Thursday, October 22, 2020

REVIEW: 'Grand Army' - Joey and Dom Find Some Release After an Explosive Season of Traumatic Experiences in 'Freedom'

Netflix's Grand Army - Episode 1.09 "Freedom"

Dom, Joey and Sid find some release. After helping to lead the Black Student Union sit-in, Jayson stuns the crowd at his Lincoln Center performance.

In 2019, the television industry aired 532 scripted shows across numerous outlets. The way people consume content now is different than it used to be. It happens according to one's own schedule. As such, it's less necessary to provide ample coverage of each episode in any given season from a show. Moreover, it is simply impossible to watch everything. As such, this site provides shorter episodic reviews in order to cover as many shows as possible. With all of that being said, here are my thoughts on the season finale of Netflix's Grand Army.

"Freedom" was written by Katie A. Cappiello and directed by Clement Virgo

The drama opened by focusing on five students at Grand Army High School in New York City. It carried through the season by remaining intensely focused on their perspectives and journeys. They are only really connected by the fact that they all attend the same high school. In the end, Joey doesn't even go there anymore. Of course, her life has been significantly changed as a result of her presence in that environment. But her story is one fundamentally about evolving. She changes drastically as a character across these nine episodes. Her story is the most consistent and nuanced. That's largely because it was adapted from Katie A. Cappiello's play that inspired the series. As such, it was willing to have these difficult and intimate conversations about sexual assault. Joey felt the importance of speaking up about this trauma. She lashed out when the system let her down. By the end of the season, she finds a way to let out some of her emotions over all of this. It's such a breakthrough moment when she returns to the dance class. She can truly express herself once more. Before the sexual assault, she was a person who demanded attention. That meant that people sexualized her because they believed she was always putting out that energy. And yet, her friends still took advantage of her. They took what they clearly wanted. They didn't care that she was in pain. They didn't care that they were hurting her. They only cared about their own selfish egos and pleasure. And in the end, George and Luke still refuse to see the situation as a crime. They are expecting her to apologize to them. It's only after she leaves that Tim feels the burden of speaking up and calling out the lies. That moment is still fundamentally about him though. He doesn't do it to offer Joey the sense that she is being heard and respected. She gets that at her new school even though it takes another story of sexual assault in order to find that compassion. She also gets it from Dom who recognizes that life has been putting them both through a lot. They don't need to understand everything about each other but they can recognize and respect the presence the other has in this world. Joey needs that. She receives it in a few, fleeting moments. But the story still ends with the assurance that she will be okay despite it being a long journey of coping with what happened. Her story is incredibly effective. It still has weird notes to it. Pacing was a serious issue throughout this season. It was necessary for the story to always remain focused on Joey. It wasn't important to spend time with George and Luke after they were arrested. And yet, Tim confessing the truth and later snorting cocaine are developments that come out of nowhere. After the start of the season, no time is really spent with him to understand why those actions would become necessary for him. That inconsistency is found elsewhere as well. Jay is constantly trying to fight for his community. He knows that people make profound statements with their art. Owen is punished more severely than him and that costs him a lot. Jay tackles that burden and is always bothered by it. But him holding his fist up high with tape over his mouth is a potent visual that feels a little tacked on. He makes the same mistakes over and over again. He wants to do better but never really feels comfortable with anything that he perceives as happening to him. He fights for change. That is just tangentially connected to the storytelling impulses elsewhere.

The same applies to Sid and Leila's stories. Sid rarely interacts with any of the other main characters. Even then, it's just because George and Luke also happen to be on the swim team. He affirms that they are pompous jerks who are absolutely capable of rape and fooling themselves into believing that it's perfectly fine. Sid goes on a journey of discovery about his sexuality. It's not a particularly new or fresh take on the subject. However, it still works. It's a celebration when he gets accepted into Harvard. It works when he and Victor kiss. The melodrama of him being outed was very intense though. In fact, that was the overall vibe of the series. It had to be so serious and dire all the time. Bomb threats plagued the school. Dom feels the financial burden of her family. Owen is expelled. Joey is raped and the district attorney is unable to make a solid case. It can be a lot to handle. And then, Leila comes along as a full blown sociopath whom the narrative still wants to empathize with. The animated sequences are just so random and don't really add any nuance to the thoughts going on in her head. She is simply a person who delights in the pain inflected on others. She is casual about it sometimes. She is oblivious to some of it as well. However, she is very self-centered and doesn't particularly care how others are feeling in any given moment. Her feelings are more valid and most be in the spotlight all the time. And she is even given a rousing victory in the end by pushing back against the girls who were mean to her by speaking Chinese all the time. She struggles with her identity and then basically just realizes that her power can be exhilarating. She sends in a bomb threat and it's essentially treated as nothing. What is up with that? It's simply so unusual. It's hard to understand what the show was trying to pull off here. It's strange. It doesn't completely derail the show. That's largely thanks to the powerful performances from Odessa A'zion and Odley Jean. Dom truly is such an empathetic figure. Sure, the series defines her mostly through the financial stress of caring for her family. She has to worry about that when it seems like her mother and sister are incapable of doing so. And yet, her world is much more than that as well. It's inspiring to see her talk about her community during her interview for the internship. Her bond with John is also allowed to blossom and develop. That's a sign that her friends and family recognize the sacrifices she makes. She is so deserving to have good things in her life. She deserves the internship over the summer and to have a nice romance with John. Not much pressure or drama is necessary in order for these things to work out. The audience will go along with all of it because it feels genuine. Sure, the impulses are still there to make every situation as dramatic as possible. It still remains grounded in a way that enriches the character experience. This season could be wildly off the map at times. And yet, Joey and Dom's stories offered something rewarding and visceral to see, while Sid's was the best of the more tangential concerns of the other members of the ensemble.