Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Walking Dead Season Ender

THE WALKING DEAD has a pretty lousy record with season enders. They do the equivalent of 2 per year, and some of them are among the worst TWD eps of the entire run. In general, this season was, overall, easily the best since the first, and tonight's finale, simply titled "A," wanted to be very good, but ended up--as so many eps of the season--a somewhat frustratingly mixed bag.

The central focus of "A" was Rick getting in touch with his inner Ugly. Flashbacks throughout the episode fill us in on the events leading to the birth of Rick 6.0, the pacifist farmer. At the beginning of the season, I interpreted this version of Rick as showrunner Scott Gimple's thumb in the eye of the prior TWD regime's handling of Rick--the writers offered a version of the various weak, stupid Ricks introduced under showrunner Glen Mazzara, had him realize how entirely inappropriate that was given the world in which he lives, and had him elect to put on his guns again. The series almost immediately began thumbing my interpretation in the eye--it wasn't quite done with weak, stupid Rick just yet. Tonight, Rick, his son, and his friends face a horrible fate, and Rick finally gets his mean on, and in a big way. The flashbacks show a different time from which the world has moved on, and the current events suggest it's time for a much harder edge to face that world. So maybe my thoughts weren't entirely wrong. This part of the series is, in any event, moving in the right direction, if it doesn't regress again next fall.

Rick tears open a fellow's throat with his teeth and mercilessly carves up a would-be pedophile rapist who was about to go all DELIVERANCE on Carl's ass. Good stuff. But he then has to indulge in one of the least fortunate habits of TWD's Mazzara era: he sits around and talks about his feelings about what just happened. One of the first rules of screenwriting is "Show, Don't Tell." It's a rule to which TWD's writers rarely seem to have been exposed. In general, nothing of this sort can pass as a matter-of-fact thing. It all has to be analyzed, and, worse, the post-mortem conveyed via painfully bad, anti-naturalistic dialogue. Melodrama, of the kind that gives melodrama its bad name. Daryl has to get in on the action too, making excuses for traveling with the bad men they'd just put down, as if there was anything in that for which to apologize--he does this so Rick can tell him he'd done nothing wrong. A very sweet, entirely pointless, and actively pernicious waste of several minutes of screentime.

Rick and co. make it to the Shangri-La the characters have been pursuing, the terminus of the railroad line where, they've been assured by the signs posted along the way, they'll find sanctuary. It turns out not to be the friendly place for which they'd hoped, and that's the point on which "A" hits its "z." To be continued.[1]

Overall, this season saw a major turnaround of a series that had been creatively dead for two years. We've gotten some of the best episodes of TWD ever produced--a slew of them--but no matter how much TWD has improved, it can't seem to shake the poisonous influence and crushing baggage of those bad ol' days, and I'm still left to look at the season as a whole as a disappointment. There's absolutely no reason why TWD can't be one of the best shows on television. It's had that potential from the day it launched--the comics make that crystal clear. No matter how good it's gotten, it continues to fail to live up to that potential, and even its best episodes are plagued by problematic elements.

The early portion of the season offered a great set-up. Someone was feeding the dead at night, resulting in great swarms of them besieging the prison; a mysterious and deadly disease broke out within its walls; an unknown murderer began killing the living. The horror elements of TWD, so neglected under the previous regime, were brought to the fore by these overlapping events; the prison that had become a sanctuary and place of freedom became a prison again, confining the characters in a claustrophobic space beset with constant dangers, both seen and unseen. It's impossible not to feel disappointment at the writers' failure to capitalize on this atmosphere after weaving it, and that disappointment becomes rather profound in light of the subject they pursued instead--a string of episodes devoted to bringing back GINO, one of the worst pieces of baggage from the previous regime, leading up to a fairly dismal rehash of the season 3 finale. By an intelligent extrapolation, by the writers, of her experiences, Carol was made the most interesting character then made to go way out-of-character in order to commit a pair of senseless murders to serve the season's big Theme. She was then written out of the show for most of the rest of the season. That big, pretentious Theme loomed large over most of the season, but, by the end, the writers had mostly abandoned it, which is another mark in their favor. The second half of the season saw the characters, in the aftermath of the prison's collapse, broken into smaller groups and wandering around having individual adventures, many of which were quite good but all of which are carried out in the shadow of the utterly ridiculous lack of interest they show in finding one another. Solely because the writers want them to meet up at the railroad terminus, they all happen across the signs promising sanctuary, and all decide to pursue that option. Idiot Plot Syndrome was a perpetual problem with TWD in the two prior season; it remained a recurring feature of this one.[2]

TWD improved remarkably this season, but for TWD, there's a galaxy of space between "improving remarkably" and Great. I'd like to see it move--and move a hell of a lot faster--toward the latter.

--j.

---

[1] Kudos to the writers for a season ender in which none of the regulars die. That may seem odd praise--a series like TWD should kill off regulars from time to time--but Mazzara used character deaths as cheap stunts. For shock value.

[2] Filler remained a problem this season as well. Last week's ep, "Us," was mostly an uninteresting filler episode--two different problems but certainly related. Excess filler is a problem the Gimple Gang seemed to recognize, and there was nowhere near as much of it this season as under Mazzara (where a single episode of plot would be stretched to fill six and seven eps), but it's still something that could use some attention. In a well-executed TWD, the writers would be straining every week to get in everything, not struggling to fill out the hour.

UPDATE (3 April, 2014) - Regular reader "Max Headroom," in the comments section, notes that the flashbacks in the season finale were probably full of continuity errors. I noticed problems with it, too, and, given my work on the show's timeline, it was probably something I should have covered.

The flashbacks do have continuity errors, but Gimple also seemed to be trying to work in a correction to one of the infinity of continuity problems that came as a consequence of Mazzara's non-existent timeline (and ended up making some more problems). Season 3 took place over a period of about 3 weeks story-time, which, going by the timeline from the end of season 2 (which ignored everything leading up to it), would have meant it concluded some time in July. Except it was already getting cold again by the end of S3; visible breath, everyone wearing jackets, and the leaves had turned and were falling. Sunday's flashback retcons that. In it, Hershel says they've been at the prison for two months now, and it was time to start planting. That would put the flashbacks at about five weeks after the conclusion of S3, deep into the fall by Mazzara's "timeline," but still in the summer if one goes by how much time had actually passed.

And in those flashbacks, Rick already seems to be pretty much recovered from his time as Crazy Rick. He's even making regular supply runs and seems to be rather pleased with things. Other than, of course, Carl's growing coldness. This is a complete contradiction to the opening of S4, which gave the impression of Rick having become Farmer Rick the Pacifist as a means of recovering from his Crazy Rick period. Everything was written around that, and he still seemed pretty messed up. He had, in a rather shockingly overbearing way, forcibly infantilized his son--recall Carl's near-terrified, apologetic reaction after having to confess he's used a gun at one point. And, of course, Farmer Rick the Pacifist is still showing signs of Crazy Rick--he's the guy who acts as if he's almost afraid to wear his gun, and who doesn't put it on, even when he goes outside. He continued to seem pretty messed up throughout much of the just-concluded season (recall his absolutely pathetic behavior when GINO came calling). The flashbacks make it appear Farmer Rick the Pacifist was an intentional choice made by him after he was already back to being himself rather than a recovery period taken as a necessity to try to pull himself together. The latter is how it was depicted and even described at the opening of the season.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

WORLD WAR Z (2013)

I'm told (by people who would know) that Max Brooks' "World War Z" is an exceptionally good book. Modeled on Studs Terkel's "The Good War," an epic, globe-spanning "oral history" of an apocalyptic uprising of Romeroesque flesh-eating zombies  Definitely my cup 'o tea and one I'll likely imbibe in the near future.

I have, unfortunately, already seen how Hollywood treated the tale. Conceptually, the film's creators immediately disposed of the successful book, putting it through the usual creative gang-rape--I'm told the biggest similarity between it and the eventual film is its title--and rendering the film adaptation as a typical Hollywood tentppole, a huger-than-huge action extravaganza with a Big Name Star in front of it (Brad Pitt), shot on a budget that more closely resembles the gross domestic product of a small nation. As with anything on which an American studio spends that kind of money, it's made by a committee,[1] filled with computer-generated effects spectacles to ooh and aah the bumpkins, plotted, shot and edited in Attention-Span-Optional mode, watered down to a PG-13 rating so as not to keep the kiddies away and dumbed down to serve the needs of the dumbest son of a bitch who may wander into a theater to watch it.

I've lived long enough to have seen the birth of the tentpole pictures. The ones that caught fire in my youth and created the trend made their big piles of money because they were actually good, or that's what I'd like to think. Am I wrong in that? The pictures were good and all these years later they hold up but was this really a relevant factor in their success in those days? Were people really just paying for empty spectacle all along? To see the sorry state of this kind of movie now and contemplate the paradoxically obscene piles of money the pictures make anyway... it makes my head hurt. With few exceptions, I don't watch these kinds of movies anymore.

I do watch zombie movies from time to time though, and this was the most expensive film ever made in that particular subgenre. Not that its creators wanted you to know it was of that particular subgenre. I saw WWZ because my uncle inexplicably bought it and something I noticed in looking over his copy is that nowhere on the packaging does it mention it has anything to do with zombies or that it's even a horror picture.[2] The full description on the back reads:

"'The suspense in killer!' raves Peter Travers of Rolling Stone in this fast-paced, pulse-pounding action epic. Former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is in a race against time to save both his family and the world from a pandemic that is toppling governments and threatening to destroy humanity itself. David Denby of The New York Times calls World War Z 'the most gratifying action spectacle in years!'"

I was surprised to read there that Peter Travers was in the movie--the revelation does make you wonder why a studio that spends $190 million on a movie can't pay someone a few bucks to write competent ad-copy for them. That aside, the DVD cover reflects the description--it's just Brad Pitt with a gun, looking like he's dressed for action while helicopter gunships fly by in the background. The studio suits apparently decided to conceal WWZ's zombie-ness in order to up its "mainstream" appeal. Because, y'know, zombies aren't "mainstream." That's why no one paid to see the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake or ZOMBIELAND or the infinite RESIDENT EVIL films, no one watches THE WALKING DEAD, no one read Brooks' "World War Z" and no studio spent $190 million to turn the latter into a movie. Twice.

Though only one film was released, WWZ was, in effect, filmed twice. It wasn't just made; it was remade. Officially, there was only a round of "reshoots" to fix the ending. In reality, the suits saw the finished film, realized it was a disaster and, in effect, ordered it remade. The "reshoots" had a seven-week shooting schedule and reportedly cost something between $20 million and $65 million. That's a remake. Looking over the version that was released--an utterly moronic piece of shit that wasn't worth the guitar picks that were precluded birth in order to make it--one shudders at the thought of how bad the original cut must have been. Only the eventual theatrical release made its way to video.

WWZ chucked the shuffling ghouls of Brooks' book and instead followed and expanded upon one of the least fortunate trends in contemporary zombie pictures; its dead are hyperactive, rocket-fast sprinters. Rather than being a disadvantage, death supercharges them and WWZ ups the ante by making them more like ants; they're dead and supposed to be dumb but they seem to have a hive mind that lets them work together toward a common goal and they run all over one another like ants from a hill in ways that are physically impossible for humans and look even more comically absurd on film than they would sound if I described them. There's no humanity in them. They aren't particularly ghoulish in appearance either. They don't eat people like Brooks' zombies because that kind of carnage would kick the whole affair above the contractually-obligated PG-13 rating. Instead, they just bite folks. Bite them in order to spread the disease. Central to the film's plot--WWZ tries to make a big mystery of it--is the fact that the zombies ignore people with terminal illnesses. They only bite healthy people because that's what the disease infecting them wants. But the disease kills its victims in, quite literally, 10 seconds. They count it out on screen.

If that makes any sense to you, you're probably of WORLD WAR Z's target audience. And shame on you.

--j.

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[1] Depressingly, the director of record for WWZ is Marc Forster, who, at one point in life, made flicks like EVERYTHING PUT TOGETHER (2000) and the incredible MONSTER'S BALL. Marc, you break my heart.

[2] Filmmakers who make horror pictures then explain they aren't really horror pictures have, of course, been a running joke in horror fandom for literally decades.

UPDATE (22 March, 2014) - As I posted this in some venues around the internet, one of the responses that came to me more than once was that I didn't outline a lot of the particular idiocies of the film itself. It's true one could write a long article indeed cataloging WWZ's many idiocies. Throughout the film, for example, our hero travels around the world and the situation with the zombies goes to shit as soon as he comes on the scene. The zombies had to wait for the star of the movie to arrive, you see. That's the kind of "plotting" at work in WWZ. As someone on one of the IMDb message boards observed, if Pitt's character had just stayed away, all that mayhem could have been avoided. Another example of idiocy is when Pitt's character is trying to be stealthy and sneak past a gaggle of zombies and he leaves the ringer on his sat-phone turned on. And--wouldn't you know it?--his awful wife chooses that very moment to call. The ringing alerts the creatures and Pitt's team is wiped out. And so on. In WWZ, these inanities are ubiquitous. They're also ubiquitous in nearly every big Hollywood "tentpole" film and my article was really a lament over how bad that kind of film had gotten and over the process that gives birth to such rubbish. I understand why readers of an article of that nature might be skeptical of building on that kind of premise without quantifying it with specifics. That's why I just decided, at nearly 4 in the morning, to tack on this little update.

Monday, March 17, 2014

In The Grove Grows THE WALKING DEAD

Tonight, I started to simply make this a two-word review: very good. By WALKING DEAD standards, "The Grove" was outright excellent. I'm a bit hesitant to use words like that when it comes to TWD, though--for too long, it has set the bar far too low. Not the case this evening.

The one criticism I'd offer is to note the specter that continues to haunt TWD, the one that has haunted it since the middle of the season: the characters aren't looking for one another. After the midseason break, Michonne found Rick and Carl. Since then, only Glenn and Maggie have actively searched for one another, and even then, it was only temporarily. This week, Tyreese continues to fail to show any interest at all in finding his sister. When he, Carol, and the children find an isolated farmhouse, he even decides he wants to settle down there. They have the infant Judith in tow; no one is concerned with trying to get her back to her own family.

That aside--and logically, that continues to loom large--showrunner Scott Gimple's reformed TWD continues to impress. The Gimple Gang has added all manner of depth, darkness and even--dare I say it?--maturity to the proceedings. I hope to see this continue.

--j.

Monday, March 10, 2014

WALKING DEAD Alone, But Still Smilin'

This week was a bit of a middling ep of THE WALKING DEAD. "Alone" is a big step down from last week and had several problems but still enough noteworthy moments to keep them from entirely overwhelming the proceedings.

The ep threw me a curveball with its opening, a series of events I read as a great little joke aimed at Mazzara-era TWD. The cold opening is excellent, a music-video flashback showing how Bob, his previous companions having been wiped out in some conflagration, wandered aimlessly through a world gone dead before being found by the prison group. It's a terrific, bleak little minimalist essay on a fellow who has been through hell and seems to have lost everything, including any understanding of why he's bothering to continue walking around breathing. Bob has, to date, been a bit of a background character, and whenever such a character was given a prominent spotlight on Mazzara-era TWD it meant he'd be toast before the ep ended. After this flashback, focus shifts back to the present, and Bob, Maggie, and Sasha are huddled in a bank of fog fighting off zombies as they appear. It's a pretty good sequence. For a moment, it seems as if our heroes will be overwhelmed, and almost immediately Bob is bitten, which, of course, is certain death. When the fighting is over and he inspects himself, though, it turns out the zombie got only a mouthful of the bandage covering a gunshot wound he received at the prison. Bob makes it through this evening's episode, smiling most of the way. And yes, that was worth the laugh I offered it.

I was pleased to see that, after being given a bit of a spotlight in the last ep, Beth didn't die this week. Score another for the Gimple gang. She even had a few more good moments with Daryl, with whom she's growing closer.[1] There was a great horror-movie sequence wherein an unseen assailant apparently brings a gaggle of zombies to the door of the funeral home where the two are staying. With the creatures virtually piling over one another to get at him, Daryl leads them to the basement and has to fight them off with only a pair of embalming tables separating him from the horde. He manages to escape, but someone--probably whoever brought the dead there--has kidnapped Beth and driven away. Beth may not make it yet!

As all of this indicates, this was yet another episode featuring various groups of characters wandering the countryside in the wake of the fall of the prison, the fifth such ep so far. It featured an unnecessary amount of filler. Nowhere near as bad as usual, but the pace could have used some real tightening, particularly in the sequences featuring Bob, Maggie, and Sasha, which have been overly repetitive (and not only in this ep).

While the wanderings of the characters give viewers a look at more of the world in which the series is set--something TWD has needed for a long time--it's also the case that the longer they wander, the more rankling is the Idiot Plot issue. On Mazzara's TWD, every bit of plot progression was made entirely dependent upon every character being a complete idiot at all times, and this is yet another example of it. "Too Far Gone" established that the prison group did, in fact, have a rendezvous point in case anything went wrong--it's impossible to imagine people in that situation wouldn't. But there's been no mention of it since. Tonight, Maggie and co. were looking for Glenn, not by trekking to any planned rendezvous but by making ever-widening circles away from the prison. Worse, the last several eps have set most of the major characters to following a series of signs along the railroad promising safe haven at the end of the line. They're doing this instead of looking for one another. Tyreese, who is with Carol and the children, is following the tracks instead of looking for his sister. Sasha, traveling with Maggie and Bob, hasn't done anything to try to find her brother,[2] and has wagged in disapproval of Maggie's efforts to find Glenn. While Maggie has searched for Glenn, she's shown no interest at all in finding her own sister, and, tonight, gave up the search for Glenn too, choosing to follow the tracks and mark the signs with messages to him. Beth hasn't looked for her sister. Daryl, who is with her and for whom the group was the closest thing he'd ever had to a real family, hasn't looked for anyone either--he just assumes they're dead. He and Michonne would be the most capable in tracking down the others; she, with Rick and Carl, is, instead, just following the railroad. The characters walking the tracks instead of looking for one another have expressed the belief that they'll probably find any of the others who are still alive at the promised sanctuary, a completely ridiculous assumption with no in-story rationale that has been inserted solely because the writers want the characters to follow that railroad to whatever awaits them at the end.

The other weakness in "Alone" is the silly melodrama that accompanied the Bob/Sasha/Maggie plot. Sasha, for no real reason than to provide a plot, suddenly wants to stop and find a new place to live rather than following the tracks to their terminus. Maggie, hearing Sasha's plans, abandons her companions in the night, intent on following the railroad herself, a completely ridiculous and unnecessarily dangerous decision--traveling together is obviously safer, and if the other two want to stop somewhere, Maggie could continue from there alone if she liked. But the Theme of the evening, reflected in the ep's title, is that Maggie just can't do it alone, so she leaves only to be reunited with Sasha later, to whom she offers up some of TWD's trademark cliché-ridden anti-naturalistic speechifying about how she just can't do this on her own. The trio are reunited. Everyone smiles. Isn't that sweet?

So tonight is, like so many eps this season, somewhat a mixed bag. Not a bad show by TWD's ridiculously low standards, and with some worthy moments, but still indicative of a series mired in some unfortunate habits and still falling well short of its potential.

--j.

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[1] They find an embalming room where zombies who have died have been stretched out and professionally prepared for burial, a sign that someone, whoever managed the funeral home, still thought they were worthy of that respect. It's a small touch, but of the kind TWD needs, and I liked it. The moments spent with Beth and Daryl have taken on a vague atmosphere of wandering souls trying to find, in a world of horrors, some semblance of a good life, one worth the living. I like this very much.

[2] Tonight, the writers inserted a hint of an explanation, that Sasha is afraid to know if Tyreese is alive or dead--the sort of "explanation" that only flies on bad soap melodramas.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

From the Past, the Future

"To me, the great hope is that, now, these little 8mm. video recorders and stuff are coming out, some, just, people who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them. Suddenly, one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is gonna' be the new Mozart, y'know, and make a beautiful film with her little father's camera-corder, and for once the so-called 'professionalism' about movies will be destroyed forever, y'know, and it will really become an artform. That's my opinion."
--Francis Ford Coppola, from the documentary "Hearts of Darkness," 1991

Q - What changes do you foresee in the moviemaking of the future?
A - It will be so changed you can't imagine how different it will be. The satellite communications, where the whole world can watch something at the same time--this is just the little baby of what there will be. There will be audiences linked together in space, other planets... And movies will be available to each person's exact emotions and needs, whatever he wants available at that moment, instantly created--stories, biographies, pornography. There will be five hundred billion movies available. It will be just great for movie-makers!
--Sam Fuller, interviewed by Lee Server in "Film is a Battleground," 1994

Sunday, March 2, 2014

WALKING DEAD Still Kicking

Last week, the only thing some of you fear more than a new episode of THE WALKING DEAD came to pass: an episode of THE WALKING DEAD without an accompanying article by me! My email and private messages veritably overfloweth with concern. I appreciate the response, and the many kind words do wonders for my ego--I thank you all. I'm sort of a captive audience for TWD, and the weekly articles when it's in season have, at various times, become very much a discipline for me, something I do to prove I can do it, but test of iron will or no, I don't write about something when I don't feel I have anything interesting to say about it.

That's what happened last week. I watched the episode ("Claimed"). It featured a very good suspense sequence wherein a battered, unarmed Rick was trying to escape detection by a gang of faceless marauders who decided to hole up in the same house in which he was resting. There were a few other noteworthy moments, mostly small. By TWD standards, it was, if for the suspense sequence alone, a pretty good ep. I just found, at the end of it, that I didn't have anything to say about it. Response to my last three TWD articles has been way down, I've been working toward a much more interesting series of articles on the recent BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series, and I just took a break. And yes, it was with an eye toward maybe leaving the TWD subject for good.

Just when I thought I was out...

Given the amount of grief I've given TWD over the years, there's simply no way I can forgo some remarks on tonight's offering. The writer of record for "Still" is Angela Kang. Prior to this season, she'd been one of the weakest links in a whole string of weak links that made up the TWD writing staff--some of the worst of the worst of the inanity that was TWD season 2 and 3 went out under her name. Seeing it affixed to an upcoming ep, one expected less than nothing from it, and no matter how low one set one's expectations, the ep still managed to be utterly underwhelming. From her output this season, one can only conclude she was either being totally smothered by then-showrunner Glen Mazzara, is presently under the heavy influence of current showrunner Scott Gimple, has seriously come into her own as a writer, and/or just started winning a string of bets she's previously lost. Whatever the case may be, she authored, earlier this season, "Infected," easily one of the best episodes of TWD since the 1st season, and tonight, she's done it again. "Still" is an excellent ep, perhaps the single best ep of this uneven season, which makes it one of the best TWD has ever done.

Kang brought her A-game again, all the strengths of Gimple's "reform" TWD, very few of its weaknesses, and even less of the Mazzara-era detritus that has so frustratingly clung to the series this season. Daryl and Beth are still on the run in the aftermath of the fall of the prison. The ep begins with an excellent suspense piece in which, pursued by the dead through the night, they have to hide in the trunk of the remains of a car until the herd passes. The next day, Beth decides she needs a drink. Not just any drink. Her father, the ex-drunk, disapproved of liquor and she's never touched the stuff. Now he's dead, the world looks bleak, and she's after her first taste.

And that's the story, Beth and Daryl crossing the zombie-infested countryside in search of some booze. It's a character-piece, something TWD, lost in soap melodrama-ism, virtually never attempts and at which it even more rarely succeeds. Beth has been a virtual non-entity for most of TWD's run, the girl in the background who watches the baby and sometimes sings a song. Her only real moment in the sun came in a season 2 ep in which she attempted suicide--a tale, like most of season 2, that is best forgotten. Tonight put a little flesh on her bones, both good and bad, and finally gave Daryl something to do--for perhaps the single most popular character on the show, he's surprisingly been quite sparsely featured this season. The ending of the evening's proceedings was nothing short of epic--for the first time since TWD began, it made me want to stand and applaud. This is what TWD should be.[*]

My one serious reservation about the ep may not turn out to be a reservation at all. While she chattered away at a frequently unresponsive Daryl, Beth seemed to be speaking in metatextual fashion to the viewing audience, repeatedly trying to justify her presence in the series. As I've so often complained here, TWD, under Mazzara, made a terrible cliché of telegraphing character deaths. It seems like the only time a TWD redshirt can get any camera-time is on the verge of their death. If this showcase on Beth turns out to be merely a set-up for her death, it will cheapen and ruin the impression left by "Still." Like the other good eps of this season, it should chart the future of TWD, not be reduced to a cheap stunt reflective only of previous bad habits.

Time will tell which it will be.

--j.

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[*] I've repeatedly argued TWD's creative team should learn to go with what works and not worry about servicing the big, pretentious Theme around which they've crafted much of their season. Tonight's ep was a good example both of doing so and of the benefits of the approach.