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Harsh Realm – Kein Ausgang (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

So, what does an average episode of Harsh Realm look like?

After all, the show was cancelled after only three episodes had been broadcast. Those three episodes were all written by the creator, and formed something of a loose introduction to the show. Inga Fossa ended with our protagonist finally accepting his place in the virtual world and his mission to defeat General Omar Santiago before the dictator can destroy the real world. There is a sense that the show had yet to even demonstrate what a regular episode of Harsh Realm might look like. It was over before it had even begun.

Jumping into action...

Jumping into action…

Kein Ausgang is the first episode of Harsh Realm to be written by somebody other than Chris Carter. As such, it is an important milestone in the development of the series. It is also the first of two episodes written by Steven Maeda, who would prove to be a pretty reliable set of hands in the life of the young show. Based on his contributions to Harsh Realm, it is easy to see why Carter drafted Maeda over to The X-Files in the wake of Harsh Realm‘s cancellation, even if his contributions to that show were a little more uneven.

Kein Ausgang offers an interesting glimpse of what Harsh Realm might have looked like going forward, if Fox had waited more than three episodes to cancel the show.

Shining a light on it...

Shining a light on it…

Kein Ausgang was the first episodes of Harsh Realm to debut on FX in April 2000. The network had acquired the full rights to the show, and planned to broadcast it in its entirety as “event programming.” That included broadcasting the three episodes that had aired back on Fox in October 1999 along with the remaining six episodes that had not yet seen the light of day. This was quite a coup for FX, the young sister network that had billed itself as “Fox Extended” and had represented an attempt to franchise Fox itself.

It is worth pausing to reflect on FX’s place in the ever-changing television market. Harsh Realm arrived at the network just as it was on the cusp of a transformation. FX had launched in 1994, boasting seven hours of live programming amid a schedule saturated with re-runs and repeats. In its early days, the channel prided itself on its youthfulness and interactivity; shows engaged with audience directly through then-novel technology like e-mail or message boards. (Along with more traditional modes like phone and fax.)

Everything goes boom...

Everything goes boom…

In the late nineties, FX attempted to rebrand itself as “Fox Gone Cable.” The idea was to lure in younger viewers looking for more exciting or adventurous fare than they might find on the major networks. One wonders whether Doug Herzog’s attempts to revitalise Fox’s 1999 schedule might have been better suited to FX. In theory, this was an interesting idea for a sibling network; in practice, the bulk of FX’s content was material ported over from Fox. Indeed a significant portion of FX was devoted to repeats of The X-Files.

(This late nineties business arrangement was at the heart of David Duchovny’s lawsuit against Chris Carter and Fox during the seventh season of The X-Files. Duchovny contended that Fox had been conspiring with Carter to syndicate The X-Files to FX for well below the market value, as part of an effort to boost the network’s sibling by lending it a popular and prestigious show at a much lower cost than it would otherwise have to pay. This gives an indication of how important The X-Files was to FX.)

Dog gone...

Dog gone…

Landing the rights to debut the last six episodes of the new Chris Carter series was a pretty nice deal for FX, which cleverly scheduled their run of Harsh Realm to coincide with the final stretch of the seventh season of The X-Files. The last produced episode of Harsh Realm would air two days before the seventh season finalé of The X-Files, creating a sense that the two shows were running in something approaching parallel. (It also makes it slightly frustrating that Fox never properly synchronised any of Chris Carter’s overlapping shows.)

Of course, FX was on the cusp of its own revolution at the turn of the millennium. In 2002, it would launch The Shield. In 2003, it would debut Nip/Tuck. In 2004, it would provide Dennis Leary with a starring vehicle in Rescue Me. These shows would help to establish FX as a network capable of produced credible television drama on its own terms – a little rougher than standard network fare, but much pulpier than prestige cable shows. Television was changing at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and FX would be part of that change.

Leap of faith...

Leap of faith…

But that is all in the future. In April 2000, FX became the home for the Chris Carter television show that had been cancelled after only three episodes. Those three episodes had been used to establish the premise and characters of the show, with no real indication of what Harsh Realm was actually going to be about once those elements had been established. Inga Fossa made it clear that Harsh Realm would be about Thomas Hobbes’ attempt to topple General Omar Santiago, but it was unclear how the show would tell that story.

Would Harsh Realm be a serialised show, as the opening three episodes seemed to suggest? After all, Terry O’Quinn was in the opening credits, suggesting that Santiago would be a concern on a weekly basis. Sophie had her own plot unfolding in the real world, parallel to that of Hobbes. Hobbes had a clear objective, but would he also have a clear path towards that objective? What could viewers expect when they tuned into Harsh Realm? What was the formula? If Harsh Realm did decide to become episodic, what be its “… of the week” template?

All over again...

All over again…

Kein Ausgang assures viewers that Harsh Realm will have an episodic structure. Not every episode will be spent getting Hobbes tangibly closer to his objective. Kein Ausgang is the first episode of the show to broadcast without an appearance from Santiago, Sophia, Fossa or Waters; it focuses exclusively on the buddy duo of Hobbes and Pinochio getting into wacky adventures together. Not every episode would fit together comfortably; not every story would dovetail into the next. Hobbes’ mission was a piece of set-up and background rather than a central narrative.

To be fair, this isn’t much of a surprise. From what little of Harsh Realm made it into production, it seemed like Chris Carter was building the show around the template that had worked so well on The X-Files. Even the interconnected opening episodes that establish the world and the characters was borrowed from The X-Files, with both Deep Throat and Inga Fossa solidifying the mythology while introducing an informant character. The mixture of a central mythology and standalones seemed like a safe bet.

Forest of fury...

Forest of fury…

Carter confirmed as much in press leading up to the release of the series. When asked about the design of the season, Carter explained, “Yes, the plan is to create a mythology that is the backbone of the show. But that there will be stand alone episodes that create the bulk of the stories that make up the season.” That becomes quite clear with Kein Ausgang, the episode that kicks off a string of standalones between here and the last episode produced, broken only by the inclusion of Cincinnati as the show’s penultimate episode.

Nevertheless, it was hard to imagine what format the standalone episodes of Harsh Realm might take. The writers seemed to struggle with the question, as Carter built a staff composed of newcomers and X-Files veterans. Certainly, there were no templates quite as comfortable as those that had suggested themselves to The X-Files and the first season of Millennium. The show could hardly become “glitch of the week”, however much episodes like Kein Ausgang and Three Percenters might suggest that was a viable possibility.

The first casualty of war is innocence...

The first casualty of war is innocence…

To be fair, Carter had a clear idea of what he wanted the show to be, drawing from some highly literary source material. As he explained in the Inside Harsh Realm documentary, he wanted to tell a very classical story:

What I wanted to do was Tales of Charlemagne which I’d read as a kid. I wanted to do the Odyssey and the Iliad together. I wanted to make this big and mythic and you had an opportunity to do it. You could do sirens and monsters. You could bring a completely fantastic world to life and make it make sense. It wasn’t just there for the telling, it actually made sense to the concept, which was the idea of a virtual reality in which a war was taking place.

Carter’s shows were incredibly literate pieces of mainstream television. Talitha Cumi had been a gigantic reference a scene from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamaov. There was something quite ambitious about trying to do the Odyssey and the Iliad on mainstream network television as science-fiction.

"Once more unto the bridge..."

“Once more unto the bridge…”

Harsh Realm is packed with mythological elements. Hobbes’ name (and the decision to title the second episode Leviathan) are but one example. The seat into which Hobbes sits in The Pilot is handily labelled “Siege Perilous”, named for the seat reserved for the finder of the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend; according to myth, anybody unworthy would be killed upon sitting in it. There are other references to the Greek mythology that spawned the show; Three Percenters evokes the Siren myth, while the show’s unproduced tenth episode was titled Circe.

The influence of the Iliad and the Odyssey as an influence on the show makes a great deal of sense. At its core, Harsh Realm is a war story. This has been clear from the opening scenes of The Pilot and is reiterated in the setting and themes of Kein Ausgang. The Iliad and the Odyssey could be taken together as perhaps the most quintessential of war stories, stories that Homer framed and rooted in the Trojan War. It is impossible to divorce them from that historical and cultural context.

Sommer's Set.

Sommer’s Set.

In her coverage of both works, Charlotte Higgins draws attention to this oft-overlooked elements of these historical epics. She describes the Iliad as “the first great book about the suffering and loss of war.” In contrast, the Odyssey is a story about “the war of homecoming.” These were stories that were written more than three thousand years ago. One of the big recurring ideas in Harsh Realm is the idea that war is eternal and universal, expressed in Kein Ausgang through a siege that constantly resets and plays out to the same beats over and over again.

The Odyssey has a strong connection to the structure and themes of Harsh Realm. Discussing the Odyssey‘s reputation as a series of rip-roaring adventures across a mythical landscape, Higgins argues that these elements play out against a tragic background that is oft-overlooked in discussions of the epic poem, “As Aristotle put it in the Poetics, these are ‘episodes.’ The essence of the story is that of a veteran combatant who, after a long absence, must find his way back into a household he finds threatened by outside forces and dangerously altered.”

Bridge commander...

Bridge commander…

The nine episodes suggest that this is to be the model for Harsh Realm. The idea of perpetual war plays out in the background, as Hobbes and Pinochio wander across a post-apocalyptic America involving themselves in a series of wacky adventures. The Iliad and the Odyssey are perhaps the most literary examples of the storytelling technique. In Inside Harsh Realm, Frank Spotnitz offers The Twilight Zone as another template to which the show might be compared; a collection of weird and surreal allegories or parables.

This is perhaps a demonstration of the show’s genre shining through. Science-fiction has a long history of metaphorical storytelling, particularly on television. The basic premise of a weekly show is just a collection of trappings that allows the writers free range to engage with their stories in an abstract fashion. The door at the start of The Twilight Zone could lead anywhere, while Kirk could warp from one planetary metaphor to another. From week to week, Harsh Realm could be whatever its writers wanted it to be.

Pretty browned off...

Pretty browned off…

This was a mode of storytelling that appealed to Carter. At points, Millennium felt like a metaphorical commentary on contemporary morality, with Frank Black serving as a tour guide through a fractured world in the same way that Thomas Hobbes does. In interviews, Carter emphasised that the possibility for allegory drew him to the science-fiction premise:

There was a comic book that was given to me by Dan Sackheim, who produced with me the original X-Files pilot who produced The X-Files movie, who’s directed some of the best episodes of X-Files. He came and brought this comic book. There were elements in it that I really liked a lot and I thought it was a great vehicle for telling a series of stories. No one had ever tackled virtual reality in a satisfactory way on network television. I think parallel worlds are great ways to tell stories. This is really what I was shooting for, was a way to tell stories about the human condition, using war as a backdrop. I was affected, as I’m sure a lot of people were, by Saving Private Ryan, and also The Thin Red Line recently. It was an opportunity to take some of the things I liked best about those movies — which I think have struck some kind of contemporary chord in everyone — and use some of the elements of virtual reality to create a really good science fiction show.

This makes a great deal of sense. Carter was always keen to downplay the comic book roots or the science-fiction elements in press leading up to the show, so it seems entirely likely that what drew him to a project like Harsh Realm was the ability to tell all manner of metaphorical and allegorical stories that comment on issues that he deems to be important.

Oh, shoot...

Oh, shoot…

Tasked with the job of defining what Harsh Realm will be going forward, writer Steven Maeda does a pretty good job with Kein Ausgang. The show seems to have been built from the ground up around the core premise of Harsh Realm. Kein Ausgang draws attention to the nature of the virtual world as an artificial reality that was designed as a video game while also consciously playing up the show’s themes of eternal and perpetual warfare by setting the story in a version of the Second World War. Dialing back the recurring cast to Hobbes and Pinochio focuses the story.

The world of Harsh Realm seems to be built on the idea proposed by Thomas Hobbes that mankind is stuck in a state of perpetual conflict. The details and particulars of the conflict might change on a case-by-case basis, but this interpretation of human history suggests that mankind’s existence has been one long and violent struggle. Kein Ausgang visualises this idea through an eternal (and perpetually looping) Second World War scenario that also borrows from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

"See, I told you the spotlight added lots of atmosphere."

“See, I told you the spotlight added lots of atmosphere.”

Director Cliff Bole gives the sequences a very washed out and desaturated brown hue. This is a very obvious tip of the hat to Saving Private Ryan, which adopted a similar approach to capture the mood of the memory of the Second World War. Director Steven Spielberg explained his approach to Saving Private Ryan:

Very early on in the process, we both knew that we did not want this to look like a Technicolor extravaganza about World War II. We wanted it to look very much like color newsreel footage from the 1940s, which is highly desaturated and very grainy and extremely low tech.

It is an example of the way that cultural memory is defined by media depictions.  After all, many of the veterans who actually lived through the conflict have passed away, with a significant majority of the current generation defining their own interpretation of the war through the lens of film and television.

Harsh Realm Reloaded.

Harsh Realm Reloaded.

There is a brutal inevitability to the battle featured in Kein Ausgang. There is a sense that war exists almost beyond the control of the men who would wage it. “Thirty-four days,” Sommers advises Hobbes and Pinochio. “That’s how long the siege lasts. Not a day more or less.” That is perhaps the true horror of Harsh Realm, the idea that men have constructed a world where war is not only inevitable and perpetual, but one where it is self-sustaining beyond the control of any of the characters who exist within that war.

The temporal and geographical mechanics of the battle featured in Kein Ausgang make it clear that no man can escape from this conflict. When Hobbes and Pinochio run away, they find themselves right back where they started. “Must have looped around,” Pinochio reflects. Sommers explains, “You try to leave one side it pops you back in on another, like some damn Chinese box.” It cannot be avoid, or escaped. It cannot be run. There is a sense that the conflict in Kein Ausgang would play out even if there were no human actors involved to observe it.

Snipe hunt.

Snipe hunt.

The only possibility of ending the conflict is to break the game that supports it. In the case of Kein Ausgang, the only possible resolution of the battle that won’t reset everything back to the start is to destroy the bridge over which both sides are fighting. “What if we blow it up?” Hobbes offers. “The game’s all about capturing the bridge, right? Every scenario revolves around taking it intact. If we destroy it Game Over.” It is a nice homage to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but also an effective example of how the only way to “win” in Harsh Realm is to break the game.

Kein Ausgang very cleverly unites the theme of war and the theme of game running through Harsh Realm, which is a very clever touch for what is essentially the show’s first standalone episode. Of course, the two concepts fit together quite comfortably. “Game theory” suggests that the bulk of human interactions can be defined using game models to express concepts of conflict and cooperation. Costs and consequences are weighed against potential gains, with human decisions ultimately trying to accomplish a desired outcome with minimal compromise.

Floored by it all...

Floored by it all…

Warfare is one of the most obvious and literal examples of this, offering an obvious “win” condition along with very tangible stakes. It has been repeatedly argued that Israel’s foreign policy is simply game theory writ large, with the nation very consciously and very carefully engaging in warfare governed by mathematical principles. However, the metaphor has been applied to countless other geographical and political crises. Harsh Realm simply amps up the game metaphor, making the “win” condition a boss battle and making the stakes virtual as much as literal.

However, the script for Kein Ausgang engages with the idea of video games in a way that is surprisingly level-headed and well-informed for the late nineties. The mainstream media has had a lot of trouble understanding and engaging with the concept of a video game. In terms of criticism and engagement, Roger Ebert famously and repeatedly refused to recognise that a video game could be art. (It should be noted that movements within the world of video games have also tried to restrict engagement, with GamerGate trying to limit the scope of “reviews” of games.)

I spy...

I spy…

This is leaving aside the mainstream media’s fascination with video games as a source of moral panic – reflecting the relative youth of the medium and the fact that the establishment is decidedly uncomfortable with any artistic expression it doesn’t understand. (Virtually every medium has been subject to some form of moral panic during its early years.) During the production of Kein Ausgang, the media was trying to forge tenuous casual links between the violence perpetrated by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in Columbine and the fact that the two played Doom.

A lot of mainstream media has no real understanding of how video games actually work. That was particularly true in the context of 1999, when video games were widely viewed (even more than today) as a medium for children. It is worth emphasising that Harsh Realm debuted during the same season of television that saw The X-Files broadcasting First Person Shooter. Given how First Person Shooter turned out, it is a miracle that Harsh Realm is remotely watchable.

In Harsh Realm, all warriors are code warriors.

In Harsh Realm, all warriors are code warriors.

The script for Kein Ausgang recognises video games as more than simply immersive fantasies driven by narrative; after all, there is a huge difference between video games and film, just as there is between film and poetry. Video games have their own structural beats and rhythms, just as television shows and prose do. What is remarkable about Kein Ausgang is that it not only recognises the internal logic that drives video games, but also that it incorporates it into its metaphors about video games as warfare.

Although the visual and narrative elements of video games understandably tend to dominate discussion about the medium, there is a valid argument to be made that video games are driven by pattern recognition and manipulation. Timing is as vital a skill as improvisation in beating games. Playing games enhances pattern recognition as much as hand-eye coordination. It has been suggested that even a game as basic as PacMan can be boiled down to a system that the gamer can manipulate to maximum effect; it is possible to exploit these patterns, to game the game.

Carry on regardless...

Carry on regardless…

Any veteran video game player knows that the key to success is often down to pattern recognition and anticipation; whether anticipating the artificial intelligence’s moves in a fighting game, recognising the movements of enemies in steath games, timing the jump right in a platform game. It is an aspect of video gaming that is often overlooked in mainstream discussions of the genre that tend to focus on graphics and storytelling. While those are undoubtedly important elements, they are not the only elements.

Kein Ausgang presents the battle for the bridge as a series of complex recurring patterns. This is most effective in the teaser, which is a wonderfully striking introduction to the concept. Sommers is so familiar with the routine of the combat scenario that he knows when to step away from the window, when the grenade is coming in, and when the enemy will spray his hut with bullets. He has played this particular level so often that he recognises all the beats, and he can avoid all the obvious pitfalls.

Barrelling down on him...

Barreling down on him…

The theme continues through the rest of the episode. Sommers can predict when and where non-player characters will meet their end; he can repeat the lines of dialogue spoken by other characters. It is a surprisingly nuanced depiction of video game routine, but one that is effortlessly and cleverly used to underscore the show’s core themes about warfare as an eternal and self-perpetuating hell. The idea of a war from which Sommers can never escape is just a nice thematic echo of the large video game world itself and the trauma of warfare as a whole.

That said, there are some problems with Kein Ausgang. Most obviously, the show does not segue seamlessly into its standalone adventures. The framing device of tracking down a character who has never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again is a rather transparent excuse to draw out characters into an adventure quite far removed from the premise suggested in The Pilot and firmly established with Inga Fossa. It is a clumsy writing choice, because it seems like there is no purpose to their wandering.

Shows like The X-Files and Millennium had an obvious structural frame that facilitated their episodic adventures; Mulder and Frank tackle individual cases as part of their day-to-day work. More than that, there were no real deadlines. Colonisation was far enough away that the audience didn’t care if Mulder investigated lightning boy or flukeman; the nature of the threat posed by the turn of the millennium was never explicit enough that Frank could be working around the clock to stop it.

In contrast, it is harder to justify the random adventures of Hobbes and Pinochio as part of a mission to overthrow General Omar Santiago. Why are they wandering the country? Shouldn’t they be cultivating allies in Santiago City? Individual episodes try to justify their plots with the occasional line of exposition, but it feels like our leads are taking their eyes off the ball. Inga Fossa suggested that Santiago was plotting to destroy the real world; there is an immediacy to that threat that did not exist in the mythologies of The X-Files or Millennium.

Kein Ausgang suggests that Hobbes and Pinochio are playing out a virtual reality version of Kung-Fu or Murder She Wrote, which feels like something of a television throwback in the context of 1999. It is a very outdated and old-fashioned storytelling structure. There is nothing wrong with episodic adventures, but there is a sense that the production team might have justified them better by mapping a loose arc across the season. Maybe Hobbes and Pinochio are searching for one key person, or maybe they have to make a particular meeting in a particular place.

There is also a sense that the show’s monologues are a little clumsy and heavy-handed. Carter is very fond of voiceovers as a storytelling tool, and there are episodes of The X-Files and Millennium that use them well. However, Harsh Realm structures its monologues so that they are written into love letters between Hobbes and Sophie. This means that the dialogue is awkwardly romantic, but it also means that these observations on human nature are delivered from Scott Bairstow. Put simply, Bairstow lacks the gravitas of Duchovny, Anderson or Henriksen.

Here, Hobbes’ closing monologue reaffirms the spiritual element of Harsh Realm. He ponders, “What is it that determines the course of our lives? A twist of fate? The road not taken? Or is it a man ‘s actions that decide his path? Are we held accountable for the choices we make? Even here, in this world?” If war is hell, then the Second World War becomes a literal hell for Sommers. There is a sense of a guiding morality underpinning the show, reinforcing the sense that Hobbes is a spiritual messenger to the “godless” world of Harsh Realm.

Kein Ausgang is solid and entertaining, albeit flawed in places. Still, it’s not a bad way of demonstrating what the production team might want to do with the show on a weekly basis now that everything had been properly set up.

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