Peggy Olson and Ian McKellen Share a Birthday

Today I learned that Peggy Olson and Sir Ian McKellen share a birthday. Like, an exact birthday. They are the same age.

How do we know this?

Sir Ian’s Wikipedia confirms it: 25 May, 1939 (age 82).

(Let’s stop here for a moment and collectively wonder, how does Wikipedia even get this information? Did they obtain a copy of his birth certificate? Do they take the word of a close friend or close-enough relative? Did Ian McKellen himself field a phone call from a Wikimedia fact checker? Did he have to stifle a Jesus Christ I am busy understanding Beckett how did you get this number to just get them off his back and say, “… yeah. I was born on 25 May, 1939.”?)

Peggy Olson was also born on May 25, 1939. I can write it like that because she’s American.

Who the heck is Peggy Olson? you may be wondering to yourself.

Only the copy chief of Sterling Cooper Draper Price Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Who could have starred in her own episode of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. Who could bring back knit pantsuits with a single wide shot. Who could possibly have had fleeting sexual chemistry with a strapping Colin Hanks dressed as a priest.

Peggy Olson is a fictional character played by Elizabeth Moss on Mad Men.

(Of all the Mount Rushmore shows from the Gilded Age of TV, Mad Men is always the last one to get a mention. Important but not watershed. Mad Men is Teddy Roosevelt. Tucked away in the corner, obscured in Jefferson’s [The Wire] shadow.) (Sopranos is Washington, obviously. Breaking Bad is Lincoln. Don’t expect me to sit here and explain this to you. It’s science.) (I happen to share a birthday with Teddy Roosevelt but we really can’t get into that now.)

Mad Men happens to be my favorite television show. The characters are awful people in the most glorious of ways. Blame it on the trauma, I love them all dearly.

Possibly the best episode of the series – inarguably the best bottle episode ever created in the history of TV – is season four, episode seven of Mad Men: “The Suitcase.” (It is also the episode in the exact CENTER of the series. Episode 46 of 92. Goddamn you, Matthew Weiner.)

In “The Suitcase,” the enigmatic Donald Draper is avoiding what he knows will be a bad phone call. The plucky Peggy Olson is heading out to have a romantic dinner with that wet loaf of bread she calls a boyfriend, Mark. Don is not happy with the work for Samsonite. (Suitcase!) Peggy stays working with Don, even though everyone else has left the office already. She is at once being naïve assuming Don will find her time valuable, for which she will inevitably complain, and also unconsciously indulging in the workaholic side of her self-fulfilled prophecy, of which she really loves. Mark resents both the former and the latter, and they break up over the phone when Peggy is so late for dinner that his FORTY BUCKS has gone to waste! (Break out your inflation calculator for this show, folks, or you will never stop laughing when people emphatically announce what things cost. Which happens a lot.)

Anyway. We’re not here to recap.   

The frame narrative of “The Suitcase” is of the infamous second fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay. Everyone has left the office already because they’re off to watch the fight on closed circuit TV. Mark is taking Peggy out to dinner because it’s her birthday. And what day is it? May 25, 1965!

But how do we know how old Peggy is?! Well! Earlier in the episode, Meghan the Receptionist asks Peggy this question directly, and she replies, “26.” Meghan reacts with an impressed smile at the Single and Fabulous Exclamation Point copywriter, “Oh, you’re doing well, aren’t you?” Peggy is proud of herself.

Moments later in the same scene, when Mrs. Trudy Vogel Dyckman Campbell, obtuse about the waist from an on-purpose pregnancy, learns that Peggy is 26, her response is, “Well… 26 is still *very* young.” The condescension is devastating. Peggy is less proud of herself.

I mean… feminism, right?

From here it’s simple subtraction, my friends. 1965 – 26 = 1939. Peggy Olson and Sir Ian McKellen were born on the exact same day.

(Have I told you my favorite movies are The Lord of the Rings?)

Upon this realization, it’s not a far leap to immediately imagine that Gandalf the Grey and Peggy the Pantsuit are peers. Maybe acquaintances… friends, even!

Sitting in the booth at the Greek diner, waxing philosophical about finding purpose through work, eventually discussing the death of a loved one. Peggy tells Gandalf that she watched her father die in front of her, while they were watching sports on TV. Gandalf replies, “Yeah… I don’t have a father because I’m a kind of immortal being that was sort of just, like, there one day? Like I wasn’t born so much as I just was, you know? But, I have watched a lot of people die right in front of me. So… I kind of get it.”

Peggy doesn’t really know what to say, so she just nods. Nibbles on a pickle. She glances up at the painting on the wall.

“Why is there a dog in the Parthenon?” she asks.

Gandalf looks up. “That’s a roach,” he says. “Let’s go somewhere darker.”

They get up to leave.

“Speaking of somewhere darker, did I ever tell you about the time when I was in the Mines of Moria?” Gandalf says, dropping cash on the table.

“Yeah,” Peggy says, scooting out of the booth. “You tell that one a lot, actually.”

Let ‘Little Voice’ Sweep You Away

Little Voice is the sweet, hopeful antidote to our current moment.

In the newest AppleTV+ venture, the titular little voice belongs to Bess King (Brittany O’Grady), a singer-songwriter whose self-described earnestness and lack of stage presence make it difficult for her music career to take off… until it does.

Sounds a little cute? What if I told you that to make ends meet Bess steeps herself thoroughly in the gig life? Because what’s cuter than a 20-something who walks dogs and sings standards to the elderly?

Need another push? Her “music studio” is a tricked-out storage unit complete with a boho flair of tapestry and string lights. Oh, and in said storage unit she meet-cutes an amateur videographer (director? Cinematographer? Who cares, he’s adorable.) and you better believe he already has a girlfriend. Don’t worry, there’s also a dreamy guitarist with whom Bess connects beautifully. Mmm… conflict!

Yes, Little Voice has many trappings of a romcom of 90s days gone by and finds much success leaning into them, but don’t mistake its sweetness for saccharine; it’s careful not to get too precious. Bess is very likeable with perhaps too few faults – save for some unhealthy coping mechanisms and a mildly annoying stubborn streak – but the show frequently cuts its cute with real feelings of self-doubt, self-destruction, and general hopelessness. Bess has found herself as the backbone of a splintered family, and she often struggles to balance that emotional labor while actively seeking her dream. Her little wins like winning real studio time in a songwriting contest or playing to a tiny room without making a fool out of herself feel like major triumphs. It’s a show that doesn’t need to earn your empathy. You’re ready to give it away.

Little Voice is so confident in its execution that it will charm the cynical right out of your sensibilities. Its editing is whimsical and airy. Its inclusivity is effortless. It even dares to get a little postmodern with its moving and conceptual seventh episode. And why not? Why not root for the young woman trying to take New York City by storm, back when that was possible? Little Voice is likely one of the last major projects to have filmed in the city prior to the coronavirus outbreak, and all the people and action and movement might break your heart a little. If there’s ever a time to give in to cuteness, it’s now. Little Voice is the sweet, hopeful antidote to our current moment.

‘Carnival Row’ is Television Word Vomit

‘Carnival Row’ is the television equivalent of word vomit. The intention is there, but the product is hasty, jumbled, and confusing.

Amazon

The first note I wrote down while watching Carnival Row was, “Who is this show for?” Eight hours later, I do not have an answer, unless that answer is “probably no one.” Yes, it’s admirable to try to make fantasy creatures roam around a Victorian England-looking city (they don’t fit), or to set off into the great unknown of non-existent intellectual property (it actually makes you realize the many benefits of IP). But ultimately, admirability is no substitute for watchability, and Amazon’s newest fantasy series ignores genre convention to an illogical end. Carnival Row is the television equivalent of word vomit. The intention is there, but the product is hasty, jumbled, and confusing. 

The vitally important world-building facet of fantasy seems rather recklessly performed here, making the foundation of this show feel more bullet-pointed than dossier-ed. Rather than being steeped in its own mythology, Carnival Row exists through flimsy tidbits that come from and go nowhere, and casual references to larger cultural artifacts. (My favorite example of which is the cursory mention of a “Saint Titania” among the fae folk. Plus one point for everyone who paid attention during freshman English!) We don’t feel as though we’ve been immersed into a world that’s been established for thousands of years. Being in Carnival Row is like being dropped into a production meeting halfway. (And don’t let its Wiki page fool you – very little of what’s detailed on that website is in the actual show.)

In order to understand the indecision mire in which Carnival Row has caught itself, one need only look to its main character. Only his name, in fact: Rycroft Philostrate. Okay so his name is a supremely goofy fantasy name, but we’re in this world and that’s not the issue. The issue comes from the fact that he goes by the nickname “Philo.” So. Of aaall the potential nicknames that are derivative of his full name, the powers that be skipped over the one-syllable ones like Ry, Croft, Strate, or even Lo, and they went with the only situation in which his nickname has as many syllables as his actual name and is actually longer than any other nickname option. Oh, and when it’s shortened, Philo is pronounced with a long “I” vowel sound. When in its full iteration, it has a short “I” sound.

Yes. The nickname is pronounced differently than the word from which it derives.

But here’s the main point: Why does he have a nickname at all? Writers, if you wanted him to be called Philo with a long I, then for the love of Saint Titania why didn’t you just name him that? 

The meandering logic that it took to name its main character can be applied it to nearly every decision made in the creation of Carnival Row. The source of the idea for any given plot point or narrative arc may have been created with some intent, but the execution is often so stodgy and full of holes that what we get are more questions than answers. 

The sense you get is not one of laziness, to be fair (in fact the opposite could be true, to a fault), but of a lack of confidence. Almost beset with the responsibility of being new in an ever-expanding world of IP, Carnival Row frequently veers into the insecure. At nearly every turn it second guesses the strength of what it’s created. Storylines are picked up, briefly considered, then discarded more often than they’re followed-through. With the exception of a couple of decent outliers, the objectives of characters are never fully-formed or connected to one another. They’re just free-floating through any given plot, not tied to each other or to their physical space (not literally, obviously, since many of these characters can fly), and ultimately accomplishing very little.

This indecision appears to have something of a trickle-down effect from its bullet-pointed beginnings. Every character, with all their dialogue, action, and backstory, and every plot that extends from them, and every subplot that extends from there, is like a nail in shitty drywall. They hammer in one idea and what’s created are cracks, which create more cracks, nail after nail, and so on, until the structure inevitably begins to crumble. 

Not helping Carnival Row’s infrastructure is its odd reliance on politics. The most tepid of the three major plots involves characters who work in a system of government so on-high that it rarely interacts with the other plotlines in a meaningful way. Perhaps this was purposeful, used to show how disconnected the policymakers are from real life, but every scene and every character in this plotline ends up reading as just disconnected.  

Worse yet is the show’s penchant for bait-y political commentary. It sets out to address all manner of sociopolitical issues, and it mostly does, as curtly as a fairy godmother waiving her wand. A handful of gay characters show up in bit parts, and in short order two of them are dead. Faeries, pucks, and other species have been forced to flee their countries of origin due to war, so the topic of immigration plays a substantial and fruitless role in the show. Racism also rears its head due to the city’s new inhabitants.

When I say “racism,” I should specify that the racism in the show’s world is not referring to skin color. The fact that there are several species other than humans in this world creates many points of contention among many characters, which results in an ideology resembling racism. One major plot in particular plays the race relations card in the most predictable way imaginable, in which a female woman (who happens to be white) and a male puck (who happens to be black) become romantically entwined. That this is the most effective plot of the entire series is both a wonder and a disappointment. (For the record, the wonder comes from Tamzin Merchant as Imogen Spurnrose, whose deft performance steals the whole show right out from under its glitzy leads. Merchant makes clear, defined choices that allow for her character to show depth rather than drastic changes in heart. She’s not given much, to be sure, and that material would have doomed a lesser actor.) 

Carnival Row is ostensibly about immigration and racism, but episode by episode the action never catches up with its premise. Because despite what the show might have you believe, its intention is never to deal with the incredibly complex and far-reaching issues it raises. In one infuriatingly smug line, a character suggests that the country solved racism of skin lone long ago, while offering no explanation of how or at what cost or the extent of the struggles that it took to get there. Carnival Row is not here to deal with racism, immigration, or homophobia. It’s here to plant a flag on the right side of history.

When allegory is done right it achieves its payoff by fitting both our world and the fictional world, but Carnival Row is so self-conscious in its pursuit of allegory that it’s wholly ineffective. The problem with trying to tackle real-world issues in our very troubled time is that if done indelicately, as is the case here, it comes off as pedantic at best, and can bleed into the offensive and condescending. It contributes to the noise rather than makes sense of it. 

The first season of Carnival Row is clumpy at best. It ends in a cacophonous finale episode so full of half-hearted exposition that it’s exhausting, and the rash ways in which it ties up what little plot remained negates just about everything that happened in the previous seven hours. It suggests that the already-green-lit second season will start from near scratch, which could be a potential blessing for Carnival Row’s creators. After all this, we’re owed more than a show made up of ill-fitting, rusting, creaking steampunk gears. 

When ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Became Grief Porn

That MGM thought a lighthearted wink of a cross-marketing campaign would work for a TV show that includes repeated government-sanctioned rape proves that the Handmaid’s Tale brand is unaware of its own narrative, culturally or otherwise.

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Just a week ago, it was announced that MGM, the production company behind Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was pairing with online wine retailer Lot18 to release a collection of wines inspired by the popular series. Per People, you could get one of three varietals, each branded with a character from the series. There was an Offred Pinot Noir, an Ofglen Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Serena Joy Bordeaux Blanc, each cheekily described with adjectives like “powerful,” “daring,” and “austere,” respectively. It was a kitschy move, one that invited viewers to enjoy the fall of democracy and enslavement of women with wine, but be sure to enjoy it with their wine.

It was also a thoughtless move that was not lost on many a viewer. Less than 24 hours later, the Handmaid’s wine collection was pulled after an uproar over the tone-deafness of the campaign. Put most succinctly by one Twitter user:

Lot18 is a company that happened to already have several collections of TV- and movie-inspired wine, but neither Outlander nor Master Chef have enjoyed success due in part to the degradation of the American sociopolitical landscape and legitimate fear for what rights may be stripped away because of it. That MGM thought a lighthearted wink of a cross-marketing campaign would work for a TV show that includes repeated government-sanctioned rape proves that the Handmaid’s Tale brand is unaware of its own narrative, culturally or otherwise.

We don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale for fun. We don’t feel good about the world after we’re done an episode. We’re incensed, deflated, despondent. So why do more and more of us subject ourselves to this world of infinite despair? Because we need it.

Even when we try to march, donate, and vote, often it never feels like enough. We can’t be human beings in the current American climate without feeling guilty. How do we get up and do work, or go food shopping, or get pedicures, or wash our cars, or mow our lawns, knowing that human rights atrocities are happening in our midst at the exact time we’re living our lives? It’s a deep helplessness that seeps into our days, because not far there’s always a smartphone to remind us of what’s happening.

Even when we try to avoid the news, we know we’re avoiding the news. We’re actively pushing away the truths of our times in order to go to work, get food, and mow the lawn, because we have the privilege to do so. We of the cisgendered, heterosexual, white, middle class demo have the privilege to feel guilty, and not worse.

So we watch The Handmaid’s Tale. We watch our protagonists get beaten, raped, degraded, mutilated, humiliated for nearly thirteen hours a season, all for the sake of self-flagellation. Because we need something fake to point at and say, “Hey! See? It can happen!” as we sit in the real world that we can do so little about.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to use art to indulge in despair. The relief it provides is as cathartic as a good cry. But despair is rarely rewatchable, so in order to be most effective it has to be done extraordinarily well. I’ll never forget the image of Nora being trampled on by a mob in The Leftovers, or the other ghost in A Ghost Story, because of how deeply those stories burrowed into the despair center of my brain. But I may never watch them again, even though they’re both excellent pieces of film. Because when would I willingly put myself through that again? A Tuesday evening? A Saturday afternoon?

The Handmaid’s Tale implored you to indulge in despair every Wednesday for twelve weeks, because you needed it to feel like a sentient liberal. You needed it to feel like a feminist, or an activist, or a revolutionary, when everything else felt like it was keeping you down. And it knew you would watch.

It’s cynical, sure, but this is the Handmaid’s Tale that Hulu created on the heels of a tyrant coming into power: a show that wishes to commiserate in our grief, then offers us a sliver of hope, only to push us into deeper grief, and back around again. It fed off our desire for programming to reflect our time, then created a second season to keep our despair centers pulsing.

But with its second season, the show began sacrificing narrative logic for the sake of greater despair:

June spends months reading and editing Serena’s confidential government documents. She didn’t internalize a single fact about Gilead that she could use to her advantage, but Serena was beaten for her transgression.

Serena unites the wives of Gilead so that girls may read. We don’t learn about these characters through this radical shift in ideology, but Serena loses a finger for breaking the law.

Emily is placed in a home with an unusual commander who gives her beer and spares her the “ceremony.” Emily stabs Aunt Lydia, kicks her, and pushes her down the stairs.

This season was short-sighted, doubling back on itself every couple of episodes when progress had the opportunity to grow, because progress is hope and hope is impractical in a show that ran out of its source material after one season. And so Handmaid’s is caught in a hellish cycle of its own making: grief, hope, more grief, repeat.

Perhaps that’s why the unequivocal best part of the season was watching a villain gain empathy. Serena broke the cycle because there was redemption in her struggle. She was always the unintended consequence of her own making, but this season she came to terms with her choices, and used what little power she had to try and create change. Even when she failed, her tragic irony propelled an otherwise skulking season of television.

Just like misunderstanding our desire for dystopian wine, those responsible for The Handmaid’s Tale misunderstand our reasons for watching. They think that all we want to see in this world is pain, when what we’re really searching for in that pain is insight into how to process these atrocities, and how to push through.

Because so little of consequence happened in this season, it’s hard to believe that The Handmaid’s Tale knows what it’s going to be in its third season. Maybe it can rise above a sophomore slump. Maybe it’ll keep spinning its wheels. But, like those midterm elections looming ahead, we may be able to count on some change.

The Nitpic’s Summer Watch Review – July 1-7

I swam, I tanned, and I mostly binged.

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A major holiday that lands smack dab in the middle of the week really messes up ones schedule. It’s not that I have all that much to do, really. But since I’m actually trying to be a person who goes outside in the summer (contrary to what my initial post stated), I didn’t carve out a whole lot of time for watching this week. I swam, I tanned, and I mostly binged. Enjoy.

Television 

GLOW

I gave up on GLOW five episodes into the first season last summer, though you could say it was really more of a gradual disinterest than a clean break. It was one of those TV experiences that I found enjoyable enough, but once something more appealing came along, it became the show that I’d definitely catch up on. And then the show I’d definitely get around to. And then, the longer I hadn’t watched it, the show I wasn’t really sure I even liked.

So when the second season started getting some buzz (and I found little better to do on a super hot Saturday), I decided to dive on in and give it another shot, mostly forgetting why I stopped watching in the first place. To say GLOW wasn’t a complete waste of time is to laud it for one of its best qualities: it’s short. Half-hour-long episodes! Ten episode seasons! It’s a Peak TV miracle! But even then, it often feels like a complete waste of time.

Shows with a large ensemble cast tend to squander precious time trying to give every single character something to do. Shows don’t have A, B, or C plots but have five A plots happening all at once. (Harlots falls prey to this, Orange is the New Black did it well, once upon a time.) But with GLOW, the baseline of every episode is people meandering around a motel room or a gym, and then plots just pop up here and there like a whack-a-mole game.

There’s also no character tier to speak of, even though I suppose Alison Brie’s Ruth, Betty Gilpin’s Debbie, and Marc Maron’s Sam are the ones we’re following. But Ruth has so little propulsion that she’s downright boring, and Debbie is doing the same thing every episode, and for some reason we’re supposed to give a shit about Sam and his daughter and whether or not she’s going to school everyday (?!?!?!). Every arc that is introduced is stunted, sometimes barely lasting a full episode until it’s forgotten. GLOW also has an unfortunate habit in stretching out what should be a five-minute scene into a 15-minute set piece. In short: it has no idea what to do with itself.

A few stand-out moments make me think GLOW is less working towards something great and more just lucking out. In one episode, Tammé, stage name Welfare Queen, is defending her crown against Debbie (Liberty Belle) and their match becomes entirely too relevant for the show to handle. Liberty Belle is set up to be G.L.O.W.’s hero, so when the black Welfare Queen enters a room full of white people in red, white, and blue, waving American flags, cheering on the blonde white lady, shit is suddenly very real. Debbie is America, while Tammé is the villain. I don’t know that I’ve seen a better visual metaphor for systemic racism (including Get Out?), but in the context of the show as a whole, it’s meaningless. (The same goes for the Weinstein-esque moment that you could be just cynical enough to think if this is just something that every show has to do these days.)

And yet nearly every line Marc Maron delivers is excellent, and then there’s the brilliant show within a show, and listen, I couldn’t give a single shit about wrestling IRL, but every actual wrestling moment GLOW offers is actually lively and exciting and super fun. If it gets a third season, let’s hope it recognizes where its strengths are, and ditch any and all dead weight.

Casual Binge: Girls

I was nullflixing one day this week based on my mood, and the airy privilege of Girls seemed just the ticket. I say “casual binge” because I was bouncing around the first few seasons, cherry-picking my favorite episodes for a while (the less Jessa and Charlie the better, more Ray and Hannah ennui, please!), until I hit season four and every single episode becomes a must-watch. I think it’s rare for a show to hit its stride into the end of its third season, but Girls really found itself in those latter seasons. (Season five from start to finish is a delight.)

The fun thing about this casual binge is that I may have finally gotten to the bottom of what the creators intended for Hannah as a character. After the third-ish rewatch, I understood her humor in a way that I hadn’t before, saw her Don Draper-like self destruction as more endearing than infuriating. Mostly, I’m appreciating Girls as one of those shows that grows with me the more I watch.

Completed Binge: Community

Yes, I made myself watch the maligned sixth season of Community, which I hadn’t in full until now. And yes, it was pretty brutal. Never have I seen a show give so few shits about beloved characters it fostered for five years, or give up so spectacularly on creating something, anything worth watching. There were a few bright spots on an otherwise crappy season, but Community really went out with a big, loud armpit fart sound.

And, honestly, that’s something I kind of admire about it. So many sitcoms end with a dull whimper, keeping itself above water by recycling jokes by worn-out characters. But the last season of Community was really, truly awful. I mean, it crashed and burned. And for a show as self-aware as this one, there’s no way it didn’t know it. In that way, Community had to self destruct in order to preserve the pieces of itself that made it an incredibly touching and special show. You will never remember anything after Troy leaves, and it’s so much better that way.

Currently binging: The Office 

Please refer to the above paragraph, and consider The Office to be an example of the sitcom that ends with a dull whimper. The Office was my first TV love, and is a perennial in our little household. And, like Community, I don’t watch the show after Michael leaves in season seven. Robert California was a disaster, the best of its plots (Jim and Pam) got incredibly stale by the end of the series.

However, we’re in the best stages of the will-they-or-won’t-they part of the show, and it is just glorious. The first season is so remarkably British that it’s a wonder it got picked up for a second season at all (less genuine laughter than nervous laughter), but by “Office Olympics,” you’ve officially got a special show on your hands. Episodes I’m looking forward to: “Dwight’s Speech,” “Conflict Resolution,” and the amaaaazing “Casino Night.” And all of season three!

Movies

Three Identical Strangers

I’ve come to find that there are moments in life that make you take a step back and take stock of where you are. One of those is realizing that I’m not only excited to see a documentary the day it comes out, but also excited to be getting out of work early enough to see said documentary before 5:30 when the tickets are cheaper and the theater will be less crowded. Sure, a couple of the bluehairs that shared our theatre sat down in next to us when the row behind us was literally completely empty, but all of this is to say that the experience of seeing Three Identical Strangers made me feel like I’m finally aging into my personality.

And then came the moment of panic about halfway through Three Identical Strangers that made me question what my personality even is… or at least, whether or not I am in control of it at all. It’s a deeply unsettling feeling that comes from a deeply unsettling movie about the ways in which the world shapes who we are, for better or worse.

To go too much further would spoil the fun of this multi-layered ride, but it was definitely a ride. I’ve seen too many documentaries that rely on the novelty of its subjects to bother creating something worth watching (and, frankly, this movie could’ve done it and still been a fun watch), but Three Identical Strangers makes an effort to stand out as its own entity. It’s structured well, unfolding as it goes, peeling back the elements of the story so that it creates drama, rather than just retelling it.

The film also has a thesis, which is incredibly refreshing for a documentary. It wraps up both the narrative it constructed, and offers its audience a little nugget of hope after an hour and a half’s worth of inconceivable despair. So, friends, be like me! Be excited to watch a documentary!

Paranormal Activity

After our early-bird documentary, followed by a super greasy breakfast-for-dinner at our local diner, Mike and I felt like the rest of the night should be spent relaxing. Nothing too engrossing, nothing new, just some light, rewatchable fare to punctuate our evening. When we found out Spice World wasn’t streaming (no shit, it was an option; his curiosity met my nostalgia for a brief, shining moment), we landed on Paranormal Activity. It fell right in the middle of the venn diagram of our viewing needs for the evening. I’ve seen it a couple of times, I’d be fine.

Nope. Not fine. This shit holds up. You think you’re expecting it, but you’re not.

It’s one thing to create a movie that functions as good narrative storytelling, but it’s another to create that movie knowing exactly how an audience is going to react to stimuli. When the filmmaker crawls inside your head from the start (the adherence to verisimilitude is helpful, with no opening credits and that adorable explanation for the found footage) and plays with benign horror conventions so hard but also so subtly that you have no idea you’re in it until you are. That’s a great movie.

I mean, come on: the first real scare of Paranormal Activity is a creaky door that moves about six inches on its own. And then back. And that’s it! But it is terrifying. And in all those night bedroom scenes, your eye is darting all over the frame, looking for a person or a shadow or even the smallest movement. Because you know it’s coming. You don’t know what “it” is, but something is coming. You’ve seen enough horror movies to know.

And then the movie gives you just enough (a swinging chandelier, a burnt picture, a Ouija board on fire) to keep you going until the final crescendo. And fuck if that isn’t a masterful way to end a movie. Paranormal Activity wasn’t exactly the light fare I was going for, but it ended up being way better.

The Nitpic’s Summer Watch Review – June 10-30

Catching up on three weeks’ worth of watching! New movies, old TV, revolutionary comedy, and more.

juneWow, so this month really got away from me, huh? When I wanted to do this “weekly” watch review I had the plan to do a lot of watching during the week and a lot of writing on the weekends. It was a pretty solid plan, considering that I very much consider myself a homebody, and typically use weekends to recover from the week and my shitty day-job.

But in a pretty insane plot twist, the last three weekends in June I actually had shit to do. Like, what? How’d that happen?! I’m assuming it’s because most people who are not me enjoy doing things in the warmer months, and somehow I obliged to all kinds of plans with the lovely people in my life.

So, yeah, I slipped a bit, and a lot of this isn’t going to be as in-depth as I’d like it to be. But here it is, anyway! And here’s to carving out some more me time…

Movies

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It might be unoriginal to say that movies are a thing with my brother and me; movies are something that most families do together. But Dan and I bonded over movies at a pretty seminal point in our collective lives, so it really is a thing. I probably see more movies with him than I do with anyone else (maybe even including my boyfriend, with whom movies are also a thing) and we see them often. The funny thing to me over the last fifteen or so years of our movie-going lives is that we’ve developed into very similar movie-goers: we like to experience a movie surrounded by as few people as possible. So it’s pretty natural that, on a bright and sunny Saturday, Dan and I find ourselves in the fourth row of a documentary at 11 o’clock in the morning. No, documentaries are not our usual fare, but with little else to see, there we found ourselves with popcorn for breakfast.

In this #MeToo era, Mr. Rogers seems like a figure that one should approach with caution and from the side, like a bear in a public setting. To confront this man head-on is dangerous, because there are no more heroes (especially white male ones) with whom you can neatly package your nostalgia. To attend a screening of a documentary of his life is to knowingly put yourself in the way of possible nostalgic destruction. Surely he had sordid affairs, or was an alcoholic, or worst of all, he was actually a pervert all along.  You sit down, and cringe in anticipation.

But, of course, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? acknowledges your cynicism, and gently shoos it away. Because cynicism has no place in Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. It is the opposite of who he was, so there’s little surprise at how quickly the documentary soothes away your worries.

The film is made in Fred Rodgers’ likeness: it’s tender in tone and light-handed in narrative. (There’s little doubt that if he were still alive, this would be the same film.) It focuses mainly on the professional career of Mr. Rodgers, and clearly has no interest in delving into the personal life of its subject. So we can’t be completely certain of any private shortcomings (except that he was Republican, which, yeah… saw that one coming), but with your nostalgia at its mercy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? confirms what you already knew: Mr. Rogers was a really great man. It’s a 134-minute sigh of relief.

There Will Be Blood

I don’t know if there’s a line that has stuck with me in recent times more than Pete Holmes in Crashing, admitting, in his basically trademarked amiability: “There’s no good way to tell someone you haven’t seen The Wire.” Because I use it. All. The. Time. Not just with The Wire, though it does apply (oh my god, I knooow), but with pretty much anything else. “The Wire” in that sentence should just be one big empty space that anyone can fill anything into. Anything you lie about seeing just to get out of the onslaught of judgment, fill that on in there!

So, specifically for a cinephile in 2018, There Will Be Blood is one of those movies that there’s no good way to tell someone you haven’t seen.

I hadn’t seen it mostly for reasons regarding a general not-in-the-moodness, but also because I have seen the last three Paul Thomas Anderson movies, and my relationship to his work is fraught. I see The Master or Inherent Vice or Phantom Thread (all in the theaters, I’ll have you know) and I’m on board for the first hour or so, and then my attention totally runs out of steam. The narrative threads (ugh sorry) are so weak and/or convoluted. They take either totally nonsensical turns or completely obvious ones, and then they fall right off a cliff. He’s clearly trying to say something that is either going totally over my head OR he’s saying nothing at all, and then when every critic I respect and admire is in love with it I’m left wondering why they’re all full of shit pretentious. But of course, that can’t be right! I know they’re not pretentious and that’s why I love and admire them! I’m never a part of the general PTA consensus, so whenever I see his movies I’m left full of self-doubt and confusion and annoyance. I just don’t get it.

So, no, I hadn’t seen There Will Be Blood. Until last Friday. The stars and streaming services aligned, and I was finally able and ready to watch this freaking movie.

And I really fucking loved it.

Admittedly, I was sucking down White Claws at a pretty steady rate, but I trust my instinct underneath that inebriation. And looking at PTA’s last four movies as a cohesive unit, There Will Be Blood is the simplest, and therefore most effective, of the unit. The best move was keeping the story strictly at Daniel Plainview’s side, making those Eli Sunday flourishes throughout create incredible punctuation. This is a film that relishes in the beauty of its own medium. There is so much that is said in complete silence, with only camera angles, edits, and light and shadow to tell the story of a scene.

I found it also oddly and surprisingly political. Once I realized his son’s name was H.W., for the rest of the film I was thinking about what republican capitalism does to a man, and by extension, a country. Its callow, vapid consumption spreading like a virus, affecting the masses without giving a single fuck about consequence. And then you wither away all alone, in your empty, sprawling estate, bludgeoning a man to death with your own bowling pin. Yyyep.

There Will Be Blood was so good that it’s making me rethink those last three PTA features.  Is he experimenting with style so much that I should have absolutely seen There Will Be Blood before The Master to get it? (I don’t believe I will ever get, or remotely like, Inherent Vice, but that’s for another time.) Or, is There Will Be Blood like the English seasons of Black Mirror? You only watch the others because of the hype, and they never really live up to their predecessor.

Also: Antonement

Comedy

Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes 

My dear friend Jacquie turned me onto Cameron Esposito’s comedy with the greatest period joke of all time, which yields the most amazing line that, yes, I do repeat in agony every month: “My body is smashing my body out of my body using my body.”

Now, that line doesn’t have much impact when written out. It’s clever, sure, but funny?

What you have to imagine is Esposito’s immaculate mid-western accent undulating with emphasis not unlike a Shakespearean tragedy. Half of the fun of her comedy is a delivery that she uses like iambic pentameter: she shouts when she gets really riled up about something, but it sounds like singing.

And – you guessed it – she does a good amount of singing in Rape Jokes. A one-hour special basically thrown together over the span of a few weeks, Rape Jokes was something born from the #MeToo movement and Esposito’s desire to speak her specific truth, specifically the way she internalized her own experience of sexual assault. And, ostensibly, to take back rape jokes for the survivors.

The most revelatory part of her special is the idea that comedians (mainly the male ones) are falsely reinforced of their own funniness by using rape jokes because of how taboo the topic of rape is. It becomes a sort of microcosm of the patriarchy: men want to force women to laugh at their jokes, and they mistake nervous laughter for genuine laughter. Yeah. Mind blown.

On top of speaking her piece in a super honest and vulnerable way, Esposito’s also using the special to raise money for RAINN, and to date has successfully raised $50,000 for the organization. There were times when the special felt its thrown-togetherness, but it’s pretty impossible to be cynical at it when it accomplishes way more than a comedy special usually does.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette 

In some ways I’m disappointed to say that it’s nearly July, and Nanette is the first thing I’ve seen on TV this year that’s really blown me away. (Could we really be feeling the loss of Game of Thrones that hard?) In other ways, I’m confident that no matter what the context, Nanette would be the best thing I’ve seen on TV this year. Because Nanette is a shocking piece of comedy that is about how destructive comedy can be to its creator.

Like Cameron Esposito (also: Tig NotaroChris Gethard), Gadsby is using a comedy special to dig deep into very personal issues. She details her experiences of hate crimes, internalized homophobia, and sexual assault, and how she used those experience previously in her comedy. And sure, laughter is the best medicine and all that, but Gadsby realized that turning her pain into comedy actually forced her to create a specific narrative of her own life that she repeated night after night until it became her reality.

Gadsby’s grappling so hard with reconstructing her life’s experiences in the wake of that realization that she’s quitting comedy. I would say that losing her as a performer (even though I’ve only just heard of her) would be a real loss, but then you watch her fluctuate between goofy bits and profound, intense bouts of anger, and you know that she’s not going away completely. She has so much more to say.

Television 

And for the rapid-fire portion of this post:

Tried

Harlots – it kept me in it for five or six episodes before it lost me. There’s something in these women having a palpable sense of autonomy that I really appreciate, but that’s all it has going for it. The conflict is a bit dull and very repetitious, and I have no idea where or what the moral compass of this world is. Too many characters, too little set-up, and nothing propelling it forward.

Rewatch

Girls – various episodes from season two. Their low-level millennial ennui just feels like the kind of show to watch during the first heat wave of the summer.

Big Little Lies – impeccably structured, high brow bitchiness, beautiful style. The murder mystery is fun for the first watch, but even when you know the end this show is a blast to watch.

The Affair – only a few episodes while there’s a promo period on Hulu. Such a great concept, and an overall disappointment. The best, most interesting part of this show is its opening credits.

Binging

Community – nearly done the series. I never watched the sixth season all the way through (only the first and last episodes) and I’m glad I never wasted my time. The last two seasons are just sad reminders of what a great show used to look like.

Completed

Problem Areas with Wyatt Cenac – a delightful casual watch that feels like Last Week Tonight‘s chiller sibling. Its stance on policing in America was clear, but it also gave a lot of consideration to the concept as a whole. Always as funny as it is considerate and informative.

And more…

Great Shows to Nap To: all of the British vacation-house-hunting shows on Netflix. Those accents really lull you into a slumber.

Great Shows to Multi-task To: Encounters with Evil, also on Netflix. If you’re reorganizing your closet, like I was, and just want something you can frequently ignore, this is a solid one. At any point in it you can tune in and discover a gruesome tidbit about a real crime, and promptly tune back out.

 

The Nitpic’s Summer Watch Review – June 3 – 9

Summer, traditionally, is not a fun time for me.

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Summer, traditionally, is not a fun time for me. In fact, I really loathe it. New Jersey air is an inescapable wall of dense moisture that most often be described as “soupy.” And bugs fill that air. Loud bugs that chirp and shriek and croak at every hour of the day and night. Bugs that get into your house and car and literally bite you. You never stop sweating. You’re always sticky. Gas is more expensive for some reason? There’s constant societal pressure to go outside and do something in the dense, sticky, soupy air. And how the fuck is it even hotter at night.

No fun. Rather, I will happily sequester myself in my 700-square-foot apartment that can be kept cool with the help of two window AC units and drawn curtains. It’s a buzzy, chilly cave, in which my boyfriend, Mike, and I wait out the long summer with cold La Croix and books and streaming services. Sure, my friends make fun of me and my resistance to sunlight. My skin tone (the kind of pasty pale you can see a lot of veins through) does not change throughout the year. But it’s no price to pay for avoiding the thoroughly unpleasantness of summer.

And so, to make my annual sequester more productive, here begins my Weekly Summer Watch List. It’ll be filled with whatever I’m watching to forget about how miserable the world is outside my little cave. And also whatever movie I happen to brave the heat for. (I do go outside sometimes. I’ll just complain a lot.)

Binging: Community

Do we have a dining room table in our apartment? Yes. Do we use it to eat at? Not unless it’s a rare occasion for which we have guests and table-eating is the most civilized thing to do. No, we like our food with a helping of comedy, so during dinner we’ll cycle through a few episodes of a favorite sitcom a night before going onto more productive tasks.

This week we restarted Community, the super quirky (read: way-too-weird) show that somehow lasted for five seasons on network television before being swept up by the ill-fated Yahoo! Screen streaming service. (It can be argued that the show actually destroyed the thing that helped save it from its six-season destiny. [I have little hope for the movie while Donald Glover’s star is shooting through the stratosphere.])

The first season is so distinctly different from the rest of the series that watching it is like watching an egg before it hatches. They’re not growing pains in the same way you’d call out a show for what might seem like tonal inconsistencies. Community is a show that morphs into itself. It evolves so far past where it began that upon a fourth or fifth rematch, some of the most fun you can have watching it is finding its mile markers. There’s moment when Troy stopped being a jock and started being a nerd, the first time the show explored a higher concept, and the first time it really, really went for it, key change and all.

Studying: Outlander

For the sake of a larger piece for which I will stay purposefully vague, I begrudgingly rewatched the first season of Outlander this week. I tried, really I did, to get into this show because of, well, the sex. The sex scenes are probably the best in the history of (heterosexual) television. And how could they not be, when you have two beautiful people and ambient lighting (it takes place in 18th century Scotland and there are fireplaces everywhere) and you have to fuck for the sake of the kingdom? Or something, I really stopped paying attention to what was happening once I realized kilts were really doing it for me.

I watched through to the first couple of episodes of the second season, when it occurred to me that this show is just its own fan fiction. I know it’s based off of books, of which I believe they’re rather faithful, but does that a satisfactory viewing experience make? Sacrificing coherent plot for the sake of your IP is a weak attempt at adaptation.

Tried: The White Princess 

This try was really half-hearted. I was already in Starz because of Outlander, and the woman from Killing Eve (which I am only two episodes into but definitely plan to revisit) was in the image, so I clicked on it. What the hell? Let’s be spontaneous.

Nope. I don’t know if it’s period TV that’s not right for me, or if I’m just not English, but man oh man I wasn’t following any of it. Too much history all at once. Lady Catelyn couldn’t even do it for me. I was out within the first 30 minutes.

New: Dietland

Don’t ever say marketing doesn’t work, because an Instagram ad for this show got me. It was an animation, where body bags with labels like “Comedian” and “Politician” on them were falling to the ground, and I thought, “Ooh! Topical!” My algorithm’s really working.

The first two episodes of Dietland premiered on AMC this week, and I’m skeptical. The show works best when it’s leaning into satire, like the line that an unironic weight management leader says to Plum, the main character, that she should “break all those bad habits. Like eating.” It was a line so expertly hit that barely read as a punchline. But Dietland seems to want to take a more plot-heavy approach with the inclusion of a vigilante organization called Jennifer, on top of an ex-weight-specialist-turned-therapist, on top some workplace police investigation. See? Heavy.

All of these things are also happening all at once, so most of the episode consist of Plum walking around a city, being bewildered by strangers, and asking questions of them. Mostly, the episodes feel like pilot-itis. A lot of seeds are being sewn, so the show may require a little more patience than I’m willing to give.

I’m mainly skeptical about the treatment of Plum’s weight. A show with a title like Dietland means we’re in for a lot of fat-stigma-confronting, but those stories are often very tired. Because fat people, specifically fat women, are marginalized, storytellers tend to feel the need to overcompensate with a lot of fabulousness and loud displays of confidence. A woman shows up late to the Waist Watchers (cute) meeting that Plum is attending, and when she’s chastised for not hating her body enough, launches into a rant about how much she loves her body. Her speech peaks with a strong grab of her crotch (I’ve never seen a woman do that.) and a proclamation that she gets all the dick she needs.

No, our protagonist isn’t like that, but there’s a yet floating around that sentence. It’s the kind of fat character treatment that, however well meaning, always translates as a little preachy and a lot pandering. Is it empowerment, or is it disingenuous to feel the need to have a character like that in the first place, when it is not likely any woman’s reality?

I was reminded of a pin I saw recently by the illustrator Adam J. Kurtz. It was a pink triangle with the words “GAY AND BORING.” He explains:

The pink triangle has been a symbol of gay pride and activism for decades, and thanks to those who came before us, LGBTQ folks now have more rights than ever before. The work isn’t over, but we’re getting closer and closer.

One of those rights is the right to be BORING AS HELL. Sure, we’re fantastic, sassy, fabulous, and all those exciting words. But we’re also just plain old people who wanna stay home and watch TV while scrolling Instagram explore page on the couch next to our partner… and that’s our right too.

Do women have to be fat and fabulous? Can’t they just be fat and boring?

Movies: Hereditary

Hereditary is a film that the more you think about it, the more annoyed you become. I’d blame massive hype and high expectations on my viewing experience if not for the fact that the movie rolls off a cliff in the most lackluster way that I can’t help but be annoyed by it.

Deservedly or not, Hereditary has claimed its place among other well-received horror films of the last year or so that can be classified as genre-bending horror. Get Out functioned as social thriller. A Quiet Place worked as minimalist family drama. The first half of Hereditary wants to sit beside The Babadook as an exploration of grief and trauma, and for a while there it has the whiff of success. The overbearing matriarch of the Graham family dies, but the remaining family isn’t reeling from the loss more than it’s trying to reconfigure itself in her absence. What does “family” mean when all family’s ever done is damage?

There are so many images of home in this film that beg to be interpreted as something other than set dressing. Toni Collette’s Annie is an artist that creates dollhouses of her own life, which play on the idea of removing yourself from your narrative, and recreating it as a form of therapy or catharsis. There’s a sculpture of three houses, one on top of the other, which seem to be carved out of a mountain. The houses are crooked, but bound together by the rock they can’t escape from. There’s another house sculpture where light is coming through all of the windows except one that’s boarded up on the second story.

I mean, come ON. You really think Hereditary‘s bounty of symbolism will amount to something profound, until the third act when you realize it’s abandoned all of its commentary for typical horror fare. That fare is fun, to be sure, if not derivative (I’d call the references to The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist homages if this one weren’t so frustrating). There are a few images that will be difficult to burn out of your brain, but the twist falls incredibly flat. Not only is it confusing, but apparently it’s completely arbitrary.

The writer and director, Ari Aster, has the makings of a career that is, per Vulture, “at least in part a response to a culture of studio horror films that tend toward either neat resolutions or adhere to standard patterns of narrative progression.” It seems that his choices are only made for the sake of doing something different than what is expected. Which is fine, when those choices work. But if you’re doing something strictly for the sake of subverting the genre, aren’t you forsaking your movie as a whole (or at least its coherence) out of spite? Or pride?

Ultimately, the ending feels like a jumbled mess of superfluous myth, and the best parts of the movie end up feeling like misdirects for their own sake. And after writing this, I’m even more annoyed.

‘Dietland’ is Weighed Down by Plot

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Don’t ever say marketing doesn’t work, because an Instagram ad for this show got me. It was an animation, where body bags with labels like “Comedian” and “Politician” on them were falling to the ground, and I thought, “Ooh! Topical!” My algorithm’s really working.

The first two episodes of Dietland premiered on AMC this week, and I’m skeptical. The show works best when it’s leaning into satire, like the line that an unironic weight management leader says to Plum, the main character, that she should “break all those bad habits. Like eating.” It was a line so expertly hit that barely read as a punchline. But Dietland seems to want to take a more plot-heavy approach with the inclusion of a vigilante organization called Jennifer, on top of an ex-weight-specialist-turned-therapist, on top some workplace police investigation. See? Heavy.

All of these things are also happening all at once, so most of the episode consist of Plum walking around a city, being bewildered by strangers, and asking questions of them. Mostly, the episodes feel like pilot-itis. A lot of seeds are being sewn, so the show may require a little more patience than I’m willing to give.

I’m mainly unsure of the treatment of Plum’s weight. A show with a title like Dietland means we’re in for a lot of fat-stigma-confronting, but those stories are often very tired. Because fat people, specifically fat women, are marginalized, storytellers tend to feel the need to overcompensate with a lot of fabulousness and loud displays of confidence. A woman shows up late to the Waist Watchers (cute) meeting that Plum is attending, and when she’s chastised for not hating her body enough, launches into a rant about how much she loves her body. Her speech peaks with a strong grab of her crotch (I’ve never seen a woman do that.) and a proclamation that she gets all the dick she needs.

No, our protagonist isn’t like that, but there’s a yet floating around that sentence. It’s the kind of fat character treatment that, however well meaning, always translates as a little preachy and a lot pandering. Is it empowerment, or is it disingenuous to feel the need to have a character like that in the first place, when it is not likely any woman’s reality?

I was reminded of a pin I saw recently by the illustrator Adam J. Kurtz. It was a pink triangle with the words “GAY AND BORING.” He explains:

The pink triangle has been a symbol of gay pride and activism for decades, and thanks to those who came before us, LGBTQ folks now have more rights than ever before. The work isn’t over, but we’re getting closer and closer.

One of those rights is the right to be BORING AS HELL. Sure, we’re fantastic, sassy, fabulous, and all those exciting words. But we’re also just plain old people who wanna stay home and watch TV while scrolling Instagram explore page on the couch next to our partner… and that’s our right too.

Do women have to be fat and fabulous? Can’t they just be fat and boring?

We’re In It Now: Kicking Off Season 2 of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

June was free, okay, but where was the relevance? 

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Is it insensitive to say I’m excited to return to a world of torture and rape? Well, anyway, here we are, at the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale! My overwhelming question going into this season was how the show will be able to sustain itself after running out of source material, particularly for the five to six seasons for which it’s slated to continue. My boyfriend reminded me that The Leftovers did it to great success, even considering Tom Perrotta is no Margaret Atwood. Then again, Damon Lindeloff proved himself to be an excellent showrunner, turning season one’s pretty standard existential doubt into two more seasons of narrative art that ripped out your heart and soul.

The initial success of The Handmaid’s Tale is undeniably linked to the election of a certain someone and an uprising of the far-right misogyny that that person reveled in. Even though the norms and practices of Gilead were horrific to watch, the show acted as a salve in the first few months of a presidency that felt like a never-ending shitstorm of hate. There was something about seeing the logical extreme of the current moment play out for an hour every Wednesday that had the power to both soothe and bolster. Those menstrual-red women marching in the middle of the street was like a silent battlecry for the Spring of 2017. It was the opposite of escapism. We were watching hell to keep ourselves strong.

But the last year has tired me out. The fear of normalizing a monster has given way to a need for inner peace. Some days I have to listen to a classical music rather than NPR. I haven’t listened to the monster’s voice for longer than a few seconds, or however long it takes me to mute the TV or radio. My Facebook profile, once riddled daily with the shock and hatred of every malfeasance, has mostly gone silent. In the year since The Handmaid’s Tale‘s first season, confronting reality has ground me down.

So it wasn’t Offred pushing back Aunt Lydia’s soup that brought me back into this world. It was June standing in the middle of her hallway, overwhelmed between the need to know about the world collapsing around her and the peaceful ignorance of her daughter’s bedroom. My concern for the show’s longevity became less about how to fill five or so more seasons, and more about how it can maintain its relevance. For a moment there, I wasn’t sure.

The opening set piece of the season was a bit overwrought to be very moving. We were dropped right back into a world in which we’d languished for 10 hours, sure, but that was a full year ago. To command that kind of emotional depth from an audience within minutes is asking a lot, and was also overshadowed by the flagrant apocalypse porn (Gilead has no use for baseball, apparently).

Most of the rest of the episode – the visual allusions to treating the Handmaids like animals, even more prolonged torture, drawing out every terrified look over a dissonant soundtrack for way longer than necessary – felt old hat in the most unproductive way. No more source material opens the show up to the opportunity for world building, and for as much as I love to listen to Ann Dowd growl at Elizabeth Moss, a season of Offred following Aunt Lydia around was going to be more of the same world we’ve seen.

So the nurse calling June by her name was a jolt of excitement that the first episode desperately needed. June’s sprint into an unknown end, wings flapping in her hand, and her subsequent haircut showed that The Handmaid’s Tale knew was it was doing. It took its sweet ass time, but eventually it got around to something that felt like a fresh start. Even still, I was skeptical. June was free, okay, but where was the relevance?

Ahh, but then came the second episode, and with it, the mansplaining. A flashback of Emily, teaching a biology class in a university, listening to a female student ask a question, when a male student interrupted her with a wrong answer. (That’s some real microaggression.) And then there were ICE agents and ACLU representatives at the airport. (Check.) And then there was the foresaken Boston Globe. (Basically.) That’s when the show felt real again. If the small revolutionary acts of the first season felt like success, the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s second season proved them inconsequential, and the second episode buried them under crackling, steaming Colony dirt. Success is relative under tyranny.

The mirroring to our world was effective, not obvious, because they contribute to the Gilead world building and don’t exist as stand-alone symbols for their own sake. Kind of like the “bitches” at the end of June’s Latin line last season, or even her eulogy wall at the end of this episode. These symbols are nice, but can come off a touch like empty declarations of promise. They’re the push notifications that tell us who’s suing him this week, or an update on the Muller investigation. We, like The Handmaid’s Tale, need action to propel us forward. We’re in it now.

 

 

Some Deep Thoughts on Escapism, Monoculture, and ‘Game of Thrones’

“Game of Thrones” became the best, most fulfilling form of escapism any of us could have hoped for.

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I have a lot of thoughts about the season seven finale of Game of Thrones.

I have so many thoughts that it’s taken me way longer than normal to figure out how to put them in a discernible (let alone entertaining) order. I tried doing something pithy and fun, like a listicle of the most “OMGWTF” moments, since there were so many. But even after a second viewing of the episode, that didn’t feel right.

I think that’s because this finale felt momentous in a way no other finale, or even episode, has. The “OMGWTF” parts were affecting, of course. How could we not go batshit over Littlefinger’s death and the Night King riding wight Viserion and collapsing the Wall? I literally screamed. Literally screamed. Several times.

Maybe it was the snow falling on King’s Landing as Jaime rides away from everything he’s ever known. Or the beautiful shot of Theon collapsing on the beach after demonstrating a strength of will he’s never had, full knowing he’s likely going to be giving his life for his sister. Or even Dany and Jon’s roll in the hay. As questionable as it is for this show to really want us to be okay with incest, when looking at them purely as characters that we’ve grown to know and love, they haven’t had a real reason to live for years except to take on the responsibility of saving the world. Laying naked in bed together, they’re almost surprised to remember what affection feels like.

So maybe it was all those things. The few tender, understated moments that remind us that’s what’s made Game of Thrones great all along. But I mostly feel sad about it. I am sad that the season’s over, and that there’s only six episodes left. But it’s not in the fandom kind of a way, where I feel like I’ve invested a lot in these characters and it’ll be hard to leave that all behind. I’m a hardcore J.R.R. Tolkien fan, so I’ve been through the five stages of Your Fandom’s Ending grief with The Lord of the Rings (no, The Hobbits don’t count) and that was years ago. That kind of grief is very personal. It exists within the confines of whatever part of you that attached yourself to this particular story; the part that mourns for the loss of that particular story as an emotional outlet. And what I’m feeling now doesn’t feel like that.

When I really break it down, I’ve been sad for over a year. I’ve been deeply sad ever since it seemed imminent that the person who is currently in the position of the President of the United States could become just that. When I looked around and saw a lapse in judgment and critical thinking for the sake of righteous outrage gaining traction. Where unchecked sexism, racism, and xenophobia became more overt until it became actually dangerous. And then the unthinkable happened, and living in the United States now means living with horrible, daily reminders of what happens when people make decisions based on emotion instead of logic.

I didn’t realize it until the season ended, but Game of Thrones took on a wholly new dimension this year: it became the best, most fulfilling form of escapism any of us could have hoped for. Just by being itself, the show gave us an hour’s length of time each week to forget what was happening around us. And consider all the time taken to discuss every little detail of every plot. And then there were the recaps, and the theories, and the memes. And, for me, spending upwards of seven hours a week writing about it. The events of the last year elevated Game of Thrones from Coolest Dang Show on TV to Temporary Amnesia for Your Real Life.

I’m sad because there is now a Game of Thrones-sized escapism hole in the entertainment I intake, and there’s nothing on the horizon to fill it. If Mark Harris’ predictions are right, we’re in for a lot of on-the-nose commentary about our nation’s current sociopolitical climate. In the case of the newest season of American Horror Story, it’ll be heavy handed: the season is reportedly about clowns, bees, and the 2016 presidential election. Yikes. In the case of the newest season of Black Mirror, the dystopia may be too real to bear. The Waldo Moment actually happened. As outlined in a piece from Salon, Black Mirror originally “arrived to reveal the often unseen monsters lying just beneath the surface of the connected, seamless future Silicon Valley and the technocrats surrounding Obama had sold us.” Now, “we live with those monsters every day.”

I’m sad because it feels like Game of Thrones is the one unifier we all have left, and it’s almost gone. An HBO record of twelve million people watched the season seven finale, and there’s no way they all vote like I do. Sure, there’s the Super Bowl, which reliably pulls in over 100 million viewers. But it’s more likely that the vast majority tuning in celebrates the Super Bowl like I do: as an excuse to invite friends over to eat bad-for-us food and drink too much on a Sunday, and mostly just pay attention to the commercials and the halftime show.

Game of Thrones feels like the last bastion of cultural consensus this country has, and one that also deals with complex social and political issues. We can all agree that a hurricane slamming east Texas is horrible, but a natural disaster doesn’t require us to choose sides. It doesn’t require all those who see it to determine the value of loyalty. It doesn’t ask to consider the larger implications of Jon’s speech, that “when enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies.”

As it happens, the day Kit Harrington delivered that speech was November 9th, 2016.

But do they, the other person that supports someone I utterly despise, think of these characters the same way I do? Is Cersei the villain for them? Is the Hound sympathetic? Were they uplifted in the same way I was when we find out that Arya and Sansa worked together? How is it possible that they feel the same empathy I feel, when they support people and policies that treat the cripples, bastards, and broken things of this world with disdain?

I’ve never been a patriotic person. I don’t care about seeing the people of this country come together necessarily, other than on a Sunday night in front of the TV. And I certainly don’t think that Game of Thrones is going to suddenly make someone with a dumb red hat listen to someone like me. But to face the reality that soon we won’t have at least one thing that we can agree on does make me sad. It’s another reminder of how far removed we are from one another. But there is something perversely comforting, and very confusing, in the idea that that red-hatted person also considers Ned Stark to be the pinnacle of honor.

We have some time. The last season of Game of Thrones might not come until 2019. Maybe the wheel will break in the meantime. Now that season seven’s over, the best I have for forgetting about the world’s problems is the twenty minutes I spend playing Solitaire on the elliptical three times a week. That’ll have to do, at least until next season. Anyone know any good books?