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Halston: A Forewarning Tale


By the middle of Halston’s third episode I began to count the name ‘Halston’ every time thanks to a mixture of boredom and fascination. The new Netflix limited series is based on the life of fashion designer Roy Halston, and characters occasionally use the brand’s name to refer to products: “This bottle says ‘Halston!'” or “Now that’s a Halston.

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” Often, it’s just a natural part of the dialogue, an uncontrollable verbal tic. “I wish you a pleasant morning, Halston.” “You’re a jackass, Halston!” “You are a genius, Halston!” “Halston, you’re out of control!” Between about halfway through episode three and the series’ conclusion at the end of episode five, I counted 114 Halstons, plus three instances when someone referred to him as “H.”
There is a charitable interpretation of this absurd proliferation.

The Halston story, as told here, is entirely about the name. Halston, as portrayed by Ewan McGregor, is a man so desperate to become a legend that he freely trades away his name. He desired a bespoke, rarefied brand for Halston, but fear and carelessness transformed the name into ubiquitous department store fodder. Once it was emblazoned on everything, the Halston moniker became meaningless. The story’s primary tragedy is brand dilution — which is quite a statement, given that its subject dies of AIDS. From this vantage point, the dialogue’s unavoidable drumbeat of Halston, Halston, Halston could be interpreted as a deliberate reenactment of the trap that caught Halston himself. The word is empty because it is ubiquitous. By my count, average one “Halston” per minute is in the last two episodes.
The less charitable reading is that Halston’s writing is just lazy.

That seems certainly to be the case at dialogue level; characters always issue blunt, exposure proclamations to tell the viewer how to feel at every new stage. It is not necessary to ask whether the company is doing well, and that certainly needs to be communicated through subtle, unpleasant tone changes.

Someone will always come and say, Halston, it’s not good for the company. Likewise, if you ever have any doubt about Halston’s happiness, the odds are good he’ll open a door and shout, I’m Halston! I should be glad, but I’m not!
The writing is not structurally impressive anymore. The first episde starts with an abrupt flashback, as if tattooed by knuckles with ‘tragic backstory’ in the stomach: a dreary midwest farm house, a sad little child (naturally Halston), a screaming father, a handmade hat featured to cheer up his mother.

There is nothing special about this flashback material: it is as smooth as the model of a dressmaker. And yet it is also Halston’s inner life’s only true exploration. Every time the series refers to a pain which drives Halston’s ambition, this sketchy caricature of an unhappy childhood.

Sometimes he’s saddened because he’s a semi-closed gay man, but Halston isn’t on that front anymore.
Episode three shows Halston sitting with a perfumer to develop the wildly successful Halston perfume and she asks him to produce fragrances that are meaningful to him. He selects orchids, tobacco and the jockstrap of his lover. It’s one of the best scenes of the series. McGregor seems finally to relax a bit in the role, and it’s a relief to watch the protagonist sit over a table by someone he really cares about and respects. (It helps the perfume maker to be one of the few characters that in every sentence do not say the word “Halston” which makes a pleasant change.)

But in one of the few scenes where Halston slows down, allows his protagonist to sit and think about himself instead of shouting at people, dragging on a cigarette, snoring a coke or looking at something coldly, Halston’s three things are the same three notes that he found to define his entire character. They are external, superficial things, symbols that ultimately mean nothing. Orchids, because he loves lovely stuff. Tobacco, because he smokes with someone who has nothing else in his life. Because he’s gay, a jock strap.

Halston A Story About Not losing Identity

These three objects could be resonant with a more thoughtful treatment or signal a true insight into the character of Halston. They are like the three topic phrases in a five-paragraph essay instead. Orchids, tobacco and jockstraps – I’m going to…
As a cautionary figure, Halston. This flood of his name, stamped all over everything and essentially rendered meaningless, reminded me of somebody: Ryan Murphy, Halston’s executive producer and co-writer on three of the five miniseries (alongside his frequent collaborator Ian Brennan and series creator Sharr White). Another creator, Murphy, who has started his career with a distinctive, idiosyncratic view, has since extended himself so much that his name is no longer guaranteed by the style that once was his signature. If Halston is a story about not losing an artistic identity, Murphy doesn’t seem motivated to take advice.

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Near Halston’s end, the designer was stripped of the right to market himself clothing, and left many of the people with whom he had once been close. There is a redemption arc, one last chance of designing something truly beautiful and innovative. He pays full attention to it, he puts all his care and creativity into the work. It does not make him any money and does not undo all of his past mistakes, but it is a glorious demonstration that even if he lost control of his name, the person has not lost his skill. It’s a nice note, but this scene doesn’t save Halston. It only makes me hope that one day during Murphy’s career, too, he is free of all the ultrasound-clad ghosts which haunt Roy Halston’s images of this show.


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