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Series Finale, Report: The American, Season 6

13 Jun

I’m still digesting the series finale of The Americans but it ended like the show. Relatively slow, methodical, with not a ton of plot, by series finale standards (though a ton for an Americans episode) but filled with deep, searing, well-developed character moments that pack an emotional wallop.

A few thoughts on the episode, the final season, and the series more broadly:

Elizabeth and Philip were never antiheroes. One of the primary facets that made the  show brilliant, but particularly at the time, was how it was an inversion of the antihero shows that dominated the critical TV landscape when the Americans started, chief among them the fantastic Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Those shows featured family men who cared about themselves selfishly ahead of their families or anyone else, and who the viewer often rooted for against their work rivals, while rooting against them at home.

Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are thoughtful, well-meaning people who care deeply about their family, both their children and each other, and the world, more than they care about themselves. They did terrible, terrible things for their jobs; far worse than anything Walter does in Breaking Bad, killing dozens of people, and ruining many other innocent, civilian lives in the process. But they were never doing it out of selfishness. They were never doing it for themselves, for practical gain, or to feed their egos. In fact, they got nothing but negative externalizes from it.  They did it for love of country, for idealistic reasons, for Elizabeth, for sense of duty, and, and for love of Elizabeth, for Philip. It was a job and they did it, but it was never something they enjoyed, got pleasure from, or benefited from, with the exception of Elizabeth feeling her sense of higher purpose being fulfilled.

The Jennings were good people put in an impossible spot; asked to do something that, were it flipped to Americans in the USSR, would have been considered the highest form of patriotism by us.

The finale was not a Breaking Bad-style action-packed series of twists and turns and goodbyes to various characters. That would hardly have been true to the show, though the finale was certainly plot-filled compared to almost any other episode. A criticism of The Americans has been its deliberateness at times. The Americans hammers home certain traits and beliefs of their characters over and over again. For example, snce early on in the show, Elizabeth has been a true believer in the cause of communism worldwide, while Philip was the depressed cynic who was only kept going in their dreary espionage business by his initially (but no longer) one-sided love for his wife.

This deepening of the characters though, even if repeat some of the same points, never manages to feel one-note because of the richness of the acting and writing.  It makes us feel like we know these characters in an intimate way, heightening the emotional connection, and making even small changes and revelations feel drastic and impactful.

The first half of this final season was about the Jennings on a collision course. Philip had slowly discarded his desires and ideals time and again over the course of several seasons to please his wife, because Elizabeth had an iron will, really believing in everything she did, unbending, while he didn’t even know what he believed, He didn’t want Paige to know what they did, but relented. He didn’t want Paige involved in what they did, but then relented.

Finally, this season, we reached a point where Philip says no more. He had been out of the business for three years and he was done with this bullshit. He likes America, whether Elizabeth does or not, and he cares more about the successful raising of his children than whatever spy business his taskmasters had planned for him. He calls of his trip with Kimmy, warns her not to visit a communist country during her trip, and stares off with his wife over the matter.

For a moment, this threatens to tear him and his wife apart for good. Elizabeth had, without meaning to in a malicious way, totally coopted Paige. Paige was completely under her spell, and well into junior spy training under her and Claudia’s tutelage.

That was based on the deal Philip and Elizabeth struck. Elizabeth gets to shepherd Paige into the family business and Philip would get Henry, and he would keep Henry as far away from the spy world as possible, with as American a life as a child could have – popular and sociable at boarding school, far from the Jennings and their drama, playing ice hockey.

Paige, though I don’t believe it was Elizabeth’s intention, was being slightly turned against Philip. His inability to handle the work was a sign to Elizabeth, and thus to Paige, through osmosis, of weakness. Philip rebelled against that. His, understandably, believed there was strength to the choice not to continue obeying orders from people you don’t trust for a cause you don’t believe in, rather than Elizabeth’s narrative that he had dropped out simply because he couldn’t handle the rigors. Seeing his own daughter call him out as weak spurs him into both warning Kimmy and challenging Paige, in her apartment, to a fight, to show her that he’s still got it.

There’s another version of the show where the end game involves their final dissolution. However, just when it seemed as if the two Jennings would be at open war with one another, a moment comes when Elizabeth needs Philip. She needs him to help, not to hurt, importantly, to help someone escape, rather than deliberately to kill or sabotage (although two FBI agents end up dead, after the plan goes off the rails). The operation is a disaster, but the crisis brings them closer together. Finally, the conflict between the two is solved by Elizabeth actually coming, for just about the first time in the series, towards Philip’s point of view.

I was rooting for Philip and Elizabeth to get caught up until the last episodes, and still wouldn’t have minded if they had However, Elizabeth’s rejection of her masters, her love of country triumphing over her view of herself as order-taking soldier in the idealistic communist army, and thus working to save rather than prevent the arms deal at the nuclear summit, had me rooting for them to make it out of the series free.

All the great, built up character work was on display to make it believable when Elizabeth defies Claudia. Elizabeth, a hardened soldier who believes in the importance of taking orders and following the plan is also an unbridled idealist at heart. She really deeply believes in the anti-materialistic communist promises, and does what she does for her country and for what she thinks will be a better world. Lying to her; as Claudia must have known, would not sit well. Americans were lied to, Elizabeth believed, they didn’t have the truth. Lying is an admission the facts aren’t on your side. To do awful things to Americans was an acceptable trade off for the greater good – but to turn on one of their own who had done nothing, to lie, to frame her own people for no other cause but because they deem it necessary, crossed a line.

And so the two worked together, teaming up to prevent the assassination of an innocent Soviet negotiator, right before they got found out. In another show, Philip and Elizabeth would have desperately scrambled to find a way to stay in the country. They would have frantically zigged and zagged until at least they realized maybe there was no other option. Not here. Once they were burned, they were burned. That was it. Philip and Elizabeth had to go.

Henry, Philip long knew, had to stay.

Paige, well, Paige’s decision to stay behind while her parents go back to Russia, may be the most interesting part of the entire heart-wrenching finale.

The Jennings, and Philip knew this right off, but was powerless to stop it, ruined Paige’s life the exact moment they told her who they really were. That was it; there was no going back. Paige doesn’t speak Russian. She loved the spy world when it was a fantasy, when she was under the powerful spell of her courageous and strong mother who she loved so much. Elizabeth believed so strongly in the righteousness of what she was doing that it spread to Paige through osmosis. Paige loved being a part of that movement, a way for her to make a difference in this poverty and inequality-plagued world.

But she never really knew what was going on. There was so much that Elizabeth and Philip wouldn’t tell her, because following people and playing with radios and stealing documents was one thing. But sex and murder was another. Paige lashed out at Elizabeth in the penultimate episode, correctly intuiting that Elizabeth both used sex to work a source Paige had heard from, and that she had many times before. Making that assumption and disbelieving her mother would seem a little much in that case if it hadn’t been rooted in work getting there, with Paige slowly pushing back against denials from her mother, and slowly learning more about the spy game over time.

After that scene though, we didn’t hear a lot of that in the finale. Paige reacted poorly when Elizabeth and Philip showed up out of nowhere at her dorm, still irritated at them, but everyone was in crisis mode and after a couple of sharp barbs, she got with the program and temporarily put her irritation aside.

But it’s hard to imagine her decision to stay was not rooted in that betrayal.  It took Paige this long to really realize it, but her parents aren’t just the innocent bloodless paper-chasing spies that Elizabeth in particular claimed them to be.

Philip and Elizabeth mostly tell Stan the truth in the harrowing garage scene that was the central scene of the finale. But they do deny killing people. This is probably partly for Stan’s benefit; if Stan was on the fence about killing them or bringing them in, certainly a long road of murders particularly of FBI agents, or his old partner, might sway him in the moment. But more importantly, it’s for Paige. Paige may have come more and more around to being a spy but it was because being a spy was fun. She got a taste of how real it was; but never to the extent of murder. Paige agreed to get deep, irrecoverably so into something that will brand her a criminal for the rest of her life when her mom didn’t really tell her the whole story. This wasn’t what Paige signed up for.

She told her parents time and time again not to lie to her, and her mom in particular, and yet they did, and they did it because if Paige knew how many people they really killed, well, she probably would never have forgiven them. And the repercussions of her having a sense of their culpability if not the full story, may have been what swung Paige to stay. She has more in common with Henry than Philip or Elizabeth but she straddles two worlds. They ruined her. She has no friends. Henry got lucky and escape their inevitable destruction, maybe. Paige didn’t.

At the heart of the show has been how Elizabeth and Philip tell everyone different combinations of lies and truth, and get them mixed up in between. So often they root their lies in truth, and vice versa. In that garage scene, Philip, by and large comes clean. Does Stan believe him? What makes Stan stand down? I do believe that Stan believes that Philip is telling him the truth, and we know he is. Stan really was Philip’s only friend. Does Stan do it for Henry, with whom he has an established bond? It’s hard to say and I’ve gone back and forth in my mind over whether this behavior is consistent with what I believe the Stan we’ve known would do.

I do take exception to the idea that Elizabeth and Philip losing their children was the ultimate punishment. The ultimate punishment would be ending up in jail for their crimes, their many murders, particularly of civilians. They didn’t do it for themselves, but they did it knowing the potential eventual consequences. For most of the series, I hoped at least Elizabeth or Philip would end up caught. I was temporarily swayed towards rooting for them from their actions and behavior in the final episodes, but a few days later with some room to breathe I still think they deserved to end up behind American bars. I’m still okay with the ending but less okay with people thinking that this is actually a worst case scenario for the Jennings.

It’s going to take some detachment to figure out where the Americans finale fits in the pantheon and really think deeply about whether Stan would or wouldn’t have turned in the Jennings, and whether that’s true to his character, and whether it’s a sign of strength or weakness, or neither. But there’s no question The Americans delivered a powerful finale, true to itself, with breathtaking moments and stirring emotional cues. As an ending to my favorite hour long show of the past half-decade, I’m not disappointed, and with finales, that low bar counts for a lot.

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The Americans: Season 6, Episode 3: Urban Transport Planning Recap

13 Apr

AmericansS0603

Urban Transport Planning is all about the concept of home. What does home mean to Elizabeth? Home is everything to Elizabeth. Home is mother Russia, the Soviet Union. Home is why Elizabeth does everything she does, what drives her to kill innocents and risk her life every day without ever feeling doubt or guilty. Home is what she, as she makes clear to Paige during their tete-a-tete, is willing to die for without fear. Home is also, of course, as Philip sharply and succinctly points out to her, is a place she hasn’t been to in 20 years.

All that time away, however, has only made Elizabeth’s feelings for home grow stronger. Elizabeth had a very special relationship with her mother and warm memories of her childhood, even though, or especially because she went without the materialistic goods that are so plentiful in America. Home is the smell of the native dishes Claudia cooks with her. Home is an idea; a time or privation which made the people and the relationships between them stronger, not weaker.

The problem, as Philip points out, is the home Elizabeth’s fighting for may no longer exist, at least the way she remembers it (if it even existed then) and she wouldn’t even know it. Elizabeth is at heart an instinctive reactionary; she yearns for her magical idealized past. There’s no clearer evidence than the knee-jerk look of disgust on Elizabeths’ face when Philip suggests that there will soon be a Pizza Hut in Moscow.  She doesn’t want any of Gorbachev’s changes. She doesn’t know anything about their actual effect in the USSR, but she’s suspicious inherently of any change. Elizabeth is so insistent that this is merely what the Americans want, and likewise that her people can’t possibly want it. Globalization, the US and Russian cultures bleeding into one another would ruin the purity of her perfect home.

Her immigrant’s idea of giving her daughter a better life is having her work as a 9-to-5 spy doing paperwork in a government office rather than as a field agent. One might argue she cares more about the Soviet Union than she cares about Paige, because if she really cared about Paige, she would let her avoid the stressful and dangerous spy lifestyle, but Elizabeth would never see it that way. Because she cares so much about both Paige, she can think of no greater gift than giving Paige a piece of her beloved home and introducing her to the mission that structures Elizabeth’s life and that she treasures so much.

Philip, on the other hand, as we’ve known for the length of the show, doesn’t feel at all like Elizabeth about his childhood and the USSR. He’s embraced and cherishes his new American life. That’s his home now; his time in Russia is a distant memory. He lives in the present and the future while Elizabeth lives in the past. A world in which there’s no need for their type of spycraft and all the death and destruction that comes with it appeals to him (Elizabeth would say imagining such a time will ever exist is incredibly naive). He hates the charade. He just wants to have a typical American life; a fulfilling career and suburban family with a chicken in the pot and two cars in the garage. He symbolically rejects Elizabeth’s offer of traditional Russian food, snuck back to the house in a rare breach of protocol by Elizabeth, having gorged himself on American takeout Chinese food instead.

He has none of Elizabeth’s sense of mission, which we’ve known since the beginning, but the difference this season is that Philip seems tired of sitting silent and letting Elizabeth lead the family. He’s finally ready to do something about the fact that no longer can his dream and Elizabeth’s coexist in perfect harmony. When he looks forlornly at Elizabeth sleeping, when he strikes back at her sentimental pean to home less than sympathetically, he’s no longer willing to let Elizabeth’s singular view go unchallenged.

Paige’s future is on the line, if it hasn’t been decided already. Elizabeth dresses Paige down for her breach of protocol last episode, running in when she heard danger. In the situation, Elizabeth’s certainly right. Paige put everyone at risk with her actions, and if she was anyone else, she’d likely be killed in punishment. In their line of work, they can’t break procedure no matter what. Elizabeth’s soldierly mindset was built off this system.

But that’s not Paige. Philip lost the battle never to tell Paige about who they really were. He lost the battle never to bring her on as an agent. Paige is so under the spell of her mother, as Philip was for so many years, that her own feelings get buried beneath Elizabeth’s iron will. This is not what Philip wanted for her. Watching Paige slip farther and farther away from him is a major motivating factor for Philip to challenge his wife.

When Elizabeth talks with the Russian priest, again pining for the magic of home, (a home which the minister mentions many of the kids he teaches about the culture have never been to) she mentions that she gets the impression Philip feels like he’s losing Paige to her, and she’s right. Philip is insistent on keeping Henry away so one of his children can have a typical American life, assisting on the winning hockey goal. Henry got away (at least so far as Philip can keep paying those boarding school bills).

After Paige comes in distraught early in the episode, Philip remarks to Elizabeth that now she’s seen everything. Elizabeth knowingly replies that she hasn’t seen everything just yet. There are seven more episodes for Paige to potentially learn how far Elizabeth has to go every day, how many men and women she kills, without hesitation or second thought for her mission. The relationships between Paige and Elizabeth and Philip and Elizabeth are liable to be tested like never before this season because of what Philip knows and what Paige doesn’t.

 

 

The Americans: Season 6, Episode 1: Dead Hand Recap

5 Apr

I had always hoped the Americans would get to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign as head of the USSR, because of the implications his reforms might have on Elizabeth and Philip’s work. I was concerned, as the show, starting in 1981, had moved relatively slowly, with the fifth and penultimate season ending in 1984.  Dead Hand, the first episode of the final season, however, picks up in 1987, and with Gorbachev in charge, change is on the horizon.

Gorbechev was from a generation after the previous three rulers  Leonid Brezhenv, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. With his unlikely rise, he carried to prominence new ideas in a nation that had gone stale, and a new hope that many higher-ups in the older generation were surprised and less than thrilled to hear about. The Soviet regime during the Brezhnev era relied on stagnation. When Elizabeth spoke and believed in the, if not quite utopian, at least honest, equal, united and relatively modern state of her country, much of her belief was based on what she heard about a country she hadn’t been to in decades.

The ultimate skeptic about US propaganda, Elizabeth was quick to believe propaganda about her homeland. She surely didn’t believe deep down that the USSR was a socialist paradise but she was unquestionably hard-wired to believe what her people said about her home country far less skeptically than  she would her adopted country.

The new ideas Gorbachev brought to the highest levels of Soviet government might have actually matched some of the propaganda that Elizabeth had been told about her country for years. He was also a threat to the current order, and security and espionage groups, like the KGB, and Directorate S, which employed Elizabeth, are generally reactionary. 

Elizabeth has always seen her country through an idealistic lens; the USSR was the right side, and the US was wrong, and not just because it’s where she grew up but because the USSR is a social paradise run through moral principles, while the US is a materialistic wasteland where people don’t really care about each other. U

Ultimately, however Elizabeth is a soldier. She believes in following orders, no matter what, trusting that those giving the orders know what they’re doing. She also believes in peace only through strength. And thus when a rogue Soviet defense official arrives in Mexico and gives her a mission that could lead to deposing the head of the USSR if he wilts on defense policy, she agrees without flinching. Gorbachev, the official tells her, might be considering trading a top-secret fail-safe program to destroy America even if the USSR is destroyed in a first strike. If he is getting close to making that trade, she needs to send a signal so the military can depose Gorbachev immediately, 

Philip is right though when he confronts Elizabeth late in the episode; this is all starting to wear on Elizabeth, whether she likes it or not. The grind, the extra hours we see she’s putting in ahead of the big summit, without the help of her partner and husband, the weight of these monumental task hers alone. She’s fraying at the edges but unlike Philip, she views it, despite the obvious strain, as an inevitable part of the job. She can’t even conceive of shedding any extra responsibility if that’s what’s needed because her drive and focus on her work is so strong. Unlike Philip, Elizabeth never questions the motives of those sending her out on missions, and never questions that whatever they think she needs to be doing to help their ends is effective or right.

Elizabeth will kill over and over and over again, innocent person after innocent person, without the kind of conflicted feelings and remorse that tortures Philip, because she believes so strongly in her mission.

And that brings us to our old pal, Arkady Ivanovich. He’s back in the USSR and on Gorbachev’s side. We’ve always known USSR wasn’t a monolith, and through Arkady and Oleg, our friends at the Rezidentura, and through Stan (who appears only momentarily in the final season premier) at the FBI, we know there are voices on both sides that believe in a higher moral authority in their fight to protect their country. Both sides are split into factions with differing opinions.

Arkady and Oleg are on Gorbachev’s side, but Arkady explains to Oleg that those hardliners are coming for Gorbachev. They know about Elizabeth’s meeting, and the damage Elizabeth could do to the service of peace and reform. They have enough Directorate S background to know Philip is out of the game and that he’s temperamentally different than Elizabeth, and they correctly surmise he’d be on the opposite team in the fight for the Soviet Union. Their best plan for the moment is to call Phillip back into service to shadow Elizabeth, keep them one step ahead, and ultimately stop her if he has to.

And so this season looks like it will test the mettle of Phillip in a way he’s never been tested before.  Phillip is out of the game, for a while now, and he looks the happiest and most at peace he’s every been. Civilian life suits Philip. Phillip would have been out years before without Elizabeth, and though he obviously once upon a time felt guilty not staying to support her, there appears to become no question he made the right choice. He’s at Henry’s hockey game being a real parent! He’s giving an inspirational speech to his employees!

He gave in on so many things that he wanted. He wanted, most of all, to keep Paige out of the family business. But he gave in to Elizabeth on that call. He gave into Elizabeth on everything. She was the stubborn  one. She cared with single-minded purpose, while he philosophized and debated, and because of that she won the arguments.

Philip doesn’t initially appear incredibly receptive to Oleg’s argument. He gets it, and sure he’s sympathetic, Philip’s beliefs are generally in line with Oleg’s. He realizes they’re right, and the chance at peace is an important one. But Philip worked so hard to get out of that life, to be a normal husband and dad. He doesn’t really want to go back, and equally importantly, he doesn’t want to be at cross purposes with his own wife.

At the climax of this episode, Philip confronts Elizabeth. He seems as if he is about to inform her what he learned from Oleg, believing in honesty, believing in trust, and believing in his wife. But she doesn’t want to hear it. She tries to hide it, but it’s clear she resents Philip, even if she doesn’t want to, for his perceived weakness, for his abandonment of the mission for a materialistic American life.

Still, he tries to sympathize with her, but also convince, calmly but strongly that he has something to say he thinks can’t wait. She doesn’t want to hear it though, patronizes him, and then attacks him and he never gets the chance to tell her. And that may be what leads Philip back in to the spygame, in our endgame, and for the very first time in his life, to actually dare take on Elizabeth with whatever consequences that brings about.

Bud Light’s Dilly Dilly “Banquet” Commercial: A Beer Commercial for the Age of Trump

20 Oct

Bud Light recently put out a commercial entitled “Banquet,” airing non-stop during sports programs and whatever other television Budweiser suspects young men might be watching. The commercial is set in the court of a faux medieval king and its most memorable element is the nonsense catch phrase “dilly dilly.” A couple of my friends are obsessed with this commercial, finding it to be a harmless, innocent laugh. But they’re wrong. Under the hood, “Banquet” is a subversive and insidious advertisement that tells the story of America under the Trump administration, one light beer offering at a time.

The setting is the aforementioned court of a medieval king. The king sits behind a dais, next to a young woman, who sits next to a relatively older woman. The court is filled with subjects sitting on a chairs and a line of supplicants waiting to make offerings to the king.

First up at the head of the line is Sir Jeremy. Jeremy says nothing but lowers a six-pack of Bud Light onto the dais (we know his name because the king refers to him as such). The king anoints him (none of the women speak, of course, over the entire course of the commercial and we never learn their positions or roles) a true friend of the crown. He then offers up a toast of “Dilly Dilly” which the subjects repeat in unison.

A woman, Madam Susan, approaches next and lowers a case of Bud Light on to the dais. She is saluted as an even truer friend of the crown, presumably in reference to her presenting a greater quantity of the much valued Bud Light. She is then sent away with another round of “Dilly Dilly.”

An unnamed man follows next. Instead of Bud Light, he brings an unlabeled larger glass bottle with what appears to be a red wax seal forward and onto the dais. When the king inquires as to his offering, seemingly confused by it being anything other than Bud Light, the man explains that it is a “spiced honey mead wine” that he has really been into lately.

The king stares vacantly, as if he’s so shocked by the choice of gift that he needs a moment to decide the man’s fate. Rather than accept the gift, anoint the man a friend of the crown, and leave him with a “Dilly Dilly,” the king instead sends him off to follow “Sir Brad.” Sir Brad, the king recites with unabashed glee, will give him a private tour of the “pit of misery.” For bringing a product other than Bud Light to the King, not only is he not appreciated, he is detained for torture. The unnamed man bleats out a quick “I’m sorry. What?” before being led away. He appears understandably stunned that a seemingly generous offering to the crown is not only disdained but that he is actually penalized for it with an unspecified amount of torture.

A subject then calls out, “To the misery! Dilly Dilly,” which is, predictably, followed by a chant of “Dilly Dilly” in unison from the crowd. Yes, everybody in the room is celebrating a poor civilian getting tortured for having the nerve to bring something other than Bud Light to the king.

“Here’s to the friends you can always count on,” the narrator says.

The lessons of this commercial are manifest and hardly limited to advising the consumption of a disgusting alcoholic beverage.

The commercial teaches us to follow authoritarian leadership without question. The king declares “dilly dilly,” and everyone else follows in unison. The king sends a man off to be tortured, and everyone cheers. There’s something to be said about even merely repeating nonsensical slogans simply because an authoritarian figure is whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Cries of “dilly dilly” might as well have been “lock her up.”

The commercial encourages intolerance to anything and anyone different than yourself. There is only one acceptable gift to the king, Bud light, and anything other doesn’t merely not meet with disappointment or negotiation but rather warrants extreme punishment. Here’s the friends you can always count on; friends who think the same as you.

Falling in line is cherished. Those who don’t should be punished severely. Bud Light has truly created a commercial that could only feel at home in the era of Trump.

A Brief Word to Hollywood Famous Person Gavin Polone on Whitewashing

25 Sep

Producer extraordinaire Gavin Polone penned a column for The Hollywood Reporter this week that espoused some views on the practice of whitewashing. He attempted to take the side of those who deplore the practice, praising Hollywood for gradually phasing out its decades-long policy of casting white actors to play non-white roles. He also warned, however, against the growing trend by whitewashing opponents of protesting any role re-written to be white, for ostensibly creative or business reasons, exemplified by Ed Skrein’s decision to take his name out of consideration for a role in the new Hellboy movie in which his character was a Japanese-American in the comic on which the movie is based. Unfortunately, the primary point Polone’s take underscores is that he doesn’t really understand entirely what the problem is with this type of whitewashing to begin with.

To break out the exact problem with Polone’s argument in a logical fashion,  let’s start at the beginning.

There are, very broadly,  three major possible applications for the term whitewashing, from narrowest to broadest.

  1. White people portraying another people of another race or ethnicity (example: Yul Brenner playing the King of Siam in The King and I, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
  2. Parts originally intended as parts for one ethnicity in source material being adopted or rewritten to be played by white people (example Tilda Swinton as the originally Tibetan Ancient One in Dr. Strange, Ed Skrein in Hellboy, before he pulled out).
  3. White people cast in a role which is not rewritten or adopted but feels like it should more naturally be played by an actor of another race or ethnicity and/or shows the white person as superior to the non-white people around him or her at their own games (Matt Damon in The Great Wall, Finn Jones in Iron Fist)

The first definition is generally agreed upon by consensus in modern Hollywood, including Polone, even though there are still examples of it occurring in modern TV and movies, like Emma Stone in Aloha and Joe Fiennes as Michael Jackson in an episode of Urban Myths.  There are certainly lots of very thorny specifics on the edges of this broad definition, that Polone brings up, even though he tries to use that otherwise well-made point to distract from the errors in his logic regarding the second definition. What are the range of races and ethnicities that can play other specific races and ethnicities and when exactly it is okay? We can all agree that Joe Fiennes shouldn’t be playing Michael Jackson; but is it okay for, as Polone mentions, Randall Park to be playing a Taiwanese-American on Fresh Off the Boat? There are very complicated non-obvious questions on which thousands of words can be written, and which likely depend on the specifics of roles, but it’s mostly the second definition which troubles Polone in his post and which I want to spend time talking about. His point about the complications of that first definition is accurate but a smokescreen to the weaknesses in his larger point.

This second definition is where I think the battle in Hollywood currently really lies and where Polone shows he doesn’t really understand the reasons why whitewashing is so problematic, of which there are, very broadly, three.

  1. White actors portraying characters of other races or ethnicities perpetrates racist stereotypes and offensively represents the races and ethnicities being depicted.
  2. Actors of certain races and ethnic groups are underrepresented relative to their general population, and whitewashing makes it more difficult for people of those races and ethnicities to get work
  3. Casting contributes to a white-as-default mentality, reinforcing a notion that whites are more important, and makes it more difficult for people of underrepresented races and ethnicities to see more varied and better portrayals of their own race and ethnicity on screen.

Polone understands the first rationale well, and makes his argument against the first definition to whitewashing above using his understanding of that point. He doesn’t obviously understand how important the second point is.

Polone uses a set of arguments gradualists have used for years in every similar civil rights struggle. They all essentially agree with the cruasers’ righteous goals, they say, but they have to practical about it. No one can expect the people who make these decisions to change overnight, and the radicals are in fact hurting the cause by advocating too strongly and not letting Hollywood advance at its own pace, which might cause an accidental backlash.

He uses a couple of examples of when perceived second definition white washing should be acceptable and why, primarily because of understandable, in his mind, box office concerns. The reasons, however contradict one another.

We shouldn’t get riled because Marvel changed the Ancient One, because it’s merely a supporting character. Well, on the other hand, we should understand why Marvel had to change the main character in Ghost in the Shell, they needed a star.  Polone tries to have it both ways, that we both shouldn’t get upset about losing a supporting character, but can’t realistically hope for an Asian star. Polone tries to excuse the Ancient One decision due to a very specific set of concerns regarding the politics between China and Tibet, but looking at the second rationale above why white washing is bad, could have led to casting of a different Asian nationality aside from Tibetan if that was an unsolvable issue. Not to mention, the self-perpetuating logic that if we need a star, we have to choose from the existing pool of largely white stars – if Asian-Americans don’t have a chance to star in movies, they’ll never thus be considered stars worthy of that star billing.

We should understand why Hollywood makes certain decisions for financial reasons, Polone says, but by replacing Ed Skrein with Daniel Dae Kim, he think in that particular case helps Hellboy from a marketing perspective. The only reason for him to make that caveat that I can think of is to attempt to turn the argument of anti-whitewashers on its head; the writers and directors behind Hellboy are just trying to make the best movie creatively, and Ed Skrein was their choice to do that, and they should be granted that creative freedom.

That argument doesn’t wash though because it gets at exactly what Polone doesn’t get about the problem with whitewashing.  Even if not for ostensible box office reasons, even if subconsciously, predominantly white producers, directors, writers, and lots of otherwise well-meaning people behind the scenes, tend to be more likely to cast white people, for psychological reasons that are above my pay grade. By forcing their hand, at the very least to stick with characters that aren’t white in their original incarnation, we’re forcing them to look outside of their narrow view and give actors chances to play parts they aren’t gifted with nearly as often. I like Ed Skrein as an actor but I hardly think Polone could or would make an argument that Skrein was simply the only actor who could do justice to that part. There are many many actors the movie could choose from, whether we wanted to limit it to Japanese-Americans, or other Asian-Americans or not, which again is a far different and more complicated question, and those are actors that are not getting chances in a predominantly white industry.

The argument that the protests aren’t practical doesn’t hold water either. I’m all for practical, and often the problems I have with politics on my liberal side of the aisle that I disagree with are due to their relative practicality, but opponents of that second type of whitewashing on being very practical. They’re attempting to change the calculus for both actors taking whitewashed parts by both punishing actors who take them with public shaming, and rewarding them, as seen with Ed Skrein for declining them. Supporters believe that movies that are less whitewashed will, if released, do perfectly well at the box office, and Polone didn’t provide any evidence otherwise – not to claim this is any type of meaningful sample, but Ghost in the Shell, Polone’s choice of a movie that needed an established star, was a flop regardless, and does he really think Dr. Strange would not have succeeded without Swinton? He contends Hollywood simply won’t make these movies, and there’s realistic concern that will happen, but will it happen with every single movie – will Hollywood never make another movie with a non-white character again? I doubt it; this is a long run gambit, and I would argue the price of losing a few likely mediocre adaptions due to public pressure in the meantime is worth the progress towards an end goal of more representative casting.

End of Series Report: Twin Peaks: The Return

20 Sep

I don’t have anything particularly illuminating to say about the particulars of the final Twin Peaks episodes, or the season as a whole, but I merely want to say a few works more generally about the critical and cult phenomenon that surrounds the show, and David Lynch in general, and how I feel as a visitor, rather than a resident, in Lynch-world, eager to absorb and learn but occasionally skeptical and unwilling to always drink the kool-aid.

I can’t compete with the level of nuance and observation from the many Lynch disciples on the internet who have trained their eyes to look for the most minute reference or symbolism that relates to earlier in the season, to previous Twin Peaks incarnations, or to other projects in the Lynch oeuvre. There’s plenty to speculate on, but in this case I’m not the person to do it. I’ve greatly appreciated their work throughout the internet which has helped me enjoy the season on a much wider level than I would have on my own.

As should be obvious at this point, I’m not a Twin Peaks diehard. I didn’t watch the original series until a couple of years ago, somehow managing not to spoil the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer for myself (I still don’t know how I managed that), largely enjoying the show until that point and having a little harder of a time pushing through the second half of the second season slog (I still keep forgetting Heather Graham was in the show). Overall, I enjoyed the show but I didn’t think it was a breakthrough TV or one of the best shows of all time. What I did think was that it was incredibly bizarre, particularly for the time, and still today, and that it had the most insane ending of any show I’ve seen, and both those qualities are what built up what excitement I had for the new season.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this new season, and that was exciting. There’s always a temptation make a reboot feel warm and cozy, to reintroduce viewers to all the characters they missed in the interim, but David Lynch has little taste for the sentimental. The more accurate question in this case was to what limited extent the show would bring back its familiar elements and characters, and to what extent it could be just as weird now, relatively, as it must have been then. Without the burden of expectation of a bigger fan, I was less likely to be disappointed if it didn’t live up to expectations, or maybe lived up too closely to expectations for my liking.

I watched episodes often without having any idea what was going on at certain parts. I guess that’s part of the whole idea, and there’s both a thrill and a frustration that comes along with it. I appreciate the instinct not to pander to the audience, but at the other end of the spectrum, sometimes there’s just nothing really to understand. For about half the segments I was confused by, other more dedicated and astute viewers seemed to understand and shed some helpful light on, whether literally or symbolically, and for the other half it seemed like nobody had any idea, occasionally grasping at straws for deeper meaning, but still liked or disliked based on how much they enjoyed the general Lynch-ness of it.

Reading recaps for Twin Peaks: The Return, which were for me a requirement, compared to a supplement for just about any other show I’ve ever seen, felt like a combination of enthusiasm, illumination, and rationalization. Twin Peaks had less of a traditional narrative than just about any television show that has ever aired. There’s something to be said for a show being a tone poem; for there not being a whole lot of narrative meaning, and for the picture and shape and feel to mean as much as a typical story. There’s also a likelihood that the fact that qualities sometimes came at the expense of an often muddled and unfocused structure would not be excused so easily were it not both Twin Peaks and David Lynch; fans, I think, are  little bit pre-baked to accept whatever Lynch wants to throw out there (in some respect, it’s the nature of fandom; I’ve excused my favorites for lazy or inferior content on occasion). Some characters seem to exist for no reason. Most notably, never returning to Audrey after we see waking up in a hospital-like room feels particularly mystifying; I’ve seen many rationalizations for it, but they all feel like rationalizations; there are a lot of shows could look a lot better in the right light if they had bloggers in their corner finding the absolute best defense for any potential wrong step. Some writing about Twin Peaks  reads a lot like Lost defenders talking about how the constant cop outs, unanswered questions, and deus ex machinas on that show were all part of larger story that is actually brilliant and that you, reader, just don’t get and appreciate it.

By no means are these structures and odd peripheral characters and plotlines without merit. Lynch has generally thought these things through; Twin Peaks: The Return, as insane as it gets (and it gets way out there) never feels as silly or confused as Lost. When Lynch makes a bad choice, for what it’s worth, it feels like there’s more of an intentionality to those bad choices, rather than scrambling and appearing made up as it went along. Everything is in there for a reason, at least in Lynch’s mind; as a one-shot miniseries (albeit a very long one) he knows there’s no next season to follow (though never say never) and doesn’t have to worry about where his characters end up.

I would love to somehow apply a double blind test to some of Lynch’s biggest fans and see whether something similarly brilliant but messy and uncfocused without the Lynch brand associated with it would garner as much universal acclaim. Maybe it would; it’s entirely possible. But it’s hard to not feel like occasionally, because Lynch did it, its’ brilliant, rather than the other way round.

I’m glad I watched it. I’m glad I got to be part of a moment in time, where people were so feverishly into it, and their enthusiasm caused me to be way more into it that I might have been otherwise, which is a good thing. I’m glad I got a piece of the general excitement surrounding the property. The show was a fascinating journey where there was absolutely no way to predict what was coming next, and most importantly, it was like absolutely nothing else on TV and that’s worth a hell of a lot.  I suspect it won’t be like anything else on TV for a very long time; it didn’t feel the need to reckon with its viewership at all and was content to leave viewers with infinite questions wanting more, for better and worse. It was an achievement. I’m just convinced when I rank my favorite shows at year’s end, for me, all of the difference doesn’t make it a better show than The Americans or BoJack Horseman.

 

End of Season Report: Horace and Pete

13 Sep

It took me a year and a half, and even though I bought a couple of the episodes when they were first available, I didn’t watch any until the show moved over to Hulu, but I finally made it through Louis CK’s self-produced one-man vision Horace and Pete.

One could call Horace and Pete an experimental project, in that it’s unlike anything on TV, though what makes it “experimental” is what makes its look and feel much simpler and bare bones than modern TV, hearkening back in many ways to earlier eras. Distribution-wise however, it was unquestionably experimental – being completely funded by CK without the backing or approval of any network or website. Shot like a play, that’s what it feels like, more than a television show, with an extremely limited number of sets, primarily the titular bar and the upstairs apartment, and only one or two scenes outside the bar that I can remember (at a restaurant and a doctor’s office) and no exteriors. Like a play as well, the dialogue is enunciated very clearly, is a bit exaggerated and and has the distinct cadences and pauses of a stage production, breathing more than typical faster-paced Peak TV.  Episodes very greatly in length, and though this should be no surprise to Louie viewers, Horace and Pete is no comedy; there are comedic moments but it’s not a particularly funny show nor is it attempting to be.

There are a lot of successes and a number of flaws, but it’s worth watching, particularly for fans of Louie, because it’s so different and for the things that it does well. Most days of the week, I’d rather watch a flawed original show than a technically better-executed second-rate prestige drama, and Horace and Pete is very much the former.

Horace and Pete seems to think it’s profound all of the time – about half the time it is and half of the time it isn’t. The show is at its worst when it’s being political, which it largely does in the context of discussion amongst patrons at the bar of different political persuasions. Admittedly, there may be some bias from watching this a year and a half later, and a big year and a half later, after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, and my undoubted coastal liberal elite status makes it particularly my bias particularly acute. But the material, most of it involving regular barfly Kurt Meltzer, often working around the theme that both parties are kind of screwed up, and no one is listening to each other, may have had roots in truth but feels oddly stale in an America where a Republican president is calling white nationalists fine men.

The acting is wonderful, particularly Edie Falco as Horace and Pete’s sister Sylvia,who is fighting cancer, and Steve Buscemi as the tragic Pete, who learns that the medicine which is the only thing separating him from the debilitating mental illness he suffers from and which kept him in a mental hospital for years, is going off the market. Generally, I enjoyed the bits focusing on the family more than the random conversations of the barflies, which felt closer to attempts at humor which never quite worked. Horace is a frustrating bumbling every man who can never seem to put the right words together that the situation calls for, trying to do the right thing, but often failing. Sylvia and Pete are both more sympathetic and compelling, and as for Alan Alda’s Uncle Pete, I was surprised but happy to see him go. To no fault of Alda’s, I didn’t have a lot of interest in this bigoted horrible old man who everyone but Sylvia seems to put up with and even like for some reason.

The strongest segments are the non sequiturs; the stories, told, in a monologue from one character to another, or the snippets of idle conversation about life, when it doesn’t feel as if Louis CK is trying to make an explicit point. The shining example of this and the one episode of the series that everyone should watch, regardless if they ever plan on tuning in again is the third episode, “Episode Three” (creatively titled), featuring Laurie Metcalf as Horace’s ex-wife, Sarah. In nearly entirely a monologue format, Sarah tells the story of how she came to be cheating on her current husband with her husband’s father, and how that experience grants her some understanding of how Horace could have cheated on her with her sister years ago, leading to the dissolution of their marriage, even while knowing what a disaster it would be when they were inevitably caught. I just described the gist, but that’s peripheral to watching the story being told by an acclaimed theater actress like Melcalf, who is obviously a master of this format, using dramatic pauses and facial tics to emphasize individual moments of the story, with brilliant specifics details inserted by Louie throughout. Right there in those scenes is what makes Horace and Pete interesting and worthy and justifies the investment.