Homeland Season 5

So I actually managed to watch season 5. Hurrah for 2016!!

Homeland, my guilty pleasure is as Islamophobic, pro-American as ever, sigh.

And still the most thrilling series I have seen in a while.

So quick points full of spoilers:

1. It is still the intricate, beautifully written thriller which manages to hook you no matter what is the ideology ( fucked up I know). The twists, turns, the way it is edited, shot, the conflicting interests, the compulsive characters all make this into a heady cocktail which is impossible not to like. The way plot thickens is unexpected even for a homeland hardened cynic. The pace is very Homeland- shockingly fast only to be followed by mellowness. Works for me. Episode 11 when Carrie discovers the real plot, while the villain soothes CIA into thinking otherwise, Carrie doing Carrie thing by following her gut and half dozen terrorists nonetheless, the drama in the terrorist group, Villain escaping with mindblowingly clever trick.. and some 5 other massively tense things happening – chop chop edited, pace heightening, beautiful action choreography, characters whirling in intense showdown- aaaaaahhhhh… Homeland does this on the edge of the chair like nobody can.

2. Strong female characters of all shades ( arr… all white of course). From chest thumping human rights activists to shadowy vamps to smart spies. And of course Carrie Mathison, who in this season has sobered down- literally and metaphorically- without losing her mojo. Watching strong female characters moving the narrative plot is a rare pleasure in a show of this scale. When Carrie learns that she has achieved safe passage to Lebanon and looks around to see her daughter/ boyfriend sleeping peacefully- I was pleased with the re-gendering of a classic scene. 99% of the times it is the male characters wistfully looking at the peace and stability- symbolised by his family. Women hardly get to choose dark, unstable decisions over the mature, wise ones expected of them, because duh. But Carrie literally gets to make tough decisions, be imperfect even in the context of motherhood and family, be a supportive lover, save her kickass assassin friend Quinn ( Eye candy numero uno), negotiate with the Hizbullah about values of respect and what not. I am constantly amazed at how her character transcends the boundaries of gender which I haven’t seen in any other spy show. I did find Allison’s character problematic in its fame fatale hints. Although she is not someone who gets to be a villain because she is a woman exploiting her femininity as such- it is rather strange that from the director of CIA to an Iraqi mole to a Russian super spy – all these wickedly twisted spooks are somewhat in love with her. It takes away some of her evilness. There was no particular need for that and it shows a bit of lazy stereotyping. Astrid is another find- she is cooler than Carrie, empathetic, kickass bright and could shoulder more narrative on her shoulders. The token leftie bleeding heart character Laura is a great character utterly ruined by a smirking actress who makes me want to slap her every time she spouts something sarcastically.

3. Islamophobia without shame. All muslims are either angelically good – reminding you of token Muslim chachas of 1970s Bollywood, or mad about ruining west. Be it Imams, scientists, young techies, poor people, rich people, men, women, kids, Hizbullah, army generals, Isis wannabes- all are reduced to their religion. There are hardly any human complexities written for Muslim characters. If they are good- it is because they follow their religion like good people. If they are bad, it is because they are following the wrong version. Hello, don’t people have life other than religion? Like white people do in the show? White people get to have all cool psychological traumas, affairs, lusts, ambitions, grey zones..and Muslims are there only because they are Muslims. Considering the fact that the show spends so much time on conflict with Muslim world- couldn’t they come up with one memorable character with interesting shades? ( And no, Abu Nazir wasn’t that- he was just played by an excellent actor, that’s all). The death of token angelic Muslim character is given 30 secs in this season- 20 of which are spent worrying about his ( white) Human rights activist. Isn’t his death supposed to say something about the man himself? Nope. He has served his function of good Muslim and now his death can only serve as the next cliff-hanger. This is not just racist and morally wrong the way Homeland ploughs through its ideological errors. But it is absolutely lazy. And it just goes on to show that smart people who create brilliant characters and write some of the best thrilling narratives are just not bothered about the major elephant in the room because they don’t care.

4. There are no super charming Middle eastern villains in this season- the honour goes to a blonde American woman this time ( she is lured by Russians you see. So you can rest easy lest America is dishonoured). There are no massively overarching characters driving the central plot as well. Quin is lame here, although he manages to look good even after being in a Sarin gas chamber. Otto – played by the ever brilliant Koch is ineffectively positioned as ‘ could he be behind all this sinister plot?’ suspicion since he is cute and rich and eminently suitable to play the modern James Mason. Saul Berenson has slimmed down and other than that there is no change in his character.

Well there it is. My belated analysis of Homeland- a show I love with shame!

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Smilla’s Sense of Snow

I finally read Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I had seen the film and had felt no particular urge to read the novel it is based on.

The novel is credited to have started the Scandinavian hurricane in literary thriller genre.

Smilla Jaspersen is half Innuit- Half Danish genius scientist. Issaih, a young Greenlander boy she is extremely close to- son of her alcoholic neighbour, dies after a fall from the terrace. Cops think that he fell while playing. But Smilla knows of his fear for heights. She is also one of the premier Glaciologists in the world and knows snow like no other. She reads the snow on the terrace and realizes that Issaih was murdered. She sets on investigating the cause. She discovers a gigantic corporate scheme which is hiding a secret that could very well be the biggest scientific discovery of 20th century.

The novel began as a classic Scandinavian thriller. An intelligent and socially inept female protagonist. Precise and cold prose. Unusual characters. Distrust of authority and government. Hypnotic atmosphere and landscape.

And then it dissolved into pretentious prose very unlike Scandinavians and more like Indian writers writing in English – long words and flowery metaphors drowning any possibility of genuine storytelling.

Unbelievable twists that want you to applaud for the sheer scientific cleverness of it all, but are actually so cliched that you want to warn the evil scientist to look for a man with a gun rather than strutting through hundreds of pages of meticulous nobel prizeworthy scientific villainy.

An increasingly annoying narrator/ protagonist. Smilla begins to grate on us halfway through and then on she is simply too snobbish and unsympathetic a character to carry the book on her shoulders. Her holier than thou attitude, her lapses in the holy aboriginal mysticism, her overtly pretentious theories of life make her a preacher rather that someone who is looking to transcend, to belong, to learn- all these things she whines about.

Critique of western culture bordering on paranoia. The most annoying this was the ‘noble savage’ treatment of the aboriginal Innuit culture. Mystical, wise, gentle, serene, soulful and completely stereotypical. Classic misguided westerners who think all aboriginal cultures somehow represent a heavenly purity that will somehow wash away their grievances with western colonialism. It is one thing to critique the colonial culture and one thing to elevate the colonised side to extreme otherness bordering on glorified patronizing and homogenizing.

I have noticed that unlike the ‘smiling negro’ stereotype of warmer colonies, Arctic colonies are full of ‘ brooding warrior saints’ cliché. Be it Asa Larsson or Henning Mankell or Agnette Friss- every northerner feels it his/ her duty to eulogize Innuit culture and quell their collective conscience.

I am not sure if I would ever re-read it again.

Autopsied..

I read Patricia Cornwell’s latest Kay Scarpetta novel- Flesh and Blood.

It is really sad how the once Number 1 bestselling crime writer and mother of all crime-scene-investigation genre has lost the plot completely as to why her books became such a rage in 90s.

Kay Scarpetta- a chief medical examiner was introduced in late eighties. A 40-year-old divorced woman devoted to her work and justice- the books instantly won all awards and rose to stay at number one throughout the decade.

Scarpetta and Clarice Starling were two main reasons I got hooked onto new American crime fiction.

It was the ( then) unique concept of following the ( usually serial)killer using forensic investigation. Cornwell popularised autopsies, liver mortis, trace evidence, Luma-lite and other investigative terms. We read on with fascination as Dr. Scarpetta ploughed through smallest of fibers and dissected internal organs which uncovered the criminals. ‘The dead don’t lie’ is a term often used in the books. Scarpetta has reverence for the dead. She is tough but sensitive to injustice. She is meticulous and will not let go of any single inconsistency in her investigation. She is technologically suave and it was through these books that blockbuster shows like CSI gained credibility.

While we don’t have means to judge the technology or latest forensic science, Cornwell made it easy enough for us to feel smart by focusing on forensics.

Cornwell’s personal life was no less dramatic. She fell in love with a FBI officer whose husband kidnapped his wife and threatened Cornwell. Cornwell’s coming out as well as making once of the main characters in the series a lesbian was risky for the time. She married a neuroscientist Staci Gruber and they both were famous to ride helicopters and sue the fraudulent companies.

Scarpetta’s slightly stiff but ultimately kind character was central to the plot. As a woman chief in a man’s world, she maintained her clinical focus and never depended on her male colleagues or lovers for protection. She almost always was the most brilliant investigator of the lot. The series had the trappings of gun savvy, slightly right-wing ideology, Cornwell was after all a family friend of the Bush family. But the strong female characters- both heroes and anti-heroes were so unique and appealing, that we forgave them for being ‘one-of-the-boys’. Scarpetta also loves to cook and long scenes of her cooking elaborate Italian meals provided a sensuous relief to the bloody narrative.

And then somewhere she lost the plot. The personal anguish of Scarpetta soon became self-aggrandizing to the point of obnoxiousness. The oft repeated formula of the killer obsessing with her and getting vanquished turned comical as virtually every human being in the books started targeting her. Intricate twists turned into ridiculous conspiracy theories. Scarpetta’s heir-apparent, her brilliant niece Lucy Farinelli turned into a caricature. The helicopter flying, gun-toting, techno-wizard, ex-FBI-Agent Lucy turned absolutely repulsive and needlessly dark. Captain Marino- Scarpetta’s sidekick turned disgustingly annoying. The pop-psychology turned self-conscious. Scarpetta increasingly became paranoid. And the whole series lost its focus on forensic investigation and became a badly written chronicle of arrogant, judgemental, self-important people. The recent books almost read like a parody of noir-ish first-person narratives full of conspiracies and unbelievable criminals rising from their graves once too many.

I read some of the 90s Scarpetta books and while now they seem dated what with their obsession with technology, I think that is what Cornwell did best. And I wish she stops with her angsty pretensions and returns Scarpetta to dissect human bodies once again.

Homeland 4

I binge watched the season 4 of Homeland. After Season 3, I had almost given up on it, and this season continues its gross misrepresentation of Muslim world. However, like many addictions go, there is no clear answer to why I love this show to the point of compulsion.

After cringing at Carrie’s increasingly bizarre characterisation, the very problematic portrayal of Islam, the near ridiculous plot twists in Season 2 and 3, in this season, we are greeted by pretty much same level of Islamophobia made worse by horrendous Hindi and Africans playing Pakistanis. Talk of racial imperialism you know, Africans.. Asians… same thing.

However, Carrie is back to her being one of the best characters in recent times. Claire Danes is mind-blowing stunning. Her hyper, so-called Bi-Polarisms in season 3 are wiped out, thank god. And she is back to playing this intriguing character with nuance. I also loved the exploration of her motherhood. I was afraid that she would be this I-am-a-reformed-mother-of-my-dead marine/terrorist/ congressman/fugitive/patriot boyfriend. But she is not. There is a very tense scene in the first episode in fact where she almost drowns her baby. She is inept as a parent and is not exactly criticised for her choice of choosing spying over motherhood.

Of course she is selfish, takes self-destructive decisions and manipulates everyone. She seduces a teenage boy and ultimately becomes responsible for his death. She is also not a great boss. Her nonchalance over bombing of civilians nudges her towards the darker characterisation.

And that has prompted me to think again about my recent obsession – ideology of cool, grey female characters in recent times. Feminist critics have criticised Carrie for being a tool of patriarchy- choosing to be just one of boys. They have also criticised implications that a powerful woman can’t be a good person, a good mother, a good boss.

And there is merit in the critique.

But beyond this, I think there is an overriding ‘cool grey’ness to her character which should not be chastised just because she is a woman and ought to be a great feminist example. Virtually all popular cultural figures revel in borderline greyness in recent times. From Joker to Walter White TO House of Cards. Even Carrie’s own male colleagues are imperfect and walk on the thin line of morality. None of them have normal, family lives. Peter Quinn lives like a malfunctioning robot. Brody and Saul exploit their wives who reluctantly put their own lives secondary to their men’s obsessions and beliefs.

So I don’t really see why Carrie should be expected to bear the white flag of normalcy. Rather, it is her grey cool ness which makes her a true anti-hero of a popular show. I am not saying this grey coolness is something I champion, but lets admit it. A BiPolar, impulsive, self-destructive, driven, brilliant CIA Agent makes for a far more compelling character, no?

I for one love the fact that more and more women are portrayed in the grey zone.

On another note, the only person who overshadows Carrie is young medical student Ayan, played by our ver own Suraj Sharma. His performance is so nuanced and so heartbreakingly real, that I won’t be surprised if he walks away with several major awards this time.

Bridge ( Bron/ Broen) season 2..

(I was looking in my archive and was shocked to see that I hadn’t published this post!! Especially since it deals with my 2 obsessions neatly wrapped in 10 episodes of pure bliss. Scandinavian Crime and Lady Detectives!)

bron
Bridge 2. Or Bron/ Broen 2 as it is called in original Danish/ Swedish. Speechlessly great, astounding tv. You know why you should watch this show even if you don’t watch anything else ( other than the equally brilliant first season)?

Outstanding Female characters.
So so non-cliched. It is a pleasure to see shows where women are shown as people. From heroic to bad ass villains to ordinary people caught in life’s complexities. The sheer range of women characters in Bridge- from cops to activists to lovers to tycoons to bitter troublemakers is huge. And there are no thin, young, suspiciously smooth-faced actors there. These women look and feel real and purposeful. Their individuality, intelligence, sexuality is so human, that watching something like Bridge painfully makes you aware of the sexism in virtually every other show.

Saga Noren.
The emotionally distant and inhumanly brilliant Saga gets a painful back story in this season, but the writers do not try to lazily explain Saga away. Saga epitomizes everything about the show. The morality, value system, detached honesty, cool rationality and a sweetly dark humour that makes you happy to be imperfect. The sheer range of this character makes me speechless. She is Lisbeth Salander’s nemesis – with a law rulebook in her hand. Saga tries hard to follow social norms in this season, mostly with hilarious outcome. She is trying hard to be in a relationship too and has memorised all the popular wisdom about modern relationships. Her desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to be part of the normal society actually end up exposing the inherent hypocrisy of the world. Saga, ultimately, is so pure and adorable that you want to protect her from humanity. Not that she would let anyone do that.

Martin.
The intensely huggable and possessing merriest sparkly eyes with the best smile on TV papa bear, Martin is battling his demons from season 1. He is self-destructive in such a relatable way that you want to extend your hand towards the screen and stop him from treading the path that you know will harm him and his dear ones. Saga is perhaps the only one he relates to and is genuinely fond of without any complications. Martin is like you and me- weak, vulnerable, susceptible to temptations but ultimately a nice guy who desperately wants to do the right things.

Partnership.
Saga and Martin is one of the best detective partners in recent times. They are poles apart but are bound by their obsession with work and mutual respect/ affection for each other. Their friendship is priceless for both of them and is the only steady anchor in their rocky lives. In this season also Saga saves Martin’s family. Martin continues mentoring Saga in social niceties and being protective about her, albeit to disastrous results. When these two characters come together in one frame, it crackles with chemistry and camaraderie. Non romantic partnership between an eccentric woman and a more conventional and caring man seems to be the latest Scandinavian gender-bending formula, see Girl with Dragon Tattoo Series, The Killing. Saga and Martin seem like a classic detective pair- a cool, uber-rational, slightly superhuman genius ( Sherlock Holmes) is paired with a warm, genial partner ( a pumped up version of Watson) and the two form lasting friendship. But life is more complex than simple formulas and The Bridge shows us just how so. Towards the end of the show my stomach was twisted in knots with fear that our beloved pair might break off their friendship. The climax, was not unexpected but gut-wrenching nonetheless.

Lack of clichés:
Anything clichéd is going to be demolished in this show. If you, like I, try to be smart and predict the outcome- you will fall flat on your face. Because Bridge 2 is on a mission to give you characters, motives, clues and turn of events that twist the genre and your norms till they are unrecognisable. Seriously. Anything can happen in this show. So make sure not to form too many attachments and cling to any Sherlockian theories here- you will be deeply humiliated.

Emotional pitch:

I was watching the last episodes literally with bated breath, i.e., when you hold your breath for too long and your throat and jaw aches from too much emotion. The show peels away the characters and lays them bare. There is cruelty and honesty in the way we see the battle of conflicting emotions. Every lined face, every leafless tree, the dreary weather, race against time, disappointments, surprises crackle with muted tension. If it was not for Saga’s ‘I want to be normal’ humour, the show would have been unbearable in its sheer intensity.

Storytelling:

Even with a slightly sloppy and disappointing final answer to the mystery , the overall unrevealing of the suspense of the show is pitch-perfect, edge-of-the-seat. Which is not surprising knowing it is the Bridge we are talking about. There is very little one can talk without spoilers, so let me just say that your nerves will be fried in delicious anticipation when you watch the show.

Acting:

See it. Can’t be lauded enough. Can’t be reviewed. Just see it. Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia are gods. And while Saga is a more challenging character, I think Bodnia’s Martin is my most favourite performance in the show.

Humanity:

Finally, the real success of the show is the deep, very relatable and very very moving humanity that envelops every character, every event, every motive. Be it extreme ideologies or misguided people or dysfunctional relationships- this show champions the imperfect humanity in all of us in a manner that is brutal and still filled with love. Does this make sense? After watching Bridge, I am unable to watch anything else because it just feels so fake and shallow and wannabe.

In nutshell, see the show. And be happy that such TV is being made and we are being able to watch it.

(I was looking in my archive and was shocked to see that I hadn’t published this post!! Especially since it deals with my 2 obsessions neatly wrapped in 10 episodes of pure bliss. Scandinavian Crime and Lady Detectives!)

The Killing (Forbydelsen) Season 3

I managed to finish the season 3 of Forbydelsen a.k.a The Killing.

The show blazed the trail for worldwide popularity of Danish thriller shows. Along with Borgen and Bridge, this show helped cement the Danes’ reputation as master thriller makers. It also introduced us the character Sarah Lund, who rewrote the rules for female detectives onscreen. Just like Lisbeth Salander did it for angels of vengeance .

In season 3, Sarah is ready to take on more desk jobs and is about to become a grandmother. But do we want Sarah Lund the administrator? Of course not. She gets caught in a web of murders, political cover-ups and revenge crime as she hunts for the kidnapper of a daughter of a financial tycoon. The kidnapping case uncovers an older crime- an orphan girl’s brutal murder and rape. An election is under way and various political personalities benefit from the murder being kept under the wraps. What will Sarah do to bring the victim to justice when her own life is at stake?

It is a typical Scandinavian formula, popularised by Girl With Dragon Tattoo and Wallander series, amongst others. Society and institutions fail innocent people. Moral obligations and accountability are put in conflict with personal gain. Can justice for an individual be sacrificed for larger goals? How can social institutions protect the vulnerable without compromising the stability of society at large? What is the role of an individual when she is called for action in this situation?

The story telling is complex and taut. The characters are compelling. The production values are excellent.

But even then this season fails to bring that sense of climax to Sarah’s epic story and answer the questions raised about society in general.

Her character is lacklustre compared to earlier seasons. The whole fun about Sarah was her headstrong and rebellious stoicism. In this season, she lacks the punch until the very last 15 minutes of the show- when we get our beloved reckless and stubborn Sarah in full form. It is great to see a grandmother kicking ass and shooting the villains and threatening prime-minsiters though . And Sofie Grabol does an excellent job as usual.

The romantic track between Sarah and Borsch is dull. So is her relationship with her family.

The clues to the mystery are clichéd and certain scenarios seem too far-fetched. The tendency to doubt every single character was good in Agatha Christie’s time, but in 2013 it just seems naive.

The appeal of the first season was also the story arc of the victim’s family. For the first time a thriller focused as much on those who lose someone as those who are hunting the killer. In this season, the family of both the kidnapped girl and the murdered girl don’t appeal to emotions. I am tired of hysterical martyr characters of mothers in stories where a child is a victim. Why can’t we have mothers who in control of the situation and express their grief in less melodramatic manner? It is a lazy shortcut to appeal to viewers’ sympathy.

We the fans looked forward to the grand finale to the grandmother of modern crime with high expectations. Maybe it is the too high expectations that disappointed me. As a stand-alone, it is still a great season, way above its English language counterparts.

Borgen Season 3

borgen 3

I managed to finish Borgen Season 3. It is not only better than season 1 and season 2 ( which were outstanding) it is simply the best TV I have seen in ages.

Birgitte has quit active politics after two successful terms as prime-minister. She is in private industry now and travels across the globe for work. A particularly alarming law being passed in Denmark forces her back in politics. What follows is a heady cocktail of political shenanigans, ideological conflicts, moral dilemmas, new loves, health scares and following your ideals while still winning the game.

birgitte
Nyborg is simple the best character I have seen on TV in many many years. Heroic, inspirational, grounded in reality and morally complex. Sidse Knudsen’s performance is so nuanced and dazzling that she is my most favourite actor right now.

This season in particular is epitome of what the world loves about Scandinavian shows and fiction. A pitch perfect story telling flawlessly combining moral positioning, gravitas, unpredictability, broken stereotypes, pacy storytelling, identifiable situations, array of realistic characters put in difficult situations and a whole lot of edge-of-seat twists.

As a feminist- what a huuuuuggggee relief to see no cookie-cutter stereotypical female characters. Women are shown to be normal human beings- phew!! Neither their motherhood or loverhood overshadows the key focus of the show- What constitutes a great leader in today’s complex world.

I also loved the secondary track of life in Newsroom. Again- morally complex and a step ahead of http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/ hangover that every show about news media suffers from.

More well-known political shows like House of Cards or Newsroom don’t hold a candle to this masterpiece.

I am simply spellbound. I want to shift to Scandinavia like right now.