Tuesday, August 18, 2015

One Big Thing and Many Little Things About Teen Wolf 5x09, "Lies of Omission"


The thing about Teen Wolf is that it’s not always a bad show. From time to time, it’s actually a very good show. But the bad elements—and the simply lazy elements—outweigh those times by enough that sometimes, it can be hard to know how much credit to give the writers when something does, miraculously, work.

I give you tonight’s final Scott and Stiles scene. If Stiles had simply given Scott the full story of what happened with Donovan—“He attacked me, he threatened to kill my father and hideously maim me, he chased me up some scaffolding, I pulled out the support structure and he was impaled on a bar”—then there’s no rational way that Scott could blame him for those events. Even if Scott didn’t fully believe Stiles, the disparity between Stiles’ story and Evil Mike Montgomery’s would at least have indicated that something weird was going on.

So why didn’t Stiles tell Scott that entirely true and exonerating story? Well, primarily, because the plot demanded it. The writers’ plan for the finale requires that Scott and Stiles be on the outs, so Stiles can’t tell Scott the full story, or else Scott and Stiles being on the outs would make Scott look like literally the worst person in the world. There are some halfway decent attempts to explain away the miscommunication in-universe—Stiles doesn’t know the story Evil Mike Montgomery told Scott, and therefore isn’t aware that Scott has a pretty terrible picture in his head that needs to be corrected before any rational conversation can be had. Still, most people in Stiles’ situation would probably give Scott some exonerating detail: “He was trying to kill me.” “I was running for my life.” “It wasn’t really premeditated.” Or there’s the moment when Scott mentions “the way it happened,” and Stiles fails to press for details about what, exactly, Scott thinks happened; he seems to assume that Scott knows the true story of how Donovan died, and is taking issue with that. Now, it’s true that Evil Mike Montgomery knows the true story of Donovan’s death, and Stiles must know that he was the one who tipped off Scott, but Scott’s statement there is an oddity, one that even Stiles seems to sense rings false—“What are you even talking about,” he responds. But he doesn’t press for details, or even offer them. He jumps immediately to a vague protest: “I didn’t have a choice.” Simply put, Stiles is not talking the way one would normally expect a human being to talk. Scott and Stiles’ conversation flows the way it does, first and foremost, because that’s the way Teen Wolf needs it to flow.

But. Teen Wolf has an out. It’s kind of a magnificent out, actually, but it only works if Stiles doesn’t believe a word he’s saying. If Stiles really, truly believes in his own guilt, then what he’s saying to Scott is simply rationalization. It’s the things he’s been saying to himself in order to live with himself. And if so, no wonder it all sounds like a lie; that’s what Stiles believes, in his heart of hearts, that it is. And no wonder he didn’t provide details of the story to back up his innocence; Stiles lived his story, and he doesn’t believe he’s innocent. Scott’s reaction doesn’t ring false, because it’s confirming everything Stiles already believes. Stiles would have to have an incredible lack of belief in his own character, an incredible pre-existing lack of self-esteem, an incredible tendency to assign himself blame, in order for his and Scott’s conversation to be in-character. It wouldn’t do for him to simply have a little bit of any of those things; he would have to have an all-encompassing, soul-eating, character-defining belief in his own badness. But if he has that—if Stiles felt all of those things about himself, that deeply, before he ever laid a hand on Donovan—then it works. That reading of the text makes a plot-derived falling out between Scott and Stiles at least make sense on a character level. The question, of course, is whether that reading is justified. And here’s where we run into Teen Wolf’s reliability problem.

There are three levels on which we can justify the “consumed by guilt” reading of Stiles’ character. First, does it fit with what happened within the scene itself? Second, does it fit with the groundwork that Teen Wolf has laid earlier in this story arc? Third, does it fit with Stiles’ established characterization prior to this story arc?

The answer to the first question is obviously “yes.” Yes, the scene makes sense—it only makes sense—if Stiles is acting from a place of deep-rooted distrust in himself. That’s why he gets defensive in the worst possible way: “Some of us have to get our hands a little bloody sometimes.” That’s why he begs Scott to believe him. That’s why he begs for a way to fix it.

The answer to the second question requires more digging, but it’s not hard to find a lot of evidence in favor of the idea that Stiles’ story arc this season was designed to imply that he has some serious guilt issues. The most obvious pointer in that direction is the fact that Stiles hid Donovan's death. He says it in tonight’s episode, when Scott asks him why he didn’t come clean from the start: “I couldn’t.” It’s not necessarily the case that only people with guilty consciences hide evidence, but in this case—hiding evidence from a bunch of people who love you, believe in you, and know full well that Donovan was violent and that chimeras are a thing—well, that’s something you do if you believe from the outset that you’re guilty. There’s also, of course, Stiles’ conversation with Evil Mike Montgomery in “Strange Frequencies,” where he more-or-less argues that Donovan’s death was not justified. His argument is absurd on the surface—as I mentioned in my review of that episode, it hinges on the idea that Kate freaking Argent felt remorse over the people she killed—but that very absurdity strengthens the idea that Stiles cannot think rationally about his own culpability. Finally, there’s Stiles’ flashback/hallucination thing from “Required Reading.” The revelation that Stiles’ dying mother believed that Stiles was trying to kill her does not prove that Stiles is prone to irrational guilt. But it certainly provides an explanation for why he might be. And its inclusion in this season, and at the point in this season that it came—the episode after Donovan’s death—could indicate that, yes, we’re meant to consider Stiles’ relationship with his mother when we think about what motivates his response to killing someone.

But even if Stiles’ absurd guilt makes sense within the scene and within the season, if it contradicts his character over the course of the series, it’s still bad writing. Rather shockingly, though, it doesn’t contradict any of Stiles’ previously established characterization. It reinforces it. Think back to Stiles’ hallucination in season two’s “Party Guessed”; he imagines his father, drunkenly accusing him of killing his mother. Think of his instant connection with the guilt-ridden Malia in season 3B’s “Echo House.” (And the way he responded to Malia’s request for information: “If I told you, you might not like me.” And the explicit connection, in that same episode, of Stiles’ anxiety with a guilt reaction. Man, that episode's a gold mine for this theory.) Think of the way he frames his role in the Nogitsune’s actions, post-possession: “But I remember all of it,” in “Insatiable,” and “I remember liking it,” in “The Benefactor.” These are the actions and reactions of a person with a pathological tendency to assign himself as much blame as humanly possible. Stiles has consistently, across the board, tended to revise history such that he bears a great deal of responsibility for events that he had little or no say in. All of this retroactively makes more sense, when viewed through the lens of what season five has told us about Stiles’ mother.

So that’s great! That’s wonderful! The reading of Stiles’ character that makes his scene with Scott in “Lies of Omission” not be a confused tangle of robot reactions is a reading that is totally supported by the text, at every level. The problem is, I don’t trust the text.

Consider: This is the same show that expects us to believe—with approximately zero evidence—that Scott is such an incredibly good person that he gets to have previously unmentioned magical True Alfalfa powers. This is the show that gave us the Peter’s Totally Sane and Not at All Confusing or Overcomplicated Revenge Plan in season four. This is the show that has had four seasons to develop Lydia’s banshee powers and still can’t explain how they work. This is the show that’s so erratic about which relationships it emphasizes and how it portrays them that I honestly cannot figure out whether we’re in the middle of a love triangle. Do I really believe that this show is competent enough to time the flashback with Stiles’ mother in order to signal an unspoken truth about his character that will make sense of his actions over the course of this season? Do I really believe that Stiles’ dialogue at the end of “Lies of Omission” was crafted both to further the plot and to comply with characterization that was both intentionally reinforced in this season, and knowingly rooted in previous seasons?

In short, the question is this: Who makes sense of Teen Wolf, the writers or me? The death of the author theory says that it doesn’t matter; the text is the text, and the writers’ intentions have no inherent value. But I’ve never really bought that, and I especially don’t buy it with television, which is a medium built on trust. When you read a book or watch a movie, you invest a few hours; when you follow a television show, you invest days, weeks, years of your life into a story, without knowing whether it’s going to add up to something good, or interesting, or valuable. And while books and movies are generally stories, complete unto themselves, serialized TV shows are long stories comprised of many smaller stories, each one with a plot and an arc all its own. Viewers have to evaluate each episode of a series as it comes, and trust that the writers are going somewhere with it. So it matters whether it’s the writers’ intentions or dumb luck that’s responsible for the consistency of Stiles’ characterization. Luck runs out a lot faster than skill does. The writers’ luck could change before next week’s midseason finale; their skill probably won’t.

The philosopher in me takes an inductive approach to all this, which is to say, Stiles’ characterization has been so consistent, in so many contexts, over such a long period, that I think it’s extremely unlikely that it’s all luck. The most likely explanation is that someone involved in Teen Wolf—maybe it’s Jeff Davis, maybe it’s Dylan O’Brien, maybe it’s both of them and someone else besides—has a pretty strong handle on Stiles, and writes toward that conception of the character. I don’t know whether the story behind Stiles’ mother’s death, for instance, was something that Davis had in mind back in season two, or whether it’s something that was created on the fly this season because it furthered Stiles’ current story arc and made sense with what came before. (I guess I lean toward the latter, but that’s something I don’t think matters.) Either way, I have a great deal of respect for the person or people responsible for Stiles, for creating a character I understand bone-deep.

But I still have doubts, where I wouldn’t on a more consistent show. And when it comes to characters other than Stiles, those doubts get even larger. Is Lydia’s relationship with her mother important? Do the writers realize the tone and boundaries that they’ve established for it? Why is Malia keeping information about the Desert Wolf from Scott and Stiles? Is it guilt-related? Fear-related? Have the writers given any thought to the reasoning at all? Where does Scott’s sense of responsibility for the fracturing of the pack come from? There are elements of all of these stories that are good—great, even. But does Teen Wolf understand what those elements are?

"Lies of Omission" was a frustrating episode at times, but the good in it outweighed the bad. I wish I could count that as evidence that next week's episode will do the same.


Odds and Ends:

Oh my God, I just rewatched the season 5 supertease looking for a good screencap for this review, and they used a competely different take in the teaser than they did in the episode itself. Stiles' "Not all of us are true alphas. Some of us have to make mistakes ... Some of us are human" is way angrier in the version of the scene that made it to air. In the teaser, it comes off kind of sad but reasonable; in the episode, it comes off incredibly defensive and angry. I don't know what to make of the difference, though.

Two-thousand-word explorations of authorial intent are all well and good, but I should probably make it clear that I was thinking about none of that during the episode itself. I spent most of “Lies of Omission” flailing and yelling at the screen in a joy/mostly misery. It was visceral, man.

There’s another odd aspect of Stiles and Scott’s conversation, which is that Stiles never, not once, says that he feared for his life. He never says that Donovan was trying to kill him (or anyway, torture him). What he does say, multiple times, is that Donovan was going to kill his father. This is a particularly damning thing to say; it makes it sound like Stiles chose, with a clear head and time to spare, to kill Donovan, because he wanted to protect the Sheriff. For this aspect of the conversation to make sense, we have to believe that either Stiles’ father was foremost in his mind while he was running for his life, or that in the aftermath, it was the danger to the Sheriff that Stiles used to rationalize Donovan’s death, rather than the much more immediate danger to himself. Luckily, Teen Wolf has an unimpeachable track record with Stiles’ protective instincts, in this season and every other. At this point, there is such overwhelming textual evidence backing that up that I’d be far more skeptical of a conversation that didn’t rely on Stiles prioritizing his father’s wellbeing over his own. As long as we buy that Stiles is acting from a place of rationalization and crushing guilt, this rings true to me.

I was informed by a friend that the first letter of Stiles’ real first name appeared on his ID card in “Ouroboros,” and that that letter was “M.” I don’t know whether to trust this information or not, because we’ve seen pieces of Stiles’ name before that are almost certainly not canon. But I was at the Teen Wolf Paley panel this year, and Jeff Davis did say that the writers’ room knows the first letter of Stiles’ name. If it’s real, I’m pulling for Mścisław; it’s Polish, it’s unpronounceable to the American eye, and it means “vengeance and glory,” which is a great name meaning for Stiles. (I know from my years as a Criminal Minds fan that Jeff Davis loves meaningful names.) I guess Mieczysław (“sword and glory”) would work okay too.

This is by far the grossest episode of Teen Wolf ever. I mean, that fingernail scene was on par with Supernatural, for sheer grossness.

Every other shot in this episode was of someone’s eyes in a car mirror. Scott in the side mirror. Theo in the rear view mirror. It’s been a thing all season, but it was seriously all over the place tonight.

Okay, I get that Evil Mike Montgomery is evil and he wants Scott’s pack, and he’s trying to divide Scott and Stiles, and Scott and Malia, and Scott and Kira, in order to get that. And presumably he wants Sixth Grade Girl to be a wolf so that he’ll have more than one werewolf in his pack. But why the fuck did he tell the Sheriff that he was the one who killed Donovan? What can that possibly gain him? I feel like Teen Wolf did it just to fuck with me personally, because I was so hoping for that scene exactly, but with Stiles in Evil Mike Montgomery’s place.

Another prime example of why Teen Wolf is hard for me to get a handle on: Just as I’d given up the Mayor Lockwood stuff earlier in the season as something that only looked like it was headed for a meaningful plotline, her scene with Malia in this episode more-or-less confirmed that, no, something is amiss in House Martin.

Hasn’t Scott been expressly forbidden from turning more wolves, lest Alba Villanueva come and destroy him?

Lydia’s line to Stiles, “It’s always better when you know,” is a nice nod to her character’s history of being in the dark for way too long about supernatural shit. Assuming that it was an intentional nod, of course.

Goodbye, Gay Chimera's Gay Chimera Boyfriend. I think I'll miss your nickname most of all.

Wait, so does the Nemeton operate on like, another plane of existence? Is it like Brigadoon? Because that was not clear when they were explaining this stuff back in season 3A.


Okay, so this is a kind of wonderful coincidence. When I was writing about Stiles’ implied bottomless pit of self-doubt, foremost in my mind was a scene from the season four Boy Meets World episode “Cult Fiction,” where bad-boy best friend Shawn Hunter explains to his mentor/adoptive father why he felt compelled to join a cult: “All my life, I’ve felt like there’s some part of me missing. And I felt like everybody could tell. Y’know, like there was some hole in me and everyone could see through it.” Shawn’s not talking about guilt, he’s talking about emptiness, but the way he phrased it has always stuck with me, and that sense of there being something fundamentally wrong with oneself, and feeling like everyone can see it, struck me as being particularly applicable to Stiles’ hypothetical guilt issues; the level of Stiles’ ingrained self-doubt would have to match the level of Shawn’s ingrained emptiness, in order for the end of “Lies of Omission” to make sense on a character level. I almost used that quote in the review. Anyway, then I was looking up the original 1985 Teen Wolf for insight into Stiles’ name, and I discovered that the actor who played the original Stiles, Jerry Levine, also played the cult leader in “Cult Fiction”! Truly, it’s a small world after all.

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