Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 3: “Give & Take”

Red Dwarf XI, "Give & Take"

When information about Red Dwarf XI started spilling out, it was “Give & Take” that intrigued me most. The plot sounded great. The images of the scary-looking medical robot were genuinely menacing. The clips were action-heavy and atmospheric. So “Give & Take” was always the one I was really looking forward to seeing.

And now I’ve seen it, and it was okay.

It wasn’t bad, and I’m not even disappointed that it didn’t match my specific expectations. It did something a bit different from what I expected, and that’s fine. In fact, I like a lot of what it tried to do. It’s just that I wasn’t especially thrilled by the actual execution.

The plot does indeed focus around a deranged medical robot…for a short time, at least. We get a bit of buildup before the robot is revealed, and then he’s dealt with fairly quickly. The rest of the episode has to do with the fallout from the crew’s encounter with him…namely the fact that he snatched Lister’s kidneys.

And it was okay.

The problem is that without kidneys, Lister will die. Kryten buys him a bit of time with a home-made plot device, but the crew is in a pickle: Lister’s only potential donor is The Cat, who both doesn’t want to donate a kidney and is of a different species. This leads to some nice character conflict, and is probably the hardest the show has ever leaned into The Cat’s innate selfishness.

And it was okay.

“Give & Take” felt messy. So did “Samsara,” but that at least had a clear structure and an understanding of what it was doing. I’ll admit that much, even if I took issues with both of those things.

Here, though, it feels like a series of set pieces that flow one from the other without actually feeling like they’re connected. This is especially disappointing to report about an episode that has a full-circle narrative. (More on that in a moment, though.)

First, the good, because I laughed quite a bit. Less than I laughed in the previous two episodes, but Red Dwarf doesn’t live or die by its comedy alone, so that’s not a bad thing. The reveal that Rimmer and Kryten had invited a snack machine aboard — and not the medical genius they assumed — made me laugh for so long that I missed a good deal of the following scene.

It was perfectly executed. Not necessarily snappy or even clever, but a big dumb bit of punctuation that landed as well as anything ever landed in the classic years. In fact, later-series Red Dwarf has always struggled with these one-off characters, so it’s worth celebrating the fact that Snacky in general was a very welcome exception to the disappointing norm.

Also, does this mean that Kerry Shale’s medibot from the previous series has officially been written out of the show’s continuity? Let’s hope the living fuck so.

“Give & Take” had a few really good lines throughout, especially during The Cat’s refusal to donate a kidney, but aside from that, Snacky was my highlight.

I was surprised by the fact that the crew discovered Snacky’s true nature so far into the episode. They could have figured it out the moment they left the exploding space station and nothing would have changed. Sure, we’d have lost the therapy session with Rimmer, but that’s about the only reason to keep it a secret. And it’s not like Rimmer thought Snacky was a psychiatry-bot anyway so…whatever. Moving on.

The issue with the crew realizing that Snacky is a vending machine is mainly the length of time the scene takes.

When we learn about Snacky it’s because he turns around. When the crew learns about Snacky they all stand around repeating themselves for ages, while Snacky does the same. What we learned early in the episode from a character simply walking away the crew learns later, much more slowly, much more gratingly, much less efficiently and effectively.

Which was sort of a problem throughout. Whether it’s Rimmer berating an elevator or Kryten tricking The Cat into being Lister’s donor, things just take so long to happen.

The latter case was especially egregious, because we saw Kryten take time to convince The Cat that The Cat is the one who needs a kidney, The Cat take time to manipulate Lister into believing he’s willing to donate his own, and Kryten come in to explain everything we just saw happen and then, additionally, reveal to The Cat the truth that we knew all along.

Little of it was actually funny, all of it went on far too long. And when we realize that the entire thing was a long red herring (as they couldn’t use The Cat’s kidney anyway) it seems like an awful lot of time spent setting up something that didn’t even happen.

I’m also not convinced that the episode needed to go the time-travel route for its resolution. Maybe it’s because we had a time-travel plot just a couple of weeks back. Or maybe because in a sci-fi comedy you have any number of possible solutions at your fingertips, so “Now the stasis booth is a time machine, but only this once” feels, at the very least, inelegant.

It also introduces the potential for paradoxes. If they steal the previous Lister’s kidney, then doesn’t that prevent the entire rest of the episode from even happening? And the initial exchange between Rimmer and the lift seems to imply that the end of this episode already happened. (In other words, Lister was never hungover…his recovery was always due to the meddling of the future crew.) Which means that when the robot tried to steal Lister’s kidneys, they would be missing already.

Maybe I’m overthinking that, or I’m having trouble retaining a detail I would need in order for the episode to make sense. But, either way, the kidney either has to end up transported to the future, or destroyed in the crazy medi-bot’s lab. It can’t be both.

Whatever. Untangling any Dwarf time-travel romp reveals inconsistencies…it’s just a matter of how bothersome they are logistically (hello there, Tikka to Ride!), and whether or not you’re laughing enough (or invested enough) to justify any potential narrative incongruities. “Give & Take” didn’t grab me the way it needed to in order to keep my mind from wandering.

In fact, it wandered a lot.

Why did the crew have no qualms about outright chloroforming Lister in order to steal his kidney, but did seem reluctant to do that to The Cat?

Why did we see the crazy medi-bot wandering around the exploding space station after he’d been shot? I thought we’d find out that he got aboard Starbug somehow, but…no. He still died in the explosion. So…why did we need to see him get up and wander around at all? Why not just let him be killed in the shootout?

Why in the world did an episode about kidneys and time travel and insane robots have a punchline in which a lift moves really fast?

I was looking very forward to “Give & Take.” And I liked a lot about it. But it’s also my biggest disappointment so far from series XI. “Twentica” had a solid idea and had a lot of fun with it. “Samsara” was less successful, and the seams were showing, but there was a lot to like. “Give & Take,” though…

It was okay.

And I’m deeply sorry to report that.

Fiction into Film: Inherent Vice (2009 / 2014)

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

Inherent Vice poster, 2014There’s an extra layer of scrutiny that gets applied to literary adaptations. In addition to the things we judge in all films — the script, the acting, the directing, the editing, etc. — we ask what a director did, or failed to do, with the source material.

A film might be great and still be a poor adaptation, which leads to a kind of ancillary disappointment that a wholly original film wouldn’t have to worry about. And directors know this. How much they let it shape or inform their approach is up to them, but they know — and have always known — that fans of the original text will watch an adaptation with certain expectations in mind.

I’m not saying that it is a director’s duty to meet those expectations. (In fact, read on to hear me say the opposite!) But the expectations will be there, and the director will be aware of them.

So we can imagine the absolutely crushing weight that Paul Thomas Anderson must have felt when he directed Inherent Vice. Not only was he adapting a novel, but he was adapting a novel by the notoriously unfilmable (in both senses of the word) Thomas Pynchon. What’s more, the film was likely to be — and is still likely to be — the only authorized adaptation of anything Pynchon will ever write.

No pressure, there, Paul.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Inherent Vice, the novel, is about Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private eye in Southern California who faces the dawn of the 1970s — and the inevitable end of the Summer of Love — only because he has no other choice. As American society takes its first, deliberate steps toward forgetting whatever lessons it might have learned from the hippie movement, Doc’s focus is demanded suddenly by a new case: the reappearance of his ex-lover, and the disappearance of her current lover.

By Pynchon standards, it’s a pretty simple plot, and was something of an exception for the author, who was mainly known for his massive, meandering tangles of historical fiction. Inherent Vice has historical merit, but it’s also a silly detective novel, full of pot jokes and identifiable character types. It was good, but it also felt just a bit different from what we expected of Pynchon.

And the novel wasn’t the only thing he did unexpectedly.

Thomas Pynchon had always been a deliberate enigma. Rarely photographed. Less rarely identified. Never went on book tours. Never accepted awards in person. Never gave interviews. Never said much of anything, really…at least not outside of his novels.

Pynchon was silent. Distant. Content to while his time away behind a typewriter, somewhere, letting his works speak — and rewardingly baffle — for themselves.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Until, all at once, he wasn’t. He made these strange little excursions into the life of…a different author, basically. It’s not that he wasn’t Pynchon anymore…it’s that Pynchon was becoming, incrementally, perhaps temporarily, more comfortable with some other version of himself. One that was more…vocal?

In 2004, with no fanfare to speak of, the man who uniformly refused public communication of any kind appeared on The Simpsons.


He played himself with a bag over his head, the exciting news here being that “Thomas Pynchon” was now a viable Halloween costume. Because nobody had heard his voice before, there were debates about whether or not this really was Pynchon.

But don’t worry; we’d be hearing his voice again. In advance of Inherent Vice, Pynchon lent his own voice (and likely his own script) to a video promoting the novel. He also built a playlist on Amazon spotlighting music from the novel — both real and invented.

Oh, and, he offered up the film rights.

Inherent Vice, 2014

That’s a huge deal. The man who had never officially sanctioned any adaptations of his work of any kind, and had actually squashed numerous unofficial adaptations, was now openly asking somebody to make a movie based on his book.

Is it a coincidence that this surge of un-Pynchonlike behavior surrounds a novel in which characters are rewired, against their wills, to think and behave differently than they naturally would? Yes, of course it very likely is. But it’s an intriguing one.

Whatever the great recluse hoped to accomplish by flitting so quickly through the spotlight, he apparently accomplished it through The Simpsons, Amazon, and however many documents he had to sign in order to let Paul Thomas Anderson make an Inherent Vice of his own.

Pynchon kept writing and publishing, but the next time Penguin needed a promo video, he wasn’t in it. He had retreated back into silence, and left Anderson carrying a torch he was destined to have trouble keeping lit.

That’s not Anderson’s fault, though. The list of Pynchon’s releases cements him easily as one of our best authors, but the list of Anderson’s films cements him just as easily as one of our best directors. It’s not a case of mismatched talent; in fact, it was probably the best pairing we could have hoped for.

And yet the film feels…lifeless. Little of Pynchon’s oblique wit and less of Anderson’s many cinematic gifts make it to the screen. Perhaps when Anderson had the chance to work with Pynchon’s voice, he forgot how to speak in his own.

Inherent Vice obviously tries to be a faithful adaptation, and that’s what holds it back. Film and literature are different languages, and Anderson did not provide a translation; he provided a transliteration. What worked on the page no longer works on the screen, and what the screen could have brought to the experience is discarded in favor of fidelity.

He tried to make a direct adaptation, and we’re all poorer for it.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Pynchon was kind to offer up Inherent Vice for adaptation, rather than something genuinely unfilmable — but more recognizable and with a greater built-in audience — such as Gravity’s Rainbow. That book (like his other historical comic epics, V., Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day) sees hundreds of characters weaving in and out of various plot threads, some of whom disappear for long stretches and reappear half the novel later, with the threads themselves often left deliberately unresolved. What’s more, the narration is not always clear about what’s actually happening versus what’s being imagined, dreamed, or hallucinated.

Inherent Vice is much easier, and it’s one of Pynchon’s more concise works. Less exciting as a prospect for adaptation, perhaps, but certainly one more likely to survive the transition.

Even among his other short novels, this one did seem to be the most likely to succeed. The Crying of Lot 49 relies almost completely on its protagonist’s internal journey…an issue that could potentially be resolved through copious voiceover, though that would also rob the story of its affecting (and defining) vagueness. Vineland, I think, could work with a bit of effort, especially since another Anderson used a similar nested-flashbacks approach to great effect in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Bleeding Edge came after Inherent Vice, so it wasn’t up for consideration, but it does seem to be pretty filmable, provided you can find some way to make interesting the many scenes of characters staring at computer screens.

Inherent Vice is the only one of Pynchon’s short novels to feature a male lead. The others — Oedipa Maas, Prairie Wheeler, Maxine Tarnow — are all female. Perhaps notable, likely not; I just found it interesting.

Doc’s journey, like that of any good detective figure, gets complicated fast. While investigating the disappearance of hotshot real-estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s ex, also vanishes. He learns that they both took a trip — some kind of trip, only some degree of willingly — aboard a schooner known as the Golden Fang. Which also turns out to be the name of a drug cartel, a rehab facility, a tax-dodge for shady dentists, or some combination of the above.

Tossed into the mix is surf sax player Coy Harlingen, who ostensibly died of a heroin overdose but seems to keep popping up on television and at rallies as a political agitator. Doc is first hired by Coy’s wife to do some checking into his dubious death…and then hired by Coy to check up on his wife. All the while Doc is pursued — sometimes assisted, usually manipulated — by “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a humorless cop still reeling from the murder of his partner.

Of course, as Doc untangles his caseload he’s also forced — sentimental bastard that he is — to untangle his emotions.

Inherent Vice, 2014

For Shasta, yes, who came back just to stir up feelings in him that he wished he’d already forgotten, but also for Penny, the Deputy D.A. he’s been seeing off and on, and, oddly enough, for Bigfoot.

In fact, it could be argued that the rivalry (one of thematic siblings) between Doc and Bigfoot is the emotional cornerstone of the book in general, each of them trying desperately to connect with the other, to set aside their pride, to bond in some way without losing respect for themselves, to help each other forward through the dawn of a new decade that isn’t going to be especially cordial to either of them.

It’s a great read, and one that had a lot of potential for a strong adaptation.

Unfortunately, Anderson’s vision feels too much like it’s trying to mimic Pynchon’s. The film feels beholden to the original, as though cramming as many of the book’s details and characters and Pynchon’s actual words into it is the only way Anderson can think of to respect it.

Sometimes the fidelity leads to nice little Easter eggs for fans of the novel. Early in the film Doc and his friend Denis head out for pizza, and without comment we can see — more or less faithfully recreated — the nightmarish combination of toppings Denis orders in the novel. Also presented without comment: Doc’s Princess phone, writing a wish on a rolling paper before smoking it, Bigfoot’s addiction to frozen bananas, and lots more. Freeze-frame viewers can even read a document summarizing the death of Bigfoot’s partner, using Pynchon’s original language.

These are all great, and unobtrusive, ways to provide winking resonance between the two versions of the story.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Other times, though, that crippling fidelity leads to characters that appear, provide some fragment of exposition, and disappear forever. Tariq Khalil. Petunia Leeway. Buddy Tubeside. Sloane Wolfmann. Riggs Warbling. Luz. Aunt Reet. Clancy Charlock. That’s just a partial list of characters who play a much larger role in the book than they do on the screen, where they turn in little more than cameos.

They each served some function of their own in the book, but don’t serve much of one here, and they just seem to pop up because Anderson thinks they have to. The movie clocks in at around two and a half hours, and it still feels like the characters are fighting for time.

In order to accommodate so many one-off faces, we cut much of Doc’s actual detective work. His entire fact-finding trip to Vegas is gone. His visit to Coy’s dealer is gone. His followups with Mickey Wolfmann’s hired hands is gone. In the film, then, we don’t see Doc doing much of anything; we simply cut to the next time a character connects two hanging threads for him, essentially doing the detective work themselves.

Inherent Vice, 2014

This makes Doc seem a lot less competent. Here he really does come across like the lazy, zoned-out, worthless hippie scum that, in the book, characters like Bigfoot liked to pretend he was. Anderson, knowingly or not, ends up coming down on Bigfoot’s side, seeing Doc as something like a lucky idiot at best, and losing much of what made the character who he actually was.

Joaquin Phoenix, a good enough casting choice on the whole, doesn’t always seem to know who Doc is, either. He shifts between playing him as a cartoon character and as a tormented soul. It’s as though he wasn’t told if the film would be a knockabout period comedy in the Austin Powers vein or a dryly comic meditation on aging and loss, so he figured he’d treat it as both.

“Comic boob” is definitely the wrong place to take the character, but every so often that’s exactly what Phoenix gives us, with his exaggerated reactions to pretty girls, his lunging after drugs, his Three Stooges reaction to being hit with a sap.

When Phoenix is more restrained he’s much better, and so is the film. We see this when Doc is at his lowest — flirting with a post-betrayal Penny on the phone, for instance — it’s just that Phoenix seems to believe that when Doc isn’t at his lowest he must be at his silliest, and, tonally, that just doesn’t work.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Anderson must have been aware that there was a limit to the level of cartoonishness he could get away with, as he sometimes rewrites Pynchon’s scenes to be more subtle. Compare the scene in which Doc is interrogated by the FBI.

In the novel:

“Tell Penny how groovy it was of her to set up this little get-together, oh, and hey–can I be frank for a minute?”

“Of course,” said Agents Flatweed and Borderline.

Snapping his fingers, Doc sang himself out the door with four bars of “Fly Me to the Moon,” more or less on pitch.

In the film:

DOC: Can I be frank a minute?
FLATWEED: Why stop now?
DOC: Alright, you be Dean-o, you be the other guy, and tell Penny Davis Jr. what a lovely day we had. Thank you.

Same joke in each version, executed differently, each of which best suits its respective format. Doc crooning clownishly is something funnier to imagine than it would be to actually see, so Anderson, wisely, reworks the punchline just enough to avoid breaking the reality of his film.

That’s an impulse he could have heeded more often.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Speaking of reworking, one character finds herself with a much different role in the film than she had in the book: Sortilège, an ex-employee and sometime spiritual advisor of Doc’s, acts here as the narrator.

I do wonder what Anderson’s motivation was for promoting this character to central storyteller. Sortilège is only physically present for a handful of scenes, none of them especially important, and I’m not entirely sure what her motivation would be for telling this story at a later time. Or to whom. Or what it even means to her. It’s a nice thought, and Anderson adds a cute little flourish of having Sortilège’s astrological interests color her interpretations of what’s happening, but it also feels a bit clunky.

To be honest, I had to watch the film twice to realize that the narrator even was Sortilège. I originally thought it had been Shasta.

Joanna Newsom (Sortilège) and Katherine Waterston (Shasta) don’t look or sound exactly alike, but they’re close enough to cause confusion. This is compounded by the fact that Sortilège doesn’t even get named until most of the film is already over, making the characters even more difficult to differentiate.

That’s a quirk that authors don’t have to worry about, while film-makers do. It’s nearly impossible to confuse two characters for the entire duration of a novel (unless that confusion is artfully intended). In a novel, our imaginations do the differentiating for us. In a film, it’s up to the film-maker, and if that film-maker happens to cast two actors with similar characteristics, confusion sets in.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Of course, Inherent Vice, the novel, wasn’t really about Doc’s investigations, or about Doc at all; it was about the end of an era, which is illustrated both by the unfolding of the Manson family trials in the background and by the forcible rewiring of Mickey Wolfmann’s brain to keep him from turning philanthropic. The first clues us in to the fact that the hippie lifestyle will no longer be welcome in the new decade, and the second that hippie ideals won’t be, either.

Anderson’s Inherent Vice, however, loses the greater narrative about the era to focus only on Doc’s actual detective work…which is what makes it especially frustrating that his version of the character does so little of it.

In fact, in Eric Roberts’ only scene as Mickey Wolfmann, he explains the entire conspiracy for Doc, both because our detective hasn’t done much detecting and our director hasn’t filmed enough of the story for us to fit the puzzle together on our own. This may make Inherent Vice the first whodunit in history to be solved by its victim.

Inherent Vice, 2014

One mark on the positive side of the ledger is the casting, which is uniformly quite great. Phoenix may have made some choices I emphatically disagree with, but he could have made a great Doc. Josh Brolin as Bigfoot is fantastic, finding a much better balance of humor and pathos than Phoenix does, and managing to feel — if not look — every bit as large as Pynchon initially described him. He’s massively imposing, as opposed to being simply massive.

Katherine Waterston is easily the best casting choice, though; she is thoroughly perfect as Shasta Fay Hepworth, telling us everything we need to know about what she means to Doc — and why he’d still miss her after all this time — before she even opens her mouth.

She appears in her first frame fully formed. Waterston understands Shasta perhaps even better than Pynchon did, giving herself over entirely to a role that could have been so easily mishandled, and genuinely making it her own.

Shasta contains multitudes, even if Doc sees few of them and understands fewer.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Of the minor characters, the highlight is Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. While many of the characters from the novel get significantly less time on the screen than they had on the page, just about all of Blatnoyd’s antics make it to the screen, and I’m glad they do.

Short plays Blatnoyd the way Pynchon’s characters often seem to readers. Broad. Manic. Impossibly animated. Pynchon’s characters are all spinning eyeballs and flailing limbs and funny faces. Sometimes they will literally shoot steam out of their ears, or run away leaving a dust-cloud in their image behind. They operate on a different kind of logic, and the worst possible idea would be to bring this to the screen untempered, without concern for tone.

Martin Short brings it to the screen untempered, without concern for tone, and it works. But he’s a zany character in an otherwise (for the most part) sedate film, and that’s why it works.

His performance achieves something by fixing Blatnoyd as an exception to the movie’s larger tonal rule. When another character has him killed, it makes sense; we’ve already seen that he didn’t fit.

Short brings a Pynchon character note for note, detail for detail, word for word to the screen, and in doing so makes it clear why no other characters should behave that way. The zaniness needs to be regulated.

Blatnoyd can behave that way, because we need to understand that he’s a nuisance, and an unwelcome presence to the other occupants of that universe. Doc, however, can’t behave that way, because we shouldn’t be able to side with those who find him pesky.

Seeing Phoenix have such difficulty moderating his performance — or at least finding a groove he can stay in — is made all the more disappointing by performances like Short’s, and especially by performances like Waterston’s.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Waterston provides the perfect face of regret. Both Shasta’s, and Doc’s. Her presence is meaningful. We learn everything about their relationship not from the flashbacks that show them happy together, but from the times that they cross paths now, in the present day, unable to connect the way they know they need to, unable to be themselves, to just be there for each other.

They’re defensive. They’re damaged. They’re in pain. I don’t know that she and Phoenix have chemistry, exactly, but they have an affecting misalignment. The kind of love that doesn’t work, never worked, can never work, and yet won’t die. They’ll spin into each other’s orbits every so often. They’ll kick up all the old feelings. And then they’ll spin apart again. Older, sure, but certainly no wiser.

Anderson’s opening scene is the same as Pynchon’s, at least superficially. Shasta visits Doc out of the blue to ask for his help with the Mickey Wolfmann situation. Their dialogue is largely intact. The same expositional beats are hit. And then she leaves him to his investigation, and disappears into the next branch of her own fate.

But that’s where the similarities end, as Anderson’s Shasta is nakedly emotional. She’s hurting. She’s only just delaying the breakdown Doc must also know is coming. In the book she comes across as a bit reserved…perhaps strategically so. Is she hiding something? Is she trying to ignore whatever feelings still exist between them? Is she…lying?

In the film, though, she genuinely can’t contain her emotions, which means that Mickey really does mean something to her, and that she’s actually worried for his safety. Perhaps also her own. In Anderson’s version, it’s not an act. It’s not a manipulation. It’s not a game in any way.

It’s a plea, and a sincere one, for help, which she delivers to somebody who she knows has every right to deny her. It says something that in Pynchon’s version, Shasta is a struggling actress. Anderson excises that. His Shasta isn’t acting.

And neither is his Doc. There’s a great moment when she drives away, and he holds on to the side of her car as long as he can. It’s evocative both of their relationship, and of a much better adaptation than the one we actually got.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Their best scene together comes toward the end of the movie. If you’ve seen it, you know the one I mean. If you haven’t, there’s little I can do to describe it that wouldn’t cheapen what really happens here.

But she comes to Doc’s apartment. She undresses. She sits beside him on the couch. Places her bare foot on his thigh. And she talks.

She talks.

Alone. Without interruption.

She talks.

About Mickey. About herself. About what’s happened.

She only talks. No…not only. She does something else, too: she shows us what this relationship is really like. The scene fills us with the kind of emotions Doc feels as well. It’s painful, sexy, awful, awkward, scary, damaging, real. She seduces him by preying on his anger. She raises the heat of his jealousy so that they can use it as lust. She hurts him for the sake of bringing them closer together, however briefly, however few smacks or thrusts it takes.

And then, when they’re finished, she turns to him. And she says, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.”

It may be the longest scene in the film. It’s certainly the longest monologue. And it’s a smart, insightful way of presenting Pynchon’s material in a way that entirely belongs to Anderson. And, in fairness, to Waterston.

It’s the one time the film feels like a truly artistic vision. The film may fail to comment on the changing of the era, but what does this scene say about us? Our relationships? How we act, react, and get what we want?

And I’m not just talking about Shasta. Doc gets what he wants, too. He gets hurt. He gets to keep playing this game, and that’s necessary…because the moment one of them stops, for good…

Well…then she’s gone. For real this time.

Inherent Vice, 2014

But for every instance of a scene or moment being handled exactly right, there’s at least one scene or moment being handled exactly wrong.

The biggest misfire, I think, is the scene in which Doc meets Hope Harlingen, Coy’s widow who has reason to believe she isn’t one. Jena Malone is great in this scene, but then she hands a photo to Doc, and Joaquin Phoenix suddenly isn’t.

It’s a photo of her infant daughter, ravaged by the effects of Hope’s chronic heroin usage. The heroin came through Hope’s breast milk, and their daughter, Amethyst, was sickly to the point of being near death. Not exactly the best place for a comedy scream, but that, for whatever reason, is what Phoenix gives us.

It’s a far cry — and a massive trade downward — from Doc’s painfully sober reaction in the book. This couple of junkies not only ruined their lives, but the life of their infant child. It hurts him. If he does scream, he does it inwardly, and with a lot of pain.

In the book when Amethyst appears, asking her mother for juice, Doc is overcome with relief.

The child made it. She’s healthy now. She’s okay after all. Whatever she’d been through, there was hope (ahem…) for the future.

And Doc needs that. He needs to see that with all the substance abuse, the murder, the lying, the stealing, the conniving that he faces every day, he needs to see that there’s a chance for someone, some innocent little girl, to make it out okay. To believe in a better day he finds it increasingly difficult to convince himself is coming.

He needs that. And Amethyst gives him that. That’s enough.

In the film we do see a now-healthy Amethyst, but Doc doesn’t seem to clock this, which makes sense, because he didn’t feel any kind of concern for her in the first place. He was just callously, comically horrified.

It’s a tone-deaf moment that cripples our ability to see Doc as what he really is — or, at least, was. Anderson and Phoenix lose what made that character real, and relatable, and sympathetic, for the sake of a quick (and objectively cheap) laugh.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Other issues with the film are less about how they’re handled and more about the fact that they aren’t handled. Sauncho Smilax, Doc’s marine lawyer, is played by a perfectly cast Benicio del Toro, who gets to do almost nothing.

There’s little of the sad friendship that developed between the two otherwise lonely men in the book, and none of Sauncho’s delightful, stoned meditation on pop culture. An entire subplot about his own interest in the Golden Fang (schooner edition) is also missing, though a barely glimpsed scene at the very end of the film is meant to, I assume, suggest that all the stuff we remember from the novel did happen; Anderson just didn’t bother showing it to us.

Sauncho’s function in the finished film is massively unclear. He serves as comic relief, but then so does Dr. Blatnoyd. And Doc’s friend Denis. And apparently Hope Harlingen’s dying heroin baby. A-and Doc himself!

There was no need for another character just to deliver a few funny lines, and for my money, Sauncho should have absorbed Denis and become a composite character, accompanying Doc on a few errands and actually getting the chance to do something meaningful.

The strangest thing about Sauncho’s presence in the film is his failure to deliver one very specific line: the definition of “inherent vice.”

Being a marine lawyer, and all, and inherent vice being a consideration for marine insurance policies, you’d think he’d be the one Doc would hear it from. And, indeed, that’s exactly what happens in the book. Here, though, it’s defined by Sortilège, which is odd, as she has no reason to understand — or to care about — something so specialized, and so far out of her own field of expertise.

Then again, Anderson made her the narrator and promoted her to periodic omniscience, so that’s probably just an unintentionally silly symptom of her upgrade.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Sauncho isn’t even the most significant character who fails to fulfill his own function on screen. No, that honor goes to Adrian Prussia, a loan shark whose name recurs in Doc’s investigations throughout the novel. By the time we get to meet him we know all about his tendency toward violence, his history with the LAPD as contract killer, and the fact that he iced Bigfoot’s partner.

Adrian Prussia is bad news, and Pynchon makes sure we know it. We feel him coming like a gathering storm, so that by the time Doc arrives in his office we don’t just have an idea of the danger he’s in; we understand that this could well be where the detective’s story ends.

In the film, however, Prussia essentially appears out of nowhere. A name overheard once or twice, sure, but when Doc is sitting across a desk from a senior citizen with a baseball bat, we’re more liable to be confused than worried for anyone’s safety.

Peter McRobbie does his best to sell the menace, but he has very little to work with, and aging Prussia up so significantly from the book makes him feel like an immediate non-threat. Surely if Doc could handle beatings from the much younger and more virile Bigfoot he wouldn’t have trouble surviving an encounter with a man in his 70s.

There’s simply no tension in what’s meant to be the big scene in which Doc directly confronts the villain. Pynchon handled it well, but Anderson, oddly, doesn’t even seem interested in trying.

In both the book and the film we learn a bit about Prussia’s trusty baseball bat, and the difference is telling.

From the narration in the film:

[…] Adrian Prussia, who had not only shot at him once but threatened him with a Carl Yastrzemski special baseball bat.

Here’s what is said to Doc, by Prussia, in the book:

“I lent you my special edition Carl Yastrzemski bat once, to collect from that child-support deadbeat you chased down the Greyhound and pulled him off of, and then you wouldn’t use it. […] No place for that shit in this business.”

Anderson’s version says that Prussia once attacked Doc. Fine. Evil vs. good and all that.

But Pynchon’s says much more, specifically that Prussia and Doc have a shared history. They were, strictly speaking, on the same side, differentiated only by their methods. Prussia went one way — embracing the violence — and Doc went the other, seeking peaceful resolution. One became muscle for the capitalists, and the other protection for the hippies. Started in the same place, and circled around to be at loggerheads.

Of course, it’s unfair to focus only on Prussia’s introduction. Certainly the next time we see him he’ll…

Inherent Vice, 2014

…oh. The next time we see him he’s dead.

So, that was odd. Little buildup and no payoff for the main villain of the entire film.

He comes out of nowhere, is meant to register as a big threat, and then is instantly killed. Anderson took a lot of time to weave his tale, and seemed to get to the end before he realized he hadn’t said anything important. It’s as though he’s trying to cram in as much as he can, as quickly as possible.

The shootout that kills Prussia is reduced here to a single volley of gunfire, whereas in the novel it’s comically protracted, spanning much of Prussia’s house and then the surrounding neighborhood as well. Doc can never be sure Prussia’s been, as his henchman Puck would put it, “neutralized as a threat,” and the novel’s shootout is a masterpiece of tense comic narrative. Anderson seems to have no interest in it, and skips it entirely…and I have to admit that a climactic shootout is a strange thing to take no interest in.

And, hey, speaking of Puck, we also run into the same issue with his character. In the book, much of Doc’s investigation involved neo-Nazi thug Puck Beaverton. Doc even trails him to Vegas for an extended secondary investigation, and unwittingly helps him reconnect with an old lover, who Puck then marries. If Anderson dodges Doc’s shared history with Prussia, he outright ignores his shared history with Puck.

In the novel, Puck enters Prussia’s office and Doc greets him. Puck replies, “I know you? I don’t think I do.” And, of course, this is chilling, because we understand exactly what this denial implies.

In the film Puck says the same thing, and it’s not chilling at all, because…well…he and Doc haven’t interacted. It’s less icy foreshadowing than it is a man wondering why he’s being addressed by a stranger.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Anderson does improve on Pynchon’s original in one detail, however. In the book Doc frees himself from a set of handcuffs with a fairly cheap resolution: a never-before-mentioned sliver of credit card he keeps on his person for just such an occasion. It’s clumsy writing, which Anderson redeems, at least thematically, by showing us that the credit card was Shasta’s…and Doc’s reason for having it is sentimental as well as practical.

But that’s about the only area in which the ending is improved. Doc savagely beating Puck registers here only as self-preservation, whereas in the book it’s retribution for all of the awful things Doc has seen Puck do.

Puck had been a force of destruction in many lives, and Doc is doing more than neutralizing a threat; he’s venting a lifetime’s worth of seething frustration against the powerful — any kind of power — crushing the powerless. In the book Doc later checks up on Puck’s wife — who it’s implied he wasted no time in abusing terribly — to make sure she’s alive.

And she is. Like Amethyst, she made it out. Another small bit of reassurance that somebody, somewhere, might be okay.

Also like Amethyst, Doc in the film isn’t even paying attention to her.

Inherent Vice, 2014

And Bigfoot’s ending? Uh, Bigfoot’s ending…

If you have any idea what Anderson was going for with that — having Bigfoot come into Doc’s apartment and eat all of his pot — you’re a better man than I am, though I suspect it was just Anderson’s temptation to have a big laugh toward the end of his film. Which is a shame, because Bigfoot’s ending in the novel is both lovely and sad.

Pynchon’s version of the character is last glimpsed driving off into the night, tailing yet another vehicle which he hopes will bring him yet another opportunity to avenge his murdered partner. Whatever form that might take. Whatever it might mean.

The Bigfoot of the novel has a heart, and a tormented one. He may not be a great human being — or even, necessarily, a good one — but he’s loyal to his partner, even in death. And Pynchon lets us imagine that that’s exactly where this obsession might take him.

Josh Brolin, by contrast, eats some drugs.

You know, I really do want to like this movie…

Inherent Vice, 2014

Coy’s story, at least, has both an effective and artful resolution. Doc pulls some strings to guarantee the man’s safety, and then returns the legally resurrected saxophonist to his wife and daughter.

Jonny Greenwood’s score for the entire film is great, but it’s especially beautiful here (in a song called, it has to be noted, “Amethyst”), and it perfectly captures the pulsing emotion Coy must be feeling, on the verge of seeing his family again, as he tries so hard to find the words to thank Doc for doing the impossible.

Doc shrugs it off, as he does in the book. It was nothing. It’s Coy’s life, and now Coy gets to live it.

Then Anderson lets us watch Coy get out of the car. Walk over to his house. Return to his wife, who stands speechless in the doorway.

We don’t hear what gets said, but we feel what gets felt. We see them embrace. We see a life — several lives — restored. Redeemed. Bought back from the darkness, and given the chance to face another day, to choose a little more wisely, to be now what they wished they could have been before.

It’s beautiful.

But the camera lets them work through this in the distance. In the foreground, Doc is all alone.

Inherent Vice, 2014

It’s one of the film’s better moments. It’s well-acted. It’s subtle. It has meaning. And it feels like an evolution of one of the novel’s ideas, reimagined for the screen in a way that perfectly suits the viewing experience.

At the very end of the book, Doc drives along a highway through thick fog, with other motorists crowding together, sharing their headlights to make it easier for everyone to see, each isolated, alone in their vehicles, but experiencing a vague (literally hazy) sort of connection through the shared experience.

Which is really all Doc has to hope for. A general connection. A sense of belonging, in some way, to a greater whole. Helping, and being helped by, anonymous strangers whose faces he may never see again.

There’s too much sadness in the day to day. Too much danger and misery. But if you pull back far enough from the details, and focus on people in a general sense, without worrying about who they are, what they look like, what they are doing, their sad histories or the people they’ve hurt, you can find something beautiful in the larger pattern. Something reassuring. Some reason to believe that no matter how thick the fog gets or how dark the night…that it’s worth pushing through.

Doc sitting alone in the car here, facilitating a reconciliation but not having one of his own, is powerful. The film, for one of only a handful of times, achieves perfection.

And that’s what makes Inherent Vice so inherently frustrating. It had every potential to be great. Stellar cast. Masterful director. Source material ripe for interpretation.

But Anderson buckled under the challenge. He tried to give us something true to the original and, in the process, forgot to give us something true to himself.

As much as I wish the film turned out better, I really can’t blame him for stumbling.

It can’t have been easy knowing that this would be the only time anyone would use the words “Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.”

Inherent Vice, 2014

Inherent Vice
(2009, Thomas Pynchon; 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Book or film? Book
Worth reading the book? Yes. It’s not the best introduction to Thomas Pynchon, but it’s a great (and very funny) read in its own right.
Worth watching the film? Yes, if you’re willing to sit through the disappointing scenes to get to the great ones.
Is it the best possible adaptation? No. Anderson hits many of the notes, but largely misses the power, the charm, and the heart of the novel.
Is it of merit in its own right? To some degree. Inherent Vice might be a good film, but if it is, it’s just barely one. If the film existed on its own, without Pynchon’s source material, I can’t imagine I would have gotten much out of it at all. I think I would have still glimpsed the ghost of a great film beneath all the clutter, though. As one amateur philosopher once put it: “Under the paving-stones, the beach!”

Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 2: “Samsara”

Red Dwarf XI, "Samsara"

“Twentica” seemed to be a pretty divisive episode. I don’t read other reviews until after I post my own, so I was pretty surprised to learn this. To me it was a clear return to form, and it measured up pretty well to the show’s glory years. I resisted the urge to nitpick because anything I could have pointed out would have paled in comparison to the much more important takeaway: this was an episode of Red Dwarf that I genuinely enjoyed. I’ll take a few dumb lines or sloppy edits any day if the overall product is strong enough.

“Twentica” was strong enough. “Samsara,” bless its well-intentioned little heart, is not.

I’ll say this right now: it wasn’t bad. It was also far better, and more enjoyable, and funnier, than the weaker episodes of series X. Should “Samsara” turn out to be one of the weaker episodes of XI, then that marks a kind of progress, and a welcome one.

The concept behind “Samsara” is…well, it’s not bad, but it is a bit clunky. Whereas “Twentica” took one idea and ran with it, “Samsara” takes one idea, explores it for a bit, reverses it, talks about the consequences of that reversal, and frames the entire thing as a sort of mystery about what happened…with digressions into a mini-bottle episode featuring Lister and The Cat and a few dips into a story that took place three million years ago with a completely different crew.

And yet, I’ll give “Samsara” credit for not feeling overstuffed. If anything, some of these ideas get too much breathing room rather than too little.

Maybe it’s worth comparing this to “Justice” as well as “Twentica,” as that episode gets a nod here in Kryten’s explanation for what’s happening. That episode could also be described as narratively busy. Lister has space mumps, the crew pick up an escape pod, they take it to a prison world in case it contains some crazy robot, the prison world automatically scans for evidence of past crimes, Rimmer is convicted of murdering the crew, Kryten discovers that the computer actually detects feelings of guilt rather than culpability, any crime you try to commit happens to you instead of your victim, Lister squares off with a simulant…

Okay. Those are a lot of ideas, but they all feel natural. Watching “Justice” we slip fairly organically from one concept to the next, and a few of them come together in the climax. Also, we’re laughing, which helps.

“Samsara” isn’t as graceful. It might not be graceful at all. There’s a nice bit of visual artistry when one image in one timeline serves as our pivot point into the other, but beyond that it’s two parallel sequences of events trying very hard to tell just one story.

“Justice” is an instructive point of comparison. That episode, in theory, could also have hurled us back in time to show us what life was like on Justice World, how the Justice Field works, the kind of impact it had on prisoners, the ways in which they (potentially) could have exploited it…but it doesn’t need to do that. It makes all of this clear enough just by having the Dwarfers explore it, face the consequences themselves, and work out everything else from there.

“Samsara,” I think, resorts to the dual timelines because it can’t think of another way to convey all of the information it thinks the audience will need. That’s evidenced by the fact that the second, earlier timeline doesn’t seem to have had as much effort invested in it. Each cut to it feels something like a tutorial pop-up in a video game; Doug asks himself, “What will the audience need to know next?” and then cuts to somebody who tells us, after which we get back to the action.

The story is good, but I think I prefer episodes like “Justice,” “DNA,” “Back to Reality,” and so forth not just because they’re better episodes, but because it’s more rewarding to piece together the puzzle alongside the crew than it is to see a set of guest characters actually going through the motions. Any previous episode could have done that in order to spill its mysteries, but this, I think, is the first time one has resorted to it.

I could explain the specifics of the plot here, but anyone who watched the episode already knows, and I don’t think it’s worth the spoiler for those who haven’t seen it yet. Giving the game away wouldn’t really add to what I’m saying here anyway.

On the bright side, the performances by the main cast were great. “Twentica” showed us that the four actors were back to being comfortable in their roles, and that’s true here as well. The writing isn’t as strong, but the performances certainly elevate it. Danny in particular tried his damnedest to elevate some truly ropey material, and sometimes he even succeeded. Robert was reliably good, as ever, even if he did seem to be left out of the comedy for the most part.

Chris Barrie and Craig Charles were both at their best, but, again, at times the material failed them. Chris was let down by overlong repetitions of a singular gag in the opening, and Craig by an overlong dialogue with The Cat later on. In neither case were the jokes strong enough to warrant their length, and they both felt like odd padding in an episode that had no shortage of better ideas.

We’ll deal with each of those scenes separately.

The Cat / Lister pairing was an inspired idea. I’ve always enjoyed how well these two characters play off of each other. Typically The Cat’s jokes are just for The Cat. Pair him with Kryten and Kryten will just roll his eyes. Pair him with Rimmer and Rimmer will just roll his eyes, and sometimes grit his teeth at an insult. But pair him with Lister and Lister will try to engage with him. He’ll explain things to him. He’ll let the dialogue develop. So putting them together here was a great idea, and I love how much room they’re given to just talk.

But what they talked about didn’t do it for me, and at some point I was wishing we did have Rimmer or Kryten to shut him up. This is no reflection on Danny at all, but the conversation about inventors, in which The Cat mistook Newton for Archimedes…and misunderstood what Archimedes did anyway…and then talked for a while about bathtubs sliding out of airplanes…it just got dull. Not to mention the observational comedy about in-flight service, which gave me nightmarish flashbacks of the phone support gags in “Trojan.” How would The Cat even know about in-flight service anyway, let alone have such fiery opinions about it? See, that’s what I’m doing when I’m not laughing; I’m questioning the point of what we’re watching.

It’s a great idea — a mini-Marooned with Danny in the second chair — but this isn’t talk of virginity and culture and reincarnation. This is Peabody’s Improbable History.

The opening scenes fare much better, I think. Doug has had a bit of trouble writing back-and-forth dialogue between Rimmer and Lister overall, but it felt correct here. It was funny. It was well-handled. The “charmed life” exchange being especially well performed, and something I could easily imagine slotting into the classic series of your choice.

But the gag with the dice rolling…my goodness. This one was giving me nightmarish flashbacks of the psychiatrist asking Kryten if his chair was screwed to the floor. It tied into the rest of the plot, sure, but by no means deserved the amount of screentime it got, and I began to feel bad for Chris Barrie at one point, as he had to keep finding different ways to make the same action and outcome feel like they were worth watching. And I don’t mean rolling with his hands versus the cup, or switching seats…I mean having to find different ways to express through his voice and his face that Rimmer was not going to give up on this.

By the time Rimmer finishes rolling, we’re five minutes into the episode. The scene could have easily been half as long and had the same impact. Heck, we could have cut to the two of them arguing later about how unlikely it was that Rimmer rolled a two and a one seven times in a row. Hearing about it would have been a lot funnier than seeing it.

It’s also odd that the punchline of the entire episode is that Rimmer finds out the Karma Drive was rewarding Lister. This is odd because a) we already know Lister was cheating, so it doesn’t surprise us and b) Rimmer figured this out in an earlier scene anyway, so it shouldn’t surprise him. What’s the point of ending there? It makes the game of Mine-Opoly (hohoho) feel, structurally, like the most important thing in the episode.

So, whatever. “Samsara” wasn’t “Twentica.” But it had some great ideas, even if they were just evolved forms of something we’ve already seen in a superior episode. I really did like the idea of pairing up Lister and The Cat. The bunkroom dialogue was better than it’s been in ages. And there were a few pretty good jokes (and plenty of great character moments) sprinkled throughout.

XI still has every chance to be good. “Samsara” is flawed, but nowhere near bad enough to write off entirely, and it’s not an episode I’d see myself skipping over in the future. It’s just that I was really hoping for another great episode, and instead I got one that was only pretty good.

You know what? I’ll take it. Let’s see how episode three plays out.

Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 1: “Twentica”

Red Dwarf XI, "Twentica"

Four years ago, I bitched endlessly about Red Dwarf X, but I’d like to think that I bitched with purpose. It’s not that the series was bad, exactly. It’s more that it was…instructively flawed. When something worked, it worked quite well. When something didn’t work, all the guts were spilling out of it and it was impossible to resist sifting through them to see what went wrong.

Watching those episodes at times felt like performing an autopsy. You’re piecing together what little information you have to try to make sense of why the thing died in the first place.

Series X wasn’t doomed to disappoint. The episodes had intriguing ideas. Classic Dwarf setups. Great opening stretches. Erm…decent lighting?

And two episodes were…actually kinda good. One of which felt like a genuine classic, and one of which took some time to explore its richest character.

In my review of that latter episode, I wrote this:

“The Beginning” might well represent the beginning of such a rediscovery. It’s certainly possible, because when you brush aside the abandoned plot threads and fragmented bad ideas, there’s a great concept there, and a stellar central performance that promises big things. I know better than to get my hopes up, but it sure would be nice if this show, moving forward, managed to deliver on that promise.

Of course, it was a promise that came at the very end of series X, so there’s been a lot of waiting to see if it panned out. And “Twentica,” being the first episode since then, isn’t in a position to answer the question definitively.

It is, however, a damned good start.

Let’s be frank here: I liked “Twentica” more than I’ve liked any episode in a very long time. X had some good ones, but was pretty mediocre on the whole. Back to Earth was hot garbage. VII and VIII were VII and VIII.

But “Twentica” felt…real. Like an actual good episode of actual Red Dwarf, and not as just a nice chapter of whatever experimental form of the show we’re cycling through now. It felt a lot like a series VI episode to me, and I mean that as an enormous compliment.

In fact, it seemed to marry the more cinematic visual approach of VII with the strong comedy of the classic years. Shots are blocked interestingly. Sets look good. Wardrobe looks great. Consideration is obviously given to making locations feel unique. It’s something above a standard sitcom, presentation-wise, but for the first time in a long time its comic heart is where it should be.

I laughed a lot. Probably more than I laughed in all of X. Not all of the jokes were great, but some of them sure were, and many others were just silly enough (or delivered well enough) to land brilliantly. It was surprisingly consistent for latter day Red Dwarf, with only one line (“LEG IT”) feeling forced enough that it reminded me I wasn’t watching a classic-era episode.

The concept is perfect for the show, as the crew ends up back on an alternate version of Earth that sees technology outlawed, and the show is more playful with its philosophizing than it has been since…I honestly don’t know. Meltdown?

Great Red Dwarf relishes coming up with some kind of germ of an idea (be it a piece of technology, an alternate universe, some bit of philosophy that gets out of hand) and exploring it. Not just presenting it, but pushing it to incredible lengths, just to see where it will take the characters.

And we get that here, with scientists hanging around in speakeasies solving theorems, pretending to be unruly drunks when the police come through. The idea that both Kryten and Rimmer are illegal in this society doesn’t lead to much more than a joke or two, but that’s okay, because the story is based less on the characters and more around the alternate history itself, and how the crew intends to right things.

I could still pick it apart, but it feels like I’d be robbing myself of most of the fun if I did. And, yes, for once, there’s fun! Tearing into X was the direct result of the fact that I was bored with it, confused by it, and largely unamused by it. I had to question it, because that was the only way I could engage with it.

With “Twentica,” there’s enough fun to be had just from sitting back and laughing with it, appreciating great small moments (the kidnapping / hostage negotiation sequence was marvelous), and watching Doug Naylor riff impressively on a genuinely intriguing premise. Jeez oh man was this a far cry from his limp observations about being placed on hold from the last series opener.

Every character got at least one great moment, with The Cat probably having the largest number of big laughs. (Is it just me, or has Danny John-Jules gotten better with every series?) Rimmer leaning on his English accent (peppered liberally with the word “whom”) was also a treat. And even the not-simulants (I keep forgetting the proper term) got some great material at the very end, with an unexpected callback to what seemed to be a throwaway line in the opening scene, unraveling their menace for the sake of some very funny (and very human) verbal fumbling.

The whole thing just built wonderfully upon itself, with nearly every scene lasting exactly as long as it needed to, and very little in the way of padding. Even the obvious jokes worked, such as Rimmer complaining that Lister always asks Kryten for insight instead of him. The punchline will be clear to anybody long before the characters get to it, but the delivery is impeccable, and that makes its obviousness an asset. (I also laughed stupidly long at The Cat deciding to move to this alternate reality in which Rimmer is not welcome. It’s not clever, it’s not unexpected…it’s just perfect.)

It felt right. The jokes landed as well as they did in the classic years, and I actually found myself thinking about the episode’s philosophy on and off after it ended, which of course is something the show hasn’t given me a reason to do in a very long time.

Even the classically-structured closing scene, in which Lister reflects on the week’s lesson, seemed to acknowledge how well this episode stood alongside some of the show’s all-time best. Doug allowing himself a return that kind of scene at the end felt like something of a minor celebration…like cracking open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a night that couldn’t have gone any better.

I enjoyed it a great deal. I think X expected us to find too many things automatically funny without working for them (gurning faces, silly accents, MURDERED WOMEN), but “Twentica” hopefully suggests that those days are behind us.

It works hard and it works well. Again, comparing it to the last series opener (“Trojan”), it’s clear we’re already in another league entirely.

I’ve been avoiding spoilers for this series, but I have watched the trailer. And the trailer looked great. It looked funny, interesting, and full of potential.

“Twentica” does a great job of convincing me that I wasn’t just being optimistic.

For the first time since series VI, I’m strongly looking forward to the next episode. And that’s something I definitely didn’t expect to say.

Alas, poor Isabeau

Isabeau, Shin Megami Tensei IV

In a few days we’ll be playing Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. Well, I say we, but really I’ll have to wait a bit as I’ll be out of the country for a few weeks. So it’s actually everyone but me, and I think you’re all jerks.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is one of my favorite role playing games of all time. It may well be one of my favorite games of all time. It’s not perfect, but I never asked it to be. I bought it expecting a fun and hopefully engaging adventure. I ended up with one of the most unexpectedly profound narrative experiences gaming has given me.

In spite of its actual flaws — a confusing map screen, unclear objectives, repetitive side quests — it’s a work of hideous beauty. It’s a dark, dismal meditation on free will, on identity, on the very concept of progress, both in the game and in reality. (The more advanced society, ironically, is the backward one.)

It also has one of the all-time great gaming soundtracks, so even if you don’t want to think you can sure as hell rock out.

Impressively, its most significant — and rewarding — plot twist comes at a very early point in the game. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll know it when you get there, and it’s a very brave thing to play your trump card so early in a long experience. A lesser game — or team of artists — would have saved the reveal for a more structurally climactic moment. Shin Megami Tensei IV lets you get just comfortable with what you think the game is, then plunges you into something very different, leaving you, like the character you control, to wonder what the fuck, exactly, you’re doing.

There are also a few perceived flaws in the game that, for my money, actually enrich the experience, and help Shin Megami Tensei IV to make its point in ways it wouldn’t be able to if things were ironed out. Two of these “problems” are interlinked, at least in a thematic sense. First, it’s the hamfisted characterization. Second, it’s the game’s odd approach to determining your alignment.

The characterization thing is bunk. The alignment thing is…less bunk, so we’ll deal with that second.

When people point fingers at the characterization in Shin Megami Tensei IV, they’re pointing at Walter and Jonathan. Those are two of your companions throughout most of the game. They pop up to give advice, to express their feelings about certain decisions, and to help you fight. Beyond that, they serve as little more than a devil and angel on either shoulder, suggesting what your next move should be.

And people say that their characterization is flimsy. They’re both right and wrong. When they’re right, however, they’re missing the point.

Neither Walter (Chaos) nor Jonathan (Law) are nuanced characters, but they also shouldn’t be. They can’t be. That’s not their purpose, and adding nuance would only interfere with their purpose.

They need to exist in order to show you the extremes of the two alignments. That’s what they’re there for. By giving Walter second thoughts about betraying the samurai code, or some such thing, you’d be dismantling him as a signpost for Chaos. By allowing Jonathan to concede that the social structure of his home kingdom is unfair, unsustainable, or untrustworthy, you, as a player, would then need to doubt his devotion to the Law path.

Walter and Jonathan both represent flawed individuals in the sense that they are steadfastly, unthinkingly, innately devoted to their paths. There’s not a rulebook that Walter doesn’t tear up and Jonathan doesn’t respect. This idea is reinforced over and over again, with neither of the two being painted in particularly flattering colors.

The odds are good that you’ll agree with Jonathan’s peaceful solution in one case, and find it frustratingly naive in the next. You’ll side with Walter one time that he suggests that someone can’t be trusted, but wish he’d shut up about it the 50th time, when he has no particular reason to doubt that person’s intentions.

You’re supposed to know who they are, and you’re supposed to get angry with their reluctance to give. Softening Walter or educating Jonathan wouldn’t allow that to be possible. If either of them struggles with internal conflict, there’s no reason for you to struggle with them externally. They need to be devoted entirely to what they believe in, because they need to stand in stark contrast to you, the player, the individual, the actual breathing living human being who can’t possibly side with either of them all the time.

You want nuance? You are the nuance. You are the deeper character, trapped between two poles of natural, eternal conflict. Which, hey, when you think about it, is the entire theme of the game. What do you know? Maybe that choice of simple characterization was deliberate and meaningful after all.

(Also, it’s telling that complaints about characterization ignore the mass of non-companion characters that do have deep — if only oblique and suggested — backstories, drives, and desires, such as Hope, K., Fujiwara, Hugo, Tayama, Aquila…hell, even the towns you visit have unspoken histories that unfold detail by detail the more you dig and explore.)

Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn’t deepen Walter and Jonathan because it doesn’t want to. It’s not that it can’t; other games in the series (and especially in its celebrated spinoff series, Persona) have characters that are large, that contain multitudes. That fact — and the presence of other rich characters in this game — is your clue. If these characters are not deep, it’s because there’s a purpose to their shallow natures.

And that purpose has to do with your alignment.

It’s up to Walter to side with the forces of Chaos every time. It’s up to Jonathan to be unflinchingly devoted to the Law. But everyone else in the game, including those anonymous residents you’ll meet in the most hellish places imaginable, is somewhere in between. You see those who live in relative comfort, which is only possible because they’ve allowed themselves to adapt to Chaos. You see those in low places, lost, without hope, who yearn for the chance to build up the exact same kind of Lawful society that collapsed and damned them in the first place. You see one particular character who seems to exemplify Law, until you find out he’s addicted to the pleasures of Chaos, and sends you repeatedly out for forbidden artifacts just so he can indulge in private.

And throughout, you, quietly, make your decision.

You’re neither Walter nor Jonathan. You can’t be, because they’re unrealistically dedicated to their definitive solutions to trickier problems. You’re a human being. And you see the way other characters in these tragic civilizations live. Those who manage to survive, those who don’t, the tragic circumstances that define each of their existences.

And you try to determine how you’ll make things better, whatever that may mean to you.

At least, you think you do. Ultimately, the game makes your decision for you, based on your actions.

And, yes, I admit that it does so in a pretty frustrating way.

Choosing to side with Walter’s suggestions of how to proceed will gradually shift your alignment toward Chaos, and choosing to side with Jonathan will tip it toward Law. That’s easy and clear enough.

But there’s a third path. The path of Neutrality. Which is, essentially, the right path. It’s when you land directly in between the two extremes. You anchor them. You keep them both in check.

And it’s an extremely hard path to get.

In some respects, that’s okay. The best ending should be the most difficult to get. But it requires you less to adhere to a truly Neutral doctrine than it does require to you flit back and forth between allegiance to Walter and allegiance to Jonathan, which makes the Neutral path feel more like the Indecisive path. It also involves a lot of guesswork in figuring out the right way to proceed, because the Neutral personification, Isabeau, tends not to speak up.

Yes, there’s a third personified alignment on your team. And she’s why I’m writing this.

Isabeau is a great character. Not because she’s more realistic, exactly, but because her struggle is an exaggerated version of your own. While you can often find yourself in agreement with either the caustic Walter or the cautious Jonathan — and are many times forced to side with one of them — Isabeau never bends to either side. She sees both points of view, but doesn’t exactly accept — or dismiss — either.

She’s there. In the middle. Not knowing what to do. Deferring, often, to you, not only because you’re the player character, but because you are a lot like her. You also have some difficult choices to make, and there often isn’t an answer you agree with. The only difference between you and Isabeau is that you have to choose something anyway. Isabeau is always in a state of limbo.

I liked Isabeau. I also liked Walter and Jonathan, and many other characters. But it was Isabeau I felt something for, something a bit deeper than the default affinity you feel for a party member that doesn’t actively upset you. This was probably because she was the only character who seemed to lack agency. (She didn’t really; she’s just quick to surrender it.) But whatever the reason, the game delivered a terrible gut punch toward the end, when I had to kill her.

Characters die in games. Characters that we like. Characters that we’re invested in, either in terms of our time or our emotions. Heroes leave to conquer, and not all of them come home. We know this.

But we don’t often have to kill them. Especially those we agree with. And yet Isabeau, if you end up on either the Chaos or Law path, must die by your hand.

Suddenly the opaque restrictiveness of the Neutral path, the monumental unlikelihood of finding yourself there, makes sense. You’re supposed to fight her. And it’s supposed to hurt.

This may not be the decision you’d like to make, but it’s one you have to experience. It’s something the game wants to put you through. Maybe, just maybe, so that the next time you’ll play it, you’ll work so much harder for the Neutral path, just to avoid having to do it again.

Isabeau isn’t a difficult opponent.

She barely even fights.

You encounter her as you set off on your game-ending journey to buoy either the forces of darkness or light.

She can’t abide either.

She never could.

And now she stands in your way. Not because she expects to win. Not because she wants to fight. Not even because she wants you to fail.

But because she has to. Because she’s opposed to both Chaos and Law, and if you’re either…well…she knows she needs to die by your hand, because she can’t bear to watch you go down those paths.

It’s not a pleasant scene. It hurts to witness. It feels wrong to push the buttons that tip the fight, turn by turn, even more steeply in your favor. When you also have to fight either Jonathan or Walter later — depending on who you sided against — the emotions involved are not as complex. They each represent, after all, by design, the polar opposite of the path you’ve chosen. (Again…deliberate characterization, as this wouldn’t work with shades of grey.) They’re also each bolstered by supernatural strength, and they put up incredibly demanding fights.

Isabeau isn’t, and doesn’t.

Isabeau falls.

She’s nothing special.

She has no tricks up her sleeves.

The only time she’ll hurt you at all is when she slumps over, half-dead. Her portrait appears, bloodied by your sword.

She has something to say.

She never wanted to fight. But you chose a side. And this is what had to happen.

No matter which path you pursue, innocents will be hurt. You know that. Those are the main stakes of the game. You’re reminded of that at every juncture.

But those innocents are collateral damage. They die, whoever dies, in the service of what you’ve decided is a greater good. They choke on fallout. They’re injured by debris. They’re mowed down by the force of cosmic war. They die indirectly.

But Isabeau, the most pragmatic, rational, respectful character in the game, is the one you must slay face to face. Hers are the eyes you must look into as she dies, her blood staining your weapon.

The Neutral route is so difficult to find because you have to see this first.

You have to see this.

And you have to ask, “What the fuck, exactly, am I doing?”