Reviews

'Weeds: Season Eight' Is a Tame End to the Wild Ride

Despite its return to smart social satire, Weeds: Season Eight mellows out the formerly tempestuous Botwin family.


Weeds

Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Mary-Louise Parker, Justin Kirk, Hunter Parrish, Alexander Gould, Kevin Nealon
Network: Showtime
Release date: 2013-02-12
Website
Amazon

Weeds has officially wrapped up its eighth and final season looking quite different from the intense, dark comedy it was in 2005. While returning to the suburbs and the satire that so characterized the early years of the show, the series’ conclusion feels haphazard. Much like Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) herself, the desultory final season of Weeds doesn’t quite seem to have a plan, hurriedly throwing one together at the last minute.

The season eight box set itself even reflects this sort of meandering quality. It contains a handful of episode commentaries, a gag reel, and deleted scenes, but they are scattered across the three discs in a way that feels out of order. Some of the bloopers, for example, give away scenes and plot points that don’t occur until the next disc.

While the Botwins’ come full circle and return to the suburbs, the setting is no longer the primary source of satire. Instead, season eight's focus is on the failings of the health care system. Recovering from her injuries after nearly falling victim to an assassin, Nancy racks up some hefty medical bills, and a hospital representative eagerly explains, “We’re America; we take all credit cards.” Later, having joined a pharmaceutical company experimenting in legal pot pills, a horrified Silas (Hunter Parish) watches as his plant is mutilated and processed with copious amounts of additives, opening up the debate surrounding the “naturalness” of marijuana in contrast to the relative “unnaturalness” of conventional medicine.

But while season eight does manage to return to satire, there is one major and unfortunate change. Weeds has always been driven by Nancy Botwin’s proclivity for making the worst, most selfish decisions out of a belief that she is doing the right thing for her family. She is always reacting, never anticipating or preventing the predicaments she inevitably ends up in, and it's our frustration and fascination with the flustered yet sultry Nancy, so impeccably played by Parker, that makes the show so popular. But in this season, reeling after her brush with death, she sets out to clean up her act. Eventually stating that “time and loss have mellowed me,” Nancy’s loses that mischievous glimmer in her eye, which frankly results in a boring season.

Instead, Nancy’s sister Jill (Jennifer Jason Leigh) takes over the role of the train wreck. Up until this point she has been made out to be a cruel and jealous sister, constantly antagonizing Nancy even to the point of trying to steal her son. But season eight gives her character depth, showing that she is just as broken and confused as her sister, and they even begin to bond over how mutually messed up they are. Andy (Justin Kirk) enters a relationship with Jill, at first apparently because it’s the closest thing to being with Nancy, but it also seems to be what allows him to finally grow up. A pregnancy scare leads him to discover his great desire to be a father, but most importantly his time with Jill helps him gain the strength to finally break free from Nancy’s hold over him.

For the most part, the other characters are somewhat extraneous, none more so than Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon). Rarely sharing a scene with the other characters, his absurd escapades do nothing to further the story and only function as lowbrow comedic relief. Finally, toward the end, his decision to make his own religion at least provides some satire, however limited. But even the Botwin boys have little impact in season eight; Shane (Alexander Gould) joins the police force and Silas seeks legal ways of pursuing his passion for growing marijuana, reflecting Nancy’s call to turn legit. None of the Botwins get themselves into the same kind of outrageous trouble we have seen them navigate for the past seven seasons, which is exactly was so enjoyable about the show.

All of this would be permissible if it had led to a clever conclusion, but the taming of the Botwins ends in an awkwardly thrown together finalé. The last few episodes of Weeds are self-indulgently nostalgic, pulling the cheap move of bringing back characters from the earlier seasons for brief appearances. Even worse, the finalé makes a clumsy jump into the future, complete with high-tech gadgets and legal marijuana. It all feels very forced, and a very sloppy way to wrap up what used to be such a smart and exciting show. The one redeeming factor is the moving final scene, depicting the reunited Botwin crew slowly gathering on the front porch, looking at each other knowingly as they silently pass around a joint. Paired with the exquisite sounds of Rilo Kiley’s “With Arms Outstretched,” their expressions seem to say “so, what next?”

This may be the only fitting way to end the rollercoaster ride that is Weeds: to not end it. At the heart of the series is the idea that, no matter how screwed up a family is, they still stick together through thick and thin. This is exactly why it feels like season eight tries to wrap things up too much. The Botwins have all more or less gotten their act together, leading this poignant story of withstanding hardships through familial love and dedication to fizzle out into a bland and even clichéd conclusion.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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