Season 2, Episode 23: “The Maestro” (Timothy Bond, director; Karen Janigan, writer)
The series borrows from a different type of classical cinema in a story of art and obsession.
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: Anton Pascola (Colm Feore) is a limping, renowned dance choreographer with a twisted past, having used a cursed early Victorian symphonia to choreograph his latest work, and now to choreograph a version of the Legend of Shiva. The symphonia drains the life energy out of any dancers who commit themselves to it, each death edging the piece closer to completion.
Enter young Gracie (daughter of a friend of Jack’s), who, after seeing a performance by Anton’s company with Jack, Micki, and Ryan, becomes a favorite of Anton’s. In a perverse use of his power dynamic over her, he draws her in and ultimately to her death.
There are several dance-to-the-death scenes in the episode, each one carrying shades of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), and suggesting significant influence on the later Suspiria remake and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010).
Feore plays Anton just this side of vicious in his passion, but it works. When he, on one occasion, breaks out in an act of physical violence upon one of his dancers, it’s entirely believable, the symphonia already having corrupted him, and in a way become an extension of his own desire for violence. “All great art is created out of pain,” he says, as a form of justification for the violence in his manner and methods. The Legend of Shiva ends in a metaphorical dance with death, tying in the actual deaths necessary to achieve its complete choreography. Gracie showing up after witnessing the death of Susan, one of the dancers, is an indication that she’s a little twisted herself. “I’d do anything for you, you know that,” she assures Anton.
Erin: I’ve got a theory about that (see below).
K: Each death scene leading up to Gracie’s final performed death onstage is spectacular in its own way. Each begins with a sworn commitment to the cursed object, placing a palm down and saying, “I dedicate my body and soul to the dance.” The first two dancers leap simultaneously through two upper-story windows; the next, Anna, dances to her death in a beautifully shot scene with her blood flowing out of her mouth in slow-motion, surrounding her with an interlaced circle of blood strings and droplets; Susan smashes through a mirror, impaled by a shard of mirror that reflects Anton’s face as he berates her (corpse) for having failed; the final death of both Anton and Gracie is most remarkable for being played onstage in front of a live audience. Arguably, the choreography never does get finished; Jack enters to shut off the symphonia, and Anton and Gracie’s literal death-drops become the finale, making the standing ovation for their onstage death wonderfully perverse. In each scene, shots of the the gears grinding and pins clicking inside the machine are well executed to parallel the grinding pain felt by the dancers in their bodies. Director Timothy Bond mentions using a surgical lens to achieve the shots (Wax 2015, 304). (It might be worth looking at the episodes directed by Bond, since he seems to be the most consistent of all the directors on the show, and possibly even a visionary.)
The Curiosities: It’s interesting that the cursed objects suffuse every part of the lives of this region, rural and urban. From campus life, to the modeling world, to fine art, to industry, to the rural communities affected in “Scarecrow” (1.11), “The Pirate’s Promise” (1.22), and “The Sweetest Sting” (2.11). Even when the Curious Goods team goes to enjoy culture, they find curses.
Despite a little timeline problem here in terms of the few days of investigation by the Curious Goods team versus, presumably, the time it would require for the dance rehearsals, Gracie’s introduction to them, and pre-production for Shiva, this episode is taut and incredibly well structured. It really is a fantastic episode, particularly in its matching of aesthetics with violence, and in its direction. Other great episodes outshine it only in blending in a more significant political valence. Top 20.
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): I can’t overstate how ballet was having a pop culture moment in the mid to late-1980s, one I’m not sure has been replicated since (Center Stage notwithstanding), and nearly all flag up the grueling physical toll that ballet takes on the body. (Yes, I took ballet classes around that time, but thankfully, I had no talent. Have you seen dancer’s feet? YIKES.)
K: Hahaha! Sometimes we should be glad when our lack of talent steers us to things that won’t twist us into a painful pretzel later in life.]
E: And yet, “The Maestro” owes a huge debt not to things like White Nights [K: Oh, I forgot about this one. I really hated it as a teen.], but Powell and Pressberger’s The Red Shoes, with Anton burning through any number of Victoria Pages throughout the episode. A far more somber affair than the previous episode. I found it worked quite well; the injured “maestro” literally sucking the life and soul from his dancers in a combination of actual dedication to art and his own frustration at his career as dancer being cut short. It’s not clear whether Geoff had any idea of the symphonia’s powers before he gave it to Anton; if he didn’t, it makes it all the more tragic that something given in friendship and sympathy caused his death.
Anton himself is not sympathetic; if callously sacrificing dancers to create his magnum opus wasn’t enough to convince (and for those for whom it’s not? GET HELP.), he is rude, dismissive, and physically abusive to his dancers….particularly women.
K: Indeed, and in fact, I think it’s less his own misogyny than the episode’s since the focus seems to be the aesthetic beauty of watching a woman suffer and die. I mean, the only guy death we see, the dude literally runs away from us and jumps out a window.
E: Jack’s ending episode meltdown notwithstanding, the episode seems to suggest that touching the symphonia and saying “I dedicate my life and soul to the dance” means pretty much the end of any of the dancers’ ability to consent. And yet there is something in the fact that he is also willing to sacrifice himself for the dance; that final moment, when he can dance again, does not redeem him, but at least pushes his motivation firmly into “creating art for art’s sake” rather than a projection of his own frustrated ambitions.
Well directed, well acted, and poignant. As for Anton’s sin? I’d actually categorize this one as lust, with the physicality, sweat, and blood of the performances.
Side note: Weirdest production of Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen.
Season 2, Episode 24: “The Shaman’s Apprentice” (William Fruet, director; Michael Michaelian, writer)
A symphony of micro- and macro-aggressions makes your humble bloggers root for the “villain.”
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: A really compelling episode competes with a really problematic attempt to treat Indigenous culture against white supremacy and racism. The problematic aspects come mostly in the episode’s alignment with Jack’s point of view in a pivotal scene, discussed below. But it makes some strides to treat the subject with sincerity.
The episode opens with a scene of open, direct racism in a surgical theatre, with chief surgeon Dr. Lamar lumping his presumably Indigenous patient among the “charity cases” he wishes he didn’t have to treat, and calling him “just an old wino.” He follows this up with a mention of the episode’s protagonist, an Indigenous surgeon named Dr. Whitecloud (played by Latinx actor Paul Sanchez), as a potential “chief surgeon,” adding snarkily, “or in your case would that be ‘Surgeon Chief’?” As they leave the theatre after a nearly botched surgery by Lamar (who does more talking than surgery in the scene), another surgeon says to Whitecloud, “see you around, medicine man,” and later this same surgeon warns: “Dr. Lamar is gonna nail your redskin butt to the wall for this,” referring to Whitecloud’s calling Lamar out for abandoning the surgery and sewing the patient back up.
Initially, the episode’s framing of shamanic versus white medicine is too dichotomous to be a fair representation of Indigenous culture, though the upfront racial tensions it allows the episode to get into are at least radical for 80s television. The idea that the rattle is one of Lewis’s cursed objects, tying it to a kind of takeover of a sacred Indigenous object by Christian religious tradition, throws another complicated angle into how the episode wants to frame the clash of cultures here. The rattle is both of the Iroquois Nation (the episode situates Indigeneity in the US), and stolen/co-opted by the White Man.
In the context of the episode’s presentation of blatant racism, It’s definitely cool to watch a white racist surgeon’s artery rupture, or a death-dealing nurse vomit up her heart and other viscera. (It’s interesting that when Micki reports this death to Ryan and Jack, she says “both lungs collapsed for no apparent reason,” but there is no mention of the fact that we’ve seen her organs erupt from her mouth. Where did they go? Also, as Micki delivers this update, Ryan seems to be wearing a zippered sweater with Indigenous designs on it. Oof.
E: Weirdly, I could have sworn that a similar sweater appeared in Kubrick’s The Shining.
K: Danny and Wendy both wear Indigenous-themed clothing, a way of associating them with the film’s line of signification of the persecuted and marginalized, in my analysis of it!
I like the sub-narrative that Micki finds herself in the dilemma of saving her friend Blair (who calls Dr. Whitecloud an “Injun Medicine Man”) against the knowledge that what saves her will also have to kill. It’s hard not to be with her in her thought that Dr. Lamar is a piece of shit and worth sacrificing to save Blair. This side plot could have been a bit more nuanced; Robey gets one brief early scene to mention the idea, and it comes back only in the episode’s coda, with Jack saying “It’s not for us to play God,” itself an interesting statement in the context of the episode’s white-centering of “us.”
E: Yup. For the bits it gets right, this episode also makes some dodgy assumptions and choices.
K: This white-centering is rather upfront in a pivotal scene between Jack and the representative of the Iroquois. Jack whisks off to the Reservation to speak with the Shaman, Chief Spotted Owl, played by Indigenous (Cree-Stoney) actor and activist Gordon Tootoosis, elder-to-elder. (Tootoosis was from Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.) It looks as though the reservation is shot on an actual reservation in Ontario. It’s rare to see this kind of imagery in television; only recently, the excellent CBC series Trickster brings viewers to similar locations. (And its cast features primarily Indigenous actors.)
Early in the scene, when Spotted Owl mentions “the White Man’s curse,” Jack’s response is, “Evil belongs to all men, Spotted Owl,” putting Jack regrettably in the “all lives matter” category. We’re already off on the wrong foot. The resulting dialogue is a bit painful, but there is an attempt in the script to put Spotted Owl on even, if not superior, moral footing here. “This rattle belongs to my tribe,” he explains. “I’ve held it in my hands; it does no harm.” Jack’s response is that “In a good man’s hands it will do no harm, but not all men are good.” (Which raises a question: is this how the cursed objects work? It seems to me that they have tended to corrupt even the ‘good’ people who come into possession of them.) Spotted Owl replies, “When he White Man first came, [they] stole our tribal relics and sold them. It’s taken me a few years to gather back the ones we have.” Again, Jack offers pushback that is completely uncalled for, except as a defensive centering of himself as a victim here: “You have too much wisdom to hold all white men responsible for that.”
E: That was painful to watch, and one of those moments that still resonate all these years later.
K: Spotted Owl’s response catches Jack with a remark that unseats everything he’s tried to do to defend the White Man: “I have enough to know that you mean well, Mr. Marshak.” Jack’s parting words to Spotted Owl’s granddaughter (and the episode’s titular “apprentice”), Shasheena, open with the observation that “He seems to have very little trust of white men.” Um, no fucking shit, Jack. Sasheena announces her role as a kind of archivist, “somebody has to preserve our culture.” “Don’t worry,” she says. “My grandfather is a very wise man. If evil does have control of the rattle, he’ll know how to handle it.” Jack’s smug response—with which the script clearly aligns the viewer—is “Don’t count on it.” And then of course he drives away in the Curious Goods team’s shiny black Mercedes. End scene. The odd thing about this sophisticated white man vs. primitive native setup, is that Jack’s “don’t count on it” isn’t based in the logic of scientific rationalism, but in his belief in a supernaturally cursed object. The unpacking to do here leaves one reeling.
The scene in which Dr. Whitecloud undoes the chest surgery of Dr. Lamar, with a young male patient tearing open his own chest, is gruesome and disturbing. The strategy seems to be to make Lamar suffer rather than let him off easy by killing him, at least until the finale.
The Cheese: Spotted Owl’s attempt to take away the rattle’s power is a little too “Emperor Palpatine’s lightning fingers in Return of the Jedi” for me.
Ultimately, this episode is another winner for me, though not necessarily top-20. It’s thoroughly fraught in its well-meaning politics, but its attempt to bring issues of Indigenous marginalization by white colonizers is compelling enough to provoke a lot of discussion. It’s becoming more and more difficult for me to even open the pages of Wax’s book when episodes like this one try to tackle unsettling issues. Wax finds the episode “Boring” (308). Her own defensiveness comes through in a response to Jack’s comment about the fate of the rattle, that the tribe “will guard it as well as we can.” “Except they can’t,” Wax writes, “otherwise John wouldn’t have gotten hold of it in the first place” (308). (For Wax, Dr. Whitecloud is “John,” while Dr. Lamar is allowed his title, or referred to as “Lamar.”) Her contempt is barely hidden.
E: For fuck’s sake. I’m starting to loathe her, and I’ve not even read the book.
K: No need to read it. You’d just be torturing yourself at times. I’ll canvass it for the “goods.”
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): This is quite dicey ground for the episode to be treading on; one could—and should—write a whole book on the frankly terrible portrayal of indigenous people in the media.
K: Sounds like a good topic for a B-TV book to me.
E: Far too often, STILL, they fall into one of two categories: 1) the “magical Indian” or 2) the sad drunk. There are certainly elements of the first here, but for an 80s series, there were a few things they got right.
The biggest? The near constant microaggressions Dr. White Cloud endures from his colleagues. While Lamar is openly racist (and a huge dick on possibly every level; my thought was: “Dude! START WITH HIM”) [K: Hahaha, mine, too!], the other interns make cracks like “medicine man” and “redskin”; even the one that seemed vaguely sympathetic referred to Dr. White Cloud as being “on the warpath.”
K: Is there a term for such actions that fall between microaggression and aggression? Because these moments felt openly aggressive and even provoking to me!
E: It was painful to watch, and one of the few episodes of this I’ve watched where in my head is basically: “You know what, Dr. White Cloud? Kill them all.” [K: Yes.] There is a lot of discussion about whether white men can be trusted, and to its credit (whether intentionally or not), the episode itself doesn’t prove that they can be. Even Jack’s “not all white men” bit proves the point; for all his knowledge, he is part of the problem; in his white-splaining to Spotted Owl, he is dismissive of Spotted Owl’s contention that it is something they need to deal with themselves. At least at the end he learns to trust them; not insisting the artifact be put in the vault. “It’s not ours to keep, Ryan.” Thank you, Jack; you’re exactly right. Unspoken but implied is the fact that Lewis, among his many other evil acts, appropriates and colonizes the artifacts, which the series really hasn’t touched on since “The Voodoo Mambo.”
K: Nice observation. I also read Spotted Owl’s pushback with Jack as the more critical and level-headed voice. I suspect they might have let him improvise his own dialogue, or at least tweak it, since the actor was an indigenous activist.
E: It’s also difficult not to read Dr. White Cloud’s actions as some kind of restorative justice, although the fact that it is primarily white people that are cured is problematic in and of itself. That being said, in at least three instances, those who receive the cures/deaths (Vera, the “new incision patient,” and the man Lamar dismisses as a “wino”) are chosen specifically to make Lamar look bad, which in my mind is a bonus. Clearly this episode is triggering some latent rage for me; I’ve gone the full Farley, from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1eQ_pZ_Wps to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlE5yK4l34o
K: Hahahahahaha! hahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Perfect.
E: On a narrative/structural level, this moved quite well, building to its conclusion without a lot of extraneous waffle. While the special effects (eg, the lightning hands) were fairly cheesy, and the accuracy of Iroquois culture presented here is questionable, it is a rare episode (still!) that provides rounded, nuanced portrayals of indigenous people as, you know, people. This one is a winner for me.
In which the episode with the more intriguing title sucks. Give us the "Blues" anytime.
Season 2, Episode 21: “Wedding in Black” (Rodney Charters, director; Peter Lauterman, Angelo Stea, writers)
Satan attempts revenge on the Curious Goods team, while the series brings to the fore some of its latent misogyny.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: The setup here is about as ridiculous as any of the other episodes where Lucifer speaks or appears. (At least his voice is a little better than the usual “give a frat boy a case of beer and a Nagra reel-to-reel and tell him, ‘Give us Lucifer’.”) Here, Lucifer is pissed about the Curious Goods team undoing his cursed objects work, so he sends three emissaries to draw each of them into a scenario where they will make it possible for Lucifer to bear a child through Micki (oddly, the only reason for the episode’s dodo title). The illusory world they find themselves in (and the only cool aspect of this dreadful episode) is made possible via a cursed snow globe that Ryan and Jack break in their attempt to rescue Micki, by ramming their car into the glass shell to knock the globe to the floor back in the ‘real’ world in the Curious Goods shop so that it breaks. They end up on the floor covered in giant fake snowflakes that look like plastic dandruff.
I suppose I appreciate the idea that the Prince of Darkness himself would be pretty miffed that the Curious Goods team keeps removing all his cursed objects from circulation, and want to do something about it. It’s like they’re systematically closing all his beloved franchises, one-by-one. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make this episode any less stupid. It even prompts one of the most ridiculous, regrettable (and telling) statements in Wax’s book. After a few pretty decent logic questions—“How is Micki not more traumatized? Why is it that the offer is [either] Micki’s body or the guys’ souls?”—Wax adds: “I’m hardly one to give in to feminist propaganda, but that seems a very uneven trade” (2015, 290). Feminist propaganda? Later, she comments, “If you want to get real femi-nazi …, the argument could be made that the men in this episode have great control over their baser instincts, while the women do not” (2015, 292). Why is it “femi-nazi” (a hyphenate she uses twice) to make a basic observation about fucked-up representation in a show that often features fucked-up representation? It’s barely even being a feminist killjoy (the more appropriate term for what she’s getting at) to note this.
Erin: GROSS. Right, because women having autonomy over their own bodies is such a bad thing. Or that pointing out gross portrayals of women in media makes you a killjoy. I wonder if she thinks that will broaden her work’s appeal by disavowing any connection to feminism.
K: Oof, that makes it even worse!
I’m going to have a tough time picking up Wax’s book again. The use of phrases like “feminist propaganda” and “femi-nazi” are retrograde and sad. It’s fine that she still saw Micki as a “role model as a child” because she didn’t pick up on these things when she was younger, or even because she saw something else in Micki that allowed her to look past them. A significant aspect of fandom of problematic shows involves resistant readings, and critical negotiations that still allow one to appreciate the material for its strengths and challenges (See Pinedo , Freeland , and Cherry [2002, 2008, 2009], for some among many examples). Wax writes, “I do not think— and have never thought— that this show talked down to women” (292). She has a right to her analysis, though from my perspective it’s pretty dunderheaded. Still, you don’t need to be anti-feminist, or to turn a blind eye to the show’s pretty significant failings around representation of women, to make any of the points she makes about this episode’s pretty shitty politics. From now on, I’ve decided to be a feminist killjoy as often as possible (i.e., a sliver more often than usual) in my readings of the episodes.
E: I love you, man.
K: I love you, too, man.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Well, that was certainly a thing that happened. Not a good thing, but a thing. From the low-rent font on the “location” titles to the title itself: “Wedding in Black”? What does that even mean?
K: Hahahaha! Totally!
E: In essence, the episode turns on an idiot plot: everyone has to leave their brains in neutral for any of this to work. Open the package with no return address? Sure, because nothing bad could be contained inside. Randos showing up after years inviting you out? Absolutely nothing shifty in that. Had it been in season one, some of this might have made some kind of sense; it could be chalked up to inexperience (at least for Ryan and Micki). And why the hell were Ryan and Jack encouraging Micki to take off with Calvin? “Is this a male conspiracy?” she asks, and to that I can emphatically answer: “Yes, Micki, it is. On the part of the writers.”
E: There were a couple of interesting things: Ryan getting the chance to be the smart one (no soft heart on here); I could see not being suspicious of one old friend, but when another shows up, that pings in his brain, only to be confirmed by the appearance of Maya. (Also, Ryan not acting like the dog in the manger when an old boyfriend of Micki’s shows up. Mostly.) The snow globe “transportation” effect was decent, and enjoyed the meta moment of Jack watching Micki on TV as we watch Jack watching Micki...and Calvin looking directly at the camera. (Also, Maya is officially the third character Carolyn Dunn has played on the show; you might remember her from such quality episodes as “Quilt of Hathor” as the girl Ryan went Amish for; is it an intentional wink they cast her as an ex of Ryan’s?) Finally, thumbs up to the continuity editor for remembering Lloyd, and trusting the audience would too.
K: Wow good eye.
E: The problems extend beyond forcing two-thirds of the cast to act like dumbasses, though, and mostly centered around Micki. First, the guy they cast as Calvin looks like every baddie/drug dealer/coke head in 1980s cop shows. (He’s got that Hart Bochner in Die Hard vibe; I half-expected him to say: “Hans, bubbie; I’m your white knight!”) Why on earth would Micki trust him? Worse, however, is that final scene, with the flames and upside-down cross. Obviously, before Micki’s “yes” it is clearly shot as a seduction scene, but the minute things go red and black and rapey, it is STILL shot as a seduction scene, which is just...horrifying. (That’s not even touching on the constant references to her “virtue.”)
K: Wow, you’re such a femi-nazi.
E: I just can’t help myself.
Honestly, I’ve no idea what the point of this was. One final thought: it’s funny that I had no problem accepting either Antonio or Calvin as in league with Satan with no real reference to their particular backstories, but Maya remained an enigma as to why she killed her patients in the first place.
K: Yeah. I wish we could call the cops. Nah, I voted to defund them.
Some additional reading on the topic of resistant fan readings of, and feminist frameworks for, horror--for those interested:
Cherry, Brigid. “Gothics and Grand Guignols: Violence and the Gendered Aesthetics of Cinematic
Horror.” Particip@tions. 5.1 (2008) Online. Available:
---. “Refusing To Refuse To Look: Female Viewers of the Horror Film.” Horror: The Film Reader. Ed.
Mark Jancovich. New York: Routledge, 2002. 169-178.
Freeland, Cynthia A. “Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films.” Film Theory and Criticism. Eds. Leo
Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 742-763.
Pinedo, Isabel. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. New York: SUNY
Season 2, Episode 22: “Wedding Bell Blues” (Jorge Montesi, director; Nancy Ann Miller, writer)
A delightful deconstruction of the marriage plot, with horror and humor in equal measure. Literally, an antidote to the prior episode.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: Lo and behold, one of the few women writers on the show, Nancy Ann Miller, gives us the hilarious antidote to so many of the show’s missteps around representation of women, even while simultaneously adding to them! How so, you ask? Read on. This episode feels like a balm to my rage over Wax’s regrettable, wounding thoughts on the previous episode. The opening sequence is a fantastic play of phallic symbols (pool sticks, cigarettes popped into mouths and then butted out prematurely in defeat), and homoerotic stares and smiles. The follow-up conversation to Danny’s losing the game with Danny’s girlfriend and her friend, and then with Danny, turns on the topic of his possibly going home with her for sex, but Danny prefers the game.
The cursed pool cue’s power comes from being thrust into a woman in the restroom (and elsewhere in the episode—only women are penetrated by the cue), and when Danny starts winning, he’s all smiles, close-up pool cues, a cigarette dangling from his mouth all the while. As gross as it is, it’s also great. The fact that it’s Danny’s girlfriend who knows the power of the pool cue and manipulates him with the illusion of power and virility it offers him is another factor in the episode’s investigation of masculine dynamics.
We also learn later that Danny is “not the marrying kind” and has “a confidence problem,” and that he’s “[hurt] his back” and is “not able to work.” While the first phrase is usually linked to homosexuality, it isn’t so much linked to that here, but more to Danny’s troubled masculinity, a symptom of which is his constant wandering to other women. The long line of signification, from Danny’s failings and obsessions, to his frustrated (and psychopathic) wannabe bride, suggests failed male potential and potency, and the effects of what we now call toxic masculinity. It is therefore interesting that the introduction of Johnny (who will become a staple of the Curious Goods team) comes within this context, at first just as a guy in the bar, the camera moving up under him to emphasize his square jaw and chiseled stature. When he phones Micki to say he might have found the cue, he tells her to “look for the best-looking guy in the place.” What a dick. Johnny also wins the award for best worst attempt to pick up Micki ever: “You don’t date younger men?” Like, what is she, 30?
Erin: Also, Johnny has the type of face that, to me, makes him look prematurely 40. Possibly not the point.
K: As with classic parodic form, this episode’s cheese is also its “goods”: Among these are the hilarious death scene, with Jennifer, Danny’s girlfriend killing his friend and pool competition. As she stands there with him skewered on the cue and then looking down on him brandishing the cue, a musical “cue” plays “here comes the bride.” Also among these are the episode’s veritable laundry list of “best lines”:
The totally unhinged performance of Jennifer by Elizabeth MacLellan is a delight. It carries the episode, in fact. She talks to herself (or her baby, or both?) in a sweet voice in private, but is all mugging and sinister looks elsewhere. She’s a monster, but her ceaseless manipulation of Danny (who’s a total douchebag) and murder of the women who get in her way works against a simple reading of her as a stereotype. The whole milieu here—gaming dudes in bars, barmaids, leering blondes, naive hopes around marriage, adultery, sisters betraying sisters, Micki’s attempts to fight off Johnny’s cocksure attitude, and the scene with Jennifer all gussied up in a white room with cake and everything ready, and later Jennifer, the “blood-spattered bride” interrupting the game to murder a failing Danny—all of it lifts this episode to the level of satire. Or an anti-myth, a myth undone. It’s great. Top 20. Maybe even top 10.
E: Right there with you on that. What is particularly great here is the slow burn; when we are first introduced to the character, she seems slightly deluded about the capabilities and viability of Danny as fiance, but it initially comes across as a “sunk cost” type of situation, with a dash of “stand by your man.” It’s only over time that it becomes clear she’s unhinged, building nicely throughout the early scenes until she’s gone completely cuckoo’s nest.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Well, this was a pure delight after last week’s mess. This show is at its best when it leans into the ridiculous nature of the premise and situation. This one, however, had the added bonus of deconstructing what, as Johnny says near the end, “makes a great movie, but in real life, it sucks” (see, for example, the series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which does the same thing to rom-com tropes). In this instance comes the title itself, which I’m convinced is cribbed intentionally from the Fifth Dimension’s “Wedding Bell Blues” (“oh won’t you marry me, Bill?”).
So, we’ve got Danny (another, slightly less HoYay turn from Justin Louis than in “Doorway to Hell”), a jerk and loser trying to become a pool champion, with the start of the episode suggesting that he is the one who knows the pool cue is cursed and kills to win, only to upend that a few scenes later when it’s revealed that Jennifer is the one behind this. I love how Elizabeth Mclellan leans into the crazy here, as does the episode itself: I love the shot of her standing with the cue, having just killed her fellow waitress, while the Wedding March riffs in the background. See, show, this is what can happen when you have women writing women. (She’s also written for a ton of procedural series, from The New Mike Hammer (yup, used to watch that with my dad) to Law & Order, so she’s clearly conversant in the conventions of the genre, and delights in playing with them here.
K: Yes! And B-TV needs a book on The New Mike Hammer and Murder, She Wrote … the same book.
E: I am fully on board with that! I mean, there are no good guys here; Danny’s an asshole, Jennifer is psycho; and as far as plans go, exposing what a dick your sister’s fiance is by sleeping with him is not a great plan. Honestly, literally everybody is telling her Danny’s no good [K: including her sister, who’s sleeping with him; she should know.], but he has to nearly kill her before it penetrates? LOVE IT. It’s so over the top that it works. Nor does the episode suggest we sympathize with Jennifer (a la the mom/titanic cradle episode); it could literally not be clearer Danny’s not worth the trouble, and the episode never suggests he is.
Further, while Johnny comes across as stalker-ish in his dogged pursuit of Micki, she is firm in her refusals. I’m guessing he’s the same Johnny that shows up in season three?
K: He is. <<Groan.>>
E: Not loving his intro here; we’ve finally got Ryan not trying to make the moves on Micki, only to add Johnny? I did like that two things: 1) that Micki finally straight up told him about the devil cursed antiques, and 2) that he took it well, with no “you’re insane” type thing.
Other than that: more like this, please, and less like “Wedding in Black.”
Spot the Canadian character actor: Gary Farmer, who went on to play the precinct captain in the first season of Forever Knight.
Sin: I guess “envy” comes the closest: girl with daddy issues wanting a family at any cost.
Season 2, Episode 19: “The Butcher” (Francis Delia, director; Francis Delia & Ron Magid, writers)
A surprisingly resonate take on the traumas of the past and the dangers of fascism.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: Another take on the previous episode’s idea of the resurrected body being akin to the cursed object itself, and needing to murder to stay resurrected. The difference is that the killer is puppeted by another who is using him to seek revenge on his enemies. The Nazi obsession with the occult, cryogenic freezing, reanimation, cruel scientific experiments, and an infamous Nazi war criminal called “The Butcher”—the elements work together here nicely, including the return of the Nazi swastika to its occult roots with the Thule Society, an organization of “alchemists and warlocks,” according to Jack.
I’m a little shocked that Francis Delia—the director who thought making the dummy in “Read My Lips” (2.8) a vicious misogynist would be “a fun dimension to that half of the story” (Wax 2015, 214)—would be so creatively involved in an episode this prescient and complex. From Jack’s increasing fragility with the knowledge that he is vulnerable once again to the atrocities of WWII, to the growing popularity of radio personality (and puppeted “Butcher”) Carl Steiner, this episode draws out America’s internal contradictions in 1989 in ways that none would feel were very real until the Trump era. Steiner’s horrendous beliefs sound nearly identical to the worst of Trump and his supporters. We hear from him that “... this country is being held back by deadbeats living on welfare, food stamps and medicare handouts. the people who work for a living are being bed dry.” We hear thinly veiled references to HIV-AIDS with references to “those people out there spreading sexual diseases” and that “an epidemic is spreading across the land, a disease without a cure.” This crisis went entirely unacknowledged by the Reagan administration, and yet here we have it, front and center, confronting American viewers. And we have what will be Trump’s MAGA mantra when we hear Steiner’s goal: “We must restore this country to a position of power. Let the weak, lazy, uneducated get out of the way.”
Erin: And yet...by 1989, the now late Rush Limbaugh had a well-established platform on radio and was considered a rising star, all due to the Reagan-era repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which is how right wing nut jobs got such a foothold on AM radio. Steiner’s words could have been taken right out of a Limbaugh broadcast, with his listeners (who referred to themselves as “Dittoheads”) right in line with the callers we hear on this episode.
K: Director and co-writer Delia mentions these shows in the Wax interviews, I think. Limbaugh for sure.
Only one voice on the radio stands out amongst Steiner’s supporters, saying, “I think you’re a racist pig.” Others all sound exactly like the current QAnon and other right-wingers who feel America has grown weak because of immigration, sexual politics, women’s rights, and all that “bleeding heart” liberal stuff tagged by one caller. Another called mentions sending “all of them” (presumably immigrants, but possibly AIDS sufferers) “to China, and then nuk[ing] China.” An interviewer in the studio informs us that Steiner is “on the cover of Newsmaker this month” and remarks to him she’s heard “that your days on radio are limited, that your future is in politics.” (Another potential screenshot from this episode comes in the image of the magazine Newsmaker bloodied with Jack’s murdered friend lying on top of it.)
E: That was a brilliant shot, particularly with the blood drop on Steiner’s forehead.
K: It captures not only the darkest underpinnings of Reagan’s politics, but also the current rhetoric of Trump. In fact, almost nothing said by Steiner hasn’t been stated or intimated by Trump. Interviewed by Wax co-writer and director Delia calls the episode a “cautionary tale” and “a horror fairy tale,” and mentions “hate-monger[ing]” and “man’s inhumanity to man” (2015, 277-78).
The episode’s prescience aside, it’s also terrific. It’s incredibly taut and well structured, the performances subdued and carrying real weight. The episode focuses entirely on Jack, and it’s such a wise decision (and possibly a brave one) to leave out Micki and Ryan entirely. Chris Wiggins’ performance in particular is full of vulnerability carrying forward a trauma that he thought he’d left behind (though he still collects Nazi memorabilia, we’ve learned in other episodes). The fact that he isn’t even safe in his dreams is one of this episode’s further strengths. Jack is assaulted from every direction, and so are we.
E: Absolutely agreed. While Micki and Ryan would have offered support, I think Jack would have felt the need to minimize his own trauma for their sakes.
K: Top 5 for me, and probably boots out “Better Off Dead” for the spot!
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Whoa. There was so much to this episode I almost don’t know where to begin. Particularly the way that it touches on concerns relevant to the time (people like Limbaugh got their start during the time this aired) and that read as chillingly prescient to this sociopolitical moment. There is a lot happening within the episode: flashbacks to Jack’s imprisonment in World War II, the resurrection of Rausch, and “Steiner”’s rising star as a radio personality and potential entry into politics. (Side note: I appreciated the accuracy of Steiner having to leave his radio show in order to pursue a political career, as that is the law in the US.)
I think a case can be made that the amulet—if it is one of Lewis’s cursed antiques, which I’m not 100% clear that it was—is the most dangerous of the objects. Because in the end, it isn’t about reanimating the body as it is about how easily those views take a foothold, perhaps no more so than in times of economic/political crisis and uncertainty. True now, but also true in 1988, with the Iran Contra scandal eroding faith in government (already dented by Watergate), the Black Monday crash in 1987, and the government's deadly denial and inaction on HIV/AIDS.
The greater point, of course, is that Rausch/Steiner himself is just a puppet, an avatar for these ideas that are difficult, if not impossible, to silence. There is always someone who will be receptive, who wants a scapegoat that can be fought and eliminated, rather than the reality of the complex array of factors, including greed and a lack of accountability, all pointing at the upper echelons of society, who too infrequently pay any kind of price for their malfeasance. The final scene, as Jack puts the suitcase in the vault, while Mueller’s words echo in his head. Like Mueller himself, he can be shut away, but the danger persists in returning in a slightly different guise. Like Jack’s own trauma, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. (Stolen from Faulkner.)
I would say the sins here are greed (for more power) inspiring wrath (in the listening audience). The parallels to Trump are chilling, and the messiness of the final conflict (Jack shaking as he contemplates facing Rausch again), the bloodiness and awkwardness of the fight says more about the difficulties of continuing to stand up for what’s right in the face of a very human tendency towards evil than some well-coordinated fisticuffs.
Top five for me on this one.
Final sidenotes: Nigel Bennett was perfect here; if you haven’t seen Forever Knight, he is great in that as well. Also, I can’t prove it, but given that the Thule Society shows up at least 3 separate times on Supernatural, one wonders if this episode gave them the idea to use it as well.
Season 2, Episode 20: “Mesmer’s Bauble” (Armand Mastroianni, director; Joe Gannon, writer)
An interesting—if highly problematic—take on celebrity and gender identity.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: Well, if I missed the sex sax, the music-video opening of this one has rejuvenated me. I always like when the lyrics of the song telegraph the episode’s themes, here a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”: “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy. They say he wandered very far.” In this case, as Jack intimates at the end of the episode, the “wandering” that happens is unexpectedly into a feeling of needing another embodiment.
“Don’t you want me?” asks Angelica (Vanity) once she’s been mesmerized by Howard’s wish to be with her. But he doesn’t. Staring around the room in a scene that’s really nicely shot and edited to turn his fan obsession into a desire for radical re-embodiment as the star he worships, he realizes, “No, I want to be you.” And what a transformation scene! Bring out the KY and latex! This kind of scene comes in the wake of both The Howling and American Werewolf in London, with their groundbreaking practical effects, and while it’s not up to par with those, it’s inventive and fascinating to watch.
Even more fascinating— and gasp-inducing— is the second transformation scene, as Howard, who has become Angelika, performs onstage. When Micki snatches the bauble from Angelika’s neck, we witness a retro-transformation that is a combination of horror and humor (intentional, I think) as we witness Angelika’s fans’ horrified reactions to the spectacle of degeneration into Howard. I laughed out loud at this gleefully gruesome scene.
This episode moves quickly from creepfest, where Howard is one of the least sympathetic cursed object users in the series— always leering and peeping and quick to make the bauble work towards what essentially becomes a tale of his own vanity, and not a real lust for Angelika, to a kind of parody of itself. In keeping with this is the shaving death scene— “A little closer, Roger. … Don’t forget your throat.”—where Howard’s desire to replace Angelika’s manager Roger fixates on having him first destroy his face in the mirror. The implications here are ultimately more grotesque than the actual scene, I’m sure largely because of the limits of what they could do even on syndicated television. [Something to investigate: Moments like this make me think that this show might have indicated a key shift in what television could present, and in doing so, opened doors for what horror TV could do. What else was doing what this show was doing to expand what could be shown on television?]
Erin: Definitely a point to be made about syndicated shows getting a bit more leeway; Tales from the Darkside also had some surprisingly gruesome moments.
K: This is a truly bizarro episode, and I can see how it might reel in the viewers. Vanity was hot at the time (and hot), as were the types of practical transformation scenes featured here as gleeful spectacle. There’s something for everyone here. And yet there’s also a complicated (not necessarily unproblematic) treatment of non-binary gender at the very heart of the episode. Even Wax, whose book usually skirts these kinds of issues, has some on-point but also conflicted commentary that I will address here.
“The 1980s gave birth to the insult, ‘That’s so gay’, and perpetuated the stereotype of ‘you throw like a girl’,” she writes. “So, ‘Mesmer's Bauble’ was a refreshing look at gender identity. Because I don’t think that was meant to be the focus of the story, it made it all the more subtle” (2015, 282). But later she writes:
“What is refreshing about Howard becoming Angelica is that he is not worried about becoming a woman; he just wants to be someone with fame, power, and worshippers. Man, woman, or cow; it doesn’t matter to him. He just wants to be someone else. In fact, it may be less a look at gender identity and more a look at mental illness and bullying” (2015, 282).
Wax semi-unintentionally identifies what is problematic in this representation without seeming to know that she’s done it. She’s correct that the focus on gender identity seems to be somewhat intentional but not the sole “focus of the story,” but her equally plausible comment that Howard “doesn’t really suffer from gender confusion; he suffers from self-doubt and low self-esteem” and ‘damage’ caused “by years of abuse and ridicule” for his looks problematizes his desire to inhabit Angelika as a kind of pathological symptom (2015, 282). Both of these factors are in play in the episode (and in Wax’s assessment of it); thus, the result is an equation of Howard’s gender nonconformity with mental illness, such as PTSD. That’s fucked up. This, not to mention that being gay and being transgender are not necessarily mutual, but Wax (though not necessarily the episode) seems to see them as such. (Preview of crummy attractions: Things get worse with Wax’s comments on the next episode.)
E: Yikes. And I think a tragic misreading; see my comments below. I think that it was all about gender identity, but given the time period, that was as far as they could take it.
K: Wax also quotes director Mastroianni, who notes they wanted to “push the envelope” (282), but he also ‘pushes’ the notion that Howard’s desire to be Angelika was about “entering” her and then really entering her (283). Mastroianni makes Howard’s wanting to penetrate Angelika into an act of (forgive me) double penetration—a leaning towards total domination of her body, soul, and mind. Yet in the scene, Howard’s sexual desire is essentially derailed (neutered, castrated) when he looks at the posters of Angelika with which he’s wallpapered his apartment. The images of Angelika— and the import he gives them over him—overpower him. His real empowerment here will come in his inhabiting her body, not just “entering” or colonizing it for sexual pleasure. The scene and the conceit carry incredibly multiple, potentially conflicting readings. And for this reason, I think this episode— notably following the overt gestures to HIV/AIDS in the previous episode, “The Butcher”— must be discussed in our book as dredging up cultural anxieties in ways that confronted audiences with a real challenge. It’s a text ripe for unpacking.
This one makes my top 20, for these ‘doubly penetrating’ reasons alone. It’s troubled and troubling, but it confronts 80s audiences with gender identity in ways I’m sure weren’t on the general radar.
Finally, to say that this episode’s primary sin is “vanity” (ha!) would do it only partial service. And “envy” doesn’t quite capture Howard’s desire for different embodiment. It’s difficult to reduce this one to a morality tale.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Well, here we are at the only episode I remember watching, the one I thought was an episode of Tales From the Darkside for years. (Possibly because the Curious Goods crew don’t appear immediately.) And it is, surprisingly, still pretty disturbing, particularly the “I want to be you” scene’s literal gooeyness. There is a LOT to unpack here, from celebrity worship/stalking to Howard’s obvious borderline personality disorder, and it’ll be a combination of both my initial read (back in my early teens) and this re-watch.
Let’s talk about fashion. Howard’s long flowing duster (both pre- and post-bauble) and the soft, feminized look of his clothes was absolutely in line with the aesthetic at that time. (Check out Sam Emerson in The Lost Boys.)
K: I owned a long shirt like this. Man, how was I so successfully in the closet?
E: I love you, man.
For all its conservatism, there was an undercurrent of gender-bending, whether it was Boy George or Dee Snider. This sat uncomfortably with the rampant homophobia of the time (which is likely why guys like Synder did it; it was less solidarity and more “in your face, establishment!” type thing.
I suspect that this episode was pitched as one about the dangers of celebrity culture (that is, he wants to be her because he wants to be adored), and yet the transgender aspects are so strong as to be completely unavoidable. Being soft-spoken with long hair was, of course, code for “gay” in the 1980s, but for me, that’s not quite what’s going on here. Howard CLEARLY is uncomfortable in his own skin (skin is a huge thing, note; he asks the publicist what Angelica’s “skin” feels like), but while the episode seems to suggest it’s because he’s unattractive, the scene with Angelica in his apartment pushes it far in the other direction. Note that the focus is on his body, the way he cups his pectoral as if it is a woman’s breast. This reading is of course complicated by the stalking and Howard’s obvious BPD, so it’s impossible to view it as trans-positive, and yet Jack’s remark at the end was surprisingly non judgmental: “He didn’t know what he really wanted until it was too late.” (I’d love to hear scholar Cael Keegan’s take on this in his “Bad Transgender Object” series of articles.) Howard ends up being the “nature boy” Angelica is singing about.
K: Absolutely, Cael’s take, and that of several scholars/friends I know here, including Trish Salah and my partner, Cory Legassic. I told him about the episode, and he sort of cringed, but maybe I’ll ask him to watch it with me. We should ask Cael to check it out.
E: It taps into cultural anxieties about celebrity, gender identity, stalking, and sexuality in uncommon ways.
Sin: I want to say vanity (of course!) but honestly, I’m having a hard time pinning it down. Envy I think comes closest.
Vanity (RIP) was actually one of Prince’s proteges (you probably knew that), who embodied and played with any number of cultural expectations himself.
K: I did! And there’s a funny anecdote in the Wax book where a director says she was always drinking espressos to stay awake, and so was very jittery for some scenes. Someone else (or perhaps Wax) adds that it was more likely that she was hooked on crack cocaine at the time.
E: Based on?
The Most Sensitive Remark Award goes to the unnamed lady at the hotel: “You know what these rock ‘n’ roll types are; always killing themselves.” Give this lady a job at the NIMH!
E: Oh! One bit I forgot to mention: The guy who played Howard in this episode was also in “The Great Montaro”; the magician that hanged himself while dressed in women’s clothes. Make of that what you will.
K: I suspect it’s a bit of inter-series intertextual allusion. Good eye!
Season 2, Episode 17: “The Mephisto Ring” (Bruce Pittman, director; Marilyn Anderson & Billy Ryback, Peter Largo, writers)
Gambling is bad, and your TV is a window to death, mmKay?
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: Denis Forest (“Cupid’s Quiver” [1.3]) returns as Donald, a guy with a gambling addiction. What luck that his mother happens to have a cursed ring in her jewelry box when a thug comes seeking payment for Donald’s debts. The fact that she knows about the ring, which shows Donald the future he seeks (predicting race winners) is interesting. “It gives, and it takes,” says Donald’s mother to Micki and Ryan, in what might be the most concise—and resigned—explanation of the balancing act of the cursed objects in the series. So, the ring has to be put on by someone who becomes its victim, and then it will show the owner a prediction.
The opening scene isn’t anything special … until the guy shot at point-blank range against a television set slides down leaving a smear of blood on the screen. I’d really like to get a screenshot of that one for the book. This association of the television set with death—the very human blood spread out over the televisual image—becomes a motif in the episode’s first three deaths. Directly after the first murder, Donald is seen watching a car race on TV, and he kicks and shatters the screen in frustration and anger. The second death occurs against a mirror, which reflects the flashing lightning and then shatters, leaving shards stuck in the thug’s head. The third occurs inside a car: as yet another thug struggles against the ring’s death-dealing power, his blood smeared across the inside of the windows, the lightning streaks and illuminated smoke inside the car makes the windows look like a series of foggy TV screens. And of course once he hits it big on a couple of ring-advised winning bets, Donald buys his mom a fancy new TV set. To round out the motif, the ring itself shows Donald the game-winning moments in a video replay that occurs in the gemstone—the ring itself is a video screen. There are five ring deaths, and not all of them feature this screen effect, but the early accumulation of these kinds of reflexive moments are classic elements of horror commenting on the medium itself—death and/as spectacle—making this an interesting companion to the previous episode “Scarlet Cinema.”
Erin: This? Is brilliant. The only thing I’d add is that the provenance of the ring itself is connected to spectator sport (baseball); indeed, the film Eight Men Out, released the same year, was about the very scandal they are referencing. (There may be a chicken/egg element here; not sure which came first, but it would be one instance where the series tapped successfully into a pop culture moment, unlike, say, “The Baron’s Bride”).
K: The attention to detail here extends to other elements in “The Mephisto Ring,” like the black eye Donald’s mom receives from a thug. The mark of Donald’s transgressions are writ darker and darker on his aging mother’s face as time passes. Mrs. Wren’s actions also grow darker with the events as well. Her telling Mackey to put on the ring is a small surprise; mom avenging the treatment of her son and the death of her husband at the hands of Mackey. The big reveal that Mrs. Mackey had to kill both her husband and her son to stop their violence was unexpected, and the shot of her exiting the Curious Goods shop after Ryan and Micki silently agree that they won’t tell the police has the pathos that this show does well on occasion.
Side Note: What on earth is the tee shirt Ryan’s wearing in his first scene here? It looks like a black and white still from an old film— a woman wearing an eyeless mask a la Eyes Without a Face (though it’s not that film).
E: I think it might be a Billy Idol t-shirt, from his “Eyes Without a Face” single?
K: Oh, I’ll check that out.
The Verdict: This one is a little gem (ahem), an example of the occasional crime-in-the-streets episode that this series doesn’t always nail. Here, the world of gambling is believable, and there’s a sense of community here (degenerating and underscored by greed and violence though it is) that captures the suffocating insularity of small-stakes crime. The almost hermetically sealed quality of this gambling underworld feels more believable and nuanced than it does in, say, “Badge of Honor” (1.23).
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): I find myself again surprised by the show, given that there are certain things it isn’t great at portraying: underworld figures (“The Tattoo,” “Badge of Honor”) and nuance. And yet they nailed it pretty well here, starting with the title. Is naming the ring after the devil that tempted Faust a bit on the nose? YES. But both its power and its origin fit quite well into the Faustian model, so it works. Also, casting Denis Forest is great, as he is shaping up to be Ft13: TS’s go-to guy when they need a squirrely creepy dude.
And that they chose that particular ring, with the connection to organized crime in the first place, was a nice parallel.
I thought it interesting that while it was super bloody (I have a thing about finger injuries; yeesh, that was hard to watch!), the actual deaths seemed less so than Macklin’s tortures. The episode lives quite comfortably in the grey space; there are no heroes or last-minute rescues, only greed and pain and violence and stupidity. Is it weird to say that seems more realistic? Certainly more realistically noir than something like “13’O’Clock.” They even had a bit of humorous banter between Micki and Ryan, first at the bar: “Maybe I should do it”; “You’re going to invite him home with you?” (Please note: Ryan doesn’t answer.), and then at the club. “You’re getting good at this” “Well, I’ve had a lot of practice.” Honestly, they work so much better as friends than anything else.
K: I can’t remember what the context for these lines was, but I remember the lines.
E: It was distraction via flirting.
And in the final twist of the screw, both father and son were killed by Mrs. Wren, which, well, maybe I’m slow, but I honestly didn’t see that coming.
K: Nor did I.
E: It was believable that the first gangster killed was the one that killed the elder Wren. Yet they built toward it well, particularly her world-weary insistence that Macklin put on the ring, indicating she knew what it did. That the final scene with her was so understated, with Micki and Ryan merely looking sad, and then nodding, was a great choice.
Cheese: Forest’s madman cackling portrayal. I can’t decide if I love it or find it irritating.
The Verdict: It was good; I’m not sure it’s a top episode for me, but I dug the way they leaned into the noir and procedural aspects of the genre.
K: It’s a top 20 for me at this point, I think mostly for the death-dealing TV aspect. I think that will be worth mentioning in the book. I also like Mrs. Wren.
Season 2, Episode 18: “A Friend to the End” (David Morse, director; Scott Schneid & Tony Michelman, David Morse, writers)
A melancholic examination of childhood loneliness and neglect.
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: Another great pre-Buffy cemetery opening scene. Gorgeous. And totally twisted. An elderly couple come to exhume the body and bring it home. Since they don’t appear in the rest of the episode, it’s unclear whether this scene is set in the past, or if Ricky, the child, kills them fairly quickly to feed on their energy. (As Wax  notes, they committed suicide in the original script, out of guilt for bringing back the child from the dead.) But before that, enter a new nanny, a young Asian woman, whom the mother’s introduction tells us will be a sacrifice: “Just arrived. … No friends. No family. Just us.” The ensuing scene is actually pretty unnerving. I’ve never seen such low lighting in the show’s interior sets. This episode, at least for its first half, is played fully for horror.
Erin: I think that yes, it is set in the past. I noted how grainy the opening scenes are, only to clear up when it transitions to Curious Goods, which leads me to think it was intentional to indicate “past.”
K: One great aspect of this episode is that it’s really trading in several key horror tropes, alluding back to Poe, grave-robbing, the Old Dark House tradition (Ricky’s boarded-up brownstone), and even “The Monkey’s Paw,” in the return of a (potentially, in that story) monstrous child. Also interesting is that there are two separate narrative threads developing. The story of Ricky and his attachment to Micky’s neglected, lonely nephew, J.B.; and the other of a sculptor whose drawings seem to take the life out of her models (a la Poe’s “The Oval Portrait”), and/or whose models’ bodies become literal sculptures, as though she were a kind of Medusa-sculptress. (And of course the cursed object she possesses is called the “shard of Medusa.”) With the entry of Micki’s neglected nephew arriving and meeting a gang of kids that send him to the home of the elderly couple with the exhumed child, there is a lot to take in. It’s actually refreshingly different from the usual procedural conventions of the show (as Wax notes, 270), though it turns out to be a bit overpacked in that the two narrative threads could be more closely related thematically.
I suppose what ties these together is the idea of a necessary relationship between the artist, whose name is spelled DeJager, but pronounced “De Jagger” (like Mick), and her models and Ricky and his new friend, and also exchange of energy between the person who uses the object (or needs it to survive, in Ricky’s case, since Ricky is like a cursed object himself), and the “victim.”
Ryan’s total asshole behaviour regarding J.B. is in need of a follow-through here. Even Wax, in what is truly one of her best discussions of any of the episodes thus far (she discusses interesting changes to the original shooting script), writes “I never understood why Ryan was such a dick to the kid,” J.B. (271-2). This kid is already horribly neglected by Micki’s sister; why is there absolutely no compassion from Ryan? We’ve seen his relationship with his dad in “Pipe Dreams,” so this aversion to children makes some sense, but so would a kind of sympathy, if not empathy. This may be due in part to the semi-anthology format— no time to build Ryan’s backstory into this one— and it recalls the back-to-back episodes “The Quilt of Hathor” and “Double Exposure,” where he’s suddenly dating after a supposedly tragic loss of a lover.
If this episode had come after the terrible pair “Wax Magic” (2.7) and “Read My Lips” (2.8), I would probably be over the moon about it, and it is a very good episode. But it’s ultimately a bit too disjointed— primarily in how Micki and Ryan are integrated— for it to cohere fully.
A final note of interest: Ricky is, himself, a kind of cursed object, and thus his need to kill is linked to his need to sustain his own life. This is interesting because it shifts the moral responsibility to the couple who created him, and complicates things considerably. Artist DeJager’s motives are fairly clear— greed, pride and even sloth, in the sense that she doesn’t carve her sculptures, just watches them be created. But Ricky’s need for a friend is tied to his need to survive as a specter. The melancholia of this episode is palpable. Top 20.
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): This was so beautifully gothic: a revenant, Victorian-age child, dark secrets, a beautifully shot opening scene in the cemetery. Give it up for David Morse, both in terms of writing and direction. (I remember him from watching St. Elsewhere back in the day; he played a soft-spoken doctor whose life was itself a gothic nightmare. Also, if my mom had known how disturbing that show was [there was a two-season rape storyline involving one of the main characters which was scarring], I would have been banned from watching.) Even the boy they cast as Ricky, with his all white outfit and soft features, seems so much the image of the sensitive Victorian boy it’s eerie.
Morse also does, in my view, an excellent job of balancing two stories that seem disparate on the surface, but in reality offer two takes on the same theme/sin: gluttony, with a side of: “Grownups. What a bunch of jerks.” For both the sculptor and Ricky’s “parents,” they want what they want despite its cost to others. Like the mom with the cradle, their desire for a child outweighs countless others’ need to not be dead. It also magnifies Ricky’s own trauma; abused and killed by his father, and then resurrected and forced to kill. You want sympathetic? That’s fucking tragic. The sculptor, while more obviously evil, thought nothing of taking countless lives for her own fame.
I will say there was a whiff of contrivance in how Micki and Ryan reacted to JB’s appearance; Ryan in particular is usually decent and empathetic with kids. It seemed more like a way for JB to feel even more isolated and thus plausibly keep returning to the house. It actually wasn’t necessary; his mom has clearly, if not outright abused him, certainly grossly neglected him. “Did she stop?” Ricky asks. “No, she changed doctors.” Nailed it. Yet unlike Ricky’s Satanist “parents” or JB’s neglectful and hostile mom, the boys make different choices, because they’ve made a connection with one another that’s real and, unlike the adults that threaten them, not on selfishness.
This is definitely a top 10 for me.
K: I could get on board with that. I liked this one a lot. It’s just that … wait till you see some of the next ones! So good!
Season 2, Episode 15: “Better Off Dead” (Armand Mastroianni, director; Bruce Martin, writer)
A physician spits on the Hippocratic oath mad scientist/Jack the Ripper-style in an attempt to cure his daughter.
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: “Knowledge unused is ignorance” is carved in the stone mantel of the fireplace. While I assume they found this by happy accident in the home they used for filming (the space [mostly] doesn’t look like a set), it does have links to the mad scientist feature of the scientist’s practice. “I don’t do anything weird,” the sex worker notes. “Neither do I,” Dr. Warren Voss Responds. Riiight. But the motto engraved into that mantelpiece underscores the entire episode’s themes.
“No animal suffers in my lab,” says Voss at one point. The choice of words is interesting. Finally, an episode that at least tries to work misogyny into the thematic tapestry of the narrative (it doesn’t entirely succeed). The pickup of a sex worker is here akin to the robbing of graves in the 19th century (or at least in Hollywood’s or Hammer’s portrayal of such). I also find it fascinating that the … what, spinal fluid? … of the sex worker injected into the man’s daughter Amanda transfers some sort of life essence to Amanda. From the so-called corrupted to the so-called innocent. Dr. Voss seems to have decided which of us lie at the bottom of the chain in experimenting on nonhuman animals and then on human women. Oddly, the notion that the syringe is linked to Jack the Ripper doesn’t really do much for the theme. The episode’s disturbing treatment of both women and children is quite in place without it.
Voss genuinely seems to loathe or at least dread his own work, or at least what it drives him to have to do—clear when he uses the syringe on Linda. He seems to have missed the lecture on deontological ethics in medical school. (Even Jekyll at least experimented on himself in the interest of benefiting humanity.) Yet, at the very least, his methods put human (women) and nonhuman animals on the same level, though that’s a pretty low level. Ironically, for all his efforts and goals, he’s the one most in need of having violent tendencies cured. The masterstroke here is of course the daughter tearing the father to pieces, attempting to eat his flesh. I’m sure the psychoanalytically inclined scholar would have a field day with the drooling daughter attempting to devour the father.
From the opening sequence, to the tense finale, the tone of this episode is decidedly morose and subdued. It’s dark visually, as well and (as always) beautifully shot. The opening sees Voss selecting a sex worker while driving, his car motivating the slow tracking shot across a group of sex workers, all while listening to the classical music that he plays to underscore all of his violent acts. This use of music is a nice touch, and adds something both to the absurdity of the act (and the episode), and to the idea that Voss feels himself to be driving towards a more sophisticated humanity, cutting out its violence to replace it with more soul. Later in the episode, his daughter, coming out of her passive remission, selects her stuffed animals like her father selects his test subjects, passing over some until she settles on one she wants, and the violence she does to that stuffed rabbit when she reverts to violence is again similar to the violence Voss does as a scientist. The episode makes good use of such parallels.
*“I’ve found the physical seat of the human soul. … It doesn’t exist in animals; that’s what makes us different.” Um … what?
*Also, Micki not only goes alone to a place where they suspect the women are disappearing, she enters the house after the lights go out and the front door is unlocked for her to enter.
*Linda is yet another woman who dies after hanging with Ryan—here, while literally on a date with him.
*This episode falls victim to one of the series’ most implausible conventions—that of multiple murders occurring in one relatively isolated space over a period of a day or two, and no one moving to investigate besides the Curious Goods team, who typically has their run of the crime scenes and spaces.
The Verdict: This is a violent, disturbing episode, akin to “And Now the News” (2.3) in its focus on the violence done to people in service of curing others. Yet the difference here is that the villain of the former episode was driven by lust for power, while here, as Jack states at the end, the drive is partly “for love,” and partly for the benefit to humanity. Voss seeks, like Henry Jekyll, to isolate the violence from his subject, his daughter, while in doing so creating what would be an army of female Hydes had he not killed most of them. Wax remembers that the episode came with a content warning, noting that it might have been one of the first such warnings on TV (253, 255). Hilariously, though, as she adds that it’s clear why the episode came with the warning, she concludes: “violence at the hands of a child always touches a nerve” (254). The episode’s most disturbing scenes feature violence done to women and children (and the suggestion of such to caged animals), but there is very little violence done “at the hands of a child,” until the very ending when Amanda attempts to shred and devour her father (but only ends up pushing him to his death, darnit). While disturbing, that scene also comes with real narrative-based satisfaction.
The writer here is Bruce Martin of “Master of Disguise” (1.25) and "What a Mother Wouldn’t Do" (2.6). Neither of these episodes achieves the levels of pathos and gruesomeness that this one achieves, but you can see a sensibility here. The small details, the allusions to other horror texts (Phantom of the Opera, Rosemary’s Baby), the more psychologically motivated crimes, and the way the cursed objects are tied to them. But in this episode, nothing feels excessive (in a good or a bad way, really); it just feels taut, controlled, and carefully constructed and directed (by Mastrioanni in his first time directing [Wax 254]).
This one may have slipped its way into the top five for me. When I look at the list below, particularly the bolded episodes, I see “Shadow Boxer” (1.8), “Tales of the Undead” (1.10), “Faith Healer” (1.12), ”Pipe Dream” (1.24), and “And Now the News” (2.3). I guess I’d be willing to bump “Shadow Boxer” to get this one into the top five, but it’s a tough decision!
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Well, that was SUPER disturbing. I loved how it very subtly suggested the old 50s mad scientist movies without actually resorting to cobwebby labs and thunderstorms. Indeed, there is enough creep factor when one considers how some medical breakthroughs came about (Tuskegee experiment, anyone?). It makes the inscription on the fireplace: “Knowledge Unused Is Ignorance” take on another level of horror that again, the episode doesn’t push, merely suggests.
This is a tightly constructed episode, despite the dodgy science involved. I think I’d have fun contrasting this episode’s “science” with Dollhouse, and the similar ideas of the soul/humanity locus in the brain. (Also, Voss’ “No animal suffers in my lab” not only reduces the women he experiments on to animals—literally and figuratively—but reminds me of Topher referring to the Actives as “bison”). He’s attempting to restore his daughter’s “humanity” (that he feels responsible for) while losing his own, an irony, again, that the episode trusts the viewer to make without pushing it. The contradiction of both wanting to sympathize and the way that Mastrioanni sets and lights certain scenes (the opening drive in which he’s trying to choose his next victim is a case in point; lit cold, so it’s clear “lust” isn’t a factor, but still creepy) is great, and puts this high on the list for me. Jack the Ripper is referenced again, and again it’s hard to really see the connections (aside from targeting prostitutes), but this is miles better than “Doctor Jack.”
Also, a special award for the cab driver and his facial expressions. Well done, sir. (And thank you for injecting a bit of humor into the gruesome proceedings.)
K: Hahahaha! You’re right!
Finally: I was getting serious Exorcist vibes off the girl they cast as Amanda. Well done!
K: I think it’s director Mastroianni who says he was inspired by The Exorcist (in Wax book).
E: Not sure what sin is here, unless maybe Pride?
Season 2, Episode 16: “Scarlet Cinema” (David Winning, director; Rob Hedden, writer)
A rare, prescient examination of toxic over-identification, in an episodic tribute to classic horror.
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: At this point in our great Friday the 13th: The Series re/watch, I become really excited to see what the next episode has in store, and this is partly due to the series having become something of a respite for me from other responsibilities. Nothing pleased me more than to see the opening images of “Scarlet Cinema,” with its cinephilic college kid watching Universal’s The Wolf Man in a nearly empty cinema, mouthing every word of the film’s lines along with the actors, and reacting to every blow of violence with a freshness as though he’d never seen the film. Friday the 13th: The Series has often alluded to classic horror cinema, and to see this episode celebrate some of the origins of American horror, particularly through the lens of a cinephilic dreamer, was really moving. (And the really excellent young actor they cast to play film student Darius Pogue looks like a teenaged David Cronenberg.)
Erin: Agreed; sadly, it seems as if his last acting credit was in a 1992 episode of Forever Knight.
K: The story here is so compelling that the first 15 minutes of the episode feature only one short scene (under two minutes) of the Curious Goods crew refurbishing and repairing the shop, Ryan chiding Micki for calling their work “redecorating” because the shop would “lose its charm.” Ryan, too, seems to appreciate the cachet of the vintage, as Darius does with his fascination with vintage horror cinema. The attraction to the vintage (cursed) object itself makes so much sense in this context; Darius enters the pawnshop and sees a tri-lens camera (it appears to be a Kodak multi-turret 16mm camera) that he simply must have. The cursed objects in the series often draw the eventual user/owner, but here the draw is to an entire cinema culture.
Oddly, because of Ryan’s pervy, stalkerish behaviour across past episodes, it’s reads as homoerotic when he stops in to watch some of The Wolf Man, suddenly notices Darius there, leers at him a bit, and then decides to stalk him back to his place. Typical behaviour for Ryan when he has his “soft heart on.” Or maybe I’ve been to too many cruise-y cinemas.
E: Hee! Well, it read like that to me too, particularly when he kind of tried to invite himself into Darius’s room. HoYay aside, there are so very obvious parallels between Darius and Ryan...
K: Darius’s midterm film project (or at least what we see of it) is a basic murder scene intercut with scenes from The Wolf Man, but the “real” footage is that of the death of bullying classmate Blair Westlake. The moral riot act read to Darius by Professor Schwartz, who calls the film “unconscionable” isn’t as harsh as Wax would have it in her discussion of the scene. If it hadn’t occurred in front of the entire class, comments calling what is essentially a snuff film “a classic example of incredibly irresponsible filmmaking” are on the mark. “You have duplicated the tragic death of a fellow student,” he adds, not realizing the footage they watching is real in the context of the episode.
The logic around the cursed object is a bit shifty this time around. So the cursed film camera first records the targeted subject, and then when viewed through later, projects the death desired by the holder who looks through it. Here, the kills are informed by Darius’s werewolf obsession. The targeting and stalking of Ryan, however, occurs at the same moment, so the logic here is a bit confusing. The scene stops only because the kid stops looking through the lens. Jack’s explanation doesn’t quite cut it: “It doesn’t just bring a movie character to life, it allows the owner to become that character.” Interesting that Darius’s “wish” granted by the camera would be a life tragically cursed, as the film The Wolf Man frames its curse. What is the allure of being this kind of monster, suffering, alone, his will usurped by cyclical urges he cannot control. Ryan asks as much in the episode’s coda, Jack responding: “Oh, I guess it was his way of acting out his movie fantasies, his of having all the power that he never had in real life.”
E: I think it would be interesting to draw a link here between this episode and Supernatural’s “Monster Movie,” as the antagonist in that film has a similar obsession/identification with Hammer/Universal monsters as Darius.
K: Cool. I don’t think I’ve seen that Supernatural episode yet!
Wax quotes writer Rob Hedden: “Wish fulfillment with a Faustian tradeoff plays a huge part in those who obtain an evil antique, so I went in that direction: how about a kid who dreams of being his favourite movie monster, and a curse camera grants him that wish? Being a classic horror staple with carnal appeal, a werewolf seemed like a good choice.” Um, okey dokey! For the record, I’d choose the Invisible Man or Dracula, if I were limited to the Universal films. I’d like a little control over my power, and being able to seduce people with my eyes (and transform into a wolf or whatever whenever I effing want, like Drac), or to play pranks on them (or watch them shower) unobserved, like Invisible Man, seems more appealing.
Jack really takes on the elder sage role here, protecting the others with a gun loaded with silver bullets. With Ryan, Micki and Carissa, Darius’s love-object and fellow student, trapped by the wolf in the vault, it would have been very cool had one of the cursed objects assisted them in killing it. That said, Ryan’s using a piece of old silver nitrate film from the camera to strangle Darius is a clever enough kill, the film strip burning through the throat of poor Darius.
It’s difficult when we see a number of good episodes in a row to figure out just where to slot this one. I really liked the previous episode, “Better Off Dead,” but is it really better than this one? Maybe just a little. I would put this one on par with “Shadow Boxer” (1.8) or “The Playhouse” (1.12), definitely a top-20.
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): You know what really pleases me in an episode like this? When it’s clear that the writer either knew what they were talking about or did their homework. Silver nitrate was used in early filmmaking, and for an added bonus, if I remember correctly, was unstable and combustible, which is the reason why some films of that era no longer exist. (It also serves as a handy metaphor for Darius himself.) Also, the pretentious douche, Blair Westlake, referencing Eisenstein was absolutely perfect: guy with his own car, car phone (expensive as hell in 1988), and a name like Blair referencing Soviet realist cinema basically tells you everything you need to know about him. As for Darius, I found him quite believable; I’ve been that audience member who knows every line in a film...and he’s still young enough (and appears younger in terms of maturity) so that line between fantasy and reality is still a bit blurry.
I didn’t actually end up taking a lot of notes on this one, because I found myself just watching and enjoying. The interspersing of The Wolf Man scenes should not have worked as well as it did, and yet it was absolutely perfect in this instance. There are some quibbles I’ll get to later, but only quibbles.
Darius’s characterization works well here; he’s not entirely unsympathetic—the fact that Blair laughs at and bullies him helps with that—and yet there’s a whiff of the incel about him at the same time, particularly around Clarissa, who seems to like him as he is (and thinks Blair is an asshole), and yet he’s too afraid to talk with her. Jack’s line about being “poisoned by his own fantasies” is applicable both in terms of his ambitions and his relationships. That he literally chokes on both works really well.
The classroom scenes, being all pedagogical, set the terms for the episode’s debate on what constitutes good/responsible cinema, as well as pushing the episode itself into metatextual territory. I liked that Prof. Schwartz was not at all dismissive of Darius’s claims about “scarlet cinema” and rather nicely punctured Blair’s pretentiousness. Later, he attacks Darius’s film on two fronts: derivative (recycled footage) and irresponsible (a snuff film he doesn’t realize is real), but the episode itself does not necessarily attempt to answer what films’ responsibilities are. Given the penchant for putting a button on the proceedings at the end of the episode, I’m glad of that. (Would have been rather disingenuous for a horror series anyway.) What makes it meta, for me, is the way that the series itself builds on/references its predecessors in a way that itself could be viewed as “derivative” or “recycling.” In a weird way, he got his wish of a cinematic existence, even with Jack quoting his favorite film as he died.
Sins: Envy fueled by wrath.
So, some quibbles: OK, the camera “called” him, but the episode made it unclear whether it was because it was from his favorite era of filmmaking or, you know, the evil. Still not entirely clear what it does. I mean, I know what it does for Darius, but what does it do for someone else? Also, it stretches credulity that the professor wouldn’t have turned that footage over to the police, at least because it references the extremely recent and seemingly unsolved death of a student. I mean, I know they’re incompetent, but….
K: I really wish they had done a bit more than they did with the student film. All it is, is a recut of the murder scene with footage from The Wolf Man. Why not a little one-minute art film inside the episode; the same “snuff” style vibe could be there. It seemed clunky in the way this series’ intercut scenes tend to be (for me), and, as you’ve said before, one in several examples of the way this show doesn’t entirely trust its audience to get it.
E: Quibbles aside, this is in my top 20, definitely.
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.