A Few Great Families

Well, I finished Season Two of The Mandalorian last night. The show is creative, especially when it comes to random side characters. I was interested in the expanded Star Wars universe for the first time since before I watched The Phantom Menace. The practical effects of baby Yoda and other random side characters made up for the fact that the main character literally does not change expression the entire time.

Apart from overly loud action sequences and a constant barrage of “strong female characters,” I enjoyed the show. But, as usual, I can think of a couple ways it could have been improved.

Here be spoilers.

First, the series’s most powerful mystery isn’t the Child or the presence of the Empire or why Bo-Katan doesn’t have helmet hair. It’s the Mandalorian himself. His invisible identity makes the story hum even in its action-less moments. When are we going to see the vulnerable human being underneath the suit of armor? The reveal was wasted in a three-second shot in Season One that literally served no purpose. If the nurse droid must remove the Mandalorian’s helmet in order to save his life, why not show it happening from behind Mando’s head to keep his face hidden and the mystery alive? I found that moment quite bizarre, actually. After Mando says that no person has seen his face since he put on the helmet, the droid responds, “I am not a person,” and takes it off. Ok, fine. Nice loophole. But then the audience sees his face, implying that… the audience isn’t made up of persons? We’re all droids? It shows that the creators aren’t really thinking about how movies work.

The second time Mando removes his helmet turns out to be completely useless in terms of plot. The guy he’s with can’t use the facial scanner in the officer’s mess because he thinks an officer might recognize him. Mando volunteers to go instead, and has a moment of agony as he weighs the importance of getting the information against the importance of keeping his vow. In the end, he decides to go for it, but gets into trouble with the officer. The other character rescues him and – ta-dah! – the officer does not, in fact, recognize him at all. That was nice. You made the Mandalorian break his vow for nothing.

The third time he removes his helmet (to say goodbye to Baby Yoda) should have been the first time was saw his face. What a powerful moment that would have been—our two main characters face to face for the first time.

Speaking of powerful moments, the ending was extremely lame. I liked The Mandalorian because it showed that there’s room in the Star Wars universe for heroic stories that aren’t centered around the Skywalker family. Silly me. Just when I started to get excited about meeting a new, powerful Jedi (and another interesting male character, too!), he pulled back his hood and revealed his true identity: the Madame Tussaud’s version of Mark Hamill.

In W. H. Auden’s poem For the Time Being, Simeon sings about the birth of Christ, declaring that it has redeemed even the lowly because it has elevated the conflict everyone experiences in his own soul. Each humble one of us now fights the good fight.

The tragic conflict of Virtue with Necessity is no longer confined to the Exceptional Hero; for disaster is not the impact of a curse upon a few great families, but issues continually from the hubris of every tainted will. Every invalid is Roland defending the narrow pass against hopeless odds, every stenographer Brünnhilde refusing to renounce her lover’s ring which came into existence through the renunciation of love.

The Star Wars saga has tried to tell stories about characters other than the Skywalkers before (e.g., Rogue One), but the centripetal force (Force?) always proves too strong. The culmination of every story turns out to be about Luke or Leia or Emperor Palpatine or whomever. It’s getting old, frankly. Rian Johnson beautifully wrapped up Luke’s story in the Last Jedi and made many, many efforts to show that Star Wars is about more than just one bloodline, but all of his efforts were utterly quashed by the creators of the Rise of Skywalker. No every day heroes allowed in Star Wars. This is and always will be a story confined to the Exceptional Hero, the saga of a few great families.

Banishment as a Way of Life for a Man

Television is a product, not a medium, and everything you see and hear is produced by people terrified that they might be banished from the castle tomorrow and lose their limos and expense-account lunches and become peasants again, so there is mighty little courage or playfulness, as there is in poetry, which is entirely created by peasants, every word. Banishment is a way of life for poets, so what’s to be afraid of?

Garrison Keillor

HT Daniel S.

A Man Tries to Please His Teacher

The greatest works of art aim to please the teacher. Novel works, innovative works… these are works which aim for the audience, to wow them and make them say, “Well, we have never seen anything like this before.” Such stories are interesting for exactly as long as it takes someone else to come up with something “we have never seen before,” which, in the realm of science fiction, is often only a few weeks. The greatest crowd pleasing story of the 20th century, Star Wars, was not made to please crowds but to please Joseph Campbell. The Duffer Brothers have told a story to please their teachers, too, and because they have not sought novelty or wealth or fame, but the nodding approval of the master, they have become wise.

Josh Gibbs on Stranger Things

A Man is American TV

Americans treat “American” as an ideology, not a matter of blood or country. Historically, there were three things that made a person American: their church, their job, and their family. Americans were churchgoers. Americans were company-men. And Americans worshiped the nuclear family.

Though churches still carry a lot of heft for many Americans, they’ve declined in the northeast and the southwest — the two places most American TV shows come from. Without the church, American identity becomes defined by work and family. Thus, the central concerns of American TV shows are work and family. (And, increasingly, work as family.) Can you imagine an American TV show where a character rejects or is rejected by his family for a reason other than work? I can’t. What about an American TV show where a group of friends remains nothing more than a group of friends, never metastasizing into a familial substitute? Me neither.

TV Assures a Man it is Entirely Harmless

Everybody knows that TV is mostly false and stupid, that almost no one pays that much attention to it—and yet it’s on for over seven hours a day in the average household, and it sells innumerable products. In other words, TV manages to do its job even as it only yammers in the background, despised by those who keep it going. TV begins by offering us a beautiful hallucination of diversity, but it is finally like a drug whose high is only the conviction that its user is too cool to be addicted.

~Mark Crispin Miller, excerpted in Harper’s in 1986

A Man Presents Some Quotes about TV

I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.

~E. B. White, 1938

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.

~Edward R. Murrow, 1958

What the American people don’t know can kill them.

~Dorothy Greene Friendly, 1958

While it is true that this medium has always been in a constant state of transformation, the changes currently in process are among the most significant in its history. The very term may become less and less useful as a description, a name, for a set of interrelated communication phenomena now replacing what we have known as “television.” […] Short of massive disaster, there is no way to look at this medium and say “this is what it was; this is what it is.” “Television” has been and is always becoming.

~Horace Newcomb, 1996

A Man is a Mad Man

With the first season of Mad Men under my skinny, yet expensive leather belt, I thought I’d cast my crumbs of thought on the waters of the internet.

  • Initially, the pace of the show frustrated me. I could never tell when an episode was about to end. Events just bled into one another. I still could not tell any of the first eight episodes apart. Part of it has to do with watching the show on Netflix, of course. But I remember distinct episodes from 30 Rock, Community, and Better Call Saul, all of which I watched on the computer.
  • Either I locked into the show’s groove or the show locked into mine. It was at the end of Episode 9, “Shoot,” when I turned off the TV, rolled over in bed, and thought, “I liked that. That was good.” From that point till the end of Season 1, I enjoyed it.
  • The show is a little too pleased with itself in terms of style and production design. Sure, it’s impressive. Even captivating at times. It’s fun to have the characters say “swell” like the Hardy boys. But the precision of all the details cuts both ways: it presents the past in gorgeous HD, as you’ve never seen it before, while underscoring how different it was from our present day. And the show can’t stop itself from commenting on those differences. Every man in the show is a womanizer. Every women struggles against the boundaries of her sex. Every character is consciously classist and casually racist. It’s like reading Huck Finn in an English class with a teacher who can’t get off the subject of slavery.
  • On the whole, the show is about loneliness. Or, more accurately, about knowing and being known. Every character tries to build, earn, or steal for themselves a sense of worth, a place in the world and among people. Don Draper is the quintessential example. The people most willing to accept and embrace him, his family, don’t know anything about his past. They don’t even know his real name.

A Man is Playing a Role

Ian Marcus Corbin writes in the Weekly Standard about the bizarre disjunction between how courteously his colleagues interact with those with different political or cultural views in real life and how nastily they attack them on social media. Some people are born with certain advantages, Corbin admits, and some people are unfairly treated based on how they look, dress or act. And yet…

It is possible to acknowledge all of this, however, and still be struck by the wild imbalance between our lived experience of one another and the verbal portrait of ourselves that we daily paint on social media. Perhaps I’m not treated like a ravening predator in my personal relationships because I’m “one of the good ones” in my identity category. Fine. Many chauvinistic group-ideologies are willing to make exceptions for exceptional individuals. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; I don’t think that I get a special pass and all of the other white men in my acquaintances’ path are treated like monsters. Rather, for many of us, our public, impersonal lives contain a much higher percentage of status-seeking performance than our day-to-day interactions. We’re playing roles.

Last semester, I taught a class on television and culture (and again this upcoming semester). The sentence I bolded at the end of that quote strikes me as particularly relevant to that topic. One consequence of living so much of your life in front of a TV screen is that you start to believe that TV is reality and that your life is a shoddy illusion. Its in TV’s best interests to keep you watching, and the way to do that is to beat into your skull the fact that television is where life’s meaning truly lies. In his essay on TV, “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace describes it like this:

The modes of presentation that work best for TV—stuff like “action,” with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire “collage” of commercials, news, and music videos, or the “hysteria” of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter—are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more… well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows and moves through it. This might seem benign until we consider that what average Joe Briefcase does more than almost anything else in contemporary life is watch television, an activity which anyone with an average brain can see does not make for a very dense and lively life. Since television must seek to compel attention by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television-watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV”).

If anything has changed since Wallace wrote that essay, we’ve become more involved in these “modes of presentation.” Now, we don’t join in only in our minds, but in our actual lives. We are all living “presented” lives. We’re all playing roles.