why should i believe a word that comes out of your mouth?: unreliable narrators in the affair and mr. robot

When we watch a TV show, we view its serialized world from an omniscient point of view that focuses on certain characters and their experiences week after week.  Every once in a while, a Very Special Episode might deviate from this structure, so you get The Office breaking the fourth wall and showing the camera crew, or ER focusing on an episode from a patient’s point of view rather than the doctors’.  But for the most part, a series is usually written from an omniscient point of view, with the showrunners, writers, and directors deciding which characters’ experiences to focus on each episode and relating these events objectively.

Two of my favorite shows of the last year, The Affair and Mr. Robot, do something different.  Their points of view are not omniscient, not lenses through which objective facts and events are recorded.   These shows are attempting to use a sophisticated literary device that has rarely been used on a television show before.  They play with point of view, with perspective, with the established formal narrative techniques of television.  They’re innovative and experimental and high-concept, and most importantly, they’re also entertaining on their traditional merits (plot, dialogue, characterization — you know, the things that make us actually want to watch a show).

Nerd alert:  I love when authors manipulate perspective in literary fiction to allow us to delve more deeply into the minds of their characters.  Sometimes a writer is so deft that it takes careful deconstruction to realize their mastery of close narrative control (like Henry James or Elena Ferrante); other times, the writer will be more obvious about it, explicitly demonstrating postmodern awareness of this device to keep vital information from the reader, to cast doubt on the reliability of its narrator, or to exclude us from the inner mysteries of the plot until just the right moment.

Which is why I’m so intrigued by The Affair and Mr. Robot:  could their narrative innoventions (to borrow a word from Jack Donaghy) be signaling the start of a second wave of the Golden Age of television, a sophisticated visual rendering of a complicated literary technique?

[Spoilers, below, for all episodes of The Affair and Mr. Robot.]


justified: burned, trust, and fugitive number one

When I last had a chance to write longform about Justified, Ava Randolph Crowder was running to Limehouse, trying to give Errol the slip, and making out with Raylan Givens in her darkened kitchen. Things were getting intense.

I wrote, “Ava has always been caught in the crossfire of the Crowders and, later, one particular Crowder and one particular Givens.  And if she has to play them against each other to save herself, I get that.  She did pretty much the same thing in prison; but then again, Raylan swooped in and saved her from that, too.  That’s why I’d love to see Ava be her own savior, in the end, relying on her own intelligence—but maybe that intelligence will reveal itself in how she plays Raylan against Boyd, and vice versa.”

Well, I’d say shooting Boyd in cold blood right in front of Raylan pretty much got the job done.


justified: ava randolph, the marshal givens and the criminal crowder

It’s no coincidence that it’s taken us six seasons of Justified to learn Ava’s maiden name, that she’s always been Ava Crowder, one way or another. But when she said “Ava Randolph” to Choo-Choo the other week, I took it as her actual maiden name rather than a hastily-thought-up alias, and during the latest episode, “Sounding,” Constable Bob confirmed it.

“Ava–Ava Randolph?” he asks, when Raylan tells him Ava Crowder has gone missing. “From high school?”

“Yeah,” Raylan says.  “She used to be Ava Randolph.”

Ava Randolph is trying to run without a plan, not listening to her man Boyd’s sage advice to “follow your ABCs—always be cool.” So she throws her phone out the car window and runs to Ellstin Limehouse, my one true love, and then tries to run some kind of escape plan on Limehouse’s man Errol, involving a detour to the hardware store to grab shovels for digging up nonexistent cash, which Raylan interrupts by sending in Constable Bob to “handle” the situation.


And then we’ve got Raylan taking Ava back to their secret junkyard rendezvous spot and yelling at her, with those rage-filled eyes that previously appeared only when Arlo set him off.  He tells her that he’s trying to keep her alive, but she’s running around “trying to burn the both of us and this case.”  Ava sees it, there–“this case” against Boyd is Raylan’s main focus, and maybe she’s just ancillary to it. So she asks if he’s done yelling at her, or if she can go home to cook Boyd the dinner she promised him.

Honestly, I’d kind of like to yell at you some more, Raylan tells her, because Raylan’s favorite thing in life is to yell at criminals.  They end the scene on that line, Olyphant starting off furious but ending somewhere gentler; it’s almost cute how outraged he is, and how over it Ava is.  Next thing you know, he’s back at Ava’s house, ready for round two.  Which is just what Ava wanted, looking back at it.


Boyd Crowder: the Ryan Gosling of Harlan County? (and other Justified season 6 thoughts)

You know what I liked (among many other things) about the season 6 premiere of Justified

When Boyd was trying to get Ava to talk to him outside her house, and said:  Being in prison ain’t easy on anybody.  I mean, I’ve been there, more’n once. If you want to talk about it—I mean, hell, girl, if you want to talk about anything, really…

How much of Boyd Crowder is a performance? His language certainly changes frequently, to great effect—over the years, he’s used it for everything from delivering sermons to chasing away conquistadors to trading barbs with his ol’ buddy Raylan Givens.  Each one of his roles is different from the next—miner, preacher, drug kingpin—and his language changes accordingly, every time.

But in this moment, standing outside Ava’s house, calling up to her on the porch, Boyd Crowder sounds: normal.  He sounds truly solicitous, concerned, sure, which is interesting enough, coming from Boyd, but more important than that is the diction, the word choice, his entire tone.

The next day, Boyd gives Ava that speech about how if they stay in Harlan, “together or otherwise,” they’ll turn into ghosts.  It’s a great speech with a great turn of phrase, the kind of thing we expect to hear come out of Boyd Crowder’s mouth.  But when Boyd’s in his undershirt, sanding down a door on Ava’s front lawn, trying to get her to open up to him, then his language becomes something else.  Simple, direct, a little bit of country phrasing to it.  He doesn’t invite her to “unburden herself of her sorrowful times in the penitentiary” (I made that one up!).  He says, Girl, if you wanna talk about anything, really. A cute little hopeful upturn in his voice. Asking her for a cold beer; asking her for two. Trying to make her smile.

I’d be inclined to say that the whole thing is just Boyd playing the Ryan Gosling of Harlan County — Hey girl, he says, engaging in shirtless carpentry right out on her front lawn, trying to win her back.  I loved it; I’m certainly not complaining about it.

But then you remember some other times when Boyd’s language was simple, succinct…