Television

The Trouble with TV Consumption: When Will “The Shocker” Flatline?

the walking dead season 4 part 2 michonneI don’t watch Game of Thrones, but I feel like I know every inch of its body like it’s a ghostly lover I’ve only dreamt of courting.

The allure is real and tangible everywhere I turn. HBO’s healthy marketing budget has made it so that I can’t wait for a bus or click on to my favorite site without seeing an ad plastered on some physical or digital space.

I don’t have a problem with marketers doing their job. What I detest, however, is the devolution of A&E journalism from being the stimulant to the easily-stimulated.

Sunday evening through Monday morning, the headlines are inescapable: “Game of Thrones Shocker!” or “The Walking Dead Spoiler: Discuss the Season Finale Shocker!” I know we’re living in the era of the resurgence of event television, but I  don’t appreciate it when I’m bombarded with an array of  headlines aimed at shaming me for casual disinterest.

“Shockers” don’t impress me much anymore.

I guess the headlines are a preferable alternative to the quick-fire “OMG SERIOUSLY? #GameOfThrones” that fills my Twitter timeline when any given buzz show airs, but the fact remains that you can’t simply exist as a casual consumer (of the fan or non-fan persuasion) any more. You’re either part of the in-crowd or the outcast. There’s no middle ground in the world of quick-fix television.

I’m forced to indulge in the cultures of these shows, though watching rabid fans salivate over something they fail to realize–in their fits of, well, “shocked” outpouring of digital discourse on social media–was constructed specifically to send them off their rockers is entertaining in itself.

How easily we, as a collective audience, have relinquished control.

I’m supposed to form a relationship with a show. I’m supposed to curl up in its embrace—by myself (who needs people?)—and drift off into the sweet nothings it whispers into my ear. It has to be consensual. A show hinging itself upon shocking me fosters a souped-up, manic consumption that leaves no room to explore new routes. It conditions expectations of topping itself, and makes it impossible for its writers to explore even terrain. 

Still, I feel like the industry wants me to feel like I’m missing out on an irresistible fuck-fest to draw me in. They want me to feel like the outsider. They want me to submit to their show’s ability to travel so long right around a circle that the only way to keep things interesting is to yank the wheel to the left.

I miss the days of connecting with fans on the basis of quality versus surprise. LOST, while inspiring a fan culture all its own, propelled itself forward on the grounds of dramatic resonance. Each bit of absurdity fueled the show’s personality. It became a character drama with an affinity for the absurd. The show was never defined by its insanity, and its twists and turns inspired crescendoed momentum instead of reaching a peak, diving off the side, and climbing back up only to repeat the same suicidal event two weeks later.

Plot twists used to serve purpose, but now they’re used as buzz topics for tomorrow’s articles that tap into everyone’s innate desire for inclusivity. We all want to be a part of something, but this shocker business feels too constructed.

I admit that I watch event shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. Of all the buzz shows, The Walking Dead most justifiably earned its right to assert dominance over the pop culture discussion at large. It’s a huge cable production that trumps nearly every scripted network show in terms of revenue, ratings, and response from the key demographic. But, the show evolved from a quiet, subdued drama that it was in its first two seasons. It has adapted to fit within a culture that demands spectacular stimuli–including the shocker. Its ever-bloated cast list grows by the season only to be cut down without warning in an inevitable, unmotivated bloodbath. It’s a show that was once defined by a singular character’s will to survive, but now rides from high to high on the fumes of its audience speculating who will die next.

And everyone eats it up.

In a sense, it’s impossible for us to fairly gauge a show’s quality when it follows the shocker format. What this does is allow an otherwise brilliant show to become predicated by superficial elements; character deaths, tonal shifts, plot twists—moments whose foremost purpose isn’t to advance the story, but to get you on your phone tweeting about it whether such elements work or not.

We don’t challenge ourselves to accept what’s happening and if it works with the ideology of the show. It’s simply golden if it’s unexpected, and I’m sick of it.

It’s easy to see how the passively-accepting, actively-responding, binge-watching culture has adopted other more subtle series as posterchildren for buzz-crazed consumption before they had a chance to hit their stride. That’s why Homeland sputtered out so fast: It was a show that was genuinely compelling in its first season, fueled by intricately-woven character dynamics and twists & turns that served a purpose in context. The media ate it up. It became the show to watch, picking up steam long after its premiere, and the show adapted to this too-soon ejaculation accordingly. It became a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. The solid shell of season one is now haunted with the extravaganza of the (literally) explosive season two finale and melodramatics of season 3. It’s a show that needed to be caught up with, not a show that needs to play catch-up itself. Now, all we care about is the spectacle; all we care about is if a show can sustain the demographic’s boner.

The fact that everyone is so hung up on the shocker has even managed to tarnish the reputations of brilliant minimalist shows like True Detective and Looking.

True Detective’s first season was a character drama disguised and marketed as a crime/detective thriller. Its stars, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, played two characters that were infinitely more interesting than the murder case they tried to solve, and the show unfolded accordingly. People expecting a procedural were intensely disappointed to learn that the focal characters brought far too much weight to the table; Their stories—and how they reacted to the crimes and each other—were too complex to ignore. 

Because True Detective dared to make its central mystery of uncovering the murders the least important part of its identity pissed people off once the finale aired. They were unable to appreciate the philosophical gravitas or the beautiful intricacies of its characters and their connection to the world around them. People don’t see characters anymore, they see play pieces atop a board game; but, who wins in that situation?

Screen-Shot-2014-01-12-at-11.38.10-AMBecause Looking, a drama revolving around a group of gay friends in San Francisco, didn’t follow a traditional structure and because it dared to linger in silence where any other show would try to cram in flesh, blood, and bone, it became a detractor to the gay community in the eyes of the Internet Court. Twitter ripped it apart every week. According to them, it either probed too little into gay culture or became a stereotypical representation of the gay fantasy. It was never good enough for the contemporary audience. It was held to an unrealistic standard of upholding the image of the gay community when all it aimed to do was explore its characters without their sexuality as a defining factor. It never asked to be a champion of the gay community, nor did it beg for people to look upon it as a trailblazer for the queer identity. It was a show about people, but “real” people wanted it to be something traditional, but still expected it to be something different when it bored them. People looked for something to latch on to; the gay factor must define this show because people are too impatient to dig anywhere under the surface. It’s a dynamic show that defies classification, and that frustrates the casual audience to the point of not simply disinterest, but violent backlash.

What does this say about us? Can we no longer handle simplicity? Are our minds descending so deep into the quick-fix abyss that the only time we allow ourselves to come up for air is to take another hit from the shocker to carry us through to next week’s episode?

Networks are not the problem. They have to make money somehow. I’m troubled by rabid audiences consuming television like a drug, moving from high to high, plot twist to plot twist, shocker to shocker. It’s empty consumption, and it’s clear to see that TV shows like The Walking Dead and Homeland are evolving to fit this mold when they started out as completely different shows than what they are now. People live for the inclusivity versus the art of the show.

Sooner or later, you’ll come to expect it, and that’s when the shock will flatline. The high will fade, and Twitter will go silent. We can only hope it comes sooner rather than later, but where do you go from there once it happens?

Make no mistake: I cannot judge a show I’ve never seen. I can only react to the coverage a show receives and how that coverage reflects a much greater shift in the way TV is consumed and produced for our quick-fix culture to the point where I must endure a barrage of industry “coverage” that’s only bent on making me feel like an outsider for not stepping inside the loop.

That’s not something I can warm up to any time soon.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

The Problem with Perfection – Life, Death, and ‘Homeland’

Homeland3It’s been grumbled about for ages. Viewers are growing increasingly frustrated, critics have griped here and there, but someone finally put their foot down, and Showtime’s Homeland received the rude awakening its had coming for an entire season, shunned by the HFPA with zero Golden Globe nominations for a staggeringly-uneven third season.

Homeland tonight attempts to rebuild its image as the formidable drama it once was.

Previews of the finale function as a foreboding alternate eulogy of the living, if you will. The life of Nicholas Brody–the bane of the show’s once-promising existence–flashes before us as he speaks. “There’s a man in Caracas who called me a cockroach,” Brody tells us, as we take a melancholic look at his life as it splashes across the screen. “Unkillable,” he says of himself, as we’re reminded of the despicable things he’s accused of (bombing Langley) and the actions he’s readily taken responsibility for (abandoning his family, lying to those he loved, and succumbing to the brain-washing control of an Al-Qaeda leader).

There’s massive fallout (emotional and physical) from his actions that seems unforgivable on all fronts, but Homeland continues to paint Brody as a tragic hero fallen from greatness. We’ve only  known him as an image of post-war destruction. As a soldier, he fell away from his country and aligned with the enemy; as a husband, he drifted apart from his wife and had sex with another woman. The palette of a man tainted by insecurity of mind, insecurity of heart, and security in pursuing selfish satiation is what we’ve seen.

From good to broken, Brody’s arc has reached a corner it can’t possibly make its way out of as he infiltrates the Iranian government for the CIA in a final act of mending what he’s carelessly wrecked.

Conversely, in three seasons we’ve seen the show’s primary focus, CIA agent Carrie Mathison, undergoes a shift that has less to do with character and more to do with lazy writing and, consequently, an almost complete ideological shift of the world surrounding her.

The Carrie we knew from Season 1 was a woman dedicated to her work, to her convictions to her country, and to herself. She was rogue in the sense that she didn’t take anyone else’s word as end-all guidance, and saw the world in alternates. Brody was presented as a hero, and she saw him as a threat, validated by his plans to carry out a terrorist attack against the United States. “I didn’t get it wrong, I’m the only one who got it right,” we hear her say in each week’s opening credits. Yes, Carrie was a free-thinker who happened to get caught up in a romantic entanglement with a dangerous man, but her affections for Brody seemed, at least to me, as another way for Carrie to fall in love with herself.

Homeland2We spend little time with Carrie when she’s happy. We’ve only seen her in true bliss when she’s in an isolated world of intimacy with Brody. At the cabin, when she helps him escape Langley; these moments seem almost suspended in time, when she has the ability to sit back and enjoy a man who sexually stimulates her, wants her, and validates her hard-headed convictions to what she knows is right by simply existing. She was right about him, and the conquest is hers alone, as Brody comes to represent her success and a symbol for her security of mind.

Season 3, however, has turned Carrie’s flaws into terribly pathetic crutches that validate quintessentially-backwards patriarchal fears of women in the workplace. Her anxieties have carried over from her personal life and into the work she valued throughout the first two seasons. Her affections for Brody have nearly compromised every mission she’s been apart of over the past few weeks. Hell, she was even shot in the arm for entering the field in an attempt to prove Brody’s innocence.

Carrie can no longer see the big picture, and has lost track of the importance of her work. Her interior motive is hinged upon Brody, and she’s come to embody the stereotypical, emotionally-unstable woman whose workplace antics are fueled by affection and emotional instability.

Brody’s existence on the show now serves as nothing more than to keep up an entanglement with Carrie that’s long since grown stale, and has caused her to shift from someone we’ve sided with because of her firm convictions into a woman we’re concerned for thanks to her willingness to shed all that we fell in love with in the first place.

Her relationship with Brody has consumed nearly every other aspect of the show. Carrie’s relationship with Saul has shifted from one of mutual respect to one no different than a father policing his unruly daughter. Carrie has been downgraded from the plane of power Saul once preserved for her. She’s now a dangerously loose cannon he has to monitor.

Season 3 has, to this point, boiled down to little more than bouts with frustration for the characters and for the audience. Carrie is merely a dangling thread on the life Brody seeks to win back. His concerns span a massive array of missteps, whereas Carrie is hanging on to the singular fantasy of a life with Brody that can no longer exist, and has let her impulses guide her to erratic levels of irresponsible hysterics.

As an audience, we’ve only been able to watch as the characters flounder in futile attempts to regain what they once had. Brody is far too gone to have a family–or a life, for that matter–in the US. He’s damaged beyond repair, and regaining a relationship with his wife, his children, and with Carrie all seems like a distance no one on the show is willing to run for little payoff.

“This is about redemption,” Brody says in the closing moments of the preview. The words don’t only resonate with Brody as a character, but also seem as a sort of extension from the show’s creators to its viewers. Brody’s presence loomed over the past 11 episodes like a anchor dangling from a tugboat, collecting sediment and barnacles as it sinks slowly into the murky depths. It’s entirely surprising that Carrie’s let herself become this attached to him, so much that it interferes with the only thing she’s shown us to be more dedicated to than her affections.

Her job has been compromised countless times thanks to her insistence on remaining true to the tiny semblance of a relationship she has with Brody. It’s time for Carrie to regain independence again. The Carrie Mathison we once knew is a shrieking, unhinged, babbling shadow of the other, and she can’t function with Brody acting as a tether to a side of her that’s ugly, unstable, and altogether unmanageable.

Homeland1It was once possible to draw parallels between Carrie and Maya from Zero Dark Thirty as examples of strong female characters spitting in the face of the way women are traditionally portrayed. Maya is on-point without being cold, dedicated to a separation of work and personal life, giving in to zero temptations regarding men and sex, even outright rejecting it, as she’s justified as a person instead of as a woman. Maya lives with her job, whereas Carrie now seems to exist in spite of her job. Carrie is defined by outbursts, harping on ships that have long since sailed, and it’s slowing everything down.

Perhaps we’ve run into an instance of a show jumping its own shark before anyone could have ever realized it. At the time, the pairing of Carrie and Brody seemed like a good thing. Two rogue, powerful people joining forces amidst the steamy, insatiable appetite for the other’s body, but it’s clear that the runoff from their initial pairing has pooled stagnant.

I don’t want to think that this show has been running on momentum from a single relationship for three seasons. I know the show is better than this. We’ve seen it, and we’ve reaped all we can from the relationship between Carrie and Brody. It’s run itself into a corner no one can escape from–literally, for Brody.

There is only one solution: Brody must die.

The survival of Brody means death for the show, and I can only hope that its creators have enough faith in her to sell Homeland’s  cow before Carrie can drink any more milk.

A Post-Andrea Apocalypse: Why Can’t Women Survive on “The Walking Dead?”

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Where the film industry gives us one Ryan Stone, TV gives us twenty Carrie Mathisons.

In an age where quality roles for women in film are drying up, it only makes sense that another medium would harness the opportunity to showcase strong female characters on a large scale.

Thanks to television, we have the likes of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation, Hannah Horvath on Girls, Selina Meyer on Veep, and countless other characters on network and cable which reflect the diverse palette of female representation streaming into our homes night after night.

The Walking Dead, one of the most successful shows of the decade, has seen a viewership increase of nearly 10 million (up to 16.1 watching its Season 4 premiere) since its first airing in 2010, soaring in the key demo week after week. It’s popular. It’s the perfect blend of fluff-fun and narrative beauty. It’s also a show which fiercely defies the progressive environment for women the contemporary television industry has blossomed into by pitting most of its heavily-developed female characters against death in a losing battle.

Season 3 of the hit series saw the demise of Andrea (Laurie Holden), a character who was never really given the privilege of being taken seriously beyond what the audience wanted her to be, thanks to the public’s never-ending hatred for her seemingly ill-informed decision-making. Andrea’s arc on the show was, to me, some of the most compelling character development I’ve ever seen (read my initial analysis before the start of Season 3 here.)

What began as a throwaway, cliched take on a down-and-out woman ready to take her own life evolved into a fruitful, satisfying examination of reversed will, clear mind, and determined spirit. We watched Andrea evolve from the brink of death (nearly by her own hand) into a woman actively rejecting a reversion to gendered hunter-gatherer society that would most likely emerge in a real-world post-apocalypse.

We most clearly observed this transformation during the bulk of Season 2, where Andrea’s superficial “failures” can only be seen as byproducts of her victimization by a world which can no longer tolerate feminism, as truly evolved “society” has crumbled and become far too advanced for those surviving in Andrea’s group. Though their version of “society” very much reverted back to the demeaning, gender-specific hunter/gatherer delegation of responsibility that predates contemporary life, most of the women seemed comfortable taking a backseat to the men throughout Seasons 1 and 2.

Lori, Beth, and Maggie took pride in keeping Hershel’s farm tidy and functional, preserving what little shred of normalcy they could, albeit inadvertently bringing an intangible dream to the group’s fingertips, though their hands could never close upon it. Fresh-baked bread and a pitcher of lemonade on the table for the men returning from a zombie slaugtherfest became a fantasy merely  teasing of a way of life that had long since disappeared.

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And thus the show evaporated the place of the woman within its world. Carol, worse so than the women bustling to maintain the state of the home, was defined purely by her maternal responsibility; the first half of Season 2 is dedicated almost entirely to finding her lost daughter, Sophia. Though emotionally-crippling in its revelation, the discovery that Sophia was amongst the imprisoned zombies in Hershel’s barn (she’d been dead the entire time) came as affirmation that women could no longer retain their natural roles as mothers, let alone foster some sort of domestic mirage Lori tried to uphold inside the house.

Andrea, however, rejected these roles. Always the independent, she fought for her equal place among the men. She made countless mistakes along the way (accidentally shooting Darryl being the most glaring), but these only worked to solidify her status as second-class in the eyes of the men. A girl playing catch-up, if you will. Should it have gotten to the point where Andrea felt the need to try so desperately to win male praise that her judgment is clouded, allowing her to mistake one of them for a zombie?

This sort of gendered acceptance issue wasn’t present in the other female characters, and that’s what made Andrea interesting. Season 3, however, shows us that within the confines of The Walking Dead ideology, womankind has no place in this zombie-infested post-society. The fact that Lori dies after giving birth comes as confirmation that nurture has reverted to nature.

Lori is the epitome of a passive, secondary citizen woman in this archaic era of reversion. We can even look at her sexual exploits in contrast to Andrea’s and see that her fate was sealed from the start. Throughout Seasons 1 and 2, Lori is sexualized by Shane and lets the desires of the men, whereas Andrea sexualizes Shane herself by initating the act. Lori takes pride in taking care of Hershel’s house with the other women while Andrea resists it, and spends the rest of her time pregnant. The result? Immediate death upon the fulfillment of her “duties” as woman.

On the other hand, Andrea comes to represent the death of the feminist woman in this era, albeit after a struggle for acceptance. She only dies once she relinquishes her independence as she succumbs to the pitfalls of affection and enters a dangerous relationship with The Governor of Woodbury, becoming the sexual, emotional, and psychological property of a male tyrant amidst her own struggle for independence and power. She submits to what she wants most. The Governor’s power trumps her rejection of “natural” role. Her death at the end of Season 3 solidifies the end of the powerful woman in a society that reverts to a “natural” or primitive social structure which relegates women to second-class status.

Her death is the death of the independent woman, and we’ve yet to come across another female character with this kind of symbolic importance.

What we have now is a mish-mash of female characters who are either shoved to the forefront of our attention because the other previously-developed women have died (Carol), or placeholders merely filling their roles as “sister” (Sasha), “girlfriend” (Karen and Maggie), “caretaker” (Beth), or even death itself (the female hiker who kills herself in front of Rick in the woods).

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Our sole hope at this point lies in the hands of Michonne, whose femininity has only come into play at one key point throughout her entire arc on the series. Last week, Beth placed Judith in the hands of a reluctant Michonne. In these few moments, we watched her face grow from bitingly angry to hopeless. In these few moments, we’re able to see the pain’s origin, and a glimpse of the person Michonne used to be. Did she have a daughter? A child she was close with and lost in the zombie takeover? Does she long to return to her own days of innocence as a child relying on the care of others?

We saw Michonne not as the tactical, cold defender that she is, but for a moment as a human. Intentionally ambiguous, the reason for her tears isn’t–and hopefully, won’t be–fully-explained. The mystery of her origin is meaningless, as being a “woman” is meaningless within the society of the survivors. Women fulfilling “duty” are killed, and women resisting it are eventually put into place.

Whether this is intentional or merely an exerted analysis may never be known. Whether the show’s reluctance to let the female “win” in this post-society world is brilliant commentary or lazy regression remains to be seen, but at least with Michonne we have a (re)starting point to piece together what Andrea started.

Mother Knows Best: The Identity of Evil in “Bates Motel” vs. “Psycho”

bates_motel_101Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

What ruins Norman Bates?

It’s the question on everyone’s mind as they tune in (in record numbers) to A&E’s drama series “Bates Motel,” the “before” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As we approach the series finale (airing Monday), are we any closer to identifying the source of Norman’s otherness—or at least a probable catalyst which makes Psycho a credible “after” for one of the most prominently disturbed characters in cinema history?

At what point does a slightly awkward, attractive, brainy do-gooder of a teenager become a sexually confused, murderous social deviant? The answer has yet to be found within “Bates Motel,” which is just beginning to find its legs as a drama as we come to the conclusion of its first ten-episode season.

If Psycho is Hitchcock horror at its finest, “Bates Motel” is a few Asian sex slaves ahead of being a watered-down Nancy Drew mystery, with the ending already set in stone nearly fifty years ago.

Psycho teaches us that evil has an inherent home within his mother, after all.

…that has to be it, right? We need someone to blame, and if Hitchcock’s extensive filmography has taught us anything, it’s to never trust a woman.

But, the assumption that Norma’s ways are cloying and possessive (damagingly so) has implicated her since the release of Psycho. “Bates Motel” hasn’t exactly shown us otherwise, and for good reason. It’s a classic argument made against the infamous maternal presence in Norman’s life, which is never anything more than a corpse and sloppy-drag incarnate in Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece, but a much more tangible presence in “Bates Motel,” as Norma Bates’ relationship with her son serves as the framework for the series instead of a thematic crutch. If “Bates Motel” were in clumsier hands, the ideology of the 1960 classic might have bled into the contemporary cloth. Norma isn’t worth exploring as a character; she is now and has always been the pre-established burden of femininity; the bane of Norman’s existence; the origin of blame and the source of Norman’s life and his demise. But it’s time we view such analysis as archaic, much like Alfred Hitchcock’s objectification of women in nearly every film he ever made. It’s time to move past old assumptions because, frankly, “Bates Motel” is in some ways the worst potential multi-season narrative ever conceived. With a conclusion that’s become common knowledge far outside just the film community, how does a series earn its legs as a prelude for an already-exposed ending? The answer lies in its treatment of gender and its disregard for Hitchcock’s ideologies.

“Bates Motel” doesn’t incriminate Norma as a woman, but rather as someone on, in the simplest terms, an intense power trip. Having the series set amidst a modern backdrop (complete with iPhones and high school raves) alleviates the foreboding presence of old-timey perspectives on the issues of transvestitism, motherhood, and gender identity which made Psycho at once a blessing and a curse for the queer identity in cinema and society. The time is here and the time is now; dressing Norman up in women’s clothing simply wouldn’t have the same immediately-othering effect as it did in the 60s.

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The strength of “Bates Motel” lies in its insistence on not equating anything, from convoluted morals to pure murderous evil, with gender. Whereas Hitchcock’s Psycho epilogue seeks to explain, bit by bit, Norman’s psychological and gender-based transformation from a man’s mentality to a woman’s, “Bates Motel” instead sifts through the psychobabble bullshit and delivers a pure representation of actions without generalized implications.

The series begins as Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman (Freddie Highmore) move to the fictional town of White Pine Bay, Oregon (a town with a local economy supported by Marijuana distribution and patrolled by corrupt police officers staking a cut), to start afresh after the demise of the family patriarch. Norma is a woman, but she’s also in a position of power, enough power and conviction to move her son across the country to build a placid state of blissful isolation from the past. Here, “mother” is not inherently synonymous with “possessive,” but Norma’s relationship with Norman is, at least we’re to believe, almost solely responsible for his social ostracizing in White Pine Bay. When Norma is in trouble (which happens shortly after the move), Norman’s life is put on hold. He needs to “be there” for her, as he often explains, which often gets in the way of his social land sexual progress. Norma is raped in the first episode of the season, and Norman aides in the fending off (and eventual death and disposal of) the attacker. Norma hides the evidence, and Norman assists. Norma is found out, and Norman puts his life on hold to assure her freedom. Whatever the circumstance, Norman is implicated alongside Norma by pure choice. It isn’t until the midway point that we come to understand that Norman’s clingy behavior is predisposed. He has a mental deficiency, one which makes him hallucinate, to see things that aren’t there. Often, it’s images of his mother telling him what to do. We’ve come to observe in waking life that Norma is far more subtle in her controlling ways. She likes to imply, to suggest, and to coax, but never command Norman to do her bidding. Their bond is assumed, and Norman has simply grown to subconsciously accept it as normal, even in the face of strong opposition to the relationship from his brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), and English teacher, Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy). Norman is constantly overshadowed by people far more influential than he. Acting on the advice and whim of others is Norman’s specialty.

There’s only one explanation (or exposition, one might argue) for this that’s been given thus far. After guiding our suspicions onto Norma for the death of her husband, it is revealed midway through the season that it is Norman, in a fit of all-encompassing psychotic rage after his father harms Norma, who commits murder. This had apparently been going on for quite some time as Dylan, who left the family a few months prior to escape Norma’s manipulative ways, consistently reminds her of the turbulent marriage and its damaging effect on her sons. While Norman is directly responsible for his father’s death, he only did so because of Norma’s involvement. It is a subconscious trigger which fondles Norman’s psychotic nerve to protect his mother, manifesting itself in other ways in his conscious state, particularly within his skepticism regarding her relationship with Officer Shelby (Mike Vogel). The bond is psychological, physical only to the extent of Norma’s keen insistence that her son’s proximity remain consistently close. The bond is not gendered, but rather familial. Would these implications against Norma be any different if the roles were reversed? If Norma had been the physically abusive spouse instead of her husband? Understanding the bond and its balance between mental and physical (and Norman’s inability to accept casual affections from anyone else including Bradley, his crush and first sexual partner) is key to understanding the effects of possession itself versus lumping everything into the category of maternal smothering.

Although Norma is obsessively possessive of Norman, her power as a character is derived from her strong-headed will and conviction to her actions, not solely based on active sexual power or pull on Norman’s sexuality or any other man’s. We’ve been given enough information at this point to know that she’s more than capable of getting herself out of complex situations where coupling is only a loose connection versus a binding commitment. Shelby is a sexual deviant (he traffics sex slaves in and out of his house) Norma sees fit to use for her benefit only after he initiates an attraction. Norma falls into the right line of attraction at the right time. She doesn’t proposition him and serve her vagina with a side of deception, rather it is Shelby who pursues a relationship while Norma falls for him outside the net of intent she’d originally cast by complying with his advances; she grows more invested than simply indulging his desire for her own gain (and the opportunity he presents, on the opposite side of the law but willing to do things like steal incriminating evidence from the storage room to ensure it won’t be used against her), so her power over him transcends both of their sexual desires into something emotionally-based. He wants to protect her, and she is more than willing to accept the help without lording sex over his head; she doesn’t have to. “I love you, you idiot,” he tells her in Episode 4, and she smiles; they kiss as Shelby pushes Norma against her car amidst a backdrop of the misty bay. It’s almost sickeningly reminiscent of a romantic melodrama of the 1950s, indicating that Norma is able to have “real” relationships outside of the one she has with Norman. While sex might be a component, it’s not the definition. And Norma’s frustrations about her son’s budding sexuality seem to stem more from her knowledge of how she experiences sex as a would-be tool for manipulation rather than an all-out attempt to smother him. Again, this is not inherently a “gendered” issue, working against Hitchcock’s insistence on adorning Norman in women’s clothing and a wig as an immediate sign of othering.

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Norma’s ability to have an onscreen sexual relationship with a man who isn’t Norman’s father only strengthens “Bates Motel” as a challenger of Psycho-era ideals of female sexuality. In 1960 her son is a social deviant, a feminized male demonized not only for his murderous ways but also because he kills under the guise of being a woman—of believing he is a woman, of actively making himself a woman. His mother, dead throughout the entirety of the film, lives on only in Norman’s mind. He becomes his mother, or whatever memory of her Norman keeps alive within his own psyche, an unimaginably taboo subject for an audience not nearly as socially evolved (or accepting) as the one watching “Bates Motel” today. With or without being a killer, Norman is othered purely by gendered deviance. The “normal” side of him is calculating and precise; he is fully aware that there is a hole in the parlor wall into the adjacent hotel room. He actively peeps through it, wanting to see a young woman undress, which ultimately triggers the maternal murders. The clothes don’t materialize on his body. It is Norman who puts the dress and wig on, who grabs the knife from its resting state, and plunges it into Marion Crane’s body. It’s a female-driven, female-executed act of male sexuality (even the word penetration resonates masculinity). In “Bates Motel,” we’re still exploring a Norman who is unquestionably uncomfortable with the murderous dreams he has of Bradley (Nicola Peltz), after she reveals that their one-night stand was in fact just a one-night stand. Norman still passively receives the thoughts from his subconscious.

Present-day Norman is not mentally unstable because his mother is a woman with similar mental complexes; it is authority, rather, and the convolution of authority above Norman, which contributes to his state of being. Norman’s father, as we glimpsed a few episodes back, is abusive; lazy; violent. His mother, pushed into a corner far too many times, retaliates. She wins. But she wins through Norman, as her victimization triggers Norman’s patricide. It is Norman rebelling against the male side he’s yet to fully explore (his budding sexual escapades with Bradley, confused emotional attachment to Emma, his acceptance of Dylan as a pseudo father figure, etc., each indicate that Norman is not yet a “man,” but very much still an inexperienced boy on the verge of technical adulthood). Gender plays a role in Norman’s transformation, but it is far from the defining factor of his psychological evils. Similarly, Norma’s relationship with Shelby is not deviant because it is sexual, but rather pathetic in its teetering between legitimacy and fraudulence. Norma enjoys the romantics, but the burden of murderous guilt (and the benefits screwing a crooked cop with ways to decriminalize her public name) prompts her to keep the relationship from gaining as much momentum as Shelby would like. Shelby desires a nuclear family. He wants to claim both Norma and Norman as his own. The problem is he already asserts himself as a dominant sexual force as a sex-slave trafficker. He owns “vagina,” but not “sexuality,” and Norma is far too concerned with preserving an ideal state of illusion to toy with a man predisposed with old-fashioned perspectives on female sexual and domestic possession.

I’ve heard many fans of “Bates Motel,” new to the world of Psycho or longtime Hitchcock savants criticize Norma’s newly personified presence in this TV series. “Sure, blame it all on the woman,” I remember reading on Twitter after the premiere episode, the budding feminist anger building to a slow boil as the show continues. If the viewer is angry that Norma is a convoluted person, or angered by the fact that she’s a woman, or interprets that anger as the show being anti-woman, that’s simply the viewer’s responsibility and lazy projection. Norma is not evil because she’s a woman. At no point does “Bates Motel” offer us any indication that women are inherently deceptive and smothering with the intent to turn their sons into serial killers; Norma’s gender is treated as happenstance, as an afterthought; she is simply Norma. Do we need someone to blame? Is Psycho going to be any less impactful if “Bates Motel” offers an alternative framework to the one we’ve believed for fifty years? More importantly, is it inherently evil of us to assume that a male’s source of deviant corruption can only come from his mother? She’s a mother with questionable parenting skills, but skills which can’t be seen as the sole ingredient in the murderous monster mix of an adult Norman Bates—that is, perhaps, until season 2.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

A Feminist Revolution (If Only for Hannah): “Girls” Season 2, Episode 5

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You’d think after two seasons of getting it wrong, Hannah Horvath would at least have a slight grasp on how to put one foot in front of the other. Instead, Girls creator/writer/director super-hybrid Lena Dunham continues to put the character in situations which yield little crop for Hannah’s ambitious quest to acclimate into the “real” world.

The only problem is that Hannah’s interpretation of the real world is often clouded by her insistence on seeing it like a child, a self-made roadblock to the fullest extent. She knows what she wants to do; become a writer, and we assume she’s a great one (although we’ve only been treated to glimpses of her work), otherwise we wouldn’t have a running goal to frame an entire television series around. But, making “it” happen takes time, a diligent work ethic, and money, each of which–living in the fast-paced, expensive New York City–Hannah just doesn’t have.

Sunday’s episode of Girls registers as one of the most polarizing of the entire series. Social media was aflutter, as was my phone’s inbox, with people either complaining about the episode’s drastic shift in tone from the rest of the series, or praising it as one of the most uniquely impressive entries into the show’s already-impressive repertoire.

I fall into the latter category, but let me explain myself.

Season 2’s fifth episode sees Hannah developing a whirlwind attraction for a 42-year old who lives just down the block from the coffee shop where she works. Josh[ua, as he keeps reminding Hannah when she shortens it], played by Patrick Wilson, is upset because someone from the coffee shop is placing their trash into his cans. Hannah invites herself into his home after leaving work, shares in a glass of lemonade tinged with basic conversation topics, and, you know, has sex with him.

The midday affair turns into a two-day sexfest, with Hannah and Joshua both calling off work the next day to stay home and cuddle, eat steaks from the grill, muse about his aging, and have sex after playing a few dozen sets of naked ping pong (the game table facilitates the fun stuff, of course).

The tone of the episode mirrors its content. The framing is stationary, almost static at times, and highly claustrophobic. We are treated to countless shots of Hannah and Joshua fit tightly into compositions which read more like 18th century portraits versus moving images from a 2013 television series. At once this functions as a means to isolate Hannah from the outside world, seeing as she’s indulging in a sex fantasy come to life. But, on the other hand, we can also read these shots as Dunham’s insistence on attempting to push Hannah into a frame of normality, which simply doesn’t work—and for good reason.

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Hannah learns that Joshua is a doctor (hence the fabulous house, standard-sized in any other part of the country, but a small-scale castle when placed into the arena of New York City housing prices), recently separated (but not divorced) from his wife, who now lives in San Diego. “What did you do? I mean, to make her leave?” Hannah asks him, with all the terrible experience of her former loves building to a head in that very moment.

In essence, Joshua represents the ideal life for someone like Hannah, who has unrealistically dropped into her lap like a Godsend from straight girl heaven. He’s attractive, tall, sensitive, loaded, and the fact that he’s “separated” and not “divorced” adds a little bit of scandal (if harmless) to the whole affair, something we’re to believe a girl in Hannah’s position (penniless, struggling liberal arts major, twenty-something with big ambitions and no means for which to accomplish them) would jump at. He could provide her with stability, money, and good sex—things she isn’t used to (or at least things she’s only been used to in parts, but never all together at the same time). The cinematography in this episode shifts from merely isolating Hannah from the rest of the world in a bubble of sexual satisfaction to attempting to shove her into sort of picture-perfect, portrait-style framing of a typical life she could have so very easily if she were to be with a man who supports her. The problem is that Joshua is distracting Hannah from living. Having no money and trying to make it on your own in one of the most expensive, dream-crushing cities in the world is a task which takes an independent to succeed, and an even greater one to fail. Hannah realizes this when she’s revealing some of her deepest thoughts to him after sex, and the spark that was once in Joshua’s eyes dims mid-conversation. He’s not interested in feelings or philosophy. He doesn’t understand Hannah’s mind, he merely understands her body as a placeholder for the emptiness he feels having lost the “stable” part of his adult life. Hannah might be 24, but she’s by no means an adult; her experiences are yet to be had. “I just want to feel everything,” Hannah tells him, not realizing that at 42 he’s felt close to the “everything” she speaks of.

We’ve already seen Jessa get herself into this situation, and both times now we’ve seen that the “ideal” life for a New York woman is not, as it would seem, that of a rich housewife sitting at home using her husband’s money to hone her craft. It’s artificial.

After indulging in a few last-minute housewife experiences, however, after Joshua goes to work (browsing his huge closet, reading The New York Times at an outdoor breakfast nook while eating the finest organic jams his pantry has to offer), Hannah leaves the house, taking out the trash (her “growing up,” so to speak) and fitting it into a garbage can once plagued with trash from the coffee shop. She leaves the “sex vacation” behind and makes her way to the street. In a single shot (which breaks the stagnant framing of the interior) the camera becomes mobile and pans over, watching Hannah her make her way out of the static confines of immature passions (and constrictive framing) to the bustling road at the end of the stagnant avenue she’s on, towards a life where she’ll have to work for her stability. She leaves a life of ease and makes her way towards one where she has to work for herself in order to “feel everything,” not let some man from a dream world she doesn’t have the right to inhabit yet give it all to her based on a whirlwind bout of sexual passion.

The episode does something we’ve rarely seen in Girls before, a true turning point for Hannah as a character. We’re used to seeing her make a fool of herself. At 24, she makes a sincere proposal to her parents to support her writing at $2,000 a month until her book is finished. She does cocaine because a shitty blog editor tells her it will be a “good experience to write about.” Hannah has no filter between what’s conductive to her career and what’s simply an immature decision made out of desperation and destitution. Hannah generally fails to see herself for what she is. She knows she’s broke, but we get the sense that she sees that as more of a beautiful “struggling artist-chic” sort of thing than a “I have a shit job and can’t pay my rent” kind of thing. In this episode, Hannah confronts the side of her that makes her pathetic and, hopefully, had her sights on getting it together as she made her way out of Joshua’s house and down that long road back to the coffee shop. She realizes that staying with Joshua would only be indulging the child in her that relishes in the fantasy of not having to work, being with a rich man, and having it easy on Park Avenue for the rest of her life.

For once Hannah grows up, and Lena Dunham’s genius writing couldn’t have made the process any more satisfying–for us, at least.

Andrea and the Boys; Analyzing One of the Most Hated Characters on Television

The natural order of life gives birth to the structural order of society; an infinitely dichotomous relationship forming between free-flowing chaos and streamlined rigidity. When flesh-eating zombies are thrown into the mix, however, the man-made confines of civilized society fall victim to the “natural” order of patriarchal dominance—if we’re using the ideological outlook of AMC’s The Walking Dead as a playbook for the end of the world, that is.

While it’s hard to know just how the societal cookie will crumble once humanity is faced with the actual apocalypse, The Walking Dead seems to think men have the upper hand in a broken down, flesh-eating fantasyland. The series sees a group of survivors (about equally comprised of men and women) fighting their way through metropolitan Atlanta in the midst of a zombie infestation (Epidemic? Outbreak? Have we deemed an appropriate term for this by now?), reverting largely to the hunter-gatherer state of living we all remember learning about during the Neanderthal unit in elementary school. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) leads the pack with an iron fist and a soft underbelly; He’s authoritative but level-headed, with his go-to “veep” Shane (Jon Bernthal) nipping at the heels of his newfound authority. Both men are former police officers, typical posterboys for a male-dominated field synonymous with control, power, and brute force.

The women of the group, most notably Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne-Callies) and middle-aged mother Carol (Melissa McBride) take on a much more passive role; cooking, mothering, and all-around homemaking in a world devoid of homes or families to fit within them.

One woman, however, doesn’t take kindly to her would-be role as submissive camp servant; Andrea (Laurie Holden) is the black sheep of the female survivors, rejecting any notion that she’s there to serve anyone but not entirely free from patriarchal constraint, either. It seems that, for these very reasons, the public’s relationship with the character has been tumultuous at best. She can’t even find solace in the confines of online message boards. Endless posts ragging on her “whiny” episodes, her unwillingness to “shut up,” and her inability to “stop being a bitch.” But, do these fears represent a genuine dislike of the character or a subconscious self-hatred for contributing to a society that’s made Andrea the conflicted, restless, emotionally unstable woman that she is?

When I say “emotionally unstable,” I hope not to conjure images of a hysterical numbnut. Andrea’s lost a sister, a protector, her “old” life and, as of Season 3, her newfound “family” (the group left her at the farm, assuming she was dead). Andrea never really “fit in” with the hierarchical scale of the survivors in the first place. The constant power struggle between Rick and Shane intensified in Season 2, leaving little room for female characters to “butt in” to the conversation. Lori, the “First Lady” of the group was, at best, Head Housewife of Season 2. Let’s face it—Lori embodied passivity and stereotypical womanliness that a single television character can. A doe fought for between two hot-heated bucks, Lori was the sexual and emotional “prize” in the feud between her husband and Shane. She was knocked up, had to be “saved” by her husband multiple times, and spent the majority of the season rounding up the other women to do chores and housework around Hershel’s farm.

Andrea, on the other hand, was busy getting over Dale’s decision to “save” her from her decision to end her life during the finale of Season 1. An independent “person” (gender has no room to talk, here), Andrea was able to decide for herself that she no longer wanted to passively endure the hand she’d been dealt. Her sister now a flesh-eating zombie, the rest of her biological family dead, and seeing no clear reason to continue, Andrea chose death. In essence, a much bolder decision than Dale’s to forcefully insert himself into another person’s problem until he gets what he wants. We see him do this again in Season 2 when the group ponders the fate of an “intruding” survivor they’re holding as prisoner in Hershel’s barn. Dale kicks, screams, and makes a fool of himself stomping around the farm like a five-year old until someone agrees with his wishes to keep the man alive versus the majority decision to kill the prisoner. Andrea is bitter for Dale’s “intervention,” and rightfully so.

Things don’t go much smoother when Dale bars Andrea from using her own gun out of fear she’ll use it to kill herself. Shane and Rick agree, although Andrea wants to help them protect the group instead of folding linens and looking pretty in the RV. Again, the patriarchal societal structure keeping her one step behind the men in line with the other women.

Andrea’s presence in the community can best be described as a challenge to the male authority that controls it. She’s the only woman (save for Maggie and Michonne in Season 3) that take any sort of active role in protecting the group; Andrea learns to steadily wield a gun in Season 2 (after Shane effectively plays her emotional chords) and becomes what the men clearly view as a “third-rate” asset to their defensive team; she’s ultimately used for “keeping watch” on the farm.

While Andrea is treated as an afterthought for most of the men, she actively inserts herself into the role of sexual object during a key moment in Season 2. She and Shane embark on a small road trip to search for Sophia. After an hour or so of successful zombie slaying, Andrea—seemingly “turned on” by her exploits as an active member of their small militia—initiates a sexual encounter with Shane. She forcefully grabs his crotch out of left field, instigating a romp in their vehicle unlike anything else we’ve really seen before on The Walking Dead. It might seem out of place, but for a woman on this show it’s a moment from the heavens. Andrea chooses to seduce the man not to gain anything from him other than his penis. She’s not sleeping her way up the chain of command, but merely satisfying her own sexual craving. The moment of passion is barely referenced again throughout the rest of Season 2, indicating yet again that it means nothing more than a momentary brush with ecstasy amidst a world of terror and despair. She breaks from her would-be role as passive female, placing herself at the forefront of her own desires, taking the man (and our perceptions of female sexuality) along for the ride. Her ride.

For me, Andrea’s shining moment comes when Hershel’s daughter, Beth, teeters on the edge of suicide and is placed under house arrest by her family. Andrea agrees to take watch, only to whisper sweet nothings of reality into Beth’s ear. She tells her if she wants to die, there’s nothing wrong with that; the decision is hers and hers alone. Neither persuading her to die as Dale persuaded Andrea to live nor hoping to scare her into living, Andrea gives Beth perspective. She levels the playing field instead of building against for or against her; just because Beth is a young female doesn’t mean she has to submit to the overarching control of her family’s desires. Her decision to die is her decision alone. And, of course, Andrea’s name is besmirched yet again once Beth chooses death.

Beth is ultimately saved from her decision, just as Andrea was last season, but Andrea is forced to deal with the aftermath alone. Beth is “clearly” a victim of Andrea’s manipulative ways, when all the latter did was gently open Beth’s eyes to another perspective, not having to pry them open with a crowbar as forceful as Dale’s. Lori in particular is hard on her, saying that Andrea has barely done anything to help the other women construct the façade of the homespun fantasyland Lori so unrealistically seeks to maintain. Lori is a woman blinded by the weights around her ankles grounding her in a sort of post-feminist world which sees her as a safety net for the men to fall back on—sexually, emotionally, and for simple peace of mind. She preserves the comforting “image” of the nest while Andrea actively seeks to physically keep it—and its contents—alive.

My biggest problem is that The Walking Dead and its characters never seem to acknowledge Andrea as anything more than a tag-along pain in the ass. As an audience we’re given pieces of a puzzle to solve and make connections here and there on our own, but Andrea becomes a case for study on our part while the inter-character conflicts remain diegetic. I’m not sure if the show is making a case for women’s rights by attempting to funnel the audience’s perception of this post-apocalyptic societal breakdown in a negative light. We’re clearly meant to understand that this is a world driven by brute strength, cunning, and power—things none of the women on the show have. Society, for them, has devolved into a primitive state of man-before-woman, the male characters taking clear control over each of the major survival groups we’ve seen so far and will continue to see in Season 3 (The Governor, I’m looking at you). The women have “accepted” their passive roles thanks to an unspoken, almost preconceived veil of inferiority following them around from pre-zombie society; Carol was an abused housewife, Lori was a mother living in the shadow of her powerful husband. Is the show critical of this way of life the characters seem to have simply fallen into without question? Do the creators of the series genuinely believe the world will revert to this sort of primitive existence in the face of such apocalyptic events? Or are we meant to see this sort of power structure as archaic as a result of our own notions of right and wrong which still exists outside the lore and fantasy of The Walking Dead?

The answer to that question lies within Andrea. We’re supposed to see her as a woman fighting back against the “inherent” societal structure which succeeds on male activity and female passivity. Andrea is forced to deal with backlash from a public audience who deem her as insignificant and a waste of space. I welcome an existentially-questioning character in a show like The Walking Dead. She’s conflicted far and away above the other characters, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. I have no doubt in my mind that the majority of people watching this show don’t want to entertain the effort that’s required to fully appreciate Andrea’s character. Her history on the show is complex and tainted by her insistence on merely existing as she sees fit, not on anyone else’s terms—especially not the men who see it necessary to revert to primitive hunter-gather, active-passive binaries based solely on gender. Andrea is flawed, but beautifully so; in a post-rules, post-structure, post-logic world she’s merely regaining her consciousness as an independent female fighting against a tragedy-induced society of patriarchal command.