Being Human: ‘Eve of the War’ or Did they really manage to cram all of that into an hour? (S4, ep.1)

To say there have been a few changes around Honolulu Heights in the months since we left the supernatural houseshare at the end of Series 3 is a bit of an understatement. Aiden Turner being recruited by Peter Jackson for The Hobbit signalled the end for vampire Mitchell in last year’s tearjerker finale, and Sinead Keenan threw another curveball by deciding not to reprise her role as Nina. To make matters even more dicey Russell Tovey revealed that George would also be making his last appearance during Series 4. So with 3 of the 4 original cast members either gone or with one foot out of the door, werewolf Tom (Michael Socha) being bumped up to main cast and newcomer Hal (Damian Molony) taking the resident vampire spot, can the show really continue unscathed and even build upon what’s gone before? I guess we we’re about to find out….

What happened…

It’s incredibly hard to know where to start with such a jam-packed hour of telly, so I guess the beginning is as good a place as any. Straight away we’re plunged into a dystopian London in 2037 where Orwellian billboards implore it’s inhabitants to ‘Obey’ and the resistance have literally gone underground. We soon find out that New York has fallen via an intercepted radio transmitter and that “The Earth belongs to the Vampires” as the rebel’s female leader listens understandably perturbed. If there was any time for the EastEnders ‘duff duffs’…

Meanwhile we jump back to present day Cardiff where Tom has managed to get himself a job in the local café (see prequel above) and is straight away back to his old vampire killing ways, staking a couple of twin Japanese crucifix avoiders who’d literally latched onto young impressionable teen, Dewi, whilst looking like they’d just attended a Tarantino convention. Back at the house a red-eyed and clearly distraught George is guarding his still nameless daughter in the attic room that Herrick frequented last series, stake in hand, refusing to let her out of his sight when Annie asks him to take the baby out for a walk to get some fresh air: “Nina left. Nina died. So like I said she doesn’t leave this room.” Later it becomes evident that she’d been brutally beaten to death at the bequest of chief vampire/police officer Griffin, who’s now seeking to capture the first offspring of two werewolves and present her as a gift to the ‘Old Ones’, the vampiric elite who are due imminently to enact their plans for world domination and who he’s due to meet off the coast of Sierra Leone in 2 weeks. In the ironically named ‘Stoker Imports & Exports’, a business which is basically a front for all sorts of vampiric naughtiness, we also meet Cutler who seems resistant to The Powers That Be’s unsubtle plans to enslave mankind: “Before you reach the first major city they’ll have raised an army. On twitter.” Instead he wants to offer humanity a much worse a proposition and sets about entrapping George and Tom in a lock-up during a full moon so he can film their horrific transformation, probably in order to use it as a PR tool to make humans accept their enslavement in a much less messy manner. Clearly Andrew Gower’s character will be a key player throughout this series.

Taking advantage of their incarceration, a social worker and another member of the vampire/police brigade are sent over to the house to intercept the baby from Annie when ‘a neighbour’ complains about her being left in the house alone crying. The fact that her father had left a pet carrier for her to be put into in case she shared her parent’s curse doesn’t help matters, and the social worker insists that Baby Sands should be removed as her ghostly guardian looks on powerless, only for her herself to be murdered in the back of the police car and George’s daughter to be taken to the warehouse where the vampires will see for themselves if she too transforms once a month. The trouble is she doesn’t. The werewolf genes of both her parents seem to have cancelled each other out and left her ‘appearing’ to be just a normal baby, which leaves Griffin with a dilemma about who he’s going to present to the Old Ones. The answer is of course George to whom he offers the safety of his child, in return for him sacrificing himself. The plot thickens however when ‘vampire recorder’ Regus digs out 2 parts of the ‘Human Skin Trinity’, complete with nipple, and foretells that the ‘Human Child of the Moon’ will in fact bring about the death of all vampires. Naturally Griffin isn’t too happy and decides the best course of action will be to kill the baby. Not wishing to mess around with Fate, Regus decides to make up a special, long-winded and increasingly ludicrous ritual to do so, which stalls for time and gives George the opportunity to trick his body into ‘half-transforming’ just as Tom and Annie arrive as backup. But as with all great feats there are consequences. After he’s avenged Nina and seen that his daughter is safe by killing Griffin, forcing him to drink his toxic blood, Regus tells them that by bringing about the ‘half-change’ his body won’t heal in the same way it usually does and that he’s effectively going into multiple organ failure.  In a tearful goodbye he names his daughter Eve and entrusts her into Annie and Tom’s safe-keeping and then goes through his door to be with ‘his Nina’. And another one bites the dust…

In a slight change of pace the episode is interwoven with glimpses of new vampire on the block Hal, who we first see having his hair cut by friend, Leo, a werewolf he’s known since the 1950’s (see prequel below) and who is also weakening in his old age as a result of the monthly transformations. Fellow housemate and ghost, Pearl, tethers Leo to his bed as the full moon approaches, refusing to accept that this could be the old man’s last lupine transformation, but is implored to listen by her elderly friend who tells both her and Hal that they “were on the outside of humanity so we could guard it”, a definite callback to the original premise of the show. In these short scenes the seeds are sown for their cosy supernatural set-up being jeopardised for good.

As ‘Eve of the War’ comes to a close we’re brought back to the future with the young rebel leader having secured the third piece of the ‘Human Skin Trinity’, and evidently realising her place in assuring the safety of humanity. Inexplicably donning a druidesque dress she asks one of her subordinates to help her fulfil her duty and sacrifices herself so that she too can summon her own door and enter Purgatory in order to “kill the baby”. This leaves us with 2 questions. Is she in fact Eve, George and Nina’s daughter all grown up? And will she be the only person ever to successfully kill herself twice? Time will tell…

The Verdict…
I genuinely don’t know what to think about this opening gambit for series 4. Whilst I  applaud the breadth of new mythology Toby Whithouse introduced here, I do fear that he might be moving away from the insular quirkiness that set Being Human apart from your average supernatural fare. It’s certainly a brave move that might have been spurred on by the revolving door of actors over the last 12 months, but whether or not it’s foolhardy we’ll soon be able to tell in the next few weeks. For me introducing the idea of ‘Fate’ and ‘Destiny’ so soon after dismissing it at the end of Series 3 when the ‘Wolf-shaped bullet’ turned out to be nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy for Mitchell is problematic, and suggests that they’ve dropped the ball a little in relation to the overarching ideology of the show which has always advocated that it’s main characters have the ‘Free Will’ to not fall prey to their baser instincts. I’m not too thrilled about the possibility of Purgo-time travel either, which doesn’t really seem to gel with what the show was originally about, but I guess if it’s done well I can live with it.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy anything about this episode. The ‘pet carrier’ joke had me in stitches and was one of a number of funny moments that lightened the tone in what was undeniably an emotionally draining and plot heavy episode. With regards to performances, whilst I’m not sure Michael Socha has settled into his role yet, or indeed if Leonora Crichlow is getting the material worthy of her talent now that she’s front and centre, Russell Tovey’s swansong was superb. It’s been a pleasure to watch him play the super intelligent, but socially inept werewolf over the past 3 years and he will be missed. I’m also excited by what Damian Moloney could bring to the table with Hal. Within a minute or so I realised he had an impressive screen presence, and the scene in the barber shop with Leo and the discussion about Superman’s hair was probably my favourite after George saying his goodbyes. I’m intrigued to see how he’ll integrate into the house in Cardiff and how his issues with his own curse differ from Mitchell’s. We’ve already glimpsed him perhaps suffering a form of OCD by the way he straightened his friend’s hairdressing tools in the barber shop. I envisage lots of scenes where Annie is endlessly making cups of teas and he’s endlessly forcing coasters on everyone and cleaning up after them.

At the moment it feels like Being Human is stood on the edge of a cliff. Either it will sprout wings, fly and improve upon what’s gone before, or it’ll trip itself up and crash and burn. I sincerely hope it’s the former.

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My Top Ten TV Dramas of 2011 (& More!)

So it’s that time of year when these list things start popping up left, right and centre and who am I to miss out on all of the fun?! Therefore, without further ado, here’s my list of the TV dramas that got me excited in 2011, along with the ones that, well… didn’t.

Disclaimer:
It’s not exhaustive because I am but one human being who is incapable of watching everything. It’s also subjective for I am but one woman with an opinion on almost everything that I accept may or may not gel with everybody else’s, so no virtual rocks please….

1. Breaking Bad

Walt (left), Gus (centre) and Jesse (right)

It’s hard to know what to say about this show without sounding like I’m gushing, so I’ll just go right ahead and gush away. Like a couple of other shows on this list I was barely aware of Breaking Bad before I stumbled across it this year and like it’s subject matter it is highly addictive and possibly bad for your health. Deservedly so Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White, an under appreciated high school teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to ‘cook’ crystal meth, along with former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), in order to leave his wife and son money after his death, has garnered a number of plaudits from award-givers and critics alike. With taut storylines, robust scripts and stellar performances from the entire cast, Vince Gilligan’s creation is one of those rare gems that genuinely does get better with each outing and after the ‘explosive’ season 4 finale, the fifth and final season is almost certain not to disappoint.

2. Black Mirror

Princess Susannah from 'The National Anthem'

 On paper a Prime Minister being bullied by the public into having sex with a pig on live TV (‘The National Anthem’), a young man living and loving in a dystopian future run by porn moguls and Simon Cowell clones (‘Fifteen Million Merits’), and a lawyer with an implant allowing him to replay every minuscule detail of his life (‘The Entire History of You’) may not seem like palatable viewing, and in reality the same is also true. However this was very much the point of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, which was billed as an exploration of the darker side of technology and the media. In terms of subject matter these 3 stand-alone dramas could easily have spawned movie-length features, but still in the time available the writers managed to produce thought-provoking, high-concept dramas, that unashamedly sought to create a debate about the possible pitfalls of our reliance on our TVs, Smartphones and laptops. This coupled with stand-out performances from Rory Kinnear, Daniel Kaluuya and Tony Kebble made Black Mirror compelling  to watch, even if it was at times from behind your fingers .

3. Boardwalk Empire

Nucky Thompson

I must admit when I first started watching Boardwalk Empire it did feel a little like wading through treacle, but mid-way through the first season it found it’s stride and hasn’t looked back since. Set in Atlantic City during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ the action centres around Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his vacillating grip on the more dubious activities and proclivities on offer there, including bootlegging and prostitution. Much has been made of Buscemi being miscast here, but those who don’t think him imposing enough to pull off the part miss the genius of casting someone who comes across physically as the ‘runt of the litter’, and is forced to scheme his way to the top and stay there. With flawless direction, beautifully complex characterisation and exploration of the intertwining relationships in their 1920’s context, as well as stellar performances from the entire cast (especially from Jack Huston as the physically and mentally war-ravaged Richard Harrow), Boardwalk Empire has slowly, but surely become unmissable for me.

4. In Treatment

 

Dr Paul Weston

In Treatment was another show that I only discovered this year, and after finishing in the US in 2010 the third and final season was finally picked up by Sky Atlantic this year. Set initially in Baltimore and then in Brooklyn in the latter two seasons, the show was based on it’s Israeli counterpart BeTipul, and charted psychotherapist Dr Paul Weston’s (Gabriel Byrne) struggles with his family, his patients and his profession. Watching each half hour episode encompassing one session with each of Paul’s patients and then his own therapist at the end of the week was a lot like watching a ball of wool being slowly, and artfully unravelled. Often moving, thought-provoking, highly intelligent and at times infuriating, this drama was a welcome and understated change of pace to a lot of shows I currently watch. It will definitely be missed.

5. Luther

DCI John Luther

 After finishing the first series with DCI Luther (Idris Elba) in an almost impossible situation as Nina Simone’s ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ played in the background, it seemed hard to believe that another outing could match the almost theatrical intensity in an innovative reworking of a rather clichéd format, but that it did. Is Luther over-the-top? Of course it is, but that’s part of it’s beauty. With yet more unhinged serial killers for the brilliant, yet utterly flawed detective to outwit and ensnare my only two problems with the second series were that a. its second run was pitifully short at only 4 episodes and b. there was far too little of Luther’s very own ‘bespoke psychopath’ and (sort of) love interest, the deliciously twisted Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). Luckily Luther will be back for a third series, but it’s looking increasingly likely that this will be its last.

6. Being Human (UK)

(Left to right) George, Nina, Mitchell and Annie

 Being Human is pretty much the jewel in the crown of BBC Three’s programming and with good reason. Over the past three years it’s been great to watch George (Russell Tovey), the intelligent but socially inept werewolf, Mitchell (Aiden Turner), the vampire much troubled by his blood-sucking addiction and Annie (Leonora Crichlow), the ditsy but loveable ghost try to maintain their humanity, despite circumstance, the supernatural and human beings themselves conspiring against them and in my humble opinion series 3 was its best foray to date. Without giving too much away we saw an apt and moving resolution to Mitchell’s narrative arc, including his love/hate relationship with his former mentor and über-vampire Herrick (Jason Watkins), and his past unceremoniously coming to bite him on the backside. Now that Turner has left the show it is hard to imagine that the dynamic between the characters won’t suffer, but I’m willing to bet that the brilliantly quirky Toby Whithouse has some tricks up his sleeve.

 7. Game of Thrones

Ned Stark

Game of Thrones was yet another HBO drama that I found slow to start with, but soon picked up as the pieces fell into place and the actors seemingly settled into their characters. Set in the mythical land of Westeros the first season pitted the Starks, headed up by patriarch Eddard (Sean Bean), against the Lannisters who are posturing for the crown as Robert Baratheon’s (Mark Addy) hold on it looks increasingly shaky. There are other threats too in the shape of the Targaryen siblings who also have a claim to the throne, and the mysterious deadly creatures behind ‘The Wall’ in the North; all of this as the decidedly ominous-sounding ‘Winter’ seems set to plague the Kingdom for an untold number of years. The scope of this series is truly breath-taking, the performances from the cast are almost without exception pitch-perfect and so Game of Thrones looks set to become a modern classic.

8. The Fades

Paul

 There’s no getting round the fact that when I saw the ads for The Fades it did look fairly ridiculous. Luckily I soon got over that and tuned into what was probably the nicest televisual surprise for me this year. Paul (Iain De Caestecker) is a 17 year old boy who wets the bed and has apocalyptic nightmares. See what I mean? But no, this show genuinely a bit of a sleeper, it’s heart being the quirky friendship the young boy has with his best friend, the sci-fi loving Mac, who has to come to terms with the fact his mate is unknowingly a member of ‘The Angelic’, a group who have skills which include being able to see the souls of the dead who aren’t able to pass over. Now that these souls (or ‘fades’) have found a rather sinister way to become flesh and blood again under extra creepy Polus’ (Ian Hanmore) direction, it seems like Paul is the only one to stand between him and world domination… Surprisingly complex in its moral stance The Fades is definitely one to watch and hopefully will be recommissioned.

 9. Doctor Who

The Eleventh Doctor

People who know my love for Steven Moffat won’t be surprised to see the sixth series of Doctor Who making the cut. There were a couple of dud episodes in this split series, (namely ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ and ‘The Rebel Flesh’), but this was more than made up for by the likes of the frankly quite scary ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and the undeniably clever ‘The God Complex’, in a run which saw a number of questions answered including who the Doctor’s wife is. Whilst criticism has been levelled at the showrunner for making this family show too cerebral, I for one am glad that Moffat refuses to underestimate his audience and with Matt Smith continuing to portray a simultaneously knowing and delightfully childlike Eleventh Doctor, I’ll keep tuning in until they see fit to stop.

10. Damages

Patty Hewes (left) and Ellen Parsons (right)

The decision to set season 4 two years after where season 3 left off seemed to be a good one for the Damages writers after the cliffhanger of Tom Shayes’ (Tate Donavan) death, and the explosion of antagony between ruthless lawyer Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and her son, Michael. The main focus of this show though has always been the complicated relationship between Patty and her one time protege, Ellen Parsons(Rose Byrne). This outing offered a return to this complex dynamic by means of a case which Ellen wishes to bring against security contractors High Star, who conducted an illegal mission in Afghanistan, and for which she reluctantly enlists Patty’s help. Not only is it great to see a show with two unrelenting female leads, whilst Close offers obvious gravitas, it’s great to witness Byrne having grown into the role and her become a plausible foil for Hewes. Season 4 was at times edge of the seat TV, with it’s pretty scathing attack on the US governments reliance on security firms and their consequent sway on the political landscape, which left me chomping at the bit for the ultimate showdown between Patty and Ellen in the final season next year.

Biggest Disappointments…

House shortly before he "jumped the shark"

 For me the biggest disappointment of 2011 had to be the 7th season of House. Launching into a relationship between the male and female leads is definitely dangerous territory for any show, but it did seem possible that an exploration of an unconventional pairing between House (Hugh Laurie) and his boss/love interest Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) could add another string to the show’s bow. Sadly the writers floundered and flapped about for most of the season as they tried to figure out what to do with the hand they’d dealt themselves, finally settling on a half-baked break-up followed by House crashing his car into his Ex’s home, the execution of which being as idiotic as it was offensive. I’d like to think we’ve moved away from Hollywood portraying the level that someone cares about/loves another individual being equivocal to the amount of damage they are prepared to do to them (physically and/or mentally) or their property. Sadly this and the responses of those who were responsible for it seem to prove otherwise. The showrunner, David Shore, maintains that his protagonist will never change, yet ironically the more House refuses to learn from his mistakes, the more he becomes less of a compelling character, devolving steadily from flawed genius to pathetic loser. A great shame for a show that once thoroughly deserved all the plaudits it received and its bumper ratings.

Torchwood: (Left to Right) Rex, Gwen and Captain Jack

Other let-downs included the mildly ridiculous Outcasts, with it’s troop of futuristic settlers on Carpathia, waiting for a spaceship from Earth like a bus that promises to take you into town before the shops close, but has most probably broken down, whilst mysterious winds picked them up and flung them around aimlessly. Alas the ship never came and neither did the excitement. Similarly Torchwood: Miracle Day believed its own hype when sadly it was relying on clunky dialogue and what appeared to be a suped-up Dyson cleaner crossed with an ‘über vagina’ cameoing as ‘The Blessing’, which gave every human on the planet immortality. The American version of The Killing also failed to engage, despite more than competent performances from Mireille Enos and Michelle Forbes.

Shows I’m looking forward to in 2012…

Holmes (left) and Watson (right)

Finally, finally, finally Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ brainchild, the up-to-date Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson respectively, is bringing in the New Year in style, hopefully resolving the showdown cliffhanger at the end of the first series between the two leads and the deliciously demented Moriarty in good fashion. With series 2 looking set to delve into versions of Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and ‘The Final Problem’ it seems hard to imagine two self-confessed Sherlock Holmes fans not doing them justice, especially if their first outing is anything to go by.

Don Draper

Another show which has insisted on making me wait, and nearly driven me mental in the process, is the brilliant Mad Men which left us at the end of season 4 with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) engaged to his secretary, just as his complicated friendship with Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) deepened, and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) keeping the secret that the baby she was carrying was in fact her boss and former lover interest, Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) and not her husband’s. Matthew Weiner’s show is singularly excellent in that, in terms of action, very little happens and yet utterly convincing performances from all of the cast and exquisite scripts make it unmissable television. Other American shows I’m looking forward to include the third season of the always solid court procedural/family drama The Good Wife, which I’m currently working my way through and relishing the thought of guest stars including Eddie Izzard, Parker Posey and Lisa Edelstein, along with returns from Michael J. Fox and Dylan Baker. Regarding new shows the high-concept Awake, fronted by Jason Isaacs, about the aftermath of a car crash where the protagonist flits between one reality where his wife died and another where his son was killed has piqued my interest; as has thriller Homeland, a vehicle for Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, which appears to be garnering critical acclaim from all angles.


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Black Mirror: ‘The Entire History of You’: Grains Before Brains

This week Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It) stepped up to the helm to write the third and final installment of Black Mirror, ‘The Entire History of You’, a dark and disturbing exploration of what it would be like if technology was literally plugged into us rather than vice versa, and the pitfalls of being able to evaluate every aspect of your life over and over again.

The Concept…

At some point in the not too distant future most people have a ‘Grain’ implanted behind their ear at birth, a small device which records and saves everything people see and hear during the course of their day, and which is powered by a small key fob that also holds their personal details and acts as a virtual credit card. Aside from being ‘useful’ for officials such as airport security to check that individuals haven’t been up to anything dubious, initially it’s a means for parents to check that their children haven’t been subjected to anything harmful in their absence, and then allows adults to re-evaluate or ‘re-do’ events they’ve experienced by wirelessly hooking up their memory bank to contact lenses in their eyes and/or TV screens. But what happens if this implant is coupled with someone who is naturally obsessive? Do they control the ‘grain’ or does the ‘grain’ control them?

What happened…
Where we come in Liam Foxwell (Tony Kebble) is having an evaluation at the law firm where he works, which we can tell is a highly stressful environment owing to the tally of successful cases which keeps on ticking over behind his head and the line of questioning from the professional, but smug panel that are interviewing him and coming out with intimadatory and ultimately bullshit, ‘office speak’ idioms like “Shit sinks, cream floats.” After the appraisal is rescheduled for next week Liam gets in the back of the taxi and makes use of the screen there to ‘Re-do’ the afternoon’s events and try to divine how the panel gauged his performance, zooming into their facial expressions for any indication of which way they’re leaning, all of which is an indication of his obsessive personality and a portent of what’s to come.

Going straight from work Liam heads to a friend’s house to meet his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) at the dinner party there. On his arrival he instantly notices and becomes suspicious of her closeness to another man, Jonas, (Tom Cullen) who she claims is just an old friend, and how her body language changes as soon as she notices him there. Over the course of the meal he becomes increasingly uneasy with Jonas’ attitude to women and relationships (this is a guy who’s “only faithful to his cornflakes” and openly admits to ‘re-doing’ times he’s had sex with former girlfriends, whilst his current girlfriend is in bed alone upstairs) and Ffi’s favourable reaction to his jokes. The conversation then moves onto their friend Hallam, who had her ‘grain’ gouged out of her neck to order, probably on behalf of a “millionaire Chinese perve” who would have used the unencrypted data from her implant to get his rocks off. For the rest of the guests she’s a curiosity, much like the only person at the party who doesn’t have a Smartphone and has never even heard of Angry Birds, and she admits that she quite likes not having one to the incredulity of those around her, explaining that not only is going ‘Grainless’ understandably “huge with hookers” who’d rather not store the memories of their time with clients, the devices aren’t actually that reliable anyway because “half the organic memories you have are junk” and that false memories can easily be implanted. This all serves to make us question if the protagonist has a right to be jealous, when for all we know he could be an unreliable narrator.

On the way home the couple start to go over Liam’s appraisal again, but the conversation soon turns to Jonas and eventually a full-blown argument later when they get home and Ffi reveals that she and he had a holiday romance that had gone on longer than she’d previously told her husband, which further sow the seeds of doubt about her faithfulness in his mind, something which they’ve evidently had problems with in the past in relation to someone called Dan. The argument itself does throw up some issues regarding the editing of their memories when used as a means to back up something they’ve said. Even the most inconspicuous sentence can be made to sound much worse when it’s removed from it’s context, and for a lawyer that’s just another tool of his trade when trying to incriminate someone. This illusion of a healthy relationship crumbles furthermore when we cut to them having sex, and both have resorted to replaying previous occasions to provide the stimulus to get them through the act. Additionally Ffi’s interactions with Jonas were evidently still bothering him so he gets up in the middle of the night and goes downstairs to replay what he saw when he first saw them together and then their interplay at the dining table, managing to hone in on what his wife said to her former lover when he first walked in; “I was nervous when I heard you were going to be here” which he obviously interprets as indication that something has been going on between them.

By morning Liam is involving the babysitter, playing back some of what was said the night before, and asking if she finds the ‘cornflake’ joke funny, whilst at the same time letting her be party to his and Ffi’s ‘joke’ about their “pedophile babysitter”, tellingly indicating that his judgement is skewed and all too ready to see the splinter in everybody else’s eye and not the great big whopping plank in his own. Finally sitting his wife down they row again and he asks her to explain why she seems to so comfortable in Jonas’ presence and so cagey in his. This argument also forces her to admit that she’d been with ‘Marrakesh Man’ for 6 months, rather than the week and then month she’d confessed to on previous occasions, but she urges him to “sober up, make yourself puke. I don’t care. Just sort yourself out.” Taking this as his cue, Liam drives to Jonas’ house, let’s himself in more or less uninvited, asks him if this is where he masturbates to images of his wife and assaults him with a vodka bottle before demanding Jonas delete every memory he has of his wife “Or I will crack your skull and I will gouge your fucking neck.”

The true horror of what he’s done isn’t apparent until he wakes up with his head against the steering wheel having somehow managed to drive his car into a field and ‘re-does’ what happened. Going back home he confronts Ffi who’s still in bed and asks her if he really is their son Jody’s father. She maintains he is, but Liam reveals he noticed a shot of her with the painting that’s hanging on their bedroom wall in one of the scrolling menus Jonas brought up before he deleted her folder. Because he’d only bought it for her 18 months previously, this means she had to have had an affair whilst they were together: “You know when you suspect something. It’s always better when it turns out to be true. It’s like I’ve had a bad tooth for years and I’m just finally getting my tongue in there and I’m digging out all the rotten shit.” Finally Ffi cracks and explains that she did sleep with Jonas when she was drunk one night, but it was during the 5 days Liam was out of the house when they’d been arguing about Dan. Pushing the issue even further he asks if she made him wear a condom, and when she quickly insists he did, he asks to see evidence. All too quickly his wife says she’s deleted the memory, but he sees through it and all but forces her to ‘re-do’ the night she cheated on him in an agonizing scene, which clearly spells the end of their marriage.

In the final scenes we see edited images of their once, at least superficially, idyllic marriage with their son from the protagonist’s perspective, as he tortures himself through ‘re-dos’, which are interspersed with cuts to his lonely reality in a now utterly dysfunctional household. Solitary and adrift he feels his only option is to literally ‘cut out the rot’ and in the last few shots we see him taking a razor blade to the area just behind the ear and gouging out his implant.

"It's like I've had a bad tooth for years and I'm just finally getting my tongue in there, and I'm digging out all the rotten shit."

The Verdict…
I have to be honest. For me ‘The Entire History of You’ was the weakest episode of Black MirrorMy main problem was that there wasn’t the same light and dark that there was with ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, i.e. tonally it lacked the vacillation between humour and drama that was present in Brooker’s scripts, and in my opinion that made it slightly less compelling as a piece of satire. Consequently the lead characters in their unrelenting misery just weren’t as sympathetic as those especially in last week’s episode. It is a minor grumble though really and there certainly was a lot of ‘meat’ to this installment.

The idea that one day we may stop relying on our own memories and come to rely implicitly on an a bionic memory bank that literally becomes part of us from birth is an interesting and potentially frightening one. The advert that Liam watches in the back of the cab selling ‘grains’ under the slogan ‘Memory is for living’ proposes a dystopic future where people are constantly living in the past, rather than looking to the here and now or even the future. It all seems like some sort of a distraction. People forced to endlessly navel gaze and evaluate their lives, whilst life is going on about them, which bears a striking resemblance to people’s preoccupation with social networking sites today. I really would have liked to have seen the wider public repercussions, rather than just the personal impact of these devices had their been more time. Too little was made of the airport style check-in and it’s wider implications, but I’m guessing this was down to hour time. Would people without ‘grains’ not be allowed in the country for fear that they might be terrorists? Would Liam removing his device affect his employability? After all a literally photographic memory would be advantageous to a firm, and in a sense he was rendering himself a sort of outcast.

There was also the sense that what the device does to people, directly or indirectly, is dehumanizes them and forces them to disconnect with other people, relying on ‘hard evidence’ rather than placing their trust in someone else. This lack of trust, even if it is misplaced, really does seem dangerous and apparently forces people to do rash things, and even ruin their lives. When Liam says to Ffi “This isn’t me. Look at what you’re doing to me” he might as well be talking to his ‘grain’ as speaking to her, because as much as he seems to almost revel in finally knowing that his wife did cheat on him and that his son might not be his, the very last scene where he cuts the device from himself seems to imply that ignorance is indeed bliss, and that our natural ability to repress certain things we see is actually a help rather than a hindrance.

All in all Black Mirror has been a great, if all too short, addition to our schedules and I’d really like to see a second series commissioned.  So Channel Four you know what you have to do!

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Black Mirror: ‘Fifteen Million Merits’: Love in the Age of Lame Fame

This week Charlie Brooker and his wife/co-writer Konnie Huq explore the dark side of ‘instant fame’ in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, yet again managing to up the ante in an engaging and visually stunning drama that surely has to be amongst the best television of the year.

The Concept…

In an alternate, dystopic Universe people spend their days peddling away on exercise bikes to power the oppressive screens they are forced to watch and in order to earn merits, which they spend on food, virtual clothes and hairstyles for their avatar ‘doppels’, as well as the opportunity to enter Hot Shot, a talent show clearly loosely modeled on the likes of The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, which appears to offer them a way out of their mundane lives as glorified beach donkeys, or does it?

What happened…
In the opening scene we’re introduced to Bing Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya) in his cell-like bedroom, surrounded by floor to ceiling interactive screens that we straight away realize shape and dictate how he lives his life. From the avatar cockerel that wakes him up in a morning and the incessant reminder of how many ‘merits’ he’s earned to date, to the garish porn screen that seemingly pops up at every opportune moment demanding to be taken notice of. Evidently the protagonist’s life is filled with information that seeks to engage and distract him, and yet as he wanders to his bike amongst his fellow ‘cyclists’ it’s patently obvious that Bing is withdrawn from his surroundings, in stark contrast to Dustin, his gung-ho neighbour who clearly revels in the foray of cruel, infantile programmes such as Botherguts where fat people (who are singled out by wearing lemon and forced to do menial labour) have various things chucked at them for ‘slacking’, and the parade of ‘nasty girls’ on offer for his visual consumption on Judge Wraith’s compulsory porn channel. Despite this, Bing does have somewhat of an ally in the shy girl three bikes down from him,- Swift, who is clearly romantically interested in him, but also shares his disillusion with their world’s lack of tangibility and authenticity, handing him his packaged apple from the vending machine and remarking, “Almost the only real thing here and that’s grown in a petri dish.”

It is however Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) who catches his attention when he overhears her singing in the unisex toilets, and who he pursues to tell her how special and unique her talent is, offering to gift her the fifteen million merits it would cost to buy a ticket to audition for Hot Shots, which were in turn gifted to him by his brother who essentially pedalled himself to death. With the ominous and jaw-dropping backdrop of thousands of pedalling rooms behind them, Bing urges Abi to accept the merits in an attempt to get both her talent recognised and to alleviate the mundanity of his own life: “You have somthing real… I look around here and I just want something real to happen.” Accepting his gift they cheerfully go along to the auditions and are both branded rather painfully like cattle with the show’s logo on their hands, before being to taking to what resembles a holding pen for prospective contestants, some of whom have already been waiting there for a week. Jumping the queue Abi is lead to the stage, but not before she’s implored to drink a carton of ‘Compliance’, which not only spaces her out, but also appears to be the Ronseal of beverages as exemplified by her resulting deference and eagerness to please the ironically named Judge Wraith (Ashley Thomas), Judge Hope (Rupert Everett) and Judge Charity (Julia Davis).

The audition itself, after a hesitant start, is beautiful with Abi giving a heartfelt rendition of Irma Thomas’ ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is’, but the judges’ reaction and her subsequent fate is fairly horrific and heart-breaking. Judge Hope, looking like George Michael and sounding like Simon Cowell, whilst complimenting her voice, believes that her beauty will be too distracting for her to be taken seriously. Taking that a step further Judge Wraith is more interested in her lifting her top up and parading her breasts than her vocal talent, which spurs him on to offer her a place on his porn channel instructing her to “Forget about shame. We medicate against it” and offering “pleasure forever” as a horrified Bing looks on from the wings and is eventually bundled away by the crew. Still unsure of what to do Judge Hope proceeds to guilt trip her into considering the ‘opportunity’ she’s been given by pointing out the spotlight she’s now standing in is powered by people peddling who’d probably never get the chance that she just has, and is aided in his emotional blackmail by the mob audience made up of ‘doppels’, each one representing a real person who collectively urge her to “Do It!” until her resolve breaks and she accepts a life of drug-induced haziness and sexual slavery.

A little while later a distraught Bing is forced to watch a stoned Abi’s ‘debut’, where zombie-like she states, “It’s a dream. I get to live in a beautiful place and wear lots of beautiful things. It’s a dream.” Unable to swipe away the stream and incur a penalty, or even close his eyes because his merits were depleted when he unwittingly pushed her towards her awful fate, he smashes himself into the screen and attempts to use a shard of glass to cut out the logo stamp that still remains on his hand, before deciding on a better course of action: to enter himself into the show and get some sort of revenge. Finally after months of stock-piling his merits by incessantly peddling and living off other people’s leftovers, and working on an at least passable dance routine, he eventually has the 15 million he needs to buy his entry ticket and tucking the shard of glass into his waistband makes the same journey he did earlier with Abi, intently standing in the same waiting room and then making his way onto the stage to face the same judges. To the initial bemusement of those watching Bing does begin to perform the routine, but soon stops, pulls the glass from his waistband and holding it to his throat threatens to kill himself  if he isn’t listened to properly, demanding they show emotion “like you’re feeling, not just processing.” In a scathing attack on their society he berates the judges for seeing “fodder” and not real “people” and for encouraging a system where people laugh themselves “feral” at so-called slackers because “We’re so out of our minds in desperation, we don’t know any better.” He goes on to undermine everyone’s preoccupation with “buying shit… shit that’s not even there” and the “meaningless series of lights” that envelop them all “while we ride day in, day out. Going where? Powering what?… Boils down to fuck you all!… Fuck you for happening!” After his speech there’s a pregnant pause, but it’s broken by Judge Hope unexpectedly praising Bing’s diatribe as “The most heartfelt thing I’ve seen since Hot Shot began” and offering him a 30 minute slot on one of his streams twice a week. Mirroring the scene with Abi, yet again the avatar audience urge the protagonist to “Do it!” The choice is either death or fame, of sorts.

Cut to the final scenes, and in the peddling room it appears to be business as usual, except that Bing’s bike is now being used by someone else. It’s only when one of them channel hops through the streams that we realize he took Judge Hope up on his offer, and has become like one of the Pastors on the God Channel, waxing lyrical about the injustices of their society with great vigour and conviction: “The only thing stopping me from slashing myself open right now is I might not die right away and they’d find a way to charge my twitching, half-dead cadaver 20,000 merits for swabbing the walls clean.” He is, however, there for novelty value and is evidently perceived to be little better than the lemon-clad slackers, who are pointed and laughed at. Despite his lucidity, he can’t be taken seriously by a collective unable and/or unwilling to think for itself, effectively rendering Bing ‘the prophet without honour amongst his own people’. His new fame may have afforded him a better quality of life in a new spacious apartment, where his bike isn’t an extension of his being, but as he stands looking out onto picturesque scenery (it’s unclear whether this is a window onto the ‘real world’ or a convincing CGI replica of it), it’s seems obvious that even though the cell may be bigger and less oppressive, he’s still a prisoner to his environment.

The Verdict…
Just how good ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is hit me in waves. It actually made me giddy, which was surprising considering the rather bleak subject matter, but it’s genuinely exciting to see high-concept drama with such depth and so many layers on a British terrestrial channel.  Of course the idea of a dystopic society where those in power seek to control and utilize people through chemicals and various media is nothing particularly new. Huxley and Orwell were already there in the 1930’s and 40’s respectively, and there are echoes from their novels in Brooker and Huq’s work. ‘Compliance’ has a similar stupefying effect on the people who consume it here just as ‘Soma’ does on the characters in Brave New World. Likewise Bing hearing Abi sing for the first time is incredibly reminiscent of Winston Smith hearing the prole washer woman singing an old lullaby in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and both represent the perils of ignoring our pasts and constantly ploughing forward, not taking the time to reflect on our humanity and the value of the relationships we forge, which is why the continuous peddling is such an apt metaphor. There is no time for stasis, for quiet contemplation or reflection because the constant influx of information and distractions through their screens, that won’t even accept them closing their eyes, doesn’t allow it.

For those living in this particular dystopia ‘I Have a Dream’ is their aspirational theme tune, part of a ‘dream’ which involves accumulating things of monetary worth as exemplified by Selma Telse the last Hot Shot winner, who is practically deified because of her own worth as a commodity: “I love gold. I feel like it really expresses who I am.” But for most this ‘dream’ is as achievable as Joe Average winning the 100 metres final at the Olympics, no matter how much they’re encouraged to grasp at the carrot dangling before their eyes. The cruel reality of a system that defines a person’s worth in relation to their commercial prospects is demonstrated through the pushy girl who spends months waiting to audition for the show, but after an admittedly bad preview, is told by Judge Charity she’s “fundamentally unlikeable and really quite worthless”, and is probably sent back to a life of physical drudgery on the bikes, her ‘dream’ in tatters and her ‘destiny’ taking a completely different route to the one she anticipated. This pursuit of a life with ‘beautiful things’ away from the monotony of the everyday deflects focus from things of true worth, such as the origami penguins that Abi makes out of food wrappers and her rendition of an ‘old song’, which whilst in monetary terms are pretty much worthless, represent a more authentic mode of self-expression and a means to forge a real connection with Bing. This is in stark relief to the relationships they have with their ‘doppels’, who they spend their lives buying things for, but who ultimately aren’t tangible, and therefore really aren’t that important, no matter how much emphasis their society places on them. Working yourself to death to provide for what is effectively your imaginary twin is as ridiculous as it is insane, yet when certain behaviours are normalised they become as natural and apparently necessary as taking a breath of air. This is the warning at the heart of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’.

On my first viewing it appeared that by taking up Judge Hope’s offer Bing had completely sold out, because what a corrupt hierarchy can’t control, it validates, assimilates and waters down. Swift’s disgusted reaction to his stream seemed to back this up, but realistically what other option did he have? Killing himself would have achieved nothing, and whilst he has become a legitimized part of the system, his voice is still a dissenting one, which is massively important. Even if nobody is currently taking what he has to say seriously, one day there is a chance, however small, that his words will resonate with someone in the same way that Abi’s song did with him and that they too will wake up from their stupor and make a stand. Bing isn’t Selma in spite of his new found fame. The things he cherishes the most in that final scene evidently aren’t gold or his furniture, but the shard of glass that saved him from peddling himself to death and the ornamental penguin that serves as a constant reminder of his love for Abi and her fate. This is someone who neither wishes to, nor wants to forget the past and what it’s taught him.

The more I think about it, the harder it gets to criticize ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. Bing’s speech alone is an astonishingly astute piece of writing, and yes, whilst characters like Dustin and Swift may not have had the depth that they might have had, this could just as much be a commentary on how a vapid society creates equally vapid citizens, as it is a reflection on the writers. In short I pretty much loved it, and if Black Mirror continues to improve each episode, not only will my excitement for ‘The Entire History of You’ be rewarded, but I’ll also be chomping at the bit for a second series.

Next Week…
Sky Plus for your brain. With my Sky box’s track record all I can say is ‘Eeeep!’

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Black Mirror: ‘The National Anthem’: The Parable of the PM, the Princess and the Pig

 I’ll make no bones about it. I’ve been a fan of Charlie Brooker’s work since I drunkenly stumbled across Screenwipe one night and laughed my backside off at his intelligent, acerbic take on some of the detritus that clutters our tellyboxes, so naturally when I heard about him being at the helm of a new ‘Twilight Zone-esque’ show that will explore the ‘darker side’ of technology and the media, my interest was definitely piqued. Thankfully this first installment, ‘The National Anthem’, didn’t disappoint.

The Premise…

National sweetheart, Susannah the Duchess of Beaumont, has been kidnapped after returning from the wedding of a college friend. Cue frantic phone-call requests for the Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) to convene a borderline absurd meeting with his advisers in his fetching dressing gown and slippers.  What he’s met with is a horrific YouTube video of the captured Princess laying out the demands of her captor for her safe release, which despite their best efforts to kill it, in the 9 minutes it was freely available online it has already gone viral and begun to trend on Twitter. In order to secure her safety the Prime Minister must have sex with a pig (yes a pig), which will be broadcast live on all terrestrial and satellite channels at 4pm. If the demands are not met the young royal will be executed and her death will be broadcast live for the nation to see. AWKWARD!!!

Princess Susannah

"I am Susannah, Duchess of Beaumont. Popularly known as Princess Susannah. I am in a place you cannot find, held by one you will not trace..."

What actually happened…
After the pre-amble in the Prime Minister’s office we cut to the newsroom of the delightfully generic ‘UKNews’, where the assorted editors and journalists are discussing the pros and cons of not being able to report on the kidnapping because a ‘D-Notice’ has been slapped on British media outlets, an obvious heads up to to the numerous Super-injunctions that have been brought to the fore this year, prohibiting the disclosure of the misdemeanors of a number of celebrities and public figures. (Amusingly one of them is also concerned that OfCom will be on their backs if they discuss bestiality before the 9pm watershed). Despite this, when it becomes apparent that various overseas networks including CNN, Fox and Al-Jazeera have already picked the story up and are running it, they decide to ignore the injunction and run it in the public interest. Initially the details pertaining to the pig are withheld, but soon enough ‘experts’ are beginning to discuss its significance and place in Islamic culture as something base and unclean on the rolling news channels, quickly attributing the abduction to Al-Quaeda or another similar religious extremist group. At the same time reporters canvas public opinion, which at this point is highly supportive of Callow and he’s advised that it’s “Not what England expects. If he kills her there’s no blood on your hands”: basically if he has sex with the pig the terrorists win.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister’s advisers are cultivating Plan B behind his back; consulting an SFX company about mapping his face onto the rather chirpy porn star Rod Senseless’ body, who has seemingly been dragged into the back of a car and taken to a building in the middle of nowhere to do the deed in the place of Callow, evidently unaware that he’s been employed to get jiggy with something with more nipples than the collective of those involved in the bog-standard orgies he’s undoubtedly accustomed to. However the abductor gets wind of the plan and appears to broadcast himself removing one of the beloved Princess’ fingers shortly after he’s sent said finger adorned with her ring to the press in a small box packed with ice. In the wake of this public opinion quickly changes, and finally faced with the real possibility that he’s going to have to get intimate with a sow on live television, which will potentially jeopardize both his family and political life, the PM’s mental state understandably starts to unravel. Not hearing the news wants to, in a fit of rage he ends up slipping his hands round the neck of his Chief adviser Alex Cairns (Lindsay Duncan) in an attempt to throttle her, but just in the nick of time Plan C comes into fruition as evidence that the mastermind behind the abduction may be frequenting an abandoned campus in the middle of nowhere along with Princess Susannah, and so arrangements are quickly made for the Secret Services to storm the building. All the while an illicit text/picture message affair has been going on with someone in the press office and your stereotypical ‘maverick’ journalist, Malika, who bastion of the public interest that she is, isn’t afraid to take naked pictures of herself in the staff toilets in return for a scoop on the story. As a result, when the armed officers raid the building and instead of finding the young Royal, find a mannequin, on hearing a noise they give chase and shoot and wound the journalist who has acted on the information given to her by the idiot in the Press Office and followed them in.

With the mission a failure, and the truly hilarious and constitutionally inaccurate hue and cry from members of the public that, “We can easily live without a Prime Minister, but not a Princess”, urged on by his advisers who can’t guarantee the safety of his family or that a refusal won’t result in insurrection, Callow resigns himself to the fact that he’s going to have to go through with it: “You won’t just be a disgraced politician, you’ll be a despised human being.” In the following scenes that chart the PM’s journey to the studio where he’s to be filmed, various platitudes are afforded to him including that after midnight owning any still or moving images of him engaging in the act will be made illegal, and that shortly before the broadcast a high-frequency tone which induces nausea will be emitted in order to discourage people from watching. The scene where he walks down the corridor to the set is strikingly similar, visually, to numerous prison-centric films where the offender is led to the electric chair or the gallows, something which is underlined by Callow’s statement shortly before he drops his trousers; “I love my wife. May God forgive me.” Here the attention to detail before he actually does the deed is just as unnerving as the few glimpses of the actual act that we do get; the Viagra he’s forced to swallow to make it even possible; the ‘visual aids’ put in place to distract him; that he’s told not to “rush” as it “might be interpreted as eagerness or even enjoyment”; the fact the pig has been sedated and is quietly chomping on it’s food as he enters the studio. Strangely the surrealism of it makes it seem all the more real and horrific, as does the choice not to focus on Callow prevailing himself upon the poor sow, but instead to turn the camera on the reaction of those transfixed to their television screens. Some may be disgusted by it, others might raise their glasses to the screen at the degradation of someone in a position of power, but nobody can tear their eyes away as the streets lay empty for the hour that the broadcast lasts.

Once his ordeal is over, the Prime Minister sits slumped and vomiting in a toilet cubicle, as Cairns learns that the Princess was released half an hour before the broadcast and had been taken by Turner Prize winning performance artist, Carlton Bloom, who had not only cut his own finger off, but never had any intention of harming the young Royal. This was to be his last and most profound piece of work as shortly after releasing her he hung himself before the authorities could get to him. Realizing that her boss has just subjected himself needlessly to a heinous act, Cairns tells a co-worker to lose the last page of the report that states Susannah had been freed before Callow had even made his way into the studio, keeping him from becoming a laughing stock, and most likely both of them in a job.

So what of the PM’s state of mind after having to engage in such an act? We’re propelled exactly a year into the future and things seem to be going well as he stands shoulder to shoulder with his wife and jovially kicks a ball around in a sports hall with the generic roll-call of grinning kids, as the the news reporter announces that his popularity rating has risen 3 points in comparison with 12 months earlier. But what about when the cameras aren’t rolling? The final scene is of Callow shouting up to his wife Jane as she ignores him and continues to walk up the stairs back at their private residence. Evidently he may be somewhat of a national hero, but whilst we came in with the Prime Minister ensconced in his marital bed, the final shot is of a couple divided and a private life in tatters. As is the theme that seems to permeate ‘The National Anthem’, there’s always more than meets the eye, especially when the image we’re looking at is framed by a camera held by someone who wants to shape and influence our point of view.

The Verdict…

I’ve seen a few people criticize ‘The National Anthem’ for simultaneously being unrealistic and sensationalist. These people are idiots. Well ok, maybe not idiots, but people who fail to understand the the purpose and function of satire, which by it’s nature seeks to highlight and exaggerate a fatal flaw(s) in public life that must be addressed. Saying that Brooker’s work here is unrealistic not only fails to acknowledge it’s ‘billed’ basis in an alternate reality, but is akin to criticizing Swift for kidding people that there’s a tribe of Borrower-sized ‘little people’ who exist just a boat ride away in Gulliver’s Travels. Forget the fornicating with a pig thing, this episode of Black Mirror charted just how feckless, and at the same time, how cunning those in a position of power (both government and the media) can be when presented with a situation they don’t know how to deal with. With new media and the advent of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, containing the spread of information is a bit like trying to catch water in your hands;- there’s bound to be drops that get away. The packaging and bow with which it’s presented is far more important in relation to the tide of public opinion, and here Bloom the performance artist was king, anticipating and manipulating individuals to his own specification, as they ran round in circles chasing their tails in an effort to second guess him. The reason why the artist had so much influence was because he managed to wield the hefty weapon of mob mentality, which he evidently understood better than any of the numerous Public Relations officers who sought to advise Callow, turning the PM initially from a generally perceived empathetic public figure potentially into a hated monter. As his wife, tells him,”We love humiliation. We can’t not laugh”and here Brooker taps into something that extends way back to the crowd either condemning or saving the life of the gladiator with their thumbs up or thumbs down, long before we were glaring at Plasma screens for hours on end or downloading endless apps onto our IPhones. We enjoy watching other people’s misfortune, just so long as a. we’re not the ones in the firing line and b. we don’t have to take responsibility for it. The technology may have advanced, but we remain pretty much the same.

So was ‘The National Anthem’ perfect? Well no. The storyline with the journalist infiltrating the Press Office seemed a little forced and half-baked, but I’m guessing this had a lot to do with time constraints on the forty-something minute format. Also I’m not entirely sure if it ended on the strongest dramatic beat, even if it did allow us to come full-circle. Nevertheless this was an extremely promising start to a series that looks like it will offer intelligent, darkly funny and thought-provoking relief, amidst a sea of mind-numbing reality shows, repeats and generic police/medical/legal dramas.

Final Question…
I’ve been wracking my brains as to what the title actually refers to. Is it just to do with the generalized sense of national identity that allowed people to conform to the idea that a well-loved member of the Royal family alone is so precious, their premiere politician would/could legitimately be forced to have sex with a pig in order to secure her safety? Or does it relate to something more specific? Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

Next week…
They take the p*ss out of every talent show ever, (but specifically The X-Factor), and Rupert Everett makes a comeback as Jason Gardiner of Dancing on Ice ‘fame’.

 

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Spooks Finale: What makes a good spy?… (S.10, ep. 6)

           Fabulous performances from the two leads, plenty of twists and turns, and yet I can’t help but feel like the finale fell completely flat for a series that’s been an important part of the British dramatic landscape for nearly a decade. Elaboration later…

Bringing the threads together…
The episode opened with Elena informing her real handler (the Russian in the glass house) that the signing of the Anglo-Russian deal had been moved forward to that day, forcing them to deploy the contingency plan: a man with a suitcase boarding a plane to London. *Duh! Duh! Duh!* Apparently though guilt had gotten the better of her and she decided to inform Ruth she had intel about an imminent terrorist attack, but would only divulge the details to Harry. Tricky seen as Harry is currently in the custody of the CIA and about to fly to the States, but hey guys this is Spooks and so anything is possible no matter how unfeasible. Cue Erin and Dimitri breaking out the balaclavas and planning an extraction, which involved planting ‘power out’ devices for an unsuspecting US convoy and preying on the evident stupidity of fictionalized American agents. (The CIA really haven’t come out too well from this have they?) Classic though was the line to Dimitri about it being just before ‘a pay review’ as he was in throws of retrieving his boss from the boot of the car. By the way, why was Harry in the boot? The glass was tinted and his hands were tied together, besides the British government had handed him over of their own volition. Was it another attempt to get back at him like the punch to the face at the end of ep. 5? They didn’t have enough room in the cars? Or simply that over the years, when he’s not driving, Harry has become so accustomed to travelling in the boot that it’s now second nature and he hops in without giving it a second thought? (I genuinely hope it’s the last one. In my mind it’s that one.)

Back with his colleagues Harry is taken to an old military bunker which ‘no longer exists’ and pumps Elena for information on the attack, which ‘allegedly’ consists of a Russian nationalist protecting the interests of his country by attempting to bring down a passenger plane with both Russian and British citizens aboard over London; essentially an act of war that would derail the Anglo-Russian partnership. In the process Harry also discovers that Elena was a double agent all along, well aware of the fact that he’d falsified the details of her parents’ death to make it seem like they’d been murdered by the KGB when in fact they’d died in an accident: in reality he’d been the one who’d been recruited, fed false information AND wrongly believed himself to be Sasha’s father. Mrs Gavrik also takes the opportunity to try and drive a wedge between Harry and Ruth asking her if it changes her perception of him, knowing that he’d willfully tried to prey on a young woman and recruit her as an asset. There’s a pause but Ms Evershed’s answer makes it abundantly clear that her faith and love for him is unshakeable. At this point my shippy heart leapt, but it was pretty clear that things wouldn’t end well. Loyalty hasn’t exactly been rewarded this series. 

Acting on the intel, Sir Pearce rang the ever discombobulated Home Secretary, who reluctantly agreed to convene COBRA to help decide what the frig to do regarding the imminent attack. The natural decision seemed to be to deploy the fighter jets and blow the plane to smithereens, sacrificing the lives of those on board for the greater good, and Harry was actively on board with this until Ruth pointed out that Elena had a track record of being a massive liar, and probably had more to gain for her nationalist cause by instigating a British attack by lying about the presence of a bomb on the plane, which was in fact a signal jammer that interfered with communications with the passenger plane. Utilizing Sasha’s presence in the bunker, Harry pulls him into the room where they’ve been holding his mother and puts a gun to his head insisting that she tell the truth or lose her son. She doesn’t falter though and it becomes abundantly clear that she’d willingly sacrifice everything for her love of her country, including her family. Harry doesn’t pull the trigger, but realizes she is indeed protecting the real details of the mission telling his former lover that she’s ‘a better spy than he ever was’.  Straight away he tries to convince Towers to abort the mission, but the politician is reluctant to do so. At this point they are forced to turn to Illya Gavrik who’d also found his way to the bunker and had discovered his wife’s betrayal. In return for him asking Towers to abort the mission to expunge the plane with the full backing of the Kremlin, the Russian ambassador asks Ruth for the key to the room where his wife is being held, which she duly gives him. He confronts his wife about her apparent loyalty to her country, successfully gets Towers to call the fighter jets off (how the hell did he get a signal?), and then proceeds to give Elena a cuddle which quickly turns into more of a lethal bear hug, as Dimitri and Sasha attempt to get through some exceedingly tough one way glass. They are of course unsuccessful and  when angsty Sasha grabs a shard of broken glass looking like a poor man’s Hamlet, unbeknownst to the evidently rather dim Dimitri and Erin, you just knew this wasn’t going to end well.

Meanwhile outside by the river Harry and Ruth, elated that it all appears to be over, start to make plans about their future, the latter urging the former to leave the Service so they can forge some sort of life together in the aforementioned house in Suffolk, and thus sounded the ‘Klaxons of Doom’ in my head. It was all going too well wasn’t it? Enter stage left Captain Angsty with his make-shift dagger intent on avenging his mother’s death, and after Harry tries to take the blame, Ruth literally falls on the sword (well piece of glass) in yet another selfless act. Alas there’s nothing that can be done aside from waiting for a helicopter and they both ruminate on the life they could have had together, but that ultimately wasn’t to be as she gradually slips away to a distraught Harry’s utter dismay.

Cue a time leap and they next thing we see is Harry driving whilst listening to a message from Towers, who agrees to support him in whatever direction he decides to take his life next, as well as informing him that an outside contractor had been engaged to take care of Elena’s handler, the Russian in the glass house who shouldn’t have thrown stones in Britiain’s direction. Who was the outside contractor? None other than Tom or the delectable Mr Matthew Macfadyen, now of Darcy and Musketeer fame, of course. (I admit I squeed a little. Just a little mind.) Harry goes to view the property that Ruth had put an offer in for, evidently with some intention of perhaps buying it himself, but it quickly becomes apparent to him that a civilian future without Ruth is inconceivable, and so the series ends with Sir Pearce marching back to his desk as everybody else at The Grid looks on agog, and their boss hesitating to answer the phone, but eventually summoning up the courage to do so. Another day, another threat to national security.

My issues with the ending… 

I have on the whole enjoyed this final series, despite the inevitable moments where the events depicted sometimes might have occurred in Narnia. To be honest it wouldn’t be Spooks without them. Even this final episode was exceptional in places, from the consistently brilliant performances from Peter Firth and Nicola Walker and the unveiling of Elena Gavrik as a double agent, to some of the excellent dialogue which ranged from hilarious to moving. I did however take issue with the tone of the ending. Evidently it was meant to be bittersweet. Sir Harry may have lost the love of his life, but Britain was once again safe from the bad guys. Except I didn’t get that. The man who we’d seen at the helm for the past 9 years looked like a shadow of his former self, and seemed destined to die during the course of duty perhaps in a matter of months, or a couple of years. Rather than a stoical ending, it seemed like the writers were privileging a sentimentalized view of duty over the logic of what had gone before. By Harry’s own admission what defines a good spy is someone who has everything to lose and yet does what they have to do for the greater good. As I’ve already discussed he told Elena she was a better spy than him because she was prepared to even sacrifice her own child, and urged Erin to stay an agent because of her love for her own child. Harry now has nothing. No grounding in the ‘real world’. No personal link to humanity that doesn’t involve viewing people in terms of potential casualties etc and because of this, by his own admission, he’s a a weaker spy for it.

Did I want Ruth and Harry to skip off into the sunset to a life of jam making and church fetes? Not really, but as much as I’ve loved the character right from the beginning I think Sir Pearce returning to his office in that final scene offered a stagnant ending to what has been, on the whole, an excellent and thought-provoking show. I’d much rather have had Ruth finally reaching her potential and taking over, even if it meant Harry had to be on the receiving end of angsty Sasha’s stabbiness. In comparison with her boss/love interest, from the Gavrik incident alone, she appeared to be a much better judge of character and was evidently an asset that Towers couldn’t ignore. Hell I’d even have settled for a Romeo & Juliet style ending where they both died, if it meant Dimitri the Beautiful and SpyMum™ had to step up to the mark, and the denouement was forward-looking rather than reveling in sentimentality.  After discussing this with a few friends we all noticed the similarities with another Kudos-produced drama, Ashes to Ashes, which similarly ends with the protagonist, Gene Hunt, on his own and defending the streets from the bad guys. Evidently the winds of change sweeping across the globe at the moment seem to have passed some people by.

I musn’t grumble too much though. Ever since I plonked my 17 year old self down to watch Spooks for the first time nine years ago, I’ve been made to laugh, cry and shout at the TV screen, and on the whole been thoroughly entertained by what I’ve watched, no matter how often it went from the sublime to the ridiculous. I gather millions of others have too so all in all well done to everybody who’s been involved with the show for nearly a decade. We’ll all send you thank you notes in invisible ink. 🙂  

Final things to note…

  • Calum the Tosser nicely summed up the basic plot for the whole of Spooks in that final sequence when Erin asked him to give her a synopsis: ‘Bad people want to kill us’. It made me laugh and almost like him. Almost. *squinty evil eyes*
  • I hold my hand up say I completely called the whole Erin thing all wrong. I’m disappointed that there wasn’t more to her character other than the whole spy/mother dichotomy. I guess they didn’t want to go there again after the whole silly Lucas debacle.
  • Although Tom appearing was nice, it was also fairly pointless fan service. We didn’t even get to see him blow the Russian in the glass house’s brains out. Crumbs! 😦 
  • That poor women on the plane eh? Evidently curiosity killed the cat and the flight attendant. Bad times.
  • S&M watch: I’ve already discussed Harry tied up in the boot, and the Gavrik cuddle that went wrong.  Just say ‘No’ kids! 
  • I have to admit the bit with the memorial was a nice touch. Makes me wonder if there is something similar in the bowels of one of the Secret Service buildings.

 

Anyway thanks everybody who’s read over the past few weeks. 😀

Link to the Guardian Spooks Blog    

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Spooks: The Snog, the Tortoise and the Big Bang… (S 10, ep 5)

In this penultimate episode the tentative Anglo/American/Russian relationship finally took centre stage, as Harry went rogue and planted one on Ruth…

Harry, the Gavriks and Coaver…

The episode began with Sasha meeting Harry in his car to ask him what was being done about Coaver’s apparent involvement in falsely utilizing Tourmaline (Elena) as an asset and then the attempt on her life. According to Sir Pearce the matter was already in hand, and by the knowing look that crosses his eyes you know he has a Baldrick-style cunning which can only really go one way. Then the conversation moved on to Mrs Gavrik and her son’s extraction-that-never-happened from Berlin. Apparently Harry had every intention of bringing Elena and ‘their’ son to Britain, but Coaver threatened to shoot him if he didn’t leave them where they were, thus protecting his own assets across Europe who might uncovered should a Russian double agent be uncovered. Evidently not satisfied with the answers on both counts Sasha bugs his biological father’s car.

The cunning plan that Harry has in mind is to kidnap Coaver on his way to a trip to The Hague, and so the classic car switch was employed where Calum the Tosser made himself useful again, and hopped in the car meant for the American CIA agent, whilst Dimitri cut a fine figure in a chauffeur’s uniform, as Harry and Erin got extremely friendly with Coaver in the backseat. (No, not that friendly at all.) Taking him to an unfeasibly trendy, yet sparse MI5 interrogation building Harry questions his former friend and colleague, but yet again Coaver doesn’t seem to understand what he’s talking about and just as the penny appears to drop the CIA cavalry arrives to sweep their agent to safety. Except they didn’t. The US agent was apparently handed over to mercenaries who bundled him into the back of a van, roughed him up and then dumped him on the road at the end of a car chase, which had SpyMum™ hanging out of the car door and going all Bruce Willis on their asses with a handgun, alas to no avail. As Coaver laid dying on the London roadway he managed to summon the energy to point his former friend in the direction of his laptop at the American Embassy, and inform him that had push come to shove he wouldn’t have pulled the trigger if Harry had decided to go ahead with Elena and Sasha’s extraction.  Yet again ‘the good guy’ appears to have suffered at the hands of others with less noble intentions. It was also great to see Harry verbally take down Dimitri’s pretty american counterpart who threatened to take him into the custody of the CIA because they believe he’s responsible for Coaver’s kidnap and murder:

“Contrary to what you believe, you are on UK soil, subject to British laws, and                  we do not allow foreign agents to wave their guns around. You want to call                      me to account, you go through the established channels. Is that clear?”

Too right Harry! Who the bloody hell does the young whippersnapper think he is?!

So what’s to be done except to pull Ruth from the dreariness of her post as Towers’ Security Adviser complete with the PA called Margot, and get her involved in Operation ‘Let’s-steal-a-laptop-from-the-American-Embassy-and-make-the-Yanks-look-silly’, which of course she does expertly with her usual dry sense of humour; the ‘1776’/Declaration of Independence keypad code for the storeroom bit was hilarious. When will they ever learn eh? You may be free of us, but we can still plunder the bowels of your State buildings. Unfortunately this was where the bug that Sasha planted in Harry’s car came into play, allowing him to intercept Ruth when she got into her car after a phone call with her former employer/love interest. Holding a gun to her head the young FSB agent forces her to log into Coaver’s laptop, paying no heed to the bomb in the van going off somewhere in the distance, which killed one of Towers’ bodyguards, but left the Home Secretary with little more than a mild case of tinnitus, soliciting obvious comparisons with the ‘unsinkable Molly Brown’. Now able to access the files on the laptop, once back at the Russian delegation’s hotel Sasha discovers that Harry is really his father and consequently takes out his frustrations with the laptop on a piece of furniture, making things even worse for himself by probably losing his deposit on the room. If only he could learn to control that temper of his, otherwise it’ll be the death of him. Probably. 

This week’s episode also saw two respective visits from the elder Gavriks to Harry’s home. The first one was made by Elena who informed him that, despite her initial ambivalence towards Illya after Harry failed to bring her to Britain, she stopped seeing him as her ‘captor’ and began to respect and perhaps even love him because she realized that despite his sense of duty he was ‘a good man’, something that’s hard to find in this murky world of espionage. At the end of the scene Harry apologizes that he wasn’t able to remove her and her son and she almost begs him to kiss her. Instead he gives her a conciliatory, but sincere hug. To me this smacked of her once again trying to use her feminine wiles to manipulate, but them finally falling short of the mark. It also begs the question was she ever really in love with either Harry or her husband, or was she just using them for her own gain? Superficially in all of this Elena appears to be the victim, but I suspect if you dig a little deeper she’s actually the master puppeteer, something which I’ll discuss in more detail shortly.

The second visit came from Illya Gavrik armed with a jazzy bottle of vodka and his acerbic wit, intending perhaps to re-enact the Cold War in microcosm in what was one of the stand out scenes of this series, and not least of all because of the number of times he mentioned his pet tortoise and compared it to his old adversary. (Every time he mentioned it I couldn’t help but think about Aesop’s fable of ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’. The creature might be scaly, slow and not much to look at but it does reach the finish line first simply by plodding along steadily, as the feckless hare who appears to have everything, gets distracted and loses through his own stupidity and smugness. Prophetic? I hope so.) After insulting Harry by telling him his life is essentially as empty as his house, the Russian Ambassador proceeds to fill in the gaps about what happened after the British Intelligence officer left his wife stranded in Germany. Apparently Elena was taken in for questioning, but even though he knew his wife had been ‘turned’ by MI5, Illya protested her innocence and eventually had her released and moved away from his ‘sense of duty’ towards his country to protecting his wife and ‘his’ son. Yes ‘his’ son. It’s evident that Gavrik Sr. is just as much in the dark on Sasha’s true parentage as he was himself, a fact which Harry has no intention of enlightening him on as it could obviously prove to be useful. Of course this means that Elena has been lying to her husband, as well as her son and I can’t help but feel that the scenes where we’ve seen her reveal her motivations to Sasha as to why she defected, thus challenging his loyalties to the FSB, echo conversations she’d had with her husband in previous years. Getting them both on side means she has access to their resources, which in Gavrik the Elder’s case means those nasty looking mercenaries. With ALL the men in her life, her sense of duty to them has probably been outstripped by her sense of duty to the cause of undermining the Russian government which sanctioned the execution of her innocent parents. Perhaps there’s still a grudge there with Harry and the British government too because of how they abandoned her, hence her now pitting one against the other and throwing the Americans into the mix to add a bit of spice. A woman scorned and all that….

As the episode draws to a close Harry has been taken into custody by the CIA, as he’s still suspected of Coaver’s murder, and it looks like he’s set for certain extradition to the States… 

Harry, Ruth and the worst timing on the planet…
Happily there was lots of meat to get your teeth into on the Harry and Ruth front too. After last week’s cuddle in the park with Elena, Ruth was understandably a little hacked off, but as they discussed the matters in hand in his car he made it perfectly clear that ‘guilt can look a lot like love’ and that she had nothing to worry about on that front. However the main crux of the conversation seemed to be that they both knew things as they knew them were coming to an end, especially his role in the intelligence services: “We both know it’s time.” Similarly matters turned from work to those of the heart when Ruth was fleeing from the American Embassy and they were both forced to admit that timing isn’t their strong suit, Harry gloriously referencing the marriage proposal at Ros’ funeral at the beginning of last series. (I don’t care what anybody else says, these two trained killers are adorable.) The second-to-last scene where Harry is about to be taken away by the CIA was a thing of heartbreaking beauty though, and mirrors Ruth’s departure in series 5. As Tower’s departs admitting he can do little more than ensure he isn’t forced to wear an orange jumpsuit and subjected to country music, Harry and Ruth are left to say their final goodbyes, the latter telling the former that she’s put an offer in on a house in Suffolk and him imploring her to have as normal life as she possibly can after everything they’ve been through. Their final exchange-“Harry this can’t be the end”/”Well let’s pretend it isn’t”, followed by an understandably awkward kiss on the banks of Thames as umpteen CIA agents looked on was tonally perfect and admittedly left me gulping back a lump in my throat. Somehow these things are never over though are they?

Things to note….

  • Two really nice touches. First Ruth opening the tablet bottle for Towers, who despite the fact he often seems to be channeling Oscar Wilde, on occasion seems incapable of scratching his own backside. Satire alert: those pesky politicians! Anyway this evidently gave her the idea about the paracetamols in the Embassy. Secondly, Harry emptying the milk bottle down the sink. He obviously realized that he probably wouldn’t be returning, so it was an act of conscientiousness towards the person who’d be taking care of his house after he’d gone. Perhaps Ruth? If so, awwwwwwwww! 
  • What did Harry burn in his back garden? I’m guessing we’ll never know, but I’m secretly hoping it was a hard and paper copy of a manuscript for a Barbara Cartland style novel, as well as assorted drafts of Hart to Hart fanfiction. 
  • The Red Herring pub that Towers is driven past just before the bomb explodes- yeah there’s been a few of those this series both for the audience and the characters.
  • Erin- after she threatened to pull rank and not support Harry’s plot to kidnap Coaver I can’t decide if she is a mole or just the world’s biggest bureaucrat. Either, or. 
  • Dimitri was as loyal and pretty as ever in this ep, but sadly as wooden as a forest.
  • So after all these weeks the Russians in the swanky glass house weren’t Russian after all. At least they aren’t still stuck in Ikea looking for soft furnishings, and instead are making themselves useful doing things like making bombs so the Home Secretary will get angry and say something witty. Good times! 
  • And the light bondage made a long awaited return for all you S&M fans. It’s Harry though. Tied to a chair and beaten in a room so dingy it’s likely it’d make the most hardened spy consider taking his own life.  

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