Category Archives: what I’m watching

The Rig, Lovecraft, The Kraken Wakes, and Our “collective failure of imagination”

Iain Glen as Captain Magnus MacMillan



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.

He seems nice.


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.

Mark Bonnar as Alwynn and his not at all significant choice of reading.


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.

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Some Thoughts on Glass Onion



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.

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2022 TV Roundup

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:

Bad Sisters
Better Call Saul, S6 (first half)
Derry Girls, S3
The Dropout
The Expanse, S6
House of the Dragon
Kids in the Hall (reboot)
The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power
Obi-Wan Kenobi
Our Flag Means Death
SAS: Rogue Heroes
The Sandman
Slow Horses, S1 & S2
Star Trek: Lower Decks, S3
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Stranger Things, S4
We Own This City


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.

A very determined Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, reluctant rebel.


RUNNERS-UP: Bad Sisters, Our Flag Means Death, Severance


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.

Gwendoline Christie in The Sandman (left) and Wednesday.


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. 

Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb, looking more groomed and hygienic than is this character’s normal wont.


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


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.


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.


Oh Eddie, we hardly knew ye.


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.



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.


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.

I mean, come on. Seriously.




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).

Jermaine Crawford, nee Dukie, and Jamie Hector, nee Marlo, in We Own This City.


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.

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Some Thoughts on The Rings of Power, or, Shall We Compare Mythologies?

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 been enough good pieces dealing with it 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.

From left: Tom Sturridge as Morpheus in The Sandman; Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in The Rings of Power; and Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon. I believe I said something in a previous post about the divine right of cheekbones?

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.

A few of the lowlights from The Hobbit–though I must confess I have always liked Tharanduil’s battle moose.

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

The animated 1977 film of The Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings.

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.

A still from Lord of the Rings Online. Not sure what’s happening here, but it looks heroic.

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’ storyTlön, 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 The Rings 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 Pat Barker or Madeline Miller. 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.

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Some Further Quick Thoughts on House of the Dragon (episode two)

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).

Prince Cheeky McCheekbones and his Precious.

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.

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A Quick Post on House of the Dragon

Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in front of an Iron Throne with … way more iron than the last time we saw it.

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.
Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen, bringing some serious creepy uncle vibes to the role.

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.

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A Few Things

Summer Blogging Update     Several posts ago, I announced my summer blogging plans; I then dutifully followed up with a three-part series on memory, history, and forgetting in fairly quick succession. And then … well, nothing for two weeks. That’s largely due to the fact that my next series of posts, which will be a deep dive into postmodernism—what it is, what it was, what it isn’t, and why most of the people using the word in the media these days have no idea what they’re talking about—has been taking somewhat longer to write than I’d planned. Actually, that isn’t entirely true: the second and third installments are all but completed, and I’ve gotten a healthy start on the third and fourth, but the introductory post is taking longer (and is getting longer). I am optimistic that I will have it done by the end of the weekend, however, so hopefully Phase Two of My Ambitious Posts No One Will Read will soon commence.

What I’ve Watched     A few weeks ago I binged the series Rutherford Falls on Amazon Prime. I’d read some positive reviews of it and heard good things via NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (always a reliable guide); the show is also co-created by Michael Schur, a showrunner who, in my opinion, has been batting 1.000 for years: The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place. But what’s particularly notable about Rutherford Falls is that the premise of the show is rooted in the relationship in the titular town between its indigenous and non-indigenous townsfolk. The series was co-created by Sierra Teller Ornelas, a Navajo screenwriter and filmmaker. The writers’ room is also well represented with Native American writers, and the cast is remarkable.

Ed Helms and Jana Schmieding.

Ed Helms plays Nathan Rutherford, a scion of the family that gives the town its name, and who is about the most Ed Helms character I’ve yet seen—a painfully earnest and well-meaning but frequently clueless fellow whose entire sense of self is bound up in his family’s history and that of the town. He runs a museum-ish space in his ancestral home. His best friend is Reagan (Jana Schmieding), a member of the (fictional) Minishonka Nation who is more or less persona non grata in her Native community because she left her fiancée at the altar a number of years before and instead went and did her masters degree at Northwestern. She runs—or attempts to run—a “cultural center” inside the local casino, which is owned by Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), the de facto leader of the Minishonka community.

The show is hilarious, but is also quite comfortable in its own skin (so to speak)—it engages with difficult issues of Native history, white entitlement and appropriation of Native culture, the memorialization of settler culture (the precipitating crisis is when the town’s African-American mayor seeks to remove a statue of the town’s founding Rutherford in the town square, not because it’s a symbol of colonialism, but because cars keep crashing into it), and the fraught navigation by Terry Thomas of American capitalism as a means of accruing power and influence for his people—all without ever losing its humour or coming across as pedantic. A key moment comes in the fourth episode, when an NPR podcaster, having sniffed out that there might be a story in this sleepy town, interviews Terry. He asks him how he reconciles the contradiction of running a casino—the epitome of capitalistic graft—with his own Native identity. Terry, who had been answering the podcaster’s questions with a politician’s practiced smoothness, reaches out and pauses the recorder—and then proceeds, in a stern but not-angry voice, to school the well-meaning NPR hipster on precisely how the casino is consonant with Native values because it is not about the accrual of wealth for wealth’s sake, but for the benefit of a community that has long been marginalized. He then hits play again, and resumes his breezy tone for the rest of the interview.

It is a bravura performance; indeed, Michael Greyeyes is the series’ great revelation. A Canadian-born actor of the Cree Nation, he has long been a staple in Canadian and American indigenous film, or film and television featuring indigenous characters, and has (at least in most of the stuff I’ve seen him in) tended to play stern, brooding, or dangerous characters. So it is a joy to see him show off his comedic talents. His best line? When arguing with Nathan Rutherford over the historical accuracy of a costume he wants him to wear in his planned historical theme park, he says in exasperation, “Our market research shows that the average American’s understanding of history can be boiled down to seven concepts: George Washington, the flag, Independence Day, Independence Day the movie, MLK, Forrest Gump, and butter churns.”

What I’m Currently Watching     Well, we just watched the season four finale of The Handmaid’s Tale last night, and I’m going to need a while to process that. And we watched the series premier of Loki, which looks promising—largely on the basis of the fact that a Tom Hiddleston / Owen Wilson buddy comedy is unlikely to disappoint no matter what is done to it.

F. Murray Abraham, Danny Pudi, David Hornsby, Rob McElhenney, and Charlotte Nicdao

But the show we’re loving right now beyond what is strictly rational is the second season of Mythic Quest on AppleTV. For the unfamiliar: it’s the creation of Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz, the folks who brought you It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; the series is a workplace comedy set in the offices of a video game called Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, an MMORPG along the lines of World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls. McElhenney plays the game’s creator and mastermind Ian (pronounced “Ion”) Grimm, a self-styled visionary who is sort of a cross between Steve Jobs and a lifestyle guru. Charlotte Nicdao plays Poppy, the perennially anxious and high-strung lead engineer who is responsible for turning Ian’s (again, pronounced “Ion”) ideas into workable code. Danny Pudi, who most famously played Abed in Community, is Brad, the “head of monetization,” and is delightfully cast here as a kind of anti-Abed who knows little and cares less about pop culture and video gaming and is only concerned about how he can wring every last cent out of the game’s devoted players. And F. Murray Abraham—yes, Salieri himself—plays the game’s head writer, washed-up SF author C.W. Longbottom, a lascivious alcoholic whose sole claim to fame (to which he clings like a barnacle) is having won a Nebula award in the early 1970s.

That combination of characters alone is a selling point—but the show is also incredibly smart, and also—just when you least expect it—deeply emotional.

What I’m Reading     At this point in the early summer as I scramble to use my time to complete at least one article before September, as well as move my summer blogging project forward (to say nothing of starting on course prep for the Fall), the question feels a little more like what am I not reading.

But that’s all business. My pleasure reading of the moment is a trilogy by M.R. Carey. Carey wrote the brilliant zombie apocalypse novel The Girl With all the Gifts—which was made into a quite good film starring Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton—and its companion novel set in the same world The Boy on the Bridge. One of my grad students this past semester alerted me to the fact that Carey had recently published a series set in another post-apocalyptic scenario. The “Ramparts Trilogy”—comprised of the novels The Book of Koli, The Trials of Koli, and The Fall of Koli—isn’t really a trilogy per se. The novels were all released within several months of each other, suggesting that “Ramparts” was really more of 1000+ page novel that the publisher chose to release in serial form rather than all at once.

Like the other Carey novels I’ve read, the Koli books are post-apocalyptic, set in an England some three to four centuries after humanity more or less obliterated itself in “the Unfinished War.” It is a word in which humanity has been reduced to a mere handful of its former numbers, and everything in nature now seems to be intent on killing the remaining survivors. Human manipulation of trees and vegetation to make them grow faster as part of an effort of reverse climate change has resulted in hostile forests: only on cold or overcast days can anyone walk among the trees without them snaring them with their tendrils. Any wood cut has to be “cured” in saline vats to kill it before it can be used as lumber. And the animal life that has evolved to live in such an environment is equally dangerous.

Koli is, at the start of the novels, an earnest if slightly dim fifteen-year old living in the village of Mythen Rood in the Calder Valley in the northwest of what was once England. His family are woodsmiths; Mythen Rood is protects by the Ramparts, villagers who can use the tech of the old world—a flamethrower, a guided bolt-gun, a “cutter,” which emits an invisible cutting beam, and a database that offers up helpful but cryptic knowledge and information from the old world.

There is much tech left over from the old world, but most of it is useless. Koli’s story essentially begins when he becomes obsessed with “waking” a piece of tech and joining the ranks of the Ramparts.

And that’s all I’ll tell you of the story: suffice to say, with one-third of the last novel to go, I am captivated by both the story Carey tells and the potential future he envisions.

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Filed under A Few Things, what I'm reading, what I'm watching

A Few Things

What I’m Reading     I first heard of Heather McGhee two or three years ago when she was interviewed on one of the political podcasts I listen to. She was then the president of Demos, a progressive think-tank focused on race and economics and strategies to strengthen American democracy; I was immediately impressed by how clearly and articulately she broke down the inextricability of race and economic policy, and the ways in which Republicans have successfully sold the idea to white voters of government spending as a zero-sum game in which every dollar that goes to help Black people and minorities is a dollar taken from them—and that government programs that help non-wealthy whites  are somehow stealing from them to benefit inner-city Blacks. And hence, non-wealthy whites have become reliable Republican voters who vote against the own interests in election after election.

To be clear, this is not a new insight. President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, who signed the Civil Rights Act into being in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, knew that he was alienating a significant portion of his own party. “Well, we’ve lost the South,” he is reported to have said on signing the civil rights legislation; he also famously acknowledged the principle on which Richard Nixon would successfully court southern white Democrats: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

What impressed me about McGhee was how clearly she laid out the historical narrative, as well as how convincingly she argued her central premise: that systemic racism hurts everyone, white people included. I don’t remember which podcast it was on which I originally heard her, but that’s become something of a moot point as since then she’s been on all the podcasts—especially lately since her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together came out. Since that first podcast I heard, she resigned as Demos’ president and traveled the U.S., speaking to hundreds of experts, activists, historians, and ordinary people. The Sum of Us is the result, and it makes her original argument in an exhaustively detailed and forceful manner. It is an eminently readable book: personal without being subjective, wonky without losing itself in the weeds, and both rigorously historical while still relating straightforward stories that persuasively bring home the societal costs of systemic racism. The one example she shares in her interviews functions as the book’s central metaphor: starting in the 1920s, the U.S. invested heavily in public projects and infrastructure, one thing being the construction of public pools. During the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) continued this trend, using such community investment to generate jobs. By the 1950s, towns and cities across the country boasted ever-larger and more lavish public pools, which became a point of pride for communities—pools large enough, in some cases, to admit thousands of swimmers.

But such pools were, of course, whites-only. With the advent of desegregation in the mid-late 50s, courts decreed that these public pools were legally obliged to admit Blacks. Town and city councils responded swiftly, voting to drain the pools and fill them in with dirt and seed them over with grass (in Georgia, the Parks and Recreation Department was simply eliminated, and was not resurrected for ten years). Affluent whites did not suffer: there was a concomitant boom in the construction of backyard pools and the establishment of private swimming clubs, which could effect de facto segregation by leaving membership decisions to the discretion of a governing board. But non-wealthy whites were suddenly left without a key option for summer recreation, all because their communities could not countenance sharing a publicly-funded pool with their Black citizens. In what is one of the pernicious elements of systemic racism, McGhee observes, many of the non-wealthy whites who could no longer bring their children to swim in one of these magnificent pools for free probably thought that this was a fair deal—better to go without than be obliged to share with people you’d been brought up to consider beneath you.

I am at present about halfway through The Sum of Us; look for a longer blog post when I’ve finished it. Meanwhile, I would suggest that this book should be required reading for our present moment.

What I’m Watching     I wrote in my last post about how much I’m enjoying rewatching Battlestar Galactica, but as Stephanie and I took a hiatus from that show to binge The Mandalorian, so again we’re taking a hiatus to watch The Stand­—the recent mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth 1978 novel in which 99.9% of the world is wiped out by a weaponized superflu nicknamed “Captain Trips,” and the remaining people of the U.S. gather in two opposing communities. On one side are the forces of good, who have been drawn to Boulder, Colorado by dreams of a 108 year old Black woman named Mother Abigail. On the other are those drawn by promises of power, licentiousness, and revenge by the evil Randall Flagg, a denim-clad and cowboy-boot shod demon in human form, who establishes his new society in (of course) Las Vegas.

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, last term I taught a fourth year class on pandemic fiction; I did not include The Stand, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the few actual pandemic novels written prior to the 21st century, mainly because it is way too long (almost 1500 pages) to shoehorn into a semester-long course. Given its significance to the topic, however, I did record a short lecture in which I ran down the key themes and plot points (which you can watch here if you’re so inclined). But one of the things I found interesting in retrospect—I first read The Stand in high school, and then read it again when King published the unexpurgated version in 1990—after doing all the preparatory reading for my course, was how King transformed a story about a biological catastrophe into a Manichaean light v. dark, G v. E, cosmic battle royale with Mother Abigail as God’s surrogate and Randall Flagg as Satan’s proxy. While the novel meditated at length on the nature of civilization and how one pragmatically goes about rebuilding after the apocalypse—with 1500 pages, how could it not?—it is obvious that it’s the metaphysical war that most interested King.

We’re slightly more than halfway through the new adaptation, and quite enjoying it. It was quite badly reviewed; and while I can agree with some of the complaints, it has been on the whole well-adapted to the screen, and (mostly) well-cast. Alexander Skarsgard is at his menacing best as Randall Flagg, James Marsden is all wry southern charm as Texan Stu Redman, Greg Kinnear plays the professorial Glen Bateman with the right balance of pomposity and insight; Whoopi Goldberg basically plays Mother Abigail as a devoutly Christian Guinan with a head of white dreadlocks; my favourite however is Brad William Henke, who plays the mentally disabled Tom Cullen with a guileless, earnest simplicity that avoids stereotypes (those who watch Justified will recognize Henke from season two as Coover Bennett, a similarly mentally delayed character whose disability manifests instead in sociopathic violence).

There is much that is left out, and much that could have been done better, but on the whole it is a pretty satisfying adaptation of an intriguing but flawed novel (“intriguing but flawed” is how I’d characterize most of King’s oeuvre, but I suppose that is to be expected when you churn out an average of two brick-sized novels a year). If you like The Stand, or are just amenable to Stephen King more generally, I’d recommend this series.

What I’m Writing     I recently dusted off an article-in-progress that had been mouldering for a year or two, on zombie apocalypse and celebrity; in a fit of energy I finished it and submitted it to a journal. I now have another that I’m looking to finish, on Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and nostalgia. Given that I’ll be doing that novel in both of my classes over the next two weeks, it seems an ideal time to return to it. Given that it is also about apocalypse, though of the non-zombie variety—and indeed about a civilization-ending pandemic—I’ve been trying to rewrite my introduction to put it in the context of the past year. It’s been slow going, not least because finding the right balance between the personal and the objective can be tricky when your aim is to submit it to a scholarly journal. But the overarching argument—that Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world in which the main characters are actors and musicians travelling between settlements to perform Shakespeare and classical music comprises a nostalgic desire to return to a pre-postmodern humanism—is, I think, a strong one. I just have to fill out a core section in which I discuss humanism in a more granular way.

(This process will also be useful, as it will give me a lot of lecture material).

On a related subject, I’ve also been working on a new essay on Terry Pratchett and Discworld. I have an article on Pratchett and his campaign for assisted dying coming out soon in a new collection; I’m trying to carry that momentum forward on a handful of Sir Terry essays, but the one I’ve been focusing on is a reading the Discworld novels in the context of the philosophy of American Pragmatism and what I’ve been calling the “magical humanism” exhibited in a lot of contemporary fantasy.

As much as I love Sir Terry’s writing, I find it difficult to write about it in a scholarly manner, for the basic reason that I find it difficult to find a focus and not end up running off madly in all directions. The essay I wrote for the collection, which came in way past deadline, needed to be cut from nine thousand words to six thousand (one of the essay’s blind reviewers said something to the effect of “this is obviously a piece of work gesturing to a much larger theory of Pratchett’s fiction,” which was at once both gratifying and true). Part of the problem is the iterative nature of the Discworld’s world-building: each  of the forty-one novels is a standalone narrative, and with each new installment, Sir Terry modified and refined aspects of that world, but also returned to the same themes and preoccupations in such a way that it is close to impossible to discuss the political and philosophical preoccupations of a given novel without being obliged to reference a dozen others.

This isn’t the most conducive thing for my intellectual temperament, which at the best of times is digressive and inclined to run down whatever rabbit holes I find, until I realize that, several paragraphs of writing on, I’ve found myself discussing an entirely different topic. (Presumably, devoted readers of this blog will have noticed this). That being said, however, it is a pleasure to lose myself in this topic … not least because I increasingly see Sir Terry’s humanism as a necessary antidote to our present toxic political moment.

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What’s Making Me Happy

Scrolling back through my posts since 2021 began, I’m struck by the general bleakness of a lot of what I’ve been writing about … which not unsurprising, given that much of it has had to do with American politics, and I’ve been writing as we approach the one-year anniversary of the COVID pandemic, with the prospect of it persisting as late as the autumn.

I’m not one for such practices as daily affirmations, but sometimes it’s helpful to remind oneself about what is making you happy. One of my favourite podcasts is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour; once a week they have a segment titled “what’s making us happy this week,” in which the hosts share, well, what’s making them happy that week—what books or film or TV or other things that give them delight.

Well, I’m stealing the idea. I’ve already done so on occasion when I teach—I will ask my students every so often what’s making them happy—though I’m usually treated to silence punctuated now and then with an enthusiastic endorsement of something. But I’m now bringing it to my blog. Don’t expect it to be weekly, though.

So what’s making me happy right now?

Stephanie on the Guitar and Sir Terry Pratchett     Since posting my QAnon piece this morning, I’ve been working away on an article that I’ve had stewing on my brain’s back burner for a long time: I’m titling it “The Pragmatic Pratchett,” and it argues that the political and moral philosophy that Sir Terry developed over his forty-one Discworld novels (and his other fiction and non-fiction) is a form of “magical humanism” that squares up quite nicely with the American school of Pragmatism á là John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and Judith Shklar. We’re currently on midterm break here, so I’m trying to pound out one thousand words and day and have something approaching a rough draft by the time classes resume in a week. I hit 1400 words today, and will continue work on it after dinner.

Meanwhile, as I write in my office, Stephanie is in the next room doing something musical. One of her hobbies is to record songs and post videos of herself playing to YouTube. Lately, she’s been getting into the project of making backing tracks for people to play guitar over. But today she’s broken out the guitar again, and so as I write about Sir Terry, I can hear her playing. It’s quite lovely—it’s almost like being serenaded.

I love watching her get absorbed in whatever project she’s working on. It is a form of self-care, a mental respite from her job as a full-time nurse. She is a perfectionist when it comes to her musical projects, and will spend hours plugged into her laptop and various musical doodads (I am, it should go without saying, musically illiterate). I like to joke that she’s obsessive and I’m compulsive, and that together we make up a complete neurosis.

The Mandalorian     I finally caved and subscribed to Disney Plus. Stephanie and I binged the two extant seasons of The Mandalorian over the course of a week, watching the season two finale last Wednesday. Since then I have been rewatching some of my favourite scenes on my laptop, as well as watching the various fan reaction videos.

Jon Favreau just gets it—he gets the texture of the Star Wars universe, he gets the aspects of it that make for good stories (and eschews those that don’t), and somehow he made a legion of viewers fall in love with a goddamn muppet.

I loved the Ewoks when I first watched Return of the Jedi—but then again, when I first watched Jedi, I was eleven years old. The cloying cute little teddy bears of Endor have not aged well, so when I first heard the name “Baby Yoda” and saw the images, I was skeptical—another merchandising opportunity, I thought, at the expense of good storytelling. Well, I don’t mind admitting how wrong I was—Baby Yoda, aka Grogu, was impossibly cute, but somehow not cloyingly so. And the relationship between “the kid” and Din Djarin was quite beautifully done—a testament to Pedro Pascal’s acting chops, considering that we see his face all of three times over sixteen episodes.

(Fun fact: if you binge The Mandalorian not long after binging Schitt’s Creek, as Stephanie and I did, it is nearly impossible not to shout—in one’s best Moira Rose voice—“the Bébé!” every time Baby Yoda shows his face).

And the casting. Jeebus, the casting. I got the sense as I watched that Jon Favreau would just call up friends and say “Hey, I’m doing this Star Wars thing, you want in?” Such a great ensemble of actors. There is something exquisite about hearing Werner Herzog say, “I hear you are ze best in ze parzec.” There is something equally exquisite in seeing Giancarlo Esposito bring all of his equable Gus Fring menace to the role of Moff Gideon. Ming-Na Wen as a deadly assassin? Yes please. Timothy Olyphant playing a variation on Seth Bullock and Raylen Givens as the marshal of a mining town on Tatooine? Gods, yes. Bill Burr as an irascible mercenary thief? Natalia Tena, aka Nymphadora Tonks, as a hissing, blade throwing alien? Richard Ayoade as the voice of a priggish but deadly droid? Taika Waititi, who also directed a few episodes, as a droid programmed to care for Baby Yoda? Jason Sudeikas and Adam Palley bantering as a pair of inept stormtroopers? Also: considering that we interrupted our viewing of Battlestar Galactica (Stephanie had never seen it, so I felt it my moral obligation to introduce her to it) to watch The Mandalorian, Katee Sackhoff’s appearance as fellow Mandalorian Bo Katan felt particularly apropos.

But one of my favourite cameos also relates to the way Jon Favreau is building out the post-Return of the Jedi universe, in which the New Republic must now actually govern. It’s a new normal in which the X-wing pilots are no longer the heroic flyboys and -girls of the movies, but are essentially cops on a beat, who give Mando grief for his ship’s broken transponder in the same way an exasperated traffic cop might give you a pass on a broken taillight. In a later episode of season two, a dumpy, balding X-wing pilot suggests to Cara Dune that she should take on the role of Marshal in her town, now that the former Empire was more or less expunged. “Wait,” I said as we watched, “isn’t that the father from Kim’s Convenience?” And indeed it was—Korean-Canadian actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (who according to his iMDB page, “Is a member of the Star Wars costuming group The 501st Legion”).

It was the clipboard in the pilot’s hand that made it art.

Pie-Making     … or, as I like to pronounce it, “PAH!” Given that I’m not a desserts person, the vast majority of my pies are savoury. I’ve made it something of a custom, when I make a roast chicken, to make stock from the carcass the next day and use the meat coming off to the bone to make stew, which then goes to making chicken pot pie. I have also done the same with leftover roast beef.

I recently decided I wanted to learn to make traditional British pork pies—specifically, the classic Melton Mowbray pie, which is basically just a whole lot of finely (or coarsely) chopped cuts of pork, cooked in a narrow but tall pie crust. I ordered a dedicated pie tin online, along with a book of savoury pie recipes. My first attempt was tasty, but I did not make it with the traditional aspic that is part of the recipe—a glaring omission, as a handful of people on Facebook observed. To be fair, I’d looked at a bunch of recipes, some of which called for the use of powdered gelatin, while the more involved recipes would have had me boiling pork bones. Given that my access to pork bones in St. John’s is limited, I’d bought the gelatin … and then decided to do a trial run without, just to see about getting the taste right.

I want to try again and do it properly—there’s a small butcher shop just around the corner, and I was planning on popping in there to ask about the whole pork bones thing. But then we had a outbreak of new COVID cases in Newfoundland that put us back into level five lockdown … so there’s no popping into the local butcher’s for a while, anyway.

Meanwhile, I ordered more pie tins—4” across like the original one, but half the height. Which makes for an ideal single-serving pie. Last night I made prime rib for dinner. As I write, four beef and mushroom pies are in the oven. When the lockdown lifts, I’ll return to my project of perfecting the Melton Mowbray pie; until then, I’ll work with the classics.

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A Few Things

What I’m Reading  Aside from my reading for the term and for research, I’m about three-quarters of the way through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. It is a very long book (700+ pages) that doesn’t even get to the end of his first term; it is reflective, often pausing in its narration of events so Obama can ponder the vagaries of decisions he made or didn’t make, and ruminate on the broader significance of this or that detail in the broader context of American history; he also frequently digresses into little potted lectures on history and political philosophy to better frame the stories he’s telling.

Or to put it another way: I’m loving it. There are many reasons why I have such vast respect for this man, and why I think history will ultimately rank him as one of the best presidents; his humanity, intelligence, and passion are among those reasons, and they come through on every page, along with a professorial and nerdy wonkishness that I aspire to. After four years of Trump, this book is a salve to my soul.

What I’m Watching  Really, my life these days in measured out in week-long increments of impatience between each new episode of The Expanse. I latched onto the novels by James S.A. Corey (the pseudonym of Daniel Abrahamson and Ty Franck) soon after the first one (Leviathan Wakes) was published, and have read them obsessively since (we’re now eight novels along, and I’m waiting for the ninth and final installment rather impatiently). So when I saw they were adapting the novels to TV, I experienced the usual excitement and trepidation one often does when beloved books are being adapted to the screen. Will it be good (Good Omens, Game of Thrones) or bitterly disappointing (American Gods) or just … meh (The Magicians)?

The Expanse not only did not disappoint, it has gotten steadily better every season as the writers have found their groove and the special effects budgets have grown. This season—the fifth—is the best so far. It benefits in part from the narrative build of the previous seasons, in which otherwise seemingly insignificant plot points and elements of world-building have culminated in some pretty virtuosic storytelling, matched by amazing acting and visuals that now rank The Expanse among the best SF/F that has been brought to TV.

I don’t want to get into detail, because spoilers, but I will almost certainly write a much longer and spoiler-filled post once this season is done.

The Pleasures of Zoom-Teaching  To be certain, I miss being in the classroom with the intensity of a nova—teaching and interacting with my students is easily my favourite part of my job, and the classroom has always been a quasi-sacred space to me. Talking to the Brady Bunch arrangement of squares on my laptop screen is nowhere near the same thing … but there are aspects of it I like. Not the least of which is I can conduct classes wearing pyjamas. Also, they don’t know what’s in my mug, heh …

There is also Zoom’s chat function. As class discussion progresses, sometimes students will carry on a parallel conversation in text. It’s as if they’re passing notes in class, but I get to read them.

But by far my favourite aspect is the presence of pets. My cat Gloucester is a frequent visitor, jumping up onto my lap and staring at the faces on my screen with his golden eyes. And there is a petting zoo worth of dogs and cats—and in the case of today’s class, a bunny!—perched on my students’ laps or occasionally pushing their snouts close in to the webcams.

Oh, Yeah—Classes Started Today  Memorial delayed the start of term for a few days to give students a slightly longer break (something I was grateful for, too), so today was day one of the winter term. My first class was my graduate seminar “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” and if today was any indication, this is going to be a good term. There was a wonderful energy to the class, and everyone was enthused and engaged.

Tomorrow I start with my fourth-year seminar “Utopias and Dystopias,” a class that was designed by a former colleague of mine, now retired. It was always a student favourite when he taught it, and I’ve been requesting it since he retired several years ago. My teaching dance card was always too full to slot it in previously, so I’m delighted to finally get to teach it.

Last semester I taught a course on pandemic fiction; this term, it’s utopias and dystopias and post-apocalyptic narratives of the 21st century. Sense a theme? It feels a little bit, after 2020, like I’m steering into the skid.

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