Infamy–The Terror (Season 2)

The Terror: Infamy is the second and current season (ten episodes) of AMC’s historical drama/horror  series. Infamy takes a dark and infamous chapter in US  history and attempts to give this shameful period both a humanizing and ghostly touch. 

The often  overlooked or little-known story of Japanese American internment is the historical centerpiece of  Infamy and asks the question:  What does it truly mean to identify as an American? From 1942 to 1945, more than 145,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians were forced from their homes by presidential executive order and into internment camps by their respective governments, simply because of where they or their ancestors were born. Mostly set in a fictional “war relocation center” in Oregon a month after Pearl Harbor,  Infamy reveals a family drama of the many injuries and conflicts of Japanese American incarceration. 

The Terror: Infamy opens with a bizarre, perhaps most viscerally frightening, death scene that haunts a Japanese American community shortly before Pearl Harbor.  Chester Nakayama, a young American, who has some bewildering relationship with a ghost (Yuko), is the connection between the ghost world and the concentration (“internment”) camp throughout time-jumps from 1910 to about 1950. At one point we see Chester and his friends and family be evacuated from California, to the internment camp. The many indignities an entire community of Japanese Americans suffered under forced relocation and detention is depicted in detail and in horror. Real-world and supernatural horrors collide in Infamy as a Japanese ghost (obake) story creeps under the viewer’s skin.

Infamy displays an intriguing composite of two plots, one supernatural and ghostly, the other historical.   But they are not tightly woven nor is the mythological importance of the ghost clarified for the viewer who is not familiar with Japanese folktales.   Is the obake ghost (“Yuko”) a demon, or someone reborn who behaved badly in a past life and is suffering her karmic consequences? She seems to be a culturally specific “monster”  who, in order to understand her,  requires a basic familiarity with Japanese folklore, not the typical ghost or zombie familiar to American audiences.

It is possible that the director and writers also could not decide what genre to emphasize–horror Japanese-style or American.  But what develops is a production, so frequently subtitled  that it seems like a foreign film at times.  But it isn’t.  So  what we need is a statement once in a while about the motivation for the ghost’s targeted actions, a backstory for Yuko that should appear before episode 6, and a brief description of obake (and yurei, which is more equivalent to a European notion of a ghost).  Addressing these needs  would result in a more comprehensible and  visceral connection with the plot. 

I wanted to love this series for its originality:  combining the “old world” system of beliefs and values with the American.  The intergenerational misunderstandings between immigrant parents and their American children is one of the more moving themes.  However, the  effect is dampened, rather than amplified, by some of the show’s ghostly horror which is not tightened together enough to see that the two universes–supernatural and earthly–are inextricable.   The promise of the ghost story (think of the Japanese horror movie Ringu) mirrors the pain and suffering of humans.  But Infamy rarely stops to explain Japanese concepts or relevant historical details, and their tradition of ghost folktales is very complex with a pantheon of different types.  And as the season moves on, it sometimes fails to sustain the intense and wordless fear in the first two episodes.

Nonetheless, I still recommend Infamy.  The most intriguing question to be raised: What is more horrific—a ghost with supernatural powers, or some government authority, wielding a gun, who knocks on the door and smiles as he destroys your life and that of your family? The show attests powerfully to the fact that the U.S. has a long tradition of enacting policies and holding up institutions that target communities of color. The timing of Infamy may draw comparisons with the caging of children at the border, forcing us to wonder what will be unleashed by the current horrors in our country.

Perhaps the writers of Infamy intended to focus on another, more subtle kind of danger: the danger of forgetting, of  historical amnesia.

Note:  The first season of “The Terror” was based on the disappearance of a ship and its men in the Arctic in the middle of the 19th century as they tried to discover the Northwest Passage, also crafting a story of monsters (human and otherwise) on the ice.  See my May 2018 review of “The Terror–A Chilling Northwest Passage. .

Years and Years–Our Future?

The HBO six-part series, Years and Years,  is a  dystopian drama of the near future that rivals “The Handmaid’s Tale” but with a focus on technology and financial crisis. 

In Years and Years the viewer witnesses a 15-year projection of nuclear strikes, technology that allows sulky teens to project Snapchat-style filters over their faces, and concentration camps for refugees and dissidents in Great Britain. 

The  harrowing image of Vivienne Rook MP (Emma Thompson), as an outspoken celebrity business woman turned political figure à la Trump, divides the nation with  her controversial opinions and policies.  In tandem, a second parallel story of one family– the Lyons family–details the impact of an unstable world on their lives.

Beginning in 2020,  three generations of the Lyons family watch the rapid change occurring around them due, in part, to the radical demagoguery of Vivienne Rook who eventually rises to power in 2027.  With a mix of horror, confusion, and occasional glee individual members align with Rook or resist her autocracy.

In rapid-fire time-jumps from 2020 to  2035, Years and Years  has Trump winning a second term as US president, Pence succeeding him and Rook seizing  power and proclaiming policies in similar autocratic style in England.

In 2020 air raid sirens blast over all regions of the UK,  with news that Trump has fired a nuclear missile at a Chinese island.  Panic and misinformation spiral out of control.

In a series of unfortunate events, there is a financial  crisis due to the collapse of an American investment bank.  A compulsory national IQ test is administered to exclude low-IQ individuals  from voting.  Arrests and detention become the rule of law for refugees, homosexuals, and dissidents.

By 2027  the coalition government of Great Britain has collapsed, and Viv Rook becomes the Prime Minister, backed by unidentified corporate moguls. Countries become unstable with similar governments being put into place.   

By  2028, Viv Rook promises freedom to her supporters but begins arresting her opponents, contracting with a giant corporation to maintain two “Erstwhile” concentration camps, intended as death camps with fascist oversight. 

By 2029 attacks on journalists increase, and the BBC is forced to shut down, having had its charter withdrawn. Muriel Lyons, matriarch and grandmother, blames the family and global citizens at large for the rampant dictatorships worldwide.  In one of  the most powerful monologues (see video clip) in television this year, she eloquently tells her family that many small acts of indifference have had a snowball effect,  creating the toxic environment everyone now lives in. Today perhaps?  And so it now seems that there is little control the Lyons have over their destinies.  The military isn’t storming parliament. The change is more insidious. Dictatorship creeps up on us very, very slowly, and yet with increasing speed, suddenly we are rendered powerless while ordinary life goes on.

Years and Years, through its flashbacks, forecasts the next decade-and-a-half  with a pessimistic, quasi-nihilistic lens.  A sum of the problems and anxieties currently playing out in Trump-land, this dystopia is a world-weary projection,  resonant of a   prequel to Black Mirror’s astringent tales.

Note:  The sixth and last episode took me by surprise.   The tone seemed off, shifting  gears into much more futuristic  science fiction. We’re being given fake videos with fake news, but this seemed to me like a  fake ending.

Locked Up–Spain’s “Orange Is the New Black”

In this riveting Netflix series, we see a psychological drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat..  A combination of “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), Locked Up is darker, more sinister, and more brutal and violent.  [Alex Pina is the creator of both this 2015 television series and 2017’s Casa de Papel. ]  Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

Every episode will keep you wanting more.  Perhaps a more realistic point of view of prison life than OITNB, Locked Up is binge-worthy and definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Macarena Ferreiro (played by Maggie Civantos)  is a twenty-nine year old professional financier who ends up in prison, after an affair with her manipulative boss who coaxed her into embezzling funds.  Sentenced to seven years at the Cruz del Sur Prison for women while her boss absconds jail-free, Macarena has to navigate her new and unfamiliar home where mostly murderers and drug dealers are her fellow cell mates.  At first, Macarena believes the justice system will realize that she was as much victim as perpetrator and will be released. Slowly she realizes survival in prison for a seven-year sentence will mean developing the cunning of her fellow inmates. 

The title of the Spanish version, Vis-à-Vis (literally,”face-to-face”), is also a colloquial term for conjugal visit used not only for the expected titillating aspect of sexual activity, but also for hiding, a metaphor for secrets and lies.  In a secondary plot, Macarena’s loving family–including her father, a former police officer,– are determined to help her get out of prison by any means necessary 

The ensemble cast could not be better. Brilliantly acted,  Locked Up never loses steam. Each episode surprises and leaves the viewer  wanting more and more. All the characters are an unnerving blend of good and evil, even the two obvious antagonists.  While the audience is never in doubt as to where its sympathies are supposed to lie, there are nudges of understanding for even the most vile.

Locked Up boldly and savagely challenges racist and homophobic attitudes. This prison drama makes OITNB  seem like summer camp, whereas in Locked Up  the inmates are  forever changed at almost a cellular level.  

Note:  Season 4 of Locked Up will be released September 25 on Netflix.

La Casa de Papel –“Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids

La Casa de Papel (“Money Heist”)

La Casa de Papel (Netflix English title: “Money Heist“) was the most-watched non-English language series of 2018 and one of the most-watched series overall on Netflix.  This is a Spanish  “Ocean’s Eleven” on steroids.

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

Named after cities, each robber has a backstory and the motivation to move on with a different, less desperate life. In La  Casa de Papel “Tokyo” is the unreliable narrator,  with a winner-take-all attitude, and no impulse control but lots of unhealed wounds.  She narrates each character’s backstory in flashbacks, time-jumps, and unmitigated judgment of her fellow team members. Dressed in red jumpsuits and wearing masks of the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, the burglars take 67 hostages as part of their plan in negotiating with the police.

The Professor oversees the heist from a different location, using state-of-the-art computer systems and an extraordinary psychological analysis of the police. Soon the charismatic, albeit excessively cerebral  Professor  wins over  the public, who are angry at the powerful banks and corrupt corporate and government elite.

The actors, in often tight camera shots, reveal the emotions and alienation at play as they have to deal with each other, the Professor, the hostages, and the police–particularly one vulnerable and needy police inspector.  An extraordinary string of plots over thirty-five episodes, La Casa de Papel rarely sags throughout an entire episode, but ratchets up tension, drama, and unexpected twists in psychology and power dynamics. A highly  unpredictable chess game between the police and the robbers, you will be surprised by almost every move, even with its “telenovela” elements. Can’t wait for  the next season!

Note:  There are three Parts [=Seasons].  Part 1 has  13 episodes;  Part 2: 9 episodes; Part 3: 8 episode and  were released December 2017 through July 2019.  The filming of Part 4 of La Casa de Papel ended last month and will be released sometime next year.