This week, we present the final two episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series. But STAY TUNED!, as next week, we cover the highs and lows, the bests and worsts, and the "guilty" pleasures of the series in a final rewatch wrap-up!
Season 3, Episode 19: “The Tree of Life” (William Fruet, director; Christine Foster, writer)
Even with the hilarity of a man-eating oak tree, this episode remains stillborn.
The Goods: A Druidic sect of women maintain a fertility clinic as a front to “breed their followers.” The women have twins, a boy and a girl, and they keep the girls and feed the fathers to their “tree of life.”
*When they bring the girl twin to the attic room where they’ll raise her with the other kidnapped girls, one of the nurses asks, “What will you call her?” Dr. Oakwood replies, “Sheila. It means out of sacrifice comes joy.” (It’s actually Gaelic for “heavenly.”)
*When one of the Druid nurses suggests that the next mother is aware she’s having twins, Dr. Oakwood replies, “With what we’ll give her, she won’t remember if she’s had one baby or a hundred.”
*Dr. Oakwood calls giving birth “the transition.”
*There’s an attic full of little white girls dressed like dolls.
*Does anyone ever say in real life, “Now, if you’ll excuse me …”?
*Jack and Micki, after all this time, playing the logic and doubt game is super annoying. [E: Yup, that annoyed me too!] Considering all they’ve been through, the way they treat Johnny is almost “gaslighting.” Johnny’s run into a frantic mother wailing at a newsstand over a cover of Newsmaker touting the successes of Dr. Oakwood; he’s found the kids in the attic of the clinic, seen a ring of Druidic stones, heard screams in the night. What more evidence do they need to trust him?
*Logic problems: The Oakwood clinic has a 98% success rate, which means they also have a 98% death rate in the men they kill, required to create the “safe and gentle birth” desired by each couple. The wives are led to believe their husbands have abandoned them. But how long can this go on before someone notices? Even as a critical equation of capitalist enterprise with medicine, religion and death, the scenario stretches belief. Interviewed in Wax, scriptwriter Foster explains that in her original concept, the twins kept by the sect
“were periodically sacrificed to the tree to keep it bearing more statues”; but then the production team said no child sacrifice, even implied, so all my lovely little figures in white with flowers in their hair now trooped out and attended the sacrifice of the husbands. Nutty, really, because no one would miss a child who’d never ‘existed,’ but certainly families would miss a goodly number of husbands. It took a lot of rewriting to even try to justify that and I was never exactly happy with the outcome. (2015, 445).
Yeah, neither is this viewer.
The Verdict: With all due respect to Foster’s struggles with the censors, this script is as bad as one of Jim Henshaw’s worst. I make the comparison because it shares some of the identifiers of a Henshaw script: ridiculous occult ceremonies, storm and wind that kicks up on command (but that no one else notices), set-bound climaxes where the sets look like … sets, and characters trapped in liminal spaces (Johnny and Mr. Sanderson being sucked beneath the tree).
Season 3 is turning out to be a bit of a clunker.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Why wasn’t this more interesting? You’ve got a Druidic fertility cult, a man-eating tree, lightning storms and explosions. It’s timely for its time; fertility clinics were becoming big business in the 1980s, with some dodgy practices and often ineffective, expensive treatments.
A few things stand out, beyond the New Zealand-born Garnett’s bizarre Irish accent: 1) the same beats occur over and over: lady has baby, they steal the girl and kill the dad, life goes on with no real plot progression. 2) Plot-contrivance skepticism from Jack and Micki is frankly ridiculous at this point. This isn’t even something you could roll off on character, like Ryan getting his “soft heart on” [K: Hahaha!] because Johnny hasn’t been developed enough as a character for his motivations in most things to be clear. 3) It’s vaguely irritating when it seems no one is making an effort, from writing to acting to bothering to hide the set design-ness of the outdoor scenes. It was like watching the climax of Manos: The Hands of Fate. (OK, maybe not THAT bad.) There are so many plotholes and questions that the episode seems almost wholly uninterested in addressing. OK, not every dad gets oaked [K: You’re hilarious.], but even one in 12 is not insubstantial, so, what? Nobody cares? Or is the general idea that men are irresponsible douchebags? (Actually, I think that might be the point they’re making.) Do all the rest of the girls get reunited with their parents? Oakwood is well known (appearing in national magazines and all) and only Mrs. Eng has a complaint? UGH.
K: Right?! I mean, I get irritated when my students complain about plot points (Q: “Why didn’t she just leave the house?” / A: “Because it’s a fucking movie!”), but this episode just stretches my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.]
E: There is one shot that shows some thought and interest; there is a neat little fade between Mr. Sanderson drinking from the skull during the ceremony before his wife goes into labor that transitions into Micki drinking from a large white cup at Curious Goods. (The flowers on the tree were kind of neat too.)
K: The flowers were neat. Didn’t notice that other thinger!
E: Kind of disappointing for a penultimate episode, although I guess they didn’t really know it would be.
K: Wait till you watch the ‘ultimate’ episode. A grand finale, it ain’t.
Finally: Did either Tim Minear or Jeffrey Bell see this episode? ‘Cause “Couplet,” from season three of Angel has a LOT of similarities.
K: I don’t remember it. But I always feel it’s likely when TV horror resembles past TV horror. Also, Tim Minear’s current work (on crapola like American Horror Story, or any of his work with Ryan Murphy, is another indication that this cheesed out episode might have influenced him. I hate American Horror Story. Have I mentioned that I hate American Horror Story? Oof.)
E: I mean, it wasn’t a fertility oak as much as a catfishing one, but yeah, even the underground visuals share some similarities. Here’s a link.
Season 3, Episode 20: “The Charnel Pit” (Armand Mastroianni, director; Jim Henshaw, writer)
The series closes with an episode featuring a so-so de Sade, ending not with a bang, but a whimper. (Not even an erotic one.)
The Goods: Micki gets her kink on with a so-so de Sade (has a kind of ring to it, no?). [Erin: It really does!] A double-face painting, with life on the 20th-century side, and death on the 18th-century side, provides a gateway to the past, and the world of the supposedly “sinister” de Sade.
*The composer credit is, for the first (and I think only) time listed as “Music Composed and Performed by Frederic Molin.”
*The continual association of de Sade with pure evil. (Huh?)
*The Marquis de Sade’s many tedious pronouncements, all a variation on the following: “In life there are those who enjoy and those who endure. … If you can’t escape your flesh before death, then death becomes your only escape. Then you’re good for nothing but the charnel pit.”
*On the 20th-century end of the double-face painting, the pervy, dorky college professor, not content with literally sacrificing his ‘research assistants’, but also fashioning himself something of a Sadean, with lines like: “If you’re going to be any use to me, you’re going to have to learn to be a friend of pain.”
*Jack and Johnny make a pretty big leap in figuring out that a bunch of unidentified women victims found in the river are being transported back from the late 18th century through a double-face painting. Like, Jack believes this, but he wouldn’t believe Johnny with all that evidence in the previous episode?
The Verdict: I can’t believe I’m here, but I’m actually here, at the end of Friday the 13th: The Series. The decision to end the series was an abrupt response to fundamentalist minister and American Family Association founder Donald Wildmon threatening to have his followers and listeners (he also founded American Family Radio) boycott one of the show’s major sponsors, McDonalds, which responded that it wasn’t worth their fighting it; they could just sponsor another show (Frank Mancuso, Jr., quoted in Wax 2015, 457). (For the record, everyone should boycott McDonalds, for both ethical and health reasons. But not for Wildmon’s reasons.) Steven Monarque links it to a moral panic that targeted the show’s violence (quoted in Wax 2015, 457), but another view (which I think I read in Wax, but can’t remember where) links it to the series having made enough episodes to be sold into syndication—a rather dispassionate end. And this episode, despite the expense that went into making a sumptuous (and, as always, beautifully shot) costume drama, feels equally dispassionate. It’s a humorless, staid treatment of what might have been a gleefully excessive subject. I mean, it’s de Sade, for shit’s sake!
E: Right? If you’re going to get cancelled for corrupting youth and whatnot, GO FOR IT.
K: Micki’s thoughts, penned in a journal, about de Sade having a certain “magnetism” and about how “he makes you doubt everything you hold dear,” would have more effect if the actor playing Sade were a bit more charismatic (at the very least). It’s almost laughable that she’d feel this way about this portrayal of de Sade, or this actor for that matter. And I’m not referring to his puffy, bloated appearance (well, not entirely), but to his total lack of charisma and … well, magnetism. All he does is smirk, and even George W. Bush is a better smirker. The episode matches him in its 20th century timeline with a creepy, sleazy professor. On the one side, we have an aging, pudgy professor, and on the other a mediocre de Sade. They’re really two sides of the same loser. Leave it to Henshaw (who wrote “My Wife as a Dog” [3.16]), to script an episode about gross, ineffectual men into using female students as fodder for easy research, on the one end, and hapless servants as disposable pleasure slaves, on the other. Even more so, leave it to Henshaw to think these men are remotely intriguing. In fact, on the professor’s side, this episode becomes the one, truest evocation of sloth in the series—his research is literally handed to him (in the form of letters) by the returning dead bodies of the young women he sends through the painting.
E: You’re right! YAY! We get sloth at last!
K: In both diegetic and scriptwriting ways.
At least the episode doesn’t quite court the outrage of the series’ more problematic episodes (one of them, “My Wife as a Dog,” also penned by Henshaw). That’s all there, but this is another one of those inconsequential episodes, leaving the series to end with the equivalent of a wet fart.
The last shot of the episode and series—of the vault being closed, shutting out the faces of Jack, Johnny, and Micki, and leaving the viewer inside—was a nice touch. Through all the ups and downs, I’m going to miss Friday the 13th: The Series.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): OK, so we’ve reached the end of the series, one that clearly wasn’t intended as an ending. And yet, like season one’s finale and season two’s opener, we get a portal to another time or plane of existence. That fits quite well with the format; semi-anthologies in particular are far less about the destination and more about individual journeys. In that respect, this works fine as a closer to the series as a whole.
That being said: Oof. I know it’s too much to ask for even a whiff of historical accuracy, and “The Charnel Pit” does a better job in this respect than, say, the completely divorced from reality portrayal of Bram Stoker in “The Baron’s Bride.” And, hey, one can have fun by re-casting historical figures and events in new ways; that was pretty much the whole premise of the series Sleepy Hollow (complete with a zombie George Washington and Freemasons). In some respects, I think there is a bit of that impulse here, with Lafayette’s suggestion that the Marquis de Sade’s excesses are a factor in the coming revolution. Then again, I’m likely giving Henshaw too much credit.
ANYWAY, so we’ve got a predatory college professor (Webster) who uses de Sade as a justification for his abuse (and sending them to their deaths in the 18th century) of his female students, like a dude-bro using Rand as a reason it’s OK for him to be a selfish prick. I was gratified when Larissa basically calls him out on it in front of the whole class; that whole exchange was an empowering note in an icky episode. (Of course, she ends up being tortured by him, because god forbid she isn’t punished for speaking out.) On the other side of the “double face” painting of this episode is, of course, de Sade. Is it just me, or did both Webster and de Sade look really alike? (I thought it was the same actor at first. What can I say? All pudgy white guys look alike to me.)
K: I momentarily thought it was the same actor, as well. It probably should have been.
E: And, he has no compunction in sacrificing these women simply so he can get his hands on a manuscript that will further justify (in his own mind) what he does, because he thinks the journey itself is deadly. While the double face painting is, of course, about “life and death,” which Webster interprets literally, the metaphor of it could have been so much more interesting if they’d pushed it: the face you show to the world (college professor) versus the ugliness hidden inside. Jack’s closing remarks point to this, but…
K: Webster really needs to watch the mandatory sexual violence tutorial that his university obviously never produced.
E: Finally, it’s never a good sign when you have to have a character voiceover to convince you of the attractions of another character. Micki talks about de Sade as charismatic and alluring, of which neither the script nor performance ever suggested.
Now that we’re at the end, I’ll say that this show, of which I really only remember two episodes from watching it back in the 1980s, was a bit of a roller coaster. There were some great episodes, some that made me weep for those involved, and a whole lot of episodes that were OK, but not great. Losing LeMay was a blow the show never really recovered from; I never thought I’d say this back when we started, but I found myself missing him more and more as this season went on. The more I think about it, though, the ending here, with Jack providing what could be the thesis statement of the show—“If people are looking for evil, they’re going to find it”—and then the image of the vault doors closing, is a fine way to go out.
K: Agreed, particularly on LeMay’s exit. His pleading through real tears and heart-wrenching sobbing at the beginning of season 3 for an unconscious Jack to help him still resonates across this lackluster season. Season 2 really gave us “The Goods” more consistently than the first or third seasons, and for me represents what this show could really do. Season 3 fell victim to courting the audience by extremes of misogyny in particular that made it just too difficult to step into that critical spectator role where you negotiate your love for the show with your outrage at its politics. The interview with Frank Mancuso, Jr., in Wax is really worth reading. He talks about Donald Wildmon, and the general climate around series like this one really needing sponsors because there was no network behind them.
E: That sounds vital! It’s the challenge of syndication, really, that I think resonates with the other texts we’re looking at!
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.