I’m on strike. My faculty union at Memorial University, after fourteen months of frustrating and fruitless negotiations with an utterly recalcitrant administration, called a strike vote. Ninety-three percent of members voted, of whom ninety percent (myself included) called for a strike. And so now we are in our second week of walking the picket lines.
I’ve never been on strike before, so this is a new and interesting experience for me. I have no idea how it compares to other such job actions, but I can confidently make two observations that may seem to contradict each other: one, everyone is desperate to end this in a satisfactory manner and get back into the classroom; two, everyone is having a blast.
To emphasize the second observation, let’s keep in mind that this strike is happening in February in Newfoundland, which means the weather has ranged from bad to shitty—at best, inoffensive gloom, at worst sleeting rain and blizzards. After our first day I invested in thermal underwear, good mittens, snow pants, and several pairs of thick socks. But once so fortified, walking the picket line for two and a half hours a day has become something I look forward to, because it has meant spending time with my colleagues, who are to a person smart, dedicated, funny, compassionate, and profoundly, inspiringly dedicated to their teaching and research. Those two and a half hours fly past as we chat, joke, talk about our research and writing projects, and—most importantly, perhaps—have very intensive discussions about the strike itself and the broader issues at stake.
That being said, none of this is a lark. Everyone is concerned for our students; we worry incessantly about the adverse effects this might have on their term; and we worry about the future of the university—both our specific institution and the “university” more generally. What is most heartening and keeps our hope and energy up is that our students are firmly behind us. Every day they come out to the line with signs of their own, often bearing coffee and donuts, shouting and singing their solidarity and voicing the same ire at our current tone-deaf and bafflingly obtuse upper administration. I have little doubt that this strike would sputter and die if we found our students foursquare against us; even just ten years ago, there would likely have been, at the very least, ambivalence and a more pervasive skepticism about tenured professors making a comfortable living demanding more.
To my mind, the signal shift in the present moment is exemplified by our administration’s consistent failure to frame the strike in those very terms. By the old rules of the game, it should be the easiest thing in the world to vilify the striking faculty as a bunch of sheltered, tenured Sunshine List elites making unreasonable demands in a time of economic straits. They have certainly tried, but it seems for once that people—both our students and the public more generally—aren’t buying it. The administration has attempted to make this all about professors asking for more money, but for once the more complex argument is finding a receptive audience. It’s not the salaries of tenured professors that has people’s attention, but the pittance paid to precariously-employed contractual professors on one hand, and the $450,000 salary of the university president on the other.1 It’s not the putative ivory-towered academics understood to be out of touch, but the university’s managerial class—who for the duration of the strike thus far have issued occasional and increasingly petulant messages making verifiably false claims, refused to accommodate students uncomfortable with crossing picket lines, and forbidden administrative staff and per-course instructors from joining faculty on the picket line on breaks and lunch hours. It’s not so much about professorial compensation as it is about collegial governance and faculty having more of a say in the university’s future.
The fact that these knottier, more complex issues seem to be eclipsing the easier to understand snooty-professors-want-moar caricature is heartening; in my more hopeful moments I think it signals a shift, moving our cultural center of gravity away from the neoliberal dominance of the past few decades to something more humane and empathetic. I’m reasonably convinced that the experience of the pandemic is at the root of this apparent shift: we have a generation of students who endured two years of remote learning, who found their professors to be sympathetic people understanding of their travails and saw them also struggle to do their best in bad circumstances. All of which unfolded in a larger societal context in which prior verities about work and recompense came into question: the category of “essential worker” extended to people working minimum wage jobs in grocery stores; people fortunate enough to be able to work remotely realized they could do the same job in half the time while wearing pyjamas; quality of life became a more pronounced concern, something made plain by the general reluctance for people to return to shitty jobs simply for the sake of having a job; meanwhile, the problem of wealth disparity became ever more glaring as the wealthiest sectors did not share the pain but grew even wealthier.
Much of this is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. Hence, I should be cautious and note that what I’m describing is less an objective, empirical reality than a vibe. But it is a profoundly powerful vibe that currently thrums through the energy on our pickets. And, well, I’m a humanities professor: qualitatively considering and analyzing vibes is more or less my stock in trade. To put it another way, I work in intangibles.2 In the context of a corporatized university whose administrative class has become increasingly preoccupied with “outcomes” and “finding efficiencies,” this has meant fighting a protracted rearguard action against a pervasive attitude (epitomized by but not limited to university administrators) to which intangibles are anathema.
I’ve devoted a lot of thought over my career as an academic to the question of how to argue for the value of intangibles. Walking the picket lines with my brilliant colleagues and talking with the many, many students who come out to support us has made one thing clear to me: if I’m looking for a concrete manifestation of this intangible value, it’s here, in the human beings who comprise the university.
The most common refrain among the students articulates this sensibility: professors’ teaching conditions, they say, are our learning conditions. And in the end, it is the classroom that is the most fundamental university space, and the students’ experience that is—or should be—the central focus of the university project. Because if not, then what are we doing otherwise? Professors with time and resources to do research bring that depth and breadth of thought to the classroom; perhaps more importantly, contractual and per-course instructors who aren’t run ragged with massive teaching loads, under constant financial stress, and who have a reasonable chance at converting their precarious positions into full-time careers, are going to be far more effective in the classroom (the fact that so many of them are exemplary educators now speaks to an inhuman level of dedication).
As I write this, the faculty union and the university bargaining team are back at the table. I hope they resolve this satisfactorily so we can resume our real work. But since before this started, it has felt as if the administration is speaking a language with no meaning for the rest of us. And if that continues, I and my colleagues are in for the long haul.
1. Memorial’s current president Vianne Timmons is paid $450,000 as a base salary, along with an $18,000 housing allowance, $1,000 monthly vehicle allowance, $25,000 research, and the standard travel perks afforded her position (which most recently included travel to Monaco for a conference of—wait for it!—arctic university administrators). The process for “finding” and recruiting Timmons cost the university $150,000. A CBC report about negative responses to Timmons’ lavish compensation quoted someone familiar with her hiring process as saying “Only a handful of people are qualified to lead a university like MUN, and finding that person takes time and money.” I think it’s safe to say, especially given Timmons’ utter lack so far of public statements about the strike—given that a university president’s central task is presenting a public face of the institution—that we’re not getting our money’s worth, and that the remarkable solidarity on display is at least partly a backlash against the assumptions quoted above.
It also needs to be emphasized that this state of affairs is pervasive across academe, something usefully discussed by Amir Barnea in the Toronto Star.
2. Again, I am a humanities professor, so my perspective in ineluctably informed and shaped by that context and training. But I should note that the intangible value of a university education—the intrinsic value of the university experience—transcends discipline. Whether your degree is in philosophy, chemistry, or engineering, if your sole metric of value is your ultimate salary, you’ve sadly missed the larger point. In the end, as I conclude above, it is the human dimension that defines the university.
The Rig is a new British series on Amazon Prime that I watched for two reasons: one, it stars Iain Glen; two, the trailer teased it as a Lovecraftian horror set on an oil rig in which something from the deeps makes its presence known in increasingly disturbing and threatening ways.
So OBVIOUSLY this was something I needed to watch, both from personal interest and, as someone who has now taught three classes on H.P. Lovecraft and weird fiction, from professional obligation. And it was … good. It was obviously done on a budget and there were moments of didacticism that made it feel more like a Canadian than a British show,1 as well as some clunky writing just more generally, but it was interesting and definitely worth watching. What makes it worth posting about is that it embodies a number of themes and tropes that are representative of the ongoing evolution of the New Weird, which are what I want to talk about here.
The setup is quite simple: the crew of an oil rig off the Scottish coast, the Kinloch Bravo, are looking forward to heading home as their rotation ends. A crisis on another platform diverts the helicopters, however, so everybody has to sit tight for however long that takes to be resolved. But then a tremor shakes the rig and a thick, spooky fog rolls in, and all communication from internet to the radio goes down. Tempers, already frayed from the helicopters’ diversion, erode further. A crewmember named Baz goes aloft in an attempt to fix the radio transmission; he falls and is badly injured. His injuries, however, which should have killed him, start to heal on their own. At the end of the first episode he staggers out to where the crew is assembled on the helicopter deck to warn “It’s coming!” Meanwhile, just before his appearance, it is noticed that the fog is composed partly of ash.
And that’s the first episode. One of the things I quite liked about The Rig is that it settles in for a slow burn over its six episodes. Though punctuated here and there by moments of shock or surprise, it’s mostly about two things: the personalities of the crew and their (often fraught) relationships, and the gradual figuring-out of just what is going on. And if both of these components tend toward overstatement and occasional hamfisted exposition, the story is nevertheless compelling. In short, the drilling of the undersea oil fields has released or awakened an ancient life form, bacterial in nature, which lives in the ash that falls out of the mist. When a human is infected by way of a cut or simple excessive exposure to the falling ash, the organism takes up residence and makes the host more amenable to it by fixing injuries and expelling impurities. For Baz, this means he heals quickly; it also means the gold fillings in his teeth fall out, as they’re treated by the organism as foreign objects. So, on the balance, not bad for Baz—but another crewmember doesn’t fare so well, as his history of addiction and many tattoos make the process fatal for him. (The scene in which he is about to get into the shower and suddenly finds all the ink in his skin running is a great uncanny moment).
What’s most interesting in The Rig, and what makes it worth discussing in some detail, is that the “invader” isn’t necessarily monstrous and isn’t overtly malevolent. The agony Baz experiences, we come to understand, isn’t torture or assault but the entity trying to communicate. The ultimate climactic crisis isn’t about whether our heroes can defeat and/or destroy the invading force, it’s whether they should. The problem posed isn’t how to repel an invader, but how two intelligent species can communicate and whether they can coexist. In later episodes, Mark Addy shows up as a company man named Coake2 who has an explicitly instrumentalist and zero-sum response to such questions: as seen in the trailer, he spits “Nature isn’t a balance, it’s a war!” Later, he informs one of the crew that “[the corporation] Pictor’s business is resource management! We find them, we use them up, we move on! And that includes human resources.” He boils it down: “We’re useful or not. We have value or not. They’re coming for me because I have value. Anyone who doesn’t gets left behind.” He delivers this rant as, against the explicit orders of the rig’s captain Magnus MacMillan (Glen), he prepares to put into action a plan to destroy the entity.
This confrontation, coming as it does in the final episode, clarifies lines of conflict that had been usefully muddled and uncertain to this point. Kinloch Bravo is under threat, but that threat has been ambiguous. As the nature of the entity becomes clearer, the nature of the danger it poses becomes less so. If there is a consistent bogeyman throughout, it’s the company itself, a faceless corporate entity regarded with a sort of low-grade antipathy by everyone. Rumours that the platform is set to be decommissioned—rumours later confirmed—circulate, with people’s anxiety about future employment in tension with the understanding of the pernicious impact of their industry on the environment. As one character observes, a long life of gainful employment is meaningless if, in the end, the sky is on fire.
The ambivalence of the crew (or some of them, anyway) to their industry squares with their ambivalence to their company: Coake’s rant is in some senses merely an explicit confirmation of the more diffuse sense pervading the crew of their expendability—that they, like the oil they drill, are resources to be extracted. The character of Hutton (Owen Teale) anticipates Croake’s sentiments with an embittered speech in the final episode: “I used to think we were the steel, holding it all together,” he tells Magnus, “even if the rest of the world didn’t see it. But now I know we’re the well. Because every trip, every person that gets chewed up, every chopper that goes down, it just takes a bit more, and a bit more … till it hollows you out.”
Hence, the emergence of the entity—the “Ancestor,” as Rose (Emily Hampshire) comes to call it—is threatening not because it offers destruction, but because it represents an alternative way of thinking and being. It is a collective organism; the humans it “infects” can communicate with it, after a fashion, and with each other. Its threat to the lives of the rig workers and people more generally is commensurate with the threat it perceives from them. It is not itself malevolent or casually destructive.
Its ancient provenance and apparent immortality—Rose establishes that it measures time on a geological scale—as well as its capacity to infect people, puts it very firmly in the Lovecraftian tradition of cosmic horror. However, the wrinkle that it potentially poses no existential threat is a significant departure from the standard conventions of the genre. To be certain, there is a definite Lovecraft vibe in The Rig in the frequent refrains about how we know less about the ocean depths than the surface of the moon, or in Alwynn’s pithy observation (featured in the trailer above) that “If we keep punching holes in the earth, eventually it’s going to punch back.” The implicit sentiment that the madcap drive for oil exploration in the name of profits will take us into dangerous territory is not dissimilar from Lovecraft’s opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”:
We live on a placid island of ignorance in midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
“Cosmic horror” of the Lovecraftian variety is built around existential dread arising from the realization of humanity’s insignificance in the face of the infinitude of vast, cosmic entities. The “old gods” like Cthulhu and Dagon that populate Lovecraft’s stories find echoes in the “Ancestor” of The Rig, but the way in which it infects certain crewmembers is more in line with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” Lovecraft’s story in which he grafts his Cthulhu mythos onto an allegory of his horror of miscegenation. (For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft, an important bit of context is that he was terribly racist). The story’s narrator is touring historically interesting towns in Massachusetts. As part of his itinerary, he arrives in Innsmouth—a run-down old fishing community with some interesting architecture, an odd historical relationship to the reef just off its shores, and people who have a vaguely fish-like aspect about them. TL;DR: having long ago made a Faustian deal with the Old God who inhabits the reef, the people of the town have become fish-human hybrids. The narrator discovers that he is descended from Innsmouth stock and will inevitably be thus transformed.
I cite “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” because it set a standard in weird fiction rooted in the horror of this revolting otherness, usually framed in slimy cephalopodic terms: the tentacle-faced god Cthulhu being the apotheosis.
What is so fascinating in weird fiction is less the lugubrious racism of Lovecraft than the ways in which his idiom has been adapted and transformed by such contemporary authors as China Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, Charlie Jane Anders, and Annalee Newitz (among many others). One key shift in the “new weird” is the quasi-erasure of Lovecraft’s instinctive antipathy to the uncanny Other. What surfaces instead (so to speak) is a more complex interrogation of that otherness and the consideration that (a) it isn’t necessarily evil or destructive; (b) it might offer alternative modes of thinking and being; and (c) perhaps it is the next stage of evolution. The Rig’s principal literary allusion is thus not Lovecraft, but an author whose apocalyptic imagination was somewhat more nuanced.
About five minutes into the first episode (four minutes and thirty seconds, to be exact) we see the character Alwynn (Mark Bonnar)3—the calm sage wisdom archetype—reading John Wyndham’s novel The Kraken Wakes.
Wyndham’s novel, published in 1953, is about an invasion by an alien species that can only live under conditions of enormous pressure, and so arrive as a series of mysterious fireballs that land in the deepest parts of the ocean. At first the fireballs are thought to be just some weird cosmic phenomenon, but then it slowly becomes apparent that the Earth’s deeps have been colonized by an intelligent species. For the reader’s benefit, Wyndham provides one of the more obvious voice-of-the-author characters you’re likely to encounter, an outspoken scientist named Alistair Bocker who is more clear-eyed and prescient than anyone else about the newcomers and the threat they pose, though he is dismissed by most for the better part of the novel as a crank. The narrator and his wife, however, a pair of journalists, befriend Bocker and so have a front row seat to his outlandish theories, which are, of course, all correct and the actual reality of what’s going on.
The Kraken Wakes has had something of a revival in literary study because it squares nicely with recent waves of climate fiction (cli-fi) and ecocritical literary theory. The third phase of the aliens’ war against the landlubbers—after phase one, in which shipping is sunk, and phase two, which involved “sea-tanks” coming ashore and assaulting coastal towns and cities—is the melting of the polar ice caps to raise the sea levels. This last attack precipitates the collapse of civil society, as scarcity takes hold and nations fall into civil strife and factional warfare. Hence, one can see how it resonates now, seventy years after its publication.4
The Rig, for all of its less subtle tendencies, is a thoughtful contribution to the growing body of creative works thinking through the crisis of the Anthropocene, which is among its other aspects a philosophical and imaginative crisis. Alwynn only offers comment on The Kraken Wakes twice; when first asked what it’s about, he replies cryptically, “A collective failure of imagination.” The rising sea levels that drive humanity away from the coasts and topple governments are the culmination of this failure: while Wyndham’s Dr. Bocker does eventually opine about the impossibility of co-existence with another intelligent species, he makes clear that the instinctively aggressive response to the submerged interlopers will end badly. His calls to attempt contact are ignored, dismissed, or simply laughed off as naïve. When the first of a series of nuclear weapons is dropped into the deeps, he effectively throws up his hands in disgusted resignation.
That this dynamic is reiterated in The Rig—replete with the allusions to Wyndham—makes for an interesting thematic turn in the contemporary context. The series is by no means a straightforward climate change allegory but is sympathetic to the people whose livelihoods depend on the fossil fuel industry. That these people are, as Hutton makes clear in his speech, as much an extractive resource as the oil itself puts the emphasis on the inhumanity of the industry and the collective failure to imagine alternative economies, alternative ways of being. The Rig makes an interesting, if unlikely, companion piece to Kate Beaton’s recent graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, which chronicles her time working in the oil patch as a means of paying her student loans off. The book’s consonance with The Rig is precisely in this depiction of people as objects of extraction.
The conflict at the heart of The Rig is not between collective and individuated intelligences, but between a collective intelligence and one desperately invested in seeing itself as individuated. The latter state is given to the sort of zero-sum thinking proffered by Coake: you either have value or not, and those without value can be justifiably excised from the equation. Though never stated explicitly (one of the series’ rare moments of such restraint), the collective intelligence of the “Ancestor” is the principal threat to the corporation—itself an ironically amorphous entity, but which is reliant on its workers and consumers believing themselves locked in a zero-sum individualistic society for which there is no alternative. Environmental movements have always advocated seeing ourselves as parts of a collective entity, as survival as a species is never down to any single one of its creatures. Such thinking is anathema to capitalism, which has done its best to convince people that, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “There is no alternative.” It has indeed become a commonplace observation that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
The second and final time Alwynn comments on The Kraken Wakes is in response to a crewmate’s question, “How’s it working out?” To which he responds, “Not good for us.”
1. Weirdly enough, the more earnest didacticism that I always associate with CBC dramas is mostly provided by a Canadian actor. Emily Hampshire plays Rose, a company representative on the platform who seems to operate outside the usual chain of command. At first she appears as though she’ll be one of the bad guys, as she’s a company mouthpiece. But she chooses her side quite emphatically, which is at least partially based on her erstwhile desire to be a paleontologist; this educational background makes her the person best able to grasp what the “Ancestor” is, but also makes her the source of most of the show’s lecture moments when she provides lessons in geology.
Hampshire most indelibly played Stevie Budd on Schitt$ Creek, which also makes her a weirdly uncanny presence in this dramatic and vaguely apocalyptic setting.
2. Three thoughts. One, The Rig gives us a troika of Game of Thrones alumni: Iain Glen aka Ser Jorah Mornont as Magnus, captain of the rig; Owen Teale, who played Ser Aliser Thorne, Jon Snow’s principal antagonist at the Wall—here as the malcontent Hutton, he’s playing essentially the same character, albeit with a redemptive moment at the end; and of course King Robert Baratheon himself, Mark Addy. Thought the second: Mark Addy has a peculiar, almost nasal quality of voice, that is extremely endearing when he plays a good bloke as he does in The Full Monty, but which is extremely sinister and grating as the nasty Coake. Three: though we see his name spelled “Coake,” it’s a homonym for “Koch” and I wondered if the series is deliberately referencing the fossil-fuel billionaire Charles Koch and his late brother David.
3. Mark Bonnar’s Alwynn is the other lecturer-type in the show. He is also so much like an elder version of David Tennant that my partner and I started referring to him as Grandpa Tenth.
4. I’m delighted that John Wyndham is having a revival. I read The Chrysalids in grade nine English and proceeded to tear through his other work—discovering as I did that The Chrysalids is not close to his best. The Kraken Wakes was the one I wanted to read but it was out of print for years; it was only on finding a copy in a used bookstore that I was able to read it, and it immediately became my favourite. Several years ago in a second-year SF class I taught Day of the Triffids and was struck by its prescience—not the kind of prescience that has made Kraken Wakes a cli-fi staple, but a kind of genre prescience, given that the basic structure, narratively and thematically, anticipates zombie apocalypse.
It occurred to me as I was starting to draft this post, my first of 2023, that my first post of 2022 was about the Netflix film Don’t Look Up. Well, not about that movie so much as mentioning it in passing, but it still struck me as serendipitous—both because my first post this year is also about a Netflix property, but more significantly about another film featuring a satire on the figure of the genius tech billionaire.
Don’t Look Up, for those who don’t recall or never watched it, is a broad and profoundly unsubtle parable of climate change in which an asteroid’s imminent collision with Earth will be an extinction-level event. Rather than mobilize the globe behind a concerted effort to destroy or divert the asteroid, the American president and the media treat it, well, like they’ve treated climate change. Which is to say, with denial, deflection, and a minimization of the threat until it’s almost too late. And when they finally launch a salvo of ICBMs, the president aborts minutes after launch because of the intervention of Peter Isherwell—a genius tech billionaire played by Mark Rylance—whose engineers have discovered that the asteroid is chock full of extremely valuable minerals. Long spoiler short, Isherwell’s brilliant plan to fragment the asteroid into non-lethal but very harvestable bits fails and everyone on Earth dies.
Let’s stick a pin in that for a moment and turn to Glass Onion, Rian Johnson’s second film featuring master detective Benoit Blanc, who is played once again with glorious aplomb by Daniel Craig. Two films in what I hope will become a prolific series aren’t enough to discern a thematic pattern just yet, but both Glass Onion and its predecessor Knives Out share the common premise of wealthy, entitled people being brought low by a young working-class woman—Anna de Armas in Knives Out, Janelle Monae in Glass Onion—with, of course, the assistance of Blanc and his gleeful scenery-chewing. If Knives Out was more generally a class warfare parable, Glass Onion is a broadside against the ostensible meritocracy of the “disruption” economy. The second film somehow manages to be at once less subtle and more nuanced in its critique: less subtle because billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) and his “Disruptors” are basically archetypes of the social media era1 and because Bron’s downfall at the film’s end is nakedly cathartic schadenfreude; more nuanced because of the film’s critical implications, which are what I want to tease out in this post.
The conceit at the center of the film, which is also its big reveal, is that genius tech billionaire Miles Bron not only isn’t a genius, he’s actively a moron.
As alluded above, this is a cathartic reveal. It is also a serendipitous one in the present moment, coming as it does in the midst of Elon Musk’s heel turn.2 One of the slowest, hardest lessons that we still haven’t entirely learned over the past several years (as this film dramatizes) is not to assume complexity of purpose and motive where there aren’t any; not to assume arcane subtlety of thought when stupidity, cupidity, and/or simple incompetence makes just as much sense. This indeed was the central fallacy of the conspiracy theories imagining Trump as a Russian asset, with Putin manipulating him in a byzantine web of intrigue; it is also the delusion at the heart of the 2020 election denial with its enormous ensemble of plotters that somehow linked the late Hugo Chavez to Italian military satellites and Dominion voting machines.
It is also the conceit at work in theories positing that what we see of Elon Musk’s actions at Twitter are merely glimpses of an otherwise invisible and massively complex game of four-dimensional chess, which we non-geniuses perceive as hapless floundering. I’ve now seen numerous such fantasies explicated in varyingly granular detail—some framed in awe of his brilliance, some as warnings of his Bond-villain plotting. But really, I have to think it’s all like the glass onion of Johnson’s film: a symbol of complexity that is, in actuality, transparent.
Trump was only a Russian asset insofar as he wanted to emulate Putin, which Putin knew would be bad for America. Accordingly, the Russians did their best to fuck with the election, but that was blunt-force action, not a labyrinth of intrigue. The 2020 election was, very simply, an election that voted out an historically unpopular president. And Elon Musk thought he could treat an irreducibly complex cultural and political morass as an engineering problem. In each case, people needed to see complexity instead of looking, as Daniel Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc suggests, “into the clear centre of this glass onion.”
A good murder mystery benefits from a great twist, a revelation that shocks the reader/audience all the more because it seems so obvious in hindsight. Agatha Christie was a master of this: she gave us mysteries in which, by turns, every suspect was guilty, none of them were, and in one instance—a twist that made my students genuinely angry on the one occasion I taught the novel in question—the narrator did it. What’s revelatory in Glass Onion isn’t the identity of the culprit, but his idiocy. By the time Benoit Blanc is doing the classic gather-the-suspects-in-the-library bit, his ensuing speech isn’t meant to reveal Miles Bron as the murderer, it’s to stall for time so Helen (Janelle Monae) can find the proof in his office they need. As Blanc rambles into increasing incoherence, drawing out his monologue as much as he can, he inadvertently finds his way to an epiphany,3 one that offends his sensibility as “the world’s greatest detective”:
His dock doesn’t float. His wonder fuel is a disaster. His grasp of disruption theory is remedial at best. He didn’t design the puzzle boxes. He didn’t write the mystery. Et voila! It all adds up. The key to this entire case. And it was staring me right in the face. Like everyone in the world, I assumed Miles Bron was a complicated genius. But why? Look into the clear centre of this glass onion. Miles Bron is an idiot!
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the most prominent tech billionaires aren’t nearly as moronic as Miles Bron is portrayed. After all, in the film Bron’s supposed genius is revealed to be entirely fabricated, the product of theft and systemic mendacity, to the point where it almost strains credulity that he could have successfully managed a multibillion dollar corporation. Almost! The point made over the course of the film is just how much of Bron’s success is predicated on other people’s vested interest in maintaining his mythos. A key scene at the beginning features Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), Bron’s chief engineer, in the midst of trying to salve the concerns of the board of directors. The board seems to be getting fidgety about their erratic CEO. Lionel makes a case we’ve heard made a lot in the past two decades: sure, Bron’s ideas seem out there, but that’s just his genius, his capacity for blue-sky thinking!
(I should pause to note how good Odom Jr.’s performance is: he communicates quite deftly, through his tone and facial expressions, how he’s papering over his own misgivings and making an argument he desperately needs to believe).
All of the people invited to his private island in a classic murder mystery setup—his “Disruptors,” as he fondly calls them (more on that momentarily)—are people who are beholden to Bron, and whom he needs to maintain the fiction of his genius. The point of contention at the heart of the mystery is that Bron stole the work of his former partner Cassandra (Monae). When she sued, all the others perjured themselves in support of Bron because they’d needed to stay in his good graces, in part because he had become the principal patron in all their endeavours, but also because their own success had traded on Bron’s name and reputation for being a genius.
Ten years ago or so, Chris Hayes (of MSNBC fame) wrote Twilight of the Elites, a trenchant critique of the cultural tendency to understand meritocracy uncritically, as an invariably positive thing. As a general principle, Hayes observes, meritocracy doesn’t have much to quibble with: who seriously thinks that the best ideas, the strongest performances, the most talented people, shouldn’t be rewarded? The problem however is less with the principle itself than the conviction that it can be a self-sustaining system. Left unregulated, the libertarian ideal asserts, the best people, products, and ideas will inevitably excel and failure will be relegated, deservedly, to the dustbin of history. Interference in the pursuit of pure excellence—especially by the government—is a recipe for mediocrity and turgidity.
The unavoidable problem with this premise, Hayes points out, is that if your sole criterion is rewarding success—with minimal oversight—you inevitably reward cheating. He cites numerous examples, but the one I found most striking wasn’t in the book itself, but one that unfolded right at the time the book was published, and which Hayes cited in numerous interviews he gave. In late 2012, longstanding rumours about Lance Armstrong’s cheating came to a head. In January 2013, he gave the now-notorious interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he admitted to systematically doping. But as Hayes notes, it wasn’t just that Armstrong cheated pharmaceutically over a long period, but that he created circumstances in which he obliged everyone around him to be complicit—either by actively aiding him, by remaining silent, or, in the case of other cyclists on the American team, also doping in order to keep the team as a whole competitive. Once complicit, of course, it was in everyone’s self-interest in Armstrong’s orbit to perpetuate and maintain the fictions that sustained their livelihoods. What’s more, this cohort of self-interested insiders colluded to silence or suppress anyone seeking to expose the truth.
Hence, to my mind the most significant aspect of Glass Onion is not the broad parody of a billionaire who’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is or pretends to be; while the spectacle of Helen destroying the symbols of Bron’s wealth and excess that ends the film is profoundly cathartic, it perhaps obscures to some extent the culpability of Bron’s enablers. Helen’s rage, after all, is elicited not just by Bron’s successful destruction of the evidence that would have exposed him, but by the complicity—again!—of his “Disruptors,” who shamefacedly accede to continue lying for him, in spite of the fact that they now know he has murdered two of their number.
In the end, Glass Onion is about the fallacy of disruption. Bron’s Disruptors are as much disruptors as Bron is a genius: he flatters them outrageously in turn to Blanc at one point, enumerating the ways each supposedly acts as a productive chaos agent in their respective fields, but when push comes to shove disruption is the last thing they want—having built wealth and power, their interest is in consolidating and expanding it. This indeed is Silicon Valley writ small: Mark Zuckerberg’s motto might be “Move fast and break things,” but even an indifferent observer will note that it has been a very long time since he has broken anything or moved very fast or very far. It is perhaps ironic that in the current tech landscape, dominated by billionaires and corporate giants, the true disruptors are governmental figures like Elizabeth Warren–those who are quite vocal in their determination to disrupt such tech monopolies as Amazon and Facebook (sorry—Meta) and break them up into smaller, more competitive chunks.
It is however heartening the difference a year makes when comparing Miles Bron to Peter Isherwell of Don’t Look Up. Even just a year ago, the central conceit of an idiot billionaire wouldn’t have felt quite as on the nose. Indeed, Mark Rylance’s performance in Don’t Look Up is more consonant with the general assumptions of the past two decades: his portrayal of Isherwell is that of a genius, self-absorbed and arrogant to the point of sociopathy, but a genius nonetheless. Miles Bron, by contrast, is uncannily apposite to a moment when a critical mass of tech industry fuckery has (finally) called into question unexamined assumptions of tech genius: Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse obsession and Facebook’s massive value loss; Sam Bankman-Fried’s detonation of crypto currency futures through the simple expedient of colossal financial incompetence; Elizabeth Holmes’ guilty verdict; Peter Thiel’s real-time transformation into comic-book villainy; and of course Elon Musk’s ongoing Twitter meltdown; cumulatively, these and similar misadventures cannot help but make plain something that never should have been far from the collective understanding: that talent, brilliance, and genius in one area not only don’t necessarily indicate capability in others, but that they hardly ever do. Pair this slowly creeping realization with the obvious, observable ways social media and digital culture polarize and factionalize people, and it’s hard to take seriously the persistent techno-utopianism of the Silicon Valley set.
It will however be difficult for many to let go of that mythos, not least because the entire industry is deeply invested in propagating it. It is telling that one of the funniest and most cited moments of the film is when Birdie (Kate Hudson) still struggles to see genius in Bron’s idiocy. “It’s so dumb,” says Blanc, disgustedly. “So dumb it’s … brilliant!” Birdie breathes. “NO!” thunders Blanc. “It’s just dumb!”
1. There’s Birdie (Kate Hudson) a fashion icon turned influencer whose constant inadvertently racist gaffes on social media have become part of her brand; Claire (Kathryn Hahn), a liberal-ish politician whose progressive bona fides coexist uneasily with her indebtedness to Bron; Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), the engineer largely tasked with realizing Bron’s ideas, which come in varying shades of whackadoodle; Duke (Dave Bautista) a masculinity guru and men’s rights influencer; and Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) Duke’s girlfriend and arm candy who is herself an influencer with political ambitions, and who might be the smartest of the group. Rounding out the group but not part of it is Peg (Jessica Henwick), Birdie’s long-suffering assistant who has possibly the funniest moment in the entire film.
2. In numerous interviews, Rian Johnson has pushed back against the assumption that Miles Bron is a one-to-one analogue for Elon Musk, pointing out that he wrote the screenplay in 2020 and shooting wrapped well before Musk broke cover from Tesla and SpaceX and fully displayed his inner twelve-year-old in his fraught takeover of Twitter. Miles Bron, Johnson maintains, was written as an amalgam; it was just happy (or awkward) coincidence that the film’s release coincided with the escalation of the Twitter saga.
3. As Blanc fumbled his way to his epiphany, I could not help but remember all the times I’ve under-prepared for a lecture and felt myself start to go off the rails, only to inadvertently work out something in the midst of my rambling that reveals something about the topic that hadn’t before occurred to me. I wasn’t sure whether this part made me feel attacked or seen.
I watch a lot of television. Once upon a time that might have been an embarrassing admission for an English professor to make—or any kind of professor, really, if your understanding of academic types is that we’re supposed to concern ourselves with purely intellectual matters, and your understanding of television is that it’s the pure antithesis of the Life Of The Mind.
That attitude has always reeked of snobbery, even before television gave us shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad. There have always been green shoots in the cultural wasteland of network television, but cultural wastelands can themselves be of academic interest. Since the rise of “prestige TV”—a terrible designation for a variety of reasons, but it seems to have stuck—and the fracturing of the televisual landscape from network to cable to streaming, there’s been an embarrassment of riches. Television that ranges from simply really good to actual narrative and visual art is pretty much de rigeur, and it’s a great deal of fun to argue what falls where on that spectrum.
So I thought I’d close out 2022 with an extremely personal and subjective rundown of what I enjoyed over the year. Listed here are just the shows that initially aired in 2022; not shown or discussed are shows from previous years I only now got around to watching because they only just now appeared on one of the streaming services I subscribe to (we watched a lot of Bob’s Burgers and What We Do in the Shadows, for example, but nothing of these from 2022). I’m also only talking about shows of which I watched an entire season, which seems only fair. I lost interest in, for example, She-Hulk and Outer Range after one or two episodes, but it’s entirely possible they got better as they went.
So we all understand the pool of options here, the seasons of television I saw in their entirety in 2022 are:
Andor Bad Sisters Better Call Saul, S6 (first half) Derry Girls, S3 The Dropout The Expanse, S6 Gaslit House of the Dragon Kids in the Hall (reboot) The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power Obi-Wan Kenobi Our Flag Means Death Reacher SAS: Rogue Heroes The Sandman Severance Slow Horses, S1 & S2 Star Trek: Lower Decks, S3 Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Stranger Things, S4 We Own This City Wednesday Yellowjackets
MY FAVOURITE SHOW: Andor
I didn’t think Star Wars could surprise me anymore, and the downward trajectory described by The Mandalorian (really good), The Book of Boba Fett (meh), and Obi-Wan Kenobi (see below) didn’t fill me with hope when I saw the trailer for Andor. But … holy crap. There’s a temptation to say it’s nothing like Star Wars, except that aesthetically and texturally it’s the most Star Wars thing I think I’ve ever seen. And it give substance to all the other iterations: here is the inner workings of the polyglot galaxy, seen from the lower classes, the workers, the functionaries, the mid-level bureaucrats; in the depiction of the Empire’s intelligence officers and its carceral system we see the banality of evil. The fascistic aesthetic George Lucas gave the Imperials was largely that—aesthetic, and the evil was the Dark Lord variety. In Andor we see how all that is sustained, and, perhaps more importantly, we see how resistance is fomented and sustained.
RUNNERS-UP: Bad Sisters, Our Flag Means Death, Severance
MY FAVOURITE PERFORMANCES
Milly Alcock as young Rhaenyra Tagaryen in House of the Dragon
There were a number of really strong performances on this show, especially Paddy Consadine as the weak, ineffectual, and ailing King Viserys—but it was Alcock as the young Rhaenyra that was most impressive. If the character was to be effective, the younger version needed to stick the performance deep; Alcock was wonderfully subtle in the role, portraying an adolescent with enough gravitas to hold her own against Matt Smith’s gleeful (Daemonic?) sociopathy and convince the audience that, yes, she was a worthy heir to the Iron Throne.
Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar in The Sandman AND as Principal Larissa Weems in Wednesday
Like most devotees of the divine Ms. Christie, I first encountered her in the role of Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones and was smitten. Her casting as Lucifer in The Sandman was a master stroke, one of the few substantive deviations from Gaiman’s original comic (in which Lucifer was basically a diabolical David Bowie); Christie imbued the Prince of Hell with a cold and menacing hauteur that made it clear they were one of the few entities Dream should fear. She brought a similar icy precision to Weems in Wednesday, but managed at the same time to communicate the banked fires of anger at old wounds inflicted by Morticia that always left it in question whether she was ally or antagonist.
Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi as Stede Bonnet and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach in Our Flag Means Death.
I mean … you can’t have one without the other on this show. And they’re both so good. The entire emotional armature of this series is based on these two seemingly antithetical characters coming together in friendship and then in love; for all the madcap absurdity of the show’s premise, it’s their relationship that makes OFMD more than just a comic confection.
Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
I have more to say about ST: SNW below, but suffice to say Anson Mount as Pike holds his own with every other Starfleet captain who has yet graced the screen. He was what made Discovery watchable for a time, so I was delighted when the powers that be saw the wisdom in doing yet another Star Trek with Mount in the captain’s chair.
Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb in Slow Horses
Oldman is so very obviously having a ball in this role that he’d be worth watching even if the show wasn’t as excellent as it is. Jackson Lamb is a crapulescent, drunk, filthy, and frighteningly competent cold warrior spending his waning years in Brexit-era Britain’s MI5 lording it over a collection of misfits and losers who, rather than be fired, are exiled to “Slough House.” There they are tormented by the profane Lamb, while somehow falling ass-backwards into actual intelligence work.
Jenna Ortega as Wednesday Addams in Wednesday
It’s a daunting task for anyone to take on a role that has been so indelibly defined by another actor, as Wednesday Addams was by Christina Ricci. But Ortega’s performance is at once so consonant with what we expect of the character, while also being entirely her own, that she is truly astonishing to watch. The only comparable example I can think of—an actor owning an iconic role while being profoundly respectful of the work done by its principal precursor—is Mads Mikkelsen stepping into Anthony Hopkins’ shoes to play Hannibal Lecter. And that is about the highest compliment I can pay, not least because young Ms. Addams as portrayed by Ortega seems like she might be a match for Dr. Lecter. I mean, if Nevermore Academy ever needs a psychology teacher—or a head chef—that would be a crossover for the ages.
Stellan Skarsgard as Luthen Rael in Andor.
He was amazing all the way through as the rebel spymaster, but really, it was this speech that articulated the ethical complexity of Andor and in so doing put him over the top.
Runners-Up: Britt Lower as Helly in Severance; Connor Swindells as Arthur Stirling in SAS: Rogue Heroes; Chistina Ricci as Misty in Yellowjackets; Siobhán McSweeney as Sister Michael in Derry Girls; Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in The Sandman; Amanda Seyfreid as Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout
FAVOURITE ENSEMBLE: Yellowjackets
Tough category! Severance is a competitive choice here—none of its individual actors make the list of my favourite performances because they’re all so good, but are all so good in concert. Stranger Things suggests itself, as does Bad Sisters (somewhat more persuasively). Derry Girls is probably my sentimental favourite here, not least because its third season was its last. But just in terms of group dynamics, especially in the way it balanced the older versions of the characters against the younger, Yellowjackets takes the ribbon. (See below for more).
BIGGEST RELIEF: Kids in the Hall AND The Sandman
This one is a tie between Kids in the Hall and The Sandman because they accomplished the same thing: they didn’t suck. The Kids are older, greyer, paunchier, but they’ve still got game—perhaps not now the strength they were in old days when they were (and remain) the best sketch show ever made, but they’re still weird, irreverent, and hilarious. It was a relief that, whatever self-reflexive gestures they make to now being an Amazon property, this isn’t just a late-career grab for cash and/or relevance.
I read Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman obsessively when it first came out in the late 80s-early 90s. It was, indeed, the only comic that ever captured my attention. It was smart, it was literary, and the hero looked like Robert Smith of The Cure, all elements that appealed to my pretentious and broody late teen self. In the thirty years since there have been countless rumours about filmic adaptations, all of which mercifully came to naught. Three decades was worth the wait.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Obi-Wan Kenobi
No contest. Not even close. Second place is so far back I can’t see it. This show was terribly, bafflingly bad. The best thing can be said about it is that it was so bad it made me wait to watch Andor for several weeks, and then I could binge the first several episodes. It was as if the showrunners felt the need to be faithful to Lucas’ clunky writing and awkward direction on display in the prequels. What a criminal waste of Ewan McGregor’s talents. It made me hate a show that had Kumail Nanjiani in it, and I didn’t think that was possible.
MOST HEARTBREAKING CHARACTER DEATH: Eddie Munson, Stranger Things
Oh Eddie, we hardly knew ye.
FILLING THAT LOST-SHAPED HOLE: Yellowjackets
I mean, obviously. Plane crash in a remote location? Check. Gradually vanishing hopes of rescue? Check. Flash forwards to troubled lives back in civilization? Check. Character who thrives as a castaway? Check. Weird/uncanny/possibly supernatural stuff going on? Check, check, and check. And Yellowjackets has a lot of elements Lost didn’t: (1) cannibalism, or at least the strong suggestion of cannibalism; (2) a kickass 90s soundtrack; (3) a sense that the writers have a plan; (4) a preponderance of girls and women in the main roles; (5) a nuanced queer dimension to the story.
MOST FABULOUS OUTFITS: Chrisjen Avasarala, The Expanse
Yes, Wednesday Addams made a late-in-the-game play for this category—especially with her dress at the dance—but the foul-mouthed diplomat-turned-politico Chrisjen Avasarala, played with magnificent relish by the beautiful Shohreh Aghdashloo, was always clad in dresses that must have been a costumer’s dream to create.
GUILTIEST PLEASURE: Reacher
I will confess I’ve always found the Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher eminently watchable, though it is intensely hated by fans of the Lee Child novels. The Jack Reacher of the fiction is tall and muscled like an ox, while Cruise is manifestly not. Hence, the series is a corrective: featuring a title character played by someone who is six-foot-massive with Schwartzeneggerian musculature (‘fists like Christmas hams” is the line always quoted from the novels) matched with an intellect so perceptive and shrewd it puts to shame the grey matter of such girly-men as Holmes and Poirot. The show’s narrative framework is simple and satisfying: Reacher uses his superior intellect to identify the bad guys, then employs his Christmas-ham fists to beat the almighty shit out of them. Rinse and repeat until they’re all dead or unconscious, mystery solved, catch the first bus out of town. Season two awaits.
JOKE DENSITY: Derry Girls
Really, this was no contest. The closest second place is Our Flag Means Death, which does feature some sustained laugh-out-loud sequences. There is also the scene in Bad Sisters in which the sisters look on in shock and horror as their loathed brother-in-law, having been roofied for reasons I won’t spoil, falls pantsless into the marina harbour. But nothing can really match the asphyxiation-level laughter evoked by Derry Girls. And if you’re skeptical, I give you a brilliant cameo from an Irish actor with a particular set of skills.
BEST SMOULDER: Arondir and Bronwyn in The Rings of Power
Peter Jackson gave us an object lesson in how not to do inter-legendarium romance in The Hobbit with Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel the elf (Evangeline Lily). Rings of Power does it right: wood-elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) harbours a love for the human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Bondiadi), who obviously reciprocates his feelings—but because of the tensions existing between the humans of her village—on probation for their earlier generations having served Sauron—and the elves (who act, essentially, as their probation officers), elf-human love is frowned upon by both camps. Also, there’s the fact that Arondir is so repressed and straitlaced that he might as well be a Vulcan (got the ears for it, anyway). But it’s because they play it in such a restrained way—and also because both of them are, as Derek Zoolander would say, really really ridiculously good looking—that I kept waiting for the air between them to ignite when they looked at each other.
BEST ADAPTATION: Slow Horses
In terms of pure fidelity to the text, Slow Horses is basically a beat-by-beat realization of the novel on which it’s based. I know this because after having watched the first season I picked up the novel Slow Horses and read it … and it’s a testament to Mick Heron’s writing that, even though that fidelity meant there were no surprises, I still tore through it in a few days. I then went out and got the second novel in the series, and then the third, and so on until I’d read all eight extant Slough House novels over the course of the summer. I should add that this show is the best adaptation even with The Expanse as a contender.
BEST COMFORT FOOD: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
This is another competitive category, with Derry Girls and Star Trek: Lower Decks putting in strong showings. But Strange New Worlds was very much like a return to form: Star Trek as it used to be done, and an object lesson in the principle that you can do a smart TV show engaging with substantive topics (trauma, identity, bigotry, and all the usual ethical quandaries Star Trek loves to get into) without making things both literally and figuratively dark. After Discovery and Picard, it’s nice seeing a starship bridge that doesn’t look like it’s lit for a séance.
MOST DISCONCERTING CASTING: various characters, We Own This City
To be fair, the casting in We Own This City is only going to weird out people who obsessively watched The Wire, but then I have to imagine that would account for a large portion of its viewership. I’ve always delighted in Wire-spotting on other shows, such as when Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) shows up on The Walking Dead or Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) continues his political turn to the dark side on Game of Thrones, but it feels like a head fake when a Wire actor shows up in the almost identical context of We Own This City playing a dramatically difference character. To be fair, the only really jarring example is that of Jamie Hector, who played the terrifying and coldly sociopathic drug boss Marlo Stanfield on The Wire; he shows up in We Own This City as Sean Suiter, a thoughtful, conscientious homicide cop troubled by his past experience with the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. I think my favourite moment in this vein, however, is when Suiter is helped by a young Black patrol cop who looked vaguely familiar. My partner and I, recognizing him at the same moment, burst out in unison, “Holy shit, that’s Dukie!” (fans of The Wire will get me).
SADLY SAYING GOODBYE: Derry Girls and The Expanse
Two of my favourite shows had their series finales this past year, and they really couldn’t be more different. Derry Girls is a hilarious but heartfelt show about five high school friends (four of them girls, one an honourary girl) living typical adolescent lives in the atypical setting of Derry, Northern Ireland in the final years of sectarian strife. The show ended its third and final season with the ratifying of the Easter Sunday Accords in 1998, a momentous event coinciding with the girls graduating. In contrast, The Expanse is quite possibly one of the best science fiction series ever, and I don’t make that claim lightly. This was a show that started strong in its first season, and just got better on all fronts with each successive season: better writing, better visual effects, and just better in terms of how the characters became family, both among themselves and with the audience.
Last year I did a list of my top five favourite blog posts from the previous year. I was planning to do the same again for this year, until I started scrolling back and realized that I’ve only posted fourteen times. So … that doesn’t really seem like enough substance from which to cull a top five.1
It’s also a bit embarrassing, not because I didn’t blog much—anyone who follows me here knows I have long fallow stretches—but because I’d wanted to blog a lot. Part of my surprise at how little I’ve written here proceeds from how much I wrote but never completed. I have a mortifyingly full folder titled “blog posts in progress” that currently contains eleven Word files, some of which are in excess of two thousand words. And that doesn’t include the numerous ideas for posts in my journal, some of them comparably extensive, that never made it to the point of being typed up. A list of stuff that never made it here but exists incompletely in Word files, handwritten notes, or just my fevered imagination includes, but is not limited to:
Armageddon is Republican, Deep Impact Democrat. I started 2022 by watching Don’t Look Up on New Year’s Eve (I actually managed a post about it), and in the days before classes started I rewatched Armageddon and Deep Impact—largely out of curiosity to see how the duelling asteroid-threatens-Earth blockbusters from 1998 compared with Adam McKay’s bleakly comic climate crisis fable. But what struck me was how starkly each film falls into a checklist of political stereotypes of American conservatives and liberals … resonating even more today as the caricatures have become even more reified.
The Serendipity of reading Ducks while teaching Armageddon. Yes, weirdly, Armageddon in all its crapulescent masculinist glory resurfaced in September as one of the first texts on my fourth-year course in 21C post-apocalypse—clustered with Deep Impact, Independence Day, and Susan Sontag’s essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” as a prefatory unit on disaster films before getting to the truly post-apocalyptic. Kate Beaton’s stunning graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, came out around this time. I bought it on the day it was released and read it over about thirty-six hours. One of its key themes is the deformation of character effected on people who work the isolated, Mordor-esque, hyper-male oil patch, and how these workers—both the men and the small number of women—are casualties along with the environment of the fossil fuel industry’s drive for profit. It was profoundly odd to read Beaton’s nuanced, beautiful, and frequently harrowing memoir simultaneously with leading class discussions on Armageddon’s cartoonish valorization of all the traits and qualities Ducks critiqued.
Putin, dictators, and Richard III. About a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I wondered if the American Right’s love affair with strongmen generally and Putin specifically would ever enter the fourth act of Richard III—that is, when Richard’s sociopathy ceases to be entertaining and the audience must come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that they’ve found this guy charming for three acts. (To be honest, I’m kind of glad this one didn’t come together because, well … still waiting on that fourth act chagrin).
My unhealthy Trump-era audiobook habit. To be clear, listening to audiobooks isn’t an unhealthy habit, nor is it for me a practice specific to the Trump era. Rather, I have found myself listening to a long string of books about or pertinent to Trump’s tenure and the aftermath: Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s Very Stable Genius, Susan Glasser and Peter Baker’s The Divider, and on and on, including a host of ancillary books about Trump’s enablers, the history of Republican extremism, and so forth.
Liz Cheney and history. At a certain point earlier this year I realized we’d passed into a new phase of Trump-era history writing, with a number of books emerging about Trump’s useful idiots and enablers among the GOP—in particular, Mark Liebowich’s Thank You For Your Servitude is a satisfyingly withering chronicle of Republican sycophancy and cowardice, and Tim Miller’s Why We Did It is an affecting mea culpa from a former Republican political operative turned never-Trumper. These sorts of accounts had the effect of throwing the defiance of Liz Cheney into sharp relief. In the final days before the midterms I started to write a post suggesting that one of the key issues at stake for her was history and her place in it, given that Liebovich described a startling indifference among such Trump faithful as Chris Christie, Bill Barr, and Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani summed it up best, saying “My attitude about my legacy is: Fuck it.”
Tucker Carlson’s testicle tanning and Josh Hawley’s manhood manifesto. I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but there was some weird shit happening with Republicans and conservatives and their obsession with American masculinity. Most striking was Tucker Carlson’s special episode “The End of Men,” the trailer for which featured a lot of buff shirtless guys rolling tractor tires and chopping wood and, most notoriously, a naked man who looked like he was irradiating his balls in the middle of the desert (seriously—see below). Also, Senator Josh Hawley—later seen in January 6 Committee footage running like a frightened bunny from the insurrectionists he’d saluted earlier on that day—harangued young men to stop wanking to porn and get married.
We Own This City vs. The Wire. At least a few of these pieces didn’t get posted because they were about film or television, and by the time I was in spitting distance of completing them, enough time had passed to make them feel passé. I started writing about We Own This City, David Simon’s new Baltimore-based cop show, after the first episode. It was an interesting experience, as someone who has watched The Wire all the way through multiple times, to watch him return to a not-dissimilar show twenty years after The Wire premiered, taking place in the same neighbourhoods, chasing the same themes (mostly). One difference is that We Own This City is based on true events; and the fact that Simon was revisiting familiar territory in the era of Black Lives Matter and post-George Floyd meant that it was impossible not to reflect back on The Wire through that contemporary lens.
Andor. As above: I started writing about Andor almost as soon as it started airing. I hadn’t thought it possible for Star Wars to surprise me anymore, and yet here was this genuinely brilliant show—brilliant not just in relation to its fellow Lucasfilm progeny, but brilliant in its own right. The post was developing into a rumination on how it served to dramatize the key points of argument between the Frankfurt and Birmingham schools of cultural studies.
Research notes: WWII and avoidance. This was to be the third installment in thoughts arising from the article on Randall Jarrell’s war poetry I was writing this summer. The “avoidance” to which I refer is the broad American cultural evasion—by way of Hollywood and pop-historical mythologizing of “the good war” and “the greatest generation”—of any substantive reckoning with the trauma of WWII.
Research notes: What makes a war poem? A further offshoot of the Jarrell article: looking at the difference between the poetry of the two world wars and asking the broader question of what it means to write poetry about war.
Is Jordan Peterson OK? Also a casualty of too much time passing, this was to be a somewhat snarky commentary about Peterson’s sweeping pronouncement on what he saw—in evolutionary terms!—as the unattractiveness of a plus-size model on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and the Twitter hissy fit he threw when people mocked him for it.
George R.R. Martin vs. destiny. On the heels of House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, I thought to finally articulate my grand theory of (a) why the end of Game of Thrones was inevitably going to be a hot mess, and (b) why GRRM is probably taking so long to finish the novels. Actually, that’s just the hook: really, this is about the transformation of fantasy as a genre, and its transition from Tolkienesque medievalism to a more—for lack of a better word—postmodern sensibility.
The Auditors of gender. The Auditors are entities in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, so named because they audit reality. They are, in the moral multiverse of Pratchett’s fiction, the ultimate villains because they bear profound antipathy to anything messy, to anything irrational, to anything colouring outside the lines of their precise sense of how reality should work. Hence, humanity is a constant source of annoyance with all our tendency to fabulate, mythologize, and creatively imagine the impossible. I was thinking of the auditors as I followed an ongoing Twitter argument between those seeking to posthumously recruit Sir Terry to the “gender critical” anti-trans camp and those who have, you know, read, and understood his fiction and grasp that he would almost certainly be unsympathetic to such thinking. The fact that his daughter Rhianna has several times unequivocally asserted this does not seem to have deterred the other side. I started drafting some thoughts on this subject, with the Auditors as the central symbolic antagonists in this argument.
I could go on, but you get the general idea. It is, I will admit, mildly depressing (and distressing) to have written so much that now languishes in a file in the corner of my desktop. On one hand, I suppose, why does it matter? After all, it’s not as if I’ve worked to build a robust readership with this blog; I use it as a space, by turns, for writing through and working out ideas, and just ranting about whatever’s on my mind in lieu of screaming into the void. When I came up with the title “It’s All Narrative,” I was pleased with that turn of phrase; I have since on occasion kicked myself for not having thought of “Thinking Out Loud,” which is much closer to what I do here. I work through my usually half-baked thoughts for the benefit of those brave souls willing to wade through my verbiage. Which, to be clear, is not a lot of people.2
So, you might ask, why worry about the un-posted writing? If my main purpose here is writing through my thoughts, haven’t I done that? Does it matter if twenty to forty people read them (assuming they make it all the way through a given post)? Well, no and yes. I do my best thinking at the keyboard or with a pen in my hand, and thus I write a huge amount of stuff that never sees the light of day. But there’s a difference in intent and effect (and affect) even with a blog post nobody reads. The point is that someone might, and so I take a lot more care and thought than I do with scribbles in my journal.
There is also a certain satisfaction in finishing pieces of writing, even when they don’t work out as well as planned. Putting up only fourteen posts in a year when I had a lot on my mind feels insufficient, to say the least. As someone who is easily distracted—though I jokingly compare my research methodology to the dog from Up, it’s not really a joke—completing stuff, however trivial, is a small triumph. A while back, Neil Gaiman posted some basic advice for aspiring writers on social media—a picture of himself with his hand, palm out, in front of his face. Written on his hand: “Write. Finish things. Keep writing.”
As should be obvious from my list above, I’m very good at steps one and three; step two is what trips me up—it is, for me, the “?” phase of the South Park underpants gnomes’ business plan. I’ve long suspected I have ADHD, or at the very least ADD; diagnosing that and getting therapy to that end will be one of my projects going into 2023. I think the above list is Exhibit A.
I’ve managed to arrange things so that I’m not teaching this term, so my project for the first half of 2023 is to write—and more importantly, to finish things. In spite of my masses of blog posts in limbo, 2022 was actually a very good year for me, something I’ll be speaking more specifically about in upcoming posts (he promises, in spite of all the contrary evidence just provided). I actually held to my 2022 resolutions! Like, all year long! So going forward, my 2023 resolutions will be: (a) Keep going with last year’s resolutions, and (b) Write. Finish things. Keep writing. And part of that will be blogging, not least because a healthy output here tends to be reflective of productivity more generally.
So my plan, blogging-wise, is threefold: first, aim to post something every week of modest length (500-1500 words); second, aim to post one more substantial piece a month; third, finish a few of the posts listed above … because, well, there’s some good stuff there! Reading over my unfinished work was actually a pretty good goad, as it reminded me that sometimes I’m smart and can write a decent sentence.
Coming soon: why 2022 was a good year for me.
1. That being said: I was particularly proud of my twoposts on gremlins; my twoposts on “the banality of ego”; and my post on The Rings of Power and Tolkien’s mythology.
2. And that’s OK. I’m in the enviable position of not needing to chase clicks and pageviews, and I have no interest in tailoring my writing here for the purposes of cultivating a readership. I like the idea of people finding their way here serendipitously and (hopefully) finding something interesting or edifying in a given post. I’ve been working my way this years through Michel de Montaigne’s Collected Essays; I love the ambling, meandering way he pursues lines of thoughts down their various rabbit holes, shoring up his insights with his capacious knowledge of classical writers. Though I wouldn’t compare my output here to his writing, its often unfolds in a similar spirit (my political rants excepted).
Haven’t done one of these in a while and was thinking I need to get back into the habit of posting shorter things on a more regular basis, just to keep the pump primed her for the handful of people who actually read my blog (you few, you happy few).
Each of the items I’m mentioning here is worthy of a longer, deeper dive, and indeed I jotted notes in my journal to that end. But discretion being the better part of something or other, I acknowledged to myself that were I to attempt three ambitious posts I would almost certainly end up writing none, and the other more ambitious posts I have in the hopper would also probably fall by the wayside. So without further ado …
My dissertation is now old enough to vote, but it’s not gonna ‘cause it’s all RIGGED, man! I suddenly realized that this past Saturday was the eighteenth anniversary of my doctoral dissertation defense. That day remains one of my fondest memories of which I have little memory—the three hours of the defense itself is muddled in my mind because of the intellectual exhaustion that sets in after a certain point, which was then almost certainly compounded by the drinking that ensued.1
It is however a serendipitous bit of timing. My dissertation was titled “The Conspiratorial Imagination,” and was a study of conspiracy theory and paranoia as expressions of American postmodernity. This week we get into my fourth-year seminar on 21st century apocalypticism in earnest, and we’re diving into the novel Fight Club, the cultural earthquakes caused by 9/11, and the conspiracism endemic to both.
This class is a new iteration on a graduate class I taught in winter 2021; that class began mere days after the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, a concurrence that seemed uncannily appropriate. In one of my more inspired off-the-cuff classroom riffs, I drew a line between Jacob Chansley—aka the QAnon Shaman, aka the most bonkers and thus most indelible image to emerge from a day replete with bonkers and indelible images—and the 1990s-era “crisis of masculinity.” This putative crisis inspired some men, influenced by Robert Bly’s book Iron John (1990), to go on men’s retreats into the woods where they donned loincloths, painted their faces, banged drums, and otherwise attempted to get in touch with some sort of elemental, primal, “authentic” manhood that had been erased by a combination of apathy, an excess of civilization, feminism, and a culture in general that repressed or denigrated “traditional” masculinity.
Then as now, the first novel we did was Fight Club—then it was fortuitous, now it is deliberate. As much as I dislike the novel, it’s a little too apt to my topic not to cover.
That class I titled “The Specter of Catastrophe,” which referred to the post-9/11 shift in disaster narratives from the spectacle of apocalyptic destruction (e.g. the alien ships blowing up New York and L.A. in Independence Day) to a specter haunting the devasted and/or depopulated landscapes of The Road or The Walking Dead. The current version of the course is mostly unchanged, but my focus has shifted slightly. It is now titled “Hopeful Nihilism,” which is partly an inversion of Lauren Berlant’s conception of “cruel optimism,” and a way of characterizing the burn-it-all-down ethos of Trumpism: the inchoate rage at a system perceived as broken coupled with the vague sense that its destruction will bring about better circumstances.2
I was at a loss for what image to use for a course poster until it occurred to me to run an image of the QAnon Shaman through the Obama “Hope and Change” poster filter:
It seems appropriate to lean into the conspiracy theory dimension of these topics, especially considering …
Trump unequivocally embraces QAnon. Yup. At a rally in Ohio last week for Hillbilly Elegy author, Republican senate candidate, and shameless political panderer J.D. Vance, Trump delivered a somewhat more scripted speech than is his usual wont while portentous music played underneath his words and a clot of rallygoers saluted him with a gesture that looked as though a bunch of people sieg heiling were also saying “Over there!” That is, a bunch of people raised their arms at an angle with their index fingers pointed, which is apparently a salute that has been adopted by QAnon enthusiasts. The single raised finger is a reference to the Q slogan “Where we go one, we go all” (itself adopted, weirdly, from White Squall, Ridley Scott’s most forgettable film). The music playing beneath Trump’s speech is also, apparently, music specific to the QAnon movement, titled “WWG1WGA,” an acronym for the above slogan.
Trump has been flirting with QAnon for at least as long as journalists have been asking him about it. As with most things that fall into Trump’s orbit, it’s difficult to know whether he actually knows much about it, or whether he just automatically gloms onto it because the adoration of deranged people is impossible for him to resist (the true Q believers refer to Trump as their “God Emperor,” and you can be 100% certain he loves that). But he’s been coy about it—or as coy as someone as unsubtle as Trump can be, anyway—teasing it with his showman’s instincts, but never explicitly going all in with it.
Until now, that is. On Truth Social, his MAGA Twitter knockoff, he retweeted—sorry, “re-truthed”—a post featuring a stern and heroic-looking image of him overlaid with the words “the storm is coming.” For those less familiar with QAnon parlance, the “storm” is key to their mythology—referring to the long-deferred comeuppance for the Deep State and liberal elites (who are all, let’s not forget, human-trafficking pedophile cannibals) in which Trump will reveal his master plan by arresting all the malefactors and re-assuming his rightful place as President of the United States.3
To be clear, Trump isn’t openly accusing Biden and Hillary Clinton of being sex-trafficking pedophiles (yet), but it is notable that he’s now gone as far as he has. He is not a subtle thinker, to put it mildly, but he has a very canny instinct for running a con: he knows how to string his marks along, whether they be MAGA enthusiasts, Republican pols desperate to tap into his base’s enthusiasm, or deranged conspiracists like the Q people (there’s a Venn diagram for you!). Much of that entails not giving more away than you have to, so it’s interesting that he seems to be leaning into it now.
Part of me finds this new development vaguely hopeful, even as it presages worse to come in terms of possible violence and mayhem. The true believers will almost certainly be roused to action of one sort or another, but this also makes it more difficult for his apologists to ignore his worse excesses. It may all indicate that Trump is losing relevance: out of office, off Twitter, ensconced in his Florida retirement home, and subject to ever-escalating investigations over which he has no control, and with ambitious rivals like Florida governor Ron DeSantis (who stars in the third section of this post) smelling weakness, this might be him trying to regain traction. But part of the problem with being outrageous is that you need ever-larger displays of outrageousness to keep the focus on you, especially when others have learned your lessons and deploy them more deftly. And that brings us to …
The politics of cruelty. Though Terry Pratchett’s voluminous Discworld series of over forty novels articulates a sophisticated moral philosophy, one of its principal axioms is a simple premise. Though it is present throughout the novels, it is articulated most specifically by the curmudgeonly witch Granny Weatherwax: evil, she says, comes from treating people—oneself included—like objects. When the earnest young missionary with whom she’s speaking4 protests that surely there are worse crimes than that, she agrees, but points out that most such crimes start with treating people as objects.
Every so often I circle back around to wanting to write an article on the consonance between Pratchett’s philosophy and American pragmatism as defined by thinkers like John Dewey, Judith Shklar, and Richard Rorty. Granny Weatherwax’s assertion is of a piece with Shklar and Rorty’s premise that liberal thought proceeds from the understanding that cruelty is the worst thing we do. This premise informs much of Pratchett’s fiction, so it is perhaps unsurprising that I have taken enormous comfort in rereading his work at the various nadirs of the past several years.
The most dispiriting episodes of what I assume we must needs call the Trump Era have all been those instances that have demonstrated the appetite for cruelty not as an occasional gambit or the collateral damage of a given policy shift, but as a new normal in which cruelty is business as usual. One of the most astute insights on this front was Adam Serwer’s Atlantic essay that observed the cruelty of Trumpism isn’t incidental: the cruelty is the point. This recent idiocy in which Ron DeSantis put asylum seekers fleeing Venezuela on a chartered flight to Martha’s Vineyard is just the most recent iteration of a political ethos more concerned with disruption and “owning the libs” than with any coherent ideological project. The whole exercise was an effort to expose the hypocrisy of affluent liberals, who were supposed to react with horror at having migrants suddenly in their midst. The people of the Vineyard did react with horror, but at DeSantis’ callous use of the refugees (who, as refugees, were in fact in the U.S. legally) as pawns in his political stunt. (The refugees were themselves welcomed and treated well, given food and shelter). Whatever one’s position on the current fraught state of immigration in the U.S., the basic, irreducible humanity of migrants—be they legal or illegal immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers—should always be the central factor in any consideration. Instead, we’re treated once again to the spectacle of a cruel man treating people as objects in the name of scoring points with a rump of the populace mobilized by Trump’s performative cruelty, all in the hope that he might one day take Trump’s place as their venerated leader. All of which tells us that the Trump Era is far from over.
1. There was, conveniently, a departmental function that afternoon at the Grad Club, a meet & greet for new graduate students, current ones, and faculty. One of the few vivid memories I have of that day is the newest hire—a young Shakespearean I had become good friends with—come scurrying over with a pen to edit my nametag, putting “Dr.” in front of my name.
2. I proposed an article on this subject for The Conversation apropos of the first anniversary of January 6th. It was published, but the editorial process was laborious and I was profoundly unsatisfied with the finished product … but still, might be worth a read.
3. Depending on who you talk to, the malefactors will either be subjected to humiliating show trials and imprisoned or summarily executed. Like all mythologies, there are variant versions, many of which have been necessitated by the fact that “the storm” has now been promised for six or seven years and has yet to occur.
4. The novel in which this exchange occurs is Carpe Jugulum (1998), the twenty-third Discworld novel; and the missionary in question is named Mightily Oats—which is the short version of his full name, “The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats.” There’s a book to be written just about Sir Terry’s character names.
Having watched the first three episodes of The Rings of Power, I can, with relief and delight, say that I love it so far. It has its problems, which I may or may not talk about in future posts, but the end of episode three left me wishing I could binge the whole season in a day. Always a good sign. Whether it rises to the level of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films remains to be seen, but it has that potential.1
So, I won’t be talking about the episodes in detail. Nor do I particularly want to talk about the entirely predictable furor that has become commonplace when something like The Rings of Power is released—namely, the howls of protest that arise from the revanchist precincts of a given fan community when the new product is perceived to have been tailored for “woke” political sensitivities. That particular drumbeat has been pounding since the release of the first Rings trailer revealed that the series would feature elves, dwarves, hobbits, and, yes, humans who were not white—something perceived by the usual suspects as a rank betrayal of the source material in the name of political correctness.2
I don’t want to talk about that backlash … but given what I am talking about, I can’t ignore it entirely. Not that it should be ignored, mind you—but there have beenenoughgoodpiecesdealingwithit that I would just be repeating other people’s principal points.
For the moment what I want to try and do is articulate some thoughts on fantasy and mythology, and the perennial compulsion to adapt, refine, revisit, revise, and expand upon stories that are profoundly meaningful to us one way or another. These thoughts are at the front of my mind for two reasons, the first being the recent embarrassment of riches on television of stories meaningful to me: The Rings of Power’s illumination of earlier histories of Middle-earth; House of the Dragon’s return to Westeros; and just a few weeks ago, Netflix’s release of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the only comic book I’ve ever read obsessively.
The second reason is that this fall I’m teaching a first-year English course called “Imagined Places.” My variation on its theme is modern and contemporary rewritings of Greek myths.3 As part of my preparation I’ve been rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey, which started as an exercise in refreshing my memory of their finer points and has become a joyful reunion with texts I first read in high school, and then again in an intro to classics course I took in my first year of university.
Few works in the history of western literature have inspired quite as much imitation and revision. Keep that in mind as we go, because it’s something I’m going to circle back around to.
My entry point to this discussion is a recent New York Times column by Tolkien scholar Michael Drout, titled “Please Don’t Make a Tolkien Cinematic Universe.” I’ll get into the particulars as I go, but the gist of his argument is that the subtle complexities of Tolkien’s moral universe are beyond the scope of contemporary film and television; unfortunately, the franchise model of cinema that has come to dominate the current entertainment market likely sees Tolkien as a wealth of source material to be exploited. Should Amazon (or, presumably, any other corporate media entity) turn Tolkien’s legendarium into something akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it will inevitably miss, mangle, or pervert the moral vision at the heart of Tolkien’s work.
To be clear, that last sentence is my extrapolation from Drout’s argument—he does not himself say as much in so many words, but it is an accurate summary of his concern. “Is it fair to the legacies of writers like Tolkien,” Drout asks, “to build franchises from their works without their knowledge or permission?” There were attempts to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film while Tolkien was still alive; initial, wary interest on Tolkien’s part turned fairly quickly into antipathy to the whole idea as he rejected one spec script after another, finally declaring that his work was unsuited for film. His biographer recounts a time Tolkien attended a staged version of The Hobbit, at which he frowned every time the play departed from the novel. “So it is hard to believe,” Drout concludes, “that he would have approved of a team of writers building almost entirely new stories with little direct basis in his works.”
Here of course Drout means The Rings of Power, which is drawn from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.4 It is true that the series is taking a big swing, building out a multi-season story arc from some short summaries and chronologies of the Second Age. Such a sketchy basis, Drout suggests, is a poor foundation on which to build—but then, from what he says, it’s a reasonably good chance Tolkien would similarly have disapproved of Peter Jackson’s films (whose absence from his discussion is an odd omission to which I’ll return). Tolkien’s imagined approval or disapproval is at least somewhat beside the point, however; it is strange to suggest that adaptations and retellings of a given author’s work are somehow “unfair” to their legacy, considering that entire cottage industries thrive on adapting authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Possibly Austen might have liked Clueless, but would probably have looked askance at Pride and Prejudice with Zombies. Does a spectral Shakespeare burn with anger at all the distortions of Hamlet, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to The Lion King?
Or is fifty years not long enough? (Tolkien died in 1973). Must we wait for copyright to expire?
I pose these questions with my tongue only partly in my cheek: I’m trying to read Drout’s concerns generously but can’t help but find them a little disingenuous. Especially considering—as I mentioned above—that he elides any mention of Peter Jackson’s films, except to acknowledge that they exist. This omission is passing strange if for no other reason than that we already have a Tolkien cinematic universe, helpfully spanning the extremes of good and bad—with The Lord of the Rings films displaying both profound respect for their source material and moments of brilliant filmmaking, while The Hobbit films are a hot mess of poor directorial impulse control.
There have also been a handful of animated adaptations, most notably Ralph Bakshi’s somewhat trippy 1978 Lord of the Rings that blended traditional animation with rotoscoping.4
There is also a Lord of the Rings stage musical—of which I was somehow unaware until one of my students in my Tolkien class last year sent me a YouTube link, destroying my blissful ignorance.
And while we’re at it, there have also been a significant number of video games set in Middle-earth, perhaps most notably Lord of the Rings Online, an MMORPG in the mold of World of Warcraft, whose fidelity to the geography, story, and lore of Tolkien’s work would probably impress even Michael Drout.
And though Drout’s quibble is with the prospect of a Tolkien cinematic universe, there is also the inescapable fact that there has always been the Tolkien expanded universe. Created initially of course by the man himself with his “mythology”—into which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were folded—it was then enlarged with The Silmarillion and the further eighteen volumes edited by his son Christopher that provided readers with world-building akin to that of the mad encyclopedists of Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”
Given this already-existing critical mass of material, it makes me wonder why Drout draws the line at The Rings of Power; why choose this moment to stand athwart the expanding Tolkien universe to yell stop?
The uncharitable reading would be to suggest that this is of a piece with the more overtly revanchist backlash, just more delicately articulated; the more generous reading is to take him at his word and presume that he’s concerned that Amazon will take Tolkien down the same road as Marvel comics have gone, or—and this was a pretty widely shared worry, though now mostly allayed—that TheRings of Power showrunners would feel compelled to create a Game of Thrones clone. Drout, indeed, alludes to both these apprehensions while asserting that “the groupthink produced by the contemporary ecosystems of writers’ rooms, Twitter threads and focus groups” of the “Hollywood of 2022” is innately out of step with Tolkien’s unique sensibility:
The writing that this dynamic is particularly good at producing—witty banter, arch references to contemporary issues, graphic and often sexualized violence, self-righteousness—is poorly suited to Middle-earth, a world with a multilayered history that eschews tidy morality plays and blockbuster gore.6
Citing the fact that the quest of The Lord of the Rings is not the attainment of power but its destruction, and that in bearing the Ring Frodo is too wounded, physically and psychically, to return to his life as it was before, Drout asks, “Can a company as intent upon domination as Amazon really understand this perspective—and adapt that morality to the screen?” While I’m not unsympathetic to anyone taking issue with Amazon as a cultural and societal blight, I find this line of argument bewilderingly obtuse—as if Jeff Bezos were the one writing, casting, costuming, and doing art direction.7
Ultimately, however, my interest in Drout’s argument is that its inconsistencies speak to a broader, more significant issue with Tolkien’s mythology—or rather, with Tolkien as mythology. In the end, whether or not Amazon does a good job with The Rings of Power, or whether they do attempt to build out an expanded cinematic universe on par with Marvel, really matters very little for a fairly simple reason: that Tolkien in fact succeeded in realizing his lifelong goal. He created an enduring mythology.
I will come to that in a moment. But first, for the sake of argument, let’s take some of the protests over The Rings of Power casting of nonwhite actors on their merits. One strain of the “I’m not racist, but—” arguments is that Tolkien’s world is explicitly modeled on Northern European geography, cultures, and ethnicities, and so introducing obviously non-European-looking characters disrupts Tolkien’s design and intent. A refinement on this line of thinking says “OK, sure, introduce Black elves, but make it clear how it serves the story!” In other words, offer an explanation of how there came to be Black elves (and hobbits, and dwarves, and humans).
To be fair, I’ve seen such concerns offered with all appearance of sincerity and earnestness,8 and there are, if one has the patience for it, substantive counter-arguments, some of which are based in Tolkien’s own lore. One example that has gone viral is from none other than Neil Gaiman:
There is also the fact that medieval Europe wasn’t quite as monolithically white as is often assumed or depicted, given the vestiges of the multi-ethnic Roman legions left behind after the western empire imploded; there was also, more significantly, brisk trade that brought people from Moorish Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East into regular contact with Europeans of all shades.9
But again, this is all at least partly beside the point I want to make. To be generous, I’ll say that the idea that the casting choices in The Rings of Power are somehow transgressive resides in a vague understanding of the original story as sacrosanct, or that there is an “authentic” Tolkienian vision to which it behooves all adaptors to hew. Leaving aside the simple fact that “authenticity” in this context is always going to be illusory and chimerical, is it really even desirable? Are we obliged to honour every boundary, real and imagined, that an author places on interpretations of their work?
Fortunately such a myopic approach is not practical or feasible. Neither the creative arts nor literary criticism have anything like the legal doctrine of originalism, something of which Tolkien was well aware. He might have gotten stroppy over prospective filmic adaptations or a staged version of The Hobbit, but his lifelong project was to shape a mythology—something he was at his most candid and open about in a long letter to the publisher Milton Waldman. Tolkien was at the time (the letter is undated but most likely written late 1951) shopping around The Lord of the Rings; he was having some difficulty finding a publisher because he was still insisting that LotR should be published in a single volume with the prehistory that would eventually become The Silmarillion. Given the already-epic length of LotR, publishers were understandably reluctant at including the dense mythology. But Tolkien had not yet reconciled himself to jettisoning the narratives of Middle-earth’s First and Second Ages, and he attempted to persuade Waldman by explaining the import of the project to him. “I do not remember a time when I was not building it,” he says. “I have been at it since I could write.” His aim, he says, was not merely to make up stories, but to build a mythology that could supplement what he saw as a lack in his native country:
I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found … in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, and Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.
He goes on to explain that his own mythopoeic project was precisely an attempt to replace what he felt to be missing:
I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply to: to England: to my country.
Not exactly a humble ambition, something he self-deprecatingly acknowledges as he pleads “Do not laugh!” and adds at the end “Absurd.” But one is put in mind of John Milton’s determination to write an epic poem in English that would be the equal—or the superior—of Homer and Virgil,10 or James Joyce, whose own grandiose ambition was voiced by his alter ego Stephen Dedalus at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he says, absurdly, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
But like Milton and Joyce11, Tolkien succeeded in his seemingly hubristic ambition—he did create a mythology that has taken on its own life as it captured people’s imaginations, albeit not perhaps as he thought it might. His vision, it turns out, was too modest: Middle-earth has transcended England and become the world’s mythology. And like all such mythologies, it is futile to try and contain it.
This is where we come back around to my first-year English class: as I said, we’re looking at modern and contemporary poetry and fiction that reimagines and revisits classic Greek myth, often in ways that give voice to those figures who are ancillary to the main action, or disposable in the name of advancing the plot. The modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) writes “Eurydice,” in which the title character excoriates her husband Orpheus for consigning her to Hades—again!—when he couldn’t help but look back at the last moment (you had one job!). Or Canadian poet Don McKay’s reimagining of Icarus as an unapologetic adrenaline junky aiming to get that fall from on high just right.
And then there’s the story of Briseis: The Iliad, long considered the origin point of Western literature, begins when the great warrior Achilles and High King Agamemnon quarrel over Briseis, a Trojan woman who is Achilles’ spoil of war, whom Agamemnon takes from him. In a fit of pique, Achilles retires to his tent to sulk and withholds the forces he commands, allowing the Trojans to turn the tide and bring the fight all the way back to the Greek ships, forcing Agamemnon to swallow his pride and send Briseis back to Achilles. In her novel The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker retells the events of The Iliad from Briseis’ point of view. This shift of perspective makes explicit the brutality of the war and the way it envelops non-combatants in its implacable, bloody logic: the trauma visited on ordinary people, the slaughter of innocents, the enslavement and rape of the women taken captive. Barker’s novel is harrowing, brilliant, and faithful to The Iliad; it would also, I am certain, be considered a “woke” attempt to tear down the edifice of classic Greek literature if read by those who view a Black elf as a profound betrayal of Tolkien’s legacy.
A thought I’ve had a lot lately is what low esteem Tolkien purists have for Tolkien’s work, given that they seem to believe the slightest deviation from what they perceive as the original or authentic vision is somehow mortally damaging to Tolkien’s legacy. The opposite is the case: Tolkien’s peculiar genius lies in the very capaciousness of his vision. It contains multitudes. Not even Amazon can dent it. And that, of course, is the nature of mythology: if the ancient Romans had had Twitter, there would have been endless arguments in the Greek myth fan community over the Latinizing of the gods’ names; Ovid would have been excoriated for the liberties he took, Virgil for being an Augustan propagandist; and legions of toga-clad hipsters would sniff into their wine (locally sourced, of course) that Hesiod was the only truly authentic mythographer.
But none of the Roman emendations and transformations of the Greek myths had a deleterious effect on Homer, any more than do contemporary novels by PatBarker or MadelineMiller. And no more than The Rings of Power, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, or even Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit have had on Tolkien’s mythos.
Indeed, in his letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien is quite clear about how he wants his mythology to be picked up, adapted, and transformed by others: “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” And so it has transpired. Whether Tolkien would have liked any of the scholarship, cinema and television, fan fiction, video games, and indeed the whole raft of imitative works that came to comprise the genre of fantasy as we now know it is irrelevant. Such is the risk you take when you create something transcendent.
1. I suppose we should appreciate that Jackson established a spectrum of quality against which all future Tolkien adaptations can be measured, with the Lord of the Rings films establishing the high-water mark and The Hobbit films as the nadir.
2. One thing I will say on this point is that two of the things giving the anti-woke crowd the nativist vapours are my favourite parts of the show: namely, the young, impetuous, warrior version of Galadriel played by Morfydd Clark, and the EOC (elf of colour) Arondir, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova. Cordova is veritably mesmerizing as Arondir, playing the character with a tightly controlled mien that just barely hints at a tumult beneath; when in the third episode he breaks out the Legolas-like balletic combat, I don’t think his expression changes. Not that I would want to typecast him, but he’s all set to play a Vulcan should he want to stick with the SF/F thing.
Meanwhile, the complaints about Galadriel are as predictable as they are exhausting, starting with whinges about making a female character the show’s main focus and filter. Beyond that, (some) people can’t seem to reconcile Clark’s smouldering rage and badass combat skills with the cool reserve with which Cate Blanchett endowed the character … never considering, presumably, that that degree of imperturbable self-control is something one earns.
Also, it’s probably mere coincidence that the first thing Galadriel does in the first episode is kill a troll. I’m sure that wasn’t something the writers did in anticipation of the backlash the character would inevitably face.
3. We’re starting with Rick Riordan’s YA novel Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief; then Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which is a retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the Trojan woman over whom Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel; Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the titular witch who plays a small but significant role in The Odyssey; and The Just City by Jo Walton, a novel in which the goddess Athene creates Plato’s Republic out of curiosity, to see if it would actually work. We’ll also be doing a bunch of poetry (Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” for example, and William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”), as well as reading the relevant myths as recounted in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (I would have actually preferred to use Stephen Fry’s book Mythos, which is an arch and elegant compendium, but it is too expensive and too long to justify including it, especially when my students would only be reading a fraction of it. I’ve been listening to it on audiobook off and on all summer—read, of course, by Fry himself—and it is a delight).
4. For legal reasons I haven’t entirely parsed, Amazon has the rights to The Lord of the Rings—and its appendices—but not The Silmarillion.
5. The Bakshi LotR was just the first half—that is, all of Fellowship and parts of The Two Towers. He’d planned the film to take place in two parts, but the second film never got made … for reasons that become clear when you watch the first.
6. If current film and television was in fact limited to these possibilities—which seem to be delineated here as Marvel’s archness, Game of Thrones’ sex and violence, and the self-righteousness of a vaguely imagined wokeness—he might just have a point. But I don’t have to reach back fifteen years to The Wire and The Sopranos and the rest of prestige television’s first glut of great work to refute Drout’s characterization. In just the past two or three years, Severance, Better Call Saul, Our Flag Means Death, The Mandalorian, The Plot Against America, Succession, The Good Place, Sex Education, Slow Horses, Yellowjackets, and countless other series have shown the depth and breadth of the subtlety and sophistication that is out there.
7. I’ve written previously on this blog about the contradictions inherent in Bezos’ avowed love of Star Trek, given that Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future was utopian in part because it imagined a future in which a billionaire class was unthinkable … but this isn’t really what Drout’s on about.
8. Though, really, any time you feel compelled to preface a statement with “I’m not racist, but …” there’s about a 100% chance you’re about to say something racist.
9. Also, not for nothing, but it’s not as if The Rings of Power is doing for the Tolkien expanded universe what Black Panther did for the MCU, in which Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis were the sole Tolkien white guys (get it?). The “diversity” of The Rings of Power, in the end, is a handful of dark faces in a large cast that is otherwise still overwhelmingly white. The fact that so many people are reacting as if the showrunners had put a sign saying “Caucasians need not apply” on the audition room door is perhaps the most telling point.
10. Interestingly, Milton had about as much regard in the end for Arthurian legend as Tolkien did—which is to say moderate regard, but like Tolkien he found it wanting. In the early days of considering what the subject for his epic would be, Milton considered King Arthur, but discarded the idea as too parochial.
11. The rumbling you hear is Harold Bloom spinning in his grave at me mentioning Tolkien in the same sentence as Milton and Joyce.
I’ve received a number of questions from people asking whether I plan to post on a weekly basis about House of the Dragon. Thanks to those who’ve reached out: it is gratifying to know the Game of Thrones posts I did with Nikki over nine (egad!) years were enjoyed. I’m afraid my answer has to be an unsatisfying maybe. I’ll certainly have stuff to say, which may or not make it to my blog, but what I definitely won’t be doing is posting long, detailed blow-by-blow recaps/reviews—not with Nikki, and not by myself. We did that for Game of Thrones eight seasons, and I think it’s safe to say we both hit our saturation point.
And there’s also the fact that one of the reasons we were able to sustain that output—by the end, our posts were averaging over ten thousand words, which even between two people is a lot of text to produce in a couple of days—is because GoT was a genuine cultural phenomenon. It’s not that I wouldn’t be amenable to the idea of doing that sort of thing again, but not with a property like HotD, whose Westrosi territory we’ve mapped pretty thoroughly.
But having written as much as I did—one half of seventy-three 8-12K word posts is a hefty chunk of text—there’s a certain amount of muscle memory there that would be hard to ignore, even if I wanted to. Two episodes has got my mind flexing in some familiar ways, though less with the granular details of the show than with the broader issues it raises that reflect back on GoT, having to do with fantasy and genre and world-building. Also, given that Rings of Power powers up this week, there’s some interesting possibilities arising in the serendipitous juxtaposition of HBO’s ongoing televisual adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s latter-day fantasy and Amazon’s attempt to build upon Peter Jackson’s success in bringing Middle-earth to the screen.
I also watched Wheel of Time, also on Amazon, this past winter. And while I didn’t have anything to say about it at the time—honestly, I was underwhelmed—revisiting it might make for some useful points of comparison.
I commented in my previous post that I was more worried about Rings of Power, because that show has set itself a much more difficult task. The two shows are superficially similar insofar as they’re both prequel-ish narratives adapted from the histories preceding the stories that made people interested in those histories to start with. But beyond that point of comparison, there really is, well, no comparison.
For the moment I’m going to keep my powder dry on The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s legendarium more broadly until I’ve seen the first episode of Rings. Suffice to say that adapting Tolkien’s mythology is not the same kind of task as adapting The Lord of the Rings.
By contrast, HotD is entirely the same kind of task as adapting A Song of Ice and Fire, and is made easier by the fact that all of the heavy lifting—which is to say, its principal world-building, its aesthetic, its general narrative sensibility—was well established by the eight seasons of GoT. Perhaps more significantly, there is much less at stake in HotD: whatever dragon-borne sexytime shenanigans these Targaryens get up to, we know that they’ll still be around for Robert Baratheon to usurp in two centuries or so. We even know, should we wish to consult Fire and Blood, GRRM’s “history” of the Targaryen dynasty, who wins and who loses and how these conflicts either resolve or don’t resolve themselves.
To be clear, when I say there isn’t much at stake, I mean artistically and narratively. HBO has the pots of money it’s investing at stake, so if people’s appetite for GRRM’s particular brand of venality and violence, of incest and intrigue proves to have been exhausted by GoT’s ignominious exit, well, that’s going to result in a fresh batch of firings. But for those of us tuning in, we’re going to be propelled less by where we’re going than how we get there—by which I mean how the episode-to-episode drama unfolds, and how much we invest emotionally in the characters.
The good news, based on episode two, is that they’re off to a good start. The awkwardness of the writing in the first episode was largely smoothed out, and we’re starting to get a better sense of the main players and their motivations. The casting is proving its quality: there are no discordant notes. The MVPs for this episode are Milly Alcock as the young and precocious Rhaenyra and Eve Best as the jaded but shrewd Rhaenys, the Queen that Never Was.
(Something that comes with adapting fantasy is the realization that names as written on the page don’t always do well when spoken out loud. GRRM is usually pretty user-friendly with his Jons and Roberts and Neds, but occasionally we stumble over the jaw-crackers—as Samwise Gamgee might call them—more typical of the genre).
The conversation between the elder and younger Rhaenladies is a good indication of how this series will play out, and a reminder that GoT, for all its spectacle, was at its best when its antagonists fenced with words as well as swords. Rheanyra surprising the meeting on the bridge at Dragonstone and calling her uncle’s bluff was also a close contender for the episode’s high point.
But where GoT was about a multi-front civil war taking place against the looming threat of the Night King’s malevolent return, HotD is about the internecine conflict of a single dynastic family, whose end—as observed above—is foreordained by history. This much is made clear by the opening credits, which retain the theme music of the original and the general aesthetic sensibility, but which unfold within the contained and claustrophobic walls of a castle we assume is the Red Keep.
The unifying symbol of the GoT credits was the armillary sphere containing the sun, soaring above the vastness of Westeros and Essos. From this celestial perspective we were shown the key points of geography relevant to the given episode. By contrast, the armillary sphere is replaced at the start of the HotD credits with the House Targaryen sigil, which connects to all the other nodes within the castle walls with criss-crossing streams of blood—which itself has the triple meaning of referencing familiar bloodlines, one half of the Targaryen motto (which makes me wonder if future credits will feature fire?), and presumably the rivers of blood that will flow once the fighting begins in earnest.
[CORRECTION: The first image we see in the sequence is not the Targaryen sigil, but a sort of bas-relief of dragons flying around a stronghold that, based on King Viserys’ hobby-model (what kings do instead of model trains, presumably), is meant to be old Valyria. This almost certainly means that the stone walls and corridors through which the blood flows are probably those of the model and not, as I’d blithely assumed, the Red Keep. Not that this really changes my interpretation: it’s still contained within the confines of the Targaryen dynasty, except more explicitly, and with the added sense of being yoked to a mythologized history. Still, more food for thought there.]
By way of conclusion, few quick thoughts in no particular order:
The CGI ain’t great. It’s generally OK, but there are those telltale moments when it looks more like a middling video game than a high-budget series. I have to imagine HBO is hedging a bit, which is fair enough: it took GoT a few seasons to establish itself. Before that, they either avoided expensive, large-scale sequences by, say, knocking out Tyrion just before a battle, or limiting themselves to one or two big spectacles a season. It’s fortunate the show proved its worth by the time the dragons got big.
The scene in which King Viserys walks and talks with his possible grade-school bride is one of the squickier sequences I’ve seen in any show, but all credit to Paddy Consadine for exuding profound discomfort throughout.
I’m in equal measures intrigued and concerned with the character Mysaria, Daemon Targaryen’s prostitute-turned-paramour. Her scene following the bridge confrontation, in which she takes Daemon to task for using her as a provocation was powerful, and it makes me hope the writers paid attention to the criticism leveled at GoT’s cavalier use of sexual violence and disposable female characters. And I am concerned, well, because perhaps this will end up being just more of the same.
If Daemon and Rhaenyra are any indication, the Targaryens ruled by divine right of cheekbones; two hundred years hence, Cersei Lannister attempts to follow suit.
I was asked recently which TV series I was most excited about: House of the Dragon, HBO’s prequel to Game of Thrones; or Rings of Power, Amazon’s prequel-ish adaptation of elements of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (which I hesitate to call a “prequel” to The Lord of the Rings for reasons that aren’t entirely germane here but which I’ll likely articulate once the series starts).
I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. I suppose that, all other considerations aside, I’m more looking forward to Rings of Power … but that anticipation is tempered by the awareness that the line between amazing and terrible is a trickier one to negotiate with that source material. It was broadly thought that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable until Peter Jackson proved everyone wrong on that front, but that presumption had more to do with the prior limitations of special effects technology than with storytelling. The principal reason LotR was so good—and why The Hobbit shanked so badly—is because Jackson treated the source material of the former with profound respect. The story of LotR needs little tinkering, as evidenced by how often the films take dialogue verbatim from the novels. The Silmarillion, by contrast, is written as, and unfolds like, mythology, which will necessitate some significant tinkering. Finding that happy medium between rendering it naturalistic and hewing to the spirit of Tolkien’s story will be a difficult needle to thread.
Which is why I’m more confident that House of the Dragon will hit its marks, given that it was always meant to be entirely consonant with its predecessor. I have not however been particularly looking forward to it, for what I assume are obvious reasons. Like most people who loved GoT, the final season left a sour taste in my mouth and the ending felt like a betrayal—not so much a betrayal of the characters, as many people felt, but a betrayal by the showrunners of the show itself. After seven seasons of often superb, unhurried, nuanced storytelling and world-building, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff—now without the scaffolding of the great bearded glacier George R.R. Martin to shore up their own writing faults—raced to a slapdash finish in a truncated final season that effectively upended everything that had come before and slapped the goodwill of fans in the face.
Which isn’t to say I won’t watch HotD, but I don’t feel inclined to write lengthy recaps/commentaries like Nikki and I did for GoT.
That being said, I watched the first episode last night, so here are my thoughts in no particular order. Mild spoilers ahead.
The first episode was … OK. I was more or less on board by the end, which is a good sign—it means, possibly, that the awkwardness of the writing was more to do with this being a pilot setting up the characters and contexts, and will find its rhythm as we go. Fingers crossed.
I can tell it’s going to take a few episodes to adjust to Matt Smith playing the villain. He’s still so indelibly the Eleventh Doctor for me, though I suspect it will be a lot like watching David Tennant play Kilgrave in Jessica Jones. Smith as Daemon Targaryen has similar energy, which is the whole manic alien-among-humans thing being repurposed as gleeful psychopathy.
As trepidatious as I was going in, that theme music … man, it’s good to hear it again.
Not to repeat myself, but I do hope the writing finds its groove. Too many awkward moments of dialogue to really overlook … however much Benioff and Weiss floundered with the plotting after they overshot GRRM’s runway, even by the end the moment-to-moment of GoT never felt inauthentic.
The juxtaposition of the bloody birthing scene and the jousting was a little … obvious. C’mon, man. We get it.
Something Stephanie pointed out right at the outset: do clothing styles not change in Westeros? This is almost two centuries before GoT, you’d think there’d be some differences.
I can’t quibble with the casting. Once I’ve worked through my Doctor Who issues, Matt Smith looks to be great. Paddy Considine (King Viserys) has been great in everything I’ve seen him in. Rhys Ifans (Hand of the King Otto Hightower) is also always a solid bet. I had to do an IMDb search to figure out where I’d seen Eve Best (Princess Rhaenys, aka the Queen That Never Was); it was Nurse Jackie, a series I can’t recommend enough, and she was amazing in it, as she looks to be here. Though I really, really hope she gets to do more. And I really like Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra: the ambitious and precocious teenage girl who wants more than the life normally allotted a woman is a role we last saw done superbly by Maesie Williams as Arya Stark; Alcock so far isn’t overplaying it, and I appreciate the subtlety she brings, especially considering we can expect it to be contrasted by Matt Smith’s gleeful scenery-chewing as her principal antagonist.
So I guess we’ll see. Not a bad start, but with the way GoT left things, the series has its work cut out convincing fans they’re willing to be hurt all over again.
One thing I’ve found interesting: there have been more than a few (by which I mean two or three that I’ve seen) think pieces wondering whether HotD will fill the vacuum left by GoT as a show that gives people a common point of contact—as whatever these days passes for water-cooler conversation, or in the more highbrow terminology, a “monoculture.” As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post, “It’s not just that Game of Thrones left behind unfinished conversations. Rather, the show seemed to mark the end of mass, sustained cultural debate period.”
However much GoT was a hugely popular show, I feel this overstates things … or possibly evinces a critic’s nostalgia for entertainment properties that captured more than the niche attention that has increasingly been the norm since television fractured into a wider cable universe, and which itself then gave ground to streaming services and their infinitude of offerings. It’s odd to consider that the ratings for the GoT finale, its most-watched episode at just shy of 14 million viewers, was the same as your average episode of Seinfeld in the 1990s. When I was a TA in the first years of my PhD, I could cite The Simpsons in my classes by way of explaining things and be confident that all my students were familiar with my references.
It’s been a long time since there’s been that kind of touchstone—GoT was the closest thing we’ve had, and I somehow doubt HotD will capture the same lightning in a bottle. But I suppose we shall see.
So, as anyone who knows me will attest, I have issues with brevity. Some people have a talent for the pithy 500-word article or post that gets right to the heart of a thought. I most emphatically do not … I am almost invariably digressive, finding my way down endless rabbit holes of thought, chasing the shiny objects of serendipity where they lead me. Some time ago I got in the habit of having at least two different-coloured pens at hand when I write in my journal; when my train of thought veers in a different direction, I switch pens. That way I have an obvious visual guide when I read over my notes highlighting where I change topics.
On the other hand, serendipity and digression have been my twin engines of discovery over the course of my fifty years, and given that I don’t have to chase large audiences, I get to indulge my tendencies on my blog, which really should have been named “Thinking Out Loud.”
All of which is by way of saying the second half of my original post has swelled to a point where I need to cut it in half, less for the sake of brevity than I pretty much move on to a new topic. So the original attempt at posting will now be in three parts.
As I said toward the end of part one of this post, I went back and forth a few times on whether to title these two posts “The Banality of Ego.” Why was I uncertain about that title? My main concern is that it will come across as a bit too cute and too clever by half; if perceived as glib it invites justifiable ire, given that it’s an allusion to the subtitle of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. It’s also not exactly accurate insofar as that the needless death and destruction caused by Harris’ egoistic obstinance was not itself banal so much as catastrophic. On the other hand, Bomber Harris was hardly a sui generis personality. His particular blend of unearned self-assurance, cultural chauvinism, and bullying arrogance is something of which there are numerous other examples through Britain’s military and imperial history. That he rose to prominence in a system that rewards such an ego—which is not, to be clear, peculiar to Britain—indicts the system as much as the individual. It is in this respect that my thinking is consonant with Arendt’s thesis.
Arendt’s argument is that Adolph Eichmann—a Nazi functionary who’d escaped Europe at the end of the war only to be captured by the Mossad in Argentina in 1960 and shipped to Israel to stand trial for war crimes—embodied “the banality of evil.” Arendt, a German Jew who had fled the Nazi regime and made it to the U.S. in 1941, was assigned to cover Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker. Arendt was struck by how unremarkable Eichmann was: he was, as she described, a mediocrity of a mid-level manager who seemed befuddled by the gravity of his trial. The quotidian reality of his job was banal, a nine-to-five, paper pushing, number-crunching, form-filling job that organized the transport of millions of Jews from their homes to the death camps. He seemed out of place: the antithesis of the kind of arrogant, defiantly villainous monster already becoming familiar in cinematic depictions of Nazis. What was truly horrifying was just how ordinary and unremarkable he was, how ordinary and unremarkable were the particulars of his job—in apparent contrast with the unthinkable horror he was instrumental in perpetrating. Except that, as Arendt realized in her reports, such a contrast was illusory; banality was not discordant but necessary in the organization of systematic mass slaughter.
Her observations about the banality of both Eichmann the person and the job he had performed did not sit well with many people, who found Arendt’s thesis abhorrent. Personally, I have always found Arendt’s thesis persuasive; Eichmann in Jerusalem was for me one of those books that profoundly affected my perspective on the world. This indeed is the nub of why my mind snagged unpleasantly on Malcolm Gladwell’s breezy dismissal of Bomber Harris as a psychopath, and why I find myself writing several thousand words about his otherwise forgettable book: relegating the indiscriminate death and destruction of area bombing to the psychopathy of a single figure is too easy and exonerates everyone else.
People took umbrage with Arendt’s thesis in part because the very notion of banal evil seems a contradiction in terms. It offends the instinctive sensibility that tells us evil is necessarily exceptional. Arendt’s argument that evil on the scale perpetrated by Nazi Germany is necessarily systemic is an assertion that still offends a large number of people, not least because a corollary of systemic is complicit. The current furor over critical race theory in the U.S. is a case in point: the cynical political calculations involved with attacking it aside, it’s an easy target for conservative politicians because it is deeply discomforting for people to consider that they benefit from the legacy of slavery and the long history of racist policies designed to benefit whites. It is much more comforting to think of racism as an individual failing, especially when embodied in Hollywood’s caricatures of crapulescent chaw-chewing Southerners or hate-spitting Klansmen, who share with Nazis the cinematic appeal of being obviously evil.
I should note that I am uncomfortable with using the word “evil” in a straightforward or unproblematic way. There are a number of reasons for this, but two stand out: first, “evil” tends to connote a transcendent, otherworldly quality that identifies those it describes as somehow different in kind rather than degree. Second, this understanding tends to eliminate nuance, as it renders evil necessarily exceptional, sui generis in its discrete instances in spite of its oft-lamented ubiquity. Arendt never downplays the monstrousness of the Final Solution and its principal architects, nor does she forgive or ameliorate Eichmann’s participation in its prosecution. Substitute “systemic” for “banal” and we begin to grasp the most instinctive objection to Arendt’s argument: not just the idea that evil could be banal, but that, being systemic, we are all potentially implicated.
None of the foregoing is about equating Bomber Harris with the likes of Goebbels or Himmler, nor is it to offer some sort of twisted both-sidesism about WWII; nor is it to suggest that the greatest evils of the war were merely a function of thoughtless bureaucratic inertia. I am rather attempting to work through some of the knottier problems attached to thinking the Second World War, at least in terms of how we’ve come to represent it. I’ve fixed on Randall Jarrell’s bomber poems in part because they help elucidate the stark contrast between how art and literature grappled with the First World War versus how it engaged with the Second. To oversimplify for the sake of framing the question: why did so much great art come out of WWI and so little from WWII?
Part three will pose some thoughts in answer to that question.
 Whatever else we might say about Bomber Harris, he was vastly more competent than Hermann Goering.
 Though in truth it would be more accurate to say it is Arendt’s thesis and its influence on my thinking that shapes my own discussion here.
 Not for nothing, but this is what Stephen Spielberg got exactly right in Schindler’s List. The scenes of brutality and the psychopathy of Amon Göth, the commandant of Płaszów, are harrowing. But more insidiously present throughout the film are the legions of clerks with their pens and papers and blotters and portable desks, who appear at any point when a large number of Jews need to be processed.
 I wrote two fairly long paragraphs at this point in the post that explored this point in greater depth, but decided to leave them out, as they took my discussion down yet another rabbit hole. TL;DR: I explicated my point about complicity by way of the example of the pop cultural fascination with serial killers, both such fictional characters as Hannibal Lecter and real-world examples as Ted Bundy. They are attractive to the imagination, I suggest, because they appear to be embodiments of absolute evil, but our very fascination is an expression of complicity. Saving these thoughts possibly for a future post.