Monday, October 21, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 5

Episode 5: She Knows All the Secrets

Obligatory Plot Summary: Hunter has Rian tied up and is ready to slice the Gelfling up to claim his hunting trophy when the Chamberlain abruptly shows up to talk him out of it. Instead, the Chamberlain takes possession of Rian to return the Gelfling to the castle himself, all in a bid to regain favor with the Emperor. The All-Maudra, who had earlier dismissed rumors of an unnatural blight corrupting Gelfling lands, is shown a landstrider corrupted by the Darkening. This jars the All-Maudra, who begins questioning her recent (and arrogant) decisions. Rather than allow her guard to kill the afflicted creature, the All-Maudra orders its release, commending its fate to Thra. Princess Seladon squabbles with Princess Brea, arguing the magical stone creature, Lore, is dangerous and unnatural, as is the hidden chamber beneath the throne room. The All-Maudra arrives, and although skeptical, agrees to enter the chamber with Brea, mindful of her recent errors in judgment. Deet, disguised as Ha'rar nobility to gain an audience with the All-Maudra, arrives with Hup, carrying her warning of the Darkening. The disguise doesn't fool Seladon for a moment. Deet offers to prove her story by Dreamfasting with Seladon. In the Skeksis coach, Rian and the Chamberlain argue about the ethics of the Skeksis harvesting Gelflings. In exasperation, the Chamberlain stops the coach and offers Rian his freedom. If Rian flees, the Chamberlain warns, rebellion and war will follow, and the Skeksis will kill all Gelflings. If Rian stays and war is averted, the majority of Gelflings will live out their lives happily, oblivious of the grim fate of some of their number. Rian, swayed by the Chamberlain's arguments, agrees to stay. A short while later, Naia and Gurjin (freed by Naia from the Skeksis dungeons) attack the coach with the goal of freeing Rian. The Chamberlain's arguments apparently forgotten, Rian, Gurjin and Naia disconnect the giant rolling pillbug things from the coach and ride off to freedom as the Chamberlain crashes in humiliation. At the Sanctuary tree, Aughra has been stomping and fussing and demanding to hear the Song of Thra, with no success. Aughra then realizes she must listen, humbly, to be able to hear Thra. The song comes to her and she begins to chant and dance in ritualistic fashion. Across Thra, Rian shares what he's seen of the Skeksis with Gurjin and Naia through Dreamfasting, while in Ha'rar, Brea and the All-Maudra do the same, as do Deet and Seladon. They're all brought together simultaneously in a dreamspace version of the Castle of the Crystal, where Aughra tells them all the full extent of the Skeksis plans. Rian shares the death of Mira, and they all agree the Skeksis mus be fought before Gelflings are wiped out--all except Seladon, who argues what they speak is blasphemy. Aughra casts her out of dreamspace. The remaining rebels lay out their plans, then return to the real world. Seladon rushes to the two Skeksis gathering the "volunteers" and tells them the All-Maudra plots to betray them. The All-Maudra confronts the Skeksis, intent on saving the seven volunteers, and warns them that Gelflings will no longer cooperate. The Skeksis promptly kill the All-Maudra. Seladon claims the title of All-Maudra for herself, and brands Brea, Deet and Hup as traitors. She orders the late-arriving guards to capture the trio and lock them up with the volunteers for transport to the Castle of the Crystal.

Musings: When I say this one was all over the place, I'm not kidding. It contains the absolute best scene of the series thus far, as well as the worst. Throughout the series, the Chamberlain has been presented as the greatest equivocator ever, a devious twister of words who is able to confess to the worst of sins and end up being praised for his nobility. The trouble is, the writing of his dialogue has been sophomoric at best, middle-school reverse psychology at worst. Convincing, he is not. And yet, when he justifies the Skeksis actions to Rian in the coach, he's almost convincing. Not because of the strength of his argument, mind you, but because the Chamberlain seems genuinely concerned with averting bloodshed and suffering. He doesn't regard Gelflings as anything more than livestock, but he sincerely wants said livestock to be treated ethically until the time comes for them to be melted by the Dark Crystal and turned into essence for the enjoyment of Skeksis. And Rian is seemingly won over by this, and rejects the Chamberlain's offer to walk free. That is, until Gurjin and Naia show up, at which point Rian's like, "Up yours, Skeksis! I'm outta here!" It makes not one lick of sense. That escape scene renders the previous scene utterly pointless, a time-filler to pad out the episode. It utterly muddles Rian's motivation and undermines his actions. Why the hell did Rian stay? There's no sense of any plan or motivation on his part, other than to follow the dictates of the script. As for the escape itself, ugh. Yes, it was a clever action sequence on paper, but in reality, it went on twice as long as it should have. Action stretched out too long becomes boring, doubly so when all the Chamberlain had to do to foil the escape was halt the coach. Instead, he flails around inside the coach for several minutes, screaming occasional threats, as the Gelflings fumble around before stealing the giant pill-bugs in the most anti-climactic climax ever. You know, had Rian taken the Chamberlain up of his offer to go free, only to have the Chamberlain renege at the last moment (revealing him to be a liar) the escape sequence would've made sense and at least given Rian some little shred of pride. But no, it was just mindless.

Seladon, too, is problematic. She's presented in previous episodes as bitchy and self-important, but also wholly devoted to her mother, the All-Maudra, and duty. That's not exactly nuanced character, but it is multilayered and a far cry from a mustache-twirling villain. Unfortunately, as soon as the Skeksis are identified as a threat, Seladon becomes... I don't know, a religious fanatic? She doesn't act out of concern for the best interests of the Gelfling subjects (which could've been an interesting take, Seladon as reluctant collaborator to try and save as many Gelflings as possible) but rather out of heretofore-unseen blind devotion to the Skeksis. She blames Brea for her mother's death, seizes power immediately, condemns her sister to certain death and comes off as gloating over her mother's corpse. That's... jarring. Seladon's motivation just isn't there. In all previous scenes, she doesn't come off as power-hungry. If anything, being first in line for the throne is viewed as both a duty and a burden, and she expresses a degree of envy toward her sisters, who don't face either.

The best scene, though, almost makes up for all the bad. Almost. When Aughra is dancing and the scattered Gelflings are Dreamfasting, the rhythm and the sounds and the cuts between each of the scenes is rhythmic and dazzling and transcendent. Katherine Smee is the puppeteer controlling Aughra, and in many cases, wearing the Aughra puppet/prosthetics. Her dancing motion is at once fluid and jerky, otherworldly and tribal. Without her performance here, this scene tying together disparate characters and locales would not work. This is an ambitious sequence. Not just technically ambitious--this series is chock-full of technical wonder. No, this is ambitious from an editing and directoral perspective, conveying the world-changing significance of this moment without any comprehensible dialog, evoking an emotional response, that elusive "sensawunda" out of latex figures pretending to be real. There's some real wow there.

And then they go and spoil it all by immediately killing the All-Maudra as soon as she realizes the error of her ways and turns on the Skeksis. Not only is she the second authority figure to die immediately upon realizing the truth about the Skeksis, she does so in the stupidest way possible. She confronts the Skeksis--who she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt casually kill Gelflings and consume their essence at the drop of a hat--without any of her royal guard, her paladins, but also does so knowing Seladon has warned the Skeksis in advance. That's idiot plot territory right there, when situations unfold the way they do only because characters act like idiots. I hate that. Here's the thing many writers in Hollywood are quick to forget: It is entirely possible to do everything right, to make no mistakes, and still lose. Show the All-Maudra being smart and clever, mobilizing the paladins, recognizing the Skeksis for both the tactical and existential threat they are, and still failing! It's stupid when the lone sleuth confronts the crooked cop in an abandoned warehouse, announcing that they've discovered said cop has been a hitman for the mob with 567 murders to his credit and the sleuth is now going to tell everyone the truth--just as soon as they can get back to civilization, because their cell phone's dead, their car has a flat and they didn't tell anyone where they were going in the first place. It's infuriating when humans do it, and it's infuriating when Gelflings do it. The end.

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