The Endgame, Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”

If you watched any coverage of the Winter Olympics on NBC for the past couple of weeks, then chances are you got bombarded with about 1,000 TV spots for The Endgame, the network’s latest attempt at a serialized thriller which they seem fully confident will be able to effectively compete for the attention of viewers in the era of streaming. This seemed like a massive miscalculation, as The Endgame not only looked bad, but hilariously bad, with commercials really not explaining anything about what the show was actually about, but behaving as though it was can’t-miss event television.

They look like they’re about to have a dance-off.

This makes the process of reviewing the pilot (brilliantly titled “Pilot”) somewhat difficult. Watching something expecting it to be terrible does create a sort of unintentional amount of arguably unfair bias going in, as ideally audiences should always keep an open mind about such things. And I have done that in the past. I actually watched the much-loathed Santa Inc. on HBO Max thinking I would like it, only to find it filling me with hatred on a level I rarely feel for anything in pop culture. The Endgame isn’t that infuriating (yet), but that may in part be due to a baffling level of incompetence from start to finish. Structurally, this is an absolute mess, trying to cram so much plot and information into 44 minutes that it becomes impossible to give a fuck about any of it. This is striving to be “edge-of-your-seat” entertainment that constantly leaves you wanting to find out what happens next, but it falls so embarrassingly flat on its face in that regard that it’s hard to accurately explain in words just how clumsy everything about it is. This is a show that asks questions and then immediately answers them, destroying any sense of a suspenseful hook that it may be trying to create. In the end, The Endgame just…exists, reeking of the stench of focus groups trying to orchestrate a hit TV drama by committee, and feeling about as authentic as that would imply.

It’s also really, really, really, really, really stupid. Within the first 90 seconds, we witness a child taking out a passing vehicle with a rocket launcher in a flashback. Then in the present we have Elena Fedorova, a supposed criminal mastermind who’s among the most dangerous arms dealers on the fucking planet, taken into custody by the FBI without so much as a pair of handcuffs on her. Various agents are trying to work out a deal with Elena (instead of, you know, formally arresting her for the more than 100 felony charges she’s facing, because that would make too much sense), but she immediately makes it evident she has no intention whatsoever of cooperating. Rather than try to get any information out of her, the FBI instead chooses to…just leave her in an interrogation room and let her pace around. They don’t even seem concerned that she might have any weapons hidden on her in her dress (which is about the size of a table cover.)

Anyway, it turns out that Elena wanted to be taken into custody today, because she has an army of bank robbers, and they are all over New York carrying out her bidding simultaneously at multiple branches. These are the sort of bank robbers who put their masks on after they are already in the bank, but hey, I guess you can’t too picky when trying to get help these days. And because she’s such a crafty criminal mastermind or whatever who can anticipate the moves of her opponents or something, her goons hold up sticky-notes for the security cameras that say “bow to the queen” on them, but the FBI agents who are keeping an eye on Elena have no idea who the “queen” could be. This is because they are fucking morons.

Enter our “hero” Agent Val Turner, who is visiting her husband in prison. Val, it is later revealed, turned her own husband in to the authorities once evidence came out against him, thinking this would secure her a good position at work, but instead caused the agency to accuse her of being involved in his crimes. This is supposed to make the audience “like her” because she’s gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop as far as respect at her job goes, but instead it makes me fucking hate her guts since she turned her own husband in because she thought it would give her a career boost. Unsurprisingly for a drama with the subtly of a brick wall colliding with a brick wall, everyone at work calls Val “dirty” to her face, and she always, always, always talks as though she has a huge chip on her shoulder, which makes her become tedious extremely quickly. And she’s our main character! Perfect!

Meanwhile everyone is continuing to not really do anything about Elena, even as she takes credit for all of the bank robberies and threatens to “get rid of” everyone who’s been questioning her by the end of the day. Eventually Val is brought in as she likes saying things about Elena that sound good in a trailer (“She’s loyal to no country! She’s cunning! She always goes for the big prize!”), and the two of them have their much-marketed vocal sparring match…for about a minute.

I know, I know, I’ve been snarky throughout this whole write-up so far, but when a conflict between two characters is central to your narrative, their first on-screen meeting had better deliver or else the entire premise is at risk of falling apart. These two “powerful women on opposite sides of the law” (as worded by NBC’s press releases) are meant to be “obsessed” with each other; Val has written an FBI file consisting of five volumes on Elena by herself (how???), while Elena has gone out of her way to make to ensure Val is a part of whatever her grand scheme is. In simple pop culture terms, Elena is clearly intended to be the Joker to Val’s Batman.

The problem is…the show has no idea what it wants their “relationship” to be, aiming to have it all ways as they go from exchanging eye-rolling one-liners with each other (“Did I get your attention?” “I’m touched, but you could’ve just sent me a card!”) to having “girl talk” about their love lives in the blink of an eye, and if that sounds like tonal whiplash to you, it only gets more confounding as Val starts giving Elena a fucking pep talk as though she’s an old friend she’s concerned about, “The Elena I know would never hide behind a lawyer. What happened to the woman who overthrew war lords and took out blood diamond mines?” And yes, the series lazily tries to make Elena “sympathetic” by explaining through one of Val’s many speeches on her that she “took out men who were raping all of the women in the village,” because if there’s one subject that’s appropriate to use as a cheap plot device in a silly network TV thriller, it’s massive sexual assault.

Anyway, Val’s superiors decide they don’t want her to be a part of the case anymore for some reason (even though they’re the ones who brought her in the first place), which is demonstrated by one of her co-workers hissing “why did you bring this dirty agent in here to boss us all around?” and Val shouting “I’m not dirty!” in response. Val is left to go against protocol and guess which bank Elena’s going to strike next, and she’s of course right, but then she’s called to a “private meeting” with her husband’s lawyer….who is also—DUN-DUN-DUNNN!!!–Elena’s lawyer!

In the episode’s climatic sequence, the two of them meet in an empty restaurant which is just across from the bank that Elena’s robbers are currently knocking down. The lawyer (I’m not going to check IMDB to find out his name) tries to cut a deal with Val by informing her that he is sitting on evidence that could prove that her husband is actually innocent, because he was framed by–DUN-DUN-DUNN!!!–Elena herself! Gasp! Shock! Oh, wait, I don’t care since the show hasn’t allowed me enough time to get invested in any of this. Also, he doesn’t even check to see if Val is bugged before he openly says “Elena framed your husband, girl!” since this pilot never runs out of ways to be insultingly dumb.

The other “big reveal” of the climax is that the “reason” Elena is robbing seven banks at once is so she can steal safe deposit boxes of FBI agents with damning information on them (because every male character on this show seems to have a mistress). I guess she wants to take over the FBI? Maybe? I dunno. The big “don’t miss next week’s episode” moment of the final scene is Elena getting ready to tell Val a story, so….can’t wait?

Other dumb stuff…

* I didn’t even mention Val’s “funny” friend at work who helps her get out of tight spots who is also given the unsavory task of some very clunky exposition: “You’re the first black woman to ever get your job at the office, and you’ll end up locked in a basement filing paperwork if you screw this up!”

* The episode begins with “fairy tale” narration which turns out to be a cheat. In a flashback, the audience is meant to think that a young Elena is firing a rocket launcher alongside her father at a moving vehicle, but it turns out that Elena was actually the one inside the car. She kills her would-be assassin with her own knife and then throws said knife about thirty feet into the neck of her father. Maybe she had training?

* This pilot is directed by Fast and Furious franchise veteran Justin Lin, but you would never guess that from watching it. There’s barely any action outside of some budgeted bank explosions and brief gunplay.

* Elena and Val have a “history” with each other in which Val claims Elena tried to kill her; Elena says she missed on purpose. Not sure why she would do that, but I’m sure it’s all part of her overly complicated plan.

* The show wants you to “side” with the bank robbers by showing a bank teller casually treating a client terribly just before the shit hits the fan. When he’s being held hostage and tries to call the police, they go out of the way to portray him as a sniveling coward for doing so. Yeesh.

* Val has a contact in New York State Pen who she put away on speed dial. She calls him in his cell where he has an HDTV and a DJ machine for some reason. This show is stupid.

* Elena’s criminal name is Russian for “Snow White”–which means that characters with no irony at all say things like “What if this is a Snow White operation?” with straight faces.

* “Snow White and the seven banks.” Damn it, random FBI agent, I got the joke without you telling me!

* Biggest “bow to the queen” moment for Elena: Elena casually placing her legs on the table as the FBI threatens to torture her for information, but given how they’ve been acting with her, I can’t really blame her for not taking them seriously.

* Biggest “I’m not dirty!” moment for Val: When robbers with large ass guns approach Val, she points her tiny pistol at them. “Take one step forward, and you die.” They then just leave.

* Biggest “I swear to God I am not making this up” moment: Elena starts taking off her dress as Val stares at her breasts. So….yeah, that happened. (It turns out Elena is showing Val a scar she has on her stomach, but the series knows what it’s doing here)

* So, that’s the first episode of The Endgame. It’s bad. Would you like for me to keep doing this? Would you enjoy more write-ups in this style? I am more than happy to suffer with this if it makes people happy. Please leave feedback.