Agents of SHIELD has a stakes problem

The characters are fun but they can’t get no relief!

he stakes of a story can be a difficult thing to arrange. When we gathered here a month or so ago to talk about Ready Player One one of the primary problems with the film was its lack of stakes. The biggest issue was that in an effort to add more comedy to the film the creators chose to make the antagonists into complete buffoons; this drastically reduced the threat those antagonists represented.

So the trick then is to simply include competent villains, right? Well, sure, but even that doesn’t guarantee success. Another issue that film faced was that the task went from being one that took extreme knowledge and skill to one that took luck and otherwise didn’t make much sense. If the audience can’t follow a logical path from the efforts of the protagonist to their victories then it’s hard for the audience to take it seriously. If the protagonist relies too much on luck – which is more or less what led Parzival to all of his discoveries – then that also makes it difficult for the audience to care.

But even those are just scratching the surface of the kinds of missteps that can reduce the stakes of a story. Take Disney/ABC’s Agents of SHIELD for example. The antagonists in this TV series are frequently competent and sometimes more than competent. But the stakes are still an issue. The first reason is obvious to anyone who both consumes comic book stories and has done any reading on this topic: people coming back to life.

I won’t spend a ton of time on this subject because it’s been pretty extensively covered by other pontificators. I do want to say that there is room in stories for false deaths that still maintain stakes. (I can think of one recent example that still worked pretty well.) Like any story trope they can be overdone but just because there is a fake death or two doesn’t automatically ruin the stakes of a given story; a story can have stakes that are other than those of whether the heroes live or die and if there is foreshadowing that dead characters may return then it can still work out OK. I think death reversals fail primarily when they aren’t foreshadowed in any way and are done just as fanservice rather than in service of the story. SHIELD wouldn’t even exist, after all, if they hadn’t revived the allegedly dead Phil Coulson from his murder in The Avengers. Another terrific example is the characters who have returned from death in a certain HBO series. However, when too many characters – good, evil, or both – come back too many times for too little reason it can begin to wear on the audience’s ability to care about what’s happening through confusion or simple apathy.

The fake deaths aren’t the only problem SHIELD has, however. By far the larger issue lies in the number and depth of the threats the team faces on a regular basis. Just for the sake of comprehension let’s go over every threat faced in just part of this current season of Agents of SHIELD. SPOILERS for the first 17 episodes of the fifth season of SHIELD follow.

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  • Time travel to the future
    • Mindless alien predators
    • Intelligent super-powered aliens
    • Greedy humans
    • Scared humans
    • Super-powered humans
    • Betrayal by alleged allies
  • A need to return to the past
  • Imminent alien invasion
  • Other aliens with hidden motives
  • Prophecy of the destruction of the planet.
  • Time loop.
  • The branding of SHIELD as enemies – again.
  • The destruction of multiple obelisks which somehow forms a phenomenon that brings nightmares to life.
  • The return of HYDRA. AGAIN.
  • Multiple superpowered enemies with varying motives.
  • The impending death of the team leader who has already died twice.
  • A prophecy that they must allow their leader to die.
  • Yo-yo has her arms cut off.
  • Fitz has a split personality.
  • Talbot’s impending betrayal

All of those threats or obstacles occur within 17 episodes of this season, usually more than one at a time. And I’m probably forgetting at least some of them. None of these threats are treated as minor and there is absolutely no break between them. The moment they deal with one problem two more sprout in its place. It’s frankly exhausting.

The fact that Agents of SHIELD never allows a moment’s rest for its hero creates a few problems. The most obvious one from a logical standpoint is that it ruins the believability of the story. Whatever superpowers some members of the team have, they’re all still mostly human. That means they need things like food, sleep, rest, and even relaxation. The constant inundation of enemies and disasters means they might get to eat and occasionally sleep but they’re never resting or relaxing. There are always three or more threats that need to be solved RIGHT NOW.

The other issue is probably pretty familiar to people who spend a lot of time writing stories or are knowledgeable about how they are written but might be less so for other people. Stories operate on the idea of building up tension and bring the story to a conclusion. That release of tension allows for catharsis. That’s a technical sounding term but it just basically means the relief of strong emotion or tension. A good climax will build up all kinds of strong emotions and tension in audience members. The conclusion of the story will relieve them – usually replacing them with exhilaration or sadness depending on the kind of story. This is true of a romance where the climax might be the final moment of will-they-won’t-they and it’s true of an action story where the climax is probably the final confrontation between the hero(es) and villain(s).

Because SHIELD has so many concurrent threats there’s never a release of tension. OK, great, they stopped evil villain A over here but there’s still natural disaster B and ticking time bomb C to deal with. But those won’t be solved until two weeks from now and by then we will have introduced threats D, E, and F. In a way this even goes back to another piece I wrote about filler episodes, a few months back. SHIELD hasn’t had a recognizable filler episode in at least a year and it really could use a handful to just let the characters breathe both literally and metaphorically.

The lack of a break between threats also causes them each of them to blend into a kind of white noise. As an audience member, without that catharsis, how can I judge how dangerous the latest HYDRA plan is versus the impending alien invasions versus the prophecies that Daisy will destroy the world? And if I can’t tell how dangerous they are, how can I care at all? Much less take them seriously. It’s all a swirl of loud noises and flashing lights and after a while I’m just blind and deaf instead of terrorized.

SHIELD has tripled down on these issues the last few weeks by having the cast break the fourth wall a bit and make frequent jokes about how they never stop fighting six different kinds of danger at the same time. It’s a bit baffling that the writers clearly understand what it is they’re doing without making any attempt to rectify it.

And, for the record, stakes are a complicated topic and it is possible to have all those threats and still have a strong story. But if you’re going to do that you need to eventually solve all of them and give your heroes a break. The natural point for that to occur is at the end of the season but SHIELD likes to use that time to set up the next huge threat as a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger should probably be dying as a TV trope, anyway, but that’s an entirely different article.

The first season of the show was hardly perfect, but one thing it did do right was deal with threats in a manner that allowed for occasional resolution. There was definitely a serial plot happening in the background but it was broken into episodic stories which allowed for at least a measure resolution at the end of episodes. Yes, the show was a bit campy, but that part hasn’t actually changed. The ways in which the show has improved since then include accepting the campiness and making it a part of its identity instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there.

It’s unclear how long the show can maintain this break-neck pace without ever providing any resolution to anything and maintain viewership. Honestly, it’s unclear what kind of viewership the show is currently enjoying. It’s in the middle of its fifth season which doesn’t sound like a show that is barely crawling along but I rarely hear people talk about it and it seems entirely possible that Marvel/Disney just might not have noticed the losses they’re taking on it because of the massive profits they’re making everywhere else.

On the other hand, a quick google search of the show suggests multiple outlets were begging people to come back to the show around December of last year because it was good again. So maybe I’m completely off-base. I know I suggested on Twitter that the show was not very good because of the issues I outlined above and received nothing but disagreement. So maybe I’m the clueless one this time.

One thing that should be obvious from my writing about the show at all is that I am absolutely still watching it. It’s one of only two weekly televised shows I keep up with on a semi-regular basis (the other, Once Upon a Time, is approaching its series finale) so that should tell you a little something about how enjoyable it can be beyond the complaints I’ve raised here. The stories may not be well-conceived or always well-written but the characters are charismatic in their own ways and there is absolutely worse dreck on television. If you’re looking for a show with a great deal of technical writing proficiency you probably want to look elsewhere but if you’d like a mindless, campy melodrama then Agents of SHIELD might be just the show you need.

Ready Player One is gorgeous on the outside but ugly on the inside

It omits the one thing that made the book special while including most of its flaws and adding some of its own.

Did you read Ready Player One? Did you enjoy it? Were you excited for Steven Spielberg’s movie?

Then you probably shouldn’t bother.

The biggest reason I say that, for many of you, is because the story of the movie and the story of the book share almost nothing but the broad strokes of character and plot. There’s still a Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan), an Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe), an Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cookie), and a Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). There’s still a hunt through the Oasis for an easter egg following the death of the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

But almost all of the details are changed from the opening frame of the movie which sets Wade’s home in The Stacks outside Columbus, Ohio instead of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma up to and including the epilogue of the story.

If that’s not enough to make you want to avoid the movie then, by all means, have at it. Or, if you’re not afraid of spoilers for the movie or the 6-year-old novel, follow me past the spoiler tag where I can really get into the issues that ail this movie.

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The plot is a disaster

Let’s start with the thing we’ve already talked about a bit, the plot. So far as I am concerned Ready Player One was a flawed novel. Many people would go beyond that and describe it as disgusting “nostalgia porn”; I even saw an article today about how the Oasis itself is toxic because of its designer. I’m not ready to argue that far, at this time, but it’s definitely not a perfect story.

That being said, it did have one really cool and unique aspect, so far as I am concerned. It took Cline’s love of what is loosely defined as 80’s pop culture  (seriously, a lot of that stuff came out way before or way after the 80’s) and crafted a plot where that kind of knowledge was useful. There was a purpose to all that nostalgia; it was Halliday’s obsession and he had made it clear that if you wanted to win the prize you were going to need to be intimately familiar with it. Love or hate the nostalgia, it had a distinct purpose to serve in the narrative of the story – this was actually a distinct flaw in Cline’s follow-up novel, Armada, which included even more nostalgia and references to nerd culture without ever giving it a reason for existing beyond name-recognition for his audience.

The movie completely drops all of that. Those of you who have read the novel will recall that Parzival was able to find the first key using hints and clues from Halliday and applying it to things Halliday was known to have liked. Parzival’s encyclopedic knowledge and ability to research Dungeons and Dragons as well as the video game Joust are the keys to solving the first puzzle, in the book. The first trial in the movie is displayed for anyone and everyone. It’s a simple race that happens to include some references to nerd culture – an animatronic dinosaur and King Kong – but without any distinct purpose. They could have been any kind of hazard and had the same effect. The clue for solving this race didn’t come in the form of any kind of 80’s knowledge but instead in the form of watching a video recording of a conversation Halliday once had and figuring out what his intent was.

Honestly, this might be the biggest plot hole of the movie, too. There’s no reason in particular for Parzival to watch that scene or assume it had any kind of vital information in it. It was an off-handed comment from Art3mis that even made him look and had nothing to do with any hints or clues provided by Halliday prior to that point. But I digress.

That’s more or less how the entire plot of the movie continues. In the book, the nostalgia was threaded into the mystery in the hints, the challenges, and the solutions. In the movie, the mystery was in finding the correct video of Halliday to watch and interpreting what he was saying while the nostalgia just serves as a background of easter eggs for audience members to point out and recognize. The challenges were also significantly dumbed down. In the book, you’ll recall that there were actually 6 total mysteries to be solved, one for each key and one for each gate. And acquiring the key and clearing the gate involved completing other, separate challenges. The movie halves this to 3 challenges. There were good reasons for these changes; the movie can’t be as long as the book, so there cannot be as many difficulties to overcome and they can’t take as long to get through; they couldn’t secure the rights to everything that appeared in the book; and they wanted to change up the mysteries so that the readers wouldn’t walk in already knowing all the answers to everything. It all makes sense, but it also makes the story lose any charm it had. It dumbs the story down to a simple, stupid popcorn flick that really is trading 100% on the audience’s love of nostalgia without doing anything useful with it.

The stakes aren’t interesting

In the book, the Sixers, IOI, and Sorrento are incredibly frightening. They don’t just have unlimited resources, nigh-infinite man-power, and a team of researchers. Sorrento is genuinely good at his job. So are the people he commands. They have talent and skill and their numbers allow them to specialize in ways that none of the other Gunters can manage. They appear to be invincible.

In the movie, yeah, IOI still has the numbers and resources. But they hardly have half a brain cell to share among them. Sorrento is a useless hack and the Sixers are all brainless mooks who use their numbers to fight the enemy because they have no other strategy instead of in addition to terrific strategy. There are exactly two genres of movies that can get away with having incompetent villains: children’s movies and slapstick comedies. In other words, movies that aren’t really trying very hard to keep you interested except in the moment to moment childish gags. There was never any doubt in any audience member’s mind that the good guys would win and that it would end up being relatively easy for them. In a movie that wants to be taken somewhat seriously, it’s a problem. When you’re writing a serious movie and the only competent enemy for your hero to face is played by T.J. Miller – who played Sorrento’s Oasis lackey, I-R0k, and may be an incredibly versatile actor but whom I have never seen in a role of someone you’d consider threatening or even really particularly intelligent – you have a problem. And when the payoff of the story is a villain who finally, miraculously catches up with the hero and has an opportunity to kill him and just…doesn’t… that’s a problem, too.

The movie wants to moralize and eat its cake, too

When we arrive at the end of the movie the incompetent villains try to blow everyone up but fail because Wade has an Extra Life coin. The fact that the last person seen to be holding the coin before Wade’s resurrection was actually Art3mis does not bother the writers at all. In any case, Wade is given the Crystal Key and then must unlock the door that leads to the easter egg. During this time Aech/Helen is driving their postal van through the city in what the movie wants us to view as a dangerous car chase but really ends up just being annoying. How can I be afraid for everyone’s life when Wade’s actions – and particularly Anorak’s reaction, “Well, do you want it or not?” – turn what could have been a tense moment into a slapstick comedy bit.

After Parzival finally unlocks the gate he is admitted into Anorak’s throne room and given a contract to sign. The movie tries to build tension by having Wade begin to realize that Anorak has one last trick up his sleeve before Wade can win and Sorrento stalks toward the van with a gun. It fails for several reasons:

  • The worst of these is that Wade directed Helen to drive the van to the Stacks where he grew up and begs anyone who lives there to help protect them from Sorrento. All these angry people step up to stand between Wade and his tormentor but as soon as Sorrento whips out his pistol, they all just make way for him. I talked in my Star Wars: The Last Jedi review about how plans can fail and it can still be narratively interesting. When your plan changes absolutely nothing about the circumstances of the story or characters, it isn’t interesting.
  • There was no trick in the book. Readers were left baffled by why Wade didn’t just sign the contract and end the contest.
  • Signing the contract would not have prevented Wade from being murdered. This was not a moment where the hero can stop the villain cold by accomplishing their goal. Wade could just as easily have won the contest and been shot in the head if Sorrento hadn’t magically been persuaded to let him live by the golden glow in his hands and the tear streaming down his face. Maybe it would also have prevented Sorrento from winning and thrown the world into turmoil and hundreds of legal battles, but getting the egg logically should not have prevented Sorrento from shooting Wade.

The movie then goes on about how Halliday wished he had lived in the real world more and suggests that the heroes will shut down the Oasis for 2 days a week to force people to go outside. If you’ve read my posts about Star Trek you’ll know I’m all for moralizing in stories, especially science fiction stories. But you have to earn it. Show the audience why the moral you preach at the end is a real situation that needs to be dealt with and why the proposed solution makes sense.

The proposed moral is that Halliday, and by extension our current society, spent too much time in his computers and video games and not enough time in the real world. The movie only shows how this became a problem in that Halliday never kissed the girl he liked. But we aren’t given enough context to see whether this was actually a flaw brought on by his affinity for computers or if there were some others reason. Perhaps they didn’t actually click, perhaps even if he’d never touched a computer his social graces would have prevented it, maybe he was actually gay. The character doesn’t get enough screen time to eliminate any of these and if he felt that his love of computers was actually the problem then creating a contest which would encourage people to spend even more time steeped in the lore of his past and in the computer world he designed was a very poor way to communicate that indeed.

The proposed solution is a terrible one, as well. The book describes that all commerce is done through the Oasis by the time it starts. The movie does nothing to dissuade from this notion. That means that in shutting down the oasis 2 days a week The Hi Five will be throwing the world economy into chaos. Forcing people to not be on their computers two days a week also does nothing to encourage or ensure that they will use that time productively either in rebuilding society or in connecting with people “IRL”. People weren’t doing anything “wrong” per se, it seems odd to punish them for their habits and the way the world evolved rather than incentivizing people to improve the world and attempting to stimulate the economy.

The movie tries to add a sub-moral that Wade has learned the lesson that Halliday never learned, that you have to actually kiss the girl. First, as we’ve already established, we don’t know if Halliday ever actually had a chance to kiss the girl. Second, Wade never presented himself as the kind of person who wasn’t going to try to kiss Samantha the very first moment he thought he could get away with it, anyway. And this is the only moment that remotely resembles any kind of character growth in the film.

I hate to keep going back to a book to hold it up as a higher standard after I’ve already described it as flawed and many others have completely trashed it but even it is better in this regard, as well. The book starts with all 5 members of the Hi Five being completely opposed to working together. They’re all kind of selfish assholes to each other as they race to be the winner and only grudgingly offer tips to each other when they feel indebted. Throughout the course of the novel, however, they learn that relying on each other and working together isn’t all bad and banding together may be the only way to stop Sorrento and his goons. At the end, when Parzival declares that he’s going to split ownership of the company with his 3 remaining friends (Daito dies in the book because Sorrento and co. are much better at their jobs) it’s a much more startling revelation because of these previous actions, even though they had come together finally, and it proved his growth more than anything the movie added in. Of course, Wade does something else at the end of the book that does show up in the movie…


The worst moment from the book

While most of the movie was an exercise in chopping out as much of the book as possible without rendering it unrecognizable they still managed to carry over the biggest flaw from the book and somehow make it worse. Wade Watts could not have been a more realistic straight, teenage, white boy had Ernest Cline intended to create a self-absorbed asshole who believes he is God’s gift to creation. Unlike in the movie, the Hi Five were actually working entirely separately – including Art3mis and Parzival. Because of this, Art3mis didn’t want to become romantically involved with him. But Wade repeatedly attacked the boundaries she established. This is a portrayal of the “friend zone” in action where a woman simply wants to enjoy friendship with a man but he decides she owes him something different because of something he did for her or because of how he feels. This happens all the time, in real life; it’s very realistic. But in this story, it’s idealized into something that’s actually romantic instead of disgusting and the girl actually falls in love with the protagonist who behaves so boorishly. The movie doubles down on this by having Parzival tell Art3mis that he loves her literally the second time they meet in-game. And then it includes the incredibly cringe-worthy moment that was originally at the end of the book into the middle of the movie where Wade acts as though he is truly special because he is willing to look past the birthmark on Samantha’s face despite her assurances that it would cause him to hate her.

In real life, there probably are women who feel this way and they might even deal with rejection because of some flaw they or others perceive on a regular basis. And in real life, some of those women probably have been made to feel better by someone who saw past the “flaw” or didn’t view it as a flaw. But there is something slimy and self-aggrandizing about a story that was written by a man and starring a boy (and then written again by two men) that shows a woman swooning for a guy like this. Probably because being written by guys about guys it becomes all about how the guy is able to save the woman instead of how the woman becomes empowered. It might just be that some stories shouldn’t be told in certain ways by certain people unless they want to seem like enormous jackasses.

The movie tacks on to this issue with additional diversity problems. Yes, it features two women, one of whom is black, and a pair of Asian men. In the novel, at least, all of the Hi Five were top players and strong competitors with each other. Based on what else I’ve seen of Cline it wouldn’t surprise me to see that there were diversity issues or stereotypes at play that I missed when last I read the book but the movie definitely has them.

Hollywood’s problem with Asian actors continues as Daito and Shoto have barely a dozen lines of dialogue between them and they barely contribute to the story beyond being reliable side-kicks for our white hero. After being described as a terrific player on Planet Doom Aech is relegated to the role of mechanic and comic relief for the remainder of the movie. Art3mis in the book acted Parzival’s main rival, was a step or two ahead of him more than once, mostly stayed independent of him, and was determined to win the prize for herself so she could try to improve the world. In the movie, however, she gives up on her dreams, talents, and independence fairly early on in order to act as Parzival’s biggest cheerleader instead. In the end, every non-white, male character is subsumed to ensure the white male seems more important and competent than ever before.

There was one positive about this film. Alan Silvestri, of Back to the Future fame, wrote the musical score and perfectly implemented call-backs to that iconic 80’s franchise throughout the film. It was really a fantastic job. The visuals were also quite enjoyable, even if some of the scenes were so busy it was hard to even attempt to identify all the little easter eggs that had been included.

Unfortunately, it was not enough to save this adaptation of the original, flawed story. Given a chance to wipe clean some of the prior mistakes the movie exacerbates, instead. Given a chance to improve upon the prior successes the movie excises. While Ready Player One comes in a gorgeous package, if you scratch off that first layer you will find – much like in one of my favorite 80’s pop culture touchstones, V – that underneath is a slimy, disgusting lizard that just wants to steal all your resources and leave your home unfit for your own survival.

Jessica Jones season 2 wanted to be more

The pieces really just didn’t quite come together.

I don’t think it’s any secret at this point that the first season of Jessica Jones is by far my favorite season of Netflix/Marvel television. They took a truly terrifying villain and made the entire season about Jessica battling both him and her inner demons. The threat was clear, terrifying, and terrifyingly real – Killgrave is basically an amped up rapist who is so charming when he isn’t raping people that people who haven’t survived his abuse find it hard to believe that he could commit such atrocities. The story never wavered or lost its way. It featured a cast of a wide variety of strong women characters that had their own flaws and views. The acting was phenomenal. It really did a terrific job putting a spin on drug abuse, parental abuse, and rape in ways that were a bit unique and hopefully reached a wider portion of the audience with how terrible those things can be and helped them become more sympathetic.

Season 2 doesn’t do any of those things. But it shouldn’t necessarily be knocked for that, because it wasn’t trying to be season 1 again. It wanted to be something different. I know this is bordering on becoming a broken record at this point, but remember last week when I said that one of the cool things about anime was that they had the freedom to try different kinds of story-telling techniques? It really feels like Netflix used its unique position as the kind of platform and industry leader it is to try to do something a bit unique as well. Most serialized shows, books, and movies are written with a story and characters in mind and developed in a way such that the two fit together. Sometimes you’ll see them written in a way where the story takes such a priority that the characters are forced to change and act out in order to continue it. Jessica Jones season 2 appears to have been written with the idea, “Here are the characters. Here are their circumstances. What happens next?”

However, unlike The Melancholy of Haruhi I’m not entirely sure this was done well. The writing was both particularly good and appallingly lacking and left me feeling a bit bemused when I completed the season, Sunday afternoon. Nothing the characters do seems weird or abnormal for them; in fact, everything they do seems to be 100% in character based on everything we know about them from both seasons of television. But there is no cohesion, no driving force. The plot just ambles around until its time for the season to end. SPOILERS will follow for Season 2 of Jessica Jones.

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Unlike every other Marvel TV show so far, there is no set “villain” who is totally evil and wants to commit evil that must be stopped. The closest we get is Alisa, Jessica’s mom, who is sympathetic in that she has what amounts to a mental illness she cannot control. The next best choice would be Dr. Karl Malus who saved both of their lives with illegal experiments. But so far as I can tell, he really, earnestly wanted to help and honestly didn’t know that Alisa was going out to murder people to protect him.

Jeri’s story is only tangentially related to the rest of the characters but takes up huge chunks of the runtime. Trish’s story might end up being the most interesting – she starts out just really wanting to help people, including Jessica, but does some very bad stuff as she convinces herself more and more that the ends will justify the means. However, we only follow her enough to keep track of her impact on Jessica’s story. Jessica’s story is well written in the micro – as I said before everything that happens and that she does makes perfect sense – but doesn’t seem to have a point. The show starts out showing her a bit out of control with her anger which might have made sense to tie into Alisa’s own issues with rage and show Jessica who she might become if she doesn’t get a handle on it but Jessica’s own anger problem is dropped pretty early on; the last I can even recall seeing it was also the first time which occurred in the second or third episode. There’s a smaller plotline involving Malcolm’s ultimate goals

The writing isn’t perfect and there are a handful of weird plot holes and poor writing decisions: Jeri’s partners want to kick her out even though she’s the best thing their firm has going for them. Pryce Cheng somehow figures out that Alisa and not Jessica killed his friend midway through the season. Early in the season, Jessica informs Malcolm, factually, that she can’t judge him for having indiscriminate sex because it’s also part of her method of dealing with things. Then, later in the season, she chews him out over it. Yes, people can be inconsistent and hypocritical, but it doesn’t usually go unaddressed in shows. Plus Jessica is supposed to be a straight-talking protagonist, so it’s a bit odd she just does an about-face like that without it being acknowledged at all. And, of course, Jessica and Alisa use their super strength to stop a bus and reunite Jessica’s season 2 beau with his kid. Even though adding the mass of two people to the back-end of a bus with no leverage is not going to stop it no matter how strong they are.

Technically the plot is resolved when Alisa and Karl both end up dead which means they won’t be able to conduct further experiments. But they were not really a direct danger to people outside people directly investigating them. We learn more about Jessica’s history but it doesn’t change how we perceive her. Speaking of changes, the season does very little to change the characters at all. Jeri is the same person she was at the beginning; she just helped someone else commit murder. Jessica is the same person she was at the beginning except maybe she understands how lonely she was? But she acts like that was an epiphany the entire journey taught her even though she clearly wanted to be spending time with Oscar and Vido before, she just didn’t have the time. Malcolm changes a bit from a guy who will do anything for Jessica and wants to do good and help out to a guy who decides he wants a bit more respect and a better paycheck. Trish changes the most and that’s where a second rewatching, focused primarily on her, might pay off. When I had but one episode to go I saw someone else watching the first episode and being informed with Trish’s ambitions allowed a much deeper interpretation of her early actions and casts a more sinister light on her attempts to get Jessica to investigate her past.

In the end, the moment-to-moment writing is just too good for this season to be a complete train wreck. The roles are also entirely too well-acted. But the lack of a coherent end goal for the plot and the shallow character growth of most of the ensemble means this season was a disappointment compared to the first. The best way I can describe it is that the plot was structured like a slice-of-life anime – a genre defined by its complete lack of stakes – but isn’t charming enough and doesn’t do enough with the characters to make it work. In the pantheon of Netflix/Marvel shows, I’d still put it above the rookie efforts of Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and The Defenders but it’s no better than season 2 of Daredevil and doesn’t even really approach the quality of the first seasons of DaredevilJessica Jones, or even The Punisher.

Star Trek: Discovery’s Season Finale was a Dud

I see where they were going…but they seem to have missed the mark

If you need a spoiler-free review of the season finale I believe that the title and the excerpt say it all. To describe any more why it was a dud requires delving into spoilers. So let’s just dive in.

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The episode suffers from just 4 major problems and one problem that might be better described as an annoying quibble. However, if you just took the major problems out the episode would barely exist. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s go ahead and break it down, shall we?

Phillipa Georgiou never needed to be the captain

The episode starts off with a thud when a decision from the end of last week comes back to bite everyone in the butt in a completely predictable way. Emperor Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) has given Starfleet a plan to end the Klingon war by destroying their homeworld, Qo’nos. In exchange for this plan, Starfleet agrees to grant her, a known violent racist and mass-murderer, complete freedom to roam their galaxy. They also put her in charge of the mission and, confusingly, the ship.

At the end of the previous episode I, and many others, were left wondering why it was decided she needed to be in command of the ship. As we see in this episode there really was absolutely no reason for it. Precious airtime is wasted as she pointlessly snipes at each crew member in turn until Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) pointlessly tries to expose her for no possible gain that I could determine. After she fails, Georgiou leaves the bridge and never returns to it having contributed exactly nothing to the mission as captain that couldn’t have been achieved by absolutely any other warm body in a Starfleet uniform.

Qo’nos isn’t very Klingon

The writers raised the hackles of many long-time Trekkies when they – yet again – revamped the makeup design for the Klingons at the start of this series. However, the silliness of that choice pales in comparison to the world-design they did for Qo’nos. The Klingons have always been a little bit xenophobic. Even in Voyager, the most future-forward show of the franchise, the Klingons shunned a half-human, half-Klingon girl who was not Klingon enough for them. It only gets worse the further back in time you go. But for some reason when the away party arrives on the surface of Qo’nos the area they venture to is populated almost entirely by Orions rather than Klingons.

There is no real justification given for this choice and fans were supposed to simply be distracted by the reference to a TOS race that is often ignored in the later series. However, it makes no sense in this universe or in the canon it supposedly resides in. Furthermore, the choice results in a disappointing, fairly generic, seedy, urban underbelly that we’ve seen in countless other science fiction series right down to mixing the brothels and arms dealers with good-natured gamblers and outlier religious adherents.

Star Trek writers fall into another LGBTQIA++ Trope Pitfall

Not content to rest on their laurels of falling prey to the Bury Your Gays trope – and I promise we’ll get more into that this weekend – Discovery’s writers proved they weren’t done with adding plot points to the series seemingly designed primarily to upset their socially liberal audience members. The away team needs to locate some Klingon temples in order to find a path to the inactive volcanoes so they can use a probe to do…something… that will supposedly help them end the war. Georgiou’s method includes succumbing to the “Evil is Sexy” trope.

For a long time villains, especially female villains, have been stereotyped as being more sexually promiscuous than their more honorable counterparts. They’re constantly trying to seduce the heroes or wearing skimpy clothing. In this particular case, they leaned into it as hard as they could until it evolved into the “Depraved Bisexual” trope. Georgiou doesn’t just attempt to seduce the information out of just anyone. She identifies two prostitutes, one apparently male and one apparently female; loudly exclaims about how this universe appeals to her more, now; has sex with both of them simultaneously; does it so well that they talk about how they should be paying her for the experience; and finally she threatens their lives in order to get the information she wants. If there were an “Only evil people would consider having any kind of sexual encounter other than heterosexual intercourse between two people in a committed relationship” bingo card she’d have hit every single box. Ordinarily, this might be cause for some eye-rolling and maybe a minor footnote about how media still hasn’t caught up with the times. Star Trek has always held itself to a higher standard, however. This is no less true of the new series than it was the original. When you declare yourself to be a show that wants to do better than you are going to get called out when you miss that mark. And they missed it badly, here.

The first plan is stupid, the second plan isn’t much better

Skipping back ahead, it turns out – OF COURSE – that Georgiou’s plan is not to do any probing. She’s going to blow up the entire planet. And – OF COURSE – Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Michael discover this. Honestly, did Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brooke), Sarek (James Fraine), and Georgiou really think they were going to be able to pull this mission off without any of the Discovery crew figuring out that they were actually carrying a bomb? They risked the failure of their mission by not informing them sooner. It’s entirely possible that Tilly and Michael might have caused the mission to fail in a way from which there would be no recovery if they had found out at a different time or reacted differently than they did.

And this is when things got really dicey, writing-wise, at least. Things actually get really easy in-universe. Michael goes back to the ship, tells (Acting) Captain Saru (Doug Jones) what’s going on and together they confront Cornwell about how this is the wrong thing to do. This is the moment the writers have been working for. In the pilot episode, Michael commits mutiny because she is convinced that the only way to defeat the Klingons and save the Federation is to sacrifice their principles. Now she is ready to commit mutiny again but this time she wants to save their principles. It’s a nifty little narrative circle. Unfortunately, it’s undercut by just how easily it’s accomplished. The admiral is quickly convinced and an alternate plan is immediately conceived and enacted. Georgiou is still allowed to go free – which will absolutely, in no way bite anyone in the butt later. And instead of setting off the bomb in Qo’nos active volcano system they give the detonator to their captive Klingon, L’Rell.

Let me number the ways this is a stupid idea:

  1. L’Rell is no friend to the Federation. Even if the Klingons aren’t behaving the way she wanted there was no guarantee she’d call off the war as part of her campaign to set the Klingons on the straight and narrow.
  2. You decided you didn’t want to commit genocide, but you absolutely just gave someone else that power if they want to use it.
  3. A single bomb with a single detonator does not seem like an effective way to effect civilization-wide social change.
    1. The bomb is sitting in active magma, it might become disabled.
    2. The detonator might break or lose signal.
    3. All it would take is a handful of Klingons working together in order to ensure they could resume working against each other to steal the detonator or kill or kidnap L’Rell. We’ve seen Klingons do this sort of thing before.
    4. Is she really going to blow up her homeworld if they disobey her?
      1. No, seriously. If one Klingon steps out of line she surely can’t blow up her homeworld. But at what point should she actually draw the line? The nature of sentient beings being forced to do something they don’t want to do is to constantly push at that boundary. She’s either going to need enough allies and manpower to deal with individual miscreants or the entire thing is going to fall apart. And she walks into this situation with exactly zero allies and manpower to her name.
  4. This entire part of the story comes across weird because everyone is just so damn easy to convince. Apparently, if they had talked to Michael sooner they could have avoided this entire part of the conflict, not that it took much energy or time to resolve once it was outed. It kind of makes Cornwell seem like she can be convinced to go along with whatever plan is presented to her last which is…not a good look.

But – OF COURSE – L’Rell is as easily convinced as Georgiou and Cornwell to go along with this plan. And it WORKS. She threatens the Klingon leaders and they immediately capitulate. And that’s…it. This plan goes off entirely without a hitch. I don’t remember the last time I saw a plan go that smoothly on TV or in real life or anywhere else. But, of course, it had to go smoothly so the writers could wrap up this storyline so they can do something entirely different, next season. Honestly, this episode could have benefited from having one final conflict in this part of the story to make the final victory feel a bit more earned. This season finale of an internet-only show was still only 47 minutes or so, it’s not like it would have made it unbearably long.

That cameo everyone loved was kinda dumb

Yes, I’m going after the Enterprise cameo. I don’t hate so much that it happened, but the how of it was completely ridiculous. The USS Discovery is headed toward Vulcan to pick up her new captain when they receive a priority distress call. Saru orders the ship to drop out of warp drive so they can attempt to get a better read on the signal. That’s all fine. But when the Enterprise dives into view out from a random space cloud, everyone seems to forget that it was in distress. They just kind of stare at the screen with awed smiles. Of course, who can blame them for forgetting it was in distress. It doesn’t look like it’s in distress and then the episode finishes with a flourish, using the original theme song.

But along with completely glossing over the distress part of the call, why exactly are these crew members in awe of the ship? The answer is: because the writers were hoping the audience would be in awe of it. Seriously, nothing that has ever been mentioned in any of the series, but especially this one, gives any indication that the Enterprise has been part of any kind of the crazy exploits it will be known for under Kirk, yet. It wasn’t even considered the flagship of the fleet and was one of many ships of the same class. There is literally no reason for anyone on that bridge to be in awe of it except to inspire or reflect the awe of the audience for the moment.

There were some good moments in this episode. The decision to restore Burnham’s commission and rank should serve as a balm to those who were disappointed in the series’ choice to make a woman of color into its star only to immediately reveal that it would be as a convicted felon. Every interaction Burnham had with Ash Tyler was pitch perfect for both of them as an example of how two mature adults can handle the end of a relationship. The complete ending of the Klingon War plotline also opens up some great opportunities to move toward other kinds of stories in the future and I can only be grateful for that. The finale may have been the worst episode of the series to date but it was still a lot better than a lot of other television out there and leaves plenty of promise for the future of the series.

Review: Titanfall 2

Is this review incredibly late? Yes. Does that make it worthless? Of course not. You haven’t heard my particular take, yet!

All around the internet the word was out. Titanfall 2 was a much better game than the original Titanfall. And the original was, allegedly, not bad. I say allegedly because I never played it because I just don’t have time to master multiplayer, these days, but I was promised the sequel had a very good campaign by multiple people I trusted. I took them at their word, and here we are.

A quick spoiler-free overview for those of you who want to otherwise be surprised: The campaign is, as you might expect from a first-person shooter, rather short. How Long to Beat says a little more than 6 hours, which sounds about right even though it probably took me closer to 8. The meat of this kind of game is supposed to be the multiplayer modes so that’s fine. I do have to say that the story was a bit…meh. If you compare it only within the shooter genre it looks a little bit better, but if you’re only here for the story you might be a tad disappointed. There is exactly one interesting character and it takes until very nearly the end of the game for him to get to that point. The gameplay, however, features some high quality shooting mechanics and the environments are richly-detailed even without being photo-realistic. There is some really terrific level design with lots of complex, though not overly-difficult movement puzzles that use Titanfall‘s signature wall-running mechanics and double jumps to great effect. At the prices it’s currently selling for I can easily recommend it even for just the gameplay of the campaign. If you’re interested in the multiplayer stuff a quick glance seems to indicate that the servers are still doing just fine with plenty of potential allies and enemies to be found.

Now come the spoilers.

Spoilers Banner

You play as Infantryman Jack Cooper. You’ll notice that’s a generic name and that’s not for nothing; my man Coop is a very generic character. Remember the whole spiel I gave you last week about how full of personality Bayek was in Assassin’s Creed: Origins and how that was totally the opposite of how many other games go? This is one of those other games. Jack is supposed to be a shell waiting for the player to fill with their own personality. He does have some generic quips from time to time, if you select them, but that’s about it.

One of the big mechanical flaws with this game is that the majority of the story is told through in-game dialog while you’re shooting at people. That makes it hard to concentrate on the plot reveals, such as they are. But it gets worse. While you’re Hanging with Mr. Cooper the game frequently gives you a chance to to choose between two dialog options – though neither of which have any effect on gameplay or story – and there is a timer. So it is particularly easy to miss these dialog choices as they will frequently occur while you’re in the middle of a frantic gunfight. You may miss the prompt entirely or simply not have a free finger with which to select it.

The one interesting character I mentioned above is Cooper’s mech. At the start of the game a Pilot tries to take Jack under his wing and train him to be a pilot, as well, but a mission comes up and forces them into duty before they can complete the training. The Pilot, of course, is killed during the fight and passes his mech to Cooper and begs him to take care of it. BT-7274, or BT as he prefers to be called, is straight-laced to a fault and provides much of the comedy. It’s a little weird that his last Pilot, Lastimosa, never tought him things like the thumbs up gesture or other human idioms but if you don’t think too hard it can still be mildly amusing at times. There is also a varied cast of wacky villains that you’ll do battle with in level-ending boss fights during several chapters but unfortunately the truncated nature of the sparse story prevents any of these characters from being fleshed out beyond a few skin-deep tropes – look, it’s a big guy with an Austrian accent! Or a crazy dude who does too many drugs! Or an ice cold woman! Oh, wait. They’re all dead. The scanty saga sells short BT’s journey from up-tight, by-the-book mech to a more human intelligence that learns the wonders of a Fastball Special and becomes attached enough to his pilot to willingly sacrifice himself for the good of his friend. Twice. The best way I can think of to describe the story is like if you cut out every part of T2 that wasn’t gun fighting but Arnie still finds his humanity by the end of the movie.

The real strength of this game, as noted before, is the level design. The most memorable level, for me, was the one in which BT attempts to guide you on a shortcut through an enemy manufacturing facility, but both of you end up getting caught and forced to fight your way through every inch of it before escaping out the other side. The factory is building small replica towns for the enemy troops to practice fighting in and Jack has to wall-run, double jump, and dodge around heavy machinery for a good 20-30 minutes while gun-fighting with a veritable army of guards and other mechs. My descriptions can’t really do it justice but the scenery is breathtaking, the combat is fast-paced, and watching all the pieces of the testing facility come together is really quite fascinating. There are some other levels in this game that are very nearly as memorable but I want to leave some of it for you to discover on your own. This level was when I realized that they really had a put a lot of time into developing unique and special levels, even if the story did get a bit of a short shrift.

The final moments of the game, unfortunately, left a bad taste in my mouth as the story broke the cardinal rule of “How to Commit a Fake Death”. BT and the Coopster are captured by the enemy mercenary leader and all hope seems lost before BT tricks the enemy into letting him fight for one last moment. BT appears to be killed, but kills enough other people and starts enough trouble that the remainder of the enemies flee. However, a few moments later, Jack is able to recover BT’s data core thingamajig and takes off after the mercenaries in one final attempt to stop them from destroying the home of the resistance. Jack’s allies drop a mech without a personality and BT is revived for another boss fight. As soon as you win, though, BT sacrifices himself again to ensure the mission succeeds and Jack-Be-Nimble survives. You’ll recall this complaint from the Star Wars: The Last Jedi review. Do not fake kill people and then actually kill them within the same movie, video game, TV season, or book – and that’s at a minimum. This moment, by the way, is not redeemed by the post-credit scene which seems to indicate that BT may yet be alive, either.

Outside of the level design and story the gameplay itself is, again as previously noted, really solid. There is a wide variety of guns which do a good job feeling different while all still feeling plenty lethal. The feedback when you hit an enemy is strong and it feels really good to play. The campaign is a lot of fun as long as you don’t want to spend too much time analyzing characters – reason number 1,462 not to grow up to be like me, kids! If you just want some tight shooter action with some of the best level design I’ve seen in ages you could do a lot worse than Titanfall 2.