Sunday, December 22, 2019

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 13, Hearts and Minds

Stay away from her.
Events: Boone is having a hard time with Shannon and Sayid's budding friendship and expresses discomfort over lying to her about the hunting expeditions (hatch-digging excursions) with John. Through flashbacks we learn that Boone's relationship with Shannon has been put to the test through abuse and money issues, but more importantly, that Boone and Shannon happened to be in Sydney at the same time Sawyer was having his own little run-in with the Australian police. Boone's flashback also shows that the two are step-siblings and that Shannon manipulated Boone into having a fling that she got over but he didn't.

After John decides that Shannon's behavior has too strong a hold over Boone, he knocks him out, ties him up, and smears a botanical paste over his open head wound before leaving him alone in the jungle. Boone awakens to Shannon's screams and sees that she too has been bound. The bellowing black smoke attacks them both, chasing them through the jungle where eventually it seizes Shannon and leaves her to die on near a stream. Boone finds John and accuses him of causing Shannon's death, but John reveals to Boone he hallucinated the whole thing--Shannon is alive and well.

Greater Meaning: While the episode focuses around two of the supporting characters, Boone and Shannon, much effort was spent on John Locke's strategies as a would-be leader. Boone's attention (and devotion) is important to John, who has put the hatch above everything else on the island, even hunting, so John forces a decision on Boone with the help of whatever hallucinogen he smeared on his head. This is similar to what he did with Charlie's heroin addiction; for whatever reason, John Locke has showed a strong, consistent faith that the people he puts in these situations will emerge victorious. Locke's ability to read people seems to be highly developed, and he uses this to his advantage as a leader in a way that Jack does not. Now, on the island, Locke is confident and comfortable with himself where Jack is comfortable only in relation to his medical experience (off-island).

The questions of hunting boar, catching fish, and planting a garden all speak to the group's sustainability and continued survival on the island. It seems now pretty clear that no rescue is coming, so what they do, how they get along, and how they use the island is all the more important, which is something John seems to have embraced from the very beginning. As Jack is reacting, John is planning. Strategizing. The proverbial "hearts and minds" mean more to John than anyone else on the island.

Further Questions: 

1. Is Claire safe?
2. What is inside the hatch?
3. Will Shannon and Sayid hook up?
4. Will Jin and Michael bury the hatchet?
5. Why has Sun been hiding her English from Jin?
6. How did Jin get to be such a good fisherman?
7. Will Boone and John's relationship change?

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Great American Read: 5 and 6, 12 Angry Men

These posts are from a reading list I started in late spring of 2018 and a film list I solicited from readers in January of 2017. I work slow but I'll finish, dammit!

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is a story that at its heart is about two things: poverty and books. The protagonist, Francie, lives with her mother, her younger brother, and father in Brooklyn during the early 1900s when times were extremely rough. Dad drinks, money is tight, Mom picks up the slack and gets them all through it by--guess what--READING TO THE KIDS. It's not a pleasant story, it's full of a lot of tragedy and injustice, but the empathy and heart that comes from experiencing such a story is very meaningful. We've all struggled, we've all gone through unpleasant situations, but the sort of struggle author Betty Smith has written about in this novel is something that many times, today anyway, gets written off as laziness, as ignorance, or just failing to lift one's self up "by the bootstraps," as it were. No one in this story is lazy or ignorant; people work hard, people do the best they can and people fail, people die. As with the title of the book, my favorite moments discuss the hopelessness together with the surprising way optimism persists in this young girl's life. Why does the tree keep growing? Read and find out:

When baby Francis is born, Katie frets to her German mother about the poor quality of life that lay ahead, but the new Oma sees hope:

"Excitement came into her voice. 'Already, it is starting---the getting better.' She picked up the baby and held it high in her arms. 'This child was born of parents who can read and write,' she said simply. 'To me, this is a great wonder.'
'Mother, I am young. Mother, I am just eighteen. I am strong. I work hard, Mother. But I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?'
'The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. The she must read every day, I know this is the secret.'"

Teachers had a lot to do with Francie's success,

"If all the teachers had been like Miss Bernstone and Mr. Morton, Francie would have known plain what heaven was. But it was just as well. There had to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory."

Yet not all of them made an effort to understand the realities so common in the lives of poor students (one such bristled at the subject of one of Francie's stories that described a character with a drinking problem):

"'Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It's a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There's work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they're too lazy to work. There's nothing beautiful about laziness.'
(Imagine Mama lazy!)

This is the first novel on the Great American Read list that I feel should be mandatory reading for both kids and adults. People generally agree that literacy is important; can we make the same statement about empathy for the poor? Or while we're at it, the experiences of poor little girl? Oma was right---many secrets to success lie in reading and writing.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I didn't know how this was going to go, honestly. I read the story as a kid, probably some arranged or edited version, saw the film, and was full well familiar with the environment of most of Twain's works, which is the openly racist South. Even knowing this beforehand, it's still jarring and uncomfortable to read racist words in dialogues or the descriptions of people first and foremost seen (by the white people) as "others." Did I enjoy the book? Mostly I did. On the surface it's a story about a naughty little boy doing naughty little boy things but there are very serious issues going on, too (murder, framing an innocent, abduction, homelessness) and racism underscores a lot of the events. Tom Sawyer as a character, is not mean or hateful, but this book takes place during a time that was, and there's no way to justify it other than to say that it was written accurately for when it happened in history.

Apart from its historical honesty, the writing is very witty and youthful. Every now and then you get a fun kind of acknowledgement (from Twain about Tom as a little shit of a character, which he is):

"The boy whose history this book relates did not enjoy the prayer . . . "

and often the importance of the natural world. A beetle in church provides entertainment until a dog randomly comes into church and carries it off. Tom knows not only bug and bird species, but how to fish, how to start a campfire, how to survive in the wilderness (but not quite yet how to smoke without throwing up). He has sympathy for an innocent man. He falls in love with Becky Thatcher and impresses her with his artwork. He sympathizes with Huck Finn when his friend realizes his clothes aren't good enough to be a pirate, and so on.

There are many sweet little human moments in this story, and among all the evil and dishonesty, mostly perpetrated by the adults in the town, the overall theme is one of youthful innocence. These moments made me nostalgic for my own childhood---picking dandelions in the ditch of our driveway, hauling barn cats around in wagons, climbing up trees, and running around at night, all with my brother right instep with me--and these moments made the book a worthwhile read.

12 Angry Men

1957: d. Sidney Lumet, starring Martin Basalm, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber.

1997: d. William Friedkin, starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen.

The story was originally written by Reginald Rose as a teleplay in 1954 but has since been adapted for theater, film, and television. Many countries (Germany, India, Russia, Lebanon, China, and Sri Lanka) have also released versions of the same story over the years. The premise of the story, twelve male jurors deciding the fate of a young man of an unidentified but different ethnicity, is nearly the same in both American films as are the personalities of the characters themselves. Unlike many other courtroom dramas, all of the time is spent inside the locked jury room with the twelve men while they deliberate, and as the title suggests, there are issues.
"He can't hear you. He never will."

I'd seen both of these years ago, and I remembered the lone juror (#8 Fonda/Lemmon) holding out among all the others who were so immediately convinced the kid was guilty. What struck me this time around were the standout differences between the eighth juror and the rest of the crew. #8 is one of two men (the other, #12) whose profession would have required a college education but this isn't the only reason he's interesting. He asks questions, is honest and self-aware, and he explains things very exactly and specifically. An architect would have to be both creative and scientific, and #8 is both of these things, almost teacher-like. He seems to have a greater understanding of the importance of the legal system, the jury's duty as citizens, and an overall worldly kind of approach to right and wrong. This kind of attitude stands in direct contrast to that of many of the other jurors', who are very rigid and defined (at least at first) in their behaviors.

"You oughta have more respect."

While these characters initially come off a little caricatured, it's still kind of exciting to see how they navigate through the whole procedure and how #8 eventually gets through to each man. I gave the 1957 cast nicknames (nerd, ranter, poor guy, old guy, full racist, dumb guy, etc.) and they mostly held true for the 1997 cast as well, but there were some updates in characters and with the writing that blurred the lines a little more. In any case, both casts were quite skilled, and seeing them interact was pretty fun. I personally enjoyed Fonda's easygoing calmness in the first film and the late great James Gandolfini as #6, a kind of early, wise-cracking working man Tony Soprano in the second.

Is any of this outdated? In some ways, yes. Race relations have changed slightly for the better, and juries are rarely made only of men anymore, but there's no denying that the core system that continues to divide everyone and push an us vs. them mentality continues to be old, white, and male. That said, the issues of truth (who's telling it?) and laziness (who's got time for all this?) will keep these films relevant, probably forever no matter who sits in the jury box.

"Assumed? Brother, I've seen all kinds of dishonesty in my day, but this little display takes the cake. Y'all come in here with your hearts bleedin' all over the floor about slum kids and injustice, you listen to some fairy tales, suddenly you start gettin' through to some of these old ladies... well, you're not getting through to me, I've had enough! WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU GUYS? You all know he's guilty. He's got to burn! You're letting him slip through our fingers."

Friday, December 20, 2019

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 12, Whatever the Case May Be

What's inside, Freckles?
Events: On the island, Kate and Sawyer find a hidden waterfall and underneath it, the bodies of several passengers of Flight 815. Under one of the airline seats is a metal case, which Kate asks Sawyer to help her retrieve. When they are unable to open it, Kate blows off the suitcase, pretending she has no interest in it any longer but Sawyer knows she's bluffing. In flashbacks we see that Kate was involved in a bank robbery, where she used a hot-headed love interest to get inside the bank's vault in order to obtain . . . the very contents that are locked in the case. After trying on two separate occasions to get the case out of Sawyer's hands and failing, Kate recruits Jack's help yet does not disclose why she wants the case, claiming interest in the guns and ammunition that are locked inside, instead. Like Sawyer, Jack sees through Kate's ruse, and becomes disgusted when she repeatedly refuses to tell him the truth about what's in the case, which ends up being a small toy airplane.

Charlie continues to worry about Claire and blame himself, but Rose, who has also lost someone on the island, encourages him to have faith. After being deemed, "useless," by Boone, Shannon attempts to translate Rousseau's markings in French on the documents Sayid took from her hideaway.

Greater Meaning: Kate and Sawyer's swim in the waterfall suggests an escape from the rest of the island, or could even have some Garden of Eden connotations, but nothing evil happens, they just find more dead people and the hidden case. Sawyer doesn't care exactly about the contents of the case, but rather the contents' significance to Kate and furthermore, her desire to lay her hands on them. Jack shares this interest but only because he wants the truth from Kate, and in this way, Sawyer and Jack's mutual desire of Kate seems to be equally strong but for opposite reasons. Sawyer wants the case to prove Kate's badness (to match his own therefore proving them equally matched) while Jack wants the case (or Kate's honesty about it) to prove her virtue. Jack already knows Kate is flawed, criminal even, after the business with the marshal became known, but he holds her to higher moral standards nonetheless, like Sawyer, on equal footing with himself. In the end Kate provides both men with what they're seeking---the toy plane belonged to a man she "killed," which she admitted honestly to Jack, who didn't believe her. Who this man is, how he died, and why all have yet
to be revealed.

It belonged to the man I killed!
In addition to Kate's obsession over the toy plane, two other mysteries continue to build throughout the episode: Sayid's attempts with Shannon to decipher Rousseau's papers and John and Boone's daily digs in the jungle under the guise of looking for Claire. Where will these mysteries lead? Both relate directly to the island, itself, but what do they mean?

Further Questions:

1. Is Claire safe (again!)?
2. Is Rose's husband alive, and if so, why is Rose so certain?
3. Who did Kate kill?
4. What is the significance of the toy plane?
5. Is Rousseau crazy?
6. Is Kate dangerous?

Sunday, December 15, 2019

On Humanity and the Ideology of Baby Yoda

"It's so vulnerable! We have to protect it!"
"I love how it's learning as it goes along."
"I would die for it."

These are a few of the comments about Baby Yoda that have been made by fully grown adults popping up on my socials the last few weeks together with stickers of its face, handmade crocheted and knitted toys, and a few hundred memes. People are excited over the green humanoid creature that's been stealing every scene of the new hit show, The Mandalorian---it's small and cute, it controls The Force, and it's a character within an otherwise well-written, beautifully aesthetic collection of television episodes.

Why such a strong response? It's small and vulnerable, yes, its eyes are large and inviting almost like those of a quiet puppy or tiny infant. Young creatures are designed to look this way to ensure survival, the more adorable the creature, the stronger the reaction is to protect it, right? Mothers in nature don't necessarily need this kind of encouragement, we tend to instinctively nurture our own vulnerable offspring as well as anyone else's who may need it. We see a need (someone's sick, someone's hurt, someone needs support), we respond to it. In this narrative, a cute, vulnerable creature is in danger and the viewers, like the Mandalorian bounty hunter, feel an overwhelming need to respond (he uses his cleverness and combat skills, we become dedicated watchers and theory-makers). We don't know yet how it will end, but we're invested, no question, because we need to know Baby Yoda will be okay.

What does ideology have to do with it? A lot. This story begins, as many adventures do, with a tough guy. Before we even meet Baby Yoda we are introduced to its protector, Dyn Jarren (or Mando, as he is commonly known), in a John Ford western-inspired tavern doorway. Mando embodies a very masculine bounty hunter---he's a skilled fighter, he's cunning, he keeps his conversations short and direct---the quintessential "Man With No Name," in a galaxy far, far away. Through flashbacks we learn that Mando was orphaned as a child, which plays directly into the role he eventually takes when he discovers Baby Yoda, his intended bounty, and eschews his professional duties to become its protector.

To recap: A tough guy defied his orders, risking personal injury and loss of income to keep a young creature safe. A tough guy drew the line and did the right thing. A tough guy showed compassion.

Look at how the canonical helmet and armor of Mandalorian bounty hunters play into the ideas of traditional, masculine attributes. Mando's armor, a physical, beskar iron barrier between him and the world, ensures his protection from gunfire and potential lightsaber assaults but also serves to keep him mentally isolated as well. No facial expressions are known, and the tone of his voice betrays little. We see his human face in his own memories of his parents, but never as an adult. Will we? Might he eventually show his face to the young creature who sought out physical contact when it was first discovered?

The ideas here are big ones---should men have to hide their experiences, their feelings behind metal? Can nurturing be part of being masculine? Can we change how we think about all this? Worth mentioning also is the fact that the helmet does allow for virtually anyone to be behind it, and the fact that Baby Yoda itself is not any identifiable human culture or ethnicity. These characters are unique and specific but are also widely inclusive. The right and wrong being posited by Mando's actions and decisions can apply to anyone, anywhere. What if Baby Yoda is bigger than just a baby creature? What if the idea of protection and devotion to the vulnerable had to be shown to us in such a way where a person in armor decided to preserve that idea because the importance of this kind of thinking has been lost?

I think Baby Yoda is humanity and we are all Mando. Will we do the right thing? Every day we have this kind of power. We can act with compassion and kindness, nurture and help each other, or we can follow what's been laid down by people who want to divide us and keep us retreating behind suits of armor they've convinced us we need. We are a brighter, stronger humanity when we react with love. Difference, struggle, and upset will always be parts of the human experience, but if we focus on supporting one another, humanity will always prevail, together.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Life and Times of Jesse Pinkman: El Camino

El Camino, 2019.
directed and written by Vince Gilligan 

The best thing about Netflix release films, for reviewers, is having it right there, whenever you want it. For instance, should you watch El Camino, love El Camino, and then feel the need to rewatch it the very next day in order to better itemize the reasons why you loved it, it's right there in your house! Fans of the Breaking Bad series are well accustomed to the cinematic qualities director Vince Gilligan uses in his small-screen storytelling, and they're all present in El Camino, but one does get the feeling that such elements--shadowy shots at unconventional angles, time lapses of the New Mexican landscape, and even the opening credits--would be all the more impactful when viewed on the big screen of an actual theater. Either way, the El Camino experience is a fulfilling supplement to the original series which focuses on the story of chemist-turned methamphetamine empire boss Walter White's second-in-command, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).

As we witness the aftermath of the series' resolution and the events leading up to it, it's easy to start feeling a little guilty--Jesse's story is sad and terrible and quite honestly, I had forgotten most of it in favor of the conclusion of Walter White. In the race (via train heist, via great escape northward, via oscillating machine gun antics) to the end of the show, Jesse's experiences got a little lost in all the big plot moments and took a backseat to the bigger picture but the beauty of El Camino is that it doesn't need to hurry. The film doesn't only make us remember Jesse's experiences, it walks us through Jesse's emotion, pain, and humanity in every scene. Multiple traumas and humiliations have rightly made Jesse desperate: his face is scarred, his voice is low and strained when he speaks, and his main goal is survival. We mourn for the old Jesse when we revisit his friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), whose experiences with drugs and White have been significant, but no where near as damaging as Jesse's. Despite everything, their loyalty to their friend is touching, reiterating to us that in this unpleasant story, there are still people within drug culture still very much in touch with empathy and humanity.

The chronology rotates between flashbacks and the here-and-now in a lot of clever ways to expose little puzzles as the show once did--a phone book page, a hidden bundle of cash, a letter in an envelope-- specific objects refer to past events or are slyly referenced only to come back into the picture in very important ways. Pay attention or take notes if you feel like it might be helpful, just know that everything matters.

Do you need to do a complete re-watch of the series for El Camino? No, but you'll probably want to afterward. Definitely catch the recap Netflix provides and if you're really at a loss for the events, maybe rewatch the finale, which is also currently available on Netflix. Todd (Jesse Plemons), Mike (Jonathan Banks), Walter, (Bryan Cranston) and Pinkman's aforementioned buddies all factor into the story significantly but even if your memories of specific interactions between these characters isn't the greatest, the film is strong enough as a stand-alone to be an intensely compelling story. The late Robert Forester reprised his role as Ed, the escape-aiding vacuum salesman, and as with many of his other roles, plays his part straight-up, subtle, and with that deep genuineness that he was so adept at doing.

We'll miss you, Robert.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Sorry the formatting is all over the place on this one. I've tried a million times to put the text right and it's just not possible. Pro tip: a google document does not copy paste to blogger, like at all.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, 2019.
Didn't you traumatize me in fifth grade?
d. Andre Ovredal
written by: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman
starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris 

“You like that scary stuff?” 
This is what the school librarian asked me the first time I brought one of Alvin Schwartz’s
short story collections to the checkout counter. It was the now-famous triology’s second
volume, More Scary Stories; the first had been lost or stolen and the third not yet released,
but I was still excited that my name had come up on the waitlist and I could finally get my
hands on it. I not only liked the scary stuff but thrived on it, and together with my younger
brother, sought it out regularly, anywhere I could. We eventually read all three of Schwartz’s
novels, and together with favorites such as Mother Bates, the beguiling Grady sisters of the
Overlook, and Pet Semetary’s Zelda, committed the stories and their creepy images (courtesy
of illustrator Stephen Gammel) to the depths of our horror-crazed memories. 

It was easy to get hyped for film adaptation--André Ǿvredal (Trollhunter) and producer
Guillermo del Toro are two brilliant, talented artists who have a solid grasp on the narratives,
techniques and themes of effective horror. Overall, the film delivered with a skillful mix of new
fear and old school ghost/monster horror (think Stranger Things or the recent It adaptations with
the music of Lana del Rey mixed in for fun), but I suspect true fans of the books, like me, would
happily trade a half hour off the film’s beginning or end for just one more of Schwartz’s stories. 

You don't read the book, the book reads YOU!

The vehicle of the stories--a group of awkward teenagers who steal a magical book out of a
haunted house--is intriguing, but it eats up a lot of time in setting up how and why everything
is going to go down. As it’s no longer unheard of to experience character development in horror
films, we get some, and it’s sort of nice, but not all that necessary; we came to the theater for
“The Toe” and “Me Tie Doughty Walker,” (not backstory) and we could forgive a few less
personal details in favor of a few more scary things from the books. 

Aesthetic detail, large and small, was what this film succeeded at best--the places and all the little pieces
within them gave a classic, almost John Carpenter feel to the story (rather fitting
considering all the hurting, maiming, and killing that begins on Halloween here). Dark and
shadowy nights alternate with gold, rusty days. It’s 1968, so the cars are huge, as are the
eyeglasses. Drive-ins are still a thing. Corn fields, haunted houses, and psychiatric hospitals
are pretty standard horror staples, and we see a lot of those, but we also get innocent little
objects like a music box, a wax cylinder recording, and a self-writing book that assume very
sinister properties in the context of the lighting, sound, and creature design of the film.

Without spoiling any of the story-within-a-story choices or accompanying villains,
I will tell fellow fans of the book to rest assured: you will recognize each “enemy” and
often cringe or shield your eyes because you know what’s coming next once it has been
introduced. I brought my kids to this film and afterward, each of us walked out having
been wickedly disturbed by a different character, so in addition to being well-designed
and true to the source, they’re a pretty broad reaching crew, as well.

Dust off the old books, grab a friend, and see this one for the nostalgia. If you, too, like
the scary stuff, let’s talk again next month after the second part of It, shall we?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Twilight Zone: The Comedian

I started watching The Twilight Zone in the early 80s with my parents and brother when the old black-and-white reruns aired on channel 9 at 10 o'clock at night. The first time I really remember being scared as a child was during the episode, "The After Hours," when Marsha White realizes (with the help of a blaring tuba blast) that the saleslady who helped her in a department store was actually a mannequin. Later, after our family moved to town and my dad signed up for the Columbia House Video club that sent out a beta tape of four Twilight Zone episodes each month, my brother, best friend, and I would watch the entire tape in one sitting, freaking out over how cool it was that something so old could still be so scary. Most of our favorites focused on those chilling horror elements so well-done in episodes like "The Living Doll," "The Dummy," or "The Grave." Who could forget that shit? I hear the creepy laughs of ALL THREE OF THOSE VILLAINS in my worst nightmares, even now!

When Matt and I were first married I subscribed to my own video club (VHS then, thanks) and made it a mission to watch each episode and review it, from start to finish. It was a wondrous project that I loved dearly--it reminded me of my dad and some of the greatest experiences of my youth. Watching as an adult led me to the conclusion that in a lot of these episodes, people aren't very nice, or in a somewhat gentler way, people really seem to have trouble with bad decisions, and now, some sixty years later, it's both reassuring and troubling that not much has changed. I think creator Jordan Peele understands this concept only too well. My overall assessment: This series is going to be amazing.

The Comedian (2019) 
written by: Alex Rubens
directed by: Owen Harris 
starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Amara Karan, Diarra Kilpatrick, Tracy Morgan, Jordan Peele

Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani) is a comedian who wants his standup routine to matter. He wants to entertain his audience yet he wants to inspire deep thought about important issues such as the second amendment or the shortcomings of the president. He also wants respect, followers, and money for his efforts. After a flat performance Samir meets comedy legend JC Wheeler (Tracy Morgan) at the bar where Wheeler shares what he's learned in the business. "The audience don't care about what you think, they care about you." Sharing deeply personal details, Wheeler implies, is necessary to win people over and gain followers, although he also warns (with a billow of vape-smoke) that this kind of sharing isn't without consequences. Samir continues to open each of his sets with the same oppositional rants but he eventually takes the advice and begins using material from his own life to win approval from the crowd. Wheeler was right---it works for Samir, instantly. The question is, just how long will Samir be able to continue feeding his audience, and at what cost?

"Once it's theirs, that shit
is gone, forever."
The technique used in telling this story pays great artistic homage to Rod Serling's original opening monolog (which creator Jordan Peele kept* and announced himself), namely the elements of light and shadow. As the majority of the scenes take place at night inside the comedy club or in the city streets surrounding it, shadows, lighting, and depth of field showcase beautiful darknesses that accompany these settings. Blues, blacks, golds, neons, and smoke look amazing throughout each scene.

The camera both takes its time revealing walls, ceilings, and corners (watch for HUGE Easter eggs from the original series on the opening mural and in fellow comedian Didi Scott's dressing room) and also overwhelms us with a series of rapid, manic shots when Samir, in the height of his success, goes on what can only be coined as a sharing-spree, firing off names and details with power and vengeance. Little musical effects punctuate shocking scene endings. At least three classic Twilight Zone episodes** are alluded to (via the comedy scene, the changing and vanishing of objects from the world, and the willful elimination of displeasing items), and The Shining is referenced through Samir's apartment corridors, the mural at the comedy club, and the mention of the family name, "Torrance," in a story that is told in passing. All of these technical elements show us that in addition to being an amazing writer and creator, Jordan Peele knows and loves his film and television ancestors; he's a smart guy who has a lot of interesting things to show us.

The theme present in this episode is very nostalgic for fans of the series--the issues being explored here are of the same vein as many of Serling's original episodes, but with modern updates and allowances for items such as social media, the commonness of curse words, and insight into the lives of people who aren't exclusively white and European. The theme overall that emerges is a common one, suggesting that age-old idea that things seem to go well for a while when an average citizen is granted a special type of power or control, but in the end, humankind never really can master that moderate middle ground between being satisfied with what is given and the constant need for wanting more. Samir could have stopped himself halfway through this episode, realizing he's good with the initial bounty of popularity, riches, and respect he finds, but he doesn't do this. The message that Peele is exploring here is that like Samir, humans rarely ever quit while they're ahead. Stephen King talks a lot in interviews about how he enjoys the idea in many of his stories of a "Pandora's Box," that once opened, facilitates the decline of lives due to the usually-fated tendency toward poor decisions that humans seem destined.

Also worth mentioning is the ethnic background and composition of the key characters in this story. Samir is an Indian-American comedian who competes with a white (presumably hetero) male, Joe Donner, and an African-American homosexual female, Didi Scott, onstage at the comedy club. Donner is identified early on as someone whose livelihood and future is effortlessly secured by his whiteness. He is overweight, vulgar, sexist, and guilty of a hit-and-run accident that resulted in the deaths of a woman and her infant, yet he is not only found innocent and allowed to continue performing comedy, he's a celebrated icon! Joe Donner is indicative of the larger (fat, criminal, white) system that calls the shots, controls the money, and largely influences the audience, who resemble his demographic more than any other. Joe Donner's character represents those who RUN THE SYSTEM.

Didi is an interesting character because she manages to remain true to herself and her values while at the same time functioning within a system that is stacked against her, knowing full well the rules and sacrifices that go along with what she's doing. She doesn't kiss anyone's ass, but she knows that she's subject to the obligations that go along with success and income, which largely involve playing to the white people with money. Didi's character represents someone who KNOWS THE SYSTEM and does what she can to FUNCTION SUCCESSFULLY WITHIN IT.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have been
Samir Wassan!"
Samir is the wild card, the character who has two conflicting desires: he wants to make people think with his comedy but he also wants fame and riches. Peele's point via JC Wheeler's character is that Samir cannot have both of these elements at once, especially as an Indian-American (although this concept could have worked with a character of any ethnic background, really). A performer will eventually have to choose between keeping true to himself or making a living. Samir chose to make a living, and in the end, it ruins him. Samir was at first a FLUKE WITHIN THE SYSTEM, but then became just another cog in the machinery of entertainment, ultimately losing everything that made him an exceptional human being in the first place. And what of JC Wheeler? Is he Jesus (JC)? Is he the devil (vape smoke seems too aesthetic at the right moments to ignore)? It's open for debate, although Wheeler is definitely a knower, an influencer of the game, and someone who sets acts in motion. Samir mentions in their early discussion that Wheeler was everywhere, then just disappeared. What happened to him? Having found out the secret of successful stand-up, did Wheeler decide to just hang around and serve as a sentinel, a guide, to others that were following in his footsteps? Or is he more than that, someone always waiting, always watching, meant to escort young performers to their respective demises? Is the episodes's message that a skilled insider is controlling the system or is it rather that humans will screw themselves and take whatever bait is put before them?

Hard to say where the line is drawn, or if it is, at all.

* Peele's updated introductory monologue substitutes the words, "one," and "one's" for "man," and "man's."

** "The Dummy," focused around a comic and ventriloquist, "Shadow Play," involved a death row inmate who could change the elements of his surroundings at will (because the entire story was being dreamt, by him), and "It's a Good Life," brought us Anthony Freemont, who disposed of anything he didn't like into his family's cornfield.