Monday, July 16, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day Five' (1x06)

After a bit of stumble last week, the show surges back with arguably its best episode yet, a filmic experience like few I’ve ever seen. This episode works on all levels, giving us a glimpse into John’s purpose, some crucial backstory for the Yost family, more great stuff with the hotel crew and in the end, an absolutely dazzling setpiece.

This episode was all about characters putting old troubles behind them and moving together to build a new community. We see that most obviously with the hotel crew. They’re working together to clean up to the site, everybody pitching in. It’s such an odd happening, how all these people have come together, and now committed to doing something. The scenes have an oddness that makes them captivating, I love the incongruity of Palaka cleaning the pool, and Ramon’s attempt to involve Barry in the cleanup. Even a scene as small as Dickstein showing Butchie how to rope off the garden has a lot of sweetness in it. These people who were strangers have become connected, and this motel will be the physical evidence of that connection.

Concurrent with this, we’ve got Butchie and Cissy’s attempt to rebuild their family. Butchie is trying to make things work for everyone, to make Cissy and Tina work together, but dealing with them is bringing out all his worst tendencies. However, there’s some deeper tension separating them, most notably what John reveals to us during his speech to Cissy. While on an acid trip, she gave Butchie a handjob, an act that has cast a shadow over their relationship, and explains a lot of why they’re so torn apart throughout the series. This one moment of weakness haunted Cissy and drove her and Mitch to near oblivion, until they were saved by the arrival of Shaun.

Shaun was a chance to prove that she could be a good mother, to atone for her sins. And, at the same time, it made her transgression seem insignificant in comparison with Tina abandoning her child. Much of Cissy’s rage at Tina comes out of the same she feels, and Tina’s line of work doesn’t help things any. That’s also the reason why Cissy is so uneasy with Shaun having Tina’s tape, he’s being put in the same situation she put Butchie in, and that cycle of mistreatment could too easily continue.

That reveal works really well because it makes the characters’ motivations much clearer. Rather than just being generally fucked up, they’re dealing with the spectre in the past, something that society gives them no easy way of dealing with. Is it abuse, or was it implicitly consensual? And which is worse for the family? Clearly both of them are deeply uncomfortable with each other as a result of what happened in that moment, and that’s something Cissy has to confront.

Throughout the series, John has forced people to confront their demons, to bring their problems out in the open and let them grow. In that respect, he has a lot in common with the cleansing disease of Grant Morrison’s The Filth. There, it was only through engagement with the worst things in the world that Greg could understand himself. You have to bring the bad to the surface to move forward, and that’s what John is making people do here. He forced Joe to confront his worst moment, letting a friend in Vietnam die, now he does the same for Cissy, and it looks like he will soon help Bill deal with the death of his wife.

This is all wrapped up in the ending. The closest analogue I can think of to that scene is the sequence at the end of episode 2.7 of Twin Peaks, where all the characters gather at the Road House and listen to Julee Cruise sing, each of them touching some kind of primal nerve, connecting on a deep emotional level. That sequence was one of the best things ever put on television, and it’s great to have something that comes close to it.

Over the course of the series, John has gathered all these characters together. Here, he appears to each of them and brings them together in a kind of dreamspace. Bill’s spiral staircase ascends to nowhere in the parking lot, while Bill and Freddie jam together. That was a wonderful touch, as was Ramon continuing to cook as John spoke to the assembled masses. He talks about his father, and Cass’s camera, and it’s unclear what it all means. He makes reference to a lot of what’s happened in the first few episodes, but for me now, the content of the speech is less important than the hypnotic delivery. The entire sequence, from the emergence of the weird grey guy on was just enchanting, one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen on TV. It was an experience, one that we shared with the characters, through the camera. This show is working on a subconscious level, and I love that, it’s emotion and intuition guiding us forward.

In addition to all this, we got some great stuff with Cass and her restless attempts to work. Plus, there was the odd scene in the diner with the guy with the Yost website and an appearance by Paula Malcolmson, a.k.a Trixie of Deadwood. And, if that scene at the end is any indication, the circle of people will only expand, John’s influence growing stronger. I can’t wait to see more, this episode was such a joy to watch.

But, the question remains whether we’ll see a second season. At the TCA tour this week, HBO left things open, but in a dumb move, made it pretty much an either or situation with regards to the continuation of John From Cincinnati and Deadwood. If you already pissed off a huge chunk of the potential audience for this show by botching the end of Deadwood, it’s probably not a good idea to say the only way we’ll get more Deadwood is if this show fails. I’m not sure why they just don’t space things out so both are doable, I wouldn’t mind waiting a year and a half or two years for a new season of John if it meant getting the Deadwood movies. But, regardless of whether or not that’s doable, it’s bad business to say that you can only get one or the other.