This being my post-MA (hopefully, please pre-employment?) summer, I have naturally been watching a ton of TV. This isn’t necessarily unique to the summer––there is no season in which I am not watching a ton of TV––but what is unique about this moment is that I actually have time to write about that TV! I’ve been meaning to try recaps for a while now, and since this newsletter is still young with a formula that I am still very much figuring out, this seemed like a fun experiment for me and I hope it will be as well for you.
I decided to start out with Nicolas Winding Refn and Ed Brubaker’s Too Old to Die Young because it was the first show I could think of that I’d been meaning to watch for a while. When it first dropped in 2019, I was spending the summer in New York and, attempting, to watch less TV. After New York I moved to a new place then started school again and just forgot about it, only occasionally remembering that I wanted to get to it at some point.
Another reason it took me so long to get to it, though, was my steadily waning interest in Refn’s work. In the summer of 2020, I rewatched Drive (2011) for the first time in years and was utterly repulsed. I wasn’t exactly surprised, it’s a ten-year-old film now, and criticisms of its depiction of race and gender aren’t exactly new. But I was surprised at the speed with which Refn’s aura collapses when the narrative issues behind the overwhelming style are foregrounded. I was younger, and to be perfectly honest, far less of a critical viewer when I first saw Drive. I let the ambiance overtake me. When the same didn’t happen with Refn’s follow-up Only God Forgives (2013), I hoped it could somehow still happen with his Neon Demon (2016). I had no such expectations for Too Old to Die Young. I didn’t know what I expected, honestly, I was just curious.
Three episodes in, I can see that Refn doesn’t seem to have learned much from the problems with his previous two films. He remains encumbered by his visual commitments, rather than letting them guide his stories. The last decade of Refn’s career has seen him, more than most, refine the stylings of what is increasingly being referred to as neon-noir. While this subgenre is by no means new, attempts to identify and categorize it somewhat are. Increasingly since Drive, Refn’s work has come to represent one the clearest demonstrations of neon-noir’s aesthetically decadent language; characters are bathed in bold and immaculate lighting, and the city, namely Los Angeles, takes on a dynamic and dangerous life of its own.
Less dynamic is the actual relationship the viewer gets to forge with the protagonists. Alienation is obviously a key theme and motif of neon-noir, but Refn more often than not takes it too far. Our guides through these mysterious and glamorous underworlds are always interesting, conceptually, but on a visceral and emotional level they tend to be flaccid and uninviting. Other contemporary practitioners of neon-noir demonstrate how these issues are by no means fundamental to the genre. For instance, the Safdie Brothers’ most recent work, specifically Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019), illustrates how utterly despicable characters can easily still make compelling and engaging protagonists.
Refn’s style is, of course, by design closer to the somber pacing of European arthouse cinema. The visuals are more amped and the dialogue is more muted than most American film. Again, this is not a fundamentally bad choice, but it is one that has failed to serve his characters. The first one we meet is Miles Teller’s Martin Jones, a creepy Los Angeles cop whose life is shaken by the sudden killing of his partner while they’re on patrol. The opening minutes of the pilot, “The Devil,” does not exactly endear us to either of them. After a terrifyingly misogynistic conversation, the first thing we see them do is stop a young woman, supposedly, for running a red light, only to threaten, sexually harass, and ultimately extort her for money. Martin’s partner is soon-after killed, and it doesn’t take us long to learn that this was a planned hit by cartel members as revenge for a robbery-gone-south that the two corrupt cops had taken part in. Specifically, it was revenge for the death of the killer’s mother, who Martin’s partner personally shot.
Everything else we learn about Martin in “The Devil” doesn’t do much to warm us up to him. He’s a thirty-year-old dating a seventeen-year-old girl in high school. We learn about their grotesque relationship in a baffling sequence that culminates with Martin meeting her father, an unhinged William Baldwin doing too much work to let us know the executive he’s playing has done a stupid amount of coke in his lifetime. In addition to the demands of his detective work, Martin becomes indebted to the gang who covered up his involvement in the robbery that led to his partner’s assassination. When we return to him in episode three, “The Hermit,” he is investigating murders by day, and committing them by night.
The second episode, “The Lovers,” switches the setting to an undisclosed location in Mexico where Jesus, the man whose mother was killed by Martin’s partner, is hiding with his powerful uncle. Augusto Aguilera, much like Teller, gives a sober and quiet performance. He is surrounded by far more bombastic characters, like his terminally-ill uncle and short-tempered cousin. The head of that cartel, the uncle is grieving the death of his sister while preparing for his own impending demise. Trouble has been brewing, as he keeps losing men to what his son finds out is a local vigilante. He worries this son is unfit to lead after him and seems to trust his nurse, Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo) and Jesus far more. But death comes for him eventually, and his son inherits the empire anyway. His conflict with Jesus is quickly resolved, but the next scene reveals Yaritza to be none other than the vigilante who’d been killing off cartel men and freeing the women they’d been holding captive.
In “The Hermit,” we return to Los Angeles as Martin investigates his first murder. Two new characters are introduced: Jena Malone’s Diana DeYoung and John Hawkes’ Viggo Larsen. The former is a social worker who assists families who’ve endured traumatic sexual violence. She also has the latter kill the pedophiles responsible for that violence. Martin uncovers the duo’s operation, and goes to see Diana first. He seems less interested in confronting either of them as he is in just telling them that he knows. He seems lost, his encounters with his own underage girlfriend have been shot almost as a kind of haze. The episode ends with him and Viggo silently sharing a cup of coffee in a diner.
For context, each of these episodes has a whopping feature-length runtime, with the shortest of them being “The Hermit” at 76 minutes. Though Refn’s first foray into TV generally makes good use of its episodic format, the length is thus far excessive and unwarranted. Sequences drag on and meander, never quite opening up the characters in the process. While I don’t see this changing much in the coming episodes, I am too intrigued right now by the impending intersection of all these arcs to ditch just yet. Next week, we look at episodes 4-6!
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