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Notes From a ‘Too Old to Die Young’ Completist

Having endured all 13 hours of Nicolas Winding Refn’s absurdist Amazon series, one writer muses on the show’s dream logic, graphic violence, fashion choices … and aliens

Amazon/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

During hour 12 of Too Old to Die Young, a new show streaming on Prime Video that frequently gets bored of its own rules, Micah Peters’s brain began to melt out of his ears. Here are the notes we recovered from his apartment.

1. I think the only thing Nicolas Winding Refn loves more than the emboldening anonymity of driving around Los Angeles at night—or the idea that there’s anything bohemian about tossing a giant TV show up on Amazon—is a stoic antihero. In the entire runtime of Drive, Ryan Gosling has 116 lines, and speaks a total of 891 words. You’re meant to gather your understanding of “Driver” from Bryan Cranston and Carey Mulligan, as well as the way Gosling stares anxiously into a rearview mirror and when he chooses to take his driving gloves off or put them on. It works because Gosling’s neutral face is so effective in a reaction shot that it’s comical—remember “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal”? Ryan McHenry, who created the original Vine, died of osteosarcoma in 2015 at the age of 27. Gosling finally ate his cereal in tribute. I loved that.

2. Leads in Refn’s films are necessarily blank slates—any Refn movie is less about the story or any character than the way both are packaged, if that makes sense. In Too Old to Die Young, it takes more than 10 minutes and a full, winding monologue about power dynamics in modern relationships before Miles Teller, the show’s most recognizable face, even says a word.

3. Too Old is 10 episodes, with an average runtime of an hour and 15 minutes. At Cannes, Refn showed Episodes 4 and 5, claiming that Too Old was (a) safe to watch out of order, and (b) meant to be consumed as a 13-hour movie, as if that were a thing, particularly in this economy. The longest nondocumentary in film history, according to IMDb, is the 95-hour 2006 drama Matrjoschka. In it, “a German girl eats yogurt, looks through a phonebook, and tries to sleep on a couch to no avail.” At least 29 people have attempted to conquer this movie; it has a 4.4 rating out of 10.

4. Refn’s Los Angeles is cavernous and sterile, a beautiful place too brutal for anyone to actually live in. It almost feels alien at times. It feels especially alien in the desert.

All screenshots via Amazon

5. I’m writing this only just now, when the show has been out since mid-June, because on several occasions I balked at the pilot’s 93-minute runtime and decided to watch Fullmetal Alchemist instead.

6. In Drive, a getaway driver takes on the wrong job, endangers both himself and his next-door neighbors, and more or less has to murder his way to safety. Too Old is a similarly straightforward story, stretched over a 13-hour block. Dirty cops knock off a crime boss, and the son of said crime boss seeks revenge while Miles Teller (one of the dirty cops) tries to orient his moral compass. This means we spend a lot of time exploring subplots. Episode 2 is a cartel opera in which the son of the late crime boss, Jesus (Augusto Aguilera), goes to Mexico, takes a cocaine shower, and executes 11 police officers.

7. I’ve been thinking about how a show as eventful as Too Old can also be so … “boring” isn’t the right word, but it really does test your endurance. A routine traffic stop seemingly lasts for half an hour; a tracking shot through the desert, an entire afternoon. Plot details are communicated using the least amount of dialogue possible, and I swear Jesus is just there to glower, purse his lips, shed clothing, and become increasingly Bastet-like.

8. This is a shot from Episode 8, which Chris Ryan told me was “the craziest shit he’s seen on television.” Tom swallowing his own load at a sex party in the first season of Succession was the subject of a lot of internet hoopla, for days, and the act happened offscreen. I would worry about anyone (myself) who watched Too Old up to this point—there are many other things you could be doing with your time, like volunteering somewhere, being with loved ones, or communing with nature. But if you did, you’d be ashamed of any other time you deployed the word “edgy” to describe a TV show. In “The Hanged Man,” you see Jesus do the following: receive the most violent and dispassionate handjob ever, swallow his own cum, get sodomized with a whip, and hack Miles Teller to pieces with a machete. Also! It’s at this point that the show decides, “You know what?!?!?!? Aliens.”

9. Too Old abides by dream logic. There’s surreality at the edges of every shot, the story begins near the middle and never actually resolves itself, and things we stew on for hours at a time ultimately don’t matter. The plot is one of revenge but the narrative is more concerned with proselytizing about where society is headed, or something. Refn is much more interested in color, texture, noise, and silence than in words or motivations or reasoning. Any meaning you take from Too Old is probably subtext, and probably not all that meaningful. But man is it fun to look at.

10. Gosling’s white silk scorpion jacket from Drive is one of the most iconic looks in movie history—subforums huddle around replicas. There are still trend pieces, eight years later, about his henleys and type-III trucker jackets. Too Old has neither the benefit of being all that good or having front-page promotion on its native streaming service, so there’s only a slim chance that people will latch on to Yaritza’s “High Priestess of Death” jacket in the same way. (Yaritza is Jesus’s wife, who moonlights as a vigilante, killing men who commit acts of sexual violence against women.) There’s also a slim chance that I’m going to survive another two episodes of this show. The jacket is fire though.

11. So a thing about the aliens: The concept is maybe not as left field as I initially thought. Or at least there’s sort of a precedent? Don’t get me wrong, once Jesus has finished mincing Miles Teller and the skein in reality opens up to reveal a shiny, silvery demon, I decided it was time to go to the third-closest CVS for Q-tips. At 1 a.m. Too Old is co-written by Ed Brubaker, who created a comic series called Kill or Be Killed that ran from 2016 to 2018. It, too, is a pulpy meditation on whether violence is ever truly justified, and follows a 28-year-old grad student named Dylan who attempts suicide. Dylan is then visited by a demon that explains the terms of his new lease on life: Kill one person, live one more month. In Too Old, Viggo (John Hawkes), who pulls Miles Teller’s character Martin into this moonlighting job where the two kill pederasts and sex traffickers, is most like Dylan. Viggo has nothing else—you know this because he says as much. He’s also old and dying—you know this because he’s always hacking up a lung. Jena Malone plays a social worker-cum-Madame-Web character named Diana; she’s most like the demon.

12. The finale, which is confoundingly only half an hour long, begins with a prolonged sequence in which Diana masturbates while wearing VR goggles. She dances around her house to Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La” and gives a big speech about how soon, “violence will become erotic, and torture euphoric.” Yaritza goes into the brothel run by her husband and kills all the men. So, uh, the women survive, and no one actually wins.

13. Ultimately—save for long, acutely ideological monologues about casual cruelty and the banality of evil—I think you can project whatever meaning you want onto Too Old to Die Young. It can be a prescient masterwork, a brilliant reflection of the times, or an excuse to cobble together some really cool car chases and nightclub sequences set to sparse electro music. Either way, it kind of just, ends.