Monday, 29 May 2023

Yellowjackets - Table of Contents

Season One: 

Season Two: 

Yellowjackets - The wilderness chose.

Yellowjackets: 2x09 Storytelling.

Shauna: IT was just us. 
Lottie: Is there a difference?

This whole season of Yellowjackets has been about the question of whether Lottie’s conclusion that the wilderness itself has an intention is correct. Are these women being haunted by a spirit, or is it the psychological trauma of what they have had to do to survive that is directing their actions? It’s a relevant question from a storytelling perspective – basically, a question of genre, of what show exactly it is that we are watching here. The genius, I would argue, of Yellowjackets is that the answer doesn’t really matter, and is therefore never necessary to give in any definite sense. It doesn’t matter if the wilderness demanded the sacrifice of Jackie and Javi (and, doubtlessly, countless others to come who never made it back). Some of the participants in the rituals need to believe that Lottie is correct because it justifies their actions and takes the choice out of it, but we also get glimpses this episode that others are fine with the idea of survival itself justifying whatever was necessary to achieve it (it’s interesting that it’s Van of all people making that argument to Travis). Misty never seemed particularly bothered either way, content to do whatever it takes to ensure she makes it back, and when back, to keep herself and her friends safe. It’s a much more complicated story with Taissa, Shauna and Natalie. 

The girls return from the hunt with Javi strung up like a slaughtered deer. In the absence of Lottie, Misty has taken over, arguing that the wilderness chose – even to Lottie herself, who seems horrified by the idea that she has started this, something she never really wanted. Travis grieves, but there is no real escape anymore unless your Coach Ben, who has somehow survived all this time without eating any human flesh, and has also discovered the cave in which Javi has managed to get by on his own. You could see this as a counterargument to the idea that the slaughter is necessary, but I think based on how severe the effects of starvation have been for everyone else, it is likely not everybody would have survived if the woods hadn’t served up Jackie. It’s a sign of how desperate things are that Travis barely manages to rage against anyone about Javi’s death, and that he, once Shauna faces the grisly task of turning him into meat, partakes. In fact, he doesn’t just eat – he is the one who is given the one piece of Javi that is still recognisably human, and takes a bite out of his heart, as if finding new aspects of the ritual on the fly. Lottie, revived by the meal, draws conclusions from what she has witnessed: her disciples have learned all they can, they hear the wilderness themselves now, they no longer require her leadership. Instead, she anoints Natalie, who appears to be transformed when each of the others demonstrate their devotion to her. She has always carried one of the heaviest burdens out there as the designated hunter of the group (I’d say the heaviest short of Shauna, who butchers), and at least in that moment, it doesn’t feel like she perceives that responsibility as a burden, but like some kind of enlightenment that lifts her. 

A lot has happened since that moment. It took countless more months and hunts for some of them to make it back to civilisation, and we’ve seen how Natalie (and Lottie) ended up unable to cope with their burdens, least able to take up the illusion of a normal life. Lottie was institutionalised until she somehow escaped into the life of a very productive and successful cult leader. Natalie failed repeatedly at rehab, in some kind of spiral with Travis, only helped by Taissa because she felt guilty. When Lottie suggests a sacrifice and Shauna, just to save time, argues they should do a hunt, repeat the ritual, it looks like everyone is agreeing that this is just a strategy to distract Lottie for a bit – Misty finds her doctor, they organise a psychiatric extraction team, a lot of organisation happening along with the stitching of the masks, the burning of the other three queens, and the sharpening (or blunting?) of the knives. Van doesn’t really argue for the hunt, but against an inhumane treatment of Lottie, an argument that in the end just works out, intended or not, to facilitate the hunt. They draw cards. It takes two rounds this time before Shauna ends up with the queen, and it feels as if the atmosphere changes immediately. Shauna still believes that they are wasting time to distract Lottie, but it feels like everyone else falls back into the ritual almost immediately as soon as the masks are on. They must have done this many times before – more often than we have seen, at least. They hunt Shauna, and it is hard to tell if this is pretend or for real, but my guess would be the latter. Callie interrupts with a gun, and then Lisa – who Natalie tried to save from all this – appears with a rifle, horrified to have found out that truth about Lottie. She threatens Natalie, and Misty jumps into action, eager to save her best friend – but tragically, her fentanyl-filled syringe ends up in Nat’s neck instead. She hallucinates a crashing plane, scared profoundly of what awakes her, but then her younger self and young Lottie comfort her. Lottie tells her – “It’s not evil. Just hungry. Like us. Just let it in.”

Ben spends the entirety of the episode on the outskirts of the action, looking on in sheer horror. He tries to convince Natalie to leave with him to the cave, thinking she is as far removed from what is happening as he is, not realising that she has joined the fold when she let Javi die. In the end, he finds some matches, locks the doors, and sets the cabin on fire with everyone in it, like he has seen evil and this is the only thing he can think to fight it. Everyone escapes narrowly with the things they will need to survive (Shauna takes Jackie’s dress…) – but their shelter, the thing that the wilderness built to sate its hunger in Van’s interrupted story, is gone. 

Random notes: 

The music cues in this episode are some of the best so far: Zombie by the Cranberries, to start off with, the Nouvelle Vague cover and original of Killing Moon, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Radiohead’s Street Spirit at the end. 

Not sure if relevant here, but historically, in dire situations, groups resorting to cannibalism out of necessity have ensured that family members wouldn’t eat each other, whereas the opposite happens here, as if to implicate Javi’s brother the most, to bind him back into the group. 

It is very Misty to learn from Lottie directly how unhappy she is about the decisions that were made in her absence and to translate that to the group as “Lottie’s pleased with the wildernesses’ choice”. 

I am not sure how I feel about the Adam Martin plot running through this season – I think it might have felt more poignant without the distraction, the almost comical aspect of Jeff vs the police. It is a comedy of errors of sorts – everyone else arriving at the compound just as the ritual is about to play out, Walt saving the day by killing a cop (RIP Kevyn, a lesson for all aging punks to be learned here) and setting the other one up to either cover it up or take responsibility for all the murders (he conveniently weaves Jessica Roberts into it). The main thing it does is place Callie at the right place, just in time for Lottie to look at her and call her powerful, which I assume will become significant in the future. She almost completes the ritual by killing Lottie, but instead only injures her. 

Jeff: The American family is crumbling, Callie, you try making a living in sectionals!

This episode had a lot of deeply moving moments, but to me it belonged to Sophie Thatcher, and the deep feeling of grief about Natalie's death - Juliette Lewis' performance in the last few episodes has felt fittingly subdued, especially noticeable for someone who is usually so kinetic (just watch a performance by Juliette and the Licks).  

Monday, 22 May 2023

Yellowjackets - They’ve changed because of her.

Yellowjackets: 2x08 It Chooses.

Lottie: And now we have to give it what it wants.

Does a hunt that has no violence feed anyone?

Lottie, after Shauna’s beating, appears to be close to death. There is blood in her urine and she is running a fever. This is beyond Misty’s skill. Lottie has served as the person who has given everyone hope, a spiritual guide towards survival in the absence of food and hope for rescue. With her being out of commission, everything seems to fall apart. Mari hears the dripping noise again, and has visions of bodies and blood. Taissa sees her reflection split in two, the Other One returning after weeks of absence. Akilah realises that Nugget, her pet mouse, has been dead long enough for its body to be completely desiccated. 

Lottie is not there to guide them, but it is like her intentions, her lessons, are reverberating beyond her ability to voice them. While Nat and Ben talk about that maybe, in the end, it wouldn’t be too bad for Lottie to die – because it has become obvious that everyone is following her now, including Tai and Javi – the girls decide that something must be done to procure food, and the idea of killing a dying Lottie does not even occur to them. If anything, Lottie’s survival appears to be paramount even to their own. 

So they draw cards, to designate who will become prey. It’s ritualistic, and shared, like that could absolve all of them from guilt. It feels like something Lottie may have come up with except Lottie is not involved at all, her ideology has taken on a life of its own. In the end, Natalie, the one person apart from Ben (who is off in the woods, on a path of discovery, looking for the tree that Javi has been drawing) who does not believe in Lottie, draws the wrong card. It’s significant – Natalie is the hunter, the person who ensured their physical survival before winter started. In a way, she’s their most important and essential team member, but this isn’t the kind of survival that they are looking for anymore. Shauna puts Jackie’s pendant on her. Natalie insists that she look her in the eye when she slits her throat. At the last moment, Travis intervenes, telling Natalie to run. 

Maybe this is what has become hazy is recollection, what they can’t remember in detail anymore. It is difficult to comprehend how Natalie could have ever spoken another word to any of these women. It explains why Taissa was paying for her rehab. The transformation of everyone into a bloodthirsty pack, almost appearing to cherish the hunt, is horrifying (there are some hints that maybe this isn’t Tai – that this is when the Other One fully emerges – but we’ll have to see). There is no hesitation here, as if the cover of a ritual has given them moral absolution. What saves Natalie is Javi’s conscience – he promises to show her a place of safety that no one knows about (it appears to be the very same warm cave that Ben has just discovered) – an attempt that is cut short when Javi breaks through the ice like the moose that Natalie once followed did. She is about to save him when the pack arrives, when Misty cautions here to leave him, to let him become the prey. They all stand by and watch him freeze to death in the water, each and every one of them complicit in his death. The idea of a sentient wilderness with a will that chose Javi instead of Natalie is an excuse they need to survive.

We already know that this won’t be the last hunt. Likely this is how there are so many girls who are unaccounted for in the present – they let the wilderness choose again and again, until they were rescued. In the present time, with everyone united in Lottie’s compound, all the secrets come out (there are so many wild ones it’s almost funny). Van and Lottie learn about Adam. Everyone finds out about Taissa hiring Jessica Roberts and Misty killing her “for the good of the group”. They finally put the pieces together to realise that Jeff was the blackmailer, that Shauna has been lying to them. Lottie listens to all of this and it fits perfectly into the conclusion she has come to. The wilderness has followed all of them home, and it is once again asking for a sacrifice – as if all those sacrifices made originally weren’t just about bare survival, about starvation, but a price they had to pay. She has, in true cult leader fashion, prepared a tray of teas, one of which is poisoned. She offers to choose last – but I do wonder, if at any point in the past, Lottie was ever truly in the selection pool. For now, nobody seems particularly inclined to take her up on the offer, but we’ll see if anything happens to change their minds. 

Random notes: 

Does it seem a little bit too convenient that Natalie is the one to draw the Queen card, as the only doubter in the group? 

Detective Matt/Jay may not have done what Callie tries to pin on him but he comes across as an entitled asshole, and historically, threatening Shauna’s family has come with a steep price. 

Misty reveals that she was the FBI and calling Walter her boyfriend a beat before Walter sends off an email to the police department! Also the reveal that Adam donated bone marrow to a friend, which feels like another one of those classic Adam red herrings – could’ve been Walter. 

After Kevyn suggests to Jeff that he could still get out with Callie, after outlining how horrifyingly surgical the dismemberment of Adam was, leads to a hilariously bloody nightmare in which Shauna attacks Jeff with her meatcarver arms. Also, we find out that Jeff knew about the baby – he tells Callie about it to try and explain exactly why Shauna is the way she is. 

Akilah pinning her mental sanity on her pet mouse, realising her mouse has been dead for a long time, and then stopping just short of eating it… 

For contrast, it is interesting to see how involved Van was in the past and how doubtful she is now, almost as if she had swapped places with Nat. 

Monday, 15 May 2023

Yellowjackets - I think it’s time we woke up.

Yellowjackets: 2x07 Burial.

Burial is as close to a light-hearted episode of Yellowjackets we’ll ever get, and it still features some of the grimmest bits this season has offered. I think the strength of the episode lies in the contrast between what is happening at the cabin in the past and in Lottie’s “intentional community” (cue epic Tai eye-roll) – and there is also a hint there, or an offered explanation, that maybe these women don’t exactly remember everything that happened back then in quite as much detail as we, the viewers, are seeing it unfold. The question is: Do they have to remember it to face it? If we take away all the bits about the show that hint at a supernatural explanation for the occurrences out in the woods, and take it as things that happened to a group of malnourished, deeply traumatised teenagers (and one adult), then is the way forward just to have drinks together and process what has occurred, what they did to each other most of all?

Shauna, Taissa and Van are newcomers (and Misty hasn’t been there for a whole day), and so they surrender their belongings and their phones and are sent out on their individual therapy programmes, chosen from a menu of obscure options. Shauna, choosing self-care, is given a goat kid to look after, a responsibility she approaches with the wariness of a woman who has previously approached wildlife as a source of food (RIP bunny rabbit). Bruce, the baby goat, is elusive and needs looking after – he’s an escape artist, especially with Shauna being distracted and reluctant. I’ve always been on the record as being very non-susceptible to cults, but if I was given a baby goat, it may lure me in – but for Shauna, who maybe (this is a theory) doesn’t really remember that much about losing her baby in the woods, it seems to remind her of how difficult it was for her to connect to her daughter Callie, how the fear of loss and the trauma she experienced has worked to put up a barrier between her and her family. Shauna is afraid that she will eventually be asked to sacrifice Bruce, but the real fear is just about how life appears to put everything she loves in danger all the time, and how the only way to emotionally deal with that threat is to mute feelings as much as possible. It is an insight, a first step towards some kind of resolve. 

Misty, who appears to embrace the idea of Lottie’s cult but not enough to truly want to partake in the therapies she offers, is put into a sensory deprivation tank by Lisa. What ensues feels like a beautiful homage to David Lynch’s classic Mulholland Drive (the dancing! The telephones!), a dream sequence in which Caligula, her only true friend in the world (played by John Cameron Mitchell with the same kind of gusto he last delivered on The Good Fight), tries to assuage her fear that everyone will always see her as “someone desperate for love, just some murderer”. It’s a fear that is mirrored precisely in the flashbacks to the cabin, where Misty, post the trauma of delivering Shauna’s baby, is reminded that she is meant to be looking for Crystal, while some of the girls suspect that she killed her. It’s that fear that has kept her from embracing Walter, a man who appeared to be perfect for her (but who, perhaps, she was right not to trust). She emerges from the tank resolved to call Walter and profess her love, except considering that this seems to lead directly to Jeff’s phone call to Shauna in which he attempts to tell her that Adam’s body has been found without giving away too much, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to tell him that he was right about this theory. 

I don’t think that whatever happens between Tai and Van in this episode offers much resolve, but it does move them forward somewhat. They are both most reluctant to participate in any kind of therapy – Tai gets far enough to take off her wedding band, Van “forages” a bottle of tequila from her car – but they do kiss again, and passionately, bridging however many years have passed since they broke up. But then, the same Van who back in the woods tried to tell Taissa that she thought all of her impossible survivals had to mean something, only to realise that maybe they didn’t, tells Taissa that she has terminal cancer. When Taissa asks her why she didn’t tell her earlier, Van explains that they have been strangers, that they no longer know each other, which, considering their closeness and how easily they have fallen back into it (keep in mind that Taissa has been wearing Van’s clothes this whole time!), is devastating. 

There is a lot of change that happens in the present time, with everyone back in the same place again, like they needed each other’s presence, the full set, for something to be set in motion. Lottie feels it, and talks about his with her psychiatrist: both the joy and trepidation of feeling that way again. Except then, and maybe this has been a long time coming, the psychiatrist turns into the antler queen, talking about the hunt, and then disappears entirely, something that takes Lottie by complete surprise. Maybe she thought they were actually healing together, but this is confirmation that the other thing that is coming back to the cracks is the violence they perpetrated against each other. It’s enough of a wake-up call that Lottie tries to send everyone away again, but whatever togetherness they have discovered is difficult to give up now. 

The two timelines are once again moving in perfect sync forward to a point of convergence. The parts at the cabin are hard and difficult: after being trapped inside for days after the trauma of Shauna’s loss, the snow has finally stopped falling and they can go outside again, shovelling their way out of the enforced closeness of the cabin. Shauna buries her son (the most devastatingly small bundle), and tells him one last time that it’s just them two against the world. Misty overhears some girls gossiping about what happened with Crystal, and pleads with everyone to start looking for her again to shift the suspicion off her shoulder, but then she also overhears two girls talking about maybe eating Crystal if she’s dead (I can’t for the life of me remember their names, which truly does not bode well for their future survival). Misty is now determined to find Crystal’s body first to spare her Jackie’s fate, but instead runs into Coach Ben, who is trying to commit suicide. This is a horrifying conclusion to something that has been happening on the edges of the main events: the beautiful dreamscape he has constructed to survive has fallen apart, with Paul walking away from him (“This was never meant to be your hiding place”), and he can’t face reality without his escape mechanism. But Misty does her best to convince him to stay, threatening to tell horrible stories about him, finally resorting to telling him she will out him in front of the whole world if he jumps (only Misty would weaponize homophobia to save a life). But he only steps back when Misty talks about how much losing the baby has affected her, how she tried everything to save his life. Maybe Ben has convinced himself that the girls no longer need him, that they’d be fine without him, but it’s clear that even the one he maybe thought strongest of all of them still needs someone she can rely on (“I can’t have another death on my hands”, she wails, and Ben doesn’t even know that this is really about Crystal). 

There is also a sense in the background of all these characters trying to come to term with the death of the baby that Lottie’s mythology about the wilderness has taken on a life of its own. The girls ascribe meanings and intentions to it that are almost evil, while Lottie insists that it is a helpful presence – and all the while, Shauna is simmering in her hatred, alienated from everyone, still stuck in that fever dream of everyone eating her baby. It’s a hatred that is directed at Lottie, regardless of the fact that Lottie has never intended harm. Jackie is no longer there to bounce her feelings off (Shauna stares at that empty space in the storage shed), and so it must explode eventually. The antler queen told her during the therapy session told Lottie that the wilderness allowed her to be her truest, most authentic self – and she herself has told Taissa that the Other One is somehow deeply connected to the wilderness, and is only trying to break free, that Tai needs to connect to her again. While all the survivors are connecting in the present time, sharing mead and insights, Shauna’s simmering fury breaks free at the cabin. She punches Lottie, and Lottie sends away Javi, and clasps her hand behind her back, because she believes that she must suffer Shauna’s wrath if they are to move forward. The beating that ensues is very difficult to watch – we’ve seen plenty of times what Shauna is capable off, and her threats are never empty, always backed up by a knowledge of the extent of damage she can cause. Nobody intervenes, and Shauna almost kills Lottie. And it feels like maybe this is one of those memories they all buried. Lottie remembered the hurt they caused each other, but it feels like for the moment, nobody else does. 

Random notes: 

I have a lot of feelings about how perfectly Lauren Ambrose and Tawny Cypress mirror Liv Hewson and Jasmin Savoy Brown. It’s almost like Ambrose’s addition to the cast has re-balanced something and made the show click together perfectly. 

Alanis returns for the theme song, except this time around it’s a weird, distorted remix. Also Nirvana’s Something in the Way used in the most effective way. 

There is a beautiful symmetry here in the joy that the girls feel when the snow stops back at the cabin and the joy with which they celebrate the snowfall in the present time. The snow covers things up that will be uncovered (Crystal, presumably, somewhere, a whole lot of buried emotions), and everyone in the past is furiously digging while the women in the present are digging and uncovering, emotionally. 

There’s… something happening with Lottie and Nat, right? 

I would have been furious if anything had happened to Bruce. Protect baby goat at all costs. 

Monday, 8 May 2023

Yellowjackets - It was a part of us.

Yellowjackets: 2x06 Qui.

Natalie: We did so much fucked up shit out there. Maybe it was to survive but I don’t think we deserved to.

Lottie: The power of that place. The god of that place. We did terrible things in its name. 

It feels fitting to have watched Qui so adjacent to Dead Ringers, a whole show about the body horror that is pregnancy and birth. It shows how bad it can go even under the best, most controlled circumstances, and things are definitely not in any way under control when Shauna goes into labour. Misty, who has been responsible for everyone’s medical care ever since chopping Ben’s leg off, is still suffering from flashbacks of accidentally having murdered her best friend Crystal. We see in a flashback that she was once the only person paying attention to a video about the mysteries of birth in health class (that was, for some reason, taught by Coach Ben, or maybe he was just filling in?), but she can’t deal with any of this now, especially when it goes sideways and there is way more blood than anyone expected. Taisha and Akilah are doing their best (while Ben tries to go to his happy place, playing charades with an imaginary other couple, interrupted by Shauna’s screams), but it’s obvious that things will go wrong fast. In the end, Misty does step up, while all the others begin chanting with Lottie, bringing sacrifice for the future baby, but before the outcome is revealed, Shauna blacks out. 

Qui has a terrible internal logic to it, in which all the storylines set in the present are leading up to one moment: everyone is drawn to Lottie’s compound, and everyone will unite there eventually. Misty calls Taissa, who asks Van to drive her. Taissa calls Shauna, reaching Jeff on the phone because Shauna is being interrogated by police about Adam’s murder (nobody else knows about this!), and tells him about Lottie. Van wants to stay out of it desperately, but she can’t, because whatever connection she had with Taissa is still very much alive (also signified by how quickly Taissa jumps into problem solving mode when she realises how deep under the video store is – maybe there’s an alternative version of their lives where Taissa never pursued her ambitions and they could have done all of this together, balancing each other out). Misty is of course already there, soon holding court over the other disciples when she realises how highly they value the stories she has about Lottie and Natalie. Natalie – who feels again very far removed from teen Nat, as if whatever happened has somehow affected her more severely than everyone else – is trying to find her footing, and is entrusted by Lisa with the care of the rescued goldfish (“You should be responsible for something other than yourself”, as if Natalie didn’t spend those months in the woods responsible for everyone), who she almost liberates into the freedom of death (because now that she knows that Lottie didn’t really have much to do with Travis’ suicide, she once again blames herself for infecting him with the darkness), but then stops herself like perhaps whatever Lottie and everyone else is doing is actually helping her. In the end, they all stand united, facing Lottie, who is making her way to them. It’s momentous, especially in light of Lottie having a conversation with the psychiatrist about how the returning visions and the feelings she has been getting make her believe that she was never mentally ill, that everything she has experienced was whatever was haunting the woods – which isn’t a relief, at all, because she knows that it has followed them back home. It’s a complicated reunion precisely because now they have to face that spirit together, the thing that Lottie calls a god. 

When Shauna wakes up to a beautiful day (woken up by Jackie’s voice, significantly), surrounded by her happy and smiling teammates, it immediately feels unreal (Elliott Smith is the soundtrack, beautiful but always inherently sad). The baby is big and perfect and screaming. The only thing that is wrong is that he won’t feed, but otherwise, everything seems okay. Shauna’s paleness is gone, the blood of the birth is washed away, there are no traces of the ordeal. She seems to have trouble connecting to the baby, but that is easily explained by how horrible the situation still is – how can she raise a baby in a cabin in the woods, with the spectre of starvation over them – but then, one night, after fending off Lottie’s attempt to feed him (“We need to feed”, Shauna seems to mishear), she does make a connection and speaks about her excitement at seeing him grow. It’s a miraculous, beautiful portrayal of motherhood, if a reluctant one under very difficult circumstances, and it is literally too good to be true, the kind of sanctuary that Ben escapes to when things get too hard. One night she wakes up and finds her baby gone, and emerges into a horrible scene of visceral violence – the others, feeding on her son – but then she truly wakes up for the first time, and that reality couldn’t be any more different. We see older Shauna in the police station, talking truthfully about being a bad mother, about the choices she made, about loving her family regardless, because how could she not – but in the reality of the cabin, she learns that her baby died, and she grieves, and insists on still hearing his cries. She told her son, in her hallucination, that it was just them against the whole world, so what does it mean that he is gone now? 

When they meet at breakfast, Natalie says to Misty that “We’re all like this, aren’t we?”, without being clear about what she means exactly – it could be everybody’s inability to make true connections outside of the people they were with at the cabin. Misty sent Walter away, regardless of how perfectly matched they seem. Natalie feels so solitary, maybe because we only met her when Travis was already dead. Taissa has married someone she has confessed to not feeling strongly about, and now something has made her return to Van, her first true love. Shauna says it in her police interview: that she loves her husband and her daughter, but she’s bad at it. And I don’t think that Jeff ever knew about the baby she lost, and how much of an impact it had on her marriage and having Callie.

Shauna: You have a kid that you don’t want to save a marriage that you got into out of guilt and shame and you just can’t really let yourself love either of them, but of course you do, you love them despite yourself, you’re incredibly bad at it.

 Random notes: 

Couldn’t stop laughing at the contents of Misty’s pockets at check-in. A knuckleduster. Tiny binoculars. A mysterious syringe. Handcuffs. Walter got lucky I think. Misty was prepared!

Blur’s Song 2, what a choice for the opening scene! And I’ve been very supportive of Akilah adopting the mouse for emotional support, but there was for sure not enough handwashing happening during the already complicated birth. Of all the moments to gently pet your mouse, this isn’t it! 

Sophie Nélisse deserves awards for her performance in this episode. 

Shauna telling her daughter that it would have been better if she had “just had sex with him”, and Callie later taking that advice in the interrogation room, is hilarious. The fucked up dynamics of the Shipmans/Sadeckis. 

Jeff listening to Fuk Da Police by N.W.A. while waiting for Shauna at the police station: priceless. 

Van tells Taissa about meeting the other one, and tries to decode what she meant by saying “we” – I think it’s clear from context that the “we” was Taissa and Van, as much as they both try to deny that they are still a unit (fitting that everyone else’s first reaction is to ask if they are back together, like that was always something they thought would likely happen). 

Sandy Good and Sandy Bad. I want to hear more about Van’s videostore categories. 

I’m curious to find out how things went that even the people who believed in Lottie, especially Van, seem to have dropped her completely, so much so that out of all the people uniting at the compound, Van is the most affected to see her again. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2023

Dead Ringers

It doesn’t take long to realise that Dead Ringers is one of the best self-contained seasons of television in a long time. It is, even in its hardest to watch moments, and there are many (it is very much a show about the body horror of pregnancy, for one, regardless of how many times one of its main characters insists that pregnancy itself is not a disease), impossible to look away from. Rachel Weisz gives a stunning performance in two roles: she plays twins Beverly and Elliot Mantel, both gynaecologists, but she manages the magic (it is fair to call it a Tatiana Maslany-esque magic, after the tour de force of Orphan Black) of playing both characters as clearly delineated individuals, so that there isn’t much question about which twin is currently on screen, even when the two themselves are deliberately switching roles. It’s not just the hair-up hair-down clarity perhaps chosen for the audience’s sake, but the way in which they are clearly very different women – there is barely a scene in which Elliot isn’t digging into something with enormous gusto, be it food or drugs or men, while Beverly attempts to disappear into the background. 

Beverly and Elliot are attempting to solve the horrors they see every day in their jobs at a New York hospital – Beverly focusing on the women she treats, who she sees again and again failed by a system that has yet to find a better way to make pregnancy and birth more bearable and less terrifying. On the first day we follow them, there are dead babies and dying mothers, and her plight to improve things is clear. Elliot is a scientist, approaching the idea of improving things with less of a focus on patients, but with a frustration about the legal limits to what she can do in the lab – a legal framework that her imagination and ability surpasses. It’s clear that they are fundamentally different in how they view ethics, and it is that difference they carry into a pitch to a billionaire investor, who could make their dream of a birthing centre with an attached lab a reality. 

One of the amazing things that Dead Ringers accomplishes is that in spite of the overwhelmingly amazing performance of Rachel Weisz, the secondary female characters manage to shine in every scene. Jennifer Ehle’s billionaire Rebecca (Ehle based her performance on Ayn Rand) is breathtakingly immoral, something the story desperately needs to propel itself forward and yet utterly captivating in its eloquence. The second episode of the show is mainly set in the twins’ pitch meeting, which takes place in Rebecca’s mansion – it’s one of several painful dinner parties, in which discussions and fight tease out moral alignments and force characters to confront how far they’d be willing to go to achieve their goals. The people assembled at that dinner party are universally awful (once again, the William Gibson quote about the rich comes to mind), and even before entering the lion’s den, Beverly knows what kind of people she is asking for money. It’s hard to believe that after the unflinching portrait of the Sackler family that Dopesick provided two years ago, Dead Ringers would manage to portray a family built on the devastating fall-out of the opiate crisis as even worse, but it does so without a doubt. These people aren’t just rich, they are perversely removed from the rest of civilisation by their wealth, and utterly bored as a result, to the extent that only the potential for thwarting morality gives them a kick. Rebecca has no interest in Beverly’s pitch to improve women’s health – if anything, she regards her morality as pedestrian. Elliot is the one who is both personally interested in running a lab removed from the law and knows it is the only way to get her beloved sister what she dreams of, and so adjusts the pitch to give these hyenas exactly what they are asking for. There’s a woman who has built a wellness empire and dreams of never aging (and, by extension, never dying – the new frontier for the rich, who can escape humanity in every other regard except the reality of death). There’s a cousin, who has directly profited the most from the opiates her family has manufactured and is now interested in biohacking, even though her examples of it are almost ridiculous in their mundanity. Later on, when the twins have secured funding and their futuristic centre (Handmaid’s Tale red everywhere the eye can see) is built, their rich audience’s reaction to what they show makes it clear what’s in their future: they’ll be providing the kind of life-extending, aging-defying technologies that the rich so desire, likely at the cost of their patients (because even before that, one of their most shocking encounter is a woman who uses a surrogate like an artificial womb, asking for baby after baby, insisting that she is the patient being treated, that her demands are paramount over that of the pregnant surrogate). 

Later in the season, they’ll be invited to Rebecca’s wife’s family in Alabama to open a second centre, and for me, it’s when Dead Ringers eloquence truly becomes apparent. Susan (Emily Meade, who was also memorable in the few episodes of Leftovers she was in) comes from old Southern stock: her father is a gynaecologist himself, descended from a long line of doctors. He presides over his colonial mansion with pride, and tells a story about how his forefather, the so-called founder of gynaecology, helped a young woman who suffered the ravages of a medical system disinterested in her plight. Later that night, Beverly wanders the mansion like a Victorian ghost, following the moans and cries she hears with a lantern down the corridors. It’s as if Dead Ringer has suddenly turned into an entirely different kind of horror story. She discovers all the parts of the story that the patriarch has conveniently left out: the woman was enslaved and experimented on without anaesthesia, suffering unimaginably. Her ghost furiously indicts, performing something that has the metre of a poem, making it clear to Beverly what she has condoned in accepting the blood money to fund her dream. She will never be able to own this woman’s story or pain, but she is now complicit in it. 

It's an incredibly haunting break in the rhythm of the show, a performance that breaks the story, almost: later it will be mirrored by another one, set more than a century later. Poppy Liu’s Greta cooks the twins’ food and cleans up their messes (other characters appear perpetually confused as to her role, her title). She also appears to obsessively collect whatever the twins discard, including answering machine messages from their mother. Her motives appear nefarious, especially in the context of Elliot’s illegal research: is she spying on them, collecting evidence? What is she doing with all these bits of minutia that contain their DNA, in a show where embryos are grown in tubes? In the end, it turns out that Greta is an immensely talented artist, working on a show about her own trauma, and in portraying that show, taking the viewer into it along another character who discovers it, Dead Ringers once again breaks a wall of sorts. The experience of grief is immersive. Greta narrates the tale of her mother dying giving birth to her, using all those bits she collected from the twins’ life to construct a tale about her own absent mother. It’s stunning compared to how the Mantel centre operates, where all the patients sit and are treated behind glass windows, always available for an audience to observe, never private in their most private moments, as if they themselves had consented to being part of a performance. 

And then there is Genevieve, played by Britne Oldford (back when she played Cadie in that unfortunate US remake of Skins, it was clear how great she would be one day, and it’s fantastic that she gets to be just that in Dead Ringers). She is a young actress who comes to the Mantels for an examination, because she has been having recurring dreams about motherhood. Beverly treats her first, but immediately becomes so smitten with her that she cannot continue (it’s electric), asking Elliot to switch with her. It’s a deceit that will have grave consequences, and it is very much hinted that the twins often do this – switch roles when they feel the other would be better equipped to handle a situation, blurring the lines between their identities. Later, to cheer her sister up, Elliot “gets” Genevieve for her – she seduces her, only for Beverly to pick up where Elliot left of. It is meant to be a fling, but it’s clear from the start that Beverly is in love and now haunted by the deception, a dark secret that hangs over the ensuing relationship like an anvil. The relationship is a deal-breaker for Elliot – the twins ridicule a stranger who has sexual fantasies about twincest in the first scene of the show, and yet their relationship is deeply intimate, and, at least to Elliot, meant to be exclusive of others. The biggest betrayal comes when Beverly, who has been unsuccessfully trying to have a baby with Elliot’s help, decides to get pregnant with Genevieve. Elliot feels Beverly slipping away, prioritising Genevieve over her, and worse, keeping this part of her life separate, something that they have never done before. What ensues is a self-destructive, very hard to watch spiral: at one stage, Elliot has an encounter with a homeless woman who taunts her with the idea that Elliot, rather than being more for being a twin, is actually being reduced, absorbed, lessened somehow into a sort of half-life. Furious, she pushes the woman over the ledge of the roof, but believes it was a drug-induced hallucination when no body shows up (it will later). 

In the end, this question of whether each of the twins can have their own separate life becomes the core of the problem. Elliot is now a liability, and as much as Beverly is aware of the inherent immorality of where the funding for the birthing centre comes from, as much as she despises Rebecca’s morality, she cannot let go. She betrays Elliot, cuts her out of her life (there’s a whole episode in which the vibrating of unanswered phone calls sets the background beat for every scene). It's impossible to truly capture the finale, the way it ends, except to see it. There is an underlying thread throughout the show about the annihilating aspect of motherhood, the idea of the pregnant woman being a vessel for something outside of herself (the show briefly touches on the question of abortion in discussing what it would mean if the Mantels could save even the youngest premature babies). In the calculation of identity, of whether it is an addition or a subtraction for the Mantel twins, both come to the same conclusion: their love for each other, the deep entanglement of their lives, leads to a bloody and brutal final switch – like they couldn’t live either with or apart from each other. Dead Ringers is an utterly captivating death spiral. 

2023, created by Alice Birch, starring Rachel Weisz, Britne Oldford, Poppy Liu, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Chernus, Emily Meade, Kitty Hawthorne. 

Sunday, 30 April 2023

Reading List: April.


Jenny Odell: Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock.
David Grann: The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder.
Andrea Pitzer: Icebound. Shipwrecked at the End of the World.


Victor Lavalle: Lone Women.
Ling Ling Huang: Natural Beauty. 
Jade Song: Chlorine.
Samantha Shannon: A Day of Fallen Night.
Samantha Shannon: The Priory of the Orange Tree.
Kate Morton: Homecoming.
Emily Tesh: Some Desperate Glory.
Arkady Martine: Rose/House. 


Looking for Alibrandi (2000, Kate Woods).
Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai).
Tytöt tytöt tytöt (2022, Alli Haapasalo).
Scream VI (2023, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett).
Ready or Not (2019, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett).
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, Peter Weir).
Against the Ice (2022, Peter Flinth).


Dollhouse, Season One, Two.
Traces, Season One, Two.
Godless, Season One.
The Diplomat, Season One.