There’s a theory discussed in the show known as the Bicameral Mind. A triangular diagram (a pyramid of sorts) indicating each stage in the process to bootstrap consciousness. In other words, when all the four stages are passed, the last one is assumed to be a voice instructing you, consciousness would have been achieved.
Similarly, this show achieves its own consciousness via four main elements (the last step is assumed to be dialogues since it could confuse you while at the same time clear you of your doubts). The complicated story at the bottom, characters (and thus the acting performance) above that and the background score on top. The final one would be the dialogues. Eventually, those dialogues would be explained by your own words, that is, you have become conscious of the show. This is just a fancy way of saying the screenplay structure, acting and music are the primary reasons to watch the show. So let us peruse the stages one by one.
First the base; a screenplay purposefully made to be confusing. There are two types of obscurity here. One is the overall story itself. Second is the inordinate amount of jargon.
This overall story is not easy to discern, yes. But it wasn’t the case always. Until a point, the degree of confusion was significantly less. A semblance of structure could be sketched out of all the scenes played. But after a point, it transforms into utter chaos (this point revolves around one character for the most part). You are unable to make head or tail of it. Added to this, the technical terms and concepts which are explained in brief, are at odds with what is being presented out on screen.
Keeping aside the technicalities, the vagueness of it all was not a style but an absolute necessity. The writer is not pontificating. This complexity is a tool. Without this tool, the plot twist would not have that shock effect at all. I believe that this was not meant to be understood in the first watch, at least for the less seasoned audience. Once you are aware of the twist, all those disjointed points start to extend a line and connect. This was a foregone conclusion at heart. You have to look either mysteriously indeterminate and succeed in surprising or make a simple story with no twist at all. This particular twist warrants itself for such complexity. There is no other way to make that surprise feel appalling than this while also retaining in mind the inherently interesting set up of the show.
The setup. This show has one of the best first few mins of a show. It lays out strands of the story up until even the end of the second season. It combines three characters who will be the wheels of the show with regards to the story. And before there is any time for it to sink in, the epic zoom out ends that starting sequence in a great note. I mentioned this because this is the first sign that this show is not seeking to indulge in outward simplicity. Again, at its core, this is an age-old story about AI and humans. But to reach the cliched heart, you have to wade through an ocean of novelties. They are not trying to show off some intellectual superiority with this type of complication. If that’s the case, any pure science fiction is a pecuniary vanity project of enormous deception. With this expansive and obfuscating storytelling, they were able to encompass multivarious memorable characters, a room for a chilling performance, grand sets and old yet splendid costumes and cutting edge tech. Easy is bounded. Simple is limiting. Only with complexity a chamber for unique characters to cast a shadow and opportunity for ideas to acclimatize is conceivable. Amidst all the confusion, before the revelation in the end, there would be something loved by someone. That thing that they loved, is not feasible with minimalism.
And good science fiction, especially one which is as fiendishly difficult as this, always has bottled up emotions and in this case a latently inevitable euphoria at the end. Obviously, to experience such a euphoric wave one of the requirements is to be conscious. Consciousness here means having total immersion in the world that you have been espoused to for the past ten hours. But such immersion is only possible with some distinct characters depicted by an incredible performance.
Now that takes us to the second stage of the pyramid. This show is littered with impressive characters with foibles of their own. Despite the largeness in the number of actors, the ones who have done injustice to their role or the story are infinitesimally low. The pacing is slow, but that is not specified here as an issue but as a fact. This slow pacing is partially obstructed by these actors with their subtleties and music (which we will come to later). Among all those roles, let us pick the three most important ones.
Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is at the center of this complexity. It would not be wrong to say she is the flag bearer of it. A starting point for all the confusion was introduced earlier. She is the one who controls the chaos. The blatant discrepancies in her storyline shove us into abysmally difficult depths. At the same time, we understand the technical portion of the story, the actual science fiction through her. She is confused and muddies the water for us. But her arc is a neat one where she starts as one and evolves into something else entirely. During this period, she has to betray her ending form sporadically. Also, a schizophrenic level of disorientation with pathetic aloofness accompanies her during the journey. And the above description I discerned mostly because of the splendid portrayal by the actress. She is a damsel waiting to bring damnation. The distressed bewilderment in scenes that confuses you, a sudden rush of demons in scenes that cannot be revealed and going back to being the archetypal good person. She, the actress, has juggled all of this with ease. At first, it would seem the obfuscation of the screenplay may have helped hide her shortcomings. But it is the opposite of this. Once all becomes clear (and her performance aids in this along with many other factors), you can appreciate what a memorably good job she had done to hold her character together when everything around is in disarray.
Now it is time to meet the second most significant player in this game. The Man In Black (Ed Harris). His contribution to this show is a diabolical charisma and an unrelenting pursuit of something laced with impressionable immorality and violence. Surprisingly (and why it is surprising would be a spoiler) his storyline is straightforward. The actor has carried the character with a likable flamboyance and a devilish boast of his suspicious amount of knowledge about the things he encounters. Up until the finish, despite a wayward journey to his goal, he remains virtually unfazed even against the bleakest of odds. Towards the end, the sadness suppressed under the skin of brutality starts to manifest. And his performance is such that he allures in spite of all the reprehensible behavior.
And finally, the most remarkable performance of the season is channeled through the character of Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Every frame this man is a part of, the quality of other elements such as cinematography, editing and even the ability of other actors to perform seems to have increased multifold. It goes unsaid, but all those conversations he has with others and micro reactions are illuminating retroactively. In one scene he is witty, in another he is philosophical and when the situation is against him he is frozen. But throughout the show, he is inscrutable and terrifying. There are plenty of other morally dubious characters. Some of them indulge in odious acts of demoniacal proportions. Others are blatantly merciless. But none of them gives you the chills like Anthony Hopkins’ performance does. He has the demeanor of a natural psychopath and that is meant as a compliment. From his eery calmness, it is obvious that he holds unparalleled intelligence about everything and speculation of god-like unseen power. So his micro-expressions have hidden depths worthy of exploration. The writers chose right in giving the best dialogues of the show to be delivered by this fellow. He is not overly expressive, or undermining the significance of the words uttered. The enunciations and the inflections are on point to make you think at the same time feel terrified of him. Even a slight pause during dialogues, that few fleeting milliseconds or seconds fill your mind with an inconceivable fear filled with a tinge of curiosity. I can unequivocally proclaim, if not for anything else written in this prose, in the entire 10 hours, even if you consider most of it as clueless meanderings, every frame he occupies is worth a revisit.
The third stage. One that bridges the gap between viewer and the fact that this is a fictionalized TV show. Every piece composed for the many situations and places is another step to reach your mind. There are many wide-angle shots, aerial shots, tracking shots and close-ups demonstrating the workings of the fabricated technology. None of them immerses you into the world like Ramin Djawadi, composer’s versatile compositions. This show is not easy to understand. But many scenes have a meaning as a separate scene ripped from the story. They are easily discernible thanks to the transcendent composition. It is difficult to sit through hour after hour with complete befuddlement. There needs to be something that guides you or aids you in the process. While one of them is acting, the other (and probably more helpful than acting) is the music. Every situation with repetition has music to trigger recognition. Every critical moment is enriched by his music. Music is the savior of the show, even in places where acting fails or triumphs the performance. (yes it does have one or two forgettable moments for actors). Even if you don’t recognize a scene, you will remember the piece that was played along with it. That’s the impact of background score in the show.
When all the above three succeed in trapping you, then there won’t be any choice but to pay closer attention to the dialogues. As stated earlier, all the best dialogues of the show (ones that echoes a philosophical declaration in itself and not dependent on the twist to announce its greatness) is a proprietary right of Anthony Hopkins. Their importance would have faded if delivered by anyone else. And these dialogues also have a depth which can be sought during a revisit.
Besides these, there are other technical explanations or lack thereof waiting to be ascertained. And finally, when those dialogues that are in the form of motifs connecting the main plot spread across the show have been figured out, then the euphoria is attained.
Thia is an almost pure science fiction drama with whatever commentary that exists on social issues or society in general, is implicit and not an impediment. But not everything is going in its way. A complexly structured story does not naturally make a good one. Once you strip away the facades, the flesh reveals its true potential. It is as elaborate as it can be about the logic and concepts governing the story. Despite that, in a few places, logical integrity is loose.
Moreover, the plot itself propagates a plot armor. So the uncertainty during action sequences was missing.
There were repetitions of the same scenes. Each time, the juncture of the plot until that point or what it would cause has a significance. But the manufactured and known triteness of those scenes is undeniable. The music takes up the mitigation role.
This is an emancipation tale told in a convoluted mode. So it filters its possible viewer demography from the pilot itself. Yet, there is enough intrigue to go back and watch again. Because, in the second (or third if it has impressed you to that degree) viewing, whatever you found to be boring or incomprehensible will automatically connect to something else you know and you will be hit with waves of awe, freezing all your motor functions.
Originally published at http://thevicariousview.wordpress.com on April 22, 2020.