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.

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.

Review: Disenchantment Part Two

The second season of Disenchantment introduces some new characters and settings, but it ultimately fails to disrupt the aimless wandering from the first season, and its first three episodes neatly resolve the massive changes to the world and the main characters left by the previous season’s cliffhanger ending, restoring the status quo for another round. That means that we have five episodes of Princess Bean, her boorish king and father, and her best friends Elfo the elf and Luci the demon getting up to more reckless antics.

I enjoyed watching most of the season, though I never had a burning desire to continue it. It still rested on a lot of excessive violence and gross-out humor, but I found that I cared a little more about the characters, as they had all softened somewhat. We saw this in Luci by the end of the first season, but he continues to grow and humanize, and while he still talks a big demonic game, he’s largely turned his back on the role of supernatural villain (even making some significant sacrifices for his friends), settling comfortably into the identity of sassy talking cat bartender (yes, that string of words does quickly make sense within the context of the show). Bean was deeply affected by the resolution of season one, and while she is still without a larger purpose, she seems more sentimental and slightly less selfish (though her royal upbringing results in an entitlement and self-absorption that she’s still not fully aware of and that often gets used for laughs). Bean’s relationship with her family is further complicated, and she finds more value and connection with some of her family members. Funny enough, Elfo, returning from death itself, has become slightly more hardened and jaded, though he and his elf friends are still a regular source of sweet naivete.

The season goes to some fun new locations, including an occult, Egyptian-influenced desert empire and a steampunk realm. But it still lacks a sense of direction–which the show acknowledges, as it is always willing to do with its flaws. Bean says in the last episode, “While I was growing up, I was completely lost, and then after I met you guys I was still lost, but at least we got lost together.” This sentimental moment is quickly followed by another cliffhanger ending that I’m sure just about everyone will see coming (though the particular details of its occurrence are still wild), setting up yet another season. Now I’m not so confident that the show will ever truly grow beyond what it is, but I’m enjoying what that is a little more now. Even if we only get incremental development of the characters and plot, I’ll probably keep watching. Still, for Part Two, I can safely suggest skipping the middle episodes. I previously recommended watching the first and final three episodes of season one. For season two, another ten-episode affair, you could easily get away with watching the first three and the last two.

Two Samurai: The Mandalorian 1.4

In this episode, our intrepid bounty hunter attempts to find safe haven for his young ward, leading him to accept a job protecting a small farming village in exchange for lodging. It doesn’t work out as planned.

The Mandalorian seems like a man hungry for connection. He didn’t seem to quite fit in with his fellow Mandalorians, even though they aided him in the end. (It turns out that he’s adopted into the clan.) He was betrayed by his fellow bounty hunters–or I guess you could say he betrayed them by breaking the rules of the guild, but he saved a small child from torture and death, and they were motivated by greed in hunting him down, so it’s clear to me that they wronged him and not the other way around. But he was so quick to find a connection with the kid, and with Kuiil, and now with Cara Dune and the capable widow of the farming village (do we ever learn her name? I didn’t catch it). We learn that the Mandalorians gave him a community and a family when he had none, taking him in after the death of his parents, but the burden to remain separate and apart from others, to always keep his armor on and to never reveal his face, weighs heavily on him. Perhaps he was just too old to become a good Mandalorian, just like Anakin was too old to become a good Jedi, but it seems like he is increasingly wearied by those cultural obligations.

The structure of the episode’s main plot pulls heavily from the Samurai/Western roots of Star Wars, serving up a variant of the plot seen in Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven and, more recently, the “Bounty Hunters” episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The structure is obvious, but the episode keeps its focus largely on the Mandalorian and his foster child; the adventure protecting the farmers is just one step in their journey, as the Mandalorian considers finding a safe place for at least one of them.

Another influence appears to be Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. The pirate raiders who live in the woods have a general aesthetic and purpose that appears to be half-Marauder, half-orc. The planet inhabited by the farmers and raiders, with its temperate forests and calm waterways, evokes Endor. Even the farmers’ residences are at least slightly reminiscent of concept art for the Ewok abodes in Return of the Jedi.

The raiders in the episode appear to be Klatooinian, but it’s hard for me to shake the impression of visual and thematic connectivity to that old Ewok movie.

We’re now halfway through this season, and I’m beginning to wonder if we ever will get bigger answers about just who and what Baby Yoda is. It’s seeming increasingly unimportant to the story being told here, where Baby Yoda is part MacGuffin and part softening agent for the protagonist. I could easily see the next four episodes telling a story of continued flight before the Mandalorian finally tries to take the fight to those who want this child so badly.

Escaping Expectations: The Mandalorian 1.3

[Note: spoilers for the first couple episodes follow.]

The story that this series is telling has become increasingly satisfying. In the first episode, we meet the Mandalorian, who takes on a dangerous job and successfully secures a vital target, which turns out to be a baby of an unknown species (or known–it’s not really clear to me how much people know about the species of Yoda and Yaddle in-universe). In the second episode, he must go through trials to get off-world, in so doing forming a bond with the youngling and learning that it possesses special powers; in the timeframe we’re in, it appears that most of the galaxy isn’t familiar with the Force and may not believe that the Jedi were ever real, so the Mandalorian does not appear to understand what he’s observed. In the third episode, he delivers the bounty–and then retrieves it. It feels like a complete story with a three-act structure over these past few episodes.

Now the story feels free to do…just about anything. Much like with the end of The Last Jedi, I can’t anticipate where the story might go; it feels complete in and of itself, even though there are plenty of threads to continue pursuing. I am sure we will learn more about the Mandalorians and what happened to them. I imagine that the story’s central Mandalorian will have more opportunities to advance within his culture, and it looks like we’re starting to get more and more details about his past. And we might have big answers about that Yodaling, or we might not.

This is turning into a great show! At the same time, I recognize the response from fans who note the lack of on-screen women, especially in speaking roles. It’s true that there aren’t many speaking characters at all, but it is also a little bizarre that all but one character with lines of dialogue so far is a man. When we see the Mandalorians together in this episode, for instance, it’s disconcerting that their apparent leader is a woman but all of her followers speak in deep masculine voices. Perhaps we’ll find that the Mandalorians we’ve seen are just a fraction of them all, that there are more offscreen, or that some of the ones we’ve seen are women and we just haven’t heard them speak. And it’s my understanding that there are more female characters coming soon. But this absence in representation is noticeable, especially given the franchise’s movement to better incorporate diversity overall and increase the number of prominent female characters within its stories in particular. Still, while this is disappointing and something that I certainly hope is corrected in future episodes, it’s an otherwise strong episodic narrative.

I’m happy that this show exists, and I want to see where it goes (and hope it fixes its representation issues), but more generally The Mandalorian has given me hope that we can see more live-action Star Wars stories in the future, and that they can continue to deliver quality story-telling while truly embracing the diversity of the human experience.

Gaining Focus: The Mandalorian 1.2

The second episode of The Mandalorian, titled “The Child,” was more focused than the first and benefited greatly from this. There are only a handful of characters with speaking lines, most of them indistinguishable Jawas, and of the three primary characters, one doesn’t talk at all. There was a good deal of action, which typically propelled the plot forward instead of feeling extraneous. And the story being told was simple enough: the Mandalorian needs to deliver his quarry. The Mandalorian’s ship has been stripped down by scavengers, and he needs to retrieve the parts. In fulfilling the objectives of recovering his parts and repairing his ship, he learns some pretty interesting things about his current “captive,” and he spends more time bonding with the gruff, wizened old Ugnaught pioneer, Kuiil.

Pedro Pascal is really managing to pull off a lot behind a helmet and full body armor. His character is gradually seeming like, well, a full character, instead of just a cardboard cutout of a gunslinger. We don’t know a lot yet, but he seems like a weird combination of violent and vulnerable. I still don’t know the character well enough, but at least the series seems committed to developing him. It’s Kuiil, played by Nick Nolte, who’s the truly engaging character so far. He’s incredibly resourceful, his past is more than a little bit intriguingly mysterious, and he also possesses a fair amount of compassion and wisdom. It’s too bad that it seems like the Mandalorian is leaving Kuiil behind on his journey, though they at least part on amicable terms.

The show is doing some interesting things with this bounty target. Things that I wouldn’t expect to happen so quickly. We might have some answers about the first-episode surprise coming at us quicker than I expected, answers that could have some wild and weird implications for the larger galaxy far, far away. Given that the first episode only came out earlier this same week, I don’t feel comfortable discussing this much further just yet. But suffice it to say, the show appears to be aiming at something more unique than episodic sequences of the Mandalorian Man With No Name snapping up quarry and shooting through obstacles. I think I’m now on board with this show–at least, I’m very eager to see what happens next!