Cloak & Dagger: Lotus Eaters

Ty: "Hey. Is it too late to call?"
Tandy: "Totally. Lenny the alter rat has a big meeting in the morning."

One of the top ten best hourlongs of anything that I've ever seen.

If you're not watching Cloak & Dagger, and the ratings tell me you're probably not watching Cloak & Dagger, please, please, please watch Cloak & Dagger. It hasn't been renewed for a second season yet, and you owe it to yourself to check this out.

'Lotus Eaters' is an incredibly impressive hour of television. Well, forty-two minutes of television plus commercials, but you know what I mean. In a way, that makes it a little difficult to review, since all I really want to say is, 'This is awesome. You should watch this. And then demand that they make more of it." However, I expect that you've come to this review expecting a little deeper dive than that, so let's try to dive into this one.

As I mentioned a few episodes back, if you haven't yet watched this episode, you should absolutely do that now, and then come back to this review later, because we're going to get into some spoiler stuff. That said, what is it about this episode that worked so well? Well, it comes down to three basic things:

1: Rock solid structure.
2: First rate character exploration,
and
3: Satisfying plot advancement as the series moves toward its season, hopefully not series, finale.

Generally speaking, if you get one of those three you come away feeling like you've watched some surprisingly good television. Think 'The Wish,' or 'Come to Jesus.' On the occasions that you get two out of the three, you end up with something exceptional, such as 'That's My Dog,' or 'A Murder of Gods.' When a show manages all three you end up with 'A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,' 'All the Best Cowboys have Daddy Issues,' and the episode we have here.

So, why don't we take those one at a time and start with the structure. What we have here is, for the most part, a variation of the Groundhog Day paradigm, i.e. an audience identification character experiences the same events over and over until they learn whatever lesson they're supposed to be learning. There are a couple of twists here, the first of which is that the time loop is entirely inside Ivan Hess' mind. I know I'm probably overlooking other examples, but the main comparison here is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'The Weight of the World.' One character gets inserted into another character's 'dreamscape,' for lack of a better term, to witness what that other character is dreaming. Here, as in Buffy, that character's dream is stuck in a loop waiting for the dreamer to snap themselves out of it.

And here's where the episode's second twist comes in; Ivan is perfectly aware that he's in the loop. He remembers every single second of it. So much so that he's forgotten his own name through the sheer length of time he's been experiencing the same thing over and over again without any new input. At first I thought, 'Oh, that's new. I've never seen a time loop where the participants don't have their memory reset every time.' But of course, that's not true. A character that retains their memory when the loop resets is present in every single example of this structure. It's just that normally that's the main character. But this time it's very different. It's as if Willow had watched Buffy run through the motions so many millions of times that she just eventually gave up and started watching her while throwing cards in a hat and imaging baseball games because what else would there be to do? That's a subtly transgressive take on an old formula, and it's well done and clever.

It was particularly nicely handled because it wasn't immediately obvious the first time through the loop, which meant that just as we were patting ourselves on the back for being ahead of Ty and Tandy in understanding what was going on we had the rug pulled out from under us and were shown that we didn't. At least, not entirely.

And this is what I'm talking about when I praise this episode for rock solid structure. The reveals of every new piece of information is handled with virtuoso timing, from the way the phone call is introduced and utilized to the way the red herring of Ty attempting to shut the explosion down with the kill switch plays out, to the way we are introduced to Wrenchy, Axey, and Chainey. I'm not going to go through every single layer of the information, as this is already going to be too long, but it's an incredibly disciplined screenplay. Part of this is also due to how focused the episode is. We open with Mina and Ivan, to establish a bunch of the themes and visual metaphors, spend the minimum possible time with Tandy bringing Ty up to speed with what they'll be doing this week to establish the plot, and then the bulk of the episode is dedicated to the time loop with just Ivan, Ty and Tandy. And Wrenchy, Axey, and Chainey, but they're plot functions as opposed to characters, so we won't dwell on them here. Ivan is finally brought out of his loop through the visual metaphor of the cookie filled with secret ingredient natural anti-depressant, itself a metaphor for Ivan and Mina's loving relationship, and then home for a sweet coda about Ty hearing Billy's voice again in order to thematically echo Tandy's need to hear her father earlier, which was itself a metaphor for accepting loss. Structure, echoing theme, as expressed through natural character development. Honestly, this screenplay is kind of a masterclass.


As far as character development goes, it's important to note that the name of the episode is 'Lotus Eaters,' not 'The Lotus Eaters.' It's a fine distinction, but the lack of definite article is significant. The Lotus Eaters, as I'm assuming most of you know, are from The Odyssey. Short version, they ate special fruit that made them dreamy and indolent. It's shorthand at this point for people that use drugs to escape the painful reality of their lives, real or imagined. That's a horrific oversimplification, and I'll be sending a note of apology to Mr. Holm, my 8th grade English teacher, as soon as I'm done here. The point is that removing the 'the' points to the episode being about how and why people numb themselves to avoid feeling pain, as opposed to just being an episode featuring people who do so. It makes perfect sense that Tandy would surrender herself without hesitation to the dream world for the chance to talk to her father again. We all knew that she was lying to Ty, and was planning to stay behind without him, right? Even Ty more or less admitted to himself that he should have seen it coming. But it was genuinely moving that his route to getting her back to reality involved making her realize that she had metaphorically written herself out of her real father's life by accepting her place on the rig. That last memory of the car ride with her father is as precious to Tandy as it is painful, and it makes perfect character sense that she couldn't bear the thought of having it invalidated. I was also incredibly impressed with the way the scene was played wherein Tandy shows how self aware she is about her tendency to play the victim to manipulate people, and Ty shows that he can understand and accept that and still be there as her friend. There were a lot of layers of characterization going on in that argument.

As far as season plot goes, the most important thing we got is the revelation that uncontrolled contact with the darkforce turns people into blood-lusty killers. As far as I remember, that tracks with what we learned about the stuff in Agent Carter and S.H.I.E.L.D., but I'd have to go back and re-watch them to verify that. Ivan is now back on the board as an active player that knows more than a little about the darkforce and what happened on the rig that night, and Mina is absolutely going to be on Team Tandy from this point on. We continue to get a lot of mentions about heat and pressure regarding the darkforce. Three episodes left, we'll be getting answers as to how all that ties together soon, one hopes.


Bits and pieces:

— We open with a shot of the easy bake oven that we previously had heard about Ivan and Mina retrofitting. They somehow made it not pink.

— Did Mina really perfect the cookie on the same day the rig exploded, or was that just for loop/storytelling convenience?

— We heard repeatedly about the conductive shielding tiles not being installed. I wonder if that's going to play a part in how they nail Roxxon?

— I was wondering last episode what Ivan was humming, but didn't expect an answer. We got a good answer.

— It's a little strange that last week ended on such a big cliffhanger moment like Brigid killing Duane due to Connors' failed attempt at an ambush and then we got absolutely no follow-up about it here. But I couldn't care less, since the sacrifice of that follow-up allowed such a focused and well structured episode.

— It's still a little vague exactly what Ty and Tandy using their hope and fear visions simultaneously does. And it feels like a connected point, why do their powers work according to the laws of the physical world while they're in Ivan's dream? Were they not in Ivan's brain, but all three trapped in the Dark Dimension possibly? It's just about possible, but could have been explained.

— Tandy's extended time in the loop allowed them to show her having learned to throw light knives! This was Dagger's primary visual look in the comics, particularly on covers and splash pages. It was just as geek thrilling as seeing Ty's cloak for the first time, I assure you.

Let's all agree that this particular leotard is... unlikely.

— Ivan's baseball game stats made me laugh out loud. And a nice metaphorical touch that the game stopped being a tie only once Ivan was ready to break the loop. He loses points for being a Red Sox fan, though.

— Ivan is charmingly pleased with himself for coining the term 'terrors' for his monsters. Tim Kang does a charming take on 'innocently self-satisfied.'

— Just because she knew it wasn't really her father didn't mean that there wasn't emotional value for Tandy in being able to say goodbye to him. That rang painfully true.

— We got a visual reminder at the end that Tandy still has Ty's hoodie and Ty still has her ballet shoe.

— The two leads deserve all the credit in the world for the incredible real and touching friendship their two characters have built up. I could have watched them enjoy each other's company for hours during that last phone call scene.

Quotes:

Tandy: "Look, I know that this is just about the worst possible time... but I need your help."

Ivan: "My word. Something new."

Ivan: "We're lollygagging. And there's no better way to be gagged by lolly than to be here when Wrenchy appears. He's not very nice. Not as bad as Axey and Chainy, though."

Tandy: "Daddy? Are you there?"

Ty: "Why are you such a good liar?"

Ty: "You're not anywhere! You... you're stuck in the mind of an insane, catatonic mud man!"
Tandy: "What's so bad about that?"
Ty: "Everything! Everything I just said in that sentence is ridiculous!"

Ivan: "You, my dear, are your father's daughter."
Tandy: "I know."

I loved this episode. I loved every single thing about it. More like this, please.

Four out of four wrench-wielding former coworkers.

What would you nominate for the list of ten best hourlong episodes?  Answers in the comments.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

4 comments:

Phyllis Strickland said...

Thanks for a great review. I agree this was one of the best episodes of TV that I have ever watched. I wish that episode had lasted for a couple more hours. Well, every episode really. All the actors are perfect for their roles. I'm afraid this will be another Firefly, Dollhouse and others - an amazing show that wasn't discovered by enough viewers until it was too late. I wonder if people don't tune in because they think it is a teen show?

Mikey Heinrich said...

Thanks Phyllis!

I've wondered about that too. I think the general perception of Freeform isn't doing the shows any favors. Which is really too bad, because they're doing such a great job with it. Oddly enough, it's perfectly pitched for the teen demographic while still being really enjoyable for other audiences. Freeform totally nailed what they were trying to do with this.

Review for Ghost Stories coming up next

Billie Doux said...

The writer of this episode, Pete Calloway, thanked Mikey for his review!

https://twitter.com/PeteCalloway/status/1021598938564947968

Mikey Heinrich said...

This totally made my day