That’s a wrap: The Mandalorian 1.8

Hoo boy, that was a good finale. Plot threads dangling throughout the season were resolved, there’s a clear sense of closure for this season, and there’s a clear and direct focus for next season. The Mandalorian and the Child are bonded like father and son, and they have allies who may come to stand by them again in the future (while unfortunately losing other allies in this explosive climax). And this final episode brought in a lot of elements from The Clone Wars and Rebels, in particular regarding the Mandalorians and one very special weapon.

I dearly hope that The Mandalorian honors its narrative promise to pursue the homeworld of Yoda’s species in this new season. But at the very least, the Mandalorian now believes he must care for a child of a culture (the Jedi) that has historically been an enemy of his adoptive people. That’s meaty enough to warrant another season or more by itself.

The Rise of Skywalker, on first impressions

My first impression of the final chapter in the Skywalker Saga can be simply summarized:

 

I could rest on that. Just a few additional thoughts for the moment, though:

  • This actually felt like a satisfying conclusion to the sequel trilogy. It directly addressed a surprising number of the questions I wanted answered following The Last Jedi.
  • Critics are right. J.J. Abrams plays this film incredibly safe and attempts to appease as many fans as possible. I could see some people being angry about various elements of the film. I can imagine that most people will find something to like and will grudgingly accept some of the events in the film that feel like compromises between warring camps of fandom and ideologies about what Star Wars is. Turns out, though, in catering to fans, there’s a lot of fan service, and while I’m normally frustrated by fan service, I’m also (as it turns out) a pretty big Star Wars fan, and boy was I serviced by this film.
  • Most disappointingly, this film is cowardly in its LGBTQ representation. When I write more spoilery things, I’ll get into this more. If I were queer and hoping for representation, I might even be angry. The small concession to representation here is almost condescendingly small even as the filmmakers seem determined to walk back some other implicitly queer elements of the previous films.
  • Despite playing it safe in terms of filmmaking and storytelling, the movie does manage to introduce some cool new things to the canon Star Wars mythology–and to recycle some of the weirder Legends content in interesting ways.
  • There was a lot of great droid content in this film, and C-3PO actually gets to be significant again.
  • I’m feeling kind of smug about correctly predicting one plot point (at least, in a very broad sense).

Opinions will vary wildly, and people will surely have some strong reactions to this closing chapter. That’s okay; I’ve been a part of this fandom for long enough to be used to that with every new Star Wars property, especially the films. But even with my points of criticism and concern above, I still had a blast watching this. And I already want to watch it again!

I was wrong: The Mandalorian 1.7

Over the past couple of episodes, I admit that I was getting a little frustrated with the pacing of the show. In retrospect, that was imprudent of me. The seventh episode pays off so many developments in earlier episodes. Characters and plot points carefully placed over time, in a way that feels strikingly organic, have now come together in an exciting way. And now we are moving at breakneck pace, the episode ending in a tragic cliffhanger. I was moved and surprised and impressed. And I’d have to say that (almost) every episode was vital for reaching this point.

Full speed ahead to the ending–but first, The Rise of Skywalker!

Hellier 2

I watched the second season of Hellier, of course. It’s even wilder, more aimless and unfocused, than the original season (and it now has almost nothing to do with the town of Hellier). The core team of paranormal investigators is just as credulous as ever. Following up on “synchronicities” they perceive as complex, wandering down investigative paths that always lead to dead ends, and breathlessly following yet another unsolicited email with a fabulous story, the team manages to somehow always keep the faith, confident that at some point they will uncover something remarkable, all the while believing that they themselves are now significant, somehow part of some massive and largely invisible magic initiation. I don’t even mean “magic” in a dismissive way–they literally believe that they are being led on into a real magic initiation spell. They believe that magic is real, including the “hedge witch” magic of one investigator, the “chaos magic” dabbled in by her co-investigator and spouse, and the ritual magic of Thelema. They believe that all these magics coexist, that magic matters to this case, that ultradimensional beings might be goblins and fairies and yetis and aliens, that if you can read meaning into coincidence then it is a profound synchronicity used by a higher power to lead you to truth, that the 37th parallel is a unique zone of paranormal activity of all kind, that a space man named Indrid Cold was involved in the Mothman events of the 1960s and 1970s and recently died in a spaceship-to-spaceship collision, that aliens visit old ladies in nursing homes to celebrate Mother’s Day, that felons with remarkable tales and signs of psychosis are potentially victims of massive child-sacrifice cults…They believe in “weirdness,” and they want to believe, and if someone tells them something fantastical, they will accept it as true and attempt to assimilate it into their worldview.

I increasingly believe that a feeling of societal isolation is in large part what informs the views of these investigators and their allies. They can all trade strange “secrets” and talk paranormal events as though they are experts in a highly specialized field. They view themselves as special, called to a sacred task, because they “ask questions” that most people ignore. One of the lead investigators acknowledges that he has always been a paranoid personality. And they talk a lot about how paranormal phenomena seem to especially congregate around marginalized people living on the fringes of society, or living in between spaces (e.g., after a move). This, like so much else, seems to be looking at a correlation and reading causation into it–or something similar. Central to this season, they accept the narrative of a woman in rural Kentucky with a history of criminal charges because it ties in enough with what they want to believe (to their credit, they are initially skeptical of her). That woman’s narrative, which throws together the occult and military conspiracies and aliens and goblins and pedophile rings and a whole bunch of other nonsense, sounds like the delusions of someone suffering from some form of psychosis. They actually manage to speak with her later (from prison), and she insists that there is still some form of occult conspiracy, but she backs off on many of the claims she initially laid out, saying that she had just looked stuff up online to explain what was happening. She’s cobbled together a bizarre worldview out of delusions and the weird corners of the Internet, and these investigators never even seriously raise the possibility of mental illness, instead enabling her worldview. To the extent that they doubt her claims at first, it is because they think she might be under the influence of a government disinformation agent.

I think the people in this show, the investigators themselves, feel marginalized. And they’ve found a community within paranormal circles and fringe thinkers. They’ve found purpose in this particular investigation. It feels a little like if Behind the Curve was produced from inside the fringe community, without the irony and self-awareness.

When you find support for your ideas in the discovery of dissimilar deflated balloons at different locations, I think it’s safe to say you might be straining a little too hard for meaning.

Still, the documentary’s second season is long and rambling in a way that can be dull and repetitive but is also a fascinating look into how these people are thinking. There are moments in the show that are weird, precisely because I genuinely believe the authenticity of the investigators. I think they really believe in everything they’re doing. And even when the weirdest moments of the show still rely on you being willing to connect dots that don’t require a single one-to-one connection, or any connection at all, I still respect that they manage to have their weird moments without ever feeling like they’re trying to pull my leg. They’re concerned about being hoaxed (not enough at times, I think), but I think they would never even consider trying to hoax their viewers. They believe in what they’re doing too much. They believe in their research, their investigations, their 3 AM debates. They’re not great at what they’re doing, but they’re doing the best they can.

Nothing’s changed my perspective, but it’s a good show to have on in the background while working out. I’m invested in these goofballs, and I’d like to see another season, even though it feels like they’ve totally exhausted the narrative at this point.

Side note for those who watched the show…When Greg and Tyler go into that cave for the first time, that might have been the most frustrating moment of the whole show for me! They go into the cave without proper PPE or anyone outside of the cave who knows where they are. What if they have a cave-in or a fall or some other disabling injury? What if they’re right about the murder-cult and they get attacked? What if there’s a dangerous animal inside? Then they go in the cave and claim to hear whispers, though I heard nothing remotely like a whisper on the audio, and they refuse to investigate that further! Dudes! If there’s really a murder-cult operating right there, you could be so close to the truth–OR, more likely, you’ll quickly find a more reasonable explanation for what you’re hearing. Then they find those animal bones, which they make a big deal about, even though it could just be where a bear or something similar drags its prey, and THEY DON’T EVEN GRAB A BONE TO BRING BACK WITH THEM. Guys! You could have that sucker analyzed! You could provide some hard evidence to support some of your theories–or, more likely, you could actually disprove some of the ideas you’re bouncing around. As is so often the case, they miss obvious approaches in the moment and almost seem hell-bent on approaching investigations ass-backwards. Ah!!! Hellier in a nutshell.

Big-shot gangster putting together a crew: The Mandalorian 1.6

In the immediate aftermath of the sixth episode of The Mandalorian, I’m excited. It was great fun watching the second half, with plenty of tense action and twists. We have some of the greatest fight scenes of the season, with the Mandalorian really showing off all his abilities. There’s a tense game of deadly hide-and-seek involving the child. We get glimpses of the state of the larger galaxy, both in the criminal underworld and in the Republic. We also get a few more hints about the Mandalorian’s past. And I was delighted by the presence of so many enjoyable actors: Richard Ayoade, whom I remember fondly as Moss from The IT Crowd, voices an arrogant mercenary droid; Clancy Brown, who voiced Savage Oppress (among other Star Wars characters), plays the hulking Devaronian muscle on the team; Mark Boone Junior, memorable as Bobby in Sons of Anarchy, plays the outlaw crew leader who throws together the operation; and the directors of other Mandalorian episodes cameo as X-Wing pilots. Then there are the actors I didn’t recognize, who you might, like Natalia Tena (whose roles include Nymphadora Tonks from the Harry Potter films) and Matt Lanter (whom I did not recognize in his small though crucial part as a scared security guard in this episode, and who voiced Anakin Skywalker in The Clone Wars).

But I remember how I felt during the first part, when Mando fills in the last spot of a five-person job to bust a target out of a New Republic prison ship. During those opening moments, our hero (or antihero) felt more like a silent video game protagonist than usual. As we were introduced to characters along with Mando, we learned that some knew him and some didn’t, some hated him and some liked him; the other characters traded verbal jabs, made jokes, and eluded to shady pasts. Meanwhile, Mando did a whole lot of staring silently through his helmet. We’ve seen this plot many times before too, in television episodes (not to mention series) and films and video games and books: a group of undesirables gets together for a job that should be simple, and then things go wrong. The episode doesn’t set the characters up much–they’re archetypes. The boss putting the job together has seen it all and is too old to go out on jobs himself anymore; the point guy is agitated and arrogant; the pilot is an aloof and brilliant droid that no one else fully trusts; the muscle is exactly that, big and mean; and then there’s the acrobat archetype, who is also the only female in the episode, written as a “sexy psychopath” like Harley Quinn. At first, they felt like unlikable versions of characters in The Fast and the FuriousGuardians of the Galaxy, or Suicide Squad–though one of the things I liked about the episode is that the second half shows that they are supposed to be unlikable, that they’re not good people.

More than anything else, the biggest flaw of this episode is that it doesn’t really progress the show in any way. The show in general is slow-paced in addressing its overarching narrative concerns, more focused on episodic adventures. This episode attempts to demonstrate that the Mandalorian is a changed man now (while also showing how much he hasn’t changed), but we’ve really already seen this in all of the previous episodes. Perhaps he hasn’t had to directly confront his past since turning his back on the guild, but it still felt superfluous, thematically covering content similar to that of the immediately preceding episode. Other than that, we know that others will still betray Mando to get the kid, that Mando has no safe harbor, and that the kid won’t be safe until the bounty hunters’ guild is dealt with. These are things we already knew. I had fun watching the episode, and I was stoked by the end of it, but I’m a little disappointed that it feels like the full eight episodes of the first season are going to be spent simply tying up loose ends with the bounty hunters guild. I’m happy to see Mando taking on odd jobs and dealing with political and interpersonal spaces directly altered by his decisions at the start of this season, but I’d like to get through some of the central conflicts left unresolved from the beginning. At the same time, with only 8 episodes averaging just over a half-hour in length, compared to a traditional action-drama with perhaps 13 (or even 22) episodes running 45 minutes to an hour, I recognize that I must seem impatient with what has in fact been fairly economical storytelling. At some point, though, the show has to do something else other than telling us the same thing over and over again.

Returning to Vampyr

Vampyr came to Switch, so I got it and played it. This time around, with technical issues reduced, I was able to complete the game. That said, there were still a lot of technical issues present, which felt shocking on a console. There were still often lengthy load times, including screen-freezing loading in the middle of combat on several occasions. Sometimes, it appeared that the game became slightly sluggish with a slight frame-rate drop. These were annoying and disruptive problems, but not fatal. Even worse, the game crashed on at least three occasions, with at least a couple times where I got a Switch system error telling me the software had to be closed and at least one time where the game indefinitely froze in the middle of a battle, becoming unresponsive (even in that situation, I could still easily return to the Switch Home menu and quickly close out the game, which is a testament to the reliable nature of the Switch). On top of all this, the game has been ported to Switch with what appear to be the lowest graphics settings–fair, I get that sacrifices have to be made for this little, under-powered console, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when the game still doesn’t perform consistently.

I’m glad that I finished the game, though. It has a fun take on vampire lore. The story advances in jagged steps, and the dialogue doesn’t always flow naturally, but it still lands more than it misses. In fact, I suspect that Dontnod had a better story here that was stymied somewhat by English-language localization efforts. Still, this feels like an odd explanation, given that Dontnod, while a French developer, has typically produced games with good-to-great writing, like Life Is Strange and Remember Me, which both precede Vampyr.

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I enjoyed roaming the streets of this version of 1918 London. I enjoyed uncovering secrets and unlocking hidden lore. I enjoyed learning little hints about people and then using my vampiric influence to persuade them to share more about themselves, their motivations and their fears. I enjoyed healing people when they were sick. I enjoyed crafting treatments for them and serums for myself and upgrades for my weapons. And I enjoyed the combat, so much of it, combat outside of every safe district hub, combat between vampires and vampire hunters of all shapes and sizes. I enjoyed a focused approach to leveling my character, locking in on specific offensive and defensive abilities rather than going too broad with my skill selection and wasting valuable experience points on dead-end development. I enjoyed applying skill advancements that boosted my combat strategies and that sometimes made me adapt new strategies. I became a huge fan of hurling myself forward from the shadows across vast distances to damage and stun opponents, drawing blood and vitality restoration from them by biting them when they fell, and using a combination of vampiric claws and melee weapons (upgraded so that they, too, would draw little bits of restorative blood for me with every hit) to whittle down the health of tougher opponents in quick flurries of strikes between bursts of dodging. Combat stayed fun and fresh during most of my time in the game, and it kept the frequent backtracking across the game map more lively, but the boss fights were less fun and more frustrating, presenting the same sorts of challenges and requiring the same sort of maneuvers in basically every battle. And combat as a whole, especially at the scale in which it appears within the game, feels antithetical to the spirit of the core game, which is more focused on balancing your character’s thirst for blood with his impulse as a doctor to help people, to save lives, to be better. The narrative focuses on the latter so much that it feels increasingly disconnected from the active fighting and killing you’re doing most of the time.

[Huge spoilers about the end of the game follow. Stop if you have interest in giving the game a try without any reveals about the alternative endings.]

I hadn’t realized how close I had been to the end of the game before. I was well into the last third when I gave it up previously.

I made slightly different choices playing through this time. Chiefly, I found that I had little desire to choose to take the life of others. Something about my mental and emotional state at the time of this play attempt made me even more reserved about killing. Even when I encountered characters that are easy to hate, like a violent street gang leader or a sleazy slumlord or an actual serial killer, it didn’t seem right for me to be choosing to take their lives. At best, it would have been a brutal vigilantism, and at worst it was little more than an extrajudicial lynching, I felt. And so I spared characters I had previously killed.

It appears that this pure-hearted approach, wherein I refused to “embrace” any character, netted me the most “good” ending for the game. It was pleasant to attain that good ending, but I can imagine how frustrating it would feel to play through the game, choosing to feed and gain power only through enacting street justice against a few of the worst of the worst, only to find that this led you to being irredeemably corrupted. This insistence on remaining pure, avoiding the temptation to become a predator, feels especially silly given that the game actively encourages you to embrace people to gain power (and choosing who to kill and who to spare was part of the meta-narrative discussion around the game), while you’re also involved in a lot of fighting against and killing of the various types of vampires and vampire hunters. You can even choose an option, as I did, that led to a good person becoming a mindless lesser form of vampire (though not your intent), and you can return to their location later and kill their corrupted form, and this does nothing to hurt the ending. I had the protagonist feed constantly; using a vampire bite in battle was one of my major combat tactics, and there were plenty of rats drained of blood along the way. The distinction between the piles of bodies I drank from and killed along the way and this idea of abstaining from the thirst for blood as presented by the “good” ending narrative is contradictory and left unresolved and unaddressed in that narrative.

Still, the Gothic atmosphere and diverse cast of characters made it rewarding to explore (and fight through) the world all the way up until the end.

Old Western Classic: The Mandalorian 1.5

In this episode, the Mandalorian finds his ship once more in disrepair after the opening scene, requiring a pit stop on one of the most familiar worlds of the Star Wars galaxy. He needs funds to cover the repairs, so he takes on a job acting as a mentor of sorts for a hotshot young guy eager to join the bounty hunters’ guild. This youngster (played by Toro Calican) is more hustler than professional, though, and their target is a hardened mercenary with a dreaded reputation (played by Ming-Na Wen). To round out the new characters, the backwater mechanic (played by Amy Sedaris) hired by the Mandalorian also picks up baby duty while he’s out trying to bring in the credits.

Much of the episode was a classic western bounty hunter story, culminating in a clash between young gun and old, and the setting of the episode encourages a Wild West vibe.

[Spoilers follow]

That said, not everything has to end up on Tatooine. I do get the impression that the Mandalorian has some background with the planet, between his familiarity with Jawas in an earlier episode and his easy ability to communicate and negotiate with the Tusken Raiders in this episode (nice to see the Tuskens treated as rational sentients instead of mindless, violent savages). It makes sense; a lot of seedy types with underworld connections would have had reason to spend time on the planet at some point. And I can hardly begrudge the use of the planet, and so many familiar vistas, when it really allows the episode to feel like a gritty episode of some forgotten Western.

I do hope that we get some story momentum soon, though. At this point, nothing’s happening too quickly, even though each episode remains individually entertaining.

A final question about the ending: who do you think the figure is who comes across Fennec Shand’s body? The usual suspects seem convinced that this is a hint at a Boba Fett reveal. I’d rather Fett not show up; there are already enough real Mandalorians in the show, thank you very much. Plus, dropping him in would almost necessitate considerable explanation, re-focusing at least one episode around the figure previously presumed dead. And to have him suddenly reappear, years after the rescue of Han Solo and defeat of Jabba the Hutt, would feel bizarre if without some sort of explanation. Anyway, if it is an existing Star Wars character, and I suspect it’s not, I would hope that it’s Cad Bane. The jingle of the spurs fits in with his cowboy aesthetic. And while Bane may have been intended to be killed off in a canceled arc from The Clone Wars, for now I think his fate is ambiguous. Either way, it seems easier for a Duros to bounce back from a blaster wound than anyone recovering from being eaten.