11th Nov2015

‘Flesh and Bone 1×02: Cannon Fodder’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Your brain plays all kinds of tricks on you when you’re overseas. Tells you all kinds of fucked-up shit.”

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The motormouth veteran unlucky enough to pick Bryan as a seatmate on the bus to New York, a man who both looks and sounds like the voice track in a Godspeed You! Black Emperor single, knows exactly what constant stress and trauma does to the human mind, but as he says wistfully near the episode’s midpoint, “They wouldn’t want me now, even though I’d go back if I could.” The human urge to suffer, whatever the driving reason might be, is at the heart of ‘Cannon Fodder,’ but the episode doesn’t so much ask why it happens as it does let us lean in close and stare with frightened fascination at the people doing it.

There are causes, sure. Distrust is law among the ballerinas, as is the universal desire for a singular spotlight. Paul Grayson’s real talent is exploiting that competitive desire, manipulating the dancers under his nominal care to attack and undermine each other while driving themselves recklessly in pursuit of perfection. Even in victory he denies his charges satisfaction, as when he saddles Claire with a headliner’s duties but keeps her pay locked in low. He may be a manipulator par excellence, but when it comes to the art itself he turns out to be kinda stodgy and out of touch, relying on his assistant director Jessica’s more modern and discerning tastes (and her ability to convince him through flattery that he’s the one making decisions). He’s sunk too deep into the struggle to retain control over what he considers his kingdom (he refers to new choreographers as “usurpers”) to remain a vibrant artist, a smart commentary on the autocannibalistic nature of building a world with abuse.

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The people on the low rungs of life’s ladder are trained to fight each other over scraps rather than to look upward at the manufacturers of their impoverishment, and the ballerinas follow this dictum to the letter. To lose what little they’ve worked themselves half to death for is unthinkable, so instead they cling to it and scrabble for what they know they can’t have. “I have to go piss on my territory,” Kiira tells her likable sad sack of a coke dealer, currently enabling her through the demolition of her injured body so that she can cling to her status as a prima ballerina for one more season. Mia’s exchange with the stone-faced pianist Pasha, a wonderfully deadpan John Allee, illustrates the bleak awareness at the core of one of these struggles. “I gotta step up my game. You’ll see,” she tells him, shortly after he reveals he’s going blind. She knows, as he says, that she’ll never be Beethoven, but trying is all she has. She’d rather hate Claire for her talent and for garnering Paul’s attention than admit she’s reached her peak.

Romeo, the homeless man who lives under the stoop of Claire’s building, lives a life of greater privation than any of the high-strung dancers at the ABC, but he lacks their drive to attack and destroy. Instead he focuses as intently as he can on doing good, living in a state of agitated and unwell grace. “The right thing is…is paramount,” he stammers to Claire, trying to persuade her that she has a choice in the matter of joining Brusseau for dinner and implied sex. Perhaps it’s the vessel rather than the message; if having a choice means accepting, or at least enduring the disintegration of normality like Romeo does, isn’t it easier just to take a pill and let the current have you?

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The title Cannon Fodder suggests not just disposable underlings but the men in power who recruit and deploy them for the sole purpose of absorbing bullets. That disdainful attitude toward the value of “lesser” humans tinges Paul’s gross power games, sure, but it’s not until Brusseau slips Claire the key to his hotel room after she intentionally makes an utter ass of herself at dinner that we see true disregard for life and humanity. Claire kisses herself in the mirror three times over the episode’s course. One is given with stolen lipstick, one with her own blood, and the last is not touch but the ghost of touch when she positions herself so that the lipstick stain lines up on her forehead. It’s that last which holds the key to how Cannon Fodder continues to texture Flesh and Bone‘s skin-crawling take on sexual relationships. The word of the day is incest, presaged not just by Claire’s overtly covetous brother but by all the small invasions of privacy, blurring of interpersonal roles, and subtle, intimate thefts the characters inflict on one another.

Brusseau’s undressing of Claire is a grotesque parody of a father helping a sleepy daughter out of her clothes in preparation for bedtime. “Arms,” he tells her, taking hold of her dress. “Up, up!” It’s the precise voice an adult uses on a toddler, an inversion of Claire’s unconscious or conscious move to use a higher and more childlike voice when talking to him. For her it’s something women do to take up less space, to avoid threatening men who might prove dangerous, but for Brusseau it’s about the entitlement he feels to her body. His money, his status, his fine taste in wine accord him a twisted form of paternal privilege in his eyes. He even calls her a little bird, hearkening back to the helpless chicks the ballerinas coo over earlier in the episode. Rather than waiting for the metaphorical vomit of Brusseau’s touch, though, Claire opts for a literal approach and drives her odious attacker away by forcing herself to puke on the hotel bed.

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Claire’s dinner with ABC’s patron carries an ugly, awful tension only worsened by the suggestion that Claire might escape unscathed. We expect her to ignore Romeo’s advice, sure, but when (inspired by Paul’s naked disdain for Pittsburgh) she hits on the idea of portraying herself as boorish and uncultured it seems like Brusseau, too snobbish to conceal his disappointment over Claire’s gift of a knockoff tie, might lose interest. That black room card sliding across the table is a doorway to an awful fairy tale, a nightmarish assignation with an aging, dead-eyed Christian Grey. Claire walks to his room through a wallpaper forest, fingers trailing over two-dimensional trees, unable to conceive of doing anything but staggering to her doom. The camera stalks after her like an animal tracking wounded prey.

The shot that brings the episode together isn’t in the hotel, though. It’s in a cold, vacant studio where a lecherous dancer asks Claire to practice with him. Before he puts his moves on her there’s a moment when the camera pulls back, watching like a fly from the corner as Claire soars effortlessly in her partner’s arms. The void around her is palpable, the line between perfect poise and injury so fine as to be almost non-existent. Ballet is a performance art, but in Paul’s domain the dance doesn’t end when the lights go out. Getting raped by a cultured brute of a Frenchman is, as Paul says, just good business.

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