Monday, October 28, 2013

They're All Going to Laugh at You: On Three Versions of Much Ado About Nothing

People my age, I think, can for the most part be divided into two groups--those whose first encounter with William Shakespeare the playwright (as opposed to William Shakespeare the cultural icon and creator of such linguistic commonplaces as "To be or not to be") came from Baz Luhrman's 1996 Romeo + Juliet, and those for whom it was Kenneth Branagh's 1993 Much Ado About Nothing.  I'm in the latter group, and--all due respect to Luhrman--I can't imagine a better introduction.  Branagh's sun-dappled, cheerful film, in which he and his then-wife Emma Thompson headline as the argumentative lovers Benedick and Beatrice, is not only a top-notch adaptation of an excellent play, but it has a lightness and an effortlessness that cut through a young person's (or even a not-so-young person's) conception of Shakespeare as serious or difficult.  It's full of song and dance and beautiful scenery which, far from distracting from the archaic language, only enhance it, and help to bring the play's emotions--its humor, its romance, its tragedy--across to the audience.

Excellent as Branagh's film is, one of the results of that excellence--as well as the fact that until earlier this year, his was the only version of Much Ado About Nothing available to a wide audience (unless you count the 2005 modern language version, part of the BBC's ShakespeaRe-Told project, starring Damian Lewis, Sarah Parish, and Billie Piper as Hero)--is that for many people my age, and especially those who don't have ready access to theatrical productions of Shakespeare, it has come to seem not only definitive, but like the only "correct" way to stage the play.  It certainly helps that unlike Luhrman's irreverent adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which rubs the audience's face in how unconventional its take on its source material is, Branagh's film strives for a feeling of accuracy.  Its setting, like the play's, is a villa in rural Italy, and though its period is deliberately vague, it feels at least roughly contemporary to the play's early 17th century publication date.  In addition, as much as Branagh takes advantage of the cinematic medium, with long tracking shots, multiple exterior locations, and an emphasis on period detail, his Much Ado is a very theatrical film--most of the cast play their big speeches to the back benches, and the film has no compunction about letting its actors squarely address the fourth wall, like a stage actor soliloquizing to an audience.

This perception, however, obscures the many choices Branagh made in adapting Much Ado About Nothing, and thus the possibility that other choices might bring out nuances he'd missed or chosen not to emphasize.  A quick glance through the play's original text, for example, reveals that as well as cutting the play down to suit his two hour running time, Branagh thinned the text out, removing, in some scenes, every other sentence or half sentence.  Take this scene, from early in the play.  The bolded lines are the ones that appear in Branagh's version:
Beatrice: I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?
Messenger: I know none of that name, lady: there was none such in the army of any sort.
Leonato: What is he that you ask for, niece?
Hero: My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua.
Messenger: O, he's returned; and as pleasant as ever he was.
Beatrice: He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt. I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? for indeed I promised to eat all of his killing.
Leonato: Faith, niece, you tax Signior Benedick too much; but he'll be meet with you, I doubt it not.
Messenger: He hath done good service, lady, in these wars.
Beatrice: You had musty victual, and he hath holp to eat it: he is a very valiant trencherman; he hath an excellent stomach.
Messenger: And a good soldier too, lady.
Beatrice: And a good soldier to a lady: but what is he to a lord?
Messenger: A lord to a lord, a man to a man; stuffed with all honourable virtues.
Beatrice: It is so, indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man: but for the stuffing,--well, we are all mortal.
This has the effect of slowing the pace of the dialogue down, making it easier for the audience to follow along and for the actors to deliver their lines (of the cast, Branagh is nearly the only one who is expected to manage a full Shakespearean gallop).  And it leaves room in the film for wordless scenes, such as the long, delightful opening sequence in which Don Pedro's men and the women of Leonato's household bathe and dress before their first meeting, without making its running time unwieldy.  It's a perfectly valid choice, and one that pays great dividends in the film, but it is a choice, and the aura that has attached to Branagh's film obscures that fact.

It's easy, therefore, to see how a new film version of Much Ado About Nothing would seem refreshing, even revolutionary, simply for drawing attention to the fact that there are other choices that might be made when adapting the play.  All the more so when that version is Joss Whedon's, which seems almost to have been designed as the antithesis of Branagh's film.  As has been widely reported, Whedon shot the film in his own house over twelve days, with a cast made up mostly of his friends and favorite actors.  But as well as being a modern-day, modern dress production, his Much Ado is an understated affair.  Instead of the conscious theatricality of Branagh's version, Whedon reaches for naturalism.  His actors deliver the Shakespearean lines as if they were ordinary 21st century dialogue, underplaying the comedy so that it sounds like conversational banter, not a stream of zingers.  No one here addresses the screen; when characters soliloquize, they do so while moving in and out of the frame, engaged in some mundane activity, as if to indicate that they are thinking out loud--Benedick (Alexis Denisof), for example, muses about the hurtful words hurled at him by Amy Acker's Beatrice while gathering glasses and empty drink bottles left over from a party.  Whedon finds ways to downplay even the biggest, most theatrical moments in these soliloquies.  "I will be horribly in love with her!" Benedick shouts, arms outstretched into the air, after he overhears the "news" that Beatrice loves him, but Whedon shoots him from behind and from far away, as if to undermine the grand gesture.

The problem with this choice is that it very quickly comes to seem like a way of avoiding all other choices.  Whedon's direction, which often feels like just a bunch of people talking, seems less like an attempt to stage the play as naturalistically as possible, and more as if he hadn't bothered to do any of the actual work of adapting the play and making it his own--as if he doesn't know what he wants his Much Ado About Nothing to be.  One gets the impression that he has simply thrown a bunch of talented actors in front of a camera and had them recite their lines in the belief that somehow a coherent work will emerge.  The result is a film that is extremely variable, depending on the actors on screen and the emotional tenor of the scene.  Dramatic scenes in which the actors pull out all the stops work best--Fran Krantz's Claudio ranting at Hero (Jillian Morgese) about her alleged infidelity, Clark Gregg's Leonato attacking Hero for her disgrace, Beatrice's tirade as she tries to convince Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel over Hero's honor.  The humor, meanwhile, almost invariably falls flat, Whedon having done little work to translate the broad, energetic, consciously artificial comedy of the original play into the more low-key tone of his film (on the rare occasions that he plumps for slapstick, the shift in tone is jarring; when Beatrice overhears Hero and Margaret discussing Benedick's feeling for her, she's so surprised that she falls down a flight of stairs, but the film has been so naturalistic up to this point that this isn't funny so much as scary and unpleasant to watch).  Rather than being understated, Whedon's film comes to feel underpowered.

There's a tendency, when talking about Much Ado About Nothing, to concentrate on the warring lovers aspect, the story of two people who fight and fight until they finally realize that they're in love (I did so just a few months ago when I noted the similarities between Benedick and Beatrice and Pride and Prejudice's Darcy and Elizabeth).  While that's obviously an important part of the play and a major reason for its enduring appeal, to concentrate on it exclusively (as Whedon does) is to miss out on some of Much Ado's vital components, chief among them the importance of embarrassment to the play's story.  Like many Shakespearean comedies, Much Ado About Nothing's plot hinges on miscommunication--both of the couples at the center of its story would never have found themselves at the crisis the play depicts if they'd been willing to talk to each other.  And also like many other comedies, the play's story is driven by false identity--Hero is courted by Don Pedro pretending to be Claudio, and undone by Margaret pretending to be Hero; "what a Hero hadst thou been if half thy outward graces had been placed about thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart," Claudio laments at her at their abortive wedding, having been gulled into believing a false persona concocted by Don John, who has previously railed at being made to hide his true identity as "a plain-dealing villain"; the happy ending is achieved when Hero pretends to be her own cousin, and when the truth is revealed she calls Claudio "my other husband."

But what, to my admittedly far from comprehensive knowledge, feels unique to this play is the way that the false identities within it are often something that the characters construct for themselves.  Much Ado About Nothing is a play full of people projecting a certain face to the world, obsessed by how the world sees them, and terrified of being found out.  Claudio and Don Pedro publicly humiliate Hero because her alleged infidelity shames them--"I stand dishonour'd, that have gone about to link my dear friend to a common stale," is Don Pedro's explanation for standing idly by as Claudio destroys Hero's reputation.  Leonato, believing that his daughter has shamed him, imagines having taken in an orphan to raise "Who smirch'd thus and mired with infamy, I might have said 'No part of it is mine; this shame derives itself from unknown loins'." Dogberry is so anxious for his reputation and social standing that even after hearing the full litany of Borachio's crimes, the crime he fixates on is Conrad calling him an ass.

The characters who most embody this terror of embarrassment, however, are Benedick and Beatrice.  Both perform roles on the very margin of acceptable behavior (where acceptable means, among other things, acceptable for their gender).  Benedick is a jokester, but if people started laughing at him instead of with him, he'd be a clown; Beatrice is a wit, but all it takes is a few too-tart jokes for her to be branded a shrew.  They are thus both frantically aware of the danger posed to them by embarrassment, of losing control of the face they present to the world and being seen not as they would like to be seen--cool, detached, unfussed by silly emotions--but as they secretly fear they really are.  Their masked encounter at the revel leaves them both (Benedick in particular) so rattled because in it they hear the things they fear most from the person they secretly want.

When Don Pedro hatches his plan to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love with each other, he uses these very fears to pierce their defenses, and paints a picture in which both are terrified of embarrassment but eager to inflict it on others.  Benedick, he announces, "would make but a sport of it and torment the poor lady worse" if he found out about Beatrice's feelings for him, and Hero and Ursula, coached by him, agree that "it were not good [Beatrice] knew [Benedick's] love, lest she make sport at it."  Though he speaks as if he expects Benedick and Beatrice to be so ruled by their fear of embarrassment that it will override all other desires ("I measure him," he quotes the fictional Beatrice, "by my own spirit; for I should flout him, if he writ to me; yea, though I love him, I should") Don Pedro clearly expects the "revelation" that Benedick and Beatrice love each other to soothe the sting of his words, and so it does.  Knowing that they are loved, for all their foibles and weaknesses, gives Benedick and Beatrice the courage to be vulnerable--"I do love nothing in the world so well as you; is not that strange?" is Benedick's bewildered, self-deprecating declaration to Beatrice--and to put aside the masks with which they've staved off embarrassment, letting themselves be seen.

"Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?" Benedick asks before he and Beatrice confess their love.  "All this while" can be taken to mean the duration of Claudio's refusal and accusation of Hero, which immediately precedes this scene (Whedon, meanwhile, takes the question literally, and inserts a gap of time between the two scenes for Beatrice to have wept in).  But I prefer to think that the question is more symbolic, that it represents Benedick's realization that Beatrice is more than just "Lady Disdain," but a person, who is sometimes sad.  And though Benedick's love doesn't magically make that sadness disappear, it does give Beatrice a safe space to be sad in, as when she admits, in her next meeting with Benedick, to being "very ill" over Hero's misfortune.

Even after they learn how to be honest with one another, however, the play doesn't let up on subjecting Benedick and Beatrice to embarrassment.  It is almost astonishing, reading the original text, how often and at what wildly inappropriate times Don Pedro and Claudio tease Benedick about his romance with Beatrice--immediately after they learn of Hero's "death," or just before Claudio's punishment marriage to, as he believes, Leonato's niece.  And though they can admit their love to one another in private, it takes some prodding for Benedick and Beatrice to admit it in public in the play's final scene (in fact they never entirely do--their final word on the matter is that they are getting married out of mutual pity), and its conclusion seems to be less that the two of them can hold their heads up high, and more that in the end, embarrassment doesn't matter--"a college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour.  Dost thou think I care for a satire or an epigram?" is Benedick's response to Don Pedro's final jab at him.  In the end, Much Ado About Nothing is a play about people who are terrified of being seen for the weak, silly people they really are, only to discover that it's actually wonderful.

With a few minor (and not very successful) exceptions, embarrassment is almost absent from the main storyline of Whedon's Much Ado.  One doesn't get the sense that its characters are particularly frantic for their image, nor is it ever in much danger--as if the characters' desperation to be cool had rubbed off on their director (I'm almost inclined to suggest that the reason Whedon's Much Ado isn't funny is that he can't bear for his characters to be laughed at).  One sees this especially in the case of Benedick.  In Branagh's film, Benedick is deliberately emasculated.  Branagh's performance is shouty and high-strung, his voice frequently rising to a high pitch.  The other male characters treat him with indulgence and bemusement--when Beatrice observes that "nobody marks [Benedick]" it's after we've seen him desperately trying to hold Don Pedro's attention with one more joke.  In Whedon's film, it's Benedick who gets to be indulgent and bemused.  Denisof plays him as smug and sarcastic, blithely drawling his pronouncements about the silliness of everyone around him from a position of utmost confidence and security (one hardly knows where to look when this self-satisfied Benedick describes himself as "merry"--it's hard to imagine a more joyless version of the character).

It's a choice that robs the audience of the shock (and satisfaction) of seeing the clownish Benedick show his mettle when he castigates Claudio and Don Pedro for humiliating Hero, but it also robs the character of much of his depth--this Benedick starts the play a cool guy, and ends it a cool guy with a wife.  In Whedon's version of the story, Benedick is a player who can't commit, a point Whedon drives home with a wordless prequel scene in which we see Benedick slipping out of a sleeping Beatrice's bedroom after a one-night stand.  This is not an unreasonable interpretation--it has some grounding in Benedick's speeches against marriage at the beginning of the play.  But it's not a very original or, to my mind, interesting one, and it isn't served well by the film and its modern-day setting.  While a modern-day Benedick can love 'em and leave 'em, the text's Benedick can't (or at least, not women of Beatrice's class), and indeed the Benedick of the play isn't just anti-marriage, but anti-love and even anti-women.  The film does little to resolve this incongruity, or indeed to sell Benedick's swift turnaround on love and marriage as soon as he hears that Beatrice loves him.  It is as if we were expected to employ romantic comedy logic--obviously the commitment-phobic man will pop the question by the final scene--without wondering whether either the text or the adaptation support it.

Just about the only character whom the film is genuinely happy to see embarrassed is Dogberry, which is why Nathan Fillion's performance in the role is a rare instance in which the film's understatedness doesn't rob it of all power.  Especially in contrast to Michael Keaton's cartoonish take on the role in Branagh's film, Fillion's performance is sedate, and yet he manages to make Dogberry both ridiculous and moving.  He plays Dogberry like someone aping the tough-as-nails, unflappable cops he's seen on TV, but every time the script in his head is interrupted by reality, we can see how thin his skin really is.  His reading of "Does thou not suspect my place?  dost thou not suspect my years?" in response to Conrad calling him an ass is both a tiny masterclass in wringing a laugh out of understatement and genuinely heartbreaking for what it tells us about how Dogberry wishes to be seen.  But it only works because unlike the rest of the cast, Dogberry's self-importance is allowed to seem ridiculous and unjustified.

Part of the reason that I'm so down on Whedon's film, and unimpressed by the way it questions the assumptions of Branagh's version, is that by the time I got around to watching it I had already seen the National Theater's 2011 production of the play.  Directed by Josie Rourke and starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate, this production not only showed me a way to stage the play that is completely distinct from Branagh's, but managed to make the play its own in a way that Whedon never did.  (I wasn't able to see the play live, but a recording is available from Digital Theatre.)  Rourke has some advantages over Branagh and Whedon--unlike them, she isn't bound by a feature-length running time, and she doesn't need to make excuses for (or eliminate) theatrical devices like the actors addressing the audience.  Most importantly, she has a cast who can handle the Shakespearean language in full, without resorting to Branagh's cuts.  In Whedon's film, being able to nonchalantly rattle off a mouthful of Shakespeare is an accomplishment in itself, but Rourke's cast act the lines, which can sometimes mean not behaving as if this archaic language is no big thing, but stressing and even shouting it.  Rourke modernizes the language not by underplaying, as Whedon does, but by pouring the characters' modern emotions through it, and allowing her actors to play with their lines to suit their conception of their characters.  "Love me!  Why, it must be requited," Benedick announces in the original text when he hears about Beatrice's feelings for him, but Tennant, who plays Benedick as even more of a clown than Branagh did, changes the emphasis.  "Love me?!" he exclaims; then, softly, bewildered: "Why?"

But if Rourke has certain advantages in staging Much Ado About Nothing, she also sets herself a greater challenge.  Where Branagh and Whedon split the play's tone between its comedic and dramatic scenes, Rourke reaches for both reactions at once.  That's not to say that her Much Ado can't be purely funny--the twin revelation scenes, in which Benedick and Beatrice learn of each other's feelings, are breathtakingly hilarious.  But Rourke knows that embarrassment is both terrible and funny, and so she frequently injects humor into the play's most serious scenes, and tragedy into its funniest.  Benedick and Beatrice's sniping has a real edge in this version, often teetering just on the brink of genuine nastiness.  Later, when they confess their love to each other, they can't keep a straight face, breaking out in hysterical laughter at what they're saying.  Don John, a character whose thinness Branagh and Whedon both try, unsuccessfully, to counteract by portraying him as suave and smooth-talking, is brought to life by Rourke's decision to make him a sniveling weirdo, whose awkwardness would be pitiable if it didn't conceal such relentless cruelty.  In an early scene, flush with confidence over Borachio and Conrad's promise to aid in his mischief-making, an almost-giggling Don John (Elliot Levey) announces (in a line that Branagh and Whedon both omit): "Would the cook were of my mind!"  Rourke has her actors hold for a moment on Don John's conviction that he has made a clever joke, and Borachio and Conrad's disgust and exasperation with him.

The bulk of this tonal ambiguity, however, falls on Tate's shoulders, and she has what it arguably the production's most difficult, occasionally thankless task.  If I'm underwhelmed by the always-excellent Acker as Whedon's Beatrice, it's because Tate's performance has helped me see how much easier (certainly for an actress of Acker's range and abilities) Whedon's complimentary take on Beatrice, as someone who runs the gamut from brittle wit to righteous indignation, is when compared to Tate's frequently unattractive turn.  She plays Beatrice as someone who can be strident and unkind as often as she is funny and morally trenchant.  In a scene before the masked revel (again, drastically reduced in both film versions) Beatrice and Leonato trade barbs about her unwillingness to marry while Hero and her mother listen, and as Beatrice warms to her subject her family goes from amused to indulgent to sullen, wordlessly conveying that this is an old, familiar argument.  Though we may sympathize with Beatrice's clear-sighted take on the marriage market that her cousin is being launched into, it's easy to see how her harping on the subject could easily become aggravating.

The same might be said of the strong slapstick component of Tate's performance, the gurning and braying familiar from her work on Doctor Who, which might put some viewers off.  But again, Rourke uses this as much for pathos as for humor.  When Don Pedro proposes to Beatrice in Branagh's film, it's a sweet, tender moment of connection.  Rourke, using Tate's comedy, turns it into a tiny tragedy--Don Pedro's (Adam James) proposal is genuine, a brief moment of vulnerability from a character who spends the rest of the play acting blithely superior to everyone around him.  But a distracted Beatrice takes it as a joke, and answers with a broad laugh, mortifying the prince and, when she realizes what she's done, herself.  To try to salvage the situation, she retreats further into broad comedy, trying to pretend that she and Don Pedro were just joshing around, but the awkwardness of her delivery, and Don Pedro's difficulty in getting over his disappointment and joining in, make the scene heartbreaking.

In this scene and several others in Rourke's production, Don Pedro emerges as a person in his own right, not just someone who moves the plot along.  James gives him flaws--when the truth about Hero's false accusation comes out, he distances himself from Claudio in disgust as if he had nothing to do with humiliating her--but also a haunting undertone of loneliness which the play, of course, leaves unsolved (in both Rourke and Branagh's versions, Don John ends the play standing apart from the rest of the cast's dancing).  In fact, for all that Tennant and Tate are both wonderful, perhaps the most astonishing thing about Rourke's production is that it doesn't allow Benedick and Beatrice to dominate the play, and makes complex people out of all of the major characters--this is the only version of the play I've seen that makes Claudio's penance of being made to marry Leonato's niece seem like an actual punishment, with Tom Bateman conveying his grief at what should have been a joyous occasion being made into something bitter, a lifelong reminder of his greatest mistake.

Aside from Don Pedro, the character who most benefits from this generosity is Hero (Sarah Macrae).  Branagh and Whedon both portray Hero as childlike, someone who is acted upon but who seems to have little personality of her own (it certainly doesn't help that they both cut the bulk of Hero's lines).  But Hero the person, not the object of others' affections and schemes, has an important role in the play.  She is the only person in it who presents herself to the world as she is, and doesn't try to tailor anyone's perception of her (which does her no good when a false face is imposed on her).  When Claudio charges her by her name to answer truthfully his "when did you stop beating your wife"-style question about the identity of the man she slept with, she answers "Is it not Hero?  Who can blot that name with any just reproach?"  That strength and self-knowledge are missing from Branagh and Whedon's Heros, but Rourke restores them, first by casting the tall, athletic-looking Macrae (necessitating a change in Benedick's description of Hero, which is here "Leonato's long daughter"), and then by having her play Hero as confident and self-possessed.  In the wedding scene, in which both Morgese and Kate Beckinsale dissolve into sobs, Macrae is tearful but defiant.  It is she who argues with her father over her innocence, demanding that he recognize it rather than waiting in despair for him to bestow his compassion.  It's a performance that does a great deal to make Hero's forgiveness of (and marriage to) Claudio at the end of the play seem like a genuine choice, rather than a lack of options.  (Another important choice is a wordless scene of reconciliation between Hero and Margaret after the truth has come out, reminding us that their friendship has also been damaged along with Hero and Claudio's relationship.)

In praising Rourke's production so highly, I'm aware that I'm in danger of falling into the same trap that I decried where Branagh's film was concerned, of treating one version of the play as definitive, and being over-prescriptive about how the play ought to be staged.  One of the reasons that Shakespeare's work has survived for so long is its versatility, the way that different adapters over the centuries that separate us from him have taken his words and stories and poured them into new molds (as a perfect metaphor for this, one need only look at the very different melodies to which Branagh, Whedon and Rourke's composers have set the play's central song, "Sigh No More").  The fact that I take embarrassment to be the most important aspect of Much Ado About Nothing's story doesn't mean that someone else couldn't find an equal, and equally resonant, reading of the play that is completely different (for that matter, the strong feminist component of Rourke's production is surely not, or at least not entirely, something that she found waiting for her in the play).  A good adaptation isn't (or shouldn't be) one that conforms to your expectations, but one that can convince of its take on the play.  Rourke's adaptation of Much Ado is sublime because it opened the play up for me, and taught me to enjoy it in a new and delightful way.  Whedon's, meanwhile, leaves me dubious that he even has a concrete idea of what the play is.  The value in Whedon's Much Ado, it seems to me, is that it will remind people who, like myself, don't have regular access to production of Shakespeare's plays that there is more than one way of staging him.  But I hope that some of those people will keep looking, and find productions like Rourke's, which also have something to say.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2013 Edition, Part 2

By most yardsticks, I suppose, this year's fall pilot season isn't much worse than previous years.  But it is much more boring.  For every show I've written about this year, there are two or three about which I had nothing to say that I haven't said a million times before--unoriginal plots, underdeveloped characters, blandly beautiful leads, indifferent procedural stories, poorly defined antagonists.  In short, boring shows hardly worth talking about.  The below are the few exceptions--though hardly innocent, the lot of them, of the sin of unoriginality.  (Progress report on previously-discussed shows: Brooklyn Nine-Nine remains funny, SHIELD remains a show that I wouldn't be watching if it weren't for its pedigree, I gave up on Hostages after the second episode, and Peaky Blinders is a lot of fun even as its story becomes more predictable.)
  • Sleepy Hollow - Every year, it seems, there's a new cheesy genre show for fandom to get bemusedly enthusiastic over, often in a so-bad-it's-good sort of way, while I stand on the sidelines and feel completely left out of the fun (see Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Arrow).  This year it's Sleepy Hollow, a show that my twitter stream seems utterly enchanted by--despite, or possibly because, of its silliness--and which I find occasionally amusing but nowhere near zany or well-made enough to get me to overlook its many problems.  The premise--which owes far more to Tim Burton's 1999 film than it does to Washington Irving's short story--sees Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), here a British loyalist turned colonial patriot in the Revolutionary War, brought back to life in 2013 when his nemesis, the Headless Horseman, is similarly awakened.  Ichabod teams up with Sleepy Hollow police lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) to fight off first the horseman, and then a host of demonic creatures.  Together, they discover a secret history in which the key figures of the American revolution (and Ichabod's wife Katrina (Katia Winter), a witch who has been trapped between realities for centuries) are part of a grand struggle between good and evil, a battle in which Ichabod and Abbie are destined to play key roles.

    To its credit, Sleepy Hollow commits to the inherent ridiculousness of its story.  The show is serious about the ludicrous things it throws on screen (and doesn't throttle back on them in an ill-advised and futile grasp at respectability), but it isn't po-faced, and will on occasion allow the characters or the story to come up for air and notice how absurd what's going on is.  But to make a silly story work, a show needs to be either very well-written (which can mean doing interesting, intelligent things with shlocky ideas, as in Farscape, or simply barreling through tons of plot every episode so that the audience doesn't notice how threadbare it all is, as in Heroes), or have extremely well-drawn characters (Farscape is a good example here too, but see also The Middleman).  Sleepy Hollow performs adequately on all these fronts, but not nearly well enough, to my mind, to justify the enthusiasm with which it's been received.  The episode plots are generic monsters of the week only slightly enlivened by the show's fondness for inventive gore (though there's a slight uptick on the plot front in episodes three and four, when Abbie's estranged sister Jenny (Lyndie Greenwood), who has been aware of the supernatural nature of Sleepy Hollow for years and resents Abbie for denying it, is drawn into the story), and the characters, though pleasant enough, are too bland to register amidst the show's general ridiculousness.  With a co-star who is a time-traveling Revolutionary soldier, it's perhaps understandable that Beharie has been tasked with playing the straight man (and her character is anyway just starting to come out of the self-protective shell she formed when she and her sister first encountered the supernatural as girls), but Ichabod, too, is depressingly mundane.  For all the debts that the series owes Burton's film, it jettisons what was arguably that version's most endearing trait, the weird, over the top personality it gave Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane, who was geeky, neurotic, and a little bit nuts.  Mison's Ichabod is blandly heroic, only moderately convincing as a warrior for good or a star-crossed lover desperate to be reunited with his wife, and though the show makes a little hay out of the fact that he is a man out of time, for the most part he comes off as a generic procedural hero who just happens to wear knee-high boots and frilly shirts and say "leftenent" a lot.

    Given that it shares a pedigree with Fringe (and much more besides: with an emotionally reserved heroine, a damaged family relationship, and a romantic couple seemingly parted forever featuring prominently in its early episodes, Sleepy Hollow quickly comes to feel like a very slightly reshuffled version of Fringe's first season), it's likely that Sleepy Hollow will eventually develop a complex mythology and world that might be worth watching for.  But if I were into that sort of show, I'd watch the similarly smartly-constructed, indifferently-written Once Upon a Time, which has the advantage of prioritizing female characters and relationships (though it is worth noting that Sleepy Hollow's cast is remarkably diverse--Abbie and Jenny are black women, Orlando Jones plays Abbie and Ichabod's superior at the Sleepy Hollow police department, and John Cho has had a recurring role), and of not being the product of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman's brains.  Adding to my dubiousness about the show is the prominence of the Book of Revelation (or rather, the pop culture conception of the Book of Revelation, which consists of only a few passages, mostly about horsemen) in its story, as well as its take on the Revolutionary war as a front in a battle between good and evil.  In a world in which religious, apocalyptic thinking, and a perception of the US as being at the forefront of a two-hundred-year-old Manichean battle, has infected actual public policy and is causing untold suffering even as I write this post, it's hard to take Sleepy Hollow's unquestioning take on this mythology as just good fun.  Much like Fringe's anti-science slant, this feels like a rotten core at the heart of a seemingly frivolous concoction.

  • The Blacklist - Completing the triptych of high-concept, high-octane series of dubious quality along with Hostages and Sleepy Hollow, The Blacklist at least has the presence of mind to do one thing well, or perhaps just very loudly.  That thing is casting James Spader and letting him loose to ham magnificently while everyone else on set throws occasional lines at him.  Spader plays Raymond "Red" Reddington, a former intelligence operative who defected to become the Moriarty of international espionage, selling US secrets and facilitating enemy operations.  After decades on the FBI's most wanted list, Red turns himself in and agrees to help the Bureau hunt down the titular list of bad guys, but only on the completely unexaplained condition that his handler be rookie agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone).  The Blacklist, in other words, is what you'd get if you based a whole show on those plot arcs on Alias when a bad guy would turn himself in for some unspecified but obviously nefarious reason, forcing Sydney to work and possibly bond with them until they tipped their hand.  The problem is that while Spader makes a passable Arvin Sloane--he plays Red with a smarmy charm and jovial good humor that almost obscure the fact that what the show presents as his chessmaster-level intelligence is actually everyone around him behaving like utter morons--the reactive, permanently befuddled Elizabeth is no Sydney Bristow.  She can't hold her own against a character who, by design, holds all the plot's cards, and isn't terribly interesting in her own right.  The show tries to furnish her with a side quest in the form of the revelation that her seemingly mild-mannered husband has fake passports and guns hidden in their house, but this is merely piling bland on bland, and the heavily hinted-at possibility that Red is her father is poorly handled, with none of the characters raising the question even as it grows more obvious.  The Blacklist repeatedly offers up nothing more than Red running circles around people who are neither clever nor interesting, while asking us to wait around to discover who he is and what he wants.  So far, I'm not terribly motivated.

  • Masters of Sex- Well made and well acted as it is, it's tempting to assume that Masters of Sex is yet another attempt to recapture the Mad Men lightning, with the added bonus of a built-it excuse for copious amounts of nudity and sex--like its main characters, pioneering sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the show can argue that it's all for science!  And certainly, in its early episodes, Masters of Sex often falls into the Look How Bad Things Were Back Then trap that marred Mad Men's first season--the people (mostly women) who openly call Johnson, a divorcée with two children, a bad mother for having a job and academic aspirations, or the young bride-to-be who comes to Masters for advice about family planning but can't get the words "birth control" out of her mouth.  Neither of these scenes are unrealistic for the show's late 50s setting, of course, but especially given that the main conflict in the series's early episodes is between Masters's determination to conduct the first scientific study into the physiology of sex, and his university's unwillingness to countenance his work--which includes observing and recording the vitals of volunteers as they masturbate or have sex--it's hard not to take them as an unsubtle argument for the importance of the Masters and Johnson study.  This is a particular problem when it comes to Masters's wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), a soft-spoken blur in poodle skirts who calls her husband "daddy" in anticipation of the child they're trying to conceive and is emotionally destroyed by her inability to get pregnant, not knowing that it's actually her husband's low sperm count that is at fault.  Though FitzGerald does her best, one can almost imagine the show's writers sitting down to write her character and not getting any farther than Betty Draper without the thorns.

    Where the show shines, however, and where it seems to promise to be more than a Mad Men clone, is in its recognition, despite Masters's repeated claims to the contrary, that it is impossible to be scientifically detached when it comes to sex.  Or perhaps simply that it is impossible for William Masters, for all the he clearly believes otherwise, to be so detached.  Masters's argument is that sex must be studied in order to liberate people from the ignorance that causes so much suffering and abuse, but he is incapable--or unwilling--to see that the study of sex isn't just the study of physiology, but of psychology, sociology, and even economics, and that the repression he rails against reaches into all these fields, and affects him as well.  When a prostitute participating in his study reports that her first sexual experiences were of being abused by her uncle, it's clear that Masters, though moved, doesn't know how to fit this information into his scientific schema.  More aware of these facts, but not yet able to articulate them (or to be heard) is Johnson, who more or less worms her way into the study from her position as Masters's secretary and quickly comes to think of it as her own.  Caplan brilliantly expresses Johnson's stifled intellect, her desire to be part of something bigger than herself, and her frustration at the way that her gender prevents her from doing so.  She brings the show, and the rest of the cast, to life (though her chemistry with Sheen is uncomfortable given how Masters and Johnson's relationship played out in reality, and how borderline exploitative his behavior towards her is in the show's early episodes).  It's still not clear to me what kind of story Masters of Sex wants to tell--and I worry that the show is going to end up essentially arguing that sex was invented by a man in a lab coat--but in Caplan's vivid performance, and in the way that Johnson draws attention to Masters's limitations and perhaps challenges them, it has a spark of life that's going to keep me watching.

  • The Wrong Mans - On his way to work one drearily ordinary morning, directionless loser Sam (Mathew Baynton) witnesses a car accident and then picks up a ringing phone from the scene.  When he answers the phone, a voice on the other end tells him to deliver a ransom or "his" wife will die.  Sam is flabbergasted, but his sort-of friend Phil (James Corden), a fantasist who works in the mail-room and lives with his mother, is delighted--this, he insists, is his and Sam's opportunity to slip into a new, more exciting life story, with adventure and beautiful women as their reward.  The Wrong Mans, a new comedy series from the BBC, is clearly aware of its antecedents, the fact that its plot has fueled a million Chevy Chase comedies, and it works to find a new spin on this story less through the genre-savvy Phil (who is anyway less savvy than befuddled--he's perfectly convinced that his life is about to turn into the sort of movie in which the chubby sad-sack saves the day and gets the girl, and never mind how bumbling he is or how frustratingly unaccommodating the kidnappers and gangsters he and Sam encounter are), than by throwing the plots of seemingly a dozen such films into the blender, so that Sam and Phil move rapidly from one in-over-their-heads story to the next.  So far the show has fielded a kidnapping, a femme fatale, several varieties of gangsters, government agents, moles selling state secrets, and stolen art.  In one delightful sequence, Sam and Phil are rescued by a super-agent played by Dougray Scott who promises to save the day, but in the very next scene he wanders into his own conspiracy thriller and is immediately dispatched, leaving Sam and Phil to muddle their way through yet another crisis.

    The Wrong Mans has a strong cast and a surprisingly deep bench--big name British actors like David Harewood and Dawn French turn up in bit parts--but the focus, unsurprisingly, is on Baynton and Corden (who also created and wrote the series).  Either out of choice or because their story doesn't leave them much scope for originality on the character front, Sam and Phil are familiar types already perfectly drawn by Shaun of the Dead and its ilk--Sam is well-meaning but immature, unsure how to be an adult and happy to float through life without making any decisions or striving for anything; Phil is quite certain that he doesn't want any of that vaunted maturity but still expects the world to hand him an adventure.  Baynton and Corden embody these roles with enough personality to make them their own (though the same can't be said for the supporting cast--it is particularly disappointing that Sarah Solemani, as Sam's boss and ex-girlfriend, is given so little to work with as she plays the standard disappointed, hectoring female part), but still the reason that The Wrong Mans works is less its originality and more how well-made it is, not just by its writers and cast but by its directors and cinematographers.  The hyper-realistic, alienating style, and the tense soundtrack, put me strongly in mind of Utopia (as well as, again, Shaun of the Dead, as the show replicates that film's trick of suggesting genre tropes--the opening shot sees Sam sprawled out in his bed looking dead--only to reveal that they are merely the horror of mundane suburban life--Sam turns out to be merely very badly hung over).  Like Utopia, The Wrong Mans draws a lot of its tension--and humor--from the Wes Anderson-ish trope of fixing the camera in a way that suggests normalcy, then showing us something shocking--a car accident, a murder--within that fixed frame, violating the scene's normalcy in a way that the audience doesn't know how to deal with any more than Sam does.  It's a deceptively simple trick that highlights what a slick production the show is, and makes it a pleasure to watch even though its story is unoriginal.  The Wrong Mans may be too familiar to transcend its inspirations, but its strong cast and style--not to mention some very funny moments--make this iteration worth watching.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A Sense of an Ending: Thoughts on Breaking Bad and Dexter

The most shocking moment in Breaking Bad's final episode, "Felina," happens in its teaser.  Having spent months holed up in rural New Hampshire as his body finally succumbs to cancer, fed only by scraps of news about his family's (mostly ill) fortune in the wake of his exposure as the meth manufacturer Heisenberg, Walter White is headed back to Albequerque.  Slipping into an unlocked car, he frantically and ineffectually scrapes at the ignition with a screwdriver.  As the lights of an approaching police car begin to illuminate the car's interior, Walt--sick, tired, and cold--leans back in despair, and then speaks.  "Just get me home," he rasps.  "Just get me home.  I'll do the rest."  With less than an hour left in his show (and only a few days left in his life), Walter White is praying.

At the most basic level, this is shocking because Walt has never been presented as a person who thinks about spiritual matters, much less the existence of god.  If anything, we might describe Walt as a hyper-materialist, a person who sees the world purely in terms of the building blocks it offers him in his relentless problem-solving, a Heinleinian Competent Man taken to terrifying extremes.  What few moments of spiritual contemplation we've seen him engage in over the course of the show's five seasons have mostly been bound up in something, or someone, concrete--his family, his children, most of all his infant daughter Holly.  For Walter White to ask anyone for help is a big deal--almost the only person in the series who has enjoyed that dubious privilege is his assistant Jesse, and Walt only tolerated that necessity because of his feelings of utter superiority and control over Jesse, which he went to murderous extremes to maintain.  Appealing to a higher power, even if it's just undirected flailing (which, just to be clear, is most likely what's happening here; when I say that Walt is praying I don't mean that he believes in a higher power), seems so foreign to who Walt is that it drives home just how far he's fallen and how desperate he is.

That's not what I thought about, though, in the moment.  When I first watched this scene, what shocked me about it--appalled me, even--was Walt's audacity, not just in praying for help in his quest to cause more violence, pain, and death--he has left his hiding place in order to make one last stab at getting his ill-gotten gains to a family that wants nothing to do with them or him, and to take revenge on the neo-Nazi gang that has taken over his meth business and killed his brother-in-law Hank--but in assuming that he and god are on the same side.  "I'll do the rest," Walt says, as if his plan was actually god's plan, and Walt just needs a little help to carry it out.

The thing is, though, Walt is right.  Up until this episode, if you were to look for evidence of some sort of providence operating within the Breaking Bad universe, you would have to conclude that it was--quite reasonably and naturally--opposed to Walt's choice to become a meth manufacturer and murderer, and constantly offering him chances to get off the bad path he'd chosen.  From the first season episode in which Walt's former friends and business partners Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz offer to pay for his cancer treatments (allegedly the reason he gets into the lucrative meth business) to moments before the opening of "Felina," when Walt's son (who has abandoned, probably forever, his given name of Walter Jr., and now goes by Flynn) angrily rejects his father's latest attempt to justify his crimes by giving drug money to his family, there have been countless signs and signals sent to Walt that what he's doing is wrong, destructive, and ultimately self-defeating.  In "Felina," however, the message is reversed.  When Walt, after his short prayer, checks under the car's sunguard, he does it gingerly, as if he realizes that what he finds there will be a final statement on whether the universe is on his side.  When the keys that are hidden there fall, literally, into his lap, they are shot from above, like a gift from heaven.  Whatever their differences in the preceding 61 hours of television, in "Felina," god is on Walter White's side.

It's an impression more than borne out by the rest of the episode, in which Walt's actions seem blessed.  Despite being one of the most notorious and wanted men in Albequerque (and despite being spotted on one of his early forays into town) Walt doesn't even come close to the clutches of the police (he evades them even in the episode's closing moments, when he succumbs to a bullet wound before they can arrest him).  He flits from one location to another as if by magic, seeing but unseen even when he's in public, as when he watches his son in the street, or confronts his former associates Todd and Lydia in a crowded restaurant (Matt Zoller Seitz has written an excellent post about Walt as a ghost, appearing in rooms--Gretchen and Elliot's house, Skyler's kitchen--as if out of nowhere, but another way of describing it might be divine intervention).  And he accomplishes impossible feats--somehow inserting ricin into a sealed packet of sweetener which Lydia empties into her tea, mowing down the neo-Nazi gang with a remote-activated machine gun mounted on a swivel arm that emerges from the trunk of his car.  Someone certainly seems to be looking out for Walt when his plan seems on the verge of collapse--the Nazis are going to kill him before he can spring his trap.  Suddenly their leader, Todd's uncle Jack, is overcome by outrage at Walt calling him a welcher, and pauses Walt's execution in order to produce Jesse, imprisoned and tortured these last few months as he cooks meth for Jack, in order to prove that he isn't Jack's partner (even in a show that has been rather fond of such characters, Jack's convenient, over the top wickedness is a little hard to take).  Jesse's presence also gives Walt one last chance to do something decent, as he knocks his former protegé to the ground before the hail of bullets can get him and shields him with his body (in the process suffering the wound that will kill him shortly after).

The result is that "Felina" feels as if it has been told, if not from Walt's point of view, than from his view of the world.  In sharp contrast to "Ozymandias," the episode in which Walt's downfall occurred, "Felina" repeatedly accepts Walt's interpretation of his actions as brave and heroic, not Pyrrhic and self-aggrandizing.  Even when the episode hammers the final nail into the coffin of Walt's repeated claims to have gotten into the drug business for the sake of his family, it does so on Walt's terms.  "I did it for me," he finally admits to Skyler.  "I liked it.  I was good at it.  And I was... really... I was alive."

There are in the episode faint hints of an alternate perspective on Walt's actions.  "The whole thing felt kind of shady, like, morality-wise," Jesse's stoner friend Skinny Pete observes after he and his equally dim-witted friend Badger help Walt fool Gretchen and Elliot into believing that they will be murdered by assassins if they don't launder Walt's money and pass it to Flynn as a supposed act of charity from benevolent former friends of his father (though his qualms are immediately alleviated by Walt's gift of a wad of cash).  And in what is perhaps the episode's most subtle note, after five seasons in which the ups and downs and changing configuration of the White family have been reflected in their answering machine message (an antiquated device even in the series's setting of 2008-9, but an incredibly effective one nonetheless), when the episode reintroduces Skyler in her reduced circumstances as the suspected wife of a notorious drug dealer, her answering machine message is the default, mechanical voice the phone came with, indicating that the family hasn't bounced back from the damage Walt caused, and that no amount of money can heal its wounds.  But for the most part, "Felina" refuses to acknowledge that there is another way of looking at Walt's actions in it--that tricking Skyler and Flynn into taking money that they have repeatedly, emphatically refused is one last violation from a man who never accepted that they were out of his control, that giving Skyler the location of Hank and Steve Gomez's burial site so she can cut a deal with the DA is forcing her to use her brother-in-law's body as a bargaining chip, that freeing Jesse still leaves him broke, emotionally shattered by months of torture and trauma, and prey to a drug addiction he never had much control over.

It's no wonder, then, that though most reviews have praised "Felina" for the good episode that it undeniably is, many reviewers have also wondered if it isn't too neat.  Emily Nussbaum described it as what she'd expect from Walt's dying fantasy.  Willa Paskin suggested that the episode represents the victory of team Walt.  Even creator Vince Gilligan (who wrote and directed the finale) has come out and said that even though Walt dies at the end of the series, it was important to the writers that he do it on his own terms.  Perhaps the most succinct and accurate summary of the reservations expressed about "Felina" comes from Linda Holmes, who notes that "a balanced ending would be one that denied [Walt] some measure of control."  But by doing something as foreign to his nature as giving up control to a higher power, as he does in the episode teaser, Walt somehow gains total control.  Being on god's side means that not only are his plans successful, but that, for the first time in the series's five-season run, he can control their consequences, and even the emotions that people feel because of them.


Of course, when we talk about god in the context of a TV show, what we're really talking about is the writer.  The reason that "Felina" feels as if some higher power is guiding and protecting Walt is that, for once, the story he wants to happen to him, and the story the writer wants to tell, are largely the same.  This is true of all stories, but the writer's role as god--and the way that "Felina" brings god into a story that previously had no declared space set aside for the concept--feels particularly important when discussing anti-hero shows.  In series like Breaking Bad, the writer is expected to do more than just determine the characters' fates; his role is to counteract their depravity by acting as the voice of absolute morality, the arbiter of right and wrong, the dispenser of reward and punishment.  It's a role that, in the past, Breaking Bad's writers have embraced with gusto--this is the show, after all, that at the end of its second season literally rained hellfire on Walt's head as punishment for his greed and cruelty.  So it is more than a little jarring for it to wag its finger at Walt's transgressions, and then give him exactly what he wants.

To be clear, when I talk about "Felina" being too neat and told from Walt's side, I'm doing so as an act of description, not passing judgment.  I'm not trying to argue that letting the show end on Walt's terms is a "bad" ending.  Rather, I'm trying to work out what we mean when we talk about a "good" ending, particularly when it comes to an anti-hero show like Breaking Bad.  I've seen some people who didn't like the finale's pro-Walt slant suggest that the series might have done better to end with the brutal "Ozymandias," and I agree that that could have worked.  (To be sure, if your interest going into the finale is in the innocents and semi-innocents who have been hurt by Walt's actions--Skyler, Jesse, Marie, the kids--then "Felina," for all its deliberate ignorance of the complicated situation in which it leaves these characters, is a more satisfying ending than "Ozymandias," which leaves them in dire straits.  But it certainly can't be said that getting them to this "happy" ending is the purpose of the later episode; like everything else in it, it is a consequence of "Felina"'s focus on Walt--he wants his family, and eventually also Jesse, to be safe, and therefore they are.)  But I'm not sure I see that it would have been a better ending.  It would change the show's story, but does it therefore follow that a story about Walt's double life exploding and catching his entire family in the crossfire is better than one about Walt snatching some small measure of victory out of the ashes of that defeat?

Talking about "good" and "bad" endings feels like another way of addressing the whole host of questions raised by the anti-hero show concept, and the way that that conversation often seems to shade into self-justification.  If we want a happy ending for Walt, then we're Bad Fans too blinded by his coolness to see the horrible things he's done.  But if we want him to get his comeuppance, aren't we being both bloodthirsty and hypocritical?  I never watched The Shield, but I remember, when it ended a few years ago, hearing fans praise its ending--in which main character Shane killed his family and then himself rather than go to jail for his crimes, and crooked cop protagonist Vic Mackey lost his family and was consigned to the living hell of a mundane desk job--and feeling just a little bit put off.  How do you spend seven seasons following the ups and downs of a character's life, I wondered, and then cheer at their downfall, as if the hope of it was the only reason you'd tuned in?  I've gone on here about the role of god in "Felina," and the way that the writers of anti-hero shows stand in for god, because it seems to me that there is, in the conversation about such shows, the expectation that their ending function as a sort of moral setting to rights, with god (or the writer) stepping in to distinguish good from evil and give to each character their just desserts.

It's not a burden that any writer could shoulder comfortably.  The Sopranos probably dealt with it best when it simply refused to acknowledge it.  Though I am, for the most part, persuaded by the detailed arguments that the sudden cut to black at the series's end represents Tony's death, they seem to me to be missing the point, which is that it's not what happens to Tony that matters, but how it's shown to us (or rather, not shown).  We don't get to see Tony's brains splattered over his screaming wife and children, and to rejoice in his comeuppance; neither do we get to see him peacefully finish his dinner and go on to live a long life of violence and dominance marred only by the existential burden of being Tony Soprano.  If we've come into the episode looking for some final, authoritative statement about Tony, life, and morality that will somehow make it alright for us to have been watching his story for eight years, the cut to black denies it to us.  But of course, having found this perfect ending once, The Sopranos has denied it to all other TV shows (and not just anti-hero stories) for probably decades to come.  And anyway, Breaking Bad is not the kind of show that could shoulder this kind of philosophical ending.  It's a show with a brilliant story and complex characters, but not much thematic depth, and it ran out of whatever it had to say about the world or its subject matter (mainly, the parallel it drew between the drug trade and legal commerce) some time in its third season.  Its ending needed to be story-driven as well, and Gilligan and his writers therefore needed to choose one of two inherently problematic options--victory or comeuppance.  (Meanwhile, Mad Men's recent sixth season finale quietly promises to revolutionize the genre by offering its anti-hero a chance to change for the better.  It has thus been extraordinarily frustrating to see reactions to "Felina" that refer to it as the capstone on the anti-hero craze, especially since to my mind Mad Men is clearly the better show.)

What it really comes down to, of course, is the question of how anti-hero shows justify their existence.  Why are we watching stories about terrible men doing terrible things?  Why are the people lucky enough to be granted a voice and a platform in our super-saturated culture choosing to tell these stories?  All too often, it seems to me, we try to justify our fondness for these shows by treating them like moral fables--"I watch Breaking Bad to see Walt get his comeuppance," as if it takes 62 hours of television to make the point that producing and selling addictive poison is bad.  Which is not to say that anyone who came to "Felina" expecting the kind of quasi-religious handing down of judgment I've described here is Watching it Wrong (Todd VanDerWerff, for example, makes an argument for a religious reading of Breaking Bad that is much broader than mine).  Rather, my point is that I'm not sure that there's a way of watching a show like Breaking Bad right, without falling into either the trap of rooting for Walt, or the one of wishing for his downfall.  When it comes to a character who is, ultimately, evil, it may be fun and thought-provoking to watch them in the middle of their story, rooting for them to be smarter and stronger than the other bad guys, cringing at their loss of moral direction.  But I'm not sure that either of the endings on tap for such a character--triumph or death--can ever be truly satisfying.


Going from talking about Breaking Bad to talking about late-era Dexter is a bit like contemplating a stirring poem, and then an illiterate scrawl.  It's not so much that the latter is bad as that it is incoherent and meaningless.  I could go on for hours about Walter White as a character, but I wouldn't even know where to begin talking about what Dexter Morgan has become in the last three, or even four, seasons of the show that bears his name, not even to describe how it's all gone wrong.  Even in the midst of its seventh season--the closest the show came to a return to form after losing its way in its second half--Dexter kept changing its mind about who and what its title character was, sometimes from one week to the next, making both the character and the show impossible to get a grip on.  Coming closest to managing that task this summer was AV Club reviewer Joshua Alston (whose canny reviews have been the main, if not only, reason to watch the show's eighth and final season), who identified the underlying flaw of later Dexter as an unwillingness to call the title character on his flaws and failings that bordered on hero-worship.  As Alston incisively points out in his review of the season's ninth episode:
Dexter's writers go to unbelievable lengths to keep Dexter suspended above everything else because they see him as a superhero, a man who has bravely taken responsibility for vanquishing evil in the world and whose only real flaw is his need for human connection. Essentially, they think of Dexter as a low-tech, plain-clothed version of Christopher Nolan's Batman, charged with a vital duty he's too heroic to abandon, and forced to carry the weight of the chaos it causes around him.
Dexter, in other words, has become the sort of show you'd get if Breaking Bad were run by Team Walt.  As self-evident as the comparisons to Breaking Bad seemed this year, however, with both shows spending the summer barreling towards their end in such different ways, it's worth remembering that Dexter wasn't always a natural fit in the anti-hero show genre.  True, there are some superficial points of similarity--Dexter is a white, middle class man with a harmless exterior and a dangerous hobby, and his girlfriend (later wife) Rita was Skyler White back before anyone felt like coming to Skyler White's defense.  But I think that if you'd told the show's creators, back when it premiered in 2006, that one day you'd be able to draw a circle around their show that would also encompass The Sopranos, they would have been very surprised.

The truth is that to begin with, Dexter was not an anti-hero as we've come to define the character type.  The crux of shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or The Shield is watching a human being turn into a monster.  In its first four seasons, Dexter was a show about a monster slowly figuring out that it might be possible for him to be human.  The fact that people--and not just killers, but innocent people as well--died at his hands or because of him wasn't a reflection on the kind of person was, because he wasn't a person at all.  It was merely an expression of his nature.  In these seasons, the show very rarely got bogged down in inane questions like "murder--right or wrong?" (and when it did, it was in intriguing ways, such as Dexter's dismay that his supposedly normal friends would consider it a kindness to kill a woman dying of a painful cancer).  It took it as a given that what Dexter was doing was, at best, a necessary release valve for his inherently monstrous nature, and focused instead on the question of whether he could ever learn to overcome that nature (and the tragic suggestion that, no matter how much Dexter might desire such a transformation, it might always be beyond him).

If you had to pick a single reason for why Dexter became such an incoherent, morally muddled show, you might do worse than to point an accusing finger at Breaking Bad.  Perhaps not literally, but there is an undeniable shift towards an anti-hero show mentality in Dexter's back half.  Where before the show focused on what Dexter was--an uncontrollable killer only barely held in check by a "code"--in its later seasons the focus shifted to what he did--his various murders and the people who died because of him--and how these acts could be justified or swept under the rug.  It's as though the show's writers, who had previously assumed that the only way to have an unrepentant killer as your protagonist was to make him less than human, looked around and, seeing so many other fully human characters getting away with depravity that Dexter never even dreamed of, got jealous and decided to do the same.  And then promptly forgot about the moral condemnation that goes hand-in-hand--however hypocritically, on occasion--with this kind of character.  Dexter, after all, is the hero of his story, not someone the audience should be rooting against.

One odd consequence of this is that in its final season Dexter ends up highlighting, far more clearly than other, better shows, the inherent problem of trying to find a satisfying ending to an anti-hero story.  Should the show end with Dexter exposed, or dead, or in any way punished?  We've spent four seasons being told that Dexter is a good guy, someone who is performing a necessary public service, whom the audience should be rooting for.  It would be the height of hypocrisy to turn around at the final episode at claim that he deserves punishment.  Should Dexter reform, completing his transformation into a real boy?  For four seasons the show has depicted Dexter as a thoroughly normal human being who just happens to occasionally kidnap people, strip them naked, tie them to a table, and stab them to death.  There's no humanity left for him to grow into.  Should Dexter, then, get away with everything, live happily ever after as Miami's resident serial killer?  But then what about all the hurt he's caused to innocent people, including his family, in the best tradition of anti-heroes?

By the time it came to write its end, Dexter had no way of escaping the obvious questions that any choice of ending would raise, and its writers therefore chose to gesture at every one of them and settle on none.  Dexter realizes that he doesn't need to kill anymore, and kills the season's hiss-worthy villain, and is repeatedly told by his friends and family (including people, like his sister Deb, whose lives he has repeatedly trashed) that he deserves to be happy, and discovers his humanity through murder when he disconnects a brain-dead Deb from life-support, and tries to commit suicide so that his monstrousness won't destroy his son's life, and survives that attempt but leaves his life behind to become a lumberjack (possibly a serial killing lumberjack).  The show's final image, in which Dexter stares blankly at the camera, feels like a perfect encapsulation of the writers' total inability to find some final statement about their show and character.  It's a failure that absolutely should be laid at the feet of the show and its writers, but I wonder if the root of their failure wasn't in writing badly, but in choosing the wrong genre for their story.


There's no conclusion that I'm building up to with this essay, no satisfying answer.  Merely the question: is the anti-hero story inherently unfinishable unless, like The Sopranos, you choose not to finish it?  I'm tempted to say something like: the problem is in the whole notion of a satisfying ending, where "satisfying" means satisfying some moral code of reward and punishment.  What we should be looking at when we evaluate an ending isn't the genre of a show, or even our own embarrassment at rooting for its character, but the story.  Does the ending stay true to it, and the characters, and the world they move in?  But this feels glib, and more than a little like letting the creators of anti-hero shows--and their audience--off the hook.  It's impossible to divorce this genre from its moral component, from the thrill of watching someone do evil and not knowing whether you want them to be punished or get away with it.  It's that frisson--"I'm bad, I root for Walt!"  "No, I'm good, I want Walt to be punished!"--that is at the heart of these shows.  And it's by dismantling it, and committing to one of those endings, that these shows, excellent though they sometimes are, become inherently unsatisfying.