Dickinson Behind-the-Scenes: An Interview With the Artisans

Meet the artists who bring this Apple TV+ series to life!

Getting Rid of the Stigma: Mental Illness in Young Adult Fiction by Megan Mann

In this piece, Megan brilliantly discusses the stigma of mental illness in literature and how some young adult novels are helping to change the landscape for this discussion.

Jenn's Pick: Top 15 Jeff/Annie Moments

In 2013, Jenn put together a list of the 15 best Jeff/Annie moments. Revisit and discover those memories!

Monday, June 28, 2021

Mythic Quest 2x09 Review: “TBD” (The End of the Hall and the End of the Line) [Contributor: Jenn]


“TBD”
Original Airdate: June 25, 2021

Sometimes change begets change. One person decides to leave a company, and then slowly but surely a trickle becomes a flood and multiple people announce their resignations. Or at least that’s what happens at Mythic Quest’s headquarters in “TBD,” the aptly-titled season — and not series, I’m manifesting it! — finale. A lot happens, so let’s dive right into the feels!

HERA RISES — BUT NOT AT MYTHIC QUEST

Last week’s emotional ending saw Ian and Poppy resolving their issues with a lullaby and quality time in the hospital, and this week we’re picking back up by focusing on their partnership and teamwork. Despite their massive egos, what’s great about these two is that they often hate other people together. Whether they’re irritated by testers or coders, their defense of one another and dislike for others is so hilarious and perfect. 

“TBD” sees Ian and Poppy struggling to find a way to implement Hera at Mythic Quest. The way that these two communicate post-reconciliation is actually really lovely. They’re still snarky to others but they’re finally able to be honest with each other without their egos. Ian tells Poppy that implementing Hera within the Mythic Quest universe is impossible; she’s the best of the best and if she couldn’t find a way to make it work, it means it won’t work. Ian asserts Poppy’s intelligence while providing her with honest feedback. There’s no ego from him there or jealousy — he’s just stating facts.

And Poppy finally decides not just to listen to Ian but to actually hear him. (She has been unable to do this because of her ego too.) When she does hear him, she realizes that he’s right: she cannot make her expansion work. But instead of just going with Ian’s plan, the two decide they need to come up with something together. The problem is that they spend the whole episode attempting to figure out the next chapter in their Mythic Quest story. It’s actually a profound moment from C.W., however, that forces them to look at the thing they’ve been trying to avoid the whole time.

It’s the end of the line for Mythic Quest. Their last expansion, “Raven’s Banquet,” was the final chapter in the story. They’ve been spinning their wheels trying to make anything they come up with work within the world they’ve built. But C.W. points out that Mythic Quest, much like a child, is older now. It’s grown. It’s time, finally, to move on instead of trying to force more story out of something that is done.

That’s not an easy truth to accept though: when you spend years working on something and it’s finally done... what’s left to do? Well, Ian and Poppy realize that there’s more story for them to tell — just not at MQ headquarters. They’ve done their jobs, they’ve created and raised their video game baby, and now they’re not needed anymore. It’s time to raise a new baby together.

The end of the episode is the most profound, of course. Ian and Poppy quit their jobs and sit at a restaurant, dreaming of what could be. That’s when Ian tells Poppy that they don’t have to dream too much — he knows what their next project will be. It’ll be Hera. Mythic Quest wasn’t equipped to handle the expansion but that doesn’t mean they can’t build it. He hands her a pen and a bar napkin — her brush and her canvas, a perfect callback to the pilot — and Poppy excitedly begins dreaming.

I feel like this is a natural conclusion for Ian and Poppy’s story this season though. With their relationship repaired, it seemed only logical that they’d forge ahead in their creation of a game together. And I kind of love that they realized they’re better together, that Ian sacrificed his ego to support Poppy, that Poppy finally allowed herself to see the truth of what she’d created, and that they acknowledged that the death of one creative dream doesn’t mean its death forever.

GOODBYE, TESTERS

Elsewhere in the episode, Rachel and Dana quit their jobs at MQ headquarters — except that Dana then realizes she didn’t get into Berkley. The two momentarily freak out until a random meeting with Ian and Poppy actually sets Dana on a new, similar path. She shows them her Grouchy Goat she’s been working on, and the co-creative directors assert that it’s basically garbage. But the scene next is super important for anyone who’s a creative: Ian asks if Dana will stop working on it if they tell her it’s bad. At first, she says that she will, then admits she won’t. And when the two press her as to why she’s still working so hard on a thing that’s not great.

She tells them that when she looks at the goat she can see her vision, and she’s working to watch it come alive. She can see the potential and dream even when others can’t. It’s this commitment and ethic in spite of challenges that intrigues Ian and Poppy. They make Dana a deal: MQ headquarters will pay for her to go to a local, reasonable programming school so that she can continue to learn how to develop her skills and they’ll also bring her on for contract work. Dana is thrilled (Ian and Poppy are mostly annoyed but that’s par for the course) and tells Rachel… who admits that she’s going to Berkley. I’m proud of Rachel! She spent so much of the second season caught up in Dana without a direction for her life. Now, even though she has to do long-distance, she’s more concerned with pursuing this new passion than with staying comfortable. That’s growth, and I love to see it!

BRAD AND JO’S FINAL DAY

I only have one qualm/question about the Brad/Jo story (which could very well be resolved quickly in season three) which is that Brad noted Zack cared about an employee of Mythic Quest getting arrested for insider trading so he could gut the company — something Brad didn’t want happening. Originally that person was going to be Jo, but when Brad takes the fall for her... that really doesn’t solve the Zack problem, does it? Or maybe Brad doesn’t care now because it’s not his problem?

Anyway, the reason Brad decides to take the fall for Jo is supposedly because he’ll be seen as a shark in his industry (and he’s going away to a cushy prison), but let’s be real: he does care about Jo and it’s evident in their final little interaction. Even though Brad does things so he can be seen as the shark or bad guy, he has a heart and his heart told him he could do something nice while also getting something out if it. If that isn’t a quintessential Brad Bakshi move, I don’t know what is! I’ll miss the Brad/Jo team-up a lot, but I do love that Brad pointed out Jo’s very evident addiction to power.

He’s not wrong in the fact that she needs to detox from powerful men. The last high she chased almost landed her in prison, and she could easily make that mistake again — or worse. But “TBD” actually sees a re-pairing: David and Jo get back together! Poor David. For a person who’s so afraid of change and losing his coworker family, he had to endure quite the abandonment in this episode: no more Brad, Ian, Poppy, Rachel, or Dana!

David and Jo’s decision to pair back up again is pretty fun, considering their arcs the last season: David’s had to grow more of a backbone and will now be forced to step up and be the leader he was always supposed to be. And Jo discarded David because he was powerless, and now realizes it’s kind of exactly what she needs. I’m so excited to see their new dynamic in season three!

“TBD” reminds us that change is inevitable, but so is growth — if you’re willing to pursue it. Season two of Mythic Quest was really about forcing the characters to get uncomfortable, fight when they need to even when they don’t want to, and discover what it is each of them truly wants. I love that by the end of the season, I know the characters are going to be okay whether they work at the headquarters or not. I’m just really excited to see where this show can go in season three now that everyone is scattered! (I sense a time jump is imminent.) 

Thank you, Mythic Quest, for the feels and the laughs all year. I’ll see you (hopefully) next year!

Notes and quotes:

  • At ATX Festival, Megan Ganz noted that this feels like a series finale not necessarily because the creators believe they’ll get cancelled but because they wanted to challenge themselves when they returned. It makes sense and I love that they’ve given themselves the challenge to reunite the group when the show returns.
  • “Women in my life will come and go...” “... mostly go.”
  • This episode is a perfect season/series finale combo which makes me emotional.
  • “That’s the gig. Dream big. Unfortunately, sometimes you fail big.” I really loved this little moment from Ian. He’s not discouraging Poppy’s dreams but rather tells her that it comes with the territory of being a creative! Sometimes your big dream leads to a big win, and sometimes a big dream leads to a big failure. But at least you dreamed big instead of small.
  • “I hate that stupid goat.”
  • “You two are probably fine but I could get cancelled.”
  • That one moment of Carol’s sixth sense was SO perfect.
  • “I like you.” “I know.” I’M GONNA MISS BRAD AND JO TOGETHER A LOT. I also loved that she made a huge deal about Brad getting escorted out and faked him getting handcuffed because she knew it would add to his credibility as a shark.
  • “Your canvas. And your brush.” Brb, crying FOREVER.

What did you all think of “TBD”? Sound off in the comments below!

Saturday, June 26, 2021

The Flash 7x14 Review: "Rayo de Luz" (Let There Be More Light) [Contributor: Deborah MacArthur]


“Rayo de Luz”
Original Airdate: June 22, 2021

Look, I don’t want to imply that the Flash is holding back The Flash, but this is the third episode in a row that’s been light on Barry and leagues better than the Barry-centric episodes that came before it. Maybe it’s because the show was struggling with an arcing plot and these post-Forces storyline episodes are more self-contained, maybe I just really like the side characters of this show and I’ve been subconsciously wishing they had more to do. I don’t know. But Allegra-focused “Rayo de Luz” was a decent little episode either way.

A LIGHT SHOW

Remember Allegra’s assassin cousin, Esperanza “Ultraviolet” Garcia? I sure didn’t! But this episode delivered a reminder\ by way of an in media res opening open set twelve hours before the events of the episode. I assume this was really just to remind us of who Ultraviolet is, since it doesn’t offer much else.

The actual episode begins with Barry announcing that he’s going to be “zooping” Iris to a remote island, inspired by the embarrassment of Chester catching the couple boinkin’ in the Starchives last week. This means that the parents are away, so the children (read: Allegra) are free to plot questionable rescue missions of assassins. Allegra is hoping she can get through to her cousin and they could be a family again, and has apparently been tracking her and waiting for the opportunity to strike with a tried and true Team Flash-patented heartfelt speech.

Unfortunately for Allegra (and Chester’s wrist, since he gets caught in the crossfire and Ultraviolet breaks it), Ultraviolet is not in the mood for a family reunion. While Allegra and Chester are at Jitters, Ultraviolet attacks. I can’t help thinking that the insurance costs for the Jitters coffee shop must be astronomical, with how often this place gets trashed by metahuman fights. Allegra holds her own in the fight for a bit, but inevitably has to be rescued by the sudden appearance of Sue Dearbon. Sue apparently did not skip town after the disastrous heist last week.

Just like with the heist, Sue tries to be the voice of reason in the group and convince Allegra to write Ultraviolet off as a lost cause, mostly because Sue once saw the assassin melt a person’s face off while laughing. Sounds like a good reason to me, but Allegra is apparently not in the business of giving up on family. Sue, with the begrudging air of an older sibling left to babysit and well aware she’s the only thing standing between these people and certain death, agrees to help out while Barry and Iris are away.

The next time we see Ultraviolet, she’s attacking some guy. Allegra et al. stop her and the guy gets away, but then Ultraviolet reveals that the man they just rescued was the mad scientist who made her into the mask-wearing assassin she is. And I know that’s portrayed as a real “dramatic chord” type moment that’s meant to imply our heroes did something wrong, but even if they’d known the guy was bad news they wouldn’t have let Ultraviolet kill him. So it’s a bit of tension that isn’t really tension.

Sue and Allegra try to interrogate Ultraviolet. She explains that the red mask she wears is to help her speak, since Black Hole’s scientist — Dr. Olsen, the man who escaped — cut out... her vocal chords? It’s unclear how the mask helps when the scar tissue is on her throat and the mask doesn’t go past her chin, but I don’t know. I’m not a science fiction doctor. Either way, Ultraviolet wants revenge and Allegra decides she wants to help her get it. Just not, presumably, by murdering Dr. Olsen.

Before she accepts the assistance of the ragtag Team Flash, Ultraviolet tries training Allegra on how to better use the light-based powers they both share. When Allegra fails to do what she needs to do, Ultraviolet declares her a useless idiot and storms off, but not before nearly killing poor Chester with a light beam. Okay, so she’s only a marginally worse teacher than Barry Allen.

So now Chester’s got one arm in a sling and the other’s got a braced wrist, but he’s still trying to make everyone else feel better about the Ultraviolet situation. Oh, Chester. Sue wants Chester to talk some sense into Allegra, who’s still feeling unsure about what to do with Ultraviolet, but Chester doesn’t think he can convince her of anything. Then something Sue says (“Sharing a back-alley yin-yang tattoo doesn’t mean you’re bonded forever.”) inspires Chester to run off like the genius he is, leaving Sue to do her best to convince Allegra not to try again with Ultraviolet.

But Allegra stubbornly refuses to give up on her cousin, who never gave up on her when they were growing up. When Allegra brings up Sue rescuing her parents from Black Hole, Sue confesses that she never did — that her parents loved the lifestyle they had with Black Hole and she couldn’t convince them to leave. Sue’s parents were already filthy rich, so I’m a little confused about what sort of lifestyle a shady underground organization could offer them to compete with mansions and never having to hold a job.

The conversation with Sue has only made Allegra more resolute in her mission to save her cousin, which is good because Chester’s eureka moment produced a way to track Ultraviolet. He was inspired by the yin-yang tattoo, thinking of Allegra and Ultraviolet as two halves of the same whole and using Allegra’s light signature to find Ultraviolet’s matching one.

The team finds Ultraviolet facing off with Dr. Olsen again. Dr. Olsen, by the way, is incredibly creepy. I almost wish this team didn’t have a no-killing policy, because this guy is gross. Chester takes out some guards with an EMP blast while Sue fights the ones who are left, wonderfully backlit the entire time. I don’t give shoutouts to production stuff very often, but the lighting in this episode is really pretty in several scenes and I wonder if it’s meant to be on theme with the two light-based metahumans at the center of the story. Whatever the reason, it’s nice.

When Allegra finds her cousin, Ultraviolet immediately attacks her. Dr. Olsen has promised that, as the only person in the world who knows exactly what was done to Esperanza and therefore the only person capable of fixing it, he sets the rules for whether Ultraviolet gets any help. He wants Ultraviolet to kill everyone who knows of his operations, starting with Allegra. While the two women have a light fight (with things heavily in Ultraviolet’s favor), Dr. Olsen supplies some creepy color commentary about how hate fuels their powers.

But Allegra ain’t having that. She says that her powers are fueled by something else and her chest starts glowing, and the losing light beam she’d been shooting at Ultraviolet starts gaining power. Eventually, Ultraviolet is struck back and Allegra has a full-body glowing aura that looks really neat. It eventually fades, but the day is saved nonetheless.

In the aftermath, Dr. Olsen has been jailed and Ultraviolet is recovering from getting blasted by Alelgra’s light beam. Caitlin reassures Allegra that Barry would’ve approved of her following her heart despite leading a rogue mission and nearly getting multiple people killed. Yeah, that tracks. Talking with Ultraviolet afterwards, Allegra shares the news that Caitlin has confiscated Olsen’s files and thinks she can cure her. Are we just going to ignore that story about Ultraviolet melting a person’s face off while laughing?

Other Things:

  • The only really irritating thing about this episode was the stuff involving Joe and Kramer, mostly because Kramer’s behavior makes no sense half the time. She seems okay by the end of the episode, though. She and Joe are going to find the person who actually betrayed the mission she was on.
  • Allegra calls Chester “Chuck”? Is she the only one who uses that nickname?
  • Frost has hunted down that bartender whose name I don’t remember except that it was awful. Is this really going to be a thing? I’m bored every time he’s on the screen.
  • Next week: Godspeed is back? Really, Godspeed? Ugh.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Mythic Quest 2x08 Review: “Juice Box” (Rainbow Connection) [Contributor: Jenn]


“Juice Box”
Original Airdate: June 18, 2021

(I’ve skipped a review for “Peter” but just have to say that F. Murray Abraham needs an Emmy because that episode was a stunner for him. I’m glad that the show managed to give us closure to the C.W./Peter relationship before Peter died. It was hard to watch at points because C.W. was a terror, but I love that the show reminded us that change is possible — no matter your age.)

This week, we return from our standalone episodes to the MQ headquarters where Ian and Poppy are each presenting their expansions to Montreal, Rachel and Dana are making big moves in their relationship, and Jo realizes she’s made a big mistake. Let’s dive in because there’s a lot to unpack and a lot of tears to cry!

A HOSPITAL STAY AND A LULLABY

Let’s start with Ian and Poppy first. When we last left them, Ian had delivered some really hard words to Poppy, leaving her standing in the middle of the office hurt and confused. But Ian’s words didn’t come out of nowhere — he lashed out because Poppy refused to be vulnerable with him when he was entirely vulnerable with her. This episode picks up with each team member presenting their expansion to Montreal. And they literally could not be more different.

Ian’s expansion is all about a world where you’re at the center. It’s all about you. Poppy’s expansion is all about being able to change the world around you with others at the same time. There are a few problems though with the expansions. See, while Ian’s is uninspired, it works. While Poppy’s is a stroke of genius, she manages to crash the test and dev servers. And when she berates her programmers, they tell her the truth: she cannot have it all. She needs to let something go because what she’s asking her team to do is unrealistic. 

Poppy doesn’t get the chance to yell at her staff further because David tells her that Ian has been hospitalized with a heart attack. Poppy rushes down to the hospital, buys Ian a stuffed animal (“It’s a Girl!” was all they had), and stays with him because he asks her to. She tells him that he reminds her of a scared little boy in the position he’s in. Unfortunately, Poppy soon realizes that Ian didn’t have a heart attack at all — he fainted, likely because he was dehydrated and hadn’t eaten anything. The doctor hands him a juice box and tells him to make sure to eat and drink.

This is when Poppy, rightfully, gets angry. She goes a little overboard by unplugging monitors tracking Ian’s vitals but she expresses her frustration with Ian misleading her and not being upfront. And then we have a scene which should win Rob McElhenney an Emmy. Over the last season, we’ve seen a direct parallel in Ian and Poppy’s journeys: as Ian has become more vulnerable, Poppy has become more self-involved; as Ian has learned how to open up and speak hard truths, Poppy has become tyrannical with her power. So when Ian confessed his greatest fear to Poppy, his partner and whom we learn he considers to be his best friend, and she didn’t reciprocate, he was crushed. Ian’s biggest fear seems to come true in “Juice Box” and lands him in the hospital. He’s so worried and stressed about his expansion, but he knows Poppy will be honest with him. When she starts to leave his hospital room, he asks her what she thought of it. She tells him the truth — that it was not good. That it was uninspired, and that he could do better. 

Ian’s bravado is lost in this scene, and he agrees with Poppy. He knows that she’s the only one who will tell him the truth, and her opinion matters to him so much. That’s why he was so hurt when she told him her biggest fear was singing in public. That’s why he lashed out. But “Juice Box” shows us a different side of Ian; he tells Poppy that when he looks at her, he sees a scared little girl who can’t admit her fears. And he begins to cry when he says that Poppy is his best friend. Poppy is startled, and though Ian tells her to go away and leave him alone, she doesn’t. He curls up in bed, clutching the bear she got him to his chest as she sings him a Filipino lullaby. It’s this beautiful little moment, with Poppy comforting Ian and stroking his hair while singing to him. 

I love the Poppy and Ian dynamic. In a lot of ways this scene reminds me of “Quarantine.” Even though Ian and Poppy sometimes hate each other, argue constantly, and tell everyone else how annoying the other is, the truth is that they need each other. And they know they need each other. In “Quarantine,” Ian made a big sacrifice and gesture for Poppy to show her just how much he cared and reminded her that she wasn’t alone even though she felt alone. In “Juice Box,” Poppy reciprocates by showing Ian that he isn’t alone. Through sobs, he apologizes repeatedly to her and it’s so gut-wrenching that it’s making me tear up just thinking about it. (Again, give Rob a damn Emmy.)

They never really address the rift that happened between them, but in some ways that’s not needed right now (though I hope it’s addressed in some way in the finale). There will be time for them to unpack their issues. In that moment, Ian needed someone to sing to him (Poppy switches to “Rainbow Connection” when Ian says that a song in another language doesn’t really hit him the way it’s supposed to which, hilarious) and Poppy was there. When the two look at each other, they finally see their vulnerabilities and insecurities. I think Poppy realized a little bit of how much she means to Ian and how he sees her; it’s a beautiful moment and I’m so glad Mythic Quest enjoys emotionally destroying me every week!

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES

There are changes happening in MQ headquarters! Dana is still planning to study programming at Berkley and after Rachel’s road trip with C.W. in “Peter,” she’s been thinking about her own future. Rachel’s contemplating becoming a writer. Even though she has no idea how to become a good writer or if it’s possible, she was moved by the book she was given at Peter’s and wants to do the same for others. It really makes a lovely little arc for Rachel since her first story in season one with C.W. involved her learning about the power of story. I’m really excited because it seems like Rachel is finally realizing her passions, and she and Dana are in a good place to potentially go to Berkeley together! The only problem is: what happens when Mythic Quest gets renewed for season three?

Elsewhere in the episode, Jo taunts Brad. She’s joined alliances with Zack and is about to make a whole lot of money and gain even more power! Or so she thinks. Brad warned Jo about attaching herself to the wrong person and she learns, through Brad, that Zack got her involved in insider trading. Zack doesn’t remotely care about Jo or making her any money; all he cares about is being able to gut MQ and destroy Brad. While this story will certainly play itself out in the finale, I’m interested to see how it’ll go. Will Brad take care of Zack himself? Will Jo have to be the one to pay for what she’s done or will Brad take the fall for her, proving once and for all that he’s really not a horrible person? We will have to wait and see!

As we head toward the finale, I’m impressed yet again by how well-done Mythic Quest is. This season was impeccable and I can’t wait to see how it ends (but also I need more of this group in my life so please renew the show ASAP, Apple TV+ so I can have another year with these weirdos)!

Notes and quotes:

  • Elsewhere in this episode, David is trying to find a new place to live since his ex-wife is kicking him out of his condo. Might Brad and David live together? The internet would love that, but Brad is vehemently against helping David move and definitely against becoming his roommate.
  • “I’m a nice guy and no one takes advantage of me!” “Your ex-wife just forced you out of your own home for the second time.”
  • Jessie Ennis’ laugh should win awards. Seriously, she’s so perfect.
  • “He’s cute.” “He’s so janky.”
  • Jessie told us in an interview for The Community Rewatch Podcast about her air quote scene with: “family back home.” Go listen to the episode and you’ll appreciate the scene even more!
  • Charlotte’s singing voice is so lovely.

What did you think of this episode? Sound off in the comments below!

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Flash 7x13 Review: "Masquerade" (Masks and Mindscapes) [Contributor: Deborah MacArthur]


“Masquerade”
Original Airdate: June 15, 2021

This week on The Flash: Chester’s initiation as an official member of Team Flash involves messing up royally first. Hey, it’s how everyone on this superhero team cements their place (and none so catastrophically as Barry Allen himself). We also learn a bit more about Cecile, which is pretty cool. I think I’ve been on record as saying that I enjoy it when the show occasionally focuses more on secondary characters, and “Masquerade” is a solid episode for that. So let’s take a look!

PSSST, I THINK THE MASK IS ALSO METAPHORICAL

In the home of Joe and Cecile, Joe is still investigating Kramer (who has replaced him as captain somehow? Is that really how police forces work?) despite no longer being a CCPD officer. Cecile has found a clue for him that sends Joe off to dig up more dirt, which allows Cecile to do evil things in the meantime. Because she’s actually Not Cecile! Real Cecile is being held in an all-white psychological prison while an evil entity uses her body as a meat puppet.

And poor, poor Chester is the perfect eager-to-please patsy to fit into Not Cecile’s machinations. Chester’s trying to make himself at home in S.T.A.R. Labs, painting and redecorating his new office more to his tastes, but he’s still unsure of his place on the team without Cisco there to be his pal. He even offers to undo all the hard work he put in on his office when Caitlin mentions how different it looks, but Caitlin reassures him that he’s where he belongs. As we learn throughout the episode, Chester is not all that reassured.

When Not Cecile knocks Barry into the same psychological prison holding Cecile and then carts his unconscious body to S.T.A.R. Labs for examination, Chester and Caitlin determine that Barry is at risk of a permanent coma if they don’t figure out what’s wrong with him. Not Cecile uses her empathy powers to dip into Barry’s head and determine what attacked him. Now do me a favor and put sarcastic quotes around like, every other word in the previous sentence since we all know Not Cecile is just play-acting in order to manipulate everyone.

But especially Chester! Chester, who knows Cisco’s binder of metas so well he immediately latches onto Not Cecile’s empathic reading and pulls Psyho Pirate out of the lot. Psycho Pirate wore a golden mask that apparently has powers in its own right, as Chester cites historical documentation of the mask going back to Gilgamesh — which is why it’s currently in Central City’s museum, even though that sounds like a horrible idea because the mask literally feeds off people’s minds and drives them insane. The mask is currently feeding off Barry, but they think if they can use the cerebral inhibitor they can stop it. They just need the mask first.

Not Cecile surreptitiously hints at stealing the mask from the museum, which Chester latches onto immediately. You know you guys could just tell the museum they’re holding an incredibly dangerous madness-inducing evil mask and, as the lead superhero team in the general area (not to mention a bunch of super smart scientists) ask to borrow it in order to save someone’s life? No, not going to bother with a simple phone call and just gonna skip right to a heist? Okay, that’s cool.

Since she’s a thief and probably has time to kill while her partner is recast, Sue Dearbon is called in to help with the heist. Sue has gathered intel in record time, down to a 3D map of the museum, stats on the vault, and information on the guard schedule. The guard and the combination to the vault is the only thing she can’t get around (which seems like a bad weak spot for a thief) but Chester volunteers Not Cecile to mind-whammy the guard into opening the vault door. When everyone clears out to get ready for the heist, Sue mentions how suspiciously easy this whole plan is to Chester, but Chester brushes her off.

Heist time! It’s a short one: Sue dances around some lasers, Not Cecile poorly rappels down from the ceiling, the guard is mind-whammied, and the vault is opened. This all happens just in time for Iris to also figure out that something’s not right, but it’s too late and Not Cecile gets her hands on the mask, going full Mask Entity. She forces Sue to tranq dart herself and then heads off into the night.

Sue wakes up in S.T.A.R. Labs’ medical center and berates Chester for falling for Not Cecile’s evil plot. Chester was already feeling guilty about his plan being the one to get the mask into the wrong hands, and Sue just makes him feel worse — like, “shouldn’t be on Team Flash” levels of worse. Iris finds him sadly working in his office and contemplating leaving. He was putting on a brave front this whole time, but he hasn’t felt sure about his place on the team since Cisco left. He thinks if he were really a part of Team Flash, to the point of really knowing them all the way Cisco knew them all, he wouldn’t have fallen for Not Cecile’s ruse. For some reason no one mentions that literally everyone thought that was actually Cecile, including Joe, so clearly knowing her better wouldn’t have helped.

Still, it’s a blow to Chester’s confidence. In true The Flash fashion, Chester will have to overcome this in the end so that he can save the day. Unbeknownst to Chester, this enemy is also being tackled from another front: real Cecile, trapped in the “mindscape” with Barry, needs to overcome the issues keeping her imprisoned.

As it turns out, the mindscape is based on Cecile’s memory of a psychiatric hospital she was a patient at around the time she graduated from law school. Guilt over not being with her ailing mother when she died sent Cecile into a spiral and, eventually, a complete breakdown, ending with her checking herself into the hospital. Shame has kept Cecile from admitting that she suffered from mental illness, and it’s that shame that the mask is feeding off of and amplifying in order to retain control of Cecile’s body.

Barry encourages Cecile to face her past and accept the struggles she went through — and that their existence shouldn’t be a source of shame — because he thinks doing so will break the mask’s hold on her. As Cecile follows Barry’s advice, Chester and Iris take on the mask-wearing Cecile, who is trying to use the Thinker’s chair to amplify her mental abilities. Iris serves as a distraction while Chester leaps out of nowhere and stabs the chair with a sword, giving him an “outward” hero moment while Cecile has an “inward” hero moment by coming to terms with her past.

It’s unclear which attack actually saved Cecile, but that’s fine. The episode ends with the mask dealt with, Cecile confessing her history of mental illness to Joe and getting nothing but support back, and Chester finally feeling like a real part of Team Flash.

Wow, just when I was giving up hope, The Flash delivers two good episodes in a row! Here’s hoping the streak continues.

Other Things:

  • Special shout-out to Danielle Nicolet (Cecile) and Brandon McKnight (Chester) for some stellar acting moments this episode. I hope the show does more with you guys in the future!
  • Really surprised at how much relevance the Thinker’s chair had this season.
  • Joe has uncovered something about Kramer’s past: she was in command of a squad and led them into an ambush. She was the only survivor. I would’ve assumed this was the event that Kramer already talked about, the one that made her hate metahumans? But Joe thinks it means Kramer was working with the enemy, which is why she’s kept it secret.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Never Have I Ever 1x09 Review: “... had to be on my best behavior” (Flashbacks and Trauma) [Contributor: Jenn]


“... had to be on my best behavior”
Original Airdate: April 27, 2020

I give a lot of grace to teenage characters in television shows. Even though they often frustrate me, I have to remember that they’re supposed to — their brains aren’t fully formed yet and they haven’t learned the critical thinking skills that adults do. But occasionally teenage characters demonstrate growth, pain, or emotions beyond their years. Even though she often fails, Devi in Never Have I Ever is this very character throughout “… had to be on my best behavior.”

Devi has experienced trauma — devastating, life-altering trauma that she cannot process because she’d rather run from it or shove it down. And in this week’s episode, we learn what happens when you try to run from or bury your trauma.

THE BRAIN REMEMBERS

One time when I was in therapy, I uncovered a memory that my subconscious brain had buried. My counselor noted that our brains do that: they push down or hide memories that trigger pain and trauma to protect us. Devi’s brain does the exact same thing, and in this episode, it can’t hide memories anymore.

When we left off last week, Devi thought she saw her dad standing in the kitchen. Very quickly, Devi realizes that it’s not her dad but her visiting uncle. He’s in town to chaperone Kamala’s meeting with her potential suitor, Prashant. But that night, Devi remembers flashes of moments from the night her father died. In flashbacks, we see Devi telling her mother that she hates her. Mohan tries to navigate the tense relationship between the two; they’re fighting in that moment because Devi lost her sheet music for the concert.

In the present, Nalini warns Devi that Kamala’s afternoon is important and so the Devi drama and nonsense will have to stop for that day. It’s triggering for Devi, who recalls memories she’s buried — one in particular from the night of Mohan’s death, where Devi overhears Nalini telling Mohan that Devi is “his daughter,” and that she’s “no daughter of mine.” This wounds Devi in the flashback and is a memory that triggers some deep emotions in the present.

Devi’s desire to push down her uncomfortable memories and trauma is understandable. And really, Never Have I Ever is as much a story of grief as it is a coming-of-age tale. Devi’s unwillingness to do the hard work of confronting her own grief over her father’s death will have consequences. And as John McEnroe narrates in this episode, Devi’s surprised that she’s uncovered a memory she tried hard to forget, and believes distracting herself and smiling through her pain will keep that memory just below the surface. There’s also this moment which repeats a sentiment throughout the show — Devi plays the harp to distract her uncle and Prashant from seeing Kamala and Nalini sneak Steve out of the house. When Devi plays, she recalls happy memories from her childhood with her father. An instrument that only represented grief and trauma suddenly shifted into something happy again. And John McEnroe’s narration is the kicker: Devi thinks she’s cured! There’s nothing wrong with her anymore! (It’s the same reason she thinks her obsession with Paxton will fix what’s wrong with her.)

The problem is, that’s not how memories or healing even work. The more Devi tries to push bad memories away or down or cover them up with good ones, the more the memory is likely to surface at an inopportune moment — and with it, the pain and anger and grief she’s left unresolved too. Because the memory isn’t just about Mohan’s death; it’s a memory that is indicative of the feelings of inadequacy Nalini has fueled throughout the years. That’s the thing about emotional avalanches — they’re rarely about one thing, but many things we’ve left unresolved. Pile up enough unsaid confrontations, unresolved feelings, and trauma and you’re headed straight for an epic disaster.

A PUNCH TO THE GUT

Throughout the episode, Nalini tells Devi things that trigger wounds she hasn’t dealt with or vocalized yet. When Nalini critiques her, all Devi can think about is how much of a burden she is to her mother and how she doesn’t want her. When Nalini shows grace to Kamala for having a boyfriend even though she’s supposed to be meeting a future spouse but tears down Devi and Paxton for their behavior is also indicative of some of Nalini’s unresolved issues (which we’ll see continue in the next episode).

What I do love about Never Have I Ever is that it shows us glimpses into Nalini’s grief; Devi lost a father but Nalini lost the love of her life. And she admits at the end of the episode that she’s struggling to raise Devi alone without a support system. Without Mohan or family to help her. But Nalini clearly has trauma from Mohan’s death and grief that presents itself in the way she tries to control Devi; she couldn’t control what happened to her husband and sure as heck won’t let that lack of control happen in another area of her life. It’s not hard for Nalini to love but it’s hard for her to express love in a healthy way because she’s in the throes of grief too.

So Nalini is easier on Kamala because it’s easier to be gracious with someone who doesn’t remind you of what you lost. It’s not Devi’s fault, by any means, that Nalini feels this way. But both mother and daughter are deeply grieving the person who held their relationship together and neither know how to move forward expressing love and grace to each other in that struggle. And therein lies the beauty of Never Have I Ever: its unashamed, unflinching look at how our own unresolved pain causes other people pain. That cliché phrase “hurting people hurt people” is a cliché for a reason.

And it’s why the end of this episode hits like a punch to the gut. Devi’s uncle accidentally reveals that he and Nalini have been talking about her and Devi moving to India. Devi is floored, and Nalini admits that it’s because she needs family and support; she doesn’t know how to parent without Mohan beside her. But between the favoritism Nalini seemingly showed Kamala and the grief she’s been burying as well as the anger she’s unwittingly harbored, Devi combusts.

Devi tells her mother that she knows she’s a burden, and Nalini looks surprised that Devi feels this way. Devi’s admitting, in her own pain, that Nalini makes her feel unloved and unwanted. And then Devi confesses that she overheard Mohan and her talking the night he died. Poorna Jagannathan does an impeccable job at conveying the pain on Nalini’s face: both that Devi overheard her in her anger and frustration, and also that what Devi gleaned from that was that she’s unwanted.

But then Devi goes a step further and, in her pain, she seeks to only wound. That’s when she tells her mother that she wishes the one parent who cared about her was still alive. And she wishes that it was Nalini, not Mohan, who died that night. With grief and pain, she closes the door in Nalini’s face and thus, we hit the lowest point we’ve seen Devi at thus far.

Favorite things:
  • I like that John McEnroe’s narration takes on more of a serious, counseling tone in this episode, especially because it’s a really pivotal episode for Devi’s trauma.
  • “You cannot run in Los Angeles at night! This is the city of Charles Manson and Harvey Weinstein!”
  • “Great, thank you for relieving the pressure.”
  • “I’m sorry I called you hot.” I love how everyone, including Devi’s mom, is smitten with Prashant.
  • “And when I come home later, I will fix this.” Ugh, heartbreaking.
  • “There are more boys coming and going in this house than a GameStop.”
  • “Paxton, these are very unforced errors.”
  • “I kinda like you.” “I kinda like you too.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

WandaVision 1x09 Review: “The Series Finale” (Goodbye) [Guest Poster: Hannah E.]


"The Series Finale"
Original Airdate: March 5, 2021

Everything and more happens in the super-sized finale of WandaVision. This episode is definitely a bit of a hot mess express, but I actually kind of love it. A lot of the plot machinations the show had been dragging its feet on have to be dealt with here, and some of the stuff with Hayward and Monica doesn’t really work for me. But overall the stuff this episode gets wrong pales in comparison to how much it gets right. 

Watching the first and last episodes back-to-back would feel like a jarring tonal shift, but the show finds a clever way to work that into Wanda’s character. It started off as a mystery box, but only insofar as Westview was a mystery box for Wanda; all of the discoveries we made as the audience were through her eyes, and we weren’t allowed any insights that she didn’t have. We realized she was running Westview at the same time she did, discovered Geraldine was Monica who worked for SWORD when she did, and discovered how Westview was created when she did. It was a nice side effect that hiding things from the audience gave them a reason to tune in every week, but the show was only structured that way because of what it meant for Wanda’s character; because WandaVision is a world she created, the show was in denial just as much as she was. Once she worked through all five stages of grief, finally reaching acceptance, there was no reason for the show to be hiding anything because Wanda no longer was, which is why the finale isn’t focused on any mysteries. 

In general, I think WandaVision ran into a problem of the audience having completely different goals than the show. Fans wanted more Marvel or comic book elements, like Ralph really being Quicksilver from Fox’s X-Men or for Wanda to break open the Multiverse, but those were always secondary in WandaVision. The primary goal of the show was a character study of Wanda. I understand why people who came into it expecting one thing were disappointed — because the actual comic book elements are the weak point of the series — but the character work done with Wanda and Vision is, in my opinion, so much better. I wouldn’t trade a single character beat in the series.

THE SCARLET WITCH

The pacing of Wanda’s fight with Agatha is a little too rushed, but the character work is incredibly solid. Structuring the sequence around Wanda’s most central character trait of denial — refusing to accept her mantle as the Scarlet Witch — takes the inherently fantastical nature of a fight between two witches and grounds it within the main themes of the show. Having Wanda win by using runes and finally accepting her new mantle shows how much she’s grown over the series with handling her denial. It places the emphasis on character growth instead of whose power is strongest, making the victory feel much more meaningful than if Wanda had simply overpowered Agatha. 

There’s a moment where Agatha offers Wanda everything she’s ever wanted: if Wanda gives up her power, Agatha will let her keep Vision, the kids, and her idealized Westview while also freeing the people and letting them live in peace. Agatha most definitely would’ve used her newly-acquired chaos magic for nefarious purposes, but if Wanda were offered this deal in the first episode there’s no doubt she would’ve said yes; the wellbeing of the world was less important to her than her family. The fact that Wanda doesn’t fall for Agatha’s trap in the finale and chooses to sacrifice her family shows how far she’s come. Choosing to lose Vision and the kids instead of putting Westview at risk is proof that Wanda takes the harm she caused seriously, intent on righting her wrong instead of getting what she wants. It’s a really significant moment of character growth for her, and helps to make the ending sit easier with audiences. 

The moment Wanda powers up into her full Scarlet Witch persona is so clever in the way it subtly subverts tropes. Comic books, largely written by men, have always been fascinated with the trope of Mad Women. Many of the most famous runs are slight variations on “a woman gets powers, has emotions that turn her evil, and must be subdued by her male counterpart,” and Wanda’s House of M story in the comics is no exception. WandaVision follows a lot of the same beats but flips them around to empower her instead: Wanda runs from her emotions, creates Westview, and denies her powers. And she finally succeeds by accepting her emotions and her power. Instead of power making her turn bad, it’s the acceptance of her power that allows Wanda to start undoing her mistakes. Moments like that make me so happy Marvel let a woman be in charge of Wanda’s narrative for once. 

DOUBLE VISION

I don’t think the writers get enough credit for how well-formed a character Vision is. Considering he’s a robot, it would be very easy for writers to go too far in one direction and give him no personality, or go too far in the other direction and make him feel too human and divorced from his origins. The team behind WandaVision struck a perfect balance, and the introduction of White Vision really highlights that. 

There are two lines of dialogue, one from real Vision and one from White Vision, that serve as a masterclass in character writing. The first, from White Vision, is when he tries to kill Wanda and says: “And they told me you were powerful.” The line is merely a statement of fact, but the context the writers have placed it in tells you so much more. First, it says that this version of Vision is cold and feels no love for Wanda, but also that he — extremely unlike the real Vision — takes pride in his status as a weapon, almost braggadocious in his ability to so easily defeat Wanda. And because he doesn’t have human emotions, he doesn’t realize that he was only able to best Wanda because she walked up to him completely vulnerable and was under the belief that he loved her. 

Then in contrast, there’s a line from the real Vision during his fight with White Vision where he asks, “Might we resolve this peacefully?” Again, the line is merely a statement of fact because Vision is still a robot, but the writers do an incredible job of imbuing it with his personality. It shows that not only has he transcended his intended purpose as a weapon, trying to resolve things peacefully, but he also has a sense of humor. He sarcastically adds, “A no, then” after his peace attempt fails. 

Both Vision and White Vision’s lines could’ve lacked all personality, but instead the writers found a way to make them showcase both synthezoids’ character. The addition of White Vision, as cold and unfeeling as he is, works especially well in light of what we’ve seen from Vision through the first eight episodes. We’ve seen him married and raising a family, but more importantly we’ve seen the way he uses his robot otherness as a way to connect with Wanda. As the only other being with a connection to the Mind Stone, he’s the only one she can relate to and his unusual perspective on humanity is the one thing that keeps her grounded. To see White Vision have all of the same robotic qualities as Vision but weaponize them to hurt Wanda is almost as painful a gut punch to the audience as it is to her. 

SHADES OF GREY

The most controversial aspect of the finale is the show’s handling of Wanda’s actions in Westview. A lot of people think the show let her off the hook, but I really don’t think that’s the case. 

Unlike other Marvel heroes, Wanda won’t always do the right thing. She can be at turns selfish and selfless, depending on the situation she’s in. The finale actually does a really good job exploring the bounds of her grey morality. Trying to protect her family pushed Wanda into her biggest moral transgression, taking over a town and making people play roles in her dream sitcom life. But it also pushes her to be selfless; she throws herself in front of Vision and the twins to protect them from Agatha, knowing Agatha will use the opportunity to drain her magic. Wanda’s love for her family is her primary motivation, and it isn’t inherently good or bad. She can become a villain because her motivation isn’t to be a hero; it’s just to protect her loved ones.

And even in her selfishness, Wanda does try to minimize harm as much as possible. She doesn’t let Agatha kill the SWORD agents, catching them before they hit the ground, even though they were trying to hurt her kids. Throughout many episodes we’ve seen Wanda try her best to avoid people getting hurt — protecting Monica, not hurting the SWORD agents stationed outside the Hex, and sparing Fake Pietro. She never wants to hurt anyone: she just wants to keep her family and is willing to ignore the side effects.

Wanda’s denial is central to her morality. The reason she keeps the town running for so long is because she believes the people are happy, ignoring any evidence to the contrary. Vision tells her in the fifth episode that Norm is in pain and as a telepath, Wanda’s subconscious must make the choice not to feel the townspeople’s emotions. The force of Wanda’s denial lets her believe no one is getting hurt, which is the only reason she keeps the Hex going. 

It doesn’t excuse Wanda’s actions that she wasn’t intentionally hurting people, but it does complicate them. So many of the debates that have been had over the morality of Wanda’s actions are just so boring because they fail to consider the way denial affects everyone’s choices. Every time you speed on the freeway, you’re increasing the chance that someone will die in a traffic accident. Yet you do it anyway because you tell yourself that you’re not going to get in an accident, even though statistically someone will be getting in a traffic accident on the freeway. We collectively as a society have decided it’s morally acceptable to risk someone’s life over something as small as getting to work on time because the consequence of that action is so far removed from the action itself. There’s just enough space to deny that you could hurt someone.

If we’re all willing to potentially risk someone’s life over something as small as getting to work on time, imagine the choice you would make if your husband and kids’ lives were at stake. Wanda had no choice in making the Hex and didn’t realize she controlled it until after Billy and Tommy were born. Taking it down would not only mean losing them, but it would also mean she would be personally responsible for their deaths. And Vision and the twins were real and alive; their deaths matter just as much as anyone else’s.

Most problems people had with the finale center around the last scene between Wanda and Monica; they think it’s the show using Monica to let Wanda completely off the hook, but that’s not how the scene is meant to be interpreted. Head writer Jac Schaeffer said the scene was re-written after they realized it was the only time in the finale that Monica and Wanda would get to talk. It needed to very quickly make all the reasons Monica felt such a strong connection to Wanda clear; because the scene had so much to do, it’s definitely over-written which creates the room for people to misinterpret it. But the scene was not meant in any way to excuse Wanda’s actions. This quote from Jac Schaeffer makes that pretty clear:

When you bring up what I said about black and white villains, I mean what it makes me think of is Wanda. I’m interested in all the sides of Wanda. You know, seeing her flaws and her selfishness and how reactionary she is and how big her anger can be.

I think analyzing where this scene went wrong — how what the writers intended to convey became so divorced from the meaning people took from it — is pretty fascinating. 

The first disconnect is how people reacted to the framing of Wanda’s Walk of Shame through a street of very angry townspeople. People reacted to this as if the show was trying to paint the townspeople in a bad light, as if we were supposed to feel sympathy for Wanda, but that wasn’t the intention. They were actually trying to show the audience that Wanda was not forgiven — that she had wronged people here in a way that had no real fix. But because audiences are so used (especially in Marvel products) to being wholly on the side of the protagonist, people interpreted it the wrong way.

Then there’s Monica’s line: “They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them.” I don’t think the writers did themselves any favors here, because understandably what the audience took this to mean was that Monica believed Wanda was an unsung hero wrongfully accepting the scorn of the townspeople. And if that was what the show was trying to communicate, I would agree it’s a dicey moral message. But I don’t think it was. Monica’s line is meant to be interpreted much more as a simple statement of fact — unlike her, no one else in Westview will ever understand the why of Wanda’s actions. Wanda’s response makes this pretty clear: “It wouldn’t change how they see me.” Wanda knows she doesn’t deserve the town’s forgiveness, which is why she doesn’t try and ask for it. She, and the show, understands that her actions at the end don’t justify her actions in the middle.

Wanda asks Monica: “And you, you don’t hate me?” which highlights another problem this scene ran into. The show a little bit takes for granted the perspective of the townspeople, only highlighting the perspective a few times throughout the season. Outside of Wanda, most of the perspectives we get comes from either Hayward — who hates Wanda to a cartoonish, unsympathetic degree, or Monica — who is incredibly sympathetic to her. The average townsperson’s perspective gets lost in the shuffle. This scene is supposed to feel like Monica is the only safe harbor Wanda has in town; it is a moment of Wanda saying Everybody else rightfully hates me and I’m really glad you’ve somehow managed to forgive me. But because the only time the audience sees the whole town actively hating Wanda is the scene from earlier in this episode, that perspective is lost; it ends up feeling like the only perspective the show gives on Wanda is sympathetic. I personally think the show did a good enough job on this front, but I understand why others don’t. 

The reflective dislike of Wanda definitely gets at some larger social biases though: Thor, Loki, and Tony Stark are each to varying degrees responsible for an attempted genocide. Compared to that, Wanda’s actions are tame. Yet audiences clamor for Loki to be redeemed and never once questioned Thor and Tony’s place as heroes. Huh, I wonder if that might possibly have something to do with their gender? 

People also took issue with Monica’s line, “Given the chance and given your power, I’d bring my mom back. I know I would” because they felt it was meant to excuse Wanda’s actions, but again, I disagree. It’s definitely worth it to do the mental exercise of putting yourself in Wanda’s shoes: in the middle of your normal life with your perfect family, you’re hit with the realization that your husband actually died two weeks ago and you’ve taken a town hostage, and now in order to save a bunch of people from evil, you have to kill this version of your husband and kids. Even the best person would have a hard time doing that. I think it is an undeniable fact that given these circumstances and Wanda’s power, literally anyone would have acted the same as Wanda. I’m sure there are some perfectly good people who would’ve struggled for much longer than two days with the decision too. So, when Monica says she knows she would have done it, she’s not saying “It’s okay that you did this” but she is saying, “I understand how you could do this.” 

I also think all the handwringing over the very specific ins and outs of Wanda’s behavior throughout the series is such an uninteresting way to analyze media. I get critiquing media that way when it could affect the real world. For instance, I understand why people critique earlier MCU movies that glorified Tony Stark’s misdeeds — because a rich white guy getting away with hurting people in developing countries accurately describes roughly 99% of all human rights violations. Glorifying Tony’s behavior contributes to a real-life culture that enables abusers. Let’s just say I’m less convinced WandaVision will contribute to a culture that enables witches to take over small towns in New Jersey, and that widows and the grieving are definitely not an overprivileged class in our society. One TV show that arguably treats a widow too kindly is not going to hurt anyone — especially because the moral of the story was absolutely that taking over a town is not an affective way to handle your trauma! No one will ever watch this show and come away with the impression that they should do what Wanda did, because the whole point of the story was Wanda learning to not do it. The entire show is a journey through the stages of grief, after all.

Some people were also upset that Wanda gets to leave at the end instead of going to jail or something. Because WandaVision has to connect with the ever-ongoing narrative of the MCU, the writers were in a really tricky place as far as her ending. From a Doylist perspective, it’s obvious that Wanda doesn’t go to jail at the end because she has to appear in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, where her search for her kids will cause some seismic damage to the fabric of reality. If she faced some sort of “punishment” at the end of this series to learn her lesson, they’d have to narratively backtrack in the next movie, undoing all the character development. Unlike in most TV shows, Wanda’s story isn’t allowed to end here and has to serve as both an ending and as a branching off point for the next phase of her story/the MCU. She has to leave at the end because anything else would step on the toes of Doctor Strange, written by an entirely different team.

And if you think about it from a Watsonian perspective, Wanda had no other choice but to leave town. If she turned herself over to the authorities, she’d never be allowed to go through the regular justice system, instead going to SWORD or a sister agency. You know, the same people who spent years studying Vision’s powers to turn him into a weapon. Through the Hex, Wanda has seen the amount of damage that can be done if her powers are used by someone who doesn’t understand them. Why would she have any faith that a government agency wouldn’t try and mess with her powers, accidentally hurting people? Especially considering her experience being wrongfully and inhumanely imprisoned during the events of Civil War?

Going out to the middle of nowhere shows that Wanda is starting to take her powers more seriously. She still doesn’t understand them, so the safest thing she can do is get as far away from other people as possible and study her abilities. She’s taking active steps to try not to hurt anyone again, which is really the only thing she can do. There’s nothing she can do to change what happened in Westview, and turning herself in to the authorities would just increase the odds that her powers would fall into the wrong hands. 

THE SHIP OF THESEUS

Resolving the fight between the Visions with the Ship of Theseus debate was a stroke of genius. Considering they’re both made of the same parts and powers, a physical fight between the two would inevitably end in a stalemate. Having the real Vision come out victorious needed to showcase what about him was different, and having him raise the question of the Ship of Theseus highlights one of the biggest things that sets him apart from White Vision — he’s moved beyond his programming as a weapon. White Vision can only think to win a fight physically because that’s all his programming allows; but the real Vision, in his attempt to be peaceful, manages to gain the upper hand. I also really like the subtle nod to the idea of the pen being mightier than the sword; real Vision proves to be the better weapon because he is in fact not a weapon, beating White Vision in a battle of wits rather than physical force. It provides a bit of connective tissue between this and Wanda’s victory over Agatha — neither win because they’re more powerful, but because they manage to outthink their opponent. 

From a storytelling perspective, the set-up and payoff in this scene is perfectly executed. All the way back in the fifth episode, it’s revealed that Vision has the ability to wake the townspeople up from Wanda’s mind control. And then we see him do it in both the sixth and seventh episodes, constantly keeping it in our minds. It’s been so seamlessly woven into the narrative, it feels like a puzzle piece snapping into place when he finally uses that ability on White Vision, freeing him from Hayward’s control by restoring all of his memories. 

It also does a great job highlighting the inherent humanity within the real Vision. As far as mankind is currently aware, we are the only species that question what it means to be what we are. Burdened by self-consciousness, humans are constantly pondering questions of free will and souls and what makes every person unique. Vision not only having his own sense of self-identity, but also questioning what about that identity truly defines him, is perhaps the most recognizably human trait he has. His arc throughout WandaVision is about slowly learning to question what’s around him: first with his job, then his marriage and family, then his relationship to the outside world. Having that culminate in him questioning his own sense of self is the logical endpoint, and the Ship of Theseus is the perfect way for him to do that in a grounded, human way. 

SO LONG, DARLING

It says all you need to know about WandaVision that Wanda vs. Agatha, Vision vs. Vision, Monica’s fight and escape from Ralph, the fight with SWORD, and Hayward’s fall is all crammed into less than 30 minutes, while Wanda’s final goodbye with her family is given a full ten minutes of its own. It played around with a lot of MCU stuff, but at its heart this show was always a character study of Wanda and her love story with Vision, and everything related to that is done so well. 

I can think of very few shows that utilize parallels to as great an effect as WandaVision, and I think my favorite of them all comes at the start of this sequence. Vision says he knows Wanda can set everything right, just not for them, to which Wanda replies, “No. Not for us.” Her “no” parallels the scene from the second episode when she sees the beekeeper emerge from the storm drain and rewinds time to rewrite her show. That was the first moment the audience was clued in to Wanda’s control of Westview, and it symbolized her complete denial of reality that she would go so far as to rewind time to escape it. In this episode, her “no” symbolizes the complete opposite; it’s the first time we hear Wanda accept the fate of her family, finally able to let them go and start to move on. Having those two moments be in explicit conversation with each other is a deft choice on the writer’s part to subtly highlight Wanda’s arc from the beginning to the end of the series. 

Having Vision and Wanda switch from their superhero uniforms to normal clothes before entering their house is such a perfect little detail. Wanda makes great strides in this episode accepting the part of herself that’s the Scarlet Witch, but the truest expression of her character is still the mom in jeans and a sweater. That’s especially true of her life with Vision, and it feels right that the two of them would leave their costumes at the door; their house was meant to represent a small quiet life, and that’s how they choose to enter it for the last time. 

The scene tucking the children into bed is heartbreaking, and I think it’s Paul Bettany’s strongest performance of his entire run as Vision. He’s so close to breaking into tears at every line, but manages to just barely keep it together as Vision tries to wear a brave face in front of his kids. Again, the show uses parallels to devastating effect, having Wanda repeat the line “family is forever” to Billy and Tommy. When she first said it in the fifth episode, it spoke to Wanda’s stunted ability to cope with loss; she felt the only way she could hold on to Vision was to keep a version of him going even after death, no matter the harm it caused to others. Here, it speaks to her newfound acceptance — she knows that family truly is forever, that it can live on even after death through her love and memory, which allows her to let go. Elizabeth Olsen’s instincts as an actor are so sharp and the way she plays Wanda tucking Tommy into bed, giving him a playful nose scrunch to hide her own tears, is devastating. 

As Vision and Wanda go to shut the door, Wanda’s last words to her kids are: “Boys, thanks for choosing me to be your mom.” It is already such a tragically beautiful line, but this quote from writer Jac Schaeffer makes me love it even more:

There’s something really beautiful about that sentiment. I do feel that way about my children. In this world for Wanda, Vision, and the children are the only entities that she cannot control, and it’s because they were created whole cloth by her. There’s something mystical about that, and that’s how I feel about my own kids. Like, where did they come from? I don’t know. Yes, I’m responsible for bringing them into this world, but at some point that responsibility, that ownership, has a limit and then there’s this huge chasm of mystery. There’s a notion they had some agency in it.

Wanda’s magical family disappearing as the borders of her fake town overtake them could feel too fantastical, but lines like this do such a good job at grounding it. It’s also so true to the heart of the series that Wanda’s last line to her children be that, centering her gratefulness at meeting them over the grief of saying goodbye. Her arc was to come to terms with loss, and that line highlights how far she’s come. It recalls Vision’s line from the previous episode, of grief being the perseverance of love rather than something to drown under. 

In a small act of kindness, the show spares both Wanda and us from seeing Billy and Tommy disappear. Instead, the camera follows the collapsing border of Westview as it sweeps through the circus, turning back into SWORD. The tents and clown cars reverting back into highly militarized vehicles is a stark visual. As Billy and Tommy disappear, so too does the innocent world their mother built for them. It’s the right thing for Wanda to let go of Westview, but it’s worth mourning that the real world isn’t as kind as the false one she created. 

As the sequence transitions from Wanda’s goodbye with her kids to her goodbye with Vision, the town’s theatre marquee advertises “Tannhauser Gate” which is a reference to the final scene from Blade Runner and its very famous “Tears in Rain” speech. The monologue loses a lot of its beauty out of context, so if you haven’t seen the film I highly recommend giving it a watch. The idea of something beautiful and magical being lost, and accepting that fate, is what ties the speech to WandaVision and particularly Vision’s final moments.

Wanda leaving the lamp on for Vision is a tiny microcosm of why their love story is so beautiful. She wants to let him go in the dark, to close her eyes and open them again when he’s already gone so she doesn’t have to see the love of her life leave her one more time. But Vision wants to see her for the last time. So she lets him, putting aside her own sadness to make space for his. Like I said before, Wanda is selfish throughout the show but it’s counterbalanced by how selfless she is in protecting and comforting her family. 

From his perspective, Vision wants Wanda to be the last thing he sees before he dies. The two of them have always been intertwined, not only through the Mind Stone but because Vision only exists as his own entity, separate from Ultron, because Wanda decided to switch sides to the Avengers. In birth and death, Wanda is Vision’s raison d'être, his reason for being. In each life she’s been the first thing he sees, and here he makes sure she is again the last. This scene creates another parallel to the second episode, from the scene when the two are going to bed and Vision asks Wanda to get the light; it was a slice of life scene, from a time when Vision thought they’d have countless nights to share together. The contrast of him now turning the light back on emphasizes the finality of this moment, as Vision clings to the last experience they’ll ever have together. 

Vision asking Wanda, “What am I?” is such an emotionally intimate exchange. He’s a synthezoid, supposed to know every single thing in the universe, but with Wanda he reveals how unsure of himself he is in the most literal sense. He asks the question of Wanda not only because she created this version of him, but because she has known him better than anyone else. In his insecurity he turns to the person he trusts the most to comfort him. And Wanda’s answer shows how much she loves him; creating Vision and Westview was her most painful memory, so much so that she had locked it away from even herself. But to ease Vision’s doubt she relives it, sharing for one last time how much she loves him. Vision sheds a tear and Wanda wipes it away, clinging to the tangible proof that her love made him real again, if only for a few fleeting days. 

“We’ve said goodbye before, so it stands to reason we’ll say hello again” is the perfect encapsulation of the sad and hopeful tone of WandaVision. The show does such a good job highlighting the unique nature of Wanda and Vision’s relationship, seemingly destined to repeat itself over and over through time and space. Vision’s promise to Wanda is such a beautiful way of incorporating his synthezoid nature into the character; he knows he’ll be reunited with Wanda in some way because he always is, it just makes mathematical sense. This moment could feel oppressively said, so I love that the show manages to smuggle a tiny bit of hope into their good goodbye. The way Elizabeth Olsen plays Wanda’s hope as she realizes they will say hello again is just phenomenal. 

As we saw in the previous episode, Vision was the first person to get through to Wanda and give her a way to move forward from the death of her brother. What is grief, if not love persevering is the cornerstone that Wanda’s character arc in WandaVision is built upon. Vision giving her the tools to eventually let him go creates a clever thematic connection to Wanda’s victory over Agatha. She gave Wanda the lesson in runes, becoming her own undoing. Agatha was a villain of the show, but she was not the main one. Having Vision’s fate occur in the same way as Agatha’s goes to show that the main villain of the series was always Wanda’s grief. That’s why Wanda’s goodbye with Vision is saved for last, the true resolution of her arc.

There are a few more scenes to the episode, most notably Wanda’s final moments secluded in her cabin, but the true end of the story is this goodbye. Vision’s “So long, darling,” leaving Wanda alone again is the perfect final note. She flips up her hood and walks away, leaving the past behind her.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON WANDAVISION

I really do love this show, and the more I think on it the more reasons I find. It definitely got a little messy at points, and some of the plot-heavy elements didn’t quite work; like most creators with a unique voice and vision, I think Jac Schaeffer chaffed a bit against the limits of Marvel’s vast cinematic universe. But there’s something very real at the heart of WandaVision, a kind of unshod genius. Where the plot may lag, the character writing is impeccable, quickly making Wanda Maximoff one of fictional characters I’m most invested in. It scares me that a new writer will be handed the reins for Wanda going forward, but I’ll show up in theaters opening night to see her next appearance in the MCU. 

Odds and Ends:

  • It’s an incredibly minor moment in the finale, but I absolutely love that one of the only character traits given to Tyler Hayward is an affinity for puns. 
  • “Boys, handle the military.”
  • This episode is a bit hard to rank because some of it isn’t my favorite, but the highs are so incredibly high. I think my ranking of the entire season has to go 7>3>1>2>9>4>6>5>8.
  • WandaVision deserves all the Emmy nominations for set design, costume design, makeup, and direction. What the crew was able to pull off through so many different eras of filmmaking is nothing short of incredible.
  • Elizabeth Olsen has the bad luck of vying for a win in the most competitive Best Actress in a Limited Series race the Emmys has ever had. I wish she, Michaela Coel, and Kate Winslet could all win somehow. Even if she doesn’t, it’s nice to finally see her generating the kind of awards season buzz she deserved after Martha Marcy May Marlene and Sorry for Your Loss.

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Flash 7x12 Review: "Good-Bye Vibrations" (Somewhere Over the Rainbow) [Contributor: Deborah MacArthur]


“Good-Bye Vibrations”
Original Airdate: June 8, 2021

After the painfully bad Forces plot making up the first half of this season, The Flash has thrown me for a loop with a well-written, kind, and fitting send-off to one of the original members of Team Flash. We’re saying goodbye to Cisco this episode, which is sad — but also, thanks to the metahuman of the week, more than a little bit joyous. In a way, the balance between funny and bittersweet we get in "Good-Bye Vibrations" is exactly what the show needed in order to properly commemorate the hilarious and heartfelt Cisco Ramon. Good job, show! I knew you had decent writing left in you.

UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN

Without wasting any time, the episode begins with Cisco and Kamilla having gathered Iris, Barry, and Caitlin together in order to tell them the news: they’re leaving Central City. Tomorrow. Yikes, guys — sitting on that news for a while is one thing, but waiting until the day before the move? Kind of messed up. Also, it’s mentioned that Cisco is moving to Star City while Kamilla has a gallery showing of her photography in Miami and she’ll move back to Star City when it’s over, but I have no idea how significant these moves are because I actually don’t have a clue where Central City is geographically. I would assume somewhere... central?

Cisco is a little miffed by how well his friends seem to be taking his impending egress, but he assumes the magnitude of the event simply hasn’t hit them yet. Chester makes him feel a little better by calling Cisco leaving S.T.A.R. Labs “the end of an era,” which it definitely is, but that is undone a bit when Cisco gets to his office and finds that Barry has already speed-packed all his stuff. And then Cisco’s mood is dampened even more when Caitlin cheerfully asks for his security pass and access codes back. At least Frost passes on a nice, very Frost message to him: “You suck forever. But I love you anyway.”

Then the villain of the week strikes! A woman dressed in rainbows hypnotizes a banker into happily handing over a check for $10 million, made out to “cash.” I feel like no bank would actually cash that much money? Or even have that much on hand? Whatever, I’m not going to look this gift horse too closely in the mouth because the show isn’t actively driving me insane for the first time in over a month. When Team Flash gets news of this new meta, Cisco is excited about making it OG Team Flash’s final mission together.

Cisco quickly recognizes a similarity in the most recent attack and an attack from the past: Rainbow Raider, who hypnotized people into anger. The new meta — whom Cisco dubs Rainbow Raider 2.0 but I’m going to call Carrie because I’ve learned my lesson about staying away from the wordier nicknames — has the opposite effect on her victims, instead making them so happy and blissed out they’re highly susceptible to suggestions. Cisco wants to use the same prism grid on Carrie that Team Flash used to defeat the first iteration of Rainbow Raider, thus quickly and cleanly wrapping up their last case together with a wonderful win.

Unfortunately for Cisco, when he and Barry arrive on the scene of Carrie making off with a rolling suitcase full of jewels and jewelry, the prism grid doesn’t work. Carrie is able to rainbow-hypnotize a nearby valet into stealing the fancy car parked outside, which means that Barry has to stop the guy and Cisco gets left behind to be mind-whammied. The good news is, Cisco is no longer bummed out about all his friends’ apparent apathy toward his movie. The bad news is, Cisco is now too into singing and dancing to be of much use to anyone.

Chester is tasked with babysitting Cisco, who is now essentially a hyperactive child, but loses track of him almost immediately. Cisco runs up to the Team Flash command room expecting a surprise party and, when no party appears imminent, starts his own but queuing up an animation of laser-shooting disco cats on every screen, including one that projects directly in front of Barry’s face via the Flash suit. While he’s running. Okay, my first question is why “laser cat disco party animation” is a thing that Cisco can pull up with a few keystrokes, and my second question is why Barry’s suit projects anything directly in his face. Seems dangerous for a hero whose whole deal is running really fast.

Anyway, Barry slams face-first into a van. Carrie witnesses this as she’s on her way to steal more stuff and takes the opportunity to mind-whammy Barry as well. Barry returns to S.T.A.R. Labs, having joined Cisco in the realm of loopy giggling and dance parties. Poor Caitlin is left as the only sane person of OG Team Flash.

What Chester lacks in babysitting ability, he makes up for in technical know-how. Barry and Cisco’s party is fun (there’s breakdancing!) but short-lived, as Chester runs up and hits them with a flashing technobabble thing that cancels out whatever power Carrie had over them. This is followed by the news that Carrie is stealing a blimp, which is... possibly the weirdest thing anyone’s ever stolen on this show. Why does anyone in Central City possess a blimp to steal? Did Barry go back in time again and turn this timeline into a post-Steampunk universe?

The mood was already lowered by the lack of meta-induced glee, but it’s brought down even further when Barry asks Cisco if he could use his new ARGUS connections to help them figure out what to do next about Carrie. It’s the final straw on Cisco’s situation with his friends, and Cisco storms off. Barry and Caitlin, having realized that the brave front they’d clearly been putting on for Cisco has backfired, follow to confess how torn up they actually are about him leaving. It’s a wonderfully sweet, sad scene between the three people who started Team Flash that Carlos Valdes in particular totally knocks out of the park.

With the emotional stuff dealt with (for now), OG Team Flash gets back to work figuring out Carrie’s next move. Barry learns that she used to be a debt collector, but turned to a life of Robin Hood-esque crime after she was fired for cancelling people’s medical debt instead of collecting it. Well, I’m immediately on her side now. Still, she’s about to launch millions of dollars worth of cash and jewels out of a blimp, thereby causing complete chaos in Central City, so apparently our heroes need to stop her.

And stop her they do, as Barry, Allegra, and Cisco hop into the aircraft’s cab (is that what the non-balloon part of a blimp is called? Or like... a gondola?) and cuff Carrie. Since Carrie isn’t really a villain, Barry promises she won’t go to jail and will instead work off her crime by working with the mayor on Central City’s community spending. Barry speeds Allegra and Carrie off the airship while Cisco mans the controls and stops it from careening into a stadium full of people, thus ending his final mission with Team Flash as a totally awesome hero.

Back at S.T.A.R. Labs, Cisco gifts Chester with a new workshop and officially passes the torch of designated team nerd on to him. He also reminisces about his past with Team Flash, starting from the first moment Barry woke up from his coma and including a wide array of metahuman nicknames. It’s a very nice moment, eventually followed by another very nice moment of a completely different tone: Cisco, Barry, Joe, and Caitlin all singing a karaoke version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” — the song Cisco had played for Barry while he was in his coma. 

Again I have to give kudos to the show for treating Cisco’s departure with exactly the right degrees of levity and pathos, perfectly balanced around a classic variety metahuman of the week plotline. There were a lot of ways this storyline could’ve gone wrong, but the show skirted around every one of them and managed an incredibly fitting send-off to a beloved character.

Other Things:

  • At the end of the episode something weird happens with Cecile. We’re not given any context so I’m not gonna bother speculating.
  • Best of luck to Carlos Valdes! You made Cisco great.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Mythic Quest 2x06 Review: “Backstory!” (Writing and Re-writing Our Narratives) [Contributor: Jenn]


“Backstory!”
Original Airdate: June 4, 2021

I used to hold my writing tightly, convinced that anyone who critiqued it didn’t like or understand my work — worse, I believed they didn’t understand me. But the older I’ve got and the more red lines through copy, scribbled margin notes from professors, and track changes in Google Docs, the more I’ve realized that being a writer means holding my work loosely. (It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve been an editor more in the past few years and know that edits aren’t personal; they’re meant to make a work better!)

C.W. Longbottom — or Carl as we’ll know him in “Backstory!” — is an aspiring science-fiction writer who’s working as a copy editor in the 1970s. But even though Carl is passionate about writing and crafting worlds, it doesn’t mean he has what it takes to be a science-fiction writer. How do you grapple with the fact that no matter how many times you write and rewrite something, it doesn’t get better?

WRITE WITHOUT FEAR, EDIT WITHOUT MERCY

(I used to have a notebook with that phrase on the front, FYI.)

Mythic Quest has such a stellar ensemble, and F. Murray Abraham is incredible in the role of C.W., but we don’t really know much about him until “Backstory!” We know he won a Nebula award, and we know that he’s essentially an alcoholic who lives at the office. But what this standalone flashback episode does well is give us not just a sense of who Carl was, but who C.W. is. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the thing I love the most about Mythic Quest is that they’re unafraid to present characters with flaws. The point of “Backstory!” is not for us to agree with C.W. or even sympathize with him; the point is essentially to remind us that everyone has a backstory that forms who they become. In order to understand C.W., we need to know Carl. And while you feel for him by the end of the episode, you also desperately want him to learn and understand the places where he is being selfish, stubborn, and wrong. It is a tight balance to walk to ask the audience to understand, care about, and also disagree with a character but Mythic Quest is the show I trust most on television at this moment to get it right.

So the plot is essentially this: Carl is working as a copy editor at a sci-fi magazine with aspiring writers A.E. Goldsmith (a charming, delightful, driven young woman) and Paul Cromwell (who loves writing and forms a romantic relationship with A.E.). The three young editors dream of becoming a new sci-fi unstoppable trio and quickly band together. They swap their stories in the hopes that their editor will maybe publish them in the magazine someday. A.E.’s story is essentially great without any major changes. Paul’s story requires rewrites and edits, but he’s incredibly excited by the prospect of changes. When it’s Carl’s turn for feedback, however, the pair is hesitant. Carl insists that he welcomes feedback and constructive criticism, but when A.E. and Paul try to point out the holes in his plot, he becomes defensive.

I think it was actually quite genius on the show’s part to present three different kinds of writers. You will always encounter people whose work needs little editing (though everyone gets edited eventually) on a first draft, those who need to rewrite but are actually invigorated by the possibility of reworking the story, and those who take criticism personally. We all know those writers — unfortunately some of them work in television and have flocked to Twitter over the last few years. We then watch as Carl, A.E., and Paul work on their stories. Carl keeps writing but his story doesn’t seem to get any better the more he works on it. Paul’s moves in small increments, but it’s revealed later that while he enjoys writing, he does struggle with it. He’s the person who might write as a hobby but never get published.

A.E., meanwhile, gets her story published by their magazine and it sparks jealousy and competition in Carl. If he’s writing but not getting published, what’s the point? If he’s writing and it never sees the light of day, is he even a writer? These are the kinds of things writers grapple with. And yes, the jealousy and competition is such a pain point — but it’s something we need to unpack. Have you ever been in a relationship where for the most part, you both are supportive and kind to one another. But then maybe you have success and it sparks a cycle of “one-upmanship”? Suddenly, every time you mention your success, a friend has to counter with something that THEY did. I used to have close friendships where it felt like as long as we were on equal footing, the relationship was stable. As long as I maintained the same level of success as they did, we were fine. But when I began to soar, they couldn’t handle it. They became petty and jealous.

That’s what happens to Carl. As soon as A.E. begins to soar and even Paul seems to be making progress, Carl stops seeing the group as being on equal footing. Suddenly, everything is a competition. And in Carl’s mind, it’s a competition that he’s losing. So he refuses to go out and celebrate A.E.’s win with her and Paul, opting to feverishly work on his story which ends up becoming a novella. When Carl presents the piece to A.E. to submit to their editor, she promises to show him.

But then, through her own admission, she doesn’t. She read Carl’s novella, you see, and it turns out that it’s got all the problems of his short story — it’s just longer. When Carl hears this, he lashes out. He doesn’t see A.E. as his friend or comrade anymore; he sees her as the person who dashed his dream. Is that the truth? Of course not. A.E. may not have made the best choice in the moment, but she admitted what she did and owned up to it. She didn’t want Carl to be embarrassed, and in that moment we as the audience realize that there’s no coming back from this moment. Carl lashes out at A.E., claiming she only got published because she’s a woman not because she’s talented. The two square off and Carl storms out. 

It’s a low point for Carl, honestly, and it’s painful to watch. You don’t want to see people be awful to well-meaning individuals, but it’s important for us to know that Carl’s ego is what stops him from being a great writer. He could be talented if he was willing to let go of the original vision he had for his piece and try to figure out what the actual story is. But he’s adamant that his ideas are right and that no one else understands his vision. It’s the classic tortured genius martyrdom that we all know but hate to see — the man who believes he’s misunderstood because he’s too smart for everyone else. 

But good writers don’t need “yes” people; good writers need people who are willing to tell them hard truths and edit a piece to make it the best that it can be. Carl can’t see the forest for the trees — he can’t see what his work could be because all he’s able to see is what it currently is, which is what he always wants it to be. He believes that he deserves success because he’s good at what he does and wants it badly. That, unfortunately, coupled with his stubbornness and unwillingness to change is his downfall.

CRISIS OF BELIEF AND ART

Carl’s low point happens when he gets feedback on his manuscript from an acclaimed writer, Isaac Asimov, and the entire thing is rewritten. But then later, Carl notices the note that was sent with the revised manuscript essentially telling Carl to do with it what he wants — it’s HIS story. Carl takes the opportunity to lift the entire Asimov-penned new novella and promote it as his own. We’ll learn at the end of the episode that this is the book that wins C.W. a Nebula award. Only A.E., who confronts him at the ceremony, knows that the novella couldn’t have been C.W.’s own work. She subtly challenges him to admit it, but he doesn’t. He holds onto the pride that was awarded to him: he won a prestigious award. He’s a success. He’s a writer.

The smile doesn’t falter in the flashback, but we realize that this is the beginning of an identity crisis for C.W. that plays out into present-day Mythic Quest storylines where C.W. admits he hasn’t been able to write a video game story that makes people emotional or finish his series of books. The tragedy here is that if Carl had just learned to accept feedback rather than hold onto his ego, he could have maybe been a great writer. But the looming fear of what would happen if he never got better or successful as a writer was too powerful. Can you imagine how hard it is to pursue one thing for your whole life, have one true ambition, and then discover you’re not good at it? It’s gut-wrenching and I know people who’ve had to endure those crises of belief because the path they wanted to take wasn’t the one they were best at.

But there’s a spark in Carl that we see and it echoes into the final scene of the episode. At his lowest point, Carl walks through the city in the rain and stops at a storefront where the game Pong is playing on a television. Carl is enamored by the game and becomes visibly emotional at the simplicity of it and how profound it is at the same time. He’s literally glimpsing into the future and he cannot contain his joy about it. At the end of the episode, we see the moment Ian and Poppy meet C.W. and ask him to be part of Mythic Quest. When Ian mentions video games, C.W. flashes back to the moment he saw Pong and the emotion he felt; in that moment, he gets emotional in front of Ian and Poppy too. 

“Backstory!” is such an important episode; not only does it introduce us to C.W.’s past, but it also really highlights some significant themes about creativity, art, ego, and writing. These themes continue to echo into the present-day Mythic Quest stories and I’m excited to see where they’ll take us next!

Notes and quotes:

  • Young C.W., played by Josh Brener, was so perfectly cast. Everything he did from the way that Carl enunciates to small mannerisms and facial expressions was in line with how F. Murray Abraham plays C.W. without being a caricature of him. And Shelly Hennig as A.E. was just so dynamic and wonderful. I wanted more of her.
  • Rob McElhenney did such an amazing job directing this episode. Every shot was so cinematic, and the reflection of Pong in C.W.’s eyes was just so beautiful and poignant. Truly this team does not get enough credit for the work they do in this show week after week. It’s award-worthy, truly.
  • “Apologies. Iowa.”
  • “Start throwing punches or else I’m gonna lose respect for you.”
  • Flashback!Poppy is hilarious.
  • That final scene with adult C.W. remembering Pong got me misty-eyed, I can’t lie.

What did you think of this episode? Sound off in the comments below!