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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Westworld Episode Review: The Stray

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This week we’re finally getting a better idea of who’s turning the wheels on this crazy train. Dr. Ford is starting to show his true colors (jerk). Bernard and his existential obsession has a motive (dead kid). And we have a mysterious new angle to the host’s behavior regarding this Arnold character, and by the way I’m not buying word-one of his little biography or supposed demise (unreliable narrator). I also feel like we encountered the one thing this week that might actually threaten the longevity of the show with regard to staying power and I’d like to break that down first.

This Arnold person, according to Dr. Ford, was a co-founder of the park who became obsessed with the idea of creating consciousness in the machines and that same obsession (somehow) resulted in a park accident that claimed his life. Now, I enjoy the kind of conversation that followed, the idea of exploring the nature of existence and what makes a human being self-aware. Unfortunately, this is going to lose some of the casual audiences and I’ll make my case as such. The massive appeal of Game of Thrones is that while it is complex and harrowing and graphic, it’s also pretty accessible to a mainstream audience. As my main man Ian McShane put it after the internet blew up on him for kind of, sort of spoiling a plot point in the most recent season before it came out, his responsive was delightfully Al Swearengen-esque: “You say the slightest thing and the internet goes ape. I was accused of giving the plot away, but I just think get a fucking life. It’s only tits and dragons.” The thing is, he’s not wrong. Westworld is a big gamble for being more than just that, in fact the repetitive nature of the overlapping narratives, the initial ambiguity regarding who is a host and who is a guest, and these philosophical musings on the nature of existence and identity are not going to draw the same audiences that GoT pulls down. When it comes to the people of the land, the common clay of the new west, they are going to be turned off by this kind of subject matter, it doesn’t exactly titillate. It’s possible I’m underestimating the audience but it’s just that I’ve been hurt before with the previously referenced Deadwood and the bizarre but kind of brilliant horror Carnivale, both of which were cancelled before their time for not drawing a large enough viewership, among a few other examples. But I digest.

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So Elsie the Analyst, is on one hand a sort of cool, confident, sassy lady and, on the other, kind of creepy for making out with an inert Clementine when no one was looking. When she discovers that the errant host only killed other bots that murdered him in previous narratives, everyone kind of raises an eyebrow. The fact that no one is more seriously alarmed at the idea of these robotic victims remembering their treatment at the hands of each other, let alone of guests which seems likely to come, makes me feel that sort of removed amusement you feel towards characters in a horror movie that just decide to go on with the adventure and stay in the spooky house anyway. All despite the creepy gas station attendant who leered with unveiled predatory joy when they stopped for a fill up or the rabid cur chomping on what appears to be a human femur posted up at the gate. Or the fact that they are a conspicuously diverse group of ethnic and gender stereotypes with promising futures and raging libidos. (Note to self: rewatch Cabin in the Woods at some point.) Anyway, it doesn’t take a lot of prescience to feel like no good can come of this and that their somewhat distant concern is going to be their undoing. If they don’t see that bad thing coming they frankly deserve it, so we might as well enjoy the ride.

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That seriousness aside, William saw some action in the park itself this week. I mean, he sucked at it, letting a deputy and a bounty hunter get shot down in front of him with Clementine being taken hostage before he skinned that smokewagon. He’s now on an adventure that has taken him outside the confines of the town with his unlikeable buddy Logan and it’s good to see some progress being made here, I was afraid they were just going to peter around the gift shops all day. He’s currently your typical boy scout and I relate to that inherent un-coolness so my real concern about his character is that he’s going to get a taste of that bad boy image and go full on Dark Side. I like the actor but he also seems perfectly cast to Break Bad at some point. I’m also genuinely interested to see what his interaction with a newly independent Dolores is like. She’s the sweet, old-fashioned rancher’s daughter with a dark secret which is kryptonite to weenies like us. Maybe they’ll fall in loooove.

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Teddy got himself a little backstory too, courtesy of the newly cold-blooded Dr. Ford. This felt like a little bit of a 180 on his part. The first two episodes implied a kindly, sentimental old man who enjoyed long walks in the desert with young robot boys but in The Stray he immediately chastises a programmer for covering up a nude host. They are things, not people. Well, it’s a particularly realistic ‘thing’ and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want it pointed at me while I was working, either. So while uploading some history for poor Teddy, Ford coldly informs him of the futility of his existence and desire for Dolores, to no apparent purpose. Further, the aforementioned conversation with Bernard Lowe about the history of the park and the supposedly expired former co-founder Arnold seemed particularly curt and distant. You’d think he would at least demonstrate some sense of remorse or emotion or, I dunno, humanity but it wasn’t there at all. Methinks there’s even more to Dr. Ford than this, and if he seemed anti-morbidity and gruesomeness last episode, his newly written Teddy Flood narrative and bounty on the mysterious crazy guy Wyatt belies that idea. I mean. Fuck. Those dudes were nailed to a damn tree.

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Onto Bernard and his sad story. “Where is your son?” Dolores asks. “…nowhere you would understand.” There’s a lot going on in that exchange and he immediately ends the conversation to investigate its origin. This is the nature of his focus on the nuances of consciousness he sees in her, the reason for his secret conversations. Based on the conversation with what would appear to be his estranged or ex-wife, the trauma of losing his son is in no way completely processed. That pain is still very persistent and nagging and you feel for the guy but it’s interfering with his ability to remain objective with the park hosts. At first I thought it was obviously Ford’s update that started triggering the aberrant behavior in the robots but I’m starting to suspect Bernard at this point. Particularly if he’s the one who planted the gun where Dolores would find it. Her newfound ability to escape her narrative is the real ‘stray’ of the episode and, again, it remains to be seen how her vulnerability will jive with William’s inclination towards do-goodery. I invented that word just now.

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Finally, Elsie and the head of security Ashley (*looks up actor*….Luke Hemsworth?! There’s another one? Are these frickin’ guys multiplying?!) venture out into the desert to pick up a different kind of stray who has been inexplicably carving constellations into woodblocks. Once its discovered stuck in a crevasse, Girl’s Name climbs down and proceeds to hack the head off the malfunctioning host in order to gather data because for some reason, in the future, they don’t have flash drives anymore and it’s far more efficient to just cut off their fucking heads. This understandably goes pear-shaped. What I want to know is not why it ultimately bashed its own head in with a big rock but rather why it was attacking Elsie in the first place? She posed no threat. It’s as if it had gone rabid up until the last second before being remotely set to self-destruct. Oh, and one other thing, why did it bash it’s own head in?!

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This episode really brought the crazy with more actual horror than the existential kind. Some questions to ponder: who is this Arnold, really? I know the first theory to hit the top of the charts is going to be that he’s really the Man in Black. But I’m not buying that. No, I think if this Arnold character is still out and about he’s somewhere in that deeper layer that Ed Harris’ character is looking for. What’s our adorably sweet Dolores going to do now that she’s off-script? Are they going to catch her and figure out her secret? Is Bernard’s treachery going to be discovered? Why did that robot bash its own head in?! This show, if anything, has reminded me why I hate waiting a whole week to watch the next episode of a series, it’s barbaric.

Bonus: This episode was directed by the writer-director of one of the few horror films I sincerely love. If you ever get the chance, check out the original non-American edit.

 

Westworld Episode Review: Chestnut

 

In hindsight, I never outright said in my first episode review whether or not Westwold is objectively good and after viewing the second episode I can say with relative confidence that this is the most exciting, well executed, promising show on television. Where the pilot was cryptic and existentially fascinating, Chestnut gets the journey going and starts the actual narrative. We have an avatar to follow through the park itself in the form of Jimmi Simpson from House of Cards as William, we have a potential direction for the unexplained errors in the software update, and we have the next step of whatever dark quest the sadistic Man in Black is on. We even have the briefest flash of humor saddling a genuinely horrifying moment with Thandie Newton’s character Maeve basically waking up during surgery and stumbling through the abattoir that is left over after a day in the park. Most television shows require a few episodes or even a whole season to find the kind of confident footing that Westworld already has out of the gate and very few are this compelling so suddenly, so it’s going to be a challenge maintaining this momentum. But, so far so good.

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I am not even sure where to start. Usually there is one or two interesting plot threads that I save until the very end while I round up the obvious stuff for funsies but every plot point is fascinating in this show. I have to be careful or my sentences will just start smashing into each other in nonsensical fits so I’ll just try to go in order. Dolores Abernathy, as implied by the technician’s conversation early in the episode, is now ‘infected’ with this existential awareness apparently triggered with that oh so awesome line of dialogue ‘These violent delights have violent ends’. It’s apparent now that this is a passphrase that must have been embedded in the most recent software update which is causing all kinds of problems. That infection has been passed on to Maeve whose own usefulness is being questioned by the park QA. I question this logic for one basic and obvious reason: if the park visitors are not interested or sexually attracted to Thandie Newton the problem isn’t with her, it’s with the damn Guests. How about pulling them aside and being like, “What is your damn problem. You’re kicked out of the park, go home and re-think your priorities.” I may be compromising my objectivity there. Anyway, that infection culminates in a full on wakeful awareness while she is being repaired by two chatty engineers who are understandably freaked out when she rabbits her way around the complex in horrified confusion. It remains to be seen if this is going to call further attention to the glitch (also as someone with ~10 years experience in almost all levels of Quality Assurance and software testing I hate using that word but using the word ‘bug’ might be confusing in this context, so….’glitch’ it is *climbs down off high horse*) in the upgrade and whether or not it’s clearly intentional implementation will be discovered. If I had to hazard a guess, I think it’s Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) the park’s Creative Director designing some kind of next level artistic expression that will foment in an ALL OUT ROBOT UPRISING. But I’m not putting my chips down just yet.

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Back to Dolores, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) has been having secret late night powwows with her because he is fascinated by the way she thinks. This sounds like a pick-up line you would hear in a college bar that never works, not-that-I-know but it means he also may be responsible for the burgeoning self-awareness in the parks population of androids. It might be safe to assume he’s responsible for her little sleepwalking discovery at the end of the episode but why? It’s one thing to encourage sentience in A.I. out of curiosity, it’s something else to arm it. Someday when the machines rise up and wipe us all out and some alien species comes along and discovers our history I’d bet damn good money that one of them will absolutely say the words, “You know what’s really fucked up about this? They made a movie about this exact thing happening and still went ahead and invented the damn things anyway.” And then whatever alien the first one was talking to will do the equivalent of shaking its head and go, “Assholes.” That will be the history of the human race in the Galactic Encyclopedia.

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Dr. Ford seems a little spacey to me. This week he shot down his underlings plans for a story line in the part with a Caligula-esque orgy of sex, violence and mayhem because, according to him, people don’t want to find out who they are, they already know that. They want to find out who they can be, and I like this line of reasoning. The comparisons to open world video games are unavoidable at this point and others have already made the reference. The NPCs hanging around offering missions to the player feel right at home to anyone who plays GTA or Fallout or, in my case, Borderlands. But Grand Theft Auto is probably best example since it tries so hard to appear as close to contemporary society as possible, it blends more closely with reality itself and the moral choices feel a little bit more thrilling because of it. Anyone who has played for hours on end knows that scary impulse you get while actually driving down the highway when you spot an empty car carrier trailer or an off-ramp with the right angle. And even though you’re in real life, not a game, all you see for a split second is a ramp. But further than that some people play those games as safely as possible, they do the right thing, they don’t kill pedestrians, and they feel genuinely bad breaking the laws in a fictional universe. I know because I am one of those people. For instance, when my friends made me pick up a prostitute, “employ her” and then kill her to get my money back in GTA: Vice City  I stopped playing the game for like a week. Other folks…okay most other people go the other direction causing as much damage as possible, and the game design itself encourages this kind of delinquency. Dr. Ford, in his wandering around the desert with a small robot child, has something big in mind involving what appears to be an abandoned church steeple, which seems like an odd direction to go in. What is his vision that is going to be somehow more compelling than Lee Sizemore’s, the narrative director with the Gordon Ramsay temperament? Obviously there is going to be some kind of religious aspect to it, as if the philosophical musings about God aren’t apparent enough.

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The objective of The Man in Black became just slightly more apparent in this week’s episode but at the same time not really. Somehow he has discovered Easter Eggs in the game itself and is working to discover some inner level or deeper layers but the thing that stood out as critical to me is how he paid for that information. At first glance handing two bullets to Lawrence’s (Clifton Collins Jr.) young daughter appeared to be an overt threat on their lives. However, he takes only one back and leaves her one which implies he’s using live rounds as currency, reducing his price as a negotiating tactic. This gives further credence to that theory about an approaching ROBOT REBELLION and here is where I have to shut my mouth a little bit. Having seen the film I know at least one or two things that have not been revealed yet so I’ll have to play dumb with regard to certain storylines. I have no doubt that Jonathan Nolan and friends are going to take the story in a unique direction and I want to avoid implying there are is some big twist coming because then it’s going to be hard to avoid looking for one. So I’ll just say that this thread is the one I’m most interested in at the moment.

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I don’t really have much to say regarding Bernard Lowe and his little hook up session with the executive lady. I think Jeffrey Wright is a fine, gifted actor with gravitas to spare but trying to picture him having a passionate affair with a woman is like imagining a Ford Escort and a Honda Civic get in a low-speed fender bender, whereupon both drivers get out and reasonably exchange insurance information, there’s just absolutely no thrill there at all. But the most compelling part of this episode, to me, was the beginning introduction to the park and possibly our main protagonist, William. There’s a obvious metaphor at the end of his costuming: the hat selection. White or black. He and I obviously have a lot in common, all the choices he made are the ones I would have with the exception of his rejection of the super sexy prostitute Clementine Pennyfeather. By the law of transitive properties she’s only a few steps removed from a fleshlight. …..right? Ethically? Okay, my own logic has succeeded in creeping me out.

Bonus: Just in case anyone happened to miss this week’s anachronistic player piano’s song in the bar, here it is in it’s original form.

 

Westworld Episode Review: The Original

 

Westworld debuted this Sunday and if anyone is not familiar this is HBO’s newest big budget extravaganza that they are hoping is going to dovetail into the spot left by Game of Thrones when it concludes in two years. I’ve done episode by episode reviews of the sixth season of that show, which was exhausting but a lot of fun and I wanted to keep that magic going with this new hotness. I even resurrected my GoT ritual of snacking on some fresh baked bread, olive oil and balsamic and a dash of salt and pepper and a glass or four of wine while I watched the premiere episode The Original. I only had one thought at its conclusion. I usually watch these kinds of shows at least twice, once for the ride, a second time for the craft, for the little nuances and thematic…thingies that lurk right below the surface in these types of adult dramas but I haven’t done that yet because of how unsettling the whole experience was.

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Undeterred, I jumped on the old QWERTY and tried to put together a generic review with some wacky gifs added along for humorous effect but the whole first effort ground to a halt because, to be completely honest, there is no levity whatsoever in Westworld. It was light years easier to joke around with the subject matter of Game of Thrones which should indicate how much more intense this new show is. “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” What a fucked up thing to say to someone, even an android. Just the fact that you’d ask implies that I should and that’s a perfect way to ruin an already crappy Monday morning. If you’re not familiar with the basic premise, Westworld is an amusement park/role playing game populated by nearly perfect humanoid android characters that visitors pay a huge entrance fee to hang out with. There is a narrative to the experience and also, like Fallout or GTA, an open world for you to explore and destroy as you please. You can kill the android ‘hosts’ but you can’t kill other ‘guests’. There is no morality or police or rules. And most disturbingly, the androids don’t know they aren’t real people, which is where the underlying conflict or theme of the show presents itself: if you program a machine to think it’s a real person, at what point does it matter whether or not it was a machine to begin with? At what point does it become something more?

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Further, at what point does that machine that believes it’s human get tired of being shot, stabbed, sexually whatevered ad nauseum? And what does that say about the guests who perpetrate said abuse? Is being inhuman to something that is designed to look human a reflection of some dark desires or just innocent fun? I’m dropping more Q-marks than The Riddler over here and that’s why this episode and ultimately, I believe, this show is so very good. It’s intelligent and thought provoking, there is no denying that, but I have a concern that it might be too smart for it’s own good and will not connect with a large enough audience to sustain itself. I am also sincerely curious as to how the show can be extended through an entire season. Somehow I am the only person I currently know who has seen the original film and The Original covers about a third of that story already. I don’t want to spoil anything here but lets just say Michael Crichton is most famous for his other little yarn about an amusement park called The Jurassic Park. Which we know ended with a laugh and a milkshake for all.

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One of the most unsettling aspects of the show is the portrayal of the hosts as animatronic robots. The already impressive acting is augmented with subtle digital effects to make them seem just this side of the Uncanny Valley, both believably fake and heartbreakingly real all at once. Because of how effective the performances are it immediately begs the same question of the audience that Bernard Lowe asks of Dolores Abernathy. Are you sure what’s real and what isn’t? And I held my dog a little closer. I almost linked the dog scene from I Am Legend to that sentence but I don’t want to accidentally see it and also I am not a monster. Will Smith is. Speaking of monsters, Ed Harris is a terrifying man. I don’t have anything else, just that that is a true fact and his portrayal of the man in black is going to be legendary. There’s one more character that also deserves acknowledgement and that is Westworld itself. Filmed in the famous and iconic Monument Valley, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, and I say that without fear of hyperbole. As a fan of the Western genre in general, this first episode was like landscape pornography. The town as well feels like it would be perfectly at home in another more grounded series, Deadwood a show that was critically lauded but never brought the audience it needed to sustain its budget. But where Deadwood was bleak and filthy and real, Westworld is more…I guess the word is lush, it’s more of a fictional take on what the Old West looked like.

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There is a lot of nudity in Westworld and I’m expecting the same observations to surface about HBO and it’s rampant sexposition. But presenting the hosts as nude during their interrogation sequences is not sexual. More than that, it’s degrading and dehumanizing, I think it serves to keep a distance between the engineers and employees of the park to prevent them from viewing the androids as anything other than objects. There is definitely sexuality in the park itself but that’s just human nature. I mentioned once about a similarly themed film Ex Machina that answers the age old question, how long after we invent convincing Artificial Intelligence will we try and have sex with it? According to Alex Garland and, if that AI looks like Alicia Vikander, me, it’s not very long at all in case you were wondering. Westworld is the extension of that question: how long will it take us to create Artificial Intelligence in order to have sex with it. I have a feeling that the sexuality and violence is only going to get worse, and by worse I mean less about titillation and more about the dark corners of the human heart. Supposedly there are four or five seasons already planned out ahead of time, which leaves a lot of room for debauchery.

That’s a start, hopefully next weeks episode will shed a little more light on the recurring cast of characters and that mysterious glitch Dolores has at the end of this week but for now there are too many unanswered questions to keep track of. What exactly did her father whisper into her ear? Who is the man in black and what is he even doing? All I know is if someone actually said to me, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here” I don’t care if we are sitting at an IHOP, this is my next move.

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Game Of Thrones: 5 Ways Season Six Went Wrong

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Game of Thrones set a record for Emmy wins this year previously held by Frasier (…what) which is great; the show is an international success, its production value and quality performances are without peer and it will go down as the pop culture phenomenon that defines this decade. I couldn’t be happier for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, they have done a fantastic job with a sprawling, massive story that seems to get better season after season. But. I’m going to be Sally Complains-A-Lot for a few thousand words here because something happened at the end of season six that I think has fogged everyone’s perspective. The fact of the matter is that, with a few exceptions and the penultimate and ultimate episodes, season six was a dramatic shift in tone and, dare I say, drop in quality. Obviously, I’m going to point out the reasons why forthwith, but I want to be clear that I still think the show is one of the best on television and, even on a bad day, is one of the finest ever made, fully deserving of awards and praise. However, Weiss and Benioff’s departure from the source material was apparent immediately and affected the narrative in ways that have me a little bit concerned for the future of the series. What follows is only intended to be constructive criticism but, at the same time, if I’m not called an asshole by a fanboy or girl at least once I won’t feel like I’ve done my job.

 

The Problem: Tyrion Sucks All Of A Sudden

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I’m not going to bury the lead here: Weiss and Benioff do not appear to know how to write this character. Tyrion is arguably George R.R. Martin’s own projection into his story, a well-spoken, deviously clever albeit damaged outsider who affects his environment through sheer force of will and his intellect. In the books his deformity is much more pronounced, the facial scar that he received at the Battle of the Blackwater far more severe than how it is depicted on the show. But he is still a capable character with agency and abilities, he stays relevant to the story in a world that is brutally violent by staying one step ahead whenever possible and in season six this year all of those qualities were missing. In Daenerys’s stead he negotiates a peace with Astapor and Yunkai which fails dramatically but, worse than that, is completely taken by surprise when those slave trading city-states sail an entire fleet of ships into the bay and attack Meereen. I mean, I’m no doctor, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night and I’m pretty sure that threatening the entire way of life of a few dictators, politely asking them to stop buying and selling human beings and then sitting back with a bottle of wine is the opposite of clever stratagem. How about a spy or two? How about keeping an eye on things or taking the advice of the locals or putting together a defense or a game plan of any kind? Sure, I liked the scene where he and Missandei and Grey Worm tell each other jokes, that was so cute. But while Tyrion has been playing chess up until this point all of a sudden he’s playing checkers and can only stand there mollified when Dany comes back to find the city in flames. And that’s the entirety of his storyline in this season, after that massive failure in leadership she names him Hand of the Queen and we all feel good about it but the fact of the matter is, he was a non-factor this year.

The Solution: Bring Back GRRM. In earlier seasons Martin tried to write at least one episode per season while also serving as creative adviser but quit in order to focus on finishing the next novel in the series The Winds of Winter. I think we can all accept the fact that the books are going to need to take a back seat to completing the show and HBO needs to reach into those deep pockets and pay the man whatever it takes to bring back his influence. Weiss and Benioff are very intelligent, gifted writers, and talented storytellers but they are not as smart as George when it comes to Tyrion Lannister, the character belongs to him and in anyone else’s hands he’s found wanting.

 

The Problem: Daenerys Is Shouting in Dothraki Again

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I read an interview once about the locker room mentality in the NFL and being a fan of Friday Night Lights, I always hoped the right person gives the big speech at the right time but in reality there are guys that always give the big heartfelt soliloquy every single game and they do it so frequently that the team eventually just tunes them out. After six seasons of watching Dany empower the shit out of herself, I’m getting a little tired of the rousing calls to action. I mean. I get it. Follow her to fortune and glory. To say her arc in season six was recursive is a gross understatement, I’ve really come to have mixed feelings for our platinum pixie queen. I like that they are adding some ambiguity to her character, that she’s flirting with becoming the kind of ruler that she’s despises, quick to violence and brutality. But she’s also lost that underdog quality and become kind of a generic Mary Sue. She can more or less do no wrong and with her dragons somehow always in the right place at the right time and everyone who meets her immediately falling in love with her and swearing fealty, it’s hard to understand her pathos anymore. She wants to return to Westeros and rule. She wants to break the wheel. But…why? Because she hates the feudal system so much? Because the people (rightly) deposed her psychotic pyromaniac father? A man once said something about people and their desire to be in charge but what is she going to do with the world when she is? Slavery is already illegal there, that’s been her big motivation for taking over Slaver’s Bay and, in all honesty, she’s done a shit job ruling over the place in the short time that she had. Again, I’m no expert but if you suck in the Minor Leagues you’re probably not going to soar in the Majors, Westeros is much larger and more complex than what she’s encountered so far.

The Solution: It’s the Superman Dilemma when you really look at it. How do you get invested in a character that can’t seem to fail, everyone loves and has an unstoppable ace-in-the-hole in the form of a trio of fire breathing dragons and an immunity to fire? Very few characters in GoT are bulletproof and she’s obviously  one of them so we need some kind of kryptonite, something that grounds or humanizes Dany so that she’s relatable again because right now she’s in danger of becoming just as two-dimensional as a Stephenie Meyer character. Taking away her dragons seemed to be the answer this season except, like punishing a teenager by taking their car away but caving and giving it back at the last second, there is no point if they just show up again right when they are needed the most.

 

The Problem: Everything Important Happens In The Back Nine

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The biggest difference between the first five seasons of Game of Thrones and the sixth is that the latest one has fully shifted into a television narrative, rather than a novel for television. In a ten episode television season you’re going to have a captive audience that will stick around until the end where you hit them with a big finish and everyone go homes happy but novels don’t work that way. They are going to have several peaks and valleys which makes the entire novel for television season fun to watch rather than just the last two episodes. Which is where the whole crux of my argument lies, really. With the exception of The Door, season six was almost entirely forgettable. Everything was a build up to the Battle of the Bastards and The Winds of Winter. And those episodes were so exceptional that everyone immediately forgot about the bizarre suspense-less T-1000 chase scene between the Waif and a completely out of character and gravely injured but parkour skilled Arya through the streets of Braavos. I’ll come right out and say it, that entire encounter and conclusion to that storyline was just bad writing. It was illogical, incongruous with the tone of the rest of the show and deeply unsatisfying in that we didn’t even actually see the killing stroke. My point is that without the novels as a road map the showrunners seem to be prioritizing action over the characters and backloading the season like an M. Night Shamalama-ding-dong film.

The Solution: Hand the whole thing over to Miguel Sapochnik. Since the novels are not going to be finished before the show the only way to establish a more consistent tone is to dial down the whole Director Of The Week strategy, the entire atmosphere and almost operatic quality of the last two episodes almost felt like a different show when compared to the earlier parts of the season. Without a consistent rhythm or feel there’s a real sense of too many cooks in the kitchen and the hands-down best director on the show is without a doubt Sapochnik. If not him, Alan Taylor or even Jeremy Podeswa, just one guy to keep the show from feeling like a slapdash mixtape until the finale. This is a moot point with regard to the seventh season, by the way, as the returning directors have been named and, insanely, Sapochnik isn’t one of them.

 

The Problem: Just In The Nick of Time

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How about those last second heroics this season? Sansa and Theon are about to be captured and returned to Ramsay when Brienne suddenly rides in and saves the day. Yay! Bran and Meera are moments away from becoming worm food…food (Right? Because they are running away from zombies) when Benjen Stark gallops in and saves the day with like, hadoukens or something. Yay. The Battle of the Bastards was one of the most epic, groin grabbingly bitchin’ scenes of all time that loses none of the tension or impact on repeat viewings but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that I have run out  of ways to say ‘person on horse does rescue at last second’.

It’s exciting and thrilling, yes, and I agree it’s not like anyone can ride in on anything else like a helicopter or, oh wait, a dragon, he said with a significant glance. Lookit, I am not so without joy or masochistic that I want Game of Thrones to continue butchering our favorite characters but one of the things that made it so compelling in the first place were the stakes, the real sense that it played for keeps and didn’t cheat or cop out of the dramatic situations it placed itself in. And it was nice getting a few wins for the good guys and if I’m leaving out Hodor…well, it’s just because I don’t want to think about it.

The Solution: Never mind. This is probably going to be a ‘be careful what you wish for’ situation as accounts about the next season are that it’s probably going to get darker before it concludes. Maybe the whole sixth season is actually a set up for the audience, to fool us into letting our guard down so that the seventh can sneak up behind us like a suspiciously friendly and hot new serving girl with a meat pie that’s got a special ingredient or two in there like a relative or the family dog or dear god, Arya, what’s become of you.

 

The Problem: The Assassination Of Subtlety By The Producers David and D.B.

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So. Let’s go back to the first season and the death of Robert Baratheon by boar which, come to find out, was actually orchestrated by Cersei via manipulating Lancel into swapping out the king’s wine with a stronger fortified booze. This made him vulnerable and sluggish and led to his mortal injury and it took us a while to learn this was what happened because Cersei was actively trying to avoid anyone finding out. In fact, it took us a couple seasons to get the whole truth. Let’s skip ahead to Peter Baelish and his years long manipulation of Lysa Arryn who, come to find out after several seasons, was secretly the one who poisoned Jon Arryn and got this whole mess started to begin with. Aaaaand let’s skip right on to season six where Aeron Greyjoy throws his brother Balon, the king, off of a bridge and then proudly announces his murder during the kingsmoot and is still somehow elected as the new king, where a newly legitimized Ramsay Bolton murders his own father in front of two other random people, his infant brother and sister-in-law in the middle of Winterfell and goes on to take charge of the north, where Cersei Lannister blows up the entire fucking Sept killing hundreds of innocent people, several members of the Tyrell family and the leadership of the city’s church in the middle of Sunday Service. The politics of Game of Thrones has shifted away from its origins based on English history and a period known as The War of The Roses and is now something more akin to Vikings as interpreted by Michael Bay.

I mean, what the actual fuck. No ones claim to the throne has any validity at all if it’s based on the obvious murder of immediate family otherwise the entire power structure collapses. Lines of succession are irrelevant, brothers and sisters may as well just start stabbing each other in their sleep in order to inherit houses. You can’t tell me there wasn’t one Northerner at the Battle of the Bastards who wasn’t standing with his back to Winterfell that didn’t turn to a buddy and say, “Hey, where’s Roose Bolton? All I see is that sick fuck Ramsay at the head of this goddammer. What gives?” To which is buddy responded, “Oh, Roose is dead. He was poisoned by our enemies (wink, wink).” Then the buddy throws some air-quotes in there for good measure. The Northerner persists, “The fuck does that even mean? Roose is a veteran commander, Warden of the North and the leader of House Bolton. Ramsay is a sadistic bastard who has his own torture room where he cuts off people’s wieners.” “Yeah,” says his buddy, “But he stabbed and killed his papa and fed his baby brother to his dogs, so…..he’s calling the shots now, mate. I think we’re in good hands.” The Northerner can only express incredulity. And don’t even get me started on Cersei. The entire city has to know she’s responsible at this point and although she certainly got a dour reception while being crowned, you can’t tell me half the population of King’s Landing wouldn’t riot at the sight of her.

The Solution: I need to get over it. The toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube on this one, the days of behind the scenes scheming are over, with the exception of Littlefinger, whatever he has planned, and if Sansa doesn’t have him in irons in a cell at the beginning of next season she deserves whatever she gets because that slimy bastard is nothing but trouble. Honestly, I could shift the blame over to David and D.B. where it rightfully belongs, again, I just don’t think they are as intelligent as the source material George R.R. Martin has been developing for over a decade. But as popular as the show has become, you give the people what they want. And they want results, damn it. Big slutty, explosive results.

 

The Problem: Teleportation Is A Privilege, Not A Right

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Okay, don’t get me wrong, I understand that if all 30 or so major and minor characters actually spent the time it takes to travel all over the world of Greater Westeros we’d be watching people walk down roads for the next few years before anything of consequence happened. That’s a lot of small talk. A lot of getting to know each other and campfire stories. Basically, The Lord of the Rings times 10 and no one has time for that, I too have shit to do. But season six went a little overboard with travel times, I’m talking Theon and Yara zipping across the known world with an entire fleet to meet Dany, who conveniently waited around for them to get there without knowing they were coming. I’m talking about Jon and Sansa touring the Northern countryside in a van with a drummer, a bassist, a giant, and a dream in a matter of two or three episodes, max. And although the reveal of Arya at the end was one of the most shocking and satisfying moments of any show ever, part of the reason it was so surprising is that as far as we knew she was on a different fucking continent.

Never mind Jaime has also been up and down Westeros, and Mama Tyrell has Fast Traveled down to Dorne, the biggest pain in the ass moment for me was seeing Varys travel to meet with the Sand Snakes to chat and then travel back to Meereen in time to sail with Dany all within the space of a half hour of the show. I know people have tried to validate this by saying, well, it’s probably been a month or two so that they can prepare which would have given him time to get back, but that’s a problem. If you need to fill in the logic of a story or a television show with educated guesses that means the storyteller has failed a little bit. I am absolutely nitpicking right now, I know this but it’s to a purpose: aside from the magic and the zombies and the warging and all, Game of Thrones has always felt pretty grounded in reality when it comes to the limitations of what is essentially Medieval Europe. It’s hard to communicate effectively over great distances. Dangerous to travel down certain roads. The things we take for granted in modern times are difficult and a lot of that fidelity to the time period was missing this season and the travel times were just the most apparent part.

The Solution: Slow the hell down. No one knows for sure why next season is going to be shortened to eight episodes and the final shortened to seven. But it’s probably because they are cutting out all the filler material that Martin’s admittedly dense novels contain and are skipping right to the juicy stuff, to which I reply, why? What’s the hurry. We’re going to watch. HBO is going to make their money. Take your time and tell the whole story. Tell it right.

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Okay, that’s all I got. Are we still friends? I may have come down a little hard on Dany, I just like the character so much she felt wasted this year, like they weren’t ready to bring her to Westeros so they put her in a holding pattern, rolled out the liquor carts and restarted the in-flight movie. Which was, ironically, Backdraft, an instant classic, Ron Howard really came into his own. I also mostly left out Jaime who had a surprisingly anti-climactic stroll to Riverrun and back again, like when you go to the store for groceries, can’t think of anything to eat and end up returning home with a cake, paper towels, and a magazine. And can anyone justify the off-screen killing of the Blackfish, who was built up like a badass of Sam Elliott-in-Roadhouse proportions? Granted, that’s a bad comparison because technically Sam Elliott was killed off-screen in Roadhouse but that’s not the point, Internet. The point is, I believe in taking a second look at a show or film. The first look is for the experience, the second for the craft, the how of it and I found some flaws I hadn’t seen in earlier seasons. As far as audiences go, this season rates as high as any others and I was on the edge of my seat along with everyone else, however, I am going to hold David and D.B.’s feet to the fire as a critic and as a fan, as much as I loved this year’s finale, I am not drinking the Kool-Aid.

 

 

 

 

Five Theories on the Future of Stranger Things

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As happens when a pop culture phenomenon catches on the internet is awash with articles about the Netflix original series and 80s zeitgeist, Stranger Things. Reddit is plagued with them to the point that the comments sections are themselves bogged down with complaints about the number of articles that somehow still get upvoted. And I am guilty of indulging in these articles because like anyone else I crave details about a thing that I like as much as this show. I want to know more about the actors and the writers and all the trivia I can absorb because I have no social life to speak of and it fills the emptiness inside where my heart used to be it’s a fun hobby that compliments my other passion; writing. But the thing about all these articles, for the most part, is that there isn’t a lot of content to be found in them. Some of the interviews with the Duffer brothers have been fascinating regarding their inspirations and intentions with the story but the world of Stranger Things itself is very new. Part of its charm is how grounded and conventional and familiar it seems while at the same time, the supernatural elements are that much more intoxicating because of how little we know about them. Which leaves a big void for us nerds and geeks to stare into while we scratch our heads; we’ve been beating our chests and stomping up and down over Star Wars sequels and the future of the DCU but when it comes to a tiny 8 episode unique intellectual property there isn’t a whole lot to say other than, “Yeah. It’s uh…..really good.” And then we go make a Hot Pocket.

But because I’m a shameless opportunist and a nerd from back before it was cool I thought I’d get in on the action but with the objective of adding on to the conversation rather than reiterating it. For some reason folks are still wondering if a second season is going to be greenlit (it will) and I wanted to explore some ideas and theories about it using some imagination and my experience with the material that inspired the shows tone and direction. Also, I’m going on record that although I have read a few interviews and other reviews of the show I have not read any other season two theories with the intention of keeping other peoples ideas out of my head. So if anything I come up with bears any similarity to someone else’s….I thought of it first. *loads up a Hot Pocket*

 

Barb is Coming Back

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The Evidence: I liked Barb a lot. Not as much as some other fans of the show, but something about those glasses and her awkward sense of responsibility just struck a chord with me and although she serves her purpose perfectly in the story as our introduction to the Upside Down and our first real look at the Demogorgon there is something not quite right about her story line and here is why: what really happened to her? The monster attacks her in the pool, that much is clear but he doesn’t eat her like the deer or anything. Instead, we don’t see her again until near the end when Eleven locates her somewhere near where Mike will eventually be rescued so although she was in the other dimension for a shorter amount of time without being eaten how did she die? Why wasn’t she sitting upright with a slug down her throat?

Eleven never actually confirms that she is dead, she only apologizes, but there might be something else going on here. This is going to be one of the most trite things I’ve ever written but good storytelling is like magic; it’s not just about what you see but what you think you’ve seen and the Duffer Brothers left themselves an out here by being vague about her fate. So what is the alternative? Well, let’s walk through it. The Demogorgon is a terrifying, no-face having monster that appears to randomly terrorize the town of Hawkins but is that really all it’s doing? The fact is it must have somehow delivered Will to the place where he was being…incubated?…implying some level of reason or agency. That Barb, discovered by Eleven while searching for Will, seemed to be nearby also implies a pattern and if its purpose was only to kill humans why take them anywhere at all?

The Theory: Dark Side Barb. Or, alternatively, Upside Down Barb.

If she suddenly shows up back in the normal world seemingly unphased and with a new sense of confidence or mystique there are two basic possibilities. Either we have an Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation, which would be disappointing because that implies some kind of huge conspiracy and then a paranoid fear of who is really who, etc., etc. Okay, that actually sounds kind of cool. OR, Evil Barb is some kind of one-off projection of an evil Upside Down sentience, that is sooo evil. The thing about that other dimension is that it appears to be some kind of dark reflection of our own world, everything here has an analogue there. So what is the analogue of a human being or a society in that dark, ashen place?

Plausibility: Reasonable but not certain. If not I will miss her like the rains down in Africa.

 

Jim Hopper is Going to the Dark Side

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The Evidence: I’m cheating a little bit here because I have actually read the AMA with David Harbour where he discusses the future of his character and he comments on the idea that he thinks Hopper still has a ways to go before he becomes the hero he can be. There’s a lot of Han Solo in this character, I think, who was a little bit of a craven scoundrel to begin with and had to grow up a little bit before saving the day. Lest ye all forget, I know I did because I was blinded by emotion and also tears, but Hopper sold out Eleven in the end of the series in order to get the cooperation of the Hawkins Lab people. Ultimately, it was to save Will from the Upside Down but the fact of the matter is he traded her life in to do it. So whose shady vehicle did he jump into in the last episode? Why is he stealing food, specifically, Eggo waffles to leave in the forest? And what really happened to his daughter?

That last question is the important one. And Harbour may have tipped his hat a little with regard to it because when it came up in the AMA he dodged the subject by saying it’s probably going to be explored more if (when) there is another season. Which means her fate is going to have some bearing on his motivations and this is where the theories start to crop up. I think that we’re going to be trading in the Hawkins Laboratory for something a lot scarier: the US Government. Specifically, the CIA and their ilk, and I think that Hopper’s success in rescuing Will Byers is going to make him their number one guy for exploring the Upside Down to a greater scale. Further than that, I think that they are going to use the fate of his daughter to somehow manipulate him into doing some unethical stuff, something that is going to lose him the trust of the folks he helped in the first season.

The Theory: Hopper will betray Eleven. Again.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. First, Eleven is alive in some form or another. Second, Hopper knows this and is somehow in contact with her, based on the Eggos. That’s given. What’s also apparent is that no one, including the shady government types, are aware of this. The portal is still open but without Eleven the normal world is basically defenseless and since a ton of Hawkins employees were violently and inexplicably murdered in a small town school it’s reasonable to assume the G-Men are going to want to figure out a way to deal with a threat from the Upside Down a little more effectively which, of course, means escalation. Experimenting on people even more with stuff that makes MkUltra look like the Pepsi Challenge. I’m going out on a limb here because I can’t make the exact connection without the plot points involved but I believe Hopper will be asked to choose between somehow getting his daughter back and sacrificing Eleven. And I think he’s going to make the wrong choice.

Plausibility: High. I’ve got a strong feeling about this one. I don’t like it, but this has classic Hero’s journey written all over it.

 

Will Byers is the Enemy

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This might be too obvious to figuratively put in print, but Will did not come back from the Upside Down without bringing back some demons. Possibly literally. The bathroom scene in the epilogue of the season showed us a couple of very important things. Either Will is now somehow able to flip back and forth between the two dimensions without a portal or he’s having severe PTSD and thinks he’s flipping back and forth. Neither of these possibilities bode well for his mental health. Second, he’s got some kind of extra-dimensional tapeworm situation going on and I almost threw up a little bit in my mouth just typing that. This goes back to the incubation thingy that Hopper and Joyce pulled him out of and whatever he spat up clearly looks like the thing they pulled out of his throat so here’s where it gets even more icky: who was feeding whom? Was the tube some kind of life support while he waited to be carved up like a Christmas turkey? Or was the pod feeding off of him somehow, absorbing his life….juice? Is it in some way related to all the slimy roots that are everywhere?

I have no idea. But what I do know is that Will is clearly hiding his condition from the group and, if it persists, he’s only going to distance himself from both them and any kind of help, it’s going to drive a rift between them all. This is also something of a trope in the fiction the show is emulating and I anticipate it being one of those frustrating arcs that could be resolved if the character would just say something but such is the nature of narrative suspense. However, I don’t think the goal of season two will be to save him, we already did that in the first. I think it will be to stop him.

The Theory: Will has powers now and/or is part of the Upside Down

At one point one of the Hawkins scientists comments on the other dimension and refers to its atmosphere as ‘toxic’ which is pretty non-specific and not very ‘sciency’. What are we talking here? Chernobyl toxic? Three Mile Island? Or a truck stop bathroom in West Texas? Relative to the biohazard suited scientists and Barb, Will spent a lot of time over there, including inside some kind of a cocoon but the doctors just seemed to let him sleep it off before sending him home. More than that, what incentive does the government have to leave the kid alone now? Without Eleven, he’s the most significant link to the other side and the only one to survive the place that we know of, why isn’t he in a lab somewhere being poked and prodded? What’s more likely is that the scientists haven’t let him go at all, they are just sitting back and waiting for him to turn into some kind of Mutant Will.

Plausibility: The part about him being alienated from the group? High, almost certain. The part about him being alien-ized? Not great. The best thing about this show is how grounded it is and if a small child turns into the Brundlefly in the middle of it they are going to lose half their audience. If you don’t understand that reference, sorry I’m not linking what it is because I’d have to google it which I’m not doing because I’ve eaten recently and intend to eat again in the future.

 

Eleven is Alive

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The Evidence: If this theory had subtitle it would probably be ‘No Shit, Sherlock’ but let me expound on how and why. Well, actually, the ‘why’ comes first. Earlier I pointed out that Hopper more or less sold out Eleven in order to save Will but this may have only been what it looked like to everyone but Hopper and Eleven. They both knew and understood that anyone she is around is in danger and in order to protect her new friends from the government she was going to have to disappear, in this case literally. So Hopper gave her up but with the condition that she pull a vanishing act where everyone could see (everyone who survived, anyway) and give the impression she was gone for good in order to stop anyone from looking. Which is why he was stealing food for her and leaving it in the woods, she didn’t actually explode along with the Demogorgon, she’s just in hiding. So now for the ‘how’ which I answer with a question: how did she escape from the lab in the first place?

She has telekinetic powers, some kind of astral projection power, and some form of ESPN (that’s a joke, I meant ESP, but then again so is ESPN these days, BOOM! Roasted!). So…why not teleportation? Who’s to say she isn’t able to flip over to the Upside Down and then flip back somewhere else? And that the reason she hasn’t up until this point is because there has been a bipedal nightmare on the loose over there.

The Theory: If and when Eleven returns she’s going to be a different kid than the one that disappeared at the end of season one. Less skittish, more mature, and probably more in control of her abilities. I don’t really have much else here except to say that if the Brothers Duffer don’t bring back El I’m going to burn down the building.

Plausibility: Duh. The plausibility is ‘duh’. Of course, once she does come back…

 

The Others Will Come For Her

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The Evidence: Why was the Hawkins lab a part of the Department of Energy? Was this to hide their true purpose or scientific experiments? To hide in plain sight? Because for every Area 51 where conspiracy nuts and ufologists like to converge there are a dozen CIA black sites that no one will ever know about all over the place. It’s the Cold War for goodness sake and the potential Eleven has to be a game changing psychic weapon is unprecedented. So why the rinky-dink lab next to a small town run by the star of Memphis Belle? And the rent-a-cop security that four kids on bicycles were able to elude? Not to mention the kids who spent so much time hanging out with that potential weapon were allowed to just go on with their lives without having to sign so much as an NDA. The reaction to the whole situation seems a little bit…tame. And I think I know why: Eleven is not unique at all.

The Theory: Seems pretty obvious when you think about it. Her frickin’ name is Eleven. Not Three or Four. Eleven. Which is why the lab is so low key and no one is having religious experiences in her presence, she’s completely unremarkable with regard to the rest of the MKUltra program. Which means there are others out there like her with comparable abilities who might be loyal to the CIA who are going to hunt her down and the second season will play out like a dangerous game of cat and mouse that will culminate in an all out battle of psychic powers for the fate of the town Hawkins which threatens to be sucked into the nightmarish hellscape never to return unless Eleven can…..

/passes out

….*breathes*, I’m okay.

Plausability: Next to nothing. That would probably be a pretty amazing direction to take the next season and although it would be cool to do basically Aliens to the first seasons Alien, that is, a big budget explosive story on a large scale versus the intimate, detailed tone of the first, Stranger Things is great for many reasons but the best one, in my opinion is this one:

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So here’s hoping I’m wrong about that last one. The others I feel pretty good about, with the exception of the Barb theory. The reason being, while doing research and searching for pics I came across one of her dead face, and, well. That one isn’t looking so good. But I have to hope because Nancy is just not the same without her and I still don’t trust this Steve guy. This has been fun but my brain is tired and I need a nap. Maybe a drink. Definitely an Eggo waffle.

The Little Prince: This Is Only A Shell

 

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The following is going to sound like a thinly disguised backdoor brag but it’s not meant to be. I started reading at a very advanced level at an early age so, if I did read The Little Prince, I don’t remember it. The reason this is not me patting myself on the back is that I also encountered a lot of adult oriented drama waaay too early in life. I was reading Stephen King when I should have been reading The Hardy Boys and although I didn’t understand all of it, it may have warped my psyche to the point that I don’t relate to the classics, at least not anything before discovering Grimm’s Fairy Tales and how dark children’s stories could be. So what I’m trying to say is, I am familiar with the cover of the book and some of the quotes that people sew onto pillows but I don’t harbor any particular sentimentality towards The Little Prince. But I do now.

It all started with this damn trailer that is so magical I didn’t even want to watch the film because there is no way it could live up to its promise. But by framing the original story within a new one Mark Osborne and company are able to tell two narratives, the former about the wonder of youth and the absurdity of adulthood and the latter, about the power of storytelling and the imagination. Both overlap somewhere along the way without overwhelming one another; both, ultimately, become fables about growing up, love, and death. The new plot line is cut directly from the Pixar formula combined with a touch of Miyazaki; it’s clear, expository, and charming. On the other hand, the dream-like sequences that recall the Prince’s story are cryptic and obscure but somehow just as clear, the transition marked by a switch to paper-cut animation and traditional stop motion from CGI. And the effect is hypnotic. It would also be easy to confuse its elegant dialogue for New Age pablum until you remember the novel was originally written in French and published in 1943. Although some of it can be confused with spiritual platitudes and semi-profound insights, some ideas are beautiful enough to transcend both language and generations. And instead of trying to duplicate whatever magic is found in the book, the filmmakers only tease the Prince’s story, touching on its themes without relying on it to carry the film.

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The voice talent on this film is out of this world (said stupid Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, probably). Jeff Bridges and Mackenzie Foy, Paul Rudd, Rachel McAdams, Ricky Gervais, Benicio Del Toro and the list goes on, it speaks to the quality of the story how many big names are on board for what are essentially cameos. The emotional center is Bridges who could be creepy or off-putting if his performance weren’t so heartrendingly genuine. When the story takes a mature turn I was heartbroken at his delivery, in all its simple grandeur or lack thereof. I can never remember loving the man’s voice as much as I do in this film or becoming attached to an animated character so quickly. Also, apparently this is Rachel McAdams first animated feature which is surprising, she has a real gift for it and brings a wounded diligence to the mother without coming off as villainous. But the real star of the film is 15 year old Mackenzie Foy who has done nothing but make me cry since her breakout performance in Interstellar as young Murph (don’t let me leave, Murph!). She simultaneously grounds the film while also elevating it with a surprisingly tender performance, all while handling the comedic beats like a champ.

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I don’t often watch animated films and that’s not an attempt to seem superior. I appreciate them but my taste in film has to do with nuance and imperfection and all the little ways an actor, director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and so forth compose a scene. I like to go back and rewatch those scenes come together, like a chemical reaction where you see something new every time. Animation, on the other hand, is precisely executed, there is no spontaneity. Hundreds of artists and designers and writers contribute to each frame which is not an inferior product, just a different one, the same way a three piece rock band can be as thrilling as a full orchestra, depending on the context. The Little Prince is both. Big and majestic and beautiful. Intimate and sweet and endearing. It succeeds in being both unique and familiar and instantly memorable. It’s on the nose with its message, unapologetically so and it’s an urgent one, a sadly beautiful reminder that growing up is inevitable but not the end of youth. That animated films and children’s books can be more than they seem and aren’t only for children. And that the most important things in life are invisible to the eye but not the heart.

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