May 14th, 2012

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My Favorite Episodes

I hope everyone had a lovely Mother's Day. Although I'm not a mom, my church has the kids hand out flowers to all the women in the church because we all play a role in the lives of the kids, which I think is a nice touch and keeps the day from being depressing for those who wanted to be mothers but aren't, for whatever reason. Because I got the last minute "can you sing the soprano part in a quintet at the early service?" call, I got two flowers from singing for two services. This quintet was a little nervewracking, as we didn't get much rehearsal and as the choir director was singing with us (he's a former professional opera singer). I felt a wee bit intimidated singing what amounts to the lead in that kind of group, but I think I did okay, and I was more nervous in the one run-through we did than I was actually performing. I may eventually defeat the stage fright entirely.

While I was starching and ironing all my bedroom Battenberg lace last week, I put on one of my favorite episodes of Grimm to watch, and then I noticed that the episode was written by Jose Molina, who also wrote my favorite all-around episodes of Firefly and Haven. Either I need to start a fan club, or I need to become his best friend because we seem to like the same things. He wrote the Grimm episode "Cat and Mouse," which was the one with the fleeing freedom fighter. I'm not sure yet I'd say it's my favorite, but it's an episode I've already rewatched several times OnDemand. On Firefly, he wrote the episode "Ariel," the one where the crew robs the hospital and nearly gets caught by the Feds. There may be scenes, moments or storylines I like better in other episodes, but for an all-around episode that embodies all the things I like about the series, I think that's my favorite. And on Haven he wrote "As You Were," the one where the cast is trapped in an old hotel on an island during a storm, and then discovers that one of them has been taken over by a murderous shapeshifter. Again, there may be plots, scenes and moments I like better, but for an episode as a whole that embodies what I like about the series, this episode is currently my favorite.

Then because overanalysis is pretty much my hobby, I started trying to figure out what these episodes have in common that seemed to push my buttons. One thing I determined is that they all center on some of my favorite story tropes, which would be an argument for the "best friend" plan, but they give the familiar trope a twist or two that makes it even better. The Firefly episode is mostly a caper -- an elaborate and intricate scheme that requires the whole team to work together. But this caper goes awry not because there's a flaw in the plan but because one of the team members turns traitor, and that then turns this seemingly one-off episode into an arc episode because it brings our characters right up against what had been a mostly off-screen antagonist.

The Haven episode is a wonderful example of the "group of people is stranded in an isolated, spooky place -- and one of them is a murderer" story (that I still want to write), but unlike the Agatha Christie style take on the plot, motive doesn't really come into play. There's no reason (that the characters are aware of) for the shapeshifting killer to have taken any one form over another, which makes it more difficult to ferret out who the shapeshifter is. Then the Grimm episode is pretty much a classic WWII resistance/spy thriller plot, just set in modern Portland and with fairy tale creatures. Books about that kind of stuff (the resistance/spy stuff, not the people who are also wolves and foxes) were my bread and butter in junior high and high school.

But then further analysis uncovered more parallels. One thing all of these episodes have in common is that they've got a lot of tension and conflict -- but much of the conflict is internal to the regular characters/good guys rather than between the good guys and the bad guys. In the Firefly episode, the Blue Hands guys and the Feds are there and are a threat, but Jayne is the real antagonist because he's the one willing to betray members of his crew. He's out to get Simon and River, and he thinks that will earn him favor with Mal. But even before his plot comes to fruition -- though after it's too late to stop it -- even he starts having second thoughts. A lot of the tension in the episode comes from how he reacts to the fact that Simon trusts him and thinks he's really trying to help them.

The Haven episode is really a showpiece of internal conflict among the regular characters because the "villain" of the episode isn't actually doing anything to stir things up, other than getting them into the situation. They're all doing it to themselves because the situation brings out all the underlying tensions. Aside from one newcomer in the group, all of these people have known each other most of their lives, so there's a ton of baggage. We've got the older generation vs. the younger generation, the mother and daughter who love each other but can't seem to stop fighting, the father and son with a rift that can't really be overcome because the father thinks the best thing he can do for his son is toughen him up and that makes the son think his father thinks he's a weak idiot. There are the brothers who are usually close but who also have very different opinions of what should be done. There are three cops in the group and one career criminal. There are the young men who've been "frenemies" since they were five -- you get the impression that they were actually friends at some point but that there have been a lot of betrayals and disappointments along the way. And there are the cop partners who get along well and consider each other friends but who realize in these circumstances that they don't actually know each other all that well. Throw in the fact that one of these people has been replaced by a killer shapeshifter and they don't know which one it is, and things get extremely volatile.

The Grimm episode has more of a presence by the bad guy, but there's still internal conflict, with the woman whose family connection with the resistance drags her into it, and that then drags her friend into it when he's tried to stay out of that stuff. Then there's the fact that our main character, Nick, the "Grimm" who normally would kill people like them, would traditionally be the enemy of the freedom fighter, plus he's also a cop and the freedom fighter is a murder suspect. And then the audience knows that Nick's boss is in the middle of all this, while Nick doesn't know, so we get the tension of knowing more than he does about how perilous his situation is.

But the real thing that I think makes these episodes resonate with me is that they're all turning points for a character and are about a character really stepping up to face a challenge. Since this is all arc-type stuff, it may not come from this particular writer, but he does seem to get assigned those stories. In Firefly, Simon has up to this point considered himself an outsider. He may be a federal fugitive, but he's not a criminal like the rest of the people on the ship. Here, though, he's the one who crafts the elaborate (and extremely successful) heist, proving that he just might be the best criminal on the ship. We also get to see him in his element in the hospital, and then we get to see him really rise to the crisis when they're captured. He stands up to their captors, never losing his cool, and then he's able to take out one of the guards with his hands chained behind his back. One of the disappointments of the premature ending of the series for me was that we never really got to see where this led. I loved the idea of Simon as budding criminal mastermind. We did see in one more episode after this one (by the same writer) that Simon was capable of scaring even Jayne. There was a lot of potential for a character arc stemming from this episode.

On Haven, the turning point wasn't so much something that changed for the character, but rather that it changed the way we (the audience) and the other characters saw this person. Up to that point, they'd mostly focused on the nice-guy aspect of Nathan. We knew he had some seething anger beneath the surface, but for the most part, he was the sweetheart of a guy who turned into mush in the presence of a baby, got shy and awkward when talking to women and who was capable of empathizing with people in emotional distress. We knew he was physically tough because of the "curse" that keeps him from feeling pain, and we knew he was a smart, good cop, but we weren't sure that his father wasn't right about whether he could handle the tough stuff emotionally. And then in this episode, he's the one who solves the case and who is capable of coldly shooting someone who is an exact duplicate of someone close to him, so we learned that there's a lot of steel under that nice-guy exterior. This is not someone you want to mess with, and you really don't want to mess with someone he cares about.

On Grimm, this was the episode that really made Nick stand up and take a side in the conflict in this magical secret world he's found himself in, and this was the time he ended up acting in that role rather than as a cop. In previous situations, he's come down on the cop side, regardless of whatever else he knows is going on. Here, he witnesses a murder (though in self-defense) and lets the killer go because he knows that even going through the process of booking and going before a grand jury will only cause more harm to the secret world. I have a feeling there will be a lot of ramifications from this episode.

Now I think I need to find a way to force a character to step into a destiny-like role and amp up the tension among the good guys -- while they're pulling a caper in a remote hotel where freedom fighters are hiding. That would be the best book ever.