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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Downton Abbey: S05E02

1. So in case you were wondering, this was the most exciting thing that happened in this episode, for both the audience and the characters:



Seriously, it was staged as the climax and everything.

2. Elsewhere, Mary mortifies Anna by asking her to buy contraceptives for her. Still, that was an interesting little scene. Anna nervously asks for a lady to serve her, the woman behind the counter is quietly judgmental, Anna fibs that she has health problems, and is later disgruntled on behalf of hypothetical housewives everywhere who may not want to live their lives knee-deep in children.

Say what you will about Fellowes, but he does have an eye for woman’s issues that many other writers wouldn’t even know about, let alone address.  

3. Mrs Hughes continues to be the most intelligent person in the house, picking up on the meaning of the baby picture concealed under Edith’s pillow, and connecting the dots when the policeman comes calling to ask questions about Mr Green.

4. Does Robert ever stop complaining? Ever? And once again Fellowes bails him out of having to make any sort of meaningful sacrifice by letting him keep his cricket pitch.

5. The funny thing is I suspect that Fellowes is deliberately writing Robert as an ass in order to make the audience root for Sarah Bunting, who isn’t afraid to stand up to him. Which leads me to believe that Fellowes clearly doesn’t understand the nuances of shipping.


But I’m still in Sarah Bunting’s corner. I like that she agrees to help Daisy with her mathematics (and proves herself a good teacher) that she’s incredibly insightful when it comes to Sybil. Like it or not, all her conjecture on the late Mrs Branson was accurate.

6. So long Jimmy. You were pretty pointless in the end.

7. I still don’t care about Mary’s love triangle. I’d much rather see her in her role as a mother, or in her financial dealings alongside Tom regarding the estate. Heck, even squabbling with Edith is preferable to this!

That said, my money’s on Blake in the long run. You don’t have a man make that sort of speech without planning on bringing him back in some capacity.

8. As much as I’m interested in Edith and Marigold’s plot, I smell contrivance on the horizon. Why would Mr Drewe’s decide to keep his wife in the dark? She’s raising that child as her own and seems genuinely concerned that the lady of the house will lose interest in her little “doll”. Tell her the truth, and all will be well.

9. Nice little moment of compassion between Anna and Thomas – though honestly Thomas, if you want people to like you, then maybe stop threatening them at every turn?

10. Richard E. Grant! Always nice to see him, and he even gets to flirt a little with Cora.


11. As dull as the debate on the war memorial was, at least Fellowes took the time in establishing both points of view. Do they locate it in the centre of town where it will stand as a daily reminder, or do they place it in a quiet location in order to encourage peace and reflection? It felt like a genuine issue that would have been debated in the interwar years.

12. Random question – have Violet and Mrs Hughes ever interacted? I’m wracking my brains and nothing is coming to mind. I suppose I’m only wondering because next week Violet is going to get up in arms about Mary’s incandescent affair, whilst Mrs Hughes seems to be on the fast track to figuring out what’s up with Edith. If they ever teamed up they’d be unstoppable.

13. As snarky as I was about the wireless scene, there were some real gems: a) Daisy confused that it was called a wireless when it was filled with wires, b) Mrs Patmore concerned that the King might be able to hear them, and c) Violet standing when she heard the King’s voice. Priceless!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Doctor Who: The Caretaker

This was a fun little episode, nothing hugely important (sans Danny finding out about the Doctor and Clara’s double life) and I suspect one that was specifically designed to be the “money-saver episode.” Which means little to no time travel, limited special effects, and Coal Hill School as the predominant setting.

Which is fine by me. Sometimes Bottle Episodes end up being the very best a show has to offer, relying as they do on the imagination and creativity of writers to work with limited tools against the usual high expectations.
1. As I’ve mentioned previously, I like the balance of real life and crazy adventure portrayed in this season, and this episode only ramped that up. The opening montage with Clara flitting from life or death situations with the Doctor to her pleasant boyfriend and ho-hum life perfectly captured this bizarre juxtaposition.


That said, I do wonder what sort of psychological/physical effect this would really have on a person. I imagine it would play havoc with your circadian rhythms (no I won’t tell you – look it up).

2. “The mistake of a lot of clever men – thinking everyone else is stupid.” Great line, and almost certainly nicked from Douglas Adams.

3.  Starting with the Doctor introducing himself to the staff as John Smith, there was a lot of fun continuity strewn throughout this episode, not just in the setting (even I know that way back in the 1960s, Coal Hill School was an important locale) but in several other ticks and gestures – name-dropping River, for example.

Mostly however, it was reminiscent in tone to the Russell Davies era, in which a certain amount of emphasis was always put on the citizens of Earth and their average, everyday lives. Kids skipping school. Parents lining up for parent/teacher night. Young people going on dates. This sort of thing is seldom seen in a Moffat-era episode, where the Doctor’s adventures are either so far-flung that they’re irrelevant to Earth, or kept in a narrative bubble so they don’t impinge on normal life.

4. Clara may never be a fully-realized character, and certainly never one of the most beloved Companions of the show, but there is one thing that has been established and consistent right from the start: her rapport with children. That her first question on hearing about the danger was: “Are the kids safe?” was a lovely moment for her.

5. The most interesting thing about this week’s monster was its name: Skovox Blitzer. (Seriously, say it out loud; it’s fun). But that’s fine. It served its purpose, had a nifty design (props to the props department for those spidery robot legs) and plugged into the general theme of soldier antipathy that’s been running through this season.

6. I’ll admit, I found it both funny and pitch-perfect that the egotism of the Doctor would OF COURSE lead to him assuming that the bowtie-wearing teacher would be the one she’s romantically interested in.

7. Peter Capaldi is just knocking it out of the park. There are so many interesting nuances that he adds to the character; so many layers and details and unexpected readings.

My favourite would have to be when he’s in the background of Clara’s shot in the Tardis and tells her to go “canoodle with your boyfriend”. He’s watching her carefully, and the moment she turns to face him he quickly straightens up. Okay, it doesn’t sound that impressive written down, but let me hone my newfound GIF-making abilities:


Yes, I partly bring this up as an excuse to demonstrate that I can make a GIF now. But I also think that it’s a great bit of character acting.

8. Clara tries to pass off the alien attack as an elaborate play – clearly someone’s been watching Monsters INC.

9. What I find interesting about the title of this episode (beyond the fact that The Caretaker is also a trope) is that in any other season – and with any other Doctor – it would have a double meaning. That is, it wouldn’t be the name of a job, but a reference to the Doctor’s personality. He takes care of people.

Here, however? The Caretaker is just a job for the Doctor, a role he has to play while he’s busy saving the universe, and not one that he particularly enjoys. It references his undercover job and his attitude toward it. Another Doctor might have described his capture of a dangerous alien as “a bit boring, I’ll need a book and a sandwich”, but none of them would have sounded quite so disgusted with it all.

10. But this episode really belonged to Danny. All unlikely flips aside (honest question: is it really possible to leap that high without some sort of vault?), his character manages to stand up to the Doctor and get some fairly pertinent remarks in. I suppose I’ll also have to hand-wave the remarkable nonchalance with which Danny accepts the reality of alien life and space travel in order to focus on his girlfriend’s needs, but this is the second time in as many weeks that someone has had the chance to cross-examine (however briefly) the Doctor.


With Psi it was in suggesting that the moniker of “the Doctor” comes from his professional detachment, and here Danny characterizes him as an officer – something that’s not too far off the mark when he defeats the Skovox Blitzer by impersonating its superior general and giving it orders to self-destruct.

Fingers crossed that they’ll get to interact more in future episodes.

11. Another glimpse of Missy and the afterlife, though I’m still not sure what to make of it all. I suppose the plus side is that even if this plot-arc fizzles, at least it’s not taking up too much space.

Still, it would appear that something has upset our quasi-Mary Poppins this time around. Something that happened in the episode itself?

12. I’m not sure what’s more annoying – when a woman asks a man: “what are you thinking?” or when men talk over a woman’s head about “deserving her” without giving her any input in the discussion. Whether a man “deserves” Clara or not is entirely up to her.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Trailer: The Legend of Korra

The strangeness of The Legend of Korra’s airing schedule continues, as Book Four: Balance is apparently all set to run in a matter of weeks. But who am I to complain?



According to the titles we’re skipping forward three years, which makes the final shot of Book Three all the more painful considering Korra has presumably been grappling with PTSD for some time. But it looks as though she’s ready to lop off her locks and get back in the game. Short haired heroine? Fantastic.

All the people who thought that Kuvira’s Last Episode New Character introduction at the end of Book Three was a little too blatant to be a coincidence were on the money, as she’s all over this trailer. And not as one of the good guys, or so it would seem.

In regards to the colour palette, there was plenty of green and yellow, which suggests that a lot of the action is going to take place in the Earth Kingdom. Hopefully they’ll continue to explore the political turmoil left in the wake of the Earth Queen’s death.

Calling it now – the young-ish woman sitting between Zuko and President Raiko is the current Fire Lady and Zuko’s daughter Honora. She’s definitely Mai’s daughter; just look at that chin!

Pretty light on Mako, Bolin and Asami.

I spotted Kai, Opal and Tenzin’s kids sporting brand new flying-squirrel outfits, which will no doubt allow for a lot of fun new bending techniques.

Varrick!

And of course, that final scene – Korra in a cave, looking on in amazement and exclaiming: “Toph!” Call me a killjoy, but this type of fan-baiting has always got on my nerves. The best part about Iroh’s surprise visit in the spirit world was that it was a surprise, and using the name “Toph” as a climactic reveal reminds me a bit of the ship-teasing they did in the final trailer for Avatar: The Last Airbender. Plus I’ve always had a couple of issues with the characters from the previous series popping up in this one – but that’s another rant.

And it’s the final season! It may have gotten off to a shaky start, but I’ve really grown fond of these characters and it’ll be sad to see them go. (But then, I might get my longed-for “Lives of the Previous Avatars” show that I’ve been dreaming about since the end of The Last Airbender).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: The Grisha Trilogy

 

Before reading a word of Leigh Bardugo’s The Grisha trilogy (comprised of Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising), I was left bemused by the endorsement from Stylist Magazine that was blazoned across the cover of the second instalment:

A New York Times bestseller, it’s like The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter meets Twilight meets Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones; basically epic magical fantasy but completely for grown-ups.

Wow, that’s... quite a list of comparisons. Technically all those books fall within the very broad spectrum of the fantasy genre, but to use them all at once is rather like comparing a meal of lamb chops to beef, bacon and venison. I mean, they’re all meat, right?

But just for the sake of it, let’s sift through Stylist’s chosen comparisons (and add a few more).

Sleepy Hollow: This Is War

This is up a lot later than I would have liked, but hey – better late than never.


Quick comment on this promotional poster. The stance of each character says so much about who they are and how they relate to one another: Ichabod and Abbie in the foreground, Henry lurking ominously between them, and Jenny/Katrina standing behind their respective family members. Only Jenny looks like she means business with her crossed arms, but Katrina has a much more vulnerable stance, which pretty much sums up their activities in this episode.

And Irving...? Well, he’s just casually waiting for his turn.

So, Sleepy Hollow. It’s back!

What you have to understand is that I’ve spent this last week watching Penny Dreadful, an atmospheric horror series that takes its time when it comes to setting up the characters, drawing out suspense, and exploring its surroundings. It’s a show that will linger on a held gaze between two characters, giving the audience time to question what’s really going on inside their heads, and where the sight of a woman walking slowly along a beach manages to be just as enthralling as an action-packed gunfight with vampires.

By comparison, it felt as though Sleepy Hollow was screaming non-stop at the top of its lungs at me for forty-five minutes. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but right on the heels of Penny Dreadful? Yeah, it was quite jarring, and more than a little exhausting.

But I’m going to try and recap this episode on its own merits, even though half the time I was silently begging for it to slow down. We all know where last season left off: with Ichabod buried beneath the four white trees, Abbie trapped in Purgatory, Jenny injured in a car accident and Katrina carried off by the Headless Horseman.

And yet this episode opened a year later – or so the exposition tells us – in which Abbie throws a surprise party (of one) for Ichabod’s birthday. Both express sorrow that their wife/sister were killed (huh??) before they’re called to the Sheriff’s department and the headless bodies that await them.

Aw yeah.

But there are little hints here and there that something is wrong. The cabin door blows open of its own volition. The candle on the cupcake reignites itself. The roots of a miniature tree on the desk curl over the side of its pot. Ichabod keeps getting out of breath.

Yup, it’s an illusion. But it had you going there for a while, didn’t it. This sequence served a number of purposes, first to re-establish the rapport between our two Witnesses, second as a fake-out to play with the audience’s minds, and thirdly to introduce this episode’s plot. It turns out the illusion was the work of Henry... Jeremy...War (what exactly are we calling him now?) who set up the whole thing in order to find the location of this week’s McGuffin.

It’s the Ghenna Key, a device that provides a loophole to that pesky law that states a soul cannot leave Purgatory without another one taking their place. And get this – it was the key that Benjamin Franklin flew in the storm, not as part of his electricity experiments, but in an attempt to destroy it with lightening. As it happens, the key is good news for busting Abbie out of Purgatory, but in Moloch’s hands it will allow him to enter the world with his undead army.

Wow, you’d think it would have come up before this.

Abbie realizes that Jenny was once sent by Corbin to Philadelphia to fetch a notebook that had a sketch of the key inside it (or something – it’s not like it really matters), and by doing so gives Henry the information he requires.

On the basis of absolutely nothing (I can only speculate that the secret was out and so Henry saw no further need to maintain the illusion) Ichabod begins to question the events of the past year, and the Witnesses realize that they remember no significant details. Cat’s out of the bag, the illusion crumbles, and they find themselves back where the finale left them.

Henry and the Hessians retrieve Jenny’s unconscious body from the wreck of her car (or so we assume) and after the requisite attempt at undermining her importance and relationship to her sister, Henry delves into Jenny’s brain and retrieves the information he wants. Evil chuckle, ominous orders to the Hessian, snappy one-liner, end scene!

Whew, I’m already exhausted.

Ichabod wakes up in his coffin and retrieves Abbie’s cell-phone – you know, the one she gave him in last season’s finale, the one that we all knew would play a crucial role in his escape, the device that would lead to a perfect full-circle scene in which his mastery of the new-fangled modern technology he hated so much would end up saving his life and also plug into the show’s wonderful old-meets-new aesthetic that was established in the very first episode when the Horseman started toting that machine gun?

Yeah, no. Turns out Abbie’s gift was a Chekhov’s Misfire, and instead he McGyvers his way out of the ground using – does it really matter?

"Don't thank me, thank the soil's silver deposits."

Meanwhile, powerful witch and Quaker spy Katrina Crane is being held at the Horseman’s bachelor pad, completely stymied by bonds that don’t even secure her to the chair.

Know what I'd do in this situation? Stand up.

I don’t know what’s going on here. I don’t understand how a show that created Abbie and Jenny Mills also came up with Katrina. I don’t know why she’s not using her witch powers, and I definitely don’t know why she’s not smart enough to pull a Decoy Damsel to put the Horseman off his guard. C’mon, that’s the oldest trick in the book!

Everything that happens in these scenes is the straightest example of damsel in distress I’ve seen in a long time, and though I suppose we should give her credit for stabbing the Horseman in the hand with his own knife, it got her exactly three steps before she was dragged back to her seat by the hair.  

And the thing is, I don’t hate Katrina. I don’t even think fandom hates Katrina. It’s quite astonishing really, that a character who ticks all the usual boxes for “reasons we hate this female character,” up to and including “threat to my OTP” is actually discussed with exasperation rather than salivating hatred.

And the really annoying thing? That this episode (almost accidentally) demonstrates that Katrina must be a badass, considering the only way to communicate with those outside of Purgatory is to use Moloch's mirror. EVERY time she appeared to Ichabod and Abbie was because she had crept into Moloch’s cave and used his own device against him. And not only does that happen entirely off screen, but there’s no opportunity in the narrative to give her any credit for it.


On the plus side? This is the best her hair has ever looked.

Speaking of Purgatory, that’s where Abbie is still trapped, though I’m not entirely sure how she got out of that giant dollhouse. This would have to be my second disappointment of the episode, since I was pretty certain that her escape would hinge on a) the fact that no one can leave Purgatory without being forgiven (established in the final episode of the last season) and b) the presence of younger Jenny. My theory was that these two factors would allow Abbie to find her own loophole out of Purgatory, by having her sister forgive her for the lies she told when they first saw Moloch as teenagers (because hey – it’s not like that dollhouse wasn’t the perfect setting for that), but nope – magical key it is.

This is the problem with long hiatuses – you become too attached to your own elaborate theories.

But hey, at least this way we get a coda for John Cho’s character that doesn’t involve him as a giant bug-man. He tells her about Moloch’s mirror and how it can be used to communicate with the outside world. Which on the one hand, nicely explains all the mirror-action that we saw in the first season, but on the other, kind of robs those scenes of their inherent spookiness. But Andy gets to reaffirm his humanity and his capacity for free will before disappearing, probably for good – see you on Selfie, I guess.

Meanwhile, Jenny is busting her way out of the storage warehouse in a way that only doubles my second-hand embarrassment for Katrina, when Ichabod busts through the wall in an ambulance. So I guess that cell-phone did get a purpose after all. Plus, there’s this reaction shot, which can go in the “stills that perfectly capture the nature of this show” pile:


The show sadly skips the chance to depict even a second of the surreal contrast between the normal routine of Sleepy Hollow and the frenetic panic of Ichabod and Jenny as they scrabble to find a way to free Abbie, but after Ichabod recalls a random comment from Benjamin Franklin and decodes a message that was written in his alphabet (oh show), they realize the key is buried – you know what, nobody even cares. By this point the writers know that however nonsensical their plots get, we’re going to keep tuning in for this:


I mean – they went for the hug straight away. There was no hesitation or posturing or... oh dear, something in my eye...

Back in the Horseman’s Love Shack nothing much is going on except for what might possibly be the most gut-bustingly, tear-inducing, funniest moment in this show’s history, all the more so because I honestly don’t know what the actor/writers/director were going for. We can only speculate as to the motivations behind this:

"Is she checking me out? Is she? I can't tell, I don't have a head."

Oh god, I can’t... I don’t even know... what is happening here? I can only suppose it’s Headless’s genuine attempt to get Katrina’s attention, because a moment later he comes out with his best suit on and gives Katrina that emerald from that flashback from last season. You know the one. Now she can see Abraham’s head, and round two of “why don’t you love me?” begins.

Okay, let me catch my breath.

Ichabod and Jenny arrive at the ley lines where they can reach Purgatory, Ichabod gets a hug before he goes (aww), Abbie scrambles around for Katrina’s amulet, Ichabod arrives and offers her water – but wait! Turns out that he’s a fake and the two Ichabods attack each other while Abbie looks on in blurry-cam because that’s a great way of saving money on the FX that would otherwise be required in having Tom Mison fight himself.

Director: "Nailed it."

One Ichabod grabs the key and rushes to Abbie, but all that repetition of “LEFT-tenant” that’s been strewn throughout this episode pays off when Fake!Ichabod calls Abbie “lieutenant” and she promptly cuts his head off with a sword. Wow. That’s both hardcore and thematically appropriate.  

The real Ichabod runs up and they fist-pump, which was much more rewarding the second time around since Abbie adds a little “pow” to the end and the first time I watched this I was momentarily terrified that Ichabod would think she was a fake and cut her head off.

He doesn’t, so it’s all good. The two of them repeat the incantation, and are thrown back into the normal world just before Moloch catches up to them. The indestructible key disintegrates, because what lightening can’t do, a non-existent breeze can I guess, but the sheer unlikelihood of this is quickly forgiven because here comes Jenny for more hugs! It’s why we all tuned in. 

Back at the cabin we get the wrap-up: the team is back together and they stopped End of Days, which is a job well done, Ichabod’s wife is a captive of the Horseman and Ichabod’s son is pure evil, which he's vaguely concerned about, and there’s still no update on Irving, Macey and Morales, which I guess is next week’s plot – but at least Ichabod and the Mills sisters are primed and ready for it.

But wait! There’s a final coda involving a surprisingly understanding Moloch giving Henry a spiffy new suit of armour with a flaming sword. The music tells me that this is a lot more horrific than it looks, so I'll reserve judgment for next week.

Miscellaneous Observations:

As much as people enjoyed the opening fake-out, my main gripe is that it was filled with too much exposition. Every word out of Ichabod and Abbie’s mouths seemed to be explanations or updates of some kind. I mean, honestly. “We’re still in Purgatory.” “It’s all a trick!” “The illusion has been shattered.” YES WE KNOW. Again, I think I’ve been recently spoiled by Penny Dreadful, which felt absolutely no compunction to explain anything to the audience, but at the same time there was some pretty clunky dialogue here.

In fact, this premiere felt very much a Sleepy Hollow checklist of things to cover. Banter between our two leads? Check. An American revolutionary who was aware of the forces of evil? Check. At least twenty scenes of Ichabod being irritated by modern technology? Check. Katrina being useless? Check. It’s not that any of those things are unwelcome (except the last) but in this case it felt a bit artificial, like the writers wanted to write a “quintessential Sleepy Hollow episode” and ended up with facsimile of one instead.

But the chemistry between Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie remains intact, and amidst all the hugs and smiles and declarations of devotion that were strewn throughout this episode, I think my favourite moment would have to be their desperation as they were being dragged away from each other, back into their separate Purgatories, but still yelling plans and promises to each other as the illusion shattered.

So Henry is a Sin Eater? I thought that whole story was just a ruse to get Ichabod to trust him, but apparently he does have some kind of ability to read the truth in people’s minds. Which has nothing whatsoever to do with sin, but – whatever. He’s psychic.

Will Katrina’s amulet have some further significance? There seemed to be an odd amount of emphasis on Abbie searching for it.  

So, Sleepy Hollow is back. Honestly, this episode felt a little slipshod to me, and I wouldn't have minded more of a gradual reunion between our leads (the Ghenna Key was a total cheat), but at the same time the writers know that their audience is predominantly here for hugs and banter between our main cast.  So who am I to complain? I'm settling in for season two.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Downton Abbey: S05E01

Ah, Downton Abbey. Yes, I’m still here. 

1. Apparently this was the lowest rated premiere of Downton Abbey, and people are lining up to explain the reasons why. Personally, I think that with the deaths of Sybil and Matthew, some of the glue holding it all together has undone. The heart of the show was always Mary/Matthew’s courtship, the holy trinity of the Crawley sisters, and Lady Violet. We’re down to only one of those, and what's left over isn’t particularly interesting.

2. Despite being used as Julian Fellowes’ personal punching bag, I think that Edith’s storyline holds a lot of potential. Seeing her daughter being raised by farmhands, within cycling distance yet forever out of reach, is an intriguing storyline, especially when she has to see her niece and nephew raised in the lap of luxury amongst loving parents and doting grandparents.

I may hate the way the way Fellowes got to this point, but now that it’s here, this is probably the most interesting storyline of the new season. Although – Marigold? Who on earth picked that name?

2. My new favourite character would have to be Mr Drewe, who has figured out Edith’s secret and non-judgmentally decides to help her “live the truth without telling the truth.” The way he tapped his thumbs together as his wife was speculating on Marigold’s parentage was a nifty bit of background acting.

3. Speaking of babies – George and Sybbie are all grown up! Or at least much older than I expected. Though clearly not old enough to hone any non-existent acting skills. Are these the faces of children that have been woken from sleep and whisked through a burning building while everyone shouts and screams around them?


No they are not. But ten points to Allen Leech.

4. Violet and Isabel – the greatest friendship of all time. Seriously, it’s the gradual coming together of these two women that has formed my own personal backbone of the show. If they were young white males, fandom would be all over them. But they’re not, and that’s what makes it so awesome.

5. Another great pairing is Mosely and Baxter, either as an unexpected friendship or a potential ship. Baxter is the one unequivocal addition to the cast that’s been successful (remember Ivy? Me neither) and Raquel Cassidy has a tragic bearing and vulnerability that makes me forgive the fact that she’s yet another convicted felon working at Downton.


6. How on earth can Violet stand to have Spratt in her house? It’s not that he’s insubordinate, it’s that at any moment I’m afraid he’ll grab a butter knife and gouge someone’s eye out with it.


Terrifying.

7. We’re well into stunt casting, but if it means seeing Harriet Walter and Anna Chancellor, then who am I to complain? Anna gets a more comedic role after completely flooring me on Penny Dreadful last night, though deep down she’ll always be Miss Bingley to me.



And oh look, Richard E. Grant next week!

8. Bates would be so much more interesting if he was secretly a psychopath.

9. I said it last season and I’ll say it again – I like Sarah Bunting, mainly because fandom’s hate-on for her is so hilariously over-the-top. Was she a bit rude? Sure, but apparently speaking back to Lord Grantham (a character that everyone wants to see taken down a peg) becomes tantamount to shooting a puppy when Sarah Bunting does it.

Evil incarnate a.k.a. not the girl that fandom ships with Branson

And she may well end up teaching Daisy mathematics, so I’m looking forward to seeing how fandom tries to work the “she’s just a love interest!” angle.

10. Cora figures out that Thomas has probably been blackmailing Baxter. I’m astonished – this is the first time in forever that she’s actually put two-and-two together and figured something that’s happening right under her nose. Of course, that’s all brushed aside sixty seconds later, but it was nice while it lasted.

11. Luckily for him a convenient house fire starts in order to keep him in the family’s good books. I suppose we should just be grateful he didn’t start it.

12. So why the drop in figures? Downton Abbey has always been an ensemble cast, but now it feels stretched too thin over too many characters that we don’t care about. Fellowes has run out of material for the likes of Mary, Bates, Anna, Thomas and Cora. Matthew and Sybil are gone. Rose and Jimmy don’t interest me. Alfred and Ivy were introduced, only to be ushered out again without doing anything.

Portrait of a sad gay evil footman.

And there are others at Downton who no longer have any reason to be there. Thomas and Branson and Daisy seem like the kind of people who would have moved on by now, and the new characters just aren’t as interesting. Seriously, I’ve no idea how Mary even tells Blake and Gillingham apart, and I’d rather see Mary and Branson act as parents and siblings-in-law than tangled up with new romantic partners.

I enjoy this show as period fluff, but that’s about it by this stage.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sleepy Hollow: The Indispensible Man and Bad Blood

So as season finales go, I thought this was a pretty rewarding finish, with the requisite big twist and agonising cliff-hanger. When I first started watching this show, I was heavily reminded of Pan’s Labyrinth (one of my favourite movies) in regards to its atmosphere and dark fairytale trappings, and for the first time since the show’s inception, that feeling returned.

Okay, so the plot was all over the place for these two episodes. Let’s see if I’ve got this right. It transpires that after his death George Washington was temporarily resurrected, during which time he charted a map to Purgatory (his “in-between” state making this possible). Knowing that our Witnesses are growing closer to discovering the existence of this map, Moloch wants to get his hands on it before they do – or so they assume.

With knowledge of the map recorded in George Washington’s Bible (thus explaining why Katrina buried it with Ichabod), Abbie and Ichabod discover that Washington’s resurrection was overseen by Reverend Nap (last seen getting beheaded in the premiere) with the help of some prayer beads. Their plan is to find the beads, get Henry Parish to handle them, and hopefully get some idea of where the map might be hidden.

This he does, getting a vision of Reverend Nap taking Washington’s body to an island grave, though by this point Abbie believes that it might be a better idea to leave the map where it is, arguing that their difficulty in getting past the hex on the prayer beads means that Reverent Nap never meant for it to be found.

This time around, the moral quandary centres on whether or not our Witnesses should bring to light a potentially world-devastating document. For Ichabod, the map means a chance to rescue Katrina, for Abbie, it’s a reminder of the dire prophesy that states the Witnesses might one day turn on each other. She spells it out pretty succinctly: the greater good, or the life of a single loved one? It’s a choice no one likes to make, and she goes on to compare the map to a nuclear bomb – perhaps safe enough when in the keeping of the good guys, but utterly devastating in the wrong ones. Yet as a Parish is quick to point out (rather too quick, as the power of hindsight reveals), in the “right” hands nuclear weapons ended WWII.

There’s an interesting contrast throughout the episode between Andy, who seems to be genuinely trying to help Abbie though he isn’t even remotely trusted, and Henry Parish, who is trusted, but (as it turns out) also secretly working against them. With his last gasp of humanity, Andy begs Abbie to destroy the map, whilst Parish is visibly distraught when Ichabod ranks Abbie’s trust in him over his desire to be with his wife, and destroys the map to Purgatory.

But of course, this desire eventually gets the better of him, and in the episode’s last few moments he uses his photographic memory (I’d almost forgotten about it!) to redraw the map. It’s a moment of weakness on his part, but what makes it frustrating on a Doylist level is that it would be an understandable and interesting failing were it not for the fact that Ichabod/Katrina just ain’t working. We’re told that they have a deep and pure love, usually through Ichabod waxing lyrically to himself, but there’s been nothing in their brief interactions or their flashbacks together that show us this. And that’s a shame, because the moral dilemma and emotional resonance of whether or not to break one’s beloved out of Purgatory could have been an extremely powerful storyline if we’d actually been given a reason to care about the relationship that’s at stake.

In other words, I can understand Ichabod’s pain, but I can’t feel it, and I can’t seriously ponder whether Katrina is worth risking the world for since I have no understanding of who she is. Compare this to – say – Abbie or Jenny or Macey’s life hanging in the balance. Now you’ve got a character whose wellbeing is important enough to risk the possibility of a demon bringing forth the apocalypse.

Meanwhile, the episode’s subplot deals with Captain Irving grappling with the aftermath of Macey’s possession in Vessel. Though I’m pleased that this actually has continuity in regards to there being real-life consequences to the deaths of two people (a lesser show would have forgotten them entirely), it did ring a bit false when Irving decided to take the fall for Macey. Dude, no one is going to pin the brutal murders of two grown men on your wheel-chair bound thirteen year old. Just ride this one out. No need to fall on your sword to that extent.

***

And now we come to the grand finale, and Parish’s master-plan is kicked into gear. Having won the trust of the Witnesses, he rushes to their side with news of a dream he’s just had: of the Horseman of War rising from the earth and riding under a solar eclipse. With a little nudging from Parish, Ichabod and Abbie come to the conclusion that the only way to stop the Horseman is to get a witch to place a binding spell over his grave – thus they need to use the map to get into Purgatory and free Katrina. The good guys get a witch, Ichabod gets his wife. Two birds, one stone. But of course, it’s never that simple.

It’s at this point that the allusions to Pan’s Labyrinth began to kick in, as Ichabod and Abbie’s excursion into Purgatory relied very heavily on the laws of fairytales rather than those of Biblical lore. Filled with eldritch abominations (my favourite was the faceless woman crying in the chair, or maybe the guy dragging the giant key), the two are warned not to eat or drink anything (as Ofelia was told not eat the Pale Man’s banquet) and on reaching Katrina are told that she cannot leave unless someone else remains in her place (a trope that exists absolutely everywhere in fairytales – even Merlin and Once Upon a Time understand that all magic involves equilibrium).

So naturally it’s Abbie that decides to stay, leading to the controversial sticking-point of the episode. Doylistically, it is unfortunate that Abbie was made to sacrifice herself for the sake of Katrina (all the more so since she ended up being entirely useless), though on a Watsonian level, it’s made very clear by her dialogue throughout this episode and the previous one that her decision had less to do with saving the white damsel in distress as it did her desire to face Moloch on her own terms. She specifically tells Jenny that she wants to head into Purgatory and confront Moloch “for me.” And in her outburst to Ichabod in the church, she reiterates her argument of the previous episode: that the fate of humanity is greater than either of them. It wasn’t Katrina she was there to free, it was what Katrina was capable of (Katrina’s failure notwithstanding, but more on this in a bit).

It was also a nice twist on the “one Witness will betray the other/Ichabod will deliver Abbie’s soul to Moloch” prophecy, in which Abbie ultimately takes those words and OWNS them, making them come true through her own free will. I actually really love this. The golden rule of prophecy-making in fiction is that once uttered, they HAVE to come true, otherwise the reader feels cheated (*cough*Merlin*cough) and the show handled this one in a creative way that exemplifies Abbie’s bravery and resolve. Ironically (or perhaps purposefully), it was Parish who put this idea into her head, telling her that “prophesies have a nasty way of fulfilling themselves, if you let them.”

But as it turns out, our good guys were being played the whole time. They were tricked into trying to prevent something that had already happened, and in doing so fell into Moloch’s trap.

I had foreseen that Jeremy would end up being one of the Horsemen, but I was genuinely shocked that he also turned out to be Henry Parish. And rather saddened too, to tell the truth, as I liked this character and his rapport with Ichabod/Abbie. I didn’t realize how much until he revealed himself to his gobsmacked parents, though I suppose my feelings on the matter only prove that the show did its job right in setting us all up for the Big Twist. It’ll be interesting to go back and watch previous episodes with the power of hindsight, particularly the shared dream between Katrina/Abbie where we first heard of the Sin-Eater and glimpsed things like the golem and the coven. It all seems rife with foreshadowing now.

It also sheds some interesting light on Abbie and Jenny’s experience in the forest. After stumbling upon a doll’s house in Purgatory (another creepy fairytale-esque touch) Abbie meets the embodiment of the memory that was extracted from her mind on that fateful day. Turns out that Moloch wasn’t actually hunting her specifically, nor even talking to her when he said “come and see.” He was resurrecting Jeremy as the Horseman of War, and Abbie’s presence in the forest wasn’t part of his plan at all – apparently God made sure she was there in the hopes that she would prevent the Horseman from rising, though I’m not entirely sure what the Almighty intended a terrified teenage girl to do.

So it made for a disheartening finish, not only because of Parish’s betrayal, but because Abbie’s sacrifice was in vain – and in fact, exactly what Moloch was counting on. Abbie is stuck in Purgatory, Jenny is badly injured, Irving has been arrested, Katrina has been taken by the Headless Horseman, and Ichabod has been buried alive. All of them were played utterly (except maybe Jenny, but her intelligence didn’t reach Abbie in time) and evil well-and-truly has the upper hand. After a relatively light (comparatively speaking) series, in which various demons and witches are sent packing by the end of the forty-five minute mark, this was a decidedly bleak conclusion.

And yet I don’t feel depressed or upset by it – I’m excited that the stakes were raised and eager to watch our heroes break free and start fighting back. My theories? That Abbie’s cell-phone (that she gave Ichabod at the start of the episode) will assist him in calling for help, that the Headless Horseman (a.k.a. Abraham) actually has no idea that Katrina is a witch, thus giving her an edge in defeating him, and that Abbie’s escape from Purgatory will somehow rely on her being forgiven for her sins (the usual method of escaping Purgatory that Katrina originally mentioned).

Miscellaneous Observations:

So where’s Luke Morales? I’m assuming he’s still alive, but his fate remains ambiguous.

I thought we were promised some background regarding how Andy became Moloch’s servant? I was rather disappointed not to get it, as the character straddled an interesting line. I can’t help but suspect that some sort of inferiority complex is partly to blame, given his self-pitying demeanour, demands to be taken seriously, and desire for raw power, but he also seems legitimate in his affection for Abbie. Who thankfully is having NONE of his bullshit, while also maintaining a certain amount of pity for him.

Yolanda reference!

The fusion of Catholicism and witchcraft continues to be very strange. Let me get this straight... we have a warlock who is also a reverent, who uses prayer beads to resurrect the dead, resulting in said prayer beads becoming imbued with the sin of defying God. That also have a hex laid over them. That’s...a really weird bit of world-building.

Irving: “You might want to get a witness.” Heh. Cute.

That was beautifully foreboding music when Ichabod redrew the map.

I loved the shot of Reverent Nap transporting Washington’s body to the island. What with all the misty lakes and the autumnal New England atmosphere, it really is a beautiful show.

In time I’d like to learn how exactly George Washington knew about all this supernatural stuff; but wow – Zombie George Washington. That really takes the cake.

That was cute a cute interlude with the historical re-enactment, a funny little mashing of dreams/reality, and also rather poignant in portraying the way Katrina is always just out of Ichabod’s reach.

Jenny had an interesting line when she described: “Mum talking to the silverware.” Does that mean Mrs Mills had a mental illness, or was she also affected by the supernatural in some way?

Seeing all the insects swarm over Andy was a cool special-effect, though the alien larvae creature that he emerged as was a bit daft.

It was a sweet moment when Katrina gave Abbie the necklace to protect her, and though she failed epically when it came to binding a Horseman who wasn’t even there, the necklace did do its job in helping Abbie to escape by burning Moloch’s flesh.

I like that Sheriff Corbin and his amassing of information is still an integral part of Abbie and Jenny’s lives.

Hai, Victor Garber!

So what was the deal with Parish’s role as a Sin-Eater? Before Abbie and Ichabod met him, he was apparently going around helping convicts on death row. Doesn’t that constitute do-gooding? And what was Moloch thinking when he told the good guys about “the saint’s name is the sign”? If they’d figured that out in time, Parish’s plan would have been completely ruined. And c'mon, Headless! You ride off without even checking that Jenny is dead. You're the Horseman of DEATH for goodness sake! And what was the deal with Parish breaking the seal at the end? I know that it’s in Revelation, but it hasn’t been mentioned before and I can’t help but feel that there were more than a few confused viewers out there.

All in all, my favourite sequence would have to be when Ichabod and Abbie entered Purgatory. As said earlier, the whole thing harkened back to what I first liked about this show; the atmosphere of a dark modern fairytale in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth or Sandman, which got a bit forgotten in the midst of all the Biblical lore and American history. I loved all of it: describing Purgatory as “a maze of temptation” where one cannot take food or drink, that the doorway between worlds was a shattering mirror, that Sleepy Hollow is hallowed ground set upon ley-lines that make it fertile ground for a good versus evil conflict, the hand-holding and the fist-bump, the memories stored in the doll’s house, and the fabricated “dream sequences” in which Abbie and Ichabod are tested.

It was interesting that both of them were tempted by the promise of a father-figure’s love, one who fuelled their egos (Abbie is top of her class, Ichabod is an Oxford don) as well as plied them with love and food/drink. That their test was shaped by the need to find each other again was a great touch, though I was disappointed that there seemed to be no real reason behind why they snapped out of their separate illusions so abruptly. There should have been some tangible reminder of the other before they rejected what was before them. Ah well.

Despite everything, the bad guys were one step ahead all along, but as George Washington said: “Good will always rise, like Lazarus from his grave.” It’s going to be a long wait until season two.

In Hindsight:

That "long wait" is over considering season two premieres tomorrow night! My hopes and wishes for season two are as follows...

Emphasis on Ichabod and Abbie as Witnesses and Tom and Nicole as co-stars. Regardless of recent publications that have described Abbie as a "side-kick", there's no doubt that the strength of this show lies in the characters' bond and the actors' chemistry. To stray too far from that would be a disaster.

At the same time, there is still plenty of room for the show to explore other characters and their subplots. Namely, Katrina. This character has been given such a battering by the writing that it's difficult to muster up much investment in her, but given the choice - I want to see an improvement. On realizing that a character is unpopular, too many other shows simply take the easy route and write them out, but I genuinely want to see Katrina improve.

Now that she's out of Purgatory and able to exist beyond the boundaries of any given flashback, there's a chance to see her develop as a character on her own terms. Exploring her witchy powers seems the most promising route to take, and I have fingers and toes crossed that her current predicament with Headless will be resolved using her own initiative.

Seriously, what the heck happened to Luke? I know Jenny's fine since the actress has been upgraded to regular for season two, but there's been no word on Luke's fate. Granted, I've been avoiding spoilers, but I think I would have heard by now on whether or not the actor has been reinstated for season two. And if he's simply dead, then pretty much every second spent on him over the course of the first season has been a waste of time.

Considering John Cho has moved on to other projects, there's a chance that Andy Brooks won't be returning either. If so, at least he was given something that resembled a decent send-off, though I'll regret never finding out what exactly drove Andy into a contract with Moloch.

As for Team Apocalypse Now, it's clear that they've been given the upper hand, so it'll be interesting to see how the show re-establishes a sense of equilibrium in order to continue the weekly procedural of last season (if that's what they intend to do).

This finale ended with Icabod and Abbie exactly where they started when we first met them: Ichabod buried under the earth and Abbie trapped in the memories of her encounter in the woods. I don't know how the writers plan to get them out of this mess, but somehow it will have to relate back to their bond with each other - it's the focal point of this show and it's the only thing that Moloch has seemed truly threatened by. Otherwise why separate them?

And on a final note, stories that deal with the forces of evil often focus on the villains to the detriment of supernatural good. So far the hand of God has done nothing but put Abbie and Jenny in a position to intervene in the resurrection of the Horseman of War without any warning, instructions or assistance. While they were teenagers. I don't know what's going on Upstairs, but it would be nice to get a greater understanding of how exactly this war is going to be waged, and by who exactly. We need to see more from the angels.

Doctor Who: Time Heist

1. Surprisingly, this may well be my favourite episode so far. It’s clever without getting convoluted and straightforward without being stupid.

2. The emancipation of Clara continues! She and Danny continue to cutely date/date cutely, demonstrating that there are in fact some things more interesting than adventures with the Doctor (not that the Doctor would agree). For the first time in a long time (heck, perhaps even the first time), the Doctor is vying for his Companion’s attention, and I suspect that Clara is going to be our first Companion since Martha to leave his company of her own volition.

And again, I know some aren’t fond of the current system that Clara/the Doctor have going, with the latter popping in on Clara at arbitrary times during her routine life, but I think it makes a nice change of pace than the continual travelling loop. (Plus, it looks like they’re addressing the strain of this lifestyle in the next episode).

3. The setup was a lot of fun. The Doctor is about to lure Clara away on another adventure when they hear the Tardis phone ringing. Since only a handful of people have that telephone number, the Doctor is expectant as he lifts the receiver – and a second later he and Clara are sitting at a table with two complete strangers, each touching a memory worm.

A recording on the table plays back their own voices, each one agreeing to a memory wipe of their own free will, and a computer screen introduces them to the Bank of Karabraxos, a high-security facility that they’ve all agreed to rob. As premises go, it’s pretty rock solid.

4. Keeley Hawes! Love this lady, and here she fulfils the grand Doctor Who tradition of bringing in well-respected British actors to chew on the scenery for an episode or so. As Miss Delphox she’s brisk and precise and crisp, even whilst ordering the execution of a client, whilst still hinting at a modicum of fear behind her perfect fa├žade.
 
 As Director Karabraxos she oozes entitlement and superiority, but with a sense of self-satisfaction and calm that’s wholly missing from her clone. It’s difficult to pin-point exactly where in the body language and general demeanour these differences lie – but then that’s what an accomplish actor does.

5. The Teller – get it? Because it’s a play on bank teller and a teller of the truth? Yes, that's a Moffatism if ever there was one, but the design of this alien was beautifully realized. I’m guessing elaborate prosthetics as opposed to CGI (though it’s hard to tell these days), which gave it a sense of really being there, free to threaten and interact with the other characters.

And of course, this only heightened the poignancy when it came to the true reason behind the bank heist. It doesn’t even matter that the whole thing was a retelling of Hide (there a ghost story became a love story in which an alien couple were reunited, here it’s a bank heist becoming a rescue mission for another alien couple to reunite) as by the end of the episode we’re oddly invested in what happens to the dangerous monster whose abilities are clearly being used against its will.   

6. The heist itself. Any good heist story relies on making overwhelming obstacles surmountable in ways that are cleverer than the obstacles themselves. In this case Team Not-Dead’s biggest challenge was the Teller, a creature that could sniff out guilt – thus requiring the memory wipe that starts the whole adventure. (But what if a sociopath broke in?)

There are other clever gadgets to be utilized, such as a dimensional shift bomb and “exit strategy” vials (presumed to be futuristic suicide pills; actually teleporters, begging the question of why there aren’t bank security measures in place to prevent the use of them) as well as a final twist when a massive storm short-circuits the computer system and the Doctor realizes that the Architect must be a time-traveller, scheduling the heist at the exact moment a storm hits (though surely there’s enough futuristic technology out there to actually generate a storm like this at will).

Okay, so as you can see there are a couple of plot holes, but justification can be inferred and there’s only so far you’re allowed to go with nit-picking. It hangs together, with exposition delivered as we go and swift pacing that slides over any bad logistics.

7. The guest stars, Psi and Saibra. Granted, there’s simply not enough time to make them truly memorable, but they are given nifty abilities and strong motivation to participate in the heist, with incentives that are revealed over the course of the episode. For Psi it’s getting his memories back – apparently he was arrested at some point in his past and deleted everything he knew about his family to protect them. All he knows now is: “I suppose I must have loved them.”

Meanwhile, Saibra can transform her body into anyone she touches, making her a master of disguise but preventing her from forming any permanent attachments. Basically she's an amalgamation of Rogue and Mystique from X-Men, and according to her: “could you trust someone who looked at you out of your own eyes?” Personally I’d have thought intimacy issues would be the bigger problem here, but her lonely introspection plugs  neatly into the episode’s denouement.

8. Somewhere between the Doctor’s claim that he hates the Architect and Director Karabraxos’s tendency to incinerate her own clones, lies the conclusion that it’s the self-loathing Doctor himself who is the Architect. He gives Karabraxos his phone number as she makes a hasty exit, thus kick-starting a good old time-travelling loop.

In her old age she becomes filled with regret, calls the Doctor with a plea for help in righting an old wrong: to free the Teller’s mate from her vault. From there it’s simple work for a time traveller to gather a team, organise the necessary tools, and decide on the most advantageous time to slip inside the bank.

9. Although it’s never explicit, the “good man” question lingers over this episode. The Doctor throwing Saibra what he thought was a suicide pill was a dark turn, as was tricking a soldier a few episodes ago into swallowing a tracking device in the hope that it would protect him when the Doctor knew he was doomed anyway.

And yet this season’s theme of whether or not the Doctor is a good man seems to be based on Moffat’s fundamental inability to differentiate between goodness and niceness. Much like Moffat’s Sherlock, this Doctor is not a particularly nice man, specifically in regards to his lack of empathy and his dislike of hugs.

But anyone can be nice, even cold-blooded serial killers. All that involves is outward inoffensiveness. It’s the reason the trope Affably Evil exists. “Niceness” is not that big a deal, though its existence in villainous characters has no doubt led to more than one impassioned on-line manifesto that insists any murderer, rapist, drug-dealer or other unsavoury individual who contains a hint of charisma is just misunderstood.

It’s goodness that is the rare quality in a human being, and even this comes in varying degrees. In this case, Saibra identifies the Doctor as a good man when he refuses to promise her that he’ll kill the Architect, rather annoyingly giving him credit for the most rudimentary of all principles upon which we collectively base our understanding of “goodness”: the refusal to take a life.

And yet, we are told that everyone involved in the heist is doing so to get what they truly want out of it, and for the Doctor this is saving a species from extinction and helping a thoroughly unpleasant woman achieve some degree of redemption. There is a grace and nobility in that, as both a goal and a motivation, that answers the Doctor’s question for him.

But since he regularly insults Clara I guess we’re going to have to ruminate over whether rudeness jeopardises the inherent goodness of a man for a while longer.

10. Speaking of goals and motivations, The Wizard of Oz ending in which everyone gets what they were longing for was incredibly sweet, whether it’s Psi’s memories or Saibra’s antidote or the Doctor’s wish to repopulate a species or Clara’s satisfaction at a job well done.

11. “Shuttity up.” I knew they’d get a Malcolm Tucker reference in there somewhere.

12. One irritating plot-hole lingers. If the Doctor wants to know who this mysterious “woman in the shop” is, why doesn’t he – you know – just ask Clara what shop she was in??