Like a woman scorned

Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and then some.

Enlightened premiered on HBO back in 2011 and was canceled after two seasons. The only time I’ve ever heard about it was when Laura Dern won the Golden Globe for her performance in 2012. Thanks to Amazon Prime, I got to see both season one and two, and, wow.

Unlike HBO’s slate of female-driven shows, Enlightened is not a Sex and the City, nor a Veep, though it’s certainly closer to the latter, if you take away all the parts about power. More specifically, Enlightened has a female protagonist who is not an admirable hot mess like her female television counterparts–she’s simply just a mess.

At its heart, Enlightened is actually an ode to the little people, and that ode materializes in the form of Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a character that is so original, cathartic, and nuanced. She’s the kind of female character that we don’t usually see in television or the movies because she’s as insignificant and foolish as she is audacious–a refreshing departure from the usual stereotypes.

We first meet Amy as a middle manager at Abbaddon Industries, a corporate wasteland in suburban Riverside, California, that sells cleaning products, and she’s having a nervous breakdown as she berates her boss and ex-lover for screwing her over. Soon, Amy enters rehab in Hawaii, and returns a new woman, but only for so long, as the old Amy sort of re-emerges in Abbaddon for a lower-level data entry job in the company basement, in a department called Cogentiva.

As Amy is relegated to a crap position at Cogentiva, she feels compelled to be a corporate whistleblower, requesting the help of her fellow co-workers to join in on her mission. Surely enough, Amy’s act of revenge becomes something of the truth.

Dern’s Amy is a gift of a character, in the sense that she doesn’t fit into whatever box that female characters are so often forced into. Yes, Amy is socially awkward, but she’s not socially awkward in a cute, cloying way; in fact, we feel embarrassed for her most of the time. We see everyone in the room react in repulsion, and it makes us wonder–would we defend her, or would we want to step away from her as well?

And yes, Amy is also naive and idealistic, but instead of the show forcing us to view those qualities as good or bad, they are simply qualities that make her human. And yes, she’s messed up, and she’s messed up in a way that’s not overtly endearing, but she’s also not short of our sympathy either.

Because Amy is also relatable. She’s often rejected by the people she loves, and lobbies pretty damn hard for the love and respect of anyone at all. Amy is both victim and bitch, woman and girl. Both Dern and Mike White (co-creator with Dern, and oftentimes, writer and director) love and care about Amy, and wants us to do so too, flaws and all. Thus, Dern is spectacular at conveying everything Amy is, and could be.

Enlightened boasts a strong supporting cast: Diane Ladd (Dern’s real-life mother) as Amy’s mother, Helen; Luke Wilson as Amy’s coke-addict ex-husband, Levi; Mike White as Amy’s socially awkward co-worker, Tyler; Sarah Burns as Krista, Amy’s ex-assistant; and Timm Sharp, as Dougie, the VP of Cogentiva.

There are some wonderful guest stars as well, including Robin Wright, as Amy’s best friend from rehab in season one; Molly Shannon as the CEO of Abbaddon’s assistant in season two; and Dermot Mulroney as an L.A. Times journalist who helps Amy blow the whistle on Abbaddon, also in season two.

The show is anchored by not only Dern’s performance, but notably Wilson’s as well. Wilson, who has made a career out of playing that generic rom-com boyfriend, has conjured up all his dramatic acting chops that haven’t been seriously called upon since his performance in My Dog Skip, to play Amy’s ex-husband, a character that is sometimes lovable, sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes repulsive–a perfect counterpart to Amy’s ridiculous antics. Dern and Wilson have a lot of unexpected chemistry, and their scenes together are warm, moving, and bittersweet.

Same goes to Ladd, who is wonderful as Amy’s mother. Ladd is sharp-tongued and no-nonsense, but also cares about her daughter’s plight, and acknowledges that her daughter is as much a victim as she is an architect of her own rabbit hole.

While Enlightened’s second season felt plot-heavy and abbreviated compared to its near-perfect first season, the entire show is a truly a giant of female-driven shows. I don’t know if we’re ever going see another show that is so expertly crafted, funny, warm, moving, and sad, with a female character that is complex enough to provoke feelings that go beyond like and dislike. Amy Jellicoe is not a hero or villain, but a daughter, ex-wife, co-worker, friend, and, well, dreamer.


All the church’s children


The Spotlight team investigate decades of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the early 2000s.

Spotlight is the closest journo-movie heir to Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece, All the President’s Men, and it has the bloodline to prove it.

Enter the Boston Globe offices in 2001, a land of cubicles that is not very different from that of its journo-movie forefathers. A new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, so subtle and unrecognizable) arrives at the office, and redirects the Globe’s Spotlight team, an investigative unit within the paper, to cases of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area–a city that, director Tom McCarthy ominously reminds us often with with nearly every exterior shot, celebrates its Roman Catholic roots with a church in every neighborhood.

The Spotlight team is supervised by Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery, as effortless and charming as ever)–who is, yes, the son of the editor at the Washington Post during Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate, ergo, bloodline–and comprised of Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton, who is more refreshing here than he was in, say, Birdman), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, turning in an energetic performance), Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams, effective and appropriately restrained), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James, solid and sometimes even humorous).

The team discovers that the Boston Archdiocese have been covering up the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests for decades. And, it’s not just a Boston problem–it’s happening all over the United States, and perhaps all over the world. Although cases of pedophile priests  and their subsequent cover-ups have been on the evening news for more than a decade, it never becomes less disgusting, or less shocking. We know that, and the film understands that all too well.

What allows Spotlight a place in the upper echelon of journalism movies is that it’s really about the work itself. It can feel like a slow burn procedural sometimes, but it’s not a procedural in the way, say, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is a procedural, because it doesn’t play games with the audience, and it doesn’t treat its subjects like spectacles. The film is not afraid to shy away from the fact that important stories get shoved to the side all the time, and it’s easy to wonder why justice doesn’t prevail as quickly as it should, even when the film’s heroes are at the helm. And like all good journalism, it’s also an exceedingly straightforward, earnest, and compassionate film.

As much as the film wants to celebrate its journalistic heroes, it’s also a film that allows the disturbing abuse to speak for itself. There’s a scene at a diner where Sacha talks to a gay sexual abuse victim and he abruptly ends his description of his encounter with the priest with “then he molested me,” and Sacha urges him to be more specific, because, well, words, however painful, really matter in this story.

Sure, Sacha believes him, but she knows that her readers like details–or else, they–we, the public–may not believe it at all. However, it’s the kind of scene, if done poorly, could feel like a spectacle awaiting the dramatic swelling of a film score, but the subtlety alone gives the audience a sense that McCarthy and Co. care about the victims and want to give them a fair chance to tell their stories, without any judgment or distractions.

Similar to how journalists operate, McCarthy treats its audience like a court of public opinion. The film meticulously documents the discovery of each puzzle piece, proving it time and time again, until it is deemed fit to fall into place. It wants to be a film that doesn’t take that many chances, which works in the film’s favor.

Also working in the film’s favor is the ensemble cast. The cast spits out McCarthy and Josh Singer’s dialogue with serious urgency, and balanced by movie office-calibre wit. Other noteworthy performances include Stanley Tucci, as an attorney advocating for sexual abuse victims, and Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan, as attorneys who assisted the Catholic church in settling under-the-table sexual abuse cases.

Spotlight is not a frivolous film, nor is it an ambiguous film. It’s a film that treats its victims, survivors, and heroes with the kind of respect they deserve. Although it’s a film that clearly condemns its villains–the church and church leaders–it’s also somewhat empathetic to their plight, in a way that makes the situation more frighteningly human than purely monstrous. Yes, there’s a sense of black and white here, but the film is smart enough to acknowledge that the audience’s choice shouldn’t be so difficult at all.


Steve Jobs’ world’s a stage


Real-life person Steve Jobs (as played by Michael Fassbender) is a brilliant jerk who the film wants to help redeem.

I saw Steve Jobs on Veteran’s Day, after it was already pulled from 2,000 theaters. I had enough faith in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle–that the two of them, together, were going to make something acerbic and visually stunning, intelligent and sympathetic. Sorkin could be the conflicted half–idealistic, but jaded–and Boyle could be the nurturing half–idealistic, but hopeful.

Yet, I’m running out of cute adjectives to defend reasons why Sorkin and Boyle could be the right writer/director duo for this particular project, because deep down, I yearned for the encore partnership of Sorkin and director David Fincher, the collaboration of the ages.

However, Sorkin and Boyle were still trying for a breath of fresh air. It’s distinct from any traditional biopic, or any traditional movie of the past few years. Because it’s essentially a three-act play, a forgotten disclaimer, which, in a way, sealed its destiny to not be very financially successful, with a very different kind of seal from, say, a Steve Jobs movie starring Ashton Kutcher.

With that three-act play format, Sorkin’s playing homage to an era of film that wanted to transport all the things that made theater great–the acting and the writing–rather than being overtly cinematic. By focusing on three chapters of Jobs’ life–the launches of the Apple Macintosh, NeXT, and the iMac–Sorkin is able to follow the same man, in different circumstances in the grand scheme of things, but in similar circumstances if you had a microscope–a narrative technique that allows some fun with time, place, and characters, who act more like hyper-verbal leitmotifs than actual people. And the best part is, in every act of the film, Jobs is preparing to go on stage. Because, well, get it?

That’s sort of at odds with Boyle’s style, which is one that is incredibly cinematic, visual, uplifting, personable–the kind of style that relies on a movie camera and an editing room to portray well. But ironically, that’s precisely what makes Sorkin’s script a bit more humane, and more than a screenwriter’s experiment. Thanks to Boyle, the film is unafraid to be sentimental, apologetic, and well, preachy.

The flip-side of being a somewhat gooey film is that it makes it easy to humanize an unlikable character. We meet Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender, in a thrilling performance)–demanding, egotistical, nervous. We are meant to hate him, but also sort of like him, in all his Sorkinesque, anti-hero glory–because he’s brilliant, and witty, and hurls all those hyper-articulate insults that we wished we had the power to say.

In the course of the film, Jobs confides in his marketing executive, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, a good foil for Fassbender’s ultra-intensity), who plays every female role in Jobs’ life, with the exception of a lover; demands the impossible from his engineer, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, in what is probably destined to be an overlooked performance); shuns his ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, a serviceable performance) and his daughter; disregards his old friend’s Steve Wozniak’s (Seth Rogen, doing his best in a dramatic role) contributions to Apple; and tries to both reject and hold on to the only father figure in his life, Apple CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, who is really wonderful here). At the end of the day, though, it’s evident that Sorkin and Boyle agree on one thing: we’re supposed to like their version of Jobs, because underneath all that assholism is a poor boy who wants to love, and be loved.

While watching it, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Social Network, for obvious reasons–Sorkin, tech, prestige picture. The Social Network was both timely and timeless–a masterpiece, and the best film of the decade, thus far. To put Steve Jobs’ box-office failure in perspective, it’s integral to look at why The Social Network was so wildly successful. Simply put, The Social Network came out when Facebook just became a really big deal, and Mark Zuckerberg was sort of an enigmatic wunderkind in the tech industry. Sorkin was able to mold his version of Movie Zuck into whatever Tech Movie Universe he wanted to drop this kid in, and it would feel persuasive. Because at its heart, The Social Network was not just a Greek tragedy, but it’s about a time and place–a social commentary, if you will–and not really about Mark Zuckerberg at all.

That said, Steve Jobs is really about Steve Jobs, the man. Or it was really trying to be–or trying to concoct a version of Steve Jobs that may or may not be real. But too much is already known about Steve Jobs–too many movies, documentaries, and books have attempted to both mortalize and immortalize the man–that the public is surely suffering from Jobs fatigue. That’s the only part where the movie feels a bit disingenuous, in the sense that it’s atoning for a real deceased man’s sins, or sometimes, preaching to a deceased man, but that deceased man has been fictionalized to serve plot purposes. Yes, it’s pretty ambitious, but also pretty silly. Because the public already knows too much about the man to believe in a cheesy movie version of him–and that’s where I think Fincher would have done better.

But it’s even sillier to dwell on what-ifs. Not to say that Steve Jobs is not the movie it was supposed to be. In fact, it was simply the case that it was not the movie I wanted it to be. Despite everything, though, Steve Jobs is still a very good movie–great, even. Visually stunning, beautifully edited, sharply written–it demands your attention, if you care about dialogue, acting, cinematography. However, even if it did sell tickets along with its critical acclaim, there wasn’t any promise that the general masses would have enjoyed an esoteric three-act play disguised as a movie.

Sorkin and Boyle has made a film that’s conceptually absurd in its ambitions–sometimes chaotic, sometimes sweet, sometimes moralizing–but it sort of captures what a cinematic-theater sub-genre could be like, with all its loose ends and tied knots, creating what is ultimately a staged spectacle projected onto the silver screen.

Suburban murder mystery

Cast of Secrets and Lies.

The cast of Secrets and Lies is stuck in the suburbs with a murder mystery.

This post contains spoilers.

Secrets and Lies should have existed a decade ago.

Once upon a time, blogosphere snark was so prevalent that Serious Journalists had to write op-eds to criticize its prevalence as cheap and lazy journalism–as it sometimes certainly was. I started to consistently blog during the Internet Age of Snark and sure, I miss it sometimes. I was one of those sixteen year old bloggers who feigned maturity through snark because that was what all the cool twentysomething pop culture bloggers were doing; little did I know, behind that snark, there was a lot of cynicism about being an young adult and living in a recession and, if I want to get psychoanalytical, all that low-hanging snark was merely a defense mechanism.

But as the economy has gotten better, the dismissal of snark has allowed for more serious analysis about pop culture–not to say overt snark doesn’t exist, but it now exists in very specific, niche places. We’re in 2015 and it’s a pro-sap, post-snark pop culture universe–or at least, a less brutal battlefield contra recession 2005 because today, Television Without Pity and Videogum are long gone, Gawker writer Emily Gould is dating/potentially married to Keith Gessen, the author of a book titled All the Sad Young Literary Men (sure) and who was once a subject of one of Gould’s own snark-ticles.

And, the most obvious sign of the times–there is only one mainstream television blogger who recaps Secrets and Lies (Michelle Newman of Entertainment Weekly, who deserves a raise) with the kind of snark it deserves. Oh, how the world has changed!

We’re inching close to the day when we will live in a world where there are more Internet articles defending Kim Kardashian than criticizing her–and you know, maybe that’s the way it always should have been. The blog denizens have become sentimentalists, protectors, and even champions of the public figures they used to mock because they are a much happier people now, and dare I say it–perhaps bloggers are even a genuine people now.

But man, does Secrets and Lies deserve to be mocked with snarky derision circa 2005. It’s a treasure chest of material for Television Without Pity or Videogum, and the show could have subsequently gotten higher Nielsen ratings as a result of whatever recaps those sites could have concocted for viewer reading the morning after.

Based on an Australian series of the same name, Secrets and Lies, a 10-episode anthology series that just finished its run on ABC, a murder mystery series with the unsettling gloss of a daytime soap. It stars two movie stars, or former movie stars, if you will–Ryan Phillippe and Juliette Lewis–who, unfortunately, don’t have the pluck to rise above a comically terrible script.

Philippe stars as Ben Crawford, a suburban husband, father of two, and house painter, who goes jogging one morning, only to find the dead body of a neighbor’s six-year old son. Lewis’ Detective Andrea Cornell is put on the case and she instantly suspects that Ben could be the killer. And, of course, Ben’s defense is weak as he struggles to recall what happened the night before he discovered the body; all he can remember is that he got into a fight with his estranged wife (KaDee Strickland) and went out for a night of drinks with his best friend Dave (Dan Fogler), but beyond that, he’s got nothing.

Instead of instantly trying to retrace his steps (he does eventually do it, though), Ben spends most of the show accusing his neighbors of murdering his neighbor’s son who he discovers at the end of the first episode is his biological son from an one-night stand he had with his neighbor six years ago. So Ben actually spends most of the show barging into people’s homes, declaring that they’ve killed his son, only to discover they really haven’t, and that he’s not a very good detective after all. Other than accusing people of killing his son, Ben spends his downtime wrongly accusing his best friend of molesting his teenage daughter, the detective for putting her own daughter in jail, and his wife of cheating on him. So Ben’s a pretty busy guy–being a prime murder suspect in his biological son’s death is almost besides the point.

There are a plethora of issues about this show, the most unbelievable being that the police department was apparently able to determine the exact murder weapon from the victim’s wounds–in fact, they were able to conclude that it was a flashlight of a specific make and model. And also, it’s a show about a guy who may have murdered his own biological son after all, but couldn’t remember because he blacked out.

But as much as I would like to make fun of the show, the tenth episode of this show continues to haunt me. It’s been a few weeks, and I still can’t get over the exceptional twist–not so much that it was particularly unexpected, but just the way it unfolded. I haven’t seen the Australian series, which the show was reportedly loyally based on, but geez, I wished that tenth episode was the fifth episode and the suspense could have been Det. Cornell proving that Ben didn’t do it after all. The last half hour of this series is brilliant because of a young actress’ bold, nuanced performance. All I’m saying is, Bella Shouse–she’s one to watch out for.

Murder, she found

Serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) watches Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) with great interest.

Serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) watches Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) with keen interest.

The Fall is the greatest show I’ve ever seen

I’m going to warn you that I do say that with the kind of hyperbolic glee akin to the satiated fanaticism of some 15 year old sci-fi nerd who just saw Star Wars for the first time in 1977. Because I’m pretty into the murder mystery genre right now, and not so much with the whodunnit aspect, but with the all too fascinating why. After too many episodes of Snapped, I’ve realized that the story doesn’t necessarily end with the killer in handcuffs, but the killer being interrogated in a way that may or may not bring a sense of the humane into the already very obvious psycho. And, of course, The Fall fits that bill–or, more accurately, transcends it.

I don’t want to give too much away, even though we know from the get-go who the killer is. As Heat-ian cat-and-mouse games often go, it’s more about the how the criminal gets caught, and why the criminal does what he/she does. The show stars two of the finest actors to ever grace a television series–Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. If these two actors didn’t work, this entire show would fall apart, but as fate would have it–they work, and very much so. Anderson plays an English police detective, Stella Gibson, brought to Belfast to review the police department, only to find herself investigating the murders of young, professional, dark-haired women; she concludes that the murders are linked and are the work of a serial killer. And unbeknownst to everyone, Paul Spector (Dornan), family man and grievance counselor by day, is a serial killer by night.

At first glance, Gibson appears cold and distant to a point of asexuality, but as the show goes on, she becomes increasingly womanly in what can be traditionally perceived as contradictory. Gibson is maternal and sexual, tough and scared–both embodying feminism and boldly challenging our perceptions of what is stereotypically feminist. Anderson gets all that and plays it brilliantly. And it’s shocking that such a character is written by a man–Allan Cubitt, the writer, creator, and director of season two; that said, Cubitt has a deep understanding of women and feminism to write a character and a show that interprets a post-feminism Europe with the kind of self-assured self-awareness that he articulates so well through his sense of character, setting, and story. Gibson is followed by a cast of other female characters–a pathologist, a cop, a mother, a daughter, a teenage girl–and while not all of them are strong and independent, they are certainly complex in their own unique ways. Only a man who celebrates womanhood could write the kind of female characters that Cubitt has so respectfully crafted.

Of course, it’s no coincidence that Gibson’s foil is a man who preys on women socially perceived as strong and independent–the assumed archetypes of the feminist movement–and who Gibson casually labels a misogynist. Yet, the audience gets to intimately know Spector in a way that Gibson doesn’t–we see very clearly that he’s a man who genuinely loves his children, is genuinely concerned about his domestic abuse patient, is genuinely remorseful after realizing he has murdered a pregnant woman. Sure, it’s easy to instantly label a man who controls, murders, and objectifies his female victims a misogynist, but the situation is more complex when that man struggles to objectify women he knows because, well, he is able to empathize with them as fellow human beings.

And it’s even harder for the audience to hate a man that we’ve gotten to know. Part of the great trick that Dornan’s performance plays on us–and what a sympathetic performance it is–is that, despite the fact that he has gruesomely murdered three women, we feel that there are some crimes that are beneath him. Even when the Spectors’ teenage babysitter comes on to him, we feel like we don’t want to add pedophile on the list–and in that weird way, we can oftentimes find ourselves rooting for him to become a better man–to not manipulate the young girl more than he already has, as we’re constantly counting on the good in him. But as Spector’s judgment day looms ever closer, we see, in season two, his day and night personas gradually merge as his daytime activities have become damage control for his sins of the night–yet we still feel for him, we still chuckle at his remarks, our hearts soften when he interacts with his daughter. There’s a beauty to Dornan’s layered, difficult performance, yet sadly, he couldn’t become superstar-famous until he signed on (i.e., sold his soul) to a certain movie franchise starring as a certain C.G.

Like all dramas of this nature, Gibson and Spector’s relationship does take center stage. Despite the fact they share very little actual screen time together in the show’s two seasons, Cubitt writes these characters as very connected people, not just because the story dictates it, but their characters’ very existence dictates it. Yes, they are both stone cold, meticulous people, but they can also be soft, hurt, lost–all colored by an intense degree of personal and professional moral ambiguity. That parallelism becomes very apparent when they finally meet face to face and it appears that they both share, arguably, an almost primal attraction to each other–sexual, or not, it doesn’t matter because any attraction must remain unspoken–that, in all its perversity, makes a world of sense.

I would even argue that Spector correctly assumed Gibson’s Electra complex as he himself may have his own Oedipus complex, as Gibson implied–point is, these two get each other. And what a relief that after all the unshared screen time between them and how their chemistry has been dependent on phone calls woven together in the editing room, the chemistry–of antagonism, of attraction, of repulsion, of fascination–in their scenes together in the same room are real and vital. How lucky is this show to have successfully gambled on two actors to be such equally matched characters; there had to be electricity when Anderson and Dornan inhabit the same space, and lo and behold, there was.

All two seasons (eleven episodes total) are on Netflix; that said, you should watch all of the episodes now. Season three is coming out soon and both Anderson and Dornan are set to return.

Dethroning the king


Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) seeks shelter as his house of cards comes tumbling down.

Deep down, we all knew that Netflix’s House of Cards was trash. Relentlessly soapy, popcorn-blockbuster trash that can be marathoned in the same way college kids shotgun cheap beer. The show is high fructose entertainment disguised as hifalutin theater–all on the good faith of a rented tux.

Yet, Serious People watch House of Cards. Despite the soap, it remains a must-watch for the audience-elite. Blame it on David Fincher, who executive-produces the show. Blame it on Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, two of the finest actors of their generation, who star in the show. Blame it on its source material–a British book series turned BBC series. There’s a lot of surface prestige, but if you look closer (no pun intended, for all my Kevin Spacey fans out there), its first two seasons follow a man who almost too easily takes the American vice presidency and subsequently, the presidency, from opponents unworthy to rival him in a wannabe Shakespearean territory. Sure, it’s a show that sometimes wants to be about politics, but is actually more about one man’s ambition to the rule the world; at the end of day, however, House of Cards says very little about American government, but a lot about–well, a lot about something.

And therein lies the problem with the first two seasons of House of Cards–it’s a drama with a lot of showmanship, but not self-aware enough to know that it’s saying very little about any of the things it’s supposed to be about. Its opportunities to be more than a soap are vast, but all those opportunities are wasted on saying a lot of cynical things that we already know–politicians can be ruthless and dumb, journalists can be immoral and dumb. Reiteration is not insight.

In the third and most recent season of the show though, the tides have changed. The writers are now completely aware that their show is not so much a commentary on D.C. politics, but a commentary on, well, human nature–which is what they’ve wanted to explore all along, but were too afraid to venture too deep, too far, too fast. Yes, it’s still a D.C. show, but it’s now self-aware enough to acknowledge that it’s also a show starring Richard III and Lady Macbeth in all their theatrical glory. As such, the writers don’t have much to say about how the government run things, but they do have some things to say about the people running the government–and more precisely, people running things.

Season three has been criticized as being too slow, as Francis Underwood’s (Spacey) super-villainy begins to wane. Frank has attained the presidency, but that creates problems–his wife, Claire (Wright) has political ambitions of her own, he can’t get his damn bill past congress, his party doesn’t want to support him in the next presidential election, things aren’t going well with Russia–the list goes on. Broadly speaking, all of that sounds like a usual D.C. affair, but the details show just how uninterested the writers are about writing American political fanfiction.

As president, Frank desperately tries to push through a bill called America Works (AmWorks), which he considers the crux of his presidency–his legacy, if you will. AmWorks aims to create more jobs and hopes to succeed this by taking money of the Medicare budget and dumping it to businesses to create new jobs. There are, of course, a number of problems with this bill, the most obvious being (well, all of them are obvious) that there is no way in hell that this kind of bill would be championed by a Democrat, or even by any sane Republican. Any politician knows that social security benefits are a precious social commodity, even to conservatives. Predictably, Frank is met with opposition from both sides, including the leadership of his own party.

However, it seems besides the point to contemplate Frank’s foolishness. It’s clear that Frank is on a power trip and he wants to make a mark on history all with pure adrenaline, sans substance. And it begs the question: Is this what Frank has been all along–a political hack? And furthermore, is that what the show has been all along–a dramatic hack job, a much ado about nothing a la Entourage, but has managed to moonlight around as a serious show for serious people for two whole seasons? Perhaps, but with this AmWorks bullshit, the writers seem to wink at us, acknowledging exactly at what they’ve done.

And you realize that, just maybe, that Frank’s terrible bill is just the usual made-up nothingness consistent with the show’s capacity to be politically irrelevant. Even Frank meeting with the president of Russia (a Putin wannabe very well-played by Lars Mikkelsen) in the Jordan Valley is far-fetched and sort of, well, ridiculous. While The West Wing tried to play idealist politics and Veep wants to be a modern-day political satire responding to the Sarah Palin “what ifs?”, House of Cards is not concerned about how D.C. should or is running things as D.C. is merely a stage for whatever stories the writers want to tell about whichever people. It becomes quickly apparent that the writers want to showcase the women this season–not just women in politics, but women dealing with modern-day feminism, starting with Frank’s souring presidency/legacy being determined by the women who have the capability to save or destroy him. The female characters that populate House of Cards dwell in the Jezebelian age of patriarchal dissent–a faux feminist ideology that upholds independence and sexual prowess, yet ignores how often those two ideas contradict when intertwined.

This season, Claire proves that she could just be Frank’s Achilles’ heel. She has her eye on the open ambassador position, but she needs Frank’s help to get the position, which could be politically compromising for both of them. Problem is, Claire also views the presidency as theirs, but yet, deep down, it’s not–he’s made it and she’s trailing behind and needs him to set the score even; if so, were they ever truly equals? Or, was she just a politician’s wife who was tricked into the idea that her husband’s life was truly hers as well? We discover that, perhaps Frank loves Claire much more than he’d like to admit, but as the season progresses, Claire discovers that, perhaps, she doesn’t love Frank as much as she has admitted. Like most great tales, maybe House of Cards has really been about the Underwoods’ marriage all along because well, this season certainly is.

Then there’s Jackie Sharp (effortlessly played by Molly Parker), the former war veteran turned Democratic majority whip who owes Frank for turning her into a relevant political powerhouse in season two, but who also brews greater political ambitions of her own. Yet, politics is a hard game for a fortysomething woman who isn’t a wife and mother, so she’s forced into a compromising position, as she fights her lingering feelings for former lobbyist and current chief-of-staff to the president, Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali).

Also, enter Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), Frank’s major political foil this season–a morally righteous solicitor general with a wealthy family who is fighting a fight worth fighting for, despite that she needs to sometimes play dirty and certainly has the money for it. In Dunbar, we have someone to root for in a show populated by variations of villainy or unlikability because she’s a worthy political foil–she’s not another Russo who can be done away with the promise of a good time. Frank is unsure whether to place Dunbar as an ally or enemy because she’s smart enough to be a real threat on the other side, but she’s a good enough person to be a bane on his own turf. Dunbar is dangerous to Frank because not only is she one of the few people in the House of Cards universe that has a shot at heaven, but the audience has a reason to like her. Dunbar’s taking away Frank’s spotlight, despite the fact that we, as Frank’s audience, are supposed to root for him as he’s the one who has invited us into his world with those clever asides and we probably even cheered when he first entered the oval office and banged his ring on the desk and it faded to black. Above all else, this is Frank’s story and we’re all starting to like Dunbar more–and that’s why she feels like such a threat. And that’s when it begins to feel like Frank Underwood is no longer writing history like he so easily did before, in turn, unexpectedly humanizing him and making his story a bit more interesting than before.

Frank has a worthy foil now–she’s no longer just an inevitable loser to be destroyed on his way to power. Frank and Claire’s marriage has become more or less a fractured partnership. Frank’s protege doesn’t want to be a pawn anymore. Frank unintentionally bares his soul to the novelist of his propaganda biography (in a wonderfully understated performance by Paul Sparks, destined to be underrated) and we discover more about him than we ever did from his asides.

And, as a subplot that feels like it exists both in the same show and a different show, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly, in a supporting performance for the record books), tries to claw back into Frank’s good graces as he also searches for his attempted murderer/obsession, Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan). While Doug’s story line is a wicked slow burn, it’s also the most heartbreaking, frightening, and complex one this season–all that thanks to Kelly’s spectacular performance, worthy of an Emmy this year, or any other year. It’s hard not to be overshadowed by Spacey’s and Wright’s towering performances, but the show made the right decision to properly give Kelly his chance to carry his own space. Kelly reaches into every corner of Doug’s screwed up soul from every complicated, uncomfortable angle, just to find out that, deep down, Doug yearns for, well, embarrassingly enough–love and validation.

Not to say it’s not a season populated with other great performances–yes, Spacey and Wright are still fantastic to watch, especially in their last few scenes together. I almost forgot to mention Kim Dickens as as a White House journalist who is miles more likable than Zoe Barnes will ever be; in fact, Dickens’ and Sparks’ chemistry is one of the most charming parts of the season, if not sometimes oddly distracting because there’s a romantic comedy worthy of The West Wing in this bastard of a universe–it’s a mixed bag, for sure, but an enjoyable mixed bag, nonetheless. There’s also Jimmi Simpson as the hacker from season two and Kate Lyn Sheil as Rachel’s Christian ex-girlfriend whose stories unexpectedly intertwine in a very heartfelt, and sort of touching way.

Here’s a show that didn’t dabble in the matters of the heart, but now the show purely benefits from wearing its heart on its sleeve. Creator Beau Willimon’s staunch anti-sentimentality stance seemed to be running on empty and the show finally realized that to grow, we all need a little more than Claire Underwood feeling sorry for a middle-aged cashier lady (i.e., that brief moment of humanity in season one). Point is, Frank is not doing very well, personally or professionally, as president–which makes him less fun, but gives him more depth. Because the world around him is turning sentimental–or was it sentimental all along? And, maybe that’s part of the show’s point this season–it may have very little to say, politically, about foreign affairs, LGBT rights, racism, Medicare benefits, and unemployment as it handles all those issues quite awkwardly and there’s no reason to dwell on things that are clearly not meant to be done well, but it does have a lot to say about, well, humanity. The show has always been just that brash in its ambitiousness and it has taken three seasons for it to declare it with such honesty. And with such honesty, House of Cards is no longer trash–it’s the sustained operatic high note that it has always aspired to be.

The boy who reaped


In Golden Son, the line between enemy and ally is blurred, constantly.

Two months ago, I was sentenced by my office book club to read a dystopian YA novel, Red Rising, by newcomer (and now millionaire) Pierce Brown. A few chapters in, I discovered that it was certainly one of the most unoriginal, badly written novels I’ve ever read. Hyperbole, perhaps–to be fair, though, I was not a regular consumer of dystopian YA novels and I was not the intended audience in the first place; however, I was a regular consumer of literature and as far as I was concerned, Red Rising was an abomination to that institution as I knew it.

Firstly, the book is a Harry Potter and Hunger Games hybird/rip-off. I’m sure Brown would prefer the term homage, but we all know better. Yes, dystopian/science fiction/fantasy YA is a genre populated by literary theft, but Brown’s theft of very recent popular YA is almost too obvious to overlook.

Like most dystopian heroes who start from the bottom (i.e., Drake), Brown’s protagonist, Darrow, lives on Mars and is born Red–the lowest caste in a politically and socially repressive color-coded society ruled by the highest caste, the Golds. As though to beg for Hunger Games comparisons, Darrow works in the mines with other Reds in terrible conditions. One day, Darrow’s young wife, Eo, sings a song of political dissent and she is brutally executed by the Golds. Darrow, viewing Eo’s death as a sacrifice, buries his wife against the law (as the law says that traitors should not be buried because well, Antigone), and is also executed–only to find himself saved by secret rebel society, the Sons of Ares, who aim to break down the injustice the Golds have brought upon people of other colors.

The Sons then transform Darrow into a Gold so he can join the Institute and become a political superstar. At the Institute, Darrow is–get this–sorted into the House of Mars and I wondered why Brown didn’t just go ahead and name the school “Hogwarts” and the house “Gryffindor.” The Institute turns out to be a battlefield where the strong will prevail by killing the weak because, well, Brown read Hunger Games. There is also a scene where a girl nurses Darrow back to the health in a cave (if memory serves me correct) as a romance brews and at that point, I had hoped Brown at least sent Suzanne Collins a thank you card and a gift basket.

Secondly, I found Brown’s prose frustrating to read. He’s one of those brave souls who has the balls to write in first person present. Any sane person would know that writing in first person present is difficult–and Brown is certainly no master at it. Oftentimes, Darrow, his narrator would seemingly be able to read the mind of the other characters, without any explanation of why he came to that conclusion, which makes us all wonder–is his narrator hiding psychic powers from the reader? Unlikely, or else Brown would have some plot holes to defend. Also, Brown could not write a decent simile as readers are forced to trudge through description such as, “My wolfcloak is as as white as the falling slow. I’ve pulled its head up, so I look like a guardian creature from the colder levels of hell.” What is exactly is a guardian creature from the colder levels of hell? Beats me. Or this: “The men are freakishly muscular and tall. Their arms and chest beat with artificial strength, and they flaunt their muscles like girls showing off new toys.” I still have no idea what that simile is trying to say and honestly, I don’t care, because much of Brown’s attempts at poetic flourishes are ill-conceived and add nothing to the story, even if they had worked.

To make matters worse, my co-worker also dug up a Buzzfeed interview with Brown where the writer came off as pretentious and obnoxious with an aura of self-proclaimed boy wonder-ness. Here is just a taste of how Brown proved to be the worst:

“I was reading the story of Antigone,” he says before correcting himself. “Re-reading the story of Antigone.”

I went to the book club with so much ammunition for the book I’ve just read and looked forward to commiserating over the book’s shittiness, only to find out people absolutely loved it–loved it so much, some of them have even read the sequel. I was shocked as, going in, I was sure that I’ve read an unlovable book. I read a book that felt akin to a frat boy’s vile wet dream–an ardent blowjob to fanboy fanaticism at its most graphically violent and stupid; sure, there were pleads for love, for sympathy, but I was having none of it. So yes, I still believe that Red Rising is a terrible book–badly written, and worst of all, written by an unskilled literary thief.

Yet, I knew, deep down, Brown had a knack for character, setting, and plot. For a writer who struggled to convey any of that with style, I still knew that he had a deep understanding of the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story worth reading–he just hasn’t had the chance to fully unleash that.

As fate would have it, Red Rising’s sequel, Golden Son was the March office book club selection. Due to my dedication to my office book club (it’s the only way I can consistently force myself to read a book once a month), I started reading it. And a miracle happened.

With Golden Son, Brown has written the best possible sequel for one of the shittiest books I’ve ever read.

Golden Son is spectacular. Spectacular, in the sense that Brown patiently concocted a fully realized political government that pays true homage to the history (and legend) of the Roman Empire. In Brown’s very political solar system, the characters are living, breathing chess pieces–with vivid hearts and minds, ready to kill and conquer, but also to love and protect when necessary. Unlike Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic or Hunger Games’ Capitol, Golden Son’s government is not merely a plot device, nor does it exists to serve a function–it’s an integral part of its story and its universe is infinitely richer because of it.

Without giving too much away, Darrow finds himself closely allied with ArchGovernor Nero au Augustus–the man who ordered his late wife’s execution and the father of the woman he fell in love with at the Institute. Darrow also finds himself allied with his former nemesis from the Institute, who is also the ArchGovernor’s black sheep son. Darrow becomes a target of the Sovereign of the solar system, who is out to strip Augustus of his power and replace Augustus with the Bellona family–a family out to kill Darrow who was forced to kill their son at the Institute. Despite everything, Darrow’s goal is to save the Reds and destroy the Golds by creating civil war among the Golds as a way to eventually render justice in the entire solar system within the castes.

That’s just a taste of the alliances and betrayals that populate this ambitious, complex novel. All of this adds up to some delicious scenes between enemies and allies: the first time Darrow and his former nemesis meet in the novel, the engaging psychological showdown between Darrow and the Soveriengn, and the finale–oh, what a finale!

Not to say that the sequel doesn’t have all the weaknesses that permeate the first novel. Some of Brown’s attempts to write elongated, descriptive passages fall on the weight of its own poetic ambitions; however, unlike his previous effort, some of his attempts do result in inspired prose. Brown’s battle scenes remain chaotic and sometimes incoherent; he has still yet to find that balance between what it means to convey chaos versus writing chaotically to a point of confusing the reader as to what exactly is happening in the scene. Also, there is too much wish fulfillment going on in many of the battle scenes–Darrow’s gut feeling is often too spot-on for a country boy fighting for his life in a high-stakes world.

But Brown’s writing soars in the quiet moments when he lays his characters bare in front of us–without the sci-fi gadgets, without the violence. When his characters are desperately trying to keep an alliance, gain trust, pursue loyalty, do the right thing, contemplate doing the wrong thing–that’s when Brown appears to have a startlingly deep understanding of the morally ambiguous human psyche. And Brown, as the creator of his universe and the characters who inhabit it, knows that the human tendency for moral ambiguity is both a frightening and sometimes beautiful thing as he allows his characters to struggle as much as with themselves as with each other.

And, in retrospect, Red Rising built up to the world the characters in Golden Son inhabit, so Red Rising was a necessary evil. Without Red Rising, the revelations in Golden Son would not be nearly as rich or as powerful.

I don’t know if Pierce Brown will ever get off my famous people shitlist (because of the Buzzfeed interview), but with Golden Son, he has written a novel that is not only a dystopian sci-fi/fantasy novel, but a thrilling emotional adventure as well. And I give credit when it’s due; maybe he is the boy wonder he thinks he is after all. So start reading the series before they fly off the shelves once the movie trailer comes out.