Not every main character has to be likable, or stay likable for that matter. Plenty of great works in all genres and mediums feature less-than-admirable individuals at their center. But even if the audience doesn’t like the protagonist, he or she still needs to be someone the viewer wants to spend time with. Especially in the early going, your lead has to be someone the audience wants to get to know better, that they want to see face whatever obstacles are in the offing, whether we’re rooting for them to leap over those obstacles or stumble.
That’s Iron Fist’s biggest problem out of the gate. Main character Danny Rand doesn’t do anything so terrible in the show’s first episode. His knocking out security guards and breaking into someone’s home (which, in fairness, used to be his home) is questionable, but fairly par for the course when it comes to superhero stories, especially those involving long-missing orphans (of which there are a surprising number). But after an hour with him — in an episode that runs 56 minutes and would have been better with half that — there’s no good reason to want to hang out with Danny for another twelve.
Fault is a slippery concept. It’s bundled up with intentions, results, and a host of other complicating factors, all of which affect whom we blame and whom we absolve when things go badly. Some people wrong us without meaning to. Others intend to hurt us but inadvertently give us exactly what we need. And some people simply twist in the wind, unsure or unaware of the damage they do to others. How we credit and blame people for their actions and inaction says as much about who we are as it does about the person we’re judging.
But how we move past those assessments of fault, whether we’re blaming others or blaming ourselves, can be just as telling. It matters how we try to overcome, or avoid, the bad blood, hurt feelings, and guilt. In “The Other Side,” Daryl blames himself, Gregory bends over backwards to avoid any perception of fault, and Sasha and Rosita hash out their awkward, shared part in Abraham’s life and death, each trying to figure out where they fit into this intricate ethical hierarchy.
The natural inclination in an episode like this one is to go big, to make the proceedings grand and explosive and exciting. It’s the Original Trilogy meeting the Prequel Trilogy meeting Star Wars Rebels, and so the powers that be could be forgiven for turning the whole thing into an epic confrontation, full of piss and vinegar and force-aided fireworks.
Instead, “Twin Suns” is a quieter, deliberate, almost melancholy episode. That’s a bold choice and one that pays off. Instead of a tribute to the pulpy thrills of the old serials that inspired George Lucas, the episode feels like an homage to the more languid tragedies in the Akira Kurosawa Samurai movies that also influenced him. The result is one of Rebels’s most meditative, understated episodes, that uses that ruminative tone to do justice to the major figures it invokes.
Moments flash before Morgan’s eyes. His sanity begins to slip as he falls back into disjointed ramblings once more. The lives taken, the lives lost, the lives tainted, all linger with him, brought to the surface again: Ezekiel, Richard, Carol, Benjamin, Duane.
That sort of thing always gets me — montages of past events, the images of old faces and old places returning in a grand, dizzying cacophony. Something about the rush of those little moments makes an impact. I know it’s a device. I know how manipulative it can be. And yet, I cannot help but find it affecting.
So when Morgan starts to lose his mind again, to crack from the equal and opposing pressures of his pacifist philosophy and a world that requires something different to protect those with their futures still ahead of them, I cannot help but feel it too. “Bury Me Here” is not The Walking Dead’s finest hour — more than a few clunky moments see to that — but it’s an episode centered around Morgan’s moral turmoil, the fault lines of his ethical stance, and that gives it power, in harmony with and apart from the glimpses of the path that led him here.
For a while now, the running line on The Walking Dead has been that the show is too bleak and too steeped in misery. The open-ended nature of the series, and thus the requirement for ever more adventures, means our heroes can never truly win. The abject state of the world has to continue. So for the plot to have any bite, people we care about have to keep dying; equilibrium can’t ever be established, and more problems and obstacles and losses have to pile up.
It’s understandable how the prospect of that continuing struggle wears on critics and viewers alike. Maybe I’m just jaded from years of post-apocalyptic fiction and other gritty works that allow me to take this sort of thing in stride. But I get it; the notion that this is simply the unending march of The Walking Dead, never to cease, with characters we like continually being picked off, could easily be too much for people.
But what I like about the show, what keeps me coming back (and, incidentally, what’s always underemphasized when this debate picks up again and again) is that The Walking Dead is also a show about what motivates people to go on in these circumstances. It’s about the emotions and connections that give the survivors something to fight for when there’s no institutions or societal expectations to force them to do it. It presents a world of outrageous freedom, one where people still choose to sacrifice and to love, where there is still joy and comfort regardless of whether the environment is hospitable to it.
I remember Tony Romo’s first real outing as the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback. It was October 23, 2006, in a game against the New York Giants, with Drew Bledsoe as the starter and Bill Parcells calling the shots. I was living in New York City, so I watched it surrounded by Giants fans in a friend’s dorm room. I was needled and ribbed with each of Dallas’s missteps, and there were more than a few.
It seems funny now, but there was a sentiment among the fandom that Bledsoe was a choke artist, someone whose late game screw-ups would inevitably doom the team. After a particularly rough interception from the veteran quarterback, one where Bledsoe himself seemed mystified and lonely in the aftermath, Parcells made the call. Out came Tony Romo in the second half — the unheralded, undrafted free agent sent in to save the day. Except he didn’t. Romo made a solid showing, but his own miscues and lack of polish quickly surfaced. Despite the switch, the Cowboys couldn’t pull out the victory.
Still, it marked a change, albeit one not quite so evident to Cowboys fans at the time. We didn’t realize that Romo would go on to quarterback the team for the next decade. Nevertheless, unbeknownst to most, it was the end of something and the beginning of another. The Cowboys had gone through signal callers like toilet paper in the bleak interregnum after Troy Aikman’s retirement, a period which saw a seemingly endless parade of also-rans and raw newcomers faltering in quick succession. But now there was hope, hope that maybe this new QB, who’d shown flashes of talent and good instincts, could be the guy to turn it all around.
Salutations is a surprise. After Ruminations (the 10-track album written and recorded by Conor Oberst in the cold confines of Omaha, Nebraska) came out last year, the news that a second album, with full-band arrangements of those same 10 songs plus seven more, would be released this year was an unexpected bonus. Featuring the contributions of The Felice Brothers and Jim Keltner, it promised a new treatment of some of Oberst’s most raw compositions. The result is a fulsome new release, markedly different from its 2016 cousin.
If nothing else, Salutations is a fascinating look at the changes that come from collaboration and evolution in a studio setting versus the isolation in which these songs were born. Instead of relying solely on piano, acoustic guitar, and harmonica, Oberst and company employ accordions, organs, strings (of both the orchestral and fiddle varieties), and ethereal sound collage elements to build up these tracks and give them a unique character.
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One of the questions The Walking Dead has interrogated from the very beginning is whether the end of the world and the ensuing social breakdown changes people, or whether it just reveals who they truly are. The show has often played around with the idea that the end of civilization and the lack of rules and order that otherwise keep people in line can forces those caught up in the unrest to become different in order to survive. But it also suggests that for others, the fall of society just gives them license to be who they were the whole time.
The centrality of that question in “Hostiles and Calamities” fuels the episode, a slower character piece, but also uses it to pay subtle tribute The Walking Dead’s network-mate. Breaking Bad. Fans of Vince Gilligan’s seminal drama know the significance of a character hanging onto a cigarette with a loved one’s lipstick still on it. We’re familiar with the notion of a former science teacher enjoying the spoils of war, formulating poisons, puffing himself up, and taking to his new role a little too easily. Most of all, Breaking Bad-watchers can appreciate the exploration of whether changed circumstances may change a person or if they simply let the beast out of the cage.
Growing up is hard enough. Figuring out who you are, figuring out the balance between what’s deep and held fast in your soul and what you’re willing to share with the world, is a difficult endeavor under the best of circumstances. Coupling that with the difficulties of living in a household of addiction, of a sexual preference that earns you added scorn, turns an already fraught journey into a cruel and unforgiving one.
Despite the harshness of these troubles, Moonlight finds the beauty forged within that crucible, the kindnesses large and small and the transcendent moments and connections, that give a sweet, put upon young boy something to hold onto as he becomes a man. Despite the aesthetic pleasures of Moonlight’s gorgeously-shot scenes, it is, at times, an ugly, dispiriting film, but ultimately a life-affirming one. It centers on the unique challenges of its protagonist, struggling to define himself, and finding his way among the pitfalls and small graces of growing up.
Realism is always going to be a tricky needle to thread for The Walking Dead. On the one hand, a big part of the show’s claim to fame is the way it takes the well-worn idea of the zombie apocalypse and plays it seriously, sometimes overly seriously. That’s in its DNA. On the other hand, it’s also a show where corpses come back to life, civilians can use weapons like pros with minimal training, and the undead recur in some new obstacle course-like form on a weekly basis. The very premise of the show means that The Walking Dead can’t exactly be as down-to-earth or grounded as its naturalistic aesthetic might suggest, and that’s simply part of the deal.
But sometimes, the series just pushes things too far. The Junkyardigans (my name for the collective that congregates at the dump, at least until an official one is offered) read as silly from the word go. Our heroes have run into plenty of colorful groups before — The Terminites, The Wolves, and the dibs-based biker gang come to mind — but they tend to read as pulpy rather than cheesy. It’s a fine distinction, to be sure, but the difference is that as wild as those groups could seem at times, their outsized characteristics seemed to fit into a certain exaggerated, over the top quality that’s present throughout the series. The Walking Dead isn’t just real; it’s hyper-real, and its more extreme villains and antagonists fit well enough within that atmosphere.