Thursday, January 23, 2020

Recent Reading Roundup 51

The first few weeks of 2020 have mostly involved catching up with stuff from 2019.  I've been watching a lot of TV from the end of the year (I have some thoughts on the fourth season of She-Ra and the Princesses of the Power, and the debut season of The Witcher, on my tumblr) and I wrote a summary of my reading over the just-concluded decade at Lawyers, Guns & Money.  This post has been an open tab for a while, covering books read in the later parts of last year (including several that already made it into the year's best list last month).  I'm glad to finally be able to clear it off the decks--not only are these great books that you should be looking out for, but doing so also means that I can start looking forward to 2020's reading.

  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead - The much-anticipated follow-up to Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is a short snapshot of a novel which fictionalizes the real Dozier School for Boys, a Florida reformatory infamous for its use of corporal punishment, for corruption, for treating its students like indentured servants, and for the disappearance of boys who had crossed the staff, whose bodies were found decades later in a mass grave.  Set in the early 60s, the novel focuses on Elwood Curtis, a bright, serious-minded black teenager from a small Florida town.  Inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and by his sense that America is on the verge of meaningful change for its black citizens, Elwood strives to embody black excellence, to rise above the racism that surrounds him and better himself in anticipation of the better future he sees coming.  Then a bit of bad luck lands him at the Nickel School, where violence and indifference to the students' fate are not only rampant, but heavily segregated.  As Elwood witnesses brutality and corruption, he observes the way that the school's authorities have written off their students, and how the black students are routinely given the short end of the stick--their education is all but ignored, their food supplies are sold to local merchants, and the boys themselves are rented out to members of the school board for home repairs.  While Elwood tries to keep his head up and his hopes on the possibility of release, his friend Turner takes a more cynical approach, convinced of the general uselessness of people, in and out of the school, and of the inevitability of abuse and exploitation.

    Told in a coolly detached third person that switches between the two boys' points of view and then swoops into the school's past to recount events neither of them could have witnessed, The Nickel Boys largely avoids sensationalizing the school's brutality.  It averts its eyes from the worst of the indignities the boys experience, ending a scene before Elwood is viciously whipped, and alluding only vaguely to rampant sexual abuse.  Its focus, instead, is on the impact that abuse has on the boys, their shock at having been marked, physically and emotionally, by its sadism and cruelty, and the psychological coping methods they adopt to survive it--Elwood's determination to play to the school's rules and "graduate" early, Turner's attitude that the only thing to be done is put your head down and try to avoid trouble.  Whitehead's choice of period means that the worst of the school's abuses are in its past--for every bit of cruelty and mismanagement Elwood witnesses or experiences, Turner is there to observe that things used to be much worse, which the omniscient narrator confirms.  The point, I think, is less that Elwood and Turner have it easy (they clearly don't) but to draw a contrast between the feeling of change running through American society, and the changelessness of the Nickel School's cruelty, which always finds a way to express itself even when officially curtailed by the authorities above it.  The novel thus puts itself in constant tension between Elwood's idealism and his belief in the inevitability of change, and Turner's cynicism and distrust in humanity.  When Elwood conceives a plan to expose the school's corruption and violence to a visiting inspection team, even he realizes that he is placing his faith in representatives of the very system that has kept the school going through the decades.  And Turner, though he knows better than to believe in that system, can't stop himself from momentarily giving that plan a push, even if he knows it'll end badly for him and his friend.

    In its final segment, the novel rejoins Elwood in his post-Nickel days.  We see him in his thirties, cynical and misanthropic, incapable of maintaining relationships and distrustful of all authority.  Then in his middle age, now a successful businessman but also hardened and emotionally withdrawn.  And finally in his old age, having found happiness in a late marriage, which gives him the space to finally speak up about his experiences, and the tragic end of his stay at Nickel.  All of this is leading up to a twist that I'm not sure the novel needed.  It feels as if, much like The Underground Railroad, Whitehead found himself struggling with the question of how to end his story--happily or tragically?  Is happiness unrealistic, and is tragedy unhelpful?  The entire project of The Nickel Boys feels like a meditation on this question of idealism vs. cynicism, and though Whitehead eventually finds a successful midpoint--one that acknowledges that things have gotten better, but also how much effort and suffering went into achieving that, and how much more there is yet to do--I think the last-minute revelation that he ends the novel with was an unnecessary bit of showmanship.  But that still leaves The Nickel Boys as a remarkable accomplishment, encompassing in its brief page count not only this fundamental question of how to approach the edifice of American racism and racist systems, but an important bit of history that was long overdue for discussion.

  • Women Talking by Miriam Toews - Based on real events, Toews's short, shocking novel takes place in a remote Mennonite community in South America.  For years, the women in the community have been waking up groggy, bruised, and bleeding.  The community's leaders have blamed the attacks on demons who are punishing the women for their sinfulness and lack of faith, but after one of the victims lies in wait for her attackers, they are revealed as a group of community members--many of them relatives of the victims--who have been drugging the women with horse tranquilizers and raping them.  Now the abusers are in town awaiting trial, and the men of the community have traveled there hoping to post bail for them, and return them to live among their victims.  Women Talking takes place over two days during which the women--almost all of whom have been attacked--come together to decide how and whether to respond.  A group of eight women chosen as leaders has gathered in a hayloft to discuss their options--do nothing, stay behind and try to reform their community, or leave.  They have invited one of the few men who have been left behind in the village, August, the schoolteacher, himself something of an outcast, to take notes, even though none of them can read.  August's spare, matter-of-fact narrative transcribes the women's words and adds explanations about the workings of the community, but as the novel progresses these explanations also elaborate on the extent of the abuses visited on the women.  We learn, for example, that some have been left pregnant by their rapists, that not even small children were spared, that the aftereffects of the assault have included mental breakdowns and even suicides, and that medical help has been withheld from the victims for fear of calling even more attention to the community.

    In its early pages, Women Talking stresses the unique qualities of the heroines' situation.  They have been isolated from the outside world their entire lives.  They don't speak the local language--they don't, in fact, speak any common language, but an archaic Germanic dialect that doesn't even have a written form.  Though men are taught rudimentary English and some reading skills, the women are completely illiterate, in their own language and others.  It doesn't need to be spelled out that this is a system perfectly designed to enable and even encourage abuse, but in it the women also find a form of freedom--because they have never read the Bible themselves, they are free to reject the version of it taught to them by their men, which insists that they should be subservient, and to imagine their project of escape (which they quickly realize is their only viable option) as a form of religious pilgrimage, a way of finding a more direct, unmediated approach to god.  This faith is at the core of the women's choices.  Their pacifism tells them that they mustn't respond to being abused with violence, as so many of them want to, but they rightly conclude that they would be tempted to violence if forced to live with their abusers.  Leaving, then, becomes not just a rebellious act, but an ethical one.

    At the same time, however, Women Talking feels like a concise summary of the central issues of modern feminism and its debate over how to live within rape culture.  The questions the women pose one another are the ones that modern women have been asking themselves, online and in articles and meetings, for decades.  How do you respond to a society that hates you, that sees you as less than human?  Do you retreat, or do you stay and hope to change it from within?  Are all men the enemy, even if they don't participate in violence themselves, simply because they prop up the system that enables it?  What about weak men, vulnerable men, victimized men?  What about boys?  Is it the responsibility of women to raise their sons to be better men, and at what point do those sons become the enemy?  All of these questions are granted greater urgency by the stark gender divisions and enforced conformity of the community in the novel, but they will be familiar to any feminist who has had to grapple with the ubiquity of violence against women, and with the indifference and tacit support that violence often receives from men who would never participate in it themselves.

    All of which is to perhaps to make Women Talking sound like a treatise or an essay, but in fact it is deeply personal and vibrant.  Toews sketches in the personalities of her characters in a few effective sentences--the grandmothers who have lived their entire lives under oppression and are now ready to rebel, even though they know they might not live to see the end of the journey; the granddaughters who seem flighty and carefree until they reveal that they know much more than they've revealed about how power works in their community.  The central debate ranges mostly between three heroines--Salome, proud, angry, and prone to violence; Ona, dreamy and unconcerned with public disdain; Mariche, spiteful and bitter, always ready to be contrary--whose discussions often seem to spin into irrelevance and personal sniping.  Slowly, however, they converge upon a powerful conclusion--that the women want to be safe, and free, and to articulate their own relationship with god that doesn't define them as subhuman.  August's narrative voice gives us not only immediately recognizable portraits of these women, but background on his own history, which has left him unable to leave the only safe space he's ever known, but also uniquely capable of recognizing its faults.  For a while it feels as if his narrative will be allowed to take over the novel, that his feelings (particularly his love for Ona) will become the point of the story.  But as Women Talking approaches its end, it becomes clear that neither August nor the women have any intention of allowing him to come with them.  Their escape is also an exit from his (or anyone else's) narrative, a choice to tell their own story in whatever form they can.  It's a profound triumph at the end of a novel that has insisted on treating its bruised, battered heroines as fully human and fully alive, and their choice as ones made not just in anger but in joy, and in anticipation of better things.

  • The Heavens by Sandra Newman - I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up this novel, which was billed as a time-hopping romantic drama about a woman who lives two lives, in the 21st century and the sixteenth.  Perhaps I should have remembered that Newman's previous novel was the award-nomiated post-apocalypse, The Country of Ice Cream Star, and considered that an author who skips subgenres and tones like that might have something more up her sleeve.  The most remarkable thing about The Heavens is how thoroughly it tricks you when it comes to its tone, and to the seriousness with which it takes its SFnal component.  In its early chapters, it reads like a borderline-twee fairytale of New York, a love story among the hip and affluent with a slight genre twist, along the lines of The Time Traveler's Wife.  Ben and Kate meet at a party.  He's a geology student who writes poetry.  She's an artist.  They are surrounded by people with interesting life stories and even more interesting vocations--an heiress who bankrolls female politicians and promotes social justice causes; a former mail-order bride who has formed an organization to help other women in her situation while also creating documentaries and performance art pieces; a soulful ex-soldier eyeing a political career.  When Kate takes Ben to meet her parents, they are quintessential New York academics--talky, interesting, effortlessly welcoming him into their pleasant, elegant home.  It's all very charming, in a way that's a little hard to take, as is Ben and Kate's seemingly perfect romance.  Only in the very background does one sense that something is a little out of whack.  Ben and Kate's New York doesn't seem exactly like ours, and not just because they're both so privileged that they live in a different world to most people.  The president has an unfamiliar name, for example, and everything seems a little kinder, and little less broken than we know it to be.

    When Newman reveals her scheme, it is as shocking as it is inescapable.  Her whole life, Kate has had strange, vivid dreams, which intensify and become more elaborate when she meets Ben.  In the dreams, she is Emilia, a rich man's mistress floating around the outer edges of the royal court.  She is compelled, by forces she doesn't understand but can't resist, to promote the interests and protect the life of an actor and would-be playwright called Will Shakespeare--a name that means nothing to Kate and her friends.  And every time Kate wakes up from one of these dreams, the world she returns to is a little bit worse, a little bit closer to ours.  Kate finds herself shocked by the omnipresence of advertising, or the over-reliance on fossil fuels.  And she can't remember personal tragedies and dissatisfactions--the fact that her parents are divorced, and living in professional and personal disappointment far from New York; or that Ben's mentally ill mother died years ago.  Though the reader slowly realizes what is happening to Kate--what she is doing--as far as Ben and the other characters in the book are concerned, she seems like a fantasist, or someone with an incredibly frustrating mental illness.  As the novel's world grows increasingly polluted, war-torn, and malevolent, Kate and Ben's relationship crumbles under the strain of her insistence that this isn't the world she was born into, and that she is somehow making it worse every time she closes her eyes.

    Newman has the reasons for Kate's experiences, and the rules of how they work, thoroughly worked out, and delivers the explanation for them in a surprising and unexpected way.  But she can't quite overcome the inherent oddness of her concept.  The Shakespeare bits of the novel are where it feels weakest, name-checking historical celebrities and referencing Shakespearean trivia (Emilia, for example, turns out to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets).  But that's compensated for by the sheer bloody-mindedness with which Newman addresses the project of destroying not just her characters' lives, but their entire world.  We watch as Ben and the people around him get less hopeful, less idealistic, and less interesting as the world around them grows more degraded--Ben, for example, takes a job with a fossil fuel company because they're the only ones hiring.  It feels like a direct response to the genre Newman seemed at first to be working in, a reminder that the world we live in shapes us, and that it's easier to generous and creative and remarkable when the circumstances of your life have given you the room and freedom to become so.  It's also incredibly bleak, even as Ben and Kate make their way back to each other.  Their final reunion is a happy ending in a fundamentally broken world, one that takes care to remind us of both halves of that equation.  Reading The Heavens can feel more than a little punishing--how much more can this woman, these people, this world endure?  But it's also a stunning achievement of SFnal imagination and sustained tone, and marks Newman out as one of the most exciting and interesting writers currently working.

  • Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Svetlana Alexievich - This oral history by Nobel-winner Alexievich is credited as the source material for HBO's magnificent miniseries Chernobyl, but the two are very different works.  In fact, it might be better for people who (like myself) knew only the bare minimum about the Chernobyl event to watch the miniseries first, and get a sense of the sequence of events and the specific challenges involved in the response to the disaster.  Alexievich's book is less a standard nonfiction work about the disaster than an impressionistic collage of first-hand accounts from people touched by the event, both near and far, and from every level of society.  Some of the narratives will be familiar from the show--the opening account is by the wife of a firefighter who was one of the first responders to what was then still billed as a burning roof at the power plant, and who went on to die of radiation poisoning, which forms the backbone of one of the show's most harrowing plotlines.  Others clearly provided inspiration, such as the multiple heartbroken recollections of leaving Pripyat and the other towns around the reactor on a few hours' notice, or the stories of farmers and villagers further out from the disaster who have suddenly been informed that they can't eat anything that grows on their land, and must abandon their homes, probably forever.

    But Chernobyl Prayer (publishing as Voices From Chernobyl in the US) is more wide-ranging.  It talks to young people who grew up around Chernobyl and now find themselves, as they enter adulthood, being viewed with suspicion by the families of prospective partners, or with prurient curiosity by friends.  To scientists who insist that it is possible to produce healthy crops from the irradiated soil downwind from the reactor, so long as proper safety procedures are followed--procedures that local farmers are being left ignorant of.  To medical professionals who recount how they were given conflicting and ultimately false information to spread to the people under their care as radioactive dust blanketed them.  Each narrative is a few pages long, presented as a "monologue", in what purport to be the original words of the interviewee.

    Running through all the narratives in Chernobyl Prayer is a sense of disillusionment that has not faded despite the years since the disaster (the first edition of the book was published in 1997; the expanded edition I read, in 2013).  The interviewees describe the shock to their system that the accident represented--to their belief in Soviet technological superiority and benevolent leadership; to their perception of nuclear power as inherently safe and fundamentally unlike nuclear weapons; most of all, to their understanding, founded on decades of heroic narrativizing of the Great War, of what a disaster looks like.  Many interviewees talk about the cognitive dissonance of that beautiful, verdant Ukranian spring turning poisonous, the bounty of the fields and forests all promising death to anyone who reached out for them.  Most of all, they talk about the trauma of losing their homes--or, in some cases, of insisting on staying behind despite knowing that everything around them is poisonous, because they can't bear to say goodbye forever.

    This is the fundamental difference between Alexievich's approach and the miniseries's.  The latter focuses on dramatic events and equally dramatic acts of heroism, many of them fatal--the firefighters and engineers who quickly succumbed to radiation poisoning, the soldiers who ventured onto the irradiated roof to clear rubble, the miners who dug under the reactor to keep radioactive material from seeping into the groundwater.  These are all present in Chernobyl Prayer, but far more attention is paid to ordinary people, whose stories are so common that they repeat themselves in slight variations, together forming an impression of heartbreak and homesickness that still haven't abated.  The miniseries will give you a sense of Chernobyl as a manmade disaster, but Alexievitch's book will teach you to think of it as a tragedy and a communal trauma, one whose effects continue to be felt, far beyond the reach of the reactor's radiation.

  • The Little Animals by Sarah Tolmie - It's hard to pin down just what makes The Little Animals so engrossing, given that most of what happens in it is unremakrable.  A dramatization of the life of pioneering microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, it takes its cues from reality in describing his life as fundamentally mundane.  A draper and well-regarded member of seventeeth century Delft's community of merchants and artisans, van Leeuwenhoek was also a skilled glassblower who constructed microscopes of previously unheard-of degrees of magnification, and was the first to observe microscopic lifeforms and the structure of plant and animal cells.  The Little Animals follows him as he compiles his observations into a report for the Royal Society, finally receiving a delegation from England to confirm his observations and offer him a membership in the society.  He also takes inspiration from the natural forms he observes, creating patterns for fabric which make him rich and give the novel the opportunity to explore the vibrant business community in Delft, where artistry and mercantilism meet and create new products for the middle classes to adorn themselves with.  In his home, van Leeuwenhoek and his wife Barbara struggle with the early deaths of all but one of their children, and open their home to a strange, nameless goose girl who claims to be able to hear the "little animals" that Antonie sees through his microscopes.

    It's all, in other words, terribly ordinary, and deliberately plotless.  Even the occasional suggestion that something dramatic might happen--that the goose girl's claims that she can hear microbes talking to her, and even predict death according to what she smells and tastes in people's blood and sweat, might get her denounced by the church or relegated to an insane asylum--is quickly dealt with and squared away.  And yet The Little Animals is thoroughly winning, firstly because Tolmie is so good at sketching her characters and their world, her clear, unfussy sentences crafting complex pictures of comfortable drawing rooms, rich fabrics, and busy factories.  But also because she's so clearly interested in all of her characters and their mundane concerns--van Leeuwenhoek's scientific curiosity and how it clashes with his instincts as a merchant and fear of being made to look ridiculous in the hidebound Delft community, his business partners' calculations about when and how to release new fabrics, his neighbor's Johannes Vermeer's  money troubles and endless scrambling after models and painting materials.  Even the thread of the fantastical introduced by the goose girl, whose predictions inevitably come to pass, and whose deductions about people are invariably proven true, is woven into the novel's tapestry of the mundane, rather than overpowering it.

    It eventually becomes clear that this ordinariness is the point.  That in a novel about a man who discovers an entire hidden world within ordinary materials like spit or blood or pond scum, Tolmie's project is to talk about how even thoroughly ordinary people can experience revelation and grow in unexpected ways.  Antonie's scientific and business endeavors end up reverberating in his community in unexpected ways.  Even as the discovery of microbes and cells is monetized, turned into commercial products before anyone can understand the significance of what has been discovered, its effects change the novel's characters in profound ways.  Antonie's draftsman develops the wherewithal to stand up to his bullying, abusive father, giving his mother and himself a better life.  Another draftsman, a dissipated, disappointed man, finds a new calling as a sex worker, and then parlays his newfound wealth into a business career.  An English priest admits to himself that he desires men, and may even find happiness with a partner.  We might expect drama and calamity to result from some or all of these storylines, but Tolmie instead chooses to offer the possibility of understanding, change, and progress.  When the priest discovers the goose girl and her heretical claims, he's moved not to indignation and condemnation, but to pity, and walks away from her a more thoughtful, kinder man.  The Little Animals is about the possibility that everyone, no matter how ordinary, is capable of greatness of spirit, and how learning that there is more to the world than we had realized can inspire that growth.  It is, in its small, gentle way, a profoundly benevolent novel, about a profoundly SFnal topic.

  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk - Nobel-winner Tokarczuk's 2009 novel took a while to win me over, and this feels entirely deliberate.  Its narrator, an elderly woman named Janina (though she hates her name, frequently complains about it, and makes up nicknames for everyone else in the novel rather than use their given names) lives on the outskirts of a small town on the Polish-Czech border.  She has few neighbors and even fewer friends, and she spends the early chapters of the novel explaining to us, in obsessive detail, the contours of her world--the few houses that dot the countryside and their eccentric inhabitants, the summer cottages for which she acts as a caretaker, the factory farms that have begun to crop up in the region, the small town where she visits to explore the charity shop and teach English at the school.  Most of all, the police station, where Janina returns again and again to explain to increasingly weary detectives that the various deaths that have been occurring in her neighborhood--another recluse who choked on an animal bone, a police chief who tripped and fell into a dry well--are actually acts of vengeance carried out by animals, who are angry at the local people who have been hunting them for centuries.

    Janina is a crank--besides her vengeful animals theory, she's a staunch believer in astrology, forms elaborate theories about people from coincidences and dubious observations, and insists that the Czech Republic, which lies just across the border, is a place of kindness and compassion where none of the evil she witnesses in Poland (for example hunting) could possibly occur.  It's hard not sympathize with the people who are just barely tolerating her tirades, since we are exposed to endless run-on, haphazardly-capitalized paragraphs of them, in which she explains her increasingly bananas theories of the world or complains about her various physical ailments.  It takes a while for us to realize that Janina is actually a much more substantial woman than she initially appeared, with an impressive history of work and academic achievement behind her, and profound generosity towards other outcasts and misfits--her friend Dizzy, who works in the IT department at the police station, and visits Janina in his free time to translate Blake, or the girl who works in the charity shop.

    Drive Your Plow takes place over the course of a year, during which Janina makes new friends and expands her world.  As she does so, our understanding of the richness of her life, and the depths of her emotional resources, deepens and grows.  As deaths begin to pile up in the neighborhood, and Janina continues to insist that animals are responsible, we learn of a recent tragedy that befell her, the pain from which is clearly still so fresh that she can only address it obliquely, and begin to grasp the profound rage she feels towards the cruelty and injustice she perceives in the world.  Despite this, Janina is still cheerful, kind, and energetic, the quintessential irrepressible old woman, the kind of person who is ignored by almost everyone, and uses that invisibility to live exactly the kind of life she wants.

    Tokarczuk's scheme with the novel doesn't become clear until close to its end, which is one of the things that makes Drive Your Plow so brilliant--it is a novel that, like its main character, keeps revealing itself, and turning out to be richer and more complex than you could ever have imagined from its early chapters.  Though most reviewers have read the novel as a treatise about vegetarianism, to me it feels as if its concerns are broader.  The more Janina shows us of her community, the more we see how violence is embedded in every level of it.  That violence is ostensibly directed at animals, but as Janina reveals, fundamental assumptions about the utility of force, and the justness of exploiting those who are weak and helpless, quickly come to shape society, and to justify cruelty at all levels of it.  The local fox farm where animals are raised for their fur is also being used as a front for illegal activities; the local church has folded hunting into its religious rituals in a way that ostracizes anyone who doesn't wish to participate in it.  Drive Your Plow comes to feel like an allegory about being a humanist in a world that is growing crueler by the day, more and more in love with power and strength of arms.  The community initially ignores and dismisses Janina's insistence on the rights and personhood of animals, but when she openly challenges its core precepts, it turns on her with a sudden, terrifying viciousness.  It's enormously gratifying that Janina turns out to have been ready for such an attack--to have, in fact, been carrying out her own campaign of resistance throughout the novel, just hidden from the reader's view.  It's a brilliant performance from both character and author, who has vaulted to to the top of my list of writers to seek out.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Review: The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz, at Strange Horizons

My review of Annalee Newitz's The Future of Another Timeline is up today at Strange Horizons.  It's a fun novel that carries forward what feels, to me, like a mini-trend in recent SF, of stories that ask how to be achieve change in a fundamentally broken world. 
In her second novel, The Future of Another Timeline, Annalee Newitz approaches those questions head-on, following a working group of time-traveling scholars who seek to improve history, specifically for women. As in her previous novel, Autonomous (2017), Newitz uses her central McGuffin as a powerful, versatile metaphor for real social currents. In Timeline, this is the realization that history is not—as the children of well-meaning, privileged liberals are often taught at school—an inevitable progression towards greater equality, but a constant back-and-forth between those who wish to expand freedom, and those who wish to suppress it. In the world of the novel, the fifteenth amendment to the US constitution guaranteed universal suffrage, giving the vote to all races and genders (in reality, it did so only for men). This led, among other changes, to the election of Senator Harriet Tubman. But as the novel’s narrator, middle-aged academic and time traveler Tess, observes, “change is never linear and obvious. Often progress only becomes detectable when it inspires a desperate backlash” (p. 66).
Timeline is about the basic question of how change is achieved.  Its characters debate the Great Man theory of history, discuss the role of violence in fighting back against oppression, and consider how much you can trust power that has been borrowed from people who don't recognize your humanity.

Also at Strange Horizons, I participated in the annual year in review project (parts 1, 2, and 3), in which the magazine's reviewers pick their favorite genre-related things from the previous year.  As usual, these selections are eclectic and illuminating, and leave me with a long list of books, films, comics, TV shows, and games to look up. 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Jojo Rabbit

I've grown up with the Holocaust, and with fiction about the Holocaust.  The tone and tenor of these stories has changed with my age, and with the people who exposed me to them--at school, for example, the emphasis was very much on bleak-yet-ultimately-inspirational stories of survival, usually of people who went through the camps.  But even allowing for those factors, it feels as if, over my lifetime, there has been a change in how popular culture approaches the Holocaust.  Bleak is out; sentimental is in.  Inspiration has turned into kitsch.  Everyone is looking for a new angle, and distressingly often that means prioritizing the experiences of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, or at least the people on the side of those perpetrators, over that of its victims.

All of which is to say that I greeted the news that Taika Waititi, cashing in his "one for me" card after delivering a smash hit with Thor: Ragnarok and reinvigorating its corner of the MCU, was going to make a Holocaust comedy about a little boy who is an avid Nazi and whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, with no small amount of skepticism.  Far from irreverent and fresh, such a premise sounded like yet more desperate scrambling for something new to say about a topic that has been covered too many times, long ago ceasing to yield anything of value.  What is there to say about life under Nazism that can only be said by having Waititi don a tiny mustache and an SS uniform and cracking jokes?

Still, I have enough respect for Waititi--and the reviews of Jojo Rabbit have been sufficiently good--that I expected there to be, at the very least, something to argue with here.  An attitude that I might disagree with, but nevertheless respect.  Instead the film is disappointingly insipid: scattershot in its approach to its difficult subject matter, inconsistent in its tone, and gesturing vaguely at various ideas without bothering to develop them.  That's not to say that Jojo Rabbit is a bad movie--it might be easier to talk about if it was.  But, unsurprisingly given Waititi's involvement, it is a thoroughly entertaining piece of filmmaking, the kind you can enjoy a great deal so long as you don't think about it too much.  There are good gags and fine performances.  The plot moves at a steady clip, and the war scenes, when they arrive, are effective and scary.  Most importantly, there is a veneer of coolness--that outrageous premise!  The colorful, stylish production design, so different from the drab grayness of most WWII movies!  The delightful soundtrack, full of German-language covers of The Beatles and David Bowie!--that helps to obscure just how fundamentally middlebrow Jojo Rabbit actually is.  How shallow its provocations are.  How little it ends up having to say.

Two moments sum up, to me, the missed opportunities and disappointing choices that run through this film.  Early in the movie, ten-year-old protagonist Johannes "Jojo" Betzler accidentally blows himself up with a grenade and is left disfigured.  Everyone comments on how ugly Jojo now looks, but the film itself chickens out.  Jojo's scars are barely visible, and do nothing to mar Roman Griffin Davis's angelic (one might say, Aryan) good looks.  When Jojo recovers from his injuries, he accompanies his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) to the square of the small German town where they live.  There, they both regard the hanging bodies of several people who have been strung up by the SS ("what did they do?" Jojo asks. "What they could", Rosie answers).  The camera lingers for an abnormally long moment on a hanging woman's shoes.  By the second time that it later does the same thing with Rosie's shoes, making sure we notice their distinctive color and pattern, it's so obvious what is going to happen to her, and how Jojo is going to find out about it, that the film becomes little more than a waiting game.  And that's Jojo Rabbit in a nutshell: half-assing its core concepts, and trying to compensate for that by delivering them with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

The central comedic conceit of Jojo Rabbit is that Jojo, a timid, insecure boy who lives alone with his mother (his father was conscripted and sent to fight in Italy, but hasn't been heard from in years and is rumored to have defected) is desperate to prove himself a loyal Nazi and a strong fighter for the motherland.  This despite the fact that not only the Hitler in his head--who, filtered through the sensibilities of a child, boasts about eating unicorn heads and acts terrified of Jews--but the real Nazis around him repeatedly fail to live up to the ideals of the Third Reich, and demonstrate the absurdity of those values at every turn.  Hitler himself actually ends up playing a rather small role in the movie--perhaps because Waititi realized that this is a one-note gag with very little to say.  Most of the jokes end up revolving around the inherent ridiculousness of the summer-camp-cum-indoctrination-program that Jojo eagerly participates in and fails out of.  Classes include how to recognize a Jew by their horns and forked tongue, and such sight gags as a troupe of equipment-laden would-be soldiers jumping into a swimming pool for water training, and promptly beginning to drown.

There are some solid comedic notes in these scenes--Sam Rockwell is quite good as a German army officer who clearly realizes not only how absurd his charge, to train children to fight for the motherland, is, but what it says about the progress of the war.  And Rebel Wilson gives some excellent deliveries of lines such as "I've given eighteen babies to Germany", or a scene in which she introduces Jojo to "the clones", a troupe of identical, white-blond children.  (Though, and in a fairly typical problem for this film, Wilson seems to be acting in a completely different movie than the rest of the cast, one that is more straightforwardly absurdist).  A particularly strong throughline involves Jojo's best friend Yorki (Archie Yates), who, despite his tender age, moves up through the ranks of the SS, finally ending up in the middle of a battle against the Allied forces.  (Not to worry, he survives; this is definitely not the sort of movie that would kill a ten-year-old, even if doing so might have made for better comedy.)

It's all funny enough, but never gives us an answer to the obvious question raised by such a project: what is this all for?  What is Jojo Rabbit saying with its mockery that the audience didn't already know?  What tools is it giving us with it?  There's nothing wrong with mocking Nazis, obviously, but it's also not particularly novel--Charlie Chaplin did it while they were still in power (though he later regretted this, and stated that if he'd known about the death camps, The Great Dictator would never have been made).  And despite seeing itself as provocative and rude, Jojo Rabbit's Nazi jokes are tired and familiar--a lot of emphasis on the bumbling of the would-be master-race; gags about inefficiency and incoherent orders from the brass that you'd find in any army comedy; and the obligatory gay joke.  They often verge on minimizing the danger that the real Nazis posed, missing--or perhaps ignoring--the simple fact that it doesn't matter if the soldier holding you at gunpoint doesn't live up to the Aryan ideal, so long as they still have the gun.

It's a treasured belief among liberals that mocking something, exposing its ridiculousness, is a surefire method of defeating it.  But the real Nazis were no less ridiculous than the ones in the movie, and they still killed millions of people before the concerted efforts of multiple armies could stop them.  The last few years have, in fact, taught us some important lessons about how fascism and authoritarianism weaponize ridiculousness, using it to dismantle the very concepts of truth and reason.  Leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson use humor to make themselves look harmless, and then, once they've got the power they wanted, brazenly dare anyone to care that they are obviously absurd.  There's a reason that Sartre's famous quote about the futility of arguing with anti-semites has been getting such a workout in recent years, and it applies just as well to other varieties of fascism:
Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.
Fascism can't be defeated by mockery any more than it can be defeated by debate, because in its essence it is the antithesis of these things.  Fascism is the belief that might makes right, so by definition, someone who is powerful can't be made to look ridiculous, or wrong, or stupid, because they define reality through their power.  To the people susceptible to fascist rhetoric, the tradeoff they're being offered is quite simple and alluring: give up your grasp on reality and accept our fake truth instead, proclaim loudly and despite all available evidence that Donald Trump is a stable genius, that Boris Johnson is a man of the people, that Adolf Hitler is leading his people to greatness, and in exchange you get to share in that same power.  People might correctly point out that you're just as ridiculous as the people you've chosen to follow, but how clever are they going to look when you string them up in the town square?

There's obviously room for comedy about societies like this and what it's like to live in them.  Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin was a brilliant example, hilariously capturing a world in which reality itself is malleable according to whoever's in charge and whatever narrative they want to promulgate.  It was also genuinely terrifying, revealing the primal fear that lay just beneath the surface of its characters' nimble acceptance of the truth of the day.  Jojo Rabbit is not that kind of movie.  It wants, ultimately, to be uplifting.  But even so, it misses so many opportunities to use its comedy to achieve that end.  Jojo, for example, never actually has a moment of realizing how ridiculous the people and creed he's admired are.  He ends up rejecting Nazism because he learns better, but the gags that the film makes about Rockwell and Wilson's characters go over his head.  His final confrontation with Hitler--which happens after the real Hitler's suicide--still treats the führer like a figure of authority and power.  Jojo rebels against him, but he never rejects the premise of Hitler's seriousness.

Instead, the heart of the film lies not in its comedy, but in a rather cloying story in which Jojo discovers that Rosie has hidden a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the crawlspace in their house.  The genesis of all this appears to be that Waititi has adapted a 2004 novel, Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, which tells this rather familiar story in a completely serious emotional register, and added to it the comedic components, including fantasy Hitler.  The result has been to underserve both the comedy and the melodrama.  Despite its familiarity, there are some charms to this storyline--Elsa herself is an engaging character, frequently embittered and despairing, but also determined to stay alive and refreshingly angry at the people who have killed her family and turned her into a fugitive.  The sniping, adversarial relationship she develops with Jojo (who is persuaded to keep her presence in the house a secret in order to protect his mother) is partly a genuine, furious clash of ideologies, partly an older sister effortlessly batting away the childish pronouncements of a younger brother who can never really catch up to her.  There's some complexity to be found in the fact that Jojo is, at one of the same time, so terrifyingly dangerous to Elsa, and so obviously beneath her that his threats are almost a distraction from the real danger she's in.

None of this, however, can entirely distract from the simple fact that when you boil it down, Jojo Rabbit is that tired, problematic trope, a story about a person who learns not to be racist by meeting one of the people he was racist against.  Helpless to do anything about the presence of a hateful Jew in his house, Jojo decides to interrogate Elsa about her race in order to compile a definitive primer revealing the secrets of Jews and how to defeat them.  Elsa, who is bored, and amused by Jojo's ignorance, plays along, cheerfully confirming that Jews drink blood and sleep suspended from the ceiling.  It's through these sessions that Jojo learns to see Elsa's humanity, and to feel horror at the possibility that she might be taken away and killed.  When push comes to shove, he chooses to protect her rather than do his patriotic duty as a Nazi.

The problem here (well, one of the problems) is that the idea that Jews are a mysterious alien species to Jojo, people he's never met--and that he is thus open to recognizing their humanity once he does meet one--doesn't hold any water.  If there were no Jews in Jojo's town, Elsa wouldn't be there.  But we're told that she was friends with his deceased sister, and that she ran away from the train station when the Jews were transported.  So Jojo would have had to grow up with Jews in his life.  They would have been his classmates, his neighbors, the local shopkeepers.  And then they would have disappeared.  When he talks about Jews as monsters with mind-control powers, he would have to have specific people in mind.  And yet Jojo Rabbit insists that this isn't the case, that Elsa is the first Jew Jojo has ever had the opportunity to interact with.

This isn't simply a plot hole.  It's the film making things easy for itself and refusing to face up to the full ugliness of what it means to be a Nazi.  The Germans who bought into Hitler's race theory and approved, even if only tacitly, of the disenfranchisement, transportation, and extermination of Jews weren't imagining some unseen, unknown menace.  They were thinking of people they knew, people they had lived with.  And they signed up for it anyway.  One downside to the film's excellent production design is that its scenery reminded me forcefully of pictures my aunt has brought back from her visits to Dortmund, the town where her grandparents, my great-grandparents, lived and were transported to their deaths from.  The story of Dortmund isn't one of Germans being tricked into hating Jews because they didn't know any better.  It's of Germans standing by--or actively cheering--as their neighbors were dispossessed and disappeared.

When Jojo Rabbit refuses to acknowledge what it would mean for Jojo to believe in race theory, it sugarcoats that ugly reality in service of its need to make Jojo's redemption as easy as possible--which it has anyway already done, by focusing its tale of deradicalization on a child.  Earlier in the film, Rosie complains to Elsa that her son has been brainwashed, and that she can only hope that once the war is over he will return to his senses.  But the Jojo we meet isn't some radicalized bigot.  As Elsa herself says, he isn't a Nazi except in the sense that he desperately wants to belong and to feel strong.  The premise of the film isn't that meeting Elsa deradicalizes him, but that he was never that bad to begin with.  Which, again, leaves me wondering what the point of the entire exercise was.

It's particularly unfortunate because, right at the outer edges of Jojo's story, there's a genuinely interesting, challenging one going on that the film gives us only brief glimpses of.  I rolled my eyes a little when Johansson's performance in Jojo Rabbit started generating award buzz--it sounded like a typical case of a famous actress being lauded for a nothing mom role.  But the truth is that she's excellent here, and has been given the film's most fascinating, complex character.  Rosie is a free-thinker who is starting to realize that her life has turned out more conventional than she'd planned, and that her refusal to conform means nothing if she can't do something about the horror that her country has plunged itself--and the world--into.  She's a woman who has suffered greatly--a dead daughter, a missing husband, a troubled son--and there are some fantastic scenes illustrating the emotional toll that these losses, and her responsibility for Jojo, have taken on her.  But Rosie nevertheless holds on to her joy at being alive.  That joy isn't naive, or rooted in a denial of reality.  Rather, it is an act of defiance, which makes a more powerful anti-fascist statement than any of the film's mockery of its Nazi characters--a refusal to be made cruel and dejected by a world that has turned into a nightmare.  "Welcome home, boys!  Go kiss your mothers!", Rosie cheerfully calls out to a truck full of defeated, injured soldiers headed into town, and when asked what she'll do when the war ends, she answers, "dance", even as she lessens her odds of reaching that day by hiding Elsa, and leaving messages of defiance around the town.  It's not the sort of story one tends to see about this period, and I couldn't help but wish that it was the story Jojo Rabbit had chosen to tell.

Nearly eighty years after they shattered the world, the Holocaust and Nazism have turned into symbols whose meaning can often feel empty, a way of distilling good and evil that often leaves out their actual substance.  It's easier to feel sorry for victims of the Holocaust than for children in concentration camps on the US border; easier to hiss and boo at Nazi soldiers than to ask where the voices calling for the annexation of the Palestinian territories are leading us.  It seems to me that if you're going to tell a story about this period, going to use these symbols, you had better have something new and vital to say with them.  Had better have come up with a way to cut through the thick layer of accumulated cultural associations to the real, raw truth within.  Had better, at the very least, have some really good, cutting jokes.  Jojo Rabbit has none of these things.  It's yet another story telling us that hate is bad and that learning to see the humanity of others is good, and which clearly doesn't realize that couching that (valid, important) message in the terms of Nazism and the Holocaust only makes it weaker and easier to ignore.  Adolf Hitler has lain unmourned in his unmarked grave for seventy-five years.  Laughing at him is no challenge.  But Donald Trump is still in the White House, and no amount of jokes you crack about him will change that.  If you can write a comedy that acknowledges this bleak truth, and gives us tools to fight it, then you'll have done something of value.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 80 books in 2019 (81 if I can finish the one I'm currently on before midnight).  On the whole I'd say this year's reading was solid but not amazing--which feels very much of a piece with my cultural consumption all around (see also my list of favorite TV shows at Lawyers, Guns & Money).  Of course, there are so many 2019 books that I still haven't gotten around to, that it may turn out I had a great reading year, I just didn't know it until long after it was over.  For now, however, my favorite books of the year are below.

Best Books:
  • Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

    Every year has to have at least one superlative short story collection, and Adjei-Brenyah's debut was it for 2019.  And what a debut it is.  Taking obvious inspiration from George Saunders, the stories here straddle the line between realism and parody, naturalism and science fiction.  A store clerk on Black Friday learns to understand the language of the feral shoppers after being bitten by one.  A black man works in a theme park that allows white visitors to simulate the experience of shooting a belligerent black person.  Adjei-Brenyah's language is spare and ruthlessly effective, and his ideas are shocking but also terrifyingly believable and thoughtfully worked-out.  The concluding story, "Into the Flash", is an out-and-out science fiction piece that should have appeared on this year's awards shortlists, a wonderful riff on familiar tropes that takes them in a direction all its own.

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

    I watched both the 1975 movie and the 2018 miniseries versions of this story before finally getting around to reading Lindsay's 1967 novel, and though both adaptations are good, neither of them do justice to the novel's breadth, intelligence, and strangeness.  What's most surprising--and, ultimately, most rewarding--about the original Picnic is that the disappearance of the schoolgirls is so much less central to it than it is in the movie or the miniseries.  It's an inciting event, but around it, Lindsay weaves a portrait of a community, examining people of different classes, races, and social situations, and observing the ways that the girls' disappearance upends their lives, in some cases opening new opportunities for them, and in others closing them off.  It's still a strange, hallucinatory work, and I can see why it has been classed as horror or supernatural fiction rather than a social novel, but it was that aspect of it that left me fascinated, far more than the mystery which Lindsay (wisely, except in an ancillary chapter which also doesn't give a lot of answers) doesn't resolve.

  • Berlin by Jason Lutes (review)

    A quarter-century in the making, Lutes's opus, which charts the fortunes of several characters--artists, free-thinkers, journalists, communists, and children--during the early years of the Nazis' rise to power went from historical document to something vitally, terrifyingly relevant over the span of its creation.  Lutes's art is stunning, using orderly panels and detailed pen-and-ink drawings to give us a sense of the city, and of how it is being transformed and disrupted by the forces operating within it.  Though Lutes observes the rise of the Nazis, and follows several characters who are won over by their creed, the bulk of his attention is paid to liberals, leftists, and free-thinkers, all of whom spin ideas about how to build a better world, but can't come up with ways to stop it from descending into horror.  It's a monumental work that feels incredibly important in this present moment, even if it doesn't offer solutions to its characters' dilemma--merely a warning of what might happen if we fail in the same way they did.

  • Women Talking by Miriam Toews

    This is a slim novel that packs a tremendous punch, which feels appropriate to its unassuming but strong-willed heroines.  In a South American Mennonite community, several men have been arrested for drugging and raping women.  While the men of the community have gone to try to post bail for the accused, the women gather together to decide what, if anything, they are going to do about being expected to live with, and even forgive, their rapists.  Though the situation she describes is extreme, Toews uses it to address questions that will be familiar to any feminist--chiefly, how do you live in a world in which you are fundamentally unsafe?  Though it might seem that reasoned debate is a strange method by which to work out this issue, especially given the extremes of the characters' situation, Toews's characters come to life through their conversation, slowly working their way towards an understanding of what they want--and more importantly, the recognition that what they want matters.

  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

    Nobel-winner Tokarczuk's novel follows an eccentric old woman over the course of a year in her remote house on the Polish-Czech border.  As she tramps back and forth across the scenery, the narrator introduces us to characters, locations, and even animals.  It takes a while to tease out what's happening in the background--the fact that various people in the surrounding area have started turning up dead--and even longer to realize where Tokarczuk is going with this scheme.  Once you grasp it, however, it's brilliant--a meditation on what it's like to live in a country that is slowly turning against you, and against the values you hold dear, wrapped up in a mystery that doesn't even let on that it's a mystery until the very last minute.

  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

    It was a tall order, following up a book as revelatory and imaginative as The Underground Railroad.  If The Nickel Boys isn't quite as stunning as that novel, it's mostly because Whitehead has wisely chosen to go a completely different route with it.  Instead of freewheeling invention that cuts across time and space, he has delivered a very simple story, contained to a single, horrifying location--the Nickel School for boys, where black teenager Elwood is remanded for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and where he has to struggle to survive.  But The Nickel Boys is not simply a dramatization of yet another horrifying chapter in the history of America's abuse of African-Americans.  At its heart, it is a novel that asks how one reacts to dehumanization--with hope, or cynicism?  With brazen defiance, or the drive towards excellence?  Whitehead doesn't have an answer to offer, obviously, but by juxtaposing the question with this portion of history, he finds new notes in it, and gives it added urgency.

Honorable Mentions:
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison - It took me a few years to get around to this much-loved fantasy novel, but I see that everyone who adored it was right.  A brilliant novel of manners that asks how an abused person, granted tremendous power, can use that power to make a better world for himself and for others.

  • Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman - A standalone novel in the world of Seraphina and Shadow-Scale, Tess follows a damaged heroine on a journey of healing and self-discovery.  It's the most perfectly-constructed of Hartman's three novels, and makes tremendous use of her detailed, imaginative worldbuilding.

  • Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads - Now that this praised-to-high-heavens comic run is finally available in trade paperback, we can all see that the people praising it weren't kidding. A brilliant meditation on trauma and recovery that moves back and forth between a cosmic war over the fate of the galaxy, and the travails of a couple as they debate renovating their apartment and starting a family. It shouldn't work, but in King's hands (and with Gerads' brilliant art), it absolutely does, delivering surprises all the way to the last page.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

One interesting aspect of our current era of cinematic universes and mega-franchises is that the stories behind the scenes often feel more interesting, and more dramatic, than the ones on screen. I like most MCU movies, but I'd pay a lot more than a movie ticket's price to know the answers to questions such as why Patty Jenkins was fired from Thor: The Dark World, or what the creative differences were that led to Ava DuVernay leaving Black Panther. And when it comes to Star Wars in the Disney era, these questions feel even more urgent, because the decisions being made are so much more baffling. Is it really possible that one of the hottest IPs of the century, the potential cornerstone of an empire of spin-offs and merchandising opportunities, was written in a method not unlike the party game where everyone writes a sentence in a story, folds the page down, and then hands it to the next person? I'd give a lot for a record of what went on in the meetings where the shape of Disney's Star Wars movies—and particularly the sequel trilogy—was decided on. And frankly, I think such a record would be a great deal more illuminating, not to mention entertaining, than The Rise of Skywalker.

From a distance of thirty thousand feet, you could make an argument for how Disney handled the new Star Wars trilogy. Let J.J. Abrams, elevated fanboy extraordinaire, bring the series back to life, combining his obsessive fannishness with his unerring eye for casting and genuine interest in depicting complex, winning female heroes, and thus take the franchise into the twenty-first century without losing sight of what it was. Then bring in Rian Johnson, who has never met a genre convention he didn't immediately want to examine and dismantle, to take the whole thing forward, establishing new parameters for what Star Wars can and should be. Finally, bring Abrams back to soothe fans' hurt feelings and give them the triumphant ending a Star Wars story ultimately needs.[1]

Move closer in, however, and the problems with this approach become clearer. Someone should perhaps have remembered what happens when you give Abrams a second crack at a beloved science fiction franchise, how his worst fanboy tendencies, his desire to write to the audience rather than the characters, have a history of overwhelming anything resembling coherent or compelling storytelling. Someone should also have remembered that he's a great guy for setup, but simply a disaster at paying it off. Not that Abrams shoulders all the blame here, of course. The Last Jedi gets better and richer the longer it has lingered in my mind, but it must be acknowledged that it moves the overall plot of the sequel trilogy not even an inch, and in fact dismantles some of the scaffolding built by The Force Awakens, which Abrams was presumably relying on to finish the story. I say again: it is simply bonkers that writers working on different chapters in the same story were allowed to do this to one another. There's been far too much vitriol directed at Kathleen Kennedy, much of it clearly misogynistic, over her stewardship of the franchise under Disney, but it has to be acknowledged that many of her decisions in that capacity have been simply inexplicable.

Not least among those decisions—and another question I would dearly love to have answered is whether it's Kennedy or Abrams who is more at fault here, though ultimately they both shoulder the blame—is how The Rise of Skywalker scurries away from nearly all the interesting, progressive choices made by The Last Jedi, kowtowing to the hysterical baying of violent, racist so-called fans. These are the people who drove Kelly Marie Tran off social media because they hated Rose so much—for daring to be a woman of color in "their" Star Wars movie. So The Rise of Skywalker sidelines Rose in a way that feels openly contemptuous not only of the character, but of the people to whom she meant so much. A main character in The Last Jedi, she gets a measly 76 seconds of screentime in Rise, and only one character interaction that could conceivably be called meaningful.[2] Along the same lines, fans who have spent the last four years caterwauling about how "unrealistic" it was for Rey to defeat Kylo Ren in lightsaber combat have gotten their reward in a duel in which he thoroughly trounces her. Even the fact that everyone keeps calling Kylo "Ren"—which is  the equivalent of calling Darth Vader "Darth"—feels like a capitulation to an inattentive yet outraged fandom's inability to grasp that Ren is a title, not a name.

But the more glaring walkbacks in Rise cut to the very heart of what The Last Jedi was trying to do with Star Wars, and how it was trying to take it forward. Johnson purposefully made Rey the daughter of nobodies, rebelling against the franchise's obsession with dynasties and with making every Force user the progeny (or ancestor) of another major character. Rise, through an incredibly tortured bit of sophistry, not only reveals that she is actually the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine (whose return as the new trilogy's ultimate villain was presumably imposed by Jedi's disinterested killing-off of Supreme Leader Snoke), but that she and Kylo Ren are a "Force dyad" (and that Luke and Leia were one as well), thus cementing the franchise's preoccupation with a single, convoluted family tree. The fact that Rey adopts the surname "Skywalker" at the film's end is presumably intended as a wholesome, uplifting moment, but given everything that comes before it—including a kiss between her and Kylo—it also feels more than a bit incestuous.

The Last Jedi seemed to close the book on the matter of Kylo Ren's capacity for redemption by having him make the active choice to embrace evil and a lust for power, even after Rey helps him free himself from the malign influence of Snoke. But Rise not only gives him a second bite at the apple—along the way revealing that Leia, who in Jedi pronounced her son "lost", was always planning to make one last stab at saving him—it completely rewrites his character. In the film's final scenes, the person on screen is not a repentant Kylo Ren trying to make amends for his many horrific crimes—which include, I will remind you, mass-murder, genocide, and the enslavement of children; I mention this because both the films and the fandom like to pretend that the worst thing Kylo has ever done is kill his father, when really it barely even scratches the top one hundred. Instead, it is Ben Solo that we're watching, and the film works hard to make him seem human and down to earth—pulling a Han Solo-ish face when he realizes how outnumbered he is as he rushes to Rey's rescue, breaking out in a relieved smile when she kisses him. It's notable, though, that he gets virtually no dialogue in these scenes, as if speaking would break the spell and remind us who this character is and what he's done. And then he dies—which, to be fair, I find more satisfying than the alternative, but is also clearly a copout, a way of trying to appease Kylo's haters as well as his fans.

Still, if you pull back from the disappointment of how Rise refuses all the interesting avenues offered it by Jedi, there's something fitting about the whole affair. It's easy to miss this, because Rise is such a busy, overstuffed movie[3], following Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo as they criss-cross the galaxy in search of various plot tokens that will lead them to Palpatine's hideout, where he has amassed a vast fleet armed with planet-killing weapons that will permanently shift the tide of war against the rebellion. But just as he recapitulated A New Hope when he made The Force Awakens, Abrams follows the general contours of Return of the Jedi with this movie. So we have Palpatine as an ultimate villain, a visit to Endor[4], and a plot that hinges on the unconvincing, last-minute redemption of a dyed-in-the-wool villain and a lot of Force woo-woo. It completes a familiar template: one film that is frothy and fun and raises expectations of a great ride ahead; one film that is darker and more cerebral and makes you think the entire enterprise might actually be saying something as well as being fun to watch; and one film that squanders all that promise by trying to repeat the lighter first chapter, and only succeeds in delivering a mish-mash of tones and an ending that feels cobbled-together and unearned. If you didn't know better, you'd think Kennedy and Disney had planned it like this from the beginning.

And the truth is, in some respects Abrams outdoes Lucas. This is chiefly down to the fact that Daisy Ridley is an infinitely better actor than Mark Hamill. In her performance as Rey, Ridley is playing essentially the same combination of good-hearted naiveté and reflexive heroism as Hamill's Luke. But she never fails to find greater depth, and interesting little notes, in her version of the character. Her Rey is matter-of-fact and self-contained, but also vulnerable and querulous and angry. Throughout the film there are moments—when she verbally spars with Poe after he brings the Millennium Falcon back to the resistance base battered; when she sadly but firmly informs Leia that though she wants her blessing to halt her Jedi training and go off in pursuit of Palpatine, she will do it either way; when she shrieks in horror at having seemingly caused Chewie's death with her Force powers—where Ridley's choices take what should have been trite, over-familiar beats and make them feel human and specific to her character.

Most importantly, Ridley can believably convey anger and darkness. When The Rise of Skywalker tells us that Rey's anger at Kylo and Palpatine is putting her in genuine moral peril, it's convincing in a way that it never was for Luke, because Luke never actually seemed that angry at Vader or the Emperor, no matter how much they hurt him or his friends. In the film's climactic scene, Rey attacks Kylo, driven by anger into an undisciplined barrage which he quickly turns to his advantage. She is saved by Leia reaching out to her son in the last minute, staying his hand by reminding him of who he used to be. In that moment, Rey takes advantage of Kylo's distraction and fatally stabs him. There's a part of me that still thinks Kylo's story should have ended there—if nothing else, it would have been wonderfully cathartic for a character to whom the films keep offering second chances he doesn't deserve to think that he's been given another one, only for it to turn out to be a trick by two women who have had all they can stand of his bullshit. But at the same time, Ridley makes it clear that in killing Kylo, Rey has crossed a moral event horizon that she may not be able to live with. When she chooses to save him (through a Force-healing technique that the film introduces a scene or two earlier), it's annoying, but also feels earned—a genuine moral choice that Rey has to make if she's to remain true to who she is and what she wants to be—in a way that Luke's refusal to kill Vader never did.

By the same token, Rise edges a little closer to selling Kylo's "redemption" than Return ever did with Vader. Not all the way, to be clear—as I've said, the film has to ignore most of Kylo's sins, and rewrite his personality, for the idea to even come close to seeming plausible (it also trots out Harrison Ford as a Force ghost to offer Kylo unearned absolution, and opine—against all available evidence—that he is strong enough to shoulder the burden of fighting Palpatine). But when Rey saves Kylo's life, it's an act of unearned compassion and greatness of spirit that feels like the sort of thing that might shake an entitled person out of their whiny self-absorption. That Kylo's shock over Rey's choice is what pushes him to renounce the dark side is much more convincing, and more moving, than the idea that Darth Vader is suddenly a good guy because he saved his own son's life.

In the end, though, it's all for nothing. Like Return of the Jedi before it, The Rise of Skywalker runs aground on the shoals of its fuzzy, poorly-defined conception of what the Force is, what the light and dark sides are, and what, in the end, good and evil are. As he did to Luke, Palpatine insists to Rey that by hating him and acting on that hatred, she is giving herself to the dark side, and that killing him will only cause her to become the new dark lord. The fact that in Rey's case this is emotionally convincing—again, Ridley is great at conveying Rey's anger and how it edges her closer to darkness—doesn't make the catch-22 of it any less annoying. If you're going to insist that anger and violence in response to evil and injustice can only lead to evil themselves, you need to offer a counter-strategy that is not only convincing, but resonant and thematically satisfying. Rise, like Return, can only offer lawyerly quibbling, with a side of special-effects extravaganzas. By killing him, Palpatine explains, Rey will be making herself a vessel for the spirits of all the Sith lords who came before them. So Rey, instead, becomes a vessel for all the Jedi. How does she do this? What does it mean? The film doesn't tell us, presumably because it has no idea—it just sounded neat. And then Rey, with the force of the Jedi behind her, kills Palpatine anyway, which is now not a dark and morally corrupting act for... reasons, I suppose.[5]

It's a particular shame because, waiting in the wings, there was a character and a plotline that could have cracked this entire trilogy wide open, made it something special and new and taken the franchise forward, and which instead was completely squandered and ignored. I am talking, of course, of the one new thing The Force Awakens brought to the franchise, the idea that stormtroopers are brainwashed child soldiers, and that some of them might choose to rebel. Abrams himself did very little with this idea once he'd introduced it, and Rian Johnson, though obliquely referencing Finn's past in a storyline that saw him embracing a global morality as well as a personal one, left the broader implications of stormtrooper rebellion untouched. Nevertheless, The Rise of Skywalker was perfectly positioned to take this idea forward. Rey can't kill Palpatine without giving in to the dark side? The rebellion can't hope to overcome the enormous fleet he's built? Then why not subvert the people without whom that fleet is so much space junk? Why not use Rey's powers, and Finn's intimate knowledge of the stormtrooper psyche, to reach out to people whom this series has always treated like canon-fodder, despite the fact that we now know they were kidnapped and enslaved? Isn't that the essence of what Rose tried to teach Finn in The Last Jedi—winning not by destroying what we hate, but by saving what we love? Wouldn't offering that as an answer to the dilemma Palpatine poses to Rey be infinitely more satisfying than some heretofore-unheard-of Force power?

There's the slightest hint that Rise might be moving in this direction when it introduces the character of Jannah (Naomi Ackie), herself a former stormtrooper who rebelled with her entire battalion.[6] But just like Finn, she is completely indifferent to the lives of the stormtroopers who are still under the First Order's sway, enthusiastically joining the rebellion's side in a final battle in which entire ships are destroyed. What's more, Jannah is the vector through which the film reveals that she, Finn, and all the other rebelling stormtroopers are Force-sensitive. Fans have been hoping for this revelation about Finn for a while, so at first glance it might seem like a way of elevating the character's importance. But upon further reflection, it's an idea that just gets more and more ugly. If only Force-sensitive stormtroopers are capable of rejecting the First Order's brainwashing, doesn't that make all the others inherently killable? Doesn't it negate the significance of Finn's moral choice? And is that, perhaps, the point? Fans—myself very much included—have been pointing out for a while the perversity of the films focusing on Kylo Ren's putative redemption in the same story in which another character, who was raised with none of the advantages and protections that Ben Solo enjoyed, simply chose—at great personal risk—not to hurt helpless people. But if Finn only rebelled because the Force compelled him to (Jannah even says "it was like we didn't have a choice" when describing how her battalion refused to slaughter civilians), then he's not actually morally superior, just lucky. And, implicitly, Kylo can't be blamed for all the evil he committed, because he was being pulled to do evil by the Force, just as Finn was pulled to do good.

It's a sterile, offensive take on morality that overwrites what should have been the heart of these movies. But perhaps that choice was inevitable. There's no room for Kylo Ren, after all, in a story about Rey and Finn reaching out to the stormtroopers[7]. And the new Star Wars movies—at least the ones created by Abrams—remain obsessed with dynasties. Hence this last one's title, and the revelation of Rey's ancestry, and her connection with Kylo, which also ties them both to Luke and Leia. A story about Rey using the Force to reach out to the faceless slaves who make up the First Order would have been a different sort of Star Wars—the kind I thought The Last Jedi was promising us. It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that Abrams and Disney, in their terror of alienating "fans" who can't stand to see this series change and progress, turned away from that story, and gave us one with a hollow, corroded heart.



[1] Though of course, this was not the original plan. Rise was supposed to have been directed by Colin Trevorrow, who as far as I know has yet to establish an identity as a director, and who is still credited on the film's story.

[2] Anyone hoping for friendship between Rey and Rose in this movie will be sorely disappointed. Rise isn't quite a Bechdel fail, because Rey develops a bond with Leia, who becomes her Jedi master. But these scenes are limited to leftover lines recorded by Carrie Fisher for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi before her death, and the resulting interactions are thus stilted and strained. And Leia's death means that Rey ends the movie with no female relationships.

[3] Again, this is partly Johnson's fault for doing so little heavy lifting on the plot front.

[4] Though only the briefest glimpse of ewoks, which seems positively cowardly, yet another capitulation to the tastes of fans who are still, thirty-six years later, terrified that someone might think that they enjoy kid stuff.

[5] Among other things, this is yet another reminder, after Frozen II last month, that a lot of people in Hollywood have watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, but none of them have figured out what made it such a great, satisfying story.

[6] One wonders whether Abrams thinks that introducing Jannah makes up for the appalling misuse of Rose, as if women of color were interchangeable, and anyway there can only be one of them at any given time.

[7] Remember, Kylo has been Supreme Leader since the end of The Last Jedi, a period during which, we're told in Rise, the First Order has stepped up its campaign of child abductions. So far from being the person who could reach out to the stormtroopers, he's the ultimate cause of their suffering and dehumanization.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Notes From the Streamapocalypse

Until last month, 2019 felt like a year in which popular culture was winding itself down.  What seems like an abnormal number of shows, including juggernauts like Game of Thrones, wrapped up their stories, while others were cancelled.  Collaborations like the Netflix MCU were brought to an abrupt end.  Everywhere there was a feeling of holding one's breath, clearing the decks in preparation for the coming onslaught.  And then, a few weeks ago, that deluge arrived with the launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+, two new streaming platforms seeking to directly challenge Netflix and Amazon for primacy in a field that already feels hopelessly crowded and balkanized.  Scripted TV is only one front in that fight (Disney+, for example, can afford to launch with only one original scripted series because it has such an enormous back-catalog to boast of, whereas Apple+ is scrambling to measure up with four new scripted series, and more to come).  But it's the one I find most interesting.  Overall, my verdict is that all of these shows are ambitious, and a few are interesting, but none of them are truly great (and all suffer from the besetting flaw of streaming TV, of working better at a binge, which obscures annoying tics and makes the plot seem to flow better, than in weekly installments).  If this is the future of television, my reaction to it is decidedly qualified, with a few sprinklings of hope.
  • See - You have to respect a series that realizes its premise requires some major suspension of disbelief, and, instead of trying to ease the audience into it, just throws them over a cliff.  After a title card informing us that a virus has decimated the Earth's population and left the survivors blind--an affliction that has been passed down a dozen generations, until the very concept of sight seems fantastical--See immediately drops us into a battle scene, between two armies that can only sense each other using sound, smell, touch, and taste.  It's never entirely convincing--you can believe that human society would survive the loss of the sense of sight, but not in the standard form of post-industrial tribes conducting quasi-medieval battles.  But you can't help but respect the show's commitment to its high concept, and the obvious thought that has gone into imagining how a society like this would function.  So yes, there are questions the show won't address--such as who laid out the neat and orderly rows of the village in which our hero, Baba Voss (Jason Momoa), lives, or how everyone could be wearing animals products like wool and leather.  But if you accept that as the buy-in--if you accept, in other words, that being sightless is the norm for these characters, and that like any other living being they have adjusted their way of life to the senses they have--then it is quite neat to see the tricks the show's writers have come up with to make that life seem practical and possible.  These range from the simple (probably variations on techniques that blind people today use) like characters snapping their fingers or making some vocalization to announce their presence, or writing on one another's palms as a form of silent communication, to invented social structures and roles, such as the revelation that some people are so skilled at moving soundlessly that they become hired spies, able to eavesdrop on anyone simply by standing next to them undectected.

    That cognitive dissonance is one of See's chief pleasures, but also one of its challenges.  It can be hard to put yourself in the characters' heads--you are, after all, watching a visual presentation about people for whom the visual plays no role in their lives.  When Baba Voss, for example, enters a room where his son is being held captive, the audience will momentarily assume that he knows his quest has succeeded, before being reminded that the son has to vocally announce his presence to his father.  Before long, however, the characters themselves begin to develop an awareness of this gap.  The show opens with Baba Voss's wife Maghra (Hera Hilmar) giving birth to twins, whom the viewer can see are sighted.  Maghra came to the village already pregnant, and the twins' father, the fugitive Jerlamarel (Joshua Henry), stuns Baba Voss and the village wisewoman Paris (Alfre Woodard) by committing feats such as building a bridge across a ravine, or killing a bear with a bow and arrow, achievements that to them seem magical.  As the twins grow older, the show's scheme becomes clearer--this is a superhero story in which nobody has superpowers.  It's just that in a world constructed without any consideration of vision, the sighted Kofun (Archie Madekwe) and Haniwa (Nesta Cooper) can cut through the established rules of their society without even thinking about it--the kidnapped Kofun, for example, writes a message for Haniwa when his captors stop for a rest, knowing that only she will see and understand it.

    Whereas most superhero shows implicitly treat the audience like normies, awed by the hero's powers, See has us identify with the superpowered beings, for whom remarkable feats are so natural that they can't help committing them.  By the same token, though the villains of the show, the evil Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks) and her witchfinder, Tamacti Jun (Christian Camargo), insist that they are pursuing Jerlamarel and his children for spreading the heretical notion of sight, it only takes a few instances of Kofun and Haniwa easily evading their grasp to make the point that their real concern is much more prosaic.  Sight represents an existential threat to the power structures of the show's world--a point that other superhero stories have made in the past, but which here is understood much more viscerally because we share the same superpower.

    None of this would matter, of course, if See wasn't also an entertaining story.  The plot moves along at a brisk clip, bouncing the characters from one peril to another as they evade Tamacti Jun's pursuit and travel towards Jerlamarel's promised land, with periodic fight scenes that are all the more effective for how they depict and take advantage of the characters' blindness.  But See also knows how to give the characters room to be themselves.  Momoa, in particular, is a delight precisely because of his willingness to cede the center stage.  Though a fearsome warrior and respected leader, his character is ultimately an enabler of other people's heroism (not just the children, but also Maghra, who turns out to have connection to the seat of power, and plans of her own).  He struggles with the knowledge that his children have so completely outstripped him that they can't help but condescend to him, and that for all that they love him, their biological father will always have a connection with and a hold on them that he never could.  It's a portrait of masculinity that one doesn't often see, especially in action storytelling--a hero who knows that he is outmatched, but who is determined to do his part nonetheless.  Kofun and Haniwa's stories are more conventional--they face the call to adventure, and worry about the power over others that their sightedness confers on them.  But the show is willing to take their stories to challenging places, such as Haniwa tearfully admitting to her parents that she's afraid of her own capacity for violence, even as she insists that she has to pursue her power and legacy. 

    Less successful are the show's villains--Kane, in particular, is a caricature of an evil, sexually voracious woman, and her actions in the second half of the season feel more like an excuse to let Hoeks vamp and chew scenery than a plausible plot development.  But this is made up for by the challenges the characters face, simply by living in the world.  See is at its best when it stresses its characters' vulnerability against the vast natural landscape, or in the bizarre structures that the various communities they encounter on their journey have constructed to allow themselves to survive.  If the show makes the audience feel like superheroes, it also makes us feel just how big its now-empty world is, and how even sight doesn't always give its heroes the ability to navigate it safely.

  • The Morning Show - Apple reportedly paid Jennifer Aniston a not-so-small fortune to star in this show, her first regular TV gig since Friends ended fifteen years ago.  It's tempting to snark at a wannabe streaming giant using yesterday's stars as a crutch, but the truth is, Aniston is the best (at some points, the only) reason to watch The Morning Show.  Her performance as Alex Levy, a co-presenter at a popular morning news show whose world is rocked when it's revealed that her partner, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), has been accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct, is a fascinating, complex portrait of a middle-aged woman who is at once beleaguered and breathtakingly privileged.  As the scandal breaks we watch Alex, who has clearly been operating on auto-pilot in both her professional career and personal life, realize that none of the people around her--not the other employees on the show, not the show's producer (Mark Duplass), not the head of the news division (Billy Crudup), and maybe not even her husband (Jack Davenport)--actually respect her, even though she's the only thing keeping their careers afloat.  It's a familiar scenario for many professional women, who find themselves expected to simply go along with things, because everyone else needs them to.

    Alex's reaction to this is gratifying to watch.  Whether she's calmly informing the network president that she's in charge now, because he needs her more than she needs him, or backing the show into a corner by publicly announcing her new co-host before anyone has had the chance to come up with a shortlist, she's content to burn it all down rather than continue to live with disrespect.  But Alex is by no means a feminist hero, and the show gleefully explores her many contradictions.  She's tough and hard-working, but also spoiled and self-absorbed.  Empathetic, but also vain and narcissistic.  Most importantly, as the season draws on it becomes increasingly clear that she knew, at least on some level, what Mitch was doing, but turned a blind eye because she needed him as a friend and a bulwark against the world.  She is, in short, exactly the sort of person you'd expect a rich, famous, self-made white woman to be, and the pleasure of watching her comes from not knowing, from one moment to the next, whether you want her to face some comeuppance, or stomp on the even more annoying people arrayed against her.

    Unfortunately, Alex is far from from The Morning Show's only focus.  It is, in fact, hard to pin down just what the show's focus is, whether it's a character study or a two-hander or an ensemble piece, and whether its interest is in the people it's depicting or the system they exist within.  But either way, everything around Alex is questionable at best, hard to watch at worst.  It is, for example, simply inexplicable that the show keeps Mitch around past the first few episodes.  At first, it seems that he is going to take the path of many exposed sexual predators in the #MeToo era, and become a right-wing commentator pandering to an anti-feminist audience.  But when Mitch veers off that path, it becomes clear that the show genuinely thinks it is using him to expose the grey area between obvious violators, like Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K., and people who are simply long-term creeps.  But this is a point that is actually made far better by other characters, as in an interview with one of Mitch's victims, who insists that she was victimized as much by the other employees of the show, who treated her like damaged goods after she acquiesced to Mitch's advances, as by the man himself.  Or a subplot about the show's weatherman (Nestor Carbonell) and a much-younger PA (Bel Powley) who are in a serious relationship, but can't figure out how to distinguish their affair from what Mitch did.  Or, most intriguingly, an older producer (Karen Pittman), who had an affair with Mitch years ago that ended amicably, and who is now becoming aware of how that has soured attitudes towards her on the show.  Keeping Mitch around only focuses the story on his whiny insistence that he shouldn't experience any consequences for his actions, instead of castigating the culture that made those actions possible.  Other characters, such as Crudup's Cory Ellison, feel simply unreal.  Cory responds to every upheaval in his division with exclamations of excitement, clearly thrilled by the trainwreck his flagship show has become.  The intention is presumably to make him look like a savvy disruptor, but--leaving aside the fact that reality has given us more than enough reason to be wary of men who think disruption is the path to a better world--Crudup's dead-eyed performance makes Cory seem less like a cheerful imp, and more like a budding serial killer.

    But the biggest problem with The Morning Show, by some long way, is Reese Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson, a local reporter who, based on a viral video in which she screams at an anti-environmentalist in a protest against a coal mine, lands the job as Alex's new co-host.  From her name, to her politics (she's an independent who finds Democrats and Republicans equally worthy of disdain), to her convoluted family history (she has a troubled mother, an addict brother, and a boatload of daddy issues), Bradley feels like a character sketched out by Aaron Sorkin, and then rejected for being too unrealistic and over the top.  Witherspoon does her best to humanize her, but she can't do much against the show's own incomprehension of her.  It's never clear, for example, why Bradley, an investigative journalist who likes to report challenging, hard-hitting fare, would be interested in presenting a soft-focus morning show where all her material is scripted and half the stories are feelgood pap.  The obvious answer, of course, is that no one in their right mind would pass up this sort of opportunity (especially not someone like Bradley, whose career was on the rocks before the viral video made her a star).  But the show seems unwilling to give Bradley any sort of careerist instincts.  She stays on The Morning Show because that's what everyone expects of her, futilely complaining when they won't run the more challenging material that she'd like to cover, and acting surprised when her pursuit of the Mitch story--including the question of what Alex knew and when--earns her enemies.  It's the exact opposite of the fascinating, self-contradictory yet also believable portrait that the show paints of Alex, and it makes the entire experience of watching The Morning Show supremely frustrating.  The further the season advances, the more time Alex and Bradley spend together, and the more obvious it becomes that only one of them has a story worth telling.

  • For All Mankind - Of the four inaugural Apple TV+ shows, this is the one that has garnered the least attention, which in a way feels appropriate.  The elevator pitch for the show is "an alternate history in which the space race never ended, and humanity--specifically, NASA--continued its expansion into the solar system".  But For All Mankind is being screened in a world where the space race did end, in part because people got bored of space, and the Apollo missions quickly lost their luster and became must-see television for only a small group of fanatics.  So it's not surprising that creator Ronald D. Moore hasn't been able to capture the imagination of a mass audience.  But to make this excuse is also to let For All Mankind off too easy, because for all that it is a niche taste, it's also a show that puts its very worst foot forward.  Far too much time is spent establishing just why the space program continued and expanded, along the way indulging in some of the worst habits of Apollo Program fannishness--chiefly, "what if we made this incredibly complicated and dangerous endeavor even more so in order to cut through the audience's awareness that it all worked out?"  It's not even enough for the show to posit that the Soviets won the race to put a man on the moon (in reality, the Soviet space program was plagued by mismanagement and infighting, and had effectively given up on a moon landing by the late 60s).  We also get a sequence in which the astronauts on the Apollo 11 lunar lander lose contact with mission control for hours and are presumed lost after a much rougher landing than the real one.

    Positing that the reason the space race continued is that the Russians stayed in it and remained competitive is obviously fraught with a lot of political and ideological subtext.  For All Mankind had the opportunity to comment on the role that jingoism and anti-communism played in driving the American space program and its employees.  But instead the show seems to buy into that worldview hook, line, and sinker.  It's not just the characters who view a Soviet on the moon with alarm, but the show itself, which seems to expect the audience to accept that an American on the moon is an uplifting moment for all humanity, whereas a Soviet moon landing is a belligerent act.  The show then goes from bad to worse with an absolutely bizarre redemption tour for, of all people, Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore).  Again, there was an opportunity here for a challenging conversation--far too many dramatizations of this period downplay or erase von Braun's role in the Apollo Program, which he ran until well after the moon landing.  But For All Mankind instead chooses to sugarcoat the man, having him lament the way the Nazis "corrupted" his V2 rocket design by using it to target civilian populations.  The series's second episode even pretends that nobody at NASA knew that von Braun had been a member of the SS and had used slave labor in his factories during WWII.

    Once it gets over the hump of explaining why the space race has continued, however, and gets about the business of speculating how that would look--a permanent lunar base in the early 70s, with plans for Mars and the rest of the solar system to come--For All Mankind becomes much more fun and engaging.  A lot of this has to do with how it diversifies the space program.  During the first two episodes, our point of view character for much of the dismay at NASA is astronaut Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman, who is at least a head too tall to be an Apollo astronaut), an invented character who feels almost like an illustration of how the myth of the Right Stuff has become filtered through modern anxieties about masculinity.  Ed is taciturn and emotionally withdrawn, but also prone to insubordination and outbursts of anger, for which he never experiences any real consequences.  So it's a palpable relief when the show puts him on the back-burner in favor of a new program to train women astronauts.  This leads to the series's best episodes, in which the first of these candidates, Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) ends up on Ed's mission, and has to confront not only his well-meaning condescension, but her own entirely earned suspicion of male authority figures.  The rest of the female candidates feel almost like a carefully-chosen array of social issues--one is black, one is gay, one is the wife of an astronaut who laments abandoning her own professional ambitions after marriage and childbirth--but it's still fun to watch women like this get to take part in the Apollo story.

    The crux of For All Mankind's alternate history is the suggestion that continuing the exploration of space would have required radical change on the ground as well, and that the program would have spurred important social advances in unexpected ways.  Some of these speculations feel silly and contrived--the hearings over NASA's failure to beat the Russians to the moon cause Ted Kennedy to cancel his getaway to Chappaquiddick, thus eventually leading to his presidency.  But others are intriguingly thorny, such as the revelation that President Kennedy got the ERA passed by moving a lucrative NASA contract to a Republican-controlled state, which ultimately leads to a fatal accident due to faulty Saturn V parts.  None of it, to be honest, bears much scrutiny, but at its best moments, when it drops the nostalgia and simply starts spinning a story, For All Mankind can be a genuinely exciting work of science fiction.

  • Dickinson - Unlike the other three Apple TV+ show, which dropped a few introductory episodes upon the platform's launch and then switched to a weekly schedule, Dickinson's entire first season was made available as a chunk.  You could read this as a sign of Apple's lack of confidence in the show, and if so it's hard to blame them for being anxious.  A deliberately anachronistic comedy about the teenage years of early modernist poet Emily Dickinson, whose story beats conspicuously echo those of modern teen soaps, doesn't exactly sound like it would have a broad appeal.  And yet, judging by my twitter feed, Dickinson has become Apple TV+'s most iconic foray.  Which may not mean anything, from a viewing numbers standpoint, but a wannabe entrant into the increasingly crowded field of scripted TV could do worse than to make a splash with something idiosyncratic and memorable.  This is not to say that Dickinson completely pulls off its mixture of tones, references, and period details.  There are as many misses as hits in the show's first season, and at times it feels as if creator Alena Smith hasn't quite landed on the story she wants to tell with it.  But when Dickinson works, it is simply marvelous, and even when it jars, it's so much more interesting, more itself, than more conventional fare like The Morning Show (or even For All Mankind and See) that one can't help being won over.

    Played by Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson imagines its heroine as both a proto-feminist and a spoiled brat.  Emily dreams of writing poetry that will rock the world (or, at least, the staid and comfortable corner of it that she lives in, as the daughter of one of Amherst, Massachusetts's most prominent families) but also chafes against the expectation that she help around the house, and runs roughshod over the feelings and wishes of the people closest to her, chiefly her younger sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) and her best friend, Sue (Ella Hunt).  The early episodes of the season focus on Emily's shock that Sue has agreed to marry her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe).  Though her snide, incessant undermining of Sue's happiness is clearly rooted in romantic jealousy (the two have a relationship that the show doesn't try to put a label on, but which is both emotional and physical), it also stems from Emily's selfishness, her inability to grasp that Sue, who has lost her entire family to disease and has been left penniless, longs for security, and genuinely likes Austin.  In another episode, Emily feigns illness in order to gain some time for herself, to write and read and just do what she wants.  But in a period in which even minor illness can end fatally (as seen through the example of Sue's family, and in a storyline late in the season in which Emily falls for her father's clerk only for him to succumb to tuberculosis), this pretense deeply traumatizes her parents (Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski). 

    As much as the show castigates Emily for her selfishness, however, it also wants us to see it as, in its own way, revolutionary.  By insisting on her right not just to an education and a creative outlet, but to her own time and privacy, Emily is demanding recognition of her humanity.  While her mother expects that every minute of Emily's time be spent in homemaking and husband-seeking, and her father views her every attempt to develop her mind and her craft as an affront to his own dignity, Emily struggles to balance what she owes to herself with basic decency and kindness towards others.  That she usually overcompensates in one direction or another is hardly surprising, and the show never fails to remind us what a tragedy it would be if she ever stopped trying.

    It's a heavy topic, and Dickinson lightens it not only through its constant use of humor (it's interesting to consider that this is the only one of the shows I'm writing about in this post that is explicitly a comedy) but through its consciously anachronistic storytelling.  Some of the best moments in the show come when it juxtaposes the norms and restrictions of 19th century life with storylines taken straight out of Beverly Hills 90210, as in a mid-season episode in which the Dickinson children, left alone in the house by their parents, decide to throw a party, or a later subplot in which Lavinia is dismayed that the handsome but shallow boy she's been making out with has shown everyone the nude self-portrait she gave him.  When this sort of alchemy works, it causes the entire show to click into place, its story both specific and timeless, realistic and heightened.  The fact that Emily's parents speak in an affected, faux-historical cadence, for example, while all the young characters talk like modern teenagers, is at once a reminder of the show's artifice, and a perfect metaphor for the generation gap.

    But Dickinson is also trying to do so many other things that the result can end up feeling scattershot and uncertain.  It is sometimes fantastical, as in a subplot in which Emily imagines that she is in a long-term flirtation with Death (Wiz Khalifa); occasionally historical, featuring guest appearances from Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) and Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet), who are much more accurate to the real writers' personalities and preoccupations than the show's treatment of its own heroine; and every so often, genuinely horrifying, as when Austin and Emily's father behave violently towards her, or when Sue is sexually harassed (perhaps even raped) by her employer.  The constant tonal shift can make it hard to decide how to react to the show, what it wants us to feel and how seriously it wants us to take it.  This is particularly noticeable in the show's struggles to place its characters in their historical context.  It nails the well-meaning but vague liberalism of its privileged characters' social set, where support for abolitionism is taken for granted without any willingness to take concrete steps towards ending slavery (much less treating black people like equals).  But when it tries to address Emily's own clueless privilege, it often punts.  The family's black servant (Chinaza Uche) gently chides her when she tries to express solidarity with him, reminding her that their situations are entirely different.  But there's really no place to take this thread from that point, and the result feels perfunctory, as if Dickinson knows it needs to address this issue, but can't find anything meaningful to say about it.  The impression formed is of a show that hasn't settled on a tone or approach, and is simply trying them all on--perhaps because it's so much fun to do so, and so exciting to have the opportunity.  To be fair, this is consistent with Dickinson's heroine, who is as excited by the possibilities she sees before her as she is confused and overwhelmed by them.  If the show sometimes doesn't seem to know what it is from one scene to another, perhaps that's part of the point.  And for the moments in which Emily--and Dickinson--truly find themselves, a bit of confusion is worth enduring.

  • The Mandalorian - Watching the fan reaction to Disney+'s first scripted show, and the first live-action series set in the Star Wars universe, has felt a great deal like being gaslighted.  For the life of me, I can't understand what so many people see in a show that, four episodes in, feels thoroughly uninvolving.  That's not to say that there aren't things to praise about The Mandalorian.  It is, for one thing, absolutely gorgeous to look at, combining the stunning compositions of A New Hope with the detailed, tactile production design of the new movies, and featuring some excellent fight scenes that are all the more engaging for being small-scale--no space-battles and CGI extravaganzas here, just close-quarters combat with physical heft and palpable stakes.  And it has proven itself to be excellent meme-fodder, from the million GIFs and drawings of Baby Yoda, to the increasingly delightful pronouncements of director Werner Herzog, who appears on the show as a former officer of the Empire, and whose attitude towards the entire endeavor in interviews is wonderfully irreverent.  But as an actual viewing experience, The Mandalorian is--dare I say it--kind of boring.  In its worst moments, it feels not at all unlike watching someone else play a Star Wars-themed computer game--the same thin, barely-there storytelling concealing a structure that is nothing but a string of missions.  Some moments even feel like cut-scenes, in which the show's titular hero returns to his base after completing an objective to receive an upgrade to his armor and new weapons.

    The basic concept of The Mandalorian is obviously "a spaghetti Western in the Star Wars universe".  Set after the collapse of the Empire in Return of the Jedi (but before the sequel trilogy), it follows a bounty hunter who is recruited by some Imperial die-hards (led by Herzog's character) to retrieve an unspecified item, which turns out to be the aforementioned Baby Yoda (well, probably not actually baby Yoda but a baby of Yoda's species; which has caused everyone to realize that despite being one of the franchise's most iconic characters, we have never learned the name of Yoda's species).  This leads to a series of challenges and conflicts, as the Mandalorian must overcome teams of mercenaries, other bounty hunters, and even opportunistic scavengers who cannibalize his ship.  It's a solid enough concept, but the execution feels too flimsy to hang an entire series on.  The first three episodes, in which the Mandalorian receives his assignment, finds his quarry, delivers him to the client, and then decides that he isn't going to leave a baby with a bunch of space-Nazis and rescues him, should have been the first act of a movie.  As the opening salvo in a TV series, they drag, all the more so because of the show's central gimmick, the fact that the Mandalorian, in accordance with his culture's strictures, never takes off his helmet.  This is not only a criminal waste of actor Pedro Pascal, but it leaves the show with no emotional center.  Faceless characters may not be inherently unemotional, but the writing on The Mandalorian does nothing to compensate for the character's facelessness; to bring this back to computer games, he feels like the player character in one of them, just present enough for the audience to project themselves onto, but with no personality of his own.

    What fills that void instead is a cubic ton of fanservice.  The show's storytelling is awash in references, both well-known and obscure, to the series's canon.  So the Mandalorian uses carbonite to store his targets for transport, and the aliens who cannibalize his ship are Jawas.  Not to mention the Mandalorian himself, whose very existence is an acquiescence to fandom's decades-old (and, to me, inexplicable) infatuation with Boba Fett.  Some of the details are aimed at fans far more obsessive than I, referencing the computer games or little-read Wookieepedia pages.  But this sort of thing should be a garnish, not the main course, and it increasingly feels as The Mandalorian is substituting the momentary high of recognition for genuine emotion or drama.

    If the preamble structure of the first three episodes gives rise to the hope that, once the show has established its premise, it can start building an actual story on it, episode 4 dashes that hope.  It delivers an entirely standard Western story, in which the Mandalorian, seeking refuge for himself and his child, agrees to help some villagers fend off raiders in exchange for a place to stay (in accordance with the show's mandate never to let an opportunity for fanservice pass by, the raiders have gotten their hands on a leftover Imperial AT-ST).  Not only is there no depth to the episode's storytelling, which merely gives a familiar template a Star Wars-themed re-skin, but it seems to establish the rest of the season's structure--episodic adventures in which both the Mandalorian and his charge are merely blank slates to be acted upon, with no character arcs or themes to develop.  Around the margins of the show's storytelling, one can glimpse interesting ideas about how the world of the series looks in the aftermath of the original trilogy--the very fact that the remnants of the Empire are still up to no good; the appearance of Imperial weaponry in the hands of criminals; the suggestion that the rebellion hasn't really lived up to its promise, as in a guest appearance by Gina Carano as a former rebel soldier who left when things got "too political".  But this is rather thin gruel, and it's increasingly clear that this is not what the show is going to be about.  It's been a bit depressing hearing the voices calling The Mandalorian a return to "real" Star Wars.  There's a lot to be said against the new movies, but they at least try to push the franchise forwards, while The Mandalorian seems content to wallow in fanservice.  If this is the future of the franchise, well, I'm not even sure "future" is the right word for it.