Time for some housecleaning and a new look, courtesy of the wonderful selection of templates available from WordPress. It’s always great to open the windows and let the cobwebs out!
Unless you’ve been in Antarctica for the last several months, “Mad Men” has finally come to a conclusion. After all the eulogies, interviews, panel discussions, symposia, fashion shoots and miscellaneous soul searching, a show so firmly rooted in the 50’s and 60’s faded out on a California cliffside with Don Draper meditating, New Age style.
It was a fitting end. “Mad Men” has always been a series about reinvention. Dick Whitman becomes Don Draper, Sterling Cooper becomes Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then Sterling Cooper & Partners, then ultimately nothing as Don’s powers to reinvent the business one more time are finally exhausted. It’s Don’s realization that you can’t really lose your past which causes his breakdown at the California retreat. When he hears himself giving the same “put it all behind you” speech to Stephanie that he gave to Peggy after the birth of her son so many years before, it all comes tumbling down. How fitting that phone call to Peggy was, as he most likely severs his last link with the Don Draper we knew, pushing him back into the cocoon for yet one more reinvention, evidently from King of the Road back to Madison Avenue Ace.
I’ve been engrossed with “Mad Men” from its first episode, though not as enthralled over the last two seasons as I had been earlier. After two stupendous back-to-back episodes in Season 5 in which Joan slept with the Jaguar rep in order to secure the account for the agency, and Lane committed suicide when Don discovered his embezzling from the firm, a significant amount of energy seemed to seep out of the show. An excessive amount of time was spent on Megan, Don’s failing marriage and his increasing navel-gazing at the expense of our enjoyment of Peggy, Stan and the latest advertising campaign. It was always the office goings-on that gave “Mad Men” its pulse; departing from this premise gave this show anemia, at least until the final three episodes.
“Mad Men” will be remembered for a number of things, not the least of which is its depiction of the fundamental change in women’s roles in the workplace and society as a whole. It wasn’t just the evolution of Joan and Peggy that caught the imagination—it was the manner in which they traded roles that always kept the show interesting. At one point Joan takes Peggy to task for firing an assistant for being insultingly sexist, saying she’s done herself significant damage–now they’ll think she’s nothing but a battle-ax. Yet in the end it’s Joan who waves the ACLU and NOW in Jim Hobart’s face when he refuses to take her complaint of sexual harassment seriously. Ultimately Joan and Peggy end up where they’re perhaps most suited—Joan, who’s always been a fixer, spearheading her own business, and Peggy, without Joan’s means (courtesy of that settlement from McCann and Roger’s assuring her son’s future), sticking with the security of corporate life. At least for now.
But what will remain of “Mad Men” is superb drama. TV critics and bloggers have spent the last month drawing up lists of the best and/or their favorite episodes, but to me “Mad Men” is a series of memory flashes:
Bobbie Barrett’s counselling Peggy on “Don’t be a man, be a woman,” Joan’s correctly telling her “They’ll never take you seriously if you continue to dress like a little girl,” and Peggy’s finally asserting herself by calling her boss “Don” instead of “Mr. Draper” for the first time. All in the same episode.
Pete and Trudy’s Charleston and Roger (leave it to him) in blackface.
Every Don and Anna Draper scene, especially when he goes AWOL on his California business trip.
Roger taking LSD and seeing Bert’s picture on the bill he gives the cabbie.
Harry losing it during the meeting in which Don pitches his campaign for the Kodak Carousel.
The British partners’ visit to Sterling Cooper, ending with the unfortunate tangle with a John Deere lawnmower. Roger’s comment offered as comfort to Harry and Ken: “Believe me, somewhere in this business this has happened before.”
Peggy, eyes full of “What!?!,” walking into Joan’s office after Don announces his engagement to Megan, and Joan’s faux-innocent: “I wonder whatever could be on your mind.” Only this could have topped Roger’s classic “Who?” when Don drops Megan’s name as his fiancée.
The evolution of Peggy and Stan’s relationship from sworn enemies to workplace husband and wife to “Now that I think about it, I’m in love with you.” The growth of this over several seasons was particularly well written as we were shown, not told, how well suited they were for each other.
Bert’s farewell in the form of a production number. If anything, “Mad Men” amply demonstrates that the best things in life are not free, but it was great to see Robert Morse become J. Pierrepont Finch just once more.
Don and Peggy’s working after hours, whether on Samsonite or Burger Chef (and learning via Roger’s tape, of Bert’s–er–condition and Miss Blankenship’s notorious past). Not to mention the extraordinary scene when Peggy tells Don she’s leaving Sterling Cooper. Equally memorable, though perhaps the ugliest scene in the show’s history: his throwing money in her face.
Roger calling Joan after that bust of his daughter’s wedding reception on November 23, 1963. After dealing with all those uneaten dinners, a drunken wife and a dead President, his first words to Joan as she answers the phone: “So what’s new?”
Duck Phillips turning Chauncey out on the street (gulp).
Freddy Rumsen zipping out the rhythm of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” on his fly.
Lee Garner, Jr. forcing Roger to play Santa Claus.
Miss Blankenship. Enough said.
I’m sure people will spend acres of print hashing over the finale and pointing out what Matthew Weiner could/should have done in ending “Mad Men.” I for one am satisfied, though I do wish we had seen more of Anna Draper during the run of the show. And a return visit by Sal Romano in at least one episode in the final season. But these would have been icing, not the cake itself, which I feel Matthew Weiner baked very well indeed. Bravo.
P.S.: Yes, I have a favorite “Mad Men” episode, though it’s almost impossible to pick just one. The first photo in this post will tell you my selection: Season 3’s finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” works on so many levels it’s ridiculous. We see Don’s admiration of Peggy, how essential Joan and Pete are and once again, the premise of “Reinvent or die.” Not to mention Peggy’s perfectly flat “No” in response to Roger’s request for coffee during the marathon raid to steal the firm’s resources from the Brits.
Good times indeed.
A postscript is in order at this point: I loathed that Coca-Cola commercial when it was new, and I certainly haven’t grown any fonder of it over the years. It strikes me as the height of corporate cynicism, which no doubt is the reason why Matthew Weiner wanted to use it. Although I don’t buy the idea that this was Don’s creation, Weiner’s ending the series with this is a great piece of snark. The commercial’s goal of peddling product in the name of peace and harmony strikes me as something Roger would have thought up, had he been in the creative end of the business.
As always, your mileage may vary.
What’s your favorite method of catching up on a TV show? There’s the binge of course, at the end of which you’re left with gray pallor and bloodshot eyes. But instead of the sprint there’s always the marathon—immersing yourself in a show over a period of time. Example? I’ve just come up for air after watching all three seasons of “House of Cards” over 17 days or so, and my sojourn in Washington and Gaffney, S.C. was just the right length.
Please understand: by no means do I knock bingeing. If you’ve got the time and the inclination, go for it. I’ve been there—my record is nine episodes of Season 4 of “The Wire” on a New Year’s Day several years ago. The show was in its first run and I was still furious that Stringer Bell had been killed off at the end of Season 3. The subsequent abrupt shift to Prez’s experience as a teacher in an inner city school didn’t interest me initially after the flash of Mr. Bell, Omar and Brother Mouzone, so I stopped watching. But curiosity made me return, only to discover that “The Wire”‘s availability On Demand was due to end on January 2nd. The resulting nine consecutive hours on my couch were well spent despite the horrible headache I ended up with.
We’ve certainly come a long way from traditional TV, where week after week we saw Perry Mason get the real murderer to confess on the witness stand during the last five minutes of the show—that is, if you were home to see it. If not, you had no alternative but to wait for the summer rerun. My how times have changed. In a recent interview the CEO of Netflix referred to the growing trend of “non-linear” television which I’m beginning to think is descriptive not only of the audience’s viewing habits, but the manner of TV storytelling. Since fans are no longer married to the necessity of tuning in on a specific day or time to catch the latest episode, no two people may view—in both senses of the word—a series in the same manner.
My experience with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was a kind of “do it yourself” immersion of the most non-linear sort. Prior to joining the Buffyverse I made fun of the show, primarily because of the title (shame on me, but I still haven’t seen the movie on which the series is based). But then there was an episode entitled “Hush” which to this day I think is one of the best hours of television that’s ever aired.
At my house it then became all “Buffy,” all the time. Having been caught in the post-9/11 unemployment fallout, I could watch reruns twice a day as well as a new episode every Tuesday night (If memory serves, first-run “Buffy” was in its fifth season at that time). While being in a “Buffy” immersion tank had its benefits, there were problems. Because I hadn’t watched the show sequentially, certain events just didn’t resonate for me as they did for longtime viewers. Not to sound heartless, but Joyce’s death in “The Body” and the other characters’ reactions to the loss didn’t send me to my box of tissues. More significantly, I never fell for Angel, and not just because I met Spike first. Wit does it for me more than a pretty face and like “Mad Men”‘s Roger Sterling, Spike always got the best lines. Which, incidentally is why (remove your hats and bow your heads) “Firefly,” another product of Joss Whedon’s genius brain, will last forever for fans—almost every character, with the exception of the Tam kids, got the best lines.
CAUTION: “HOUSE OF CARDS” SPOILERS AHEAD
I was reluctant to jump on the “House of Cards” train for what seemed to be good reasons. I had seen the British original starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquart in its entirety when it first aired on PBS many years ago, and while the show was delightfully evil in its first two seasons, it became a cartoon in the third. And I wasn’t sure the machinations would translate—the U.K.’s parliamentary system seemed a more enabling environment for someone to rise so swiftly.
Fortunately the American showrunners have changed the tone of the piece considerably. The mood is darker and antagonists, both domestic and foreign, are everywhere. The leading character, now named Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) still addresses the audience in asides which are variously bitter, astute or campy. But what I like most about the manner in which this series is unfolding is that it “reads” like a novel. There’s a strong narrative sense—each succeeding episode indeed feels like the next chapter in a book. Events build on each other. There are plot twists, but little sense of shock with the possible exception of Zoe Barnes’ murder. Since you know certain characters will stop at nothing—and if you don’t, you’re watching the wrong show—their actions seem to be foretold, though this in no way diminishes your enjoyment. Were you really surprised when Jackie Sharp endorsed Heather Dunbar for President, not Frank? Was there any way Premier Petrov would not have demanded Claire’s resignation as U.N. Ambassador?
The show’s meditations on power and what it does to people are what drive “House of Cards.” Morally upright Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) becomes so besotted with what she perceives to be her destiny to become President that she ultimately offers to buy written proof of Claire’s abortion for two million dollars (It helps to come from money). On the other hand, there’s Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), Frank’s successor as House Majority Whip, who starts her game by forcibly pushing her mentor out to pasture, only to have twinges of conscience down the road when Frank’s demands during her stalking horse Presidential candidacy cross the line.
While Frank Underwood realizes his ambition by becoming President, things are more complex than he ever dreamed. The Russian Premier is even better at the game than he is, and Frank to his dismay doesn’t seem to enjoy himself as much anymore. But while it’s doubtful he holds the people around him (or for that matter, himself) in any high regard, he respects and indeed reveres the office he now holds. The role of Frank Underwood invites overplaying, but so far Kevin Spacey has mainly resisted the temptation.
But the sine qua non of “House of Cards” is Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her. It’s not just her look and her demeanor—you always wonder how the character has ended up the way she has. Perhaps it’s to the showrunners’ credit that they haven’t given us the whys and wherefores yet; this way we’re left to our own suppositions about her past, her early relationship with Frank and whether things have always been this twisted and if not, what caused it. It’s agonizing that we won’t be getting even the smallest of hints until the show picks up again on Netflix next year.
I hope “House of Cards” avoids the problems that arose during the run of its British counterpart. The ascent to the top is always more fun than the drudgery of maintaining power, and I hope the show provides a counterbalance by featuring more campaign razzle-dazzle in its next season (the Presidential debate between Frank, Jackie Sharp and Heather Dunbar was terrific). More fundamentally, though, the basic scheme of “House of Cards” begs the question of how many people can Frank destroy and/or bump off before the show becomes ridiculous? And will Frank’s descent, which is sure to come, be as enjoyable to watch as his accession?
It all remains to be seen.
One of the documentaries I’ve enjoyed most in the last several years is “That Guy…Who Was in That Thing.” Featuring a roster of actors whose faces you’ve seen so many times, but whose names usually escape you, it’s 79 minutes of entertaining yet eye-opening anecdotes about life as a working actor, which as it turns out, is a rarity in Hollywood.
Now Ian Roumain, the director of that film, has produced a natural follow-up, “That Gal…Who Was in That Thing,” highlighting the trials and tribulations of the female version of the actor species (The majority of the participants in “That Gal” prefer to be described as “actors,” not “actresses,” so I’ll gladly follow their lead). The documentary is available on Showtime and On Demand, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss.
Despite their extensive resumes, the participants in “That Gal” were more obscure for me than the men in “That Guy.” The only face I could put a name to immediately belonged to Roma Maffia, only because of her appearances on the “Law & Order” shows and “E.R.,” both of which I watched regularly. Actor L. Scott Caldwell mentions early on that people tend to know her voice but not her name, and in fact, I wracked my brain until she finally mentioned playing Regina King’s mother in “Southland.” And while I knew Jayne Atkinson’s name from her extensive New York theater career, it was a big “So THAT’S who she is” when she appeared on-screen.
These are actors that luckily can make a living but aren’t stars. A couple, like Roxanne Hart, whose first film was “The Verdict” (she played the sister/guardian of Paul Newman’s comatose client) might have made that breakthrough when they were younger, but as luck would have it, it just didn’t happen. So now they keep on going with TV roles, winning a slot on a series if they’re lucky, and character parts in film, while at least two have branched out to other fields—in Ms. Hart’s case, directing in theater, and in Ms. Maffia’s, obtaining her master’s degree.
But what makes “That Gal” stand out from its male counterpart is an extensive and frank discussion of how Hollywood views and treats female actors. One of the documentary’s participants is Donna Massetti, a talent agent, who along with the actors who appear, details at length the problems of their early aging (at least in the eyes of producers), weight, appearance, etc., that are endemic in the industry. It’s the old story—a craggy 60 year-old male actor is “interesting,” a female actor that age will be sidelined into playing a great-grandmother. The bigger issue, though, is one of sheer numbers. There are always more roles for men because it’s a male-driven industry. The majority of the creative talent is still male, and the men get to present their vision. Fortunately with the emergence of cable TV and the development of original internet programming, the ladies are beginning to have their day.
However, some issues may never go away. Most of the actors in “That Gal” are mothers, and their stories about having to hide their pregnancies for fear of losing out on a role give you pause. L. Scott Caldwell’s account of what it cost her to send her son to live with his father while she gave a Tony-winning performance on Broadway is heartbreaking. And while Paget Brewster is exceptionally funny in describing how female actors are routinely assessed by men in the industry, she’s dead serious about being sexually assaulted while filming a bed scene.
The women who appear in “That Gal” are proud of their craft. After seeing it, I can only hope that they will have the opportunity to continue in their chosen profession for years to come.
P.S.: The title of this post comes from an amusing sequence in “That Gal” when the actors list the types of roles in which they’re routinely
stuck with cast.
After a long career in which he created a number of unforgettable characters, including Chance Wayne, Hud, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy, Paul Newman took his craft to another level entirely in his 50’s. Beginning with “Absence of Malice” in 1981, he scored three Oscar nominations in five years, finally winning his only Best Actor Oscar for “The Color of Money.” But as good as Newman is in the films I just mentioned, they don’t quite measure up to the level of his talent. Given the scene of a lifetime, Wilford Brimley walks away with “Absence of Malice” after we’ve spent an hour and a half scratching our heads over the profound mismatch of Sally Field and Paul Newman. Tom Cruise’s antics are a major distraction in “The Color of Money,” and unfortunately are not entirely erased by the subtle underplaying of Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio as his girlfriend and Newman as a middle-aged Eddie Felsen, a character he first played 25 years before in “The Hustler.”
Instead Paul Newman’s best work is displayed in the middle of his Oscar nomination streak, in 1982’s “The Verdict,” directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by David Mamet. For my money this is his best performance on film and the one that should have won him that Oscar.
“The Verdict” is a story of redemption, and Paul Newman at long last has the face for it. Age beautifully sharpened the planes of his face, finally removing what remained of his younger, slightly overripe look. It suits the film’s central character, an alcoholic attorney named Frank Galvin, to a tee. There’s nothing pretty about Galvin’s slipping a funeral director $50 just so he can get close enough to a grieving widow to pass her his business card. Or drinking his breakfast at a local bar, his hand shaking too badly to pick up the glass. Or trashing his own office out of self-disgust. Newman goes for broke as an actor here, and it’s marvelous to see.
“The Verdict” at issue is one sought in a medical malpractice case against a Catholic hospital in Boston, as well as the attending obstetrician and anesthesiologist of a patient, Deborah Ann Kaye, who went into cardiac arrest while in labor with her third child. The evident cause of this condition was a blocked airway after she vomited into her mask, which resulted in the death of her baby and her own vegetative state. Frank inherits this case from his now-retired law partner; his object is simply to wring some money out of the Archdiocese for Ms. Kaye’s care (and to collect a not inconsiderable fee for himself). But something happens on the way to the bank. When he visits the nursing home to take snapshots of his comatose client for the purpose of shaming the bishop out of money, he sees Deborah Ann Kaye for the first time—really sees her, tethered to tubes for the rest of her life. Newman’s wordless gaze at what remains of this woman, once a wife, mother and sister, transforms Frank Galvin from wreck into advocate. When he refuses the bishop’s settlement check he does so not just to fight for his client, but as an attempt to salvage his own worth.
What places “The Verdict” a cut above “Absence of Malice” and “The Color of Money” is that every performance in the film is without exception on a par with Newman’s. In no particular order there’s Julie Bovasso as a nurse with something to hide, who matches Galvin’s every push and shove. James Mason is simply stupendous as Concannon, Galvin’s slippery courtroom adversary—after so many years in film he turns in one of his finest performances. The very young Lindsey Crouse brings the right amount of innocence to the key role of Kaitlin Costello, the former nurse browbeaten into submission. Not to mention the incredible beauty and mystery of Charlotte Rampling’s Laura Fischer, and three of the best character actors around: Jack Warden as Galvin’s former law partner, Milo O’Shea as the old hack of a judge and Edward Binns as the sympathetic (to a point) bishop.
NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW
I saw “The Verdict” when it was first released and like the many attorneys who wrote screaming letters to the editor and op-ed pieces, I was appalled by the legal errors, ethical misconduct and outright crimes committed by the lawyers (and judge) in this film. God knows there are enough faults in the American legal system to complain about without a screenwriter’s having to invent more. In the real world Kaitlin Costello would have been among the first potential witnesses to be deposed, and Galvin or his former partner would have moved heaven and earth to find her long before it dawns on the two of them in the movie that she’s needed. I’ll spare you my rant about inducing expert witnesses to disappear, opening other people’s mail and failing to consult with the sister (and guardian) of a comatose client before rejecting a settlement offer. But the one screamer that really got to me was the exclusion of the photocopy of the original admitting record and the striking of Kaitlin Costello’s testimony from the record. If there’s one thing the American justice system is good at it’s permitting juries to hear challenges to the credibility of evidence. So it irked me no end to see the film give credence, even from a biased judge’s ruling, to the proposition that such challenges are impermissible.
What remains even more controversial to this day, however, is the character of Laura, the woman Galvin meets at his favorite bar and who becomes his sounding board, confidante and lover. Charlotte Rampling plays her with just the right amount of withholding, but it’s still a shock to discover who she really is. Ultimately you’re of two minds about her. She’s evidently blackmailed into doing what she does—it’s a fair bet she was sexually involved with Concannon at one time, otherwise why would he treat her so badly. Nevertheless she refuses to perform the ultimate betrayal by informing the Archdiocese’s legal team of the whereabouts of Kaitlin Costello (Concannon is totally flummoxed by her appearance in court as well as her testimony). As per Sidney Lumet in the extras of the DVD edition of “The Verdict,” women in the film’s preview audience cheered when Frank Galvin punched her in the face. Was it due to the mere fact of her betrayal of Frank, or because a woman who stoops that low betrays all women?
The end play of “The Verdict” is predictable. The Archdiocese will file a motion for remittitur to reduce whatever amount is ultimately awarded by the jury; failing that, it will appeal, but in the meantime offer Galvin a settlement far greater than the one he turned down. This time he’ll take it—his client will be well provided for, and Deborah Ann Kaye’s sister and brother-in-law will be able to get on with their lives.
But he’ll never pick up that phone that’s ringing with Laura’s call.
While we’re awaiting yet another storm on [insert day of the week here], some brain bits are definitely in order. Even in the face of arctic temperatures, I can still muster good cheer. So I’ll refrain from trashing the season finale of “Last Tango in Halifax” (much remedial work is needed for sure) and the Met’s new production of “Iolanta” (“meh” is the word, though the second half of the double bill, Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” is absolutely riveting).
So let’s get on with the good stuff, shall we?
I recently had the pleasure of a spectacular evening of musicianship at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, courtesy of Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet. The quartet had the first half of the program, which included Charpentier’s “Concert pour quatre parties de violes,” a dance suite, and the iconic Debussy String Quartet. This was the first time I’d heard the latter in live performance, and what an experience. It’s like seeing the whole of 20th century music stretching out before you like an audio super-highway.
The Brentanos can sing, which is a talent I admire without end. My days as a school-age musician taught me the most difficult thing to learn as a string player is phrasing. If you sing or play a wind instrument, it comes naturally. However, it’s a more difficult proposition when you’re learning violin or cello, since they’re not breath- actvated. But to listen to the Brentanos you’d never know there was a difference.
Ms. DiDonato and the Quartet opened the second half with the Aaron Copland-esque “MotherSongs,” an arrangement of works from The Lullaby Project. But the highlight of the evening was Jake Heggie’s “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire,” the New York premiere of a song cycle originally composed with Ms. DiDonato in mind. I was curious how they’d set up on stage since I knew Joyce would have to be able to have eye contact with the first violinist, at a minimum. As you can see from the photograph, the solution was an easy one. Instead of a solo singer accompanied by string quartet, we saw a single entity—a quintet, in which every member interacted with each other.
Quite honestly I enjoyed the expertise of the collaboration almost as much as the music. Joyce DiDonato is not only a great singer—she’s a superlative musician as well, and honored both text and score in the performance of Heggie’s sketches of the life and works of sculptor Camille Claudel. Particularly ear-catching were “Shakuntala,” with its Middle Eastern exoticism, “La petite chatelaine,” an ode to Camille’s aborted child, and the Epilogue, in which she’s visited at the asylum by her friend Jessie Lipscomb, so many years after her confinement. Her reminiscing about their student days and the momentary glimpse of the life she might have had draw the cycle to an exceptionally poignant close.
What artistry. After that, I didn’t mind my frozen walk to the subway (almost). _______________________________________________________________________________________________________
An actor any less talented than Gillian Anderson wouldn’t be able to hold our attention the way she does in the second season of “The Fall.” During the glacial pace of the first episode all I could think was “Lord, this is slow.” But then Stella Gibson (Ms. Anderson) took center stage and all snapped into place.
Stella maintains her laser-like focus in pursuit of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), but cracks in the facade begin to appear. Her dreams turn threatening, haunted by his shadowy presence. Her guilt is overwhelming when Rose Stagg is kidnapped, and her tears as she views this woman on video Paul posts on the internet are shocking–you just don’t expect that from her. Yet old habits remain; her libido survives intact. While she admits that her pass at Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) was “inappropriate,” she picks out and beds yet another young studly cop (Colin Morgan). One thing you can say for Stella–she’s definitely got good taste.
I was intrigued by a number of things during this season of “The Fall,” not the least of which was the detail of the police work shown. Granted, it didn’t always pan out, as witness the cop falling through the ceiling of Paul’s bedroom (I have to admit I had a good laugh over that, since I did the same thing at my house last year while checking on the heating unit in the attic). But the sheer doggedness of the detective work pays off, and along the way there are chilling moments: Paul’s grief counseling session with Annie Brawley, whose brother he had murdered before assaulting her, and that eerie sense of dislocation when one of Stella’s detectives demonstrates how Paul parroted his boss’s remarks while the latter fired him.
At the last episode we were once again left with both cliffhangers and a burning desire that the BBC commission another series of “The Fall.” Paul may or may not survive, the erstwhile babysitter, Katie Benedetto, is a virtual Charles Manson girl in her worship of Paul, and Stella’s depths are just waiting to be explored (We already know she has daddy issues. Who knows what else lurks in that psyche?).
Do you ever wonder about the turning points of your life? What things would have been like had you made a different decision, taken a different train, stayed home on a given night instead of going out, or vice versa?
Kate Atkinson’s engrossing “Life After Life” is a masterful exploration of this premise as we follow Ursula Todd, born in 1910 (or is she?) through the multiple versions of her life. While there are certain constants in every scenario—her odious older brother, her adored sister and younger brother—the outcomes vary tremendously.
We’re far from smooth sailing here. Ursula’s life seems to snag at particularly sticky points, generating more and more do-overs until things turn right: There’s her difficult birth. That rogue wave at the seashore. Her encounter with that awful friend of her brother. The wall that crumbles (or doesn’t) during the Blitz.
What’s particularly fun is that Atkinson primes you to look for those turning points. For example, you wonder if that man who, at the height of the Blitz, watches Ursula work her crosswords and hands her his card as a recruiter of puzzle-solving whizzes isn’t Alan Turing. You relish the fact that as a teen-ager Ursula comes to realize that her occasional feelings of dread are premonitions that what has happened in a previous version of her life may happen yet again. Atkinson’s story leaves you wanting more, especially to know what happens after certain of Ursula’s “deaths”.
Needless to say I loved “Life After Life.” I haven’t read such a sweet pay-off of an ending in a very long time. Fortunately the story isn’t over, since there’s a companion volume in the works. Publication day can’t come soon enough.
CAUTION–THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 3 OF “LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX.”
It definitely made for a great episode. But is it good for the long haul?
“Last Tango in Halifax” recently saw both a glorious beginning and an intolerable conclusion. Caroline and Kate were married in a heartfelt ceremony, only to have it all end the next day when Kate was killed by a hit and run driver. Prior to her death her baby was delivered via C-section, leaving Caroline a single mother.
To be honest I was livid when I first heard of this pending turn of events. I had loved “Last Tango in Halifax” from the start, primarily for its avoidance of cliché. But elements of soap started creeping in during Season 2 with Gillian’s confession to Caroline that she had murdered her abusive husband, and things got even sudsier this season when Alan learned he had fathered a son during an extramarital fling many years ago. But Kate’s death? This one hit the TriFecta of soap: killing off the (1) black (2) lesbian, (3) but keeping her around in spirit, thus indulging in Dead Denny Syndrome (™”Grey’s Anatomy”).
Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?
It’s an unfortunate fact that the majority of persons of color (indeed, practically all minorities) on television shows in the U.S. and the U.K. play supporting characters, not leads–sidekicks, if you will, whether love interests or not. And we all learned as far back as the cheesy movies we watched as kids that if there’s a need to show off a leading character’s depth of emotion, the sidekick gets killed off. Given what a trope this is, you wonder how Tonto ever made it to the end of “The Lone Ranger Show.”
Killing Off the Lesbian has been another trope for decades in fiction, film and television, contrary to the protestations of Sally Wainwright, “Last Tango”‘s creator and writer, though I suspect she’s about to get a swift education from the LGBT community. Kate and Caroline, played superbly by Nina Sosanya and Sarah Lancashire, respectively, were a terrific couple—interesting, funny and a joy to watch. The best thing about Kate was that she called Caroline on her bullshit. Their differences provided great chemistry—Caroline used to taking charge and making quick decisions, Kate sweet but with a will of iron. It took them two full seasons and three break-ups to finally get together, and Sally Wainwright ends it the day after the wedding?
Why is it the intriguing relationships get thrown in the trash with such disheartening regularity? Stephen Bochco, creator of “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” was infamous for this. In the former he drove a stake in the heart of the Henry Goldblum/Faye Furillo pairing. Here was the type of couple that had not been seen on network television before: a blended relationship in which both were divorced and each had at least one child. Both had been around the block and now they’re trying to make it work. It may sound like nothing special now, but keep in mind this aired only a few short years after CBS demanded that Mary Tyler Moore’s iconic Mary Richards (“Oh, Mr. Grant!) be changed from a divorcee to a single woman. So Henry and Faye, as real as they became, had to go. And as for “L.A. Law”, I need only invoke the name “Rosalind Shays” to prove my point. She was the formerly villainous attorney who had an affair with senior partner Leland MacKenzie. Finally we were treated to something groundbreaking for its time—the affair of two characters in late middle age. Does Bochco pursue this? No way. For the sake of “drama” he kills her off by having her step into an open elevator shaft. A huge mistake more accurately characterized as “jumping the shark.”
Kate may be dead but she’s not really gone—Caroline, in WWKD (What Would Kate Do?) mode, summons her spirit on a consulting basis. What to name the baby? Should I hire a nanny? I can’t do this alone. So Kate is there to give her advice and occasionally a verbal boot in the behind. On the one hand, I’d never turn down the opportunity to see Nina Sosanya on-screen. Plus we’re getting the return of opinionated Kate from Season 1. But let’s face it, what we’re really seeing is “The Ghost and Mrs.
Muir MacKenzie-Dawson.” Throw in a brain tumor and you’ve got Dead Denny Syndrome.
But on the other hand…(and it kills me to write this) Sally Wainwright produced a superb episode showing the aftermath of Kate’s death.
From the beginning, with the sleight of hand presence of Kate, discussing baby names with Caroline, who we gradually and shockingly realize is dressing for Kate’s funeral, to meeting Kate’s mother (Michelle Hurst) and little Flora Grace, to seeing Caroline so bereft, it’s heartbreaking but the tone is so right. The small talk, the reminiscences, the mild jokes—Sally got it all, as well as the best scene on the show since Caroline and Kate had their talk in the garden in Season 1. Greg, Kate’s friend from Oxford and Flora’s biological father, approaches Caroline with an offer to help with the baby’s care. He acknowledges that he and Caroline got off on the wrong foot (to put it mildly), and makes it clear that had events been different, he would have stayed out of the picture. But the man is so sincere and so concerned for both Caroline and the baby’s welfare that Caroline, displaying a type of kindness we hadn’t seen before, runs interference for him with Kate’s mother, who everyone knows considers Greg an idiot. Caroline still isn’t sold on having Greg care for the baby, but I suspect pep talks from Spirit Kate will wear her down. Besides, that nanny who waltzed in at the end of the episode sounds ditzy as hell.
We’re used to superb acting from the “Last Tango in Halifax” cast, but what transpired during this episode was above and beyond. Sarah Lancashire was just tremendous, as was Nicola Walker during the uncomfortable scene when Gillian told Caroline she was marrying Robbie. Anne Reid as Celia perfectly timed that “Do you fancy her?” when Caroline hesitated over endorsing Gillian’s upcoming wedding. I hope we see more of Marcus Garvey as Greg and especially Michelle Hurst as Ginika, Kate’s mom. That ever-expanding family tree in the show’s opening credits needs replenishment.
Sally Wainwright’s stated purpose in killing off Kate was to provide a catalyst to bring Celia and Caroline back together after the fall-out over the latter’s wedding. However, I think in the end the absence of Kate, and what she brought to her relationship with Caroline as spouse/lover/friend/sparring partner will result in a poorer show.
While the aftermath was beautifully done, it shouldn’t have had to be done at all.