“Mrs. America”–A Closet Feminist?

Mrs. America is the history-packed and binge-worthy nine-episode Hulu series created by Dahvi Waller (of “Mad Men”). We see a dazzling sweep of history from the early 1970s  to 1982 as the  fight against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment unfolds.  Still unpassed, the ERA would create a  constitutional ban on discrimination against women.  Its failure to win approval was due in large measure to the  brilliant political strategist Phyllis Schlafly. Cate Blanchett embodies captivating contradictions as Schlafly, the antiheroine in Mrs. America.

The story of her STOP ERA movement was in many ways an origin story for the culture wars still raging today, a  playbook for how we got to be the polarized nation we are.  We see the   beginning with Schlafly’s brilliant use of grassroots mobilization–mailing lists, manipulating recorded speeches for the media, and moving supporters across state lines to protest what had been seen as a benign and popular constitutional amendment.  The issues were many: gendered pay equity. LGBTQ rights, access to abortion, racism, protections against sexual harassment (i.e., #MeToo) and domestic abuse.

While Mrs. America is foremost a docudrama about Phyllis Schlafly, a parallel plot involving two fictional characters:   Alice (Sarah Paulson) and Pamela (Kayli Carter) begin as women who believe that their  most important job is to be a wife supporting her husband’s ambitions and a mother. For someone like Phyllis Schlafly, a privileged, highly educated woman (who had run for a political position in Illinois), to come along and say, “We’re going to protect your status,” was an irresistible elixir for many.   

Mrs. America is complicated and richly multi-dimensional on several surprising levels.  Schlafly basically built a gilded cage and got locked inside it herself.  Here’s an elegant intellectual and ambitious woman who was rejected by the Washington establishment in spite of the fact that she wrote brilliant position papers on nuclear disarmament which Henry Kissinger adopted as his own,.  Almost in a retaliatory way, Schlafly takes up a cause that has some traction,–pro-family, pro-choice, anti-ERA and anti-gay rights– to build her base. And  she uses that base to magnificent effect: building email lists that senators and presidential candidates beg for, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.  Both of whom she supported enthusiastically but did not garner their explicit anti-ERA support after they secured the nomination and, in Reagan’s case, the presidency.

There’s no denying the homemakers that comprised Schlafly’s army are sympathetic, because they’ve lost status when compared to working women. And Schlafly senses that longing for visibility and acceptance.  Benign sexism was the petri dish in which she cultivated her Eagle Forum movement, recruiting churches as a source for her mailing lists and memberships.  Grassroots politics became a stunning juggernaut for influencing voters:  “The person that everybody’s paying attention to always wins” Phyllis preaches to her choir.  Her followers became a fervent cult of acolytes and certainly not stay-at-home housewives.  The irony is palpable.

A lot of the people who made up the counterrevolution to the women’s movement were the same people who led the backlash to the civil rights movement. The segregationists became the anti-feminists. The Ku Klux Klan supported her financially but secretly.  The overriding theme for the anti-ERA movement was  a fear of change to traditional womens’ status.

Schlafly ran for Congress in 1952, wrote four books on nuclear weapons strategy as well as  “The Conservative Case for Trump” (published the day after she died in 2016).  She helped Barry Goldwater secure the Republican presidential nomination and wrote a syndicated column that ran in more than 100 American newspapers for 30 years.  Schlaffly also had been a national-security expert on Soviet Union politics for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The irony of Phyllis Schlafly is that she created a battalion of  affluent housewives,  empowered them to leave their homes to attend conventions, and turned into political activists who understood the power structure in Washington. Certainly no mere stay-at-home moms.  We see the ascendancy of the far-right with Phil Crane (later co-founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation), Paul Manafort and Roger Stone asking for her political prowess to gain women voters. 

Bella Abzug and Schlafly even used the same campaign slogan in their congressional runs: “A Woman’s Place Is in the House”… the House of Representatives for Abzug,   For Schlafly’s followers it was the suburban home, but not for Schlafly herself who seemed to be rarely at home.

In the 1970’s the ambition had to be disguised for her cohort to follow.  Her husband, fifteen years her senior,  played by John Slattery of “Mad Men”, only reluctantly accepts her growing fame.  Perhaps one of the more poignant aspects of her not-easily-categorized personality is the fact that she understood the power of the polemic, of a binary either-or polarization that would evoke outrage and zealotry.  Schlafly was a master of the message, however brazenly a lie, and a master of bringing followers together without division and infighting for a bigger share of the power.

Perhaps the climax is twofold and viscerally bloodletting:  Schlafly in a scene at the end—victorious in defeating the ERA but betrayed by the male politicians who learned and gained from her.  And Alice, an erstwhile friend, who deplores why Schlafly became so “mean” in pursuit of a  winner-takes-all strategy.

Note:  The battle over ERA realigned the Republican and Democratic parties.  Not one Republican Congressman supports abortion and the Republican-controlled  Senate will not take up the ERA proposal, after the Democratic-controlled  House approved rescinding the deadline—previously 1982—for ratifying the ERA.  So far the thirty-eight states needed for ratification have occurred, with the latest—Virginia—passing the ERA this year, almost forty years  after the initial failure to acquire the necessary votes.

“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”–Obscene Power

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is an explosive and deeply disturbing four-part Netflix Original documentary, that spotlights a dark international web of underage sex trafficking.  Billionaire playboy and financier Jeffrey Epstein operated his sick obsession in plain sight. In Filthy Rich we watch this wealthy predator cultivate links to extraordinarily powerful people including current and former presidents and a British prince.  In 2019 Epstein was finally convicted of  sex trafficking and associated crimes after similar charges ended in a widely-criticized plea deal. 

Released this year but filmed before his death on August 10, Filthy Rich underscores the desperation of young girls, often from abusive homes with little recourse for feeding or housing themselves. We see how these girls succumb to the promise of a better life promised by  Epstein and his socialite ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. These now young women  remain traumatized by the assault and abuse dating back  close to 30 years.   Several survivors give harrowing and courageous accounts of depravity, aborted attempts to escape,  and determination to move on.    Epstein’s real-estate portfolio –New York, New Mexico, the US Virgin Islands, London– provided  seclusion from the public eye.  Epstein’s homes were not easily penetrated from the outside. But surveillance systems enabled  video entrapment from the inside.

Several of the survivors display an  incredible lack of awareness and common sense.  They recruit their younger sisters and friends in a sex trafficking pyramid scheme involving payments for bringing in other minors. We witness a  couple of particularly memorable survivors eventually realize and come to understand the immoral power of the rich, who arrogantly believe they can buy other human beings with impunity.  And they did…for almost thirty years.  And still do.

An outrageous plea bargain, together with powerful friends Epstein could blackmail, and corrupt law enforcement protected Epstein from serious criminal sentencing. The first trial in 2005 was half-heartedly undertaken by Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump but resigned within days of Epstein’s arrest in July.)

The FBI is reportedly still investigating Ghislaine Maxwell who ‘facilitated’ Epstein’s depravity, but her current location remains unknown. Even after Epstein was found dead in prison, (purportedly from an apparent suicide), the investigation and prosecution continue.  Prince Andrew, pictured alongside an underage girl and Epstein, has so far refused to appear as a witness before US federal prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against Epstein’s co-conspirators. 

The attorney in charge, Geoffrey Berman, appears prominently in Filthy Rich, as do employees who worked for Epstein at his US Virgin Islands estate.  Also highlighted are the Florida police and FBI officials who were both overruled for their pursuit of this pedophile.  The courage of the women who came forward may, perhaps, not be stamped out this time.

Note:  Available to stream now on Netflix. 

See the Business Insider for a detailed description of Epstein’s playbook for sexual predation using offshore real estate and lavish accommodations to entice young girls to his mansions.  Also CNN footage of survivors’ accounts.

“The English Game”–From Provincial to International

The English Game, Netflix Original

The English Game, created by Julian Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey”),  is a Netflix Original period drama based upon a true story.  Set in 1880’s England, The English Game is a notable example of class divisions exhibited in the early evolution of football aka soccer.  Rising from a provincial game that was socially stratified for the “Old Etonians” of noble birth, we see the evolution of football to a world-class game, perhaps the most popular in the world.

Soccer’s first governing body was an “old-boy network” consistent with  a clubby insular game for the privileged.  They knew the playbook but to their chagrin soccer began to trickle down to the lower classes.

Edward Holcroft

By the time The English Game opens,  two Scotts from a mill town are drafted  as the first paid players in soccer.  Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and his friend, Jimmy Love (James Harkness) become the stars of the mill town soccer team, and prepare for playing in the semi-finals against the aristocrats.  They create a new strategy of playing that upends the traditional style followed by the elite.

However, players being compensated for their skills were against the Football Association’s rules and so, the plot thickens. Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), an Old Etonian of impeccable aristocratic status, is a founding member of the Football Association and heir to the white-shoe family bank that owns the mill sponsoring the paid players.  His team is the arch-rival to the mill town team and unaccustomed to their  innovative play strategy.

While The English Game is ostensibly about sportsmanship and soccer in particular, the overriding theme is class division and the leveling of the playing field for all who qualify, not just those who create exclusionary rules to avoid competition.  And the subplots of competition between father and son, women’s vulnerable status and exploitation in a world of privileged men,  in a highly rigid society are compelling to watch. 

You don’t need to be a sports fan to enjoy The English Game!

“Hillary”–Unmasked

Hillary,  an intimate and candid four-part series about  former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton– one of the most admired and vilified women in the world–features never-before-seen footage of her life from birth in a close-knit family in Chicago, Illinois.  The mission of this documentary is not only to interview Hillary Clinton (for a total of thirty-five hours) and several dozen colleagues and personal friends but also to try to analyze why people found Clinton so compelling—and so polarizing. Yet Hillary is so much more than a biopic. It is a distillation of the history of contemporary feminism in the United States, sexism, the failure of journalism, and the history of partisan politics.

For  the first time in perhaps four decades, we see Clinton engage in a wide-ranging conversation about herself as a private citizen with breathtaking courage and unflinching reflection on those mistakes. This is maybe the first time she hasn’t had to self-censor.

Even with her exclusive access to Hillary Clinton, filmmaker Nanette Burstein  did not intend to go over familiar territory about perhaps the most scrutinized public figure in the last half-century. “Can a woman ever—really, actually ever,– become president of the United States?”  To this day, there is no easy answer.  And only one woman has come extremely, some would say, perilously close.

Childhood friends,  her daughter Chelsea, former President Barack Obama as well as staff members, campaign managers, journalists, and senators, both Republican and Democrat, are interviewed. The former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich so hated the idea of being interviewed that he is on record as responding: “I would rather stick a needle in my eye than talk to you about Hillary Clinton in a documentary.”

Hillary frames the Hillary Clinton  of the past half-century as a woman who learned that to be taken seriously, she’d have to wear a mask. She never fully removes it, of course, but in these interviews it occasionally slips, and clues about a  brilliant intellectual that no one else seems to get are revealed. “I’m a private person,” Hillary confesses, “and I’ve made mistakes because of that.” As a woman especially, she may be just too cerebral for some people to put up with.  Hillary Clinton is a national lightning rod for women’s status and image–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Hillary Clinton was criticized for coming off as too cold,–even emotionless– but she had been forced to learn how to be affectless as the rare female law student at Yale University. Clinton’s gender hindered her in unpredictable ways as Burstein’s documentary unfolds.   She was scrutinized, investigated, loved  and hated. 

At one interview, Hillary seems almost perplexed at the double standard, even after all the years on the campaign trail:  “I’ve been on platforms with lots of male candidates, and they have shouted, they have beaten the podium, they have gone crazy with their hands and arms, and nobody said a thing.” “A woman candidate? Her voice rises, and somehow that’s over a line.”   But what line has been drawn?

The filmmaker does a commendable job illustrating what Clinton was subjected to throughout her career:  from footage of protesters with “Iron My Shirt” signs at her rallies, to male supporters earnestly advising her to smile more and wear something besides pantsuits.  For younger viewers this past may seem almost unbelievable, in its  blatant sexism.  To the babyboomer generation, the behavior is dishearteningly familiar.

When Trump stalked behind Clinton in an effort to physically intimidate her,  Clinton wanted to call him out, but didn’t. “He was preening like an alpha male.” She knew how the press would react.

Her communications director elaborates on why confronting Trump would have been ill-advised. “I think the post-2016 election world is a different universe — I think a woman could do that and be lauded for standing up to a man who was trying to intimidate her, but not then.” The same resistance to pushing back occurs throughout the film, in  spite of anger: in the email with James Comey, in the PizzaGate trolling and in the Whitewater investigation.  

She demonstrates how aware she is of the public’s perception of her and the role her gender has played in her polarizing image.  And her most painful moments– when she had to face her husband’s sexual predation of Monica Lewinsky– are some of the most heartbreaking to watch.  Hillary is personally hurt, admits that she could hardly breathe when Bill admitted he was lying, and demanded that he explain to their daughter about the affair.  A fragile, chastened Bill Clinton is seen as a vulnerable humbled man for the unspeakable betrayal of her trust.

Clinton is also positive about how the women’s movement has brought change, but still there is no guarantee that the hard-fought changes and laws will not be rescinded or pushed back. Her tone is optimistic and hopeful, nonetheless.

Hillary is instructive and emblematic of a period in history that is not that long ago.  Even for those who despise her, the series offers a unique glimpse behind the scenes of some of the most consequential moments in recent political history.

She cracked the glass ceiling.  We now wait for it to be shattered. .

Note:  Available on Hulu.

“Baptiste”–After The Missing

In this spinoff of the BBC popular series “The Missing”, detective  Baptiste is now retired and recovering from brain surgery. The six-part crime procedural, Baptiste, is  an intense crime thriller.

Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) is called in by Amsterdam’s Chief of Police and former lover to investigate the disappearance of Natalie, a young sex worker. He  meets her uncle Edward (Tom Hollander of “The Night Manager”) and soon Baptiste and Edward become involved in taking down a Romanian crime organization.   The Romanians are in the business of sex trafficking in the red light district of the city.  While still the same old curmudgeon as in “The Missing”,  Detective Baptiste now has conflicting emotions in his relationship with his own daughter, and with his former lover.  Nonetheless, he is quickly sucked into a case that exposes the seedy underworld of Amsterdam beneath the picturesque streets and canals. His family suffers while he becomes obsessed with the case.

Filled with a number of red herrings to throw the viewer off track, Baptiste may fool the viewer as to what really happened to Natalie, and who really is implicated in sex trafficking.  This is a great whodunit worthy of six hours of viewing time.

Note:  Available on Masterpiece Theater and pbs.org.  Baptiste premiered in April of this year.  A second season is planned for next year.

“Little Fires Everywhere”–Incendiary at Its Best

Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio during the late 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel by the same name. Reese Witherspoon (Elena)and Kerry Washington (Mia)  steal the show as mothers from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.  This is a suburban saga with a painfully close lens focused on the income gap, class, and racial divide we know only so well.  In the opening scene  a house in Shaker Heights is engulfed in an inferno.  Is it the target of arson?  We will find out.  The year is 1997.

Shaker Heights’s community ethos prides itself on its civic duty, open and liberal lifestyle, and a desirability that does not include anything unseemly, dangerous or grass exceeding six inches in length.  The unpleasant and the disastrous reside elsewhere.  The community’s bubble is impenetrable…until it isn’t.

Elena Richardson is a smart, highly educated suburban mother and Shaker Heights reporter who is also a perfectionist.  Problem is that one of her four teenage children does not meet her expectations, no matter how low the bar she begrudgingly sets for Isabelle (Izzy), her youngest.  The mother and daughter are toxic:  opposing forces of nature. Elena is a narcissist, so the kids are self-reflecting objects … little trophy children, all about what others think.  Izzy doesnt play Elena’s game  and, in return, Elena seems incapable of any love or empathy for her.

Mia is a very talented artist but she can be overly protective and possessive about her teenage daughter Pearl.  And Elena believes she is in control of her kids and her life, but she really knows very little about  her children.  Neither Elena nor Mia are allowed into their daughters’ worlds and conversely, their daughters do not know them. 

Each mother believes herself to be a good and decent parent because both have structured their lives to shield their daughters from failure.   Yet their sense of self is not challenged.  Both Elena and Mia want a family with strong connections and bonds, but the connecting and dividing are sometimes in the same moment.

Little Fires Everywhere explores motherhood in all its pain, joy and self-denial, cutting to the bone.  Marriage, sexual identity, race and ethnicity are intertwined with the psychology of class and white privilege.

While Shaker Heights self-congratulatory residents believe they say all the correct things about race, their feelings of  superiority are subconsciously ingrained– in the way only wealthy white folks can be. The thing about whiteness is, of course, if you’re not white, you know whiteness and the rules of whiteness better than white people do, because you have to co-exist.   

There is no stammering and flailing in Little Fires Everywhere. Perhaps more than any other scene,  we see, in the final moments,   the human effort to want to get something right even after everything has gone wrong.  The dialog, acting and pacing are extraordinary. Witherspoon and Washington are at their best.

Note:  Available on Hulu streaming.  And for a fascinating interview with the author, Celeste Ng, on the book-to-screen adaptation, see the LA Times article.

“Ozark” (Season 3): Narcos in Missouri

Ozark has set itself apart as one of Netflix’s most popular original series, and this season, in my humble opinion, is the best. (See my reviews of Season 1 -September 2017) and Season 2-October 2018)

In this third  season, Ozark has book-ended the journey that began with Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) inventing a plan to launder the Navarro cartel’s drug money in the Ozarks  and evolves into the journey of Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) inventing a plan to create legitimate businesses.

The Byrdes have finally broken bad.  In Season One Wendy Byrde is primarily the good Midwestern wife following her husband’s plans, albeit criminal in intent, in order to preserve their marriage and keep their children safe.  Now in Season 3 (hinted at in the finale of Season 2) Wendy takes charge.  Her previous marginality–the repeated subtle agonies of a woman knowing she could do better–is no more.

So, what happens when the entire family goes from white-collar  respectability to all-in involvement in a life of criminal activity?  The teenage son and daughter do not push back as they get caught up in their parents’ duplicity.  Season 3 is  devastating: a  witnessing of a nuclear-family-gone-rogue. 

Moreover, the Byrde family is not the only one that is cursed no matter what direction they face.  The Langmores–particularly Ruth–has fought all her life for agency, for a life that she is in control of.  And the  Snells, the local Ozark family who has grown poppies and weed for generations, wants their former power back.

The major theme is still hopelessness–even as the main characters struggle with their reality, a denial of how extremely wounded they are.  Each Byrde family  member gives up a piece of themselves until  there is not much remaining to give up.  Each dysfunctional family–Byrde, Langmore, and Snell–is viewed under a psychological microscope:  revealing tortured souls, in ordeals writhing in a house of pain, truth rattling but not being listened to.  Ruth Langmore has few options.  And Darlene Snell is viciously cunning.  We wait for karma  to catch up with her.

Season 3 of Ozark belongs to Laura Linney, who plays the most challenging role:  how to evolve from a mother who is besieged by her husband’s wrongheaded decision to a mastermind of money-laundering for  a Mexican drug dealer.  Jason Bateman is every bit her match, with scenes reminiscent of Ingmar Berman’s classic “Scenes from a Marriage”.  Both chilling and close to home for many viewers!

“Valhalla Murders”—The House of the Dead

Kudos to Netflix for another great Nordic noir production. In this eight-episode series, Netflix’s first Icelandic co-production, we have a crime thriller about a gruesome serial killer whose murders go back over thirty-five years.  Valhalla Murders is actually based upon a series of murders that took place in Reykjavik.  There is some uneven pacing, but it is over shadowed by the unexpected twists and turns of this Nordic murder mystery.

In the opening scene the main character, Detective Kata, is severely wounded and on the verge of death.  Immediately Valhalla Murders flashes back to twelve days earlier: to the first of a series of brutal murders at a harbor in Reykjavik. Kata should be in charge, but her boss Magnus purposefully overlooks her. Resentment festers.  Magnus calls upon a Norwegian police officer, Arnar, to come back from Oslo to his native Iceland to assist with the investigation.  Kata begrudgingly works with Arnar on Iceland’s first-ever  serial murder case.  The Norwegian police officer’s painful past growing up in Iceland parallels  Kata’s painful relationships with her son, ex-husband, and Magnus.

However, the shocking events of the murders bring the two deeply flawed characters closer together as the  investigation unearths sordid secrets and horrors from decades ago. The deeper they delve into the murders, the more Kata and Arnar respect each other’s investigative skills and relentless commitment to finding the murderer.

The past connection with a state-run boys’ school, Valhalla, importantly leads to controversy and coverup.  As the name Valhalla implies, it is the hall for the heroic dead,  the residence of the Nordic god of war and death, Odin.   But was Valhalla’s home for boys, now closed, ever a safe haven for young boys? 

As the mystery deepens, we see how Kata and Arnar resist the twists and turns thrown at them by those obstructing justice. On fearlessly delving into the  horrifying past, which links the murders to each other,  the two detectives reveal the truth. They both persevere despite the cost of unearthing  unspeakable evil, the monster in the dark. 

Note: Netflix released Valhalla Murders on March 13, 2020 with all eight episodes streaming together.

Queen of the South (La Reina del Sur)–Reigning Supreme

 

Based on the global best-selling novel “La Reina Del Sur,” by internationally-acclaimed author Arturo Pérez-Reverte,  Queen of the South, a bilingual telenovela crime drama, has become one of the most popular series of all time for USA and its sister network, Telemundo. Queen of the South, now in its fifth season, is a winner. Thank you, USA, for continuing  to add gritty, noir-ish series  to your program roster!  

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.

At one point, forced to flee Mexico, Teresa finds herself in Dallas, Texas where her street-smarts move her rapidly into the highest ranks of the Vargas cartel,. The cartel is embroiled in a fierce rivalry between Epifanio Vargas and his estranged wife, Camila (the attention-stopping Veronica Falcon).  A knuckle-biting set of episodes in each season highlights how Teresa is bound by a cat-and-mouse game in order to survive. She has to rely  on her own strategic thinking and instincts to stay one step ahead of  the feuding Vargas cartels and avoid capture and death.

Veronica Falcon as Camila Vargas

A violent, intense drama in the genre of “narcos” , Queen of the South is highly original in providing two great lead performances by the pair of queens fighting over who shall rule the cartels of Culiacan.

Note:  The violence is disturbing, with rape and brutal “interrogation” techniques.  The writing, however, is superb and almost never sags in pace, characterization, and plot.

Available on Netflix Streaming.

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. .

Chernobyl–An Ignominious Reaction

Chernobyl HBO miniseries

          Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

A  tour de force of unprecedented tragedy, Chernobyl is a masterpiece showcasing Russian heroes who have been unknown or forgotten by history.   In some ways, Chernobyl is a horror movie of the bio-disaster kind: the dramatization of that fateful morning when thousands of residents experienced the horror of intense radiation without any warning by the bureaucrats who knew or should have known what was at stake.  More than three decades later, the disaster remains haunting The creeping dread of  the suffering endured is portrayed starkly and brutally. A grim understatement of what can go terribly wrong at any moment, the viewer witnesses  the heroes who bear testimony to the unspeakable errors of human operators ordered to cut corners, threatening public safety. 

Chernobyl is difficult to watch.

Recreating this small city in 1980’s Ukraine, Chernobyl‘s producers carefully evoke the clothes, nuclear facility, hospitals, and  residential life in grim grey light, foreshadowing probably the worst nuclear accident in history.

“We seal off the city,” Zharkov–the manager of the nuclear reactor,– tells everyone in the plant. “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.”

The Soviet system of propaganda and corruption existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with lies, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

But, unlike Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, Chernobyl  is not only about nuclear-plant safety. Chernobyl is about a coverup of the worst kind: the most egregious arrogance and indifference to suffering  by a bureaucratic brotherhood  pledged to  secrecy.  Consequently, information was  shared only among a narrow elite obsessed with their own interests and survival.

Note:   The former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant area won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years.  Ukrainians are being reminded of the consequences of Chernobyl by a government that has slashed health benefits for the men who heroically fought to contain the Chernobyl disaster, instead reserving funds to develop Chernobyl as a tourist attraction.  For deeper research into the Chernobyl disaster, listen to the podcast, “Uncovering the Story of Chernobyl” on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2019/07/02/738019227/uncovering-the-story-of-chernobyl

 “House of Cards” (Final Season)–A Different Shuffle

House of Cards Season 6

In the earlier five seasons of House of Cards, Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) represented the Machiavellian Chief Whip then Vice President, and then President. As he manipulated his fellow party colleagues, foreign prime ministers (principally Russia), we witnessed the dark truths of American politics by a despotic megalomaniac.

Now, in Season 6, Frank Underwood is dead, but we don’t know how.  His widow, Claire Underwood (the phenomenal Robin Wright) is President and has inherited her dead husband’s enemies.

Dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death, and declaring that “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over”, Claire clashes with corporate moguls, the Russian prime minister, and her own vice president.

Trying to forge her own path as President, Claire takes no prisoners and feels no regret. But Claire’s late husband still casts a long shadow. “Frank’s legacy” is the cornerstone of the series finale.

House of Cards Season 6

The powerful ending of this season of House of Cards is dramatically sharpened and has an even darker theme: gender issues and patriarchy infused with a stench of misogyny. Claire’s dark secrets venomously boil over, ratcheting towards an ignominious confrontation with Doug Stamper, Frank Underwood’s obsessively devoted acolyte who cannot forgive Claire for what he imagines she is doing to Frank’s legacy.

Overlaid with the backlash of the first female President, we see Claire have to disassociate from her husband’s despicable acts. Nevertheless, her political enemies delight in accusing her of being guilty of Frank’s sins.

Frank’s reach is beyond the grave. As Claire’s enemies come close to impeaching her, Claire does what she and Frank did the last time they got close to defeat: she manufactures a crisis. Claiming that terrorists are attempting to acquire a nuclear bomb, she creates a military standoff between U.S. and Russian troops in Syria.

It’s the thunderous theme of House of Cards: Power is fragile– and we watch as the powerful can be brought tumbling down by the smallest misstep. Claire’s own reign is ultimately doomed to fail, playing a near-impossible game, but as we watch we don’t know how or when.

House of Cards in its final season ends on a dramatically different, more ambiguous and amoral note, than any of its previous seasons or its BBC predecessor. What Frank and Claire did may not really be out of the ordinary. House of Cards is more about the undetected, malignant form of insatiable power: more difficult to expose and defeat.

Totally unexpected, this season of House of Cards is a different and more frightening look at unhinged power. Robin Wright is a marvel to behold!

 

Note:  I have reviewed Seasons 1-4 previously.