Season 3, Episode 13: “Midnight Riders” (Allan Eastman, director; Jim Henshaw, writer)
Bikers, dead dads, and incest. Just another day for the Curious Goods gang.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: The first, and apparently only, episode of the series without a cursed object, but not that much the better for it in terms of uniqueness. The planets are aligning, and a gang of biker ghosts (the Dragon Riders) returns for vengeance and possible ascendance if they can kill off their adversaries before the final alignment. It’s astrology meets John Carpenter’s The Fog. Plus ghost bikers? This should’ve been great! There’s a legend of a group of men wronged, and a priest and a number of townfolk who are responsible. Add the appearance of Jack’s father into the mix, and we have another relatively overloaded premise that leaves almost zero room for the Jack/Jack’s dad story, and leaves the legend little time to really develop.
*Cold opener hilarity: Jack, Micki and Johnny are out in the night looking at the planetary alignment—and that’s not even the funny part. Jack and Micki are waxing cosmic, but Johnny is just … existing. [E: My favorite way for Johnny to be.] He does, at least, provide the episode’s opening and closing sentiment, a passing comet prompting him to say that his mom called them “heaven’s fireworks.”
*There’s a little family resemblance in that Jack’s father seems just as fond of portentous pronouncements as Jack: “They’re wandering spirits, looking for the leader they left behind,” he says of the bikers.
*The episode’s two “I think we’re alone now” lovers are confounded by their parents not wanting them to see each other, until they find out they’re (half-?) brother and sister. I can only imagine what Ryan would say if he were still around (and post-puberty).
The Curiosities: We learn in another pronouncement from Jack’s father that the bikers were wrongly accused (of rape), hence their return for vengeance: “We killed them for what they seemed to be, not for what they were.” Yet what exactly were they? The current leader of the gang wears an “SS” patch on his jean jacket, suggesting this was no Harry Potter fanclub (though perhaps it was a J.K. Rowling one?) (too soon?).
E: It’s never too soon for a sick Rowling burn. And yes, I noticed that too and talk about it below.
The Goods: This episode is a welcome twist on writer Jim Henshaw’s usual race against time to close a demon-style portal. Another welcome aspect is the play with urban legends. To the tale of this episode’s “Headless Biker” legend, Johnny adds mention of “The Hook” and “The Hanged Boyfriend.” The “Hook” is one that Stephen King mentions, a legend told mostly to scare necking teenagers out of their wits (and back into their pants). Director Allan Eastman also directed the tight “Hate on Your Dial” (3.7), so the episode moves at a good pace. And it occurs in the brief span of a single night.
E: It also gave me big time “Route 666” “Hook Man” vibes from season one of Supernatural. Perils of collaborating with someone in the midst of writing an SPN book; sorry about that.
K: I’m always up for a SPN parallel.
The Verdict: Despite two cool scenes—the biker gang bursting through the doors of the town church on wheels (and suggesting the bikers-in-church scene from Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels ), and the buried biker leader later bursting out of the earth on his motorcycle looking a bit like Iron Maiden’s “Eddie the Head”—it’s another one of the series’ just-okay episodes. Dammit.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): I felt like there was a better episode lurking beneath the surface; another instance of the show being “good enough” but not striving for better. Because there were some great visual moments, particularly around the bikers (eg, the church scene) and that each act opened with the moving planets aligning, and some of the dialogue pointed at a particular self-awareness (Tommy’s crack about those “dorks from Riverdale”; the quintessential clean-living comic teens, right?). Plus, a “sins of the parents”, buried secrets story (where we even get a bit of Jack backstory!), and the shift of having no cursed object, should make for a much more interesting episode than this ended up being.
Some of this was down to the narrative choices. You’ve got bikers showing up in town, as well as Jack’s dad (‘cause, sure, why not? [K: I’m with you; he could have been anyone.]) 17 years earlier, with the express goal of wreaking havoc. So, why is Cawley acting as if they are the innocent victims (“what they seemed to be is not what they were”)? I mean, they did beat up two teenagers for no reason except they were there. Obviously, the town’s response was horrifying, and makes the episode play like an homage to Nightmare on Elm Street (sins of the parents), but I’m not sure the suggested total exoneration Cawley implies with his statement is justified either.
K: I was going to add the Elm Street connection as well; if this episode were really willing to explore this notion, it would have been built more clearly on parallels between the biker past and the return of Jack’s father.
E: Also, if I found out that for months I’d been making out (or more) with my own half-brother, I would be so freaked out and disgusted and furious at both parents. I mean, that’s some Flowers in the Attic shit right there, and the episode really spends no time on it. (Perils of the semi-anthology, I know.)
The cheese: Johnny’s It’s a Wonderful Life bit about “heaven’s fireworks” and angels, with the implication that Cawley has ascended.
K: Again, Steven Monarque’s performative combination of “gee whiz” attitude and “oops, I farted” facial expressions lend themselves well to such hokum.
E: PERFECT description. Another “meh” from me on this one.
Season 3, Episode 14: “Repetition” (William Fruet, director; Jennifer Lynch, writer)
A masterful Jennifer Lynch-written gem about accidents, atonement, and guilt.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: This episode is a sustained exercise in dread, starting with its gruesome opening, where award-winning columnist of the year, Walter Cromwell runs down a little girl out for a walk with her dog, and only the dog returns home. (Way to kill this guy’s buzz, Jennifer Lynch!) From the point at which Walter decides to hide the body, to the ending where he sacrifices himself so that all he’s done to thwart that initial death can be put right, this episode is a tightly constructed treatise on the power of guilt.
Walter appears in the confession booth at least three times over the course of the episode, each time marking a point at which he is willing to take on increasing guilt, but only in the confidential framework provided by the Catholic church. [Erin, I suspect you’ll have a lot to say about this, as it’s the driving force of the entire episode.] Walter’s succession of bad choices is underscored by the cursed object itself, a cameo necklace (a gift from the girl’s grandfather we learn later) that he finds under the bumper of the car where he hit the girl. The cameo both gives a life for a life, and yet also dogs Walter with the voice of the latest victim trapped inside it, begging Walter to let their souls return to their bodies. Those constant voices drive Walter to distraction so that he loses his creative focus, his job, his will, his sanity, and ultimately his life.
Erin: Hee! I always have something to say about that. And I didn’t say it below, but the Catholic element (I know it shows up in Protestant denominations more strongly, but we were here before you, so, suck it) beyond the overwhelming guilt that it suggests more subtly—and darkly—is that of substitutionary atonement. In essence, we have Walter and his victims as sort of an “evil” version of “dying for your sins” before Walter realizes he has to put himself on the cross, so to speak. Oh, and resurrection, obviously.
K: As with several other of the cursed objects in the series, Walter’s use of it on himself (here intentional, but usually accidental in the series) breaks at least this “chain” of events so that the locket can be vaulted. How it gets to Micki at the Curious Goods store is one of this episode’s interesting innovations. A social worker who has met Walter in her homeless shelter becomes enmeshed in Walter’s story, and ultimately takes action to try to stop him. The social worker also knows Micki, and she unwittingly brings the locket to Curious Goods because of its ‘uniqueness’. The episode ends with a phone call from Jack, who’s away with Johnny watching “hot videos”... er, I mean, on a trip (see writeup for “Femme Fatale” [3.9]); the social worker overhears Micki saying that she hopes they’ve gotten the cameo before it does any harm, and the moment freezes on her shocked expression. The implication is that this might have become another recurring character on the show, once she’s been brought into the fold of secret occult knowledge the Curious Goods team has. I will say that this move would have been welcome, as the actress who plays Anne, Kate Trotter, is really wonderful. She also appeared in significant roles in “Quilt of Hathor” (1.19, 1.20, as Effie Stokes, the highlight of that relatively silly double episode) and the excellent episode “And Now the News” (2.3), both times as more villainous cursed object users, lending a kind of extratextual significance to her unwitting transfer of the cameo to Micki.
The uniqueness here is that the episode shifts focus entirely to Walter’s extended guilt, and Anne’s attempt to help him and, earlier, the mother of Heather, Walter’s accidental victim who goes “missing” for the month that Walter has her body hidden. Writer Jennifer Lynch’s (writer-director of 1993’s notorious Boxing Helena) script is not only tight as a drum around its Catholic guilt theme, balanced by the selfless charity of a character like Anne; it’s also the only episode that reduces the Curious Goods team—here represented only by Micki—to marginal figures in their own quest. It’s a side story about people who would otherwise have been relatively ordinary. I would say that this uniqueness sets it apart enough for at least a mention in our book, but what really crystallizes this episode’s top 20 (and possibly top 10) importance is its pondering of the deeply moral stance of Friday the 13th: The Series.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): What a gem of an episode! Again, we have a “guest” writer (in this case) that barely touches on the Curious Goods team, which seems to be a feature of bringing in someone new. Indeed, Lynch may be the only one who almost completely sidelines them; Micki appears for fewer than five minutes, and Jack and Johnny are, of course, completely absent. Yet it shows so well what can be done with the anthology/semi-anthology format when you’ve got good writing and direction to elucidate the themes of not only a single episode, but the series as a whole.
What really works here is that Walter is essentially a decent man; he writes a column that “looks out for the little guy,” cares for his ailing mother, and is hardworking (if a little boring). Indeed, the episode is almost entirely populated by decent people: the mother who won’t give up hope her child will be found, the physician who blames himself for Mrs. Cromwell’s death, the homeless guy who seems almost child-like in his trust, his fellow homeless friends who watch out for each other, even the editor who lays Walter off tells him he’s there for him if he needs him. And Anne Halloway, who only wants to help and does not judge those in her care, might be one of the most moral/empathetic characters we’ve seen.
K: Yes, and yet played by an actor who has played two of the more reprehensible characters in prior episodes!]
E: Nice catch; I missed that! It’s always been one of my narrative pet peeves to have a character in a book or film and series being described as a “good” person, merely because they are not actively bad.
In that respect, the narrative and character choices Lynch makes here highlight this SO well. Walter himself, at the start of the episode, quotes his mother as he’s receiving his award, and what she told him about responsibility: “never turn from them; tackle them as best we can.” The episode proceeds to basically test that idea in a delightfully Poe-like “Tell-Tale Heart” fashion.
K: A Poe reference. Bless you. And, yes!
E: The cameo was one of those low-key effects that works so well! He fails at the first test; rather than doing the right—if difficult—thing of owning up to falling asleep and causing the accident, he buries Heather as if it never happened. It’s interesting that he doesn’t find the locket until he hears his mother’s voice calling for him, as if that awakened his moral sense. This may be one of the few instances in the series where the cursed object user isn’t drawn to it (or outright buys it), but rather draws itself to him. While it was obvious that the only way out for him was to sacrifice himself, that scene was suspenseful and moving. That he did it for one of the “little guys” he supposed wrote his column provides a nice parallel and suggests he’s not entirely damned.
Also: two episodes of people waking up on the embalming table might be making me develop a phobia. The scene was horrible to contemplate, but kudos to the episode for acknowledging that is not a survivable situation, which makes Walter’s actions (to himself and the audience) all the worse.
Other things: while we’ve never seen them before and will likely never see them again, I like the idea that Micki has a group of female friends outside Curious Goods. This may be one of the most female-centric episodes of the series (and what a sad commentary that is). The final freeze frame on Anne, where she appears to overhear Micki, was interesting; obviously Micki keeps that side of her life from her non-Curious friends, but Anne clearly knows something weird happened.
Finally, this episode may say more about Lewis’s truly evil nature than all his cackling ever managed. The locket/cameo doesn’t really corrupt Walter; he is absolutely tortured by what he’s done, of which the object keeps reminding him and which will never be satiated. It browbeats him into damnation. In that respect, the homeless shelter offers a poignant symbol Lynch uses quite well: one mistake, one slip-up, and you could lose everything.
I feel like I have more to say, but also that I’ve said WAY too much. Either way, this is going in my personal top 10.
K: I’m with you on the top 10. You haven’t said way too much at all! Look at my write up for the next one, if you need to feel better about yourself. LOL.
PS. One pet peeve: I was raised Catholic, and no priest I knew would deny absolution unless someone went to the civil authorities. It worked for the plot, but….
K: This just means the plot is less effed up than Catholicism.
E: I mean, you’re not wrong. And it’s not entirely unbelievable; I could buy the priest telling him to go to the police—it’s a very “render onto Caesar” thing—but the denial of absolution was weird.
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.