My Thoughts on Channel 4’s Flowers

A Terrifically Bleak Comedy With Unyielding Empathy.

How suitable for a series heralded by such inherent bleakness to come into the world by way of a cozy storybook rhyme. Here may be “baggles” and “Grubbs”, but Will Sharpe’s Flowers feels about as far-flung from bedtime fancy as can be. Actually, that’s a lie. They feel about half there, with the idyllic shells of folks children might dream about, only to find that these characters have problems far too complex to be able to make sense of all alone.

Indeed, that’s exactly what Flowers seems to exude. It observes the frustration of hopelessness, offering glimpses of quirky cheer and off-the-cuff japes to convince you happiness still – somewhere – exists. But as the six-part tale progresses, I came to understand that it was an assumed cheeriness; an ephemeral comedy, that transcended deeper and deeper into uncertainty by the second. It’s unrestrained, unrelenting and unashamedly odd.

This dark, amusing and mystically sad creature could have only been understood as a comedy, because it’s the only way that ensures the breadth of emotion that confronted me during Flowers’ first episode remained entirely unexpected.

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The show overlooks a country townhouse; a dwelling with all the superficial quirk of a lone holiday cottage, without the comfort of escape. Maurice (Julian Barratt – perfectly cast) is a windblown children’s author; creator of Grubbs, a Lewis-Carrolly series beloved by seemingly all but his stony editors. His wife, Deborah (Olivia Colman), is a try-hard trombone teacher determined to find happiness, whose fitful us she’s also neck-deep in turmoil. Shacked up with them are their squabblesome adult twins (artist Amy (Sophia Di Martino) and inventor Donald (Daniel Rigby)) and Lilliputian Nana ambles along the hallway time to time, in quite her own world. Along for the ride is Maurice’s Asian artist, Shun (Sharpe: maker of tea, giver of compliments, pitcher of incurably raunchy book covers. He’s a peppy spring chicken amidst withered battery hens, but his undervalued presence carries essential weight in this perceptually-warped tale.

This is the Flowers family, who boogie to baroque concertos and bite each other’s heads off at restaurants. But they’re also the Grubbs of Maurice’s books, and the friction the dual-identity causes is both striking and entirely intended. For Maurice’s contemplative, tumty-tum rhymes merely voice what Flowers has us sensing from the very beginning – that no matter how idyllic the rolling countryside hills might look, how many cosily-knitted shawls we see or how ferociously their wearers smile, all is not perfect. Perfect doesn’t even carry weight here.

Flowers is Lovecraftian in in that it takes you inside a vague half-world of maddened townsfolk and creatures of nightmare. The creepy plastic surgeon next door eyes up Deborah’s bone structure, whilst the sympathetic farm-hand makes routine visits to the grave of his late wife with cheese on toast and a bottle of Lea n’ Perrins. Or at least it’s true to say that it doesn’t just do those things. There’s a reason for each and every character’s actions; one that instantly binds our own experiences to them, heedless of our fear of them becoming just that bit too recognisable. There’s one scene in particular, that takes place between the submerged couple, in their thoroughly rained-on car. It’s simple, it’s a line you know is coming, but the weight of self-defeat just. Colman states, “If I don’t know what’s going on with you, I can’t help.” And my heart cries, because Maurice doesn’t really know either. We don’t know either.

Di Martino as Amy begins as a mixture of archetypal teen and aloof artist, keeping to her pant-strewn room, suffering for her art, the ush. But her transmogrification from aloof artist to belaboured empath is inspired, reminding of a blossoming Katherine Parkinson in that she’s as deeply human as she is inextricably odd. Olivia Colman, of course, fits right in, always keeping the viewer at a distance, and allowing her zealous pursuit of happy-families to communicate the distressing (and very real) powerlessness depression is notorious for conjuring up.

And it’s power these characters seem so hungry for, too. They’re fighting tooth-and-nail for some sort of control; to mean something to someone, amid unwavering barrages of criticism (perceived and otherwise). Folks endeavouring for warmth – mere moth people who cosy up to the hurtful, the arrogant, the cold for reassurance, only to find their wings irrevocably, repeatedly, singed.

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But every time you begin to relate, to feel something amidst the numbing chaos, the shouting, the fights and the voices in your head, the show experiences a complete tonal shift. It’s a programme that – unlike most comedies, dramas or lamentably accruing game shows – doesn’t try to make you feel anything. It merely throws feelings at you at such a rapid rate that you come away feeling battered, frustrated, hurt, and ultimately closer to Maurice Flowers than can you could ever expect. It’s a piece of unrelenting empathy. All the while the jittery editing captures moments of blind fury almost in tandem with oppressive intimacy. The latter is decidedly less comfortable; we’re breathed on by sympathetics or browbeat by critics – yet another disastrous effect left in depression’s blue wake.

Flowers is harsh, crushing and inescapably grim. It hurts to watch, but so does connecting to others amidst crippling darkness, and it’s unique as a comedy in that it offers little more than titters to lighten its deepest tragedies. When you realise its tapering dark humour just underscores its psychological themes, it’s not much of a comedy at all. It is, however, one of the most honest expressive contemporary pieces on depression and frustration on television. Narrative cliche already told me that the Flowers family is more than meets the eye. What I didn’t expect was that I was one of them.

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My Favourite Mothers Across the Gamepad, Mouse and Screen

SPOILER WARNING: I discuss some of the characters from Archer, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Bates Motel and Undertale here, and some of these points might be interpreted as spoilers. I also highly recommend watching and/or playing these titles, too, if you’re looking for a little extra Mum to ferment your maternal Sunday exploits. Enjoy!

Ah, Mother’s Day. A day I don’t receive direct joy from, as I am neither beloved caretaker of mischievous sprogs nor the correct sex to be considered such in the future. But none of that matters. What I do find irrevocable joy in is the annual celebration of those who truly deserve it.

Maybe I should explain. Because we’re English, there’s an unspoken boundary on affection. In order to retain the taught, stately reserve that has come to stereotypically preserve us over the years, there has to be a day in which we get all that out, have a nice cup of tea, and then pull back into our own self-contained bubbles of quiet reverence.

Okay, so perhaps it’s just so Clintons Cards can make its yearly shift in its surplus of heart-shaped cushions. The era of quiet reverence died a death a long time ago. But in spirit of all of that – both obligatory and genuine – maternal homage, I invite you all to give your mothers a little love. Give her a hug. Write her a card. Shower her with beguilingly awful renditions of her face translated into macaroni. And I’ll share my favourite mothers across the realms of pop culture.

Bates Motel – Norma Bates

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I was initially going to give the limelight to the original villain of Bloch’s classic thriller Psycho – but there was something to be admired about Vera Farmiga’s intensely human portrayal of such an integral antagonist to the horror genre. The ‘backstory of the baddie’ story arc certainly isn’t new to TV and film nowadays, but in my experience it’s rarely done in a way that invokes real true empathy, and in the case of Bates Motel’s Mother Dearest, Norma’s desperate dominance over her adolescent son is always supported by her introspective fragility. The desire for control and power is driven by the feeling of helplessness, and Norma’s very much still a tortured child trapped in an adult mother’s body. Farmiga supports her character’s rapid swings between snide venom and self-defeat fantastically, and it’s rarely ever I get to view a wicked character as just an incredibly hurt soul free from the trappings of cliché.

Archer – Malory Archer

Malory Archer

Yes. The cantankerous, gin-swindling, intolerably elitist matriarch herself. Although a ‘mother’ only in the legal, Daisy Fay-esque sense, this cut-throat curmudgeon is so irrevocably on my favourites list that it often truly astounds me. She’s egomaniacal, she’s unprofessional, and she’s an incurably bad mother to her son and  H. Jon Benjamin’s crude play on Bond, Sterling Archer. Perhaps most noticeable beneath her hollow-cheeked facade, though, is her persistent proclivity for getting shit done. Although laughably aggravating, she’s perhaps the most capable mind working under Archer’s fictional secret special-ops branch ISIS (the name of which was promptly dropped upon its sixth season, for reasons I don’t think need to be detailed). For that, I can only give her kudos, and cut from the offensive heart of Arrested Development’s Lucil Bluth, the very same Jessica Walter translates her usual shruggish humour to the super-secret spy table deliciously.

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Eva Khatchadourian

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If there’s something Tilda Swinton does well, it’s frost-like exterior. Even Narnia allowed her to parade her icy talents within the , but I’ve always been more interested in the concealed breakdown the refrigerator veneer strives to keep hidden. Swinton really does this in her role in We Need to Talk About Kevin, as the isolated mother of a psychopathic child, who becomes determined to prove to her son that she cannot be broken, despite Kevin’s increasingly dark pursuits. The ending scene remains one of the most powerful for Eva; as she confronts her imprisoned son after his murder of her husband and young girl, she strides towards him and wraps him in the tightest hug you would’ve thought possible for a human being so repeatedly bludgeoned. She realises her past mistakes as a contributor to Kevin’s psychopathy, and rather than fleeing him, by hugging him she convinces her son that all his past exploits to make her life miserable have been in vain. She de-validates him and his life’s work, in the guise of the stereotypical mother-son cocoon. It’s marvelously acted, and the power of the scene holds today as one of my favourite Mother’s Day scenes, demonstrating both female and maternal power.

Undertale – Toriel

Toriel

Possibly the most conventional mother to make it onto the roster is good-old Toriel from Undertale. From the very beginning, Toriel is sweet, nurturing and welcoming, despite her full knowledge that the race you belong to forced her underground to live amongst the dirt. She carries the primary theme of forgiveness in Undertale; something that ignites its further emphases on empathy, humanity and equality. But remember Norma Bates? There’s always something darker lingering just beneath the surface, and Toriel is one of the strongest vessels to carry some of Undertale’s most foreboding atmospheres. Her pressing phone calls that ask only if you like Cinnamon or Butterscotch pie have you questioning her motives from the beginning, but the fact you get no real confirmation holds this sense of foreboding entrancingly in motion. When I encountered her during my first (‘un-true’ pacifist) run, it was one of the first instances that convinced me of Undertale’s scarily capricious nature, and as I was forced (I say forced, because initial gameplay appears to sway the player towards killing Toriel) to slay her unforgivingly, her final words were, most understandably, heart-wrenching. It’s strange; I knew I was being swayed to commit the act of killing her (perhaps in order to fully experience Undertale’s overall messages and questions surrounding gaming’s ‘obsession’ with violence), but I still felt responsible; something that proves vital in carrying over the main question that appears to permeate Undertale’s seemingly adorable front: Is killing the best possible way of dealing with enemies? Are enemies really what we’re dealing with here?

Who are your favourite mothers? Have you any plans for the Day of the Mum? Let me know in a comment. 

Colour Symbolism in Breaking Bad: The Belly of Walter White

It’s been two years since the closure of Breaking Bad. We experienced in those five years the renaissance of Ozymandias, only to watch him rise and fall once again. Whilst Heisenberg has hung up his hat, though, we haven’t quite hung up ours yet, and remain somewhat marked with a dry cynicism that convinces us that even those we root for, those we esteem as great, aren’t always good.
What truly compelled me about Breaking Bad was its symbolism. Many episodes open with abstract, artsy segments depicting the unravelry of the characters’ lives still to come, but always managed to remain inherently ambiguous. Colour was a vital ingredient in Vince Gilligan’s visual alchemy. From the shimmering gold hazmats to the barren wastelands of the Albuquerque desert, the colour yellow is very much a dominant force in Walter White’s life as the poisoned hero. Indeed, the show’s title screen depicts a toxic yellow flame eroding the two words that have since become so integral to many a high-school chemistry class.

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From the very beginning, the colour yellow frequently appears attached to Walter White, but it is in Season one’s episode four that it begins to become extremely noticeable. After cooking perhaps the highest grade methamphetamine Breaking Bad’s world of drug-dealers has ever seen, Walt’s efforts are thwarted by the appearance (and frankly killy nature) of Krazy-8. Having managed to regain power, Walter White is seen preparing the captured drug distributor a sandwich. He does this meticulously beside a yellow plate, whilst wearing a yellow shirt, against a backdrop of peeling yellow wall. The sheer oppressiveness of the colour here not only marks the appearance of yellow an an intentional choice by show creator, Vince Gilligan, but also depicts White’s rapid encompassment by the new world he has entered, and the decay (for the walls are dank and worn) it is liable to cause.

Plate Walt White
White, soon after, smashes the plate in the midst of a cancer-induced choking fit, and is seen shakily attempting to put the pieces back together again, only to find that one piece is missing. The missing piece of the plate firstly signifies, to Walt, that he has entered a world he cannot trust (that Krazy-8 will try to exploit his reasonably intact morality by stabbing him with the piece of plate once he is set free), but the yellow hue ties the broken plate, Krazy-8 ‘s yellow jacket and Walter’s shirt inextricably together. Like the plate, by agreeing to distribute meth, Walter has, perhaps unknowingly, lost a part of himself to the criminals he is beginning to associate with; something that catalyses the first of many acts of questionable morality – his murder of Krazy-8. Here, the colour yellow helps us to conceive the instance in which Walter White becomes truly trapped, and no matter how he strives to replace what has been broken, he will always be devoid of that one shard, denoting that things are about to get a lot worse.
What is also interesting about the colour choice to reflect these things is that, through the grim tragedy of the situation, it brings another dimension of abstract irony to what we’re seeing on-screen. When we think of yellow, we are usually greeted by an interpretive notion of happiness, wonder; that bright sunny say on which all our dreams seem possible. But when we tune into Breaking Bad, we are instead confronted with overpowering stenches of drug-dens and anonymous intenstines of botched killings. Considering that the colour yellow seems to grow more and more integral to Walt’s character and expression, this seems a cynical juxtaposition by Gilligan between how Walt sees himself, and the reality of his actions. Consequently, the colour yellow serves as a motif for Walt’s increasingly panoramic fool’s paradise.
Expanding on this, it is quite possible that yellow clothing may be a conscious choice of Walter himself, which contributes to the layered dramatic irony within the show. In Season One, Walt garbs himself in sunny button-downs that tuck neatly into his family-man khakis, whilst he conceals his underground drug networking to those closest to him. The DVD cover for Season Five captures a relentless chieftan enrobed in a yellow hazmat, inexplicably linking Walt’s family ideals with his criminality. Despite all the power Heisenberg has come to possess, the endurance of the colour yellow across the entirety of Breaking Bad boils down to inner state.

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Walt is still vulnerable. He’s a man grasping at straws; groping for any morsel of light, of optimism he can get, as his world rapidly darkens. He’s desperately pleading, “This is okay. This is all justified”, and as the audience, we are placed automatically on the fence because of this. In honesty, we want to root for Walt as the ‘tortured hero’. We want to see Walt in the delusional way he sees himself, but throughout the show, Gilligan revels in unforgiving storytelling as he daubs his viewers with darkly humourous, yet painful clarity.
What this vulnerability reminds us is that Walt’s still ‘yella’, and despite everything Heisenberg has ‘accomplished’, he never really rid himself of his fear of dying; something that the persistence of yellow throughout the narrative of Walter White hammers home. In a jacket of gold comes Breaking Bad as a shriek of objection in the face of death; a pathetic realisation that only upon death do we realise just how small we are.