Friday, May 29, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Clarke Griffin (The 100)

I didn't want to write about Clarke from The 100 for a long time because she felt, in a way, too obvious of a pick for a Strong Female Character Friday. She is, after all, the main character of the show, a woman defined by her internal strength, and the kind of person so morally sure and so incredibly self-actualized that she becomes a leader not just of her fellow teenagers, but eventually of adults as well. So she felt like the sort of pick that, while accurate, wasn't very interesting.

But as I finally managed to bring myself to watch the season two finale, it occurred to me that I really should spend some time talking about the epic greatness that is Clarke Griffin, because while she is super obviously a strong female character in a lot of ways, she also exemplifies some traits that we tend to completely overlook in our portrayals of women.

Namely, Clarke Griffin fails. A lot. And in the second season, she fails in spectacular, heartbreaking ways. And it's important that we recognize her failures because, arguably even more than her successes, Clarke's failures are what make her a compelling character. Her weaknesses and her obstacles are the very things that make her a good role model.

So, obvious or not, let's talk about Clarke freaking Griffin.

For starters, anyone who has watched even the first few episodes of The 100 can tell you that Clarke (played by Eliza Taylor) is a complete misdirect of a character. We're introduced to her as she's sitting in "the skybox", or space station jail, drawing beautiful pictures of what she thinks Earth will look like with only the dirt and dust of her cell as her art tools. She's blonde and pretty and sweet, and as her mother tells us very early on, she's self-sacrificial and wants to keep everyone safe. It feels really easy to look at Clarke and think, "Oh, I get this character. She's going to be the sweet, nice, let's all get along character. Okay. Next!"

But to stop there is to bely the incredibly vastness of Clarke's characterization and really the genius of it. Because while her physical appearance codes to use the audience as "Disney princess" and "goody two shoes", the reality is that Clarke is neither of those things. No, she's a freaking nuclear winter wrapped up in a petite cheerleader's body.

The real genius of this, though, is that we the audience only come to know this as the other characters do. Everyone else is similarly fooled by Clarke's sweet nice exterior and assumes she'll be ineffectual and kind, a sort of mother figure to the camp but no real authority. Her main adversary, Bellamy (Bob Morley), even nicknames her "Princess" early on*, in reference to her position as the daughter of the elite back on the space station and her general "Disney princess" exterior.

All of this starts to change, though, a couple of episodes in. It becomes clear very quickly that Clarke is more than she appears. She's more brutal, for one, refusing to stop and look at the flowers when she has a mission and constantly walking around harshing everyone's buzz. But she's also much braver than assumed, because she's the one willing to keep exploring their new homeworld even when it becomes clear that they are not alone and there is danger out there.

The real turning point, for us the audience and for the other characters, comes when a patch of acid fog sweeps the landscape, and one poor boy is caught out in it. Bellamy and Clarke both find him after the fog has lifted, and see that his body is covered in burns. Worse, because he inhaled the fog, it's eaten through his lungs and he is slowly drowning in his own blood.

Bellamy, who has been talking up his own bravery and fearsomeness for several episodes now, finds himself unable to do the kind thing and end the boy's life. Instead, it's Clarke who reaches over and, while singing softly, slips a knife into the boy's throat and lets him gently bleed out on the grass. Bellamy watches in revelation as he sees that, far from being a delicate flower, Clarke might just be the most hardcore person on the ground.

As the season progresses, Clarke quickly becomes indispensable to her fellow delinquents, but not because she comes to be their "mother." It's more accurate to say that she, alongside Bellamy, becomes their leader. They have a co-leadership built on mutual respect, and the other kids come to them because they trust that between Bellamy and Clarke, their problems will be dealt with in the best possible way.

The second season, however, shows the fraying and eventual fracture of the bond between Clarke and Bellamy as Clarke is given more responsibility and Bellamy is largely stripped of his role. I'm not sure whether this was an intentional writing choice or not, but the result is striking. In season two, Clarke makes a lot of mistakes, largely the result of being thrust into full leadership well before she's ready and without any real accountability structure. She starts to lead all of the people, both adults and kids, because she's the only one around at the beginning, and because she's a good strategic leader.

In season two, we get to see a whole new side of Clarke. Not that she wasn't super badass before, it's just that in this season we see her wake up in a foreign place and immediately take a hostage so she can get some answers. We see her fight her way out of a place that no one has ever escaped from before, go hit for hit with a grounder warrior, and then command the respect and allegiance of the former leaders of her colony. Season two Clarke is seriously heavy metal. She even spends an episode fighting a mutated giant gorilla with only a pistol.

She develops an alliance with the local clans of grounders, leads a war party, and dispenses justice upon her people. And the grounders think this is all well and normal, because Clarke has some natural leadership abilities and she seems to be the only one who knows what she's talking about.

Unfortunately for Clarke, and for her people, natural leadership abilities really don't make one an inherently good leader, they just give you the tools. So Clarke screws up. She trusts the wrong people, makes unilateral decisions that end poorly, and ends the season with a raging case of PTSD and epic guilt.

I know this isn't super positive, and you finish the season out feeling really sad about all that Clarke has been through, but I think that's why Clarke is a strong female character really worth talking about. Because she fails. She has the innate leadership skills she needs, she has some experience, but when the chips are down, Clarke does not magically become a mystical savior who can get her people through their trials without harm. She can't save them. She's still human.

This is, to me, the most powerful subversion of her "princess" trope in the whole show. The idea that Clarke is still human enough to do a bad job. Because when do we actually see that? That's so incredibly rare. Women in leadership positions, especially teenage girls in leadership positions, so often are idealized, placed on a pedestal, and made out to be some sort of second coming. Like they can do no wrong.

But Clarke can do wrong. She does do wrong. And that matters a lot.

It matters because it makes her human. Her ability to make mistakes makes her more than just a figurehead or messiah, it makes her a girl who happens to be a good leader. A person.

It also raises the important issue that some of Clarke's qualities that make her a good leader can also make her a bad one, and that's worth talking about too. Clarke is incredibly self-sacrificial, completely ready to take the fall, and that's bad. That's not actually helpful sometimes. It's important to think about this because we (especially me) always assume that self-sacrifice is the best quality a leader can have. That's not true. Sometimes it's important for a leader to value themself more, and that's better in the long run for the society. 

Again, this is an interesting subversion of normal leadership tropes in fiction. Usually when we meet the female leader, she's all about the self-sacrifice, and it either gets her killed or it works perfectly. We so rarely see characters who are about self-sacrifice and who also kind of succeed. Kind of succeed and kind of fail. You know, like life.

There's so much to say about Clarke here, but I feel like I'm getting muddled. I also think it's worth noting that she's best known for her relationships with other female characters, like Lexa and Anya and her mother and Raven and Octavia. It's interesting because few female characters in leadership positions are also surrounded by examples of female leadership. Clarke isn't one girl "working in a man's world" - women are humanized and exist at all levels of society, including the top.

But basically the real thing I want to emphasize here is how happy Clarke makes me as a character precisely because she fails. She's talented and tries very hard and she still fails. I love this because failure is not a gendered trait. Nor is the ability to make war or to avenge the lost. Clarke does all of these things because she's a leader who makes hard choices, and she fails because she's also a person. People fail. It's what we do.

I know this isn't an overly uplifting view of female characters, but personally I think it's more beneficial to have characters like Clarke than idealized female leaders who can do no wrong. If we can do no wrong then we are not human. If we can screw it up, be too harsh or too soft, be wrong, then we can be people. And the kind of representation matters just as much as all the others.

Also she's more than a little terrifying.
*I can't remember if it was Finn or Bellamy that started this, but I'm going with Bellamy because I associate the nickname much more with his character arc and their relationship.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

RECAP: Orphan Black 3x04 - In Which Everybody Is Criminals

Ah, Orphan Black. The show where every character is, at this point, in some way a criminal. I mean that very seriously. I just sat down and tried to name a character on this show who has not at some point broken the law in like a really big way. Here is a quick list of the main characters and their most notable crimes:

Sarah - impersonated an officer of the law, stole a bunch of cocaine, shot her twin sister
Cosima - performed illegal experiments on a dead guy in a bathtub
Alison - drug dealer, manslaughter
Donnie - drug dealer, manslaughter (of someone else)
Helena - so. much. murder.
Rachel - trying to murder dozens of people, actually having other people successfully killed
Paul - murder
Mrs. S - runs a network of really shady people who can make car bombs, kidnapping
Felix - prostitution, theft, covered up murders
Gracie - attempted murder
Mark - torture
Rudy - murder
Scott - assisted in illegal experiments on dead guy in bathtub
Delphine - assisting in kidnapping

And that is literally just the main characters. I'm not sure if this says anything about the show as a whole, but I thought it was worth pointing out since this episode featured all of our wonderfully criminal characters doing yet more things that are actually illegal. Fun times! But thematically, the point was a little bit softer. Going off of last episode's musings on the nature of family, this episode seemed to be a meditation on the places where family falls apart. Family and its failures. Or people outside the reach of family.

So, let's start with the storyline we left off with. At the end of last episode, Sarah was trapped hiding in a barn while Bonnie (Gracie's mother) shot Mark to death in a cornfield for the crime of defiling her daughter. This week we come in with Sarah rushing over to Mark while Bonnie is distracted, finding him alive, and grabbing him so they can run away. Mark is deeply confused about why Sarah would help him, but her logic is sound: she needs Mark in order to find Helena.

Which means that she needs Mark to stay alive and not bleed out. Unfortunately for that plan, Mark has been shot twice and is bleeding out fast. There's only so much you can do with a belt-tourniquet. They find an abandoned farmhouse, break in, and then have an incredibly disgusting interrogation/medical assistance scene. It was gross.

But Sarah finds out what she needs to know. Mark is after the tissue samples they're sure Henrik had, but all he found was that stupid box.

Sarah, unlike Mark, understands that boxes full of papers are occasionally useful, so she goes back to the motel room to get it. She manages to find some important documents which, verified by Cosima, refer to an experiment Henrik did twenty-five years ago. It seems that rather than preserving the tissue samples, Henrik (who was Duncan's research assistant, apparently) stole them and used them to create a child. A boy.

Mark, having managed to track Sarah back to the motel room despite being shot and nearly out of blood, reveals that Henrik and Bonnie did originally have a son. He died. But...if they dig up his grave they might be able to get their all important tissue sample! 

Like I said above, this episode had even higher rates of illegal activity than usual. Just a warning.

Because Mark is injured, Sarah has to be the one to dig up the grave, and while she digs she and Mark muse on their relationships. Sarah calls him brother, but he doesn't want to be linked to her. 

And as we learned during the interrogation earlier, the Castor clones weren't raised with parents or monitors. They were raised with each other, only each other. Like a pack of wolves, they were raised to hunt. So there's no way that Mark could have run away with Gracie, and there's no way that he can run away now. His pack brothers will find him.

And they do. Rudy, who has been tracking them all episode, comes on Mark and Sarah just as Sarah has dug up the sad little body. He attacks them, threatens to kill Sarah, chases her through a barn just like last episode, etc. The only difference is that here, Mark rallies himself and goes in after Rudy. He stops Rudy from shooting Sarah by reminding Rudy that he's in charge. He's the superior officer and Rudy is his "little brother". It's a whole new side of Mark, and I like it.

So Rudy and Mark take the tissue samples and prepare to return to base. Mark has apparently given up on escaping this time. He knows they'll track him down and he no longer has anything to trade. But the question remains of what to do with Sarah. They aren't supposed to leave any loose ends. 

The implication at the end of the episode is that Mark decides to have Sarah taken with them back to base. Which is an interesting choice. It could mean, on the one hand, that Mark is still her enemy and working against her. It could also mean, however, that he's helping her get to Helena. Or it could be both. Hard to say.

That's it for Sarah's storyline, though. Lots of crime and shadiness, no? Well, over in the suburbs of Toronto, the crime and shadiness continue.

It seems that for this season at least, Alison and Donnie have been put on the backburner. Or maybe not. I thought that last season too, but then they ended up quietly impacting the outcome of the whole season. So maybe their weird little subplot will factor in at the end. Who knows. What I do know is that apparently Alison and Donnie are very good at selling drugs. We come into them this episode with Alison counting her drug money and Donnie rushing inside because he thinks he's being followed. Yep, just a few short days after starting drug dealing, they're already making waves.

Alison figures this means they should find somewhere safer to keep their drug stuff than in the house, but when she goes to take it outside to move it to a storage locker, there's a sketchy man waiting. Apparently Ramon did not have license to sell his business to them, nor did he actually go off to college. Ramon's former boss would like a word with the Hendrixes. No options to get out of it.

And that's super frustrating because Alison is so dang good at selling drugs! How dare this man come in and try to tell her what to do!

Donnie tries to be a tough guy at the meet and bring a gun and protect the family, but the drug guys quickly see that Alison is the one in charge of this operation. She's pulled into a black SUV to talk to the main guy only to discover that it's...actually her high school boyfriend, Jason Kellerman. Seriously. The drug kingpin of the suburbs is some guy she used to date, who she dumped, and who is clearly still into her. Alison, your life is officially the weirdest.

Anyway, Alison keeps her cool and holds her own and ends up walking out of the SUV with a business deal. She's going to own these streets, because Alison freaking Hendrix is a badass whether she's dealing drugs or getting her kids to swimming practice on time. Oh yes.

Meanwhile, in sad breakup storylines, Cosima is not taking the loss of Delphine well. Having apparently cleaned up Felix's apartment after the impromptu brain surgery, she's back to lying on the couch eating eskimo pies and feeling sorry for herself. Felix, of course, isn't having it. He drags her out to a bar, signs her up for a dating app, and generally pesters her to get the hell over Delphine. Tragically, that's pretty much all we get of Cosima this week. She's not unstable enough to get her own storyline right now.

What's interesting is that Gracie apparently is important enough for her own storyline. It's short, but it's there, and it speaks to what I said last episode about this being a show where family becomes an expanded concept. Gracie might not be a Leda clone, but she is one of their sisters now, bound by blood and experience.

Which is what makes it so painful to see Gracie being folded back into the Prolethean community she fought so hard to escape. Her mother is all smiles in bringing her back in, but it just takes one really horrible feeling up from an old blind man for Gracie to realize that nothing has changed. The Proletheans are just as manipulative and abusive as ever. And things only get worse when she goes to change into a new dress and discovers she's bleeding. She's having a miscarriage.

To say her mother is not pleased would be an epic understatement. Bonnie forces Gracie into a prayer vigil to keep the child, but Gracie can't exactly stop herself from miscarrying. The child is lost and Gracie is thrown out. It seems she was only let back in at all because she was carrying Henrik's child with Helena, their "legacy", and now she has nothing. Nothing and no one.

But, honestly, Gracie? I think you're better off. Your family is genuinely abusive and murderous. It's time for a change of pace. Literally almost anything would be a step up from here.

Finally, Helena continues to be the most resourceful person that Castor has ever underestimated. With the help of her hallucinated scorpion friend, Pupok, Helena manages to use a series of clever ruses to get outside her cell and look around the compound where she's being held. She finds some very interesting things, but the most interesting is some kind of medical room where they're keeping a Castor clone and experimenting on him. Dr. Coady is there. It's very suspicious.

Helena has a bag of tricks that's pretty freaking full, so eventually she manages to gnaw a key to her cell out of a steakbone they gave her, escapes, and makes her way to the medical room. There she finds the Castor clone, Parsons, strapped down and forced to endure horrors. Helena has a chance to escape, and Pupok urges her to go, but she can't leave the sight of Parsons, his head torn open by his own mother, an experimental pincushion. He begs her to kill him, and she obliges.

But the most heartbreaking part of the entire storyline? It's not Helena setting off an alarm and losing her chance to escape. It's not Parsons literally begging for death or the horror that's hiding under his little shower cap. It's the moment when Helena shushes Parsons gently and tells him, "We have both been abandoned by our families."

That hurts. It hurts because it's so easy to see why Helena would believe that, and yet we know it's not true. We the audience know that Sarah is moving heaven and earth to find her, but Helena has no reason to think that. Up until now, Sarah has not come for her once. So why should she think this time will be different? Ugh. Feelings. So many feelings.

In a lot of ways, this episode ends with everyone roughly where they began. Sarah is at the whim of crazy people with guns, Cosima is pining over Delphine, Alison is terrifyingly competent at drug dealing, Gracie is adrift, and Helena is locked in a cage. But in another sense, this episode has given us a taste of what everyone (except for Cosima, really) is like when the pressure is on. It's showing us who these people will be and what choices they will make. Helena is choosing mercy and Sarah is choosing family. This will be an interesting reunion, I have no doubt.

Oh, and someone should really start a counter of how many laws are broken per episode on this show. I feel like it would be very educational.

Crime should not be this adorable.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

RECAP: Game of Thrones 5x06 - Descent into Badness

I guess we've reached that time of the season, chickadees, when all of the badness that has been building for the past few episodes comes to a head and everything is the worst. Yay? As I'm sure you gathered from the fierce firestorm of the internet, this episode ends with one of the hands down worst scenes to air on Game of Thrones so far, but I'll be honest, the rest of the episode is no picnic either.

Honestly, I think we were all lulled into a false sense of security by the show this season. I mean, after last year and the epic rage-out that surrounded the show, when nearly every single episode included at least one scene of rape, this season's relatively sexual violence-free start made me think that everything would be okay. Which, I now see, it isn't. The writers of this show have learned nothing. They're still adding gratuitous scenes of rape into the show in order to make male characters seem more bad and female characters seem more helpless. Or seem like nothing at all, because this scene, like the ones from last season, was absolutely not about the victim.

So excuse me while I take a minute for some muffled rage screaming.

I suppose I can be glad that this was the first rape episode and it's the sixth of the season, but that is incredibly weak comfort. And I know that there are a lot of people talking about how they're going to quit the show now. I won't. Not because I have some eternal loyalty or because I think it's good enough to get past this, but more because, like I said at the beginning of this season, I'll keep watching it so you don't have to. And because I really just want to see Daenerys burn everything with fire.

All of that being said, what happened this week?

Well, this episode went in deep on several of the storylines and left the others by the wayside. So no Jon Snow or Stannis or Daenerys this week. Instead, we took long looks at the politics of King's Landing, how Arya's getting on in Braavos, Tyrion and Jorah making their way to Meereen, the mess that is Dorne, and of course, Sansa's fate in Winterfell. 

What's interesting here is that, horrible writing aside, this might be the most thematically unified episode so far this season. Each storyline featured characters reaching their lowest points. That moment of rage when you so desperately want to fight back, but there's nothing you can do. That was the theme this episode, so, yeah, it was pretty hard to watch.

Starting in King's Landing, we got a quick peek in at how Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger) reacts to the newfound piety of the city. He's back on Cersei's orders and less than thrilled to see that his brothels have been closed and his customers imprisoned. But he's a quick and cunning political maneuverer, so he gets out just fine. He even manages to convince Cersei to let him lead an army to attack Roose Bolton and Stannis Baratheon at Winterfell and take it for the Lannisters. Since he's the one who set all those pieces in motion, I'm deeply curious about how this will all shake out.

But the real meat of the King's Landing storyline this week had to do with Cersei's battle against the Tyrells, specifically her petty revenge on Margaery. As you may recall, Cersei deeply resents Margaery, who is now her daughter-in-law, for the crime of being pretty and cunning and having the ear of King Tommen. So Cersei has taken revenge by giving power to a small political faction and telling them to arrest Loras, Margaery's brother, for being gay.

Naturally Margaery is enraged, and so is the rest of her family. Her grandmother, Olenna Tyrell, has come all the way from Highgarden to clear this mess up. As she rightly points out to Cersei, how long does she really think the alliance between the Tyrells and the Lannisters will last with the heir to house Tyrell in prison? But Cersei doesn't care. Instead, she ups the ante. There will be an inquest into Loras' actions, and if he passes, no harm no foul. 

Obviously the inquest doesn't go well. While Loras convincingly lies about his proclivities and Margaery backs him up, it's clear that Cersei has some aces up her sleeves. She gets one of Loras' former lovers in there, has him testify, and then the High Sparrow has both Loras and Margaery imprisoned for lying before the gods. Olenna is furious, Tommen is terrified (they did just lock up his wife, the queen), and Cersei is smug. But, I'd take a guess here, not for long.

Again, Cersei, really, how long do you think this will work? Everyone hates you, you have no allies left, and you've aligned yourself with religious fanatics who will cast you out into the street when they find out whose children you've born. So, you know, look at your life. Look at your choices.

But that wasn't the only rage inducing moment this episode. Not by a long shot.

Over in Braavos, Arya is doing better at acclimating herself to the rules and duties of the House of White and Black, but she's not quite there yet. She's been washing corpses for weeks, but she has no idea what for. The other girl there, the waif, is still horrible to her (well, more indifferent) and Arya is frustrated that she can't prove herself here easily. She can't prove herself because that's the opposite of what she's supposed to be learning. She's meant to learn how to forget herself. But Arya's not very good at that. She's frustrated and angry and there's nothing she can do.

Jaqen agrees that she's not ready, and he tests Arya. They have a weird little training game, where Arya tells her life's story and tries to insert some lies. Whenever Jaqen can tell she's lying, he hits her with a riding crop. It's intense, but it makes sense. She needs to learn how to actually lie if she wants to become someone else. Arya's Stark-ness is written all over her face. She has to become.

That moment comes when, at last, Arya sees what all the dead bodies she's been washing are for. A man comes in with his very sick daughter, and Arya tells the girl a story. She says that she was once sick and her father took her to the House too. He had her drink from the fountain of the Many Headed God, and she was better. Arya helps the girl drink and then the girl dies.

Jaqen sees this and takes her down into the crypt, where she's not been allowed before, and finally we and Arya get to see what's down there. It's weird. Super weird. The crypts are just stone pillars covered in faces. Presumably the faces of the people whose bodies come to the House. I'm going to take a wild guess and say that this is how the faceless men change their faces. They take from the dead and return it when they're done. Ew.

Jaqen explains that while Arya is still not ready to be no one, she is ready to be someone else. We don't yet know who, but I'm sure we'll find out.

Tyrion and Jorah, meanwhile, continue to make their way to Meereen the long way by land. They have some touching bonding moments. Tyrion explains that he really respected Jorah's father, Lord Mormont. Jorah is touched by this, but also dismayed when Tyrion inadvertently reveals that Lord Mormont is dead. Then Jorah takes his turn to explain why he's so devoted to Daenerys. He leaves out the bit where he's super in love with her, but he does point out that she is the rightful heir of Westeros.

Tyrion, of course, has the best possible reaction: "So?" I mean, yeah, actually, it's a good point. Just because Daenerys' father was the king doesn't mean she'll make a good queen. We know she will, but they don't. It's a valid point. And then they're captured by slavers.

Yeah, Daenerys might have outlawed slavery, but some things are hard to kill. Through some quick talking, and a weirdly long interlude about Tyrion's penis (don't ask), the slavers are convinced to keep them both alive and take them to Meereen. Jorah can fight in the newly opened fighting pits, and Tyrion can keep his wits about him and keep them both alive. Though not for long, if you remember the greyscale creeping up Jorah's arm...

In Dorne, we have three agendas going at once. First there's the cuteness, where Myrcella Baratheon (Cersei's daughter) and her betrothed, Trystane Martell, decide that they can't wait any longer and they want to get married now. Awww. Trystane's father, Doran, is understandably worried that someone is going to try to kill Myrcella. Because someone is. The Sand Snakes, Oberyn Martell's daughters, are going after Myrcella. At the same time, Jaime and Bronn have reached the water gardens and are trying to kidnap Myrcella and take her back to King's Landing.

The fight, which is fun, ends with the Dornish guards storming up and stopping the fight. Curious to see how this turns out, but it was really more of a stub than a full storyline. Still, I doubt Doran is going to be too happy with his nieces, and it looks like Trystane might have been hurt.

Finally, in the most frustrating of all the storylines, the time has come for Sansa to wed. Again. This time she's marrying Ramsay Bolton, son of the man who murdered her brother and mother and sister-in-law and uncle and an unborn baby. Ramsay's previous lover, Myranda, tries to intimidate her before the ceremony, but Sansa is made of sterner stuff. 

Stern enough stuff that she manages to go through with the wedding, despite being forced to walk down the aisle with Theon Greyjoy, the man who claims to have burnt her little brothers alive. She holds her head high, says her vows, and braces for the wedding night.

Which is probably a good attitude because the wedding night involves Ramsay brutally raping her while he forces Theon to watch. The scene is shot to focus more on Theon than on Sansa, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a veneer of "Isn't Ramsay a bad man?" But it's poorly done and exploitative and I hated it.

I mean, obviously I should hate a rape scene, but more than that actual rape, I hate how that story is told. It's not about Sansa. The story frames it to be more about the relationship between Theon and Ramsay, which is not okay. It places Sansa in the backseat and completely takes away her agency and her value in the story. On top of which, I have little doubt that the aftermath will not be dealt with well on the show. It never is.

There's a better article than I could manage here on the subject, and it looks at how Mad Max: Fury Road gets right what Game of Thrones so frequently and inevitably gets wrong. The basic gist is that the problem with Game of Thrones isn't the existence of rape, but the fact that rape is never examined or understood. The underlying power structures that enable rape culture and the reason for its existence in the story are never given any thought. Women are raped on this show because that's "just what happens", and it's really not okay.

It's really not.

So I will be back to recap this show in its next episode, but I completely understand if you're not going to read it. That's okay. This show has proven time and again that it's more interested in exploitation than really telling women's stories, and I don't see that changing soon. But maybe if we keep shouting, someone will hear us. I hope so.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

RECAP: Orphan Black 3x03 - He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

Whew! After a weirdly long absence, you can rest easy, my chickadees. We are back to recapping. I wish I could give you some solid explanation of why I missed the past couple of weeks, but I can't. I literally just didn't feel like it. I know, I know. Shame on me.

But, we're back now, and in good time. Things are really starting to heat up for the season and we're beginning to get a glimpse at the themes. Namely, it's becoming more and more clear that this season is about family and the things we will do for the people we live. While it's arguable that this is the theme of every season of Orphan Black, since the show is largely about family, I think it's especially prevalent this season. Here we see the clones starting to grapple with their definitions of what family means and in almost every case, they find that their explanation is too narrow. It needs to be wider and include more people.

And this is an interesting stance for a show to take. I mean, we're all used to the idea that family trumps all in the big prestige dramas and that we should be prepared to wage bloody war for the sake of our families and all that, but it's incredibly rare to find a show that emphasizes how much our understanding of family should and must be inclusive and eternally widening. I think it's interesting.

So, without further ado, what happened in episode three?

Well, like usual, we pick up very shortly after the drama and chaos of episode two. Kira and Cal are gone (off to Iceland), and Sarah is still stuck in Toronto, trying to clean up the mess that is her life so that she can safely be around her child. And part one of the cleanup involves disposing of Seth's dead body. You remember Seth. He's the boy clone with the mustache who had to be mercy killed in Felix's hallway. Well now he's in Felix's tub.

Which is definitely not the best place for a dead body to be, since Felix's flat is constantly getting raided by the police. As a case in point, in walks Art, right on time, and pushes past Sarah to see the body. She rightly points out that they didn't kill him, but it doesn't really matter to Art. A dead body is a dead body and he's a cop. He should really be calling this in. I mean, he doesn't, but he should.

Instead, Art lets Cosima and Scott (via skype) figure out what to do. Cosima and Scott insist that they not dispose of the body just yet, because Seth's brain is actually really scientifically important. If they have his brain, they can potentially figure out what was wrong with him. Also, by examining his genetic sequence, they can hopefully come closer to unlocking their own.

Which leads to a hilarious sequence in which Cosima and Scott saw open Seth's skull to take out his brain. While Cosima is gleefully curious and barely notices how she's covered in blood and guts, Scott is pretty close to being sick all over Felix's plastic-wrapped bathroom. As Felix points out, go easy on Scott. He's not a hardened criminal like the rest of them yet.

[And this brings up an aside of making me think about all of the crimes committed on this show in the past two seasons. Felix means it as a joke, but, yeah, at this point the clones are absolutely definitely hardened criminals.]

Anyway, while Cosima and Scott reenact parts of Frankenstein, Sarah heads off with Art. He has a lead on a Prolethean who might know what happened to Helena. Or rather, who might know what happened to Mark who might know what happened to Helena. Convoluted.

The woman, who is that horrible midwife we met last season, has been shunned from the community for her part in Helena running away and killing Henrik and burning down the farm. Still, she's not particularly interested in helping Art and Sarah. She calls Sarah and abomination and insists she doesn't care what happens to Helena. But she does tell them that Mark and Gracie slipped out together in the farm's truck. And that means that Sarah and Art can start tracking them.

Speaking of Mark and Gracie, they're still cautiously navigating their new marriage. Mark is understandably paranoid and crazy, but because he won't tell Gracie anything it's putting a strain on them. Finally, after she convinces him that they can have sex and it's okay because they're married now, he admits that they've come to this particular town for a purpose: there's a man here who Henrik knew and who kept things for him. Mark has to find those things. He's been a spy all along and been trying to find these things for his bosses. Once he does, he and Gracie can be free.

Gracie's a little upset about this at first, but she rallies quickly. Mark's plan to talk to the farmer basically just involves murdering him. Gracie can be a little more discreet. As Henrik's daughter, she manages to go to the farm, talk to the creepy farm man, and get the box from him with no trouble. Only once she gets back to the motel room, Mark is frustrated to find that there's not tissue samples in there like he thought there would be. He's sure Henrik had them and hid them. But where?

So Mark goes out again and goes off to talk to the man himself. Meanwhile, Art and Sarah have already swung by the farm (having successfully deduced that Mark is going after one of Henrik's associates). They get the brushoff, but stay in town just long enough for Sarah to spot Gracie at a diner. She slides into the booth and drops some pretty harsh truths on Gracie: Mark is a clone, like them, and she needs to find him.

Elsewhere, the terrible midwife lady bargains her way back into the Prolethean's good graces by telling Bonnie (Gracie's mother) exactly what she wants to know: where the hell Gracie is.

It's no surprise then that when Gracie goes back to her motel room she only has just enough time to hide the box full of secrets - the ones that Mark threw aside when he realized there were no tissue samples - before her mother appears in the doorway. Bonnie is full of motherly words and wisdom for her daughter. How Mark used her abused her tricked her and took advantage. Which...maybe he did? It's unclear. But what is clear is that Bonnie wants to bring Gracie back into the fold. Whatever it takes.

Sarah gets to the farm where Mark is "interrogating" the farmer and has to field a not exactly timely phone call from Cosima that nevertheless gives her important news: the Castor clones and the Leda clones are genetic siblings. In other words, the original donors were siblings and so the clones are all siblings. The Castor clones are their brothers.

Coming on Mark, Sarah immediately uses this information to her advantage. He doesn't want to believe it - probably because it's easier to dehumanize someone when you don't think of them as family - but he has to admit that it's probably true. Also, he doesn't get what he's looking for from the farmer.

Mark is about to leave, to take off and grab Gracie and go, when another truck pulls up. It's Bonnie. She's not happy with Mark, not happy at all. And she makes her feelings known very loudly, with several rifleshots. The episode ends with Sarah cowering behind a door so Bonnie won't see her and Mark probably dead. Fun episode.

All of this, however, did gloss over what Alison and Helena were doing all episode, so let's backtrack and get to them. It's interesting how the storylines are rather distinct right now, with everyone kind of doing their own thing. Helena's storyline, for example, was mostly a placeholder, a reminder that she's being locked up by the Castor boys. She's pissed and dirty and hungry, making angry remarks to Paul and Rudy when she sees him, but there's almost nothing she can do.

We do get a little more information on the boys, though. Paul and the boys' mother, Dr. Coady, have a very frank discussion about the Castor clones' health. Simply put, the defect in their neurology that makes them go crazy sometimes is getting much worse and they're no closer to a cure. Paul has to go down to Arlington (Virginia?) to convince some very important people to keep funding them, while Dr. Coady continues to word for a cure. And that cure has got to come from the original tissue samples Duncan got from the clone donors.

Which means that Dr. Coady needs Rudy out in the field again. They're getting kind of low on boy clones, it seems, and Rudy and Miller are the only ones who can go after Mark. Miller's needed here - wherever here is - so Rudy will have to be washed up and sent out again. After he gets some quality time with his mother, of course.

And on the exact opposite spectrum of reality, Alison and her campaign to become school trustee continue to be completely insane. She and Donnie have really taken to the drug selling business, disguising their wares in orders of homemade soap. They can sell the soap to nice suburban soccer moms without it being suspicious, and they have a legitimate cover for their newfound monetary success. Win!

So much of a win, in fact, that Alison's rival for the school trustee position comes by their house to try to convince her to drop out. She dangles an offer of a very nice house in a different district in front of them, hoping Alison will take the bait. Obviously she doesn't. If there's one thing Alison and Donnie Hendrix are good at, it's being competitive. Also crime, apparently.

Rachel, who is still alive and recovering very impressively from getting a pencil shot through her eye and into her brain, has only one scene in this episode. Here she's identifying pictures on cards for Dr. Nealon, and her aphasia appears to be improving. She learns that she is dead to the outside world, that Delphine took her place in DYAD, and that Rachel Duncan functionally no longer exists. But more importantly, we learn that Dr. Nealon clearly knows more about Castor than he admitted earlier. He shows Rachel a picture of the Castor tattoo, clearly trying to see if she recognizes it. And we have to wonder how he does.

Finally, while we did technically see this storyline, it's worth mentioning that this is the episode where Art's clearly lingering issues about Beth finally come to a head. Namely, he admits that he was in love with her, and that seeing her go into a tailspin tore him to pieces. He was the one she called the night she killed herself, and he didn't pick up. He thought it was the pills, that she was spouting more crazy crap, and then she died. He hasn't forgiven himself for that, not by a long shot.

Like I said above, this episode is about family and about expanding that definition to include people you might not want in your life but need to learn to love anyway. Gracie had to face some hard truths when she discovered that the child she's carrying, the genetic offspring of Helena and Henrik, is Sarah's niece. That Gracie will one day have a child who is Kira's cousin. And Mark has to reckon with the fact that he has sisters. A lot of sisters.

This is the episode where we can clearly see how we need family, to keep us going and to pull us together, even when we don't want to admit it. I actually really love this about Orphan Black. Since the first episode of the first season, this show has been about coming to grips with who you are, but it's also been about opening up your heart to let other people in. 

We see that really clearly with Sarah and her ever changing relationship with her sisters, but also in the way that Felix and Mrs. S have come to love and care for the other clones. The way that Gracie became Helena's "sister". The way that now we're finding out how much we are all really family after all.

I love that. And I can't wait to see what they do with it.

Also, poor Mark. Having to wait another whole episode to find out if he survived the cornfield...

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'The Velveteen Rabbit' Becomes Real

It's not a story I used to think about much, if I'm being honest. It's not what I would call a childhood favorite, not a story that I held close to my heart or that revolutionized me when I was young. When I read it as a kid, it actually made me pretty uncomfortable. I didn't like it, found it unsettling. The idea that my toys might depend on me for their very existence? Creepy. I sort of mentally shoved it in with The Brave Little Toaster* and other stories I didn't quite get and moved on.

As an adult, however, I've come to really appreciate The Velveteen Rabbit. It's not much of a story, sure, more of a sketch, but it has this power in it. This grab-your-guts truth to the narrative that makes me want to read it over and over again. So, I suppose, major props to the writer, Margery Williams, for creating a story that has such deep emotional resonance, especially with so little material.

Because, like I said above, The Velveteen Rabbit is a story that says a lot by saying very little. The main plot is incredibly simple. The Velveteen Rabbit is a stuffed toy given to a small child for Christmas. The Rabbit - which has no other name - is at first very uncomfortable with himself, feeling inferior to the other toys, but with the help of another older, wiser toy, called the Skin Horse, he comes to accept who he is. The Boy soon becomes very attached to this Rabbit and they play together a lot. The Rabbit becomes, in a way, Real to the Boy, which is the best thing a toy can hope for.

And then the Boy falls sick with scarlet fever. The Rabbit stays with the boy and comforts him while he's sick, but when the Boy recovers, the doctor declares that all of his old toys and blankets must be burned so that the infection can't come back.** The Rabbit is one of the toys who must be burned, and he mourns this even though he's so glad the Boy is better.

But. While the Rabbit is waiting in a field to be burned, he's visited by a fairy, the fairy of nursery magic. And she tells him that she can give him a gift. She can give him the gift of becoming Real, not just to the Boy but to everyone. Then she does. She does her magic and the Velveteen Rabbit becomes a Real Rabbit and dances and skips and plays with the other rabbits. The end.

See? It's a very simple, very straightforward sort of story, and you'd be well forgiven for not thinking there was a bigger hidden meaning behind it. I mean, this is definitely the story that made me paranoid about throwing away my stuffed animals, and I think it must have been an inspiration behind Toy Story, but there's not a whole lot else going on there. Right?

Hahaha, no! Of course there's more going on here! There's always more going on.

So, I really don't know if Margery Williams intended for her story to work perfectly as an analogy about the human condition. I can't ask her because she's dead, and she's not from a generation where they were particularly apt to explain themselves at length. In other words, this is all my interpretation of the story. Take it as you will.

To me, though, The Velveteen Rabbit isn't just a story about how much toys can mean to a child, it's actually a very poignant look at humanity and what makes us who we are. The Rabbit's interest in becoming Real and his subsequent journey is basically the journey that we as people go on. We all start out not really real. We start out all new and fresh and a little bit empty. But as we invest in people, care for them, and accept their care in return, we become Real. And the story really shows that. 

Take, for instance, this conversation from the beginning of the story, between the Rabbit and the Skin Horse:

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
I don't know of many more perfect explanations of how it feels to care about the people around you. Real isn't something that comes all at once, but it's bit by bit. The more we share ourselves with each other, the more real we become. The more we open ourselves to love and to the truth of who we are, the more we are capable of.

It had to have been two years ago now, maybe more, but I was having a conversation with a friend about how I felt sometimes like when I invested in relationships with other people I was giving away parts of me that I couldn't get back. That I was somehow diminished by giving myself away to these people.

My friend, who is fantastic and very wise, countered with her theory. Instead of being diminished, she said, I was being increased. Because when you give in love to others, you don't lose that love from yourself. As long as you really know who you are and where you came from in God, you cannot be made lesser. Rather, the more you love the more you are known. And the more you are known, the more you can be said to be real.

It was like the light came on and I could finally see what was going on. Because, as far as I can tell, that's true. I'm not talking about bad relationships here. Not abusive relationships or toxic relationships or hurtful places and people. But when you invest in someone in love, when you care for them, you become real to them in a way you weren't before, and they become real to you.

I especially love that bit above where the Skin Horse talks about how being Real involves getting the fur rubbed off in places and looking shabby and maybe seeming a little ugly. Because isn't that true as well? The more we are loved, the less we care about our bald patches and our cellulite and our bad teeth. We become more beautiful to the people who actually matter. 

I know this is all very far up in the air and not super practical. That's okay. The idea that we are not yet Real when we are born and we become Real the more we are known and choose to know others doesn't necessarily have to change your life. You might not agree or you might not care.

But I care. It changed my life. It made my life infinitely better to think about this. So I'm sharing it with you because I would feel selfish not to. Because it's okay to admit that we all long to be known and to be loved. There is no shame in that. There is only hope. Because if you long to be known and loved, I can guarantee that the other people in your life want that too. Both for you and for them. So go for it. Become Real. It might hurt, and it will be hard, but like the Skin Horse says, when you're Real, you don't mind so much.

*I still have nightmares.

**Which is actually a pretty solid solution when you don't have bleach or other anti-bacterial solutions lying around.

Monday, May 25, 2015

'Band of Brothers', Narrative Relativism, and True War Stories

When I was in high school, I had a very good English teacher. Well, I also had a very bad English teacher, but that's beside the point.* In Junior year of high school I had an excellent English teacher who taught us something I didn't really get at the time but which I have remembered ever since.

Mr. Cook, because that's who my teacher was, had all of us in class read a selection from Tim O'Brien's The Things We Carried called "How to Tell a True War Story". You can read it here. I'm still not sure what prompted Mr. Cook to assign this reading, maybe it was something he did every year, but whatever the cause, it's stayed with me ever since. Mostly this bit at the beginning:
In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe "Oh." True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.
For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can't believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside.
It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.
Narrative relativism. The idea that a story can be true without being, exactly true. And the idea that for all we tell stories and try to make meaning out of the seeming chaos that is our lives, we never have the whole story or all of the information and so the stories we make for ourselves are comforts wrapped in lies. Our feeble attempts to form stories out of wars and tragedies and devastation only tend to highlight how very little we actually know or understand. Real life doesn't abide by story structure, and analysis of themes will not get you very far.

This is hard for me to deal with sometimes. I like story structure. I make my living by it. Narrative relativism bothers me because it suggests that what I'm doing is really just spitting into the wind, that by using stories to examine human lives I'm trying to reverse engineer a lead balloon. I hate the idea that we are all chaos in the wind, and frankly, I don't believe it. Not really. No matter how much I try to embrace the randomness of life, I remain certain that there is a real story being told here, even if I have no idea what it is.

But what does all of this mean in terms of the stories we tell that are, hypothetically, based in truth? How can you actually tell a true war story? Will there always be some element of glossing over or some little piece that has been manufactured in order to make the narrative more satisfying?

More importantly, is that okay?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I just finished rewatching HBO's Band of Brothers miniseries. If you've not heard of it, it's a "based on a true story" retelling of the exploits of first paratroopers in World War II. Specifically Easy Company, a division of the 101st Regiment, a group who were well known for seeing some of the most ridiculous action of the war. 

The series is based on a book by Stephen Ambrose, also called Band of Brothers, that gives as accurate as possible a retelling of Easy's time in the war, based on military reports, historians, and interviews with the surviving soldiers. The miniseries even includes little snippets from those interviews at the beginning of each episode. It is, as far as anyone can tell, the closest thing we've got to a true war story.

But for all that Band of Brothers is absolutely the closest anyone could make it to a "true" war story, there's something that always bothers me about it. I mean, it's also a television show. It has narrative structure and arcs and freaking plotting, so how true can it be? I know that some of this is achieved by just leaving bits out and choosing to focus on other parts so that the story seems to flow more naturally, but it's still confusing. 

I don't know if I really think of Band of Brothers as a true story, but I also don't know if I really think of it as fiction either.

Whichever it is, I do think we can all agree that it's very good. Following the men of Easy Company from their training days in Toccoa where they learned to jump out of planes and come down fighting to the very end of the war as they tentatively waited to see if they'd be deployed overseas, you really come to know and understand these characters. Or historical figures. People?

It doesn't hurt either that the show features some of the best actors of the past ten years in their up and coming roles, as well as some character actors who seriously need more work. Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, and Andrew Scott all make appearances, as do Simon Pegg and David Schwimmer. Damian Lewis is clearly the breakout star, because this was the first time anyone outside of England saw him (and his American accent is spectacular), but Ron Livingston clearly holds his own.

Seriously, watching this was almost painful for me, since I spent the whole show in a dither of putting names to babyfaces. Andrew Lee Potts, Donnie Wahlberg, Eion Bailey, Matthew Settle, Michael Cudlitz, Neal McDonough, Richard Speight Jr., Kirk Acevedo, Marc Warren, Jamie Bamber, Colin Hanks... I mean, if nothing else, the sheer size of the cast ensures that we all recognize at least a few of the names off that list, and they're all amazing actors who need to do more things.

But that's beside the point. The actors and their phenomenal performances are only one small part of this show. There's also the gorgeous cinematography, the costumes and set dressing and sheer realism of the sets, the writing and how the story was framed. It's a masterfully made miniseries, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes good drama and has a strong stomach.

So it's not that there's something really wrong with the show itself. From an objective standpoint, it's excellently made and as honest as possible. It's just that something in me twists every time I try to understand this. Is it history? Is it fiction? Where should the line be drawn? And, for all that it's a compelling drama, I can't forget that these are real things that really happened to real people. Probably. Sort of. Maybe?

Perhaps part of the frustration for me, as a film and TV critic watching this, is that I feel like I can't really criticize it. I mean, what am I going to say? "Your real life experiences were not properly cinematic and narratively entertaining. I found the dramatic portrayal of your trauma to be insufficiently emotional. Your worst nightmares lack story structure." No. I'm not going to say that, because I'm not a terrible human being.

At the same time, however, this is a show and it deserves to be criticized as a piece of media. Especially as a piece of media that we all instinctively consider to be really accurate. If we're going to hold up Band of Brothers and shows like it as the gold standard of war stories, then they deserve examination. Just, what kind of examination? Do we want more literalism or less? What is more beneficial to our culture and society?

I'm asking all of these questions because I don't have the answers, but I know that they're important. Especially on days like today, it's worth taking a moment to really consider the way we structure narratives around true events. Events like World War II or the American Revolutionary War or September 11, 2001. We have framed stories around those facts to help us understand and make sense of them. But the stories we've created may or may not be beneficial and they may or may not be true.

World War II, in my opinion, occupies a strange and slightly unsettling place in our collective history as Americans. It's the war everyone points to as a just war, but I know that, in public school education at least, the narrative they construct around those events sometimes fails to take into account the whole story. It makes the Nazis out to be ultimate evil and the Americans out to be the unquestioned heroes.

We gloss over the elements of truth that don't fit that story. We ignore the way that poverty and the destruction of World War I left a hole in Germany that Hitler could fill with his hatred. We gloss over the United States' history of interning Japanese nationals in our own borders. We pretend that the atrocities of war were one sided, that we came into the war for truth and justice and freedom. We forget that there was a strong and loud contingent in the US of people who thought we ought to side with Germany.

We conceal the fullness of the truth to make ourselves feel better. To make a story that makes us feel safe and good. I don't believe in that. And part of why I actually like Band of Brothers is for how it doesn't try to sugarcoat it. I mean, it does a little, but it still lets the men be human beings who sometimes do bad things. Who aren't perfect and good and angelic. Who shoot unarmed men and suffer from PTSD and loot German silver and cover up for each other.

I think basically what it comes back to is that quote up top. The only true war story is one without generalizations or moralizing. A true war story is one that just happens, like war, and that grabs you by the guts. Because there's no way to ever tell a true story in that super factual way. We're all humans filtering the world through our limited perspectives. No, the true war story is just the one that is true enough, that says what it was like in that moment for those people.

Sometimes that's as good as you can do.

*Technically speaking, the breakdown came out to two bad teachers and two good ones, so I don't feel that bad about it.