The One With Joey’s Colonoscopy

Nobody wants to see Joey get his colonoscopy. Nobody wants to see that. –Matt LeBlanc

We won’t do a reunion [] because this is a show about a time in your life when your friends are your family. And when you have a family, that changes. –Marta Kauffman

(Images from here and here.)

1

Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the series premiere of Friends in 1994, and the internet has been abuzz with nostalgia and the possibility of a reboot. The latter was basically shut down in a New York Times article by pop culture critic Saul Austerlitz, who released his book Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show that Defined a Television Era this month. The apparent general consensus among the show’s producers is that a reboot, in addition to inherently violating the show’s basic premise, would never live up to the original, and thus could only mar the show’s legacy. 

(And yet we have Jennifer Aniston fanning the flames with her new Instagram account, whose very first post was a cast reunion pic that broke the internet, so perhaps all hope is not lost.)

Inundated with 25th-anniversary coverage thanks to Google’s filter bubble, I first read an excerpt of Generation Friends that might instill even in skeptics a new appreciation of the show’s writing. I’ve always fantasized about working in a writers’ room for a television show, but have serious doubts about the long hours, high stakes, and big egos. Despite Austerlitz’s anecdotes about the Friends writers’ room reinforcing many of these fears, as I read them in the course of procrastinating work on my own novel, I was seized with the desire to dive into the rabbit hole of writing a reboot script. Because I firmly believed that Matt LeBlanc was wrong. People would fucking love to see Joey get his colonoscopy.  

So, my Friends 25th-anniversary pilot reboot script is here. Like any piece of creative writing, it should be read on its own without commentary from the writer. But since this blog is about analyzing the craft of creative writing, I am going to comment on some of my narrative decisions and on what I’ve learned about sitcom-writing by trying to write a sitcom.

But you should read the script first.

2

Friends obviously means a lot to a lot of people. Part of the media’s 25th-anniversary buzz has covered the appeal of the show to today’s teens, a demographic not yet born when the show originally aired. I first noticed one of my freshmen at PVA wearing a Friends t-shirt a couple of years ago, and then started noticing other students in the hallways in Friends gear at the high school and at the college where I teach as well. (New Yorker writer Michael Schulman analyzes the show’s continued appeal by talking to some of the people who flock for selfies to the front of the famous building at Bedford and Grove that served as the exterior shot for Monica’s apartment.) 

I was nine years old when the show premiered in 1994, and I watched it more or less from the beginning–this despite the fact that a lot of the jokes were far over my head, and that my mother is religious to the extent that all televised content I consumed was heavily policed (“inappropriate” was a consistent buzzword of my youth). Generation Friends describes how creator David Crane had to contend with NBC’s Standards Division, leading to the show taking the approach of looking askance at sexual content specifically to keep things appropriate for younger viewers (in a way that Seinfeld, airing in a later time slot, specifically did not). The strategy certainly worked in our household. My mother let me watch the show, but, watching it with me, she never failed to comment on how I should not look up to its three female leads as role models, or think that the lifestyle it depicted was realistic. This gripe mainly pertained to the characters having casual premarital sex, since we were Catholic and believed you were supposed to save yourself for marriage. My response to my mother’s harping was always an irritated, “I know, I know.” (Which, for the record, I did not.) So I watched the new episodes, and, by the time I was a teenager, the reruns that aired every weeknight at 10:30pm. I got the DVD box sets of each season as they were released, enjoying the luxury of watching the show whenever I wanted. 

The show’s arc in real time is punctuated with memories from my formative adolescent years. I watched Ross say Rachel’s name during his wedding to Emily in the season four finale while making posters to run for president of my junior high’s student council, a race I would lose to a more popular slacker whose campaign speech revolved around a clever metaphor that he would serve as dependably as toilet paper (proof of how utterly I’d failed to internalize the show’s writing style to my own advantage). I waited months in agony between seasons seven and eight for the reveal of who was the father of Rachel’s baby, and had an ongoing argument with my grandmother over whether Jennifer Aniston was really pregnant, which for some dumb reason I believed that she was. I watched the Brad Pitt Thanksgiving episode still reeking in uniform from a depressing shift at Sonic Drive-In, my mother, recovering from chemotherapy, next to me nibbling a foil-wrapped burger I’d brought her. And I watched the series finale in my dorm room at Rice at the tail end of my freshman year of college, my stuff packed and ready to return home for the summer, a few weeks shy of nineteen years old.  

As an adult with a Netflix password I’ve pretty much been watching the show on a loop ever since (a Guardian article addresses this particular phenomenon, hardly unique to me), and I guess I’ll have to demand my old DVD box sets back from my brother when it’s pulled at the end of this year. But I’d never actually given much thought to the show’s writing until I tried to write an episode myself.

3

An Atlantic article about sitcom structure lays out the use of A, B, and C storylines using an episode of Parks and Recreation as an example, but points out that the use of the model is more or less ubiquitous across sitcoms. This is definitely true for Friends, though it is interesting to see in their particular case how they deploy and divide these storylines across their cast of six main characters. 

Take “The One with the Stoned Guy” from the first season. The episode, as a majority do, employs three different storylines: A. Chandler is offered a promotion that causes him to quit his job; B. Monica receives an opportunity to interview for a job that would put her in charge of her own kitchen; C. Ross dates a woman who wants him to talk dirty. This is a case of three solo-character storylines, into which the other three characters who aren’t involved directly in any of the three storylines are interpolated peripherally. In Ross’s storyline, he repeatedly turns to Joey for advice. In Monica’s storyline, Rachel serves as a waitress for her interview, and Phoebe is the one who gets Monica the opportunity in the first place because the guy looking to open a restaurant is a massage client of hers, so Rachel and Phoebe are both present during Monica’s actual interview, when the potential restaurant opener (Jon Lovitz) shows up stoned and would prefer to eat Sugar-O’s and gummy bears instead of wait for the elaborate delicacies Monica is preparing.

lovitz
(from here)

For Chandler’s storyline, there’s really no other character that’s a consistent part of it (like Joey is in Ross’s); rather all the characters serve as what might be termed “floaters” for him, listening to his complaints about his situation and providing advice (and of course, mockery). 

Seinfeld is frequently credited with changing the sitcom game, and one thing that show did unbelievably well was how its disparate storylines more often than not all intersected and affected each other in surprising ways by the episode’s end. Friends does not seem to feel a similar obligation to have its storylines intersect or interact; frequently all three are completely independent. In “Stoned Guy,” Ross’s dirty-talk storyline has nothing to do with anything else going on, and can pretty easily be designated the episode’s C storyline (side note: the woman who wants Ross to talk dirty is played by Melora Hardin pre-Jan from The Office).

But this plot, though minor, still has a developed narrative arc: first Ross has trouble dirty-talking, leading to his only cuddling instead of having sex with his date; after getting Joey’s help, he gets so good at the dirty talk that he does it so long they still end up just cuddling instead of having sex.

For “Stoned Guy,” it’s more difficult to classify whether Monica’s or Chandler’s is the A vs. B storyline (though others designate Chandler’s as the A story). Chandler’s situation comes up earlier in the episode, but Monica’s situation gets the climactic sequence. (Monica’s also dictates the episode’s title, but this is a relatively meaningless marker of importance, as it’s not uncommon for episode’s titles to be pulled from C storylines.)  

At any rate, what “Stoned Guy” has that other episodes don’t always (or even usually) have is a thematic overlap between its two primary storylines–career advancement. What’s especially great about the A and B storylines in this episode is that the career theme subsumes more than just the primary characters involved in these plots, and that this theme connects both the teaser opening and the credits tag scene. In Friends, the credits scene is generally a conclusion to one of the storylines from the episode, but the teaser opening is sometimes the introduction of a storyline and is sometimes just a completely independent joke that has no real bearing on the rest of the episode. In “Stoned Guy,” the teaser opening shows Rachel serving Monica coffee in her capacity as waitress, but with a pencil in it instead of a cinnamon stick, a joke that emphasizes something established by this point–how bad Rachel is at her job. The scene initially seems to play no direct role in advancing the action of any storyline, but by commenting on Rachel’s job it ties into the A and B themes, and one could argue it actually is advancing storyline action because Rachel’s skill at her job becomes relevant when Monica initially hires a different waitress for the interview, then has to use Rachel when the waitress backs out (though Rachel’s skill, or lack thereof, plays no actual role in affecting Monica’s interview, her lack of skill leads to a pre-interview conflict with Monica that helps further the rising action). Then we have Phoebe, who gets Monica this job opportunity through her own job, emphasized in the credits scene when she avenges Monica by torturing Lovitz on the massage table with her elbows. 

Another episode exhibiting this thematic overlap between plots is an even earlier one from the first season, “The One with the East-German Laundry Detergent,” in which one storyline has A. Chandler and Phoebe breaking up with their respective signifiant others together (notably, Janice’s first appearance on the show entails Chandler’s dumping her); B. Ross doing laundry with Rachel in what may or may not be a date; and C. Joey tricking Monica into going on a double date that is not actually a double date, but turns into their conjoined effort to break up another couple. This episode neatly divides the characters into three pairs for the three storylines, with each being integral to the plots rather than peripheral or floaters, and with all storylines involving the potential end and/or beginnings of relationships. 

And an even earlier first-season episode, the third of the series, “The One with the Thumb,” does more direct interaction across storylines than just thematic. Our three storylines here are that A. Monica is dating a guy everyone actually likes, B. Chandler has started smoking again, and C. Phoebe has to deal with accidentally getting money from her bank that she shouldn’t have. So here we have three solo storylines, with the other characters actually serving as floaters for all three. The storylines interact when Monica’s new boyfriend is able to convince Chandler to stop smoking when no one else is able to; then, when Monica dumps the boyfriend and Chandler goes back to smoking, Phoebe gets him to stop by offering him the money she’s ended up with thanks to the chain of events from her dealing with her bank. This direct interaction between stories is satisfying, but rare, and even thematic overlap probably drops off significantly after the first season. 

Then there are episodes that have more unique structures than the traditional three storylines, the first example of which is probably the seventh episode of the series, “The One with the Blackout.” This one has two storylines instead of three: five of the six are hanging out together in Monica and Rachel’s apartment during the blackout, while the sixth, Chandler, is trapped in an ATM vestibule with a supermodel. The story with the five primarily revolves around Ross’s asking Rachel out being interrupted by her meeting Paolo. The first episode with only a single storyline is also in the first season, “The One Where the Monkey Gets Away”; Rachel loses Marcel and the scenes see different characters dividing up to look for him. 

A classic episode from the third season, “The One Where No One’s Ready,” showcases the three-storyline setup in a unique setting. With the exception of the credits scene, the episode takes place entirely in Rachel and Monica’s apartment. One would think a single setting would mean a single storyline, but that’s not the case here. Yes, the main plot is that Ross needs everyone to get ready to go to his museum benefit by a certain time, but within this framework there are in fact three separate plots interfering with people’s getting ready: A. Joey and Chandler are fighting over a seat, B. Monica is preoccupied with an answering-machine message from her recent ex Richard, and C. Rachel’s inability to settle on an outfit drives Ross to yell at her. Phoebe is initially part of Joey and Chandler’s storyline in this one, since her being the only one who’s actually ready is ruined when Joey and Chandler stain her dress in the course of fighting over the seat, but then Phoebe floats over to Rachel and Ross’s storyline when her needing a new outfit becomes a distraction from Rachel finding an outfit. All characters are floaters for Monica’s storyline, commenting on her interpretations of and reactions to Richard’s message.

Basically, the characters and their variable configurations seem to largely determine the action in the series, and I would posit that it’s the action being character-based that has in large part generated the show’s fierce generation-spanning loyalty. Another thing Generation Friends comments on is how the show pushes past humorous one-liners into deeper emotional territory, enabling viewers to get more invested. An emotional through-line throughout the show, probably leaned on most heavily in the earliest seasons of the series, is the on-again off-again relationship between Ross and Rachel.

4

It seemed to me that a contemporary version of Friends would have to comment on some of the problematic issues the original version had in being overwhelmingly white and heteronormative (issues that make its continued popularity all the more baffling). One of the show’s creators, David Crane, is gay, and the first-season episode depicting a lesbian wedding (which includes appearances from LGBT-activist Candace Gingrich as the wedding officiant and a young Lea DeLaria pre-Big Boo from OITNB as a stereotypical butch hitting on Phoebe) may have been lauded as groundbreaking, but the show was casually homophobic in ways that probably mingled with my Catholic upbringing to keep me closeted even from myself until after it was off the air. And yet I can’t shun the show like I did the church. The writing is too clever, and I love the white heteronormative characters too much. 

But in an experiment where I had total freedom to write my own version of the show in a no-stakes situation, the show could reflect my world more. Hence, Phoebe in my version has realized that she is gay, has left Mike and married a woman (Paul Rudd is obvi too busy to be on the show regularly now anyway, and while one could probably get away with him playing Phoebe’s husband in infrequent guest appearances, I’m bored with that idea). And to balance the scales even more, both Monica’s and Rachel’s daughters would also be gay.  

The experiment is to check in with the Friends at the time of the 25th anniversary in 2019, which would make Rachel and Ross’s daughter Emma seventeen, and Monica and Chandler’s twins Erica and Jack fifteen. Were a reboot really made, it would probably make the most sense to wait until the kids were all grown and gone so they wouldn’t have to be incorporated as regulars but only as occasional guests, and unless a reboot is already secretly in the works, by the time one is actually produced, they inevitably will be. But as of 2019, the kids are still here. (It would have been cool if Emma was a year older and thus could be shown watching the videotape Ross and Rachel made for her eighteenth birthday in the final season’s “The One with the Cake,” but alas the math doesn’t work.) 

Another element of the show that’s long interested me is its incorporation of the characters’ careers, which the Atlantic article here dissects nicely. The characters were all on fulfilling career paths except for Chandler (and possibly Phoebe), but Chandler got his own fulfilling upward trajectory when he changed tracks to advertising in season nine. Were NBC really to air a reboot now, I have a feeling the characters would be even further along in their careers, reaching the tops of their respective ladders, the majority probably even rich. But that idea also bores me. And inspired by the creators’ excuse about the characters being in a fundamentally different place in their lives, I thought that an impetus that might bring them all back together would be a return to a place in their lives where they again needed to depend on friends, which would entail job loss and financial struggles. A reboot could theoretically show the characters in different environments from the original show–following Monica and Chandler’s suburban life in Westchester, for instance–but I wanted my version of the show to be in its original setting(s), as the most appealing version of the reboot would probably be. Hence most of the action in my version of a reboot pilot is dictated by the arrangements that return the characters to their familiar former living situations: Monica and Chandler are announcing they’re moving back to their old apartment (which they’ve been subletting this whole time) so the twins can go to Emma’s school; Joey is attempting to persuade the guy who’s moved into his old apartment to give it up so he can move back in; Rachel, Ross and Phoebe have more or less been where they always were. 

The three storylines in my pilot are: A. Monica and Chandler are moving back into their old apartment; B. Ross and Rachel find out Emma is gay; and C. Joey is about to get a colonoscopy. The A and B storylines probably interact the most here, since it’s Monica and Chandler’s moving back into the old apartment that enables Ross and Rachel to see Emma hooking up with a girl through the window. Joey’s storyline probably has the least direct interaction but involves him doing the same thing Monica and Chandler are in getting his old place back (his having a colonoscopy is in fact what ends up leading to him getting the apartment back).

There’s also more thematic overlap between the A and B storylines here that doesn’t really extend to the C storyline (similar to “Stoned Guy”). That theme would be secrecy. At the beginning of the episode, Ross and Rachel tell Phoebe they don’t want her to tell Monica and Chandler that they’ve lost their respective jobs. Over the course of the episode it’s revealed that Monica and Chandler have also lost their jobs, that this is the real reason they’re moving back, even though they’ve pretended otherwise. The mutual secrecy emphasizes the distance that’s grown in these relationships in the intervening years, and the exposure of all the secrets by the episode’s end indicates a return to openness (and unemployment) that puts them on par with where they were in the early years of the original series. And of course, Emma’s also been keeping a secret that’s now exposed.

5

Per Generation Friends, 

The writing process was intensely collaborative. Writers might be assigned to craft a first draft of a given script, but by Adam Chase’s estimation, 98 percent of the work was actually done in the [writers’] room. Often, an idea would be filtered through numerous writers, who would add their own flourishes.

There’s collaborative effort to determine the gist of what will happen in an episode before an individual writer is assigned to map out the scenes for it, and collaborative effort after that individual script is drafted, largely to sharpen the jokes, but often resulting in a complete overhaul. Having written my script almost completely alone (except for getting general feedback from my partner), there’s going to be much room for improvement, especially for the joke-writing, which is more or less completely new to me and not something that’s going to transfer over from fiction-writing the way that structuring a narrative arc of rising action does. Trying to be funny, it turns out, is hard. (One will likely derive more enjoyment from reading the script the better one is able to imagine the original actors performing it, as humor more often than not resides as much, or more, in a line’s delivery as in its writing.)

And on the subject of this script not being the product of collaboration, the result of this experiment did not end up commenting on the show’s whiteness the way it comments on its heteronormativity, or commenting on the show’s whiteness much at all, really (except for making Emma’s love interest a person of color). Which just underscores how important it is that writing for television incorporate multiple perspectives rather than just one worldview (and perhaps more novels should do so as well).

This is a pilot script, meaning it’s supposed to set up at least a season’s worth of episodes rather than be an independent stand-alone piece. (Apparently there’s also been talk of a Friends movie, which Jennifer Aniston claims the producers would never let them do, and I can’t even imagine what that might look like, apart from the absurd concept trailers fans have spliced together from disparate footage of the show’s actors.) My pilot is set up to more or less return the friends to their starting/leaving-off points so that they’re all as tightly within one another’s orbits as they once were, and also struggling in their careers in a way that’s simultaneously similar to and different from the ways they were struggling at the beginning of the original series. Thus, the new version has all the same narrative engines for future plots that the original series did–that is, except for romantic entanglements. The original series had them all starting as single, and here we’re starting with them all in committed relationships. So, Ross and Rachel are now in an open relationship, Monica and Chandler’s marriage has become a committed hate-fest, and Phoebe’s same-sex marriage ought to be narratively fertile enough to serve the romantic-entanglement engine.

Then of course there’s whatever the kids are getting into, and there’s also the characters’ relatively advanced age, references to which it seems like would likely be a recurring gag. The producers aren’t saying it outright, but the excuse about the show being about “that time in your life when your friends are your family” is more or less another way of saying it’s about the time in your life when you are young and attractive (and before life has broken you). It might be depressing for audiences to see their favorite young ensemble cast reassembled in their 50s. Or, it could be just what we need to grow the hell up….

Then there’s the genre of the reboot itself to consider, which is not something I can claim to be overly familiar with. (I caught one episode of the new Will & Grace on a plane and felt like I was melting into that screaming guy from the Munch painting.) As I said, to me, commentary on the original seems like it ought to be part and parcel of the reboot package, but of course being able to execute this is easier said than done. Ross and Rachel’s open relationship is meant to represent an evolution past the insane monogamous jealousy that plagued Ross (and at times Rachel) throughout the original. Phoebe’s marriage represents an evolution past bland heteronormativity, and Rachel’s resistance to her daughter’s sexuality is something that perhaps comments on the original’s heteronormativity more than Rachel’s being immediately accepting of it would be, though if I’m again imagining what a reboot overseen by corporate executives would look like, they might well make one of the kids gay without making anything of it–the character would just be gay and everyone would accept it as completely normal without commenting on it, so we could pat ourselves on the back for how progressive we’ve become as a society. Such a version might seem like it would represent progress, but it would be more like a band-aid on a bullet hole. So Rachel’s going to have to work through this process a little bit more, just like the show needs to work through the sins of its past transgressions. But it’s difficult to find the line between facing the transgressions and simply repeating them. I don’t know how many jokes there were in the original about the appeal of having sex with women so young they were barely legal adults. Now two of our three male leads have daughters approaching this age, and yet, in my reboot pilot, they’re basically still as misogynistic as ever. Ross at least, having been fired for his relationship with (another) student, has had to face some consequences for his outdated attitudes in our post-MeToo era, but how our male leads might internalize and grow from our predominant cultural shifts remains to be seen and is generally a tricky thing to negotiate, since a lot of the appeal of a reboot would probably be the comfort of watching the characters do the same things they always did. So is having the guys spout the same misogyny they always did a way of pointing out how outdated that misogyny is now, or is it just perpetuating it? Perhaps Chandler’s fondness of Game of Thrones, the biggest cultural juggernaut since Friends, is a way of showing that misogyny is not as outdated as we like to think…

And finally, the reboot genre offers the opportunity for callbacks to the original that as a superfan I found hard to resist and probably overused, though I will note for the record that I did go back and cut some out because I was using them too much as a crutch instead of writing my own jokes.

At any rate, it is what it is at this point, for better or worse. Happy anniversary.

-SCR

World War Zimmerman Continues

In light of the most recent shootings in Baton Rouge, the latest in a spate of back-and-forth shootings between civilians and police, it’s worth taking a look at the South Park episode “World War Zimmerman,” originally aired October 9, 2013, not quite four months after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin the previous July. The episode not only argues that there is a marked difference in the way both society and the government react to violence against different racial demographics (more specifically that white victims of violence receive justice while black victims of violence are ignored), but proves FDR’s old adage that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and even more specifically, that fear-based legislation like “stand-your-ground” laws end up causing more destruction than they prevent. The episode’s plot combines the Zimmerman acquittal with the Brad Pitt zombie movie World War Z (released June 21, 2013). While some have claimed that this reference is too dated, the narrative’s use of repeated plane crashes, the Patient-Zero concept, and Cartman’s emulation of Brad Pitt’s character are precisely what make it such an insightful commentary about how this cycle of fear and violence we’re currently stuck in might have started.

The episode begins with Cartman being uncharacteristically nice to Token Black, trying to get Token to “fist bump” him. Cartman then disrupts class when he screams in his sleep, accusing Token of eating his family. The school counselor Mr. Mackey tells Eric to write a poem to express his feelings to Token to resolve Eric’s apparent nightmares; Cartman’s poem implores Token not to blame him for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. We then see Eric’s nightmare: Eric is Brad Pitt, the hero of World War Z, being an upstanding loving family man when news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal is announced, at which point many “outraged” black people “go totally nanners,” attacking Eric’s family’s car in a zombie-like horde. Awake, Eric raps his poem at a school assembly. When Token expresses his frustration that everyone is listening to his racist nonsense, Eric flees, screaming that an outbreak is starting. He dresses himself as Brad Pitt and hijacks a plane, declaring to everyone aboard that Denver and all major cities have now been compromised. Eric’s panicked reaction to a black passenger aboard the plane causes everyone else to panic, which causes the plane to crash. Eric (and the random woman he’s enlisted to help him) buy a rifle to try to stop the outbreak’s spread, only to learn that the law will prevent them from shooting people unless they’re in a state with a stand-your-ground law. Believing Zimmerman is a version of “Patient Zero”–that all of this starts with him–Eric goes to Florida to kill Zimmerman (crashing another plan along the way) by disguising himself as a black kid and getting Zimmerman to shoot him just as government officials are enlisting Zimmerman to “do what he does best” and “shoot a young African American man,” the other Patient Zero, Token. The officials declare Zimmerman a hero when he shoots the “young African American man,” but when they see Cartman is white, Zimmerman is declared guilty and electrocuted by the state within two seconds. Cartman returns home, tricks Token into (almost) stepping inside the circle he’s spray-painted around himself by claiming he wants to “fist bump” to settle their differences, and shoots him. They then return to Mr. Mackey’s office, where, when Token expresses his frustration at what’s happened, Eric once again flees and crashes another plane.

The plane crashes, three of them, convincingly represent the cycle of fear and violence we as a society have gotten ourselves into. Eric crashes one every time he flees in panic in response to a reaction to Token that he has absurdly misinterpreted. He’s misinterpreted the whole situation. Everything begins in the episode with his nightmares–without them, the rest of the events in the episode would not have happened. The nightmares come from his fear. His fear is based on nothing–Token is represented here as harmless. When Cartman is telling Token not to blame him in his poem, he’s blaming Token for blaming him, so he’s doing the very thing he’s accusing Token of–preemptive blaming/judging of someone for something they didn’t actually do. Cartman’s fear is supposedly in response to violence, but instead Cartman’s fear is causing the violence–as represented here by the plane crashes. That the episode ends with the third of these plane crashes indicates that they will just continue; every time Token expresses his frustration at Cartman’s ignorant fear-based reaction, Cartman will react in fear and cause a plane crash, that Token will then complain about, causing Eric to flee in fear… This ending would seem to argue, perhaps bleakly, that there’s no end to this cycle of fear and violence once it’s started. And looking at where we are three years later, the writers would seem to have predicted this phenomenon accurately. In the wake of a police shooting, fear escalates on both sides, among police and in black communities, inciting reactions that then cause more violence that cause more fear…. Not only that, but the shooters in the Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings, who killed eight policemen between them, were military veterans, trained to kill by their own government–something designed for protection subverted for destructive purposes.

Showing how things designed for protection can end up causing more destruction than the very things they were designed to protect against is a big part of what the plot shows through its use of the “Patient Zero” trope. Cartman initially thinks Token is Patient Zero, then thinks that Zimmerman is also a form of a Patient Zero, someone the whole thing starts with–someone whose eradication will thus eradicate the problem. We see at the end of the episode with the final (but not really final) plane crash that killing Zimmerman does not in fact solve the problem (though Cartman might be right that there’s more than one Patient Zero). Other events in the episode reveal what the problem really is.

token

Everything in the episode starts with Cartman’s groundless fear, which is the true contagion or outbreak, as we see it spread to the government, agents for whom pick up his “Patient Zero” sketch of Token and immediately, absurdly, take what’s obviously a child’s drawing (as seen above) for evidence of an outbreak. You could argue that Martin’s shooting starts with Zimmerman’s fear, but much can also be traced back to the stand-your-ground law, which is what the Zimmerman verdict ultimately depended on. If Martin was threatening Zimmerman’s personal space, Zimmerman legally had the right to kill him; if not, he’s guilty of murder. The episode’s plot presents the possibility of how the stand-your-ground law, designed, with good intentions, for protection, can easily be manipulated in such a way as to be used against those it was designed to protect (whether or not you believe that Zimmerman specifically manipulated this law or not). Eric tricked Token into entering his personal space; he was the malicious attacker, but it’s his word against the victim’s (and often in such stand-your-ground scenarios, the victim might not survive to give his word), and Cartman claims that Token is the malicious attacker. And even worse, Cartman legitimately does believe that it’s Token who’s the malicious threat to humanity, when he’s the one causing all the destruction (see the above plane crashes).

If the episode persuasively presents the stand-your-ground law as a possible origin, or Patient Zero, for our current seemingly inescapable cycle of fear and violence, Eric’s emulation of World War Z’s hero gives us another possible Patient Zero. The AV Club review feared that “the [World War Z] reference is on the line of feeling dated already,” but if the Trayvon Martin shooting is a landmark cultural-historical event that many might look back on as the start of this cycle of shootings inflamed by race-based politics, then what was going on in pop culture at that time might be more than mere coincidence–might be, in fact, extremely relevant. If the cycle of needless destruction in the episode all starts with Cartman’s fears, the fears start with his hero-complex, which the episode shows to be a product of hollow character types promoted by Hollywood action movies. The movie, as parodied in the episode, presents the Brad Pitt-Cartman character as a loving family man, and for this we are to believe him a “good” man. But it’s his attempts to save the world, in the South Park version at least, that cause far more destruction than the thing he’s saving it from, which turns out to be nothing. In World War Z the threat is “real,” but is the hero? Trey Parker and Matt Stone point out in their creator commentary on the episode that this loving family man is only willing to pitch in and help out with the rest of humanity when his family is directly threatened; the man the movie wants us to think “good” is, viewed from a more objective standpoint outside the film, selfish, unwilling to help others in need unless he has a personal reason to. Through Cartman’s emulation of the the hero of World War Z being the real Patient Zero, the episode presents the possibility that the emulation of heroes with what turn out to be questionable value systems that we see so often in the movies could be playing its own part in the cycle of fear and violence we’re experiencing. The desire to be a hero can be as dangerous as whatever force the hero is trying to save us from. As New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb puts it, “The Dallas shooting revealed the bankruptcy of the good-guy-with-a-gun theory.” We can’t have the hero save us, after all, without something terrible to combat. Gotham often seems more dangerous with Batman in it.

Parker and Stone’s predictions of the destruction that fear-based hero worship can cause, as played out in the episode’s plane crashes, Patient Zero references, and Cartman’s Brad-Pitt copying, aren’t overexaggerated predictions anymore. As another New Yorker writer, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, recently put it in an article exploring the topic,

Within the ongoing story about race and killings by police there has been, from the beginning, a second story, about fear. For the shooters themselves, fear has been essential to their legal defense; it has also been, in a more basic way, their explanation.

-SCR

Backstories and Braids in OITNB Season 4

Jenji Kohan’s Netflix original series Orange is the New Black has specialized in weaving in the backstories of its characters (incarcerated and free alike) with the present storylines at Litchfield Penitentiary. One of the fourth season’s main narrative pressure points is the infusion of new inmates and guards, so that some episodes this season (for the first time, I believe) do not have time to fit in any backstory at all. The ones that were included this season—1: none; 2: Maria’s, 3: Brook Soso’s, 4: Healy’s, 5: Maritza’s, 6: none (side story with Nicky at max), 7: Lolly’s, 8: none, 9: Blanca’s, 10: none, 11: Suzanne’s, 12: Baxter Bayley’s, 13: Poussey’s—are much more thematically relevant to that character’s present storyline in the episode than previous seasons’, which seemed more interested in revealing how exactly the character had ended up in prison (though usually the way they did was relevant to what they were doing in the present episode, presenting actions that often echoed). The backstories in season 4 also thematically resonate for the character’s arc throughout the whole season, not just that episode, and do as good a job as they ever did of presenting a compact and satisfying narrative arc worthy of a literary short story. Major plot threads this season involve the gruff new CO Piscatella and the dark antics of his former military guards and Caputo’s corporatized coping with such, the hit man sent after Alex at the end of last season that Lolly helps her kill and bury in the garden, Maria and the Dominican crew challenging Piper in the dirty underwear business, and escalating racial tensions all around. While it’s certainly a worth debating whether the fourth season turned into trauma porn for white people, it’s hard to deny that the narrative threads culminate in a raucous climax that is both unexpected and inevitable.

In episode 1, “Work That Body For Me,” we pick up where the last season left off, with the old inmates being rounded up from the lake (thanks to that hole in the fence), new inmates posing a serious overcrowding issue, new fierce guards brought in with military pasts (for the corporate tax cuts), and the arrival of celebrity inmate Judy King (a cross between Martha Stewart and Paula Deen). Suzanne’s new romance with Kakudio goes south when Kakudio turns out to be as crazy as Crazy Eyes used to be (and will be again). We meet the new big bad boy CO Piscatella. Lolly, whom Alex suspected of being the hit man her old boss had sent after her in season 3, saves her from being strangled by the real hit man, but doesn’t quite succeed in killing him, and Alex has to finish the job herself later. With Frieda’s help, they cut him up and bury him in the garden.

The first backstory we get is Maria’s, in episode 2, “Power Suit.” She is of Dominican descent, and her first backstory scene is of her father is leading a Dominican gang with fierce homeland pride when she’s a young girl. In future scenes she becomes disillusioned as she ages with her father, who hits on her friend and disapproves of her non-Dominican boyfriend (whom she met when she saw him toss drugs running down an alley and she returned the drugs to him, and who, in season 3, quit bringing their baby girl to visit, inciting Maria’s rising anger issues). Maria points out to her father that what he does is no different from any other gang, and that she does not care about being Dominican, prompting him to kick her out of the house. In the present, Maria is at first reticent to wield the Dominicans’ new power in numbers, but when her friend is shoved down the stairs by a couple of white girls, she bides her time and plans her violent revenge against them carefully.

Elsewhere, Piper, keen on cultivating the image of hardass she thinks is attendant with having sent her former paramour to max, tries and fails to bully her new bunkmate Hapakuka and ends up hiring her as muscle. The Jewish black Cindy clashes over property rights with her new Muslim bunkmate, Alison. Yoga Jones is chosen as Judy King’s roommate. Sophia’s wife Crystal starts pestering Caputo about where Sophia is. At an MCC meeting, he suggests incentives to hire vets as guards, inspiring the admiration of fellow MCC-er Linda, inspiring him to spring for an $1100 suit.

In episode 3, “(Don’t) Say Anything,” we get (more of) Brook Soso’s backstory; she’s working as an activist trying to get people to sign petitions to open a park instead of a Walmart, and a romance with one of her fellow activists has gone bad. She makes a bet with him she can get the notorious sex offender in the neighborhood to sign. She talks the offender, clearly reticent, into letting her into his house, at which point he reveals that his sex offense was getting caught having sex with his legally aged girlfriend on a public beach. At first he doesn’t want to sign because a new park would require his eviction since he wouldn’t legally be allowed near it, but he agrees to sign anyway, knowing they’ll never beat Walmart. When Brook relays how she got the signature to her ex, the guy guesses the true story of the guy’s nonthreatening nature, prompting Brooke to embellish and lie that the guy tried to make a move on her. In the present, she tries to do her new girlfriend Poussey a favor by getting her an audience with her idol Judy King, whom she tells that Poussey was raised by a crack whore, causing Poussey to realize Brook doesn’t know her at all and has depended in her assessment entirely on stereotypes. But Brook convinces Poussey to give her another chance by going John Cusack on her.

oitnb brook

Elsewhere, Morello becomes paranoid her new husband is cheating on her, prompting her to elaborately pantomime sex with him in the visiting room. Caputo hires Taystee as his assistant. Red blisters at Judy King’s special treatment and garden access. Caputo has a dinner date with MCC Linda, where he sees one of the former guards waiting tables; Linda convinces him to abandon his empathy. Lolly keeps freaking out about the guy she and Alex killed, and Frieda declares that they’ll have to kill her.

In episode 4, “Doctor Psycho,” we get Healy’s backstory, first seeing him as a young boy with his dad watching his mom get out of a hospital, looking, to Healy, noticeably different. His dad explains that hopefully she won’t hear things anymore. One night she makes Healy a midnight snack and suggests that she might stop her new therapy because she doesn’t like how it makes her feel. When she asks him if he wants her to be able to hear the angels again, he tells her no, he doesn’t like her that way, and not a minute later, she flees from the house. We then see Healy as a young social worker; just after he’s jilted by a client he’s questionably taken on a date, he sees a homeless-looking woman on a stoop he recognizes as his mother. He takes her to a diner and tells her all about his life before finding a hospital bracelet on the woman’s wrist with a different woman’s name. He pathetically tries to get the woman to stay with him anyway, but she flees. In the present, Lolly is having a psychotic break under the paranoia propagated by the guy she helped Alex chop up and bury, and Healy, recognizing his mother’s illness in her, tries to help. He seems to succeed in convincing Lolly that the murder never actually happened, mitigating the threat that Lolly will say too much about it and get Alex et al caught, so she doesn’t have to be killed.

Elsewhere, we get our first glimpse of Sophia in the SHU, who tries to get out first by flooding her toilet and then by starting a fire. Maria goes head-to-head with Piper in the undies business after Piper refused to accept her new inmate-friends as employees. Judy King runs a cooking class at Healy’s insistence until she requests he’s removed as her counselor. Doggett (aka Pennsatucky) asks Coates, the guard who raped her last season, if he’s raping Maritza, the new van driver, and he says he told her he loved her when they did it, and “that makes it different,” which she disputes.

In episode 5, “We’ll Always Have Baltimore,” the backstory of Maritza Ramos, the usually ditzy BFF of Flaca, reveals her to be much more clever than she’s let on, detailing her development as a con girl and car thief. When she tries a scam where she breaks a vodka bottle filled with water at the expensive club where she works and gets a party of guys to pay for it, one of the guys recruits her for a bigger scam stealing cars from expensive dealerships by pretending to be a salesgirl and getting a guy to give her his license to turn in to take a car for a test drive. But when a real sales guy hops in the car at the last second, Maritza has to improvise, faking sickness when she’s almost discovered and getting both the mark and the sales guy out of the car so she can hop back in and steal it. In the present, Maritza has the idea to use her van duty job as the vehicle to smuggle Maria’s crew’s dirty panties to the outside world. When she’s almost caught, she cleverly improvises, convincing the guards that the pickup guy they’ve spotted is the gardener.

Elsewhere, Caputo and Linda visit an absurd prison-industry convention (“CorrectiCon”), where the former director of Human Activity (and an MCC exec’s son) Danny Pearson protests; Caputo gets temporarily arrested with him when he tries to intervene, and Danny warns him about Linda, who has deemed tampons “inessential” to purchase for the inmates, and whom Caputo then promptly gets some from in a storage closet. Crazy Eyes and Morello look for the shower pooper. Taystee gets access to Caputo’s internet while he’s gone, giving her the idea to pursue a celebrity photo. As a move against Maria, Piper goes to Piscatella about starting an anti-gang task force, prompting him to start profiling the Latinas, and inducing Piper’s new white supremacist following.

In episode 6, “Piece of Sh*t,” we get no backstory, but more of a side story of what’s been going on with a character we’ve all missed: Nicky Nichols. Lucscheck is getting hate mail from Nicky in max, and after talking to his new friend Judy King about his guilt, visits her to clear his conscience. His apology is rejected by Nicky, who’s been struggling to stay sober in an environment where drugs are easy to get, and after Luschek’s visit reminding her how alone she is, and after seeing Sophia’s evacuated blood-stained cell on her janitorial duties in the SHU, she relapses, not knowing that Judy King has had strings pulled to get her sent back up the hill so Luschek doesn’t confess the drugs that got Nicky sent away were his and get fired, leaving Judy King friendless. In return for the favor, King extorts Luschek into pleasuring her—exactly what Nicky has to do to get drugs from her female guard (in the final scene). Luscheck is also having the inmates install illegal cable in a guard’s bungalow, and when one cuts her hand badly in the process, he tells her to wait until he’s done with his video game before he takes her to medical, prompting her to call him a “piece of shit” as well as inducing a surprising dressing down from Coates, the rapist who’s apparently reforming.

Elsewhere, Caputo gets his idea to have the guards teach classes, black Cindy and Alison move forward with the plan to get a pic of Judy King, and Piper’s white-power friends reveal to the guards that some of the Dominicans are sneaking panties out of the shop. Maria is called into Piscatella as the ringleader of the operation and told she’s getting 3-to-5 years added to her sentence, causing her to violently threaten Piper. She’s also decided their gang will go from undies to drugs.

In episode 7, “It Sounded Nicer in My Head,” we get Lolly’s backstory as a nice complement to Healy’s. Working as a journalist, she thought she’d uncovered a plot that the government was poisoning water; eventually she’s let go from the paper and a former coworker tries to get a room in a home for her. But after Lolly talks to another resident who tells her the place is wired, she flees. She squats in a shack on some land, making coffee for neighborhood residents and shaking a stick full of bells to banish the voices in her head, but then the land is commandeered for condos and the neighborhood gentrifies, prompting a run-in with some cops one day (she’s still pushing her cart but one of the wheels breaks as the cops come up to her, and she can’t push it any farther). he voices in her head start up again at the sight of the cops; when she takes out her bell stick, the cops take it for a weapon and arrest her. In the present, she’s been scrounging garbage around Litchfield for what turns out to be a time machine; Healy tells her everyone would like to go back in time to some point but can’t.

Elsewhere, Cindy and the gang are trying to snap a celeb pic of Judy King, leading her to think they’re after her because of the scandal that’s broken about her old racist puppet show. Linda brings home Caputo’s education-program proposal full of “vocational” classes with a focus on hard labor. Nicky cops drugs from the meth-head Angie, the shower pooper (because she’s been swallowing contraband). During Nicky’s welcome-back party Piper is nabbed by the Dominicans, and branded with a swastika.

In episode 8, “Friends in Low Places,” we get no backstory. Piper, realizing she got what she deserved, struggles through the new construction 101 class the inmates now have (the ones who used to work at the panty shop Whispers, specifically), and while smoking crack with Alex and Nicky in the garden, shows them the swastika; Alex in turn confesses about killing her hit man. Piper is surprisingly more concerned about Alex’s pain than her own, and, Red rebrands her swastika into a window (in some of the best symbolism ever, since the dramatic consequence Piper suffered has actually caused her to reexamine herself and her surroundings). Elsewhere, Nicky tries and fails to get back with Morello. Lolly’s time machine prompts conversation that prompts Coates to apologize to Doggett for raping her. Judy King finds out the black inmates want a pic of her, not to jump her, and takes a pic of her kissing black Cindy they sell to the tabloids. After some close calls, Maritza wants to stop smuggling drugs in the van, but Maria won’t let her. Sophia’s wife visits Caputo at home, where Linda pulls a gun on her for trespassing (which Caputo finds sexy rather than appalling).

In episode 9, “Turn Table Turn,” the backstory is the unibrowed Dominican Blanca’s. She is a live-in caretaker to a horrible domineering old lady who yells at her for microwaving her coffee, dangles the promise of leaving her house to her, and calls her “Bianca.” When Blanca strikes up a romance with the old lady’s gardener, the old lady fires him. Blanca protests, initially with words, but when it’s clear that’s useless, she wakes the old lady up in the night by having sex with the gardener on a couch in the old lady’s bedroom. The next morning she serves the old lady breakfast almost as though nothing had happened—except Blanca microwaved her coffee. The old lady, clearly cowed, does not protest anything now, apparently realizing she is completely at Blanca’s mercy.

In the present, the guards have been frisking Latinas almost exclusively since Piper indicated to the administration that they might be a threat, and Blanca has gotten tired of it. She stops showering, happy when the guards won’t frisk her because she stinks. (Some inmates argue over whether it’s less dignified to stink or get groped.) One of the guards orders her to shower but she continues to make herself stink, rubbing oyster juice behind her ears. Humphrey, the guard who ordered her to shower, orders her to stand on a table until she submits to his will, which one of the other guards calls “only a little Abu-Ghraiby.” At the end of the episode, that guard tells Humphrey he might have made a mistake, as Blanca glares defiantly at him (as she did at the old lady while she was fucking the gardener in front of her).

Elsewhere, Boo threatens to retract her friendship if Doggett gives Coates the time of day. Nicky, after being caught drugged out several times, vows to Red to get clean. Sister Ingalls punches Luisa to get thrown in the SHU and check on Sophia. Maritza gives away the pickup guy so she doesn’t have to smuggle anymore, but then Humphrey makes her come in the guard shack with him and forces her at gunpoint to play for real the hypothetical game he overheard her playing with Flaca earlier—would you rather eat ten dead flies, or a live baby mouse?

In episode 10, “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull,” Aleida Diaz gets out of prison and Maria takes the opportunity to recruit Daya for her crew. Sister Ingalls tries to get a picture of Sophia in the SHU, but when she gets caught, Caputo takes one anyway and gives it to Danny. Nicky tries and fails to stay off drugs. Maritza complains to Flaca about eating the mouse but doesn’t want to tell anyone else. Piper joins Blanca on the table. Suzanne tries to revisit the broom closet with Kakudio, who blue balls her in revenge for Suzanne leaving her in the woods in the first episode. A screening of The Wiz causes more racial tension between the groups. The construction project needs to reroute through the garden, and the backhoe digs up a hand.

In episode 11, “People Persons,” we get Suzanne’s backstory, the one that most directly addresses how she came to be in prison (and is the most brutal). Working as a greeter at a Walmart-like chain, Suzanne enthusiastically visits with a family, and when it seems like her boss might reprimand her for being a little too enthusiastic, he instead awards her Employee of the Month. She then goes home to the news that her roommate/adopted sister and boyfriend are leaving her alone for the weekend; when Suzanne balks at the idea of making her own friends, the boyfriend reminds her that the award she just won proves she’s a people person. So on her own, Suzanne goes to the park, where she runs into a little boy whose family she greeted at the store. She invites him home to play video games, but when he wants to leave she insists he has to come back in the morning, as she’s envisioned the whole weekend together. She gets angry at the kid when he freaks on her when she won’t let him leave, saying her feelings are hurt and you don’t run from your friends. When the boy continues to run she gives chase, and the kid climbs out a window then winds up falling off her fire escape.

Elsewhere, the prison’s on lockdown after the discovery of the body. Judy King offers Luschek molly and has a threesome with him and Yoga Jones (to their apparent regret, but not hers). Red warns Piper and Alex not to crack under questioning, but then she’s the one who’s called in to Piscatella, who’s interrogating inmates against Caputo’s explicit orders, and though she doesn’t give up anything, the guard’s keys are discovered in her things. Pennsatucky helps Nicky through detox. Two of the guards (Humphrey of the baby mouse and Stratman) try to instigate a fight among the inmates waiting to be interrogated, and Kakudio volunteers to take on Suzanne, verbally baiting her until Suzanne goes nuts and beats the living shit out of her. Healy flees at the news of the body’s discovery but eventually returns (after calling his ex mail-order bride and leaving a message that he thinks he’s not very good at his job) and turns her in (just in time to prevent Alex from turning herself in), escorting her to the psych ward.

In episode 12, “The Animals,” we get the backstory of boy-guard Baxter Bayley–first him getting caught at a water tower with some friends and messed with by the cops for the brief period he’s in jail, then getting fired from an ice-cream stand for giving away free cones, then egging some Litchfield inmates in a drive-by; when Frieda yells at him that she’s a human being, he stops laughing. In the present, Bayley’s the one who tells Caputo what the guards did to Suzanne and Kakudio. When Caputo tries to suspend Humphrey, Piscatella says if he tries to reprimand his men they’ll all walk, leaving Caputo in the same position he was last season. (Caputo was impressed with Piscatella’s power plays in the first episode, when they involved keeping inmates away from him; not so much anymore.) Caputo tells Bayley he’s not cut out for the job and should get out while he can.

Elsewhere: Healy checks himself into a psych ward. Sophia gets out of the SHU finally and Gloria helps her with her wig. The race groups are banding together now to call for Piscatella’s removal. Soso and Poussey have a tiff over whether inmate efforts will make any difference. When Piscatella, who hasn’t been letting Red sleep, shoves her to the ground in the cafeteria, everyone stands on the tables in a peaceful protest (during which Poussey mouths to Soso that she’s sorry and Soso appears to accept).

oitnb tableThings quickly turn violent when Piscatella calls his guards in to get them down. Suzanne goes crazy, and Piscatella yells at Bayley to restrain her. Poussey tries to help, but Bayley puts her in a full nelson with a knee on her back, holding her there, distracted while Suzanne continues to attack him. Everything is in chaos, and when Coates finally drags Bayley off Poussey, she’s suffocated.

In the final episode, “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again,” Poussey is resurrected in her backstory, in which she visits NYC with a couple of friends to see The Roots play (it turns out to be a bad cover band). When her phone is stolen and she gives chase, she winds up lost on the streets asking for a phone; some drag queens invite her into a club where she has a great time. On her way back to her friends she’s stopped by a bicycling pack of apparent monks who offer to give her a lift to her destination; while smoking with one she learns they’re not monks but an improv troupe, and she marvels at the wonders of NYC and her night, which seems more thematically than directly relevant to the episode–these memories seem to constitute Poussey’s personal heaven. In the present, her body is still lying on the Litchfield cafeteria floor while the guards and MCC try to get their story straight. After concluding it will be impossible to make Poussey a villain, they decide Bayley will be their villain and scapegoat, despite Caputo’s protests that he’ll go to jail. During the televised press conference, Caputo goes off script saying he condones Bayley’s actions. Taystee, hiding by her desk, is enraged when she overhears this, and storms off down the hall yelling that there’s no justice. Everyone pours into the halls following her. They run into Humphrey (the psychotic mouse guard) and McCullough (the female guard) releasing Judy King, who’s just refused Yoga Jones’ requests to tell people on the outside what happened to Poussey. Humphrey reaches for the gun he talked another guard into letting him bring in that morning, but is shoved by another inmate, and the gun slides across the floor. Daya picks it up. Maria asks her if she wants to give it to somebody else, but Daya confidently commands Humphrey to the ground, while all the camera pans around all the surrounding inmates, roaring for her to shoot him.

Elsewhere, Suzanne pulls a bookcase down on herself to try to feel what Poussey did, and Brook, though drunk on Poussey’s hooch, manages to save her (an inverse of the scene in the library last season when Poussey had to save Brook from overdosing). Angie and Leanne find the hooch, get drunk, and destroy Lolly’s time machine, the thematically relevant prop that’s been used throughout the season that’s made the backstories, their own versions of time machines, even more salient.

Backstories from previous seasons did not always show why a character specifically got arrested; one that didn’t was notably Poussey’s, in which she pulls a gun on her girlfriend’s father and her own father defuses the situation before any arrestable offenses are committed. On first seeing season 4’s version of Poussey’s backstory of her whimsical NYC night, I didn’t think it was showing what she got arrested for either, and I was somewhat surprised that the writers would rely so heavily in the finale on a thread that was purely thematic and didn’t tie in directly (i.e., narratively) to the plot. But on closer inspection there are clues that this thread does indeed have narrative significance–is, in fact, the explanation of exactly why Poussey is where she is now–in prison, and now, because of that, dead.

When MCC is trying and failing to make Poussey look like a villain, they mention she was arrested for nonviolent crimes–picked up in Brooklyn for trespassing and marijuana. This seems to be a reference to the scene we saw in her backstory–she climbed a fence with the fake monks, so might well have been trespassing, and was smoking weed with them; she also mentions early on that she’s in possession of a stash she’s trying to get rid of. If Poussey is about to get arrested just after she breaks the fourth wall, smiling at the camera at the the end of season 4’s finale, all of the seemingly random things that happened to her throughout that backstory thread–chasing the guy who jacked her phone, going into the club with the drag queens, accepting the ride from the monks–or rather, all the choices she made in response to the little random things that happened to her, led directly to her death. The camera in this backstory thread was focused on a very particular chain of events.

The New Yorker‘s TV critic Emily Nussbaum does an excellent analysis of the show and season 4’s treatment of empathy, and in particular of how Poussey’s death is narratively earned:

She died when the show became clearer about something that had always been buried within it: the irresolvable tension between that utopian subway car and the tilted, biased world surrounding it.

Nussbaum also points out how Bayley’s backstory thread (the very first scene of it in fact) shows him doing the very same things that Poussey seems to have been arrested for–trespassing and marijuana.

-SCR

Narrative Synchronicity in Ben Fountain and Bob’s Burgers

What could animated sit-com episodes and literary short stories possibly have in common? They’re both narratives. More specifically, what does the cartoon sit-com Bob’s Burgers episode “Hormone-iums” (2016) have in common with Ben Fountain’s short story “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” (2002)? Both deploy a particular model of plot arc—a character put in the position of a dream backfiring, forcing him/her to choose between two competing desires.

hormoniums

“Horomone-iums,” written by Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux, opens with the adolescent Tina Belcher leading a vivacious musical number (complete with sparkly tuxedos) about pimples, the “new friends on your face.” This is quickly revealed to be just a dream, however, the source of which is Tina’s desire to be a soloist in her eponymous musical group. Tina’s other desire? To play Spin the Bottle at a much anticipated upcoming party. Her long-standing obsession with kissing, established in previous episodes as a defining character trait, is given a specific outlet in this episode when her friend is going to take advantage of a 45-minute interval of parental absence to play the kissing game that Tina has analyzed in depth:

“…the bottle’s rotation is pretty predictable if you can figure out the drag so you just…”

When the Hormone-iums’ soloist comes down with mono, Tina is promoted by default, just in time for the show that’s been facilitated directly by the original soloist’s absence: Tina will play Mona Nucleosis in a musical warning about the dangers of mono. Initially, Tina is thrilled to have the lead, her dream come true. But when the school halls start sprouting advertising banners with Tina’s picture on them sporting prominent warnings not to kiss her, Tina, much to her chagrin, starts to understand the consequences she’s gotten herself into as she becomes “the cover girl of No Kissing magazine” and is uninvited from the Spin-the-Bottle party.

tina warning

As rehearsals continue of dramatic scenes of kissing causing Mona’s death, Tina becomes ever more reticent, prompting Mr. Frond, the Hormone-iums’ headstrong director (for whom the show is an unprecedented opportunity), to promise Tina a permanent soloist position if she goes through with the performance. The night before curtain, Tina has a heart-to-heart with her father about her difficult choice, and Bob tells her, “You’re in charge of your own mouth.” During the show Tina improvises a new ending, rejecting the soloist offer to tell the truth about kissing’s harmlessness.

The episode includes a subplot in which Tina’s mother Linda has stumbled upon what she believes to be an ingenious idea, a “wine shoe” (a plus-sized woman’s high heel that becomes a handy bottle sleeve). This thread initially seems utterly disconnected from Tina’s, but intersects when Linda starts to refer to selling the shoe as her dream. Encountering immediate obstacles on the path to mass distribution, Linda opines, “Oh, well, what’s the use of having dreams if they can’t be crushed?” The intersection becomes more overt when Linda, again complaining of dashed dreams, prompts a tortured response from Tina that is itself a succinct description of the episode’s plot model:

Linda: I really thought I’d get my dream.

Tina: Dreams are dumb! They ruin your life!

In “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” our protagonist, Blair, is an impoverished ornithology graduate student who goes to Colombia to study birds and is abducted by a rebel cartel. His camera equipment arouses suspicions that he is a spy, but even once it becomes apparent he’s far from it, the rebels keep him on their compound with the distant and unrealistic hope that he might elicit a ransom. Eventually Blair’s nonthreatening nature becomes apparent enough, amidst his intermittent discussion with his captors on the principles of revolution, that they let him roam, albeit with a guard, to study the birds in the area; he discovers the Andean cordillera around the compound contains the eponymous species previously thought extinct, a “remnant colony of Crimson-capped parrots.”

parrot

Blair’s meticulous observations and documentation of his discovery keeps him sane during his lengthening captivity—though he knows his work is essentially useless without the camera they still won’t let him use—and he even bonds with Hernan, his young guard, whose dramatic tales of life as a revolutionary become mixed with Blair’s notes:

He wrote it all because it all seemed bound together in some screamingly obvious way that he couldn’t quite get.

But he’ll get it by the end. Hernan informs him of rumors of his potential release:

“Maybe I’ll stay,” Blair said, testing the idea on himself. “There isn’t an ornithologist in the world who’s doing the work I’m doing here.”

“No, Joan, I think you should go. You can come back after we’ve won the war.”

“What, when I’m eighty?” Blair chewed a blade of grass and reflected for a moment. “I still don’t have my photo. I’m not going anywhere until I get that.”

Miraculously, some Americans show up, but not for Blair, it turns out. The chairman of the New York Stock Exchange has come to test the prospects for foreign investment. The chairman’s aid is apologetic that, due to laws about interfering with kidnapping negotiations, they can’t help Blair, who is understandably crushed when he figures out that they’re not there to rescue him (“Much as we’d like to help, our hands are tied.”). Not long thereafter, the aid somewhat insensitively enlists Blair as a translator for a conversation in which Blair inadvertently learns the more specific prospect the foreigners have come for—to log the area around the compound. Aghast, Blair immediately points out that this will wipe out the endangered parrots, and refutes his captor Alberto’s hypocritical claims that they have to do this for the sake of funding the revolution.

 “We have to save the country, Joan Blair.”

“You think there’ll be something to save when they’re done with it?”

When the environmental issue seems to make the Americans reticent (seemingly more for the sake of their image and the red tape it could lead to than for the environment itself), Alberto insists the Americans take Blair when they leave as part of closing the deal. Blair insists he will stay, but is shuffled to the helicopter anyway, where Hernan slips a film capsule in his hand that presumably contains the only pictures of the Crimson-capped Parrot that will ever exist. When the NYSE chairman asks what freedom feels like, Blair thinks it feels like dying.

The two narratives both clearly set up two distinct desires for the protagonist that the narrative eventually reveals to be at odds; Tina’s desire to be soloist turns out to conflict with her desire to engage in kissing, while it turns out that the only way Blair can secure his desperately sought freedom is by condemning the rare birds he loves to death.

Like Tina’s, the thing that Blair is most attached to predates the start of the narrative (an element, then, of chronic tension):

Blair was twelve the first time it happened, on a trip to the zoo—he came on the aviary’s teeming mosh pit of cockatoos and macaws and Purple-naped Lories, and it was as if an electric arc had shot through him. And he’d felt it every time since, this jolt, the precision stab in the heart whenever he saw Psittacidae—he kept expecting it to stop but it never did, the impossibly vivid colors like some primal force that stoked the warm liquid center of your soul.

The narratives introduce the acute tension of a competing desire, with the climax of both being the choice between these desires. In both narratives this climactic choice is a triumph of integrity: Blair chooses the birds over his freedom; Tina chooses not to spread misinformation to her peers for the sake of her own small stardom. But Tina’s and Blair’s narratives diverge in a manner that marks the difference between literary and mass appeal when Tina’s choice actually has concrete consequences. She’s able to change the musical and its message, but Blair gets no such agency. He makes his choice when he declares that he will stay rather than have the land logged, but this is not an exchange he’s been offered. His priorities have been clarified, as have Tina’s, but his choice has no concrete consequence in terms of actually saving the birds. Fountain’s narrative goes a step further than Bob’s’ in terms of complexity in that once the character makes the choice, he actually gets the opposite. The moment you understand how important something is to you is the moment it’s taken away. On TV we get a happy ending, in literature tragic. No wonder so many of us eschew the latter for the former. One is an escape from real life while the other engages with its difficulties.

-SCR

Cover image from here.

R.I.P., Tony Soprano

The Sopranos final episode, “Made in America” (originally aired June 10, 2007) is a marvel of literary engineering both independently and for the way it resolves the entire series. To do the latter, the episode must resolve the underpinning engine of its plot—Tony Soprano’s ongoing efforts to reconcile his family life and his Family life. While the meaning of the controversial sudden cut-to-black conclusion has been much debated, a convincing analysis of the cinematographic cues (which most of this post is an abbreviated version of) shows that the blackout is Tony Soprano’s (inevitable) death. He is ultimately incapable of resolving family and Family life, and that failure is embodied by his being violently assassinated in front of his family. Part of the genius of the episode is the unexpected representation of that violent assassination.

The series’ theme/plot engine is established in its pilot, when Tony makes his first visit to his psychotherapist Dr. Melfi and they identify that the source of his ongoing dread is his fear of losing his family. One of the things the writers are most adept at is use of the objective correlative, which it turns out therapy is preoccupied with, as it too is a field that understands the tricks of the psyche—specifically how our abstract emotions attach themselves to concrete objects. The objective correlative for Tony’s fear of losing his family is the flock of ducks that’s been nesting in his pool but then flies away, causing him to have a panic attack.

Over the course of the series Tony repeatedly makes decisions that prioritize his quest for power and money over his family, implicitly imposing questionable values on them in the process. Brett Martin, in his book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of A Creative Revoluion, explains why television is the perfect medium for an ongoing cycle of progress and regression:

After all, the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end. One way to address that basic economic mandate is to create a world in which there is no forward progress or story arc at all, just a series of discrete, repetitive episodes—in other words, the procedural. But if you’re interested in telling an ongoing story while remaining true to your own sense of the world, it helps for that worldview to be of an endless series of variations in which people repeatedly play out the same patterns of behavior, exhibiting only the most incremental signs of real change or progress.

This is a pattern that could still easily be replicated in a novel. There are 86 episodes of the show; it could be an 86-chapter novel.

Tony Soprano is the model for the male antihero that emerged to carry what Martin calls television’s “Third Golden Age” on his shoulders. The show’s creator David Chase describes how the show captures the post-9/11 emotional tenor of the country, an extreme event causing us to think we’d start doing everything differently, an intensity of feeling that faded with time, much like Tony Soprano’s arc in the final season, during which he’s shot and, in a coma, experiences something of a parallel universe. In this parallel universe he’s not Tony, but a law-abiding businessman who winds up with another man’s briefcase. He is berated by some Buddhist monks for not taking responsibility for his actions, and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which he considers to be a death sentence, though his doctor insists that these days it doesn’t have to be. This is his symbolic warning: he can change, or die. In his coma universe, a beacon continually flashes in the distance; upon discovering that the man who took his briefcase is supposed to be at the house that is the source of the beacon, he eventually makes his way to it. He’s greeted by the cousin he murdered, though in this universe he does not know him to be such. The man tells him to go into the house where everyone is waiting for him, but he cannot take his briefcase with him. Tony resists, saying his whole life was in his real briefcase. He is not ready to die, and his daughter Meadow’s voice at that moment calls him back from his coma.

Upon emerging from the coma, Tony does at first seem to change. He resists an opportunity to cheat on Carmela, lets his nephew Christopher pursue his non-mafia filmmaking dream, and declares that every day is a gift. After some time passes, however, Tony reconsiders:  “Every day is a gift. It’s just . . . does it have to be a pair of socks?” The old Tony reasserts himself, stronger than ever. The culmination of his sink into his old self occurs when he opportunistically, and guiltlessly, murders Christopher after they get in a car wreck together; he’d been grooming Christopher to be his number two but regretting the decision based on Christopher’s behavior and issues with substance abuse. (As he suffocates Christopher, a pair of headlights flash by in a manner very similar to the coma dream’s beacon.) Tony then goes to Vegas to wrap up some of Christopher’s business, which includes sleeping with Chris’s old goomar and taking peyote in a trip that’s an inversion of his coma experience, the ultimate confirmation that he will not change. (Though he does not share this particular episode with Dr. Melfi, she, too, is able to sense that he will never change, that he’s done nothing with the insights about his actions and motivations that they’ve come to together, and drops him as a patient in the second-to-last episode.) Which means it’s time for the character’s tragic flaw—his prioritizing Family over family, all the while convincing himself his prioritizing the Family is in fact for the sake of the family—to undo him.

As the final episode begins, Tony is in the midst of a war with the New York family that’s just killed his number two and three guys, but, once again, he himself escapes and an ostensible peace is brokered. It seems Tony will continue with business as usual. In the last scene, he meets his family for dinner at an all-American diner; he gets there first and takes a booth in the center of the restaurant—signifying that he seems to be at ease. He watches the front door attentively, but this is because he’s expecting his family; he’s clearly not watching his back. He watches Carmella come in, and then his son AJ (notably partially blocked from Tony’s sight by the guy who enters right in front of him), and in the meantime we see shots of his daughter Meadow outside making multiple attempts to parallel park her Lexus. Tony mentions to Carmella that a guy who’s flipped to the feds that same episode will likely testify against him in court (notably, the guy has flipped for the sake of his son, who’s been arrested on drug-dealing charges). Then the guy who walked in with AJ, who’s been eyeing Tony although Tony has not appeared to notice, gets up and goes to the bathroom. As Meadow finally enters the restaurant, Tony looks up, and then the shot cuts to black, holds there for several seconds, and the series is over.

There’s the cinematic evidence Tony has died here, and then there’s the thematic evidence. The cinematic evidence is the way David Chase sets the viewer up subliminally to understand when they’re occupying Tony’s point of view directly. This is established in standard POV shots: a shot of Tony, a shot of what Tony is looking at, a shot of Tony again for his reaction to what he saw. This pattern is established when Tony looks up at the door every time someone enters (signaled by a ringing bell). The same pattern of Tony/what-Tony-sees/Tony’s-reaction shots recurs as he sees two strangers enter the diner, then Carmella, then AJ with the suspicious guy. As Meadow is about to enter the diner, we expect the pattern to repeat. We get the shot of Tony, and, as per the pattern, we implicitly expect the next shot to be of his seeing Meadow, entering the diner, but instead it’s blackness. The blackness, then, is what Tony is seeing. He sees nothing because at that moment he was shot in the head. He never heard it coming, and neither did we, as per Bobby Bacala’s heavily emphasized line that in a mobster’s line of work, you never hear death coming.

One of the reasons some viewers seem to resist the idea that this sudden final blackout is Tony’s death is that there’s been no clear ongoing plot for a hit to be out on Tony; he’s just brokered a peace deal in the war he’s been involved in, after all. But there have been seeds planted throughout the whole season, if not series, that point not directly to who might want to kill him, but indirectly to Tony’s obliviousness to the destruction and pain he’s caused others.

The most powerful symbol of this obliviousness callousness coming back to bite him in the ass in the end is the “Members Only” jacket worn by the potential hit man, the guy who walks in with AJ and then goes to the bathroom—whom the careful camera shot clearly shows would have a clear shot at Tony once he emerges. “Members Only” is the title of the season’s first episode, in which a character we’ve never met before but who’s apparently a member of Tony’s crew asks if he can retire to Florida, since he’s received a sizable inheritance. Tony says he’ll think about it, then sends the guy on an errand to murder someone, which the guy does, shooting someone in the head in a diner while wearing a Members Only jacket (same jacket as the guy in the last episode’s last scene). Tony then, characteristically, refuses to let the guy go. In response, the guy hangs himself, and we never hear anything about him again. The reason we don’t ever hear anything is that Tony doesn’t think about him again; he’s completely oblivious to the pain he’s caused. The guy in the Members Only jacket in the final scene is this guy, and all of Tony’s past transgressions, symbolically reincarnated, come back to kill him.

I had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that Tony would be hit like that in front of his family. But, probably not ten minutes prior in the episode, his rival mob boss who’d been trying to kill him, Phil Leotardo, was similarly capped, shot in the head in front of his wife and two grandchildren. If the hit on Tony in front of his family is not direct retribution for the way Phil died (which it well could be), then it’s certainly karmic retribution. His being shot in front of his family is also the ultimate way to resolve the show’s family v. Family dichotomy, not only for him, but for those family members. Carmella in particular has been implicated for enjoying the material comforts her husband’s career provides while turning a blind eye to how he’s procured them; now, she’ll pay the ultimate price—witnessing Tony’s death actually seems higher than Tony’s price of death itself, as he doesn’t have to deal with the fallout of his family having witnessed something so gruesome. He’s lost his family, the very thing he’s feared from the first episode, but not in the expected way of their dying or disappearing—he loses them via his own death.

As quoted by Martin, one of the most appealing factors of the show is summed up by Craig Wright, a playwright who wrote for Six Feet Under:

“A show like The Sopranos has a soothing quality because ultimately there’s an unspoken assumption behind it that even the most monstrous people are haunted by the same concerns we’re haunted by…. But the funny part is that masked by, or nested within, that critique is a kind of helpless eroticization of the power of the Right. They’re still in love with Big Daddy, even though they hate him.”

The Sopranos and the legacy it passed to its progeny was the antihero: getting the audience to sympathize with people doing objectively despicable things—itself evidence that the way television achieved its Third Golden Age was to emulate the novel. The problem, as David Chase seems to think, is that while the viewer rooted for Tony Soprano to do bad things, they also, at the end of the day/show, wanted to see him pay for it:

“There was so much more to say than could have been conveyed by an image of Tony face down in a bowl of onion rings with a bullet in his head. Or, on the other side, taking over the New York mob. The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been people’s alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted “justice.” They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly. But these people have always wanted blood. Maybe they would have been happy if Tony had killed twelve other people. Or twenty-five people. Or, who knows, if he had blown up Penn Station. The pathetic thing- to me- was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years.”

So he did the entirely appropriate and entirely unexpected thing, and put us directly in Tony’s head at the moment of his death—we have to suffer the same fate he does. As much as the show’s pacing and use of objects owes to the novel, it’s hard to imagine how a novel could pull something like this off. It’s an especially interesting coup considering this was the show that revolutionized TV by actually showing gruesome murders in the first place.