Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Golden Years - episodes 5 & 6


Episode 5 "Second Chance"

Angie:

Captain Marsh of the state police radios into Andrews to let him know they've found the stolen cruiser with 3 people inside that he believes are sleeping. Before Andrews can give him an order, General Crewes interrupts to ask what is going on. He is informed that he no longer has control of his base by Burton who has orders directly from the Secretary of Defense to put Andrews in charge. Andrews orders the police to fire at the car but don't blow it up or hurt Harlan. They can kill the others. Marsh has no intention of following such an insane order.  He orders his crew to shoot the tires and around the car, but not the car itself or the people. Once that's done, the captain slowly approaches the car with his hands up asking them to come out. As expected, it's just three dummies in there, decked out like scarecrows wearing signs labeling them Moe, Larry, and Curly. Andrews throws the radio in a rage as the police laugh. He's even more determined to get back at Terry now.

In order to get to Chicago safely, Harlan decides to split up from Gina and Terry. Gina's not happy about it at all, but she gets on a bus with Terry and leaves him behind. The bus driver is played by Stephen King, and he's super cranky.  He and Terry exchange some banter, and while he's not a great actor, you can tell he's having fun with it.

Crewes sits in Terry's office shooting at the marionettes (hey, they paid for them, they may as well use them again) and looking at her fish. He talks aloud to the security camera she kept in her office that he thinks is still safe from Andrews and wonders if she's still alive out there.  He eventually calls Major Moreland's secretary who brushes him off before realizing who he is and frantically runs to get her boss.  He gets Moreland to come to Terry's office and bring Harlan's file with him.  He also orders him to send everyone in admin home for the day.

Interspersed with these scenes, we see Andrews talks to an unspecified someone on the phone, admitting he's lost sight of them and let his rage for Terry get in the way, and he doesn't know where they are or where they're going.  He then mopes around for a bit before finally thinking of Moreland and trying to get through to admin.  There's a mildly amusing scene where Moreland's secretary sees the phone ringing while she's packing up to leave, and she desperately wants to do her duty and answer it but ultimately walks away.
Crewes sees mention of the Williams' daughter in the file and takes the paper out. He tells Moreland to hack into the database and delete Harlan's file while he shreds the physical copy. Moreland hems and haws while Andrews orders Burton over to admin to get a copy of the file. What results is an eventual race between the two of them with Moreland only just beating Burton to it because a security guard distracts him.  Crewes convinces Moreland to go to Chicago with him because Andrews will kill him if he stays. He gets in Moreland's trunk since he's not allowed to leave the base. The security guard at the gate checks the trunk, looks right at Crewes, then closes it right up and let's them leave.  It's a nice little moment for the guard as he decides to ultimately do what is right instead of what he's been ordered.

In the middle of all this we also get some scenes with Toddhunter that are as painful as always.  He's all set to run another experiment but he's missing a cable.  He calls and orders one, the delivery guy wants him to sign forms, he pushes him out the door, it turns out the plugs don't match.  He orders another cable, and this time the delivery guy makes him sign everything.  If this is supposed to be funny, I'm not laughing.  When he finally gets everything hooked up a warning message goes off that he promptly ignores and begins his experiment.

Harlan has been picked up by a truck driver who has agreed to take him to Chicago.  Harlan falls asleep in the truck just as night falls and starts to glow green. The truck's windshield wipers and radio go nuts before the engine completely dies. Pulled over on the side of the road, the truck driver watches as the sun mysteriously starts to rise again. The driver tries to shake Harlan awake and gets freaked out at his glowing eyes. The ground shakes and splits apart. Harlan's secret is out.

That last moment is completely insane. Talk about taking things to a severe degree randomly out of nowhere. Is it because Toddhunter is doing his experiment at the same time? But why would that effect Harlan so far away? How could he cause the earth to shake or the sun to rise? Where the hell is King possibly going to take this from here?

Beyond that, pacing continues to be a problem, as I figured out pretty early on that the car was empty of people yet that scene of the cops trying to catch them just went on and on.  And there's lots of Andrews just moping about for no reason, and there's a scene with Terry and Gina on the bus that I didn't even bother to recap because it's just Gina asking "what's happening to Harlan?" and Terry answering with information we already know.  These episodes start with recaps of what happened previously besides that, so this constant repetition of events in case this was someone's first episode are really ridiculous and unnecessary.

I guess that whole thing last episode with Andrews going to Billy's locker is just going to be ignored?  And wasn't Toddhunter technically fleeing the facility then?  Why is he back and running his experiments like normal?  Shouldn't he be upset about his dead mice?  I can't help but wonder if something was going on behind the scenes here that forced King to change direction.  Of course it's also possible that I'm  being impatient and all this will make sense in the next couple episodes.

But with all that said, the middle part of this episode was pretty nice.  Watching Burton and Moreland both trying to get at Harlan's file was handled very well, and I honestly didn't know which one of them was going to succeed.  I also liked seeing a little more humanity to Andrews this time around, admitting he has faults and made mistakes goes a long way into making him feel more real to me.  I do wish we were getting a little more Fredericks beyond him just standing in the background of scenes though.

Noel:

OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUST GET ON WITH IT.

This pacing is killing me. Honestly, this is why I just can't get into King for the long haul, and why I applaud Angie for having gone as deeply as she has. Every time I try, I just run into everything being bloated out with a complete lack of an editorial finesse to let his stories flow and move as they instead slowly flop along. Angie, you pondered if he intended this to be a half-hour show instead of an hour and thus padded things out. I'd argue this padding is inherent King. I run into it in every single novel, every single short story, every single script I've read and watched by him. It's not that he doesn't do brilliant, imaginative stuff, he just doesn't take the time to dig around it and clear excess mud away so we can more clearly appreciate the artifact encased within. The opening scene with the cops is a perfect microcosm of this. There's chunks of it I love, like the police chief's bitter disgust at Andrews' orders, then his determination to resolve it peacefully, then the big laugh they have over what they find and Andrews freaking out. This entire scene could have been done in 3 minutes, 5 minutes tops, but no, it goes on for 15 minutes, an entire third of the episode, with nonsense business about the poor radio reception, General Crewes poking in to reiterate what we already know of how he feels about Andrews (though I do like Andrews' dare to knock a few teeth in if it's worth the court martial), and the chief elaborately mapping out his strategy instead of just cutting straight to it being implemented as, given what's in the car, it doesn't really matter how they get in there.

Stephen King is not a master storyteller in my book, and this is why. He's masterful at creating characters, concepts, sequences, but there's so little craftsmanship to how he assembles it, so little honing of the material instead of just pouring it out on the page raw and largely filming or publishing it as is. I guess this is why I'm always more drawn to adaptations he himself wasn't involved in, because there's someone there actually paring things down.

As for the rest of the episode, the best stuff is definitely General Crewes' continued face turn, making him a much more compelling character, and the odd couple pairing he forces the flustered Major Moreland into. It does drag a little at first, but Stephen Root and Ed Lauter play off each other so wonderfully that moments like the document shredding and Moreland demanding orders in writing actually sell. And yeah, the bit with the guard at the gate is great. I do also love the bit with the secretary and the line of phones, and the whole keyboard race over the computer file. It's a nice scene that does a lot to establish Burton as a new member of the cast, but I am confused why they brought him in instead of just having this be Fredericks. I could understand it if Fredericks was otherwise occupied, but that's not the case. Oh well, it's still a nice scene, and I also quite enjoy the bit with the competent security guard.

But yeah, most of the episode is a slog. I do like the strategy of separating our leads, and the farewell scene at the bus stop is touching (and a great King cameo), but the scene on the bus is bloated, and has that annoying kid with her "Whenever something hurts, you're supposed to kiss it!" line. Ugh! And the fucking Toddhunter SNL sketch. What was that?! The later Andrews' scenes also don't do much for me, as they're mostly just him sulking in his room, and then coming up with something he should have checked in the first few hours of the situation. Seriously, they should have been all over Harlan's daughter with surveillance by now.

And as for the ending, I was totally with it and intrigued when Harlan started shorting out close range electronics, but then he, quite literally, moves heaven and Earth? That is a pretty massive ability to just whip out this early in the game, and where they're going to take it, I don't have a clue.

Overall, more dragging, more frustration, with some nice moments buried in there, but your mielage will continue to vary as to whether or not it's worth the dig. Stephen Tolkin (who I know much more as a film and television writer) does a smooth, clean job with the direction, but King leaves him hanging with too many wandering voids in the script to let it be anything but slow going.

Episode 6 "Third Time Lucky?"

I've become especially curious to reach this episode and the one after, because I learned early they were actually scripted by someone else working off an outline by King instead of King himself. Sure enough, this is resolving a lot of the pacing issues I was having, tightening things up at a snapper clip and finally diving us into threads they've kept dangling away from us the last few episodes. I'm not saying it's still without problems, which I'll get to, but even the music is jauntier this time around.

Terry and Gina are tiring of their long bus trip, over a lack of both sleep and word on Harlan, and Gina's starting to crack as she insists on being able to call her daughter. Terry calms her into waiting as they only have an hour left to ride, but as they again head out, a diner clerk recognizes them from the "Wanted" fliers being passed around. Sure enough, there's a Shop agent waiting for them at the final stop. In a fun if typical scene, Terry convinces a gaggle of jocks that the agent is a man harassing her, so they harass him until coming across his badge, but not before Terry and Gina slip away.

They arrive at Francie's apartment, but she's out on a night shift and Terry says they should get some sleep. She quickly crashes on the couch (somehow waking up later in her bra and panties despite being fully dressed here) but Gina brushes this off and busies herself with worry and tidying up. There's a later line about her looking pale the next day, so I'm wondering if they're setting up a health issue that'll be dealt with later.

Francie arrives, and she's every bit the aging hippie radical activist we were promised, with tie-dye shirts, Lennon shades, and pictures of communist leaders on her walls. Which is surprising as even most actual Marxists are very critical of what Lenin and Mao Zedong did with the movement, especially Mao's scrubbing of cultural history, and being a socialist does not mean being a communist, so somebody didn't think this one through. Anyway, she's played by Harriet Sansom Harris, whom I've loved on Frasier and Desperate Housewives, so I'm happy, and they thankfully don't overplay the character, focusing much more on her instant hostility with Terry, and her relationship with her parents. In fact, I really like the touching scene where the barbs between her and Terry reach a breaking point and they just start opening up to one another, Francie admitting her rebel streak was because she wanted to do something important while her dad was a quiet, comfortably average joe perfectly willing to make due as a janitor all his life, and how he was always so supportive that she rebelled against the world because she had nothing to really rebel against at home. This is capped by a nice moment of Terry admitting she definitely is one of the "pigs" Francie has spent her life fighting against, but she "gave up my snout" once this all went down.

Back with our villains, remember how Jude walked off with Billy a couple episodes back to see the dead mice in Billy's locker? Yeah, so nothing really came of that as he's now showing up at Billy's trailer home and the young man has fully taxidermied them into bookends. Or at least one of them, but who makes a single bookend? Well, it is Billy. I guess. Anyway, I do like Jude's strategy with Billy, being kind and friendly instead of using his usual strong-arm tactics as he knows those would probably lock someone like Billy up, and he uses this friendliness (albeit with an undercurrent of visible frustration) to learn the names and whereabouts of Harlan's children. That's right, in addition to Francie, there's also two sons spread out in cities we'd probably be visiting at some point had this continued as an ongoing series. Burton is able to build what they learn about Francie into her full address (received through a hilariously old shoulder-slung, corded cellphone), and he and Jude fly off to Chicago, where they're met by a pair of Shop agents (one's a familiar nosebleeder) and are promptly pulled over by local cops for speeding and having a trunk full of heavy artillery. This is a bit of a long scene, but amusingly timed in terms of the "who will get there first?" suspense being built, and I delighted in Jude giving the dickiest cop a farewell kick between the legs.

General Crewes and Major Moreland have also flown into Chicago, though Crewes recognizes a Shop plane and, sticking up the pilot, learns Jude beat them there by a hair. He goes off, leaving Moreland to guard the closet where the pilot is making actions of intercourse with a flight attendant.

Harlan has continued hitching his way along. We hear nothing more of the sun rising, but there have been some radio reports of the earthquake he caused. Stopping in a diner for some breakfast, his de-aging self is hit on by a frisky waitress (Margo Martindale!), until his eyes again roll back and glow green, and the place starts shaking. We don't see what happens after, but he eventually makes it to Francie's place, where everything is fully explained and she insists on going with them, along with her seeing eye dog, Whitney. They're uncertain, but don't have time to debate as Crewes is at their door, saying he's on their side and they need to get out as Jude is closing in. Hesitant to steal a car because of how quickly it'll be traced, Francie surprises everyone by producing keys, spares she hangs onto for a neighbor's car. Because that's a thing that happens?

They're met in the underground garage by Jude and his men, and a gunfight breaks out. Whitney gives away their position with a bark, though ultimately buys them some time by pouncing on Jude and tearing into him. Until he silences her with a bullet, the bastard. Terry has the idea of shooting out the fusebox for the lights so Francie, as her blindness isn't affected by the dark, can lead them to the car. But when they get there, the doors turn on the interior lights and Jude opens fire, plugging Terry in the arm as she shoots him across the cheek. Our heroes peel out, getting extra space due to a convenient truck and fruit stand at the end of the alley. Knowing an APB will quickly be put out on them and the car, they pull over under a bridge, and Crewes and the injured Terry go off, telling the others to give them 10 minutes, and if they aren't back by then, they probably won't be. Cliffhanger to the credits.

There's also more stuff with Dr. Toddhunter bossing around a new team of underlings as they power up another attempt at the experiment, and then flipping out when they refuse to go any further without Jude's say so. I do like parts of this, especially the stonefaced scientist refusing to back down as Toddhunter shrieks nonsense about mutiny in his face, as they all fear Jude a hell of a lot more than they do this weenie, but it's still Toddhunter nonsense. And there's another bit with him taking apart clocks that's just... no.

Overall, this episode moves much better than the last few, our story is taking some new twists and turns, the characters are still fun, especially as our hero team takes on a few new players, Allen Coulter's direction continues to be clean and capable, and the peeling back of Harlan's makeup continues to impress. My only real problem is that the new writer - Josef Anderson, a prolific TV vet of the 80s and 90s - can feel pretty forced in some of his dialogue and character interactions, not quite pulling off his attempts at King's goofier human moments. I'm thinking of scenes like Moreland's long spiel about how he just can't do something three times a week with his wife, and reveals it's square dancing, or Jude fuming at how Billy has Christmas lights up all year round, or the horny pilot. They aren't bad bits, they just aren't selling very well. Though they thankfully do take a back seat to character and plot as the episode gets further along. And I do think it's more than made up for by the better pacing. Even though there are still some scenes that drag on a bit, the overall work is much richer and snappier, and I'm curious to see how this holds as we get into episode 7.

Angie:

I didn't realize ahead of time that they called in another writer to help King, but I did take immediate notice in the opening credits when I saw that the "Teleplay by" credit featured another writer.  It makes you wonder why they didn't have someone redo all the scripts of this mini-series, turning them into something tighter, perhaps even only four episodes in length, covering all the bases of the story but not dragging it out this far.  Regardless, we get what we get, and what we get is an endgame that is definitely kicking into high gear.  There's a much better feeling of tension with the Moreland/Crewes vs. Andrews/Burton moments, and the shootout in the parking garage. But as Noel said, there's still issues here.

I disagree with Noel on the scene between Francie and Terry.  For one thing, Francie is needlessly combative and rude as a character straight from the start, and does absolutely nothing to endear me to her (I didn't notice the pictures in her apartment, but it doesn't surprise me no one bothered to do any research for this production).  I understand being upset that someone has literally broken into your home while you were gone, but when your mother is there and explaining things, going on and on about how much she doesn't trust Terry is excessive.  And then we get to that scene of them alone, and I don't know who Francie is talking about but it's not the Harlan we've seen the last five episodes.  "That's my father, always planning big things."  What?  From everything we've seen up to this point, he's a simple man with a simple job who enjoys the simple pleasures of living with his wife.  We saw him unwilling to retire, no doubt a desire to not rest on his laurels in his old age, but there was no hint that this man was a crazy schemer thinking of big ideas but never following through on them.  They left their home only when they were clearly in danger and had no other choice.  He's been going along with Terry's ideas all this time because he wanted to keep his wife safe, and no sign that he's finally getting to live out some grand fantasy of having adventures.  If this is meant to be some further insight into his character, I feel like it's coming too late in the game.

And yes, the humor falls flat regardless of who is writing it.  Moreland going on and on about the square dancing, the pilot making horrible passes at the stewardess, Billy staring blankly at Andrews after he asks a question, none of them are amusing.  Even the waitress flirting with Harlan was so cheesy that the good performance being given by Margo Martindale couldn't save it.  I don't think I even have to bring up Toddhunter at this point.  He's annoying, he's uninteresting, I wish he'd go away.

One other thing I want to say about what Noel mentioned earlier in his response to episode 5 re: King's pacing.  There's no denying that a lot of the time it is bloated, and that there are moments where you can tell that he's clearly just spending time with the characters, letting themselves slowly be revealed to him over time, while he waits for that little spark of inspiration that gets the narrative flowing.  There are instances where this is absolutely essential - Pet Sematary would not be half as moving if we didn't know little Gabe well before we lose him, and Louis' action would seem crazy if we didn't have an understanding of who he was and why he would be compelled to do those things.  Then there are novels like Bag of Bones, where King spends a ton of time with a man mourning his wife that has very little to do with the final confrontations of the novel and could easily be cut.  There's also one very important point to be made here: pacing a novel and pacing a tv show (especially a mini-series) should be handled very differently.

Up to this point, King had adapted some of his own written works for the screen, and for the most part he did a good job of revising and condensing them.  But it's pretty clear there was no rough draft in prose that King did first for Golden Years, and that while he's writing scripts in the technical format for television, he's pacing them like he would one of his novels.  Given the intention to possibly stretch this out into an ongoing series, I'd even go so far to say that he probably didn't have anything but the vaguest end goal in mind either.  So that's why I can read the doorstops that are The Stand or Under the Dome and savor every moment, while here I am so beyond ready to get to the final episode that it's ridiculous.

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