Tuesday, May 30, 2023

FINALES, THE FLASH: THE FIX

While the finale of TED LASSO doesn't drop for a couple days yet, I think it's safe to say that the way of May 24-31, 2023 will go down as one of the all time greatest weeks of finales ever. We've had THE FLASH, MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL and SUCCESSION already, and each of them wonderful in different ways. 

I love love love finales. And one of the things I find fascinating about this current set is that in a sense they all approach the idea of the finale differently, with different goals and techniques So this week (and probably next) I'm going to dive into them, one by one. 

We start with THE FLASH, which finished a 9-season run on May 24th with the end of a four-parter entitled "A New World" which brings back season one regular Eddie Thawne. Returning to the beginning in some way is a classic finale move. But THE FLASH takes that idea to a whole other level.

Eddie began the series as Iris' boyfriend and Joe's partner. But he's also pretty much screwed from the beginning. Barry and Iris are absolutely the couple of destiny for the series, and it doesn't take very long for Barry, who has only just woken from a coma, to screw things up for Eddie. 

And on top of that, he discovers that his distant descendant Eobard Thawne is the series' evil supervillain the Reverse Flash. Seriously, this guy is just screwed. This kind of character who normally would be a pretty good guy except he's only there to get in the way of the main characters and therefore is actually cast as an antagonist is a major TV trope; it's the patsy, really. Or, if you will, The Eddie.

In the end, the writers try to redeem what they've done to him by giving him the final heroic turn of the season. Seeing Eobard about to kill Barry, Eddie kills himself, stopping him from ever existing, which is a pretty damn heroic thing to do.

Except even in this regard he ends up being a failure and a writers' patsy. Because Eobard comes back. Like, a lot. The Reverse-Flash is the main antagonist of the entire show. 

This isn't a question that lingers over the characters or the series. We barely hear about Eddie, actually.  But it is a pretty shitty way to have left the character. And so in the final four episodes, they bring Eddie back. And honestly, he's pretty messed up after he learns what's gone on, and tempted to go full evil. 

But then in the finale, he once again sacrifices his pain to be the better person. But this time it doesn't result in his death. I'm not exactly sure what life in the Negative Speed Force universe looks like but it is a life. And he has finally confronted and let go of what he's lost. 

So the finale becomes a way of righting a wrong, fixing an injustice. 

There's another sort of "fix" here, too. Unlike its predecessor ARROW, which was a series about a very dark character slowly coming to trust and come to the light, THE FLASH presents from the start as a hopeful show, a guy who not only gets the power to do the impossible but who believes in the impossible, namely that he can prove that his father did not kill his mother. It's such a beautiful storyline.

But the thing is, his mother is still a murder victim. And the killer turns out to be the man he believes to be his friend and mentor (who then terrorizes others that he loves). And now he has powers that enable him to potentially change all that. Each of these details make the show much, much more complicated and sad. And intriguingly, in some ways the show became more about a guy who struggled against the darkness of what he had experienced. Which has a tremendous real world resonance, and personal dramatic stakes for Barry for sure, but threatened at times to overwhelm the show's foundations. 

In the finale, we get this incredible moment where Barry says all this as he's trying to figure out what to do about Eddie and concluding his only real solution is to murder him. And while he's said versions of this before, there's a sense of him being overwhelmed by it all that really hits hard. It's perfect for the finale. 

And his mission, as given to him by Caitlin's new identity Khione, is to believe in the impossible once again. So again, we're returning to the beginning, but this time for inspiration. And out of it we get not only the resolution of the Eddie story line, but something radically new: Barry sharing his power with three brand new speedsters. It's a bit of fan service for those who know the Flash comics, but it's also a great "fix" on what has been Barry's fundamental character problem, a belief that it's all up to him. 

The series actually ends with us watching Barry run. And it's the first time in a very long time that we see Barry smiling as he does it. He's happy. It's a great end.  



Tuesday, May 2, 2023

SUCCESSION ON MAKING US CARE FOR EVERYONE

For me the real magic trick of SUCCESSION 406 is, as I mentioned yesterday, that you end up feeling strongly for all three kids, even as they're actually fucking each other over. 

In my experience, that is not generally how SUCCESSION has worked. Other than when they're unified against Logan, we've usually been given reasons to root for or against one or another of the siblings. If I step back and think about that, it's usually their flaws that are used to guide us against them. Kendall has crazy ideas and is often a public embarrassment; Shiv has a hard time standing up for herself; Roman is such a daddy's boy. The show offers us these moments and in doing so guides us to side with the other siblings. 

(I realize there are people who would say, I have been Team Shiv from day one, and her "flaws" are much more indicative of her father's horrendous manipulative treatment of her than a judgment on her in herself, and so on for all the characters. Another way of putting it might be, the show has loved to expose characters as "weak" in some way to turn us against them.)

As we start 406, we find ourselves headed into familiar Roy sibling territory. Kendall and Roman have a plan, they are not letting Shiv in on it, even though that's what they promised they would do just a few days ago. And so of course I'm rooting for her. 

But then slowly she comes around to undermining them, which on the surface, hell yeah. Fuck them. But then in that moment before Kendall is going to go on stage, after Shiv has convinced Roman to not go up there on the stage with him,  we watch Kendall sitting in a chair, just reeling, as we've seen him do before. 

But rather than satisfying it's painful. In some ways that's precisely because we've seen him in this place before. Here again, we're revisiting an icon of the show. But where the water imagery is used to create contrast, here the repetition is like a doorway back into the sympathy we've had for Kendall at other times, the vulnerability that we know is who this guy is beneath the surface. 

And so instead of feeling vindicated, because he has been a complete shit to Shiv and also he's so incredibly self-destructive, we're suddenly protective of him. Sad Vulnerable Kendall is itself part of the language of the show, so much so that when played it generates sympathy. 

(While I'm trying to look at this strictly from a writing point of view, it's important to note, this scene works like it does because Jeremy Strong just fucking kills it. He's so damn good in this episode.)

And writers Georgia Pritchett & Will Arbery are not content with leaving him stripped away like this. They make him go lower, first by having Carl, who is by far the wishy washiest character on the show, the most milquetoast, go absolutely toe to toe with Kendall, ruin the plan he's spent the last few days dreaming up, and leave him speechless.

Pritchett & Arbery set this moment up so well; earlier in the episode we get Gerri and Roman going head to head as well. And she is in many ways more confrontational than Carl, and a stronger character by far, and Roman absolutely steps up and shuts her down. Meanwhile Kendall, facing a far weaker foe, can barely get a word out.

And even that is not the bottom for Kendall. We watch him go out onstage, and his opening moments are just a trainwreck—he's repeating the same thing over and over; he's talking to the teleprompter; he has a simulated conversation with his dad—so painful. It's just one long spiral of agony, with cutaways to his family and employees watching in horror. 

There's just no way not to care about this guy in the face of all that.  

And yet again, he is being terrible to Shiv, lying to her face and seems completely at ease with it. And he's tanking a deal that he absolutely shouldn't. All of which is classic Kendall. 

Which for me makes where the show leaves us with him just an incredible feat. And I can look at structurally how they did that—repeat an iconic Kendall trope; have him roll over and play dead against a weak foe; and publicly humiliate himself—and say yep, that's how they did that. And now we can too!

But honestly I think I'm still barely scraping the surface. Because there's something else going on in the episode with all three characters, beats of them being really exposed and vulnerable—always in private—that seems to grant each of them that same sympathy, even as they are each being, again, so horrible to each other.  

Could it be that the good will and sympathy that the Logan's death episode generated in us is still a work? Is that what this is? 

I may continue to babble about this tomorrow. It's just such great writing. 

Monday, May 1, 2023

SUCCESSION ON THE ART OF REVISITATION

Another great episode of SUCCESSION this week. Maybe my biggest takeaway, and one that I'm going to write about, is the way the episode creates conflict amongst the three kids, and you see them each fucking over the others—especially Kendall and Roman screwing Shiv—yet somehow you end up feeling for each of them. Like, start of that ep I am 100% Team Shiv, and in a way that doesn't change. But then once Kendall's all alone I am so rooting for him, too. 

There's a lot to unpack there. 

But today I just want to note the way the episode ends. Kendall, on his own, floating on his back in the Pacific. It's clearly a baptismal moment; he's come through something, his own self-destructive tendencies, and come out the other side. 

And what's brilliant about that end image of him floating is the way that it calls back to him in the pool at the end of 308. There he's really at his lowest point: having killed someone at the end of season one, he's now got his father—who of course got him out of it—holding it over him, telling him he'll never be free of that. He's basically trapped. And at the end he's floating on a raft, drunk. But the episode ends with him passed on, his face in the water, his beer floating away like an image of his soul. It was a huge question mark whether we hadn't just seen him die. 

How brilliant to take that image and flip it on its head—or on its back, as it were—to represent what is really his resurrection. Where he was face down and drowning in despair in 308, now he's face up, floating without even needing a raft to hold him. 

One of the things I adore about the final season of great series is the way that they revisit its key visual metaphors, events and lines of dialogue. Together those moments are the imaginative landscape of the show, that is, the landmarks of the show as it exists in our minds. To offer any kind of callback is great fan service. But to do what Georgia Pritchett & Will Arbery do here, to take such a moment and use it in a whole new way, is both deeply emotionally satisfying for the audience and carries the water for so much story. Kendall floating on the ocean tells us everything that we need to know about him without a single word having to be said, and it does so 1000 times better. 

We should all be so lucky as to write on the finale of a great show. But the same principle applies to the end of a season, or even the end of a pilot. What can I revisit at the end of my piece that casts that moment in a whole new light?



Monday, April 24, 2023

SUCCESSION ON THE CATHARSIS YOU DON'T SEE COMING

Last night on SUCCESSION, "Kill List" written by Jon Brown & Ted Cohen, we got our first real glimpse of Roman and Kendall working together. And on the surface what we're shown is the challenge of having two heads rather than one (or three heads, as it goes on). Where Madsen is able to shoot from the hip and move on the fly, Rome and Ken are backfooted at the first meeting by the fact that they clearly have such different reactions to the offer. 

And by starting there, the Brown & Cohen con us into thinking that the issue of the episode is getting them on the same page, seeing whether they can "pull off" the deal. It's an easy groove for us to fall in, as getting the kids on the same page is always the problem with the Roys. And so is Kendall self-destructing.

But this episode is not about that. It's about not holding back. And even though Kendall is the main player at the table, in the end this is really Roman's episode, not Kendall's. He's the one that has the most trouble with the new offer. And then in the second scene, he's the one that still says nothing. Kendall is actually firing on all cylinders. Roman mostly nods.

That scene ends with Madsen saying, "Well I don't care what you think," he says to Kendall's critique of his analysis of Waystar. "You're a tribute band." It's a brilliant SUCCESSION-worthy line. The dialogue on the show is so often about reducing complicated things to witty, devastating (accurate) metaphors. 

But what I love about that line is that it brings the conversation back to Logan. Which is where Roman's head is anyway. He's the one dealing with Connor's craziness about the body. He's the one that just cannot hear anyone saying his father is a bad guy or his plan should be tossed out. But having said that, Brown & Cohen give us nothing to suggest he's going to cut loose. That's not how this world works, actually. For as entertaining and nasty as the banter of  SUCCESSION is, it's also highly constraining. You do not pour your heart out here.  (And this is especially true of Roman. He is 100% "fuck off" and quips.)

And that's what makes Roman's monologue to Madsen on the mountain so incredibly thrilling. Certainly the other conversations with Madsen have been building to this, though again, by putting Kendall front and center they've distracted us from Roman. But it's not just that; in a sense by so often withholding a more open conversation, they've sort of starved us. And so when Roman comes in with "I fucking hate you," even though it makes him sound like a teenager talking to his dad, we absolutely relish it. 

There's a bunch of possible lessons to take from this. One is obviously how important it is to create early distractions in an episode, so the audience doesn't see your end gambit coming. 

But another is, when you're working on the last season of a show, it's worth asking, what have we been withholding from the audience? What are the things we haven't let them have? And if we can find a way to give that to them, Wow will they eat it up.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

SUCCESSION ON HOW TO CRAFT A SURPRISE

This is going to seem like a really obvious observation, but it's something I've been thinking about a lot in terms of not events but character choices. If you really want to surprise people, don't telegraph that it's coming. 

I did say it seemed really obvious. But I think it's worth mentioning from a broader perspective. There's so often when I'm working on a script or a character where I think to myself, I need to set up that later reveal, event or character choice early, so that when we get there I've established a runway for it. I don't want the audience to feel like I've cheated. 

And there's truth to that. If Miranda Bailey starts murdering people on GREY'S ANATOMY—well, first of all I would be here for that, because I would follow Chandra Wilson doing anything. But I might very well say, Um, not sure that really tracks? 

In the case of SUCCESSION, we've had plenty of set up over the last three seasons that Logan is not well. But probably they could have sold it anyway because he's just old. He comes with his own ticking clock built in. 

But as I think of some the best character work I've seen, oftentimes it involves a certain refusal to signpost or pre-justify. I see it especially with great villains—instead of seeming good while secretly twirling their mustaches, we have the character play altogether good, and then in other moments simply be evil. Basically, they leave it up to us to put those pieces together. 

Admittedly, this can go wrong. Te boy next door who turns out to be a creepy voyeur/serial killer is actually pretty tired at this point, not only because it's been done but because it can feel untrue. There has to be some deeper truth that justifies the surprise. 

But the key truth is this: Story Gaps are great for audiences. It gives them a way to participate. It gives them something to sink their teeth into. 

In the case of SUCCESSION Logan's own behavior is a great example of this. We never know what's going on in his head. All we have is the things he says and does, which in his case are so far from the fullness of what he's up to. And that gap not only keeps the kids spinning, it keeps us engaged. 

But the choice to have him die without warning is kind of a version of this as well. Telegraphing and signposting are sometimes great, essential. But sometimes it's the gaps that we create between our signposts and story choices that create great story.

 

Sunday, April 9, 2023

SUCCESSION ON BEING TRUE TO WHO YOU ARE AS A SERIES

This week I'm going to write a lot about the latest episode of SUCCESSION. If you're not caught up and like the show, you should definitely not read this until you do. (In fact you might try implementing a media cone of silence, because yowza.)

So, here we go... Spoilers Ahoy. 

SUCCESSION 403 is The One Where Logan Dies. Which is um, definitely unexpected. The episode actually begins with Logan doing normal screwed up Logan stuff—asking Roman to do his dirty work; ditching Connor's wedding. Bad Dad Head Fuckery 101, basically. 

And then we get the phone call from Tom on the plane, which leads into this incredible, 28 minute sequence in which first Roman and and Kendall, then Shiv, and finally Connor are all forced to confront the fact that their father is dying...isn't breathing...is dead. 

And creator/writer Jesse Armstrong makes this really unexpected choice to not let us see Logan at all for a good portion of the sequence. We hear from Tom, we see stuff going on in the background, others also chime in, but there's no "Cut To: A stewardness doing chest compressions on Logan."

Objectively, that's super strange. That's not how you do these things on TV. A big part of the drama, in fact, is watching someone try to save the person's life. It's the will they make it or won't they. 

But here's what that choice does: it puts us in the same situation as the kids—but not just in terms of this moment, but in the broader context of the show. Logan Roy is the monster in the closet that you can never fucking kill. He is the shark that disappears only so that it can show up behind you and rip your fucking throat out. You are never fucking safe with him. A conflict with him is never over. 

Given that, of course they don't want to show us him falling ill, or dying, or dead, until the end (and even then they don't show us his face; I wouldn't be surprised if Brian Cox wasn't used at all). It's a way of leaving it open whether this is really happening, whether this isn't some next level mind fuck ruse of the all time mind fuck master. 

There are a hundred ways that Jesse Armstrong could have killed Logan Roy. And I think a lot of the press around this version is going to be about how it captures the death of a loved one, especially a parent, in such a real way. But as writers, let's not be fooled by that. SUCCESSION is not an after school series. This isn't a very special episode.

This is a series about three kids (sorry Connor—we'll get to you) who are constantly unsure where they stand with their father and desperate for it not to be like that but also completely incapable of overcoming him or themselves to get to that point. They live with constant instability and uncertainty.

And that's what's drives Armstrong's choice about how to show his death. The bigger concept drives the specific story decision. 

It's such a great model for us as writers. Whether we're doing a death, a dinner party, a high school dance, the point is absolutely the same. The concept of the show should inform our thinking to make our choices specific. 

To put it in terms of a question: What is the "Our Show" version of a death? A dinner party? A high school dance?


Friday, March 17, 2023

THE LAST OF US AND THE ARC OF THE COVENANT, PART II: REMEMBER YOUR RULES

So in THE LAST OF US season one Mazin and Druckmann scatter breadcrumbs to build the sense of something bigger at play on Ellie, deep feelings within her that are going to need to be released. 

But then, when you're plotting the actual moment where that happens, there's still the question of the specifics. What should occur? 

And you've got unlimited options, right? It's your show. Anything could happen.

But you and I both have seen way too many stories where the thing that does happen just does not feel right. To some extent my complaints about the David are an example of that. Her going full Wilding Mode on someone makes total sense to me. But this guy that she's murdering, he does not seem right. 

And I think this points to a key thing about writing a TV show. Whether we know it or not, every show we work on has an internal set of rules. A lot of them, actually—rules for how each character can and can't behave (which depending on your show could be A LOT of rules; rules for how the world of the show works, what kinds of things happen in this world and what don't; and rules for the series, by which I mean what kinds of stories do we tell her and in what kinds of ways. 

Sometimes you can break these rules and it's thrilling for the audience specifically because it's so unexpected. But almost always if you try you can trace back that rule break and find a way in which actually no, it does fit the show. For instance the last of THE GOOD FIGHT has an ongoing growing riot going on outside the law offices, and it keeps impeding on their work more and more. It's insane and scary and some might say, what the hell, that is not this show. Except when you step back, sure it is. It's just the latest and most profound sense of dislocation that one of the characters has been feeling since the very beginning. And this show is about that deepening instability. 

The rules of THE LAST OF US definitely include the possibility of Ellie going completely nuts. While we haven't seen her do that yet, we have seen her confront some terrible things, and we've seen some scary stuff running across her face at times. So that part checks out. 

But the rules of THE LAST OF US also include the idea that every character is actually trying to proceed out of some kind of experience of love. Which is also to say, that every character has the ring of truth about them. They resist tropes. 

And this is why the Peter fails, right? At one point he might have been doing what he was doing out of love, and as I wrote on Tuesday, if he had just been doing the cannibalism thing, I think they could have made it work. But with the pedophile moves and all the ranting that follows he's suddenly just a crazy person. And that breaks the rules of the show. 

But you could also see Mazin and Druckmann getting to 108, knowing they wanted to get Ellie to that climactic meltdown, but asking themselves, what do the circumstances that trigger this need to include? Like, what would cause her to lose it so completely? And they might argue, if we're going to follow the rules of Ellie, he would have to be an absolute monster. Him just feeding people she doesn't know human flesh, that's not going to trigger her enough. She needs a lot more. And making him this violent predator, that'll do it. 

Personally, I wonder if it wouldn't have been enough just to have him on top of her, trying to control her, maybe threatening her life, without any of the rape or "actually I am secretly a monster" stuff. I wonder if wouldn't have made it more grounded and personal to Ellie, in fact—this isn't about who he is, it's about her being triggered and what she does when she is. It's about the trauma inside her. 

Or was there some other way of building David or that moment to get Ellie to that point? Could he be someone who has love, but only for his own people, and in the end he's going to kill Ellie to feed her to them, and the threat of him plus the madness of that is enough? 

Or maybe some people would say they like it just the way it is. The point is, in building that climax we have to keep looking back to our rules for the show and make sure our plot choices fit, that they're true to the characters and world that we've built.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

THE LAST OF US AND THE ARC OF THE COVENANT (aka CLIMAXES NEED SPACE)

After I posted about the David on Tuesday it struck me that there's another side to the show's decision to present such a flawed and trope-y character in a show that has brilliantly avoided those kinds of clich├ęs. 

It turns on the character purpose of the episode, i.e. where does Craig Mazin need Ellie to land? And it's really clear, he thinks she needs to murder David, and to do so in just the most horrific fashion. 

But does that actually need to happen? That's what I want to talk about today, which is really Writing the Climax of a Character's Season Arc. 

If we plotted out Ellie's story in season one of the series, we would find moments here and there that are disturbing and traumatic. Everyone remembers 103 for the gay love story, but before all that we spend about 10 minutes with Ellie and Joel. And there's that spooky scene where Ellie goes down into a cellar that she finds without Joel knowing. She finds a zombie trapped under a bunch of bricks, and rather than just kill it or leave she goes up to it and slowly cuts into its head, almost just for kicks. Then when she does kill it, it's with all this rage. And she tells Joel nothing. So chilling. 

In 104 she shoots a man to save Joel, and once again there's that rage on her face, and also absolute horror. And in the episodes that follow we get other sorts of horrifying things she has to deal with. In 105, she tries to save Sam, and ends up failing him in her mind, then watches Henry kill Sam and himself. In 106 she's suddenly rougher to the Indian couple than she had been with people in the past. She's not violent or anything, but she is kind of menace-y in a way that seems new. And in 107 and 108 she has to deal with Joel getting stabbed and everything now depending on her. She either saves him or she's all alone. 

All these little moments are meant to add pressure within us, a sense of anxiety about where Ellie is headed that will need to be released in some way.

At the same time, one of the things that I love about the Druckmann and Mazin approach is that it's done with a gentle touch. You do not go into 108 thinking, Oh my God Ellie is about to fucking lose it. A lot of shows do exactly that—they want to give you every single breadcrumb on the path to that final moment. And it turns out if you've done your job right, that's unnecessary. In fact, telling us too much kind of suffocates the life out of the moment. We end up knowing that it has to happen, and pretty much exactly how and maybe even when.

The Druckmann/Mazin approach instead is to give us breadcrumbs, sure, but also to leave a lot of room for the emotions of that final moment to expand into. That's what we want. 

An analogy: The big character arc climax moment is like a fire that we're going to light. If we want that moment to really explode, there needs to be a lot of oxygen available when we light the match. 

In climaxes where we've done too much work, we've effectively lit the fire too soon, so the climax just doesn't have much oxygen to work with. Which means it can't be as emotional and explosive. 

Druckmann and Mazin hold a lot back, give us just moments here and there, and in that way they allow a lot of room for the emotions of Ellie's climax. They enable it to be as big and as crazy as it is. 

So, does Ellie's climax fit her arc? Does it or something like it need to happen? Absolutely. 

But then the other question is, Does it need to happen in this way? And that's what I'm going to talk about tomorrow.


Monday, March 13, 2023

THE LAST OF US INTRODUCES US TO THE DAVID

I'm back, and hoping this week to look at the last few LAST OF US episodes. I'm probably going to be hopping around between eps a bit, so hang on. 

Today I want to talk about a trope you find in post-apocalyptic shows—the religious figure. In THE LAST OF US he's called David, so let's just refer to the trope as The David. 

There's a couple key things to know about the David. First, he's always the leader of some kind of community. We're not talking about some guy who lives by himself and likes to talk about Jesus. The David is always in charge of a community, both spiritually and politically. 

Second, The David almost always presents as well intentioned. He may be a bit intense, or be stuck having to make some hard decisions, but when we meet the David he's almost always presented as down deep a decent guy earnestly trying to help people. 

Third, that presentation is altogether nonsense, the David is always a monster, like seriously a monster. 

And lastly, The David is ultimately always frustrating, because somehow at one and the same time he's completely insane and totally predictable. 

I'll give Craig Mazin credit, he really did try to fool us with his David. He insists over and over again on his men not hurting Ellie, he gives her the medicine she needs. He really tries to get everyone in the community to trust and not lose and not go all eye for an eye. 

But honestly, The David's writers are always trying to fool us like this, and it never works because there's just too much about the David that is immediately wrong. Starting with: he's a religious figure put in charge of running a community, and he uses some version of religious belief to legislate how things are going to go in the community. All of that is just a complete non-starter, or at least it is in the United States.

Also, and this, too, is very The David—the writing and the acting just can't help tipping their hand. That first scene of David with the community, encouraging them to have faith in God—it just doesn't feel right. He's definitely holding them hostage somehow. When he slaps the girl who lost her dad later, it's like, yes, of course he did that. He's done that a hundred times before, and that's what we were feeling in the room in that first scene. 

So, they try to make us believe he's fine, though we know that he's not. Then eventually something bad or stressful happens to The David—it's almost never that they're secretly evil and are just waiting to show it, it's that they've convinced themselves they're fine and then our protagonists Had to Go and Do Something  and now The David is going to have to gut them like a fish, you know, like Jesus said he should.

(Actually once The David gets heated up the whole religious thing generally flies out the window, and he's just some dude that gets off on hurting people.) 

And then it's just a straight up cage match, which The David always loses, because didn't you get the memo, he crazy. 

And all of that in a nutshell is why The David is such an annoying character. You insist he's good, we know he's not, then he turns out just like we thought, he basically turns into just a really hard obstacle, and in the end he dies because he's just stupid. 

In other words, you can file The David under my theme, "The Problem With Crazy."

I'll be honest, I was shocked to see THE LAST OF US use The David. Because he is super tropey, and this show has been so insistent on presenting new characters as real three dimensional people who are trying in some flawed or special way to love. Maybe Mazin would argue this guy is just the same, it just went bad, but I'm sorry, no, he's too typical for that. 

Also, this David is seriously THE David. When we get right down to it we find out he's a guy who's been feeding his people people—which in most people's books would be bad enough (and at the same time actually might have worked with Mazin and Neil Druckmann's overall take on the show, because this community is in desperate circumstances; there is a case to be made that he was trying to save them, and maybe suffering because this was the only way he could find to do so). 

But then on top of that he's also a pedophile? WHAT? Jesus Christ, come on. It's not just that it's horrifying, it's unbelievable. It's whatever the sick and twisted version of a hat on a hat is. Seriously, no.

No show is perfect, and these guys were pretty much throwing a no-hitter until now (that's the good thing, right? #Sportsball). So we shake it off and move on. But it's also a great learning moment. I don't know what it is about our psychology, but when it comes to post-apocalyptic stuff, we seem to have this in-built idea that it's got to eventually involve a not-so-secretly psychopathic preacher. 

And it's good to know that, so we can resist it. Because it's just played out.

(Actually, you want a challenge? Write an Anti-David in your end of the world show. He's a religious figure, people look to him, but he is just a normal dude. I suspect viewers will absolutely never trust him, no matter how many years the show runs. But then that audience expectation becomes something you can use...)

Thursday, March 2, 2023

THE LAST OF US USES CHARACTER TO SHOW THE PASSAGE OF TIME

This is just a tiny note, and in a way I've already made it. But I just want to hold a lantern up to the specific way that THE LAST OF US 106 does its time jump, because I think it's relatively unique. 

After telling us it's three months later, we get that scene I wrote about yesterday in the cabin, followed by Ellie and Joel getting jumped and then taken to Tommy. And in the midst of all that we get beats that signal change in our characters. Joel's—he gets all shaky and seems to be having some kind of panic attacks—is not dissimilar from how you might seem time jumps handled in other shows like this. You meet the characters and now someone has a scar on their face or their arm is bandaged. The characters' bodies become the canvas on which to "paint" change. 

But in the case of Ellie, we get something much more unusual: a change in her behavior. Right away in the cabin scene we see her holding a gun, she doesn't listen to Joel and she's got little respect for these people, either. Marlon calls her "the little psychopath," which isn't exactly true to her behavior in that moment, but over the course of the episode, yeah, she seems more feral than before. 

And what's really great and unusual is that it isn't commented on. This isn't some mystery that the show is going to have to explain. It's just what the time out here has done to her. And it's just for us to observe. 

I think a lot of the time when writers do time leap moments, they don't consider changes in the mental state of the characters. But it's a great technique: without a single word of comment, it underlines just how much time really has passed.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

THE LAST OF US BUILDS FROM SPECIFICITY OF CHARACTER

In the big scheme of things the opening of 106 is meaningless. Joel and Ellie meet a Native couple and learn where to go. 

But I adore that scene, on so many different levels. 

First of all, the scene has a pretty simple point: Ellie and Joel get information. But then the question is, how do make that interesting? And the answer is, give them a conflict that they have to solve. Which is both about making them earn that next bit of progress, and also distracting us from the fact that this is a This is Where Our Characters Get Information scene. In fact I had to go back and rewatch the scene to be sure they learn anything at all, because in the moment my focus was on the threat that Ellie posed to them. 

Which is a whole other interesting thing about the episode. As in the previous episodes, we enter back into the story through the point of view of totally new characters. And even though from a plot point of view the scene that follows is all about Joel and Ellie trying to get information, it really does proceed out of the Native couple's point of view. If you were going to sum it up, you'd say something like Marlon and Florence deal with intruders. (The actors, by the way, are the fantastic Graham Greene and Elaine Miles.)

And the fact we're seeing especially Ellie from this external point of view has an impact. We know her as this tough, whipsmart kid. But from the outside in this moment she seems wilder. Marlon calls her a "little psychopath." That speaks to what's happened to her in the intervening three months (which I'm going to talk about more tomorrow). But also, in seeing her from the outside, we see new things. It's a brilliant innovation on the series' "In our show the characters we meet get their own stories" ethos. 

The last thing is, and it's my favorite, is the way that the scene unfolds. We've all seen a million hostage situation beats in TV and movies, and probably this could have just been another one of those and it would have been. But Mazin instead decides to come up with a take that is specific and original. Marlon and Florence have clearly been together a long time, and know each so well that with just a glance Florence is able to tell Marlon what's going on. (They also know each other so well that we get those hilarious bickering moments about Florence not shooting Joe and making him soup, whether or not she is lying to Marlon, their past decision to move here and be away from everyone.)

They're also indigenous, which just as with the choice to make Sam deaf is not just a random detail, but rather gives the scene texture and nuance. The playfulness of their interaction, the way they mess with Ellie, the underlying stillness of their interaction—that's drawn from all of the deep down specifics of these characters. And it makes the scene unique and special.  

No one is going to win any awards for the first 3 minutes of THE LAST OF US episode 106. But as someone who wants to be a great scene writer, I'm going to go back to that scene over and over.