Extinction

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Film * Ben Young * Aliens. OR ARE THEY. Yes, technically. * 2018

Synopsis

I’ve been remiss. It seems that over the last few months, Netflix has been publishing some sort of apocalyptic-themed movie every other week and I’ve not watched any of them. What is this blog even for, then? So, I apologize, and here we are. Now believe it or not, I don’t live in a vacuum, and so I’ve heard that a bunch of these have been going up on the service of late, and I’ve also heard that the median quality of these things is somewhere around “ferociously mediocre.” That’s fine, they can’t all be superstars. The real question was, where to start? I’ll get to most of them eventually, but it’s been a hot second since I’ve watched an alien invasion flick, and what do we have here but Extinction, which promises exactly what I was looking for. Plus, the trailer promised some wrinkles to the worn territory of alien invasion stories, shifting the initial focus to the protagonist’s state of mind rather than external cues before the aliens show up and start wrecking shit.

So, there’s a couple of things to understand about Extinction before firing it up. First and probably most importantly, this is a modern B-movie. Denoting it such is not a burn, but should serve as a clue to adjust your expectations accordingly. That said, B-movies have come a long way since Plan 9 from Outer Space. The CGI effects are bad, but not excruciatingly awful. The acting is mostly fine. The script is coherent. It’s mostly that Extinction lacks the polish that bigger movies have, and that’s fine. Frankly, the budget and scope of this movie are basically where they need to be for the story being told. The second thing to know is that while Extinction isn’t actually very good, I still had fun watching it. There were enough cool ideas and surprising moments to make the 90 minutes worthwhile. Again, this is all about expectations. If you’re looking for something the size and scope of a big budget tentpole flick, then you will be disappointed. If you want to watch a bunch of goofs run around and fight aliens, then Extinction’s got you.

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Almost every promotional image or screen shot is the family hiding around a corner from aliens with guns.

The first thirty minutes of the movie are probably the worst thirty minutes of Extinction, but it’s not totally the fault of the script. It’s just how these movies work. Pretty much any disaster movie begins the same way, with a relatively slow introduction to the characters and the world. Peter is a family man who has been spending too much time at work, and his wife and two daughters are bummed about it. Peter’s also been having these terrible nightmares which prevent him from getting a good night’s sleep and is otherwise donking up his domestic and professional life. In these dreams, he’s witnessing a massive alien invasion that ends up with him fighting for his life to protect his family. His wife, Alice, and his boss try to convince him to go see a therapist to work through these issues, but Peter is fairly adamant to fix it himself. Obviously, a movie like this does not bother to hide what it is, so we clearly know an invasion is imminent. The only real question is why Peter seems to be seeing into the future. Well, that question is answered, because Extinction is a movie with a twist, but I’ll get to that after the break. In the meantime, if you want a cheesy, fun B-movie, by all means check this out.

Discussion

Once Extinction has established its main characters, it finally dispenses with the pretense of being anything other than a disaster movie. Alice is having a dinner party in order to hang out with some friends instead of her family for once. I don’t appreciate the movie perpetuating the myth that adults have friends, but whatever. Alice is having an okay night, but Peter is being a buzzkill as usual, and she’s especially pissed at him because he bailed on his therapy appointment. I guess she’s having a party celebrating a promotion at her job at the, uh, city planning commission? She’s now in charge of the city’s network of mysterious tunnels, which is a weird thing to be in charge of. Peter works at a “factory,” although it appears his entire job is plugging and unplugging a large cable. For this, the family lives in this huge apartment with a giant fucking balcony overlooking the skyline of the future-city they live in. Anyway, poor Peter, even his kids are mad at him because he keeps bailing on them. However, before we know it, Peter is vindicated because the aliens finally show up and start blowing shit up and murdering people.

The middle bit of the film is once again fairly standard disaster movie fare. The aliens are bombing buildings, but also sending out extermination teams to mop up. They’re green, hissy aliens with weird bubbles on their armor, but other than that they’re humanoid. They die. Peter and Alice team up and beat the shit out of one while their otherwise useless kids bleat and whimper in the corner. The youngest girl, Lucy, is especially prone to putting herself in grave danger and threatening the family as a whole. Look, they’re child actors. I don’t know what you’re expecting. They’re in the movie to up the stakes, pretty much. Anyway, Peter takes charge and starts herding his family and the neighbors up to the roof and through the corridors before deciding to use Alice’s convenient position as Mysterious Tunnel Manager to find an underground passage to Peter’s Cable Factory, where safety will happen. I’m being a bit glib here, but really Extinction does a pretty decent job of riding that line between taking itself too seriously and not taking itself seriously enough. I dunno, I found this fun, your mileage may vary.

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I wasn’t exaggerating.

Now we get to the narrative twist. It’s something I found mildly surprising, but ultimately disappointing. I think? I will admit to being fairly bad at predicting twist endings and figuring out mysteries ahead of time. I think part of this is my willingness to set my thinky-brain aside while I’m enjoying a story. Usually I’m content to let the story move at its own pace and if it feels the need to set up a plot twist or make a shocking revelation I’m happy to let it do so. That said, Extinction makes it clear from the beginning that something is up. Peter’s ability to remember forward is kind of a red herring, since it turns out he’s actually just recovering memories and they just happen to resemble the current moment. Eventually, Peter disarms an alien and, gasp, it’s a human. That I kind of saw coming. What I didn’t expect was for Extinction to turn into a movie about robots. Androids. AI synthetics. Whatever. When it transpires that Peter and his entire family are part of a society of synthetic life forms who have collectively had their memories erased, I can’t help but feel that it wasn’t entirely earned.

It’s a cool idea, though, to the point where I wish Extinction didn’t rely on the plot twist element to reserve the idea for a last-minute exposition dump. At the very least, the fact that they’re all synthetics makes some sense in retrospect. It explains why the society full of office parks and Cord Factories seemed off-kilter. It explains why the children are in full makeup, like weird little hipster dolls, the entire movie. If they’re all synthetic life-forms modelling their behavior on the humans who created them, it makes sense that there will be an artifice to how they live those lives. It also makes sense that the synthetics would fight genocide with genocide. The humans tried to purge them, failed, and ended up on Mars or some shit. Now the humans are back in their unexplained alien guise to take their world back. The movie ends with a new war between the synthetics and the humans just beginning. I don’t know that anything Extinction presents has me dying to return to this world, but once again, it was a fun little bit of B-movie silliness that I had a good time with.

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Posted in Aliens, Disaster, Film | Leave a comment

The Mirror Empire

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Novel * Kameron Hurley * Multi-Dimensional Apocalypse * 2014

Synopsis

I used to read a lot of epic fantasy. Thanks, J.R.R. I’ve pretty much stopped reading this particular sub-genre after accepting that The Winds of Winter is never going to materialize and that I should just move on. If I’m being real, even A Song of Ice and Fire was a rare thing for me. I cannot stand the phrase “I grew out of it,” but I really did stop reading epic fantasy in my early 20’s. That’s not because I stopped enjoying extravagantly imagined worlds, though, and that’s an important distinction. When people use the phrase “I grew out of” whatever, be it D&D, or pop-punk, or whatever the fuck, they’re basically saying that they’re embarrassed of who they used to be. Now, if that aspect of your personality was, say, being a racist, then good. If it’s because your imagination died and now all you read are how-to-do-good-at-business books, that’s less good. Personally, I moved away from epic fantasy novels for three reasons. One, video games got to the point where they fill the void of richly imagined worlds. Two, I am trying to write it, and I don’t want my processes overly influenced by other writers. Three, fuck The Wheel of Time.

That goddamn series is everything wrong with high fantasy. Every trope, every cliché. You got your peasant “chosen one.” You got your sassy sidekicks and grouchy mentors. They use invented swears instead of just saying “fuck.” Every volume of that endless series is a thousand pages long. None of that is the worst of it, though. Oh no. As we’ve seen in a recent article, tropes and archetypes can work if done well, and if a world is worth living in the length is a plus. Invented swears are never okay, but if everything else works, then they’re more of a minor annoyance than anything else. The Wheel of Time is guilty as shit of all those other things, but the unforgivable sin Robert Jordan (rest his verbose soul) commits is that each thousand-page volume never actually goes anywhere. Characters don’t grow, the plot barely moves. There is never any momentum, there’s always some other fucking thing that needs to happen before we get anywhere. Now, you can make the same accusations of George R.R. Martin, especially of the last couple of novels. However! Even when the plot seems to be spinning out of control, the characters are at least changing. The Jamie from Game of Thrones is vastly different from where he’s at later on in the series. All the people in The Wheel of Time just go around and around and very little changes. Mostly I’m mad it took me like seven books before I stopped reading the fucking things.

After that, my worry was that all high fantasy would fall into the same trap. I flirted with other authors, of course. Tad Williams is okay, although I prefer his Otherland books to his pure fantasy novels. Outside of Martin’s ridiculously popular books, however, nothing’s really resonated. Still, I am who I am, and on my last visit to Powell’s, I found myself wanting to read a novel with a map in the front. What I found, The Mirror Empire, is pretty much the antithesis of all that bullshit The Wheel of Time exemplifies. There are some archetypes, there are some clichéd situations. Fine, fine, Hurley is working within a template. However, the characters all feel like actual people, and that’s an important difference. They get the shit kicked out of them by life and they grow. Their perspectives are challenged and they change. There are shades of goddamn grey. Beyond that, the world Hurley has created is strikingly original. I might actually argue the world-building is a little too convoluted, but mostly it’s refreshing. Oh, and there are no fictional swear words.

One more thing before we get to the break and I speak more candidly about the story. The Mirror Empire is very good, but it also takes a while to come to terms with its world. There’s a lot going on here. High fantasy always starts slowly, and it always takes some time to get acclimated to a new world, and this is no different. However, even once you get used to the fantasy names (which are at least shorter and easier to deal with than many in this space, plus there’s no obnoxious exercises in gratuitous punctuation) and start to get a handle on the various cultures, there’s still more to figure out here. Most importantly, there’s multiple realities to deal with. Thus the “mirror” of Mirror Empire. Then there’s the magic system, which is based on the multiple moons of this fantasy planet. Then there’s the gender thing, since each nation has a different system of gender identity and a different way of treating their citizens. Like, it’s broadly a matriarchy, but there are many different ways to parse all that. Sexuality is a dang free-for-all. So before you pick this up, understand that there’s work by the reader to be done. I would say it’s worth it though, at least this first volume. I’m excited to see where it goes. Now, specifics.

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Never trust a fantasy series unless it has a map in the front (unless it’s Terry Pratchett, of course).

Discussion

The preferred method of acclimating your reader to your new world, at least for me, is to just chuck them into the deep end head first. Otherwise you’re spending time reading a bunch of dry exposition while nothing happens and you alienate readers. Now, Tolkien gets a pass on this because he is basically the creator of the genre, and also, there’s a ton of people who just can’t get into those books. Which is fine, even if they’re wrong. That said, I’ve found the best way to get people into your new world is to simply immerse them. The characters should carry your world anyway, and the characters should be pretty well used to living in the world they’re in. Eventually, the reader will come to understand what everyone in the novel takes for granted. Depending on how complicated the new universe is, and how different it is from our own world, it can take a couple hundred pages to get with the program. Meanwhile, if the book is any good, the story should be moving along. The Mirror Empire does exactly this. The plot gets rolling immediately, and it’s up to the reader to keep up or not. This might alienate a certain kind of reader, but with so many new concepts in play it’s really the only way.

The Mirror Empire is an ensemble novel, so if you’re used to A Song of Ice and Fire-style narration, this is that. If there is a principal character, it’s probably Lilia. She’s introduced in the prologue, after all, where some horrible shit happens to her as a little girl and she barely escapes certain death and finds herself in an unfamiliar country. Lilia is archetype-adjacent. After the prologue there is a time skip and we catch up with her as an older teenager, hanging out with her bestie Roh. She’s all fucked up. Lilia has asthma and a jacked-up foot due to her misfortune as a kid. She lives and works as a housekeeper in a temple full of magic-sensitive kinda-not-really wizards. The magic system in this book is a whole thing, which I’m not really going to get into. It’s cool, but all the characters take this stuff for granted and it takes a while to figure out just what some of these people are capable of.

Lilia and Roh live in a country called Dhai, which is one of three major nations in this world. It’s at this point where the reader has to really pay attention, because each of these nations all have very different social structures. The Dhai are basically pacifists, and they have six recognized genders. Non-consensual touching of any kind (including something as innocuous as a tap on the shoulder) is taboo. Dhai has a complicated leadership structure, but they’re currently ruled by a reluctant leader named Ahkio. The country next door, Dorinah, is a violent matriarchy comprised of magic-enabled warrior slavers. One of these warriors, Zezili, is a principal character who gives us some insight into this fucked up country. The third major power is a northern country called Saiduan, which is more of a patriarchy, although they have three genders and one of the most powerful, influential people in the country is a woman. Of course, once I had all that straightened out, The Mirror Empire starts throwing multiple worlds into the mix.

Saiduan is under siege by a vicious army from a different version of the world. In that version, the Dhai are raging, blood-thirsty warriors who have come pouring through a tear in reality to wreak havoc in the world-next-door. The three nations all have very different ways of dealing with this external threat, but the underlying issue with the invading force is pretty simple. You cannot travel to the mirror world if that version of yourself is still alive, and the mirror world is about to be destroyed. Therefore, in order to survive, the mirror Dhai feel they need to genocide everyone so that they can survive. Those being genocided are not cool with it, as you might imagine. Look, I don’t have the space here to get real deep into the characters or the narrative. I didn’t even mention the semi-sentient, people-eating plants that cover the world! Hurley is doing a lot of really cool things, but a deeper look at those things is going to have to wait until the next volume. The ending to The Mirror Empire is satisfying in itself, but also pretty much ensures I’m on board for the entire series. If you’re down for a new world, you could do a lot worse.

Posted in Books, Fantasy | Leave a comment

The Ghost Hunters

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Novel * Neil Spring * Gh-Gh-Ghoooosts! * 2013

Synopsis

Ghosts are weird. I’m of two minds about the concept, and I file them alongside all the other weird, paranormal things our culture is obsessed with. They absolutely do not exist, that should be pretty clear to any rational person. There’s literally no empirical evidence to support the idea of life after death. All we have are stories and legends and hearsay. Which brings me to the other side of my brain, because I really want all this ridiculous nonsense to be true. How much more fun is the world if there’s demons and shit lurking in some kind of in-between amorphous ether? Okay, maybe fun is the wrong word, but it’s certainly more exciting. I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in feeling this way. Most of us know ghosts and mediums and ectoplasm and demonic powers and all that fun stuff are just that, fun stories to spook each other with. Also, though, wouldn’t it be a trip if all that stuff was totally real? The Ghost Hunters is a novel about that divide between rational skepticism and a desire to believe in a more magical, spooky world.

The protagonist of this novel, a very cool woman named Sarah Grey, is a fictional character. Obviously, you say, leaning back in your red leather chair puffing on your pipe, but of course the protagonist in a work of fiction is fictional. Why have words at all if you refuse to understand their meaning, young man? *puff puff* Indeed. Well whatever, old man, because the other main character – who splits the difference between protagonist and antagonist – is Harry Price, who happens to be an actual person who lived in the world. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. End scene. So, The Ghost Hunters is a historical novel, in that Harry Price was a real dude who did about half the stuff that happens in this book in real life. Most of that stuff has to do with “the most haunted house in England,” the Borley Rectory. Again, this was a real place in the world, and it had a reputation for being lousy with supernatural goings-on. More specifically, it’s haunted by the ghost of a nun who was betrayed and murdered and now has a vendetta against liars of all kinds. That’s not great news for Sarah and Harry, because these two goofs have a bad habit of keeping important things from each other.

I should probably talk about Harry Price a little bit. First and foremost, he’s a jackass. But he’s a fun jackass, so it’s not a drag to read about him. The novel mostly takes place in interwar England, and if you’ve been around these parts you’ll know that my academic interests largely fall between the two world wars. After the horrors of World War I, there was a major boom in mediums and supernatural beliefs in war-affected countries. You can understand why. Millions of people died, leaving millions more behind, and those grief-ravaged survivors had no real answers as to why their loved ones needed to die in the mud. Anyone who could offer a chance at closure with those who were lost were embraced. Obviously, most of these “mediums” were scam artists, which is extremely gross. Harry Price, who has a whole boatload of his own internal demons (in addition to the possibility of external ones), has made a business out of testing mediums with science and disproving their exploitative bullshit. Sarah, who lost her father in the war, joins Price as his secretary/assistant, because her own mother has bought all the way into this medium stuff and Sarah is tired of seeing her get hurt. As a team, Harry and Sarah are out to uncover the fakes, but both end up with reasons to believe that not everything is hogwash. They want the truth, but they also want to believe. It’s a hard line to walk.

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Borley Rectory, back in the day. 

Discussion

I like The Ghost Hunters quite a bit, even though I didn’t find it all that spooky. I mean, it had its moments, but given the context of the story I spent more time wondering how certain effects were pulled off than I was being spooked by ghosties. I think part of the reason for that is the scope of the novel. Most haunted house stories span maybe a day or two. You know the template. Terrified home owners call the ghost experts to come in and quiet the restless spirits. The haunting has been going on for years, of course, but the story doesn’t start until the team shows up to experience the horror for themselves. Once they arrive, usually the story wraps up one way or another in a few days at most. The Ghost Hunters takes place over a long span of years, and time jumps all over the place, often when you’re not expecting it. As the months and years drift by, we’re watching these characters change and grow, or regress, or continue to make the same dumbass decisions over and over again. You know, like real people. The constant time-skips do leave considerable gaps, however, often in service of the plot.

The story itself splits itself in a few different directions, which is fine, but The Ghost Hunters could stand to be a little more concise. The haunting at Borely Rectory is clearly the focal point for what happens throughout the course of the novel. However, only about a third of the book is actually set there. Sarah and Price only visit a handful of times, and while the events that transpire during those visits are very important to both the plot and the characters, they don’t take up a lot of space in the narrative. Mostly what the book is dealing with is the relationship between Sarah and Harry, and Harry’s erratic nature. There are points throughout where he pulls some borderline evil shit on people he professes to care about. Of course, this is all wrapped up in Price’s megalomania and intense nature, so it’s no real shock when he starts betraying people and being a total dickhead. In retrospect, this is more a story about relationships than it is about spooks. It’s mostly well done, though, and when the spooks do pop up they’re generally pretty good.

I think there’s a discussion to be had about the role of spiritualism in the interwar period. As I mentioned above, it seems natural to me that the cataclysm of the First World War would spark a rush toward irrational beliefs in the supernatural. After all, look what modern technology and belief systems have wrought. Any student of Modernism is well aware of what an unprecedented shock World War I was for those who had to deal with it and its aftermath. Thanks to rapid industrialism, technology outpaced humanity’s ability to understand its effect in society. Science was moving our understanding of the world forward at an astounding rate while traditional social structures were undergoing a long overdue overhaul. All that alone is terrifying, but throw in the industrial meat grinder that was the war, and it’s completely understandable that once the war concluded there would be a reactionary yearning for the old ways. The Ghost Hunters deals with that impulse, but also illustrates the mindset of those like Price, who despite everything still put stock in scientific and technological progress. Of course Harry, in his desperate pursuit for rational truth, tramples all over the feelings of anyone around him, but you know, eggs and omelets.

The Ghost Hunters wraps up pretty neatly, as it’s kind of a framed narrative and both the prologue and epilogue tie into Sarah’s story. Personally, I found the ending predicable. That’s fine, as I’ve never understood the need for stories to be a string of gotcha-moment surprises. It’s a well-constructed narrative and that’s more important than some grand revelation. I wouldn’t even mention it if the story wasn’t constructed in such a way that the author thought they were being clever by hiding vital information from the reader. Whatevs. More obvious is the author’s desire for The Ghost Hunters to be a series. Sarah mentions, early and often, her many adventures with Harry before and between visits to the Borley Rectory. These incidents are glossed over, and as I mentioned there’s a ton of time that’s not accounted for in the novel. My issue with this structure isn’t that those stories aren’t worth telling, it’s more in how this first novel tells the overall story of Sarah and Harry to completion. Like, we know how their relationship ends, and it’ll be weird to revisit these two in an earlier phase of their relationship hunting the ghost of the Loch Ness Monster or whatever when we know how doomed they both are. It’s a strange decision, and I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the next in the series because of it. That said, The Ghost Hunters is still quite good on its own. If you enjoy wishing ghosts are totally real, you’ll likely enjoy it.

Posted in Books, Ghosts, Historical, World War I | Leave a comment

Castlevania: Season Two

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Television * Sam/Adam Deats * Vampires, Yo * 2018

Synopsis

I wasn’t really expecting to do a season-by-season write up of this particular season, but hey, here we are and why not? The first season of Castlevania was unexpectedly fun, despite not actually being a season of anything. I’m still irritated at the audacity of calling four twenty-two minute episodes a “season.” Well, the team behind Castlevania must have heard because season two is twice the number of episodes! It’s pretty clear that the first two seasons are actually a single story arc which combine for a solid 12 episode run. In retrospect it would have made more sense to wait until this season came out to write about both of them together, but how was I to know? Stupid Netflix and its unpredictable release schedules. Anyway, whatever, Castlevania picks up right where it left off and carries this particular story through to a pretty satisfying conclusion that leaves more than enough room at the end for ongoing stories. I did a modicum of research and Netflix has ordered another ten episodes, so that’s cool.

Okay, enough whining about how this series is organized. They made their decision and they made it wrong, so let’s move on. This second season moves at a more leisurely pace than the first. Those first four episodes are just a blur of blood and giblets, and while this season has its fair share of people getting whipped in half, there are more quiet moments. Season two introduces several new characters, and takes the time to develop them. Most of these new arrivals are Dracula’s generals, tasked with persecuting his purge of humanity. There are some intriguing bits about how the vampire society is structured, but mostly everyone defers to Dracula because he’s the strongest. But he’s also real sad and indifferent now, which leads to a good deal of unrest amongst the troops. It also doesn’t help that his top two generals are humans. Isaac and Hector are given brief backstories in order to help us understand why two human would volunteer to be the point men in a campaign of genocide against all of humanity. Carmilla, a rival for Dracula’s power, also shows up and starts sowing discord. There’s definitely more going on than last season’s relatively flat depiction of the evil Church.

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Godbrand looking bored and irritated, wishing there was someone or something around to turn into a boat.

As a writer and a critic, I’m usually on the defensive against flat characterizations, clichés, and tropes of any kind. Given the option, I generally prefer deeper characters, original situations, and an aversions to archetypes. That said, clichés and archetypes are the foundation of pretty much all fiction and storytelling, so we might as well embrace them. A well told story with familiar elements is comforting and satisfying. Castlevania trades in tropes and archetypes, but it’s all executed so well that it works. It’s a gothic horror story featuring larger-than-life heroes and villains. Trevor Belmont is a washed-up drunk with a tortured past who deals with his present with large doses of sarcasm. But he also has a heart of gold and can still kick ass when his purpose is revitalized by a sassy young lady. Sypha, said sassy young lady, is extremely competent and confident. She has a lot of excellent banter and can hold her own in a fight. Alucard is the brooding young man who is doing the difficult thing out of a sense of honor, in this case loyalty to his dead mother. You’ve seen these types before, but Castlevania has no pretentions beyond telling a sharp, fun story.

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It’s the vampire-killing superfriends!

Discussion

I’m starting to wonder if maybe I haven’t exhausted all I have to say about this series in the top section, there. Despite the story and the world opening up a bit in this second season, overall Castlevania is pretty straightforward. Humanity is a scourge, and Drac is here to wipe it out. Insofar as apocalyptacism (which is not a thing, but let’s pretend) is concerned, Castlevania is working within the confines of “humanity as a plague,” which is to say that as a species we are irredeemable and should be eradicated for the betterment of the planet. Sometimes, when I spend too much time reading the news, it’s a difficult thing to argue. Dracula, who lost a beloved wife to mob rule and rampant tribalism, has essentially made up his mind that the good things humanity has bestowed upon the world doesn’t come close to making up for the evils of the world. Humans, he argues, destroy without understanding. In fact, understanding and rational thought are grounds for destruction. Humans are impulsive, ignorant, easily led astray by fear and anger, and prone to violent outbursts. Again, hard to refute!

I’m not going to try, because like everything else in Castlevania, the main thematic thrust of the series is pretty well-worn territory. For all that horrible shit, humans are responsible for the concepts of love and beauty and ingenuity. Trevor Belmont is a character attempting to redeem himself thanks to youthful exuberance of Sypha. Alucard is a dang vampire and he’s trying to honor the memory of his beloved mother because she was the shining example of humanity’s potential for goodness. This is the kind of story where I don’t need subtext. I want to see a bunch of stylish, gory action scenes while enjoying the hero’s banter and the villain’s capacity for doing ill shit. I enjoy the snappy dialog and the show’s wry sense of humor. I want to Tevor and Sypha to kiss and run around fucking up vampires. So far, the show is doing a pretty good job of providing most of those things. Here’s a bunch of stuff that I think is super fun:

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I am all about Carmilla putting little bitches in their place.

Godbrand is fucking great. When told that he’s never met anything he didn’t want to kill, fuck, or turn into a boat, he just responds “I like boats.” He’s a Viking vampire, so I guess it makes sense, but whatever. He’s a comic relief character, and it’s a shame he got staked.

The voice acting is tremendous.

I like Sypha quite a lot, and hope season three endeavors to give us a little more backstory insofar as she’s concerned. Like, I specifically am not looking for a tormented past here. I would much prefer a look into her life as a nomadic, magic-wielding Jehovah’s Witness.

I am extremely down for Carmilla being the new big bad. She’s vicious and conniving and evil in a way that Dracula wasn’t. She was pretty much spot on in her analysis of Dracula as a grown-ass man throwing a hissy fit because shit didn’t go his way. Yeah yeah, he has a point, but mourn and exact your revenge like a grownup.

Isaac and Hector are intriguing characters, in that they’re extremely damaged humans who happen to be able to reanimate the dead. Isaac is a wiener, although I assume he’s going to snap and wreck everyone’s shit up later. Hector is just spooky, and that’s rad.

I appreciate that season two was willing to slow things down a bit. One, it expands the world and the characters a bit, giving the audience time to appreciate the craft. If you’re going to bank on archetypes and cliché, you have to take the time to do it right. Two, the slower pace of the first six episodes ensures that the seventh episode is a proper payoff.

There’s an honest-to-god denouement! An entire, slow-paced episode that examines the aftermath of big, Dracula-killing climax. The episode moves potential new plot threads forward, with both Hector and Carmilla getting up to some shit. It also shows that Sypha has ambitions and an affection for Trevor. Castlevania is an oddly chaste show, so there’s no kissy scenes, but they’re good.

The season ends with Alucard weeping for his dead parents, which speaks to the emotional core of the show. That Castlevania has an emotional core is impressive in its own right.

With season two, Castlevania went from a four-episode curiosity to a legit good show. I’m looking forward to the next season.

Posted in Television, Vampires | Leave a comment

The Fireman

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Novel * Joe Hill * Fire Plague! * 2016

Synopsis

I really, really, really wanted to like this more than I did. I mean, just look at the premise here: a new plague called Dragonscale is proliferating and sweeping across the country and beyond. It’s a fungal spore which colonizes human hosts, leaving sick tattoo-looking golden swirls and patterns on the skin. Then they spontaneously combust! So not only do you have the normal issues with a pandemic plague situation, you’ve also got random giant firestorms popping off and burning down cities and forests. That’s an intriguing setup already, but then you realize that it’s Joe Hill playing in his father’s sandbox and you’ve got the promise of an alternate-world version of The Stand, and that’s rad. I mean, there are characters straight-up taken from that novel, although to be fair they’ve been adapted to the point where it’s a clear nod of respect to the father’s landmark book as opposed to like Flagg showing up. Anyway, all that on the surface sounds cool as heck and here we are, over two months after I started the book, and I just don’t know. It’s fine, I guess.

There are a few issues I’m trying to parse here, so bear with me. The Fireman is a situation where the book is clearly and cleanly written. The narrative moves. The characters are, for the most part, strong, if a little broad. The protagonist, Harper Willowes, is fantastic. I know I’m going to get into a litany of things I don’t care for, but it’s all going to sound so petty. I guess here’s the main problem I have with the novel. It’s 750 pages long, and while those pages move at a pretty good clip if you’re invested in the scene that’s happening, it can be a daunting thing to come back to. It’s strange. I would pick the book up when I had an hour or so, and just blast through whatever section I was reading. As I said, Hill’s style is clean and quick. But then I’d put the book down and not want to pick it back up. To be totally fair, some of that is on me and my mercurialness. I don’t always feel like reading; sometimes I just want to zip around Forza Horizon 4 and listen to rambling podcasts about R.E.M. Yet The Fireman wasn’t a particularly strong lure. I think that the crucial issue is that for all its length, it doesn’t really go anywhere for long stretches.

For obvious reasons, The Fireman naturally lends itself to being compared to The Stand. And Joe Hill can’t even be mad about it because he went out of his way to ensure those comparisons would happen. There’s a deaf character named Nick and a misogynistic piece of shit named Harold so the books are linked even before you get to the plot. The key difference between the novels is that of scale (heh). The Stand is a massive epic that follows a multitude of various characters across a continent. It’s expansive, but it also never sits still. Someone is always going somewhere and when the end comes it’s a spectacle. The Fireman, on the other hand, stays in one place for the most part. There are still a multitude of characters, but in the end only a few of them really seem to matter much. Now, it’s possible to have an epic-length novel in which the setting is a small town (Joe Hill’s old man managed such a thing with It), but this particular story just felt long for length’s sake, and the entire thing reads like an author too in love with his own plot to make any serious attempt at editing. Okay, now to get a touch more specific.

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I’m a sucker for a good “lone hero walks into the flaming apocalypse” shot.

Discussion

I know I’m kind of all over the place with this book, but it’s only going to get worse. As I mentioned, I like the protagonist a lot. Harper is a delight, a generally positive person who is a nurse because she legitimately wants to help other people. She also has a toughness about her that is understated. Look, I’m a sucker for a strong female lead. Give me a sassy woman with a shotgun and a filthy mouth and I’m all in. Harper is not that. Nurse Willowes is way into Mary Poppins and singing silly songs and is not trying to emulate Sarah Connor. She spends pretty much the entirety of the novel pregnant, which considering the shit she goes through, whew. Haper’s toughness is apparent when she is enduring things she doesn’t need to in order to protect those she loves. There are no action-hero antics with her, just a commitment to being a good person no matter how awful things get around her. That said, she’s not some insufferable, saccharine perfect pretty princess either. She swears and she fucks, so that’s all right. Harper can be too submissive at times, though, too ready to fade into the background, too ready to trust untrustworthy people. Insofar as character flaws go, those are pretty mild and if there’s a criticism to be made it’s that Harper’s a little too good-guy pure to feel entirely realistic.

Of course, having a Light Side protagonist and an obvious Dark Side antagonist is another thing The Fireman has in common with The Stand. It’s just that here the stakes are much lower because the scale is smaller. Instead of Randal Flagg, who is chaotic evil incarnate, you’ve got Jakob, who’s just a dude. I mean don’t get me wrong, Harper’s ex-husband fucking sucks, but he’s not a dimension-hopping being of pure malice, you know? And that’s one of the problems, I think. Not that I need Jakob to be a literal demon or anything. Flagg is Flagg, and belongs in an epic. However, the problem with Jakob (and to a lesser extent, Harper) is that they’re still positioned in this black and white, good versus evil situation, and that doesn’t seem to be what Hill’s going for with The Fireman. If this is to be a smaller-scale, character-based story of people coping with an apocalyptic situation, then the characters need to be fleshed out accordingly. Jakob isn’t that. At first he’s just a shitty undercover misogynist who is also a low-key racist. He infantilizes Harper because he sucks. Yet before we get much else out of him (beyond being an insufferable, pretentious, douchebag), Harper gets infected and Jakob just goes Full Psycho. After the first fifty pages or so, Jakob is just a dark force of doom and evil and we see more of his tricked out snowplow than we do of him.

It’s lucky, then, that the more interesting character dynamics happen within Camp Wyndham. The titular Fireman, John Rookwood, is super fun and appropriately layered. Father Storey and his family are all more fleshed out than any of the baddies, but I don’t know. In retrospect it all seems kind of obvious. Carol Storey is going to be the evil cult leader. There was always going to be betrayal. There was always going to be an apocalyptic scene of slaughter. Now that I think about it, and this checks out considering Joe Hill’s history, these characters are rather broad in nature. They’d be a better fit in a comic book format, where that kind of characterization is better suited (side note: this is not a knock against graphic novels, it’s just that in a visual medium broader characters fit better since it’s hard to illustrate subtle character traits). At this point, then, it seems like the plot is the priority, which is strange considering the small scale of the setting. And here’s where my main issue arises: it’s clear that Hill was besotted with his own plot, and that drove me crazy.

Look, sometimes you need to foreshadow. It’s a way to keep your reader engaged with a scene that might otherwise seem insignificant. In my professional opinion, the technique should be used relatively sparingly. You can only drop an end-of-chapter sentence like “and she never saw him again” maybe once or twice a book and have it be effective. This motherfucker uses sentences like that constantly. By the end it got to the point where I was imagining the author sitting behind me giggling and rubbing his hands together before leaning over and whispering “and just wait for what happens next, it’ll blow your mind, bro” as I’m reading. I think there was a point where, mid-description, the author leans in and straight up tells the reader to “remember that stone.” Fuck you! I get it, you like writing action scenes. It wouldn’t have been so noticeable if the entire book was written in that kind of loose tone and style, but for the most part it’s a straight narrative. And then you get to the end, which pretty much happens a hundred pages before the actual end, and I don’t know. It’s hard to recommend. NOS4A2 was dope, though.

Posted in Books, Plague | Leave a comment

Strange Days

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Film * Kathryn Bigelow * The Real Y2K is Social Collapse * 1995

Synopsis

At the time, the concept of “Y2K” was just the lamest possible apocalypse. If you’re too young to recall, there was a brief uptick in end-of-the-world murmurings surrounding the end of the 20th century. Big round numbers do that to us, I guess, and the new millennium was the biggest and roundest anyone alive had ever seen. 2000! That’s a big number! All those zeroes. Anyway, as the end of the decade and the century and the millennium inched closer, speculation about what the year 2000 would bring ran rampant. Many people, myself included, were kind of hoping for a radical change in how the world works. There were some worried murmurs about Jesus riding down on a flaming thunderbolt and razing the Earth with a sick trident or something, but for the most part that kind of thing was relegated to the dark corners of the infant internet. For the rest of us, all we had to worry about was Y2K, which even at the time was stupid. If you’re unfamiliar, it was basically the idea that the world’s computers couldn’t handle the date going from a prefix of “19” to one of “20.” Everything would crash and the world’s governments would collapse and the economy would evaporate and oh the horror. Thinking about it now, that’s not even the plot of a low-budget, third-tier Netflix original, you know? Weak.

Since my brain is poorly wired, I’m way into the idea of social unrest leading to the collapse of civilization and a hard reboot of human social structures. That’s why I keep writing about things like Strange Days. It will not surprise you that I watched the ever loving bejeezus out of this thing when I was a teen. First of all, I had a weird thing about Juliette Lewis when I was 16/17. Now that I’m older and wiser, it’s obvious that in a movie starring Angela Bassett, who is a fucking badass, as well as like, Voldemort, she’s not really the focal point of hotness. Secondly, I was just starting to get into sci-fi in a big way, specifically the kind of grimy cyberpunk that Strange Days is adjacent to. Mostly, though, I was impatiently waiting for the downfall of civilization, because just a couple of years before this movie came out, the ’92 LA riots happened, and for whatever reason, that shit really resonated with me. The promo materials for this film promised me hot rioting action, alongside cool cyberpunk tech and the sinewy, lithe antics of a topless Juliette Lewis. There was no way I wasn’t going to love this movie.

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Look, I was sixteen. Don’t judge me. 

Oh right, the movie. The plot is rather convoluted, and is actually two different stories that are running alongside one another. One story is a murder-mystery, the other is a larger story about social injustice, and the small one fits neatly inside the larger one. It’s an intriguing set-up which ultimately leads in disappointment, although it’s not enough to deter me from continuing to like the film. Strange Days takes place in the extremely near future of nearly twenty years ago, December 30, 1999, which is a scant four years after the film was released. The film is a long one, and takes its time introducing characters and concepts. The big technological advancement has been a thing called “playback,” which is a contraption you can put on your head to experience other people’s memories. It all looks like it was shot with a prehistoric GoPro, but you get the idea. The protagonist is Ralph Fiennes playing the perfectly cyberpunk named character “Nero,” and he’s a dealer of illegal memories. I keep saying “cyberpunk,” but really Strange Days is more of a proto-cyberpunk movie. It’s too near-future to be anything else, but you know, people still “jack in.” It’s cool.

Anyway, Nero is a fucking mess. He gets high on his own supply, because he’s hopelessly hung up on his ex, the aforementioned Juliette Lewis, whose name is Faith. She sucks. She sucks so much! But Nero’s all pathetic and oblivious to the scorching hotness of his friend Mace (Angela Bassett) and as the movie progresses we learn all manner of backstory about these people. Then a friend of his is murdered and there’s conspiracy whispers as Nero ends up targeted by the killer. Meanwhile, civilization is falling apart, and that’s why I’m here. Kathryn Bigelow just can’t keep from showing these long, loving shots of urban decay, and I love her for it. The Los Angeles of Strange Days is a character in itself, and we’re constantly seeing riot police and random acts of aggression and it all kind of looks like April 29th, 1992 never ended. This all sets up the larger, social aspect of the film. There’s a high-profile rapper named Jeriko One, who’s like a weird mix of Tupac and Malcom X, who ends up dead and the city is real mad about it. I can’t really get into specifics without spoiling story beats, and since this is a relatively plot-heavy story, let’s get past the break so I can ruin everything.

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Angela Bassett is so goddamn rad in this movie. I wish her character had more to it than just bailing this doofus out all the time.

Discussion

I’m disappointed in the ending of this movie now for different reasons than I was disappointed back then. Back when I was a moody teen, listening to all my gritty 80’s punk and lamenting society, I wanted to watch Los Angeles fucking burn. Part of this is basic teenage stupidity. Obviously if civilization collapsed and anarchy reined, I would be fine. I’d thrive, even! I wouldn’t have to worry about stupid college, and a stupid career, and all that other mediocre, modern, American shit. And look, I’ll level with you, a part of me still, way deep down, feels this way. Just hit the reset button on society, man. Of course now I realize what a massive pain in the ass that would be. I like sitting in my warm house posting things to the internet and streaming music and podcasts and whatnot, you know? Plus, my cat would hate it. Anyway, Strange Days promised me a glimpse of a possible future where Los Angeles finally collapses under the weight of rot and corruption and social injustice. Of all those images, my favorite shot is at the very end of the film. It’s only a couple of seconds long, but the camera hovers over an angry crowd. In the middle is a cop in full riot gear, just hammering this woman with his fuckin’ cop baton, and then the crowd breaks and swarms him. The riot is on.

Except that it’s not, it’s not at all, and that’s the disappointment. Back then, I was robbed of my full-blown riot scene, the visceral thrill of fires and looters and chaos. Such a scene would have been exploitative and gross, especially in light of what happened in 1992, but I was 16 and didn’t care. It just felt like one of those songs that builds and builds but never hits the apex, never just thrashes out, and simply ends. The “riot” is short-lived and is brought under immediate control. The New Year’s Eve party that is the setting for the final scene carries on, and that’s that. If it wasn’t for all the other cool shit that happens throughout, Strange Days would have been a huge bummer. But that was 1995/1996. In 2018 it’s a different kind of disappointment, a different way in which Strange Days simply doesn’t go far enough. There’s a gesture of nuance to the ending as it is, but there’s also not much in the way of resolution, which ends up supporting the status quo as a sustainable model of society. First, let’s circle back to what actually happens, in case it’s been a while since you’ve seen the movie.

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It’s clear the filmmakers had no idea what a Tupac was, but that’s still the idea here.

Jeriko One, the political rapper, is killed in what is first described as a gang-related murder. We find out most of the way through the movie that we were lied to. Jeriko One was actually straight-up executed by two members of the LAPD. Given the atmosphere in the city, such news would surely end up with the city on fire again. Of course, this scenario is reminiscent of what happened in 1992, or much later what occurred in Ferguson, Missouri. In both instances, the trigger for unrest was systemic and targeted police profiling and brutality toward the African-American community. Strange Days harnesses that disaffection, and to its credit creates a scenario that is not only plausible, but kind of inevitable. The film is obviously sympathetic to the affected communities, and it’s clear that the social structures that are in place to keep these systemic injustices going are falling apart. After all, most of the principal characters are ex-cops. They aren’t any longer for various reasons, but a big part is because the very institution of the LAPD is rotting out. When the recording of the murder of Jeriko One is found by Nero and Mace, it should then go on to be the catalyst of change. It doesn’t.

Back to the instant the would-be riot sparks off, Mace is sprawled on the street, bloody and beaten, because she finally decided to take matters into her own hands. Previously, she had taken the copy of the Jeriko One killing to Nero’s old boss, a straight-laced, old school cop. Nero had assured her that he’s so by-the-book that he would respect the law and hold the murdering cops accountable. Mace comes off as a little too intense, though, and they confiscate the recording and kick her out. So she tracks down the two asshole racists and basically kicks the screaming fuck out of them, because she is dope as shit. But they’re dressed like cops and she’s an angry black lady, so when the riot police show up, guess who they believe when they both start pointing fingers at each other? So. The beating commences, and then a pissed off little kid jumps on the offending cop, and the crowd swarms. To be fair, there is a little chaotic rioting, but before shit get too real, here comes the commissioner to intervene. The murderers protest their innocence, but this old white guy just angrily shoves the mini-disc (a hot new technology you can purchase now!) in his dumb racist face and womp-womp, you lose, fucko. And then… the movie just kind of peters out.

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Y2K is code for the repressive machinery of institutionalized racism.

There’s a moment of debate about what to do with the damning evidence that the LAPD was culpable in multiple homicides, but specifically of Jeriko One. Mace just wants to release the footage, and to hell with the consequences. Nero, a white guy, argues caution. Argues, do you really want to be responsible for the ensuing chaos and violence and loss of life? Eventually Nero convinces his strong, black friend to prosecute the murderers rather than incite a riot. And I still don’t know if that’s the right call. Because look at what happens. Ideally, for this decision to work out and for there to be actual, concrete change, which is what Mace is actively pushing for, there needs to be a trial. The LAPD needs to confront its own racism, corruption, and practices in the courtroom. It needs to assume responsibility for the actions of its officers, and in this case find these two fuckers guilty and be willing to throw the fucking book at them. Which, incidentally, never actually happens when the cops kill people, regardless of the circumstances. Anyway, this hypothetical trial never actually happens because the two killers commit suicide. One just caps himself in the head, the other commits suicide-by-cop. And that’s just the end of it. Nero and Mace have a nice kiss and we’re out. Crisis averted.

Except that if you think about it for nine seconds, it’s absolutely not averted at all! The entire movie is one shot after another of income inequality and social injustice and unrest and discontent and decay and nothing that transpires changes any of that! Doesn’t even challenge it, really. In the end, the social order is upheld because of the fear of short-term violence. And maybe that’s a valid stance, but it’s not really explained all that well by what happens in the movie. Narratively speaking, having your two villains escape public scrutiny by killing themselves is cheap. It’s a quick and dirty attempt at closure, a blatant easy end to a movie. And fine, maybe it’s asking too much of James Cameron to write a better ending, to risk the audience feeling momentarily robbed of a typical clean Hollywood ending of the bad guys getting theirs. But it would have been so much more fulfilling as a story if any attempt were made to grapple with the situation that’s been created. Either the city goes up in smoke or some kind of positive change is enacted. As it stands, LA is still on the brink of collapse with no real change to the status quo, but at least we get to watch a couple of hot people make out for a bit before the credits roll.

Posted in Conspiracy, Cyberpunk, Film, Urban Decline | Leave a comment

Watchmen

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Graphic Novel * Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons * Uh, Hmm * 1986/1987

Synopsis

If you’re a fan of Watchmen, and someone asked you to explain what it was about, and make it snappy goddammit we’re on a schedule here, how do you go about making that elevator pitch? It’s like an alternate-universe United States in which Richard Nixon is a heroic, three-term President and America basically won the Cold War because the U.S. has a literal atomic superman on their side but that’s mostly just background noise because it’s actually about… hey, come back. Watchmen is mostly about superheroes who actually aren’t all that super, and also functions as a takedown of 30’s and 40’s era comic books, which, incidentally, I know nothing about. Yet those old heroes are also just background noise because the real Watchmen are like a splinter group who come later, but they all suck too. It’s also a neo-noir crime drama. Um, and an insightful subversion of comic books in general. Oh, and also a subtle, nuanced commentary on the America of the 1980’s. By now the point of this exercise is evident, which is that there’s no easy handle on this thing to grasp it by.

So let’s break it down, sophomore year of high school style. Setting, character, plot. I’ve already mentioned the first bit. Watchmen’s universe is adjacent to our own, featuring similar broad historical strokes that our world has. Nixon exists, but instead of resigning in disgrace he’s serving a glorious third term. Vietnam was still a shitshow, but we won I guess? The story takes place concurrently with when it was published in the mid-eighties, and has the same vibe. Watchmen’s New York is every bit as grimy and crime-ridden as actual New York was back in the day. The story does jump around in time and space – there are many flashbacks – as well as side-trips to places like Mars and Antarctica, but New York is the focal point. The Cold War is still a thrumming tension in the background, even though in this alternate history the United States has a, uh, significant advantage over the Soviets that was lacking at the time in our reality (and I was about to use the phrase “trump card” there, but that phrase is ruined forever). The setting is suitably grim and apocalyptic, and a sense of mounting dread and tension ratchets up throughout the narrative.

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Oh man, get a load of these earnest goobers.

The crux of Watchmen’s success is, of course, in its characters. The story is roughly linear, but there is no particular point of view. This is a broad overview of a wide array of fascinating people, most of whom are interconnected with each other’s lives, where even the minor characters are well drawn (heh) and considered. Obviously, the key characters are the titular Watchmen. There’s Rorschach, a sociopathic vigilante who fucks shit up real good. There’s Nite Owl, who’s like a sad Batman. Then you’ve got Laurie Juspecyzk, a.k.a. Silk Spectre, who reluctantly inherited the role of masked avenger from her overbearing mother, the original Silk Spectre. There’s the aforementioned atomic superman, Dr. Manhattan, who is Laurie’s weird blue boyfriend. Also he can reconfigure matter to any shape or place he wants so that’s neat. And then there’s Adrian Viedt, otherwise known as the smartest man in the world, Ozymandias. He’s turned his superhero antics into a flourishing multi-national corporation, so he seems fun. Anyway, all these characters’ lives intersect, both with each other and with their counterparts from the previous generation of masked vigilantes. And behind their interpersonal drama, that apocalyptic pulse keeps thrumming.

Finally we can get down to plot, but of course with something like this means we’re brushing up against spoiler territory, but we’ll do what we can before the break. The story begins with the murder of a man known as The Comedian. He’s a major character that spends the entire novel dead, but has an outsized impact on pretty much everyone else. The Comedian, it should be known, sucks. Watchmen wastes no time in relaying how badly he sucks, if only to complicate our reaction to other characters we might actually try to like later on. Anyway, The Comedian is dropped out of a window and splattered on a New York sidewalk, and it’s here that Rorschach takes up the case in his creepy, muttery way. He suspects that The Comedian was offed by someone out to murder old masked heroes even though their existence has been outlawed by the Keene Act. Rorschach then decides to warn his old crime-fighting buddies that someone might be after them. That’s the catalyst. Then Watchmen goes some places.

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These images, which punctuate each chapter, are probably the most striking in the entire novel.

Discussion

One of the things that impresses me most about Alan Moore is his ability to craft a hugely complicated plot and dozens of characters without losing the sense of dread and urgency. Every character is given enough space to imprint themselves on the reader without seeming like dull exposition. Of course the graphic novel format aides in this, since detail and action can be shown and not described, which is an efficient way of conveying character without having to spell everything out. Still, every bit of back story we get is just another layer added to this milieu of impending apocalypse. Time is very clearly running out throughout, and so while every side-story and flashback are important and vital to the characters, they also add to the fervent sense of impatience that the narrative is building. Tick, tick, tick. The story itself is so urgent that I very nearly skipped the excerpts of actual text that ends every chapter. There’s good stuff in those, which lend perspective and depth to some of the less central characters, but they’re speedbumps to the principal story, which meanders enough as it is.

Well, I say “meander,” as if it’s a bad thing, but it’s pretty clear that the various turns and detours the narrative takes add to the continual sense of time running out. From the onset, it is pretty obvious that the world is a terrifying place to be, and that something awful is impending. Part of this sense is international conflict. It’s the mid-eighties, which means the Cold War is looming above everything. For those of you too young to remember, consider this scenario. At any moment of any day, the sky could go brilliant white and you could be instantly vaporized. Or, perhaps even worse, the sky could go white and your home could be incinerated and you could be left staggering around a hellish radioactive wasteland for the rest of your short life. Nuclear apocalypse was a real threat, a tangible possibility that pretty much everyone just had to live with. We did so with the likes of Family Ties and Huey Lewis and the News. Watchmen’s tone and atmosphere is a more accurate reflection of the situation than just about every bit of popular culture created in the eighties.

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When the end comes, you won’t have time to prepare. Watchmen ends with horrific violence that may or may not be justified.

Sometimes, the narrative structure seems to break down entirely, with various threads weaving in and out almost panel by panel. Seemingly incongruous details are juxtaposed with main story beats and are pretty much overshadowed by the broader character or plot strokes. The ending is foreshadowed fairly often throughout the story, but if you’re like me you skipped right past them because the panels seem like an insignificant distraction from whatever madness Rorschach is up to or whether or not Dan and Laurie are finally gonna make it to the bone zone. Then there’s the whole story-within-a-story of “Tales of the Black Freighter,” which some random kid is reading while society breaks down around him. I suspect that whole bit is a commentary by Moore about the comic industry, but the grim tone of the story also keeps prodding at the overall sense of dread conjured by Watchmen as a whole.

Eventually, time runs out and the apocalypse happens. When it comes, it’s somehow not as bad as one might have expected, but part of that might be because the apocalyptic event is so strange and convoluted. Ozymandias, in his endless hubris, has decided to save the world by destroying most of New York City. He manages this with science. I dunno, he teleports some genetic monstrosity into the city, destroying a good chunk of it and killing a few million people in the process. The idea is to distract the world’s nuclear superpowers from trying to one-up themselves (and us) into oblivion with the notion of an alien invasion. His homegrown monster squid-thing decimates a major American city, but might just turn the trick. All along, Watchmen has been pushing us toward this final compromise. Every one of these characters has a particular perspective, and all of them have one glaring flaw or another. In order to identify with any of them, there has to be some kind of compromise, and this is blown all the way out by Viedt’s horrific action. Rorschach dies because he refuses to admit shades of grey into his worldview. Everyone else, well, they come to their own conclusions. Watchmen, as a cultural statement, is less ambiguous, I think. Throughout the entire novel, each chapter ends with the image of a clock. As the story progresses, more and more blood slowly drips over the image. By the very end, the clock, now standing at midnight, is almost entirely obscured with blood, and that’s the last image Watchmen leaves us with. The actual apocalypse hasn’t even occurred yet. Tick, tick, tick.

Posted in Books, Pre-Apocalypse, Superheros, Urban Decline | Leave a comment

Aliens

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Film * James Cameron * Late-Stage Capitalism, the Real Monster * 1986

Synopsis

Let’s just rip this Band-Aid off: I like Aliens better than Alien. Does this make me a bad person? Of course it does. Does this call my taste and dare I say my intelligence into question? It does. Does this undermine every single thing I’ve ever written on this blog and erode reader confidence in my ability to think critically about, well, anything? Obviously. Do I give a single, solitary fuck about any of that? I mean, a little, just look at this preamble. Still, not enough to disavow my preference. Alien is one of those masterful films that I know I should enjoy but kind of don’t, while Aliens is a big, dumb, James Cameron action flick and I fuckin’ love those. So here we are. You, knower of good cinema with impeccable taste and an eye for quality film. Me, idiot lowest-common-denominator mouth-breather, who likes when things go bang-bang-boom real good. Might we find common ground in the fact that Sigourney Weaver is a straight up badass? I thought so.

Since most of the plot boils down to “I sure hope everyone isn’t eaten by these gross aliens,” I won’t spend too much time on the setup. At the end of the first movie, Ripley the badass is the sole survivor of a disastrous encounter with a scary alien-monster. Well, the cat lives too, but Ripley can talk so she’s the one we’re going to listen to. Anyway, Aliens begins 57 years later, because that’s how long Ripley has been in cryogenic sleep floating around by herself in the vast emptiness of space. In that time, The Company (which still needs a proper cyberpunk name) has built a full-fledged colony on top of the horrible alien nest that Ripley thought she had destroyed. When she tells her superiors that acid-blooded horrorshows will certainly eat all the colonists, The Company scoffs at her. What would a lady know about gooey black tooth monsters? Of course not too much later, the colonists stop communicating. The Company sends an analogue in the person of Burke (Paul Reiser, who is 80’s corporate sliminess personified) to persuade Ripley to be a “consultant” to the Space Marine strike force being sent in to investigate the suddenly silent colony. Some fairly predictable things happen after that.

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I know this is an iconic scene, and it is extremely cool. That said, the little flashy light always looks like a silly beanie hat to me which robs the moment of some gravitas.

Aliens is great because it knows what kind of movie it wants to be and just does it in the best way possible. The concept is simple: space is scary and humans are greedy dipshits. But they also can be brave and noble. Also, they can have giant ass guns what blow up the aliens real good, which is immensely satisfying after the long, tense first film. And that’s where the split between the first two Alien films comes in, since everything else lines up pretty well. I argued that the atmosphere and aesthetic of the first film was probably the most important thing about it. There was a good deal of subtle, environmental storytelling in that first movie which I thought solidified the world in a way that straight exposition could not. And let’s be fair here, Cameron pulls that atmosphere and aesthetic off pretty well. It’s just that his focus is different. The aliens are still scary mucus-monsters, but the marines are better equipped to deal with them. Aliens is the cathartic pay-off to Alien. Yet for all the focus on action, for all the outsized Space Marine characters and the less-than-subtle story beats concerning The Company, Aliens works well as another story in this strange, unpleasant universe.

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I don’t often use promo shots, but this one’s preeeetty good. I love Reiser’s body language, like he’s ashamed of his own character.

Discussion

One of the scariest scenes of Aliens happens in the very beginning, within the confines of a nondescript conference room. Ripley, newly thawed out and bluntly told she’s been floating unconscious in space for nearly sixty years, stands alone staring down a hostile group of corporate executives. They don’t believe her. More than that, they are angry with her for even suggesting that they, The Company, are not in control of any given situation. This anger is not a red-faced, raging kind of anger. It is expressed via cold, naked contempt. It doesn’t even matter that Ripley is right, and that in all likelihood these doughy, middle-aged white men know that she is right. What matters is that she dares to challenge their power, their decisions, their entire world. As a doughy, middle-aged white dude, I will never, ever know what it is like to be in Ripley’s situation. Because that scene, in which she is derided by powerful, horrible, downright evil men, is reflective of the reality that #Metoo is calling out. As of this writing, we’re a couple of days out from an unbearable sequel to the Anita Hill hearings, in which a single woman dares to defy the power structure. Obviously I’ll never know that kind of fear, but one thing stories and film can do is give me a fleeting look through another person’s perspective.

Compared to that, being chased by hideous, slimy, fang-monsters is kind of anticlimactic. Okay, well, not really I guess. I suppose most people would rather have a dipshit Senator call them a slut in front of Congress than be melted and eaten by a Xenomorph, because of the finality of death and all, but honestly it might be a close thing. In any event, most of Aliens is designed to make you forget all that reality-based uncomfortable stuff by having lots of rad, noisy firefights and Bill Paxton being great. I appreciate having both things available in a story, you know? One thing does not preclude the other from existing, and James Cameron – at least early in his career because I don’t ever want to think about Avatar again – is excellent as providing ample subtext beneath the big, exciting set pieces. Terminator 2 is probably the high point of this, but Aliens might be a close second. Along with that opening conference room scene, there is no shortage of evidence that the future depicted in the Alien universe is a dark nightmare world.

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You could caption this with any Mitch McConnell quote from this week and apply it here. And that’s just so fucking depressing.

I mean, yeah, of course a world which consists of claustrophobic industrial corridors jam-packed with demons is a dark nightmare world. I’m not really talking about that. Although Aliens is less isolated that the previous entry, the story is almost entirely self-contained and apart from the larger society of this world. There’s The Company, who are represented by the reprehensible conference room pigs and Burke. There’s the Space Marines, who all have flag patches so I guess America is still a thing? And the Marines seem to be doing the bidding of The Company, so it’s safe to assume that at the very least private enterprise has eclipsed diffused national power in this world. It’s also a little alarming that The Company is singular, which suggests the late-capitalist endgame of a small number of mega-corporations running the world has come to pass. This idea is reinforced by the fact that neither Burke nor his overlords seem all that concerned with the public finding out about their plan to bring back fucked up demons back to earth which would immediately colonize the entire planet and kill everyone. That kind of hubris is only earned by those who have always known absolute power. Now where have I seen that before? You know what, I think Aliens might actually be scarier than Alien.

Posted in Aliens, Corporations, Film | Leave a comment

California

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Novel * Edan Lepucki * A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse * 2014

Synopsis

It took me quite a while to realize that California wasn’t going to devolve into yet another dreary, wearisome slog through the worst of humanity. I kept waiting for the rampaging murder-hoards and the baby-eating pillagers but they never really materialized. Part of me missed them, because this is post-apocalyptic fiction and what else are we here for other than to watch people revert to our base animalistic natures when civilization collapses? The thing is, though, that kind of collapse porn wears thin after a bit. I’m not going to read The Road again, you know? I obviously think there is value in examining the hows and whys of societal collapse and what happens to our basic human nature when our structures fall apart on us. There just comes a point where there are other aspects to apocalyptic stories which don’t necessarily center on human depravity.

This is not to say that California shies away from violence or humanity’s capacity for atrocities and horror. There are scenes of violence and betrayal. There are allusions to roving gangs of violent marauders that popped up after civilization fell apart. The difference between this book and any number of other stories of the post-apocalypse is that California doesn’t focus on those things to the point of fetishization. The violence exists and is part of the world, but it isn’t the most important motivator for the people inhabiting that world. They’re more interested in cooperation and relationships than vengeance and warfare. They’re more interested in moving forward than cowering and waiting for the worst to befall them. That said, the motivations of the primary characters are all over the place, and include harnessing the power of violence to consolidate their own power. The point is that California doesn’t dwell on how terrible everything and everyone is. The novel accepts the state of the world and moves forward from there.

Let’s get a little more specific before moving past the break and openly discussing the story. California is told from the perspective of Frida and Cal, a young married couple who fled from the decaying city of Los Angeles to live in a little hut in the woods. The apocalypse which triggered the collapse of society is unclear, but none of the characters seem overly surprised that it happened. The only thing certain about the state of the world is that there was no single big event that caused everything to fall apart. There’s no asteroid, or nuclear war, or devastating plague. From all appearances, it seems that civilization collapsed under its own weight due to a combination of various factors (this, of course, is the most realistic cause of a future societal collapse). Civil incompetence, late-stage capitalism, global warming, it’s really not that important. All that matters is that Frida and Cal live in a rough-hewn shack in the forest and that they are each other’s only source of companionship and survival.

The novel switches back and forth between Frida and Cal’s perspective, so it’s a good thing both are solid characters with their own distinctive worldview. They’re a team, but they get sick of each other sometimes. You know, like a married couple. When we are first introduced to them, their biggest concern is boredom and anxiety. They deal with both of these things by having sex a real whole lot. This, inevitably, ends with Frida pregnant and the state of their little world thrown into flux. Cal would like to stay put in their little corner of the forest, since he believes that there is safety in isolation. Frida would prefer to find other people they can rely on in order to give her child the best chance at life. Eventually the decision is taken out of their hands, and the decisions get considerably more difficult.

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California: A state so wacky the trees grow sideways!

Discussion

The first third of California is mostly dedicated to establishing Frida and Cal’s personal histories, and why they are the way they are. There are a lot of flashbacks which flesh out their early relationship, but also about Cal’s college days at a place called Plank College. It’s here that Cal met Micah, Frida’s sister. It quickly becomes evident that Micah has played a major role in both Cal and Frida’s life. They both ruminate on memories that center around this very intelligent and enigmatic dude. Then, eventually, we learn that he is dead. Micah is not a victim of the general social collapse, however. He is dead because he was a suicide bomber, blowing himself up and taking some random people with him for a cause. That cause is never exactly clear, though. Micah isn’t in ISIS, his death wasn’t a religious statement. Nobody in the family, including Frida, actually knew what he hell it was all about. There were whisperings about a shadowy rebel association known as – wait for it – The Group. They’re socialists or something, but again their aims are never made particularly clear. Micah was apparently way into it, though, considering he gave them his life in order to pursue their aims.

Except of course he didn’t. There’s no way that an author is going to spend that much time flashbacking to a character and not pull the “but wait, who’s that” twist. Obviously Micah is still alive, and it’s with his reintroduction to Frida and Cal’s life that California shifts its focus from a single couple to a reimagining of social order. You see, in the time that Micah has been “dead,” he’s been extremely busy. While Frida and Cal were escaping the crumbling remains of Los Angeles, Micah was pushing forward his plans for a new, safe, self-sustaining community. It’s roughly Communistic in nature, and even have a thing called “Morning Labor,” but it is mostly successful. Eventually we find out that in order to found this community, called The Land (and these names sound exactly something like a writer who is bad at coming up with names for things would use, I know my own), Micah had to get up to some rough shit. You see, there used to your typical post-apocalyptic roving gangs of rapey, murdery pirates out there. But then Micah killed one and chopped his dang head off in order to establish the notion that The Land is not to be fucked with.

California is a novel about secrets even more than it is a novel about social structures, although the character’s propensity for keeping things from each other is rather the foundation of the kinds of structures they both came from and create. Cal learned about nearby people and didn’t tell Frida. Frida got preggers and didn’t tell Cal right away. Micah obviously kept his own death a secret from his sister and best friend. Likewise, Frida and Cal keep the baby a secret from Micah and his paranoid new community. Of course all these secrets inevitably come out and fuck people, because that’s what secrets do. Frida and Cal’s relationship survives while they are both expelled from Micah’s experiment in social unity. Micah saves both of their lives, and sets them up in a more stable social structure, known as a Community (I know). Of course, The Center at Pines is not exactly an ideal place for free expression. It is, in fact, a draconian gated community committed to emulating the ideals of 1950’s white suburban Americana. Yet it is relatively safe and relatively comfortable. The baby will be able to live and grow. The unasked question is, of course, into what? California doesn’t have any answers for you. Frida and Cal seem to have chosen safety over freedom, but what does that mean in a post-apocalyptic world? This novel works so well because it challenges your assumptions and your convictions without trying to pass judgement on its own characters.

Posted in Books, Climate Change, Entropy | Leave a comment

Adventure Time “Come Along With Me”

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Television * Diana Lafyatis/Cole Sanchez * Hoo Boy… * 2018

Synopsis

I knew I was in trouble when I saw the title.

Adventure Time has been winding down for quite a while now. The show’s production – and its overall popularity – probably peaked with season five, which spanned the years 2012 through 2014. Keep in mind season one was in 2010 and we’re now finishing up season ten, and along with it the series itself. Please don’t ask me how Cartoon Network production schedules work. The way the network has dealt with this show is mystifying at best. On the one hand, they’ve been atrocious concerning the production and airing of new episodes. The last few seasons have been feast-and-famine situations in which months go by without a word and then suddenly there’s a full week of new episodes and then nothing for four more months. I don’t blame anyone for falling off the show because there was no way to reliably keep up. On the other hand, though, Cartoon Network has allowed Adventure Time to basically do what it wants and end on its own terms. Very few TV shows are given this opportunity and the amazing, talented team at Adventure Time made the absolute most of it.

It occurs to me that beginning this with a relatively dry look at how TV networks operate is my way of building a wall between me and the raw, beating heart of this beautiful fucking masterpiece because holy shit, it was perfect. “Come Along With Me” encapsulates everything Adventure Time has been and has become over the years. It was lovely to look at, as colorful and joyous in its visual style as ever. It was smartly written and cleverly worded. These things are expected. Above and beyond this was the creative team’s ability to craft an ending. Most importantly, they rightfully identified that such a wide and diverse and detailed world doesn’t actually “end.” These characters don’t just stop existing simply because stories aren’t being actively written about them. As BMO puts it towards the end of the episode, these characters keep living their lives. That said, important storylines and character arcs are paid off in a series of beautiful scenes which all work so well because they’ve been thoroughly earned over the past eight years. They’ve managed to balance the need for a sense of conclusion while still leaving plenty open to viewer interpretation.

In a moment, I’ll talk about the episode proper, but I need to prepare myself because this is just going to devolve into hyperbolic praise and bittersweet exclamations. That’s going to happen because of what this silly kid’s show has meant to me over the last few years. I’m not the target demographic that Cartoon Network envisioned when it first aired the show in 2010, you know? I didn’t even start watching until 2012, just as season 5 began. I was 33. The show immediately resonated and since then I’ve evangelized about it to anyone who’d listen. At this point I don’t even bother to hedge my statements: Adventure Time is my favorite show, full stop. It reawakened in me the joy of creativity and discovery and, of course, adventure that I was afraid was declining to the point of not existing any longer. But then here’s this ridiculous, exuberant, expressive, completely bonker-banana-beans cartoon, and it’s like this tiny light flickered back on. And over the years, somehow, it’s been consistently getting better and deeper while still being unafraid to try new things. Adventure Time has been one of the few consistent good things of the last few years, a constant reminder that life harbors joy and love in spite of a horizon of ominous, swirling darkness. Okay, now the actual episode.

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Action! Suspense!

Discussion

So, back to that title. “Come Along With Me,” is, of course, the title of the song which plays over the end credits of all 283 (!!!) episodes. It is a very sweet little song, nice and chill, and I’ve never really thought much more about it, considering how many times I’ve heard it. So of course that’s going to be the title of the final episode, and of course that’s the song that’s going to play over the final minutes of the episode, and of course I’m going to cry like a small child who just rescued a baby bird only to watch it die in a shoebox. Because that sweet little song is a reflection of the spirt of the entire show, which looks forward as much as it looks to its past. “Come Along With Me” plays out as the episode ends in a montage of future adventures, the continuing lives of beloved characters. Therefore, the waterworks. I’ll add here that it takes some effort to make this cynical husk of humanity cry, and I’m pretty sure it’s the first TV show to do it. Like, the last Harry Potter book, the chapter “In This Haze of Green and Gold” in the final Dark Tower book, and, uh, that might be it? I’m repressed is what I’m saying.

The thing about “Come Along With Me,” the episode, is that it manages to do everything that makes Adventure Time special without seeming like it’s pandering or wallowing in its own history. However, it is simultaneously paying off several years’ worth of storylines without getting bogged down in exposition. That, of course, is something that the show has always excelled out. Unfortunately, it also means that unless you’re pretty much caught up, the ending won’t be quite as impactful. The episode begins as the Candy Kingdom is on the brink of war. Princess Bubblegum, fierce and magnificent, is lost in her role as a protector of her people and her kingdom. Therefore it is up to her Knight, a young man whom we have watched grow over the years, Finn the Human, to convince the Princess to stand down and avoid an apocalyptic war.

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I like Lemongrab’s signature. Also, the expressive nature of the show continues to be the best.

The method Finn uses to accomplish this is deeply weird, which is a hallmark of the show. Essentially, Finn puts the leaders of both parties to sleep and leverages their unconscious imagery to bring them to their senses. I won’t even try to describe what the hell I just watched, but it’s Adventure Time at its strangest, which is not a bad thing. Eventually, Princess Bubblegum stands down because Finn – who is desperate to avoid the same violence he used to revel in – was able to impart some empathy onto her. PB – who, if you’ve ever read one of my Adventure Time articles would know, is my favorite character and forever cartoon crush – is at heart a good person and is eventually able to admit when she’s wrong. For a hot second it appears that disaster has been averted. At this point, “Come Along With Me” kicks up another gear, and Betty shows up to wreak havoc upon the Land of Ooo.

I don’t have the time or space to get into the tragedy of Betty and Simon. Suffice to say that the history of the Ice King is one of the more affecting storylines in the Adventure Time mythos, and its climax coincides with the final minutes of the entire series. In her last ditch effort to restore Ice King’s sanity, Betty has lost her own mind. She has summoned Golb, a being of immense chaotic power, and horrible things immediately start to happen. These are truly apocalyptic forces, and again, there are simply too many instances of foreshadowing to get into here, but all of the imagery the show employs in this episode resonate with meaning. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Ooo attempt to come together in an effort to repel the attack of pure chaos. They fail, and it is heartbreaking to watch. Yet at the same time, the characters, and the relationships they’ve forged over the last eight years, shine through.

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The ending montage is just the most bittersweet thing, but also PB and Marcy 4 Ever.

In the end, music saves the day. BMO sings a lovely little song (written by Rebecca Sugar, who worked on the show in its heyday and left to create Stephen Universe, a show I should probably watch) which ends up hurting Golb. He’s pure chaos and discord, so harmonies mess him up real good. Yes, they thwart evil with the power of love and music, but it’s not as pat as all that. Adventure Time has never shied away from harsh realities, after all, and this is no exception. The music doesn’t actually drive Golb away, and in a desperate attempt to save Ooo, Finn, Betty and the Ice King end up in its weird gullet and are slowly being digested. The music weakens Golb enough so that Finn and IK – who has been reset back to Simon – can escape, but Betty thinks she can banish the monster once and for all. She is wrong. Betty ends up merging with Golb and leaving Ooo forever, leaving a devastated Simon behind to endure the aftermath. It’s a tragic ending to a tragic character, and at no point is the reality of the situation watered down or dulled. It just is.

Maybe that kind of thing isn’t the reason some people came to Adventure Time for. Of all the glowing articles I’ve read after the airing of “Come Along With Me” (all of three days ago) there’s always a contingent of people in the comments voicing their preference for when the show was more lighthearted and carefree. And that’s fine, of course. Things should be more lighthearted and carefree when you’re 12, which is the age of Finn at the beginning of the show. By the end, though, he’s 17 and has gone through some heavy things over the course of the five years Adventure Time portrays. In that way, it’s a similar journey to that travelled by Harry Potter. If it were up to me, I’d much rather hang out Finn as old H. Potts can be a real drag sometimes. Finn, after all, was very rarely angsty and is always down to party or chill and play video games. Anyway, my boy Finn seems likes he’s in a pretty good place at the end of the series, and I’m glad the writers resisted the urge to shoehorn in a romantic subplot where he’s concerned (although he could do worse than Huntress Princess, for sure).

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I enjoyed the framed narrative aspect of the episode, especially Jake’s ancestor Beth here. Let’s just hope it’s not an ill-advised back door pilot.

Look, I could ramble on about this episode forever. There are moments of pure joy (PB and Marceline, finally) and moments of pure silliness (LSP leaning in for a selfie with Golb is an all-timer) and of course moments of pure devastation (the aforementioned Betty and Simon biz). It was weird and joyous and sad and exhilarating and did pretty much everything I needed to close out one of my favorite things. I’ll miss the excitement of seeing that new episodes are coming, but honestly, it’s the right time to end. There are an infinite amount of new stories to tell from the Land of Ooo, of course, but I’m perfectly fine letting those stories go untold (or play out in my head). The worst thing to happen to some of my other favorite shows are that they’re allowed to go on for too long. The classic case being, obviously, The Simpsons, which we should all be fondly remembering as the best show of the 90s instead of somehow still on the air. Adventure Time, thankfully, will never have to worry about becoming some kind of unholy shell of itself. Rather, it can live on as an established landmark of animation (283 episodes!) as well as a personal favorite. I love the world of Ooo and its ridiculous, endearing inhabitants more than almost any other fictional realm I can think of, and it’ll be something I’ll return to for the rest of my life. I’m lucky to have it.

Posted in Adventure Time, Television | Leave a comment