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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Reading/Watching Log #30

It's been an assortment of films, comics, shows and books this month: a Gothic classic, a light-hearted fairy tale, a Scandinavian horror, two red-headed warrior women, a lost Jedi, plenty of superheroes, and two crime dramas based on real events.
Pretty much everything has been of great quality, particularly in their variety of female characters and the treatment of evil within the narrative. It might seem ridiculous for me to compare the villain of Tangled with that of American Crime Story, but both are similar in that they provide sympathetic backstories for their antagonists while refusing to glamourize them or let them off the hook for their crimes.
There's a much bigger and more complex post brewing on my feelings about how villains have recently been portrayed in the media, but for now it's refreshing to discover that what I'm watching allows for moral ambiguity and nuance without sacrificing the dignity or humanity of victims.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Believe it or not, I've never read a Shirley Jackson story. I've seen both versions of The Haunting, but this is my first taste of her prose. Recommended to me by a work colleague, We Have Always Lived in the Castle was a great companion piece to Joanna Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock. Both are similarly short (more like novellas) and very alike in regards to theme, atmosphere and the way each story is told through a feminine perspective.
Merricat Blackwood lives with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in an old manor house on the edge of a town that shuns them. It soon becomes apparent why: not long ago the rest of the Blackwood family were poisoned at the dinner table. Though Constance was acquitted of the crime, the social stigma remains.
But Merricat is happy with the family's isolation: so when a distant cousin turns up, seeking to make amends with his remaining family members, she makes it her duty to drive him off.
It's a surprisingly short book - more of a novella really, and the first-person narration takes the reader right into Merricat's twisted mind: full of contradictions, secrets and dark humour. The character study is in some ways the centrepiece of the book, though the creepiness of the plot and atmosphere also leaves its mark.
Kanan: The Last Padawan and First Blood by Greg Weisman and Pepe Larraz
Of all the main characters in Star Wars Rebels, Kanan Jarrus is the obvious candidate for a comic books series that explores his backstory: after all, he's one of the few Jedi who not only managed to survive Order 66, but did so while he was still only a Padawan.
Two seasons into the animated show, not a lot of information has been divulged on his past, so I'm guessing that most of the material here is brand new to any fans of the show/franchise. Greg Weisman (yes, that Greg Weisman, creator of Gargoyles and showrunner of Young Justice) is at his usual best in melding together two distinct plotlines: the crew of the present-day Ghost investigating some missing supplies on the planet of Kaller, and Kanan's recollections of his time as a Jedi-in-training.
These two issues largely focus on how Kanan survived in the immediate aftermath of Order 66: the death of his master (which is a rare depiction of a female mentor/male apprentice dynamic), his integration into the criminal underworld (with the help of a typical Star Wars scoundrel who has a fantastic alien design – when are we going to see Kallerans in a live-action film?) and his navigation of various political loyalties that emerge in the wake of the new Empire.
Kanan is one of my favourite characters in Star Wars Rebels (along with Hera) and this has whetted my appetite not only for more comics in the series, but also A New Dawn, the novel which introduces Kanan to Hera. Weisman's work contains plenty of shout-outs to it, so I better add it to my list...
Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce
·         Alanna: The First Adventure
·         In the Hand of the Goddess
·         The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
·         Lioness Rampant
I was ten years old when I read my first Tamora Pierce novel: it was Wild Magic and I was reluctant to try it (it being the first book my parents imposed on me to try and wean me from The Babysitters Club) but soon enough I got caught up in the adventure, magic and mystery. Later my younger sister ended up with the first book in Song of the Lioness, which infuriated me to no end as a kid (Pierce was my author, dammit!) and for some reason it's taken me this long to finally read through the entire series.
Because the four books in Song of the Lioness were published before Wild Magic (which was part of The Immortals quartet) this read as something of a prequel to me. Alanna and Thom of Trebond are twins who wish they'd been born in each other's place: Alanna to train as a knight of the realm, and Thom to learn magic from the convent where young ladies are groomed for court. Being identical, they come to a logical solution: switch places.
So Alanna heads off to the capital of Tortall as "Alan", where she soon begins her rigorous training. Along the way she faces the usual clichés of any respectable school-story (long hours, strict teachers, crazed bullies) but also more fantasy-related challenges: the mystical Ordeal of Knighthood, the malevolent influence of Duke Roger, and her brother's long-distant experiments in magic.
Pierce's contribution to feminist fiction (especially in the YA fantasy genre) has certainly been noted before, but never to the extent that she fully deserves. Alanna: The First Adventure was first published in 1983, and although the premise of "girl disguises herself as boy in order to become a warrior" had already been handled plenty of times (Mulan, Eowyn and Joan of Arc spring to mind), Pierce was the first one who really explored the daily realities of such a decision.
Alanna has to train in order to achieve her goals – relentless, dawn-till-dusk training. Every injury, every sweat, every bruise and sleepless night is recorded here. She suffers humiliation and defeat. She gets her period and has to bind her growing chest. Pierce makes sure nothing comes easy for Alanna, and every victory feels hard-won.
Of course, it's also fascinating going back and seeing a writer at the very start of their journey. I've no doubt that between Alanna's magical gift and strange purple eyes, she would be derided as a Mary Sue by today's standards (ignoring the aforementioned fact that she has to work, and work damn hard to achieve her goals) but there's also far less fantasy elements than would appear in later books – instead Pierce focuses mainly on political intrigue and warfare.  
I'm so relieved to have finally got all four books under my belt: I've no idea why it took me so long to read such a seminal series not only from the fantasy genre but my own childhood, so it feels good to be on the other side at last.
Pendragon Legacy by Katherine Roberts
·         Sword of Light
·         Lance of Truth
·         Crown of Dreams
·         Grail of Stars
Here's something interesting: both Pendragon Legacy and Song of the Lioness feature a red-headed warrior girl who can fairly be described as "feisty" as their protagonist, and yet whereas Alanna is delightfully determined, grouchy, loyal, passionate and honest, Princess Rhianna is an unbearably obnoxious brat despite superficially being granted all the above traits.
The story goes that King Arthur and Guinevere had a child together, one who was secreted away and raised on Avalon for her own protection. After Arthur is killed in battle, Merlin travels to Avalon to tell Rhianna of her heritage, and convince her to go in search of the Four Lights that might protect Camelot against the designs of Mordred and his mother Morgan le Fay.
They are (as the titles of the books reveal) the Sword of Light, the Lance of Truth, the Crown of Dreams and the Grail of Stars. Each of the four books is devoted to Rhianna's quest to find these treasures, hopefully with the end result of awakening her father from his slumber.
I guess it's not a bad idea, though it does kind of sap away at the poignancy of Arthur's death and the fall of Camelot (here most of the Knights of the Round Table survive Camlaan and Camelot is still a functioning kingdom). Thankfully the author knows enough about Arthurian legend to not actually go through with awakening Arthur and essentially pushing the reset button on his story, but other traditional elements have been changed. Here Mordred is the son of Merlin instead of Arthur, and Lancelot's affair with Guinevere doesn't start until after Arthur's death.
And not helping is Rhianna's characterization – she's self-absorbed from start to finish, going on the attack every time a knight or friend or her mother tries to caution her about diving into danger without supplies or a plan. Annoyingly, the narrative backs her up on her obnoxiousness, which prevents her from gaining any sort of maturity or growth. According to the story, she was right the whole time.
Again, it's a vastly different arc than the one afforded to Alanna, and it makes all the difference.
Heathers (1988)
My exploration into eighties films as inspired by Stranger Things continues, though I was caught off-guard by this one. Who'd have thought that eighties teen movies could get so dark? Certainly half the stuff that appears here (including a student pretending to shoot two of his peers in the school cafeteria and later planting a bomb to blow up everyone in the gymnasium) is not something that would ever be permitted in our current climate, and certainly not in a comedy.
It was apparently conceived as a satire of high school cliques and the sensationalizing of teen suicide, as well as a subversion of the decade's wave of teen movies, in which a member of the "popular crowd" isn't allowed to fraternize with anyone other than the rest of her clique (who are all named Heather). As an act of rebellion, she gets caught up in the "pranks" of a new student who starts engineering the deaths of the school's bullies, making each one seem like suicide.  
Given my recent moaning about the whole "good girl redeems bad boy" trope, it came as a huge surprise that Heathers totally deconstructs the whole notion, with Winona Ryder's Veronica slowly but surely realizing that Christian Slater's Jason is a complete psychopath whose clutches she needs to escape by any means necessary. In 1988! Amazing.
I've heard rumours of a modern remake, only for it to get cancelled several times. It's easy to see why it's been put on the backburner: there's very little here that would translate well outside its original time period.
The Ritual (2017)
Five thirty-something friends plan for a boys-only holiday to get away from it all, only for one of their number to get killed in a liquor-store robbery that same night. As a tribute to Rob, they decide to go with his idea for a trip: hiking in Sweden.
It's cold but beautiful on the Kungsleden (King's Trail) in Sarek National Park, but then of course, the inevitable happens: they decide to take a shortcut through the forest. Several weird symbols, sightings, nightmares and noises later, the four panic-stricken men are certain they're being hunted by supernatural forces.
The whole thing is definitely a mixed bag, with a great setup and location, but a rather predictable unfolding of events. As incredibly fantastic as the design of the monster is (seriously, worth watching just for that) the premise around it is hopelessly cliché (please don't consider it a spoiler if I say the creature is an old god that's still worshipped by the Swedish equivalent of hillbillies). The sheer predictability of it actively leeches away the fear and suspense.
More damning is the fact that Luke (the guy who accompanied Rob into the liquor store but successfully hid from the assailants) never gets a decent character arc. His survivor's guilt never really connects on any thematic level with the primal horror of the forest and its inhabitants, and he sure as hell doesn't get any closure on his trauma. If anything, it’ll be a thousand times worse than what it was at the start of the film! If the horror elements are meant to provide some sort of commentary on grief and loss, the metaphor just doesn't track.
A suitable arc for Luke would have been for him to summon his courage and do everything in his power to save his last remaining friend Dom (all the more so since Dom is the one who explicitly blames him for Rob's death) – but it never happens. Instead I was left with more questions than answers about how Luke will handle the return to civilization, how he's going to explain the disappearance of his friends to the police/their families, and what on earth happens next to him.
Tomb Raider (2018)
Despite being super-excited about this movie when it was first announced, and even more excited when I saw the pictures of Alicia Vikander in action, I didn't end up seeing it in theatres – which is a good thing. It was an average movie, neither terrible nor good – just rather generic and predictable.
It's difficult to know how you can go wrong with the premise Tomb Raider affords a team of film-makers: an independent and adventurous young heiress, an entire world of mysterious ruins and civilizations to explore, the broader elements of conspiracies and supernatural artefacts and elaborate set-pieces... How do you mess that up?
Well, it's not that you mess it up, it's that you don't do anything particularly interesting with it. My friend tells me this was based on the 2013 rebooted Lara Croft game, which involved her searching for her missing father on an island off the coast of Japan. The story here follows suit, with Lara... you know what, you already know how it goes.
Missing father, deserted island, one-dimensional villain, secret tomb, world-endangering McGuffin – every story beat is obvious, every twist is seen a mile away.  Of course, it's always nice to have a female protagonist in an action movie, and two important things about Lara's portrayal come to mind: a) she's not infallible, but in many ways just a normal young woman, and b) she isn't sexualised by the camera at all – which is a miracle given the character's history. 
Heck, I even liked that the Japanese fishermen who are forced to work on the island end up throwing in their lot with Lara – not because they're gobsmacked and awe-inspired by her, but because they owe a debt of gratitude to Lu Ren, the son of the man who tried to protect them (even if this is immediately undercut by the fact they don't actually achieve anything of note).
They get so much stuff right, that it's annoying they miss other obvious problems – like how Lara only ever interacts with two other female characters in the movie, both in bit parts (why would you waste Hannah John-Kamen and Kristin Scott Thomas?)
And speaking of Kristin Scott Thomas, I can't be the only one who's sick and tired of Hollywood prepping for multi-movie franchises by throwing significant amounts of sequel bait into their films, whetting your appetite for a much MORE interesting movie that'll come out later on, instead of focusing on self-contained stories that leave you satisfied on their own terms. In this case, Tomb Raider ends on an intriguing note that left me thinking: "well gee, I would have rather watched THAT movie." Except I won't, since this didn't perform well enough at the box office to justify a sequel.
(And even when they do, the sequel bait is often rendered pointless. Remember in the first Sherlock Holmes film in which Irene Adler's true agenda was to steal a bit of steampunk technology for Moriarty right under Sherlock's nose, only for it to serve absolutely no purpose in the sequel?)  
Apart from a dull and predictable storyline, the movie just isn't all that fun. I can respect the film's desire to take things seriously, which means that Lara has the physical disadvantage for most of her fights, and gets knocked around and badly injured whenever she's forced into seriously dangerous situations – but then things inevitably fall back into Hollywood's belief in miraculous healing abilities. Why give Lara such a crippling injury that Vikander plays with such realistic horror and pain, only to treat it like a minor inconvenience a few scenes later?
Pick a tone, movie!
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)
So this was a lot of fun: an animated Batman mystery/adventure that transports a familiar array of characters into an AU Victorian backdrop, in which Bruce Wayne/Batman attempts to hunt down Jack the Ripper.
It's basically what Sherlock tried to do in The Abominable Bride, only to trip and fall over itself when it revealed the whole thing was an elaborate hallucination set inside Sherlock's mind palace.  Here, there's no attempt to justify or explain the situation – it's just for the fun of it.
There are stories that are about misogyny (The Handmaid's Tale), stories that are misogynistic (that weird remake of The Wicker Man), and stories that are an odd mix of both (Game of Thrones) – but I'm happy to say that despite its subject matter, Gotham by Gaslight knows what it's doing when it comes to its depiction of Victorian gender politics and the fact Jack the Ripper only targets prostitutes.
Selina Kyle points out loudly and frequently that the police would be more assertive about catching the killer if he wasn't murdering ladies of the night, and even after she becomes the inevitable Distressed Damsel, she's able to signal for help, cleverly barter for her life, and even save Batman's life (all while drugged!) It's not going to light up any on-line feminist discourse, but I appreciate the effort that was made.
(That said, she does make the mistake of saying: "I don't need any help," which is what all female characters inevitably say directly before or after a man saves them from certain doom. EVERY TIME).
And I have to admit, I was caught unawares by the identity of the killer. I thought early on that it might turn out to be a familiar face from the rogue's gallery of Batman villains, but ... I won't give it away. Well played, movie.
Star Wars Rebels: Season Two (2015)
I have deeply mixed feelings on The Last Jedi, though at the same time I'm sick to death of the endless drama that surrounds the franchise. Yet the film provides a natural comparison to other properties in the Star Wars universe, so please take the following statement as a helpful comparison and not another dig at Rian Johnson's film: the confrontation between Darth Vader and Ahsoka Tano in Twilight of the Apprentice was more moving and thrilling and heart-stopping than anything in TLJ.
More than that, there's a final shot of Ahsoka, back to the audience, walking alone down a stone staircase into darkness that chilled me to my very soul. It's such a brief glimpse, and yet so epic in its sense of mystery and wonder and foreboding... wow.
So basically, even if you feel burned out on Star Wars, this is something you should put on your To Watch list. Following on from season one, the show adds depth and scope to the proceedings by making the crew of the Ghost a permanent part of the Rebel Fleet; constantly flitting to and from the larger collection of ships rather than operating by themselves out of Lothal.
My favourites are still Hera and Kanan, who could be fairly described as the adults of the team, though Zeb gets a surprising amount of focus as he grapples with being one of a dwindling population of species, and is forced to work with an Imperial Officer to escape a life-or-death situation. I foresee a pivotal role for Agent Kallus in future episodes...
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (2016)
Everything dramatized across these ten episodes happened when I was about ten years old, which means I was not only too young to properly understand what was going on, but didn't have much inkling of it happening at all. As big a cultural milestone as the trial was in America, it barely registered with me at all, so going in I knew nothing beyond the fact that a) O.J. was acquitted and b) it's considered general wisdom that he was guilty.
So watching this unfold was gobsmacking: the Bronco chase, the media circus, the leaked 911 calls, the compromised judge, the jury going on strike, the racist cop, the freaking Kardashians... if I hadn't known it was all based on fact, I would dismissed it all as too ridiculous to be credible.
Given that almost everyone involved in this trial has since written a book on the subject, the writers had a wealth of information available from which to craft their drama. Choosing an angle with which to approach the drama must have been a topic of much discussion, but they wisely settle on: "spousal abuse versus institutionalized racism with a side order of celebrity culture."
It makes for an incredibly rich exploration of events, especially when one takes into account the multitude of ironies at work: that the LAPD's racism works in O.J.'s favour when the defence proves a racist cop of committing perjury, that cops are initially awed by O.J.'s celebrity status, that Marcia Clarke desperately wants justice for a murdered woman while facing sexist commentary from other women in the media, and that the black community rallies around O.J. when it's obvious he cares very little for black culture.
The cast is exceptionally good at bringing the characters to life, with particular credit due to Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clarke and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran. Sterling K. Brown also stands out as Chris Darden – and I feel guilty for saying it, but I came out totally shipping Marcia and Chris. Can Paulson and Brown be cast together in something else? We can't let that chemistry go to waste!
The one somewhat iffy casting choice was Cuba Gooding Jr as O.J. I certainly can't fault his performance, but as many have already said, he doesn't bear much of a resemblance to O.J. Simpson, which was especially glaring when all the other actors were eerie facsimiles of the figures they were playing.
Arrow: Season 5 (2016 – 2017)
For their fifth season, the Arrow showrunners decide to shake things up by introducing a bevy of new characters to replace the old ones they've discarded – and then even more characters to replace the ones that don't last till mid-season. With Laurel dead, Roy gone and Thea giving up the vigilante lifestyle, Oliver is talked into to recruiting and training a brand new team: Curtis (Mr Terrific), Rene (Wild Dog), Rory (Ragman), Evelyn (Artemis) and Dinah (the new Black Canary). Can we all agree that Oliver juggling his responsibilities as Mayor while heading out nightly with a team of costumed wannabe heroes and not attracting any attention from the paparazzi is ludicrous?
Because apart from that, I generally liked the new team and the way they force Oliver into the role of mentor. It's just a shame they have such a high turnover rate (Ragman leaves early on; Evelyn is a spy for Prometheus) and that none of them (sans Curtis) are given a gradual introduction into the proceedings. It took several seasons for Roy, Laurel and Thea to be integrated into Team Arrow, but for the new guys it happens in the space of a single episode.
The show also goes back to its roots when it comes to the season's Big Bad, and as a result they come up with one of their best villains ever – perhaps even the best villain. Scrapping all the supernatural stuff that clogged up season four, the masked archer known as Prometheus is depicted as a dark reflection of Oliver himself: always two steps ahead, so much more depraved than he initially appears, and a direct consequence of Ollie's actions way back in season one.
(As happy as I am that he's out to avenge his dead father instead of yet another murdered woman, the one thing I would have changed about Prometheus's backstory is that his father should have been a bodyguard or other Mook that Oliver casually killed – not a man who was about to release a life-threatening plague on the city so he could sell the cure at exorbitant prices. I mean, if you're going for moral ambiguity, why make your villain the son of such a reprehensible man?)
The story also builds on the theme that was established last season, about how and why "good guys" take lives, and just how thin the line between heroes and villains, vengeance and justice, life and death really is. Honestly, it's WAY too heavy a theme for the show to even REMOTELY do justice to, and in true Arrow fashion it's wielded like a sledgehammer in the hands of a child.
For instance, the gun control episode is completely undermined by the fact Diggle and Mad Dog repeatedly leap into action while toting firearms. And when they tackle the subject of corruption in the police force, they cast a black woman as the dirty cop. Really, show? Really?
And as ever, there are no long-term psychological effects suffered by any of our characters despite the great number of traumatic experiences they've gone through. Evelyn betrays the team, and they just shrug it off. Laurel's evil twin from Earth Two reappears, and it only inspires Ollie to get a Black Canary replacement. Diggle and Felicity occasionally look sad about the fact they killed their brother/the population of Newhaven respectively, but the idea that they might need some intensive therapy to deal with it is clearly a laughable concept.
And despite the narrative occasionally attempting to grapple with the reality of Oliver as a killer with a considerable body-count (the season's climactic moment has him admitting that he enjoyed taking lives) it's obvious the writers are only tepidly interested in the subject and certainly not willing to take it to its logical conclusion. Because honestly, if Oliver really wanted to make a non-violent difference to the community, he should be focusing on his responsibilities as Mayor – combating poverty and corruption with programmes designed to prevent criminals in their youth before they ever break the law at all.
Or, you know, turn himself over to the police. Whether he likes it or not, he IS a murderer.
But of course, the show can't do that – it revolves around the fact that he's a masked vigilante. And that's the problem with superhero stories that try to inject realism into the proceedings (such as focusing on crime and politics) and muddying the waters between heroes and villains. It only demonstrates how utterly unfeasible and self-destructive vigilantism is. (See also: Captain America: Civil War).
Miscellaneous Observations:
All that said, the season arc is still decidedly better than the show's last two storylines, even if the secret identity of Prometheus is obvious. I mean, there's no one else it could be given the emphasis and screen-time given to the one and only viable suspect.
I still don't understand why they would build up Laurel's character for four years, and then kill her off, only to bring back Katie Cassidy as a different character, and introduce another woman with a meta-canary cry to take the original character's place. Why not just keep Laurel?
I was slightly intrigued by the impending arrival of Dinah Drake, but she surely has the most cringe-worthy introduction of any female superhero on the entire show. Or any show.
As superfluous as the flashbacks were (and have been for the last two seasons) the ones featured here at least show Oliver taking the final steps towards the man who first appeared in the show's pilot episode, provides context for the Russian contacts he utilized in season one, and includes the welcome return of Anatolie. Watching them unfold, I realized it would be quite interesting to watch all the flashbacks in chronological order, followed by the "present day" storylines. It would mean a big gap between the introduction of certain characters and their eventual pay-off, but it would be an interesting way to experience the show.
The tradition of pairing up Oliver with one beautiful woman per season (Shado, Sara, Tatsu, Taiana) also continues with the long-awaited arrival of Talia al Ghul. Unfortunately, she's just as horribly miscast as her father. More than that, isn't it a bit bizarre that Oliver has never before mentioned to Nyssa that he's met her sister? (Yeah, I know there were usage rights, but still). I liked the fact that she was the one who introduced Ollie to the idea of using an alter-ego to divide himself from his violent urges, but she's not used particularly well.
I found Oliver's Laurel hallucinations (first seeing her as Talia, then as a vision on the Amazo) were quite touching, despite not being a Laurel/Oliver shipper by any stretch of the imagination. In so many ways his motivation in staying alive all those years was to make peace with the Lance family – making Laurel's death after they'd finally found a sense of equilibrium in their relationship even more inexplicable.
Would you believe me if I said that by complete coincidence I ended up watching the Supergirl gun control episode directly before watching the Arrow one?
Diggle's subplot isn't particularly interesting, though I liked Felicity's involvement with a hacktivist group known as Helix, and the slightly dubious tactics it uses to get results. It's annoying that the men get all "we must protect your innocence and purity" on her, but it gives her something to do outside the role of love interest.
But if you're in the mood for some eye-rolling, check out the Previously.TV forums (which I do for all my shows after watching each episode). It's just ... wow. They hate every single female character except for Felicity, who they adulate to a near-frightening degree. They hate Susan. They hate Samantha. They hate Black Siren. They hate Laurel (even though she's dead). They hate Katie Cassidy. They hate Evelyn (even before they knew she was evil). They hate Dinah. They even grizzle about Nyssa calling Oliver "husband."
Basically, they hate anyone who looks like they could be a threat to Olicity or an impediment to Felicity's status as leading lady. Heck, they even hate William for being someone that Oliver naturally prioritizes over Felicity. I know it's silly to let fandom's opinions cloud your judgment on a character, but I can see why so many people would get sick of Felicity on the basis of her obnoxious fans.
Don't mind me, I'm just venting.
Tangled: The Series: Season 1 (2017)
The day before season two airs, I FINALLY managed to find the penultimate episode of season one, which I would have watched last year were it not for various torrent sites uploading episode twenty instead of episode twenty-one. YouTube eventually came through for me ... but I digress.
This takes place after the 2-D animated movie that followed the original Tangled release, in which Rapunzel and her lady-in-waiting Cassandra go on a midnight adventure to a clearing of strange dark rocks that cause Rapunzel to regrow her trademark blonde hair.
This mystery is an underlying story-thread woven throughout the one-shot hijinks of the first season, though by the final episode we're still left with more questions than answers. The show on the whole is rather odd, as for every episode that thoughtfully explores Rapunzel's reintegration into society, rebuilds her relationship with her family, and shows her adapting to her new role as princess, there's one about a singing ghost hypnotising artistically-gifted citizens into freeing a demonic monster from another dimension by having them paint portraits of a magical tree.
It also bugged me that Rapunzel's relationship with her father is given far more weight and screen-time than the one she has with her mother, who really only gets one character-centric episode. Why do we always treat fathers as more complex and interesting than mothers? Queen Arianna is deeply short-changed in this show, and it's a bummer.
But there are some great supporting characters (not only the little girls and bar patrons from the original movie, but also newcomers like Cassandra the lady-in-waiting/palace-guard-in-training and Lance Strongbow, Eugene's old friend from his thieving days) and a fantastically subtle and wry sense of humour. These days adults can expect just as many jokes for them as there are for kids.
There's a very sweet backstory for Pascal which recounts how he befriended Rapunzel in the tower, and the animation is a beautiful, creating a beautiful pastel arcadia of a fairy tale kingdom for Rapunzel to explore. But you might be surprised at just how dark they go with Varian, the young alchemist whose desperation to save his father takes him into true evil.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the era of creating sympathetic villains and then letting them get away with anything, no matter how violent, is over.  I just didn't expect to see it play out on the Disney Channel.
Also released were four shorts called Tangled Short Cuts, which brilliantly encapsulate the tone and style of the show in its entirety. Check one out, and see if you're interested in the rest of the show:
 Supergirl: Season 3 (2017 – 2018)
Of all the CW superhero shows, Supergirl is my least favourite, which is surprising given its female lead and political leanings. I mean, this should be the best one, right? But this season was a bit of a slog, introducing a villain that wasn't particularly interesting and a storyline that dragged on intermittently (I hate mid-season hiatuses – by the time the show returns I've forgotten most of the key plot-points).
It all revolves around Samantha Arias, a single mother and LuthorCorp employee who gradually realizes that she's of alien origin – not just that, but she's a vessel for a Worldkiller known as Reign, whose destiny is to enslave and/or destroy the Earth. You know, it doesn't really matter. Kara fights her on-and-off throughout the season, sporadically dipping into a host of other subplots along the way.
And unfortunately, most of these subplots are just plain boring. I didn't care about J'onn's father. I didn't care about Alex's newfound desire to be a mother. I didn't care about Mon-El's return or much of the timey-wimey stuff. I didn't care about Guardian. I definitely didn't care about Ruby (why do shows like this insist on adding precocious pre-teens, why?)
There are a few good ideas strewn throughout that could have been expanded on: the cult that worshipped Kara was an intriguing concept, but it falls by the wayside early on, as does the conflict between Lena Luthor and Morgan Edge. I liked the Whole Episode Flashback to Kara and Alex in high-school (even if it was a bit random) and Brainiac was a lot of fun (I'm glad they've made him a regular for season four).
But the season in its entirety just felt lazy; like it was going through the motions without anyone really caring about plot or characterization. I'm amazed Mehcad Brooks is still on the show given the complete lack of interest any of the writers have in him, even though there was plenty of potential to be mined from the fact that he's the head of CatCo.
In this time of "fake news and dishonest media", the show could have explored how James and Kara sold the narrative of Supergirl to the public: her relationship to political/cultural/economic events, her role as a symbol of hope, how to best portray her opinions and escapades, what they should share and what they should withhold about her life, the ethical implications of that, and so on. Instead they just continue with the Guardian stuff.
The return of Poochie – er... Mon-El elicited an eye-roll from me, especially when he's got a wife in tow. For some reason the writers thought the question was: "which woman will Mon-El chose?" instead of: "is our feminist heroine really going to commit adultery?"
Obviously the answer is no, even after Imra grants her husband a free pass to try and get closure on Kara, so the resolution to all this drama is particularly weird: instead of Mon-El simply coming to the conclusion that his time with Kara has passed and he's since fallen in love with someone else (which would have been bittersweet but fitting, and reflected nicely on the maturity Kara was supposed to have bestowed on him) the writers throw in a Diabolic Ex Machina which requires Mon-El to return to the future... after he and Imra have decided that their marriage was a sham and they're better off friends anyway. Er – why go there?
The highlight of the season is Katie McGrath as Lena, and although the whole "I'm unknowingly friends with your alter-ego but dislike and mistrust your secret identity" is a cliché (not to mention a stretch of credibility given how intelligent Lena is supposed to be) it makes for a lot of juicy scenes. Looking ahead into season four, I have to admit I'm interested by the fact that: a) Lena doesn't like Supergirl, b) she's dating James who knows that Kara is Supergirl, c) Lena believes her relationships with both Kara and James is built on trust and honesty.
Of course, it's ironic that Katie will probably end up reliving her Merlin arc and becoming evil due to a combination of fate and a trusted friend not divulging an important secret, but hey – hopefully we'll see it happen on screen this time.
Miscellaneous Observations:
The general apathetic tone of this season is pretty well summed up in the episode when Kara realizes that her mother is still alive, a development that's treated as a casual blip in the narrative instead of a major, game-changing event. Not helping is that Alura's original actress Laura Benati has been switched out for Erica Durance, adding to the season's air of indifference to continuity.
Anyone think it was hilariously weird that Chloe Sullivan was namedropped at around the same time Alison Mack was arrested for involvement in cult sex trafficking?  
Those cape tricks were painfully stupid. Can we please never see them again?
I skipped the Crisis on Earth-X crossover until after I catch up on ArrowThe Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. Having watched the franchise's first four-part crossover across the course of two years, I know it's worth waiting to have the complete picture.
Whatever happened to Winn's alien girlfriend, as played by Tamzin Merchant? I guess she caught Chuck Cunningham Syndrome along with Lucy Lane and Jeremiah Danvers.
In all, a pretty lacklustre season. But I did get to see Anjali Jay again.
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (2018)
After devouring The People v O.J. Simpson, this was naturally next on my list, focusing on a crime I knew even less about. As it happens, Gianni Versace was the fifth victim of Andrew Cunanan, preceded by Jeffrey Trail, David Madson, Lee Miglin and William Reese.
The show choses to present these deaths in reverse chronological order, starting with the shooting of Versace and working backwards, until the penultimate episode delves into a character-study of Cunanan. It's an interesting way of presenting the story, but ultimately an effective one, if not simply because seeing the extent of Andrew's crimes before exploring his psychology and possible motivations prevents the viewer from sympathizing too much with him.
Did he have a horribly abusive and manipulative father? Yes. Did it give him the right to take five lives and cause untold suffering to their family members? Hell no. If you're a regular reader of my posts, you've probably already guessed that I found this treatment of the subject matter to be a profound relief.
There's no glorification of the killer, no attempt to romanticise or excuse him, and there's never any doubt that despite his awful upbringing, he had all the opportunity in the world to make something of his life, only to cast it all away in a murderous pique of resentment and entitlement. (If anything, they go a bit too overboard with the theme of how greatness comes with hard work, and how Cunanan felt wrongly entitled to fame and fortune).
So perhaps the most interesting – nay, revolutionary – aspect of this drama is its steadfast refusal to ignore the victims and their stories. In fact, I've honestly never seen any crime story that has paid so much attention to the lives of those who've fallen prey to a serial killer. It gets to the point where you forget they end up murdered, as you're so wrapped up in the complexities of their lives (usually as closeted gay men from various backgrounds).
As a result, this doesn't feel like the story of Andrew Cunanan. It's instead the story of five decent and interesting people whose lives were cut short by a narcissistic monster. You feel robbed of their potential, their ambitions, their dreams for the future.
Honestly, has this ever happened before? Victims in stories, whether true crime or otherwise, are hardly ever dwelt upon. They're sometimes given rudimentary characterization so that you feel a twinge of sorrow for their passing, but more often than not they exist as cautionary tales and/or disposal components in the killer's diabolical schemes. It's the killer who is held up as fascinating and complex.
Yet here, they are the interesting and worthy ones, loved by their friends and families, leaving behind legacies of hope and kindness. On the other hand, our final lasting image of Cunanan is of his plain and unadorned mausoleum drawer: just one among hundreds.  
Sense8 (2018)
Well... it's better than nothing. As relieved as I was to hear the news that we would get one final special to wrap up the storylines and character arcs of Sense8, it's hard not to watch this and grieve for what could have been. Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski were clearly just getting warmed up when it came to their global-spanning, multi-layered, five-season masterplan.
As such, plenty of subplots which would have otherwise been important are cast to the wayside (Capheus's political ambitions, Kala's pharmaceutical company, that little girl Will had visions of as a child – all of which was almost certainly going to be intertwined at some point), ideas are introduced only to be forgotten immediately (the Archipelago, the Lacuna) and themes are raised which would have benefited greatly with more time to explore them (I feel there was an entire season's worth of material based around Whispers's taunt to Dani – that sensates ultimately don't need their "hangers-on" – as although his claim is clearly refuted throughout this episode, there was plenty of narrative meat to it worthy of exploration).
But as a final wrap-up, they certainly pull out all the stops. The plot is utterly impenetrable at this point, with the motivations of Whispers, Lila and Angelica completely lost in the shuffle, and everyone in the massive ensemble cast getting short-changed to some extent or other, but they also make sure that absolutely everyone is involved, right down to Mr Hoy, Diego, Puck and Nomi's extended family (who I had completely forgotten about).
With that in mind, and building on the point I raised earlier about how the show clearly intended the sensates' relationships with their "normal" brethren to be explored in more depth, I was astonished at how much attention characters such as Amanita, Bug, Hernando, Rajan and Detective Mun ended up getting. Heck, if you had told me that Rajan of all people would get the show's last line, I'm not sure I would have believed you.
But on reflection, it's perhaps Rajan that best captures the spirit of Sense8. Throughout the first two seasons and the majority of this episode, I was grudgingly awaiting one of two developments: that he would turn out to be evil, or that he'd end up dead, thus clearing the way for Kala/Wolfgang. Of course, I should have known that they'd find a third option: harmonious polygamy.
Sure, a character as conservative as Rajan needed a lot more time to get to the place he's at when we last see him (in bed with Kala and Wolfgang) – but we didn't have that time. In lieu of that, I'm happy to take it in the spirit with which it's given, one in which love really does conquer all.
I'm sorry it had to end like this, but at least it was an ending.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you again for these posts. I always learn something new!

    Not much I'm familiar with here other than Arrowverse stuff and Sense8. I pretty much agree with you on Arrow - although you liked Chase a bit more than I did. As for the Laurel debacle - I read some stuff after it was all over that said they actually DIDN'T KNOW who they were going to kill when they shot that teaser at the funeral at the start of season four, and by the time they had to choose Laurel was pretty much the only one that made sense. Which makes my blood boil, because what a pointless, cavalier way to kill off one of your central characters! (I should also say - last time you wrote about Arrow I was very enthusiastic about season 6. I don't want to spoil things, but suffice to say I feel very differently now that it's over.)

    And I normally like Supergirl more than you, but I have to agree this year just felt like a slog towards the end. It seems there were some sort of backstage difficulties around the middle of the year that changed the direction of some storylines, and I'm definitely starting to get the vibe that things may not be great behind the scenes on that show, which is never a good sign creatively. I was genuinely upset that we're losing Winn as a regular (surprising considering how he started as a character!) and I don't particularly like Brainy yet, but I'll give it time. Absolutely no question in my mind, though, that Legends of Tomorrow is, by far, the best of the Arrowverse shows at this point. (You're in for a treat with Crisis on Earth-X, too, which was pretty great.)

    American Crime Story certainly looks interesting and I've heard many good things, and there may come a day when I have sufficiently recovered from Glee to give another Ryan Murphy show a chance, but I am not there yet, I'm afraid (even though I am sure anthology format suits him to a tee).

    Sense8 was a huge mess, which I thought was pretty fitting, really - a huge mess, but one so well-meaning and full of love it was hard to be upset. Although I'm glad I'm not the only one left without the faintest idea of what Angelica's whole deal was.

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  2. As for the Laurel debacle - I read some stuff after it was all over that said they actually DIDN'T KNOW who they were going to kill when they shot that teaser at the funeral at the start of season four, and by the time they had to choose Laurel was pretty much the only one that made sense.

    Yeah, I think I read that somewhere too. And you could tell they immediately regretted the decision, since they brought Katie back as soon as they could. It was just so bizarre - and her death actually has more impact over on Legends (what with Sara's reaction to it) than it did on Arrow itself!

    Re: American Crime Story. I actually never watched Glee beyond a few episode (and I'll keep it that way) but I can definitely recommend The People vs OJ Simpson. I was riveted.

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