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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Horror Episode Review: The River, Episode 4

Episode 4: A Better Man

Overall: C+
Acting: C
Writing: C+
Story: C+
Technical aspects: B
Effects: C+

Directed by:
Dean White

Joe Anderson
Leslie Hope
Eloise Mumford
Paul Blackthorne
Daniel Zacapa
Pauline Gaitan
Thomas Kretschmann
Shaun Parkes
Bruce Greenwood
Scott Michael Foster

In Episode 4, the crew of the Magus continues their journey. As they try and decide where to go, they see a man hanged in a tree. Shocked, they realize the man is Jonas Beckett (Scott Michael Foster,) a cameraman who disappeared along with Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood). As they plan to cut him down, speculating that the body must have been put there recently, they realize he’s still alive. Bringing him onboard, it’s clear he’s suffering from malaria, and they face the decision to go back to civilization with him to get him treatment, or press on to find Emmet. Tess (Leslie Hope) is thrilled that Jonas’s phone may provide some data that will help them find Emmet. But Jahel (Pauline Gaitan) becomes obviously distressed by his presence, as she keeps pulling the “hanged man” card from her tarot deck. There’s some exposition regarding the hanged man being a justly punished thief. Viewing tapes, it becomes clear that Jonas was a thief of a sort: he went against Emmet’s wishes and filmed a death ritual that was forbidden to view. In doing so, he “stole” the soul of the man who was dying. Bizarre and dangerous things begin happening on the boat, such as birds plummeting from the sky and hundreds of thousands of insects appearing. It’s evidently the curse following Jonas for what he’d done, and will probably culminate in a severe storm that could kill everyone on board. Upon viewing a tape that Jonas had tried to steal, it’s clear the curse was brought down on the Magus before, and Emmet elected to throw Jonas overboard to save the crew. Furthermore, the tape reveals that Jonas had been hanging in the tree for months until they found him, and somehow hadn’t died. After getting what information from Jonas that they could, Tess and the others plan to cast him off again, though Lincoln (Joe Anderson) fights to keep it from happening.
Spoilers for the ending of the episode: In the end, Jonas pulls a rather sudden 180 from begging for his life to deciding to sacrifice himself. He smashes the phone he recorded the ceremony on, and hangs himself from the vines. The stolen soul is freed, and Jonas is spared. In the end, Jonas is hired on as a new cameraman. End heaviest spoilers.

Is it just me, or are the “morals” kind of simplistic and heavy handed? The last episode had “be brave and willing to sacrifice yourself, and it will prove you’re worthy.” This one has “stealing is wrong, but if you give it back, it’ll all be okay.” It’s kind of… frustrating. And how quickly Jonas suddenly decided to kill himself to save the others, after spending the whole episode trying to hide what he’d done and then begging them to save him, was also rather bothersomely unbelievable.
I did actually like this episode more than the last one, in that it seemed to have a little more actual tension to it, and the horror felt a bit more “real” to me. Particularly the reveal that Jonas had been left hanging but alive for months… that actually struck me as creepy in a way that some of the rather unsubtle imagery from previous weeks hasn’t.
However, there are certainly flaws that seemed more apparent to me this week than they have in previous weeks. The filming, for one, feels far too convenient for a “found footage” story. So often there are multiple camera angles that conveniently fit together to give a perfect and deliberate sense of continuity for a conversation or a run of action, in a way that doesn’t feel authentic for what it’s supposed to be.
Some of the characters are beginning to feel more one-dimensional, as well. The episode largely hinges on Lincoln being the moral voice on the boat, and it feels like that’s becoming all he is. He’s the “good guy” who will be the hero and try to make everything right, even though he has to go against everyone else. The other one that frustrates me is Jahel. She was initially my favorite character, when it seemed like her knowledge of the supernatural was just one aspect of her character. But with the last episode and this one, it seems like that’s all she’s there for. To have her tarot cards and obscure knowledge of symbols in order to provide easy exposition of what folkloric creepy-of-the-week they’re facing. She could be an interesting character, but she again is falling into feeling like a plot device more than a person.
This last one might be just me, or might be deliberate, but is Lena a total non-entity to anyone else? Like seriously, I forget entirely about her character when she’s not on screen. It’s been suggested to me that this may be deliberate, because she’ll be important later, and it’s meant to be some sort of twist. But the story so far hasn’t shied away from hinting at her importance. The birthmark that matches the necklace Emmett had? The fact that she was in contact with Emmett even when he’d stopped speaking to Tess and Lincoln? It hasn’t been real subtle about hinting around the idea that she may ultimately be the most important person, or that she knows more than she lets on. And yet, I just don’t seem to be able to hold onto her as a character. If it is intentional on their part to push her into the background, they’re doing so with more skill than I would expect.
And a final gripe, the episodes don’t feel well-tied together. I feel like any one of these episodes, particularly 2 or 3, could have been left out entirely, and we wouldn’t really be missing anything other than a line or two of relevant dialogue. I understand that a series has to have stand-alone episodes. But this almost feels like every single episode is a filler episode, like nothing about the ultimate goal is getting closer, like nothing new and necessary occurs. This episode may be the first exception, since finding Jonas at least propels them forward and expands on the mystery of Emmet’s disappearance.
So ultimately, I think this episode was a little stronger and more enjoyable than the previous one, but I still wish the series would live up to a little more of its potential.

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