When Stranger Things first premiered back in July of 2016 (oh my god it was only a year ago what time vortex am I currently occupying I swear to god what the hell), it did it with relative silence. Though the series had a cool trailer or two, there really wasn’t a lot of buzz for Stranger Things, nor did it boost a bunch of known talent behind the camera. Sure, it was nice to see Winona Ryder working again, and David Harbour was a great character actor just itching for a prime leading man role, but everybody else? From the creators to the main kids, they were all pretty big unknowns. But, of course, that has all changed in the months since.
A massive fandom has now formed around Stranger Things, with the show and its characters now serving as some of Netflix’s most beloved. It’s rare for ANYTHING even remotely new to gain such a strong following in a small amount of time but, if you ask me, Stranger Things really deserves it. Though not without its problems, the first season was an incredibly engrossing, always entertaining little genre pastiche. It could have easily just been an 80’s nostalgia circle jerk, but with some whip smart writing and an especially strong ensemble, Stranger Thing went from zero to cultural phenomenon.
Which made the anticipation for Stranger Things 2 far different than its predecessor. While the first season had the opportunity to really surprise us with the story it was telling, Stranger Things 2 does not. We know what this show is now, and generally, what it is setting out to do. But does that make the sequel any less exciting? For many, many properties, the answer is a clear yes. But, for the most part, Stranger Things 2 managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of sequelitis, delivering a second season that lives up to the quality of the first in many regards. It was far from perfect (as I’ll get to with a latter article), but it was still jam packed with great moments and excellent story developments. So with my 8 episode binge all wrapped up (twice, in fact!) let’s dive right in, shall we? Here are the five best moments of Stranger Things 2.
THIS IS YOUR WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR STRANGER THINGS 2 FOLLOW. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE YET TO WATCH THE ENTIRE SEASON YET. BUT, IF YOU ARE ONE OF THE COOL KIDS THAT HAS…PROCEED!
Second, less important disclaimer: this list is arranged in chronological order, so I really have no “preference” on these moments. That being said…four is clearly the best, right?
1. Family Spat (Chapter 4: “Will the Wise”)
There’s certainly something to be said about the fact that the first “best” moment of Stranger Things 2 doesn’t arrive until about half way in. Don’t get me wrong: the first trio of episodes are good, and do the much needed legwork for setting up the season’s main storylines, but the series is certainly bottom heavy when it comes to its storytelling. Which makes a certain level of sense: the Duffer Brothers have not been shy about their approach to creating the show, always wanting to create an experience that resembled a long form movie more than anything else. And how many movies really have their best moments at the top of the first act? That’s where you establish the action, with the second and third act serving as the payoff.
But putting aside the fundamentals of cinematic storytelling, the first truly fantastic moment of Stranger Things 2 is the heated, volatile argument between Hopper and Eleven at the start of “Will the Wise.” Pairing these two together was one of the best decisions the writers made following the first season, and this scene is where it gets its first real payoff. Both David Harbour and Bobby Millie Brown are just so damn good (both together and apart), and are able to infuse their characters with so much passion through every single line. When they fight in “Will the Wise,” they REALLY fight, and you can’t help but feel bad for both of them.
Props especially have to be given out to Millie Brown, who performs Eleven with the perfect balance of emotionally scarred prisoner and petulant, pissed off pre-teen. The joy of arguments like this is that it’s hard to root for either party: you like both characters, and can understand entirely where both are coming from. That’s a sign of the strong writing at the center of the scene and, paired with the excellent writing, creates a father/daughter argument that actually FEELS real, and relatable. The fact that it also contains the “daughter” hurling out telekinetic attacks and exploding the things around her in rage just makes the moment all that more special.
2. Terry Ives’ Tale (Chapter 5: “Dig Dug”)
It takes a lot of skill for a series to be able to make a minor character’s story feel as compelling as the rest of the cast. But Stranger Things 2 was able to do that surprisingly well in “Dig Dug,” as Eleven delved deeper into her past and, for the first time, met her mother.
The audience of course had already done so back in season one and, from first impressions, it was clear that something tragic and terrible happened to Terry Ives. But seeing first hand the experience of having her baby ripped away from her, the subsequent attempt to get it back, and the horrifying procedure that followed it, hit far harder than it had any right to. But strong editing and an emotional score helped propel this sequence into something really powerful, and one of the most memorable moments of Season 2.
…And yeah, maybe the discovery made in said flashback sequence led to one of the worst things about the season but, hey, this article is about the positives, right? I’m sure we’ll all have time to bitch about Chicago Punk Eleven later. For now, lets move on to something far cooler…
3. The Demo-Dog Bus Attack (Chapter 6: “The Spy”)
Stranger Things 2 doesn’t have a ton of big action movie moments…at least not until “The Spy,” that is. Once Dustin’s new best friend/demogorgon pet friend grows into a full size menace, an actual monster threat is awakened and, like the demogorgon threat from last season, our resourceful kids spring into action to take the creature down. But the motley crew tasked with the hunt (Dustin, Lucas, new kid Max, and most delightfully Steve Harrington) are in for quite a shock when the single, medium sized “demo-dog” brings some friends along for the ride.
What follows is one of the best sequences in Stranger Things so far, a bus attack sequence that takes clear inspiration from some of the best sci-fi monster movies out there. Think of the velociraptor scenes in Jurassic Park, or even the ceiling sequence from Aliens. Or, hell, a similar bus scene in J.J. Abrams underappreciated Super 8, one which also put a bunch of 80’s inspired pre-teens in a chilling amount of danger.
But even with the influences pretty clear, this scene still manages to work fantastically on its own, with a wonderful atmosphere and actually surprising setup (the other demo dogs popping up from the fog actually got a jump from me.) It’s always hard for a TV series to make the main characters feel like they are actually in danger, what with the whole ongoing nature of the series and all, but the terror of this moment is felt from pretty much everyone involved. And even if it doesn’t show as much crazy visuals as some other big set-pieces later in the season, the Demo Dog bus attack still managed to feel more cinematic than any other moment in Stranger Things 2.
Having an accomplished blockbuster director in Andrew Stanton behind the camera for this episode certainly helped, I imagine. Sure, John Carter wasn’t good per say, but it was certainly cinematic! And with Stanton’s talents actually applied to a something worthwhile, he managed to deliver one hell of a moment here. Let’s hope its enough to get the man out of the live action dog house in the future. Not sure I really want “Finding Crush” or “Wall-E 2: Planting Crops n’ Shit.” Andrew Stanton is a good director, Hollywood! Let him do it!
Anyways, with that Stanton aside out of the way, let’s move onto the thing about this season that only really matters, and one of the driving factors that led Stranger Things 2 second half to be so damn satisfying.
4. Adventures in Babysitting with Steve Harrington (Chapter 9: “The Gate”)
If you asked me at the end of Stranger Things season one who my favorite character of the next season would be, I would never have uttered the name “Steve Harrington.” Don’t get me wrong–I liked the character a lot in the first season, and found his whole “crappy boyfriend in teen 80’s movie, thrown into a monster movie he wasn’t prepared for” to be quite entertaining. But at the end of the day, the character still seemed like he was just an obstacle standing between the Jonathan/Nancy pairing. A well performed, fun obstacle, but an obstacle nonetheless.
But with the show’s decision to break up Nancy and Steve so early into this season, the latter character was able to thrive in a mode I never expected him to be in: reluctant companion and protector of the main group of kids. It was a plot development made entirely on the basis of convenience (the ONLY reason Dustin even teamed up with the guy is that literally every other character was off doing their own subplots), but man did it end up being one of the best developments Stranger Things 2 could have possibly made.
Just seeing cocky Steve Harrington deal with a bunch of pre-teens is funny on the face of it, but THESE pre-teens in particular? Absolutely glorious. But as much as I’d like to just say “every moment with Steve” and call it a day here, I think I have to go with a more specific moment. And on that end, I’ll say the best “Steve as babysitter” scene is in the season finale, where Steve awakens from his post-fight stupor, in an unfamiliar car, surrounded by these brats who have made his past 24 hours a living hell. His subsequent freakout and vain attempts to convince these cocksure kids to stop trying to get involved in this Stephen King bullshit is absolutely glorious, and Joe Keery does an amazing job playing off the kids in this sequence. The fact that it’s only followed by him giving in and leading the charge into the tunnels (nail bat in toe) is only icing on the cake.
How the character can be reluctant comic relief, sympathetic role model, AND the epitome of a cool badass teen, is truly something. Steve Harrington is hands down the MVP of Stranger Things 2, and every moment he spends being baffled at how he got involved in this entire mess, but rolling along with it anyways, is television gold.
5. The Snow Ball (Chapter 9: “The Gate”)
Stranger Things, from the very beginning, was always a show serving a bunch of masters. At times, it was a fun throwback to 80’s Spielberg adventure stories. At other points, it was a John Carpenter tinged teen slasher film. Meanwhile, there was a whole Stephen King supernatural nightmare scape happening in the background. Hell, the show even had enough room to throw a little bit of X-Men action into the mix with the Eleven storyline! With so much at play, it’s a miracle the show never felt overwhelming, or the elements never felt at odds with each other. And the reason why is quite clear to me: like pretty much every other great TV show out there, at the end of the day, it was all about the characters.
In the midst of big supernatural threats and crazy horror action, it might be easy to forget that. But it says something that my favorite sequence of Stranger Things 2 isn’t the big action moments or the crazy sci-fi conspiracies — its seeing our main characters going to a dance. It was seeing them interact, and be awkward, and fail to ask their classmates on dances, and to just BE KIDS. At its very best, Stranger Things is Freaks and Geeks with monsters, which can make for a magnificent combination. And just like Freaks and Geeks, it uses its period trappings to not only invoke nostalgia in the viewer (even if you DIDN’T grow up in the time period), but also to perfectly create the mood of a scene–I mean, can you ever go wrong featuring Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time?” The answer is a clear no.
The Snow Ball segment of “The Gate” felt real in a way that most shows fail at, and the fact that Stranger Things can be both this sci-fi/horror hybrid AND an effective tribute to growing up speaks to the stellar work The Duffer Brothers, the other writers, and the great actors do in making us love these characters. Which is the key, really. Even when the story falters (and, on occasion in Stranger Things 2, it does), your sympathy for the characters never does. You want to see Mike and Dustin and Will and Lucas and Eleven and Joyce and Hopper and Max and Nancy and Jonathan and (especially) Steve be happy, and after a season of chaos and danger, scenes like the Snow Ball are the perfect pallet cleanser to end things on. Never forget, future TV writers: you can get very, very far on strong characters. And they rarely come stronger than they do in Stranger Things.
That does it for the main list but, real quick, let me squeak out a few honorable mentions:
Will Absorbs The Monster (Chapter 3: “The Pollywog”)– What a horrifying image, huh?
Dustin vs. the Demo-Dog (Chapter 5: “Dig Dug”)– Dustin is the best.
Steve and Dustin Talk Girls (Chapter 6: “The Spy”) — Addendum: Dustin AND STEVE are the best.
Bob Dies, Which Suuuuucks (Chapter 7: “The Mind Flayer”) — R.I.P. Bob. He made for a great new character, even if his red shirt status was pretty clear from the beginning. Still though…BETTER THAN BARB, RIGHT? #JusticeForBob
Eleven’s New Do — I’ll talk more about Eleven’s storyline in a latter article but…well, she got a sweet new look out of it, at least. I dug her Sigourney Weaver haircut too, though.
The Exorcism of Will Byers — This is just to say that, if it wasn’t for Steve, Noah Schnapp’s Will would take the cake as Stranger Thing 2’s best character. What a great performance from him this year. After seeing so little of the character in the first season, it’s good to know that Schnapp was a great little actor too.
That’s all for my best moments of Stranger Things 2 list, but check back soon for my take on the worst aspects of the season. That article will probably be less fun, but I need to write SOMETHING to put Billy in his place.
Seriously. Fuck. That. Guy.
Also published on Medium.
10 Other Members of The Americans Cast Who Should Be Put In A Star War (And The Roles That They Could Play)
Keri Russell should just be the start of alum from FX’s hit spy drama joining the Star Wars universe.
The talk of the fanboy town this weekend was Keri Russell, a frequent J.J. Abrams cohort, joining the cast of Star Wars: Episode IX (or whatever it might end up being titled.) The think pieces came fast and furious from nearly the moment the casting was first announced, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise: when any new detail drops about one of these Star Wars films, people will inevitably spend way too much time theorizing about what is to come, for better or (mostly) worse. But when it comes to my initial reaction to the casting, I only had two thoughts: 1) oh my god what is J.J. Abrams going to do to Keri Russell’s hair this time and 2) it’s so damn great to see The Americans cast get work.
Coming off of five years of being perhaps the best dramatic ensemble on television, I truly would be happy to see all of the cast members of The Americans land roles in huge films following the conclusion of the show. And not just huge films, mind you — I’m talking Star Wars huge films. Truly The Americans cast is versatile enough to land any role they could want in the galaxy far, far away, and with Russell’s casting, all I could think about (aside from how amazing she’s going to end up being in the movie, of course) was what her fellow cast members could also bring to the extended franchise.
And I’m a silly person who happens to have a blog so, sorry, you have to be present for my ramblings on such niche, unasked subjects! So here are 10 other members of The Americans cast who deserve a shot at a Star Wars gig and, for the hell of it, the character archetypes they would be great for in the universe. Thank me later, Kathleen Kennedy!
Matthew Rhys (Philip Jennings):
I’ll let my first post-Keri Russell casting tweet speak for itself here:
Since we've gotten this far, can we go the whole nine yards and have Matthew Rhys cast as a roguish "Han Solo" type in one of these? Welsh accent included, of course.
— Matthew Legarreta (@mattlegarreta) July 6, 2018
Holly Taylor (Paige Jennings):
Rey’s previously unmentioned bestie/roommate back home on Jakku. They stay up all night chowing down on dehydrated bread and talking about desert problems, as you do.
Noah Emmerich (Stan Beeman):
Maybe it’s recency bias, but I can’t help but imagine Emmerich playing a tough bounty hunter character. That being said, it will be pretty tragic when he realizes his co-pilot and best friend was his target the whole time. What a dramatic scene they will end up having in the Star Wars equivalent of a parking garage, though.
Brandon J. Dirden (Dennis Aderholt):
Brandon J. Dirden holds himself up with such calm and levelheaded prestige as an actor…making him a perfect choice to play a hapless senator trying to do the right thing, but missing the fact that OOPS an electric wizard is in control now. Bummer!
Costa Ronin (Oleg Burov):
I can definitely see Costa Ronin playing the cool, confident gangster type. He’ll also have a robot arm, for some reason. And he should keep his Season 6 beard, because DAMN does he rock the hell out of it.
Alison Wright (Martha):
Padme in a set of prequel remakes. Because if anyone could sell the anguish of being betrayed by someone they deeply loved for years, only for them to end up being a completely different person than who they thought they were, it would be her. Poor Martha…
Margo Martindale (Claudia):
It’s Character Actress Margot Martindale! Let her be whatever she wants! A Jedi master, a Sith Lord, a crime boss, a droid, a wookie, a gungan — she can do it all, dang it!
Frank Langella (Gabriel):
Let him be the kindest Jedi master ever. OR the most evil Sith Lord to ever exist. Frank Langella is somehow capable of channeling both.
Mail Robot (Mail Robot):
The new official droid mascot of Star Wars, duh! NEXT.
Keidrich Sellati (Henry Jennings):
…He can also be present.
Also published on Medium.
With Its Make-It-Or-Break-It Season Finale, Westworld Season 2 Opted For The Latter
Even as a massive fan of HBO’s sci-fi drama, I can’t ignore what a convoluted, disappointing mess this finale turned out to be.
I’ve been a pretty big fan of HBO’s Westworld, pretty much from day one. It is a show, however, that isn’t without its fair share of criticisms, and I’m pretty sympathetic to most of them…even when I heavily disagree that the series is too complicated, or too mysterious, or not dramatic enough, or what have you. While the journey of the last nineteen episodes has been far from flawless, I’ve mostly found the ride to be incredibly compelling and, at its peak, some of the most superbly crafted television we’ve been lucky to get in the past decade. Warts and all, minor frustrations aside, I can’t say I ever found myself truly against what this show was, and what it was doing.
But in the heat of my post-finale pontification, and while absorbing all I can about just what happened in “The Passenger,” I think I can finally say it — Westworld Season 2 kind of lost me, not exactly in what is going on (that more or less makes sense to me), but why the show is even making the creative decisions it is making to begin with. And even as optimistic about the show as I am, I’m not sure what the show can do in the next few seasons to get me back up to the same level of enthusiasm and passion I had back at the start of the season. To put it bluntly: for the sake of the season and the series moving forward, the grand finale of Westworld Season 2 had to work. And, boy, I’m not really sure it did at all.
Which, fuck, is a really different place from where I was at the conclusion of the series’ debut season. That finale, “The Bicameral Mind,” was able to cap off all its big plot threads while also serving as a promising tease for what was to come, AND be an entertaining episode in its own right (when it comes to Pew-Pew Robot Action, Maeve’s posse escaping the Mesa is still one of the show’s finest set pieces.) We don’t get much of any of that with “The Passenger,” though.
While the finale technically paid off the bigger questions of the season, it was belted out in such a half-hazard, messy way that connecting the dots seems like such a fool’s errand. And it wasn’t like the plot of the season, at the barest level, was all that complicated: our main characters all want to get to a place, and when they get to that place, things will happen. Sure, you have the future timeline messing things up a bit but, even with that included, the drive of Season 2 was expressed clearly from the start: everyone (Bernard, Dolores, William, Maeve, etc.) wants to get to the Valley Beyond/The Door/The Forge/The Server Room of Requirement. They all had different motives and drives, but the destination was the same.
And when, in the penultimate episode, it became clear that the brunt of the finale’s story would take place in The Forge, it was hard not to be excited. What exciting possibilities could come from all our characters converging in this one location? And considering just how hyped it had been by everyone involved, how would the show manage to blow our minds and, essentially, make this entire season’s journey worthwhile?
Because, as I said before, a lot was riding on this season finale. Coming off of a saggy middle portion, and a storyline in danger of collapsing on itself, Westworld HAD to deliver the goods in “The Messenger.” And while the popular storytelling edict of “it’s the journey, not the destination” is mostly 100% the case for long-form narratives, I’m going to just say it: I don’t feel bad for placing so much pressure on this episode. Because Westworld forced these heightened expectations on itself — simply due to how the story is constructed and paced, there was no way to separate the endgame from the journey in this particular instance. When your season rests almost entirely on the revelations that will take place in the final destination, that final destination better deliver big time.
Which, like most parts of this article, is just a long rejoinder designed solely to set up the following declaration: it didn’t.
Instead of something show-changing and dramatically powerful being kept within the crypts of The Forge, it just contained…well, what it was said to contain from like halfway through the season: a bunch of data about the people who had visited Westworld in the past, and a “door” to another world, specifically developed for the hosts. What exactly is in that world (or, hell, what that world really even is) is painted rather obliquely, as is Dolores’ intentions for the guest’s data (to, umm, learn stuff about the leader of the Extraction Team preparing to land at the park? Not sure how she plans to utilize said knowledge, what with her ZERO allies and resources to pull from, but whatever, bigger fish to fry here.)
That doesn’t stop a good portion of the episode from focusing on the two concepts, starting with the weird use of Logan as The Forge’s, umm, receptionist I guess, and leading to a gigantic library containing the “code” for the guests, which the show claims is essentially a complete copy of a human consciousness, represented by a book. Or something. Nothing more is made of this after Dolores cracks open the “Karl Strand” novella, and gives it a quick speed read. She then exits The Forge (which you can just do with sheer willpower, I guess — look, nothing about The Forge/The Cradle makes much sense, but you’ll just have to roll with the show on that one), and declares that she plans to destroy all the guest data so she can, umm, pass. Before she has the chance to enact her (let’s say) “plan,” however, AI Secretary Logan reveals to Bernard that he has control of The Forge and its real purpose: serving as a door to a virtual world, built by Arnold, where the hosts can frolick forever, outside the control of those pesky humans.
All this is revealed in what seems like 75 seconds so, if you are at all confused by any of it well, BUCK THE FUCK UP PAL. There’s still a lot of shit to get through in the next half of the episode. I’m not going to go over all of it, but let’s just say that what transpires inside of The Forge is BONKERS, in a way that first kind of impressed me, if I’m being honest. By the time a magic portal literally opens in Westworld, and the hosts (led by Akecheta, whose done a swell job of gathering every bot in town for the big event) begin strolling into this random field that looks like a Windows screensaver, I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. It wasn’t even bad, per say — just strange, a mode “The Passenger” would stay in for a good portion of its remaining runtime.
Why is all of this Forge content so underwhelming? Because it fails to present us anything compelling that we didn’t already know. The theme of humans being the REAL robots has been in the show’s DNA for years now, so not much a revelation there. Furthermore, the show is kind of at odds with itself regarding all the talks of how humans=hosts. It’s a rather simple idea that the series keeps presenting as so deep man, leading to many, many monologues in which the characters just keep repeating the same goddamn thing they’ve already said one scene prior. It gets very tedious, very fast.
The concept also seems to completely turn its back on one of Season 1’s main points: how memories and our past experiences define us. That served as the entire distinction between host and human back then, and when Ford decided to place “reveries” inside of the hosts’ minds, allowing them to experience memory and the passage of time itself, their path to achieving true consciousness began. But in Season 2, the series is arguing rather cynically that we are simple, dumb creatures who can’t change, and can be rebuilt and replaced easily just by applying the right, rudimentary code. But Sizemore ends up proving the show’s cynical viewpoint of humanity wrong just moments previoiusly by literally going against his “code,” and doing a selfless act to save others. Which could have been sold as a counterpoint to what Ford and the rest are arguing…if the show cared to present a counterpoint at all to its philosophizing. Instead, it feels more comfortable going on long spiels about how HUMANS are the ones who lack free will, NOT hosts. GETIT??? REVERSAL!
And on the subject of things we already know that propels so much of this episode: yeah, we get that Arnold and Delores are on opposing sides of this robot uprising, so what exactly does their disagreement over what to do about The Door add to the proceedings? The existence of the virtual world built by Arnold could have been something show-altering, but the show doesn’t seem to care enough about it outside as a plot mechanic to make it worthwhile. Hell, it’s not even clear we’ll ever see this Robot Eden (get it, BIBLE) ever again, which maybe explain why the show put so little thought or care into setting up and presenting this new universe. It was barely a concept: it was just a means to an end.
An end that, first and foremost, tied loosely into Maeve’s series-long arc. Of all the stories this year, Maeve’s has probably been the most succinct (although when hasn’t that been the case, really?) Even still, the big payoff that comes from Maeve “rescuing” her daughter and “sacrificing” herself just landed with a thud to me. Not only has a LOT of Maeve’s relationship to her daughter gone unaddressed and unexplored (she’s a walking motive device, not an actual character), but there’s still a lot of weird plot and thematic issues that the show refuses to dive into on that end (The girl’s new mother might actually have an opinion on this whole situation, and Maeve should at least consider the ethics of what she is doing by controlling her and the girl in the way she does.) But all of that is pushed aside just so we can see Maeve make an (admittedly cool looking) heroic sacrifice, dying so her daughter can make it to the shimmering Robot Eden.
Except, yeah, no, that’s not what’s going to happen. Which is another big issue “The Passenger” runs into many times in this episode: in its quest to make everything feel EVENTFUL and BIG, it delivers a lot of seemingly major character deaths. Sizemore, Elsie, Hector, Armistice, Maeve, Hale, Dolores, AND Arnold all seem to be disposed of at some point but, really, I never bought that Westworld was killing off its extended cast in such a major way. To put it bluntly, Westworld done Infinity War-d itself — by stacking up the deaths so impossibly high, I immediately pulled back from any emotional response to it, knowing that the show was going to find some silly way to bring them all back. For Dolores, Arnold, and (kind of) Hale, that has already happened. For Maeve and her crew, it’s heavily hinted (Felix and Sylvester are on the case!) That makes humans the only real casualties coming out of this episode , an expected if not disappointing outcome.
Because, despite what “The Passenger” argues, didn’t Westworld just make a major step forward in the defining the mortality of its robotic characters? Wasn’t the ENTIRE POINT of blowing up The Cradle (as stated in the show itself) making it so that the hosts were now mortal? How exactly are all these dead hosts, from both “The Passenger” and earlier episodes, being brought back to life? Were there more backups of their consciousnesses in The Forge? If so, why does The Cradle matter at all? Fuck, why do ANY of these server farms matter at all? Death doesn’t have to be the end all be all of stakes (it wasn’t even a concern I had for the show back in the first season), but when you’re going to present the concept of mortality being placed on immortal beings, I expect it to be at least ADDRESSED when immortality is randoly back on the table.
Case in point: the brief re-appearance of Teddy, whose death in the last episode seemed to be as close to a send-off as a host character could possibly get on this show. But, nope! In a great example of delirious editing and leaps of logic, we see Teddy for one brief moment all up in Robot Eden, chilling alone. Is this real? Is this just Delores imagining things? Maybe, but that certainly doesn’t explain how the hell Teddy ended up in the flooded Valley Beyond at the beginning of the season — from those clues, we are led to believe that Teddy made it to Robot Eden, which doesn’t make any goddamn sense.
On that note: can you BELIEVE we haven’t even got to the future part of this finale yet? Because, boy, is all that a dozy. Not only do we learn that Charlotte Hale is actually Dolores INSIDE a clone version of Charlotte (despite seemingly being murdered by Bernard back in the past story), but we also get to see the full extent of her plan — murdering Strand by shooting him in the goddamn face (glad that book of Strand cheat codes came in handy!) She then decides to reverse her position on Robot Eden, for reasons unclear, and launches the brain egg containing Robot Eden (JUST ROLL WITH IT) into an unknown location where it will “never be found.” Unless the show starts to run out of plot, in which case, it will possibly be found! Who cares though, as the finale zips to another scene of convoluted reveals and increasingly fraught storytelling, this time centering on the reveal that…Stubbs is a host?
Fuck this man, I’ve already written like 2000 words here! I don’t have time for “Ashley Stubbs is a fucking robot too, ha ha!” I don’t know why this matters long-term, or why any of us should give a shit about this development, but it definitely leans into the direction the show should not be going in, in which every major character is revealed to be a host, just for the shock of it. It’s generic robot sci-fi storytelling, and Westworld already made its mark on the concept to great effect with Bernard in Season 1. No, no, none of that reveal is earned at all, from any perspective. So let’s just move on to the final moments of “The Passenger” itself: Delores going off island with a bunch of pods containing the character sheets of whomever the fuck the show wants. Let’s say…Moe.
All this leads to the final moments of the episode, in which we learn that Delores REBUILT Bernard, who she murdered before leaving the park to cover her new Charlotte Hale sized tracks. This comes only a few moments after the initial reveal that Bernard REBUILT Delores, who he murdered before leaving the Forge because she was, well, kind of crazy. As crazy as reading all the events of “The Passenger” when presented together, you could say. In any case, the one-two punch of death/revival and death/revival gave me hardcore whiplash, and frankly is exactly what I’m talking about when it comes to pissing away all the stakes. It seems that these hosts can just be rebuilt from the bottom up so damn easily, despite the show’s MANY arguments to the contrary in the last few seasons, and the idea that death for the hosts were now permanent after the destruction of The Cradle. No backups, no problems, I guess.
As the 90 minutes of a lot drew to a close, we’re simply left with yet another reversal of the Arnold/Dolores sit down, this time with Dolores, now back in her own body (she remade it, but kept the Hale body around and put someone else in it…y’know, for Season 3 plotlines) monologuing about how she’s the Magneto to Bernard’s Professor X. Or something. Bernard then leaves the home they are in (the same one Arnold showed Dolores in a previous flashback), opening the door to a new chapter for Westworld. Where exactly is he? How long as it been? What the fuck is this story even about now? Wait for next year (or, more likely, a couple years), folks!
Leaving on such an unabashed cliffhanger wouldn’t be so bad, if any of the plot developments in this episode had me excited whatsoever for what is to come. Well there’s an argument to be made that going into unexplored, unpredictable territory for a series is good, I tend to believe that a strong finale should serve as the conclusion to the season’s major plotlines, while also serving as a teaser for what is to come. As I said before, “The Passenger” did a piss-poor job of doing either, and the fact that the finale left me feeling ambivalent about seeing more of this show is a massive, massive bummer.
AH, BUT THERE’S MORE!!! Because if 90 minutes of plot development wasn’t enough for you, “The Passenger” has a post credit scene too. And though I have some massive frustrations with the Season 2 finale overall, NOTHING is at the same scale as the anger I have towards the Man in Black scene that punctuates the entire season. To be quite blunt, it’s dogshit. The fact that every recap and review had a wildly different interpretation of what the fuck was happening in it is extremely telling, as is the fact that the people involved basically had to lay out it all out, because the text of the show itself gave us so little to work with. I shouldn’t have to do homework in order to figure what the fuck is happening, Westworld. And that homework shouldn’t be so damn impossible that I have to cheat on it by being told all the answers, either.
And even putting aside how badly told it is…ugh. The fact that we have another timeline to deal with, and that William’s story shows no sign of slowing down (even if Season 2 should have served as the proper note to end it on, IMHO) pisses me off. Just ending the Man in Black’s story for the season with him making it to his endpoint, only for us NOT TO SEE WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENS TO HIM THERE, and just showing up alive on the beach later, only to be back in the elevator MUCH LATER, makes me want to throw something at the damn screen. Considering all the complaints that the split-timeline got this season, I can’t imagine how adding another FAR, FAR FUTURE time into the mix will make things any better.
But just to make things clear, my issues with Westworld Season 2 as a whole (and this finale especially) are a lot more complicated than “two timelines are confusing.” The framing device has problems, but I would argue that too much attention has been put on the split timeline scenario, as though that is the end-all-be-all problem with the season as a whole. To be quite frank, I disagree entirely. I think the conceit could have worked, if the payoff for the decision was something far grander. Hell, at times, it did — I still maintain the initial “seed” of the idea rests in Bernard himself confusing the time he is in, creating an echo of chaos and confusion that the show very clearly wants us to sympathize with. It’s a neat idea that was also toyed with last season, but with a far greater sense of purpose: Dolores coming to terms with her past is what ultimately led to her becoming awake, after all. But here? It seems to mostly serve the twist of Dolores being inside a host version of Charlotte, an underwhelming and mostly just perfunctory way of getting Dolores out of the theme park. At the end of the day, even if the season was presented in chronological order, though, I see no reason why that would make things any better. No, the problems with Westworld Season 2 stem far closer to the series’ creative direction as a whole.
And, look, I get it: sophomore seasons are incredibly hard to make work, especially following something that grew into a pop culture sensation. But when a show manages to pull one off, there’s almost nothing better. As a viewer, my trust in the series and its creator’s skyrockets, and I can feel comfortable moving forward in my belief that what I am watching is truly of value. But when the opposite happens, it can throw the entire support system of the show crashing to the ground. And with the big ol’ narrative and dramatic flop that was “The Passenger,” I can’t help but now view this season — even with its moments of true, objective greatness — completely flawed as a whole.
But even saying all of that (and the whole “make-it-or-break-it” part of the headline), I don’t think the failures of Westworld Season 2 represent the end-all-be-all for Westworld. I believe the show can climb out of this hole and, with a bit of course correction, find its footing again. There’s still too much greatness in Westworld for me to throw it out completely, and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are both immensely talented people up to the challenge of presenting an evolved, but refined version of Wesworld. BUT if the series manages to never right its way again, and its remaining days just present us with diminishing returns after diminishing returns…well? I’ll know exactly which episode to pinpoint the beginning of the end. And if that’s not a heck of a dull note to end a season on, I don’t know what is.
…At least Ramin Djawadi’s score still kicks ass, right?
Also published on Medium.
They Didn’t Make A Huge Mistake: In Defense of Arrested Development Season 4
It was overstuffed, scattershot, and occasionally quite tedious — but also kinda brilliant? It’s Arrested Development Season 4.
What forms a popular consensus? In the modern age of social media, internet comment boards, and Rotten Tomatoes, I honestly don’t know. It seems like one moment, popular consensus could ascribe a verdict of high quality to something (like, say, La La Land), but then come to a completely opposite conclusion just a few weeks later (didn’t you hear? La La Land is bad now.) This probably points to the inherent fool’s errand that derives from the concept of a “consensus,” but still — even with differing opinions being a thing, it’s pretty easy to see that the internet is quick to place a lasting judgment on pieces of pop culture. Not everyone loves Mad Max: Fury Road…but it is beloved. Not everyone hates Suicide Squad…but it is universally hated. Contradictory statements, maybe, but that’s how the consensus goes. And once it sets in, the general sentiment is hard to escape. Which is exactly what happened with Arrested Development Season 4, Netflix’s much-hyped revival of the cult comedy classic.
Expectations were of course high for the show’s return back in May of 2013 (exactly five years ago, for those of you keeping track at home), which has never once led to crushing disappointment. Nope, not a once! [Narrator: They had. More than once, in fact.] It didn’t take long after the show’s initial release for the excitement to change into apprehension: at first, people weren’t quite sure what to make of the thing. Netflix’s “binge-release” model was still quite new for most people, and the concept of a TV revival was still rare. It was odd all around to see the Bluth’s come back seven years after we last saw them, and it didn’t help matters that their return season was very different from what came before it.
In any case, it didn’t take long before this apprehension turned into full-on disappointment for a majority of viewers. I was reviewing the show when it happened, so I have some strong memories of just how it went down: first things seemed positive, then mixed, then outright negative. Soon the most disappointed started speaking above the rest (as is often the case on these here interwebs), and the entire conversation around the show turned away from “how good is it? to “huh...is this good?”
The years went on, and the season’s stock just plummeted further and further. Consensus went from the season being a mixed bag, to it being an outright failure. It joined the modern-day pantheon of disappointing sequels to beloved things, up there with Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises, etc. Hell, creator Mitch Hurwitz even felt the drive to re-edit the entire season as a sort of mea culpa, and released it earlier this month in the form of Arrested Development Season 4 Remix: Fateful Consequences (you, title, are a mouth full!)
The release of said remix really made people’s venom for the season spill out: pretty much all I read about it was that it still didn’t “fix” the season, insinuating that something had to be fixed to begin with. You know: the consensus. Arrested Development Season 4 was a failure, a disappointment, a disaster, etc. And here’s the thing: not long ago, I would have agreed with the assessment! I too was disappointed with what the show did in its fourth season: how it split up the cast, how it paced its runtimes, how it told its stories. I found laughs, sure, but I found an equal number of things to complain about. I finished my initial watch of the season more perplexed than anything, unsure how the people behind the series could delivery such a bloated, awkward affair. But it’s been five years since then, and I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and review the season since then. And you know what? I’m starting to think I was wrong. We all were.
Arrested Development Season 4 is actually pretty damn great. And taken as its own thing, one of the most unique and rewarding pieces of comedy television ever crafted.
But even with that glowing, somewhat hyperbolic statement being said: I get it. I understand why fans were so upset with how the season turned out, and why it didn’t gel with many who watched it: Arrested Development Season 4 is a weird season of television, even by AD’s quirky standards. While the character-centric format of the season was originally conceived to handle the busy schedule of its main cast, it seemed to take a life of its own in the writer’s room, leading to a narrative jam-packed with time-skips, mysteries, delayed pay-offs, etc. Often times, the show resembled more of a puzzle-box genre piece like Lost or Westworld than a family-based, wacky sitcom. Hell, just putting together what the hell was happening and when it was happening could be a frustrating experience, as it proved to be for many people.
And in no way am I am trying to put myself above those who felt this way: I will once again re-iterate my initial impression of the sixteen-episode story was similar. It just seemed like too many things taking away from the comedic experience, smothering the entire show with layers upon layers of confusion and, frankly, tediousness. But remember above when I explained what ultimately changed my opinion on the season: review and reflection? Well, I truly believe the former is key here. Because, believe it or not, I have now watched Season 4 in its entirety four times. And each time, it more and more dawned on me just what creator Mitch Hurwitz and co. were doing here, and how ultimately successful they were at doing it.
And I just want to point out that my rewatches of the series weren’t a purposeful act to try and like the season more: in fact, it was entirely coincidental. I have shared this show with many different family and friend groups over the years, and thus ended up going through Season 4 with all of them at different points in the last half-decade. And the first few times, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to do so, if we’re being honest: I remembered my initial viewing, and slightly dreaded going through the sixteen episode slog once more. But, hey, I”m a good friend/family member, and have nothing better to do than watch TV show’s multiple times, so here we are.
Anyways, at first I was wondering if my slow appreciation for the show through the various rewatches was just my brain trying to make me enjoy something that I felt obligated to do: a form of television Stockholm Syndrome, if you would. But by the time I was through my third rewatch, I realized that was not the answer — no, I was generally starting to enjoy and love more about what the season was doing and, most importantly, how it was doing it. Watching the season multiple times cracked open new layers of the experience for me: new plot points and references and jokes that I missed the first few times going through it. Honestly, I started to become slightly in-awe at just how much the season contained: how Mitch Hurwitz and the writers stuffed the thing to the seams with things people would NEVER understand unless they watched the thing multiple times (or watched it edited in chronological order, I guess, which is probably a far easier option now.) The season is densely packed and plot-heavy, but my initial disdain for that grew into appreciation, once I got more used to its new, different structure. It’s really quite a marvel to behold when you lay it all out, and I simply can’t fathom how the writers could keep track of all the madness. I can’t think of any other piece of television put together quite like Arrested Development Season 4, and once you really connect to its wave-length, it becomes much easier to appreciate such a different, complex form…especially when you realize such a form was essential to the overall story that the season was trying to tell.
Because, make no mistake: this is indeed one of those Netflix shows that probably works better as a whole, and is telling one of those gigantic overarching narratives rather than a bunch of episodic mini-arcs. Back in 2013, that was new and weird. Now, this “like a [blank] hour movie!” form of television writing is predominant in the industry, for better or for worse. What’s great about the initial format of Arrested Development Season 4, though (before the remix came and presented an alternate, more conventional take) was how the season served as a bridge between the concept of a season-long, serialized narrative and episodic, more “focused” stories. They did that by focusing every episode on a different member of the Bluth clan, showing what transpired in their lives in the six-year gap since we last saw them. These installments tell individual stories about the characters that just so happen to criss-cross with the other members of the cast…sometimes in ways that aren’t even obvious until further down the season (or even until the end of it.)
This character focus helped ground the narrative a little, sure, and were certainly helpful when it came to production (the aforementioned difficulty of getting the cast certainly played a hand in the decision, yes), but it also established upfront just what the new, revived season of Arrested Development would be: a character study. And a dark as hell one at that.
Because, as I realized by the end of my third rewatch, Arrested Development Season 4 had a very specific goal in mind. As put pretty bluntly by my friend after the (fantastic) final shot of the season “wow, things really went bad for everyone, didn’t they?” Yes, unnamed friend: they really, truly did. Which was entirely the point. The original three seasons set up the Bluths as the world’s most dysfunctional family, the kind that brought each other down by just being in the same orbit. At the center of this orbit was one Michael Bluth, who at every turned tried to escape the company of his relatives (which in and of itself became something of a running gag), only to be pulled back into their bullshit once more. By the time Season 4 picks up, all of them are rather tired of each other and, for various reasons (scheduling or otherwise), they all go their separate ways. Maybe not under the same prism, the Bluths could be better?
Nope. As the story unfolded, it became quite clear that, even as bad as they are, they are far worst apart than separate. Without each other in their lives, the Bluths become the absolute worst versions of themselves.
- Michael became the one thing he dreaded the most: a full-on Bluth. He became just as conniving and deceitful as the rest of them, in a move that, well frustrating to some fans, I would argue was the inevitable place for the character to end up (and Jason Bateman makes such a meal out of it, doesn’t he?)
- Lindsay becomes a literal and figurative whore, selling herself out to a conservative candidate she should, in theory, hate.
- GOB becomes a confused mess of a man, drugging himself out in an endless circle of roofies just to forget the constant shame he endures on a daily basis.
- Buster, separated from his mother and on his own, becomes a literal monster under Army’s trickery (and a likely murder suspect too, if the final sequence is any indication.)
- George Sr. loses his confidence and swagger, becoming a weak shell of his former self (and the spitting image of his pathetic brother to boot!)
- Lucille loses the power structure and influence she always craved, the family matriarch without a family to lord over.
- Maeby suffers the worst Arrested Development (hey, that’s the name of the show!) of them all, going from the girl who always acted above her age to the one literally still living as a child, stuck in place and unsure how to grow…oh and also accidentally committing statutory rape, which is pretty fucking dark.
- Tobias is a registered sex offender, which is pretty dark but also quite funny, let’s be real here.
- And George Michael, the “good one,” fully commits to his families influence, staging a multi-million dollar lie just to impress his cousin, having sex with the same woman as his father, and ending the season punching him in the face, pretty much shattering the relationship.
Yeah, this all seems pretty bad, and truly takes the Bluth to their lowest level…which is kind of great, if the show is trying to form something of a series-long narrative here. In a way, Arrested Development Season 4 is the Empire Strikes Back of this wacky comedy series. And, like Empire Strikes Back (or, for all you young-uns out there, The Last Jedi), the story required its main set of characters to go their own separate ways in order to grow and change. That’s exactly what happened over the course of season 4, and I really appreciate how far Hurwitz and his writers were willing to take things to get to the next stage of their character’s evolution.
Which, of course, is an interesting thing for a show like Arrested Development. Being a sitcom, it has no reason to change, or develop. It could have just kept doing the same thing, and crafted a Season 4 that simply tried to ape the success of its past with funny, extremely well-written episodes about the wacky Bluth family. But, instead, the writers tried something new, and unique, and rather bold. It was bound to not work for some people, and the growing pains in the new approach were evident. But at the end of the day, I truly feel like Arrested Development Season 4 accomplished what it set out to do, and did it in a way that was extremely well-written, impressive in scope, and not lacking in ambition. It also led to some big mistakes here and there, ones that stood out more astutely the first couple of times through.
But though other’s opinions of the season might have dimmed in the years since, I’ve only become more and more fond of the Bluth’s families senior year of episodes. It really does grow on you the more familiar you get with it, and I highly recommend those who were initially disappointed with the stretch of episodes to give it another look, because there’s a lot to love in this crazy, messy, delightful story.
…Such as the fact that it’s often times REALLY funny. I went thousands of words without really giving the show’s humor (you know, the reason you ostensibly watch a comedy TV series) the time of day, but I also believe the season is A LOT funnier than history gives it credit for. The season is jam-packed with amazing gags and lines that can go toe-to-toe with any of the jokes from the first three seasons, if you ask me. Hot mess, “Sounds of Silence,” the conversation about tipping black people, George Sr.’s amazing hat monologue, the pre-Trump wall gags, the amazing Fake-Block storyline, all the Hollywood in-jokes, “Have you ever even been on a plane you piece of shit,” “Daddy needs to get his rocks off!,ANUS TART, The Cute Test, The Pack First, No Talking After Scenario, all the Ann jokes…I’m going to stop now, but I think I’ve made my point. Arrested Development Season 4 is damn funny.
But the fact it also has a lot more going for it too really makes it something special. Maybe not as special as the first three season (although, hot take, I actually think I like it better than the third season), but special nonetheless. Although I’m in the minority, I would be very happy if Arrested Develoment Season 5 manages to match it in quality, and serve as something of a narrative follow-up to just what transpired here. That’s what seemed to be the narrative intent of Season 4 (showing the family slowly coming apart, before being put back together again), but who knows how Hurwitz plans to present the next chapter of this story. We shall find out when the new season hits Netflix tomorrow. Until then…
Also published on Medium.
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