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The River: “A Better Man”

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On the one hand, it can’t be a good sign that “A Better Man” is essentially a remake of last week’s episode, “Los Ciegos.” When a series starts repeating itself this early in its run, it’s probably time to question the creative team’s vision for the long haul. On the other hand, it’s got to be at least slightly encouraging that this week’s model improves on its predecessor in several significant ways, right? Well…


Once again, the crew of the Magus runs afoul of a magical tribe of jungle natives, and once again, the modern intruders into this sacred world of the primitive and supernatural are cursed for their blatant disregard of the local culture. Rather than being blinded this time, Tess, Lincoln, and the gang are pelted by a rain of dead birds and attacked by clouds of swarming cockroaches. As before, Jahel is the all-knowing keeper of exotic secrets, which she parcels out for maximum suspense. And to the surprise of no one who watched last week’s episode, the situation is resolved in exactly the same way: with one person making a selfless sacrifice, convincing the natives to let them go free, until next week when the merry Magus crew will no doubt do something equally stupid to earn their wrath.

Despite the ho-hum familiarity of the plot, however, I did find a few things to like about “A Better Man.” The opening minutes offered the first bit of down-time we’ve experienced with this bunch, and it was nice to see that they aren’t spending every single second of their expedition yelling at each other and pissing off the natives. That’s been one of the major problems with the series so far: We haven’t seen much normal, human interaction between these characters, so it’s not so easy to root for them when they get into the same sort of stupid predicaments every week. Granted, the montage in which each member of the crew pondered whether they have a leader, or even need one, played a bit like outtakes from a Survivor tribal council, but when Lincoln played The Decemberists’ “Sons and Daughters” on guitar while Lena accompanied him on accordion, well, I actually liked him for a minute there. (Maybe it’s just because I like the song.)


We also got some much needed development of a still-absent character, Bruce Greenwood’s Emmet Cole. His appearances are still fleeting and stitched together from archival footage, but we did get a glimpse of his darker side in the moment he forced his cameraman Jonas Beckett (Scott Michael Foster of Californication) to leave the boat and face his punishment. The faux-documentary conceit was put to good use in constructing flashbacks for Jonas, built out of his audition and interview tapes (although a cynic might point out that having Jonas relate his adventures to Lena in an interview is much more cost-effective than depicting them in traditional flashback fashion).

Still, The River continues to frustrate on several fronts. The idea that Jonas actually captured the shaman’s soul with his cell phone camera is hokey even by this show’s standards, and the notion that he would willingly put his head back in the noose he’d been hanging from for months just to save a bunch of people he barely knew was even harder to swallow than Quietly’s noble attempt at self-sacrifice last week. Even worse, his decision to do so short-circuited the conflict between Lincoln and Tess just when it was threatening to get interesting. Who would win out: Tess, who insisted, like her husband, that Jonas be put off the boat, or Lincoln, in his attempt to become the titular better man? We’ll never know, and the episode suffered dramatically as a result.

Most frustrating of all is The River’s seeming lack of interest in developing its overarching mythology. Jonas mentions “The Source” we’ve heard about several times now, but at this point, it might as well be called “The MacGuffin.” Even the seemingly promising development of finding a member of Emmet’s crew alive fizzles out somewhat when we find out Jonas was put off the boat long before the events that caused the rest of the crew to disappear. I’ve done my best to avoid hacky wordplay in these reviews so far, but I can’t help but notice that the makers of The River seem content to tread water.

Stray observations:

  • Kurt is just about useless, isn’t he? This is the second week in a row he’s nearly accidentally killed somebody. (Last week by knife, this week by quinine.) Unless…it’s no accident!
  • No quicksand this week, but we did get deadly vines. We’re getting closer.
  • My apologies for mistaking millipedes for leeches last week. I blame the bad CGI.