tv review

Halston, An Unwitting Cautionary Tale

Photo: Atushi Nishijima/Netflix

Around the middle of the third episode of Halston, thanks to a mixture of boredom and fascination, I started counting every time someone said the name “Halston.” The new Netflix limited series is about the fashion designer Roy Halston, and sometimes characters say the name to point at the brand: “This bottle says ‘Halston!’” or “Now that’s a Halston.” Often it’s just part of the dialogue, an unrelenting verbal tic. “Good morning, Halston.” “You’re an asshole, Halston!” “Halston, you’re a genius!” “You’re out of control, Halston!” From somewhere midway through episode three until the series conclusion at the end of episode five, I counted 114 Halstons, plus three times someone called him “H” to shake things up.

There’s a generous way to read this absurd proliferation. As it’s told here, the Halston story is entirely about the name. Portrayed by Ewan McGregor, Halston is a man so desperate to turn himself into a legend that he trades away his name too freely. He wanted Halston to be a bespoke, rarefied brand, but fear and carelessness turned the name into ubiquitous department-store fodder. Once it was on everything, the Halston name meant nothing. Brand dilution is the story’s chief tragedy — which is really saying something, given that its subject dies of AIDS. From that vantage point, the inescapable drumbeat of Halston, Halston, Halston in the dialogue could be read as a purposeful reenactment of the exact trap that caught Halston himself. The word becomes empty because it is omnipresent. By my count, the last two episodes average one “Halston” per minute.

The less charitable reading is that the writing in Halston is simply lazy. That certainly seems like the case on the level of dialogue; characters are perpetually issuing blunt, expositional proclamations to tell the viewer how to feel at each new stage. There’s no need to wonder if the company is doing well, and there’s definitely no need to communicate that through subtle, uneasy changes in tone. Someone will always arrive to say, Halston, the company is not doing well. Likewise, in case you’re ever unsure about whether Halston is happy, the odds are pretty good that he’ll slam open a door and yell, I’m Halston! I’m supposed to be happy but I’m not! 

The writing is no more impressive structurally, either. The first episode opens with an abrupt punch of flashback, like being socked in the stomach by knuckles tattooed with “tragic backstory”: a dreary Midwestern farmhouse, a sad child (Halston, naturally), a yelling father, the gift of a handmade feathered hat to cheer up his mom. There’s nothing particular about any of this flashback material; it is as smoothly featureless as a dressmaker’s model. And yet it is also the only real exploration of Halston’s inner life. Every time the series needs to refer back to some pain that drives Halston’s ambition, it’s to this sketchy caricature of an unhappy childhood. Sometimes his sadness is also because he’s a semi-closeted gay man, but Halston’s no more nuanced on that front, either.

There’s a scene in episode three where Halston sits down with a perfumer to develop the wildly successful Halston perfume, and she asks him to bring in scents that are meaningful to him. He selects orchids, tobacco, and his lover’s jockstrap. It is among the best scenes in the series. McGregor finally appears to relax in the role a bit, and it’s a relief to watch the protagonist sit across a table from someone he seems to actually care about and respect. (It helps that the perfumer is one of the few characters who doesn’t say the word “Halston” in every sentence, which makes for a pleasant change.) But it’s telling that in one of the few scenes where Halston slows down and allows its protagonist to sit and think about himself, rather than yelling at people, taking a drag on a cigarette, snorting coke, or staring at something coldly, the three things he provides are the same three notes Halston has found to define his entire character. They are external, superficial things, symbols meant to create meaning that ultimately point at nothing. Orchids, because he loves beautiful things. Tobacco, because he smokes with the incessant constancy of someone who has nothing else in his life. A jock strap, because he’s gay. With a more thoughtful treatment, those three objects could be resonant, or they could signal real insight into Halston’s character. Instead, they are like the three topic sentences from a five paragraph essay. Orchids, tobacco and jockstraps — in this essay, I will …

The series is not unrelentingly grim. Krysta Rodriguez plays a pretty good Liza Minnelli, and it grows more comfortable after she performs the requisite “Liza with a Z” number and can then play the character without such direct reference back to the real woman. The sets are lush, the costumes are convincing, and although McGregor’s performance cannot create depths that the writing lacks, the man can certainly smoke a cigarette.

By the end of the series, though, I was left without any clarity about how Halston wants its audience to see the man at its center. The branding mistakes are explicitly cast as terrible blunders, the missteps of a man who didn’t trust his artistic vision enough and was too swayed by greed and excess. But are we supposed to indict him for this? Are we meant to see this as a cautionary tale? Is Halston a villain, or is he a victim of circumstance? It’s another case of the generous reading versus the uncharitable interpretation. Generously, I might say that Halston intends to leave viewers with this complexity. Truthfully, it’s a big mess.

Still, as I watched the series, I could not help but get stuck on the idea of Halston as a cautionary figure. That deluge of his name, stamped everywhere all over everything and rendered essentially meaningless, reminded me of someone: Ryan Murphy, who is the executive producer of Halston and has a co-writing credit on three of the miniseries’ five episodes (alongside his frequent collaborator Ian Brennan and series creator Sharr White). Murphy is another creator who began his career with a distinctive, idiosyncratic vision, and who has since over-extended himself to the point that his name no longer carries any guarantee of the style that was once his signature. If Halston is a story about how not to lose an artistic identity, Murphy does not appear motivated to take his own advice.

Near the end of Halston, the designer has been stripped of the right to market clothing under his own name and has abandoned many of the people he was once close with. There is a redemption arc, one last opportunity for him to design something truly lovely and innovative. He gives it his full attention, he funnels all his care and creativity into the task. It makes him no money and doesn’t undo all his past mistakes, but it is a glorious demonstration that the man has not lost his talent or skill, even if he has lost control of his name. It’s a nice note to end on, but that scene does not save Halston. It just makes me hope that Murphy will also reach that stage in his career one day, and that when it happens, he will be free from all the ultrasuede-clad ghosts that haunt this show’s image of Roy Halston.

Halston, An Unwitting Cautionary Tale