Archive | June, 2017

The Best Series Finales of the Past 10 Years: 5-10

22 Jun

I listed my five favorite series finales of the past 10 years here. Here’s a little bonus coverage of entries 6-10. These are less revelatory than the first batch; these mostly consist of very good shows that wrapped up with very good episodes that weren’t mind-blowingly brilliant but managed to wrap up all the loose ends in a satisfying way which is less exciting but still quite difficult. Still, I wanted to get these down on the record with a few notes so I can look back at how crazily I changed my mind in a few years. A more fun list of the worst finales coming soon.

6. Breaking Bad

Mad Men and Breaking Bad occupy the same exact rung and I could have easily flipped them and might have if I did this tomorrow.. Both were all-time great shows whose finales were satisfying if not spectacular, which sounds like faint praise, but considering the bars set by their respective series and the expectations and hype surrounding the finale, it was no small thing to come away smiling and not disappointed. Breaking Bad managed to hit the bullet points on the finale checklist nicely. Breaking Bad did a great job over the run of the series of leaving questions that could later be returned to, or could be forgotten about entirely, with either result being equally plausible, but the one question that did feel like it needed to be dealt with was the use of the ricin, which presumably is used on Lydia. There are final moments for supporting characters as important as Skyler along with nice goodbye nodes to fan favorites Badger and Skinny Pete. The dying Walt doesn’t quite get redemption, but he does get a chance to make a baby step in that direction that makes sense within the show, and he most importantly gets to share a final scene with Jesse, and the two of them were the core of the show. Walt dying was no surprise; him living would have been, but there was still suspense in merely seeing how his plan was carried out. The finale only suffers due to some lack of surprise and the fact that it was simply always impossible to recreate the Walt-Gus dynamic that ended with the brilliant season 4 finale with the Neo Nazis, who didn’t have the same charisma or the same sense of rivalry. (The otherwise excellent and enjoyable final season suffers from that as well). But overall, it hits all the notes it has to and left me feeling as great about the series as I had when I came into the episode.

7. Mad Men

See the Breaking Bad entry.  The Mad Men slowly wrapped up storylines to all of the most important characters, giving everyone (except Pete and Betty, who. got their time in the penultimate episode) to a satisfying point of ending. This is exactly what I mean when I say closure – character arcs can recieve endings, like poor dying Betty, relationship milestones, like Roger, new beginnings, like Joan, or something in the middle like Don. There’s no one way to finish out with a beloved character, other than leave the viewer in a place that we feel comfortable and feels appropriate for the character giving the developments over the seasons; like Potter Stewart’s famous pronouncement on obscenity, I know it when I see it. There wasn’t that feeling of absolute breathtaking perfection that The Shield or Six Feet Under left with but spreading the screentime around and feeling like everyone got the ending they deserved without being shafted is still an impressive achievement (with the possible exception of the Stan/Peggy ending, which I didn’t super love but have come around on a little over time.) The ending montage could feel trite, but didn’t, and the last moment in particular is inspired; the choice of an iconic campaign which so seamlessly blended marketing with depth of emotional appeal wasn’t a bad way to end the story of Don Draper.

8, Justified

Another on the Mad Men/Breaking Bad tier. I’m hopefully not making these out to be lesser achievements than they are, rather that should just demonstrate the difficulty of constructing memorable finales. This wasn’t the best episode of Justified, but it wrapped up nicely every story line and hit on worthy resolutions for the primary characters. Like Breaking Bad, the otherwise excellent final season suffered just a very little bit by the last bad guy because one that we had relatively less investment with. Like Mad Men, the season ended with a particularly satisfying moment, Raylan staring at Boyd, the protagonist and his foil, wtith Boyd reminding Raylan of the connection that binds them and each of them to this setting that was so important to Justified; “We dug coal together,” Earlier in this season I might have thought that ending without a major character death would have seemed like a cop out, but it didn’t play out that way. Eva’s last two season arc which had some serious ups and downs paid off well with her finally escaping the cycle of shit that surrounds Boyd, and getting away from the very location which seems to encourage it, Raylan, likewise, physically moves on as he seems to finally move forward while Boyd, fittingly ends up back where he started at the beginning of the show.

9. Friday Night Lights

This shamefully took me too long to get to as I finished the fourth season and then took long break before getting to the fifth. Friday Night Lights is an extremely sentimental show, so much so, that it can overdo it at times, and while it’s a great show, that’s probably one of the issues I don’t quite like it as much as some people. In the finale, though, the sentimentality is unleashed perfectly for a thoroughly moving finale in which every character gets his chance to shine, and the heart of the show, the relationship between Connie and Eric, maybe the best marriage in television history, is at the forefront. Part of what made Friday Night Lights excellent, was its constant emphasis on the ideas that people fight, people disagree, but they come to solutions and decisions and make them work. Eric Taylor knows it’s time for his wife to take the lead, and his hesitation due to the enormity of his offer from Dillon only makes the final decision that much more powerful; the decision at the heart of the final episode is emblematic of the kind of show Friday Night Lights is. The final game is played as well as any game on the show, and leaving the final outcome up in the air until we discover it later in the episode could be infuriating but instead is inspired. Friday Night Lights ended with me remembering the best parts of the show, which is a high compliment to any finale.

10. Hannibal

I’m honestly still not sure if this was a great or terrible finale or something in between or most importantly even a finale, but I have room for one what-the-fuck finale here which could only fit for such a what-the-fuck show. For a show that lived season to season, the finale was one that wsa intended to potentially serve as an ending and potentially not, and for ninety percent of shows on TV this would have been considered an utterly unsatisfiying ending but it was so in tune with the spirit of Hannibal that it was surprisingly easy to make my peace with it. Not one, but two Hannibal season finales end with the great question of who survived, and the finale is an ultimate demonstration of the show’s filming style, where style matters, or maybe more accurately, is, substance. The fight scene between Graham, Lecter, and Dolarhyde is equally intense, bizarre, and at times hard to follow, yet the beautiful violence is one of Hannibal’s hallmarks. This is the one finale that could potentially be on the list of worst finales, depending on your bent, and it’s possible I’ll feel that way when I come back to it with time, but at the moment I appreciate just how insane the show was willing to be in a world where shows don’t do that.

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The Five Best Series Finales of the Last Decade

19 Jun

The Sopranos ended 10 years ago, as of last Saturday, with the most talked about and polarizing series finale of my lifetime (Seinfeld is the only other serious contender). To mark the occasion, here are the five best series finales since.

Before I get into the criteria of what makes for a great series finales, a few quick notes on the my digging through past generally. I expected, going through the years, to find more really memorable series finales than I did. The list drops off fast, and most of the better series finales are ones that were very solid, did their job, and closed what were excellent shows in very satisfying and satisfactory ways rather than absolutely blowing me away and leaving me stunned and amazed, but there’s something to be said for how difficult it can be just to meet the hype of ending a beloved show properly, let alone exceed it.

The best series finales are not merely the best final episodes; as shows that were cancelled and finished with a typical last episode that didn’t feel special or different or have a sense of closure or finality are unlikely to qualify.

What else does it mean to have a great series finale? Obviously, this depends heavily on the particularly show that’s wrapping up but there are some general rules that travel across all shows in one way or another.

  1. The finale has to feel appropriate for the show. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get away from, especially in shows that have been on for a while and may have lost their way a little as the seasons pass. In tone, in sensibility; this is your last impression on the viewer, it should feel true to what made the show great in the first place.
  2. Solve any unresolved plot points, and answer any questions that need to be answered. Some shows come into the finale with lots of unfinished business that needs to be taken care of, some are either less plot-centric, or take care of much of their plot wrapping up before the finale. Obviously depending on circumstances, some questions are best left open, but some aren’t, and leaving viewers feel like essential questions weren’t dealt with is a serious knock against a finale.
  3. Provide closure for your characters, and memorable final interactions between important characters.

To the list…

1. The Shield

As action-packed and suspenseful as a finale gets. Its breakneck speed allows it to pack in climax after climax before ending on a resolution that has a sense of ending but feels exciting right to the end; a combination many finales strive for but few reach. Most finales have, by the time they get there, at least some sense of inevitability, even if we don’t know the exact details, but The Shields leaves so much open and swerves left and right and then left again. The finale brilliantly calls back to the very beginnings of the show; the tight bonds of loyalty that bond together the strike team. Though Lem’s death at the end of season five started events in motion, in dramatic fashion, in the finale, the Strike team comes apart at the seems, with every last shred of togetherness broken. Shane and Vic sew seeds of each other’s misery, .Shane kills himself, his fiance, and his son after Vic declines a last plea for help, while Shane informs Vic that Corrine is working with the police because she doesn’t want Vic to ever see his children again. Ronnie discovers that Vic has betrayed him at the station, calling out as he’s arrested. And Vic, having gotten his immunity deal, avoids jail, only to be placed in his other personal hell, the office, safe for now, but knowing that with one slip up, his deal would go up in flames. Brilliant, exciting, perfect for the show, dealing with every story line that needed dealing with (Dutch and Claudette make up, for example, in non-strike team business), leaving you catching your breach afterwards, and packing an incredible amount of story. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days after watching. Just thinking about it now makes my heart beat. A fantastic finale to a fantastic show.

2. The Leftovers

I did not come around easily to Leftovers. I was hesitant to watch from the first. I frankly didn’t want to watch anything associated with Lost’s Damon Lindelof and everything I heard about the show turned me off. I largely didn’t love the first season, but I like each of the next two seasons, the third and final more than the second, and if my decision to watch wasn’t justified yet, it was by the finale. I never expected especially a finale this brilliant; that looked hard at what Lost’s finale did wrong, and did exactly the opposite. I don’t like the Leftovers as much as the other shows on this list, but its finale was likely the best episode of the entire series and that’s a very impressive feat. The finale was the opposite of The Shields. It didn’t and didn’t need to wrap up a lot of storylines or feature great suspense or pace. It was extremely narrow in scope, focused almost entirely on the two best characters of the entire show and highlighted by stirring monologue delivered outstandingly by Carrie Coon’s Nora which just brought everything that was good about the show together in just a couple of minutes. That scene, magnificently acted and written, was stirring and heartwarming with well-earned emotion that grounded everything the two characters had been through over the life of the show and left me on a high. A finale that demonstrated that the Leftovers recognized what worked and what didn’t over the life of the show and pulled out everything that did for the last moments that truly counted the most.

3. The Wire

The Wire, possibly the best show of all time, had a bizarre final season. It aired a couple years after the fourth (which wasn’t as common then as it is now), and it, for all of its positives (it is after all the fucking Wire) has the two most confounding parts of the entire show – the journalism angle which never quite works, unlike The Wire’s foray into teaching the previous season (probably because David Simon is too close to the actual industry and the self-righteousness and indignation runs too high), and the invented homeless killer, which is ludicrous and one of the rare moments The Wire really feels like all other generic television. However, almost unfairly because the fifth season is so weird, The Wire’s finale felt relatively more necessary and more satisfying. The show does not end on a strange note but instead returns back to the fold of classic Wire and takes care of all its characters for good and ill. As befits a Wire finale, with only ten episodes in its final season, it’s very plot heavy; a lot is resolved, and while, as would be expected, much of the resolutions are overly depressing, unlike the fourth season finale, there are plenty of notes of positivity to offer some balance. There’s a sense of full-circleness and that the more changes, the more stays the same same which gets to the heart of one of the central themes about the Wire. Still, Carver gets promoted as Daniels is forced to resign, Bubbles makes it out clean even as Dukie succumbs to addiction, McNulty and Freamon somehow escape jailtime. The only major lack for me was that I wanted a little bit more of a juicier final moment between Kima and McNulty, two of the most important characters who both followed their trajectories as far as they thought was best, even in diametrically different directions but this is ultimately a satisfying way to say goodbye to dozens of memorable characters, leaving almost no one behind.

4. 30 Rock

Comedy finales are an entirely different animal than drama finales, and as different as the above three are from one another, 30 Rock is another step away from all three. Comedy finales don’t generally require plot execution or surprises; just a sense of closure and a way to remember our characters, along with a last opportunity to provide the essence of the show in just one episode – why it was funny, what we liked about it, why we kept coming back. 30 Rock’s finale is similar in many ways to a regular episode of the show, with the meta-hook of the last episode of TGS being filmed. The Jack-Liz relationship is the beating heart of the show, and the recurring thread of the episode is Jack and Liz both realizing where they’re unsatisfied in their lives and trying to fix those areas, fighting with one another, and then reuniting and realizing their importance in each other’s lives. This only takes place in a few total minutes of the show but its built on years of chemistry and the scenes work. Jack’s leaving on his boat only to turn around immediately is a perfect 30 Rock moment. Every cast member gets a last couple of moments to shine, and more than anything it’s funny, chockful of the type of silly wordplay that 30 Rock does so well. The only thing that really needed doing was a remarking the Liz-Jack relationship. There’s a short flash-forward montage at the very end, but it’s very quick and very silly, and not like one I’ll complain about in a similar show shortly.

5. Flight of the Conchords

My most out of left field choice. The shortest show on here at just two seasons and 22 episodes, it can be debated if this even really counts as a finale like the others as it wasn’t even obvious it would be the final episode at the time (I’m still holding out hope for an eventual movie). It definitely has elements of a finale though; there’s definitely an obvious sense of finality to it considering the fantastic ending, and there’s the classic finale looking-back as the duo perform in a musical about their lives. Like the other finales on this list, this feels so in tune with the show it’s ending. And the result is, as often in Flight of the Conchords, hard luck in oddly good humor. The boys put on their very meta-musical of their story, which is whimsical and stupid, and a perfect round-up for the series. And, yes, Jemaine and Brett do get sent back to New Zealand thanks to Murary making a colossal fuck up, and end up back on a sheep farm, which would be very depressing in a different kind of show, but the Jemaine and Brett always seem to just take whatever comes in stride. Flight was never a serious show; it was a dry, absurd one, and this was a masterpiece of the qualifies Flight had in spades at all times.

The Sopranos’ Finale Set The Standard for the Potential Power of a Peak TV Finale

12 Jun

Ten years ago, The Sopranos set the standard for what it means to be a Peak TV series finale. I don’t say gold standard; although I somewhat liked it overall, The Sopranos’ finale “Made in America” was famously polarizing and certainly never reached the universal acclaim of the finales of Six Feet Under and The Shield, often considered (and with good reason) to be two of the best, if not simply the two best of all-time. But regardless of merely a silly thing like quality itself, The Sopranos set expectations for what a Peak TV finale was. The hype was unparalleled at the time. Sure, Friends and Seinfeld (the only finale I can ever remember being as talked about as The Sopranos) had much-hyped finales in the relatively recent past, but as network comedies the requirements were somewhat different.  The Sopranos was a show on HBO, a premium network, that could never have the audience figures of Seinfeld or Friends and yet it felt like everyone in the country was watching when the finale rolled around. The Sopranos didn’t have the pressure of a question-and-answer show like Lost, but there were still season and series long plots to be touched upon, as well as the need to reach some sort of closure with the main cast, and particularly, with of one of the legendary characters in TV history, Tony Soprano.

I was returning from out of the country the morning after the finale and I had to be on total media lockdown to guarantee I wouldn’t hear any spoilers, as if I had just missed the Super Bowl. Media outlets entirely unrelated to television or entertainment brought it up, it was THE topic that otherwise sleepy spring morning. Even people who didn’t want, felt the need to know, to simply be in on the national conversation (again, like the Super Bowl). What happened mattered, and people cared virulently. To some it was a brilliant ending, to others a cheap cop out and ploy. But there was no question people talked about it, and even more so because of its bold unorthodox ending. The family in the diner. The black screen with nothing definitive (though David Chase would disagree about that). Don’t Stop Believing playing in the background.  This on top of , of course, some more traditional finale ingredients. Meadow engaged, AJ attempting to join the army, a last major character death as Tony’s associates finally finish off Phil Leotardo.

In the decade since, even with the rise of Peak TV and the many many wonderful and popular TV shows, there haven’t been many finales that have even come close to generating the amount of buzz and excitement. Mad Men and Breaking Bad have come the closest; both truly being event season finales. Rare is the show able to keep the hype up over several seasons; often in the most initially hyped shows, interest dies down as the years go or the show is unable to sustain that initial interest (shows like Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy (which is still on, somehow), Scandal, Lost). There’s often some rallying back around these shows for their finales, as the last chance to see characters viewers remember caring for years ago, but those finales don’t have the same high expectations. When The Sopranos ended, there were fewer critical juggernauts and especially when The Sopranos started, it stood out in a way that it’s almost impossible to do now where so many more channels and shows.

There are a few upcoming finales that will be the absolute talk of TV and entertainment blogs and outlets, but Game of Thrones is the next best hope for the type of epic finale people will be talking about on mainstream outlets, speculating about for days and weeks beforehand and setting up viewing parties. Perhaps in a year and a half we’ll revisit this discussion and see whether it could come close to reaching the heights of “Made in America.”

End of Series Report: The Leftovers

7 Jun

The Leftovers started with a central mystery, but unlike that of Lost, also co-written by Leftovers scribe Damon Lindelof (created along with The Leftovers book author Tom Perrotta), this one was never meant to be solved, which ultimately made all the different to what the show was and why the finale was so successful (relative particularly to why Lost’s wasn’t). Two percent of the world’s population immediately disappeared three years before the first episode in what has become known as the Departure. If this were Lost, theories would abound about what was behind the Departure, and fans would expect a payoff on that question before show’s end. Why the Departure happened, however, was never a subject of The Leftovers. Characters within the show puzzle at it some, though more specifically in the earlier seasons than the third. But us viewers had to accept that the Departure just happened, because, well it happened, accept it as true, and move on from there. The Leftovers, from its tone to its decision to start three years after the Departure, never baited us into thinking that we would ever know more than that and that let us focus from the start on its true concerns.

The Leftovers is about dealing with mysterious loss, loss without cloture, loss that no one understands, that no one knows how to reckon with. No one understands death either; but there’s are established rituals built in our society over thousands of years to deal with it. For the Departure, everyone had to reckon anew. The Leftovers is also about living in a world in which after the Departure, every belief, no matter how superficially unlikely has to be taken with at least a degree of seriousness, because we no longer have the grip we had before on what was true and what wasn’t. When John or Matt or Kevin have ideas about what they need to do prevent the oncoming second apocalypse, we can tell their ideas are probably as delusional as Laurie thinks they are, but after the mystery of the Departure, we can’t say they’re 100 percent wrong with the certainly we could have before. Mystery, and some gradient between belief and reality, is alive.

The critical scene in the finale brought us back to that important distinction in The Leftovers. Solving the mystery for a fact doesn’t matter. Making your own peace with it is what does. It didn’t matter if what was said in the scene was true or untrue as much as its literal truth was simply irrelevant, beside the point to the moment. In the brilliant final dramatic monologue that proceeded the end of the show, Nora shared the story of where she had been in the intervening years since she had last seen Kevin. She claimed that she really did go where the Departed went. After arriving, she went on a long trek back to New York and found her kids.  They, she realized, were the lucky ones there, who still had other members of their family around. She realized she didn’t belong there, tracked down the scientist who had constructed the machine which took her there, had him construct a reverse machine and went back.

Was her story true? Did she really do that? We’ll never know, and more importantly it doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s going on in the moment between Nora, and Kevin, her telling, and him listening. What matters is that when pressed, Kevin believes her without question and tells her so. Kevin shows Nora in this final moment he believes her, that he has faith in her, and cements what had become the central relationship between the series. The struggle both characters have gone through throughout three seasons leads to this one moment of overwhelming catharsis where Nora and Kevin, rather than being the two troubled souls clinging on to each other to prevent themselves from drowning (no pun intended, in Kevin’s case), are at once on the same page.

The Leftovers is an overtly earnest series. What little humor exists is present in absurdity from afar (see: Frazier the lion and his pride in “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” or or crazy Dean’s appearance in “The Book of Kevin”), rather from the characters themselves. These characters desperately want to be better; but they don’t know how. They’re suffering and even their occasional friendly banter is quickly frayed; they don’t have the type of flippant and humorous arguments that characters from, say, Transparent, might.

What made the show’s third season its best is the shedding of the broader scale that enveloped the first season and some, though less, of the second. The third season was in many ways The Leftovers’ most batshit season. It did feature a lion eating a human after getting off of an orgiastic ferry from Tasmania, after all. But it was also it’s slimmest, it’s barest, and it’s most focused its best assets, its core characters. When pared down to this smaller essential group, the show thrived. Some shows excel with a larger sense of scale, but The Leftover best succeeds in the exact opposite scenario, as its most narrow and most personal.

The third season featured no more Guilty Remnant, or Holy Wayne; no broader conspiracies or groups, no tertiary characters who had impure motives. The Leftovers’ shorter third season and relative lack of funds left it focusing on its main characters only, especially Kevin and Nora, but also Matt, Laurie, Kevin Sr., and John. Each has grand opportunities to embark on a search for their own personal truth that needs to be fulfilled (a quite literal search; it takes them all to Australia). Whether it was always by design or not, the final episode in particular showed that The Leftovers is one of the rare shows to learn from its own strengths and weaknesses, concentrated almost wholly on the two best characters of the entire series, Kevin and Nora.

Everybody desperately wants to believe that their lives matter; that there’s something bigger than themselves as a way to make sense of their own suffering. Matt is convinced he is needed to stop the second apocalypse, using Kevin, and convinces John to come along for the ride (and to some extent Michael, the only character who appears in any significant screen time this season without really feeling quite like Lindelof and co. know what they’re doing with him). Kevin’s dad is convinced he’s the true prophet, and Kevin, while he tears up the Book of Kevin, clearly has all that prophet talk deeply embedded within his head. They’re all deeply damaged people who are living their own fantasies; still ravaged by events stemming originally from the Departure they’re having trouble getting over. Nora, of course, lost her kids, and she acts like the most skeptical of all our protagonists, but when she is offered the chance to possibly see her children again, no matter how unlikely, how slim, how speculative the odds, she drops her act and jumps at it.

Matt is dealing with the abandonment of his wife and son, John lost Evie, and can’t quite get over her death, or what she traded her life into beforehand with the Guilty Remnant. Kevin still has his kidnapping and almost-killing of Patti Boyd on his conscience, in additional to his incipient mental illness. Kevin Sr. has the voices inside his head, and if they’re not right, if they’re not meaningful, he’s just plain crazy. Laurie is the only one of the major characters still around for this season who is centered and seems relatively well-adjusted (Kevin and Laurie’s kids both have moved past their battles to some semblance of normal lives, as has John’s ex-wife Erika – they’re a step ahead of our remaining characters), but she’s only that way because she went through her own trial and period of questioning as a member of the Guilty Remnant. Laurie serves a straight woman, so to speak, for the remaining characters this season. She knows their struggles, having had them herself, but through her background as a psychiatrist she’s additionally qualified to work them through it. She can’t solve their problems; they need to do that themselves, but she can serve as a listening board as she does for Kevin and Nora, she can talk Matt down from the edge, and she works with John giving fake psychic readings, which helps ground him after his loss.

And in the last couple of episodes, everyone begins to face those ultimate personal changes; to confront their doubts, their beliefs, their on-going and open battles with the world and themselves. Kevin’s submergence and the following lack of flood, seem to satisfy John and Kevin Sr. and push them to move on. When Kevin wasn’t able to come up with the missing song and the world carried on, Kevin Sr. finally submitted, as when Kevin told John that he passed the message along to Evie. It didn’t really matter whether John truly thought that Kevin spoke with Evie; he needed to convince himself to reach his own closure. Kevin Jr.’s episode-long hallucination, dream sequence, or submergence into the mysterious underworld if you will, offers him a final chance to put his mistakes behind him, his trauma with Patti, and his regrets with Nora. Matt’s goodbyes to Nora makes him realize what he needs to do. He finally agrees to go back to his wife and son, and attempt to face his illness even against long odds; to put aside his fears about saving the world and admit his real personal fears.

And then, finally, Nora. The Leftovers offers a fantastically heartwarming finale which never feels overly sentimental, or saccharine. It feels well-earned through the struggles of the characters, and, even the gimmick, the unspecified time jump, which would probably have drawn my ire in Lost, feels perfect here. There’s an air of mystery; of importance that doesn’t feel cheap, because we know what these characters have been through. Whatever happened to Nora, whether she went to where the Departed were, or she didn’t; whatever happened to her in those intervening years, which we’ll never know, she seems to have finally made a kind of peace with the loss of her children that couldn’t be achieved any other way. To find that peace is no small achievement and is what The Leftovers is ultimately all about.

End of Season Report: The Americans, Season 5

2 Jun

Philip’s done.

The Americans, somewhat astoundingly, considering it’s a show about spies who kill many people over the shows run, has become the epitome of slow TV this season, and the series finale is emblematic of this. There’s no huge character death or shootout, or even a chase sequence as in last season. Especially compared to the previous fourth season that saw three major character deaths, Martha’s move to Russia, and featured a deadly virus, this season was far more deliberate, dealing with some slow burn of family growth and revelation. It leaves a lot that needs to happen in the much shorter final season, which feels like it will have to be, if not quite Breaking Bad final season paced, that at least significantly more fast-moving than this season. That said, there’s plenty to talk about this season on its own merits; while there were fewer blockbuster plot details; there were a couple important progressions that really resonated.

The big conclusion is one that’s been building all season, and all series really. Philip’s done, at least, if he has any say about it, with being a spy.

One of the grand lessons of this season has been our spies learning that their cause, which was never as pure as Elizabeth believes it to be, has become more muddy than ever. William warned Philip last season, patriot that he was to the end, that he wouldn’t trust the Soviets to hold on to the deadly disease he works with. Philip is dismayed to learn that, further, contrary to everything he’s told about how it’s merely a defense against the aggressive Americans, the Soviets weaponized the virus as soon as they had the chance. The supposed wheat contagion Philip and Elizabeth are investigating, after being warned the Americans were going after their wheat supply to stick it to the commoners, was instead wheat designed to be heartier and more robust and feed more people. Maybe the Americans aren’t the pure white hats they claim in this struggle (As we’ve seen through Stan’s time at the FBI), but neither are the Soviets. Elizabeth is so blindly devoted to her cause, that this doesn’t affect her. She really believes that the Soviet Union stands for the progress for the common person and she’s a true professional in her work; if the center says it’s for a good reason, that’s all she needs to hear. But for Philip, who was skeptical years ago, these are final straws. The center doesn’t care about him, or his family, or about anything except their own objectives, which both don’t help him, nor seem like they help the world at large. He’s having a hard time continuing to find the focus and motivation required to complete such an intense and demanding job.

Kids have been another central theme the season. Hanging over the entire season, and especially the last few episodes, is the Jennings’ potential decision to quit the spy game and return home to Russia. This is a Russia that they haven’t been to in 20 years; it’s a place they don’t know. Still, they would get to be a regular family and release themselves from the daily pressures of their work and from the constant lying to their children.

The decision is a tough one for each parent but for different reasons.  Philip, as became clear, wanted out of the spy game, and a move back home would allow him to do that. He’s also conscious of the damage this life of lying was having on his kids, notably Paige; Pastor Tim laid this out in his diary, and though Elizabeth wrote it off as bunk, Philip knows there’s truth to it. Living like a normally family, albeit on the other side of the world would alleviate those pressures. Of course, living on the other side of the world is its own issue. Phillip seems somewhat wary himself about moving back to a place he doesn’t know, but he’s especially way for his kids. Pasha throughout the season served as a clear example of a kid, around the same age as the Jennings’ children, who had trouble moving to a new land where he didn’t fit in, or feel comfortable with the language. It nearly ended in his death before he finally got his wish to go home. How would Paige and Henry deal with the sudden move to place they don’t know and don’t speak the language? Certainly not well. Martha’s trouble in the USSR is another indication of the difficulty of fitting in there for an American.

Back on the other hand again, there’s the other danger of Paige growing up in the US under the stress and strain of being the daughter of spies and with potential additional pressure from the Centre to recruit her. Either the lying tears her apart and shatters her sense of who she is, or Philip could be scared of her becoming the other new kid featured prominently this season, Vietnamese agent Tuan; a teen who is been molded into nothing but an unsympathetic stone cold killer who doesn’t care about whether Pasha lives or dies if it achieves the objective and who excoriates Philip for feeling otherwise. Elizabeth and Philip are heroes to him at first until they doubt his methods for sentimental reasons. His one trace of compassion, his attachment to his old family, is hammered out of him by the job; he must never do it again, Elizabeth warns him. He’s just a kid, but he appears to be fatally losing his humanity during these formative years right in front of our eyes. Paige may not have it in her to become this, but even the possibility is terrifying to Philip. Neither solution is ideal, but the dangers of both leaving and staying are tearing Philip apart at both ends. He’s feeling more and more powerless, hence his outburst at Henry in the season finale.

Elizabeth has always had a purity of purpose that Philip lacks. Phillip’s only purity of purpose is Elizabeth and his children; if not for her, he would have been out of the game a long time ago. Elizabeth really believes in the most idealistic goals of the Soviet Union and believes that the center knows the best way to reach those goals, more or less unquestionably. Due to Philip’s influence, she’s become softer around the edges over the years in a way that has in no way diminished her effectiveness but has widened her range of feeling. She has allowed herself to care and equally importantly to care about Philip’s difference of opinions without patronizing him. When she warns Tuan that he won’t make it far without a partner, she sees herself in him, and realizes that her association with Philip has made her a better person, and ha more effective spy, keeping her from breaking down in the long run. She wants to return to the Soviet Union for Philip’s sake, but also because she genuinely is excited about the types of lives her kids could have in the Soviet Union. She wants to go back because she really feels like the Soviet Union is still home in a way Philip doesn’t.

Elizabeth, though, believes Paige would make an excellent spy; seeing in Paige just the parts that remind her of herself, and not the soft and serious child brought up in America that she is. Philip hold the job responsible for his loss of humanity; Elizabeth doesn’t see being a person and being a spy as mutually exclusive the way Philp does. Paige slowly seems to moodily resign herself to becoming more like Elizabeth over the course of the season, with or without knowing it, but on some level she also realizes what it has done to her life. Leave Henry out of it, she implores; let him go to boarding school and have the free and easy normal life that she can no longer have.

In the end, of course, the great move was never to be. Leaving and having the last season set in the Soviet Union would have been a pretty much unprecedented shocker. I had thought Philip would affirmatively make the decision not to move after considering the effect it would have on Paige and Henry, but in the end it was new connection to a high ranking US official that kept the Jennings’ stateside. Philip, heard, via the tape he stored in Kimmy’s father’s satchel, that her father was getting a big promotion and almost through away the tape, knowing that once the information reached Elizabeth and the center, the option to go back to the Soviet Union and quit would be rescinded. Why did Philip decided not to discard the tape? A sense of remaining duty possibly; most likely knowing that he could never tell Elizabeth because would not forgive him, or I’d like to think there was at least some thought about what the move would do to the kids.

As we go into the final season, a reckoning awaits. I’m generally okay with the slow build up approach but even I would be disappointed if he didn’t get some more resolution, some more movement in the fight eight episodes. We’ll start with that important dynamic change though that could have the potential to change the direction of those last episodes; fallout from what seems like Philip’s long-gestating decision to leave the spy game behind.

End of Season Report: Legion, Season 1

1 Jun

First and foremost, Legion, a Marvel property in the general X-Men universe, is unmistakably something different in the current Comicsphere, which is really in and of itself something we haven’t seen in a long time. This in and of itself is an impressive achievement. Marvel movies have become remarkably formulaic. They’re generally some form of heroes journeys – a man, a white man (not that that’s different in Legion, but moving on) is having is own existential crisis, gains some power, has to fight a bunch of obstacles along the way, learns how to be a hero, and defeats the baddies. The movies are generally well enough made, and some are better than others but there is a sameness that can start to feel somewhat deadening. Legion absolutely still has some of these elements, but it feels, due to its method of storytelling, legitimately new and interesting in the wake of all the previous marvel products.

Now, there’s a distinct difference between different and good, and Legion thankfully is good also. Legion is not heavy on narrative, but it’s trippy method of storytelling combined with its intensely internalized story are its breakthrough; the best parts of the show take place entirely within the mind of the protagonist David Haller (where other characters are trapped as well; the surreality of Haller’s reality-shifting powers allow this). Legion explores the serious trappings of mental illness, which Haller has suffered with his whole life, using comic book magic strictures as a way to literally explore his mind. There’s also just some batshit insane comic book style action sequences and journeys inside his brain which are beautiful and compelling of their own accord. The best episodes, the third and second to last (“Chapter 6” and “Chapter 7” respectively) feature the team, Haller, and his colleagues Syd, Melanie, Cary, and Kerry, coming together to clear out his brain from the powerful mutant Shadow King, saving both him and themselves in the process, and getting to the bottom of what is making Haller tick. The scenes are both confusing and exciting in their sense of constantly shifting dream logic; the surrealist possibilities seem to make their own sort of sense.

There are two primary antagonists in the first season of Legion. The Shadow King, a powerful mutant which has holed up in Haller’s mind since childhood after being defeated by Haller’s father, and made a home there, coming angrily to the fore when he learns how to maximize his powers just in time to take over Haller’s brain. Secondly, there’s the mysterious governmental or quasi-governmental organization Division 3, which is looking to round up people like Haller for the danger they potentially pose to us powerless humans.

Legion is less strong when dealing with Division 3, which in contrast to the groundbreaking fight within his mind against the Shadow King, seems like a carbon copy of the type of sketchy evil quasi-governmental organisations that have appeared throughout comic book properties from the start.  There’s a potential sympathetic angle to be used here; as normal humans ourselves, surely we can understand the potential dangers these mutants could cause unchecked to us, and our difficulties with stopping them could create the need for an organization to at least monitor these individuals. However, Legion doesn’t really play on this; the organization is pretty much one-dimensional – an object for the mutants to fear, and for them to work against. The Eye, the initial primary antagonist, a mutant who betrays his kind to work for Division 3 is uncomplicated pure villainy, and ends up just being built up to show the power of the Shadow King who kills him with ease in the penultimate episode. In the final episode, which feels somewhat anticlimactic after the tour de force of the penultimate episode, the opening sequence tries to engender sympathy for the other primary government employee, Clark, who interrogated Haller in the first episode, but it came as too little too late to do much for me.

The supporting characters also never really get a ton of attention. They’re interesting on the surface, but the show doesn’t get much deeper; it’s Haller’s show, at least in the first season, through and through.

The journey through the mind provides a pioneering vision of how to take the concept of humans with powers into new and exciting new directions. Some of the season felt like a work in progress, and the deep dive into Haller’s mind sometimes dominated the show to a degree in its eight episodes that cut short other potentially successful show elements, like developing the supporting characters. Still, in a field as stale as superheroes, I’ll gladly take a ambitious and new approach that does something very well over the safe same and I very much look forward to what the second season has to offer.