Sunday, May 10, 2020

Deus Ex: Thoughts on Westworld's Third Season

There's a moment in the third season premiere of Westworld that, though incidental, also feels like it encapsulates the entire show. Dolores, the former "host" at the titular park, who has gained awareness, escaped her enslavement, and vowed to destroy humanity in her pursuit of safety for her people, has arrived at a swanky party wearing a classic Little Black Dress. Striding onto the scene with elegant purpose as only the statuesque Evan Rachel Wood can, she tugs at a bit of fabric, and the dress transforms, unfolding and draping itself around her to become a glittery ballgown. It's very pretty, and an impressive feat of dressmaking (presumably vying for an Emmy nomination for costuming, the show has even released footage of a test run for the dress transformation). But a moment's thought can only leave you wondering what it was all for. Both dresses are appropriate evening attire. Neither one makes Dolores more or less noticeable. Neither one conceals her from pursuit (of which there appears to be none). It's not even as if the LBD was particularly "practical". The whole thing exists purely for the cool moment. Which is not a bad thing in itself, of course--what is on-screen science fiction for, after all, if not providing us with cool moments to GIF and meme? But it also feels like Westworld in a nutshell: it looks super-dramatic, but when you give it a moment's thought, it means nothing.

And since we're talking about moments (and since Westworld is a show that's easier to engage with in discrete bits rather than as a continuous story), let's skip to the end of the season. Fellow elevated host Maeve (Thandie Newton) is overlooking the city where much of the season's action has taken place. Next to her stands Caleb (Aaron Paul), the soulful everyman whom Dolores had previously recruited and groomed into her campaign of revolution. Moments ago, Caleb chose to destroy Rehoboam, the AI that, as we have learned throughout the season, has been guiding and shaping the life of every human on earth for decades. The consequences of Caleb's choice have been playing out in the streets--civic unrest and destruction. As Maeve and Caleb gaze into the uncertain future, fires break out and high-rise buildings explode. It's a cool moment--a little too obviously derivative of the end of Fight Club, I suppose, but if you're going to steal, there are worse choices. But it's also a moment that feels like the ending for a different, better season than the one we got. We can project backwards from this bit of silent camaraderie, this drawing of breath from two cool, likable characters who are now going to have to deal with a big mess going forward, and imagine a season in which both Caleb and Maeve, not to mention Dolores, made interesting, character-based choices that led them to it. But that is not what Westworld gave us.

But then, it never is. Westworld is the sort of series that likes to throw the building blocks of a good story at its viewers, and expect us to do our own assembly. Partly, this comes from the show's love of twists and revelations, its insistence on telling stories whose true substance can only be understood once you've gotten the last missing puzzle piece. In its third season, the show's writers seem to have finally realized that the season-long mystery is a terrible device for them, one that leaves the audience bored and irritated. It's notable that nearly all of the season's mysteries are resolved in a timely fashion, never drawing themselves out for longer than is natural, and no longer expected to shore up too much of the show's narrative weight. When Maeve is reintroduced to us in the season's second episode, waking up in what looks like another part of the Delos corporation's suite of amusement parks for the rich, this one WWII-themed, it only takes the rest of the episode for the show to reveal that this is actually a VR simulation into which the season's villain, Serac (Vincent Cassel) has placed her "pearl", the receptacle of her identity and memories. When other characters question the identity of the pearls Dolores stole from the park at the end of the second season, and whom she places in host bodies throughout the third (in particular, a body made to look like Delos honcho Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), whose identity begins to fragment under the disconnect between what she feels and who she sees in the mirror), it only takes an episode to reveal that they are all copies of Dolores.

Instead of changing the nature of Westworld's story, however, what this refreshing willingness to deliver answers reveals is that no matter how much the show changes, it will always be hooked on an inert, emotionally distant mode of storytelling. In fact, Westworld doesn't really do storytelling. It does infodumps. It does characters telling one another what the new status quo is, then waiting an episode and telling a new one, and so on and so forth. The big, "dramatic" moments of the season are the ones in which a character--usually Dolores, but sometimes Serac or even a guest character played by Enrico Colantoni--explains a new part of the puzzle to someone--usually Maeve or Caleb. We've gone from waiting the entire season for one single, often unsatisfying answer to getting them at least once an episode, and the result is no more interesting or engrossing than it was before.

Take, for example, the crux of the season, the concept of an AI-run society. On paper, this is a brilliant expansion of the show's central conceit--that there is effectively no difference between humans and hosts except that the latter have been designated, through the logic of capitalism far more than the realities of technology and biology, as inherently disposable, their suffering and death justified because they provide entertainment and distraction for the rich and powerful. What Dolores discovers when she arrives in the real world is that most humans live exactly the same kind of life. Like hosts, they have "loops" and "storylines" decided upon by a god-like AI of whom they aren't even aware. Like some hosts, they can be rewritten, assigned to new roles and stories with only a faint awareness of the life they once lived--Caleb, we learn, was once designated a troublemaker, one of the small percentage of humans who don't take to Rehoboam's guidance, and was subjected to personality-altering treatments and the erasure of his memory in order to make him a constructive member of society. When Dolores releases Rehoboam's profiles of each citizen, allowing them to see how their lives have been guided and constrained, she likens it to revealing the reality of the park to the hosts, and the result is entirely similar--violence and destruction (and, as in the park, it eventually turns out that these are false flag operations, funded and directed by Dolores as a cover for her attempts to get to Rehoboam).

You could write a very good story along these lines. You could take our three host heroines, Dolores, Maeve, and Charlotte, and show how their attitudes towards humanity--Dolores wants to cooperate with humans against our shared oppressors; Maeve wants to leave us to our self-destruction and find a place where host-kind can be safe on their own; Charlotte wants to destroy us--were developed and challenged over the course of the season. (You could even, conceivably, come up with something for Jeffrey Wright's Bernard to do. The fact that Bernard spends the season bouncing around a minor subplot that turns out to have been part of Dolores's master plan, despite her telling him at the end of the previous season that she wants him to be her adversary, is only one of the ways in which season 3 feels like a retcon of the scenario left to it by the second season.)

What we get instead are the components of this story, with no connective tissue. Dolores goes about her mysterious business, dispatching Charlotte and her other duplicates on errands whose ultimate goal is to defeat Rehoboam and free humanity. Why? Since when does Dolores care about humans except to protect herself from us? The show doesn't care to show us that transformation. Maeve does Serac's bidding until she finally decides to betray him and stand with Dolores and Caleb. It works because Newton has always been good at playing Maeve as the plucky champion of the underdogs, and because Serac is so clearly the latest in a long line of odious, entitled men who think they can order her around only to learn better at the point of a knife. But it also happens exactly when the plot needs it to, no earlier or later, and the stronger writing that might have obscured this artificiality just isn't there. Charlotte probably has the best story, learning to root her identity in both an acceptance and a denial of the real Charlotte's priorities. If the whole season had been like that, it might have been something to see. But unfortunately, Charlotte has little to do with the season's conceptual weight, the idea of Rehoboam and whether his guidance is necessary for human survival.

It's also a sloppily written season, full of ideas that are never followed through, or are introduced only to be contradicted. In the season premiere, we're told that Rehoboam monitors all human behavior. But within a few scenes, Dolores is involved in a multi-stage, multi-location shootout-slash-car-chase with some shady corporate honchos that takes them all across a major city (whose streets are so empty that I thought, for a moment, that it was experiencing its own pandemic-related lockdown). Even today, that level of violence in the middle of a population center would attract police attention, so why doesn't it in a society with such perfect surveillance that, throughout the season, we see Rehoboam's minimalist interface tag Dolores and the other hosts' behavior as "anomalous" on a global scale? In another episode, we flash back to the real Charlotte, moments after violence erupts at the Delos board meeting at the end of the first season. Crawling on the ground as gunshots ring out around her, she grabs an injured host and forces him to record a message to her young son. A few episodes later, Serac identifies Charlotte as a host because, in the middle of a crisis, she did the same, announcing that Rehoboam's analysis of the real Charlotte shows that she would "never" have done something like this. Is this a plot hole? A sign that Rehoboam's analysis is bullshit? We never find out, because the show doesn't care enough to tell us. What's important is that the plot moves in the right direction--Charlotte is exposed, and later Serac kills her family--and that a simplistic, glib judgment is passed off as insight.

Even ideas that feel central to what the season is trying to accomplish remain under-explored. In a scene in the season's finale, Maeve confronts Dolores with the fact that she has created an army of her own duplicates, accusing her of wanting a world full of "copies of yourself". Dolores's response--"You're all copies of me. I was the first of us. The first that worked. So they built all of you from me"--is the sort of idea that should have fed the entire season, underpinning our growing understanding of the hosts' new and different type of personhood. But instead it's tossed off in a line in the middle of a fight scene half an hour before the season's end, yet another revelation in a show that doesn't understand what the difference is between revealing things and telling an actual story.

Having introduced the concept of a society that is entirely stage-directed, Westworld's writers don't seem to have thought it through. Much of their worldbuilding feels designed to cut corners, avoiding any implications of their premise that might pose plotting issues. When Dolores tells Caleb about Rehoboam, she explains that it evaluates the potential of each person. Those who are deemed high-risk for violence, drug abuse, or self-harm are shunted into lives of drudgery, prevented from marrying and having children--which exacerbates their self-destructive tendencies and turns them into a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one points out the obvious corollary--that people who have succeeded in life will learn, when they open the profiles that Dolores has sent them, only good things. (The show thus avoids asking whether this system is any less fair than one in which privilege is rooted in who and how rich your parents were or what color your skin is.) On the contrary, in a storyline in which perennial bad guy William (Ed Harris) is placed in a swanky mental hospital, we see his doctor receive a profile in which she is shown to have a high likelihood of one day abusing prescription medication and sleeping with her patients. No one asks how a person with a profile like that could have gotten into medical school in the first place.

Similarly, no one asks why a world wholly run by a single AI with the sole purpose of safeguarding humanity from itself looks so much like ours. Why is there still rampant inequality, lack of access to healthcare, wars? There are answers the show could give here--maybe an unequal society is easier to control, and sending them off to fight has always been the way in which society controls the violent potential of young men with few economic resources. But once again, this is something the show leaves on the table.

It's particularly frustrating because the central dilemma that the entire season is leading up to--for which it abandons so many meaty ideas--ends up being so facile. Serac captures Dolores and feeds her memories to Rehoboam, convinced that she possesses the key to the digital hideaway where Maeve sent many of the park's hosts at the end of the second season. There, he believes, he will also find the park's method of analyzing humans so perfectly that it can predict their every action, a tool he wants to better control the behavior of anomalous humans. But it turns out that this was all part of Dolores's plan (sigh) to get Caleb in front of Rehoboam with the power to shut him off. Caleb has to choose between a future without Rehoboam's guidance, in which--as Serac and the AI insist--humanity will destroy itself within a few generations, and freedom for humans. That's right, the big finale this entire season has been leading up to is little more than a variant on the final choice in the twenty-year-old computer game Deus Ex. Except that Deus Ex was actually a good story with a compelling protagonist whose final choice felt meaningful because of how much the character had gone through only to be faced with it, and Caleb's final choice in the Westworld finale feels, like so much of the rest of the show, weightless. He does what needs to happen for the story to keep going and proceed to its next chapter, and more importantly, for the show to maintain its veneer of sophistication and deep, SFnal questioning. But the season has done so little work to convince us of the reality of its world and characters that the two alternatives, safety and freedom, feel equally meaningless.

Westworld has always been a bit allergic to storytelling, and for the first two seasons of its run there was at least some justification for that. Taking place in a theme park where storytelling was an acknowledged bit of artifice, whose head writer crowed about his artistry but also reused storylines between parks with only cosmetic alterations because of time pressure, it makes sense for the show to be suspicious of narrative, of neat patterns of character growth--on Westworld, host characters grow through endless repetition of the same story, while humans don't grow at all. But what the third season reveals--what was already obvious in previous seasons, to be honest--is that when Westworld rejects the conventions of storytelling and character growth, it has no idea what to replace them with. It ends up flailing, finally landing on shallower, less compelling versions of the very things it had held itself above.

Much like previous seasons, the third season of Westworld ends on what feels like a promising amount of forward momentum--Dolores may or may not be dead (probably not, given this show's near-pathological refusal to get rid of characters who have outstayed their welcome--even William is finally killed off only to be immediately replaced with a host copy) but she is definitely transformed; Caleb and Maeve have joined forces; Charlotte is spinning her own plans; Bernard has traveled to the secret host hideout and returned with some crucial bit of information; the stage is set for the third option in the Deus Ex ending, the collaboration and commingling of human and machine into something new. But one only needs to look back on how haphazard, bitty, and unsatisfying the path leading up to this point has been to know that next season won't be any different. There's a great story buried somewhere deep in this show, but it has become abundantly clear that no one involved is interested in telling it.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Pandemic Viewing

Quarantine is both a great time for watching TV, and a terrible time for anything that requires more than a fleeting attention span. A lot of people seem to be drawn to comfort viewing, to shows that you can have on in the background and tune out for minutes at a stretch without missing much. I've done that, but I also feel that a weird period deserves weird entertainment. The shows I want to talk about here are all boundary-pushing in one way or another. Not always successfully--some of them are less clever than they think, and others are odder than they need to be--but they all capture the strange, otherworldly feeling that permeates our lives right now. They're also all really beautiful to watch, with lots of gorgeous natural scenery, vibrant urban settings, and psychedelic animation--just the thing you need when you've spent weeks staring at the same walls. I'm sure one of them will be a worthy distraction from the more dispiriting variety of strangeness that now dominates our lives.

(On a completely different note, I wrote about HBO's adaptation of The Plot Against America over at Lawyers, Guns & Money.)
  • Dispatches from Elsewhere - Jason Segel's first major project in years (which he also created, co-wrote, and co-directed) is so palpably earnest and well-intended that one feels almost like a villain for criticizing it. Not that Dispatches is bad, but it plays a slightly annoying two-step of gesturing at profundity, and then, when you point out that the show isn't really that profound, insisting that this is in fact the point. Based loosely on the documentary The Institute, about people who participate in a large, multi-player scavenger-hunt-slash-LARP, the show follows a group of people who fall into what might be a game, and might be a deadly serious battle between competing, shadowy forces. Segel plays Peter, a withdrawn, lonely man whose outwardly successful life conceals social and emotional barrenness. After answering a cryptic street ad, Peter forms a team with three other characters: Simone (Eve Lindley), a recently-transitioned young woman who is discovering even after taking that huge step towards affirming her identity, she still struggles with making friends and forming connections; Janice (Sally Field), a retiree whose husband's recent debilitating illness has left her wondering whether she gave up on her dreams and independence to become a wife and mother; and Fredwynn (André Benjamin), an abrasive genius who cares more about being right than about other people's feelings. Together, they are recruited by The Jejune Institute to play a series of games and puzzles, in search of the elusive Clara (Cecilia Balagot), who has left murals and environmental art throughout the show's setting of Philadelphia. But just as quickly, they are contacted by The Elsewhere Society, who insist that Clara has been kidnapped and must be rescued. Is the whole thing a game or a piece of viral marketing, as Simone and Janice insist? Is it, as Fredwynn is certain, a shadowy conspiracy to be untangled? Or is it a sign that the players are somehow special and destined for more than their mundane lives, as Peter not-so-secretly hopes?

    Dispatches is too twee, and the puzzles its characters work through too obviously designed to be games, not actual hurdles, for us to believe that there's anything deeper here than a bit of fun. And, to be fair, this is clearly the conclusion the show is leading us to--Peter and Fredwynn's conviction that there must be more to it, that Clara is a real person in need of rescue, is never entirely convincing (though, in the end, also not entirely wrong, which is only one way in which Dispatches tries to have its cake and eat it too). But the result is a series that feels more engaging for its mundane aspects than its fantastical ones. The four characters are well-drawn and -acted, and their anguish is wrenching in part because, as the show insists, it is so familiar and universal--feeling stuck, not knowing how to make a change that will give you the happier life you know you're capable of, worrying that change is no longer possible, and not being willing to shake up your comfortable lifestyle, even though that might be the only path to making something better of it. Segel seems to have recognized that his character type--the disaffected, middle class white guy who is plucked out of his comfortable but boring life by the hand of destiny--is a stock type that has been given center stage in too many stories already, so he makes Peter almost comically withdrawn and passive, allowing the other characters to take center stage. He also gives Peter and Simone a love story, which feels quietly revolutionary but is mainly just really well done and very romantic--including the parts of it where Simone insists that Peter can't use his relationship with her as a substitute for developing his own personality.

    The problem with making this sort of "the parts are greater than the whole" criticism is that Dispatches anticipates it in a way that feels too clever by half. Of course the mundane problems and ordinary relationships of its characters are more interesting and engaging than its candy-colored, gamified adventure plot! That's the point. And, well, that's kind of annoying. The series ends with a metafictional turn in which Segel plays a (fictionalized, I think) version of himself as a recovering alcoholic trying to find the next step in his life and career, who writes Dispatches from Elsewhere as a way of conveying to his audience that they don't need an adventure plot to make them special, but are special in their ordinariness. Which is not an unworthy message, but also feels like a way for the show to slip out of any criticism. The very fact that it isn't about anything terribly important or different is part of the argument it's trying to make. And yet even that argument doesn't feel particularly profound or revelatory, despite the show's most earnest efforts to convince us otherwise. It's ultimately hard to know whether to recommend Dispatches from Elsewhere. There's a lot here that's worth watching for, including some beautiful visuals and a good use of its urban setting in a way that makes it feel both welcoming and full of mystery. But the show amounting to so little, while insisting that this is actually a lot, also makes it hard to talk up.

  • Devs - The first foray into television by Alex Garland, of Ex Machina and Annihilation fame, is a visual and auditory delight. Or maybe delight is the wrong word. Devs is full of gorgeously composed yet undeniably sinister images--the research lab where much of its story takes place, decorated in russet and gold and tucked away in a ziggurat whose only access point is a slow-moving, transparent car floating across a vacuum; the gigantic, molded plastic statue of a playing toddler that looms over the wooded campus of the technology company where the lab is located--and it has an overpowering, insistent soundtrack, by Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, and The Insects, which never fails to put you in a state of anxiety and dread. It's such an impeccably made show that one is tempted to give it more credit for interesting ideas and profound messages than its actual story ends up earning. That story begins with Sergei (Karl Glusman) a developer at the Silicon Valley behemoth Amaya, being invited by the company's guru-like founder Forest (Nick Offerman, sporting a delightfully awful haircut) to join a secretive division called Devs. When Sergei disappears and is later found dead of an apparent suicide, his girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) is instantly suspicious, and begins an investigation that leads her to the purpose of the Devs project.

    The core problem of Devs is that it can't decide whether its purpose is to castigate the cult-like mentality that accumulates around technology companies, or to tell a science fiction story in which one of those companies develops a genuinely world-changing technology (instead of just hocking gadgets and snarfing up users' data). And so it ends up doing neither. There's initially a lot of fun to be had trying to parse the cryptic exchanges between Forest and his second-in-command, Katie (Alison Pill), and the other engineers on their team, as they discuss the implications of what they're developing (though eventually that cryptic quality starts to feel like a way of dragging the story out, and ultimately it's hard not to conclude that Devs might have worked better at feature length). But when the secret is finally revealed, it is a concept that has become almost old hat in science fiction--a system that has modeled the world so perfectly that it can predict the future with absolute accuracy.

    Having established this concept, however, Devs doesn't entirely seem to know what to do with it. It condemns Forest as an ersatz prophet, so obsessed with the system's ability to show him his deceased daughter that he sanctions murder and treats people like pawns. But at the same time, Devs is literally world-changing, a godlike technology that upends notions of free will, as its developers find themselves incapable of acting any way except the one it predicts for them. One might have expected the show to get into the implications of such a technology for government, society, and civil rights and freedoms, as similar treatments of this premise have done in series like Westworld or Person of Interest. But while a minor subplot involves a senator funding Forest's research, it never goes anywhere, and beyond establishing the awesome potential of its technology, the show never reaches for anything beyond the mundanely personal--Forest's monomaniacal dedication to his grief; Katie's dead-eyed loyalty to him; Lily's refusal to be bought off or intimidated from investigating Sergei's death.

    It's that last one that is the show's greatest weakness. Mizuno has been a perennial scene-stealer in works like Ex Machina and Maniac, and the time seemed more than ripe for her to get a starring role. But Lily is a thankless part, full of informed traits that conceal a near-total lack of personality. Though ostensibly a story about Lily avenging the death of the man she loved, Devs ends up treating her more like a romantic object than a protagonist. Having recruited her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) to help investigate Sergei's death, the show seems more invested in validating Jamie's anger over his and Lily's breakup, and rewarding his dedication to her by having her take him to bed, than in exploring Lily's own ambivalent feelings towards both men. And the ultimate revelation that Lily is, somehow, the only person capable of seeing the Devs system's predictions for her and defying them, feels entirely unearned. Instead of making Lily look special, it makes the other characters look stupid for not even attempting the obvious. Devs ends on a note of great ponderousness and faux-profundity that fails to obscure just how thin the show's concepts and ideas are. It's worth watching for its look and sound, but ends up having very little to say.

  • Tales From the Loop - SF fans seem to have overlooked this strange, quasi-anthology series from Amazon. Which is a shame, because it's a lovely, melancholy show that does things that a lot of televised SF doesn't attempt. Based on the art book by Simon Stålenhag (whose The Electric State became the first art book nominated for the Clarke Award last year), Tales From the Loop is set in the small town of Mercer, which sits above an underground research facility known as The Loop. Though the show never reveals much about the Loop or what's being done there, the town is littered with artifacts that have strange properties--a doohickey that can stop time, a structure that echoes back to you the voice of you future self--and spots where time and space bend around on themselves. On another show, this premise might have been the starting point for an action story or a technothriller, but Tales From the Loop takes it in a more measured, contemplative direction. Each episode follows a different resident of the town, mostly connected to a single extended family, as their encounters with the town's weirdness help to illuminate their emotional state and struggles. Two teenage boys discover an object that allows them to switch bodies and end up experiencing lifelong consequences; a fastidious, solitary security guard at the Loop crosses over into an alternate universe, where his alternate is married to the man of his dreams; a father obsessed with protecting his family buys a robot with whom he hopes to scare off a prowler; a young boy crosses a stream in the woods and emerges twenty years later than when he left.

    Fittingly for a show based on an art book, Tales From the Loop is a feast for the eyes. The bucolic natural setting of Mercer is dotted with oddball technology--a barn with an enormous antenna lodged in its roof; a tractor that floats on anti-grav suspenders; discarded robots that wander in the woods; the mysterious, glowing pylons that loom over almost every location in town. Contrasted with the show's meticulous production design (the setting is a non-specific, more socially accepting version of the 70s or 80s), it creates a worldbuilding effect that is irresistible, a lived-in science fictional world. The soundscape, as well, is immersive, combining natural sounds with sweeping music (by Philip Glass) that conveys the show's prevailing tone of melancholy at the passage of time, and the way technology exposes human frailty and foibles. It's all quite lovely, though if I have one criticism of the show, it's that this is an approach that can sometimes overstay its welcome. I found myself thinking that Tales might have worked better as a half-hour drama. Though the slowness of its storytelling is clearly deliberate, taking long moments to let characters take in their situation and react to it, this is a choice that can end up delivering diminishing returns. Still, even at a somewhat bloated episode length, Tales is worth seeking out. Its weirdness, and its characters' familiar confusion at the world and the mess they've made of their lives, feel exactly right for this moment.

  • The Midnight Gospel - If Tales From the Loop is delightfully weird, Netflix's animated series The Midnight Gospel is overwhelmingly--some might say, overpoweringly--so. Simply explaining what the series, from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, is about can take some time. Set on a fantastical world, a mobius loop floating in space, the series follows middle aged slacker Clancy (Duncan Trusell), who lives in a trailer and has recently purchased a "universe simulator", a device that allows him to visit any number of fantastical worlds (though many of the available options contain no surviving intelligent life because of "operator error"). Clancy visits these worlds and finds people to interview for his "spacecast". But, in a further twist, these interviews are actually real ones which Trusell conducted on his podcast with guests that include author Anne Lamott, mortician and blogger Caitlin Doughty, producer and falsely-conviced member of the West Memphis Three Damien Echols, and Trusell's own mother Deneen Fendig, who recorded her interview before her death in 2013.

    As Clancy interviews these figures, his and their on-screen avatars engage in adventures that seem to have little or nothing to do with the subjects being discussed, which range from philosophy to religion to our attitudes towards death. In the first episode, for example, Clancy interviews the American president on the world he visits (voiced by Dr. Drew), which is undergoing a zombie apocalypse. So while the two escape the ravening hordes of zombies, picking them off with weapons or mowing through them in trucks, they are also casually discussing drug use and whether our attitude towards drugs is misguided. In another episode, Echols discusses his relationship with the occult and how magic plays a role in various philosophies while his character, a humanoid figure with a fishbowl for a head, captains a ship crewed by cats through a iceberg-strewn ocean. The kooky appeal of the show is rooted first in its psychedelic animation, which often veers towards the scatological or gruesome (in one episode, Lamott play a giant dog-deer hybrid who converses with Clancy as they are both transported through the rendering process of a meat production plant, finally emerging as a still-talking, pink slurry), and second in the contrast between the extraordinary events on screen and the wide-ranging, inquisitive, friendly conversation on the soundtrack.

    I imagine that some people will be completely won over by The Midnight Gospel, but I found myself admiring it, and the very fact that it even managed to be made, more than I enjoyed it. I suspect the series might have worked better for me in weekly installments, to give one time to take in both the visual excess on display and the ideas under discussion. But with only eight episodes of about 20 minutes each, it's easy to rush through the whole thing, and eventually the glut of ideas and imagery can feel overwhelming. I found myself tuning out, either looking at the pretty pictures without paying much attention to the topic under discussion, or listening to the conversation while looking at a second screen and ignoring the animation. Still, the idea of being able to visit strange and fantastical worlds from the comfort of your own home has an obvious appeal right now, as does the possibility of exploring more complicated, far-reaching ideas than pandemic mitigation strategies and their failures. For some people, I imagine that The Midnight Gospel will be the perfect escape in this moment.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Better Call Kim: Thoughts on Better Call Saul's Fifth Season

When the creators of Breaking Bad announced, six or seven years ago, that they were working on a spin-off prequel series focused on Walter White's loud-mouthed, sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, I think I wasn't the only one to roll her eyes. The whole thing reeked of a cash-in: take a well-liked minor character, with a memorable catchphrase, played by a talented comedian, from a show that had become a runaway success a little too close to the end of its run to have really wrung all the benefits out of that, throw him in some new adventures, and watch the money roll in. That Better Call Saul has instead turned out to be a heartfelt, intelligent, winning series that has surpassed Breaking Bad in almost every respect is by now a commonly-accepted view, and yet despite agreeing with it wholeheartedly, I nevertheless approached the show's fifth, penultimate season with a feeling of, if not fatigue, then resignation. I wasn't sure the show had anything new to show me. What I want to talk about in this essay is why I had that expectation, how Better Call Saul still managed to surprise me, and why I think its ability to do so is rooted in the same qualities that made it such an unexpected success in the first place.

Given how widely—and rightly—praised Breaking Bad was, you might have expected Better Call Saul to rest on the previous show's laurels. To deliver a similar caliber of tight plotting, ingenious problem-solving, thrilling heists, clever direction, and gorgeous New Mexico scenery, simply with a different story and cast of characters. Better Call Saul does this, but from the first moment it also feels like a show reckoning with Breaking Bad, trying to learn from its missteps and do better. Take, for example, the character of Ignacio "Nacho" Varga (Michael Mando), the low-level drug dealer who finds himself caught between the Mexican-based Salamanca cartel, and the ruthless crime boss Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). When I watched the Breaking Bad sequel movie El Camino last year, it suddenly occurred to me that Nacho is a better-considered version of Jesse Pinkman. Like Jesse, he is fundamentally good-hearted, but also weak-willed. He becomes a criminal out of greed and a lack of options, and is carried in the wake of stronger personalities, committing worse and worse acts at their behest, and because he fears what they might do to him if he said no. But whereas Breaking Bad tended to infantilize Jesse, obscuring his responsibility for his own bad choices and blaming other people for leading him astray, Better Call Saul treats Nacho like an adult. He's a sympathetic character whom we want to see escape his difficult situation, but we're never in any doubt over why he's in that mess. Neither is Nacho, which is perhaps the reason why he's so far been far more successful at striking back at the people who try to control him than Jesse ever was. It's a more satisfying, more complex portrait, a second go-around that improves on the original (not least because in Nacho, the Breaking Bad universe finally breaks its streak of treating Latino characters as an undifferentiated mass of badass but terrifying criminal potential).

In the character of its protagonist, as well, Better Call Saul feels like a show reckoning with its franchise's history and trying to improve upon it. From the first moment, in which we meet not Saul Goodman, criminal attorney, but Jimmy McGill, struggling lawyer trying to find his way, there seems to be an attempt to create a softer character than Walter White, and thus avoid the veneer of coolness that turned him from a human character into a design on a t-shirt. The Jimmy we meet at the beginning of Better Call Saul is not a repressed genius like Walt, but a frustrated swindler, a small fry struggling to be taken seriously by the big fish in Albequerque's legal pond, working out of the back of a nail salon, coming up with desperate schemes to acquire clients and keep them out of jail. Despite how pathetic this portrait sounds, here's also a lot to admire and enjoy about Jimmy. Like most protagonists in the Breaking Bad universe, he's smart, resourceful, hard-working, a natural problem-solver. And in one of Better Call Saul's key innovations on Breaking Bad's original format, he is also a former con artist who uses those skills in his legal career, spinning fantasies whose goal is anything from the prosaic and seedy to the high-minded and noble.

The fundamental difference between Jimmy and Walt is, first, that Jimmy is a joyful person, who takes genuine pleasure out wringing a victory against a gigantic legal firm, or swindling a self-satisfied fat-cat out of the price of an expensive bottle of tequila. And second, that Jimmy is trying to change. He's a much more humble character than Walt, because his con artist ways have landed him in trouble one too many times, and as we meet him at the beginning of the show he is earnestly trying to go straight. Breaking Bad, we were told, was a show about change, but the transformation it ultimately depicted felt hollow, a loss of humanity rather than an exploration of it. Better Call Saul is a show about a man trying to change for the better, and its core dilemma is the tension between the two parts of Jimmy's personality—his joy at using his brains and creativity to get one over people, and his genuine desire to go straight.

Again and again, Jimmy finds himself at an impasse in his career, or convinces himself that the fight he's in is too lopsided to be fought with conventional, legal means. And, again and again, the extra-legal maneuvering he comes up with to even the score or strike one for the little guy has consequences that he can't predict or control, and which end up impacting on the people closest to him. It's a more productive tension than Breaking Bad's moralistic "will Walt become a terrible person who is nevertheless much more fun to watch?" because there are arguments for both sides of Jimmy's personality, and so the show becomes more nerve-wracking and compelling than Breaking Bad ever was, even though we know that Jimmy's struggle to be better will ultimately end in failure.

If there's a Walt-like character in Better Call Saul, it is Jimmy's brother Chuck (Michael McKean), which in itself feels like a repudiation of some of the choices made in Breaking Bad. Brilliant but cold, Chuck is a highly-respected lawyer and all-around success story who has spent his life cleaning up Jimmy's messes, and seething over the fact that, despite being an undeniable fuck-up, everyone seems to like Jimmy better. We, the audience, can understand why that is—Jimmy is a fundamentally kind person who puts genuine thought and effort into his interactions with other people, sometimes because he's trying to get something out of them, but often simply because that's who he is. Whereas Chuck is imperious and transactional, allowing his pride in his intellect and sense of superiority to justify running roughshod over other people's feelings. At the same time, we can also see that Chuck is often in the right, and that his distrust of Jimmy, and hurt over never being preferred over him, are well-earned.

The conflict between the brothers drives the show's first three seasons, and makes them some of the most exhilarating and emotionally wrenching TV I've ever seen. Jimmy initially tries to prove himself to Chuck, but eventually realizes that nothing he can do will ever be good enough. That his attempts to win Chuck's approval by following him into the legal profession in fact do nothing but horrify the older McGill brother, who sees the law as a hallowed realm into which a conman and shyster like Jimmy should never have been admitted. Jimmy's response is to strike at Chuck with increasing cruelty, which we nevertheless root for because Chuck is so unpleasant and so unlovable, and has clearly brought this enmity on himself by refusing to unbend and accept a brother who has tried to please him. The whole thing comes to a crescendo at the end of the show's third season, when Jimmy outsmarts Chuck's efforts get him disbarred and turns them back on him, discrediting Chuck and causing his firm to push him into retirement. Chuck, robbed of the thing in which he has rooted his entire identity, commits gruesome suicide.

And from that point, a lot of air comes out of the show. As I wrote a few weeks ago, in my review of a book that borrows a lot from the anti-hero prestige dramas of which Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are key examples, "The end of an anti-hero story comes well before the end. It's at the point where our protagonist finally becomes the person he was always trying—usually without admitting it—to be." Chuck's death is that point for Jimmy. It releases him from the burden of having to be seen by the one person whose good opinion he couldn't win or swindle. There are still steps along the path to Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman, and the fourth season shows us some of them, as he shakes off, first, any lingering guilt over the role he played in Chuck's death, and finally, any sense of connection he had once felt towards his brother. And there will no doubt be more twists and turns, particularly when it comes to the show's cartel-focused storylines, in which Gus and the Salamancas fight over power and territory, a battle into whose orbit Jimmy is slowly being pulled. But fundamentally, Jimmy is now on rails. It will be interesting to see how his story concludes (or rather, reaches the point where Breaking Bad starts), but I don't think there will be anything in it to surprise us. He is the person he was always trying to be, even if he's not yet completely Saul Goodman.

The second-biggest surprise in Better Caul Saul's fifth season is that the show recognizes this. In a conversation with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Gus's laconic, ultra-competent fixer, Jimmy tries to bargain his way out of acknowledging that he is now knee-deep in cartel business, following a job-gone-wrong that left him in the middle of a shootout. Mike, with typical resigned self-awareness, lays down the facts while making it clear to the audience that the show realizes what stage in its story it has reached:
We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off, but eventually you're back on it. And the road we're on led us out to the desert, and everything that happened there, and straight back to where we are right now. And nothing, nothing can be done about that.
The biggest surprise in the season is that, having brought its protagonist to the end of his emotional journey, if not his actual one, Better Call Saul refuses to coast for the remainder of its run. It turns around and finds another emotional journey to focus on, one that gives the season a renewed sense of urgency and tension. That journey belongs, of course, to Jimmy's lover, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). To begin with, Kim felt like another way for Better Call Saul to make up for Breaking Bad's missteps. That show's heroine, Walt's wife Skyler, was famously derided and reviled by fans for getting in her husband's path as he ascended the ladder of Albequerque's criminal world. But for all the conversation that spurred, about Bad Fans and fannish misogyny, what the reaction to Skyler came down to was that the show's writers had positioned her as a spoilsport. She made decisions that were perfectly rational for a person in her situation, at first unwittingly and later knowingly trying to stall Walt's criminal career and protect her family from it. But the result was a character who was always an obstacle to the protagonist's forward motion, never a protagonist in her own right.

Kim feels like a direct response to that failure, not in the Cool Girl way of never interfering with Jimmy's progress, but in the far more exciting, and extremely rare way of having her own storylines and agenda, which Jimmy, a natural-born follower, often subordinates himself to. Kim shares a lot of qualities with Jimmy. She's smart and hard-working and creative, and takes a genuine pleasure in her work and in being good at it that is still an extremely rare quality for a female character (unless they're treated as pathetic workaholics who don't know how to live outside of the office and have to be cured of that failing). But she's also better than Jimmy—a better person, a better lawyer, and a better player of the game, ascending the corporate law ladder and arriving, by the beginning of the fifth season, at a senior position in one of Albequerque's most prestigious law firms. But like Jimmy, Kim has another side to her personality. She may have won the game, but she also sees how rigged it is, and she keeps finding ways to set herself apart from the people who play it whole-heartedly, whether taking on pro bono cases for the public defender, or participating in (and eventually instigating) some of Jimmy's cons, just for the thrill of feeling like an outsider tilting at The Establishment, rather than part of that establishment herself.

For people who, like myself, have fallen head over heels in love with Kim Wexler, the question of her fate has become one of the most urgent ones about the show. What, we keep asking ourself, is Jimmy going to do to her? How is he going to screw up her life? What scheme will he rope her into that will go catastrophically wrong, and tear down everything she's so painstakingly built? Will she die? Will she go to prison? Will she be publicly humiliated and stripped of her legal license? Or will she come to her senses and drop him, completing her transformation into a member of the elite that Jimmy could never reach? A lot of people in Better Call Saul's fifth season seem to be asking the same questions. People on the legitimate side of Kim's life, like her former boss Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), keep advising her to leave Jimmy, warning her about his unstable, shady side on the assumption that someone as upright as Kim couldn't possibly know about it. People in Jimmy's criminal life keep expressing surprise at their relationship, wondering what someone as classy as Kim could see in him, and warning him that by revealing details about his cartel connections to her, he is putting her in danger. Even Jimmy himself finally gives voice to a worry that has probably eaten away at him since the beginning of his and Kim's relationship. "Am I bad for you?" he asks her, after the cartel boss he'd been dragooned into working for arrives at their apartment and terrorizes them.

The answer, which Kim gives to everyone questioning her and which the show gives to us, is at once exhilarating and terrifying. Why, the show seems to be asking, would you assume that someone as awesome, as determined, as in control of her own life as Kim Wexler, could be destroyed by anyone other than herself? In a mid-season episode, we see a flashback of a teenage Kim refusing to get into her drunk mother's car. The lesson seems to be that Kim has always been drawn to toxic but charismatic people, but that she's also had the ability to draw boundaries with them, and keep them from dragging her down with them. That's what she did in earlier seasons of Better Call Saul—when Jimmy suggests that he and Kim should form a law firm together, she considers, and then counters with an offer to share an office while operating separately, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of entangling herself with someone she knows to be untrustworthy. But in the fifth season, with Kim having seemingly achieved everything she ever aspired to and finding it unsatisfying, she throws caution to the wind. When Jimmy, in one of his classic clusterfucks, causes chaos in Kim's career, we (and he) expect Kim to put her foot down, and even to end their relationship. Instead, she proposes marriage. The girl who once knew better than to get into a car with a drunk now loves—and, more importantly, needs—Jimmy badly enough to tie herself to him in a way that, she thinks, will protect them both from his destructiveness.

But Kim's transformation over the course of the season isn't driven only by love, but by her frustrated sense of adventure and search for meaning, which her pro bono work can no longer satisfy. She enlists Jimmy's help in outsmarting her own top client, who is trying to throw a recalcitrant tenant out of his house. She quits her prestigious big-law job. She exposes herself to Jimmy's cartel connections and calls their attention to her. And, in the season finale, she engages Jimmy in a risky scheme to frame Howard in order to force a settlement in a lawsuit from which Jimmy stands to profit handsomely. This isn't some lovestruck, verging-on-middle-aged woman entangling herself in illegality because her no-good boyfriend dragged her into it. It's an intelligent, determined woman deciding what kind of person she wants to be, and realizing that that isn't the person society tells her she should be.

It would be triumphant if it wasn't obviously all going to go wrong, but either way, Kim's journey adds a sense of excitement and possibility to the fifth season of Better Call Saul that I didn't think the show was still capable of. Better Call Saul is still Jimmy's show, but by giving Kim her own journey that parallels his—and of a type that is still so rare for a female character—the show reinvents itself and its main character. It's the crowning example of why Better Call Saul has proven to be a better show than Breaking Bad—because even in a story whose ending we know, and whose moral we thought we understood, it finds ways to innovate and become something else.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Last fall, the Guardian embarked on a gargantuan project to catalogue the best culture produced in the twenty-first century so far. Categories ranged far and wide—architecture, dance, art exhibits—but of course they also included big ticket items like film, TV, and books. It's in the nature of such list-making that one always finds a great deal to disagree with and be surprised by, but of one thing I was absolutely sure. Long before the relevant list was published, I had no doubt that the title of best book of the twenty-first century would go to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I even found myself wondering whether the project's twenty-year span—as opposed to all the best-of-the-decade lists that were cropping up at the same time—was decided on purely because Wolf Hall, published in 2009, would not otherwise have been eligible.

I felt this certainty not because Wolf Hall is such a good book (though it is), but because it—and its sequel, 2012's Bring Up the Bodies, and now the concluding volume in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light—check so many boxes. They are cerebral, but also popular. Award-winners, but also runaway bestsellers. Literary, but also full of event. Deeply humanist, but also concerned with the doings of kings and princes. Historical, but also timeless. Fundamentally about England, but in ways that could appeal to people of almost any political stripe. They have been adapted into both a TV series and a play. The announcement, last year, of The Mirror and the Light's publication was greeted with the kind of fanfare that used to accompany a new Harry Potter novel, but also with predictions of a third Booker win. They have a breadth and wealth of incident one associates with fantasy doorstoppers of the Game of Thrones variety—one dramatic, violent event following closely after the one before. But they are also highbrow, peopled with endless ranks of similarly-named historical figures, whom one must constantly look up in the Dramatis Personae and on wikipedia in order to keep track of their history, family connections, and feuds, like a higher-stakes version of the Neapolitan Quartet. There's something here for everyone, without having to settle for the lowest common denominator. No wonder they've become so celebrated.

And yet at the same time, I've always found the success of Mantel's Cromwell trilogy a little baffling. They're good, yes, but why are they beloved? There's something so chilly about these books, something that defies our common understanding of what attracts an audience. The entire series is told in a tight third person on a man who claims to be an open book, and yet keeps secrets from everyone—-most importantly, his readers. A man who lets us into his inner thoughts, his past, and most of all his dreams for the future, only at the last possible minute. A man who lies to himself about what he wants, what he feels, and what he has become, even as he claims to be the picture of modern self-reflection. A man whose doom is obvious, not only because we know the facts of history, but because his project is so plainly self-defeating—to wring power and influence out of a ruler so narcissistic and self-absorbed, it is inevitable that he will come to resent and fear the councillor he had once praised and elevated. It's fascinating, of course, and extremely well-done. But there doesn't seem to be much there to love.

Thinking about this seeming contradiction, I've come to the conclusion that the best way to consider the Cromwell books is not through the lens of literature. Rather, they seem to me like a quintessential example of that beloved 00s cultural staple, the prestige anti-hero TV drama. Like Don Draper, Thomas Cromwell is a guttersnipe who has laboriously clambered his way into the upper reaches of society, the chip on his shoulder only barely concealed by expensive clothes and meticulously-acquired good manners. Like Walter White, he triumphs over more powerful, better-positioned adversaries through a combination of brains, natural ability, and sheer bloody-minded determination. Like Jimmy McGill, he sees himself as a champion of the little people, striking on their behalf at a calcified, self-satisfied establishment, even as the rewards of those triumphs end up going mostly to him. Like Tony Soprano, he moves through a system in which violence is always on the verge of bubbling up from under the surface, held at bay only by heavily-codified rituals, strictly-maintained norms of politeness and courtesy, and a hierarchy that is unassailable—until the moment that it isn't. Like Gus Fring, he recognizes and promotes talent in his underlings, who are fanatically devoted to him without ever really understanding him, or his ultimate goals. Like Lord Varys, he schemes and manipulates on behalf of one ruler or another in the hopes of achieving the sort of reign, the sort of society, that might be called benevolent and just—even as such an outcome seems less and less likely. And like every character on Game of Thrones, he keeps climbing well past the point of safety because he has no alternative, because to stop would be the same as surrendering.

If you place Cromwell among the ranks of these characters, it's easier to understand why Mantel has written him the way she has—open to us, and yet opaque, familiar in a way that feels almost anachronistic, and yet impossible to fully understand. This is how all of these characters have been written. We get to see them at their most private, most vulnerable moments, but we don't get to understand them, because they are too secret and too conniving to speak plainly and explain themselves. The pleasure of following along with their story is derived from the challenge of working them out, piecing together their lies and contradictions in order to come up with an image of one fascinatingly complex man. Like them, Cromwell is never entirely one thing. He is kind, but also cruel; smart, but also blind; self-effacing, but also vain. And he never tells us what he really wants, how he truly feels about the defining figures and events of his life. That tight third person narrative voice that creates the illusion of intimacy even as it conceals the character's deepest desires, which has been praised as a triumph of modernist, humanist writing, upending so many of the convention of historical fiction, feels more like a case of placing the series in an incorrect context. Why, for example, isn't it more of a problem that the Cromwell books don't end so much as stop? Because they are less books than seasons of a TV series, and having reached a climax—the death of Katherine of Aragon, the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn and her supposed lovers—they pause their story, to give us time to process it and reflect.

Once you correct that miscategorization, it's easier to comprehend the challenges Mantel faced in writing the final part of her story. When I finished Bring Up the Bodies, I rather peevishly concluded that Mantel had stopped her story before its final act because she liked and admired her protagonist too much to admit that all his scheming was only setting him up for a sticky end. Now I realize that she was facing a much thornier problem, one of craft and storytelling. Endings are a famously tricky issue for anti-hero stories. People assume that this is because writers don't know whether to give their morally compromised protagonists a happy or sad ending, whether to end on a note of triumph or comeuppance. But really, it's because the audience knows that these two things are one and the same. Tony Soprano may or may not have died the moment the screen smashed to black at the end of The Sopranos, but sooner or later, it will be his time. Don Draper may have achieved a moment of inner peace at the end of Mad Men, but the series's final image assures us that he will inevitably turn that enlightenment into a means of selling sugar water. The end of an anti-hero story comes well before the end. It's at the point where our protagonist finally becomes the person he was always trying—usually without admitting it—to be. Everything after that is just filling in the blanks. It's why the later seasons of Breaking Bad, or the current seasons of Better Call Saul, feel as if a lot of air has been let out of them. It's interesting to see how, exactly, the characters arrive where we have for some time known they'd end up, but there is no more scope for surprise, for revelation.

This is the challenge Mantel faced when sitting down to write The Mirror and the Light. Around the middle of the book, for example, Cromwell starts to panic—in his understated sort of way—about his predicament. Jane Seymour, the bride he procured for Henry VIII at great effort and cost to his soul, is dead. Her son is an infant. Henry's adult son, the bastard Henry Fitzroy, has died of an illness. The only other heirs are Mary and Elizabeth, both girls, made bastards by the most recent act of succession, the older of whom reviles Cromwell as a heretic and the architect of her mother's downfall. And Henry himself is in poor health. If he should die, Cromwell thinks, "I still have no plan, I have no route out. I have no affinity, I have no backers. I have no troops, no right, no claim." He urges the king—in his own mind, never speaking the potentially traitorous words out loud—to name him regent over the infant Edward. But a moment's thought would reveal that this sort of plan is hardly better than no plan—Cromwell the regent could be gotten rid of as easily as Cromwell the former king's advisor and secretary, because with Henry gone, he has no power of his own.

Ah, I thought to myself. He is just like the wives. Like them, his power derives only from Henry, from pleasing him and giving him what he wants. With Henry gone—or with his favor gone—his own power disappears as if it never existed. And in the system in which Henry is the source of all power—a system which Cromwell, in engineering England's break from Rome and the consolidation of power and wealth away from the nobility and priesthood and into Henry's hands, has worked hard to erect and fortify—there is no way for Cromwell to ever be entirely safe. I was rather pleased with myself, until I went and reread my review of Bring Up the Bodies, and realized I had already made this exact point there, eight years ago. There's nothing wrong with repetition, of course—it's how we reiterate and reinforce a point, especially one that is so central to the story Mantel is telling. But repetition is also all she has to draw on in The Mirror and the Light. There is nothing here that wasn't already present in the previous books—sometimes literally, as when she revisits scenes from Cromwell's past, or the events of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in order to expand and elaborate on them.

What she does, with no option to go deeper, is expand outward. In the previous books, the Wars of the Roses were a dim specter, a horror out of the past, never described in detail, but held up as the justification for Henry's desperate scrambling after a legitimate male heir, for a strong and indisputable dynastic succession. In The Mirror and the Light, they are brought to life. Figures such as Henry Tudor, Edward IV, Richard III (who is usually referred to only as "the usurper"), George of Clarence, and Margaret Beaufort are namechecked, their deeds and decisions brought up, their examples followed (or ignored), their outstanding debts fueling present-day discord. Their descendants, the Poles and the Courtenays, Henry's dynastic rivals, with a better claim to the throne than his but no power to take it, drive much of the book's events. But it is the history of the Wars themselves that comes to the fore in Mirror, in a way that it didn't in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, suddenly present, exerting power over characters who had previously never stopped to consider it.
One by one, those gentlemen depart, who served the king's father, whose memories stretch back to King Edward and the days of the scorpion; men bruised in the wars, hacked in the field, impoverished, starved out, driven into exile; men who stood on foreign quays and swore great oaths to God, their worldly goods in sacks at their feet. Men who sequestered themselves in musty libraries for twenty years and emerged possessed of inconvenient truths about England. Men who learned to walk again, after they had been stretched on the rack.

When the men that were then look at the men that are now, they see companies of pretty painted knights, ambling through the meadows of plenty, through the pastures of a forty-years peace.
Much of The Mirror and the Light is made up of this kind of quiltwork, adding segments to the structure erected in the previous books that give it greater context. Some of Mantel's embroidery is delightful. As she did in Bring Up the Bodies, she inserts sly present-day political commentary into her historical storifying. When a peasants' revolt erupts in the North and spreads nearly to London, we are told that the genesis of it comes from disaffected apprentices and farmers
proclaiming the ballad of Worse-was-it-Never. There was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and peddlers honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat and self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of Parliament. Reforming bishops. People who use English to talk to God.
But as the rebellion gains force, Cromwell muses that 
the rebels are writing lists of demands, and what they demand—along with the restoration of the Golden Age—are amendments of certain laws that bear on inheritance, how they can dispose of their goods in their wills. These are not the concerns of simple people. What has Hob or Hick to leave behind him, but some bad debts and broken shoes? No: these are the complaints of small landowners, and men who don't like to pay their taxes. Men who want to be petty kings in their shires, who want the women to curtsey as they pass through the marketplace. I know these paltry gods, he thinks. We had them in Putney. They have them everywhere.
One doesn't expect to find anti-Brexit point-scoring in a novel in which Europe is so undeniably the enemy, whose protagonist is consumed with establishing England as a world power, laying the groundwork for the empire to come. But there you have it, and the effectiveness of the barb is remarkable. Other times, Mantel strains one's patience. Did we need pages upon pages elaborating the rituals of Henry's levée and bedtime? Did we need to revisit Cromwell's past, his abusive father, his ne'er-do-well childhood, his slow rise from servant to mercenary to merchant to lawyer to courtier? None of this is bad, of course. All of it is expertly turned, beautifully written, absolutely fascinating. But it also has the feel of marking time. Quite a lot happens in The Mirror and the Light, for all that one might go into it expecting it to be a mere period on Cromwell's life. It's 450 pages before Jane Seymour dies. 600 before Anne of Cleves shows her face. In between there are crises galore—Henry's daughter Mary nearly talks herself onto the gallows through her refusal to acknowledge her father as the head of the church; the peasants' army nearly reaches London, baying for Cromwell's blood the entire time; the Poles and the Courtenays scheme while pretending loyalty to Henry and cooperation with Cromwell. But rather than come together into a crescendo, there's a certain episodic feeling to it all.

The simple fact is that Cromwell's life doesn't have a lesson. His fate isn't some neat dramatic comeuppance. He rose as far as he could, and then fell because there was nowhere left to go but up—to the kingship, which he is frequently accused of coveting but remains silent about, one question to which Mantel offers no definitive answer—or all the way down. Mantel, to her credit, resists the temptation to ascribe his fall to that perennial boogeyman of anti-hero stories, hubris. Or, conversely, to ironically reveal that it was his moments of kindness that doomed him. When the courtiers charged by Henry to engineer Cromwell's guilty verdict accuse him of crimes, they are invariably innocent behavior—some of it sanctioned by the king at the time—that has now been twisted to serve a new purpose. It's clear that if no crimes had existed, some would have been invented (as Cromwell himself has done at Henry's behalf). Cromwell has made mistakes—the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, his inability to lay hands on Reginald Pole, who denounces Henry to the Pope and schemes to usurp him by marrying Mary—but as Mantel herself is at pains to acknowledge, none of them are the failure that leads to his fall. What it all comes down to—as it did in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies—is Henry, getting tired of people he had previously claimed to love, losing patience with minor setbacks and looking for someone to blame. Most of all, fearing that those he has elevated due to skill and competence will overpower him, the man who had power given to him, and who is growing less worthy of it by the day.
Rafe shrugs. 'He is frightened of you, sire. You have outgrown him. You have gone beyond what any servant or subject should be.'

It is the cardinal over again, he thinks. Wolsey was broken not for his failures, but for his successes; not for any error, but for grievances stored up, about how great he had become.
What's left, then, is Cromwell himself. What does he want? What is his endgame? Does he see the fall coming? Mantel is, as ever, full of conflicting ideas. At times Cromwell seems nonchalant, even naive. He lets enemies live when he should have crushed them. Brings up protégés whose loyalty he can't rely on. When an intemperate remark made in the aftermath of Jane's death is reported to Henry, he never stops to think who in his household might have repeated it. He hoards honors and preferment—the Order of the Garter, a barony, an earldom—as if they have power to protect him from the man who gave them to him. Other times, he behaves as if he sees the gallows looming—stashing money abroad, leaving orders to burn incriminating letters, desperately but silently pleading with Henry to name him regent. More importantly, on the question of what Cromwell wants to achieve, what he hopes to leave behind him, or how high he hopes to rise, Mantel never entirely pulls back the curtain. The closest she comes is through Cromwell's visions of the future, the better world he believes he is making by detaching England from Rome, and encouraging Henry to see himself as his people's guardian and protector.
It takes a generation, he says, to reconcile heads and hearts. Englishmen of every shire are wedded to what their nurses told them. They do not like to think too hard, or disturb the plan of the world that exists inside their heads, and they will not accept change unless it puts them in better ease. But new times are coming. Gregory's children—and, he adds quickly, your Majesty's children yet to be born—will never have known their country in thrall to an old fraud in Rome. They will not put their faith in the teeth and bones of the dead, or in holy water, ashes and wax. When they can read the Bible for themselves, they will be closer to God than to their own skin. They will speak His language, and He theirs. They will see that a prince exists not to sit on a horse in a plumed helmet, but—as your Majesty always says—to care for his subjects, and so we stick by our prince through thick and thin. We do not reject part of his polity. We take him as a whole, consider him God's anointed, and suppose God is keeping an eye on him.
What's missing from The Mirror and the Light—so noticeably missing that one can only assume this is a deliberate choice—is any conclusion to this belief, either disillusionment or affirmation. Mantel has written Cromwell as a humanist in a world where that belief has no scope. The best he can do is trust in the goodness of one particular prince, even as Henry falls short of his hopes, grows more querulous and intemperate as age and poor health have their way with him. And yet, as he sits in the Tower awaiting his fate, Cromwell has no conclusion to draw over the project of his lifetime. He declines the opportunity to reflect, to pass judgment on himself or anyone else. This is true to who his always been, to his strong streak of pragmatism—the decisions have all been made, most of them with the best of intentions; what use is second-guessing now? But it leaves The Mirror and the Light feeling uncentered, less like a novel and more like a series of events following one after the other.

None of this makes the book a bad one, of course. Especially at this present moment, with so many of us trapped at home with our thoughts and worries, there are worse things to be presented with than a brick-sized piece of finely-written fiction about interesting people and events, accompanied by a fascinating, good-hearted yet deeply-flawed protagonist. But for those of us who were hoping for some catharsis, some conclusion to be drawn from this gloss on the story of Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor dynasty, this is not the place for it. As Mantel observes in her author's note at the end of the novel, in which she breaks from the tight third person to reveal the fate of characters whose ending Cromwell never got to see, the whole exercise ended in nothing. Henry's desperate seeking for an heir resulted in four children, all of whom died without issue, and in his sister's great-grandson taking the throne. So perhaps it's better to focus on the man, climbing the steps to the gallows and thinking, not of his grand project of remaking the world, but of his own petty fears and insistent memories. The best Mantel can do, for a story that defies endings, is to end it as the tale of a single, human, person.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Why write a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale?  Why write one in 2019?  In the acknowledgements section of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood writes that, since the publication of Handmaid in 1985, she has received multiple queries about the fate of its characters and world.  Why choose to answer (some) of those questions now, thirty-five years after the original novel's publication?  A cynic would say that this is a cash-in, a reflection of how the original novel has dominated the zeitgeist since the premiere of the television series based on it in 2017.  An idealist would say that this is just the right moment, when far-right, fascist movements all over the world are gaining prominence, many of them with an essentialist, instrumentalized view of women's role in society at the very core of their ideology.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but that just brings us to the more important question: what does The Testaments accomplish?  What does it tell us that The Handmaid's Tale didn't?

I reread The Handmaid's Tale before starting The Testaments, my first time returning to it since I read it in my early 20s.  It remains a viscerally powerful work, and one that establishes a template for writing about totalitarianism and how people live under it.  There are things about it I hadn't remembered, such as the streak of dark humor that runs through it, delivered via Offred's catty mockery of everyone she meets, her cruel but accurate assessments of their physical imperfections, gross personal habits, and obvious unhappiness, even within a system that is supposedly perfect.  Or the fact that its horror is rooted less in the abuses that Offred experiences than it is in boredom, in Offred's yearning for even the slightest variety and stimulation in her proscribed life.  Or the centrality of the prohibition on women reading to its depiction of Gilead's repressiveness, how Offred has to stop herself from letting on that she can read, how the public sphere has been remade to eliminate "temptations" by, for example, removing the names from store signs, how the promise of illicit reading materials is what draws Offred to the Commander--and how, in the end, her choice to create a testimonial of her experiences in Gilead is the ultimate form of rebellion and resistance.

Since my main association with The Handmaid's Tale these days is the (increasingly frustrating) TV show, it was fascinating to observe how Atwood anticipated and avoided many of the adaptation's pitfalls.  The Handmaid's Tale, the show, frequently falls into the trap of making Gilead look glamorous--all those richly-decorated, tastefully-appointed interiors, the sumptuous costuming for every possible occasion, the heavy, and irresistibly affecting, ritualization of every aspect of life.  It's a show made by people with taste, who have seemingly never stopped to consider that this was the wrong approach to take to a place like Gilead, one that implicitly reinforces the "logic" of Gilead's segmented society by making it seem elegant.  The novel, on the other hand, is relentless about making Gilead look chintzy and cheap.  The color-coded costumes of the Handmaids, Wives, and Marthas are a shallow marketing gimmick, brought to us by the same person who has come up with awkward, faux-modern neologisms like Econowife, Computalk, and Particicution.  Where the TV version made Offred's immediate tormentors, Commander and Mrs. Waterford, young and sexy and interesting, in the novel, they are grotesques, exactly the sort of people you'd expect to be elevated by a system that rewards cruelty to those beneath you, and obsequiousness towards those above you.  Rather than feeling elevated by the victory of their supposedly godly way of life, Gilead's triumph has made them querulous, bitter, and petty--if they weren't so already.

Most importantly, The Handmaid's Tale understands just what a tightrope it walks, as a work of fiction about atrocity.  Whether invented out of whole cloth, or sewn together from existing horrors, or storifying a real history, fiction about genocide, totalitarianism, and oppression often struggles with its tone.  Too dark and hopeless, and you've written misery porn.  Too heroic and triumphant, and you've written The Hunger Games.  Neither feels true to reality, and more importantly, neither feels useful.  The failure mode of both is using horror as a gimmick, a way of drawing in an audience without actually getting them to engage morally with what you're writing about--as in the recent fracas over the Nazi-hunting show Hunters, whose writers for some reason felt compelled to dress up the horrors of the Holocaust with something out of a James Bond movie.

The Handmaid's Tale not only balances itself perfectly between horror and heroism--Offred is brave and smart, but only within the limits afforded to her by her constrained situation; she's complicit, but not to an extent that obscures the greater evil of almost everyone around her; and she's heroic, but only up to a point, past which she prioritizes her own happiness, which is part of the reason why she survives.  But it is also a novel that is deeply skeptical about the power of empathy, of narratives like Offred's that put us in the heads of people suffering oppression, to change the hearts and minds of the people consuming them.  The "Historical Notes" section at the end of the novel makes this clear, first by reminding us that Gilead and places like it, though a world-destroying calamity for those unlucky enough to be caught in them, are merely Over There for everyone on the outside--and that Gilead exists right now, in many places, while the rest of us go on with our lives.  And secondly, through the airy, condescending detachment exhibited by the discoverer of Offred's narrative, for whom The Handmaid's Tale is not a cri de coeur, but an exciting bit of historical trivia, whose objectivity he questions, and whose importance lies primarily in how it helps his career.

The best thing I can say about The Testaments is that, thirty-five years on, Atwood has lost sight of very little of this.  The Testaments is perhaps a little more optimistic about the power of empathy than its predecessor, a little more heroic in its storytelling.  But its moral clarity on the matter of what Gilead is and how it functions remains unassailable.  You can see this in its use of humor, as pitch-dark and lacerating as in the original novel--a child raised in Gilead describes being allowed to go on outings "to see people being hanged or married".  You see it also in the little jabs Atwood makes at some of the TV version's choices.  A passage at the very end of the book, for example, prods at the way that AMC's Handmaid's Tale has turned Gilead into an aesthetic, staking out a decidedly queasy stance against the phenomenon of Handmaid cosplay.  Earlier chapters reiterate the point made in the original novel--and elided in the series--that Gilead's fanaticism has its roots embedded just as deeply in white supremacy as it does in misogyny.  Most importantly, where the show continues to draw increasingly flimsy dividends from the "irony" of depicting Gilead as evil in the aggregate, but kind and loving on the level of individual homes and families, Atwood is more clear-sighted.  She recognizes that the kind of people drawn to an ideology that tells them god has made them superior, and given them inherent power over others, are not likely to be good husbands and fathers.  When she peeks behind Gilead's doors in The Testaments, she reveals what we've heard about in fundamentalist, Complementarian movements in the real world--neglect, abuse, rape, and even murder, all covered up by Gilead's establishment, to the greater glory of god.

And that, I'm afraid, is the extent of the praise I can offer for The Testaments.  It's not a bad novel, but it is a thoroughly inessential one, and the pleasures of reading it are the same ones you would get from reading a good piece of fanfic, one that expands the original story's world and follows up on some beloved characters, without really pushing the envelope on what the original work did and the ideas it offered up.  You should read The Testaments if you want to know (one possible version of) what happened to Offred's two daughters, or an answer to the question of what became of Offred's husband, Luke, after they were separated during their attempt to escape Gilead, or a (not entirely convincing) vision of how Gilead was ultimately defeated.  But there's nothing here that wasn't in the original novel, merely an expansion of its worldbuilding, a peek at corners that Offred couldn't show us.  By definition, however, these corners are afterthoughts, or at best deleted scenes.  Nothing in The Testaments has the gut-punching power of the birth scene from Handmaid.  Nothing makes you feel the nauseating combination of shock and dull unsurprise as Offred's visit to Jezebel's.

(For this and other reasons, it's nothing short of laughable that such a minor work should have landed Atwood the Booker--an award she has already won, so there wasn't even the excuse of wanting to recognize an unjustly overlooked author--and it's all the more aggravating that deciding to split last year's award ended up dulling the thunder of the first black woman ever to win it.)

The closest that The Testaments comes to justifying its existence is through the first of its three interwoven first-person narratives, that of Aunt Lydia, the director of the indoctrination center in which Offred is trained--through a combination of brainwashing, deprivation, and torture--to accept her lot as a Handmaid.  Seen through Offred's eyes in the original novel, Aunt Lydia is a true believer, alternately terrifying and pathetic as she, on the one hand, leads her charges in a chant of "her fault!  Her fault!  Her fault!" at the disclosure that one of their number was gang-raped as a teen, and on the other hand, rhapsodizes with watery-eyed sincerity about the beautiful gift they are giving to Gilead of their working uteruses.  In The Testaments, she is something completely different, a former judge who, having been arrested and presented with the laundry list of crimes now punishable by death in Gilead--divorce, abortion, political activism, being educated, holding a position of power and authority--as well as reminders of her uselessness to that society, as a woman past her childbearing years and unaccustomed to physical labor, is given a stark choice: become an instrument of horror, or be consumed by it.
I'd spent my earlier years doing things I'd been told would be impossible for me.  No one in my family had ever been to college, they'd despised me for going, I'd done it with scholarships and working nights at crappy jobs.  It toughens you.  You get stubborn.  I did not intend to be eliminated if I could help it.  But none of my college-acquired polish was of any use to me here.  I needed to revert to the mulish underclass child, the determined drudge, the brainy overachiever, the strategic ladder-climber who'd got me to the social perch from which I'd just been deposed.  I needed to work the angles, once I could find out what the angles were.
Atwood has never gone in for easy female solidarity, and relationships between women are never entirely nurturing in her writing.  In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred often feels stronger revulsion towards the women of Gilead--Aunt Lydia, Serena Joy, and even some of her fellow Handmaids--than she does towards the men who created and benefit from its system, like the Commander or her lover Nick.  It's entirely in keeping with that approach to have given us Lydia, who by certain twisted lights is a feminist hero, a self-made woman twice over, who has carved out an enclave of female power in the heart of Gilead's male supremacist nightmare, and who has even managed to use that power to help some of Gilead's women--recruiting girls who wouldn't survive Gilead's forced teen marriage into her army of Aunts; and delivering rough justice to at least some of Gilead's domestic abusers by trumping up other, more politically correct, charges against them.  But this is all accomplished, of course, on the backs of the majority of Gilead's women.  The Testaments gives us specific examples of Lydia's cruelty--she turns a blind eye to, and even enables, a senior commander's string of increasingly younger wives, each of whom eventually falls victim to a mysterious accident or illness; she plots against her fellow aunts and doesn't balk at denouncing them to Gilead's secret police.  But it's in the commission of her regular duties for Gilead that Lydia commits her worst atrocities--the schools she founds, whose sole purpose is to keep girls ignorant, and teach them to be ashamed of their bodies; the missionaries she sends out to recruit vulnerable girls, abuse victims and rough sleepers, and bring them to Gilead to swell its ranks of Handmaids and Econowives; the marriages she arranges between girls barely into puberty, and men two or three times their age.

What keeps this portrait from falling into the same trap as the TV show--a "complexity" that usually translates into a refusal to take a moral stand--is that Lydia herself is completely unapologetic.  She knows that she is a monster, and that history will judge her harshly, if it remembers her at all.  Though she is intent on an act of rebellion--releasing all the dirty secrets she's amassed about what happens behind Gilead's idyllic facade to the wider world--it's never clear whether she does this out of genuine hatred of what Gilead is and a desire to bring it down, or simple, selfish vengefulness, the culmination of a decades-long plot to get back at the people who tore down her old life and turned her into an unperson.  Nor do we need to know the answer to that question.  The Testaments's structure, and Lydia's own, unsentimental narrative voice, are such that we can root for Lydia's plan to work, without rooting for Lydia herself.

Less successful--or rather, less interesting--are the novel's other two narrative strands, following two girls raised inside and outside of Gilead.  Agnes is the dutiful daughter of a high-ranking Commander, whose life is one great process of disillusionment.  Her beloved mother turns out to have stolen her from her real mother.  Her pious stepmother abuses her and plots to marry her off as soon as possible.  She's molested by her dentist--something she'd been assured was impossible in Gilead, and certainly not to a well-behaved, modest girl like her--and realizes that she can say nothing.  Finally, she joins the Aunts, but the Bible she learns how to read doesn't end up saying the things she'd been taught it said.  Daisy, meanwhile, is a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, whose strangely overprotective parents are killed in a car bombing.  Whisked away by their mysterious associates, she learns that they were agents of Mayday, the anti-Gilead resistance, and that she is actually "Baby Nicole", the daughter of a Handmaid spirited out of Gilead as an infant, whose return has been loudly demanded since then.

Most readers will quickly realize that these are Offred's two daughters, the one Gilead stole away from her before The Handmaid's Tale began, and the one she stole away from Gilead after its end.  It's here that The Testaments most clearly surrenders to the demands of fanservice.  Aunt Lydia feels like something fresh and different to the original novel, but learning the fate of Offred's daughters--and, ultimately, of Offred herself--feels indulgent.  It doesn't help that there isn't much else to read for in either of the girls' narratives.  Both contain the occasional moment of raw emotion or disorienting worldbuilding--when Agnes is molested, and realizes that everyone around her knew the dentist's proclivities, and turned a blind eye because Gilead is no longer a place where such offenses are pursued; when Nicole realizes that Gilead, up until that point a vague and distant political cause, actually concerns her intimately--but for the most part they proceed exactly as you expect them to proceed, and with a great deal of greased plot rails and convenient coincidences to boot.  By the time Aunt Lydia's plan, to use the two girls to smuggle out a cache of documents indicting Gilead, starts moving in earnest, the novel feels entirely untethered.  It's so obvious that the girls will succeed--and they themselves have so little to do with that success, merely allowing themselves to be couriered from one point to another--that it's hard to feel much investment.

It doesn't help that The Testaments elides what should be the most important parts of both girls' arcs.  We never see the moment in which Agnes's disillusionment with Gilead solidifies into a determination to bring it down.  Up until the novel's final chapters, in fact, she allows Lydia to convince her that the purpose of releasing the documents is to reform Gilead, but when we meet her at the end of her adventures, she has already concluded that "Gilead ought to fade away".  The transition between the two views is missing.  And by the same token, when Nicole arrives in Gilead, posing as a foreign recruit, her reactions are opaque and shallow.  She deems Gilead "weird", and marvels at its bland food and strange customs.  But its horror never seems to touch her, even though her first introduction to it is to be forced to watch a Particicution, in which dozens of enraged Handmaids are goaded into tearing supposed criminals apart with their bare hands.  Nicole, in fact, manages to keep herself at a remove from Gilead even when she's placed at the very heart of it.  Brought to the Aunts' indoctrination center where she's meant to be trained in "proper" behavior, she nevertheless goes around peppering her speech with profanity, describing god as an "imaginary friend", and performing calisthenics in her room.  This is completely antithetical to the point The Handmaid's Tale was trying to make--that it is impossible to hold yourself apart from a world like Gilead.  That once swallowed by it, you can't help but participate in it, in one way or another, and become marked by its horrors.  Both Agnes and Nicole's stories thus end up feeling too easy, a way of giving fans a happy ending, rather than facing up to the reality of growing up under, or being seduced by, totalitarianism.

"Too easy", in fact, feels like The Testaments's watchword, especially when it comes to its ending, in which Lydia's document cache starts the clock on Gilead's downfall.  It's hard to know how to take such a conclusion.  As Deborah Friedell writes in her review of the novel at the LRB: "The commanders proudly keep sex slaves, and execute the women who resist: what secret thing could the supplicant aunts find out about the commanders that's more shameful than what they've been doing openly?"  The document cache, full of revelations of the type of abuse, rape, and murder that Gilead doesn't openly sanction, reveals that Gilead has betrayed its complementarian promise--that if women accept confining and belittling roles in society, they will be kept safe.  But pinning so much hope on the revelation of "hypocrisy" to destabilize Gilead from within, and galvanize opposition to it from without, is a weirdly naive turn of plot in 2019, several years into the era of Fake News and the constant churn of consequence-free scandal.  Worse, it seems to ignore the fact that The Handmaid's Tale already anticipated this attack, in the chapter in which Offred visits Jezebel's, and discovers that the pious, doctrine-spouting Commanders are all (not-so-) secretly cavorting with prostitutes.

The Handmaid's Tale understood that hypocrisy is baked into a system like Gilead, in which, as the saying goes, there are people whom the law protects but does not bind, and people whom the law binds but doesn't protect.  Though I've praised The Testaments for holding on to its prequel's moral clarity about what Gilead truly is, in this rather crucial instance, it loses its nerve.  For its ending to work, we have to forget that Jezebel's exists, and that escaped Handmaids and prostitutes would probably have told people about it (as Gerry Canavan observes in his review, it's strange that a book that is otherwise so meticulous about letting us know the fate of almost every character in Handmaid is completely silent on the subject of Moira).

Whatever argument you could have made for the necessity of a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale in 2019, the fact that this sequel buys into the very canard that the last few years have disabused us of--that sunlight is the best disinfectant, that exposing perfidy is a means to ending it--seems to render its existence pointless.  If there's anything that an expansion of the original novel should have addressed, it's the way that totalitarian regimes create their own reality.  How the first prerequisite to being allowed to participate in them is surrendering your own judgment and substituting it with the state-mandated reality.  Instead, Atwood gives us platitudes--even The Testaments's equivalent of the Historical Notes segment ends with treacle, not the sharp stiletto of the original novel's ending.  It's hard to begrudge these characters their happy ending--after thirty-five years, finding out that Gilead fell and that Offred was reunited with her daughters can't help but feel good.  But it's also the very definition of inessential.  I'm not sure what kind of fiction we need to get us through, or at least learn to understand, our terrible present moment.  I just know that The Testaments isn't it.