Monday, July 30, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day Seven' (1x08)

I feel like I say it every week, but it needs to be said again. This show is a brilliant piece of art, one of the most relevant and powerful stories being told in any medium today. David Milch is creating a work that fosters emotions and creates ideas in the audience unlike pretty much anything else I’ve ever seen on TV. Shows like Twin Peaks and Six Feet Under have delved into metaphysics, but I’ve never seen as sustained a journey into big issues as I have here. This is to TV what Grant Morrison’s work is to comics, stories that address issues that are not of consequence to individuals, but instead touch on the progress of humanity as a whole. That is what the show is about, the way that people can move forward by coming together.

There’s so much to talk about here. Lately I’ve been watching each episode at least twice, so I probably won’t be able to fully assess this until another viewing. But, even after the first ten minutes, I knew this episode was going to be something really special. I’d argue that this is actually the best episode of the series yet, with each scene finding a unique kind of magic.

One of the most magical was Cass and John’s trip out to the field. First we got the funny at first, creepy in retrospect discussion about whether they made a sex tape. Then, a beautiful piece of music came on the soundtrack and we saw the two of them out in nature, John imitating the statue and standing on the tower. Both this sequence and the opening with Butchie surfing placed me in a trancelike state, perfectly lost in the rhythm of the visuals. The best filmmakers are able to hypnotize you, trap you in a moment with the characters, make you feel what they’re feeling. These scenes worked on a subconscious level, the slow, beautiful visuals bringing me to the same place as the characters. It’s something we don’t get enough from cinema.

Films and TV are so concerned with reaching a narrative endpoint, they don’t stop along the way for beautiful moments like this. In fact, you could argue that’s the whole appeal of this series, spending time in moments that would ordinarily be passed by. People ask what’s the point of the hotel guys or Linc or any of the characters, but why do they have to mean anything beyond what’s in the moment. I love watching Ramon oversee the motel, or seeing the interaction between Palaka and Freddie. It’s not all about reaching some endpoint, the journey is what matters. This is a show about the creation of a community, the network of people gathered around this hotel, and the joy of it is watching them interacting with each other. That can mean seeing the hypnotizing beauty of the field scene, or the goofy comedy of a Palaka moment, both are equally valid expressions of what the world is.

This episode is centered around John’s ominous proclamation that “Shaun will soon be gone.” We see him say this in a video that he used Cass to shoot. He’s standing in front of the circle and line man that was previously referenced in his speech and in Meyer’s doodling last episode. I rewatched the past three episodes this past week and it’s pretty clear that his speech is central to the series’ narrative progress. Various phrases from it are repeated both before and after, with the characters becoming more aware of what happened there. John says that they won’t remember his father’s words, but it’s all in there on a subconscious level.

One of the central themes of the episode is people reaching the breaking point with John’s antics. They all know that something weird is going on with him, and think that he’s putting Shaun in danger. Bill is the first to really lose it, taking “I’ve got my eye on you” into room 24 for a chat. Before that, Bill meets with Freddie again, who had a vision about Shaun. The connection between the two of them has some major significance. Zippy set them up in episode four, they were together on the staircase during the speech and now they’re back. They have been protecting the Yosts the longest, and will likely play some major role in protecting Shaun from whatever’s after him.

Bill takes John into the room and just loses it. I love the fact that he finally addresses John’s odd behavior and tries to get a straight answer out of him. This scene has an intensity unlike anything we’ve seen previously in the series. Unlike the usual medium or wide shots, we get close-ups and real anger, not the frustration behind Bill’s numerous shouts of “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!” We find out here that John can’t be hurt, clearly he is some kind of supernatural being, though his exact nature remains uncertain.

John put the video on Dwayne’s computer for some reason. I’d argue that he did it to draw the people together. At the beginning of the series, he told Mitch to get back in the game, and one could argue that all his actions over the course of the series have been designed to help all three generations of the Yost family recover what they lost. Part of this has been creating a support network for them. At the beginning of the series, Butchie had no one to turn to when he was in trouble, now there’s a whole bunch of people there to help him and Shaun deal with their troubles.

Milch seemed to be giving anyone with some free time a character to play on the series, but it may be that everyone has a specific role to play in the salvation of the Yost family. Dwayne has already given Butchie a chance to step up and be a man, and he may have been given the message about Shaunie as a way to warn the family about the real impending danger.

In Grant Morrison’s comic book series The Invisibles there were a number of characters who existed “outside the game,” not subject to the rules of space time, working for some unknown will to guide things to a specific end. John a Dreams was the major figure there, and I’m beginning to see John From Cincinnati in the same way. He can insert himself in the spacetime continuum at moments where he is needed to bring about a specific end. That end is generally helping a character discharge their negative energy and prepare for a more positive future transformation. All of his actions are guiding us towards the formation of a new community, a new social network. Milch has talked a lot about the way that we’re all one, that individuality is an illusion and we’re just different drops of water in the same wave. So, it would make sense that part of John’s purpose is to unite this bunch of lonely societal rejects into a new society all their own.

This is not a show that was created with a set agenda, it’s being invented in each moment, and I think that’s the story that emerged from what was happening. These characters, once created, took on agency and life and wrote themselves into a community. I love how all the characters are people we know, even someone as small as the bartender returned from last week, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see her take on a bigger role next week. Does it matter if there’s a specific agenda behind the assembly of people? No, the formation of a group is goal enough.

Another phenomenal scene in this episode was Barry’s vision of what could be in the karaoke space. That vision is an allegory for virtually every character in the series. They are all damaged people, weighed down with the sins and failures of the past. The jukebox taunts Barry with insults from his past, but he can still remake that space and turn it into something he can be proud of. He wants to make it a theater, a space in which worlds are created and dreams can play out in reality. I loved the surreal feel of this whole scene, particularly his drink with Shaun.

The final scene with John and Cass raises a lot of questions. It seems like John has some kind of hypnotic control over her. She is yelling at him at first, trying to figure out what his agenda is, then she abruptly goes silent and folds up his backdrop. This would explain why she can’t remember what happens at night.

That scene, and the whole episode in general give John a more ominous feel than in the past. He’s now suspected of kidnapping Shaun and has been using Cass for his own agenda. I’m not expecting a lot of closure, but I feel like we will get some understanding of what John’s mission is and why he’s doing it. It won’t be easy exposition, but some clarification will be enough. I’ve said since the beginning his mission is to save the Yosts, and with Butchie on the right path, it’s only Mitch and Cissy who really need help.

But, what of Shaun and his imminent disappearance? He has been signed over to Linc, who’s consistently been equated with the devil. Will he and Tina steal him away from the burgeoning community in Imperial Beach? It’s hard to say, but I’m guessing that will be the central drama of the final episodes.

Already in this episode it gave me a lot more immediacy to the happenings. The interrogation in the hotel room was intense, and everything seemed to be speeding up, characters slipping apart. Previously we saw Bill questioning his role as caretaker to the Yosts, and now Kai is. She wants to be appreciated, but they’re all still so self absorbed they barely notice her.

Ultimately, this was an astonishing hour, probably the series’ best episode yet. Every scene was full of mystery and wonder. There are five or six shows I’d consider the ‘pantheon’ of television, shows that I feel like I’m unworthy to be watching, where I’m thrilled to see a new episode and can spend hours dissecting the things that have happened. That’s what this is, this isn’t just good TV, this is amazing art. It’s a vital work that speaks to where we are now as a species. Like the best works, when you’re watching it, you disappear completely into the moment and think of nothing else but what’s happening onscreen, but when it’s over, you can spend hours dissecting what’s happened. HBO has found a worthy successor to The Sopranos, Sundays at 9 are still the time I look forward to all weekend.