REVIEW — House of Cards, Season 2, Episodes 5 & 6

 

Hey, look at that, I’m back to reviewing these! Primarily because the new season of HoC premiers at the end of the month and I am super behind. In case I haven’t mentioned this: I watch and then review, and I don’t watch further if I haven’t written a review, so I’m sure you can see how that strategy might backfire into not ever getting a chance to watch the rest of the show because I’m just too lazy to write my review. Bad, SM. Get it together.

 

I am getting it together! Or trying to, anyway. I finished automotive school at the end of January and now I am in Israel on a month-long trip that I like to call “My Last Hurrah Before Having To Come Home and Be an Adult.” And of course, what is there to do in Israel aside from watch TV shows about American politics? Nothing significant, that is correct.

 

This review in particular, though, I’m finding hard to write, not because it’s been so long since I’ve seen and written about the show, but rather because nothing that happens in either of these episodes struck me as particularly memorable. They hit a couple of major plot points — Lucas the Journalist’s story mercifully wrapped up with his framing and arrest for cyberterrorism, and Frank is attempting to drive a wedge between the President and his billionaire advisor, Raymond Tusk. But neither of these storylines are all that compelling to me because Lucas is not a character I find interesting, and neither is Raymond Tusk. Gone is the eccentricity that gave his character the slightest bit of depth; now he’s just this rich guy who’s looking after his interests. Very one-note, very boring. So these major arcs just feel perfunctory to me as a viewer because I don’t care much for the people involved.

 

The smaller stuff I find more compelling, even if there’s not much there — the few brief scenes with Rachel Posner (I think that actress has incredible screen presence and I hope she gets to have more agency as the show goes on), and more substantially, Claire’s new committee to fight for women’s rights in the military, which introduces the character of the First Lady, and it was awesome to see her use her status to smack down that general/military dude who was insisting the military does all it can to protect its women, when clearly it could do more. I was less enamored with the bit where Claire is clearly trying to push Christina (girlfriend of the late Peter Russo, a’’h) out of the picture by planting suspicions in the First Lady’s mind that Christina is having an affair with the President. At least, I think pushing Christina out of the White House is her goal with that, but honestly I have no idea because I don’t know why she suddenly cares what happens with Christina. Theoretically she could be concerned that Christina could piece together the fact that Frank murdered Russo, but it’s unclear how that would be possible and why now this is a concern. Also it’s unclear if Claire even knows that Frank murdered Russo? Ugh, show, you could be better at this.

 

Basically, these two episodes fall into the category of Less Engaging Setup. I do not have a problem with setup in and of itself, but even if seeds are just being planted for a payoff down the line, there are ways to make those seed-planting scenes more interesting than many of these. (As I wrote in my review of the season 5 finale of Supernatural, that show suffered from the opposite problem of setup that was so interesting that the payoff paled in comparison.) Of course, most people aren’t watching this show in two-episode chunks and then stopping to write reviews, so the show is structured to build as one story and not necessarily be broken down on an episode-by-episode level. Still, there are very serialized shows out there that do a better job on an episode-to-episode and scene-to-scene level than these couple of episodes. Hopefully things will pick up soon, and if they don’t, well, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are still worth watching regardless. Underwoods 4evah!!

 

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REVIEW — Supernatural, “Swan Song” (Season 5 finale)

This is a wayyyyyyy overdue review for Marsha L., who generously donated and sponsored it months ago. (Commissioned post #5 out of…I’ve totally lost count; there are a lot now.) SPOILERS AHOY!!!

I was only in season 3 at the time that this was sponsored, and I was watching along with my favorite reviewer/blogger Mark Oshiro of www.markwatches.net (check him out!), so that accounts for some of the delay. But then I finally got up to this episode when Mark reached it at least a month and a half ago, but I still didn’t watch it because I was super busy and wanted to sit down and watch it with my full attention, so as to properly review it. And by the time I had a chance to do that, I had practically forgotten what was going on in the season and decided that before watching the finale, I should rewatch the previous episode, Two Minutes to Midnight, so I wouldn’t be totally lost.

 

Aaaaand…I kinda wish I hadn’t done that.

 

Because as I was watching the finale, I realized that a big problem I had with it was that I found the setup so much more interesting than the payoff.

 

See, the past few seasons have been constantly introducing new and fascinating elements that expand upon the universe of Supernatural, flesh out its very nature, and what tasks have been set for our heroes.

 

Non-comprehensive list of super intriguing elements introduced in the past couple of seasons:

 

  • Angels exist
  • Angels are actually jerkfaces who want to bring the apocalypse
  • God exists
  • God is actually a jerkface who doesn’t want to help stop the apocalypse
  • Castiel has become a rogue angel and gradually loses his powers
  • The trickster from earlier years is actually the angel Gabriel
  • The archangel Michael wants Dean as his vessel
  • The devil, Lucifer, wants Sam as his vessel
  • John Winchester had another son, who died
  • jk, the angels totes brought him back as a substitute vessel
  • There’s this dude named Chuck who’s written a bazillion books on the Winchester adventures, including stuff that he can’t possibly know, thinking it’s all fiction he’s inventing
  • Chuck is actually a Prophet of the Lord and sees what will happen to the Winchesters before it happens
  • The four horsemen of the apocalypse exist
  • The four horsemen are actually superpowered dudes who wear rings and drive awesome Mustangs (because HORSES, geddit??)
  • The four rings from the four horsemen can put Lucifer back in his devil-cage in hell
  • Both Sam and the Death the Horseman think the only chance to get Lucifer back in his cage is for Sam to allow Lucifer to possess him, and then overpower Lucifer’s possession enough to jump into the cage

 

…and that’s what you missed on Glee! Er, Supernatural!

 

All these elements are firmly established going into the Season 5 finale, because, as Marsha told me when she sponsored this review, this is what the writers have been building toward for 5 seasons. And I understand that, I understand that this episode already has all the pieces laid out on the table and is just moving them around.

 

But that doesn’t change the fact that after all the fantastic developments we get in the preceding seasons, and even the preceding episode, we don’t learn anything nearly as new or intriguing here. Honestly, that 5-minute scene between Dean and Death the Horseman in Two Minutes to Midnight was more compelling to me than just about anything that happened in the finale.

 

I am NOT saying that the finale wasn’t entertaining (it was!), that it wasn’t immensely watchable (it was!), or that nothing surprising happens in this episode at all (it did — for instance, Lucifer knowing about the Winchesters’ plans with the horsemen’s rings and Dean’s “oh crap we are so screwed” face was a definite highlight). But the surprises are all on a plot level, regarding what is happening; the whys of everything remain just as opaque as before. There are no lightbulb moments, no epiphanies. Our level of understanding of why this is all happening is the same going into the episode as it is coming out. It doesn’t add up to anything more than a bunch of things that had to happen so that there would be a TV show.

 

Still, okay. It’s a TV show, an entertaining ride of conflict, resolution, drama, and humor — that’s what I signed up for, I guess. Ideally, the show could aim higher, considering the vast realm of religion and mythology that it has chosen to use as its playground, but it falls short of that. I get that sometimes as a writer, you bite off more than you can chew, set up more than you can pay off, and as a TV writer, you’re under a special kind of pressure to keep churning out episodes, and if there’s an arc and you think of something great later, it’s not like you can go back and plant it in earlier episodes, because they’ve already aired, so your continuity may suffer more than the continuity of a novel or a movie, which can be edited as a finished product before any of it is released to the public. So things in serialized TV often come out as less than that fabulous lofty ideal. I get that.

 

But what bothers me so much more than that is the fact that the writers KNOW it doesn’t add up, and they actively dismiss the viewers’ perfectly legitimate potential complaints about it, right there in the show. I’m referring, of course, to this monologue by Chuck the Prophet (whose narration in this episode I initially adored but eventually found problematic for several reasons, which I am about to enumerate):

 

“Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There’s always gonna be holes. And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something. I’m telling you, they’re a raging pain in the ass.”

 

Oh em gee, fans are so annoying, amirite? Them and their perfectly valid analyses and critiques of our storytelling and plotting and endings that mean they spent at least as much time thinking about the show as we did. Jeez, stop thinking, sheeple! Just worship unquestioningly at the altar of our creativity! Feel for us! We worked hard on this show, dammit!

 

 

It’s not the most audience-condescending monologue that I’ve ever seen on a TV show (that medal still goes to Aaron Sorkin and his thoroughly gratuitous diatribe against fandom [“that’s not being a fan; that’s having a fetish”] through Josh Lyman on The West Wing), but it’s in the top two. I mean, fall short and have a subpar finale if you must, but sheesh, be less obvious and defensive about it. Don’t complain about how hard endings are and how hard writing is; this is literally your job and no one wants to hear you whine about it. Of course finales come with expectations. Suck it up!

 

 

 

Naturally, this activated my contrarianism. I might possibly have been more forgiving if I hadn’t been told directly by the writers that I should be forgiving. As it is, I now feel more justified in complaining a bit more, so sit tight!

 

My two main complaints, one of which is even broken down into subcategories:

 

Problems with Chuck’s narration

  1. Insults audience for critiquing. Bad, show. BAD.
  2. Turns the car into the ultimate symbol of Winchester brotherhood by talking about stuff we’ve never seen on the show before, like the toy soldier stuck in the car door, the initials carved into the car, etc. I love car porn as much (or possibly more) than the next guy, but we’ve seen this car in every episode for 5 years and the writers couldn’t think of one previously established thing about it that could actually carry the emotional weight they’re slapping together and shoehorning in here at the last second? It feels like telling instead of showing. It feels lazy. It feels like a retcon to try and squeeze emotion from a place that doesn’t really have it in the way the writers want it to, and I was not impressed.
  3. It spells out the incredibly uninspired lesson of the whole shindig in this other monologue:

“So, what’s it all add up to? It’s hard to say. But me, I’d say this was a test… for Sam and Dean. And I think they did all right. Up against good, evil, angels, devils, destiny, and God himself, they made their own choice. They chose family. And, well… isn’t that kinda the whole point?”

 

 

Seriously? It was about choosing family? Wow. You know what other episode of Supernatural was about choosing family?

What’s that you say? “Every damn episode”? That is correct.

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a moral of choosing family first in the face of dire danger. But in the context of this show, it’s deeply unsurprising because we’ve seen it so many times and expect nothing less. Having no narration would have been an improvement on pretending that this particular lesson is some kind of ultimate meaning.

In fact, having no narration at all would fix all these problems, and I do think that the car stuff could have been done better by using unnarrated flashbacks. But they’ve done that before and this is a season finale so the narration is the writers’ way of doing something new and different stylistically just for that, regardless of whether previously-used techniques would work better.

 

  1. Problems with the whole destiny thing

 

This, to be fair, is a problem I have with a lot of shows, and it’s more of a whole season problem than just this episode. Essentially, I don’t like being lied to about how much you planned for something, writers. I know and you know that you didn’t plan plenty of it, that you made up a lot of stuff as you went along — as I said before, it’s a reality of episodic TV, you have to work quickly, you can’t plan that far ahead, and you certainly can’t go back and set things up if you just came up with some new brilliant idea or new character, and I accept that! What I don’t accept is when a show lies to me about it, pretends that this was totally the plan all along yessireebob.

Angel did this a lot in later seasons and it bugged me, and it bugs me here too, every time that the angels or Lucifer claim that this is how it was always meant to be, that brother was always meant to fight brother, and especially that Azazel chose Sam for Lucifer and the devil has been keeping tabs on Sam through demon spies for his entire life because he is Lucifer’s ultimate vessel — gimme a break. Azazel put Sam in that Hunger Games thing at the end of Season 2, yes? The one where Sam DIED? There was nothing special about Sam then, not any more special than the other demon-blood children — he was expendable, one of many potentials. If Dean hadn’t brought Sam back with his crossroads deal, presumably whoever survived that survival-of-the-fittest contest would have been deemed Lucifer’s vessel. But did all of them have brothers that Michael could have inhabited to fight Lucifer, as per the brother-vs-brother destiny? What if Lucifer’s vessel had been a woman? WHAT THEN, SHOW.

Basically, you have to scrap anything that happened before a certain point if you want this destiny thing to make sense, unless you modify it and say that yeah, Sam was one potential and now he’s the only one left. But that’s not what the show did. It lied and retconned, and hoped that we would conveniently forget about the not-making-sense part, or figured that they could say, “WE’RE not saying that Sam was the plan all along; the ANGELS are! And LUCIFER! Can’t trust those douchefaces; of course they’re lying. Don’t blame us!” Weak, writers. Very weak. I’m fine with you pulling things out of your posteriors once in a while; just don’t lie to me about it.

 

 

Again, I don’t want you to finish this review thinking that I hated the finale. I definitely didn’t hate it; it’s just not an episode I feel compelled to rewatch anytime soon because there are so many episodes leading up to it that I enjoyed more. And I’m very glad that the show didn’t end here, because if it had, I’d have been disappointed, because this is not a great ending.

 

For the record, it is absolutely 100% better to have excellent setup and so-so payoff than to have poor setup and epic payoff. I disliked the book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for that reason — it was 600 pages of setup and 200 pages of payoff, and the setup was so uninteresting to me and such a chore to get through because it felt like I was just waiting and waiting and waiting for something to finally happen, and then it finally did, and it was good payoff, but I remember none of it, because all I remember was how bored I was for most of it and how I kept waiting for it to get good.

 

With Supernatural, I’m sure that in a few years I won’t remember the specifics of the plot of these past few seasons, but what I will remember is how fascinated I was by the gradual expansion of its fictional universe with all the new and surprising elements that caught my interest, and I’ll remember the characters and their dynamics, and I’ll remember liking so many more episodes than not, and I’d say that’s definitely a win for any show.

 

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Like my thinky thoughts? You can commission more of them via my GoFundMe campaign — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive — or subscribe on the sidebar, and thanks for reading! You can also buy me tools from this Wishlist but really I just like money.

On “Arrow” — Why *CHARACTER SPOILER ALERT* Bothers Me: A Meditation on the Integration of Strength and Vulnerability in Screen Characters

(Whew, that’s a long title.)

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

 

In honor of the conclusion of season 2 of Arrow, we have our first commissioned post! Alex Wittenberg donated and requested that I write about “any one aspect of the show.” So I decided to write about something that’s been bothering me, which probably doesn’t bother most people for the same reason, but there are probably other reasons people are bothered by this aspect as well.

Enough with the vagueness! On to the spoilers!

Seriously, don’t read past here if you intend to watch Arrow and haven’t yet seen up to Season 2 Episode 4. Major character spoilers ahoy. Okay, you’ve now been warned three times. I give up.  

So as you may have figured out if you recall what happens in Episode 4, I’m trying to say that I’m bothered by the characterization of Sara Lance, also known as Black Canary.

I was really excited when she joined the show, because I thought it was a great twist and I was looking forward to seeing what they’d do with her. But unfortunately my enthusiasm petered out when I discovered I just didn’t like the character very much. I found her fairly flat and unmemorable despite all the screen time they gave her, and I really can’t tell if it’s the actress or the writing or possibly even the directing, but I just barely remember anything interesting she did this season, aside from having a female lover (which the cynic in me says was a desperate attempt to combat her unmemorableness, as well as a ratings ploy even though it was pretty tastefully done). At this point, I couldn’t care less about her being on the show or not, but I’m glad they haven’t killed her off yet, because if they did, I’d be expected to care, as a viewer, and I just don’t. (Same with Laurel but this post is not about Laurel.)

But aside from her overall blandness, Sara’s characterization suffers from one of my personal pet peeves: what I like to call “the Strength-Vulnerability See-saw.” (And by “I like to call it that” I mean that I just now made up the name for the purposes of this post, of course.)

The Strength-Vulnerability See-saw is what happens when a character seems to me to have only two modes: 1) stoic, badass, and hyper-competent, vs. 2) emotional, weepy, and overly vulnerable.

Sara Lance could give the master class in this. When her mask and wig and cleavage-baring catsuit are on, she is unstoppable, a force to be reckoned with. As soon as the mask comes off? She morphs into this sad-eyed, angst-ridden, quivery-chinned mess.

Some might call this character depth and talk about how her superhero mode is her coping mechanism for all the emotional turmoil underneath. And I’m not saying that’s untrue, I’m just saying that it’s irritating to watch an ostensibly strong female character see-saw back and forth between such extreme versions of being a superhero and being a child. It feels lazy to me, as all extremes do. Nuance is where it’s at, y’all. Not everyone agrees with me that this is unnuanced, of course; some see it as a positive: “On the plus side . . . the show landed a performer capable of pulling double duty as both an emotionally wounded individual and someone skilled at taking down gang members with similar proficiency as Oliver,” writes Kevin Yeoman at ScreenRant. But I don’t care what he thinks.

Writers and actors often have a hard time integrating strength and vulnerability into a single character without resorting to extremes. That was one of my biggest problems with the second Hunger Games movie as opposed to the first one — I felt upon my first viewing that Jennifer Lawrence see-sawed too often between the stoic and the hysterical. (The second time I saw it, I didn’t feel that as much, but I still think it was an issue at points.)

It’s not a problem exclusive to female characters, either. In the early seasons of Supernatural, Dean Winchester was super macho, except in those moments when he wasn’t and went to the other extreme. Fortunately, as the seasons go on, either the writing gets better or Jensen Ackles got a better grasp on integrating the character’s emotional side with his macho side, so that he no longer felt like a see-saw.

Maybe if Sara were on the show for longer, the same thing could have happened. But if she’s not, I definitely won’t miss her. Apologies to all the Sara fans out there.

 

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