Over the weekend I discovered the TV-treasure that is Tales from the Loop. It’s based on the sci-fic artistry of Simon Stålenhag, which in turn inspired the role-playing game released in 2017, and so I was delighted to learn of a cinematic adaption even as I worried about a Stranger Things rehash. It’s set in a small midwestern town in the ’80s (Ohio instead of Indiana); there’s a lab where dangerous experiments are performed; and kids play a key role. But this is definitely its own thing. It’s not about ’80s nostalgia; the period is incidental. And where Stranger Things is full of anxious and overt horrors, using action sequences to supplement the character drama, Tales from the Loop shines in the small and quiet moments. Put it this way: Stranger Things is ET and Alien and Hellraiser; this series is Blade Runner and Twin Peaks, filtered through a Kubrick-like lens where everything is held coldly at arm’s length, even as it magnifies the intimate. Dialogue is restrained and used like a precious commodity; every word counts.
The feeling of expansive emptiness has put off some viewers, but it works for me. I haven’t been so dreamily affected by cinema since my last Kubrick or Lynch film. The set pieces and atmosphere exude a sad beauty, as if science exacts a price in direct proportion to its wonders.
The series opens on the face of Russ Willard, played by High Sparrow (as we know him from Game of Thrones) Jonathan Pryce. He’s the founder of the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics (MCEP) — AKA “the Loop” — and speaks to the camera directly, explaining to us that the Loop’s purpose is to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe: “As a result of the unique research,” he says, “you will see sights that you’d say were impossible.” And with that, the series begins. (Russ Willard will resurface throughout the season’s narratives, especially in episode 4.)
Willard’s tease is largely misdirection. Yes, we end up seeing lot of “impossible sights” — time travel, body swapping, time freeze, snow that falls upwards, parallel-world travel, and robots with uncannily human traits — but that’s not what the series is about. Tales from the Loop is interested in people: their fears, traumas, and deepest hopes. The sci-fic mechanisms go unexplained; to Mercer’s residents they aren’t even terribly astonishing. These citizens have lived with the Loop for so long (and unlike the Hawkins lab in Stranger Things, the MCEP is no big secret) that its resulting impossibilities are frankly a bit mundane.
The format of the series is sort-of anthology, sort-of serial drama. Each of the eight episodes focuses on a major character who is minor in some of the other episodes. The main family are the Willards — Loretta and George, their sons Jakob and Cole, and of course granddaddy Russ — and this family is anchored throughout episodes 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8. Episodes 3, 5, and 6 are thinly connected storylines standing mostly on their own. Here are the episode themes and synopses.
1. Loop. Time travel. The young Loretta in the ’50s meets her adult self in the ’80s.
2. Transpose. Body swap. Jakob and his friend Danny decide to be each other for a day, but Danny refuses to leave Jakob’s body.
3. Stasis. Time stop. A girl traps herself and her boyfriend in a moment of time.
4. Echo Sphere. Imminent death. Russ is about to die; his grandson Cole is strangely connected to his identity in some way.
5. Control. Loss of control. A grieving father feels unable to protect and provide for his wife and daughter, and so buys a dangerous robot to patrol their property.
6. Parallel. Travel to parallel world. A guy meets his alternate self and has an affair with his doppleganger’s boyfriend.
7. Enemies. Human vs. machine. The young George in the ’50s is left stranded on an island and hunted by a killer robot.
8. Home. Time travel, body-swapping, and the question of humanity vs. machines. All of these come into play in a masterpiece finale.
Here’s how I rank the episodes.
1. Home (Episode 8). 5 stars. The finale is a masterpiece directed by Jodie Foster. Basically Home resolves — as much as anything is ever “resolved” in this series — the threads from earlier episodes, with Cole realizing his brother Jakob is not Jakob, but Danny inside Jakob’s body. He searches Jakob out in the woods, and finds the lonely mute robot, resulting in a deeply moving reunion. When another robot arrives on the scene to attack, Jakob-Robot dishes out an ass-pounding that took me by surprise, leaving the other robot in pieces. But Jakob doesn’t last long after this battle, and his robotic self dies as Cole cradles him. Cole ends up crossing a bizarre stream that’s sometimes frozen (even in summer), sometimes flowing, and to cross it when it’s flowing has the effect of slowing down time to crawl for that person — so that many years passes in the space of only a few minutes. Cole’s escapade with Jakob-Robot felt like only hours, but when he returns to the town, he finds a new Mercer in which his grandmother and father are dead. His mother Loretta is still alive, gray-haired, and polexaed to see him (and to see him still young) after so many years. He also meets Danny in Jakob’s now thoroughly adult body, and Cole tells Danny that Jakob didn’t hate him for what he did, allowing the two a very surprising peace. I don’t know that I could forgive someone who stole a family member’s body and identity. There are countless scenes in Home that soar with transcendent moments, and the ending epiphany — that our lives are over in “the blink of an eye” — hits home indeed.
2. Stasis (Episode 3). 5 stars. Riding a theme that Cole will grind in the finale, Stasis is about the desperate need for things to stay the same. The girl May does this in the most audacious way imaginable — by stopping time altogether — so that she and her new boyfriend can make their “moment” of love last. It’s a self-standing episode focusing outside the Willard family, and all the more surprising therefore that it’s so damn good. We aren’t allowed much time to invest in May and Ethan, but I was thoroughly in love with them both by the end, especially for their flaws. Brilliant scenes here, especially those showing the residents of Mercer frozen in whatever they were doing when May flipped the switch, one of whom is her mother in the middle of having adulterous sex, to May’s outrage. When May and Ethan decide to bang each other outside in the middle of the road, that was certainly taking advantage “of the moment”! Their mutual enjoyment doesn’t last however, and in the end May learns a hard lesson — that sometimes things are special precisely because they don’t last. Appreciating that truth takes a lot of maturity and learned experience, usually starting with teenage heartbreak.
3. Transpose (Episode 2). 4 ½ stars. Two friends who are opposites decide to be each other for a day. It sounds fun. Jakob Willard is a smart introvert with a promising future to work at the Loop. His friend Danny is quite the opposite — popular with girls, lousy with grades, expecting to pound rock at the quarry for the rest of his life. Jakob and Danny come across a spherical object in the woods, and when Jakob climbs inside, they find that they have swapped bodies. They agree to swap for a day and live at each other’s homes. The next day, however, Danny decides that he wants to stay inside of Jakob’s body forever: to live as Jakob Willard and work at the Loop, not pound rock in a dead-end job. Jakob, desperate, goes back to the forest and into the machine, but he is alone, and so when he leaves Danny’s body, there is no soul around to fill Danny’s body, and Danny’s body goes into a coma. That’s not the worst of it. Jakob becomes trapped in a robot (the nearest creature in the forest), and he will stay a robot until he dies in the finale. Danny, meanwhile, has to live with his crime of ultimate identify theft — living as Jakob Willard for the rest of the season, under the roof with a family he has no right to. Freaky Friday plots are usually predictable, but Transpose gives them nice twists and tragedy.
4. Loop (Episode 1). 4 ½ stars. The premiere hooked me with its glacial atmosphere and intriguing time loop. Meeting one’s future self (and vice versa) runs the risk of pesky paradoxes, but Loop deftly sidesteps them by, well, sidestepping the young Loretta’s life when the Loop returns her to the ’50s. She will remember meeting her adult self as a dream, not an actual time travel, until she becomes that same adult in the ’80s when the closed loop replays itself. Many viewers aren’t sure what triggers the young Loretta’s time travel to the ’80s; it’s when she first touches the stone from the Eclipse, in the barren snow field where her house used to be. She returns to her present in the ’50s when she replaces the stone in the Eclipse. The story is one about maternal love, which Loretta never felt (being abandoned by her mother), and so was determined to love her kids — Jakob and Cole — no matter how much her career at the Loop consumed her.
5. Enemies (Episode 7). 4 stars. The scariest episode was directed by horror-meister Ti West, and there are indeed scenes on the island that made my heart skip. Its brilliance is that it goes from scary to being just as sad. In the ’50s the young George Willard is left stranded by his cruel friends on the forbidden island, where he is stalked and terrorized by a creature that is a robot. This is how George loses his arm (in the previous episodes, the adult George’s mechanical arm is never explained), and when he returns to the island in the ’80s, he seeks out his childhood terror in order to make peace with it. It many sound corny, but the execution is heartbreaking, and he even gives the robot (who is missing an arm) his own robotic mechanical arm to apologize for hurting it. The union between humans and machines is a common trope in science fiction, exploring what it means to be human.
6. Echo Sphere (Episode 4). 4 stars. It’s ironic that the episode focusing on the Loop’s creator is the one that makes least use of the sci-fic medium to tell its story. Russ Willard takes his grandson Cole to a huge sphere that echoes when you shout into it; the more echoes you hear of your voice tells you how long your life will be. Cole’s shout returns six echoes; a promising life. When Russ shouts into it, there’s no echo at all, for (as the doctors have told him), he will soon die. That’s what the episode is about — our inevitable death, which not even the scientific miracles of the Loop can negate. It’s a story about a boy’s pain over a grandfather he loves too much to let go, but with a very arresting twist at the end that suggests Cole’s relation to his grandfather is something impossible.
7. Parallel (Episode 6). 3 ½ stars. The next two are stand-alones, where the anthology format is really felt. The main characters (the Willard family) aren’t involved, as in Episode 3, Stasis. A guy finds a broken tractor in a field, and as soon as he fixes it, it sucks him through a portal into a parallel world. He finds an idealistic version of himself there, romantically involved with a man he had obsessed in his own world. One thing leads to another: he is invited to live with his doppleganger and boyfriend; eventually he has an affair with the boyfriend, which leads to disillusionment and his leaving the home to find a new life in the parallel world in which he’s forever stuck. The problem with this story is that it could have been much more. I’m a sucker for parallel-world dramas, but Parallel doesn’t exploit the alternate setting in any of the numerous ways it could have.
8. Control (Episode 5). 2 ½ stars. The only episode I’d call a dud. Not just because it involves characters we don’t give a shit about (the ineffectual parents and young sister of Danny, whose body is in a coma and dying in a hospital bed, thanks to Danny now inhabiting the body of Jakob Willard whom he pretends to be; see Episode 2, Transpose). And not just because the sci-fic elements are rather uninteresting. No, what burns my piles above all is the political axe-grinding. This is a blatant anti-gun parable, and while I am no fan of gun-rights fanatics, I don’t like being preached to, no matter how much I agree with the message. That’s hollow artistry. Control is about a guy who is paranoid about his home being spied on, and so buys a patrol robot, that one night almost kills his young daughter whom the robot is supposed to protect. Really, it’s that on the nose.