In episode 3 we learn more about The Emboldened Conflict, Johnson’s name for the huge gang war that started after his massive argument with Katherine and the unforgivable betrayal that followed it. As far as the Brawlers know, Katherine simply took off one day, out of the blue, after betraying Burt, the brother who gave her everything. Katherine supposedly started the war as part of her betrayal, then Burt used it to unite the gangs.
Viewers also get a closer look at the day to day operations of the Brawlers and follow Doris on her search for the perfect crew. The perfect crew is a bit reluctant to sign on with her, so extended negotiations are in order.
Cousins Cordell and Earl, aka The Monster Ring, aka the guys who robbed the bowling alley in episode 2, sit in a truck outside of said bowling alley gossiping about sex and family and other universal subjects of gossip. Before long, an alarm sounds on Earl’s watch and they put on their masks. It’s time to rob Mr Bolo’s gaming room.
After a quick time jump, they race out of the bowling alley, hop into a car instead of the truck and race away. Bolo and his minions follow them out, and the car chase that ended episode 2 begins, with Doris in close pursuit.
You get the sense that Katherine Harlow was probably a getaway driver. And maybe she spent some time driving at the old racetrack. She’s a better driver than any of Bolo’s guys, who are all shot or otherwise lose the robbers within a few minutes.
But not Katherine Harlow. She turns off her lights, slows to a roll, and follows their trail. Before long, a landscaping truck carrying Cordell and Earl pulls out in front of her from behind a building. Unfortunately, she’s not the only one who’s done this before. They quickly notice that her car is suspicious, since it has that giant bullet hole in the windshield.
Both cars stop. Earl comes back to talk to Doris. She puts on her highest pitched little girl voice, but she still challenges Earl when he questions her by asking if he’s a police officer. He tells her to move along, and she lowers the tone of her voice to agree to leave. She has a gun in her lap and has taken note of the logos on his clothing and truck.
She let him win the battle, but like Graham, he hasn’t won the war. Both men assumed physically intimidating a woman with violence or the threat of violence would be enough to scare her so much, she’d change her plans. Neither considered that she might find a way to escalate the threat of violence, and then continue escalating it. They’d likely at least consider that possibility when dealing with a man.
Witt gets Doris more information about the Monster Ring: They’re an independent organization who rob underground, illegal targets run by “entrepreneurs”, like the domino game at Bolo’s and a brothel in Muncie. They’ve been working for years and have become legends. No one knows who they are, but they’ve made a lot of people angry. Witt’s heard they’re war vets.
Witt doesn’t think the name on the side of the truck, Alvin’s Landscaping, is worth following up on, because of course he doesn’t. As usual, Doris isn’t swayed by his reasons, which are based on fear. The Monster Ring are what she needs and she knows how to work with their type, despite how dangerous Witt thinks they are. She also quickly figures out that Bolo would like to know their names.
The Brawlers hold a monthly status meeting to discuss the state of each aspect of their businesses. It’s dry and more serious than a funeral, despite the fact that the businesses are doing well. Joel is not a boss who believes in lavishing praise on his people or celebrating his wins. Or celebrating anything, ever, as far as I can tell. You can feel the life being choked out of the Brawlers as they sit in the bar with their drinks, listening to each report.
Bru reports that the Phoenixes did good work with their regular job. Then Queenie, who is the only woman in the room and manages the finances, reports that every part of their business is doing incredibly well. Except, since the meeting with the Ghouls a week ago, when Bash choked and dragged Konstantinov, the other gang hasn’t paid their tax. She puts the blame on the 3 River Phoenixes for making the Ghouls angry to begin with.
I acknowledge that the Phoenixes broke the rules. But isn’t it up to leadership to handle issues like this? Didn’t Queenie just say it was the leadership’s decisions that caused the Ghouls to stop paying taxes? Maybe they should have handed the Phoenixes over or have had a big fight, right then and there, to get it over with. Or used a better negotiating tactic than Bash choking their lieutenant. Maybe they should have had some peace offerings in mind before the meeting.
Joel reminds everyone that not paying the tax is a violation of the truce agreement and they’ll have to do something about it. That means escalating their conflict. It also brings up the possibility that the other gangs, like the Vipers and the Cleavers, will decide to test the strength of the Brawlers by skipping payments of their tax as well. And then Burt will hear that other gangs aren’t paying their taxes and he’ll start “The War” over it, all over again.
Once again, Joel gives his patented speech about what good times they live in. He asks Queenie to back him up, and she shrugs. He finishes by yelling at them, again, that he is very, very afraid of war.
Doris drives the car with the bullet hole in the windshield out to visit Alvin’s Landscaping and finds Earl and Cordell sitting outside at a picnic table eating lunch. She asks if she can join them. When Earl says no, she sits down anyway, admires their lunches and tells them her name is Doris. Cordell gives her his name without hesitation. Earl tells him to stop talking.
Doris goes into her pitch for working together on her job, discreetly worded, of course. Earl insists they’re landscapers and nothing else. Then he makes the standard misogynist speech about her clear inability to do anything useful in life and arrogance at thinking she could.
You know the one, ladies. We’ve all heard a variation of it. Or a thousand variations of it. Sit your little self down and let the men do the real work. It sadly hasn’t gone extinct in the 21st century.
Katherine drops the Doris act for a moment by the end of his rude speech, which isn’t a good sign for Earl and Cordell. They are understandably concerned that someone’s found them. But that dismissal happened the way it did because she is a woman, and Katherine is sick of being turned away with such disrespect.
Witt checks in with the Brawlers at Bang-A-Rang 707, for whom he is a location scout. He suggests spots in Indiana and Ohio, but Joel wanted him to look west and south, not north. He’s also angry that Witt wasn’t at the staff meeting. He gives Witt a talking to, then pays him and tells him to stay for a steak.
Witt takes Joel up on the meal. Ethan joins him and asks how things are going with Doris. Witt won’t tell Ethan much, but suggests that he might be stuck with the Brawlers for a long time. He’s confident that there won’t be a war and that Ethan is safe.
Meredith asks Matty for a ride to a pay phone. He gives her a hard time, then gives in. She rides with the Phoenixes when they leave to go on their rounds, sitting in the back seat with Ethan and flirting. He tries to keep his distance, but she’s persistent. He can’t help falling for her a little, but Matty and Johnson tell her to leave Ethan alone.
When they drop her off at a phone booth, Matty tells her to stay safe. He’s worried about her. She gives them some scratch in thanks. And shows Matty the gun in her purse. As they drive away, Ethan asks what her deal is. Johnson tells him she’s Burt’s daughter.
The Phoenixes next stop is a Bang-A-Rang ticket sales location, staffed by older gang member Percy Montgomery. He’s a fast talking salesman. He advises Ethan to give people a sales pitch, even when they’re already ready to buy, and if he wants to be able to read people, to confuse them.
A female member of the Happiness Ghouls, Gertrude, picks Meredith up on a motorcycle and takes her back to the Ghouls bar where the Phoenixes started the fight. They meet up with Gary, the giant Ghoul, who sells Meredith a beat up motorcycle. It doesn’t run, but he doubles the asking price when he sees who the buyer is.
Gertrude is also Meredith’s dealer, so they share a joint afterwards and Gertrude hands over two packages of scratch. She says that the guy who makes the scratch hasn’t been making as much lately, so she couldn’t get as much as usual for Meredith. Meredith says she’ll make this amount work.
Meredith reaches into her purse and pulls out a videotape of the film Camille Flame and the Fire Demons, which shows a stuntwoman performing. She says that she pulled it out of the bin behind the racetrack. She’s watched it over and over. She doesn’t think Camille is her mother, but it’s nice to think about. Gertrude and Meredith settle in to watch the film together.
The Phoenixes get back on the road, but are soon pulled over by a cop. Ethan is driving and gets nervous about the guns taped to the ceiling and the outstanding Michigan warrant for his arrest. Matty tells him not to worry.
The cop tries to go through normal procedures, but Matty interrupts and asks him to call his superior officer for instructions. The cop does, then lets the Phoenixes go.
After they drive away, Ethan asks why the other two want to be there. They say it’s a bold and complicated question, but doing some scratch together could help with the answer. Matty pulls out the bullet casings and all 3 get high. The answer becomes a drug trip mixed media interlude. The Phoenixes stay live action, but animation, effects and live action film clips happen behind them as Matty and Johnson tell their story. There are also music and sound effects.
Kids, don’t do hallucinogens and drive.
The Story of the Banished Brawlers, As Told By Matty and Johnson
Matty: “Same reason I wanted to be a Phoenix. ‘Cause Burt found a Road. A Road to family. Back then, every gang from Sanderstown to Greenville was at each other’s throats. Burt was fine letting everyone f—ing eat themselves because Brawlers had each other and they couldn’t be beat. Why is why what was f—ed…”
Johnson: “…Was when Burt’s own sister betrayed him.”
Matty: “Katherine Harlow. Betrayed the family Burt built for him and her. Katherine started to see things differently than Burt. Group of Brawlers went out to negotiate with some Happiness Ghouls, and they were ambushed.”
Johnson: “Katherine set ’em up.”
Matty: “Conspired with the Ghouls. And then she mocked the dead Brawlers, put the Ghouls’ masks over their heads. It was the ultimate betrayal.”
Johnson: “Then Katherine disappeared. No one knows why. She started one h–l of a war.”
Matty: “What old Johnson refers to as the Emboldened Conflict. ‘Cause for Burt, that was it. His attempt at peace failed. He was taken advantage of. So he decided he would take everything by force. Because Burt knew if he stopped at the Ghouls, every other gang would just keep coming. So, he got proactive. Led a campaign against every gang he could find with territory.”
Johnson: “Burt’s cause grew.” (Echoes)
Matty: “And so the Brawlers grew. Came from everywhere. Misfits, f—k-ups, outlaws. From coal mines in the East to gold earth in the West to some central booking facility in Michigan. No matter what you did before you got here, no matter how bad, it all went away the moment you fought your first fight with us. That’s family, Ethan.”
“That’s family” echoes down the road.
But Is It Family, Really?
That’s family, if you are a man. In the Brawlers, the women are quite literally segregated into a harem. Even if the story of Katherine’s betrayal were true, it’s no excuse to punish all women, as if Burt were both God and Adam, and Katherine was Eve. Think about that for a minute, then think about the way Matty told the story. Makes you wonder about Burt and Kat’s relationship, doesn’t it?
I would normally dissect this story line by line, but it’ll give away spoilers if we do that now, so I’m just going to pull out a few highlights and leave it here so readers can check back after more information is revealed. For now, you might want to check Matty and Johnson’s version of the night Katherine left against what we were shown at the start of episode 1. The 2 accounts don’t match.
When they tell the story, Johnson, the older, quieter Phoenix who’s seen more history and whose voice carries more weight, gives us the basic facts. Matty embellishes the story with the legend, or color commentary, if you will.
Johnson’s “facts”: Burt’s own sister betrayed him. Katherine set ’em up. Then Katherine disappeared. No one knows why. She started one h–l of a war. Burt’s cause grew.
This is the early version of the story that Burt, Bash and the third man who was on the scene that night, originally told. There are elements of truth to it. There had clearly been an argument, but it appeared that Katherine was trying to stop Burt and Bash from killing the dozen bodies we saw. Katherine definitely disappeared, though Burt knew why. It’s doubtful she started the war, and she was probably against Burt’s cause. When she showed up at the scene of the murders, she appears to have made herself a convenient scapegoat for Burt and Bash. But by having Johnson be the one to say these lines, they become truths. He takes on the air of a witness.
Matty becomes the prophet who spreads the word of Burt’s gospel. This is the rest of the story, the details that also have some truth, which were filled in later to make it not just the story of a terrible night and an excuse for a territory grab by Burt, but the inspirational story of a man who was wronged and whose extended family was wronged, who is determined to stop the same thing from ever happening again.
Burt wasn’t an out of control opportunist, he was uniting the gangs and territories into an empire so that this war would be the last war they’d ever have to fight, because from then on they’d be one big happy family. Except they aren’t one big happy family. They are a dominant gang and a bunch of smaller vassal gangs who have to give a significant portion of their income to the dominant gang. The way the Ghouls, Vipers and Cleavers see it, the Brawlers are bullies and mobsters who are making them pay protection money.
And now Burt, who sounds like a scary person that raged out for a while after Katherine left and has a bad temper at the best of times, is missing. The other gangs are still scared of him. They aren’t as scared of Joel, who has settled into a good father and a respectable businessman. Bash is the wild card.
But let’s go back to the story for a minute. Matty and Johnson said that the war began when a group of Brawlers went to negotiate with a group of Ghouls and they were ambushed because of Katherine. Then, to make things worse, she put Ghouls masks on the Brawlers’ heads, the ultimate betrayal. After that, she disappeared.
Actually, when Katherine arrived, the 3 men who were already there, at least 2 of whom were Brawlers themselves, were putting Ghouls masks on the dead Brawlers heads. Katherine begged them to stop.
They tried to kill her so that she wouldn’t reveal what they’d done, which was to start the war themselves, as an excuse to take the territory that belonged to the other gangs.
Remember Bash’s poetic speech to Joel about how alive he’d felt when he was fighting to prove to the world that he was the best?
This is why Joel is so afraid of Burt’s return.
In Matty’s hands, Burt becomes King Arthur, the Brawlers are the Knights of the Round Table who follow a Code of Chivalry, and Katherine becomes Guinevere or Mordred, betrayer of the beloved king. The gang wars were holy wars, possibly even a sacred quest, with the Holy Grail of uniting the gangs for the greater good. In reality, it was much closer to a Scorsese movie or the Manson family. That’s why they had to be on powerful drugs to tell the story. They think of the scratch as a holy communion, but Matty and Johnson both know that the Brawlers origin story doesn’t add up and it’s still a deeply unfair organization.
Witt returns to Donuts and Duvets and reports on his visit with Ethan. He’s as neurotic as ever, and pushes Doris to tell Ethan everything, now. He also tries to convince her to scale back her plans to just going after Bash. She refuses to consider his suggestion. She needs to get revenge on more than just Bash.
When Doris and Witt open her motel room door, they find Earl and Cordell waiting inside with Molly. Earl pokes at her by calling her Dottie throughout the conversation. He also mocks Witt’s name, then Cordell makes a joke about his hair.
That’s the 3rd joke about Witt’s hair, by my count. If anyone knows why it’s a running joke, let me know. I think maybe it’s a reference to the running jokes with Steve Buscemi’s characters being called funny looking in Fargo, and told to shut up in The Big Lebowski? Witt could be seen as the Steve Buscemi of Reprisal. He’s also both the Walter Sobchak, who’s always wrong, and the anti-Walter, who never wants to take a stand.
Earl has Dottie sit next to him on the bed. She’s super excited that they cared enough to find her, but Earl, who tends to be the wet blanket/Joel of the group, tries to bring her back to reality. He explains that she caught them off guard earlier, but he’s in control now, so they can be honest. They want to know if she’s going to be a problem.
They don’t like to worry, and the way she just showed up out of the blue, as if she’d been able to look them up in the Yellow Pages, has them worried. Doris chuckles and tells him that she did look them up in the Yellow Pages, under Alvin’s Landscaping.
I really miss the real Yellow Pages, guys.
And I love Dottie so much for that answer. These guys are career criminals and they can’t handle it that a woman figured out their identities.
Earl tells her again that she makes them worried and nervous. He cocks his gun to make his point, then explains that they don’t like to kill people, but will if they have to. Doris tries again to tell them about her job, but Earl brushes her off. He gives her permission to work on her own job, but leaves her with an implicit threat if she bothers them again.
It’s impressive and honestly not believable that Earl and Cordell let 2 more people see their faces while threatening to kill Doris if she exposed them. Maybe we’re supposed to get from it that they’re another pair of overconfident men who drastically underestimate Doris, Molly and Witt. I don’t think they’re underestimating Witt, but Molly held up just fine through the hostage situation.
Doris lives for this stuff. She also has great chemistry with Earl. The two of them would win a war together in about ten minutes without breaking a sweat or speaking more than a few words.
After Earl and Cordell leave, Doris asks Witt to call Mr Bolo and arrange a meeting.
They sit at the same table in the bowling alley. Bolo has a black eye, an arm in a sling and other assorted injuries. He swears as much as possible. Doris tells him she knows who’s in the Monster Ring. She’ll tell him everything he needs to know, as long as he promises he’ll help her in exchange. Bolo tells her that he’s getting beaten by his bosses everyday that he doesn’t find the Monster Ring, so he’s going to beat the information out of her and Witt and they’re not getting anything in return.
Doris takes Bolo and a goon to Alvin’s Landscaping, where Bernice the receptionist is sitting at her desk and the guys were in the middle of hauling in a load from their truck. Just before Doris brings Bolo in, Bernice and Earl have a conversation about the high number of “runs” they’ve been doing and the fact that they’re still short of money. This provides the motivation for the Monster Ring to agree to work with Doris, once they see her as a viable option.
Bolo sits down behind Doris and sets his gun on an end table next to her. He starts running his mouth, mocking everyone in the room. Doris picks up the gun and holds it in her lap, pointed at Bolo. Earl and Cordell pull out their guns and point them at Bolo’s goon, who does the same.
Without turning around, in a deeper voice than usual, Doris explains that people have always underestimated her, to the point where Burt didn’t even check to see if she was alive when he was done dragging her with the truck. She thinks he figured she wouldn’t be a threat, even if she was alive.
I imagine he also felt too guilty to actually look closely at his handiwork.
Bolo interrupts to demand she hand over his gun. She drops the Doris act for a moment and yells at him to shut up. Then she continues. She thanks Earl and Cordell for helping her see the flaws in her plans earlier in the week. But they also underestimated her, and over the years she’s come to realize that being underestimated is one of the greatest advantages you can have.
She points out that Bolo underestimated her so much that he put his gun down in front of her. He demands his gun again. She fires on him, still without turning around. Earl and Cordell also fire, but not on Doris. When the dust clears, Bolo and his goon are dead, the walls are bloody, and Bernice, Doris, Earl and Cordell all stare at each other.
Earl tells Bernice to call the Custodian.
In her high pitched, non-threatening voice, Doris asks if she can put on a pot of coffee for them.
She’s proven the point that she can hold her own with the big boys when it comes to crime. Now she needs to make them comfortable with her again, as a woman who won’t try to dominate them all the time. The little girl voice and blonde hair are two cues that a woman isn’t serious or threatening. (Obviously little girls and blondes can actually be both, but that’s not how they’re viewed in misogynist stereotypes.)
Violence, Burt’s Family and Gang Gender Roles
Over the course of 3 episodes, we’ve watched as 4 different sets of men have threatened, physically harmed and stolen from Katherine/Doris (Burt & the Brawlers, Big Graham & Colin, Mr Bolo & his people, Earl & Cordell). Witt, her one male ally, continuously tries to manipulate her plans to benefit himself, while pretending he’s solely afraid for her. Tommy is the only man who’s been trustworthy and loving with Doris, and we haven’t heard the actual terms of his will yet, to be sure that he left her the restaurant like he said he would.
I don’t want to hear a word against Katherine/Doris when her reprisals heat up. As with Colin, Graham and Bolo, they all deserve everything they get. She’s just one woman. What do you think those men have been doing to the rest of the women in their lives?
When Meredith lets down her guard and relaxes with Gertrude, it’s the first time we’ve seen her treat someone like a trusted friend. She seemed to trust Queenie as well, but Queenie is her boss, so there’s still a necessary distance involved. Gertrude is a member of a rival gang and Meredith’s dealer, so she understands Meredith in a way a civilian couldn’t, but there are still complications in the relationship that Meredith might not have thought through. Which came first, the business relationship or the friendship? And what will be each woman’s priority should a gang war break out, their friendship or their gang?
On the other hand, the Ghouls seem to allow female members, or at least have women around who are more than just sex objects. Other than Queenie, we haven’t seen any woman connected to the Brawlers dressed in such an androgynous way or who looked like she was a gang member instead of a Pin-Up. Gary spoke to Gertrude like a normal, equal person, too, something the Brawlers seem incapable of doing with women.
It makes you wonder which came first: Were the Brawlers always so misogynist and that was part of Katherine and Burt’s falling out or did Burt take out his anger at Katherine on all of the women of the Brawlers?
On the Road
The stretch of road the Phoenixes drive as Matty tells The Story of the Banished Brawlers becomes The Road, The Path, The Way. It’s used over and over again in driving sequences throughout the season. Not only does it represent the road and path that Burt’s vision created for the Brawlers, it represents On The Road, the iconic novel by Jack Kerouac, and Easy Rider, the 1969 motorcycle/counterculture road trip film. It also represents other visionary, cult and dystopian uses of paths and roads, such as in the first 3 Mad Max films and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
It’s not a road that signifies hope or escape from the life you’re living. It’s a temporary escape, such as the freedom offered by drugs, religion, violence and all of the other distractions we use to keep us from facing our existential crises. Eventually, The Road always brings you back to the place where you started, because no matter where you go, there you are. Society’s ills and your own psyche are the baggage you bring on every trip.
Cordell and Earl are also on this road, since they spend most of the episode running from their fate, switching vehicles, using alternate identities, threatening people they perceive as weaker than them, wearing disguises, etc. We saw them on The Road in the beginning of the episode. We don’t yet know them as well as we know the 3 Phoenixes, but we’ll learn about their existential crises before long. Their difficulties with society should be obvious.
We met Katherine Harlow driving down the same stretch of road that the 3 Phoenixes drive in this episode. She was desperate then, and her life was about to change forever. She was on another desperate drive in the beginning of this episode, on a different road, but also the same. This time, though her life has just changed again, she’s in charge of where it goes from here, and she knows what direction she wants to take.
Joel and the Ghouls
At some point, Joel will have to accept the inevitable and send out enforcers to collect taxes from the Ghouls, with the hope that it will bring their rivals back in line. Which seems unlikely.
To summarize Joel’s ongoing message, Burt is an insane, abusive Daddy who must be kept out of the loop at all costs. Things are only good because he isn’t here to interfere. And Joel is very, very afraid of Burt, of other gangs, of war and of what the people he leads might do to wreck the fragile peace he’s created while Burt has been in hiding. Joel has no new ideas or plans of his own, other than continuing the status quo and Not Starting A War.
This is not a strong leader who’s inspiring confidence or much of anything good in his followers. He’s not inspiring anyone to follow him, period. They do what he says because he was the beloved Burt’s second in command. He sees every incident as the beginning of a catastrophic series of events leading to ruin and every person who makes a mistake as the one who’s ruined everything.
There’s no way for the current unrest to just “go away” when the Brawlers have no release. The Ghouls want to start trouble and the more volatile members of the Brawlers are spoiling for a fight with someone. Sooner or later, the powder keg they’re creating together is bound to blow.
Let’s Get Ironic
In episode 3 Reprisal’s writing fully embraces black comedy. The tone is similar to a Coen Brothers movie, where the world seems normal at first glance, but it’s actually becoming more and more surreal as the episode goes on. Characters often speak in an understated way, despite the violence and chaos slowly unfolding around them. Their unnatural calm combined with the increasingly heightened reality works to make everything a little off kilter.
Actually, atmospherically, the Michigan sequences could practically be Fargo (1996) without the snow, now that I think about it, while Katherine Harlow’s Doris persona is a clear homage to Fargo’s Police Chief Marge Gunderson. Reprisal asks the question, “What would Marge Gunderson do if she was raised as part of a gang, repeatedly physically assaulted, probably sexually assaulted, left for dead and had nowhere to turn for help?”
Reprisal creator Josh Corbin’s love of hostage taking as a plot device equals that of Ethan and Joel Coen- it’s surely no accident that 2 characters are named Joel and Ethan. Percy Montgomery comes across as The Dude of the Brawlers, espousing the Brawler sales philosophy and wearing The Dude’s hair from The Big Lebowski. But Bash is really The Dude of the gang. He is the philosopher of Reprisal who believes most closely in true Dudeism. Or maybe it’s Matty, since he’s the one who’s always in the car, having hallucinations and misadventures, while spouting a noble philosophy. But the philosophies of both are violent, which is the antithesis of Dudeism, so maybe not.
Though Joel works hard, maybe he’s the true Dude, trying to maintain the peaceful, quirky status quo.
You have my permission to get high, lie on the floor, and ponder this question. 😇
Obviously the last two episodes have brought us to the bowling alley, that icon of post-war America, Dudeism and safety for toxic masculinity.
(If you haven’t seen Pleasantville (1998), go now. It is essential viewing for learning to see beyond the veil of the mainstream and escape the misogyny, racism and other toxic insults you’ll be exposed to while splashing around in a mid 20th century pool.)
The Coen Brothers’ film Miller’s Crossing is about relationships and betrayals between members of rival gangs, including a brother-sister pair. The inspiration Reprisal took from the film should be obvious.
There are also similarities between the character of Ethan and and that of Barton Fink, a man thrown into a job and a murder scene he doesn’t completely understand and can’t escape, with much larger plots surrounding him. Practically every Coen Brothers film involves being trapped in a situation you don’t understand with a much larger conspiracy also going on, but Barton Fink and Ethan seem particularly trapped, alone and damaged. It’s also their darkest film, despite the usual elements of black comedy.
While homages to the Coen Brothers’ films run throughout Reprisal, the TV series focuses on the characters they ignore. The world of Ethan and Joel Coen is populated almost exclusively by white men. They might be rich or poor, but they are generally misogynist, racist, violent and unscrupulous. A few white women exist, usually as some form of sex worker and/or murder/crime victim, with the notable exceptions of police officers Marge Gunderson and Edwina McDunnough (Raising Arizona). Reprisal isn’t much better with the roles the women play, but its female characters have much more screen time and control over their lives. There are more of them and this is their story.
There are also very few minorities in the Coen Brothers’ films, whereas Reprisal features several men of color in prominent roles and at least one out gay actress, Lea DeLaria (Queenie). Women of color aren’t as well represented in Reprisal, unfortunately. As usual in Hollywood, they tend to be seen and not heard, even when featured.
Fun fact: Blake Perlman, the actress who plays Meredith’s Ghoul friend, Gertrude, is mixed race and the daughter of Ron Perlman, who plays Big Graham.
In this episode, there’s quite a bit of talk about how to get people to trust you or follow you or how to sell something to someone, showing that the episode is self-aware about the fact that it’s asking viewers to buy into some things that don’t make complete sense and might not be good for them. Especially since the Brawlers sales techniques add up to disorienting and fooling customers through fast talk, drugs, alcohol, sex, violence and a cultish sense of fake family. It’s an alienating approach to the world and requires some distance on the part of the characters and viewers in order to maintain a clear picture of reality within the show’s universe.
The show itself veers away from some of the films its drawing inspiration from and moves at a slower, more thoughtful pace, though each episode is dense, allowing us to get a better sense of the truth of its world and the depth of its characters. Many of the films I’ve referenced in these first three recaps are about outsiders of various types, whether they live in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, a mainstream society that requires a type of conformity they can’t achieve, or are alienated from the norm in some other way. But in films, viewers tend to be distracted from the characters’ issues by fast paced action, violence, comedy and suspenseful mystery/horror. It often takes reflection or repeated viewings to realize the depth of a character. One of the benefits of a TV show is having the luxury of extra time to reveal more depth, while also including all of the razzle dazzle that makes a show exciting. Reprisal is excelling at this.
The Monster Ring brings us three more outsider characters, in addition to Lyla, to act as observers of the action and frame the story in a different way from the rest of the characters. Their point of view will obviously be very different from Lyla, a little girl who turns everything into a fantasy story.
They are closer to stand-ins for the viewer, if viewers lived in a mid-20th century world and were successful career criminals and landscapers. Nothing ironic about that.
But more importantly, the Monster Ring appears to be a small, self-made operation who work on the edge of the world of organized crime. This makes them the first reliable witnesses we’ve had who don’t have a stake in that world and can question Doris’ ideas from that standpoint.
As she basically said at the end of the episode, Doris sorely needs a better adviser than Witt to bounce her ideas off of. Or else, as a rule, she needs to do the opposite of what Witt wants her to do, which is generally what she’s been doing. But having team members like Cordell and Earl, with experience and ideas of their own, will be a huge benefit to her. How Doris can help them, other than paying them, is yet to be seen, but we did hear Earl’s conversation with Bernice where it sounded like they have money troubles, despite their success.
Bernice (Tamara Austin) is the ultimate outsider, hardly even allowed to speak in her scenes. She stares straight ahead while she sharpens her pencil, as if she’s a machine or not fully in her body. I’m not sure if this is meant to show her extreme alienation or if it’s just another Coen Brothers reference. Choose your own adventure.
Images courtesy of Hulu.