The Leftovers, S1E7 – Solace for tired Feet

The US has shown the last episode of S1 a few days ago, while the UK has just aired the pilot. While it’s not the hottest thing on TV, this series gets decent ratings. That is as it should be. To dislike it because Lost had its serious flaws is just moronic – Leftovers is its own thing. With only one true stinker (episode 4), things seem to look up now.

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This is a complex and mostly worthwhile ensemble episode. It’s heavy on plot, but doesn’t fall apart. The editing is a maze, but the people in the cutting room knew what they were doing. It took me a second to understand the beginning: Someone is plastering the walls of Mapleton with Gladys posters featuring the slogan “Save Them.” Which seems to mean “kill them”. Disgusting. Are those the same guys who killed Gladys?

There is a fridge in the woods in which a certain Paul Glouski departed during a prank. Now Jill and Aimee and their gang use it as a dare: whoever can stay in there the longest wins. Jill breaks the record and almost faints, but is saved from suffocation by her grandfather, Kevin Garvey Sr, who must have escaped the psych ward. Turns out he checked in there after burning down the town library. Now he seems to be harder to find than the B.J.

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Aah, Scott Glenn. Remember him as Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs? Or as the priest in The Virgin Suicides? He makes even crap like Vertical Limit shine.

Tommy has to take care of a feverish, pregnant Christine. She mutters something about a bridge, which is either too ominous or not ominous enough, I don’t know which. That scene is greatly improved by Wayne’s phone call, but the great cult leader has no great plan, no revelation. Wayne just needs money. And he is still convinced that great things are afoot. Maybe they will involve a bridge.

Nora and Garvey are on their fourth date and are finally ready to fornicate, but find Megan and another GR in front of Nora’s house. Garvey threatens them verbally, but Nora has a better idea. I like the rapport they have with each other: “I don’t know how to talk to you yet.” Amidst all this crazyness of lost ones and wild dogs and cults, they approach each other carefully, timidly.

Back home, Garvey answers Jill’s questions about Grandpa and lets slip that she has seen him, and now his son has to catch him. First port of call is the Mayor, who has dumped the crazy old geezer. Then we see Garvey segue into a dream, and again, Dean wants Garvey to kill a dog – this time, the animal is trapped in a mailbox, and there is a dead Laurie in the back of Dean’s truck. Garvey just cannot shoot the dog this time. He wakes with a bite wound on his hand and a ferocious dog in the backyard. Aimee seems to know what has happened during the night even if Garvey doesn’t. Spooky stuff.

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Garvey has to investigate the library his dad broke into – again. He beat up a deputy, used the library computer and wanted to borrow 200 dollars to get something for his son. Pop quiz: who do you think is more sane at this point – Garvey Sr or Garvey Jr?

Tommy delivers the money to a designated mailbox, but waits to see who will pick it up. Meanwhile, Grandpa turns up at the Garveys’, but only Jill is home. Ske asks why he knew that she was trapped in a fridge in the woods. He says he didn’t know. He wants to borrow 200 dollars and asks for tranquilizers for the dog, but Garvey, alerted by Jill, comes home. The scene where he handcuffs himself with that old routine is strangely touching because it’s right and wrong at the same time.

In the police car, the Garveys run into a silent GR protest against the killing of Gladys, and Grandpa gets out of the car and escapes. Garvey knocks down some protesters during his pursuit, Patti among them, and is stared down by her and Meg and, of course, Laurie.

Meanwhile, Tommy sees a stranger take the 3’000 dollars and follows him, and he discovers another very young, very pregnant woman of Asian background called Liane and her protector. How many unique special pregnant girls does an abusive cult leader need? What is his plan?

Back at the Garveys’, Aimee wants to talk about what Kevin remembers about the night they got the dog. He refuses to discuss this and goes to the backyard to feed the dog only to find out that someone has dug up the jar with the money. Remember that jar? Father Jamison dug it up, and now we get to see that it is empty except for a leaflet about a corrupt judge and a note from Grandpa that Jamison deserves that money. Which prompts Garvey to see the holy man.

There are people at Matt’s, printing posters of Gladys. So it’s them, and their plea to save the GR has a spiritual background, not a cynical one. Matt isn’t there, but Garvey finds out that he is out there somewhere with Garvey Sr.

Liane’s minder tries to bond with Tommy over a coupla lines of coke and reminiscing about the night of the raid, when Liane charges into the room with a gun, trying to make Tommy lead her to Christine, then she breaks down and tells Tommy that Wayne is some kind of bridge.

Then there is a meeting in a diner of father and son. Senior brings him a National Gegraphic mag from May 1972 which is supposed to be crucial, some kind of message. This, Dad says, is Kevin’s invitation, his purpose, his mission. Junior dismisses it all as humbug because of his daddy issues. Well – if your dad hears voices, how would you react? And thus ends Grandpa’s day out.

A disillusioned Garvey goes and does what any man would do in order to anchor his life in the here and now: he goes and has wonderful sex with Nora. That doesn’t seem to faze Laurie too much, and for once, chief Garvey is cheerful in the morning – until he sees the National Geographic on his kitchen counter.

The Leftovers 1x07 – Solace for Tired Feet

Meanwhile and somewhere else, Tommy gets another phone call from Wayne the Bridge, but decides to smash the phone. That is very sane and very dangerous. Back at their hideout, Christine has given birth on her own. It’s a girl. But of course.

Livin’ La Vida Kickstarter

How long has it been since Kickstarter exploded onto the scene? My first pledged project was about 2 1/2 years ago, but there have been so many since. Some were successful, some weren’t; some have produced a film or a game and some are still running. Sometimes the results were mixed, but by and large I’m in the happy position of being able to say: I have contributed, in some small way, to the existence of a number of works that otherwise wouldn’t exist – and that’s a cool thing to be able to say.

I don’t want to overstate the effect my contributions have had; I didn’t tip the scales for any of the projects I pledged to, I was usually one of many thousands. Yes, a handful of the projects I supported were touch and go, but I’m still one of many. Nevertheless, for all the collectivist benefits of Kickstarter, with each of the successfully completed projects I got my hands on – whether the result was a movie or a game – I did get a frisson of “I did this!”, or perhaps rather “I was a patron to this!” In my very small way, I’ve been a mini-Pope Julius II to, say, the Veronica Mars movie or Wasteland 2.

And let me tell you: patronage is addictive. I’ve reduced but not kicked (no pun intended) my Kickstarting habit, but during the first year or so my patronage muscle was twitchy as hell. I don’t regret any of the pledges I’ve made – or, more accurately, I may not have been entirely satisfied with all of the resulting works, but I was still happy having pledged to begin with. Knowing that a group of artists with an idea that probably wouldn’t have survived the cold, hard realities of the free market were able to work on a project close to their hearts? That’s worth a lot – definitely more than putting money into the latest highly polished, much advertised but essentially generic triple-A hit. Put it this way: if you could do your bit to make Kristen Bell happier, what would that be worth to you? (As I said: Kickstarter is addictive – and most addictions aren’t necessarily altogether healthy.)

That closer emotional engagement has its flipside, though: if something I’m invested in turns out not to meet my expectations, it’s difficult not to take that personally. A couple of months ago, Divinity: Original Sin, a role-playing game I’d Kickstarted, came out to roundly enthusiastic reviews, and my endorphin levels went up with every piece of critical acclaim that I saw… until I played the game. Don’t get me wrong: Divinity: Original Sin, regardless of its silly title, is a good game and a typical case of something that simply might not exist in this form without Kickstarter. Whatever would be different if they’d made the game with the support of a traditional publisher wouldn’t address my issues with it. But I supported the project predicated on certain promises that I interpreted one way but that were meant another way. I don’t feel like the developers, Larian, lied to me – but it does feel more deflating to follow a project, read the update posts, religiously watch every behind-the-scenes video, and then check out the end result to find that my expectations were… inaccurate? Misguided? A bit naive?

Patronage doesn’t give me the right to expect a result that pleases me in every way possible. It’d be wrong to think that Larian was at fault for creating a game that meets their expectations but veers away somewhat from mine. I’m still glad I supported the project, out of principle, because more artists and craftspeople should be free to create things that risk-averse publishers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. But what I’ve learnt is this: Kickstart at your own peril, and manage your own expectations. In some ways I’m probably more disappointed with Divinity than with the handful of projects that reached their pledge goal but then failed in development, because the project lead had miscalculated or because the team consisted of one passionate person who fell ill and could no longer afford working on that particular dream. In the end, what’s more important to me: doing my small part to enable an artist to follow their vision, or wanting them to follow m*, even though the latter is vague even to me? (“I know it when I see it” doesn’t make for very stringent design or criticism.) Based on my Kickstarter experiences to date, I shall have to accept that a feeling of ownership is not the same thing as actually owning something. I support the Kickstarter projects, but they’re not mine. If I’m lucky – and that luck can be helped along by using my brains as much as my gut to decide what to back – I may like or even love the end result, but patronage doesn’t entitle you to liking the end result. Who knows, perhaps Julius the Second looked at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and thought: “If Eve ends up with cow-eyed Adam instead of that hunky David guy, the whole thing sucks. Team David all the way!” If he did, I hope he had the good sense to keep quiet about it.

The Leftovers, S1E6 – Guest

Rejoice, my dearly beloveds, for this is a Nora Durst episode. And it is a good one, a very good one indeed. Ok, I confess: it’s my favourite episode so far.

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She conducts an interview, then parks across the road from a schoolyard. She goes shopping for kids’ food and replaces the old, still full boxes past their sell-by date with the new ones. Then she sits in the kitchen, hoping against hope for her family to return.

We only learn later that the teacher we see in the schoolyard is the woman her husband had an affair with. It gets worse: Nora calls a hooker, puts on a bulletproof vest, places a mattress on the floor and then hands the hooker her gun, telling her to shoot her in the chest. That’s slightly scarier to me than assisted suicide. It means that not feeling too much is the problem, but feeling too little.

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She meets Garvey at the courthouse, and you know what’s coming, don’t you? They’re both there for the same reason: divorce. That scene is weird, crude and sweet all at once.

Then Nora has to go to New York for a DROP conference (stands for Departure Related Occupations and Practices). There seem to be no GRs, but a lot of protesters who demand answers. There is that chilling scene where one guy hands her a hand grenade. Can you believe her reaction?

Her nametag is gone, and she has to make do with one that says “guest”. She wants to find out the thief and follows a woman into the ladies’ room only to find out something about herself. Still missing the tag and cajoled into a party by a young cocky bastard and other DROP people, she drinks and takes a pill and starts dancing on the sofa. That might lead her into trouble, but it’s way better than getting shot into her Kevlar-protected sternum. Turns out that the young cocky bastard is in the profitable business of building life-size imitations of the departed for 40’000 $ apiece. Business is good. He asks Nora for a kiss. She says yes, then kisses the guy’s imitation. I didn’t see that one coming. It looks very tender, but is veeeery creepy. I like that about this episode: most scenes mean two or three things at the same time.

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Bad news next morning. She gets thrown out of the hotel because “Nora Durst” has smashed the big mirror behind the bar. She insists it wasn’t her. Security won’t listen to her: “No offence, but who would want to be you?” (I was reminded of the Kevin Finnerty scenes from the Sopranos) Finally, they find the fake Nora Durst on a panel, raving about how the DROP is a smoke-screen to insinuate progress while the questionnaires are sent to incinerators. The benefit payments are supposed to shut people up. That woman is one of the more determined protesters, and maybe she has a point. It depends on what you, the viewer, think, but the doubt she spreads is hard to shake off.

Later, the real Nora Durst finds herself in the bar the fake Nora trashed and is pissed off at the author of a book that is everywhere at the conference. A tall creep called Casper, excellently played by Tom Noonan, asks her if she wants to go on forever feeling such rage and despair. She answers yes, but is intrigued. Casper leads her into a room where there is a curtained doorway which it costs 1’000 $ to go through in order to know what happened when the author was walking through it. Nora pays.

Hello, Wayne. Are you the real deal, going to take Nora’s pain away from her? Yes, you are. You already seem to guess that the gunshots bring Nora a similar kind of pain as when her family departed. And what is new is that you seem to guess that your own death is upon you soon.

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Either Nora has helped herself by visiting Wayne, or Wayne really has helped Nora. She goes about her life, and there is a change about her, in her face. I’m not a rom-com guy, but her asking Garvey out really put a decent end to a great episode. It will probably get messy soon enough, but for now, Nora Durst’s life is looking up.

The Shakespearean Ape

To get this out of the way first: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, apart from having as clunky a title as its predecessor, is an uneven film. It suffers mainly from two things: its overall plot is perfunctory and predictable due to the movie’s premise and it being a prequel, and the human characters are usually less interesting than the apes, especially when they interact among each other.

At the same time, Dawn gets one thing very right, and that’s the simian drama. While it takes a while to get going – the film’s first twenty minutes or so are oddly reminiscent of 2001 (which is helped by a score that evokes György Ligeti) in how they are entirely set among apes, with no human interaction – it becomes a strong driver for the plot, even when it’s fairly clear where it’ll end up.

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In fact, I would go so far as to say something that I usually find pretentious, annoying and inaccurate in reviews: this is some downright Shakespearean shit. Dawn sets up a character triangle that on paper sounds supremely generic: Caesar, the main simian character from Rise of the Planet of the Apes of the Title that Never Ends, is in conflict with his adolescent son Blue Eyes who thinks that his old ape is too much of an appeaser towards the human survivors. Meanwhile, Caesar’s second-in-command, Koba, holds a fierce hatred for humans due to having been the subject of experimenting before the apes rose against the humans. Blue Eyes is drawn by Koba’s strength and ruthlessness but not oblivious to his descent into cruelty and despotism.

Although this could very easily end up as a constellation straight out of Scriptwriting 101, the performances elevate it onto a level that is both archetypal, rather than generic, and specific to those characters. I write “performance”, though I cannot say where the actors’ motion-captured acting ends and the animators’ task begins. (This is a different discussion and one that the experts must debate.) For the audience, what matters is that Caesar, Blue Eyes and Koba utterly come to life on the screen. ‘Digital actors’, or whatever the term du jour is for all-CGI characters, may not look 100% convincing and integrated into filmed material at all times just yet, but in terms of animation and acting the film’s central trio of apes is entirely convincing and engaging.

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To get back to my earlier description, though: I usually dislike reviews describing anything as “Shakespearean” because to me, what makes Shakespeare lies almost entirely in the words. Take those away or reduce their importance – and neither of the two recent Apes movies is focused primarily on language – and what is left? Nevertheless, Dawn deserves the descriptor to my mind, as even without language it evokes a conflict between its simian characters that is as potent and effective as those in Shakespeare’s historical dramas especially, and pushing much the same buttons. Blue Eyes may not be a Prince Hal, but Dawn juggles its conflicts between the personal and the political deftly enough not to be entirely embarrassed by the comparison.

I’m curious to see where they’ll take this new series of Planet of the Apes films next. I expect that the third film that Dawn clearly leads up to will suffer from similar problems in terms of plotting and predictability, but if they can build on the characters they’ve established they could still end up with a strong film. Never mind an infinite number of chimps banging away at typewriters: put the apes in the acting chair and you may just end up with a smidgen of Shakespeare’s magic. 

The Leftovers, S1E5 – Gladys

Last episode’s end with those unlawful entries into people’s homes have shown us a more aggressive Guilty Remnant. This episode seems to continue that new note as Gladys, the pudgy older woman with blonde hair and glasses, and another woman step over an old man lying helplessly on the pavement and refuse to help him. They paint all the newspaper dispensers white, not making any new friends that way, of course, but it comes as a shock that the Gladys of the title gets abducted by a small, anonymous group, taped to a tree and stoned to death. She begs for her life with the first and last words we ever hear from her. That scene is outrageously violent and almost unbearable to watch.

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I am not entirely sure it’s a good idea to try and pick up a bad episode with such a violent teaser, but let’s see further. Kevin Garvey, poor guy, has quite different problems: the burglar alarm is off, and some of his white shirts are missing. Was it that deer again? His working day starts of course with Patti’s plea to help with Gladys’ murder. I didn’t expect Megan to tell Laurie that this, well, was to be expected. Laurie seems to have an anxiety attack and flashbacks about Gladys’ death. That’s odd – she wasn’t there, was she? I don’t like what that short scene implies. Sooner rather than later, the series will have to come clean about some of its unexplained snippets.

Against Garvey’s wishes, the FBI gets involved in the murder inquiry. He stakes out the GR headquarters to make sure Laurie is safe, but Laurie and Patti are not there – they’re in a motel, in a non-smoking room. Patti treats them to a day off: normal clothes, breakfast and conversation. Laurie seems on the verge of talking. This is one powerful scene, people: Amy Brenneman and Ann Dowd are a pleasure to watch here. Just wait for the “doubt is fire” speech. (I have a soft spot for Amy Brenneman ever since Heat, and I really, really liked Ann Dowd in Compliance.) Their storyline suffers somewhat because Patti seems to dump her own feces in a doggy bag on the front porch of a certain Neil.

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And then my third favourite character stumbles into Kevin Garvey at the drycleaners. Garvey wants to pick up his white shirts without a ticket, and who does he meet there but Nora Durst: “They turn up once you stop looking for them.” Is there another flirt in the air?

Garvey cross-examines Father Jamison. That doesn’t make much sense at first, but remember that during his odyssey, he got a stone to his head while trying to help a GR, who then bought his church from under him. Still, he cannot have done it, can he? We’ve seen him bash a man’s head in, but he would have acted alone if it had been him, don’t you agree? He says he was with his study group and then makes an astonishing request: he would like to see Gladys’ body and pray for her. Garvey says no, then he gets yanked out of the room into another room where he has to explain the 8pm curfew to the community. People don’t accept that they should be locked up because of the GR, first of all Dean. The council is unanimously against the curfew, so Garvey gathers the GR and gives them whistles. Bad idea, Kev.

Then he brings Father Jamison to Gladys’ mortal coil because this is the closest thing to a funeral she is going to get. On the way, Jamison quotes from the Bible and remarks that “killing these people is pointless. They don’t care because they’re already dead.” He wants to bring them back to life. And if that scene didn’t feature angelic choirs on its soundtrack, it would have been one of the strongest moments so far.

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Back at the morgue, the body has already been shipped to the FBI in Virginia to Agent Kilaney. The body is sort of lost in the system, and Agent Kilaney offers to eliminate the infestation. Come again? Yes, he means the GR – all of them. Is that guy for real? Did he take part in Gladys’ murder? He cannot be FBI. Is he ATFEC? If so – who are they?

And Father Jamison steals the next scene, informing us about his swearing habits. Well done, Matt, but I am not sure you should stand in the GR front yard and talk about Gladys and try to recruit members for your church. Laurie comes out and whistles as loudly as she can. Father, you’re in trouble.

An inebriated Kevin Garvey wants to get back his white shirts and harasses the Indian proprietor of the drycleaner’s. That man is clearly afraid of him, and now Garvey is sort of sorry. Back home, he tells Jill that he and Mum are getting a divorce. This is the only moment where Jill seems to be herself.

The episode ends at the ATFEC processing center, and it is exactly what you think it means: an assembly line crematorium, where we see Gladys go up in flames, so maybe what Tommy and Christine have come across last time we saw them was a container of dead people. It has nothing to do with the disappeared. I feel slightly disappointed, which means that some hints at the mistery of where they are or what happened to them wouldn’t come amiss.

The Leftovers, S1E4 – B.J. and the A.C.

Episode 3 raised the stakes for Fater Jamison losing his church to the GR, didn’t it? I was almost sure that whatever would come after that episode wouldn’t match the clerical odyssey, but even judged on its own, this episode was a qualified disappointment.

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It’s December, and someone steals the little plastic baby Jesus from the nativity display. I felt slightly sorry for Kevin Garvey because it looked like it was his turn for an odyssey. He has to find the doll or buy a new one with cash from Mayor Warburton while making sure the GR don’t cause any ruckus during the local Christmas dance. His car goes dead on him (an electrical malfunction that could well be from Lost), and he has to use Dean the dog-shooter’s truck still parked in the Garvey driveway. Kevin, in desperate need of some success, wants to find the original doll. Whodunnit?

The usual suspects must include the Guilty Remnant. Garvey tries to come to an agreement with a mute Patti because the holidays are the time when people want to blow off steam and be with their families. Patti, smirking, cruelly stabs back by writing that “there are no families.” Wow. The GR come across as seemingly peaceful, but relentless in their presence. Here, Patti is downright cruel to Garvey, and such cruelty is new. If it is the new M-O. for the GR, watch out Mapleton, you have a problem.

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Tommy and Christine are definitely not suspects, trying to find their way past the authorities and eventually back to Mapleton. We see them again in what looks like a hospital admissions room or cafeteria, where an all too naked guy throws a tantrum in front of Christine, yelling about why she appears in his dreams: “You walk over the dead. They are all in white.” I half feared that this referred to the GR being dead and walking among the living. Bad flashback to the ending of Lost – remember? This is what lazy writing will do. The twist was cheap then, and it would be cheap now. It’s only in the second hospital that we learn that – damn you, Wayne – Christine is pregnant. Does he feel that the world owes him a child? Without appearing in this episode, Wayne has become even more despicable. (And no, I won’t let him off by mentioning immaculate conception.)

Tommy thinks about running away, leaving Christine on her own. While he waits for the bus home, there is a random visit from two GR members who hand him a leaflet that says: “Everything that matters about you is inside.” He opens the leaflet and stares at a white page. That scene is raw and well-played, but it ends in a technically unclean way: Tommy sees the bus pull up, but wishes that Wayne would call for instructions. The phone rings, and it’s a taped ad, asking if you have lost someone. It’s unclear if that is from the GR or maybe even the insurance company Nora Durst works for. Shame, because it’s such a tense moment. I felt for Tommy, which is a first, but I also wanted to know who was behind the ad.

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Tommy returns to Christine, shoeless and with a bull’s eye on his forehead. It’s weird enough that he seems to start his own cult, but it’s superweird that he makes an underage pregnant girl walk barefoot through the snow. The next scene with them should be a punch in the stomach, but it’s merely puzzling and slightly eerie: The bus that Tommy and Christine are on jolts to a halt because a blue shipping container is blocking the road, its doors burst open, and shrouded human bodies scattered all over the street. It’s here that Christine walks among the dead who are all in white. I should have felt jolted by that scene because it’s the first hint at where some of the disappeared might have disappeared to: They are dead, but at least their mortal coils are still around and can be examined, buried, and said goodbye to. Instead, that scene felt like put there for lack of anything else to do with the storyline. It was out of rhythm with anything else in this episode and lacked any serious build-up.

Jill Garvey is a suspect. Christmas prank from the troubled teenage fraction – why not? When her dad flat out asks her if she took the doll, we get the impression that she is innocent. We even pity her a little later. The scene starts when Garvey comes home and finds Laurie and Meg on his front porch. I guessed immediately why Laurie was there – Kevin must have thought this was some attempt at smoothing things over. Poor fool. Megan reads Laurie’s letter, and you immediately know she is asking for a divorce. Jill looks and listens until they see her. That scene is well-played, but it’s so darned hackneyed. A divorce? Is that supposed the emotional twist of the episode? Didn’t work for me. Its a weak plot-point, and although Amy Brenneman’s face is a marvel, she cannot save that scene. It gets worse: Jill gives Mom her Christmas present – a zippo lighter. It’s so utterly forseeable: divorce, pregnancy, a zippo lighter. Even the scene where Laurie retrieves the lighter from a storm drain is so unimaginative is deeply mediocre afternoon drama TV.

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Turns out Jill stole the baby, and you probably guessed that as well. That she refuses to give it a mock sea burial does not make her the smartest teenagers, just the least silly. Jill, please smarten up. It’s okay to have Aimee as a goofy friend, but if you are dumb enough to make the twins deliver the baby to your doorstep when your dad is still home, you also need smarter friends.

Ah, almost forgot the dance. Garvey can finally present the found-again baby to the community, if only to luke-warm applause. Out in the hallway, he meets Nora Durst taking a break from dancing. It’s an intriguing scene between two strong characters who haven’t met before. Nora somehow feels compelled to tell Garvey that her husband cheated on her. Garvey retaliates by admitting that he cheated on his wife. In-between the need for confession and the subconscious flirtation, there is something happening here, but these two are not yet sure what to do with their mutual frankness.

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Outside the town hall, the GR line up on the edge of the town hall grounds so as not to trespass. Garvey has some of them arrested anyway, but when he sees Patti’s smirk again, he realises that Laurie and a lot of the other GR are not even here, so the real stuff is happening elsewhere: They break into people’s homes and take all the photographs they can find, leaving behind empty frames and fridge magnets. Breaking and entering is bad enough, but they steal people’s memories, their keepsakes, their mementos. The memory of the disappeared among them will fade. That, to my mind, is unforgivable. Talk about Patti being cruel.

This episode could have ended well at least for Garvey, but he finds Father Jamison at the nativity with a spare baby Jesus, so on the way home, Garvey throws the doll out of the car window. That’s symptomatic for a lot of what happened in this episode: no-one is really at a new point of the storyline, and even the scenes themselves weren’t interesting. With the exception of the Garvey-Durst flirt, evey supposed highlight lacked impact. Shoddy writing, bad editing, no pace, no rhythm, no build-up, no payoff. Next episode can only get better.

Round and round, underground

I don’t go out of my way to watch films about the Second World War, and this is even more the case with respect to Holocaust-related movies. That’s little to do with the subject matter and a lot with the way such films often turn out to be samey in terms of form and content. Especially when it comes to the Holocaust, there’s a certain iconography, at least in Western films, that is rarely escaped or at least varied. The topic is an important one, undoubtedly, but important topics don’t automatically make for good films.

When Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness was shown on TV recently, I was nevertheless interested. On the surface it sounded like a story we’d seen before, of how a simple, flawed man finds his own humanity to save a group of Jews at risk of being killed by the Nazis and their helpers. Holland, though, is an interesting director. I’d greatly enjoyed the episodes of The Wire and Treme she’d directed, and I’d heard very good things about Burning Bush, the miniseries she’d done about Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in 1969 Prague to protest the Soviet occupation. While she’s worked in America, In Darkness is a Polish film, and the film is told from a perspective we don’t often see, without excusing or minimising Polish anti-semitism.

In Darkness

The story of a sewer worker protecting a dozen Polish Jews fleeing the massacre of their families and friends in Lvov and looking after them in the sewer system, first for money but later because he comes to see it as the right thing to do, is interesting in itself, but apart from the details it’s not altogether new. What makes the film effective even when it follows fairly well-trodden ground is what Holland gets out of her actors and how she portrays all of them as essentially human – though not in a sentimental way. The characters she shows us are flawed, petty, jealous, shallow, selfish, craven, and this is as true for the Jewish refugees in the sewers as for Leopold Socha, the Polish sewer worker. There’s often a tendency, not only in films, to idealise the persecuted and the victims, and while the impulse is understandable, such idealisation can be dehumanising. Holland never loses sight of the humanity of all her characters, the good and the bad, and the film benefits greatly from it.

In Darkness is not perfect, and its story, while closely based on the real events, doesn’t always ring true; a near-disaster late in the film may have happened the way it is shown, yet it doesn’t feel altogether believable as part of the film. Yet more than any film about WW2 and the murder of European Jews I remember watching since, well, The Pianist, I found it affecting. Holland’s film doesn’t come across like it wants to communicate a message, but in refraining from doing so, at least up until the very end, it succeeds all the more.

In Darkness

P.S.: There is a message in the title cards that close the film: after the war, Socha died saving his daughter from a runaway army truck. At his funeral, the screen text relates, someone said that perhaps this was God punishing Socha for protecting the Jews during the war. Holland ends on an angry, sad and bluntly timely note: “As if we need  God to punish each other.”