Note: The episodes are out of chronological order on the disc in the boxed set of the series; this is verifiable in the listings of the series airdates on both Wikipedia, and in Alyse Wax’s book Curious Goods. We therefore present "Jack-in-the-Box" prior to "Spirit of Television."
Season 3, Episode 17: “Jack-in-the-Box” (David Winning, director; Dennis Foon, writer)
Deadly sea shanties help a girl get revenge on those who murdered her father. You know, like they do.
The Goods: A tale of a child’s vengeance against those who caused her father’s drowning (plus one stripper). This is the second (?) instance of a child’s toy bringing murderous revenge; the first was the series pilot with Veda the doll.
Erin: HA! Great minds.
K: I was hoping for something closer to “A Friend to the End” (2.18), but young Meghan goes from a sympathetic, morose kid who witnesses the murder of her father, to a twisted weirdo who would rather ultimately kill herself to be with her dad than be with the living. While that scenario is understandable, and even fertile, the episode has too much about it that is laughable (Meghan stalking her father’s killer, loitering outside the bar he frequents, being one such thing) to settle into a tale of melancholic vengeance and denial of grief.
*The song played on the jack-in-the box is “What do you do with drunken sailor?,” a fitting tune for someone whose father was drowned by a drunken swimmer. But the curse object is called (by Jack) “The Drowning Sailor’s Jack-in-the-Box.” I don’t think we need the name change to get the connection, writers.
*I just realized something about Johnny’s acting style: he’s got the perpetual “who farted?” look all wrong; it looks like it’s that it’s him who farted, thus the “I farted” look.
*Every scene between Meghan and the apparition of her dad, she giggling with glee, and he telling her not to use the jack-in-the-box, is uncomfortable in the wrong way—they’re all boring.
*Johnny’s earnest line: “If someone is drowning drunks, what do they get in return?” Also, I’d really like to know the answer to this question.
*Everyone who dies does so by drowning; it’s a good thing they are all near water when Meghan uses the box. It’s especially good luck for Meghan that murderer Mike goes from the bar where he hangs out at night directly to the car wash. And it’s hilarious that the stripper’s death occurs in her bathroom sink, rather than in the tub full of sudsy water right next to her. Intentional?
*The final exchange between a portentous Jack—“Grief is one of the hardest things that any of us has to deal with. It takes all the courage and faith that we can find.”—and an earnest Johnny—“Well, the most important thing is that Helen and Meghan will discover how much they can help each other.”
E: Yes! While I respect what they’re trying to do here, particularly around the scenes with Meghan and Brock, it just doesn’t land; it comes across as if they’re not even in the same room. Also, “I farted” face made me snort laugh.
The Verdict: Writer Dennis Foon says, “What drew me to this show was the idea that horror was a way of looking not just at fear, but at a wide range of deep emotions” (Wax 2015, 432). Accordingly, he turns a PBS spec script into a tale of grief and vengeance (432). The original script, where the dad has cancer, sounds like a maudlin version of a so-so episode of the ABC Afterschool Special series (1972-97). Oddly, this episode doesn’t turn out to be much more than that. (No disrespect to the classic ABC Afterschool Special intended. In fact, “B-TV” needs a book on children’s and young adult “educational” TV.)
E: YES. PLEASE.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): So we’ve got Meghan, who is literally having the worst birthday ever. I mean, I’ve had some sucktastic birthdays, but never one where a drunken douchebag kills my dad. So Meghan “wins” in that respect. (Also, and this is not entirely vital, but Meghan’s free-range wanderings [sure, riding her bike past strip clubs at night] is the most Gen X thing ever.)
There are some interesting shifts here in how the object is used. We’re near the end, and we have an episode that parallels the first one, where we have a child in possession of a cursed object. Unlike Sarah Polley’s dead-eyed sociopathic in the series pilot, though, it’s easy to see why Megan is angry, and her sense of morality and justice is age-appropriate (very eye for an eye; I think that’s stage 2 on Kohlberg’s scale). The “drunken sailor” sea shanty is a lovely touch in an episode about drinking.
We also have an object that is bought in good faith (like the doll in episode one) that happens to be cursed. (Jack-in-the-boxes are always creepy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVI0Olskhqk.)
E: We also have, shockingly, Johnny saying something insightful about loss and grief. Finally, this may be the first time the beneficiary of a curse’s “upside” pleads with—and does everything within his limited power—to prevent her from completing it. That alone suggests some A+ plus parenting on this show.
Yet—and maybe I’m more alert to it after the abomination of an episode following this one—but not only do Meghan’s claims about seeing her father get dismissed (almost understandable; could be a grief response) but Micki’s as well, by Jack, who should know better. There’s also a suggestion—both by Brock appearing to Micki and by a remark from Helen—that there was/had been something kind of thing between Brock and Micki that is never explored. Irritating, that.
Side note: This is the third appearance of Jill Hennessey in season three! She went on to have a semi-decent US TV career, particularly on Law & Order and later her own series, Crossing Jordan.
In some respects, “Jack-in-the-Box” is an interesting meditation on grief and death and the various ways we deal with loss. But there is a “very special episode” element, particularly in the writing, that leaves me a bit cold.
Season 3, Episode 18: “Spirit of Television” (Jorge Montesi, director; Robert (Bob) Holbrook, writer)
The series gets sorta meta with a medium using a medium to extend her time—and her time in the spotlight.
The Goods: This is the only cursed object that is part of a network (pun intended): it drains the subject itself, and then kills by reaching out through other TV sets. The best scene might have been Jack’s friend, Robert, killed by an entire display window of TV sets in a retail store. I feel awful: because of the potential for spectacle in this setup, I’ve never wanted an innocent character to die more than Robert, but Jack takes him away before the windowful of TVs can get him. His later death by falling out an upper floor window isn’t nearly as cool as what could have been.
Erin: I agree, so we can be sick in the head together on this one.
*This episode has the longest mullet I’ve ever seen. In the cold open, one of the band members visiting cursed-object-using medium Ilsa Van Zandt sports one that trails halfway down his back.
*If sacrificing a life to the cursed TV set gives Ilsa only as much as another ten days of life, and she’s in danger of degenerating rapidly, it would seem that there should be many, many more deaths than just one, prior to the death that begins this episode.
*I can definitely say I’ve never seen anyone literally chased by a television set before … until the scene of the fashion designer’s death.
The Curiosities: Have we ever seen a cursed object be this finicky before? The deaths Ilsa sacrifices to the set have diminishing returns, from ten days, to one day, to none, added to Ilsa’s life. Because it apparently has a particular taste only for certain victims whose guilt is … juicier.
E: Exactly! They could have pushed that a bit more; it’s basically suggesting that television is a ratings-obsessed junkie.
The Sins: Vanity rules this one; every client is seeking to alleviate guilt for having used or abandoned someone close or important to them: a parent, a lover, a mentor. In other words, it’s not the loved one that draws them, but the promise of closure and alleviation of guilt that brings them to call upon the lost soul. Saving face. Micki warns Jack not to go to Ilsa in the end over having brought his own friend to Ilsa: “You’re doing this out of your own guilt, just like all the others she’s killed.”
The Verdict: Ultimately, this episode is … fine. My key issue with it is that, aside from the focus on celebrity and the notion of vanity that drives the clients of Ilsa Van Zandt (actors, fashion designers), the thematic connection of the TV medium to the events of the episode is strained at best. As Wax puts it, the curse is “not quite as item-specific as many of the other curses are” (2015, 440). I agree with her on this and on her final statement that this all “makes for a perfectly average, perfectly forgettable episode” (440).
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): It’s funny how much there’s a thematic correspondence between this and the prior episode; in both, you have different takes on loss and grief. Not usually the case on this show.
Any time TV is involved, there’s always going to be at least a whiff of the meta.
K: Blame that whiff on Johnny. (Get it?!)
E: In this one, you get a medium who uses a medium in order to grant herself more time in the “spotlight” (of life), and for some reason, seems to specifically target celebrities while being one herself. There is a particularly poignant exchange between Ilsa and her himbo William: “What’s beyond death is far less important than living,” which is essentially what Brock tells Meghan in “Jack-in-the-Box.” Of course, her sin here is the unspoken nihilism implied by her words, and that others lives are less important than hers. The TV scenes are all rather cool: you’ve got the “trapped” spirits coming out of the static while random scenes play in the background, TV-related killings, the image of her own headstone changing her date of death, and finally she and William being pulled into TV hell at the end of the episode.
It also touches on the secrets and guilt that most people have; and that, Jack rightly points out, is why they would seek her skills in the first place. She didn’t show them anything that they weren’t already aware of on some level, but as Jack says: “she used TV to twist reality.” (Which, duh; that’s kind of its function.)
K: I thought its function was to be the centerpiece of my living room, relegating all other furnishings in deference. Huh.
So, greed or lust for life was her sin, but again, like (too) many times in this series, this felt like a first draft. It didn’t seem clear how long this had been going on, or if there were literally dozens of deaths by TV plaguing the area for years. The episode seems to suggest she’d been active as Ilsa for a while, certainly long enough to make big money and get a young dude as her kept boy. (And his assertion that he loves her for more than her money is borne out by his immediate willingness to help her kill Jack; are they suggesting that’s somehow romantic?)
I liked this better than the previous episode, if for nothing else the inventive ways TVs kill here, but I suspect I’ll soon forget it existed.
K: At the time of posting this to our blog, I remember only the scene in which a TV chases someone.
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.