When I used to write weekly reviews of Glee, it was during a period where I would often search through each episode looking for a quote to use as an anchor for my analysis. Glee was a show that wore its heart on its sleeve, and so it wasn’t a particularly difficult task with the show; in fact, the biggest challenge was choosing between the numerous moments where characters said exactly what the point of it all was.
It’s therefore not a huge surprise the same could be said for Glee’s two-hour finale. The last hour, in particular, was unabashed: whether it’s opening us up to joy, or Blaine telling Kurt that he’s “the only one I know who would do something like this,” or Rachel Berry standing on the stage of a 3/5 scale recreation of Radio City Music Hall telling all of the children to believe that dreams come true, Glee could never be attacked for a lack of synergy between the message it started with and the message that constituted its ending.
Glee could be attacked for many things, most recently a haphazard final season that understood its strengths and weaknesses and kept pretending they didn’t matter, but that central message has always been strong. Even as someone who wrote about the show critically, a task that will inevitably drive a person to madness, I always believed the core message of Glee was powerful, and I wasn’t surprised to see stories emerge this week that sought to celebrate those principles. I was emotional during this finale because no matter how many wrong turns the show took during its run, the place it kept landing in was a place of hope, and it was hard to root against that.
However, it was also hard to focus on it. During the final performance of OneRepublic’s “I Lived,” with a huge collection of past and present members of New Directions and ancillary characters, the show seeks to paper over a complicated history of characters it served poorly, characters who were ignored then forgotten, and plot twists that sought to fundamentally undo the good work the show was doing in other areas. It was a moment that understood the transcendent power of “hope” and human perseverance, but—like the final season as a whole—simultaneously reminded us how rarely Glee calibrated itself properly to be the beacon of hope it believed itself to be.
There are some definite echoes to be found in the paths of Zjelko Ivanek and Giancarlo Esposito when it comes to their Emmy Award ambitions.
Both actors were regulars on series in which they played minor roles on a weekly basis (Ivanek on FX’s Damages), and both became the focus of episodes later in the season where their characters were fleshed out through flashback. And, both were strong enough in those episodes that they were labeled as Emmy contenders; while we will have to wait twelve months to see if Esposito will have any success in this area, Ivanek stole the Emmy out from his co-star Ted Danson (and a lot of other contenders) in 2008.
The difference, I would argue, is that Ivanek’s episode is meant to be shocking. We knew nothing about Ivanek’s Ray Fiske (a name I wouldn’t remembered without the help of Wikipedia) before that episode, and hadn’t really been given any reason to care about the character beyond considering him as a legal opponent. And so when we started delving into his past, including his homosexuality and his self-destruction related to an unrequited love, it was meant to throw the viewer off-guard. Fiske’s arc in the episode is a statement, a singular one in fact, and it was the “shock” of it all that made it resonate in subsequent episodes and with Emmy voters.
By comparison, Gus Fring has been an enigma from the minute he was introduced. The show has always kept a certain distance from Gus, always resisting showing us his perspective on events, and in the process it has created a large number of mysteries. Whereas Ray Fiske was a character taken from obscurity to a sudden point of interest, Gus has always been a character begging for an origin story, or in the case of “Hermanos” an origin story mixed in with another escalation in the season’s focus on perspective (this time focused more closely on the narrative). As a result, it comes with a great deal of anticipation but also a great deal of expectation, and raises another question entirely: is it worse to have too many questions or too many answers?
Or, of course, you could just split the difference and embrace them both equally, as “Hermanos” achieves quite admirably.
[Heads up: while I tiptoed around it above, I’m going to spoil Damages Season One here, so skip past the next paragraph if you’ve still got those DVDs sitting around. I’ll drop in another warning when it’s done.]
This is an honest question, and one that I think Fringe has been forcing viewers to ask for a few episodes now. This is not a question of quality: I think we’ve long ago established that Fringe is a quality television program, and although I think there have been some weak spots as of late the show has been unquestionably solid all season.
Rather, this is a question of connection: when we watch the show, what is it which most draws us in? On some level, this is tested in episodes like “Immortality,” as our interest in the other side is tested by an episode which takes place almost exclusively in that environment. Personally, I quite enjoy the alternate universe, and while I have my concerns about how the show will stick the landing in regards to the pregnancy I thought the time spent with Fauxlivia and friends was well spent.
More generally, though, the central relationship between Peter and Olivia has been front and center, driving the storylines in both universes and, in “Subject 13,” in multiple time periods. And while I think that Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson have done some tremendous work, and I would say that the relationship has been a dramatically compelling addition to the series, I will admit that I am not all that emotionally connected to it. And so when episodes like “6B” draw some pretty heavy-handed parallels between their relationship and the story of the week, it’s a test: is the somewhat tired plot structure overcome if we’re attached to the fate of Peter and Olivia’s relationship?
Ultimately, I thought “6B” was fine, but “Subject 13” raises a whole host of other questions. There is some tremendous acting in this episode, but I have to ask: what was the point, exactly? What we learn about the past is hardly news, mostly filling in blanks which we had already filled in ourselves, and so it raises the question of why this (extremely compelling) flashback was interjected into the narrative at this point in time.
And it offers an answer that, frankly, tests my patience with whatever portmanteau the internet has given Peter and Olivia.
Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter has said that he has no intention of ever using flashbacks for the FX series, which some might find odd considering how much of the series is based on an earlier generation of conflict regarding SAMCRO’s founder, John Teller. However, each season of the series has a tightly constructed arc, and so much of its drama depends on capturing the intensity of the Sons’ daily lives that flashing back would likely disrupt any sense of momentum.
And yet, for network series with similarly complex backstories, flashback episodes are almost a necessity: with 22 episodes to deliver each year, as opposed to the 13 offered on cable, flashbacks are a good way to kill some time between major story arcs, or fill in some necessary exposition heading into a new story arc, or to simply have some fun by featuring a character who everyone seems to enjoy. “Fool to Love” and “Darla” are both flashback episodes, and even flash back to the same scenes in two instances, but they represent two distinct types of flashback episodes, which becomes clear when watched together (as they would have originally aired).
I want to talk a bit about how each series uses its respective flashback episode as a standalone piece, but I also want to look at how they work as parts of their respective seasons: while “Darla” is very clearly part of the series’ narrative arc, “Fool for Love” has a unique relationship with the momentum built by “No Place Like Home” and “Family” which offers a different take on the potential function of flashbacks.
I’ve fallen into an unfortunate trap over the past month or so with Treme, and it’s quite a common one: with a show this dense and devoid of traditional plot development, and where the professional critics are receiving screeners and I am, well, not, I haven’t been able to work up the drive to write about the episodes when I’ve been seeing them a few days late every week (as a result of the conflict with Breaking Bad, which was so great this season). I’d hate for this to be read as a slight on the series as a whole, but I do think that I’ve avoided writing about it because I’ve felt uncomfortable offering a verdict on how the series has progressed.
I think what I’ve discovered is that Treme is constantly defined by fallout, both in terms of the overarching impact of Hurricane Katrina and the individual tragedies and events which define each character’s journey. When something happens on Treme, like the conclusion of last week’s penultimate episode, the real interest for David Simon and Eric Overmeyer seems to be the consequences. The Wire’s finales were always denouements, but Treme has been one long denouement from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, and living within that space has taken these characters to some dangerous places and created consequences that will not end with tonight’s season finale. While The Wire was interested in how one small decision or one bureaucratic inefficiency could snowball into tragedy, Treme captures the spirit of a city fighting to overcome inescapable tragedy, and the result has been some great television.
“I’ll Fly Away” is a powerful and riveting finale, one which emphasizes the central notion of how these individuals fit into the world around them. Treme is filled with characters who either struggle against the script they’re given (the creators) or who simply play the sheet music placed before them (the players), and after Katrina hit New Orleans everyone was forced to ask how far they would follow their desire to take control of their own future, and at what point they would simply let themselves be washed away by the storm’s aftermath towards a new path in life. At the conclusion of Treme’s first season, we see numerous characters reach the point where they’re forced to make a choice, and yet it is never presented as a judgment (either positive or negative) on New Orleans culture.
Regardless of whether these characters choose to fly away or stay in New Orleans until the bitter end, they will always love this city, and that infectious love is so apparent in the production of this series that no amount of tragedy can outweigh the strength of spirit shown in these opening episodes. While the series’ highly recognizable subject matter could have overwhelmed the individual characters that Simon and Overmeyer have created to populate their historical fiction, these characters have instead become a powerful way in which we as an audience come to understand the life of New Orleans, and the sheer weight that they were forced to carry once Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke.
And Treme is that much more accomplished for carrying that weight with such confidence.
It’s the question I found myself returning to throughout “Across the Sea,” a story which feels so designed to discover answers that it never quite achieves a narrative in its own right, although I don’t necessarily mean that as a slight to its effectiveness. However, while you could argue we get some facts and details that help us piece together previous events, there is very little of what one would call “clear” answers in the hour. What we get are extended metaphors meant to give meaning, rather than clarity, to that which has happened before and that which will happen in the future.
Considering the breadth of questions we as an audience have at this stage in the show’s run, there is no chance that the show will ever be able to make everything perfectly clear, and when tonight’s episode actually tried to provide “answers” it often felt unnatural, inorganic. Where the episode worked best is in using metaphors and abstract ideas to solidify human emotions and character motivations: this is the story of Jacob and his nameless twin brother (who we’ll call Esau for the sake of the Biblical connection, even if their mother’s name makes it less than perfect), but it both implicitly and explicitly gestures to what we’ve seen unfold on the island for six seasons, and in doing so gives greater meaning to that journey even if the “why” question remains unanswered.
I don’t think “Across the Sea” is by any means perfect, but I think it did a most admirable job at crafting a story which crystallizes the show’s journey thus far, worrying less about the big picture and more about establishing where the individual portraits the show has created fit into the mysteries of the island (which may remain unsolved).
On AMC Canada, Breaking Bad tends to run about thirty seconds long, and due to some scheduling conflicts I have to record the encore rather than the original airing – as a result (yes, there’s a reason I’m explaining this), my recording always begins with the last thirty seconds of the episode I’m about to watch. Usually I’m pretty quick at catching this particular problem, but other times I’m not so lucky; sometimes I get quick glances of what’s to come, which are often pretty innocuous and easily forgotten or ignored as the episode begins.
At this point in the review, anyone who has seen “One Minute” is hoping that this was one of those times where that didn’t happen, where I was intelligent enough to remember the potential spoilers and immediately close my eyes and fast-forward until it was safe to open them again. Unfortunately, I did see a brief moment from the stunning final sequence of this week’s episode, but in a testament to the ludicrous quality of this hour of television I didn’t even remember it by the time we came to the scene in question. “One Minute” has no complicated narrative nor does it rely exclusively on the sort of jaw-dropping scenes with which it concludes: rather, it tells the story of two men who face important decisions, in the process delivering the greatest Emmy duel since Michael Emerson and Terry O’Quinn.
Every episode of television is a collection of scenes, individual set pieces designed to present a particular moment or to evoke a particular emotion or feeling. The scenes serve one of many potential purposes, whether it’s establishing a standalone plot within a particular episode, calling back to a previous scene or event in another episode, or even simply being placed for the sake of foreshadowing. A scene can change meaning as a season progresses, an awkward encounter with an overly touchy politico turning into a legitimate affair by the addition of new scenes that speak to the old one, for example. And, at the same time, other scenes are simply brief thematic beats designed to give the viewer the sense of a particular time or place, with nothing more beneath them than the aesthetic value apparent in the craftsmanship involved.
A great episode of television, however, is where every single scene feels purposeful, and more importantly where there is no one type of scene which feels dominant. There can still be scenes designed to engage with nothing more than the viewer’s sense of humour, just as there will be scenes that feel like the culmination of two and a half seasons worth of interactions. In these episodes there is a balance between scenes which unearth feelings and emotions from the past that have been kept under wraps all season and scenes which create almost out of thin air entirely new scenarios that promise of an uncertain future.
In a season finale in particular, this last point is imperative. A great season finale assures the reader that, as the quote above indicates, the change which is going to take place in the season to follow is both fundamental (in presenting something which surprises or engages) and incidental (in maintaining the series’ identity), both chaotic (in the context of the series’ fictional universe) and controlled (within the mind of the show’s writers). It is an episode that must feel like the fruit of the thirty-five episodes which preceded it while also serving as the tree for the twenty-six episodes which will follow. It is the episode that, for better or for worse, will be more closely scrutinized than any other, and for which expectations are exceedingly high.
“Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” is more than a collection of scenes. It transcends the concepts of script and screen to capture characters in their most vulnerable states, in the process tapping into the viewer’s emotions with a sense of purpose that the show has never quite seen. Where past amazing episodes have sometimes hinged upon a single scene or a single moment, or on the creation of a particular atmosphere, this finale is like a never-ending stream of scenes that we have been clambering for all season: characters say everything we wanted them to say, do everything we wanted them to do, and yet somehow it never felt like puppet theatre where the characters would follow the whims of Matthew Weiner more than their own motivations.
It is a finale that never wastes a single scene, and which marches towards an uncertain conclusion with utmost certainty. Somehow, in a finale which does not shy away from scenes which are both disturbing to watch and destructive to the show’s tempestuous sense of balance, it maintains a cautious optimism by demonstrating that not everything will fall apart at once, while retaining the right to have everything in shambles by the time we return with Season Four. It’s a singular achievement, an hour of television which sits perfectly in the gap between the past and the future while never feeling as if it takes us out of the present, the moment in which these characters are captured in these scenes.
So, shut the door and have a seat: we’ve got some discussing to do.
If there is a single common trait amongst Joss Whedon’s best work, it’s passion. There is this impression that Whedon is pouring his heart into every little scene, and it’s almost always clear when Whedon himself is scripting an episode because it feels particularly purposeful and engaging. And, as a result of this, his passionate legion of fans respond in kind, and a fan favourite series is born. Unfortunately, the same series is probably also doomed to criminally low ratings, so to an extent Whedon has been painted with the brush of “Critical Darling, Ratings Failure.”
But to be honest, halfway through Dollhouse’s inaugural season, I didn’t feel Joss Whedon’s passion for this series: the premise wasn’t being used to its potential, the actors weren’t being allowed to dig into their characters, and in a television arena where patience is not a dependable virtue amongst a mainstream audience Whedon waited six episodes before finally delivering something with a pulse. But out of loyalty to a man whose work I admire and who even admitted last month at PaleyFest that he was going through a creative struggle on his end more than network intereference, myself and the legions of Whedonverse fans patiently waited for the show to break free.
And break free it has: starting with “Man on the Street” and extending into “Spy in the House of Love” and last week’s fantastic “Briar Rose,” the series has not so much reinvited itself as it has discovered the proper perspective on its themes and ideas. Even the episodes not quite as effective have helped to introduce key elements in a way that, rather than seeming like a random “This could be cool, I guess” sort of storyline, feel organic in the season’s momentum. Key mysteries were squared away faster than expected, one key reveal was played so well that being spoiled didn’t even matter, and heading into “Omega” there have been a number of critics who have noted that Dollhouse has quite stealthily become the show they most want saved during this year’s upfronts.
What impresses me about “Omega” is that it doesn’t present a cliffhanger, nor does it fundamentally change our knowledge of the Dollhouse universe (although I thought we should have seen it change on its own a bit more); while it confirms just what happened with Alpha, and makes good on a subtle line from Dominic last week that many astute fans picked up on, the episode is more about paying off some of the ethical questions and dilemmas posed over the last season in such a way as to less justify than explain them. While not perfect, slowing a bit in its conclusion and struggling in sections that required comic timing from Eliza Dushku, it was a finale that nicely summed up why this show is most certainly worth saving, while leaving more than enough questions to lay the groundwork for a second season.
Forgiveness is a really interesting emotion, primarily because of how subjective it is. There is a great moment in “Dead is Dead” where Locke suggests that he and Ben discuss the elephant in the room, being the fact that Ben, you know, murdered him, and Ben immediately heads into a long and rambling explanation of how he had to do it, how it was the only way, how he knew he couldn’t leave it to him, etc. Locke, meanwhile, just shrugs: “I was just looking for an apology.”
Locke, of course, has a very different value of forgiveness, having been through so much, and in his new resurrected form Locke is more sure of himself than ever; he forgives Ben because he’s now alive, and he now has purpose, so who is he to really complain?
The problem with the episode is really not a problem at all: Benjamin Linus’ flashbacks are designed specifically to show us those moments where his empathetic nature emerges, some sign of the young boy who went into that Temple returning as part of this new individual. However, in the present day, we see that Ben is still just as much a monster as before, and I think there’s something inherently problematic in the way he treats these situations with such moral dichotomy.
But it’s supposed to be problematic, and Michael Emerson delivers another knockout performance, and “Dead is Dead” succeeds based on the show’s emphasis on his duality.