This article contains mild spoilers for the third season of ‘Orphan Black’ and the most recent seasons of ‘The 100,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Walking Dead,’ ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ ‘The Magicians,’ and ‘Jane the Virgin.’
So, I’m not exactly sure what’s in the drinking water, but for some reason, it feels as though media creators met up and decided that this would be the year that they’d kill off all marginalized persons from their shows. And they’d do so in ways that were so baldly unmotivated, it borders on lazy. Bonus points if the character’s death had nothing to do with the character themselves!
This seems to be especially true for lesbian/bisexual characters. So far in 2016, we’ve had something like fourteen deaths in this department? Maybe fifteen? I’m actually losing track. This list includes Kira (The Magicians), Lexa (The 100), Nora & Mary Louise (The Vampire Diaries), Rose (Jane the Virgin), and Denise (The Walking Dead). Of course backing out of this year, dead lesbians and bisexual women for our viewing pleasure is nothing new, though the recent onslaught is finally holding a candle up to the use of the damaging trope, “Bury Your Gays.”
I’ve articulated my own thoughts about the harm that can come with its careless employ. However, where does this leave media creators? “LGBT fans deserve better.” Okay, but…what do we actually deserve? Living representation, right? So are we instructing media creators to keep every lesbian they write alive? Their gays should be kept in a special little untouchable box?
I have a lot of discomfort with this. Because it pushes into another problematic storytelling convention, that of “Gays so Special.”
I guess what I’m really talking about is some sort of amalgamation of two tropes: Men are Generic, Women are Special (just replace with “straights are generic”), and “Closer to Earth.” The former is what gives rise to stuff like Smurfettes, where the individual who is “special” (i.e. “not the norm”) for whatever reason—a woman, a bisexual, someone non-white—sort of becomes stripped down to nothing but that difference. If a woman ruler messes up, then it’s a commentary on women rulers; a man can do the same, but it’s not a universal condemnation. The latter trope refers to the tendency of media creators to portray marginalized characters in a more positive light, because they don’t want to pile on. The perfect example of this is how Game of Thrones’s Tyrion Lannister is basically the TvTropes definition of a “Mary Sue,” despite his book counterpart being a dark, dark grey character.
And yes, queer characters are not immune from this treatment. You can often see “Gays So Special” at play when gay relationships are presented as infallible. If two characters of the same gender fall in love, that’s it! There’s no breaking them up because they’re perfect! (Until one of them dies, of course.) Many times, the only queer representation comes from characters already in established relationships for this reason; there’s the lesbian moms of the side-character, and they’re really, really good moms with fights that are instantly resolved.
Even more, Gays So Special is something that’s often lived. Without getting too personal, the first relationship I was in with another woman had some pretty clear red flags. But none of my friends said a word against it, because they were Supportive™. Pro-tip: that is not how to be a good ally.
I know it comes from a good place, this form of positive discrimination. But it’s still discrimination. And the “X so special” trope…it’s infantilizing. I don’t want to be kept in a special little narrative box where nothing bad ever happens (and here’s a pat on the head!) simply because of my sexuality, because guess what?
Yet, how am I supposed to see what’s happening on our
laptop television screens this year without feeling like my sexuality is being targeted? That marginalized individuals in general are being targeted? And that can’t happen unless we are Special™, right? My head hurts.
What’s interesting is that most media creators who employ the Bury Your Gays trope seem to be aware of this “Gays So Special” criticism. In fact, that was the stock-defense out of Jason Rothenberg’s (of The 100) mouth about his decision to kill off Lexa: that she was a badass character who happened to date women, because her sexuality was not the totality of her character. And it’s now the defense we’re seeing from Tatiany Maslany, the star of Orphan Black, regarding their decision to kill off a bisexual character at the end of last season:
“There’s a bizarre focus on the fact that she’s bisexual or a lesbian and has been killed off, and that really reduces her to one thing in representing something, as opposed to being an individual. I find that to be a problematic complaint. She’s so much more than her sexuality and to make it about, ‘well, we killed off a lesbian character,’ that’s really reductive.”
Maslany is not wrong. And it’s also not wrong to acknowledge a difference between killing someone for being X and killing someone who happens to be X.
But I don’t think she’s entirely right either. For one, you really can’t ignore the cultural context, which to her credit, she tried to acknowledge:
“I understand because there’s such a lack of representation and 3D representation and you’re protective of those characters. There’s a trope too, a predictable storyline, which is that the LGBTQ characters get victimized somehow. But Delphine is only a victim because she made herself a hero. She was ultimately doing right by people.”
Again, it’s the defense, “oh yeah, we know about Bury Your Gays, but we had reasons X,Y, and Z to kill her, all of which were separate from her sexuality.” So case closed? If this is the attitude of the writers, then it becomes Okay™ to kill off their marginalized characters? I mean…sometimes. Not always. Seriously, get me Tylenol, because splitting this hair is so complex.
When a gay character dies, yes, it is an example of Bury Your Gays. Because all a trope refers to is a pattern found within media; it is not inherently negative. However, whether the use of the trope is justified in the context of narrative…there’s no hard and fast rule.
Frankly, I think a large part of the problem is the increase in Shock™ Deaths as a storytelling convention within our shows and movies today. There’s a certain [mystifyingly] popular, award-winning show that banks its entire success on it, so yeah, it makes sense that media creators might want to follow suit. However, to quote my main man George R.R. Martin:
“It’s easy to do things that are shocking or unexpected, but they have to grow out of characters. They have to grow out of situations.”
Sadly for him, the adapters of his books didn’t get the memo, and from what I can tell, neither did most storytellers seeking to emulate the Game of Thrones formula. I mean, yes, I personally don’t find Shock™ Deaths particularly deep or interesting in the first place, so perhaps that’s why I’m more critical of them. But I would argue that when the target of this Shock™ is a marginalized character—that is, a character belonging to a group that faces societal oppression and typically has limited representation on our screens—the unmotivated nature of these deaths become far less acceptable. Or at the least, its utter cheapness stands out more.
Ew, am I arguing that Gays So Special now? I’m just trying to point out that many of us cling to these characters because our own representation is not so great. Gays are “special” in the sense that it is still, literally, special to see them on our screens. So when they’re yoinked away from us, yeah, we’re going to be seriously analyzing the necessity of it.
It kind of sounds like I’m back around the circle, saying that we can’t kill off minorities, but I think there’s a more nuanced point to be made. Yes, if your show relies on Shock™ Deaths, I’m probably going to roll my eyes at it. Yet that doesn’t mean that I think death can’t be a consequence of a narrative. Plus, John Fawcett, the Orphan Black showrunner, also brought up a good point, even if the entire interview was a touch tone-deaf:
“If you did everything that the fans wanted, it wouldn’t be a drama anymore.”
Characters kind of have to suffer. The degree of it, and certainly the demographic spread of that suffering… Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it? But without struggle, there is not a story.
The way I see it, though, there should be certain criteria showrunners think about before killing off any character, marginalized or not:
- Is this born out of the narrative? This goes back to Martin’s quote, but really, is it logical? Were there any in-verse rules defied to make this happen? Bonus points: was it seeded?
- Does it play out with respect to characterization/the character’s agency? Does this character have to suddenly act against their usual nature to bring about these events? If so, it’s probably not good storytelling. Perhaps more importantly, is this character’s death about them, or is it going to be used to further someone else’s story? Because seriously, if this is Manpain fuel…stahp it. Just stahp.
- Is there a story with this character’s death worth telling beyond ‘Character Y will now have to deal with it!’? To figure this out, you might want to think about the themes of your work. What is the point of this character’s death? Hint: “drama” is not a particularly wise answer.
- Is this character’s death depicted in a way that keeps audience sensitivities in mind? Could anything be triggering? Is it overly graphic? Did you just lure your audience into a false sense of security? Because the thing is, if you’ve put a good amount of energy into writing a character, the audience is still gonna be shocked at their death, even without cheap tricks.
- Are there any unfortunate implications with this death? Could the audience take away a really problematic message, like say…the character died because of their sexuality? Is this your only X character?
The last two points are particularly important to consider in the case of marginalized characters. It’s not that a straight, cisgendered, white man’s death can’t be triggering, nor that it can’t come with problematic implications. But understanding those implications becomes more difficult for media creators the more intersectional a character is. Add to that the lack of representation and how this is a character many marginalized individuals cling to for comfort, and you really have to start giving this death critical thought.
Now, it’s obviously quite subjective when a death is “done right,” and it’s often hard to articulate why. I hate the cop-out of “it just doesn’t feel exploitative” in these cases but…yeah. That’s how it is. In my view, the importance is in having this discussion at all.
Bringing it back to Orphan Black, though I have seen many argue that Delphine’s death at the end of last season was unacceptable (which is not made better by Maslany’s rather dismissive comments), I would say the opposite.
If we go through the criteria:
- It was most certainly born out of the narrative. It makes complete sense that actions would result in her death giving the institutions at play. Further, I don’t see Delphine behaving in any other way based on what we know of her.
- There was a clear focus on character agency, especially after she was threatened. She chose how she would leave things with Cosima, and her refusal to ask for help or explain what was happening was important in her own arc.
- “Is there a story to be told?” unfortunately is a wait-and-see situation, but given that the show centers around a complicated cloning trial that raises issues of intellectual property, eugenics, and control of this technology, the nefarious actions of these organizations involved is rather crucial to the story. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there were strong parallels between her death and Paul’s death, the straight, white man who was involved on the military side of things. There’s moral ambiguity, and it plays to one of the central themes of the series: trust.
- Was its depiction with respect to audience sensitivities? This is certainly the most subjective point, but we were outright told by another character that her death was coming so it was hardly a “pull the rug out” kind of moment, and in my opinion, it was not overly graphic. Especially considering that Orphan Black does not shy away from gore (look no further than Paul’s death). Perhaps it’s a small consolation, but it’s not like she happily climbed out of bed, searched for her phone charger, and was hit with a Bullet of Plot Convenience.
- Lastly, the implications. Perhaps I’m being overly generous, but I am just not seeing any takeaway linked to Delphine’s sexuality. I guess her actions were fueled by her love for Cosima in some ways? That certainly wasn’t the focus in the last episode though, and again, the near perfect parallel with Paul (who outright told Sarah he loved her in the same episode he died to save her) rather mitigates this claim.
I am not saying Orphan Black did it perfectly, but you can certainly see the respect they allotted their character as opposed to, say, Lexa from The 100:
- Lexa was hit by a Stray Bullet of Plot Convenience. There was even never a reason that she wasn’t in the room in the first place, before she wanted into the crosshairs. Additionally, her death happened within two minutes despite a nonfatal wound location, despite other characters surviving far worse injuries, and despite a medic immediately applying pressure.
- Respect to character agency? This was a total badass fighter who survived multiple assassination attempts, and she died from a Stray Bullet of Plot Convenience. Does this really require an explanation?
- To The 100’s credit, there does seem to be a story to be told in her death, given the resurrection-esque thing established. Snaps for JRoth.
- There was no respect to audience sensitivities. The timing of the death (and utter random nature of it) was clearly done to provide the biggest Shock™, as it happened within five minutes of her and Clarke finally having sex. This is also on a show whose target demographic seems to be teenage and young adult viewers, many of whom are questioning. How was this remotely validating or constructive for them, especially in light of those on the show playing up their “strong LGBT representation” in their marketing materials?
- And then there’s the implications. Again, it was within minutes of her first on-screen love scene. That’s almost a Bury Your Gays record. Also, the guy who pulled the trigger had frequently spoken about how her feelings for Clarke were a mistake, and was actually trying to kill Clarke because their relationship was such a liability.
I mean, granted, Orphan Black is not really a “no one’s safe” story, or at least not to the degree The 100 seems to be. But how about we take another example from within the same show: Game of Thrones. Let’s consider the treatment of Renly vs. Loras. I should point out, Loras is not buried (yet), but he is certainly suffering in the story, and based on the second Season 6 trailer, brutalized by the Sparrows.
I won’t go through the criteria again, but back during Season 2, it was Renly’s ambition and pride that was his downfall. He refused to join his brother’s cause, which perhaps there was a point to be made for Stannis’s lack of charisma, but that choice played into one of the central themes of A Song of Ice and Fire (which in Season 2, Game of Thrones still seemed to be vaguely adapting): the intersection of the personal and the political. On the show, Renly’s sexuality may have been played for lols before his death (kissing Margaery is gross), but his death was completely unrelated. In fact, consummation issues or no, the fact that Renly secured such a strong alliance was one of the reasons Stannis felt he had to go to extremes to defeat his brother.
Yes, there’s a point to be made that Renly died from a Shadow Baby of Plot Convenience, but at least that was acknowledged in-verse as a “wtf” moment, and implications of Mel’s magical abilities were explored. And again, his sexuality was still entirely incidental to the manner of his death, as well as the context of and motivation for it.
Then we’ve got Loras. Loras, who since Renly’s death, has been stripped down to nothing but his sexuality. He likes fashion, guys! He can’t even be minimally polite when talking to the person who may be his future bride in a politically important match. Actually, all of his interactions with women have an air of bored obligation, because why would you want to talk to anyone unless sex is on the table? Loras is just so gay that he’ll hop into bed and start spilling family secrets to Olyver before Renly’s body is cold.
Season 5 upped this reduction of his character ten-fold with the decision to make the Sparrow movement seem primarily concerned about eradicating homosexuality, in stark contrast to the source material. Yet we’re supposed to accept that this strawman movement is a logical result of this setting, while also accepting that Loras is just so gay that he can’t bother being discrete with Olyver?
It’s ridiculously cheap and lazy, and yeah, the implications are off the charts. Though Loras has only been shown as being with two men, the ease and haste with which he jumped into bed with Olvyer (and how receptive he was to Oberyn’s flirting) plays right into the “Promiscuous Gay” stereotype. Then there’s the fact that Loras is explicitly being harmed because of his sexuality, and it was his gayness that landed his sister in jail, for her to suffer. Literally, she lied to try and keep him safe, and was immediately punished for it.
I guess the little solace we have is that Loras is still alive on the show, so Benioff and Weiss have yet to employ “Bury Your Gays” in his case. But their approach is a wonderful case study in what media creators shouldn’t do when it comes to the portrayal of marginalized characters. The worst part? We’re clearly supposed to hate the cartoonish Sparrows, so there’s actually people arguing that this is a progressive narrative.
Look. It’s not easy to write for marginalized characters, nor is it even realistic to tell a story that can be universally considered “unproblematic.” But I think we can all at least agree that having a basic self-awareness, as well as willingness to think through the decision to kill a character, goes a long way.
I’m not expecting the rest of 2016 to be free of lesbian deaths. Frankly, I don’t want a world where lesbians can’t die in media, because that’s hardly constructive. But with this outcry—with more and more media creators joining in on this Bury Your Gays dialogue—all I’m looking for is critical thought. For writers to ask themselves whether this death is truly the most interesting or necessary thing they can dream up. I’m willing to bet that a majority of the time, it’s not.
Images courtesy of Disney, BBC America, CBS Corporation, Warner Bros., and HBO.
Netflix’s The Meyerowitz Stories Looks Deep Into Dysfunctional Artist Families
Review and Theme Analysis for The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected
“We all have this gap between who we are and who we think we are, between who we are and the dream of who we might be, who we want to be,” said Noah Baumbach concerning his new Netflix original film: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). In it, Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young) explores the dysfunctions of an aging family unit as they try desperately to work through their grievances with the past, and with one another.
The setting, the story, even the title itself, which sounds like something off of a Sufjan Stevens record, is both swallowed up by and pays homage to its postmodern, “Art House” culture. The movie is as advertised: selected snippets of the Meyerowitz family and their dysfunctional relationships. It certainly doesn’t abide by any sort of Hero’s Journey formula, but make no mistake, these selected stories are not chosen at random with an attempt to pretentiously or absurdly confuse their audience. These stories, centered around the children of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), are all part of a single, congruent narrative that beautifully weaves together powerful themes of regret, bitterness, longing, and neglect.
Danny Meyerowitz Was Trying to Park
Newly separated from his wife, Danny Meyerowitz (played by Adam Sandler) is driving he and his daughter Eliza (Grace van Patten) to his father Harold’s house in Manhattan. (I’d call it an apartment personally, but then I’ve never owned a place in Manhattan, so…) They are having dinner as a family before Eliza heads off to Bard College as a freshman, where her grandfather taught art for more than thirty years.
The relationship between Danny and Eliza is some of the sweetest, most authentic father-daughter on-screen chemistry I’ve seen in a long time. Between their pithy banter while Sandler searches for parking, screaming at other New York drivers that dare get in his way, to their lovely harmonies when they sing together on the family piano, we are given a plethora of special moments between these two characters. The “conversations between generations” is something (I’m told) Baumbach excels at in his films, and though I’m not too familiar with his body of work, The Meyerowitz Stories is more than enough proof of his prowess.
The Meyerowitz family is very artistic. This tradition is carried on down the family. Harold had a successful career as a visual artist, but is hung up on the fact that his friend LJ (Judd Hirsch) has achieved far more fame and admiration that he ever could. Danny, on top of dealing with a fresh separation, turns out to have been an unemployed musician for quite some time. Apparently he never did anything with his talents except write a few charming songs to be played on the family piano. Eliza is now continuing the hereditary niche by way of directing and starring in overtly ridiculous, pornographic Art House films.
“Have you thought about getting a job?…I think you’d feel better about yourself. Have you thought about playing music again?”
Resentment and neglect start to rear their heads when they go to LJ’s showing, and Harold gets his face pressed up against the glass to the life he should have had. He’s snubbed by all the high-society folk as though he were a commoner! But seriously, being ignored amongst your peers is a very hurtful thing. Resentment from Danny for years and years of neglect also bubble to the surface and the night goes awry.
Danny: I’d like to come if that’s alright. It would be a real treat for me.
Harold: I think they’re filled up…L J’s getting me a special spot.
Though it’s like pulling emotionally distant teeth, Danny is eventually allowed to attend the fancy gala with his father. Even on such a celebratory occasion though—complete with a wonderful cameo of one of my favorite actresses—the Meyerowitz boys can’t seem to let their resentment toward life go, and the evening is ruined.
Matt’s Story: Go Forth and Multiply…
Harold is currently remarried to his fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) who is a chronic drinker. And although she seems to share in a loving relationship with Harold, she feels understandably distant from the rest of the extended family, who we are then introduced to.
Enter Harold’s other son Matt (Ben Stiller) from his first marriage. Matt is a successful architect visiting from LA for some meetings, including a delightful luncheon segment with his stubbornly pretentious father to talk about selling his estate. As they wander around a New York City Neighborhood in search of a restaurant that’s ‘up to Harold’s standards,’ we start to see why Matt chose to live across the country.
“I’ll have the steak and the Market salad. We don’t have a ton of time so if you could bring everything at once…”
It’s hinted that Matt’s mother was the love of Harold’s life, and Matt, who is a symbol of that love, was showered with a lot of unwanted attention and pressure growing up. Apparently, even being the favorite child of a successful artist puts a lot on a kid. Nothing comes without cost.
“I got your focus and that fucked me up in a whole other way… It doesn’t matter that I make money, because you don’t respect what I do.”
Scenes between characters, whether it’s parents, siblings, half-siblings, step-parents, or a combination, all feel very scattered and emotionally vacant, but it’s by design. They only have distant memories and vague connections to one another as they must suddenly navigate their way through understanding that their father may not have long to live.
Artists and The Berkshires
Early in the film we are given some exposition. A: Harold is being asked to present art at Bard for a faculty alumni showing. B: Harold suffered a blow to the head on a trail in the Berkshires. Wouldn’t you know it, these two plots intersect when Harold is forced to miss his art showing after suffering severe head trauma from the injury. The aging patriarch is rushed to a hospital in Pittsfield (the very hospital I was born in, actually). It was admittedly challenging to be even slightly objective during this segment as the estranged half-siblings and step-mothers and granddaughters all frantically rush to their summer home in order to be with Harold. They all feared the worst.
I’ve resisted the urge for the most part in this review, but I’d like to delve into why this film struck such a chord with me. Half of it takes place in my home of the Berkshires, where artists have the potential to learn, grow, and thrive with their craft. It’s not filmed on location here or anything, which is actually fine for us Shirefolk because we don’t like our peace disturbed. But see, this film bothered to actually take the time to acknowledge the Berkshire’s contribution to the arts by bringing the characters there in a script all about the art world.
Now, speaking of the film’s theme of resentment, there happens to be an undercurrent of cultural unrest and resentment in the Berkshires. When wealthy New Yorkers buy up summer homes in prime locations up here, it throws the housing market out of whack (i.e., the Meyerowitz family). What used to be a thriving agricultural area and industrial center has now, in many places, either fallen into decline or become a seasonal getaway for exorbitantly wealthy New Yorkers. Putting it simply, it’s hard to have a house in the Berkshires if you work in the Berkshires. Cultural gentrification, if you will.
But on the other hand, many of these wealthy people are generous donors to the arts, which I am heavily involved in. They stimulate local businesses, keep theaters alive with their patronage, and have a general love and appreciation for conserving the culture and natural beauty of the region. To me, (and others, I’d imagine) seeing aspects of your home depicted on film is very special when done well.
Normally I cringe when films try to namedrop my region in order to gain generic culture points, but Meyerowitz Stories does more than that. On a humanistic and personal level, it spoke volumes that it understood “City folk” aren’t just here to clog up our hiking trails. They come here to enjoy the pleasures of art, escape the grind, and sometimes, sadly, to say goodbye to their loved ones. The regional issues are of course more complex than I’m letting on and shouldn’t be simply dismissed because of an Art House film, but it was hard to ignore the sentiment of van Patten’s performance as she wept at her grandfather’s bedside.
Yes, there is also a third child. Jean is technically present throughout the entirety of the film, but she is purposefully sidelined for almost all of the dramatic moments, which parallels her struggle as the most neglected child. Soft-spoken and reserved, her story in the film comes towards the end of the second act.
When Harold’s friend Paul comes to visit him in the hospital, Jean bolts into the woods. She recalls a summer vacation when she was in an outdoor shower and this Paul character was watching her and masturbating. She told her father, but he was complacent. She describes the incident in the same monotone, nostalgic way that she remembers watching Three’s Company, taking a ferry to the house from the other side of the island (because nobody would pick her up), and swimming in the ocean. It’s quite tragic.
Her father’s neglect has probably thrown her into countless traumatic experiences, as well as given Jean the most reason to resent him, and resent the rest of the Meyerowitz clan for that matter. But she has chosen to be resilient and forgive rather than focus on all her painful memories.
“Because I’m a decent person. Even though he never took care of us, it’s what you do. Besides, I like hanging out with you guys.”
Her brothers, feeling very protective of their sister, consider the best course of action to take against an 80-year-old man who once exposed himself to their sister. The revenge, though farcical and fun to watch, is definitely considered an instance of “misplaced do-goodery.” Jean is not happy. Jean did not ask them to take vengeance on an old man with dementia who has come to say goodbye to an old friend.
The emotional abandonment of the siblings is paralleled in the hospital when every time they feel comfortable and trusting of a medical professional, that professional disappears. Pam the nurse was around when Harold seemed to be doing fine, then when his situation worsens, and a new male nurse takes over. He bares the brunt of their confusion and frustration as they’re handed pamphlets about grief. Likewise, when Dr. Soni carefully outlines the plan to induce Harold into a coma, which offers some measure of relief to the three children, Soni immediately tells them that she’s going to be in China for three weeks. Any chance of having stability during their time at the hospital will be slim to none, because, well, that’s how hospitals work.
Matthew: It doesn’t feel fair, Dr. Soni. That you can just live your life normally while our dad is lying here.
Dr. Soni: Maybe it isn’t.
I Love you, I Forgive You, Forgive Me, Thank You, Goodbye…
The film plays with this interesting cutting technique where various scenes reach a character’s moment of emotional explosion, and then they hard cut it to the next scene. It’s a subtle touch to let the audience know how typical it is for these characters to throw their inhibitions to the wind and scream out in frustration. After an explosive argument between Matt and Danny ends in violence (again the cut is made right as the scene reaches fisticuffs), Matt stands before the art patrons at his father’s showing with a bloody nose, ready to give a speech about his father’s accomplishments. But it turns into an emotionally charged farce as he starts to work out all of his childhood issues into the microphone. What he would give for a chance to make things right…
The last theme with Harold’s children, a theme that has been fomenting under the surface and is brought to the forefront by Jean, is forgiveness. It’s the thing that all three of them have been working towards their whole life. The thing they most struggle with. Baumbach has created a cast of raw, troubled, yet deeply sympathetic characters. The subtlety of the emotion behind dialogue combined with myriad amounts of little character quirks that each actor brings to each role is worth the watch on its own merit.
Overall, this is a brilliantly layered, touching family film. And not “family film” in the sense that you can put your kids in front of it and space out for a couple hours. But rather, that in that we all deal with our own versions of “fucked up family drama,” and it’s refreshing when artists hit that nail right on the head. I’m not as familiar with Baumbach’s other films, but I can safely say that he’s just found an unabashed fan in me. I look forward to diving deeper into his body of work.
Images courtesy of Netflix
Let’s Talk About Supergirl
Spoilers for Supergirl Season 3, including future episodes
But, well, it is still Supergirl, and it is still on The CW. So let’s talk about it: the good, the bad, and the potential.
Sanvers is the elephant in the room: after it was announced at the end of last season that Floriana Lima would be leaving the show to pursue other opportunities, the future of the much-lauded couple was uncertain at best.
And now we know: they are breaking up, separating because Alex wants children and Maggie does not. This was something that had been in the rumor-mill for some time.
disagreement over having kids
— Ken (@pursuit23) September 22, 2017
In a world that already pressures women to want children, and in a world that still very much considers the heteronormative nuclear family the norm, it is more than a little off-putting to insert that dynamic into what has otherwise been a very supportive, healthy relationship between two women. When Alex sees Ruby again in episode 3.02, she is obviously taken by the idea of having a child of her own; why, though, was this never discussed earlier?
Maggie and Alex’s relationship moved quickly, yes, but also successfully. Transitioning so abruptly from a place of deep mutual understanding to butting heads on such a fundamental part of a relationship feels unrealistic at best, and damaging to the wonderful relationship they had spent an entire season building at worst.
The U-Haul stereotype already exists; making it seem like moving quickly means not actually knowing your partner is an unnecessary step. And that is something worth recognizing, especially given how much praise and attention the writers give Sanvers. Just because they did well for a while does not mean they can never be criticized. In fact, they have set the bar high, and we should continue to push for healthy, good representation.
While Alex is struggling with her relationship, Kara is mourning her lack of one.
Only again, it’s not necessary. Season 3 takes place six months after Season 2, and Kara dated Mon-El for all of a couple of months. And for someone who has lost so much—an entire family, an entire planet—her insistence on letting go of Kara Danvers because of Mon-El just does not read as emotionally authentic.
That said, I am glad they are exploring her pain. I am glad she is allowed to cry, and yell, and break. Kara is so happy and upbeat, partially because it is the only way for her to survive. Once the darkness creeps in, it takes over. If Mon-El is the vehicle used to explore this side of her, then at least it is being explored, and at least she is being allowed to process and grow from her grief.
The first issue, of course, is that Mon-El is not gone forever. He will be returning, married. This show loves drama more than anything, and his eventual, dramatic return is rife with dramatic potential.
So why use him as a source of development if, in a matter of weeks, he will return to once again be a source of regression? It feels as though the answer is simply that the writers, showrunners, and network want Mon-El to remain a fundamental part of the show, despite his overwhelmingly negative critical reception.
In all, I want Kara to grow. I want her to confront her fears as she did in 3.02; I want her to cry. But she can do that without the constant weight of Mon-El hanging over her. Not on her own, necessarily: let her rely on Alex, as she has been. Let her confide in Lena, who obviously wants to be a part of Kara’s life. Let her move on.
Ah, Mon-El. To paraphrase some Terminator movie, “He’ll be back.” And so will Saturn Girl, who is rumored to be his wife.
back married to some chick. Saturn something or other
— Ken (@pursuit23) September 21, 2017
When he got sent off in his pod of destiny, we all knew—tragically—that he would return. But to have him return married is a move only The CW would make. We know little of how that storyline will play out: some think that his marriage to Saturn Girl is doomed, and he and Kara will end up together once more. Some think this is a gradual way of writing him off the show by drumming up excitement for a future Legion show.
Whatever the case may be, it is a symptom of a larger problem.
Every series regular is either in a relationship, has had relationship drama, or is currently being touted as one half of a new, potential relationship. And for what?
The Relationship Problem
There is nothing wrong with having strong friendships. There is nothing wrong with creating drama through inter-character tension outside of the confines of a traditional romantic relationship.
And if your first thought in response to that is “there’s nothing wrong with relationships either,” then I want you to think about why.
Because yes: on a surface level, you are more than correct. But Supergirl is no longer about Supergirl. Relationships should built up the characters in them. Instead, the relationships in Supergirl fill in for the lack of actual, well-crafted storylines.
There is a tendency in television to write relationships that have no justification. While friendships are built upon something, whether it be family or common interest, relationships, it seems, are built out of narrative closeness—that is, they are in a lot of scenes together, so maybe they should be together.
At the end of the day, relationships do not excuse otherwise bad writing. In fact, they often amplify it.
With Floriana leaving, it is more evident than ever that the Supergirl writers do not know how to handle healthy couples. With Mon-El returning and Kara remaining broken-hearted, it is clear that all drama must come back to romance eventually. And with every character being romantically involved or potentially romantically involved, they narrow their focus from a show about Kara Danvers, a woman who lost her world and still managed to stand tall and strong as an inspirational hero, to a show about a group of friends that cannot manage functional relationships.
That is not a good message to send, and it is not the show we signed up for.
All this is disappointing. When Supergirl moved to The CW, it fell quickly into the CW model of show: pair everyone up, split them up, re-pair, repeat.
But it is not the end of Supergirl, nor will it be the end of my connection with it. The past two episodes have already dived deeper into Kara and her connections with her friends than most of Season 2 did. With Sam and Ruby on the show and Lena involved with CatCo, the plot seems likely to be as female-centric as some of the best moments of Season 1.
And I have no doubt that the changes are in part due to the collective of voices speaking out against Season 2. I have no doubt that the opinions of critics and fans have prompted development, and I have no doubt that they can continue to do so.
In all, let’s talk about Supergirl, and let’s keep talking about it. Let’s make it clear that we love Kara, and Alex, and James. Let’s make it clear why we are here: for a superhero, and for her friends. Because that is the only way things can change.
Images courtesy of The CW.
Love Conquers All in Valerian
I was hesitant to talk about Valerian, really. I was hesitant because it is always hard to talk about things we love that others despise. Especially when those others are critics. But none the less I feel compelled to speak, because, well, I feel it is needed to discuss things I saw there.
Many people talk about how Valerian is high on visuals but low on everything else. My idea is, maybe this film, just as another good film generally despised by critics (The Last Action Hero), is misunderstood. It is judged not by those rules its creator followed. Like, when I read about how the film is unjust to its protagonist, or when it is judged as a part of a franchise.
Valerian, that Han Solo-esque James Bond-like comics hero with his sexy action girl sidekick, is just an excuse to talk about the real main character. The one we see from the very beginning.
Alpha — Humanity — is the Movie’s Protagonist
The movie starts with a documentary footage that almost seamlessly transforms into a surrealistic futurism fantasy. Fantasy, centered around the main theme of the film: love. It may sound tired and worn out, but it is not; we are accustomed to “love” meaning something that is between sexes, generally between different sexes. Luc Besson takes great labor to show us “love” is something between people — or peoples.
When we see Alpha’s creation, we see it created from tolerance, from desire to understand each other, from acceptance and good faith. In other words, Alpha is a love child — because what are those, if not facets of love? And we see humanity as the main creator of Alpha. Something like a heart of this space station. Because certainly the humanity expressed its best qualities during its creation.
But then… then something happens. Alpha’s heart is infected, we hear, but we don’t yet understand that it is just what happened. The heart, the humanity, was infected. It was poisoned. Which really needed investigation and needed a cure. Humanity needed to find its best again.
And Who Is Our Antagonist?
Well, if the humanity is the protagonist, then who is the antagonist? My answer may seem strange: humanity is, as well. It is not a conflict between species or a battle between nations. What the movie depicts is an inner conflict, where our hero has to fight itself to find out its true nature.
All those people — Lauraline, General Octo-bar, Commander Filitt, even Jolly the Pimp — represent different sides of humanity. In between them stands Valerian, that modern not very deep-thinking, not very far-seeing every man; a man chosen by chance rather than his glorious exploits.
He has to face a person he could have once become: Commander Filitt. This man is evil, yes, but he is a special kind of evil. He became such not as a result of his troubled past, nor out of some inborn sadistic predisposition. No. He became evil out of neglect and lack of will.
I frequently see that he is criticized as bland and not interesting antagonist, but I can’t really see why. He seems like a pretty new and interesting type of character to me. When did we ever see a person who committed a full-scale genocide as a side-effect of completely different war effort? Filitt doesn’t like to think much. He has a chance for success, which he takes it without any second thought. After all, dead aliens tell no tales, so why bother?
And then he has to face consequences of his actions. He has to face the fact that people he murdered were, well, just that: the people, who could think and could speak. The fact no one would overlook, and the fact that will cost humanity its honorable place between nations.
Actually, he has lots of ways to react. He could’ve stepped forward and taken full responsibility for his actions to absolve his nation of the accusation for the military crime it didn’t even know about in the first place. But that guy lacks will, and he just continues on his once chosen course: eliminate.
Why Do We Need Valerian?
And here our title hero enters the scene — our second title hero (the first being Alpha). One who has to grow up, to choose, and to learn separating good from evil. One who has to become something that is not another Filitt.
Valerian is prone to the same course of mind; he doesn’t like second thoughts, he doesn’t like responsibility, and he doesn’t like even making amends. He is a total dick towards his best friend/girlfriend and doesn’t even see and understand what he does wrong. Because he follows rules, doesn’t he?
He always follows those unwritten but well-known rules of conduct modern young men follow. He is entitled, because that’s fine in this list; he is not openly vile, because it’s not appropriate in this list. He acts instead of thinking. That’s why I believe him when he talks about his military decorations; he is a good soldier, a well-honed instrument, and nothing more.
I can’t pretend I was not wounded by the whole Bubble segment, mind you. Using female (and female-coded) characters to further male character arcs is intolerable, really. But still I can appreciate the moral and the meaning of that sequence. Our every man hero has to learn what it is to feel for someone.
I loved the Aesop of the Red Light District episode. That was a short parable about what is not love. Lewdness is not, and using other people is not. Forcing others to do anything is not. Valerian sees himself as a heroic liberator, but he, just like Filitt not long ago (though on a lesser scale) has to face consequences of his illusions.
Irreparable consequences. Like the death of a innocent person who has already suffered far too much.
Here, facing his utter defeat, he starts his way back to real manhood. Because he chooses to feel remorse and place the blame where it belongs: on himself.
The Pearls represent the ideal the humanity may aspire to, the ideal it once lost. Alpha was built on that ideal: learn from each race, join forces, create, and give something back for what you took. They are not (thankfully) any new rendition of the old noble savage trope. They may look like Na’vi, but they are totally different from them. Because the Na’vi are perfect as they are. They don’t need to change; all they need is to eliminate those close-minded humans from their natural paradise.
Pearls, on the other hand, were just a people, and not very advanced at that. They had their simple life on their home planet, and they had to learn for decades to become our ideal. The thing is, you need not to be perfect noble idyllic savage to deserve life. All you have to be is simply alive. That’s all. Genocide is a grave crime not because of special-ness of the victim; it is a great crime because that is in its nature. Murdering a person is a crime, regardless of that person’s morality, after all.
Pearls represent the ideal in other very important aspect: they can love. They can feel for others. They can forgive, even while they are not able to forget. And they can be grateful, even to those who represent the doom which once fell on them.
And To Conclude
In the end, mind you, we are left hanging. Yes, we are given a small Easter egg, sending us to the Fifth Element, but the humanity would still be banished from Alpha for Filitt’s crimes. And this is important, too. Because consequences, and because responsibility. And because the humanity has to learn much before it reaches again the heights of its morality — the love that gave life to Alpha.
I loved this movie, yet I cried in the end,because now we live in a world, where such a scenario (a genocide committed as a side-effect, and no one even noticing that side-effect) is no longer unbelievably fictitious. In a world where taking responsibility is out of fashion and feeling remorse is considered a bit odd.
“Love conquers all” may be outdated saying, but now that we float towards more and more grimdark, I think, it is worth remembering. As George Martin said when he visited St Petersburg, maybe the cyberpunk was more correct in predicting the future, but theirs is not a future one wants to visit or dream of.
Me, I don’t want to visit a future full of shit, too. But I can’t ignore the bad sides of our life. What Valerian gave me was both the hope those bad sides will be overcome as well as the acknowledgement they exist. A perfect mix, for me.