Bottle Up and Explode
The Beast in the Cage
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"Ah, yes. Here we are. Hell on Earth."-Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson)

Some of the best bottle episodes we've looked at in this feature so far get a lot of mileage out of real life frustrations. "The Chinese Restaurant" focuses on how infuriating it can be to wait for a table when you're hungry or in a rush. "The One Where No One's Ready"looks at the frustrations of getting your friends to leave on time. The bottle episode has a unique capability to play out our every day frustrations in real time, and thus reveal both the absurdity, and the meaning, that can be found in the smallest moments of our day-to-day life.

Written by David Renwick and directed by Susan Belbin, "The Beast in the Cage" is no different, though instead of focusing on waiting in a restaurant or trying to get your friends to go places on time, it focuses on an aspect of life that has vexed all of us at some point, and is very possibly a daily annoyance for many: sitting in traffic. One Foot in the Grave follows the life of irascible retiree Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson) and his long-suffering wife Margaret (Annette Crosbie). "The Beast in the Cage" finds the couple, who are eventually joined by family friend Mrs. Warboys (Doreen Mantle), stuck in a traffic jam while attempting to have a day out on a Bank Holiday. The camera never leaves the car for the episode's runtime, depicting the minute frustrations and boiling anger of Victor in real time.

There are distractions, of course, from the return of Mrs. Warboys (who is absent for the first third of the episode, off finding a bathroom) to a fight Victor picks with the cars on either side of him, who are carrying on a flirtation by talking through his car, and finally to a tape that plays a song seemingly addressed straight to Victor, in a moment that highlights the show's penchant for gentle surrealism, and also gives us a window into Victor's mental state that would otherwise have been difficult to show.

The episode is interesting for the way it builds Victor's mood over its runtime. He begins in his fairly standard mood, as a grumpy man in a distasteful situation. Slowly, he gets angrier and angrier, until he's screaming out the window at the cars in front of him, picking fights with everyone around him, and forcing his wife to switch places with him just so he can move. Yet eventually he quiets down, becoming introspective and depressed as he realizes how much this traffic jam symbolizes his life. In a stirring, moving monologue, Victor ponders, "Mirror image of your life really, isn't it? Car journey on a Bank Holiday. First 50-odd miles on the go, on the way, a sense of direction, bowling along. Get past 60, everything slows down to a sudden crawl. And you realize you're not going anywhere anymore. All the things that you thought you were going to do that never came to anything. And you can't turn the clock back. One-way traffic, just gradually grinding to a complete halt."

One obvious advantage of bottle episodes is the honesty they tend to bring out in a show's characters. When people are trapped together in one place for a long enough period, the truth will come out, whether it manifests in the revelation of hidden feelings or in the slow reveal of a person's honest world-view. "The Beast in the Cage" gives us a view into Victor Meldrew's head-space by putting him in a position we can all relate to. Everyone hates being stuck in traffic, so we can all immediately relate to his grumpy mood as the episode opens. We can also understand how that anger elevates as the traffic jam fails to break up and he starts to feel like he may never get to see the open road again. And when he takes a sudden turn into introspection, we realize there has been more behind his anger all along. Sure, Victor was angry at the traffic jam and at his current predicament. Yet what really gets to him is the feeling that his life is over, that he has accomplished all he ever will and that every dream he failed to achieve is dead now. He seems angry that he will never see the open road again, but that anger, and his melancholy near the episode's end makes more sense once the idea of the open road is firmly established as a metaphor for freedom and the hope that his life will go somewhere.

Over the course of the episode, something that vexes all of us is gracefully, and humorously transformed from a minor irritation to a larger metaphor for the things that get in the way of our dreams, and for life in general. We all take it for granted when the road is open before us and we can drive straight to our destination. We only notice when anything stands in our way, and by that time, it's often too late to do anything about it. Days fly by, and when nothing goes wrong it can be easy to forget how good we have it. But the moment we hit a bump in the road, it suddenly becomes apparent that we aren't where we need to be and we haven't been paying attention to how easily we lost track of what we wanted. Traffic turns us all into beasts in a cage. The real danger, though, comes when we're left to our own devices for long enough to contemplate the wrong turns we've taken, the dreams we've failed to pursue and the hopes we've let die on the vine.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

6/17: "Objects in Space," Firefly

7/1: "Torando!," The United States of Tara

7/15: "Controlled Experiment,"The Outer Limits

7/29: "The Man in the Fallout Shelter," Bones
Tags: One Foot in the Grave
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