Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Golden Years episode 7, differences with the DVD version, & final thoughts

Episode 7 "The Final Blow"


Our band of refugees needs a place to stay for the night while they determine their next move, and fortunately Francie knows of a place. If you're surprised that it's a hippy commune, than you haven't been paying attention. One of the residents wearing a captain's hat is identified as Captain Tripps, a winking nod to the name of the virus that kills everyone in The Stand.  Francie knows someone in Wisconsin who can make them fake IDs to help them start over, and she's going to head that way ahead of the others to get them. After some poor jokes about tofu and seaweed, Crewes heads out to find a pay phone to call Moreland and let him know what's going on.

Moreland has quite literally been playing pretend with the plane, in a way that should be terrible but Stephen Root makes very entertaining.  Eventually though The Shop catches up with him, and by the time Crewes calls him, Moreland is just trying to find out his location so he can send The Shop there and save himself. Crewes doesn't give it away, but Captain Tripps is actually a sleeper agent for The Shop and he makes a call at the same time.
Oh joy, it's time to combine our two "funniest" characters, Toddhunter and Billy. 
Toddhunter needs two people to activate the security switches in order to run his tests, and a jamming out to his Walkman Billy arrives right on cue. After a painfully long moment before they turn the switches, Toddhunter sets a bunch of microphones around a clock. He has Billy flip a switch for him and things go green while the clock moves backwards. Because clearly something that would make your cells heal would also reverse the workings of a mechanical clock. The hands move faster and faster until the clock disappears at the two goofballs rejoice.

Gina and Harlan reminisce while dancing to an old song on the radio, and in the morning they make love.  Gina feels certain this is the last time and she says her goodbyes to him, saying that she knows eventually they will be together again.  Maybe it's because I just finished reading The Gunslinger, but the references she makes sound so much like King nodding toward Dark Tower alternate worlds that I can't help but wonder if that was what he was going for.

Andrews throws peanuts at Moreland while interrogating him. Burton interrupts to let Andrews know about the message from Captain Tripps and that he's got Toddhunter on the line. Andrews wants Toddhunter to halt his experiments and convinces him by promising him that he'll have Harlan very soon.  Exit Dr. Toddhunter - we hardly knew ye, yet we knew far too much already.

Terry and Crewes plan an exit strategy which is good because The Shop soon have them surrounded. Andrews threatens Burton again, saying that this is his last chance. Burton is starting to crack under the pressure but it's nothing compared to Moreland who has completely lost his mind. He starts ranting outside the hippy house, revealing their presence to Terry and Crewes, until Andrews shoots him.

One of the hippies wants to convince the cops to let them go, while the others stand in a circle and chant. Could this get any more stereotypical? The hippie even shouts "Hey Jude!" at Andrews. The talk ends with Andrews killing the two hippies attempting to negotiate with them as well as Tripps, who was standing around outside and apparently having second thoughts about being a sell out. They throw smoke and fire bombs into the house and our four heroes make their escape. Andrews of course figures out very quickly that they're gone.
Gina is thoroughly exhausted from their running and as Terry, Gina, and Harlan emerge from a drain pipe, they realize Crewes isn't with them anymore. Andrews emerges from the pipe  instead as Harlan's eyes begin to glow again. The glow spreads over his entire body and he holds Gina close. "You're coming with me" he says over and over, and the two of them disappear. Terry shoots Andrews directly in the heart and Crewes emerges from the pipe, claiming he got lost.

Terry asks him if he thinks people get second chances.  "I think we just did" she tells him.  The two of them decide to go off the grid and live their lives together, apparently deciding that the disappearance of  the Williams couple is simply not a problem to be concerned about anymore.  The mini-series ends with a quick shot of photos of a young Harlan and Gina that we saw in their house early on in the series.

If that ending seems abrupt and strange, it's because it was meant to be a cliffhanger.  King hoped that Golden Years would be turned into a regular series, but I don't think any of us are too surprised that CBS declined that offer.  They also were not interested in giving him a follow up mini-series to solve the mystery.    Honestly, while it's a little odd that Terry and Crewes aren't even remotely bothered by their disappearance, this does feel like an end to me.  Andrews is dead and Burton seems at least more level headed than his boss and would therefore hopefully not be so ruthless.  And if Harlan and Gina have simply disappeared from this world, than they're free.  Once again, that may just be me having Dark Tower thoughts, but when it comes to King's writing, that's pretty easy to do.

I suppose there's also a bit of a dangling thread there with Toddhunter and his experiments, but screw Toddhunter, I don't care.

The DVD release of Golden Years features a condensed "movie" version of the story with an ending that was changed to remove the cliffhanger.  I'm going to let Noel tell us about that because he happens to own a copy.


And I'm going to be very curious to see how they modified the ending on the DVD, because I actually like the note we end on here. I can see it going both ways. If we get a series, another Shop goon will come in and make violent statements that show he/she is even nastier than Andrews. Terry and Crewes can settle into survivalist mode before resurfacing to help out the heroes. Harlan and Gina could have merely teleported to a new location, either to their daughter in Wisconsin or one of their sons' houses. Toddhunter would keep pushing the experiments. But then the next twist is reversing the field*, finding a way to stop the wind back or restart the wind forward, where Harlan starts getting too young and needs to stop running away and instead run towards in order to find the cure to go forward again. If not for him, then for Gina.

[* I'm actually fine with the science of the clock, Angie, as they aren't healing cells, they're causing them to revert backwards to earlier states in their existence, so it being some sort of energy field kinda sorta makes sense in a fictional way. Doesn't explain how Harlan has the other powers he does, or why this isn't affecting his memories, but I can go with it to the limited degree we get here.]

Or, if we just end the story here, Andrews and Moreland have completed their arcs with death, Terry and Crewes wander off to start a new life, having proven to each other and themselves that there's more to them than cold government bureaucracy, and Harlan and Gina have simply faded into the ether, sharing in a last moment all they might lose as time quickly pulls them further and further apart, with the knowledge that their daughter is safe and there's no reason for anyone to hound their sons. Really, the only cliffhanger is Toddhunter relaunching the experiment, so fingers crossed that this is what they cut from the DVD. Seriously, pairing him with Billy is every bit the "oh joy" Angie says.
The episode does start pretty clunky, with the ridiculously stereotyped hippie commune, everyone falling victim to Captain Tripps, and probably the most unsubtle stakeout of undercover agents I've ever seen, handling assault rifles and machine guns out in the open, and touching their ear pieces every single time a message comes through. And why are the snipers standing on the rooftops instead of hunkered down and minimizing their visibility? It's very poorly staged.

But things start to pick up. I love the tender moments Harlan and Gina get to share, even as he's so visibly younger now that I think the only makeup on the actor are a bit on the cheeks and brow. I've really become attached to Terry and Crewes, and how they've significantly grown from the odd, twisted people we first met them when their motives were unclear (love the moment of him falling asleep during his first time on a water bed and her giving his head a kiss). Burton starting to crack is great, again showing how Andrews just burns through sidekicks before dumping them when he's tired of their stress management. And yeah, Root as Moreland steals the show. I especially love the sequence before he goes out on his rant, where he's playing a little game of trying to place a peanut on top of a bottle with the bottle opener, his sweaty mumbling steadily building into frustrated shouts as he ponders the paperwork necessary to allot this much force to a single location in the time they did, and all the red tape he'd get tangled in were he to try the same. And then the big shootout is striking in how brazenly far they take it, militarizing the police force and blowing away innocents in full public view. Which isn't such a fictional stretch these days.

Ultimately, I don't mind the note we ultimately go out on. Was it worth the build? Not really, but at least it gives me some closure, completes character arcs that I enjoyed watching amidst this morass, and ends with a quote from David Bowie. It's really the best I could have hoped for at this point.

Differences between the mini-series and DVD cut:

Before watching this, I want to start off with a little math. The running time on the DVD is 232 minutes. Adding up the running time of the 7 episodes on Netflix (first is feature-length), we get 370 minutes. We've got about 9 minutes of opening and closing title sequences, another 6-7 minutes of "previously on" material... so there's about 122 minutes, a hair over two hours worth of material, cut from this version. Please be Toddhunter's stuff. Please be Toddhunter's stuff...

I'm just going off my memory while watching this, so cuts I'm noticing:
  • Toddhunter frantically practicing his testimony in his apartment. Cuts straight to him calmly delivering it before the hearing.
  • Bits at the beginnings of episodes designed to recap plot, like when Terry was going through everyone involved on a monitor, or Crewes bursting into Andrews' command center.
  • Doctor Ackerman waking up to discover Andrews in his home. Cuts straight to him sitting over breakfast as Andrews threatens him.
  • We hear mention of a vanished scar from when Harlan visited Ackerman for an examination, but the scene where he first tells Gina about it and gives us the backstory is gone.
  • Terry asking for the lipstick. I'm sure there's some other business missing here, but they cut from her telling Harlan and Gina what Andrews will do to them, to them leaving the house and Terry giving the lipstick back to Gina. Message is still on the mirror.
  • The kids at the mall stealing Terry's car. We still see them when the car is picked up by police.
  • Aside from Billy's intro scene, he's been almost entirely removed. None of the business with the mice, none of Andrews asking him about Harlan's family.
  • After his scene at the hearing, many scenes with Toddhunter, where he was largely just there to remind us he was there, have been removed, including the watch bit with the guard. He comes back in when Andrews asks him about the project, they call the Secretary of Defense, and he resumes the experiment. A number of scenes after this are intact. We hear him promise to smuggle the lab mouse out, but the actual scene with the electric fence is gone. The graveyard bit is still there. Ugh. He still argues with his new staff, but him chasing them out of the lab is gone, as is the requisition nonsense with the cord. Billy comes back into things at the end as we still get the final bits with the clock.
  • The scene where Terry tells Harlan & Gina that it may be to their benefit to shoplift and use the red tape of police custody to keep them away from the Shop has been truncated, losing all of her explanation and instead opening just as Harlan asks what drawbacks would come from being locked up, making it look like he's the one raising the subject as it's quickly shot down by the Jack Ruby discussion.
  • The car crash, where they lose the hearse and steal the cop cruiser, and the ensuing scene of the sheriff and his men coming across the car in the field and talking to Andrews on the radio. We instead cut from Harlan, Gina, and Terry singing in the hearse to next seeing them at the bus stop with their plan to split up.
  • Andrews flashing back to his time with Terry, and firing at a vision of her in the shooting range.
  • The little girl's awful line on the bus.
  • Harlan at the diner, with the flirting waitress and his powers going off again.
  • Crewes and Moreland arriving at the airport, with Moreland talking about square dancing. After they leave the compound, we next see them landing in Chicago. We cut away before the bit of Moreland being left to guard the pilot in the closet.
  • Chunks of Francie at her apartment, including the scene where she and Terry hash things out.
  • Andrews and his men being pulled over by cops who ask about their trunk full of weapons.
  • Jude and his men following the other car out of the underground lot, being blocked by the garbage truck and fruit stand.
  • Terry and Crewes leaving the car, telling the others that if they're not back in 10 minutes, they won't be back.
  • Most of the shots of the undercover cops taking up stations around the house.
I heard the ending had been altered for this release, but it's left entirely as is. [Angie's note: This is why you never trust Wikipedia.]

Noel's Final Thoughts:

I went into Golden Years with a lot of curiosity. Not unmeasured curiosity, as there's reasons I only dip into King from time to time, but curiosity nonetheless. It's the one and only time in his career he attempted to create an original TV series, much in the same way Maximum Overdrive is intriguing because it's the one and only time he directed a film. What's interesting isn't that both fail because they're different wheelhouses that he's bringing himself into, but that's he's bringing too much of himself and not adapting the way he tells stories to fit the constraints of these mediums. I still like Maximum Overdrive, for all its craziness and coke-fueled nasty humor, but Golden Years suffers because he writes it like a novel. He starts, maybe has a basic idea where he eventually wants to go, but is just drifting along, poking at the story and characters until threads start to unspool. It's not a bad way to work out a story, it's just a first draft way, and my problem is that he rarely rewrites or reworks his early drafts, and leaving them be as is, so you can see when he's just wandering around before settling, or trying something only to backtrack, or looking at options and going "eenie-meenie-miney-moe", and never goes back with a branch and sweeps up those footprints. That's what we're getting here, the writer wandering in the woods without a map.
There's other problems as well. Half the episodes are very clumsily directed. Dr. Toddhunter is unbearably played by Bill Raymond, and all they did in the writing was play up that unbearable nature. Entire sequences are odd, out of place, poorly delivered. It's just an all around clumsy show, taking too long to engage with its story, and only pulling off what engagement it has part of the time.

So no, I ultimately don't recommend it.

However, if, like me, you are still curious to check it out,  there are things in there to enjoy. Stephen Root is a delight as Major Moreland, especially as he becomes an unexpected sidekick to adventure, then succumbs to an unfortunate breakdown. Felicity Huffman and Ed Lauter are great as Terry and Crewes, and I love their growth from questionable bureaucrats in a system partially of their own making, to heroes who make a choice and face the consequences head on even as that system of their comes roaring back at them, while also revealing their personal relationship is even stronger than it initially appeared. While he's not fantastic, I do still like R.D. Call as Jude Andrews, who has this casual seethe to his rage as he just quietly, flagrantly mows his way through everyone involved, even burning through assistants every few episodes as he pushes each beyond their breaking point.
And the heart of the show is Keith Szarabajka and Frances Sternhagen as Harlan and Gina, the elderly couple fighting to stay together even as circumstances are slowly aging them apart. The writing wasn't always great, but it was good often enough to keep me invested in the series just to see what would happen to these two. Szarabajka and Sternhagen also bring a magnificent chemistry to their relationship, a tenderness and warmth, while also having all the old fusses and spats of long-built familiarity. And props again need to be given to the late Dick Smith for his makeup effects. Even in just these seven episodes, they way they peeled back the years from Harlan was beautifully handled.

Going through the DVD above, I have to say that I prefer it. It's a leaner, somewhat more focused take on the story, losing fat and lessening characters I don't miss. Not enough for an overall recommend, but if you're going to check one version out, that's the choice I'd make. I'm usually all for seeing things in their most complete, uncut form, and I am glad Netflix has the full episodes available, but this was a chore both times through, so I'd definitely go with the lesser of two chores.

Angie's Final Thoughts:

I said last time that I think one of the issues King had with this writing is that he was writing it as a novel rather than taking the time to pace it as a TV series.  One of the things I sense he struggled with the most was how to build his normally lifelike characters without being able to let us read their inner thoughts.   He seems to think that it has to be done through dialogue instead.  So Terry has to talk to Crewes and then Harlan about the same thing we just saw happen in an episode, and Gina has to fret over and over again aloud to Harlan about how he's getting younger and he's going to leave her behind.  Whether it's seeing the results of past adaptations and being unsatisfied, or perhaps just being a little bit of a control freak who wanted to dominate this story being told, he didn't put enough trust in the cast and crew to show us those things in more subtle ways.  Which is a shame, because beside a few minor exceptions this is a really strong cast.  They found ways to shine even out of this trawling material, and I can't help but wonder how much better it would have been otherwise.

As for the success of the story itself, it just feels too incomplete and unexplored.  Why was Harlan able to make the ground shake?  I suppose when you take the sun going backward and the final experiments with Toddhunter's clock, we're supposed to believe that there was a kind of temporal field around Harlan, where his cells and sometimes his surrounding environment where moving backwards through time.  But they never explained it well and they never truly explored any of the consequences.  Oh, we got plenty of moments between Gina and Harlan worrying about it, but while those were sweet and touching, they never really amounted to much.  Toddhunter's brand of crazy isn't compelling and Terry vs. Andrews is a pretty standard good cop vs. bad cop situation that only barely keeps things moving.

While the differences Noel named for the DVD cut may keep things moving faster, the problem ultimately is that this just isn't a compelling enough story to matter.  You can read a much better story about an aging man dealing with strange things happening to him in Insomnia, and see a better look into the inner workings of The Shop in Firestarter.  And if memory serves, you can see a better attempt from King to build an ongoing TV series in Kingdom Hospital, but we'll revisit that one soon enough to see if I'm right.  For now, I recommend passing this mini-series by.

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