Deadshirt Is Watching…is a weekly feature in which Deadshirt staff, contributors, and guests sound off on the television shows we’re tuned into, from intense dramas to clever sitcoms to the most insane reality shows. This week: Westworld, Black Mirror and You’re the Worst!
Joe Stando is watching…
I’d described Westworld before as a series wrapped up in big ideas, to the detriment of the emotional connections between the audience and the characters. The NY Times’ James Poniewozik recently pointed to this week’s episode to make a similar claim. Ironically enough, “Trompe L’Oeil” was a moment when, for me, everything lined up, and the characters’ emotional weight meshed perfectly with the various twists and concepts. It’s a big episode (Bernard’s a host! Built by Ford! Who kills Theresa on Ford’s command!), but the various reveals and upheavals of the status quo also serve to reinforce the fundamental pathos of the series. For Bernard, his life is now even more tragic than before: his lost son was never real, he’s a murderer now, and he has an understanding of his own limitations unique even among the “awakened” hosts. Resetting him back to his previous illusions would be a mercy, but Ford’s reveal as a sociopath with a god complex makes mercy unlikely. With this twist, all bets about the laws established in the show are off.
The final scene was the money scene, but there was a lot to love in this episode, from Maeve’s fatalistic plan to escape taking shape and a breathtaking moment as Dolores’ painting is revealed to be a Westworld landmark. I’m hot and cold on the industrial intrigue plotlines (though Tessa Thompson is great) but given Theresa’s death, I’m expecting that plot to take a swerve. A strong episode of a strong show.
Episode Highlight: The level of craft that’s evident in the final scene is unparalleled. The sweeping shot across the dark cabin which initially conceals the door is great, and Bernard’s assertion that he didn’t notice the door filled me with gut-wrenching dread. The final nail, his “It doesn’t look like anything to me,” maybe could’ve hung in the air a little longer, but if Jeffrey Wright is looking for an Emmy, this is his submission right here.
There are smart shows, and there are shows that think they’re smart. Like the most annoying guy in your freshman year lecture classes, these are shows that have been praised rather than questioned, that are so content in their own superiority that they don’t stretch themselves and instead provide lazy, smug opinions. Black Mirror has earned almost none of its level of clout, and while there’s been a bit of a backlash online, so far they’ve been given no incentive and shown no interest in improving.
“Men Against Fire” is Black Mirror at both its most obvious and its most moralistic: a soldier realizes that the “undesirables” he’s exterminating are fellow humans, who he’s been brainwashed and modified to see as monsters. It’s the kind of dark sci-fi yarn that would’ve fit well in The Outer Limits, but in 2016, it’s both predictable and simplistic. From minute one, we’re looking for a twist, so when it’s revealed, there’s very little emotional impact.
It’s also an overly facile moral. While it aims to critique “ease of killing” through systems like drone strikes and missile attacks, it ignores the active element of propaganda. We get a reference to average civilians not being brainwashed per se, but that’s about it. I’m not actively trying to cast aspersions on the character of military servicemen and women, but Charlie Booker started this discussion, so let’s have it. The assumption of an inherent goodness and conscience to a military is foolhardy, especially in an age where fascists and extremists are rising to power. We should stop drone strikes and military overreach, sure, but framing it as “if they only knew better” is an appeal that will fall on deaf ears. As usual, Black Mirror is more concerned with appearing clever than having a real, nuanced conversation about the state of the world.
Episode Highlight: As usual, the performances were fine, and the final twist of the knife, that the lead’s homecoming is also a manufactured illusion, is pretty good. One of my big issues with Black Mirror is that it’s almost devoid of any visual flair or artistry. While the perspectives here are more interesting than usual, I’m still hard-pressed to think of any shots or cuts that jumped out at me as particularly good.
Chuck Winters is watching…
The show so far has artfully brought us to three crisis points in the relationships among the main cast: Jimmy is questioning everything about his life—including his relationship with Gretchen—in an attempt to fully break free from his father’s influence. Edgar just fell ass-backwards into the kind of job Dorothy’s been working toward her whole life, and it’s happening just when she’s being asked to read for older roles. And Lindsey, fresh from her abortion, now has to tell Paul that he’s no longer going to be a father and that she’s leaving him.
It was an interesting idea to have all three crises hit their breaking points at Shitstain’s elopement party; it was an even better idea for Wendey Stanzler to shoot it all in long takes. It was showy, to be sure, but it felt appropriate, capturing the bustling, emotional vibe of the party in ways that reflected how the characters under duress were scrambling to stay ahead of their psyches. Gretchen is freaking out about the idea of Jimmy making a pros-and-cons list about her, and keeps trying to look at it before making a big deal out of writing up her own list about Jimmy. Dorothy can’t seem to enjoy a wedding with her boyfriend without him working on sketches and getting friendly with Brian Goddamn Posehn, and it’s driving her to drink and make ill-advised networking attempts in a desperate bid to feel relevant. And Lindsey finds an excuse to put off her breakup with Paul (which, she discovered, will have quite an impact on her lifestyle) by pursuing a job as the assistant to a prominent stylist.
Everybody’s rushing to try and cushion their incoming blows, but it only seems to make things worse. Lindsey’s forced to break up with Paul in the most savage manner possible after he insists on telling the stylist that Lindsey is pregnant (as he would think). Dorothy is told off so hard by Posehn that it completely destroys her mood and repels her from a somewhat ignorant Edgar. And Jimmy and Gretchen learn that the pros-and-cons lists that we thought was full of mean little snipes instead contained two big bombshells: Jimmy doesn’t see himself having kids with Gretchen, and Gretchen isn’t sure Jimmy will ever be successful.
The way Stanzler shoots them after the party is fascinating. The shots of them getting into separate cars are identically framed, and any shots with the two of them together emphasize symmetry. The ending split screen shows two faces with identical expressions, so far apart yet in such similar turmoil, oddly hopeful yet unquestionably depressing.
With the season finale next week, Stephen Falk is poised to stick the landing with a flourish. I can’t wait to see how this all shakes out.
Episode Highlight: Episode writers Franklin Hardy and Shane Kosakowski did a good job setting up little runners that could connect the scenes with the main characters while the camera glided around the mansion. There was a really nice thread with Sam struggling with his fears of growing up too fast and losing his friends, but there was also the matter of the coke-addled caterers who are looking to open up a cereal restaurant. It’s so in line with that Inland Empire Hipsterism that the show likes to take the piss out of, I love it.