Season 1, Episode 23: "Badge of Honor" (Michelle Manning, director; Roy Sallows, Jim Henshaw, writers)
Friday the 13th Meets Death Wish via Miami Vice.
The Goods: A beaten-down old cop stumbles across the means to revenge himself on the criminals who targeted his wife, while an ex-boyfriend of Micki’s reappears and acts as shifty as possible.
The Cheese: The return of the sex saxophone, with the added bonus of playing during a violent shoot-out. / The dubious treat of a Robey-sung song playing at a disco. / The shrugging off of Tim’s death / The amazing disappearing shoulder wound. / Naming anyone “Cooter.”
The Sins: Given the focus on revenge, wrath.
Kristopher: Is this the first female director for the series? It comes up in the Wax book that Manning had just directed a music video with a similar aesthetic to this episode (142). Yet, I can’t find said video … IMDb lists her as the producer of 1988’s “Ry Cooder: Get Rhythm,” but not as director. Plus, it seems to me that Ry Cooder is not exactly The Hunger aesthetic type. Manning produced Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, and went on to direct episodes of Miami Vice after this gig. It’s interesting that between 1989 and 2008, she seems to have dropped off the map in terms of directing, but from 1997 to 2005 served as production president for Paramount Pictures. From 2008 to the present, she returned to some fairly big projects, including an upcoming horror film called The Lost Girls (which I had hoped would be a female version of The Lost Boys, but seems like a kind of castaway story).
Erin: Ry Cooder? Wait, isn’t that the name of the first owner of the badge in this episode? Was she cross-promo-ing?
K: Oohh, maybe that is the case. I think Wax spells it “Cooter” in the book, but this would make sense. Still, a villain named “cooter” is hilarious to my 1980s self.
The opening scene is ultra cheesy. Here and elsewhere in the episode, the saxophone comes in to note city grittiness (gritty citiness?), so the luridness signified by the sax is still there in the link to crime.
Sharko has a nightmare while crashed out on his reclining chair, tortilla chips scattered artfully around his chest and belly. I wonder how that dream-vision actress feels about the camera introducing here by shooting up her nose and finding a booger. Is Sharko having a dream about his wife here blowing up in a white cadillac? The hazy flashback effect here makes it feel like it’s his mom … which makes sense when we finally see her later in the episode (shades of Psycho).
The next scene with criminal Victor Haas slinking through the Haas nightclub’s neon dance floor is ultra-cheesed out. Here are the lyrics from “Killer Instinct,” the song in the nightclub, as best as I can transcribe them: “I bet you your aim’s right on target tonight! / You got the [?] of instincts, don’t you? / You never walk the same line twice. / You wait around, wait for the kill, boy. / You know it feels so ni-ee-ice! / You got the [?] of instincts, don’t you? / You never make the same move twice. / You never miss the game for your best shot. / You know it feels so ri-eet. Yeah.” The Wax book notes that the vocals are by Robey (139), good evidence that her singing is nearly as bad as her acting. I also read that she paints and writes children’s books; they’re probably fantastic.
E: Holy crap.
K: Curious Goods and gang don’t appear until nearly ten minutes into the episode, with Ryan in the store reading a comic book behind a newspaper. (Why is he hiding it? I wonder if it is to stoke our sense of his feelings of inferiority to the men in Micki’s life, one of whom enters in this very scene.) The actor who plays Tim Ayers (Micki’s “friend” who sticks his tongue down her throat when they meet) is John Stockwell from John Carpenter’s Christine. I love him. Of course, he turns out to be a counterfeiter—what a dick. He represents everything gross about the 80s capitalist drive (and its thinly disguised criminal fakery). The fact that he then turns out to be undercover FBI felt a bit conventional on the part of the writers. Why not just let him be a dick?
The idea of Detective Sharko (great name) becoming a vigilante using the cursed badge is actually a strong one; I like him lurking and stalking criminals around the streets at night. But the character leans a little too close to ugly to make him all that sympathetic.
The sax is back! This time underscoring Micki and Tim’s make-out session in a nice combo of the criminal and sexuality.
The scenes with Sharko and his ailing wife are creepy as fuck. She’s on a heart monitor and constantly behind a plastic sheet from the waist up, her face shown only as a shadowy, smeared silhouette. The incessantly rotating, cob-webbed ceiling fan over the bed is a nice touch. This is intriguing Hitchcockian homage. (Although what it’s doing in the coked-up aesthetic of the rest of the episode is beyond me.)
A serial killer named Herbert Cooter, “the guy who thought he was Jesse James.” Come on. Was it only in the Midwest that “cooter” was (is still?) slang for vagina?
E: Heh. I am familiar with that slang, so...no.
K: We learn that Gwen (Sharko’s wife) was injured by Haas years ago. And of course this scene ends with the reveal that Gwen is a crusty corpse, moldering all these years in bed. This, and Sharko’s next move, punching a club girl (billed as “Hooker” in the credits), makes him an even more difficult character to be linked to. It’s interesting, though, that the badge as he uses it combines both the “bad” and “good” sides of the cursed object in one act. In other words, each murder isn’t payment for an outcome; it is both payment and desired outcome. When Haas gets it, for example, we’re onboard. And Sharko isn’t doing any of this for his own gain, aside from a bit of vengeance. But there’s no financial gain in his use of the badge. (Wax notes this, I just realize as I read page 143).
Wax describes this as her least favourite episode of the series. Despite its cheesiness, I beg to differ. I mean, it’s not good. Initially, I felt the episode’s supposedly gritty crime aesthetic was an uncomfortable blend with the neon dance club and the world of Micki and Ryan and cursed antiques. But the episode feels almost incontrovertibly ‘80s in this way. The addition of the oddly American Gothic bedroom scenes with Sharko’s corpse-wife really throws this episode off in a twisted way (a little more Psycho II, or, better, Psycho III than Psycho, but I’ll take it). There’s a lot going on here; too many ingredients maybe; not all of it works. But I think this is one we could write about in the sense that its unevenness speaks to an era (or eras, considering the odd quasi-pathos of the Psycho references).
E: Agreed. I actually think that’s the intention (see comments below). Unlike some of these episodes, there is a sense that Manning is going after a particular effect/aesthetic, even if it doesn’t always work.
E: OK, this was a total homage—although since it’s occurring simultaneously, does that qualify as a homage?—to 80s cop shows. It has it all: dark clubs, synth music, shiny outfits, vigilante cops with bosses who “don’t get it,” creepy crime lords with hookers and blow. Like the “Baron’s Bride” and the “Quilt of Hathor” episodes, this is clearly jumping on the by then well-established Miami Vice aesthetic, but weirdly, it works for me. There is a blend here that Manning (and Henshaw) achieves, beyond being an audition tape for later directing actual Miami Vice, of contrasting the 70s aesthetic of TV police (schlubby everyman/vigilante) with the 80s view embodied by Crockett and Tubbs: deep undercover, temptation, who is the real bad guy type stuff embodied by the “yuppie success story” Tim.
K: Agreed. Perhaps not homage so much as going for the throat of a current aesthetic. It’s almost like Manning sees it as a calling card to bid for a gig directing Miami Vice, a gig she got.
E: Like the other “guest” directors, Manning seems to not only bring her own aesthetic—and the episode is pretty well put together visually and thematically (eg, the song playing in the club at the start is thematically resonant to the episode as a whole)—but also follows Cronenberg and others in not bringing in the Curious Goods team until almost 10 minutes in. I liked the burnt-out effect of his memories of his wife, and while I was pretty sure there was a Rose for Emily sitch going on under the plastic tarp, it wasn’t immediately obvious...but was suggested by the Havisham-like state of Sharko’s house.
Obviously, given the episode’s focus on Death Wish style vigilantism, wrath seems to be the main component. He is literally “branding” the criminals with justice.
K: Yeah, this was the coolest.
E: Return of the sex sax! Like, all through the episode, from Tim and Micki’s dalliance to the scenes in the club. Seriously, did they raid the wardrobe department on the Miami Vice set? It was all sockless shoes (in Canada?) and rolled-up blazer sleeves.
Fire the continuity editor, Part 2: Micki had a thing with Tim last summer? Wasn’t she still with Lloyd? How much time has passed? Also, is Tim dead? ‘Cause she was weeping big time for Dewey, but Tim just gets a blank stare? Also, didn’t she get shot in the shoulder?
K: LOL, on all of it! This episode has so much cheese.
E: The return of the Micki/Ryan cousin love creepiness, now with added reciprocity! Ew. Suspicious of Tim, with the looks and the secretive phone calls? Understandable. Jealousy based on class issues (“yuppie success stories”)? Interesting take. To have Ryan dress like him (and slick his hair back), with an ending implies that this sartorial shift really is doing it for Micki? GROSS.
K: I thought I caught in this episode Micki referring to Ryan as like the cousin of her uncle Lewis, which might explain how they’re figuring this weird love interest angle.
Season 1, Episode 24: "Pipe Dream" (Zale Dalen, director; Marc Scott Zicree, writer)
The generation gap becomes a chasm of sadness.
The Goods: Ryan gets an invitation to his father Ray’s wedding; despite lingering resentment, he lets Micki talk him into attending. Unfortunately, Ray’s newfound success after years of failure is the result of a cursed pipe, given to him by Lewis, forcing everybody to make hard choices.
The Cheese: Actually, the episode is too sad to be truly cheesy.
The Sins: Pride, but Envy seems to drive a lot of the action.
Kristopher: The family connection to Lewis comes logically back here in the transfer of the pipe to Ryan’s father. I haven’t noticed this before with Zicree, probably the main writer on the show, but this script is tight, thematically and narratively. It’s a little, self-contained gem, and a viewer wouldn’t have to have seen the rest of the season or series to have an immediate sense of the characters’ relationships, including Ryan, Jack, and Micki.
The way Ryan’s father talks about “nerve gasses, stun guns,” not to mention his laser explosive gun with no other interest than money is typical of US dispassionate and non-empathic treatment of the rest of the world for its own gain. The sense of American exceptionalism is strong here. Ryan registers real discomfort with all this, and Ray hits him with an: Oh, “that’s right, you’re the artistic type.” The homophobic coding here is strong. This is a good bit of content to attach to a father-son feud along the lines of toxic masculinity. Ray’s stealing of the plans to the gun come off as a bid for power related to his own sense of potency (the designer is a much younger, handsomer man); Ray’s theft comes with praise, a plan to marry, a possible reconciliation with a son who might respect him, etc—the stakes are high for Ray. The posturing from Ray’s colleague at the factory seems again like a pissing contest. The script is really carefully structured around these male-male dynamics in terms of theme and narrative content. And this isn’t absent when the men go to the factory and the women (stepmom-to-be and Micki) stay home to prep for the wedding, sidetracked briefly by some photo albums—total “girl stuff.”
Erin: I noticed the “artistic type” coding too! And aside from the fact that the actor who plays Ray later plays the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the other guy in the pissing contest looks super familiar to me as well...I think he played this particular type in a lot of things.
K: In Ryan’s words, Ray’s “hunger” and “ambition” have always driven him. And because of this the wedding turns to a funeral. At the wake, Jack calls him “a proud man” and says: “When a man reaches the limits of this life there’s nowhere to maneuver.” The scene has real emotional heft, and the entire episode is pretty moving. In fact, it’s got the emotional weight that the prior episode lacked for Sharko. Here, it’s more complicated to love or hate Ray, since Ray really is the tragic man, always seeking fortune and respect but in the end having to steal it, even though it was always there in his son.
The Wax book has an interview with Zicree where he talks about the autobiographical aspects of the script: “My father [an aerospace engineer during the Vietnam era] so wanted to be important, to matter” (148). And of Ryan and Ray: “I could understand the corners the father had cut, because he was a little man who wanted to be a big man, wanted to be a hero to his family, but what he was doing was causing great harm to the world. It’s not that you start a monster, but that’s where you end up, because of those small compromises you make that ultimately become big compromises. That is what I was writing about in ‘Pipe Dream’” (Zicree, quoted in Wax 148). Zicree could be describing the context for every white old man running the US Senate right now: too tired to care, too terrified to lose power and privilege, too proud to show either of these as a weakness—so they blow shit up and alienate anyone not like them.
E: That’s fascinating; and the fact that Zicree tied his own experience into this may be why it’s so emotionally resonant. (Also: There’s a whole thing in Susan Faludi’s Stiffed that addresses this particular father/son dynamic around the aerospace industry. Well worth a read.)
K: The fact that the corporation in the episode is selling the weapons to a Spanish-speaking general is oddly both racist and productively critical of the U.S.’s practices then and now of supporting dictatorships with weapons sales (dictatorships that they will later denounce, possibly shooting other weapons [the ones they didn’t sell to them] at them).
E: See my comments below; the Iran-Contra hearings were running right around the time this would have been filmed. One thing in its favor: check out shows like Miami Vice or movies like Romancing the Stone (or even comedies like Innerspace) and the way they portray pretty much anyone from South America. This episode looks positively restrained in comparison. (I’m not defending any of it, but it stuck out as someone who watched a lot of subpar things in my wasted youth.)
K: For me, this is a key episode in that it develops one of the main characters and ties things in to the Louis Vendredi history. It’s also a really tightly scripted episode in terms of content and theme, and even gets into a political, anti-capitalist, anti-military industrial complex critique that it ties to masculinity and the rifts between fathers and sons. Both this and “Tales of the Undead” capture the essence of the series, with “Faith Healer” running a close third.
E: Whoa. There are certain moments where a series takes a giant leap forward, where everything: writing, direction, performance, is just next level. Buffy’s “Surprise/Innocence” two-parter was one example; this is another. Whether it continues to improve (like Buffy did) or not remains to be seen, but you were absolutely right in what you told me; this is one of the best episodes so far. It moved! I mean, as you know, some of these season-one episodes have been a slog, but this one just roared ahead and engrossed me.
I think one reason it worked so well is because it might be one of the first “Curious Goods” crew backstory episode that seemed truly organic. (“Brain Drain” worked fairly well, because Jack’s past is pretty obscure and so it didn’t come out of nowhere), but “Pipe Dream” is different because actually answers questions about why Ryan is the way he is (kind, a bit childish, a dreamer, and kind of needy) that have already been established, and gives them a turn of the screw that I didn’t see coming but also makes perfect sense.
It also does a bit of another Buffy trick too; metaphors aplenty! The cursed object is a pipe, with the episode title thus working on numerous levels: the pipe helps Ray achieve his dream of success and wealth and the term “pipe dream” as one of chasing unrealistic expectations. Ray’s potential fortune being built on weapons manufacturing/death and destruction (and Ryan’s distaste for it) offers a nice generational commentary...and both the cursed object and the weapons both rely on death and suffering for success. (It doesn’t seem accidental that the “pipe smoke” and its effects seem similar to things like napalm.)
K: Nice observation!
E: I also can’t help but think that the fact these weapons were being sold to South American clients was not lazy and vaguely racist scriptwriting, but a reference to the Iran-Contra hearings being held at the time this episode would have been filmed. Also, it taps into the sadness of the “Del Boy” thing Ray has going on; the metaphoric noose of dying without ever achieving one’s “dream.”
K: I don’t know the “Del Boy” reference!
E: Other things: Given the emotional content of the episode, nobody went over the top (even Robey!) in their performances, or at least not in such a way that took me out of the moment. Everybody was actually smart about things, including Micki taping up the door to prevent the smoke from getting in. The question of influence: Ray’s dad leaves him; Ryan and Ray are estranged, and Ray’s mentor is the bitter and (eventually) evil Lewis, while Ryan has Jack to look up to. Also, I can’t help but think, on the generational thing, that Ray’s crack about Ryan being the “artistic type” was code for assuming Ryan was gay...which gives a whole other resonance to Ray’s later admission that he was “angry” at Ryan. Finally, Jack’s assessment of aging—“a narrow bridge over a long dark drop”—was chilling.
K: I didn’t catch this, but it’s the most poetic line the series has offered thus far!
E: Can it sustain this level of quality?
Season 1, Episode 21: "Double Exposure" (Neil Fearnley, director; Durnford King, writer)
Some terrible reality where ratings trump ethics; we can’t imagine such horror.
The Goods: A struggling newscaster, Winston Knight, saves his job through his coverage of a series of local murders. When Ryan sees Knight commit one of the murders the same time he’s live on air, he, Jack, and Micki investigate with the help of Ryan’s new girlfriend Cathy and discover one of Uncle Lewis’s objects—a camera that creates a duplicate of whomever it photographs—is in play.
The Cheese: The police, who blend total incompetence with gossip and a total lack of emotion. / Winston-Clone’s final scene, in the best possible way
The Sins: Pride with a side order of Vanity
Erin: OK, after the iffy Quilt episodes, I ended up enjoying Ft13th: TS’s take on ethics in media. There was quite a bit of handwringing at the time about trash TV and exploiting people for ratings (Caldwell mentions Peter Jenning’s semi-rant about it in Televisuality.) So far we’re hitting all the 80s biggies: greed is good, US values are shallow, and news is spectacle over substance.
Sin-wise: I’ll say pride/vanity. It’s interesting to note that the “pride” episodes (this is a way better take on it than “Doctor Jack”) how cold/dispassionate the villain is. Winston doesn’t seem to want love, money, or anything except higher ratings so he can keep his job.
Kristopher: Yes, I frame this observation below as a question in terms of the motive for killing, since serial killing by proxy seems to evacuate the pleasure from the act of killing, or the drive to kill.
E: Of course, the episode goes out of its way to suggest that pretty much the entire newsroom is a bunch of amoral assholes, so...A feature of the better episodes of the series, IMO, is when the writer and director seem to have any sense of structure (not a given!). You’ve got Winston and his duplicate; with the end of the first scene ending on a photonegative flash, followed by Ryan and Cathy in a photo booth. It ends with Ryan staring at the photo and the echo of before, just as the duplicates are echoes of the real person…The visual of the “real” Winston slowly fading away was the kind of practical effect used so well in “Shadow Boxer” and underscored the theme nicely.
K: You are good at finding the strengths of the script and direction here, while below I do some complaining about the swiss-cheese plotholes and easy-outs the episode falls victim to (like a cop giving Winston a the name of a witness to a serial killing!).
E: Also enjoyed its take on the Frankenstein trope, with the delightfully gross visuals of the clones being born. (Winston’s facial expressions while this was happening were SO over-the-top.) I thought for a moment Ryan might be tempted to resurrect Cathy in this fashion. (His chemistry with her was so much more believable—and Ryan so much more Ryan-y—than in the “Quilt” episodes. Catherine Disher—who played Natalie on Forever Knight—is a much better actress, so that helps.
K: Yes, I really liked her. She was really natural (I almost said super natural, but … well, I didn’t).
E: We even get the requisite: “I’m alive!” bit, which shouldn’t have worked, but totally did (for me, anyway).
Premise alert: “It’s like always, Ryan; we’re on our own” (said every genre show ever about the police); “It isn’t the objects that are cursed; we are.”
K: Haha, yes. I liked the latter line (see below), but Jack’s “we’re on our own” schtick made me groan. I think the first time anyone has ever said in this series that they should call the police was Jack in the “Electrocutioner” episode.
E: Finally: Meta moment; the series’ producers' names are on the parking spaces outside the TV station.
K: No way! Good eye! I wonder if this was a gaffe?
E: Things that bugged me/inappropriate laugh: The disconnect between Ryan’s reaction to Cathy’s death and Officer Monotone. Officer Monotone’s scenes overall: First scene: not only does the black cop with him get zero dialogue, but Monotone calls the accused and gives him his name? Seriously?
K: Hahahaha. Yep. See my rants above, and below!
E: I expected Cathy’s fridging, but I was still disappointed it happened.
K: I’m always a sucker for anything that builds photographic technology into the story, but the chemical process creating a slimy creature to do the camera-owner’s bidding was … unexpected. Question, though: what does a killer get out of killing if he’s not doing it? The double goes out and does the work of violence, but the actual guy with the killer impulse is doing the news. He becomes a celebrity out of this with his performance of the killer calling him while he’s on the air, and in the way it centers him as a “working reporter” of integrity (and boosts his news show’s ratings). But what is the motive or thrill for the actual murdering?
Semi-anthology ruptures in the fact that they follow Ryan’s lost love back at the cult compound with him carefree and light-hearted on a date (in a photo booth, no less) at the beginning of this episode. I guess she’ll die. The Wax book says of this: “Well, that was fast” (132).
E: And again, as you say so well above, that is one of the issues with this format. First, we really don’t get a bead on Winston’s motivations here; obviously it’s “in him” to kill, or else why would his clone do it? Unless it’s because his maker has instructed him to do so, which may be the case, since he was ordered to kill Micki and Ryan but went after the Jack clone instead. (And that itself suggests his growing independence from original-recipe Winston as the time gets closer to Winston himself disappearing, but the episode is, as you say, kind of a mess. Second, “I’ll write you every day” becomes “Laura who?” in the space of a single episode. I suppose, if I stretched my interpretive powers, I could look at it as characterizing Ryan as fickle, but I think that would be giving the show too much credit.
K: There is an erotic bookstore or video store in the background of the episode’s first murder scene. The sign reads, “From the Erotic to the Exotic.”
E: I missed that! Brilliant.
K: The detective gives newscaster Ryan’s name. Oof. And why doesn’t Kathy, the girlfriend, go find Ryan or the police? She goes home while her purse is with the killer. From the way the information gets conveniently bandied about, to Jack’s conclusion that “We’re on our own” (when they have Kathy’s voice message as evidence of the two reporters), the whole thing has more holes than swiss cheese.
Vying for best (and possibly most horrifying) image of the series so far: the TV reaching out and grabbing Ryan by the neck in an explosion of light (in his dream, of course).
E: Loved that! It had a Nightmare on Elm Street quality I appreciated. Also, I think it was intentionally thematic; the TV/reporter is the source of the evil...
K: Ryan’s claim that “It isn’t the objects that are cursed, we are. Everyone that comes near us dies,” is pretty on point. The episode ends on an appropriately bleak note here, with the realization that this work means alienation and isolation of the three Curious Goods team members from the rest of the world.
E: Yes. It’s a well SPN returns to many a time; it also reminded me of the dialogue at the end of Buffy’s “I Robot, You Jane” (I think), where Xander, Willow, and Buffy discuss their dating woes, laughing at how they’re doomed until it sinks in and they stop laughing…
K: Totally. This is a good observation about an issue that these series treat well. It’s deep.
Season 1, Episode 22: "The Pirate’s Promise" (Bill Corcoran, director; Carl Binder, writer)
Clearly, they’ve never heard Humperdinck’s take: “Pirates are not known to be men of their word.”
The Goods: A lighthouse lamp summons the vengeful spirit of a betrayed pirate; in exchange for killing off the descendent of his mutinous crew, the murderer is rewarded with gold. Micki and Ryan hit the road to the world’s most depressing seaside town to investigate.
The Cheese: Robey’s acting gets another (anti-)nod. / Best bad line? “I did everything you said; I killed twelve people!” / Best use of freeze frame? The descending ax, and cut to commercial. / Bit players who telegraph their deaths.
The Sins: It’s a pirate episode, so it pretty much has to be greed. But what’s greed without a little wrath?
Kristopher (pre-watch): I always hoped that the “pirate’s promise” is that he’ll capture me, make me his love slave, and cuddle me while defending me against interlopers (aka, other gay pirate rapists). Is that so much to ask?
Erin: We all have dreams, my friend. Although now I’m thinking you should totally write a treatment; I would watch the hell out of that show!
K: Okay, anything with a lighthouse, and you’ve got my interest. I am obsessed with them. But even beyond the lighthouse, and the gorgeous seaside setting (another location score for this show, right on Lake Erie), this episode is pretty intriguing. All of the scenes where Angus McBride appears are beautifully lit and evocatively eerie. The voice actor for McBride’s voice, however … is a Scooby-don’t.
This episode has everything—the awesome F13:TS landscapes, cool sets (that horrific underground grotto/mausoleum for the victims, and a folkloric sea tale with a decaying mummer captain returned from a sea grave (the big reveal of the monster’s face does not disappoint). Shades of John Carpenter’s The Fog abound in this episode, including its color scheme.
The final death in the finale is awesome. And I like the info delivered in the coda that this is ultimately a tale of two brothers, one empathic and kind (Dewey), one corrupted (Fenton).
Not much on this from the Wax book, aside from the shoot occurring on Lake Erie, and thus requiring two days’ travel time cut from the week of shooting time. The interiors of the lighthouse were shot on a soundstage (138). The combination of sets and location in this episode blend well.
For me, this one is one of the very best. There is an American Gothic sense here of the pervasiveness of past trauma as it resonates and dominates the present. And here, as so often in the longer tradition of European/British Gothic, it turns on secret identities and how those identities are revealed by virtue of their links to a sordid past.
Best bad line for me goes to Joe Fenton, speaking to Angus McBride’s ghost: “I did everything you said; I killed twelve people!”
Robey’s acting is typically over the top. When she breaks into the lighthouse and gets caught, it’s an obvious conclusion when Joe Fenton says, “You’re lying.” Her crying in the epilogue about Dewey’s heroic death is a fairly weak attempt to infuse the episode with any more pathos than is already there in a story of one brother destroying another without ever knowing of the family connection.
For the episode’s second death, the woman who is discussing setting up an investment plan for Joe’s gold, delivers her lines as though she is is just “killing” time waiting for him to strangle her.
E: There’s an outtake from season three of Buffy, with Anthony Head wincing before Kristin Scott Thomas knocks him over the head; he stops, laughs at himself, says: “I telegraphed that.” Investment woman clearly not as self-aware.
K: One thing I’ll never quite get past in the suspension of disbelief department is how many deaths happen in the episodes that occur in rural areas—deaths that go more or less unquestioned by locals. Three deaths is already a serial killing; twelve is an extravaganza.
E: Pretty tightly plotted opening; touches on the slasher/horror bit with the “kind of spooky”; “part of the charm” exchange. Putting aside the obvious age difference, creepy as it is, I appreciated how, unlike some of the bad guys on the show, managed not to tip his hand to the victim until the moment he killed her. Also? The first victim’s outfit was peak 80s.
The fact that it wasn’t immediately obvious why Joe was doing this, but was set up subtly (for this show) throughout the first act: Barney being a descendent of the crew, finding gold (bounty) when he delivers a victim, etc. I thought at first (to be fair, maybe I’m slow), that any killing would do, so it was a nice surprise to find out the victims were the descendants.
The horror aspects: the ax-ing of Barney, the cave of corpses, was suitably gross for 80s horror. The traveling to retrieve an object—which this show does far too little of so far—gave me SPN vibes again. The sound effects were pretty good as well.
I love ocean scenes; big sweaters, cool, salty mornings, sailing. Making me nostalgic and maybe a little sad. (In a good way.)
Ryan being fairly intrepid; hanging off the edge so he wouldn’t be seen when Joe went to look. Also, that they didn’t do the “accidentally stepped on the fingers” bit.
The sin combo of greed (Joe, Barney) and wrath (McBride).
The first victim’s descendent was named “Abel”; the last minute reveal that Joe and Dewey were brothers, with the older brother killing the (nicer) younger one giving it a Cain and Abel thing they don’t belabor.
K: Agreed. I liked this too, very much.
E: What did not work: It just needs to be said: Stop giving Robey material beyond her range, show. Seriously. The obvious glycerine tears at the end. Fire the continuity editor: When Barney goes to the lighthouse, it’s day. When they go (right) up to the top of the lighthouse, it’s pitch black outside. No Jack! Twelve people go missing in, let’s face it, not a large town, and the town drunk is the only one concerned?
Apparently, there is an actual Whaler’s Point; a gated community in Seaside, Oregon. (Considering how low-rent the town looks in this episode, I found it rather amusing.)
All in all, I didn’t hate it. Not necessarily a favorite, but it was clear some thought went into the episode, so I can’t say it failed. Indeed, the more I think about it, the better I like it. Also, I really want to go sailing now. *sigh*
This week, we present you three episodes for your dead-of-winter, Covid lockdown pleasure. Plus, it would be just cruel to split a two-parter across two different posts. ADDED BONUS: All three episodes are streamable in full (for now, at least) below. Enjoy!
Season 1, Episode 18: “The Electrocutioner” (Rob Hedden, director and writer)
A dentist breaks bad, or why we should reconsider the death penalty.
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: An innocent man survives his electrocution by electric chair; when that chair is cursed by Uncle Lewis, he procures it to avenge those who put him on death row.
The Cheese: The special effects get a special mention. / The unintentional hilarity of death by electrified doorknob.
The Sins: Wrath, as one would be a bit angry after a botched execution for a crime one didn’t commit.
Kristopher: I think Rob Hedden and Tom Mcloughlin are the only two writers who directed the episodes they wrote for the series, outside of William Taub who wrote and directed the Pilot. Hedden also wrote an episode of the 2002 reboot of The Twilight Zone and a few episodes of the 1980s reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also directed the regrettable Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, which must have been his way into this series in particular, despite also having written episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and McGyver!
Erin: I wasn’t blown away by this episode, but there were elements to it that were interesting. Unlike most of the episodes so far, Eli’s motivation was to a great extent understandable; he was unjustly accused and had his life destroyed (as well as losing his girlfriend to murder, something the episode doesn’t really delve into).
K: Yes, this plot bit kind of landed with a thud.
E: There is one gaping plothole that bugs me: Whether the chair was cursed when Eli was electrocuted. I don’t think it was, because the dialogue suggests Lewis bought it after the botched execution, and Eli purchased it from him. But, if it wasn’t cursed, Eli would nonetheless be brain-dead, even if he was physically alive, after exposure to it, so....
K: It seems to me that it has to have been cursed prior to the electrocution, since Eli needs it to fuel himself. Another part of this plothole is … how the heck did he get his hands on the chair that failed to do him in?
E: The black and white portions were one of the stylistic choices I liked; it gave those scenes more of a documentary feel, and I thought that Eli’s recollections—the gathered group laughing at him—did a good job of suggesting the high level of trauma the experience caused. It also gave a pretty good argument against the death penalty through both the botched execution of the wrong man, as well as Eli’s vigilante actions, without being didactic; he murdered no one until after he was killed, suggesting the toll of that type of punishment has far-reaching effects. Having the only survivor (the warden) be the one person who tried to get a stay of execution seems to underscore this. There was also a nice transition between the b & w execution scene, and Ryan working on a lightning lamp, both seemingly controlled energy, but for different purposes.
K: I agree. I thought the episode looked great, and the direction is strong. Another interesting thing is that this ep. centers the secondary actors more than the Curious Goods trio. I liked this element, and it’s likely why the general tone of the episode is more serious.
E: YES! Which is an element it shares with the Cronenberg[link to ep here?] episode, which also decenter-ed the trio. Things that didn’t work: the unintentionally funny district attorney death scene; I have to hand it to the actor; he went for it, but took it beyond over the top and halfway to the moon. Also, the ending was so off from the tone of the rest of the episode—Micki’s hair standing on end—it put me off as well.
K: Totally! Although I laughed out loud at Micki’s hair. The funny thing is, her hair isn’t that much more poofed than usual.
Great opening shot! I wish the entire series looked like this opening! The shadows cast on the walls, the cutaways. It’s like an art film. The innocent man, the suits standing around him (one black guy, oddly), the failed first attempt at electrocution. The framing of the men from below, with the continual dolly passes across them. Rob Hedden had only directed documentaries to this point (Wax, 111-12), and this is a benefit to these backstory scenes.
Eli Pittman as creepy reform school dentist, gassing students and then saying later: “The kids give me just the stimulation I need.” “Let’s have a look at that lower cuspid.” Also, Pittman’s office has a lava lamp! The whole setup is skeezy.
E: Yes, intentional or not, it gives a serious pedophile vibe. Also, a black student is the first to die. Again. The focus on targeting orphans because they won’t be missed reminds me of Buffy’s “Anne” in particular, but perhaps because it’s such a trope.
The episode is well directed. The segues, first the electrocution cutting to Ryan’s lamp; then, the handshake between Jack and the warden cutting to Pitman’s latex-gloved hand. Cool and very stylish. I want to check out Rob Hedden’s other directed episodes and see if this guy has a style.
Dated line: Micki: “I made Xeroxes of everything.”
K: Nice commentary at the Haverstock Reform School with Micki and Jack, ie, runaways and orphans: “That’s not high on a politicians priority list.”
E: Yup! Hitting all sorts of anti-Reagan-ite highs here: the death penalty, the lack of care for the poor.
K: Did the guy Ryan’s talking to about the unidentified man in the photo just ask him out on a date? Come over and look at my files … after dinner, of course.
E: It’s the “come over and look at my etchings bit again!
K: The dental torture scene has me thinking: seriously, why dentistry? Beyond the ability to get people in a compromising position, it’s pretty random. And no one questions why the dental chair has a helmet. He’s been there a year; I suppose no one has notice the school’s electric bills? Or maybe this is why it has to close?
E: It’s very Little Shop of Horrors…
K: I thought of that, too. The preying on troubled teens makes it that much more sadistic. But the connection between evil dentist and wronged innocent man is pretty thin! This episode (and the show in general) is well shot and lit. The colors are rich, especially in low-light scenes. I guess we’re looking at wrath here, retribution for real harm. He becomes as corrupt(ed) as the system that did him wrong. The episode overall is uneven, but I have to say, I think it has some of the most beautiful imagery in the whole series so far. This, and the “Scarecrow” episode.
Season 1, Episode 19: “The Quilt of Hathor” (Timothy Bond, director; Janet MacLean, writer)
We’re all crazy Penetites livin’ in a Penetite Paradise
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: A woman from a local Amish-ish community, calling themselves the Penetites, contacts the Curious Goods crew about a potentially cursed quilt, after a few sect members ends up dead. Ryan and Micki go undercover, and Ryan takes break from creeping on his cousin to make eyes at a reverend’s daughter
The Cheese: A mix of good and bad cheese; Ryan’s inexplicable and obviously doomed romance and a weird duel over hot coals (bad); random 18th-century fantasy segments as a prelude to murder, weird but good.
The Sins: A double pack of Lust and Envy
Erin: Well, there’s always a bit of a challenge commenting on part one of a two-parter. The episode didn’t blow me away, but the more I think about, the more nuance I find in terms of set-up for the next episode. Here is yet another story of someone “plain” turning to evil to get what she (or he, as in “Cupid’s Quiver”) wants.
Kristopher: Yes, definitely a trope in the series.
E: For me, the trope is a bit tired, suggesting women in particular are constantly envying and hating on other women. And yet, that’s not entirely what the episode ends up suggesting, which pleased me. Effie may be considered “plain” but it’s slowly revealed that while she might lust for Reverend Grange, it may be the lust for power that drives her.
K: There is the suggestion that she may be in it for the power, yes. But it’s truly both, since all her dreams involve her looking longingly at the Reverend. The suggestion of power comes from Laura to Ryan, who says the Rev.’s wife holds a lot of sway.
E: The dream sequences, with their low-budget 18-century drag, seem to confirm this: she takes more pleasure in watching the destruction of these other women than dancing with Grange. The fact that Grange himself stands idly by while these dream murders occur could suggest that he is not as he seems either, despite his loud “why hast thou forsaken me” moments. (The young bride against the rules, being secretive about the finances, etc.)
K: I’ll be interested to see in the next episode if the issue with the finances comes up again. He does seem to be sinister in some way.
E: While I don’t think “Penitites” is a real thing, using a fake religious sect at least allows the episode to offer some commentary on religion as a cover/outlet for any number of sins. I mean, aside from Grange’s daughter feeding the horse and singing, it’s all coal fights, shouting, and pitchfork stabbings.
K: Yes on the fake cult as a way of getting at issues, yet why does it have to be an Amish-style religious sect? Seriously, they could get at this using a Presbyterian church community; no need to drag a true minority community through the mud (or coals). It’s actually kind of offensive!
E: “Your dream becomes someone else’s nightmare.”
K: This episode is someone else’s nightmare … mine.
E: Yay for Ryan falling for someone other than his cousin. Also, big laugh over Robey’s hilariously over-the-top reactions to the coal fight.
K: Gorgeous opening, but wow, that dialogue sounds like rocks in the mouth of these actors.
You gotta love an evil spinster, I must say. The Penetite Colony? Also, is this Penetite as in a combo of Penitent and Tight? I guess it would have been transparently worse to just make them Amish? The opening scene made me think it was occurring in the past. It’s funny that the sect is secretive, but Old Sarah Goode has no problem divulging that the reverend’s daughter isn’t happy about her arranged marriage.
E: I can see why they’d make up a religious sect, particularly in the 1980s. The Moral Majority assholes were (and still are) complaining constantly about how they were portrayed in the media. Although, at the risk of sounding flippant, the Amish aren’t big TV owners, so I can’t imagine they’d be mounting a letter-writing campaign over it. Oddly, there were some Amish-centered TV shows in the 1980s, and Harrison Ford in the movie Witness, so it might also be another instance of trend-leaping, like with the “Baron’s Bride.”
K: If it were at all believable, it could be cool. But the writing isn’t committed enough to getting the details down in terms of consistency. This is strict cult, but everyone is killing, bashing, and raking people over coals! Wait, what is the pretense for bringing outsiders into a secretive sect? A lost quilt, really? Sarah, who brings them to the sect mentions “envy” by name, so I guess we’re there. Lust comes next. This episode promises to give us a smorgasbord of deadly sins.
Micki’s hair actually looks good all tied down. Ryan seems to be leading the investigation with his boner. This whole setup is really off. A secretive sect (cult) that is extremely strict, yet one of its members, Effie Stokes, uses an evil quilt to kill people, and the sight of his betrothed dancing with Ryan fills him with rage and violence. Also, I wonder how Effie discovered the quilt’s powers?
This episode is hilarious, but not for the right reasons. Ryan’s acts are ridiculous, but the sect is full of contradictions. Considering their knowledge of punishments like The Cleansing, they’re rather cavalier in the degree to which they break codes and decorum. At least the dreams seem to be intentionally campy, especially the one in which Sarah dies. The Reverend’s “Where is thy justice?!” from Sarah’s death becomes a funny shriek. Ryan’s falling in love with Laura and seeing something in the cult lifestyle is truly ridiculous. This is Ryan— comic books Ryan, rock music Ryan. The breaking of character here seems to be a characteristic of the semi-anthology format.
Alyse Wax writes of this episode’s “strong female point of view” (?) that “The Pentitites are, surprisingly, not a patriarchy” (127). Um … ? Interviewed by Wax, the writer, Janet MacLean, mentions the “Witness-style romance between Ryan and a chaste member of the sect” (127). Also, in Wax is the following, which is pretty funny:
“Story consultant Marc Scott Zicree has but half a memory of this episode: ‘I remember, in-house, Bill [Taub] and I were not pleased with “Quilt of Hathor,” but I don’t remember why’. MacLean was pretty surprised when she saw the final cut on television. ‘I’d written a fight between Ryan and Matthew, but it hadn’t included a fiery pit! I remember watching that scene in total amazement’” (128).
Season 1, Episode 20: “The Quilt of Hathor: The Awakening” (Timothy Bond, director; Janet MacLean, writer)
Alternate title: The Quilt of Hathor: The Reverend’s Revenge
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: In part two, Effie gets her comeuppance when she and the Reverend get quilt-y, and Ryan gets framed for all the bad things that have happened and sentenced to die.
The Cheese: A tie between every scene that picks up Ryan and Laura’s love story. / The freeze-frame of a shocked Ryan at the end of the episode. / Jack channelling Robert Stack during the “Previously On” segment. / That subtitle, which has nothing to do with the episode. At all.
The Sins: See part one, above.
Erin: OK, first off: What does “the awakening” refer to? I think there might be a bit of a joke to the title, as the quilt’s power lies in sleeping/dreaming. Ditto on the inquisitor’s name being Holmes.
Kristopher: So true. The awakening should be of these folks to their internal paradoxes and hypocrisies. Yeesh.
E: Again, this is in many respects a standard issue mob mentality/religion closes minds type of tale, and yet, like the previous episode, it gains a bit more nuance on further inspection. Effie spends so much time being the nightmare for everyone else that she doesn’t twig to what happens if that moment is shared until she’s actually in the dream, with both Effie and Grange trying to kill one another. It also affirms what was suggested in the previous episode, when Effie talks of the “passage to the power God has ordained for me.”
K: Yep, I make a parallel observation below around the Rev.’s own power being threatened. It’s funny Effie wouldn’t think to question what might happen if she got under the quilt with another.
E: As with other episodes, it seems to draw people who already have a proclivity; while never really expanded on, Grange was clearly doing shady things, and using his religion as a cover for it; timely. (The complaints from conservative whiners about how religion is portrayed on TV would do well to look at the various and high-profile religious/church-related scandals during the late 1980s as a reason.) A quilt cursed by Salem witches that leads to someone being burned at the stake? A bit on the nose.
K: In the episode’s context, totally. Yet, the persecution of “witches” in Salem Village (no one was burned, but many were hung or drowned) leaves the source of the curse here feeling a bit on the wrong side of history and ethics. They might have gotten their history right, at least! The folks who were suspect as witches were those who were thought “queer,” in all the senses of that word, with the addition of racial difference. This cult is super-duper white, too, adding a further taint to this misrepresentation of history. I found it really problematic.
E: And yet: Holmes ends up being surprisingly open-minded. He not only doesn’t take Grange’s words as truth—preferring to conduct his investigation before coming to any conclusions—and nails Brother Matthew’s spurious motives for pointing the finger at Ryan. “We encourage converts.”
K: Yes, I liked this character, and the actor’s performance of him.
E: While it was obvious Ryan/Laura couldn’t last, it was a decently nuanced good-bye, with Laura’s reasons for staying less about repression and more about guiding the community. She is no longer “trapped” by the traditions but actively choosing them.
K: Thematically/narratively sound for the episode, but man I felt this scene was still really weak.
E: Cheesiest moment award: A tie between Ryan’s wide-eyed, freeze-framed final moment in the episode, and Jack’s “previously on” voice-over that sounded so much like Robert Stack on Unsolved Mysteries that I thought for a moment is was a bizarre cross-over. “Alone...with a killer!”
K: Hahahaha! These are truly good ones. But still the cheesiest of the cheese (not the dream-campiness, which I love, but the truly unintended cheese) are any scene between Ryan and Laura. Oof!
I’m going to come back to the beauty of the setting. It’s one of this show’s strengths. The snow scenes are so gorgeous. Speaking of, Ryan looks really cute in his Pene-tight duds. Effie giving Elder Florence the equivalent of a locker-room towel snap with the quilt is priceless. But in the dream where she kills Elder Florence, the latter isn’t asleep. Calling script supervisor/continuity!
E: I’m not gonna lie; I was digging him in that too.
K: Ryan to Laura: “The less you know, the better.” Oof. This episode turns much more strictly around power, and these themes are the most interesting thing about it. The Reverend acts because his authority is being challenged, with others seeing the deaths as attached to him in some way, and raising a “furor” in his words, “claiming witchcraft.” Ryan’s interview with him is interesting, the secular son trying to convince the god-fearing cultist of the very real presence of the supernatural power of evil. Ryan in this interview raises the specter (haha) of power in terms of Effie’s interests in marrying the Reverend, and suggests (like the brethren, in a way) that his power might be under threat. The Reverend response as men with power do— with accusations, denial, and attempts to downplay the crisis.
Plot hole: have six months really passed since the death of the Rev.’s last betrothed? That is, has Ryan really been here six months? Or is expedience the rule here?
E: That one I do think they explained; it had been six months since the first murder, but the other elders were like: “Fuck that rule; get thou married already.” Although WHY anyone would say yes after 3 other women died is beyond me.
K: Totally. The dream sequences really are deliciously campy and fun. I guess this is the first time we get to see what happens when two manipulative dreamers lie under the quilt, and the Reverend’s true colors come out. (Note that he wakes up far from the marriage bed, with his hand in his crotch.) The scenario is interesting because he turns on Effie (turning on him) in the dream, but her death could be his undoing rather than his release, since suspicion will turn further to him.
The Reverend walks under a ladder when Inquisitor Holmes arrives. Guess his faith doesn’t extend to superstition. (Side Note: Holmes’s carriage driver is kinda hot.)
Kudos for Laura (such a bad actress) storming away from Ryan and having to straddle a fence to get away. Not even a door to slam. Painful acting from her in the following scene, and the writing, too: “I’ll write you every day.” (Wouldn’t that be even more painful than just saying goodbye?) “Do not forget thy hat. … something to remember me by.” Like, she’s not super-upset that he’s leaving. Buh-bye, Felicia!
E: Right? And in the final shot he’s got the hat on his lap like he’s in seventh grade. Maybe that was what woke him up, all surprised?
K: Interesting in a potentially homophobic (?) way that when the dream involves two men, it isn’t shown. (Men are never campy.) The Reverend’s dream’s effect is shown on the inquisitor, and his attempt to dream Ryan out of existence is all outward action.
E: Right? I would have LOVED to have seen that dream; I’m imagining Holmes in a deerstalker and some foggy London streets. (I mean, is it always the 18th-century banquet, or is that Effie’s kink?)
K: Hahaha! True. Or, since this is the Reverend's dream-gig, I picture it looking something like the Claude Frollo "Hellfire" musical number in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame. And Holmes just gets burned up in the Rev's flaming spew. (Hot)
E: DUDE. YES.
K: Sometimes fun, sometimes excruciating … this one leaves me feeling a bit yanked (not that erotically) in two directions.
Season 1, Episode 16: “Tattoo” (Lyndon Chubbock, director; Dan DiStefano and Stephen Katz, writers)
Forget it, Jake; it’s Friday the 13th: The Series' version of Chinatown.
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: An unlucky gambler finds the secret to success when he steals cursed tattoo needles.
The Cheese: Racism and sexism are too serious to be cheesy, but apparently not bad enough to play major roles in this episode.
The Sins: To no one’s surprise, GREED. Pride makes an appearance as well.
Kristopher: This was another relatively weak one for me, but with some interesting lines that work around the series’ thematic concerns. Tommy puts things rather well when he says that “In America the only shame is to lose” and later, “This is America. Everybody wants money.” Pride and Greed run the show here. The Grandfather offers a more biblical though no less masculinist and patriarchal version when he says to Tommy: “Fruit either ripens and falls to earth, or it rots on the branch.”
In keeping with this patriarchal formulation, there’s a serious virgin-whore thing going on with the women in this episode, with the gambling molls all hanging around silently, or in the one death scene all spread out with garters and in red, and the granddaughter, Tommy’s sister, submissive and dutiful, protective. The misogyny is tied directly into the episode’s racism, though it is interesting to see the constant references by Tommy to himself and his family as American, as against his father’s more traditional Chinese ties (he reveres the family’s Ming vases … um, they have Ming vases?! … and is an herbalist who ends up finding ties with Jack at the episode’s end … which was kind of weird).
On another not-that-related note, Micki’s hair is relatively subdued in this one. I wonder if this is to set her off from the wild hair of all the Asian women?
The episode’s pervasive racism continues in the interesting confrontation of the team by the Asian gangster who equates his community’s “customs” and “way of doing things” with the “job” Tommy has to do. Chinatown = crime here in the same way Italian American culture equals gangster culture. I’d like to think this were a wider critique on the limited opportunities America offers for its POC, but it’s just not there.
Erin: YUP. Also, I’d like to think that the gangster’s line: “This is Chinatown” was a reference to that film’s themes of the futility of justice in a corrupt system, but, as you say here: the episode doesn’t support the weight of that reading.
K: This is the first time we see the object identified and called in to the store by a holder. When grandfather says he’s “made arrangements to return them to the people who sold them,” we get one of the first framings of the Curious Goods team as purveyors of or accomplices in the dissemination of evil, who now must bear the burden of a dark past act, and who are now seeking a kind of redemption in retrieving the goods.
E: I noticed that too. How weird is it, though, that we really don’t get any explanation for the needle’s power? I mean, usually Jack explains or it’s written in the manifest, but not this time.
K: Question: Is the luck attached to the needles applicable to any kind of success? Even in the case of the Russian Roulette scene, it’s still tied to gambling. Maybe it could be used in service of rescuing animals? Interesting finale with the table spinning around for Russian roulette and the “good luck” death charm about to be thwarted by Jack and Ryan. Also … is Russian roulette gambling a thing?
There’s a line in the end in the shop from Grandfather about progress and apathy, a lack of humanity: “In our rush for progress, I thought we had lost the … . “ Jack responds that “We didn’t lose those values, but we might have put them aside for awhile.” Like, for how long? The Reagan era? Longer? The duration of humanity? What’s his point? Regardless, I find this message a pretty durable one for the series as a whole, with the Curious Goods Team undoing the unfortunate work of an “evil” capitalist.
E: Satan’s a capitalist! I knew it! Seriously, though: that line offers a ham-handed moral to this particular story that I also find both amusing and interesting. What it seems to suggest to me is, whether the episode’s writer intended it or not, the moral of the story seems to be: embracing American values is wrong. I mean, I agree with that wholeheartedly. Of course, this is uncomfortably coupled with the idea expressed both by the gangster dudes and Lum that integration is undesirable. It’s quite a muddle.
I went into this with a certain resignation: set in Chinatown, with Asian actors, but written by a couple of white guys. That it would lack cultural sensitivity or nuance was a given. That being said, it wasn’t as bad on that front as I thought it might be. It wasn’t great, either in terms of story or representation, but given the time period in which it aired, it could have been much, much worse.
It wasn’t a good episode, but there were some parts that were enjoyable. The effects of the tattoos were really cool (and the chestbuster bit was delightfully gross). Also, that Lum Chen knew the needles were evil without being tempted by them, because he could read the inscription. This may be the first time it shows someone finding the object and not being tempted. Finally, a moment I thought was a sign of Tommy being stupid (telling his friend about the lucky needles) was actually a ruse to use said friend as a sacrifice.
Best line goes to Tommy, as a piece of truth: “In America, the only shame is to lose.”
Greed, obviously. Tommy is also pretty corrupted before he gets the needles, and seems to not be that torn up about anything he does.
K: Yes, and I would add Pride, particularly around the family. This is oddly tied into the episode’s racism. Immigrant family pride, ahhh! But Tommy’s pride as a budding criminal is nicely, ironically tied to American ideals. As you note above, American values are not the values to have.
E: Jack calling the obviously very influential gangster guys “small time”? Not only wrong, but kind of racist. Even with the lack of depth they are given, it is obvious they wield power and rake in money.
This is kind of a weird observation, but on a structural level, almost all of the episodes end with a bit of a joke or observation that is eerily similar to their siblings in the procedural genre during the 1980s: Simon and Simon, TJ Hooker, Riptide, Hart to Hart, etc. (Seriously, i would watch ANYTHING as a kid, but those types of shows were big faves of my dad’s, and we’d watch them together.) I think it’s amusing that each episode starts with the sex sax and ends with the 80s procedural freeze frame.
K: Astute, not weird! In fact, Police Squad! made fun of this element, with the actors posing in tableau as though there were a freeze frame, but the scene was still live. This comes with great sideways looks from Leslie Nielsen at the camera as if wondering, “How much longer?” I love it.
Season 1, Episode 17: “Brain Drain” (Lyndon Chubbock, director Joshua Daniel Miller, writer)
OR, Flowers for Algernon Two: Charlie’s Revenge
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: A trephinator-for-two allows the one person to drain another’s brain power and become smarter; a mentally challenged janitor discovers the secret and goes on an intelligence-seeking rampage.
The Cheese: Robey’s acting. (Also, unmentioned before, but going by your last name only is weird AND cheesy. Apparently, she was forced into it by the producers [Wax, 2015].) / Pretty much the entire finale of the episode.
The Sins: Envy (the janitor) and pride (most of the scientists).
Kristopher: A little bit of a mad science episode here, finally! A trephinator? Cool! Nice gruesome first “drain”! “I don’t wanna be stupid anymore. … Now it’s my turn to be smart.” LOL
Micki’s hair is back to “normal.” (At times her pony tail makes it look as though there were someone else standing behind her.)
Jack’s bemoaning his bodily aches due to age echoes forward in Vi’s later comment, “Come on, Jack. At our age, let’s not pussyfoot around,” when she wants him to come up for some sexy times. I’m always looking for ties between the parallel narratives in these episodes, but here the increased brain strength of the mad-science storyline isn’t quite the connection I’m looking for, despite the fact that the two parallel narratives intersect around Vi’s research. Carrie Snodgrass is awesome, a class act.“Vi, Viola Rhodes.” a Linguistic anthropologist who went to Kenya (“keen-ya,” as they say it). Jack said no. I wonder if the evocation of race here is intentional, considering that in the next scene, we have Dr. Pengborn discussing measuring intelligence by the size of the skull—phrenology was based in racist notions where markers of physiological whiteness were held as signs of intelligence.
Erin: I was wondering about that too, as well as the fact that he says it to a German scientist. I’m inclined, given the rest of the episode, to think that the mention of phrenology conflated with German-ness is potentially intentional.
K: Why can’t Vi tell Jack about her research? She’s a linguistic anthropologist, for shit’s sake! Of course, this question gets answered fairly quickly after, with Vi and Pengborn working together on an experiment that might change “mankind.” The more interesting aspect of their dynamic here for me is the vague sexual threat (“There’s one more instrument I have to show you.”), sexualized in part by Jack’s romantic interest in Vi, and continued later (oddly) in Pengborn’s comment to Jack that he knows Jack knew Vi intimately. Ew!
Question: Do brains inhale and exhale?
Robey’s overacting is pretty extreme in this episode. She expresses worry about Vi to Ryan as though she were furious with him. Weird. The finale is hilarious. Ryan and Micki are wandering around bickering, and Jack finds a gun that he promptly, clumsily loses to Pengborn. A maundering Vi stumbles into Jack and Pengborn while the latter is holding the former at gunpoint. Vi’s having been rendered mindless is tragic, but the scenario and performances here undercut the mood. And Micki’s attempt to offer solace to Jack in the coda (“You had your time with her”) is again rather hilariously curt. Gee, thanks, Micki.
These medical/mad-science narratives for me evoke pride over greed; I guess that’s pretty logical, since intellectual ambition is linked more to making one’s mark, rather than making one’s fortune (though the two often come together). This episode though is an interesting example of a strict focus on pride. Pengborn, despite his suddenly being well-groomed and clothed after he gets an intelligence boost (which reminds me of Gunn in Angel), never speaks about money. He just wants to be a god.
E: My first thought was: “Scientist with a secret basement project? That’ll end well.” I found this episode miles better on multiple levels than the previous one. We get Jack backstory, compelling relationship drama, and a nuanced and affecting ending, But there were other grace notes that to me showed a thoughtfulness in the script that isn’t always a given on this show.
A few things first: Loved how it was, in essence, both a nod to Flowers for Algernon and 50s sci-fi B movies, like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, including the fact that absolutely no one involved seemed at all concerned about the ethics of the experiment. Can’t speak for the science of it, except that Young Frankenstein ended in a similar fashion (brain transference), so I’m guessing: not accurate. This might also be one of the few instances where the original owner bought the object as a curiosity only, with perhaps a view to studying its mechanism, without being tempted by its power. This does lead to what could be a plot hole, or an intentional commentary: how does Henry, who is considered as barely functional, understand what’s being said and figure out how to work the device? Either they didn’t consider that, or the episode is making a point about the dismissiveness of those with power (intellectual or otherwise). In either case, pride seems to be the defining sin: Henry’s pride is wounded, leading him to take action, and is literally fed by the brains of others.
Also: totally getting Dollhouse vibes on this, particularly since he takes on the personality of those he’s drained. (Second creepy villains role in a single season for this actor; he was in Cupid’s Quiver as well.)
What set this episode apart for me? Naming the device the Trephinator; if I remember correctly, trepanning was a way to release evil spirit (eg, treat mental illness) and/or a method for attaining enlightenment, requiring a hole to be drilled in the skull. Viola was also a win: she gets more depth and rounding in a single episode than Lloyd did in two: she’s smart, she’s forthright. They even upend the usual dynamic (woman gives up her career for a man, or is asked to), by having Jack be the one asked to do it, and regretting he didn’t take the chance. Even diminished, she’s the one who brings down her attacker. That the ethics question applies to everyone, from the original scientist to Jack’s insistence on using the Trephinator to return Vi’s intelligence. And finally, the next level naming of Jack’s cologne (Vi’s favorite) as “Sayonara,” encapsulating the trajectory of their relationship and its eventual end in a single moment. Awesome.
Season 1, Episode 14: “Bedazzled” (Alexander Singer, director; Paul Monette and Alfred Sole, writers) (27 February, 1988)
Treasure hunting goes Tarantino.
The Goods: A cursed lantern that reveals buried treasure is recovered by Ryan and Jack, only to have its previous owners invade the shop looking to take it back.
The Cheese: A sailor named Jonah tops the list.
The Sins: Pride and Greed
Kristopher: Changing up the formula here. Ryan and Jack infiltrate a ship to capture a cursed lantern. And now they will be the pursued.
Okay, this one was pretty good! I like that they give the episode over to Micki and the kid, and the single-set setup after the cool opening was a nice change from the past two episodes. Micki really has her day (night) here, outwitting the villains at every turn.
In some ways, we’re looking at Pride in this episode, but otherwise Greed seems to carry the episode (and the series). Still, it’s not super-clear how far one could get with a lantern that makes people spontaneously combust. Definitely a better episode than the first few, though lesser than the ones we’ve thought as quintessential. But I have a real affection for this one.
Erin: Yes! Its flaws make it endearing, if that makes sense.
K: It’s uneven in the sense that it doesn’t really bring the two settings—ship and store—together in a meaningful way. It’s more an exercise in claustrophobic space and home invasion than an engagement with the series’ overall themes. But it’s still one of the better entries.
E: I think that if one sin tops them all for the series so far, it’s greed. I think it’s interesting that the first death we see, the lantern initially burns the heart out of the diver, a nice (if perhaps not intended) metaphor for greed. The opening dive sequence, with the guy swimming through the wreck, may have been stock footage, but it looked good. (Did James Cameron steal from this episode for the Titanic framing device?)
A repeat (by Jack, this time) of the “upside and downside of the curse” line.
Also? Surprisingly violent episode with a high body count that, of course, is never mentioned: police officer harpooned (nice touch!), one guy shot, one guy with his face burned off. (That kid is going to need serious therapy). It’s been too long since I watched 80s TV; back then, consequences just slow things up and are generally not dealt with. Another instance, as well, of a character showing competence and ingenuity when away from the others. It’s nice to see Micki actually taking charge, coming up with decent plans that play on her opponent’s weakness.
Not the strongest episode, but miles better than “The Baron’s Bride.”
(Season 1, Episode 15: "Vanity's Mirror" (William Fruet, director; Roy Sallows, writer) (5 March, 1988)
Sibling rivalry goes nuclear.
The Goods: A cursed compact dazzles anyone its aimed at into being obsessed with the compact’s owner. Helen, the ugly duckling to her sister’s swan, uses it for both revenge and to steal her sister’s boyfriend, with whom she’s secretly in love.
The Cheese: Helen’s fashion sense.
The Sins: Lust, Pride, and Wrath fight for supremacy.
Kristopher: This one feels like a retread to me. Another cupid’s arrow-style object, a love charm object picked up by a serial killer, or turns the holder into one anyway. It’s interesting that Lust isn’t entirely the object here; it’s more like Pride that carries the episode—being seen rather than being with. I wouldn’t say Envy here, either, since Helen is pretty proud to be who she is (so much so that she struts into the prom with teased out hair looking like an ugly peacock). The whole object of the curse seems to be to make invisible people visible (“I’d never seen you before” and being-seen become something of a refrain).
Erin: It was a bit of a challenge to hate Helen, I must say, because not only did she talk back, but dressed how she wanted and ate four sandwiches at a go with zero shame. Oh! I’m an idiot. HELEN. Seriously, that can’t be an accident, right?
K: This turns out to be one of the more twisted and violent episodes, often (oddly) played for dark humor. If only the characterization of Helen were taken a little more seriously. As it is, it’s too silly and whimsical to think about the damages of bullying and alienation that are implied in the scenario. The prom scene plays out like an inversion of Carrie in this way, with no sympathy for Helen where we have immense sympathy for Carrie (and her motives for killing).
E: In a weird way, I appreciate that bit of gender parity: neither this one nor “Cupid’s Quiver” suggest we sympathize with those who use magic to manipulate others, particularly when it comes to intimate relationships.
K: Interesting that they aren’t able to retrieve the object. Still, this one’s a minor effort for me.
E: Right? The non-retrieval of the object, I think, fits in with the “slasher” aesthetic of the episode, as if it’s being set up for a sequel. And yes, this did feel like “Cupid’s Quiver” 2.0, although between the two, this one is actually better. We get a bit more characterization of the primary antagonist and a more understandable reason why she would have been tempted by the compact. It also made some interesting character choices. Helen is kind of an asshole; she doesn’t fit the “perfect victim” stereotype, she talks back to her tormentors, and she is full of resentment and jealousy against her sister (who REALLY doesn’t deserve it). Kudos to Canada, as well, for her “unattractiveness” being very much in line with her age: she’s pimply and her hair could use a wash. US series tend to either 1) throw a pair of glasses on a conventionally attractive person, maybe paired with some dodgy sartorial choices, or 2) go completely over the top with some hideous injury or deformity.
Highly amused by Captain Jack Obvious: “The trouble with evil is that it’s very tempting.”
One thing I noted, and really liked, was that the episode itself had a serious slasher film vibe. There were the fairly gruesome killings—mashed by a trash compactor, death by table saw—the structure (temptation, escalation), and incidental music that had a very Jason or Freddy feel. Things I found darkly amusing: Helen’s sister calls for Scott, not her sister. Although, to be fair, she did steal her boyfriend and order him to kill her. Had Helen survived, that would make some pretty awkward holidays. The snake (temptation metaphor) on the compact.
Lust and pride are pretty predominant, but I would argue wrath plays a huge part here as it did in “Cupid’s Quiver.”
Critical Rewatch #1
Friday the 13th: The Series aired in syndication from 1987 to 1990. It boasts a large fanbase but almost no scholarly commentary. This episode-by-episode critical blog on the series is part of a research project by Erin Giannini and Kristopher Woofter that will include the series in a scholarly monograph on horror anthology TV series in the Reagan era.