Ireland’s Wars: John’s Second Visit

The Anglo-Normans in Ireland were rebelling and fighting with each other pell-mell, damaging wars that left the English effort to expand against the natives neutered. King John’s second expedition to Ireland was just a larger part of his repeatedly fractious final years, as he endlessly quarrelled with his nobles over the correct extent of royal powers and the freedoms afforded to the men who were his, nominal, subordinates. These disputes would eventually result in a fairly devastating series of civil conflicts that swept England north to south, and would ensure John’s terrible reputation in history.

John arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1210, landing near Waterford with a substantial force carried by a large navy – though maybe not the 700 ships that some Irish sources claim carried him. With over a thousand infantry and several hundred horse, this expedition would be far more militant than the last. His goals in Ireland were essentially threefold: to deal with rebellious nobles decisively, to bring as many of the native King’s to heel as he could and to administer legal and land reform to the country. But, as in England, he would find the task to be a more difficult one than it at first appeared.

The first of his problems was largely solved before he had to lift a finger, with most of the remaining de Lacy’s, his key opponents in Ireland at the time, fleeing abroad rather than face him or his armed forces. John marched into Leinster without any opposition, seeking and getting the submission of various Irish chieftains, including Cathal Crovderg, the King of Connacht and one of the most powerful of the Irish. With Crovderg John made a more firm alliance, and soon a combined army of Irish troops and Anglo-Norman settlers was marching north to deal with the last of the de Lacy’s.

They had set up shop in Carrickfergus, but were apparently no match for the enemy army sent against them, which captured the castle after a short siege, seemingly ending the power of the de Lacy’s in Ireland permanently (surprise, surprise, they would be back before too long). Little detail about this campaign remains, aside from its result. But, despite the victory, things were already turning against the King.

John was already stumbling, botching his negotiations with the native Irish over the issue of hostages. John wanted sons of Crovderg and others, like the O’Neill’s, as surety for their good behaviour in future, but failed to get the in the case of the northern chieftains and only very unwillingly and after a lengthy time in the case of Connacht. Such an act belied John’s naivety and ignorance of Ireland, where primogeniture did not exist in most parts of native society, and at this time stem more stories of John’s crude relationships with the Irish leaders, with the English King accused of mocking the Irish custom of riding barebacked when confronted with Crovderg doing just that. The Irish of Tir Eoghain would remain firm enemies of England for a time, with a constant border conflict occurring there long after John had departed.

But, for the moment, John was free of military concerns, and turned to administration. New land division in the form of a number of newly created countries, new writs for the introduction of common law and a new Viceroy in the form of John de Gray, the Bishop of Norfolk, all helped to stamp John’s authority on Ireland, even if he had largely failed to pacify the Irish beyond the border of the Anglo-Norman territories. When he left, John was presumably satisfied that he has achieved everything that he could in Ireland, but only insofar that it would now become a more productive source of revenue for him: he had more deadly enemies to fight elsewhere, at home and in France, and those wars would not pay for themselves, Ireland being an a convenient place to exploit for income.

De Gray, ultra loyal to John and derisively dubbed the “foreign Bishop” by Irish accounts, was left to institute John’s policies, which involved more castle building and expansion into Irish lands, most notably into Connacht. The Shannon remained a key barrier to expansion, but with its mouth overlooked by Limerick, the focus was now further up on its course. The castle and fortifications at Athlone were expanded and shored up during this time, turning them into a very threatening point overlooking the river, while Anglo-Norman forces were also directed at the northern territories of the O’Neill’s.

That family spent its time either fighting their neighbours, the O’Donnell’s of Tyrconnell, or allying with them against the English, and were able to hold their own, going as far as capturing and destroying an enemy castle at Carlingford at one point. It was an illustration of the kind of threat that the northern Irish Kingdoms could pose if they could put aside their own squabbles for a time, something that would eventually result in the alliance that formed the core of the Irish side in the Nine Years War several centuries later. As for Connacht, Crovderg found himself hard-pressed at times, from Anglo-Norman intrusions from the east and Anglo-Norman backed invasions from Thomond in the south. But, he did survive in his position.

The rest of John’s reign had little impact on Ireland, the King focused on his violent disputes with the French, his barons, the Papacy and the quandary of the Magna Carta, that most famous of English medieval documents. He died, probably of dysentery, in the midst of a campaign of his Baron’s Wars, at Nottingham in October 1216, largely reviled by many of his subjects and doomed to a historical remembrance of unrelenting negativity. His impact on Ireland was notable in many different ways, but not really in a military sense: he failed to make any kind of lasting alliance with the Irish and his efforts to purge the land of those families who were not loyal to him would not long stand after his death. Numerous castles and other fortifications, most notably at Limerick, owe their existence due to John’s policies though, and it is perhaps for this reason that his legacy in Ireland was slightly (slightly) better than it was in England.

John was succeeded by his son Henry, only nine years old, who ruled as Henry III. With threats from the Barons and a pretender in the form of the French King, few would have expected Henry to have a productive reign, but the young King would prove many of his doubters wrong. Ireland, a land divided and struggling under a burden of constant dispute and war, would see that as well.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Revolutionary Remembrance: William Walsh

Another random selection from the BMH witness statements. A nice short one this time, that is useful in illustrating some of the mundane realities of being in the IRA during the War of Independence. Our winner is Lt William Walsh of Tarbert Volunteers in County Kerry, which I think were part of the 1st Kerry Brigade.

Walsh’s tale is simple and easily told. A farmer, he joined the Volunteers in 1914 at the age of 20, when the local company was first being formed. It was run by ex-soldiers of the British Army, whose first task was to collect money to secure arms, some of which were provided by the Howth gun-running. The company was effectively destroyed by the Volunteer split, and did not even exist at the time of the Easter Rising.

Afterward, things in the area began to get more organised again, starting with a Sinn Fein club being set-up in 1917, followed closely by the Volunteers once again. Walsh claims that there were between 30 and 40 men drilling with the company at the time, a number that enjoyed a short term gain during the conscription crisis, to around 120. Walsh, deadpan, simply notes that “When Conscription was over all of those men left the company and attended no more parades”, a common enough occurrence throughout Volunteer units at the time.

In 1919, Walsh has little to note, save the task of collecting shotguns from the local area and the arrest of their company commander, a man named Tom Fitzgerald. His company needed them, being in the process of gradually giving away all 11 of the rifles they had previously gained from Howth to other units of the IRA that were being more pro-active, most notably to the local flying column, formed in January 1921.

In May 1920, the Tarbet Volunteers determined to affect a somewhat greater level of organisation then they had before, holding a meeting with brigade commanders and electing new officers. Walsh was elected the company’s second lieutenant, essentially its third in command, and the unit was given orders to commence trench digging and tree felling on local roads in order to impede RIC and British military movements.

There was potential for action in the area, as Walsh noted the presence of 13 RIC/”Tans” in Tarbert itself and another 50 stationed just half a mile away on Tarbert Island. But the company merely dug their trenches and felled trees. The inactivity is not expanded upon in any detail by Walsh, save to note that the company was ordered to elect new officers in January 1921 because of it, indicating a certain annoyance from those higher up the chain of command in Kerry with Tarbet’s lack of action. Of the company’s three officers, only Walsh was retained in his position.

As previously noted, the local flying column was also set up around that time, but no one from the Tarbert company was selected to be a part of it. The nominal reason seems to have been that the column was already overly-full and lacking arms to take on anyone from the Tarbert area, but we could easily infer a lack of desire to include anyone from an area where such little activity had taken place already.

The closest the Tarbert Company came to action occurred later that year, in April, when sections of it served as scouts for a column attack on a group of RIC/”Tans” in Tarbert itself. A similar event happened in May and again in July, all small scale attacks which resulted in a few wounded “Tans”. Walsh admits frankly to having no involvement in either operation and maintains that the only thing the company did all the way up to the truce was “to cut and trench roads”. After noting that he undertook some additional training during the truce period, Walsh’s account abruptly cuts off, giving no mention at all to his activities during the Civil War or after.

You’ll find no daring tales of secrecy, ambushes and rebellion here, just a cog in the IRA machine, trapped in an area of little activity, or maybe actively involved in doing not that much. Such was the fate of so many members of the IRA, either “stationed” in areas where there was precious little opportunity to strike a significant blow at the Crown forces, or relegated to menial work such as the aforementioned trench digging, tree felling or support for the ASU’s doing the actual fighting. Their stories, lacking much to interest the reader, find little traction with the modern audience, and who can blame them?

What we have here is an inconsequential part of the IRA war effort, whose accounting for posterity is, by the standards of what else is in the BMH, nowhere near as justified. Walsh had the right to have his memories written down, but I would blame no one for passing his account by. Such is war, where so many soldiers serve their time without much to note. What little comfort I can offer comes from Milton: “They also serve, who only stand and wait.”

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Review: Gotham (“Viper”), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (“A Hen In The Wolf House”), The Flash (“Things You Can’t Outrun”), Arrow (“Corto Maltese”), Constantine (“Non Est Asylum”)

These reviews will be spoiler-free for that particular episode, but will not refrain from discussing details of past episodes.

Gotham – “Viper”

“I don’t want revenge. I want to understand how it all works. How Gotham works.”

The GCPD is stretched to its limits dealing with a dangerous new drug, which gives its users immense strength before killing them horribly. Meanwhile, the gang conflict intensifies and Bruce Wayne investigates his own company.

Gotham was always going to have trouble finding stuff for Bruce Wayne to do. You can’t just keep having him have the same conversation with Gordon over and over again. In “Viper”, we start to see a bit more of an evolution, and the beginning of the “World’s Greatest Detective”.

That’s at the core of an otherwise passable confluence type story, where various sub-plots fall in with each other once more. Barbara Gordon and the MCU are, again, nowhere to be seen, and not having to spend time on them really does give Gotham a significant amount of breathing room elsewhere. Gordon and Bullock investigate a drug most source material fans will recognise, which has its ties to Wayne Industries, just as Bruce does his own snooping around his parents’ work. And the imminent gang war is about to kick off in a major way, with Cobblepot, still a rising star, linking all of that to Gordon. Connections are good, and it is gratifying to see Gotham do more of them in later episode than it was early on. There is a still a problem creating viable tension – putting Bruce Wayne and Cobblepot in mortal danger is self-defeating in plot-terms – but the narrative progression is becoming more clear, even in the midst of “villain of the week” procedural elements.

It’s good that there is a sense of moving forward, laying down track for future plot related to the comics and that it seemed like most characters had clearly defined goals and were working towards them, even if the way that they were, like with the case of Fish Mooney, is drawn out and more than a little creepy. That being said, Daniel London wasn’t that stand-out as the episodes antagonist really, mostly due to his lack of dialogue, and he was somewhat matched by Bullock, whose lack of agency is starting to tell a bit more. Bullock doesn’t seem to have any sort of clear arc to follow yet, he’s just sort of there, with the occasionally funny line or a bullet, whatever the scene calls for. These deficiencies in characterisation are things the show can work on.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the way the drug was handled, as a lead-in to something more down the line. I liked how the mob interactions are being done, with varying elements of violence and rational calculation. I liked how Maroni has been made to look a bit more dangerous. I disliked a good chunk of the dialogue (“In my country…”, “It’s Gotham” etc). I disliked the pointlessness of Selina Kyle’s interjection. I disliked the lack of involvement from Bullock.

I still think that Gotham is improving, but I have yet to see an episode that I can say truly wowed me, unlike any other comic book TV show currently airing. There’s a slow-boil narrative being undertaken in many respects, but part of me feels this is unsuited to this specific genre, which needs a bit more thrills to be viable. But Gotham has set down some roots in “Viper”, and I fervently hope that, down the line, the pay-off will be worth it.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “A Hen In The Wolf House”

“We need to know what this writing means.”

S.H.I.E.L.D agents are threatened from two directions: the returning Raina (Ruth Negga), working for the mysterious “Doctor” (Kyle MacLachlan), and HYDRA’s newest enforcer Bobbi Morse (Adrienne Palicki).

Skye was a character I disliked for the majority of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s first season. I found her to be whiny and annoying, surprisingly stupid in her actions and allowed to get away with too much. But she improved as time went on, getting better as a more stable character even as she became part of the S.H.I.E.L.D infrastructure.

But that process is still ongoing, and “A Hen In The Wolf House” is an episode about Skye, who she is and who her guiding hand is going to be: in essence, it is a battle over who Skye’s soul On the one hand there is an absent and mysterious father figure, whom she is led towards by the darker forces at play in the shows universe. On the other, there is Coulson, full of his own secrets, but ready to be the paternal influence Skye has often lacked. “A Hen In The Wolf House was a good effort at that kind of story, and made me appreciate Skye more even as I had just started to dislike her again. She still has that rebellious streak (which comes with the first mention in a long time of the “Rising Tide” movement that was originally shaping up to be the shows big bad) but it comes with a justification this time, as she moves closer to discovering the more disturbing aspects of Coulson’s latest brushes with mania.

And it’s a great episode because of everything else that goes along with that. Two maniacs – the “Doctor” and Whitehall – threaten S.H.I.E.L.D in different ways, in particular Skye and Simmons, whose undercover work is getting ever more dicey. The introduction of Palacki’s Mockingbird helps to give that sub-plot a jolt and Raina’s interactions with Coulson are always a treat. Everything gets blended seamlessly together and, with that rather horrific opening, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D just keeps going right on with its newly acquired dark tone. It’s good stuff, helping to mark HYDRA out as the very potent and capable threat they need to be, and their leadership as the legitimate bad guys the show needs to have.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the fight scenes, which kept up the good work of “Face Your Enemy”. I increasingly like Simon Kassianides’s role of Bakshi, Whitehall’s right hand man. I liked that the “writing” sub-plot is finally going somewhere. I disliked the reference to Hellcow (Seriously?). I disliked the Hunter/Morse scene towards the conclusion. I disliked, once more, the fact that Trip is just sort of there now.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s second season continues its brilliant run, easily the best of the lot when it comes to comic book TV currently airing. Every week there is decent characterisation, groundwork for stuff to come and good storytelling. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D has found its way, and I hope that this remains the state of affairs.

The Flash – “Things You Can’t Outrun”

“Some things Barry, you can’t fight. Some things you just have to live with.”

Barry Allen faces a new metahuman menace on a revenge mission, while Caitlin relives the death of her fiancée in the particle accelerator accident.

Sad to say, but The Flash takes a significant step backwards this week in my eyes. The pilot was amazing, the second episode entertained. But the third episode is essentially the same as the second, in so many of its plot beats.

Barry takes on the latest threat, another Z-level bad guy with a unique power who has an axe to grind against the people who wronged him. He struggles to deal with it, gets defeated all too easily in one instance but (it shouldn’t come as much of a spoiler), doubts himself, gets a pep talk from Detective West and manages to get it right eventually. Even in the timing and some smaller details did “Things You Can’t Outrun” match “Fastest Man Alive” and “City Of Heroes”.

Our villain, Kyle “Mist” Nimbus (Anthony Carrigan), lacks any good dialogue or decent characterisation, and his encounters with Barry seem absolutely humdrum as a result, just happening because the episode just sort of needs it to happen. Tying into it is more soul searching and gnashing of teeth over Barry’s father, which is probably necessary for the narrative but already seems like well worn ground.

It’s the supporting cast who has to step up, but even there the material leaves a bland taste in the mouth. The flashbacks focusing on Caitlin were cliché to the hilt, with The Flash stretching even its rudimentary knowledge of particle acceleration to the breaking point, though the introduction of “Ronnie Raymond” (Robbie Amell) poses some potential interesting things to come. Meanwhile, Iris and Eddie sneak around Detective West, with an ending you will see coming a mile off. Neither B nor C-plot really land.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked Panabaker’s performance. I liked some of the exchanges between Barry and West.I liked the pre-stinger ending. I disliked the continuing repetitiveness of the arc of Wells. I disliked the jokey way Cisco is continually naming the antagonists. I disliked any scene involving the particle accelerator.

The result is an episode that makes you feel as if The Flash has suddenly stalled, and in the same week its initial running time was practically doubled by the network, a huge sign of faith. But The Flash, for all the positivity it has garnered for its first two episodes, has set off some alarm bells with this, a very lazy procedural episode with very little redeeming value.

Arrow – “Corto Maltese”

“Every warrior must learn the simple truth: that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

Oliver heads to the South American island of Corto Maltese seeking his sister Thea (Willa Holland) who secretly continues training with her father Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman).

Eschewing the traditionally Oliver-flashbacks and splitting the main cast up, Arrow chooses to mix things up a little here, with three of the four plot threats in “Corto Maltese” focusing around its female characters and how they are adapting to very changed circumstances in the new season.

The strongest is easily that of Thea, one of the characters I’ve often thought Arrow had trouble finding something to do with. Now, finally, they seem to have an arc for her that can last more than a few episodes and lead to some interesting encounters as we move forward. Thea remains caught between the forces represented by Oliver and Merlyn, and what each represents, but what is made clear is that she is becoming a stronger, more clinical, person. Her interactions with these figures – which also includes “what might have been” Roy – show this in subtle ways, that leave us with the impression of a girl who has risen from conflicted emotional feelings to claim a path and a destiny that is still a bit of a mystery to us, but one that she is committed to.

It’s matched by the others. Laurel continues to mourn in private, but takes her first steps down the vigilante path herself, with the help of newcomer J.R. Ramirez, playing Ted “Wildcat” Grant. It’s a predictable arc, but one that is already showing it has legs, with Laurel driven by a rage that surpasses all other demons in her life and encountering some serious setbacks early on. And, briefly but effectively, Felicity settles in under the watchful eyes of Ray Palmer. This too has its obvious elements, but one of the closing scenes throws up a tantalising aspect for Brandon Routh’s character.

It’s all centred around a Mission: Impossible style escapade for the male characters, as Diggle goes after some classified data, held by Mark “Manhunter” Shaw (David Cubitt), with the help of Roy and Oliver. It’s good to see Diggle take the lead in such an adventure, and its good to see “Team Arrow” kick some ass in a new setting, but the whole thing was just a little shallow for my tastes, seemingly existing just so we could have some of Arrow’s traditional action. It felt a bit like a Suicide Squad tale without the Suicide Squad.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the myriad of Thea conversations, that all added something to her narrative in this episode. I liked how Laurel’s first ventures into vigilantism went badly. I liked the focus on Diggle’s family: he is a character. I disliked the material given to Barrowman, which didn’t really add much to him. I disliked the dialogue between Felicity and Palmer, which was just a bit too OTT. I disliked the cascading epilogue, which was overly lengthy.

This is actually one of the shows better episodes generally. It managed to make room for some entertaining moments for just about all of its major or recurring characters, which all meant something to all of them in some way or another. That’s actually rare enough to find in a show like this, and it still managed to get some action in too. A fine effort, and indicative of a certain upswing in quality – in a more traditional sense – that Arrow has enjoyed so far in this season. Is it done being campy? And if so, is that a bad thing?

Constantine – “Non Est Asylum”

“If you’re not confused you’re not doing it right.”

John Constantine (Matt Ryan): exorcist, demon hunter, detective. After a failed attempt to banish some terrible memories, the “master of the dark arts” travels to Atlanta, Georgia to protect demon target Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), the daughter of an old friend.

I can’t claim to be too enamoured with the Constantine character like others are. Perhaps only his brief part in The Sandman series enthralled me: everything else belonged to a gothic fantasy universe that never held much appeal. But, there’s certainly scope for a TV series in that universe, but one that might struggle to be little more than a Supernatural clone (minus a male lead).

There was something really off about this pilot to me. It wasn’t the plot, which was basic if not spectacular. It wasn’t the script, which had some charm and intrigue to it. It wasn’t the visuals, which were fine for the medium. I think it was just the acting: Constantine completely failed to suck me in via the lax performances of its cast, or maybe a combination of that and the direction.

Everyone in “Non Est Asylum” (“It is not my refuge” or maybe “There is no refuge”) if you’re wondering) seems to be on set on their own, talking to nothing just off camera. And even in the rare moments when two characters share the camera (and it’s always just two it seems) it doesn’t really get any better. The delivery of lines by Ryan, Liv or angelic handler Manny (Harold Perrineau) is like they are reading for an audio book or something, with such a lack of emotive power or buyability, Griffiths especially. It’s nothing laughable, just very, very flat. Dour. Uninspired.

That kind of cripples Constantine. Hopefully it’s just a pilot issue that has been sorted, because the rest of this episode was fine, as I said. Poor tortured John Constantine has his traumas, but like Sam and Dean before him, isn’t satisfied with just wallowing, and goes about getting some payback on the demons that haunt him, with all of the snark and English wit that is associated with him. Add in some rituals, fiery circles and a battle between the forces of heaven and hell, and you have yourself a mythos.

The Supernatural comparison is very apt: throw in a brother for John and a change in accent and you’d be watching something very close. But there is a sense that Constantine can be a bit darker, especially compared to the way Supernatural has gone off the rails in the last few years. I was reminded of Supernatural’s earlier years in parts, which is a good thing, provided Constantine can shake the feeling of travelling down a road well worn.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the asylum opening, with Miles Anderson’s psychiatrist. I liked the horror moments, which were simple but well done. I liked the (sorry/not sorry for the spoiler) decision to work out the Liv character. I disliked Jeremy Davies’ hacker stereotype. I disliked elements of the finale, which made the titular character look a little gullible. And I really, really disliked the acting.

It’s a rough start for Constantine, without a doubt. The sense that you are watching individual characters spout their lines as opposed to any kind of ensemble or back and forth dialogue pair is striking, and will need some rapid work to fix. But it should have enough, on the basis of this pilot, to do that. Fix that horrible flaw, and this will be a very watchable show.

Posted in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Comic Book TV, Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: After The Dark

After The Dark

Trailer

Guess which one is the demented puppetmaster.

I cannot claim to be, in any way, a decent philosophy student. A module of Plato in college is the sum total of my direct experience with the subject academically, and I was never very good at that, only vaguely remembering slapdash understandings of republics, caves and other thought experiment bric-a-brac. I feel it is true, what a character says in this film: “Philosophy is to real life what masturbation is to sex”. But I was intrigued by the premise of this film, watched via Netflix, and the questions that it posited towards an audience. I think, in an era of never-ending blockbusters and apocalyptic depictions, a film claiming to focus purely on the philosophical consequences of the “end of the world” is positively unique.

A class of philosophy students at an international school in Jakarta undergo their final lesson from their somewhat aloof and pretentious teacher (James D’Arcy), who focuses particularly on his best student Petra (Sophie Lowe) and her underachieving boyfriend James (Rhys Wakefield). Through a detailed role-playing exercise, the class work through a nuclear apocalypse three times over, deciding which of their number gets to live or die and seeing what the consequences are of their hypothetical actions.

After The Dark is an interesting film, one that does succeed, in my view, at making the viewer ponder questions of worth, rationality and consequence in such an extreme scenario. But the truly interesting thing isn’t so much that (though it is fascinating in its approach) but the way in which the entire thing is framed. After The Dark, in three segments, leads us through a pageantry of the mind and asks our trust and understanding to make this doubly fictional depiction of the end times effective.

It does this largely through an unholy trinity at the heart of the film, between teacher Zemit, Petra and James. The film opens with Petra and James in bed together, and moves forward in showing their relationship through increasingly fantastical scenarios and in relation to the frequently Machiavellian actions of their philosophy teacher, whose ulterior motives will keep viewers guessing until a somewhat surprising twist ending regarding him.

D’Arcy’s Zemit is the driving force of much of the narrative, providing both the voice of a narrator for the opening iteration of the apocalyptic scenario and the self-stated voice of the “wild card”, a random option amid the humdrum personalities that are impressed upon the class before him. The thought experiment is obviously stacked against the players from the start, but part of what made After The Dark so endearing to me was this look at a somewhat demented leader figure exulting in a role that placed him at the centre of a twisted experiment, albeit a twisted experiment that had none of the tangible aspects it so vividly described.

The iteration’s play out, as the students try to find a way to beat the game, with Petra getting ever closer to finding out the real answer even as things get more and more warped in the mind of Zemit. The students explore the idea of approaching the problem of survivor selection through purely survivalist thinking, then pure rationality and then through the pursuit of maximum happiness. The choices illustrate some fundamental things about human nature, even if the philosophical reasoning behind some of them is as clear and sledgehammer like as they could possibly be. After The Dark is the kind of film that talks a good game when it comes to philosophical musings, especially in regards things like the “Trolley problem” and how they relate to real world applications of morality, but I found that this aspect of the film was decidedly shallow by the conclusion – After The Dark works better when it focuses on the relationship between Zemit, Petra and James, and how it evolves and changes through the darkly toned thought experiment that it must adapt too. The changing nature of friendships, sexual encounters real and imagined plus the idea of living under a drawn out web of fear are all aspects of the scenario that Petra and James must deal with in the carefully orchestrated fantasy world of Zemit, and I feel that After The Dark was a better film when it decided that those things were more worthy of its attention than how the larger group got on in the same concocted space.

There are some deeper problems though. The sense of unreality starts stronge and never stops growing. Members of the class take what is essentially a complicated role-playing exercise remarkably seriously, to the extent that recriminations spill out into the “real world”, something that doesn’t really strike me as plausible for the kind of characters these students are supposed to be. And then there is the narration problems. After The Dark‘s thought experiments are framed as a narrated exercise by Zemit in the first and second instance, but then Petra takes over. Both provide specific details and alter things to suit themselves, and the whole thing feels exceedingly strange, especially as we near the end. In fact, so strange is it that After The Dark practically pokes fun at itself, taking the opportunity to introduce a new narrator for a ribald thought experiment just before the seriousness of the last few minutes.

James D’Arcy is an under-rated actor who has largely failed to find really big roles (does W.E. count? Probably not). It’s a shame, because performances like this show that he is well capable of more. Zemit is manipulative, suspicious, untrustworthy and just very creepy throughout, and D’Arcy provides all of this very simply, rarely raising his voice that high. It’s all in low tones and hard syllables, looks in the eye and aggressive demeanours. He’s matched by Sophie Lowe as Petra, similarly soft spoken but managing to imbue a great deal in everything that she says, portraying a young woman who rises above the petty challenge presented before her. Wakefield has less to do really, but still effectively portrays the only (main) character who seems to not take the entire thing that seriously, with plenty of actual charm to justify the interest Petra shows in him. There is a varied supporting cast – Harry Potter’s Bonnie Wright is probably the most well known – that do fine without ever really attracting sustained interest in their performances or actions.

After The Dark splits its time between the interior of a nicely furnished classroom, the modified exterior shots of Indonesia and the bunker where the thought experiment takes place. And while nothing is too spectacular, the HD camera work gives everything a very nice, crisp look, that foreign yet relatable sense that can only come from a place like Jakarta. Sure, After The Dark might feel like an Indonesian tourism film at some points, but when the countryside looks this good, why not use it?

After The Dark is more impressive with its script, and I suppose that this is a good thing since, given the lack of different scenes and the slightly forced “action”, it needs to be a film when the talking carries most things. It helps make Zemit, Petra and James the characters that they are, and introduces a good amount of “banter” between the members of the class. I use that term somewhat reluctantly, since I don’t really like it very much, but it is a as good a single word to describe the “inconsequential to the narrative but important for low-level characterisation and bond building” kind of back and forth. After The Dark excels at that. And it excels at a beginners guide to philosophy as well, not having the time or the inclination to get into true detail, but quickly and accessibly giving the audience the run down on the basics of what the film is going to revolve around, to the extent that I feel that even the most underprepared layman could grasp what After The Dark is all about. But if claiming to be more than that, to try and justify its original title of “The Philosophers“, After The Dark is badly mistaken.

Musically, After The Dark is very simple, probably because the production was relatively low budget. But it has some things to note, especially a very simple throbbing guitar beat that repeats and resonates whenever it is played, usually at a moment of decision in the thought experiment world. With plenty of contemporary instruments to compliment the surrounds, After The Dark is a good example of how a good and effective score can be made on the cheap.

After The Dark, seemingly, won’t make much of an impression on the film landscape, which is, I feel to be regretted. There is an interesting idea in this production, one that manages to both deal with the apocalyptic in a new way and regale the audience with a malformed three-way story between a twisted teacher and two of his students. It’s good on a visual, script and aural level too, but suffers in other areas, like narration consistency and a certain shallowness in the nominal main point (that is, the philosophy in the film itself). After The Dark isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but is not a bad effort either, a decent two hours entertainment that should leave a positive impression to the open mind. Recommended.

An enjoyable offering.

(All images are copyright of Phase 4 Films and All Media Company).

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In Detail: Iron Man – The Party (01.07.33 – 01.13.36)

Tony Stark is up for a party, and nothing could illustrate that more than the thumping music, the roar of an engine and the sight of one of those sleek, beautiful sports cars racing down a urban landscape, bypassing lesser, slower cars with ease.

This Audi R8 gets to have its engine prominently displayed, along with the “STARK 4″ registration plate. Gotta pay for the Gulmira action scene somehow! Anyway, Stark is a playboy is coming out for a spin, and this brief moment is supposed to remind us of the kind of lifestyle Stark (as well as being an advertisement for Audi).

Stark arrives at the gala, all style and grace as the camera pulls up and around the parked car. A tip for the valet, a movement to button the tux, this is all flash and money, to make clear in our mind the kind of celebrity superstar that Stark really is. Almost immediately Tony is drawing the eyes of beautiful women in very expensive looking dresses, not to mention the flashing of paparazzi cameras.

One of the only people who doesn’t seem to be aware of Tony’s big entrance is Obadiah Stane, talking to a reporter somewhere on the red carpet, looking resplendent in a nice tuxedo.


STANE:
… Weapons manufacturing is only one small part of what Stark Industries is all about, and our partnership with the fire and rescue community…

This gala is for the Fire Brigade apparently (there is a fire truck in the background of one of the earlier shots, lights blaring) but what’s really important is the first part of this piece of dialogue, where Stane actually appears to be peddling the Stark line, downplaying Stark Industries’ manufacturing of weapons. This is the sort of line you’d expect from someone who is onboard with Tony’s new vision, paving the way for the company to work on something else, something non-lethal like…fire engines? With the repeated looks at Raza back in Afghanistan, this sort of thing seems designed to lower our suspicions of Obadiah just a tad, and make the coming revelation that much more impacting.

Stane is suddenly distracted by the sound of cheering and female yelping to his left, and here comes Tony Stark. The tux, the flashing lights, the female adulation. One blonde actually has something to say:

WOMAN:
Hey, Tony, remember me?

TONY:
Sure don’t….

He doesn’t even look at her, walking on without a care. Is this the true return of Tony the womaniser, or is this more of a Bruce Wayne thing, where Tony is acting out to deflect attention from his more secret activities?

Marvel’s obligatory Stan Lee appearance also follows, at Tony pats a bathrobe wearing OAP who is surrounded by beautiful women:

TONY:
You look great, Hef.

The Lee cameos are just one of Marvel’s little idiosyncrasies – even Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D got in on that act – but as a brief nod to the core audience, they could be a lot worse. Lee being a doddering old man like he is portrayed here, looking around confused when he is tapped on the shoulder, does sort of fit.

Tony walks right up to Stane all smiles.

TONY:
What’s the world coming to when a guy’s got to crash his own party?

STANE:
Look at you. Hey, what a surprise.

Obadiah’s reaction is a bit hard to read. His words sound like they are picked very carefully, as if he is both surprised to see Tony at this event and unsure of how to react. It’s a very public moment – the camera are still going off throughout this scene – but it’s also somewhat personal, as Stane ensures that his words and reactions can’t be misinterpreted too much. Tony seemed to be a recluse living in his basement, now he’s out and about just like he was before. And, he’s still stealing Stane’s spotlight, literally in this case.

TONY:
I’ll see you inside.

STANE:
Hey, listen, take it slow, all right? I think I got the board right where we want them.

Stane whispers this in Tony’s ear, a tone and look of genuine concern evident. He doesn’t want Tony pulling another press conference moment and, in conjunction with what we heard him sayIng to the reporters, this is another indication that Stane is on Tony’s side and is helping whim with his new and improved vision for Stark Industries. Tony is acquiescing in this:

TONY:
You got it. Just cabin fever.

An indication of just why Tony is at this party, trying to get away from the recluse he realised he was becoming…and that the world was seeing him as.

Inside the party (the sumptuous Walt Disney Concert Hall), party guests mill around, soft jazz plays and everything appears to be in full swing for this gala. Tony head straight for the bar, where a familiar face is waiting.


TONY:
(To barman) Give me a Scotch. I’m starving.

AGENT COULSON:
Mr Stark?

TONY:
Yeah?

COULSON:
Agent Coulson.

The impeccably pressed suit, the deadpan manner, nothing has changed about Agent Coulson since the first time that we saw him.

TONY:
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. The guy from the…

COULSON:
Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.

TONY:
God, you need a new name for that.

COULSON:
Yeah, I hear that a lot.

Again, I can’t believe that I never quite picked up on that on a first viewing. Stark, kind of like Pepper earlier, is barely paying any attention to Coulson, not even looking at him directly.

COULSON:
Listen, I know this must be a trying time for you, but we need to debrief you. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions, and time can be a factor with these things.

Stark couldn’t care less, because he’s spotted something much more interesting across the room: Pepper. Moreover, Pepper, in a backless blue dress, her hair styled and looking very different to how we have been traditionally introduced to her.

TONY:
(Distracted) Let’s just put something on the books.

COULSON:
How about the 24th at 7:00p.m. at Stark Industries?

TONY:
Tell you what. You got it. You’re absolutely right. Well, I’m going to go to my assistant, and we’ll make a date.

Quite the brush-off. Tony goes straight over to Pepper.

TONY:
You look fantastic! I didn’t recognise you.

And she does. Not to emphasise the point, but she does look stunning. The only glimpses we’ve had of Pepper so far in Iron Man have shown her as purely professional – business suit, black shoes, fixed hair, no real bling. She didn’t look ugly in any way, but she wasn’t a bombshell. Here – this dress, the hair, the lipstick the jewellery – she looks completely different, a whole side of her that we haven’t had the chance to see yet. She’s surprised to see Tony, and in a slightly negative way.

PEPPER:
What are you doing here?

TONY:
Just avoiding government agents.

PEPPER:
Are you by yourself?

She’s concerned, much like Obadiah. Just what kind of nonsense could Tony pull here?

But then things go in a very different direction:

TONY:
Yes. Where’d you get that dress?

PEPPER:
Oh, it was a birthday present.

TONY:
That’s great.

PEPPER:
From you, actually.

TONY:
Well, I got great taste.

You’ll remember, way way back near the start of the film, Tony gently teased Pepper about a gift he had gotten her for her birthday (and the fact that he remembered). It was not only Tony’s “Save The Cat” moment in terms of character definition, but it helped to make his relationship with Pepper stand out, as opposed to his relationship with the likes of Christine Everhart. We never found out what the gift was, only that Pepper liked it and that Tony was, evidently, very pleased with himself for picking it out.

Now we know that the gift was this dress. It’s an interesting gift to give. Assuming that Tony actually did the legwork in getting it, it is at once both thoughtful and a bit creepy. The dress certainly looks good on Pepper, it can’t be denied. But it’s a remarkably intimate garment to gift to someone, with a very sexual side to its appearance and material (or rather, the lack of it in certain areas). Was the dress some kind of come on from Stark? Or is this really just what he thought Pepper would appreciate, a gift that is remarkably more forward than the usual kind of thing between employer and employee.

Compare with the gift that Pepper got Tony in the last sequence. That was personal too, and the kind of gift that went beyond a simple professional relationship. Like this dress bringing out a different side of Pepper in Tony’s eyes, the display case for the reactor, with the caption, was meant to show off a side of Tony’s personality – his non-literal “heart” – that isn’t immediately obvious to both people. Pepper obviously liked the dress – she’s wearing it after all – and Tony liked the display case. These two know each other to a degree that has not really been seen to any great extent with other relationships in Iron Man so far.

TONY:
You want to dance?

PEPPER:
Oh, no. Thank you.

TONY:
All right, come on.

PEPPER:
(Being led onto the dance floor) No…

It is a bit of a strange moment now. There’s an awkwardness between the two before Tony even asks her to dance, due to Tony’s surprising presence at the gala and Pepper’s clothing. Then Tony asks her to dance, and literally doesn’t take no for an answer. Pepper protests gracefully and quietly, but is obvious in her unease with being asked to dance by Tony, and then being dragged away by him even when she declines. There’s something in this section to be said about gender roles and the dominant position that Tony takes with Pepper. We can chalk this up to Tony’s experience with women maybe, whom he is constantly leading around and playing with like toys. He isn’t used to being turned down, and perhaps thinks that Pepper really does want to dance with him and just needs a bit of encouragement. The fact that this is an undercurrent of disrespect for women goes uncommented upon.

Pepper allows herself to be led onto the dance floor, smiling blandly at others taking note of Tony’s sudden appearance and the fact that she is dancing with him. The two settle into a gentle sway, but this if offset by how obviously nerve filled Pepper is, sighing and biting her lip.

TONY:
Am I making you uncomfortable?

PEPPER:
No. No. I always forget to wear deodorant and dance with my boss in front of everyone that I work with in a dress with no back.

TONY:
You look great and you smell great.

PEPPER:
Oh, God.

That’s a great little run-on sentence from Pepper. We’ve never seen her really unnerved or panicked before – her tears upon Tony’s return was the most potent emotional display from here thus far in the film – but this is Pepper worried, because of the social situation Tony has, literally, dragged her into. Office politics might seem an odd consideration in this setting, but for a woman in the position that Pepper is in, right hand to a man like Tony Stark, being seen like this must be disconcerting. Tony’s reply probably doesn’t help, being a bit forward in tone, matched by the unashamed look in his eye, clearly exhibiting an interest.

He decides to respond to the situation with humour, like he always does:

TONY:
But I could fire you if that would take the edge off.

PEPPER:
I actually don’t think that you could tie your shoes without me.

TONY:
I’d make it a week. Sure.

PEPPER:
Really? What’s your Social Security number?

TONY:
….Five.

PEPPER:
Five?

TONY:
Right.

PEPPER:
Right. You’re missing just a couple of digits there.

TONY:
The other eight? So I got you for the other eight.

It’s easy banter between these two, which helps to cut the tension for just a moment (and to illustrate, again, how reliant Tony is on Pepper).

But then suddenly things get a bit more serious again, and Iron Man gives Tony and Pepper a moment, just a few seconds, where they are wordlessly looking at each other, in this setting and doing this activity, suddenly realising, or so it seems to me, the place that they are heading to together. Pepper’s awkwardness lapses, Tony looks a bit more serious. And, just as with the “You’re all I have” moment earlier, there is a very definite sense that the two are closer to acknowledging the true depth of feeling that they have for each other.

But then the moment is broken:

TONY:

How about a little air?

PEPPER:
Yes, I need some air.

Pepper answerers very quickly, snatching at anything to make the tension disappear. The two wander off, with a brief look at a very grumpy Agent Coulson to bookend the scene. He’s not getting that date, and he knows it.

Cut to Tony and Pepper on a balcony elsewhere in the building. Overlooking a busy street. The camera is back further that it was now, allowing us to take in the two more singularly, without the distraction of party guests and music, save for the occasional passing of a few couples. Pepper is tense, playing with her hair, which is strikingly out of character for someone as apparently prim and proper as she has been seen up to this point.

PEPPER:
That was totally weird.

TONY:
Totally harmless.

PEPPER:
It’s was totally not harmless, by the way.

TONY:
We’re dancing. No one’s even watching.

PEPPER:
Everybody who I work with…

Tony is very soft spoken in this moment, almost murmuring his objections to Pepper’s distaste for what they just did. But he’s not admitting fault either, he seems to be trying to mollify Pepper to an extent. We might appreciate how strange a step this is for Tony, trying to show genuine affection towards a women he possibly loves, as opposed to just trying to get her into bed as fast as possible. Pepper’s reaction, while perfectly justified as she will explain in a moment, might have thrown him.


TONY:
No, you know why? I think you lost objectivity. I think they just… people… We just danced.

PEPPER:
No, it was not just a dance. You don’t understand because you’re you. And everybody knows exactly who you are and how you are with girls and…all of that, which is completely fine. But, you know, then me, you’re my boss, and I’m dancing with you.

I actually found it a bit unsettling, and maybe bad for the character, that Pepper is rambling on like this in the face of a romantic advance, stumbling over the words and shying away from voicing firm opinions. It just seems so contrary to the women that she has been shown to be so far in the film, knowledgeable, confident, professional and sure of herself. But, then again, none of that involved personal romantic stuff, so maybe that is just this side of Pepper’s personality, unused to dealing with such things, especially when it comes from someone like Tony Stark.

TONY:
I don’t think it was taken that way.

PEPPER:
Because it makes me look like the one who’s trying to…

TONY:
I just think you’re overstating it.

PEPPER:
You know, and we’re here, and then I’m wearing this ridiculous dress, and then we were dancing like that and…

And then things get more serious, with some light tones in the background featuring some xylophone melody (OST: “Extra Dry, Extra Olives“, the closest Iron Man comes to a love theme). The shot sets things up for a kiss, that classic view of two people in profile, with the added smalsh of there being a balcony in the background. Pepper’s words get slower, and then they are just staring at each other, like they were before.

It’s a nice, tender moment, with a certain inevitability about it, that you have seen a thousand times before. Many of us will know the sheer terror and excitement of that moment, when you lean to kiss the girl or guy for the first time.

But Pepper is hesitant, her facial expression donating second thoughts long before their lips are on the verge of touching.

And then the spell is broken:

PEPPER:
…I would like a drink, please.

TONY:
Got it, okay.

PEPPER:
I would like a vodka martini, please.

As if she realised the danger of the thing that she was about to do, Pepper breaks it off, grasping at the excuse of needing a drink.

Tony, seemingly not entirely comfortable with everything himself, immediately agrees to go and get Pepper a drink, with an odd up close shot focusing on her as she shouts out her drink order to an already departing Tony, maybe just to show how deliberately slow and nerve-settling she gets out the words. Ah, to alcohol, 5he cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

Tony heads to the bar, ordering a drink in his own unique style:

TONY:
Two vodka martinis, extra dry, extra olives, extra fast. Make one of them dirty, will you?

But an unpleasant surprise awaits. Tony scans the room and quickly averts his eyes when he sees the oncoming Christine Everhart, whom we last saw getting kicked out of Tony’s mansion way back in the first ten minutes of the film. She’s looking much the same as always, only with more of her covered than the last moment she was onscreen.

EVERHART:
Wow. Tony Stark. Fancy seeing you here.

TONY:
Carrie?

EVERHART:
Christine.

TONY:
That’s right.

I suppose it is intentional that you don’t really have a clear idea about whether Tony is joking or serious here. Either way, the conversation is not off to a good start.

EVERHART:
You have a lot of nerve showing up here tonight. Can I at least get a reaction from you?

TONY:
Panic. I would say panic is my reaction.

Awkward…I do love how Stark bites his lip and tenses up here, unable to walk away because he’s waiting on the drink, forced to listen to Everhart even while Pepper is waiting for him elsewhere. But then things take a much more serious turn.

EVERHART:
‘Cause I was referring to your company’s involvement in this latest atrocity.

That piques the interest, certainly. But Tony isn’t biting just yet, turning to humour.

TONY:
Yeah. They just put my name on the invitation. I don’t know what to tell you.

But Everhart, for all her faults as a journalist, is at least tenacious, and presses the issue.

EVERHART:
I actually almost bought it, hook, line and sinker.

TONY:
I was out of town for a couple months, in case you didn’t hear.

This is much like their first conversation actually, in dialogue and framing. We cut back and forth, the lines are short, everything is rapid-fire: Everhart’s criticisms and Tony’s blasé attitude towards them. Still, at the last point he does get a bit more annoyed (right around the same moment he was getting annoyed earlier).


EVERHART:
Is this what you call accountability? (hands Tony some photographs) It’s a town called Gulmira. Heard of it?

Um, yeah. Yeah we have. Now isn’t that a weird coincidence. From earlier, in the cave:

TONY:
You still haven’t told me where you’re from.

YINSEN:
I’m from a small town called Gulmira. It’s actually a nice place.

Too much of a coincidence. Tony is immediately intrigued, and the reveal of what’s on the photographs is delayed for a few tantalising seconds.

Oh, hey Bakaar. The coincidences keep piling up, don’t they? Anyway, continuing with the plot hook established with that first panicked look at a Stark Industries bob about to go off in Tony’s face in the opening sequence, we now see the dark, twisted side of the industry Stark was overseeing: his weapons, branded and all, being used for atrocity and carnage somewhere in Afghanistan, in the hands of people who should not have them. Even worse, one almost looks like a working Jericho missile system. The horror of the situation is accentuated by a sudden echoing ring from the score. However, I will say that there is a bit of a plot hole in this whole thing which is this: American weapons like this, in the hands of a terrorist group, would be surely be headline news worthy. Why is Everhart going to Tony with this and not the press that she is, nominally, a part of? Just looking for a reraction?

TONY:
When were these taken?

CHRISTINE:
Yesterday.

TONY:
I didn’t approve any shipment.

CHRISTINE:
Well, your company did.

She remains piercing with her accusations, Tony is defensive, in a way he has never been with her before. It’s interesting that Tony moves to defend himself and not his company, almost as if a certain disconnect between the man and the organisation that bears his name is already evident, a state of affairs reaffirmed in Tony’s last words to Everhart on the subject:


TONY:
Well, I’m not my company.

And he isn’t, not anymore, not since the cave, the escape and Yinsen’s death. But, if Tony Stark is not the company, and is not approving these shipments, then who is? Oh, I think we might have an idea at this point.

Outside the gala, Tony confronts Obadiah, who is now busy trying to get media cameras out of his face. Tony is upfront with Stane:

TONY:
Have you seen these pictures? What’s going on in Gulmira?

Obadiah’s reply, hushed so no listening ears might pick up on it, is absolutely chilling:

STANE:
Tony, Tony. You can’t afford to be this naive.

The final breaking between Tony and Stane is going on right before our eyes. With those words, Obadiah picks up the mantle of a villain, and he isn’t going to be dropping it. His words are simple and said directly, the well practised justification that Stane must have been telling himself for a long time.

Tony is immediately serious, accusing, angry in his retort. This is not just illegality, immorality and betrayal. This is Stane having a personal hand in Starks’ ordeal.

TONY:
You know what? I was naive before, when they said, “Here’s the line. We don’t cross it. This is how we do business.” lf we’re double-dealing under the table… Are we?

Stane just stares back at Tony for a moment, the violins swelling in a nervous note. He’s considering. Considering how to handle this, whether to come up with some excuse, some lie, some way out, or to just keep going. This is actually one of the defining moments of the entire film, and Stark’s life.

Obadiah moves Tony to face the camera, for the surface reason of getting a good paparazzi shot of the two of them together. We might also notice Everhart in the background, looking on but apparently not privy to the details of this whispered conversation.

Tony simply stares, almost comatose with shock, as the revelation comes:

STANE:
Tony. Who do you think locked you out? I was the one who filed the injunction against you. It’s was the only way I could protect you.

Stane, in response to Stark’s decision to completely alter Stark Industries modus operandi, is trying to get rid of Tony from the business entirely. Worse, much worse, he’s involved in selling guns to terrorists, the very terrorists that captured and tortured Stark in Afghanistan. And even worse, he phrases this admittance as if he was doing Stark a favour, protecting him by keeping him ignorant and trying to get him out of the way. What else could Stane be hiding? We’ll find out soon.

The breaking is done. The friendship is decisively over, Stane doing away with it easily, with just a few words, and not even sticking around very long to hear any of Tony’s thoughts on the matter. Tony starts after him as he walks away, tense with anger, and with what may be the beginning of tears in his eyes. Everyone, the press, guests and even Everhart walks away from him as the camera pans out. He seems more on his own than ever.

The question is, what will Tony Stark do now?

For The Film

This is an intervening sequence, coming between two different action sequences, designed to move the plot forward and get two very important things done. First, the Tony/Pepper relationship, and the romantic undertones to it, has to be explored in greater depth, accomplished by a somewhat awkward come-on from Tony and Pepper’s flustered reaction, which belies her obvious interest. Secondly, it needs to finally delineate Stane as a villain of the story, albeit one who might not be the primary antagonist (which, at this point in the film, still seems like it is going to be Raza), accomplished by that characters decision to break away from Tony and simply admit the underhanded things he has been doing. Tony Stark steps back into his usual environment here, the glitz and glamour of celebrity, but is left feeling cold and isolated by the conclusion. He’s a changed man, and circumstances are changing around him.

Characterisation

Tony Stark

At the start of this sequence, Tony Stark is racing back into the role he once played, the devil-may-care playboy, at least in appearance. But what he really wants to do is get closer to Pepper, it’s just the method of doing so leaves a bit to be desired. Struggling to find a romantic connection after a life of keeping distance, his efforts with Pepper are hit and miss. Then, a shockwave to his life, which hits him like a tonne of bricks, leaving him angry, confused and almost tearful. That anger is important, and how he reacts will show much of the man Stark intends to be in the future.

Obadiah Stane

He’s finally had enough of the pretence. For the whole film, he’s been in a shadow, playing the loyal friend even while despising his position and working against Stark. Now, he breaks free from those shackles and almost proudly declares his antagonism towards Stark and the manner in which he has been going about fulfilling it.

Agent Coulson

Still as tight and mostly unreadable as he was before, Coulson seeks Stark’s attention and is visibly annoyed when he doesn’t get it.

Pepper Potts

She appears out of her depth in this sequence, mortified by her boss coming onto her in such a public fashion. But her attraction to Stark is a real thing, something that she is unable to really rationalise and deal with properly, balking out of confronting issue twice over. But the look in the eyes is real enough.

Christine Everhart

She’s back, and a bit better at the journalism thing now. Her disgust at what she sees as Stark’s hypocrisy is keenly felt, and raises her up in the audience’s eyes, even if her overall role in the story is still quite small. She’s a catalyst for the Stark/Stane breaking, and that’s enough.

Next time, Tony returns to Afghanistan.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars

Trailer

"We used to be friends, a long time ago..."

“We used to be friends, a long time ago…”

I was a big Veronica Mars fan. I thought, before viewing, that the premise was a gateway to childishness and smalsh, but was delighted to find a dark, moody and utterly enthralling detective mystery show, in a setting that allowed an exploration of a multitude of unlikely themes: sexual assault, unwanted pregnancy, class divide, police and political deceit, destructive relationships and feminism. Its second season remains, for me, the benchmark in how to mix the procedural and the serialised, with a clever overarching plotline mixing in with independent stories.

It’s cancellation after just three years, and without a proper ending, was a gutpunch. But, through the power of Kickstarter, a fact namedropped subtly in the production itself, Veronicas Mars has been allowed to ride again, possibly for one last conclusive adventure, or maybe as the start of something more.

Nine years on from her last adventure in the California town of Neptune, Veronica Mars (Kristin Bell) has left behind the private detective business of her father (Enrico Colantoni) in favour of New York and pursuing a career in law alongside her reliable boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell). But when ex-flame Logan (Jason Dohring) asks Veronica to help him prove his innocence in the death of his girlfriend, Veronica is drawn back to Neptune, and a world of celebrity, conspiracy, corruption and murder.

More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from this point on. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

Veronica Mars sets itself up very quickly, so that the fans of the TV show can settle in as fast as possible. Even as Veronica namedrops things that occurred to her in the course of her three years in Neptune – like that sex tape incident – it is remarkably clear how much has changed. Veronica might still have the biting wit and the incredible confidence, but she’s also a long way from where she was: she has the career in law ahead of her and a stable, long-term relationship with the easy going and imminently likable Piz (no matter what the shippers think).

But Thomas does a great job at undermining this apparent tranquillity, and that’s before Veronica is even called back to Neptune. She and Piz seem great, but she’s a somewhat absent girlfriend, who has not even met his parents in nine years. She mocks his work colleagues, and generally seems a bit too blasé about her life. And then Logan Echels gets on the phone.

From there, Veronica Mars becomes the Veronica/Logan show. This may have been what a lot of the fans wanted, but the overwhelming dominance of those two ends up shafting a lot of characters, and all for a reason I’m not super happy with myself. The “On again, off again” nature of the Veronica and Logan, while entertaining for a time, had become very worn by the conclusion of the TV show, at least in my view. Enough time has passed that the return to this state of affairs is not as tired as it might be, but there were moments in the course of Veronica Mars when I could only roll my eyes at the way Veronica and Logan were looking at each other. A failure to launch is what it was, for the Veronica character.

That’s not even a bad thing inherently. Veronica isn’t perfect, and never has been. Admitting an addiction to drama and the kind of person Logan is, to the horrific detriment of poor Piz, actually does a great job of rounding Veronica out. I just feel like this is old ground, already well trod. In that sense, there is a certain lack of ambition in Veronica Mars.

On again, off again, will they, won't they...

On again, off again, will they, won’t they…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Veronica Mars is, I expect, exactly what its financial backers wanted it to be: an episode of the TV show. Because that is what it is, just elongated out to nearly two hours. Every noteworthy character from the TV show that’s still breathing makes a return for the big screen edition, Logan is in legal trouble and needs Veronica’s help, Veronica is faced with the choice of the stable loving guy or the dangerous attractive bad boy, the police are corrupt (and there’s even a Sheriff Lamb in charge), hacking needs to be done, rich and poor clash, the high school bitch has it out with our heroine and a celebrity drops in for a little while. Thomas, having managed to inject life once again into the beloved franchise, simply keeps going with what wasn’t broken.

That is sure to make fans of the show very, very happy (and so I would say for myself) but I’m not sure that it really does the best work at making Veronica Mars stand on its own merits. The murder plot can feel a bit stretched out at times, very much like a 44 minute idea that Thomas is trying to make good for the big screen. With plenty of Veronica/Logan based drama to supplement, our private eye launches herself at the murder case. It’s a bit more serious than your standard mystery of the week that characterised the TV show, but still follows much or the same format: following the obvious lead, uncovering an unexpected conspiracy involving an unlikely character, laughing at the bumbling police efforts and a neat resolution. There is an added edge to proceedings of course – not least the murderous quality of the new Neptune police force – but the general feel of things is not all that different to what came before.

It’s still a fairly interesting murder mystery though. With the skill of the TV show in peppering subtle hints and drawing a satisfying conclusion from them, the film manages to craft a crime drama to hold the interest, just like Thomas did week in, week out nearly a decade ago. Logan is accused of murdering his celebrity socialite girlfriend, a Lindsey Lohan type it would seem, and Veronica comes to the rescue. The obvious is dealt with quickly, through the creepy stalker type that is an inevitable addition to this kind of story, but at least it’s done in a fun way, with Logan forced to go on a date with her, the kind of darkly humorous situation that is a hallmark of this franchise. From there it’s a heady mixture of surveillance, breaking, entering and awesome spy work, interrupted frequently by Logan staring longingly at Veronica and the occasional talking head from the TV show.

Of those characters, the supporting case, there is delight and some disappointment. Tina Majorino’s Mac, who had one of the shows great arcs, is sidelined to a few snarky comments and the standard hacking skills and Wallace, much as he suffered in the latter end of the TV show, suffers even more. But Keith Mars is back with a vengeance, still sticking it to an increasingly extremist man through his own investigations, and still regretting the amount of hands off parenting he does with Veronica. And Vinnie Van Lowe is still sleazing it up.

Beyond them, the amount of brief cameos is staggering and unnecessary. Just about every noteworthy character from the TV show that was still breathing pops back up, from Dick Casablancas to Celeste Kane. Newcomers to the franchise are bound to feel a little lost, especially when it comes to the multitude of cameos from characters not especially important to the story. As nice as it is to see that Dick Casablancas is still an “09er” asshat, he isn’t very important to the story being told. The high school bitch, the brief Sherriff department boyfriend, the weird Mayor’s daughter, the former principal, they all pop back up. I wouldn’t say most of them are really needed, and seem like a sop to the fans more than anything. The worst, perhaps, is poor Weevil. Veronica meets him a changed man, with a job, a wife and a baby daughter. Then for seemingly no other reason than to get the status quo back on track, he gets sucked back into his old life, with very little impact on the main plot. Weevil remains a representation of everything wrong in how Neptune treats those outside of the “09er” circle, marked for disappointment and injustice from the second he reappears in Veronica Mars, but really doesn’t serve much point to the story beyond that.  The standard issue of class divide (or war if we want to be overblown) returns then, as Neptune exhibits an increased  state of “One rule for some, another for everyone else”.  The rich still get away with everything, and the lower classes still have to play with the deck stacked against them, even in patently unfair situations. The example of Weevil in Veronica Mars is a bit clumsy, but serves to illustrate the point. Neptune is a town that is utterly broken, its authorities rotten to their core and propped up by an array of money and power.

The reunion scene, wherein a mass brawl breaks out and Veronica finally gets to punch that stuck up cow in the face, is nothing but pure fan service, but at least it eventually gets the plot moving in the right direction. Another dark and twisted conspiracy is slowly uncovered among the rich and powerful in “09er” land, one that has its tendrils, suitably enough, during the cast’s high school years. The false leads mount up, in true Veronica Mars fashion.

Along with all of this, Mars Investigations takes a long hard look at celebrity culture’s interactions with the age of mass media, a recurring theme, written and visual, being the preponderance of recording devices in the modern age, and everything that goes with it. Veronica Mars has always been about surveillance and the secrets we keep – the very first episode of the TV show has the viral spread of a video depicting a dead rich girls corpse as a plot point – and eases easily enough into an age where secrets are increasingly kept secret only for a very short time. I watched this film just after the celebrity nude photo scandal (a scandal insofar that innocent people were criminally targeted), and it’s fair to say that its message continues to resonate. This eventually leads to James Franco’s remarkable cameo, a strangely effective comic moment at a time when the film was embarking on its most serious section.

The intervening moments are supposed to belong to the morass of Veronica’s self-destructive need for drama, which draws her back into the arms of Logan conveniently just after the final destruction of her relationship with Piz. Veronica comes off badly in these moments in my eyes, but it is a decision and a situation based off danger and emotion, with her father nearly murdered by a corrupt police force and Logan facing a possible death sentence. Veronica Mars raises the stakes very effectively with the menace of Jerry O’Connell new sheriff, one half incompetent and one half deadly, committed to maintaining the police state he has somehow managed to create in Neptune.

Unfortunately, much of Veronica Mars' supporting cast has little to do here.

Unfortunately, much of Veronica Mars‘ supporting cast has little to do here.

The final confrontation is classic Veronica Mars, with the unravelling of a dark conspiracy that the “09er” youth have been covering up for decades (how dumb was Thomas’ decision to absolve Dick Casablancas of blame though?). I’ll say this for the murder mystery: I didn’t see the ending coming until it was almost upon me, and for something like that Veronica Mars is to be commended. There is light at the end of the tunnel, as Veronica Mars also brings in one of its previously standard themes, that maybe adds to the unreality: Just desserts. If you have something coming to you in Veronica Mars, you’re going to receive it eventually. No matter how rich or powerful, be sure your sin will find you out. Sherriff Lamb is shown up as corrupt. The charges against Weevil are dropped. Murderers are punished, the associates suffer. Hell, you cross Veronica Mars, and you get a punch in the face. Veronica Mars likes to tell a story where justice is served, even in such a loathsome hive of scum and villainy as Neptune.

All that’s left is the wrap-up which, again, is almost exclusively the Veronica/Logan show. Some of the stuff in their final dialogue is embarrassingly dumb, and very much a fan service exercise, but I suppose that I can forgive it, seeing the quality of most of what came before.

What is needed afterwards was a sense of closure, that thing that was so lacking from the unplanned ending of the TV show. So, there is lots of that, a sense of characters and arcs being left in satisfying places. Keith Mars is on his way back to the sheriff’s department, Mac escapes from data entry drudgery. Even in a negative sense, Weevil gets dragged back into the biker gang world.

And then there is Veronica, left sitting behind her father’s desk, taking on the mantle that so many of the shows followers expected and wanted. That’s fine, even suitable, and matches the overall theme of Veronica being unable, even a decade on, to stay away from all of the drama in Neptune and the way that she can manipulate it. Thomas manages to create effective closure in our relationship with Veronica, while also leaving open the tantalising possibility of further adventures.

Who knows where Veronica Mars goes from here? Part of me feels that this should, perhaps, be Veronica’s final bow, before repetitiveness and atrophy bring the franchise down to a level that would result in a bad taste. You don’t want Veronica trapped in the same role forever, and the chance of the great game changer – the “Veronica in the FBI” idea – is now long gone (with a nod in its direction appearing in this film).  Maybe the decent way, in narrative terms, that this film ends should be our last onscreen look at Mars Investigations.

The few films this year featuring women in the lead role have largely failed to impress me, so it’s nice to see one that actually does. Veronica has always been a great example of a woman in entertainment: confident, assertive, intelligent, sexually unashamed, emotionally flawed and very modern in everything about her. All of that has continued on to the big screen. There is something so imminently likeable about Veronica Mars, even with the snark and the occasional arrogance.

Maybe it is just a simple matter of having a fleshed out character, who stumbles sometimes, who makes bad choices but who generally is always on the right path. There’s something very real about this character, even if the situations she finds herself in are frequently unreal. Rob Thomas’ creation and Bell’s acting have crafted Veronica Mars into the state she is in today, something that should be close to an icon for how to treat women in the fictional worlds of the entertainment industry.

The film’s unique financial backing makes its profit margins and chances of a sequel a little hard to judge, but if Veronica Mars has proven anything, it is that a loyal fanbase can make things happen.  Their reward for that commitment is a fine film extension of a brilliant franchise, which captures just about everything that made the TV show so good, even if it is very much a fan-centric production. Perhaps it will be Serenity-esque and become a glorious but final farewell. Or maybe this is just what Veronica Mars needed to kickstart itself.

The plot is good, the acting is great, the visuals are outstanding and the script is everything that the TV show was nearly a decade ago. Veronica Mars has some issues with the way it approaches being its own entity, and the manner in which its main pairing move through the production. Still, I feel like there is something for veterans of Neptune Noir and newcomers in this film. One I would firmly recommend.

"Remember me when...you're good to go"

“Remember me when…you’re good to go”

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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Review: Gotham (“Arkham”), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (“Face My Enemy”), The Flash (“Fastest Man Alive”), Arrow (“Sara”)

These reviews will be spoiler-free for that particular episode, but will not refrain from discussing details of past episodes.

Gotham – “Arkham”

“You know why they hire a professional? Cause he finishes the job!”

On the eve of a crucial vote on the future of Gotham’s Arkham district, Gordon and Bullock are tasked with finding a skilled assassin who is targeting politicians.

I’ve noticed some people commenting critically on Gotham’s somewhat varied tone, which switches from deadly serious to campy at the drop of a hat, most notably in its script. But I don’t really see the problem as being that severe. Gotham, which I think is trying to have that OTT comic book feel in a lot of what it does, has its ridiculous elements, but everything in the show has a twisted quality, which “Arkham” exhibits strongly.

Our main plot, like that of “The Balloonman” is a step up from the first couple of episodes. “Richard Gladwell” (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) receives little characterisation, but is still memorable and effective as a villain in a way that makes him more than acceptable as a bad guy of the week. He’s a master of his craft and interesting to boot, but not without his weaknesses or an ability to get caught out, and the hunt of Gordon and Bullock to find him also helped to show off their vastly different methods of tracking down criminals.

That, and it was able to mix into some of the supporting plots well enough. Gotham is still weighted down, but at least in “Arkham”, various strands melded into one briefly, as the brewing gang war, Cobblepot and Bruce Wayne all found themselves with a stake in the Arkham decision. That made for an expansive, well told story, where part of the attraction was in trying to figure out how all these various players were going to come out on top when it came to the iconic mental institution, something bookended by a suitably lengthy epilogue section after the main plot point had been resolved.

That doesn’t mean that it’s all good. Barbara’s interactions with Gordon were fairly strained in this episode, leading to an unlikely ultimatum. And Fish Mooney’s interjection, showing off Gotham’s warped combination of camp elements with serious darkness, just felt distracting and overly sexualised without any point. In fact, four episodes in, it’s fair to say that Gotham has some serious problems with its female character, who nearly all embody very negative traits.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked Cobblepot’s daring in making a self-made step up in the Maroni organisation. I liked the lighting for the final confrontation, nicely backlit. I liked the closing conversation between Gordon and Wayne. I disliked the Joker-esque “try-outs” scene in the Mooney sub-plot. I disliked the conclusion of Cobblepot’s plot in “Arkham” which seemed too neat and tidy. I disliked the way Falcone was seemingly sidelined despite his apparent importance to the main plot.

I think Gotham is on an upward swing now, something to be welcomed. With the additional room provided by a merging of plots and the absence of the MCU, it had the ability to tell a decent story with an interesting villain, and has done some significant set-up for the future. I’m sure plenty of fans will be enticed by the mere mention of the words “Arkham City”.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Face My Enemy”

“Nostalgia’s fine. But then life happens. It’s time to deal with reality.”

Agents Coulson and May track down a mysterious painting that features the same alien writing plaguing Coulson’s mind, a painting HYDRA has an interest in as well.

This is a rare thing for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D: an episode focusing on the Coulson/May relationship. May, inherently, is a tight lipped, hard to read character and I wondered if this setting – something that seemed on the basis of promotion to be a comedy episode (I mean look at the title after watching it) – was the best way to open her up.

But it turned out it was. Another great episode, where Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D managed to not only maintain its new serious and dark tone, but actually work in levity effectively – thank Drew Greenberg for that I would think. Coulson and May’s time at the party allowed for some decent self deprecating humour, but then when the show needed to get back on mission, it did so with a vengeance, with a fine S.H.I.E.L.D/HYDRA showdown. The rivalry between those two organisations actually feels tangible and exciting this season, and that’s something to be very happy about: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D needs that kind of effective serialisation to succeed.

I like how the Coulson and May relationship has been fleshed out here. They have a past, the nostalgia mentioned above, that might even have bordered on the romantic. But that just makes the crux of the episode harder, as Coulson tries to convince May to kill him if his alien writing fetish goes too far, as it did with Bill Paxton’s Agent Garrett last season. The humour actually works twice as well when Coulson makes the conscious choice to get serious, like even he is getting sick of the quipping deflection going on. And the action, wow. Easy to see why they got Kevin Tancharoen in.

The B-plot was fairly straightforward, but allowed Iain de Caestecker to continue his great work this season, struggling to fit in with a team that is bonding ever tighter together. Yes, the method they came up with to facilitate this was more than a little hackneyed, but it worked, and moved the Fitz character along while offering a few glimpses at the rest of the cast too. An emerging Hunter/Skye relationship has its pitfalls though.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the final fight scene, which was the best this show has ever done. I liked May’s casual decision to forgo stealth at the party. I increasingly like Reed Diamond’s appearances as Whitehall. I disliked the rampant marginalisation of Trip, which the series is now actually referencing, a terrible sign. I disliked some (some!) of the comedy moments for plothole reasons. I disliked the rampant branding of HYDRA, which is looking increasingly ridiculous.

A great episode and, with the stinger, a decent set-up for next week. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D really is a million miles away from where it was this time last year. That’s down to a commitment to tone change and an increased sense of serialisation, both of which I hope manage to attract a sufficient core audience.

The Flash – “Fastest Man Alive”

“Nothing is impossible Barry. You taught me that.”

Barry Allen, continuing to adapt to his new powers, faces his own self-doubts and a would-be assassin who can create multiple copies of himself.

“Nothing is impossible Barry. You taught me that.”

After a wonderful start, The Flash needs to do some basic groundwork to set itself up properly. The fish is on the hook, now they have to reel it in, by showing that there is room in this universe for much more than a flashy (har har) pilot.

And I think “Fastest Man Alive” does that. It maintains the focus on making Barry a character, complete and whole, who has messy relationships and plenty of doubts over his ability to be a hero. His conflict with Detective West is at the core of the episode, with flashbacks suitably used to showcase just how their interactions evolved. West has been given the chance to be a bit more than the equivalent of Detective Lance of Arrow right from the off, which is a good thing, and I liked the use of the character here, as a cipher for the need to get the “Red Streak” away from the sidelines and into the action properly.

The Flash seems happy to be a show which will throw itself into the superhero aspect wholeheartedly, and not peg itself back through repetitive introspection of its lead or a multitude of obstacles. This episode was good at showcasing those obstacles, through West and Caitlin, and how Barry is able to change minds about how far he can go. It also decided to give Iris a role to play outside of “love interest” by starting her on the Lois Lane path, even if she still seems, unfortunately, to be written as rather dull-witted.

The episode also benefitted from an improved villain. Multiplex is total Z-List, but is suitable for an episode like this, a “villain of the week”. Michael Smith got more time to expand on the character than the show allowed with Weather Wizard last week, and that worked in the episodes favour, both in terms of nifty science/metahuman powers, and in having a villain with a firm rationale. William Sadler, one of TV’s great “that guy” actors, doesn’t really get to offer too much as Simon Stagg, save in a few brief moments with the ever more mysterious Harrison Wells, whose motivations for being Barry’s mentor are one of the shows great attractions.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the prologue fire rescue, cliché but well done. I liked the introduction of Barry’s “weakness” just as a physical problem for the character. I liked the joke about “Captain Clone” and the good humoured swipe it represents at some of Flash’s villains. I disliked the CGI for the final fight, which was a poor effort at a “Burly Brawl” type sequence. I disliked what I saw as the waste of Sadler. I disliked the lateness of Multiplex’s motivation, which would have been, in my view, better served by coming earlier.

I suspect The Flash will grow into greater serialisation as it goes on. Right now there are the shady shenanigans of Wells, but they have the unfortunate potential to be drawn out for a long time without much more elaboration. I hope soon we’ll be getting more into the murder of Barry’s mother and that much repeated glimpse of “Reverse Flash” (God I hope they don’t call him “Professor Zoom”). “Villain of the week” procedurals are fine, but The Flash needs to be more than that to succeed. As it stands though, it’s a bright, optimistic example of the superhero genre, and not afraid to show that fact of.

Arrow – “Sara”

“Everyone is looking to me to lead. If I grieve, nobody else gets to.”

The team react to the death of Sara in different ways: some guilty, some grieving and some seeking revenge.

Very early on in this episode Felicity namedrops the words “A Death In The Family”, the name of one of DC Comics’ most iconic stories. Maybe “Sara” was trying to craft a tale like that here (aside from firmly establishing that Team Arrow has a bond close enough to use that word). But I find a more apt comparison is with the Joss Whedon penned “The Body” from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as various characters try to deal with a sudden and terrible loss.

“Sara” isn’t really about the hunt for that characters killer, a plotline that introduces a seemingly important Green Arrow villain only for very little pay-off. It’s about those reactions. Oliver has to try and bury his feelings so he can focus on the job at hand, which quickly turns into a decent introspection over what he expects out of the life he leads. Laurel seeks vengeance and faces the task of telling her father. Felicity revaluates her life and the desirability of the vigilante lifestyle. Diggle comes back into the fold as a matter of loyalty. Roy anguishes over an absent Thea and past regrets.

Everyone is grieving in their own way, reacting in their own manner, and while “Sara” doesn’t quite have the highest level of emotional impact that it could have, I still felt that it did a good job in portraying each member of “Team Arrow” as singularly as possible. New journeys and plot arcs are finding their genesis in this, perhaps the most serious and camp-free episode of Arrow yet.

The flashbacks help a lot. At first I thought they would be an unnecessary distraction, especially given the single episode return of Colin Donnell as Tommy Merlyn. But they ended up tying into the main plot very effectively as, in both instances, Oliver Queen deals with loss, showcasing his own brand of determination. We never had a reaction episode to Tommy’s death like “Sara”, but Arrow has found a place for him in this wake. I was sceptical about the continued use of flashbacks as a narrative device after the end of the second season, but “Sara” proves they can still find a role in these stories.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the Oliver/Felicity conversation on grieving. I liked the re-emergence of Thea into the narrative. I liked the closing montage. I disliked Ray Palmer’s moments, which characterised him as intensely creepy and overbearing. I disliked the action scenes, which were clearly a secondary concern. I disliked Detective Lance’s lack of involvement.

A strong episode. It isn’t as good as “The Body” obviously, but it hits many of the same themes effectively enough, and gave us a good glimpse of the main cast in a pivotal moment of their lives. Some solid groundwork has also been laid for a few sub-plots going forward, namely those concerning the identity of Sara’s killer and whatever is going on with Thea. And on we go.

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