Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"11.22.63" Episode 7: Soldier Boy

This episode makes two in a row that I didn't particularly like.
You know what else I don't like?  Reviewing a television series on a weekly basis.  It's antithetical to the way I normally watch tv shows (i.e., for the fun of it), and I think it makes me both overly judgmental and aggressively aware.  There's nothing wrong with being aware, of course; awareness is a rather important factor in critical thinking/writing.
However, I've accustomed myself over the past decade or so to watching serialized television shows in a more passive way than this.  That's not to say that I've been accustomed to watching tv shows with my brain turned off; I haven't done that at all.  However, with the best series of the past decade -- Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and so forth -- I have never enjoyed speculating about what is going to happen in upcoming episodes.  My mind occasionally went there with some of those shows, but it often recoiled away from that sort of thinking as soon as it had begun.  None of this was a conscious process; it's simply how my brain reflexively wants to ingest serialized storytelling.  
I didn't engage in much speculation as regards The Dark Tower, either (apart from having a vague set of expectations about certain characters showing up to join the ka-tet); same goes for The Green Mile.  Currently, my mind is mostly disinterested in trying to figure out what is going to happen in the next few Star Wars movies, although I can't help but field a few theories about Rey's backstory.  
But generally speaking, I'm not merely willing to sit back and allow a story to be told to me, I'm sort of insistent on it.  If you have to get up and leave in the middle of the story, and you can't make it back for a week, or a year, or seven years, then I'd really kind of prefer to not try and fill in the blanks for you.  
Reviewing 11.22.63 on a weekly basis, though, I find my brain insisting on doing things a different way.  I'm actively trying to figure out the answers to certain questions posed by the series.  I'm watching this series in a completely different mental manner than I am other shows, and I think I've done myself a disservice in that way.
I can't help but wonder if some of what bothered me both last week and this week would have bothered me if I were watching this show in a more passive way, the way I'm watching other shows currently.  I'm working my way through season one of The Wire, for example, and I'm not focused on trying to analyze and critique what I'm seeing.  Some of that happens regardless, but it isn't my focus; my focus is the enjoyment of the dialogue, acting, point of view, etc.  I'm also catching up on the first seasons of several shows that I missed out on recently (Dark Matter, The Expanse, Killjoys, Jessica Jones, The Magicians, FargoColony, Humans, and Mr. Robot), plus getting caught up on the current or most recent seasons of a few existing shows (Haven, Doctor Who, Agents of SHIELD, and Agent Carter), as well as staying current on several show airing right now (The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul, Vinyl, and, believe it or not, Girls).
I'm enjoying all of those to a greater or lesser extent (although The Walking Dead is seriously trying my patience right now, and Killjoys has yet to really hook me in anything other than a trashy I-like-sci-fi-anyway-I-can-get-it way), and a few of those shows are good enough that they are both worthy of analysis and would probably grow in stature as a result of it.  But that's not why I'm watching them; I'm watching them because I enjoy them.
I'd be watching 11.22.63 for the same reason, of course, probably even minus the Stephen King connection, and I think it was a mistake to deprive myself of the process of watching it the same way I've been watching, say, The Expanse.
We're pot-committed at this point, though, so let's trudge -- grimly, determinedly -- through these final two weeks and agree that we're never, ever, ever going to do it this way again.

Because I'm in a surly and uncooperative mood, this week's review is going to mostly consist of notes.  Here they come:

  • I'm not sure what to make of the scene in which a hospitalized Jake seemingly imagines that he's actually back in 2016.  I know what I'd make of it if I were a newcomer to this story (i.e., had not read the novel): I'd think Jake was slightly unstuck in time, a la Billy Pilgrim, and literally WAS back in 2016, at least partially.  I might even think he was somehow in both places/times at once, although the appearance of Al might give me pause and make me wonder what in the hell was up with all of this.  As I said last week, if the series expects me to think that Jake would be thinking about his ex-wife in these moments, even with a bonk on the head, then that's a failure on the writers' part. (There is a similar moment in the novel, which my own review reminded me of; it also reminded me of how much more sense it makes in the book.)  Apart from that, though, you've got to wonder why Jake is amnesia-hallucinating Anderson Cooper.  Also, what's with the random little girl in the hallway?  I don't get how or why anyone thought any of this was a good idea, except to give Chris Cooper another scene to play.
  • Deke seems to be back on Team Jake.  Why?  Wouldn't getting beaten into an amnesiac state make Deke assume Jake had done something shady to deserve the beating?  Shouldn't this have put Jake further down on Deke's shitlist?  Let's assume Mimi made Deke promise to be nice to Jake before she died.  Feeble, but I can run with it, I guess.
  • Speaking of amnesia, that aspect of the novel was not one of the more successful bits of King's plot.  It worked reasonably well because King's prose and point of view were strong, but purely as a plot mechanism, it's rather weak.  I hoped the television series would find a graceful replacement of some sort; and indeed, I was convinced (until last week) that that was how Bill would end up being used.  Nope.  This episode is amnesia-heavy indeed, and while zero minutes of this series ended up being devoted to the Cuban Missile Crisis (one of the book's best scenes), nearly thirty of them were carved out for amnesia.  Jake's life in Jodie was whittled down mercilessly, to the point of barely even existing in comparison to the novel; but this amnesia business survives more or less fully intact.  That seems to me like a bit of a misstep.
  • I liked the scene in which Lee visits the F.B.I. and gives them a letter of some sort.  My research indicates to me that this did happen, and that Agent Hosty recalled the letter as having been a directive to stop harassing Marina, but the letter seemingly does not survive.  All of this being the case, I have to wonder why the scene was left in.  Again, that is time that could have been redirected elsewhere.
  • I mentioned Bill earlier.  Here, we find out what happens to him: he gets put in the nuthatch due to Jake not being able to pay his bills (what with him being in a coma or whatever).  Shock therapy and madness follow, and then Bill is prompted by Jake and Sadie's visit into suicide.  Friends and neighbors, I am here to tell you now that unless something manages to change in the final episode (hey, you never know, right?), Bill Turcotte is one of this show's major failures.  I thought the character was extremely effective in his first few episodes, but last week and this week squandered all that goodwill by turning him into a mere plot device that had expended its usefulness and needed to be eliminated.  George MacKay (whose accent is worse than ever this week) gave it a good try, and I'll look forward to seeing him in something else that puts him to better use; I liked him a lot, accent excepted.  The end of his story serves only to make me dislike Jake even more than I already did, though, and that seems like an unfortunate consequence.
  • I like the edit from Bill's broken and bleeding body to a cemetery, where a well-attended graveside service is underway.  The camera then pans from that funeral to Bill's, which is attended by only Jake and Sadie.  Not even Deke showed up; not even a dadgum preacher showed up!  That's very sad, and while I don't think that Bill was used well as a character, this moment at least imparts a bit of truth; that makes it more sad, which makes it more worthwhile in some odd way.
  • Cherry Jones finally got a scene to play as Marguerite Oswald this week.  She and Daniel Webber's Lee sound like mother and child about as much as I sound like Elvis Presley.  (Elvis is represented this week by "I Forgot to Remember to Forget," a terrific 1955 single whose b-side was the astonishingly awesome "Mystery Train."  Elvis himself appeared as a character in this week's excellent episode of Vinyl, by the way, and Ray Romano mentioned "Mystery Train" as a particular favorite.  You and me both, fella.)
  • I think I like the scene in which Jake and Sadie meet Lee.  I'm not 100% decided; but I'm leaning toward yes.
  • After he regains his memory of Oswald being his target, there is a very well-executed moment in which Jake is trying to sneak out of the house so he can leave Sadie behind (and out of danger).  This is a nice nod toward the novel, in which Jake does leave her behind.  That's not what I like about it, though.  Jake is retrieving his gun out of a boardgame box, trying to sort of pay attention to whether Sadie is overhearing him.  He's looking one way, and the hallway leading to the front door is behind him.  You can see a brief shift in the lighting of the scene as he is doing so, and what you eventually discover is that Sadie (no fool) has snuck around Jake and gone out to sit in the car so she can confront him when he gets in it and tries to drive off.  The brief change in the lighting was obviously sunlight coming in through the door as she opened it.  I think you can even hear the smallest of sounds, representing the door opening or closing.  I love little moments like that.
  • I didn't much care for the scene in which Jake and Sadie go to Ruth's house to try and steal Lee's gun.  I'm too lazy to look it up, but I have a vague suspicion that the novel might contain some less-offensive equivalent.  Here, it just doesn't work for me at all.  I'm not entirely sure why, either.  I'd try to figure it out, but I'm feeling restless and kinda want to be done with this review.  I apologize for my lack of persistence!
  • Okay, y'all, I don't know what the fuck is going on with the Yellow Card Man.  Jake is sitting in the car with Sadie, and then all of a sudden there is some sort of dimensional shift or something and he's got the YCM there with him instead.  It's daytime instead of night for no reason I can figure, and in at least one shot, the rain appears to be going up instead of down.  The YCM seems mildly insane, and is yabbering about how "I don't want any of this to happen, not again," seemingly in relation to his own daughter drowning in a pool accident.  So the YCM himself was/is a guy who has tried -- in his case, on many, many occasions -- to go into the past and right a wrong of some sort.  Oh shit, y'all; I think I know why the YCM has been used in this way, and if I'm right, I'm going to be very, very cross with this series.  But maybe I'm wrong; I hope I'm wrong, and I probably am, because if I'm right, then none of what has happened with the YCM (in terms of his tampering with Jake's life) makes any sense.  We'll find out next week, I guess.  But for now, I'm very afraid of how this aspect of the plot is developing, especially given how disappointingly Bill was deployed last week and this.
I want to end on a positive note, so let's talk about a scene I loved: the scene in which Lee is sitting on a park bench, eating a Baby Ruth.  He glances at a newspaper on the bench beside him; the camera tightens on Lee's face, and the sound narrows; there is a vague sound effect indicating that . . . something has happened, and without any words being spoken, we somehow know that this is the moment in which Oswald decides to kill Kennedy.  What he has seen on the front of the newspaper is an illustration that seemingly shows the route Kennedy's motorcade will take.  Oswald, realizing the President will be driving by his place of employment, has decided to . . . do something.
I have problems with this episode, and I increasingly have problems with the series overall, but this particular scene is great.  There's nothing fancy about it.  Most of the work is done by Daniel Webber's face and eyes; a little bit of musical score gives it a nudge, and a couple of brief sound effects assist, but mostly, the work is all accomplished by Webber and by the camera.  

Lee raises his eyes from the paper to look out into the park, where he sees a father playing football with his son; another couple of kids are also present, and one of them seems to look back at Lee in something resembling . . . what?  Alarm?  Recognition?  Challenge?  
We know what Lee is looking at, but what is he seeing?  Impossible for us to know.  
And that's what works about this scene for me, assuming it IS intended to depict the moment in which Oswald decided to kill Kennedy; even if it isn't, that's how I'm reading it.  You've got to figure that whenever Oswald made his decision, whatever was going on in that moment, it must have been some sort of a moment like this: one in which any outside observer would have no clue that the direction of the entire world -- maybe even all of human history -- had just shifted monumentally.  How can one see such a moment for what it is?  How can one guard against such moments?  
This is an instance of the series aligning itself with the novel, because King's viewpoint is that Oswald acted alone, and that if one grubby little man can move the world so greatly in a moment such as this, what hope do we really have in the grand scheme of things?  King, world-renowned as the Master of Horror, has brought his unique perspective to bear on one of the defining moments of American history, and in it he has found bone-chilling horror.  
But it's a sort of Kubrickian horror, one of implication and suggestion moreso than of immediacy and shock; and this episode (written by Bridget Carpenter & Quinton Peeples and directed by James Kent) depicts it in a somewhat Kubrickian fashion; it is an approach that lets us see through God's eyes, but does not allow us to know what is in God's thoughts.

Or in Lee Harvey Oswald's.
I've been critical of Daniel Webber's performance as Lee, partially because I'm unconvinced by his accent.  However, he is terrific in this scene, and also in the climactic scene, in which Lee sets himself up at the window in the Book Depository, ready for what comes next.
So am I, I guess.  One episode remains.  My enthusiasm for the series has been greatly diminished these last two weeks, but perhaps the series can win me back in its final hour.
See you next week either way!

This is your Gratuitous Screencap Of Sadie Being Beautiful of the week.

There is a moment here in which it seems like the future might change of its own accord.  Of course, it doesn't.  It never does, does it?


  1. I've been of two mind's about this latest episode, almost from the moment I pressed play.

    My basic attitude is thinking that this episode at least seems like an improvement over the last one. On the hand, I find myself wondering if everything was as solid as it could be.

    The major drawback of this episode was the rather sad reveal of Bill. I'm not talking about his death here. I'm thinking about the fact that the show pretty much telegraphed that he wasn't even a real character at all, and was pretty much just a throwaway plot device.

    My problems with that are that it leaves me thinking of all the alternative cuts they could have gone with in a Bill free version of the series. Probably would have been a little better, at least.

    Other than that, I was willing to go easier on the rest, more or less. For instance I wasn't bothered with the amnesia either in the novel, or the series, so far. If it was a plot device, then I'd have to say it was one in which King still played fair all around.

    As for J and S meeting Lee, for some reason, it just didn't click with me. I think this is because the way King originally wrote, the character of Oswald had this kind of slow-burn, menacing mystique about him. A lot of it was do to the way he was kept in focus, yet always held at arms length, allow the reader to keep a detached perspective that somehow worked well and just served to enhance the sense of danger to the character.

    I'm sure there was a way they could done the same in the series, yet, too late now.

    The scene I'm most dualistic about is the one between Jake and the YCM. On the one hand, I was reminded of the cowboy from "Mulholland Drive." On the other, I was reminded of "Lost". We've seen this sort of thing from Abrams before. Call it "Mystery Boxing", if an umbrella term is needed. To be fair, I don't mind a bit surrealism in fiction, whatever the medium. The problem is, Abrams has yet to demonstrate to me that he has anywhere interesting to go with it all. I worry that the same will hold true here; and intriguing setup let down by a sub-par resolution.

    Still, I'm at least willing to show good faith for the moment, anyway (the car trouble also reminded me a bit of "The Truman Show", if I'm being honest).

    Still, there is one thing that has me worried. I remember reading an article where Abrams said he was willing to be open-ended with this series. By this he meant that while Jake's story might have a conclusion, they were thinking of keeping the Rabbit Hole around should they decide to use it for other purposes.

    This makes me worried that somewhere down the line the YCM might get his own "Fringe" style series, as that just sounds like copy and paste to me.


    1. I had the exact same dichotomy on the YCM scene re: the Cowboy from "Mulholland Drive" and "Lost." And it definitely seemed more "Lost" than "Mulholland Drive." Mystery Boxing works for me as a term - Mystery Shadow Boxing, even.

      Well-put on Bill. It's like charactersploitation or something. He was inserted and dragged into things just to be shoved around and meet a horrible end to real purpose, and worse, it was telegraphed.

    2. It really was. And there was such a better possible use to which he could have been put! Ah, well, wasn't to be.

      I would not watch a YCM series. I mean, yeah, I would; but I'd be very cross about it.

      The amnesia plotline didn't bother me all that much in the book, because it was written well. The series doesn't have that virtue, so it bothers me more here and seems like purely a plot device. And a VERY clunky one.

  2. I agree on both the amnesia and (as mentioned in response to Chris' comment) on Bill, definitely. I can't see anything happening next week that will redeem Bill's story arc for me. POSSSIBLY with the YCM, but I'm not sure there, either.

    That is, as you say, the tough thing with trying to review shows in-progress, particularly shows involving Mr. Abrams or in imitation of him: you have to write/ think "Well that makes little sense, but we'll see, I guess."

    ("The Wire" is fantastic. Don't be discouraged if the first season doesn't hook you right away. You've probably heard that already, but yeah, it takes a little time to find its way. And then it's off to the races.)

    Love that first STFU screencap.

    1. p.s. Regarding the blogs themselves, thanks for hosting this weekly online discussion of the eps and putting these things together. I've looked forward to them after each new episode. Your efforts are appreciated! I know how it goes when you get into a blog-project and then the fun is overtaken by the effort or other obstacles. Only one more to go.

    2. Thanks for the thanks! You know it's appreciated.

      No worries on "The Wire." It hooked me in the first scene of the first episode. I already knew it was a high-quality show; I watched all of season four as it aired, and simply never got around to the rest. So now, I'm doing it the right way. Trying to restrict myself to one episode per week, as I have decided that binge-watching is not for me unless it's with a show I've already seen. Television episodes should be seen once per week, dadgum it!

    3. I wanted to mention, too, I agree on Deke being a bit inconsistent. Which is too bad because the actor is doing good work.

      I started off on this pretty pro-Franco in terms of performance, but the last 2 eps - granted there were numerous other problems - undermined that for me. The last 3, actually. All of a sudden there's a lot about his character's reactions to things that don't agree with me.

      Here's hoping for a walk-off home run in the last episode, for what it's worth.

    4. I am totally besotted by Sarah Gadon

    5. Bryant do you like Dark Matter? I enjoyed it more than i expected.

    6. I do like it, yessir. I like it quite a bit, actually. I've seen the first seven episodes now, and while I don't think 2-6 quite manage to live up to the premise of the pilot, I've enjoyed them all. I wouldn't necessarily recommend the show to people who aren't semi-hardcore fans of sci-fi tv, but for fans of the genre it ought to scratch that itchy spot pretty capably.

      As for Sarah Gadon, good lord, man, why wouldn't you be? She's utterly bewitching!

    7. McMolo, I pretty much agree with you on the subject of Franco. I don't think he's been bad, but I do believe that thanks to a combination of factors, the tv version of Jake is woefully inadequate in comparison to the book version of Jake. I was okay with this in the early episodes, when Franco's slight vacancy was allowing other aspects of the series to shine; but that vacancy has given way to me actively disliking Jake, and I cannot imagine that that is the intent anyone had.

      It's not too late to save it in the final episode, I guess; but if they manage to turn me back to positivity, I will be both impressed and surprised.

  3. The early promise of this series has been frittered away. The Bill arc ended horribly and diminishes Jake as a sympathetic protagonist. Horribly frustrating after such a promising start.

    1. Glad to hear you say that. Well, not GLAD, because I wish it wasn't the case; but you know what I mean. I was afraid it would just be me!

      You couldn't be more right about Bill's impact on Jake as a sympathetic character. That's a major miscalculation on Bridget Carpenter's part.