Killing Eve is a show that’s easy to become obsessed with

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What stands out about Killing Eve – and it feels like a fairly superficial observation to make, though that doesn’t mean it’s any less true – is that it’s very, very good. There’s an almost effortless confidence to the show, a certain skill and swagger not unlike that of Jodie Comer’s assassin Villanelle; Killing Eve is a series that almost defies efforts to review it, because elaborating beyond “just watch it” feels as though you’re wasting time, time that could be better spent watching (and rewatching) Killing Eve. From its witty, charming script to the electric performances from its leads, Killing Eve is a programme where its quality leaps off the screen, the first thing you notice about the show – seemingly, there’s a certain simplicity to it.

But that seeming simplicity, that apparent effortlessness, obscures the clever tricks at the heart of Killing Eve. It is a very talented, very competent execution of all the tropes of a spy thriller, with globetrotting agents uncovering an international conspiracy, entirely recognisable in terms of the conventions of its genre – but there’s an obvious self-awareness to Killing Eve too, and a clear drive on the part of showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge to tell a much more idiosyncratic, much more new and interesting story within the skeleton of the spy thriller.

On one level, there’s the fact that we’re watching Killing Eve rather than Killing Evan – any other piece you might care to name as an example of the same genre would be a male-led story. That Killing Eve isn’t, that it pivots instead around Sandra Oh’s Eve and Jodie Comer’s Villanelle, immediately marks the series out as something different. You wouldn’t be able comb through the script and make a few quick changes to turn it into Killing Evan, though; Waller-Bridge’s self-proclaimed interest in “transgressive women” is evident throughout, the whole series fascinated by its leads and their inner lives, both vast and intimate at once.

So I wrote this piece on Killing Eve, and I was fairly pleased with it – arguably not as in-depth as I might have liked, perhaps, and I don’t know how well the article really captured the actual rush of watching the show. But, on the whole, pleased with it, and also fairly entertained by the slightly naff “Killing Evan” programme I invented for comparison’s sake. (It did occur to me at the time that a more interesting comparison might be the new Jack Ryan series on Amazon, but I’d not watched that, so Killing Evan had to suffice.)

Some weeks later, I happened to read some complaint about the series – you know the type, that nonsense internet comment about women on TV. What annoyed me – no, enraged me – no, embarrassed me – was that that fool writing nonsense on the internet had stumbled across a much more obvious name for a male-led Killing Eve than this fool writing nonsense on the internet.

Killing Steve.

I’m still mad I missed that.

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On the importance of endings, and why you need to get them right

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An ending needs to offer closure, a resolution to the plot threads, themes and ideas you’ve introduced over the years. If style is simply the mistakes you never stop making, this is the time to embrace those mistakes: remind them why they loved the story, and go out on a high.  If ever there’s a time to be self-indulgent, this is it – refer back to the old favourites and the recent successes, reflect on the first time you got something properly right, but don’t forget the best of your recent episodes. Normally it’s best to ignore the fans, but after all the support they’ve offered to you, it’s worth looking back on all the ones they liked over the years. Throw in a reference or two to the spinoff series your show might have borne – they’re continuing without you, even if they might not be quite the same anymore.

So, here’s a post that has nothing to do with anything really.

Ostensibly, it’s about the endings of television programmes and such, but it is in fact about the conclusion of my weekly Yahoo column, which came to an end after almost three years because of budget cuts. Which is, you know, fair enough, can’t argue with that (and I’m still going to make the occasional freelance contribution anyway, which perhaps undercuts the above more than a little bit).

It was a clever idea, although also very self-indulgent one, and it probably could’ve made for a much better post if I was a better writer than I actually am. At the moment it’s just a bit naff, but arguably maybe a little funny I guess.

Not a bad note to end on though really.

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Did The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 go too far?

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Part of that question, though, is the acknowledgement that it works from something of a flawed premise: what does it even mean for The Handmaid’s Tale to “go too far”? As Margaret Atwood once noted of the now nearly thirty year old novel, there’s “nothing in the book that didn’t happen somewhere”, and it’s not like that isn’t still essentially true of the television adaptation; not long after a flashback saw Alexis Bledel’s Emily lose her job as a teacher because she was gay, something similar took place in Texas – more obviously, though, there’s the extended consideration of familial separation, and children taken away from their parents. If the point of The Handmaid’s Tale is that every patriarchy is its own Gilead in its own way, that people do already live there in some sense or another, to turn around and argue that the show is “going too far” is misguided at best and deeply condescending at worst, tantamount to telling someone to just shut up and stop complaining.

Yet there’s another aspect to the question, a point to elaborate on further: does The Handmaid’s Tale go too far to still be entertainment? There’s something increasingly uncomfortable about the act of watching The Handmaid’s Tale, and the way it invites audiences to watch a programme that is increasingly reliant upon the shock value of patriarchal violence. It’s difficult to unpack this, because it’s not exactly the only thing The Handmaid’s Tale does – there are fantastic performances, the standout this year being Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, and some excellent direction and cinematography (to highlight a particular detail, The Handmaid’s Tale films light in a really interesting way). At the same time, considering what these performances and this direction goes towards creating, there’s something a little off about actually watching The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s not exactly that audiences become complicit, but there’s something discomforting about how the show presents its drama as something that is, on some level, meant to be entertaining.

So, something I was thinking about – quite often, actually – while watching The Handmaid’s Tale this year was whether or not it was going “too far”.

It’s obviously a fairly… limited, I suppose, comment to make about a show like this, because what does “too far” even mean? I’m not sure I did an especially good job of articulating entirely what I meant about the tone of the show this year – all the ways in which it felt different to the first season – but I’m mostly pleased with how the article turned out in the end. Indeed, it’s the sort of piece that makes me wish I was a little better at actually sharing the work I’ve done, because I imagine this is one that would’ve prompted some interesting discussions.

Probably I’m still going to watch series 3; if nothing else, I’m interested in how it’s going to continue from that cliffhanger, although I’m not actually entirely sure it was a good creative choice. I do, however, really doubt that series 2 is going to make my end of year best list – a surprise, given how highly series 1 ranked for me.

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On Succession, likeable characters, and the scope of a series

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Succession’s first episode recently aired for the first time in the UK; in the US, meanwhile, the HBO series has just finished its first season.

What’s been interesting to observe, though, is the narrative that’s built up around Succession. Certainly, the series is well acclaimed – or, at least, it is now. There’s been a noticeable trend of people who watched the pilot episode and gave up, only returning because of the strong word of mouth from those who did continue with the series; in terms of the show’s reception, Succession is the story of a programme that lost a lot of viewers before eventually reclaiming them.

It’s not difficult to understand why someone might not want to continue watching Succession after finishing the first episode. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, exactly; in a lot of ways, it’s quite compelling. However, focusing as it does on a family seemingly comprised entirely of deeply horrible people, Succession isn’t a programme that goes out of its way to endear viewers to its characters – indeed, the exaggerated displays of ostentatious wealth that punctuate the pilot episode are no doubt intended to elicit contempt for the characters. There’s no ‘pat the dog’ moment, with director Adam McKay and writer Jesse Armstrong going to great lengths to ensure that, by the end of the episode, you’re going to hate more or less all of them.

So!

A few scattered thoughts here on Succession, one of HBO’s latest dramas. (Well, I’m inclined to be difficult and call it a comedy, but still.) What I found quite interesting about Succession is the way that the conversation around it developed, with a lot of people beginning the series, abandoning it, and then returning because of strong word of mouth from those who stuck with it.

That got me thinking a little bit about likeable characters (I’ve been winding myself up a lot about whether or not “likeable” is the correct spelling, and I’m still not wholly sure) and… I called it “the scope of a series”, but what I mean is the amount of time we’re willing to give a programme to unfold and show its full hand. That had been on my mind for a while anyway, ever since I saw a couple of reviews really rip into Genius: Picasso based on its first four episodes, so it was good to get a chance to talk about it.

I’m not, admittedly, entirely sure anything I said made sense, but then I’m never especially sure of that to be honest! I always find the more editorial/opinion esque pieces a little more difficult. Something to work on, I suppose.

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Doctor Who: Everything we learned about Series 11 at SDCC 2018

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As the Doctor puts it in the trailer, “all of this” is new to her – and it’s going to be new to the audience, too.

Chris Chibnall said that “this year is the perfect jumping on point for that person in your life who has never watched Doctor Who. I want you to go out there and SIT them down. There is no barrier for entry this year”. Nonetheless, though, Chibnall also specified that “it’s a continuation […] All the things you love about Doctor Who are in there” – as new companion actor Tosin Cole put it, “it’s still Doctor Who, just with a little sauce on it!”

Of course, while Chibnall emphasised in a recent interview with the Radio Times that we’d see “all-new stories, all-new monsters, all-new villains”, it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between “all-new” and “all new” – so don’t discount appearances from, say, the Daleks just yet…

An article on all the news about series 11 that we heard at SDCC! There’s a lot of very exciting stuff here, I genuinely can’t wait for Doctor Who to return (whenever that may be).

It did get me thinking recently, actually, that a lot of Series 11 stuff seems to be pretty perfectly pitched to my taste, and where I think Doctor Who should be right now (not just in terms of what we know about the plot, but also in terms of the way it’s marketed and the publicity materials and so on) – which is also, actually, what I thought about Series 8.

So what I’ve been wondering, basically, is whether or not I’m just remarkably prescient and on the ball, or if Doctor Who just leads my thoughts and tastes very specifically. Probably a bit of both, I guess.

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Doctor Who: Breaking down the new trailer for Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Thirteenth Doctor

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It’s been a little under a year since it was first announced that Jodie Whittaker would play the Thirteenth Doctor – it was, in fact, 16 July 2017 – and since then we’ve had relatively little news about the new series of Doctor Who.

Today, however, that changed, with a special trailer for Doctor Who series 11 airing at half-time during the World Cup Final.

The trailer gave us a brief look at the Doctor and her companions, promising new adventures to come – here’s a breakdown of everything you might have missed in the new trailer, and what it tells us about what to expect when Doctor Who returns.

So, obviously, I was very much excited about this trailer, because it’s Doctor Who and I love it, and I figured one thing I could probably do (since it was getting towards the end of the week and I hadn’t figured out the topic for my Yahoo column yet) is write about the trailer. I’ve done that sort of thing before, and it usually makes for a good article – take some screencaps, speculate a little about what each thing might mean, throw in a couple of jokes, sorted.

And then this trailer aired. A lovely, enigmatic, sort of mood driven piece… that is probably the most difficult-to-write-about trailer I’ve ever seen. Like, oh man.

Genuinely, I really had my work cut out for me with this one, and I think the fact I managed nearly 900 ish words – roughly 30 words for every second of content – is a testament to, if not necessarily skill, certainly something.

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How Elementary managed to avoid the Moriarty problem with its latest villain

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Introduced in the season 6 premier, Michael (Desmond Harrington) is a recovering addict much like Holmes. Michael credits Holmes with the success of his recovery, telling him “you said [at a meeting] you were made for one thing, and being away from it made staying sober almost impossible, but when […] you went back to it, that made all the difference. So, I actually decided to do the same thing, you know, focus on my work, use it to get better […] I worked hard, but, uh it started with you.”

In marked contrast to Holmes, though, the work that helps keep Michael sober is murder; where Holmes uses his detective work as a coping mechanism, Michael is a serial killer with similar struggles and compulsions. It’s a clever conceit, drawing obvious parallels between the two, positioning Michael as a mirror of Holmes in broadly the same way Moriarty has been in the past; indeed, it wouldn’t actually be that surprising to learn that this character is drawn from ideas at one stage considered for Elementary’s version of Moriarty. Notably, though, where the parallels between Holmes and Moriarty are typically drawn from their occupations – the consulting detective and the consulting criminal – the ones between Holmes and Michael are much more personal in nature. It’s an approach that offers potential for some compelling character drama, again an opportunity for Elementary to further explore Holmes’ sobriety.

So! Moriarty. This article kinda relies a lot on a thing I basically just sorta made up while I was trying to work out how to talk about the thing I wanted to talk about (Desmond Harrington‘s Michael, a new character introduced in Elementary season 6), so I should probably unpack that a little bit.

Basically, the “Moriarty Problem”, such that I’ve defined it, talks about the struggle that adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories face when, after having offered their take on Moriarty (arguably the most famous literary villain ever), they have to move on to a new villain – the problem being the struggle to put forward a character that’s equally as impactful or memorable as their take on Moriarty.

Certainly, if we limit our pool to Elementary and Sherlock, both shows struggled; I liked Magnussen, though admittedly was less sure about Eurus, though I don’t think it’s difficult to argue that Andrew Scott‘s Moriarty overshadowed them both. The same is true with Elementary, where none of the subsequent villains have had the same impact as Natalie Dormer‘s Moriarty (though you can make the reasonable argument that they didn’t try to have villains in the same way, I suppose).

So, what this article talks about is the way in which Elementary found a way to avoid that problem with its latest villain character, Michael. Admittedly you could probably argue that what they do, and the point I talk around making, is essentially just to do an alternate take on the basic idea of Moriarty within the confines of their show.

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Genius: Picasso interrogates how gender has defined our understanding of genius

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Genius draws attention to how the patriarchal expectations imposed on Francoise Gilot, by both Picasso and society in general, limit her success as an artist; just a few short weeks after Picasso left Francoise “alone, sick and pregnant to care for a baby for almost a month” while he was in Poland, he objects to her going to Paris, asking “Who’s going to look after the children?” The parallels aren’t subtle – he refuses to look after the children because he “wouldn’t get any work done”, when just a few lines earlier Francoise told an art dealer “I’m afraid I don’t have anything new to show you. I’ve been too busy with the children”. Another moment, reminiscent of many recent #MeToo stories, sees the same art dealer tell Francoise he can no longer represent her, for fear of Picasso’s anger – even after their relationship has ended, Picasso’s influence continues to stymy her art.

Genius: Picasso does some genuinely interesting work in terms of its depiction of female artists; its interrogation of how gender has defined, and restricted, our understanding of genius isn’t so much subtext as it is openly, emphatically… text. The National Geographic drama isn’t just about great men of history, but about the genius left unacknowledged, the genius that wasn’t allowed to thrive, because of such a traditionally myopic understanding of what is or isn’t genius. Time and time again, Genius: Picasso asks why you’re not instead watching Genius: Maar or Genius: Gilot instead, and the indisputable answer it offers is a suffocating, gendered understanding of genius.

I was left in a bit of an odd place with this piece.

My plan, from around the fifth episode of Genius: Picasso, was to write an article about how the show depicts creativity, and the struggle to define your creativity – as well as perhaps also touching on how it grapples with the myth of apolitical art, and the need to use your platform responsibly when you have one. I might still write about that a bit, actually, I’m not sure.

Anyway, though, as I came to write it, I found it difficult to get to grips with that piece, in part because my plan to do it as a sort of personal essay seemed more than a little pretentious and arrogant (convinced though I am that we’ll eventually reach Genius: Moreland). Plus, I was increasingly fixated on another angle I’d thought of for Genius – how it engaged with gender. At first I was planning on writing it for the Mary Shelley series (giving me time to catch up on the Einstein series, which had apparently also done some interesting things vis a vis its depiction of women), or maybe the fourth series if it were also about a woman (I’ve kinda plotted out a 5+ series arc for Genius in my head where it’s this really interesting, feminist sotry).

But! I couldn’t get the creativity piece to work, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the gender angle, so this is the piece I wrote. I was quite pleased with it in the end; it’s a little longer than my Yahoo columns tend to be, though I had a lot of ideas I wanted to cover, and even then didn’t quite manage to get all of them in. I must say, I really did quite enjoy Genius.

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The politics, passions, and people of A Very English Scandal

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One of the more interesting comments Russell T Davies made in the weeks before A Very English Scandal first aired was that he thought “both [Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe] were victims”, in a way.

It’s perhaps not immediately apparent why Davies considered Jeremy Thorpe a victim, given after all that A Very English Scandal dramatises Thorpe’s efforts to have Norman Scott killed. It’s a story of power, politics, and passion, of conspiratorial whispers in the hallowed halls of power, and Thorpe is at the very heart of that. Casting Hugh Grant was, in many way, a stroke of genius; his Thorpe isn’t just suffused with predatory menace, but, as many have noted, feels informed by his past as a charismatic romantic lead. In turn, Grant’s Thorpe is a vision of that charm, curdled into something darker – there’s an undefinable, irresistibly engaging quality about him, even knowing there’s something rotten lurking within. Declaring Norman Scott must die with as much conviction as he opposes racism in the House of Commons, or planning how to dispose of his body with the same light, casual ease as mimicking the Prime Minister, doesn’t exactly seem to support the understanding that Thorpe is anything short of a Machiavellian villain.

But, if it’s difficult to see Thorpe as a victim from the first two episodes, it’s a scene in A Very English Scandal’s closing episode that renders Davies’ point crystal clear.

I am so, so proud of this piece, I’ve got to say. Genuinely, when I’d finished it, I was absolutely beaming – I was convinced, and still am, that it was one of the best pieces of writing I’d done in quite some time.

The only thing that, admittedly, is less than stellar about it is the title. I don’t think it really conveys what it’s about, does it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure it conveys much of anything, it’s a bit… empty. Better, though, than other variations, such as “the politics, power and prejudice”.

Anyway, I’d really appreciate any shares that this one gets, because like I said, I’m extremely proud of it.

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Westworld, and the possibility of change

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Revolution has been a key theme of the second season, of course, following as it does the path of Dolores’ nascent rebellion. A particular throughline has been an interrogation of the morality of revolution, and of oppressed people using violence against their oppressors; it’s telling, for example, when Dolores notes that she’d rather “live with your judgement than die with your sympathy”, rejecting the idea the hosts’ uprising should be bound by the ethics of the humans. At the same time, though, there’s an emphasis on how the revolution needs to create something new, rather than simply invert the old paradigm; Dolores’ rewriting of Teddy, another host, clearly parallels the way Ford would deny Bernard autonomy. No doubt Teddy’s final indictment of Dolores will haunt Westworld moving forward: “What’s the use of surviving if we become just as bad as them?

Certainly, it’s one of the more compelling ideas that Westworld puts forward, and you can see allusions to it throughout; indeed, it’s inherent to the very setting, with the old West having been built on violently displacing Native Americans. (Note also the significance of some of the other ‘worlds’, like the Raj, evocative of ideas of colonialism and imperialism in similar ways.) Granted, it’s not perfect – Westworld still has a predominantly white cast, making its attempts to tell a story about oppression a little dishonest, if nothing else – but the show does put forward some genuinely engaging ideas, independently of its structural games and narrative tricks.

An article on Westworld! I’ve got to say, I’ve actually been really enjoying the show – I only caught up on the first series this year, a month or two before the second series began, and found it really compelling.

Unlike a lot of people, though, I quite enjoyed this year’s series as well – particularly for the ideas of change, and of revolution, that it tried to engage with. Hence writing this piece – it took me a little while to work out the right angle for it, and while I was pleased with how it turned out in the end, it is probably split a little too much between two ideas (change in general and revolution in particular) without enough effort to draw the link between them.

In any case, though, I think the article turned out quite well, and I am very much looking forward to Westworld series 3. Roll on… 2020, I suppose.