Sunday, June 28, 2020

Recent Reading Roundup 52

This latest batch of books is a bit of a grab-bag, stuff I've read in the last few months that felt worth talking about. Not listed here, but discussed at Lawyers, Guns & Money: Lauren Wilkinson's American Spy, an espionage thriller about a black FBI agent recruited to spy on a left-wing African leader that overcame my skepticism towards its genre with its handling of an uncommon subject matter. Highly recommended.
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo - I read two books by Evaristo a few years ago, and my reaction at the time was that she was an author ahead of the curve. We've seen a flowering of high profile books about the African and African diaspora experience in recent years, as publishers finally wake up to the financial viability of such works and start putting money and publicity muscle behind them. Evaristo's playful, quasi-experimental books—one a novel-in-verse, the other an alternate history—felt perfectly suited to the late teens, except that they were published in the mid- and late aughts. When she announced a new novel in late 2018, I was thrilled to see her claiming her space in this moment. And yet Girl, Woman, Other is a far more conventional work than I'd come to expect from Evaristo. This isn't exactly a complaint, as Girl, Woman, Other is an excellent, intriguing, thought-provoking novel. And it's a choice that certainly hasn't hurt Evaristo, who has gotten a tremendous boost in visibility from the success of this novel, and of course, a Booker win (a much-deserved award that is only slightly marred by its being shared with Margaret Atwood's The Testaments, a book that falls short of Girl, Woman, Other by every possible metric except, obviously, the fame of their respective authors). But I also hope that it leads to more people discovering Evaristo's back catalogue, and to her producing more work in that earlier vein.

    Girl, Woman, Other is made up of twelve character portraits, mostly women, mostly black, all English—by birth or choice. Though grouped in four segments centered around family and extended family—in the first chapter, for example, we meet rising playwright Amma, her college-age daughter Yazz, and her lifelong best friend and creative partner Dominique—nearly all twelve characters end up being connected to one another in ways that are puzzled out throughout the novel, and often quite surprising. Evaristo's language has the feel of poetry—most chapters are told in short, dreamy sentences that feel less like prose than free verse (though this is a device that fades in some parts of the book and is more dominant in others). The result is a sort of memory play, diving into each character's past to show us how they arrived at where they are today, and often revealing long-hidden secrets—an affair, a lesbian romance, a sexual assault, a baby given up for adoption. Evaristo's subject matter is far-ranging. In one chapter, a free-spirited young woman falls head over heels for an opinionated, strong-willed feminist and anti-racist activist and follows her to the US, only to find herself ensnared in a toxic, abusive relationship that is all the more difficult to escape from because of its being couched in the terms of equality and liberation. In another chapter, an elderly biracial farmer muses on her experiences trying to keep a century-old family farm running, facing challenges not only because of her race but due to worsening conditions for rural, Northern communities. Brexit comes up in contexts both expected and unexpected, and even the UK's dangerous descent into anti-trans hysteria rears its ugly head.

    There are times when one feels that Girl, Woman, Other is checking boxes—one character is genderqueer, one character is a working class single mother, one character is a painfully woke university student, one character is a self-consciously respectable social climber. But always there are nuances to each portrait that remind us that the richness of their life and experiences can't be summed up with a simple categorization. This is particularly true of the older characters, the immigrant women who scraped and served to give their children better opportunities, but still possessed greater depths than those children, or the white people who employed them to clean and caretake, ever suspected. And as much as it is a multifaceted, multigenerational portrait of black English womanhood, the fundamental point of Girl, Woman, Other is that it is also the story of England itself. Again and again, we discover that these characters, who are immigrants, whose most successful children are interlopers in historically white institutions, have hidden, generational connections to even the bastions of whiteness. The book concludes with a final blurring of racial boundaries that is perhaps a little rose-tinted in its belief that family connection trumps racist conditioning, but whose point is nevertheless strongly felt—that these people can't simply be excised from England's past or present, that they are here, at every level of society, building their lives and the world around them.

  • Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor - Mexican author Melchor's 2017 novel (translated into English this year, and nominated for the International Booker prize) is slim but harrowing. It follows the immediate aftermath of the discovery of a body in the small, economically ravaged village of La Matosa. The body is of a woman known as The Witch, a healer, mystic, abortionist and general advisor to the village's women who lived alone in a dilapidated house, rumored to contain a hidden treasure. It doesn't take long for the Witch's killer to be revealed, but the business of the novel is in untangling the ties of family, love, lust, and hatred that ensnare its characters, and which ultimately led to the murder. Told in eight chapters, each from a different character's point of view, Melchor delivers her story in a near-stream-of-consciousness, spinning run-on sentences that go on for pages and reveal secret histories, simmering grudges, psychic wounds, and most of all the unrelenting brutality of life for the poor, disenfranchised, mostly non-white community of La Matosa and its environs. Women are abused so routinely that they come to expect it, turning their rage not on the men who have hurt them but on other, more vulnerable women: on the daughters they've raised with no options or protection and then decry as sluts if they're taken advantage of; and on the prostitutes and mistresses around them, who are seen as temptresses out to steal their men. Men go through life in a stupor of alcohol, drugs, and violence, constantly surprised when their bad choices yield even worse results. Queerness abounds, but is vociferously denied and punished. Nearly every man in the novel is some flavor of queer, but all are so suffused with self-hatred that they are as often the instigators of homophobic violence as the victims of it. Even the seemingly innocent are barely holding back their rage and potential for violence: one of the novel's most gentle characters, a gay man who takes in a pregnant teenager and dreams of starting a family with her, also commits one of its most shocking betrayals.

    It's a stunning portrait, read almost in a single breath despite (or perhaps even because) of the challenges of its format. But it is also a punishing experience. The chapter told from the perspective of one of the Witch's killers, for example, is rife with graphic violence and misogynistic, homophobic imagery, often rooted in the character's obsession with violent pornography. It's not just hard to read, but at some point you have to wonder why you're putting yourself through it. What is Melchor trying to accomplish with this assault? The novels that Hurricane Season most reminded me of, books that similarly focus on insular, poor communities rife with violence and quick to police women and people who deviate from gender norms—books like Anna Burns's Milkman, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, and Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead—nevertheless take it as a given that the communities they depict also possess rudimentary social institutions, norms that may be restrictive, but which also provide some degree of protection and mutual accountability. Nothing like that exists in Hurricane Season. Its community is completely broken down, with no expectation of compassion or mutual aid, only the furious gossip and delighted jeering of neighbors as they watch the families around them be torn apart by violence and its comeuppance. This is, presumably, Melchor's point—the final chapters of the novel emphasize that the violence in La Matosa, the particular tragedy of the Witch and her increasingly toxic relationship with her community that eventually boiled over into murder, is only one eruption in a society that has rotted from its core due to rampant crime, government corruption, and neglect. But coming to the story from so far outside its context, it's hard to tell the difference between a hard-headed, no-holds-barred depiction of a harsh reality, and mere prurience. I find myself wanting to recommend Hurricane Season, but also hesitant to.

  • The Need by Helen Phillips - The opening segment of Phillips's novel is a wrenching, beat-by-beat description of a home invasion that is all the more tense for constantly suggesting that the whole thing might be merely in the heroine's head. Young mother Molly, alone at home with her toddler daughter and one-year-old son, thinks she hears someone in the house, then convinces herself that it's just her imagination, then hears or sees something that makes her newly suspicious, and so on again and again. Intercut with this back-and-forth progression—which is told in short, economical chapters—are glimpses of Molly's life, particularly her work as a paleobotanist. The pit from which Molly and her colleagues have been pulling out fossils that often don't fit the known record has recently started disgorging modern objects whose strangeness is more difficult to deny—a Coca Cola bottle with the logo slanted in the wrong direction, an Altoids tin with the wrong shape, a 19th century Bible in which god is referred to with female pronouns. These artifacts—and particularly the last one—have been attracting media attention, tourism, and hate mail to Molly's small roadside operation, and her anxiety over the people who have started showing up at the site bleeds into her conviction that she isn't alone in her home.

    I won't spell it out here, but even before Phillips pulls back the curtain to reveal the particular kind of strangeness that Molly has become ensnared in, it's not hard to guess where The Need is going. Once that strangeness is revealed, the novel changes its tone, from a mystery and a thriller to a more measured, and yet no less nerve-wracking, horror story. We never find out the reason for Molly's predicament (though some intriguing hints are dropped near the novel's end), and instead our focus is on motherhood. When she thinks that she needs to protect her children from an invader, Molly is frantic and over-extended. How to keep hold of these two floppy, uncooperative, helpless bodies? How to put herself between them and danger without terrifying them? When that danger changes its face, becomes less obviously a threat—while still undermining the foundations of Molly's self-image—the novel's discussions of motherhood become more contemplative, but no less frantic. Motherhood, in The Need, is both a joy and a horror, a pleasure that is sometimes visceral—Molly is still nursing her son, and the physical discomfort of her milk coming in, as well as the pleasure of feeding him, are recurring touchstones for her—and an all-consuming monster that threatens to obliterate one's personhood. Phillips makes Molly's children people in their own right, despite their young age, with their own quirks and point of view. But she also makes it clear how demanding they are, how the nonstop effort and consideration they unthinkingly expect Molly to provide can only be met by someone biologically compelled to care for them, and even then, at a profound physical and psychological cost.

    The crux of The Need is a threat to Molly's identity as a mother that reveals just how deep, and yet also how irrational, her need to define herself that way is. Given how all-consuming motherhood is in Phillips's depiction, one might think that Molly would welcome the respite from it that the strangeness at the heart of the novel offers her. And yet when prevented from caring for her children, she seems to lose all sense of self, passing hours and days in a stupor until she can reclaim the mantle of motherhood. Phillips is hardly the first author to find horror at the heart of the maternal connection, but what her 21st century take on it—featuring breast pumps, texts with the babysitter, househusbands, and toddlers who casually drop words like "vagina"—argues is that there is no aspect of modernity that can alter its primal, animalistic nature. It's a point that the novel makes long before it wraps up its story, and in some ways The Need peaks in its first, riveting segment, before the full contours of its horror have even been established. But even as the novel approaches a conclusion that is fairly easy to anticipate, it never stops horrifying us with its heroine's mingled joy and terror at what becoming a mother has made of her.

  • The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner - The Warner renaissance continues with NYRB Classics's republication of this 1948 historical novel, set in a medieval nunnery in rural England. To call it a historical novel, however, might be a misleading way of describing Corner. Though it references some of the major events of its 14th-century setting—the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt—the whole point of the novel is that for the nuns at the convent of Oby, life is a constant now, marked by the turn of seasons, and by the lifecycle of individual nuns, from novices to junior members of the order to its leaders, but never really changing in its fundamentals. Prioresses die and are replaced; the bishops who oversee the order come and go, each with a different agenda; various schemes to put the convent on a solid financial footing are attempted, rarely with much success; a spire for the convent's church is erected, falls down in a storm, and is then erected again. These events are recorded in great detail and with Warner's typical sardonic wit, but they don't come together into a narrative. The novel doesn't even end so much as stop, and it is easy enough to imagine Warner going on for hundreds more pages, or picking an earlier stopping point for her ending.

    Given how chilly and hard to get through I found my previous foray into Warner's writing, Kingdoms of Elfin, one might expect The Corner That Held Them, with its deliberate refusal to be bound by a plot structure or provide anything in the way of a climax, to be similarly alienating. And yet I found the novel almost effortlessly readable. Warner is great at charting the day-to-day details of the lives of the nuns, the kind of characters and the kind of life that historical fiction doesn't tend to turn its attention to. She also focuses on the community that forms between the nuns, one that owes its nature and rhythms less to religious faith than to ties of family, class, and wealth. The nuns at Oby are at once removed from the world and very much a part of it. Many of them have familial and political connections that they use to advance the convent's cause by soliciting donations or recruiting novices with rich dowries. But those political connections end up impacting on the society within the convent, such as the selection of the prioress, or the upheaval when a reformist bishop saddles the convent with novices from lower-class backgrounds, who bring no money with them. Religion ends up playing less of a role in the novel than you might expect, more of a background hum—an opening segment chronicles the nuns' concern when their priest leaves them just as the Black Death appears in their part of the country, leaving them with no one to administer last rites—than the purpose of anyone's life. When one of the nuns begins experiencing visions, another reacts in alarm, reasoning that fervent faith is the worst thing one can have in a nunnery.

    To describe it this way, however, is perhaps to create the impression that Corner is a novel of political intrigue or communal dysfunction, and nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is it told in a gentle, unsensational tone, which describes even shocking events like murder with equanimity, but the thrust of the novel's events is always towards entropy. Political scheming inevitably comes to nothing—the reformist bishop who saddles the convent with freeloader nuns and assigns a clerk to oversee its finances dies soon after from an illness, and his agent ends up in sympathy with the convent and its administration, doing nothing to curb its excesses (or help cover its debt). The prioresses who hatch plans to make Oby solvent and more attractive to families looking to place a daughter end up being defeated by mundane forces—tenants who can't pay rent but are too much trouble to evict and replace; serfs who prioritize their own farms over their service to the manor. Even successes end up feeling less triumphant than you'd expect, as the prioress who erects the spire realizes when she considers the fruits of her labors. Corner is, instead, about the constant, largely-unchanging—despite the stream of new faces and minor incidents—flow of life at Oby. Like the lives of the nuns themselves, it is at once depressing and rewarding, discovering deeper truths and a sort of beauty in the lives of people who have deliberately turned away from the world, and seek to leave no mark on it.

  • The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley - If someone had told me, before picking up Hurley's latest novel—which has been shortlisted for both the Hugo and the Clarke—that it was a hardboiled, war-is-hell MilSF novel making overt references to classics of the genre like Starship Troopers and The Forever War, I might have hesitated to read it. Which would have been a shame, because The Light Brigade is not only a gripping and engrossing read, but offers a twist on its genre that feels both modern, and absolutely necessary for our present moment. Our point of view character is Dietz, a "resident" in a South American corporate state (one of six who rule the world and govern most of its population) who has joined the corporate military to fight a war against the Martians—actually, humans who colonized Mars decades ago and have recently attacked Earth. Dietz's motives for joining up are partly self-serving—military service is one of the few paths to citizenship available in the novel's world, and citizens enjoy access to jobs, education, and medical care that are denied to residents—but also rooted in personal conviction. Most of Dietz's family, who were not corporate citizens or residents but "ghouls", stateless people often relegated to work camps or left to starve, were living in São Paulo when the Martians destroyed it, and Dietz wants revenge.

    In accordance with the classic template of MilSF novels, The Light Brigade follows Dietz through enlistment, basic training, and deployment, in a tight first person that emphasizes both the casual brutality and indifference that the military higher-ups have towards the wellbeing of their soldiers, and Dietz's own narrow worldview, which is focused on getting through the next day, scoring a bit of R&R, and physical outlets of both the violent and sexual varieties. It doesn't take much familiarity with MilSF (or with Hurley's back-catalogue) to be suspicious of the narrative of the war, and The Light Brigade quickly makes it clear that Dietz's take on it is untrustworthy, not least because the news sources made available by the corporations are entirely coopted. One of the most striking aspects of The Light Brigade's early chapters is the degree to which Dietz and other recruits are thoroughly propagandized, even when they see themselves as savvy (which usually translates into a defeated cynicism). None of them, for example, question the citizenship hierarchy, even when their own history exposes its unfairness—Dietz's friend Jones, for example, lambastes another recruit for gaining citizenship by being young enough to draft on her mother's elevation to it, when he himself has inherited it from his grandparents; and all of them, even Dietz, take it as a given that ghouls deserve nothing, and dismiss their desire for a better life as mere envy. 

    The Light Brigade is a novel about Dietz's radicalization, and the method it uses to achieve this also makes it a twisty, thoroughly satisfying time travel novel. To transport its soldiers, the corporations use a teleportation technology that, as Dietz rather poetically puts it, turns the soldiers into light. But Dietz's reaction to the technology is abnormal. Traveling not only through space but through time, Dietz experiences missions out of order, jumping from the earlier stages of the war to its end and back again, witnessing atrocities committed by the corporations, and learning that winning has a cost even greater than losing. This has an effect that is first psychological—Dietz meets hardened soldiers, then encounters them as green recruits; witnesses the deaths of friends and lovers, and then meets them for the first time. But it also serves to open Dietz's eyes to the lies the corporation has told about the war. As the reader pieces together the narrative's non-linear components—as missions that we know were little more than meat-grinders or the wholesale slaughter of civilians are sold to the soldiers about to embark on them as necessary components of a considered strategy—Dietz is confronted, again and again, with lies so flagrant that one would never think to question them. This includes, finally, the very question of who the war is against and what it's about.

    The Light Brigade is blatant in its homages to novels like Starship Troopers and The Forever War (and probably others I've missed) but it also takes care to update and subvert the tropes these novels are most famous for. Like Troopers, The Light Brigade associates citizenship with military service. But Hurley makes it clear that the philosophical underpinning of such a policy is merely an excuse to supply the corporation with expendable bodies, and Dietz even muses that hardly any soldier will live long enough to serve the ten years required to earn citizenship. And like The Forever War, it uses time-hopping to illustrate a soldier's growing disconnect from the society that deployed them, but in The Light Brigade this disassociation doesn't require physical distance or time dilation, merely military indoctrination. When Dietz's platoon is deployed to suppress civil unrest in the ruins of São Paulo, it doesn't take much to goad them into seeing civilians as just as much of an enemy as the Martian soldiers. This last sequence is only one of the ways in which The Light Brigade feels entirely of its moment—not to mention, a very apt book to have picked up in June 2020. (The Light Brigade is also a lot better than earlier MilSF works at poking holes in assumptions about gender and sexuality, achieving with an unaffected naturalness what those novels did with tremendous self-consciousness.) It's all leading to a conclusion in which Dietz tries to wrest control of the time travel technology, and a tying-together of the novel's fractured timeline that is both satisfying, and a powerful statement about an individual's power against the state.

  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - Catton's 2013 novel—which won the Booker award that same year, making her the youngest author to claim the prize—has been sitting on my TBR stack for the better part of a decade. As is too often the case, I only picked it out of the pile because of a forthcoming screen adaptation (though having read the novel, I'm having trouble imagining how the BBC's six-part miniseries treatment could do anything but skim its surface). A big part of my reason for holding off was the commitment that the 800+ page Luminaries seemed to represent. But once you get into it, the doorstop-length of the novel zips along in a way that is both surprising and delightful. Equally surprising—and also delightful, albeit with some caveats that I'll get into shortly—is the fact that The Luminaries is such a perfect pastiche of 19th century sensation novels. One can almost feel the spirit of Wilkie Collins wafting over the novel, with its copious coincidences, its plot driven by fortuitous meetings of people who have unsuspected connections, its myriad storylines that just happen to all have the same inciting incident, and its strong lashings of the supernatural. All the classic tropes of the genre are in attendance: missing wills, stolen identities, secret half-brothers, star-crossed lovers, long-simmering vengeance, and a seance.

    Set in 1866 on the Western coast of New Zealand, The Luminaries takes place mostly in and around the town of Hokitika, a mining settlement that is the most recent frontier for Europeans looking to strike it rich on the goldfields. One of these is Walter Moody, who on the evening of his arrival stumbles onto a meeting of a dozen of the town's most prominent citizens, who have gathered to discuss a series of strange events that, they believe, may all be connected to a single dastardly act. In typical sensation novel fashion, the men invite Moody to listen to their narratives, and the first segment of the novel—which is almost the length of a regular novel in its own right—is made up of their varied accounts. The incidents they report—a missing prospector; a dead hermit; a prostitute found unconscious by the side of the road; a politician who is being blackmailed; a fortune with no discernible provenance—all seem to connect back to a single man, Francis Carver, a sea captain with a shady past and a violent temper. By the end of this first segment, the general contours of the novel's mystery are easy enough to discern (and Moody is a clear-headed, disinterested detective type who helpfully lays them out for the reader), but it will take the rest of The Luminaries for all of its open questions to be resolved.

    The plot of The Luminaries skips forwards and backwards over the course of a year, with each segment taking place during a single day, following multiple characters as they each discover different pieces of the puzzle. Catton's omniscient, third person narrator delves into each characters' psyche in their turn, puzzling over the type of dysfunction that leads people to wash up on what is, to them, the ends of the earth. Alongside criminals and fortune-hunters, the community of Hokitika includes blustering bullies, their weak-willed enablers, disappointed clerks and functionaries, and lost souls. Much of the novel's events are rooted not in decisive action but in people acting according to a nature they are too weak to overcome, spending money they don't have, withholding kindness because their pride has been wounded, lying to avoid embarrassment and discomfort. Like a lot else about The Luminaries, however, this is a concept that Catton raises and then lets drop. Having established the complexity of her characters and their motivations, she ultimately loses sight of both—and of many of the characters themselves—as the story barrels towards its ending. This is true of many other interesting ideas raised throughout the novel. In one scene, a character observes that a place like Hokitika, where men who are nobodies can strike it rich in a day and become pillars of society, defies the unspoken rules of "civilization", and that its inevitable enfolding into normal society will mean shutting off those avenues for unanticipated, sudden social climbing. It's a thought that could have fueled an entire novel in its own right, but in The Luminaries it is simply raised, and then forgotten.

    If I have a complaint about The Luminaries, in fact, it is its absolute refusal to be about anything. For all its breadth, and despite how much fun it is to unravel its mystery, there really doesn't seem to be much substance to the novel. You see this, in particular, in Catton's steadfast refusal to work against any of the standard assumptions of a 19th century novel. The female characters in The Luminaries are a conniving villain, a perennially acted-upon innocent, and a cowed victim. Non-white characters, though their exploitation and mistreatment by white settlers is commented upon, are ultimately used in much the same way by the novel itself, one of them even dying to fuel the plot's progression. Native characters—or rather, character, singular—show up to acknowledge the malign transformation being wrought on their home by colonization and resource extraction, but having made that acknowledgment, the novel moves on, clearly more interested in the story of its white characters. Finally, one has to concludes that it's this emptiness, this refusal to be about anything, that is the point of the novel. By its end, Catton seems more interested in games with structure, such as the way that later segments grow shorter and shorter, while the summaries that preface each chapter become longer and more informative than the chapters themselves. Or the preoccupation with astrology that runs through the novel, extending to accompanying each segment with an astrological chart that shows which planet is affecting which character (because it's all fated, you see). It's all clever enough, I suppose, but it can also end up feeling like a rather flimsy excuse for an 800-page behemoth. The Luminaries may be a fun read, but it's one that leaves very little behind when you turn the last page.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Deus Ex: Thoughts on Westworld's Third Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Pandemic Viewing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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