Spoilers for Stranger Things Season One; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; and Game of Thrones. And Lord of the Rings if you still haven’t gotten around to seeing that one.
I realized last night I have blindly stumbled into a total asshole phase where I don’t like anything. I didn’t like the new Star Wars; I didn’t like Stranger Things Season One; I didn’t like the ending of the latest season of Game of Thrones (okay, I loved some things about it, but the overall place everybody was in when they left it made me sad and not in a wistful, angsty way but a frustrated, defeatist way). The last thing I really, really liked was Westworld. Here’s how bad it is, y’all – I’m re-reading the original William Goldman novel The Princess Bride, and all I can see is what I don’t like about it. And I adore that book; I have always adored that book. But now I find myself constantly thinking, “does Buttercup REALLY need to be THIS stupid for the adventure fantasy to work for him?” And I know it’s not the art; it’s me. I see the smart and sensitive people with the same tastes in story all around me loving this stuff; I see the looks of shocked incomprehension and, from the ones who actually give a crap what I think, disappointment on their faces when I say I don’t. And on the one hand, so what; it’s just TV and movies. But on the other, I feel myself losing that connection with people I love, and that IS important–and it makes me think that not liking this stuff is a symptom of something else.
One of the themes or plot points that has become really popular of late in science fiction and fantasy is a kind of existential defeatism played out against an enemy so powerful and so evil and so single-minded they can’t ever be vanquished, only managed for brief periods of blind joy and secret dread. I call it Borg Syndrome.
In Star Wars, even though we saw the big ewok barbecue at the end of Return of the Jedi and the fireworks over Coruscant, within the lifetime of the main characters, it all apparently went to shit–to paraphrase Don Henley, the rebels be rebels all over again; the First Order comes out of nowhere and takes control of everything and it’s like the big victory it took us three movies and almost a decade of avid movie-watching investment to achieve never happened at all. In Stranger Things, an evil lab under the auspices of the Department of Energy experiments on children, opens up a portal to another dimension and releases an apparently-mindless oogie-boogie without a face, and more children are tortured and devoured, and in the end, the good guys are just happy to have the one kid back and to hell with any accountability for the baddies who made it all happen because they’re just too powerful to be touched. The main evil scientist guy gets devoured, and that’s awesome, but the big machine rolls on–I know this; I’ve watched the first two episodes of Season Two. And in Game of Thrones, the king of the snow zombies has a zombie dragon that can take down the ultimate defenses of the good–wait, slightly-less-bad–guys in less than a minute, rendering pretty much everything we’ve seen over the course of seven seasons moot in favor of Night of the Living Dead, Medieval Fantasy Edition.
What the genuine fuck, y’all? Have we gotten so cynical and so saturated with antidepressants that we can’t even conceive of a happy ending that isn’t a sick joke, even in our most escapist fantasy? Are we making art designed to reassure us that there’s really no reason to get off the couch because we can’t accomplish anything real or lasting anyway? Am I just a wackadoo old person who’s ready to subsist on reruns of The Waltons on MeTV because I can’t handle the hard stuff any more?
I don’t think so. I keep thinking back to the end of Lord of the Rings. Frodo, with massive amounts of help from everybody else, saved Middle Earth from the darkness, but in the end, he was too broken, too damaged to live in the world he had saved. He had taken too much darkness inside to ever really purge it. So he sailed off into the west, and I bawled my eyes out, but it made sense to me; I loved it. Because his sacrifice mattered to the big picture–the rest of Middle Earth was saved for generations to come. (Yes, evil always comes back, but maybe not next week?) And broken as he was, he had a place to go. He had the self-awareness to know the rotten way he felt was not the necessary norm of hobbit psychology and the faith to know there was something left inside him that could still be healed in the west. Tolkien was a Christian and so am I, and I know that’s a big part of why that story feels right to me, and no, I don’t expect everybody else to buy in.
But I don’t see an atheistic adherence to reason and knowledge in the new fantasy or a celebration of the human spirit; far from it. Knowledge is deeply suspect or discounted or laughed at or ignored–evil scientists are evil; burn the Jedi texts and laugh; Samwell Tarly is a comic figure cleaning bedpans while the real heroes kill things and sleep with their relatives. And people, generally speaking, are either evil shitheels or stupid but nice. And the goals of the nice people are either assumed to be hopeless–like in Star Wars and part of Game of Thrones–or extend no further than their own nuclear family–like in Stranger Things and the other part of Game of Thrones. Our heroes are now either Sisyphus or Forrest Gump.
But again, maybe it’s just me. I’m not being cute when I say that; I’m absolutely serious. Maybe the one who’s having a hard time believing in the light these days is me; maybe the one who sees herself and her fellow humans as either evil or stupid is me. And if that’s the case, I’m sorry; please feel free to ignore me. I promise I’ll be better soon.
PS: Westworld rocks, and one reason is, the people being exploited ARE smart and DO make a change to their world, even though they are literally programmed into a Sisyphean loop. No wonder I loved it so much.
PPS: The Princess Bride is sexist as hell because William Goldman is a hellacious sexist. He’s also completely brilliant and so is his book.