Frozen in place: A critical review of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” (2015)

It’s Christmastime, when most horror fans start turning to chilly films and wintry fair like “The Shining,” “The Thing” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The One with Mickey Rooney.” Of course, not all of us are that classically oriented. Some of us must always stay behind. There are those of us who brave “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.”

A bunch of girls who all dress like pilgrims at a Catholic school in New England are supposed to be going home for a February break. However, Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka) find themselves slightly stranded. Kat suspects her parents have been killed in a car crash; Rose has lied to her parents about the vacation dates so she can figure out her suspected pregnancy. Neither is going home right away.

As the girls figure out their respective situations, Rose casually suggests that the skeleton crew of remaining school nuns are secretly devil worshipers. But when she starts to see some strange things in the boiler room downstairs, she actually starts to wonder what is going on when the school is supposed to be shut. Off campus, a young woman (Emma Roberts) has apparently escaped from a mental facility, and she’s making her way to Bramford, the same school town where Rose and Kat are stuck.

“Blackcoat” starts off strong. The cast is good. Roberts in particular does not disappoint, suggesting psychological depth with every furtive glance. She finds an appropriate foil in James Remar, playing a seemingly sweet man who offers to give her a ride into town. Whenever the two interact, the tension is clear.

The photography–the cinematographer was Julie Kirkwood–is intelligent and atmospheric. Lingering shots of table settings and snowy school grounds, as well as kitchen utensils and bloody walls, suggest the contrast between polite social manners and harsh reality. The subject of that photography–a basically abandoned school, isolated physically and psychically by winter weather–is likewise like crack to me. The problem is that there is never any kind of payoff.

The writer-director is Oz Perkins, the son of Anthony “I was in the best horror movie ever” Perkins, but then again, he also did “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” another slow burning atmospheric horror film, which I’ve seen once and remember little of. Perkins is obviously someone who obviously knows what a good horror film looks like. He knows the aforementioned “Shining,” as well as “Rosemary’s Baby.” The problem is, he seems to have trouble with what a good horror film is supposed to do.

Throughout my viewing of “Blackcoat,” I was always struggling to understand what was going on. I don’t think its because the film was unclear. I think it’s because I didn’t care. There was a distinct disconnect between me and the action onscreen. When it looked like it was thrilling, even when it was beautifully presented, I felt no connection to what I saw. As fascinating as the images were, I was not fascinated with them beyond the level of art school composition.

The movie looks good, but good looks can only take you so far in life. You need personality too, and that is where “Blackcoat” is really lacking. Even at the end, once its mechanics had been revealed, it didn’t feel like the film had gone anywhere because I, as a viewer, hadn’t been taken anywhere.

“Blackcoat” is a film about tension that rises and rises and then falls backwards rather than forwards. Perhaps it would have been better in a different medium. In a painting, its frozen atmosphere and slow burning psychological suggestion would have been something interesting to ponder over. As a movie, it simply refuses to move.

Advertisements

Is it in my head? Critical reviews of “Homecoming” and “Maniac” (2018)

Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to refer to two or more physical and psychic phenomena that coincide in a meaningful way. The meaning could be intimate or cosmic, and it is, perhaps, intriguingly related to observer paradox. Either way, it’s a fascinating concept, and it’s a fancy way of saying I just finished watching two TV shows the other day that seemed weirdly similar.

A little overly intellectual for an into, but I thought it was funny. It may even be appropriate.

There is some interesting overlap between Amazon’s “Homecoming” and Netflix’s “Maniac.” Both deal with that ever popular yet intangible realm of the mind. Both are at least wary of psychiatric drugs. Both ask what constitutes healing. Both are willing to question reality.

Neither is original–“Homecoming” is based on a podcast and “Maniac” on a Norwegian TV series–and both are 10 episodes long but only feature one director–respectively Sam Esmail and Cary Joji Fukunaga (both of whom, for what it’s worth, were born in 1977). To see differences, we have to dive into the shows a little deeper.

“Homecoming” tells two parallel stories. In one, Heidi Bergman is an enthusiastic caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a secretive government facility in Florida designed to with PTSD return to civilian life. In the other, Heidi Bergman is a bitter waitress at a restaurant, who is approached one day by an investigator from the Department of Defense following up a complaint about the Homecoming facility four years later.

As each story evolves, both the audience and Bergman learn piece by piece just what was going on at Homecoming, and how the past and the future are terribly related.

Like Esmail’s delightfully trippy “Mr. Robot,” “Homecoming” is a thriller with healthy doses of government cover up and corporate conspiracy. It’s also well paced, handsomely photographed and brilliantly played. Julia Roberts is rightly touted for her small screen debut, but Bobby Cannavale is also great as her slimy supervisor, Shea Whigam is perfectly cast as the thoughtful, dogged investigator and Stephan James instantly believable as an increasingly uncertain young vet.

The decision to photograph the 2018 sequences in one format and the 2022 in a different one is convenient for piecing the story together, but I’m not sure if it was supposed to be innovative. I suppose one could find it irritating; I found it largely irrelevant.

Despite that one avant-garde affectation, “Homecoming” is intriguingly old fashioned. The series has been called Hitchcockian, and that’s due to more than its theme of an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. The camera movement is worthy of the director, and the soundtrack is not someone ripping off the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone–it actually is Hermann, Morricone and more. The series takes all its musical cues from “Vertigo,” “The Thing” and a host of other classic thrillers.

Netflix’s “Maniac” tells about 37 parallel stories, give or take a tale. They mostly originate from the minds of neurotic Annie Landsberg and psychotic Owen Milgrim, who attempt to escape their personal problems by partaking in a medical trial for a drug that will allegedly make therapy obsolete. The trial involves a succession of pills and sessions with GRTA, an intelligent computer, resulting in hallucinatory dreams that are individualized for each patient to work through their issues.

The problem is–go figure–the experiment is falling apart behind the scenes, and the researchers in charge are scrambling to ensure the survival of their project, as well as their patients, while still pleasing their investors. Despite all that, or perhaps happening on a plane utterly removed from it, Annie and Owen keep crossing the barriers between their dreams and finding each other over and over again. Is it magical or mundane? And does it make any difference?

While “Homecoming” teases out its twists and turns, it is basically accessible. “Maniac” is not. The series operates on the level of metaphor as often–if not more often–than it does on the level of anything like reality. It moves from an alternate reality cyberpunk New York to the worlds of 1980s crime thrillers, 1930s old dark house movies and more, each setting dripping with psychoanalytical significance.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as the two leads have to pull off a variety of characters in each setting, and they do so amazingly well, Stone in particular. A mop wigged Justin Theroux and chain smoking Sonoya Mizuno are also standouts as the hot and cold controllers of the experiment, and Sally Field has fun as the literal and figurative mother of the project.

“Maniac’s” design, photography and set pieces are excellent, and its indie inspired score by Dan Romer is sometimes quite striking, but what really makes the series stand out is its wicked, madcap sense of humor. Between bathtubs full of intestines, bulletproof fur coats and open mouth kisses for mom, very little is sacred in this series.

So which to recommend? At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with either show. Both are intelligent, attractive and artistically satisfying. The main difference, deeper even than a preference for conspiracies or metaphysics, is what you want from your streaming experience. If you want a well made and timely thriller, try “Homecoming.” If you’re interested in a cult classic in the making, watch “Maniac.”

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 13 “Ego”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

First some background. In popular parlance, ego simply refers to the self, if not selfishness itself. In psychoanalytic theory, “ego” is a bit different. Sigmund Freud used the word to refer to a component of the human psyche that evolved as the id–the original, instinctual self–grew to comprehend the outside world. The ego is inextricably bound to the id, but it seeks to distinguish itself from its instinctual counterpart, all while allowing the individual to deal with the real world, which is not interested in the individual’s immediate, instinctual desires.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the Freudian concept of “ego” is complex. However, “Lain” is nothing if not willing to embrace the complex. What are the odds it wants us to take the Freudian definition over the pop psychological one? In fact, one troper suggested that “Lain” is possibly the only TV show that actually got the Freudian definition correct. Considering that part of the ego’s function is to mediate between the individual and reality, it’s not a bad observation.

The first word of the 13th episode is “I.” Said by Lain, it kicks off a small monologue about the scattered nature of her identity. For the monologue’s duration, all we see is Lain, her head filling the screen. Even her environment is the same blue burst of background that begins every episode.

“Am I here? Or am I there? Over there, I’m everywhere. I know that,” she says. “But where is the real me? Oh right. There is no real me. I only exist inside those people who are aware of my existence. But this is me that’s talking right now. It’s me, isn’t it?” Both the concept of the ego as integral to identity and being one part of a greater identity are introduced here–and have been suggested repeatedly throughout the series.

Perhaps this episode, as the series has before, tries to examine what something is by observing what it is not. It begins where the last one left off, with Lain and Alice seemingly caught in the clutches of the grotesquely embodied Eiri. Lain observes Alice’s eyes in an extreme close up–a shot usually reserved for Lain–and finds them to be wide open and red rimmed with terror. The eye close up is repeated for Lain, only hers are downcast. “I mess up everything I try to do for you, huh Alice?” Lain sadly asks in one of the most emotionally taxing moments in the series.

A wider angle reveals Eiri is gone and Lain alone is gripping Alice. Whether that suggests Lain-as-deity has erased Eiri or it was all a hallucination is up to the viewer; either way, Lain realizes that her existence is the problem, and she resets reality. This action is more in line with the Freudian superego, the portion of the psyche that contains a sense of right and wrong connected to guilt and obligation. In fact, it is the ego, meditating on behalf of the identity, that stops the superego from directing the individual to kill itself. Lain’s suicide, whether individual or cosmic, represents the superego taking control. The world is better off without Lain, she decides, so her sense of duty prompts her to remove herself.

This idea of showing by showing what is not is perhaps alluded to when, following the reset, the familiar scene of Lain leaving her house and going to school is replayed–except Lain herself is absent from the shots. Her family eats breakfast; the train goes by; even the telephone wires still hum overhead, but Lain is not there. We are reminded of her not by her presence but by her absence.

At school, Alice–seeming to sense something is off–says to her peers, “If you aren’t remembered, you never existed.” And yet, she might mean an ego rather than an entire individual. An ego only exists with an outside world to reflect it; an individual, one that’s more than an id, exists with other people, with society, and relates to it. Since the ego is a reaction to society, it needs it to exist. Here, it is true to say that, without others to observe it, there would be no ego.

Another possible identity for the ego of the series is the Wired itself. Lain, echoing her father, says that the Wired is not an upper layer to reality; she also says that the Wired is merely a reflection of an older, deeper way that humanity used to be connected. In that way, the Wired itself is a kind of ego. It’s a way for the jabbeirng id of humanity–represented by the endless chatter about risqué topics in previous episodes–to interact with a social reality.

But perhaps Lain is the ego after all. In a final climax, Lain and her shadow self crawl through the various locations of the series. “It’d be so much easier if you became God,” the other Lain says in the spot where Chisa first threw herself off the building. “Let’s start everything over again from the beginning!”

This suggestion–which the other Lain ties to the desire to not be hated, which, for the isolated Lain, must be tempting indeed–comes from her id. Our Lain rejects it, and is rewarded by having tea with her father. There has been debate about the identity of the father at the end of the series; recall that, for Freud, the superego was the father figure internalized.

One final thought. In its conclusion, “Lain” has a moment that possibly wraps up its various themes–identity, memory and contentedness. Lain suggests that memory can work both ways–we can recall the past as well as “right now, even tomorrow.” This is followed by a cryptic scene of an adult Alice encountering a still childlike Lain, resulting in a ghost of recognition.

If we exist because others observe and remember us, and our interactions with reality are determined in part by our past experiences and expectations of the future, then memory is a component of ego, something that helps us articulate with reality by remembering the past, informing the present and expecting the future. But memory is also a part of the collective unconscious, the cultural and human web that binds us to each other. Memory is what allows us to connect to others at any moment by simply remembering them. Lain herself is linked to the collective unconscious in the final moments of the series, telling us, “I’m here, so I’ll be with you forever,” and leaving us, not with an image of her, but with the ubiquitous humming wires.

Human identity, like an ego that is distinct from an id and superego, that interacts with an external reality, is a more complex thing than any one part of our psyche. Perhaps that’s one of the final takeaways from “Lain.” Humanity is bigger than it can even comprehend.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 12 “Landscape”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

The 12th episode of “Lain” is called “Landscape,” which is interesting because it’s one of the few titles that’s not based on something that’s human–whether its social or psychological, the previous titles have all related to human beings. “Landscape” does not. Originally, a landscape referred to a natural environmental that human beings could encounter. In art, a landscape is the opposite of a cityscape; it is an image of nature, not necessarily with any human beings in it, as opposed to a civic skyline, which portrayed an environment that was made by human hands.

This episode seems to exploit both concepts. It opens with landscape characters, those who populate the background of “Lain” rather than its foreground, where the titular character resides. The episode opens with Alice, her head and later eye filling the screen; Lain is pictured from a distance and behind–and it’s important to remember that that Lain is not “our” Lain.

Later, we encounter again the children at the club Cyberia, the man from Tachibana Labs and even the nameless masses that cross the street at the beginning of the every episode. The Men in Black, also previously “landscape” characters, are given a significantly memorable final scene. Their deaths at the hands of an invisible enemy is one of the creepiest scenes in the series. The horror is relegated to distant landscape. We don’t see what the subjects–the squirming, screaming MIBs–can see all too well.

“People only have substance within the memories of others,” Lain tells us–perhaps us directly, since she appears front of the same blue screen that begins each episode. “That’s why there were all kinds of mes. There weren’t all kinds of mes. I was just inside all sorts of people, that’s all.” In this way of thinking, the memories of others acts as a kind of landscape, a background for the subject of identity. Taken to its Jungian extreme, part of what contributes to individual identity is the landscape of cultural memory–you are the archetypal image that everyone else sees you as.

This collective understanding is the data that is more than any one individual can acquire. Perhaps that’s the data that Lain uploaded in the last episode, or perhaps Lain herself, existing in the real world and on the Wired, is both landscape and subject. That might be why Eiri couldn’t be a deity. His vision was limited by his lack of a physical body–all landscape and no subject. A true deity would need a broader, more eternal, perspective.

The episode suggests, as does the series to a certain extent, that humans are biological machines. In this interpretation, the landscape of the collective unconscious would be the Wired, the data collected by individuals now lashed together concretely, not just abstractly. Given the rate at which the Internet has evolved, “Lain” continues to be startlingly predictive–“Protocol Seven is expected to allow the seamless sharing of information between the Wired and the real world,” a distorted news anchor announces at one point. Outside the screen, the digital has become our landscape.

Of course, the title might as easy as its literal landscape. “Lain” has always had an unusual background, with its stylized shadows and ubiquitous phone lines. In a way, it’s dully ironic. If landscape is supposed to be about the natural world, “Lain” is anything but.

Rather than allowing us to embrace a natural environment, “Lain” isolates us with a grimly unnatural one. Alice, upon entering Lain’s home, finds an environment that is filthy and poorly lit. She enters it via a classic John Ford shot–her in a doorway, backlit and surrounded by darkness. By contrast, when Alice locates Lain in the mass of wires that has become her room, she tries to connect with Lain by forcing something natural onto her–Alice touches Lain with her warm hand and place Lain’s hand on her own racing heart.

And yet, the episode’s final image–that of Eiri trying to force his digital self into a physical body–is frighteningly natural. Recalling the body horror of “Akira,” weeping eyeballs and musculature glistening with gristle twist themselves into existence. When the digital disturbs the physical, the background crashes into the foreground with horrifying results. In “Lain,” just because something’s in the background doesn’t mean it’s normal, unreal or lacking physical and psychological danger.

A casual romance with horror: A critical review of “Doki Doki Literature Club!”

We’ve been on something of an anime kick at Idols and Realities this summer, but we’ve always got it in the back of our pointy little heads that this was supposed to be the “year of the video game review.” Which is perhaps why, when I found myself playing “Doki Doki Literature Club!” (that’s the game’s exclamation mark, not mine), I thought that it would be a good subject for review–it also doesn’t hurt that we just ran up against the game’s one year anniversary.

To be honest, I never thought I’d be reviewing a visual novel or dating sim, let alone playing one, but “Doki Doki Literature Club!” is something I had been meaning to look at for a while. It is always presented as something that you can’t talk about without spoiling, and that’s true…to a certain extent. It’s not possible to discuss the game at any length without spoiling it conceptually, but it’s very possible to discuss the game without getting into its specifics.

Still, it is hard for potential players not to spoil the game conceptually for themselves, at least a little bit. There is this thing called the Internet. One of the main draws of the game is its mashup of high school romance and psychological horror, and it doesn’t take too much digging to learn that there is a metafictional component to it as well. That said, I spoiled the crap out of the game before I played it for myself, and while in one way I wish I hadn’t, in another way I’m glad I did. Of course, your mileage may vary, as they say.

“Doki Doki” puts you in the shoes of a faceless high school student who has joined the titular literature club not so much for its bookish charm as for its all female membership, including childhood crush Sayori, reserved Yuri, excitable Natsuki and alpha gal Monika. You talk to the girls and compose bad poetry in an effort at getting closer to one of them, but time will prove that none of them are quite who–or even what–they seem to be.

“Doki Doki” is a clever game before it’s a good game, but it’s not a bad game. It has nice art, a pleasant soundtrack and a relatively smart script, one which certainly provides grounds for discussion. Although it was seemingly designed to be considered from a media savvy or cultural angle, it’s possible to look at it from the vantage point of existentialism, determinism, feminism or probably a couple of other isms I’m not even thinking about.

The question I do not see addressed as often is whether or not “Doki Doki” is a horror game. Most people take it for granted that it is, but I say, not so fast. I said that in a way I wish I hadn’t utterly spoiled “Doki Doki” for myself, and that’s because it would have been fun to really approach it from a fairly fresh perspective. But I am still glad I did because I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have played it if I hadn’t. I have never finished a visual novel-esque game before in my life, and, had I not entered “Doki Doki” knowing what it was all about, it would not have been the first.

It is hard not to think of “Doki Doki” as a romantic visual novel or a dating sim (there is debate about how those should be divided, but I ain’t wading into those waters–besides, I don’t think it makes a different when discussing this). It uses those types of game’s mechanics. It takes a few hours to play, and you have to click through a lot of text boxes over those hours.

“Doki Doki” does examine genres like visual novels and dating sims through a psychological horror lens, and there is a lot of messed up stuff in those types of games to examine without having to toss in distorted audio and random gore effects. But that means that, while it’s observing the horrific elements in those genres, it has to start from a base of those genres. Perhaps that’s why the horror itself is somewhat clumsily done. It’s a surprisingly slow burn up to the first genuine shock, but after that, the game feels like it has to make up for lost time, and it starts chucking scary gameplay quirks at you like clockwork, which can result in a lopsided, almost cartoonish, experience.

Oddly enough, if you were to remove the game’s more garish efforts, you would probably be left with something more in line with psychological horror because its pacing would be improved and it would lean more heavily on existential dread than jump scares. Most of “Doki Doki’s” best moments are related to said existential dread, and I was actually quite drawn into the erstwhile antagonist and meta-narrative by the game’s climax. In a way, it reminded me of my encounter with Andrew Ryan in “Bioshock.” In both cases, although I knew I had to kill a character to continue, I found myself wishing there was another way.

I’m happy I played “Doki Doki,” and I’m still thinking about its themes long after finishing the game. However, while I will happily recommend the game to anyone interested–it is free, by the way–I personally feel no rush to replay it.

Keep in mind, I don’t make that “Bioshock” comparison lightly. Both games bring horror elements into another genre of video gaming–romance games and first person shooters, and hopefully I don’t have to point out which is which–and both games wind up becoming philosophical commentary on gaming itself, if not reality as a whole. I just happen to be a bigger fan of shooters.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 11 “Infornography”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

Infornography, the title of “Lain’s” 11th episode, is an interesting word to dissect because there isn’t exactly a consensus on what it means. It seems to be a combination of “information” and “pornography,” and it refers to an addiction to information. However, here the meaning seems to be an overload of information.

The entire first half of the episode is a dump of information, which takes several forms. Sometimes it is clips from previous episodes, which are played straight or edited together and filtered through unusual effects to give them an old, distant or distorted appearance. Sometimes it is words, phrases or slogans that appear on screen or are read by disembodied voices. Information comes in less direct forms as well. An opening montage that is apparently interrupted by Lain adjusting connections to the Wired, or a jarring jazz score instead of the usual soundtrack, suggest that, once again, things will be different this episode.

An interesting question is “when” is all this going on? If it is happening in the universe of the show, then it is presumably something Lain sees after her encounter with the self-proclaimed god Eiri, who says to her later in the episode: “It’s dangerous to subject yourself to that much information all at once.” Is this what the world looks like for Lain in her quest to tear down the border between the real world and the Wired? If so, it is a confusing, disenfranchising, even identity destroying place. Given “Lain’s” interest in equating digital constructs with psychological elements of identity, the impact of this flood of information–physical and emotional exhaustion, disorientation and disassociation–appears chillingly like an abstract form of psychological assault.

However, if the episode isn’t happening any time within itself (“Present day, present time–hahaha!”), then it’s a rather extensive and self-aware recap, which would make it one of the strangest examples of breaking the fourth wall ever engaged in by a television show.

All of this is preceded by a phrase that quickly flashes on screen: “Nothing as ambiguous as memory.” Lain is ridding herself of human memory in favor of digital information.

This could be understood within the context of the show’s frequent metaphor that the body is a biological machine and the brain is software, which is brought up later in this episode. Despite the comparison, human memory is not as clean or clear as digital information. Digital information is made of unflinching zeros and ones, and human memory is plastic, influenced by distance, experience and emotion as much as the actual event being remembered, which suggests that memory is ambiguous at best.

However, this episode suggests a dump of pure information has its own problems. If anything, the structure of the recap appears to be as influenced by emotion as any kind of expectation of clarity. It begins with images of Chisa and her suicide, which you would expect if the info dump were guided by the show’s chronology, but it ends with images of Alice, suggesting that the structure is based on subjects that are dear to Lain.

Like a gun or a drug, information–knowledge–is a tool. But tools can be utilized two ways. They can either be used or withheld, and Lain has apparently decided that the best way for her to proceed is to withhold the information that she ever existed from the people she can influence. However, she cannot withhold information from Alice, who seems to remember Lain despite her efforts–Alice seems to remember the old Lain when she is completely replaced in the “real” world with the less savory version of herself. “Lain, you smiled,” Alice says, and it’s far from a good observation.

The true nature of this Lain depends on one’s interpretation of the series–whether she’s an evil technological construct, a shiftless Freudian id, a Jungian shadow self or something else altogether (presumably involving aliens). Perhaps, in the way one’s identity can run amok online, the series is challenging us to consider that the psychological interpretation is not so different from the digital one.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 10 “Love”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

The problem with trying that approach with this episode is that it’s called “love,” and human beings have been trying to define love for the last 14,000 years or so. How is “Lain,” let alone this blog, going to handle that in 24 minutes? Perhaps that’s the statement being made by this episode, since the opening sequence contains no narration whatsoever. It’s as if there’s nothing it can say about the subject–at least not in a literal, vulgar way.

Accordingly, love seems to inhabit the episode in small, odd ways rather than simply or blatantly be defined by it. The characters of Lain and Eiri read each other’s dialogue in their first conversation, which has the effect of unsettling viewers. It also associates Lain rather drastically with Eiri, which associates her with (self-proclaimed) divinity and with an identity that is measured in multiples rather than in an individual. But it’s also perhaps a grotesque parody of lovers who are so in tune they can finish each other’s sentences.

Further, when Lain begins to see the results of erasing herself from the memory of her peers–and thereby ceasing to exist–she experiences the reverse of the old adage: “if you love something, set it free.” Rather than freeing something else, Lain freed herself from those she loved. And yet, when she does not feel love in return, she responds like a betrayed lover. “Why is this happening?” she asks a classroom that no longer feels her presence. “Was it something I did? I always tried to keep something like this from happening.”

Lain returns to her house and finds it empty, in a state of disarray, and yet some things are the same. She feels the presence of her sister, but she cannot reach her. She casts the same bloody shadow–the one she cast when she had a physical body. If Lain was always in the Wired, then she was always connected. Her “father” posits that if Lain connects to the Wired, she will be loved. But being loved is more than being connected to someone–it’s being with someone.

Her father might be closer to a definition of love when he says: “I wasn’t given permission to say goodbye, but I loved you.” Love is, to paraphrase John le Carre, whatever you can still say goodbye to. If you can risk the pain of goodbye but still find it worthwhile, and if you can say goodbye and hear it in return, then you’ve made more than a mere connection with someone else.

In one of the “Lain’s” most jarring sequences, a montage of members of the conspiratorial cult the Knights, having been exposed to the real world by Lain, are killed or commit suicide. A devotion unto death is not the worst definition of love; the Gospel of John reports that Jesus, who it is not unfair to call an expert on love, said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

It goes both ways. The men in black are just as devoted to their cause, and they’re willing to kill for it (from Jesus to Alfred Hitchcock, this perhaps recalls Pat Hitchcock’s line from “Strangers on a Train”: “I still think it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he’d kill for you”).

The show takes one more stab at a definition. After informing Lain about the situation with the Knights, one of the Men in Black turns and faces her, even removing his eyepiece, suggesting he is entering a state of nakedness or vulnerability. “We still haven’t figured out what you are,” he says to Lain. “But I love you.” If Lain really is a god, then this might be the show’s most daring definition of divinity: God is what you cannot help but love.

After offering so many definitions, or at least locations, of love, “Lain” has one final thought for us. “Love sure is a strange emotion, isn’t it?” the same MIB asks before turning away and leaving. Again, it’s as if the show is admitting there is no easy definition, leaving it up to us to figure out.