19th Nov2015

‘Flesh and Bone 1×05: M.I.A’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“There are many girls, Angel. Who can keep track of them all?”

The third act of ‘M.I.A’ is wrenchingly confident in its pacing, a tense and ugly progress toward a muted tragedy in the backseat of a luxurious private town car. If the first two acts spend their time in puzzling ways, branching into multiple tangents overly indulgent for an eight-hour miniseries, the episode still displays a sense of energy missing from earlier entries. Incorporating an actual ballet, one with frightening undertones and obvious stakes no less, is a much-needed shot in the arm, as is the absence of the tedious Claire-Bryan plot.

The presence of Claire’s suitor/would-be savior Cameron feels as flat here as it did last episode, but the final shot of his conversation with Claire in a private dance room is well worth the price of admission. The camera pulls out and tilts up, framing Claire like a votive figure in a shrine where Cameron has come to worship. He isn’t really listening to her, though. When she opens up and tells him that, like the velveteen rabbit, her dream is to be loved so much that she becomes real, his response is a clueless, “That…is…awesome.” Men like Cameron don’t care what Claire’s dreams are; they just want to imagine that the broken stripper they’re courting has dreams. They want to think about her having dreams, and about themselves as the fulfillers of those dreams, but to actually consider what those dreams might be would require a respect for Claire as a human being Cameron clearly lacks. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he asks her playfully, wheedling for her real name, for an in on her life in the world outside. She’s not a person to him; she’s something half-formed, a game to play, a way to feel.

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The female body deified is an image that informs much of what follows, setting up a brutal dichotomy by showing us first how men elevate women to the status of goddesses and then how this elevation is just another form of dehumanization. Another, more literal form of inhuman treatment bookends the episode when Claire, guarded by a hulking and mannerly bouncer, descends into the bowels of Sergei’s yacht and discovers that some of her patron’s mobster friends are raping teenage girls during the ballet. “Not the ballerinas,” growls the bouncer when one of the mooks makes eyes at Claire. The message is clear: men decide who is and isn’t valuable. Paul’s recoiling from being loved and understood by his hip-cocking stereotype of a Cuban lover helps to show the flip side of masculine image construction, the ways in which men deny themselves emotional support and openness in order to maintain self-images of power.

Much of ‘M.I.A’ is taken up by vignettes of the other characters going about their days and reacting to being defined by others. Mrs. Bialy insists on pretending Mia is her sister rather than her daughter, courting a vanishing youth while her child’s body and emotions crumble under the weight of expectations and an eating disorder her mother encourages. The two are locked in unending rebellion against one another, each resentful of how the other shapes her self-perception. (The episode never really does anything with the fact that the episode’s title is also a supporting character’s name, but I’m not sure what it COULD do with that, so eh). Mia’s post-traumatic flashback to being assaulted by Bryan is a crushing moment, a poisoning of her attempted bathroom stall fling with a callous broker who calls her crazy for breaking things off.

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Kiira’s bristling against her artist friend’s use of the nickname “Prima” gives us another woman who wants to be seen on her own terms. She Toni and Paul fight over Claire’s image during a photo shoot for a ballet magazine, sculpting and resculpting her to fit their needs and their desire to court public interest. Commodification is a powerful force, a confluence of economic, artistic, and personal reasons to ignore another human’s humanity in pursuit of an economic goal. “She is the primordial woman-child,” Toni purrs, ignoring the horror of why men might find the idea of a woman-child appealing. The slow-motion camera which captures Claire provides a wonderful sense of gratifying triumph when it snaps a perfect shot, Claire suspended in midair in the midst of a transporting and joyful dance, but the realization that it’s just another way to package her doesn’t take long to sink in. Paul, naturally, credits his full-frontal tutelage, but his bluster aside it’s satisfying to see Claire enjoy herself and the act of performing rather than churning joylessly through life.

What brings real emotion to the misery and bleakness of the final act, to the stolen name of the girl who goes missing in action, is the episode’s occasional forays into actual levity. Daphne can reliably bring up the mood, and even her crack about throwing acid in ballerinas’ faces being a Moscow thing rather than a Ukrainian tradition somehow manages to come off as lighthearted. Likewise Claire’s photo shoot gives Sarah Hay much lighter material to work with, and even Kiira brings humanity and humor to her scenes of partying and bathtub masturbation. These people live their lives in private moments, taking time with themselves as an exercise in preservation of personhood, and that’s something that can be funny as well as tragic.

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We don’t see Daphne dance the black swan, an avatar of forbidden lust and sexual maturity. Instead we see Claire as the white swan, fragile and unimpeachably innocent. That image, designed and maintained by men over centuries of ballet, compels men like Sergei to treat her accordingly even while they heap naked scorn on women like the hapless sex slave set to scrubbing the deck. While we may not see Daphne’s dance, the black swan’s part is still performed. It’s the suffering of the child-women taken into the mobsters’ cabins, a perverse adagio unfolding in the dark even as Daphne, up under the open sky, kills her footwork and collects her roses.

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