Synthesis 5: The Rhythm is Gonna Get You

Jared MartinWell you’d certainly think Harrison Blackwood would bring this up when the Morthren try to subvert punk rock to control violent teenagers.

Or maybe not, I guess, if it’s too painful a subject. You can defend it not coming up pretty easily, I think. Besides, no one works out the role the music is playing until the climax, and we don’t have any scenes afterward where Blackwood would have a chance to reflect on how they’d tried this before. It’s easy enough to imagine that while Kincaid’s off with Rose and Larry at the end, Blackwood’s gone back to the shelter and is telling Suzanne all about how similar this is to what happened with von Deer and how proud he is of himself for not giving in to his addiction.

For that matter, the critical scene in “Terminal Rock” is that Blackwood suddenly notices that something’s affecting his behavior, looks around, and seems to just intuit that it’s the fault of the music. How does he come to that conclusion? Well, maybe it does indeed make sense that, as someone who’s been through it before, he’s more conscious of what it feels like when an alien audio embed is manipulating his behavior.

Jared MartinSo what’s considerably more interesting to look at, just like our last Synthesis post, is how different the two episodes are in their approach.

I like subliminal audio embeds as a sci-fi plot device, in case you haven’t worked it out. Probably just one of those nexus things where that episode of Probe and that episode of Max Headroom and these two episodes of War of the Worlds hit when my brain was in the right place for it to make a lasting impression. Looking back over my notes from the past twenty-five years, I see that I wrote similar plots into an X-Files fanfic I wrote when I was twelve and a Knight Rider fanfic I wrote when I was sixteen and a Kids Incorporated fanfic I wrote when I was eleven and that novel I completely failed to finish when I was twenty-seven. In my youth especially, before I took a psychology class and a phenomenology class, I was attracted to the idea that the human brain could be treated like a computer and be “reprogrammed” by surreptitiously poking zeroes and ones into it (This may also hearken back to the short story “Von Goom’s Gambit”, which I mentioned tangentially back in my essay on They Live).

The most obvious point of contrast is probably that, while “Choirs of Angels” has the aliens use subliminal embeds for a targeted campaign against one person to manipulate them into solving their medical issue, while in “Terminal Rock”, they’re targeting a group of people, which, as I said last time, is far and away the more common plot. Come to think of it, there’s a very straightforward comparison between “Choirs of Angels” and “Breeding Ground”. Both feature an old colleague of one of the heroes. In both cases, the aliens can’t just clone/possess him outright due to his poor health. In both cases, the patsy is convinced that the aliens have something to offer that will benefit humanity.

Watching “Choirs of Angels” right after “Synthetic Love” has me thinking of another thing too, because there’s a very ugly trend that emerges when I look at “Terminal Rock” and “Synthetic Love” in close proximity. Because when “Choirs of Angels” has the aliens embed their message in the prog rock of Billy Carlos, they might be poking fun at record label execs, but there’s really no judgment passed on the musical style itself. Its aficionados, Harrison and von Deer, might be a little peculiar, but they’re respectable, laudable characters.

I said with “Goliath is my Name” too, season 1 is generally sympathetic to countercultural weirdos. Sure, Harrison is a weirdo, but the morality of the show is unquestionably on his side. It’s Ironhorse who is invariably presented as being morally backward, and his conservatism is even a little buffoonish.

But, as I said in our last Synthesis, the grimdark is coming. Because somehow, even as they reject the image of the decorated, professional soldier working for Uncle Sam with a picture of Reagan over his desk, somehow the lone-wolf-authority-bucking-rogue-maverick attitude tone of season 2 is nonetheless a very conservative attitude. It’s the attitude of the kind of conservative who worships militias and “sovereign citizens”, who will “take back America” from those people (In this one and only respect, it is at least fortunate just how blindingly white the casting is, because at least it spares us the terrible dogwhistling about exactly who it is they want to “take back America” from). It is a conservatism that is not merely content to stand athwart history yelling “Stop”, but which has taken the next step to believing the status quo to be a fallen state, and wanting actively not to stop history but reverse it.

Where the first-season aliens took the cerebral, otherworldly music of Billy Carlos and twisted it to evil, we start from the assumption that Punk Rock music is actively evil, and the Morthren are merely taking one of the destructive forces of modern society and exploiting it for their own ends — exactly like they go on to do with narcotics. “Choirs of Angels” is content to tell us a parable about drug addiction. “Terminal Rock” wants to remind us that punk rock is bad, and then “Synthetic Love” hits up the drug addiction angle with the message that drugs are bad (Mmkay?) Terminal Rock even ends with Kincaid offering Larry a better way explicitly by trying to get him interested in classic rock, rather than that heathen and devil noise of modern music.

It goes deeper. If the first season is, in its way, pro-hippie with the moral authority it gives to Harrison’s pacifist leanings, surely “Night Moves” is an indictment of the sort of people who decided to check out, placing Suzanne’s mother in a commune of aging, disillusioned former idealists who’ve become bitter and ineffectual in the face of the harshness of the world. The only human institutions that have been presented as wholly good are churches. Compare that to something like the opening scene of “Epiphany” that reveled in depicting women religious happily watching man’s inhumanity to each other with a little smirk.

I think it’s very telling, in comparing the radical differences in their approaches, where the emotional centers of the “Choirs of Angels” and “Terminal Rock” are. Note that in both episodes, Harrison Blackwood does get affected by the musical embed, but this is a pretty small point in “Terminal Rock”. There’s no equivalent to Harrison’s long night. Instead, the emotional crux of the episode has to do with the relationship between Rose and her kid brother, and between Kincaid and his brother’s ex-girlfriend.

You might notice, though, that Rose’s trouble with her brother and Kincaid’s desire to bone his dead brother’s girlfriend are largely independent of the actual alien plot. Yes, sure, Larry gets caught up in it, but he’d fallen in with the violent punk rock gang before the aliens got involved. So far, that difference has been characteristic of the respective seasons. If you look at the big character-drama events in the series, there really aren’t a whole lot in the first season so far. But of those that are? We’ve got two episodes showcasing Sylvia’s mental illness — which is alien-induced. And we’ve got Flannery in “Eye for an Eye”, who’s haunted by his cowardice during the 1938 attack. And now, Harrison’s addiction plot induced by alien music. The only first-season example we’ve encountered so far of drama on a personal level that isn’t directly linked to the aliens is Harrison’s preexisting relationship with Katya.

In the second season, though, it’s very different. “Terminal Rock”, “Breeding Ground”, “Night Moves” and “Synthetic Love” all have major dramatic elements, for better or worse, derive from completely man-made causes. It’s not an absolute pattern, of course: “Seft of Emun” and “Loving the Alien” both have their character drama rooted more directly in the invasion. And as both seasons move forward, there will be more and more exceptions to the pattern, but it certainly seems like there’s a trend in the second season to use the aliens as outside agitators who interact with existing social and personal issues, but aren’t the cause of it.

That might be one of the keys to understanding the second season of War of the Worlds in general, because if we look at a lot of the episode plots — “No Direction Home”, “Doomsday”, “Terminal Rock”, and “Synthetic Love” — about half of the ones we’ve seen so far, the general theme is, “The Morthren identify something that humans use to help them get through life in this broken world (religion, music, drugs), and subvert it to serve their own ends.”

Consistency is something of an issue for both seasons. I’ve talked extensively by now about how uneven some of the early first season episodes are — blame it on the writer’s strike, sure. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing the first season improve on this front. The second season has the first season beat on technical competence, I’ll easily grant, and that basic level of being able to put together something that looks and acts more-or-less like modern television isn’t going to go away. But we’re definitely going to see a great deal more sloppiness in developing themes and character arcs.

This is right around the time that Paramount cut the episode order for the second season down to 20 episodes. As far as I know, there is absolutely nothing known about the two that got the ax. In fact, I kinda suspect that it was more than two episodes on the chopping block. The final three episodes of the series, and possibly one or two others in the second half of the season, feel to me like replacements. The series finale itself, just by virtue of being a series finale, was clearly written after the decision to end the show had been made, and the others feel like they’re leading up to it. We’ve already seen a few small places where they’ve planted seeds of concepts it seems like they meant to revisit later: Ceeto; the Morthren farming projects; the Crevulax plan. It would honestly surprise me if Mancuso and company didn’t have a vague outline for a multi-season story arc. Nothing elaborate or concrete — this is only 1990 and TV didn’t work that way — but general themes. Like the Morthren habit of subverting specific elements of human culture. Or Debi’s character development. The cancellation of the series prompted them to truncate those threads. We won’t see themes and motifs developing as consistently in the remaining episodes. And we’ll start to see inconsistencies and continuity mistakes as they try to file down the edges so that they can end the second season with a finale that was meant for the fourth season.

This puts me in an interesting interpretive frame. As we go further down the line, the conventional wisdom is starting to win out: the first season is shaping up, the second is falling apart. And yet, in all honesty, while I’m starting to see a pattern in where they meant for the second season to be headed, I have no real sense of that for the first. The episodes we’ve seen so far are mostly either the aliens reacting to an immediate crisis, or the aliens randomly saying, “Ooh, y’know what might kill a bunch of humans?” They’ll throw out a couple of things which seem like they might be leading toward something down the road, but the big one is an out-of-left-field reveal that still doesn’t amount to anything more than a tease for a hypothetical plot arc that wouldn’t kick in until the end of the next season. Stumbling as it may be, there’s a sense of forward momentum to the second season that isn’t there in the first.

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  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for February 12th, 2016 | The Slacktiverse

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