This month I did something a little different: I watched a lot of The Americans.
That wasn’t all that unusual; the show has been one of my favorites since I started watching it years ago. The show is a smart, level-headed look at marriage through spywork, finding perfect distorted mirrors of parental and partnership trials, always one step ahead of what I think it could be.
The result is that I have a more profound understanding of the show, as well as an essay at BW/DR. But throughout it also struck me how hard it can be to write about what we love (I mean, just look at that slapdash description up-top).
Shows like The Americans excel so well at so many things it can be a struggle to find the words to describe how it operates, let alone how it hums. And I find that I can often feel this way when I discuss lots of different kinds of things I like: Essays I enjoyed, movies that really touched me, people who truly enrich my existence. It’s something I’d like to get back to, and also something I hope to do more (and better) within the walls of this platform.
Between that and the Seattle International Film Festival, I’ve been pretty booked-up, pop culture-wise this month.
But among other things I watched this month:
Sorry to Bother You
Picnic at Hanging Rock (a bit uneven, but so damn enthralling)
Akane no Mai, from Westworld, which seemed to be one of the first things actively interested in the emotional groundwork and stakes for its characters.
Killing Eve — another slightly scattershot entry, but boy howdy is that something I can’t wait to see more of.
The Miseducation of CameronPost, which found such depth of humanity without ever tipping its hand into excusing bad actions. This is one to watch, with a real starmaking turn from Chloe Grace Moretz.
What up what up, we’re back at the end of another month! Let’s get some of the more important visuals from this past month out of the way:
BEYONCE AT COACHELLA
It was so momentous that during my mid-month check in, wherein I take notes about what I watched in the first fortnight of the month so that the end-of-month Zosha has more memory, Beychella was the only thing I managed to write down.
Anyway, suffice it to say this was a month, and now we’re on to May. But before we do that, let’s review some other stuff:
There’s a lot I sort of wish I could change about Solaris, but I’m so immensely grateful for it. I love finally getting around to bigger names like this and seeing all the ways it shaped and informed a genre, like slotting in a puzzle piece — a middle one, not even a perimeter. Solaris is so raw for such a structured film, a perfect balance of wearing its ideas on its sleeve while also being a deep well to mine for philosophy.
Janelle’s new album is here! And guys, it’s good. At parts it feels not quite as good as the sum of its parts, but between the call to arms that double as bops, and the stunning visuals of her accompanying “emotion picture” there’s no reason to not be listening to Janelle right now. Seriously what are you doing? (Unless it’s Beychella; then you get a pass for whatever.)
Punch Drunk Love
After having heard people talk about this (as Adam Sandler’s best performance ever) for years, I finally took the plunge for a forthcoming essay I edited at BW/DR. And wow. Wow! So enchanted with Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur so preoccupied with the alchemic magic that happens within relationships, and how beautiful—and challenging—it can be to find someone whose weird matches your weird. This film shared so much DNA with Phantom Thread, I can’t wait to watch them together.
Jane the Virgin
Well the latest (and, apparently, penultimate!) season has wrapped and dAMN WHAT A TWIST. But leading up to the twist the show managed to do something truly remarkable: Ground itself utterly and completely. Every move felt right, every pain cut deep, and every smile was like that first day of 60 degree sunny weather in Seattle after winter. So in awe of how much this show does while making it all look easy.
This essay is exactly the kind of thing I want to do with all of my time. Focused, yet flexible enough to envelop broader criticisms and insights about the show, this piece grabs you with its title and earns its keep by tracing a path so eloquently I ended up thinking I hadn’t given the show enough credit for what it did. 👏🏻 👏🏻 👏🏻
Call Me By Your Name
As part of my reading books that movies I loved recently were based on, I reached for this one. So much more urgent than the movie, yet still just as sticky with heat. Spent a week after reading this thinking that I had already been through a week of summer weather, but realized it was just André Aciman’s feverish prose that painted such a vivid picture it was like I was right there in Italy with Oliver and Elio. Perhaps not quite as sophisticated as its cinematic counterpart, a bit less interested (and thus, neglectful) of the age difference at its core. But invigorating nonetheless.
The shortest month of the year is out of the way, but boy did it pack a wallop. There was some truly stunning stuff that passed through my purview in February, and made this blog post (a series which I hope to keep up with) easy to write.
Other thoughts I was having this month: It turns out getting over being minorly hit by a car is a long, non-linear process, and it is frustrating as all hell. Between staying on top of doctor’s bills wrongly directed to you, and having to beg and fight for every bit of treatment, it’s clear the healthcare system in this country is utterly broken. I’ve learned that it’s absurd that something like massage — a vital part of helping me recover in the past 12 weeks, and helping manage inflamed muscles in order to actually make them heal and respond to the PT — is seen as a bougey indulgence. Getting massages and speaking with my incredibly knowledgeable massage therapist helped me learn what muscles weren’t working when they should and vice versa, as well as how to actually go forth with my workout. It was utterly important to my recovery, and I had to specifically ask for it. I can only imagine what it would be like in a system that actually valued my health and my writing.
Hopefully next month I’ll have more writing to share with you. See you in March!
This movie will be talked about in the years to come. Alex Garland — following up his exquisite Ex Machina — has created a cerebral and gorgeous sci-fi film that’s already (rightfully) drawing comparisons to Tarkovsky. It’s immensely hard to talk about; it’s unsettling, and challenging, and easy to mistake as faux-deep. But it won’t let up. The end keeps building and building, past what the film seemed like it was going to be and into something less concrete, and far more compelling.
We Were Eight Years in Power
What is there to say about one of the greatest essayists of all time? Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ability to weave words and illustrate power structures is almost unrivaled, and his collection of essays shows that he can take that insight even further.
What is there to say about Black Panther? A new, and lasting, high-watermark for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that works as both a comic book film and a social commentary; a film as funny as it is heartfelt, complex as it is straightforward; one of the best villains in recent memory, comic adaptation or no. As I wrote here on Pulp Diction, there’s plenty of people better (and less white) to read on exactly what the movie means. You should see the movie, read them all, and see it again. I’m trying to.
Your Favorite Band is Killing Me
This one might be better for March — it’s looking like I’m not going to finish reading it before the month is out — but damn if this isn’t a fun read. I picked this up on the suggestion of a writer whose essay I edited, and now it’s my turn to recommend it: Steven Hyden’s ability to weave a personal hand with deep knowledge and insight about music and commentary therein is both awe-inspiring and enjoyable as a sort of novel-length brain exploding meme. He pushes past “musicians often spar” and “the media concocts competition between stars” to find truer notes about why each respective “rivalry” formed, and how they shaped the respective artists’ careers. It’s definitely written in 2016 (the last two chapters I’ve read have mentioned Trump as merely a businessman, and said that at least the Taylor/Kanye dispute is put to rest; simpler times) but almost all of the acumen is good no matter what year it is.
This show ended on a downbeat, both narratively and artistically speaking. Despite being a culmination and collection of so many things the show has done up to this point, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s finale was a bit of a rushed, beginning and ending to this season’s storyline. But this season has accomplished some truly amazing highs, covering everything from Borderline to letting your protagonist acknowledge and grow past the bad things they’ve done. Tuning into season three often felt like you never knew what you were going to get, and the show has proved to be all the richer for it.
Janelle Monae’s new singles
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Janelle Monae last graced us with an album, but the ArchAndroid is back, and boy are the results amazing. Though released just last week, it’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t jamming to either “Make Me Feel” or “Django Jane.” The former has solidified Monae as the second coming of Prince (and Bowie), and the latter shows that she doesn’t need a hook to dominate the rap market. More than three straight minutes of fire — and that’s all before the album comes out or I tell you which song I’m talking about.
Starting the new year off right with a MoviePass in hand and a few good first-time viewings. Thanks to said Pass, January 18 was really a record month for new movies, which means a lot of other interests fell by the wayside, but here we are:
Despite seeing this movie almost a full month after it came out, I managed to have basically nothing spoiled for me (though I was on full alert for some high quality breakfast scenes) and boy was it worth it. This movie was nothing like I expected it to be, a distinctive take on relationship dynamics and the power-shift that happens like volleyball within it. Everything from the score to the sartorial choices was scrumptious and laced with significance, and Paul Thomas Anderson makes it all feel light as air. Is this what love feels like?
Not always perfect, but never a bad time. Set against the scenic Scottish coast, Broadchurch always felt at its best when it was elegantly untangling the relationship between its two core characters. Their dynamic is truly beautifully handled, evolving carefully and with love at every step. It’s tough investigation material, but Miller and Hardy are one for the ages.
Call Me By Your Name
Another long-delayed viewing which I didn’t expect to be able to be so easily accessible after all the hype. What a delight to be proved wrong yet again, by a movie as nuanced and understated as Call Me By Your Name. More thoughts on it here, but suffice it to say:
Call Me By Your Name’s direction also allows it to feel raw and intimate, an idyll just as full of heartache as it is of peaches. So much of the film is devoted to feeling—summer, love, each other—and Guadagnino utilizes every tool at his disposal to seduce and immerse the audience in the sensation of being right there.
All the Lives I Want, by Alana Massey
A perfect collection of essays to start the new year: Massey’s bravado and brassy voice amplifies the sharp wisdom of her writing, taking each thesis to further and more unexpected places than you ever expected it to go. Her ideas get under your skin like a bug bite: Something that seems so run-of-the-mill as it happens to you, and yet returns again and again to remind you of the power it can wield in your life. She’ll change the way you feel about everything from Lil Kim to Anna Nicole Smith to Courtney Love to the Lisbon Girls to—well, everything. Her prose is like a sunbeam on a cloudy day and boy do you just want to bask in it.
The Good Place (‘s final few episodes of season 2)
Would that every show on television showed such inventiveness when it came to their structure. The show was really firing on all cylinders in season 2, and showed over and over again the kind of beautiful (and accessible) dynamics that can come from constantly blowing up and reestablishing the point of your show.
Jay Z’s 4:44 music video
Whatever else there is to say about the actual complexity, depth, and production of the album, the visuals Jay Z and his team have concocted for 4:44 (the album) are stunning and cavernous. To watch them is to spelunk through a couple of pop culture icons truly chewing on their place in the community, and their community’s place in the the country. 4:44 (the song) was no exception.
Finally a piece that seems to really be able to reckon with white women’s complicity in racism. It’s damning and yet understanding, cutting to the core and looking at every tree ring along the way. Lady Macbeth feels utterly crucial in today’s world. As does Fran Hoepfner’s essay about it at Bright Wall/Dark Room.
Crime procedural have long been a staple of prime time television. In a crowded TV landscape like the Peak TV we’re in now, crime shows remain a familiar draw for viewers. There is an easy-to-tweak formula that networks can replicate over and over again. This formula is how we end up with so many TV police tropes, including ripped-from-the-headlines police, psychic police, detectives in a certain location, crime scene unit officers, law enforcement teaming up with mathematicians, federal agencies enlisting cutting edge technology, and goofball police all crowding the TV Guide with their antics.
But as the political climate shifts more and more divisively, show runners need to start being more aware of the moral predicaments their heroes are thrown into — and what that means as a reflection (or not) of modern policing.
“The Man in the High Castle” should be the program on everyone’s lips after November’s election. After all, the show takes place in an alternate universe in which the U.S. has lost World War II, leaving the Nazis and Japanese empires to divvy up the states. Streamed through Amazon, the show isn’t beholden to any strict network guidelines around language and content. Instead of saying the pledge of allegiance in the morning, school children turn to a picture of the Fuhrer and perform a Nazi salute. The show’s premise is eerily close to discussions and debates rolling around the American zeitgeist now. And yet, it’s about as soft as the “Edelweiss” cover that opens its episodes.
If “310” had existed in another season, or after another run of episodes, this might be a different review. The episode — chronicling Juliette and Noah’s days in Paris, and commitment to their family members as well as each other —has plenty of sweet, emotional moments. It’s just that they only barely connected with what we just saw.
Take Noah’s arc this season. We’ve seen him come to terms with a burden he was carrying around with him for the entire show (except it had never been mentioned), spiral out of control multiple times, cope with his time in prison, dissolve his marriage to Alison, burn his bridge with Helen, and finally realize that he stabbed himself in a disassociative episode and…none of that, is here.
Whatever build up there was between Juliette and Noah this season, whatever complications she adds to his life, is largely absent here, save for an errant mention of when he was out of control a few months ago and she helped him right the boat. What was his recovery process like? Who knows. It’s not relevant here. Never mind the fact that the entire season built out a mystery and a few mental health episodes to keep its wheels turning. The Affair has always struggle to balance the different strands of the show, but here it feels like it bucks the hook its so steadfastly held onto in favor of a romance drama.
What’s left has some nice moments: Juliette’s quietly sad disbelief at Etienne’s lucidity, only to still be crushed when her fears are confirmed moments later; Noah’s talk with Whitney, though perhaps a bit on the nose (The Affair specialty), feels like a solid connection between these two.
But it doesn’t feel at all like a resolution to their arcs. For Juliette, it feels like her introduction has gone from hot, sexually-open, stereotypical Frenchwoman to grieving wife seeking escape to ignored lover to…girlfriend? I guess? Again, we haven’t really seen anything from this relationship, pre-recovery or no. Juliette’s arc mostly makes sense when we look at what (apparently) the writers are trying to do with Noah, which is completely rehab his image.
It’s a bizarre step, seeing as how he didn’t need to be rehabbed until they decided to spin him out of control to spin out a season mystery. Noah has always been a bit of a scumbag as a real person, but as a character who opted to go to prison at the end of last season to protect the women he loves, he was not exactly in need of saving. “310” returns him to that place he always seems to get to in Affair finales: loved by a woman, against all odds, and stepping in to be her night in shining armor.
I’ve written before that season 3 of The Affair felt a bit like a show they had ventured off the roadmap with, and “310” only confirms that for me, unfortunately. But they’re renewed for season 4, so next fall The Affair will be back on the map, one way or another.
I can’t get over Juliette getting a finale half, which seems a bit weird to me. Although we left basically everyone else at a nice stopping point (Alison getting shared custody of Joanie and a potential job, Cole choosing Luisa, Helen coming clean and mending things with Vic) Juliette has been so close to a non-entity. Her plot line here, while narratively rewarding in some ways, seems to only exist to prop up Noah’s half.
Noah would pretend he’s Hemingway.
I really liked the way they played the two versions of Juliette’s colleagues. Too often the memory questions this show asks seems to be overly-convenient (the restaurant scene, or the season 1 finale) but this one was a simple illustration of how weird social situations are, with or without a language barrier. The no subtitles in Noah’s was a nice touch too.
I’m not saying Juliette’s boss was wrong or right, but damn that scene was brutal to just be a random, lingering thread.
As was the black humor of getting Etienne’s body into the elevator. Oof.
From the notes: It’s only a matter of time before Noah shows up inappropriately [after Etienne’s death].
Partway through Helen’s perspective this week, Vic seems to be reaching his breaking point. It’s understandable, after all she’s shown over this season that she’s still got feelings for Noah that tip her into delirious love, and she’s been showing little to no regard for how that makes the rest of her family feel.
“Wake up Helen. This man’s problem is much bigger than you and I can handle,” Vic insists. He no idea how much truth there is to those words, but the truth is neither does Helen.
This week is a continuation of last week, where we saw Noah struggle with his sanity and place in the world while Helen struggled with how much she “knows” Noah and the glowing love she still feels for him in her heart, recklessly unthinking about how it affects those around her. When Whitney tries to get her to understand what taking Noah back would mean Helen laughs in her face, scoffing “how it’s affected you?” She’s clearly ignoring the impact Noah, as a force, an adulterer, a convict, has had on her family, let alone her life. And while Vic is acting the way someone would if your girlfriend moved her ex-husband who she’s mooning over into your house without consulting you and then lied about it, Helen can’t see that. And so it becomes pretty clear early on that this is going to be it for Vic/Helen.
I still like Vic. He was always smarter and more observant than Helen gave him credit for; on a different show he’d be the guy. On 30 Rock he’d be the sort of sardonic, quirky doctor who Liz Lemon would fall for against the odds. On The Affair he’s a casualty of Helen’s pathetic obsession with her Noah.
Which Noah seems to take utterly for granted. In his version of events Helen is much more down to business, confident, and bruising than her own skittish self-image. Vic is comes off more imposing; standing and looking down his nose as he dispenses sarcastic medical advice.
But no matter the reality Noah’s addiction to vicodin seems to ring true. At this point any other explanation for his erratic behavior and “attacks” from Gunther would just seem untrue. His prison flashbacks insinuate that Gunther was a majorly threatening presence when he was inside, but outside jail? What could the explanation possibly be?
He remembers himself as far more alert and self-reliant in his version of the day, but Helen imagines him as almost a child, whom she helps to dry off after the shower, feeds, medicates, and generally throws her life under the bus for. And what does Noah give in return—refusal to admit a drug problem? Ending her relationship? Withholding his circumstances when she’s trying to help? Lording his pending sainthood for taking the fall for her with the car accident?
Helen deserves more than that. The show knows it too, that’s why this week feels so painful to watch. With any luck she’ll wisen up soon, but knowing this show we’ve got miles to go before we sleep on that front.
Helen just thinking out loud to Nina’s answering machine about Noah’s condition and place in her life.
“Vic he’s their father, what was I supposed to do?” Vic: *shrugs*
“What kind of doctor refuses medication to someone who’s suffering?” Noah asks after Vic. The kind trained to look for Vicodin addiction.
Ahhh Furkat. And he camps, to go watch his 24-year-old daughter’s band play at festivals. What a treat.
Interesting touch the widely disparate looks Whitney rocks between Noah’s and Helen’s visions. It’s that kind of nice work that The Affair can do to more subtly clue the audience in to characters relation to each other.
Just as you start to wonder this week whether we’re going to see another one of Helen’s dad’s terrible girlfriends, and what Helen’s mom is up to, and if she knows how much we miss her—in she dances. Turns out, Helen’s Dad and Mom have rekindled their romance, and are halting the divorce and staying married.
“At the end of the day, your mother just knows me,” says her father, blissfully. “Better than anyone else ever will.”
It’s the subject at the front of everyone’s mind this week; when do you really know someone? Noah wrestles with what his father knew about him, and what he wants Martin to know about him in return. Helen wrestles with if she truly knows anyone at all—and whether she’ll ever find someone to know her in return.
This week Helen bounces between rocks and hard places—Nina, Max, Martin, Vick; all seemingly trying to steer her away from Noah. She is, after all, one of the only people left who believes—nay, knows his innocence. It’s why she wants to believe he’s fundamentally good; fundamentally whole.
It’s why no one’s reasoning works with her. When her father jokes about Noah’s killer streak she hears the worst night of her life roar up against her ears. As Martin shuns his father for taking a life Helen sees the ghost of a path narrowly avoided. And when Nina throws in her face that Noah was broken when they met, that he used her to escape his life, until she dragged him down and he had to escape again.
When Helen’s at the disastrous double date with Vick and her parents it seems like she’s at an entirely different evening than the rest of them. That out of step feeling follows her throughout the episode, terrible decision after terrible action. She’s haunted by what she did, and haunted by the man who protected her who she may not even have known.
Her half lands harder than Noah’s, who struggles to put his life in motion after the last time we saw him—divorcing Helen, admitting his part in the end of his mother’s life, and figuring out where he goes from here. His admission in the last episode seems to have alleviated some of the guilt from his shoulders; he goes to his father’s house, and starts to broach the life he left behind there.
He brings Martin into some of the folds of his life and imparts some wisdom. We know Martin ended up going home, so when we see him chase a hooded figure into the lake it’s legitimately surprising (even if, from Helen’s perspective, we know no one else is there). But when the figure turns around it’s young Noah, it’s both a shock and a let down.
Anyone who’s not Helen could apparently see that Noah had trauma. And The Affair has telegraphed its thought process pretty clearly in the past. But this? This is a bit too low-hanging-fruit. What’s clear is that Helen wasn’t the only person “purposefully ignoring” the fuck-ups and downs in their life.
On the one hand you don’t want to end up like Helen: Finding out that Noah ran into her; realizing that she never cared to dig for the truth of why so long as the arrangement worked for her; grasping at straws and men for answers and connection. On the other, you don’t want to end up like Noah: Pushing people away in favor of exile, repentance, and confusion. Demanding too much and too little for yourself all at once.
The problem with knowing people, better than anyone else in the world, is that it can be a double-edged sword. And if The Affair is about anything more than affairs, it’s about the discovery of that truth.
Stray thoughts and thinks:
God help me I love Vick. Poor bastard could be a great partner to someone in a different show. That being said, that Helen notices (or imagines) him laughing at her Dad’s joke about killing him to save a lot of heartache? Not a great look.
“Was Noah fucked up when I met him?” Helen asks Max, who is bewildered as one would be when you’ve just cheated on your fiancee with your ex-girlfriend after she initiated it and then brings up her ex-husband who was your best friend for 20 years.
Noah was calm when he heard a train whistle—if he heard it at all.
We pick up right where we left it: Noah passes by Alison on her bike, and suddenly the world slows. They circle around each other: He’s interested in getting back together, she’s not. He wants affection, she wants the divorce papers signed and submitted. But no matter how they posture themselves, one thing is clear: their chemistry is undeniable.
For the second week in a row we have perspectives of Alison really aligning. Though Noah shifts from erratic naiveté to weighty romance in Alison’s and his perspective, respectfully, Alison remains even keel throughout. And though Noah’s teasing of her can often come across as almost bullying—teasing her that she “used to be more fun” when she won’t skinny dip in a hot tub with him, pulling her into a day trip to Block Island with the promise of signed divorce papers—it’s clear that they have some sort of understanding of each other. It’s one she shrugs off at first, and that he complicates with his bullheadedness, but there’s a lived-in familiarity about them. Though awkwardness should hang in the air their conversation flows. Even in its strain it never feels stilted.
And so by the end of their day trip, accidentally trapped on the island overnight after missing the last ferry, they find themselves sharing wounds, going deeper than they (apparently) ever have. She tells him that the woman she was before Gabriel’s death died along with her son, and Noah tells her that he helped his mother kill herself when her MS was getting the best of her.
The Affair has so often found itself tangled in bullshit grief that it can be easy to forget that the show has some kind of profound things to say when it touches on the real thing. Complications like we end with tonight when Noah crashes Juliette’s car after getting run off the road by his prison guard tormenter only to find himself on an empty road feel like conflict just for the sake of conflict; lamp-shading that Noah is popping Vicodin with a warning from Alison that they’re addictive is just adding wet logs to the fire. Listening to Alison and Noah really talk, for arguably the first time in their relationship, that’s a whole different ball game.
Of course Noah is still a bit of a cad: He only brings up Joanie when he’s trying to lure Alison back to him, telling her that he’s ready to be with her and “raise someone else’s kid.” Though he may correctly intuit that Alison seeks out punishment, his suggestion that she can “flagellate herself for the rest of her life” in front of Cole and Luisa as what she is looking to do, sells that he doesn’t necessarily see her connection with Joanie as important as she does. Whatever clear eyes Noah found in prison are still a bit cloudy, Vicodin addiction or not. He stampedes past her boundaries and asks more of her than he’s prepared to return. Though at first she lets him, she holds firm on the divorce and whatever catalyst for change is within him finally gets him to sign the divorce papers.
Dominic West and Ruth Wilson both mold whole, flawed, and tangled studies of their characters here, only to find themselves a bit shortchanged by the writing, which seems more interested in the intrigue than it is in the intricate humanity at play. But when all is said and done “305” ends with Alison putting her foot down, getting space and a divorce from Noah, and a sleepover trip with Joanie for her birthday. It’s a new frontier for The Affair.
“You got out of prison and you bought a red car?”
Of course Cole comes by while Noah’s there, and confronts Alison (as Noah hides, and presumably hears, although we don’t see it from his perspective) about their one night stand. He’s not interested in leaving Luisa, but tells Alison he wants to see her with full custody—even if, as she rightly points out, he won’t help her there. “So I’m healthy enough to fuck, but not to be the mother of our child,” she venomously argues back. Will the divorce make a difference?
Or maybe the storefront she notices going on the market at Block Island will become something?
“What’s she like now?” Noah asks about Joanie. “Good, intense.” “Wonder where she gets that from.”
The references to Camelot were a bit cringeworthy, Noah.
“Cole will only ever see you as a disaster, Alison. Whatever you do, no matter how competent you become you’ll always be damaged goods to him. If you really think he’s going to ever really trust you with Joanie you’re being naive. I’m just telling the truth.” Do we think this is an accurate read of Cole?
That same erratic comedic burst that gave Brendan Frasier a name for himself is what makes his guard persona so terrifying. When he whips out his baton it was truly startling.