The Americans: The Complete Series

“When a person is born, he can embark on only one of three roads of life. If you go right, the wolves will eat you. If you go left, you will eat the wolves. If you go straight, you will eat yourself.”

-Anton Chekhov, 1878

We’ve become accustomed to television series that end in ultimate victory, ultimate defeat, or some combination.   Most of the time, this takes the form of tying up loose ends in a clearly defined and satisfying manner.  The Americans does not end neatly.  It was never about tying up loose ends.  It was about the lies the characters tell themselves and each other.

The Americans has one of the strongest pilots and series finales of any great television drama. The pilot works because it sets up everything that the show will become best known for: suspense, car chases, 80’s musical cues, and tensions within and without the Jennings household. The pilot sets up a world and makes the viewer want to keep visiting it.

Right now, its last episode feels like the best conclusion of all time, although I’m sure some of that luster will fade as time goes by.  Or maybe not.  Philip and Elizabeth escape, but lose their children, and part of their souls, in the process.  We, the viewers, might seek justice for all of the horrible things these two have done in the name of Mother Russia, but dishing out cosmic punishment was never The Americans’ game.  No, the real enemy was never the KGB or the FBI.  The real enemy was always the enemy within.

Elizabeth was ever the zealot, and at times, purely evil.  She may have done one good thing by icing Tatiana, but does that make up for everything else she has done?  There is a brief dream sequence in the finale that serves the purpose of showing that, in the end, Elizabeth has given up on and destroyed herself in service of a lost cause. She ends the series alive, but filled with regret.

Philip was never as committed to the spy game as Elizabeth.  He seemed to fall into the life by inertia – it gave him an outlet for his violent anger and an excuse to leave a bleak future in Russia.   He experiences more character growth, and with it growing guilt, than any other character on the show. The guilt may come crashing down on Elizabeth in the very last episodes of the series, for for Philip, there hasn’t been anything else for a long time.

Stan is a more sympathetic character, but far from perfect.  After all, he killed a Russian agent in cold blood back in the first season amd destroyed the lives of both Nina and Oleg.  In the end, he’s left with the guilt of not finding out about the Jenningses sooner, and suspicion that his wife might not be who she says she is.

The Jennings children fare better in the end, especially Henry, who by all accounts will be able to move on with his life if he chooses to do so.  Paige may have a harder time, but there’s not proof that she knows much of anything or that she was training to be a spy herself.  All Stan knows is that she knows, he doesn’t know the extent of her actions.

The Americans wasn’t a perfect series. Like most dramas, it had its weak points. Season five was a let down, although it certainly wasn’t bad. Indeed, almost every great drama has a weak season or two, oftentimes the second to last one.

Still, by dwelling in the dark corners and avoiding spy versus spy clichés, The Americans started and finished better than arguably any other show. The show had its share of climaxes and showdowns, but not at the end of the day. No, in the end The Americans wasn’t about the wolves eating or being eaten. It was about the wolves eating themselves.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

New Girl: The Complete Series

Wanted: a new fun show to watch. Must be loaded with silly jokes and funny actors creating memorable characters. High drama and misanthropy need not apply.

In 2011, Fox answered this ad, although they didn’t realize it at first. When they landed a show starring Zooey Deschanel, they figured they were getting some version of the role she had been typecast in for most of her career (“adorkable”). What they didn’t bargain for was that Deschanel would become one of the best comedic “straight-men/women” in television. She would be a new Mary Tyler Moore, but instead of a newsroom in Minneapolis, she would have a loft in Los Angeles.

In a era where even television comedies got serious, New Girl stood apart. It wasn’t quite a Seinfeld-esque show about nothing, but it certainly wasn’t a show with deep themes or innovative storytelling. It was simply a show about a group of misfits slowly growing enough in confidence in themselves to evolve into adults.

New Girl was mostly about the jokes, but the jokes were sustained by the growth of the characters. Jess, Nick, Schmidt, Winston, and Cece shed insecurities, but none of them lost the silly quirks that made them fun to hang out with every Tuesday.

Television comedies often find success with misanthropy and sarcasm (Seinfeld, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) or satire (The Simpsons, 30 Rock). It seems rarer that a successful television comedy is centered on character growth and being fun to spend time with. New Girl rightfully joined shows like Parks and Recreation in this latter category.

Now, we must never forget, there is but one rule. Floor is lava.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

Westworld Robot Apocalypse Power Rankings, Season Two, Episode Four

A day late, but here is your weekly Robot Apocalypse Power Rankings!

1. Elsie

She’s alive!  Why, how, or for how long, we don’t know.  But she’s alive!

2. Maeve

Bring on Samurai World dammit!

3. Dolores

Dolores got the week off, but the murderous robot queen can’t fall past third right now in my opinion.

4. William

Why did William bother trying to keep James Delos alive?  We may never know.

5. Robert Ford

However, I’ll bet the end of Ford’s “game” involves Ford still being alive in a robot, then shooting William in the head.

6. Bernard

Bernard’s journey was far too confusing to comment on this week.

Also receiving votes: Teddy, William’s Daughter, Charlotte Hale, Hector, Ashley Stubbs, Lee Sizemore, Arnold,  Young William, Clementine, Ser Pounce, Roxy Music, giving the devil an offering, and shots of nitroglycerine.

(C) 2018 D.G. McCabe

Westworld Robot Apocalypse Power Rankings, Season Two, Episode Three

I was impressed with the third episode of Season 2.  The introduction of the other parks gives the show a new lease on life so to speak.  That said, here is your weekly Robot Apocalypse Power Rankings!

1. Maeve

I’m not sure where Maeve thinks she is going, but she has some clear advantages.  First, the Delos Corporation mercenaries don’t seem to be looking for her.  Second, she has a group with diverse skill sets that is, importantly, only half robot.   On the downside, the whole group might be lost in Samurai World.

2. Dolores

Westworld’s other sentient robot overlord has the most firepower, but look at her closest associates and look at Maeve’s.  I mean, c’mon, Teddy?  Really?

3. Charlotte Hale

Pros: Charlotte has unexpected survival skills.  Cons: Charlotte had her goons charge a fortification head-on with windowless cars.

4. Robert Ford

Ford’s cat and mouse game with William got a break this week, thus the drop in the Power Rankings.

5. William, the Man in Black

And William is still losing said cat and mouse game.

6. Bernard

Bernard isn’t controlling events at this point.  Rather, he seems to be pulled along by other players, especially Charlotte.

7. Teddy

We already know Teddy’s decision to have mercy on the other robots will not end well for him.

Also receiving votes: Hector, Ashley Stubbs, Lee Sizemore, Arnold,  Young William, Clementine, Ser Pounce, brainless military maneuvers, predictive text, and fans of Rudyard Kipling and Rule Britannia.

(C) 2018 D.G. McCabe

Westworld Robot Apocalypse Power Rankings, Season Two, Episode Two

After a bit of a Dolores focused episode, there isn’t a lot of movement this week on the Robot Apocalypse Power Rankings.  But, out of force of habit, I’ll publish one anyway.

1. Robert Ford

I don’t know about you, but I thought it was hilarious when the army leader, after giving a long winded lecture to William, switches gears and delivers a personal “*#%*% You” from Ford.

2. Maeve

Dolores IS just playing Ford’s game, she just doesn’t know it.  Even though Dolores let Maeve pass freely this time, more conflict between the two, self-aware robots feels inevitable.

3. Dolores

Did Arnold design Dolores to retain memories on purpose?  That’s what I’d like to know.

4. William, the Man in Black

If the big reveal of this season is “Delos/William use Westworld to scoop up personal data and sell it to advertisers,” I’m going to be vastly disappointed.

5. Karl Strand

6. Bernard

7. Charlotte Hale

The next three stay put on the rankings, since, you know, nothing happened to them this week.

 

8. Teddy

Teddy, on the other hand, is always in last place.

Also receiving votes: Hector, Ashley Stubbs, Lee Sizemore,  Young William,  Ser Pounce, robot cocktail hour, zombie robots, and splendor.

(C) 2018 D.G. McCabe

Westworld Robot Apocalypse Power Rankings, Season Two, Episode One

I’m not above copying an idea, and what works for Game of Thrones can work for Westworld. This is assuming that Season 2 doesn’t go off the rails after three episodes only to rebound in the last five minutes of the season (cough, Season One, cough).

That said, the Robot Apocalypse Power Rankings are nigh. Repent!

1. Robert Ford

Fire me will you? How about I kill everyone (including me) with my evil robot creations! Muhahahahahaha!

2. Dolores

While Dolores is a robot, her insatiable thirst for vengeance is an entirely human reaction to a lifetime of being tortured, raped, and murdered every day. She’s become Skynet from The Terminator (1984) and the Maschinenmensch from Metropolis (1927) all rolled into one.

3. Maeve

What Lee, the buffoon writer, doesn’t get is that Maeve doesn’t care if her child isn’t really “her child.” She’s found purpose, and that purpose is recusing the one good thing she found in her entire screwed up existence.

4. William, the Man in Black

Ford respected William more than any non-Arnold human. Ford’s crescendo is murderous, suicidal, and specifically designed to give William exactly what he wants.

5. Karl Strand

New character alert! Strand is the leader of the group that Delos has charged with cleaning up Ford’s mess. He has lots of guns and soldiers! What could possibly go wrong?

6. Bernard

Things aren’t going well for our robot/clone/whatever. There’s only one reason why he’s ahead of Charlotte.

7. Charlotte Hale

Bernard is still alive in the “flash forward” scenes, helping Strand. I don’t see Charlotte.

8. Teddy

Poor Teddy. Designed to be the Ned Stark of this world.

Also receiving votes: Hector, Ashley Stubbs, Lee Sizemore, Elsie Hughes, Arnold, Armistice the Snake Woman, Young William, Clementine, dead tigers, the Sea, Chinese island making technology, Ser Pounce, and a feast for robot vultures.

(C) 2018 D.G. McCabe

Black Panther (2018): T’Challa’s Character Arc

Instead of writing a traditional review of Black Panther, I’m going to dive right into some analysis.  Before I get into spoilers, here’s a link to the trailer for the movie:

A good amount of pixels have been spent praising Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens in Black Panther.  Killmonger is one of the most interesting characters in any Marvel film, and Michael B. Jordan is one of the finest actors working today.  One of the things I like the most about Black Panther, however, is that the compelling antagonist doesn’t overshadow the protagonist like it does in numerous other superhero movies (e.g. The Dark Knight (2008); Spiderman: Homecoming (2017); Batman (1989); Superman II (1980)).  T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) journey is every bit as interesting as Killmonger’s.

On the surface, Wakanda is a utopia, but below the surface lies a troubling adherence to traditions that cause most of the problems in the movie.  To move forward, Wakanda needs a leader who will dispense with tradition when those traditions no longer make sense.  T’Challa becomes that leader by the end of the movie, but it takes some work to get there.

In Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challa dips his toes into breaking with tradition.  At the beginning of Civil War, he has already taken on the role of the Black Panther even though his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), is still alive.  He makes alliances with outsiders in Civil War, but notably, this is done to bring his father’s murderer to justice.  In other words, the alliances are meant to temporary at first.  The fact that T’Challa extends these relationships beyond their initial purpose shows that he has some flexibility as a character.

During the first part of Black Panther, we see T’Challa largely following in his father’s footsteps.  He performs in the same rituals as his father did, and fails to bring Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to justice just like his father did before him.  This makes sense.  T’Challa has been raised to continue on a thousand-year old tradition.  Breaking with that tradition does not come easily to him.

What T’Challa learns, however, is that being flexible with tradition bears fruit, while following established protocol for no other reason than “this is how it’s done” leads to problems.  He spares M’Baku (Winston Duke) in trial by combat, which leads to an alliance later.  In contrast, when he fails to question whether trial by combat is such a great idea to begin with, he temporarily loses his throne to Killmonger.

The turning point for T’Challa is during his second visit to the ancestral plane.  While he is angry at his father for abandoning his nephew (Killmonger) on the streets of Oakland, when he tells the previous kings that they were “all wrong,” he isn’t doing so out of anger.  T’Challa realizes in that moment that following the old way, with its isolationism, trial by combat, and rejection of outsiders has failed in its essential purpose.  While these conventions were established to keep Wakanda safe, they have instead made it vulnerable.

Had Wakanda not kept the tradition of trial by combat alive, Killmonger would have not ascended to the throne.  If T’Chaka had just taken his nephew in as a child in the first place instead of rejecting him as an outsider, there would have been no Killmonger.  If Wakanda hadn’t kept itself isolated, and helped the peoples of the African diaspora throughout history, there would have not have been anyone like Killmonger.  T’Challa realizes all of this before the end of the movie, seeks to learn from the mistakes of the past, and plans to build a better future.

This is for the best.  An isolated Wakanda will do no one any good once Thanos comes around in May.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe