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!
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.