“The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome”
September 1st, 2008
For a show that is extremely close to cancellation, The Middleman sure didn’t use its first season finale as some type of course correction designed to sell the network on how it can change itself to appeal more to ABC Family’s core audience.
Instead, the season’s 12th episode offered more of what we expect from the series: an intelligent and well-executed episode which played with popular culture conventions and demonstrated just why this series needs to stick around for more time. Playing with a mirror universe on this type of scale should have felt like too much to handle in a single episode, but the episode played to the strength of our emotional relationship with the characters and broader questions of good and evil that the show should be allowed to resolve with time.
And while the episode was a satisfying end to the show’s first season, there is no question that abandoning these characters at this point in time is the type of decision that could earn ABC Family a black mark from critics – a renewal, meanwhile, could prove that ABC Family would be an evil mastermind in the parallel world and a shining beacon of television hope in our own.
What makes this episode work is that the parallel universe is very simple: it’s an authoritarian regime let by Manservant Neville (Mark Sheppard) where everyone needs ID cards, ripped straight out of 1984 (Or, as Wendy points out, the 1982 theatrical The Wall which was inspired by said ideas) where everything else is mirrored to the show’s normal reality. By using an existing archetype, it allows the differences in the mirror universe to be focused in the character as opposed to the environment; we don’t need to spend much time with riot police or aerosol soup, but we can spend considerable time shedding some light on the various characters close to Wendy’s life.
The result is an understanding that there are some people who can’t be corrupted and some who can. Lacey, although working as a mistress of sorts, is inherently the same person, maintaining her inherent optimism the episode makes mention of. Noser, although shotgun-toting, still uses the lyrics to Shaft to allow Wendy access and seems to despite Fatboy as much as people should. These two characters are Wendy’s support structure, so it says something that when the “real” Wendy returns to this universe they are willing to take up her cause.
And then you have The Middleman himself. Matt Keeslar had a lot of fun with the eyepatch wearing alternate version of our wholesome hero, a foul-mouthed biker sporting chaps and a definitely lack of initiative in the whole hero business. In the end, though, he was still the same character: as Wendy notes at episode’s end, his decision to save her demonstrates that when someone so pure goes down a bad path there is still hope at the end of the tunnel. It does also mean, though, that our Middleman perhaps has the same potential should a mistake lead to Wendy’s death, as an example.
At the same time as we have these examples of characters uncorrupted in the mirror of sorts, you have those who are corrupted (or saved): most specifically, you have the example of Pip, who is now a priest. The presumption here is that he is, therefore, evil in the normal universe, a fact that seemed to be at least somewhat challenged two episodes ago when they gave him a character. As a result, it’s hard to know just how exact this mirror is, especially in regards to our central characters.
It is this part of the episode that really needs to be explored further: in the alternate universe, Tyler is the Middleboy and Wendy is a murderer who ends up taking over Fatboy Industries after taking a job following his takeover. The presumption is that the 13th episode would have followed up on these ideas, that Tyler would have been sucked into Neville’s attempt to take over the world with this little music cube things and that in the process he would follow Wendy’s parallel universe path. This brings into question Tyler’s corruptability, while seemingly proving Wendy’s goodness (something that, as our heroine, was never really in question). The end result of it all is that the idyllic image of Wendy painting The Middleman while Tyler rests in bed seems out of place and tacked on to provide season closure: in reality, shouldn’t she be questioning just what it means for Tyler to have been an innocent victim in a world entirely opposite to her own?
It’s a frustrating situation because this episode was proof of the show’s capability of handling such storylines, juggling complicated scenarios with character development in a way that I never would have guessed from the fast-talking premiere. The charm has stayed (I’m with the fans, “My Little Pony” [Voted the favourite Middleman exclamation] is wonderful), but in the process the show has learned to better understand its characters. This conclusion has its moments of “closure,” but they’re all in that parallel universe: there, Lacey and the Middleman have restored Ida and are set to take down Fatboy (and Wendy) once and for all.
But in this universe, our universe and the one where Natalie Morales is doing great work with the character of Wendy, this show needs to continue. Reading through the list of pop culture references for the episode, it is clear that the writers and producers take more care in writing this show than an entire season of most others, and that this type of connection with fans is something ABC Family should be cultivating instead of throwing away. While no final decisions have been made, the ratings are not good; however, considering the prevalence of TV on DVD in today’s society and the positive buzz critics are building for the series, there is potential here that needs to be explored.
If it isn’t, I’ll start to wonder if we’re not the ones living in the oppressive regime.
- I thought that the reverse Ida thing was cute, but then was really intrigued that the actress managed to so perfectly capture the voice and the intonations. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the robots would be immune to most of the parallel changes, but it still seemed like a lot of effort for the actress that lesser shows may have just ignored for the sake of speed.
- The lack of a 13th episode did ensure that this setpiece got more money, and it showed: special effects were stronger, the art direction on the mirror universe was of a larger scale than anything we’ve seen, and even the locations seemed just more open, more spacious. The show maintained its charm, though, never stepping so outside itself that it felt like a different type of show.
- Good on the writers to allow most if not all major and minor characters a moment or two in the episode: Joe 90 plays a prominent role, Pip gets a little cameo, and even Wendy’s mom makes a guest appearance by telephone. It felt like a nice sendoff…but for the season. Emphasis on “season.”