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Ballers #105, “Machete Charge” by Bryce Rudow

Hannibal #307, “Digestivo” by Charles Bramesco

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Ballers #105, “Machete Charge”

The Inches We Need

BY BRYCE RUDOW (@brycetrudow)

As someone that edits a lot of writing, I’ve come to rely on a few pet buzzwords and phrases when constructively critiquing our writers’ brilliant word-thoughts. My favorite is probably “Write like a human”, which is a reminder to not let one’s writing get in the way of one’s thoughts, but the one I use most frequently is “Take your conclusion, make it your introduction, and start over.” More often than not, a writer will think they know what they want to say, but by the time they’ve finished writing their piece and constructed their conclusion, they’ve reached an even deeper level of thought that is the one actually worth exploring.

I bring this up because if I were editing Ballers, I would have told them to make this most recent episode, “Machete Charge”, the pilot and start over again from there.

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This episode, written and directed by series newcomers Steve Sharlet and Seith Mann, respectively, found a way to summarize a month’s worth of torturous filler episodes in the matter of a few commercial-ready soundbites:

“Hey, Spence, man, I gotta say, never thought I’d see you work in a place like this, man.”
“Ah, that makes two of us, man.”
“But the whole suit and tie thing kind of works for you, though.”
“Well, ’cause I make it look fly, right?”

“Anything that has to do with contracts, Jason’s gonna handle; anything that has to do with finances, Joe’s gonna handle; and everything else in between like this, I’m gonna handle.”

“The position you’re in now, you become a target.”
“And this is what happens when you are fuckin’ awesome at your job.”

“I’m not about to sit around here and watch you unravel now that football is done.”

Minus some literal mother-fucking plot details, this is essentially what the audience is expected to have taken away from the first 2 hours of this show. Even our favorite Inside the Edition narrator, executive producer Evan T. Reilly, has had time to catch up: “What we’re trying to do is show the players in a positive light, not ignore their mistakes and ignore their issues and their problems, but at least give a little bit of perspective on where they’re coming from.”

It’s just that considering how haphazardly that information was delivered to us originally, it feels like it would have made more sense to trust the audience’s ability to connect dots themselves and jump in en media res with the real meaty stuff. Last night’s episode was everything a viewer of Ballers could have wanted from the show, I just wish we could have gotten there sooner.

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I mean, there was real banter going on in “Machete Charge”. That “‘Do you know where Alonzo’s from?’ ‘That I do, actually’” line was fantastic and subtly delivered. And Rob Corddry’s character has depth and believability now. He’s not just a guy who randomly shouts “Raise a glass niggas!” at a corporate party; he’s a guy who was in the top 1/3 of his law class at FIU but who also can personally vouch that people piss in public pools and who knows firsthand that crack looks like a lot of other stuff. The Rock even got to tell a zinger of a story about a time he punched out some hillbilly at a bar in college! These are the inches that at the end of the day are the difference between winning and losing, between living and dying, between being a flop and being a hit.

When they have Charles’ wife drop that Dunkin’ Donuts line and they take advantage of Omar Miller’s underutilized acting abilities to show how uncool it really was with him, they’re fighting for those inches. When they fire the ‘crazy Uncle Frank’ gun on the table with that admittedly surprising twist at the end, they’re clawing their way back out of critical hell.

In fact, the only real slight I can give “Machete Charge” is that there has never been a cop working in Miami who is a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan who uses the phase ‘total pisser’. If you believe that one, I’ve got a water park to sell you in North Dakota…

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Hannibal #307, “Digestivo”

In Which The Train Un-Jumps The Tracks

BY CHARLES BRAMESCO (@intothecrevasse)

As visually ravishing as the Vincenzo Natali-directed first few episodes were, the third season of Hannibal has been largely plagued by wheel-spinning. Showrunner Bryan Fuller separated his leading men just so they could find one another at an agonizingly leisurely pace, and Mason Verge schemed while dispensing vile one-liners around the fringes. Though the film has reached new highs of formal artistry, narcotizing viewers with unthinkably sensuous camerawork, the season has been tainted by a generalized sense of disjointedness and immobility.

In the anti-climactic reunion of Will and Hannibal at the art museum in last week’s “Dolce”, Fuller sold viewers a false bill of goods. This was to be the big turning point for the season, the point where things stop preparing to happen and get happening. I expressed frustrations last week that Fuller’s big move felt hollow on the inside, and that the status quo of the show had not been altered in any meaningful way — a point that I stand by. The same cannot be fairly said of “Digestivo”.

A week behind his own schedule, Fuller delivers the goods. This is the show that the cadre of Fannibals first fell in love with.

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With “Digestivo”, Fuller clarifies the long game he’s spent the season playing. He binds together the disparate, seemingly inconsequential arenas of action of this third season and moves them forward into new and exciting paradigms, even providing rarely clear-cut closure for some characters. Once again, Hannibal feels like a show run by a guy who knows precisely what he’s doing, a guy with a clear vision of where he wants to take the characters and ideas at play in the program.

Fuller starts by filling in a gap he left at the conclusion of last week’s “Dolce”, showing the series of events that brought Will and Hannibal from point A (a grisly dinner in which Hannibal is primed to eat Will’s brain while an immobilized Jack Crawford watches) to point B (Will and Hannibal hanging from their feet in a meat locker at Mason Verger’s Muskrat Farms). Mostly, this sequence permits Fuller to stage another of his cracking action sequences — watch how the camera gleefully spirals upward as Verger’s hit squad storms the Italian mansion where Hannibal assembles his bone saw. But it also enables Fuller to show his work before moving forward to the meat of the episode, if we’ll all excuse the pun.

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Creepy, deformed Mason Verger is at his creepiest and most deformed as he bats Hannibal and Will around like a wolf toying with a pair of rabbits he’s caught. Alana warns him that played-with food has a chance to bite back, but the largely impotent Mason remains stubbornly unaware of how little power he actually wields. This, of course, comes back to do far worse things than bite him in the ass. A season full of constant lecherous abuse towards Alana has shortened her patience with the man, leading her to crucially free Hannibal and set off a violent rampage. Most importantly, Fuller’s laid enough groundwork for Alana’s turncoat move to read as a legitimate character choice instead of overly convenient plot manipulation.

As Verger’s planned meal of Will and Hannibal continues to come undone, Fuller dispenses two of the most satisfying turns in the season heretofore. Mason’s been an uncomfortable presence in season three, kind of engrossing and kind of just gross. Fuller finally finds the perfect place for his most sickening creation: the grave. Mason’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, may just be the most viscerally satisfying catharsis the plot could’ve found. Continuously assuring Margo that a baby with the Verger bloodline is gestating on the grounds inside of a surrogate somewhere or other, Mason’s run his luck out. Margo and Alana learn the horrible truth that their unborn child floats unliving inside of a pig uterus, and deal Mason the comeuppance he deserves. Fuller sticks Mason with a death befitting his sexual impropriety in life, sending him off with a face-rape from an eel. It’s gory, disturbing, a little over-the-top, and delectably macabre. You know, the very essence of Hannibal.

Better still, Fuller finally contrives a method of slicing through the Gordian knot at the heart of the show. He’d run up against a wall when finding a way to deal with the twin indispensability of his leading men, teasing audiences with one party’s decisive victory over the other when we all know that nothing of that nature could come to pass. But just as Hannibal agrees to surrender to the police after escaping his confines at Muskrat Farms, he says something pivotal to Will, an acceptance of the show’s main flaw and possible recasting as a virtue: “I want you to know where I am, and where you can always find me.” Moments earlier, Hannibal describes them as a zero-sum game. Their fates have become inextricably intertwined; think of them as Batman and the Joker, or Marina Abramovic and Ulay. They’re two parts of a whole, both tormented but deeply in need of the other. Their dynamic can shift and change, but they can never truly dispel their influence from one another.

Fuller realizes that the satisfying drama of Hannibal cannot possibly come from will-they or won’t-they wavering (in this case, the unnamed action is murder and cannibalism, not a steamy hook-up), but rather the how. Hannibal’s choice to enter custody# introduces a fresh dimension to a show threatening to stagnate. It removes the burden from the antagonism between Will and Hannibal, and replaces it with a standing stalemate that can change to suit the story’s purposes. Those familiar with the show’s source material recognize the events of Red Dragon as impending, but for uninitiated viewers, “Digestivo” is an infusion of fresh blood. There’s still plenty of life in the veins that haven’t yet been severed.