Wednesday, March 4, 2015

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x04 - You Don't Belong With Us Either

At last, after a month-long accidental hiatus, I have returned to recapping this weird, weird, wonderful little show. The last episode was a while ago, so I'll forgive you all if you completely forgot we were doing this. But we are, in fact doing this. And faster now, as it has occurred to me that Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, and Outlander are all coming back on in like a month, and I am woefully behind in cranking this out. So, let's get this sucker done!

Which is a drastically inappropriate attitude with which to start talking about this episode, because this episode, more than any other, dealt with incredibly harsh realities of the world without a single filter or punch held. It was devastating and great and, to my mind, the first episode that really shows the potential of this series.

So, what happened?

This episode more than any other so far was unified in plot and theme. The major arc of the episode followed the camp as John Slotter decides to put out a reward for the alleged Indians who killed all the men in the first episode. For the first time we have rock solid confirmation that John Slotter and his men are in fact responsible, but the plot revolves around their attempts to hide that. They find some Indians to blame, courtesy of a local whiskey trader, and decide to string them up in the center of Janestown for everyone to see.

While all of this is happening there are a couple of other storylines tied in. First, Kat gets involved in all of this because she's a compassionate, loving woman, but it quickly comes out that she is half Indian herself. Second, Isabelle and Jared wage war over John's soul and affections, with the winner being able to destroy the loser. And third, everyone gets tired of Mrs. Briggs being super racist all the time and calls her on it. Repeatedly. Oh, and fourth, Caleb gets closer to solving the actual case and proving that John Slotter did kill all those men.

The episode as a whole used the backdrop of the Indians' capture and Slotter's men trying to hide their crimes as a basis for everything else that happened. But the basic timeline goes like this: John and Jared realize that everyone is getting super suspicious of what really happened, spurred on by two women: Kat and Mrs. Briggs. Kat is a problem because she won't shut up about how she's sure John had the men killed, and Mrs. Briggs is an issue because she keeps publicly mourning her husband and won't let anyone else forget the incident.

Since they can't deal with Kat without killing her - and they haven't succeeded at that yet - Mrs. Briggs is the obvious target. Hence, a plan. They find some Indians and blame it on them. As the Indians are unlikely to actually speak English and no one will listen to them anyway, this feels like a foolproof plan. And it is. At first.

It's unclear whether or not the plan is actually to find some Indians and kill them, or whether they just want to pretend to look, but either way, Jared finds some actual Indians to take the blame, courtesy of Roy Arnold, a whiskey trader. 

Roy's business is selling whiskey to Indians, but it's poison whiskey, tainted with strychnine, and it makes them go nuts. He and Jared drug a tribe and kidnap two of them in the chaos. Another one, a woman, is nearly beaten to death. But the key point here is "nearly". She doesn't die, and instead makes it to Caleb.

Big mistake there.

Caleb, who is an officer of the law and part-Indian himself, sees that an injustice has been done and seeks to rectify it. He brings the woman, Nuttah, to the Drs. Blithely (Rebecca and Thomas). There he insists on finding out who did this to her. And he has a strong suspicion who: Roy Arnold, who he knows and hates.

But Caleb has no power on this side of the border, so it's up to Kat to protect the men who have been brought into camp and who are being blamed for the murder of all those husbands and sons. She does protect them, righteously, but in her efforts to protect them Mrs. Briggs and everyone else discovers that Kat is half-Indian. They turn on her, and it's very hard to watch.

Kat is not deterred, though, and spends most of the episode sitting with the men to keep them from harm. Meanwhile, Mrs. Briggs goes about being all racist and Indian-hating. It's interesting because while she's really getting into her racist groove, more and more people find the nerve to tell her off for it. It's clearly a self-denial thing, and no one is taking her crap. Even her own daughter, Fiona, refuses to agree with her mother. "You got a dark heart to go with that widow's dress." Actually, Fiona gets a bunch of verbal bitch slaps in this episode, and they're all great.

And on the other side of camp, John and Jared are dealing with the logistics of hiding their crime while Isabelle schemes to turn the men against each other. See, since Jared saw her having sex with Cornelius Slotter, Isabelle needs a strong defense. She needs to make sure that if Jared ever does get the courage to tell John what he saw - which is doubtful, as they both know it would destroy John to know - she has to ensure that John will side with her and not Jared. 

So she poisons John with her words, twisting Jared's actions and the narrative until Jared seems like the worst person to ever live. And Jared is trying to get John on his side too, but as this proves almost impossible, he slides into a depression and then drunkenness. It's hard to watch on both sides.

"It's hard to watch" is pretty much the sentiment that best describes this episode overall, because nearly everything in it is hard to handle. Don't get me wrong, I think this is the best episode of the series so far, but that's because it's finally facing up to the really intense and brutal aspects of these people's lives. And that's difficult to see as an audience.

It's honestly hard to watch a woman like Mrs. Briggs, who on any other show would be the moral center, descend into racism-fueled hatred and self-pity. Her self-delusion is so deep and so hard to get out of, especially as she trades her honesty for the comfort and protection of agreeing with the Slotters, that it really burns. Credit to the actress too for making this arc both heart-wrenching and also realistic. Mrs. Briggs' face when Ruby confronts her about her denial, or when Fiona tonelessly says, "I suspect, mother, that Indians bleed and feel their grief same as we do," - it's a kick in the teeth. For us and for her.

It's also hard to see her at odds with Kat, since the two of them are easily the backbones of the burgeoning community. Kat isn't proud of her Indian heritage by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is she going to flat out deny it. She refuses to either condone or deny, and as such carves a little space for herself in the middle of everyone else. She pushes away even her own children because for the first time we see that Kat herself has no idea where she belongs.

The kids get their own storyline this episode, grappling with their mother's newly revealed "dirty blood". The other children in the camp are horrible to them, and Kelly especially lashes out. She doesn't like being called dirty and stupid. And no, it's not fair. But it's also not fair for the kids to turn on Kat the way they do, enraged that she didn't tell them about any of this.

The rest of the episode, from Nuttah attacking the whiskey trader to Mrs. Briggs finally admitting the truth to Caleb revealing that he will ultimately have his justice on John Slotter, is mostly a buildup to the end. And the end is certainly epic. Jared, despondent that their attempts to blame the Indians for what they did didn't work and frustrated that John has turned against him, decides to take out his rage on Kat. He tries to lynch her, in front of everyone, insisting that she is the author and creator of all of their pain. She isn't, but it wouldn't be the first time that a woman of color has been held to account for the sins of white men.

Fortunately for Kat (and the audience), John and Isabelle arrive in time to stop the lynching. And John, having finally really turned where Isabelle wanted him, sees this as just one last betrayal from his old friend Jared. When Jared tries to tell John the actual honest truth, John shoots him dead. The truth might have a way of coming out in the end, but it's sure as heck going to meet a few speedbumps along the way.

This isn't as detailed and nit-picking as my previous recaps for this show because, for once, the show really operated as a whole. The entire episode was about one single thing: identity and truth. Well, two things. But two very intricately related things. We were forced to look at each of our leads - except for Rebecca, really, because this episode was mostly about Kat and Isabelle - and examine who they are versus who they think they are. Most notably, this came about in Kat's storyline, where she gave up trying to hide her Indian side and tried to embrace it instead, only to be rebuffed by the very Indians she was saving. Kat, who spent so long hiding who she really is, revealed it only to find that the truth did not set her free. It just showed her more problems.

Mrs. Briggs was also forced to face the truth of herself, and while she did make the right decision in the end, it's worth noting that it took her a very long time. It took her a long time and a ridiculous pileup of evidence. The power of her self-delusion might have been what kept her going, and while she was a kinder woman once she stopped, she was ultimately a less powerful one. Which is interesting.

And of course there's how Isabelle, having mostly embraced her identity as the "spider in the web" or the "cheating whore", uses her wiles to cover her tracks, and decides that love for her husband will cover over a multitude of sins.

All does come to a (mostly) happy end by the end of the episode, except for poor dead Jared, but this episode didn't answer questions so much as raise them. If Kat doesn't belong here and she doesn't belong with the Indians, where does she belong? If Isabelle is willing to manipulate her husband into killing her best friend, what isn't she willing to do? If Mrs. Briggs can convince herself that Indians killed her men even when evidence to the contrary is staring her in the face, what else is she ignoring?

In other words, this episode casts some serious doubts about all of the characters we've come to love. And the thing is, that's great.

Seriously! This was the best episode yet because it was the first one where the emotions all felt gripping and real, where the whole story was unified and solid, and where each person's emotional journey contributed to the whole. Plus, it didn't skimp on the season plot (finding Jeremiah), and it even hinted that Kat and Caleb might develop feelings for each other later down the road.*

Perhaps the most telling moment of the episode is towards the end when Kat, having been nearly hanged and having seen her tormenter shot in the street by another man who has tortured her, is forced to pull the noose off her own neck and get down from the stool. No one comes to assist her, but no one comes to stop her either. 

As she runs to her children, who greet her with cheers, we're overcome by emotion, but we're also caught by the idea that maybe Kat can belong here after all. Not because anyone was particularly good to her this episode. They really weren't. 

But because Janestown is what you make of it. And if Kat is willing to put in the work, she just might be able to make this a place she can finally call home. No one is probably going to help her much, except Rebecca and the kids, but no one's apt to stop her either. And that's promising.

*The scene where Kat and the kids have dinner with Caleb is absolutely adorable, if incredibly awkward. And Neall's need to defend his mother against the horrible (incredibly kind) Caleb is frankly hilarious and wonderful. More of this, please.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

'Lady Jane', My Childhood, and the Person I Aspire To Be

As I was trying to come up with today's topic, I kept hitting a snag. See, Tuesdays are supposed to be the day when I talk about media intended for children. The problem is that while I am exposed to a lot of kids' media now, due to spending my days wiping up applesauce and helping children find the potty, I really wasn't exposed to much as an actual child. The movies and stories that I actually grew up with are, by and large, not something one could call children's media by any stretch of the imagination.

I don't resent that. I don't think it screwed me up in some deep dark way. For the most part, anything actually inappropriate went way over my head, and what was left was all complex stories told very well. I don't regret that.

But it does pose a problem when I'm stuck thinking of a topic and I try to go back over the films I loved as a child and they're all like The Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Chariots of Fire or A League of Their Own. Grownup movies for grownups that I happened to watch because I was curious and that had a profound impact on me. 

So, eventually, in lieu of anything else to really talk about today, let's actually discuss one of these definitely not for children movies that defined my childhood. Let's talk about Lady Jane.

Perhaps the first thing I should say here is that I do not recommend Lady Jane as a film for kids. Like, not at all. And, to be honest, I don't think I was still a child when I saw this. I think I was eleven or twelve. Still quite young, considering, but not so young that it was scarring or ridiculous. Rather, I was at exactly the age to just grasp what was happening in the film and to be fundamentally changed by the themes and plot.

The plot is, for the record, incredibly historical and also incredibly obscure. It follows the story of Lady Jane Grey (a very young Helena Bonham Carter, in what I think was her first major film role) as she ascends to the throne of England, only to be deposed a scant nine days later. This is true. Lady Jane was a niece of Henry VIII and reigned directly after the death of his son, Edward. She had barely moved into the castle and been crowned when Mary Stuart led an uprising and deposed her, turning the nation back to Catholicism for a few years, eventually to be deposed in turn by her half-sister Elizabeth.

Right, so obscure British history from the part of history classes we all sort of collectively tuned out. The film takes advantage of our relative lack of knowledge and expands wildly on who Lady Jane actually was. We know a little about her from history, but mostly the film tries to extrapolate her personality and emotional state based on the few records of her we have left. We know that she was offered a pardon if she converted to Catholicism, and she refused. 

We know that she was later beheaded. We also know that during her very short reign she enacted a series of social reforms that were immediately reversed but centuries later came to be commonly adopted. And we know that she was married to a nobleman of improper background and that he was not crowned king.

From these scraps, the filmmakers made a story that is compelling and incredibly emotionally satisfying, if perhaps not the happiest thing in the world. Our heroine, Jane, is a headstrong, brilliant, sheltered young woman of the nobility whose life is already progressing along a set path when we meet her. She's betrothed to her cousin Edward, whom she quite likes but who is very sickly. Jane is more intelligent than her family would really like her to be, and she keeps getting in the way of all of their blatant grabs for power. Incidentally, her parents are played by Sara Kestelman (from Zardoz) and Sir Patrick Stewart. So there's that.

Jane is relatively content with the idea of marrying Edward, but things don't go according to plan. Edward is dying and there's no way that he and Jane can have an heir before he passes. So, instead, his right hand man, John Dudley (John Wood), hatches a scheme to keep control of the country and make sure that the Catholic Princess Mary doesn't gain the crown. He'll marry Jane off to his own son, Guilford Dudley (Cary Elwes), and then force Edward to name Jane as his heir.

Neither Jane nor Guilford are enthused about this plan, and for the first few months of their marriage they openly loathe each other. But, as time wears on, they fall in love. It's very sweet and romantic.

Unfortunately again, once Edward dies their lives are thrown into chaos. Jane is placed on the throne and crowned as quickly as possible, but she and Guilford decide not to have him crowned as well. Then her council tries to use her as a puppet to rule the country. Jane, however, being an educated and brilliant young woman, refuses to take that and enacts a series of reforms in the country: injustices she's dreamed of righting. She sets the prisoners free (because it says to do so in the Bible) and forces the royal mint onto the silver standard. She makes so many reforms that her council deserts her and decides the hell with it, they'd rather have Mary.

So, in a coup, Mary is made queen and Guilford and Jane are locked up in the tower. John Dudley, the schemer behind all of this, pretends to convert to Catholicism and is freed, while Jane's father, devastated with guilt over betraying his daughter, leads a revolt to try to rescue her and put her back on the throne. It fails, and Jane is blamed. After a long time in the Tower, where Jane and Guilford only get to see each other a few times, they are sentenced to death. Since neither of them will renounce their beliefs, they are both beheaded. The end.

Super upbeat story, right? You can definitely see why this is a movie that changed my life as a child. Totally understandable. No? Well then let me explain.

Lady Jane was one of the first female characters I saw who I could really imagine being. This was pre-Hermione Granger for me, pre-Rose Tyler and Martha Jones and Donna Noble, pre-Leslie Knope, pre-every other smart and idealistic girl hero I found to relate to. This was the first time I looked and I saw a girl who was a total nerd not only get the guy but also get to be queen, get to change the world, and get to win. Not technically, since she died, but ultimately. Historically. Lady Jane Grey was the first female character who I saw myself in and the first one who told me how powerful I could be without having to change who I was.

Because here's the thing: I have always been an idealistic nerd. Always. I have, over time, veered one direction or the other, but I've always been that sort of smarmy, Amnesty International-loving, irritating child who cared a lot about people but didn't know how to express it. And in Jane Grey I found my icon, the woman I could aspire to be. So what if she was just sixteen and she died horribly? She died horribly because she was so far ahead of her time and she died for something she believed in. I will never and apparently have never viewed that as a loss.

Not only that, but Lady Jane's greatest reforms, the ones that so enraged her council, are now some of the cornerstones of our society. She outlawed (if only for nine days) the debtor's prison: she made it illegal to jail people for being poor. She forgave all debts in the kingdom. She insisted that all money be on the gold standard and be actually worth as much as it was supposed to be. 

What's even more interesting to me, actually, is the fact that she didn't do all this alone either. Some of these things were issues that Jane was already aware of, but one of the big subplots of the film is how she and Guilford change each other through the course of their marriage. When they meet, Jane is a quiet idealist nerd who doesn't really understand the world as it is and prefers to live in her head. Meanwhile, Guilford is a hedonistic drunk who knows all about the world and cares about it not one whit. 

Their process of learning each others' point of view is actually how they come to fall in love. Jane learns about real injustice in the world. It's Guilford who tells her that in their England, a shilling is not actually worth a shilling, and that men are imprisoned simply for being unable to pay their debts. Debts that are, incidentally, incurred because the landowners hold all the power. And Jane teaches Guilford what it is to really believe in something. What it is to have faith and have it fully. What it means to walk in complete confidence, and what it means to give a damn.

They make each other better people, and together they change the world. Or at least the country for a little while.

I'm trying, but I feel like I don't have words for how much this movie meant to me as a kid. Because Jane is so flawed and yet so powerful. Because she is a queen. Not someone's wife or mother or daughter or a princess, but a queen in her own right. And that her husband could be fully supportive of that, not threatened or jealous, just in love and happy to be with her. I wanted that. I still want that.

But most of all, I think this movie changed the way I think about winning and about failing. In it, yes, we see Jane enact all of these wonderful reforms, but we also see them all reversed. We see her horribly punished for daring to think for herself. She's beaten, abused, and eventually killed for her beliefs. And yet...

I would never say that Jane fails in this movie. Because she doesn't. She never actually fails because she never compromises who she is. At times, the definition of who she is becomes broader and more inclusive, as a result of her relationship with Guilford, but it never is fundamentally altered. She is herself at the beginning and at the end.

I don't think this movie made me want to be a martyr or anything, because it certainly didn't make being a martyr look like any fun, but it did suggest something to me that I can't for the life of me remember learning anywhere else: it told me that I might fail in my attempts to do good. That I might not succeed. Even that I might spend and give my life to change the world, and nothing will come of it. "But," the movie seemed to tell me, "this will not mean that what you have done is in vain."

And that's the crux of it for me, I think. The reason why this movie made me into who I am. It showed me that pursuing truth and justice is a good end in and of itself, no matter what comes of it or what comes of you. And it gave me a female character who is able to give herself fully to life, whatever comes of it. Plus, that female character got to be queen and to be married to 1986 Cary Elwes. Not exactly a harsh deal.

Honestly, I have no idea if Lady Jane is a movie any of you would even like. Without nostalgia goggles clouding my view, I have no concept of whether it's aged well, or even if it's possible to find anymore. It was obscure back when I saw it, and that was a long time ago. But I do know that it's a movie that made me who I am now. It changed me. And I am both grateful for that, and also kind of sad.

Not that the movie changed me, but that I didn't find a character like Lady Jane until I was eleven, and when I did find her, she died on me. Immediately. It speaks to the relative dearth of good female characters that I was exposed to as a child, and that hurts. Especially since I know for a fact that my parents were very conscious of the need to expose me to good media. They legitimately tried and yet I still felt a lack.

But, for all of this, I can't regret ever finding Lady Jane and the deep earthquake that happened in my heart when I did. I still have a crush on Guilford, and I still dream that someday I'm going to meet that perfect guy who wants to help me change the world, and who doesn't mind if I'm kind of opinionated and kickass. Most of all, though, the movie showed me that I don't need someone to help me be amazing. I am a queen in my own right, and it's up to me to rule and rule well. 

So for all that Lady Jane is absolutely not a children's movie, in fact there's some light nudity and definitely adult themes (also a lot of death), I am so incredibly glad that I saw it as a kid. I needed this movie. And I hope that whatever movie it was you needed, you got to see. Because the stories we consume as children really do shape who we become. 

Who shaped you?

Also I want someone I can be an idiot with. Like this. Adorable idiots.

Monday, March 2, 2015

'How to Get Away With Murder' and the Punishment of Patriarchy

Guh. For those of you who've been following How to Get Away With Murder all season like I have, this season's finale was a brutal shocker and also kind of an emotional marathon to get to. We struggled through murder accusations, shifting loyalties, horrifying revelations about beloved characters, deaths, more deaths, cases that twisted who we thought we were supposed to root for, and Viola Davis tapdancing on our heartstrings each week to get here. And what did we get? Even more upheaval and drama!

Isn't it great?

And for those of you who haven't seen this first season of Shonda Rhimes' most recent ridiculous success, you should probably do that before you read this article because SPOILERS ABOUND!

Now, there's a lot of stuff that happened this season, and there's so much that happened in the two episode finale itself. It would be hard to go over all of that in a single article, so, instead, I'd rather just talk about the show as a whole and how this first season sends a comprehensive and honestly refreshing message: the patriarchal nature of our society is unequivocally harming us and the only way to survive is to abandon it.

This may seem like a needlessly political statement for a show that's effectively a night-time soap to make, but I feel really confident that that's the message behind season one. Allow me to present you with my evidence before you get all up in arms and email me angry things.*

Each of the main characters in the first season goes through a storyline that expresses how the patriarchal system of power in place in their (admittedly fictionalized) society is harming them. The notable exception here is Sam Keating (Tom Verica), who seems to act as a foil to all the other characters. His success in life and work seems to be an achievement not of his own making, but a result of his privilege as a white upper-middle class man in a world designed to award such men.

All of the other main characters in some way fall afoul of the patriarchy. And this is where it behooves me to define patriarchy as I mean it in this sense. So, in this context, I mean patriarchy to be "a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line", or "a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it." I would expand that to include that this system of power operates on a hierarchical basis, intersecting with race and class as well as sex. In this power structure, white rich men are at the top, and everyone else is somewhere sliding down the scale.

It doesn't really matter whether or not you feel that our society today is a patriarchy in the most literal terms or if you agree with this term at all, my point is that How to Get Away With Murder absolutely takes place in such a society. And I think that it's intentional.

Obviously the most prominent character in the show is Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), who might not be the protagonist of the show, but is definitely the central character or "pivotal figure" in the story. 

It's Annalise who teaches the law class that all of our other main characters study in, it's Annalise whose law practice is our home base for all the stories, and it's Annalise whose life is turned around when she discovers that her own husband is implicated in a murder on campus. Annalise, Annalise, Annalise. She's the central figure for all of this, so it makes sense to start with her.

Annalise is a complex character when it comes to her status in the patriarchy because she doesn't really fit our preconceived notions of what it means to be "oppressed". She's a fancy bigshot lawyer who also teaches at a prestigious law school. She has money and success, a handsome white husband and a hot black lover. She's clawed her way up from an implicitly (and later explicitly) lower class background, and now we can say that she's "made something of herself." Sure, she's not a particularly moral character, or even an arguably happy one, but she's a success by any definition of the word. So how is she oppressed? How is the patriarchy hurting her?

To understand that we have to look a little deeper at Annalise . So, yes, she's a successful lawyer. But we see over and over again that the price she pays for this success is that of friendship and personal contentment. She's not well liked, and all of the qualities that make her a good lawyer (ambition, thick skin, cunning, wits, ruthlessness) are the sort of traits that people find off-putting in anyone, but downright horrible in a woman. We even see this very literally towards the end of the season when Annalise goes to use a courthouse bathroom and has to listen to two women gossiping about her while she's in the stall. This is the price she's paid: no one likes her. They might respect her, maybe, but they don't like her. She's too much and not enough.

Similarly, while she does have a "good" marriage, it's also an implicitly cold one. Her husband is having an affair with one of his students, she's having an affair with a cop she met on a case, and neither of them wants to admit it, or end the marriage, but neither of them is satisfied with the way things are. Sam, her husband, seems frustrated by his wife and sometimes downright condescending to her, while Annalise is forced to figure out whether or not her loving husband killed the girl he was having an affair with.

So, not the best marriage ever.

But definitely the biggest way in which the patriarchy has harmed Annalise  is something that happened long ago that we as viewers don't discover until the very end. Namely, that as a child, Annalise was sexually abused by her uncle and nothing was ever done about it (that she knows of). There was no court trial, no public anything, no charges, no acknowledgement. It was just a thing that happened, that scarred her forever, and she was never able to get justice.

Clearly this has had a massive impact on who she is as a person. But the episode where we find out about it also makes it clear that sexual abuse, specifically the sexual abuse of women of color, is not a standalone issue. It's about all women everywhere, and it's about a culture that allows and sometimes even condones such behavior. As Annalise's mother (Cicely Tyson) tells her, "Men take things." The patriarchal system is horrible to everyone, and Annalise's mother admits that she herself was sexually abused, as were several other women in their family. The point is clear that as far as Annalise's mother is concerned, sexual abuse is just something that happens because men take and women can't stop them.

Which is not to say that this storyline is without hope. It resolves itself with the revelation that while Annalise's mother couldn't do anything to stop her abuse, which she did know about, she was able to take revenge, burning down her own house with Annalise's rapist inside. So there's that. But the whole storyline serves to cement the thesis of the show: in a society where men have virtually unlimited power and authority in the lives of women, it is not only common but almost natural for that power to be abused. Annalise knows this, and so does her mother.

While Annalise's story is rooted in the past and shows how the patriarchal family structure she grew up in made it possible for her to be abused, the other storylines make it clear that the patriarchy is alive and well in the present day, and making all of our other characters miserable too.

Wes Gibbons (Alfred Enoch), who arguably is the main character, is a sensitive, bright, sweet young man who happens to want to be a lawyer. At the start of the show a lot of people compared him to Elle Woods from Legally Blonde: bright and capable, but a little naive and a little too good at seeing the best in people. As the season carried on, we had to watch the light in Wes' eyes slowly snuffed out as he learned the truth about abuse of power, murder, and the reality of what it means to want to help people in a system as broken as this one.

Wes' storyline is interesting because in contrast to Annalise's backstory-laden plot, we really know almost nothing about Wes. We know that he's kind and intelligent, that he only got into the school on a waitlist, and that he isn't particularly close with his family, but very literally nothing else about him. So what we do know is only what we've seen. And that paints a rather sad picture, honestly.

He's codedly lower class, choosing to move into a pretty awful building off campus rather than one of the fancy ones downtown. He wants to be a lawyer so that he can help people, and he's not comfortable with the machinations of justice that go along with that - for all that he turns out to be very good at them. Wes has a conscience and always tries to do the right thing, even when it's not in his best interest. He protects people, and it gets him in trouble.

What makes Wes' story an indictment of the patriarchy though is a bit more subtle. See, in his story, he falls in love with his next door neighbor, the troubled and troublesome Rebecca Sutter (Katie Findlay). Wes, being the kind of person who would do anything for love, proceeds to get himself all mixed up in the murder case that Rebecca is accused of and even goes so far as to get himself arrested trying to help her. But the real trouble comes when Wes, trying to help Rebecca yet again, accidentally confronts Sam Keating over the murder of that student we keep mentioning. In the scuffle where Sam tries to silence Rebecca, Wes kills him, hitting him over the head with a statue of Lady Justice and a not particularly subtle metaphor.

Though we the audience can see this murder as justified, and everyone agrees that it was self-defense, Wes and the others decide to cover it up. Why? Because the two people most culpable in the murder are Wes, a young black man of limited financial means or family connections, and Rebecca, a working class former drug dealer who's already been accused of murder in the past few months. Given that they have killed Sam, a middle-aged, respected white college professor, they realize that no one will believe them. And so the cover up.

Because Wes cannot go to the police, no matter how solid his actual self defense case is (and it's pretty solid), he falls into a spiral of depression and nightmares. He can barely hold it together, and eventually ends up fixating on the guy who lived in his apartment before him and whether or not Rebecca killed him. Wes' deterioration is painful to watch, but even more painful as we realize that the only reason he must fall apart like this is because he cannot tell the truth. Because no one will believe him. Because of the societal structure that would punish him for daring to be disenfranchised.

I've already gone really far in depth on those two, but just so you know, literally every main character on this show has a storyline that deals with the ways that the patriarchal society has failed them and made them miserable. Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza), a fellow student of Wes' and one of Annalise's interns, is an extremely talented and shrewd lawyer-in-training, but her accomplishments are dismissed by her family because she's just a daughter. She also struggles with the revelation that she was only hired to Annalise's team because Annalise's assistant, Frank (Charlie Weber), wants to have sex with her.

Meanwhile, Frank deals with facing prejudice because of his lower class background. He has a noticeable working class accent and for all that he wears fancy suits, he is frequently perceived by the students and by other law professionals as a "hit man" or "heavy."** This cultural and class discrimination wears on him and causes him to have a short temper. He lashes out several times at the students, and pretends he doesn't care that Laurel has chosen to date another student of her social class, but deeply resents both of them.

And then there's Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King), an uptight society princess engaged to marry her perfect prince. Michaela is a brilliant student and very high strung, but we discover that she struggles against the expectations of her future mother in law, who doesn't approve of her. Michaela's future mother in law dislikes her because she's too "low class", "ambitious", and "trashy" for her son. And for most of the season Michaela strives to make the woman like her, because she wants the prestige that comes from marrying a nice rich black man and owning that privilege.

But, and it's nice that at least this story has a happy resolution, as the season unfolds, Michaela comes to the certain realization that her fiance, Aiden, does not love her. More than that, she gains the self confidence to tell her future mother in law that while Aiden might not love her, she loves herself, and she's done trying to win Aiden like he was some prize she needed. Michaela has been damaged by the idea that she needs a man in order to be complete or have value in society. It's only when she rejects that idea and declares that she's good by herself that we see her being truly happy.

Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee), meanwhile, struggles against the patriarchy in a very different and more direct way. As the one main gay character on the show, Connor is shown to have a slight complex about commitment and emotional attachment - presumably related to a relationship that ended horribly when his lover decided to dump him in favor of playing straight - and Connor has never really recovered. Interestingly, Connor is really the one character shown to have a loving and supportive family, but it's his relationship with Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), his on again off again boyfriend, that gives us the most insight into how society has hurt him.

Towards the end of the season, as Connor and Oliver are reconciling for (hopefully) the last time, Oliver insists that they both be tested for STDs, because Connor has a deeply promiscuous sexual history. The twist is that while Connor comes up completely clean, we discover Oliver is HIV+. This storyline is more, frankly, graphic than the others, because it deals with a very literal disease, but it brings back to mind the fact that HIV/AIDS was allowed to grow into a full pandemic in the United States in the 1980s because it primarily affected the gay community and people of color, and the patriarchal society leaders at the time did not view that as a big loss.

In short, all of the characters on this show butt up against the patriarchy in their lives, in little and big ways. Even Bonnie (Liza Weil), Annalise's associate lawyer, and Asher (Matt McGorry), the two characters who arguably have the most societal privilege on the show, are seen to be harmed by it. Bonnie is hampered by the fact that people dismiss her because she's a petite, sweet-looking woman. And Asher, who has had the world handed to him on a plate, discovers that his privilege came on the backs of others' misfortunes: his father, a judge, once rendered a verdict he knew was wrong because he could benefit from it.

And, finally, the central storyline of the season turns out to be one of patriarchal privilege. The whole season has been about the murder of Lila Stangard (Megan West), the college student with whom Sam was having an affair. At first we don't know who did it, but as the season goes on, we see how Lila's life was shaped by patriarchal power, and how it ruined her. Literally. Her college boyfriend asked her to take a vow of purity with him, not because he had any intention of sexual purity, but because he liked the idea of her staying pure for him.

When she broke that and began an affair with her professor, it was an affair of dubious consent, because he was her teacher and in a position of authority over her. Later, she discovered she was pregnant and Sam, her teacher and her lover, pressured her to get an abortion. When she didn't, he had her killed and blamed it on her working class friend, Rebecca.

What makes this season really remarkable isn't that each storyline was somehow depressing and soul-crushing, but rather that they all work together to make a holistic picture of what the patriarchy does to us all. It shows very clearly that such systems of power are unhealthy for all of us, from the Ashers and Sams who have the most power, down to the Michaelas and Annalises and Franks and Weses and Connors and Olivers and Laurels. It shows how in an unequal society, we all suffer. And that's a pretty radical statement for a night-time soap to be making.

I'm not saying that you have to look at this show as a statement or piece of political propaganda. It's a story. A story that you may or may not like, depending on your tastes. But it's really nice, at least for me, to see that this is a story that openly questions our ideas about power. 

And it's honestly a relief to know that when I turn it on every week I'll see more compelling plotlines that deal deeply with intersecting concepts of race, gender, and class.

Besides, I have to turn in next season whether I want to or not. Don't we all still have to find out who killed Rebecca?!

*Though I have little doubt that some of you are going to do that anyway. If so, let me make this easier for you. My email is and while you're at it, why not sign up to be a voter in The Undies! We're looking for the best underappreciated films of 2014 and we could use your misguided rage and appreciation for pop culture to help!

**To be fair, he is. Literally.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Help Pick The Undies! (Underappreciated Films of 2014, That Is)

So, in case you didn't read this big explanatory post here, here's that the Undies are:

The Undies are a project to find the best underappreciated film of 2014. Films that were nominated for an Oscar in the major categories (of Best Film and the acting awards) are not eligible.* This project seeks to find the best overall film of 2014.

The Undies has five categories of film. The categories are: Big Budget, Mid Range, Micro Budget, Foreign Language, and Animated. Each category has five films. When the five winners are announced, we'll then open up voting to find which of these five films is the best underappreciated film of 2014 overall. Got it? Good.

In case you're wondering who these mysterious voters are, the answer! Anyone is eligible to be a voter in The Undies. All you have to do is email us at and say you want to and pick your category. All voters have until March 25, 2015 to see all their five films and pick the best one. Then they are to email that pick in and we'll announce it on the blog. It sounds simple because it is. You even get a super official looking ballot and everything.

The one strong requirement for voters is that you must see every movie in your category. It's imperative because otherwise this doesn't work. The whole point is that these movies are underappreciated, so if you only vote for the movies you saw in theaters, then that doesn't work, does it?

Here are the official nominees and a little bit about each movie to give you guys some context. All of the blurbs are just copied and pasted from, so if they're weird it's not my fault.

Big Budget Nominees

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part One

Katniss Everdeen is in District 13 after she shattered the games forever. Under the leadership of President Coin and the advice of her trusted friends, Katniss spreads her wings as she fights to save Peeta and a nation moved by her courage.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

As Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world, he teams up with another super soldier, the black widow, to battle a new threat from old history: an assassin known as the Winter Soldier.

Edge of Tomorrow (alternate title: Live, Die, Repeat)

A military officer is brought into an alien war against an extraterrestrial enemy who can reset the day and know the future. When this officer is enabled with the same power, he teams up with a Special Forces warrior to try and end the war.


A team of explorers travel through a wormhole in an attempt to ensure humanity's survival.

Guardians of the Galaxy

A group of intergalactic criminals are forced to work together to stop a fanatical warrior from taking control of the universe.

Mid Range Nominees

Big Eyes

A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

Under the Skin

A mysterious woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. Events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery.

Top Five

A comedian tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show.


Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system emerges.

The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Kadam family leaves India for France where they open a restaurant directly across the road from Madame Mallory's Michelin-starred eatery.

Micro Budget Nominees

The Babadook

A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son's fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.


The mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle in 18th century England.

Dear White People

The lives of four black students at an Ivy League college.

Obvious Child

A twenty-something comedienne's unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront the realities of independent womanhood for the first time.

Only Lovers Left Alive

A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance - which has already endured several centuries - is disrupted by the arrival of her uncontrollable younger sister.

Foreign Language Nominees

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

In the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire.


Anna, a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, is on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers a dark family secret dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation.

Two Days, One Night

Sandra, a young Belgian mother, discovers that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus, in exchange for her dismissal. She has only one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job.

Jai Ho

An ex-army officer initiates a unique idea of propagating social responsibility among ordinary people and in doing so, crosses paths with a powerful political family.


Oppressed by her family setting, dead-end school prospects and the boys law in the neighborhood, Marieme starts a new life after meeting a group of 3 free-spirited girls. She changes her name, her dress code, and quits school to be accepted in the gang, hoping that this will be a way to freedom.

Animated Nominees

The Book of Life

Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart, embarks on an adventure that spans three fantastic worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

The Boxtrolls

A young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator. Based on the children's novel 'Here Be Monsters' by Alan Snow.

The Wind Rises

A look at the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during World War II.

Song of the Sea

Saoirse is a child who is the last of the selkies, women in Irish and Scottish legends who transform from seals into people. She escapes from her grandmother's home to journey to the sea and free fairy creatures trapped in the modern world.

The LEGO Movie

An ordinary Lego construction worker, thought to be the prophesied 'Special', is recruited to join a quest to stop an evil tyrant from gluing the Lego universe into eternal stasis.


Dang! Those movies all sound awesome, right? Well, if the list has swayed you and you want to be a voter, send us an email at and sign up! We'll send you an official ballot and everything.

Happy watching!

*Except in the case of Two Days, One Night, wherein Marion Cotillard was nominated for Best Actress, but the film was not nominated for Best Picture or Best Foreign Language Film. Also, let's be real, no one saw it.