The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 10–The Greater Fool

“The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego, to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools.”

NewsroomMackenzieWill

Now that’s how to do a season finale. In a day when I’ve seen two such beasts, it was reassuring to know that, despite my equivocal feelings on the True Blood one, The Newsroom came up trumps with a stirring finale that seemed to encapsulate all the strengths (and, yes, weaknesses) of the show so far. Plots were resolved, character arcs completed, and a sense of closure achieved, even while leaving avenues open for the story to continue.

Of course, this is probably because The Newsroom finale, unlike True Blood, was written before it was known whether the show would be renewed. That closure was needed in case this was the last we ever saw of Will, Mack and the gang. Aaron Sorkin has presumable learned from bitter experience that a TV showrunner doesn’t always manage to finish those ambitious multi-season arcs, and the result is an ending that the viewer can feel satisfied with that doesn’t preclude further stories.

How much you enjoyed this depended (like the series as a whole, in fact) on your tolerance of two things. Firstly, Aaron Sorkin using the drama as a platform for grandstanding his own political views. That one I have no problem with. Secondly, the fact that the storytelling, characters and direction are unashamedly old-fashioned. Will and Mack are basically Tracy and Hepburn. Charlie Skinner is every wise old mentor in every news drama. Leona is every grasping corporate executive with a hidden heart of gold. And every problem can be solved at the last minute by the basic common decency of the people involved, who all pull together and make it right.

That kind of storytelling can often rankle with me, particularly because of its heartstring-tugging sentiment. In my early reviews of The Newsroom, it was a style I did find somewhat objectionable, but it’s a measure of how much I’ve come to like the show that while I still see those flaws, they matter less to me now.

Which was fortunate, because that need for character closure meant that this finale was lighter on the actual news stories than most episodes. After all, we had to deal with all the soap opera. Can Will and Mack overcome their past and get together, as they’re plainly meant to be? Can Maggie and Jim? And in a shock reveal this week, can (gasp) Don and Sloan?

The ‘rom com’ aspects of the characters have always been the biggest stumbling block for me – it’s a recurring Sorkin trope that various major characters must behave as though they’re constantly in a Richard Curtis movie. But by this point, I’ve come to care about the characters enough to genuinely want to see how it all plays out.

Not that it doesn’t still make me gnash my teeth with frustration every time that Jim and Maggie just miss out on getting together. This week, they came closer than ever before, due to a Freudian slip in a restaurant and a surprisingly vitriolic diatribe against Sex and the City.

So Maggie ‘accidentally’ let slip to Lisa how hard it was to see her with Jim, meaning she’s not only admitted her feelings to Lisa, but more importantly, to herself. Which was where Sex and the City came in. Having been soaked by a passing tour bus for that show’s NYC locations, Maggie totally went off on one about what it’s really like to be a single girl in New York: “Not all of our jobs revolve around shoes and gallery openings!” I’m guessing Aaron Sorkin’s not a big fan of Sarah Jessica Parker and the girls…

Unfortunately, Maggie’s rant included her feelings about her best friend’s boyfriend, who she now knows came to see her that fateful night in the last episode. I say ‘unfortunately’ because in a genuinely funny (if hugely contrived) moment of high romantic comedy, said boyfriend was actually atop that same tour bus, trying desperately to cram up on Lisa’s favourite TV show.

Yes, it was very much the stuff of traditional rom coms as Maggie realised and tried frantically to backpedal on her declaration. But I still laughed! And to cut a long story short, they kissed, dear reader. I mean, thank God! At last! They’ve finally worked out who they want to be with!

But oh no, Jim knows that the commitment Maggie finds lacking in Don is just round the corner, as he’s going to ask her (for all the wrong reasons) to move in with him. And so, her mind is changed back. Again. Just as Sloan has, quite unexpectedly, revealed not only an insight into Don’s personality (he thinks he’s a bad guy and tries to hard to be ‘good’) but also that she wants to go out with him herself! Just when you thought it was all resolved, the Don/Maggie/Jim/Lisa quadrangle is now a pentangle.

Ah well, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this is obviously going to run and run – at least as long as the show does. Arguably more important is the relationship between Will and Mack, as the de facto leads of the ensemble, and slightly more progress was made there. In a script full of shout outs to the opening episode (I love a good circular narrative), Will revealed that the whole Don Quixote-like quest for his own integrity started with that ‘hallucination’ of Mack at the University seminar. And wouldn’t you just know it, Mack happened to be carrying the exact same pad she was that day, with her prompts to him still written on it.

So Will now knows that Mack was really there, and cares for him as much as she believes in him. Not sure that justifies such overwhelmingly sickly dialogue as “I bet your heart’s melting just now, isn’t it?”, but it turned out to be germane to the wider plot as Will made Mack aware of the message that he’d left her while stoned on the night of Bin Laden’s death. A message, it turned out, that Mack hadn’t received but bitchy gossip columnist Nina had. There could be only one explanation – Mack’s phone had been hacked and the message deleted.

That was a typical last-minute save after Charlie’s NSA source had been shown as lacking credibility, then actually killed himself apparently in desperation at the uncaring attitude of his own children. That’s more of that old-fashioned storytelling, right there – spend most of the episode dashing Charlie’s (and our) hopes of getting the upper hand over Leona Lansing, then pull out the save at the last minute.

And ‘hand’ really is the correct term here – the final showdown with Leona and Reese turned out to be as good a poker bluff as I’ve ever seen. The envelope full of ‘evidence’ Charlie brought along turned out to be Hancock’s recipe for beef stew. But by the time Leona found that out, Reese had already admitted to having ordered the hacking (after some James Murdoch-like slippery equivocation about “maximising profit”).

Given that this makes Leona effectively the Rupert Murdoch figure here, the script wrongfooted me by actually giving her more of a conscience than the genuine article. She was appalled at Reese’s methods (I notice the list of hackees involved some very emotive ones like relatives of Somali kidnap victims). And she finally succumbed to Charlie’s appeal to her integrity by letting the News Night crew just get on with it, but only with the stern warning that Will shouldn’t miss the target. Good advice from Jane Fonda, whose unfeasibly fit body had been the subject of Will’s opening remarks at the meeting – a nice sly reference to all those ‘Jane Fonda Workout’ videos so prevalent in the 80s.

And that target, as it has been throughout, was the Tea Party. The actual tangible news story the criticism was hooked to was the increasing use of a photo ID requirement to disenfranchise poorer voters in Republican states – not coincidentally, those voters least likely to vote Republican. This despite the fact that a Bush-era survey taken over several years revealed a mere 86 instances of voter fraud in a country of 314 million people.

Like so many of the issues the show addresses, this is still absolutely relevant, especially with the 2012 Presidential elections mere weeks away. As Will pointed out, some 33 Republican controlled states have instituted similar measures which make their poorer citizens less likely to be allowed to vote. It is, and should be, an absolute scandal – voter manipulation to ensure a doctored result. Jon Stewart has been rightly focusing heavily on it on The Daily Show, pointing out the same absurdities that Will McAvoy has; the motives seem very clear when you realise how little voter fraud actually happens. It is, plain and simple, to stop those who would vote against Republicans from voting at all. As an amusing side issue, there’s now a theory that Mitt Romney himself may actually be one of that tiny minority of actual electoral fraudsters, and that’s why he refuses to release his tax records from the period concerned…

Still, it’s really just the tip of an iceberg that is the Tea Party’s seizure of the Republicans. This final episode served to let Sorkin really let rip as to his opinions of that – Mitch McConnell’s asinine outbursts came in for scathing criticism, as did the repeated Tea Party insistence that the USA was founded as a “Christian nation” – despite evidence to the contrary from the Founding Fathers, and not least from the US Constitution itself. Sorkin’s indignation was neatly summed up at the end by Will on air, speaking the show creator’s words:

”Ideological purity. Compromise as weakness. A fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism. Denying science. Unmoved by facts. Undeterred by new information. A hostile fear of progress. A demonization of education. A need to control women’s bodies. Severe xenophobia. Tribal mentality. Intolerance of dissent, and a pathological hatred of the US government. They can call themselves the Tea Party. They can call themselves conservatives. And they can even call themselves Republicans – though Republicans certainly shouldn’t. But we should call them what they are – the American Taliban. And the American Taliban cannot survive if Dorothy Cooper is allowed to vote.”

Yes, the shots of everyone watching (including Leona) looking tearfully moved were cheesy in an Airplane-style that’s easy to mock. But it was stirring. And in a week which has seen the Republicans settle on the most reactionary political platform in their history, it’s absolutely relevant and frighteningly true. This, for me, is what makes The Newsroom compelling drama, week after week – an address to real world issues that, in actual US news media, are worryingly neglected.

There’s an element of confirmation bias, of course – I already feel the way Sorkin does about these issues, and I doubt anyone who holds the views he despises will be much inclined to change them on the say so of a fictional character like Will McAvoy. But by using drama to give us facts that are all too often overlooked by an increasingly partisan press (the liberal side becoming every bit as bad as the conservative one, it seems), Sorkin sweetens a bitter pill that we all need to swallow. The medicine’s easier to take if administered by the charming likes of Will, Mack and Charlie, and I’ve enjoyed it so much I’m looking forward to more next year.

True Blood: Season 5, Episode 12–Save Yourself

“One of the worst things about being immortal is watching this same scenario happen over and over.”

TrueBloodSalome

Well, that was… interesting. As season finales go, the end of this year’s True Blood felt like a mix of good, bad and indifferent, in an episode that had a lot of entertainment but seemed rather lacking in a balanced dramatic structure. Sure, there was plenty of excitement, but it was unevenly punctuated by lengthy humorous scenes that, while good in themselves, felt like they’d strayed in from another episode where the resolution of the plot wasn’t so urgent.

Not that the (main) plot was resolved, which is something new for this show. True Blood has always ended its seasons on cliffhangers, but they usually presage an entirely new plot for the next year, after the current year’s main plot has been nicely tied up. This time, we got an excellent cliffhanger with Bill’s apparent transformation into a malevolent vampire god – but as a result, the whole running plot about the Authority’s takeover by the Sanguinista cult was never properly concluded.

And the episode seemed to somewhat abandon the seemingly impending civil war between vampires and humans that would logically have been provoked by Eric’s murder of General Cavanaugh last week. True, there was some lip service paid to this, with Sookie’s remark about the current climate of fear towards vampires, along with the Generals’ threatened release of footage of Russell and Steve killing 22 frat boys. But that was about it, and all hell singularly failed to break loose in the way I’d been rather expecting/hoping for.

It was far from the only plot thread that seemed to have been forgotten about almost entirely, though at least it had the excuse that it will presumably be resolved next season. Other things were rather harder to forgive even with this as a potential excuse. Sookie and Jason have spent half the season agonising over the deaths of their parents at the hands of the mysterious ‘Warlow’, and it would have seemed logical to have at least some payoff about this in the season finale. But no, their investigation was abandoned so entirely that it wasn’t even mentioned, despite Jason’s newfound visions of his dead parents egging him on to hate vampires. I know there was more urgent stuff going on, but surely either Jason or Sookie would have at least mentioned their ongoing quest, if only to say, “well, there’s more urgent stuff going on right now”.

It also smacked of a lack of dramatic balance that, after last week’s cliffhanger,  Russell was dealt with so quickly, easily and terminally. As I said last week, great though he is as a character, Russell really did need to be decisively killed off to stop the show repeating itself (more than it already has, anyway). But I wasn’t expecting it to happen in the first few minutes of the episode, and by such a peremptory method as a quick staking from Eric. A villain as charismatic as Russell really deserved a better sendoff. As a result, we were also deprived of what had looked like an epic battle between the deranged vampire and the fairies, which felt like a shame.

Still, if Russell’s death felt like a rushed anticlimax, at least our heroes’ raid on Authority HQ dealt out some cool, blood-drenched action. Sookie and Jason joined forces with Eric, Nora and Tara to stage a proper commando raid, armed to the fangs with stakes, wooden bullets and crossbows. That a small group of rebels should get in so easily and slaughter what seemed like the entire vamp population made the lauded Authority security seem surprisingly ineffective after its appearance of hyper efficiency earlier on in the season.

To be fair, Bill had been lambasting them for this earlier in the episode, after it became clear that they’d failed to notice the infiltration of two shapeshifters into their larder. Nonetheless, the ease with which our gang turned pretty much the entire security force into puddles of red goo did tend to make you think that they must have been pretty crap vamps. And it rather undercut the fear/respect Bill and Eric had been according them early on in the season, that not only could Eric polish half of them off in an eyeblink, but they can’t even defend themselves against the awesome might of Jason Stackhouse.

Still, it was fun watching pretty much the entire Authority being reduced to puddles of goo in various inventive ways. Aside from our heroes’ commando raid, probably the most fun was the unfortunate demise of Chancellor Rosalyn, literally exploding from within as Sam transformed from a fly back to himself inside her. Gave a whole new meaning to the old song about an old lady who swallowed a fly…

That scene, with Luna exercising her newfound powers to transform into a replica of Steve Newlin, was kind of fun, but I’d already worked out that it was one of the shapeshifters impersonating Steve. Mind you, I’d guessed it was Sam rather than Luna, who must have also turned into a fly or similar to escape from the vamp larder, then dress in the good reverend’s clothes and reclaim her daughter. But it does beg the question of what happened to the real Newlin, last seen fleeing from the field where his lover had just been staked by Eric.

Bill’ s continuing machinations against Salome were also fun, but I had to wonder which part of Authority HQ that was occurring in, since they seemed fairly ignorant of the carnage being wrought outside. Still, I enjoyed the script again playing with our expectations of Bill, as he simperingly lied that Salome was his chosen leader. For a moment there, you thought he’d gone back to his old self and recognised some falsity in the ‘chosen one’ visions everyone had been having. But no, it turned out to be a scheme to get rid of his only remaining rival, by spiking what seemed to be Lilith’s blood with silver. So now Salome too is a puddle of goo,and Bill is free to be the ultimate leader. But leader of what, I wonder? By then end of this episode, he’s literally the only member of the Authority left.

Occasionally cutting into all this action was the oddly comic subplot of Andy Bellefleur’s fairy-related sexual misadventures. This culminated with his sometime fey lover Morella giving birth to baby after baby on the pool table of Merlotte’s, grudgingly assisted by his disapproving girlfriend Holly. It’s good that Holly and Andy have been given a bit more development this season, but was this really the time to have a comic interlude of fairy birth? It was fun, and made me smile more than once, but I was impatient to get back to Authority HQ and catch up on events there.

Which made it similarly frustrating that the script also chose this moment to return to the subplot dealing with the werewolf pack politics, which I’d thought pretty much dealt with. After all, with the death of Russell, surely it would be harder to get a hold of vampire blood to imbibe anyway?

But no, rascally old JD had been trapping vamps elsewhere, and force feeding V to his sometimes unwilling pack (not to mention forcing himself on some of the younger, more attractive females). Clearly Alice and his reluctant dad were going to have to put a stop to this, but with JD all V’d up, it seemed Alcide would have to fight fire with fire.

Again, this was well done, and good drama in its own right. But it felt inconsequential compared to the larger events going on elsewhere, and this felt like the wrong place for it to be. Still, Robert Patrick’s grizzled portrayal of Alcide’s cynical, broken father went some way to making up for its odd dramatic placement. Hopefully he’ll be back next year.

Along with, again hopefully, the answers to the questions I’d expected to find here. Were the visions of Lilith real? Last week I theorised they might have been Godric in disguise; I may have been wrong, but I still wouldn’t rule it out. How will the human/vampire tensions be reduced short of all out war? Who is/was Warlow? Why were the Authority troops suddenly so utterly incompetent they could have been recruited by Darth Vader?

Lots of questions, no answers. Don’t get me wrong, this was still entertaining. But as season finale its structure seemed all over the place, and the lack of resolution on so many important plot points was frustrating, even with the need for a cliffhanger to lead us into next year. I know a lot of fans have found this year’s season meandering and unfocused to the point of being hugely disappointing; personally, I’ve still enjoyed it even while recognising those flaws.

In one sense, it’s a shame that showrunner/creator Alan Ball is dropping out on a fairly unexceptional ending; but in another, we can hope that the new showrunner will inject some fresh blood into the show. This year, while still enjoyable, has had a real feeling of deja vu about it, with yet another attempt by vampires to take over the world, and the reappearance of fan favourite Russell Edgington. Perhaps next year, more intimate and innovative character-based arcs will help – it gets harder and harder for a show to keep topping its previous portrayals of near Armageddon. True Blood’s strength is its characters; I think that’s what it should be building on more than vague threats of a massive war.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 9–The Blackout part 2: Mock Debate

“The story is this: Will is a heavyweight, and for a long time he pretended to be a lightweight.”

NewsroomDebate

I still think it’s an odd/brave decision to have The Newsroom’s first two-part story at this point – in the first season before the show has properly proved itself, but late in that season so that there’s actually only one more episode after it. But actually the rationale holds up a little more strongly than I thought now I’ve seen ‘Part 2’ – because apart from the somewhat contrived cliffhanger last week, it doesn’t really feel like a two-part story at all, merely another episode in what’s basically an ongoing drama serial. In fact, given that it’s hard to point to any episode that feels totally self-contained so far, the whole idea of a two-part ‘story’ seems rather redundant.

Having said all that, how does this stack up as a ‘conclusion’ to The Blackout? From a straightforward perspective of dramatic structure, not all that well. We open with the studio in darkness, the evening’s broadcast jeopardised at the worst possible time, with ratings dropping and the network execs circling like sharks scenting blood. But Mack insists that, with a little ingenuity, they can carry on. Generators can be procured. Permissions can be obtained from the NYPD. And the show can be broadcast, from a single camera, right on the streets of New York City. Yes, Goddammit, let’s do the show right here!

It was an inspirational speech – but a contrived seeming one, like Bill Pullman’s toe-curling effort in Independence Day. Thankfully, just as it really was starting to look like an old Judy Garland musical where they stage the show in the barn, the lights came back on, to Mack’s disappointment. It was a belly laugh moment, and worked well at that; but having the ‘crisis’ of last week’s cliffhanger resolved (with no intervention from the heroes) in the first five minutes of the episode seemed to not only undermine the cliffhanger, but make the ‘two-part’ format seem a bit of a contrived cheat.

Further, it seemed to make the title a bit of a nonsense too – why call it The Blackout when said blackout, presumably intended as the dramatic pivot of the episodes, came and went in a couple of minutes? Still, Aaron Sorkin’s a clever man, so I immediately started looking for a more metaphorical meaning. Was it the ‘blacking out’ of honest news? The ‘blacking out’ of Mack and Will’s integrity, in their compromise over Casey Anthony to keep their proposed GOP debate? Had I missed something?

Still, if the ‘blackout’ of the title was a metaphor that passed me by (assuming it was more than a reference to a momentary plot blip), at least the second part of the title made sense on two levels. Yes, it was about a ‘mock debate’ staged by the newsroom staff to gain RNC approval for ANC to host it; but it was also about ‘mocking the debate’, as it became clear that the RNC shills sent to evaluate ANC’s proposal were never going to approve this in a million years, and the US voter would be left with such penetrating questions as CNN’s, “Miss Bachmann, do you prefer Elvis or Johnny Cash?”

Yes, after last week’s plethora of news story targets, this week the show focused down on just a couple, most prominent of which was those interminable Republican Primary debates that seemed to take up most of last year. The older of the two RNC officials (Adam Arkin as Adam Roth) sent to evaluate ANC’s approach used to work with Will in the Bush (1) White House, and shared his distaste for the pablum that passes for political debate on TV these days. But principles can be a costly thing; he can’t afford to stand up for them when the GOP’s wages are paying for his son to attend Stanford.

Sadly, it was obvious to anyone with a knowledge of how this kind of drama works that Will and Mack’s proposed debate format was never going to get off the ground. The Newsroom can comment on recent history, but to show our fictional characters taking an active part in such real events would stray too far out of the real world Sorkin’s so intent on commenting on. Nonetheless, it made the frustration he felt about the debates perfectly clear. As Roth commented, Will’s approach would “clear out the clown car” of the more outlandish Republican hopefuls. No such luck; instead we got a seemingly endless series of debates which began increasingly to resemble the theatre of the absurd, at the end of which the Party settled on the candidate least likely to cause offence. That Mitt Romney was that man tells you quite something about the electability of his competitors.

A shame we never got to see more of the mock debate, but I concede that Sorkin had already spent a fair bit of time last week demolishing the bizarre rhetoric of some of the more eccentric contenders. Instead, there were a few more tidbits on the newsworthiness of the Casey Anthony and Anthony Weiner stories. In particular, the absurdity of singling out the Casey Anthony trial as ‘tragedy porn’ was highlighted when it (highly conveniently) turned out that Maggie’s roommate (and Jim’s ‘Schrodinger’s girlfriend’) Lisa actually went to school with Casey, and was therefore summoned to appear on air as a promotable interviewee and an exclusive.

Her appearance was secured following a somewhat protracted comic scene showing Jim and Maggie pestering her at her job (selling insanely expensive dresses for commission only). Yes, it was quite amusing, but felt a bit dragged out – even though the script managed to work in an almost-quote from British comedy legends Morecambe and Wise. After Maggie spewed out various media jargon about ‘promotability’ and Lisa commented that she’d never hear Maggie use such words before, Maggie retorted that she certainly had, “but not in that order”.

That aside, Mack cleverly turned Lisa’s interview into a Trojan horse (at Maggie’s suggestion) by furnishing the interviewee with a detailed list of all the recent child murder trials that weren’t being reported sensationalistically coast to coast. Unfortunately Lisa, carried away with crusading zeal, then unwisely decided to shoehorn in her views on why abortion should be more acceptable. Given that this is one of the most incendiary subjects in US politics right now, it was little surprise that she found a brick being hurled through the window of the shop she worked at, and ‘Baby Killer’ sprayed all over the storefront.

This again gave Will a chance to show how moderate he is as a Republican. He may be ‘pro-life’ rather than ‘pro-choice’ (gotta love the linguistic contortions each side goes through to ensure they’re not seen as ‘anti’ anything), but he’s certainly anti-throwing bricks through windows.

Moderation, however, is not a big part of his emotional makeup when it comes to relationships. Following the trend last week, this episode saw yet more delving into the motivations behind Will and Mack’s breakup and inability to sort out their current feelings for each other. Will unloaded (again) to his therapist Dr Habib, who perceptively worked out that he’d been scouring internet dating sites for advice; meanwhile Mack intermittently fumed at her ex Brian, perhaps inadvertently giving the impression that she’s some kind of a ‘news groupie’, and prefers Will because he’s a more important journalist.

Despite yet another ‘reconciliation’ scene at the end of the episode, it’s plain that Sorkin thinks this plot has plenty more mileage in it yet. As indeed does the Maggie/Don/Jim/Lisa one, which is beginning to be actively frustrating in all of its participants’ inability to tell each other the truth and reach some kind of conclusion. Steps at least were made in that direction this week, as Mack’s inspirational quoting of a 17th century poem made Jim resolve that he was going to go for Maggie after all.

But with the inevitable comic timing of classic farce, he turned up at her apartment to tell her this just as A) Don was already there and B) Maggie had talked Lisa into giving Jim another go at dating. Just as I was about to scream with annoyance, Don, in a rare moment of empathy and perception, twigged that Jim had actually come to see Maggie, and spilled his guts about his own recent infidelities in an attempt to do the right thing. Perhaps some good will come of this. On more recent form though, Maggie will probably decide to take the plunge with Jim just as he’s got back with Lisa. And round and round it goes, until someone (possibly me) brains Aaron Sorkin with a tea kettle.

Speaking of violence, Neal’s comic quest to infiltrate the online community of trolls took a turn for the serious. Having tried and failed to gain their respect by trolling a discussion on economics and altering Sloan’s Wikipedia entry to say that she started out as a stripper, he was in the chatroom trying to claim responsibility for the death threat against Will. But he may have stumbled on a bigger story than he anticipated, as one user knows he’s lying – because that user was the real culprit. Cue Neal’s frantic call to Will’s bodyguard Lonnie, and the episode closing on a shot of a pensive Will, still a target.

This was an uneven episode with its none-too-convincing form as the second half of a two part story, but as an ongoing drama it was still pretty compelling. There’s just one more episode to go, though thankfully the show’s been renewed by HBO and will be back next year. News of the renewal may have altered the form of the final episode – I dread the possibility that the various ‘near-miss’ relationships’ resolutions will be artificially extended yet further. But there’s also the genuine drama of the death threat against Will, who seems to have been ditching his bodyguard with alarming regularity, and the impending exposure of ACN’s parent company as a News International-type phone hacking operation. However it goes, I think there’s going to be plenty of excitement next week.

True Blood: Season 5, Episode 11–Sunset

“Jason and Sookie and the inhabitants of Bon Temps are no longer our concern. They are food, nothing more.”

TrueBloodFairies

With the end almost in sight, the few remaining separate plot strands of True Blood’s fifth season have finally intersected, losing that rather meandering feel it’s had a lot of the time this year. With the vampire Authority’s newfound religious fervour now impacting on all walks of society, it could hardly have been otherwise. But more specifically, the only other major plot thread that had remained separate – the Bon Temps fairies and Sookie’s quest for the answers about her parents’ death – is now directly linked to the vampire plotline, as the deranged Russell Edgington is on a determined quest for some fairy blood to enable him to walk in daylight.

This was a fast-moving episode, as plot twist followed plot twist. I’m going to have to swallow my earlier scepticism about Bill’s religious conversion – it seems he really is a true believer. Pam provided something of an explanation for this, as “nesting behaviour”. Apparently when vampires live together and feed together in a nest , they lose their ‘humanity’ becoming something altogether more monstrous and cruel. The explanation, if a little convenient, was necessary, as Bill’s current behaviour seems to fly in the face of what has previously been established about his character. Then again, the Sanguinistas qualify as a cult – and cults have ways of persuading their believers. Bill’s enforced isolation in the Authority’s underground HQ, and the narcotic effects of Lilith’s blood, certainly seem reminiscent of some cults’ brainwashing techniques.

Anyway, enough of making excuses for Bill. Thankfully, Eric really was feigning his ‘blinding light on the road to Damascus’ moment, and what’s more, the vision of Godric has finally persuaded Nora that she’s on the wrong path too. Luckily for them, the Authority think they’re both true believers, enabling them to leave the underground base after Eric’s seemingly reckless murder of a senior Army General. Once out, ostensibly on a quest to clean the trail that led from that murder to the Authority, they were free to messily slaughter the Authority’s handlers/bodyguards and disappear into the night, in a scene nicely underscored with Mozart’s Requiem.

The appearance of General Cavanaugh nicely filled in some backstory gaps about the whole ‘going public’ thing that vampires have done in the True Blood universe. It seems that the Authority have been negotiating with human authorities for decades, with former head honcho Roman having given assurances directly to the president of the US about future vampire behaviour. This makes sense – for such a seismic social event as revealing the existence of supernatural beings to the human world, a fair amount of groundwork would have to be laid.

That the General now feels the need to personally visit the Authority (a pretty bad idea, as it turned out) is because the human governments know that they’re behind the bombing of the Tru Blood factories, and the resultant shift back to vampires hunting humans. And as I’d theorised previously, the humans are more than prepared for such an eventuality. Not that Cavanaugh’s threats of new weapons and using footage of Russell and Steve to turn the public against vampires did him personally much good. At first glance, Eric breaking his neck looked like a damn silly thing to do, given that it was pretty much the first shot in an official war. But then, the war was on its way anyway, and Eric’s just hastened the endgame. Plus, it gave him the aforementioned opportunity to finally slip the Authority’s clutches and work against them.

This may prove less difficult than it first seemed, as cracks are starting to appear in the unity of the Sanguinistas’ religious devotion. Not only has Russell turned heretic and fled the nest, now various different Chancellors (firstly Bill) are being plagued by visions of Lilith herself, telling them that she’s chosen each to be the one true Leader, and that he/she should consume all that is left of her blood.

This is plainly not going to end well. Bill has already beheaded one rival, and perhaps the realisation that he’s not the only one to have such visions might finally break the spell that vampire religion has him under. But it also makes one wonder why Lilith would act so counter-productively to her own revolution. We’re still not sure if the ‘visions’ of her are any more than just hallucinations induced by the narcotic effects of her powerful blood. But if they are more than that, and given that the disunity and potential exhaustion of her last remaining blood seem sure to pretty much destroy the new fundamentalist Authority, I’m betting that these ‘visions’ aren’t Lilith at all. In fact, I’m wondering if next week will see the revelation that it’s actually Godric under the skin of that bloodsoaked female form…

Meanwhile, other characters are being drawn into the Authority’s clutches, even as Eric and Nora finally break free. Sam and Luna are already in, having disguised themselves as mice to try and recover the kidnapped Emma. Unfortunately for them, just as they find her (while in their human form), Authority guards turn up and make the assumption that they’ve escaped from the larder. Sam makes the interesting choice to volunteer as Bill Compton’s lunch; perhaps he can succeed in talking some sense back into ol’ tall, dark and undead before it’s too late…

And on his way up, he bumps into Pam, being hustled into a cell for the murder of irritating goth vampire Elijah. Pam’s taken the fall for Tara here, and again we see that beneath the snarky, bitchy exterior is someone who does have loyalty to her friends – even if she won’t ever admit she has any. I’ve enjoyed the way Pam’s been given so much screen time this year, and particularly loved her double act with Tara, whose vampirisation has given her previously tired character a new lease of life. Let’s hope that next week’s finale won’t be the end of her.

Or indeed of Jason, having served as bait in a trap set by the fairies for Russell Edgington. Having evaded Jessica’s faux-attempt to vampirise him (with her sly help), he now knows the deal with the Authority, and what Russell’s planning. Unfortunately for Sookie, his revelation of the news served to prematurely cut short her meeting with the fairy elder who seems to know the truth about the mysterious ‘Warlow’.

The elder was marvellously cryptic, existing on a “different plane” due to her immense age. In practice, this meant that she constantly danced around while frequently diverting the topic of conversation to whether Sookie liked various pop acts, including Kesha, Boyz II Men and John Mellencamp. Her erratic weirdness was nicely reminiscent of characters such as Delirium from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, although weird and cryptic beings of supernatural power are hardly a new idea.

Nevertheless, she was fun, so it’s a shame that Russell, having glamoured Jason into taking him and Steve to the fairy field, despatched her so quickly. Or did he? I wonder if it’s all part of her plan, and her apparent death will serve some suitably cryptic purpose of which Sookie and the other fairies are not yet aware.

They’d better hope so, because Russell, chock full of fairy blood, can now see their refuge and it’s a fair bet that he can get in too. Denis O’Hare’s performance as Russell this week was as marvellously full-throated OTT as ever – an actor who’s capable of subtlety elsewhere, he’s sensibly discarded it for the grand guignol excesses of this show. But having served as major villain twice over now, it would seems sensible for him to be properly killed off next week, lest the show become repetitive in its choice of opponents as so many long-running comic series do.

This penultimate episode had the feeling of a chess match, as the showrunner moved the various pieces into the necessary places for next week’s endgame. For me, that’s a better choice than last year, when all the plots seemed concluded in the penultimate episode and the finale served as a kind of epilogue. I’m expecting some serious action next week, as creator Alan Ball finally bows out as showrunner – let’s hope he goes out on a high.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 8–The Blackout part 1: Tragedy Porn

“The choice is to do nothing or do something. If we do nothing, the audience turn to the first guy who’s doing something.”

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After last week’s tight focus on one news story – the death of Osama Bin Laden – this week The Newsroom was firing in all directions, arguably biting off more than it could chew in one episode. The Republican debates, the debt ceiling deadlock, Michelle Bachmann’s ‘divine inspiration’, the Casey Anthony trial, internet trolls, Antony Weiner’s Twitter ‘sexting’, illegal wiretapping and tabloid phone hacking were all in there somewhere, with various characters spouting what were obviously Sorkin’s own views on the issues. Too much? Perhaps, but then this isn’t, as it turns out, one episode. It’s the first of a two-parter, a brave thing to do in just the eighth episode of a prestigious new show.

And yet I suspect it’ll work. The story’s length not only gives all these issues time to breathe, but also means Sorkin can comfortably cram in some more character development without the script feeling too crowded. After the focus on Maggie/Don/Lisa/Jim last week, that thread was completely absent (for now) in favour of some long overdue movement on the Mackenzie/Will thing.

We’ve known for a while that Mack’s breakup with Will was precipitated by her sleeping with her ex, but this episode gave that a mite more complexity by rather surprisingly introducing said ex as a major character. Brian Brenner (Parks and Recreation’s Paul Schneider) is a former Newsweek columnist turned internet blogger specifically recruited by Will for a behind the scenes expose on News Night, presumably to counter the negative stories being planted in the tabloids by his own boss Leona Lansing.

Choosing the man who broke up your relationship with your now-colleague and ex-girlfriend is a pretty odd thing to do, but Will acknowledges that himself with an impetuous trip to his therapist to ask him why he’d do that. Further to his advice on Will and Mack’s relationship a couple of episodes ago, Dr Habib points out that Will has definitely not sorted out his feelings yet, and that, until he does, he’s going to be hurting those around him (“I’m fine with that”), especially Mack herself.

Since this is the central relationship on the show, it’s nice to come back to it after several episodes of bitchy snarking but no actual development. Brian is a pretty cool customer, and obviously a mirror of Will himself, suggesting that Mack has a very definite type. His interactions with both Will and Mack serve as a catalyst to much self-examination and dissection of the past, which will obviously continue nest week.

But he’s perhaps found the worst time to pay a journalistic visit to the newsroom, which is in turmoil (again). The problem this time, as revealed by mother’s little helper Reese Lansing, is a massive drop in ratings because News Night isn’t covering the then-ongoing trial of Casey Anthony, a feckless young Florida mother accused of the murder of her own daughter. Instead, they’ve turned to former prosecutor turned TV lynch mob coordinator, Nancy Grace, who’s covering the story about as exploitatively as possible.

At first, I couldn’t quite see what Mack’s problem was with covering this story. “It’s not news, it’s entertainment,” she declared angrily. “And it’s just, just this close to being a snuff movie.” The murder, and the trial, got far less coverage here in the UK, and I couldn’t see Mack’s problem. Surely the trial of a parent accused of her own child’s murder qualifies as news? It always does here – we’ve even had one in the last few days.

But the US is a much bigger country than the UK. A bit of research, and I discovered that Casey Anthony was propelled to the status of national news item over and above similar cases that occur all the time, and are only reported on at a local level. And further, Don’s merciless analysis of just a few minutes of Nancy Grace’s coverage of the issue was enough to make one fairly queasy. Her selective reporting, clever editing and insertion of damning shots at just the right time to stir the vengeful emotions of the public looked like the skills of a latterday Dr Goebbels. It was an obvious case of trial by television, with Grace having already decided the verdict and cleverly twisting viewers to see it her way.

Casey Anthony was eventually acquitted of the murder charge (after a trial lasting six weeks, a duration Will predicted with the uncanny accuracy of having his lines written from a year into the future). As with OJ Simpson, the public still seem to have a deal of doubt as to her guilt or innocence. But there’s undeniably an issue about the way some news outlets presented the story as ‘tragedy porn’, with constant  live updates making a murder trial more like a sporting event, something for the viewing masses to sit back and watch with a beer and a tub of popcorn. In that sense, I began to see Mack’s point.

But the story was to go on to News Night anyway, much to Mack’s distaste, because the drop in ratings was yet another excuse for Leona to fire Will if it continued. And Will has an upcoming strictly-regulated series of ‘mock debates’ for the then-competing contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination, something he and Charlie don’t want to lose.

Aside from the Anthony trial, the episode showed another trial by news just beginning – the excoriation of unfortunately-named Democrat Congressman Anthony Weiner after he rather foolishly tweeted an image of his underwear-clad groin to 40,000 Twitter followers. This was a blackly comic news narrative in real life as well as on the show. Tweeting the image, however accidentally, was obviously a bloody stupid thing to do for a man in Weiner’s position, revealing the tip of an iceberg (so to speak) of marital infidelity with a string of women. To follow up, Weiner’s squirming, untruthful attempts to weasel his way out of the situation did not reflect well on him as a politician or a person.

On the flipside though, once the news media were done with him, ordinary Americans across the country were reacting to him as though he were the Antichrist, rather than just another politician to cheat on his wife. Bill Clinton survived adultery and actually increased his popularity; Weiner ended up resigning after a couple of weeks of media persecution.

I suspect it was the ‘in-your-face’ sexuality (oo-er) that was a large part of the problem. Clinton didn’t have photos of him in flagrante plastered all over the news, unlike the slavering greed with which they printed the Twitpics of Weiner. Mainstream American culture is, if anything, even more squeamish about explicit sexuality than the British; it’s notable that Labour MP Chris Bryant survived a similar manufactured scandal in the pages of News of the World with his political integrity and Parliamentary seat intact (if not his dignity). Still, Weiner’s inept handling of the issue arguably justified his resignation. When all was said and done, he hardly came across as a skilled political operator, which counts for rather more than fidelity to your wife – as Bill Clinton could attest.

Another less than skilful politician, aspiring Republican nominee Michele Bachmann, got served by Sorkin fairly early on, with an offended Maggie lambasting her for her claim to have been told by God to run for President. “What did God’s voice sound like?” she angrily demanded of a cowering Jim, who was roleplaying Bachmann for interview prep. “What language did he speak in? Hebrew? Aramaic? If you make those claims, those are absolutely the first questions you should be asked.”

Bachmann, one of the Tea Party’s more extreme doyens, was obviously trying to court the large Christian vote in the US (or she was just plain nuts). And Maggie’s point was absolutely valid – as a Christian, you should be offended if someone claims to have been spoken to by God for purely political ends. Either the claim was true, in which case Bachmann was a genuine prophet (unlikely unless God has suddenly chosen to concern Himself with issues like deregulating the financial sector); or it was cynical opportunism, which should be offensive to Christians everywhere. It was another case of Sorkin’s voice coming through loud and clear above the actual fiction of the drama, but the point was well-made.

Meanwhile, Sloan was running around the newsroom like Chicken Little, desperately trying to get anyone to listen to her concerns about the impending doom of the debate on raising the US debt ceiling. As we now know (and Sloan can spider-sense from the year into the future in which her lines are written), this is a huge deal; it’ll be the first real demonstration of the now-standard procedural deadlock in which partisan US politics have been locked since the Tea Party took the Republicans hostage.

Although ultimately resolved, it will lead to a massive loss of financial confidence in the efficacy of American government, and the downgrade of the country’s treasured AAA credit rating (for what that’s worth). Mack says she knows all about it (she plainly doesn’t), but there are more important things to deal with. I’m betting that next week will prove her wrong.

But for me, the most interesting part of this week’s show was Charlie’s lengthy clandestine meeting with his NSA source from last week. Yes, it was dramatically clunky; the source, Hancock by name, was mainly there to spout shady, top secret exposition in a manner inescapably similar to Donald Sutherland’s shadowy defence official in Oliver Stone’s JFK (a resemblance so obvious that Sorkin just shrugged at the typewriter and had him actually mention it).

However, the information he had to impart was pretty explosive, both in reality and in the context of the show’s ongoing story. It’s a double whammy of stories for Charlie. First up, Hancock has been trying to oppose an NSA data mining program known as ‘Global Clarity’ (you can almost picture The X Files’ Smoking Man saying it while exhaling a cloud). This program has been routinely data mining and wiretapping innocent US citizens, without warrant or process, since the inception of the PATRIOT Act, and with no oversight is prone to shocking abuse and invasion of privacy.

I’ve been able to dig out no information on a program of that name in my research (though if it exists, the NSA would hardly broadcast the fact). But it is true that the PATRIOT Act legitimised exactly this kind of behaviour post 9/11, all in the sainted name of ‘National Security’. Sorkin, speaking through Hancock’s mouth, put it extremely well: “I fought the Soviets. The way that government made their people live their lives made them worth fighting. After 9/11 we started doing exactly the same thing.”

Hancock’s aggrieved that no amount of testifying before Pentagon and Congressional Subcommittees on the subject has had any effect, so he’s prepared to turn whistleblower to Charlie and have it all exposed on the news. And there’s a bonus for Charlie, a vital titbit discovered during the data mining that could be explosive for ACN – its parent company, AWM, has been engaged in exactly the kind of phone hacking the News of the World was then being found out for. The orders went all the way up to Reese Lansing, son of the CEO, now obviously an analogue for James Murdoch. The difference is that, unlike with Murdoch, Hancock claims to have actual proof that Reese gave the orders.

This could massively tip the balance of power in the struggle between Will and Charlie’s quest for integrity and Leona’s quest for political influence and profit.

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But Charlie being the good egg he is (he dresses like the Eleventh Doctor after all), he at least tried to get Leona to drop her vendetta in a last ditch meeting at the door of her limo. Back for the first time in weeks, Jane Fonda was as formidable as ever as the ruthless CEO, now revealed as a female version of Rupert Murdoch (as if that wasn’t obvious before). Leona’s having none of it; she plainly hasn’t a clue what Charlie’s got. Or does she? To be honest, I wouldn’t want to play poker with either of them…

The ep came to a dramatic climax as Will started to prerecord an interview with another Weiner gold-digger claiming to have been ‘sexually harassed’ by the lusty Congressman, and the studio was plunged into unexpected darkness. Well, it would have been unexpected if not for the episode being called ‘The Blackout’ and various characters having warned that the excessive summer heat could easily knock out NYC’s power grid. Expect some Sorkin-preaching on climate change next week, and hopefully some more focus on the characters, what with the news gathering equipment all out of action. Oh wait, there’s always their Blackberries and iPhones…

True Blood: Season 5, Episode 10–Gone, Gone, Gone

“You are destroying the world on the basis of a book that’s thousands of years old. You call that evolved?”

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The multifarious plots that have made up this year’s season of True Blood having mostly been resolved or incorporated last week, the season has finally come to a sharp focus on one major plotline amid the soap. The religious fundamentalist takeover of the vampire Authority by Salome and her devout followers is now threatening the uneasy coexistence between vampires and humans, as all Tru Blood factories are now out of action and the starving vampires of the world begin to turn on humans as the nearest food source.

Battle lines are being drawn, with Bud Dearborne’s now defunct hate group looking like just the first of many, while supernaturals, threatened with a human vendetta, draw closer together in opposition to the ‘normals’. But Salome’s religious revolution is already starting to crack, as such revolutions often do, with dissent in her ranks as to how seriously to take the vampire Bible.

That this plot has come to be the most prominent is hardly a surprise, even though (as I’ve often remarked) the idea of vampires deciding to conquer the world is pretty hackneyed now. Blade did it, Being Human did it (twice), and even True Blood itself did it earlier, with Russell Edgington’s frenzied rampage in season three.  That Russell is once more instrumental in this reheated plot might somewhat smack of running out of ideas.

But to be fair, there may be a limit to how much you can do with True Blood’s premise, that of vampires “coming out of the coffin” and trying to integrate into human society. The old ‘faction that wants to go back to the good old days of hunting’ plot is pretty much the biggest threat you can have, short of a full scale war which might be spectacular but would lack the depth we have in the machinations of those trying to provoke or avoid just that situation.

What’s made this particular take on the situation interesting is the religious fundamentalist angle. There’ve been snarky little barbs at religion throughout this season, and it’s hard not to see the vampires’ sudden piety as a comment on all fundamentalists, particularly in a year when a Christian-dominated hard-right Republican party is facing up to the polls with a similar religious devotion. The show’s dealt more directly with that kind of thing before, with season two’s Fellowship of the Sun, but this seems more subtle and, as a result, more applicable to fundamentalists of all stripes. It can surely be no coincidence that the opponents of the Lilith cult this week kept referring to “evolution”, and how the religion was holding vampires back.

Having dealt with the vengeful Ifrit, Lafayette’s brujo demon, and the Obama-masked hate group already, this week mainly concerned itself with the vampire religious conspiracy and Sookie’s continuing search for her parents’ murderer. Without having to juggle so many plots, and with a couple of episodes yet to go, that meant that this week could afford to breathe a little with regard to the characters. Hoyt particularly got what seemed a proper end to his torment, and some lengthy scenes resolved his conflicts with his mother, Jessica and Jason.

The scene in Merlotte’s Bar, mostly a three hander with Hoyt, Jessica and Jason, was actually genuinely tearjerking. Kudos to Jim Parrack, Ryan Kwanten and particularly Deborah Ann Woll as Jessica, who conveyed genuine sorrow as the camera lingered intensely on her in close up. Having in short order split up with the love of his life, found said love in the arms of his best friend, and been suborned into a psychotic hate group, Hoyt’s finally had enough of life in Bon Temps (understandably, as the writers seem intent on making him have as horrible a time as possible). So he’s off to work on an oil rig in Alaska. But before he goes, he wants to say goodbye to Jessica and Jason, then have Jessica cure his torment as only a vampire can – to glamour him into forgetting he’d ever known either of them.

It’s sad that Hoyt chooses to bury his pain rather than deal with it, but honestly, mightn’t we all do that, given the chance? Jess’s glamour must be pretty powerful though, for him to ignore the holes it would leave in his memory, holes that not even the unconvinced Jason can poke through, pulling Hoyt’s truck over in his cop guise as a last desperate attempt to get his best friend to change his mind. To no avail; Hoyt remembers his sister, but not him. So it looks like he’s really gone. But hey, this is True Blood, and not even death is a barrier to coming back, so who knows?

Case in point – Godric popped up again, as Nora and the apparently converted Bill made an attempt to convert Eric with a few drops of Lilith’s powerful blood. Nora joined him in partaking, and was pretty surprised to see not the expected vision of Lilith, but her calm-as-ever maker, to whom Eric appealed for help. But Godric demurred at fighting the vision of Lilith that appeared behind him; “it’s not me that needs to fight her”. At which point she ripped his throat out rather graphically, covering herself once again in blood. Still, Godric’s already been disintegrated by sunlight in season two, so I wouldn’t rule out seeing the enticing Allan Hyde again.

As a result of all this, it looks like Eric really is converted, along with Bill. This led to a very tense scene in which he tried to bury the hatchet with a suspicious Russell. Is Russell right to be suspicious? Eric’s slippery, to be sure, but it seems out of character for him to be able to fake quite such submissiveness. There again, I’m still not entirely sure that Bill is a true convert. These are the heroes of the show, and it’s not unnatural to suspect that, if they go over to the villains’ side, they’re probably faking it.

Russell himself has had enough of faking it though. After a quick meal from a local frathouse (Russell and Steve seem to be the only vampires to have left the Authority bunker in weeks), he’s ready for the next phase of his plan – obtain some fairy blood (from the obvious source) to complete the vampires’ conquest by walking in daylight unharmed. Trouble is, that’s expressly against Salome’s interpretation of the vampire Bible.

Too bad for her. As I mentioned many weeks ago, it looks like Russell’s far from a true believer, it’s just that his aims happen to partially coincide with the fundamentalists. I never thought they’d be able to control him, and now they’ve reached an uncompromisable disagreement, it looks like I was right. Abandoning that louche Southern accent for his (presumably original) Germanic inflection, Russell took to the table to roar defiance at his former cohorts before lighting out for the wider world. Sookie should look out.

As if to underline this, she had to deal with the newly vampirised county coroner as early as the pre-credit teaser. Star Trek alumnus John Billingsley has been fun as Mike Spencer over the years, always lending the role a faintly creepy, unwholesome air, and he’ll be missed now that Sookie’s turned him into mush with the aid of a pair of chopsticks. His interest in Sookie had been hinted at earlier, and it was nice to see it finally followed up on – in a pretty terminal sort of way. As a vampire, he didn’t just fancy her, he found all that fairy blood wonderfully intoxicating.

And it was with the fairies that Sookie was mostly concerned this week, the last plotline that has yet to be resolved or intersect with the Authority story. With the discovery of a mysterious scroll in a hole under her gran’s bed (Jason’s investigative experience seems finally to be paying off for him), the Stackhouse siblings were back on the trail of the enigmatic ‘Warlow’, the vampire responsible for their parents’ death.

Discovering that the weird glyphs on the scroll were in “no human language”, it was time for a quick visit to fairyland and a chat with the ever-obliging (and pleasantly open-shirted) Claude. Turns out the scroll is a some kind of deal done with Warlow, by which the first fey Stackhouse daughter is his by right. Meaning, of course, Sookie. The scroll dates from 1702, so that rules out Bill being Warlow, but not Eric. However, with Russell presumably now on the way, my money’s on it being him. It’ll certainly be an anticlimax if it’s a vampire we’ve never seen before.

So, it looks like everything’s finally coming together. Elsewhere, Sam and Luna, apparently aware of Steve Newlin’s new ‘pet’ (ie little Emma), have stowed away in the good reverend’s bag as mice, and are now running the halls of the Authority. New favourite double act Pam and Tara have put themselves on the bad side of the newly theocratic Authority by staking the odious goth Elijah, installed as Eric’s replacement. Since staking other vampires seems to be a no-no generally, this will not make them popular.

Only two more episodes to go then, and this felt like the calm before the storm with all its character development and long, introspective scenes. It’s taken a long time for True Blood to settle into some kind of focus this year, and I can understand some people’s objections to that; at times, it’s seemed almost wantonly rambling. But for me, the strength of the characters, both in writing and acting, have kept it consistently entertaining even when we didn’t know which plotline to look at first. Let’s see what the season’s climax will bring…

The venomous Cameron and the amphibious Clegg

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There’s a well-known fable involving a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion, keen for nebulous reasons to be on the other side of a river, asks a nearby frog to help out by carrying him over. The frog is dubious. “How do I know you won’t sting me?”, he asks. The scorpion, reasonably, replies that if he did, they would both die. So the frog, naively, agrees to the plan, and inevitably, halfway across, the scorpion stings him. “Why did you do that?” gasps the dying frog. “You know that we’ll both die now!” The scorpion is phlegmatic: “It’s my nature. I can’t change it.”

This charming tale came to mind on Monday, when BBC News managed to find a space in between its wall-to-wall Olympic coverage for some actual news. Said news was a dejected looking Nick Clegg seeming to finally realise the nature of the predatory beast he’d harnessed himself and his party to. He’d called a press conference to announce that the last of the Lib Dems’ central policy planks, the reform of the House of Lords, was to be abandoned in the face of overwhelming opposition not just from Labour, but from the Lib Dems’ own coalition partners/masters, the venomous Conservative Party.

It took Clegg rather longer than that mythic frog to feel the repeated stings his ‘allies’ barbed tail was inflicting on his party’s policies. The Tories granted him his cherished referendum on reforming the electoral system, then despite careful negotiations defeated him at the polls with a hell-for-leather opposition campaign infinitely better funded and organised than that in support of the motion. They allowed him his increase in the income tax lower threshold – while at the same time slashing the top rate of tax for their hyper-rich cronies (sorry, ‘job creators’ – ha!) and rejecting his proposed ‘mansion tax’, a variation on another cherished Lib Dem policy, Land Value Tax. And all this after beginning their marriage of convenience by forcing the Lib Dems to not only abandon their policy of opposing rises to, and trying to abolish, university tuition fees, but actually twisting their arms to tacitly support having the fees trebled.

Yes, the Lib Dems have wrung some small concessions from the Tories (see my previous blog on this), to the extent that Cameron has had to tell the press that he could “govern like a true Tory” if only it weren’t for those pesky Lib Dems, in an attempt to placate his more barking rightwing backbenchers. But to the voting public, those concessions are small fry compared with the formerly compassionate-seeming Lib Dems’ complicity in slashing the Welfare State and laying the groundwork for further privatisation of the much-loved NHS.

And in any case, the public image of the Lib Dems rests primarily on those central planks they’ve been so vocal on in the past – abolition of tuition fees, the reform of the voting system, and the reform of the House of Lords. With the first two well and truly scuppered by their underhand partners, the forced abandonment of Lords reform was the final sting for Clegg, who miserably took to the air to (finally!) condemn the damage his supposed ‘allies’ were doing not just to him, but to their own party and the government of the country as a whole. Finally discovering some balls, he chose to use them in precisely the wrong way, with a childish tit-for-tat gesture that promised to scupper a cherished Tory policy – the electoral boundary review, which, on the face of it, would gain the Tories more seats in a reduced Commons to the detriment of both Labour and the Lib Dems.

The problem is that, in the minds of the voting public, the Lib Dems are most strongly associated with constitutional reform, and with good reason. As my Lib Dem friend Richard explains in his blog, if you’ve lost faith in the political system because you think it’s broken, nothing about it will work properly until it’s fixed. Trouble is, looked at without partisan goggles, the proposed boundary review does seem a fairer way of dividing votes for the British electorate. Clegg himself said in November 2010 that it would mean "correcting fundamental injustices in how people elect their MPs". And it’s less than certain that the Tories would like or benefit from it as much as he seems to think.

So retaliating against the Conservatives by blocking a policy he should by rights be in favour of, and which they may not be as keen on as he thinks, looks, well, a bit silly really. Unfortunately, this is the same kind of political naivete, derived from years spent in opposition, that produced his other great no-win scenario, tuition fees. Like that debacle, he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

If he blocks the boundary changes, he can be seen to be finally standing up to the Tories – but be seen as a hypocrite by many, not least in his own party. If he chooses to retain his integrity and support a constitutional change perfectly in line with his own party’s policies, he’s got nothing in the arsenal left to strike the Tories with, and looks like he’s bent over to let his party get shafted by them for the umpteenth time.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but I’d say he should have stood firmer ground when the Tory leadership first broke their word and began aggressively campaigning for a ‘no’ vote to the AV referendum. There were any number of cherished Tory policies he could have seriously damaged by withdrawing support back then – the NHS reforms, the welfare reforms, reduction in the top rate of tax – and he might have seriously regained some respect and support for his party in the eyes of the electorate. But they’ve all been passed now, with the tacit or actual support of his party giving them a mandate, and all that’s left to torpedo is a policy that he should, logically, be in favour of.

 

OK, so what about the other Parliamentary numskulls?

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To be fair, no party has emerged from this debacle covered in glory. David Cameron, in particular, now looks incredibly ineffectual as a leader who can’t even deliver his own party’s support for an agreed-for policy. The backbench rebellion of 91 MPs is one of the largest rebellions against the party whips in the history of his party, and the fact that they felt they could get away with it does Cameron’s leadership standing no favours at all. One tweeter commented, accurately, that “Lib Dems thought they were in Coalition with the whole Tory party not just David Cameron”. The backbenchers are making the Tory party look like a reverse ouroboros, a snake whose tail is somehow eating its own head.

Not to mention undermining the tenuous alliance they have with the until-now supine Lib Dems, which they seem to have forgotten is the only thing currently preventing them from struggling through as a minority government. They can’t even go to the polls without a 55% vote of no confidence due to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the one constitutional reform that has been enacted. Not that they would be likely to win an outright majority this time, but it’s never worth underestimating the power of delusion in the rightwing Conservative ranks. In short, they’ve finally succeeded in alienating the party that is the only thing keeping them properly in power. But like that scorpion of old, that’s Tory nature.

 

But surely Labour are dealing with this with their usual sensitive maturity?

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Labour too look pretty crap here, torpedoing a policy they’ve championed of old as a (supposed) party of the working class. Politics is about compromise, and while the Lords reform might not have been all they wanted, voting for no reform at all feels like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It could always have been built on later, in the increasingly likely result of the next government being Labour. Instead, next time the Tories can fling the accusation that they’ve already rejected it once. It’s the same as those ardent PR supporters who voted no to AV on the grounds that it wasn’t full PR – those opposed now have the ammunition that the British public have already rejected electoral reform.

The Lords reform legislation as drafted had its roots in a Labour-instituted study, too, and they voted for it at both first and second reading, dropping their ‘no’ bomb at the late stage of debate timetabling. They probably did have a point that the legislation was shoddy and needed reshaping, and that might well have required considerably more than 14 days’ worth of debate. But crucially, at that late stage, they offered no alternative suggestion – just an emphatic “no”. It looks most like a childish fit of pique, designed to drive a wedge between the coalition ‘partners’ in the full knowledge of Cameron’s ineffectiveness of whipping his backbenchers into line.

And yet, Labour might be being cannier than they seem, especially with Clegg’s (perhaps?) unwitting connivance. For all the ambivalence of the Tories and the Lib Dems, Labour were the one party surest to lose out on seats due to the boundary review. Now, despite Cameron’s plan to persevere with it, if the Lib Dems hold to Clegg’s word and oppose it, it’s finished. Advantage: Labour.

The fact that this couldn’t have worked out better for them in that sense has led some to speculate that this was an arcane plan of Miliband and co’s all along – oppose Lords reform and Clegg will have to retaliate, and boundary changes is the only significant thing he has left to strike at. And one Lib Dem I know has gone even further and suggested that perhaps the opposition to the boundary review is Clegg’s own olive branch held out to the previously intransigent Labour party, laying the groundwork for abandoning their treacherous Tory partners at last.

 

A match made in Hell?

MiliCleggDoctorMaster

I’m not sure I buy that, but there still seems to be some vain hope that Clegg, Cable and co will cross the floor and hook up with Labour. I don’t think that would do them any favours; they’d be seen as fickle and opportunistic, bending their ideology to whichever main party would offer them the most regardless of their principles. Far better to abandon coalition altogether while they can still (truthfully) assert that they have tried to make it work in the same mature fashion as European parties, only to be thwarted by the childish, materialistic behaviour of their supposed ‘partners’.

They could then stand some chance of regaining respect by supporting the Conservatives on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, leaving them free to oppose any measures they genuinely didn’t support. The only problem there is that most of the measures a lot of Lib Dem MPs would oppose have already been passed in a frenetic haste by a Conservative party desperate to enact their ideology in case they turn out to be a one term government.

And of course, leaving the coalition would leave the Lib Dems with no positions in the Cabinet from which to moderate the Conservatives’ brutal, ideologically motivated policies. But in the eyes of most of the electorate, they’ve singularly failed at ‘moderating’ anyway, content with a few piecemeal breadcrumb policies thrown from the table while the Conservatives hacked away at everything liberals and the welfare state have achieved since 1948.

Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I wonder how many Lib Dems now think their leaders should have walked away from coalition with either major party, retaining their integrity by saying, “we tried to make it work, but neither party would compromise maturely enough for us to find common ground”. Those who support the coalition may be saying that “enough common ground” was precisely what the Tories offered, but they’re just now finding out how much those promises were worth (rather later than many others, I think). It’s taken long enough, but the Lib Dems may finally be realising that Tories can no more change their nature than that scorpion, even if it means their own electoral destruction.