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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July 31, 2017 – Before The Weight of the World

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“When I look in the mirror, I am slightly reminded of self-portraits by Durer and by Rembrandt, because they both show a degree of introspection. I see some element of disappointment; I see a sense of humour, but also something that is faintly ridiculous; and I see somebody who is frightened of being found out and thought lightweight.”
~Robert Winston

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A Lost Portrait

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Almost ten years ago I was laid off from work. It was like being dumped for the first time – I didn’t know quite how to take it or what to do, and it hurt. I had recently moved into an old cinder-block garage that had been converted into a guest house. A dreary place with low ceilings, no climate control, swarming with termites. The air was so thick during the monsoon season that my photographic prints stuck to each-other, ruining them, and the lower areas would collect pools of water.

In short – it was an adventure. Enough time separates the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ that I have some fond memories of sitting on the “living-room” floor with my friend Tammy, playing songs on the acoustic guitar by candlelight when the monsoon storms knocked out the power, a ceramic plate between us on the floor with tobacco and rolling papers. I spent all of my time reading the backlog of books in my collection and would go on bike rides around town.

Another of my friends, Megan, spent a lot of time being a lazy bastard with me, too. Many, many years ago I promised her I’d make a painting of her. As time passed, she would always remind me and I would always tell her I’d get to it eventually. While digging through some old hard drives looking for material for the ‘Image A Day’ project, I found an old folder with some snapshots from that summer of uncertainty, alongside a halfway completed digital illustration. I decided to set everything aside and finally finish it.

The irony, of course, is that Megan has vanished from social media, so I don’t even have the pleasure of tagging her. Smart phones were barely a thing, I was too poor to have one at the time, and none of my old flip-phones survive. So she’s lost to the ages, floating out there somewhere. With any luck, this post will magically cross her path.

In either even, it feels good to cross another project off the infinite list.
Onward and upward.

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I Got A Fever…

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Sometimes I just like to sit down and spit-ball ideas. It can’t all be one big magnum-opus, and I feel like I’ve been spending a lot of time away from the drafting table and too much time prepping for my ‘Image of the Day‘ project. At one point or another last week – I can’t remember precisely – I overheard somebody quoting the famous Christopher Walken/Will Farrell sketch that made fun of the cowbell intro to Fear The Reaper.

I felt like taking a break from the daily routine and pay proper homage. I had actually started this piece a long time ago, but it was nice to have an excuse to sit down and finish it. Hope you like it!

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Better Call Saul 3.04 – Sabrosito

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“Nice to fix something for once.”

Most of the entire run of Better Call Saul has split up its time between the story arc of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and the story arc of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the two primary protagonists. Their stories run parallel, too, as each character is confronted with certain opportunities and temptations. These characters are abundantly aware of the difference between right and wrong, and they both find ways to justify a bending and breaking of the rules.

The overarching plot of the series, at least in the early seasons, is designed to illustrate how these two characters are different and how they’re alike. Jimmy is painted as a reformed confidence-man attempting to leave his criminal ways behind. Mike is painted as a once-corrupt cop who, after the death of his son, is motivated to live a clean life and care for his son’s widow and granddaughter.

Jimmy craves success and Mike craves redemption.
Jimmy has raw ambition and Mike has a planet of regret resting on his shoulders.
Jimmy is frenetic and Mike is calm and collected.

The differences are glaring when we compare these characters side-by-side, which makes their similarities all-the-more compelling. In their own way, both characters break rules, break laws, lie, steal, and cheat in order to achieve their goals. They’re both lost souls. Better Call Saul seems to be interested in fleshing-out these characters individually before showing how they ultimately collide.

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This week’s episode, “Sabrosito,” begins in Mexico, with another little vignette with the yellow color-pallet established in Breaking Bad – yellow means Mexico, and it’s an effective visual storytelling element. The scene elucidates precisely how and why Hector Salemanca (Mark Margolis) has come to find a rival in the meticulous and successful Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) – a question never completely answered in Breaking Bad. Like siblings at war with one another, the competition between Fring and Salemanca mirrors the tension between Jimmy and his older brother Charles (Michael McKean); anger, frustration, and sabotage.

This is one of the weakest episodes of the series. While all of the characters and stories in the Gilligan-verse are stylized, there’s a certain sense of believability that makes the characters sympathetic and the situations believable. Unfortunately, the idea of Hector Salemanca waltzing into the Los Pollos Hermanos fast-food chain and intimidating the patrons – and then holding the employees captive – rings as painfully unbelievable, as false, as genuinely sloppy from a story-telling perspective. The notion that not one single patron took it upon themselves to call the police after escaping an obviously dangerous situation is asking way too much from the audience. The speech that Fring delivers to his employees the following day – the “this is America!” speech – would also, never, not in a million years, be enough to satisfy a base-wage fast-food employee, let alone a whole crew of them. Regardless, Fring speaks the words and the employees cheer and rally, and the whole dangerous, gang-related, terrifying incident they had all endured magically disappears.

That is asking too much.

The Jimmy story-line is more reserved, illustrating the ‘Cain and Abel’ nature of Jimmy’s relationship with his brother. It’s collected and procedural, as Jimmy plants Mike into Chuck’s house in the guise of a repairman in order to collect evidence; the question as to ‘why’ will likely be addressed in next week’s episode, and attempts at prognostication will be relatively useless. One could guess that Mike has been planted in order to gather evidence of Chuck’s lifestyle in order to support a claim, in court, that Chuck is mentally unstable. Time will tell on that one.

Some plot-holes and inconsistencies are, as always, forgivable in a fictitious universe – inevitable, even. This episode broke some walls and provides some reasons for concern, but this may just be a hiccup as the writers find their way from the point ‘a’ to the point ‘b’ of the story. We see a developing relationship between Mike and Gus, and we see a continuation of Jimmy’s conflict with his brother. Gus offers Mike a position that “will depend on the work,” and Jimmy appears to be setting a trap for Chuck in order to discredit him.

Next week, I predict, will offer some answers to our lingering questions.

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Better Call Saul 3.03 – Sunk Costs

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One of the greatest assets of Better Call Saul is its treatment of time. The entire series is a framework-piece, beginning in a black-and-white sequence that takes place in the present. This divorces the narrative of Better Call Saul from its Breaking Bad roots. Then we rewind and dive into the prequel narrative, where we learn about Jimmy McGill’s apotheosis. He’s is a fallen god in the present but a serf struggling to feed himself in the beginning of his story.

It may just be possible for Better Call Saul to be both a prequel and a sequel to Breaking Bad. If audiences remain engaged and the show continues, we may just see the present-day narrative extend into the future. It’s a clever slight-of-hand that the writers are playing, and I don’t believe there’s any precedent for this kind of story-telling in television.

Like the previous two episodes of this season – and some moments from the previous two seasons – much of this episode’s story is told in montage, rather than spoken dialogue. This is a curious story-telling trick that motivates audiences to pay attention to the television and not their smart phones, to remain engaged, to empathize with the characters and guess at what they’re thinking, theorize what they’re going to do next. Just as the entire show is a framework piece, this episode functions the same way on a smaller scale, opening with the dangling red sneakers on the power lines south of the border. This opening scene foreshadows the Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) story-line, but we later realize that the scene takes place after the main events of the episode.

*The composition of the frame in the first scene even manages to conveniently crop out the toe of the shoe.
Season two already explains why Ehrmantraut has a grudge against the Salamanca cartel – Hector Salamanca had a civilian “not in the game” killed in the wake of Mike’s truck robbery – and this episode finally illustrates how Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring finally come together. The recipe is simple and as old as time:

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

The opposing narrative is more procedural and less intriguing, but we know that it’s building to something. We pick up where we left off last week, with Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) preparing to deal with the consequences of breaking into his brother’s house and destroying the recording of his confession. Chuck (Michael McKean) has clearly assembled increasingly clever plans to dismantle Jimmy’s career throughout the course of the series, and his recent trickery appears to be the last nail in the coffin – Jimmy isn’t going to forgive him. We already know that Jimmy is going to become a successful (albeit shady) attorney from the Breaking Bad story, so we aren’t overly concerned with the outcome – we’re concerned with how things unfold. All we have to do, as audience members, is wonder how exactly Jimmy is going to get back into the ring and make it happen. Chuck wants Jimmy to give up law, and we already know that it isn’t going to happen, so we wonder.

It’s a new kind of subtle suspense, and it’s a very compelling gimmick.

We all know that Jimmy McGill is a criminal, that he’s conniving and immoral. Somehow, though, we sympathize with him. We watch him struggle professionally, we watch him struggle with his older brother. We somehow want him to succeed, even though we recognize his moral bankruptcy. Television and Hollywood are replete with anti-hero stories, but Better Call Saul has tapped into the story of the anti-hero without dipping into bald-tire cliché. This story is infinitely more human in its exploration of these characters; it is, quite brilliantly, the best adaptation of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ – thematically, not literally – that television has to offer.

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