Wednesday, March 2, 2016

"11.22.63" Episode 3: Other Voices, Other Rooms

The third episode of 11.22.63 picks up where the second left off: with Bill Turcotte having discovered that Jake was telling the truth about being from the future.  A sizable chunk of the episode is devoted to establishing the notion that Bill becomes Jake's partner/assistant.
  
  
  
  
This is a massive change from the novel, and I wouldn't be surprised if some fans of King's book throw their hands up in disgust at this alteration.  It didn't bother me in the least, though, and I'll tell you why: it's a great example of the adaptation process.  It's always worth pointing out that what works in a novel will not necessarily work in film-narrative form, and given how much of the novel 11/22/63 is spent with one character -- Jake -- doing things completely by himself, it's really no surprise at all that the miniseries 11.22.63 decided to give him somebody to talk to.
  
This surprised me, but it shouldn't have; if you think about it, it's really quite an obvious move for the filmmakers to make.
  

The first time I watched the episode, I was unimpressed by the performance George MacKay gave as Bill.  MacKay is a British actor, and his Kentucky accent causes Bill to sound less like a Kentuckian than like a Brit struggling to replicate a Southern American accent.
  
A second viewing did not cause me to change my mind about that very much (it's a bad accent, although I've heard worse), but I did notice that if you take the accent out of the equation, MacKay is actually quite good.  He's got a great air of recklessness about him, but also manages to sell the idealism: this is a man who even in the book had gone on a secret-agent-esque manhunt to find his sister's murderer, so it's not that hard for me to extrapolate Bill into the sort of guy who would join somebody else's crusade as soon as a good one presented itself.  Help a time-traveler from 2016 stop the next President from being assassinated?  Yeah, you know, that's not a hard sell for me at all.
  
The real question is whether Jake would allow such a development.  The Jake of the novel clearly would not, but the Jake of the miniseries is a different sort of character in many ways, and I believe that he would.  For one thing, what choice does he have?  Once he's discovered, his options are limited: try to get away from Bill; kill Bill (sorry); turn Bill to his advantage.  The first is impractical, the second is unethical; the third is clearly the best option.
  
The second of this episode's three major developments comes in the form of the (re)appearance of Sadie Dunhill, the woman Jake briefly met in Dallas in 1960.
  
  


Folks, I'll tell you right now: this game is over.  I am powerless against the charms of Sadie Dunhill as given form by Sarah Gadon.  (That last name, by the way, rhymes not with "fade" but with "sad," so update your mental pronunciations as needed.)  She's spellbinding, and not merely in terms of being a beautiful person, but also in terms of having genuine screen presence.  She and James Franco have terrific chemistry together, and I'm going to have no trouble whatsoever believing certain plot developments that are likely to occur later.
  
The best thing I can say about Gadon's performance is that you can tell what she's thinking even when she isn't speaking.  Not all actors can manage this.  There are times where James Franco hasn't been able to manage it (not the case in this series so far, but in some of his movies).  I can well imagine a scenario in which 11.22.63 does well the next time the Emmys roll around, and if so, Gadon stands to benefit.  I hope it happens; she's clearly deserving of a gigantic career boost.
  
The third major development of this episode:
  
  
  
  
The Oswald family walks onto the screen (having been only briefly glimpsed heretofore).  That's Cherry Jones as Marguerite Oswald, Lucy Fry as Marina, and Daniel Webber as Lee.
  
Jones and Fry have only a bit to do, but both impressed me.  Webber, on the other hand, has not convinced me.  He's an Australian actor, and if you thought MacKay's Kentucky accent is bad, you're going to lose your shit when you hear Webber try to sound like a Texan.  It's stunningly awful.  It's SO bad, in fact, that he sounds more like a Mainer; so much so that I had to consult the Internet to find out where Lee was born and raised (Lousiana and Texas for all of his formative years).
  
Apart from that, Webber has a few moments in which he sells the idea of Oswald possessing a large degree of quiet rage and frustration.  Anytime that rage and frustration turns loud, however, Webber makes Oswald sound like a lunatic.  My impression of Oswald based on the way King wrote him is that he was more of the quiet-and-deadly type; or perhaps I'm misremembering.  Either way, I simply don't like Webber in this role.  I'm not willing to give up on him yet, and heck, it's not automatically a bad thing for me to cringe every time Lee Harvey Oswald walks onto the screen; but still, this feels like a case of miscasting to me.  And that accent . . . yikes.
  
Overall, I thought this was a very solid episode.  I want to touch at moderate length on two more topics: racism and the obdurate past.


Tonya Pinkins as Miz Mimi


One of the most memorable scenes in 11/22/63 (the novel) is one in which Jake experiences a sharp come-down from the enjoyment he is feeling for being in a different era.  This happens by way of him finding a coloreds-only "bathroom" at a gas station.  Jake enjoins us to remember that while the root beer of 1958 might taste great, the racism tastes pretty lousy.

The first episode of this miniseries injected a very brief (though reasonably effective) version of that scene into the midst of a Jake-enjoys-the-past montage, and I wondered if that would be as far down that path as the writers took the adaptation.  If so, it wouldn't have been a problem; King doesn't hit those beats very often in the novel (so far as I remember), and he mostly hits them via Jake's narration and not via the plotlines.

As it turns out, however, the miniseries obviously had plans to touch on the racism element in greater detail, and this episode goes there in several different scenes.  The primary vehicle by which it does so is by changing the race of Miz Mimi from white to black.

Now, you might recall from a few posts back that I'm more or less against the idea of Roland being given a race-change for the upcoming movie adaptation.  I think Roland's whiteness is important to his character.  However, unless a character's race (or gender) does matter in that way, then I see no reason to oppose changes.  Mimi's race in the novel isn't of any importance that I recall.  She ends up marrying Deke, and it's unlikely that a small town in 1960s Texas would support a mixed-race marriage; or at least, it seems that way to me.  My guess is that that plot element won't carry over to the miniseries, though, so I see no reason why Miz Mimi can't be black.

This is especially true if you're going to get an actress as good as Tonya Pinkins to play the part, and it's even truer than that if you're going to use the character as a way to investigate racial concerns.

I'd never heard of Pinkins, but she's won one Tony and has been nominated for a couple more, so she's obviously a bit of a big deal.  I thought she was great in this episode.  It might be possible for non-fans to accuse the show of turning her into a stereotypical "strong and proud" black woman, and to accuse the show of only putting her there to service an agenda.  You can make that argument, if you want, but I'm not going to; I loved every scene she was in.

Two of the episode's best scenes involve her.  In one, she's in the school's office, talking to a couple of students prior to homeroom.  Jake is pouring himself a cup of coffee, casually listening to her interaction; a few other students and faculty members are nearby.  Jake, who obviously likes Mimi quite a lot, asks her if he can pour her a cup of coffee.  The entire room comes to a halt; if there was a honky-tonk piano player, he'd stop playing so he could turn and gawp at Jake.  Jake, obviously, has crossed a line that he had not known to even be there.  Mimi, who is obviously very well attuned to the silent politics of navigating this world, declines his offer in a way that makes it evident that she both appreciates the offer and acknowledges (for the benefit of the others in the room) that she would never allow a white man to do a black woman's work.  Pinkins is great in this scene, as is Franco.

A more intense version of the same idea comes later, when Jake pulls into a gas station and sees Mimi walking out, dejected.  She's been denied service after walking twelve miles away from her empty car.  Jake confronts the attendant very angrily, and buys Mimi's gas for her.  He opens the door to his car for her, and gives her a ride away from this terrible little shithole of a business.  As she watches him handle the attendant, Mimi is silent; she barely even looks at the scene, lest she make things worse than they already are, but you can see in the way Pinkins holds herself and uses her eyes that Mimi is both relieved and touched by what Jake is doing for her.


Rarely, if ever, have I thought that James Franco projected a sense of menace on screen.  Here, though, he seems as if he's primed and ready to kick the shit out this squirrely little racist.


And again, it might be possible for a viewer to say that this is just a case of a black woman being rescued by a white male hero on a tv show.  Fair enough, but let's bear something in mind: the way Mimi looks at Jake in these moments indicates that she probably feels about him the way a great many people of her race and station would have felt about John F. Kennedy circa 1962.  Jake, then, is unconsciously embodying the very principles of the man who he is on a mission to save.  It's a terrific move on the show's part.

Thankfully, the screenplay doesn't hammer you over the head with this; it's not like Mimi says something like, "Jake, you remind me of President Kennedy, who also is trying to help my people."  That makes me want to puke to have even typed it, but you know that any number of shoddy screenwriters in history would have opted to underline their point in just that obvious a manner.  Here, everyone is content to simply let it play out as a character beat.

Another such sequence comes via the technician who delivers Jake and Bill the audio equipment.  This gentleman (played by character actor Bob Stephenson) is a WWII vet who casually -- and cheerfully -- mentions what a shame it is that "the Japs" have pulled ahead of America in terms of electronics development.  Even dropping a couple of nukes on them didn't slow 'em down.  "We'll be back, though," he says.  The way Stephenson plays the role, I got no particular air of hatred from this character; I don't feel as if he hates Japanese people, I just think he's genuinely bummed out for America not to be the best at something.  And here's a truth you don't encounter very often: not all racists are bad people.  Sometimes, they're simply misguided or ill-informed, which is what this guy seems to be.

A different take on the same idea happens in the same apartment earlier in the episode, when Jake and Bill are considering renting it.  "I ain't got a thing in the world against niggers," the landlord says, apropos of nothing; he continues on by demurring that it's God who gave them their lowly station in life, and that it therefore isn't their fault.  This character is a decidedly less pleasant guy than the technician, but there's no reason to doubt that he means what he says.  He's just a white guy confiding in a couple of other white guys, and he'd have no reason to lie; so it's almost certainly true that while he does think of black people as being a different (and lesser) form of creature than white people, he probably does have a certain amount of sympathy for them.  Is this guy a racist?  Yeah, of course.  Is he a bad person?  Maybe.  Is he probably a somewhat moderate person for the time in which he was living?  I'd say you could make that case, absolutely.

The look Jake gives this guy is priceless:




Jake has the sense to keep his mouth shut, though; he recognizes that while this guy would be a horror by 2016 standards, he's nothing to get too worked up about in 1962.

Personally, I find all of this to be a much more nuanced shades-of-grey approach to racial issues than you typically get from television shows.  I don't know if there is more of it in future episodes, but if not, then I think this episode served to do the topic justice.

Now, let's transition a bit and talk about the obdurate past.  That phrase has not been used in the miniseries, which instead has opted to refer to the notion of "the past pushing back" against attempts to change it.  Whatever you call it, it's a major element of the story in the first episode, but it's been somewhat less present in subsequent chapters.

Or has it?  Certainly it played a role in the confrontation with Frank in episode two.  It isn't mentioned all that much here, but I think certain events can be interpreted as examples of the past pushing back (or, if you prefer, being obdurate).

You can hypothesize that Bill has been put in Jake's orbit as a means of distracting and/or exposing him.  During the strip-club sequence, it's clear that Bill's got a loud and aggressive streak (especially when drunk).  This briefly looks as if it's going to cause major trouble for the two crusaders, but even when Bill drunkenly tells the club's owner (Jack Ruby) that Jake is from the future, it's easy to dismiss it as drunken foolishness.  However, who's to say that Bill's loose tongue won't do Jake some damage at some critical moment later on?  If so, has the past put them there as a time-bomb?

Similarly, Jake's willingness to dive right into racial tensions to help Mimi indicates a sort of recklessness on his part that could very well get his ass badly stomped later on.  I can imagine a scenario in which the gambling-troubles injuries Jake sustains are swapped out for him being beaten by a pack of racists who aren't happy about him taking up for Mimi.  If so, then Mimi herself can be seen as a time-bomb of sorts.

And then there's Sadie, who clearly is a disaster waiting to happen for Jake's mission.  Readers of the novel know where this is headed, of course (although there's no guarantee the miniseries will follow suit), and I don't think it's too spoilery of me to confirm that yes, Sadie does indeed end up posing certain challenges for Jake.

So my take on all of this is that the past is simply becoming more subtle in its efforts to push back against Jake.  By which I mean that it's always been that subtle; we're simply seeing it that way now.

A few more bits 'n' bobs:


  • When Deke grills Jake about Catcher in the Rye, asking him if he thinks it ought to be permitted in libraries, Franco delivers a marvelous "yes" that is designed to be both an affirmative answer and a querulous "I'll say no if you want to hear no."
  • The morning after their strip-club sojourn, Jake and Bill are at a gas station.  (Lots of gas stations in this episode.)  Bill is passed out in the backseat, and Jake wakes him up by dipping the station's public window-scrub-brush into the bucket of water and then slinging the water off it onto Bill's face.  That's a disgusting way to wake up.  It's a really odd and funny moment.
  • In the same scene, Jake insists that Bill has to drive him to the school so he can get to work.  Why?  Can Jake not drive himself?  I didn't quite get this.
  • The dancing scene is good.  It's probably not as good as the novel's, but I wonder if there won't be another one later on.  They don't use "In the Mood," but instead go with Glenn Miller's "Little Brown Jug," which is not even vaguely as good.  Are they, mayhap, saving "In the Mood" for another episode?
  • I could and would watch Sadie do the Madison for about nine hours.
  • Lee, while hollering at General Walker, asks if he knows what a fascist is.  He sounds like a Commie version of Forrest Gump when he says this.
  • In another new plot addition, we find out that Sadie has cousins in Lisbon, and that she was visiting them in 1960.  This made me remember that when you see her getting into Johnny's car in the first episode, she's getting in a Christine-like red-and-white car.  Then I remembered that there is also a red-and-white Christine-esque car behind Jake when he first emerges from 2016 into 1960.  I wonder: are those the same cars?  Let's consult some screencaps:
  

Definitively not.  Either, both, or neither could be a Plymouth Fury, but unless the paint job is different on both sides, that's not the same car.  Still, this is interesting.


 That's about all I've got for this week.  Here are a bunch of leftover screencaps, though:




"Jimla" makes an appearance!

I loved the Jack Ruby scene.

Jake giving people "are you fucking kidding me?!?" looks should be in every episode.







The almost-sex scene between Lee and Marina is hotter than you'd expect.  Do you suppose the Oswalds actually had hot sex?  I have a hard time believing in that.






See you next week!

12 comments:

  1. I literally didn't think to look at the character of Bill from the plot point perspective you suggest. I think you might be on to something, there.

    As for the racial issues, I never felt they were either out of place, and (speaking only for myself here) it didn't strike me as patronizing, at least.

    Curiously, I was fine with Webber as Oswald. In terms of his accent, all I know is that the real Oswald, in the few brief newsreels he's in (which surprisingly is all of under 10 to 5 minutes for someone who still casts a long shadow over history) he speaks with a slight Russian lilt to his voice. For that reason, I've never heard a southern twang in his accent (if that means anything). On the whole, I think he was fine, and I think he ended the episode on a nice ominous note that left me wanting to find out what happens next.

    Finally, I couldn't help grinning at the whole dance scene, I'm not sure why, I just came away loving it all.

    ChrisC

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Regarding the dance scene, I suspect that you were influenced by the fact that both Franco and Gadon appeared to be having a blast. They've got real chemistry, and I think it is elevating everything else in their scenes. The extras appeared to having a lot of fun, too. It's the difference between something that feels staged and something that feels like it was really happening and we are lucky enough to be peeking in on it.

      It may be that I was too harsh on Webber. Subsequent episodes will clear it up one way or the other. I don't think I've ever heard Oswald speak for more than a second or two, so I've no clue whether he sounded Texan, Russian, or otherwise. However, it might be that what I was hearing was an Australian actor attempting to sound like a Texan who was trying to sound like a Russian. that's be a tall order as an actor.

      Delete
  2. The racist landlord was in the book too.

    "On the twenty-second of September, I finally found a place that looked livable. It was on Blackwell Street in North Dallas, a detached garage that had been converted into a pretty nice duplex apartment. Greatest advantage: air-conditioning. Greatest disadvantage: the owner-landlord, Ray Mack Johnson, was a racist who shared with me that if I took the place, it would be wise to stay away from nearby Greenville Avenue, where there were a lot of mixed-race jukejoints and coons with the kind of knives he called “switchers.”

    “I got ary thing in the world against niggers,” he told me. “Nosir. It was God who cursed them to their position, not me. You know that, don’t you?”

    “I guess I missed that part of the Bible.”

    According to what I have read online Mr. king was insistent that the show address racism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd forgotten that scene was in the novel. Thanks for reminding me!

      Delete
  3. Webber seems to be modeling his Oswald on Gary Oldman’s from “JFK.” That’s the accent I hear, anyway. The unhinged aspect of Oswald’s characterization, here, at least in episode 3, is quite interesting. I’m also really impressed with something else. I wrote this to a friend the other night and will quote myself rather than trying to rephrase it: "The good thing about working with the Kennedy assassination is that all the conflicting theories give a dramatist like King (or Abrams and company steering this adaptation) so much compelling stuff to work with. You've got a fascist demagogue (Walker) targeted by a Marxist-fascist (of a sort, Oswald) who later assassinates a perceived fascist (JFK - i.e. from Oswald's perception) possibly at the behest of a contract agent for a different sort of fascism (Morenschildt/ the CIA), the prevention of which ushers in an age of apocalyptic fascism (the saved-Kennedy timeline of the end of the book.) Neat."

    So much fascism! So little time.

    At first when I saw the Walker scene I had a glimmer of the rest of the series resembling an endless facebook news feed about Trump, and I shuddered. I could understand taking that approach – hell, it’s timely, and relevant –but I just wasn’t sure I wanted to see the novel turned into an anti-Trump thing. But then the ending, with Oswald losing his shit and frothing in the street, restored my faith in the direction. I’m not sure I’m really describing this correctly. Just saying – the ending worked for me. Especially the looks on Jake’s and Bill’s faces.

    Both of the racism scenes worked well for me, too, and I agree especially on Franco’s performance (really well done so far – hitting just the right in-over-his-head notes as well as selling him as a clumsy but committed not afraid to use his fists or wire-strangle someone who deserves it). That scene was uncomfortable as hell. It’s a fine line to walk with time-travel/ racism stories. So far, so good for 11.22.63. I agree – it’s an excellent way of tying Jake’s morality re: the JFK mission into the mystique of the man himself/ what-might-have-been. (And yes, in lesser hands, not only would the vomitworthy line you suggested have been uttered – over swelling music – it would have been the focus of every damn scene in every episode. Even the Book Depository, when we get there.)

    I thought the scene where Jake and Bill barge in on the guy who thought they were queers and stole their equipment was fantastic. That quick look over at the asshat’s daughter neutralized things well. Well done.

    Gotta tell you – I’m so relieved to be 3 eps in and still on a high about the adaptation. Fingers crossed for the rest.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought about Trump during the Walker scene, too, although I suspect Cruz is actually a closer equivalent. I don't think there would be a way for the show to lean too heavily on that parallel, given that this was all written and filmed before Trumpmania really took off. It's just an unfortunate example of the past harmonizing with the present.

      I almost forgot about the "Jake Amberson, FBI!!!" scene. I wonder if there will be more to that subplot. I'd bet there will be, but either way, it was a quality sidebar.

      Delete
  4. Hate to go off topic so soon (and sound like a broken record into the bargain), but Dave Squyers has a new post about the latest DT movie developments over at Talk Stephen King (caveat emptor).

    ChrisC

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi I'm really enjoying these reviews keep up the good work. Did you think the guy who was dancing the Madison looked very much like Marty McFly's younger dad in Back To The Future?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think I noticed him, but I will take your word for it!

      Sorry about the tardiness of #4's review -- just got back from a trip out of town.

      Delete
  6. In regards to Sadie visiting her cousins in Lisbon, isn't that them in the pink and white car that drives by just after the milk man drops the bottle? This would be when Jake first arrives in 1960. It appears to be Sadie in the backseat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I went back and looked at that scene, and you MIGHT be right. The woman in the backseat keeps her face away from camera, so it's hard to tell -- but it could indeed be her.

      Great catch!

      Delete
    2. Nancy, you (obviously) ended up being 100% correct about this. Well done!

      Delete