Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Forever in the Good Place

 The real question, Eleanor, is what do we owe to each other?


It takes Forever more than one episode to reveal where it is going – it starts as a show about a woman who may be considering divorce, or some other radical change in her life, to being a show about a woman attempting to find a hold on life after the passing of her husband of many years, due to a tragic accident caused by her attempts to change the routines of their marriage, to a show about a woman who has died, and found her husband in the afterlife, and instead of pondering the meaning of it, finds herself in precisely the same routines that she was trying to break to start off with. It’s a circle, for June (an absolutely fantastic Maya Rudolph, finally starring in her own show), that begins and ends in the suburbs, except these new suburbs are no longer the sub- to any existing urban area, and the day-to-day life with her loving husband, Oscar (Fred Armisen) is now, presumably, going to continue on forever. 

is about what it means to spend a lifetime with another person, by extending that period of time into an assumed eternity not bounded by death. It is an interesting way to ask that question, considering that June and Oscar are so different, and at very different points in their life when they pass. Oscar seems endlessly content with the life they have built, the comfort and quiet loveliness of their routines, the care that he puts into everything he does. It may seem boring from the outside, but it comes with a warmth that is later perfectly translated into the architecture and interior design of their forever home, which presumably perfectly represents the meaning of their marriage. June has moments – from the first episode on – where she seems to ponder the life that could lie beyond these routines, beyond having the same meal lovingly cooked and prepared for her over and over again, beyond going to the same lake house for their shared holiday. It isn’t that she doesn’t love Oscar – it’s a more profound question about whether this is all her life holds for her. She attempts to break out of it by suggesting a ski holiday that costs Oscar’s life (this is still a comedy, so it seems almost inevitable that Oscar will find some kind of tragic end, considering how unprepared either of them are to face the slopes) while June is off flirting with her old life, and a guy who looks like the many guys she dated (and who treated her poorly) before she met Oscar. 

A year after the passing of her husband (a reveal that is interestingly handled here, as a conversation leaves is open whether it was a divorce – something that could have been the result of what we’ve seen before just as well – until June is made to spell it out for a sales assistant) June is trapped in the same life she had before, minus the warmth that Oscar provided. She hasn’t begun anything new, instead she hates her job and consumes single-serve individually packaged wine glasses on her couch. Her friend tries to zap her out of her depression, but it doesn’t work. She tries to break out herself, but eventually runs away before a life-changing job interview. It seems absurd that she ends up being offered that precise job a few days later, when all the other people in her company are convicted of fraud – an unlikely, cosmic coincidence, the kind of event sure to free her from the cage of her grief and inability to move on – except on the way to her new life in Hawai’i, June chokes on a macadamia nut and dies. 

Lives cut short by hilarious and unexpected deaths is one of the gimmicks that The Good Place, another after-life show, uses, and in both shows, one of the main features of the characters awakening after their sometimes embarrassing (mundane freak accidents) deaths is their lack of grief over the life they have lost, because in a way, the life they encounter after death is either better, or not much different, than the one that they had before. June finds Oscar, who has been waiting for her, in a small suburb that looks like the world they are both used to, but where everyone else hasn’t been given the chance to enjoy eternity with a partner. Nothing in her life is changed significantly from before, when they were both alive-married – they still have the same rituals and routines, day-in-and day out, except that this spells out eternal happiness for Oscar, while for June, a sense of being unfulfilled creeps in even more than it did when they were still alive. 

The core question at the centre, and the heart, of Forever is one of balance between the challenge and excitement of the new, of constantly learning more about yourself and growing as a person, and the comfort and happiness of sharing a life – a life set in its ways – with a partner. June never answered this for herself when she was alive, and because she never confronted it – or because Oscar never let her, always avoiding those conversations – she has brought these issues with her, in their presumed happy forever. Oscar is perfectly content to do the same things every day because he enjoys those things, while June finds every activity that is endlessly repeated boring, especially because she gets good at new things so quickly. 
Every decision for something, or someone, is always a decision against all the other possible paths. June is now confronted with the idea that those decisions that she made will carry her into a forever, that she will never have the opportunity to question who she could have been had she not chosen to be the person who is with Oscar over all the other people she could have been. Oscar doesn’t ask the same question (in part because he isn’t the focus of this story, but also because he is fulfilled in this life, so he doesn’t want to change it, or himself). Their shared new life in this forever – in Riverside – is like an even more concentrated, focused version of their life before, with all outside distractions removed. Except – not entirely – because soon, a new neighbour moves in next to them and she seems to magnetise June. 

I’m still undecided if the character of Kase (Catherine Keener) works, considering that her main purpose in Forever is to be Oscar’s opposite. Where he is warm and gentle, she is offputting and radical. Where he is quiet and content, Kase rages against the restrictions of Riverside, or the idea that the afterlife should be an even more boring version of what her life already was. It may even be worse considering that Forever isn’t the story of Oscar and June, but merely of June, so both Oscar and Kase only exist to offer June two radically different versions of how life could be lived much in the way in which Riverside and the newly revealed Other Possible Place Oceanside are presented as two radically different models of dealing with memory and identity. 

Riverside is nostalgia, is repetitiveness, but also the comfort of the known. Oceanside – where all roads lead – is forgetting the past, but also all that tethered a person there, including other people. It’s a radical experiment in finding the new boundaries of existence post-life, instead of cultivating the same interests and activities of before. Where the inhabitants of Riverside trim their roses, mow their lawns, and play endless games of lawn bowl, the people in Oceanside jump in front of trucks and set their faces on fire. It doesn’t make much difference either way – because nothing ever changes – but the new experiences turn Oceansiders into people who are letting go of their lives before, who are forgetting who they’ve lost, who are embracing this other, new life. This doesn’t make them better people – in Forever, they come across as the arrogant aristocracy compared to the boring suburbanites of Riverside – but they do offer a very different life to June, after she decides to leave Oscar and find out what her attraction to Kase and all she represents means.

Not that this attraction is explored in any meaningful way beyond offering an opportunity for Oscar’s best new friend in the afterlife (a teenager who died tragically in the Seventies, and is forever stuck there) to tease him about his wife’s gayness, because the idea that this could be the thorn in June’s side, the thing that has that made her marriage even before both their deaths into an increasingly subtly unsatisfying  affair, isn’t really where the show is going with this at all. Kase does represent a path that June never chose, but it is more in regards to herself – allowing herself to embrace new talents, to explore, to try new things – than in choosing Kase as a partner. In a way, it always seems inevitable that June will come around, at some point, to the idea that the true issue with her marriage has always been not taking Oscar seriously, or not allowing him to be the resourceful person that he always was. 

I think the most beautiful story that Forever manages to tell isn’t about June and Oscar at all – it’s about Sarah and Andre, two real estate agents who meet each other at the wrong time of both of their lives, who are meant to be together but keep missing each other, until it is too late. They discuss the great issues – whether marriage should be forever, two people fixing what is broken and growing with each other or one person, unrestricted by forever bonds to be whatever they can be in life – wether humanity is ultimately moving towards better, or worse – and they would clearly make each other happy, except it doesn’t happen that way, because it’s not the path that they end up choosing. The episode doesn’t answer the question of whether they were still happy in the lives they did choose – they seem to keep finding each other, regardless. It also never answers the question of whether Andre would have found June waiting for him, or if they both would have been with their spouses, in an afterlife like June’s and Oscar’s, or if, like everyone else in Riverside, they would have been on their own. 

The Good Place has a much wider scope in interrogating what it means to be a good person, and the limits of changing and becoming different. I think ultimately, in both cases, it isn’t just about what we owe to each other, or that we exist in part as a reflection in other people’s minds, but also, about what we owe to ourselves, in the sense or remaining open and capable of change and growth. The Good Place is at its best when it portrays how people, even when they are individually terrible in different ways (selfish, ignorant, envious, indecisive) become better when they help each other and are made to comprehend each other’s pain.  This is the very optimistic idea at the core of the show, that the empathy, love and support creates a community that will inevitably, in the end, result in each of these people (Chidi, Eleanor, Jason, Tahani) being better than when they started out with (and as an aside here, I think The Good Place is particularly good for portraying characters who have always thought themselves as truly good realising they aren’t – as great as Kristen Bell is as Eleanor, I think the harder work here is done by William Jackson Harper and Jameela Jamil), much in the same way in which it was love and mutual respect that turned a character like Ron Swanson in Parks and Rec into a loveable person, whereas a realistic portrayal of a libertarian confronted with Leslie Knope’s concept of what politics should be and do would have been a much more dire affair. 

And why not take into account that 2018 seems such an unlikely time for not one but two shows to exist that are so optimistic about what communities and relationships between people can create and change. Forever embraces June’s search for more, but it doesn’t quite go as far as to ridicule the safety and comfort that Oscar represents, and the beauty that lies in creating a life of routines and a shared language together. I think disregarding that these two love each other would have been cynical, as would the idea that they cannot change in tandem with each other, as long as they both recognise the need for change and growth. But maybe, it is almost impossible to take the same position that Michael finds himself in – where humans suddenly appear almost lovely in their ridiculousness, rather than terrible in the small and great horrors they inflict upon each other. 
Or – as much as Parks and Recreation was the show for the period of time it happened in, I’m not really sure that The Good Place and Forever, as good as they are what they do, are exactly what we need right now to make sense of this unflinching existential terror.

The Good Place (2016-), created by Michael Schur, starring Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, D’Arcy Carden, Ted Danson.

Forever (2018-), created by Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard, starring Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, Catherine Keener.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Reading List: September

Non-Fiction: 

Hannah Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism. 
Hannah Arendt: Thinking Without A Banister.

Fiction: 

Lynne Tillman: Motion Sickness.
Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart.
Sharlene Teo: Ponti.
R.O. Kwon: The Incendiaries.
Lillian Li: Number One Chinese Restaurant.
Amy Spalding: The Summer of Jordi Perez.
Hilary Zaid: Paper Is White.

Films: 

Ocean's 8 (2018, Gary Ross). 
Crazy Rich Asians (2018, Jon M. Chu).
Marrowbone (2017, Sergio G. Sanchez).
Princess Cyd (2017, Stephen Cone).
Hearts Beat Loud (2018, Brett Haley).
Ghostbusters (2016, Paul Feig).

Shows:

High Maintenance, Season Two.
Atypical, Season Two.

Friday, 21 September 2018

...

The problem is that demanding that any one woman bear the full professional and social and emotional cost of dismantling the machinery of men in power propping up other men in power is expecting entirely too much. We already know that one victim speaking up isn’t enough. The entire vast apparatus of the institution will be brought to bear against her, and that is the same apparatus that she must report to and hope to be believed by, all while knowing she must continue to work within it. Asking that any one woman do such a thing isn’t just a call for moral heroism. It’s also irrational. 
Slate: Our System Is Too Broken to Assess the Sexual Assault Claim Against Kavanaugh, September 14, 2018

Friday, 31 August 2018

Reading List: August.

Fiction: 

Lara Elena Donnelly: Armistice.
Kirstin Chen: Bury What We Cannot Take.
Meg Wolitzer: The Ten-Year Nap.
Courtney S. Stevens: Dress Codes For Small Towns.
Nina Lacour: We Are Okay.
Emily O'Beirne: Future Leaders of Nowhere.
Emily O'Beirne: All the Ways to Here.
Kelly J. Ford: Cottonmouths.

Films: 

Ant-Man (2015, Peyton Reed).
Captain America: Civil War (2016, Anthony Russo, Joe Russo).
Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony Russo, Joe Russo).
Ocean's 8 (2018, Gary Ross).

Shows: 

High Maintenance, Season 1.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Reading List: July.

Fiction: 

Fiona Shaw: Tell it to the Bees.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Harmless Like You. 
Rachel Cusk: Outline.
Kelly Quindlen: Her Name in the Sky.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen.
Alex White: Every Mountain Made Low.
Jeff VanderMeer: Veniss Underground.
Lara Elena Donnelly: Amberlough. 
Megan Abbott: Give Me Your Hand.
Meg Wolitzer: Surrender, Dorothy.

Films: 

Novitiate (2017, Maggie Betts).
Sangailes vasara (2015, Alante Kavaite).
Blockers (2018, Kay Cannon).
MTV Docs: Transformation (2016).

Shows: 

Superorganism live @ Metro Theatre.
Camp Cope live @ the Sydney Opera House.

Friday, 27 July 2018

The Handmaid's Tale - Table of Contents

Season One: 

Offred
Birth Day
Late
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum
Faithful
A Woman's Place
The Other Side
Jezebels
The Bridge
Night

Season Two: 

June
Unwomen
Baggage
Other Women
Seeds
First Blood
After
Women's Work
Smart Power
The Last Ritual
Holly
Postpartum
The Word

The Handmaid's Tale - What are you going to do when they come for your daughter?

The Handmaid’s Tale: 2x12 Postpartum. 
The Handmaid’s Tale: 2x13 The Word. 


The centre of this entire season has been June’s pregnancy, and the impossible situation it has put her in. It was easy to have one single goal – saving and escaping with Hannah – last season, but now that her second daughter is born, June can’t find a way to ensure the safety of both of her children. In what was one of the hardest moments so far – in a show so filled with sheer violence and terror against women – she had to let Hannah go. She had to let her go, even though she finally shared a room with her, even though she was able to talk to her. After her breakdown, after almost escaping Gilead, after not being able to live with herself for giving Hannah up, it was the horrible bookend to that journey. 

Holly – promptly renamed Nichole by the Waterfords, who after attempting to keep June apart from her child have relented, and allowed June to stay in their household – means a whole new set of questions for June. She tried to ensure the safety of her child before she was born by collecting promises from people who were either highly untrustworthy – how bitter, to have to put her hope into Aunt Lydia – or ultimately powerless, like Rita. What June realises in this episode is that not even the Waterfords have the capacity to protect her child from what Gilead has turned into, that Fred Waterford is perhaps Nichole’s most dangerous enemy, because she wasn’t born a son. It’s a terrible lesson learned from Eden’s demise, who held her beliefs so preciously and yet, in a moment of defiance, tried to find true love, true affection, from someone who wasn’t her husband (and June spurred her on, part of that guilt she now carries with herself). In an unexpected act of bravery, she chose to die with her beloved rather than asking for forgiveness, reclaiming the very vows that Nick never truly meant when he spoke them. In a public execution in another repurposed venue, a public swimming pool, she drowned – leaving a horrified June behind, who finds an annotated bible in her possession. June realises that Eden, who has lived in Gilead since she was ten, who must have a vague memory of the world before, who was still able to read, and didn’t give it up just because it was forbidden, tried to make sense of this book for herself rather than following what Gilead was telling her. June realises that Eden was trying to find her own religion, to interpret the bible for herself, that even though she was only fifteen, she had the capacity to think freely, that she was a whole person. I think June spent a lot of time this season regarding Eden as less than a whole person, as did Nick, thinking that Gilead had stolen her spirit entirely, mistrusting her. And then June decides to bring that realisation to Mrs Waterford, remembering how they both felt when they wrote together, when June edited her words. She believes profoundly that Serena shares her belief in the power of words, and the necessity of being able to read them and write them. It’s incredible that June would trust Serena – who has committed such unspeakable sins against her – that June would see the other woman as a possible accomplice in her attempt to reclaim Eden’s humanity and intellect. 

Even more incredibly, Serena does exactly what June hopes she would. She realises what it means that someone like Eden would have such a deep-seated desire to read the bible – that it is a crime against women, even within the tight ideology of Gilead, to forbid them to read the bible, and to create a state in which reading becomes impossible to women. She brings this realisation to the elders of Gilead, and inevitably and brutally realises that the entire ideology of Gilead has nothing to do with religion, or belief, that it is all about one simple thing: to sustain male superiority at all cost. Serena has always been a true believer, and she has always believed that her own suffering and sacrifice has been for a state that mirrors her radical religious beliefs – it is only now, that she suffers the punishment for reading (for quoting the bible back at the very people who claim to defend it), that she realises that Gilead has nothing to do with her own religious beliefs, that it is a fa├žade for that old beast misogyny. 

Serena is broken, too broken to stop what will happen at the end of this episode: everything falls into place, and Nick’s machinations to ensure the safety of his daughter fall into place. In the end, it is an underground railroad of Marthas, women like Rita, who create a situation in which Holly’s freedom becomes possible. She is handed from woman to woman, until finally, the weird ways of fate have her end up in exactly the same spot as Emily. 

Emily, who has suffered so much, who believes her child and her wife lost, who has been sent to die cruelly in the colonies, who has somehow made it out alive from exacting revenge on her torturers. She comes to a breaking point in this episode as well, after being placed with one of the architects of Gilead (played by Bradley Whitford). He is hard to read, once introduced, a man who lives in a house filled with pillaged and now certainly forbidden art, with a wife who has lost her mind over her husband’s crimes. This is the man who has come up with the idea of the colonies, but we the viewers cannot truly read whether he is a depraved, cruel man, or someone who eccentrically suffers the consequences of his own actions. He tries to get to the bottom of Emily, probing her, but Emily has no capacity to tell whether he is trying to catch her out, or truly trying to decide if she is a whole human being with wishes and hopes. There is no space in Gilead for trust, or belief, so she doesn’t, and instead, at her breaking point, stabs Aunt Lydia. It seems so likely that this is the final act of revenge she will be able to perpetrate – she has been nothing but a weapon of revenge since she was separated from her family, it’s like the light in her eyes has gone out, like nothing but violence makes her shine anymore. It is so unlikely that she will make it, once again, out alive. But somehow, she does – because Commander Lawrence turns out to be a man desperate to make up for his sins. Instead of allowing her to be executed, he takes her away, puts her in a car, plays her music, arranges for her safety. This is how she ends up where Holly is – in a truck bound for Canada. 

It’s like this moment that everyone has hoped for for such a long time – for June, to finally make it out of Gilead – except like with so many other stories, we know this one cannot contain June’s escape yet. It isn’t time yet for June to find freedom, and her decision makes sense, in a way. She makes sure that Holly is as safe as she possibly can be, in a Gilead that hates women as profoundly as it does – in Emily’s hands, bound for the border. And then she turns back because she cannot bear to allow her other daughter to be raised in this country. It’s more than that – the way she lifts her head, it is almost as if she now contains all the boundless rage that Emily held, before her unlikely escape. She is ready to burn this whole place down. 

Random notes: 

My favourite scene in the final episode is when June comes to understand that it was Eden's father who turned her in - that he did not hesitate, that his love for his daughter is twisted and false, that he would be ready to see her die just this place. It makes it clear to her that there is no way to protect Holly in Gilead - that in a way, all these women, including Mrs Waterford, are already just one step away from the Unwomen in the Colonies. Gilead does not consider them human, and in the mere five years, it has managed to sever the ties between parents and children.

The other central scene is June, pleading with Serena to let her go, to help her protect their daughter. She knows that Serena loves Holly in her own way, but she also knows that she has to get Serena to the same conclusion that she has come to - that there is no way to raise a girl in Gilead.