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.
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.