Review: The Lizzie Borden Chronicles

Promo image for the Lizzie Borden ChroniclesLizzie Borden took an axe

gave her mother forty whacks;

when she saw what she had done

she gave her father forty-one.

So goes the old folk rhyme, which is slightly mangled in the opening credits of Lifetime’s TV series loosely based on the true story of one Lizzie Borden, who was acquitted of the brutal murder of her father and step-mother, but likely did it. The show misquotes the rhyme as ‘when he saw what she had done/she gave her father forty-one’, which puts Lizzie’s murder of her father more squarely as a reaction to him catching her in the act, as opposed to the more ambiguous motives of the original rhyme.

As is my wont when these historical adaptations arise, I was immediately drawn to investigate the truth. In this case… the truth is uncertain, and has been the subject of many wild speculations, but Lizzie is still the number one suspect. The Wikipedia article contains a good summary of the theories and evidence.

Lizzie Borden had motive – she and her sister had been on very poor terms with her father and step-mother, had recently quarrelled, were in the middle of a property dispute, and stood to inherit a very large sum of money. There’s also speculation that Lizzie was sexually abused by her father, and that she was caught in a tryst with the maid, Bridget Sullivan, although there is little evidence for either. There were rumours that Lizzie was a lesbian, and she seems to have been very close to actor the, Nance O’Neill, who came to live with her in later life, but there is no such connection to Bridget.

Lizzie gave inconsistent testimony, although this may have been influenced by the morphine she was taking to calm her nerves. She was also found destroying a stained dress, and a plausible candidate for the murder weapon was found on her property.

So, in as much as it is very likely that Lizzie Borden killed her parents; was very close to her sister, Emma; plausibly had a relationship with Nance O’Neill; and inherited a lot of money, the series has some basis in fact. But from there the Lizzie Borden Chronicles and the truth part ways. For the most part, I don’t mind.

It is perhaps obvious to say that if you ever wanted a show about Wednesday Addams growing up and brutally murdering people, you’ll enjoy this show. Obvious, but nonetheless true. This thought is undoubtedly behind the apt casting of Christina Ricci, best known for her childhood role as Wednesday, in the role of Lizzie.

In fact, casting for the show is perfection all round. Clea DuVall is exquisite as the tight-lipped, dour, but good-hearted sister, Emma Borden. Cole Hauser pulls off a difficult balance of both charming and deeply dubious in his role as Charlie Siringo, the private investigator and ‘Pinkerton man’ whose investigation of the Borden murders pulls him dangerously under Lizzie’s radar. Genre fans will also enjoy performances from Chris Bauer (True Blood, The Wire), Jonathan Banks (Community), and especially Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) as the mobster matriarch, Aideen Trotwood.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles present a joyfully bloodthirsty and original vision. Whilst it doesn’t attempt to be true to the facts, its basis in them gives the heroine stature. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character like her. Women simply aren’t allowed to play such unequivocally dangerous and brutal, yet still feminine, roles. When I try to think of others… Dexter‘s Hannah McKay reflects the stereotype of the female poisoner. Sure, she’s feminine, but this only serves to underscore the idea that women can only overpower men by ‘underhand’ or ‘deceptive’ means. At the other end of the scale, Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones is a skilled and powerful killer, but she is a knight, killing in the name of justice, and anything but feminine. Strength, brutality, physical threat, these are reserved as masculine characteristics, and they back up the idea of women as fundamentally defenceless; although the truth is that social mores and morality are the chief reasons most of us are not a threat to each other.

We are fleshy, vulnerable animals in our day-to-day lives. Knives, axes, pitch-forks, and the like, can all be wielded with deadly force regardless of whether you are male or female or neither. Historical evidence suggests that the real Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her step-mother 19 whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 11. She was not particularly strong or tall. Just really, really angry.

The fictional Lizzie Borden goes on a killing spree that the real one did not. But it’s no more implausible than Dexter‘s Bay Harbor Butcher, and that’s important. Impressions of strength and physical threat, whether we want them to or not, affect how vulnerable we appear. It matters that we see a normal, feminine woman can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than many men.

I’m not on board with all the deviations from likely historical truth. It’s heavily implied that she killed a bunch of cats – something the real Lizzie Borden, an animal lover, would have been unlikely to do. And, sad to say [spoiler], I wouldn’t get your hopes up for Lizzie growing old with Nance, or Adele, Lizzie’s other  love interest. The trend of lesbians dying on film continues in grim fashion. Not that the fictional Lizzie is a partner I would wish on anyone, but if Dexter can find love and Hannah McKay can end up alive and well in Argentina, there was room for a different choice.

If you’re not aware of what’s wrong with yet more lesbian deaths on television, a Google search can show you dozens of articles on the subject in seconds. The issue came to prominence last year, when fictional lesbian and bisexual women were dropping like aging popstars. The short answer is that lesbian and bisexual women lie at the intersection of mainstream misogyny and homophobia, with a hefty dose of queers die for the straight eye. You’re allowed to admit women who love women exist these days, but only if they die. Bonus points if their deaths make straight men sad and motivate them towards action (aka fridging). It’s no more inevitable that Lizzie Borden should kill her love interests than it was for Dexter, but it was just such an easy choice.

I’m not the first person to say it, but this needs to stop being the go-to for writers. There was a great moment when I thought Nance was going to join Lizzie in a murder-road-tip – this was an option, and one that would have skewed just a little closer to reality. But the writers chose to move away from the real history, where Lizzie’s relationship with Nance drove a wedge between the sisters, in favour of strengthening the sister-bond story. An opportunity lost in favour of heteronormitivity and the tired trope that platonic female relationships are the only kind that provide strength and solace.

That aside, I still think this show is very well made and as much of a romp as a drama about a serial killer can be. Bonus points for some really delightful period costumes. And full love for Mama Stark (Michelle Fairely) reprising her role as a formidable matriarch herding sons who are not her equal.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles was refreshing and enjoyable – one of the best things I have seen in a long time.

Review: Sleepy Hollow, Pilot Episode

Sleepy Hollow promo image

Look at these sexy bastards

Finally, something new in the visual medium to sink my teeth into. I think I’m going to enjoy this.

Sleepy Hollow is a new TV series from Fox, based (loosely, I assume) on the short story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow‘, by Washington Irvin, and not to be confused with the film of the same name.

In this latest iteration, Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a British man who was serving as a spy for George Washington during the American Revolutionary War when he beheads a man on the battlefield. Having been wounded himself, he loses consciousness… and wakes up alone in a cave in the present day. At the same time, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and her partner, the Kurgan, August Corbin (Clancy Brown), are investigating a minor disturbance when Abbie discovers a decapitated body, and Corbin, alas, loses his head. Abbie witnesses the headless horseman – the same man Ichabod beheaded – fleeing the scene.

When Ichabod is found wandering the streets, obviously confused by being transplanted to the 21st century, he becomes a suspect. Something he doesn’t help himself with when he is able to provide further information about the murderer. Whilst his tale is obviously wild and taken as evidence of insanity, Abbie is intrigued by the fact that it matches the more unbelievable elements of her own story, such as the murderer’s lack of a head, which she failed to reveal to her colleagues. Despite being told to steer clear of the case, Abbie continues to investigate, with Ichabod’s help, and things continue to get stranger.

How was it?

I enjoyed this very much. A great cast doing an excellent job in what could easily have been a somewhat painful fish-out-of-water story. Tim Mison being easy on the eyes doesn’t hurt, but he also flawlessly portrays an earnestness and confidence in Ichabod that carefully skirts the potential chasm of cringe/embarrassment humour. Nicole Beharie is also great, as Abbie Mills – the intelligent and insightful cop who isn’t afraid to break rules on her hunch – and if you’ve been reading me for a while you’ll know how refreshing I find it to have a female actor in a role like this. I’m also loving the plentiful people of colour in prominent roles. Nicole, as co-protag, but also John Cho, as another cop, and Orlando Jones, as Captain Irving.

There are some silly elements. Pilot episodes tend to be prone to info-dumping, and Abbie’s opening up to Ichabod about a plot-relevant moment in her childhood seemed particularly unlikely. We get time-travel/ressurection, a headless horseman, apocalyptic portents, and witchcraft all in the first episode, an whilst I am pro those kinds of things, it’s a lot to put on the other plate of the suspension of disbelief scales. Overall, given the fantastic hurdles of its premise, I think it bears up rather well.

This is fun, reasonably well-written, well-acted, and provides plentiful eye-candy (including dishevelled-18th century-military-uniform eye-candy) – what’s not to like! Certainly a welcome new input to those of us waiting for Game of Thrones our old familiars to start up again.

Review: Hannibal, Season One

Poster for HannibalSo, this is a show, then. Wow.

In my post-Game-of-Thrones-what-do-you-mean-we-have-to-wait-a-whole-year-for-the-next-episode daze I was fumbling around for something to absorb me in my ‘off’ hours. I don’t tend to turn to trash-TV to turn off. I mean, I’ve enjoyed the odd reality TV show in my time (especially the artistic ones, like Project Runway used to be), but I know a lot of people prefer what’s sometimes called ’empty-calories’ TV. Something that’s not necessarily that good or gripping, but which goes down easy because it runs through familiar tropes. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t think I’m wired that way. I prefer to throw myself into escapism full-throttle.  I turn off easier if there’s something with a fully-formed world, well-developed characters, good writing, and excellent acting with a well-paced and interesting plot going on. Which means that when I happen across a Dexter, a Game of Thrones, a Mad Men, I latch onto it and get pulled in until it’s all used up. I know some people find those to be the sort of shows they have to turn their brains on for – serious shows that demand attention – but I just don’t work that way. It’s not some kind of intellectual thing, like I even want ‘stimulating’ in my ‘off’ hours. It’s more like… the more effort someone else has spent providing something that will take my whole attention and avoid disturbing my suspension of disbelief for 45mins or an hour, the more easily I can just hand my consciousness over to them completely for that period of time. They take all the reigns of my mind and I just lie back and enjoy the show without my mind getting in the way and saying things like ‘Well, that was a bit sexist’ or ‘That line did not sound at ALL natural’ or ‘No one would really do THAT’ – because it doesn’t happen. The whole piece is primed for my smooth absorption.

Mads Mikkelsen, looking dapper.

I mean, just look at this dapper bastard.

Which is good in some ways, but can leave me feeling bereft when one really awesome thing is over and nothing is there to fill its place. It’s a good time for discovering new things.

And there was Tumblr, with a growing number of people throwing up pictures of Hannibal. Making in-jokes about Hannibal. Posting pictures of Mads Mikkelsen because ‘Ha ha – he’s so hot but he’s playing a cannibal WTF’. Even people who hadn’t seen Hannibal making PowerPoints about Hannibal to humourously explain what they had gleaned about Hannibal based on everyone else constantly posting about Hannibal.

So I thought, OK, why not give this Hannibal thing a go.

I’m rather glad I did.


Hannibal is a TV show based on the characters and events of Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris, the first book in the trilogy of which the second is The Silence of the Lambs, the seminal film in which Sir Anthony Hopkins gave an Oscar winning performance as Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist cannibal who helps FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, who also netted one of the film’s many Oscars), catch a serial killer. I’m gonna hold up my hands right now and say that I haven’t read the books and I have only seen The Silence of the Lambs. A friend of mine tells me that Hannibal is more like a prequel to Red Dragon, Wikipedia says otherwise, and I’m in no position to say which is right. It’s certainly pre-Silence of the Lambs, that much is true.

So. Hannibal as a TV show is actually more about Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) a criminal profiler whose extreme empathy makes him extraordinarily effective at understanding the minds of killers, but socially crippled and powerfully affected by the things he imagines when reconstructing a crime scene. At the start of the series, Will has left the FBI to focus on teaching, as he finds field work too taxing and the FBI has judged him too unstable.

That all changes when Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) calls Will back in to help with the case of a serial killer who impales his victims on antlers to drain them of blood, before cannibalising them. Knowing Will’s unstable condition, Jack asks Hannibal Lecter, a forensic psychiatrist, to covertly assess Will. A covert assessment that becomes overt after Will and Hannibal catch the killer, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, in the act of attacking his own family. Will shoots Garrett, necessitating a formal psychological assessment, from which point Will continues to see Hannibal on a voluntary basis, as Jack continues to employ his unique gifts and Will finds the strain harder and harder to bear.

Will insists from the beginning that one of the murders attributed to Garrett Jacob Hobbs was committed by a copy-cat, and we, the viewer, are given reason to think that it was committed by Hannibal Lecter. Of course, anyone who knows even a whiff of the history of the character suspected that to begin with. As the series progresses Will and Hannibal develop a close relationship, although one begins to suspect that Hannibal’s care of Will’s mental health may have ulterior motives. And for his part, Will notices other murders supposedly committed by serial killers that do not entirely fit that killer’s MO.

What are Hannibal’s plan’s for Will? Will Will figure out what Hannibal is? What will everyone think when they realise what was really in all of Hannibal’s fabulous dinners?

How was it?

Bloody excellent (no pun intended). I was in two minds about whether to watch it. One always is with a spin off from a franchise, but it came highly recommended, not just from Tumblr, but from people whose tastes I trust. Equally, I enjoy some police procedurals, but not others. It’s a saturated market place and a format with tropes entrenched in sexism, which I’ve written about before. Plus, I have a hella big squick for cannibalism, so whilst I’m a big fan of Dexter, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to deal with a sympathetic presentation of a cannibal. But hey, Game of Thrones was over and I had a gap to fill, so why not?

It was worth the risk. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is different from Hopkins’s, but not to the detriment of either. His almost deadpan stillness adds an alienness to him as an aloof psychiatrist. Although still charismatic, his is a charisma that draws you in – to step closer, to speak your thoughts to fill the silence. It adds an edge to Mikkelsen’s good looks that allows the watchfulness and disquiet the character evokes to prevent any impression that his handsomeness detracting from the horror of what he does. And though he is immaculately dressed in very flattering clothes, the perfection of his appearance speaks of an exactness of mind that works for a character that dissects human beings. A sense that that level of perfection isn’t quite… human.

Although, of course, Hannibal is human. And Hannibal, the TV show, never makes the mistake of demonising killers to the extent that you might think that killing like that isn’t really the act of human beings. Hannibal himself shows human affection. Although he is distant from people and has few real friends, he does seem to like Will Graham, and he affection for Abigail Hobbs (whom both he and Will become guardians of after Will saves her life by taking her father’s) seems genuine. He also expresses a wish for friendship with his own psychiatrist, Dr Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). Similarly, his own reserved mannerisms are closely mirrored by Dr Du Maurier, and whilst other psychiatrists, such as Dr Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), show greater warmth, the sense that a certain detachment is natural to the analytical mode and a wish not to import one’s own assumptions onto one’s patient seems both reasonable and normal for a person in his line of work.

Without doubt, the psychiatry is central to the show. Not being a psychiatrist, I can’t comment with any authority on its authenticity, but as a layperson who has had cause to learn a bit about mental illness over the years it rang reasonably true. In analysing the killers, and in Will’s empathy with them, the show forces the viewer to accept their actions as those of human beings with complex psychologies whose actions have a context and thus cannot be attributed to some vague notion like ‘evil’. At the same time, through Will’s eyes, we are never divorced from the horror of the actions. Whilst the programme is certainly not for the faint of heart, there is no way that it could be said to sanitise or normalise violence. Rather, it forces the viewer towards a confrontation with horror both at emotional and analytical levels in a way that leaves little room for excuses. Human beings do do such things as these, and admitting that does not entail excusing it.

As for the cannibalism… yes, there are numerous darkly humourous moments in which it is strongly suggested (or even directly shown) that Hannibal is cooking people for dinner and serving them to almost everyone on the show. And the whole time I was sitting there going ‘Gnnnaaaaghhh! No! Don’t EAT IT’, but that’s OK. The humour is very subtly played and it is never pressed into tastelessness.

As for the sexism… it fares better than most of its genre. There are limitations stemming from the source material. Elementary has shown that you can change the race and the gender of no less a literary character than Dr Watson and not detract from the show (I’m sure there are those who would disagree, but I don’t have a lot of time for such people) but it’s possibly an added controversy that you don’t need when you’re making a show about a cannibal. So, yet again, it’s two middle-class white guys in the lead roles, and this time both of them are hyper-intelligent odd-balls who don’t play by the rules. On the plus side, the next most significant character is played by a person of colour, and there are two other people of colour in the recurring cast. Roughly half the cast are women (how bad is it that this is unusual?), they all have distinct characters, and only one of them has a relationship or potential relationship with one of the leading men.

I loved Gillian Anderson’s Dr Du Maurier, and not just because it’s always a pleasure to see Scully getting work. She was perfectly Hannibal’s equal for detached and analytical perspective, which women are rarely allowed to be on TV. There’s even a suggestion that she suspects what he does, and that she is prepared to protect him anyway, just as he once protected her in the past.

Equally, showing that women can be detached and unemotional doesn’t mean showing all female characters that way. Alana Bloom is warm and caring. Gina Torres‘s Bella Crawford is a strong and self-contained, yet still feminine woman. Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) is out-going, yet somewhat sardonic. Lara Jean Chorostecki‘s performance as Freddie Lounds is intriguingly suggestive of sociopathic, but not psychopathic, behaviour, in her aggressive reporting technique. And Abigail Hobbs presents a significant and interesting question mark throughout the series, as many wonder whether daughter takes after father, and if she’s actually a killer herself, or simply a very messed up girl. That’s what we want: not cookie-cutter Strong Female Characters who kick ass but never have a hair out of place, but rich, complex, diverse characters, who are devised and defined just as male characters are: as full people, interesting in their own rights, not specified in advance by their gender.

It’s also worth mentioning Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson) who plays a slightly camp forensic scientist. I liked that we don’t know whether he’s gay or not and his slightly camp mannerisms and tone of voice are never commented on or made fun of by the other characters. It’s just how he is. On the one hand, it would have been better to have a recurring character who was acknowledged as being gay – I’m aware of the frustrations LGBT people feel at only ever being hinted at on screen – but it was also nice to have camp behaviour not being treated as exceptional, weird, or to be mocked. Whether he’s a het man who’s comfortable with being camp, or a gay guy who can be relaxed around his coworkers, it’s nice to have a character who is camp where being camp is not the entirety of what his character is about.

So, whilst there are a few areas that aren’t all that might be wished, in comparison to many TV shows that I also like and watch, Hannibal does pretty well. And those issues aside, it’s a really interesting programme with some fresh new takes on a familiar genre. By no means simply a cashing in on a franchise; rather, a well-thought out, meticulously explored gem of a show.