The show has one episode left, which HBO promises will reveal everything. I seriously doubt that will happen; the questions here are too big to be “revealed” in fifty minutes, they’re issues that the viewer has to ponder and conclude for themselves. However, for me, this episode answered the question of what the series is about, and made a lot of things clear that weren’t before. There are two central themes that form the backbone of the series, and by understanding them, you can put virtually all the elements of the series in context.
One of these concepts is the halo effect. This was first mentioned by Dwayne, when discussing how Shaun’s injury drove more traffic to Butchie’s website. It was mentioned again, reinforcing its thematic importance to what’s going on. The basic idea behind the halo effect is that what happens to one person will resonate throughout the community as a whole. It essentially posits a social network in which people are linked through a series of actions that produce an effect.
In the case of the series, John is the catalyst, and virtually everything that’s happened in the series could be seen as a consequence of what he did. The past few episodes, with their focus on John’s relation to his “father,” as well as this episode’s many religious references, imply that John is connected to God. So, one could easily interpret the series as a treatise on what would happen if God made his presence known in one person’s life, the way that initial contact echoes outward, creating believers out of some and dissenters out of others. I don’t think the show is as clear as John = Jesus, but at this point you could certainly make that equation work. John set things into motion, and even in his absence, the changes he instigated continue. He is more powerful as an idea than as a physical form, casting a shadow over this episode without actually appearing in it.
David Milch has talked a lot about the way that communities function as a single organism, with a mass consciousness that extends beyond any single person. That’s what the halo effect is all about, things that happen to others affecting us because of our social connection. This episode gives us a perfect demonstration of that concept in the sequence where Cissy is looking for Shaun. She asks Vietnam Joe if he’s seen Shaun, Joe goes to the VFW, and then others are looking for Shaun. The community moves into action to protect one of its own.
One of the things I love about the series is the way we know virtually everyone in IB. In most shows, we are limited to a few characters; here it seems like anyone we encounter becomes a recurring character. Milch is interested in looking at the way this one family impacts the world around it, and as time goes on, the ties between them grow tighter. I’ll admit that I was unclear about the purpose of the hotel guys when the show began, but now their role is clear. They are the center of the community that’s been built up around the Yosts; John has indirectly impacted their lives and helped them to become something better.
One could even argue that John is merely one agent of the larger force that is also acting to cause Mitch’s levitation, Shaun’s resurrection, and Barry’s visions. Taking that approach, Barry owning the hotel in the first place is just another aspect of the larger plan, and you could even argue that all the characters are merely pawns of the force, like John is, though in a less obvious way.
However, that posits this force as a negative one, and despite the skepticism in this episode, I don’t think that’s the case. John is going through a crucifixion experience in this episode, the people in authority are turning on him, and his apostles, Butchie and Kai are questioning him. Last week, John received wounds that parallel what Jesus went through, perhaps fulfilling his claim that he would be killed twice. So, is this episode Saturday, the day before his return? He certainly returns next week, though it’s unclear with what message. Certainly the great skepticism about his aims and powers parallels how the Romans viewed Jesus. I’ve thought about doing a story exploring what it would be like for Jesus to turn up in the modern world, I think Milch might have beat me to it. This blend of skepticism and open hostility is likely how most people would view someone with these kind of powers, and this kind of cryptic way of speaking.
Anyway, the reason I doubt that this force is a negative one has to do with the other central concept that crystallized this week. Ever since the first episode, I’ve speculated that John’s purpose was to rehabilitate the Yost family and return them to glory. However, as the cast grew with an increasing number of social rejects and failures, it became clear that John’s purpose in gathering these characters together was to give them a new community, a warmth and connection they were otherwise missing. Bill and Freddie are the most obvious examples, each unwilling to admit how important these people are to them openly, but constantly showing it in their own gruff way. Both those actors are amazing, and if there’s any justice will get some love from the Emmys next year.
At one point in the episode, we see Barry in the bar and Dr. Smith in his new clinic. Each of them has to confront their fear of failure in these broken down surroundings. The rundown spaces are a physical representation of where all these characters are mentally. They are nearly falling apart, but with some care and love could become something wonderful. We saw that in Barry’s experience last week; seeing a theater in the bar, he was able to imagine his dreams fulfilled. But the demons of his past came on the radio, the darkness of this world invading the possibility of his dreams. I’d argue that the force behind John, arguably God, is what spoke to Dr. Smith in the clinic and what sent Barry that vision. The force empowers Smith, but the real challenge is going on without it; he loses his confidence when the voices stop speaking and the real challenge is keeping the faith when God isn’t actually there. Now, that could be faith in God, or it could just be faith in your ability to do something.
Smith sees possibilities there, and even if looks bad now, it can be reborn. That’s what we’ve seen over the course of the series with the motel, what was initially deserted has become a home. Barry has taken the place where the worst moment of his life happened and turned it into something wonderful, the center of these peoples’ world. But, the darkness is still there, his fear manifested in the gray man sitting at the bar. Ultimately, we always have to deal with the bad stuff, but we must go on anyway. He may not see Shaun at the bar, but when he goes back in, he’s there.
All this would lead me to believe next episode will end with John bringing everyone together one more time, then disappearing for the foreseeable future. The episodes are called “His Visit” and it would make sense for the season to end when his visit does. If the series were to continue, we could jump ahead in time to the moment when he next returns. That would fit wonderfully with the themes, John’s goal was to show the characters what they could be, to be the catalyst for the halo effect, and then disappear when he is no longer needed, like the voices in the clinic. We see this literally in the speech sequence, where he gives us a brief glimpse of the Yosts in family portrait, happy for once. It’s still a long journey to get there, but it is possible.
So, keeping those two themes in mind, I’d argue that the central remaining issues are the rehabilitation of Cissy, and the reunion of the family. Cissy has a deep wound from her abuse of Butchie, and she’s completely unable to open herself up to him emotionally for fear of going back to that place. She deliberately keeps him distant, and yet keeps making comments that recall the moment. Here, she referenced him fucking himself, and has made similar references on other occasions. Subconsciously, she wants to apologize to him, but she can’t even find the words. Just going there would be too raw.
The same is true with Mitch, at first she doesn’t want him to help because she’s more interested in vilifying him than letting him make things up to her. It’s a surprise when he asks her what he can do to help, and ultimately he does wind up making things better. The Chemist also gives Cissy a reminder of who she once was, and who she could be again. He serves as a similar function as John, these characters don’t need people to act for them, they just need the prompting to act themselves.
We see that a lot with Freddie, who uses Palaka to do the things he is scared to do. Rather than go to Bill himself, he got Palaka to do it, and here he gets Palaka to investigate the meeting, in a great scene. Paul Ben Victor is just so much fun to watch, with his goofy mannerisms and surprising sensitivity. I love the scene where he listens to Freddie pray at the end of the episode.
Throughout the show, there’s so many beautiful moments. It’s very harsh on the surface, but that makes the moments of warmth even more powerful. I love Cissy’s total reckless devotion to Shaun as she wanders around, seeking anyone who can help her. The best moment here was Butchie and Kai’s embrace, the way he held her closer when Tina came in. You know that meant so much to Kai, Butchie is committing to her and in their union, the family is drawn closer together. Kai has been more of a mother to Shaun than Tina, and together, she and Butchie could really help him.
A while back, I was thinking that Tina and Linc were enemies of Shaun, and the show would end with some kind of showdown, but I don’t think that’s the point Milch wants to make. They are part of the Imperial Beach world, and even if they’re not quite on the same wavelength as the Yosts, they can help in their own way. Everyone is coming together to save Shaun, in the same way they came together after his initial injury. The scene with Mitch talking to the press was a clear parallel to the second episode.
It’s notable that all of our major supernatural players are absent this week. Zippy, Shaun, and John have all gone missing, forcing the humans to deal with their own problems. Ultimately, their absence may provide the final push forward, and they will have to care for each other, like Dr. Smith cared for Barry. The community can continue to exist despite the removal of its immediate purpose.
So, that leaves us with the question of the mystery stick figures. The message behind their multiplication seems clear to me. We began with John, one man, and he gathered others around him. Now, his ‘disciples’ are everywhere, all the characters in Imperial Beach impacted in some way by his presence. John was there with one man, now there are many others, and he is absent from the video.
This series is just so special. One could point out flaws, like the fact that this episode basically retreads the conflict from last week, but “for real” this time. But, I don’t even care, the milieu is so wonderful and the philosophical and thematic points so interesting, the narrative recedes to the background. I can think of almost no other television works, or works of fiction in general, that are so rich and layered. Reading about Milch’s process, the creation of the show seems to be guided by a kind of divine hand, or perhaps just a collective subconscious that builds story.
Alan Moore’s Promethea explored the idea of the Immateria, the place where stories come from. Our minds are like houses, and outside is the vast array of knowledge and ideas we can tap into. Milch has left his house behind and is just channeling a powerful force into the series. Did he know the figures would be in the Avon catalogue when he wrote that first scene? Probably not, but now it comes back and it fits perfectly. It’s like Grant Morrison's The Invisibles — the work itself takes on a power and guides the creator, not the other way around. This show contains in it so much power, it works simultaneously as an intellectual text and a totally raw, in-the-moment experience. I love these characters, I love their world, and I really want to see more. Even if they never come back after the next episode, when it ends and we snap back to our world, they will linger on.Powered by Sidelines