Season 2, Episode 25: “The Prisoner” (Armand Mastroianni, director; Jim Henshaw, writer)
Pressed to plug some backstory into a new character replacing the departing John LeMay (Ryan), the show gives us a Johnny-centered prison episode (oh, the possibilities!) that abandons any pretence to nuance or believability.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: The shift to Johnny as main character has begun in the centering of his story in this wholly unbelievable episode. Director Mastroianni mentions, “I think they called John LeMay’s bluff,” referring to LeMay’s intimations of leaving the show (quoted in Wax 2015, 313). Mastroianni mentions receiving a call saying that an episode had been written (by executive story editor Jim Henshaw) to center Johnny, and from here on out Johnny would be built into the Curious Goods team (Wax 2015, 313). Steven Monarque is a hard sell as Johnny. He plays the cliched tough guy to the hilt in a way that doesn’t really let the viewer in, and this episode’s ridiculous storyline doesn’t do him any favors.
I’m willing to suspend my disbelief to near-fantastical degrees, but nothing about this episode is remotely plausible, from the botched heist, to the prison scenes, to Railsback’s nightly murders (even under the cloak of invisibility), to the resolution. In fact, the cursed Japanese bomber jacket offering the power of invisibility is the most believable aspect! Railsback kills Johnny’s father while searching for the loot in the storage facility where Johnny’s father works. Within two weeks, Johnny is imprisoned for his father’s death, has seemingly integrated into prison life (one scene shows him boxing in the gym), and has had time to become suspicious of, and start to investigate Railsback. Even the two-week turnaround between Johnny’s father’s death and his being thrown in prison defies all logic, let alone all the rest of this.
Erin: To paraphrase Clueless: “Looking for story logic in a Friday the 13th episode is like searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.”
The Goods: The scenes with Railsback stalking the heist crew that betrayed him are compelling and in one case gruesome. But there’s not much else to recommend here.
The Cheese: Some of the logical gaffes are actually borderline funny:
The Verdict: The glimmer of hope in this sloppy, dismal effort is Les Carlson as Arkwright (great name). I recognized him from Cronenberg’s Videodrome. [E: And The Dead Zone!] There, he plays a sinister conspirator of sorts, but here he’s the wise helper figure who decides that life “out there” isn’t for him anymore, so he helps Johnny to (ironically) frame Railsback for the crimes Railsback is actually committing, but pointing out an escape route no one knows about. It seems Railsback wouldn’t have needed the bomber jacket after all.
Not the worst of the worst, but it’s a contender for bottom 10.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): OK, well that was a thing that happened. There is a larger potential point to be made here about the horrors of the penal system, and law enforcement more generally that the episode really doesn’t really comment on. I mean: 1) the cops start shooting at Railsback and his gang before they even raise a weapon; 2) the warden is more concerned about missing sleep than a potential breakout at the prison; 3) the guards just randomly fire their weapons at prisoners or randomly beat the shit out of them.
K: I mean, haven’t they seen Jules Dassin’s Brute Force? It’s a crime if they hadn’t, and it’s a greater crime if they had, and still produced this mess.
E: Aside from Railsback, the only violence we see the prisoners engage in is the battle of the painful stereotypes that clue Railsback into the jacket’s powers. (Also, please note that these two scenes represent the only speaking parts for any of the non-white characters.) [K: Ouch]
So. Johnny. Watching these episodes is, at times, like watching with double vision. Current me is frequently squirming; 1989 me might have squirmed a bit, but also would have been used to a lot of this. That is, there’s no doubt, in that double-vision kind of way, that Johnny’s macho bravado and arrogance would have been the writer’s obvious choice for a “bad boy with a heart of gold” character that I think they were going for with him. It doesn’t, however, make it remotely appealing as a main character going forward. (Also, can we just acknowledge: HE SET A MAN ON FIRE.) (Double also: the “NOOOOOOO!” when his dad died.)
K: Double-Double also, Ryan can be every bit the dick that Johnny seems to be in this episode.
E: So much of this was just lazy writing and characterization. I know Curious Goods is supposed to be in some unnamed US city. So why do Railsback et al all sound like they’re from New York? Why did Reese buy that jacket, and then trade it? Did he know how it worked? Why was the gang still hanging around when they’d already taken the money from the storage place? Railsback didn’t have a key, so…
K: Well, as a wise friend of mine once wrote: “To paraphrase Clueless: ‘Looking for story logic in a Friday the 13th episode is like searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie’.”
The Bad: Lewis’s cultural appropriation strikes again with the cursed object. All of Johnny’s acting. The legal and penal system.
K: A given.
The Good: Arkwright/Les Carlson, who was way too good for this episode.
K: Totally. We share the same brain. Les Carlson is a class act.
The Cheese: Kreuger-style: “You don’t go outside with wet hair; you’ll catch your death!”
The sin: Well hello Wrath.
Bad. Not the worst, but bad.
K: I’m still thinking bottom 10. Maybe Arkwright saves it.
Season 2, Episode 26: “Coven of Darkness” (George Bloomfield, director; Wendy Rodriguez, writer)
Micki gets witchy and Ryan gets cursed as season two draws to a close.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: A bit of the semi-anthology arc coming in here, with a finale focused on the legacy Vendredi left to the Curious Goods team. Beautiful Giallo-style / Hammer Horror lighting in the opening sequence continues throughout the episode, even (oddly) in the Curious Goods nether regions, where it is revealed Jack sleeps. (Has the show noted before that Jack sleeps next to the vault?) The setup here is interesting, with mention of competing occult groups, and Lewis Vendredi’s coven attempting a past takeover of the one Jack is friendly with.
Erin: I don’t think it was mentioned before, but it makes sense! Good catch.
K: Jack initially becomes the occult guru to Micki’s budding witch, with the odd statement to Micki that “Witchcraft isn’t a fear it’s a discipline.” The idea that Micki has occult powers feels a little tacked on here, but I’m good to roll with it if it adds another factor to the show’s lore.
We learn that Lysa Redding, the head of the Black Coven, “was Lewis Vendredi’s second in command.” The idea of a coven linked to Lewis attempting to “destroying anything that get[s] in their way” is much more believable than Satan himself wanting to marry and impregnate Micki (“Wedding in Black” [2.21]) because he’s pissed off about her meddling. The show’s basis in these past occult wars hasn’t been fully developed, though. It seems they just bring it back to bridge seasons, not so much to develop the show’s mythos. In keeping with this half-interest, Micki has what seems to be a psychic blowout, and is told to wait a while before using her powers again. A convenient charge for a series that seems tentative in its ploy to develop her as a magic user. This seems to have been just a convenient plot device, despite the suggestion in the final moment that Micki’s interest in such powers remains. Story editor Jim Henshaw acknowledges that the experiment didn’t pan out as they had hoped, and that they decided to discontinue any narrative thread focusing on Micki’s powers (Wax 2015, 320). Jim, it’s called a so-so episode. In Canadian parlance, either give ‘er or just don’t.
The Cheese: I cringe every time they give Satan/Lucifer a voice. Thank goodness he gets only one line.
The Verdict: Not a bad season closer, but a middling episode.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): And we come to the end of Season 2 and Micki’s occult powers, which have never really been mentioned or suggested before! This may be the first time I’ve said this, but this might have benefitted from a bit longer running time; there are far too many elements at play: the right hand path, the coven, Micki’s powers, Ryan’s curse, etc etc.
K: Agreed. It’s all over the place.
E: There is a nice parallel here: the season opened with one set of Satanists trying to open the door to hell, and closes with another group trying to increase their power. The backwards Lord’s Prayer both use is the kind of cheesy touch I did enjoy, as well as how both the white and black magic practitioners employ Catholic rituals/artifacts in their stuff.
Also, Ryan being cursed was, thankfully, not reliant on either him being afflicted with a “soft heart on” or being an idiot [K: Lysa’s probably too much of a cougar for Ryan.]; Lysa’s getting of his blood as well as her stated desire to fight against evil were managed in a way that Ryan not being immediately suspicious made sense. (Maybe because I tend to wear a lot of rings myself, that handshake scene seemed plausible.)
And yet the overstuffed nature of the episode meant things that should have landed didn’t for me. For example, Catherine Disher (hello again!) showing up at the body shop seemed like a throwaway; that she was one of the witches didn’t land for me until the last 20 minutes. Nor was it apparent what she was doing there, unless checking up on Ryan? The empty eyed stare at the end seemed to suggest Micki was tempted by the power she tapped into, or maybe she was just tired and hungry? Ryan’s over-the-top reactions also didn’t sell his distress for me as much as the make-up department’s work to make him look like a junkie did. Finally, I’m not asking for massive depth, but between Micki’s almost raped by Satan thing and Ryan witnessing a coven murder his friend (whom we’ve never seen before, but considering how little he charges for car repairs, he’d have been a keeper!) you’d think there would be a smidge of reaction to these traumas.
K: Agreed. It’s like semi-anthology amnesia syndrome.
E: Little clay Satan reminded me of nothing so much as Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Gachnar.
K: Please keep doing this.
E: I’ll try! All in all, it was an OK episode—miles better than season one’s finale, but I’m not confident they are going to pay it off in any meaningful way. I would like to please request a moratorium on anyone screaming “NOOOOOOO!” for at least a few episodes.
K: Yeah. What would George Lucas say?
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.