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Filtering by Category: Television

Anne with an E

Jayne English

“I’m gonna tell you plain, you’re doing a mighty foolish thing, a risky thing, that’s what.”
      — Rachel Lynde

I deliberated for a few weeks about watching Anne with an E. I’m usually disappointed with the 2-dimensional feel of most adaptations. I enjoyed reading the series so much, I was reluctant to watch something that would spoil the essence of Anne that had me pulling each book off the bookstore shelves as eagerly as any eleven-year old with a story crush. Only, I was in my 30’s when I first read the series. Anne’s enthusiasm was irresistible. Adaptations miss the essence of character that books uniquely develop. What stayed with me, years after I read the books, was Anne’s irrepressible love of life. I wasn’t prepared to have those memories forever ruined. But on the off chance that I’d find something more, I plunged in.

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Blind in Depths: The Delusions of Carmela Soprano

Jayne English

altar-cross-16611 I thought therapy was going to clear up the fucking freak show in his head.”      —Carmela Soprano

In The Sopranos, Tony Soprano and his wife, Carmela, spar over differences, but they’re largely united in their delusions about Tony’s line of work. Tony believes he is a “soldier” carrying out orders—sordid, illegal, it doesn’t matter—for the good of the mob Family. And he does. Not always unflinchingly, but unfailingly.

Carmela’s delusions center on the home front. She convinces herself that her place is at Tony’s side. Usually Tony’s business rarely troubles the waters of Carmela and their children’s lives (Meadow and A.J.). But when mafia blood seeps under the door, Carmela is reminded of the high stakes she gambles to ignore. She sometimes wrestles about staying with Tony, but in spite of the dubious origins of the guns and piles of money hidden in the ceiling tiles; despite increasing number of Family disappearances, she stays.

In fact, for a while she is church sanctioned to remain in the marriage. When Carmela seeks the counsel of the well-meaning family priest, he encourages her to help Tony be a better person.

Carmela overlooks Tony’s philandering, telling herself the women mean nothing to him. But when one calls their home looking for Tony and A.J. answers the phone, Carmela is incensed. Only as it crosses her threshold does she feel the threat of Tony’s infidelity.

This breaching of her walled fortress spikes internal turmoil, and she seeks out a therapist. He catches on quickly to the delicate way she frames her husband’s work, and knows instantly what it says about her.

Carmela: His crimes … they are … organized crime. Dr. Krakower: The mafia. Carmela: (Gasps) Oh Jesus. Oh, so what. So what. He betrays me, every week with these whores. Dr. Krakower: Probably the least of his misdeeds.

Carmela becomes defensive when the therapist labels her an accomplice to her husband’s crimes, telling him, “All I do is make sure he’s got clean clothes in his closet and dinner on his table.”

Her love of money competes with her love of family. She doesn’t see how being an accomplice to Tony has created blindness in her children. Meadow becomes a high salaried attorney defending white collar criminals. Tony seems set to help A.J. reach his dream of opening his own nightclub, which could easily be the next mob front like Bada Bing.

Carmela’s denial is haunting. Haunting like the crosses that are all around her, on her necklace, on the walls of her home, in the church she frequents. They are everywhere as in Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ haunted South,” where Jesus is invoked but not followed.

She has moments of spiritual clarity, like when Christopher nearly dies and she intercedes for him and her family. “Tonight I ask you take my sins and the sins of my family into your merciful heart. We have chosen this life in full awareness of the consequences of our sins.” But her vision clouds again, and later she asks Tony to put extra pressure on the building inspector so she can move forward on her spec house, knowing full well what that type of pressure implies.

Carmela whitewashes Tony’s career because of what she gains from it. In his poem “Moby Dick,” Dan Beachy-Quick writes:

You beat your head against the jagged rocks. Blind in depths so dark light itself is blind, You knock your head against the rocks to see And scratch the god-itch from your thoughts.

We can hope Tony’s gestures of forgiveness and compassion at the end of the show signal a new direction for the Sopranos. But if they don’t, the last scene, when they gather at their favorite restaurant, is chilling if it marks only the perpetuating of a mafia family status quo.

Falling Through Words

Tom Sturch


Either do your homework or you're grounded.      —Mom

If she had written it down it would have included the close, “Love, Mom.” Not that she'd have had to. The love of my mother was and is implicit. But being careful with words allows passion to enjoy reason, care to invoke care. The complementary economy of actions and words are how we are human.I just finished watching Season 1 of Mr. Robot. (Andy Greenwald's S1 review here.) There's adult content and it's not for kids, nor for adolescents without a lot of following discussion. In Mr. Robot's world, words can mean anything. They are a means of exploitation. Avoiding conversations and relationships is a means of survival. So Mr. Robot's world operates on the assumption that the only trusted language is computer code. Binary code. Where specific actions are the result of precisely arranged words with singular meaning.

Mr. Robot's world is Marshall McLuhan's “global village” in shards. It is the world of philosopher Jean Beaudrillard in which society has accepted fatalistic economic slavery through veneers of corporately-mediated normalcy. It is post-human and post-urban. It is a post-apocalyptic world in which the apocalypse has come silently. Life is fabricated and virtual. It is medicated, isolated and schizoid. And it is celebrated.

* * * * *

Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.     —Jean Baudrillard

* * * * *

In the beginning when God speaks light in Genesis we see there is no space between what he says and what he does. God's word-act is one thing. But it is mediated through his being, which is love, and in this way it is triune and highly faceted with relational meaning. It is  multiplicitous in its work of creation. In Mr. Robot, the space between word and action is rendered with such certainty there is no space for translation. No space for transformation. There is only transaction. It makes the world by extraction and destruction. Light is relegated to wires. The mediation of the knower is superfluous. Every act is a yes or a no. A one or a zero.

Elliot, the protagonist (Rami Malek) is part Everyman, part Superhero, with a foot in two illusory worlds. Elliot is a debugger by day and a hacker by night. Matrix fans will not miss the reference. Like Neo, he speaks the bug well. He has affections, but they are given to fixing lives around him, not loving. He's armed with godlike access to information and cannot resist using it in the balance of justice. But he knows too much. He lives suspended on the fault line and struggles with which world to live in. And neither world is Zion. I root for Elliot just to let go.

* * * * *

Animals have no unconscious, because they have a territory. Men have only had an unconscious since they lost a territory.     —Jean Baudrillard

* * * * *

Genesis 1 is liturgical poetry. It is an ancient way of ordering words and meanings within dynamic and generative relationships. It was probably read regularly in worship gatherings so the people would remember how to keep knowing God as Lord. Genesis 2 and 3 is God's garden play in which the knowers abandon relationships to hack the boundaries of knowledge. At the end of the play God slays an animal to cover what they've become. It precedes what theologians call the Protoevangelium (literally, first gospel). There's hope. But it will have to be teased out of a barren, scorched, and littered land. It will be life as situated in the shadow of death.   Here we find ourselves. The blood of Christ re-mediates our humanity to its Lord and Garden while we do the creative work of remembering who we are. Light breaks out, and in. The downside is the grief of falling from a world that is cratering above a real and suffering one. But if we're lucky, we'll get grounded. If we're smart, we'll do our home work.

Degrees of Separation

Rebecca Spears

cabin-768716_960_720a“Take a walk with a turtle. And behold the world in pause.” — Bruce Feiler

I’m leaving soon, leaving the Houston metropolis and all of my artistic and creative friends, to say nothing of my adult children and their families, my church family, and my students. Finally. I love them all. I love the life that I’ve made here, but I am moving to my small cabin in the country. I’ve been planning this change for several years.

Sounds crazy, yes? Yet I won’t be so far away that I am unreachable. In another time and place, moving away usually meant a permanent good-bye to the life one knew. Maybe I am a little world-weary, though this move is more about being able to live a good life in a small community.

Still, world-weariness, or weltschmerz, has been on my mind for a while. A month ago, I read Casey Walker’s debut novel, Last Days in Shanghai, about a young Congressional staffer Luke Slade who truly exemplifies what it is to be world-weary. The novel demonstrates why some people decide to pause, reexamine their old lives, and begin anew.

Luke Slade accompanies his boss, “Lyin’ Leo” Fillmore, on a weeklong trip to China to check on a joint real estate venture. Leo is, of course, so corrupt that Luke almost can’t help but become involved in corruption by accepting bribes on Leo’s behalf.  This leads Luke to question his motives and the work he has chosen to do. Is he really willing to promote himself and his career at any cost? The central characters in this novel are compelled to consider the moral and ethical dimensions of their lives, and Walker manages to let the characters do that without seeming “moralistic.”

Midpoint in the novel, Li-Li, a young Chinese woman and Slade’s counterpart, tells Luke her dreams to leave the corrupt business life. Then we see hints of Luke’s own awakening in his response to Li-Li: “Go build yourself a hut on the most beautiful mountainside. Contemplate the stream water and the fog and light as morning wanes to afternoon and never for any reason let a person talk you back down to this world.”

Yes, he is also talking about himself. Some pages later, he declares, “A thousand years ago, a holy man, the wild Bodhidharma, who must have felt overwhelmed by the circumstances of his world as I now did mine, climbed up Mount Song and sat in a cave for nine years meditating. What puzzles me is that he eventually got up and left—that after nine years of contemplation, something became clear enough that he could get to his feet and venture back outside.”

Luke will have to leave his job—that becomes clear. He’ll need to withdraw from his corrupt business life long enough to find a new direction. That, I think, is one beauties of the novel. Having taken part in corruption, several characters have the courage to pause or retreat, and to redirect their moral and spiritual lives.

In our own lives, there are degrees of separation, aren’t there, and for differing reasons—but often those separations are in order to reevaluate and redefine ourselves and the lives we want to live. Less extreme, we opt for a retreat or a quiet hour in a church service.

There’s a church in Houston called Ecclesia. I got curious about its name recently, so I looked it up. I learned that it means not merely “assembly”; it also means “called out” or “called apart.” It strikes me that when we go into a place to worship or meditate, we are setting aside time to be separate and apart, to remember how we want to live and why. These small offices are a tonic against world-weariness.

Mad Men: Unfamiliar Gestures - Part 2

Jayne English

men Read Part I here

“It may be the coldest day of the year, what does he think of that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, perhaps I am myself again.” —Frank O’Hara

What effect are these new gestures having on Don Draper?  Does he feel more like himself again? Would that be a good thing? Or are the gestures leading to something better, something blended of the Dick Whitman he was and the Don Draper he had become? On his trip west, after giving his car away to the young man who reminded him a lot of himself, Draper sits alone at a bus stop. He looks like a drifter, except for the bag of money in his lap. He ends up at the Bonneville Salt Flats and puts his money and mechanical talents behind two guys trying to break the land speed record. These last episodes are filled with generous gestures, so different from the selfish gestures that had been the pathway to creating Don Draper. They show him not in command, but helping others take command. He looks up Stephanie, to find a way to help her, because he feels like he has a responsibility toward her, for Anna’s sake.

Stephanie drags Don to a retreat on the coast. She leaves suddenly without him after an emotional confrontation with a woman about the child she gave up. Stranded at the retreat, he feels the full weight of the misery that propelled him on his quest and now includes sorrow over Betty’s pending death. Her words were sounding in his ears, “I want to keep things as normal as possible. And you not being here is part of that.” Don calls Peggy and agonizes, “I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am.” When she asks him, “What did you ever do that was so bad?” his answer reveals the depths he’s been searching, “Broke all my vows, scandalized my child, took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”

An attendee comes up to Don as he sits on the ground by the phone. He looks so distraught she thinks he is on a bad trip. She invites him to a session she is late for, on the pretense of not wanting to walk in alone.

During the session, Don listens closely to a man named Leonard who describes how his office job and his family leave him feeling invisible. He tells about a dream he had that describes how even though his family is kind and happy, they don’t seem to include him, they leave him sitting on the refrigerator shelf and close the door, making the light go out. At that point, the man starts to cry. At first, you think maybe he’s laughing over the refrigerator dream. But then you realize he’s weeping. As the man’s easy going facade crumbles, Don gets to his feet and walks over to him. Some have said that Don Draper never changes. But here is a gesture unlike any he has ever made. He gets down on one knee before Leonard, who no doubt would have been his subordinate in an office setting, he wraps his arms around him, but not just to comfort him. Don puts his head on Leonard’s shoulder and sobs with him. It was a gesture another Whitman expressed this way, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Don Draper relates to this invisible man because his own identity has been so elusive.

The next morning, Don stands watching the ocean on the edge of a cliff. Did you think for a second he might throw himself off? He breathes the sea air, watches the sun come up. Was he ever so clear eyed and unhungover first thing in the morning? Later, sitting cross-legged in a group meditation, while concentrating on his mantra, the idea for the Coke ad comes to him, he smiles.

Did Don Draper go back east and pick up where he left off, to work his way into a partnership at McCann Erickson? Don Draper changed, that fact is revealed in his expansive gestures. This kind of transformation results in lifestyle changes. Rather than going back east, it’s more likely that he bought a house on the beach and became an advertising consultant. California was always the better coast for Don. It’s where he visited Anna, proposed to Megan, and got away from his New York problems. Like Joan who celebrated the good and bad of her climb to independence by calling her production company Holloway-Harris (“you need two names to make it sound real” she told Peggy), Don might call his company Whitman-Draper, reconciling the two parts of who he has become, and as a nod to this other poet he would relate to. Maybe it was this Whitman Matthew Weiner had in mind all along who said, “A writer can do nothing for men more necessary, satisfying, than just simply to reveal to them the infinite possibilities of their own souls.”

Didn’t we know, out of all the possibilities, that he’d land on his feet? There he was every week at the end of the fall sequence, comfortably settled on the sofa, white collar and cuffs, cigarette in hand.

(Don’t miss Don Draper reading Frank O’Hara’s poem.)

Mad Men: Unfamiliar Gestures - Part 1

Jayne English

mm_end_frame-0-1280-0-1024 “Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again...”    —Frank O’Hara

We wondered if he’d make it, after years of watching the silhouetted man in the title sequence tumble past the images on the skyscraper. It was the confluence of verb and adjective, he was falling and fallen in every episode. We read it in his gestures.

We became familiar with these gestures, lighting a cigarette, pouring a drink, catching a woman. The straight posture, the raised eyebrows, the shrug. Many of his gestures spoke the language of a commanding presence, a successful partner, the iconic possessor of the American Dream.

In a way, the gestures were both the building and the unraveling of the man. He fed off them and they undid him, each in their turn. There were gestures that gave us a view into his murky depths. There was his assault of Bobbie Barrett in the ladies’ room when she attempted to bribe him. There was the moment he returned home with the cake for Sally’s birthday party only to pass the house, drive late into the night to brood. Maybe he was thinking about “having it all” as a party guest gloated, or maybe about Rachel Menken and being trapped in a marriage in the suburbs. There were the gestures inherent in two failed marriages, and many hookups and infidelitiesat least 19 women in his life over a 10-year period.

There were some bright gestures blended with the dark. He was devoted to Anna Draper, the real Don Draper’s wife. He promised he would take care of her, gave her money for a porch, painted her living room. He sent her a book of Frank O’Hara’s poems that deeply moved him (the Beatnik at the bar couldn't see past the suit.). Anna once told him, “I know everything about you and I still love you." When he later heard about her death, he sobbed and told Peggy that Anna was “the only person in the world who really knew him.”  

Gradually the degrading, selfish, and hurtful gestures transitioned to something more hopeful. What did it mean for him to show his children the brothel where he grew up, after carefully creating a polished father image to impress them? Seeing Don in front of the derelict house appearing a little mystified, and the children looking both stunned and awed, one critic writes, “Sally immediately recognizes the enormity of the gesture.”  

After he made his fortune, reclaimed himself from alcoholism, and fell through almost every relationship he had, he began to look both out of place and at home in his new gestures. For once his presence in the room wasn’t commanding. In the McCann Erickson boardroom he seemed bewildered by the box lunch that replaced the full bar, and within minutes of the presentation, his expression seemed almost whimsical as he looked out the window and watched an airplane float past the Empire State Building. Weren’t we waiting for his usual rhythms to kick in? For him to stand up and say something creatively insightful that would put him back in his rightful place at the head of the conference table? Instead, he stood up and wandered out the door.

He went to spend time with his children, but they had become accustomed to his absence. Sally got a ride back to boarding school rather than wait for him to take her, and the boys were doing traditionally father-son activities, scouts and baseball, without him. He finds Betty in the kitchen reading her psychology book. He rubs her shoulders when he sees she is sore and she explains it was from carrying all her textbooks at registration. In a tender moment, she confides that she always wanted to study psychology, and Don smiles and encourages her, “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.”

He builds bridges to Sally, keeping in touch with her while she’s at school, giving her advice and extra money for things like sport’s equipment. He gave Megan a million dollars because he felt bad about derailing her life. He pursued a waitress, not for his usual reasons, but because “she seemed lost.” It’s as if, seeing the collapse of his life in (and out of) the gray suit, he needed someone to rescue. He heads west, feeling a kinship to Jack Kerouac as he and a daydream Cooper quote from his book, “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” He helps a kid who tried to swindle him, with the grand gesture of giving him his car, to help him “choose a different route,” as one critic put it. Different from the road that Dick Whitman had so far paved with elaborate lies.

Read Part 2 here

On Flashlights and Wanting to Believe

Jill Reid

"Vintage Christmas Postcard Krampus" by Dave / Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons As I write this piece, in part, out of fondness for my pre-Internet childhood and an old love affair with a boxy and rabbit-eared television, I can see us. We are sitting rapt – my two little sisters cross-legged beside me, our faces iridescently lit by the FBI flashlights that spear the dark glaze of an eerie and abandoned field. I can see Mulder and Scully pushing the light forward, toward us as we lean into it, intersecting one another like the glowing crossbeams of their flashlights.

I have forgotten many things about being a child, but piercingly clear is the part of my childhood and adolescence spent watching The X-Files. I remember the metallic smell of the antenna in my hands as I worked toward the delicate arrangement that would render a clear screen. I remember the big bowl of popcorn and pushing through angst and fear to deliciously tremble week after week as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully dodged monsters and aliens, their faces tense with the work of believing and proving what no one else could.

And it was worth it – the increased fear of a dark room, the occasional nightmare about spaceships or shape-shifters. It was worth it because as Mulder famously told us and as the opening credits stated week after anticipated week, “the truth is out there.”

Having grown up in the world of faith, in belief in the humanly impossible—in arks and Ascension and water into wine—I didn’t find Mulder’s words hard to accept. My whole world was informed by the supernatural, by the persistent grip of redemption and grace and by what I couldn’t always see and couldn’t always touch. I cheered for Mulder’s tenacious desire to uncover truth, for his skeptic partner Dana Scully’s increasing ability to begin to believe with him, too. And as they struggled with the paranormal, I sensed how faith in what couldn’t be seen or touched could become the foundation against which all the experiences of my life, even the frightening and unexplainable ones, were contextualized and illuminated. I even saved money to buy an expensive flashlight that I told myself was for reading beneath my bed covers. Really, I think I wanted it to illuminate my dark room the way Mulder and Scully’s search illuminated the space between me and the television on nights The X-Files came on.

One day, The X-Files went off the air. Soon after, I went to college. And I only kept a flashlight inside the glove-box of my car on the chance I had a flat tire and not because I anticipated a situation that involved the goose-bump pull of a dark field. Somewhere, in my movement through the long corridor of my twenties and early thirties, the unexplainable became too easy to explain with despair and disillusionment. Time has a way of relieving us of our wonder and expectation, of dimming our flashlights and making darkness seem more commonplace than even the simplest light. After the usual bouts with time that produced deaths and divorces and friends moving across the world, it was the joy that baffled me, the surprise that someone I loved did not die or divorce or move far away.

A few months ago, it was announced that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were going to revive my old friends, Mulder and Scully, for six new episodes. In honor of the show’s new season, I began re-watching the old episodes. And I was surprised at how completely I had forgotten about the unbelief. And I’m not talking about Dana Scully, the skeptic to Fox Mulder’s persistent enthusiasm. I’m talking about Mulder, whose energy of faith was its own kind of light in the dreariest and most hopeless of circumstances:  “It’s hard, Scully,” he said. “Distrusting everyone and everything—it wears you down. You even begin to doubt what you know is the truth.” Stunned, I thought about how his words articulated a disillusionment buried in my own movement away from wonder. I understood what Mulder meant: the work of belief can be exhausting.

The revival of one of my favorite series has reminded me of the longing, of the unquenchable desire that is the human struggle to believe. Tonight, another episode will air. The flashlights will glimmer into focus. Mulder and Scully will reappear across my living room. And if they, years later and in middle age, can still be pulled into the fray of search and hope, if they can still be compelled to ready their flashlights and hit the dark and eerie fields, I can, too. Maybe I will call my sisters, remind them to turn on their TVs, and pop a bowl of popcorn. Perhaps, at the first sound of the theme-song’s whistle, I will become 14 again—a total nerd, a total dreamer, a total fan of the insatiable human capacity for belief that relies both on the resilience of imagination and the mystery of faith and that resurrects itself into the most unsuspecting life when she has forgotten to believe resurrection can happen.


Brad Fruhauff

Photo by Sara Reid - Flick [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsThere had to have been an episode of The Cosby Show where one of the kids meets a hero and is disappointed; I guess I’m not a big enough fan to remember clearly, despite the hours of it I watched growing up.

In my mind it’s Vanessa, who gets backstage tickets to a concert. When she and her friend get to the after party, the band just wants to drink, smoke, and generally carouse, and the good Huxtable child leaves early. I must have seen that story a hundred times as a kid. Celebrities, 80s TV taught us, were unpleasant people when the show ended.

Permit me to clear my throat archly.

Now that some 40 women have accused Cosby of raping them, it’s hard to pretend it’s not what it seems. The guy probably did some ugly stuff. Repeatedly.

Just like Vanessa at the backstage party, I feel hurt. A part of me that believed in the basic goodness of that show and the people who made it has been crushed.

Nobody (I hope) is saying that this hurt compares to that of the 40 women, but I can’t speak for them. I can only speak to the little corner of this scandal that really hits home for me.

As it happens, my wife and I were six seasons into rewatching The Cosby Show when all this started. And we were loving it. The humor holds up pretty well, but it’s also comfortably familiar, a reminder of our childhood when the world seemed smaller and simpler.

But what does it mean to put away childish things? It can’t mean the cynicism that more or less embraces the brokenness. And anyway, shall we really call the optimism of The Cosby Show childishness? Simplistic, perhaps, at times sentimental or trite, but surely also an admirable model of a family who tries to do right by one another, of parents who apply firm discipline with compassion, of a couple who love and respect one another.

I know some people will try to expunge Cosby from their lives, unable or unwilling to forgive his crimes—and I get that; rape is ugly and unconscionable. Emotionally, I won’t be ready to go back for some time, myself.

Analytically, however, I can imagine some future when we will click on the show in Hulu and begin the work of aesthetic healing. Art, for all its continuity with life, never bears a direct relationship with it. I’ve seen indignant bloggers impatiently insist that Bill Cosby is not the same as Cliff Huxtable. Fair enough, but then the reverse is true, too. What Bill Cosby did as Cliff Huxtable exists beyond the actor’s life in the realm of art.

Wayne Booth accounted for this discontinuity by positing an implied author between the real person and the work he or she created. He was well aware that real persons could be guilty of sins seemingly incompatible with writing your favorite book. In the act of creation, he thought, an author inhabits his or her best self, the parts of the self we all wish we could always be but can only sometimes actualize.

Scripture, too, as we are quick to forget, teaches that we have all sinned mortally and, by rights, should be beyond redemption. It doesn’t really matter that you didn’t do what that guy over there did. And it ought to teach us humility and grace rather than the politico-ideological purism that substitutes for moral thinking online.

Eventually, I think, to watch The Cosby Show will not feel like a tacit “pass” for his crimes. Eventually we’ll watch it and remember the good that those people did in creating that show. We will not forget or minimize the actor’s faults but maybe we will begin to forgive him for his deceptions. Like mature Christian adults, we’ll praise what is praiseworthy and mourn what is broken.

The Think System

Christina Lee

"Shipoopi" by is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Over the holidays, my mom popped in our battered VHS tape of The Music Man. This was my favorite movie as a kid. Somehow I never grew tired of watching Professor Harold Hill dupe the citizens of River City, Iowa.

Hill is a total fraud, but he’s so slick that the town believes his promise to form a boy’s band. Under his spell, the troubled youth stop being troubled, the tightly-wound maiden librarian unwinds, and the whole town gets together in the park and dances the Shipoopi. Everyone is too delighted to notice the lack of an actual band. He excuses away his lack of musical knowledge with “The Think System.” He tells his band, “if you want to play the Minuet in G, think the minuet in G.” The boys nod solemnly and warble in unison, “La de da de da de da de da, la de da, la de da…

Half-way through the movie, I realized I’d found my writing resolution for 2016. I’m giving up “the think system.”

See, the discipline of daily writing is grueling. Facing down a blank page at the end of a day of work is daunting. Submission is nerve-wracking and painful, and rejection is inevitable but still discouraging. It’s much easier to just think about submitting, or think about what it will be like once I’ve submitted, or think about which residencies I’ll attend whenever I find time to apply, or think about searching for a writer’s group that will help me hone my craft.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima expresses this same idea when he says, “active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams.” He is, of course, speaking of Christianity, but the quote applies to writing, too, as it does to most disciplines.

I’m not saying writing should never be joyful. What’s life without a little Shipoopi? We must have moments of joy to cling to. A breakthrough in revision, an acceptance letter thanking me for “sharing delightful work,” memories of a sunrise kayak session at a writer’s retreat…I hope every writer has similar moments to return to on hard days. But those are the exception, not the rule.

At the end of the Music Man, Harold Hill is put on trial, and to save him, his “band” miraculously manages to squeak out a horrible rendition of the Minuet in G. After a moment of stunned silence, the parents of River City rise to give a standing ovation. They loved it! It turns out River City didn’t need music, when they needed was an experience. It’s sort of a beautiful, if illogical, premise. By believing so fully in his lie, the town has transformed it into their truth.

It’s a sweet and clever ending for a musical, but it’s not the way I want my own story to end. I don’t want my daydreams of success to become my best product or to give my own mediocre work a standing ovation and call that a happy ending.  

So this year, when I catch myself thinking about writing instead of doing the work, I picture the River City Boy’s Band, singing the Minuet in G over and over and never touching their instruments. And I get back to the real work, harsh and fearful as it is.

The Almost Theology of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Brad Fruhauff

"MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." by Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons “The only [religious story] that stuck with me was something Sister McKenna said, . . . ‘God is love.’ It’s simple, and a little sappy, but, that’s the version I like. God is love; the thing that holds us together. And if that’s true I don’t think he’d punish you for making a mistake. I think he’d forgive a mistake.”

      —Skye (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S1.E9)

Because I love a lot about the new Netflix series Jessica Jones, I was all the more disappointed when it resorted to cheap shots the first time Jessica encountered a religious person—a Catholic woman who seems to thank God that her son is home, now, albeit strapped to a machine because a villain stole his kidneys. Jessica doesn’t say anything specific to the woman, but it’s clear the show views her faith with derision.

And maybe it should, since she has some confused theology. But theology wasn’t the point; faith was simply a narrative device, and it’s disappointing to see that in an age of “tolerance.”

It reminded me of the episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I cite above. It’s a much more mainstream show, and yet it probably does better at taking persons of faith seriously, if not faith itself. Skye, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, makes this speech to Hannah, a Christian woman who believes God has abandoned her to be haunted by demons because of an error at work that killed four people. Hannah, like most TV Christians, has some bad theology, and Skye’s response almost looks like good theology. One wants to say, “Yes, God is love. Of course he’d forgive her.”

Of course, she wraps that truth in a fallacious elision of God and love. Surely, as the ground of our being and source of our love, God does in some sense hold us together, but Skye hardly means all that. The important part of her speech, rather, is where she says, “that’s the version I like.”

Our sin natures will not always like what’s true, so this is really more bad theology. Still, to writer Jed Whedon’s credit, he takes spiritual concepts like guilt and atonement seriously. In the climax, we learn the “demons” are really an admirer named Tobias who has gotten stuck between dimensions. Tobias admits he caused the accident and has been trying to atone by protecting Hannah, and he begs her forgiveness.

Here’s where it gets weird again, but still in interesting ways.

Agent May has her own guilt, a story that haunts her even as other agents mythologize it. She intervenes to help Hannah and Tobias, but when Hannah says, “Only God can forgive you,” May chimes in,

“And he won't. You can’t undo what’s been done. That will be with you forever. But trying to hold onto this life, clinging to the person you thought you could be: that’s hell.”

We know that's the last word because it concludes the action of the climax and, we learn, it is what Coulson (read: dad) told her after her own traumatic choice. It needs to be said that this gets the gospel all wrong in its attempt at tough love. May’s right that Tobias can’t save himself, but stoic resignation is not God’s way.

However, if a popular show is going to have a Christian character, and if it’s too much to ask that that character’s faith is not simplistic, superstitious, or downright scary, then I at least appreciate the way S.H.I.E.L.D. treats the religious characters with dignity. They deserve closure and reconciliation, however screwy their notions. And that has moral power and aesthetic integrity.


Jayne English

tumblr_nkz5ypV4DD1qa6999o1_1280 “God will find the pattern and break it.”    - From John Ashbery’s “Anticipated Stranger,”

In the TV show The Last Man On Earth, the plot develops to where three people are left in the world; and Phil, who reluctantly agreed to marry Carol since she was the last woman on Earth, now wants to be with Melissa, the second to last woman on Earth. It was too easy for Phil to persuade Carol and Melissa that he needed to have sex with both of them to repopulate the world. The question Phil slyly asks and Carol takes up as her own rallying cry is: “Do you want our babies to have sex with each other?”

Watching them grapple with the consequences of a two parent world was uncomfortable, because it brings up awkward questions like, wouldn’t Adam and Eve’s children have had to been incestuous in order for them to be fruitful and multiply?

The whole broken world is flooded with ambiguity. How do we humans, who craved knowledge of good and evil from the start, live in a world where there are so many things left unexplained? Aren’t there always questions we can’t really answer about the Bible, creation, the universe, the human brain? The realm of poetry is also steeped in ambiguity. There is a John Ashbery poem written across the beams of a bridge in Minneapolis. Even after discussing it with people who are fluent in Ashbery, I still can’t make much sense of it. Megan Snyder-Camp writes an essay on the challenge of ambiguity in Ashbery’s poems. She says, “It’s where I remember, after that lyrical tumble, that I’m not alone in this poem, but rather have to make room for the poet and his discovery as well.” I think she’s saying that sometimes we just have to leave room for the poet to know what we cannot know. The realms of the ambiguous are one way we’re reminded who we are. Another line from Ashbery’s “Anticipated Stranger,” says “Oh well, less said the better, they all say.” Maybe this is God’s conclusion. While he speaks to us through his word, he also speaks without words, in metaphor, through trees and stars and rivers. God’s reign goes beyond the Ashbery quote. He doesn’t just find the pattern; he makes the pattern, and breaks it as he wills. Can we be at home in ambiguity?

Give Me Batman, Mostly

Brad Fruhauff

Photo by Matias G. Martinez / CC BY 4.0 I want to play along with our pop culture superhero obsession, I do. I've seen the movies and the TV series, I've read several dozen superhero comics. My boys pretend to be the Flash and Captain America. But at the end of the day, I don't care that awful much about Superman or the Avengers or even Spider-Man. Give me Batman.

Mostly. I do have a thing for Wonder Woman, and I've developed an affection for Spider-Woman that's kind of hard to explain. I'll watch the next season of Daredevil and I’ll follow Arrow until it jumps the shark. My interest in those characters, however, is pretty limited, even casual. But Batman? I'll read pretty much anything with his name on the cover.

For me, Batman has the most spiritual narratives. I'd venture to say that, in general, D.C. excels Marvel in exploring the hero's soul, and no soul is darker than Bruce Wayne's.

Bruce Wayne suffered the ultimate psychic injustice in witnessing his parents’ murders. That fact, combined with the Gothic setting and the hard-boiled tone (a descendent of Gothic), makes for a hero not just up against incredible odds but against a fundamentally unjust world. Every criminal is his parents’ murderer. Every supervillain embodies the pervasive moral evil at the heart of us all. Other heroes live in worlds where most people are basically good. Batman, like the hard-boiled detective, lives in a broken world and knows he’s as broken as anyone, but he fights tooth and nail to do good anyway.

Arguably, Batman’s mythos is the most nihilistic in that it depends the least on luck, i.e., on something happening just in time because the good guys always win. Batman wins because he spends his free time thinking of and planning for every contingency; he wins by sheer force of will. And, yet, it remains the most spiritual precisely because it takes the pervasiveness of evil so seriously and because Batman opposes absolute evil with moral absolutes: criminals must answer to the law; no killing.

I think that’s why fans often favor him over Superman, and why in Justice League stories Batman somehow manages if not to be the key hero to somehow still be right. Superman, as Frank Miller showed in The Dark Knight Returns, is too public and thus can become co-opted by national governments. Wonder Woman is an outsider. The other guys are aliens or simply lack adequate cool. Batman stands for the capacity of the individual human to do what’s right in the face of insurmountable odds.

I’m aware of the merits of other heroes, and I’m sure you can point to a storyline here or there that’s worth reading, but I have my doubts that any other superhero story can really look into the abyss like Batman can. Iron-Man’s cool. Hulk’s anger mirrors our own inner rage. But for the icon of the human fronting an evil world, give me Batman.

In Praise of Folly

Callie Feyen

Photo: Warner Bros. / Courtesy: Everett Collection One of the less hefty thoughts I had after September 11, 2001, was whether the show Friends would continue to air. I assumed that since the show took place in New York City, and that it was funny, NBC executives would choose to stop running it. When the show returned to the Thursday night line-up, I felt guilty laughing along with six of the coolest twenty- and thirty-year-olds I knew. I was also ashamed that I was expecting—almost craving—a laugh. Was this the time for comedy? Shouldn’t I be praying or donating money to some sort of relief fund? What good would a chuckle do now?

Folly, Erasmus’ narrator in In Praise of Folly, says comedy does a lot, including but not limited to, making us laugh. What’s more, Desiderius Erasmus argues (albeit humorously) that comedy is vital.

One of the first things Folly points out about comedy is that it brings about change. “…[W]hen you laid eyes on me, you were quite transfigured” (7).  Folly takes note of the adjustment in the audience when they realized that she was the one who would speak to them. She compares their reaction to feeling the signs of spring for the first time after a cold winter, and as though the audience was feeling the sun for the first time. The use of the word transfigured here also suggests that comedy not only lightens a mood, but it can transform us.

Throughout the book, Folly sheds comedic light on otherwise serious subjects. For example, she suggests the body part that a man uses in hopes to become a father is “so stupid and even ridiculous that it can’t be named without raising a snicker” (12). This is the organ that creates a human, “the sacred fount from which all things draw their existence.” In another example, Folly wonders what woman would ever have sex again after going through childbirth.  Not only does she have to endure contractions, labor, and the ordeal of having various liquids pouring out of her body parts, but she must rear the child as well.  Having gone through a miscarriage, the delivery of a ten-pound baby, and another somewhat high-risk pregnancy, knowing what I know about the miracle of life isn’t exactly foreplay. However, I also know the joy in first holding my daughters, watching them take their first steps, and listening to their voices. Folly’s question affirms the pains of childbirth and rearing, but her use of comedy here (I imagine her shaking her hands above her head in mock exasperation) lightens the situation as well. Bringing anything to life—a story, a recipe, a skyscraper, a human being—hurts. It is nice to laugh at the difficulty in it, whether it is a snicker or a howl. Laughing about the seriousness in life brings relief, and this is what Folly is doing here.

Comedy is a great leveler in the book. Folly makes fun of everyone, even Erasmus. She describes a wise man (Erasmus) as “always sparing, saving, sad, solemn, severe, and strict on himself…” (38) (The use of onomatopoeia here is humorous as well, in the sense that one could draw out the “s” in each word adding sarcasm and melodrama). Folly then asks, who cares if someone like this dies, “since he can’t properly be said ever to have lived?” (38) Women, apostles, writers, those who memorize Psalms, are among the groups that Folly makes fun of.  Being in on the joke shows we are all included. When we are included in the comedy, it means we have been observed; that there is something intriguing about us that deserves enough attention to make a joke. In this respect, comedy can also be looked at as a form of grace: we are all, in our strange, serious, silly make-ups, included in on the joke.

At the end of the book, Folly argues that practicing comedy is a form of piety. When we laugh at ourselves, we become like the pious man who, “shrinks as far as he can from the concerns of the body, and allows himself to be lifted to the realm of eternal, invisible, and spiritual things”(85). The more we lose ourselves in the joke, the closer we grow to God, and therefore closer to the way he created us to be. In this sense, comedy restores a new order.

It is probably folly to compare Desiderius Erasmus to the likes of Joey, Chandler, Ross, Phoebe, Rachel, and Monica. However, on a basic level they do the same thing Folly does: that is make us laugh, relieve us from our serious situations, include us all, and maybe, when we turn the TV off or when Folly leaves the stage, these offerings will stay with us prompting us to forget ourselves and become the people God created us to be.

Call the Midwife

Melissa Reeser Poulin

p011zrwt I’ve been flat on the couch for weeks, pinned down by constant nausea and fatigue that feels like a five-ton weight on my chest. It feels like there are two of me: the one with responsibilities and a datebook and the one with a body. Every day is an awkward dance between the two. One hauls the other into the shower, the car, the classroom, and back. One draws the other’s thoughts away from lesson plans and toward baby names and a countdown of weeks and the persistent fear of loss.

Never much of a TV watcher in the past, suddenly I’m a Netflix addict. For thirty blissful minutes, the waves of nausea can be tamed or at least forgotten while Lorelei and Rory Gilmore tackle wonderfully banal problems involving a lost baby chick or the dull paint color of the local diner. Then I discover the BBC series Call the Midwife, based on the memoirs of midwife Jennifer Worth in postwar East London.

“How can you watch this?” my husband asks after pausing to watch an episode with me. “It’s so heavy.” Like most episodes, this one is bookended by birth and death. Nurse Jenny and Sister Julienne make a house call by bicycle to a laboring woman in a dark tenement apartment. A teenage girl hides her pregnancy from her parents, giving birth alone and leaving the child on the sisters’ doorstep. And Jenny serves as district nurse to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman living in isolation and poverty, traumatized after losing five children to life in a workhouse many years before.

The stories mirror each other, connecting seemingly disparate lives through common suffering and fierce love. In each story there is a mother separated from her child, and a deep desire for forgiveness and closure. In the end, the teenage girl is reunited with her baby, and her parents come to accept both of them into the family. Jenny scours the public records to locate the public grave where Mrs. Jenkins’ children are buried, and she accompanies her there to finally say goodbye to her children.

Yes, this is heavy stuff, but it’s full of beauty, too. These scenes depict women ministering to the very poor, serving with great kindness and care for people who have been neglected and forgotten. In episode after episode, I see courageous women bring their children into a world that is not perfect, that holds hardship and suffering as much as it holds love and compassion. It doesn’t leave me dry-eyed, but I don’t think it’s just hormones. My husband sticks around to watch with me, and he cries too.

One day around week 15 I feel hungry again. I get up from the couch and start to take regular walks and do a little yoga. At the halfway mark now, I’m still likely to conk out at 8:00 p.m., but I don’t spend nearly as much time on the couch. I may be past the first trimester, but I’m not sure I’ve really kicked my Netflix habit. It’s just that, due to the brain’s weird powers of association, I can’t hear the theme song for The Gilmore Girls anymore without feeling sick to my stomach. And I’ve run through all three seasons of Midwife.

Columbo and the Melancholy Dane

Christina Lee

PETER FALK In a chapter of Works of Love entitled “Love Believes All Things –And Yet is Never Deceived,” Kierkegaard describes two levels of love: the lower level, self-love, which seeks out self-affirmation and is easily deceived, and the higher level, the level he tells us we must reach — a love so strong that it wards off all deception.

I’ve read this chapter many times, but it never quite clicked for me. Until I started binge-watching “Columbo”. God bless Netflix.

Let me tell you a little about Columbo. First of all, I adore him. At this point, I’ve logged so many hours with the old codger that he seems like a dear uncle. He’s a mess: he drives an old beater, he wears a ratty raincoat, and he never combs his hair. He’s stingy, groveling, and usually hungry. And he always gets his man.

As for the plot of the show, the formula never wavers: a murder is committed in the first few minutes, on-camera. Columbo shows up at the scene of the crime. He slinks through the crowd, often being mistaken for a bum or the help. Soon, he’s sniffed out the murderer — usually a vain, powerful and smooth-talking fellow

As Kierkegaard points out, “Do you know any stronger expression for superiority than this, that the superior one also has the appearance of being the weaker? Consider someone who is infinitely superior to others in understanding, and you will see that he has the appearance of an ordinary person.”

The murderer dismisses Columbo because of his clothes, his shoes, his height, his propensity to bring his dog on assignment or to ramble on about his extended family.

Columbo just doesn’t care. He knows where his self-worth lies — not in their opinion, but in unearthing the truth.

Since we, the audience, have witnessed the crime, we side with Columbo, no matter how he appears to bumble. We’re in on the joke. We understand Kierkegaard when he writes, “True superiority can never be deceived.”

As the plot unfolds, the murderer grows more confident, just as Kierkegaard describes those embroiled in self-love: “The cunning deceiver, who moves with the most supple, most ingratiating flexibility of craftiness — he does not perceive how clumsily he proceeds.”

This is the joy of the show — watching the murderer simmer in his pride. It doesn’t hurt that, since the show is 30 years old, the murder’s “slick” persona is often laughably dated.

Kierkegaard claims that once we view love in the right way, not as a currency to be hoarded and stolen, but “precisely in not requiring reciprocity,” we’re freed of the danger of deception. We’re freed into a love that “believes all things — and is never deceived.”

It is when you have this love, this truth, that appearances stop mattering. Love is no longer a currency, something to steal or sell. It is just there, as solid as truth. A constant. Kierkegaard’s point is that those who can’t see this look as foolish as Columbo’s smooth-talking, designer-bell-bottom-sporting, doomed murderers. Those who get it are freed of all fear of deception and of judgment, freed to don wrinkled raincoats and scuffed shoes and the “courage to endure the world’s judgment that it is so indescribably foolish.”

At the end of the chapter, Kierkegaard admits that reaching this higher understanding of love is really, really hard. Even if we can grasp its goodness, we’ll still approach it like “a dog, which can indeed learn to walk upright but still always prefers to walk on all fours.”

Maybe that’s why Columbo did so well — for an hour a week (or, these days, as many hours as you’ve got to plop in front of your computer) you’re automatically on the right side, lifted to the higher level. The natural temptation to be suckered in by vanity, self-deception, and a well-groomed mustache is gone.

When I first read Works of Love, I interpreted this higher view of love as total detachment. But Columbo actually posits something a bit more complicated.

Columbo is not freed of caring. He’s just freed of caring about the wrong thing. Columbo is obsessed with justice. He doesn’t give a rats-ass about what people think of him. And I think that’s the goal — understanding the nature of love frees us to practice that love.

The Purpose of Evil?

Ross Gale

64df6320-dc76-11e3-a0fc-3d5529a6ae18_Fargo-Love-Story Colin Hanks tweeted that they re-wrote the script for the ending of Fargo, the TV show, multiple times before they gave up re-writing and just went with what they had. They weren’t satisfied, but there wasn’t anything they could do to fix their dissatisfaction. It’s the same dissatisfaction I feel when the closing credits roll. Molly, Gus, and his daughter sitting cozy on the couch. Molly will be police chief soon. Gus earned an award for bravery. Life in Bemidji continues. The bad guy, Lorne Malvo, is shot and killed by Gus — he gets what’s coming — but evil, that persistent thing, is never finally dealt with. Fargo doesn’t know what to do with evil. 

Flannery O'Connor said of her own work, "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” O'Connor is specifically speaking about her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” where an escaped convict senselessly murders a family: mother, father, children, baby, grandma. Fargo lacks any of the grace O’Connor refers to. In Fargo, death is for the unfortunate, not for those on the verge of eternity. This is why the ending is so unsatisfying: the absence of grace. The only thing at stake is “normal” of life in Bemidji.

The moral of Fargo is about vigilance. Don’t become one of the unlucky ones. But the story of violence should propel us beyond vigilance to a confrontation with the eternal. Not for the sake of normalcy, but for the sake of souls.

Our Violent Muse

Jayne English

rectify-51c6dc0a6f0cf The universe is no narrow thing. - Cormac McCarthy, from Blood Meridian

Violence is a fitting theme for depravity. It paints lavish images of darkness in books like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and NBC’s new drama about Blackbeard, Crossbones. I've been following Sundance’s Rectify since last year, its first season. While the violence makes it difficult for me to stay with it, I keep returning because the characters and story are intriguing, the same reason I stayed with the other titles I mentioned.

In Rectify, Daniel Holden has just been released from death row after 19 years for the death of his 15-year-old girlfriend, Hanna. New DNA evidence clears him and he awkwardly attempts to re-enter relationships with his family and small community. At the end of season one, a group who knows the truth of Hanna’s murder leaves Daniel beaten nearly to death.

I look for something redemptive in a violent book or show and I wonder if the writers of Rectify will use the violence to point to something beyond itself. But do they need to?

When Harold Bloom speaks of the violence in Blood Meridian, he doesn't talk about it in redemptive terms. Bloom says, “The violence is the book. The Judge is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate...the book is the ultimate dark dramatization of violence.”So he says the book dramatizes violence, but he doesn’t unpack any insights for us about the violence.

Violence can point to something greater, and artists have used it in this way for centuries. In his book Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite talks about the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood. The poet was intent on explaining the gospel to Saxon warriors. He used a myth his audience was familiar with (about violence Odin endured on the tree Yggdrasil) to shed light on the violence Christ suffered on the cross. By doing this he in a sense redeems the violence for a significant purpose.

David Lynch did a masterful job of bringing redemption our of violence in Twin Peaks. I’ll try not to give away the story, but the rescue of the last victim in a line of serial murders involved sacrifice. Does sacrifice have to occur for violence to be considered redeemed? Maybe the writer/director doesn’t exactly have spreading the gospel as a goal, but is the gospel inherent in a myth or story that shows sacrificial rescue?

I love this phrase the Anglo-Saxon poet uses in his poem: “forwunded mid womum.”Guite translates it as “deeply wounded by defilement.”Mankind’s defilement does wound, very often through violence. The violence of prison life and violence done by a handful of the town’s people in Rectify is a fitting frame to see not just Daniel who is wounded by defilement, but his family, and the ones who are wounded by their own violence against Daniel. Should the use of violence in Rectify be redemptive? Is it enough for it to be a metaphor for depravity? If so, is there a line between gratuitous violence and violence that portrays depravity?

Fargo and the Force of Evil

Ross Gale

7 article-0-1D236F0900000578-75_634x462 I tend to think of evil in three categories. The first is the snake-in-the-garden tempter. The second is an immovable force of destruction like a tornado or a hurricane. The third is a bad guy with a gun, the classic antagonist. What happens when you roll all three into one character? (Drum roll, please!) You have Lorne Malvo from the new TV show Fargo. And where you find Malvo, you’ll find the bolito.

In Cormac McCarthy’s script for The Counselor, a drug-dealing businessman describes how Mexican cartels use the bolito to kill its victims. The bolito is a loop of wire that slips around the neck. A small motor is turned on and the wire pulls tight and tighter until the victim bleeds out or is decapitated. In many of McCarthy’s stories, evil is like a powerful, motor-driven force with no off-switch. A blood bath always ensues. That same evil is the driving force in Fargo where Malvo brings a bolito to the small Minnesota town of Bemidji.

Lorne Malvo is a humorous character who fits Fargo’s Coen-esque dark-humor. But in Bernidji we find that no matter how random Malvo’s killing, no matter how silly and misinformed the good, the story still pits evil against good. And this evil is always aided by both our inability to recognize it and/or our lack of courage to hunt it out.

Fighting evil is always an active pursuit of the truth, no matter how crazy, confusing or bloody. As in much of McCarthy’s canon, the force of evil seems irresistible, enveloping the unaware and the weak. It may give great temporary power to destroy, but it will always kill them.

And Fargo demonstrates how it tears apart the fabric of the community. Duluth officer Gus Grimly asks himself, “Am I supposed to put myself in danger or just let it go?” That’s the question the town must ask itself. Is it the question we should ask ourselves?

Theories and Bragging Rights

Alissa Wilkinson

mad-men copy

I've long been a fan of the AMC series Mad Men, which looks at America in the 1960s through the lens of Madison Avenue at the time. The seventh season started in mid-April, and I've been writing recaps of each episode. To prepare, I watched the fifth and sixth seasons again and was struck this time by how carefully written they are. There is far more going on in a season, or even a single episode, of Mad Men than meets the eye: metaphors, allusions, symbols, all the elements of a good literary novel are present in the show. It rewards a re-watching.

I've also been reading a lot about the show, and one thing anyone who's read seriously about Mad Men knows is that fan theories abound. Last season, they were mostly about whether Megan Draper, Don's second wife, was in fact a sort of Sharon Tate character, destined to be offed in a manner like Tate. Speculation arose because Megan wore a shirt that matched one in a photograph of Tate, and so, fans reasoned, perhaps Matt Weiner, the show's head writer and executive producer, was dropping clues about her eventual demise.

Fair enough. But the show has been dropping hints about everyone's demise right from the start, because the show is at least sometimes a show about mortality (though one popular fan theory last season posited that Don Draper himself was already dead, with screenshots and symbols to back it up).

Such theories treat the show as a puzzle to be unlocked, a sort of trail of breadcrumbs that might lead a savvy viewer down the road toward guessing what happens in the finale, set to air in 2015 along with the back half of the seventh season. Now the race is on: who will guess first, or best? Who will get the bragging rights?

A similar phenomenon happened when the HBO show True Detective (which I loved) aired earlier this year. Viewers scoured the show for clues: who was the Yellow King? Why did Rust Cohle wander around quoting esoteric philosophy and poetry? What was actually going to happen? I think of this as the Lost school of television watching: the goal of a close reading is to follow the hints dropped by the show in order to unlock the mystery and win arguments in comments sections on articles.

True Detective disappointed some fans by having a rather straightforward ending that didn't satisfy any theories, though by my lights it was a satisfactory ending. And I'm fairly confident that Mad Men, though it is dropping ostensible clues left and right (some of which I've pointed out in my recaps), won't end the way anyone expects, either. I have more faith in the writers than that.


William Coleman

magritte2It’s a measure of my addiction to House of Cards that I wound up watching an episode on my laptop, earbuds firmly in place, while, in the same room, my wife watched Into the Wild on the television.

As my show progressed, an episode that contained a subplot about a local BBQ joint that gained sudden notoriety, I found my gaze vacillating between my screen and the one behind it. It’s an all-too-familiar feeling—my attention tentative, or skittering along the surface tension of reality.

But then a moment happened when the gap between my knowing one screen and knowing another contracted, drawing both together. So it was that I saw two women, who’d known each other only from a fellowship hall, share an intimate first kiss in bed even as I saw men gather on the street outside, tearing at their barbeque ribs with their hands.

Of course it was coincidence. Characters in Sean Penn’s film happened to be eating what characters in House of Cards had been eating. But for an absorbing moment, I believed I was watching two scenes from the same show at once, each counterpointing the other. It was compelling.

But the convergence also gives me pause. More and more, I see my high school students as a mesh of interactivity. “Is it really possible to work a laptop, a cell phone, and an iPod simultaneously, while ‘doing homework?’” one mother recently asked rhetorically, on Facebook.

I’ve always assumed the answer to that question to be no, which is why in my literature classroom, I try to create conditions for entrance into what Sven Birkerts calls deep time (contemplative space where we can come to know the resonance of the data we’ve accrued), conditions I find increasingly at odds with the culture’s. We read aloud. We read slowly. We look up words. We read by candlelight.

And yet what we discover at those depths seems to be the very awareness of multiplicity and convergence that I found when the art on my wife’s screen became entangled with the melodrama on my own. We find the arguments and images that etymologies form. We find charges of thematic meaning around which opposing words scatter. We follow lines of allusive thought. In our deep time, we learn to see narratives that run like programs in the background.

Why does it bother me, then, to think that the idea of being offered merely one narrative at a time in a movie theatre or on a television screen might soon seem simplistic, or worse, inauthentic? What is the danger that our minds may be changing such that split-screen (or multi-screen) storytelling, in our multi-tasking culture, will become the only way to communicate in a way that feels true?

After all, couldn’t the evolution of consciousness—toward the meshing of seemingly competing attractions for attention—be reflective of a growing understanding of the deeper reality quantum physics gestures toward: a world of superposition and entanglement?

Maybe. But if so, when given the choice between attractions that arrive in our laps in high definition and the kind that are indistinguishable from darkness until our eyes are trained to see them, I am afraid that I and many of my students will increasingly choose what comes to us.

Reflecting natural forces is not the same as embodying truth, and it’s not the same as knowing either one. If we are to feel and know the resonance of all that converges, if we are interested in wisdom, we must, again and again, learn how to read. That, I see here beneath the words, is why I teach.

(Self-portrait by Rene Magritte)