Mr Robot 3.2 – Legacy

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Episode three of this season, titled ‘Legacy,’ takes us back in time in order to fill in some of the details leading up to Elliot’s incarceration in season two. It begins in the dimly-lit carnival atmosphere of the Eldorado Arcade – where FSociety originated – with Elliot (Mr Robot) and Tyrell examining the 5/9 hack that brought E Corp to it’s knees at the end of season one. With another clever ‘cowboy switch’ that visually communicates that Mr Robot is currently in the driver’s seat, we witness a confrontation between Mr Robot and Tyrell that illustrates a deeper emotional disturbance in Tyrell than we may have previously realized. The late night meeting, however, is interrupted by the series’ newest enigmatic character, Irving, and two of his henchmen.

“If you‘re seein‘ me, that means you boys fucked up.”

Presumably, this is some of the earliest contact Irving ever makes with Mr Robot, and it illustrates why Irving was so confused when Elliot didn’t recognize him when they met at The Red Wheelbarrow at the beginning of the season.

Irving is a masterful character that communicates – both to Mr Robot and to the audience – how much reach Dark Army truly has; it has eyes and ears everywhere and Stage Two has yet to be initiated. Tyrell is forced into hiding, guarded by Dark Army acolytes at a remote cabin in the woods, divorced from all of his contacts. Elliot is sentenced to eight months in jail for harassing his therapist’s boyfriend and Whiterose, during a private briefing, expresses his intention to pull the right strings to help manipulate Donald Trump into the Oval Office.

The play-by-play of much of the episode is unimportant. What is important are the details and character development. We begin to dig into the psychology of Tyrell Wellick, whose fanatical devotion to Elliot hinges on the disturbing. We witness the button-down demeanor of Tyrell shift to a wild-eyed frenzy, believing he is a demigod. We also see vulnerability in Tyrell when he expresses that he needs to “look good for Elliot,” when he admits that he is afraid he will become like his father, and when we see Irving begin to serve as something of a father figure to him out in the woods. Beyond all of this making Tyrell more three-dimensional and relatable, this also begins to humanize Irving who – up until this point in the season, at least – has only ever appeared calculated, methodical, cold, and threatening.

And if we pay close attention, there is one huge things missing from this episode: notice that Elliot is not narrating this episode, which is a significant departure from the show’s format. The result is that the audience feels more distant from the characters and events (especially Elliot), and adds to the cloak-and-dagger mystery tone of this season.

As each of the show’s central characters become increasingly aware of Elliot’s dissociative personality, Elliot himself becomes increasingly distant from the audience. As more of Elliot’s associates begin to navigate his dual personas, chances are good that Mr. Robot’s world is going to change, too. Last week we saw how Mr. Robot reacted to losing control over Elliot; moving forward, it’s easy to assume that this nervous rage is going to have real-world consequences, especially as Stage Two is implemented.

This television show has woven a complicated tapestry, constructing intricate connections between hacktivists, corporate executives, political opponents, economic balance, and organized & corporate crime. Mr. Robot is expert in revealing enough information to prevent the audience from feeling overly manipulated while simultaneously keeping us in the dark enough to keep guessing. That’s the strength of the show; we know that everything is connected, but aren’t quite sure how or why. All the while, the story is slowly unfolding, slowly filling in the blanks.

The split personality trope is still a shaky one, but it’s being handled with a unique finesse that hasn’t yet threatened to injure the overall narrative. ‘Legacy’ has certainly upheld the mystery and intrigue of Mr. Robot, and it’s certainly clear that there will be many more surprises down the road.

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The Walking Dead 8.01 – Mercy

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When a show reaches a seventh, an eighth, a ninth season, we often begin to notice some changes in the pacing of the story and in the quality of the writing. Truth be told, it’s usually around the fifth season that things start to smell a little funny. This is typically because the show creator, the writers’ room, and the show runners may not, at the very beginning, expected the show to have lasted for so long; the stories become more outlandish and improbable, themes start to repeat themselves, and what may have once been an incendiary and addictive plot begins to wear thin.

This has happened countless times before. When a show proves to be a consistent draw for audiences and ad revenue is consistently high, a show like Dexter or Lost will be renewed for additional seasons again and again, kept on life support until audiences grow weary, until viewership declines and the show dies the death of a million weeping pinhole wounds.

One antidote to this kind of ‘viewer fatigue’ has been the revitalization of serialized story-telling and television show anthologies like True Detective, American Horror Story, and Fargo, where each season is itself a self-contained story. A story can’t grow old and tiresome if the story only lasts for one season.

The real question for our purposes today is this: Is The Walking Dead beginning to overstay its welcome?

Almost all signs point to “absolutely not.” There have been some misfires along the way, but The Walking Dead seems to have maintained it’s momentum. The most common complaint, stretching all the way back to season two, is about the so-called ‘filler episodes.’ This is a legitimate complaint. The pace of the show slows down, audiences suffer emotionally manipulative cliffhangers, and a tremendous amount of time is spent halting the progress of the story. This has certainly been problematic, but it hasn’t made the story measurably less engaging.

In some regards, these ‘filler-episodes’ have been used to exquisite effect, allowing the writers time to explore the emotional depth and complexity of certain characters. Take, as an example, the season six episode “He’s Not Here,” a flashback episode that reveals Morgan’s journey from the edge of madness and back, after a chance encounter with a lone survivor in the woods. This stand-alone episode, with an extended run time of 62 minutes, was undeniably strong and served to temporarily slow the pace of the show.

One of the main reasons The Walking Dead hasn’t lost its luster is because the story isn’t being improvised season-to-season or episode-to-episode like so many other television shows. Like True Blood and Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead is based on material that existed before plans were ever made to adapt it for television. The narrative connective-tissue is already in place; there is already a tried and true blue-print in place before each episode is scripted and before principle photography begins. In fact, some of the more recent problems with The Walking Dead are directly related to story elements that don’t exist in the graphic novels – like the “heapsters” that live in the landfill. The reason it doesn’t feel like these characters have a place in The Walking Dead is specifically because they didn’t originally exist in the source material.

This is one of the main reasons Fear the Walking Dead has struggled to really get on its feet.

All of that being said, season eight starts things off with a bang, a radical shift from the season seven premier. Where one season ago the group was fragmented, weak, and kneeling in the dirt, we now see unification, strength, and resolve. After the despair at the onset of season seven, this is an interesting way to get things rolling. Shifting back and forth with a bearded Rick in an idyllic suburban home, to Rick standing over the graves of Abraham and Glenn, to Rick delivering a rousing speech before mountain an attack against The Saviors, to Rick with battle-weary red eyes speaking of ‘mercy’ (where the episode gets its title), there is still a pattern of emotional manipulation that most fans will find familiar.

We don’t have a clear idea, with these shifting timelines, precisely what’s going on. We don’t know if ‘old Rick and the cane’ are a fantasy or if they’re a vision of things to come. We don’t know if he’s reflecting on his fallen comrades before the assault on the saviors or reflecting about these events sometime thereafter.

The things this episode does, without digging too deep into the plot, is sets the pace for the ‘All Out War’ narrative from the comic books. It starts things out with a bang, with the unified communities organizing a take-down of Negan and his Saviors. We’re still met with the grinning psychopathic confidence of Negan, and it’s difficult to tell how intense the struggle is going to be. But these are fun questions to ask ourselves – questions that will certainly have people tuning in to see what happens next.

One prediction I do have is that the red-eyed Rick with the glint of light dancing on his face will be seen again in the season finale. I believe that this is the moment when the battle with The Saviors is won. When Rick whispers “my mercy prevails over my wrath,” I am confident that the mercy he speaks of will be a mercy he bestows upon Negan. This episode went to great lengths to remind us that Rick has promised to kill Negan personally. My prediction is that Rick won’t kill Negan – that Negan will find a new home in the cinder-block jail Morgan began building back in season six.

Mark my words, reader. Let’s see if I’m right.

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Fallout – Victor And Vegas Vic

The Fallout video game franchise is unique in that it re-imagines real world locations that the player character can explore – except it’s two hundred years in the future and the world has been devastated by nuclear war. Fallout 3, for instance, takes place in Washington D.C. and characters can visit the crater where the White House once stood, take the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument, and pay a visit to the Lincoln memorial (among many, many other locations and landmarks). In Fallout: New Vegas, the player character can wander down Freemont Street and head up to the heavily-fortified New Vegas Strip, guarded by a fleet of advanced security robots. One of these securitrons is unique, however – his name is victor and he’s voiced by character actor William Sadler, who you might recognize from The Shawshank Redemption, The Flash television series, and Iron Man 3.

Victor is (almost always) the second non-player-character you meet upon beginning Fallout:New Vegas. He’s waiting outside of Doc Mitchell’s house when you first enter the overworld. He has a cheeky cowboy drawl reminiscent of 1950’s western films and a unique visage. This being a ‘Mojave Desert’ and ‘Las Vegas’ themed adventure, it makes sense that Victor is modeled after a real-world Las Vegas Landmark: Vegas Vic.

Vegas Vic is synonymous with Las Vegas, even if you never knew his name. He’s featured on all types of Las Vegas apparel, posters, and shot glasses, and there’s almost always an obligatory shot of him in any film that takes place in the neon city. He’s a 40-foot-tall neon cowboy that was installed on the outside of The Pioneer Club in 1951. He was designed in 1947 in response to a request from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. Vegas Vic and and his famous “howdy partner” greeting was established in hopes of drawing new visitors to the city.

The Pioneer Club no longer operates as a casino, but Vegas Vic can still be seen at 25 E Freemont Street above a souvenir shop. Pioneer Hotels still owns a gambling hall in Laughlin, Nevada, along the Colorado River. A similar sign, referred to as River Rick, can be found there.

Mr Robot 3.1 – Undo

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“You know when you fuck something up and you wish you had the power to hit ‘undo’? Like when you say the dumbest thing in front of your biggest crush? Or when you talk shit about your boss in an email and then hit ‘reply all’ to everybody at work?”

“We all have those days.”

Such is the way episode two begins, with an upbeat INXS song (“New Sensation”) and a montage of Elliot’s new routine at E Corp. Our unreliable narrator is hopeful that he can undo the damage he’s done, undo the hack. We see the painful virtual tours and corporate training videos he has to endure at his new job – the security checks and card swipes, the idiot greasy co-worker objectifying women and the other elements of his morning routine.

The beginning of this episode is rhythmically interesting. In many ways it mimics the Aronofski cut that was established in Requiem For A Dream – shirt, pill, train, turnstile, swipe the I.D. card, hit the elevator. All fast cuts. All on repeat. And we listen to upbeat ’80s music and watch Elliot slowly chip away at the senior staff members of E Corp.

Each iteration of the routine ends with Elliot in the middle of a presentation – about cost, efficiency, and security. And each roll-coll introduction of a new “upper-middle” manager reveals a lazy, distracted, arrogant, ignorant, and unconcerned corporate shill – fiddling with their smart phones, ignoring the presentation, interrupting the presentation because they’re bored.

“I’ve got a soul-cycle class I’m late for. Let’s pick this up sometime…next quarter?”

The beginning of this episode has the stains of American Psycho all over it, right down to the ’80s music, the polished surface of corporate America, and the roiling ocean of distraction and discontent beneath the surface. At the end of each cycle, we see that Elliot has managed to remove another corrupt manager; the space-bar click sound effect machine-guns the exit of corrupt corporate leaders – the sub-prime scammers, pension embezzlers, ponzi schemers, and sexual harassers.

Until he finally gets a receptive audience who gives him what he wants: the digitization of all corporate records.

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The first act is the most important. Elliot grinds through the days until he gets what he needs in order to try and begin reversing the damage he has done. Act two finds Elliot speaking with Krista, his therapist, who later recognizes his dissociative personality and seizes an opportunity to speak directly with Mr. Robot. Little comes of the conversation; the audience watches Krista come to terms with truths that the audience is already aware of.

Copycat organizations begin masquerading as F-Society and the noose tightens around Darlene. A currency war is introduced, presenting the tired notion of an “America Versus China” conflict. Joanna, manipulative and beautiful as she is, dies at the hands of her lonely and jealous lover, leaving her blood-stained infant wailing in the back of a car. No character shows remorse, even with the presence of the crying child, and I don’t believe the audience really cares, either. The woman was something of a robot herself.

Obviously Mr. Robot is building tension and stacking pieces together; long-form narrative is chess, not checkers, slow and patient strategy, rather than impulse. But there is absolutely nothing about this episode that stands out. Elliot crazy. China bad. Crazy wife dead. Audience not surprised.

Perhaps this is an insulting analysis. Maybe this is all building toward something more. But for now, I find myself not giving a single f*** about any of these characters, what they’re doing, or the world they live in. The story is pregnant with intrigue but lacks sympathetic characters. Let’s hope something changes.

Let me know in the comments what you think. I’d be curious to know.

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Mr Robot 3.0 – Power Save Mode

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It’s difficult to tell whether or not Sam Esmail’s brainchild will be able to maintain its narrative momentum as we begin season three of Mr Robot. The “split-personality” device is a tricky tightrope walk, especially as contemporary psychology has largely debunked the concept of multiple-personality disorder. This isn’t to say that it isn’t an interesting device that can be used to great effect (think Fight Club or Primal Fear) but it can fall apart very catastrophically (think Identity or Secret Window).

But, for the time being, Mr. Robot hasn’t yet jumped the shark.

Season three has introduced new players to pump some new life into the narrative, but the story is also beginning to fold in on itself. It was clear from the beginning that Esmail hadn’t diagrammed the whole arc; the pilot itself was a grand ‘hail mary’ with wonderful, and likely surprising, success. But Mr. Robot will only last as long as the ratings do. The USA Network will continue to find ways to add new things into the mix, for as long as they can, which could easily doom the show to a fizzling-out in a style not dissimilar to Dexter, Entourage, or Lost.

When the story-teller knows how the story is going to end before the first script it authored, the architecture of the story isn’t compromised by executives and ad-dollars. Deadwood, The Sopranos, and The Wire are excellent examples – all of these ended on a high note that left audiences wanting more, rather than their stories being wrung dry, left to die on the vine, to die the death of a million weeping pinhole wounds.

The opening of season three introduces Irving(Bobby Cannavale), a Robert Goulet/Gordon Gecko mashup whose cold demeanor and self-interest begs for a gaudy pinky ring or gold bracelet. His character is interestingly convincing even while being painfully one-sided and almost clichéd. Untroubled by personal wealth, he’s introduced in a barbecue restaurant arguing with a minimum-wage cashier over the redemption of a coupon. He is modeled after other villains defined by meticulousness – Hannibal Lector, Guss Fring, Anton Chigurh. The idea, really, is to find his style laughable while also recognizing an undercurrent of profound influence and brutality.

There have been a lot of villains like this in television lately.

Irving is tasked with handling the situation between Tyrell (Martin Wallström) and Elliot(Rami Malek). If you can recall, Tyrell put a bullet in Elliot’s stomach at the conclusion of season two when Elliot tried to put a stop to his alter-ego’s machinations. Irving is the linchpin that connects our developed protagonists of the underground hacker network ‘F Society’ with the elusive underground network known as ‘The Dark Army,’ whose goals are still completely, mundanely, boringly obscure; I’m sure there will be a shocking reveal further down the line.

What interests me is Whiterose (BD Wong) and his discussion at the beginning of the episode, following a wide, sweeping shot over what we assume to be a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. And this is where I weep for the future of the show – the introduction includes nuclear technicians casually discussing a theory of the multiverse, it then expands to visually reveal a massive technological structure that invites comparisons to the “hadron collider” in Cern, and eventually leads to Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) asking Elliot what he would do if everything could be changed, if everything could be erased, including what happened to their parents, and that it’s an absolute possibility.

Discussions of the multi-verse and the possibility of changing time – Mr. Robot is tinkering with some tricky subject matter that is completely divorced from a critique of capitalism, illustrations of manufactured consent, and a celebration of the meek rising up to conquer their masters.

The psychological drama takes a back seat, thematically, to the opportunity of changing or shifting reality altogether. The masters of the economic world are transforming into masters of reality itself. The unreliable narrator, Elliot, has been completely changed. The story, moving forward, can be good or it can be a disaster. And this episode doesn’t pass the smell test.

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August 13, 2017 – Antique Wagon

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“Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.”
~John Betjeman

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August 12, 2017 – Suits on the Boardwalk

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In my spare time, collecting vintage photographs, there are always a few that stand out. This one is almost a cliche – a bunch of suits with fedoras and cigarettes marching down the boardwalk like the gangsters in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. This photograph always pleased me, so naturally I had to share it.

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