Sunday, December 29, 2013

Doctor Who 6-06: The Almost People

Freud used the double or the doppelganger as one of the clearest examples of the uncanny there is, and it's been a staple of horror fiction for centuries. Doubles and clones have also been rich fodder for science fiction for quite some time, provoking social commentary and philosophical musings. Doctor Who borrows liberally by both genres to make its concoction of space-time fantasy work, and so it's not surprising that it would have its fair share of duplicates. We've already had a forged Rose (in “New Earth") and a clone Martha (in “The Sontaran Strategem”), to say nothing of the uniform replication of the Cybermen or the Daleks, and that's just off the top of my head. In the sixth-season two-parter consisting of “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People”, Doctor Who addresses the idea of the double much more directly, giving us an extensive cast of characters and then giving all of them an almost-but-not-quite doppelganger, including a double Doctor.

Why is the doppelganger so unnerving? “The Almost People” practically takes for granted that it is, especially in the originals' reaction to their copies. Theoretically, another copy of yourself ought to be one of the least threatening things imaginable – after all, there's nothing you know more thoroughly than yourself, and a duplicate should have the same interests and personality as you do. But this is not the case.

Freud suggests that doubles, whether in the form of dolls, puppets, or more supernatural entities, scare us because they are almost-but-not-quite human. In “The Uncanny”, he writes that “the 'double' was originally an insurance against destruction to the ego, an 'energetic denial of the power of death', as Rank says”. The double is originally, according to Freud, formed as a defense mechanism against the limitations of the mortal body, such as an imaginary friend or the religious conscience. If we can replicate ourselves, we do not have to accept death.

Doctor Who literalizes this through the “gangers”, low-grade copies of human beings who are used to do hazardous work [1]. Humans can manipulate perfect copies of themselves, preserving their real bodies from any danger. In the cold open of “The Rebel Flesh”, a worker falls into a vat of acid and everyone casually jokes about it. His ganger disintegrates, but his original body is left alive. In Doctor Who, as in Freud, doppelgangers are literally a way to bypass death and the limitations of the mortal body.

But if this is their purpose, then such duplicates are inevitably doomed to fail, because nobody can live forever (although it would be nice). If we create an immortal doppelganger, Freud argues, then we inevitably become horrified of it. It is ultimately not like us, because it lacks a key aspect of human experience, mortality. This difference ultimately brings home the fact of our own death, and creates the sensation of the uncanny. This is why immaculately embalmed corpses are so uncanny. As Freud puts it, “From having been an assurance of immortality, [the double] becomes the ghastly harbinger of death”.

This is of course a very specific narrative to suggest as an universal human development, which is why I'm usually a little queasy about Freudian readings. But even if we don't read Freud as speaking to the universal human condition, he undoubtedly speaks to the anxieties of the Western European intellectual culture he was a part of. Freud read texts, such as the stories of E. T. A. Hoffman, and authors of fiction in turn read Freud and were influenced by him.  Doctor Who is also a part of this culture, or at least a distant cousin. If there isn't an episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor and Siggy fight some monster together, there probably will be one day. The gangers match up too closely to Freud's theory of the doppelganger for it to be entirely coincidental.

This two-parter dramatizes the persistent fear that makes the doppelganger uncanny: that it can never fully be classified among the other immobile objects that you use, that it might just cling to a life of its own. This is why there are so many horror stories about animate dolls and mannequins (including the first episode of new Who). The workers here learn that not only has the Flesh become animate through a freak accident, but that it was always in some ways alive.

Amy has to deal with a similar anxiety when confronted with the sight of two Doctors. The perfect duplication of a man she knows and loves calls into question the idea of individuality and personal essence that is so essential to our contemporary understanding of the human self. The public anxiety about cloning has perhaps the same rationale: if it's possible to make an identical copy of me, then I become no longer myself but simply one of a potentially infinite number of iterations of the same DNA, interchangeable with any number of others. This is also why, by some accounts, twins are uncanny (The Shining, anyone?) For Amy, seeing another Doctor with the same tics and eccentricities as the one she loves calls into question the validity of that love, which is forced to either distinguish between identical objects or admit that it is not a love for an individual but for a series of infinitely copyable characteristics.

Amy reacts by choosing the former option, assuming that the flesh-created Doctor is a fake and treating him as an unreliable copy. She tries to assert the singularity of the Doctor's identity, noting that “there can really only be one” and calling the Flesh duplicate “almost the Doctor” (a PhD candidate, maybe?) Later in the episode, the two Doctors reveal that they have tricked Amy and that the one she thought was the original was actually the Flesh copy. The episode presents this as Amy being taught a lesson in not being prejudiced against clones or whatever, but I think there's something horrifying in this plot. Amy's relationship with the Doctor, whose strength has been a central point of many prior episodes, appears here as a directionless prejudice that can be easily confused. The only way to maintain genuine relationships, “The Almost People” suggests, is to accept that the ones you love can be replaced by those with similar enough characteristics. This is the happy ending of one of the episode's subplots, in which a child's father is replaced by a loving ganger, and it also echoes the happy ending given to Rose in an earlier season, in which she was given an incomplete copy of the Doctor that could serve as a lover in a way the real one couldn't.

I don't want to say that this message is wrong, but I don't think it's as self-evidently right as “The Almost People” suggests. The episode largely uses a liberal human rights framework to approach the ethical dilemma suggested by the gangers. The gangers, the Doctor maintains, are simply another oppressed group that needs to be recognized as legitimate and integrated into humanity. While “The Almost People” uses the gangers and their uncanny doubling to create horror and intrigue, its ethical argument suggests that their being duplicates is sort of irrelevant: they are just as legitimate and deserve the same rights and respect as any other liberal subject. This would seem to contradict, however, the ways in which the script also treats the gangers as interchangeable with the originals. This is neither the first nor the last time that Doctor Who features a contradiction between the ideological underpinnings of the genre sources it draws on and the liberal-pacifist ideology that it itself wants to espouse.

As much as this episode's script urges us to treat the gangers as every bit as deserving of humanity as the originals, it also plays up the uncanny horror of the copy. The gangers have trouble holding onto their fully human form, with their faces frequently melting into gooey masks. This is almost textbook uncanny, with the half-formed faces being just close enough to humanity to inspire horror.

The duplicitous Jennifer is singled out as especially monstrous. In an early scene, she is the only one to bear a half-formed face while the other gangers, who are alienated by her revolutionary rhetoric, all look fully human. Later, Jennifer turns into an ogreish monster and begins destroying everything in sight. This undercuts the message of tolerance and equality just a bit. After all, it's not like any of the original-recipe humans turn into giant monsters. This ending fulfills the genre requirements of a Doctor Who story, but it also ultimately suggests that maybe the subaltern [2] – at least its most strident and resistant members – is ultimately a little monstrous after all.

Jennifer's ultimate fate helps to reveal the political ideology underpinning “The Almost People”. In this two-parter the Doctor is depicted as being the force of external rationality keeping two prejudiced extremist groups from killing each other out of irrational hatred. This is the role that Western countries like to imagine themselves playing in global politics[3], and the Doctor acts as the Western power par excellence. The Doctor, white, male, outstandingly intelligent, possessor of advanced technology, looking pristine in his suit and tie, stands in a clear contrast to the workers that he makes peace among, who are dirty, lower-class, and predominantly female. As in the similarly-plotted two-parter from season 5, the two warring factions are lead by irrational war-mongering women, who bring the sanguine men along for the ride. While there certainly are female war-mongers, some serving in the Obama administration as we speak, Doctor Who's focus on them would seem to go against the millennia of very masculine warfare. To convey that war is bad, Doctor Who codes it as either inhuman (the Daleks, to take one example) or feminine.

By presenting the revolt of the gangers against humans as being simply a case of two equally-prejudiced groups who need to set aside their differences, Doctor Who uses the liberal framework of discrimination to demonize class struggle. When Jennifer talks about leading a revolt to free the billion gangers used as slave labour in India, this is portrayed as megalomania.  The ganger man who just wants to see his family is moral; the woman who wants to affect larger political change is not.  The revolt is not even hours old before it becomes Just As Bad as the oppression it fights against.

The Almost People” depicts the gangers as having gone through a tremendous experience of pain, suffering and exploitation. It takes this seriously as both injustice and a psychic wound that affects all of the gangers and even the Doctor. What is most damaging, the script suggests, is the ongoing denial of their humanity in the service of profit and the safety of the privileged. This is why characters in the episode talk obsessively about the eyes of dying gangers, a vision of raw suffering humanity which haunts their dreams. In this there are clear parallels between the gangers and the labouring masses around the world that work unseen all day so that the First World can kick back and watch a science-fiction show.

But because of its ideological framework, determined by both the liberal sympathies of its writer and its position as a BBC institution, Doctor Who is forced to present this exploitation as identity-based prejudice instead of class oppression. Its solution for the subaltern is to shake hands with the oppressors, team up with a liberal-minded white man, and to perhaps go to the newspapers to tell their side of the story – the “spreading awareness” means of politics. I'm not saying that we need to ignore questions of prejudice, or that they can ever be fully explicated from economic questions – the persistent Othering of people in the global south, for instance, makes their economic exploitation much less troubling to the first world. But Doctor Who's inability to grapple with economic class means that we end up with an episode that purports to champion the humanity of the subaltern, and ends up with that subaltern literally turning into a monster that has to be stopped. The science-fictional nature of this subaltern means that liberalism is much more nakedly present here than it probably would be in a BBC show about a real-life oppressed group[4]. Instead of covering this ideology up with equivocation, Doctor Who distracts from it with the usual litany of heroic sacrifices, half-hearted romance plotlines, and long minutes of people running down hallways.

In his book In the Break, Fred Moten uses Freud's idea of the double in a more radical way. Moten reads black art as the “revolt of the object”, in which that which was previously treated as an object asserts its subjectivity. This is the underpinning of countless sci-fi stories in which computers, robots, or some other friendly new technology comes to live and rebels against its owners – the seminal example is probably Hal's rebellion in 2001. This exploits our psychological need for the classifications between subject and object: if the things we treated as senseless and inanimate, the things we abuse every day for our own purposes, became able to act themselves then not just our sense of the object but also our sense of the subject would be called into question. Drawing on Moten's idea of the “revolt of the object”, we can see such plotlines as also addressing post-colonial anxiety about the revolt of the last group of people we thought were objects. Science-fiction stories like 2001 allow white people to relive this revolt in a way that makes their own position sympathetic instead of monstrous.

As a description of this two-parter, “the revolt of the object” is apt to the point of literalness. In these episodes, Doctor Who makes the link between revolt-of-technology plots and the revolt of the oppressed explicit: the gangers are both a new, uncanny technology and a group of subaltern workers. They stand in here for the global poor who work 18-hour days stitching our clothes, and as Moten would suggest they finally gain a modicum of power when they gain the ability to speak. For the first time the gangers are able to vocalize the oppression and trauma that they could only convey through the looks in their eyes. The Doctor says that once the world finds out what's been happening everything will change. This a little naive – after all, we have a pretty good idea of what that “Made in Indonesia” label means, but we usually buy the shirt anyways and go on with our days – but even absent other changes the subaltern claiming its voice is at least a small victory.

Thus far I've been reading this episode as a piece of metaphors, in which the gangers are simply a device for talking about psychological drives (as read through Freud) and political positioning (as read through Moten). But it would be too simplistic to say that the gangers are the same as a sweatshop worker, or even the same as one of Freud's dolls. What makes fantasy so thrilling and strange is that its creations are never quite reducible to a symbol for something that's safely real. Even in the most didactic of science fiction, the speculative elements have some quality about them that a social treatise would not.

So if I want to read the gangers as a metaphor for the global poor, this is complicated by the ways in which the gangers are not like the global poor – namely, in how they exactly duplicate and in some ways share an identity with the privileged class. This is not the case with colonialism and its contemporary counterpart, where people in the colonized world were considered less-than-human because of their differences. Examining these differences opens up a third level on which we can analyze this episode, a level which is perhaps more flattering to its creators. What does “The Almost People” suggest about human consciousness and individuality?

At many points in the episode, the gangers and their originals almost seem to share a single brain. This is most obvious in the Doctor and his double, who finish each other's sentences and turn out to be indistinguishable even by those close to them. Their manic scheming has the ring of masturbation, with the usual exchange of fancy and skepticism that takes place between the Doctor and his companions being reduced to an endless feedback loop of whimsy. Doctor Who tells us over and over again that the Doctor is special, that he is sui generis, the last of his kind, so it presents the cloning as not something that diminishes the Doctor's specialness (as Amy understands it) but as something that expands it. There are two bodies, but they share the same name, the same persona, and the same identity.

This profound sameness extends to the workers that turn against each other.  One character remarks, with a hint of melancholy, that she can predict her ganger's actions because they're exactly what she would do. One subplot concludes with a ganger taking the original's place in his family, as though the two were completely interchangeable. This seems to cut against Doctor Who's usual liberal moralizing, employed awkwardly in this story, that we need to accept those that are different. In “The Almost People”, the problem lies in accepting those that are the same.

This formulation takes us away from any comprehensible political allegory and towards a more psychological understanding of what the workers are so afraid of. In “Amy's Choice”, Doctor Who suggested that the one in the universe who hated the Doctor most was not Daleks or the Master or any of the countless Who villains over the years, but in fact the Doctor himself[5]. Following this logic, the Flesh forces us to confront those aspects of ourselves that we would rather not – our capacity for cruelty and persecution, for instance. Given this, the doubling becomes a kind of moral crucible, where good characters such as the Doctor and the noble father prosper, and evil characters such as Jennifer reveal their inner perfidy.

The double is horrific because it makes us see ourselves too clearly. Investing humanity in the basest tools of production makes us realize the ways in which we are ourselves tools of a larger production machine. We like to subconsciously believe that we are unique, and from our perspective we are: we are the only accessible subjective mind in the universe. But the double reminds us that we are ultimately just one of a set, an object like any other. These are directions that the episode never really addresses, perhaps because they would be insoluble in 45 minutes, but also because it would upset the minority rights framework the episode keeps trying to use. This is the central contradiction in not just Doctor Who but in so much contemporary genre fiction: the urge to support the liberal project of peaceful reconciliation and tolerance[6] buts up against the need for horrific, perhaps purely evil monsters. Hence we have the ungainly insistence in other episodes that the Daleks are pure evil, but it would still be wrong to kill them.

There is another tension underlying this episode, albeit one that the viewer has likely forgotten about until the end. The question of Amy's quasi-existent baby has hung over the first half of the sixth season, albeit mostly in the form of the Doctor staring at a scanner at the end of the episode. The frenetic end to “The Almost People”, almost disconnected from what has come before, comes as a narrative version of Freud's return of the repressed. The episode has lulled us into a sense of security. As savvy viewers, we have assessed that this is not a “mythos episode”, not written by Stephen Moffat, and the plot is fairly standard Doctor Who fare. The last thing we expect is a major meta-plot development after forty minutes of episodic narrative. Moffat pulled this trick before in “Cold Blood”, but it still feels startling here.

It turns out that Amy, who most voiciferously insisted that there could only be one doctor, has herself been inhabiting a Flesh copy of herself for the whole season. This demonstrates nicely the frightening possibilities opened up by the doppelganger: having been confronted with the unstable identity of the Doctor and the workers they rescue, Amy's identity itself becomes unstable, with her conscious life split between two bodies [7].

Interestingly, after spending two episodes telling us that gangers are autonomous creatures that deserve rights, the Doctor liquidates Amy's ganger without any compunction. This seeming contradiction points us towards both the limitations of Doctor Who's liberal human-rights framework and the broader connotations of doubles. The ganger, when used by the Silence to falsify Amy's memories and invade her body, is ultimately too horrific and uncanny to be reconciled with our definition of humanity. Here the ganger is not a kind of replication but a kind of theft: it has stolen Amy's self-knowledge by deconstructing the identification between body and mind.

This twist is also compelling because it taps into broader psychological fears about pregnancy. Pregnancy is a kind of duplication and also a kind of theft, in which one's body becomes not entirely theirs. This ordinary psychological uncertainty is translated into the hyperbolic language of science fiction, in which Amy's pregnancy makes her both literally a duplicate and literally hostage to an alien force which denies her her own body. The process of creating another human is neither as physically easy as the technology of the Flesh would make it appear, nor as psychologically easy as the Doctor's moralism would: it involves an encounter with the limits of the self.

The Almost People” is then ultimately a story about biopolitics, about how regimes of truth, whether the medical fascism of the Silence or the bourgeois moralism of the Doctor, try to tame the uncanny possibilities of bodily replication. While these attempts triumph in the timespan of the episode, they are both ultimately destined to fail, and their failures are embedded in this story's many contradictions. Like many Doctor Who villains, “The Almost People” unleashes a force which it ultimately can't control.

[1] While the gangers aren't as autonomous as replicants (or at least they're not supposed to be), this story has more than a passing resemblance to Blade Runner.

[2]Belatedly I realized that readers outside of academic circles might not be familiar with the term “subaltern”. As Wikipedia defines it, the subaltern is “the social group who is socially, politically, and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland”. The subaltern refers to people and cultures that are considered less important and perhaps even inhuman in colonial society, i. e. the colonized. I kind of wish I was more familiar with Gayatri Spivak, as her ideas about the subaltern voice seem quite applicable to this post.

[3] This is obviously visible in contemporary discourse around Libya and Syria, but in TV terms it can be seen perhaps most nakedly in the first-season West Wing episode “Lord John Marbury”, in which the collective colonial powers have to keep the brown people from destroying each other out of religious hatred. This stands in contrast with neoconservative justifications of war, which do their best to present the countries we bomb as threats to the homeland: when liberals bomb other countries, they do so for those countries' own good.

[4]I would say that no one would argue that black revolutionaries were just as bad as the people that enslaved them, but then again, Bioshock Infinite.

[5]This would seem to be contradicted by the meeting of the two Doctors in this episode, and the other times where the Doctor is delighted to encounter a peer.

[6]Of course, in practice liberalism offers this peaceful reconciliation as a moral imperative only in certain situations. To protest an American war, smashing a cop car is an unacceptable step into violence; to protest a Syrian war, carpet bombing is an acceptable response.

[7]We also get duplicate Amys in “The Girl Who Waited”, “Amy's Choice”, and probably some other episodes that I can't remember now. It's something of a motif.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Breaking Bad 5-11: The Confession

If Community is, as I argued earlier, an attempt to address the difficulties of making a sitcom in the age of postmodern irony, Breaking Bad is at least partially trying to solve the problem of making a serious drama in a world which is so predominantly absurd. Walter White wants to be Scarface, but he is always hamstrung by the ridiculous accouterments of late capitalism – purple coffee machines, Roombas, cars that bounce, etc. Nowhere is this more in focus than the scene in “The Confession” where Walt and Skyler meet Hank and Marie in a cheesy Mexican family diner. The conversation is the stuff of high drama, with terse insults, implicit threats, questions of morality, and the hefty weight of a shattered family. And then there's the hapless waiter who keeps poking his head in asking if the mortal enemies would like some guacamole (they make it at tableside, you know). And there's the general atmosphere of the restaurant, as silly as the conversation is serious. Breaking Bad creates humour through these juxtapositions, but it also highlights both the everyday inanity of the world around us and the over-the-top seriousness of Walter's personal drama. Walter is a man who could never honestly laugh at himself, but for as much as Breaking Bad draws us into the drama of his situation, it also makes him laughable.

This is highlighted in not just the Mexican restaurant scene but through the show's visual style. Breaking Bad is constantly shot at weird, almost distracting angles, as if to jar us and remove us from the action. Towards the start of this episode, we get a birds-eye view of the Whites' bathroom. This angle reduces the everyday beauty and grooming products to abstract geometric shapes, thus turning an ordinary bathroom into something absurd. The preponderance of these circles highlights the ridiculousness of our consumption-oriented lives – who really needs all of those kinds of face cream, much less Walter and Skyler White? Walter is the central spoke of Breaking Bad's critique of capitalism, showing how the desire to be an entrepreneur and a self-made man leads inevitably to monstrousness, but shots like this add a more subtle layer of criticism.

In the scene above, Walter is desperately looking for some way to disguise the cut he received collapsing in the bathroom. “The Confession” as a whole is about this type of illusion, most notably the ever-increasing web of fictions that Walter conjures up in order to hide and excuse his actions. Even when he isn't actively lying and trying to cover up his criminal activities, Walter is always playing a role, always trying to game someone, whether it be convincing his son that he's an affable family man or convincing his array of partners that he is a respectable businessman. At this point there's very little of Walter's life that isn't some kind of lie

So it's no surprise that, when threatened by Hank, Walter conjures up another elaborate story. This is the titular confession (or one of them), a videotape that implicates Hank as the mastermind of the whole meth operation. This is perhaps the apex of Walter's performances: he seems more honest sniveling about how he hates being under Hank's thumb than he does when portraying something close to the truth. Perhaps recording this tape allows Walter to take on his favourite role, that of the victim buoyed along at the whims of circumstance. Or maybe he's getting out some real, repressed guilt and sadness over what he's done. Or maybe he's just become a consummate liar.

The Confession” also shows us Walter at his worst. In one scene he comes into the car wash, looking for a gun hidden in the ice tray of a pop machine. He mumbles something about having to check the latch on the machine, and makes a lame excuse to leave. Walter is not convincing to anyone here, and he seems at his wits' end, his storytelling prowess completely exhausted. What's striking is how these lies are just unnecessary. Walter owns the car wash – he can poke around there wherever he wants, without needing permission, and it isn't as though he needs to lie to Skyler any longer about his criminal activity. But Walter is almost addicted to spinning stories, needing to come up with a benign reason for everything he does. He keeps things from people just out of habit, or just to revel in his power over others.

This is something Breaking Bad takes from The Shield: the endless web of lies and schemes that eventually build up a momentum all their own. Walter White, like Vic Mackey before him, believes that he is in control of the violence and deceit that surrounds him, but in reality he is simply being carried along by the tide of events. In “The Confession” we get to see Walter cool and in control, but we also get to see him in a panicked rage, traumatized by the ability of other humans to act in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. If the fifth season has revealed anything, it's that Walter is ultimately a pawn to much larger forces than him, which refuse to let him stop what he has started. The Madgrigal conglomerate is one of these forces, and you can maybe count the neo-Nazis among them too, but there also seems to be a kind of entropic force that is propelling all of these individuals to a violent collision.

Setting is crucial to Breaking Bad. The city of Albequerque, already rendered a little ridiculous by its name (or maybe just the associated Weird Al song), is depicted as the epitome of late capitalist grandeur and absurdity. It is a plastic city of suburbs and tenements built in the desert, a futile attempt to impose civilization on the natural forces of chaos represented by the desert[1]. The desert haunts every street of Albequerque, and this is reflected in the show's cinematography. In several interior scenes it seems as though the desert is right outside, about to burst through the windows of the complacent civilians.

The desert is also the setting for a crucial scene in this episode, in which Jesse finally confronts Walt and begs him to “Stop playing me for once”. Over the course of the series there have been many rendezvous in the middle of the desert, and they're generally the site of business dealings between Walter and the various gangs he is involved with. The desert is where all of Walter's stories dissipate and raw power reveals itself. It is, so to speak, the desert of the real.

But Walter is blind to the encircling forces of chaos. He sees the desert as just another tool to be used: a convenient space to cook meth undisturbed or to bury a couple barrels full of cash. Even this late in the series, with his double life unfolding all around him, Walter still believes he can put everything in order through his intellect alone. And so when Jesse offers him a possibility to speak honestly – downright pleads for him to do so – Walter just continues with the sales pitch, telling Jesse that assuming a new identity far away is what's best for him.

Walter adopts his fatherly aspect for the talk with Jesse, which is the same persona he takes on in his rare chats with Walt Junior. This is the good-natured “Mr. Chibs” family man Mr. White that we saw at the beginning of Breaking Bad. The scene is shot like a family drama, the adult and wayward child leaning against the bumper of the car, sun gleaming warmly off Walter's forehead.

This is just an illusion, a mask that Walter puts on when it is convenient, but the same could be said for the growly, threatening Heisenberg. At this point Walter White is an identity without an authentic self beneath it. We know that he does care for Jesse – he's done too much to save him over the course of the series for it to simply be a relationship of convenience – but Walter couldn't be honest towards Jesse if he tried. Bryan Cranston's acting is skillful enough that every side of Walt (the sitcom dad, the growling antihero) seems equally real and unreal, up to and including the patently false repentant Walter of the “confession” he makes to Hank.

Perhaps there is something genuine in Walter's speech to Jesse. Getting away from Albequerque and in particular away from Walter White might ultimately be best for Jesse, even if it would tear him away from what's left of his meaningful relationships (Andrea, Brock, maybe Badger and Skinny Pete). But what really comes through in the speech is Walter's own longing for the new life that he promises Jesse. When Walt says “Maybe it's time for a change”, it appears for just a moment to be the realization that has been eluding him for the entirety of the series. When he talks about “finding a job you're good at”, there are echoes of Walter's lost potential as a chemist, which has become the original tragedy in the way Walter narrates his life. Walter imagines adopting a new identity as the ultimate act of masculine industry that would prove his creative mastery more than any pure meth would.

But ultimately Walter fails to convince either Jesse or himself. To take the option of disappearance would mean destroying the suburban domestic life that Walter has tried so hard to maintain. Even if he took his children with him, there would be no way to maintain the lie of a normal family. Walter does assume a new identity later in the season, when there is no possibility of his domestic life surviving, but even then he finds it unsatisfying. He can never really begin a new life, whatever his documents say: his existing attachments and experiences stay with him.

Similarly, even if Jesse got in that nondescript car, his traumatic losses would still be with him, as would his lack of education or skill in anything but meth-cooking. But even when Jesse calls him out, Walter clings to his fantasy of self-reinvention. This is a reflection of his broader need to believe in his power to determine his own universe through hard work and masculine self-assertion. It's telling that Jesse describes Walter's speech as labour, specifically “working me”. If you want to go even broader, this reflects the American capitalist desire to refuse to believe in impossibility. There is always a frontier, always a new place to expand (Mexico! The Czech Republic!), and you can do anything if you put your mind to it [2]. In some ways Walter proves this last maxim right: he has achieved a great deal, apparently dragging himself away from death at the same time he becomes an improbable success in his chosen business. But he cannot reinvent the world, nor can he reinvent himself. Walter's speech to Jesse appears first as candid advice, then as a manipulative ploy, then as an inadvertent confession. But as a confession, it ultimately gives us only another lie – the one that Walter

It is perhaps this final inability to be genuine, more than Huell's sticky fingers, that ends Jesse's faith in Walter and allows him to finally realize how cruelly he has been manipulated over the course of the series. Jesse is perhaps most notable for his inability to lie or dissemble: he really is what he appears to be, and all of his vulnerabilities and doubts are immediately on the surface. This is what makes Walter and Jesse such a dynamic combination of characters, but also what makes their relationship so toxic: Jesse, in his strange naivete, cannot imagine the extent to which Walter is manipulating him, while Walter looks down on Jesse for precisely the vulnerabilities that make him so easy to use. And Jesse's openness colours his reaction to the sudden, bolt-from-the-blue revelation of Walter's betrayal. Jesse doesn't plot an elaborate revenge scheme, as Walter might. He doesn't get in the car and thank his lucky stars, as Saul Goodman undoubtedly would. Instead, he grabs a tank of gas and goes after the one thing that matters to Walt more than money: his idealized domestic life.

The scene in which Jesse comes to this decision is shot in a quite interesting manner. This scene needs to do something very difficult in conveying a character's internal thoughts visually. (A lesser show would resort to a voice-over or a contrived conversation to do the same work). The scene begins with a long shot, in which most of the frame is taken up by the setting. Jesse is an almost-insignificant blot on the larger, desolate plain. This surely mirrors his frame of mind: he is powerless in the grand scheme of things, controlled by forces larger than himself.

I'm not sure what part of Albequerque this is[3]. The large objects hanging above Jesse look like a mass of cement dividers, but they also resemble gravestones, which would seem much more natural to be sitting in a row on a hill. The deaths of those close to Jesse (Jane, Mike, almost Brock) literally hang above Jesse's head. Or maybe these are the deaths he has caused: Gale, but also the countless ones who have died because of the meth Jesse so expertly cooked, their only remains an unmarked grave.

The scene cuts between these long shots and media-length shots in which Jesse is more prominent, but still not completely free of his environment (as he would be in a close-up). Jesse is at first ruminative and uncertain, his expression matched by the slow and uneven drumbeats on the soundtrack. He begins searching for his cigarettes. This is both a symbolic motion and a literal one: he is searching for a solution to his problems, but his literal inability to find even his pot will cause a major revelation. Drugs have always been a coping mechanism for Jesse, albeit an unhealthy one, but here at his lowest point they have abandoned him.

What's striking here is that Jesse's first reaction to the missing cigarette is not anger or confusion but panic. Jesse desperately wants the cigarette to be there – not just to take the edge off, but to assure him that he understands the world around him, and that Walter wasn't actually behind Brock's poisoning. Despite his strong distrust of Walter, Jesse still wants at some level to believe in him. The camera plays in to Jesse's panic, swooping around him, examining every possible angle for hope that his suspicions aren't true.

But eventually Jesse's expression becomes resolute, and he walks away from the offer of asylum. Once again, the petty detritus of modern life stands in uncomfortable co-existence. “The guy”, for all he represents a new life and the impossible promise of reinvention, and carries a larger-than-life underworld aura, is ultimately a middle-aged man driving a boring red car that is nearly identical to the one that follows behind him. Jesse's momentous decision involves rolling a wheelie suitcase past a pile of concrete dividers. If there is drama to be had in the modern world, this is it, both tragic and ridiculous – a dynamic Breaking Bad embraces wholeheartedly. This scene is a credit to both Aaron Paul and episode director Michael Slovis, who convey wordlessly one of the series's most important moments, the final break between Walter and Jesse.

As I've said, many of the characters Walter meets in the drug underworld act as alternate versions of himself. Jesse is the complete opposite, a photo negative, but many characters function as ways of teasing out Walter's philosophy, the introduction of white-collar middle-class morality and work ethic to criminal enterprise. Characters like Gus, Mike, and Lydia, are alternate versions of Walter, and their failures suggest that making meth a respectable business requires more than a lab coat and pale skin. On the other hand, you have Todd and his Nazi clan.

The cold open concerning said group of neo-Nazis is perhaps the starkest contrast to Walt's constant deceit of himself and others. This is another scene that draws on the contrast between the rawness of the criminal world depicted in Breaking Bad and the fakeness of everyday life. Todd loudly recounts the story of the train heist (a moderately edited story, it should be noted) in a public area, not stopping when the waitress stops by to gawk at Uncle Jack's swastika tattoo. Walter, while prone to bragging in the right circumstances, would never do so in such a public environment. But Todd and Uncle Jack have no illusions about what they are, nor do they have any illusions that they present to the world. Their boisterous repartee is almost endearingly open – there's no sign of the layers of mind games that characterize Walt's relationship with Jesse, or the endless denial and estrangement between Walt and Walt Jr. Fitting with Breaking Bad's dark humour, the only example of a fully functional family we have on the show is a bunch of white supremacists.

In the bathroom of the diner, Jack makes a comment about how the inability to smoke on airplanes is a sign of how far downhill he country has gone. This foreshadows the moment later in the episode where Saul's own no-smoking rule indirectly causes Jesse to realize how Walter has betrayed him. There's a strange kind of logic in connecting Jesse to the neo-Nazis, as they're probably the two most honest forces left standing on Breaking Bad. They're also both forces that Walter White believes he can control with rhetoric, but whose raw and violent emotions prove to be ultimately beyond his harnessing.

The Confession” is a tricky title, as there are several long speeches which present themselves as confessions but are all in some way deceitful – Walter admitting he has cancer to Junior (truthful but not honest), Walter blackmailing Hank with a just-true-enough account of his misdeeds, and Walter's manipulative speech to Jesse which presents itself as a genuine longing for freedom. At this point, it would be hard to dub any of these confessions true or false, as that would suggest there is an “authentic” Walter White deep down somewhere. On the other hand, Todd's bragging tale, while withholding some crucial facts, is perhaps the most genuine confession of the lot. It is also, of course, totally sociopathic. And this is perhaps the most troubling, and the most brilliant, part of “The Confession”: it suggests that the truth may be even uglier than the lies.

[1] Albequerque is also located in New Mexico, near the border, and Breaking Bad problematically uses Mexico and Mexicans to represent this untameable chaos.

[2] It's become increasingly difficult over the show's run to view Breaking Bad as primarily a commentary on capitalism. Walter White seems like such a singular character that it is difficult to generalize his personality or see his actions as representative of a larger group. Maybe this makes him a comedic figure in the medieval sense: a larger-than-life figure that embodies the smaller vices and delusions within us all.

[3] Surely you don't expect me to do research for this thing. This is close reading, man.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Weekly Wipe 1-01

The Weekly Wipe is ostensibly a new series, but it really isn't. Charlie Brooker has been doing his sardonic examination of television, the news, and the weird spectacle that results when they intersect for four series of Screenwipe, two series of Newswipe and various one-off specials, as well as his columns. The Weekly Wipe name seems to mostly signify that the show has moved to BBC2. The theme song is the same as previous Wipe series, and the opening graphics are in the same vein as Brooker's previous shows. As such there is little to nothing in the way of introductory material, and really noting to tell a new viewer what the show's all about. There's a reassuring aspect to this, especially for a long-time fan. Brooker has probably made enough programs that he no longer counts as a jaded outsider to the world of television, but he still acts like one. It's a routine that might have grown old if it weren't for the continued amount of material that the inane world produces.

Brooker's role is to be a kind of surrogate TV watcher: while he is ostensibly the object of our attention, he is really a kind of ally on our side of the screen, helping us react to the true objects of the program. This is the same kind of relationship between viewer/subject and object that is present in shows like Mystery Science Theatre 3000. We are literally watching someone watching TV, but they are watching TV better than we ever could, never lacking a witty remark or a cogent analysis.

This triangulated viewing is sort of insidious and sort of disruptive. It is insidious because it makes us forget that we are watching a product of the entertainment industry and, in the case of the BBC, the state: by making Charlie Brooker an ally in our cynical viewing of television, The Weekly Wipe allows us to forget to apply the same cynical lens to Brooker himself. The Weekly Wipe, a product of the media as much as anything else, masquerades as the anti-TV show. Like AdBusters, it literally sells us the idea of not buying.

But this is perhaps too cynical. There is a generally disruptive edge to Brooker's point of view. What he calls attention to is not the worst of television (although the egregiously bad usually does make an appearance) but the sheer banality of most of what the medium broadcasts, endless hours of C-list celebrities doing trivial tasks, news presenters waiting around for something to happen, and go-nowhere discussion of minor political scandals. Call it the vast wasteland argument redux: with thousands of hours of television produced every day, most of them are not so much offensive as oppressively meaningless.

Brooker makes the unusual decision to start this episode with a barrage of actually significant news stories. He begins with strife in North Africa, about which he can barely manage a joke, then moves on to Iran's space program, followed by a ruckus about a Jimmy Saville caricature appearing on a British kid's show. All of these are quick, twenty-second bits, but already in them there's a kind of trajectory from serious, real-world issues which Brooker's snark-infused, pop-culture-saturated view can barely address, to issues of media representation which are more awkward than anything else. These items are never brought up again in the episode, but their presence suggests the possibility of a different Weekly Wipe, a perhaps more serious show that focused more on what's soberly termed “current affairs”. Maybe something more along the lines of Newswipe. By opening Mali and then immediately jumping into The Tweenies and Lance Armstrong, Brooker almost seems to be engaging in a moment of self-critique: “Sure, we could have a serious discussion about a bloody war that you don't know anything about, but that's not what either of us are here for”. Brooker both gestures towards the higher aims of a program like Newswipe and dismisses them in one motion.

The actual opening bit is an analysis of Lance Armstrong's public “fall from grace” and how it was a media spectacle from beginning to end. Whereas sports media played Armstrong's steroid trials as a tragedy, Brooker pictures it as a comedy, where a man continually denies what everyone knows and then finally makes a tearful confession, expecting all to be surprised. The truth of the matter is that Armstrong has very little to apologize for, especially when most of his opponents in the Tour de France were also doping, but Armstrong plays the whole thing with such awkward self-seriousness that it's hard not to laugh. The clip where he responds to accusations by saying “I'm sorry you can't believe in miracles” is particularly hilarious.

As such Brooker has very little work to do. The attraction of The Weekly Wipe and its predecessors is how they put together these news stories, which one has undoubtedly heard told several different ways through our diffuse but strangely repetitive media, in a way that is both concise and captures the story's inherent ridiculousness. This episode uses the ad clips that try to sell Armstrong's tell-all with Oprah like a pay-per-view boxing match, which would have otherwise been instantly lost to the archives, to reveal how Armstrong's confession was a media-generated spectacle from start to finish. Brooker makes a good crack about Armstrong visibly turning into Tony Blair, but his commentary is really superfluous.

The conclusion to the segment focuses on Channel 4's coverage of the news, which featured a long series of man-on-the-street interviews of “people sitting on or near bicycles”. This is exactly the kind of banal, material I discussed above, which is meant to be instantly forgotten as the dead air of 24-hour news networks. But this is the material that the news is turning to more and more, as budgets are slashed and social media starts breaking stories: instead of figuring out what's going on, news anchors are content to ask you what you think is going on. This is democratic and even in some ways admirable, but it does make one wonder what the point of watching the TV news is when you can just read Twitter directly. By going into the memory hole and retrieving this unremarkable segment of television, The Weekly Wipe highlights the mental bankruptcy of the contemporary news media. Instead of spending ten minutes interviewing strangers on bikes, which probably took up the better part of some poor anchor's day and a lot of film, they could be trying to figure out what's going on in, oh I don't know, Mali – there's that bit at the beginning again.

The next segment moves into even further inanity with a segment on Splash!, which might as well be titled Diving with the Stars, except that might have actually been another show (my memory is hazy on this). Brooker describes the show as trying to cash in on the feel-good moments of the Olympics, but ending up as just another reality show with C-list celebrities doing inane tasks like falling into water. What The Weekly Wipe is so good at is focusing on the parts of TV we're not supposed to think about, and are barely supposed to remember: advertisements, for one, but also filler shots like the ones of Olympian Tom Daly wandering around poolside in his suit, meant to be self-serious window dressing but highlighted as absurd when isolated from context and given a pithy description by Brooker.

Notably, the surprisingly extensive dissection of Splash! focuses not on what Splash! wants the viewer to take away from it – the identity of the “celebrities”, the athletic prowess of Daly, funny moments and inspiring moments – but rather the overall structure of the program, and how hollow it is. In this it's not too different from the work I've been doing on this blog, although with pithy jokes instead of extensive theoretical tangents. For instance, Brooker calls attention to how, since diving only takes about five seconds, there's a lot of filler, that TV white space I was describing above. Reading a text against the grain doesn't always mean proclaiming it terrible or revealing all of its hidden reactionary agendas. Sometimes it means looking at the contradictions and suppressed contexts. Other times it just means paying attention to the 67 minutes of a NFL game that consist of standing around, instead of the 11 minutes of play you're supposed to remember.

Brooker's figure is not, however, that of the critic, and he would probably never use phrases like “reading a text against the grain”. His persona is that of the everyman sitting on the couch and yelling at the TV – the everyman-turned-critic. If Brooker does not give us virtuoso close readings of a given television show, it is perhaps by design. The boorish shouts and one-liners that intersperse TV clips suggest to the viewer that critical viewing is ultimately not difficult and arcane but is within all of our mental grasps. Seeing criticism like this can be empowering in a way that academic discourse is not. However, there are risks to this egalitarian promise. The first is that we might come to believe that shouting at the TV is enough, and that being able to joke about the crap we watch makes us immune to its effects. The second risk is that we might instead just choose to watch cultural figures like Brooker or Joel McHale on The Soup digest our culture for us, turning their criticism into just another product to be consumed.

Brooker experiments later in the episode with adding additional voices to The Weekly Wipe, suggesting alternative models of criticism. This is something that Brooker has done throughout his run, with the most notable other voices being the short films of Adam Curtis, which practice more wide-ranging cultural criticism, and the monologues by Doug Stanhope. Curtis is unfortunately nowhere to be found, but Stanhope does have a segment situated around his perspective as an American.

This Stanhope segment is a bit different from earlier ones, as it cuts between Stanhope giving a monologue to the camera, sitting on a couch in the middle of the road (the natural dwelling place of Americans). The two speeches seem absolutely identical, with a perfect flow between them, and this highlights the artificiality of Stanhope's schtick. Stand-up comedy is meant to sound spontaneous and effortless, like someone speaking off the cuff or going on a rant about something that's been bugging them, but of course in reality it is carefully prepared, practiced, and memorized down to the last word. The way this segment is edited suggests that ultimately, while Stanhope may pretend to be the libidinal voice of the common man, his comedy is ultimately a produced routine like anything else.

The content of Stanhope's routine is interesting because it seems to go against the , and not just because it argues that, as Brooker sarcastically summarizes, “America is great”. Stanhope argues, with some degree of irony, that all of America's base entertainments and trashy products are something to be celebrated. He describes a hypothetical British person's amazement at the options on a breakfast menu and the bizarre way in which Americans pour drinks. Stanhope's premise is faulty here, as it's doubtful that any Briton would be surprised by American culture, which has infested the rest of the world. Still, there is something to his argument. All other things being equal, it is better to have ten different ways to do your eggs, or frozen hotdog-on-a-sticks. These things may be trashy and in bad taste, but they make people happy. We have to pay attention to the insidious underside of this abundance – “the wars and the torture” that Stanhope refers to – but that doesn't make the abundance itself bad, as the AdBusters clan would have it, but the ways in which the abundance is produced. Even when it comes to the junk television that Brooker likes to lampoon, surely it's better to have 500 channels of junk like we do today than to have 3 channels of junk like in the 60s.

This kind of crass hedonism, whatever its merits, goes distinctly against the ethos of Brooker's critical practice. It is the editorial reply designed to give balance. Stanhope's segment also acts, like the opening clip from Mali, as a way of suggesting the limits to Brooker's work. By cross-cutting between separate but identical routines, The Weekly Wipes suggests how ironic and humorous approaches to popular culture can be entirely complicit with the culture industry. Stanhope believes that he is in on the joke, but the real joke is that it doesn't matter whether or not you're in on the joke, because you're still eating at Denny's just like the unironic slob next to you[1]. Brooker at his best aims to elevate his criticism beyond a mere ironic knowing, and Stanhope's segment shows why.

There are two new segments for the new series which attempt to add more voices to play off Brooker's. One is “Points Off You”, which mostly consists of Brooker reading the vilest and most inane social media comments on the events he's been discussing. He does dredge up some bad comments, but so could anyone with a working Internet connection, and Brooker's comments just seem like obvious chiding. One could accuse this segment of the same “let's see what on Twitter” approach as much of the contemporary news media. The other is something of a panel discussion on Django Unchained with two nervous British comedians, which never really goes anywhere, mostly because it requires Brooker to be the straight man against the not particularly outrageous guests. In these two segments the series is attempting to engage with different voices, even in a purely confrontational way, and introduce some different-looking material from previous Wipe shows. But thus far The Weekly Wipe is not really sure about how to execute these segments, and it shows.

The best voices here are made-up ones, the everyman duo of Barry Shitpeas and Philomena Cunk. Brooker uses these characters as a kind of counterexample to the cynical but informed viewing he practices in the bulk of the episode. Barry and Philomena suggest not so much that TV viewers are stupid, but that an uncritical viewing of television gets you to believe some very stupid things.

In this episode we get their reactions to the serious nature doc series Africa. This segment produces the funniest lines of the episode, with descriptions of animals such as “hairy men monsters, tall horse monsters that run around like deck chairs would if deck chairs ran, and these kind of vagina head monsters that fight in ponds” or “looks like they filmed Rocky in two giraffes by mistake”. There's a kind of childish, almost endearing quality to Barry Shitpeas's ignorance that makes him the most strictly humorous character on any of Brooker's programs.

But in their own way Barry and Philomena reveal as much through their commentary as Charlie Brooker does. The ignorance of their characters allows them to be convinced that there are no people in Africa, which reveals how Africa erases millions of suffering people and millennia of African culture in order to make a nice animals how. The Weekly Wipe uses willful stupidity as another way of reading against the grain. It applies intelligence to a dumb show like Splash! and applies stupidity to a supposedly intelligent and highbrow show like Africa, and both approaches work well. There's a kind of power to brazenly ignoring the cultural codes that we all take as a given, which is why TV characters from Homer Simpson to Tony Soprano captivate us as much as they repel us.

The segment that follows is Brooker's attempt at a serious political riff, this time on the gun control debates in the USA. The overall argument is that America is a country gone mad, and not mad in an entertaining, goofy way like Stanhope argues. The music drops down into a deeper register that suggests a mounting doom underneath the silly distractions of television. There are a few great bits in this segment, such as footage from an office training video that suggests employees run and hide in the event of a shooting, but for the most part it doesn't feel that different from something that would air on MSNBC. Brooker is not saying anything controversial or even original, and by locating the problem strictly in America he allows himself and his primary audience to take a distanced perspective that doesn't require any self-reflection or really any action more than a tut-tutting about the barbarians across the pond.

This risk is always present throughout Brooker's work, as well as in similar series such as The Daily Show and The Soup. It's easy for a viewer to come away from these programs thinking they are superior to the shows that Brooker mocks, that they are sitting at the cool kids' table and all that is needed to fix the world is for other people to stop being such idiots. An effective politics, to say nothing of a meaningful life, requires both self-examination and a capacity for empathy with others despite their problematic traits. If we start believing that we are better than other people because of the products we buy or the TV shows we watch then we are falling into capitalism's lies no matter how much irony we may do it with.

I would argue that Brooker falls into this trap much less than, say, Jon Stewart. While The Daily Show presents a cheering crowd and a supporting cast that lionize Stewart as a heroic truth-teller. Brooker, on the other hand, almost always appears alone, sitting on his couch in a dimly-lit room. If he is a target for viewer identification, he is also a sad image, a withdrawn and bitter loser who takes his rage out on harmless TV spectacles. To align ourselves with Brooker through the act of viewing is also to call into question what we're doing watching TV in the first place.

Political issues come up again in the episode's final segment, in which Brooker gives a sarcastic commentary to a fawning BBC interview with Prince Harry, who is currently bombing Afghan civilians. Brooker mocks the banality of the report, as well as Harry's remarks comparing the war to a video game, but he really doesn't touch on the ideological underpinning of the report, which tries to make a brutal war of occupation into a soft human interest story using the image of the Royal Family as a bizarre synecdoche of modern Britain. Brooker presents this interview as banal fluff, putting it in the same category as something like Splash!, but that doesn't really capture the sickness of a news media that would air something like this.

Brooker is at risk of becoming a cuddly curmudgeon, the type of figure that gets paid to come out and do his misanthropic schtick to a cheering audience. Or he could use his program as the opportunity to do genuine criticism in the public sphere, showing viewers a new way to look at not just TV but the world around them. This episode has more of the former, but it has enough of the latter to keep me interested. If there's anyone that can validate the meta TV show as more than just a simulacrum, it would be Brooker.

[1]Did The Weekly Wipe set Stanhope up to look bad? I don't know, and intent really doesn't matter. I wouldn't put it past Brooker and his crew to intentionally use Stanhope as a foil for Brooker's cynicism. But the style that makes this segment so exposing could just stem from an attempt to promote Stanhope's stand-up show, or from a director who's been watching too much Louie.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Top Chef 10-03: Tom vs. Emeril: Turkeypocalypse

In the previous entry I wrote about how sports broadcasts do their best to take emerging, sometimes dissonant facts and pull them into a traditional narrative. Reality television does a similar thing, with the main difference being that the editor-writers of a reality TV show (even one that's entirely on the up-and-up) know how everything ends up before they start shaping events into a narrative. Because of this, reality TV creates a narrative not by using commentators or video packages to overlay a story on an unfolding event but by selectively presenting footage than suggests whatever narrative the show wants to present. It is a more convincing form of storytelling than sports, but perhaps a less intriguing one, as it offers less immediate ruptures and potential for viewer judgment [1].

Competition shows are a bit more restrained in what they can do than, say, Real Housewives or its ilk. At bottom they hinge on actual events whose results are mostly not predetermined – the editors can change how you feel about a contestant's elimination, but they can't go back and change who is eliminated. Top Chef is more interested than most in establishing its legitimacy, and all of the culinary experts that appear on the show are not about to compromise themselves by praising an obviously inferior dish. So while the writer-editors do their best to contort narratives around results while still keeping these narratives satisfying (and this is no small feat), there are still moments of rupture, where the events belie the narrative.

Also like sports, one of the main challenges for competition reality shows is making us give a damn about the success or failure of people we don't know. Making us care about eighteen unknown chefs is not too different from a Bellator broadcast or a boxing prelim trying to make us care about an irrelevant battle between journeymen. Traditional sports' response to this problem has always been to tap into city pride and regional rivalry. Top Chef and other reality competition shows take an approach more akin to fight sports, focusing on outsized personalities and feuds (like pro wrestling, presented as a sport even if it isn't really) and personal sob stories (like Bellator and a lot of sports journalism). Hence the maxim that if you suddenly start hearing a reality contestant's backstory, they're probably about to go.

We're still in the early goings of this season of Top Chef, and the question is how to differentiate between the mass of people in blue coats. Some people stand out for their personalities, their success in challenges, or their funny accent. Others fade into the background (did you know there was someone named Brooke on this show?). The previous episode added even more contestants, ones you might recognize from past seasons if you think hard enough. Season 10 of Top Chef has thus far used team challenges as a way to make the competition a bit more approachable. Not only does it result in fewer dishes and stories to keep track of, forcing competitors together generates some of the interpersonal drama that reality TV runs on.

Turkeypocalypse” adds to this by aligning the two competing teams with personalities the viewer is already familiar with, that of head judge Tom Colicchio and post-“Bam!”-era Emeril Lagasse. They both have large personalities and distinct culinary styles, and their rapport in the kitchen is a highlight of the episode. The addition of the judges adds an overarching narrative to this week's competition. Instead of being a clash between two randomly-chosen teams, it's a battle between two different visions of Thanksgiving embodied by two masters of their craft engaging in a friendly rivalry. The invocation of Thanksgiving also adds to the episode's narrative. It carries with it connotations of tradition, family bonding, American culture, and screaming fights with relatives [2]. The chefs are competing to recreate Thanksgiving, or at least the food of Thanksgiving, in a sterile professional environment. Their dishes are loaded with an extra level of meaning because they are linked to a holiday tradition – both the specific childhood memories that Tom and Emeril narrate and the ones that the presumed American audience holds. This might suggest why the holiday special has such a hallowed place in TV programming.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The episode begins (after the customary recap and credits [3]) with a Quickfire challenge that's mostly disconnected from the meat of the episode. There's something impressive in how the episode, like most Top Chef episodes, is pared down to nothing but challenges. Most competition shows would include a few minutes of the contestants hanging out in the house (they always have to share a house in these things), talking about how they feel after the last elimination, and so on. This appears only briefly on Top Chef, with many episodes dispensing with it altogether, further suggesting the show's desire to put itself forward as a legitimate competition.

The parade of guest judges for the challenges also helps to add to that legitimacy. This week's Quickfire, for instance, is judged by Dana Cowen, editor of Food & Wine Magazine. Here we can see something of a mutual reinforcement of legitimacy. Top Chef legitimates Food & Wine by presenting it as everything it claims to be: an impartial authority which watches over the artistic and entirely unproblematic world of high cuisine. Top Chef also exposes Food & Wine to a broader, Bravo-watching audience who has no reason not to take its claims at face value. On the other hand, Food & Wine legitimates Top Chef by bestowing whatever prestige it has on it[4] and by authenticating it as a culinary competition and not just one of those trashy reality shows. The same process happens with every chef or food critic that appears on the show.

(There's also some Kindle Fire product placement in here, if you think I'm being too cynical.)

The actual challenge involves each contestant cooking a different type of dumpling, having been presented with a choice of 17 dumplings (using the term loosely) from around the world. There's an undeniable educational aspect to this challenge, as the audience (and the chefs) learn about how each culture puts its own spin on a simple concept. At the same time, there's a fair bit of exoticism here, as the obscurity of these dumplings is played for humour. The idea of Kazakh cuisine, for instance, is treated as impossibly wacky. Sheldon remarks “I didn't know that was a real country”, probably thinking of Borat. Carla just takes a wild guess at what her dumpling, fufu, is supposed to be.

Top Chef often uses Quickfires as ways to foreshadow the elimination challenge, and “Turkeypocalypse” follows this formula. Kuniko's problem with time, which will ultimately send her home, is first displayed in the Quickfire. Making a Japanese dumpling she knows very well, Kuniko is unable to get her food on the plate before the timer goes off. 

In some ways Kuniko's failure here is simply part of the artifice of the challenge. Time is obviously important in a real restaurant kitchen, but not at the point where taking two extra minutes is as bad as not cooking anything at all. The fact that Kuniko has a Michelin star in real life suggests to me that problems with sticking to the time limit hasn't hindered her outside of the artificial environment of Top Chef. Still, she gets a fairer deal than Brooke, who doesn't get a share of the pantry's flour and is unable to make a wrapper for her dumplings due to no fault of her own. Maybe she should have tried convincing Carla that fufu didn't use flour.

Fair or unfair, the challenge ends with Josie standing on top, which actually proves to be critical to the episode's final outcome. We then head into the Thanksgiving cook-off. There's no attempt to create drama via the division of teams – it's a simple division based on who is standing where. Other reality shows would look to add an interpersonal element by doing, say, a gym class style pick'em. But as much as it loves its interpersonal drama, usually playing out via endless stew room arguments, Top Chef is still questing for the mythic beast of legitimacy, and maybe the producers figure letting cast members' personal relationships shape the challenge to such a great extent is a bridge too far.

As much as the episode previews and title tease a Tom vs. Emeril showdown, the two don't really compete. Mainly Tom and Emeril just get feted, as all the cheftestants stand around reverently and listen to them talk about how Thanksgiving Should Be, then talk in confessionals about how amazing it is to learn Emeril's gumbo recipes. Even the blocking of these scenes imbues the judges with a kind of higher power. They set the menu and do a bit of early cooking, but ultimately it's up to the two teams to do the real work, as it should be. This is really a variation on a fairly standard challenge for Top Chef where the chefs have to make a special dinner (wedding/birthday/bar mitzvah/random party) for someone and appeal directly to that person's tastes. Usually these people are celebrities, but sometimes they're just randoms who are probably related to a Bravo producer. “Turkeypocalypse” bridges the gap by having the guests of honour be “Bravo-lebrities”.

These challenges are really all about the power of recall, and how a taste can become associated with a memory or emotion. This might seem like a trivial subject but hey, Proust wrote a 4000-page novel about it. As I mentioned above, holiday food is an especially rich ground for recall. As such, the chefs are behind the eight ball here, as they have to create food which outdoes the glorified memories of Tom and Emeril. They also have to add the sheen of fine dining and perhaps some innovation to traditional comfort food without undoing its status as comfort food. It's perhaps inevitable that they mostly fail.

The failures are fairly evenly distributed amongst the teams, which makes evaluating the challenge as a team competition difficult. Since this is ultimately an individual competition it's not a problem, but it does render the framework of the episode ever so slightly askew. Each dish is associated with a kind of procedural narrative, where proper actions in the beginning ensue proper results, and small mistakes in the early going spiral into catastrophe. Of course, some of these narratives are small to the point of nonexistent, but one can imagine a two-hour version of the show in which, say, Brooke gets a full plotline. The ones that we have here are edited together in a cacophonous kitchen sequence. The effect of cutting rapidly between different individuals and dishes, as well as between different camera angles and head-on interviews, is that very simple stories (Kristen cooks a good dish!) don't grow repetitive. The stories compete spatially as well as temporally, with there being ever-present wrangling for and complaining about

As the chef who is about to be eliminated, Kuniko's story should theoretically be front and centre, but most reality shows try to be a little shrewder about showcasing the soon-to-be-departed contestant. Kuniko's story here is a bit akin to the newspaper storyline in the fifth season of The Wire, as what's most important here is what's not shown. We see her running around the kitchen and helping other chefs with their dishes. When Kristen asks about Kuniko's dish she bluntly responds “Haven't touched”.

There's a lot of value to what Kuniko does in the kitchen in this episode, and it arguably makes sense in a team of eight people for some to take subordinate roles. But Top Chef is a show that's all about the auteurs of cooking, the ones who are perceived to be the real creators behind the food at a restaurant. In a previous season a contestant was eliminated for not putting his own dish first, with the rationale that “This is Top Chef, not Top Sous-Chef”. Despite the prevalence of team challenges the order of the day is creative selfishness. All creative art requires some self-centeredness, or at least a willingness to leave the rest of the world to its own devices for 10000 hours, but in the culinary world in particular the cult of the auteur chef erases the underpaid and overworked people that are usually responsible for actually cooking the food you eat at that five-star restaurant. Top Chef plays into that absolutely with its image of the kitchen as a place of solitary creation. It is Kuniko's failure to fill the role of the auteur, along with her inability to cook a potato, that gets her the boot in “Turkeypocalypse”.

Even though she has immunity, Josie gets the real “loser's edit” in this episode with her disastrous attempt to cook a turkey. From the beginning we can sense that this is sort of a lost cause: she agrees to take on this job because she has immunity, suggesting that she's already aware that there's a strong possibility of failure. In the accompanying interviews she chuckles about her failures, standing in contrast to the stern craftsmanship which CJ brings to his turkey. What unfolds is a comedy of errors, with Josie putting the turkey on the wrong shelf of the oven, burning the outside, and then overcompensating for this mistake and undercooking the meat. This narrative is more strictly functional and procedural: Josie fails to go through the proper procedures with the right attitude, and as such is responsible for her team's failure.

These are fairly simple narratives, but because there are so many of them, your average episode of Top Chef reiterates its central points multiple times. We see a mistake happen before us, see some talking-head interviews talking about the mistake, have Tom breeze through the kitchen and comment on the mistake, have the judges talk about the mistake while they eat the food, and finally have the contestant confronted with their mistake at Judge's Table. (This is not even including the “coming up next” commercial bumpers which are endemic to reality programs). Somehow Top Chef usually keeps this all from being too repetitive, probably because there are so many mini-narratives up in the air that they never linger for long, and because the judges have enough personality and charisma that their reiteration of the plot is still entertaining. This repetition also adds a smooth structure to the episode.

Overall the quality of the dishes ends up mixed (or so we're told), but Emeril's team is declared the losers based largely off Josie's badly-cooked turkey. We hear the judges' comments twice, once as they eat the food at first and once as they formally judge the contestants, but the two settings are drastically different. When the judges are served this distaff Thanksgiving dinner in a buzzing restaurant, it has the air of an actual dinnertime conversation, albeit a particularly judgmental one. They riff off each other, talk in kind of gossipy tones, and don't sound like they're about to hang whoever cooked this beef.

Spatially, the official Judge's Table set almost mimics the dining experience. The chefs are on their feet, isolated, while the judges are sitting down and operate as a group. But visually the setting is entirely different – a dark room with hazy overhead lighting instead of a well-lit restaurant filled with warm conversation. The judge's comments operate according to a more obviously formal system, with each contestant being ripped apart in turn before a final decision is ultimately made. The whole thing has the air of a Kafkaesque trial in which anything the defendants say can and will be used against them, and any lack of response will be taken for criminal apathy. Instead of the tender, exploratory music of the dinner scene, we have background music that sounds like a sinister wind. The loser's end of Judge's Table opens with sliding smash cuts of the four imperiled contestants, combined with the sound of a screen door shutting an inch away from your ear. That part is actually kind of painful.

(There's also a Judge's Table to determine the winner, but it's much less striking and carries less narrative weight. Competition shows always privilege failure over success in their structure.)

Josie gets beat up a lot verbally in this sequence, and it's made clear that if she didn't have immunity she would be gone. Reality TV thrives on its clowns, the people who are simultaneously exciting and aggravating to watch, and Josie fits into this archetype well. When a clown does well, they're a fan favourite, but when they do poorly they're humiliated with a particular relish, especially if said clown is a woman. Josie tastes both sides of this dichotomy in this episode. The challenge's winner, batty Italian stereotype Carla, is also a clown character and is successful here only to be cut down shortly. These are the characters that stick out the most in the early episodes, but at the cost of their own credibility, and they almost never win.

I shouldn't make it out to sound like Top Chef draws entirely on personality conflicts, as there's a lot of attention paid to cooking technique and the science of food. Tyler is interrogated at Judge's Table as to whether he tempered his gumbo. I have no idea what that means, and Top Chef is okay with that. Its strength is its ability to turn these technical questions into narratives, so that Kuniko's undercooked potato is not just an undercooked potato but a sign of her overly-passive personality. But the technical elements, including jargon that is sometimes hard to understand for culinary neophytes like myself, help ground the series and prevent it from being a drama-fest.

A drama-fest is exactly what erupts after Kuniko's departure. John Tesar, who boasts about being the “Most Hated Chef in Dallas”, remarks that “as a chef, you can do potatoes in your sleep”. Other people read a lot into his statements, seeing them as disrespectful, and a noisy argument erupts. This scene is included after Kuniko's good-byes and exit interview, and seems like almost an unnatural appendage to the episode – like the monster crawling out of the lake at the end of a horror movie.

There's something to be said for the way reality TV shoots arguments. In a scripted drama series, an argument would be carefully constructed, with clear stakes and probably a choice one-liner or two. But in reality TV arguments are tangled, chaotic, sometimes repetitive and generally pointless. This scene is not really artistically coherent – several characters jump in only for one line, and what John says isn't really bad enough to make him an out-and-out villain – but it directly conveys the sense that tensions are spiraling out of control in unexpected directions. The form of the argument, and its visceral unpleasantness, replace the role content would play in a scripted scene. We don't come away from this scene thinking in terms of heroes and villains: Josh jumps in to defend Kuniko, but he still comes across as an ass. We also don't come away thinking that both sides had a point, because really nobody has a point. Instead, it is the argument itself that is the villain, the unpleasantness lingering on the idyllic design of the competition.

Of course, all of this article ignores one of the primary draws of Top Chef, which is the images of the food. The show frequently includes pictures and quick cuts that are pure food porn with no narrative purpose. My training is mainly in words and not images, so I've mostly left the signification of these shots alone. It is interesting, however, that we get to see the food in various forms throughout the challenge. We see the raw meat being sliced, and then eventually it winds up as a perfectly-composed high cuisine dish by the end. This is the same sense of process that informs the show's narrative. One wonders if it can also be seen as a metaphor for the creation of Top Chef: taking a big bunch of raw footage, chopping it up into little pieces, covering it in narratives and received ideas, and finally presenting it to a discerning audience.

[1]One interesting exception occurred recently on Big Brother, where a number of contestants' racist remarks and otherwise offensive behaviour was not included in the TV broadcast but were available to viewers of the 24/7 online stream. Viewers objected to this and as a result of the controversy CBS began including the offensive behaviour in the actual Big Brother episodes. I don't watch the show, but it would be interesting to know how the racists in question were being presented. Did someone who was edited to be a hero become a villain because of what happened outside of the main episodes? Either way, it would seem to be a prime example of viewers finding ruptures in non-scripted programming that lead to oppositional readings, as well as one of the most clear-cut instances of audiences forcing a show to change the plot.

[2]Being Canadian, I'm a bit out of the Thanksgiving loop. We have a version of it in October (who has a harvest festival in late November?) but there are no parades or apocalyptic sales – my family usually has a large but quiet dinner. Thanksgiving is really a relic of agrarian society, when harvest season was automatically a carnivalesque event. I guess in America the harvesting of vegetables has been replaced by the capitalist harvesting of commercial goods – but that's an essay for another time.

[3]The credits sequence for season 10 are mostly the same as those of previous seasons, including the weird “ooh yeah” song, but the usual run-down of contestants is replaced by a couple of goofy group shots. This may signal this season's focus on group challenges and team dynamics, at least in the early going.

[4]I'm not much of a foodie, so I really have no idea whether Food & Wine is taken seriously or is considered a joke by people in the know. I have a hard time imagining anyone taking a magazine seriously nowadays.