When Fargo Season 2 Went Off the Rails

The Season Two finale of Fargo is next Monday on FX. For six episodes, Season Two was better than the first. The story was a creative yarn set in 1979, with another all-star cast and the same quirks, dark humor, and style as Season One. Peggy, the butcher’s wife, runs over the troubled son of the Gerhardt clan, who are in the midst of a turf war with Kansas City mobsters, and machinations begin. Five beautifully crafted episodes culminated in three showdowns: one at Peggy and Ed’s house with Dodd Gerhardt, another at the police station with Bear and his thugs, and a third at the Gerhardt’s homestead.

It’s just a flyin’ saucer, Ed. We gotta go. – Peggy

When Episode Six ends, the police station showdown is resolved and Mike Milligan is storming the Gerhardt compound, where Floyd and Simone are completely unprotected. That’s all fine, but Sheriff Larsson returns from consciousness at Ed and Peggy’s and instead of going back into the house or to the police station, he’s next seen intercepting Lou and Ed on a country road. (Hanzee the Indian is pursuing them.) Ed immediately gets away, to which Hank says “Don’t worry we know where he’s going.” Ultimately, Ed will somehow get home with enough time to pack up Peggy and get out of town. This is the first head scratcher leading into the next week, where the plot completely derails.

Episode Seven has so many plot problems it feels like the old team of writers were fired and a new group took over. We find out that off-screen, Mike Milligan was somehow runoff from the Gerhardt’s. Bear gets wind of Simone’s cavorting with Mike and, in the first sign of his dark side, takes her out into the woods and executes his own niece. In a waste of screen time, Lou visits Mike and tells him to leave town which of course he doesn’t. Floyd turns into an police informant, although we don’t know what evidence she hands over and looking forward, absolutely nothing comes of it. Mike Milligan, the trusted Kansas City man who has been quite competent thus far is not only racially belittled by his handlers in KC but they send a hitman to try to kill him.

The most troubling thing about Episode Seven’s non-sensical turns is they also push the show down a darker, more travelled path. When Bear kills Simone, it is an unnecessary, cold-blooded murder, beginning a trend that will only worsen in the next two episodes. In Episode Eight, Hanzee suddenly turns into a serial killer, executing citizens and police left and right including Dodd, his longtime employer and childhood friend. Hanzee continues his killing spree in Episode Nine, where it turns into full-blown treachery. The Gerhardt clan and a team of cops predictably gun each other down at a motel in Sioux City. Instead of dark comedy or violence in service of the story, it simply becomes killing for killing’s sake. It is every hack action movie ripping off Tarantino. Not only is it not true to the characters, it’s not true to Fargo.

Throughout all of this, Episodes Seven through Nine are still completely watchable because it is still Fargo. The acting is top notch. They style is there. There are plenty of great moments, which is why the missteps are so disappointing. Although we know everyone’s gonna die, we want to see exactly how it goes down. With many of the characters either deceased or sidelined, the finale will come down to Hanzee chasing Ed and Peggy and Lou chasing Hanzee. As original as Season Two began, is there much doubt now that Ed and Lou will live, Hanzee will die, and Peggy will save the day?

In case you’re interested: How I Would’ve fixed Season Two of Fargo

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The Alone Finale

The finale for the History channel’s popular new reality show Alone will air this Thursday, August 20th at 9pm CST. Here’s a recap of the season (major spoilers) and my thoughts on what might happen on the last episode.

Week One
On the very first night, Josh tapped out after being accosted by a family of bears. It was bad luck that he was dropped off near an active bear den, but it also sounded like Josh was done the second he hit the ground. For some guys, the reality of what they agreed to do must have been tremendous.

On the second night, Chris heard a bunch of wolves howling, got scared and quit. Apparently he had a childhood fear of dogs. Chris looked to be out of shape and was uncomfortable in the woods without a firearm. In my opinion, he was not a worthy competitor. Next up was Joe, who lost his firestarter and, realizing he wouldn’t last, decided to go home sooner rather than later. I felt bad for Joe because he was doing well and was very comfortable in the wild. He could have gone far.

The bears ran off Wayne next. Brandt drank salt water and became ill. After a major storm, Dustin decided to call it quits too. None of these three were equipped for the long haul. After one week, only 4 men remained.

The Fantastic Four
The four guys who survived week one were all badasses. Each had the skills and attitude to win it all. Lucas is an amazing guy whose strategy was to keep busy. He built a canoe, a yurt and a ukulele, but seemed to be dealing with personal demons too. His mom told him, “Lucas, please don’t go crazy.” After six weeks Lucas picked up the sat phone and tapped out.

A few days later, Mitch did the same but for a completely different reason. His mom was diagnosed with brain cancer before he left and the more he sat in the woods, the bigger his concern became over missing his mom’s final days. I think Mitch made the right decision to go home in time to see his mother for Christmas.

The way I see it, every man had an internal clock and when the alarm went off, he was ready to go home. It was incredibly challenging to survive on Vancouver Island, but each man had the skills to do so. With the exception of maybe Brandt and Joe, each man left when he simply couldn’t take the isolation and elements any longer.

The Last Episode
It’s interesting that the two goofiest guys are the last ones to leave. They’ve both struggled, but have managed to lighten things up at times and deal with the solitude. I think Alan will win. He’s been eating better than Sam and has set up a more sustainable existence. Sam’s wife has a baby on the way and he’s not been eating well. How long can Sam last?

We don’t know exactly how the show will end. Let’s say Sam taps out. Will Alan be left to stick it out in the Canadian wilderness until he breaks? Will he get a phone call? Because this is television, I think the History channel has something dramatic planned. I envision a helicopter descending upon the winner without warning. We’ll see the raw reaction of the last man standing as he’s told he’s just won the first season of Alone. We’ll all watch as he leaves the wilderness that’s been his home, $500,000 richer and crying with joy.

Alone on the History Channel

I’m addicted to the new History Channel reality show, Alone. 10 men are dropped separately onto Vancouver Island, a remote area surrounded by sea water and home to 7,000 black bears, 200 coyotes and 1,000 cougars. Each man is by himself, with no knowledge of where the other men are located, limited gear, and no water. The last man to quit wins $500,000. One man only made it one night after he pitched his tent next door to a bear den. (Spoiler Alert!)

The show makes a big deal about the guys choosing only 10 items from a list of 40, not counting clothes. Here is a list of what each man “brought.” We do not know what the original 40 items were and the men were responsible for their own gear. If someone chose to bring a knife, they could bring any knife they wanted. Also, it turns out they were provided other items, like flares, bear spray, and a flashlight. Plus, each man was left with 45lbs of camera gear to document his struggle, and some men used tarps from the camera gear to build water catches, etc.

For the record, I’d have brought: 12×12 tarp, 20m paracord, sleeping bag, 2 quart pot, canteen, gill net, fishing gear, axe, fire starter, & a knife. Read more about my choices.

Each guy also has a satellite phone he can use to call for extraction. It is unclear if he can also call to request medical assistance and keep going, or how often the crew may return to swap out camera batteries, etc.

Still, it’s a good idea and after weeding out the weinies and a couple guys with bad luck, we got down to five worthy contestants. The first goal for each guy was to find a water source, and then to figure out how to make fire in a misty rain forest. After 4 episodes, several guys have proven to be very knowledgeable and resourceful. We’ve already seen one make-shift boat. Watching this show makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. Plus, you know some guys probably provided a bunch of good footage and others didn’t, requiring some creative editing. But as usual, why only a bunch of white dudes? Where are the ladies?

Alone is on the History Channel, Thursdays at 9pm CST. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Update: On Mitch Mitchell’s Facebook page, he answers many questions about the show in replies to comments. He also linked to a video about the extra camera gear each man is issued. (7/14/15)

The Wire to be released in remastered HD

HBO has remastered The Wire in full-frame 16:9 HD and it will be released December 26th on HBO GO. From the press release:

The entire series has been beautifully re-mastered in 16×9 Full-Frame HD from more than 8,000 reels of original 35mm camera negative, allowing for a tighter fit on widescreen TVs and computer/tablet screens. The original negatives were scanned, edited, dust-busted and color-corrected with great care and attention taken to stay true to the look and feel of the original Standard-Definition 4:3 version.

And fear not, HD snobs, David Simon was involved in the process. He writes long here about the care that was given to scenes that were originally composed for the 4×3 format. Trade-offs were made, sure, but the transfer was not done haphazard.

There were many scenes in which the shot composition is not impaired by the transfer to 16:9, and there are a notable number of scenes that acquire real benefit from playing wide. An example of a scene that benefits would be, say, from the final episode of season two, when an apostolic semicircle of longshoremen forms around the body of Frank Sobotka. Fine as far as it goes, but the dockworkers are all that much more vulnerable, and that much more isolated by the death of their leader when we have the ability to go wider in that rare crane shot.

But there are other scenes, composed for 4:3, that lose some of their purpose and power, to be sure. An early example that caught my eye is a scene from the pilot episode, carefully composed by Bob, in which Wee Bey delivers to D’Angelo a homily on established Barksdale crew tactics. “Don’t talk in the car,” D’Angelo reluctantly offers to Wee Bey, who stands below a neon sign that declares, “burgers” while D’Angelo, less certain in his standing and performance within the gang, stands beneath a neon label of “chicken.”

That shot composition was purposed, and clever, and it works better in the 4:3 version than when the screen is suddenly widened to pick up additional neon to the left of Bey. In such a case, the new aspect ratio’s ability to acquire more of the world actually detracts from the intention of the scene and the composition of the shot. For that reason, we elected in the new version to go tighter on the shot in order to maintain some of the previous composition, albeit while coming closer to our backlit characters than the scene requires. It is, indeed, an arguable trade-off, but one that reveals the cost of taking something made in one construct and recasting it for another format.

What is Whole Wheat?

I recently began reading Chef Dan Barber’s provocative book The Third Plate and it is already blowing my mind. The book postulates that the Farm-to-Table movement of seeking marquee locally-grown delicacies to feature on restaurant tables has not go far enough in changing the way we eat. By placing an economic burden on local farmers to produce one or two celebrated crops (or meats or cheeses or breads), chefs have not fully embraced a farmer’s role. Only by incorporating entire ecosystems into their cuisine can chefs make a meaningful change to eating habits and, hopefully, to modern agricultural practices. Eating local is eating the whole farm.

Barber also talks about how native grasses, so called weeds, tell a farmer the condition of his soil, how pests only attack sick plants and therefore pesticides are largely unnecessary, and how corn is one of the worst uses of farmable land. And this is just in the first 3 chapters!

Most interesting to me (so far) was his discussion of wheat, specifically whole wheat flour. A wheat kernel contains three parts: the vitamin-rich germ or seed, the starchy endosperm which provides food for the seed, and a husky, fibrous outer shell called the bran. Early stone milling crushed this entire kernel into what we now refer to as “whole” wheat flour. By the early 1800s, European wheat had been adapted to grow in New England and local varieties flourished in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.

There was one problem: because it contained oil from the kernel’s germ, whole wheat flour would go rancid quickly, usually within a week or two. Fluffy, white flour made from only the starchy endosperm did not have this problem and was often preferred for cooking due to lighter characteristics, but it was expensive to produce. That all changed with the invention of the roller mill. Suddenly, the carb-packed endosperm could be quickly separated from the germ. As Western expansion moved farms further away from the masses, the popularity of white flour exploded.

White flour has two major disadvantages: it does not contain the vitamins, fiber and healthy fats of whole wheat flour and it is mostly devoid of flavor. In fact, modern white flour is typically enriched, meaning some of the natural vitamins are artificially added back in. So you should run out and buy whole wheat flour and never look back, right? One complication is that modern whole wheat flour is still separated like normal white flour. The crushed germ and bran is added back afterward, but some of the healthy fats are lost. I’ll be checking out stone-ground whole wheat flour on my next trip to Whole Foods. I’m sure I’ll get sticker shock, but hopefully I’ll be able to taste the difference.

*All of this discussion does not consider the higher amount of gluten in whole wheat flour due to the increased amount of protein.

The Secret Life of Passwords

This incredible piece from the New York Times made the rounds this week. Ian Urbina dives deep into one of the most private, yet telling details of modern life: our passwords. In our attempt to make an increasing tangle of passwords memorable to us and only us, we construct them full of meaning.

These special passwords are a bit like origami: small and often impromptu acts of creativity, sometimes found in the most banal of places.
Keepsake passwords ritualize a daily encounter with personal memories that often have no place else to be recalled. We engage with them more frequently and more actively than we do, say, with the framed photo on our desk.

I thought about what my own passwords say about me. Some are jokes based on the very first password I was assigned by a Sysadmin back in college. That original password was itself a subtle joke. Another password, created with a fellow employee, commemorated the date a dispised boss of ours was fired. I also thought of what my passwords don’t say. Mine never contain truly personal information, like the names of loved ones. And most telling, my passwords are always pragmatic in structure. I never settle on a password without making sure it can be quickly typed, that it has a nice mixture of characters and symbols for the left and right-hand fingers. It must have a nice rhythm on the keyboard. I’ll be typing this password many times a day, the thinking goes. I can’t risk my fingers getting tied in a knot.

How do CEOs function on 4-5 hours of sleep?

This question on Quora elicited an enormous amount of feedback. Can a person function normally on 4-5 hours of sleep per night, and should they? Many contended that being able to sleep 4 hours per night is a genetic gift (hypo-sleepers) that can be aided by various techniques, such as finding the right time of the night to sleep, avoiding boring meetings and TV, or short-changing your carb load. Others argued that those that think they can function on little sleep are fooling themselves and jeopardizing long term health.

Some may think they’re special, and are performing optimally on a 4h sleep schedule. No, they’re not. You may think you are, and even feel good for “hacking” your body and extending the day by 15%. But the problem is: it’ll cost you a price, as it has been proven again and again… Like someone who’s had two drinks, and still thinks [they are] perfectly capable of driving.

I think we need our sleep. It’s admirable to think we can function normally on little rest. I experimented with this myself in my twenties until a much older friend advised that one of the things he’d learned in his long life was to get plenty of sleep, ideally 8 hours. He found that he was a better version of himself: less irritable, more careful and considerate, and capable of deeper thought. I took his advice and immediately found his findings to hold true with my own life. Since then, even in stressful times with busy schedules, I’ve given myself permission to get a full night’s sleep.