Choice and Tragedy: A look at Season Three of The 100

The 100 has always been a tragic show. Characters engaging in actions that are best questionable and at worst, genocidal, are committed in order to protect their people. The strength of the show has been that by and large, these actions have been understandable and organic. Events are set in motion that no one person can stop and are forced to respond to in kind. Season’s 3 biggest failure at the halfway mark is that the horrible actions committed aren’t so organic. It feels like an intrusion to the world, retread previous plot points and straining the suspension of disbelief. Let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

The main problem with this season is Pike, a hitherto unknown member of the Ark who has spent his entire time on the ground fighting Grounders; as a result he’s become an expansionist xenophobe who has plunged Arkadia/Skaikru into yet another war with the Grounders. There are some good ideas here: expanding the cast by having more survivors from the Ark show up and expressing a less than conciliatory view than Kane. It’s just that Pike had ‘warmonger’ written all over him from his first scene and his actions make little sense given what has already been established.

Pike’s introduction as someone who has been fighting Grounders for the past four or five months and losing at least a third of his people to them is a fine enough character idea. But we never saw any of these people on the Ark, never heard them mentioned in season two and what little information we had about the Ice Nation before season three was that they were more brutal than the Grounders we’ve seen so far. Pike is an expansion of the world, he isn’t a character we’ve grown attached to over the seasons, there’s no goodwill or any other type of buy in like there was with the Mountain Men. The concept is fine, a leader within Arkadia who doesn’t trust the Grounders, but the actions taken are what make him unsympathetic and unbelievable.

Skaikru not trusting Grounders makes perfect sense. The most interaction that the average person has amounts to being threatened by them in various capacities and Lexa’s betrayal at Mount Weather, followed by an uneasy peace and Azgeda shenanigans. On one hand, you have Kane and Abby, who accept that this world they live in and want to make a new world, a better world. The only way to do so is to have Skaikru become the 13th clan; which makes just enough sense given the rushed GoT vibe that the Polis plotline had. To the average Arkadian, becoming the 13th clan would be a bitter pill to swallow at best.

The first problem we encounter is blowing up Mount Weather. The conflict in the season premiere of how the 12 Clans would respond to Skaikru occupying the mountain and having Pike be the one to push for occupation is a good source of friction that can lead to other things. It blowing up escalates tension really fast and to a place that’s unbelievable. The decision to slaughter 300 people sent to protect you, the decision to slaughter 300 people without provocation is morally abhorrent in a way that no other action on this show has been. Every other action has had justification to it, a sense that it has to be done by the characters because there’s no other option for your people to survive in an action, reaction sort of way. This massacre was taken completely on Pike’s initiative and was the platform he got elected as Chancellor on.

Even if you set aside the morality of the action, the viewer is left wondering how anyone thinks this will end well for them. The Grounders have mobilized thousands upon thousands of warriors to surround Arkadia before and have the power to wipe them out if they were willing to pay that high a price in life to do so. How do a handful of more guards and guns change that equation? How does Arkadia have enough people to maintain any sort of lebensraum?

Factoring in the morality, that this was what Pike became Chancellor on, the promise of doing this, it means that everyone who voted for him bears some of the blame. While Pike’s election has some unpleasant connotations of democracy being an impediment to the heroes, on some level you have to look at the text and not the metatext. Arkadia bears collective responsibility for what happened, and it makes harder to be invested in saving the place. It also means that everyone who sides with Pike are tainted and the show will have to work to redeem them.

Everything since the massacre has been further downhill, which is surprising. There’s the forced relocation of a village, which is essentially ethnic cleansing. There’s also instituting domestic surveillance, which for all the horrors that the Ark had as daily life didn’t do. It’s hard not to agree with Harper’s assessment of the situation “shock lash Pike’s fascist ass”.

Of course, you can’t discuss Pike without discussing Bellamy, whose descent into villainy has been contentious to say the least. While Bellamy doesn’t trust Grounders as a whole, having him go along with all of Pike’s horrible stuff because his love interest got fridged is incredibly weak writing. Bellamy’s character has essentially been destroyed for many, myself included and am skeptical that he can be redeemed.

All in all, this puts in a place we’ve seen before. Two sides teetering on the brink of war with the death of a single person needed to resolve this without wholesale slaughter. The different being that the show contorted itself to make Finn committing a war crime believable and the show actually spent time on it.

In order to be complete, there’s the City of Light plotline with Jaha, which started off slow and shaky and has skyrocketed in quality. There’s not much else say at this point.

Choices have consequences and beget their own choices. The context of these choices matter and what is perceived as tragic necessity is radically different than seizing the initiative. Till next time.

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There’s always a reason: Death on the 100

 

This season of The 100 has been a rollercoaster of quality so far. While season 2 was a slow burn to get things underway, season three started off with action. Not only that, but it has learned how to balance multiple storylines in a way that makes each of them more engaging. This week I’ll be talking about the Polis plotline and its midseason climax with 3×07 “Thirteen”. Let’s not waste any time and jump in. Spoilers up to 3×07 of the 100 CW: Death

The Polis plotline started off of as a Game of Thrones wannabe, the scheming between Lexa and Azgeda, with all of its death and plots could have easily fit into King’s Landing. It’s only fitting that we, and Clarke, were properly introduced to this plot by Lexa’s reappearance. In a way, all the machinations were a backdrop and catalyst to Clarke and Lexa’s relationship, and it worked well enough. While this season has been plowing through plot points, sometimes to the detriment of credibility, this part holds together.

Before continuing, it’s relevant to layout my opinion of Lexa as a character, as it informs the rest of my thought process. I am not the biggest fan, while I was happy about Lexa being a lesbian, as it meant more representation and showed that Clarke was bi, I didn’t like her for much else. I saw her introduction, relationship and influence on Clarke as the show running headfirst into nihilist misery and all the tired antihero tropes of the past decade-plus.* So season three had to do a lot to win me over that this wasn’t a waste of time, and by the time of “Thirteen” it did. The fact that Titus was the one pushing the “hard men making hard decisions” ideology and its refutation certainly helped. So with all that said, let’s turn our attention to where most of the action happens, 3×07 “Thirteen”.

This episode does a lot. It ties together the world’s mythology, expounds upon parts that were already known and sets the stage for the future. It has Clarke and Lexa actually be intimate and enter a relationship, or as much of a relationship as those two could have given their responsibilities. It also has Lexa anticlimactically killed by a stray bullet in a manner that is highly reminiscent of Tara’s death from Buffy the Vampire Slayer 14 years earlier.

Yes, it was well done within the context of the episode. Yes, it made the most sense given the contractual obligations that Lexa’s actress has. Yes, it fit in with the story that the writers have decided to tell and told us a lot about the world’s mythology. Yes, this is another case of a MOGAI woman being killed on TV, often in grisly fashion.

I can’t personally relate to what it’s like to have representation of yourself dangled in front of you and killed, time after time after time. Or having your interest in something stoked with hints and innuendoes instead of clear and open representation. I can understand on an intellectual level, the problems with the writing. I can understand on a moral level, and to some degree on an emotional level, but it’s not the same as seeing yourself. It is always important to hear those voices on this issue, such as this blog here. And this wasn’t all for all for naught, as fans have decided to capitalize on this to raise awareness.

Life is what you make of it. People don’t inherently have arcs and their worth is intrinsic. This isn’t the same case in fiction were good characters experience arcs and narrative cohesion is based upon things like narrative cohesion. Characters are made so the people telling the stories can say something about life and entertain the audience. So when a character ides, it’s to serve a purpose. Not all characters are created equally, not all deaths are created equally and the stories we tell ourselves reflect on ourselves and back again. There’s no reason why “Thirteen” had to end the way it did except for what the writers chose to do.

Ultimately, fiction comes down to the choices that its creators make. While The 100 has always been a mixed bag, this particular mixed bag has more issues and depth to it. Next week, I’ll be looking at the other major plots in The 100’s season three: Arkadia and the City of Light. Till then.

 

*The betrayal at Mount Weather in the season two finale also didn’t sit well with me, but the writers appear to have written off the Reapers and that decision makes sense in-universe.

 

 

Comparison in Disabled Representation: Daredevil and Toph

Netflix has reminded me that Daredevil is a thing they make, and as of the writing of this post will have a second season next week. It reminded me of a problem I had with the first season that I didn’t touch on in my review; Daredevil isn’t good representation of the blind. Now given how few disabled characters there are, let alone, blind characters on TV this is a problem. In order to illustrate this I thought it would make sense to compare him to a case of good representation: Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

Before continuing, I myself am legally blind and this is just my personal opinion. Also I’m only talking about the Daredevil show.

So what’s the problem with Daredevil? The premise of his powers, that losing his vision has enhanced his other senses, is nonsense. There’s a difference between having to utilize your remaining senses in order to come up with tricks to function in a world that isn’t designed for people like you. But this a common misconception as conveying that idea to the abled, or the less aware disabled even. That his blindness came from a chemical spill isn’t a meaningful counter though. First, because of the aforementioned ideas in the real world, secondly Skip, his mentor is similarly blind with no explanation and finally because chemical spills are mundane. Becoming bind from a chemical spill is mundane. It’s not the same as being bitten by a spider that’s been experimented on or being exposed to radiation or being infused with the powers of an ancient god via holy relic. The show wants everything to be relatively mundane so that’s how one reads it.

The other problem is how rarely Daredevil being blind comes up. It comes up for Matt Murdock all the time, but for Daredevil? There’s maybe one scene where he does something with the lights to his advantage. Also the fact that he has quasi sonar vision with everything on fire is tacky. All in all Daredevil’s blindness seems like a negative character flaw you take in a tabletop game to get extra points and then set it up so that flaw never actually comes up.

Toph is a blind character whose blindness actually matters. Her parents don’t let her do anything. She “sees” through her feet, a workaround that causes problems multiple times throughout the series. At the same time, she’s able to manage her disability. It’s how she was able to learn earthbending and figure out metalbending. Toph is a fully realized character whose disability is a part of her and it impacts her.

And there’s the core of writing disabled characters: having them be fully realized characters. The other trick is write about their disabilities truthfully. As I’ve written before, it’s not hard, except for all the things that make it hard. Till next time.

Review: Better Call Saul Season 1

When Better Call Saul, a spinoff of Breaking bad, starring Bob Odenkirk’s character, Saul Goodman was announced. The general reaction was confusion. Breaking Bad was a self contained story and we already knew what happened to Saul, so what’s the point? On the other hand, when you have access to great resources and just made one of the cornerstones of the modern Golden Age of Television then you can probably do whatever you want. And Vince Gilligan’s next show was going to be compared to Breaking Bad anyway. Not only that, but when you’re reengaging the themes of Breaking Bad, you might as well set it in the same universe. Let’s not waste any time and jump right in.

BEWARE OF SPOILERS FOR YE WHO ENTER FOR BREAKING BAD AND BETTER CALL SAUL

Breaking Bad could have just as easily been called: Toxic Masculinity the Show. The show is about Walter White’s descent into criminality and evil. While Better Call Saul isn’t as focused, it’s still concerned with morality, its relation to criminality and our obligations to others. Walter White isn’t a good person, but he’s ostensibly doing everything for his family. Saul Goodman, or rather Jimmy McGill, is a petty con artist turned lawyer who is trying to do right by his brother. The key difference is that Walter does what he does out of a sense of resentment with a veneer of family responsibility; Jimmy is driven by family obligation and the angels of his better nature. These two characters are markedly different, and their shows are markedly different but their framework isn’t.

Breaking Bad is by and large a rather tight show. This tightness manifests as an exploration of toxic masculinity. Better Call Saul is not as tight, at least not yet, and while it doesn’t deal with something as tight as toxic masculinity, there’s a similar emotional range. It’s hard to separate Jimmy from the Saul we know, the narrative opens with Saul ads after all, but this is clearly a character that has undergone enormous change. Contrast the first few scenes we see in Breaking Bad: Saul casually suggests killing Badger whereas he’s a public defender in Better Call Saul. Saul might be a scumbag, but Jimmy is conflicted at worst. So we’re immediately presented with the question of what caused the change?

Family is important in Better Call Saul, Jimmy and Chuck, Tuco and his abuelita, Mike and his family. In all of these cases, family can be a positive force: Jimmy doesn’t want to let Chuck down, Tuco is protective of his abuelita and Mike wants to ensure financial security for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter. At the same time, family isn’t a universal good. Chuck is a manipulator, contemptuous of Jimmy; we can assume that Tuco was abused by his uncle Hector Salamanca, Mike takes up less than legal work to support his family. What makes this interesting is the why. They’re all doing this because they think it’s the right thing.

This brings us to the other point. Not all cops are good, not all criminals are bad. It’s an idea that got played around on Breaking Bad: Walt’s thin justification and Jessie’s impressionable innocence. Here’s it weaved throughout the show in a more subdued way, which happens when you don’t have meth or cartel wars. The law isn’t inherently morally, but helping others and keeping your word is.

These ideas are played with throughout the show, but it’s the season’s climax that carries weight with the revelation of Chuck’s utter contempt and everything that follows. Helping others and our obligations to people are important, but these are obligations built upon reciprocity. Help those who cannot help themselves but repay that kindness with what help you can. Jimmy’s moral failing isn’t telling Chuck to go to hell; it’s in being blunt when you should be precise. Over the season we see Jimmy go from being a lawyer who will resort to scams to get ahead to someone who returns 1.6 million dollars and starts a class-action suit to stop elder abuse. Yet Chuck being revealed to be an asshole and Marco dying are enough for Jimmy to write it all off and embrace Slippin Jimmy. It’s a failure of Jimmy placing too much in a relationship and how he grounds his morality, how he relates to others in the world.

Better Call Saul isn’t as good as Breaking Bad, at least not yet. But Jimmy is a far more compelling character than Walter, as the former’s descent into darkness is more than a step. I look forward in seeing the full descent and if the show does anything meaningful after the events of Breaking Bad. Till next time.

 

Sirens and Asexuality

            Sirens is a short lived comedy from USA about Chicago paramedics. It’s a fun, competent show that in the end is somewhat forgettable. It had its moments but it needed time to grow into its own. Time it didn’t get. So why am I talking about this show? It has the distinction of being the only show with an openly asexual, ace, character on it. Granted, a recurring character, but still openly ace all the same. No headcanons or fandom or inferences, canonically ace. While headcanon and fandom can be invaluable subversive tools, there is something to be said for the vindication of on screen representation. While representation is just representation, the quality of that representation matters. Let’s just jump into it.

BEWARE OF SPOILERS YE WHO ENTER

We learn that one of the paramedics, Voodoo, is ace because Brian is interested in her. While there is a lot of acephobia, from characters being sex-obsessed and not being able to comprehend life without sex to the microaggression of “maybe it’s a phase”. It’s grating but the sequence works well enough to cement that the show treats asexuality as a real thing, culminating in this little speech:

You don’t want to have sex, and that’s fine with me ’cause I’m not having sex right now either. You don’t like sex, I happen to love it. From what I remember, it was pretty awesome…for me. I can’t really speak for everyone else involved. So forget sex. I like you. I think you’re funny and different and I never know what you’re going say. And obviously I think you’re beautiful. And if we never have sex, that’s ok ’cause I’m just happy being around you.

The episode then ends with Voodoo and Brian starting some kind of relationship.

This is all fine and good except the lack of focus and terminology means that the show runs afoul a misconception that it doesn’t address. Romantic and Sexual Orientation is not the same thing. Just because Voodoo is ace doesn’t mean she’s aromantic, or aro, The fact that one is left to extrapolate that Voodoo is aro isn’t good representation and how aces and aros function in a heteronormative society is a deep question that actual aces and aros have no good answer to, but the show never really addresses it. While the proper term for what they have is a queer platonic relationship there are specific problems.

We don’t see much of Voodo and Brian in the rest of the season one, so we only have a few things to work off of. The main one being that they are in some sort of relationship that is deeper than a platonic friendship. That’s the most we get in season one. Season two picks up a year later and that’s still the implied relationship. While they “break up” and I use quotes here to emphasize the vagueness, and have some remorse over it. But it’s hard to contextualize where these characters are coming from because they never define their relationship to us. We’re just left to fill in the blanks from a presumed heteronormative perspective. This is weak storytelling and offensive. The whole reason that aces and aros feel alienation is because of heteronormativity but if we are expected to understand their relationship through such a context then the value of representation is put into question.

Sirens gets credit for having an openly ace character, but it loses that credit as the show goes on and the shortcomings become apparent. It is a good first step, but more is needed. Till next time.

Legends EU and The Force Awakens

Last week I wrote about my emotional response to The Force Awakens and commented on its quality. This week, I get to nerd out over the film in relation to the Legends EU. So what does that mean? When Disney bought the franchise they declared almost all of the EU, Expanded Universe, all the books and videogames and comics, got relegated to the Legends imprint so Disney could have a completely clean slate. This wasn’t surprising, as the EU had its fair amount of duds in it and had become so convoluted that a book was written to establish who in fact had gotten the plans to the first Death Star to the Rebel Alliance. A common expectation was that the new movies would be like the MCU, distilling the good ideas into a new form. Did that happen? Kinda sorta. Let’s jump into it.

BEWARE OF SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING STAR WARS YE WHO ENTER

 

 

First, a quick note on background. I stopped reading the EU after the Dark Nest Trilogy but have some idea about both the Legacy era and the Second Galactic Civil War. As such, this shouldn’t be taken as any sort of exhaustive or definitive look. If you’re interested in going down the rabbithole in anyway, you can follow along here.

The world of TFA resembles little of the world of the EU at the same point in time. By 30 ABY(After Battle of Yavin) The EU had just survived an invasion by an extragalactic species of aliens who use biotech and are invisible in the Force. The New Republic and the Imperial Remnant are at peace and Chewie is the only main character from the films that’s dead. Further to the point the timelines don’t even match up a few years after RotJ(Courtship of Princess Leia is the last book that isn’t explicitly discounted) So suffice to say there’s a world of difference, but what got carried over?

Kylo Ren seems like a good starting point as he’s a sort of composite character. On one hand, he resembles Jacen Solo, one of Solo kids who turned to the dark side. On the other hand, he resembles Kyp Durron, one of Luke’s first students who fell to the Dark Side and was redeemed. There isn’t much to say about the Jacen part, while Kylo feels like Jacen, he doesn’t really have much else beyond surface similarities. So that leaves Kyp Durron, and the Jedi Academy Trilogy, and Kevin J. Anderson, three things that aren’t particularly liked.

Kyp Durron was one of Luke’s first students, and like Ren, he fell to the Dark Side. Unlike Ren, he did so because of a holocron containing a Sith Lord, blew up a solar system, was redeemed by Han. The key difference being that Kyp was a bit of an asshole, and never actually paid for his crimes, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of many fans. Kylo on the other hand, is a far more interesting and understandable character.

That part about blowing up a solar system? Yeah, the Empire was really big on superweapons such as the Sun Crusher. It was almost comical. Starkiller Base didn’t read to me as a retread of the original Death Star, it was just something one should expect from the Empire, cause the Empire loves superweapons.

Yes, I know it’s called the First Order, which actually brings us to my next point. In Legends, the Empire never really stopped being the Empire. While it was a part of the Galactic Federation of Free Alliances, it spent more time as either the Imperial Remnant or the new Empire. Instead it devolved into warlords and eventually settled into some sort of authoritarian regime as the Imperial Remnant. Also the Empire by and large doesn’t have anything to do with the Jedi or the Force as impacting their heads of state (save Joorus C’Boath) bringing us to the next point.

The Sith are still around in Legends…somehow. I never really understood how that worked but whatever. Going off of Maz’s comment in the basement of the cantina, the Sith ended at Endor, whatever Snoke and Ren are, is something else.

Going back to our protagonists. Fin doesn’t really map to anyone. One of the problems that the EU had, and this became more pronounced as the years went on, was that they stayed focused on Luke, Leia and Han. Their attempts at cultivating a new generation weren’t the best or most sustained. This was one of the reasons there was the timeskip to the Legacy era in the comics, a surefire way to say everyone died of old age. This is as good a time as any to discuss the differences of the prime three. Luke was by and large a successful Jedi Master, Leia and Han stayed married and remained important figures in the New Republic. Rey, on the other hand, carries over the tradition from Legends of strong women, and Rey has a fair amount in common with Jaina. They’re both Jedis, pilots, have a positive relationship with Han, and are strong yet human.

The Force Awakens also relates to a somewhat unexpected source, Knights of the Old Republic. These are just surface level similarities, but it’s still an interesting thing. Kylo’s mask is very close to Darth Revan’s. The game’s plot revolves around collecting maps. The sense of mystery we have with Rey’s backstory as we did with the main character of KOTOR.

And that is everything that I can think of, which again doesn’t mean it’s everything that was included or referenced. It’s also not an exhaustive comparative analysis. It does illustrate that the film has some strong ties, but by and large it’s doing its own thing. A move that I’m generally happy with, I’d rather get new stories with influences from the old ones rather than streamlined versions of the old ones. Next week, I don’t know what I’ll be writing about, but it won’t be about The Force Awakens. Till then

 

 

You Can’t Go Home Again: The Force Awakens and Nostalgia

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

Long time readers will know that I am a huge Star Wars nerd, but I wasn’t exactly excited about The Force Awakens. I avoided the trailers because it seemed like the thing to do, not out of any earnest spoilerphobia. Part of me wanted the film to be good; another part of me wanted it to be bad so I wouldn’t feel compelled to watch it. There was a general sense of burn out and as Brianna Wu put it on Twitter, Star Wars is a brand and what we feel is brand loyalty to average products. But enough people on Twitter, people whose opinions I trusted said it was good and I ended up buying a ticket. And it turns out the film is entertaining at the very least. One of the more interesting things with a commercial film, produced by Disney’s mass media empire and curated for maximum public appeal made me feel something. That and the reasons why make the film worth discussing. Let’s not waste any time and jump right in.

The emotional crux of the film isn’t Rey’s visions or Fin’s defection or Han’s death. It’s Han saying, “Chewie, we’re home.” That moment brings all the fanservice, all the nostalgia and all the copied story beats from ANH more than their individual parts. Star Wars is a galaxy that was empty and filled with wonder, populated and now depopulated for new wonders. That’s the home the viewer is promised, through the focus of Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. There’s just one problem though: You can’t go home again.

While the film plays on nostalgia it’s also setting up a new generation of heroes (a generation of heroes that rebuke the monochromatic masculine view presented in ANH). But this also comes with an epilogue of futility to RoTJ, the Empire has remade itself, the Dark Side of the Force is again on the rise, the sorrow that Han, Leia and Luke all feel and express, the galaxy is a different place. The galaxy is a graveyard and whatever sense of home it engendered is an echo.

It seems fitting that the strong invocation of nostalgia would make me think back to Don Draper’s sales pitch in the season one finale of Mad Men, that “nostalgia literally in Greek, means the pain from an old wound…takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” This so conveniently explains why the film appeals to so many people. If this new trilogy is to succeed though, to have any sort of cultural impact instead of being a monument to box office hits with no cultural footprint like the recently dethroned Avatar, its creators have to realize that they can’t go home again, but maybe they can build a new home out of the ruins. The next generation can’t just retread the steps of the old.

Next week, I’ll be talking about The Force Awakens in relation to the Legends EU. Till next time.

 

 

AKA Review: Marvel’s Jessica Jones

I am not the biggest fan of the MCU, and in fact had planned on skipping their latest offering from Netflix, Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Yet I kept seeing people talk about it on Twitter, a lot more people than Daredevil and whose opinions on media I value. So I started watching it, and it is indeed good. What makes it good is rather simple: it’s so unlike anything else that the MCU has produced so far. It’s not just a matter of the show being different, but by and large what it does, it does well. Let’s jump into it.

Trigger Warnings: Check out this list

Beware of Spoilers ye who enter

 

Jessica Jones isn’t a shiny superhero story like the films or a retread of Nolanverse Batman like Daredevil was, in fact it doesn’t feel like any sort of superhero story. Nor is it an origin story in the way that other things are. Instead, it reminds me of something out of the World of Darkness, gritty street –level action and dark subject matter. All of these things are so different than what we’ve come to expect that they’re all worth talking about individually.

In terms of genre this show is a noir, plain and simple. It draws upon that genre’s conventions far more than anything else. The idea of being a hero is far more mundane with thing such as Jessica stopping a mugging or Malcolm organizing a support group. A traditional caped crusader costume is the butt of a joke and any references to the MCU films feel more forced than anything. Not only that, but the idea of being a hero isn’t so clear cut. It’s something that Jessica struggles with throughout the show, and even at the season end it’s not clear where she falls.

There is another departure from the superhero stories we’ve come to see from the MCU: the violence. Action scenes are relatively rare here; this isn’t the slugfest of Daredevil. When the show calls for violence, the scenes are short enough to keep the viewer engaged and choreographed well enough that the viewer can follow along.

In the abstract, this is an origin story. This is how Jessica Jones becomes a hero, of some fashion, and outlines major things going forward (IPG, Luke Cage, Daredevil via Claire). In practice, this doesn’t feel like an origin story. Jessica is a character with history and established relationships with other characters. We’re being dropped en medias res with a natural beginning of Kilgrave coming back, but we get the sense that these characters have lives that extend beyond the story. This is in part due to the fact that of those plotlines I listed above: the first is a footnote by the time we learn of it compared to the immediate threat of Kilgrave, is only a major plot because he’s getting his own series next and this connection was only introduced in the season finale respectively.

This is as personal and street-level as a story can get. Kilgrave has harmed people, many people. But in the grand scheme of things has he harmed as many people as Fisk or any of his associates such as the Russians or Madam Gao? Probably not. He’s a piece of garbage, a mundane, too familiar piece of garbage with a superpower. There’s no talk of saving Hell’s Kitchen or anything as big.

Jessica Jones is a dark show. It’s not dark in the way that say The 100 or Daredevil or Bojack Horseman are dark. It’s dark in ways that make Netflix negligent for not having trigger warnings in the show description. It’s dark in that the show revolves around abuse, consent and rape. It’s dark in handling these subjects in a human way that drives the point home, too close for sadly too many people. The allegory of Kilgrave being the patriarchy is essentially text. There are a lot of situations and characters that are easily relatable. Kilgrave being called out explicitly as a rapist is shocking because of how rare that is in media. Hearing the word out loud, even when you know that’s what’s happening is jarring. It doesn’t take any mealy mouthed vagaries, or even outright reactionary ideas; it is open, direct and challenging to the status quo.

Not only that, but it has explicitly MOGAI characters with no special comment made about their orientation. Granted, these characters aren’t exactly the best people, which is its own issue in regards to tokenism, but actual representation is better than headcanons.

Of course, nothing is perfect and Jessica Jones fails when it comes to race. I would recommend reading this article to get a better idea.

Going forward, my main worry is that this season ends up being an aberration. That its departures from what we’ve come to know as pieces of the MCU formula will be seen as mistakes, not to be repeated. I want this to be the start of something new as other shows take the general ideas and innovations seen here as a baseline to improve upon, not run away from.

Next week, I’ll be talking about diversity of disability in media. Till then.

 

Normative Horror and Man in the High Castle

Amazon’s new series, Man in the High Castle, based off of the Phillip K Dick novel of the same came out recently. While it has been overshadowed by Marvel’s Jessica Jones coming out on Netflix the same day, it has still gained some talk because of the premise. Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternate history, one in which the Axis won WWII and partitioned the United States. The show has a number of problems but it’s still interesting enough to merit discussion. So let’s not waste any time and jump in.

When dealing with an adaption, the first question that comes to mind for many people is how does it compare to the source material? In this case, that’s a tricky question to answer. The original book is good, but it’s not suited for TV, at all. This is a book were not a lot happens and a lot of the key points don’t translate well to a series.* Instead we get a loose adaption, taking the setting and plot in broad strokes and filling in the rest of the world. Fidelity to the source material is a virtue, not the virtue, so the fact that this is a loose adaption is fine. However, this does mean that the show writers have to create a lot of material and they do a mixed job of it.

At the heart of the show’s problems are the characters. They’re not particularly deep or compelling or even archetypes. They’re echoes, incomplete sketches that you can’t get invested in. Some of them, like Tagomi and Julia, are reverberating with their book counterparts in ways that don’t really add up. Others, primarily Obergruppenfuhrer Smith, are original to the show and aren’t given enough time to tell their stories. So if the characters aren’t compelling, what make the show engaging? Setting and visuals.

Part of the appeal in any dystopia is seeing how bad the world is; an appeal that is only heightened with a victorious Axis. WWII occupies a space in our collective cultural landscape as a mythical fight between good and evil after all. Yet the show fails in conveying a sense of horror or oppression for the most part. While it’s nauseating to see swastikas plastered all over the place and “Heil Hitler” being a common salutation, the shock of that wears off pretty quickly. It’s the more developed moments such as the nonchalant dismissal of a hospital killing the disabled that stand out. By and large, the brutality and inhumanity of these regimes is only spoken of, not shown and it arrives at this point by two very different, but concurrent paths.

On one hand, the sort of horror that a fascist regime exerts is normative. A totalitarian state asphyxiates private life and demands complete obedience in all spheres. Horror just isn’t in the swastikas, it’s in the Gestapo, it’s in the arts, it’s in every day speech and hopes and fears. The characters by and large, are non-normative for a number of reasons. They largely operate outside normal boundaries, and they don’t function as a gateway to observe greater society with, they’re off doing their own thing. Or they’re underdeveloped.

On the other hand, it’s hard to actually notice any sort of difference that concentration camps would have because diversity in television is only now starting to be a thing. Images of lily-white, abled America are still the presumed default. This level of awareness is important in answering the question of why people seemed to have acquiesced to the Nazis so easily? It alludes to the bigotries that were common, how they were pushed and redefined until people had no qualms with concentration camps. The problem is that this only a faint allusion and we’re seeing the end result. The process would be far more terrifying. **

I’ve only been talking about the Nazi occupied East Coast so far and that’s because it’s far more interesting. The Japanese controlled Pacific States are supposed to stand out for things like kanji on signs and a racial hierarchy with the Japanese on top. Aside from some rather run of the mill police state narrative short-hands, there isn’t a lot here that isn’t just playing off of Yellow Peril tropes.

Dick’s novel, like many of his works, was about reality. The show, while having moments of clarity and horror that strikes close to home, are few and far between. It is an incomplete world with the boundaries clearly visible. There is a chance that these issues will be corrected in the second season, but I’m not hopeful. Next week I’ll be talking about Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Till next time.

 

*I think it’s doable to make the book into a miniseries, as there are different expectations there, but no one appears to be in the business of making those anymore.

**For this I would suggest reading Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America

History, Myth and Captain America

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier is what’d you expect from something in the MCU: the familiar 3 act structure, witty dialogue, pretty special effects, less than optimal fight cinematography and popcorn plot. Winter Soldier stands apart though, because of its use of history and related politics. This film’s use of history stands out as promoting a specific mythology. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

 

The villains of the film, HYDRA, a Nazi off-shoot organization, are revealed to have spent the postwar years infiltrating SHIELD, working behind the scenes to sow chaos. This chaos and instability will then be used as a pretext to install Project Insight, spy satellites with kill capability to seize control. I’ll come back to Project Insight, but first I want to talk about HYDRA’s backstory. Captain America and Black Widow encounter Armin Zola’s brain hooked up to a computer system where he reveals HYDRA’s master plan. A throwaway line from Black Widow about Operation Paperclip is the tip of an iceberg of problems.

Operation Paperclip really happened; the US recruited Nazis scientists and technicians and employed them, most famously Werner Von Braun. The MCU borrowing from real history is one thing, it creates a degree of immersion and contributes to the secret history feel that Captain America has. Tying it into this piece of history and then explaining the Cold War with all of its unsavory actions, is pure fantasy.

The United States did not morph into an empire overnight. While things such as NSC 68 did shape US policy and one can trace a line from that to things such as Operation TPAJAX or Operation PBSUCCESS, or the 1973 coup in Chile or the list goes on and on.. it presumes history started in 1945. The people who orchestrated these policies weren’t foreign operatives; they were Americans inheriting their country’s legacy, a legacy of empire. Thomas Jefferson spoke of how “we should have an empire of liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: & I am persuaded no was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire & self government.” We conquered Native Americans, tried invading Canada repeatedly, conquered Spanish Florida and Mexico, Hawaii, the Philippines and have a long history of intervening in South American affairs. The pre-WWII era can be best summarized by Maj Gen. Smedley Butler:

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

The United State has always been an Empire, but we’ve decided to forget about that. Instead, we decided to embrace a narrative, a myth, of being a peaceful sleeping giant that awakened on December 7, 1941 and became an empire to save the world for democracy. Any wrongdoing done in the name of Empire, is an aberration, a corruption.

This myth doesn’t play into the film just with SHIELD’s corruption. Captain America is supposed to embody what America should stand for, even if it those are ideals that aren’t being lived up to at the moment, especially if those ideals aren’t being lived up to. His decision to dismantle Project Insight, compared to Fury’s initial desire to preserve the system, is a desire to to rebuke this idea of empire in this reading. It’s a return to a mythical past that never existed.

This myth isn’t something that the MCU invented; it’s incredibly common in real life. Reaffirming this myth isn’t surprising; it just showcases the shallowness of the MCU. Any other reading of the film just runs up against the history and has to jump through more hoops to justify. Next week, I will be taking a break due to the holiday. I’ll be back in December with something interesting, I hope. Till next time.