'Strange Angel' episode 3: Lies and desire struggle with each other as Parsons get their first taste of occult
The episode explores the individual struggles of Jack and Susan, as we get our first dive into the occult soundtracked by Igor Stravinksy's 'Rite of Spring'.
The third episode of CBS' period-drama biopic 'Strange Angel' was poised to follow up a very tense ending from episode 2, which saw the Parsons' neighbor Ernest lay his initial plans to attract the couple to 'magick' and the occult. Episode 2 revealed to us that Jack Parsons was not unfamiliar with occultism and through a few fleeting flashbacks, we saw a young Jack scribbling occult symbols into his notebooks while fantasizing about a rocket-powered flight. One would expect a quick unfurling of events that give us some connection to the resurgence of the occult in Jack's life. Instead, the show chooses to maintain its steady pace and gives us more exposition, but it does this without making it a bore.
The third episode opens yet again with a dream sequence, this time not Jack's, but his wife Susan's, as she lies on the bed and reads the many letters that Jack had written to her before getting married full of dreams and promises, another key theme in the show. The opening shot confirms that the narrative of the episode is as much about Susan as it is about Jack.
At the core of the episode are the lies that we tell ourselves every day to keep us going. 'Everything will fall into place', 'I can achieve my dreams if I try hard enough,' 'Our marriage is perfectly fine,' these are all lies people sometimes tell themselves to cope with the harsh realities of the world. Jack and Susan are no different. Again, like the previous episodes, the split narrative between the contrasting lives of Jack and Susan takes center stage. While Jack does finally get a chance to set up the rocket science department at CalTech with his friend Richard Onsted, things are far from smooth sailing. There is friction between the methodologies of the two longtime friends. While Richard insists on doing things by the book scientifically, Jack prefers to do things by trial and error like the maverick that he is, sometimes resulting in small explosions and a lab filled full of toxic gas.
Meanwhile, while Jack tries to figure out the perfect fuel for his rockets, Susan's tribulations are deeper set, often skirting morality, religion and the very real problem of managing finances. We see more and more of Susan in church. This time, she's at a communion, on her knees, tense, as the pastor gives her a communion wafer. While Jack is off chasing his dreams, Susan is left to feel the pressure of taking a loan from her step-father to accommodate for the rent which the Parson is behind on. She has her own lies to deal with. The lie of upholding a seemingly happy, yet fractured marriage. The lies that the church pours into her and of course, Jack's lie about securing a position at CalTech. Underlying these lies are the desire to achieve that picture-postcard-perfect life that Jack promised several years ago, and the tensions between these lies and desires are palpable.
The music of Igor Stravinsky, particularly 'The Rite of Spring' is a recurring motif in the episode, as in the rest of the show. Like the other two episodes, the third episode is also titled after a movement from the Russian composer's famous ballet and is called 'Ritual of the Rival Tribes', in this case, a reference to the clash between the church and the occult. After all, the very same Susan who is kneeling at communion finds herself kneeling at an occult ritual later in the episode. There's a particularly gripping scene where Susan is at dinner with her step-father and the rest of her family and the record player gets stuck. Susan goes over and lifts up the needle, sending the patrons at the restaurant into an uncomfortable stunned silence. When the manager approaches her, she points out that the record, a Haydn, is scratched from being played too much and offers to replace it with the more modern Stravinsky. The manager's words echo the tone of the episode, "In such uncertain times, there's great comfort to be found in the familiar."
The Rite of Spring makes a couple of more meaningful appearances through the episode. We see Susan at a listening booth in a record store listening almost fervently to this new and exciting music. Remember this was the 40's and Stravinsky back then was a complete inversion of classical music. In fact, upon release, Stravinsky's ballet turned out to be so controversial that it even amassed accusations of being satanist, which makes it all the more apt for the show. The record store also gives us our first long-delayed look at the Parsons' eccentric neighbor Ernest, who, after Susan leaves, buys the Stravinsky record and plays it on full blast at a garden party he throws for some of his Bohemian-like friends, no doubt from the occultist circles. The Parsons do not let this go unnoticed, of course, and like everything else that he does, the move by Ernest is an invitation for the Parsons to let go of their worries and embrace a higher truth - a glimpse of which we get towards the end of the episode.
The end of the episode also gives us our first full dive into the Parsons' first actively sought brush with the occult, thanks to Ernest's constant manipulation of their desires. The Parsons find themselves at a secretive house that you can only enter with a special password. The door opens to give us our first look at The Minder, played by a very tight-lipped and grim Rob Zabrecky. The Parsons proceed upstairs to see a candle-lit room full of people kneeling, men and women divided into separate areas, with a cloaked figure in the middle. Ultimately, when the cloak drops to reveal a fully nude woman who Susan finds herself kneeling in front of, she bursts out of the house, unable to withstand it all. Jack follows, but his curiosity to find out what would have happened has already taken hold. The episode ends with Susan putting on Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' (that Ernest secretly gifts her) as the couple discusses what they just saw. The music, a symbolic gift from Ernest, seems to foreshadow what's to come in the next episode.
'Strange Angel' is currently streaming on CBS All Access. New episodes are out every Thursday.