Weaponizing Narrative: How This Year’s Best Episodes of Television Signal a Troubling Trend

Abe Beame goes in on Hill House and Castle Rock and the perils of modern prestige television.
By    November 2, 2018

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For what seems like twenty years now, we’ve been celebrating a Golden Age of television. I propose it’s time to stop calling it that because it’s clearly more than an era. Much like space and pace in basketball forever changing the league and style of play, the level of intelligence, professionalism and quality of talent in the direction, writing and acting on TV, be it major network, cable or streaming, has evolved and there’s no end in site. But with the movement of television from our televisions to our computers the structure and manner in which TV is being produced has changed. It’s affecting the way stories are told. Consider the two best episodes of television this year. “The Bent Neck Lady” on Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House and “The Queen” on Hulu’s Castle Rock.

Both series utilize tried and true modern formats. Like Noah Hawley’s Fargo both shows explore a universe of IP whimsically, picking and choosing rough elements to tell an original story around with the same pleasing patina of familiarity. Both are specifically horror anthologies, and as such use the at times dark, nihilist twists that horror lends to its storytelling via classic anthologies like The Twilight Zone or its modern descendant, Black Mirror. This aspect, particularly the multitude of twists that horror lends itself to, make it perfectly addictive binge watching. In addition, these anthologies represent low stake commitments from networks, showrunners, and actors. The attention deficit allows most involved parties to move on after an episode. It’s easier to ease an audience out of a self contained one season story than something that ends open ended. It’s the entertainment equivalent of a casual hookup.

But both Hill House and Castle Rock have hit on a way to stretch the anthology, turning what could have been an overpacked and underdeveloped episode into an entire season, a format pioneered by Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. However, neither show is quite as indulgent in Murphy’s high camp. They are in their surface serious, polished shows telling dramatic and often tragic stories and intelligent in their structure. While the ambition of the shows are to tell a season long story, it’s often executed in nesting doll form, focusing on individual characters in many of the episodes to tell smaller stories that add up to a larger whole. It’s a structural innovation. But it comes with a price.

The lions of golden era prestige television told their grand, ambitious stories with big ideas at their core, the decline of the American City, the savagery at the heart of American civility, the American talent for reinvention and delusion. They were similarly brilliant in construction and execution but the overarching mission statement and purpose is why we were there for the clever storytelling. The shows were patient, novelistic character driven stories that strove to lend clarity and insight to who we are as people and who we are as a nation. In the era of streaming and anthology, the cleverness has begun to supersede the purpose.

These two series exhibit the shift in emphasis from WHY we tell the stories we tell to HOW we tell the stories we tell. Both series are brilliantly executed, by necessity tighter and more focused then the sprawling works of singular genius these other 5-10 season shows had the space to explore. But in the exchange we’ve largely lost the thread. Castle Rock and Haunting of Hill House are largely experiments in tone and style. They are effective and affecting but it’s hard to say what the point is beyond snackable consumption.

Both episodes are brilliant Twilight Zone riffs, well acted, written and directed with Oscar level competency. You click next episode with your heart wrenched and emotions drained. But once you snap your laptop shut a lingering emptiness nags. Wait, what did I learn? That the house was evil for the sake of evil? That weird things happen because a rift opened in the multiverse? You can reach for allegories and larger meanings, and you wouldn’t be wrong to do so, the stories and their characters often evoke or outright suggest larger themes, but there’s no time to do anything but that. No room for a larger exploration of a larger theme in story and detail.

There are perhaps some insights into the character that had been on the periphery of the story for most of the series before their feature episode, but what do we ultimately know about them? What was built or earned and where did we leave them? It’s a testament to the show runners that these questions don’t nag till after we’ve binged through the series end. They are expert executions of dramatic irony and Greek level tragedy. But they’re manipulative. All narrative is manipulative of course but the manipulation is becoming cheaper. The creatives who make these things have gained a kind of mastery in the dark art of narrative they wield with increasingly careless abandon.

Haunting of Hill House is loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s horror novel from 1959. The show deviates from the novel but maintains many of its elements and plants a nerd’s bounty of Easter Eggs. The show focuses primarily on the five Crain children who lived in the House in the early 90s. Each child gets a feature episode before Nellie. Nellie is the youngest child along with her twin brother. She’s the tragic dead girl that moves the plot of many a noir. Her death in episode 1 is the centrifugal force of the story but she’s largely absent until “The Bent Neck Lady”, the season’s midpoint. The disjointed structure of the first few episodes populated with unfamiliar characters keeps us confused and searching for sense to make out of the little we have to go on until, “The Bent Neck Lady” gives us the necessary, satisfying click into the story we’ve been waiting for.

And what a click.

Since moving to Hill House as a child, Nellie has been haunted by the Bent Neck Lady. We follow her throughout childhood and young adulthood as the spectre stalks her beyond Hill House and impacts her life, most notably her sleep. She goes to a specialist to help her with the paralysis dreams The Bent Neck Lady provoke, and falls in love with and marries the tech helping her develop coping mechanisms. The Bent Neck Lady eventually kills the man of her dreams, sending Nellie in a downward spiral that leads her back to Hill House. She is essentially tricked into hanging herself by the House and we learn in a Sterlingesque twist that Nellie is The Bent Neck Lady and has been helplessly haunting herself throughout her own life, terrified and powerless to stop her own death from shattering her entire life and driving her to her fate in a horrific cyclical loop.

Castle Rock creates a universe loosely based on the work of Stephen King. Its greatest episode, and the best episode of television this year is “The Queen”, episode 7, following Sissy Spacek as Ruth Deaver who up to this point in the show had similarly lived on the periphery of the story. The episode is particularly devastating because Spacek’s character suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the episode uses the disease to relay her confused and non-linear perception of time and memory, which mirrors Castle Rock’s own non-linear storytelling.

The episode opens with Ruth’s diagnosis, she is a brilliant woman who is beginning to suffer seriously from her disease. Afterwards, her boyfriend/husband Alan Pangborn, played by Scott Glenn, has to go out and run some errands, leaving her alone in the house to contend with her memories and her new distressed state. Spacek walks through the house planting beautiful, hand carved chess pieces, totems she can use to locate herself in time and space. As we walk the halls of her house we also visit her memories, specifically focusing on her relationship with her adopted son Henry, played by Andre Holland.

Ruth’s recollections highlight her relationship with her shitty, dangerous, possibly insane deceased husband and her inability to leave him out of fear. She blames herself for endangering Henry throughout his childhood and is wracked with guilt over her paralysis. We see several encounters where she was desperate to leave but comes up just short. The episode’s treatment of time is masterful. Rather than cast a young Spacek, she plays herself in current form throughout, interacting with memories that could be anywhere from several months to thirty years old. Spacek is incredible and they can just mail her the Emmy now.

The memories occasionally break the sealed wall of recorded history and speak to her current predicament, mocking her for her illness and past frailty. The whole thing is brutal and culminates with her house in disarray, a smoking pan on the stove, the kitchen wrecked, bathtub overflowing, a scene family members of those suffering from Alzheimer’s are all too familiar with. In a fit of fear and confusion, she accidentally shoots Pangborn, the Sheriff who spent years trying to save her from her abusive husband and waited for his death to finally court Ruth. While he spends much of the series as an ambiguous and possibly menacing figure, we finally see he was a supportive, devoted husband to Ruth and truly loved her, just in time for her to kill him. She loses the thing she had spent all these years waiting for by her own hand, a victim of her declining mental state.

Of course it isn’t that “simple”. The whole thing is shadow orchestrated by the malevolent figure who is the catalyst for the dark mystery of Castle Rock. There’s also a chance Ruth’s Alzheimer’s is actually confusion brought about by a temporal rift? It is too complicated and besides the point to explain in detail, but suffice to say it borrows heavily from King’s dabbling in multiverse in his more fantasy bent stories, without ever really giving us explanation of how any of this stuff works or what the point of it all is.   

We get the Cliff Notes version of our protagonists lives, the good, the bad, the salvation, the ruination, the entire complicated miasma of a life related in a series of quick shots anecdotes painting in broad strokes, Tyler Perry morality with dime store therapy providing easy answers. Like a creepy hour long opening of the classic Up montage effortlessly sketching a life with no time or space for real complication or ambiguity.  

In Hill House, the meet cute jumps to the proposal jumps to the husband solving her trauma jumps to the wedding jumps to the sudden tragic death all in the span of 15 odd minutes. We feel the rush of endorphins from Nellie’s good fortune and the crash of her having it ripped away senselessly. We agonize with her as she spirals out then are left shocked by the brilliant twist. The same goes for Spacek, her life is reduced to a single struggle which is finally and cruelly resolved in the span of an hour. It’s delicious but kind of empty calories.

There’s nothing wrong with this per se. I write a lot about how the emphasis in Hip Hop has shifted from content to style, and how this has in many ways made certain genres of Rap more compelling. In the same way smaller, more tightly wound television has the potential to provoke increasingly bizarre stories told succinctly, concentrating on structure rather than substance, relying on beats that can at this point be suggested because we know them so well before making surprising decisions with resolution, subverting expectations.

The danger is the confusion of a well executed sleight of hand for a masterfully told story, one that gives itself time and room to relish in the details, the weirdness, the complicating factors and quiet moments of life. We are defined by more than birthdays, weddings, funerals, life changing traumas, the major events in our life that can be used as shorthand to tell the stories of who we are. If prestige television is hijacked by This-Is-Usification, the smaller scale and safer bets this anthology brand of streaming serials represent could supplant the expansive longform advantage that television had when it gained highbrow clout equaling cinema in the late 90s. Consider, when Game of Thrones wraps up next year, how many ambitious, concentrated truly great multi-season series are left? (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I see you)

Just as we bemoan the death of smaller, original films created for adults (i.e. Michael Clayton), I can envision a scenario where one day we mourn the loss of longhand serialized television. As opposed to something that has to be truncated so the showrunners can jump to their next project or the big name lead dabbling in a streaming service can move to their next franchise. I’ll leave open the possibility this is merely reveling in some good old fashioned Get-Off-My-Lawnism, but in the afterglow of both brilliant and moving episodes of television discussed above, I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that I’d been had.  

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