The River is all about guilt and frustratingly impossible reality TV

I am really starting to wish that The River had just stopped after the first, incredibly riveting episode. Though there have continued to be scary moments in this show, and watching the actors perform is generally a pleasure, the writing and plotting have gone from bad to worse. Several episodes back, the "monster of the week" turned out to be a local group of blind-but-superpowered Amazonians, and since then the show's supernatural terrors have gone from terrifying to vaguely embarrassing. Until last night's episode, I had thought that maybe the problem was that we weren't focusing on our characters' central conflicts. But I was wrong.

Spoilers ahead!

This episode, called "Doctor Emmet Cole," is the sixth of eight planned for this season, and it definitely gives us a major payoff in terms of reveals. The crew of the Magus, now expanded by one white hipster whom they found hanging in a state of permanent near-death from a magical vine, stumbles across Emmet's camera bag. In it, they find footage that preoccupies them for the whole episode. Which - maybe this is just me, but I really can't stand stories where a bunch of people are grouped around a monitor giving wide-eyed "reactions" so you know what you're supposed to be feeling.

The footage in question is of what appear to be Emmet's final days. Leaving Lena's soon-to-be-zombified dad behind, Emmet takes two members of his camera crew (including Katie from Paranormal Activity) and hikes into the wilderness. He's searching for an Amazonian group whom he believes have access to "the source," which is basically like the river of eternal youth. Or maybe the source of all magic. Or maybe something else! Who knows. Along the way, the group gets stalked by a demon who likes to peel your skin off and hang you. The only way to ward the demon off is to whistle at it. Unfortunately, it kills one camera guy, and then the camera lady runs off, leaving Emmet with his dog and no food.

Emmet gets sicker and sicker after drinking bad water, then breaks his ankle, and finally decides (inexplicably) to use his satellite phone to call Lincoln instead of calling for a rescue. The result is this guilt-inducing scene where Lincoln is forced to realize that that annoying call from dad was actually the last breath from a dying man. THE GUILT! WHY DIDN'T YOU LOVE YOUR DAD ENOUGH! Maybe because he was a total douche who forced you to grow up on camera, used you to bolster his fame, and then left your mom to go on a freaky trip into the jungle in search of ill-defined "tribes" who sound like something out of the racist fantasies of H.P. Lovecraft? I'm just guessing here.

Anyway, now Lincoln is all covered in guilt and his mom is weepy because Emmet seems like he's dying on camera while saying "Sorry, Tess, I am a complete creep." It seems like instead of using this spooky footage to scare the pants off us — which by all rights The River should — the show is trying to tug on our heartstrings in a way that's incredibly forced. Every character on the show has an ambivalent relationship with Emmet, and rightly so. Why are we suddenly supposed to feel the pathos of his death? I have to admit the main thing I was worried about was whether Emmet would eat his dog while in the final throes of hunger desperation. He almost does, but then he can't. Fuck, that was seriously upsetting when he almost did.

Just as Emmet is about to be eaten by the demon, though, he's saved by his magical Indian tribe. (Feel free to fill in your own comments about white people projecting weird crap onto natives here.) This scene is where I got just plain frustrated, because this show is supposed to be realistic about how the cameras are used. See this scene? HOW WAS IT FILMED, PEOPLE? Is that part of the Amazonian magic or something? Where are all these camera angles coming from? Is Emmet covered in cameras that are capable of jumping off his body and filming him from every angle (while not filming his Amazonian buddies except from the neck down)? One of the things I have loved about this show is the way the writers tried to stick to the cinema verite thing of actually filming it like a reality show. Now I feel cheated.

But hey, at least we know Emmet didn't die after his pathetic call to Lincoln. And when the Magus gang arrives at the compound where he was left, they find his dog looking all bouncy and happy. Unfortunately the compound is empty and Emmet is gone. Another mystery to solve next week! Let's hope we can get some good monsters and less schmaltzy parent guilt, OK? This show needs to redeem itself, and fast.