My review of Reprisal season 1 is HERE.
In episode 1 of Reprisal, we’re introduced to Katherine Harlow, aka Doris Quinn, who begins the story as a scorned part of the Banished Brawlers gang, but soon reinvents herself into Chef D, a respectable Detroit caterer. Unfortunately, Chef D finds that the men of the Detroit restaurant world aren’t much different from the men of her hometown gangster world, which forces her to make some decisions that will affect more than just herself. As William Faulkner said in his novel Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Reprisal takes place in a neo-retro noir alternative world that could be the recent past, but could also be a future which has regressed technologically. It could be 100 years into our future, in which we’ve dialed back the level of materialism in order to save the planet or because of the way wealth has been redistributed. In the retrofuture world of Reprisal, Original Star Trek’s communicators have become modern flip phones, which are in use alongside old style land lines. The music spans many decades, from rockabilly and blues to punk.
Much of the series’ look refers back to the post-war era of the late 1940s-60s, especially as viewed through the lens of film.The creators have drawn from films such as Rebel Without a Cause, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dirty Dancing, Blade Runner and American Graffiti. They’ve combined the neon of the 50s and the neon of neo noir/cyberpunk into their own disaffected, Gothic Noir style.
Our story begins with young Katherine Harlow racing down a rural highway. She has a gun in the passenger seat. At her destination, an old racetrack, she meets Burt Harlow, her brother and leader of the Banished Brawlers, and Bash Brannigan, another high ranking member of the Brawlers gang, plus a third, unidentified man. The three men are putting hoods onto approximately a dozen bodies lying dead on the ground. Katherine’s hair is long and brown, while her face is streaked with mascara from crying. The hoods bear the symbol of the Brawlers’ rival gang, the Ghouls.
Katherine surveys the carnage as Burt tells her she shouldn’t have come. She aims her gun at Burt and Bash, threatening to tell “them” that it was “you, all of you.” Burt doesn’t believe she’ll pull the trigger and invokes the name of their mother as the source of their family’s strength. He looks at the small heart tattoo on her wrist, a sign that she’s a real Harlow, and expresses his disappointment that she doesn’t understand what he’s built here. Katherine tells him that she sees what he’s built and that he’s destroying it.
Burt orders the unknown man and Bash to help him chain Katherine to the truck. Bash obeys without question or hesitation, even though Katherine begs for him not to be the one who does this to her- she doesn’t ask them to stop, just for it to be someone else besides Bash. Bash remains silent and holds Katherine still so Burt can wrap the chain around her. Burt tells her again that she shouldn’t have come out to the racetrack. As Burt walks away from her, she calls out to him.
Katherine: “Hey Burt! I will see you again.”
Burt: “I know that. I know.”
Burt gets in his truck and the third man drives. The chain is attached to the back of the truck.
Appendix 1; article 1: “The Tale of Harold Horpus”
Some years later, a blonde woman named Doris Quinn watches a report on TV about leaked satellite images that show a massive fire at the North Pole. No one is sure if these images are real or fake, but there are many theories about what they could mean. When Doris turns off the TV, the Harlow heart tattoo is visible on her wrist.
Doris’ husband, Tommy, is gravely ill. His nurse informs Doris that he’s woken up, so she checks in on him. He reminisces about the day they first met at the library, when she was reading a cookbook. He asks if it was The Language of Legumes, but she tells him that book doesn’t exist. She’s not sure which book he’s asking about, anyway, because they spent a lot of days together at the library.
The couple are warm and affectionate with each other, clearly happily married. She lies down next to him on his hospital bed and they talk about the family party they need to prepare for. Tommy teases her that the guests won’t want to stay any longer than she’ll want them to be there.
Doris dresses modestly and speaks softly. She’s polite and pleasant, but clearly intelligent. She prepares a huge spread for the party. When they arrive, the guests barely acknowledge her. The only person who treats her with respect, besides her husband, is her step daughter-in-law Molly, who confesses that she also feels like an outsider. Molly startles when her husband, Tommy’s son Colin, says her name.
Colin tells Doris to meet him at the family’s restaurant later. He makes sure she realizes it’s a command performance, not a request.
Doris meets Colin at closing time in the restaurant kitchen. He’s also asked the gangster Lander “Big” Graham to join them to act as his muscle. Lander is confident that he’s a local celebrity whose reputation as an enforcer precedes him. Tommy intends to leave the restaurant to Doris, so “Big” leans on her heavily to sign it over to Colin. Doris drinks a cup of tea as she listens to Graham.
She refuses to sign and talks down to both Colin and Graham. She knows that she deserves the restaurant, because it was the addition of her catering business that made the whole enterprise profitable. Graham brutally slaps her around, then threatens to kill her if she doesn’t sign. She’s left with no choice, which she likely knew before she walked in the door, but you can see her mentally adding names to her list of people she’ll get back at someday.
If she thought she had a chance of fighting Colin right now, she wouldn’t have come to this meeting alone. The restaurant kitchen was full of employees before the meeting began. Colin and Graham dismissed them, but they only left when Doris nodded that they should leave. Their loyalty is to her and maybe to Tommy. She could have had all of the physical help she wanted in this moment, but she knew she’d have to win this fight another way.
This also shows that meek and mild as she may seem, Katherine/Doris isn’t just a survivor. She has leadership skills that have allowed her to walk into someone else’s turf and gain the loyalty of their crew and of the original leader himself. Only the inferior wannabe child and the has-been gangster, who doesn’t know his time is almost up, can’t see her talents.’
Doris also isn’t afraid of pain and hard work. She’s earned everything she’s got, no matter what Colin and Graham say.
The cookbook story shows that she taught herself the skills she needed to become a chef and worked at it until she was able to keep up with the rest of the caterers in Detroit. Katherine Harlow has strength, faith, people skills and determination, qualities that attract others to her. Her Achilles heel is that she actually cares about people and those people can be used against her.
Next up is Ethan Hart, who’s waiting outside of a truck stop. He gets a phone call on a pay phone telling him to order some coffee and pie. The caller, Bru, one of the Brawlers, picks up Ethan a few minutes later and drives him to Burt’s Bang-A-Rang 707. The Bang-A-Rang is part of a chain of Bang-A-Rangs, all belonging to the Brawlers, which are the main business that supports the gang. It’s a bar-burlesque-fight club-restaurant-casino, and probably more. It’s also inside a sprawling gated compound that houses the Brawlers and their various operations.
The exotic dancers are known as the Pin-Ups. The most popular Pin-Up is Meredith Harlow, Burt’s daughter, who’s given a hard time by some of the dancers because she gets special treatment. She’s a talented performer and saleswoman, who sells a toxic illegal drug called scratch when she’s not on stage, surreptitiously passing it to customers as she dances by them.
Bru brings Ethan into the bar to meet Joel, who runs the day-to-day operations for the Brawlers, since Burt is currently on a break from public life, aka he’s disappeared. Joel thinks Ethan looks fragile, but he calls Matty, one of the 3 River Phoenixes, over anyway.
Matty takes Ethan into a back room for an interview and to meet Johnson, the other Phoenix. We learn that Johnson is reliable but not talkative. Matty is talkative and doesn’t like liars. Ethan dropped out of college because he didn’t know what he was doing there. His dad died when he was 12, then his mom took off not long after. Ethan doesn’t know much about the Brawlers and knows nothing about the Phoenixes.
Matty and Johnson are appalled. Ethan heard that this gig pays well and is an opportunity. He would like a job description so that he can better explain his qualifications. Johnson punches him in the head as an answer. In his own way, Matty gives him a job description.
Matty: “This isn’t an opportunity. This is my trust. This is Johnson’s trust. This is privilege. You don’t walk in here because it’s something to do. You walk in because you wanna leave whatever dark bullshit you’ve got behind you to be a part of something bigger than any of us. You walk in because you want to be a Phoenix. So, Ethan, you better start telling me why.”
Ethan: “Because I killed a guy. And for a while I thought he was gonna live. Maybe if I’d stopped hitting him sooner, he would’ve. But I got nowhere to run, and nowhere to run to. But I thought this might be a good place to start.”
Matty and Johnson look at each other with slight smiles. Johnson puts a black hood over Ethan’s head.
I wish I could convey the tense, shaky intensity that Rhys Wakefield gives to Matty. He’s a guy who’s always on the edge of an explosion. For him, the Phoenixes and the Brawlers are the religious cult who saved him from himself and brought order to his life. The gang is a sacred institution and he has a difficult time with anyone who doesn’t revere it as much as he does. At the same time, he still can’t stop himself from pushing boundaries and getting creative.
Ethan is telling the truth about being a lost soul in search of a home, a purpose and acceptance, who’s on the run from the law and his own anger. That’s just not all he is.
Johnson is both an enigma and right there on the surface, as Matty said. He doesn’t say much, but he’s solid. And he sees everything.
Matty and Johnson take Ethan to a bar and hand him a pair of brass knuckles. Johnson says there are 5 guys inside. Matty tells Ethan that all he has to do is keep up with them in there and he’ll walk out a River Phoenix.
Inside, Matty tells the 5 Ghouls who are drinking that they’re at a Brawlers bar. The Ghouls stand up and remind him that the bar has been part of the Ghouls territory since before he was born. A fight ensues, with various weapons, including a pool cue and a pair of spiked brass knuckles. The Ghouls are almost all bigger than the Phoenixes. One guy, Gary, weighs about 350 lbs.
Eventually, Matty and Ethan are thrown out of the bar onto the ground. Johnson strolls out on his own a minute later. Matty pronounces Ethan a Phoenix. Ethan got stabbed in the belly, but Matty assures him that Johnson can fix him right up. More importantly, Ethan needs a 3 River Phoenixes jacket.
Doris enjoys a night out at the local drive-in theater, eventually joined by her friend Witt, who she knows from the old days at the Bang-A-Rang. Doris’ face is bruised from her meeting with Big Graham and Colin. Witt assumes that Tommy, who loves Doris and is dying, did it to her. Doris orders him a beer and explains what happened. She tells Witt that she can take care of Colin, but she needs help with Big Graham. Interference with her inheritance complicates their master plan, so she needs him to hire a crew sooner than they thought.
Witt is skeptical about his chances of hiring a crew without any cash upfront, but Doris won’t consider giving up. From Witt we learn that they are going to travel 900 miles to take on the Banished Brawlers, after the crew handles Big Graham, “the most notorious mobster in all of Detroit”, for Doris. Witt suggests going after just the specific men who harmed her years ago and avoiding bloodshed, but Doris wants bloodshed and lots of it. She hates the whole gang and wants them to pay in the worst way. She’ll do the job on her own if Witt doesn’t think he can help her. Witt backs down and grumbles that he’s just saying it’ll be tough to get a crew without money upfront, but he’ll do it. Doris, who is almost always polite, thanks him.
Then we get get a Baby, It’s Cold Outside reference. “You don’t have to go.” “I’d rather not stay.”
On the drive-in screen, a man punches a woman, the film skitters, and it becomes an instructional film. Matty’s going to tell us all about the 3 River Phoenixes.
The Phoenixes aren’t Brawlers. They are in a pre-Brawler state. When you become a Phoenix, you get a neck tattoo consisting of 3 wavy lines- the 3 rivers. We see Ethan getting his.
There are 13 Bang-A-Rangs. The main branch is “Burt’s”, #707, which supplies the other 12. Running cash, alcohol, tickets and supplies between branches is the job of the Phoenixes. They have a car named Betty and a trailer named Lug. Since they’re traveling between bars, it’s only natural that they spend some time drinking. And drinking. And drinking.
Back at Burt’s Bang-A-Rang, Meredith plays a song on the jukebox while Matty gets a drink. He’s approached by Avron, a former Phoenix who was recently promoted to full Brawler, and who wants to rub it in. Before the interaction can escalate, Joel interrupts them.
He heard about the Phoenixes bar fight from his contact in the Ghouls, Jukes. Matty explains that it was Ethan’s initiation. Joel is unhappy that Matty risked their truce with the Ghouls in such a cavalier way, but Matty doesn’t take him or the risk seriously. Joel tries to scare Matty by telling him that the Ghouls have called a meeting and Burt will be angry. He threatens to turn the Phoenixes over to the Ghouls. Matty still doesn’t think it will go any further.
Joel gets physical with him, reminding him that the Phoenixes are just pledges, not Brawlers, and they need to do what they’re told. Matty gets angry and tells Joel that after 7 years as a Phoenix, it was his turn to be moved up to the Brawlers. Avron only spent 7 months on the road. Matty’s always wanted to be a Brawler and to know that he’d have their backs and they’d have his. Joel wonders just how Matty has their backs when he keeps putting people in danger?
Meredith sits down next to Johnson and Ethan and tries to sell Ethan some scratch. It comes stored in a 22 bullet casing, $15 each or 2 for $22. Ethan doesn’t know what scratch is. Matty sits down and chases Meredith away after she’s learned that Ethan is from Michigan and doesn’t have a girlfriend.
Joel grabs Meredith and admonishes her not to sell scratch in the club, because both he and Burt have told her not to. She’s not fooled by him pretending to be in contact with Burt and denies knowing anything about the drugs. She has the drug-filled bullet casings tucked into a garter belt on her thigh.
Matty tells Ethan to stay away from Meredith. He can mess around with any of the other women who work in the bar, but not her. But Matty and Johnson both warn him that none of the women are looking for romance. They all want something in exchange for their time.
Avron sits down with the Phoenixes and harasses Ethan, calling him a China doll and a little boy (in other words, the first things he says to Ethan are racist and homophobic). Matty jumps in and tells Ethan that Avron was on the fast track to Brawler membership because he was briefly related to Burt by marriage. Then he suggests that Avron also slept with the aunt that was married to Burt.
Avron looks like he’s about to do something to Matty, but before he can, Ethan hits him over the head with a bottle. Then Matty jumps Avron and starts punching. Joel pulls Matty off and threatens him again, but Avron tells Joel that Ethan started it. Joel warns Ethan not to touch Brawlers or Meredith. Ethan turns and catches Meredith’s eye from across the room. She winks at him.
Meredith is as much Anita as she is Maria, but the star-crossed West Side Story vibe is there. Maybe crossed with something even more violent and desperate like Chicago or Cabaret. Meredith pretends that she’s all about coldly tempting Ethan into danger, but it’s clear that she needs a real connection as much as he does. She’s looking for a Tony who will care more about her than they care about the Brawlers, Joel or Burt. She might even take a Maria if the right one came along.
Ethan is on the edge of the group rather than a full member, sincere, loyal, protective and thinks quickly in a crisis. He just doesn’t necessarily make the right decisions in the moment. Everything required of a Tony.
Doris and Tommy have dinner at their dining room table, so Tommy must be having a good day. He mentions that she’s never shared much of her past with him and she explains that she “comes from bad blood and dark days”, but he saved her from those memories with his goodness. Tommy confesses that he’s not that good, and offers to tell her more about his own wrongdoings. Doris asks if that’s what he wants, to end their time together with full honesty, or if he’d rather end as they’ve gone on, by sharing the best of each other.
Tommy doesn’t answer the question. Instead, he shows that he understands exactly how things are by asking if Colin and Big Graham are the ones who beat her and left her face bruised. He offers to talk to them for Doris, but she tells him that anything he does now won’t matter as soon as he’s gone. He apologizes, either for his imminent departure, his son and associates’ behavior, or both. Doris brushes it off. She understands this world.
Tommy: “Doris. You do what you have to do to move on, to be safe. You spare nothing… and you spare no one. No one. Promise me that, okay?”
He says it calmly, without anger. Doris nods her head and they continue their dinner.
Tommy knows who his son really is. He may be dying, but he’s still of sound mind and body, as the saying goes, and able to make decisions for himself. He’s given Doris his blessing so that she can defend herself without guilt.
After his shift at the Bang-A-Rang, Joel walks across the compound to his trailer. He grabs a beer and turns on the TV as he collapses into his favorite chair. But the moment he settles in, his young daughter, Lyla, comes out of her bedroom and begins telling a story.
Lyla: “Sammy Simpleton lives in the forest.”
Joel halfheartedly tries to get her back to bed, but she’s undoubtedly the best part of his life and of his day, so after a minute he encourages her story. Lyla functions as the oracle in this noir, the passive, all-knowing observer, but she speaks in code. Joel loves her deeply and is completely wrapped up in her imagination, but he hasn’t figured out yet that she’s talking about real life.
They continue their conversation, with Lyla explaining her characters and Joel asking questions to clarify. Joel says that once the characters’ have a story that’s set, he’ll draw them for her. Lyla tries to prolong their time further by asking for nighttime breakfast.
In this conversation, we learn that Sammy Simpleton lives in the forest in a wooden cabin, where he reads and talks to his pets- a cat, a horse and a night giraffe. The night giraffe is allergic to the sun. Sammy has to spend all day fixing the roof, because the night giraffe is too tall for the cabin and keeps poking holes in it.
Next Lyla tells us about Beatrice Beodorff, who flew too fast and broke her broomstick. Beatrice knows magic, but she’s not a witch, not even a good witch. There’s also Harold Horpus, but Lyla doesn’t know his story yet. She’s going to work on it.
Tommy has died peacefully in his bed. Doris sits with him. The nurse asks Doris if she should contact the family. Doris tells her to take the rest of the day off, that she’ll contact the family herself. After the nurse leaves, Doris retrieves a revolver from where it’s hidden in a dresser drawer in the attic.
Joel and Lyla fall asleep together on the couch, probably after nighttime breakfast. In the morning, Bru knocks on the door and lets Joel know that everyone is ready for the meeting with the Ghouls, except for Bash. No one has been able to rouse him.
Doris goes to Molly and Colin’s house, where Colin has fallen asleep on the couch in a drunken stupor. Molly sits in a chair across the room from Colin and stairs at him until he wakes up. Yes, Molly has that power.
Molly tells Colin that there’s a visitor waiting for him in the kitchen. He stumbles in and finds Doris there, finishing making herself a cup of tea. Just as the Kiss of the Spider Woman brings danger and death, so too does Doris drinking tea. But Colin isn’t bright enough to figure that out.
Joel wakes Bash up and tells him not to start a fight at the meeting. Bash makes his way out into the monumental Brawlers’ compound parking lot, telling Joel that he worries too much.
Bash is far from the kind of stupid kid who would start a fight and accidentally end the truce between the two gangs. He’s nihilistic and whatever he does will be on purpose.
Doris softly explains to Colin that Tommy met her when she was struggling with trauma and difficulties. She’s never shared much about her previous life with any of them, so she’ll tell him now. Maybe it will help their situation if they get to know each other better.
She begins to talk about the Banished Brawlers. Colin interrupts her to throw out some threats and insults in order to generally diminish her as a person, then orders her to get out of his way. In general, as a person. Doris drinks her tea and responds politely, giving him one more chance.
She shows him the paper he and Big Graham made her sign, reminding him that he can’t file with the court until Tommy dies. Currently, Tommy’s will still stands as he wrote it, with the restaurant going to her. Then she says it’s too bad he didn’t get to know her better, because he might have realized that he’s nothing compared to the evil she’s known before.
As she says this, Doris takes her tea to the sink, zip ties Colin’s hand to the chair, tightens a zip tie around his throat, and pulls him onto the floor. While he struggles to find something to cut the tie around his throat, she calmly burns the form they forced her to sign.
Notice that she was able to multitask quite nicely there, cleaning up three different messes at once. Only a woman can manage that level of efficiency.
She tells him there’s an awful darkness waking up inside of her, almost like a sickness. Then she shoots him in the head, twice, and says she’s not sure if this is what Tommy meant when he gave her carte blanche to protect herself.
Oh well. This is what it took to clean up the mess Tommy left her with.
Doris gathers her things and goes out to the living room, where Molly is still sitting in the same chair. As she leaves through the front door, Doris says, “Okay. Molly, as we discussed.”
When Doris gets home, she calls Ethan. He doesn’t answer, so she leaves a message. She’s listed in his phone as Chef D. She gives him a job description to complement the one Matty gave him earlier in the episode.
Doris: “Hi, Ethan. It’s me. I was just calling to see how you were doing. Check in on you. I know this all must be a lot to process. Big new world, a lot of moving parts. I know it might be scary. But, I hope you’re making friends. I guess. The reason that I called was… Well, keep it quiet, but I might be coming down there soon, to take care of some business. Tie up some loose ends. So, until I get there, you keep your head up and your eyes open. And maybe I’ll be seeing you soon.”
The 3 River Phoenixes join the parade of vintage and muscle cars that attend the meeting with the Ghouls. Meredith waves to Ethan as he heads to Betty the car.
We end where we began, with the Brawlers trying to avoid war at the old racetrack and Doris watching the North Pole burn.
Existentialist Nightmares and Self-Aware Characters
Bash and Doris both look directly at the camera at the end of the episode, but Bash is theoretically looking back at Joel, whose point of view is the camera. Bash is being watched, but Doris isn’t. She’s watching the Brawlers through her inside man, Ethan. And she’s planning a family reunion.
As he looks at the camera, Bash tells Joel that he’s worrying too much, because Bash knows that the Ghouls aren’t the real threat. The real threat is more existential than that. It’s the reason Burt is gone, the reason why we only saw Bash in the opening and closing scenes and the reason Doris/Katherine is self-aware. It’s the reason Sammy Simpleton will never be able to fix all of the holes in his roof. That night giraffe is relentless.
The other person who looks at the camera, and even gives the audience a tutorial, is Matty. You could interpret his little short film as him strictly speaking to Ethan, just as Bash’s look a the camera can be interpreted as him looking at Joel. But the way his tutorial begins blows that reasoning, since we go from the film at the drive-in to a strip of blank film to Matty speaking directly to the audience. And Ethan is in the film within the film, so it’s not strictly Matty speaking to him.
Matty is one of the most self aware characters in this show, but he’s extremely flawed in other ways. He idealizes the Brawlers as people who would have his back, even as they obviously don’t have each others’ backs, starting at the top, since Burt and Bash have both left Joel alone to run the business. Then there’s the irony of Avron, who doesn’t have anyone’s back but his own.
Most of the Brawlers seem to mind their own business, but overall Joel is spread too thin as a leader to enforce the kind of atmosphere Matty is looking for. We saw what Burt is capable of at the beginning of the episode, so it’s hard to believe that the gang was a loving and loyal place when he was in charge, either. Matty has created a mythological Brawlers who have never really existed. In fact, Matty needs to turns the camera toward himself and take a good look. The Phoenixes are the group Matty is looking for, because that’s the kind of leader that he is.
Gothic Noir Punk Ish
Gothic Noir is a basically forgotten, female driven genre which combines the psychological suspense of a Noir with the systemic, chaotic madness of a Gothic. Gothic Noir, which depicts a world where nothing and no one are safe, was popular in the 1940s, during and immediately post-war, but fell out of style by the middle of the conformist 1950s.
It’s obvious why a style like Gothic Noir would have appealed to and been aimed at women in the 40s. They were the ones left at home during the war, so they were the main audience. Wartime and the years immediately following were times of social chaos, upheaval and uncertainty. The Gothic Noir plays to that feeling of mistrust in the world and its institutions and into the changing roles that individuals experienced over the decade of the 40s. It was a time when men went to war and eventually some, but not all, returned home, while women went to work and then were forced to give up their roles outside the home in order to become housewives and mothers.
Many of the films which the article linked above describes solely as Gothics are also considered noirs, including one of their main examples, Rebecca, but also such films as Gaslight, Suspicion and The Secret Beyond the Door.
Reprisal also has the main elements of Gothic, noir and of the “punk” in cyberpunk and steampunk, denoting protagonists who are rebellious outsiders that can never quite win and a particular dystopian style in the production design that’s immediately identifiable. Reprisal’s retrofuturism style is immediately identifiable, the particular form it’s using just hasn’t been done by much of anyone before.
I would argue that the post-war era is a perfect time for a punk setting, as it was a time of rapid and dystopian change. Millions had died in a war, but the populace was trying to go on as if everything was fine. The preferred coping method became enforced conformism, to the point of searching out supposed spies and communists who threatened the status quo as enemies of the state. The media of the time is rife with paranoia hovering just below a pleasant but brittle surface.
Eventually, films of the 50s aimed at teenagers captured the Orwellian, rebellious feelings of the outsiders who couldn’t conform to the mainstream norms of the era. Reprisal’s style is also heavily influenced by the scifi and teen rebel films of the era. I should never be allowed to name anything, as can be seen by my creative post titles, but something along the lines of “Post-War Punk” or “Boomer Punk” might work to describe Reprisal’s retrofuturistic, lush, neon gangster B movie feel.
A Little More Character Analysis
Ethan is the “punk” antihero of Reprisal, equivalent to Neo in The Matrix, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner or Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon. He is the morally ambiguous outsider who is thrust into the middle of the central conflict and asked to choose a side before he even fully understands that there are sides.
For the rest of the story, he has an internal conflict over whether he’s on the side he actually wants to be on, or if he even wants to be on a side at all, but he’s in too deep to escape the situation completely. His lack of conviction allows both sides to manipulate him and question his loyalty. It also means he’s one of the most clear eyed characters in the story, when he can rise above the turmoil in his own tortured psyche long enough to take a good look around.
But unlike those stories, in Reprisal, Ethan is a major character, but not the main character. Reprisal moves Katherine/Doris, the femme fatale/love interest/mentor, to center stage and turns the sidepiece into a compelling leading lady who’s done being shoved around. By the time we meet her for real, she’s already lived two different lives, in which she accepted everything that she was told and lived by the rules that were forced on her. She was more savvy in the second life than in the first, yet both lives have blown up in her face.
In each life, she was a protected mob princess, until she lost her strong male protector, and then it was easy for the other men who were closest to her to take advantage of her because she is a woman.
These aren’t spoilers- we can infer from what we already know that Burt, her brother, protected her, then turned on her and framed her. Bash was close to her, then also turned on her when Burt told him to. When Kat lost Burt’s protection, she lost it all, and was used to protect the real murderers of the men in that field. We just don’t know why Burt turned on her or why the men in the field were really killed. Whatever the reasons were for what happened in that field, Burt judged them more important than his sister.
In her second life, Colin and Big Graham were circling, waiting for Tommy to die so they could force Doris to give up the restaurant. The employees were loyal to Doris, not Colin, She was running the business and had made it successful. Colin just wanted the money, and had the muscle the take it away from her once Tommy wasn’t there to protect her. Graham was loyal to Colin out of misogyny and greed.
Reprisal moves the chosen one/romantic lead slightly off center and shines a spotlight on the quirky characters who create the environment the chosen one lives in. It isn’t unusual for a noir to highlight its ensemble and for the lead to struggle as an outsider, possibly only to come up empty-handed at the end of the story.
But it’s usually understood that the male lead is the protagonist and a female lead will ultimately turn out to be a villain. The good woman in a noir plays second fiddle to her man. Even if she appears to be the leader and the more competent one, she will ultimately need to be rescued by him (see: Altered Carbon).
Reprisal may eventually try to make that sharp turn, but we’ve been shown from the start that Ethan has a dark side and Katherine is an innocent victim who was betrayed and pushed into the violent revenge she seeks. The harsh world she can’t escape has made Katherine who she is today, while Ethan revealed his own darkness when he lost control in a fight. Because of that, Ethan can never be a wholly perfect hero and Katherine can never be portrayed as strictly evil.
She’s played the good woman as Tommy’s wife, and so has Molly, as Colin’s abused wife. If they were both really good, traditional women they would have allowed themselves to continue to be abused by men. Instead, they both looked at the choices available to them, which mainly consisted of the traditional choice fictional women have to make between being powerful and bad or good and helpless. Being good and helpless also equals being abused more frequently than anyone wants to admit, but Reprisal does admit that correlation. Both Doris/Katherine and Molly chose power, freedom and breaking the rules. So far, Reprisal isn’t condemning them for it.
Molly remains in a limbo state at the end of the episode, since she sent Colin to Doris, but didn’t actively participate in his demise. And Doris gave him several chances to save himself, which he didn’t take. Molly could still retain her good woman status by distancing herself from Doris, even if she doesn’t turn Doris in, or she could go along with Doris’ master plan and become part of her crew. Molly did sit in the living room while her mother-in-law murdered her husband and barely batted an eyelash. That suggests both a bad marriage and nerves of steel, an asset in the type of thing Doris has planned.
The 3 River Phoenixes may be named after you know who, but they also take their cues from James Dean, the ride or die, tragically short-lived star of Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant, and from Marlon Brando as he was in On the Waterfront and The Wild One. Like Brando, they’re rebelling against whatever you’ve got and they could have had class and been contenders. Like Dean, they just want to belong someplace and stop being torn apart.
Like River Phoenix himself in My Own Private Idaho, if things had been different, they could have been well-adjusted. And they can sleep anywhere. But like Phoenix in Stand By Me, they’re the best, most dependable friends you’ll ever have, and they’ll die for you any way you want to serve it- gunfight over a body, stab wound in a bar fight, seeking justice for whatever wrong needs to be righted.
Images courtesy of Hulu.