Thursday, January 29, 2015

Can a Movie Be So Bad It's Good If It Knows It's Bad?

So this weekend I was feeling tired and a little bored and more than a little run down, so my roommate and I decided to finally clear out our DVR in the hopes that this would cheer me up. Spoiler: It did. Immensely. It cheered me up because, lurking at the bottom of our long list of recorded shows was a little made for TV movie that we'd recorded all the way back in November and that I'd mostly forgotten about. What movie, you ask?

Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever.

As this point you're probably wondering why the heck I bothered recording this shameless cash grab in the first place. Aren't I supposed to be some kind of critic with impeccable taste and a penchant for weird artistic depressing Canadian feminist Westerns?* Well, yeah, probably. But even critics like junk food, and this movie was aimed straight at my junk food brain area thing. It looked dumb and funny so I wanted to watch it. Again, spoiler alert: it's super dumb and super funny.

But the thing that I really noticed as I was watching the movie, which was, as predicted, absolutely terrible, was that it was actually completely aware of how terrible it was. And I don't mean that in the "Everyone involved in the making of this movie is ashamed of themselves" way. I literally mean that whole chunks of this film are devoted to making fun of this film.

Literally. Literally literally literally. I honestly couldn't really believe it, but as my roommate pointed out, it was almost hard to laugh at this movie because the movie made fun of itself before we could. It's like the whole thing was just a blatant cash grab and no one felt any need to hide that. The movie actually feels disdainful about itself. It was super weird.

Admittedly, no one in their right mind thought that this movie was going to be high art going into it. The film's got only the bare bones of a script, which follows a completely bonkers and terrible plot. The main character is Grumpy Cat, voiced by Aubrey Plaza, a lonely kitty who lives at the pet shop of a small, Southern California mall. Grumpy is too grumpy to get adopted, and has in fact been returned to the store twice already. She's resigned herself to being alone forever and is duly cynical about the world and existence. Also she's kind of a downer.

But one day in comes Chrystal (Megan Charpentier), a bright-eyed, super good hearted twelve year old who's just going through a rough time right now. Her parents are going through a divorce and she's being bullied at school. All her friends are adults who work at the mall because her mom also works at the mall and she goes there every day after school. Also she helps out at the pet shop because she finds animals nonthreatening and nonjudgmental.

Chrystal is upset about how lonely she is when a mysterious (slightly sketchy) mall Santa (Russell Peters) gives her a "magic wishing coin" and tells her to wish for a Christmas miracle. She wishes and then the Santa, who might be The Santa, disappears. And when she goes back to the pet shop, Chrystal finds that she can suddenly hear Grumpy Cat's thoughts! And they can communicate! She has a friend! Yay!

Yeah, like I said, I don't think anyone involved in this production had delusions that they were going to win an Emmy for this.

Anyway, the rest of the plot is pretty boilerplate. The petshop is going under because they're behind on their rent and the mean mall manager wants to throw them out and put in a coffeeshop. But Mr. Crabtree (David Lewis), who owns the shop, has a brilliant plan. He's managed to get some kind of super famous pedigree dog, and he's going to sell it for a million dollars. Then he'll use that money to save the pet shop.

Only two local lowlifes catch wind of this and decide that they'll steal the dog and then get Crabtree to pay ransom for it or just sell it themselves, and use that money to buy a tour bus so their band can finally go on tour.


Chrystal finds out about this when she accidentally witnesses them kidnapping the dog and then steals their keys so they can't get away, leaving her and Grumpy Cat trapped in the mall with the two thieves and the priceless dog at night. It's super low stakes (the guys have no weapons or violent inclinations and seem incredibly wussy), and deeply implausible, but it fills the time. 

And there's a B plot in which Chrystal's mom, Tabby (Shauna Johannesen) is tentatively getting prepared to go on a date with Jesse (Casey Manderson), another mall employee. As Grumpy Cat literally says of it, "Blah blah blah not my line not my line." And she says that while appearing as a floating head and actually talking over the dialogue of the scene, so we as the audience don't even really know what happened.

So that's what technically happens in the movie. But it's hard to say that this film has a plot or a story or an emotional arc, because really what you watch for the two hours that this thing lasts is Aubrey Plaza, as Grumpy Cat, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall and telling you what a terrible movie this is, in increasingly blatant ways.

At one point she actually describes the only logical way the movie should end (with Chrystal just calmly taking the guys' keys, leaving the mall, riding her bike to the police station, telling them everything, and then the bad guys being arrested immediately), but comments that this would make for a really short movie and less revenue from commercials. Hence why the film is so bloated and illogical.

Later in the movie, Chrystal and Grumpy Cat attack the bad guys with paint guns, including a custom made cat-sized paintball machine gun. Which Grumpy Cat notes is not a thing made in real life, but clearly a movie prop. In this scene she argues with herself in a British accent. Just because.

And how could I forget the charming way the movie sends you off to a commercial break: "And now we break for shameless consumerism." Or the way she welcomes you back: "You're still watching this? WHY?"

It's like the movie was so bad it couldn't help but know how bad it was and figured it would get some fun out of it? I guess? I'm pretty stumped here, actually.

It's a movie where the cat drives a car at one point, only to stop when Chrystal points out that she can't reach the pedals. The implication is, of course, that she would have kept going as long as Chrystal could suspend her disbelief. And it's also a movie not afraid to mock its network. Grumpy makes several disparaging comments about Lifetime, from mocking the sappiness to gently reminding us that this is far from the most egregiously bad thing Lifetime has ever tried to show us.

But I still can't decide how I actually feel about the film. On the one hand, I did enjoy the crap out of it, which is basically the point of any movie. On the other hand, there's something wrong about a movie that makes fun of itself before I can. Can a movie be so bad it's good if it knows how bad it is? I really don't know.

Because, and this is the key thing, the reason we all enjoy "bad" movies so much isn't because they are poorly made. I mean, I love a bad movie as much as the rest of you, but there's a specific kind of bad movie that we typically enjoy. A "so bad it's good" movie is almost always a film that was made by people who genuinely loved and believed in it. Plan 9 from Outer Space is awful, but it's clearly trying to be high art, and that makes it hilarious. So too with Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. The movie is painfully terrible, but you can tell that the people who made it thought they were making an important and deep satire of modern religion.

Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever isn't like that. It's super obviously not a movie anyone believed in, or a film that has any aspirations to be more than it is: a paycheck. And yet, for all that, I still like it. I don't think it's good, but I like it.

Actually it might be good in a really obtuse post-modernist philosophical way, but I'll let someone else tackle that one.

I guess the movie and my reaction to it can best be described by this actual quote from the film: "Some are born to greatness, some achieve greatness, and some watch Christmas movies starring cats. I think you know which you are."

Yeah, Grumpy Cat. I do know who I am. And so, for better or worse, do you.

Getting to stare at an adorable cat for two hours might also have made me like it more.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Problem With Disney's 'Hercules' Is, Well, Hercules

Last night I had some down time so I figured I'd continue on my quest to rewatch all of the Disney renaissance films that I vaguely remember from my childhood but am incapable of recalling clearly enough to have an opinion on. Next up on the list was Hercules, which I dimly remembered was never one of my favorites, but didn't otherwise have any strong feelings about. So I watched it, and now I remember why I didn't have any strong feelings about this movie. There is pretty much nothing in it to have strong feelings about.

Or, rather, there is content in there, technically, but not a whole lot that's worth remembering or profound in any way. In fact, I would argue that this might be the most forgettable of the second tier Disney movies, if only I could be sure there's not something more forgettable that I've already forgotten.

The problem with the film isn't so much that it's bad as that it's not good. What I mean is, there's nothing in this movie that is objectively terrible, but by that same token, there's really nothing in this movie that is worth special praise or notice. The story is okay, the animation style is really visually interesting but not particularly earth-shattering in its innovation, and the voice acting is fine. Nothing really to write home about, except for James Woods' memorable turn as Hades.

In other words, there's nothing really in this movie that makes it remarkable in any way, and it's not quite solid enough to fade into the background of respectability, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Lady and the Tramp. Neither of those is considered one of the best Disney films, but they're both respected. Hercules, however, barely gets that most of the time, and having watched it, I can see why.

The story is based loosely off of Greek mythology and the Hercules/Heracles* story. Now, in mythology, Hercules was the son of the god Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. He's therefore not a full god, but a demigod, and there are tons of those running around. Seriously in Ancient Greek mythology, finding out that your parent was actually a god seems akin to finding out that your parents went to Woodstock or something. It's surprising, maybe, but not exactly a big shock.

The film changes this and Disneys it up a bit. Here, Hercules (Tate Donovan) is the son of Zeus (John Goodman) and Hera (Samantha Eggar), which makes him a full-blooded god. And everything's going swimmingly with this adorable little bouncing babe until his uncle, Hades (James Woods) gets jealous and decides to kill Hercules. Since he can only kill a god when the moon is just right, Hades sends his two minions, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwaite) and Panic (Matt Frewer) to kill the kid. 

But they fail. Before they can finish giving Hercules the potion that will make him forever into a mortal, Pain and Panic are interrupted by a nice married couple, who see the baby and adopt him as their own - conveniently discovering that his name is Hercules so that no one gets confused by the kid having two names. Pain and Panic realize what happened, but decide not to tell Hades because he will probably react poorly.

Then we cut to fifteen years later or so, where a pubescent Hercules is the menace of his town. Not because he's mean or anything, but because he still retains his godly strength but has mixed that with the physical awkwardness and gangly limbs of an early adolescent. He ruins things. A lot. Like whole buildings and towns.

His parents decide it's time for Herc to find out who his real family is, and they decide to send him off to the Temple of Zeus. How or why they know to do that is completely beyond me and beyond the reasonable scope of this film's logic, but whatever. Hercules shows up at the temple and Zeus appears to tell him that he's his dad and Hercules needs to become a great and mighty hero in order to be a god again and come back home. Because those are the rules, I guess. Makes total sense. Sure.

Hercules goes off and trains with Philoctetes aka Phil (Danny DeVito) until he's about eighteen, and then the plot, such as it is, really starts. Hades is trying to take over Mount Olympus, Hercules is the only hero who can stop him, and oh by the way, Hercules is quickly falling in love with Meg (Susan Egan), who unbeknownst to him works for Hades. Blah blah blah, heroic actions and love interests and singing blah.

Honestly, that's what the rest of the movie feels like, because once you reach a certain point in the story, it feels like it's completely over. Hercules is now the hero that everyone thought he could be and that's that. Oh sure, Meg is kind of evil and he should be worried, but we all know that Meg is going to ultimately fall for Herc's down home charm and aw shucks humility. Hades is planning to overthrow Mount Olympus, but Hercules is totally going to stop him, no matter what macguffins or minor obstacles Hades throws his way. For all intents and purposes, by the midway point of the movie, the film is over.

In fact, I would argue that from the middle of the movie on, the protagonist is no longer Hercules, but actually Meg. She's the one who has to change her perspective on life and go through a narrative arc so she can grow as a person. She's the one whose emotional journey we track. Hercules emotional journey in this movie is literally: I want to find out where I belong. I have found out where I belong but I have to do a few things to get there. I did the things and now I feel like I can belong anywhere. Good for me.

Meg's journey, on the other hand, is much more complicated and emotionally delicate. We learn that she's guarded and not interested in emotional entanglements when we meet her, but it's much further into the film when we learn that Meg actually sold her soul to Hades to save the man she loved, who then dumped her immediately afterwards. So yeah, she's guarded.

Her journey, of coming to love Hercules enough to sacrifice herself for him, then becomes something both deep and meaningful. It's just, unfortunately, buried in all this other mediocre crap that the film seems to think is more important. Like jokes about Hercules' merchandizing and action figures. Or repeatedly insisting that being a famous hero has not made Hercules at all stuck up or conceited. Or funny haha jokes about Phil constantly trying to sexually harass nymphs.

It's like the movie didn't really know what to do with itself. Once it got Hercules started on his journey, it stagnated because Hercules as a hero is not nearly as interesting as Hercules as a screwed up teenager. In fact, Disney even recognized this fact after the film was a mild flop, and made their animated television sequel about Hercules as a teenager, going through training and generally being terrible at everything. Because that's what we want to see.

Sure, there are a lot of really funny jokes in the film, like literally everything James Woods says as Hades, and half of Meg's lines, and a lot of the Pain and Panic stuff. But it's a problem when your bad guys are so much funnier and more engaging than your good guys that you actually want them to win. And for all that I stinking love the Muses in this film, they don't really add to the narrative. They cover over a lot of the more egregious plot sins, like how Hercules has no emotional arc to speak of and is a very boring character, but that's not necessarily a good thing.

In short, the biggest problem this movie has is its hero. And that's not something I like saying.

Pictured: life goals.
It's not that I think Hercules is a bad movie or sets a particularly bad example for the children who might be watching it. I don't think that. It's fine. "Find the hero within you" is a perfectly decent message to send, and while I think the movie is only okay, that doesn't make it bad. No, the real issue I have here is that Hercules feels symptomatic of a problem I see a lot in children's media: no one cared enough to make it good.

That's what this really feels like. No one took the time or effort to really look at this movie with a critical eye and see that it's not nearly as good as it could be. It's like they were so set on an idea of what the movie was going to be and how it would sell for them that they forget to check and make sure it was halfway decent before putting it out.

I really hate that. I hate the idea that just because something is for children we somehow assume it's all right if it's not very good. That's crap. Kids have taste too, and if you wean them on media that doesn't have a high opinion of their ability to process good media, then they're going to feel stifled and annoyed and probably get the impression that media is worthless overall. Which it isn't.

Also, in keeping with yesterday's theme, I do really think this movie would have been much more compelling if it were openly about Meg rather than Hercules. Meg's emotional journey and backstory are way the hell more compelling, and her journey is the one I really invested in. So make that a movie, please, and leave Hercules and his arc-less character alone.

I want them to sing-narrate my life.
*Hercules is actually the Roman name for the hero. As you might recall, Roman mythology is literally just Greek mythology with the names changed (so is Etruscan mythology), so Hercules is the same as the Greek hero Heracles. I assume Disney used the Roman name because it is better known.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Inglourious Basterds Told the Wrong Dang Story

I'm going to describe a movie for you and I want you to think for a minute about whether or not you would see that movie:

A young woman witnesses the death of her family. She alone is able to escape and find shelter, but she is haunted by the memory of their deaths and the knowledge that their killers are still out there. The woman reinvents herself in a new city, takes a new name, dyes her hair, even falls in love, but always in the back of her mind is the understanding that her family is dead and the men who killed them could come for her at any moment. The city she lives in is still under their control. There is nowhere she can go that is safe.

One day, while going quietly about her business in her new home, the woman comes face to face with one of her family's killers. A man who, while he did not pull the trigger, belongs to the same army and organization that ordered their deaths. The man does not recognize her and instead asks her for a date. She refuses. But the more she refuses the more he is intrigued. The woman now finds herself haunted not only by her dead family but also by this killer who has decided he loves her.

The killer worms his way into her life, forces her to face her tormentors, and invites them to invade her home, her business, and her every moment. Finally, the killer makes it so that a film of his exploits, killing people like her family, will be shown at the theater the woman runs. The audience will be made up of her family's killers and their kind. And she cannot refuse.

So she makes a plan. She decides that she will not sit idly by and leave her family unavenged, and she will act to save the families of all the others who might be hurt. On the night of the film, as the killer's acts are sprayed across the big screen, the woman and her lover set fire to the theater and kill everyone inside. Both she and her killers are dead.

The end.

I mean, yeah, it sounds like a super depressing movie, but doesn't it also sound really compelling? I would watch the crap out of that! It's a traditional 1970s-style revenge flick, with systemic oppression, intrigue, racial inequality, and gender dynamics coming out of every pore. It's a great movie. And, I'm happy to say that it's a movie that really does exist. Sort of.

The movie I described - in case you didn't recognize it - is the B-plot from Quentin Tarantino's revisionist masterpiece Inglourious Basterds. The story follows Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew, whose entire family is killed by the Nazis. She alone escapes, only to find herself, years later, with a movie theater full of Nazis and a bunch of really flammable film.

This plotline is pretty much the only reason I like Inglourious Basterds. I'm serious. There's not a lot else in there that I can appreciate. While I enjoy Til Schweiger, I like him better in Was Tun Wenns Brennt and Daniel Bruhl is a lot more fun when he's not being a Nazi. I mean, he's straight up adorable in Goodbye Lenin!* The whole thing with Donnie the Bear Jew is interesting, but ultimately kind of dumb, and the A-plot mostly makes me want to shake Tarantino by the shoulders.

"Not every historical problem is solved just by saying that it would have ended differently if the oppressed were given more guns!" I want to yell. "The complexity and tragedy of historical events is not helped by your dick-swinging revisionist macho fantasies! These are the lives of real people and they deserve respect not some sneering condescension and to be told that they should have just defended themselves."

But enough about my dislike for Quentin Tarantino.

The real thing I want to get at here is a problem I find all too common: the thing where a perfectly decent movie could have been an amazing movie if only the story had focussed on a different character. In this and most cases, what I mean by that is a minor female character. There are too many movies that stink just because they chose to follow the wrong lead. And this is one of them.

Edge of Tomorrow is good, but don't you want to see a movie about Rita Vrataski kicking butt without any backup? Yeah, Inception is a really cool movie. But you know what would be way cooler? An entire movie from the perspective of Mal, the dead memory in Cobb's mind. Like a whole movie about Mal haunting him and slowly realizing that she's dead, just a memory in her husband's mind, and trying to figure out what to do or how to get out or anything like that. It would take the trippiness and awesomeness of the film up to eleven.

King Arthur is fine and all, but wouldn't it be more interesting to actually spend a whole movie following Guinevere, the Wode warrior captured by Romans and tortured in a Roman prison before being set free and fighting the Saxons for the future of her nation?

What I'm saying is, because filmmakers almost always default to the idea that the most interesting story is the one about the white guy "everyman", they fail to notice the really really interesting stuff actually happening in their movies. Shosanna's story is way more interesting that that of the "Basterds". Every time the film switches to follow them, I get kind of annoyed because I know it means we're not going to see Shosanna for a while and that's who I'm here for.

In a very real sense, the problem here is that the female characters, the minor female characters have stories that are implied or glossed over in the film, but those stories are ones we almost never get to hear and as such they're actually more interesting to me. We so rarely get to see into these characters' lives that it becomes my fondest wish to see them. Shosanna's story is compelling because it's not been told. Not really. Not as the focus.

For that matter, Diane Kruger's character, Bridget Von Hammersmark, a German actress secretly working for the Allies while also making Nazi propoganda films, is really interesting because we never see movies about that character. We see movies where that character shows up for a couple of scenes and then dies horribly, but we never actually see a whole movie about her. I want a whole movie about her.

By pushing these really interesting women and stories into the background all the time, the message Hollywood (intentionally or unintentionally sends) is that they're not worth telling. They're not worth the time or effort to tell well. They're boring or inconsequential or invalid. Not nearly as interesting as watching a bunch of white guys shoot another bunch of white guys for two hours. No way.

And, while I'm mostly talking about women here, it's also a problem with characters of color. There are so many characters of color who just pop up in other movies but would be way more compelling if they got films of their own. It's a problem across the board, and the real people who suffer from it are us. All of us. Because not only do we not get to see that our stories, the real ones about us (sorry, white guys, not talking to you for a second), matter and should be told, we also don't get to see good stories.

When we come down to it, that's my real complaint about Inglourious Basterds. The story that the film chose to tell, the story that it focussed on and therefore implied was the most important, is not the most interesting story in that movie. Not by a long shot. And Inglourious Basterds is a worse movie for choosing to spend most of its screentime on a bunch of guys with guns rather than Shosanna. 

Shosanna's story gives me honest to goodness goosebumps when I think about it. It's so powerful. Really, truly important. It has gravitas. And yeah, there are some fantastical elements, but it's a story about a young woman coming to grips with the death of her family, taking revenge, and grabbing hold of her own destiny. She has agency. She acts with authority. Shosanna is a superhero.

I mean, just take that scene where she's preparing to greet a bunch of Nazi bigwigs, at the behest of a man who has been sexually harassing her for months, right before she murders all of them. She puts on her makeup like she's going to war. Her face is stone and she slashes her cheeks with lipstick like it's warpaint. Who doesn't feel that in their bones?

Her story is so important because it's a story about the people whose power was taken taking it back. I'd much rather see a story about the disenfranchised rewriting their own history than be told it all would have been better if there were more Americans with guns.

Yes, the problem is one of representation and structural inequality and addressing our own prejudices and biases when we see films. But it is also just straight up about making good movies. And good movies are ones that tell stories we haven't seen forty kajillion times. For my money, I'd rather see an original, inventive film about a protagonist I've never seen before than sit back and let the waves of familiarity sweep over me. Any day.

*Yes, some of the excuse for writing this article is to show off that I have good taste in German cinema. Sue me.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Xiomara (Jane the Virgin)

It still feels a little surreal to me that Jane the Virgin was actually nominated for a Golden Globe, and that Gina Rodgriguez actually won for her portrayal of Jane Villanueva. It feels weird, because I’m not used to shows by and about women of color getting that kind of recognition. Especially not shows like Jane the Virgin, which are aimed at teenagers and young women, that have an openly comedic tone, and which celebrate the accomplishments of women of color.

I’m super not used to the idea of a show on the CW getting nominated for any award, let alone wining one. That’s weird too.

But for all that this is an unfamiliar sensation of happiness, I’m certainly not upset about it. Just because it’s unfamiliar doesn’t mean it’s bad. Not at all. I’m over the moon with this, you guys, and I’m so happy that this wonderful little show is getting the recognition it rightly deserves.

I will say, though, that I’m kind of disappointed that Gina Rodriguez was the show’s only acting nomination. Don’t get me wrong, she totally deserved that Golden Globe because she’s awesome, but I also think that there are a couple of other actors on the show that need a shoutout too. 

Jaime Camil has been tearing it up as Rogellio, and I give him a lot of credit for turning a naturally bizarre and hilarious character into what feels like a real person with feelings and flaws. Ivonne Coll is also fantastic as Alba, mixing firm practicality with occasional flights of fancy, and Yael Grobglas deserves a lot of credit for her ability to somehow make Petra Solano both villainous and endearing.

My favorite has to be Andrea Navedo, though. Her portrayal of Xiomara Villanueva is one of the most nuanced performances of what it means to be a single mother that I think I’ve ever seen. Because for all that Xiomara is flighty, flaky, and an unrepentant man-chaser, she's also deeply sacrificial, selfless, loving, and a really stinking good mom. And it's the combination of all of these traits, her love of booty shorts and her intense desire to make the world perfect for her daughter, that make Xiomara into one of my all time favorite female characters.

Yeah. She's that good.

So, just to refresh you all, Jane the Virgin is a light dramedy about a devout young woman, Jane, whose normal gynecological appointment goes a bit off the rails after she's mistakenly artificially inseminated. This ridiculous event happens about five minutes into the first episode and the rest of the show is about Jane coming to grips with the telenovela ridiculousness that has taken over her life while also trying to prepare herself to become a parent.

Most of the story revolves around Jane and her romantic life, her job prospects, all that good stuff. Jane's kind and loving and responsible and hard-working and it's incredibly easy to root for her. Sure, her personal life is more complicated than most soap operas - and she would know because it turns out that her father is a telenovela star - but it all usually works out for the best. Cue the light-hearted music and a montage of everyone smiling.

But seriously, the show is weird but super fun and I highly recommend it. In all of this focus on Jane, though, it's easy to lose track of the other characters on there, which is a shame because most of them, especially Xiomara, are the kind of nuanced, complex, fantastic characters who would be the breakout stars on any other show that wasn't just so jam-packed with goodness. That is not, for the record, a complaint.

Xiomara is Jane's mother and best friend. A teen mother herself, Xiomara put most of her life on hold to raise Jane, and to a large extent she still is, even though Jane is now twenty-three. Xiomara always dreamed of being a singer, but while Jane was growing up, she put aside that dream and worked a series of dull and slightly demeaning jobs to make sure that her family was safe and supported. 

And even though Xiomara, who frequently goes by Xo, can have a contentious relationship with her mother, Alba, clearly they love each other enough to still be living together after all this time.

It would be easy to compare Xiomara simplistically to Lorelai Gilmore and gloss over the differences that social class, economic opportunity, race, geographic location, and education level have wrought in their lives, but that would be bad. Xiomara is a very different kind of single mother than Lorelai, and while it's good to have representations of both of them, it's very important to note that a lot of the differences come simply from the fact that Lorelai had a lot of opportunities and privilege that Xiomara never got to experience. And it shows.*

It's the little things: Xiomara, Jane, and Alba all use public transportation in their daily lives, and when Rogellio gives Jane a car as an extravagant gesture of paternal affection, they all share the car between themselves. We can understand from their basic lives and the way that the Villanueva women talk so freely about money that it has been a big concern for them in the past and that even if they are pretty financially stable right now, they're not by any means what someone would consider "well off." 

I mean, just the simple fact that after becoming pregnant as a teenager and deciding to keep the child despite her mother's objections, and also refusing to name the child's father so that her mother would not force her into a marriage she really didn't want, after all of this, Xiomara still lives in her mother's house and has forged a strong relationship with her... It speaks to the idea that Xiomara couldn't run away because she didn't have anywhere else to go, but also the fact that she values her family and no petty grievance will make her abandon them.

This isn't to make her out to be a saint or anything either. I really love how the writers trust us enough to let Xiomara be a complex human being. Which she totally is. She can put on a mantel of self-confidence and sexual energy, but when it comes time for her to walk into a room full of record producers and executives, we discover that Xo is actually really self-conscious and worries that she looks old. 

Or when she accidentally discovers that Jane wrote a story about her, using her as the basis for a slutty single mother, Xo cries over what her daughter must think of her and then sends the story in to be published because regardless of her feelings, it's a good story.

She's not perfect, is what I'm getting at. Xiomara openly owns up to the fact that she made Jane's teenage years hell by dating the father of one of Jane's fellow students. She's not above using her womanly wiles to get what she wants, or above getting into the occasional catfight. She can be a little silly and she often talks to posters of Paulina Rubio when she needs an emotional lift.

Xiomara worked her whole life to get a chance to show the world how well she can sing, but when she hits the first snag of rejection she almost gives up. She can be brilliant and confident and hilarious and strong and also incredibly timid and sad and vapid and shallow. She is all of those things and that's great.

It's great because Xiomara manages to simultaneously fit and subvert our cultural expectations for a "Hispanic single mother." Yes, she's of a lower tax bracket and yes she isn't particularly educated. We're never told definitively but I would be shocked if we learned Xiomara had gone past a high school diploma - school's just not her thing.

Yes, Xo is prone to low-cut tops and incredibly short skirts, and yes, she dates. A lot. But that doesn't mean she's not still a good mother, nor does that really say anything about her in general. Xiomara admits to Jane late in the season that she very intentionally didn't date seriously while Jane was growing up because she didn't want her daughter to get attached to some guy just for the relationship to go south and Jane to lose a father-figure. So, yeah, she mostly dates casually, but that doesn't mean she doesn't want more or that she isn't going to get around to pursuing it one of these days.

And sure, Xiomara can be "dramatic" and "passionate" like the dumb firey Latina stereotype that for some reason won't go away. But she can also be incredibly logical and giving. 

She knows she's in love with Rogellio, but intentionally takes a step back so that he can focus on his relationship with Jane as they get to know each other as father and daughter. She's angry when she hears that Jane's ex-fiance, Michael, broke her heart, but she also urges them to reconcile, because she sees the value of a good relationship that lasted for two years and was heading for marriage.

In other words, Xiomara is complicated and that's a very good thing. Because she fits a lot of the stereotypes about a Latina single mother, it would be easy to denigrate Xiomara or claim that she's not a valuable character. But that would be very wrong. She is valuable precisely because she takes those stereotypes and humanizes them. She shows how behind every caricature of a woman is a real. breathing human being who needs our love and compassion.

Xiomara isn't a perfect person by any means, and that's the point. She's human. She's not an animal and not a god, she's a woman. In all her imperfect, weird, kooky glory. And I'm very thankful for her.

Xo's priorities. In order.
*Please please please don't decide this is the moment to attack me for not loving Lorelai Gilmore enough. I love her lots and lots, but I do think that we as an audience need to be aware of when a character, even one as amazing as Lorelai, has been written with an instinctual white privilege and operates in a world of blessings and coincidental opportunities. Which she totally does. It doesn't make her any less of a great mother or a fantastic success story, but it's worth remembering exactly how good Lorelai has it.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Grave Importance of Pushing Daisies

It has come to my attention that, like a lot of things that came and went before I started blogging in earnest, Pushing Daisies, though one of my all-time favorite shows, has never really gotten covered on Kiss My Wonder Woman. It just hasn’t come up. I’ve mentioned that I like it a couple times, I think, but I’ve never told all of you why I love it, or even what makes it special.

Well. That changes now.

Pushing Daisies is another show from Bryan Fuller’s catalogue of meditations on death. I mean, his work includes this, Hannibal, and Dead Like Me. Just saying. Dude thinks death is fascinating and I can’t really blame him for that. Death is a really interesting subject, and he always does really neat things with it. In this case, the plot revolves around a friendly necromancer who uses his ability to raise the dead to solve murders and collect the reward. Also it’s pretty much the cutest story in the world, and those two facts do not contradict each other.

So the hero of our story is Ned the Piemaker (Lee Pace), a gentle soul who discovered as a child that he could bring people (and animals) back to life with a single touch. The catch is that if he ever touches them again they’ll be dead forever. Oh, and if he doesn’t touch them again within a minute of waking them then someone else nearby will die. It’s a random proximity thing.

Ned learned of his power in possibly the most traumatic way possible, first by rescuing his dog Digby, but second by accidentally raising his mother from the dead, leaving her alive too long, inadvertently causing the death of his next door neighbor, and then having his mother kiss him on the forehead later that night and die forever. Ned’s a super sweet guy, but for some strange reason he has a few issues.

At the start of the show the only person in the world who knows Ned’s secret is Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), a private investigator who stumbled upon Ned haplessly raising a man from the dead one day and decided that this would be useful as all get out. Emerson convinced Ned to use his powers “for the greater good”: by waking up murder victims and asking who killed them. 

It’s a system, and it works. But things get awfully complicated when Emerson brings Ned in to wake a new victim and he discovers it’s the love of his life, Charlotte Charles aka Chuck (Anna Friel). She was his next door neighbor growing up, at least until he accidentally killed her father, and he’s been in love with her his whole life. Now she’s dead.

He brings her back to life and then he kind of sort of let’s her stay there. Now he’s got two massive secrets to hide from the world: his powers and the dead girl living in his spare room. But together they solve crime! And fall in love! And make pies! But they can never ever touch or Chuck will die forever.

I also forgot to mention that most of the action in the show happens in and around Ned’s pie shop, which is called The Pie Hole and shaped like a pie. He lives upstairs above it, as does Chuck now, and his next door neighbor is also the lead waitress at the restaurant, Olive Snook (Kristen Chenoweth).

So that’s the basic setup of the show. But the actual reality of the show is all this and so much more. Ridiculously more. 

Like, for example, while Ned and Emerson are two of the most important characters and both men, all of the other major characters are female. You’ve got Chuck and Olive, who quickly get over their very mild (and entirely one-sided) rivalry for Ned’s affections to become great friends. But you’ve also got Chuck’s two aunts, Vivian (Ellen Greene) and Lily (Swoosie Kurtz), a pair of agoraphobic former professional synchronized swimmers. Oh, and Olive is a former professional jockey. So that’s awesome. 

The murders that the team solves throughout the show are somehow charming and bizarre and wonderful, and I know that shouldn’t be a thing one can say about murders, but it’s true. They’re kind of amazing. 

Most of all, though, I think I like this show because something about the premise speaks to me so much. Actually a lot of things about the premise speak to me. For starters, I love the idea that this whole show is centered around letting the victims of horrible crimes speak for themselves. The whole point of the show and of Ned’s powers is to give the powerless, the literally dead, a voice. 

It’s awesome. It’s not really ever shoved in your face, but there’s something so amazing about a show devoted to letting the dead, in their own words, tell their stories. Though it is slightly undercut by the fact that Emerson is standing behind them with a stopwatch to make sure they don’t go over sixty seconds.

But more than this, I love the premise that this show is primarily a love story between two people who can never ever touch. It’s not something that gets fixed or retconned out of the show at any point, and it’s also not something that causes Ned and Chuck to break up. Nope. Instead the show gives endless examples of the two of them coming up with creative solutions to their problem, but above all, choosing to love each other despite the complications.

I love that so much.

I love it because there’s a tendency in media to boil romantic relationships down to their basest aspects. This isn’t to say that sex isn’t important, but rather that there are other things that matter too. Unfortunately in television and movies, romantic relationships are often condensed down into a matter of sexual attraction or lack thereof. Why? Because sex is titillating and cinematic. It’s easy to express visually, and film is a visual medium.

But in the emphasis on physical attraction and sexual chemistry, movies and television tend to neglect all the other stuff that goes into a relationship. The dumb stuff. The part where you make each other laugh at stupid things. The inside jokes. Making each other breakfast. The quiet pleasure of having someone else in your space. Giving someone a ridiculous gift because it’ll make them happy.

And even more than this, because it puts such a huge obstacle in between its central lovers, Pushing Daisies is in a perfect position to comment on the importance of choosing love continually and the value of compromise.

For example, Ned and Chuck can absolutely never touch or else she will die forever. So how do they hold hands? How do they kiss? Do they kiss? How do they even exist in the same apartment without bumping into each other at some point?

I love the show because it addresses every single one of these issues. They hold hands using a massive rubber glove. They kiss through plastic wrap and only very rarely and carefully. They put bells on their slippers so that they always know where the other one is when they’re at home in the apartment. They have separate twin beds. They make it work.

But it doesn’t happen naturally. They have to make it work. Their relationship, like any relationship, requires sacrifice on both of their parts. It would arguably be a lot easier for both of them to just say screw it and go date someone else. But they don’t, and I think that’s the most powerful message the show could send. All of those frustrations are inconsequential when faced with the simple fact that they love each other and have the opportunity to share life with each other. It’s worth it.

For that matter, whether or not it's explicitly worth it or not is up to them. And even that is an issue addressed in the show. Olive, who's carried a torch for Ned for some time before the show starts, eventually comes to find out the nature of his relationship with Chuck, and is deeply confused. How could two people want to be together even when they can never really be together? What's the point?

The point is that Olive doesn't get to decide what's worth it and what isn't. Chuck and Ned both agree that their sacrifices are worth it, and that's really that. Why fix what isn't broken?

It's worth noting as well that this doesn't mean Ned and Chuck have a perfect relationship. They still argue and fight and lie to each other. But we get to see the resolution to that, and we get to see the honest truth that, in reality, stuff like that is rarely solved with sex. It's nice, but it doesn't solve all the problems. Instead, we see Ned and Chuck negotiating through their relationship and working their problems out in real time. 

Because the show eschews the physical side of their relationship, it pulls into focus all of these other issues that get glossed over in pretty much every other show. It's relatively rare to see a show or movie that openly addresses the everyday minutia of a relationship without making it out to be frustrating or meager or not enough. We rarely get to see the everyday negotiating that every somewhat functional couple I've ever met has to do. It's just as much a part of real life as sex is, and yet for some reason we almost never see it. And certainly not in a celebratory light.

Oh sure, there are a lot of other reasons why I love Pushing Daisies, but this is what immediately springs to mind. It's a shockingly wonderful show and at its heart is a very human connection between two broken people. And you know how much I love those.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x02 - The Bad Decision Brigade

Another Wednesday, and we're back in the grips of some super uplifting television! All right! And by that I mean, for the next few weeks we're going to be recapping episodes from Strange Empire's premiere season. Strange Empire, which is still currently airing its first season, is a Canadian show that calls itself a "feminist Western". By that it means that it's a Western, but one primarily concerned with telling the stories of women and their lives on the frontier. It's not a perfect show, as we discussed in last week's recap of episode one, but it is worth looking at.

Last week, if you recall, had us meeting all of the characters and set up the central narrative arc of the season. All our characters were traveling from Montana up into the New Canada where they hoped to set up farms and settle on the frontier. Plans changed, though, when a group of Indians* attacked their camp and killed or captured all the men.

Now the women are lost and abandoned on their own, only to be taken in by the not particularly kind or caring Captain Slotter, who owns the local whorehouse. Slotter offers them a place to stay but just might turn them all to whoring, and he's also in a furious battle with our heroine, Kat, over the fate of two orphan girls that Slotter claims he bought and paid for and Kat insists are her adopted daughters.

Also Slotter might have been behind the attack that killed all the men and not the Indians after all.

Which brings us to this week! We open on Kat burning sage as she stands out in the woods. She's lost, out of it, and when she sees a figure walking towards her along the road, her heart leaps. "Jeremiah?" But it's not her lost husband. It's Isabelle's keeper/assistant/whoever that guy is, the Asian-American man we've seen hanging around the Slotters. What's he doing out in the woods in the middle of the day by himself?

Probably nothing good. And it seems that Kat agrees.

But she has other things to think about. As Kelly reminds her, stepping up all dressed as a boy with a cap pulled down low over her face, they need to leave before Captain Slotter starts looking for them. He's going to be pretty pissed off when he realizes that his two new whores are gone.

Back at Janestown, there's a wagon pulling off, taking some of the women away, but not everyone. As the driver yells, "No money, no ride." Most of the women have no means with which to get themselves away from this place, so when the driver knocks their belongings overboard, they have no choice but to follow and pray that someone delivers them. Rebecca stands there watching it all, coolly looking down on the railroad men who are fighting over some lost belongings and at the busyness of the camp.

She too has other things to do, though. This episode seems to be about the women picking up and moving on after the tragedy of last week. Rebecca's still got her husband, for all that she might not want him very much, and the next scene finds her sterilizing his nasty leg wound with a fire iron. Between the gash in his leg and his lingering concussion, Thomas is really not in any shape to be going anywhere, but he's determined that Rebecca go find the wagon driver and get them both out of there. They have to leave. Now.

Rebecca suspects something is funky, because she's a genius, and she presses Thomas for information. Did he see something the night they were attacked? Does he know something and that's why he's so insistent they leave? It would make sense. If Captain Slotter was behind the attack and discovered that one of the survivors is hiding in his own bunkhouses he would probably be a little bit pissed and more than a little bit ready to kill the survivor...

Thomas is probably right that they should get the hell out of there.

Mrs. Fogg stands in the center of the bustle, watching and probably thinking about how she doesn't have the same luxuries they do. She doesn't get to leave Janestown because she really is a Jane. But she's also a very kind woman, and she steps up to two of the women not leaving, Mrs. Briggs (Anne Marie DeLuise) and her daughter Fiona (Ali Liebert from Bomb Girls). Mrs. Briggs refuses to leave Janestown until her men are found, and Fiona holds out some hope that her husband is still alive. But it's not looking good.

Mrs. Briggs is kind of a hard woman, but Mrs. Fogg isn't going to stop that from her trying to befriend them. She wants friends. I don't blame her either. So Mrs. Fogg offers them cake and the two women certainly aren't going to refuse (though Mrs. Briggs looks like she wants to for a moment).

Before we can settle into that scene, though, our eyes are drawn over to the other side of camp where a wagon is pulling off and a young woman, Miss Logan (Christie Burke) is chasing after it. It seems she didn't have money for the fare, and so she's being left behind. Man, that stinks. 

Even worse, Slotter's right hand man, Jared (Michael Adamthwaite) is there to make everyone feel worse about themselves by trying to scare the women with talk of how the Indians are still out there. He tells horror stories about what the Indians do to women, but Miss Logan isn't going to take that. She just looks at him coolly and says, "I believe you're thinking of Apaches, sir. This here is Cree territory."

By which we are to understand that while Miss Logan might be trapped in a strange place, by herself, and with no money, she's not going to let some jerk scare her or try to make her think things she doesn't already know herself. I like her.

Out in the woods again, Kat has taken her girls somewhere they can hide safely while she goes out to search for Jeremiah and Neill. She swears she'll be back, and Robin believes her, but Kelly's more resistant. Kelly is, after all, the more cynical of the two girls, and more prone to fears of abandonment. Kat insists she's coming back. She just has to know for sure if they're dead or not before she moves on. I can understand that. And she really doesn't want her girls seeing the slaughtered bodies in the woods.

Back in civilization (or what passes for it), Isabelle lays a bouquet of flowers at her daughters grave, which has been moved from the front yard of the whorehouse to somewhere more appropriate and further away. The headstone reads "Ada", and it's clear that there's still some pretty hefty dysfunction going on in the Slotter marriage. Isabelle is mourning, but all Slotter can talk about is the investors she has coming. Hopefully they'll put some money into the mine.

Which at least gives us a little more information on what Slotter's up to. His father has him stationed out there to build the railroad, but he has his own agenda and has bought up a coal mine. But he needs money to run it, and the whorehouses just aren't paying well enough. Hence investors. Clever. Or not, since it doesn't seem to be working.

Isabelle is nominally on board with all of this, but she thinks that the women in the cribs, the women whose loved ones are all dead, are putting a pall over the whole operation. Their dead cry out, and she can hear them. Still, it's a chance Slotter is willing to take, because he really doesn't want them to be under his father's control any longer. So his father must be one hell of a terrible guy.

The time has come for Rebecca and Thomas to be off, it seems. Rebecca is fretting about how Thomas will remain upright during the wagon ride, as it's hard for him to even move and he needs to not lie down or else his head will get worse, but the main concern is how painful it's going to be for him to travel. Still, Thomas is ready to get the hell out of there.

Rebecca's given the wallet and told to pay the driver, which is interesting since we know from context that this might be the first time she's ever handled money in her life. The driver asks for fifteen dollars to take them to the station house and then ten for himself to get back, and we can tell this isn't what was agreed upon, but Thomas isn't saying a word. He's really terrified of Slotter finding him then. Rebecca reluctantly forks over the cash.

Also the driver is super creepy and is giving Rebecca sex eyes which make her uncomfortable and putting his hands all over her waist. It's telling that as they drive off in the wagon, Rebecca turns and looks back at Mrs. Fogg and Mrs. Briggs sitting with their cake and it almost looks like she's longing to be with them and not going away.

Kat's found the site of the slaughter, and all the bodies of the men who were killed. But try as she might as she goes through, she can't find Jeremiah or Neill. They're not here. Only Jeremiah's hat remains, the one that matched her own. She cries, silently, and calls out for her husband. But nothing.

Looks like it's story time for the women on the porch. Mrs. Fogg is worried that the women still left over, the ones who haven't been able to pay someone to take them away, will end up like her: whores. She explains that she started her life as a lady's maid, but when the lady's husband sexually assaulted her she was fired and the only work she could find after that was in prostitution. She's especially worried about one woman in particular, an older girl whose mother and sisters left this morning but who left her behind. She's "ripe for the picking", but there's not much they can do.

Mrs. Briggs, it seems, has finally warmed up to her new neighbor, and offers her tea. It's a simple offer but Mrs. Fogg is just barely concealing her joy and relief at being given it. She so desperately wants friends. I hope this works out for her.

Isabelle rides over towards the camp, her fist full of silk ribbons. Her horse is led, because apparently she's either not trusted to ride on her own or Slotter thinks she's not capable, by the Asian-American guy. Dialogue reveals that he's her bodyguard and that he came out to help her set up a telegraph. Interesting. They chat about her investors - both of them are doing well financially, so if she plays her cards right they should put money down - as they ride up.

Also, and this hasn't actually come up yet but it's driving me nuts so I looked it up, the man's name is Ling (Terry Chen). Just so I don't keep having to call him "that guy who's always hanging around Isabelle."

Isabelle disembarks from her horse and it becomes clear what she and Ling are there to do: recruit whores for the house. A silk ribbon for your soul, as Mrs. Briggs would probably say. She seems the type. Isabelle offers Fiona a place up at the house, and even says that Mrs. Briggs could find herself some work at the cribs. But Mrs. Briggs has a spine made of iron, and she refuses. She's not the type to be bought with a silk ribbon, and I'm betting Fiona isn't either. If only because her mother (mother-in-law maybe, I'm not sure) is terrifying.

Kelly and Robin are still in the woods, still bored, and definitely hungry. Sounds like a recipe for trouble. While Robin insists that they should stay where Kat told them to, because she's their Ma and she promised she'd be back, Kelly is insistent that Kat's abandoned them and they'll have to fend for themselves now. She's off eating wild berries and filling up her pockets. And then they see a rabbit.

The girls have a slingshot but absolutely no skill using it. They do, however, have enough ability to tell that the rabbit isn't moving, not even when Robin runs up and grabs it. Because it's dead. And now she's stumbled into a rope net trap and there's growling in the bushes. Oh noes!

It looks like a bear - though what bear ever set a rope snare I don't know - but it's actually just a guy in a bearskin hat. Like, literally a skinned bear on his head. He's a strange man. But he's not about to murder the girls, so that's good.

Out on the road, Rebecca's fears about the driver are coming true. Thomas is in some sort of fugue state - sleeping or worse - and the driver has stopped the wagon to demand "further payment". That's not good.

Yup, nope, it's definitely not good. While Rebecca frets over Thomas, who has slipped down during the journey and is now lying flat, a position that could lead to sustained problems with his head wound, the driver is intently coming up behind her and pulling her into an unwanted dance. He's going to rape her, and while Rebecca is a brilliant doctor, this is not a situation for which she is prepared.

She pushes at him, tries to get away, and he pulls down her skirt. But they both pull up at the sound of gunshots. It's Thomas, who's woken to the sound of his wife's screams and is wildly shooting, trying to hit her assailant. Unfortunately Thomas is no gunhand and he's got a concussion to boot. The driver goes up to the wagon and beats Thomas while Rebecca tries to run after the gun, which has gone flying. But before she can fire it, another shot rings out and the driver's hat flies off his head.

It's Kat, riding in like the proverbial knight on a black horse, and she utters the most badass line all episode: "I aimed high." The driver takes this for the warning it is and sprints for the hills, leaving Thomas and Rebecca in shambles, but alive and mostly unassaulted.

Rebecca asks Kat for her help to get them back to camp, since she clearly has no idea what she's doing and Kat clearly does. But Kat is relatively unsympathetic. She's got her own problems to deal with, and needs to be getting back to her girls. Besides, Kat's done well enough fending for herself. Why should Rebecca get to be weak? Why can't she pull her own weight? Kat's attitude, though frustrating in the moment, is rather understandable. But then so too is Rebecca's.

And Rebecca really does need help. She's struggling to process what just happened, as well as reeling from Kat's accusations against Slotter. She needs more time to put it all through her mental ringer - why would Slotter offer to help them if he's trying to hurt them? 

Again, Kat has little sympathy, but in contrast to her harsh words, she hops down off her horse and helps Rebecca get Thomas back into the wagon while she lectures. Kat points out that Rebecca put herself "in the hands of a helpful man this morning". If she does it again, she'll end up the same place: assaulted and miserable and lost. Kat clearly has a high opinion of helpful men. Sadly, she's probably right.

And speaking of helpful men, we cut now back to the girls and their newfound bear-headed friend, who introduces himself as Jolly Jack (Alex Zahara). He's weird. He is, however, probably kind. Or kind enough. When Kelly introduces them as, "I'm Joe. She's Frank." He just sort of hums and keeps going. So clearly he doesn't actually mind that they're definitely girls and also terrible liars. He just keeps on going with his spiel and offers them some food. Or he's planning to exploit them later.

Or maybe it'll be a mutual exploitation. Jack tries to wow the girls with a magic trick, pulling a candy from behind Robin's ear, but Kelly just turns it right back around on him and does the trick to him. Same thing goes for a card trick. And Jack slowly realizes that he has somehow, in the woods, stumbled across two very clever fingersmiths with time on their hands. The girls don't mind either. And they all hatch a plan to go cheat some miners out of their money.

Like I said above, this is definitely the episode of bad life choices. So far no one is really making good decisions, except perhaps Mrs. Fogg, and it's all come back to bite them in the butt. I hold out little hope for this venture. But at least the girls are happy.

Rebecca and Kat have succeeded in getting Thomas into the wagon, and now Kat is off to get her girls. She reveals that she found Mrs. Briggs' boys and husband among the dead, but not her own, and asks Rebecca to bring Mrs. Brigg their horse. Small comfort, but useful. And then Kat is off, leaving Rebecca to get herself, now calmer, back to Janestown. They might still disagree with each other fundamentally, but at least Kat isn't shouting anymore.

In the kitchen at the whorehouse, the girl from camp, the one whose mother and sisters left her there to die, is inhaling a breakfast while the cook looks on in curiosity. The cook, Ruby (Marci T. House), gently interrogates her and sort of laughs a little when we find that the girl is in fact super racist. Her momma told her that black people were the devil. And Ruby rolls her eyes at that, points out that she's feeding a girl her own family left to die. 

She does, however, turn the racism around on Ling, who's watching their conversation with interest. She calls him a "yellow devil" and recites a bunch of clearly untrue facts about him coming from the Forbidden City and being a right hand to the emperor, etc. Ling is clearly not thrilled about this, and retaliates by scaring the hell out of the girl and talking about death. Nice.

Isabelle and Slotter are ready for the investors. Or, at least as ready as they'll ever be. They only have one whore working - the girl in the kitchen, Mary (Anja Savcic). The other investor will get to sleep with Isabelle herself, something that clearly doesn't thrill Isabelle but according to Slotter, can't be helped. This does feel a little bit like a continuity error, actually. Weren't there like four whores there yesterday? And what happened to all those investors that were around the day before? Did they put in money? I'm confused.

But whatever. I'll go with it. And I guess it's not whoring that Isabelle's supposed to do with this guy: Ling is there for a reason, and apparently that reason is to put on a fake spiritualist act for the men. One of the investors has recently lost his father, which Isabelle knows because of the telegraph, and she's going to wow him with her ability to know things she shouldn't and then get him to give them all his money. Good plan. 

She does dose the plan with a touch of warning, though: she heard the real spirits that morning, and they're crying out for Slotter's death. She doesn't know why, and he pushes it off, but I'd guess that this is a big hint about the probability of Kat being right about who killed those men.

The investors arrive. They both know Isabelle pretty well, unhappily well, and are a little nonplussed to meet her husband alongside her. Slotter is even less happy to be hanging out with them, so it's just misery all around. We do get some more backstory at least: Slotter's father is famous and a well known investor. But he's not invested in Slotter's mine. Which means that either the mine is untenable, or he just doesn't know. Good to remember.

Isabelle gets to work quickly on the one whose father died, letting him know that she knows his father's dead and she will help him reach his father for instructions on what to do. Slotter, meanwhile, is still all caught up about the missing girls, and sends Jared to go get them. 

Speaking of missing girls, Kat comes back to where she left them and finds the girls gone, of course. It's a rough moment for Kat, especially since she spent all day not being able to find her husband and son. But we cut quickly to where the girls actually are: standing behind a bunch of men playing cards and helping Jack cheat. Nice. Keeping with the theme of terrible life choices.

Kat gets back to Janestown and sees Mrs. Briggs there too, tending to her horse. The girls, however, are not there. Kat gives Mrs. Briggs her condolences, and offers to take her out to her boys when the time comes, but then she's off to keep looking.

Good thing too, because it seems that Jack and the girls' luck is just about out. He's won too much and the miners are getting suspicious. Not good. Very not good. The girls have been spotted, and while Kat's also running up, it's almost too late. The miners don't take well to cheaters and want the girls to each lose a hand. When Kat rescues them it's short lived, because right after that we get Slotter and Jared riding up and grabbing the girls. Seriously. Bad life choices week.

Kat won't take kindly to the girls being whored out, and makes the ultimate sacrifice. She offers herself in their stead. And Slotter accepts.

More bad news. Jared rides through Janestown and announces to the women that as of that day, the women owe rent for their continued stay in the bunkhouses. If they have no money, then they'll have to pay another way - by being whores. Miss Logan is the first to discover this. She's not happy.

Isabelle is also not happy to see that Slotter's brought the girls and their mother to the house. Ruby gives Kat a compassionate glance and tells her she'll make sure the girls are well looked after. But Kat is not mollified. She refuses to let Slotter and Isabelle claim she's there of her own free will. She is only there to stop the prostitution of her children. Isabelle doesn't like Kat's attitude. Or the way her husband looks at Kat.

Upstairs, Isabelle makes Kat strip and tells her that she's going to be there five years making up what the girls would have made. And then she twists the knife further by insisting that her husband didn't kill those men. But a naked Kat is still a dangerous one, and she strikes. She insists again that Slotter is the one who did it, while choking Isabelle barehanded. Kat's a little terrifying and I love it.

In the other room, Ruby is trying desperately to give Mary a bath. It's not going well, because Mary is fighting her at every step. And finally we see why: Mary is pregnant. Really pregnant. About nine months pregnant. And whoops, there goes her water breaking. As Isabelle walks in, Ruby looks up and informs her that Mary won't be working tonight. She's "already occupied."

Slotter walks his investors through the railroad project and up to the mine. I don't really care about this plotline, but it's worth paying attention to, I guess. Slotter's father is building the railroad, but Slotter himself is digging out a coal mine, so that when the train comes through he'll have lots of cheap coal to sell it. He wants to build himself an empire.

And we finally find out what the title of the show means when the investor he's addressing comments on his plan: "Indians, Negroes, and Celestials - it'll be a strange empire of yours." What's interesting about this, to me at least, is how it positions the characters and this world as being that of the subaltern, the people no one wants anywhere else. It's a world of women and people of color, and the whole point of the show is that up here on the frontier, there's no one to enforce the social strictures and racism and sexism that persecute them in "civilization." There's freedom in the strange empire, if you can survive.

Hot damn I love this show.

Anyway, Thomas and Rebecca are back at the bunkhouse and Thomas is urging Rebecca again to keep out of Slotter's business. She's not at all okay with the girls being captured again. Thomas insists that Rebecca stay out of it. "What happened on the road today should be a lesson to you," he says, in the least helpful advice since Princeton Mom. "You are not capable."

Well. Rebecca is not taking that lying down. Especially from the man that she's waiting on hand and foot just to keep alive, and especially not after she just survived an attack and then got them back to camp on her own. So when Ruby bursts in, asking for a doctor because there's a baby that can't find its way out, Rebecca stands up, leaves Thomas behind, and goes off to do her thing. You go girl.

Mary's labor is not going well. The baby's too big and it's facing the wrong way. A breach birth. If they can't get the baby out, Mary will die, and neither Ruby nor Rebecca is willing to let that happen. So I guess Rebecca is going to get her chance to try out a Caesarian section. She hands Ruby a needle and some surgical thread, asks if she can sew, and then holds up a really big scalpel. "Have you done this before?" Ruby's all skepticism and mild terror.

"No." And Rebecca is matter of fact in the face of certain doom. Well, this should be interesting at the very least.

Cut to downstairs, where Isabelle and Ling are working their "magic" on the investor whose father just died. The scene is pretty much an example of how spiritualists milked people for their money, using special effects and basic conning skills. The upshot is that Isabelle tells the guy that his father wants him to invest in the mine. 

Back upstairs, Slotter has come to visit Kat. She thinks he's there to rape her, and tells him to get it over with. And he's all, "Hey, no, let's be friends!" Which is hilarious, because she keeps accusing him of murder and he thinks she's the worst thing in the world. Kat might be locked up in a whorehouse and she might be set to whore herself out that night, but she will not let them break her. She will not stop her accusations, and she will not be his doll. Good for her.

Ruby comes out into the hall to let Isabelle know how the birth went - apparently Rebecca managed to save both mother and child by lifting the entire womb out with the child still inside. Then she just stitched Mary back up. So Mary won't be able to have any more children, but she's alive. And she had a boy.

Isabelle is most interested in this last piece of information. Not sure why.

While they clean Rebecca's surgical instruments, Ruby asks Rebecca to stay for dinner. She's fan. She thinks Rebecca is great and I don't blame her, because Rebecca is great. Rebecca is also shocked to see Kat in the house too, especially dressed in her underwear and with her hair braided into pigtails. It's weird. And Rebecca is clearly having a "does not compute" moment.

Isabelle likes how Kat is made up and points out that she could pass for Indian. Because she is one? Are we supposed to be pretending we don't know that?

Anyway, Rebecca's walking quickly back to the bunkhouses when a man comes out of nowhere - it might be the driver, but frankly I can't tell - and says she'll be needing his "services" tonight. Rebecca's not in a place to be trifled with, and at the first hint of a threat she reaches out and stabs the man through the jugular. He spurts blood all over her apron. Fortunately, she just performed a surgery so no one will find that weird. But yeah, that guy's dead now. Like super dead. And Rebecca is just having a really bad day.

Another man pops up behind her and she brandishes her scalpel. But the man, who we will later learn is Franklyn Caze (Teach Grant), just tells her to go home. Leave the dying man to him. He'll take care of it. So Rebecca does.

She comes back into the bunkhouse, clearly upset, and Thomas assumes the worst: that the mother and baby have died. But she is happy to tell him that both of them survived and that yeah, she left the woman barren, but alive. Thomas is clearly having a minor breakdown, because he takes one look at Rebecca and hands her his wallet. There is a thousand dollars in it, and she's to go up to the house and ask Slotter to arrange her travel back to Toronto. He's in no state to go, but at least Rebecca should get out of there while she still can.

So, yes, Thomas can be a jerk sometimes, but he does pull stuff like this every once in a while, which reminds me why I like him. He's willing to risk everything to get his wife home safe. Even if it's without him. Granted, he does it in the most insulting way possible...

At the house, Jack walks himself in and offers Isabelle his services for the night. He can play the fiddle or do a magic show! Surely they could use that. Isabelle shuts him down, but before he's even out the door, Rebecca is barging in, fist full of her money to travel home and asking if she can buy the girls and Kat from Slotter wholesale. If she does, he'll have no more claim to them, and therefore they'll be safe, right?

Isabelle, surprised to say, is actually entertaining the idea. My guess is that she really doesn't want Kat in the same house as her husband, especially not when she's in a mood to tell everyone how he murdered a bunch of people and ready to strangle people. But more than that, Isabelle can see that Slotter wants Kat. Wants her because he absolutely cannot have her and cannot break her, and Isabelle does not want this threat to her marriage sticking around. So she takes the money and asks Jack if he has a suit.

And now we're in the whorehouse parlor where the show is about to start. The men are ready and in good spirits when Isabelle opens the curtains on the stage and introduces "Mrs. True Loving". Aka, Kat, in full buckskin attire, with the girls walking in front of her clothed in wolfskins. Because there's only one Kat and two men, they get to bid for her. And the bidding goes quick as Isabelle circles the room and gives a huge big story about how Kat was raised by Indians (probably true), rides a fierce stallion (actually true), is sworn to find her husband's killer (definitely true), and other such things.

Then, something weird happens. The front door opens and Jack wanders in, laughing and being a weirdo. He's got on a lovely suit and inserts himself into the bidding. He also goes up to the front and claims to be the girls' father and Kat's husband resurrected! He pulls out a wad of cash and offers one thousand dollars for the girls. 

Then one of the men actually ups his bid, and it looks for a second like the story might be over. Only, with a nod from Isabelle, Jack goes up again, to twelve hundred dollars, and the girls are bought. They're saved. Yay!

But where the hell did another two thousand dollars come from?

In the kitchen, Rebecca thinks she's lost, but finds that the money has already been spent to save the girls. She's very happy. And Isabelle reveals that, yes, the rest of the money came from her. She just wants them all gone. Now.

Kat and the girls come out in their normal clothes and Kat points out that this makes the third time Rebecca has saved them. She's grateful, so grateful, in her emotionally constipated way.

And it seems that losing Mrs. True Loving hasn't dampened the evening much if at all. Jack's still there, playing the fiddle, and the men are dancing with other whores (so I guess I was right and there are other women around). One of those women is Miss Logan, who seems to be taking to her new life fairly well if not entirely happily yet.

Isabelle brings Slotter the money and reveals that she's happy Kat and the girls are gone, which he can accept. She's a disruptive influence and it's better they have the money instead of her. Neither of the investors decided to invest, which I guess stinks, because apparently they were only there to see Isabelle. That's all they really wanted. And Slotter knows it.

But Isabelle has more tricks up her sleeve. She sent a telegram to Slotter's father to tell him that their baby was born. Only instead of telling the truth, that their baby was a girl, born dead, she lied and said it's a very healthy baby boy. Mary's baby boy. They're going to take the child and raise it as their own and never tell anyone. I'll give it to her, she's good.

It seems that as much as Isabelle enjoys tricking rich men out of their wallets with her own spiritualist effects, she's also pretty much a believer herself. She drinks Mary's milk so as to make herself able to feed the child (it probably won't work, as we now know, but it's decent logic for the time) and thinks she hears spirits speaking to her in the parlor. But it's just Ling messing with her.

Rebecca, Kat, and the girls walk back to the bunkhouse, and as they go, Rebecca turns to the side to see Caze digging the man's grave. Neither of them speak, but both know what happened.

And back in the bunkhouse, in an echo of last week, Kat watches over her girls as they sleep. But this time there's little hope. She's tired and sad and feels like the world is crushing her down. End of episode.

Blarg. That was a bleak one, wasn't it? But at the same time, I actually kind of like how bleak this show can get. It gives the moments when the women triumph more power. Also, I appreciate the fact that the show presents all life on the frontier as bleak, not just all female life as miserable. It's all terrible, pretty equally.

The theme of the week, though, was clearly questionable decision making. From Robin and Kelly deciding to wander from where Kat left them and get themselves into gambling to Rebecca's decision first to trust the driver and then to murder that man, to Isabelle's entire existence which seems like one dubious choice after another, this week we focussed on decisions that feel necessary at the time, but later turn out to be terrible choices.

I can only hope that the coming weeks are kinder to our girls, but that's not to say that this week was entirely unkind. Rebecca proved her mettle and prowess as a surgeon by performing a surgery Thomas claimed as impossible. Kat showed how far she was willing to go for her daughters, and you can bet they won't doubt her again. And Isabelle, for all that she's kind of amoral and really clever, showed that she does have a heart and is willing to sacrifice to help a woman in need.

But most of all, we were introduced to the idea that this land, the frontier, is the place where everyone society tramples on can find a place to live and breathe and find new life. And that's a good theme. So here's to more of that next week.

You are more than a little terrifying and I love you.
*Like I said last week, I am aware that the more politically correct and preferred term would be Native Americans or American Indians, but the show uses "Indian" as its blanket term, and in recapping it's just simpler to stick with that.