In episode 7, the 3 River Phoenixes help Meredith recover from her ordeal with the Ghouls and Burt begins to make the rounds of the Brawlers’ operations to check in with everyone. Joel becomes more involved in the war and has a confrontation with Burt. We’re shown Meredith’s origin story and we gain insight into several other characters.
Katherine and the Monster Ring make their final preparations, then visit the Bang-A-Rang 707’s vault. Molly adds another role or 2 to her resume.
We begin with some truth. Sometime in the past, probably about 15 years ago, maybe 20, Queenie, Burt and a blue-haired dancer named Irma pull up outside of a house that Irma designates as “the one”. Queenie and Burt go to the porch, where the man of the house is lounging on a couch. They ignore him because they’re looking for the lady of the house, Bear, who beat up Irma last night. Once Bear comes to the door, she admits to the beating, but justifies it with the fact that Irma was tramping around with her husband.
Queenie doesn’t like the insult to one of her girls and explains that Irma is a dancer, who was commissioned to dance. Bear should take up her issues with her husband. Then Queenie insults the husband, since after his wife beat up Irma, neither of them paid her. When the husband threatens Queenie, she stabs him in the stomach, then quickly grabs Bear by the hair, shoving her into the kitchen and brutally beating her to death with a frying pan. Meanwhile, Burt drags the husband inside and strangles him to death with a towel.
When they finish, they notice tiny preschooler Meredith has watched the whole thing from the living room.
Back in the car, Queenie takes the opportunity to harangue Burt, because she’s always insisted that the girls shouldn’t take jobs outside of the compound and this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’s right and her work husband is wrong. From now on, the Pin-Ups stay at the club.
I think we can all appreciate how satisfied Queenie must feel, underneath it all.
Baby Meredith, still in her pink pajamas, sits quietly in the front seat next to Queenie while her fate is decided. Queenie insists that Burt has to adopt her, since he owes the kid that much. Irma suggests they name her after her mother, Meredith. Queenie wishes Meredith Harlow a happy birthday and they drive away.
We never learn Meredith’s real name nor the real names of her parents, first or last. Remember that time, back in episode 5, when Meredith and Joel discussed names for her bike and she said maybe the bike didn’t want to be renamed? And Joel scoffed at her, saying something isn’t really yours if you don’t change the name? Makes you wonder how much Meredith remembers and who Joel has kidnapped, doesn’t it? Does Meredith remember her real name, for example?
Names as indicators of secret identities and hidden loyalties are common, particularly in ritualized, hierarchical worlds like this one. Wonder who Meredith’s birth parents really were, and if there are still people out there who’d like to get her back. And maybe get revenge.
But that’s another war, for another season, should there ever be one. Meredith as a version of Helen of Troy could be fun. For now, let’s go back to the present day, where she’s escaped her kidnapping by the Ghouls and called her one real friend, Matty, to pick her up.
Meredith’s face is still covered in blood and she’s still in shock when the 3 River Phoenixes arrive at the gas station to rescue her. Is she having flashbacks, emotionally and/or cognitively, to the day her parents died? She must be triggered, even if she doesn’t understand why. That’s part of why she didn’t call Queenie, her mother figure.
Matty, who can be adorable sometimes, tries to wrap her in his coat, which is exactly what you should do for someone who is in shock. She refuses, pointing out that it’s already too hot outside. They all agree that she was taken because she’s Burt’s daughter, then Mer goes to use the gas station’s restroom. The station looks abandoned, but it must be owned and operated by the Brawlers for use as a drop off point, since the restroom is fully stocked and functional.
The shakes, which are typical of shock, set in while Meredith is inside. She starts to cry and has a battle with the faucet, which is the obnoxious type that has to be held down while in use. (They should be outlawed now, in the time of Covid, since it’s impossible to use one and get your hands clean and uncontaminated. Obviously designed by a man who never actually washed his hands and cared if they were truly clean.)
Ethan is right outside and offers to help. He sees that she’s also hyperventilating and talks her through breathing exercises to help her get back under control. Once she’s doing the exercises on her own, he carefully cleans the blood from her face without touching her, just as she asked, and tells her that he panics sometimes, too.
Even in a dirty gas station bathroom, cleaning up blood, they manage to look like a Disney prince and princess. (Mena Massoud really is a Disney prince, of course.)
When they get back to the compound, Meredith goes back to her place, while Matty talks to Burt. Then Burt finally visits his daughter. When he arrives, she’s cleaning the blood off her gun- the gun which just saved her life. The first thing he does, after not speaking to her for at least 2 years, is tell her he doesn’t approve of guns. He prefers hand to hand combat as the more decisive form of combat.
Or, you know, grab a towel and a skillet. There’s always honor in the use of kitchen utensils as weapons.
They definitely would have been useful for Meredith in the middle of the Ghouls compound, up against 5 people with guns who had more fighting experience than her. Thanks for the judgement, Burt. /s
The only thing that kept Meredith alive and safe during her ordeal was having picked up Burt’s tendency to act first and decisively. Jukes may have told the Ghouls not to hurt her, but it was clear they weren’t going to listen.
Burt moves on to criticizing Meredith about selling scratch, speaking as if that’s why she was kidnapped and threatened. Meredith explains that Gertrude was her friend, so she trusted her too easily, which led to the situation getting out of hand. When he asks, she assures Burt that Gertrude is dead, which is a lie, but he gaslighted her first and often, so he’s earned whatever coping mechanisms she needs to use to survive him.
Then Burt asks if Meredith is really planning to leave the Brawlers. Isn’t her life in the compound good? She throws that back in his face, since he left long before her. When she sits near him, he grabs her wrist, turning it so her heart tattoo is visible. He tells her that the tattoo is their family bond and it can’t be broken, no matter how far apart they are. It’s more of a threat and a distraction than a reassurance.
To him, Meredith is a possession he owns and he’ll make the decisions for her, unless he disowns her like he did his sister. Queenie and Joel are his proxies when he’s not around.
Meanwhile, another Harlow woman is initiating someone into the family, in her own way. Katherine needs Molly to pick a gun from their stash of more than a dozen, but Molly doesn’t know how to choose. Cordell finally shows her the one that’s best suited for her. Then they explain that they need her to act as getaway driver.
Katherine, Earl and Cordell will go in through the front of the Bang-A-Rang wearing masks, rob it, then go out through the back. Molly will take the back road to wait outside the service entrance for them to exit. People wear outrageous things into the club, so no one will care that they’re in masks. Molly just has to be ready to drive, fast. Molly reluctantly agrees.
Burt and Joel talk next, sitting next to a cage which has no symbolic meaning at all. Neither does the relative size or position of their respective drink bottles. Burt is much gentler with Joel than he was with Meredith, showing that he respects Joel as an equal and considers him to be a potential threat. He reassures Joel that the things that have gone wrong were inevitable and aren’t Joel’s fault. While he went out of his way to tear Meredith down, he props up Joel’s ego in any way necessary in order to keep Joel together and doing his job. He treats Joel like a son.
The difference between his treatment and expectations of Meredith and Joel couldn’t be more stark. Meredith is still his charity case and a pretty little princess who’s there for display purposes only. She is not to step out of line or have thoughts of her own, the way Katherine presumably did. Joel is his true heir.
Unfortunately for Burt, both of his surrogate children are pretty much done with him. Meredith has been desperate for real love and affection from anyone, but hasn’t found it anywhere. Even Gertrude has now betrayed her and Matty’s loyalty is ultimately to Burt and the Brawlers.
Joel has real love and affection in his life, but he let Rita slip away and is afraid of losing Lyla to Burt’s psychotic need for violence and chaos. Joel the Mover craves a harsh form of order and control, while Burt maintains his control by destabilizing everyone around him, but containing the chaos within a prison/military-like system that’s orderly, but always on the edge. He creates an addiction his followers think they can’t kick and can’t see themselves wanting to live without. Some of them can’t.
Meredith and Joel’s issues are strictly their own, in the long run, not the Brawlers’. When Katherine and Bash started to move beyond Burt’s methods, Burt killed/ran off Katherine and broke Bash, but he replaced them with Joel and Meredith. The Brawlers went on without them, because Burt has built a large, strong system, centered around himself. But he’s left it too long and it’s fraying.
Queenie has stayed loyal throughout. She also maintains a certain emotional and physical distance by having her own fiefdom with the Pin-Ups. We don’t know much about her motivations for staying yet, but she has power within the Brawlers.
The Brawler rank and file are recruited specifically to enjoy chaos and violence and they leave or die when they’ve had enough. Psychopathic narcissists like Burt have an instinctive knowledge of how to form a loyal cult of personality. It does require that the personality maintain their presence, though.
Katherine texts Ethan an address while he’s at the Bang-A-Rang with Matty and Johnson. Matty is still upset about Meredith’s attack. He thinks they started the war when they took Ethan to the Ghouls bar for his initiation ritual. Johnson tries to calm him down, and insists, as Burt did with Joel, that the war isn’t their fault. It was coming either way, since tension had been building for a long time.
Ethan brings up Meredith and they spar over her a little, with Matty insisting again that she’s everyone’s favorite bratty little sister but no one’s girlfriend. She took care of herself with the Ghouls, but of course he’s worried about her. He mentions Percy, too, making him sound like everyone’s favorite uncle. Then he mentions again that the Brawlers are everything to everyone and the organization must be protected at all costs, because none of them have anything else.
This reminds Ethan that he does have something else, though he’s not sure if he wants either the Brawlers or Katherine at this point. What Ethan knows is that Matty is romanticizing the Brawlers while Johnson is as enigmatic as ever and Ethan’s not in the mood. What he can see is that no one is actually taking care of Meredith (or anyone else important to him).
Ethan leaves the bar and drives to the Pillows & Pints to meet Katherine. As soon as she opens the motel room door, he puts a gun in her face. She stays calm and tries to talk him down. To my everlasting joy, she still calls him Pumpkin, something I think he both loves and hates, as an adult son might. As she speaks, Earl, who is standing out of sight next to the door, jumps out and disarms Ethan.
Ethan lands on the bed with Earl and Cordell pointing their guns at him. Katherine kneels in front of him and asks Molly to take care of his bleeding. Ethan barely misses a beat and asks Katherine if she was behind Meredith’s kidnapping, if she’s really going to help him with his murder case in Detroit and if she’s really Katherine Harlow.
Katherine answers the questions relatively truthfully, though she’s very light on details. Then she asks Ethan to hide a duffle bag full of guns in the Bang-A-Rang. He refuses and leaves. She waits a few seconds, then takes the bag out to him, along with his own gun. He let’s her put the duffle in the trunk, then drives back to the club, where Matty and Johnson take his new bruises in stride.
The next day, Joel pays a visit to one of the Ghouls’ lieutenants to question him about Percy’s death and Meredith’s kidnapping. Though the Ghoul claims neither act was sanctioned by the Ghouls’ leadership, he tells Joel that they’ve decided they’re okay with the war that’s coming out of it. Joel sighs in despair, then gives in to his fate. He tells the other man that when Burt asked him to frame the Ghouls for murdering Brawlers all those years ago, he wasn’t keen on the idea and on war, but eventually he came around to Burt’s way of thinking. Now, he’s gone through the same process of acceptance. Joel elbows the man in the ribs, hard, breaking bones, and continues to beat him to death.
We hear the man dying, but don’t see it. I doubt Joel would tell a Ghoul that particular secret unless he was planning to kill them.
The fact that Katherine didn’t kill Witt when he discovered she’s alive says something about her. The fact that Ethan guessed her identity, is still alive and back with the Brawlers also says some things. For example, unlike Burt, she has more than one move and can relate to more than one gender.
Burt’s next victim is Johnson, who shrinks in on himself a little as they talk, which is not like the normally unflappable Johnson at all. Burt asks about Alice and Johnson says she’s lives out at the swamp, she’s happy and she’s grown. Alice must be a child, possibly Johnson’s own, at the very least under his care, and in semi-hiding, since she’s not with him and is never spoken of. Burt made sure to bring her up in a way that’s a veiled threat. Then Burt tells Johnson he’s going to ride with the Phoenixes on this loop so he can check out the other chapters. Maybe he’ll even check in on Alice.
In case Johnson didn’t understand the threat. Johnson agrees to Burt’s terms , shrinks in on himself some more and turns away from Burt a little.
Some bad blood between these two then, possibly whatever has kept Johnson from becoming a full Brawler. But something also keeps him a Phoenix. Johnson clearly notices and remembers everything that goes on. I think he knows the truth about everything and keeps his mouth shut. I thought he might be Burt’s spy, but maybe he stays for Joel and the protection for his family that Joel offers, while Johnson and Burt normally keep their distance from each other. It would bug Burt to know people were more loyal to Joel than him, but he also wouldn’t dare mess with Joel’s top few people.
Later, in the car, Burt gets to know Ethan a little. Matty complains that people see them as errand boys. Johnson and Burt say they’re the lifeblood of the operation. Burt says once they’ve done their time as Phoenixes, he’ll give them everything they’ve ever missed out on. Matty and Johnson nod along, though they’ve each been Phoenixes for many years.
That night, Katherine, Earl and Cordell put on their robber chic outfits and take a stolen van to the Bang-A-Rang, while Molly takes a sedan down the back road to meet them. At the club, Katherine, Earl and Cordell put on their monster masks and say, “Treat or treat!” when questioned at the door to the club. The bouncers let them in.
It’s a strange homecoming for Katherine. The Bang-A-Rang is home to her, the Brawlers and the Brawler-adjacent, so this isn’t just the robbery of a business or even revenge for the crimes committed against her in the past. It’s a violent home invasion by an estranged relative and it has that impact. She is attacking the one safe place the Brawlers have, as Matty pointed out earlier, using knowledge that’s only available to the inner circle.
They walk through the club and pull guns on the security guard standing at the door to the employees only area. Once they’re through the door, they find the guns Ethan hid for them, then make their way to the vault, where an accountant is working on the books. They order him to open the vault.
Since Joel and Burt are both indisposed, Queenie is in charge of the Bang-A-Rang tonight. She notices the missing security guard and goes to investigate, discovering the Monster Ring just after they find that there’s no money in the vault. Queenie takes off to sound the alarm, while the Monsters decide to split up to increase their chances of getting out.
Rather than calling the police, Queenie rounds up the Pin-Ups. They each pull out and load guns. Queenie assigns each woman a hall to defend, then tells Meredith, who’s probably the best shot, to patrol them all. Chicago’s 26 or 6 to 4 plays over the ensuing shoot ’em up, chase ’em round shenanigans. The Monster Ring aren’t shy about using their weapons or going through the center of the club as they fight their way out. Molly hears the weapons fire and suits up to join the fight. When Cordell is set upon by 3 Brawlers, she shoots all 3 in the head. The Brawlers take heavy losses.
Queenie and Katherine end up in a face off on the burlesque stage. Queenie recognizes her old friend when she spots the Harlow tattoo on Katherine’s wrist. She’s not surprised that Katherine is alive, but she is surprised that she’s blonde.
So, there’s been no contact between them in recent years.
Queenie lets Katherine leave without fighting her any further. The Monster Ring all make it back to the car without the cash they came for; wounded, but alive. They get away. By the time Joel returns to the club, the Pin-Ups have gathered the bodies of the dead.
The stylized, nearly cartoonish look and fairy tale quality of the story has escalated in the last 2 episodes, with the extra time spent in the glow of the neon lights of the Bang-A-Rang and Pillows & Pints and with Burt’s return. The addition of the true villain of the story to so many of the scenes heightens the tension, especially since not only is Burt so incredibly evil and threatening, he brings out that quality in others. It’s like a cartoon devil dropped in to sit on the characters’ shoulders and stir up trouble. As if there weren’t already numerous villains and morally ambiguous characters. Disney and fairy tale tropes abound at this point, from Burt’s farm house to the 3 scary monsters who invaded the Brawlers’ home.
And then there’s the huge influence of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in look and tone. That frying pan murder was straight out of Looney Tunes. We’re meant to contrast the cartoonish murder at the start of the episode with Queenie’s cartoonish look and weapon at the end of the episode. At the end, Queenie looked like an emo leather version of Minnie Mouse, and she carried a Viking ax, but she didn’t kill Katherine. Katherine provoked Queenie much more than Bear did, but Queenie’s loyalty to family, even disloyal family, won out. Queenie was prepared to use the ax to kill, that was obvious. Just not on Katherine. (Does Queenie prefer hand to hand combat to guns, like Burt? Why?)
I think of the Harlow women the way I think of legendary pioneer women who lived out on the Plains and didn’t have anyone to call for help. They had to be calm, practical and tough as nails, able to solve any type of problem on their own, from giving birth to cooking dinner to fending off robbers. We can see the line flowing through Queenie, to Katherine, Meredith and now Molly and Lyla. It’s not about DNA. It’s about an unflappable, can do attitude. You can panic and go into shock later, as Meredith did at the gas station after she left the Ghouls’ compound. But first, do what needs to be done and stay alive.
Meredith is named after Irma’s mother and has Irma’s sunglasses. She’s a dancer and colorful, fashionable dresser like Irma was. Is Irma the woman they told her was the mother and stuntwoman who abandoned her? Did Irma act as a mother to Meredith for a while? On the other hand, Meredith and Queenie are both shown with bloody faces after killing people this episode. During the robbery, Meredith and Queenie are shown acting like mother and daughter commandos. Queenie may not always be warm, but she’s made sure Meredith can protect herself and others. Unlike Burt and Irma, she hasn’t abandoned the child she orphaned.
25 or 6 to 4- Katherine’s War
The title of the episode, 25 or 6 to 4, is taken from the title of the Chicago song that was played at Percy’s send off in episode 6. It’s an unusual choice for both uses. The song, according to Robert Lamm, who wrote it, is a self aware meta song about the process of songwriting, written when he got stuck in the middle of the night.
According to urban legend, the song is about drugs and the amount of time the high from LSD lasts, from 6 PM to 4 AM. Lamm says that the title means what it says, though- it was either 25 or 26 before 4 o’clock in the morning when he wrote the lyric, so 3:35 or 3:34. He was bleary-eyed and couldn’t see the hands on the analog clock clearly.
The confusion about the meaning is what makes it a perfect episode title and funeral song for Reprisal. On the surface, the lyrics do sound like the end of a long, rough night, and that is their deeper meaning. Maybe Lamm was even drinking or doing drugs while he was trying to write. Certainly, by early morning he probably felt as out of it as if he were hung over.
But that wasn’t his main thought process. He accidentally put layers of meaning into a song that has mundane lyrics on first listen. And then more layers were added to the song as the rest of the band added their instrumental parts.
With only the meta lyrics about songwriting, 25 or 6 to 4 could have seemed like a lyrical failure, just words scribbled on the paper instead of a real song. Instead, the band turned them into a hit.
Episode 7 is full of betrayals, both accidental and on purpose. It’s full of mistakes, also accidental and on purpose. Loyalties, both new and old, also sneak in and start trouble. Over the years of the Brawlers and Ghouls rivalry, and Katherine and Burt’s rivalry, and the spiraling circles of love and hate and the actions taken because of them, mixed in with some true accidents and coincidences, have led to a complicated house of cards.
Katherine wiggled the bottom cards in the tower at the same time that Burt took an overlong vacation and the younger members were getting restless. Katherine’s timing and choice of action weren’t coincidences, since she had Witt as an informer. Some of the other reactions are coincidences, though. It’s unlikely that Witt knows much about the tension between Meredith and Joel or Meredith’s friendship with Gertrude. He probably doesn’t pay much attention to Lyla or Joel’s conflicted state of mind.
Katherine clearly didn’t have many details about the Brawlers and the Bang-A-Rang. Witt just told her about the people she knows best and set up the opportunity for Ethan. Her plan went wrong because Witt isn’t the most astute observer of human nature and Katherine is an inexperienced crew leader. The signs have been there based on Ethan’s attitude for a while, but no one in the Monster Ring has enough experience with cajoling uncooperative conspirators into line to realize how tenuous her plan was.
While the plan failed, it’s important to note what I said above- no organization runs smoothly all of the time and no operation goes off without a hitch. That’s multiplied for criminal enterprises. We saw the other leaders make mistakes in this episode and saw them resort to threats and violence to keep order. Katherine frequently uses lies, manipulation and her sexuality, but her leadership style is a far cry from what she learned from her brother. Although Katherine is prepared to use violence, she only uses it when left with no other choice.
Things seem dire for the Monster Ring right now, but we’ve watched Katherine snatch victory from the jaws of defeat before. We know she’s a pro at turning her life around and won’t stop until she’s made her situation work. She’ll use every haphazard event, coincidence, questionable relationship and anything else she can to get her plan back on track.
And, of course, the plan failed as a robbery, but it didn’t really fail as revenge at all. So far, Katherine has prosecuted a unilateral war quite successfully and hasn’t sustained any significant losses on her side. The Brawlers now know for certain she’s alive and back in town, but they haven’t caught her mole or found her. And they are fighting a war on two fronts, making it harder for them to devote energy to finding her. Especially since Joel just escalated the war with the Ghouls.
Images courtesy of Hulu.