men great in the first place. The show has returned to its groove with a vengeance, and Matthew Weiner’s writing and direction has been reassuringly confident so far.

Can we expect lots of twists and turns in 7B? Methinks…yes and no. Based on old flame Midge’s very satisfying episode arc in Season 4, and Paul Kinsey’s surprising return (as a Hare Krishna monk!) in Season 5, I’d put my money on one or two more familiar faces showing up for Mad Men‘s swan song. Like I said, Mad Men is both a narrative and a meta-narrative, and the theme of sentimentality includes you and me as viewers. I almost don’t want to jinx the return of Sal Romano, but it’s a callback that I’m really hoping for and that would delight all of us, a small nod to the more buttoned-up and quietly poignant days of the show.

But Mad Men (to quote Paul Kinsey/T.S. Eliot) will end not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s a show that, for all its abrupt and disorienting time jumps, and philosophical flourishes, and weirdness – moves at the speed of life. The best things in life are free, and simple. Laughter. Sorrow. Love. Hate. And so on. Mad Men‘s legacy was transforming the soulless – the advertising industry – into the very vessel and medium of the soul.  It began as a stylish drama, but has evolved into a genre-less manifesto, a kind of microcosmic portrait on the modern condition. Season 7B will have things to say about capitalism, but it will also tell us about the feeling of watching ourselves decay. Mad Men is a snowglobe, and when we look into it, we see confused normal people who don’t know they’re beautiful, and crucial, and indelible. Whatever happens in Season 7B…we are going to feel it, and so much of it.

Starting tonight, let’s start living like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t one.

Better Call Saul S1E2: “Mijo”

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“It’s showtime!”

Although I could’ve seen Saul as a half-hour show, the advantage of hour-long episodes is the sheer amount of storyline. “Mijo” is way more of a Breaking Bad comparison piece than “Uno” – we get lots of violent desert action, we get a long character-exposition montage, and most importantly, we get Tuco. But the key difference of the Saul experience is that we don’t have to jump from character to character. Everything that happens in this episode, happens solely to Jimmy McGill. I think for the viewer, that kind of focus is refreshing, and Bob Odenkirk is really carrying us all on his back.

Part II: “Mijo”

I didn’t enjoy “Mijo” quite as much as “Uno,” but I think that’s because I’m still kind of burned out on BB. I don’t think Tuco is compelling enough to revisit. For the first half of the episode, we spend a lot of time with the younger, less methy, equally insane version of him, and I kinda missed the ese I used to know. Raymond Cruz is a great actor, a very effective and fleshed-out villain, so it was interesting to see Tuco played a little gentler, a little heavier on the stupidity. Certainly I enjoyed watching him cower in front of his little abuelita.

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Enough harping. Can’t say I didn’t enjoy Tuco’s early scene with Jimmy, in which Jimmy tries to negotiate his way out of the abuelita’s house. Tuco gets what is possibly the best line of the episode: “Wow,” he rasps, after a 6-minute lawyerly diatribe. “You got a mouth on you.” No matter his issues, Tuco respects theatricality – and that’s something that apparently will never change.

Basically, for the first part of the episode, Saul gets to go on a vintage Walter White adventure. Tuco brings him and the two ne’er-do-well skateboarders out to the desert to exact justice. Everybody’s tied up and thrown in front of a sandy grave. At this point, we’ve got a few familiar faces – what’s up Gonzo and No-Doze! – as well as a new member of Albequerque’s meth underworld. Unfortunately, his name is Nacho.

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I think the overbearing and welcome-wearing-out presence of Tuco is very much mitigated by Nacho, who seems to be either his partner or colleague who’s a little higher up. Michael Mando is fantastic as the scene-stealing petty criminal Vic on Orphan Black, and he morphs nicely here into a calm, pragmatic mastermind.

I found the “Mijo” script a bit clunky (more on that later), but one scene that did stick out favorably. Mando, Cruz, and Odenkirk all got to shine in the hilariously dark and drawn-out desert sequence, in which Jimmy tries desperately to negotiate for his and his clients’ lives. What’s so notable about Jimmy McGill, pre-Saul, is his naive commitment to justice. He actually attempts to appeal to Tuco’s humane side by repeatedly telling the truth! This is such a far cry from the guy who “once convinced a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it.” It’s only after Jimmy realizes he’s dealing with an unhinged ball of fury that he tries a last-ditch fib, which is identifying himself as an FBI agent. Couldn’t contain my snorts at “Special Agent Jeffrey Steele.”

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Jimmy’s performance in the desert scene is breathless, hilarious, and pure gold. Loved his passionate speech about the skateboarders’ mother and her sad life as a maid. Watching him parry with the moronic Tuco, asserting his professional wisdom while remaining subservient to a loose cannon with a gun, is a huge treat. This is so not the way Walt dealt with the same situation – in a lot of ways, it’s way better.

Jimmy: Ever hear of the code of Hammurabi? Let the punishment fit the crime. Eye for an eye.
Tuco: You want me to blind them.
Jimmy: No, no. All they did was trash talk.
Tuco: So I cut their tongues out!
Jimmy: Wait. See, I’m advising that you make the punishment fit the crime.
Tuco: Columbian neckties. I cut their throats, and then I pull their lying tongues through the slits!
Jimmy: Or you could sprain their ankles. They’re skateboarders, right? That that’s how they run their scam.
Tuco: I ain’t spraining nothing, bitch. I’m gonna break their arms, and I’m gonna break their legs.
Jimmy: Arms? When when When did we get on to arms? Let’s –
Tuco: I’m cutting their legs off.
Jimmy: We were talking about breaking. I think we’re heading in the wrong direction.

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And Jimmy’s actually successful! He manages to save everyone’s lives (the skateboarders escape with only one broken leg each) and kind of remains on a meth kingpin’s good side! His clients don’t quite see it that way, but getting sand-stomped by a crazy man will leave you bitter. “I just talked you down from a death sentence to six months probation,” Saul tells them. “I am the best lawyer ever.”

At this point, “Mijo” changes tone and transitions back into Jimmyworld. The experience with Tuco and Nacho has left Jimmy shaken and doubly determined to prove himself, inside and outside the courtroom. Even as he’s puking on a date (triggered by the shattering of a breadstick), Jimmy’s shining in front of every jury. Michelle MacLaren is one of the best TV directors ever, and she knows how to montage the shit of anything. The rapid progression of Jimmy’s defense speeches was cleverly edited, another highlight of the episode.

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It really is a lot of fun watching Jimmy come into his own. What’s fascinating about his current persona is that he exhibits a lot of Saul Goodman’s physical and verbal characteristics, but he’s using his powers for good. He doesn’t consider himself a deceptive or underhanded person, and certainly he sees his profession as something noble. We see that loud and clear when Jimmy’s approached later by Nacho, who thinks the two of them can pull off a heist with little risk. Jimmy rejects him, less out of fear than out of moral responsibility. “I’m not a criminal, I’m a lawyer,” he protests. It’s a line that Saul Goodman will pull out years later, but when Saul does it, it rings completely false. Jimmy actually believes it.

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It’s kind of bittersweet, since we all know how Jimmy’s gonna end up, but this is another reason I’m glad Better Call Saul exists. We knew Saul Goodman wasn’t evil, but calling him a bad man wasn’t a stretch. This guy Jimmy doesn’t have half of Saul’s powers, but he’s got a mouth on him, and he’s using it for good. That’s what she said.

We end the episode with another complicated coda – another insight into the relationship between the McGill brothers. At this point, it’s clear that Chuck is not only dying, but he also is likely a little bit OCD or schizophrenic. He has a fear of electricity and insists on wearing a space blanket. It’s this scene that caused my faith in the writing of “Mijo” to waver. The sheer number of times Jimmy repeats, “Take off the space blanket, Chuck” – it’s a repetitive, unfunny, and tonally strange scene that I guess is suppose to deepen the nuance of their brotherly bond. Obviously, Jimmy cares for his older brother and doesn’t like to see him mentally compromised. But I’d like for Michael McKean to have some better material, to elevate him from a sad burden kinda archetype.

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Although “Uno” was so much more successful for me than “Mijo,” I’m still wholly confident that Saul‘s off to a great start and has a lot of original, artistically viable, and narratively exciting tricks up his sleeve. There’s definitely enough elements here that aren’t BB fan service – Chuck and Nacho being chief among them – and I have faith in Gilligan and Gould that those elements will be used shrewdly.

And as always, the cinematography and production design is breathtaking. That’ll never change.

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Random addendums…

  • Mike is yet again shown onscreen, in a short but amazingly funny conflict with Jimmy. I like how they’re seeding him rather than introducing him with a one-two nostalgia punch.
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  • I still don’t buy that those kids are taking videos on their cell phones. This is 2002, remember?
  • Last night, I laid in bed thinking about whether they’re going to bring Jesse back in the present-day Saul timeline. It made me so excited and scared I had to take a melatonin.

Better Call Saul S1E1: “Uno”

Take a drive with me, buddy. Let’s go all the way back.

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Nostalgia is the watchword of Better Call Saul, a really intriguing piece of TV that’s currently tiptoeing into our homes in the too-large shoes of its big brother. Saul is a rewind, a retcon, a strange kinda memory. In this prequel, we get to spend all of our time with Breaking Bad‘s beloved comic relief: the slippery lawyer Saul Goodman, who was once Jimmy McGill. Watching Saul is like seeing your weird uncle in an old family photo, frozen in time and seeming so much more human. It’s also like a comic-book origin story – not about the superhero, but the sidekick.

Better Call Saul is an experiment. It has to be satisfying for Breaking Bad fans, but also stand on its own two feet. It’s got to fabricate an entire history starting in 2002, while remaining steady on a temporal track towards the events of BB, which begin in 2008. This is a really complicated and ambitious conceit for any spinoff, let alone a spinoff of a show with such deep cultural impact and hysterical audience loyalty.

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Based on the first of the two-part premiere – “Uno” – I think it’s all gonna work out just fine.

Part I: “Uno”

First and foremost, “Uno” was an aesthetic statement. This episode reminded me that creators/writers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have vision. This episode was striking, both visually and narratively, with a bravely economical script.

You don’t need to look any further than the first quarter of the episode to see what I mean. For the first twenty minutes of the show, there is no dialogue. We open with a very long black-and-white flash-forward to Saul’s post-Breaking Bad existence as a Cinnabon store manager in Omaha*. He wears nondescript eyeglasses and a sad wiry mustache. He kneads dough and stares jumpily at his customers. It’s a colorless life, depicted in noirish high-contrast.

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At night, he drinks a strong, nonsensical cocktail (Dewars and lime juice?) and watches Saul Goodman’s old commercials. It’s a sad image paired with sad sounds: the first person who we hear speaking is effectively dead and exists only on a VHS tape. This is how the show begins: at the end. It’s almost practicing a reverse Breaking Bad: set the stage with tragedy, in order for the comedy to shine brighter.

Which it does.

“Oh, to be 19 again. You with me, ladies and gentlemen? Do you remember 19? Let me tell you. The juices are flowing, the red corpuscles are corpuscling. The grass is green, and it’s soft, and summer’s gonna last forever.”

Those are the first actual words spoken by our protagonist, Jimmy McGill, back in ’02 when Saul begins. He’s attempting to defend, with romantic poetry, three kids who fucked the head of a human cadaver. That’s how someone like Saul Goodman started out. And that makes perfect sense.

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It’s so cool to watch Bob Odenkirk work. He was so larger-than-life as Saul, but as Jimmy, he’s tentative and high-strung. The character hits many of the same neurotic, blustery, salesman-ish notes, but he hits them softer. He’s still trying on his shark suit. Jimmy doesn’t have a secretary – he’s got a fake British accent that he uses to schedule Mr. McGill’s appointments. He doesn’t rumble into his office parking lot in a white Cadillac DeVille – he parks on the street in an incredibly shitty Suzuki Esteem and works in a closet behind a nail salon*. Early on, we watch him try to win a client at a coffee shop, and his anxious face says it all as he watches the guy almost sign the dotted line. Jimmy McGill is a nobody, who’s in the beginning stages of building the persona of a somebody.

I really enjoyed the storyline involving Jimmy and two scam-artist skateboarder brothers, who he meets when they choose him as their mark. Their scheme is this: one guy videotapes while the other deliberately jumps in front of cars and artfully takes a hit. They then extort the driver. Great scene in which the brothers unsuccessfully try to shake Jimmy down:

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This plotline offers us our first small glimmer of Saul Goodman.

In the scammers, Jimmy sees an opportunity for the kind of hybrid criminal/legal partnership which will eventually become his bread and butter. He attempts to inspire his accomplices with a rambling autobiography, puffing himself up as a legal mastermind. He takes them on a drive to test their skill at remembering crime-scene details.* He’s making clients, fabricating advantageous situations out of nothing, which will eventually become Saul’s number one survival skill. It’s a fun way to introduce the methodology of the character, with his first small-time racket.

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I’m also really excited to learn so much more about Jimmy’s brother, Chuck McGill. Much of “Uno” focused on Jimmy’s efforts to force Chuck’s legal practice to buy him out, since Chuck’s dying of cancer. The two brothers live together in Jimmy’s squalid apartment, eating uncooked bacon from a watery cooler and having conversations by the light of portable lanterns. Chuck is played with great aplomb by the timeless Michael McKean, who effortlessly parries with Odenkirk (“That’s correct, minus the sarcasm”). We get some valuable insight into their relationship in their scenes together: Jimmy is protective of Chuck, but also seems a little jealous of his older brother’s success as a partner in a legitimate multi-million-dollar practice.

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Wonderful scenes at that business as well, in which Jimmy grandstands in front of Chuck’s partners. I plan to walk into every room shouting “YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE, AND YOU! WILL! ATONE!” It is so Jimmy/Saul to quote Network and then feel the need to explain that he’s quoting Network. A tic right out of Michael Scott’s playbook.

Also have to mention the beautifully staged moment outside Chuck’s practice, in which Jimmy shares a cigarette with a woman who appears to be a sometime-girlfriend. The shot is dramatically lit and lingers long, allowing us to see subtle changes in the actors’ faces. Great cinematography, which is again unsurprising considering Better Call Saul‘s pedigree. This team has always been amazing at breathing life into bland industrial spaces.

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Anyway, back to the plot. “Uno” ends with a giant bang, as Saul follows his witless skater accomplices into a home that belongs to none other than TUCO SALAMANCA. Tight tight tight tight tight! As a BB fanatic, I was so excited to see Tuco, but we shall see in Part II how gimmicky his inclusion proves to be.

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Lastly, I just have to say that I’m so consistently impressed with this team’s commitment to authenticity when it comes to costuming, hairstyle, even the attractiveness of the extras. Everything about Saul screams early 2000s, and it really makes it easier to accept the show as a prequel when the actors have noticeably aged (I’m looking at you, Mike Ehrmantraut).

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A review of Part II: “Mijo” – up tomorrow!

Random addendums…

  • * I starred every Breaking Bad  nod (excluding Saul’s paycheck, which says he lives on Gale’s street: Juan Tabo). It is a running mental list I am compelled to keep.
  • Obsessed with the Back to the Future tribute, in which the skaters cling to the back of a pickup truck! Was this a reference to the 2015 premiere date? A meta wink to the time travel back to Saul’s beginnings? So brilliant.
  • Wondering if anyone caught Bryan Cranston’s charming Mad Men promo spot during the commercial break.
  • The title card was so very chintzy and analog:
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  • Seriously, that long introduction was so fucking beautiful. I’d almost like to see the whole series in black and white. It would be amazing to see a show someday that’s unafraid to embrace the B&W palette.
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The Sopranos and Authorial Authority: Stop Believing

Have you heard? You were wrong about The Sopranos.

I had been talking with Chase for a few years when I finally asked him whether Tony [Soprano] was dead. We were in a tiny coffee shop, when, in the middle of a low-key chat about a writing problem I was having, I popped the question. Chase startled me by turning toward me and saying with sudden, explosive anger, “Why are we talking about this?” I answered, “I’m just curious.” And then, for whatever reason, he told me.

I don’t blame David Chase for this. I really don’t. It’s the critics and the fans that have pushed him to this, to revealing the “answer” behind the beautifully ambiguous ending to his beautifully ambigious masterpiece, The Sopranos. Which he did this morning, in a Vox interview. To my chagrin.

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For a showrunner or an author, the temptation to reveal The Master Headcanon can be too great to resist. (Once burned by Lost, never again, am I right?) These geniuses sucked in all of the millions, into their exquisite fictions, where their word is law. And the audience? We all want our shit solved. We want our stories tied up in a bow. J.K. Rowling had this oversharing problem, too, but she doesn’t see it as a problem (and she still doesn’t). Gay Dumbledore, indeed. When an Author-God makes a pronouncement outside the fictional universe, it’s like we’re unearthing the epilogue to the Bible.

In case you’ve been living under the biggest and heaviest rock of all time, here’s the final scene of The Sopranos. I’ve watched it probably hundreds of times, I’ve dissected it to death, I’ve read enough think pieces for a lifetime, and it still leaves me full of awe.

Before this morning, I shared a certain perspective with most of the audience: that Tony is dead. Cut short in a brief moment, in the middle of dinner, in the middle of a conversation, in the middle of his life…in the middle of his favorite song. The sudden cut to blackness and silence represented the abrupt emptiness of death in the face of a human life: both prosaic and so vivid, mundane and miraculous, until it’s just over. That’s not the only way to read the ending, but it was mine. What I found most artful about it was its audacity. It was final and decisive. And it managed to be inexplicable, too. Very fitting in the context of the series and its protagonist.

When he answered the “Did Tony die” question, he was laconic. He shook his head, “No.” And then, simply, “No, he isn’t.”

While this is very frustrating to have to read – why’d you even open your big mouth, Chase? – I actually find it easy to ignore. To rewind and tape over, mentally. Because even though Chase created Tony and his world, and the end times, none of it belongs to him anymore. I was there from Episode 1, night after night, and I was there during the final credits. So now, The Sopranos belongs to me.

As always, art must be consumed, or it’s not art. This story and these characters are not real unless I accept them and treat them as such. This ham sandwich is not “food” and it doesn’t “taste good” until I eat it. It’s not even really “a sandwich” until I eat it. Until I experience this sandwich, it’s a useless exercise in bread slicing and mustard spreading. Tony and his life and death are what I decide to experience while I watch David Chase’s show. And I decided long ago to experience death.

Even David Chase supports me on this, oddly enough. The greatest TV reviewer of all time, Alan Sepinwall, wrote a book called “The Revolution Was Televised,” and he also asked Chase about the scene:

“It just seemed right,” he suggests. “You go on instinct. I don’t know. As an artist, are you supposed to know every reason for every brush stroke? Do you have to know the reason behind every little tiny thing? It’s not a science; it’s an art. It comes from your emotions, from your unconscious, from your subconscious. I try not to argue with it too much. I mean, I do: I have a huge editor in my head who’s always making me miserable. But sometimes, I try to let my unconscious act out. So why did I do it that way? I thought everyone would feel it. That even if they couldn’t say what it meant, that they would feel it.”

So I reserve the right to feel it as I feel like feeling it. A little capricola, a little provolone. Delicious ingredients that we all get to taste differently. And so it goes, on and on and on and on.

It Was Always Something: Salute to Gilda

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So 25 years ago today, Gilda Radner flew into the great Saturday Night in the Sky.

It strikes me as kind of poignant that she left this world the same year I entered it. To your face I’d say she’s my favorite comedienne, but really, she was my best friend. My first love. In my childhood TV cabinet, there nested a meticulously organized hive of SNL videotapes, the most well-worn being the 1975-1980 years. There were many reasons that I favored the early years, but Gilda was the reason, the one, my north star. What unbelievable sweetness and light. What gangly alien strangeness. What vulnerability. What big hair.

Gilda fascinated in a way no female performer has ever done. She had these huge eyes and a Cheshirey grin, sort of a manic ’70s Judy Garland thing going on, and a very odd presence that stood out during a time when funny women always had to find a workaround. Her counterparts on SNL, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman, were respectively ice-cold and coked-out, both dripping with defensive cynicism. Not saying they weren’t special in their own right, but Gilda was…blinding. Innocent, immensely affectionate, kind of scary with her flaily-armed happiness. Like a baby giraffe.

Said Candice Bergen: “A lot of people had a real edge that comedians usually need to have in order to score with people. And she never did that. I mean, obviously, she was such a talented comedienne, but her kindness was so startling.” And from the first moment she opened her mouth, in any of a dozen different but equally shrill voices, you loved her, wildly, and protectively.

Gilda was a complicated person with gaping emotional chasms she struggled to fill, as I guess all entertainers are. Her husband Gene Wilder has always publicly remembered her with painful honesty, discussing her mood swings and ambiguity towards fame, and her self-doubt as an actor and a human being. I don’t think she would have been as funny without the pain. Sometimes, in-character as bumbling schoolgirl Lisa Loopner, Gilda would slam into walls so hard it looked like she was trying to shake something loose inside. I watched her and I knew what that felt like, to bruise yourself for the holy grail of a laugh. Didn’t Mel Brooks say something like, “It’s always funny till someone gets hurt, and then it’s hilarious?” Sadness is hilarious. Wanting, and never quite having, is hilarious. The laugh is the release of the pain valve. That was really the key to Gilda’s comedy – her loneliness. I loved her because she wanted everyone to laugh, she wanted me and you to laugh, she just wanted us all to be inside the laugh together. For just a sweet second.

Watch her here, delivering the opening number of her one-woman show Gilda Live in 1980. Her heart’s filled to bursting when she realizes they’re happy to see her. Then she starts to prance and say some really adorable, filthy shit.

It really sucks that Gilda passed away so young, only 42. At least she had Gene, the love of her life, to humor her and comfort her through the mess of ovarian cancer. She was the kind of celebrity for which people genuinely wished happiness, I think. From what I’ve read, she was a rare diamond of her time, beloved by fans and her peers, especially the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

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I love this story Bill Murray told about the last time he ever saw her. It’s a beautiful tribute to Gilda, today and really anytime I wish to remember her like the treasured friend she was to me, through a screen, through the years.

Gilda got married and went away. None of us saw her anymore. There was one good thing: Laraine had a party one night, a great party at her house. And I ended up being the disk jockey. She just had forty-fives, and not that many, so you really had to work the music end of it. There was a collection of like the funniest people in the world at this party. Somehow Sam Kinison sticks in my brain. The whole Monty Python group was there, most of us from the show, a lot of other funny people, and Gilda. Gilda showed up and she’d already had cancer and gone into remission and then had it again, I guess. Anyway she was slim. We hadn’t seen her in a long time. And she started doing, “I’ve got to go,” and she was just going to leave, and I was like, “Going to leave?” It felt like she was going to really leave forever.

So we started carrying her around, in a way that we could only do with her. We carried her up and down the stairs, around the house, repeatedly, for a long time, until I was exhausted. Then Danny did it for a while. Then I did it again. We just kept carrying her; we did it in teams. We kept carrying her around, but like upside down, every which way—over your shoulder and under your arm, carrying her like luggage. And that went on for more than an hour—maybe an hour and a half—just carrying her around and saying, “She’s leaving! This could be it! Now come on, this could be the last time we see her. Gilda’s leaving, and remember that she was very sick—hello?”

We worked all aspects of it, but it started with just, “She’s leaving, I don’t know if you’ve said good-bye to her.” And we said good-bye to the same people ten, twenty times, you know.

And because these people were really funny, every person we’d drag her up to would just do like five minutes on her, with Gilda upside down in this sort of tortured position, which she absolutely loved. She was laughing so hard we could have lost her right then and there.

It was just one of the best parties I’ve ever been to in my life. I’ll always remember it. It was the last time I saw her.

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Gilda Radner
1946 – 1989