Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Television in Quarantine

Sorry this got so long. Since I really don't know when I'll be able to go back to work again, my personal quarantine may indeed be extended into the summer, so I'll keep posting my "in quarantine" series. So many shows . . . so many rants. Funny I haven't started anything new but just rewatched old favorites or got myself caught up on seasons I was behind on, and my kids did this, too. I think we're clinging to times and experiences that reminded us of being safe, or just reminded us of happier times altogether. I still maintain that for the best possible escapism, LOST (which I'm still reviewing one episode at a time) fits the bill better than anything. It's the one show I recommend to everyone who asks.

These are the shows I completed from start to finish:

1. The Handmaid's Tale

In Gilead, women called "handmaids" are forced to submit to ritual rape and humiliation in order to conceive and carry babies for wealthy couples unable to procreate.

I'd read Atwood's novel years ago and then just this year, The Testaments, but seeing it all in action really disgusted me in a way the novels couldn't. This was one of the first series I watched after the shelter-at-home order, and given everything happening in the world under the current administration, it's safe to say I was extra anger-prone sitting through all this ridiculous male bullshit in the name of religion. Most nights I would just fill up my wine glass and scowl, especially those early episodes where there seemed to be little hope and the events were more or less controlled by the commanders of Gilead. I hated those men, I hated seeing their stupid little system, and obviously, I was enraged by all the rape and baby-stealing.

About midway through the first season there comes a shift when the handmaids begin to organize their revolt and begin resisting, and these are the moments that make the show amazing and scary as it may seem to us now, relevant. All three seasons were deeply disturbing, yet not without their moments of hope and tenderness (June's friendships with Moira and eventually Janine, as well as her relationship with Nick, to name a few), but as upsetting as it all was, I did feel like the show validated my anger and served as a somewhat cathartic experience toward everything I've come to detest about men in power who hurt and demean women.

2. Sons of Anarchy

In a twisted, modern-day homage to Hamlet, Sons of Anarchy, a northern California motorcycle club and its vice president, Jax Teller, weather the ups and downs of organized crime in the close-knit community of Charming.

The first season is a little clunky, the last two off-the-rails violent, but for my money, there are no two better characters in television than our two prime movers, the Claudius and Gertrude of Charming, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) and Gemma Teller (Katey Sagal). I'll give an honorable mention to Nero Padilla (Jimmy Smits), as well as the amazing supporting cast throughout the seasons and a ton of excellent guest stars. If I'm honest I need to say that Charlie Hunnam as Jax Teller, the hero, the Hamlet, definitely looks the part, but his accent, the cringe-y swagger he does, and those ridiculous white shoes he wears, were . . . poor choices, but whatever, it's Hunnam! He didn't need to do much with a cast like this, we were always gonna pay more attention to Perlman and Sagal (who stole every scene), anyway.

I did some thinking about the subject matter of the show, which is heavy into selling guns and prostitution, and shows many instances of violence against women, and admittedly, it's disturbing. A different type of disturbing than what happens in The Handmaid's Tale to be sure, but significantly disturbing, nonetheless. There's a fair amount in diversity in these episodes, but also a fair amount of racism, mostly in the form of epitaphs and stereotyping. Throughout every season, there are rapes, beatings, murders, and infidelities. In this way, SOA is not unlike a mafia film or series; it's about a group of male criminals who, at their best are hyper-masculine, at their worst, toxic and violent, and who live and work within a system where there are differing morals and constantly changing rules among crews and the law. Kind of like politics, when you think about it. If no one plays by the same rules, there effectively are no rules. If everyone is making underhanded dealings behind allies' backs, you effectively encourage your ally to do the same to you. Jax has good intentions but they're not enough, and like all good mafia pictures, we meet him on an upswing but then spend seven years watching it all crash and burn and this is sad, because like Hamlet, Jax Teller is a great character.

There is a moment early on in the first season I'll never forget: the crew is gathered around the table at Gemma and Clay's place, passing food around and bullshitting. The camera lingers on Gemma watching her family and we see her happy, in her element. Would that such experiences lasted . . .

3. Mrs. America

Phyllis Schlafly, conservative mother of six and opponent of the ERA movement, battles celebrated feminists like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm as the women's movement gains traction in the seventies.

I grew up in the eighties in a tiny farm community in rural Minnesota, and the first thing I ever heard about any of this was when I took a women's studies class IN COLLEGE, in the year 2001. In elementary and high school, our extremely conservative social studies curriculum focused around civics/law, the big wars, and the evils of communism (without breaching the actual wars that were fought over it); if it didn't cast the white American male in a heroic spotlight, we did not learn about it.

I thought I'd immediately hate Schlafly, I wrote about her with more than a little venom in one of my American Studies classes at the U of M, but considering Cate Blanchett's portrayal and the fact that Schlafly is basically mansplained to by everyone for the first two straight episodes, I first felt sorry for her, and then came to somewhat agree with Bella Abzug's assessment, "Phyllis Schlafly is a f*cking feminist." She's not a good feminist, but she wanted all the same freedoms the real feminists were fighting for. I loved how Bella set a little trap for Schlafly's underlings to walk into, admitting basically the same, and how the idea that they might have more in common with each other than not (shown by Alice's experience with the Christian woman at the bar). In order to be engaging, I feel like many stylistic and dramatic liberties were probably taken by the show, especially with Schlafly (her posthumous publication, The Conservative Case for Trump suggests to me that in the end maybe she wasn't all that intelligent but just good at mobilizing and shouting), but whatever. The show was brilliant, more relevant than ever  (hello, MANAFORT AND ROGER STONE!) and material that young people should encounter before college level electives. Watch it.


After 10 years of writing about it do I really need to make up a synopsis? Fine, here it is:

After surviving a plane crash, a group of people discover connections among themselves and the unique properties of the island they've crashed onto, which was Absolutely. Not. Purgatory.

While it's true that I am watching each episode, taking notes in detail, and writing each one up separately (see LOST), I watched the entire series with my son, ending with the finale on the 10 year anniversary on May 23. The first and final seasons are pretty familiar to me, but many of the middle episodes I'd only seen once or twice, so it was nice experiencing these all over again. I've told the story about how I came to the series many times, but it's such a great one I'm telling it again: In 2006, I was working at a Starbucks on 50th and France in Edina, and many of my coworkers were film and television people. I was in the height of a serious 24 obsession (getting these either through Blockbuster online or eventually Netflix), and was watching The Sopranos and Six Feet Under weekly on HBO. Several of my coworkers assumed I was watching LOST, and when I said I hadn't heard of it, pressured me to start. My sister and brother and law said the same thing, but I always answered that I had too many shows going to start another. Only when my brother told me what he thought ("It's like The Twilight Zone on an island. You need to watch this.") did I actually become interested, but I didn't actually start watching for at least another year, possibly two as I was busy having many babies during this time.

When I did eventually begin watching, I was mesmerized from the very beginning; it was like The Twilight Zone on an island, a series of different episodes and experiences that were strangely ALL CONNECTED. The unidentifiable "monster" (which turns out to be THE DEVIL). Ben Linus as a sort of stand-in "Howling Man" (not the devil, but a dangerous man). Keeping Jack in the cage on Hydra Island and the turnaround scene where he later catches Friendly's football having presumably joined the others. The entire "Expose" episode. The explanation of keeping the smoke monster on the island as illustrated by the corked bottle of wine (straight from "The Howling Man"). It was very much its own story, different than anything we'd ever seen before but still a TZ fan's dream come true. One line that's stayed with me since the finale is when Jack says to Desmond, "trust me, all of this matters." This is something I've come to learn from life, more so in the last few years than any other time, there is a play between good and evil, it never stops, but we really are all connected and everything we do matters. Everything.

Now. I've never really been comfortable enough in the past to just lay out my take on LOST, but after ten years, I'm willing to be blunt about a few things. The island on LOST was meant to be creation. Life began on the island and then through its electromagnetic properties, once it was discovered and manipulated, continued through the donkey wheel exit point into Tunisia, flourishing all over the Middle East. Each protector of the island (Island Mother, Jacob, Jack, Hugo, Walt) is a Jesus/savior figure, human and flawed, the unnamed man in black was a human who became the devil at the hands of Jacob, and the light and energy of the physical island is God/The Universe through which all things are possible. Island Mother and Jacob clearly served the longest tenures as island protectors, but in his wisdom and maybe due to his desire to pass on the position in a timely factor with a gift for planning and unique foresight, Jacob assigned meaning to the numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42 even before the candidates were born, but then, when it was clear that they would eventually factor into his own replacement, linked each number to a candidate. The numbers, the candidates, and the people they connected became united by the island's energy (via Jacob's interest in them) which influenced everything from the relationships they made, the jobs they took, and the internal struggles they faced even before coming together on Oceanic Flight 815 and crashing onto the island.
This, as said by "A Scientist
Explains LOST" about a decade

David Shephard was not a dummy character or flash sideways stand-in for Jack's guilt over abandoning Aaron or having daddy issues but a real, live person, and the son of Jack and Kate (not Jack and Juliet). Being in the flash sideways, David has also died but was not instrumental to the entire island group's moving on, only Jack's, as if the God or the Universe perhaps wanted to give him a chance to meet his son, which is a very Hugo Reyes, empathetic thing to consider. It's the only thing that makes any sort of sense.

After Juliet Burke detonates a nuclear device in the pit of the then-in-process Swan station, the split narrative known as the "flash sideways" was presented in a way that, to viewers, suggested Farraday's idea of sending everyone back in time before Oceanic 815 crashed, worked. In reality, the flash sideways was its own, legitimate series of events experienced by every character after they died in whatever various methods befell them in a common place (I'm okay with using "pre-afterlife" for this) that, according to Christian Shephard during his explanation in front of the stained glass window in the final moments of the finale, they, the survivors had created for themselves. Also not purgatory. Michael and Walt are notably absent from this gathering, Michael having been relegated to the island whisperers to work off his punishment for murdering Ana Lucia and Libby and Walt being busy with island leadership duties after Hugo's unseen death, in whatever form it took. The rest of the survivors moved on together, presumably to the afterlife, proper. The end.

Questions? Let's have a drink and talk. I'm here all night.