Thursday, June 23, 2016

AMC “The American West” TV Series Goes Beyond Myth

Listen up, Cowboys and Cowgirls...
There's more to those tall tales of the Old West than you know. So I'm finding out as I took a look at the new AMC TV series produced by Robert Redford.  As you know, Redford gets things pretty straight when it comes to matters of Native Americans and figures of the Wild West.
Tom Selleck and  Mark Harmon and Kiefer Sutherland are identifiable presences on  the first episode of this series detailing the American expansion after the Civil War.  Other lesser known experts and historians of the American west figure prominently too in the series. Viewers of historical tales will recognize them as they recount details of interest to history lovers and people who long for the grandeur of the west, it’s big sky and wide open areas.

There were vast unsettled tracts of the American continent that lured people west in the pursuit of happiness. Very often the new settlers found not happiness, but the opposite.

One of the first and greatest impacts of western expansion was the building of the railroads to the western coast. Native Americans watched over this migration with a jaundiced eye. Over the course of a mere thirty years, more than 430 million acres of land would be settled.

But there were winners and losers. Among the losers were southerners who had lost everything except their lives and were determined to get something back.  More than a few of these became outlaws and resisted the occupation of southern lands by union soldiers and the carpetbaggers who moved in to capitalize on the northern Army’s victory.

Among the outlaw rebels was Jesse James, at the end of the Civil War a member of a fringe Confederate military group known as Quantrell’s Raiders. The year is 1865. Not part of the regular Confederate Army, Quantrell’s Raiders were guerilla fighters who made up their own rules. Their targets were not always military targets, nor were their motives always strictly patriotic.

In the ambush and killing of two union soldiers, Jesse James was shot and captured by the Union Army. Forced to pledge allegiance to the union cause, the outlaw was still in prison four years later when the Civil War ended.

Going back home to Missouri, he found destruction and bitterness. Missouri was split in terms of its allegiances. Jesse James found a third path – that of the outlaw. Teaming up with his brother Frank, he formed an outlaw gang that would become legendary, focusing its first heists  on the supplies of the union troops he found oppressive. There were many such small rebellions reported in newspapers of the era, but the James Gang struck the high notes that attracted attention throughout the country.

I started watching the documentary, produced by the estimable Robert Redford, with the perception that each episode would focus on a single individual or event. It was soon apparent, however, that Redford’s intent was to present a coherent overview which gathers seeming separate stories into a whole.

The Native Americans who migrated thousands of years ago across the land bridge that linked Siberia with Alaska is brought in with a sweeping image of natural beauty. By the time the railroads were pushing westward, Native Americans living in the west numbered to an estimated 300,000. Among these was the brilliant military commander Crazy Horse, then a young warrior who watched the incursion into lands that had belonged to his people for centuries.

In 1866, Crazy Horse carried out a vast military campaign that terrorized the new settlers in Wyoming Territory. In a span six months, says a narrator, dozens of settlers were killed, seriously restricting movement through the territory. President Ulysses S. Grant and General William Sherman received this news with a great deal of displeasure. Grant wants the nation to know that he won’t tolerate chaos on the frontier, threatening his plan of unifying the U.S. from coast to coast in the establishment of a single nation.  He orders Sherman, commander of America’s western Army divisions to do battle with Crazy Horse. Late in 1866, a thousand new U.S. troops poured into Lakota territory.

Crazy Horse faces a challenge of numbers, technology, and superior firepower as he follows a vision which sustained him as a youth – that he couldn’t be killed and that bullets of the enemy would not find him in battle. He comes up with a plan to lure the U.S. Army from Fort Kearney, Wyoming Territory, into open plains where he can conduct an inspired  assault. When the troops follow him to the field, he rides his pony horizontally across the field of fire, just out of range of their fusillades. At the moment the soldiers are reloading the muskets, they are attacked by Crazy Horse’s warriors. Almost one hundred soldiers are killed in what became known as the “Battle of 100 Slain.”

 The Crazy Horse legend grew as President Grant paced the White House and agonized over the defeat. Grant therefore had to deal with two crises, the rebellions of the recently defeated south, and the rising up of the Sioux nation  to stop migration to the west. To deal with the Sioux in the west, Grant picks one of his best Civil War generals, the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer.

Everyone knows of ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ one of the most ignominious defeats of the U.S. Army in battle. Did this episode of “The American West,” have anything interesting or peculiar to add? That Custer graduated last in his class at West Point Military Academy perhaps? That he distinguished himself for his aggressiveness and success in the Civil War is probably better known.  But when he was given command of the crack 7th Army in the west, his fate was sealed.

Interesting Facts:

Jesse James father had gone west on the Gold Rush and died there. His mother was a single parent.

Until Jesse James robbed banks in Missouri, not a single bank in the U.S. had ever had an armed robbery.

175 million acres of land were deeded to railroad companies as part  of President’s Lincoln’s plan to move people westward from the overly-developed east and from the devastated southern regions. This was more land than the entire state of Texas. The railroads then sold land to settlers moving in from the east.

By 1865, an estimated  300,000 Native Americans had migrated over the land bridge from Siberia to the American West.  Among these the most populous and powerful peoples living in the west were the Lakota Sioux.

The distinguished General George Armstrong  Custer graduated last in his class at West Point Military Academy. Yet he distinguished himself for his aggressiveness and success in the Civil War.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Americans: The Spies Next Door

The Beautiful Keri Russell, matriarchal killer KGB Agent & Humble Housewife

. The Jennings live next door to the Beemans. The Jennings are KGB. The Beemans are FBI. I’m talking about a show called “The Americans.”

Old fans of the show will know what happened in the past as Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings settle into a tidy suburban neighborhood where their next-door neighbor and FBI agent San Beeman lives. The Jennings have two children, Paige and Henry.

Paige is the oldest, smart enough to figure out that some things about her parents are downright unsettling. Paige has seen her parents disappear too many times into the night not to be suspicious. She pressures her mother to eventually tell her the truth. When she finally learns the truth, Paige finds it too burdensome and shares the shocking news with her pastor.

The irony of it all is that, in the Jennings search for identity authenticity, in their complete success at blending in, their daughter Paige has become religious. How this fits into the communist atheist ideology creates an unbearable tension. Meanwhile, younger brother Henry is still clueless about his parents’ espionage. Season four begins with the suggestion that the Jennings’ secret lives may be unraveling.

One of the things that continues to amaze me about “The Americans,”, was that I am still fooled by the disguises Elizabeth and Philip Jennings use while they’re on their midnight forays. Having missed the first two seasons, I began watching last year. I know that disguises are a regular part of each episode. So why am I so continuously fooled during those first few seconds of a scene where Philip or Elizabeth are out and about doing dead drops or meeting with contacts for such nefarious assignments as obtaining samples of a deadly Department of Defense bio-weapon from a traitor scientist?

Maybe it’s the routine and understated way Elizabeth and Philip go about their business in general that disarms and beguiles me. The same two parents gaily sitting with their kids at a picnic table in a public park are the same two parents carrying a naked male body from the bedroom where they’ve killed him in the interest of world peace. Elizabeth has the nude male by the ankles and Philip has the shoulders as another man watches the ‘cleanup’ casually and with his arms crossed. It’s like – “Hi there, Elizabeth, let’s put the lamp over here on the nightstand and would you please help me remove this body and send him down the laundry chute?”

This first episode of the season reminds us of who Philip is and how’s he’s become what he’s become. Philip is having trouble dealing with his role in life as a Russian spy sent to blend into the American landscape. While the whole purpose is to project an image of family life and marital bliss, it’s a dirty, ugly business that he’s in. Dedicated as he is to the Soviet ideology, he’s bothered by a lot of what he has to do. How did he become so hardened, so cruel, so methodical in his murderous ways?

In the flashback of his dreams, you see that he grew up with nothing, that as a young boy he was deprived, had to filch for his existence, was beaten and bullied by other kids competing for dominance in a harsh world. Fed up with being tormented, he rises up in anger, beating another kid to death with a rock, blood splattering all over his face.

He does what he has to do, that’s the message, but it doesn’t make for quiet peaceful sleep. Philip is deeply troubled, often unable to reconcile his troubles with the fantasy role he’s expected to play as a spy. This brings him to an EST meeting. Young audiences may not know what those things are but can imagine a group of unlimited size where people are encouraged to unburden themselves of their deepest inner truths. This is supposed to bring sighs of relief. While the hundreds of people gathered to witness this testimonial exhibition of innermost thoughts applaud Philip for his minor epiphanies, he just can’t cough up those early childhood murders. The old KGB, and even the current FSB, would find such notions frivolous, foolish, another sign of the decadence of the West.

The EST meeting did produce one interesting result. The wife of FBI Agent Stan Beeman also attends the EST meeting and the two neighbors meet for a drink later. One of the unusual juxtapositions of the show is that the Beeman family lives next door. Stan has become increasingly suspicious of his seemingly quiet and harmless next-door neighbors and his wife has been seen cozying up to neighbor Philip in the bar. He confronts Philip who has just returned from a meeting with the traitorous scientist – the one that provided the sample vial of the latest bio-warfare germ – and slams him against the wall.

“Are you screwing my wife?” he bellows.

Philip wasn’t of course, though it’s pretty clear he’d sleep with anyone if directed to do so by his handler, Gabriel. In this episode Philip appears with two wives, not an uncommon thing for KGB operatives in search of sensitive espionage material. Philip has his KGB wife Elizabeth and also poses as ‘Clark” Hanson, the FBI agent husband of Martha Hanson who spies for him in the FBI headquarters to which Stan Beeman is assigned.

Gabriel is intent upon getting the secreted lab sample of the deadly bio-germ created by Department of Defense scientists at Fort Dietrich. When Stan Beeman slams Philip up against the wall, there is considerable pucker factor as the body slam is hard enough to break the vial and unleash the deadly microbes on Washington.

How deadly is it? As the traitor scientist who delivers the vial describes it: “This (substance) is to meningitis what Bubonic Plague is to the common cold.” The reference stems from Elizabeth and Philip’s inoculation with meningitis vaccine as a preventative – a useless one at that.
Among the pitfalls of living in a free country is that your daughter might become religious. That’s already happened to the Jennings’ daughter Paige, who last season found out about her parent’s strange nighttime occupations. Now she’s intensely curious and in a morning breakfast scene asks her mother why her father left their house at 3 in the a.m. Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings manages to be both maternal and reassuring as she reveals her hard ideological beliefs.

“He’s meeting a source,” says Elizabeth.
“Is it dangerous?”
“No, it’s more about getting people to trust you, to help them understand that you want the same thing that they want, to make the world safe for everyone.”

Paige finds her parent’s occupation a tremendous burden to bear and confesses it to her friend and counselor Pastor Tim. The Jennings have already stressed that they would both go to prison if Paige tells someone else and Paige is panicked at the thought. Pastor Tim presses her to find out more of what her parents’ actually do and “then we’ll decide what to do from there.”

Also caught up in the web of lies and counter-lies is Nina Krilovna, released from prison and working with Russian-Jewish scientist Anton Baklanov. As part of her penance for past anti-Soviet sins, she’s supposed to keep an eye on the regretful Baklanov who’s working in a Russian laboratory. They’re both trapped between their personal feelings and the required obeisance to the insufferable state.
The operatives are working on the blunt edge of politics in their different political systems. Behind the friendly smiles, and the agreeable appearances is the knife edge of competing ideologies.

Animal Kingdom -- TNT's New Drama Has Crazy Fun in the Sun


I used to live in California and I kind of miss it. And then again I don’t. One of the things in the don’t column stems from people like the characters in TNT’s new show “Animal Kingdom.” I think it’s a great show but that’s because I’m not living that life. Some people not living that life will think that the theme is a bit far-fetched. It’s not though.

Julia died of an overdose of bad heroin. She’s lying on the couch beside her seventeen year old son who is too stunned to cry. The paramedics come to pronounce the mom dead. The funeral was just another extended horror for poor J.  He’s gone to live with his grandma but she’s no ordinary grandma. She runs a violent crew—her three sons and her right-hand man in the criminal enterprise – Baz.

At the grave site, everyone’s all silent and wooden when a former neighbor woman issues a stark warning:  “They don’t belong here, J. Don’t stand there wid’ ‘em. Don’t.”

Maybe it was good advice but it came at the wrong time. J’s mother is lying cold and dead as Dina, the former neighbor, speaks out against the Cody family: “Maybe she (your mom) was weak but she did everything she could to protect you from them.”

Nothing like getting cheerful warnings like that at your mother’s funeral, especially when you’re a seventeen year old high school student with no family, no means of support, and no prospects. J thanks Dina the neighbor but demurs. Craig speaks up for the Cody family: “Get the hell out of here.”

Would anyone else like to say anything? Mercifully not. The cemetery workers lower the casket into the ground and the various family members make a pass around the grave before everyone leaves. The Cody boys are irreverent as they comment on the ceremony:  “I guess we’re Lutheran. Who knew?” Deran responds: “It (the funeral) must have been the cheapest.”   Sad, pathetic, and all too real.

Pope also forced into the next caper the gang planned to pull. That he immediately wants to commit more crime just one day after his release from prison defines him. Pope has a sociopathic personality. He’s fiendish, diabolical, violent, and dangerous and calculating. If there’s anything to add it’s that he’s a creep – with no sense of personal boundaries.

And the boys play silly games like playing basketball by popping food into J’s girlfriend Nikki’s mouth which will earn her $200.  J tells he she doesn’t have to play but she seems to like it. Though he’s not a blood family member, Baz gives J some friendly advice about how to play things with Uncle Pope who feels displaced by the newcomer.

Not all the games are silly, however. They’re the one where they rent a group of junkies and confine them in a vehicle. It’s a violent takeover, but since they’re junkies they can be paid off with drugs. The purpose of the confinement is so that they spread their DNA about the vehicle they use in a robbery. This is a clever ruse to confuse the forensics people when the police find the vehicle.

The heist itself is a jewelry store robbery in which the crew crashes an SUV into a luxury jewelry boutique. Deran drives the getaway car and picks up his brother with the loot, but they bump into security in a back alley. One of the security officers gets crushed against a dumpster. The other one fires and hits Craig in the shoulder.

You can’t blame J for being a little freaked out by this family now. He’s gone back to his mom’s old apartment and got the phone number of a guy he believes is his dad. A man answers but hangs up when J can’t even tell the guy what his father’s last name is. So it’s back to grandma’s house except he runs into the dope dealer who wants the money J’s mom owes him. J’s angry, not about to take any crap from anyone. He overpowers the guy and is this close to shooting him: “She’s (my mom) dead from the crap that you sold her.” Then he’s out on his bicycle in the cleansing air of the boardwalk, staring at the rolling, healing ocean waves. When he returns to the beach house, things are even more disturbing. Baz and Pope are cauterizing Craig’s bullet wound, while Smurf is singing lullabies to her crying ‘baby’ last born son.