Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams “Crazy Diamond”: Buscemi Sets Sail
The challenge of an anthology series like Electric Dreams is giving the audience enough information about the episode’s setting to understand the plot but not such an extensive exposition to bog down the pace. With only a one-hour format within which to attempt this, there are often concessions made.
Unfortunately, “Crazy Diamond” suffers from both not enough background (or too many details without enough depth) and a plot with too many moving parts to keep track of easily. The other issue, and admittedly, this might be my own shortcoming, the title’s meaning was completely lost on me until I had taken a deep research dive into the history of Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett.
AlthoughÂ ostensibly based on the Philip K. Dick short story, “Sales Pitch”, the only things the episode really shares in common with the story is the name of the protagonist and the existence of really tenacious synthetic beings. In execution, most of the story seems an homage to 1944’s Double Indemnity, itself based on a novel which, in turn was inspired by a true crime incident.
Ed Morris (Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire) is a workaday Ed with one dream – to sail the Seven Seas in the boat that he is building himself. Interestingly enough, when we first encounter him, he’s actually aboard the ship asleep, dreaming about a woman begging him for help.
“The stars are burning out, Ed. The universe grown cold. No heat. No energy. Everything decays. Everything dies. But all it takes is two, Ed. Just two. Two particles that become so closely entangled, it’s as if they’re the same thing. Then there’s no atrophy, no decay, no death. But there’s only me, Ed, and I’m running out of time.”
As she ages and shrivels before him, he awakens in horror, turns off the record player that’s been playing Syd Barrett’s “Octopus” (Syd Barrett being the real life Crazy Diamond from which the title is drawn) and returns home to his wife, Sally (Julia Davis,Â Camping) who introduces him to a sales woman, Jill (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Westworld) who has come to discuss life insurance, specifically mentioning “double indemnity”. Jill, of course, is the woman from his dream.
Rewind a week and we learn more about this world where synthetic people called “Jack”s and “Jill”s are indistinguishable from natural humans. The bodies are grown and then injected with highly-prized “quantum consciousnesses” or QCs which imbues the Jack or Jill with a soul as it were.
The science evolved from combining human and pig genetics and the early research led to pig-headed humanoids like Sue, the security guard Sally sees daily on the way in to work whom she later takes into her confidence. The most sophisticated Jacks and Jills are indistinguishable from humans.
Ed and Sally live in a very nice home in a very nice ocean-front neighbourhood where their neighbours regularly see their homes fall into the ocean as the land erodes away from under them. While Ed happily daydreams of the day they can sail away from all their problems, Sally is attempting to germinate some sprouts in a dish.
Ed works in the QC facility and meets the beautiful stranger when she visits the building with a tour group. He recognizes the signs of a Jill with a failing QC and, when he sees her on the side of the road on his way home, he joins her for a drink at the pub. There, he shares with her the troubles he and Sally have had trying to start a family as well as his dreams of sailing away one day.
Sally has her own sorts of dreams, involving a “fasrad salesman” who won’t take no for an answer (a reference to the central concept of the source short story) and they don’t seem to include her husband. Finding him up late at night, charting a route for their naval escape, she makes it clear that she doesn’t share his vision of a life at sea.
Things go from numbly unproductive to problematically criminal when Jill convinces Ed to help her steal a batch of QCs from the facility. Rather than committing any sort of sexual infidelity, he betrays his moral code by giving her his palm print and sweat residue and teaching her his vocal sample (“Flow, My Tears”, a reference to Philip K. Dick’s love of John Dowland‘s music).
While Jill is his temptress, giving him the opportunity to be a part of a thrilling and dangerous life removed from his reality, Sally is Ed’s moral compass and when she interrupts his voyeuristic viewing of the crime in progress over the security cams from his home computer, he comes to his senses for a moment and triggers the facility alarm.
Jill and her accomplices still manage to get away with ten QCs but when she tries to withhold one for herself from her buyers, they are unsympathetic and they open fire, chasing her away.
Upon his return to work, Ed is hailed a hero for detecting the theft but, meanwhile, at home, Jill is bonding with Sally over their “shared” experience of IVF treatments. Sally tells her about her fasrad dreams and Jill advises her to “live for the now”, a sentiment repeatedly echoed by various characters throughout the story.
That brings us up to Ed’s return home from his nap on the boat to find Jill in his living room. Uncomfortable with having her in the same room as his wife, he is quite curt with her sales pitch and resistant to having her stay over when she exhibits more symptoms of QC failure. Sally, on the other hand, feels like she’s found a kindred spirit and insists they help her. And buy the double indemnity insurance.
As Jill failed to secure a new QC from the stolen ones to replace her failing one, she needs Ed to help her get one back from the buyers. He’ll pose as a dealer and inject her with one to prove the QCs are viable. Ed tries to demur. He protests that he’s not the man for this job. She convinces him by calling on his inner need for adventure, pointing out that he’s already given his hand (print), his sweat and pheromones, to this endeavour.
Committing to her goal again, Ed takes more risks for the second attempt – stealing the equipment needed to implant the QC himself from his work after hours, lying to Sally about his whereabouts, dressing the part of the scoundrel when next he meets with Jill. This time, they take their relationship to a physical level.
Things go rapidly pear-shaped when they enter the dealers’ lair. Jill does get her new QC but then they have to contend with (ie. kill) the QC traffickers. In their escape, they encounter Jill’s ex-partner in crime who, it turns out, is Ed’s boss-man at the QC facility. Angry at Jill’s betrayal, he forces Ed at gun-point to remove Jill’s new QC but Jill manages to turn the tables at the last minute and then turns on Ed for giving in so quickly, leaving him in the woods.
Ed returns home on foot only to find that Jill beat him to Sally and his home is empty. Sally leaves a note that she’s off to “squeeze the day”. As he’s reading the note, the earth literally moves under his feet as his home – like his marriage, career, and dreams – crumbles beyond salvation.
Clinging to one last hope, he readies his boat (named the “John D” for John Dowland, PKD’s favourite composer) and tries to head out to sea. For a brief moment, as he launches the boat and gets underway, it looks like it might work out for him. Not a chance. He finds Jill’s broach on the deck and looks up to find Sally and Jill standing on the bow. (Don’t ask me where they were hiding. It’s a small boat.) They confront him with his betrayals and inform him that they’ve decided to take his boat and live out his fantasy without him. And then they throw him overboard.
He doesn’t get the poetic death, repenting for his errors. Instead, he washes up on the beach right next to the wreckage of his house. The women even threw his Syd Barrett record off the boat and it washes up right next to him. End credits as he hugs it to himself and laughs hysterically.
“Crazy Diamond” is high-maintenance viewing meaning that there’s a lot to look out for, a lot more to come back and watch a second time for understanding, and even some that you’ll need to do homework on in order to appreciate what the creators were trying to reference. Whether an hour’s entertainment is worth that extra leg-work is up to the individual.
Personally, I felt frustrated my first time through. Only on second viewing was I able to appreciate the rather beautiful phrasing and word choice in the script as well as the intriguing over-saturated look of the cinematography. Ultimately, I recognize that they are trying to do a lot here and applaud the ambition but can’t help but feel less would’ve been more.
Writer Tony Grisoni must be a HUGE Syd Barrett fan. “Crazy Diamond” is a direct reference to Syd Barrett, one of the founding members of Pink Floyd, who parted ways with the band as his mental health declined. After his departure, the band created a nine-part composition for him entitled “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Ed even uses the name “Syd” when he goes with Jill to meet the QC traffickers.
The story goes that Barrett wandered in to the studio when they were working on the album but he looked so different from when they’d last seen him and acted so strangely that no one recognized him for nearly an hour. This perhaps foreshadows the changes we see in Ed between his initial dream and his final rude awakening.
Barrett’s solo song “Octopus” reprises a couple of times throughout the episode (and plays over the end credits), reminding us that “…the seas will reach and always seep/So high you go, so low you creep”. Keep in mind, that if you don’t actually recognize the song, the show’s title will remain a total non sequitar.
Philip K. Dick’s interest in John Dowland is referenced in both Ed’s boat’s name and the song he sings for the QC mill’s vocal recognition. Again, unless you’re a real “Dickhead” (the actual term for a PKD fan), you’re not going to recognize these easter eggs.
Moving on to themes: there are really too many to be manageable in such a short narrative.
First, there’s the “seize the day”/”squeeze the day” mantra. Ed jokes about it. Jill uses it to coerce both him and Sally. Even the food delivery service’s motto is “Nothing’s Forever” (unless it’s actually the company’s name) and their service man is adamant that they “live for today”.
Then there’s Sally’s preoccupation with nurturing something. Their inability to have children festers with her and manifests in her lone independent act of rebellion, trying to grow the sprouts. Her daily commute takes her to Chimera Farms, where she confides her fears in the 40% human Sue. Even the food they have delivered somehow echoes Sally’s situation. After all, bad eggs are the first thing we see her throw out.
And that brings us to the largely unexplained illegality of growing your own food. The assumption can be made that it’s a government-imposed restriction to regulate the economics, possibly a way to leverage consumption in a population that doesn’t seem to need a lot of frivolities, in a world that is quite literally a facade, a thin layer of topsoil over fabricated “land”. But that’s purely an assumption. There just isn’t time to explain it all.
Given more time to establish the reasoning behind the rules this world plays by, we may have developed a better understanding for Ed’s need to escape and Sally’s ultimate abandonment. As it is, there’s a lot we need to fill in on our own and that doesn’t make for satisfying viewing.
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