Patriot: Suddenly Now I Know Where I Belong

Patriot is a confounding piece of television, in that I love it to pieces but when recommending it to people I find myself staring off into space trying to explain why. It’s easy to use certain adjective trains like surrealistic black comedy spy drama or describe it as comparable to the dry humor of the Coen brothers because while it is those things it’s also a tender and unique kind of weird that makes you lean in a little bit. It will juxtapose a pitch perfect awkward exchange of dialogue with a pratfall without missing a beat and then tap-dance deftly into what is essentially a spy drama. It’s The Bourne Identity mixed with Fargo crossed with a little bit of In Bruges and the main character John Tavner, portrayed with an eerie wounded intelligence by Michael Dormanalso happens to be an accomplished folk singer/songwriter with a bad habit of writing songs that literally recount his spycraft exploits. Oh, and it’s also beautiful. A lot of shows and films will suck the color and hue out of the frame to make things seem more dramatic or serious but what they fail to do to keep the viewer from getting lost in the greys and blues is compose a shot, and Patriot I could rewatch on mute.

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The cast has more than a few hey I know that guy from something actors. Kurtwood Smith plays basically Red Foreman but with the advantage of some actual depth. Terry O’Quinn is a shady but mostly reliable paterfamilias. And Gil Bellows, who is also an Executive Producer, pops up in a minor role here and there. But the show belongs to Dorman who has the difficult task of portraying a kind of sensitive soul struggling with the loneliness and confusing nature of his job as a N.O.C. for the C.I.A. while also being sort of an asshole. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with and is forced to express what can be perceived as a kind of nihilistic resignation to the job by smoking a lot of pot and generally not giving a shit about day to day politeness or friendly interactions. He seems to be, outside of a long distance and sad relationship with a woman, purely about function separate from form except for the occasional open-mike night and it’s difficult to pin down or care for a character who never smiles and may or may not be a sociopath. But there is something familiar in John Tavner, something relatable in his melancholia and in the amusing and well-realized premise that even the job of an international undercover spy can be as tedious and absurd as any other.

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Let me walk you through our Donnely nut-spacing and cracked system rim-riding grip configuration: using a field of half-seized sprats and brass-fitter nickel slits, our bracketed caps and spray-flexed brace columns vent dampers to dampening hatch depths of ½ meter from the damper crown to the spurv plinth. How? Well, we bolster 12 Husk Nuts to each girdle jerry while flex tandems press a task apparatus of ten vertically composited patch hamplers then pin flam-fastened pan traps at both maiden apexes of the jimjoints.

Did I mention the prominent role industrial piping and welding plays in the story? It’s hard to keep track of how many different ways Patriot calmly steps off the path and wanders into some unexpected shenanigans that elaborately circle back to the main plot. Take, for example, the image above which is, in fact, the main character absconding with a half dozen or so prosthetic legs from what appears to be a water aerobics class. At face value this doesn’t make any sense at all but fifteen minutes later the scenes meaning is perfectly clear. And funny. And a little bit sad. Granted, not all tangents are related to the main plot, some are merely backstory, but there’s a delightfully disjointed narrative akin to Pulp Fiction or Go where the same event or interaction takes place just outside the view of another pivotal moment which increases in complexity deeper into the season.

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Again, it would be easy to dislike John Tavner for many reasons but adding that musical element is what elevates a very good show into something different. There are few instances throughout but one in particular where I sincerely wish this character or actor or whomever would actually put together an album that stays on message instead of careening off into stream-of-consciousness for humorous/narrative purposes. His style is some marriage between Matt Berninger from The National and Samuel Beam of Iron & Wine and it’s one of the few times where I wish there were more musical interludes in a show where I am thoroughly addicted to the twists and turns of the story. And again, I’m struck by how difficult it is to explain what Patriot is like with each part, the music element, the occasionally non-linear narrative, the dark humor, seemingly incongruous unless viewed as a whole but once that whole is put together there’s a joy to the material that makes you want to grab the nearest person and shout “You need to see this”. The last time I felt this enthusiastic about a new show was probably Stranger Things and while I’m not saying that I predicted its meteoric popularity or cultural impact….

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…. but from what I can tell so far no one appears to be watching. And I get that. When this appeared on Amazon Prime my brain formed the letters “MEH” in the sky above my computer and I went about my day. But then I found a review from a writer I happen to have a great affection for even though he goes on about The Good Wife far too enthusiastically and this writer that I like absolutely raved about Patriot, jumped up and down, literarily speaking, and insisted on at least checking out the pilot episode. Once I gave in and check it out I stopped. The next day I watched another episode. And so forth. Patriot is so good that I had to use all the self-control I could muster to not binge watch the thing and I still want to go back and rewatch some episodes.

Dennis (distraught): “I had an erection. Not from being in a room with a sex worker. I think mostly I was excited about helping you gather information and one thing led to another…and I didn’t even get any information. About where the girl in the passport is. I just got herpes.

Tom: “[To Dennis] Put down the phone, Dennis. You can tell your wife you slept with a prostitute. I’m okay with that, go for it. But you cannot tell her about this situation you were drawn into. [To John] Why…why was he drawn into this anyway?”

John (without emotion): “I needed his pee.”

COME ON. I don’t even know what else I need to say but the show is lousy with these kinds of exchanges and I present the same challenge as the other writer, in fact, I’ll double down. If you can make it through the cold open and the opening credits without Patriot sparking some well-deserved interest, I’ll eat this review. At the very least enjoy the haunting and beautiful title song:

 

Captain Fantastic: A Beautiful Mistake

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In an early scene in writer-director Matt Ross’s film Captain Fantastic Viggo Mortenson’s father character Ben finds his daughter reading Lolita, the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov and he asks for her analysis. What follows is a pretty accurate assessment of Humbert Humbert’s pitiable obsession with a 12 year old girl and his daughter points out something intrinsic to the narrative: since it is written from the man’s perspective his actions seem justified, if only because he believes they are, and so you sympathize with him even though he is precisely a pedophile and a criminal using his understanding of love as an excuse for his actions. Although Ben Cash is neither of those things, this is a pretty astute foreshadowing of the rest of the film as his attempts to guide and educate his children, his love for them inspiring some very questionable, mildly illegal behavior. Ultimately, he is both the protagonist and antagonist and Mortenson does a great job with the material coming off believably as a brilliant Libertarian mountain man/survivalist. But if he’s lacking anything, and this could apply to the character as well, it’s heart. He’s not the most approachable person, evoking Ted Kacynski more than David Cassidey, and this is where the talented cast of children balance things out and it’s easy to immediately cheer for them, a difficult task from a group that is more or less a Doomsday Cult.

The cover of Captain Fantastic at first implied something akin to Wes Anderson and it’s important to note that this is pretty far from the case. Rather, it feels closer to David O. Russell and his earlier work about damaged outcasts looking for a sense of family. Thematically, however, this is the opposite of what this film is about. Family is all they have and although they are physically healthy and well educated the fact that the Partridge family bus is not a school bus at all but a prisoner transport is a pretty on the nose metaphor for their lives. It starts an interesting conversation about the concept of homeschooling, at one point Ben pits his 8 year old daughter against her two teenage cousins on the subject of the Bill of Rights, and although she is able to both recite them from memory and provide a detailed analysis this is treated as a victory for his family. But in reality, despite the fact that public schooling is a deeply flawed system the social skills that develop in those settings are undeniably critical to functionality and happiness in later life. We are, with rare exception, social creatures and while denying children the opportunity to make that decision for themselves is an absolute right that parents have, the results of such an experiment should be explored. My own experience involved my first roommate at tech school falling asleep every day in class because he sat up until 5am every night painting Warhammer figurines. Having never been on his own or under the supervision of adults who were not his parents he never developed a sense of respect for their authority or an ounce of consideration for his roommate who was trying to fucking sleep.

That being said, Ben Cash is honest and direct with his children at all times and this is undeniably admirable. Having grown up in a less than conventional environment I was always able to tell when adults were lying to me about mature subjects, however when folks did occasionally treat me with the respect that was usually afforded to grown ups I recognized it. Children are a lot more intelligent than they are given credit for and in a lot of ways can be better at processing information and better at detecting bullshit. So those grown ups that were honest with me I tended to trust more and the uncle that told me the “Clearance 7’2” sign that hangs over the drive thru at McDonald’s meant that they were on the lookout for someone named “Clearance” who was seven feet, two inches tall was generally not someone I relied on as much. For the record, I figured out what the sign meant before turning 20…..ish.

If I had to fault Captain Fantastic it would have to be in the third act and its emotional, if somewhat idealistic finale. The journey that the kids go on is different from their father’s and he rightfully exacts the price that he should for his myopic approach to raising children in the world we all live in, the one that is so often lethargic, ignorant, and materialistic. But the cost doesn’t stick. And instead of losing something permanently in exchange for what he’s taken away from his children which is, in a lot of ways, their actual childhood, he only glimpses what would in real life be more of an implacability. But that’s okay, this is not a deal breaker and this is not that kind of film. Like so many great ones that are overshadowed of late by blockbuster theatrical releases and sequels of prequels of CGI spectacle it’s important to remember that there are some that have have an actual heart. One with a lovely message that even an off-the-grid, Noam Chomsky worshipping, Renaissance Man wouldn’t mind his kids seeing. It’s about the strength and resilience of family and the ability to admit a mistake, even if it is an enormous perspective altering one. I am a big believer in the idea that sometimes it’s necessary to lose the path in order to find it again and if that’s too esoteric of an idea or sounds like fortune cookie wisdom, this may be too sentimental of an experience. Otherwise, there’s plenty of room on this bus.

Westworld: Trace Decay

Dear Westworld,

Hey, what’s up. Quick question for you, have you ever questioned the nature of your reality? Ha! Just kidding. Because that’s the….it’s how the park employees evaluate the …the robots. Anyway. Just want to let you know I’m still a big fan, now I say ‘still’ because what follows may seem like an outright complaint about the show but it’s not, just a polite request and some areas that I feel could benefit from a new approach. This week’s episode Trace Decay left me a little bit frustrated and I wasn’t sure why at first, it was definitely thrilling and continued to add thoughtful layers to the already dense seven layer dip that is HBO’s Westworld, I love it. I love having a show to watch that doesn’t pander or aim for the middle in terms of appeal, I really enjoy the deep conversations and esoteric references and all the little ways it subverts expectations and adds quirky little details to make the park itself seem both familiar and uncanny at the same time. The performances are also spectacular, the things that these actors and actresses have to do, Thandie Newton in particular, is on another plane as far as verisimilitude and depth, it’s almost a requirement to rewatch each episode in order to understand the emotional hurdles these characters are negotiating. And the cinematography? Wow, right? Just blows me away every episode. I could keep going with the praise but what I am getting at, actually, is that it would be really nice if like something, the fuck, would happen. You know?

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the slow boiler. Take a show like Bloodline over on Netflix. Great show but it takes awhile and has liberal use of flashbacks (just like you!) to build to an emotional climax. The tension clearly ratchets up from episode to episode, you feel it even though you don’t know what’s going to happen and once it does it’s devastating. Really great drama. And I think that you’re there too, I totally believe in the confidence of the narrative, it’s just that after the most recent episode, the eighth out of ten, I still don’t know what the point is. What seemed to be a huge revelatory moment with the Man In Black more or less confirming he’s an older William, the fact that somehow murdering Mauve and her daughter is how he discovered the maze to begin with made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Visually, it was fascinating, seeing her laying in the middle of a massive drawing of the maze carved out in the ground but how could he have had a bird’s eye perspective and seen this? From the ground it just looked like a series of dirt rows. “And then something amazing happened. She refused to die.” Well, I’m no doctor but it looks like you stabbed her in the small intestine. Probably super painful but that’s not going to flip the switch right away, Mr. Philanthropist. Have you seen Reservoir Dogs? That guy bled like a stuck pig for almost an hour and a half. Anyway, this just felt a little bit rushed and uneven and again, I’m not saying it wasn’t fun to watch but even the spidery, fiercely intelligent Charlotte Hale knows the rule. “Show. Don’t tell, right? Isn’t that how you writers do it?” Except not in this episode. Unless….Wait.

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This whole ‘my wife died in the bathtub but it turns out she committed suicide because I go full Renegade while playing Mass Effect so I decided to come to Westworld‘ story. That sounds a lot like a character history. You wouldn’t be resurrecting some of the elements of the film, are you? Particularly my very first theory that was quickly disproved? Heh. Naw. Although that would be a spectacular way to zig when everyone on the internet is now aware of your intention to zag. I have commented on my dislike of the theory because of the way I relate to a young idealistic William, but this would be the best of both worlds. After all, Ford has had a Host operating behind the scenes of the park without anyone being the wiser, who’s to say he couldn’t have sent one out into the world to manipulate and control the board. I mean, I’m reaching here and don’t tell me if I’m right, of course. At this point I have two months invested and I’d rather find out in due course. But how great would it be to drop a bar of soap in the internet’s coffee? I’d love you forever if you did that.

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Another thing. Mauve. I, uh….still not tracking on this one. The only thing that I believe would validate this plotline is if Felix and Sylvester are Hosts who are incapable of resisting her commands but they aren’t aware of it. Or are they are simply hypnotized by boobs? I mean. I would be. Otherwise, she is actively fomenting a Host insurrection under the noses of, well, everyone and the only thing that stands in her way are these two ne’er-do-wells. They can’t possibly think there is still a promotion in here somewhere. More than that, Sylvester surviving having his jugular sliced open was huge cop-out, my friend, it speaks to the crux of this written objection. It’s bad enough that inside the park is basically an elaborate one-sided game of paintball but if things don’t stick in the real world I’m even less likely to feel any kind of suspense or stakes. Granted, someone might finally have figured out some of the shenanigans these three have been up to but then something might actually happen and we wouldn’t want that with only two episodes to go. Heaven forbid.

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Okay, this is an outright complaint. We are eight episodes in and Dolores is still having this cryptic nonsensical flashbacks that in no way illuminate what she’s seeing or why she’s seeing them. In fact, they are further obscuring what we already suspect as she discovers what she claims to be her home town and yet another timeline with Angela popping up as a cheerful local. I really liked Dolores in the beginning, I genuinely felt for her, especially how desperately she fought off the Man in Black, that was easy to want some sort of redemption or justice for her. But just like going out with someone who seems to be in need of some emotional support and a kind hand at first, after a few weeks you realize that you’re actually dating a basket case. I’m not trying to be cruel or lessen her struggle by any means but, as far as William goes…the man is on vacation. And I can think of a few things more relaxing than chasing Dolores around the desert while she shouts, “Are you real?! Is this real?!” like going to a party where I get a little drunk and start weeping where your significant other gets a little too drunk and locks themselves in the bathroom. I guess that’s what their story is starting to feel like. She’s tripping balls and he’s getting bored. And he is not alone.

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One more thing, what’s up with these monster men running around with Wyatt? They are pretty freaky from a distance and in large numbers but up close there’s no way this thing has a good range of motion.On the whole Westworld has felt largely grounded in reality, even for a show about realistic androids dressed up as cowboys but these cultists or whatever they are stretch the imagination. The show is often compared to a video game and I guess every game needs a heavy of some kind but unless they turn out to be a cameo by Gwar…meh. On the other hand, kudos to you for adding Lili Simmons to the cast. Not to be a super creep or anything but, uh, yeah, she’s a good. Anyway, like I said, you’re doing a great job and at least this week we can verify that you have more timelines going on than the entire Back to the Future Trilogy. How we’re going to sort them out at the end is 100 percent your problem but I feel like we’re in good hands. You seem to know what you’re doing even if no one else is sure, hahaha. I know I’ve postulated enough for a lifetime and, frankly, all I’m suggesting is that considering we may not get to return to you until 2018 I think we all deserve some real closure. Don’t let us down! Or end on an even more mysterious note! Or go another episode without any fucking consequences! Otherwise, I’ll probably lose my shit.

With Love and Violent Delights,
An Ardent Fan

 

Bonus: I normally post the original version of the player piano jams but I like the Westworld versions so much here they are. Makes you want to go out and start a revolution, politely.

 

 

Westworld: Trompe L’Oeil

Finally, some payoff. I was so excited to see an actual plot twist last night that it wasn’t until this morning, while staring at a bottle of milk that I realized what was missing from the episode. The Borden brand of 2 percent has a little cow picture on the logo. I never looked that closely before but the name ‘Elsie’ is written on it and I thought, ‘OH, HOLY SHIT. What happened to Elsie?!’ Last night’s revelation about Bernard was so satisfying that I forgot how pissed off I was that last week’s episode ended with such an obnoxious cliffhanger regarding her fate. I thought for sure it was False Jeopardy, the kind of hollow tease you find on network television right before a commercial break and it would turn out to be Girl’s Name just dropping in on her. But alas, her fate is going to have to wait until next week because there are more important discoveries to be found in Trompe L’Oeil. 

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Supposedly, this was a popular theory on the interwebs that Bernard Lowe was actually a Host but as far as I can recall there have not been any blatant clues or allusions to this so that sounds to me like pure guesswork. In fact, it’s counter-intuitive; why have a Host in charge of updating behavior in Hosts, it’s got a little bit of a Bootstrap Paradox going for it. There’s got to be a theory about everyone at some point, obviously one or two are going to ring true but what was so well done about the reveal is how efficiently and effectively it was executed. After Bernard is fired under questionable circumstances it’s reasonable to assume he’d want to come clean with Theresa and show her some of the other bizarre goings on in the park. But when he ignores her perfectly rational question about venturing into the park without security, I dismissed this as I was expected to. When he utters the phrase about the other Hosts not being able to see Ford’s secret house, that they would look right past it without noticing, I remembered the title of the episode, ‘a visual illusion or trick of the eye.’

What’s inside this door?” Theresa asks. “What door?” And all of a sudden it clicked. One of the things that bugged me about The Adversary is how Ford suddenly appeared next to Bernard as he was being assaulted by Ford Sr. It seemed a little bit lazy of the director to have someone just outside of camera view but reasonably within a character’s view to pop up unexpectedly but as Evan Rachel Wood states in a quirky, fun interview about Westworld everything has a purpose. In that first scene we are experiencing things through Bernard’s perspective and as far as he is concerned, Ford does appear to materialize. And now we know why.

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The phrase ‘blood sacrifice’ was used twice this week and this has several implications. One, somehow Charlotte Hale and Robert Ford are in league and the latter is letting Theresa know she’s been played all along by both of them before murdering her. That seems unlikely since they appear to be fundamentally at odds for control of the park. Two, that Ford is aware of their conversation and has beat them to the punch and he’s letting her know before murdering her. Which is really fucked up. We’ve been skating around morality and ambiguities for 6 episodes now but we’re at least clear on one character. Ford, whatever his reasons, is a bad guy. Maybe not the bad guy but definitely a black hat and remorseless manipulator who has no sense of morality and only wants to maintain control over the park and his ‘little stories’. Although Theresa may have been far from an innocent bystander in the story so far, she definitely didn’t deserve to have her head smashed up against a basement wall, not by a long shot.

Also, why is Ford so calm about this? She’s an important part of the company that funds the park and her sudden disappearance should immediately raise questions. Well, as he mentions off-hand, he has his own Easy Bake oven for manufacturing Hosts and one is currently spinning away like a rotisserie chicken. How much do you want to bet that it’s going to be a replacement for the newly murdered operations leader? The plot thickens. I’m going to dive into some fan theories here, which I normally like to avoid but are impossible to ignore anymore. The biggest one at the moment is that Bernard is actually a recreation of Arnold himself and that the conversations that he was having with Dolores were not Bernard-Bot 5000 but rather the original Arnold 35 years in the past, all the flashbacks and conversations were all a misdirection to make it seem like they are the same person.This would be particularly poetic if Ford, in the ultimate act of disrespect, recreated a doppelganger of his former partner as a soft-spoken, inoffensive subordinate.

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Either way it seems like theories about a non-linear narrative are making more sense. After all, with the unchanging nature of the park and ageless androids running around, it seems like an undeniable opportunity to test an audience’s perception. There is another theory I’m still not going to touch on quite yet but it does have to do with different timelines being shown at the same time and I am somewhat comfortable acknowledging it even exists without describing it after this week’s episode. Jonathan Nolan and company had me completely fooled on this Bernard situation so my faith in their ability to continue to do so is reinforced, therefore I’m almost comfortable enough debunking that theory because I don’t like it. Almost.

A word on Mauve and her new acolytes. Although it’s easy to cheer her on as she gains agency and purpose I can’t help but wonder what’s going on with the lab techs Felix and Sylvester, who I just realized are the names of two cartoon cats. I get that the madame can pretty intimidating and self-assured but here’s how this exchange should have ended this week. “If you don’t help me….I’ll kill you.” Felix picks up a Windows tablet, “Sure thing. Let me just (presses OFF button). Okay, that’s that. Want to go grab a future burger? Or some space pizza?”  I assume those things will have been invented by then. And if that should not happen to work because of her uncanny ability to wake up, just turn up the stupid and move on. I’m hoping the show provides a little bit more impetus for their cooperation besides her intimidating presence and their fear of being disciplined.

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William and Dolores finally consummated their hastily assembled and most likely ill-fated romance. As much as I’d love a happily every after their conversation this week makes it very clear they are passing each other on journeys that are going in the opposite direction. William is now completely invested in the narrative and wants to let go of his real life in favor of the fantasy found in the park while Dolores wants the opposite. She’s done being part of someone else’s story and is in search of something true. I know this point as been made to death but if Westworld has a real weakness it’s in the action which is fun, well-choreographed, and even shocking at times while also being complete spectacle and ultimately irrelevant. Which is rough because this week had a train ambush, an exploding horse, and an ambush by Ghost Nation warriors, but sadly, no real suspense.

Charlotte Hale seems to be a tough as nails, give-no-shits corporate executive but as much as I appreciate her confidence and cavalier sexuality, I have walked into a room where two people had very recently been to Bone Town, Population: every one else but me lately, and it is not a pleasant experience. Depending on the ventilation, temperature, and intensity of the coitus, it’s like taking a shower in someone else’s pheromones and not in an appetizing way. It’s kind of like sushi. You start with the basic stuff, drink some sake, and then work your way up to the weirder, more frightening sounding rolls. Jumping right into the middle of the nasty stuff when you’re not ready is off-putting and I believe Theresa has had grounds for a sexual harassment claim. Charlotte’s endgame is still somewhat mysterious. She’s looking for 30 years of data gleaned from the park but what kind of data? To what purpose? Are they trying to perfect AI or perhaps enhance the human mind through it? Or is there a military or government connection, it’s hard to believe the intelligence services wouldn’t have a lot of interest in manufacturing spies.

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No bonus this week since there were no pleasantly weird player piano covers of the music I listened to in High School but I do leave you with this interview with star Jimmi Simpson who, in spite of playing weirdos and geeks almost all of his career, is super charming, down to earth, and well spoken. Do I have a potential man-crush developing? Time will tell. Keep that white hat on, William.

Westworld: The Adversary

Last week’s episode Contrapasso opened on a scene in the cemetery outside of Pariah and the camera fixed on a cross with a bell hanging off of it. We then cut to Dolores who is staring off into space apparently hearing the voice of a supposedly dead Arnold directing her to find him. This scene stuck with me for some reason that I didn’t understand right away. Although this is kind of my hobby I am very slow to pick up on symbolism the first time around but my mind will keep returning to a thing until I finally decode it. It was the bell that I kept going back to and then I remembered why it was not a decoration. Back in the olden days people weren’t so good at determining whether or not someone had entirely given up the ghost or were simply in a vegetative state indeterminable from death without modern technology so every now and then they would bury these people and hear odd sounds coming out of the ground for a few days afterwards. Supposedly some investigation revealed that, on occasion, an apparently dead person was not so much, so to avoid undue nightmare fuel for all involved a string would be ran from the coffin up to the tombstone with a bell attached to it just in case said occupant wakes up on the wrong side of the lawn. This is largely apocryphal and was not widely practiced but as a narrative device it’s pretty clever. Arnold, from beyond the grave, is ringing that bell through Dolores to raise him from the dead.

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The Adversary continues to lend credence to the apparently obvious theory that the other park founder is somehow still alive, hiding somewhere, possibly still coding. I don’t know, to be completely honest I felt a little frustrated by the episode as a whole. Where last week we finally saw some forward progress as far as character development and story, that abruptly came to a halt with this latest offering. Dolores and William were completely absent. The Man in Black and Teddy Flood got into some shenanigans. Elsie discovers who is smuggling data out of the park but is captured by False Jeopardy. And Mauve is now more or less fully autonomous with the foolish assistance of Felix and The Bully From Every 80s Movie Ever. She’s the real star of this episode somehow commanding the room and discovering her agency while in her birthday suit. I mean that has a compliment to Thandie Newton, although she clearly has an existential crisis or two to handle you wouldn’t think for a moment that she isn’t in complete control of the situation despite being as naked as a jaybird.

But the problem with an episode called The Adversary is that there wasn’t one, at least not one that was apparent. Teddy explaining the Native American myth to MiB was interesting but it felt like framing the same mystery we are already pondering in a different way. Like. We get it. There is a frickin’ maze. Not sure what’s at the center of it, but Arnold is involved. Over six episodes now it’s clear that, when it comes to the showrunners for Westworld, the watchword is ‘restraint’. But that also means that we still don’t exactly know what the stakes are or what the point of the story is beyond the Hosts being manipulated into sentience and a mysterious new storyline. It’s also important that I reference a certain fan theory that is gaining traction without actually sharing it. I wish I hadn’t read it because of certain obvious implications for some main characters but the less happening away from that theory the more it feels like it might be true. Which is fueling my frustration for the show because that theory is seeming more solid by the week and is actually pretty clever, however I’ll take a dumber show if it means it’s false. I know that’s a little cryptic but take it from someone on the other side, you’re better off not knowing. Anyway.

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This episode also marks the first time I genuinely laughed at something that was supposed to be funny after six hours of glacial, contemplative science fiction. Lee Sizemore did not miss a beat while swapping out margaritas during his rant to Theresa and it caught me off-guard for a moment. There is so little levity in the show that it felt out of place but I forgive it because of how badly it’s needed. If we’re going to be concerned at all for the human characters at some point it would be nice to actually like one or two of them. With Felix we’re almost there, I just need a little more from the guy and if they are trying at all with Elsie they are way off the mark. The next closest character is probably Bernard but that’s only because Jeffrey Wright has a sort of milquetoast sweetness to him. But he’s also clearly up to something himself when Elsie walks into his office and asks what he’s up to. “You know. Business as usual,” is his response. No one in the history of bullshitting has ever failed to sell that line so completely, and his poker face leaves something to be desired.

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Speaking of Bernard, his encounter with the first generation Ford family of bots was one of the more unsettling encounters so far. I’ve had a feeling since we first encountered Mini-Me that the kid was somehow a young version of Robert Ford himself but it wasn’t hard to guess that considering they dress almost identically. There are a lot of really strange implications going on in this scene, particularly how long Ford waits to stop his Dad-Bot from attacking Bernard. There’s no way of knowing how long he was standing there or how far it might have gone if he hadn’t been but it occurred to me that he let it go just far enough to scare the other man, he clearly wasn’t in a rush to save him. Second, who gives someone a replicated robot version of their family as a gift? Third, who keeps a replicated robot version of their family and teaches it to be more alcoholic-y. As someone who adamantly chastised an employee for have the gall to cover a nude Host, it’s a little hypocritical to then spend your spare time having intimate personal conversations with a robot version of yourself. Up until now Ford has occasionally come across as eccentric but this encounter with him is the first real indication that the man is severely unbalanced.

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Speaking of crazy, young Robert does two things that should have had old Robert hitting the panic button. I’m not sure why it didn’t stand out as a stronger scene but it has significant bearing on the direction of Westworld. The robot boy killed his dog and then lied about it. More to the point, he did it because Arnold told him to in order to stop the dog from doing any more harm after it killed a rabbit. This is the first real insight into the supposedly dead former founder’s motives or reasoning and it’s no accident who he acted through. Arnold is sending a message to Robert directly: your toys are now my toys and I don’t like the way you’ve been treating them. If he’s willing to kill a robot dog for simply following its nature how would he feel about a human being doing the same? Particularly if that nature is into sexual assault and murder? Probably not good.

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Kudos to the showrunners for including a little Easter Egg in the form of what was clearly Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in the background of the basement office that Bernard visits. It was brief, they did not linger out of sentimentality but I dug it, nonetheless. It also says volumes about the park itself that there exists this floor with flickering lights and dated technology, still powered but mostly abandoned and forgotten, they are not clearly not very good at keeping their basement clean, metaphorically or otherwise. Who knows what else has been forgotten down there. Also, the true horror is that there are clearly no OSHA guidelines in this nightmarish future. The horror…. Anyway, I’m feel like my whinging about the pace of Westworld because it’s one of the few shows that I actively follow week to week, rather than let finish and watch in one or two big pushes. My attention span is kaput, Netflix and the rest have ruined me for traditional television watching habits, I want the whole show and I want it now and although I’m willing to complain now I’ll bet dollars to pesos that when the first season wraps up the whole thing will play out like a great film. But until then.

 

Bonus: The episode opened with a player piano cover of one of my favorite songs ever. If somehow the show fails to reach its lofty goals at the very least we’ll always have the music.

 

 

Westworld Episode Review: Contrapasso

“He told me I was going to help him.”

“Help him do what?

“…to destroy this place.”

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Up until this point in Westworld there has been little to write about by way of a review. Perhaps it’s the size of the ensemble cast or the gravity of the themes it explores, the last four episodes have felt like a continuous introduction to the various characters and conflicts that are oh-so-patiently being fleshed out and this is fine. However, I found myself with nothing to watch the other day and thought, you know what, let’s give this Downton Abbey show a chance. Just for giggles, I said. Sure enough by the third episode of that show I realized I had just gasped and whispered to myself “…that catty bitch!”  It occurred to me so much more had happened in such a limited amount of time with a comparably large cast of characters that Westworld had some serious ‘splainin’ to do. Very little forward progress has actually been made as lush set design, beautiful prose, and complicated thematic ideas alone a great show does not make. Not without character arcs or stakes or a clearly defined conflict. Fortunately, Contrapasso  (“suffer the opposite“) seems to be moving things forward and it thankfully brings out the big guns in a tense, cryptic conversation between the show’s veteran legendary actors.

I have been eagerly anticipating the conversation between Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris as Dr. Robert Ford and The Man in Black, respectively since last week and it did not disappoint. It was God Himself and the Devil sitting down over a bottle of rye, while poor Teddy Flood, the puppet engineered for their amusement, could only look on in despair. I did not want this exchange to end, they could have dedicated a full hour to these two opposing forces, the creator and the destroyer, musing on purpose or lack thereof and I would have drank it all in and asked for more, however, in truth the scene was exactly as long as it needed to be. The normally implacable Man is caught off guard for just a second when he realizes who is sitting down across from him while Ford is as even as a metronome, so fully in control of the situation that we don’t even realize, as an audience, that all the Western affectations from the chatter to the player piano have all gone silent until he snaps his finger and brings them back to life. It was an interesting inversion, like some moment in Greek mythology where Aries and Hermes peak in on us mere mortals to muse over our fates, only in Westworld we are the gods looking in on our creation, wondering how things will turn out. Even without this fantastic exchange Contrapasso is the best episode of the series yet, there finally seems to be a narrative in place and some actual stakes. Above all, Dolores has discovered her own agency and put it better than I ever could, “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.” You’re damn right, you did.

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To the point, she imagined. As Bernard points out in the ‘previously on’ recap, she shouldn’t be able to do that. She’s improvising like a Guest at this point while at the same time hearing this mysterious voice in her head who is directing her towards a maze that looks conspicuously like a top-down view of a human brain. How the maze and this war-zone or ‘revolution’ are related remains to be seen but the fact that nitro-glycerin is being smuggled to the front in corpses does not bode well for anyone. What’s more, although it feels like Dolores is finding independent thought and defying her programming she is still allowing herself to be manipulated by some outside force to an unknown purpose. I don’t want to spoil the obvious here but the voice she hears in her head is not going to be some god-like entity or religious experience. Elsie’s discovery of a satellite uplink inside the arm of one of the hosts points to a much more practical explanation. I’m starting to think that if they are able to see this quest all the way through to its end it’s going to be a bitter one for poor Dolores and the god in her head is more than likely another puppeteer whispering sweet nothings into a ham radio.

Regarding Ford interviewing Dolores: he asks her when the last time she’s interacted with Arnold as if he suspects exactly what we’ve suspected since he was first brought up, that he is somehow still alive and manipulating events in the park. Further, we learn that Dolores is the last person (?) to interact with Arnold before his death (?) but she does not remember (?) the circumstances or the event itself.  The fact that Dolores is now able to lie directly to the most powerful man in Westworld is an interesting new development, it implies her awareness is now leaps and bounds ahead of where it was when she was simply slapping flies on her neck. However, this is one of the more unsettling encounters in a television program that is replete with unsettling encounters, “Are we very old friends?” Dolores asks, with a slight smile. “I wouldn’t say that, Dolores. I wouldn’t say that at all.”  Well, fuck you then.

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It’s also going to be a mystery as to whether or not the big smooch she landed on William is genuine or another affectation of her programming. Either way they are going to make an interesting duo considering her new found ability to inquire about the outside world and his partaking of the veritable Kool-Aid, enthusiastically joining the narrative after nearly giving up on it all. I did think it was adorable how awkward the two of them were at the orgy. That’s pretty much how I feel at almost every party all the time.

Speaking of which, kudos(?) or jeers are due to HBO for somehow making a Bacchanalian sex-fest seem mundane. There was nothing titillating or exciting about the sequence at all, it just seemed to be there with a friendly helping of all kinds of genitalia. That’s actually a better way to put it, there wasn’t so much boning and dicks and boobs as much oral copulation, sexual activity, and that oh-so-unsexy word ‘genitals’. I’ve seen marble reliefs that were more compelling and maybe that was the point? The setting was perfect for the final rift to be driven between Logan and William, the former of whom is clearly trying to push the latter out of his comfort zone and succeeds, even if that means watching our White Hat hero abandon his douche-bro buddy to a much-deserved ass-whooping at the hands of the Confederales. Again, this is finally where a sense of stakes are starting to kick in, where it’s starting to feel less like watching someone else play a videogame and more like an adventure worth watching. Maybe the Guests aren’t able to be seriously injured or shot but they can clearly get the shit kicked out of them. And maybe…fall in love? Tread carefully, young William. I recommend Ex Machina as reference material (pro-tip, doesn’t end well).

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A word on the technicians in the lab side of Westworld. Uhm. What’s going on there? “You’re a butcher. And that’s all you’re ever going to be!” What are you, the mom from CarrieJust because a guy wants to learn how to program a sparrow? For a show that is so very good at tone and mood this whole exchange was frankly… maudlin. I’m surprised the guy didn’t burst into tears and run away and while searching for a way to phrase that so that you knew I was talking about the tech that was being mean I realized it could honestly apply to either one of them it was such an after-school-special moment. All it needed was for one of them to shout “You’re not my real dad!” and the scene would have been complete, pack up a PB&J and a Capri Sun. This strange vibe continued when Felix finally succeeds in resuscitating the bird and watches it flutter around the room like a Disney princess. If it was all a setup to reveal an apparently cogent Mauve holding said bird looking dope as hell, well, all right. But let’s not do that again.

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Again, I feel like this is the strongest episode of the series so far. The characters are actually changing instead of just exploring internally or otherwise. A larger endgame is starting to appear on the horizon, however distant it still feels but I will voice a little trepidation that I have with the series, by now at the half-way mark. Every other modern HBO series I’ve seen, with maybe the exception of Game of Thrones has had its big moment by this episode. From True Detective to Deadwood and others, by now there has been some big thing, a main character suddenly getting merc’d or an intense pivotal sequence that becomes the signature moment for the show, something to reward the five or so hours over as many weeks we have invested in the show up until now, and although I am still one hundred percent on board with Westworld I feel like that moment hasn’t happened. Criticism leveled at the show regarding its lack of stakes and funereal pace are not without merit and I say that as an admitted fanboy before the show even premiered, it would have to fuck up on a massive scale to lose my loyalty and so far I don’t see that happening. On the other hand, I understand that if HBO expects Westworld to fill the shoes of Game of Thrones one day, they are going to have to get the lead out and start wowing us before the casually curious crowd canters on. Some random alliteration might help, for example. People love that shit.

 

Bonus: This week’s player piano cover is super cool. Although, I may have gone with this one even though the lyrics are so on the nose I’m reminded of our favorite goofy lab technicians again. Next week they get high on the marijuanas.

 

 

Westworld Episode Review: Dissonance Theory

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First off, I’ve been avoiding broaching a particular subject for fear of ruining or spoiling a twist that I suspected the showrunners were setting up with regard to one specific character. Plot-wise they have been implying and then inferring and then outright saying that I was wrong about this suspicion but I decided to live in denial until last night’s episode and now I feel comfortable enough letting go of my theory. If I do turn out to be right somehow, ….my bad. That being said, even though I have seen the film, it looks like we’re all on even ground now as Westworld the TV show does not appear to be in lock step with the original. Is that enough of a disclaimer? It’s going to have to be.

So in the original 1973 film there is a character simply referred to as The Gunslinger that was portrayed by Yul Brynner. No one outside of the Baby Boomer generation is going to hear that name and react at all but he was a big deal back in the day, starring in The King and I and the original version of The Magnificent Seven among others. His significance in the original film is that he was essentially the Big Bad of the park, he would wordlessly stalk guests and initiate a quick draw battle. And when things go pear-shaped (I won’t get into specifics there) he plays a big part of the finale and in the first episode of the TV show I was on the look out for an analogous character. It seemed obvious to me that this was going to be Ed Harris as the mysterious Man In Black and I don’t think I’m completely off-base assuming this. Granted, he’s invulnerable to Host gunfire. He talks about the narrative and the story lines in the park. He’s been going there for 30 years. I get it. But my suspicions were still there, I thought maybe he doesn’t know he’s a Host. That for some reason he’s programmed to think he’s a Guest to add a new layer to the game. With this theory in place I decided to shut my mouth and let it play out, no one wants to be that guy.

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An episode or two later Girls Name outright identifies The Man in Black as a Guest, ‘He gets what he wants‘ while he is massacring Lawrence’s family. Still, I held out. This felt like a casual misdirection meant to make me (yes, me specifically) drop my guard. I do not trust the park employees to know exactly what’s going on, they are clearly missing some things and only idly scratch their heads rather than raise an alarm. However, during last night’s episode we encounter the evidence I needed to finally let it rest. We receive what I’ll call independent verification that The Man In Black is indeed a Guest when two fellow Guests approach and attempt to compliment him on his life outside of Westworld. ‘I’m on vacation’, he says after threatening to cut their throats. Well. Shit. There goes that theory. It’s still possible somehow I suppose but exceedingly unlikely unless he is somehow a robot living in the real world without anyone suspecting. Based on the inferior earlier models it’s unlikely they built a flawless prototype around the same time. Moving on.

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Speaking of The Man In Black, we spent a lot of time with him this episode as he continues his search for the entrance to the Scalp Maze. I understand some of the complaints a friend brought up about the show a week or so ago. Although it looks fun to be a part of the action there is an issue with stakes. As in, they aren’t really there for anyone. The Hosts will just be rebuilt. The Guests can just stand there and get shot. I am genuinely curious about this Lawrence character, however. This is the second time this season already that he has been blindfolded and on the verge of being executed when the MiB shows up and saves him, with all the action happening off camera. It’s a bit early for motifs in my humble but this one seems too deliberate to ignore. It may be an effort to be more efficient, storytelling wise, to avoid too many gunfights that may water down the whole experience. I’m not sure.

What is interesting is what the Snake Lady revealed about his final objective, and not just that it has to do with this mysterious Wyatt character. No, what really has my noodle baked is the fact that Wyatt wasn’t a part of Westworld until the most recent update. Think about it. This maze, the map of it, the rumor of another layer of the game had to have been around for a while, it must be fully realized if it’s accessible at all. MiB expounds about it, in fact, including a pretty consistent history of park founder Arnold. But Dr. Ford only added the backstory regarding Wyatt to Teddy Flood’s lore recently (as far as we know). How has there been this other level this whole time without there being an entrance until now? What inspired Ford to suddenly change the park’s narrative in such a drastic way, a way that appears to be arcing towards this secret level? Just in case you don’t hang around through the credits to watch the sneak peek of next week, we have a real treat coming up. I can’t recall off the top of my head if it has happened before but two of the greats are about to go head to head and share the screen. I absolutely can’t wait, even if we don’t get the answers we want.

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Maeve finally gets the confirmation she’s been looking for with the help of Hector and a hunting knife. There was a truly distressing moment as she scribbles out a drawing of the engineers in hazmat suits and discovers her hiding place is already full of them. It reminded me of a particularly cool moment in Doctor Who. Basically, the Doctor and his companions encounter a race of aliens who erase your memory of them once you stop looking at them (which is probably a mercy). In order to determine if they are in trouble or not they decide to make a mark on their arms when they encounter one in order to remind themselves they are in danger. Sure enough, once they run into one of these creepers the companion looks down at their arm to make a mark and realizes there are dozens of marks already there. It’s a genuinely horrifying moment although Maeve appears to be a gutsy lady, she will be a force to be reckoned with once she gets her feet under her but it’s unclear how her revelation will persist into her next incarnation.

The creepy little Mexican girl that knows about the maze is now actively directing Dolores towards it which is an interesting revelation. Not that it’s Dolores specifically but why a Host? The park narratives are for the Guests, why put her on the trail of this mysterious end-game? Also, she’s been palling around with William and Logan for only a few minutes now and I’m already bored of it. The latter is doing a great job being a complete shit-head and I’m not going to reference the original film too many more times but I am hoping that there is some similarity between the story-lines there. That’s all I have to say about that.

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Special words of praise need to go out to Evan Rachel Wood, by the way, who is doing a spectacular job with the material. She pivots so effectively from doe-eyed ingénue to emotionless robot to confused soul becoming self-aware it’s easy to forget we’re seeing three different performances going on simultaneously. Of all the fictitious scheming and god-complexes going on within and without of the park, her Dolores Abernathy is the emotional lynchpin of a huge story that could feel like nothing more than a soulless philosophical MMORPG made for television. Which it kind of is at times, but between her and Thandie Newton it’s impossible not to feel a sense of sympathy for these two characters which easily supersedes any connection we may have for the Guests at this point. And here I thought Wood was just another bland pretty blonde actress but I recently found out that she was once engaged to Marilyn Manson for a spell which is unexpected but cool. Apparently, she a little freaky. Good for her.

I also have to unpack some hopes I had for Westworld that have been debunked in an interview with the showrunners. In the original film there were two other parks, a Roman World and a Medieval World, and I wanted to keep that knowledge to myself in the hopes that maybe HBO had the sets from Rome and Game of Thrones in mothballs somewhere but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. I am not alone, for that matter, George R.R. Martin is totally on board for a crossover. I don’t know about you but I’d spend a year’s salary to give Sam a wedgie, maybe slap around Ramsay Bolton, and follow Margaery around like a love-sick puppy. Who are we kidding. JON, I JUST WANT TO HANG OUT, MAN. I think we’ll be best friends even if you were a robot. What were we talking about again?

Bonus: Here’s our player piano jam for the week in its original form.

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