Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Give it to me, Lucille

Warning. This post is about the first episode of season seven of The Walking Dead and thus may be considered spoilery. I'm not going to reveal any character deaths or major moments. But I will discuss the themes and tone of the episode.

One of the new, fun things about watching TV these days is that you don't have to watch it at all. You can just go on Twitter and observe the reactions of other people who are watching it. This is excellent for things like Question Time, where the actual act of viewing the thing is a tedious and frustrating experience. How much better to read the swift and angry responses of the online community, than to look at some UKIP berk spouting off again about how he's definitely not racist but he does, co-incidentally, hate a lot of brown people.

It's an interesting shift in viewing patterns which has changed the nature of television itself. Live entertainment shows, of course, rejoice in the knowledge that they are part of a live, online conversation. But it's changing drama, too.

Last night was the premiere of season seven of The Walking Dead - a show I much enjoy. Now, season six ended in quite the cliff-hanger. If you are woefully behind on the show, you should probably look away now. If you don't watch it at all, the programme can be summarised thus - a guy called Rick leads a bunch of survivors through the remains of civilisation, after zombies happen.

At the end of season six, Rick's group are captured by the show's new Big Bad - a baseball bat wielding warlord called Negan. Our heroes have encountered Negan's followers a number of times throughout the season and, indeed, killed a lot of them. And now they are face to face with the man himself. And he intends to pay them back for the wounds they have inflicted.

"Eenie, meenie, miny, mo..."

Fans of the comics, like myself, know what is coming next, and sure enough it does. Negan and his small army of post apocalyptic warriors surround our heroes and make them kneel before him. Negan strides up and down in front of his captives, deciding who he is going to kill, swinging his bat suggestively. His bat is called Lucille. It is made of barbed wire and spikes. Negan is clearly not kidding.

The season ends with a POV shot, putting us in the position of Negan's victim, watching as the bat comes down on our head. Blood flows down the screen as the camera lurches to the side.  We do not know which of our beloved cast members is on the receiving end. All we know is, someone is definitely for the chop.

And it was all over Twitter. Just as the blood had filled the screen, so Twitter was covered in a thousand, 140 character responses. Who was dead? Why hadn't they shown us? What if it was Darryl? Oh, there would be trouble if it was Darryl!

The makers of this show know exactly what they are doing.

Clever stuff. Not, perhaps, a narrative driven by the true principles of drama. Rather, a story shaped and formed by the state of the medium. A programme that is not just a programme anymore, but part of a larger world - an online, interactive world where everyone gets to shout and cry and speculate.

So. Last night was the long awaited continuation of this cliff-hanger. Who was on the receiving end of Lucille's spiky wrath?

I won't spoil it here. But I will say, there is no reprieve and no cheat. No-one charges out of the woods to save them. No-one has a cunning plan. Negan most certainly does not change his mind. The episode is a bleak, brutal affair, full of pain and horror. I'd say it's pretty good drama and it certainly had me engaged. I say 'engaged' to dignify myself. I was clutching a cushion with one hand, while the other hand was waving frantically about in the air in panic.

Anyway. After the programme I spent a happy hour or so reading the online responses. People were all over the place. Shock, from those Tweeting in real time. Sadness for the characters. Anger at Negan. Anger at the makers of the show. It was brilliant - like being in a crowd at a gig, or a stand up show. Only rather than thousands of people singing a chorus , or laughing together, here they were shrieking in horror as a large man hit someone in the head with a baseball bat.

There were a few comments that surprised me, though. A number of people were vowing that they were done with the show, because it was too bleak. I mean, they were genuinely going to abandon a TV programme because of some fictional thing that happened. Popular science writer Doctor Ben Goldacre called it "Empty unpleasantness".

Empty Unpleasantness?

I find this attitude really weird. OK, I admit, this was not a 'fun' hour of television. I did laugh once - at an enjoyable bit of zombie grossness - but on the whole I felt a variety of unpleasant emotions. There was at least one moment where I had genuine, sick-feeling dread at what might happen next.

But for me that's part of the point of this kind of show. It takes us, safely, into places we don't normally go. And as for 'empty'... well, that's just silly. Ben Goldacre is about a million times more intelligent than me, but on this one thing I think I'm justified in saying, Doctor Goldacre - it's a little more complicated than that.

Off the top of my head, these are some of the things that stop last night's Walking Dead being 'empty'...

It's a story about hubris. A supremely cocky group who think they can control all situations and are always in the right are suddenly faced with something far more powerful, much nastier and - crucially - morally just about the same. Sound relevant for 21st Century America?

It's about leadership. What kind of a man does it take to really keep control, and do we really want that kind of man in charge?

It's about empathy. These are characters we've known for years. Here they are, terrified and helpless and in pain. In a world where we are increasingly insular and comfortable, maybe it's a good idea to see a little bit of bleakness.

It's about death. One of the characters has their head reduced, by Lucille, to a bloody pulp. I mean, like totally formless. Just a mess of meat, with eyeballs still wandering about in there. It's a moment of existential horror. Is that all we are? Some meat? That face, which I look at in a mirror, and call 'me', is just some stuff. My brain, in which all my thoughts and emotions and experiences seem to happen, is just some stuff. It could be destroyed, and there'd by no 'me' in there. I'd be gone. Brrrrr.

It's about what to do next. The episode doesn't end with the horror. It ends after the horror has stopped, and the survivors are wondering what to do next. What are you left with? Who are you, now? Who might you have been, without this?

And it's about the performances, and writing and technical skill and direction that makes this look and feel real. The craft that stops this looking like people standing about wearing makeup and pretending to be sad, and makes it compelling and powerful and horrible.

It's not empty, though.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Bad Loser

I don't know about you, but I'm going to miss Donald Trump.

I don't know whether I'm going to miss him because he'll lose, and stop being a constant source of surreal entertainment, or because he'll win, and we'll all be dead soon. But one thing is for sure - we're in a golden period of time, soon to end, where every day is filled with bonkers proclamations from the world's most powerful idiot.

It's kind of fun, isn't it? Going on Twitter to see what panicked garbage he's hurling at the world today. Who will he hate next? What supremely illogical sentences will escape from his sparking, fizzing brain? What lie will he confidently chisel into the side of a mountain and declare the word of God almighty?

Although, of course, there's the strong possibility that he won't go away even if he does lose. He is very committed to the idea of not losing, and this commitment may well be undiminished by the fact of not winning.

Because the election is rigged, you see. That's why he'll lose. Unless he wins. In which case, presumably, it suddenly isn't rigged, and the election process is very trustworthy. His faith in the system seems to comprehensively rely upon the system working the way he wants it to.

It's hard to frame this kind of person, isn't it? Intelligent people are struggling to categorise this orange buffoon, whose behaviour defines all rational explanation. What kind of person devotes massive energy to winning a game, only to denounce the validity of winning that game in the first place?

He reminds us of something, that's for sure. A child, maybe. Trump is very keen on that petulant, backwards logic that children employ to reverse engineer justifications for their behaviour. Start with the conclusion you want, then work backwards to find a reason why that conclusion must be right.

But he's not a child. Is he? He looks too big. They let him run companies, and own houses, and touch women. Well, maybe not all the time, that last one. But for the most part he seems like an adult.

Maybe he's two or three children in a big, weird, oddly fitting grown-up suit. That would explain a lot. In fact, it's less implausible that the probable truth: here is a grown, intelligent man who has invested himself, publicly, in a massive global tantrum that makes literally no fucking sense whatsoever.

I'll tell you what he reminds me of, and it's very specific. He reminds me of the mother of my first ever proper girlfriend, an equally unreasonable woman called... well, let's call her April Fenchurch.

The parents of your first girlfriend are a worrying prospect. You've never done this romance thing before, and it's hard enough to make it work with the object of your affection. Especially if you are 16 year old me, and composed entirely of stupidity and hormones.

And then you're confronted with her parents. And they are, rightly, suspicious that you are a horrible pillock, hell bent on ruining the life of their lovely daughter. And then one of them is April Bloody Fenchurch.

April was my first encounter with backwards logic. She refused to be wrong. She refused to lose. And it wasn't cool, like when I do it. It was irritating and frustrating.

One New Year's Eve, we played a game of Bible Trivial Pursuits. That's right. New Years Eve. Two years previously, I'd been standing alone in a back street, staring at the spinning stars above, out of my mind on gin. Now I was already wondering if my life was over and all the happiness was behind me. This was their idea of fun. Bible Trivial Pursuit.

Because April was a Christian. And so was I, but only very recently. I'd gone to church in pursuit of her lovely daughter and got kind of roped into everything else along the way. And, of course, I was trying hard to seem presentable and mature, and not a stupid twitchy deviant who would have much preferred to be out drinking snakebite and black.


Trouble kicked in before the game had started. April made some reference to the Three Kings, who pop up in the nativity, bringing Jesus gifts and such. I can't remember what she said about them. But I know that I'd just learned a Christian thing at church, and I wanted to share my new understanding.

"They weren't Kings," I said, unwisely. The room went quiet. April's friends and relatives looked in horror, at me, and then in excited anticipation, at her.

"They were," she replied. Straight in, no messing.

"No, I just found out. They were wise men. People often call them kings, but that's not what the Bible says."

April did not like this. She'd said a Fact, and now I was challenging the Fact. So she employed the kind of nonsense technique that I now recognise as false syllogism, but which, at the time, just confused me.

"Solomon was a king, wasn't he?" she said.

"Um, yes."

"And he was wise?"

"He was..."

"So in the Bible a king is a wise man and so when they said they were wise men it's the same as them being Kings."

Ta daa! April went back to shuffling the question cards. The friends and family relaxed, glad to have a way out of this - which I'm assuming was not the first terrible situation of its kind. I sat there, trying to work out how I had been given an answer that was somehow both very logical but also definitely bullshit.


We played the game. April was really bad at the game. It wasn't just Kings she knew nothing about. It was almost everything the game asked. To be honest, none of us were very good at it. I think you'd have to be a very special kind of person to be good at Bible Trivial Pursuits. Very special indeed.

But the way most of us reacted to our failure to guess the 8th wife of Nehrat the Ethiopian, was to accept our ignorance and be quite relieved. Not April. As has been noted, she was not a fan of being wrong.

So it transpired that she wasn't wrong. No. The game was wrong. The whole thing. This poor collection of cardboard and coloured dice went from being an excellent, spiritual way of spending New Years Eve, to being a stupid, lying whore of a thing that was made by idiots, for idiots and knew nothing about anything.

April's husband, Paul - a fragile mouse of a man - was forced, by April, to read through much of the New Testament in an effort to prove the stupid game wrong. We had to pause the game every time April's answers didn't tally with reality, while Paul flicked sadly through a massive Bible. Every now and then he'd find the relevant bit. He'd read, silently, patiently, for a few moments. Then I'd see panic in his eyes. Oh dear. It was clear that whatever he'd found wasn't going to be the answer April was looking for.

"Well, there's lots of ways to look at it..." he'd say, hesitantly.

So passed the most depressing New Year of all time. No, second most depressing. But still. Bloody awful.

What must it be like, I wonder, to live in such massive fear of being wrong? To exert such tremendous effort against reality itself, to avoid the fact of failure? Terrifying, I imagine. You have to dismantle the very language upon which all meaning relies. You have to construct a new version of logic, a bizarre distorting mirror of cause and effect, action and consequence.

As I get older I feel less annoyance with April, and more pity. And then I see Trump, and all the old feelings come flooding back. A man who will not lose. Who reverse engineers reality to suit his tiny minded, timid, feeble grasp on the world.

He's an idiot, but it's no wonder he's popular. There's a world of Aprils out there, not wanting to have to think, unequipped to deal with being told they're wrong. People who'd prefer the message that listening isn't important - you are the all conquering kings of existence. Carry on with your prejudice and your greed. Ignore your weaknesses - they don't exist. Do whatever is easiest. Don't let anyone tell you what to do.

It sounds awesome.

Thanks, April, for showing me - a long time ago - that it's not.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Electronic Performers

Afternoon. My, that's a fine hat. What? That's your hair? Oops. Sorry. Erm, let's change the subject. I know - friendship.

Every now and then I'm playing about on Facebook, trying to avoid work,  and I notice that I'm not 'friends' with someone. And by that I mean, someone who I thought I was friends with, not just one of the millions of people who are lucky enough never to have met me in the first place.

And it's a weird moment. Not least because I generally have to try to remember: have they deleted me? Or did I delete them? Should I be very angry with them, or terrified in case they are very angry with me?

It's all become very complicated, this friendship thing. And I've been thinking about it a lot, for one reason or another - you may have noticed the theme recurring if you've been following this blog. And today being National Poetry Day, I thought I'd try to express my ideas here, poetically. I hope you enjoy it and doesn't lead you to instantly cast me into the wilderness.

We were friends, you and me, for nine good years
A quantifiable measurement of Summers and Winters, verified by Facebook
Celebrated with notifications and a photo montage on an arbitrary date
Harder to see, in real life

More and more difficult, as the years slipped by
To remember the last time I saw your real face
Memories bleached out by a thousand digital lips and eyes and teeth

Posing for your self-held camera
Trying to look ironic, but definitely really meaning it

Or side by side with this year's lover
Romantic memories, swiftly deleted as one by one they fell out of favour

Or laughing too loud, even through the silence of the frame
At parties I stopped attending years ago

Like all friendships, ours was subject to decay
But social media, like a virus in the zombie films we loved,
Kept it moving
Animated it beyond the point of death
Made it harder to let die

Until one day you removed the head and you destroyed the brain
And without warning, our friendship was gone
A mercy killing of sorts.
What passes, these days, for goodbye.
Your final words spoken, not by you, but by your electronic ghost

You may not reply to this message
You may not reply to this message