Today, Ryan and Drew are discussing The Kitchen 4, originally released February 18th, 2015.
Ryan: Strap in while I set the stage.
The Kitchen takes place in New York City in the late 70’s. Consumer inflation resumed a steady upward spiral from 1972 to a peak of near 12 percent in 1979. Corporate profits crashed by 30 percent as the cost of business soared thanks to massive social movements forcing Nixon and the federal government to enact sixty-two health and safety laws protecting workers and consumers on top of thirty-two other laws protecting the environment and regulating energy use. With interest up and profits low, the economy wallowed in a crisis state until Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve under President Carter, purposefully plunged it even further into peril in 1981 by cutting taxes to the rich, gutting welfare, and attacking labor in what became known as “Raeganomics”.
Before the days of “Broken Windows” and super cops, NYC was a city of tribes broken into neighborhoods and ethnic groups. Hell’s Kitchen, the nucleus of our story, the area bounded by 42d and 59th Streets, Eighth Avenue and the Hudson River, became a working-class Irish neighborhood and a bastion for Irish gangs. First were the Gophers, who raided freight cars and fought the police and rival gangs until their dissolving in 1910. Crime in the neighborhood re-organized and rallied, as it is want to do, and finally lead way to the Arsenal Gang whose racket of choice was robbing weapons from berthed WWII battleships. Micky Spillane — a true old-school gangster who gave turkeys to impoverished families on Thanksgiving and visited local elderly in the hospital concurrent to running a notable gambling and loansharking venture — stepped into the power vacuum left in the mid-1970’s after many of the old guard fled the diversifying neighborhood to avoid prosecution.
This is when most agree that the Westies, described as “the most savage organization in the long history of New York street gangs,” by Rudy Giuliani, began their ongoing tenure. A young Irish upstart named James Coonan and his lieutenant — the wild, Vietnam-haunted Mickey Featherstone — ran Spillane out of town to his murder in 1977 and partnered up with the Italian mafia, at which point the Westies became a glorified hit squad for the better-organized Gambino family.
So it continued for the remainder of the 70’s, catching us up to the world depicted in the comic.
Stage set. Enter Stage Right: three protagonists — Kath, Raven, and Angie — decide to keep their families afloat by continuing their spouses’ loan sharking and money collections while the husbands serve their time in jail. And just look how good they’ve done in four issues! Similar to the arc in Breaking Bad, we see the three women acclimate to their new roles and the horrors that come with it. Last issue, they assisted their terrifying ally Tommy dispose of their very first body.
In this issue, the question boiling over the past three returns to the forefront: what happens to the progressing business established by our Real Housewives of Hell’s Kitchen as their husbands return home on “good behavior”? Drew, where do you see this title going from here? Also, do you find this title to be feminist, almost without insisting upon itself?
Drew: I suppose that’s the best way of putting it — our heroines’ gender has largely gone unmentioned, playing more as subtext than an explicit plot point. The period setting makes that subtext all the more pointed, but as you so keenly summarized, it also makes for a fascinating setting.
Which isn’t to say this series has entirely won me over yet. Ryan, I think you’re right to cite similarities to Breaking Bad, but I’m mostly feeling let down by the differences — namely, how quickly our heroines became comfortable with murder. Badass moments of scientific prowess notwithstanding, I think the thing that made us root for Walter White was how uncomfortable he was with the criminal underworld he was aiming to exploit. Sure, he eventually becomes quite at home killing (or ordering the killings of) plenty of people, but Breaming Bad was ultimately about that descent — that we could relate to his starting point was key to getting us invested in his ending point. I appreciate that “Mr. Chips to Scarface” isn’t the narrative arc of The Kitchen, but in breezing through the gang’s comfort with murder, the series may have lost me.
Not only is Angie too comfortable with this — her explanation of what happened is simply that “Herb didn’t take the offer” — but it’s not even clear why killing Herb would be important. Like, he’s refusing to do business with them, sure, but why is his business suddenly so important? It’s not until several scenes later that we learn that Herb was going to be leveraged against them in their meeting with Gargano, but even then, it’s not entirely clear why these women have gone from acting as stewards to their husbands’ loansharking business to violently pursuing mafia connections. What do these characters want? Why?
This issue does offer some glimpses of those motives when their husbands return — both Angie and Raven want romantic and financial independence from their husbands (though Raven has quickly shacked up with a bigger criminal) — but I’m still at a loss for what Kath’s angle is. Independence is a reasonable assumption to make for her, too (like Ryan said, there are clear feminist undertones), but it’s strange that we’re left to make assumptions when this issue seems to be about clarifying everyone’s motives. There have been hints, sure — Kath clearly relished the power she felt after beating the snot out of Frankie back in issue one — but her actions have escalated so quickly, it’s hard to get a sense of what’s going on inside her head.
This scene is exactly what I’m looking for — an opportunity to just sit with the characters in a moment — but it suffers from our ignorance as to why she’d want to keep doing this. She offers “earning” as her motive, but again, she was only “collecting” because she had to. If she discovered that she really liked it, I’d like to spend more time on that than just accept it as a coincidence that she loves the first thing she tried doing. Was she ever conflicted about it? Why or why not? Did she always crave power? If so, how did she end up in her position? The feminist undertones aren’t lost on me, but in failing to flesh out the characters, I’m not sure this succeeds as feminist literature.
But maybe I’m being too cynical. I tend to struggle calibrating my expectations to the pacing of new series, and I could see an issue devoted to Kath’s mental state addressing most of my issues. Unfortunately, I can only evaluate the issues as presented, and so far, I’m left without much to hold on to. I’m curious to hear if anyone else has been reading this series — it had kind of slipped off of my radar, but I thought we’d give it a chance — and what they’re thoughts are. Is anyone feeling more invested in Kath’s decision here?
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?