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Cautionary Tale: FX’s Taboo

In my experience, writing a good story is like baking a cake.

You have to measure each ingredient carefully. You have to know what things taste good together and what to leave out. Put too much liquid and it won’t firm up. Don’t put enough, the cake is dry. Add too much sugar and it’s inedible. Don’t add enough and it’s bland and tasteless.

Finally, after you have a good story, you add your icing. For novels, icing can be the worldbuilding aspects, extra juicy scenes to pander to the fans, or any manner of things. In television, however, I would equate the icing to the acting and atmosphere of a story.

FX’s mini-series Taboo is like a dry cake with excellent frosting.

Naturally, spoilers ahead. 

Unfortunately, what I believe happens in instances like Taboo is that the writers got so wrapped up in the “mystery” of the show that they just flat-out refused to tell a story the way that people have been doing it for thousands of years, because for some reason, they thought they knew better. We’ve all seen shows, movies, or books of the like, where it’s so clear that the author wants to lead you around by the nose and never see a twist coming that they actually fail storytelling in general.

You see, Taboo has a terribly interesting premise, and it has strong dialogue delivered by an incredibly talented cast. I fully admit that I am a Tom Hardy fangirl, but it’s true that I gave this show a chance because it had the potential to be unlike anything else on network television these days. Hell, FX is one of my favorite channels for that reason. They like to take risks and explore the worlds outside of the boring lineup of every other channel with its shows only about doctors, lawyers, or cops. Furthermore, the cinematography is Emmy-worthy, and that’s saying something considering the show is set in Crapsack World 1800’s where everything is dirty, cold, wet, and diseased.

Still, this is what happens sometimes when you get big name directors like Ridley Scott who are so concerned with making something unsolvable that they lose the entire reason why we sat down to watch Taboo in the first place.

Let’s start with the big man himself, James Keziah Delaney. Is his part well-acted? Absolutely. Tom’s using his A-game and he’s given us a heavy, disturbing, intriguing performance as Delaney, who is just as batshit insane as a man can possibly get, and is so far into the antagonist role that you could easily argue he is a villain protagonist. Over the course of the show, we really are not given much in the way of redeeming qualities. At the most, we see he has a slight fondness for the madam’s daughter Winter and he has a slight attachment for his father’s servant Brace, but he is portrayed as basically a step below full on evil. He takes Anti-Hero to a whole new level, and it’s the first mistake that the show made: you cannot root for a man who is almost completely aligned with the villain, and so you never grow attached to him, therefore meaning that his fate is ultimately pointless.

As I mentioned before, basic storytelling means that you introduce a character, introduce their motivations, glance over their background in order to help the audience understand them, and then you put them on a journey.

Well, what the hell is James’ motivation? They never give us a full picture of who he is as a man, despite how much time we’ve spent with him. The writers threw us a few crumbs, but there is no payoff for who James Delaney is and why he does what he does. For example, most storytellers would make this a revenge story based around how the East India Company killed James’ father. We would assume as much, but we’re shown that James doesn’t have that much loyalty to his father and isn’t broken up at finding out he was killed for the Nootka land.

Well, maybe it’s about James’ mother, who was clearly a Native of some sort. Maybe she’s the reason he’s fighting the company to go to Nootka and maybe rediscover his roots. Nope. They never go into who his mother was, what she did, why she did it, how it affected him, or if he actually has any supernatural powers. They tease at it constantly and never address it, and it’s worse because it could have been one of the most interesting concepts of the entire show. Once more, it’s because the writers think it’s cool to keep the audience guessing and keep them in the dark, but all it does is make you impatient and frustrated that they’re jerking you around for the sake of jerking you around. James’ mother should have a larger impact on understanding who he is and where he came from, but ultimately she matters about as much as James’ father, which is not at all.

Over and over again, James makes decisions that can’t be predicted or absorbed by the audience because the show constantly holds us at arms’ length in order to deliver “ooh, aah, what a twist!” moments. I don’t know why they seem to think this is enough to keep our butts in the chairs. Without a reason to care or understand or sympathize with James, why should we stick around for a few cheap, paltry writing tricks?

Let’s say for argument’s sake that maybe it’s not about understanding James Delaney. Fine. What about Zilpha or Lorna? Nope. We’re not given any motivations for either of them. Zilpha is living under the greasy boot of her stupid abusive husband until the last two or three episodes. We don’t know how she ended up with him. We don’t know why she puts up with his abuse when she clearly has some kind of self-esteem and thoughts independent of him. Was her husband always an abusive creep or did James’ reappearance change him? Sure, it’s satisfying when she stabs his bitch ass and he dies knowing that she sent his sorry butt to the afterlife, but then the show immediately ruins it by letting her story unceremoniously end with suicide. What? Are you kidding me? Why did James doggedly pursue her, to the point where he was giving her wet dreams, and then just randomly drop her on her ass? They never explain why he just cut her off and then she just dies for no reason. What was the point of telling that story in the first place if there is no pay off?

Alright, then let’s focus on Lorna. Maybe she was meant to be the focus. Nope. No dice. Lorna shows up all proud and arrogant like she’s hot shit in a champagne glass, but she then proceeds to just take up space as the Token Vagina of the group. She contributes absolutely nothing to the story until the season finale when she exonerates James from the murder of Winter—which, by the way, no one was investigating and he was just stomping around London free as a bird in spite of this—but even then that became a moot point because James was escaping London altogether and Winter’s mother dies in the finale. Again, what was the point of this character? They never show us anything about her marriage to James’ father, if it was even legit, or if she knew all along that attaching herself to him would give her Nootka, or why she wanted Nootka to begin with considering she was just an actress. How could she sail to America and expect not to be instantly killed upon arriving? Or was she just going to sell Nootka to the highest bidder? We, as the audience, cannot answer any of these questions, and that is a huge sign that this story is sour.

There are so many points in this show where there is no pay off. It’s just sloppy. For example, we later see that James and Goddard did file the account of the Influence’s sinking and gave it to Chichester, but then James just murders Stuart Strange, who is the reason why Chichester wanted justice in the first place. Stuart is dead and therefore cannot pay for his crime in the justice system. Perhaps it means the destruction or at least the seizure of the East India Trading Company, but those two actions are at odds with each other in terms of the story. You could argue that it shows that James has at least some common decency, but since we still don’t know what’s going on inside his head, it’s not satisfying.

To me, Taboo could have been a delicious cake with delicious frosting, and instead, it is a dry cake with fantastic frosting. Most of the time, you want it to be bad frosting on a good cake because you can simply scrape the frosting off and eat the cake, but Taboo is at its core an unstable story wobbling because the cook was so busy trying to be Avant Garde that he just forgot the right ingredients and the right measurements.

I must admit that I’m not entirely sure if I’ll be back if FX orders another season. It’s extremely clear that the people in that writers’ room just want to dick around instead of doing their job and telling a story so that we care about the characters we’ve spent so much time with. I suppose I’ll have to mull it over and decide if it’s worth it for another go at an extremely overcooked cake with poor flavoring, but excellent frosting.

Maybe if Tom Hardy shares it with me…

Things Justified Taught Me About Writing

fx-s-justified-renewed-for-fourth-season

If you’re not watching Justified, you need to reevaluate your life goals. It is by far one of the best, most consistently good shows on television, and after six awesome seasons (including the one starting this week), it’s finally saying goodbye. For that reason, I’m pouring one out to my long-legged, drawling, whip-smart, deathly sarcastic, eternally troubled badass modern cowboy, Marshal Raylan Givens.

First, a brief introduction: Justified tells the tale of Raylan (Timothy Olyphant), a Kentucky-born U.S. marshal who is a living, breathing modern cowboy. He was chasing down criminals in Florida before he faced off with a crime boss in a crowded restaurant. The crime boss pulled his gun and Raylan shot him in full view of the public, prompting a huge investigation that got him into so much trouble he was reassigned to his hometown. Harlan County, the area where his new jurisdiction covers, is absolutely teeming with all kinds of criminals from prostitution rings to drug dealers. Raylan is put under the supervision of Art Mullen (Nick Searchy), and works alongside fellow Marshals Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) and Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitt), whom he has friction with at first but they soon get along.

Meanwhile, things start to get heated when Boyd Crowder (Walt Goggins) blows up a church and makes trouble for his former brother’s wife, Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) when he finds out she killed him with a shotgun in his own home. Raylan and Boyd grew up together as teenagers, so Raylan is assigned to get him under control, kill him, or bring him in. Raylan’s life also gets even more tangled up as he crosses paths with his former wife Winona (Natalie Zea), a court stenographer, who remarried but they both still show signs of being attracted to each other.

Sound juicy enough for ya? Well, let’s dive in. Spoilers ahead, as always.

Sharp dialogue can be the most effective way to get your work noticed. Justified has a lot of unique things going for it, but what I’ve always considered to be this show’s most valuable asset is the dialogue. The stuff that comes out of these characters’ mouths is nothing short of genius. When Raylan, Art, Rachel, and Tim get in a room together, you don’t need violent criminals to have a good time. These four engage in the most intensely awesome snarkfests you will see in your natural born life. The relationships they’ve built over the years make for some of the best scenes you have the privilege of watching, especially Art and Raylan, who are equally exasperated with each other but still see the value of one another. If you need the highlights, check out the Crowning Moment of Funny page on Tvtropes.

It’s more than just humor, though. Justified has made a name for itself by carving out beautifully intricate characters through words alone. Boyd Crowder would be just like any other drug dealing crime boss if it weren’t for that legendary silver tongue and trademark drawl. He’s constantly cool under pressure and unlike 80% of the criminal underbelly of Harlan county, he uses his brain to get out of scrapes more than he uses a gun.

Similarly, Raylan’s biggest asset is that he just flat out pays attention and listens to the things around him. That is why he’s such an unbelievable marshal who nearly always gets his man. He knows how to manipulate bad guys and how to either talk them down or trick them into giving him the info he needs.

This is tricky for writers. Every author, and aspiring author, has strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are awesome at dialogue. Others are awesome at descriptions, diction, spinning whimsical plots, or creating imaginative worlds. Stick to what you’re good at, but also remember that great dialogue from your characters can set them apart, whether it’s humorous or poignant or terrifying or heartwarming. It also adds extra layers to their personality if they have a particular speech pattern or a quirk, like how in my series Belial insists on calling Jordan “my pet” just to work her nerve, and gives these grand overblown Hannibal Lecter-esque speeches just because he likes the sound of his own voice. Make the words coming out of their mouths matter and make them work for you, not against you.

 

Know the durability of your villains. One of the things that I’ve always loved about Justified is that they always pick a season-long villain to antagonize the marshals. This is a brilliant tactic because it allows us to get the full scope of someone without allowing them to drag along forever like Percy from Nikita or Abbadon from Supernatural. We get to see what kind of threat the villains present, why they need to be stopped, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what their hubris is if they have one (which they typically do because they are human.)

My personal favorite villain thus far has been Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) because for me, she’s the most layered and three-dimensional villain of the show. Mags actually had good sides to her, even though we find out she’s incredibly ruthless and scary. Hell, Mags was so amazing the role won Martindale an Emmy, and for good reason. She was expertly used and executed, and by far the best female character in the show’s entire run.

Conversely, Justified is a bit guilty of overusing their villains too. Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies), Mags’ wretched son, is still alive and kicking when he wore out his welcome by the end of season two. He’s a despicable coward, but yet he’s somehow managed to hold on to his life despite Raylan having every single reason to wipe that slime off the face of the earth. Thankfully, though, Dickie was downgraded to a minor character in the recent seasons, so while his presence still induces headaches, it’s tolerable.

Managing your villains properly is a hard trick to master as an author. You can’t look at it on a case-by-case basis. You have to unfurl your villain like a scroll and consider both the short and long term effects of their presence in the narrative. If you make their presence too short, then readers question why they were there in the first place. If you make their presence too long, then readers can get fatigued with them. I can freely admit one of the biggest struggles in writing the upcoming Black Parade novel The Holy Dark is that I had a villain who just wouldn’t fall into the category of major or minor character. It took me forever to figure it out because there were so many possibilities. It’s important to remember that nothing bogs a story down faster than a boring impervious villain who lasts longer than they should. You have to know when to fold ‘em.

 

Make your characters earn their keep. Alright, I’m going to get a little salty for this lesson—I f*@king hate Ava Crowder. I won’t launch into my 3,000 word essay about why, but if you’re curious enough, watch the following video (skip ahead to 12:35). I’m sure people would debate with me why she’s supposedly a good character, but the number one reason I can’t stand Ava is because she isn’t an independent character who pulls her own weight. Almost everything in this show just conveniently gets Ava out of a fix rather than her getting herself out of her own problems.

For instance, her introduction is killing Boyd’s brother with a shotgun after years of abuse. Look, fine, I understand that because domestic violence is pretty much the worst, but he was an unarmed man sitting at a dinner table eating and she shot him. In damn near any other case, Ava’s ass would have gone to jail, but no, she doesn’t. She gets off scot-free, which irritated me when I began the show, but I let it slide with the hope that she would give me a definitive reason why she was taking up time on my TV screen. She then enters a borderline creepy relationship with Boyd, which again annoyed me but whatever she clearly had bad taste in men to begin with, but what tears it is that Ava is basically just coasting off of Boyd’s reputation. She’s his lackey, except she gets to sleep with him and pretend that she’s his lieutenant. They keep up this disgustingly long pretense of being in love and wanting to buy a home and get married until finally the season four finale has Ava being apprehended in possession of a dead body and she’s sent to jail. Finally, Ava will prove she’s worth a damn, right?

lana-kane nope

Ava gets in jail and immediately gets help from Boyd, even though it later backfires. Then she gets mad that he can’t find a way to help her, so she breaks up with him and starts to learn the pecking order in the prison. It turns out they have a drug ring inside the prison and the guards are in on it in exchange for sex. The girls play along, but Ava—who is such a hypocrite because she ran a whorehouse herself before getting in jail—is too good to trade sex for status and rebuffs a guard. She tries to make a deal with the local nurse to get the product in and out of the jailhouse, but the guard she rejected frames her for attacking him. She is later saved by someone Boyd hired to watch over her. Then, Ava decides to take out the head of the drug ring so she can be the queen bee and it turns out it’s some elderly woman. And they get in a fight. And the elderly woman kicks Ava’s ass for a while before she finally stabs her to death. The woman’s followers suspect Ava and she’s all but tied her own noose because half the prison now wants her dead.

And then the entire season-long subplot is rendered pointless because Raylan gets her out of jail so she can tattle on Boyd to finally send him up the river. That’s right. After an entire season of her skating by on pure dumb luck, she is Deus Ex Machina’d out of trouble. Yep.

There is little worse than making someone a main character and then letting them constantly get away with everything with few relevant consequences. People are flawed, yes, but bailing a character out over and over again is the quickest way to make your readers dislike them. Not everyone needs to be a badass, but they all need to earn their keep and solve as many problems as they create. This is part of what authors mean when they say “kill your darlings.” It refers to more than getting rid of pieces of your work that you like but isn’t relevant to the overall story. It means push your characters off that pedestal they are on and force them to be worth your readers’ time. You can’t babysit them. Make them matter.

Don’t forget to just plain have fun. I am about to introduce the most brilliant moment ever put to television thanks to Justified. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, then you must do me the one favor of indulging me while I set up the best scene in the entire series, and in any series if you ask me.

In our fifth season, we’re introduced to Dewey Crowe’s family—a bunch of horrible, ignorant, slimy, back-stabbing guttersnipes who come up from Florida after they find out Dewey has come into some money thanks to suing the marshal service (long story.) They pressure and bully Dewey into sharing the wealth, and in doing so, cross Raylan and the marshals’ paths as they try to get a foothold on the crime syndicate in Harlan county. The Crowes are led by Darryl Crowe (Michael Rappaport), and consist of his sister Wendy (Alicia Witt) and his unbelievably stupid brother Danny (A.J Buckley).

Danny has been an incredible thorn in the side of everyone he meets for just being stupid as a bucket of shrimp, a coward, and a bully all in one. He bullies Wendy’s son, Kendal, in front of one of their dangerous allies Jean Baptiste (Edi Gathegi), who challenges him to either leave the kid alone or face off with him. Danny shoots him in the back and then threatens to kill Kendal if he tells anyone, and then tries to kill Kendal after he accidentally lets Danny’s beloved pit bull run off and get hit by a car.

At the end of the season, Raylan finally tracks Danny down to try and get him to lead him to Darryl. Danny decides to have a showdown with sharpshooter Raylan by setting up the 21-foot rule, a legend where a person with a knife is good enough to take someone with a gun within 21 steps of each other.

The result is the most glorious thing ever created ever. Please enjoy.

Reportedly, this scene was so amazing that Timothy Olyphant himself simply could not stop laughing in between takes because it is by far the most satisfying villain death ever made. When this happened live, my mother and I both jumped straight up off the couch and gave it a standing ovation for over a minute. You just have to have fun when opportunities like this present themselves. Justified went for it and they knocked it straight out of the park. True, you do need a bit more context to fully appreciate why the aforementioned scene is perfection, but nothing beats just having fun in your work.

No matter what the genre, it’s important to have fun with your writing. You have to love it. You have to put yourself inside it and make your readers turn those pages, the way that Justified is so good it practically demands me to watch it. Be audacious. Be bold. Do risky things or edgy things and make the pay off so great that people are excited to share it with each other. Even if you’re not Stephen King, you have the ability to gain readership by making your work an experience they cannot get elsewhere.

I’m super nervous about how Justified will end—after all, this is FX we’re talking about and they don’t pull their punches—but I’m so glad for the ride. It truly has been a show that no one can touch. It has its own voice and style and I will miss it sorely after it’s gone. If you’re curious, tune in Tuesdays at 10 o’clock pm EST. See you, cowboy.