Sunday, November 26, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 27

The blockbuster movies of 2017 are winding down--there's really only The Last Jedi left to go--and then it'll be time for Israeli movie theaters to furiously start scheduling the year's Oscar movies before the ceremony (still bereft of release dates: The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, and probably several others I'm forgetting).  Here are my thoughts on a few of the stragglers (though really, only one of them has proven to be a bona fide blockbuster) in what has proved to be a strong year for solid popcorn entertainment, even if there have been no genuine exceptional examples of the genre (except possibly Get Out, which is really more of a horror movie).
  • Blade Runner 2049 - I have trouble deciding how I feel about Denis Villeneuve's 35-years-later follow-up to Ridley Scott's cult classic.  On the one hand, this is a beautiful, evocative work of science fiction of the kind one doesn't get to see in the movie theater very often.  On the other hand, it's self-indulgent, overlong, and most importantly, adds almost nothing to the original movie.  You see this most distinctly in the film's decision to reveal, in its opening minutes, that this iteration's blade runner, the cop tasked with "retiring" runaway replicants, is a replicant himself.  There's an obvious argument for choosing to front-load this shift to the story, thus forestalling much of the debate that has come to consume the original movie (which is especially valuable since "is Deckard a replicant" is literally the most boring, pointless question you can ask about the original Blade Runner; no matter what answer you come up with, it tells you nothing about the character, his world, or his story).  But it also means that the already-not-particularly-deeply-buried subtext of the original movie--that this a world in which the distinctions between human and inhuman are imposed by the demands of capitalism, and have nothing to do with how human replicants actually are--is right there on the surface.  The same is true of the film's backbone of story, in which Officer K (Ryan Gosling) must track down a child born to a replicant, and brutally suppress the knowledge that such a thing is even possible.  It's a profound reduction of the original Blade Runner's humanism--which extended to recognizing the personhood of flawed, murderous beings like Roy Batty or Pris--to suggest, as Blade Runner 2049 does, that replicants can only "prove" their humanity if they have fertility (which, in typical Hollywood fashion, is treated as interchangeable with female fertility).

    Or maybe the problem lies with the original concept.  Villeneuve has shown himself to be an exceptional director, including of SF stories, and he pulls out all the stops with 2049, all-but gorging the viewer on cyberpunk cityscapes, dust-covered ruins, junk deserts populated by dehumanized scavengers, and the corporate-architecture-on-acid interiors of the offices of Wallace corporation (the inheritors of the original movie's now-defunct Tyrell).  But it doesn't take very long in this rather overlong movie to realize that all this splendor is in service of very little in the way of ideas.  As Aaron Bady wrote last year about another work, all robot stories are ultimately about slavery, and there's really not that much you can say about that concept when your starting position is "are slaves human?"  Blade Runner 2049 keeps teetering on the verge of interesting SFnal ideas, such as the fact that K spends much of the movie trying to convince himself that he is the child he's been looking for.  Or his holographic live-in girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI playing house with a robot, each trying to convince the other that they are real people even as they consume each other like the products that they are.  Or the idea that the world's economy now includes replicants like K or the prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), who live as pseudo-humans, consuming resources such as food and living space even as they're viewed as subhuman.  But the film is too caught up in homages to the original movie (including a brief and not very satisfying appearance by Harrison Ford) to ever give these ideas the space they deserve.  For all its visual expansiveness, its world feels narrow and predictable.  It never manages to be more than a retread of what came before it, a variation on a theme.

    As we saw last year with Westworld, trying to tell a slave story with robots almost inevitably skews the racial and gender politics of your story to an extent that can render it worse than useless.  Once again, these are issues that 2049 could have done interesting things with.  The fact that almost all the replicants we meet are white, or that non-white humans seem to have been relegated to the outskirts of even the degraded, dystopian society at the film's center, could have been a commentary on how racial prejudice plays out in a society in which it is possible to manufacture an underclass.  Instead, it's treated as so unremarkable as to not even require an explanation.  Similarly, the increasingly oppressive images of female commodification and objectification that keep cropping up in the movie--the giant, holographic naked women that K walks past in the city, the statues of equally naked women he encounters in the ruins of Las Vegas, the naked female replicant that Niander Wallace (Jared Leto in a distracting, tedious performance) fondles and then murders--end up feeling cynical and self-satisfied.  Yes, the film is calling attention to the misogyny of its world (and a premise where sexbots, again almost always female, are de rigueur), but once again it has nothing to say about the issue once it's raised it, and its actual female characters are mostly devoid of personality.  Joi, for example, can only "prove" that she is a person by expressing devotion to K that goes beyond her programming and eventually gets her killed, while Mariette proves hers by being catty to Joi, reminding her that she isn't real.  It's enough to make you root for the film's villain, Wallace's assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant who seems to realize just how disturbed and monstrous her boss truly is, but who nevertheless kills remorselessly for him because it's her only way to express her anger at her enslavement.  It's only in Luv that 2049 achieves anything close to the complexity of the original Blade Runner, and it's fairly typical of this latter-day repetition's shallowness that it doesn't seem to realize this.

  • Thor: Ragnarok - Marvel has spent several months pumping up Taika Waititi's attempt to revitalize its least successful (critically and artistically, if not financially) sub-franchise, bombarding us with lush posters and trailers that parade its psychedelic, 80s-arcade-inspired visual style and irreverent sense of humor.  It's perhaps inevitable, then, that the actual film, enjoyable and fun to look at as it is, doesn't quite live up to the hype.  Waititi and the film's writers make several very smart choices when they come to craft the third solo outing for their title character.  They play up the fact that he's a bit of a dimwitted jerk, and they constantly put him in situations in which these qualities get him into trouble, as he bites off more than he can chew and incorrectly assumes that everyone around him will be impressed by his pedigree and fighting prowess.  Ragnarok quickly wraps up the dangling threads of plot left by The Dark World, and then sends Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki on a quest to find their missing father, which quickly becomes more serious when they encounter Hela (Cate Blanchett, chewing the scenery with tremendous and exhilarating gusto), their hidden older sister, who wants to claim the throne of Asgard and use its armies to conquer the multiverse.  This, through yet more convolutions of plot, leads to the brothers being dumped on a junkyard planet, and to Thor being made to fight in gladiatorial combat against the reigning champion, who turns out to be Mark Ruffalo's The Hulk.

    It's all a lot of fun, but also a bit much, especially when you consider that there's a parallel storyline about Hela's takeover of Asgard, and a redemption story for lost Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, fantastic despite the really unfortunate choice to attempt an accent) who has been drinking away her traumatic memories while procuring fighters for the fey, casually psychopathic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the majordomo of the games arena.  These are all great performances who make the film feel vital and exuberant, not to mention extremely funny (though it must be said that every genuinely funny joke, there's at least one moment that's more like "isn't it funny that we chose to make a joke, here, where another movie might be serious?").  Taken together, however, they're a bit of an assault, and the film doesn't really give any of them enough time to shine.  Despite what the film's trailers promise, Ragnarok isn't really a buddy comedy--the Hulk is only prominent for a few, albeit extremely funny, scenes in the middle of the movie--but instead yet another journey of self-discovery for Thor, as he remembers that beneath his bluster, he genuinely cares about his people and the fate of the world.  And while the choice to stress (and puncture) Thor's arrogance, even as it reaffirms his sense of responsibility and his courage, means that Ragnarok is a much more satisfying iteration of this story than either Thor or The Dark World, it is still, ultimately, the same story we've seen before and probably will again, albeit in a much shinier and more humorous guise.  That might be enough for MCU fans who are more attached to the character than I am, but for those hoping that Ragnarok will seriously break the mold, it might be wise to manage expectations.

  • Justice League - There's a part of me that thinks that in another year, Justice League might have been received more positively.  I think we've gotten all we're going to get out of the (richly deserved, but in hindsight a little overwrought) collective hate-on of the DC movies occasioned by Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad.  And with Wonder Woman's success and the behind the scenes upheaval at Justice League indicating that WB have definitely gotten the memo, a little indulgence might have been in order.  The problem is, Justice League comes to us at the tail end of what has, completely unexpectedly, been a truly excellent year for superhero movies.  Think about it: until the third week of November, the worst superhero movie of 2017 was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which wasn't bad so much as redundant and a little mean-spirited.  And aside from that, we've enjoyed a slew of extremely well-made crowdpleasers such as Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok, as well as some more adventurous fare like Logan and Colossal.  That Justice League, in comparison, is merely rather dull, with a tepid villain and character work carried almost exclusively by its actors, might have been enough in a weaker year, but it won't fly in 2017.

    Justice League wastes little time in assuring us that it's changed and eager to do better.  After an opening scene that feels almost like a coda to Batman v Superman, and especially its Nietzsche-for-dummies take on Superman as a living god whose existence gave humanity a sense of purpose, the film jettisons all that thematic weight in favor of pure comic book storytelling--an alien villain who wants to destroy the world.  The problem is that as tepid and juvenile as Zack Snyder's ideas were in Batman v Superman and Man of Steel, they were at least ideas.  When Justice League abandons them, it's left with nothing but warmed-over Avengers.  And unlike that movie, it lacks humanizing points of interest to make us care about its shopworn, underwritten plot.  The villain, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds in motion capture as some sort of horned demon), has no personality, and his motivations are as generic as they come.  His plan--to collect a set of McGuffins with which he can construct a mega-McGuffin--is so boring that the film itself can't be bothered to take an interest in it, quickly racing through the interim acquisitions so that it can get to the main event.  But this, too, is fairly perfunctory, a CGI extravaganza with little flair or excitement.  Joss Whedon, parachuted in to freshen up the film's script (and take over directing duties from Snyder after a family tragedy, which can't have improved the film's action scenes) tries to recreate the magic he managed with Avengers with some very obvious Whedonisms.  But these almost invariably fall flat, and in a few cases, are actively skeevy.

    Justice League thus ends up resting on the shoulders of its characters, which is to say its actors.  This is not the worst thing.  Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck continue to do good work as the grown-ups in the room, weary soldiers who recognize the enormity of the task before them but also the necessity of seeing it through.  Jason Momoa is given almost nothing to work with as renegade Atlantean Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman.  One senses that his backstory is being held back for his own movie, but in Justice League this means that Arthur comes off as blustering and thoughtless.  Happily, Momoa has so much charisma that he manages to make even this underwritten type leap off the screen, but Aquaman's handling is typical of how Justice League approaches its characters, reducing them to types instead of making a case for them as complicated heroes in their own right.  Ezra Miller's Barry Allen, for example, is laden with the bulk of the film's comedic moments.  He's up to the task, but along the way the film loses sight of Barry as a person, and his only dramatic scenes are retreads of material only recently (and more effectively) covered bin The Flash.  The most interesting character is Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), but even that comes down to the actor's choices, amping up Victor's ironic detachment as he's slowly taken over by an alien machine.  (Henry Cavill's Superman, who returns halfway through the story, is probably Justice League's biggest misstep.  There's a palpable attempt to move away from the brooding, joyless Superman of the Snyder movies, but Cavill can't seem to unbend sufficiently to actually make Superman heroic, or even likable.  He ends up coming off as a condescending jerk.)

    Buried deep in the core of its underwritten character interactions is Justice League's sole claim to originality, the barest hint that it has an idea of how to distinguish the DC movies from the MCU without wallowing in unearned angst.  As in Wonder Woman, this comes down to the difficulty of continuing to fight for an inherently broken world, and there are some solid and refreshingly unsensationalistic exchanges between Batman and Wonder Woman over the figures they could both cut in a world without Superman.  Unfortunately, Justice League is completely the wrong movie for these conversations to happen in.  Unlike Avengers, it can't figure out how to tie together its characters' personal problems and the threat to the world.  It becomes, instead, a story of how its heroes kicked a nondescript villain's ass and along the way got their groove back, but this is far too thin a frame on which to hang not just this overlong, CGI-heavy movie, but an entire cinematic universe.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Recent Reading Roundup 45

This is a funny bunch of books: a few that I picked up on a whim; a few that I've been breathlessly waiting for since they were announced; and one that's been sitting on my shelves for years.  The result isn't as exciting--in good ways and bad--as the last roundup of books I published, but nevertheless there are some reads here that I can already tell are going to be highlights of this swiftly-concluding year.

  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru - I freely admit that the main reason I picked up Kunzru's latest was its title, which made me laugh with its deliberate provocation.  The actual novel, however, starts out a lot less pugnacious than you might expect, sort of a cross between Donna Tartt and Stephen King, albeit with a much more sophisticated awareness of issues of race, class, and cultural appropriation.  Carter and Seth are music producers who specialize in an analogue, "authentic" sound that hearkens back to the early 20th century.  Carter, in particular, is obsessed with the blues and early jazz, African-American music that is often available only on rare vinyl records that he and other collectors--almost all of them white--hoard and covet.  When Seth, on one of his trips through the city to record sounds for use in their sample library, captures an anonymous black singer singing what appears to be a true blues original, Carter turns it into a rough-sounding track and puts it online.  He claims to have discovered a lost artist, Charlie Shaw, in the hopes of luring collectors from whom he can buy more albums.  But the song quickly takes on a life of its own, and as it does so does Charlie Shaw, who seems to bear a particular resentment towards Carter's wealthy and shady family.  Seth, a hanger-on who has basked in Carter's attention and reflected glory, suddenly finds himself at the center of the story, as the only person who realizes that there is something supernatural going on.

    The early chapters of White Tears are perhaps a little familiar in how they describe Carter and his family's privileged floating through the world, and Seth's profound hunger for them--for recognition that his friendship with Carter is real and not just a paid arrangement, or for the affections of Carter's sister Leonie.  Underlying all this, however, is the growing realization of how much of a role race plays in establishing the characters' positions.  Carter and Seth are white men marketing to white musicians an idea of authenticity rooted in treating black people, and their suffering, as exotic.  The very fact that they're obsessed with the blues is telling--it's music rooted in oppression, in suffering that the white protagonists feel free to fetishize because they have no fear of ever experiencing it.  It's therefore not a surprise that part of Kunzru's project with White Tears is to remove that veil of safety, the protective claim of "yes, bad things happened, but it's not my fault".

    Like so many ghost stories, White Tears is about the victims of the past coming back to demand justice, but unlike other authors, Kunzru doesn't treat these ghosts as villains or monsters (or at least, he doesn't seem to feel that this should keep him off their side).  As the book approaches its end, its prose grows more fevered and hallucinatory, and the lines between past and present blur and disappear.  It's all in the service of a simple truth--that the past isn't over, and that its injustices are still continuing.  Ultimately, White Tears is about theft--of culture, of money, and of lives--and its ending, though gruesome, is arguing for a full restitution.

  • The Accusation by Bandi - This is one of those books where the story of the book is, inevitably and perhaps even intentionally, more interesting than the story in the book.  The Accusation is presented as a collection of short stories about life in North Korea, published pseudonymously because the author is still living under the regime, and smuggled out of the country by human rights activists.  I have, obviously, no way of knowing whether this is true, but having read the book, I find myself believing it.  There's something earnest about the stories here, a lack of ironic distance that convinces me they were written by someone grappling with a horror that was very close to them.  A recurring theme in the stories in The Accusation is disillusionment--the realization of characters who had believed in the North Korean project that their government doesn't care about them, and of characters who had thought that they had the system of the country figured out that there is simply no way to embody the "good" citizens they've been trained to be.  The emotion underpinning it all is very real and moving, but the portrait the stories paint isn't particularly revelatory.  Perhaps because most of the stories were written in the early and mid-90s (when the North Korean economy collapsed, leading to a horrific famine that left millions dead), the details they reveal are mostly things I've read about before (for example in Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, a collection of interviews with North Korean defectors).

    The Accusation thus ends up more interesting as an artifact than as a work of literature, but nevertheless there are moments of great emotion and horror here--a grandmother's guilt over having been randomly "favored" by the Great Leader even as her family were left to scramble for their survival; a young mine worker's desperation to see his mother on her deathbed, despite being denied a travel permit; in the background of all the stories, the growing desperation as food supplies dwindle and citizens resort to extreme measures to survive a famine whose existence the government won't admit.  It's a book that leaves you feeling rattled, even if that's rooted more in what's happening outside its covers than within them.

  • The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara - Yanagihara's debut was one of the most talked-about literary novels a few years ago (and then slightly upstaged by her Booker-nominated follow-up, A Little Life, which I also own but haven't read), but for one reason and another it's taken me a while to get to.  Also for whatever reason, I ended up reading it at a time when its subject matter feels unpleasantly apt.  Just a few weeks after the revelations about Harvey Weinstein have kicked off a flurry of conversation about the prevalence of sexual harassment and the ways in which society orders itself to protect abusers and vilify victims is maybe not the best time to crack open a novel whose first chapter, a newspaper clipping reporting that a renowned scientist has been accused of rape and molestation by his adopted children, ends with one of the scientist's colleagues calling the situation "a great tragedy"--for the accused, of course.  The People in the Trees is presented as the memoirs of Abraham Norton Perina (the name is obviously significant, though it was never clear to me what the reference to America's one and only emperor was intended to evoke), the founder of the field of "medical anthropology", and a Nobel-prize winner for his discovery that a "lost tribe" in the Micronesian island nation of Ivu'ivu suffer from a degenerative disease that confers upon them seemingly eternal life at the cost of their mental faculties.  In the framing story, Perina's last supporter and friend Ronald Kubodera describes the aftermath of Perina's denunciation by several of his 43 adopted Ivu'ivuan children, and laments the ease with which the world turns on this "great man".

    The spirit of Nabokov wafts over this book.  It is, at one and the same time, the self-justifying narrative of a child abuser trying to spin his actions as rooted in love, a la Lolita, and the final work of a renowned intellectual, annotated and heavily-footnoted by a hanger-on desperate to demonstrate his importance to a man who probably doesn't even notice him, as in Pale Fire.  But Yanagihara's interests take her in directions completely different to Nabokov's, and which she handles with impressive flair.  The bulk of the book is taken up with the description of Perina's first journey to Ivu'ivu as a young doctor, recruited to assist a pair of anthropologists conducting a more traditional study of the tribe, before he makes his own discovery.  The descriptions of the jungle, its strangeness and fecundity, are almost overpowering, but through them it's easy to sense Perina's own detachment, his disgust with anything living that doesn't come from himself.  The descriptions of the Ivu'ivuan society are similarly a masterwork of both worldbuilding and character work.  Yanagihara constructs a fascinating, unusual, not always admirable social structure for her invented tribe, and through Perina's observations of them makes it clear just what a monster he is--how he sees everyone, regardless of race or culture, as inferior to him, and merely a means to his ends.  Even without the accusation of child abuse, Perina's publication of his findings has such a catastrophic effect on Ivu'ivu and its people, as pharmaceutical companies race to take the island apart in search of a workable elixir of eternal life, that it's impossible not to hate him--especially when we realize that to him, this is merely a reason for self-pity, as "his" paradise is lost to him.

    It's a brilliant portrait and a brilliantly constructed world, and I found myself racing through The People in the Trees, unable to put it down no matter how unpleasant its narrator and events.  But as I said, I'm not sure this was the right time for me to read this book.  As little as two years ago, I might have been able to read this kind of story with enough detachment to enjoy it, or at least appreciate it more.  But right now we're surrounded with so many examples of how abuse is excused and ignored, how exploitation is justified  and forgotten, that Yanagihara's conclusion that the accusations against Perina would cause his career to evaporate and even lead to a short prison sentence feels positively rose-tinted.  More importantly, I'm just not in the mood right now to wonder about the psychology of this particular kind of monster. As we keep seeing on the news, people who see others as subhuman are a lot less interesting and complicated than we'd like to believe.  Yanagihara never coddles Perina, and never expects us to feel anything other than disgust for him.  But she also thinks we should be interested in him, and through no fault of her own, that's something that feels wrong at this moment.

  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden - I don't know whether Arden's debut was inspired by Naomi Novik's Uprooted, or whether (as seems more likely) the two books ended up plugging into the same hunger for new ideas in the fantasy genre, which has landed on retellings and remixings of Eastern European folklore.  Either way, Nightingale has a few too many similarities to Uprooted to stand on its own.  Both books are about a young girl in a rural, medieval community slowly becoming aware of her magical powers, just as an ancient evil arises in the nearby forest.  Both feature an ally character who is a powerful, ancient magical user, with whom the heroine develops a prickly relationship with an undertone of quasi-dangerous romance.  Both are driven by the conflict between the restrictive role the heroine's community affords women, and her own desire for purpose and adventure.  And both, as noted, take place in a lightly-fantasized medieval Eastern European setting, with strong lashings of Russian and Slavic folklore.

    Having read (and enjoyed) such a close variant on this story only last year, I ended up appreciating Nightingale a lot more for its realistic details than its fantastic plot--the minutiae of how the farming community at the book's center survives the long, harsh northern winters; the protocols that govern the lives and aspirations of the heroine's gentleman farmer father and his sons; the hints of political intrigue and geopolitical scheming, especially as regards the dissatisfaction of Russian nobles, at that point still paying tribute to the Tatar empire.  That's not to say that there's nothing to enjoy in Nightingale as a story.  Heroine Vasya is delightful, genuinely curious about her world and clear-eyed about the flaws and strengths of the people around her.  Her antagonist, the charismatic priest Konstantin, who tries to punish Vasya for his attraction to her, is fascinating precisely because you can see how much of his evil is rooted in his self-importance, and how easily he could have been a better person if he'd learned to set aside pride and male entitlement.  This is also a story about the tension between rigid social conventions and human flexibility.  Vasya's father and brothers, though certain that she has only one possible life path before her, also realize how easily she could be made unhappy in a life like that, and many authority figures in the novel see it as their role to balance strict rules with common sense and compassion.  As enjoyable as these human details are, when they give way to the novel's fantastical plot, the result is too familiar--not just from Uprooted, but from so many other stories like it.  I found myself wishing that Nightingale had started where it actually ends, with Vasya leaving her home to have adventures, finally shaking off the expectations that had hemmed her--and her story--in.

  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado - It seems like only yesterday that I was telling everyone I could find about this amazing new author I'd discovered, whose stories were a magnificent blend of humor, horror, and an earnest handling of the myriad complications of female sexuality.  In the intervening years, I've watched Machado deservedly become a superstar, both for her stories and her essays, and now with her bestselling, National Book Award-nominated debut collection.  (Meanwhile, the Hugos managed to sleep on Machado in both the short fiction and Campbell categories.  The latter was partly the fault of the various puppy factions, but still: not a great look, guys.)

    It's perhaps inevitable that my reaction to Her Body would be less intense than that of readers new to Machado's unique voice and sensibilities.  I already had the top of my head taken off by "Especially Heinous", a phantasmagorical reimagining of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in which a critique of the show's attitude towards rape and rape culture gives way to multiple ghost stories and forays into alternate universes.  Or "The Husband Stitch", a queasy tale in which a seemingly happy marriage is unmade by the husband's refusal to accept his wife's one limitation on their intimacy.  Of the eight stories collected in Her Body and Other Parties, four were familiar to me, as was the general impression formed by them of an author following in the footsteps of Kelly Link and Sofia Samatar, and incorporating their use of surrealism and wry pop culture references into her own fascination with--as the title suggests--female bodies, how they're perceived, policed, used, and how they feel.  The new stories continue that fascination, for example in "Real Women Have Bodies", in which a prom dress saleswoman in a world in which some women have begun to fade into nothingness discovers a horrifying connection between the disease and her wares.  Or "Eight Bites", about a woman undergoing bariatric surgery whose choice seems to permanently sever her connection to her daughter.  Interestingly, the collection omits several of Machado's publications, such as "Descent" or "My Body, Herself", perhaps because they didn't fit with this theme, so for a lot of readers this will be more of an introduction to Machado than a summation of the first stage in her career.  Either way, it's an essential collection for anyone interested in the more slipstreamy edge of genre short fiction, and for anyone looking for an example of how genre fiction can grapple with issues of gender and sexuality.

  • Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng - The only thing I knew about Ng's debut before reading it was that it was a fantasy about Victorian missionaries in fairyland.  This led me to expect something Strange & Norrell-esque, or perhaps similar to Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown--a wry puncturing of Victorian self-importance in the face of the implacable strangeness of the magical world.  Minus the tone, that's more or less what the novel delivers, but that tone makes a big difference.  Under the Pendulum Sun is a great deal stranger and darker than I was expecting.  It owes a very obvious (and acknowledged) debt to the Brontës, and particularly to Jane Eyre.  It sprinkles those references onto an edifice that is pure Gothic, a story about a young woman who arrives in a mysterious castle where she keeps stumbling across long-held secrets, whose dark past continues to send out tendrils that ensnare her.

    Catherine Helstone arrives in fairyland in search of her brother, Laon, a missionary whose letters home have stopped.  Deposited in the twisty castle, dubbed Gethsemane, where the fairy queen has sequestered her guests seeking to spread Christianity to the fairies, Cathy finds her search for Laon stymied by the riddling answers and deliberate obfuscations of her fellow inhabitants: the changeling Ariel; the gnome Benjamin, fairyland's sole convert; and the fire-breathing housekeeper, Salamander.  The early chapters do a little to sketch in the shape of a world in which fairyland is not only a known place, but a potential site for colonization and cultural imperialism.  We learn, for example, that changelings like Ariel, who grew up thinking she was human, are recruited as ambassadors and go-betweens by the fairies, better able to explain their masters' strangeness to literal-minded humans.  But this is not, ultimately, what Under the Pendulum Sun is about.  Some readers might find the novel a bit slow-going, but Ng is working very squarely within the Gothic tradition, in which Cathy's task is not to explore the breadth of fairyland, but to delve inward into Gethsemane's secrets.  When Laon returns, heralding a visit from the fairy queen herself, it becomes clear that the siblings' relationship is nearly as fraught and full of unspoken truths as their new home.  Faced with a world where none of the rules--of society or of reality--seem to apply, the Helstones are forced to confront the reasons for Laon's decision to flee so far from his sister, and the question of what they do now that they've been reunited.

    Another thing that surprised me about Under the Pendulum Sun was the importance of religion, not just to the novel's Christian characters, but to its plot.  I was expecting Ng's handling of missionaries to veer towards the political, but in fact she spends a lot more time debating theology with Cathy, Laon, and Benjamin, as they try to puzzle out how fairyland fits in with Christian cosmology.  In theory, this should have been my jam--I'm always fascinated by depictions of faith and how characters relate to it.  But I'm not very interested in the kind of nitpicky conversations that the Helstones and Benjamin get into, trying to keep afloat what is essentially a rickety, patched together bit of worldbuilding that can no longer accommodate their new understanding of the world.  To be clear, this is the sort of thing that did (and still does) happen, and Ng is very good at capturing the twisty, headache-inducing turns of argument that people can get into when they refuse to separate the core ideas of a religion from the edifice of tradition erected around it.  But as the novel progresses, it feels less and less as if these questions are important to the characters, a way of showing us how they see and relate to the world, and more as if they're just objectively important.  The question of whether changelings like Ariel have a soul ends up having a concrete significance to the plot, whereas to me the fact that Ariel is clearly a thinking, feeling person renders such discussions moot.  It's possible that this is the conclusion Ng is aiming at as well--the novel's ending sees Catherine and Laon struggling with their own, possibly damning, sins, and whether they're even interested in seeking forgiveness for them.  But if so it comes to that conclusion long past the point where I was ready for it.  Still, it's sufficiently unusual to see fantasy grapple with religion--and particularly this branch of 19th century, empire-tinged Christianity--that even a frustrating attempt is worth exploring.  Which is ultimately my conclusion about Under the Pendulum Sun as a whole.  It's a strange novel, and not entirely satisfying.  But it's so much its own thing that I don't hesitate to recommend it, and am extremely curious to see what Ng does next.

  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge - One of the problems--or, well, "problems"--of Frances Hardinge being an exceptional writer who is also quite prolific is that you can end up developing an over-familiarity with her favorite tropes and themes.  Hardinge's perennial focus is on characters who are damaged, sometimes by abuse, but sometimes also by difficult circumstances such as poverty or racial persecution.  Her books repeatedly drum in the point that for her protagonists, the damage caused by their twisted upbringing--the isolation inflicted on Neverfell in A Face Like Glass, or the emotional manipulation to which both heroines are subjected in Cuckoo Song--can't be undone, but that they can learn to come to terms with it, and forge a good life in spite of it.  It's a powerful, important message, and especially effective coming from an author of Hardinge's skill, who never shies away from the ugliness of what her characters are capable of.  But especially for an adult reader, it can get a little wearying to encounter again and again.  But then you get a novel like A Skinful of Shadows, which reminds you that even when she's working within a familiar scheme, Hardinge is so full of ideas that she can always find ways to make her preoccupations feel new and affecting.

    A Skinful of Shadows is set in the 17th century, in the early years of the English Civil War.  Our heroine, Makepeace, is raised first among Puritans, and then given work as a kitchen girl in the house of an old noble family, whose illegitimate scion she is.  In both of these settings, Makepeace is forced to contend with her ability to see and manipulate the spirits of the dead.  Her strict, emotionally withholding mother taught Makepeace to fight off the ghosts who tried to possess her, but her unacknowledged family, the Fellmottes, have more sinister plans for her.  They're keeping her around as a "spare", a vessel into which to pour the spirits of long-dead ancestors in case one of the legitimate Fellmottes, raised to this task since childhood, should die.  The ghost metaphor is evocative, especially after Makepeace, seeking to escape the Fellmottes and rescue her already-possessed half-brother James, starts amassing a menagerie of spirits to help her in her task.  And Hardinge finds multiple uses for it, each of which relates in a different way to the central theme of her writing, the abuse perpetrated by individuals and systems.  Early in the novel, Makepeace takes in the spirit of a sideshow bear, whom she constantly has to calm and acclimatize to her new situations.  He becomes a representation of her anger, and of the difficulty that a mistreated child has in opening up and showing trust.  The Fellmotte ancestors, who use their descendants as receptacles, not caring that doing so usually destroys the original personality, are a predatory system that sees everyone as subservient, a means to the preservation of the elite.  Late in the novel it's revealed that the legitimate Fellmotte heirs, though raised in privilege, are subjected to routine alterations to their personality by the ghosts in order to make them more suitable receptacles.  The end result of this, as exemplified by Makepeace and James's cousin Symond, is psychopathic, a reminder of what can happen when child abuse is combined with almost limitless privilege.

    A Skinful of Shadows follows Makepeace back and forth across the English landscape as she tries to first escape the Fellmottes, and then accrue enough leverage against them to bargain for James's freedom.  Along the way she collects a coterie of spirits--a conceited doctor, a deserting Puritan soldier, one of the Fellmotes' spies--whom she must corral and negotiate with.  In her journeys, she also gains several perspectives on the war, and while the book ultimately sides with Parliament in the conflict, its main conclusion is that both sides are prone to abuse and exploitation--there's a particular emphasis on Puritan authoritarianism and misogyny, for example when Makepeace runs afoul of a witchfinder who is certain that her possession is a sign that she's made a deal with the devil.  As in her previous books, Hardinge's interest in abuse isn't confined to a single abusive relationship or household.  She sees abuse as a product of broader social choices, in this case the belief that some people are simply worth more than others, which is taken to irrational extremes in the form of the Felmottes, whose exploitation of their lessers continues even after death.  None of the institutions Makepeace encounters in the novel--the Fellmotte estate, the court of Charles I, the Parliamentarian army, or the Puritan church--are free of this belief, and she ends up rejecting all of them.  She offers a counterpoint in the form of the community she forms with the ghosts she carries, and in making an active choice to respect their right to happiness and self-determination.  By the end of the novel, both Makepiece and James have committed to living as multiple beings, offering homes to people who weren't given a fair shake in life.  It's the kind of ending you can't imagine any author but Hardinge delivering, and certainly not with her level of assurance and skill.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2017 Edition

I've been doing these fall TV reviews for more than a decade, and every year they feel less relevant, as either a guide to shows that people might like to watch or a commentary on the state of TV.  It's not that I believe that network TV is no longer capable of producing worthwhile, exciting fare--after all, my favorite show currently airing, whose second season is somehow managing to top even its stellar first one, is a network sitcom.  But pretty much everything the networks have trotted out this fall, good and bad, has felt inessential, like retreads of old ideas and trends that aren't really worth taking the time to talk about.  My focus in this post, then, is on the one thing that makes this fall unusual--the fact that in the space of a month, we've seen the premieres of four different SF shows.  Not all of them are good, but their subject matter means that all of them are sufficiently far from the standard network template that I can find something to say about them.
  • The Orville - By now you've probably heard that Seth MacFarlane's new space-set show is not, as you might expect from its description, appearance, and MacFarlane's involvement, a parody of Star Trek, but an hour-long adventure show that is entirely earnest in its use of Star Trek's tropes and conventions.  This, however, doesn't even come close to capturing the strangeness, and the awkwardness, of what MacFarlane has produced with The Orville.  Watching it feels like what I imagine it would be like if you could follow along and watch--but never participate--in someone else's not-very-sophisticated but extremely well-funded Star Trek LARP.  As a television show, The Orville is bad--the storytelling is slow and dull, the dialogue is stilted and full of infodumps (which none of the actors know how to deliver), the characters are barely there--but one feels almost embarrassed to point this out, as if by doing so you're interrupting someone else's fun.  In all my years of watching way too much TV, I have never encountered a show that gave off so pronounced an impression of being completely uninterested in me or any other member of the audience, of existing solely so that its creator--MacFarlane, as Ed Mercer, the newly-minted captain of the titular ship--could cosplay in his favorite fictional universe.

    As a Star Trek fan myself, this is an impulse that I might be expected to sympathize with.  But one of the very first things The Orville reveals, once you get past the strangeness of its project, is how shallow MacFarlane's take on Star Trek actually is.  Oh, the look is all there--the costumes, cityscapes, and spaceships all look exactly like what you'd get if you took the aesthetic of The Next Generation and updated it to keep up with 2017 fashions and production values--and the terms are all easily recognizable--instead of the Federation you've got the Union; instead of Klingons you've got a species whose name I didn't even bother to learn, but who cares, they're Klingons.  And in interviews, MacFarlane has spoken about his desire to return to the "optimistic" type of space exploration stories that Star Trek specialized in.  But the actual stories showing up on screen contain none of the depth or wit that made Star Trek actually good, and the prevailing emotion in the show is less optimism than blandness.  Star Trek has a reputation for being sterile, for ignoring the real messiness of human life and relationships in its zeal to depict a future in which so many (but by no means all) of the sources of human misery had been eliminated.  Leaving aside for a moment whether that's an accurate perception, The Orville's solution to this alleged problem only reveals what a depth of emotion there was in the series it takes off from, and how insufficient MacFarlane's "modernized" take on it is.  The characters on The Orville aren't messy and human; they're shallow and immature.  And not even in fun ways--if the show were more strongly comedic, it might be possible to forgive the fact that its characterization comes down to having the cast speak in 21st century slang and make ever-so-slightly risque jokes.  But given its earnest tone, the thinness of its stories and character arcs is simply unforgivable.

    Instead of relying on humor, The Orville cadges storylines from both its obvious inspiration and real life--the second episode borrows from several top-notch Star Trek episodes when it reveals the existence of an alien zoo where sentient species are kept as displays; the third episode revolves around a female baby born to an all-male species, whose parents want to give her gender reassignment surgery.  But the handling of these ideas is invariably shallow, dull, and terrified of controversy--in the third episode, MacFarlane and his writers somehow manage to go a whole hour without ever mentioning the existence of intersex humans, much less suggesting that in The Orville's idealized future, such people might be considered unremarkable.  A similar shallowness afflicts the characters' relationships, the most important one of which is between Ed and his ex-wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki, who deserves so much better than this), who cheated on him and is now trying to make amends by helping to put his career, derailed by their divorce, back on track by serving as his second-in-command.  It's tempting to roll your eyes at such a hoary premise, but it might have been better if The Orville were wall-to-wall ex-wife jokes.  Instead, it plays the relationship between Ed and Kelly mostly straight, and in so doing draws attention to the fact that neither one of them behaves like anything resembling a human being, much less one wracked by the kind of deep feelings you'd expect the breakdown of a marriage following infidelity to arouse.  There's the slightest uptick in drama in the third episode, when we witness the conflict between the alien parents who disagree over whether to "conform" their female child, but still not at the level of getting us to care about these people, one of whom is a series regular.  I can almost sympathize with MacFarlane's desire to have another show like Star Trek on the air, but he's so bad at making a version of Star Trek that realizes why that show was special that he might as well not have bothered.

  • Star Trek: Discovery - An additional reason to resent the existence of The Orville is that it has exposed a surprisingly wide seam in Star Trek fandom who, like MacFarlane, seem to think that Star Trek's appeal begins and ends with nostalgia.  These are the people who tend to slag off the most recent addition to the actual Star Trek canon, Discovery, while claiming that The Orville represents "real" Star Trek.  Which is probably making me a lot more partial to Discovery than the show currently deserves.  Taken on its own merits, Discovery is a frustrating but fascinating mix of good and bad, Trek and not-Trek.  But what I appreciate about it is that, even in its worst moments, there is a palpable sense that the people creating it are trying to move Star Trek forward, both as an idea and a work of television.  Not everything they're doing works, and given how withholding the show's storytelling is, even four episodes in, it'll probably take me until the end of the season to decide where I come down on it.  But the idea that it is necessary to grow and change in order to keep telling a story about the infinite possibilities of the future is the most quintessentially Star Trek thing imaginable, so in that sense at least, Discovery is on the right track.

    Perhaps the most disorienting--and at the moment, un-Star Trek-like--thing about Discovery is that it's the story of a person, not a ship or a place.  Heroine Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) quickly goes from rising star in the Starfleet ranks to mutineer to a press-ganged crewmember on the titular ship, whose captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is conducting a mysterious and probably ill-fated experiment in new propulsion systems, and whose ship is filled with secrets and mysteries.  It's not how Star Trek is supposed to work--the ship is always supposed to be home; the crew, even if they disagree, are always supposed to be allies--and, especially for fans traumatized by the recent movies' tendency to throw every idea and principle that made Star Trek what it was out the window in service of a generic action plot and an unearned hero narrative, it's a worrying decision.  What keeps me feeling hopeful about Discovery is mainly Michael herself, who is a wonderful blend of intellect and temper, calm reasoning and self-destructive urges.  The badass/fuckup combination that failed so catastrophically with NuKirk works wonderfully here, mainly because the writing and the performance combine to create the impression that Michael is always thinking, always questioning, genuinely curious about her surroundings and genuinely thoughtful in her choices--even the bad ones.  If she's not quite the Hornblower-esque figure that the original Kirk was, she's a fascinating modern variation on it--not least for being a black woman.

    The rest of the Discovery crew are still being revealed, but there's a similar complexity to some of the ones we've already met.  Commander Saru (Doug Jones), a member of an alien race who are congenitally fearful and pessimistic, but who is also decent and kind; Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), a scientist who is caught between elation and disgust that the military are fast-tracking his project; Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Michael's roommate who appears to have some sort of anxiety disorder, but who is also ambitious, and willing to learn even from an unlikely source like Michael.  They all feel like people with their own points of view, and more importantly for a Star Trek context, like people who are used to looking at the universe like a puzzle, not an obstacle course.  There are other aspects of the show that feel more conventional, more like the action-adventure direction that the movies took--Lorca and the suggestion that he's a villain; his mean-tempered chief of security Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma); most of all, the show's take on the Klingons, who have so much less personality and individuality than they did in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.  As I've said, I probably won't know how I feel about Discovery until at least the end of the first season.  But what I do know is that there isn't another character like Michael Burnham on TV right now, nor another story that gives her the opportunity to be a badass, a scientist, and a political thinker.  That, to me, feels like Star Trek.

  • The Gifted - Fox's second X-Men series is a great deal less trippy and surreal than Legion, but has essentially the same premise--mutants fleeing for their lives and freedom from sinister government agencies.  The more conventional style and structure allows The Gifted to be more political, though I'm reserving judgment on how successfully.  In a world where draconian laws allow the government to detain and intern mutants, a middle class couple discover that their children have abilities, and go on the run, teaming up with the mutant underground.  The twist is that the family's father, Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer) is a lawyer for the government whose job is to criminalize and prosecute mutants.  In fairness, The Gifted seems aware of the inherent problems of focusing its story about oppression on a former oppressor, who only realizes his actions were wrong when they affect his own family.  Already in the first episode there is evidence of subtle criticism of Reed and his wife Kate (Amy Acker, once again being unimaginatively asked to play weepy and overwhelmed), who are the kind of people who pride themselves on being decent and law-abiding, but who, when push comes to shove, genuinely don't seem to believe that the laws should apply to them.  An early scene sees Reed demand severe treatment of students who have bullied his son by, ironically enough, bullying one of his teachers, and when the scary Sentinel Services come to take away the Strucker children after an incident at their school, Kate, who had previously told Reed that he is "keeping us safe" from mutants, flatly denies that the government has any right to take her kids.

    It's still possible that The Gifted means for us to see this behavior as uncomplicatedly heroic, and not to notice the Struckers' privileged habits of thought (though the second episode sees Kate being confronted with the fact that she didn't care about how badly mutants were being mistreated until she realized her children were mutants).  But an additional way in which the show addresses its potential problems is by not focusing exclusively on Reed and Kate.  Equal time is given to the Strucker children, Lauren and Andy (Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes White), who have a nice big sister-little brother rapport, and who clearly don't entirely trust their parents--one of the best scenes in the pilot comes when Lauren reveals that she's been hiding her mutant abilities for three years because she didn't know how Reed and Kate would react.  The mutant underground are also given their own storyline, and though I could wish that the show were told more strongly from their point of view (not least because the underground is a great deal more diverse than the lily-white Strucker family), it doesn't treat them as a means to Reed's ends, nor as helpless victims who need him to save them.  A lot depends on how The Gifted will develop its story going forward--there's a lot of potential for the show to be a story about a racist who Learns Better, and by this point we should all be able to look around and see that it doesn't work that way.  But if the show continues to challenge Reed and Kate on their privilege, and to develop the storylines of the kids and the other mutants, it might end up having something interesting to say about its extremely familiar premise.

  • Marvel's Inhumans - There's probably nothing I can say at this stage that will add to the torrent of scorn that has rained down on Marvel TV's latest effort.  The only thing I can say is that it's all deserved.  Inhumans is a genuinely awful show: poorly written, indifferently acted, and with almost no characters that anyone could care about or be interested in.  What I will say is that I was a little surprised by this failure.  Scott Buck's last tour of duty with Marvel, Iron Fist, was pretty bad in its own right (though, amazingly, still better than Inhumans), but the one thing it got right was the twisted 1% family drama of the Meachums, Danny Rand's business partners.  Given that the one thing I kept hearing about the Inhumans was that they were a superpowered Dynasty, Buck seemed like the perfect fit.  And yet for some reason, he seems to have misplaced the instincts he had for that kind of soap opera storytelling when it came time to write Inhumans, trying to sell the show as a straightforward story of good versus evil, even as the actual characters and premise he presents completely fail to earn those designations.

    Inhumans is set in the secret city of Attilan on the Moon, where the part-alien title characters live in a society governed by a rigid caste system.  At puberty, young Inhumans are exposed to Terrigen Mist, which either transforms them and gives them powers, or leaves them human.  The latter group are then sent to toil in the mines, while the former live like kings--literally, as our heroes Black Bolt and Medusa (Anson Mount and Serinda Swan) rule over Attilan along with the rest of the royal family.  The obvious perversity of this arrangement is recognized only by Black Bolt's brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon), who orchestrates a palace coup and gains the people's support by promising them new living space on Earth.  In other words, at the very least Inhumans should be a twisty tale of intrigue and double-crosses where no one is purely good or bad (though frankly, the only reason not to be completely on Maximus's side is that he keeps killing people who get in his way).  Instead, the show presents Black Bolt, Medusa, and their supporters as completely in the right, and Maximus's actions as completely evil, and leaves no space for the kind of political machinations its premise clearly demands.

    Of the cast, only Rheon and Swan seem to realize that they should be playing entitled, arrogant aristocrats, whose appeal comes not from being likable but from total self-possession.  Even they, however, can't do much with the story or characters they've been given.  The show fares much worse with Black Bolt, who can't speak because his voice has terrible concussive properties.  Seemingly no thought has been given to how to convey the personality of a completely silent character, and so Maximus's accusation that Black Bolt is passive and unwilling to plan for the future end up carrying a lot of weight, further cementing the feeling that neither he nor his family deserve to win this particular game of thrones.  One imagines that, like The Gifted, the arc of this story will be for the "good" Inhuman characters to take the opportunity of having been humbled in order to Learn Better and then remake Inhuman society into a more equal place.  But, even if the execution so far were not so very bad, that feels like a waste of a good premise.  There's nothing wrong with a twisty soap opera, and the world of Marvel is obviously a rich setting for one.  Not everything needs to be about heroes and villains.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

New Scientist Column: Maggie Shen King, M.T. Anderson, and Dave Hutchinson

My latest column at The New Scientist has a relationship focus: in Maggie Shen King's debut novel An Excess Male, China's one child policy leads to a population of unmarriageable men who are encouraged to enter into polyandrous arrangements.  There's a definite whiff of The Handmaid's Tale wafting over this novel (which, along with last year's The Power, leads me to wonder if we're seeing a mini-trend of SF that recalls that classic, thirty years on), but what's most interesting about An Excess Male is that it isn't a dystopia, and remains intriguingly open-minded about the possibility of creating a good family in such an awkward situation.

Somewhat less hopeful about the possibility for romance in a futuristically altered world is M.T. Anderson's Landscape With Invisible Hand, his first foray back into YA fiction since the transcendent Octavian Nothing duology.  I describe the story as The Hunger Games meets Black Mirror's "Fifteen Million Merits", which is definitely a compliment.

I was less thrilled by Dave Hutchinson's novella Acadie.  Those looking for more Le Carré-esque spy-and-geopolitics shenanigans in the vein of Hutchinson's Fractured Europe books will find something very different.  One assumes that this was a deliberate choice on Hutchinson's part, but it pays off very few dividends in this case.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

It might seem a bit strange to say that The Stone Sky, the concluding volume of the Broken Earth trilogy, had a lot riding on it.  For the past two years, the SF field and its fandom have been falling over themselves to crown this trilogy as not just good, but important.  Both of the previous volumes in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, were nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo.  When The Fifth Season won the Hugo in 2016, it made Jemisin the first African-American (and the first American POC) to win the best novel category.  When The Obelisk Gate won the same award earlier this year, it was the first time that consecutive volumes in a series had won the Hugo back-to-back since, I believe, Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead thirty years ago.  That's probably not considered the best company nowadays, but it speaks to the kind of zeitgeist-capturing work that Jemisin is doing with this series.  In that context, the third volume might almost be looked at as a victory lap, just waiting to be showered with laurels.

To me, however, a great deal depended on the kind of ending Jemisin crafted for her story.  This was a bind she had set up for herself--one assumes in full knowledge--already in The Fifth Season's opening chapter, in which she ended the world.  Even in The Stillness, a planet (strongly implied to be a far-future Earth) wracked by geological instability and prone to "fifth seasons", in which ash released into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions caused years-long winters, the supervolcano explosion that sets off the series's story was an anomalous event, one that would render the planet incapable of supporting life for millennia.  No amount of preparation or adherence to tradition on the part of the humans of the planet--whose entire culture is designed to survive Seasons--could save them for more than a generation or two.  What's more, Jemisin quickly reveals that not only was the supervolcano eruption (referred to as The Shattering) caused intentionally, but it was done as an act of defiance and revenge by an orogene, a member of a group who have the power to cause or quell geological instability, who are reviled, persecuted, hounded, abused, and murdered by the powerless (or "still") inhabitants of the Stillness.

So, Jemisin starts with a world that is not only doomed, but which doesn't really deserve to be saved, and any reader with even the slightest amount of genre reading protocols will naturally assume that the trajectory of her story will be to fix both of these things.  But, especially given how deeply The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate delve into the myriad injustices and cruelties that govern the Stillness, it's hard not to approach the end-point of that story with a bit of trepidation.  The Fifth Season was a portrait of how the society of The Stillness operated during normal periods, including the systems it had put into place to control and oppress orogenes--the institution of The Fulcrum, where young orogenes were trained, using techniques that liberally employed physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, to control their powers and make them "useful" to the world; and the caste known as The Guardians, who protect, police, and hunt down orogenes, developing sick, codependent bonds with their charges-cum-victims.  The Obelisk Gate shows us how society functions during a Season, and here too orogenes have no place.  One of the tasks of Guardians (who are revealed in this volume to be something akin to vampires, drawing sustenance from a substance found in orogenes' bodies) during a Season is to kill their charges, then go into hibernation until the Season ends.  As both books establish, orogenes are necessary--they quell instabilities that might lead to Seasons and make the Stillness livable--and yet they are also hated and abused.  It was difficult to imagine what solution Jemisin could come up with that would persuasively counter such entrenched, systemic hostility, especially at the same time as she constructs a more familiar quest narrative whose purpose is to save the world from the effects of the cataclysm she unleashed.

Does she manage it?  Yes and no.  One of the problems with writing about the Broken Earth books is that they're completely different works when viewed through the lens of worldbuilding and ideas, and through the lens of character and plot.  On the former level, these are some of the most important, groundbreaking genre books of the last decade.  On the latter, they often struggle and overreach.  (The reason, I think, that The Fifth Season is the best book of the three is that it's the one that achieves its plotting and characterization through worldbuilding, by using its three heroines as points of view to the Stillness's various dysfunctions, and following them as they navigate the systems intended to keep orogenes under control.)  The Stone Sky, like its predecessors, switches between several viewpoints.  In one storyline, Essun, heroine of the previous two books and renegade orogene, struggles with guilt over the multiple acts of violence and mass-murder she committed in her attempts to get out from under the Fulcrum and the Guardians' control.  She hopes to expiate her guilt by saving the world, recapturing the planet's moon, which was lost in the distant past and whose return might permanently quell the Stillness's instability.  In the second storyline, Essun's daughter, Nassun, is traveling with Schaffa, a former Guardian (who, unbeknownst to her, is the person who once hunted down Essun, leading to the death of her oldest child).  Betrayed by both her parents--her mother recreated the abusive training of the Fulcrum in her attempts to keep Nassun's orogeny under wraps, and her father murdered her younger brother when he couldn't exercise the same control--and appalled by the system of injustice and abuse that traps orogenes and stills alike, Nassun is traveling to the same place as Essun, with the intention of wresting from her control of the Obelisk Gate, the system of amplifiers that could allow Essun to catch the Moon when its orbit brings it back in range, but which Nassun intends to use to end the cycle of cruelty by ending all life on the planet.  Intercutting between mother and daughter is Hoa, a Stone Eater--a race of immortal, silicon-based aliens--who reveals to us how the broken system of the Stillness came into existence, and how the Moon was originally lost.

It's a lot, in other words--a quest and a family drama and a portrait of abuse and how people struggle (and sometimes fail) to live with the weight of it--and there isn't quite enough space to do it all in a way that feels organic.  One of the goals of the Broken Earth books is to chart the emotional toll that living under constant racism and abuse can take on a person, even when that person isn't a "sympathetic" victim--when they respond, as Essun and Nassun do, with indiscriminate violence.  It's a project that works fantastically well in The Fifth Season, but The Stone Sky, like The Obelisk Gate before it, ends up telling more often than it shows, especially when it comes to its characters' fraught, complicated emotional states.  These are narrated to us in the second person, in a device that ends up having a purpose but which, in the moment, feels awkward.  When the emotional climax of the novel--and the fate of the world--hangs on whether Essun can overcome her failures as a mother to reach out to her daughter, and whether Nassun can process her many traumas sufficiently to believe that the world might still be worth living in, the fact that we get total insight into both of their minds, with every single emotion and every single step of their decision-making process spelled out, ends up feeling curiously distancing.  It makes them feel less like people and more like cogs in a machine, who make decisions not because it makes sense for them as human beings but because that's what the plot needs them to do in that moment.

Take a slightly broader view, though, and that's exactly what they are.  If I'm lukewarm on the Broken Earth books as the story of individuals, I am all-in on them as the story of systems.  And as a story about the stories about those systems.  It is, in fact, one of the most remarkable traits of this series that no matter how many times you pull back from it, how many layers of metafiction you place between yourself and the text, it still has something eye-opening to say.  At the most basic level of the systems of its world, The Broken Earth is a story about how the Stillness is designed to both perpetuate and benefit from oppression.  But the books also contain and constantly reference the texts that teach the people of the Stillness how to function within that system, reminding us that it is the story the Stillness tells itself about itself that achieves its oppressive effect.  Pull back further, however, and it's easy to see that the Stillness is made of tropes--some of the most common tropes of genre writing, here taken to their horrific but entirely logical conclusions.  And then it becomes impossible not to see that those tropes are integral components of the stories that we tell ourselves, and that, just as they do in the Stillness, in our world those stories feed off, and into, racist and oppressive habits of thought.

You see this most obviously in the books' central conceit, the oppressed superpowered minority, the subject of so much hand-wringing and exasperation in genre and particularly comics fandom.  Most of fandom (and even some creators) seem to have reached the conclusion that The Mutant Metaphor doesn't work, that it is impossible to talk meaningfully about the kind of racism that exists in our world by comparing black people, LGBT people, immigrants, or Jews to people who have tremendous and often destructive powers.  Jemisin instead takes the metaphor and makes it her own, insisting on the possibility of social justice even within a world so twisted that it offers up a so-called justification for racism and oppression.  The scenes set in the Fulcrum in The Fifth Season feel like a deliberate perversion of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, reminding us that it is impossible to simultaneously treat people like a bomb that is about to go off and a person.  In The Stone Sky, each chapter closes with a passage from the notes of a Stillness researcher who reveals the many times in which orogenes prevented Seasons, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, but in many other cases, by revealing themselves after having lived in hiding in still society.  In almost every such case, the people these orogenes had just saved turn on them with sudden, uncompromising viciousness.  It's a powerful statement that even in a world where there is supposedly a reason for it, racism is not rational.  That even when orogenes "prove" that they are good and necessary, the prejudice against them runs deeper.

Something even more powerful emerges when you remember that both of these truths--the danger that orogenes pose, and the fact that they keep saving the world even in the face of abuse and certain death--are choices that Jemisin made in her worldbuilding.  It seems to be a deliberate rebuke to the ubiquity of the dangerous, persecuted minority trope.  Instead of abandoning it, Jemisin compounds it, and then dares us to keep reacting to it from the same place of comfort that originally made it so popular.  What does it mean, after all, to build a world in which there is no choice but to oppress and abuse certain people?  It tells us nothing about real racism, but it might say a great deal about the kind of people for whom that kind of story holds an appeal.  The Broken Earth books are a deliberate challenge to such thoughtlessness.  On the one hand, they don't shy away from the danger that orogenes pose, or from their capacity to do horrific damage--over the course of her life, Essun kills probably hundreds of thousands of people, and her former lover Alabaster (the father of her murdered child and the orogene who sets off the Shattering) kills millions.  And on the other hand, they also reverse the direction of the difficulty posed by these tropes.  In The Stone Sky, it's revealed that Alabaster was motivated not just by rage and vengeance, but by cold reason.  By blowing up the supervolcano, he unleashes tremendous power that can be channeled by an orogene like Essun into the Obelisk Gate, and used to capture the Moon and end the Seasons forever.  "You want to read about worlds where racism and oppression are justified?"  Jemisin seems to be saying to her readers.  "Fine, I'll not only make the monsters of those stories my heroes, but I'll make it so that the only way to fix this horribly broken world is for them to kill millions of 'normal' people."  It's a direct challenge to comfortable readers who suddenly find the cold equations facing in the other direction.

Of course, the problem isn't simply tropes, but how those tropes both reflect and justify real racism.  The Mutant Metaphor may not be a good way of coping with with racism in fiction, but its reverse--the idea that certain groups are inherently dangerous and therefore killable--crops up in reality to justify real harm to ordinary human beings.  When the grand jury testimony of Michael Brown's killer was made public, Jamelle Bouie observed that he spoke as if he'd been facing a superhero, not an unarmed teenage boy.  Television shows and movies, including and often primarily in genre fiction, popularize the narratives that are later used to justify things like police brutality or drone warfare.  Jemisin takes that fact to its logical conclusion in The Stone Sky when she reveals that orogeny was genetically engineered into humanity not as a tool, but as a way of making such racist narratives real.  Having hounded an ethnic group, the Niess, out of existence, and having convinced themselves that they possessed superpowers that justified such hounding, the humans of what would become the Stillness had no choice but to bring the monsters of their imagination into being.
If the Niess were merely human, the world built on their inhumanity would fall apart.

So... they made us.

...Remember, we must not be just tools, but myths.  Thus we later creations have been given exaggerated Niess features--broad faces, small mouths, skin nearly devoid of color, hair that laughs at fine combs, and we're all so short.  They've stripped our limbic systems of neurochemicals and our lives of experience and language and knowledge.  And only now, when we have been made over in the image of their own fear, are they satisfied.  They tell themselves that in us, they've captured the quintessence and power of who the Niess really were, and they congratulate themselves on having made their old enemies useful at last.
A few hours before I sat down to write this review, I read an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he tries to grapple with the reality of a nation that could elect both Barack Obama and Donald Trump as consecutive presidents.  His conclusion is that America relies on the narrative of white supremacy, but is willing to set it aside when things get bad enough--as they were in 2008 when Obama was elected.  But when the pendulum swings back a little, the need to reassert a white supremacist worldview becomes paramount.  A similar dynamic is observed in The Stone Sky; Nassun and Schaffa advise a group of runaway orogene children to find a community where their abilities will make them useful during the Season.  But, they warn, if it ever looks as if the Season is receding, the children will have to run away, lest the same people whose lives they saved turn on them.

Writing about the role of narrative in perpetuating and obscuring the role of white supremacy in history, Coates observes:
It is not a mistake that Gone With the Wind is one of the most read works of American literature or that The Birth of a Nation is the most revered touchstone of all American film. Both emerge from a need for palliatives and painkillers, an escape from the truth of those five short years in which 750,000 American soldiers were killed, more than all American soldiers killed in all other American wars combined, in a war declared for the cause of expanding "African slavery". That war was inaugurated not reluctantly, but lustily, by men who believed property in humans to be the cornerstone of civilisation, to be an edict of God, and so delivered their own children to his maw. And when that war was done, the now-defeated God lived on, honoured through the human sacrifice of lynching and racist pogroms. The history breaks the myth. And so the history is ignored, and fictions are weaved into our art and politics that dress villainy in martyrdom and transform banditry into chivalry, and so strong are these fictions that their emblem, the stars and bars, darkens front porches and state capitol buildings across the land to this day.
"The history breaks the myth.  And so the history is ignored" feels like the thesis statement of The Stone Sky, a book that is all about pulling back the curtain to reveal the ugly causes of the Stillness's ugly present.  It's not a mistake that the only way Jemisin's characters can find to finally defeat this history and begin again involves destroying much of the world--the weight of hatred, and the unwillingness to admit where that hatred is rooted, are too great for anything else.  And even then, the book's ending is uncertain.  Will peace between orogenes and stills ever be possible?  Will orogenes, finally freed of the Fulcrum and the Guardians, take their revenge and even try to become the oppressors they were once subject to?  Will stills continue to follow the forms of ancient hatreds even when what little reason there was for them is gone?  Is it possible to teach the Stillness new stories about itself, or will those stories, like their predecessors, simply serve to paper over crimes and cruelties?

There isn't another work in science fiction asking these questions.  Not really.  Not with this intensity.  Not with such a clear-eyed look at where so much of the ugliness that underpins our own society comes from.  And not with the demand that we acknowledge how much our own genre perpetuates and intensifies that ugliness.  If there's any justice, these books will represent an upheaval that the genre will never look back from.  No more building worlds to reify narratives that hurt people in the real world.  No more villains whose villainy consists of responding "badly" to their abusers.  No more quick fixes that put everything right without acknowledging how deep hatred and prejudice can run in a civilization.  In hindsight, I shouldn't have worried that Jemisin wouldn't know how to craft the right (I am deliberately not saying "satisfying") ending for this series.  Her certainty and clear vision with it have been apparent from day one, from that first chapter.  It only remains to be seen whether the rest of the genre will follow suit.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That Gum You Like: Scattered Thoughts on Twin Peaks: The Return

I missed Twin Peaks the first time around.  Which is to say that I was aware of it--aware, even at the time, that it was considered a major event, and a shattering of the norms of what television could and should do.  But I was a little too young to watch it.  If my mother had watched the show I might have joined her, as I did with St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law, but as far as I know she wasn't interested, and when I got old enough to start forming my own TV tastes, it was on shows that were influenced by Twin Peaks--The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer--but not the thing itself.

My second time around with Twin Peaks, I was around twenty, and a local channel started airing the show late at night.  I wasn't a habitual viewer--I caught some of the first season, and a few episodes from the end of the show, including the infamous "how's Annie?" ending.  The internet being a thing by that point, I went online to catch up on the parts of the show I'd missed, and took in the general consensus that Twin Peaks was a glorious mess that never really paid off its setup, and that the prequel movie Fire Walk With Me was a self-indulgent disappointment.  Being, at that point, rather burned out on works that promised major revelation without having a real idea of what it was (a condition often referred to as "being an X-Files fan") my impulse with Twin Peaks was to hold it at arm's length.  It didn't seem worth it to get invested in a work that had no proper meaning or conclusion, and so, even as I got repeatedly burned by Alias and Lost and Battlestar Galactica, I held off on any real engagement with the ur-text of so many of them.

My third try with Twin Peaks was just a few months ago, when, in preparation for the upcoming revival series, I mainlined the entire 30 episodes of the show, plus Fire Walk With Me, over a long weekend.  It was strange experiencing the show this way, simultaneously a newcomer and someone who knew quite a bit about it, including the major turns of plot.  What was even stranger was how much the existence of The Return changed the meaning and significance of the original Twin Peaks, even before a single frame of it had aired.  From a failed experiment, it became merely a chapter in a story, whose later installments might yet redeem it.  Watching Twin Peaks was suddenly no longer an exercise in nostalgia and self-flagellation, but that venerable Peak TV practice of binge-watching the previous seasons before the new episodes start.  I ended up enjoying this rewatch much more than I was expecting (Fire Walk With Me, in particular, turns out to be a great deal more rewarding than I'd been led to believe), but I wonder if I would have felt the same if I didn't know that another chapter in the saga was just around the corner.

It also made me think of how much Twin Peaks straddles, defines, and is now a product of the changes that TV has undergone in the last thirty years.  One of the things that struck me once I finally let myself experience the show properly this spring is how nimble and multifaceted its storytelling is.  The conversation surrounding Twin Peaks tends to concentrate on its mythology, but there's so much more to the show than that, and it is precisely that polyphonic quality that makes it so special.  Twin Peaks is a murder mystery, a soap opera, a melodrama, a comedy, a portrait of abuse, and a genre story about a cosmic battle between good and evil.  The different styles penetrate and influence each other in a way that shouldn't work but absolutely does, but which also proves incredibly difficult to imitate.  Just look at the precipitous drop in quality in the show's second season, after the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder was solved and David Lynch left in a huff because of network interference.  The same ingredients are there, but the stew they make quickly turns rancid.

Twin Peaks redefined what television was and what it could do, but to recreate its affect was nearly impossible (even ignoring the fact that the show was only sporadically successful at that affect itself).  It is simultaneously sui generis, and monumentally influential.  It has never been repeated (despite a few attempts here and there), and yet there is scarcely a show on TV right now that it doesn't have tendrils in, if only because it did so many things that, no matter what kind of story you ended up telling, Twin Peaks could offer you a template or an inspiration.  Shows as disparate as The X-Files, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Carnivalé, Riverdale, and Gravity Falls wear its influence on their sleeves.

At the same time, it has also been superseded.  Lost took that sense of portent that Twin Peaks specialized in, the conviction that just around the corner there is a missing piece that will make every bit of weirdness that has come before fall into place, and figured out how to commodify and mass-produce it.  In so doing, it also degraded it.  Looking forward to The Return, I worried that nothing it could do would seem very special in a TV landscape where mystery, overarching storylines, and complex mythologies are par for the course.  To a certain, minor extent, I was right (while being wrong in a much bigger way, as we'll discuss shortly).  Twin Peaks: The Return is both a product of the era of Peak TV, and a victim of it.  It would never have existed if we didn't live in a world in which dozens of channels are producing hundreds of hours of scripted television, each vying for attention and desperately searching for something to set them apart.  It is the product of a fashion for nostalgia (and a streaming TV model looking to hook new viewers) that has brought us new seasons of The X-Files, 24, Prison Break, Full House, and Gilmore Girls.  If in 1991 Lynch could be browbeaten into revealing Laura Palmer's murderer and then chased off his own show, in 2016 he could put his foot down and demand exactly the amount of money, and the number of episodes, he wanted.  Literally the only thing standing in Lynch's path to making The Return exactly as he wanted was the availability of the actors (and even then, at least three members of The Return's cast--Catherine E. Coulson, Miguel Ferrer, and Warren Frost--shot their scenes as they were struggling with their final illness).

None of this could have happened at any point before the last few years, but the same fragmented market that made The Return possible has also made it a niche product.  From a water-cooler show, Twin Peaks has become prestige TV, the kind of show that gets lauded by critics and wins Emmys, but which hardly anyone watches.  That's a profound shame, because The Return is easily the most exhilarating, exciting TV series I've watched in some time, and it deserves a wider audience.  But at the same time, its weirdness, its determination to be exactly what it wants to be, necessarily limit its appeal.  I'm thrilled beyond words to have gotten this version of Twin Peaks, which so thoroughly changes what came before it as to make it into a different (and to my mind even better) show.  But I can't help but notice that in order to achieve this, Twin Peaks also had to destroy itself, that edifice of what the show came to mean in the popular consciousness.  I suspect that's not lost on Lynch either--might, in fact, be part of the appeal.


Twin Peaks: The Return picks up 25 years after the end of the original Twin Peaks, which closed on a brutal cliffhanger in which the stalwart FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is possessed by the evil spirit known as BOB.  In the years since, the possessed Cooper, now known as "Mr. C", has amassed a vast criminal empire whose actual purpose is to enable him to understand and control the forces of the White and Black Lodges, where the good and evil supernatural beings who are behind most of the show's events dwell, and from which they exert their influence on our world.  Realizing that he is about to be pulled back into the Black Lodge and replaced by Cooper, Mr. C tricks Cooper and his allies by constructing a duplicate of himself, a boozehound insurance agent named Dougie Jones.  When Cooper emerges from the Lodge, it is Dougie that he replaces, while Mr. C continues in his quest to find the Lodge.  Meanwhile, Cooper's former colleagues at the FBI, Gordon Cole (Lynch) and Albert Rosenfield (Ferrer), aided by new agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell) and Cooper's former assistant Diane Evans (Laura Dern), alerted to Mr. C's actions, begin pursuing him, believing him to be Cooper.  Back in Twin Peaks, Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster, playing the brother of original player Michael Ontkean's character) and his deputies Tommy "Hawk" Hill (Michael Horse) and Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) come across new information in the Laura Palmer case, including messages from Bobby's long-deceased father informing them that a cataclysmic event connected to the Lodge is due to occur.

To be clear, this description bears about as much resemblance to the reality of Twin Peaks: The Return as a crudely drawn map does to the actual territory.  I mean that literally: it is missing depth, breadth, height, color, and sound.  Twin Peaks has always been about more than its story, but this is doubly and triply true of The Return, which assembles, above the bare scaffolding of this tale of Manichean struggle, an edifice that is funny, strange, tedious, perplexing, horrifying, enlightening, and completely shapeless.  

One need only look at the fact that nearly every one of the season's 18 episodes ends with a minutes-long, usually dialogue-free musical performance at a Twin Peaks hangout called The Road House (a small-town bar that somehow manages to book acts like Nine Inch Nails and Eddie Vedder) to understand just how little Lynch and his co-writer Mark Frost care about the conventions of storytelling and the audience's comfort.  The Return is full of cul-de-sacs and tangents.  Long, absurdist scenes seem to exist for no reason except that Lynch and Frost thought it might be neat to, for example, have Andy Brennan and Lucy Moran's son Wally (Michael Cera) be a Marlon Brando impersonator who zooms into town on his motorcycle for a long, pause-heavy monologue in which he waxes about following in the footsteps of "Lewis, and his friend Clark".  In conversation, characters frequently drop names we've never heard before nor will again, randomly pausing to discuss the relationships and hardships of people who mean nothing to us (sometimes the people speaking are themselves also strangers, who never recur after their single scene).  A large part of the show is taken up with Cooper's struggles as Dougie Jones, which are exacerbated by the fact that something about the botched transference has rendered him addled and uncomprehending.  He wanders through Dougie's life like a holy fool, guided by some supernatural intuition to fix Dougie's marriage to the exasperated Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and uncover corruption at his place of work.  It's a plotline that is an exercise in finely-honed frustration, first because no one in Dougie's vicinity seems to notice that he is clearly brain-damaged, and second because this domestic farce is not what any of us tuned in for--we want Cooper, who doesn't turn up until very near the show's end.

I want to be clear that I can easily understand people for whom any or all of these choices were complete turn-offs that made them write off the show--I enjoyed The Return immensely, but even so there are stretches of it that I find tedious or self-indulgent.  What kept me engaged even through those stretches, and made them seem ultimately worthwhile, was the sense that everything that happens in The Return is deliberate, a choice on Lynch and Frost's part.  I don't mean by this that everything in the show has some secret meaning--there's obviously a lot of fun to be had in that sort of approach, and there are already some minutely thought-out and entertaining fan theories out there about The Return's ultimate meaning, but I've never enjoyed watching TV that way, as if it were a code to be deciphered.  What I mean, rather, is that there is no part of The Return that feels conventional, no aspect of its storytelling that has happened because that's the shorthand for conveying this particular turn of plot.  Lynch seems to be rebuilding the toolbox of TV storytelling from the ground up, and what he comes up with is remarkably coherent.  You never quite get used to The Return's rhythms--to the way that scenes seem to last just that little bit longer than they should, or how pauses in conversations stretch to the point of discomfort--but it also never feels like anything less than completely itself, and to me that's incredibly exciting to witness.

It's interesting, too, how little showboating there is in The Return.  That seems almost impossible to credit when you consider that the show includes long stretches of surrealist storytelling--including an entire episode that is almost completely dialogue-free and made up of sequences of fantastical, sometimes almost abstract images.  When I compare The Return to other recent "experimental" shows like Legion or American Gods (and even more than the latter, to Gods creator Bryan Fuller's previous show, Hannibal), it's remarkable how completely Lynch seems to avoid the impulse to nudge the audience, to ask, "can you believe we did that?  Well, can ya'?"  

Some of this has to do with how low-rent The Return's imagery is.  In the original show, Lynch famously created an entire shadow world with some red curtains and a few armchairs, but even with a bigger, cable budget, there's something decidedly chintzy about the effects he chooses for his fantasy world and creatures (though he's also capable of delivering eye-popping CGI when the occasion calls for it).  When we finally get a glimpse into the White Lodge, it has the shabby-genteel look of an old horror movie, and its strangeness is conveyed by placing giant electrical components throughout its space (electricity is one of the series's most important motifs, and how the beings in the Lodge travel).  It's left to Lynch's assured direction, as well as his expert work with sound, to convey the feeling of otherworldliness, or of horror, that other creators might have hung on their special effects.

Equally bracing is the way Lynch depicts the real world, never shying away from the barrenness of the half-built subdivision where Dougie meets with his mistress, or the sameness of the houses on his street, the aspirationally-named Lancelot Court, or the shabbiness of a Twin Peaks trailer park.  Modern TV is so allergic to honest depictions of these sorts of spaces (American Gods, for example, erases them entirely, choosing to prettify the American landscape in a way that completely neuters the show's alleged mission) that there's something almost fantastical about Lynch's willingness to incorporate them into his world.  But again, the fact that The Return is willing to be ordinary means that its extraordinariness, however deliberate, never reads as showing off.

Another reason is that, underneath its weirdness, The Return is an incredibly earnest show.  Twin Peaks is sometimes discomforting in its willingness to look directly at ugly, outsized emotion.  Fire Walk With Me, for example, is among other things a character study of a young woman crumbling under the psychological weight of years of sexual abuse and the denial that she hides behind.  It completely rejects the convention that such serious topics should be depicted with restraint and understatement, and instead allows star Sheryl Lee to rant, scream, weep, and have hysterics (there are a lot of reasons one can imagine for Fire Walk With Me's incredibly unfair reception and reputation as a failure, but it's hard not to assume that it was an unwillingness to see Lee's performance as the fearless tour de force that it is that is the culprit).  The belief that melodrama is as serious and fruitful a source for meaningful emotion as a more naturalistic style underpins Twin Peaks, and--especially when buttressed by sensitive writing and searing performances like Lee's--it makes it impossible to develop a protective skin of irony.  No matter how silly the events of Twin Peaks get, the pain that lies beneath them is too real to ignore.

The Return doesn't reach the same heights of melodrama as its predecessors, but it shares with them the belief that trauma can express itself in ways that are weird or even funny.  A recurring theme in the show is the idea that damaged people are all around us, whether it's the hard-of-hearing Gordon Cole, who shouts at the top of his lungs and frequently mishears what people say to him; or the original Dougie Jones, who was apparently prone to disappearing on days-long benders; or Sheriff Truman's wife Doris, who hectors him relentlessly over completely trivial matters, only for a deputy to reveal that she suffers from crippling anxiety since the death of her son by suicide.  Amazingly for a show that traffics in such gruesome subject matter as incest and murder, Twin Peaks insists on the possibility of kindness and accommodation for such people.  Sheriff Truman is endlessly patient with his wife; Dougie's colleagues are bemused but tolerant of his occasional disappearances.  As Dougie, Cooper tangles with the underworld figures the Mitchum Brothers (Jim Belushi and Robert Knepper) who are always accompanied by a trio of beautiful blonde women in pink satin dresses.  It's a ridiculous image, but when one of the girls, Candie (Amy Shiels), starts exhibiting obvious signs of emotional problems, the brothers, though exasperated, take her behavior in stride, because "[if] we fire her, she's got no place to go".

If there's a mission statement for The Return, it's expressed by Janey-E Jones, when she arrives to pay off some loan sharks who have been hounding her for Dougie's unpaid gambling debts.  After browbeating the men into accepting a much smaller interest payment than they wanted, Janey-E breaks into a rant that is simultaneously deeply principled and deeply deluded (and really, not enough can be said for Watts's ability to imbue this scene with just the right amount of both self-importance and incandescent rage):
What kind of world are we living in where people can behave like this, treat other people this way, without any compassion, or feeling for their suffering!  We are living in a dark, dark age and you are part of the problem.  Now I suggest you take a good long look at yourselves because I never want to see either of you again!
It's a ridiculous, almost comical scene, and Janey-E is a deliberately comical character (as evidenced by her very name).  But the sentiment is played entirely straight--the idea that there is something wrong with a world where people take such total advantage of one another.  It's such a desperately uncool thing to believe, much less say, much less say in a story that also includes a cosmic battle between good and evil that somehow also encompasses a young girl being raped and murdered by her father.  But of course, Twin Peaks does not, for one minute, care about being cool.  Even at the heights of its weirdness, it is a fundamentally kind, caring story, one that genuinely believes that the outrage of an irate housewife matters just as much as a Manichean struggle between forces older and grander than we can comprehend.  That belief shines through every moment of the show, and it is that, I think, that saves it from coming off as weirdness for weirdness's sake.


Or at least, it does until you get to the end.  We talk a lot about endings in the Golden Age of Television, expecting them to imbue meaning into stories that have relied for their effect on ambiguity.  Just a few years ago we were furiously debating what the "right" ending for Breaking Bad would be, but that's nothing compared to the veritable ending wars that engulfed and consumed shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica.  Weirdness and surrealism are fine on TV so long as you're in the middle of your story, but when you get to the end, you're expected to have a solution that can be deemed "satisfying", or it'll be assumed that you were just making it up as you went along, had no idea what you were on about, and were in general conning the audience.

Twin Peaks: The Return does not have a "satisfying" ending.  Its ending is so unsatisfying, in fact, that it can only be taken as deliberate--if not quite a "fuck you" to the audience, then a refusal to be pinned down or understood.  But before we talk about that, let's cycle back to the famous--perhaps infamous--episode 8, the climax of the show's weirdness that is also, paradoxically, exactly what some people are looking for when they talk about "satisfying" endings.  As previously noted, episode 8 is the high-octane version of The Return's frequent forays into surrealism.  There are only a few lines of dialogue in the entire hour, and only two of the show's main characters appear.  The action moves in time and between our realm and the Lodge, and includes long stretches that are nothing but pure imagery, supplemented by an insistent, disorienting soundtrack.

And yet, episode 8 is also the most coherent, easy to parse hour in The Return's entire season.  I think that's even part of the reason why it was lauded as such an outrageous departure, and a high point of the season.  Lynch had taken an extremely common building block of the modern genre story--the villain origin flashback episode--and told it in a completely idiosyncratic way that was nevertheless fairly easy to understand, once you got into the swing of things and stopped expecting a conventional TV episode to reemerge.  Without taking away anything from episode 8's artistry, this is a lower difficulty setting than what most of The Return delivers, and therefore probably makes for a more straightforwardly satisfying viewing experience.  You can be blown away by the imagery while still following along with the story, and also complimenting yourself for being able to do so.

This might also be the reason why episode 8, despite looming so significantly over The Return's reception, isn't nearly as crucial to its story as some reviewers have made it out to be.  There are three important things that we learn in episode 8: that BOB, though dangerous, is only a secondary villain to a much more powerful malevolent force (unnamed in the episode itself, but identified as "The Experiment" in the credits, and as "Judy" later in the season); that Laura was sent to Earth by the beings of the White Lodge to fight this force; and that in 1956, a young girl was possessed by a creature protected by the beings of the Black Lodge.  (Fans have speculated that this girl is Sarah Palmer, Laura's mother, and that the creature is Judy, and there's a lot of evidence in the season to suggest that this is true.)  None of this ends up being crucial to the rest of the season, which continues to focus on Cooper's restoration and on the battle between him and Mr. C.  It's perhaps for this reason that the episodes immediately following episode 8 feel a little flat and schematic, as the story we'd come to expect fails to materialize.  It's as if Lynch were taunting us, suggesting a key that could tie his story's entire mythology together into an easily understood (if artfully presented) genre template, and then regressing right back to the aimless weirdness where Twin Peaks really lives.

A similar feeling of being taunted accompanies the end of the season, which comes in two episodes that seem to function as mirror images to one another.  In the first, Cooper, who has finally been restored to full awareness, defeats Mr. C, through a Rube Goldberg-esque combination of coincidences and right-place-right-time happenstance that have been carefully arranged by a representative of the White Lodge known as The Fireman (Carel Struycken, who also appeared in the original Twin Peaks as "The Man From Another Place").  There's a neatness to this resolution that feels completely out of place in Twin Peaks, and Lynch even pokes fun at it--and at shows, like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, that rely on this kind of mechanistic resolution to their surrealist storytelling--by making the linchpin of the plan to defeat Mr. C a character whom we barely even know.  This character, Freddie (Jake Wardle), is an Englishman (almost the only foreigner in this show's entire mythology, which is deeply rooted in Americanness) who was ordered by the Fireman in a vision to track down a particular gardening glove which, once donned, would make his hand superhumanly strong, and thus able to punch BOB out of existence.

The presence of Cooper, finally restored to his old self, his determination to destroy BOB, his joy at being reunited with his friends, and the sheer force of his personality, mean that this episode isn't nearly as ridiculous as the above might make it seem.  There's genuine tension when Mr. C, who has been murdering his way across the American landscape, arrives at the Twin Peaks Sheriff's station and is greeted as a friend by the unsuspecting deputies; and genuine triumph when the person who finally gets the drop on him is the department's spacey receptionist Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson).  But at the same time, Lynch is making it clear that this is not the point, nor the purpose, of his story.  No sooner has he defeated BOB than Cooper sets his sights on far more ambitious targets.  Returning to the Lodge, and now seemingly able to control it, he travels back in time to remove Laura from Twin Peaks just moments before she meets with her murderers.  He then travels with Diane to an alternate universe where a middle-aged Laura exists, but calls herself Carrie Page and doesn't remember her old life.  Convinced that restoring Laura's memory is the key to defeating Judy, Cooper takes Carrie back to Twin Peaks, but once there the confrontation he'd envisioned failed to materialize.  The series's final images are of Carrie's face as she stares at the Palmer house, first in incomprehension, then in horror.  She screams, terrifyingly, and the lights in the house spark and go out as the screen smashes to black.

The first thing I did after I watched this ending was to get up and walk around the house a few times, trying to work off a bit of nervous energy.  The second thing I did was to start bargaining.  This was clearly not an ending but a cliffhanger, a set up for yet another season--what the Lost writers used to call "leveling up", with one villain, BOB, having been defeated, and Cooper and Laura only at the beginning of a fight against the more important villain, Judy.  The third thing I did was to go online and read some other people's reactions to the finale, in the hopes that they'd help me make sense of what I just watched.  It was only at this point that I started to come to terms with The Return's ending.  I'm still not entirely reconciled to it--and I suspect that I'm not supposed to be--but I think I see what Lynch's argument with it is.  I think he's saying that the kind of ending fans envisioned when they heard that Twin Peaks was going to be revived, the resolution they'd been craving during the 26 years since "how's Annie?", would have turned the show into something that is not Twin Peaks anymore.  That to reach an ending to the show's central struggle, to allow our heroes to win, or even lose, would change it irreparably.

It's for this reason that I no longer think there's going to be another season, even though Lynch has teased the possibility.  We already know what the trick is, and we'll be expecting it next time, which would rob it of most of its power.  I could be wrong, of course--there could be another season, whose existence will alter the meaning of The Return and its ending as definitively as The Return did for the original show and "how's Annie?"  But for the time being, the ending we have feels, not satisfying, but right.


A lot of critics, when discussing The Return and its ending, have focused on the theme of abuse and the way it--and particularly the abuse experienced by Laura--underpins the entire series.  By trying to save Laura, these critics argue, Cooper oversteps himself, applying his white knight impulses to an evil so much more complicated and insidious than the Black Lodge.  The fact that the world he finds himself in after making this heroic gesture seems to leave no space for his heroism (and that Cooper himself seems subdued and diminished in this world), is a sort of cosmic rebuke, a reminder that it isn't possible for anyone to fix what has been done to Laura, that the trauma and damage of abuse linger and can't simply be erased.  The Return's refusal to offer us a triumphant resolution is reminder that its "real" story is one that can't be resolved.

My reaction to this reading is that if it's correct, then Lynch is, not for the first time, wagging his finger at a problem that he has created, and which he relentlessly and repeatedly exacerbates.  The thing that makes Twin Peaks remarkable is also the thing that makes it problematic, and perhaps the reason that it is ultimately so unresolvable.  Twin Peaks is a story about a teenage girl who is raped and murdered by her father.  Twin Peaks is also a story about a small town beset by cosmic horrors, one of whom possesses a local man and compels him to rape and murder his teenage daughter.  Try as Lynch and Frost might, it's not actually possible to reconcile these two different kinds of horror, the fantastical and the mundane.  As Cooper, Sheriff Truman, and the other deputies muse once they've exposed Laura's father as her murderer and exorcised the being possessing him:
Harry Truman: He was completely insane.
Albert: You think so?  People saw BOB.  People saw him in visions.  Laura, Maddie, Sarah Palmer.
Major Briggs: Gentlemen, there's more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.
Cooper: Amen.
Harry: I've lived in these old woods most of my life.  Seen some strange things, but this is way off the map.  I'm having a hard time believing.
Cooper: Harry, is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter?  Any more comforting?
Harry: No.
Briggs: An evil that great in this beautiful world.  Finally, does it matter what the cause?
Cooper: Yes, because it's our job to stop it.
But of course--and I can only assume that Lynch realizes this--it is easier to believe that a man would rape and murder his own daughter, because that sort of thing happens with terrifying regularity, whereas aliens and evil spirits don't actually exist.  In its early episodes, at least, Twin Peaks seemed cognizant of this, even if its approach to the topic left much to be desired.  Nearly all the women on the show were subject to abuse of one form or another, and hardly any of them could blame supernatural causes for it.  That's not something the show handled very well--it often felt as if the purpose of its female characters was to suffer beautifully, and to react with frustrating passivity and even a sort of wry detachment to the violence they met at the hands of husbands, fathers, and lovers.  Fire Walk With Me does a better job on one level, by prioritizing the psychological toll that abuse takes on its heroine, and placing her, rather than her abuser, at the center of its story.  But it also reinforces the argument of the original series, that there was something unusual and supernatural about Laura's experiences, that the evil she was subjected to was cosmic, not commonplace (it also, implicitly, absolves Laura's father of guilt for abusing her, and in his later appearances in the Lodge he is a tragic, perhaps even positive, figure).

The Return takes this even further when it reveals that Laura was sent to Earth by the Fireman in order to defeat Judy.  From a young woman who had the misfortune to be born to a man possessed by evil, this revelation turns Laura into a warrior in the battle against that evil, whose suffering might be necessary and even foreordained.  If Janey-E Jones gets to express the outrage of ordinary people caught up in an unfeeling, predatory world, Laura is denied any access to that outrage.  Even her scream of horror at the series's end is a stepping stone in the battle against evil.  When you think about it, an integral component of Cooper's plan to defeat Judy is retraumatizing Laura.  Having shed her memory of her abuse and murder, Cooper convinces Laura to come back to Twin Peaks with him, with the express purpose of reminding her of it--without which memory, it is implied, she can't help him fight Judy.

Then there's Cooper's heroic announcement that "it's our job to stop it".  Despite the ambiguity of the preceding conversation, it's clear that the "it" in question is not the horrifying prevalence of incest and domestic violence, but the more heroic challenge of defeating BOB and the Black Lodge.  If there's one place where I feel The Return add something new to Twin Peaks's handling of abuse, it is in subtly castigating these priorities.  The idea that it is incumbent upon men--and particularly men in positions of authority--to combat the more mundane evil of abuse is present in The Return precisely in its absence, in the failure of even the good, heroic men on the show to live up to it.

You see this in particular in the two "redeemed" men of The Return, Bobby Briggs and Ben Horne (Richard Beymer).  Both played villainous turns in the original Twin Peaks, and underwent a moral awakening which finds them, 25 years later, acting as pillars of the community.  But both are also incapable of paying that enlightenment forward, of teaching other men to grow as they did.  Bobby, who was guided away from his selfishness and violent temper by his father, Major Briggs, has no sons of his own, and the young deputies at the Sheriff's department are too corrupt or disinterested to learn from him.  He's unable to prevent either his ex-wife or his daughter from taking up with the same kind of abusive man he used to be, and in his most important scene in The Return, is confronted with the knowledge that that violence is propagating, when he witnesses an abusive man being imitated by his young son.  Ben, who spent most of Twin Peaks indulging in his worst impulses (including, but not limited to, sleeping with underage prostitutes, one of whom was Laura), has been punished by being forced to play the role of the responsible adult in a family that isn't willing to follow his moral example.  In particular, his grandson Richard (Eamon Farren) is a vicious, violent man, the embodiment of toxic masculinity.  When he learns that Richard killed a young boy in a hit and run, Ben laments that "Richard never had a father", but never explains why he couldn't step in as Richard's father, teaching him to be a better person.

And then there's Cooper himself.  In the original Twin Peaks, Cooper embodied a kind of new masculine ideal, half the stalwart self-assurance of his namesake Gary Cooper, half New Age sensitivity.  He was staunch in the pursuit of justice and righteous in the application of violence, but also kind, and possessed of a childlike curiosity and openness.  He was a sensualist--all that orgasmic cooing over coffee and cherry pie--but not a hedonist.  And when he loved people--both romantically and platonically--he loved completely and joyfully.  There has never been another male hero like Dale Cooper on TV, and it is perhaps for this reason that in The Return, Lynch felt it necessary to destroy him.

You see this most obviously in the fact that The Return spends so much time with a character who is a corruption of everything Cooper represented, Mr. C.  "I don't need things, I want them", Mr. C explains to a henchman in one of his earliest appearances, in a statement that defines both the character's evil--that gaping maw of desire that can never be satisfied and is incapable of considering the humanity of others--and the way that he corrupts Cooper's virtues.  But as The Return subtly but insistently reminds us, Mr. C is not a duplicate of Cooper.  He is Cooper, who allowed himself to be taken over by BOB in exchange for the life of his lover, Annie Blackburn.  In so doing, Cooper allowed himself to become the very thing he stood against (it's never stated outright, but by surrendering to BOB, Cooper, who came to Twin Peaks to pursue justice for Laura, essentially became her rapist and murderer).  Mr. C's evil is expressed most blatantly in his violence against women.  In one of his earliest appearances, he murders his lover, who was planning to betray him, in a scene that is horrible precisely because of his indifference to her struggles and cries for mercy.  It's eventually revealed that he raped both Diane and Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), two women for whom the original Cooper had romantic feelings.

Of course, The Return gives us an out from the full horror of acknowledging what Cooper has become, in the form of another, "good" Cooper (it's actually lucky that Mr. C tricks Cooper into taking over Dougie's body, because it means he never has to come in contact with the corrupted thing that his original body has become).  But it's probably not a coincidence that we end up spending so little time with Cooper in his canonical form, as a confident leader who knows exactly how to save the world.  Or that the final form that Cooper takes, in the alternate world to which he pursues Laura, is a midpoint between his two extremes, still dedicated to good, but nowhere near as joyful or as confident as the man Cooper once was.  This is a version of Cooper who has seen inside himself, seen how insufficient he is to battle the actual evil that women like Laura have to live with.  A lot of fans wanted The Return to be about Cooper's triumphant return, which would involve defeating BOB and possibly riding off into the sunset with Audrey.  Instead, the closest he can come up with is to unmake the entire series, to prevent Laura's death--and thus his own coming to Twin Peaks, and Mr. C's creation.  The most heroic thing Dale Cooper can do to combat the evil of abuse, it seems, is not just to rescue Laura, but to take himself out of her story.


There's so much more to say, really.  I haven't touched on the series's (extremely iffy) approach to race, or its repositioning of Sarah Palmer as a villain, or the strange and terrible fate it gives Audrey, or the alternately interesting and frustrating turns of the FBI storyline, or what I think the Road House actually is, or the absence of queerness, or or or.  We'll probably be talking about The Return for years to come, for the simple reason that it's one of the richest and most expertly made works of television for years, if not ever.  And one of the things we'll have to talk about is how, in an age of revivals and reboots and appeals to nostalgia, David Lynch created one of the remarkable works in the medium by refusing all those impulses, by unmaking his most famous creation and making something completely new out of it.  It's hard to imagine that the new Twin Peaks will have the kind of influence that the original series did, if only because Lynch has upped his game so much that it will take an entirely new generation of TV creators to follow in his footsteps.  But for the time being, we have The Return--messy, meandering, frustrating, problematic, but so completely its own thing that one can only be grateful for its existence.