Monday, July 31, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Last Tycoon' - Monroe Courts Oscar Voters and Learns a Shocking Truth in 'An Enemy Among Us'

Amazon's The Last Tycoon - Episode 1.08 "An Enemy Among Us"

Monroe concocts a campaign to secure the studio's first ever Oscar nominations. Pat scours for a solution to balance the books and get the Board of Directors off his back. Celia's mettle as a producer is tested by Lang's outrageous demands. Kathleen plots an escape from her dangerous charade. Rose makes a shocking discovery.

For this entire season, I've been wondering why Koen De Bouw was a series regular on this show. He hasn't been a memorable or necessary component of the series. There have been no stories actually told about his character. He's not important in the overall story. And yet, I had to mention whatever he was up to in his brief cameo appearances throughout the season in the bullet points below each episode review because of his regular status. Every time I had to look at the press notes to remember what the character's name was as well. It was all highly suspect. It's not surprising that he is given such immediate and important significance near the end of the season. But it also feels fake as well. Going into this episode, it's doubtful that anyone could have definitively said what Tom's job actually was at the studio. He was a friend of Pat's who also did some investigative work. And yet, he never seemed to bring back information that the executives could use to their advantage. He never made meaningful relationships with them. So now, it's suddenly revealed that it's his job to protect the best interests of the company by spying on the people under contract. It's through those efforts that he unravels Kathleen's secret agenda and tells Monroe about it. It's a very dramatic way for the inevitable reveal to play out. It just doesn't feel earned because it's such an inconsequential character at the center of it. It doesn't work because there's no reason to be invested. It feels like it all happens because the plot needed it to happen at this stage of the season. Yes, the ending is still very dramatic. But the motivation into it is very problematic.

"An Enemy Among Us" largely encompasses one day that turns out to be the best and worst day for both Monroe and Pat. They celebrate getting the studios' first Oscar nominations for Angels on the Avenue. It was a lot of hard work that paid off. While they are in the midst of celebrating, Pat gets the news that he's going to have fire 300 employees and sell off the back lot while Monroe sees who Kathleen truly is. It's a familiar structure for an episode. It's the crushing reality of the happiest news being followed immediately by the most tragic. It's very dramatic. It's just more formulaic in a way that the show was more like earlier in the season. It has grown so much as the season has gone along. The characters have felt more unique and genuine while the stories have their own stakes to them. It felt like its own show and not just a collection of well-utilized tropes. And now, those concerns creep up again because the narrative demands are more important than the character beats. Yes, it's still worth celebrating because it's the grand payoff to an ongoing story. But it creates a few problems for the future as well. Problems that seem too familiar and thus a little less intriguing to watch play out in the finale and possibly another season.

So, Kathleen signs her seven-film deal with Brady-American. She is officially an actress under contract with a studio. She has finally made it in this industry. She has what she has always wanted. It just took a ton of deception and conflicted feelings in order to do so. She wants out of this con. She has revealed her darker side to Monroe but she hasn't told him the truth yet. She wants to but she can't. She figures she can just pay off her former agent with the money advance she gets from signing the contract. But that doesn't work. Instead, it leads to an all-out fight where it seems likely that one of them is about to die. That death is so painfully telegraphed throughout that scene. Of course, it also features Monroe heroically coming to her rescue because he can't believe this story from Tom could possibly be true. Instead, he walks in on a nightmare that is going to change the rest of his life. Kathleen is forced to tell him the truth. And then, he is forced to kill the agent for her. It's a pretty reactionary moment. He pushes the agent over the railing because the agent attacked him because of a long history that the two of them share. There is still feelings of resentment back when Minna was represented by this guy. But it's largely just important that this guy is dead. Monroe and Kathleen both played a role in his death and neither of them are skilled in covering up this kind of crime. They excel at telling stories and making people believe in them with so much conviction and passion. But this is a dark twist that will forever change their dynamic.

It's ultimately up to Tom to come in and clean up the mess. He appears to have the skills to actually handle the cover up and protect the business from a major scandal. This isn't something that any of them will want in the news. It will be bad publicity that would doom the studio. The ending is largely concerned about that. It doesn't really focus on what the state of Monroe and Kathleen's relationship will be. He obviously feels betrayed. Before he even calls Tom to take care of the body, he needs to know where Kathleen is actually from. The fact that she's from Wisconsin feels like a betrayal to him. He invested so much into this woman and now it's revealed to all be a lie. Of course, the audience knows the situation is much more complicated than that. Kathleen does love Monroe. She's hated lying to him about her true identity. But she could never find a way to tell him the truth. She didn't get the chance to be honest until the situation required her to in order to save her life. And now, all of this could be used as leverage against the two of them. Tom comes in to clean up the mess. He has a strong handling of the situation. He knows that they need to leave separately and agree that they were never there. But as soon as they're gone, he starts taking pictures of the crime. The purpose of those pictures will probably be revealed in the finale. It seems likely that he'll report back to Pat because he has always seemed much more close to that executive than Monroe. Either way it leads to a precarious future for Monroe and Kathleen.

Of course, all of that relationship drama has felt earned and nuanced. Yes, there's been some weird plotting along the way. But it mostly works. With Pat and Rose though, it never seemed like the creative team had a consensus on whether or not they want to be a couple. It's gone back-and-forth across the season. One moment, they are a couple who've been together for years and understand each other completely well and will support each other unconditionally. Other times they are a cliche marriage of the period where Pat is incredibly sexist and tries to fit Rose into a box because he doesn't see her for who she truly is. It's been weirdly inconsistent. It all hinges around the fact that Rose wants to bring Kitty home for her recovery. She is absolutely devastated when Kitty leaves the hospital only leaving behind some of her artwork for Rose. She invested in that relationship. It was always a weird, tangential story in the narrative. It worked because of Rosemarie DeWitt's performance. She's empty and adrift once more which doesn't put her in the mood to validate her husband's feelings when he comes home with good and bad news. He feels betrayed because his wife seems unappreciative of the life that they have. It doesn't seem to be good enough for her - even though he wants more as well. She calls him out on that. It's a strong moment. But one that leaves things in an odd place heading into the finale. I'm hoping that the final episode brings some more clarity and understanding to the various stories so that things can be more concise in future seasons - should Amazon order more.

Some more thoughts:
  • "An Enemy Among Us" was written by Peter Parnell and directed by Scott Hornbacher.
  • Max also finds himself pulled into Tom's line of work because he gets caught sneaking a guest onto the lot who then steals one of the trucks. It's a completely random story where the sole purpose is to get Max into that car so that he can see what's happening at the house with Kathleen and Monroe. He has that knowledge. Will he be able to stay quiet though?
  • At times, Fritz Lang comes across as this broad and over-the-top director making these big demands and requiring perfection from everyone. That can be effective in the terror it produces. But in this episode, it's more important that Celia figures out how to handle that personality and refocus his energy on addressing his fears for the production.
  • Lang also shows up to put some jealousy between Hackett and Hannah. It's a pretty conventional story. A guy gets jealous because his girlfriend has a flirtatious dynamic with someone who may understand her better. Hannah and Lang come from the same part of the world. But it's not an issue for very long. They fix things before the episode is over.
  • There's a very brief moment between Monroe and his secretary, Mary, that is incredibly moving and meaningful. Mary hasn't been a major character so far. And yet, her telling Monroe to celebrate all that he has accomplished already is a great moment because it's so unexpected. He wants to keep moving but it's important that he stops and feels happy about what he did.
  • Melinda McGraw gets to play famed columnist Hedda Hopper whom Pat and Monroe approach to write a gushing story about their film. Of course, it suffers unfortunately due to the comparison to Judy Davis' portrayal of the character in FX's Feud: Bette and Joan - which was so great. 

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.