I can sum up my chronological reaction to the finale roughly as follows: Wow. Huh? Whoa. Wha? Um, okay...
On the one hand, we get the majesty of John and Shaun surfing their way down from "Cincinnati," perfectly edited and then scored to Bob Dylan's "Series of Dreams" (which at one time was being considered for the show's theme song). It's a sequence at once so beautiful and so fist-pumping that I've already watched it at least as many times as I revisited The Sermon At The Motel.
And we got a character -- Linc, of all people -- finally start to make some headway in deciphering John's echolalia-riddled speech patterns. (So that's what "If my words are yours, can you hear my father?" means! Thank you!) And we even kinda sorta explained (I think) the point of Mitch's levitation: he's been floating away from his family for years, and it's not until he recognizes this, swallos his pride and asks for Butch and Shaun's help in getting down that he can truly put his feet on terra firma and engage with the world and his loved ones again.
On the other hand, we come to the end of the season -- and, I suspect, the series, for reasons I can elaborate on one last time below -- with no greater understanding of John's (and Milch's) master plan. The episode just keeps piling on the subplots and characters in a way that seems less in service to the story (whatever it is) than to Milch's desire to, say, squeeze in Jerri and Dwayne, or to give cameos to old buddies like Keone Young (aka Mr. Wu, as one of our Hawaiian visitors), Peter Jason (aka Con Stapleton, as the car salesman who, it's implied, may be John's "father") and Bill Clark (aka the real mind behind "NYPD Blue," who pops up as the Imperial Beach chief of police with the sickly dog). And even Linc only can get so far with John.
I don't think Milch is blind to how the audience is reacting to all this, nor to the notion that this would probably be his last opportunity to tell us much of anything about these characters. He has Linc berate John into giving him a straight answer about what he's supposed to do (which John turns into another chance to play parrot), and has Mitch bark out a line like, "I need to know what this is about!" And then there's John's list of way the bleep out of left field pronouncements about what will happen to many characters in the future, which I will reproduce here rather than attempt to explain, because the Dr. Smith thing in particular just hurts my brain:
"Dr. Smith comes back 20 years younger from Cincinnati. Cissy gets knocked up. She's bigger than Leona Helmsley. Earth puts Dickstein on retainer; Daphne keeps his head straight. Jerri meets a slew of new harelips. My father forewalls (four walls?)Barry's bar. Dr. Smith trains Dwayne and Ramon. My father freelances in Cass' camera."As I said in my column the other day, it's like John is reading from Milch's outline for the theoretical second season, but it doesn't do much, if anything, in helping us decipher what happened in the here and now. (For all I know, Garret Dillahunt was just busy getting root canal work the week this was filmed and Milch made up the "20 years younger" thing as some bizarre explanation for Dr. Smith's absence from the rest of the episode.)
A commenter to Friday's post complained about my desire for explanation, saying "Irreducibility, & non-conformity to existing concepts and frameworks are kinda the essence of the miraculous." And, look, I understand the whole notion of God working in mysterious ways, as well as the one about proof denying faith, etc., etc. But I'm not one of the Yosts, or Vietnam Joe, or Barry Cunningham, someone who's experiencing John's miracles directly; I'm the viewer of a television show. I don't need John to tell Linc "I'm an extraterrestrial from the planet of Grapthar's Hammer, and I'm here to inspire your entire planet to take up surfing because we really dig watching it," but I need something to keep me engaged during the stretches in between the grand moments like The Sermon, or John and Shaun's return, or Bill's belated trip up the stairs, and a few hints about the grand plan might help.
In fairness, even if we don't know the purpose or mechanism behind John's miracles, at least we've seen tangible results over these ten episodes. The Yost family, once a damaged, splintered group with little more than a name in common, have been healed. Butchie's clean and sober, Cissy has forgiven herself for molesting him, Tina's back in town and not completely unwelcome (loved the moment during the parade where the entire Yost clan joined in unison to insult the jerkoff who was hassling Tina) and Mitch has gotten down from the air and back in the game. Linc has a conscience, Cass a purpose and, in one of the best, most touching "character unburdens his soul to an inanimate object" Milch monologues ever, Bill got the courage to go up that damn spiral staircase and make peace with his wife's death.
(Maybe it's just my difficulty in translating all Milchspeak, but I hadn't realized until he got up there and we saw the hospital bed that Lois was ill even before she fell down the steps; why would you put an invalid up there?)
To recycle another line from Friday's column, what an enthralling, frustrating, amazing show. I can't explain it, but I'm going to miss it.
Some other thoughts on the finale:
- So here's why I think the show's not coming back: it's about as expensive as "Deadwood" (minus the period sets and costumes but plus even more reshoots and overruns), but with at best a quarter of the buzz and critical acclaim. (Even I, Blurby McBlurberson, have been guarded in my praise throughout, and most mainstream critics just gave up after the first three or four episodes.) "John" was created in the first place as HBO's alibi for cancelling "Deadwood," but that's not relevant anymore. (If anything, cancelling "John" increases the chances -- however slightly -- that those "Deadwood" movies might get made some day, in that Milch won't have anything else on his plate. I still will only believe the movies are getting made when the review screeners cross my desk, though.)
- Best payoff to a set-up that didn't seem like a set-up: Shaun returns to Mitch and Cissy's house and asks Cissy to make him a "peanut butter and butter" sandwich. Cissy, stunned, asks, "Not tuna?" Maybe you should've asked him how he liked it at some point, huh, Cissy?
- So, is Con the car salesman John's father, some other celestial being, or just an eccentric guy who happens to throw around John buzzwords like "Zeroes and ones"?
- Anyone care to offer an interpretation of the final shot and line? I've replayed it a half-dozen times, and best I can make out it's, "Mother of God, Cass/Kai." Huh? (I kept going back to make sure it wasn't "bless Kai," which it's clearly not.) On the plus side, Keala Kennelly's got some moves on the board.
- Speaking of Kai, nice little moment where she thanks Ramon for taking care of Butchie during his long time in the heroin wilderness.
- Liked Bill's running commentary on all the participants in the parade ("Here's a drug casualty, he thinks his car's normal... Here's the homosexual in the hybrid... look at the breasts on these women. This country is doomed.")
- Couldn't care less about Mr. Wu and our other visitor from Hawaii. Freddy and Palaka have discussed their impending arrival enough that it's not a completely out of left field development, but it still felt completely extraneous.