Season 1, Episode 25: "What a Mother Wouldn’t Do" (Neil Fearnley, director; Bruce Martin, writer)
In which a mother’s heart will emphatically NOT go on if she can’t save her child.
The Goods: A pregnant woman, faced with the death of her unborn child, encounters Lewis, who provides her a crib that will ensure her child will live, but only at the expense of others.
The Cheese: Leslie’s (the mom in question) over-the-top performance
The Sins: Envy (of others who have kids), and Greed (more life for her child, no matter what)
Kristopher: Abortion at the forefront here. Yikes! But the issue isn’t carried forward very far. Too bad; horror is about being uncomfortable, but once they abandon the discomfort of abortion, the episode plays like a dark comedy. Oh no, the baby’s crying! We’d better go out and kill someone to pacify her!
I like that initially we’re in a past narrative here with Louis/Lewis Vendredi selling the cradle to the expectant aborter—er, mother. Alas, the baby is born. According to Wax, the mother “Leslie Kent is one of the most sympathetic curse-users in the series” (153). Um, no. In fact, I find her a hilarious caricature, a reading the episode supports in scenes like the one in the park just after the birth, where she’s sitting on a bench with an empty wheeled carriage waiting to kill the doctor, and reading Rosemary’s Baby! Hahahah!
Erin: Oh lord. I really should read the Wax book; that is a tragic mis-reading of Leslie’s character, and I don’t think that was Martin’s intention, given the way she was written. It is, however, not out of line with that era’s portrayal of women who a) wait to have children and thus “age out” of easily getting pregnant, or b) the bullshit “baby hunger” that women were told they should feel instead of having a career. (See: almost every romantic comedy of the 1980s, and Fatal Attraction.)
K: This is a twisted idea, the baby that shouldn’t be alive is kept alive in the cradle by murders that feed it. The Titanic backstory is kind of cool, the seven people on a lifeboat refusing to take the cradle and that being related to the seven necessary deaths to keep the child alive. Lewis Vendredi has conveyed the Titanic narrative to the young mother; the folkloric aspect here of stories that need to be transferred to remain alive is interesting. Even more so than the baby kept alive by death(s).
E: Ooh, I like that! And it’s not a bad metaphor for these types of series: urban legends, folklore, etc kept alive for a new generation, no matter how horrific they are.
K: Acting note: The babysitter actress is really great, like, way better than all of the secondary actors in the show, and some of the main ones (I’m looking at you, Robey).
Overall, this was a solid episode, with a premise that might have been mined for more disturbingly political material. I’m glad the babysitter ended up with the baby, even though she became a little creepy and sinister. That last shot and bit of dialogue on the bus reminds me of Shirley Jackson stories.
E: See below; I had the same thought! It’s interesting; abortion on TV in the US has always been a fraught topic; I can count on one hand (still!) how many series have actually addressed it, and with one exception it is always either a “very special episode” (see: Maude) or borderline horror (woman driven nuts by having had one, or nearly dies after a botched one). (If you’re curious, the single exception I know of is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s episode “When Will Josh and his Friend Leave Me Alone?” in which it is treated as something someone does for her own reasons, with no moralizing or horror.) There is a surprisingly broader subtext here, whether they intended it or not; the late 1980s were when groups like Operation Rescue started targeting clinics; the violence they employed was justified, in their view, because they were “saving babies.” Whether this episode intended to problematize that point of view or not, that’s pretty much what they did: it doesn’t present her behavior as OK because she’s saving a/her child. Given the time period, that’s a surprisingly nuanced take.
K: This is a really great observation around context. This episode becomes a bit like the “Badge of Honor” episode in the sense that its unevenness speaks to the 80s socio-political context; awkward and uneven, but important.
E: Unlike some of the first season episodes, I found this one to be fairly logical: seven people died for refusing to help a child in distress; thus the curse requires seven deaths to save a child in distress. (It also confirms what’s been suggested but I’m not sure explicitly stated: Lewis “writes” the curses. And again we have the return (which seemed less emphasized in some of these later episodes), of the object drawing the person.
Speaking of nuance: it was nice to see a less emotionally fraught conversation about the toll of the work on the Curious Goods crew, and the way Ryan acknowledges that it means they see the “worst” of people. Building on that going forward?
K: Nice observation. I’d like to think they’ll build on this. The Wax book includes interviews (also mentioned above) that speak to the attempt to create a more psychologically realistic series, particularly around character motivation and the logic around the curses.
E: Other things that showed there was thought (and occasionally humor) going on in this episode: Leslie reading Rosemary’s Baby while sitting on the park bench.
K: Totally! I love it!
E: The presence of the aquarium on the kitchen counter underscoring the “water” motif. And the most effective, in my opinion; the whole scene as Debbie’s preparing to take a bath is shot low, almost from a “child’s-eye” perspective. That was next level, seeing as she is about to be sacrificed to help a child.
K: Didn’t notice these latter two details. Good eye!
E: Also: that baby was really cute, but I was getting a sort of Jackson-ian vibe off that bus trip at the end.
K: Absolutely, yes!
E: While, aside from the baby shower, it doesn’t show Leslie interacting with a group of women—particularly women with kids—I think it’s implied that she is envious of anyone with a child. Greed is also a factor, as she wants more time and more life for her sick child.
K: That makes sense. I definitely think envy is intimated, as you say, in the very circumstance, and greed even more so in the fact that she will have this baby even at the price of introducing a child into the world who may suffer because of her selfish need to have it.
Season 1, Episode 26: "Bottle of Dreams" (Mac Bradden, director; Roy Sallows, writer)
A bottle episode meets a clip show to produce the worst episode of the season.
The Goods: Ryan and Micki get trapped in the vault with an artifact that makes them relive their worst memories, and worse, tortures both them and the audience with endless clips of past episodes.
The Cheese: Everything. Everything is the cheese.
The Sins: Sloth, on the part of the entire cast and crew.
Kristopher: Wax attributes the clip reel style of this episode to a massive and long writer’s strike. It’s really too bad. The framing story is really weak. The only cool effect is when Micki and Ryan keep slipping into the “nightmare” (aka, previous episodes’ climaxes), there are some cool video effects where we see the magnified video frame edge. Because the series was shot on 35mm, this video hypermediation is really interesting—an awareness of the medium on which people are watching the show, despite its origin on film.
Rashid: “Something is trying to get through!” (Answer: a good episode.) I fast-forwarded through the recapped episodes.
Erin: Best line of the rewatch so far goes to you!
K: Jack’s entry into the “nightmare” seems to have put him in that place where Carol-Ann goes in Poltergeist. He sees his son there, which is creepy and twisted. Chris Wiggins doesn’t exactly give it his all (in Canadian slang, “give-er”) in this scene.
Wow. This is the worst episode by far of the season/series.
In Wax (156-7), there is some detail on how the strike affected the show. Apparently there was a serious shift in the creative staff as a result. Zicree felt alienated, and William Taub seems to have left. It will be interesting to see how Season Two stacks up considering that the “roll” Zicree feels they were on with Season One, essentially ended here. I just scanned through the episode credits for seasons two and three, and Zicree is gone. Here’s hoping the show finds its footing anew.
E: Yup, this was the opposite of good, although understandable (to an extent) given the circumstances of the ‘87 writer’s strike. It combines two staples of mainstream US television of the ‘80s—the bottle episode (I see what you did there, show!) and the clip show—and in neither instance well. It is possible to have these constraints and still produce a good episode; nearly every series (particularly of this genre, because of the expense) have bottle episodes as a way to balance the budget ahead of the finale: “Older and Far Away” on Buffy and “Spin the Bottle” (I see what you did there, Joss!) on Angel are examples of how it can be done logically. Clip shows have generally gone out of fashion (I remember reading that the Aaron Spelling-produced series Charmed did one or two in the 2000s, but, Aaron Spelling. What do you expect?).
“Bottle of Dreams” falls into every pitfall one can imagine, not just of the clip show and bottle episode, but episode narrative and structure more generally. Rando guy in a turban shows up (way to avoid stereotypes!) with the cursed object (weird sped up editing on his exit; did you notice that?), prompting Micki and Ryan into the vault. Why both? The clips go on for way too long, and there seems to be no logic to them. Why is it Micki’s nightmare that prompts the “Scarecrow” clip? Wasn’t it way more traumatic for Ryan? The last-minute revelation that Jack had a son who was a powerful psychic. (Why couldn’t that have been the episode?)
K: Agreed. It was a really cool idea, and could even have framed this entire clip reel episode, instead of two guys standing and staring at a jug.
E: Also, literally every shot of Micki screaming showcased her boobs. It made me think that the framing “party” at the start was basically to put Robey in a slinky dress and then shoot every reaction scene in the vault as if she’s having the world’s most terrifying orgasm.
K: Indeed. And this may be my favourite line of yours thus far as well.
E: So, yes. BAD. But there were a few bright spots. Actually one. Despite the fez (aren’t fezs Turkish?), I rather liked Rashid; I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him. He was low-key, got some of the best lines (“Satan won’t fight fair”) and basically told Lewis to fuck off. In fact, we could trade Micki for Rashid; I’d be good with that.
K: I wonder if you’ll still like Rashid after his second (and final) appearance on the show, in “Doorway to Hell.” I find him unbearable and unbelievable. In the Wax book, the actor talks about how he had to put on the accent. Um, yep, it sounds like it. Literally, all Rashid ever does is stare at some object with wide eyes and make silly pronouncements. I find it hard to sit through. Regarding trading Micki for Rashid, I suspect you will feel differently when you see her performance in “And Now the News”!
E: That’s a bummer. ‘Cause it seemed like in this episode the actor seemed simultaneously aware of the ridiculousness of the material and leaning into it at the same time, which I appreciated.
K: That rings true. He’s aware of hamming it up. But it just sort of stops there for me! All of the interviews in Wax testify to that fact that they really liked that character, and that even though he doesn’t really appear again, it feels as though he is a major part of the series going forward.
Onward, to season 2! . . .
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.