Trilogy of Terror: Solarbabies (1986)

This year we’ve already looked at three films featuring games that celebrated, encouraged, accelerated death. With Solarbabies, we cap off the year with one featuring a game that brings life. In each of these films, a heinous social order is upended. It’s only Solarbabies, though, that stays true to the prediction of Gil Scott-Heron; its revolution is not televised.

Solarbabies is also, by quite a wide margin, the worst actual film I’ve ever seen.

By “actual film” I just mean we can totally ignore homemade crap like The Lock In. Of any movie that’s ever had actual effort invested in it by actual human beings with actual equipment, Solarbabies has got to be the worst.

Which, of course, makes it pretty fucking wonderful.

It feels like it’s cobbled together from several scripts of totally different genres.

It’s an action movie, a sports movie, a post-apocalyptic nightmare, a road movie, a coming of age tale, a journey home, a science fiction saga, and God knows what else. It drifts into both body horror and torture porn. There’s even just enough attempted romance in it that I’m willing to believe that someone on the production staff thought that should be at the heart of it as well.

Maybe I shouldn’t distance Solarbabies from The Lock In after all. In each case, the directors had a scatter of ideas they thought would make for a good film. In each case, the filmmakers had no idea how to assemble those ideas, what to leave out, or even how movies work. The only real difference is that Solarbabies wasted a hell of a lot more money trying.

The movie opens with narration, as all truly terrible movies must. It tells us nothing we won’t learn more naturally throughout the course of the next few scenes, but Solarbabies doesn’t give itself any more credit than the rest of the world does.

We’re told that the Earth is dry and largely barren. An organization known as The Protectorate controls all of the water, but a tribe called the Tchigani believe a space creature named Bodhi will eventually come and spray water everywhere for free.

It’s a lot of information, and unnecessarily specific, but it’s delivered by the late, great Charles Durning, so that’s nice. It’s also pretty weird, though. He introduces himself (still in narration, to whomever the fuck you’d like to believe he’s speaking to) as the Warden of Orphanage 43. “Children are brought here at an early age to be indoctrinated to serve The System,” he says. “It hurts me to do what I do. I, too, must serve The System.”

All of which, you know, sort of implies his character will have an arc in the film, or at least some relevance. Instead, yes, we see the Warden a couple of times in the opening scenes, but then he disappears forever.

That’s okay; a lot of characters disappear in a lot of movies. What’s far less common, though, is that the damn narrator disappears.

You can do a lot with a distant narrator in fiction. It can be part of the fun and part of the artistry. Nick Carraway narrates the love story that is The Great Gatsby without any personal experience of love himself. John Dowell narrates The Good Soldier without ever understanding the story he’s trying to tell. Charles Kinbote narrates Pale Fire with a complete refusal to let you read the story you bought the book for; he has a different story he’d like to tell, thank you very much.

The Warden, by contrast, has no reason whatsoever to open Solarbabies with his in-character narration. He might as well say, “Let me explain what happened during this adventure I played no part in, wasn’t present for, and couldn’t possibly know about.”

The actual narration ends on a note only slightly less ridiculous than that. After speaking about the Tchigani / Bodhi crap, Durning says, “Is this legend true? Who knows.”

Seeing it in print, it works well enough. In speech, though, Durning comes across like a not-entirely-sober old man who can’t remember what he wanted to say. The opening narration works hard to provide so much background, and then ends on the possibility that none of it was worth listening to.

I’m telling you, Solarbabies is great.

Things don’t get much less confusing from here. We are launched right into an early-morning game of Skateball, which is named that because somebody on the crew must have realized late in production that Rollerball was taken.

Skateball is played with lacrosse sticks and a basket that stands upright in the center of the rink. After watching Rollerball, I understood both how the game was played and why it was so compelling. After watching Solarbabies I have no clue why Skateball is any more interesting, important, or meaningful than any other game kids might play at recess. We may as well be watching a movie about futuristic hopscotch.

Anyway, the kids sneak out of the orphanage ready to play an intense game of Skateball. A different little kid turns on some stadium lights and is spooked by a spider. Yet another kid rollerskates down a crane and an owl lands on him.

It is the greatest movie ever made.

The match is between two teams: the Solarbabies and the Scorpions. It sucks.

The one kid is here because they need someone to turn on the lights who is also disposable enough to potentially be killed by the spider, I guess. The kid with the owl serves no purpose here whatsoever.

The game progresses firmly in the Solarbabies’ favor, but then some cartoon Nazis show up and shut it down. It turns out Skateball is illegal, giving us our central conflict for the film.

Only joking. That would give us a central conflict for the film. Instead, the cartoon Nazis are mad because this rink is outside the grounds of the orphanage, and there’s a Skateball rink within the grounds of the orphanage that the kids are supposed to be playing Skateball on.


This would be fine if we learn later that the illegal Skateball rink was too close to some kind of Protectorate secret or something, which would warrant the armed response to idiot children rollerskating in a circle, but no. The cartoon Nazis bring tanks and laser guns because the Solarbabies should have been playing in a different rink a few yards to the east.

And, maybe it’s just me, but if the fucking cartoon Nazis have to put all their gear on and load up their armored assault vehicles every time some kids use the illegal rink, why not destroy the illegal rink and never have to worry about it again?

As I’ve said, this movie is very, very good.

The Solarbabies scatter while the cartoon Nazis shoot at them, attempting and failing to execute children for rollerskating on the wrong patch of concrete.

If you’re wondering why I’m not using anyone’s name it’s because we haven’t been properly introduced to anybody yet. Then again, I’ve seen this movie a few times and I still don’t know most of the Solarbabies. There’s the girl one, the black one, the glasses one, and two other guys who look way too much alike to ever register as distinct characters.

The little kid who made a face at a spider ends up in some catacombs, I guess.

He’s an idiot, so he releases the break on a mining cart that for some reason runs straight into a wall, which is as thin as Styrofoam and, coincidentally, breaks like it, too.

Behind the wall is some secret cavern where a magic, glowing ball lives. I guess the miners should have tunneled one more molecule in that direction before giving up for the day. We could have watched a movie about them instead of the Solarbabies.

The kid touches the ball and then emits the most irritating sequence of shrieks imaginable. Sadly, he’s not in immense pain. It’s because he can hear now.

“I can hear,” the kid tells the ball. “You did it. You fixed my ears.”

Oh, did I forget to tell you the kid was deaf? So did the movie, so don’t worry.

I mean, we do see him wearing headphones, which we later find out were some kind of device that helped him hear, but if the movie wants a big moment when a magical creature fixes some kind of medical problem, we should probably know the medical problem exists before we’re assured it’s cured.

If you see me dying of cancer for months and months and then I touch a glowing space ball and I’m instantly cured, that’s magic. But if you have no knowledge of me ever having had cancer and I tell you one day that I totally did but a glowing space ball fixed it you’re just going to think I’m an idiot.

Don’t worry; I won’t describe this thing scene by scene, but this particular moment demonstrates the truly bizarre narrative approach taken by Solarbabies.

See, in most narratives, the characters start somewhere and make progress toward something. In the end they may find it or they may not, but that journey is part of (and often is) the narrative experience. Consider Scrooge’s emotional journey in A Christmas Carol, Ahab’s single-minded, suicidal vengeance in Moby-Dick, Odysseus’s long trek home in The Odyssey.

Or, y’know, consider literally any story you’ve ever enjoyed. The characters are in some kind of position (whether emotional, psychological, logistical, physical, professional, geographical) and would like to be in a different one. Their progress from one to the other (or failure to progress) is what makes a story a story.

Solarbabies treats story like a light switch. Instead of featuring a bunch of characters progressing toward any kind of goal, problems are resolved as quickly as they’re introduced. It’s like the script was written as some kind of cinematic experiment in flash fiction.

First there’s the deaf kid. By the time we learn he can’t hear, he can hear. There’s no chance to identify with the character’s struggle, no way to invest in his journey, and no opportunity to share in his triumph. There shouldn’t even be punctuation between these two states in the Solarbabies plot summary. It should read something like, “He’s deaf actually not anymore.”

This happens again and again throughout the film. The narration says there’s a legend Bodhi will come to Earth, and we immediately see Bodhi come to Earth. The Solarbabies think one of their friends might have died in an explosion, so we find out immediately that she didn’t. The Solarbabies are captured by bounty hunters, and then they are immediately freed. We see a mysterious symbol drawn on a wall and are told it looks like the mark on one of the Solarbabies’ hands…even though we were never shown or told about that mark on her hand before.

Nothing is set up and then resolved. The setup and the resolution occupy the same space, over and over and over again. If Solarbabies director Alan Johnson did a version of Moby-Dick, it would be eleven seconds long. It would open with Ahab saying, “I really need to find that whale oh there he is boys get him.” It would probably be narrated by Ishmael’s middle school geometry teacher.

Another example of setup and resolution comes soon after the littlest Solarbaby finds Bodhi, and it leads to an even bigger problem with the film.

He hides Bodhi in a trunk, which I guess the Solarbabies keep around even though they have nothing to put in it. Fine. The rest of the Solarbabies come in and start talking about how nice it would be if they were ever able to experience rain.

It immediately begins raining in the barracks, and the Solarbabies dance in it.

This movie was released in the mid-80s, remember, back when studios would be fined heavily if their characters didn’t stop to dance at least twice per movie.

So, once again we see Solarbabies‘ innovative approach to storytelling. “What if X happened hey look X is happening!” But we also see the massive logistical hole at its center.

If Bodhi has come down from the stars to restore water to the Earth and he can make it rain just to baffle some idiot teenagers, why does he never do so again until the end of the film?

It would be easy enough to say that Bodhi doesn’t have his full powers yet, or he has to charge up his abilities for some set period of time or something, but that never comes up. He can generate storms from nothing, on command. He does it here. At the end of the film he does it again, on a larger scale, immediately restoring the planet’s oceans, lakes, and streams.

So…why didn’t he do this earlier? What was stopping him? I know we wouldn’t have a film if Bodhi worked his aquatic mojo in the very first scene we met him, but Bodhi doesn’t know that. What’s stopping him from doing the thing he was sent here to do? It’s not as though he’s busy doing anything else; he spends the entire movie sitting in people’s backpacks. Get to work, you lazy shit! People are dying!

Anyway, the main cartoon Nazi is angry because the Solarbabies skated at the unsanctioned skate park that is totally off limits even though nobody’s even bothered to so much as put a fence around it. He yells at the Warden to punish the Solarbabies. The Warden says he will punish the Solarbabies and the Scorpions. The cartoon Nazi says no just punish the Solarbabies. The Warden says he will just punish the Solarbabies.

Then the cartoon Nazi reveals that he has some kind of futuristic hot Nazi stick that can burn things. You might think this is setting up a time that he will use it to burn things later in the film but you’re watching Solarbabies.

It’s a strange scene, mainly due to the absence of the cartoon Nazi bitching about Skateball. This is the scene where the antagonist should say something like, “I don’t like this ‘Skateball.’ It gives the children hope. It makes them laugh and smile. It’s a frivolous activity that takes time away from their work and their studies, and I insist you put a stop to it immediately, Warden.”

But the cartoon Nazi actually does like Skateball. He just prefers the Scorpions to the Solarbabies. The Warden likes Skateball, too. Everybody likes Skateball! Skateball! The one thing kids and their fascistic oppressors can agree on!

In fact, The Protectorate teaches them to play Skateball, and they hold orphanage-wide Skateball practice, and have all the kids do choreographed Skateball stuff. You’d think this is some kind of indoctrination, and maybe it is, but I sure as hell couldn’t tell you how.

The Protectorate is, for some reason, training all the kids to skate real good. This is great for the kids, because when the Solarbabies go on their adventure they solve every problem by skating real good.

But why is The Protectorate interested in turning them into skating prodigies? Maybe if the cartoon Nazis all skated around it would make sense, because then skate practice could be a kind of subtle training regimen, but the cartoon Nazis don’t skate at all! In fact, the Solarbabies’ ability to skate real good is the only thing that allows them to escape from and defeat the cartoon Nazis. The Protectorate is actively training kids to escape The Protectorate.

One of the kids on the Scorpions is even a cartoon Nazi, and he can skate real good, too, but even he doesn’t skate while in pursuit of the other kids who can skate real good! He can match their skating abilities and he doesn’t do it! So why the living fuck do the cartoon Nazis teach people to skate?

Also, to make sure we know he’s bad, he keeps trying to rape the girl Solarbaby. It’s a wonderful film if you haven’t seen it.

The kid with the owl steals Bodhi and escapes the orphanage to find his tribe, because he’s a Tchigani. The not-deaf kid then escapes the orphanage to find Bodhi. The rest of the Solarbabies then escape the orphanage to find the not-deaf kid. Try locking your fucking doors, Warden. The cartoon Nazis then leave to find the Solarbabies. It’s a chain of morons chasing each other through the desert, and it seems like a setup for one of those scenes in Scooby-Doo when everybody chases each other through doors in a long hallway.

That’s absurd enough, but the fact that all of the kids are rollerskating through the desert is so beautifully idiotic that I can’t help but love it. At first, near the orphanage, I was willing to believe there were maintained roads just beneath the surface of the sand. But as the kids venture deeper into what is referred to as the wasteland, they’re still skating perfectly fine. Over sand! Over rocks! Over the fucking ruins of civilization!

Of course, this is because their training as Solarbabies has prepared them to defy the laws of physics and/or topple the government. There’s a scene during the escape when one of the Solarbabies uses his particular set of Solarbaby skills to deactivate a security camera. And by “deactivate a security camera” I mean smash it with a rock.

Sure, he uses his officially licensed Solarbabies lacrosse stick to launch the rock, but the camera was right there on the ground. He could have just walked up and kicked it. Fucking showoff.

At one early point in their adventure, the Solarbabies are pursued by two cartoon Nazis on motorcycles. To escape, they’ll have to skate real good. Fortunately, the Solarbabies can skate real good!

They skate real good right over a big gap in a bridge, and the cartoon Nazis can’t motorcycle real good so they have to stop, only one of them falls off the edge of the bridge and his motorcycle explodes, blasting his limbs off and cooking him alive.

The Solarbabies cheer their success / this man’s grisly, flesh-melting death.

In fact, I know the Solarbabies are our heroes and all — they’re off to rescue Bodhi, who could have already saved the world in the opening few minutes and let’s not focus on that — but they sure do kill a lot of people along the way.

And it’s not even one of those, “I wish there were a more peaceful solution…” kind of things. The Solarbabies kill and quip as they electrocute people, blow people up, destroy their cities, shove them down holes to get eaten by angry dogs, and get them attacked by malfunctioning robots that drill them to pieces. Admittedly, a good number of these people are cartoon Nazis. A larger number of these people, though, are bystanders or guards who are just doing their jobs and have genuinely no clue what the hell is going on.

At no point does any Solarbaby say, “Hold up, gang. We’ve killed an awful lot of people today. Do you think maybe we should chill out a bit?”

The Solarbabies are supposed to be sympathetic characters. We’re supposed to want them to win. But watching them singlehandedly decimate the formerly peaceful settlement of Tire Town, reducing it to a smoking crater of bodies, it’s hard to think of anything they’re doing as remotely heroic.

In fact, isn’t the whole problem with the Nazi guys that they go into these different towns and wreck them up and burn them down? What the fuck are the Solarbabies doing?

And, again, they aren’t restoring water to the world, which might be worth disemboweling a few hundred thousand innocents. Bodhi is going to do that. He’s just…I dunno, busy brainstorming a novel or something.

I find it very important to keep in mind as you watch the Solarbabies death toll climb that Bodhi could, at any point, do the spheric equivalent of snap his fingers to immediately bring water to the world and remove entirely the need for any further senseless death.

Of course, I don’t think Johnson had any clue what the hell Bodhi was, or what his motivations for saving Earth would be, or how any of this was supposed to work. He knows Bodhi can’t restore the planet’s waters until the end of the film, so that’s when it happens. Beyond that, Johnson has no clue.

Bodhi communicates telepathically with the Solarbabies, but we get conflicting information on how. Sometimes he shows them vague visions meant to suggest their next steps, and sometimes he must speak directly to them in clear English, such as when he teaches them to pronounce his name. Why is he so direct about pronunciation but vague about the fucking future of humanity?

Also, despite the fact that the film specifically tells us that Bodhi communicates telepathically, the Solarbabies all talk to him out loud. They know they don’t have to, but they do anyway. Why?

Well, of course, it would look pretty silly if the Solarbabies just sat around having staring contests with the magical space ball while the audience wonders what they fuck they’re silently communicating, sure. But then why introduce the concept of telepathy at all? If everyone is still going to speak verbally, why point out that they never have to?

At one point, the Solarbabies all play Skateball with Bodhi.

As in, Bodhi is the ball. They lob him around and catch him and stuff, and I guess that’s fine. It’s possible Bodhi is communicating silently to them that he likes it. It’s equally possible that he’s tearfully pleading with them to stop.

We’ll never know. The marvels of telepathy.

Then one Solarbaby pitches Bodhi at another Solarbaby, who fucking smashes it with his lacrosse stick.

Bodhi explodes into a shatter of glimmering stardust or whatever, and the music is triumphant and the kids all gasp in awe, but this is a living thing! How the hell did the Solarbaby know he wouldn’t just kill Bodhi? Or at least give him a concussion? It’s a creature they know nothing about. Why in shit’s name did they think it was okay to club him like a fucking baseball?

What if it did kill Bodhi? What if the magical space ball from beyond the stars came to Earth to rescue humanity, just to get trapped in a cave for God knows how long and then dug up by a bunch of kids who bludgeon it to death? Great fucking movie.

Then, toward the end, the cartoon Nazis and some woman who dresses like Grace Jones get their hands on Bodhi, and they try to destroy it by cooking it and drilling through it.

And I guess it’s nice that they already had a Bodhi-killing machine all rigged up and ready to go, just in case a Bodhi ever showed up, but the weird thing is that while they do this shit to him, we hear Bodhi screaming in agony.

So much for telepathy, huh, pal?

The Solarbabies, of course, show up and rescue Bodhi, which involves much bloodshed and the murders of anonymous henchmen.

There’s an extraordinarily tense moment when one of the kids skates real good so he’s able to vault an electrified fence. He opens the gate for everyone, but because this is a movie it has to automatically close and everyone is worried the not-deaf kid won’t skate real good. But thankfully he skates real good after all.

So they save Bodhi and…he’s fine. In fact, minutes after he was roasted and drilled, he’s ready to restore all the world’s water. Dude doesn’t even need to rest.

So what was all that screaming about, Bodhi?

Was he just…faking it, or something? I guess the people in the audience needed to worry that Bodhi was in actual danger — nothing keeps an audience on the edge of their seats like to possibility of a glowing ball getting broken or something — but within the movie, why was he crying out in pain if he was actually fine?

I’m skipping over large chunks of the movie that make no sense so that I can discuss other chunks of the movie that make less sense. It’s really pretty fantastic.

There’s one scene in which the girl Solarbaby gets separated from the others in a settlement, and we see a hand grab her from behind and cover her mouth. She’s being kidnapped! Oh no! Who could her rapist be this time?!

But, no, it actually turns out that it’s either her father or someone her father sent to bring her home. She’s totally fine and “home” is actually full of comfort and safety and fresh water. What’s more, her dad looks like a kind of Disco Christ. Can’t really complain about anything!

So why did the person taking her home do it in this ridiculously scary way? I understand walking up to someone and saying, “I know your dad; follow me and I’ll take you to him,” can sound pretty shady. But grabbing a woman from behind and muffling her screams is in no way a more comforting approach.

Anyway, the Solarbabies find her and get a tour of her home and the first thing one of them does is jump into a body of water and start stomping around and kicking it at people. What if that was their fucking drinking water, you little shit? What if that was the only water in town? You don’t know squat about this place. Get out of the fucking water!

Solarbabies isn’t all bad, but with one exception I can’t give it specific credit for anything it does right.

The best part of the film is something innately good about any post-apocalyptic media: the chance to see how different settlements have adapted to life in the wasteland.

The settlement with water is safe and happy because they stay deliberately hidden. Tire Town is a labor center that survives by commerce (and, to some extent at least, prostitution). The Orphanage is well stocked but also fortified and has the specific goal of programming youngsters to support The Protectorate. (And the secondary goal of teaching them to skate real good.)

There’s also a Tchigani town that echoes early Native American settlements, bringing society (assuming this takes place in America) full circle. The best part, though, is that the wise elder in this settlement lives in what used to be an amusement park’s haunted house. It’s full of creepy things like skulls and spiderwebs and torture devices, which does a great job of setting the mood both he and the film are going for, and which are fabrications from a more frivolous time, from when symbols of death and misery were a kind of dark entertainment rather than a daily reality.

It’s…actually a fairly intelligent detail. And it’s the only one.

I guess the movie also gets a point for featuring a theme song by Smokey Robinson. Not that it’s good or even marginally listenable, but it’s amusing to me that a genuine legend will now always have something called “Love Will Set You Free (Theme from Solarbabies)” stuck like a stubborn kidney stone in his discography.

With no real purpose to anything that happened, no room for investment in any of these characters, and no clear concept of why the movie was made, it probably shouldn’t be surprising to say that the ending fails to redeem it.

In fact, Solarbabies doesn’t end so much as it just stops happening.

Bodhi fixes the world because if he doesn’t do it now humanity will be cursed with a sequel, and we see that the oceans are back in a sequence deemed insignificant enough that it plays out silently behind the credits.

Further emphasizing the fact that nobody involved in this movie ever met a human being, the Solarbabies run along the beach in their socks. Fucking ew, Solarbabies.

And that’s Solarbabies. The one movie this year in which the central game was never intended to be one of life or death, though the characters sure as hell turn it into one, chuckling all the while over the memories they’re creating together of turning adults they don’t like into burnt skeletons.

Director Alan Johnson died in July of this year, which I didn’t realize until I was doing some research for this review. He’s better known as a choreographer, and Solarbabies was one of only two films he directed. He worked closely with Mel Brooks on a number of movies, and Solarbabies was actually produced by Brooksfilms.

Solarbabies is not a great film, but it’s a great terrible film. If you like to laugh at movies that fail to function on any conceivable level, definitely check this one out. Trust me, I didn’t spoil all the surprises; I barely scratched the surface.

Interestingly, in this year’s batch of films, it’s the most life-affirming one that behaves flippantly toward death.

Whether it was the murder of innocents for which Ben Richards was framed in The Running Man, the failures of Spumoni and Mama Pappalardo to survive their challenges in Deathrow Gameshow, or the braindeath of Moonpie in Rollerball, deaths in these films had consequences that others would have to live with, react to, and move on from.

Solarbabies doesn’t dwell on its many, many deaths, and as such it’s actually the film that treats its deaths most disrespectfully. The one character that is mourned in any capacity is the owl. The owl is collateral damage in a battle between two human factions nobody, least of all the audience, cares about.

The owl mattered to one of the characters, so the other characters bury it and sit in silence for a moment.

It’s almost as though Solarbabies is rubbing it in, what little value human life has in this post-apocalyptic hellscape, when an owl is entitled to a funeral and a stack of charred remains sees teenagers skipping away and giggling.

Almost. Because Solarbabies isn’t smart enough to have any idea of what it’s actually saying.

Any accidental breakthroughs are collateral damage in this mess of conflicting ideas nobody should ever want to see.

So, y’know, be sure to check it out.

And have a happy Halloween.

Trilogy of Terror: Rollerball (1975)

I can’t remember how old I was. Somewhere between 12 and 14. I’d stayed up late to watch a particular movie on television. I couldn’t begin to tell you why. Certainly I knew nothing of Rollerball. I was born six years after it came out and it sure as hell wasn’t in the cultural consciousness when I decided to watch it on my little bedroom TV.

This isn’t a vague, distant memory. This is something I remember vividly. A movie I couldn’t have known anything about held me rapt, and its final sequence, which played out in the small hours of the next morning, sent needles of ice into my spine.

Every so often you have one of those moments, experiencing something that you know — already know, deep in your heart — you will never forgot. Any detail that you could conceivably hold on to will be retained. This handful of minutes or seconds will remain embedded permanently in your mind. Maybe not as a fond memory. Maybe like shrapnel.

Watching the ending of Rollerball, watching a broken James Caan limp over a mess of strewn bodies, surrounded by an eerily silent audience, so that he could feed a steel ball into a magnetic basket in a game nobody was even playing anymore, I knew I was experiencing one of those moments.

I knew that this was going to stay with me. Even if I had no God damned idea why.

And so when I decided to write about games of life and death this year, yeah, The Running Man was the first movie that came to mind. But immediately behind it was Rollerball.

Revisiting Rollerball was itself a chilling prospect. What if — as so often happens — the film wasn’t quite as good as I remembered it being? What if watching it again today, now, with so much more knowledge and experience and understanding of effective storytelling, it unraveled before me? Would I lose everything that initial experience with the movie had meant to me? I could still close my eyes and see Caan, maddened, desperate, dragging his busted frame toward the goal, and it still meant something.

What if I watched it again and…it meant nothing?

I ended up rewatching it, obviously, and I’m glad I did. I’m glad I did because that fucking ending is every bit as disarming as it was all those years ago. I may understand it slightly better now, but that does nothing to dilute the horror.

I braced myself to cover Rollerball with the expectation that, on some level, I’d be apologizing for it.

Instead, you know what?

Rollerball is great.

Of course, I still have no clue why I decided to watch it or stuck with it when I was younger. I’d like to be very clear about this: my critical faculties were far from developed. There were a few good films and television shows that I just happened to like, but rarely did I enjoy or have the patience for anything too brainy.

Not that Rollerball could ever be said to be too brainy.

Maybe it happened to be just brainy enough.

To summarize Rollerball is to rob it of a good portion of its narrative magic. It never sits down and tells you what its own story is, rather parceling it out in various conversations and suggesting it through things the characters strategically choose not to say.

What’s more, there are the rules of Rollerball itself, the most popular sport in this unidentified future year. Some of them are spelled out. Some of them are inferred. Any of them can (and some do) change between games. There is no tedious scene or careless text crawl explaining the game to us. In fact, the film opens with a match between the Houston and Madrid teams, and you get your bearings simply by being a spectator.

The film paints a rich portrait of a hideous world and brutal sport by focusing, perhaps surprisingly, on a character who has a decidedly narrow view of it. If we pay attention and do some mental assembly, we can understand a lot of the story. If we don’t pay attention and come only for the spectacle, we’ll understand enough. Either way, Rollerball turns out to be one hell of a window into a social nightmare.

I think that’s what held me rapt when I first watched it on television. Rollerball could have easily been a dumb movie (and it was later remade as one!), but it builds its universe so smoothly, so effortlessly, so completely, that it’s tremendously easy to get swept up on it, even if you don’t fully understand what you’re seeing. I’ve rewatched this film a few times just to write this review, and I found myself each time getting lost in the movie. Watching it unfold. Considering the world in which these characters lived and died.

At some point in recent history (at least within some of these characters’ lifetimes), the Corporate Wars took place, ultimately replacing nationality with industry. The regions on Earth are broken up based not on political ideals, but on what they can most efficiently produce, or the service they can best provide.

Houston, home of Jonathan E., our Rollerballing hero, is an energy city. Chicago is a food city. Other, unnamed cities, are dedicated to communication, to housing, to luxury, and so on. The corporations that run each city are said to take good care of their residents. “Everyone has all the comforts,” Energy Corporation Chairman Mr. Bartholomew says. “No poverty, no sickness. No needs and many luxuries.”

However, he says this to Jonathan E., an athlete who signed on to play Rollerball in exchange for this lifestyle. Mr. Bartholomew even explains that Jonathan E. enjoys these things just as if he were “in the executive class.”

The executive class gets to live a comfortable lifestyle. We get to see this comfortable lifestyle because Jonathan E., who is emphatically not in the executive class, is in a position in which he gets to live it as a reward. We never see how the other classes live, where Jonathan E. would be if he weren’t playing Rollerball.

Even if it’s true, however, and the corporations really do take universally good care of everybody, at all levels, Jonathan E. isn’t convinced it’s worth it.

“It’s like people had a choice a long time ago between, well, having all them nice things or freedom,” he says, working it through in his mind. “Of course, they chose comfort.”

“But comfort is freedom,” he’s told in response. “It always has been.”

And it’s here, perhaps, that Rollerball is at its smartest, if only because both sides of that argument are absolutely valid. Isn’t comfort freedom?

The only reason I get to spend any time doing what I love, visiting places I want to see, having fun with people I care about, is because I’ve achieved a certain level of comfort. Any time I spend doing these things — the actual time I’m spending writing this review — is time I can only spend because I don’t have to use it making a living. I can afford to work only 40-50 hours each week. I can afford to actually enjoy my downtime. I can afford my necessities, which allows me to branch into luxuries. That’s freedom.

But Jonathan E. isn’t wrong, either. This is a world in which that freedom is curated. You have your downtime, but only because the rest of your time is strictly regulated by the needs of the corporation. You have television, but only what the corporation will show you. You can engage in educational pursuits, but only with corporate teachers and edited texts. Jonathan E., like the rest of the Rollerballers, gets to live a life of luxury…but it’s also a life without personality.

And the moment he starts to develop one, the corporation takes notice.

Jonathan E. is a threat, and the way in which this gradually reveals itself is one of Rollerball‘s best touches.

He’s not an intellectual. He doesn’t have the public’s ear, except through carefully regulated channels. He isn’t rich or powerful. His downtime is spent on his isolated ranch, with a chain of women cycled through to keep him satisfied. He is in no position whatsoever to buck the system.

But he’s a threat, simply because he exists.

Rollerball, we learn, is a sport designed to “demonstrate the futility of individual effort.” How? Well, I’m no kind of sports historian so I can’t speak to that with much authority. (Though I very, very much welcome comments explaining how Rollerball, as a sport, does or doesn’t support that intention.)

Rollerball is a sort of cross between roller derby and basketball. It’s played in a circular rink with a significant slope leading down toward the center, where a gutter collects dead balls and removes them from play. The ostensible object of the game is to score points by taking possession of a heavy steel ball and sinking it into a magnetic basket in the outer wall.

It’s a contact sport encouraging a kind of strategic brutality. Jonathan E. explains to new additions to the Houston team that it might be worth taking “a little three-minute penalty” to injure an opponent who’s “skating a little too good.”

Teams consist of skaters and bikers, which are self-explanatory roles. Everybody moves counter-clockwise around the rink, whether on skates or scooters, and works to either score a goal or prevent the other team from doing so, depending upon who has possession of the steel ball.

I get the sense the futility of individual effort is meant to come across in the sheer difficulty of the sport. No one person can reasonably expect to achieve anything without teamwork. Surely no Rollerballer can succeed on his own, at least for long, when faced with a wall of beefy opponents and motorscooters between him and the goal.

Rollerball, perhaps, is designed to be a bit less of a showcase for individual talents than most sports. A pitcher who can reliably strike hitters out or a hitter who can reliably hit home runs would certainly cement his place as a baseball star rather than necessarily elevate the reputation of his team. Ditto a basketballer who reliably sinks mid-court shots, or a goalie who maintains total control of the net.

In Rollerball, you can’t do it alone. The steel ball is far too heavy to be thrown any great distance, and you won’t get near the basket without help. Both offense and defense are team initiatives, and though a Rollerballer might get a few lucky breaks on his own, his personal efforts will never rise consistently above the efforts of his team.

This may also be why the Rollerballers use nicknames. They may be assigned, they may be chosen, but the players we meet are certainly not being referred to by their given names. Moonpie, Blue, Toughie. We are at least that degree removed from knowing who they actually are. Jonathan E. gets around it somewhat; he gets what we have no reason to disbelieve is his real name as part of his nickname.

That is perhaps the first snowflake in what eventually becomes an avalanche, because Jonathan E. does rise above the identity of his team. Through skill and at least a little bit of luck, he ends up with a Rollerball career spanning 10 years, something we’re told no other player has ever achieved. Whether that’s because they retired or died, we aren’t told, but my money is on the latter.

Mr. Bartholomew, the great John Houseman (who you may recognize as the man weaving a campfire tale at the beginning of John Carpenter’s The Fog), shows up in the locker room after the match that opens the film to congratulate the winning Houston team. At least, that’s what it’s meant to look like. Really he’s there to summon Jonathan E. for a private audience the next day.

While he’s there he delivers an artfully empty speech full of hollow bullshit that’s flattering enough that nobody thinks to question it. He knows that the Rollerballers dream of being in the executive class, but he has some news for them. “Do you know what those executives dream about, out there behind their desks?” he asks. “They dream they’re great Rollerballers.”

The team roars. Of course it does. The elite pretend that really, deep down, they’re jealous of the lower class. It must be difficult sleeping in their mansions with the beautiful women they hand-select as they see fit.

That isn’t exaggeration, though Jonathan E. certainly wishes it were. At some point long before the film begins, an executive decides the woman he wants is the one married to the star Rollerballer. And that’s that. She no longer belongs to Jonathan E.

We meet her later — Ella, played by Bond-girl Maud Adams — and we learn that she’s happy with her new executive husband. They have a family. She’s advanced in society. But that only makes it sting all the more for poor Jonathan E., who loved her, and who refuses to be satisfied by the string of substitutes with whom the corporation stocks his bedroom.

It’s never stated in the film, but I get the sense that this is what tips Jonathan E. into outright Rollerball obsession. Without Ella, there is nothing else in his life that he loves. All of his time, focus, attention, and energy goes to Rollerball. He becomes the best. Crowds love him and cheer for him. Not for Houston, but for Jonathan E.

There’s a fantastic scene in which Jonathan E. meets with Mr. Bartholomew in private. They’re on Mr. Bartholomew’s turf, of course. It’s a large, white room, with chairs in the middle. The sitting area is surrounded by hanging glass. Mr. Batholomew is in the middle of some kind of meditation, or at least deep thought. “Keep silence with me for a minute, won’t you?” he asks the rising star of the sport that shouldn’t have any.

Jonathan E. does, but he’s uncomfortable doing so. On his way in, he accidentally brushes the hanging glass, setting off a series of chimes. He steadies them and cuts his hand in doing so. Mr. Bartholomew has to offer him a handkerchief to keep him from leaving his red blood on the perfect whiteness of the room around them.

This entire sequence could be played for laughs. I’m sure there are some people for whom it elicits an awkward chuckle. But the overpowering emotion conveyed is that Jonathan E. does not belong here. That’s what we’re supposed to feel, and what Jonathan E. is supposed to feel. He’s supposed to be uncomfortable. He’s supposed to be out of his element. He’s supposed to realize that he’s not the one in control.

In fact, Mr. Bartholomew spells this out for him later on, when he thinks Jonathan E. isn’t getting it. “Why argue about decisions you’re not powerful enough to make for yourself?” It’s a hell of a statement when what they’re discussing is Jonathan E.’s own future.

People well above Mr. Bartholomew have decided that Jonathan E. will retire from Rollerball. All they have to do is convince Jonathan E. to decide the same thing.

They first appeal to his ego by airing, globally, a special all about him, something no Rollerballer has had before. It will be a showcase, a highlights reel, a celebration…and it will be capped off with a high-profile retirement announcement from Jonathan E. himself.

When he refuses, people start to outright plead with him. Mr. Bartholomew, team coach Rusty, latest dedicated lay Daphne. And, to be honest, they seem genuine in their concern (if not their motives). They know Jonathan E. won’t get to make any other decision, so they want him to take the offer now. To live the rest of his life in comfort. To survive.

After all…why not? Why continue playing? “I don’t understand your resistance,” Mr. Bartholomew says. “And I don’t think anyone else will either.” He can keep playing Rollerball until he’s inevitably killed by it, or he can do what nobody has ever been able to do before: get out alive.

But without Ella, what does he have to live for? Rollerball is his career, his hobby, his outlet, and the only thing he seems to enjoy. Why give it up? And if so many powerful people are insisting he give it up…what’s their angle?

Finally, when all else has failed, the corporations agree to rule changes.

We only see three games of Rollerball throughout the film, but the small changes to the rules result in massive changes to the experience. The first game is fairly standard. Players are injured, but that’s part of the game. (There’s even a constant tally of injuries on the scoreboard.) After all, these men are hurtling around at breakneck speeds, fighting for control of a heavy steel ball, speeding around an enclosed space on motorscooters…people get hurt. It happens.

In the second game, though, the rules are tweaked: no penalties and limited substitutions. The players become more aggressive — and brutal — because they won’t even get a measly three-minute time out for roughing someone up. And the coaches are hesitant to swap out injured players, because they can only do it so many times.

But Jonathan E. keeps playing, so the rules are tweaked again for the final game. There are now no penalties, no substitutions, and no time limit. If you’re wondering how a winner can be determined in a game that’s never scheduled to end, you aren’t thinking hard enough.

The first rule change is specifically intended to encourage Jonathan E. to retire as the sport grows more dangerous. The second is intended to kill him.

He tries to figure out what’s happening…why the corporations, or something above them, are trying to strongarm the most popular player out of the most popular sport.

He never does get a definitive answer, which is understandable. Jonathan E. is never portrayed as especially bright, and he’s trying to outthink a society that’s been structured to discourage thinking at all. He isn’t sure of what he’s looking for, and the corporations have come together to ensure that even if he were, he’d never find it.

He requests books from a library, where am empty-headed clerk informs him that they can only provide him with corporate-edited versions. He enlists help from his trainer Cletus — who lived through the Corporate Wars, and who seems to be Jonathan E.’s single remaining human connection — to ask around, but Cletus doesn’t get anything beyond the corporate line.

Finally, he travels to a computer bank in Geneva, where he’s told he can perform his research to his heart’s content.

It’s the Geneva scene that provides some of Rollerball‘s best moments, as well as its unrivaled worst.

On the positive side of the ledger we have Ralph Richardson as the head librarian. A celebrated veteran of stage, screen, and radio, it’s impossible to provide even a sample of his roles here, but I certainly know him best as The Supreme Being from Time Bandits.

Richardson is absolutely incredible in such a small role here, and he’s certainly one of the best one-scene characters in my estimation. He’s constantly reacting, much like Richard Liberty as the mad scientist in Day of the Dead, always processing so much that we get the very real sense that he can’t manage to share more than a fraction of it. He comes across as both intelligent and mindless at once, which, truth be told, is both impressive and deeply appropriate for the nature of the film.

When he meets Jonathan E. he welcomes him as a celebrity, but soon afterward he forces him to leave his coat and hat behind, as a presumable sign of respect. Not for a person they’re about to meet, but for a computer.

On the way there, he chats with Jonathan E. At one point he sits down on the steps, and Jonathan remains standing just long enough that it becomes awkward. He sits down and Richardson immediately stands up again to walk further on. Jonathan has no fucking clue what’s going on, and we sure as hell don’t, either. It’s a fascinating, bizarre, brilliant performance.

He also delivers what might be the film’s darkest joke: they’ve misplaced the whole of the 13th century.

As everything is digitized and stored, some data gets lost. It happens. In this case, it was just every piece of information pertaining to the 13th century.

Richardson lets slip that this wasn’t a human error…it was the error of Zero, “the world’s file cabinet.” A computer accidentally losing a massive chunk of human history is scary enough…but we learn before long that Zero has the ability to choose what information it will and will not share with those who seek it, which means this may have been something other than accidental.

He realizes he may have overshared, and so he doubles back later in the conversation to assure Jonathan E. that the 13th century isn’t much of a loss. After all, it’s “just Dante and a few corrupt popes.”

It would be hilarious if it weren’t so God damned terrifying.

Sadly, though, we actually then meet Zero. The premise is solid; a computer that serves as the world’s knowledge database also has the ability to withhold information at will, without explanation. That’s its own story right there, and I’m happy enough with that being part of the universe that birthed Rollerball.

But the execution is completely lacking. Whereas most of this film actually looks pretty great by today’s standards, right down to the incredible stunts and game choreography that make Rollerball feel genuinely real, Zero comes across as an embarrassing mid-70s misunderstanding of how computers would evolve.

Zero is a tank of some kind of fluid, and instead of a standard interface it takes and responds to queries verbally. It’s a distractingly silly sequence, undercutting what should be a profoundly dispiriting moment for Jonathan E. with the unintentional comedy of an old man beating up a fish tank.

I’d be tempted to say the entire Geneva section of the film should have been cut, but losing Richardson and the exchange about the 13th century wouldn’t be worth it, so we’re stuck with a tremendously dumb moment embedded in an otherwise great one.

Jonathan E.’s success in the rink doesn’t seem to be due only to his individual abilities, but rather his ability to strategize on behalf of his team. He’s good at what he does, but he’s also been fortunate enough to have teammates who respect him, admire him, and complement his strengths.

The most significant bond we see on the team is between Jonathan E. and Moonpie, a beefy new player who serves as a force of sheer power and brutality. Moonpie’s signature move involves waiting patiently at the outside wall and then skating quickly inward to launch himself at a biker. It’s worth the penalty.

To him, Rollerball is about raw power, something we’re assured the Houston team as a whole excels at. (Which is a nice, unacknowledged pun on Houston being a city of energy.) Before the limited-substitution, no-penalty match against Tokyo, Moonpie leads a strange resistance toward the strategist the coach brought in to advise them.

Moonpie doesn’t need strategy. He needs power. Houston needs power. It doesn’t matter what Tokyo has planned. We can take them down.

Knowing what happens to Moonpie in that match, it’s interesting to pay attention to the sequence of events leading up to it.

First he shuts down the strategist. Later he sizes up the Tokyo team as they size him up in return. During the match he suffers a minor injury, and Jonathan E. tells him, repeatedly, to keep close.

But Jonathan himself gets injured later, and is temporarily taken out of play. While he is, Tokyo gangs up on Moonpie, Houston’s dedicated bruiser. With no penalties, there’s nothing to keep them from ignoring the ball entirely and pounding Moonpie into unconsciousness.

We find out after the match that Moonpie is in a permanent vegetative state. A coma from which he will never recover. He has no family. The doctor in Tokyo tries to get Jonathan E. to sign the forms that will allow Moonpie’s life support to be shut down.

But Jonathan E. refuses. It’s a rule he can buck, and an outcome he refuses to accept. He doesn’t understand Moonpie’s situation. He struggles to comprehend how his friend can be both alive and dead at once. He doesn’t have the information he needs to make a decision, and he can’t get it. He can only get what he’s given.

“Even a plant feels something,” Jonathan tries, searching for a way to understand the situation.

“Who can say?” replies the doctor, masterfully dismissive, shoving a pen and clipboard at him.

In the final match, against New York, half the crowd cheers Jonathan E. The other half jeers, “Jonathan’s dead.”

Only the barest efforts are made in this match to keep up the charade that this is a game at all. It quickly becomes a brawl, and then a bloodbath. The medical responders are taken down in the tumult, preventing bodies from being removed from play.

A violent game becomes an openly murderous one. There’s no time limit. No penalties. No substitutions. It builds to that unforgettable moment in which James Caan, battered and limping, moves silently through a play area littered with the dead.

He was reduced to the raw animality the rule changes were intended to elicit, but he wasn’t the lone survivor. At the very end of the match he and one New York player are all that is left.

Jonathan E. hovers above him, holding the heavy steel ball aloft. The red mist fades…and he lets his opponent live. He either retains the last remaining threads of his humanity, or he no longer sees the purpose in anything. It’s up to you what you think. It depends on what goes through your head as James Caan, dragging his broken body toward the goal, processes what goes through his.

The raging, bloodthirsty crowd at one point falls completely silent, and stays that way through the very end of the game. They came to see blood, but they get so much of it they’re shocked into total silence. They’re speechless. They got everything they were hoping to get when they bought their tickets and the sheer brutality of the event, stripped of its gamified veil, makes them wonder why they wanted this at all.

What goes through their heads? What goes through yours?

James Caan limps emptily toward a goal nobody is around to defend anymore.

The more I watch Rollerball, the more detail I notice. Most recently, I picked up on the language that’s used to reinforce the world the corporations have created. When people explain the situation to Jonathan E., they often follow it up with some variation on, “you know that.” They aren’t telling him anything he doesn’t already know, even if they are. Whatever they’re saying, they insist it’s something he accepts, believes, understands. It’s one small way of externally rewiring him.

But the other linguistic tic I picked up on this time through is what prevents that one from working on him: the characters speak often, in many contexts, of dreams.

Whether it’s the Rollerballers dreaming of being executives, executives dreaming of playing Rollerball, the “material dream world” in which the characters live, the possibility of Moonpie dreaming in his coma…the corporation can’t take away the ability to dream.

They can try, and they do. And when Jonathan E. fights back, fights through, fights his way out, he never actually knows why he’s fighting, or exactly what he’s fighting against.

But he knows he’s going to fight until he wins.

He scores the only goal in that final game. It was watched worldwide. Viewers otherwise under the control of various corporations saw the one thing they were never supposed to see: one man beating a rigged system.

I was one of those viewers. In another place, in another time, but I was watching it, through the darkness, into the next morning, unable to turn away.

We didn’t know any better than Jonathan E. what was at stake here.

But we felt it, just like he did. And whatever statement he made at the end, just by making it to the end, we knew it mattered.

I mean, something has to matter. Right?

Otherwise…what’s the point?

Trilogy of Terror: Deathrow Gameshow (1987)

Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. This is the first installment in this year’s trilogy; the second will go live October 24, and the third on Halloween itself.

The films I feature in Trilogy of Terror could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. This year’s theme is “The Most Dangerous Games,” movies about competitions whose outcomes mean the difference between life and death.

As a bonus entry this year, I took at look at the page-to-screen adaptation of The Running Man. You may want to read that before continuing into this review, as it served as an unexpectedly great point of comparison.

Once I decided to cover games of life and death, The Running Man came immediately to mind. I didn’t realize at that point, however, that in the exact same year, another, much smaller film was released that handled the same premise far better.

Deathrow Gameshow is actually fun. Not great, and I probably wouldn’t push back too hard if you told me it wasn’t even good, but it sure as hell approached its premise creatively and with an infectious giddiness. The Running Man was too busy letting Arnold Schwarzenegger disembowel his pursuers and his dialogue too have any fun. Deathrow Gameshow can’t imagine doing a movie like this and not having fun.

It’s a silly comedy that may have something to say about the media, desensitization, celebrity, and God knows what else, but a cheap laugh is still a laugh and it will gladly stoop to one at any time.

The premises in the two films are remarkably similar, and certainly coincidental. The fact that they were released in the same year means writer and director Mark Pirro happened to come up with Deathrow Gameshow in a case of parallel invention.

Deathrow Gameshow, just like The Running Man, focuses on a popular game show in which convicted criminals risk their lives for a chance at freedom.

Here, that show is called Live or Die, and it combines familiar elements from Let’s Make a Deal, The Price is Right, Double Dare, and more.

Live or Die is hosted by Chuck Toedan, played by John McCafferty as a character who’s far better described as amoral than evil. He gets no particular thrill out of killing his contestants, but rather respects his role as the modern evolution of a necessary profession: that of executioner.

McCafferty is no Richard Dawson, but he does well enough with this spin on the character type, and it’s nice to follow the experiences of the host rather than one of the show’s contestants.

He plays the role perfectly, which is assisted by his naturally boyish good looks. He’s not the old hand that Dawson is, the seasoned, calm professional…he’s the young buck who enjoys the attention and likes seeing himself on television. He’s easily frazzled and instantly terrified whenever someone or something forces him to step out of his comfort zone. He oozes oily charm, but none of it is calculated. He’s just naturally hollow enough to make for a great game show host.

Chuck, also unlike Damon Killian, is a divisive personality within the world of the film. He has his legions of supporters and mindlessly cheering fans, but he also has a large number of detractors that push back against Live or Die, seeing it for the exploitative horror that it really is.

The thing that allows Chuck to sleep at night is that these are convicts who were already on death row; they’ve been found guilty of their crimes and have already been sentenced to death. What’s wrong with giving them a showy sendoff? With giving them something to look forward to? With giving them a chance to win some money for their families on the way out?

Live or Die has also had a seemingly positive impact on society, with Chuck claiming in a talk show appearance that violent crime has dropped 30% since the game show debuted. It’s keeping viewers entertained and indirectly making their world safer.

Additionally, it offers a small ray of hope in the darkest situations. A caller during that talk show appearance thanks Chuck for killing her father on national television. After all, it allowed him to go out entertaining millions rather than alone in a dank room. His death got to be one of personality rather than procedure.

And early in the film a woman sleeps with Chuck in the hope of convincing him to let her incarcerated boyfriend on the show. If he wins, he’ll go free, and if he loses, maybe she’ll get a parting gift. Either way, everybody wins…and her boyfriend was going to die anyway…

But, of course, it’s public execution, beamed directly into America’s living rooms. It’s not something that makes everybody happy. Protesters hound him at work, for instance, and the frequency of abuse he endures on the road caused him to have this installed:

His most vocal critic is Gloria Sternvirgin, a stand-in for real-world feminist activist Gloria Steinem, played by Robyn Blythe. She represents WAAMAF: Women Against Anything Men Are For, which is a joke that feels orphaned from a Married…With Children script.

Blythe’s performance is the one thing that helps the character feel like less of an unfair jab at feminism than she probably actually is. Chuck and host Roy Montague both call her a bitch at various points, and she’s without question meant to register at first as a ridiculous killjoy, the sort of character we may logically and ethically agree with, but who we can’t stand.

Blythe plays her straight, though, and she’s perhaps the only character that gets to be human and never becomes a cartoon. This may sound like an insult to the other characters, but I assure you it’s only a distinction. Deathrow Gameshow knows exactly what it’s doing, and any shifts in character and tone are done knowingly, if not always expertly.

She holds her own against Chuck and, ultimately, it’s Chuck who comes around, not Gloria. The fact that Deathrow Gameshow aligns itself with her perspective by the end rather than his does quite a bit to declaw the swipes at her character, as does the fact that she and Chuck soon come to share an adversary.

That adversary is Luigi Pappalardo — played by a man with the fantastic mononym Beano — who is seeking vengeance, or at least restitution, for Chuck’s killing of a crime boss, which we see in a flashback that perfectly encompasses everything that makes Deathrow Gameshow work.

We learn that the crime boss, whose name is Spumoni, indeed died on Chuck’s show, but Chuck had no idea who he was. The fact that contestants are only referred to by their prison identification number and never by name is a nice wink toward their dehumanization at the same time it serves as a plot point. (Or, actually, two plot points.)

The crime boss has found himself in this show’s equivalent of a physical challenge. He’s stripped naked and rigged up to a machine that will electrocute him if he gets an erection. To win, all he has to do is make it through Chuck’s lovely assistant’s Dance of the Seven Boners.

It’s plot, backstory, riff on the film’s central premise, and juvenile joke all at once.

Of course, when Spumoni dies, it isn’t truly Chuck’s fault, right? He was condemned to death already, and all Chuck did was host a game show. Perhaps Luigi would be upset, and perhaps he’d still seek vengeance, but it’s hard to hold Chuck too accountable for what’s bound to happen…

Except that it doesn’t happen. Spumoni makes it all the way through the performance, and we get the sense that he only barely manages to do so. Spumoni gets to go free.

Chuck, however, places a chummy hand on Spumoni’s shoulder, and the stimulation of physical contact is too much. He fries anyway.

His death was accidental, but it was Chuck’s accident. As a result, our hero has spent the past six months as the target of various threats and attempts on his life. One of these comes immediately after his talk show appearance with Gloria, and he whisks her away from harm. (Don’t worry, though; he won’t be a sympathetic character for at least another hour.) Unfortunately, the fact that she’s seen fleeing with him puts her in Luigi’s crosshairs as well.

At various points throughout the film, Pirro drifts firmly into sketch comedy territory, which surprised and disoriented me on my first viewing. I expected dark humor for sure, but I didn’t expect silly, isolated skits that had nearly nothing to do with the film I was watching.

One of these comes during the first round we see of Live or Die. A convict has his head in a guillotine, and if he wants to take it out again he has to identify the famous film he’s shown on the monitor.

We get to watch it with him. A figure wrapped in bandages lunges at a screaming woman, who gets away. The monster lets loose a humorously long string of frustrated profanity.

Recognize the movie? The prisoner didn’t, either. Chuck lets us know the film is called Curses of the Mummy.

A bit later, Pirro shows us slow-motion footage of kids crossing the street, which we cut to several times.

Why? Because Pirro is saving the reveal of the SLOW CHILDREN sign for the very end of the sequence.

The silliness of the jokes works, though. I wanted Pirro to view the horrors he created through a dark lens, but he insisted on seeing them in a fun-house mirror. Once my vision adjusted, I could appreciate the movie for what it actually was. Deathrow Gameshow is frequently dumb, but never stupid.

The best of the dopey gags, though, are the ones that flesh out the media landscape of Pirro’s world.

I’m referring to the television commercials that also take advantage of death row inmates. In one, a horrified mother can’t tell whether the desperate cries of her son being executed are genuine, or the remarkably clear audio quality offered by Glamorex cassette tapes.

In another, a criminal is given two cheese samples and asked to identify which is real and which is imitation. Unfortunately, the commercial is actually for Rodento cheese-flavored rat poison.

Scenes like this certainly make the world seem less real, but they also make it feel more cohesive. Once criminals sentenced to death are turned into entertainment, why not advertise with them, too?

Spumoni is actually the only criminal we see who expresses a desire not to be part of the show. (He did sign a release, though.) The others jump up and down with excitement as they await their turn, engage in banter with Chuck, and enjoy the thrill of the proceedings. (If not their termination point.)

In fact, in one of the film’s best jokes, Luigi takes over the show and releases the prisoners…who then sit down to watch the show themselves. From victim to audience in a literal heartbeat.

Families of the condemned even turn up to watch the prisoners compete live, hoping their loved ones either cheat death or leave them with some prize money as a consolation. In a great, unspoken moment, a contestant’s wife covers her daughter’s eyes but not her son’s.

Then, of course, there’s an angry viewer who accosts Chuck in public. He accuses Chuck of being a despicable human being doing unforgivable things, but we get the sense he never misses an episode. “I’ve been watching your show for two years,” he shouts, “and I think it’s sick!”

Chuck even launches into a “we give the people what they want” speech during his talk show appearance, which coincidentally sounds damned similar to the one Killian delivers at the end of The Running Man.

Deathrow Gameshow understands exactly why a show like Live or Die could succeed. Enough of the people who watch it enjoy it, and those who don’t still can’t pull themselves away. There’s something innately seductive about death, and watching those condemned to it trying to conquer it…well, of course they should cancel that show. But did you see it last night? It was wild…

Chuck offers Luigi a bribe to leave him alone, but the cartoonishly Italian assassin isn’t willing to be paid off. At least, not with money.

Mama Pappalardo happens to be a big fan of Make a Big Deal, another game show that films at the same time as Live or Die. You know exactly where this is going, and Deathrow Gameshow knows you know exactly where this is going, which allows the film to play with its own inevitability.

It does so, and it’s incredible.

Luigi suggests that if Mama Pappalardo can be in the audience for Make a Big Deal, maybe he can forget about that whole unfortunate dead crime boss thing.

Chuck doesn’t have control over Make a Big Deal, but through his secretary he manages to get Mama Pappalardo invited to the show. She even escorts the old woman to the Make a Big Deal studio personally while Chuck and Luigi set the world to rights.

And, of course, Make a Big Deal‘s audience shows up in costume, just like our real-world Let’s Make a Deal. Mama Pappalardo shows up dressed as a prisoner from Alcatraz.

Again, you know exactly where this is going…

Things should be fine; the two game shows film in entirely different studios, after all.

Mama Pappalardo has to use the restroom, however, so she gets out of line.

When she’s done she can’t find her way back, and a helpful young stagehand guides her onto the set of Live or Die.

The methodical plod through these circumstances is tremendously fun to watch unfold. Pirro just needs to get Chuck to throw a lever or something and kill an old woman, but the fact that we establish an entirely different game show with its own, very specific, fan base to get us there is great. Deathrow Gameshow doesn’t have many surprises to offer; it’s just fun to watch it play with its toys.

Of course, none of this would be an issue, except that Chuck didn’t get to see Mama Pappalardo before she headed off to Make a Big Deal. And Luigi hates Chuck’s show and doesn’t want to watch it. And he drags Gloria along to the Italian restaurant across the street, so he doesn’t join his mother at the other game show, either.

Mama Pappalardo appears on Live or Die, as she must. She’s the only one to buzz in to answer the trivia question, and she gets it right. As she must. Chuck rewards her with a physical challenge. As he must.

And if there’s any doubt about the film’s willingness to play with inevitability — to never undercut expectations but rather to drag them out lovingly — this sequence lays them to rest.

It’s not enough to know Mama Pappalardo is not long for this world; we need to see an old woman holding two canisters of gasoline, hopping weakly through rings of fire.

As she gets near the end of the sequence of flaming rings, Chuck’s lovely assistant blows flames that nearly singe the old lady. She’s not trying to complicate things…she’s just kind of a ditz.

Mama Pappalardo doesn’t explode. She does what no other contestant has done in our presence: she survives. She sets the canisters down next to some candles and celebrates, thinking she’s won Make a Big Deal.

The table collapses. The gasoline ignites. Mama Pappalardo is sprayed all over the studio backlot.

There’s nothing artful about it. Nothing clever. A doddering old lady explodes. But Pirro treats it with the appropriate gravitas: none whatsoever.

I absolutely love Mama Pappalardo. In fitting with the overall tone of the movie, it feels like she stepped right out of a Monty Python skit. In fact, she’s even played by a man in drag: Mark Lasky, who also plays Spumoni.

She’s never fully present in any of scenes, consistently confused and distant. She likely doesn’t know or understand how her son earns his money, and she certainly doesn’t know or understand anything else that’s going on around her.

Her goofy enthusiasm for leaping through the burning hoops is one of the film’s biggest and best laughs, as she finally comes to life in exactly the wrong situation. Nothing we observe or know about Mama Pappalardo suggests that she deserves her fate, which is what makes her explosive exit from the film such a giddy delight.

We know it’s coming, the movie knows we know it’s coming, and then it gives us exactly what we tuned in to see. Deathrow Gameshow is operating on the very same wavelength as Live or Die, and it’s getting the same reactions from its audience as well.

After the show, Chuck learns who he killed and is mortified. He immediately launches a plan to edit her death out of the episode and hide the truth from Luigi, which leads directly to Luigi seeing the footage himself.

The acting in Deathrow Gameshow is no better than we got from Arnold in The Running Man, but it’s far more appropriate to the film. Arnold seemed to be acting in an entirely different movie, operating on a plane of mental existence that wasn’t shared by any of his costars.

Here, none of the actors were in any danger of winning awards for their roles, but they all understood what they were doing, and that makes it work so much better.

They’re ridiculous people in ridiculous situations, saying and doing ridiculous things…but it makes the film feel more real than The Running Man felt, because everything is actually working together rather than the film being at odds with itself. Knowing you’re ridiculous allows you to establish a consistent identity. Not knowing you’re ridiculous leaves you flailing.

In addition to the main characters we’ve already discussed, there are two more worth noting.

The simplest and most successful is Debra Lamb as Chuck’s lovely assistant Shanna Shallow. Like much of the dedicated eye candy on game shows — Vanna White most notably — Shanna doesn’t get anything to say. Not just on Live or Die, but in the larger film itself.

She’s just a presence, and an increasingly bizarre one as we learn that she’s still speechless when the cameras are off, always staring blankly into the middle distance as though she’s been genetically engineered to be the perfect lovely assistant. This isn’t her job…it’s her existence.

Shanna barely even reacts toward the end of the film when Luigi takes over the show and forces the crew into a large cage on set. While they’re all trapped inside, Shanna postures and poses, introducing some imaginary Brand New Car on her right.

It’s funny and well played. Slightly less successful is Darwyn Carson as Chuck’s secretary, Trudy.

I actually feel bad saying so because Carson had far more to do than Lamb, and I don’t think she did a poor job. I think it’s more the case that she’s less defined as a character.

Trudy works best as an unintentional foil for Chuck. We only get a few scenes of the two of them interacting in this way, but it’s some of the best stuff in movie.

CHUCK: Any messages, Trudy?
TRUDY: Yes sir, Mr. Toedan, two I believe. A lady called asking for Lisa Whitman.
CHUCK: Who’s Lisa Whitman?
TRUDY: I don’t know, sir.
CHUCK: Well, what happened then?
TRUDY: She apologized and then hung up.
CHUCK: Trudy?
TRUDY: Yes, sir?
CHUCK: Isn’t it possible that this could have been a wrong number?
TRUDY: No, sir! It rang right here.
CHUCK: What about the other call?
TRUDY: Other call?
CHUCK: You said there were two calls.
TRUDY: Oh, yeah. A lady called asking for Lisa Whitman.
CHUCK: You told me that already.
TRUDY: She must have called back.

It’s corny, sure, and it’s the kind of comedy routine that we’ve seen thousands of times across all media, but it works. It’s funny. It’s the type of exchange that’s fun to write, act out, and watch. It plays well here, and is a welcome drift into a more familiar kind of insanity.

There’s also a great, unacknowledged visual gag involving the various notes Chuck leaves Trudy to clean up her work area…which accumulate so quickly they become their own kind of clutter.

All of this is good, but I get the sense that Deathrow Gameshow only intermittently knows what it wants to do with her. Another running gag, and a far less successful one, involves her secretly masturbating at work. I suppose there’s a way to make that funny or interesting, but Deathrow Gameshow doesn’t manage it.

In a way, that’s fine. In a screwball, wackadoo comedy like this, not every joke needs to (or can be reasonably expected to) land. It’s disappointing, though, because Deathrow Gameshow has stumbled on to several other ways to make Trudy funny, and this feels like a holdover from an earlier version of the script that couldn’t think of anything else for her to do.

I don’t mean to oversell Deathrow Gameshow. It’s not going to change anybody’s life or offer them compelling insight into difficult questions. It is, as they say, just a movie.

But it’s a movie that works. It’s a movie that achieves its own goals. They aren’t lofty goals, but they’re worth shooting for. They give us a movie that’s memorable, a movie with personality, a movie with a lot of great laughs and a few strong digs at the actual media we know, love, and follow.

It’s a cheap movie, but it uses its budget wisely. Setting the vast majority of the action on a game show set is a wise way to keep costs down; just like a real game show, most of it is static and props can be wheeled in or out to suit the changing needs of the scenes.

Pirro claims on his website that the film was produced for $200,000, which I certainly believe. But it went on to make $1.5 million in home video and cable revenue. (I suspect this will grow with the recent rerelease by the fantastic film restoration company Vinegar Syndrome.)

That sounds like a paltry sum, and for a major Hollywood movie it certainly would be. But for a winking labor of love like Deathrow Gameshow, that’s damned impressive. I don’t think the film is due for a universal reappraisal or anything, and whatever level of cult appreciation it holds today is unlikely to increase significantly in the future, but it’s a movie I really enjoyed. It will stick with me as an example of having as much fun as possible with a concept, and then shaking it off completely before it gets stale.

Deathrow Gameshow doesn’t overstay its welcome, nor does it underdeliver. When I told a friend I was reviewing this movie, she asked, “Does it actually have a death row game show?”

It’s the same question anyone should ask if they grew up renting horror movies, making decisions based on title and box art, feeling disappointed when the movie that looked like it should have been awesome offered barely a glimpse of the concept that hooked you.

Deathrow Gameshow delivers what it promises. It doesn’t attempt to trick its audience or even surprise them. You get exactly what you asked for. No more, no less. But in the horror genre, which so frequently fails to live up to its own hype, “no more, no less” can actually mean “significantly more than we should reasonably expect.”

I was disappointed the first time I started watching the film, because I wanted something that would disturb me, upset me, fire me up against the media, against the entertainment industry’s dubious sense of ethics, against the way we view and treat prisoners in this country…

But I got a carefree farce instead. Once I realized it wasn’t the movie I hoped it would be, I was free to enjoy the movie it actually was.

You don’t watch Deathrow Gameshow because you want to see what happens, or because you care about the characters. You watch it because it enjoys itself, and however corny or telegraphed the jokes might be, you end up falling into its spell.

Paul Michael Glaser spent $30 million to make a movie about convicts fighting for their lives on a popular gameshow. Mark Pirro spent $200,000 to make a far superior one. History may not remember Deathrow Gameshow, but I certainly and happily will.

Fiction into Film: The Running Man (1982 / 1987)

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.

I grew up reading Stephen King. Many of you surely did as well. I’d blitz through an entire novel in a weekend, or a night. Hundreds of pages flying by like a few dozen. I liked them without loving them. Many of you surely did as well.

King is a fascinating writer, if not an especially good one. He’s arguably the ultimate publishing success story. He’s prolific, he’s rich, he has studios scrambling for the rights to his work before he’s even started writing it. Other writers either admire him or are jealous of him. I’m not sure there’s anything in between.

He fascinates me for two related reasons. Firstly, he’s an unstoppable fount of incredible, fertile, resonant ideas. A rabid dog attacks people trapped in their car. An alcoholic in the throes of cabin fever becomes a danger to his family. A mentally unsound fan holds her favorite author captive. These are writing prompts that could spawn thousands of works of fiction, and any one of them could be great. King turned each of these and so many more into enduring favorites. That’s amazing.

Secondly, though, he doesn’t seem to know what’s good about his own work.

This is remarkable to me. I find it difficult to accept the fact that somebody could be so successful an artist for so long and not understand his own strengths and weaknesses, but here we are. And so great moments are buried within meandering, tedious, clumsy passages. Fantastic characters jostle for space with unnecessary, functionless ones. Surprising flashes of human insight are diluted by clunky dialogue (often written in poorly considered dialect) that even when he was young seemed to have been written by an old man with an understanding of young people that was at least 20 years out of date.

The most visible example of this is his reaction to 1980’s The Shining. King was unquestionably blessed to have his not-all-that-great novel turned into what is arguably the finest horror film ever made. By Stanley Kubrick, one of the finest director’s we’ve ever had. Starring Jack Nicholson, one of the finest actors who’s ever lived.

Writers would sell their soul for an adaptation like that…one which improves upon the source material and enhances its legacy. But King felt ill-served by it and believed that it did his novel an injustice. In 1997, 20 years after the publication of The Shining, King got the chance to prove to his fans that Kubrick had gypped them.

He made his own adaptation of the book, a three-part miniseries, a six-hour epic directed by Mick Garris, whose Critters 2 and Psycho IV credentials evidently impressed him in a way that Kubrick’s filmography did not. And King absolutely made sure to set his version of the film apart from Kubrick’s in one key way: it was fucking terrible.

The arresting, immortal, chilling imagery Kubrick brought to The Shining left King cold, apparently, because it didn’t have poorly rendered topiary monsters and a cameo from King himself conducting an orchestra of ghouls. All King ended up proving was that he was the last person who should be given the final word on his own adaptations. He produces good material, but a smart director will trim an awful lot to find it, and rework even more to elevate it.

All of this is to recognize that King’s been largely served by solid adaptations. Not uniformly, no, but they tend to find the germ of King’s idea and present it in a way superior to the original, clumsy text.

I first read The Running Man in my late teens, and I learned there was already a film version soon after that. I tracked down a copy and rented it, looking forward to what I knew had the potential to be a great film.

It wasn’t.

Oh my Lord was it not.

King’s The Running Man was published under the name Richard Bachman, his pseudonym for a brief period. During that time King wrote one of his best novels (The Long Walk) and several of his worst.

The Running Man was…okay. It might be the only Bachman book that I’d position between those two extremes. Even as a teenager who shouldn’t have known better, I could tell it wasn’t living up to its own potential. I found it difficult to put down, don’t get me wrong, but it was a potboiler. An effective one, for sure, but also one that relied on moving the reader along quickly so that he or she wouldn’t have enough time to realize the novel wasn’t very good.

Its central concept, though, was great, and a half-decent adaptation could do a lot with it.

A half-decent adaptation was miles away from what we actually got.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as King’s hero, Ben Richards, but the connection between the two incarnations of the character doesn’t run much deeper than the name. The novel version is a desperate, unemployed everyman with a dying infant daughter who volunteers to participate in a game that will see him hunted and almost certainly killed, because every hour he survives means more money for his family.

The film version, by contrast, is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

We’ll get into the massive differences in the two versions of the story shortly, but, right now, I will say I understand the temptation — on the part of the director, the studio, the marketing team — to eschew the original plot entirely once they realized they had Schwarzenegger, reshaping it as a mindless, self-contained action spectacle.

At this stage in his career, Schwarzenegger had starred in two Conan movies, Commando, and The Terminator. Predator was released the same year as The Running Man. Schwarzenegger was fast becoming a star, and he was becoming a star for very specific things. To plug him into a movie in which he didn’t get to do those very specific things was to invite commercial failure.

The changes to the source material are severe to the point of almost complete detachment. Instead of a gripping story of a man surviving — barely — by his wiles as a team of skilled hunters pursues him relentlessly, we get Schwarzenegger working his way through an uninspired video game boss rush. The question King posits is something along the lines of, “How far can a man push himself when his family’s future is on the line?” Director Paul Michael Glaser’s question is more like, “Can the guy famous for beating people up beat some people up?”

It’s tempting to say that Schwarzenegger is miscast, and had anything beyond the title survived the process of adaptation that would certainly be the case. But the film version of The Running Man fails to do anything noteworthy with its star anyway. It was reimagined as something else that didn’t work.

Both versions of the story take place in a dystopian vision of the future. The novel puts the year at 2025, and the film rolls it back for no real reason to 2019. At the center of each is a television program called The Running Man, which is the most popular show on the planet.

That’s about where the overlap ends, and even though the Running Man TV show exists in both realities, they’re completely different.

King’s version is just one of many shows produced by the Games Network, a government-sanctioned entertainment outlet that puts voluntary contestants in dangerous situations for potential profit. King alludes to similar TV shows such as Run for Your Guns, Dig Your Grave, Swim the Crocodiles and How Hot Can You Take It, but the biggest payout is earned through The Running Man.

The Running Man is a game show, but isn’t quite presented like one. It takes the form of a nationwide manhunt, with the contestants trying to stay ahead of a group of mercenaries known as the Hunters, led by a man named Evan McCone.

The contestant’s family is given an advance, and the contestant himself gets a 12-hour head start. He can go wherever he likes and do whatever he likes, and every hour he survives nets his family 100 New Bucks (because this is The Future), but the Hunters are always in pursuit and will kill him if they find him. Viewers can play along at home by sending tips to the Network if they see the contestant, earning them some money as well. The contestant earns bonuses for every agent of law enforcement he takes out, and surviving a full 30 days means he wins and goes home with the grand prize of one billion New Bucks.

Two complications arise. First, for the contestant: nobody has ever survived anywhere near 30 days. Ben Richards knows this, though, and hopes only to survive long enough to leave his wife and daughter secure financially.

Second, for the reader: how the hell do you do a show where everyone involved is hidden somewhere? King…doesn’t quite know how to answer that. He outlines a rule requiring the contestant to send the Network two videotaped messages every day, which are then used as part of the episode that night. If the contestant fails to do so, they forfeit their winnings and are still hunted.

It’s difficult to imagine millions of people tuning in each night to see some prerecorded video of a man in a hotel room saying, “Yes, hello, I am still running for my life,” let alone the bloodthirsty, howling studio audience King describes. The episode in which that man is caught and gunned down, yes. But the umpteenth episode in which nothing happens and nobody’s around aside from the host? No.

There is one tantalizingly unanswered question this raises, though. Richards is promised that the Hunters will not be given access to any information obtained from the postmarks on the recordings he mails in, but the ease with which they find him (and everybody) makes it easy to believe this is a lie, and the game is indeed fixed. To King’s credit, he either chose not to resolve this definitively or forgot to. Either way, it’s nice that we don’t know. The Hunters are either just that good at their jobs, or they hang around waiting for the Network to tell them exactly where the contestant is hiding. (Or, at least, the zip code.)

Glaser’s version of The Running Man does at least operate the way we’d expect a game show to operate; that is to say, the audience can actually see what the hell is happening.

Here, The Running Man is a live broadcast in which convicted criminals (not volunteers) are loaded into shuttles and launched into a Game Zone — a walled-off, disused area of the city — below the studio. It’s still very large (400 square blocks, which seems like an odd unit of measurement when blocks are longer than they are wide but there you go), but it’s still, essentially, an enclosed combat arena.

The audience watches a video feed of the contestants squaring off against the Stalkers, who are gimmicky, themed athletes, something like a cross between WWF wrestlers and American Gladiators. The contestants don’t earn money, but if they survive for three hours they win their freedom.

That obviously works better as a television show than King’s version does, so it clears that rather significant hurdle, but this also leads to its own problems.

For instance, it’s never clear how often the contestants are in view of a camera. If they’re constantly being filmed, the Stalkers wouldn’t have to hunt them out and there would be no game. But for the audience to reliably see the fights unfold, there would have to be nowhere for them to hide from the cameras.

Of course, the answer should be that there is nowhere for them to hide from the cameras, and the “hunting” of the contestants is only dramatic flair. Should be. But there’s an unnecessary subplot about the contestants (four in total) tracking down and jamming “the uplink to the satellite,” essentially preventing the Network from broadcasting. If anyone saw them do that, all pretense about the contestants being able to hide would be dropped immediately and the Stalkers sent to kill them at once. Instead, the contestants are allowed to fiddle with it at their leisure, so I guess they really are able to hide.

Also, forgive me for asking because I know this is totally out of line, but…why, exactly, is the satellite uplink located within the Game Zone? Even if they never expected contestants to be able to hack it or sabotage it, isn’t the mere fact that massive gladiators with chainsaw motorcycles would be engaging in active combat around it a bit worrying? Shouldn’t the uplink be located…I don’t know…literally anywhere else on Earth?

At one point it’s revealed that the resistance group that we meet early in the film have a hideout that’s also within the Game Zone. How do they get in? How have they not been spotted? I guess they could have tunneled in from the outside, but the fact that they’re still alive and Richards and his buddies can meet up with them proves that the Network needs to do a much better job of paying attention to what, exactly, is in their own damned Game Zone.

These things feel like holdovers from a version of the script truer to King’s tale. If Schwarzenegger were indeed fleeing the Stalkers openly across America, he could certainly stumble upon uplinks and resistance camps and anything else Glaser would like him to find. But for him to stumble upon these things in what is essentially the show’s own studio is a profoundly idiotic contrivance.

There’s also the odd fact that the Stalkers seem to have their own dedicated entrances in the Game Zone, reflecting their gimmick and, I suppose, providing a bit of visual drama to their introduction. Which is fine. But since they don’t seem to show up until the contestants are exactly there, it should be pretty easy to survive just by keeping away from the elaborately lit entrances, no?

Also notable is the fact that Schwarzenegger is actually on the run early in the film, but is captured and brought to The Running Man‘s set. In King’s version, Richards starts on a sound stage and runs. In Glaser’s, Richards runs and then comes to a sound stage. One is clearly a less thrilling progression than the other, and it leads to the bizarre realization that in a film called The Running Man, the man was stopped from running so he could hide instead.

While the film was in production, Glaser was brought in to replace the original director, Andrew Davis, who had fallen behind schedule. I know nothing about what creative differences we’d find between the two versions of the film, but I almost get the sense that some of these things were holdovers from an earlier version of the script that actually did more clearly reflect King’s original.

This is seemingly supported by the fact that the version of The Running Man we did get feels like two different films badly stitched together. One of them is a mindless action movie in which Schwarzenegger beats up a guy and then beats up a guy and then beats up a guy and then the credits roll, and the other is a social satire. “Game show in which you fight for your life” is a concept that can certainly go in either direction, but this film wants it to go in both. One isn’t interesting, and the other isn’t given enough space to be interesting.

The social satire just barely surfaces at various points throughout the movie. Early on we catch a glimpse of a television show in which a man climbs a rope while vicious dogs leap up at him, bite at his legs, and eventually pull him down to his presumed grisly death. Words appear on the screen: “Climbing for Dollars will be right back!”

It’s funny. It’s also funny when a man meets with the captured Richards before the show and introduces himself by saying, “I’m your court-appointed theatrical agent.” As is the show’s announcer saying that members of the studio audience receive “procreation pills, both adult and kiddie sizes, and the latest edition of The Running Man home game.”

These are lines and details from a much better version of the movie, one that leans into the ridiculousness of the premise while still making its point. But they’re also rarities, moments of fleeting invention bowled over and smothered by brainless, uninteresting action set pieces designed to say precisely nothing.

The connective tissue between these two competing versions of The Running Man also, perhaps miraculously, is the film’s lone highlight: Richard Dawson.

Dawson plays Damon Killian, the host of The Running Man, with the oily charm and swagger only a man with decades of experience in the industry could bring to the role. He is eager to have fun with his own image and ends up being the most entertaining thing in the film by a country mile. In short, he knows how to work his audience…both his fictional one and his real one.

Again, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I have to imagine Dawson brought his own ideas to the character. If that’s not the case, then he was written far, far better than any other character was, and I doubt that very much. More likely there were words on a page, and Dawson, the old pro, embellished them, enhanced them, gave them a life that wasn’t there.

Even as a teenager watching this film for the first time, I could tell Dawson was operating on a level well above the rest of the material. He was believable…an actual character among the caricatures.

I recognized him from Family Feud, of which he was the original host. (He came back to host it again in the 1990s.) Prior to that he served as a regular panelist on The Match Game, which I used to watch in reruns. My friends and I even singled him out as the reliably intelligent one; contestants who did not agree with Dawson’s answers sure seemed to pay the price.

In The Running Man, Dawson embodies his own legend, and the film is infinitely richer for it. He gladhands and compliments and makes people feel important before firing them behind their backs. He’s a cold, evil man who becomes warm and lovable the moment the cameras turn on. He hawks Cadre Cola at the same time he gives the impression he wouldn’t be caught dead drinking that shit. He even brings his habit of kissing old ladies on Family Feud into these darker environs. “The love of my life, my number one fan, Mrs. McArdle!” he says. “I want a kiss now, a big kiss, but remember, no tongues.”

Lives are at stake. Blood will be shed. People will die. And Dawson is all smiles and cheese.

It’s wonderful, and it feels like Dawson knowingly undercutting his own legacy. Since he plays the on-camera version of Killian so much like the game show host he actually once was, he’s inviting the public to question how different he might be when the cameras are off. Was he secretly villainous? I truly doubt it, but the man sure enjoys playing with the possibility.

Dawson fits into the both the social satire version of the film and the action movie that needs an entertaining villain. He’s the one and only aspect of The Running Man that succeeds, and that’s entirely down to Dawson himself.

There’s even a great moment that was nearly a terrible one, redeemed, of course, by Dawson. When Schwarzenegger is about to be sent to the Game Zone, the Austrian superstar says, “I’ll be back,” a nod to his already immortal catchphrase from The Terminator, only three years old at this point.

It’s jarring. We’re watching a crappy movie that has gone out of its way to remind us of a far better one. And though Dawson’s reply was certainly in the script, it’s fitting that he, the movie’s bright spot, was the one to deliver it.

He leans in to Schwarzenegger and says, “Only in a rerun.”

Everything about Dawson here is great, and I’d wager Killian’s signature mannerism — pointing with his fingers in a “devil horns” arrangement — was brought to this film by the actor himself. If I’m wrong and that was actually in the script, it’s the cleverest piece of business the script gave any actor by a landslide.

If The Running Man were a better film, I think Dawson’s performance would be remembered among the all-time great corny villains. Instead, it’s wasted on this, an oddly complicated framework for Schwarzenegger to dispatch some meatheads and spout one-liners.

Damon Killian is a composite character of several in the book. He’s assistant director of games Arthur M. Burns, director Fred Victor, host Bobby Thompson, and obviously Games Network head honcho Dan Killian. Rolling all of these characters into one unified face of the network is a wise decision on the film’s part, especially since, in the book, Dan Killian is the one Richards singles out for abuse and eventual revenge, which seems a bit odd when the others were far more responsible for his ordeal.

It’s less odd — but far more problematic — when you realize that Richards fixates on Killian because of the color of his skin. The other Games Network representatives are white, and Killian is black. Like, black black. So black you just know he’s a bad guy. Here’s how King introduces him:

The man behind the desk was of middle height and very black. So black, in fact, that for a moment Richards was struck with unreality. He might have stepped out of a minstrel show.

Jesus Christ, Stephen.

In the book, Richards endures a number of personality, intelligence, and psychological tests before taking part in The Running Man, and he demonstrates — and we are conclusively told — that he harbors racist sentiments. Dan Killian is certainly not a sympathetic character, but it’s more than a little uncomfortable that his skin color is what turns him into a punching bag.

Richard Dawson is about as black as a daffodil, so, thankfully, his casting sidesteps that entire, unnecessary minefield.

While many characters are condensed into Damon Killian, though, the Hunters are expanded. The only one named — and the only one we really get to meet — in the book is Evan McCone, who organizes and manages the team. In the film, the Stalkers have distinct identities of their own.

Distinct, but not very good.

The Stalkers in this movie have gimmicks and nicknames that make them sound like G.I. Joe characters. Fireball. Dynamo. Buzzsaw. Captain Freedom. One of them, Subzero, even had a name that would be used in 1992’s Mortal Kombat, which reveals just how video-game-ready these characters actually are.

In King’s original, the Hunters were unseen presences, shadowy threats without distinct identities, because it was important that Richards couldn’t trust anybody. A hobo. A jogger. A street vendor. A policeman. Anybody could be a Hunter, and anybody could report him to a Hunter.

There’s a great scene of masterful paranoia that unfolds after Richards, under an assumed identity, takes refuge in a YMCA in Boston. With nothing else to do, he stares out the window…and the normal behavior of passersby gradually makes him feel less and less safe.

Richards noted with a numb, distant terror that a good many of the newspaper bums were idling along much more slowly. Their clothes and styles of walking seemed oddly familiar, as if they had been around a great many times before and Richards was just becoming aware of it — in the tentative, uneasy way you recognize the voices of the dead in dreams.

A man waiting for a bus. Two friends going into a restaurant. A beat cop in casual conversation. Knowing he’s in danger, Richards convinces himself that everything is dangerous. It’s well handled and effectively frightening, because once you start to suspect the benign, there’s no escape from the horrors of your own imagination.

It’s undercut by the fact that Richards is correct — the Hunters are indeed surrounding the building and about to ransack it — but that’s just further evidence of King writing well and not realizing it.

In the film, there’s no such paranoia. Schwarzenegger doesn’t have to worry about who might possibly be a Stalker…it’s probably that guy with the flame thrower screaming and throwing flames everywhere. Or it’s the guy covered in Lite-Brite pegs shooting electricity out of his hands. The novel version of Richards has to rely on his wits alone, and the film version just needs his brawn. It will always be remarkable to me that in the transition from page to screen, one type of character will become, in the blink of an eye, that same type’s polar opposite.

King’s version of Richards relies on a combination of desperate resourcefulness and dumb luck to escape his various predicaments. Glaser’s version beats things up and delivers ostensibly witty one-liners.

After killing the first Stalker, Schwarzenegger turns to the camera and says, “Here is Subzero. Now plain zero.” After chainsawing Buzzsaw, Schwarzenegger quips, “He had to split.” Fireball gets the luxury of two puns about his horrifying death; Schwarzenegger says, “How about a light?” before setting him on fire, and “What a hothead” immediately after.

All of this would be fine in any other interchangeable action movie, but probably not one in which Schwarzenegger is supposed to be playing a man framed for a violent crime he didn’t commit. I understand that the circumstances are very different, but if this version of Richards wants to convince the world he didn’t open fire on unarmed civilians, he probably shouldn’t take such obvious delight in murdering people by chainsawing through their genitals.

Yes, unlike the downtrodden Richards of the novel who has no other way of providing for his family, this version of Richards was some kind of cop. He’s given the order to kill a group of defenseless civilians and refuses, but his fellow officers overpower him and obey the order. (Exhibit G that Schwarzenegger was miscast: The film opens with a bunch of wimps beating him up.)

Some doctored footage is all it takes to make the world think that Richards chose to defy orders by killing the civilians, and his fellow officers tried to stop him.

It’s a bit strange, though, that a policeman in this police state doesn’t actually realize that he lives in a dystopia until this moment. We’re shown that the world (or at least America) has long fallen into this shitty situation where the poor are repressed and criminals are executed for our entertainment on live television, but Richards is shocked to receive orders to do something untoward.

“I said the crowd is unarmed!” he barks over the radio after being told to kill them. “There are lots of women and children down there!” Did Richards somehow decide to become a police officer, complete all his training, and begin his career in law enforcement without ever realizing that he was working for Big Brother? Richards is painted as an uncommonly moral human being in this cruel, inhumane future, but if that’s the case, why did he knowingly sign up for the Schutzstaffel?

A great piece of media that understands this and serves as a nice counterpoint is The Last of Us. At the very beginning of that game, a soldier gets the order to execute a little girl and her father who are attempting to flee the city. He has a short, nervous exchange over his radio to confirm that this is actually the order…that this is actually what they want to do. The game then pushes us 20 years into the future, and soldiers aren’t asking questions anymore. If they’re told to kill someone, they kill them, because it’s no longer an unfamiliar order. Confused reluctance only has a home at the very beginning of this process…not years deep into it.

Perhaps Richards joined up knowing that the police were corrupt, but intended to be one of the good guys and maybe effect change from within…but he can’t have been surprised to receive an order he disagreed with in that case. How did this conflict never come up before? How did Richards never even anticipate the conflict? He comes across looking far less like the One Pure Soul than he does like David Mitchell asking, “…are we the baddies?”

The movie is oddly filled with moments like this, in which people who live in this society seem to be surprised and confused by it, as though, you know, they weren’t adults who watched it get to this point and have lived in it for at least two years, based on the opening text.

In the novel, flawed as it is, King’s characters react more appropriately. Memories of a freer, better past have been more or less completely lost, with loose fragments of history passed around like parables among people who can no longer understand it. Otherwise, this is what the world is, this is what the characters have known, and they don’t question it any more than we in reality question our own societies. We don’t ask why someone on TV spins a wheel and solves word puzzles for money, and they don’t ask why someone signs up to flee a squad of hitmen across the country. They’ve become equivalent. At that point, King knows, people stop questioning it. That’s the real horror.

Glaser, by contrast, doesn’t seem to realize that none of this is new to these characters, and so they shouldn’t comment upon it and question it as though it is. It’s as though all of his main characters recently suffered severe head injuries.

Late in King’s novel, Richards forces himself into a vehicle with a woman named Amelia Williams. She’s something of a hostage who Richards does indeed use as leverage, but King wants us to remember that Richards doesn’t steal her away because he’s a bad person; he does it because he’s a desperate person.

A desperate person who bullies her, browbeats her, makes her cry, ogles her tits, and eventually causes her to be sucked out of a moving airplane, but absolutely not a bad person, and I can’t possibly see how you might mistake him for one.

In the film, we meet her equivalent much sooner. Here she’s Amber Mendez, and she’s played by María Conchita Alonso, who you may remember from every other movie from the 1980s that wasn’t worth seeing.

I mean no disrespect to Alonso as a person. From what I understand she, like Schwarzenegger, has a large number of great qualities to offer the world. Also like Schwarzenegger, acting was never one of them.

In the film, Richards is incarcerated for his crime of disobeying orders. He shoots his way out of prison, killing dozens of guards as he does so. (Murder is perfectly fine in Glaser’s version, except for the one very specific time that it isn’t.) Once he’s out he flees to his brother’s apartment and finds it occupied by Amber Mendez instead.

In this scene, Schwarzenegger and Alonso carry on a long exchange that makes it sound like they’re both still learning English from flashcards. It’s atrociously acted, even in comparison to the writing which was already pretty darn poor. But, of course, we know that our two leads were not hired for their ability to inhabit a character.

Schwarzenegger was hired because he was a bankable name at the box office. Alonso was hired because…

Yeah. The first we see of Amber is her return from work. As all of us do, she removes her shoes when she gets home. As only she does, she takes everything else off and puts on sexy lingerie to work out in.

Alonso is an attractive woman, and The Running Man makes clear that that’s all they wanted from her. As soon as we see her, the filmmakers rush her out of her clothes. When we see her later, they rush her into a low-cut, skin-tight onesie. Between those two points we hear other characters complimenting her ass.

Richards — introduced to us as the lone virtuous soul in this ruined world — breaks into her apartment and immediately ties the half-naked woman up and starts going through her things. It’s actually pretty uncomfortable to watch, as I’m pretty sure this is any single woman’s actual nightmare.

The film tries to play them like a sort of mismatched romantic comedy team, with their bickering only barely masking the sexual tension they feel that indeed is resolved when the film ends. Only Richards destroys her belongings, steals from her, kidnaps her, and threatens multiple times to murder her in cold blood. Oh, and we’re supposed to see Amber as the bad guy when she turns him in so she can escape. What a bitch, eh guys?

Of course, problematic handling of female characters is something of a King trademark, along with every black character’s dialogue being rendered so that it sounds like it’s been transcribed from Song of the South, so maybe this was just Glaser’s loving nod to the source material.

My favorite bit of offputting King horniness comes during one of Richards’ pre-show exams:

On the table was a sharpened G-A/IBM pencil and a pile of unlined paper. Cheap grade, Richards noted. Standing beside all this was a dazzling computer-age priestess, a tall, Junoesque blonde wearing iridescent short shorts which cleanly outlined the delta-shaped rise of her pudenda. Rough nipples poked perkily through a silk fishnet blouselet.

Lifehack: If you’re in a kinky relationship and need a safe word, try “pudenda.” Not only will your partner stop what they’re doing immediately, but they won’t even want to think about sex for a week.

This is the description, I remind you, of a test proctor. Not that it would be any less disgusting if he were describing a prostitute that a character were about to have sex with, but at least such a description might serve a purpose there. Here it’s just ogling.

Admittedly, Richards seems to believe she was sent in as some kind of test herself…a sexed up babe to distract him or confuse him or actually he didn’t think this through any better than King did so forget it.

If that is her role, though, it doesn’t make sense that she’d bristle and quickly turn emotional when he called her on it. And if it’s not, then Richards has no right to belittle her the way he does and make her feel like a cheap piece of meat.

“You go out and have a nice six-course meal with whoever you’re sleeping with this week and think about my kid dying of flu in a shitty three-room Development apartment,” he tells her, immediately after groping her in a way that she makes clear is unwelcome.

It would be nice to say that the racism and misogyny (among other issues) are built into Richards as character flaws, problematic traits with an actual artistic or narrative purpose. But they aren’t; this is just the way King writes. To read his work is to grit your teeth in unhappy anticipation of the next time he plunges you into an unnecessary, detailed description of somebody’s penis or vagina. And there is always a next time.

Amber’s role here is a bit different from Amelia’s in the novel. In the novel, Amelia was just pulled along for the ride. (Twice, because King let her go at one point and forgot he needed her for a later scene so he dragged her back into the fray.) In the film, Amber gets Richards arrested again, but notices that the news coverage of the event doesn’t match up to what she actually witnessed.

She begins snooping around the network and finds the original, unedited footage of the exchange between Richards and his superiors that opened the film. Boy, it’s a good thing that this evil corporation clearly marks the evidence that will bring it down and keeps it in an unlocked drawer in an unguarded room.

Well, it’s probably better than keeping your satellite uplink in the middle of Thunderdome, but still.

Amber has access to the network building because she’s employed by them; she works as a composer for their shows. The fact that any movie could introduce this detail and then somehow not show us her process for composing the incidental music for a game show in which contestants get torn apart by dogs is outrageous.

Again, though, Amber shouldn’t have to (or even be able to) discover the fact that the network lies. If she didn’t work there, sure. But because she does work there — and is there every day, and has access to rooms such as this — it can’t be a revelation. Just as Richards shouldn’t be able to realize in the middle of a mission that his superiors aren’t making the most ethical decisions, Amber shouldn’t be able to realize in the middle of a workday that her organization lies. Her organization’s business is lies. That’s what they do. That’s all they do. They mislead and misinform.

As an employee, she shouldn’t be unaware of that fact. If the network truly tried to hide from everyone who works there that they spread untruths, it would crumble immediately. One leak, however minor, would bring the entire thing down. Instead, an organization like this has to convince its employees that lying is the best thing for them to do. That it’s a small transgression in exchange for some greater good. That it’s better, for any reason, to lie to the people who turn to them for information.

Consider O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He knows The Party is lying to the people. He has to know that, because he’s employed by them. He doesn’t capture and torture and reprogram Winston because Winston was incorrect; he does it because he was correct, and O’Brien believed the lie was necessary.

If The Party attempted to hide from its own members what they were doing, we never would have had Nineteen Eighty-Four; The Party wouldn’t have survived long enough for there to be a story. Instead, it had to convince its members that wrong was right. The network in this film could learn a lot from Orwell.

Amber is caught and tossed into the Game Zone with Richards and two other runners. She does nothing, but much later in the film a Stalker tries to rape her, so I guess that’s nice. If only he would have first broken into her home and tied her to the furniture she might have ultimately warmed up to him.

When Richards strangles and kills Subzero (“He was a real pain in the neck”), much ado is made of the fact that a Stalker has died on the job. Evidently, this has never happened before. At least, that’s what we’re told.

But we know that two other contestants are said to have won The Running Man in the past. (This is in notable contrast to the novel, in which we are assured that nobody has ever won.) Of course, the freedom of those two winners is revealed to have been faked; they were executed behind the scenes instead. That’s fine, but how did those episodes play out for the viewers at home?

If those winners didn’t kill any of the Stalkers and also didn’t get killed themselves, I assume that means they just survived for three hours. So were those episodes just three-hour slapfights in which neither party fell over? It feels like a bizarre holdover from a different version of the script, as does Captain Freedom — Jesse “The Body” Ventura — being described as “undefeated.” Wouldn’t every Stalker be undefeated if none of them ever died in this bloodsport before tonight?

Eventually Schwarzenegger beats up enough people that the movie needs to end, so he makes his way onto the stage to confront Killian directly.

In a way, this is the climax of the novel as well. There, Richards hijacks a passenger plane and flies it into the massively tall headquarters of the Games Network, presumably killing everybody inside and huge numbers of innocent people all around it. “It rained fire twenty blocks away,” King assures us. He also assures us that good Ben Richards got to see a look of horror on Killian’s face through his office window as he gave him the finger and plowed the plane directly into him.

Richards died as he lived: disrespecting black people.

In the film, Schwarzenegger takes a more hands-on approach to dealing with Killian. And Killian gets a decent — though certainly not great — little speech to go out on.

“For Christ’s sake, Ben,” he says. “Don’t you understand? Americans love television. They ween their kids on it. Listen, they love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports, and violence. So what do we do? We give ’em what they want. We’re number one, Ben, that’s all that counts.”

Any credit I could give the movie for this speech is negated by the sheer stupidity of Killian delivering it to Richards over the chute that leads to the Game Zone, as a shuttle is actively loaded into it, making it impossible to focus on anything other than the remarkable clumsiness with which the film is setting up its conclusion.

Sure enough, Richards stuffs Killian in the shuttle and fires him down the tube.

Which…shouldn’t really be a big deal. The Stalkers are all dead, so can’t Killian just get out of the shuttle and work his way back up through the backstage areas?

Oh, I guess Richards somehow knew that this time — like no other time — the shuttle would hit a wall and explode, raining bits of Killian twenty blocks away.

The shuttle even does Richards the courtesy of crashing directly through a Cadre Cola billboard with Killian’s face on it so that Schwarzenegger can say, “Well, that hit the spot.”

In both versions of the ending, the everyman takes down the network and kills its figurehead. In the film, though, all sense of personal sacrifice is lost. One version of Richards dies along with everyone else responsible for running the Games Network. The other wanders off to fuck María Conchita Alonso.

The Running Man is a terrible film based on a pretty lousy book, and it’s disappointing for just how mindlessly it squanders its potential.

King’s idea was fine. Swap in some better characters and do the concept justice, or at least play into the ridiculousness a little bit more. For a movie with a wisecracking action hero, The Running Man is rarely any fun. When it is, it feels for a fleeting moment like you’re watching a different film entirely.

Had Glaser done more along the lines of the Climbing for Dollars commercial and Captain Freedom’s workout video, putting together a grander, funnier, more cynical pastiche of entertainment culture, employing the exact same superficial glitz and unapologetic appeals to the viewer’s base instincts that it’s satirizing, we could have gotten a pretty good film. It wouldn’t have been The Running Man, no, but what we got wasn’t The Running Man, either.

Honestly, I have to wonder why they bothered paying for the rights to The Running Man at all, if it was to share so little with its source material. The central game is completely different, with its own rules, presentation, and rewards. Change the name of the main character and the name of the game show and it would be impossible for anyone to sue for copyright infringement. Actually, you could probably even keep the main character’s name. With literally nothing else taken from the novel, “Ben Richards” is common enough that you could argue it’s coincidence.

Of course, the answer is that they licensed the rights to the novel because Stephen King’s name is worth something to moviegoers, but King successfully lobbied to have his name withheld from the film and its promotional materials.

Watching The Running Man is a strange experience after having read the novel, if only because it seems unnaturally driven to squander even more potential than King did. It’s not an especially fun movie and it’s by no stretch of the imagination a good one.

And as much as I love (and I do love) Richard Dawson’s performance, I can’t say it’s worth watching even for that.

Maybe he should have directed the movie. He’s certainly the only one who understood what it was about.

The Running Man
(1982, Stephen King [as Richard Bachman]; 1987, Paul Michael Glaser)

Book or film? Book
Worth reading the story? Yes. It’s flawed but engaging.
Worth watching the film? No, with the notable exception of one great performance.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Not a chance.
Is it of merit in its own right? It gives the middle finger to and plows a plane right through merit.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Winner” (season 4, episode 10)

If you had asked me 10 weeks ago how excited I was to finally learn the story of how Gus dug a big hole, I would have been able to answer you very easily. But, as it has many times before, Better Call Saul found a story worth telling where I honestly would have guessed there couldn’t be any.

If season three revealed itself in its final moments to have been about Chuck, season four may have done the same thing with Mike. It’s not an easy trick to make an audience sympathize with the guy who pulls the trigger, but I was genuinely shaken up by where his story with Werner ended.

The other big thing that happened this week is that Jimmy got his license reinstated and immediately requested a DBA (doing business as) form, because he won’t be practicing as James McGill anymore. This is fine, and Jimmy’s bluff during the hearing fools even Kim (get out, Kim!), which was one of several very nice moments in his half of the episode…but it’s Mike’s that really resonated, it’s Mike’s that will echo like a gunshot in the night.

Werner was never a bad person, and Mike knew that. That’s why he stood up for him, time and again. That’s why he tried to help him. Tried to reassure him. Tried to encourage him to push through. Left to his own devices, Gus would have taken care of Werner weeks before it got to a crisis point, but Mike held him back. Mike knew Werner in a way Gus didn’t. Mike knew the guy wouldn’t be a problem.

And Werner made a fool of him. His escape last week sent Gus’ entire team on a manhunt. Even then — even as he has no choice but to hunt Werner down like an animal — Mike is trying to convince Gus not to eliminate the problem in the simplest way.

But, as Mike tells Werner late in the episode, it was never up to him.

The story of how Gus dug a big hole ended up being one of the most affecting and haunting things the show has done yet. Not because it introduced a disposable character and then disposed of him, but because of what the experience did to Mike.

Mike meets Werner and feels a degree of respect for him. Once he’s hired, Mike then treats him as a reliable partner. Somewhere down the line, Mike realizes he’s made a friend. They open up to each other. They like each other. And so when Werner, inch by inch, threatens to bring Gus’ operation crashing down, Mike makes allowances. He makes excuses. He tries to win Werner back over.

It doesn’t work. It can’t work. Mike thinks of everything. Mike knows better. But Mike wants so desperately for Werner to prove him right for believing in him that he blinds himself to the truth. Maybe we remember Kim’s relationship with Jimmy, and their own sunk costs…

It terminates in the cruelest damned scene imaginable, with Mike left to take his own friend’s life under the desert sky. It’s a very Lenny and George moment, right down to the fact that if Mike waits, someone else will come and do the deed for him. But Mike knows it’s better this way. Werner looks to the stars.

The entire scene is heartwrenching. Werner calls his wife and demands that she turn back, ensuring that the last thing she’ll ever remember him saying to her is that he doesn’t want to see her. Mike’s voice breaks as he tries to explain why there’s no other way this can end. Two men with a personal relationship know that it’s their professional relationship that will determine how this ends.

Perhaps this experience is what causes Mike to make the fatal decision to go easy on Walt in Breaking Bad. In this case, it wasn’t Mike’s decision to make. In that one, it was. He was never as close to Walt as he was to Werner, but I could understand him not wanting to pull that trigger a second time. The first time was plenty.

Mike breaks his own heart that night. Mike brings Werner to the abandoned raceway, Mike pulls the trigger, Mike carries the body back to the car. This is the life he has chosen for himself. This is a life in which you kill your friend the moment he can no longer be trusted. And, if you don’t, you pay for it yourself.

After that harrowing scene we cut to Gayle, whose giddy enthusiasm for the big hole Gus dug would normally be an episode highlight. Here, it’s all too easy to feel the weight Gus and Mike feel in the scene. They aren’t appreciative of his antics. I wasn’t, either. (And I mean that as a massive compliment to the writers.)

Even Jimmy being reinstated isn’t allowed to register as a triumph, because he hurts Kim with his phony emotions. We don’t get to believe anything will work out. Season four doesn’t let us. These characters are in their darkest corners yet, and they aren’t going to get out. They’re only going to retreat further.

Everybody has their place. Jimmy’s reminded of that this week, at a damned important crossroads in his life, when he lobbies for a young girl with a shoplifting record to get a scholarship. She’s turned her life around. She’s gotten good grades. She believes there’s something for her in the future. But when Jimmy mentions her name, all he hears in response is, “The shoplifter?”

You might not like the hole they cram you in, but you aren’t getting out, so you might as well make yourself comfortable.

Here’s hoping season five opens with Kim poking Jimmy in the eye and hopping in a cab back to Nebraska.

To everyone who followed these reviews this season, I hope you enjoyed. Thank you for reading.