Stranger Things “’80s Posters”

What a neat idea. The official Stranger Things Twitter account is promoting #StrangerThursdays, which involves a rewatch of each episode of the first season on every Thursday, live tweets with commentary, and behind the scenes details. The best part is that they start each episode by revealing a new Stranger Things poster inspired by an ’80s film that influenced the show. I’ll update this post as the posters roll out each Thursday. Here are the two from August 3 and 10.

“Stand by Us” (August 3)

Modeled on Stand by Me.

“A Nightmare on Mirkwood” (August 10)

Derived from Nightmare on Elm Street.

The Handmaid’s Tale: An “Islamic” Republic of Gilead?

The New York Times has an interesting write-up on The Handmaid’s Tale. This TV series is adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel from the ’80s, about a dystopian America in which Christian fundies have taken over and turned the land into a repressive living hell. The funny thing is, this new America — called the Republic of Gilead — evokes Islamic customs more than Christian ones, even by the lights of hardcore fundamentalism. Atwood’s rule for herself when writing the novel was that everything for Gilead had to be based on a real-world antecedent. She draws on many influences, and I’ll go through some of the examples mentioned in the article, then cover additional ones which surprisingly the article ignores.

Color-Coordinated Clothing

In the Republic of Gilead men wear black, women wear colors, and the colors reflect the women’s caste: red for handmaids (fertile women who bear children for the elite), green for Marthas (the house servants of the elite), blue for wives (the spouses of elite Commanders), and brown for aunts (the high-ranking women responsible for indoctrinating the handmaids, overseeing births, and presiding over “mob justice” executions). As Atwood is quoted in the article, organizing people according to what they’re wearing dates back to the Code of Hammurabi. Often we think of the Third Reich’s yellow stars for Jews and pink triangles for gays. But aside from the color, the head-to-toe garb calls to mind the Islamic chador (which Atwood wore on a trip to Afghanistan in 1978), which is probably why the handmaid dress code struck me as Islamic more than anything else.

Some might compare the garb to the habit of a Catholic nun, but that’s a weaker analogy. Like priests, nuns take on a religious vocation and assume their dress code voluntarily. In Gilead, the handmaids are a class of women through no choice of their own, imposed on them by their fertility. They are like everyday Muslim women who are forced to wear the veil, chador, hijab, etc.

Mob Justice

Because the handmaids are so repressed, they need occasional release, which they get when they are allowed to torture and execute criminals. In the premiere episode they beat to death a rapist (read: a “low-life” rapist of elite wives, not a state-sanctioned rapist of handmaidens like themselves). The handmaidens basically stand in a circle and violently abuse the offender until he is dead. As Atwood says, the precedent goes back to the Dionysian revels of ancient Greece, in which the Maenads (female followers of the god Dionysus) tore apart sacrificial victims for their deity.

Mob justice obviously doesn’t need religion to drive it, and there are many examples throughout history that set the example. However, there is another scene of handmaid execution that comes in the season finale, and which requires the particular punishment of stoning. Stoning is not a Christian punishment but an Islamic one, and has been common in Islam throughout all its history. (See below, “Death by Stoning”.)

Declaring Women Barren

In the Republic of Gilead, it is blasphemy to suggest that a man could be sterile. The fertility problem is on women alone, and this idea derives from all three Abrahamic faiths. In the Judeo-Christian Bible and Qur’an, the male never comes under judgment for sterility. Barrenness falls on the woman’s shoulders and is a curse from God. That’s what people thought for centuries, and why Henry VIII kept changing wives, unable to credit that he might have been the problem, and not them.

Why Ofglen Does What She Does

When things look bad for Ofglen, she resorts to a final desperate act of resistance against the state of Gilead, taking out a few guards with a stolen vehicle — a stupid thing to do, but which Atwood compares to Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire. It’s a weak analogy, because Ofglen wasn’t religiously inspired. While Buddhism frowns on suicide for the most part, in some cases it can be seen as a deed of self-sacrifice, as when the 109 Tibetan Buddhists burned themselves as a sacrifice for the Tibetan people. These self-immolaters were acting similarly to the Buddha, who in one of his incarnations offered his body as food for a hungry tigress.

There is room for selfless suicide in Buddhism, just as there is an imperative for suicide bombing in Islam, and those religious differences matter since what nominally calls them forth is exactly the same: China has oppressed the Tibetans as horribly as Israel and western powers have done in the Muslim world — yet there are no Tibetan suicide bombers. Religions aren’t the same, despite what we’re often told. Buddhist suicide is purely self-sacrificial; Islamic suicide is also homicidal, and the more people killed, the greater the glory in paradise; Christian suicide is sinful in the extreme. What Ofglen does in The Handmaid’s Tale is simply a (non-religious) human response to a tyranny that cannot be defeated; a protest that will perhaps be remembered and inspire others down the line.

And what about these…?

Female Circumcision

The New York Times article fails to mention one of the most arresting scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale: Ofglen’s gentital mutilation in episode 3. There are misunderstandings about female genital mutilation (FGM) that need clearing. We are often told that FGM isn’t an Islamic problem but an African problem. While it’s true that some African countries do this, most female circumcision occurs either in Islamic countries or close to them. Moreover, Islam is the only religion that officially mandates it: “Circumcision is obligatory, for every male and female, by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr clitoris.” (Umdat al-Salik e4.3)  The problem goes well beyond Africa in any case. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization declared female genital mutilation a “human right”. Muslim clerics have defended it around the globe. It’s a huge problem in Britain, and a huge percentage of the Muslims in Britain are not from Africa. It’s common in Iraq and in the Maldives. 40 percent of Kurdish women have been victims of it. It is actually very accurate — if not politically correct — to say that FGM is an Islamic problem.

Even where Christian groups practice FGM (in Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya), it is not prescribed religiously. There is no Christian analogue to either the Muslim hadith in which Muhammad approves FGM “if the cutting is not too severe”, or to the Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveler), cited above, which is the authoritative source on Islamic law. Put simply, FGM has never been a Christian requirement. So this part of The Handmaid’s Tale evokes Islam — and mainstream Islam at that — more than fundamentalist Christianity.

The Ceremony

Even more curious is that the New York Times ignores the central plot device: the Ceremony, which we get a graphic view of in episode 4. The ritual is based on the account in Genesis 30:1-5 where Rachel is unable to have children and so she gives Jacob her handmaid Bilhah as a surrogate for him to have sex with. This story becomes the basis for the class of handmaids in Gilead, which are needed because of the declining birth rate among humanity caused by toxic environment. Fertile women are taken to become sex slaves of Gilead’s political elite, and their sole purpose to produce babies for the elite women, being shuffled from one home after another to bear children.

Now, the handmaid text of Genesis 30 has never in Christian history been interpreted as religiously prescriptive, but in The Handmaid’s Tale the Christian authorities of Gilead have run wild with it, making the basis for their Ceremony. It proceeds once a month, whereby the Commander stands in front of his bed while banging his handmaid as she lies in the lap of his wife. This is supposed to make the act an intimate affair for all three parties involved. I admit this is an ingenious idea for a dystopian setting, but in reality preposterous as a fundamentalist Christian belief that could ever become the rule of law. First of all, just because something happens in the bible doesn’t mean that it’s prescriptive. Most of the Israelite holy wars, for example, were understood to be acceptable for the Israelites alone, not later Jews and Christians — God, in other words, approved slaughtering the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Jesubites, but none after, and his commands never amounted to “marching orders” for believers. Unlike Allah in the Qur’an, Yahweh never commands his subjects to fight unbelievers as a general rule or to subjugate infidel nations. (He does command, prescriptively, that the promised land be kept pure and free from idolatry, which serves as the basis for modern Zionism.) Most warfare in the Bible is descriptive, while in the Qur’an it’s prescriptive.

Likewise, the text of Genesis 30:1-5 isn’t prescriptive, and it’s no wonder Jews and Christians have not felt compelled to do as Jacob and Rachel did. The closest thing to the handmaid ceremony in today’s world is garden-variety sex slavery and/or concubinage, which is prescribed in the Qur’an and Islamic law (Qur’an 4:3, 4:24, 33:50; 23:1-6; Umdat al-Salik O9.13). So when people say that the Ceremony of Gilead comes across as more Islamic than Judeo-Christian — even though it’s based on a text from the Bible rather than the Qur’an — they actually have a good point.

Death by Stoning

In the finale (episode 10) the handmaid Janine is found guilty of trying to harm the baby she gave birth to, and so is sentenced to death at the hands of her fellow handmaids (per “mob violence” above). In the Republic of Gilead, the punishment for trying to harm a child is death by stoning. Stoning has never been a Christian practice, though it derives from the Old Testament and was used in ancient Judaism. On the other hand, it has been a consistent Islamic practice throughout history, prescribed by the Qur’an and many hadiths.

Stoning continues to be the law in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates — especially for men and women caught in adultery, and for women who refuse to wear the veil. All versions of sharia law, in fact, require stoning for those who commit adultery, and for women don’t wear veils. There are Muslim countries that don’t implement these particular sharia punishments, but those countries are not operating according to a supposed “moderate” form of sharia; such does not exist. So this scene in the finale evokes Islam without question.

Conclusion: An “Islamic” Republic?

While it’s evident that Margaret Atwood drew on all sorts of antecedents, religious and secular, I was getting heavy Islamic vibes from the Republic of Gilead. I haven’t read the novel, and so I don’t know the source material, but I wonder if either Atwood and/or the series writers were trying to imply that religions carry an equal potential for harm — in this case that a nation under Christian fundamentalist rule can turn out just as bad as, say, a place like Saudi Arabia. Critics are also saying that The Handmaid’s Tale is a “timely warning about the Trump administration”. That too is nonsense. For all of the threats Trump presents — and he indeed presents many — he has not, and will not, come anywhere close to endorsing the notion of a government so crushing (like that of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations) that it is able to mandate repressive class divisions, state-sanctioned rape, and the obliteration of individual identity. I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale as a dystopian fantasy, but as a speculative outcome of Christian America at its worst, it’s impossible to take seriously.

The Best Scenes in Stranger Things (Prepare for Halloween)

Season 2 of Stranger Things is officially wrapped up and many of the cast have been promising it will be even better and darker than the first. This seems too good to be true, so I’m keeping my expectations modest, but one thing can be said: Halloween/my birthday can’t come soon enough. Here’s a list of what I consider the best scenes of the first season. (Click on the images for the youtube clips.) I have to say I’m still in awe of Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven. All the actors are top notch, and especially the kids, but Brown conveys more with her silences than most professional actors do by speaking. The writers scored big time by giving her a limited vocabulary, and I’m a bit worried how that aspect of her character might change in season 2.

Will’s corpse

1. Will’s corpse. Episode 3. When it’s dragged from the quarry no one has any reason to think it’s a fake body, and at this point even I wasn’t sure what was going on. For all I knew Will was dead and it was just his spirit contacting Joyce through the Christmas lights. Mike’s fury at Eleven (“What is wrong with you??”) is one of his best moments. The “Heroes” song playing over this scene is a genius piece of scoring, and the way it meshes with Joyce and Jonathan from the “Run” scene (see #10 below) adds up to what I consider the strongest and most emotional scene of the series: Mike sobs in his mother’s arms and Joyce sobs in her son’s, each helpless against the night that has brought pain and rage to them both.

“Good-bye, Mike”

2. “Good-bye, Mike.” Episode 8. No sooner does Mike declare his romantic intentions to El (see #20 below) than his plans are cruelly smashed. Using every last filament of her power, El begins to disintegrate the Demogorgon and shut the gate for good. Knowing this is enough to consume her too, she turns back and says good-bye to Mike, which of course destroys him. It is a hugely rewarding departure for the amazing character of El, obviously a tear-jerker, and you can easily make a case for it being the #1 scene, though I favor the episode 3 ending above.

Will’s rescue

3. Will’s rescue. Episode 8. The other side of the finale climax occurs in the Upside Down, where an Alien-hosted Will is barely alive. Even after many viewings I still find the resuscitation scene incredibly powerful, as Hopper replays the death of his daughter, and Joyce is about to lose her mind if her son doesn’t start breathing. It’s the moment the series has been building to, and even if it’s not clear how Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down (while Barbara and well-armed professionals from the Hawkins institute were instantly slain), his rescue pays off without feeling like a cheat.

D&D campaign

4. D&D campaign. Episode 1. The first scene of the premiere sums up my nerdy childhood and why D&D was so fun in the early ’80s. I fell in love with these kids right away: Mike the group leader (and of course the dungeon master), Lucas the skeptic, Dustin ruled by his appetites, and Will the sensitive kid whose character gets thrashed by the Demogorgon. As does Will himself, and it’s a brilliant way of introducing the Upside-Down creature, by anticipating it through the kids’ imagination of the demon-lord.

Wallpaper Will

5. Wallpaper Will. Episode 4. Everyone talks about the “Run” scene (see #10 below) but I consider this one better. It’s far more distressing and actually gave me a nightmare. Joyce rips down her wallpaper and sees Will in a flesh-encased portion of the wall, crying desperately for help. Through the whole series Winoda Ryder holds her role as the hysterical mom, but in this scene she is especially convincing. Imagine if you caught a glimpse of your child being terrorized in a hellish domain while being powerless to do anything about it. It’s one freaky scene.

Mike jumps

6. Mike jumps. Episode 6. Of course he’s saved mid-fall, but it pays off El as she deserves at this point in the story, as the boys finally accept her as one of them. The scene also contains the pivotal flashback in which El accidentally opens the gate to the Upside Down and unleashes the Demogorgon, which has fueled her guilt-trips and caused her to believe — as she says in tears to Mike — that she’s the real monster. Flipping the van (see #11) is arguably El’s grandest feat, but the cliff rescue of Mike is her most important and dramatic.

“She tried to get naked!”

7. “She tried to get naked!” Episode 2. Classic 12-year-old reactions to the intrusion of a girl. When El tries to disrobe, Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role (“That’s the bathroom — privacy, get it?”), while the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are hilarious (“She tried to get naked!”, indignantly mimics her taking off her shirt). After the D&D campaign (see #4), this is the best character moment of the series, and can be watched on replay. Poor El doesn’t even want the bathroom door closed, she’s so terrified of closed spaces, and Mike’s halfway measure is precious.

Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve against the Demogorgon

8. Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve against the Demogorgon. Episode 8. This scene could have failed in so many ways, and I was expecting it to. Steve turns up at just the wrong moment, and so of course he would be the convenient throw-away. The Demogorgon would kill this asshole, leaving Nancy and Jonathan to survive, and of course Jonathan would replace Steve as Nancy’s boyfriend. Instead we end up cheering Steve for the first time as he proceeds to unload a can of whup-ass on the Demogorgon, switching from villain to protagonist in a completely believable way. The showdown is a ballbuster and the Christmas strobe-lights make it twice as intense.

The Vale of Shadows explained

9. The Vale of Shadows (the Upside Down) explained. Episode 5. Any D&D moment in this series is a treat, and I love the homage to The Expert Rulebook from the ’80s, which yes I still have, and for that matter even an earlier edition. The subsequent scene at Will’s funeral is a particular favorite of mine, where Mr. Clarke — by far the best adult character in Stranger Things — explains the logistics of traveling to a hypothetical shadow realm. It’s morbidly ironic, as the kids discuss the issue at the funeral of their friend they know is alive.

“Run”

10. “Run.” Episode 3. This is a fan favorite and I expected to rate it higher, especially since the ouija board idea hits close to home (I had an unpleasant experience with one in my college years). But as I said, the Wallpaper-Will scene (#5) is superior. The idea here is that Will communicates from the Upside Down via electricity, whether by inaudible phone calls that roast the handsets, or in this case lamps and lights that flicker frantically. In the Wallpaper-Will scene, by contrast, it’s more than communication going in, since El is channeling a window to the Upside Down, so that Joyce can see and hear her son directly. But “Run” is still a great and scary scene.

Road chase

11. Road chase. Episode 7. This prologue sequence to episode 7 reminds me of the scene of Arwen being chased on horseback by the Nazgul in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that intense. The Hawkins goons tear up the road in vans, which the kids evade by cutting through neighbors’ lawns over narrow paths. When they’re finally cornered, El flips the van barreling towards them. As if that weren’t sweet enough, it ends on reconciliation, as Lucas repents of distrusting Eleven so much and shakes with Mike.

Jonathan wastes Steve

12. Jonathan wastes Steve. Episode 6. I was expecting Jonathan to get the shit kicked out of him, and this is one of many instances in which the Jonathan-Nancy-Steve triangle subverted my expectations (see #8 for another example). The Asshole vs. the Nice Guy is cliche, but Stranger Things gives that formula the finger. Jonathan may be nice and sensitive, but he has a psychotic side, being a stalker and all, and the way he lets loose here is pretty alarming. Steve may be an asshole, but he’s a believable one with a redeemable side, and it made sense that Nancy stayed with him in the end; the bond she shared with Jonathan was a different kind.

Barbara’s death

13. Barbara’s death. Episode 3. If the series has one liability, it’s that none of the main characters die. Benny Hammond was a nice guy but so minor that we hardly noticed when he got shot. Barbara was a minor character too, and yet her death really upset people, probably because she’s a genuinely decent person and the best friend of Nancy who we are so invested in. I’m not sure what the writers intended, but Barbara’s fate turned out to be the much needed tragedy to make us feel the threat of the Upside Down. Her death runs parallel to Nancy and Steve fucking in bed — a brilliant juxtaposition.

El flips the gaming board (no video clip)

14. El flips the gaming board. Episode 2. The Upside Down is telegraphed in this early scene without naming it, as El tries to convey the fact that Will is trapped alone somewhere dark. She says he is “hiding”, but not from the “bad men” she is avoiding, rather from a nightmare creature which she represents on the bottom side of the gaming board by the D&D figurine of the Demogorgon. It’s a creepy foreshadowing of the Upside Down, and makes clear that Will is in serious shit. (Unfortunately I can’t find a youtube clip of this scene.)

Castle Byers

15. Castle Byers. Episode 7. When we finally see where Will is hiding in the Upside Down, we’ve come a long way with El since she flipped the gaming board. The shadow version of Will’s tree fort is one of the most atmospheric set pieces in Stranger Things and a literal living nightmare. It’s not the most reliable hiding place either, as the Demogorgon finds him at the end of the episode — and whisks him away to be cocooned and impregnated Alien-style.

Will’s slug

16. Will’s slug. Episode 8. The beauty to this scene is that it teases the next season but can just as easily be taken as a dark ending to a single season that leaves Will’s fate to our imaginations. And it’s entirely appropriate, because the show has asked a lot of us to believe that Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down, while Barbara and militant goons from the Hawkins institute were killed right away. This is the payoff: Will was transformed in his prolonged captivity, and is now part of the Upside Down, as he seems to live in both dimensions simultaneously.

Dress up

17. Dress up. Episode 4. I think El is prettier without the wig and dress, and I’m pretty sure Mike does too. But they do catalyze his feelings for her. It’s an homage to E.T. (Gertie dressing up the alien), but as with many of the homages in this series they are given weight in their seriousness. The E.T. scene is pure comedy, and while there’s some levity here as well, the boys are dazzled by her transformation, especially Mike who calls her “pretty” before catching himself and following the compliment with “good”. We know what he means.

Nancy in the Upside Down

18. Nancy in the Upside Down. Episode 6. Nancy has the best story arc of the series, because she begins annoying and ends solid, and her journey between these points is completely organic and believable. Her best moment is against the Demogorgon in the finale (see #8 above), but this is a great scene too. She and Jonathan are stalking the beast late at night, and when it snatches a bloody deer from under their noses everything goes to hell. Nancy wanders into the Upside Down and gets lost there and it’s pretty unnerving as she hides behind trees from the Demogorgon running wild.

The cat

19. The cat. Episode 3. Aside from her calamitous opening of the gate (see #6), this flashback is El’s most intense. She tries to make a cat’s head explode, ultimately refuses to go through with it and is dragged off to solitary confinement for her misbehavior. It’s a genuinely upsetting scene that puts the Hawkins institute into perspective for the first time. It’s nice to see El thrash her abusers, and “Papa’s” reaction says it all, as he marvels in awe over her powers no matter what it does to people. (In the youtube clip, the scene starts at 3:21.)

Mike and El kiss

20. Mike and El kiss. Episode 8. How can I possibly omit this one? Mike promises that his parents will adopt El and take care of her, and that he will be her boyfriend and take her to the school dance. Then he gives her a proper smooch. It’s simple and sweet — though a rather cruel set up, as only minutes later El will be sacrificing herself and leaving poor Mike devastated and bereaved.

13 Reasons Why

As a rule I avoid teen dramas but couldn’t resist the lure of 13 Reasons Why. I expected a lame story that was poorly acted, but that would perhaps examine high-school bullying and suicide in ways that lived up to the hand-wringing hype. I got the opposite. 13 Reasons Why is an astonishingly well-acted TV series with cracking mystery and intrigue, and boasts many effective stylistic choices. Unfortunately its message is the wrong one. And yet the premise for that message works dramatically well, which makes the series rather interesting to assess.

For those who know nothing about it — and keep in mind I’m describing the TV series, not the book which I haven’t read — the story is narrated by a girl from the grave, who has killed herself for “13 reasons” (read: 13 assholes) which she has recorded on old-fashioned audiotapes so there’s no chance of her indictments going viral. She blames 13 people for her decision to kill herself, or perhaps only 12, since one of the kids (Clay, the main character, in the above pic) is very nice and sensitive; Hannah admits he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes, yet she also implies that his failure to be more assertive in pursuing her romantically was a severe push to her suicide. Her other reasons for killing herself run the gamut: she was bullied, slut-shamed, stalked, lashed out at unjustly, assaulted, and then finally raped. The tapes function as a psychotic chain letter calling out everyone who did these things to her. The tapes are then passed from one asshole to the next, so that each has to look in the mirror and confront the beast within. Which means that each kid gets to hear Hannah’s judgments on the other twelve, and as a result these jerks come to share an unspeakable secret. Hannah has taken careful measures to be sure that her tormentors will indeed listen to and pass on these tapes in sequence as she instructs them to do, and not destroy them or throw them away.

As I said, the acting performances are great, and the two leads Katherine Langord (Hannah) and Dylan Minnette (Clay) deserve special praise. Every time they’re on screen together they channel the right chemistry, unable to admit their feelings but plainly drawn to each other. Every step in their relationship feels like a weird success story that doesn’t go anywhere, which only tightens the tragedy in the present. Flashbacks can be an annoying device, but 13 Reasons Why uses them brilliantly, and they occur frequently and without warning. As Clay listens to the tapes, the past peels away like an onion, revealing more and more ugly secrets. The show takes bold risks for a teen drama — the kind we need to see more of in the genre. But as I also said, there are problems, which I will address in turn.

Problem #1: The “power of kindness”

The gravest flaw is the lead premise: that if kids stop bullying and start being more kind to their peers, suicides will drop. The fact is that the vast majority of teen suicides are the result of mental illness, not external problems like bullying, which may contribute to suicide but are very rarely the root cause. An analogy would be mass shootings, for which gun control is often seen as the remedy. We do need tighter gun laws for many reasons, but mass shootings isn’t one of them. (Mass killers almost invariably use firearms that wouldn’t be restricted by an assault-weapons ban; mass killers plan months ahead and find illegal ways of obtaining what they want, just as drug buyers do; improved background checks are useless since most mass murderers don’t have criminal records or any history of psychiatric hospitalization. Etc, etc.)

Bullying is like easy gun access, a serious problem, and to its credit 13 Reasons Why portrays bullying in realistic ways that I hope will prompt more discussion and paths to remediation. But however effective we become at abuse management, it will hardly make a dent in suicide. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and bipolar disorders are what need heavy attention, but in 13 Reasons Why mental illness is not presented as the reason — or even a reason — for Hannah’s desperate decision. Her classmates get all the blame, to the extent that one of them is even driven to say that, “We all killed Hannah Baker”. While it’s good to see bullies and jerks own up to their actions, it’s the wrong message to send that they all (and in more or less equal measure) caused Hannah’s death.

Even the protagonist Clay berates himself, in his case for doing the right thing! As they are kissing and about to have sex, Hannah suddenly has flashbacks to her bullies, and tells him to stop, which he does. Everyone knows that’s the right thing. Then she tells him hysterically to leave the room, which he also does after repeatedly asking if she’s okay. She has to repeat her dismissal multiple times because he’s so worried about her, and yet his implied “crime” is that he finally obeyed her instead of defying her and staying in the room to insist on consoling her and explaining that he loves her. On the tape Hannah says this is what she really wanted him to do. That’s a grossly irresponsible message. It’s hard enough to educate people that “no means no”, and here we have the double standard that “no means no” when it comes to sex, but the opposite when it comes to what follows.

The show condemns Clay repeatedly for not being proactive enough, and he accepts full blame: “I cost a girl her life,” he says, “because I was afraid to love her.” That’s a realistic reaction owing to survivor guilt, but Clay is wrong to blame himself. The guidance counselor Mr. Porter is condemned similarly, when he refuses to chase after Hannah when she flees his office in frustration. The show writers operate out of a surprisingly judgmental framework made worse by their mistaken assumptions about kindness.

In sum, by focusing on everything the 13 kids did (or supposedly didn’t do enough, in the case of Clay and Mr. Porter), to the exclusion of any mention of mental illness on the part of Hannah, 13 Reasons Why vastly overrates the power of kindness. Hannah’s suicide is presented solely as the result of external causes. Even rape is rarely, in and of itself, the cause of suicide. (Rape can cause post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder, which are mental illnesses, and in those cases 13% of rape victims will indeed attempt suicide.) Being kind is obviously a good message, but in a drama about suicide it becomes misplaced.

Problem #2: Glorified Hannah, demonized peers

If kindness is the (supposed) antidote to suicide, then suicide can be seen as an act of righteousness to wreak vengeance on one’s bullies. This is what critics of 13 Reasons Why complain about: that the novel and TV series glorify teen suicide, and that the example of Hannah may even inspire copycats. First of all, any real-world copycat of Hannah is about as likely as a serial-killer inspired by a film like Seven, or a cop killer inspired by Breaking Bad to dissolve the corpse in a bath of acid. Yes those sort of things happen but only extremely rarely. No matter how graphic and sensational, literature and film seldom gives people homicidal or suicidal ideas they feel compelled to enact on. (The exception would be philosophical or religious scripture, as for example the Qur’an which inspires daily routine mass-murder activity, and even then we don’t condone the banning of holy writ.) Censorship is never the answer, and shame on the school administrators and librarians who have advocated removing 13 Reasons Why from circulation.

There is some truth to the claim that the TV show glorifies Hannah. Her suicide, after all, is portrayed as a form of empowerment, as she exacts retribution from the grave against those who were nasty to her. It’s unrealistic but works as a dramatic narrative, because as the tapes proceed Hannah becomes as much a “villain” as a tragic protagonist. The narrative is so consumed by her over-heaping guilt trips on these kids that it loses sight of her as a person and her mental problems (again: the show doesn’t indicate that she has any). Most of the 13 kids aren’t so bad. They’re jerks in varying degrees and misguided in the ways of teenagers. Four of them even commit crimes: Tyler stalks Hannah and photographs her through her bedroom window at night; Marcus assaults her publicly, just to show off for his friends; Sheri drives her home from a party, accidentally knocks over a stop-sign, and then ditches her by the side of the road without reporting the accident to the police as Hannah urges, thus later causing the death of a classmate at that intersection; Bryce rapes her, after already raping another another girl days before, in his home swimming pool. Everyone agrees that Bryce should fall off a cliff, and I might be inclined to push Marcus over with him, but Tyler and Sheri are sympathetic characters even if their crimes are inexcusable.

Justin is particularly well-used. In the early episodes I couldn’t stand him, but we later learn that he comes from a hideous home life, where his mother is a drug addict and his stepfather is physically abusive. Justin “allowed” Bryce to circulate the photo of Hannah’s legs, and then to rape Jessica at a party, without trying to stop him in either case, and he genuinely beats himself up for the latter. He feels guilty to the point that he will do anything for Jessica to atone for his inadequacy — even offering to kill Bryce for her. This doesn’t make him decent, but I did feel for him as he deteriorates into an emotional wreck. Then there is Alex, a sensitive guy, but whose father is a macho police cop who encourages Alex to be aggressive to prove his manliness. Alex is the one who most regrets mistreating Hannah, to the point, in a ridiculous shocker, that he ends up taking his own life at the end of the show. My understanding is that Alex doesn’t commit suicide in the novel, and indeed this was a very poor adaptation on the part of the script writers; I didn’t buy Alex’s suicide at all. But aside from that, his character is handled well; there’s nothing especially reprehensible about him. He just acts childish in a way that Hannah takes to heart.

In my opinion, only three of the 13 are truly heartless: Bryce, Courtney, and Marcus (in descending order of assholery). Bryce is a remorseless rapist, Courtney a vile backstabber, and Marcus a despicable save-ass. Ryan is soulless too though harder to gauge. (For my grades of the 13 in terms of the damage they cause to Hannah vs. how bad they are as people, see the appendix at the bottom of the post).

What I’m saying is that the glorified hyper-vindictive Hannah, while problematic in a real-world way, has the advantage of not letting us off the hook. We lose sympathy for this tragic heroine when her bullies emerge as fallible and in some cases likeable enough kids who make naturally stupid mistakes. And that’s very realistic. It may not be the message the show writers intended, but it comes through against the grain of their “We all killed Hannah Baker” nonsense. Hannah turns out to be a great character, if you look at it the right way.

Problem #3: The character of Tony

Clay speaks for many viewers, and certainly for myself, when he scorns Tony as an “unhelpful Yoda” who does little more than appear out of nowhere, look down on Clay with patronizing condescension, and offer nothing by way of wisdom other than tell Clay he must listen to the tapes to learn everything for himself. I understand he’s the guardian of Hannah’s plan so that everything goes according to her wishes, but he should have been kept off-screen more instead of repeatedly turning up just at the right moments in this melodramatically contrived way. There were times, frankly, when Tony almost ruined the show for me.

The upshot is that I really liked 13 Reasons Why and may even read the book to see how the source material differs. It’s a well-crafted drama with moral missteps, but those errors have been forcing the right questions on a massive scale. From that point of view I could judge it a complete success.

 

Appendix: The Rogues Gallery

In rating Hannah’s tormentors, I assign “damage” and “asshole” grades, each on a scale of 0-10. Sometimes both grades are high, but some of the kids are relatively decent (low asshole grades) even if they did something which really hurt Hannah (high damage grades). The damage points are interesting to consider, bearing in mind that despite Hannah’s accusations, none of these offenses usually cause suicide in the real-world, or at least without the presence of mental illness.

Episode 1: Justin Foley (Tape 1, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 6

He sneaks a photo of Hannah’s spread legs while they’re in a park, and then allows Bryce to send it viral around the school, thus starting the chain of rumors and slut-shaming. Justin however is more weak and ineffectual than a really bad person. He’s guilty mostly of what he allows Bryce to do (as also in episode 9). In later episodes he becomes a much more sympathetic character as we learn about his abusive home life.

Episode 2: Jessica Davis (Tape 1, Side B)

Damage grade: 4
Asshole grade: 3

She wrongly blames Hannah for her boyfriend breakup, smacks Hannah hard across the face, and ends their friendship. The result is that Hannah retreats into loneliness and never makes any friends after Jessica. But Jessica isn’t malicious, she’s just bitchy and insecure. Losing friends — even unfairly — is a part of life unfortunately. Though getting belted in the face when you don’t deserve it is rather uncalled for.

Episode 3: Alex Standall (Tape 2, Side A)

Damage grade: 3
Asshole grade: 1

He makes a list of “bests and worsts” in the school, and includes Hannah as having the best ass, thus aiding in the ruin of her friendship with Jessica, while also lending credence to the rumors started by Justin. Alex is actually a decent kid (especially considering the macho dad who raises him), and he very quickly becomes sorry for his childish behavior and the impact it has on Hannah. His “bests and worsts” list doesn’t single out Hannah for special shame, and in my view his act is comparatively mild as pranks go.

Episode 4: Tyler Down (Tape 2, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 4

No one likes a stalker, and Tyler (like Hannah) takes abuse from the entire school for his ongoing photography efforts. He stalks Hannah and takes pictures of her at night through her bedroom window — which is a crime and scars Hannah since she can’t feel safe in her own home. On the other hand, as a person, Tyler is motivated by sincere affection for Hannah, and I see him more as a pathetic loser than a genuinely dangerous creep. Thus my low asshole grade compared to the serious damage he causes.

Episode 5: Courtney Crimsen (Tape 3, Side A)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

After Bryce I consider her the worst of the 13. At first she fills the friendship void left by Jessica, in addition to being a fun lesbo-lover on the side. But when Tyler takes photos of their sexual activities in Hannah’s bed and then sends them viral around the school, Courtney not only shuts Hannah out but throws her under the bus in the worst way just to keep her lesbian orientation secret. She passes off her affair as someone else having sex with Hannah (since Tyler’s photo is unclear), slut-shaming Hannah with a vengeance. It would be one thing if Courtney’s fear of homophobia were more understandable. But she has two gay fathers, it’s the 21st century, and the student body doesn’t seem disproportionately bigoted. She gets even worse in later episodes, denying Hannah’s claim that Bryce is a rapist in order to shield herself when she is subpoenaed for a deposition. Courtney is a true asshole, and one who repeatedly shocked me in watching this series.

Episode 6: Marcus Cole (Tape 3, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

He’s a close rival to Courtney, and I score his points the same. He’s a positive role model for the school with a respectable image, but behind that facade he’s vile. He tries to finger Hannah while sitting with her at a diner, and more to show off for his friends who are watching nearby than to gratify himself. This is the first time Hannah is sexually assaulted and it does considerable damage to her self-image. Also like Courtney, by the end of the series Marcus is hell-bent on saving his ass and reputation at all costs, even if it means siding with a rapist like Bryce. I would rank Courtney slightly worse than him by the margin of her treachery — she became Hannah’s friend for a short time before shafting her mercilessly, while Marcus was never Hannah’s friend to begin with — but it’s admittedly a close call.

Episode 7: Zach Dempsey (Tape 4, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 4

He may be part of the Justin-Marcus-Bryce circle, but I actually think Zach is a pretty decent guy. He does something cruel to Hannah and it wounds her, but I see him as going against his nature on this point. He sabotages her (stealing and destroying the comfort notes left for her in the Brown Paper Bag Program), not out of malice but because he’s unable to cope with rejection. Because he’s rich and popular and good looking, he’s probably used to getting his way all the time, so when he extends a kind hand to Hannah (and to his credit he is genuinely upset by Marcus’ outrageous’ assault on her), he can’t get over it like he should when she spurns his intentions.

Episode 8: Ryan Shaver (Tape 4, Side B)

Damage grade: 2
Asshole grade: 8

I see Ryan as the inverse of someone like Tyler. What he does is less bad than who he is. He’s on the tapes for publishing one of Hannah’s personal poems in the school’s literary magazine. He published it as an anonymous piece, but some students guessed Hannah wrote it, which embarrassed her. Frankly I don’t see this as a terrible injustice against Hannah (especially since it’s anonymous), though it’s true he should not have published it without her permission. More insufferable is Ryan’s arrogance. His superiority complex makes him thoroughly immune to complaints about the way he offends and bothers people. That’s basically the definition of an asshole.

Episode 9: Justin Foley (Tape 5, Side A)

Damage grade: 5
Asshole grade: 6

Episode 9 is unique, not only for taking a second swing at one of Hannah’s tormentors, but this time for something that doesn’t even effect Hannah directly. Jessica is the victim here, not Hannah, who is a hidden observer. Hannah is effected in terms of the guilt she suffers for staying quiet and hidden as Jessica is raped before her eyes, which in my view makes her worthy of as much blame as Justin.

So again, as on his first tape entry (episode 1), Justin is indicted by Hannah primarily for what he allows Bryce to do, which in this case is criminal. He lets Bryce enter the bedroom where Jessica is lying drunk-unconscious, and of course Bryce rapes her. Hannah is hiding (she has just thrown Clay out of the room after almost fucking him) and so witnesses the rape. As stated before, Justin is weak but not nasty, and while that doesn’t excuse his unwillingness to oppose Bryce, he later beats himself up for Jessica’s trauma. I give Justin a damage score of 5, in reflection of how his ineffectual behavior against Bryce’s rape of Jessica impacts Hannah. (It would be a 10 if it was Bryce’s damage score as it impacts Jessica, and perhaps a 7 or 8 if it were Bryce’s score as it impacts Hannah.) But Hannah is a colossal hypocrite for coming down hard on Justin when she is guilty of the same thing. If she wasn’t willing to club Bryce over the head with something, she should have at least yelled and gone for help.

Episode 10: Sheri Holland (Tape 5, Side B)

Damage grade: 9
Asshole grade: 2

She’s the inverse of Ryan: a good person on the inside whose single lapse in judgment results in disaster, namely the death of a classmate. She drives Hannah home at night from a night party and crashes into a stop sign, but instead of calling the police as Hannah urges, she panics and ditches Hannah by the side of the road. That night someone is killed driving through the intersection. Sheri is so appalled by her error that she eventually goes out of her way to do things for the grieving parents of the classmate.

Episode 11: Clay Jensen (Tape 6, Side A)

Damage grade: 10 (*)
Asshole grade: 0

There’s not an asshole-bone in Clay’s body, and Hannah acknowledges that he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes. But he’s on them anyway because Hannah wishes that he had ignored her demand that he leave the bedroom after she freaked out during their foreplay. For this he blames himself (“I killed Hannah because I was too scared to love her”), and this is clearly the show writers’ message which crops up elsewhere. It’s an irresponsible message. No means no, and Clay was correct to do exactly as Hannah told him — stopping the sex and leaving the room.

As Hannah tells it, I would have to conclude that the damage Clay did to her by not staying in the room and pursuing his romantic intentions earns him a score of 10. It clearly tore her to pieces. But since he did what can only be construed as the right thing, he doesn’t really deserve any damage points. If guys are expected to do the opposite of what a girl tells them in one case, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t act the same way when it comes to sex.

Episode 12: Bryce Walker (Tape 6, Side B)

Damage grade: 10
Asshole grade: 10

No commentary required. Bryce is an unrepentant rapist who belongs in jail.

Episode 13: Mr. Porter (Tape 7, Side A)

Damage grade: 5 (*)
Asshole grade: 1

The guidance counselor is like Clay. His moral compass is perfectly fine, and he tries to convince Hannah that life is worth living. His fault, as Hannah sees it, is that he failed to chase after her and beg her to come back when she flees his office in frustration. Which is uncharitable of Hannah in the extreme. Counselors and therapists shouldn’t be expected to chase after patients like this, any more than guys like Clay should be expected to flout a girl’s command to get lost and leave her alone. I do give him one asshole point for suggesting that she could “just move on” if she isn’t willing to name her rapist. Even if that’s pragmatically what some rape victims choose to do (not file criminal charges), one should never use the phrase “just move on” with a rape victim. I give him a damage grade of 5 right down the middle; on the one hand, his counseling failure is portrayed by Hannah as the last straw and a big one, but in essence she had already made her decision after Bryce; Mr. Porter was a last-ditch effort.

Great Performances from Kids

It’s hard for kids to act naturally, but some are truly born for it. These are my ten acting picks from young actors, by which “young” means the actor was no older than 14 when playing the role. So for example, one performance that didn’t qualify is Ellen Page as the 14-year old Hayley Stark in Hard Candy, since Ellen was actually 17 (believe it or not) and thus had more resources to draw on than a younger actor. (Ellen does make the cut for another role.) Natalie Portman takes the top slot in a slam dunk.

Mathilda (Click for video)

1. Natalie Portman (12), as Mathilda in Leon the Professional (1994). If Natalie Portman killed her image in the Star Wars prequels, she made up for it a thousand times before in Leon. I’m glad I missed the film when it first came out, because the American version wrecked it by removing 25 minutes that are the whole point of the love story. Alas, Americans aren’t equipped to handle that sort of thing between a 12-year old girl and a man in his 40s. The international version of the film is an uncensored masterpiece. Portman plays a girl whose parents, older sister, and 4-year old brother get gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with a hitman in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t quite know how to handle it, but before long, he’s training her how to kill and taking her along on his hit jobs, while she takes every blatant opportunity to hit on him. Mathilda is Portman’s best performance (which is saying something, given Black Swan) and I’m in awe of the emotional range she summons here. She’s vulnerable and tender, sensuous, moved by inner furies, and none of it ever goes over the top. You believe her in every frame.

The kids of Stranger Things (Click for video)

2. Finn Wolfhard (12), Caleb McLaughlin (14), Gaten Matarazzo (13), and Millie Bobby Brown (12), as Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven in Stranger Things (2016). All four of these kids come in at a close #2. They’re incredibly natural actors and the boys represent my ’80s childhood — the hours-long D&D campaigns being the obvious point of contact. It’s almost impossible to say whose performance is the best as they complement each other with personas just as striking. Mike is the group leader, the most sensitive, and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin a non-stop riot ruled by his appetites. The chemistry between them is extraordinary to watch. Their most iconic scene is probably their prepubescent horror at Eleven when she starts to take off her clothes in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are gut-busting hilarious. (Lucas: “She tried to get naked!” Dustin: indignantly mimics her taking off her dress.) Eleven herself is no less brilliant, and she conveys far more in her silences than most gifted actors do speaking. Simply put, there has never been a group of kids who set the screen on fire like the quartet of Stranger Things.

Mattie (Click for video)

3. Hailee Steinfeld (13), as Mattie in True Grit (2010). The role of Mattie Ross, like Mathilda in Leon, depends on just the right casting that makes or breaks a film. Which is ironic considering the two characters are so opposite. Mattie is completely unsexualized and humorless, living by a stern Presbyterian ethic which allows her to hold her ground in the face of adults who are otherwise inclined to dismiss her. Young characters who bark orders at adults are usually a fail in cinema, and scenes like Mattie running roughshod over a colonel in a horse-trading transaction by rights shouldn’t work. And yet they astonishingly do; at no point is Mattie anything less than 100% believable. When she and Rooster go off into Indian territory to hunt down the bad guy, the result is one of the best sidekick-adult relationships in movie history. Think how awful Short Round was in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. He gave youthful side-kicks a silly reputation. Steinfeld proved that kids can hold their own as the right-hands of heroes on missions of dirty work.

Danny (Click for video)

4. Danny Lloyd (6), as Danny in The Shining (1980). The youngest entry on my list places high. Lloyd was perfect in this horror classic, able to focus beyond what most six-year olds are capable of. Jack Nicholson may be the star of The Shining, and obviously very good, but he did go over the top; I always thought Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall were the true stars for the way they acted (reacted) to their maniacal father/husband, but especially Lloyd. Duvall gave an emotional performance that wiped her out; Lloyd portrayed the inner terror of a child so convincingly and under Kubrick’s careful guidance didn’t for a moment overact as kids this young inevitably do. It’s interesting that Lloyd was apparently not aware he was acting in a horror film — told by Kubrick that this was a “family drama” — which I find rather hard to believe given some of his lines and action sequences. Like when he’s being chased by the ax-wielding Jack, or when he conveys how terrified he is to his imaginary friend Tony, or when he’s shaken by his crying mother who wonders why he’s battered and bruised.

Jake and Tony (Click for video)

5. Theo Taplitz (13) and Michael Barbieri (13), as Jake and Tony in Little Men (2016). I have strong attachment to these boys, because I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was just the movie I needed to see — a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Taplitz plays the shy Jake, Barbieri the uninhibited Tony; Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor. The boys are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people. Their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents. I cried with Jake at the end; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people.

Iris (Click for video)

6. Jodie Foster (12), as Iris in Taxi Driver (1976). It’s funny how Foster has played against the very best and been terrified for her efforts. In Silence of the Lambs she never spoke to Anthony Hopkins off-camera (until the last day of shooting) because he scared her so badly in his Hannibal Lecter role. And that was when she was an adult. As a kid in Taxi Driver she was intimidated by Robert DeNiro — as she tells it today, he was “even quieter and more strange” back then — but I suspect it’s precisely this sort of thing that has always summoned the best out of Jodie Foster. After all, her roles as Iris and Clarice Starling are her best, and she deserves extra accolades for Iris given that she was only twelve. Both her real and in-character attempts to act and appear older as befitting a prostitute underscore all the more that she’s a child.

Maggie (Click for video)

7. Ellen Page (11), as Maggie in Pit Pony (1999). Here’s a family-friendly entry, just to prove I have a soft spot: Ellen Page’s first role on Canadian TV. I wish I’d grown up on Pit Pony instead of Little House on the Prairie, which was made insufferable by the self-righteous figure of Michael Landon’s Pa. The parental figures in Pit Pony are fallible and likeable. The locale is better too, set in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in the time before unions (1901) when men and boys — and ponies — had a rather nasty time working in the coal mines. Ellen Page is the hidden gem, playing the younger sister of the boy who does more than his share in the mines. It’s amazing to watch her before she became famous as the castrating psychopath of Hard Candy and the pregnant teen of Juno. In this series she’s positively endearing — and even more tiny, as if possible — and I chose a clip from the episode where she runs away from her aunt and comes home to find that things have changed, which she doesn’t handle well.

Jack (Click for video)

8. Jacob Tremblay (7), as Jack in Room (2015). Like Danny Lloyd (#4), Tremblay played a five-year old confined in a horrible place, though I think I’d take the 400-plus room haunted hotel over a one-room tool shed. Tremblay had a tall order in Room. He had to convey a belief that the entire universe consisted of a single room that he never left, and then, in the second half, a child’s reaction to the real world never seen before and zillions of people living in it besides his mother. He nailed it; when Jack sees the sky for the first time, Tremblay looks genuinely poleaxed. Even more convincing and disturbing is the deeper sense he conveys at having been deprived of life’s necessities for the first five years of his life, he doesn’t want them when they finally come. They’re just too overwhelming for him — living in a big house with toys and a backyard — and it’s heartbreaking when he asks his mother if they can go back to live in “Room”.

Regan (Click for video)

9. Linda Blair (13), as Regan in The Exorcist (1973). It’s easy to overlook this one, but Linda Blair did a lot of Regan’s scenes. Her stunt double (Eileen Deitz) only stepped in at a few points. Even the crucifixion masturbation scene was done mostly by Blair. And she did, after all, win a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice Award, and an Oscar nomination. So even if most of her performance comes filtered through the mask of demonic makeup in the latter half, she deserves high praise. And some of her early scenes are frankly as disturbing without the demon involved, as notably when she is strapped down in the hospital getting an arteriogram. Friedkin used real doctors to get the arteriogram procedure exactly right, and it’s just as painful for real-life patients as it looks for Linda Blair. It requires the patient to be conscious. And doctors have actually used that footage to train radiologists who will perform arteriograms, because the procedure — and Linda Blair’s tormented reaction — are so accurately depicted.

Alexander (Click for video)

10. Bertil Guve (10), as Alexander in Fanny and Alexander (1982). I have difficulty assessing performances in foreign films, because when I don’t know the language I’m often clueless as to whether or not the actor is using poor inflection or overacting. But I’ll say this about Bertil Guve: he was obviously a natural. Bergman chose him because he “acted with his eyes”, and I never needed to understand Swedish to see that. And any boy who can act the Ishmael scene is top notch. It’s the pivotal scene where the androgynous figure physically caresses Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Speaking of which, the scene in which Alexander defies him and gets beaten for it is also a stand-out, for his non-verbal cues as much as verbal. Because the film is ultimately about what Alexander perceives is happening, it depends on Guve being able to make us believe in the magic — that ghosts and such really exist. That’s what he does, and it’s a first-rate performance.

Doctor Who’s Companion Departures

Rewatching Hell Bent got me thinking about the Doctor’s companion exits. Companions who die, but not really, are like resets. They work with the right payoff and betray us when there’s no cost. No one complains about the reset in Father’s Day, because it’s so tragic the reset is invisible. Last of the Time Lords is another story. Of the six companion departures, four of them involve deaths-but-not, and you’d think the formula would have worn out its welcome by now. But three of them work very well, including Clara’s in the most recent Hell Bent.

Here’s my survey of the six departures. It’s worth noting how Moffat’s three repeated those of Davies. The God Complex, like Last of the Time Lords, was the unassuming farewell, not to mention a loose one, as Amy returned next season like Martha did. Angels Take Manhattan replayed the Doomsday tearjerker, with Amy banished to die in the past like Rose in her alternate universe. Journey’s End and Hell Bent involved quasi-Time Lord identities on the parts of Donna and Clara, necessitating memory wipes. The first two are the affectionate separations; the other four are the epics in which the companion dies but not really. Here’s how they all rank.

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Rose. Doomsday, Season 2, 2006. 5 stars. If someone spoiled the ending of Doomsday for you in advance, you’d probably cry foul. The first scene announces that Rose is supposed to die. Getting trapped in a parallel world sounds like an egregious cop-out, especially when she gets to live comfortably ever after with her parents and boyfriend. Yet even after a decade, Rose’s departure remains the best and most tragic companion departure of all time. Partly because Billie Piper is Billie Piper — her ability to channel emotional devastation could make a robot break down in tears — but also because of the way the Doctor breaks his season-long promise that she will be different and he will never abandon her like the previous companions. His plan to defeat the Daleks and Cybermen involves, rather heartlessly, sealing off Rose forever in the parallel world. Granted this pains him, but he does so resolutely true to his alien identity. Rose has learned all she can from him and needs to get on without him. Rose’s dying but not doesn’t feel like a cheat at all; it’s far more upsetting than her actual death could have been.

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Martha. Last of the Time Lords, Season 3, 2007. 3 stars. Poor Martha gets a bad rap and she frankly deserves it. She’s the least distinguished of the five companions. Her apologists try hard, but no matter how you spin her, she’s little more than an educated version of Rose, and her unrequited love for the Doctor threatened to turn the Time Lord-companion dynamic into an ongoing soap opera. When she finally gets a proactive role of leadership, it’s unimpressive because Last of the Time Lords is such a horrible episode, serving a cheap reset and pious nonsense. The Doctor becomes his own deus ex machina by repelling laser blasts and levitating like a god, all on the strength of humanity, yes, praying to him. All things considered, Martha’s understated departure was the only sensible option. She wasn’t her own character enough to warrant a grand exit. Her farewell is the best thing about the finale, and she tells the Doctor what we want to hear. If he won’t hop in the sack with her (he won’t), she’s leaving (which is just as well).

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Donna. Journey’s End, Season 4, 2008. 2 stars. It’s difficult to give Donna’s departure a fair shake since it comes in the worst Doctor Who story of all time. Journey’s End offends in every frame. The return of Rose makes an unforgivable mockery of her own departure in Doomsday. The Doctor double is twice as bad, and the fact that’s he’s half human horribly contrived to provide the cheap fairy tale ending at Bad Wolf Bay. Rose gets her Time Lord lover after all, in an outrageous undoing of the season-two finale. The Doctor’s regeneration is bogus. The Daleks don’t even kill anyone. Finally there is the Doctor-Donna — an absurd concept on every level that makes me want to kick her motormouth right in. I completely lost the empathy I’d built up for her over season four; from Fires of Pompeii to Turn Left she truly shined. All of that accepted, Donna’s fate is rather tragic. Her memory is wiped, and the final scene in her parents’ house is quite sad: she wakes unable to recognize the Doctor or remember anything about her adventures with him. Thus my departure rating of 2 for a story that on whole I give absolutely 0 stars.

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Amy (I). The God Complex, Season 6, 2011. 4 ½ stars. Even if this is a pseudo-departure, it’s the best of its kind since Sarah’s in The Hand of Fear. The Doctor and Amy deliver so much in simple gestures and looks that speak volumes. There’s a real feel that they have have become great friends and find it enormously painful to part company — just like the final scene between Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen back in 1976. And I don’t even consider it a false departure, because it’s less the farewell to Amy and more to “Amelia”, her innocent self who until this point couldn’t let go of her childlike faith in the Doctor. The God Complex crushes that childlike faith by the brilliant device of a haunted hotel. A minotaur-beast stalks the corridors and feeds off the corrupted faith of intruders; when Amy and the Doctor see what’s inside her room of horrors, the Doctor destroys her faith in him, which saves her from the beast and herself. The farewell is metaphorical more than literal, and genuinely affecting. I almost even prefer it to…

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Amy (II). The Angels Take Manhattan, Season 7, 2012. 4 stars. … Amy’s actual departure. This one is a full-blown tragedy like Doomsday, with a notable inversion. Rose was stranded in an alternate world against her will. Amy chooses to be stranded in the past against the Doctor’s will, committing a form of retro-suicide. It really is the suitable ending for Amy Pond, since the weeping angels have been her nemesis from the start. The only weakness is the double climax: the graveyard scene comes on top of Amy’s first “suicide” attempt when she jumps from the top of the building, and it’s feels abrupt and hyper-dramatized. There’s also a slightly desperate feel of trying to copy the tearjerk factor of Doomsday, which it succeeds in doing but in a competitive way. On whole it’s still very good. The Angels Take Manhattan has a bleak atmosphere and reeks of preordained disaster. Not even the Doctor can work around the fixed point of Amy’s “death” from blinking, and though I had become tired of Matt Smith by season seven, he really pulled out the stops in conveying anguish for this terrific companion he had come so far with.

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Clara. Hell Bent, Season 9, 2015. 4 ½ stars. By now the formula of “dying but not” had worn out its welcome. It worked in Doomsday and The Angels Take Manhattan, fell on its face in Journey’s End, and by God it was time for another Adric. Time to let the companion die for real, and to let the more juvenile constituents of the fanbase grow up. All the more astonishing then, that Clara’s fate works not only well, but comes close to rivaling Rose’s. First because of the amazing performances of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Second because their emotions are communicated through the concept of the Hybrid, which is not, it turns out, some mythical half-Dalek/half-Time Lord, but the Doctor and Clara themselves. Their friendship has created a risk addiction that spurs each other toward disaster, with the entire universe being the collateral. This necessitates a memory wipe: one of them must forget the other so their friendship can end. It’s genuinely heartbreaking — even the scenes in the diner with the Doctor playing sad melodies on the guitar — and a vast improvement on the memory wipe theme which didn’t make sense in Donna’s case. The result is that, yes, Hell Bent reverses Clara’s death (for a time), but without undoing any pain and grief. Clara, like Rose and Amy, earns her death by the longer road.

Three ways to scare an audience: The Exorcist then and tonight

The TV remake of The Exorcist premieres tonight, and judging from trailers and reviews it will probably be rather unimpressive.

Stephen King has said there are three ways to scare an audience: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” The distinction between the first two levels go back to Ann Radcliffe, who defined terror in terms of a threatening potential that is unclear but present somehow, while horror crystallizes the ambiguity and brings on concrete scares. King illustrates the three levels:

(1) Terror: The gut-churning feeling of something lurking just beyond, but still unknowable. Atmospheric dread. The build up of tension. A door cracks open just a bit. The lights go out and there’s a sound behind you. Etc.

(2) Horror: The shock value of immediate dread. A door swings open and something appears (a ghost, a vampire, or hideous creature) assaulting you. Reaching out to grab something, and a fist out of nowhere grabs your arm. Etc.

(3) Revulsion: The gross-out level, or the repulsively obscene. Someone getting disemboweled. A severed head rolling down a flight of stairs. A man getting castrated and fed his genitals. The problem with this level is that it’s usually unimpressive without the supplement of at least one of the two higher levels.

The Exorcist remains the scariest film of all time because it succeeds so viscerally on all three levels. I saw it when I was 11 (about six years after its theatrical release), and nothing since has come close to matching the pulverizing effect it had on me. I suspect that tonight’s premiere will fail completely on the first level, while perhaps offering a few genuine horror shocks. Whatever it does on the basement third level will doubtfully matter.

Here is me reliving all three levels when I was 11. (Click on the images to watch the scenes.)

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Regan Hypnotized

(Level 1) Terror: Regan Hypnotized. I remember thinking how stupid Regan’s mother was to let the psychiatrist do this. Talk about batting a hornet’s nest. The tension builds incredibly in the scene as Regan begins by responding timidly to the simple questions, then admits there is “someone inside her” some of the time, but she doesn’t know anything about him, and then cuts off the shrink with a firm “no” when he asks if he can speak to this entity directly. Naturally the shrink doesn’t respect her wishes and proceeds: “I am speaking to the person inside of Regan now; if you are there, you too are hypnotized and must answer all my questions.” No demon will suffer itself to be hypnotized, and when Regan slowly turns her head up to the inquisitor (the above right image), she doesn’t look timid anymore; the other doctor can barely restrain her when she (the demon) erupts in fury.

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Father Merrin Dead

(Level 1) Terror: Father Merrin Dead. My young self was so terrorized at this point that if the movie didn’t end quickly I’d have probably ended up in a mental asylum. After the long horrifying ritual of the exorcism, Father Karras steps out of the bedroom to collect his wits, and probably his sanity too. When he returns, we first see an empty bed (where the hell is the demon?); then we see the exorcist-hero Father Merrin on the floor (is he dead? answer: yes); then, as Karras realizes he’s dead, the camera pans up to Regan/the demon, free of her restraints, sitting up against a bed post giggling sadistically, and we know things are about to get even worse though that hardly seems possible. (Sure enough it does, and Karras dies too.) I wouldn’t have been able to take any more after this final piece of terror. Enough is enough.

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“The Sow is Mine”

(Level 2) Horror: “The Sow is Mine.” Practically any scene involving the demon qualifies as horrifying. The exorcism itself is a twenty minute roller-coaster of nonstop horror, and those would be the obvious scenes to single out, but for me the pride of place goes to the earliest possession scene in which the demon first speaks. It’s still a shocker after all these years. Regan’s face isn’t mutilated yet, but the process of her body being invaded, tortured, and thrashed about as she alternates between screaming for help and the demon interrupting her with mocking obscenities is degrading and horrifying in the extreme. When I first saw it I was so poleaxed that I stopped breathing for close to an entire minute.

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Spider-Walk

(Level 2) Horror: Spider-Walk. Cut from the original and added back in the 25th anniversary edition. What makes it extra horrifying is the invasion of the downstairs “safety zone”. In the original film, after Regan urinated on the living room floor and her possession became acute, she remained confined to her bedroom upstairs. That gave us a breathing space in the scenes downstairs. I wasn’t even aware of the “famously cut” spider-walk scene when I saw the new cut released in the theater in ’98 (when I was 30), and my heart nearly burst when Regan appeared at the top of the stairs and start thundering down bent over backwards — not least because, back when I was a kid, this is actually the kind of thing I dreaded happening in one of the downstairs scenes (see the last one I describe below). My childhood trauma came flooding back to me in the spider-walk; it was that much a horrifying assault.

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Puking Green

(Level 3) Revulsion: Puking Green. This scene is so disgusting that it caused viewers to throw up, but it actually frightens on all three levels. It begins with the terror of a sinister conversation between Father Karras and the demon. Up until this point the demon has only shouted trash and vile obscenities when choosing to speak, but now that Regan has been restrained it takes a conversational approach, which is a feint and guaranteed prelude to something awful. When the demon reveals things about Karras’ mother that Regan could have no knowledge of, the terror valve cranks up even more, and Karras decides to test the demon by asking it his mother’s maiden name: “What is it?” he persists, from across the bed. The demon stares back ferociously, and then by way of a “fuck you” reply projectile vomits over the priest, which is both horrifying and nauseating at once. The scene is so heart-attack inducing because it works on all three levels of fright, a rare feat in horror films these days.

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“Let Jesus Fuck You!”

(Level 3) Revulsion: “Let Jesus Fuck You!” This one also blends the three levels. It follows the visit of Lieutenant Kinderman who questions Regan’s mother downstairs about the man who “fell” from her daughter’s window and died, offering the opinion that it was more likely the other way around — that the man was first killed and then pushed from her daughter’s window by someone strong and powerful. “Except,” he says, “no one was in the room except for your daughter, so how can this be?” The dawning look of understanding look on Chris MacNeil’s face is so terrifying that I remember expecting the demon to come thundering down the stairs at that very moment to kill the meddling detective. When he finally leaves, the silence in the living room is unbearable; we know the demon is going to unleash its fury over the intrusion, which it does in a horrifying display of telekinetic chaos in the bedroom, and of course, the infamous crucifix masturbation. Without the other two levels working in tandem, the bloody and vulgar masturbation scene would seem rather cheap and exploitative. It’s actually one of the most harrowing scenes in cinematic history.