Smaller Stakes, Smaller Villains, Bigger Impact

Like many people, I have the shows I watch on a regular basis. New ones are constantly popping up, American Horror Story: Coven (which crapped out a bit in the last fifteen minutes but otherwise was great) or Almost Human (which I really want to love but am having trouble) are a couple examples. Then there are my standards, the ones I’ve been watching for years. Breaking Bad was one of those, Walking Dead is another. The one that always sneaks up on me though, and probably gives me the most satisfaction when it comes, is Justified.

At first, I just didn’t care for it. Its arcs didn’t make any sense, it meandered and rambled all over the place, and just seemed to be about rednecks with single digits of teeth murdering and coniving over small scale matters. Over the years though, it has gotten much better. The second season was amazing, and each subsequent season (while not as good in my opinion) has brought certain things in spades. Part of that though, was that as it expanded the world and introduced characters, those small scale matters, these small players, made more sense.

That’s what it really has going for it. Timothy Olyphant is great, steadily building up this lethal, unstoppable badass persona, but what really makes it are the villains and the world they live in.

That’s the reason season two is my favorite. Mags Bennet was a familiar style of villain, a terrifying matriarch who rules her territory like a rabid Mama Bear, but to an extent we’ve never seen and with a flair of character that has made Margo Martindale (who is also great in The Americans) one of my favorite actresses. Mags and her sons are coolly efficient while still being hillybilly sociopaths. Mags is known by everyone in the community, looked on like a grandmother and a mom, yet feared just as much. All while running a legitimate business, a lucrative illegitimate one, and negotiating an underhanded deal with the only entity everyone agreed was evil. Yet they never push her into full gangster, she always has that maternal side with Loretta and her oldest son. His death, and Loretta leaving, is what finally pushes her over into full despair and forces her to give up.

The reason the third season is my next favorite, you have three said villains. Boyd, of

course, who I’ll get to in a minute but it also introduced Quarles (a true sexual sadist and gangster from Detroit) and Limehouse. God, I love Limehouse. An aside on this, you realize that’s this guy, right??? Yep, the same guy who wielded a machete to freaking chop of a guy’s arm is in fact my best, good friend Bubba. The reason I love Limehouse is because he has a very ellaborate code of how he’s going to do things, all while fiercely protecting his people and the community he’s built in Noble’s Holler (which is an Appalachian pronunciation of Hollow, which is a valley, knowledge is power!). Him and his are pretty much the first, and only, black people to show up (aside from Rachel) and are probably the closest knit community in the show. His Holler exists outside of the sphere of Harlan county, playing neutral in their politics and criminal activities, and actually taking advantage of that position by being a bank and resource for information.

Brilliant!

And all throughout this, you have the big cheese villain of them all, the drug-running, gun-toting, hillbilly wordsmith joker, Boyd Crowder. I don’t even know if he’s the villain anymore, he’s such an integral part to the show. I am challenged to think of another occasion in which I saw a villain, or any character, have such an organic growth. He started out almost a conman, wrangling up Arians to create trouble so he could rob banks. His soul motivation was money and what was in Ava’s pants. He’s been ally and enemy, played every side imaginable, constantly grown to value and despise different elements of his world. He’s a mystery, incredibly conniving, yet relatable. Oh, and let’s not forget dangerous. The only reason he hasn’t killed Raylan is because they’re equal opposing forces. They’ll get around to it, believe you me.

In the end, what I think makes the villains of the show so great, are their stakes. In the past couple seasons we’ve involved Detroit and national drug trade that has upped things, but even then things are kept to a very small sphere of influence with very intimate stakes. People in the show are fighting and murdering over money that would be small in another show, yet is incredibly important in this world. They’re fighting over relationships and pasts that go back to the Civil War, working within the constraints of culture that are literally bread into its people. It’s these more intimate stakes that make the show. Until recently, you didn’t have a cop fighting national or international drug cartels or even criminal organizations that directly hurt their own community. It wasn’t about an overarching threat, it was about people and homes. Even when they bring in “foreign” threats such as the Detroit gangsters, you see them outwitted, outgunned, and outmanned by hillfolk and small, local players. They perfectly leverage that sense of home town, of the small community. I know it’s not a Southern thing only, it’s more of a rural thing, but being a Southerner, I understand it. This is their home, their community. They own it, they protect it.

Good luck to anyone who wants to take it.

Bioshock Infinite: A late Review

First and foremost to say about Bioshock Infinite, it is a fantastic video game and one of the single greatest arguments I have ever seen for the artistic quality of the medium. It is vibrant, with strong characters, and a great plot.

So let’s talk about some of this. By now, everyone probably gets the gist of things. Bioshock has always been a world driven production. Whereas the first two took place in the underwater city of Rapture, this one takes place in the floating city of Columbia. Whereas Rapture was driven by personal development, hard work, science, the arts, business, Columbia is driven purely by fanatical religion and nationalism.

Now, some people might have a problem with some of the portrayals in the game. White people, Christians, religion in general, and civic pride are depicted as horrible, the root of all evil. Keep in mind though that the Bioshock series is about extremes and the consequences of good things taken too far. In Rapture you saw what a free market system might become without regulation, you saw what a monopoly can do to a community, and a dozen other everyday things that we value and the risk in embracing them unabashedly.

The same is true for Infinite. Same idea, different topics. The uncomfortableness comes from the fact that Rapture hasn’t existed  yet. It’s tried, and there are many who would argue that we are slipping into that type of society, but I would argue we haven’t yet. Infinite existed and sadly, in many parts of the country, still exists. While there are many parts of the game that seem so extreme they border on cartoonish, having been born and raised in the South, it is an unfortunate truth.

The world is great, but for me, it is Elizabeth that makes this game. She is a strong character, beautiful, more powerful than you, and never annoying. Some people said her constantly tossing you stuff got old quick. For me, when I was scrounging for money (always, always, always) I found it pretty damn convenient. Songbird is a memorable villain, and while I don’t like Comstock quite as much as Ryan, the twist around his identity is superbly done.

And lets talk about that a bit. Spoiler alert in case you haven’t noticed, but was I really one of the only people to sort of see this coming? I mean, we had set up time travel and multiple dimensions right from the get go. I would have been more shocked if there hadn’t been a twist like this. With that said, the framing of the lighthouses, the baptism, and Elizabeth’s, um, role in all of it was a perfect piece of storytelling.

Now, I’ve said Bioshock Infinite is fantastic, and all that holds true, but it is not my favorite in the series. For me, that is still the first. It has the perfect balance of gameplay and story for me. The second one has some great game place, and I loved playing as a Bid Daddy, but the story was a bit tacked on.

My biggest problem with Infinite, and I really didn’t see anyone comment on this, were the weapons. It went from steampunk inspired shotguns, machine guns, and rocket launchers to dull throwaway weapons. I hate them, hated them the whole way through. The only one I liked at all was the revolver and once I got one I pretty much played the whole thing with it. I really, really wish they had given the weapons more thought and stayed with the old system of carrying around your whole arsenal. I know that’s unrealistic but a lot can be said for the benefits of a lack of realism in entertainment. One of the greatest things about the game was having a selection of weapons and powers to deal with things. I’ve heard it said this decision was to force you to be tactical, but I think it took away from that aspect rather than added.

Overall, it was a great game and must be played by anyone who enjoys a great story, a better character, and an intriguing world.