Ever since the beginning of the fourth season, I have been annoyed with some of the creative choices for the series. In particular, there has been a movement towards “message episodes”, where the story is more about preaching a moral than telling a story that makes sense for the characters. While Johnny’s selfless personality traits do lend themselves to such a direction, it can get tedious week after week.
More than that, the chemistry of the cast has been degrading on screen, and in some instances, it has been distracting. In terms of isolating Johnny, it would make sense, but it hasn’t been consistent and it doesn’t feel like something the writers and producers had planned. As a result, a lot of the defining relationships from the earlier seasons feel weakened. Contributing to that is a lack of connection to the overall mythology, fostered by the episodic structure of the season. Add occasional bad dialogue, sketchy direction, and odd comedy choices, and it’s little wonder that some fans have been less than pleased.
So I get the question quite often: what does the series need to do to meet my expectations? The question is usually framed to suggest that I would never find an episode of the fifth season with the right stuff. I now have a very good example, however, to counter that claim. I think that “Vortex” holds up incredibly well. If all the fifth season episodes were constructed with this level of confidence, things might have been very different.
I don’t intend to get into too much detail, but I think there’s a clear difference between the quality of this episode and, for example, “Panic”. The writing for “Vortex” manages to tell a strong and compelling story without resorting to plot contrivances or shortcuts. Johnny’s visions are integrated constantly. The guest cast works very well, and scenes that could have been over-the-top are kept believable. Most importantly, the direction and production of the episode is noticeably stronger. None of the scenes pull you out of the story, wondering why they did what they did.
The only gimmick is the courtroom drama, but that wasn’t really a gimmick, so much as a way to tie this particular story into the larger tapestry of the series’ mythology. With that in place, the events are no longer self-contained; the broader impact and implication is also communicated. This is what I have been looking for, and what has largely been missing. But that alone wouldn’t have been enough; it was the tight production values that sealed the deal.
(As a sidenote: I also have a podcast associated with my various reviews called “Dispatches from Tuzenor”. Recent episodes have highlighted “The Dead Zone”, so it might be something of interest . Go to http://entil2001.libsyn.com if you want to listen!)