Category Archives: what I’m watching

Breaking Rand: Walter White as (Failed) Objectivist

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
John Rogers

Warning: spoilers for all five seasons of Breaking Bad, and mild spoilers for The Sopranos and The Wire.

The other day I saw the following meme posted in Facebook:

breaking bad canada

What I love about this isn’t just the smug Canadian schadenfreude (though I do love that, make no mistake), but the way in which this meme symbolically encapsulates the quasi-canard about the difference between Canadians and Americans. (I say “quasi” because it’s not all fiction, but I’ll get to that below). As anyone who watches Breaking Bad knows, the crisis point that comes in the very first episode is that Walter White—ostensibly mild and meek teacher of high school chemistry—receives a dire prognosis of lung cancer and, knowing that his insurance will not cover his treatments, chooses to put his expertise as a chemist to use cooking methamphetamine. Five seasons later as the show enters its endgame, Walt has long ago discarded his initial intention to make just enough cash to leave his family comfortable when he dies, and has instead risen the pinnacle of the drug world as “Heisenberg.”

What the meme highlights is that, in a context with nationally-funded health care, Breaking Bad loses its most crucial plot point, the catalyst that sends Walt on his lucrative and self-destructive path. In the early days when we were all still naïve about Walt’s character and imagined him as a nice guy forced into dire straits by American health care policy (or the lack thereof), Breaking Bad was often characterized as a trenchant critique of same. Such a reading wasn’t hurt by the fact that season two aired from March-May 2009, when the initial debates about Obamacare were in the works, and season three was just getting under way when it was passed in March 2010. And it should be said that such a reading of the show isn’t wrong by any means—just that, as we head into the final stretch, the series has proved rather more nuanced and complex.

The corollary argument to the Breaking Bad Canada meme is that, whatever his ultimate faults and crimes, Walter White would never have rediscovered ambition, excellence, and accomplishment in the Canadian system—he would have received his treatment, gone on being meek and ineffectual, a shell of a man who had traded off his original chance for wealth and power in exchange (as he tells Jesse) for a few months’ rent. He would never have learned—or relearned—personal power. He would never have risen to the top of his chosen profession, and likely would have simply been consumed by his cancer and died without ever having achieved greatness.

I call this the Ayn Rand argument.

Increasingly as I have watched the series I have come to see Walt as an ambivalent critique of Randian, and by extension, libertarian philosophy. Ambivalent for several reasons: one, however appalling Walt’s actions and behaviours have been, there remains that kernel of sympathy for him (and for many, much more than a kernel—the fact that there are legions of fans who hate Skyler because they see her as a shrew and a killjoy is at once awful and unsurprising); two, because the facts of Walt’s original dire circumstances and his health-care straitjacket are unavoidable; three, because Breaking Bad is not simplistic or straightforward in its various critiques. Like The Wire, it is a show that (to use David Simon’s phrasing) “builds toward argument.” Unlike The Wire, it is far less rooted in systemic issues and far more in character; and four, in the end Walt is himself a deeply ambivalent figure who ultimately fails (he says, hoping this argument isn’t obviated by the final episodes) as a Randian protagonist. In the end, he cannot divest himself of those personal attachments—in his case, family—that Rand repeatedly argued were impediments to greatness. The only true morality, she argued, was selfishness—and that such qualities as charity, love, generosity, spirituality, and so forth, were emphatically immoral.

My overarching argument here, then, is that Breaking Bad is among other things a wonderfully complex and shrewd critique of a broader philosophy and mindset that has enthralled a significant American constituency since … well, I want to say Reagan, but in truth it has always been around. Ayn Rand is merely a good lightning-rod for this discussion, as her novels and other writings tend to distill the go-it-alone spirit to its most absurd extremes.

My discussion proceeds in two sections: first, considering Walter White in the context of the other anti-heroes of prestige television (especially Tony Soprano); and second, looking at the Randian elements and political implications of the series.

Bear with me, I’ve been working on this one for a while.


A Different Species of Anti-Hero

I wrote a blog post last summer about Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom in the context of the other key shows in what I suppose we now call “prestige television.” To sum up: I basically observed that most of these shows, such as The Sopranos, Oz, Deadwood, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy, and so forth, reversed a long tradition in television drama insofar as they were not aspirational. That is to say, they focused on working-class, uneducated but extremely intelligent characters whose lifestyles and livings were largely based in illegality. This is in marked contrast to the legions of hospital and medical procedurals, legal dramas, and other situations and contexts that valorized education and professions that required education. From the start, television has tended to eschew working-class characters and contexts, with the handful of shows like The Honeymooners, All in the Family or King of Queens functioning as the exceptions that proved the rule. Even police procedurals tended to follow suit: for every gritty street-smart drama like NYPD Blue or Hill Street Blues, there are many shows like C.S.I., as well as any number of cop shows featuring unusually expensively-dressed and expensively-wheeled detectives (Miami Vice, anyone?).

So this shift is notable, especially considering that these new prestige shows have as a significant portion of their audiences the intelligentsia: those highly-educated and affluent people who might well have been the focus of traditional television dramas have delighted to the shrewd but unlettered machinations of Tony Soprano. Precisely why there has been this shift is uncertain, but aspirational shows like The Newsroom or Mad Men are the exceptions (though it does beg the question about just how aspirational a figure Don Draper is).

At any rate, I don’t want to rehash my original discussion. I just raise it because it occurred to me recently that Breaking Bad, while superficially possessing many of the elements and qualities of other prestige shows about illegal endeavours, is actually doing something very different—something subtly and yet crucially different, which, I want to argue, is the root of its brilliance.

Vince Gilligan famously pitched Breaking Bad as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” That description, which seems to get quoted any time anyone writes about Breaking Bad (guilty), is wonderfully compelling and woefully inadequate, as all good synopses of complex narratives are. It was a description that held up well for the first stretch of the series but has increasingly become less than satisfactory. We have come to realize that Walter White is not a good man forced by circumstances into a series of soul-destroying choices and actions, but rather a prideful, cruel, and arrogant man who has found circumstances in which these elements of his nature can emerge and indeed flourish. He always was Scarface; his “Mr. Chips” persona was something he only reluctantly adopted.

This reversal is at the heart of Breaking Bad’s particular genius, and it is part of what sets Walter White apart from the other anti-heroes of prestige television. Had Walter come to the meth trade as a good man, honestly and genuinely exploiting his talents as a chemist (or, well, as honestly as one can in the production of illegal narcotics), we might have expected to see him become somewhat more like Tony Soprano. But he is utterly unlike Tony: he is austere where Tony is sensual and hedonistic, focused and rigid where Tony is opportunistic and improvisational, uncompromising where Tony is pragmatic. As I suggested in my previously-mentioned blog post, much of the television shows in the vein of The Sopranos are very much about the negotiation of power—they are, as Tony might say, about business, and in business, it’s all in the game (to quote another show).

Power is obviously a crucial trope in Breaking Bad, but in a significantly different manner. When, halfway through season five, Jesse Pinkman tries to convince Walt to agree to sell their hijacked methylamine, he quotes back the numbers Walt had crunched in the first season—the amount he needed to earn to provide for his family when he died of the cancer ravaging his system. At the beginning, it was three quarters of a million dollars … but as the series went on, the actual dollar value of Walt’s meth cooking became less and less significant to him. What became more important was being the best—which was why his lab assistant Gale was a threat.

(Can we have a parenthetical celebration of the actor who played Gale, David Constabile? I have seen this guy now in countless shows, and he is never anything but amazing in a quiet and competent way. Wire-heads will know him as the unctuous managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, Thomas Klebanow. Klebanow tracks well enough with the nebbish Gale, but Constabile proved he could play menacing and dangerous in the first two seasons of Damages, in which he played a corrupt cop moonlighting as a fixer and hitman).

Gale was a threat because he was a chemist almost as good as Walt, and in practical terms that meant he could potentially figure out how to replicate Walt’s formula and make Walt redundant. But as Kira Bolonik points out in an excellent article about Breaking Bad’s use of poetry generally (and Walt Whitman specifically), where Gale quotes Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to disparage the pedantry of the lecture hall and celebrate the creativity and “magic” of the laboratory, “Walt loves being a teacher—his ego is ravenous for the applause—so he winds up swapping out Gale for the less competent Jesse, his old student and partner.” Indeed, Bolonik’s observation raises a crucial point about Walt, whose fraught relationship with Jesse Pinkman comprises one of the show’s key thematic arcs. They begin as the irascible teacher and slacker student; Walt is constantly resentful of his reliance on Jesse, and the resentment makes itself known in a steady stream of condescension, high-handedness, and outright bullying. But as the show progresses, Jesse goes from being a hapless meth head and clown to becoming the show’s moral compass. For Walt, Jesse’s presence becomes ever more important as he develops a fatherly affection—but as Bolonik points out, Jesse is more critical to Walt as audience to his brilliance. The early resentment at his reliance on Jesse becomes a different kind of resentment—a resentment born of jealousy—when Mike takes Jesse under his wing and attempts to wean him away from what he sees (rightly) as Walt’s pernicious influence.

To return to my early comparison between Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, the laconic and surly Mike Ehrmantraut could well be read as the representative figure from Tony’s world—and indeed, he would fit in well among Tony’s crew (or in the Baltimore police department). So, for that matter, would Gus Fring: both of them are businessmen in the mold of Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen, or Stringer Bell, and both of them have an instinctive distrust of Walter White … a fact that baffles Walt to no end, and deepens his resentment when Jesse starts to admire Mike. Walt’s attempts to connect with Mike are pathetic and would be comic if they weren’t played with such deliberate humourlessness. Mike’s rant at Walt early in season five, castigating him for screwing up the good thing they had going with Gus, epitomizes this conflict: as Mike points out, Walt couldn’t be satisfied with keeping his head down and working, and in the process earning far more than the initial sum he had entered the meth business to make. Somewhere along the line it became about pride, probably exacerbated by the fact that he received no thanks or praise from his new employers for his genius—just the goad of being given a lab “assistant” whose job was to make him obsolete.

It is this prideful need for praise and greatness that make both Gus and Mike leery of Walt, for they know too well it makes him erratic and unpredictable. Over its six seasons, The Sopranos was littered with the corpses of those who let personal pride and ambition interfere with Tony’s earnings—and indeed, most of Tony’s biggest crises arose when he let his own pride and petty hatreds interfere with his business. But perhaps the best analog that comes to mind is this wonderful three minutes from The Wire:

In his own, much more understated way, Avon Barksdale has a bit of Walt to him—as does his successor Marlo Stanfield—insofar as he becomes less concerned about making money than he does with having his “name ring out.” And later in the series when Marlo is warned that “prisons and graveyards, full of boys who wore the crown,” he retorts, “But they wore it.” Wearing the crown, and being seen wearing it, is the driving force for Marlo and Avon … as it becomes for Walt. Marlo’s later angry declaration that “My name is my name” finds an echo in the now notorious scene from season five of Breaking Bad:

As Shakespeare himself was fond of pointing out however, crowns are ephemeral—hence the preoccupation with the name, which is supposed to become the legacy.  One of the trailers for the final stretch of Breaking Bad, however, offers a poetic dismissal of this sentiment: it features a montage of familiar New Mexico landscapes while Walter White recites Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.”

The poem, a classic commentary on the hubris of power and empire, is eminently appropriate to Breaking Bad, especially after Walt’s speech to Jesse in the penultimate episode of season five’s first half:

The second half of season five has thus far changed this particular game: the apogee of Walt’s empire-building comes with the “say my name” scene (and the subsequent montage of him earning obscene amounts of money, with his meth spreading out far beyond New Mexico). But he has apparently relinquished his desire for empire, and given it up; the drama of the home stretch looks like it will be about the battle of wills between Walt and Hank.

That being said, that battle of wills is a direct result of Walt’s previous ambitions. Indeed, the shift in tone in the second half of season five is perhaps the most contrived plot turn Breaking Bad has offered—Walt’s sudden change of heart, his willingness to give up his empire and return to his family, all of these elements are believable but sudden after his bravura display of arrogance.

The Failed Randian Hero

Of a piece with this last clip is the bit where Walt rebukes Jesse for willingly walking away from his chance for greatness: “Jesse, this—what we do? Being the best at something? It’s a very rare thing. You don’t just toss something like that away. You want to squander that potential? Your potential? Why? To do what?” On one hand his anger at Jesse is yet another lie he tells himself, believing that he is helping Jesse realize his potential, rather than needing him around as audience to his brilliance and justification for his choices. On another hand, this self-image as being “the best” has long since displaced his need and desire for money. Walt’s obsession with product purity becomes a powerful metaphor for ideological purity. His disparagement of Jesse for giving up the opportunity to be the absolute best at something (or, more accurately, be in the best’s august presence), for instead wallowing in the morass of his conscience, resonates with Ayn Rand’s two most famous heroes, John Galt and Howard Roark—though more, perhaps with the latter, for The Fountainhead is less concerned with economic power (as Atlas Shrugged is) than with the purity and excellence of one’s craft. For Roark it is architecture; for Walt, chemistry. But in both novels, as in Breaking Bad, the protagonists seek to practice their art without the interference of lesser, weaker minds whose resentment in the face of greatness leads them to want to tear it down and domesticate it. Rand’s novels are fables of individual brilliance besieged by collective mediocrity, and both possess a certain petulant nihilism: Howard Roark blows up his masterpiece rather than allow it to be compromised, and Atlas Shrugs is basically the story of the uber-wealthy leaving the world to rack and ruin in retaliation for “socialist” policies.

In a host of ways, Walter White is nine-tenths of the perfect Ayn Rand protagonist. His initial story arc, or what we are able to glean, starts out with the ruin of a man: a high school teacher whose students contemptuously ignore him, and whose teaching salary is so paltry he is reduced to working a second job at a local car wash. To make matters worse, his brother-in-law Hank is initially presented as a bellicose, ultra-masculine man with an ultra-masculine job in the DEA. Despite the fact that Hank also works a public sector job, his salary is apparently enough to afford him and his wife a far larger and more attractive house than the one Walt shares with his wife and son. Hank clearly pities Walt, and just as clearly sees him (and treats him) as something less than a man.

Walt, it seems clear, is someone who has long been victimized because he plays by society’s written and unwritten rules and has allowed himself to be trod upon. Early on, we learn that he had been in on the ground floor of a new company while still in college, one that has since become worth billions, and which he sold his stake in because he was newly married and had a baby on the way (though the reasons why he sold become murkier as the series goes on)—again, ostensibly doing the responsible thing and playing by the rules.

It is his emergence from this cowed and put-upon bubble that forms the show’s Randian subtext. His transformation from meek Walter to drug kingpin Heisenberg sees him embracing the attitudes and behaviour that Rand’s “objectivism” celebrate: he is arrogant and uncompromising, driven by a singular pursuit of excellence and perfection, and perfectly willing to flout laws both governmental and social. When he first meets Gale and asks him how he got into the meth business, Gale replies that he is by temperament a libertarian, and he doesn’t think the government has any right to tell people what they can and cannot put in their bodies. “Consenting adults want what they want,” he says. “At least with me they’re getting exactly what they pay for.”

But Gale’s political sensibility is more anti-establishment than it is Randian (more Rand Paul than Ayn Rand, if you like), far more interested in personal exploration than personal accomplishment, something made evident in his vaguely artistic journal and his personality more generally. To again quote Bolonik, he is “a sensual, sentient, self-admitted nerd, a vegan with a passion for Italian music and horticulture, and who prides himself on his elaborate vacuum reflux/distillation system that brews the perfect cup of coffee.” Gale is self-effacing to a fault, and has no apparent desire to do more than futz about in a lab and play with chemical equations, which, so long as he makes his quotas, makes him a far more amenable master chef for Gus Fring than Walt’s demanding arrogance.

(Fring himself is a fascinating paradox of a character, the massively powerful kingpin who manages to be veritably invisible. He is the consummate businessman, and would probably make Stringer Bell rabidly jealous of the scope and reach of his empire. As already mentioned, someone like Walt is anathema to the way he does business. It is against his better judgment that he makes Walt his head meth cook, and he pays for it with suddenly increased visibility, as Walt’s blue meth makes the appearance and circulation of the product much easier for law enforcement to track. Also, Walt ends up killing him … so, y’know, doubly a poor choice).

Walt remains however a flawed Randian character because he clings to those initial reasons for getting into the meth business to begin with—namely, his wife and son. The Randian purist argues that family, friendships, romantic relationships, and love itself more broadly are impediments to success. Whereas Walt’s refusal to let Skyler and Walt Jr. (sorry, Flynn) go has provided one of the show’s most troubling conflicts. As stated above, there is a not-insignificant portion of Breaking Bad’s viewership that delights in Walt’s escalating badassery and has come to hate Skyler for spoiling the fun. This constituency of viewers has founded a handful of websites and Facebook pages, as well as numerous discussion threads in fan forums. They have been vocal enough and virulent enough that the hatred has spilled over from vilifying Skyler to attacking Anna Gunn, the actress portraying her. It has gotten bad enough that Gunn recently authored a bewildered op-ed in The New York Times asking “Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?” Vince Gilligan himself dismissed the Skyler-haters with contempt: “People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?”

How indeed? This is still just an embryonic thought for me, but it strikes me that this fan reaction gets to the heart of Breaking Bad’s broader critique. Are the haters really angry with Skyler, or are they more frustrated with Walt for not cutting her loose? She certainly gives him ample opportunities to do so from the moment she discovers his criminal activities. Also, it is possible the irritation comes from the fact that Walt effectively flouts the expectation of genre. I would suggest this is especially the case if we consider Scarface: Tony Montana ends up alone but magnificently unrepentant in his mansion as his enemies close in on him. At this point it remains to be seen how Breaking Bad will end, though a similar catastrophic climax is presumably not out of the question. Certainly, I would have to assume that such a finale would please the fans of Badass Heisenberg.

Skyler is to my mind however the show’s most pivotal character. Even more than Jesse Pinkman, she represents something like a badly magnetized moral compass. Jesse is there to say “But … but …” at whatever the most egregious transgression has been, and to wear his guilty conscience on his sleeve while Walt buries his own (if he has one: I think there’s a decent case to be made for Walt’s sociopathic tendencies). Skyler, conversely, presents a much more complex, much more fraught study. She is both victim and accomplice, hostage and negotiator, and by the most recent episodes has had little choice but to embrace her complicity. But of course she does so at huge personal cost. Walt essentially put her in a no-win situation, in which her only options were turning him in, which at the start would have left her destitute and would have devastated her son; after a certain amount of time, she was culpable. She could have fled, but would have had to leave her son behind. What she ended up doing was at once the best and worst compromise. Unlike Walt, she and Jesse suffer genuine emotional trauma from the whole sordid mess; unlike Jesse, Skyler was one of Walt’s principal reasons for doing everything he did to start with. Jesse always had the option of telling Walt to fuck off; that option was never available to Skyler, or at least not to the same extent as it was for Jesse. As a result, Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg was unavoidably, irredeemably toxic. The cancer with which he was diagnosed in episode one became an elaborate metaphor for the disease that metastasized in the family unit he set out to save.

I’ve cited Shelley and Whitman—how about Wilde?

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

To reiterate my point, Walt’s flaw from a Randian perspective is his refusal to divest himself of emotional ties, and instead of Scarface’s meteoric rise and spectacular fall, he agrees in the end to abandon meth and return to his family. The second half of season five (so far) has seen the apogee of Heisenberg and a tentative reconciliation with Skyler—though the latter is a fragile thing, and has entailed Skyler’s final, irrevocable complicity with Walt. I think it is safe to say that Breaking Bad will not end well for anyone involved, and therein lies the rub. The easy divestment of familial and social ties in the name of personal accomplishment is a myth, and in the end I suspect Walt will indeed have killed the things he loves.

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Summer Miscellany

As always, it feels as though the Labour Day weekend has ambushed me. Somehow the summer has slipped past and I find myself staring at the date in the lower right corner of my laptop screen incredulously.

The end of summer is always a bittersweet time—bitter because, as the Starks say, winter is coming; because I look at my list of things I meant to accomplish and get depressed at just how few things are checked off—but sweet because Labour Day is, for me, New Year’s Eve. I remember walking up the hill at University College at UWO on the first day of classes in the first year of my PhD, reflecting in amazement that that day marked my twenty-second straight first day of school.

That was sixteen years ago … and the unbroken streak continues.

I’ve always loved the first weeks of the school year, even when, from grades nine to twelve, I hated school. I was always optimistic though: something about the crispness of autumnal air, the blank potential of new notebooks and pens, and seeing people whom you had (mostly) not seen since classes ended the previous spring. It wasn’t until my final year of high school that things started to work for me, when I realized (1) what I was good at, and (2) what I loved. Then university started, and I’ve never looked back. And now I still love the first weeks of school.

It occurred to me I should started including periodic round-ups on this blog. All summer long I have been reading, and as per my habit, it’s been all over the map. I’ve also been watching a lot of amazing stuff. Any one of these books or shows could have a post all to itself, but if I did that, I’d never get anything done. So here’s a brief recap of some of my summer reading and watching highlights.

death in summerBenjamin Black, A Death in Summer. Benjamin Black is the nom de plume of novelist John Banville, an identity he takes when he wants to slum it in the world of genre fiction. A Death in Summer is his fourth mystery novel (of six) starring Quirke—a middle-aged consulting pathologist who works at the Dublin morgue. As the novels progress, Quirke keeps getting embroiled in mysteries and comes to have a wary friendship with a detective named Hackett. By this fourth novel, they have become quite the double act. Quirke is a large, shambling man who was an orphan for a time at a corrupt orphanage, until he was adopted into a well-to-do Dublin family. In the present of the novels—1950s Dublin—he is a vaguely depressive widower with a laundry-list of self-destructive tendencies centered on alcohol and women (and a tendency to get caught up in murder mysteries, which isn’t always healthy for him). The novels are at once great fun and deeply depressing. They are a wonderful antidote to the tendency to romanticize Ireland as a quasi-magical land of poets and singers—Quirke’s Dublin is a grimy, parochial city, small in every sense of the word, caught up in petty moralizing and under the thumb of an autocratic Church. And because Benjamin Black is really John Banville, they are beautifully written and resist genre fiction’s formulaic tendencies. Every time I read one, I can’t help but wish the BBC would turn them into a series of TV movies—ideally, starring Liam Neeson as Quirke and Stephen Rea as Hackett.


Orange is the New Black. At some stage I will post at greater length on this beautiful, compelling, and addictive show. I’m currently working on a short essay on Oz for a collection, and I think an exploration of the similarities and differences between these two prison dramas would be useful. Mostly the differences: Orange is a much gentler, more soulful show, more concerned with the individual stories of the many and varied women in the prison, and far less concerned (but by no means unconcerned) with the negotiations of power in a closed environment. As much as I love prestige television, it bothers me that most of the shows I watch comprise something of a boys’ club. Orange represents a significant step toward redressing that imbalance. There’s still a long way to go … but the success of this amazing series is heartening.

the-newsroom-season-2-willThe Newsroom. Speaking of boys’ clubs … Last summer I posted on the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s newest drama, echoing the complaints and criticisms the show very much deserved. It was pedantic, preachy, sententious; the female characters were caricatures; like The West Wing, The Newsroom was liberal wish fulfillment—unlike The West Wing, it was entirely lacking in nuance. This season? Well, it’s still far from perfect, but it’s obvious that Sorkin has heard his critics. It has (mercifully) abandoned its civilizing mission, and instead is actually giving us some tightly written drama. Some of it feels contrived, but it’s a damn sight better than what came before, and Sorkin is giving the women on the show something to do besides being foils for the men.

Jonathan Franzen, Farther Away. Franzen is, in my opinion, a brilliant novelist—but whenever I read his essays, I have to wonder if perhaps that is where his true talent lies. He has wonderfully lucid prose and a very engaging conversational style. Farther Away is a collection of occasional essays, reviews, and articles, many of which have to do with Franzen’s songbird obsession: to call him an avid birdwatcher is to understate the case egregiously, and it’s a testament to his writing that a hobby I find otherwise utterly uninteresting and pointless he makes fascinating. But the true soul of this book lies in his series of essays dealing with his friendship with David Foster Wallace, and coming to grips with his suicide.

David Rakoff, Fraud. I came late to the David Rakoff bandwagon—too late to properly appreciate him when he was still alive. He died a year ago, and I only really became aware of his work when I listened to a The American Life dedicated to his memory. I recognized his voice from previous episodes of This American Life, but had not been aware of him as an accomplished essayist. I read his other two collections Don’t Get Too Comfortable and Half Empty in short order after that, but resisted reading Fraud—which was his first—because I enjoyed the others so much, I wanted to save it. But I finally broke down early this summer. Rakoff’s writing is impossibly, enviably eloquent, his humour wonderfully cynical and caustic, and his observations laser-like in the way they dissect his topics. He is sort of like David Sedaris for adults.

tv-broadchurch-david-tennant-olivia-colman_1Broadchurch. What a wonderful surprise this understated British mini-series has been. The story of the murder of an eleven-year-old boy in a sleepy seaside tourist town, Broadchurch does what the British have been doing brilliantly since Dame Agatha first put pen to paper. The real drama is less about the murder itself than how the delicate skein of lies and secrets cobwebbing everyone’s everyday lives comes undone. As Hercule Poirot says in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, everyone has secrets. Broadchurch follows the classic murder-mystery playbook so subtly and deftly that when something shocking happens, the impact feels greater by a magnitude. David Tennant is wonderful as the savant-like arsehole with secrets of his own, brought in to head up the investigation; but the real triumph is Olivia Colman, who plays his long-suffering partner and subordinate, who had expected the promotion that Tennant swooped in and received in her stead. It is also a delight to see David Bradley’s late-career renaissance. You might remember him from such roles as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, but he also had a wonderfully crusty turn as Walder Frey on Game of Thrones. And he shows up as a conspiracy crank in Simon Pegg’s latest. Speaking of …

the-worlds-end-pub632The World’s End. I haven’t seen many movies this summer, mainly because this summer has been a veritable wasteland for film. Which was why it was lovely to go see the third film of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy. The World’s End is better than Hot Fuzz and not as good as Shaun of the Dead, but it is a highly entertaining film for anyone who (1) has a fondness for British pubs and ale, (2) came of age in the late 80s and/or early 90s, and (3) likes Simon Pegg’s particular brand of genre-based parodic comedy. Well, I scored the trifecta there. Simon Pegg’s character Gary King wheedles and cajoles his college buddies to return to their old town and recreate a failed epic pub crawl—twelve pubs culminating in “The World’s End,” the final stop they never made it to the first go-around. Except that early on they discover that the town has been taken over by robots impersonating the townsfolk in anticipation of an alien invasion. It’s basically The Stepford Wives meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except British and increasingly, howlingly drunk, all to an awesomely retro soundtrack (The Soupdragons, Pulp, Sisters of Mercy, Blur, The Housemartins? Yes, please).

Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_CoverNeil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The praise this slim book—really more a novella than novel—received felt excessive. This was the summer, I think, when people suddenly realized who Neil Gaiman was and were elbowing each other to get to the front of the bandwagon … while those of us who read Sandman in high school and have Good Omens in hardcover put on our thick-rimmed glasses and said “Oh, I read him before he was cool.” I did not come across a single review of this novel(la) that wasn’t slavishly complimentary. That kind of unanimity among critics is rare, and usually goes in the other direction (such as last summer’s unjustly snide and sneering reviews of The Casual Vacancy). That being said, I can’t say I disagree: I loved The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Not as much as I loved American Gods or Good Omens, but I was really impressed. Much of Gaiman’s oeuvre is lost on me, because I don’t care for children’s literature; The Graveyard Book, The Wolves in the Walls and Coraline, among others, all of which have received critical acclaim, are not books I have or will be likely to read. That being said, watching the following blurb makes me curious about his newest children’s book, Fortunately, the Milk … Perhaps it would make a nice Christmas gift for my niece and nephew.

Breaking Bad. It’s the endgame now … the first three episodes of the final stretch have successively ratcheted up the stakes and the tension. I don’t think viewers have been this obsessed about how it all ends since Lost. As I have said, I have a Breaking Bad post I’ve been working on for way too long now, so I’ll reserve further comment for it. breaking-bad-se

So … there’s my roundup. Stay tuned for upcoming posts about Breaking Bad and the law of diminishing returns in American politics, as well as updates from my classes as they happen. Happy New Year, everyone!

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Pacific Rim, or I Want the Sequel to be Set on the Grand Banks


Giant robots know they’re cool.

Spoilers ahead.

I went to see Pacific Rim on opening night, and I’m happy to report that it was pretty much everything I’d hoped for. I enjoyed it thoroughly; what follows isn’t so much a review as a consideration of those elements that could have really benefited from closer attention to detail. Ultimately, the balance of my complaints are all concerned with narrative and story … because visually and viscerally, this film was awesome. And I mean that in the truest sense of the word.

Because really, all you need to know about Pacific Rim is that it’s giant robots fighting sea monsters. Like snakes on a plane or a sharknado, it’s a pretty unbeatable concept. It’s also a concept that, without knowing context, you’d be entirely forgiven for assuming was a Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer joint.

Except that as everyone who hasn’t been living in a cave in Nepal for the past year knows, Pacific Rim was the brainchild of Guillermo de Toro. And while his vitae does include a few less-than-stellar forays (Hellboy II, Blade II), he also gave the world Pan’s Labyrinth—which means he could also give us a shot-for-shot remake of Heaven’s Gate starring Gilbert Gottfried and Lindsay Lohan, and he’d still be forgiven. He is not unlike Ridley Scott in this respect, who gets a lifetime pass for having directed Alien and Blade Runner … but where Scott seems determined to stretch our patience to the breaking point, de Toro’s films are never irredeemable.

But de Toro is akin to Ridley Scott in another way, in that he is first and foremost a visual and not a narrative artist—and like Scott, his best work tends to happen when he marries his visual talents to an excellent script. And as much as I enjoyed Pacific Rim—and I really did enjoy it because, hello, giant robots versus sea monsters!—he was not working from anything resembling a good script for this one. We had an inkling of this from the very first trailer when Idris Elba declares “Tonight, we are cancelling the apocalypse!” Even the magnificent Elba, who has more gravitas in his little finger than a small town’s worth of motivational speakers, can’t make the line work. Cancelling the apocalypse? Really? They couldn’t come up with a better phrasing? (It does make we want to see Idris Elba play Henry V, if for no other reason than to see him deliver a well-written troops-rallying speech.) So the dialogue is mostly forgettable, and there are plot holes you could drive one of those giant robots through. But I will get to those presently.


By now, most people know the premise, whether you’re interested in seeing the film or not: sometime in the near future, humanity comes under attack from giant, Godzilla-like alien sea monsters—which become known as “kaiju,” the Japanese word for “beast”—who enter our world through a dimensional rift in the floor of the Pacific ocean. In order to fight back, the nations of the world pool resources to build “jaegars” (German for hunter), giant robots operated by pilots who merge mentally with the machine. And here we come to a crucial pivot-point, as we learn that these mechanical monsters are simply too much for a single pilot’s neurons to deal with. The solution is to have two pilots, who mentally link with one another in a mind-meld called “the Drift.” In the Drift, they share thoughts and memories, and essentially inhabit each other’s minds. So no secrets from your co-pilot.

The film begins with all this narrated by Raleigh Becket, a hotshot jaegar pilot played by Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy fame. He and his brother Yancy operated an American jaegar called Gypsy Danger … until they were defeated by a kaiju and Yancy was killed. This was the first of a series of defeats the kaiju inflict on the jaegar program as they grow and evolve into bigger and more efficient killers, until the giant robots are in full retreat everywhere and the politicians have decided to abandon the program in favour of building a giant wall.

Yes, a giant wall. Bear with me. This all comes to pass five years after Raleigh loses his brother, and though the jaegar program is still alive, it is only barely so, and the remaining pilots and crews are gearing up for a final assault on the dimensional rift. Idris Elba plays the man in command of it all, with the unlikely name of Stacker Pentacost (yes, the names get a wee bit ridiculous), and he tracks down Raleigh to where the former pilot is a construction worker building the Alaskan section of the wall. After a hilariously abbreviated discussion in which Pentacost convinces Raleigh to overcome his trauma and grief (which really almost comes down to “Hey, come and fight for me again.” “Can’t. Too traumatized.” “Come on.” “Oh, all right.”), Raleigh returns with Pentacost to Hong Kong. There we meet Mako Mori (which I think is Latin for “blue shark of death”), a young Japanese woman who (it turns out) has been Stacker Pentacost’s ward since he saved her from a kaiju attack. She has also been trained as a pilot, and very obviously wants to be teamed up with Raleigh. Which of course, in spite of Pentacost’s reluctance, she is. (“Let me pilot with him!” “No, you’re too inexperienced.” “But everyone else sucks!” “Oh, all right. Go on, then.”)

However, the first time they enter the Drift together, Mako is caught up in her memories and loses control, almost launching her jaegar’s weapons while still docked.

OK, that’s all I’ll say on the plot, aside from the fact that the ultimate mission is to close the rift by dropping a thermonuclear bomb into it, which of course they succeed in doing (after a fashion). Peace and democracy reign again.

Did I mention I really enjoyed this film? I just want to reiterate that because I can feel myself getting snarky. It was visually stunning, and all the fight sequences were brilliantly done. Del Toro brings a kind of brutal intimacy to the clashes while still emphasizing their massive scale. And because it can’t be emphasized enough: there is something deeply satisfying in watching a giant robot punch a sea monster.

That being said, here are a handful of plot holes that bugged me before I move on to a more careful critique:

  • As the title suggests, the kaiju threat is indeed specific to the Pacific Rim. All of the sites attacked are coastal cities in this area. So … living as I do in Atlantic Canada, I wouldn’t have to worry about giant sea monsters so much? What does the rest of the world think? And what if you lived in, say, Saskatchewan? The speed and urgency of the film, and the attitude of its characters, communicate apocalyptic immediacy. Presumably, seeing as how the kaiju are evolving and emerging at a geometric rate, they would soon be making inroads into the middle of continents and spreading beyond the Pacific … but that is still just a possibility at the end of Pacific Rim when Tony Stark flies the nuke through the dimensional portal Raleigh Beckett blows up the portal. What does the rest of the world think about what’s happening?
  • On a similar note, why are there still densely populated cities on the coasts? Who thought that was a good idea?
  • The co-pilot selection process seems entirely limited to having prospective candidates fight Raleigh Beckett, further evidence that proficiency at martial arts makes you qualified for anything.
  • Mako is the only one who can match his mad kung fu skills, and ergo is a suitable co-pilot. Um, what? If you’re trying to match people for mind-melding compatibility, wouldn’t there be a series of in-depth, you know, psychological and/or neurological tests?
  • By the same token, wouldn’t they have at least one dry run where they enter the Drift together in a safe space, i.e. one in which someone freaking out isn’t connected to a huge nuclear-powered weapon?
  • If these pilots are in fact mind-melding, why are they constantly talking to each other? There’s a lot of one pilot ordering the other to “arm the plasma cannon!” and things like that. Wouldn’t that be unnecessary if you’re sharing thoughts?

It can be frustrating when SF films introduce a potentially very cool, very intriguing speculative concept whose implications pose significant philosophical questions, and then neglect to follow through on it at all. To be fair, there are occasions of pedantry and excessive exposition—I’m thinking most specifically of The Architect from The Matrix Reloaded here—but more often than not it is treated as incidental to the main story. Even when, as in the case of the Drift, it is in fact a central premise.


I think Alyssa Rosenberg puts her finger on it when she argues that this should have been two films. We begin in media res, with a pretty quick background—monsters emerge from a dimensional rift, start attacking cities, and then for a time are successfully repulsed by the jaegers. Until they evolve and start defeating the jaegers, the first instance of which is the battle in which Raleigh loses his brother.

While I appreciate the narrative economy, it occurs to me that there is a huge missed opportunity here. The story of how the monsters appear and humanity figures out how to fight back would have made for a great film, with huge dramatic potential—especially in the early days as the jaegers were first developed and the bugs in the Drift worked out. There would be, on has to assume, a significant human toll in working through the technology and evolving it to the point where it’s effective (there is a brief gesture toward this with Stacker Pentacost, who still suffers the ill effects of his time piloting the early jaegers). You could have ended the first film with the battle where Raleigh loses his brother, and spent a good chunk of the second film showing how the jaegers were losing and the strife that emerges amongst the partner nations.

Above all, the characters and their development would not have received such short shrift. The key device in this film is this mind-melding technology: as mentioned above, the Drift is potentially brilliant SF material, as it adds a very human dimension to the giant robot trope, making piloting jaegers not just a fundamentally cooperative exercise, but one that necessitates the subordination of the self to that of the team. There has been a lot of talk about the influence on del Toro of everything from Godzilla movies to mecha anime to Voltron to even The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; I have to wonder however if the story was not at least in part influenced by Joe Haldeman’s novel Forever Peace. In it, the western world in the future maintains its colonial holdings and fights its short wars with robotic soldier-drones operated remotely by individuals plugged in to a collective consciousness (the novel is, among other things, totally prescient about drone warfare). Linked in together, the soldiers share thoughts, memories, loves, hates, and so forth—there are no secrets. And as it turns out, staying connected with others for too long leads to some interesting side effects (which I won’t spoil—read the book!).

Del Toro’s jaegers seem to operate on a similar premise, albeit not remotely—the pilots are inside the robot’s “head.” And in Forever Peace, though the operators are mentally linked, each pilots their own robot. The implications of a single unit being piloted simultaneously by two linked individuals is a fantastic speculative device, as it carries all sorts of questions about how differing, contrasting, conflicting, or competing personalities and impulses can work together in unity.

Unfortunately, aside from some very truncated gestures toward these questions, the film effectively ignores them and instead gives us a very familiar pilot / co-pilot dynamic in all the jaegar cockpits we see. Yes, we see the pilots move in unison as they walk, we see them punch and strike in tandem as they fight the kaiju, but there is otherwise very little sense of them having actually merged consciousness. They speak individually, carry out separate actions in the cockpit, shout encouragement at each other. As mentioned above, why would you even need to speak? Yes, they sometimes have to speak on the radio with command, but how uncanny, then, to have had them speak in perfect unison?

On top of all this is the obvious fact of asymmetrical power relationships between the pilots depicted: though Mako is ostensibly the best match for Raleigh, she is obviously his subordinate in every way. The other jaegar team of significance are the Australians, who are father and son and possess the same experienced elder / brash youth dynamic. Perhaps this is the best sort of pairing, as their respective strengths complement each other? That would have been a brilliant point to explore.

(The other two teams have very little to do: a Russian man and women with weird hair who look like villains from a 70s Bond film, and Chinese triplets—who are in fact indistinguishable, which raises a whole host of disturbing racial and ethnic overtones I don’t want to get into right now. Suffice to say neither of the other teams have much to do before they are kaiju kibble).

Perhaps this all seems like me totally overthinking what is essentially just a big, shiny summer blockbuster—perhaps I should just enjoy the film without nitpicking? Perhaps … except that, as I’ve repeated several times, I did enjoy the film. I loved it, as a matter of fact. Which is why these problems make me grind my teeth in frustration so much. The film is good, and the ideas behind it (while borrowing from just about every SF monster trope in existence) are intriguing. Believe me when I say I never spared a thought about the philosophical implications of Transformers.


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World War Z, or A Spectacular Vindication of my Zombie Thesis


I’ve been making some notes toward a future post that will ask the question “how do you know when a genre reaches saturation point?” If I write it as I’m currently conceiving it, I will look specifically at vampires and zombies and their current glut in popular culture … mainly because that way I get to title the post “vampires vs. zombies!”, but also because, well, it’s hard to think of better examples of saturation. How do we know when we reach that point?

Well, to offer a preview on the zombie end of the equation: beyond simply seeing a new zombie film every week, you’re probably reaching critical mass when there are almost as many quasi-parodies relying on audiences’ familiarity with the principal tropes as there are straight-up examples (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland); the genre begins to acquire critical respectability by, say, migrating to prestige television (The Walking Dead); the figure of the monster becomes domesticated into a romantic hero (Warm Bodies).

Or … Brad Pitt produces and stars in a high-end zombie film. Yup. When the A-Listers get involved, we’ve reached some sort of tipping point.

Like many, many people, I have been waiting for the release of World War Z with both excitement and trepidation. I read Max Brooks’ novel about four years ago, and loved it. I was actually surprised at how good it was—completely serious and thoughtful, and also remarkably well-written. It is also—for reasons I’ll get into below—a significant revision of the standard zombie/walking dead narrative. It developed, very quickly and deservedly, a devoted following, and probably did more than any other text (including Max Brooks’ earlier book The Zombie Survival Guide) to spur discussion and argument in the multitudinous online zombie forums.

So when there was word that a film was in the works, that of course inspired all kinds of excitement … and then dread, as rumours of struggles with the scripts, with filming, and internecine studio fights accumulated. When the first trailer was aired, a large proportion of Z fans collectively lost their shit, predicting that the film would be absolutely nothing like the novel.

To which I said: well, obviously.

I went to see it this weekend, and though I doubt there are many among those fans who have not get gone themselves, I will say two things. First, if you’re hoping for an utterly faithful adaptation, do not go see this film. Second, if you’re hoping (or were hoping) for an utterly faithful adaptation, you’re delusional and probably need to seek help.

This review, such as it is, will be in three parts. In part one, I’ll be talking about the novel, and why there is no way under heaven a film adaptation could work. In part two, I’ll talk about the film … and, well, how it kinda works. (Yes, I was surprised too). And in part three, I will talk about my thoughts on how this all fits, thematically and otherwise, into the ongoing cultural phenomenon that is the zombie genre.

I didn’t mean for this post to get so long. So, anyone who has read the novel and/or doesn’t care about my thoughts on it might want to just read part two.

1. Zombies Go Global

As anyone even vaguely familiar with the zombie genre knows, the drama is almost invariably localized—by which I mean, the world of the embattled survivors shrinks down to their immediate environment fairly early on. There are often flashes of a broader crisis caught from sporadic television or radio broadcasts, but before long the wider world goes dark and the scope of the action is reduced to the island of illumination cast by the protagonists. Yet underneath it all is the almost-invariably-unanswered-question of is there anyone else, and if so, where? In many cases, part of the plot hinges on finding the way to safe haven; but even when haven (safe or not) is found, the plight of the broader world remains unknown.

World War Z is a deeply impressive novel for the simple reason that that Max Brooks sat down and—systematically and exhaustively—thought through the twinned questions how would a zombie apocalypse happen? and how would the world respond? What he then produced was a series of “testimonials” from around the globe. The conceit of the novel is that an investigator for the U.N., tasked with compiling an “after-action report” some ten years after the end of the zombie war, finds half of what he compiled deleted from the official document as being too influenced by the “human factor,” i.e. too personal and subjective. The “present book” is then a compilation of those deleted elements—personal stories from people around the world telling of their experiences of the zombie war.

As I say, the novel is impressive for its scope of extrapolation: proceeding from present-day political and technological realities and producing a fairly convincing portrait of how a zombie apocalypse might fall out. But it is doubly impressive for how well written it is, for Brooks commits himself to telling the stories of no fewer than forty stories—each with a distinct narrator. He doesn’t go all As I Lay Dying on us or anything (which is a blessing), but makes each testimonial subtly different in tone and narration—enough to distinguish between the characters, not so much as to distract from their stories. What emerges is a convincing patchwork of human survival stories, at the heart of which is the (mostly) common theme of community and civic responsibility.

This theme is at once subtle and strikingly at odds with the genre at large. More often than not, the post-apocalyptic scenarios depicted in zombie narratives present harsh ethical questions about survival and sacrifice: who is worthy of inclusion in the survivors’ group, what kind of behaviour becomes dangerous and threatening, what lengths are we willing to go as a societal microcosm to survive? These questions are familiar to anyone who watches The Walking Dead, and they are by no means absent from World War Z—a significant number of early testimonials outline measures taken by governments and agencies the world over to contain and isolate the threat, and then contain and isolate the survivors, including the sacrifice of entire populations and cold-eyed calculations about who is valuable and who is not.

(As an aside, I have little illusion about my own value to society, post-apocalyptically. It occurred to me a long time ago that those best suited to survive are the antithesis of liberal academic types—if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, those who make it through will likely be anti-government paramilitaries and end-timer fundamentalists who all have walled compounds in remote areas well-stocked with canned goods. Evolution weeps).

But while such cold calculations are present in World War Z, the novel tends to concern itself more with the massive reorientation of society and economy necessary to combat the undead threat. A few characters become central voices in this respect, key among them Arthur Sinclair, the director of the United States’ Department of Strategic Resources—formed specifically for this purpose. He says:

[“Tools and talent”] … A term my son had heard once in a movie. I found it described our reconstruction efforts rather well. “Talent” describes the potential workforce, its level of skilled labor, and how that labor could be utilized effectively. To be perfectly candid, our supply of talent was at a critical low. Ours was a postindustrial or service-based economy, so complex and highly specialized that each individual could only function within the confines of its narrow, compartmentalized structure. You should have seen some of the “careers” listed on our first employment census; everyone was some version of an “executive,” a “representative,” an “analyst,” or a “consultant,” all perfectly suited to the prewar world, but all totally inadequate for the present crisis. We needed carpenters, masons, machinists, gunsmiths. We had those people, to be sure, but not nearly as many as were necessary. The first labor survey clearly stated that over 65 percent of the present civilian workforce were classified F-6, possessing no valid vocation. We required a massive job retraining program. In short, we needed to get a lot of white collars dirty.

Sinclair, it is worth noting, is described as the son of an inveterate New Dealer; and though he had rejected his father’s lessons and run “as far away as Wall Street to shut them out,” he found himself using them to harvest “the right tools and talent.” (As an aside: it is beautifully serendipitous that, in the audiobook of World War Z, Arthur Sinclair is voiced by Alan Alda). Sinclair has a recurring voice in the novel, and is reflective of Brooks’ larger communitarian preoccupations.

This hopeful and indeed vaguely utopian dimension to the novel (spoiler: humanity wins) is effectively unique in the genre; while some narratives end on a note of hope (28 Days Later), in many such endings are deeply ambiguous (the original Dawn of the Dead) or at times ironic (Shaun of the Dead). World War Z is, in its very framework, an account of victory and lessons learned.

But it doesn’t get to that point without a significant number of harrowing and thrilling stories told alongside its entirely pragmatic and methodical formulae for fighting the undead hordes. There is a huge amount of dramatic fodder here … but the earliest misgivings about a prospective film echoed my own, specifically: how do you recreate the scale and scope of this global narrative in a two-hour movie?

Well, the bottom line is you can’t. Not to sound like a broken record or anything, but cinema is the wrong medium for anything resembling a faithful adaptation of this novel. The big screen doesn’t work, because everything is necessarily accelerated—the meditative, reflective quality of the novel, to say nothing of its reams of different stories, voices, and interlaced narratives. The better vehicle for Z—and I know you see where I’m going with this—would be television. Ideally, HBO or one of the other prestige cable stations … though I suppose a major network might not make too big a hash of it (theoretically). Brooks’ novel, given its shifting voices and narratives, would be much more amenable to episodic, long-form storytelling. One can easily imagine (or I can, anyway) a television series in which each episode features a different testimonial, intercut with the interviewer’s difficulties in traveling around a depleted, post-zombie world.

Of course, such a format would not be amenable to Brad Pitt—not if he was determined to star in it, at any rate.

2. But if you must cram it all into two hours …

Warning: spoilers ahead.

All that being said, World War Z was surprisingly good. As I said above, it will almost certainly offend anyone who demands fidelity to the novel … but as far as it went, it did a remarkable job of splitting the difference.

How does it accomplish this feat? Well, as already mentioned, cinema tends to accelerate things—and a ticking clock is one of the best ways to ratchet up the tension. Rather than have Gerry Lane, Brad Pitt’s doughty and rugged U.N. inspector, travel the world when all has been won to collect stories, you have him racing against the pandemic to collect stories—in the hopes of finding “patient zero” and figuring out how all this began. All things being equal, it’s not that bad a device (and if I can be smug for a moment, I’d more or less figured that much out from the trailer). So chasing what few thin leads he has, he flies with a team of Navy Seals and a brilliant young virologist to South Korea, and then then Israel, and then … well, I won’t spoil everything. Not yet. Suffice to say he loses his team, including the virologist, by increments along the way.

We begin with the comfortingly domestic images of Gerry Lane’s suburban life. (The opening scene is actually a nice little nod to the beginning of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, with an eerily silent entrance into the parental bedroom—except that the children are obnoxiously energetic rather than undead). Traveling later in gridlocked downtown Philadelphia, the family is overtaken by the vanguard of the zombie apocalypse; but fortunately Gerry, only recently retired from the U.N.—and, as it turns out, wanted by them to seek out the origins of the infection—has connections enough to get extracted by a navy helicopter and brought to an aircraft carrier off the east coast.

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From there begins his sort-of-global quest to seek out the grail of patient zero. Some of the novel’s flavour of international crisis is retained, though not much—after all, Lane only travels to South Korea, Israel, and finally Wales. The only true fidelity to the novel comes when he visits Israel and interviews a senior Mossad agent, who accounts for Israel’s seemingly-too-convenient zombie preparedness (among other things, completing their wall) by outlining a philosophy of intelligence-gathering I won’t bother to repeat. Indeed, Israel seems like an oasis of peace in the midst of a world gone mad—protected by a high wall, but allowing all uninfected in. The spectre of a common enemy would appear to have obviated hatreds, as we see Arabs and Muslims in significant numbers among the refugees, and one group is happy enough with their saviours to burst into song over a sound system while waving Israeli flags.

Alas, as Gerry Lane learned in South Korea, the undead are attracted by noise. (Lessons he has picked up by this point: the time between infection and zombification is about twelve seconds; infection is spread by bites but not, oddly, by transference of bodily fluids; and the best way to avoid the undead is by keeping quiet). As the grateful refugees’ song swells in volume, the undead swarm the other side of the wall, antlike, creating that ladder of bodies that we saw in the trailers, and which excited such harrumphing among devotees.

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The breaching of the Israeli sanctum is at once utterly at odds with the novel, and the most remarkable sequence of the film. Anyone who is a firm advocate for Romero-esque “slow zombies” will probably want to give this film a pass. Not only do the undead sprint as fast or faster than the infected in 28 Days Later and the zombies in the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, they are veritable acrobats, leaping through the air to take down fleeing humans and turning at times into literal tidal waves of undead. (This, too, is at odds with the novel: Max Brooks’ zombies are the classic shuffle-and-moan types).

So, purists may wince, but the Z-film zombies’ speed and tendency toward insectile swarming makes for some truly thrilling cinema. In the film’s third act we revert to a more standard zombie-evasion sequence; if World War Z contributes anything new to the genre, however, it is this imagery of antlike swarming that takes the concept of the “undead horde” to a new level. But I will speak more about that in my third section.

At this stage Gerry Lane has already lost his brilliant young virologist, but that proves to not really matter. For one thing, he discovers that the hunt for patient zero is pretty much a futile endeavour—things have progressed too far too discern the pandemic’s epicenter, and much of the world is, his Mossad contact informs him, “a black hole.” However, the virologist did not die in vain, for he managed to impart some wisdom about the nature of viruses in an elaborate metaphor about how Mother Nature is a serial killer who, “like all serial killers, wants to get caught.” Gerry Lane notices that the zombie hordes puzzlingly ignore some individuals, passing them by like rocks in a stream while attacking others. In a handful of rather overwrought flashbacks, he makes the intuitive leap that zombies will ignore diseased prey … so if people can be infected with dire but not fatal illnesses, they will be safe.

Of course, he has to test this theory, and so (using his U.N. connections) manages to convince his flight out of Jerusalem to change course and head for a World Health Organization lab in Cardiff. But nothing can be that easy—as anyone who has seen the trailer knows, at some point in the film Pitt is on a plane that becomes overrun by zombies, and which experiences explosive decompression when part of the fuselage blows out. Fortunately, the plane goes down close enough to Cardiff for Gerry Lane and a young female Israeli soldier he saved from infection by lopping off her hand (shades of The Walking Dead, but whatever), to walk from the plane crash to the nearby World Health Organization facility, in spite of his injuries and, y’know, her massive blood loss . They make it to the WHO facility, are treated for their injuries, and manage to make contact again with Gerry Lane’s U.N. overlords. Gerry convinces the resident doctors of the viability of his theory … and of course, being a WHO facility, they have tons of terribly infectious bacteria and viruses squirreled away in a secure lab.

It is here that the film takes its turn into zombie movie cliché … because of course, guess where the lab they need to get to is? If you guessed “in the bowels of a labyrinthine, zombie-infested wing of the facility,” you have just leveled up as a cinema nerd. Congratulations!

Yes, the “B” wing of the WHO facility, which has been cordoned off by the survivors, contains about eighty zombified medical personnel, all of whom are visible on the facility’s closed-circuit cameras. (It was at this point that watching The Walking Dead interfered with the movie experience. Eighty walkers? Send in Rick Grimes and Darryl. They’ll clear those dead sumbitches in a jiff). While I give credit to the film that the sequence that follows—in which Gerry Lane, his new Israeli friend, and one of the WHO doctors (heh) make their way as silently as possible into B wing—is pretty tense and scary, it highlights for me one of the main failings of trying to bring this novel to the big screen: namely, that the larger scope of the novel, its great complexity and nuance, is necessarily lost in the name of making the film, recognizably, a zombie film. Though the sequence is well done, it is not just reminiscent of every other zombie movie, but (perhaps more significantly) all of the video games that have invaded the genre as well. That it all comes down to the protagonist in a series of Resident Evil­-esque antiseptic, institutional hallways evading the undead is unsurprising, but something of a letdown after the genuinely innovative Israel sequence.

A few last thoughts before I move on:

  • Mireille Enos is criminally underused in this film. Criminally. Whatever your thoughts on the series The Killing, or on her damaged character therein, she’s a pretty remarkable actress. She really only gets to do anything interesting in the first act as she and Brad Pitt flee with their daughters. But after that, all she does in languish on a naval vessel, looking longingly at the satellite phone he gave her, waiting for it to ring (and at one point nearly killing him when she calls and his phone rings at a really, really bad time).
  • Attention Lost fans: some of the film’s publicity mentions that Matthew Fox, aka Dr. Jack Shepherd, is in the film. Which he is. For all of about twenty seconds.
  • Gerry Lane has almost superhuman powers of perception. Besides making the intuitive leap about the camouflaging qualities of disease, he also figures out the twelve-section infection rule when he watches someone get reanimated in the middle of the mayhem in Philadelphia.
  • There is almost no blood in this film. Some zombie devotees have complained about this fact, but I frankly don’t miss it. Gore certainly has its place in this genre, but the most frightening parts of this film had less to do with the prospect of violent disemboweling than with the specter of the horde itself.

3. The Masses as Weapon of Destruction

I’ve been cultivating a theory about the zombie genre and its massive popularity for several years now … which is a little bit like saying I have an idea about why people like ice cream. Zombies are an infinitely adaptable movie monster, and a theory that asserts that the genre is popular because it depicts the nightmare of conformity is no more or less correct than one starting people love zombie films because they offer survivalist fantasies. So as long as we can agree that zombies can be anything to anyone (depending on the selection of texts), let me make my case.

Simply put, zombies are a manifestation of our ambivalent and fraught relationship to mass culture itself.

While Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) bears only a passing resemblance to its source material, it does maintain one crucial element largely absent from the genre at large: boredom. In both versions, survivors of the zombie plague manage to barricade themselves in suburban shopping malls securely enough that they have the leisure to get bored. With all of the malls’ bounty available to them, they want for nothing, and indeed take advantage of it to indulge in Rabelaisian carnival. In both cases these interludes are bookended by crisis and terror, but are for that reason even more gratifying as depictions of unchecked consumption.

In Snyder’s version, after a gratuitous montage of the survivors at play in the mall, the boredom asserts itself as we watch them lounging on the roof, playing a game with the owner of a gun shop down the road. Too far apart for spoken communication, they trade messages via text scrawled on white boards. Having played chess in this manner, they now play a different game in which the mall survivors scan the undead horde milling about below with binoculars, seeking out celebrity lookalikes. Andy, the gun shop owner, then attempts to find the doppelganger and kill it with his rifle. After Jay Leno and Burt Reynolds have been dispatched in this manner, Ana (Sara Polley) admonishes the loathsome Steve (Ty Burrell):

ANA: You guys had really rough childhoods, didn’t you? A little bit rocky?

STEVE: Hey, sweetheart … let me tell you something. You have my permission, I ever turn into one of those things? Do me a favour. Blow my fuckin’ head off.

ANA: Oh yeah, you can count on that.

Of course, because of the immutable laws of dramatic narrative (the gun on the wall in the first act, as it were), we know that Steve will in fact turn into “one of those things,” and Ana will in fact be the one to blow his fucking head off. But there is a more serendipitous dimension to the sequence now: actor Ty Burrell, a relative unknown when he made Dawn, has since seen great success with the sitcom Modern Family, and has in fact been transformed—not into a zombie, but a celebrity.

While that observation may seem somewhat glib, the celebrity-shooting sequence is deeply suggestive in the context of zombie-saturation in pop culture. One way to read the sequence is as revenge against mass culture, a symbolic expression of the hatred and resentment of celebrity that is the flip side of our fascination with it. The rise of the internet and social media has created a culture of celebrity-shaming that the victims of tabloid rags even twenty years ago could not have imagined, an airing of the collective id that is as pernicious as it is pervasive. That one of the consistent tropes of zombie films is the necessary eschewal of contemporary connectivity and the technology that makes it possible is suggests this very hostility to it—but in a rather spectacular form of the return of the repressed, mass culture won’t stay dead, but mobs us and seeks to consume us anew.

This is why the true nightmare of zombie films is not the prospect of a lone ghoul lurking around the corner, but the critical mass of the dead surrounding and swarming the living. Dark corridors and blind corners are a necessary trope in zombie films (case in point, the third act of World War Z as discussed above), but in and of themselves a zombie or two has nothing to really distinguish them from any other movie monster lurking in the shadows ahead. Their threat, ever since George A. Romero transformed them from the golem-like automatons of voodoo legend into the flesh-eating hordes in Night of the Living Dead (1968), rests in their weight of numbers.


Which is why they share a symbolic lineage with other dystopic figurations of the masses, from Shakespeare’s Roman mobs to such philosophical warnings as found in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy or Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Granted, none of them were overly concerned with zombies per se, but all characterized the mob mentality as mindless, voracious, and dangerous. Again, it is thus not surprising that a consistent trope in the zombie genre is the common apocalyptic gesture of culling, the purging of society that leaves only a handful of survivors. Apocalyptic narratives provide the space for the spectacular individual to emerge, which is a big reason why (I would argue) so many people love to go on at length about how they would survive, what they would do, and share their plans with like-minded fantasists: everyone wants to imagine that he or she is just that person who would survive and kick some serious zombie ass in the process.


At the heart of the zombie genre is an individualist ethos, one that plays out in tension with the necessity of living within an ad hoc community of survivors—who, if they are in fact to survive, tend to need to keep to themselves. There is little to be gained in the zombie genre by actually finding one’s way to the remnants of military or civic authority—in 28 Days Later it proved disastrous; in The Walking Dead, everyone nearly died when they found safe haven at a CDC facility at the end of season one, and the most recent season pitted the ragged Grimes band against “the Governor,” whose facade of civic peace in the community of Woodbury proved to be a despot’s kindly mask; an encounter with the police in the British series Dead Set ended badly (for the police, fortunately). Wondering whether there is actually a zombie film out there in which encounters with military or political authority doesn’t end badly, I posed the question to friends on Facebook (hey, I don’t use research shortcuts for this blog), and (1) apparently, I must immediately watch Cemetery Man and Carnival of Souls; (2) the other three suggestions were Shaun of the Dead and I Am Legend—the first of which is a fair point, as the army shows up at the end to save the day (oops, spoiler); and the second of which has a more ambivalent relationship to the structures of official power, but does end with some of the survivors making it to safe haven (um, spoiler again)—and World War Z itself.

Which brings me back to the ostensible subject of this post. What set World War Z apart to start with, and what it does manage to retain to a small degree in the film, is the rejection of the overtly individualist ethos pervading the genre. The novel is all about a certain global collectivity. Tellingly, at one point Max Brooks has one of his characters allude to his book The Zombie Survival Guide as useful, but too focused on American contexts. And as he makes clear, while sacrifices are made in the name of saving civilization, the point is that civilization is saved. And perhaps more importantly, civilization is shown as being worth saving.

I will defend the film against those who say (to quote one random commenter I read just today), that the film “shits all over the source material.” Is it faithful? Of course not. How can it be? But it does a pretty good job of keeping the key themes in place. That being said, the most disturbing aspect of the film is the one I’ve already said is the best—the breaching of the Israeli perimeter. It is in this sequence that, as the title of this post suggests, I found a spectacular vindication of my zombie thesis. In the film’s opening credits, we see a montage of television clips, some from news programs and some from what look like nature shows. Again, I find an echo of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, which manages to give a glimpse of the global crisis before everything goes dark and the perspective is limited to survivors:

Present in the World War Z opening credits are images of swarming ants, which obviously become significant later in the film. (Does anyone else remember that short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants”?) The undead swarm, and become an unstoppable horde; but what is pernicious is the consonance of these scenes with other such films in which well-equipped, technologically advanced soldiers find themselves fending off the mindless masses of an undifferentiated mob. The Israel scenes in World War Z, effectively, are visually of a piece with films like Black Hawk Down, Aliens, and Zulu.

Zulu_40black hawk down

The Middle Eastern setting visually cues the (white, North American) viewer to the stereotypes of third world cityscapes, and the sequence—consciously or not—cites images of embattled first world warriors fending off (in this case literally) a rabid horde. As Raymond Williams astutely observed way back when he first published Culture and Society (1958), once people started to mass in urban spaces, “mass” very quickly became synonymous with “mob” and the best way to dehumanize people in the modern world was to associate them indelibly with the masses. In the novel, the Israeli solution is a victory for humanity; in the film, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out, the Israeli largess is repaid with what we assume is annihilation—“The scrambling West Bank zombies just keep coming,” he says, and “we are left to infer that everything probably would have still been O.K. if only the gates had been kept shut.”


The political overtones of this sequence aside, the swarming hordes of the undead comprise the other side of the mass culture coin. If Dawn of the Dead revenges itself on celebrity culture, that revenge is short-lived, as the survivors don’t actually, you know, survive (oops, spoiler). And if the horde of zombies present in Dawn, or Shaun of the Dead, or 28 Days Later, or Zombieland all represent the stultified lives of first world consumers, the swarm in World War Z is of a piece with the denizens of Mogandishu in Black Hawk Down—an undifferentiated mass of racial, geographical, and cultural others.

So if I may begin to conclude what is certainly the longest blog post I have ever written … the film adaptation of World War Z retains some key elements of the novel to the point where it does not in fact “shit all over the source text” … but it loses much of Brooks’ innovation. His novel is not quite sui generis—Mira Grant’s “Newsflesh” trilogy (Feed, Deadline, and Blackout) depicts a (more or less) function post-zombie society—but it remains, as far as I have read and watched thus far, the sole zombie narrative that does not devolve into anti-establishment, absolute individualism. And while the film tries very hard, it does slip unfortunately into zombie cliché.

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