Friday, March 14, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 'Don't Be' (1x22DC)

I bought End of Evangelion yesterday, but I want to hold off on watching it until I get a chance to see the four director’s cut versions of the series episodes, and watch the last two episodes of the show one more time. I watched those episodes so fast, and they’re so dense, it’s great to see them a second time and unpack them a bit more. So far, I’ve seen the director’s cuts of “He was Aware that he was Still a Child” and “Don’t Be.”

“Don’t Be” is one of the best episodes of the series, and really benefits from the added director’s cut scenes. What struck me initially, as I mentioned in the previous post, was the use of Handel’s “Messiah,” the visual splendor of the scene. What struck me this time was just how dire Asuka’s plight is. Part of that is the additional scenes, which make something that was already pretty awful much worse.

Asuka’s central issue is that she doesn’t want to be a child, she suffered the death of her mother as a young girl, and decided that she’s not going to cry anymore, she’s going to be an adult and not deal with those emotions anymore. So, she sinks herself into piloting the Eva and creates an entire self identity around being the best Eva pilot in the world. This notion of her self is gradually destroyed as the series proceeds because Shinji keeps getting better and better, it becomes clear that he is the ‘chosen one.’

Writing about the start of the series, I complained about the random gratuitous nudity, but the scene where she stands naked by the bath, talking about how much she hates Shinji doesn’t feel gratuitous at all. The entire episode is about stripping away the layers she puts up to guard herself from society and finding the raw nerves underneath. No longer the center of attention, no longer “the best,” she finds herself hating everyone around her, resenting the entire power structure that brought her to this place.

The characters in the show remind me of child stars, they’re all thrust into positions of power beyond their years, and struggle to define themselves outside of their profession. Kids shouldn’t have to work like this, they shouldn’t have to narrow their identities to this one facet of their personality, but that’s what happens. Asuka has always loved her work, but now she finds two utterly joyless people surmounting her dominance. They don’t want to be the best, but they’re beating her, and that kills her. I love how raw Asuka’s emotion gets in the scene by the bathtub, and the cut to Misato, who understands how she feels, but can do nothing.

Asuka is a victim of the fact that she wants to be like an adult, but isn’t physically or emotionally mature enough to function on that level. This is conveyed wonderfully in the episode’s opening scene, where she and Kaji lie together before she goes to Japan. Her attraction to Kaji has always been treated as something a little more than a teen girl’s crush, the show is aware that she is very emotionally invested in him, and it’s killing her to watch him go with Misato instead of her. She doesn’t quite understand that it’s not possible for him to be with her, and I think she’s more in love with the idea of him than with the actual man, if he actually was to sleep with her, as she wants, I think she’d feel uncomfortable and wrong about it.

But, she’s not able to deal with all these conflicted feelings. She feels so alone throughout the series, and just wants someone to love her, but no one will, and that makes her hate them. In the Kaji scene, she throws herself at him, and rips open her shirt and yells at him. For her, desire and violence are wrapped up in a mess of emotions. This all ties back to that moment when we see the child her looking tough, saying she won’t cry. Every thing she does later on is an attempt to control her life, and never become a victim like she was in the moment when she finds her mother hanging. If she tells someone how she feels, she’s opening herself up to potentially feeling like she did in that moment, when someone else’s action absolutely destroyed her. If she remains in control of every situation, she won’t have to suffer like that again.

That’s what makes the psychic assault on her so brutal. As they say in NERV, this is her last chance to prove herself, to reclaim her role as lead EVA pilot. Shinji is grounded and she can prove that she doesn’t need him. It’s very rare that you’ll hear someone say “this is her last chance” in a piece of fiction, and then have the person totally fail, but that’s what happens to Asuka.

The beings that attack the world are called angels, and in these later episodes, they do seem to have a kind of divine power. Kaworu doesn’t seem evil, he acts with purpose, and the use of “Messiah” to back the sequence gives this scene a similar sense of God himself intruding into the world. But, why would this divine invasion be so sinister? One could argue that the angels come to Earth to bring about human instrumentality. They are agents of this end, at which point the notion of individual identity will end and everything will merge. I’ll ponder this more after watching the last two episodes again.

But, clearly there is some menace since contact with the angel totally destroys Asuka. All these psychological interludes involve characters struggling to deal with the multiple aspects of themselves. It was made clear when Shinji was the in the angel and he talks about the different Shinjis that exist in various peoples’ minds. Shinji is someone who’s very concerned about pleasing others, and has something of a void at his core. His issue is that he doesn’t know himself, and his experience in the last two episodes finally helps him discover the essence of himself, separated from others’ perceptions and his roles in the world.

Asuka’s problem is that there are many versions of herself within her mind, and she can’t make the ones she hates go away. The image she wants to have of herself is the badass number one pilot who doesn’t need anyone or anything. Her entire psychological tumble begins when Misato tells Shinji that he’s “number one.” It boosts Shinji’s ego, and Misato doesn’t realize how much that hurts Asuka. Asuka puts up a brave face for the world, but inside she’s barely hanging on.

The moment I love most in her mental breakdown is when she’s raging about how much she hates Shinji and she says something like “Why won’t he die, why won’t he die, why won’t he hold me?” That final statement killed me because it’s such a raw emotion right on the surface, she just wants someone to love her, but she can’t find the words to express that. When she kisses Shinji, she says it’s “because she’s bored,” but it’s more about wanting someone to connect with her, so that she’s not alone for just a little bit. It’s played as comedy then, but Shinji’s refusal to acknowledge that he liked it makes her take back that gesture and ridicule him again.

The tragedy is Shinji probably thinks that Asuka hates him. He doesn’t think that anyone would want him, and that’s why he refuses to emotionally open up to her, to hold her. He thinks she’d just laugh at him. In retrospect, one of the most powerful moments of the series is Shinji moving to kiss Asuka when she’s asleep, and stopping when she whispers “Mom…” Shinji should have seen how sad she was, and tried to reach out to her, but he’s scared. They’re both so scared, and that cuts them off from each other.

It’s no coincidence that this all occurs after she has her period. She is at an awkward period where she’s not quite grown up, she feels like she’s grown up, but the world doesn’t see her that way. The scene, and particularly its aftermath, are played like a rape. This is an example of how to use the genre well, her robot is an extension of herself, it’s invaded and she suffers because of it. It’s easier to watch this story than it would be to watch her getting raped, but the effect is essentially the same. She is defiled and the confident person she was is essentially destroyed, never to return in the series.

It’s notable that she says she doesn’t want to have kids anyway. She wants to remain free of attachment, and fears putting someone else through what she’s been through. So, the period is a curse to her, something she hates suffering through, something Shinji doesn’t have to suffer through. It makes her weak, and being weak is her greatest fear.

The entire mental assault sequence is a tour de force piece of filmmaking. The flash cuts of words and concepts, the looping images and surreal visuals all work to really immerse you in this hellish experience she’s going through. The story is told through visuals, I love the fact that we never have a scene where Asuka comes right out and tells people how she’s feeling. She never does, no one else knows all the problems she’s got, but we do because we’ve been in her mind. It’s a perfect example of show, don’t tell filmmaking.

In the end, Asuka is saved by Rei, which kills her even more. She hates Rei because Rei does everything right, she seems to have no internal conflict, she just goes about her business. Asuka’s red outfit is appropriate because she’s the most fiery pilot. She hates Shinji and Rei because what they’re doing seems so easy to them, there’s no evidence of internal conflict. Rei is ready to do anything for them, and Asuka just doesn’t get it. Asuka used to be the best, but she can never be adored by Ikari like Rei is.

Does Asuka really love Shinji? I don’t think so, I think she definitely has feelings for him, and I think she wants him to care for her. She’s jealous of Misato already, wondering what Kaji sees in Misato that he doesn’t see in her. The additional scene in this episode where she sees Shinji and Rei talking is critical because it makes clear how both jealous and troubled she is. She sees the two of them together and realizes she can never be like that, it hurts her that Shinji would be with Rei instead of her.

She calls Rei a puppet, which is accurate, and ties in with the image of the doll her mother had earlier. Asuka can’t live up to that doll, which never talks back, never cries. She sees Rei as the same as that doll, beloved by the higher ups, who prefer her easy compliance to the messiness of flesh and blood.

The episode ends with Asuka sitting on a balcony alone, watching her Eva returned to its dock, never to rise again. Shinji is there, and she rails on against Rei, furious that she was saved “by her!” Subconsciously, she wants Shinji to come over there and comfort her, to hold her and save her from being alone, but she has put up this wall, and Shinji is too scared to go to her. They are separated by that piece of caution tape, and Asuka will remain alone.

Watching this series makes it clear how much American series put the emotions and motivations of the characters at the forefront. In both this series and Cowboy Bebop, the characters don’t seem very developed at first, they’re all surface cool posturing. But, as time passes, we realize that those surface personas are very much designed to hide the pain underneath. When you’re doing a show that’s commissioned at 26 episodes, it’s a lot easier to do that. You can have clear arcs, make people change, and also be sure from the beginning that you’ll get a chance to tell the first story. In America, it’s such a struggle to get a show on the air, it’s not good practice to be like, watch fifteen episodes, then you’ll get to know this character. In most American series, people are out there from the beginning, with their conflicts in place, and they wind up playing out the same conflicts over and over again.

I wouldn’t say this show features character evolution, it’s more like character excavation. We find out how people became the way they are through these intense psychological experiences. Compare this to something like Lost, and the difference is massive. Lost seems to think showing one experience in the past explains how a person became who they are in the present, here, the actual experiences are wrapped up in psychological perception and other moments throughout time, all crossing over into the mesh that is a single human mind.

Asuka’s an immensely complicated character, but doesn’t look that way on the surface. It’s not until we get into her mind and realize that what could be taken for shallow cool posturing is actually a deeply wounded person who desperately wants someone to love her, even as she pushes away anyone who would.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1x20 - 1x26 (An Initial Reaction)

So, I am now finished with Evangelion. I watched the last five episodes of the series in a row yesterday, a dazzling, trippy experience that ended with the two instant classic, frustrating and brilliant final episodes. I read that Anno had a mental breakdown halfway through the show, and you can see the change, the overall narrative fades into the background, a mess of ideas and themes that never quite coalesce into a satisfying narrative. They’re replaced by an intense examination of the characters’ psyches. I loved it, I think the last two episodes are some of the most powerful psychologically subjective filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and the series on a whole is absolutely brilliant. It was an at times shaky start, but the last half of the show is as strong as anything I’ve seen.

Episode 21 gives us a bunch of backstory on the characters and completes the show’s shift in focus from its teen pilots to the older characters. There’s three generations involved here, Gendo Ikari and his era have left major scars on both Misato and Ritsuko and the younger pilot generation. At first, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the backstory stuff, it lacked the psychological depth of the subjective interludes we’d been seeing over the past few episodes. However, as we got further into it, the twisted nature of all that was happening became clear and it got pretty interesting.

When I first watched it, I read it that Rei was a clone of Shinji’s mother, created by Gendo after she’d died. Her mysterious appearance as a ‘daughter of his friend,’ plus the wonderfully twisted nature of that idea made me think it. At this point, I still can’t tell you exactly what Rei was, but it appears she was actually some kind of clone, possibly created from the angel DNA, an early experiment by Gendo. But, was some of his mother in there too? I think it makes sense, both thematically and from what we see of Ikari’s relationship with her elsewhere in the series.

My favorite scene in the episode is the incredibly harsh moment where young Rei tells Ritsuko’s mother she’s “an old hag.” Ikari is so utterly devoid of humanity, he would use this little girl to mess with the woman he got tired of fucking.

The show does a great job of creating iconic images and cycling through them as the series goes on. The chalk outline of her body is one of these, a warning to later generations not to mess with Gendo Ikari. Almost all the episodes in the latter half of the show start off solid, but unspectacular, then kick up their game in the second half with a dazzling series of moments that leaves me wowed. Every episode in this run, and the second half of the show in general, had something that awed me, and that’s a testament to just how bold and exciting the filmmaking was. The story had interesting twists, but the real enjoyment came from the characters and the way their mental states were portrayed. Anno does a great job of making these characters feel totally real and relatable, despite the fact that they’re caught up in this crazy robot-angel war.

The flashback episode also features some interesting stuff with young Misato and Ritsuko. However, the question that’s been vexing me since the first few episodes remains, is Ritsuko in love with Misato? So much of the show is telling me she is, the way she behaves towards her both in those flashbacks and in scenes like the driving scene in episode 20, where she says Misato has no shame for going to be with a man once Shinji’s out of the Eva, but who’s she to talk?

So, the revelation that Ritsuko was sleeping with Ikari came out of nowhere for me. I can understand the desire to have the sins of the mother repeated with the daughter, but it just didn’t feel right. I thought that Ikari was sleeping with Rei, the fourteen year old clone of his dead wife! Things are twisted, perhaps the director’s cut versions of 21-24, or End of Evangelion will give me a definitive answer on the issue. But, there’s just too much there for me to say I’m reading a lesbian subtext into it that’s non-existent. Maybe she’s sleeping with Ikari as part of her desire to both be like her mother, and have power within the organization. She hated her mother, and yet she becomes her in every way.

So much of the show’s final episodes are consumed in this weird Freudian angst that plagues all the characters. In Episode 20, there’s a radio broadcast that discusses the “oral stage,” in which a man wants a woman who’s like his mother in every way, except we can sleep with her. This is woven in with Misato and Ritsuko’s dialogue for a scene that’s pretty tricky to view with subtitles. The oral stage concept is clearly tied to what almost all the characters are experiencing, particularly Shinji who has a weird relationship with a bunch of mother figures.

That same episode features a strange hallucination in which Shinji retreats into the Eva, and seems to go back into the womb and meet his mother in Heaven before being birthed out again. I’m sure it bothered a lot of viewers, but I love the fact that the show essentially abandons trying to construct any kind of coherent mythology around the angels and Evas, and instead turns the whole thing into an examination of these characters’ minds and the damage within. There’s less overt dramatic tension, but more emotional engagement for me. In a way, the end of the show is like climbing into our own Eva and merging with the characters, experiencing the world like they do, and finding out that their issues and mental workings are quite similar to ours.

I’m going to delve deeper into the exact happenings of Episodes 21-24 after I watch the director’s cut versions of them. There’s so much in these episodes, it was impossible to process it all in one viewing. Let me just discuss two sequences from those episodes that absolutely owned. The first is Asuka’s failed battle against the angel. She walks out there to battle the angel and all of a sudden Handel’s “Messiah” hits on the soundtrack, a beam of light cuts through her and we’re plunged into her mind. I was horrified at what was happening to her, but the sequence on the whole is dazzling. I felt like I was watching a Kubrick movie, with the juxtaposition of this joyous classical music and the violent psychological destruction.

Asuka is essentially raped by the angel, he drags up all the bad memories in her head, and leaves her there to suffer in the Eva. It’s hard to watch her sitting alone afterwards, talking about how he “defiled” her. As the series continues, she becomes completely ineffectual, and the last we see of her, she’s in some kind of coma, her spirit broken.

The other moment that really dazzled me, happened in “The Beginning of the End.” This episode introduces the final angel, or is he the Fifth Child? Or are they the same thing in the end? Things get weird when Kaworu makes a pass at Shinji. This raises some interesting questions about Shinji. He rejects Kaworu, but not before agreeing to take a bath with him, but he snaps back at Misato when she reaches out to comfort him.

I’m unclear what both her intentions were in that moment, and what his interpretation of her intentions was. Was she just trying to take his hand, or did she have something more in mind? She wanted to comfort Shinji, and her statement after, asking if he’s “afraid of women” makes it seem like she had more in mind than just a touch on the hand. I imagine these are the kind of questions that have been pondered countless times since the show aired.

Anyway, Kaworu takes control of the second Eva, and moves down to find Lilith, with Shinji in pursuit in Unit 01. The whole thing is scored by “Ode to Joy” which lends the scene this operatic, absurd, brilliant quality. Again, I was feeling Kubrick’s spirit hovering around the sequence. The Evas descend and the universe moves closer to its end. Knowing that the last two episodes were some kind of surreal, mental piece, I was expecting them to reach Adam and destroy the universe, so the tension was really high.

But, visually the sequence is absolutely standout. Few images are as brilliant as Kaworu hovering in the air as the two Evas battle behind him. It was over the top and brilliant, particularly during that audacious minute long pause with no movement at all, just Shinji holding Kaworu in his hand. Anno and co. really outdid themselves with these last few episodes. Every episode had an instantly iconic image, and throughout there was a lot of formal and visual experimentation that generally paid great dividends.

Kaworu made a big impact in his brief appearance on the show, mainly because unlike every other character floating around, he seemed generally at peace with himself. He seeks Adam, finds out that Adam isn’t there, and has no particular problem being put to death. Now, I consider myself a pretty adept film viewer, but I was one step behind for much of the episode. Luckily, I had read an issue of Lucifer a couple of weeks ago which discussed the concept of Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who he rejected, prompting her to go out and form some kind of demon race known as the Lilim. So, this Lilith seems to be tied to that. However, how this figures in the overall picture of things I’m not quite sure yet. I’ve got to see the episodes again, and End of Eva, before I can more accurately assess things.

But, I shall still scratch the surface of those last two episodes. Closing out a TV series is a tricky thing, just look at the fact that they required another movie to end things here. Obviously I’m looking forward to that film, but I think this ending does a great job of bringing things to a satisfying close. The problem with an ending is that it’s arbitrary, the only ending in life is death, that can make for a satisfying series closer, just look at the all time classic finale of Cowboy Bebop, but it’s not for everyone.

The finales I love most are the ones that go out media res, with questions still up in the air and something left to ponder. It may be frustrating that we’ll never know exactly what happened to Agent Cooper after the last episode of Twin Peaks, but I’d rather have that kind of final burst of energy capping things off than a traditional closer. Much as I love The Wire, the finale never surprised me, it was what I was expected, a solid conclusion to the story, nothing more, nothing less. It probably helped that I was going in expecting a psychological experience, not a narrative conclusion, but I really loved the episode.

It reminded me a bit of The Prisoner’s odd finale, but taken to a whole different level. The last episode of The Prisoner is a powerful piece of surreal storytelling, but it’s not at the level of this work. I can’t think of any other film that is so totally enmeshed both in the characters’ brains and in the process of self examination.

The use of title cards is really interesting, a device that turns the episode into a psychological examination, both for the character and the viewer. I think you almost have to bring your own life into it for it to work, to think about how you relate to the issues the characters are engaged with. People who are totally happy with themselves and their lives probably won’t have much to relate to, but I think there are very few of those viewers out there. The rest of us can engage with the characters’ struggles, even if most people aren’t as desperately troubled as this bunch.

I’m going to delve more into the episode tomorrow. There’s so much in there, it deserves a thorough examination to make sure everything is covered. And, tomorrow I’m also going to check around the city and try to find a copy of End of Evangelion. I hear the Death and Rebirth movie isn’t worth watching though? Is that the case or is there something of note in there? How about the director’s cut versions of 25 and 26?

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Wire: '-30-' (5x10)

The Wire ends with an episode that does an admirable job of bringing everything full circle, of returning to the feel of season one, and setting up a cyclical world, in which younger characters rise to fill the place of the fallen. Halfway through the episode, I wasn’t feeling the finality, it seemed like more of a season finale than a series finale, but the last half, starting with that scenic Baltimore montage, brought everything back to the feel the show had when it began.

But, is that a good thing? I really liked the episode, but I don’t think it matches what happened last week, or the season finales of previous years. The biggest issue is the mixed emotions produced by the fates of our various characters. Things turn out okay for most people, but at this point, do they deserve that? Does it give me any joy for the various police people to get promoted or let off the hook for their actions? Compared to the devastating emotional impact of ‘Mission Accomplished’ or ‘Final Grades,’ this finale didn’t quite hit me. But, it might have been too much to end the show on a down note like that, if life goes on, the bad is mixed with the good, and ultimately it all normals out.

The biggest question at the opening is what can they do about the serial killer. It’s in no one’s interest for the truth to be exposed, but is there some intrinsic value to the truth? That’s what Daniels believes, but he’s quickly turned away. If one arc in the episode really frustrates me, it’s Daniels’. He had so much fire at first, but he chooses to just roll over in the end. I can understand the desire to protect Rhonda and Marla, but surely he could have played things better.

Nerese may have some dirt on him, but he holds the ultimate trump card, the fact that Carcetti covered up the serial killer. I guess he doesn’t want to play dirty like they do, but isn’t the fate of Baltimore worth some mess? Is it better to let Valchek take over than to do whatever he can to get the truth out there? I do love having Valchek take over, it’s a perfect callback moment, but I felt like Daniels was more responsible than that.

Carcetti and his team, Steintorf in particular, have lost any sense of trying to do well. I never bought into Carcetti’s “new day,” the man sold himself out with Hamsterdam, and this latest cover up is arguably the more justifiable evil. The truth doesn’t bring those people back to life, and it would destroy the coalition Carcetti has built. But, doesn’t anyone even consider that people have the right to know the truth?

I think that’s the implicit tragedy of the season as a whole. At this point, no one thinks about the intrinsic value of events or the effect on those involved, the homeless, the weakest among us, are just a pawn used in the power games of the newspaper, government and police. They are an issue when it’s convenient for them to be an issue, when they’re no longer in the media focus, nobody will care. Simon has said that’s the point of the newspaper storyline, that what really matters gets no coverage, and it’s an extremely valid point, but not one that’s as emotionally affecting as what we saw in seasons three and four.

If there’s one fumble in this episode, I’d argue it’s the out of nowhere appearance of a real killer. The Scott ‘gray van’ scene was a great little piece, upping the tension and disrupting McNulty’s rediscovered suburban happiness. McNulty just wants the serial killer to go away, but it keeps coming back to haunt him. I like the way he now has to deal with the ‘bullshit’ he’s created, the same bullshit wasting his time is what he’s had the whole force chasing for weeks now.

But, having a real copycat killer just makes things too simple. It brings home the pain McNulty has caused, but it also makes it easy for everything to go away. The guy even confesses to all the murders! He’s the perfect out for everyone involved, so perfect he seems like a Scott Templeton invention. I can understand why they had this happen, it would be dramatically unsatisfying to have the murders stretching on into the future with no particular conclusion in sight, but it makes it too easy to close everything out.

What could have been interesting, and made the newspaper story more relevant to the season as a whole, would have been to Scott tell Gus it was McNulty who called him, leading Gus to piece everything together. Then, he would come into the same conflict with his bosses as McNulty, over whether it makes sense to undermine everything they’ve been reporting for the past few months. If changing public policy gets a Pulitzer, surely exposing police corruption on this wide a scale would be something they’d want to do? Arguably, the reason Simon didn’t go in a direction like this is because he didn’t want to vindicate the practices of the Sun, or have the paper make an actual change.

Much of the episode is about what doesn’t happen, people who take the easy out instead of trying to disrupt things. It’s all about backroom deals, and ‘carrying the weight.’ It makes sense, we’ve seen many seasons of drug dealers bargaining down sentences, taking the fall for their lieutenants. McNulty, Freamon, Daniels, Rhonda, they all do the same, get absolved of their crimes to help the bosses.

If the early part of the season provided a spotlight for Clay Davis, this episode gives Levy his moment in the sun, and shows why he’s the guy you want in your corner. He skillfully deals with Rhonda to free Marlo, aided by his right hand man, Herc. Herc is such a bastard, and pretty much cements it here. Over the course of the series, all he’s wanted is recognition, people to compliment him for what he’s done. Back in season two, there’s the moment where the MCU forgets that he and Carver are watching a house. This is the ultimate slight. Incidents like the camera, like ‘Fuzzy Dunlop,’ the mayorial blowjob, it’s all about getting attention, getting his stripes. That brisket from Levy is the equivalent of the stripes, and Herc is happy to sell out his police buddies for that commendation.

Perhaps the saddest scene in the whole episode is Dukie’s awkward shakedown of Prez. Prez knows he’s using, just looking at him, you can see the same sort of marks that scar Bubbles’ face. He’s spinning the same kind of story we heard from Bubbles in year one, the old I just need to hold this bit of money to get something, then I can get clean, get things together. The tragedy is we’ve seen what this did to Bubbles, just how long it took him to get back to the point where he can climb the stairs and eat dinner with his family.

For Dukie, Prez is basically the only contact he’s got left, the only person he knows, and after this, he’s gone. Prez himself is in a curious position. He’s much more in control of the school environment, not the awkward guy we saw in the fourth season, but is that at the cost of his caring? Is Prez going to reach out for kids like Dukie, or is he just going to go through the motions like the other teachers at the school. I particularly like how Miss Donnelly doesn’t particularly remember Dukie. She’s seen so many kids like him, they blur in her mind.

The obvious interpretation of events is that Dukie has become the new Bubbles. He’s a charismatic, nice guy, who got caught up in bad things. But, I see it more as Dukie becoming the new Sherrod. He doesn’t have even the minimal support network that Bubbles did, no sister to go to. I can’t see him living that long. If there is one Wire sequel project I’d love to see, it’d be five years later, Michael and Dukie meet on the street and reflect on what they’ve become.

The Dukie arc is the biggest downer in the series. Everyone else finds a kind of happiness, or achievement, even if it comes at the cost of their values. Dukie has become what he ran away from in his first days on the show. The one major question I’ve got about him and Michael is, do they know what happened to Namond? Does Namond ever think back on them? He saw Donut in “Final Grades,” but I’m thinking Colvin won’t let Namond go back to the streets where they are. It’s smart by Colvin, but I’d have still loved to see that reunion.

I think part of what made the finale a bit underwhelming for me is the fact that it was never the police stories that made the show great, it was mostly the stuff on the streets, Hamsterdam, the Barksdales and Cutty in season three, the kids, Snoop and Chris and Colvin’s school project in season four. That’s not to say the police stuff wasn’t good, it just felt more intellectually interesting than the emotionally visceral street level storylines. In this episode, we don’t actually get that much street activity. There’s the shots of familiar landmarks in the montages, but most of the action takes place in the offices, not with the people.

Our final moment in the gangster world is the absolutely fantastic scene where the co-op reforms to buy the connect and Cheese gets popped. I love Method Man as Cheese, he’s got a wild energy, and the juxtaposition of his speech about no nostalgia with Charles killing him for Joe is great. Clearly there is history on the street, people remember the Barksdales, people remember Prop Joe, but memories don’t hold power. The Greeks don’t care who’s putting out the product as long as someone’s putting it out there. Rick and Slim take over the connect, life goes on.

The more interesting loose thread out of the drug story is Marlo’s fate, a fate worse than death or imprisonment, life as…a normal person. Marlo in the suit had me gasp, it’s such a bizarre place to see the character, basically becoming what Stringer was. The shot of the harbor echoed Stringer and Avon’s view during their final conversation.

Possibly the best scene of the entire episode was Marlo confronting the kids on the street corner. The reason I loved it was the slightly surreal feel, like Marlo had wandered into a parallel dimension. It sounds like a dream, Marlo is wearing a suit, and has just come from a business meeting. He wanders onto the street, his corner, but no one knows his name. It was his reputation he valued most, the only time we see him reaching for affection is in season four, when he hands out money on the streets to win the affection of the kids.

The sad irony is that Omar, his greatest foe, has outlived him, his legend continues to grow, while Marlo is already forgotten. The reason for that is that Omar was an original, a self made man who built his reputation over years of work. Early in the season, I talked a lot about the idea of Omar as the embodiment of chaos, and chaos is always going to be more alluring than order. Omar the man may have been broken down to a hobbling wreck by the end, but the legend only grows, fending off ten guys from New York with his AK before getting taken down.

If ever David Simon wanted to satisfy The Wire fanbase, he only has to make a Legends of Omar movie, in which various kids reimagine Omar’s death in a series of increasingly over the top ways. I’d always equated Omar with Buffy’s Spike, a guy who came onto the show and had such powerful energy, he owned every scene he was in. But, I think he’s really more like Wolverine. When Claremont wrote X-Men, he kept Wolverine to a minimum, and used his defiant energy as a contrast to the order imposed by people like Scott and Xavier. The character worked best when he stayed on an Earth bound level. Things flailed when we saw him actually doing the sort of things the kids talk about Omar doing here, and I’m thankful that Simon only took Omar so far over the top in stories, not in the reality of the series. But, I can still dream about my Omar versus a hundred AK-47 wielding ninjas series, right?

What will become of Marlo? That’s one of the biggest questions at the end of the series. My guess is he’ll get pulled back into the game and eventually wind up in jail. He’s like Avon in season three, given a chance for a totally legit life of easy money and luxury, but he doesn’t want that. He wants his name to be on the streets, his rep to be legendary, and you don’t get that by building a condo. Either way, it was a great end for the character.

Continuing with the cyclical theme, we get Michael as the new Omar, holding his own double barreled shotgun. Last week, I was pretty uncertain about what would happen to Michael, could he just walk away from the game? Was he going to go after Marlo? I remember him telling Bug that he’d have more money for their aunt, so clearly he was going to be doing something violent. I feel like Bug is the justification Michael uses for what he’s doing, he has to get this money so that Bug can have a good life, can get out of the troubled world Michael finds himself in.

The Omar parallel was perhaps a bit heavy handed, but when you’ve got to spell out the rest of a character’s life, it’s probably not the time for subtlety. A question that lingers for me is why Michael felt he had to abandon Dukie. I can understand the desire to not get him killed by Marlo, but wasn’t he aware that Dukie would find a worse fate alone with the junkman? Maybe he didn’t want Dukie to see what he’d become, a murderer. He knew that Dukie didn’t have what it takes to run in that world, and eventually Dukie would get shot by someone who wanted to get at Michael. But, to abandon him like he did, it still stings.

The one character on the streets who got an essentially happy ending was Bubbles. He’s now a Sun coverboy, and perhaps it was that story that finally got him up the stairs to his sister’s table. That one moment made up for a lot of the darkness elsewhere in the episode, and provides a great conclusion to his arc. The guy’s been through so much, and that moment is totally earned. At the beginning of this season, it was frustrating to see a Bubbles who had lost so much of his spirit, but in the end, he’s back to how he was, only clean and healthy. I only wish we could have had one more scene with him and Kima, or at least a moment where she sees the newspaper article about him and smiles.

Speaking of the newspaper, the Bubbles story was easily the most effective use of them during the season. I suppose that might play into Simon’s point, that we’re only emotionally attached to the good journalism, but I still feel like doing a story where the point is the story we’re telling isn’t the story that matters is a bit too conceptual to work on an emotional or narrative level. The story resolved itself well enough, but I still didn’t get any sort of emotional charge out of it, maybe drama is an artificial construct, maybe it’s ‘too TV’ for Simon, but this story just wasn’t particularly exciting or affecting in the way the rest of the show has been, and nothing in this episode justified its strong prominence in this season.

This leaves us with the police side of things. In the end, everyone but Kima sacrifices their morality for the sake of convenience, to protect others, or simply because that’s how it’s done. But, issues with the overall resolution aside, the last few scenes were all pretty great, particularly the pub funeral for McNulty.

This season saw the return of ‘McNutty,’ McNulty’s troubled, alcohol fueled trouble making self. The funeral is about laying that guy to rest. McNulty has one final moment with the guys, is happy there, and then walks away. It’s a major contrast to what Beattie said his wake would be like, the people he knew at work are in a lot of ways his family, they care about and love him in their own way, but he also knows that staying in that world isn’t healthy. He doesn’t begrudge Kima for what she did, that was inevitable, and in some ways I think he’s happy it happened. He is now free to move on, he can’t return to the force even if he wants to.

So many people were expecting a sad end for McNulty, but I don’t think he really deserved it. He did some bad things, but, much like Colvin, he was a character who always tried to act in a way that would make things better. He looked outside the system for solutions, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. In an episode where so many people accept things as the way they are, give up on the real substantive change in favor of personal gain, it’s refreshing to see someone who was willing to put himself on the line to do real police work. So many of the higher ups assume that McNulty acted solely to get himself the OT money, they can’t even conceive that he’d have a real stake in solving crimes and improving the streets. And, like Bunny, he has to take a fall for what he did.

Midway through the season, I was really frustrated with McNulty, on the border of disliking him, but in the end, I have a lot of respect for what he and Lester did. They succeeded in getting Marlo out of the game, was that really worthwhile? Maybe not, another kingpin will rise to replace him, but Marlo had such a short temper, such an easy trigger finger, maybe the next guy will do a better job of abiding by the implicit no bodies, no hassle rule. They did what they could to change things, the system ultimately ate them up and shat them out, but I think the episode kind of vindicates their scheme.

And, after all these years, Shardene finally returns. I wasn’t sure if she and Lester were still together, but clearly they are, and she still has a lot of love for him. That final moment, where he makes dollhouse furniture with her feels like peace in the same way the wonderful silent scene of Beattie resting her head on McNulty’s shoulder does. Beattie once again feels safe with him, feels safe letting her kids get attached to him, and with him off the force, the good McNulty should prevail.

The other ‘good cops’ generally get what they deserve. Carver moves up the ranks, thanks to his good police work, not dirty dealings, and Daniels gets to groom a potential successor before leaving the department in the incapable hands of Valchek. I’d have liked to see more of Carver this season, but his arc reached its climax with the failure to save Randy last season. When he tells Herc, it all matters, at the beginning of this season, that’s the years of experience talking. He learned those lessons and changed, Herc didn’t. If there’s one hope left in the police force, it’s Carver.

Kim and Bunk will go on doing what they do, investigating murders the right way. They aren’t going to change the system in the way McNulty did, but they’re testaments to the fact that the system can do good, if people are more concerned about doing their job than scheming for a promotion. I think Simon’s real issue is with people like Rawls, who are forever trying to get to the next level instead of doing good where they are.

And, that pretty much sums up Carcetti too. At this point, he is willing to sacrifice everything to become governor, and we don’t even hear him talking about the good he’ll do once he’s there. It’s become an end itself, the fa├žade is dropped, he serves only himself. He wins in the end because Carcetti offers exactly what people want to hear from a politician, he speaks in fiery words about change and a better world, but behind closed doors, serves only himself. If you want to offer a potentially cautionary tale about Barack Obama, Carcetti would be the perfect example. I don’t know what Obama is like in private, but if you can rise from state senator to presidential candidate in eight years, it’s clear there’s some ambition there. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but in Carcetti’s case, it’s clearly backed up only by self gratification, not a real desire to help people.

Among the many characters who fail to step up in this episode is Norman, who laughs at the homeless serial killer instead of trying to get Carcetti to really to something good. His arc has been essentially implicit, but didn’t he use to try to do good? Maybe he’s become so used to Carcetti doing the wrong thing that he’s given up, or maybe he too is drunk on the thought that Carcetti could be governor, but I think the decision to cripple the opposition voice has made the Carcetti scenes less compelling. No moment in this episode matches Carcetti’s decision to forgo the state funding for schools at the end of last season. Of course, since Carcetti always does the wrong thing, there wouldn’t be much tension there either way.

I’m not thrilled with the choice of song for the closing montage. While it’s nice to bring it full circle to season one, the song lacks the emotional, propulsive power of other closing montage choices. Plus, after hearing the versions of the song used in seasons three and four, the season one version pales in comparison. And, unlike most seasons, where the action builds right up to the end, and resolution is left to the montage, we know where most of these people end up. Still, it was nice to see everyone one more time, to know that Kenard gets picked up by the police, and that life generally goes on.

The decision to show so many random shots of Baltimore takes away from the reality of the narrative world, but also brings back some of the feel of season one. The show has gotten more and more ‘comfortable,’ it’s got its own world, we know that world and accept it. But, seeing these random faces and unfamiliar corners makes it clear that this is a real city, not just a place on a TV show. It was great to see the terrace from season one and the ports from year two again.

The final moment would probably sound pretty surreal if you’d describe it before seeing the season. McNulty and a homeless guy drive back to Baltimore, but in context, it feels right. McNulty tries to absolve for his sins, and at least help out this one guy. The city may be fucked up in many ways, but it’s still home, for him and Larry.

As an end for the five year story, I think it’s appropriate, but in some ways, it narrows the show down a bit to fit all the characters into roles people were playing in season one. I appreciate the symmetry, but the show had expanded so much, it feels a bit reductive to have Sydnor playing McNulty, Dukie as Bubbles, etc. It almost feels like the intervening years never happened, maybe that was the point, to show that in the long term, we’ll all just filling the same roles, moving through the same system, but didn’t anyone make a mark?

That’s part of what I loved so much about the Stringer and Colvin characters. They broke out of the mold, and created new institutions. They both ‘died’ for it in their own way, but no one came along to take over for them.

In the grand pantheon of series finales, this one reminded me most of The Sopranos, or its first 59 minutes, pre Journey part. Both episodes were about getting things back to normal after the trauma of the season, of people returning to old patterns and finding a way to go on living with some kind of happiness. Yes, there’s some down endings, but on the whole, both were pretty upbeat finales. And, I think there’s a reason no one talks about anything other than the last scene in The Sopranos finale, the rest was pretty much what you’d expect, and even though this wasn’t exactly as I predicted stuff would occur, it felt like I thought it would feel. There weren’t any moments that killed me in the way Colvin’s silent treatment of Carcetti, the Bubbles NA speech or Michael and Dukie’s split last episode did. People may say that it’s always the penultimate episode that brings the fireworks, but looking back at ‘Final Grades,’ it’s clear that wasn’t the case.

So, in the end, one of the greatest series of all time goes out with a really strong, but not exceptional finale. I’m happy with the ending, but I don’t think anyone will rank it with the series’ finest hours. But, that’s largely due to its message. I don’t like to see characters I respected compromise everything, and that’s what we see repeatedly here.

I suppose that’s the ultimate tragedy of the episode, the fact that it’s so easy for everyone to believe the lie. And, that’s certainly a relevant message for our times. Everybody votes for war in Iraq because it works for them politically, they think it’ll be a quick, easy political jolt, but it becomes it’s own sprawling beast, and careers are made because people refuse to speak out. Nobody wants to admit just how bad things are, and in the end, they benefit from it. But, watching that final montage, know that Carcetti’s governorship, Rhonda’s judge position, Nerese as mayor, it’s all built on lies, and it’s the people on the streets who suffer, the ones who are left behind after the election ends and the call for change leads only to stasis.

If nothing else, this show is important because it pointed out that the urban poor don’t just disappear when that issue is no longer in the news, that drugs don’t go away because the ‘war’ on them isn’t front and center anymore. If you want to see this show’s relevance, just think about all the people who’ve suffered here, all the institutional failures and then compare that to what this year’s presidential candidates are talking about, tax cuts for the rich and an inordinate amount of money to make America ‘safer.’ We don’t need terrorists to kill us, there’s thousands of people dying on the streets of America’s cities everyday while we spend two trillion dollars to kill people on the streets of Iraq. Well, at least that war will give us Simon’s next project, the much anticipated Generation Kill.

And, finally, no matter my feelings on this episode, I want to thank everyone involved in this show for giving us one of the most intelligent, emotionally powerful pieces of art ever created. Much respect to David Simon, Ed Burns, Idris Elba, Andre Royo, Robert Wisdom, Dominic West, George Pelecanos, Joe Chapelle, Seth Gilliam, Wendell Pierce, Wood Harris, Robert Chew and everyone else involved in the show. It was a masterpiece.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1x13 - 1x19

The past few episodes of Evangelion have taken things up in a major way. Delving more into odd psychological immersions and really emotional angel battles, every episode’s got something really memorable about it. And, notably, it also makes it clear why some of the things that annoyed me early in the series were in there. I’m still not sure what’s up with the penguin, but everything else is locked up pretty tight.

Everything starts to take off with “Weaving a Story.” I was almost tempted to skip it when I saw that it would be a clip show episode, but the second half switches everything up and gives us the first of the show’s journeys into psychological surrealism. Rei’s monologue about the many versions of herself and the nature of the universe is fantastic. I love the flow of the words, and the concepts discussed.

It also gives us some interesting insight into Rei. She’s the most enigmatic of the series’ characters, the only one of the pilots who’s selflessly committed to what NERV is doing. But why is she so committed? Why is she willing to put herself through all kinds of trauma? The primary motivation seems to be her relationship with Commander Ikari. One of the series’ most striking images is Rei in that tube, Ikari looking on at her, and the two of them smiling at each other. They’re both soldiers, with no life outside the mission, and in Ikari, she sees a protector.

The question for me is, what is the exact nature of their relationship? I’m not sure if we’ll ever find out definitively whether it’s a sexual relationship or more of a father/daughter thing. Either way, it makes Shinji jealous. Rei herself seems to be uncertain of her feelings towards Shinji, unable to deal with any of her more ‘human’ feelings. It seems like she only feels emotionally alive when she’s with Commander Ikari, and the reason for that is precisely the fact that Ikari is so emotionally closed down, she doesn’t have to open herself up. Even the repressed Shinji at least makes the nice overture of cleaning her place.

The next great episode was the lengthily titled “Those Women Longed for the Touch of Others’ Lips and Thus Invited Their Kisses.” I was hoping this episode would finally clarify the uncertain love triangle of Kaji, Ritsuko and Misato, but things only got more bungled. The thing that vexes me is who Ritsuko is supposed to have feelings for. My reading for much of the series has been that she’s got feelings for Misato, maybe that’s coming out of nowhere, or perhaps it’s too deep a reading of that cat mug on her desk, but it’s what I’m seeing. There’s definitely something up with her and Kaji/Misato, but the show doesn’t make it clear who she’s actually jealous of.

Regardless, those scenes at the wedding were great. I know I cracked on the ‘slice of life’ moments from earlier episodes, but here, they worked great. There are a couple of reasons, one is the reduction of over the top not funny comedy moments, another is my increased attachment to the characters. I feel more grounded with them, so I can appreciate Asuka’s over the top antics as her personal mode of behavior, not simply an unbelievable way for everyone to behave.

I really like the adult dynamic of the bar scenes, and Misato’s subsequent drunken walk home. It’s great to get a break from the angel of the week format and get to focus on the characters. I also like the contrast of the more sophisticated Misato/Kaji relationship with the adolescent hormone surge of Asuka and Shinji. There’s clearly some feelings there, but neither one wants to acknowledge them. She kisses him ‘to waste time,’ but there’s more than that there.

Throughout, I really like her hopeless crush on Kaji. Having the characters be fourteen years old was jarring at first, it seemed like it’d be easier to just bump them up to eighteen, but in plotlines like that, you get a naivete that older people just don’t have. She can never be with Kaji, but she’ll still try, she hasn’t had her heart broken yet.

In the later episodes, the Evas become these exaggerated representations of the adolescent feelings. Everything is surging, they have so much power, and try as they might, the adults in their life can’t control it. I think the Eva as metaphor for the power you gain by growing up is best realized in Shinji’s storyline. This is a kid who won’t assert himself, who wont’ acknowledge any of the power that he has, but put him in the Eva and he is able to do so much more.

The nature of the Evas has been somewhat uncertain throughout the series, are they organic or mechanical, and what exactly is the relationship between pilot and Eva? As we find out here, the Evas are actually built from Angels, they are what they’re trying to destroy. During ‘Introjection,’ we see an angel fight from the outside, and realize that the Evas are just as dangerous as the Angels. It’s the giant Eva head that crushes people near Shinji’s shelter, and Shinji is blamed for injuring Toji’s sister earlier in the series.

Shinji has grown into quite an interesting character over the past few episodes. I particularly love the moments in ‘Splitting of the Breast,’ where he’s trapped inside the Angel and goes on a strange, psychological journey. The filmmaking there was absolutely amazing, the flickering white stripe waving across the screen during his voiceover. I really love what Anno is able to do with those interludes, where narrative takes a backseat and we explore a character’s mind.

Part of what makes it work is that it’s conceptually tied to what’s going on in the episode, and central to Shinji’s arc. The central idea is that he’s more concerned about making other people like the Shinji Ikaris who live in their head than making himself happy. Having such a standoffish father is going to do that to him, he is forever trying to live up to expectations he can’t possibly match. This all leads to the glorious moment where he bursts out of the Eva, blood spraying all around. Visually, the second half of that episode is absolutely astonishing, it’s still my favorite of the series so far.

Next up, we get the arc of Toji, the fourth child. This arc clarifies a lot of the issues I had earlier in the series. It makes clear that Shinji, Rei and Asuka aren’t going to just any school, the school is just as much a control mechanism as NERV itself, designed to herd potential ‘children’ together and control them. The arc also makes clear why Aida and Toji were in the series in the first place, I still think they could have been a bit less annoying, but the turn they’ve taken makes it worth it.

Particularly touching was the arc with Toji and the Class Rep, Hikari. She seemed like a pretty one note character, but gets more depth here, and the scene in ‘Introjection,’ where she brings Toji lunch is one of the most emotional in the episode.

Of course, this is a show about giant robots attacking stuff, and the battle in ‘Ambivalence’ is the show’s best to date. Both that episode and ‘Introjection’ turn the Eva battle into a conflict between father and son, with Shinji gradually rebelling against his father. I love the visceral nature of the battle in ‘Ambivalence,’ of the dummy plug Eva tearing through the other Eva, blood spraying everywhere, parts crushing. I think it’s a bit of a cop out to not have Toji dead after that, but perhaps he has a part still to play in this story.

It looks like we’re building to a showdown between Shinji and his father. Shinji has apparently merged with the Eva at the end of ‘Introjection,’ and with such power in him, is he going to stand around and take orders? The whole thing is a metaphor for growing up and rebelling against the adult world that raised you. You can’t control children, eventually they’ll become their own beings, and you have to let them go. But, Commander Ikari doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’s eager to let Shinji go.

So, things are definitely rolling. I’m loving the series now, am wrapped up in the main plot, and wowed by the psychological interludes. Bring on those final episodes.