Spoilers for the penultimate episode of "John From Cincinnati" coming up just as soon as I fire up my grill...
So we have one episode left, maybe for now, maybe ever, and while I'm engaged, I don't for a minute believe that all our questions will be answered next week, or even most of them. Milch has always been better with beginnings than endings, and "JFC" is such a messy, shaggy story that I can't picture him tidying things up in a single episode. Hell, Mitch Yost -- our main character when this story began, don't forget -- just came back after being MIA for a bunch of episodes while Bruce Greenwood was off shooting a movie, so I think anyone believing that Milch has a firm grasp of his master plan are just wishing for the best the same way Butchie and Kai are when they convince themselves that John could never hurt Shaun.
I'm actually less interested in the return of Mitch (the show improved quite a bit when he left and the focus had to move off of the Yost marriage) than I am with Erlemeyer the chemist, the latest addition to the show's gallery of familiar TV faces. (For you young'uns, he's played by Howard Hesseman, best known for playing 60's drug casualty Dr. Johnny Fever on "WKRP in Cincinnati," and only slightly less well known for being hipster substitute teacher Charlie Moore on "Head of the Class.") I'm told this isn't a coincidence. One of Milch's chief themes of the series is our tendency to make character judgments based on first impressions, and he wanted his cast populated with actors the audience would feel like they knew -- often, in the case of people like Luis Guzman and Willie Garson, playing the sorts of roles they usually play -- so he could then show us how much deeper people like Ramon and Dickstein and Bill were than we first assumed when we saw the actors in question. I don't know that it's working all the time -- Ramon is nearly as big a cipher to me now as he was at the start, last week's comic ranting notwithstanding -- but it's interesting, and it's not hard to connect the dots between Johnny Fever and Erlemeyer. (Also, from "in Cincinnati" to "from Cincinnati." Better Hesseman than Gary Sandy.)
Another of Milch's pet themes, both on "Deadwood" and here, is the growth of community. As some commenters and other bloggers have pointed out, the Yosts and their friends have for the most part been existing independently of the rest of Imperial Beach. But that world has already been expanding in the last few weeks with the addition of Jerri and Dwayne at the internet cafe, and in one of my favorite sequences from last night, we see Cissy recruit a bunch of surf kids and Vietnam Joe to join the hunt for Shaun, and they in turn recruit more kids and more Vietnam vets. John, whatever his main agenda is, clearly wants the Yosts and the Snug Harbor people to reach out to the world at large. Maybe Butchie and Kai are right: maybe John doesn't mean Shaun any harm, and this is all just a device to help the Yosts "engage," just as Mitch re-engaged Erlemeyer.
The fact that Zippy disappeared along with Shaun and John shouldn't be a surprise, as all three have been tied together ever since Shaun brought Zippy back to life and Zippy returned the favor. What sort of Holy Trinity is this: the surfer, the birdie and the holy frat boy?
I still feel like the writing on this series has been too haphazard. Even if Milch wants, like David Chase's, to move away from TV's familiar narrative conventions, but you have to provide your audience something else in place of the usual rewards, and Milch has only done that some of the time.
But the highs, I'll admit, are pretty damn high. I don't usually think of Milch as a visual writer, and yet some of the strongest moments of "John" have been entirely wordless: the image of Shaun's wetsuit hanging empty like a ghost or a hanged man; the casual insertion of Mister Rollins (the grey man who molested Barry) in the background of the bar scene; and the closing sequence of Butchie sitting in the water, waiting for a wave to come.
That's as apt a metaphor for the series as a whole as I can think of. There are brief moments of tremendous excitement and fury and magic, and then a lot of sitting around, waiting for the next wave to hit. Does the finale give us something great to ride, or does the water remain frustratingly calm?
What did everybody else think?