Here’s a question: How proactive do we need Lights to be? The first five episodes of the season, for the most part, have featured lots of scenes of Lights being acted upon, rather than Lights taking the initiative and doing his own thing. He’ll come up with a plan, then get some information on why that plan won’t work, and then he’ll think about that for a while, as he tries to come up with a new plan. I’ve been arguing one of the problems with the show (which I still really like) is that we know where it’s headed, and it doesn’t seem to be taking us on enough unexpected detours on the way to make the journey worth it. But maybe that’s not true. The pilot sold us a guy who could be pushed just so far before he’d eventually try to punch his way out of a situation, but the subsequent episodes haven’t really returned that guy to the screen.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing Lights has completely changed as a character or anything. He hasn’t. And tonight’s episode, which was better than last week’s, gave me a better sense of what makes this show work. The series works best when Lights is trying to come up with his own way to do things, and the world steps in the way to thwart that. The episodes where he just wanders from one bit of bad news to another are the ones where the pacing feels wrong, where it feels like the episodes don’t have a good reason to exist. Sure, it’s realistic, but it doesn’t have the dramatic urgency of the last 10 minutes of the pilot or the third episode, where there was a deliberate goal everybody was working toward. Now that Lights has finally begun to work toward getting back into the ring, we’re again in a goal-oriented show, and things feel like they’re getting going.
That’s tough, though. One of the things I think works best about the show is the way it portrays a family that really has no way out of the corner it finds itself in, a corner bad decisions and a bad economy have put it in. But it’s also hard to portray that without having Lights have a long string of people tell him how desperate his situation is. (It happens again in tonight’s episode, which opens with a scene where a financial planner lays out for Lights and Theresa just how screwed they are, to the point where Theresa will probably have to turn to a field of medicine other than family medicine, which she had been hoping to enter.) And that necessarily makes the protagonist reactive, which can be a little bit of a slog to watch. It’s necessary, sure, but I don’t wonder if it couldn’t have all been condensed just a little bit more, so it didn’t feel quite so much like an unending stream of misery, rather than a story building toward something.
Because tonight’s episode, where Lights finally grabs control of his own destiny, feels like the show I’m sporadically coming to really enjoy. There are rough patches here and there, but the central story—where Pops and Lights try to set up a comeback fight without the influence of Barry there mucking things up—is a good one. Barry’s been portrayed as the guy, the one man in all of Jersey who can get Lights the shot he needs, and the show has hinted heavily (and confirmed tonight) that Johnny sold Lights’ comeback to Barry, thus leaving his brother at the mercy of a man who wants to throw him into the ring with a guy billed as “El Diablo,” someone who’s just gotten out of prison and apparently leaves lots of blood (from his opponents) in the ring when he fights. Lights would rather fight Joe-Joe Reid, a guy who’s got glass hands and would make a better first fight opponent for a 40-year-old easing his way back into the ring. But Joe-Joe has been cut loose by Barry, and when Lights approaches Brennan about making a fight happen without Barry’s influence, things start to spin out of control. Soon, Joe-Joe’s in the hospital, and Lights is running out of options again.
What I like here is that Lights’ plan is pretty good. He’s just outsmarted by someone who’s more devilish than he seems to be capable of believing him to be. (Well, actually, the final scene reveals that Barry and Brennan are working together, which doesn’t come as a surprise but adds a nice additional level to the episode’s events.) For once, he’s coming up with a way to do things that isn’t immediately shot down by his brother or wife. Indeed, Theresa reluctantly comes on board the Lights comeback bandwagon after she talks briefly with Pops about how a boxer knows it’s time to leave (in a scene with lovely writing). When she finds out he’ll be fighting against Joe-Joe, she’s a little less reluctant. How could Lights lose to that guy or even get hurt all that badly? By the end of the episode, when she’s kicking Lights out, it doesn’t just feel like she’s standing in the way of the hero getting his way (an impossible position to put a character in). She’s given it a try, and she’s seen the way the world gets in the way. She wants to try something new, and if her husband is going to go down a self-destructive path, she’s not going there with him.
Instead, the big impediment to Lights fighting is the all-knowing Daniella, who now is the only character besides Lights who knows about the savagery of El Diablo, the family’s money troubles, AND the fact that Lights has what appear to be warning signs of pugilistic dementia. An early dream scene immediately underlines this fact for the audience: If Lights gets too many more blows to the head, he could completely lose himself to the condition. Daniella’s temporarily placated by the idea of fighting a guy with glass hands, but she turns on the idea again when he’s up against his new opponent. Sure, Daniella’s mostly filling the same function as Theresa was, but it’s better, I think, when Lights’ kid is standing in his way, rather than his wife. Spouses generally try to support each other and not make hard ultimatums; kids have no such compunctions. They’re all about trying to hold their parents to impossible standards.
The other big question, of course, is why NOT just give it all up? Why NOT just file for bankruptcy and sell most of the stuff and try to find someone to rent or buy the house? Why NOT just pack it in for upstate New York? Especially when you consider the fact that Theresa and the kids seem more or less open to this idea, Lights’ continuing attempts to hang on to his legacy can feel more and more enervating. Some of you have complained that because the family is rich (or at least was), it’s hard to relate to their problems. And I can sort of see that, honestly. Being broke is something just about everyone can relate to, but it’s harder to feel a good level of sympathy for a family where being broke means losing a gargantuan mansion and a whole bunch of really nice things. At the same time, Lights WAS the heavyweight champ, not just a perpetual contender (like, say, Rocky or the main character in The Fighter), so it would be hard to just have him in some little two-story blue collar house somewhere.
But, then, the central idea of the show, I think, is “Who likes to lose?” Lights is still haunted by a fight he doesn’t believe he lost, regardless of the decision. Theresa doesn’t want to be unable to donate to charity, to shift her medical attentions to some other field, when she’s wanted her current dream for so long. And when you come right down to it, losing the house and the nice things, that’s all tied up in the idea of losing, too, in the idea of having to downgrade your life and be someone other than the person you thought you were. Regardless of whether the characters’ economic bracket makes them relatable or not, that’s something anyone can relate to. Lights probably should give up on his desperate dream of holding on to everything he has, but he has nothing left. He’s finally starting to fight his way out of the corner.
- This week in Johnny: Lights fires his brother as his manager when it turns out that Johnny pledged Lights’ future to Barry. Then Johnny disappears from the episode.
- I just love seeing Brennan because I love Bill Irwin’s line readings so much. He’s taking a character who could be a generic tough and making him into sort of a bizarre dandy. It’s a good time.
- Here’s an interesting point from comments last week: The show tends to use music in a diegetic fashion whenever possible. The exception to this is the final montage music at the end of each episode. Another show that used this approach? The Sopranos.
- Pops is a hard-ass trainer.
- The youngest of the kids wasn’t in the episode this week. I know there are alternate explanations, but I prefer to think she was the first thing the family sold to catch up on bills.
- "What if they go to jail? I'll never get a car!"
- "I'm in good shape." "Ha! For Jazzercise!"