Mosaic is named for the charitable organization that children’s author Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone) founds with the riches from her bestselling debut, Whose Woods These Are, and also for the term of art. Though it premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO as a (semi-) linear six-part miniseries, writer Ed Solomon and director Steven Soderbergh’s mystery fuses its stinging portrait of life among the opulent ski chalets of Summit, Utah from much smaller pieces; if you’re to watch it at all, I recommend that you do so via its mobile or desktop applications, which offer the chance to choose your own adventure through the narrative.
Whether that narrative is effective in the absence of the series’ (semi-) experimental structure—whether it’s even instructive to separate the two—is an open question. In fact, it’s the question, at least for my purposes. The foremost challenge of reviewing Mosaic is determining which version of Mosaic is the Mosaic I should review, which tiles or stones or fragments of glass demand close consideration, and which merely make up the outline of Mosaic’s shape. As such, I’ve landed on an unorthodox approach: a choose-your-own-adventure review. I’m no Steven Soderbergh, so the paths through this piece aren’t nearly as intricate as those of the series — if one can call it “a series” at all, on which point please proceed to the second page — but it does seem only fair to meet Mosaic where it lives, uncomfortably poised on the frontier of TV and digital storytelling. It is, certainly, a novelty, and at times an engaging one, though as with most adventures, it is focused, most of all, on staking out new terrain; with Mosaic, Solomon and Soderbergh plant a flag for the future, but the memorable edifices must come later, after the next wave of settlers arrives in town.
I’m reluctant to cite Lake here — for more on her, and Stone’s bristling performance, turn to page three — because her broader argument contains an insult to my own profession, but on the sterile affect of the Mosaic experiment, she has something of a point. “At the core of it, end of day,” she says of art, soused and slurry at Thanksgiving dinner, “you have to feel it.” This is where Mosaic departs from its namesake: As much an intellectual exercise as an emotional one, it has none of the roughness of devotional friezes or mythical inlays, none of the evidence that its virgin ground has been trod by human feet.
Once you’ve seen Mosaic’s “Story Map,” I hope you’ll forgive my exploration conceit: Its segments, beginning with “Meet Olivia Lake,” chart a winding course, its crisscrossing narrative rivers and trails suggesting several ways out West. I can’t help but be reminded, given the Rocky Mountain setting, of The Oregon Trail, with its profusion of choices, its forking paths: Mosaic’s interactive aspect, at least in app format, indeed owes something to gaming, luring viewers (users? players?) into the story by transforming us into participants in it. We become shadow screenwriters, after a fashion, deciding at the end of each segment which character to follow further. After our introduction to Olivia, for instance — see page three — we’re confronted with two possibilities: “First Contact,” focused on Joel Hurley (Garrett Hedlund), the hunky, hard-drinking aspiring artist Olivia invites to stay on her property in expectation of steamy tryst; and “The Set Up,” focused on Eric Neill (Frederick Weller), the charming con artist hired by an anonymous buyer to pry Olivia’s land from her resolute grasp.
It’s the design of the app, more than Soderbergh’s familiarly crisp aesthetic — for more, turn to the fourth page — that marks Mosaic as an innovation; perhaps the most arresting images in series, to wit, are the boldly graphic, expressionistic drawings that accompany each stop on its circuitous route. The one for “First Contact” presents Joel as a handsome man stretched into a three-eyed monster, his identity poised to melt, or warp, as he becomes embroiled in the investigation into Olivia’s murder; “The Set Up” positions Eric as a purplish menace, peering in on Olivia’s life from behind a fern. Each character is color-coded, their respective segments emblazoned with a unique symbol, though their roads, aptly enough, are constantly merging and diverting—Mosaic is only a kissing cousin to Rashomon, in that it shifts back and forth among its many perspectives, rather than considering one completely before moving onto the next. Still, one can spot Solomon and Soderbergh’s hands steering the larger ship; Eric’s arc soon fades into the backdrop, supplanted by that of his sister, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin)—Mosaic’s surprise protagonist, about whom you can read more on page five.
Most of the segments, which range in length from eight minutes to nearly 40, contain one or more sub-texts—they are called, fittingly, “Discoveries”—that pop up in the lower right-hand corner of the screen: Brief scenes from other strands in the narrative, or reminders of subtle turns in the plot; audio clips, mostly in the form of voicemails; even actual texts, supplemental newspaper articles and email threads paper-clipped to the prevailing narrative. I’m not sure the mystery of Olivia’s murder — both the who and, more precisely, the why, which I discuss on page six — merits such thorough investment, but even I, no amateur sleuth, can see in such elements the promise of natively digital storytelling. It’s wild, perhaps, to pause midstream to read a (faux) government report on a (fictional) cult known as the Church of Eventualism; it’s genuinely useful, particularly in a narrative with as many moving parts as this one, to be able to marshal related developments at the click of a button and then slip back into the current again. Mosaic is, at its finest, not a new form, exactly, but a scintillating hybrid: hyperlinked TV.
The desktop application is not without glitches: Twice I closed the Story Map, which requires a login, to attend to other things, and twice I was booted back to an earlier place in the story, then forced to click through segments I’d already seen to pick up where I left off. Then again, neither is the version airing on HBO: Here, Mosaic is a more or less standard rendition of the “two timelines” trope, moving between Olivia’s first encounters with Joel and Eric and the discovery of her remains four year later, upon which the local police re-open the investigation into her murder. (It’s notable that the HBO series begins not with Olivia in the past but with Joel in the present, as if Solomon and Soderbergh lost certain niceties of emphasis in Mosaic’s translation from the Story Map’s squiggles to the network’s straight lines.) In truth, the series’ foremost achievement is to destabilize the definition of “series” itself, to suggest the profusion of choices, the forking paths, by which “streaming,” broadly defined, might become a form with its own distinct possibilities. Some of these—segments, or “episodes,” of varying lengths— have featured prominently in webseries, but not yet made the leap to television in any significant way. Others—the redefinition of TV, long defined against cinema by its ongoing nature, as a medium capable of dealing in simultaneities, too—are tantalizingly fresh, extending the conceit of the occasional one-off (Mad Men’s sublime “Far Away Places” comes immediately to mind) beyond the length of a single installment. This is the flag of the future I mentioned, a signal that we’re on the cusp of undiscovered territory—one the new cartographers of TV have now begun to explore.
There’s a moment in “Meet Olivia Lake,” which also appears in the first episode of Mosaic, in which Stone briefly shrugs off the character’s confidence, as one might a sweater in a warm alpine lodge. Wealthy (though “overextended”), attractive, famous, philanthropic, Lake is no wallflower: She pursues Joel (Garrett Hedlund), tending bar at a fundraiser for Mosaic, most unabashedly, literally asking him to slake her thirst with a “tall and muscular” drink. But she is, beneath her brisk surface — one reminiscent of the series’ Soderbergh-ian cool, which you can read about on page four — a woman struggling to define her place, still living off the success of her long-ago debut.
The short scene in question comes during a flirtatious dinner with another suitor, a con man named Eric Neill (Frederick Weller), as she retreats to another part of the lodge to call up her pal JC (Paul Reubens, playing a Sex and the City-era relic of the Gay Best Friend). What’s so engrossing about it is the fact that Stone, alone on screen, conveys more of Lake’s vulnerabilities through enthusiasm than she does through upset—though there’s plenty of that to go around, too, including an Emmy-hungry meltdown and (much better) an icy joke, told through gritted teeth, when she meets Joel’s girlfriend, Laura (Maya Kazan). Defenses down, voice thick with liquor, her cautious but palpable excitement offers a glimpse of a woman eager for connection, so used to being holed up in a mountainside manse, or performing for an audience of well-wishers.
Olivia’s turns out not to be Mosaic’s key point of view — that would be Eric’s sister, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), for reasons I explain on page five — though she is its dramatic motor, and not only because her death is at the center of its mystery. Though it sounds a few overwrought notes, Stone’s performance is mesmerizing, not least because she consistently allows Olivia’s faint optimism to shine through the cracks in her steely façade; the tragedy is that this hope turns out to be false, the yearning for a “legacy,” in the form of Eric’s proposed expansion of Mosaic, ultimately dashed on the rocks of betrayal. There’s something potent in this, coming from an artist of Soderbergh’s stature: a “road not traveled” quality, in which the chameleonic filmmaker, always testing new styles, distribution strategies, media, forms — for more on this, return to page two — wonders what it might’ve been like to have stalled out after sex, lies, and videotape. (There’s also, of course, a gendered component to this, which Stone manages to channel even when it’s absent from the script.)
Disappointing, then, that Olivia should be snuffed out so quickly, presumed dead, though her body remains undiscovered, after her studio’s found spattered with blood. I suppose a murder mystery needs a murder, and thus a victim—I only wish it weren’t the most fascinating character, the one whose quicksilver moods, uncertain motivations, fragmented sense of self come closest to approximating the mosaic as a whole.
As a director, in both film and television, Soderbergh’s aesthetic is hard to pin down. His longevity, from the rise of American independents through the “platinum age” of television, seems to me inextricable from his adaptability, his willingness to bend his own style to that of his subject—I think always of the sun-bleached Southwest of the near-contemporaneous Erin Brockovich and Traffic, or the lush theatricality of Magic Mike and Behind the Candelabra, or the sheer slickness of the Ocean’s films.
If there’s a recognizable through line in his work this decade, though, it’s a sort of preternatural—and at times impenetrable—cool: the frightful chill of Contagion, in which the hero is not Matt Damon’s doting father but Jennifer Ehle’s matter-of-fact epidemiologist; the kinesthetic composure of the fight scenes in Haywire; the muted disorientations of Side Effects; and, most formidably, the invigorating modern thrum of The Knick. Such a style suits Mosaic, the subject of which is, centrally, about the dirtiness hidden beneath Summit’s pristine snowpack—literally, in the sense that the beryllium deposit under Olivia’s land becomes, as I discuss on page six, a possible motive in her murder. It also, to my mind, underscores the fact that the viewer’s investment in the series is more likely to be as an exercise in puzzle solving than as a character study in multiple keys. The main players are ciphers, figures adept at wearing masks, and Soderbergh depicts this with precision—what never quite comes is the moment at which the masks are peeled off.
Blinding whites, electric blues, garish oranges: The palette here is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Collateral, transported from the Los Angeles nightscape to a refined playground for the wealthy. This isn’t to say the aesthetic is entirely without its admirable rough edges. Joel, an outsider unsure of his place in Olivia’s life, in Summit, in the world, is often seen through wobbly, waist-level camerawork, a teetering figure on the verge of a tumble; Petra seems always to be facing the lens, whether Soderbergh’s turning the camera as she circles a desk or closing in on her over another character’s shoulder—she is, after all, as I write on page five, the series’ dominant perspective.
In the main, though, the (relative—this is still Soderbergh) lack of ornamentation closes us off to the characters’ inner lives, and by extension their motivations: “It is all about angle, isn’t it?” Petra says at one point, piecing together her own puzzle, but a number of key ones are shunted into the supplemental material. Take, for instance, the fact that Olivia and the local police chief, Alan Pape (Beau Bridges), were recently romantically entangled: The full extent of the affair, and his vicious response to its end, are brilliantly rendered as a chain of cringe-worthy emails, but these are, ultimately, off screen. Whether this is fascinating or frustrating may depend, in the end, on how deep you’re willing to plunge into Mosaic. In the context of the series’ cerebral nature, though—the sound is mostly an ambient whir; the underlying conspiracies are more nodded at than dramatized; the script pauses, self-consciously, to refer to true crime and television—I’m not sure it earns such commitment. It is, as its hardened surface suggests, a tough nut to crack, but the morsel inside the shell is not wholly satisfying.
After Petra’s brother, Eric, becomes the focus of the murder investigation—he has a criminal record, for one; he was engaged to be married to Olivia, for another—she emerges, in fits and starts, as the series’ central focus, or at least the person whose perspective is closest to the viewer’s. Pinning color-coded index cards to the wall like a much calmer Carrie Mathison, sifting through the same discoveries (information on the Church of Eventualism, for instance, about which I write on page six) that we do, she becomes the central vector of the mystery’s solution. It’s an unexpected development in a story built on multiple points of view, and indeed the possibility that we’ll never know for sure who killed Olivia, or why. It also speaks to the level of difficulty at which Solomon and Soderbergh are working: Mosaic, for all its innovations, is still, in certain fundamental ways, a TV series, and the temptation to focus on a single protagonist creeps in at the margins.
The foremost signal that this is the case is Mosaic’s use of voiceover. Petra’s is not the only voice we hear, but unlike Olivia, worrying about what Eric will find when he scythes through her outer layers as she tosses and turns in bed, or Joel, unraveling as he begins to suspect he might have harmed his landlord in an unremembered, drunken rage, she’s not talking to herself—she’s talking to us. She quotes a line from a film on the nature of lying, wonders why Olivia was involved with so many questionable men, and, in a crucial moment near the end of her arc, comments on her own actions: She expresses surprise at an unplanned decision she makes, immediately after she makes it.
Ferrin’s steely performance is of a piece with everything else in Mosaic (though why such a no-nonsense woman would agree to talk to a correspondent from Homicide is beyond me): She is, of course, in it to exonerate her brother, but besides the fact that their father was imprisoned for a Ponzi scheme, there’s little in the series to suggest why they’re so close, or why she goes to the lengths she does, or why, in the end, she accepts something less than true justice. Petra is cipher and cryptographer at once, and I began to suspect that she was in it as much for the satisfaction of solving the puzzle as anything else—perhaps the most worrisome turn in the narrative, given that hers is the perspective that most closely mirrors our own. As I wrote earlier this month of Netflix’s Dark, one of the dangers of overcomplicated TV is that the labyrinth is all there is. Petra’s arc makes me think Solomon and Soderbergh got caught in much the same maze, so thoroughly emphasizing the unraveling of the mystery that the human quotient becomes an afterthought.
Mosaic introduces two linked conspiracies—for lack of a better term—that might explain Olivia’s murder, in addition to the potential personal motives of the men in her orbit. (Joel, Eric, and Beau Bridges’ sheriff, Alan Pape, are all possible suspects, I suppose, though none of their relationships with Olivia would seem to explain go so far as to kill her, and in such brutal fashion.) One involves the Church of Eventualism, a cult with Cold War origins and ongoing ties to Cuba and Eastern Europe that promises adherents “a purported method for regaining control and mastery over their lives”—a sort of choose-your-own-adventure religion, in which decision seems to be treated as a form of divination, somehow capable of holding chance at arm’s length. (Of course fucking rich people would go in for this claptrap.) The other, most convincing and least explored, involves beryllium, a rare precious metal used in various weapons and defense systems—it’s worth a helluva lot of money, and much of the world’s stores of the resource are located under Summit and its surrounds.
It’s in the very first episode of the HBO series that Olivia’s surrogate son (and Mosaic benefactor), Michael O’Connor (James Ransone), under the guidance of his consigliere, Tom Davis (the quietly menacing Michael Cerveris, channeling The Godfather’s Tom Hagen), hires Eric to nudge Olivia toward selling her land to an anonymous buyer, with an eye to mining it. (This is after he tries to purchase it from her directly, offering an obscene amount of money that she turns down, despite being “overextended” financially, for apparently sentimental reasons.) In the final estimation, Mosaic is about all the ways we bury the truth beneath a mountain of lies—the unconfessed sins, the unacknowledged frailties, the greed hidden by charity or the con masquerading as love. The problem, of course, is that faith (even in ludicrous cult) and fortune (even from a lesser-known mineral), the two motives that historically tend to leave violence in their wake, remain mostly on Mosaic’s margins, themselves buried in documents and subplots that never really fuse into a larger picture.
The form of Mosaic is such that we’re not really given a firm answer as to what happened to Olivia Lake, but the profit motive is so much more likely than the others, especially in a community so soaked in money, that I’m not even sure the mystery on which it focuses its energies is all that mysterious. One of the promises of those choose-your-own-adventure novels I read as a kid was the suspense of many outcomes, each of which the narrative seemed to lend equal weight. Mosaic is an often inventive experiment in what the structure of a TV series really is, or could be—it offers a structural formula for future creators to build from—but as with most experiments, it’s testing hypotheses, not discovering penicillin. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure project that can’t generate a sense of adventure, a scientist’s gambit: Its most seductive materials are contained in tubes and beakers and Petri dishes, alluring on the surface but still trapped behind glass.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.