Someone Else’s Writing

One Thing About “Mr. Robot”

One "O" Away from EPIC

One “O” Away from EPIC

Mr. Robot, the first TV show USA Network has ever made that’s worth paying attention to (which is different from simply watching), has been making some waves–most recently because they postponed the finale due to the recent on-air shooting in Virginia.

I haven’t watched the whole season, but I’ve already formed an opinion about the show: It’s far from perfect, but in one specific way it’s the most interesting show on TV right now. No, not because of the nerdy computer stuff (which yes they get mostly right but JESUS do they hit that button hard; am I seriously to believe people actually say things like “Oh you’re running Gnome? I run KDE myself” in actual conversations?) but because it’s one of the only shows I’ve ever seen that does the Unreliable Narrator right.

Elliot, the main character, informs us (yes, us, the viewer) that we are a creation of his–an imaginary friend he’s created so he can talk to someone. He reaffirms this several times during the course of the show. In other words, the whole show is an exercise in breaking the Fourth Wall, and acting like the character is aware of our presence, watching him. Many things in the show are depicted from Elliot’s POV, and sometimes they’re a little off, a little weird.

There’s also the fact that the whole show, from the opening credits onward, is filmed like a 1970s horror movie. And that is also a good thing.

In addition, there are hints throughout that at least one of the characters Elliot interacts with isn’t actually real. Like I said, I’m not through watching the season yet, so this may turn out to be untrue, but it doesn’t matter. Because this show has so thoroughly nailed the Unreliable Narrator that I can’t be sure of anything that happens on it. And that’s pretty exciting, because the story is still compelling (enough) and well-written, so I also don’t care if it’s really happening.

Most shows and novels mishandle Unreliable Narrators, because they see them solely as a Twist Delivery Vehicle, and that’s because for most people Unreliable Narrators were invented by Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club. Don’t get me wrong, Fight Club is a great book and film, but jebus, people, there are other uses for the Unreliable Narrator. For example: Unsettling your audience. Keeping them off-balance. Everything we’ve seen in Mr. Robot might actually be happening in-universe, and that won’t ruin anything. It’s not about the twist (if there is one), it’s about the artistry. My uncertainty about what’s happening on this show is pretty epic, and that is refreshing.

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Need to Explain “Show Don’t Tell”? Watch True Detective Season 2

We also get the TV show we deserve.

We also get the TV show we deserve.

So, True Detective season 2 has ended, and bow howdy it wasn’t very good. There are of course plenty of bad TV shows every year and few of them rate the amount of attention that TD2: The Failuring has gotten; this is largely a result of the outsize praise season 1 received, of course. After “Time is a flat circle” briefly made up 90% of all Internet traffic, the second season was doomed to disappoint. It’s just the scale of the disappointment that’s surprising.

Because True Detective season 2 is complicated. It was terrible, don’t get me wrong, but also prestige television. It was pretty poorly written, but also delivered at least a handful of well-written lines. The acting was all over the place, and the direction was lackluster, and the plot overly complex with a weak payoff, but there were still tantalizing moments when it seemed poised to transcend these issues and become, if not great, at least watchable.

Ultimately the problem was a simple one, a fundamental one, a problem all writers struggle with: How do you handle showing and telling? And how do you ensure you earn your characters’ fates? That’s where TD2: Electric Mustache Review went wrong. It told. It told everything in an effort to be cagey, and it told it badly.

Vince in the Basement

Vince Vaughn’s character Frank Semyon is the perfect ur-example here. In an early episode, Frank had a soliloquy about his father locking him in the basement as punishment and then getting drunk and arrested, leaving little Frank to fend off rats in the dark for several days, starving. Vaughn delivers the speech with a blank-faced lack of affect that might have been poor acting or might have been batshit direction, but either way the speech lands flat because it’s all Tell and no Show. People think Telling is when you write something like

FRANK: I am a broken man because my father was a drunk who abused me.

But the fact is, Telling isn’t so much about declarative statements that are better left for the reader/viewer to figure out on their own. It’s about subtlety. It’s about understanding how real human beings act and speak. Who in the world lies in bed with their partner in the morning, staring up at water stains in the ceiling, and tells a five minute story about being locked in a basement by their father for no other reason than to let the invisible audience know these crucial details about themselves?

It’s also Telling (and bad writing) because it’s meant to stand alone. We learn very, very little about Frank (or the other characters) over the course of the show, but specific events in their past are supposed to stand in for actual knowledge. Frank and his basement story. Ani and her rage and her knives and her promiscuity. Ray and his wife’s rape and the murder of her supposed rapist. Paul and his closeted homosexuality and his time with the military contractors. We never really get much else about these people: These single events define them absolutely (and are often only vaguely outlined — we know Paul is troubled by his experiences “in the desert,” but we have no idea why or what he did). Frank’s basement story is Telling because it is supposed to be everything we need to know about Frank: He was locked in a basement and fought off rats in the dark, and therefore he is Frank Semyon.

Yeah, it makes no sense. Telling is like that.

And then Frank’s death is like a cluster bomb of Telling. As he staggers through the desert, bleeding from a belly wound after a final betrayal, a few million in diamonds in his pockets and vultures literally following his trail of blood, it’s almost a great scene. Frank came alive a little in the final 2 episodes, and his reversion into a scrappy gangster who takes down his enemies and negotiates his way — almost — to freedom was kind of fun. And watching him refuse to give up, watching him force himself to stagger onward despite the clear odds, could have been affecting if his character had a little more development and backstory before this moment.

Instead, as if the show was fucking with us, it chooses instead to Tell us again, using the worst mechanics of any freshman-level writing workshop: The mysterious hallucinations with no context. We get his father, who has never been personified before in the show, abusing him in a generic way, his speech the sort of thing you’ll find in any  piece of crap about an abusive, one-note father. We get a group of black kids taunting him for being tall and white and gawky. We get a man Frank presumably killed over a debt, begging for his life. This all sketches out a potentially interesting story of how Frank Semyon went from terrified kid to small-time gangster, but it does so in the final five fucking minutes of the character’s story, in a rushed, awkward sequence that treated Frank like a hero, when he isn’t one. Instead of last-minute hallucinations, we could have gotten Frank’s backstory over the course of the season, instead of the endless stilted conversations about a land deal no one gave a shit about.What really hurts is that in the final moments of the scene, when Frank is dead and yet having a sort of Owl Creek Bridge moment, Vaughn stops limping and grimacing and for thirty seconds he turns on a Charm Ray so powerful you almost forgive him. Those thirty seconds as Frank realizes he’s dead are great, and it demonstrates the possibilities.

It demonstrates what they could have Showed us.

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Unnecessary Thoughts on “Friday Night Lights”

TIM RIGGINS FOREVER

TIM RIGGINS FOREVER

So, about 10 years too late to the party, The Duchess and I binge-watched Friday Night Lights recently. And I do mean binge: We normally don’t tear through shows too quickly, but The Duchess became absolutely addicted to FNL and so it took about three weeks to watch 76 episodes. It’s also one of the rare shows that could make her declare “I hate this show” when it did something emotionally devastating, only to have her welcome it back moments later when it did something uplifting.

Friday Night Lights isn’t a perfect show, despite what some people might say. It had some seriously dubious plot developments (there is no need to speak of the murdered rapist) and it dropped more plot threads, never to be mentioned again, than your drunk grandma at a knitting contest (we must imagine that poor Santiago is still living with Buddy Garrity, possibly in a pit in his basement, putting lotion on its skin).

But what FNL did well, it did exceedingly well. There were few Big Moments; this was a show about normal-sized people without super powers just trying to find their way through modern small-town life. But when it came to Character Arcs and sketching out the lives of these people, it was nearly perfect. Let’s discuss two specific things that are representative of the show as a whole: Tim Riggins, and the Housing Market in Dillon, Texas.

The Housing Market in Dillon, Taxes

One of the simplest ways to define a character in a visual medium is to show where and how they live. Yet for most TV shows (and most films) there’s a tendency to go for Setting Porn instead of realism. The kids on Friends couldn’t afford those impossible large apartments, and the titular Broke Girls on that awful sitcom Two Broke Girls live in a huge apartment that people would pay top dollar for, rats and all.

But in FNL, where the characters lived was pegged very realistically to their socioeconomic status. Smash Williams, whose mother moved her family from a crime-ridden town nearby and can barely afford West Dillion, lives in what appear to be either public subsidized housing or very low-cost rentals. Vince Howard, living in poverty-stricken East Dillon, lives in similar lodgings with his drug-addled Mom. Matt Saracen, living with his grandmother while his father is in Iraq and his mother is elsewhere, lives in a sagging old house with a scrabbly front yard. The Riggins Brothers live in a run-down ranch house that had once been part of a new development.

Moving up a little, Coach Taylor and his dual-income family live in a nice enough home on a suburban-looking street, with a neat front yard, and the taylors feel safe enough to play pin-pong with the garage door open at all hours. But they’re just municipal employees; the house is tight on space and little things are broken or run down. They’re doing okay, but there are frequent dreams of larger places and frequent arguments about money.

Buddy Garrity, initially a successful car dealer, lives in a much larger and newer home. It’s not a mansion, but it’s much nicer than the Taylor home. And the McCoy’s, rich and moving to Dillon solely to get their talented quarterback son into the best high school football program around, do live in a mansion. The housing for every character is almost perfectly chosen. It tells you everything you need to know about their economic background, their social status (outside of football, of course, which has its own social pecking order the town respects), and how they live, all without one word of exposition of “As you know … ”

Tim Riggins

As played by Taylor Kitsch, the character of Tim Riggins initially seems like a poorly-acted jock asshole, the sort of athletically gifted handsome lad who coasts through everything and while not precisely mean–though he is, initially, selfish and callow–does a lot of damage solely by dint of not really caring about anyone else. This character could have been a sad cliché, but FNL approached character development in a very smart and measured way.

First of all, most of the true character development took place in the younger characters, the kids. The adults in the show had their tribulations and their moments of clarity, but by and large all the adults are the same people, basically, that they were at the start of the show (which only covers about 3 years of fictional time, after all). It makes sense that characters that start off anywhere from 15 to 18 years old would go through a lot and emerge on the other side changed people: That’s what happens when you’re in high school. Me, I’m 44 fucking years old. I am who I am.

Tim Riggins is handled with almost supernatural subtlety. In the beginning his best qualities are his absolute affection for his friends, and a brooding inability to complain. Over the course of the show the writers slowly move Tim, an inch at a time, from the entitled jock to an actual adult person, someone who sees his glory days as a past chapter in his life–but not with any bitterness. Tim, in the finale, is a man who still loves football, still loves Dillon, Texas, but sees clearly that winning the State Championship as “Big Tim Riggings” of the Dillon Panthers was just a great moment–a great moment that’s gone. He practically spends the last two seasons of the show advising people to put football in perspective, to value it and enjoy it, but to be prepared to leave it behind.

Tim’s depicted as a fundamentally good guy who slowly figures out that you don’t do good things and behave in a responsible or moral way because you’re rewarded for it–in fact, the show mined a lot of drama and humor out of the fact that Tim often did good deeds only to be punished for them–but rather because it’s the right thing to do. After being crushed underneath a litany of bad breaks–deadbeat father, idiot brother, continually assumed to be an amoral seducer of underage girls, and finally falsely confessing to a crime and spending some months in jail–Tim could easily have been depicted as a rage-filled asshole. Instead, he finds some peace in knowing exactly what he wants: A house he builds himself on the outskirts of Dillon, a job that pays the bills, his brother and his extended family.

That’s a character arc that’s almost a straight line in its subtlety, yet it’s a powerful moment, and it’s the reason the series chose to end on the image of Tim and his brother building that house. Tim Riggins was the whole point of the show, in a way: People suffer, people triumph, and in the end all you have is what you make for yourself.

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“Orphan Black” Has a Villain Decay Problem

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

That Orphan Black, the SF show about a woman who discovers she’s one of many, many clones produced by a secret and unethical experiment, has over the course of three seasons become almost insufferably complicated. What was once a fairly crisp story about a woman struggling to save herself and her child while dealing with the horrifying realization that she’s a clone has spiralled into territory familiar with anyone who has watched TV shows based on a “mystery” premise: The audience wants answers, but if you actually give them the show is over, so you pull a trick wherein you explain a mystery while setting a new one in motion.

This can work for a while, if you’re skillful, and Orphan Black, in fact, seemed to pull it off in its second season, expanding the world and complicating the mystery while delivering a continuously interesting story week in and week out. This past year, though, things have come off the rails a bit. There are still pleasures to be had, mainly in Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performances, but the story itself is slow-moving hogwash, to use a technical term. The main problem is that Orphan Black hasn’t met a villain it can’t destroy in a few quick episodes. In fact, the show has had so many it’s solution to the malaise at the end of the last season was to circle back and recycle a villain from the first season.

Villain Decay

In the beginning, there were the Neoloutinists, a cult that believed in “self-directed evolution” who backed the cloning experiment and sought to control the clones, manipulating their lives and monitoring them. There was also a religious cult that saw the clones as abominations, and trained one of the clones to be an unstoppable killing machine, Helena, who was basically a serial killer of clones.

But the clones managed to turn the tables on the Neolutionists, maneuvering one of their allies into a position of authority at the institute set up to monitor the clones and removing the evil clone who’d been working with the Neolutioninsts. Also, Helena, once depicted as a crazy and incredibly dangerous person, was turned into a cuddly if sometimes murderous piece of comic relief as she became affectionate towards her clone sestras. So a new threat was devised: A separate military project involving male clones, which caused a bit of trouble until, again, the female clones managed to completely neuter it and render it impotent. And so, in the third season finale, the show surveyed its field of limp and defeated villains and came up with the idea that the Neolutionists, seemingly defeated for a very long time, were actually embedded in all of these other organizations and running the whole show secretly.

Much of this seems to have been done in the service of surprise: Build up someone as a Big Bad, then shock everyone when they are defeated much sooner than expected. This kind of writing gimmick is like crack: It feels good, but has diminishing returns and leads to your show being canceled.

The problem here is twofold: One, it’s hard to take these villains seriously when all it takes, usually, is a few episodes for them to either be utterly destroyed or brought over as allies; two, the new villains are always just permutations on the conspiracy the clones have been fighting against since Day One. They’re nothing new, just new versions of the same enemy.

A Glimmer of Hope

It’s possible that the bloodbath that was the Season 3 finale was a purposeful clearing of the decks, bringing back the original villains who will now be coherent and focussed. Instead of more and more variations on the “someone is secretly making and modifying or killing or spying on clones!” riff, we might get a real purpose to everything, and perhaps a single face for the enemy. That would go a long way to excusing Season 3’s disastroys meandering. Only time will tell.

The TL;DR version for writers is simple: When you’ve got a mystery-driven storyline, do two things immediately: a) have an exit strategy that involves and overall explanation for everything, and b) don’t give in to the temptation to destroy your villains on the regular just for the story shock value.

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Orphan Black and The Doom of Men

All the same actress.

All the same actress.

Orphan Black is a nifty little Sci-Fi show shown on BBC America about a young woman, a snarky grifter-type from the foster system, who sees a woman who could be her twin jump to her death one night. Stealing the woman’s purse, and eventually impersonating her, she discovers that she’s one of many clones — identical physical replicas raised by a variety of parents all over the world.

There are, as you might imagine, conspiracies.

The main takeaway everyone has about Orphan Black is that one actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays all of the clones. For the most part that means she plays five distinct characters on a regular basis, and she’s played several other clones to boot. Even more impressive, she often depicts the clones impersonating each other, which is kind of mind-bending, if you think about it, because she finds little tics and ways of making it clear that this one distinct character is impersonating another distinct character. The acting she does on this show is nothing short of amazing.

That said, Orphan Black is one of those sci-fi shows that relies on a central mystery and dozens of satellite mysteries for its narrative focus and energy. That means that the first season, which was occupied with introducing the mythology of the clones, the clones themselves, the bad guys, and several double-crosses and unexpected twists, rolled along like a bus on fire. Since then, the show has suffered quite a bit from terminal Exponential Complexity.

Nesting Doll Plotting

The problem is simple: On a show like this, you can never actually solve the mystery. If you solve the mystery, the show is over. Lost was like that, and like that earlier show Orphan Black faces a problem: People want the mystery solved. We watch, at least in part, because we want the mystery solved. We can tolerate a slow solution, we can tolerate twists and heel turns, but eventually we need to feel like the story is moving forward to a solution that makes sense.

So, Orphan Black is doing what a lot of shows before have done in response to this problem: They solve a mystery here and there, but introduce two more at the same time. So, while in a sense the audience knows more about the universe of Orphan Black than they did back in Season One, in fact they know about the same proportion of information because the writers keep introducing new aspects that come with their own mysteries.

For example, in the first two seasons we were aware of the female clones, known collectively as Project Leda. At the end of Season Two it was revealed that there were also male clones from the same genetic material, known collectively as Project Castor. So while we know a bit about how the Leda clones came to be and what they’ve been up to, the Castor clones were a whole new mystery.

This strategy works for a while, but eventually becomes cumbersome. At this point in the show, the main character, Sarah, hasn’t had a good night’s sleep or a normal day in what seems like forever. It’s been a never-ending slog of investigation, impersonation, capture, torture, escape, shocking revelation, and the occasional clone dance party (Google it). It’s exhausting to imagine her having even more adventures as time goes on, only to continuously reveal even more mysteries, even more powerful villains who outrank who we previously thought were the Big Bads, and have to laboriously retcon story decisions that don’t make a whole lot of sense otherwise.

Eventually, it simply becomes untenable. Eventually, we can’t suspend disbelief any more. I don’t think the show is quite there just yet, but it’s inevitable. The British system of treating shows like one-off miniseries would be better: Tell a story, finish the story, and then, if there’s interest, set a wholly new story in the universe. It would save us all a lot of sadness.

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Two Cents on Mad Men

Just give me five minutes, and I'll be golden.

Just give me five minutes, and I’ll be golden.

I CANNOT HELP MYSELF.

I know that writing endless blog posts about a TV show is silly, really, but at risk of annoying the folks who cannot comprehend how you can spend so much energy contemplating a work of art, I have thoughts about Mad Men and the finale. In a nutshell: The whole show is about the fear of losing that creative spark.

Let’s start with the pilot episode: Don Draper, in a sweat because he has no ideas. He spend the whole episode in a sweat, worried he’s lost his gift, worried his brain will, finally, betray him and leave him with nothing to offer in the pitch session with Lucky Strike. Creative folks know that sweat: Every time we take on a new project, we worry that the Idea Machine in our brains will abandon us. Trust me. I’m still haunted by a brief period in college when I came up dry on story ideas and feared my best was behind me at the age of twenty. Stop laughing. This shit is serious.

Over the course of the whole show, we’ve been watching Don Draper fade. Season One is where his two most memorable and most-quoted pitches occur: Lucky Strike and Kodak. Since then, what truly great pitches has Don managed? None that I can think of. Well — maybe the Accutron Pitch in the first episode of Season Seven. That pitch kind of rocked — but, notably, Don wrote it, but he didn’t pitch it. And while it’s an arresting piece of writing, it’s not exactly a creative triumph that has people rushing from the room in tears. It’s just a solid, well-written piece of marketing. Don is a pro. Losing your creative spark doesn’t mean you lose the skills as well — he can still write, and write well. But he has no new ideas.

That’s not to say he wasn’t still creative. Or smart. Or cool. But we’ve been watching a Don Draper who is less and less creative as time goes by. In the season four episode “The Suitcase” Don’s big idea at the end is a simple steal from the iconic photo from the big fight. Also in season four, Don wins a Clio for his Glo-Coat commercial, but not only is it not an especially brilliant idea, it’s also largely stolen from Peggy. In the season six episode “The Crash,” Don, high on speed, claims he has a great idea, but can’t even articulate it.

Don retains his “cool” until his disastrous pitch to Hershey in Season 6. In the final season of the show, Don is relegated to creative grunt work, and even when he regains his executive authority, there are no good ideas. Don Draper goes from a creative genius in 1960 to a man still coasting on past (and long gone) creative glory in 1970.

Until rock bottom. Until Coke.

Once again, in the finale, Don is up against it. While he hasn’t been officially tasked with coming up with a pitch for Coke, we know he’s been assigned to the Coke pitch. We know Jim Hobart wants Don on Coke. And throughout the last few episodes, Don has been seeing Coke everywhere: At the meeting for Miller Beer he walks out of, on the road as he wanders the country. Many of the details at the retreat end up in his commercial pitch, and even rando Leonard’s speech about being unnoticed and wondering about love — the speech that moves Don to embrace him and break into tears — reminds Don of Coke (think about it – the whole bit about the dream of being in the refrigerator).

Don finally has a good idea again. No — a great idea, because no matter how you feel about advertising as a creative medium, the fact is that Hilltop Coke commercial is regarded as one of the most effective and most creative ads ever. After nearly ten years of stagnation, Don manages one last flash of genius. And that’s why Don will be okay. It has nothing to do with his familial obligations or failures, or his money, or his libido. Don will be okay because he’s found his creativity again.

Or, yanno, it was a TV show and they made it up as they went along. Shut up.

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The Coming Age of Assholes: Mad Max Fury Road

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-lovely-dayMad Max: Fury Road is a great movie. Zero exposition, nonstop action, real-feeling stuntwork, and subtle performances plus a surfeit of imagination when it comes to the details and characters of a universe — these are the ingredients for a film that will probably be remembered long after the Marvel tent collapses under its own weight. If you disagree that Fury Road is a good-to-great film, we are no longer friends.

What struck me most about the universe in Fury Road is the way George Miller assumes that in the event of apocalypse, it’s not the strong who will survive. Or the just. Or the smart. Or the innocent. No, Miller’s universe has consistently assumed one thing: When the world ends, it will be the assholes who rule the embers.

Confining ourselves just to Fury Road, every single character, basically, is an asshole. You have your murderous thugs in Immortan Joe and his crew, you have your unsympathetic, gluttonous plutocrats in the leaders of Gastown and the Bullet Farm. You even have Max himself and Furiosa, our protagonists, who are both incredible assholes. Max, after all, spends much of the film concerned only for himself, and Furiosa isn’t exactly nice, and she’s making “amends” for some mysterious crimes, likely pegged to her rank as Imperator in Immortan Joe’s brutal society.

Now, this makes sense. A lot of apocalyptic fiction likes to imagine that at least somewhere some thoughtful, socialized folks will set up camp and impose some sort of order, or that even when pushed to the edges of their humanity people will still be fundamentally good. The Stand and The Walking Dead both trade in these tropes, but Miller is probably closer to what would really happen: The assholes who already act like civilization is an impediment to their enjoyment of life will simply strap on a studded codpiece, rev up a chainsaw, and take over your town with brutal glee.

Think about the folks you ride the subway with, who share your HOA, who bump into you at bars and nightclubs. Think about all those assholes and despair, because chances are they will be the Immortan Joes of our future world, whereas the rest of us will be killed, enslaved, or exiled.

In fact, I personally like an interpretation of the film that “Max” as portrayed by Tom Hardy isn’t actually the Max Rockatansky from the original three films — that Max has become a legend of sorts, a ceremonial name people adopt when they leave behind the brutal me-vs-you attitude of the world. This appeals to me because it fits in with my Assholes Theory: It’s like you have this epiphany that you just fought like a dog for something larger than yourself, or common decency, and you’re declaring that you’re no longer, I dunno, Gloriable Amputate or some other insane persona wearing leather and driving a car festooned with rusting metal spikes, but a person – the legendary Max.

Likely that’s a stretch, though Miller’s casual attitude towards continuity and throughline in his four films makes it entirely possible. Either way, it doesn’t matter, the point remains the same: In the Mad Max universe, the assholes have taken over, and it’s why the films are so good. It’s the verisimilitude.

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A Few Quick Mad Men Thoughts

How come when I wear a suit I look like a 10-year old kid playing dress up?

How come when I wear a suit I look like a 10-year old kid playing dress up?

While I realize the universe is likely not waiting breathlessly for one more set of random thoughts on a TV show, I have always been that jackass that likes to bloviate endlessly about TV shows and the like, so let’s do this.

Watching the final episodes of Mad Men I’ve been struck by the way the show repeats patterns in different ways, generally following changes in the characters. In some ways, each of the principles is ending the show on a pitch-perfect note for their characters, the perfectly appropriate ending. Roger has come full-circle as the monied but irrelevant figurehead. Joan, who once advised all the girls to pursue husbands and not get too ahead of themselves, is cut short on her rise to power. Peggy, whose life has been dedicated (to the detriment of everything else) to her career, attacks her new job with gusto. Pete, lusting after executive success, finally gets a job that lives up to his expectations. Betty – sure, Betty is dead, but her final scene showed her back in school, flirting with the boys, like she’d always wanted. While some of the details of these fates are unexpected, you can line them up with Season One’s depiction of these characters.

The perfect example, which I suspect will show up in next week’s finale in some form, is simple enough: Don is running away again. Don Draper, coward, liar, creative force, is once again fleeing his life into the West.

He’s done this before, or tried to. When Pete Campbell threatened to expose him, he tried to run away. When his wife found out about his affairs and his lies and began to assert herself, he fled to California for a long time. Don has always run away, or dreamed of running away. It’s what he does.

The difference is that before, Don ran out of fear. Fear was what drove him, a desire to escape consequences. What’s he running away from here at the end of the season? Not fear: For once he has nothing to fear. He’s secure in his career (or could be), he’s got access to all the best accounts, he’s divorced, rich, and his kids are finally growing up. His relationship with poor Betty was on the upswing. He’s even day-drinking in a modestly controllable manner and hasn’t vomited, passed out, or pissed himself in front of other people in ages!

You could argue that he runs out of fear, that what inspires him to run is actually the sight of all those other Creative Directors, the competition. Maybe Don is terrified he’s lost “it” and can’t compete. Instead of a big fish in a small pond, he’s suddenly a guppy, and he runs in terror. The clue, for me, is the shot of the plane that captures Don’s attention right before he flees. It’s not fear. He looks around and realizes he has no desire to do this work any more.

No, Don’s running for other reasons, finally. He sits in a boring meeting and realizes he’s no longer the Golden Boy, he’s one of dozens of Creative Directors. He’s a cog. And he’s bored. So he does what I think anyone with an office job has dreamed of doing: He walks out of a meeting, away from millions of dollars, gives away his car, and seems happy about it all. Just walks out. Because it’s not fear, for once. He’s just ready to move on.

This is why I’ve really enjoyed the show. It’s thoughtful, and while it could be occasionally obvious in its metaphors, and sometimes a bit plodding with self-seriousness, it’s one of the few TV shows I’ve ever seen that explores themes and patterns over the course of the entire show, and not just for a brief episode arc. Don’s a runner, so he runs – but not always for the same reasons.

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Frank

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

NOTE: The illustration included here was created by Ryan Gajda (http://www.sundaydogparade.com) and I neglected to credit him.

If you’ve heard of the film Frank, you’ve probably heard it described as the one where the improbably attractive actor Michael Fassbender wears a fiberglass head through 90% of the film or possibly as the one where this musician won’t take off his fiberglass head or somewhat less possibly as the one based loosely on the real-life Frank Sidebottom or something similar. And while that’s technically accurate description of the film Frank, both descriptions manage to miss the point, because this isn’t so much a movie about a crazy (and possibly genius) musician who wears a big round head all the time. It’s a movie about creativity, the creative process, and, most specifically, what happens when you want to be creative but aren’t very good at it.

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The Video Gaming of Movies

SHE KILLS LITERALLY EVERYBODY

SHE KILLS LITERALLY EVERYBODY

I recently watched the film Everly, directed by Joe Lynch and starring Salma Hayek, specifically so I could write this little essay, because I suspected that it would be a good place to start. Everly is a simple film despite the sheer number of corpses and gunfire – it’s also not exactly a good film. But that doesn’t actually matter for my larger point.

To get it out of the way (and SPOILERS HO!) here’s the basics: Hayek is a woman who has forced into prostitution by a very, very bad man, and has been living as a prisoner in a nice apartment, forced to never see her daughter or mother. Planning to betray the crime boss, her intentions are exposed and he sends a group to gang-rape her and then kill her in revenge, but she has a gun and a phone hidden in the bathroom and manages to kill them all. The crime boss sends wave after wave of people to kill her, and she manages to survive through a mix of luck, determination, and a very high tolerance for pain.

To say the film is inconsistent would be an understatement: It picks up ideas, plays with them a little, then discards them. It throws in several pointless moments of “excitement.” It has no relationship with reality at all. For all that, it’s kind of entertaining, actually. Some of that goes to the script, which is mildly witty, and some goes to the direction, which is occasionally arresting. And some of it goes to Hayek, who looks good with a machine gun and manages to sell the emotion when she’s not gunning down nameless thugs.

But mainly, the movie entertains because it’s essentially a video game run-through.

CUT SCENES FOR THE PLOT, Y’ALL

This is an increasingly popular form of action movie. It doesn’t matter much what the plot is, or the genre, or anything else. The main thing is, the film is structured like a video game: Quick setup, then a series of levels, each with its own challenges, special look, and sometimes a specific Boss battle.

Dredd was like this, too. These films are marked by the wave-after-wave structure, where the hero fights off a wave of adversaries, gets a brief respite (level loading) and then wades in again. The waves of thugs get either increasingly tough, show up in increasing numbers, or become increaingly bizarre as the hero advances through the game, er, story.

Everly follows this pretty closely: The thugs going after the title character start off relatively weak (they’re the other prostitutes in the building, who are offered a reward if they kill her). Then some standard-issue criminals in black suits and better weaponry show up. Then some bizarre torturer Boss-type guy, then a police SWAT unit with body armor and assault rifles, then the Big Boss himself with an RPG, a katana, and a nice suit. Every time Everly  kills off a wave, there’s a sequence of quiet akin to a cutscene, where the story advances until the next level loads up, I mean, the next scene begins.

You Know, For Kids

Now, this isn’t an awful way to set up a film (and I liked Dredd very much if I didn’t think Everly was so great) when what you’re going for is that breathless, adrenaline-soaked experience. But the model is very clearly video games, and I can’t help but wonder if this is a conscious attempt to capture the youth market, where a lot of kids have come to prefer the way video games tell stories. The rhythms of action/cutscene/action, the stylized violence, the increasingly bizarre Bosses – it all matches up pretty well.

It’s been theorized that Video Games might someday be the future of visual storytelling – aside from action games, games like Gone Home or Myst had the feel of being inside a movie, walking around (albeit in Myst’s case the movie was an insanely dull one) and I can see it. Once graphics become truly realistic, why not – games like Half Life and Portal and others are already very story-driven in some ways, and, frankly, there’s something exciting about the idea that you could “re-play” a movie and explore different areas and plot options, etc. And instead of sequels, there would be downloadable content.

Although, as I get older, that would make watching a movie exhausting. But at least there would be speed run-throughs on YouTube.

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