24 March 2020

The Strain Seasons 2 and 3

Real World Trauma Acerbates the flaws in The Strain Seasons Two and Three
by Kristin Battestella

After an unraveling end to the First Season of The Strain, it took me a long, long while to return to the thirteen episode 2015 Second Season. Childhood flashbacks recounting fairy tales of nobles with gigantism and quests for the curing blood of a gray wolf start the year off well. Horrific blood exchanges lead to village children vanishing in the shadow of the creepy castle before we return to the present for secret deals with The Master, alliances with the Ancient Ones, and blind telepathic feeler vampires canvasing the city. Scientists Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) contemplate vampire vaccines while former antique dealer Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) pursues a rare strigoi text and rat catcher Fet (Kevin Durand) prepares their explosive defensive. Government officials like Justine Feraldo (Samantha Mathis) fight back against the zombie like masses despite shootouts in infested laboratories, double crosses, and sentient, disguised as human foot soldiers. Old fashioned black and white Mexican horror reels add personality and history to our reluctant heroes while more superb action and flashbacks standout late in the season with “The Assassin” and “Dead End.” Unfortunately, early on in Year Two, my main dilemma with the First Season of The Strain returnedyou can read all of this, but it is much too much onscreen. Unnecessary timestamps and location notations clutter reintroduced characters, new problems, old problems, and unintroduced newcomers. There are too many separated characters with unbalanced screen time who must repeatedly explain who they are. Enemy's enemy is my friend mixed motivations create confusion – multiple people hunting The Master individually making promises to his fellow ancient vampires with little background on who these chained monsters chilling beneath Brooklyn are. Cryptic double talk and real estate transactions may be filler or meandering developments, but it's a toss up on which one will drag on or disappear. The past stories are often more tantalizing because our team isn't much of a team. It took so long in the First Year to get everyone together, yet each is still toiling over what to do in this vampire zombie apocalypse. After previous fears over any tiny contagion, one and all shoot, blast, slice, and splatter at will. They hand out fliers with the monster details and warn the community, yet unaware police are shocked to find vampires in a dark alley.

Maybe The Strain is meant to mirror how no one is on the same page in a crisis – we are now witnessing that chaotic misinformation mistake first hand indeed – but the plot is all over the place, too. It's been a few weeks onscreen since The Strain began, however life is upside down for some while others seems totally unbothered. Again, this is a foreboding parallel to our real life pandemic with the poor working man much more deeply impacted than the wealthy ease of access, but here there's no sense of the storytelling scope despite opportunistic orchestrations and tough women securing the five boroughs. Slick villains talk of great visions and master plans, but tangents diverge into a dozen different threads and multiple dead ends. Is The Strain about a doctor experimenting on the infected to test scientific theories or weird do nothing telepathic vampires and slow strigoi chases? Are we to enjoy the precious moments between our little people struggling on the ground or awe at the zombie outbreak turned vampire mythology? New people and places are constantly on the move, jumbled by an aimless, plodding pace as too little too late politicians talk about quarantines when The Strain is past containment. Confusing, pointless storylines take away from important intrigues and significant elements tread tires amid random threats and dropped crises. The conflicts on cruel science for the greater good grow hollow thanks to constant interruptions and changed emotions. Provocative diluted worm extracts taken for illness or ailments are used as control by the strigoi or when necessary for our heroes, but the scientific analysis of such a tonic or hybrid cases is never considered. Infecting the infected experiments and vampire free island security only take a few episodes, yet viewers today who can't pay the rent are expected to believe it takes weeks for a market free fall and runs on banks? “The Born” starts off great, but often there's no going back to what happens next regarding cures and Roman history as contrived messy or blasé action pads episodes. Rather than driving away in a cop car, dumbed down characters run into a church for a lagging, maze-like battle that kills an interesting minority character. When the community comes together for “The Battle for Red Hook,” unnecessary family pursuits ruin the sense of immediacy while the hop, skip, and jump to Washington D.C. for two episodes of scientific effort gets ditched for glossed over vampire factions and historic relics. Both the lore and science are interesting, but these mashed together entities compete for time as if we're changing the channels and watching two shows at once. Instead of the rich detail we crave, The Strain continually returns to its weakest plot with shit actions and stupid players causing absurd consequences.

The Strain, however, does look good, and the ten episode Third Season provides coffins, gore, goo, and nasty bloodsucking appendages. The vampire makeup, creepy eyes, monster sinews, and icky skin are well done. Occasionally, creatures scaling the wall and speedy, en masse action is noticeable CGI, but the worms, tentacles, and splatter upset the body sacred. Sickly green lighting invokes the zombie plague mood while choice red add vampire touches alongside silver grenades, ultraviolet light, and ancient texts. Sadly, Season Three opens with an unrealistic announcement that it's only been twenty-three days since the outbreak started. The uneven pace makes such time impossible to believe, and tricked out infrared military are just now arriving three weeks into the disaster. Although, I spent February marathoning The Strain, and it is beyond depressing – nay downright infuriating – to see how our current administration did not heed epidemic warnings, responding terribly to the Coronavirus outbreak with red tape and lack of resources. Mass manufacture of The Strain's bio-weapon is also never mentioned again as the science is now nothing more than a home chemistry set. Instead, step by step time is taken to siphon gas in a dark, dangerous parking garage – which could be realistic except The Strain has never otherwise addressed food, supplies, precious toilet paper, or the magically unlimited amount of silver bullets. Once again, everyone who fought together goes on to separate allegiances on top of hear tell global spread, Nazi parallels, control centers, and messianic symbolism. It's all too clunky thanks to people made stupid and contradictions between the onscreen myths, technology, and abilities. Too many convenient infections, Master transformations, tacked on worms, and excuses happen at once – cheapening Shakespearean touches and monster worm bombs with redundant failures. Montages wax on human history while voiceovers tell audiences about government collapse, glossing over arguably the most interesting part of the catastrophe for drawn out experiments on microwaves. There's no narrative flow as the episodes run out but suddenly everyone is sober enough to use the ancient guidebook to their advantage. After such insistence over sunlight and ultraviolet, those safeguards are inexplicably absent when needed. No one maximizes resources and opportunities in “Battle for Central Park,” and people only come together because they accidentally bump into each other. In “The Fall,” a carefully orchestrated trap and prison plan is finally put into action against The Master, but ridiculous contrivances stall the operation before easy outs and one little effing asshole moron ruining it all. Again.

The cast is not at fault for the uneven developments on The Strain, but if Ephraim Goodweather is only there to be a drunken bad parent failing at every turn, he should have been written off the show. If we're sticking with Eph and his angst before science, then his pointless strigoi wife and terrible son Zach should have been tossed instead of hogging the screen. Cranky, obnoxious, budding sociopath Zach's “Why? No! Don't!” lack of comprehension is unrealistic for his age, and everything has to be dumbed downed to appease him. Maybe quarantined parents can now can relate to this scenario, but onscreen The Strain is continually talking down to viewers like we are five and it gets old very fast. Previously compassionate characters are reset as cold marksmen, and Eph claims he no longer cares about the cause when he was once at its epicenter. He complains he has nothing to do, bemoaning the lack of a feasible vaccine before gaining government support in creating a strigoi bio-weapon only to ditch it for microwaves and vampire telepathy. Zach ruins each plan anyway, and by the end of Season Two, I was fast forwarding over the Goodweather family plots. Nora Martinez is also nonexistent as a doctor unless convenient, relegated instead to babysitting, and Samantha Mathis' (Little Women) Justine Feraldo likewise starts off brassy before unnecessarily overplaying her hand and failing bitterly because of others. Initially The Strain had such a diverse ensemble, but by the end of the Third Season, all the worst things have happened to the women and minorities. Ruta Gedmintas' Dutch wavers from the cause for a conflicted lesbian romance that disappears before she returns to the fold as Eph's tantalizing research assistant when she's not being captured and rescued. I won't lie, I only hung on watching The Strain as long as I did for Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5) as the thousand year old hybrid Quinlan. He uses his conflicted history with The Master to help Setrakian and sees through Ephraim while developing a distrustful shoulder to shoulder with Fet. Unfortunately, his vampire super powers come in handy unless he's forgotten about when it's time for the action to sour or let failures happen, and nobody tells officials about this almost invincible half-strigoi who could be useful in a fight. Setrakian, Quinlan, and Fet make for an ornery, begrudging trio, living in a luxury hotel while pursuing Abraham's relics whether they agree with the plan or not – mostly because Fet accrues all manor of weapons and is happy to use them. Setrakian has some crusty wisdom for them, but his battle of wits with Jonathan Hyde as the at any price Palmer provides great one on one scene chewing. The double crosses and interchangeable threats feel empty, and Palmer also has an odd romantic side plot that wastes time, but Richard Sammel's Nazi vampire Eicchorst remains a deliciously twisted minion. “Dead End” and “Do or Die” reveal more personal history as the mature players provide intriguing questions on immortality, humanity, and barbarism. Miguel Gomez' Gus finally seems like he is going to join the team, but then he's inexplicably back on his own rescuing families and refusing to accept his mother's turn in more useless filler. He and Joaquin Cosio (Quantum of Solace) as the absolutely underutilized fifties superhero Angel are conscripted to fight vampires but once again, they remain wasted in isolated, contrived detours.

Streamlining Fet, Dutch, Quinlan, and Gus as vampire fighters testing methods from Setrakian's texts and Eph's science funded by Feraldo could have unified The Strain with straightforward heroes versus monsters action we can root for in an apocalypse. Watching on the eve of our own real world pandemic, was I in the right frame of mind to view The Strain unclouded? Thanks to creators Guillermo de Toro and Chuck Hogan and showrunner Carlton Cuse's foretelling social breakdowns between the haves and the have nots, maybe not. That said, The Strain terribly executes two seasons worth of source material. An embarrassment of riches with a scientific premise, mystical flashbacks, assorted zombie and vampire crossover monsters, and intriguing characters fall prey to uneven pacing, crowded focus, and no balance or self-awareness onscreen. The Strain may have been better served as television movies or six episode elemental seasons – science in year one, vampire history the second, relic pursuits, and a final battle. Disastrous characters and worthless stories compromise the meaty sacrifices, crusty old alliances, and silver standoffs – stretching the horror quality thin even in a shorter ten episode season. Rather than a fulfilling mirror to nature parable, The Strain Seasons Two and Three are an exercise in frustration, and even without the real world horrors, it's too disappointing to bother with the end of the world reset in Season Four.

12 March 2020

The Magnificent Seven Season 2

The Magnificent Seven Season Two Rides into the Sunset 
by Kristin Battestella

The thirteen episode 1999-2000 Second Season of The Magnificent Seven opens with action vignettes and heroic punches as gunslinger Chris Larabee (Michael Biehn), sharpshooter Vin Tanner (Eric Close), ladies man Buck Wilmington (Dale Midkiff), gambler Ezra Standish (Anthony Starke), preacher Josiah Sanchez (Ron Perlman), healer Nathan Jackson (Rick Worthy), and kid J.D. (Andrew Kavovit) take names no questions asked when crooks think they can ride into their town.

New federal marshal Peter Firth (MI-5), however, has a strict approach in the “The New Law” premiere, enacting a no guns policy and relieving The Seven of their services. Railroad entrepreneurs want official assurances that a progressive town doesn't need gunslingers, but up to no good ranchers Brion James (Blade Runner), Stacy Keach (Mike Hammer), and Tim Thomerson (Trancers) see an opportunity as our boys move on, each with a moment of humor, trouble, or doubt on what they will do next. Of course, this is the season premiere, so we know The Seven will ultimately stick around amid foolish policies and town raids. While this feels more like a standard plot than a standout opener, the townsfolk get in on the action and our boys know where to find each other when they are needed. Rousing riding montages build as two becomes four, and finally all seven combine for cavalry ruses, jailhouse rescues, and pondering the outcome at the saloon. As this season progresses, The Magnificent Seven becomes more serious, relying less on action or generic plots of the week and more on fine ensembles, characterizations, and town-centric tales with great guest stars. Straight dramas take the forefront before the more adventurous two part “Wagon Train,” and one can tell this was probably meant to be the big premiere but was held back for a February sweeps run as none of the recurring ladies that strengthen the beginning of the season are featured and more potentially interesting characters introduced here don't re-appear. Would be homesteaders, rival land claims, and threats to the judge mean our boys will escort the train, but stubborn men are reluctant to have cowboys around their family folk. Multiple flirtations, villainous vows, a jolly powder man, widows, and ornery kids lead to attacks on the camp, questions about this must have land, explosions, and deed double crosses. From fiddling and dancing to shootouts, kidnapping rescues, and dynamite, The Seven do it all as tensions build to shootouts and wagon sieges. These quirky bad guys must get rid of these “seven hooligans,” and by Part Two, ladies are running away with our heroes amid marriage proposals, gold prospecting, and safety versus taking a stand. The sappy may be too much for some viewers who prefer the solid action and the stakes are both made easy yet insurmountable, but the dangers and dalliances accent the questions on outlaw living compared to settling down with family. Fortunately, the jerky men made weak and charming character moments remain entertaining. When those seven silhouettes ride up the mountain crest as the crescendos peak, there really isn't any doubt about who's going to win.

Scared Chinese railroad works also seek out our heroes in “Chinatown” after fellow workers are beaten and killed. The Magnificent Seven shows surprisingly brutal attacks thanks to rapacious, racist, good ole boys; slick rail baron Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings); and vengeful hot head John Cho (Harold and Kumar) speaking out about the wrongdoings. In town, our boys have official jurisdiction and here they'd be meddling in a private entity, but that's never stopped them before and they won't take a family's precious jade as payment, either. Multiple storylines converge as our boys free abused women, uncover murder plots, and find evidence proving money and motive. This well balanced piece addresses hate crimes, immigrant labor, corrupt white men, illegal business practices, and cooked books with ahead of its time wisdom. Our young immigrant wants to “learn to shoot so I can be an American” but our gunslinger answers that “learning to shoot don't make you an American, but it could make you a killer and it won't fix the way you feel. Guns and hate is a bad mix.” The Magnificent Seven tackles issues we're still dealing with today in some serious storytelling, but it's therapeutic to see the good guys win – even if it's only on the small screen for an hour. Territory freedom versus statehood regulations expand The Magnificent Seven beyond generic West simplicity in “Serpents” as protests begat bar fights and a dead hotel patron carrying a sophisticated rifle and $10,000. Who hired this assassin and how did he himself end up dead? The Seven argue about what to do with the money as whispers and accusations mount. Pairings we don't normally see bring out each other's ire while multiple temptations such as ladies, wealth, and weapons test our heroes. The soapbox speeches go on despite the fatal risks, underhand tactics, and backdoor deals as our group divided faces their demons. Who's really the target and will our flawed heroes overcome and save the day? Bullets are taken and our multifaceted cowboys come through in a deep episode that fully shows The Magnificent Seven's potential. This should have been the finale, as “Obsession” revisits the Larabee family murder on the crime's three year anniversary and feels more like a somewhat rushed and unresolved Season Three premiere than a conclusion. A former flame turned wealthy widow under fire offers The Seven fifty dollars each for protection in what should be an easy side job – a day or two out of town reminiscing on wild times with carriage rides, feasts, and feather beds. Is there more to life than drinking or fighting? The saucy romance moves fast, but decisions to stay on the seemingly idyllic farm have consequences. Conversations waxing on honest hearts and kind love culminate in multiple wounds and innocents caught in the crossfire as silhouettes and eerie music accent the titular creepy. Suspicious paperwork reveals the boys were right to distrust such quick happiness, and The Magnificent Seven comes together for one last shootout.

There aren't any truly bad episodes this season – The Magnificent Seven gets better as it goes on – but serious versus humor pacing issues hamper several entries amid lingering clues that episodes aired out of production order, were held over from the First Season, or where rushed to included more stories as cancellation loomed. The second hour “Sins of the Past” combines motherly competition, dilemmas, and history as each of the boys face arrests, romance, business, rescues, and clearing one's name. It's a somewhat slow, getting to know them deeper, gray bottle episode, but the acts should be structured with separated drama and humorous plots. Treating drastically different stories with standard A, B, C back and forth doesn't give each tale the focus they deserve even if the humor fades once the boys bond together. “Achilles” also has too much with card games, ladies, poetry, robberies, shoot outs in the street, and innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. The psychological toll of being a gun toting town protector and unlikely pairings, John Brown pasts, and vigils over the wounded lady jar with lighter plots or too briefly featured situations. It's great to see The Seven struggle amid angry townsfolk, funerals, illiteracy, and more, but the scale is crowded and uneven. Night time raids versus hanging up the guns, wisdom from the villain, and more superb elements again deserved more time, but this late in the season, the series writers may have been trying to include all their ideas when had The Magnificent Seven continued, this would have been a fine episode to have some players depart over grief, killer instinct, and their perceived heroic shortcomings. This episode in many ways highlights the best the show has to offer as well as its problematic, short lived network constructs. Likewise, “Ladykillers” has scaffolds, saloon swagger, and sassy female bounty hunters who wound a man to keep him alive for the higher reward. Buck thinks it's a dangerous job for women, but they object that giving birth is more deadly. The serious grit, however, is again played for romance and male sensitivity rather than strong women and their struggles in the West. The rowdy, aggressive sister drags men into the barn yet it's all jokes about getting into their britches and sowing wild oats with come ons about who is the most handsome of The Seven. Personal vendettas and debates about if a woman with a gun can be trusted happen alongside surprising gun shots, injuries, chases, and stand offs as the humor is then completely dropped for dark redemptive questions, domestic violence, voiceover prayers, arguments on executing women, and pulling the trigger in cold blood. The topical elements may be too much for a friendly Saturday night, but once again, it's what The Magnificent Seven could have been. Imagine if one of our boys was shot and a woman replaced him?

Chris Larabee has loosened up a little bit, but Michael Biehn is still dressed in all black to match his rough exterior. Chris tries to ignore gunslinging challenges, but today is just as good as any day to die and he'll shoot up J.D.'s bowler to prove his fast shot. Memories of his late family, however, are fading from his mind, and Chris works on his nearby homestead to get away and hold on a little longer. Of course, he's also jealous when Mary has other prospects – a safe family life is not exactly something he could give her – but Chris admits their friendship is special to him and he's not blind to her headstrong beauty. He doesn't give a damn about a person's past if they ask for help and won't take their precious tokens as payment. However, he does threaten to shoot Ezra and won't tolerate when a sleazy guy puts his hand on his shoulder. Chris yells at J.D. to deal with his guilt; he won't get sentimental, but tells the kid to change his mind about leaving, for if J.D. were perfect he wouldn't be one of them. Chris drinks his pain away and initially objects to his friends questioning his former flame when he has a new chance at happiness, but he realizes they wouldn't be suspicious for no reason. In the absence of the judge when asked who's in charge, he supposes that's him, taking to this lawman thing more than he admits, yet Chris lingers in the back of the church by the doors and tries to remain objective if one of their own is accused. Chris' father-in-law Ed Lauter (Family Plot) comes to town in “Vendetta,” claiming to have killed the man who killed their family, but Tyne Daly (Cagney & Lacey) is pursuing him for her own revenge. Chris resented his disapproval of his marriage and he's angry at his father-in-law bringing this trouble back to him now. Buck says Chris should consider his suffering, but the men blame each other and have it out amid their confrontations with Daly's harsh Irish matriarch scoffing at the dirty church but confessing she is going to kill and enjoy it. She's a God fearing woman kneeling at the altar for forgiveness yet shouting from the balcony how she'll fill 'em with lead, willing to destroy the rest of her family for vengeance that isn't as clear cut as it seems in another Magnificent Seven standout with prayers and gunfire intermixing for superb drama. Eric Close's Vin Tanner still has a wrongful warrant hanging over his head – he isn't afraid to die but will take a stand on being strung up for the wrong reason. Vin thinks he can defend himself alone, but Chris brings along his mare's leg and Vin's grateful when all the boys join his cause. He lies, however, that his handwriting is terrible to hide his illiteracy. Mary thinks he has traveled and has many interesting stories to tell, but he rebuffs her newspaper opportunities before sharing his words on heroics and heart, reciting poetry on how much he values her mind. She offers to teach him to read and write down what he wants, keeping his secret the way Vin keeps Josiah's family confidences to himself. He takes a liking to a married woman in “Wagon Train,” rescuing her from the bad guys before insists no woman belongs to a man – a true husband will know her worth, thank God for her, and never put her at risk. Buck says his nobility will earn him smooches but also trouble, and Chris briefly wonders if he can still depend on Vin. He knows the affair isn't right, but Vin's too wily to settle down and tame land no matter how he feels. He rejoins the fight despite the nasty husband shooting at him, and Chris assures him that there's nothing to explain. Vin resents The Seven for teasing him, but he agrees this is where he belongs.

Dale Midkiff as ladies man Buck Wilmington has some then risque bathtub scenes but loses his touch with several gals this season – much to the bemusement of the boys. Buck lets a man live when he has the death blow even if he doesn't deserve it, for he'll always stand up for what's right, although Chris says he's too proud. The two are close, but they argue, too, and Buck only tells Josiah when he has fearful nightmares. He gets stir crazy when it's calm and peaceful, cutting loose and accidentally taking a Chinese medicine to cure a “limp noodle” – a condition he insists is not a problem. Despite being both intimidated and intrigued by a lady bounty giving him the cold shoulder, he pens a romantic letter to help J.D. Buck lays it on think, lowering his voice and putting on the charm before getting a dose of his own love 'em and leave 'em medicine. He's caught up in a duel for “Love and Honor,” defending a wronged woman against A. Martinez (She-Devil) as romances crisscross amid afternoon standoffs and talk of integrity. The duel is actually a sword fight, yet there's not a lot of action in the first half of the episode, and we don't notice because we're enjoying the characters, multi-ethnic plots, and female but not damsel in distress angst. There's a touch of Zorro, too, with spars, swords cutting the candles, and begrudging respect from Martinez. He says he's going to find six men of his own to watch his back, and he, too, would have been a fascinating replacement if need be. Besides, it's also nice to hear the boys actually called magnificos, and had The Magnificent Seven continued, Fabiana Udenio (Summer School) as sassy bartender Inez could have been fine flair. Her three episodes are full of Buck foil, for he's unarmed in their battle of wits, and Vin has her back when confronting the Don from whom she fled. Sadly, we don't get to see Inez relate to the women in “Ladykillers,” because after holding down the saloon so well, she disappears in the cut back second half of the season. J.D. is tough, too. He's angry at a baddie using dynamite against families rather than fighting like a man, but the others think Andrew Kavovit's kid is still hot air. He dreams of riding with the Texas Rangers, insisting he's no longer the rookie in need of his six big brothers, yet J.D.'s foolish enough to gamble with Maude and buys a Chinese potion to make him grow taller. The bowler jokes continue, but J.D. confides in Buck how often his missing a bullet is just dumb luck. J.D. knows the townsfolk blame him when his stray shot leads to a citizen's death in “Achilles” and becomes reluctant to use his guns. Josiah reminds him to take pride in what he's done for this town, and these touching, growing up fast, or leaving contemplations could have been a longer story arc. J.D. regains his enthusiasm when he doesn't need his holster to save the day, but he gets tongue tied when trying to court Casey. Their fishing competition and pulling pigtails banter are charming, but Nathan insists every girl wants a bracelet, not the frog digger J.D. intends to get for Casey. Dana Barron appears in five episodes this season as Casey, but the out of order episodes have her liking him one hour, then hating him the next before running to his side when he's injured. She gets mistaken for a boy when her hair is up in her hat, but Casey matures and softens up with J.D. even as she comes in handy and helps the boys.

Anthony Starke's Ezra P. – the “P” stands for persuasive – Standish “Attorney at Law” intends to buy the saloon and improve his new “Standish Tavern” but he wasn't made honest labor or Puritanism. When donning the unthinkable Union Blue for a disguise, Ezra at least makes sure he's a colonel. The only thing that can drag him away from his down pillow at dawn is the word “bet,” and he takes odds against Buck in a challenge, encouraging betters to spend expeditiously. Of course, he, too has on occasion found it necessary to defend his good name in a sword fight, however Ezra reluctantly buys an abused girl in “Chinatown” when Nathan doesn't have enough money to outbid a wealthy creeper and free her. She follows Ezra to be his servant, but while he may be a scoundrel, Ezra insists he's always a gentleman to a lady. After a losing a card game with six suspicious kings in one deck, Ezra ends up with nothing but his hat, gun, and boots before finding out it was a fake leg under the table that defeated him. He wonders how he ever let himself come to a career in law enforcement, and writes to his mother that he is baby sitting again and gets slapped when he tries to move in on a woman for her gold claim. Michelle Phillips' Maud Standish wins the deed to the town hotel in a poker game, and mother and son are so genteel as they throw down the gauntlet over rival prices, two for one drinks, and tainted booze. He calls her out for being self-serving, but she insists she taught him better than using his own money in business before selling at top value and buying his saloon. Maude's accused of theft in “The Trial” when missing diamond cuff links are found in the false bottom of her satchel. Ezra's happy to put his mother behind bars, but she spruces up her cell with lamps, furniture, and curtains before sweet talking the Judge, and it would have been great to see more of their law and con woman opposites attract. He says she's the first prisoner to ever tell him he's the most handsome man in the world, but when her accuser proposes marriage, Ezra draws up a prenuptial agreement including a chef, maid, and shop accounts. She's supposed to pick out the ring, but Maude steals his carriage to flee instead. Ezra is likewise tempted with The Seven's found $10,000. He's tired of being knocked out, shot at, and disrespected with such indignities for $7 a week but Chris says he's the only one who complains about the risks they take and doesn't trust him to guard the cash. Although sharing the wealth is never his first instinct, Ezra's angry they all think he'd cut and run. He confides in Josiah that he thought he had proven his loyalty to his friends, and he tells Ezra to face his demons – giving him the money so it can serve its purpose and fix his mercenary ways.

(18 year old “Save a horse, ride a cowboy” me would have *loved* to have screen captures of this back then!)

Ron Perlman's Josiah Sanchez prays for a sign and finds a dog instead, but doesn't mind that the Lord loves a good riddle. Money is like manure and should be spread, but Josiah objects when his church is called unclean because it's open to all paths regardless of belief – including dusty folk and troubled souls. When insulted as a mere handyman, he says Jesus was good with a hammer, too. Josiah provides forgiveness for those who would be consumed with revenge in great one on one wisdoms. He's still enchanted by Maude, reads The Iliad, and waxes on romance but won't offer J.D. courting tips and claims he's on a vow of silence and abstinence when a widow takes a liking to him. He lifts heavy water buckets to avoid temptations when guarding a large sum of money but ultimately sleeps with it and dreams of angels before taking up golf as a lesson in humility against your own worst enemy – yourself. Josiah's proud to defend Nathan's father in “The Trial;” they share Scripture together and even Maude compliments Josiah's well spoken parables. He puts the case in perspective by removing talk of color, slave, and master and instead asks the jury which one of them wouldn't kill the man who terrorized his family if he had the chance. Josiah hates funerals no matter how nice heaven is supposed to be, brings peace to prisoners facing the noose, and says he's not drinking alone but with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Unfortunately, a drunken Josiah returns to town in “Penance” spouting righteous atonement amid dust storms and accusations of murder. The investigating Pinkerton hones in on Josiah's reluctance to talk because his sins are between him and God before revealing more of his family history and regrets. The evidence pointing to Josiah is contrived and it's obvious who the murderer is; however the purgatory mood, murder mystery askew, and horror film making create a unique atmosphere. We had so little time for The Magnificent Seven to dig deep with a scary or dark storyline, but Josiah comes to his senses to minister the criminal just in time. Rick Worthy's Nathan objects to being accused as a snake oil man but is often frustrated that his meager medical skills aren't much use. He wants to pursue his doctoring more but anguishes when his lack of schooling acerbates fatal wounds. Nathan won't take the given gold claim from a dying man he tried to save, either – even when Ezra waxes how they could build a hospital with it. At times, they have a more lighthearted banter, but Nathan educates Ezra on rapier techniques in an intriguing spar between the southern con man and the former slave. Nathan was his master's sparring partner, so his swordsmanship is not so fond a skill. The boys have his back, however, in “The Trial” when Nathan's father faces a lynching. Pleas about the war being over and nasties making the firm distinction between the black accused and white man victim add dimension to touching father and son moments. After slavery, war, and separation, a free man deserves a day in court, but Nathan does not expect justice and confides his history and fears to Chris. Superb tears, pain, and performances bring the terrors of the past full circle thanks to confessions and circumstances that are enough to break a man's spirit – almost.

Judge Travis has our boys' backs against the territory bureaucrats, but Robert Vaughn's crusty lawman won't given them a raise even if he admits he's glad to see them defeat sleazy prosecutors. The Judge is sympathetic to men who kill because they had to, commuting sentences and protecting a charge once justice has been ruled, yet he's reluctant to hang a woman and being fair doesn't always help his case. Once a colder snob when The Magnificent Seven began, Laurie Holden's widow Mary Travis has let her hair down and earned a brief appearance in the opening credits. Buck doesn't want her to look at a dead body, but Mary says it is part of her job, and she gets tough when interviewing a nasty marshal – drinking when he insists women should be wives, mothers, tea total, and not vote. She may not be able to find a pencil when it's already behind her ear, but Mary dons a holster and gets dirty riding to the wild Purgatory town when seeking out the boys. The Magnificent Seven has multiple women relating to each other without taking away from the men, and Mary vows how they are rare, good men who have helped one and all many times. When a former flame proposes to her in “Wagon Train,” however, she doesn't immediately accept but considers her son, the newspaper, and the opportunity for progress in town compared to starting over on the farm with a ready made family. Of course, Chris is not amused – he says she'd be foolish to turn down a good man, but Mary confides in him that she isn't ready for such a big decision. This would have been another great plot to revisit a la Shane, but outspoken editor Mary moves on, campaigning for statehood and writing articles on Freedom of Speech and amendment rights. Old school western street facades, wooden storefronts, balconies, and rooftops provide The Magnificent Seven with ample places for shoot outs, standoffs, crashes, chases, broken windows, and close quarter fist fights. Horses, hats, dusters, ropes, cigars, and poker accent saloons, wagons, telegraphs, barrels, wanted posters, and Spanish touches. The slow motion may be a bit too much at times and the outdoor filming makes for a fuzzy picture today – by the end of the season, you can tell they're using the same hilly spot from different angles, too. However, the rustic realism and dirty, dusty action is nicer then often overly noticeable CGI in HD. The attention to period detail continues with wallpapers, Victorian interiors, bonnets, bustles, and fine ladies' silhouettes, and The Magnificent Seven was probably quite expensive in its day thanks to well done stunts, leaps, cannons, and explosions. Blunt, multi layered gunfire sets off impressive stagecoach heists, villains caught in the wheels, trick riding shots, and swinging saloon doors that always end up off their hinges. Surprising sword action is also intense as wide shots survey the overall battle while above and below filming keeps the blood and slashes realistically tight. Great windstorms, dusty roads, flapping shutters, and slamming doors build suspense, and dark silhouettes show scary attacks when more graphic violence couldn't be shown in the well choreographed and edited action. Today maybe costs would be saved in rotating the cast or not having all of The Seven in each episode, but be it bloody noses or broken ribs, our boys also get their bumps and bruises with comical cues or heroic notes to match. The opening titles once again remind us we're in for a rousing good time with picturesque heroes on horseback riding onward to save the day.

The first half of The Magnificent Seven aired as a Winter 1999 mid-season replacement before the final episodes were dumped in a Friday night summer burn off, unceremoniously ditched after a sweeps attempt to boost the declining Walker, Texas Ranger and continue the CBS Saturday western night post-Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. My crummy, taped off TV VHS tapes certainly got some wear, and I remember being involved in one of the first internet campaigns to save the show – embarrassing but now fascinating Geocities websites chronicling the transition of television from desperately dependent on Nielsen ratings and advertising dollars to online fandom and streaming freedom. If this Magnificent Seven was on a premium channel or internet service today for three, ten episode seasons of arc storytelling with one show runner, who knows what the possibilities would be. In its second season, The Magnificent Seven remains both an action man's adventure and a wholesome television western. This was as heavy and violent as a network Saturday night show pre-Y2K was going to get, yet the series is great television when it overcomes such opposing constrains with next level performances, plots, and swagger. This show simply ends much too soon, and it's easy to end The Magnificent Seven here and go right back to the beginning for comforting cowboy entertainment.