22nd Nov2015

‘Flesh and Bone 1×08: Scorched Earth’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Now go out there, and fuck ‘em in the heart.”

Scorched Earth gives the largest single bite of its extended running time to Claire actually dancing Toni’s Dakini. It’s a gutsy choice, hanging a season finale on a play within a play, but while it delivers moments of transcendence it also edges out all possible resolution for loose ends like Sergei’s arrival as an official friend of the ballet. Daphne’s dread when she learns he’s in the audience seems to suggest a chilling payoff that never comes, and never will unless Starz takes Flesh and Bone to series. It’s a whopper of an anticlimax, considering all the buildup, subplots, and raw time that went into getting us there. Oh, and Romeo sews himself bottle cap armor and stabs Bryan to death inside an enormous concrete and fiberglass point shoe.

Things start out wrong-footed with Claire and Romeo’s clumsy dialogue about his picture book, which is some of the most intense fanfiction you’re likely to see. The book gives Scorched Earth a bog-standard symbolic frame with its story about a hero who rescues a princess from a dragon. It also brings us to the aforementioned stabbing, an event so left-field and divorced from the events surrounding the ballet that the only note I made on it was, “Huh.” It highlights just how distracting both assassin and victim were while the show was trying to build mood and momentum. Bryan’s wildly inconsistent characterization and Romeo’s enjambment into whatever the show needed him to be in the moment have, I guess, a perfect exegesis in this gonzo concluding act. Intercutting the killing with Claire’s triumphant performance feels like a clumsy way to show her come into her own without the weight of her past, much less fluid and affecting than the similar montage cut together from Daphne’s performance in Rubies alongside Mia’s hospital room recital and Kiira’s heart-wrenching final appearance.

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Shooting Dakini like a ballet taped for broadcast feels like a mistake to me. The camera remains either flat or else weirdly low, tilted upward so that the whole thing feels like a simulcast opening ceremony for the Olympics. The ballet itself really brings home Paul’s repeated criticism of Toni as a college feminist, draping the dancers’ transcendent work with boorish mummery about a young woman’s blossoming sexuality. Still, being thematically inert doesn’t keep it from being a gorgeous kinetic spectacle, and the flesh-tone costumes provide a palpable sense of release after a season of holding everything close to the vest.

The episode’s best images come not on the stage but in its wings. The camera does brilliant work transforming those shadowy slices of the theater into purgatory, prison, and battlefield all at once. Paul’s crushing disappointment at being excluded from the final bow is exquisitely framed, the ballet company and Toni waving to their adoring public while we watch Paul stand alone and shrunken in the gloom. Ben Danielson brings a quiet, shaky energy to his portrayal that has been absent most of the series. His blankly human reaction to Claire’s haircut (“Why would you do this? Should I be concerned?”) is the most likable he’s ever been. It’s the glass in Claire’s slippers, though, that gives the finale its most tremendous moment. Claire stops her warmup when she realizes someone has sabotaged her shoe. At first, as the camera rakes the assembled dancers and technicians, it seems like we’re going to stop the action to find out who done it.

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We don’t. Instead, Claire puts a piece of glass in her mouth and eats it while staring directly at her fellow dancers. It’s stunning, bloody, and terrifying, and Paul’s approving nod at the blood on Claire’s lip gives us a lot to, ahem, chew on. Here, finally, there’s a successful fusion of the horror of the world of dance and the tremendous joy of the art itself. Sarah Hay does beautiful footwork on and off the stage, by turns imperiously icy and incredibly vulnerable. It’s a performance that I wish we could keep watching, especially after that short, sharp slap of a final line. Some of her emotional arc may feel confusing, but Claire’s mix of tormented self-doubter, steel-clad bitch, and champion of the downtrodden made for some compelling television.

It may not stick every landing, and its chief subplot may feel like something out of a cheesy alternate universe version of Hannibal, but Scorched Earth dazzles more than it flops. This is a confident hour of television, even when it’s bad, and when it’s on its game there’s an admirable ferocity and drive to the action. That ending, too, is a dizzying portrayal of what it is to step into the spotlight and gain that power and sense of self. Claire transforms from the timid girl who came begging to the ballet company into something terrible and beautiful, a new talent who recognizes all at once why everyone who’s lost their taste of fame is so eager to get their claws into her.

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Watch the mirror’s lights bloom like fire in her eyes. Watch her chew glass and rise up on a throne of twisting arms. Romeo got it wrong. Bryan wasn’t the dragon. Claire is.

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