Sunday, July 22, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day Six' (1x07)

This week’s episode continues the show’s evolution into something totally different from what’s come before on television. Most shows like to keep a fairly fixed cast and have the characters interact within that set social pool. On shows like Buffy and Six Feet Under, the people generally had one or two friends outside the main circle, if any, and interacted with them every week. But, here we’ve got the continuing evolution of a community, new characters being organically added to the world every week as the story demands. And, I use that word story loosely, this episode isn’t really about narrative at all, stuff happens, but it’s more about the mood, just spending time with the characters, and that’s a joy to do.

It’s hard to single out what the major plot threads of this episode were. Probably the central thing was Butchie trying to stop Shaun from turning into a next generation version of himself. At the beginning of the series, Butchie was very much still a child, looking out solely for his own interests. He took John in only so that he could use him, his only concern was getting enough money to get high. However, over the course of the series, he’s become more aware of the world beyond himself, and this episode is the culmination of that. When he walks back and sees Shaun smoking, he sees the kid that he was. Even though Butchie himself was cracking on Dwayne moments earlier, he’s mad at Shaun for not giving the man any respect.

In both this and the last episode, we’ve seen Butchie pushed into the role of diplomat. He jokes that he’s not the U.N., but lately all he’s been doing is negotiating meetings, trying to make things better for the people around him. Tina’s arrival, his mother’s subsequent crisis and his father’s absence have forced Butchie to step up and become the man of the family. In the end, he and Shaun come to an agreement and enter the water together. Butchie says he’s going to surf like he used to, on the board that Kai retrieves for him from storage. He is trying to reclaim the potential that he sacrificed so many years ago.

Throughout the series, I’ve posited that John’s purpose on the show is to help the Yosts get things together and reclaim the glory they’ve lost. John set that in motion for Butchie, and now Butchie is doing things for himself, returning to the right path. With one student a success, John’s main focus now seems to be Cissy.

He’s much more direct with Cissy, attacking her negative characteristics in a more cogent way. With the other characters, John is merely a parrot, repeating what they say. With Cissy, he channels the things she knows, but doesn’t want to hear. At this stage of the series, he seems to have become a more mystical figure. Early on, he was an idiot savant, but still most definitely an idiot. Now, he’s more of a sage, helping the characters recognize things about themselves, and all the while remaining on a higher mental plane.

Once again, John appears in a variety of places at the end of the episode, participating in moments of great importance. My favorite scene in the episode was Cass looking at the footage, the drum circle and just crying. For the past two episodes, she’s been looking for something, locking herself in this room and trying to find the secret John referred to. I love the way these scenes were constructed, with the intentionally jarring jump cuts putting us in Cass’s uncertain mental space. Last week, her mental instability was proven by the fact that she ate all those overpriced minibar items; here it’s simply her continued stare at the computer monitor.

Last week John talked about how Cass’s camera held some kind of secret, it’s a major piece of John’s mission here. There, she also talked about a drum circle, and hit a pan repeatedly, seeking a beat. Here, she watches the drum circle on video, and just begins to cry. She’s touched something of primal significance, and turns to John, seeking comfort. This moment reminded me of similar moments in Grant Morrison comics, where characters cry not because of some emotional trauma, rather because they came in touch with something of such profound cosmological significance, it’s overwhelming. I love that kind of emotion, and had never seen it in anything outside Morrison’s work, but it was there on Cass’s face in that scene. This is the kind of storytelling that has significance for humanity as a whole, and I love the fact that we’re getting it from a TV show every week.

And what of John’s cryptic comment that Shaun will soon be gone? That raises a lot of questions. In the second episode, Shaun was pulled back from death, and it was this resurrection that set in motion the building of the new community that has formed at the motel, around the Yosts. John’s appearance set that building in motion, but it was Shaun’s ‘miracle’ that crystallized their association, and brought Dr. Smith and Tina into the circle. Has Shaun only returned for a time, to play some role in the overall plan, then disappear again, as he was meant to after the accident? It’s possible that Shaun is a sacrificial character, who must die so that Butchie can be healed. There’s been a lot of talk about the religious symbolism of the show, with John as John the Baptist to Shaun’s Christ. So, it would make sense that the son would die to save the father. But, that seems a bit negative, Shaun’s death would likely destroy everything that has been built during the series. But, it’s interesting to watch Shaun, John and Butchie all walk out to surf together at the end of the episode.

Elsewhere, we’ve got a lot of drama at the motel. Palaka’s infection forces Dr. Smith to evaluate what his role is now. Does the loss of his job mean he can’t be a doctor now? That’s the issue he faces during the scene where Freddie tries to take Palaka away. Smith sees this treatment as a way to prove that he still has a purpose and the hospital lawyer can’t take that away. Even though the hospital is setting him up for a fall, Cissy is looking out for him.

Beyond the Yosts, the central focus of the series is the formation of this new community, where a whole bunch of societal rejects can gather and find togetherness. At the end of Babylon 5, there’s a voiceover that says that station “gave us hope that there can be new beginnings, even for people like us.” People like them were nowhere near as far from redemption as people like the guys on this show, but the sentiment is the same. The motel has become a place where everyone can leave behind the baggage of who they were and coalesce into a new communal entity. Much like with Deadwood, this isn’t always easy, people rarely say what the others around them mean to each other, with the exception of Barry, who is always ridiculed for it.

But, with Palaka sick, the community draws together to care for him, and ultimately that’s what society is about, providing a safety net to ensure that those who can’t help themselves will still be protected. The characters who have willingly engaged with this community are helped, those who resist remain troubled. The two main resistors are Vietnam Joe and Bill.

Bill remains uncertain about his role in the community. A couple of episodes ago, Zippy told him to go out and sit with Freddie, he did this and was happy for a bit. But, now he’s retreated back into his cave, talking only to Zippy. It’s notable that he says he has no friends, and nowhere else to go besides his house. He doesn’t recognize the fact that there is a community that cares for him, instead he cowers below the second floor of his house, unable to leave the stairs. I’m guessing that one of John’s tasks in the last three episodes of the season will be helping Bill finally resolve the issues with his wife’s death.

The other major strand is Linc’s departure from Stinkweed. Right now, he’s the major outsider, a threat to the burgeoning community. Will his departure from the company make him stop being a threat and let him embrace the pure joy of surfing and the community surrounding it? I’m thinking that’s unlikely, he seems to have some kind of scheme going on with Tina, and they will likely be the central threat of the end of the season. But, considering the laid back feel of this episode, I’m not expecting a major climax for the close of the season.

Other notable stuff is the return of Paula Malcolmson, who’s apparently become a regular, another character on this Polyphonic Spree of TV casts. It’s good to see her working with Milch again. While I can certainly sympathize with people who were angry at Deadwood’s early demise, I think this show is much stronger and more unique.

So, once again this show surprises and challenges with another great episode. It’s not as singularly mindblowing as last week, but it’s still got a unique feel and atmosphere that’s unlike anything else on TV. It’s depressing to think that there’s only three episodes left, I really hope that HBO gives this another season. Next to The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, this is the best show they’ve ever done. And if things keep up the way they are, it could one day eclipse those masterworks.

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