Getting back to story writing is uncovering far more rust than I would like, but it is in a good cause.
One thing that years of game running and critique has instilled in me is an unfortunate habit of excess world building. I *like* the details, relish them even. I also like how the understanding of those details filters up into the creation of character motivation and conflict. People do specific things because their specific lives make those choices available, and more importantly make those choices relevant.
That said, it is far too easy for me to get lost in the background details and not get to the actual goddamn story. “Researching isn’t writing,” as my wise sister says.
I am glad my mom and I have done the research, gotten the social classes right, looked at how people dressed and named themselves in 15th century Florence. But that doesn’t move the story along. I have the set up and I have the culprit, but in noir especially, the journey through the mystery is more important than the mystery itself and I need to start shuffling through the labyrinth.
My first FantAsia film was a trip down nostalgia lane to memories of renting random Kung Fu VHS tapes with my friend Josh as a kid in New York City, by way of the iconic Shaw Bothers film, “The Five Fingers of Death”, also known as “King Boxer”. This film is famously the first major kung fu film to hit the USA, predating Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon by several months. (It is widely considered something of a test run for Dragon.) Martial arts content had been gaining popularity throughout the late 60s, culminating in the TV series Kung Fu, but no one had brought a wall-to-wall martial arts flick to the big screen yet. Would it have any appeal outside the grindcore set?
The film was a huge hit, only to be dwarfed later in ’73 by the even bigger hit that was Lee’s film. But Five Fingers of Death came first, a grand guignol pile up of martial arts movie tropes that is still influential today. The opening credits give us a screeching wail which Tarantino used liberally in Kill Bill. The name gave us the band name of “Five Finger Death Punch”. The screeching wail is actually the power up sound of the hero’s secret “Iron Palm technique”, in which his hands glow and he delivers supernaturally powerful blows.
Danny Rand says hi.
The film itself, at least this edit and translation of it, is a bit of a mess. The basic story is clear enough, Chih-Hao (Lo Lieh) is a martial arts student and in love with his Master’s daughter Ying-Ying (Wang Ping). When thugs attack the master, he is sent to study under a new teacher, and win a tournament to prevent evil martial arts schools from taking over the northern provinces and justify his marriage to Ying-Ying. He goes north, gets trained and struggles with the evil martial arts school led by Meng Tung-Shan (Tien Feng) and his son Meng Tien-Hsiung (Tung Lam looking like a cross between Elvis and Queeg from the Caine Mutiny Trial). How long things take is very unclear (it could be over a year, it could be a couple of months), the character beats are oddly messy at times, with the movie cutting away before anything can land. At times it feels like an ensemble piece that needs another half hour to fill out properly, but they had to cut tot he fights.
And fights there are. There are bar fights, street ambushes, there is a tournament, there is murder, people get their eyes plucked out, bright red blood spews everywhere, the hero has glowing hands. It’s like a distilled concentrate of the whole style of that era of movies.
This is far from my favourite Shaw Brothers film, it lacks a lot of the operatic quality and innovative weirdness that they brought to the table for their best work. But it does have a bit of everything, and for a North American audience that had never seen anything like it, I can see why it took off.
Poking around the internet, it seems that there has been talk of a remake since 2016 (sadly, the name attached it Brett Ratner) and I would love to see a remake that takes some time to breathe and let all the various subplots boil properly and get their moments in. The side characters all have potential to be even better with a little love.
Was it as awesome as it was to an underage me? Not really. But a bit like Casablanca, it is amazing to go back and see something that has been so copied and referenced that it takes you a moment to realize this is the source, and marvel at how mind blowing it must have been.
Steven Universe came back this week with one of its all-too-infrequent mini-arcs of story, in this case playing out the fallout of the revelation that Rose Quartz – Leader of the Rebellion, and Pink Diamond – Colonial overlord, were actually the same person.
It is a revelation that has been set up since early days, and one that makes sense story-wise, but it is one I dreaded for one reason, and that reason is Pearl.
For those who don’t follow the show, in the universe of the story, Pearls are slaves built for pleasure and service for the high-ranking members of Gem society. The fact that there was a Pearl among the rebel gems on Earth was a source of terror and fascination among the homeworld gems. (“The Terrible, Renegade Pearl.”)
Pearl loved the leader of the rebellion, Rose Quartz. I had always hoped that the backstory was that Pearl had broken her programming, somehow deciding that Rose was more worthy of her devotion than the Gems she had been programmed for. The revelation that Rose was Pink Diamond, and that the Pearl we know was Pink’s assigned Pearl, meant that Pearl had always been programmed/assigned to serve and love Pink, and just followed that on to Rose. She never rebelled, she never broke the rules, she was just a pawn.
To me this was a massive misstep, making Pearl’s story of complicated rebellion into naught.
This week they tried to deal with the fallout of that decision. The theme of the week was clearly that of moving forward, growing out of the shadow of the past and forging a new path. I respect this, indeed I think it is necessary and beautiful, but it still leaves some uncomfortable aftermath to pick through. They did an entire episode dealing with what Rose/Pink was actually thinking, and whether the rebellion was nothing but a game to her, and while I respect that approach, I’m not sure it was enough.
(Note to everyone, the week overall was delightful, with Garnet’s reunion handled wonderfully, and while I don’t think the storyboarders on Steven Universe can handle epic fights at the level of something like the old Justice League cartoon, there were moments of absolute brilliance in the final showdown. My heart to Lapis forever.)
In the Now We’re Only Falling Apart, we go back through Pearl’s memories of Rose’s rebellion, and learn that she really did try everything she could to change the system from within. Rose never realized the consequences of what the choices she made, she chose what made sense to her at the time. And within this we realize that Pearl’s desperate desire to please Rose resulted in Pearl encouraging Rose’s more radical side, understanding that would make Rose happiest. And it becomes clear that Rose loved Pearl most when Pearl was suggesting things beyond what Rose would ever think for herself. The more Pearl self-actualized, the more Rose loved her. This helps, but I don’t know if it is enough. Rose still controlled Pearl, commanded her to hold her secrets (and even then kept more secrets from her). Was Pearl ever free to love for herself? Did she ever have a choice in the matter? And did Rose/Pink ever really love her as an individual, and not as her most cherished pet?
The very ambiguity helps, in that at least they didn’t double down on Pearl as trapped servant. I get that Rose’s ambiguity is part of the point (she is legend and hero, but turns out to be fallible and with feet of clay), and so even the great love that freed PEarl is tainted, but it rankles. I hope that the Steven’s encouragement to Pearl’s soul in the big fight against the Diamonds (reminding her she isn’t just fighting for Rose or Steven, but for herself) is a sign that the intention is to move Pearl forward. But it still feels like the deep subversion Pearl represented – a gem model fabricated to be nothing but decorative and pleasing, who found a way to become more than anyone suspected – an engineer and warrior – has been blunted, because she was just ordered to be more by her master. They haven’t really defused that, and I’m not sure I can forgive them for it.
Perhaps we will find Pearl realizing that she re-invented herself not as orders from Rose, but by finding ways to serve beyond what was ordered, and that means she can always choose a cause beyond what she was given and surpass herself. I’d like to think so, because this show has been so wonderful about the idea the way you are special isn’t tied to what people expect of you. To have so much of it fall back now on “Rose was one of the elite in the first place, and Pearl never rebelled” seems a betrayal the themes.
It really has felt that the last week was a reset… a chance for everyone to try and emerge from the shadows of the past, and embrace the ideals and not the lies. We will see how it spins out. But I think I will always lament the lost chance of a Pearl who redefined herself. There may be a way to thread the needle to show she did redefine herself without noticing, but the burden of proof is much higher than it was before this reveal. Rose may have thought she loved her, but Rose never did give up her power over Pearl, and I’m not sure I can ever forgive her for that.
We live in the days of Franchise. The pop culture machine has (for a while now) gone whole hog on reboots, sequels, shared universes, and other elements that involve a mix of safe nostalgia and a built in fan-base. I’m less angered by this than most, there is something to be said for the concept that revisting, appropriating, juxtaposing, adapting, and transforming material is how culture always evolves anyway.
But when you are faced with the specific challenge of taking a known work, with an invested fan base, and moving it forward, it does pose specific challenges and opportunities. This has been the dilemma facing comic book writers in particular for generations now, but also crops up in other media.
I’m a firm believer that we never have the “Perfect” version of a character. We have better and worse ones, more and less interesting ones, but they all circle around some essential constellation of elements that no one version can ever fully contain. In a way, this is the process of myth making, and one of the reasons I roll my eyes at people who say “the real myths” are any one interpretation.*
So it has been a particularly interesting few weeks as I happen to have stumbled across some creative types talking about exactly how they handle it.
This mutual interview on grappling with rebooting and continuing Xena: Warrior Princess is a great read, as Genevieve Valentine and Javier Grillo-Marxuach discuss how they are approaching the challenge of bringing forth a comic book sequel and a new live-action reboot, respectively. Hearing them bash around ideas of what parts are iconic, what aren’t, what each media type gives you as pros and cons, is fascinating. Each re-invention, retelling of any story involves struggling with what is essential to that character. Over time, some things coalesce to become sacrosanct, others become important but open to riffing on a basic idea, and some things fall away.
Grillo-Marxuach puts his cards on the table on how he wants to remix the canon given the new more focused dramatic format, but he too has elements that are core to how he views the character, “There are a few things that are sacrosanct: the Chakram and the quarterstaff, of course, Gabrielle’s ambition to become a bard, and—most importantly—that Xena and Gabrielle be soul mates. Like I said, I’m not monster.”
The recent fiery reaction to Batman vs Superman has provoked unfriending and banishment on the social media of some people I know, because to believe these are legitimate interpretations of Batman or Superman is tantamount to treason. This is ridiculous, as Andrew Collas points out in his contrarianly positive review of BvS, pointing out a woman who liked the film’s Luthor, even if it wasn’t “her” Luthor (although she went so far as to deny him being really Luthor at all). And there may be some versions so out of sync that they disqualify themselves as options, although I think that incredibly rare. People who have adapted Wonder Woman have tried hard to refute that statement, though. (I like to think I did better when I took a shot at ita while ago, although if I’ve learned anything since then it is that I probably need to be reading Legend of Wonder Woman.)
I grew up on Doctor Who, which is a show that chose to embrace a mercurial truth about its core character. As the title quote shows, they are all the Doctor, and all unique even unto themselves. I was shown Rashomon when I was young. The stories will contradict, and that’s ok. They fold back on themselves and build on themselves, and your job as a creator is to take the strands you want to look at at weave them anew. This is fine. This is good. This is as it should be. What comes out of it will never be the Definitive Version. And if someone else did it, it won’t be Your Version. It may not even be a Favourite Version.
But you’re allowed to like that version anyway, if you want.
*I’ve always found it amusing that Hesiod’s Theogony is often cited as the “real relationships of the Gods” when he admits up front poets lie, he is claiming authority, and some might disagree.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a perfectly acceptable, run-of-the-mill Hollywood Action movie. It’s fine brain candy, nothing too exciting or interesting, but very pretty. There’s no need to go out of your way to see it, but grab some friends and kill some time (maybe on a discount night) and see a fun film.
However, since Star Wars is woven into the cultural zeitgeist as tightly as it is, people seem hell bent on insisting it is better than it is to justify the nostalgia hit it gives them.
This isn’t particularly spoiler-filled, but I am not going out of my way to avoid spoilers here, so if you want to back out now, you probably should. If you like a more spoiler-filled version that makes many of the same points, go check out my friend Andrew Collas (The Grumpy Old Gamer). His YouTube review has a similar critique, but he goes into more story specifics.
Visually, the film is lovely. It looks like Star Wars, it moves like Star Wars, and it has the wonderful, lived-in feel to the technology, locale, and universe. It is clear JJ Abrams and company really wanted to make sure everything felt and looked right, and took clear delight in making it. There are a few CGI-based elements that are a little weaker, but I can’t complain too much there.
John Williams adds a new soundtrack and it swoops and soars and roars triumphantly with gleeful abandon.
The acting is mostly strong. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are a delight to watch as Rey and Finn, and I expect both to go on to be big stars. Oscar Isaac is also wonderful, in the lesser-used part of Poe Dameron. I really expect I would love a story about them.
A shame I didn’t get one.
The problem ultimately falls on JJ Abrams’ belief that set pieces and emotional beats are all that are needed for a film, and pesky things like actually crafting a story are just annoyances that get in the way.
The result is a film that tells instead of shows, uses shots of cheap nostalgia to cover for lazy writing, and never creates any actual emotional investment in the people in the story. Give the crowd some nostalgia, make it familiar and safe, and use the fact fans will fill in the emotional heft for you and even better convince themselves they aren’t doing it.
No one is well served by the writing here.
The saddest case is probably Rey. Given the chance to write a female lead as the center of a Star Wars movie, it instead gives us a character who never has to earn a victory. She’s a JJ Abrams patented “Mystery Box Woman”, and he can’t even be bothered to hint at a resolution (probably because he doesn’t know and figures someone else has to deal with it anyway). She has no arc and nothing to do, existing almost as a plot device in her own story. It is only Ridley’s wonderful screen presence that finds ways to make her someone you want to side with rather than a source of actual frustration.
Finn at least gets a character arc of sorts, sketchy as it is. We still get more things told than shown, but at least they seemed to try with Finn.
The movie gives gives far too much screen time to Han Solo instead of letting him pass the torch to a new generation, and fails to justify that heavy presence by actually building an emotional arc that merits it. Instead, he gets quips and one liners to keep him “charming” and remind people why they have great affection for the character, so that he can be used for an emotional scene later without having to actually write an arc building to it.
And finally, poor Kylo Ren has his legs completely cut out from under him as a villain. He starts off well, and even gets the potential for an interesting twist on a classic Star Wars set up (a villain tempted by the light side rather than a hero tempted by the dark) that they simply can’t be bothered to actually craft. The movie even botches something that was supposedly a “big reveal” with both awkward dialogue and dropping it in casually too early and without build up. In the end, Ren comes off as ineffectual and useless, actually becoming less effective and threatening right after the big moment that should have pushed him to a new level. He never ends up as a menace worth defeating, he doesn’t come across as someone it is important to face again later, and is effectively a wasted opportunity. Maybe that’s the point, as a parallel to Anakin and Luke as whiny teens. As it stands, however, the fact the film implies he will return, and therefore possibly become more compelling, is maybe the only thing that keeps him from being less relevant than Darth Maul, who never even had dialogue.
JJ Abrams can’t understand why you would give up a set piece if you can get to the emotional beat with a short cut instead of actual story. He’s efficient that way. If nostalgia means people will be invested, then why on earth would you give the audience an actual in-movie reason to be invested – that just wastes time. You can see where all the elements for a good story are here, but actually spending the time to craft a real script would get in the way of set pieces, and JJ Abrams loves his set pieces.
Even with the set pieces the movie is surprisingly lazy. People remember there being a desert planet, let’s give them a desert planet! People remember there being an ice planet, let’s give them snow! People remember the Death Star, give them a bigger one! Give them a trench run! It again feels like just tagging on a nostalgia hit to make sure the audience is on your side. The actual scenes are wonderfully done, but it is hard not to notice him trying very hard to hedge his bets with fan service. (There is one location that looks new and fresh and interesting – they of course destroy it almost immediately.)
It isn’t a bad movie, really, just lazy and pedestrian. The “write beat to beat” style is a common one in Hollywood these days, and especially with a dedicated fan base, an effective one because they will paper over the flaws themselves since character identification is more important to most than story. It is gorgeous and fun. It clears the very low bar of being better than the prequels. It is probably the third or fourth best main Star Wars film depending on exactly how you rate Return of the Jedi. Like Jedi, it does the job without embarrassing itself, but it isn’t a particularly good film. A 7 out of 10, and hopefully the next one has a real story with Abrams no longer involved.
UPDATE: After some discussion with a reader and being pointed to this piece by Charlie Jane Anders, I edited out the reference to “Mary Sue” for Rey. The term probably does have too much baggage and needs to be pushed back to a specific fan fiction usage. I disagree with Anders on Kylo Ren as Rey’s “teacher” – I only think one scene justifies that reading. (It is, in fact, the scene I thought most effective in showing us using her force powers, and if the rest had been done that way, I would have had no complaints.)
It’s just that all of it is filtered through two hours of chasing a truck.
The film has been getting stellar reviews and with good reason. It is a master class in a certain type of visual storytelling. Despite it’s over-the-top, operatic visual style, it is verbally minimalist. There is not a huge amount of dialogue. Of that dialogue, very little is exposition. At the same time, a whole world and backstory is hinted at by simply having everyone assume it exists. Despite my love of words and explicitly digging into the hows and whys of things, it is an approach I adore when pulled off with conviction. Act like the world is real, and the audience will accept it as real, filling in the gaps as they go. It is the very essence of “show, don’t tell”.
The world of Mad Max: Fury Road — like the Mad Max movies before it — is baroque and bizarre and doesn’t make much logical sense (nor maintain continuity from one film to the other, which works if these are all “Tales From the Wasteland” told years later), but at the same time has a sort of archetypal consistency which makes sense in its self-contained world. Everyone and everything feels like it has a backstory and some reason as to why its there. From the screams of “Witness me!” for each WarBoy’s sacrifice, the implication of three brothers running their corner of the world despite their differences of opinion, the hints of the Wives’ sheltered lives and rise to freedom, and the unspecified details of Furiousa’s history, it all seems to make a strange sort of internal sense. And all of this is done without ever stopping to explain it. There’s no time to explain, there is a War Rig to chase, and things to blow up. All of these bits happen around what is an essentially simple story – someone stole something and fled in a truck. Other people want to stop them. That’s it. The why of it all has a basic explanation, but the many layers behind that why are implied rather than stated outright. They don’t matter, really. You don’t have to know every detail. you just need to know that it matters to these people, and that’ s enough.
This can be viewed as underwritten. (Indeed, my companion for the second time I saw the film was bored to tears by and endless chase and thought the dialogue and story trite.) But I actually argue it is just the opposite. It’s writing in negative space, letting all the visual elements of the world, the body language of the cast, and the basic internal logic of the story and character motivations, give you enough to buy into a surface story with a great deal of depth below the surface. By writing in archetypes, while letting those archetypes have human cores underneath, the story is conveyed efficiently, but with room for complexity as human frailty pushes through the symbol.
[As a side note, that leads me to the fact this film is being touted in some circles as a “feminist” film. I think that does a disservice to the film. Besides the simple fact that feminism isn’t a single thing, but a number of different philosophies and political movements, it positions the film as an agenda-driven propaganda piece. The film only qualifies as feminist inadvertently. If you take the most anodyne definition of feminism, “women are real people”, then it qualifies. The internal logic of the film places a number of women in the narrative focus. Miller believes that the women in the film should have backstories and motivations and purpose, just like the men in the film should. That this incredibly low bar feels radical is a tragic indictment of the general state of films, but it is hard to say that makes it explicitly feminist. (Sasha James argues for a more explicitly feminist interpretation while agreeing with my basic reading of it being a byproduct of the story. I think she is overestimating the importance of Eve Ensler here, but at this point it is mostly nitpicking.) The movie effortlessly passes both The Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori test, but Joss Whedon probably serves as a warning of the dangers of pushing a role as “feminist writer” on someone who isn’t writing to an agenda, but simply doesn’t dismiss the women in their story.]
Having just recently re-watched the second Mad Max film, The Road Warrior, you can see this story telling style already there. There is a lot more hinted about the world than told. Everyone feels like they have an internal life and reasons why they are doing what they are doing. Even The Humungus has a sense of history, with the odd moment of his WWI era photographs in his gun case, and his hints of loved ones lost.
But while there is a magnificent elegance in this approach, it is clearly in service to leaving enough space to have virtually non-stop kinetic motion and visual spectacle telling the front story. There are almost no wasted shots in this film, all in the service of an extended chase. Despite a sort of constant ebb and flow of action, gradually escalating with each wave, everything on the screen matters. Prop detail tells little stories of character and world, with the return of a boot having an emotional beat and what looks like a piece of inconvenient detail from earlier in the film becoming important later. The ridiculous extravagance of the Doof Warrior’s speaker-laden, drum-beating, guitar-shredding death wagon ends up getting used for more than just show. Shots are framed where elements are happening in the foreground while additional story happens in the background, moving everything along with remarkable efficiency. It’s amazingly effective, and a reminder that different media have different strengths in how they can tell a story.
This tale could only be told this way in moving pictures, any other version wouldn’t be the same in a thousand subtle and important ways. It’s a tale of fire and blood and breathtaking stunts and action, anchored in a simple human story of people looking for a better life. It’s an amazing balancing act, and while exhausting if fisticuffs, bullets, and exploding cars aren’t your thing, it is the work of a master of his particular craft, and well worth seeing.
I had a chance to run an RPG of my own design Saturday.
I’ve always loved tabletop roleplaying, I’m a D&D kid from way back before it split into Advanced and Basic (and I like what I’ve seen of 5th Edition, although I haven’t had the chance to play yet.). Since then, I’ve drifted in and out of the hobby over time, as many adults do. It’s still a fine way to tell collaborative stories, though, which is always a great chance to see
Over time, I realized that my play style prefers something light and fast, with limited mechanics. I found Robin Laws’ HeroQuest in the early 2000s, and really liked it, as it introduced me to the idea of freeform abilities, conflict resolution vs task resolution, not giving combat precedence by way of the dynamics, and working from a position of letting your players lead rather than positioning yourself as the enemy. In the back of my head, as I read the clever rule systems of so many indie games, was the idea to hack together one of my own.
And finally I have.
While HeroQuest and FATE were major influences, the big shift in emphasis came from to Nathan Russel’s FU: The Freeform/Universal RPG system, which frames results in terms of yes and no, with possible results for “And” or “But”. Thus rather than simply tracking success, or even quality of success, it encourages narrative motion by adding these conditionals.
I threw just about everything else from FU out. I don’t like its die system, I want characters described differently, I don’t like how it handles hits and damage. So I’ve been banging around, pulling elements from other games I like to encourage play in the style I want, and I tried a rough draft out with my sister and three friends.
It worked really, really well.
They were in the mood for some space opera, so I ran a one-shot based in the ‘Verse of Firefly/Serenity, which works out nice and easy for a one shot of “find a job, get it done, get paid”. I assigned them some pre-gen characters, and let them have at it. It was a blast.
There quite a bit of work to be done.
I tweaked the dice system to allow for degree of success as well as the But/And dynamic. It mostly works, but there are a few too many fiddly bits and we never really used the degree of success/effect on the modifiers (But or And) themselves. I still like the idea in theory, but it may just be overkill.
Exactly how many traits/abilities to put on the sheets. I riffed off of HeroQuest’s “use the character description itself” idea, but it might do to focus it a bit more.
Clarifying how conflicts end needs some work.
Overall, however, I’m very happy with it. It plays fast and loose, and rolls with players’ tendencies to come up with wild tactics and ideas very well. It encourages the GM to just let their players be awesome whenever they can, and let the dice only come out to make the story more interesting by adding twists (“Say yes or roll”, as the concept was so elegantly put in the excellent Dogs in the Vineyard) . It is abundantly clear that it needs a group who wants to run games in this style, and who trust the GM and each other. The mechanics aren’t there to settle disputes with lots of strict rules judgments, nor do they produce the kind of all-encompassing dynamic of something like the excellent Apocalypse World.
The next step will be to take the adventure my sister and I wrote to come out with her novel Tin Star last year, and re-tool it to run with this instead of True20. It will give me a chance to hammer out some more of the rough edges, and we can re-relase the adventure for the release of the sequel, Stone in the Sky.
But I do think I have a workable system, and an excuse to try and rustle up some of my old gamer friends and tell some stories.
And in the penultimate episode, we are more straightforward police procedural than ever before.
It’s 2012, and after a contentious meeting in a bar, Marty agrees to see what Rust has, because they both have a debt. There’s enough horrible evidence there, in the form of the fate of Mary Fontenot, to convince Marty to take the case up again.
As they slowly go back to working on the case, you see just how little either has left in life. Rust, who always claimed the world has no meaning, once again shows he doesn’t really believe it. He needs to clear this last debt, this last piece of unfinished pattern, before he can kill himself.
Marty has a failing PI business, eats TV dinners alone, and hasn’t seen his ex-wife or daughters in over 2 years. He knows Rust is right that his hair-trigger shooting of Reggie LeDoux in 1995 closed down all their leads on the case then, and the continuing murders is a debt he owes.
So in a weird sense, after spending several episodes critiquing classical masculinity, we’re left with a version of a very classic masculine trope – “Honor is all you have.” Even if it isn’t their job anymore, even if they have no one who will honor or reward them for it, they have a debt, a duty, and they will follow it until it destroys them.
And make no mistake, I expect it to destroy them. At this point, assuming there really is a conspiracy, then this isn’t a single thing they can take down. This is embedded, long-term culture, wrapped in the history of one powerful family and backed by money and connections. You can’t stop that with a single arrest or a well-placed bullet. We’re heading to a “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” finish.
The episode felt like placing pieces on the board for the big finish, and that’s what I expect we have. We’ll head down to the home of the Tuttles, and Childresses, in Erath. There will be a shrine, either called Carcosa or a place to sacrifice to the vision of Carcosa. And they might save a person or two, and kill one or two people who are involved, but I don’t see them both getting out alive and I don’t see it truly fixing anything except maybe giving them some way to convince themselves they paid their debt.
The little character touches are there to let us know what’s happening. Maggie’s house is gorgeous, her family always had money. Marty’s eldest is an artist, one who sometimes decides she “doesn’t need to take her meds”. The younger daughter has been teaching with Americorps. Maggie shows up to Rust’s bar as well, where he dismisses her, refusing to even console her that this last case might not end up with Marty dead.
When the two get back to investigating, they sit in Marty’s car driving, in almost the exact positions they had in the first episodes set back in 1995. Full circle.
The most disappointing thing about this episode personally, however, is how much it feels like we’ve gone backwards on the deconstruction of masculinity some of us were hoping for. The women are even more invisible now, and with one episode to go, it doesn’t look like the fact that Marty and Rust overlook women is actually going to pay off in any meaningful way. Even the hints that Marty’s daughter was abused seems to have just been given a cursory nod but have not much to do with anything. I suppose there is still some small chance that Maggie’s family is involved, and the girls saw something, but it feels a bit like it would be tacked on if it shows up now. Worse, if Maggie is involved, it feels a lot like just a weak “women are evil” film noir trope.
I do expect at least one minor twist of sorts involved, just because for the life of me I can’t figure out why the 1995 murder was staged so publicly (and even had a fire draw attention to it), and the same with the 2012 one. It seems out of place given that all the other murders and disappearances seem to have been invisible. Someone broke protocol.
Like so many stories, a lot will ride on how the end plays out.
And Episode 6 is The Breakup. We finally see what split Marty and Rust, and the straw the broke the camel’s back is a woman; specifically, Marty’s wife, Maggie.
In some ways it’s exactly what you could have predicted all the way back when Rust and Maggie first meet and bond – there’s an attraction, and it threatens Rust. But this isn’t an affair, it’s just sex. It’s quick, desperate, lonely, and quite divorced from love.
Maggie fucks Rust because she needs to hurt Marty. She needs to break up with him in a way that will hurt him, and make him accept that things are over. The weapon she has that can inflict that kind of damage?
Rust who has always rubbed Marty wrong, always made Marty feel a bit inferior, and a lot like a hypocrite.
Maggie is right, it cuts Marty to the quick. I don’t think she realized just how much damage it would do to Rust, though. The loss of his family is what pushed Rust from eccentric genius to damaged visionary, as far as we know. His nihilistic slide started with the loss of his daughter, and the eventual conviction that the world is heartless, and he will never have the comforting illusion of family again. His vicious manipulation of “The Marshland Medea”, eliciting a confession and then encouraging her to kill herself, is driven by his anger over anyone killing children and destroying Family.
His desire for Maggie is only partially out of real admiration or attraction; she is a Wife and Mother – something he knows he doesn’t get to have. So when she comes knocking, while he is drunk and on suspension, he succumbs. He fucks her as one desperate claim to be allowed that peace, and in the space of her pulling up her panties he realizes he’s been used. It’s just one more illusion. He’s a means to an end, he will never be Family, and it breaks him.
Maggie’s betrayal of both of Marty and Rust makes sense here – she has reasons for what she does and how she does it. I am a bit confused why she’s lying about it 10 years later, though, to the detectives. I’m not sure who she is protecting, unless it is simply herself and her image after all this time. (Conspiracy minded people can conclude she’s hiding something bigger about the murders.)
Of course, Marty isn’t blameless in all this. He goes back chasing lost youth by sleeping with Beth, the ex-child prostitute he was so offended by in 1995. Rust accused him of “putting a down payment” on her back then, and now that odd prophecy has come true, even if she is a mobile-phone sales girl long removed from the Ranch. (I am sure the conspiracy minded have decided she is still a hooker, and was paid to seduce Marty and break up the marriage and thus remove the only two detectives who have any idea about the murders. Especially since both she and Maggie order dirty Martinis.)
But this break-up is only tangentially about Maggie. Rust had been treating Marty like dirt for a while, as his obsessive hunt for the real killer they missed 7 years ago takes him to the politically powerful Tuttle, the traumatized girl they rescued years ago (still in a mental institution years later), the father of a lost boy, and the tent-revival reverend they interviewed in 1995. He’s stepping on toes, and not respecting the fact only Marty is on his side. Maggie just ends up being the excuse to fuel the split.
But despite all that happened, Marty refuses to go along with the theory the detectives are spinning that Rust is the killer.
The episode ends in the present, with Rust and Marty agreeing to get a beer; Marty checks the bullets in his gun while Rust goes back into his truck, the tail light still broken from the fight they had 10 years ago. Time has come full circle, and all the past is prologue. I suspect we’re mostly going to stay in the present from here on out, as the two look for the circle of child abusers and murderers who have been haunting Louisiana for years.
Episode 5 starts with the aftermath of the big shootout at the end of episode 4, and we meet Reggie LeDoux’s partner , who tells Cohle that “there’s a shadow on you, son.”
And here in this episode we see the event that has cast a shadow over the rest of Marty and Rust’s lives; their heroic rescue of a little girl from crazed meth cook Reggie LeDoux, who is blamed for Dora Lange’s murder as well. For this they received commendations, a measure of respect, and even some happiness.
And it’s a lie.
For the first time in the show we get definitive proof that the story Marty and Rust have been telling detectives Papania and Gilbough isn’t all true. They describe a heroic rescue under gunfire while we see them sneak into LeDoux’s compound, and then a rage-filled Marty gun LeDoux down after finding the kidnapped and abused kids. The two men cover up the crime, and close the case.
But seven years later, an interrogation results in a return of the Yellow King to their lives. Rust loses it, attacks the man who brought it up, then starts investigating disappearances and unsolved murders and generally making a nuisance of himself.
Marty is self-destructing as well, only it isn’t over his job of course, but his family. His daughter Audrey has grown up rebellious and promiscuous. Cops catch her with two boys in the backseat of a car, and as always, a threat to his stable home life brings out the violent streak in him. He calls her “head of the varsity slut squad” and slaps her – horrifying his wife and his other daughter.
It’s clear 2002 has become fraught for both of them, and these twin pressures will lead to the final crack up that splits them for 10 years.
These secrets and lies are at the root of the detectives’ suspicions of Rust. He has returned after years, and Reverend Tuttle dies soon after. He’s been spotted at the new crime scenes mirroring the old murders, and all the “breakthroughs” in the old case were Rust feeding information to Marty. And yet those old lies are why despite their estrangement, Marty won’t turn on his ex-partner. His whole self-history as a hero depends on the lies they told 17 years ago.
This story has always been one of men, the lies they tell, and the ties that bind them. This episode highlights that as it shows the trap it is for Marty and Rust, even as everything feels like it is coming to a head.
And trapped is definitely a theme of the episode. Trapped within time itself, if you listen to Rust and LeDoux’s rantings. “Time is a flat circle”, Rust says (echoing LeDoux), indirectly referencing Flatland as he discusses how from outside time, we poor mortals are trapped to live through the same experiences again and again. The show’s narrative highlights this, showing us how the events of three time periods affect one another. We get to watch the story from outside the flat circle, seeing patterns the people trapped inside can’t see.
There are nice parallel structures here, contrasting how Marty reacts to an abused girl to his reaction to his own daughter. Marty’s shooting of LeDoux parallels the story of how Rust lost his job executing a junkie shooting up a child with meth. Rust revisits old crime scenes, finding new clues. It all feels like Twain’s quote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
The mystery itself takes a step forward, but mostly in terms of proving that they got the wrong man in 1995. There are more hints that the Tuttle schools are involved, and many hints that Rust himself may be the killer. (For the record, I still don’t think so.) Subtler hints are dropped as well. Rust’s whittling of the beer cans results in 5 little people, arranged similarly to the “barbie gang rape” from episode 2. He’s started referring to “they” as well, by now.
In terms of the Carcosa theme, LeDoux claims to have seen Rust in Carcosa, and now in 2012, Rust echoes the same philosophy of a flat circle of time. Mysticism or madness? I still hope the show intends to never say.
One thing that did bother me quite a bit was the storyline with Marty’s daughter, and it will depend on how things play out. Because the story is so tightly on Rust and Marty, and the blinkered ways they interact with women is part of that, we see nothing of what actually happened with Audrey and the boys. I can’t tell given her 1995 history of weird sexual drawings and barbie gang rapes if they are going for her promiscuity as an actual sign of a troubled youth or not. While it is presented as statutory rape (which it is given that Louisiana has no “Romeo and Juliet” laws) we have no sense of her agency in the matter. Of course, to Marty that’s irrelevant, but seems a glaring hole given the context of what we saw in 1995. Hopefully it will be touched on later, but it doesn’t sit well with me right now.