“Episode 2” of Flesh and Bone starts to show its cracks with style overriding the narrative drama. Not a whole lot happens in the second episode that pushes forward the plot of the entire series, which would be fine if this wasn’t a miniseries with only a scant few episodes. The second episode could be used to deepen characters — as this one attempts to do — rather than dial up the drama. But when there’s only eight episodes to tell a story, time is comparatively precious. This lack of dramatic thrust is only made more apparent by Dave Porter’s score, which is used to such an overbearing degree in this episode. The tone created in the first episode, based on both Porter’s score and David Michôd’s direction, worked perfectly well because there was the story to support it. That’s not necessarily the case with the second episode, which feels overwrought for no reason.

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This episode started out entirely heavy-handed. Bryan (Josh Helman) figures out his sister’s whereabouts by the conveniently vague New York City poster hanging on the wall. Right afterward, Romeo (Damon Herriman) catches the rat sniffing around Claire’s smashed cellphone. After capturing the rodent in a box with a big ‘No’ emblazoned on the side, Romeo cries, “No means no, you crossed the line.” It doesn’t matter whether this is foreshadowing, portending Romeo’s role in Claire and Bryan’s mysterious, yet surely fucked up storyline, or whether it’s a metaphor for Claire and Bryan’s relationship does not entirely matter, if only because it’s all laid out so blatantly.

Claire begins her day believing that everything will be great. She has the confidence to put on lipstick, even though it is not her own. She finds a new cheap tie for Laurent. She has cut off ties from Bryan by smashing her phone. But as her day progresses, it gets worse. Mia is on the offensive. Ross decides to make his move. Paul is trying to give her the monetary shaft, while trying to ensure she takes the literal one from Laurent. In the end, the threat of prostituting herself for ballet glory ends with her force-vomiting on a fancy bedspread, even if, as Mia puts it, puking is so passé. While Claire’s mix of naivete and mystery were compelling in the first episode, in this episode I was less attracted to her as a character. She did not seem like the chosen one she has clearly been pegged as. No more of her mystery was unravelled or revealed. Still, girl can’t catch a break, and little does she know, her past is on a Greyhound to New York.

Bryan’s silent journey from Pittsburgh to New York in a way sets up the two very different types of soldiers we see portrayed in media. Bryan’s seatmate is the greatest generation type who uses terms like “my girl,” the type of guy who would reenlist if given the opportunity. Bryan, on the other hand, is the damaged soldier, and while Bryan’s psychosis was not created by the atrocities he saw overseas, he still represents a warrior damaged. When Bryan’s seat mate tries to bond with Bryan, he gets clobbered and left at the rest stop. Bryan is, no doubt, dangerous and on the hunt. Romeo foreshadows Bryan’s arrival by reciting the opening of his novel to Claire, warning of an impending storm. But perhaps he foreshadows something darker in Claire when he says, “If the storm came again, this time they’d be ready.”

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Herriman is doing quite well with such a weird character and I would love to know more about Romeo, the homeless man who went to college and has a novel in his head. The other ballerinas, save for Daphne, don’t have his depth, instead portrayed as the green-eyed monsters Paul claims that they are. But there are two tropes in this episode — one explored many times before, and one that is not often dramatized — that caught my attention. Kiira is the reigning diva, the queen bitch, who was given power and money and fame because of her natural talent and hard work. She reached the top of her field but now, through no fault of her own, Kiira is being kicked off the pedestal she clawed her way to the top of (Irina Dvorovenko, who plays Kiira, was a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre for 13 years). We’ve seen this character before, the aging superstar who knows she is about to be replaced by the new hotness. But the difference in how she deals with Paul — all swagger and confidence — versus how she dealt with her drug dealer — all nerves and neuroses — was an interesting dichotomy of both of the gravitas inherent to not being a part of pack — a quality that Paul tells Claire all primas possess —and the reality of knowing that irrelevance is encroaching.

Emily Tyra’s Mia, on the other hand, is a character that often does not get her own story, and probably for good reason: There can be no happy ending. Mia works hard, she was good enough to become a professional dancer, to make a living off of her passion, but not good enough to ever be a star. She’s the type who is destined for background. As the accompanist Pasha (John Allee) tells her, like him, she will never get to be Beethoven. We’re always so focused on the one, the prodigal, the übermensch, that we forget about the background players. But there has to be heartbreak inherent in accepting that you are good, but not great, and you never will be so. The problem is, Flesh and Bone isn’t explored that as a character trait for Mia, that acceptance that her life’s work will never reach the heights she believed it would. Instead, they are using that to fuel an overarching jealousy that is making what could be a fun character and turning her into just another green-eye monster.

Stray observations

  • Duh moment: Damon Herriman was my beloved Dewey Crowe on Justified, which for some reason took me two full episodes to figure. Fun fact: Herriman is actually Australian, and not actually from Kentucky.
  • I just read Mat Johnson’s Loving Day (which is excellent, by the way) and he talks quite a bit about the difference between going a great, so maybe that’s why I’m so interested in Mia as a character. “There is a line between being a fan of something and actually being good at creating that thing. ‘A line’ makes is sound like a narrow, slight thing, but the difference can be more like an untraversable wasteland of parched failure,” Johnson’s main character Warren says about himself. Later, he puts it more succinctly: “Competence isn’t enough.

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