Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How a Dead Wife Has Given New Life to “American Gods”

I was a bit critical about the debut season of American Gods. The tone seemed off from the book, the soundtrack was too foreboding, and the barrage of “Coming to America” vignettes was jeopardizing the pacing. But all of that has changed since Laura Moon crawled from the grave.

To be fair, there were some high points to the series’ first three episodes. The characters seemed perfectly cast, and the Shadow and Wednesday scenes were humorous and witty at times. Though no one has stolen the show like Emily Browning’s Laura Moon. Ever since episode four (“Git Gone”), which told Laura’s backstory, American Gods has been so much more satisfying. And since she’s paired with Mad Sweeny, the unlikely duo has far out shinned the best that Shadow and Wednesday have to offer.

The most interesting part of this is that most of the Laura Moon scenes have gone beyond the novel. Neil Gaiman never delved deep into Laura’s past, and the Sweeny-Laura road trip never happened. The show’s writers are obviously using these “new” scenes to extend what easily could have been a two-season series into three seasons or more. The show is barely a third of the way into the novel, and this season has only one episode remaining. Yet far from being filler material, Laura’s new scenes have greatly improved the show.

For one, the scenes have a much lighter tone, and Laura’s dialog – especially when engaging Mad Sweeny – is the best we’ve heard since Elsie mysteriously disappeared on Westworld. Also, the overall storytelling seems to have improved. Last week’s episode, titled “A prayer for Mad Sweeny”, was classic. Emily Browning did double-duty as the Irishwoman who originally brought Mad Sweeny to America, with her story unfolding in parallel with Laura’s and Sweeny’s in the present day. It was probably the best episode yet, and Shadow and Wednesday weren’t in a single scene.

I suppose next week’s episode will have to return to Shadow’s and Wednesday’s tale (though I doubt it will go as far into the book as I originally expected). But I truly hope we get more Laura and Sweeny too. Given the title of the season finale, “Come to Jesus”, I think we will. After all, Sweeny knows a guy who specializes in resurrections.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes and Starz

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

My Thoughts on “The Leftovers” Series Finale

The series finale of The Leftovers was not what I expected, and the last 10 minutes blew me away. I’ve watched the episode, titled “The Book of Nora,” twice now. Here are my thoughts on the finale, but know that *SPOILERS* abound.

By the end of the first two scenes, Nora is inside the machine that supposedly can transport people to the place where 2% of the world’s population went in the Sudden Departure, including Nora’s husband and her two children. The machine is filling up with a metal-infused liquid that will solidify around her moments before a laser blasts her with radiation to effect the transfer. The physicists told Nora that if she swallows the liquid, she’ll die. Just as the liquid reaches her chin, Nora cries out, and the scene ends. Whether we ever learn the truth about what happens next, depends on how you view the final 10 minutes of the series.

After the somewhat nerve-wracking scene in the departure machine, the episode jumps to an older Nora (who calls herself Sarah), bicycling through rural Australia. When a much older Kevin does show up at Nora’s door, he claims to have only met her a few times back in Mableton. She’s so disturbed by this encounter, she stops at a payphone on the side of a wheat field and calls Laurie, who we all thought committed suicide in episode five. Needless to say, I was disoriented and I didn’t like where the show seemed to be going.

At this point, I had suspected we were once again in purgatory. Nora must have swallowed the liquid and gone to the same place Kevin had visited numerous times since Season 2. That would explain how she could talk to a dead Laurie. So, suddenly I’m thinking Damon Lindelof might be a one-trick pony. Isn’t this how LOST ended? With all the characters in purgatory waiting to meet up in the afterlife?

Fortunately, all this was just skilled misdirection by Lindelof and his team of writers. We come to learn that this is the same world most of the show took place in, just twenty years later. Kevin has spent his life looking for Nora, who everyone assumed was dead. Laurie is alive back in Jarden, having aborted whatever suicide she may have intended at the end of episode five. And in the series’ final scene, we learn where Nora has been.

She went through – to the place where the machine took her.

From here on, Nora tells us what happened to the departed. They were left in their own world, a type of parallel earth where, from their viewpoint, 98% of the world’s population vanished in the Sudden Departure. As Nora explains, the “leftovers” like she and Kevin were the lucky ones. “Over here, we lost some of them,” she says, “but over there, they lost all of us.” That was the mind-blowing part, when I realized how perfectly Lindelof had nailed this ending.

Nora goes on to explain how she found her children after a long journey from Melbourne to Mableton through this barely-populated world. They were living in a nearly deserted town with her husband and a beautiful woman, and Nora realized they were happy. “And I was a ghost,” she says. “A ghost who had no place there.” So she let them be and tracked down the physicist who invented the machine, who was the first one to use it. Eventually she found him and convinced him to make a new machine to take her home because she didn’t belong there.

By the end, Nora gave us a beautiful sci-fi explanation for what happened to the departed. What caused this split in reality remained a mystery, but the writers provided an answer to one of the show’s fundamental questions. Or did they? One internet theory is that Nora was telling Kevin an elaborate lie. A lie she might even believe to be true as part of her coping mechanism after she aborted her journey through the machine. Or a lie to explain why she hid from Kevin all these years. (You can read some examples of this here and here.)

Lindelof acknowledges that either possibility may be true, but he’s leaving it up to the viewer to decide. As for me, I want to believe: Nora went to this parallel world and we know what happened to the departed. For that would be the most fitting ending to a thought-provoking show like The Leftovers. And if true, “The Book of Nora” nailed it.

* Images courtesy of HBO.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Which Mysteries Will Be Solved In “The Leftovers” Finale?

Season 3 of The Leftovers on HBO was a surprisingly short 8 episodes, and with only one episode left, I’m beginning to suspect some of the show’s biggest mysteries will never be solved.

How does Kevin keep rising from the dead?

In season 2 – which in my view was the show’s best season by far – Kevin dies not once, but twice. Both times he ends up in that bizarre hotel that represents Purgatory (or some other form of the afterlife), providing the series’ best two episodes: “International Assassin” and “I Live Here Now.” I always chalked up Kevin’s supernatural resilience to the “miracles” of Miracle, Texas. On the show, Miracle was the only place on earth where no one vanished in the Sudden Departure, and the whole place reminded me a bit of the island on LOST (also created by showrunner Damon Lindelof). And in Season 2, we saw a dead bird come back to life in the opening episode, so it appeared the land’s “magic” could ressurect the dead.

This notion was reinforced in episode one of Season 3, when Matt told Kevin he can’t die so long as he’s in Miracle. But last episode, it happened again, far far away from Miracle, Texas. The episode, which played like a sequel to “International Assassin,” was great, but only raised more questions about how Kevin keeps pulling this off. Is he truly some type of “savior,” like Matt believed? I doubt it, given where the show seems to be going. But somehow Kevin has become the most resurrected man in history. There’s only one episode remaining, and we have Nora’s entire storyline to wrap up, so my guess is we’ll never learn the secret to Kevin’s immortality.

What was the Sudden Departure?

This has been the biggest question on The Leftovers since the series premiered. Was the Sudden Departure, where 2% of the world’s population vanished into thin air, the biblical Rapture? Season 1 went out of its way to suggest that might not be the case. After all, many of the departed were not good people: Nora’s cheating husband; the woman who had sex with Kevin on the day of the departure knowing he was married; and Gary Busey. (In all seriousness, the show has had fun with this for three seasons, but who’s to say Bucey wouldn’t be the first to go in the biblical Rapture?)

Season 2 did nothing to solve the big mystery, but Season 3 has at least offered the possibility that we’ll get an answer. In episode 2 (titled “Don’t’ Be Ridiculous”), Nora is contacted by a secret group of physicists who discovered that Low-Amplitude Denzinger Radiation was detected at the site of each departure. Based on this discovery, they have created a machine that utilizes this radiation to transport people to wherever their loved ones departed. Either that, or the scientists are defrauding people into giving up their life savings only to be incinerated by the machine. In any event, Nora is so desperate to be with her departed children, she’s willing to risk her life in this mysterious device to be with them.

I suppose next episode she could be transported to heaven or wherever the departed may be, though I doubt it. This appears to be the fundamental mystery the show is determined to remain unsolved. So just like we never really learned what the island was on LOST, my bet is we’ll never learn what the Sudden Departure really was. In the words of the Iris DeMent song that opened every episode of Season 2 (and which I suspect will open the season finale), we’ll have to “let the mystery be.”

Will we learn what happens to Nora in the machine?

This is the one question I believe we might get the answer to. The mysterious departure machine has been one of the driving plot lines in Season 3, and Nora is desperate enough that I think she’ll find a way to get in it. Also, we have the strange scene at the end of episode one where a woman named “Sarah” – who looks and sounds a lot like an older Nora – is gathering up doves someplace near a church and denies ever knowing someone named Kevin. Were we glimpsing the future? It sure looked like it.

So, could the machine actually be transporting people forward in time? Or to some alternate reality? All that remains to be seen. But for a show that’s taken Kevin to a bizzaro Purgatory three times now, I truly hope it takes us to wherever Nora goes.

That said, even if these questions are never answered, The Leftovers has been a wonderful and thought-provoking show. But that’s just my take. How will you feel if mysteries remain unsolved after the series finale of The Leftovers?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Friday, May 19, 2017

“The Leftovers” vs. “American Gods”

This time of year, we’re usually nearing the midpoint of Game of Thrones. (In fact, it was around this time last year the showrunners gave us “The Door”). But not this year. So while we wait, HBO and Starz have pitted two of their top shows against one another – The Leftovers and American Gods – airing them both in the 9 PM timeslot on Sundays. 

This makes for long Sunday nights as I DVR one show and usually watch it immediately the first show ends. But it’s also led to an inevitable comparison between two shows about faith, religion, and what it means to believe.

The Leftovers

Right now, this is my favorite of the two. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and start binge-watching now. 

The Leftovers takes place after a rapture-like event called the Departure where 2% of the world’s population simply vanished. The first season, which was well done, was based on a novel by Tom Perrotta. It also had a spectacular cast that included Justin Theroux as protagonist Kevin Garvey, as well as Liv Tyler and Carrie Coon (of Gone Girl), who plays Nora Durst, a woman who lost her entire family in the Departure. By the end, Season One left genuine questions about whether the Departure was ever the “biblical” Rapture (after all, a lot of bad people disappeared that day), and it dealt more with themes of loss and coping with that loss than it did with faith or religion.

If Season One was good, Season Two was great. From the beginning of that season, the series’ co-creator, Damon Lindelof, had the show in full LOST mode. (Like when LOST was the best show on television.) Season Two gave us our first glimpse of the afterlife (or purgatory at least), had a main character rise from the dead, and made it clear there’s a whole lot of supernatural stuff going on behind the scenes.

Now, we’re at the midpoint of the final season and the show is still in full-on LOST mode, careening toward the series’ finale. And this time, it seems all about religion (Episode One was titled “The Book of Kevin”; later this year we’ll get the “The Book of Nora”). Only a few days remain until the seventh anniversary of the Departure, when many (including Kevin’s father and Nora’s brother) believe some apocalyptic event will occur. This show has mysteries heaped on mysteries, much like LOST did in its prime. And with only 5 episodes left, I’m looking forward to every one of them. 

American Gods

We are only 3 episodes into the much-anticipated Starz series based on the fantasy epic by Neil Gaiman. This show seemed so well cast and received so much hype, my expectations may have been a bit overblown. Though I did predict it would have a hard time standing up to the novel, and on that point I’m beginning to think I was right. 

The show has stayed fairly true to the book, though they’ve moved some scenes around and included a lot of additional material. Most of the added stuff has come in the form of “Coming to America” scenes. In the book, these were short chapters that explained how, over time, immigrants have brought their old beliefs and folklores with them to America. These beliefs now manifest themselves as the old gods, whose conflict with the “new” gods such as the media and technology forms the fundamental plot of American Gods. The show, however, is giving us one or more of these vignettes every episode. Some have been very good, but they have had the effect at times of slowing the story down.

Another gripe, if you will, has been the soundtrack. A lot of the show uses grim and foreboding tones like an old horror movie. (It reminds me of that bad Jack Nicholson film Wolf for some reason.) But thankfully, this isn’t always the case. The scenes with Shadow and Mr. Wednesday continuing their buddy road trip through America often play old songs in the background, in a way that is upbeat or apropos to the scene. Not surprisingly, the Shadow and Mr. Wednesday scenes have been the best by far. They mirror the book’s less serious tone, and I wish the entire show would have embraced this feel. But we’re only 3 episodes in, and there’s still plenty of time for the show to grow on me. And trust me, I don’t plan on missing any episodes.

But those are just my thoughts. Are you experiencing this same dilemma? And if so, which show do you prefer: The Leftovers or American Gods?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes and Starz

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Medieval Mysteries: “The Templar’s Cross” by J. R. Tomlin

I’ve been away from the blog for longer than normal because I’m spending most of my free time editing the sequel to Enoch’s Device. I always keep reading, however, and recently finished The Templar’s Cross: A Medieval Mystery by J. R. Tomlin. Here’s my review.

The Templar’s Cross is an intriguing whodunit set in fifteenth century Scotland. The novel’s Sherlock Holmes is a lordless knight named Sir Law Kintour. When his former liege, the Earl of Douglas, is slain in the Battle of Verneuil, Sir Law finds himself searching for a new lord in the Scottish city of Perth.

Sir Law’s only prospect, Lord Blinsele, wants the knight to find the lord’s missing wife and the lover she ran off with. But when the bodies start piling up and Sir Law becomes a suspect, he needs to find the killer and clear his name before he hangs from the gallows. 

The mystery is genuinely good, and eventually involves the titular Templar’s Cross, a relic from the Crusades. But my favorite part was the dialogue, which did a wonderful job portraying the dialect of a medieval Scotsman. (All the “ayes,” “willnae’s” and “dinnae’s” made me smile.) That, along with the author’s attention to historical detail, made me feel like I spent some quality time in fifteenth century Perth. Sir Law is an admirable character, and the protagonist of two more novels in the series. And I look forward to his next mystery.

You can read a preview of the book here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

American Gods

On Sunday, Starz will premiere American Gods, based on the fantasy bestseller by Neil Gaiman. From the trailers, the show looks amazing. But it will be pretty damn hard to exceed the novel. Here’s why.

By the time I finished American Gods, I felt the same way I did when I finished Stephen King’s The Stand. I had just read the magnum opus of one of a genre’s finest authors, and the story will stick with me for a lifetime.

The premise behind American Gods is so perfect it’s a wonder I waited so long to read this book. The idea is that when various people immigrated to America, they brought with them the gods and myths from their homelands. Those gods live on in the new world, but the problem is: America is a bad place for gods.

Shadow Moon - American Gods on Starz
The story takes place in modern times, where the old gods have faded into the shadows, carrying on as conmen, cabbies, and hookers, just trying to survive. Meanwhile, new gods have risen in America. Gods of technology and the media – the things people in the U.S. tend to actually “worship” today. One old god, Odin the Allfather, sees what’s happening and wants to put an end to it, even if it results in a war between the old gods and the new, Ragnarok style. 

Into this war, Odin – known as Mr. Wednesday in our world (“Wednesday” being derived from the word Wodin’s Day) – recruits Shadow Moon, the story’s main character. Shadow, a good-hearted man released from prison early after his wife dies in a car accident, follows Mr. Wednesday on a journey across the American heartland. Along the way, he encounters the old gods from a myriad of myths: Norse, Egyptian, Slavic, Native American, you name it. It’s as if Gaiman opened an old copy of Deities & Demigods and plucked out the most colorful immortals and monsters to create his cast of characters.

American Gods is epic in scope, wondrous in style, and tremendously fun. It’s also filled with engaging subplots that weave together seamlessly with the main story, including one involving Shadow’s wife Laura, who has come back from the dead, and a murder mystery in sleepy lakeside town. Even more, vignettes scattered throughout the novel show how people over the centuries came to America and brought their old gods with them. I hesitate to give away any more, but suffice it to say, American Gods is a classic. It’s an equal to The Stand – one of the great books by one of the great authors. And a must read, if there ever was one.

* Photo courtesy of Starz

Saturday, April 15, 2017

“The Ocean at The End of the Lane” – A Haunting Fairy Tale by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has been one of the most famous fantasy writers for a while now, though I’ll admit it’s taken me an overly long time to actually read one of his books. That ended recently, however, when I tore through The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Here’s my review.

This book has one of the most haunting covers, and I’ll confess it is the reason I was drawn to the novel. Nonetheless, it took me a good while to actually start reading it. I’m sorry I waited so long.

After a brief preface that hints of an old country that sank into the ocean, and an even older country that met a worse fate, we’re introduced to the narrator: an unnamed man who visits his hometown in England and begins to have vivid recollections of his childhood. He was seven years old then, with no friends except the books he’d read, a full set of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels being among his favorite. 

Neil Gaiman has written about how Lewis’ Narnia stories helped inspire his writing, and I think this novel may have been an homage to those books. For much like young Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the young narrator soon finds himself in a magical – and dangerous – fairy tale.

Narnia helped inspire Gaiman's writing.
The story takes off when the boy encounters eleven-year-old Lettie Hempstock. She lives on a quaint farmstead at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother, and behind the house is a duck pond that Lettie refers to as her “ocean.” From the moment he meets Lettie and her family, we realize there’s something different about them. For one, they’re able to perceive events before they happen, and there are hints all three of them may be very old. “How long have you been eleven for?” the boy asks. Lettie just smiles at him.

Bordering the farmland are woods that Lettie claims were brought back from the old country where she and her family came from, like the farm and the “ocean.” It turns out they also brought back something wicked in those woods, and when Lettie and the boy venture there to discover what it might be, they are forced to deal with the nightmare they may have unleashed. To explain any more would spoil the plot, but from the moment they enter the woods, Gaiman builds up suspense and maintains it to the very end. 

Like Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Gaiman leaves the reader to wonder about how much of the story was actually real, and what Lettie and her family actually were. Though he provides ample evidence to keep us thinking about it long after the book is done. That’s a hallmark of a good story, and after Ocean, I look forward to reading a lot more of Gaiman’s tales.

You can preview the book here.