(With over 500 shows airing each year, it’s only natural most television watchers eventually resort to binge-watching series. In my new column Binge Mode, I’ll be periodically sharing thoughts on the shows, old and new, I’ve been marathoning. As such, the following review contains spoilers for the entire season being discussed. Duh.)
With 376 episodes aired since its debut in October 2012, The CW’s Arrowverse has become the most sprawling, network-dominating franchise this side of Law & Order universe. Over that time, all of its long-running live-action shows – Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow – have calcified their serialized formula into an impressively reliable device for dense storytelling, building out unique worlds and personalities for each show within that similar framework.
Refined by over 260 hours of produced television, the CW DC formula is painstakingly familiar at this point, for better or worse: each one has pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses, similar abilities to deliver small scale spectacles while bumbling awkwardly to pace themselves through the massive episode count each show is given (for most, 22-24 episodes, with LoT and the recent addition Black Lightning offered shorter production orders). Bad romance plots and wonderfully crafted references to the DC multiverse, great production design and laughable special effects… to love the CW’s heartfelt, melodramatic, tiresomely lengthy universe is to take the good and the bad with each new season.
Recently, I sat down and watched through the first season of the C-List Super Hero Spin Off of the Arrowverse, Legends of Tomorrow, which aired in the spring of 2016 opposite the second halves of Arrow‘s fourth season, and The Flash‘s second season. On the surface, Legends of Tomorrow seemed like a shrewd, calculated bit of programming for The CW: take a bunch of actors the network loved, but couldn’t realistically keep involved on their current shows, and mush them together in Rip Hunter’s Waverider spaceship, Guardians and the Galaxy-ing the shit outta of their C-squad of heroes – The Atom, The White Canary, Firestorm, and Lincoln Burrows and Michael Scofield with cool guns – for the sake of filling the spring schedule with even more DC-flavored television.
The first few episodes of the series feel like a victim of the network’s focus group approach I noted above: the personalities of each character clashed together without much resonance, and outside of the mystery of “what time period are they going to travel to so they can make generic references?”, there wasn’t a lot of intrigue to Rip Hunter’s quest through time to stop Vandal Savage, and Legends of Tomorrow struggled to find its way early on. It takes until the sixth episode, “Star City 2046”, for even the plot to get interesting – and that’s only because the show teases us with Diggle’s son as Green Arrow, with a bitter, one-armed Oliver Queen to boot. But with the lamest incarnation of Deathstroke in recorded history, and the wasted opportunity of taking the The Dark Knight Returns reference even farther with a truly anti-capitalist Oliver, the small teases of character we’re offered with Captain Cold and White Canary in that episode are buried under the same bullshit that plagues the five episodes preceding it.
And then “Marooned” hits, a quasi-bottle episode that in theory would congeal the show’s individual aspects into something coherent, and instead mires the show in some of the clunkiest interpersonal relationship material I’ve seen in the Arrowverse (and this is a universe where Thea Queen’s had multiple romantic story lines). Of course, I’m talking about the Ray Palmer/Kendra Saunders love story, which initially debuts as a prime example of why these series should have shorter episode orders; left to fill space, the inclination to have these people fuck and get dramatic about it is run deeps through the heart of all the series I’ve mentioned so far, and it never feels like anything but a waste of time. In “Marooned”, which introduces this as a laughable love triangle between those two and Jefferson Jackson, it destroys any sense of momentum the season had been building to that point.
However, it’s the Ray/Kendra relationship that is the catalyst for the most interesting arc of the season, beginning in episode 9’s “Left Behind”. After being stranded in 1958 for two years, Ray and Kendra are “rescued” from the life they’ve built together, and brought back to the Waverider to resume their mission. This causes tension between them, because Ray wants to stay in 1960, and Kendra desperately wants to return to the mission of taking down Savage and saving The Timeline (the single most annoyingly overused phrase in the series, I might add): slowly, what appears to be a lame romantic dispute between two wildly underdeveloped characters, gives way to the deeper exploration of the series: what does it mean to be a hero?
That seed of an idea blossoms in the tenth episode, “Progeny”, is perhaps the first real episode of the series that is firing on all cylinders. When the team travels to 2147 to stop Savage from mentoring a young tyrant-in-waiting who is destined to unleash a virus on the world in 2166, the team has to reckon with the difficult decisions of trying to save the future. They attempt to kidnap the young bastard in the hopes of affecting the time line enough, but it doesn’t matter: as the characters are fond of saying through the series, “time wants to happen”, and suddenly the team is thrust into a debate about fate vs. destiny, and how much control we have over anything. While a thoroughly pedantic trope for a science fiction series to explore, Legends of Tomorrow takes this moralistic dilemma, and cuts it down into something more powerful as the season continues, culminating in the season’s penultimate episode, “Destiny”.
I’m willing to forgive a lot of the bullshit that comes between those two episodes – Kendra’s struggle to choose between Ray, and a dude she’s banged for over 4,000 years, silly politics involving the Time Masters council – because of how strong the thread is between “Progeny” and “Destiny”, and how it represents a truer vision for the potential of the series. In “Destiny”, each member of the time traveling team has to decide what their impact on the time line is going to be: what makes our lives memorable, to ourselves and the ones we love? When our lives inevitably end (again, time really wants to happen), do we want society to remember a heroic action, or our friends to remember the smaller moments that unite us? Without a family, can one be remembered at all?
When the series began, Rip Hunter brought each character on board under the false pretense of their lives being insignificant (he really wanted to flip a middle finger to the genocidal time council that employed him, but that’s besides the point): he offered them the opportunity to be legends, to leave an impact on the entire time line of history. “Progeny” forced characters to reckon with the ambiguity of saving the world from its own future: how do you know what will make you remembered as a “good person”? Is it the one heroic action you commit, or the sum of everything you decide to do in life? Other shows like The Good Place or BoJack Horseman have very definitive answers for this question: Legends of Tomorrow doesn’t, often exploring the idea that the universe is so fucking random, there’s often no way to tell what will end up being the right or wrong decision, the heroic or the cowardly, the legendary or the dangerously misguided.
Ultimately, Legends of Tomorrow posits, is that we can try and shape our destiny however we may – but our attempts to do so dishonestly have consequences. Captain Cold is able to redeem himself as a somewhat honorable man, but does so at the cost of his life: and on the other side of the coin, Rip Hunter’s selfish parade through time guarantees he can never save his own family, blinded by his own pain and driven by egotistical notions that he, and only he, could save the time line from the powers that be. Where Legends of Tomorrow really found its stride was in those moments: propelled by those two lead stories, normally lame B-plots like Martin trying to be fatherly to Jackson have a lot more pathos, grounding their silly inter-generational bickering in something much more emotional as Martin tries to guide Jackson to being, essentially, a better version of himself.
The season finale “Legendary”, is a bit of a letdown from the high of “Destiny” – but after 17 episodes of stretching out maybe seven episodes of actual story, it’s no surprise the final episode runs on fumes until it drops its obtuse references for what’s to come in season two, in the form of a dude named Rex Tyler who can’t land a time ship worth a damn. Again, it’s emblematic of DC shows as a whole: great premieres that don’t hit second gear until halfway through, followed by a strong second act that slowly dissolves into nonsensical chaos as it barrels towards a climatic showdown, before hitting the semi-reset button and signing off for the season.
But for those five episodes where Legends of Tomorrow really hits its stride and becomes the swashbuckling time adventure it promised (save for a super lame Jonah Hex appearance in an otherwise strong hour in the Wild West), DC’s strange spin off series offers a glimpse of a series on a slightly smaller scale, with much bigger – and much more promising – ideas and worlds to explore. With its fourth season scheduled to begin in October, there’s certainly plenty of…. time for them to figure it out (yes, that’s a fucking lame way to end a review, and I’m going to own it. Set time drive to max, Gideon!)
– I can’t get over how lame the Hawkgirl material is for pretty much the entire season. If Hawkgirl isn’t thinking about a man, she doesn’t really have much to do but spar with White Canary (inadvertently teasing a much, much more interesting potential romantic pairing).
– The dissonance between the younger and older halves of Firestorm are perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the show: Victor Garber outshines Franz Drameh in every scene of the series, something that feels both a byproduct of writing and performance for the characters of Martin and Jefferson.
– I still don’t understand the convoluted history between Hawkgirl/Hawkman and Vandal Savage, and I do not wish to.
– Caity Lotz and her stunt double run circles around everyone in this series; White Canary’s fight scenes are always more kinetic and powerful than anyone else’s (maybe because most of them rely on SFX magic, but there’s still some impressive work done by all the White Canaries on set).
– Rip Hunter fucking suuuucks, and boy, does the third act of this season realize it just in time (I gotta stop making these terrible jokes, I’m sorry).
– the costuming on this show really needs to take some direction from the Timeless production crew: the difference in the two shows and their ability to convey time periods is almost baffling.
– Hawkgirl is in her suit so little compared to the other characters on this show, it is silly.
– Heat Wave’s arc this season is all over the fucking place, but I really like the underlying dynamic of a lost soul just trying to find a home where he – in all his crazy, wildly violent ways – felt like he belonged.
– the Captain Cold/White Canary romance that suddenly appears at the end of “Destiny” is so fucking lame, it hurts.
– thanks for checking out my new, semi-regular column! I may or may not write more about Legends of Tomorrow in the future; if you have a show you think I should binge and write about, let me know!
Watchmen Season 1 Episode Five Review: “Little Fear of Lightning”
Watchmen delivers its finest hour yet, a focused character study that connects past and present in fascinating ways.
“Little Fear of Lightning,” the most masterfully crafted episode of Watchmen yet, is the most Lindelof-ass hour of the series, uniting itself around a single image – the fun house mirror – and projecting out the author’s many, many thoughts on identity, reason, morality… and specifically, justice. The gods are unkind in Lindelof’s work, and the cosmic injustice of Looking Glass’s life is laid bare in “Little Fear of Lightning,” an hour that beautifully walks the line between character piece and narrative fulcrum.
Watchmen is firmly back on track with “Little Fear of Lightning,” a thematically rich hour that firmly embeds itself in the history of its inspiration, and yet never feels handcuffed by it.
Opening on the fateful night of Eleven-Two (the day Veidt’s monstrous concoction was dropped on New York), “Little Fear of Lightning” is an origin story of Matt Jamison-esque proportions. Like Matt on The Leftovers, Wade is a man of faith, to an overwhelming degree: he believes the government’s story of Eleven-Two being an alien attack so much, he lives in paranoid fear of it happening again. He has a special (albeit buggy) security system, attends a support group for other survivors, and even bases his masked identity around the moment where his religion changed from fearing an ethereal white dude, to a big ass motherfuckin’ squid.
From the episode’s opening scene, “Little Fear of Lightning” drenches itself in Watchmen‘s history; from the Knot Top-ish girl who steals all Wade’s clothes (and promptly dies a gruesome death), to references to Veidt’s old perfume company, the fifth hour of Watchmen lives in reverence to its source material. In a way, it turns Wade – a dude whose obsession and fear ruined his marriage, and left him a paranoid life of bad luck and solititude – into the series’ own Rorschach for a moment, as the man with the uncanny ability to spot a liar suddenly realizes he’s the one whose been played for the past three-plus decades.
Though ostensibly a gentler, slightly more gathered individual, the similarities between Watchmen‘s original protagonist and Wade as “Little Fear of Lightning” continues are potent, and help further the aura of reflection and redefinition (… like a Rorschach test would) that is the episode’s backbone. The first two acts spend the episode neatly arranging the pieces of his strange, quiet life – and the third act brings them all crashing to the ground, forcing Wade to cling to the very few fundamental beliefs he has: mistrust and fear, the very same tools the Seventh Kavalry’s inspiration derived his sense of purpose from.
(I mean, he even eats a can of beans this episode… how obvious could the parallels get?)
His final question – the one he proposes to Night just before letting her into Laurie’s trap – is “Is anything true?” It’s a question I imagine most Americans post Eleven-Two (or in our world, 9/11) have had to ask themselves over the years. Steel beams in our universe, sentient tentacles in Watchmen‘s; the point is, whatever the actual facts of either event are, there are always questions bad people are willing to provide answers to.
In this case, it is Ozymandias and Senator Joe Keene that provide Wade with the answers he never knew he wanted; and it is the second time everything in his world is utterly and absolutely shattered. After learning Judd and Joe Keene worked together to form the “peace” in Tulsa – and that the Kavalry is experimenting with an outlawed teleporter, for an “original idea” they have – Wade watches the infamous Ozymandias video, where he details his plans to save the world to future-President Redford.
This all comes after he watches his ex-wife incinerate a puppy in front of him (it was just a little bit too small, after all), and the first girl he’s kissed in ages reveals herself to be part of the white nationalist group he’s been at war with. In a series fascinated with the power of perspective, “Little Fear of Lightning” spends its entire time treating Looking Glass like a Rubik’s Cube, the patterns of his life rearranging over and over until they’re a complete mess of half-truths, disappointments, and traumatic memories, all vying for absolute control of Wade’s sanity.
There isn’t enough Reflecteen in the world to protect Wade’s mind from the truth, the single most weaponized element of Watchmen‘s 2019 America. From the moment Veidt completed his creature and killed his entire creative team, the truth of what really happened in 1985 has rested with a handful of individuals; one a god, another an imprisoned genius, and a third one of the most pragmatic federal officers in the country. They’ve successfully protected the lie in the name of world peace; but as that dam prepares to break, the Seventh Kavalry is poised to deliver a historical moment of such devastating, unfixable damage, it would be a massacre on a level no physical, traditional weapon could ever replicate, even nuclear (which makes me think about the scientific theories around nuclear winter could mitigating the effects of climate change).
In Watchmen‘s 2019, the government (we can assume) is continuing to drop squid fall on the nation, a little reminder of the thunder brought down in the episode’s opening moments; and as that realization crosses Wade’s fact, it provides deep, necessary context to how the world of Watchmen operates on a fundamental level. The ever-present threat of another disaster serves two purposes; it reminds humans to be obedient and fearful… and it also ensures said population is cognizant of their own mortality, which helps give context to some of the general disregard for the sanctity of life we’ve seen throughout the series.
“Little Fear of Lightning” is able to do all this, and still leave plenty of room for Tim Blake Nelson to chew up the scenery, as Wade’s world is broken into jagged pieces around him once again, which is just an absolute pleasure to watch. His even-mannered temper, even when everthing is blowing fucking mind, subtly gives room for the thematic material room to shine: his performance is careful and deliberate, but measured in a way to carefully build out the traumatic ironies of his character (and unfortunately, what appears to be a potentially terrible fate).
After a couple weeks of thumb twiddling, Watchmen is firmly back on track with “Little Fear of Lightning,” a thematically rich hour that firmly embeds itself in the history of its inspiration, and yet never feels handcuffed by it. It is a creative tightrope to walk that is downright mesmerizing when pulled off as it is here, a re-purposing of the novel’s ideals and ruminations in ways that feel prescient and fresh, rather than stale and imitative.
Not only is “Little Fear of Lightning” a great hour, but is an absolutely essential one, the moment where Lindelof and company finally spread their wings, briding the gap between past and present, setting themselves free in the process (as the preview for next week’s episode proves; this show is about to get fucking nuts, and quickly). Most importantly, it reminds us the absolute power of truth, perspective, and just how fucked up things can get when “both sides” end up being members of the same team. As normal as it looks on the surface, Watchmen‘s world is a fun house mirror of distorted truths and elaborate, false representations of self: I think Wade might agree the only time anyone is being completely honest with themselves and the world around them, is when we’re completely naked and alone, and there’s truly nowhere to hide.
Laurie: “I’m the FBI. We bug shit.”
Deadwood‘s Paula Malcomson plays the woman who seduces (and manipulates) Wade into his meeting with Joe Keene. She is one of my favorite actors, and if you haven’t seen her in the Deadwood movie, you really should.
Ozymandias’ prediction was for Redford to become president in exactly 7 years, which he did. 7 years imprisoned, 7 years until president, all signs pointing to episode 7 as the one Where The Big Thing Happens… Lindelof sure loves patterns and numbers, and this is one of the more fun ones he’s done in awhile.
It appears Ozymandias is jailed on a moon of Jupiter… which isn’t Dr. Manhattan’s favorite planet, which may be a hint towards who imprisoned him. Then again, the Warden mentions a “him” when he talks about the god who abandoned him and the clones.
boy, if this episode had aired six months from now, “squid pro quo” would feel way too on-the-nose.
In this week’s American Hero Story: two heroes have gay sex. Weakest scene of the episode by a long shot, though Wade’s nacsent curiosity gives it a strange hint of subtext.
Keene, grinning: “I’m not a murderer… I’m a politician.”
Ozymandias, in the present, takes a trip to one of Jupiter’s moons, and makes an SOS sign out of his servant’s bodies that a Trieu satellite captures. (It reads “SAVE ME D”… could he be asking Dr. Manhattan for help?)
Angela is certainly in for a fun time, after downing a bunch of pills consisting of her grandfather’s memories while getting arrested. See you on the other side, Sister Night!
Are they going to do anything with Red Scare and Panda? I’m starting to wonder if these two side characters will end up the weakest elements of the series.
In this world, Steven Spielberg directed Pale Horse instead of Schindler’s List – the visual motifs remained the same, only the topic matter of a more recent act of mass murder.
Though the references to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea are more obvious (Friends of Nemo, the episode title, etc.), there are hints of Through the Looking-Glass in it, as well, as Wade goes through the literal rabbit hole of America’s hidden truth.
Apple TV+’s The Morning Show Both-Sides Itself Into Prestigious Irrelevance
The Morning Show’s mix of flashy performances and one-dimensional writing makes for one of 2019’s more intriguing misfires.
One of Apple TV+’s early projects was a Whitney Cummings-helmed comedy firmly rooted in the #MeToo movement – unsurprisingly, it was canceled when Apple executives balked at the idea of hosting such politically charged content.
Then Hillary Clinton’s press secretary walked in with a #MeToo-themed drama based on a CNN’s anchor’s poorly-reviewed book, and Apple said: “Here’s $300 million.”
Everything about The Morning Show bows at the temple of Late Sorkin, shows whose neutered centrist politics bleed through indulgent monologues, carelessly crafting limp arguments and diatribes around events nakedly parallel to our own world.
The strange optics are a rather apt reflection of Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, one of the more confounding high-profile dramas in recent years. Comparisons to Aaron Sorkin’s HBO disaster The Newsroom might seem lazy and obvious, but there’s really no comparing it to anything else. From shot composition to dialogue and performance, everything about The Morning Show bows at the temple of Late Sorkin, shows whose neutered centrist politics and indulgent monologues, carelessly crafting limp arguments and diatribes around events nakedly parallel to our own world.
It, unfortunately, begins with one of 2019’s worst pilots, a grating 63-minute introduction to its world of morally compromised broadcast news players. As it builds out its world of producers, lackeys, stars, and C-suite executives, The Morning Show‘s first (and most of its second) hour painfully imitates the worst Sorkin-isms with glee, a series of painfully overt character introductions and an overwhelming feeling the script is about five years behind on the many conversations it wants to have about gender, power, political conflict, and the state of broadcast news.
At the center of it all is Jennifer Aniston, relishing in the decidedly two-dimensional Alex Levy, host of the eponymous show-within-a-show. When the delicate balance she’s found between being a mother, a star, and a serious contributor to the morning show culture, is disrupted by sexual misconduct allegations against her co-host Mitch Kessler (Steven Carell, doing the best he can with it all), it becomes an inflection point in her career.
To her credit, Aniston justifies the hype of her streaming debut; her committed performance allows her to run the full emotional gamut of Alex’s life, grounding her with an emotional restraint I only wish carried through to the writing. Both to its benefit and detriment, it writes around its star, offering Aniston all the room in the world for showy, dedicated, awards bait. And though it carefully avoids falling completely into a series of tropes and cliches about women almost having it all – and what they’re willing to sacrifice to achieve it – there’s no denying how the basic notes of her character are pounding over and over in early episodes, to dull effect.
The same goes for Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson, a woman whose Libertarian opinions and rough edges have stalled her career as a try-hard journalist… for a conservative news outlet (twist!). In the pilot, Bradley gets fired for yelling at someone during a protest against the coal industry, a speech that absolutely belongs in the Both Sides-ism Hall of Fame. Experienced and naive, whip-smart but held back by her own intelligence, Witherspoon’s overbearing presence as Bradley combines with some of the show’s clumsiest writing, an unremarkable attempt to subvert expectations on multiple levels.
Jackson’s character begins to come together by the third hour (once Jay Carson, the show’s creator, was fired and no longer credited on scripts), after she’s thrown unexpectedly into the mix by an Alex Levy power move; “unexpected” in that Bradley didn’t see it coming, though it is painfully obvious to even the most casual observer where the first 110-plus minutes of plot is heading. But it’s a painful road to get there, one full of asides about blue-collar upbringings and frustrations with the left and right (centrism, baby!), with the obligatory tinges of bad mom drama and professional insecurity.
Bradley’s character becomes an unfortunate mouthpiece for all the issues The Morning Show is woefully equipped to handle; the fossil fuel industry, what’s wrong with broadcast news… and in “That Women,” abortion, when she accidentally (or…??) reveals what the show treats as a Deep, Dark Secret of her past… and then immediately drops as an actual plot halfway through “That Woman,” folding it into the background noise that is the capital-d Drama surrounding the fictional Morning Show.
(This happens on her second broadcast, I might add, during her attempt to subtly undermine the wickedly facile dialogue being fed to everyone from cue cards and teleprompters.)
The benefit of having such a large, talented cast and prestigious directors (Mimi Leder and Lynn Shelton direct three of the first four hours) does allow The Morning Show to occasionally stumble into being quite watchable. There’s strange chemistry to the cast, and it combines with the sharp direction to breathe life in between the many instances where The Morning Show trips over itself with bloated plots and repetitive character beats.
There are a number of scenes in the third and fourth episode that are genuinely compelling, in a sadistic kind of way: the writing and performances are so confident and dedicated to what they’re trying to say, even when it is blindingly obvious The Morning Show is ill-equipped to catalyze on the many compelling ideas it throws into the mix. It can be fun to watch, an incongruous relationship between style and substance that is occasionally intoxicating in the sheer ludicrousness of it all.
But mostly, The Morning Show is just tiring in its dissonance, and its clear horniness for moderation and careful reinforcement of systemic norms – it is more interested in getting participation trophies for being in complex sociopolitical conversations, than actually having a concrete point of view on anything (it’s like the anti-Superstore in a lot of ways). The first four episodes are a confluence of elements, brash lead performances clashing with the naturalistic work of the show-within-a-show characters around them, all trying to convincingly deliver the dramatic equivalent of sugar-coated chalk. There are certainly some tasty, addictive qualities to The Morning Show; but those delicious morsels are overwhelmed by the bitter, archaic nature of its central narrative and episodic flow.
It is certainly fascinating to watch a show consistently jump in the deep end without knowing how to swim – it’s just not entertaining to watch The Morning Show flounder around helplessly scene after scene, a creative misfire of epically-budgeted proportions.
$300 million and those are the best opening credits you could come up with? Dots?
It is interesting how Steve Carell is listed among the main cast; he is not in these first four episodes very much – and when he is, it offers some of the show’s most uncomfortably strained writing.
This show constantly cuts to a shot of a clock alarm going off at 3:30 am. Literally every day that passes on the show, we get Bradley or Alex slamming the alarm off. WE GET IT.
Mark Duplass co-stars as the longtime producer of The Morning Show; of the show’s collection of idiotic male characters, his Charlie is rather carefully constructed. It is unexpectedly strong, and stands in interesting contrast to Billy Crudup’s Cory Ellison, a network executive Crudup clearly relishes in making a brash, exaggerated performance.
There’s a subplot about a simpleton weatherman (the always-welcome Nestor Carbonell) and the young producer he’s hooking up with. She’s apparently from a rich, influential family? It kind of feels like this show’s 2019-ified take on Sports Night’s Jeremy and Natalie.
Yes, there is an episode that ends with an acoustic version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”… spoiler: it is the episode that has a Kelly Clarkson cameo.
Karen Pittman chews up scenery as Mia, a very pragmatic producer, and Bradley’s guiding hand.
The second episode focuses pretty intently on Alex’s role as a mother… and then her daughter basically disappears without mention? I’m sure they’ll come back to it, but boy does The Morning Show like to go on tangents and forget its many, many, many side plots.
Oh man, there is an awful, awful scene where Martin Short plays an unnamed director, who talks with Mitch about what they’ve done, and how they can try and return respect to their names. And then Mitch reveals he knows the director is an “actual rapist,” and presumably decides not to make a documentary with him? It is so weird and distonal, and feels like The Morning Show presenting a weird moralistic litmus test to Mitch.
Watchmen Season 1 Episode Four Review: “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”
A thick metatextual layer coats an episode of enigmatic introductions and underwhelming mystery building.
Near the end of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” trillionaire Lady Trieu accuses Will Reeves of employing “passive-aggressive exposition” and tells him he’s being “too cute by a half-measure” teasing out his identity to his granddaughter. It is one of many meta moments in a Watchmen episode where Damon Lindelof’s anxieties and fears constantly bleed through the text of dystopian superheroes; and while that certainly makes for fascinating television to dissect and theorize about, it doesn’t exactly make for a neat, satisfying hour of television. In fact, much of it feels like its explicitly doubling down on its most esoteric qualities, drowning out much of its interesting character work and world building, with an ungodly amount of narrative winking and hand gesturing in the place of a coherent, driven plot.
Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments.
It’s not necessarily bad television; but many of the bread crumbs it drops throughout the hour make “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” feel both bloated and empty through most of the episode. Even Lady Trieu, whose introduction is unsurprisingly strange and intriguing, falls victim to this by the end of the hour, becoming the author’s overt mouthpiece in perhaps the most strained exchange of the young series. After a fascinating introduction, where she convinces a couple to sell their house and land by bringing them a test tube baby (one she had made from their DNA), Trieu’s later scenes are a bit more grating, the farther they move away from defining her character, and closer to becoming a sounding board for self-critique.
Lady Trieu’s arc through “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is emblematic of the entire hour: rich subtext obfuscated by an unwieldy amount of foreshadowing and stalling. This is obviously by design – Will establishes we’re three days away from whatever event is coming, and Veidt’s timeline reveals his scenes are three years from the present – but instead of leaning on character and theme to pass the time, the fourth episode of Watchmen doubles down on objects nodding towards what’s to come. An object falling from the sky, a mention of a horseshow Veidt “doesn’t need yet,” the direct mention of nothing being able to take down the Milennium Clock, “save for a direct hit from a nuclear blast”; every object and line in “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is a nod towards what’s to come – which, in retrospect, may make this the most important episode of the series.
But in the present, it just makes the whole affair feel a bit clumsy in its deliberate, straightforward delivery; to borrow from the episode’s symbolism, we never see any of the acorns grow into trees in this hour. We learn facts like Looking Glass is a conspiracy theorist, and Trieu’s daughter is probably some kind of lab creation who has her mother’s memories of Vietnam, and Veidt pull babies out of the water to make his clone servants in a steampunk machine; all enthralling imagery, all stepped in some of the show’s deeper thematic material about identity and purpose – but it feels laborious, and hollow, in the isolated context of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.”
At some point, all of this will mean something; even the vigilante who lubes himself up to slide through sewer grates will hold some significance in this world, even if it’s only a cheeky side note across this hour. I just wish I felt more emotional purpose to this episode: in those terms, most of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is just inert, a middle-chapter episode that makes no qualms about its position as the episode positioned between the series’ beginning, and the start of its climb to the season’s dramatic apex; but that honesty comes at the cost of everything feeling just a bit trite.
The most interesting parts of “If You Don’t Like My Story” end up being in the margins; details like Angela and Lady’s shared Vietnamese heritage (and language), Will’s fears about what’s to come, and Looking Glass’s questionable living quarters stand out among the episode’s always-lush aesthetics. Even more interesting are the metatextual connotations; Lindelof as “master and not the maker,” the cheeky episode titles and closing conversations, and the synchronicity between timelines, as the episode ends three days from whatever is about to happen on Earth, while Ozymandias’ escape is clearly nearing its own apex (and with each episode suggesting another year interned, suggests he’s three years away from his own release).
It all amounts to a collection of interesting moments, stranded in a forgettable episode unable to mark any important narrative shifts; it’s all intrigue and ominous language, muting the impact of Lady Trieu’s showy introduction. Piles of bloody clone bodies and Will’s pointed disappointment in “betraying” Angela makes for fascinating images and moments, but as a part of Watchmen‘s whole, feels a lot more weightless than what came before it, and what appears to be coming on the horizon.
It’s a small misstep, but an important one: Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments. Tick tock, tick tock, I suppose – hopefully next week’s episode offers a bit more clarity and cohesion than what “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” has to offer.
Who would’ve thought Watchmen would challenge Mom for the title of “most engaging, mature female lead characters on the same show”?
Lot to pull from the meaning of the episode’s title: it could hint to characters taking control of their own narratives (Ozymandias reframing his imprisonment as a challenge, Angela learning about her family’s history and grandfather’s mission, Laurie’s legacy running around “yahoos”in her past), or it is a middle finger to Lindelof’s critics. Or it is what Lindelof probably told himself every day that Alan Moore would tell him if they ever got to speak to each other.
Few scenes on TV are more disturbing than watching Veidt casually discarding infants around in the open water. Or making them into very nude adults in his steampunk magic machine.
“So you’re building the eighth wonder of the world?” “No, we’re building the first wonder of the new world.” THAT’S NOT OMINOUS OR ANYTHING.
Senator Keane clearly knows he shouldn’t be naming Angela while she’s in her Sister Night uniform… and yet he keeps doing it. Almost like he’s making a point about it… it is most certainly too clever, by at least a half-measure.
So if Ances-Tree was able to trace the “unknown” Will to his parents, why would the program think the whole family died in the fire? If Will died, he wouldn’t be a grandfather – and since her family tree shows no siblings for him, it would seem natural that he, in fact, did not die in the fire. Not a big thing, but it’s a point of logic that stuck out in the moment.
So either Lady Trieu is trying to kill Dr. Manhattan or create time travel? Those are my best two guesses, as if I have any clue what the fuck is actually going on here.
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