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Black Mirror Swings and Misses with “Striking Vipers”

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“Striking Vipers” posits itself as the signature episode of Black Mirror‘s fifth season, reuniting Charlie Brooker with director Owen Ellis for the third time. Their previous entries, season two’s “Be Right Back” and season three’s “San Junipero,” are often considered pinnacles of the series – and “Striking Vipers” lines up neatly with its spiritual predecessors, offering the prerequisite distinct color palettes and striking lead performances.

“Striking Vipers” takes a bold premise to an unimpressive, meek conclusion, turning a wonderfully nuanced performances from Mackie and Beharie into a rather hollow thought exercise.

However, unlike the first two entries in Black Mirror‘s Cyber Love Trilogy, “Striking Vipers” feels strangely disengaged from the many questions it posits about queer identity, love in virtual spaces, and masculinity, slowly devolving into superficial observations about sexuality, happiness, and male friendship, withering away the massive potential of the first act as it limps to its conclusion.

Like many mediocre Black Mirror episodes, “Striking Vipers” is too enamored with the complexity of its own premise: Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II star as Danny and Karl, who are the embodiment of traditional masculinity in the opening moments. They go to the club, they fuck hot women, and they talk shit and slap fight each other while playing video games; look no further than Karl air humping Danny after beating him at a fighting game for the show’s subtle exploration of the undercurrents of male companionship.

Black Mirror Striking Vipers

Quickly, “Striking Vipers” cuts to 11 years in the future, observing Domesticated Danny and Karl the Aging Bachelor as they reunite at Danny’s birthday party. Again, “Striking Vipers” doesn’t aim to be subtle with their friendship: their conversations range from looking at Instagram photos of Karl’s girlfriend (Danny shies away from those, since him and his married wife are having sex on a fertility schedule) to talking about getting their ball sacks waxed – this is all we get of Danny and Karl’s relationship before “Striking Vipers” launches into the core of its story, which immediately undercuts the signature twist of the episode.

Karl’s birthday gift for Danny is a VR headset that connects to the neural network; in it, the two of them are set to play Striking Vipers X, the latest version of the fighting game they air humped to so many years ago. After Karl demonstrates how the VR set “recreates all the physical sensations” of humans, the two immediately begin making out, which opens the door on any number of wildly engaging ideas about gender, sexuality, and identity – but then refuses to engage with them on any kind of deep level.

For about forty minutes of its run time, “Striking Vipers” is fascinating in how it contrasts the lives of Karl and Danny, with their experiences in the game world, the contrast in color schemes between the two locations denoting just how much dangerous potential lies in the world of virtual reality, designed from the ground up to be a more enhanced, hyper real version of reality itself. Black Mirror often views technology like a cyber psychedelic of sorts – mind opening, transcendent, and utterly dangerous – and that comes through in the visuals of “Striking Vipers,” the only facet of the hour that’s able to mirror any of the other episodes its attempting to emulate.

Black Mirror Striking Vipers

The biggest issue with “Striking Vipers” is it never tries to move beyond the most basic question it posits, which is essentially “are two dudes fucking in VR gay?” There are moments that offer a much more tantalizing, textured exploration of sexuality in virtual spaces; after Danny cuts off their nightly fuck sessions, Karl desperately pleads with him, talking about how he’s tried to find the same passion they felt in any number of different virtual settings. But “Striking Vipers” ultimately is too afraid to engage with these topics on a deeper level; as it laboriously crawls towards its uninspired conclusion, “Striking Vipers” feels increasingly unequipped to engage with the ideas it raises.

Instead, it hyper focuses its attention on the emotional fallout of their hot online sex; they become withdrawn from the women in their lives, the world around them growing grayer and more nondescript as they silently try to figure out what made all the cyber cumming so great. The scene where Karl, as his in-game avatar Roxy, tells Danny about the physical sensation of experiencing sex as a woman, is the clearest moment of “Striking Vipers” edging (pun very much intended) towards much more interesting conversations: his eyes light up trying to find words to convey the description, settling on a laughable trite simile about guitars and orchestra solos before inelegantly exiting the scene.

“Striking Vipers” thinks it is quite, well, striking: but a sanitized conclusion renders much of what came before it pointless. After Danny and Karl meet in person to kiss (they end up fighting, after small hints Danny enjoyed the moment more than Karl, the one who desperately clings to their online relationship), “Striking Vipers” immediately jumps seven months forward, past any meaningful conflict for a disturbingly thin conclusion. In it, everybody gets the momentary satisfaction they want: Danny and Karl have sex online once a year, and Danny’s wife Theo (Nicole Beharie, who I wish was given more breadth to work here) gets to go pick up a stranger, so she knows girl still got it.

Black Mirror Striking Vipers

“Striking Vipers,” in its attempt to recapture the pure bliss of “San Junipero” and its darkly satisfying ending, completely undercuts what makes the show’s signature episode so strong. Where “San Junipero” confronted regressive views on sexuality and love, “Striking Vipers” is content to compromise, the role of technology only serving to further compartmentalize the emotions of its characters. Without insight into how this resolution was reached, “Striking Vipers” simply exits the many conversations it seems willing to engage with: “Striking Vipers” neither shows nor tells, and simply asks the audience to accept the way things are; that dudes just want bangable versions of their best friends, and once women serve their biological role, they’re free to seek the validation they inherently now seek?

It’s such a strange ending, and not in the fucked up, illuminating way the best Black Mirror endings are; it simply just is, refusing to ever engage with any of the complicated ideas it engages with, about marriage, affairs, sexuality… just about everything is washed away once the episode’s climatic, real-life kiss (and proceeding fist fight) takes place, rendering the entire endeavor inert. A misguided attempt to engage with the presumptive pillars of masculinity, marriage, and happiness, “Striking Vipers” takes a bold premise to an unimpressive, meek conclusion, turning a wonderfully nuanced performances from Mackie and Beharie (when she’s given room to express it, at least) into a rather hollow thought exercise.

 

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Black Mirror‘s observation that the future of video games is just everyone fucking in VR might be one of its strongest ever, and I wish the episode explored this idea on a broader scale. It would have alleviated some of the pressure to make this piece say something about its characters, which it deeply struggles to do in the third act.
  • Pom Klementieff (Guardian of the Galaxy) and Ludi Lin (Power Rangers) star as the in-game avatars, and they’re both terrific.

 

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Tommy

    July 30, 2019 at 4:20 pm

    The episode was amazing and delves well into the online world and the difference/blurring between real life and online relationships. I disagree with the critic quite a bit.

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Scrubs Season Two Episode 8 Review: “My Fruit Cups” Haphazardly Finds Its Way

“My Fruit Cup” is anticlimatic, messy, and fumbles at emotional resonance: despite that, it remains a rather important entry in Scrubs’ sophomore effort.

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“My Fruit Cups” is a strange episode to wrap one’s head around, a haphazardly constructed 22 minutes trying to introduce a lot of major character beats in one fell swoop. Rather than lean into the neat delineation formed between its two generations of characters – the residents are financially restless, while Carla and Cox deal with more mature familial issues – “My Fruit Cup” tries to follow the typical Scrubs formula, mushing all of its stories and ideas together into one linear narrative. As a byproduct of that approach, “My Fruit Cup” feels like 80% of the episode it needs to be – particularly in the final act, where it feels like a large chunk of the dramatic crescendo is just missing.

Like life, “My Fruit Cup” is anticlimatic, messy, and fumbles at finding emotional resonance.

Everything starts off strong enough; as JD, Turk, and Elliot scramble to manage their massive student debt from medical school, they find themselves overextending themselves. Working night shifts at clinics, hustling extra hours at the hospital, taking side jobs… it’s all on the table for our three residents – especially JD and Turk, who don’t benefit from the WASP-bankrolled lifestyle Elliot’s grown accustomed to.

Scrubs My Fruit Cup

Seeing JD and Turk steal supplies from the hotel is an infinitely relatable moment for anyone who had dorm bathrooms; it’s a rare moment where Scrubs really, truly engages with the financial realities young residents face (a problem that’s only exacerbated itself over the past 15 years, as college prices continue to skyrocket). In fact, Turk is working so much it is affecting his relationship with Carla – which is beginning to get really serious, as we eventually learn during the messier moments of “My Fruit Cup.”

It’s not often the Sacred Heart crew deal with external stressors; being a series specifically insulated to its primary location, it’s not often Scrubs engages with the every day lives of its characters (beyond dating and the occasional family drama, at least in early seasons). And though “My Fruit Cup” is only engaging with this idea to further the more central Turk/Carla story of season two (that is, will Turk propose?), it is still some of the most fascinating material of the season, led by a hilarious montage set to Barenaked Ladies’ “If I Had A Million Dollars” (which has now been replaced by some lifeless Parkas song).

The larger Turk/Carla story, however, turns out to be a major stumbling block: once again, Scrubs‘ grip on Carla seems tenuous – though this episode is ostensibly about her relationship with Turk, 90% of her dialogue in “My Fruit Cup” revolves around an off-screen family drama regarding care of her mother. To further the weird construction of this story, JD is the one who teases out the bigger nugget tucked in: Turk is preparing to propose to Carla – even though he seemingly pays no attention to what’s going on with her family, a strange development when the episode explicitly wants to find poignancy in their developing love.

Scrubs My Fruit Cup

Instead, it just feels out of left field, especially considering how much of an afterthought it feels: the real focus of “My Fruit Cup,” after all, is the return of Cox’s ex-wife Jordan, now wickedly pregnant and flailing to find stability in her life. A large bulk of the episode is dedicated to this conflict, enjoying all the space Turk and Carla’s story desperately needed – though to its credit, Cox’s realizations are much more poignant and moving than Turk’s hesitant “excitement” at the thought of proposing to Carla.

Jordan’s return is a major kick starter for the second season of Scrubs: it is the beginning of Dr. Cox’s maturity, the catalyst for the single strongest, most meaningful arc of the series. Just as Cox is settling into a rhythm with his new girlfriend (Heather Locklear, whose presence is greatly diminished from that of “My First Step”), Jordan returns, pregnant and determined to get Perry back in her life.

For Cox, it is the great turning point in his life, a moment that hints towards some of the darker aspects of their relationship (note how she says “I decided I wanted you back“… it is an important distinction a later episode will touch on). It suggests Cox’s self-loathing has some deeper seeded issues, and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with his so-called ‘hatred’ of Jordan – after all, it only takes a few minutes before Locklear’s Julie literally disappears from the frame, and Cox is admitting Julie had no chance once Jordan re-entered the picture.

Scrubs My Fruit Cup

The problem is how “My Fruit Cup” jumps from premise to conclusion; there’s a really strong scene in the middle where Jordan confesses her fear at becoming a mother while crying on a bathroom floor, but it is completely untethered from the more dynamic journey of the episode, Cox’s realization that he doesn’t have to continue to torture himself for the rest of his life.

This idea was teased at the end of season one, but it’s been left dormant as season two’s slowly built out the families of its main characters. With Jordan back in his life (and someone’s baby on the way), “My Fruit Cup” reminds us the transformative powers a family can have on people. “My Big Brother” already defined this for JD; “My Fruit Cup” draws even more from this well of conflict, contrasting Elliot’s controlling family with the one Cox decides to build for himself: where Elliot tries to rebel against her father pushing her into the expected OB/GYN career path, Cox embraces the good and bad of his own family – the family he chose, not the biological one forced upon him.

But both are similar in how they present Elliot and Cox with the challenge of finding inner peace: Cox knows the things that make him happy also make him miserable, while Elliot’s consumed by the expectations of her father (not to mention her financial dependency). But sometimes logic needs to be thrown to the wind: Cox accepts insanity if it brings him happiness, just as Elliot is willing to accept the financial consequences of forging her own career path in medicine.

These are tough choices for our main characters to make; but like Turk’s change in mindset, they are necessary building blocks for the growth of our characters (which is why JD is left out of the deeper beats of “My Fruit Cup”… his character growth is both the slowest, and the most delayed). Which makes the third act of “My Fruit Cup” so strange, and jarring: Scrubs just kind of glosses over the more important internal developments of its characters, utilizing a hilarious Julia/Jordan montage, and some quick footwork with Carla and JD, to get the other characters where they need to be.

It feels underdeveloped in a way most of Scrubs‘ larger beats don’t; it just kind of happens, a collection of moments “My Fruit Cup” plays into the drama of. There’s Cox’s dramatic reveal in his apartment, JD’s touching conversation with Turk, and the silent image of Carla consoling Elliot as she packs up her apartment; all worthy climactic moments of their own, forced to share the spotlight under the guise of Scrubs looking to the future – specifically, as JD says, “maybe the best thing to do is figure out where you’re going, and enjoy where you’re at.”

A wonderful notion, but it’s one that tries to unify everything in “My Fruit Cup” under a faulty resolution: “My Fruit Cup” is very much about its characters looking towards the future, understanding the situations they’re currently in aren’t sustainable for their happiness. And “My Fruit Cup” doesn’t do the legwork to isolate that idea from its “living in the moment” conclusion: while it is a touching, believable notion, it’s not one the events preceding it feel like they’re subscribing to. JD may not say he’s worried about his college debt; but then why is he so uptight about Turk’s “finder’s fee” – and why is he so adamant about stealing things from the hospital, even when he knows the Janitor is breathing down his neck?

Like many of Scrubs‘ closing monologues, the less thought about JD’s final words, the better: the meat of “My Fruit Cup” is really strong, even if it doesn’t find a unifying theme to marry the many pieces of subtext together. Like life, “My Fruit Cup” is anticlimatic, messy, and fumbles at emotional resonance: though it doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying episode, it remains a rather important entry in Scrubs‘ sophomore effort, an important foundation piece for some of the series’ most important overarching journeys.

Scrubs Season 2, Episode 8 “My Fruit Cups”
Written by Janae Bakken
Directed by Ken Whittingham
Aired 11/14/2002 on NBC

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‘Mindhunter’ Season 2: A Deep Breakdown of the Best Show on Netflix

David Fincher’s crime series investigates the Atlanta child murders and the BTK Strangler.

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With fans having waited with great anticipation for two years, David Fincher’s revolutionary Netflix series returns for its sophomore season to give fans an even deeper dive into the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. The long wait was well worth it because this second season is every bit as great as the first.

Catching Up

With a largely new writing staff, the second season of Mindhunter makes some structural changes including placing a larger focus on Holt McCallany’s endearing Bill Tench, who takes center stage over the determined and cocksure Holden Ford (Jonathon Groff). Shifting from the 1970s to the early ‘80s, Mindhunter sees the BSU continue to go about interviewing and profiling incarcerated serial killers in order to better understand what makes these killers tick while identifying if they share any commonalities that could be studied, and then used to catch others like them. Why do killers return to the scene of the crime? Why do some take souvenirs? Why are they obsessed with the media? Can they live a normal nine to five life? How do they choose their victims, and why do some victims later help their perpetrators?  

There’s a whole new set of criminals lined up to interview but the majority of the season centers around Atlanta’s child murders which Ford sees as an opportunity to help validate their line of work and research. Tench, meanwhile, must deal with an extremely difficult personal struggle that unfortunately mirrors their investigation in tracking down the mysterious killer responsible for abducting and murdering more than two dozen black children in the greater Atlanta area.

Mindhunter Season 2 Review

The first episode quickly (and wisely) puts an end to the fallout from season one which generated tension between the four members of the BSU as well as Holden’s sudden panic attacks and his brief stay in a psychiatric ward. A good amount of screen time is given to Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who finds herself in a new relationship but unfortunately, her subplot struggling with her sexual identity doesn’t quite pay off. That said, Torv is at least awarded some decent material as her Wendy increasingly feels isolated from the rest of her colleagues while also frustrated with working in an extremely conservative, male-dominated organization that is largely homophobic. More compelling is the arc of Bill Tench who must somehow balance his work life with his family life. McCallany gives the standout performance this season, and along with Stacey Roca (who plays his wife), they deliver some of the best scenes over the course of all nine episodes.

New additions this season include Lauren Glazier as Wendy’s new love interest Kay Mason, and Michael Cerveris as the new boss Ted Gunn, a man who has ambitious plans for the BSU and unlike his predecessor, is fully supportive of his staff. Meanwhile, Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle) remains the fourth wheel and is regularly omitted from important meetings and social gatherings. It doesn’t help that he was outed as the man responsible for the leaked tape but while Smith is perhaps the least likable character, he does provide some much-needed humor particularly when he and Wendy conduct their own interviews in Holden and Bill’s absence. Unfortunately for him, his substandard performance doesn’t go unnoticed and worse, Gregg’s ineptitude becomes apparent when contrasted with the work of Jim Barny (Albert Jones) who salvages a pair of interviews that Holden has little-to-no interest in conducting.

Mindhunter Season Two Review

The Horror

As with Season One, Season Two is based on the nonfiction book titled Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Killer Crime Unit by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas. Douglas was one of the first criminal profilers in the U.S. who pioneered the method of building psychological profiles of killers so detectives could anticipate their next move or narrow down a list of suspects. While traveling around the country providing instruction to police, Douglas began interviewing serial killers (before “serial killer” was even a term) to gauge their motives — and figure out why they did what they did and why they did it the way they did. What makes Mindhunter different is how it never shows us the grisly murders nor recreates any of the crime scenes. Instead, the series takes an almost clinical approach to the aftermath of these horrific crimes sometimes by simply showing a chalk outline or a brief glimpse of some photos from a crime scene. Like Season One, Season Two remains a show about conversations, and we get a lot of long conversations between just about everyone involved. And what we don’t see is often more terrifying than what we are shown.

Mindhunter is a show firmly rooted in dialogue and exchanges of ideas, beliefs, worldviews, and psychology. Forget computerized databases and forensic science — Ford and Tench don’t believe the criminals they pursue as born inherently evil but rather formed, and that’s where David Fincher’s involvement feels pivotal. Mindhunter plays out like an expanded version of other big-screen, Fincher-directed procedurals, like Seven, Zodiac, and Gone Girl. The show takes its sweet time getting from one scene to the next, whether it’s a tense interrogation or the back-and-forth banter between the agents and convicts. But Season Two is far more reminiscent of Zodiac than say, Seven, with fewer investigations than Season One making it even more methodical than say, macabre.

Elmer Wayne Henley Jr.

Elmer Wayne Henley

Early episodes of Season Two features interviews with high-profile serial killers including the first victim-turned-killer in Elmer Wayne Henley who is currently serving six life sentences for kidnapping, raping, and killing at least 28 teenaged boys with his accomplice Dean Corll (aka “The Candy Man”) in what became known as the Houston Mass Murders. Henley (Robert Aramayo) appears in the best scene of the fourth episode when Greg fails at interviewing him and has every single one of his questions shut down. Quick to react, Wendy rightfully intervenes and it doesn’t take long before she realizes how to get Henley to talk by telling him a story about how she was once in a dominant/subordinate relationship with someone of the same sex. It’s not just the best scene of the episode but one of the best scenes of the entire season as it shows just how capable Wendy is in doing her job (something her colleagues and her superiors don’t realize)— and— shows (in similar and opposite ways) the extreme denial and homophobia of both Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. and Wendy’s partner Gregg.

Torv’s performance in the scene deserves praise as she demonstrates how Wendy is simultaneously proud of her work while also ashamed of her sexuality. But what makes this scene especially great is how we learn that Elmer Wayne Henley was first a victim of Dean Corll’s before becoming his lover and rounding up victims for him to murder. Their complex relationship complicates matters for the BSU who are still trying to figure out how to profile men and women who were persuaded to become serial killers—a topic later addressed again when Holden and Tench set out to meet Charlie Manson.

Charles Manson

Charles Manson, Tex Watson, and Ed Kemper

With the fifth episode of Season Two, Ford and Tench visit Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman who happens to portray the cult leader in a brief cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). The latest subject in their long-term research has Holden especially excited since he’s been obsessing over the convict since the very first episode of Season One when he tried to convince a room full of police officers that Manson was possibly a victim and his upbringing led him to do terrible things. Needless to say, Holden is secretly a fan of Manson, even if he doesn’t realize it, so much so, he’s willing to entertain the idea that it was Tex Watson (Christopher Backus) who masterminded the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders after Manson tells the agents that it was all a plan to get another family member Bobby Boselie out of jail. It doesn’t take long before their meeting with the famous criminal and cult leader goes off the rails as Manson starts claiming that the witnesses who testified against him couldn’t be trusted and that Helter Skelter wasn’t real.

Mindhunter critiques the cultural obsession that’s grown around the Manson family over the decades and reminds us that most of what we think we know about Charles Manson is either exaggerated, twisted, or simply untrue. For a man whose profile is among the most anticipated criminals of Season Two, Charles Manson comes across as a deluded, idiotic narcissist who is too weak and too short to be capable of killing anyone. It’s certainly fitting that Mindhunter finds the time to include Charles Manson given that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders — but the best thing to come out of their meeting is the brief (and sadly only) cameo by Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) who expresses his resentment for the far more famous Manson, who he superciliously refers to as “the charlatan.”

Kemper was the big bad of Season One, a man who feels no shame or remorse, and someone who would crack your skull open in a blink of an eye. And yet every time he is off-screen, you can’t help but miss him. Standing at 6 feet 9 inches, Kemper is articulate, polite, extremely intelligent, and loves to talk. Manson, next to Kemper comes across as a complete nut, and whatever “charisma” Charles Manson supposedly has, it is nowhere to be found here. In fact, after watching Holden’s interview with Tex Watson, one has to wonder just how a man like Charles Manson convinced and brainwashed his followers to commit those horrific crimes. As with Elmer Wayne Henley’s case, Mindhunter Season Two keeps returning to this question.

David Berkowitz a.k.a. Son of Sam

David Berkowitz and William Junior Pierce

While Manson and Kemper occupy a bit of the screentime, as do other interviews with the Son of Sam (Oliver Cooper) and William Junior Pierce (Michael Filipowich), both of whom are played for laughs. When Agents Holden Ford and Jim Barney visit Pierce at a Georgia jail in the third episode, they’re taken back by how dim-witted the convict is. As Pierce insists he’s intelligent and claims he speaks seven languages (while simultaneously showing us he has trouble to count to ten), the F.B.I. agents quickly realize he lacks the analytic insight and Ford quickly loses interest. Unlike the better-known murderers, it covers, Mindhunter doesn’t particularly detail Pierce’s life or crimes, which isn’t surprising since there’s little to be found (at least online) about the convicted killer – but the scene is interesting if only because it demonstrates Barney’s interrogative skills while finding time to also drop an Easter egg in the form of a picture that Agent Barney produces of the very real William Junior Pierce that was taken on May 1971.

It’s the second episode of Season Two that features the first interview with a murderer and who better to start with than David Berkowitz (a.k.a. the 44 Caliber Killer a.k.a. the Son of Sam) who killed six people and wounded seven between 1976 and 1977 before he was finally captured. Much like the Zodiac Killer, Berkowitz communicated with the police during his summer of carnage, leaving behind hand-written letters next to his victims and sending messages to the press. Berkowitz clearly took pride in his growing fame and did everything he could to become a household name. The “dumpy, awkward mailman,” as Doctor Wendy Carr describes him, claimed that he was possessed by a demon who shouted commands at him via his neighbor’s barking dog. As it turns out, Berkowitz made up the entire scenario in hopes to cash in on a book about his life.

What makes the Berkowitz interview fascinating (apart from the brilliant performance by Oliver Cooper) is how quickly Holden is able to sort through the facts and realize Berkowitz was manipulating the media the entire time in order to rebrand himself after being dubbed the “.44 caliber killer” a nickname he didn’t like. As it turns out, Berkowitz quickly confesses that he was faking his initial claims of schizophrenia and can’t stand the thought of a copycat killer stealing his thunder. But the most important insight they cull from the interview with Berkowitz is that he returned to the scene of the crimes, and according to him all serial killers do; it’s something they just can’t resist, he tells them.

Dennis Rader, the BTK Strangler

BTK Strangler

While Season Two teased the investigations of the BTK Killer (short for Bind, Torture, Kill), who killed ten people in the Wichita, Kansas metro area throughout the 70s and 80s — the killer himself only appears briefly in each of these nine episodes. As with Season One, Season Two features several cold opens with a focus on the BTK Killer himself, Dennis Lynn Rader (Sonny Valicenti) mostly concentrating on his practices with autoerotic asphyxiation while wearing a creepy doll mask as well as the aftermath of a few crimes he committed during that time. Anyone expecting more from him may be disappointed given that Rader had ended his murder career in 1991 and only began correspondence with the press and police again in 2004 leading to his eventual arrest in 2005. In other words, don’t’ expect more of him since he and the F.B.I. only cross paths much later in life.

Depending on whether or not David Fincher will want to fast forward a couple of decades in later seasons, we can only assume Rader will continue to be used simply as a thematic string to connect certain plot points along the way. Considering that Holden has often gone on record to say many times that serial killers are incapable of living normal lives, Rader directly contradicts that theory. In fact, everything about Dennis Lynn Rader conflicts with the profile that Holden Ford and his team have formulated thus far. In Season Two, Holden is also convinced that the Atlanta murder must be African American, a good theory but also one that many believe to this day, was completely inaccurate. Now that Mindhunter has introduced BTK as a regular, he’ll become a representation of the sad truth that no matter how advanced the FBI’s profiling techniques are, the reality is that they don’t always get the guy – and no matter good Holden may be at his job, he isn’t always right.

The Best Scene of 2019

Despite his lack of screen time, the BTK killer does bring the absolute best sequence of the series thus far courtesy of David Fincher and his impeccable talent in deriving suspense and tension out of even the simplest scenes… such as three men sitting in a car. Of course, I’m referring to the sequence involving Bill’s interview with the only known survivor of a BTK attack, Kevin Bright — whose sister was, unfortunately, not as lucky as he. Bright was shot in the head but survived; his sister, on the other hand, was strangled to death.

Bright agrees to speak to the authorities only on the condition that nobody ever looks him directly in the face. Since Kevin cautions Tench that he doesn’t want to be seen, Bill keeps his focus forward as Fincher stays locked in on tight shots of all three men with Kevin shown in the background out of focus. Adding to the tension are the sounds of a passing train in the background and waves of daylight piercing through the car windows. The sequence is a prime example of how David Fincher brings together the full talent of his cast and crew to get the most of a scene that in the hands of any other director, would just be a simple conversation taking place inside a vehicle. With Fincher in the lead, it is instead a master class of direction— and while our point of view of Kevin is head-on, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt and astute direction of Fincher, we technically see as little of Kevin as Tench does.

The Brilliance of David Fincher

Fincher, who also serves as executive producer, returns to direct the first three episodes with his usual panache; while Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and TV veteran Carl Franklin (The Leftovers) helm the remaining six. Fincher’s aesthetic and style permeates the series right from the get-go. In the first episode’s cold open, Mindhunter follows the wife of Dennis Lynn Rader as she arrives home only to discover her husband in the act of autoerotic asphyxiation. It’s one hell of a way to open up the season as Fincher’s use of slow-motion coupled with the eclectic choice of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” keeps viewers at the edge of their seat thinking she will just be another victim of the BTK killer, only she’s not.

Mindhunter is simply put, some of the most disciplined filmmaking ever put to the small screen. It seriously is a stunningly gorgeous show to look at, even when things get ugly. Fincher makes the most of every scene using careful shot selection, terrific performances, assured pacing, brisk editing, crisp lighting and incredible sound design that clues us to things our F.B.I. agents don’t see. And given that most of the horror appears off-screen, Fincher somehow finds ways to heighten the suspense even in scenes with little-to-no action.

Wayne Williams, the Atlanta Child Murderer

The Atlanta Child Murders

Even more ambitious than the first season, Season Two spends much of the latter half tracking down the Atlanta Child Killer, an extremely complicated case (that is still open to this day), about young black children who are killed in an alarming rate. It’s a monumental task since the story unfolds against a political backdrop which saw the city and the capital of the state of Georgia, emerge from its pivotal role in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement into a new progressive era for black Americans. Not only does Season Two have to deal with the fact that many people believe Wayne Williams is not the man responsible for killing the children (a theory re-examined in the podcast Atlanta Monster)— but the second season of Mindhunter must also address the sensitive topics of racial, social, and economic divides that hampered that investigation from the start.

After being approached for help by a desperate hotel clerk, Tanya Clifton (Sierra McClain), Holden is introduced to a group of grieving mothers who are leading their own investigation. Ford firmly believes the child killer is also African American since, in his eyes, a white man can’t go unnoticed in the impoverished black neighborhoods in which kids had been abducted. But as the black mayor, the black officials and his black colleagues remind him, missing black kids are hardly a surprise in an area where the Ku Klux Klan have many active members, some of which work on the force. And while Holden Ford makes a good point about the difficulty of a white man going unnoticed in broad daylight while kidnapping black kids, he’s also eliminated any possibility that maybe, just maybe, he’s wrong. As Agent Jim Barney reminds him, Holden’s theory is just that, a theory. In the end, Wayne Williams is arrested and charged for two murders, but the fact remains, we still to this day have no physical evidence nor a confession that proves Wayne Williams was indeed responsible. Like Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, Mindhunter succeeds in reminding us that, there’s not always closure when investigating homicides and many of the most notorious crimes remain unsolved to this day.

Ultimately, Mindhunter is one of the best shows of 2019— a meticulous, well written and darkly evocative re-creation of a time and a place that captures the complexity and inherent difficulties of old-fashioned detective work. The attention to detail must be applauded— Mindhunter captures every feeling and nuance of an entire era and through its brilliant commentary, it will make you want to dig through Wikipedia posts while binging several true crime podcasts just to learn more about its subjects. It’s a story about the incomprehensible nature of evil and reminds us that in the end, we won’t learn every detail and understand every motive.

I guess we can all look forward to seeing John Wayne Gacy, a.k.a. The Killer Clown appear next season as pointed out by Reddit user @nick_o_lay, via the screenshot below.

  • Ricky D
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The Righteous Gemstones Season 1, Episode 1: “The Righteous Gemstones” Begins in Intriguing, Uneven Fashion

Look beyond the outlandish characters and lavish setting, and it is easy to see the existential promise of Danny McBride’s new HBO series.

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The Righteous Gemstones

Danny McBride’s latest HBO project, The Righteous Gemstones, will naturally be positioned against network counterpart Succession: both are about the empires of fading white men, their families fighting over the power and legacy bestowed to them, to both comedic and dramatic effect. But a more cognizant comparison would be McBride’s first HBO project, Eastbound and Down, using the twisted prism of post-modern American capitalism as a venue to explore deeper metaphysical thoughts about purpose, identity – and most prescient to this comparison, religion (for a more in-depth look at the beginning of that series, you can still read the piece I wrote about it seven years ago).

With The Righteous Gemstones, the Biblical subtext of McBride’s stories becomes quite literal – and it makes for a fascinating, if slightly unbalanced, first hour, easily one of the summer’s most intriguing premieres.

“The Righteous Gemstones,” the self-titled first episode of the series, explores the same ideas of worship and karma Eastbound & Down quietly did a decade ago: McBride’s ability to mix tinges of existential thought between fart jokes and pop culture references remains underrated with his latest series, perhaps his most ambitious project to date. Though the themes are familiar, the scale is completely different: with The Righteous Gemstones, the Biblical subtext of McBride’s stories becomes quite literal, and it makes for a fascinating, if slightly unbalanced, first hour, easily one of the summer’s most intriguing premieres.

The Righteous Gemstones

It still needs some fine tuning; the sardonic tone of The Righteous Gemstones can find itself at odds with its ambitions as a comedy and drama. As a satire of evangelical culture, “The Righteous Gemstones” is devastatingly sharp – but that clarity of vision is set in a world full of characters McBride and company want to exist in three dimensions, which is a tall ask for any series to manage effectively over the course of an hour-long episode (forget an entire season, or a whole series). And though “The Righteous Gemstones” doesn’t quite fulfill its own ambitious vision, there’s so many promising moments and points of interest, it seems a matter of time before it finds a groove.

The Righteous Gemstones tells the story of the Gemstone family, led by the patriarch Eli (John Goodman, who absolutely destroys every single line he’s given), and siblings Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin (McBride, Edi Patterson, and Adam Devine, respectively), nepotistic adult babies who worship at the temple of self-righteous greed and power. As one might expect, “The Righteous Gemstones” paints these family members as narcissistic and self righteous as possible: but there’s more meat on the bone with its main characters than expected, offering some interesting twists on the archetypes it introduces the main trio of siblings as.

It can be a bit of a mixed bag: while Jesse and Judy are compelling characters in their own right, the over-costumed, underdeveloped Kelvin is representative of The Righteous Gemstones‘ early struggles to walk the tightrope between genres. Kelvin, the youngest child in the family, is presented as responsible, ignorant, childish, and cunning at different parts in the pilot, a clash of personalities only further undercut by the ridiculous costuming, which feels superficial and forced, even next to the outlandish clothing offered the patriarch and chosen son of the Gemstone family (which at least tap into a specific fashion sense and projection of wealth in the evangelical community, something more potent and funny than “general hipster douchebag” offered Kelvin).

The Righteous Gemstones

But when “The Righteous Gemstones” is sharp, it’s really sharp: especially when it pauses to reflect on the loss of the Gemstone matriarch, whose ghost hangs heavy over the lives of Eli and his children. There’s a scene where Eli eats dinner alone, in front of a picture of him and his wife, that’s as powerful and poignant as anything the premiere has to say about modern-day evangelicalism (where rich = righteousness), or the tenants of American capitalism McBride is always fascinated with (the fetishization of wealth, celebrity, and tragedy, to be specific). And it’s just John Goodman sitting alone at a dining room table: but what it says about love and faith is as strong as anything else in the series, a moment of reflection on the unseen forces of nature we choose to accept and reject in our short life times.

(of course, there’s a big Sunday brunch that serves as its own highlight; another McBride-ism are scenes set at family dinner, something that’s proven to be a potent setting for storytelling and character on his shows).

There are a few aspects of The Righteous Gemstones that are just downright uninteresting, the blackmail plot chief among them. While it’s at least entertaining to watch Jesse try to navigate inner family politics to try and deal with the situation (someone filmed him doing cocaine with a bunch of naked strippers), it is an extended instance of The Righteous Gemstones fumbling to find its identity: the combination of black comedy and melodrama it aims for is far less interesting than its examinations of the dark, unexplored places where faith and prosperity meet.

The Righteous Gemstones

When “The Righteous Gemstones” isn’t stuck on Pilot Auto-Pilot (introduce character, give them quirk, give them drama, integrate, repeat), it offers moments of enormous potential, intersecting ideas about American society without doing what too many shows do to ground itself in this specific era of 2019 (where evangelicalism has become “support a racist, homophobic prick bent on the self-destruction of humanity at all costs because he gives us power”). The Righteous Gemstones is not about adjudicating punishment for the evil, narcissistic parasites of society; though objectively designed as a tragedy, McBride smartly crafts his new series as a study of American opulence, rather than a pointed, one-dimensional rejection of the very-real cult of religion TRG is observing.

That’s because at its core, The Righteous Gemstones does hold a curiosity and reverence for the existential: it is perhaps more interested in theology than its titular subjects, whose adherence to Christian customs and behaviors only carries as deeply as the silk lining in their jacket pockets. What happens to a man of purpose, when faced with the meaninglessness of life? How blindly (and simply) can one be corrupted by money and fame? Is redemption attainable? These are the real questions Danny McBride searches for in his art, that are quietly weaved into the DNA of The Righteous Gemstones; and while it may take a few episodes to find the right calibration of its many ingredients, but the pilot is full of vibrant characters, an incredibly crafted world, and plenty of enticing sequences, signs that the series just needs to tweak its recipe a bit to channel the holy spirits of serialized TV greatness.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • welcome to reviews of The Righteous Gemstones! Chapel is on Mondays, and tithes are only accepted in the form of tacos.
  • there’s a subplot with Dermont Mulroney regarding small-town priests angry at the Gemstone expansion into Locust Grove (aptly named city); it is more of a placeholder in this episode than an actual plot point, something the arc of the season will be built around.
  • Walton Goggins does not appear in this first episode, and that’s just a bummer.
  • Perhaps the most interesting intersection of the many ideas on this show is with the unseen faithful; The Righteous Gemstones doesn’t condemn the core idea of belief and faith, just the disgusting culture of opulence, fear-mongering (there’s a great exchange about Judy’s fiance being pro-abortion), and the frauds at the top of the Christian industry pushing these “values” on society (including Eastern society, a centuries-long movement Gemstones briefly touches on).
  • One troubling note: unlike his other two series, McBride has said he doesn’t have a definitive ending for the Gemstone story in mind, leaving it more open-ended than his previous works. While this certainly offers a lot of potential, it also leaves room for narrative wandering and navel-gazing in the future that could dilute some of the stronger thematic and symbolic structure of the series. Time will tell!

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Netflix Series, ‘Wu Assassins’ Breaks Bones but Tells a Familiar Story

Wu Assassins delivers the martial arts goods, but the all too-familiar Saturday morning cartoon plot ultimately holds it back.

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Wu Assassins

Iko Uwais might not be a known name to many, especially in the TV world, but he’s quickly garnered a lot of attention since he fought through an entire apartment building in The Raid: Redemption. A martial artist with a knack for expert choreography, Uwais has more than proven himself as a capable fighter – and with Wu Assassins, he aims to impress with more than just his skills with his fists. Unfortunately, this mystical martial arts series does itself no favors by pushing its star into an ensemble and then drowning him out with a needlessly convoluted story line – all stitched together with some immaculately staged action beats that are far too few and far between.

Wu Assassins delivers the martial arts goods, but the all too-familiar Saturday morning cartoon plot ultimately holds it back.

Everyone will – and should – be coming to Wu Assassins for some martial arts action. Assuming it’s not already evident with the opening scene, there will be lots of bones to break and blood to spill. Each fight is orchestrated for maximum impact. The camera moves with the action as opposed to other films that treat the camera like an extension of limbs. This method is what brings a lot of Uwais’ pencak silat fighting style the cinematic feeling of being in the thick of the action with the fighters. It also doesn’t matter if its Uwais or any of the rest of the cast fighting – they all absolutely bring their A-game, which makes a lot of the rest of the series feel stifled, losing its footing anytime it turns away from its action.

Wu Assassins

Unfortunately, there is no denying that Wu Assassins drops the ball pretty hard when it comes to its storytelling. Kai (Uwais), a chef with dreams of starting his own food truck, is thrust into a showdown in San Francisco with mystical powers beyond his comprehension. Now the Wu Assassin (the chosen one, if you will), he hatches a plan to restore balance between the different Wu’s. Alongside him are his closest friends and some new allies, bringing together an ensemble that has fairly decent chemistry with each other throughout the entirety of its ten episodes.

Where that chemistry drags is in all the sub-plots padding out the overarching narrative. What is basically a show about one guy taking on four powerful people, becomes one where characters are given a single defining trait in order to create the most basic of archetypes – like Tommy Wah (Lawrence Kao), the heroin addict who is a constant disappointment to everyone around him. There are characters that feel less obvious, but their arcs are often muddled by the show’s decision to mess with the chronology of events for “dramatic effect” or the cartoonish way it handles storytelling. For better or worse (often worse), Wu Assassins treats its narrative like a Saturday morning cartoon – in fact, its closest comparison point would be an animated show like Jackie Chan Adventures, but Wu Assassins is too serious to effectively embody the true absurdity of that claim.

Those cool tricks it tries do tend to lead to more memorable episodes. The eighth episode follows different characters in the same situation, messing around with the chronology of scenes until there’s a full picture. Unfortunately, it never feels like there is any significant reason as to why scenes are edited in that way. Horror moments such as in the Earth Wu’s storyline or even brief moments in other stories are so brief, they just feel like neat ideas someone had that didn’t go beyond the pitching stage (which is what strings a lot of the fights together, as well).

There just seems to be too many times when the plot tries to fit something in that just doesn’t seem necessary. At one point there is a history lesson on Chinese-American people that seems like an important topic, but is ultimately just a rant followed by a fight, none of which really offer much to the story itself.

Wu Assassins

What’s most disappointing is that Wu Assassins has great performances all around. Each Wu is helmed by a more-than-capable actor ready to bite deep into some mystical martial arts tale. It’s what makes Uwais’ performance feel noticeably flat is he isn’t quite on the same level acting-wise as everyone else involved. It is very clear that the choreography and stunts were his main focus when working on the show, and as someone creatively involved he just might not have had much direction in how to get a better performance from himself. His character is sort of hollow as well, with much of his backstory shared by other characters, providing them with the ability to take the weight off of him narratively. Instead, he mostly just deals with uncle issues.

Everything about Wu Assassins seemed like it would be a lot of fun. It’s got a silly enough premise to lend itself to some entertaining beats, that feel ripped straight from cartoons. However, the best stuff in the show is when things get deadly serious; whether it’s the top-notch choreographed fights or the occasional horror moments within minor sub-plots, there’s usually something in every episode worth seeing. But those moments are spread so thinly that the show becomes utterly dull when they’re taken out, which leaves nothing but a dull narrative (that oddly ends with an epilogue, implying hopes for a second season) and a cast of predictable, thin characters – though one that ends with an (oddly inserted) epilogue, one teasing a more potent, exciting future for Wu Assassins not tied down by the standard-rate hero’s journey of the first season. Wu Assassins may not be Uwais’ best work, but he puts a deserved spotlight on himself as an action choreographer, and rightfully deserves to get more work bringing his stylish fighting style to the masses.

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‘The Terror: Infamy’ Blends Historical Fiction and Horror in Frightening and Clever Ways

AMC’s incredible horror anthology series is back!

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Based on Dan Simmons‘novel of the same name, AMC’s The Terror returns for a second season with new characters, a new setting and a different historical backdrop.

Season one centered on the Royal Navy’s risky voyage into uncharted territory as the crew attempts to discover the Northwest Passage and confront the fear of the unknown (and a giant, man-eating polar bear). Whereas season one is a first-rate survival horror about a group of men, desperate to survive, season two turns its attention on one of the darkest, most horrific moments in the history of the United States.

For the unfamiliar, the novel does not have a sequel, nor a prequel— but AMC wisely decided to build the title into an anthology series – thus season two was created, only this time around The Terror: Infamy studies the horror felt by Japanese-Americans who saw their own country turn against them during World War II.

With the exception of executive producer Ridley Scott, nobody— not the original showrunners nor the cast or crew— are back this season. Normally a change of showrunners would be a cause for concern, but co-creators Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein have everything under control. The Terror: Infamy is a chilling follow-up to what we considered one of the best TV shows of 2018.

That said, fans of the first season of The Terror should prepare for just how different Infamy is.

the-terror-season-2

The second installment takes place in California during World War II and follows a group of Japanese immigrants who are forced to relocate to an internment camp in North Dakota after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, spreads xenophobic hysteria across the United States. Much of the story focuses on the Nakayama family living in Terminal Island. At the head of the family is Henry (Shingo Usami), a fisherman who immigrated to the U.S. twenty years prior with his wife Asako (Naoko Mori). Henry is proud of the life he lives, proud to be an American, and proud of raising an American citizen in their son Chester (Derek Mio). Chester loves and respects his family and the sacrifices they’ve made but he longs for an American life of his own. He’s in love with a Spanish-American student named Luz Ojeda (Cristina Rodlo) and hopes to step out of his father’s shadow, get married, and chase his dream to become a professional photographer. Only after the Japanese attack, his life turns upside down, as he and his family are forced to relocate after Franklin D. Roosevelt unleashes Executive Order 9066.

If it wasn’t obvious by the title and plot synopsis, the events of the first episode patiently build to December 7, 1941 — the day Roosevelt delivered his famous speech and gave birth to the term, “day of infamy.” The second season of The Terror isn’t coy about where the story is headed using the horror genre to examine a truly shameful moment in American history. Infamy is simply put, an unflinching look at systemic oppression and how sometimes a government can violate basic human rights – and given the current political climate, Infamy feels acutely relevant.

Since this show is called The Terror, it is expected we will see supernatural elements at play, and it doesn’t take long before they are introduced. The Terror: Infamy opens with a harrowing look at the death of a Japanese woman (Yuki Morita) who strolls down a dock toward the ocean and ends her own life. From far, it looks to be a suicide but it’s not long before we suspect the woman’s death was caused by some sort of supernatural force. Soon after, other strange occurrences plague the residents of Terminal Island as Season 2 dives headfirst into Japanese folklore introducing a Yūrei-like shape-shifting spirit known as an Obake that attacks both the Japanese and white Americans alike.

Infamy plays its supernatural card from the get-go, using it as a means with which to heighten the tension, fear and socio-political troubles of the time and in the end, The Terror: Infamy blends historical fiction and horror in terrifying yet clever ways. There’s a lot to unpack here which I plan on doing as future episodes roll out but as it stands, Infamy will please both fans of season one and those who love Asian Horror.

  • Ricky D
The Terror Infamy
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Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

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