Extraterrestrial Aliens Should be Less Human, and More Alien

Okay, let’s be honest. If aliens are out there, whether they’re monitoring our world or flying around their own little corner of the cosmos, they probably aren’t hairless, bipedal primates like us. They might not even perceive the universe in the same way we do. And yeah, they definitely don’t speak English. So why is that in the vast majority of books, movies, and TV shows about aliens, they seem so much like human beings with unique skin tones, claws, or bigger heads?

Why aren’t aliens… more alien?

This exact thought was a huge part of what inspired me to write Intraterrestrial, my upcoming weird, emotional, psychedelic alien novel which will be floating your way later this month.

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In most sci-fi media, “aliens” tend to resemble futuristic humans. Sure, maybe they have grey skin and tentacles, but the differences from us are relatively minor. Aliens still wear clothes or ceremonial armors, they still pilot metal ships, have families, and interact with the world using the same five senses. Alien technology, while usually more advanced than Earthling technology, is nonetheless quite similar to ours. (Though Giger’s hyper-sexualized designs in the Alien movies are a notable exception.)

Now, the reason that fictional aliens are so “human” is easy to understand. For one, humans have a tendency to try to imprint our image on everything, whether it’s finding human faces in wood grain (the pareidolia phenomenon), or believing that an omnipotent creator would resemble an old white guy with a big white beard.

This is also because from a storytelling perspective, it’s easier for readers and audiences to connect with “creatures” that resemble us. That’s why it’s easier to recognize the “life” in an animal than it is a plant, even though both are equally valid lifeforms. The use of “human” aliens has been a necessary ingredient in many important media franchises, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the Marvel Universe. That’s because the “aliens” in these tales aren’t there to explore the sci-fi idea of aliens: these “aliens” are representative of humans, so it suits the story to make them as human as possible. This aspect is particularly strong in Star Trek, which uses a utopian “Federation” of alien races to represent the ideal of humankind’s many races/cultures/societies one day working out their differences and living in harmony. It’s powerful stuff.

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So, I’m not criticizing the use of “human” aliens, because they serve a valid narrative function for many stories. However, I am asking: shouldn’t our stories have room for both types of alien, both human and…. less human?

And furthermore, can’t we see more stories featuring inhuman aliens, which don’t simply write the beings off as “monsters,” or “beasts,” and instead work to engender audience compassion and connection for creatures that aren’t just like us?

 

I say this, because many stories demonize inhuman creatures, and that’s problematic, because it signifies how we feel about (and treat) animals, plants, and other lifeforms that don’t have smiling faces. For example, when I used talking slugs as characters in my last novel, Pale Highway,  I did so hoping that it might make at least one reader reexamine these “slimy” creatures, and perhaps come away with more respect for them. Slugs might be totally different from us, but they are a valid form of life. If my story convinced even one person to never pour salt on a poor slug again, then hey, that’s an achievement I’m proud of.

Anyway, getting back to the central point, depictions of truly otherworldly aliens—particularly more sympathetic portrayals—are rare. Off the top of my head, the most noteworthy example of this in recent times was the film Arrival, where the Heptapods were seen as complex, intelligent beings of a truly alien background. The other example that comes to mind are the “Scramblers” in the novel Blindsight. While these creatures certainly weren’t “sympathetic,” due to their total lack of free will and/or emotions, the novel itself presented their strange nature as a plot point, and an examination of what our “free will” really is.

 

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Now, why am I interested in seeing more alien-like aliens? A few reasons. One, it’s largely unexplored terrain. It’s a big, cosmic horror (or mesmerizing wonder) of possibilities that fiction has only begun to tap.

Two, because I think it’s an important way to break through the myopic nature of human perception. I think that telling stories wherein the aliens are distinctly not-human—but are still viable creatures in their own right—could help break down barriers in human society, help tear down prejudices, and make it easier for people to relate to others who aren’t like them.  After all, the “other” is not the enemy.

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For Intraterrestrial, the key difference I wanted to explore was the notion of perception. The main character, Adam Helios, is a 13 year old boy with a brain injury: this injury causes his perception of the world to differ significantly from a “normal” person.

However, the aliens who contact him perceive the universe in an even stranger way: while us Earthlings use five senses, the aliens do not possess senses. They explore the universe psychically, using creativity as a “sense.” They are so incomprehensible to our hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, and sound that the aliens can only appear before Adam by “creating” sensory constructs of themselves, with his imagination.

A large part of what inspired me to write Intraterrestrial was my desire, both as a writer and as a reader, to see fictional aliens that are more “alien,” instead of just seeming like futuristic humans. This book will be my own contribution to the cause I’ve described above, and I look forward to you folks reading it, and letting me know if my aliens are “alien” enough!

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Luke Cage: The Real World Hero for Our Times

The most impactful image in Marvel’s Luke Cage — the shot that lingers afterward, cutting straight to the core of what the series is trying to say — isn’t an explosion, an alien invasion, nor even a scene of super-powered fisticuffs. No, it’s something much less fantastic, but far more important.

This scene comes near the end of its first season, the entirety of which has been on Netflix for a few weeks now. As comic fans know, Luke’s primary superpower is his rock hard skin, an epidermis so powerful that it can repels bullets; however, since his cotton and denim clothing doesn’t possess the same magical properties, his many confrontations with Harlem’s criminals tend to leave all his hoodies, jackets, and t-shirts riddled with bullet holes. So when the police go out in search of Luke, they hunt the streets for a tall black man with a bullet-holed hoodie — only to find that many people in the Harlem community have begun wearing hoodies riddled with holes, as a sign of solidarity toward their misunderstood hero.  One man, as the police drive by, even holds open his holey hoodie to them, to show that he’s not afraid. It’s a brief moment, but an unforgettable one.

Method Man, who has a brief guest role in the series, says shortly afterward that, “Bulletproof always gonna come second to being black…there’s something powerful about seeing a black man, who’s bulletproof, and unafraid.”

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There’s no question about how much Luke Cage resonates in today’s world. The fact that the main character wears a hoodie is a direct reference to Trayvon Martin, and the show’s star, Mike Colter, has stated on a few occasions that this is due to “the idea that a black man in a hoodie isn’t necessarily a threat. He might just be a hero.” It’s clear just how much the showrunners deeply care about the issues they’re confronting, and they aren’t afraid to make powerful statements about the racial tensions, systemic racism, and inequality that exists within the United States today, and has always existed since the country’s inception.

Luke Cage is an amazing series, due to its combination of bold themes, fantastic writing, and great direction. A lot of what really makes it work, though, comes down to the title character. As played by Mike Colter, Luke is smart, confident, and charming, but also subtle, reserved, and soft spoken. He’s a good guy who doesn’t want the glory of being a hero, but nonetheless ends up being the big brother that Harlem wants him to be.

Luke Cage and Pop in Harlem

There’s a truly honest connection that Luke has to the show’s depiction of Harlem, in a way that goes beyond the other heroes in the Marvel Universe, who are more like celebrities than next door neighbors. While Daredevil foiling Fisk might land his name in the papers, and Jessica Jones’s heroic exploits might earn her more business as a private investigator, Luke has no superhero identity, no cape, no mask — especially not by the end of the series, when his old life as Carl Lucas, escaped prisoner of Seagate Penitentiary, is brought back into the public eye. Luke is who he is. He must actively deal with his increasingly important role in the day-to-day life of Harlem, whether he’s helping a neighbor out of a jam, giving a eulogy for a friend, or getting blamed for somebody’s busted window. All of it feels astoundingly real, grounded, and relatable. If there was a superhero in the real world, he or she would probably be a lot like Luke Cage, and we’d be lucky to have someone like him around.

Openly political, cerebral, featuring an almost entirely black cast and centered around a black hero, Luke Cage is one of the boldest shows of the year, and possibly the boldest project that Marvel Studios has ever done.

The Walking Dead: How Long Until Rick Snaps?

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So as we all reel from the implications of The Walking Dead‘s season finale—particularly those last few minutes—it’s time we step back for a moment and examine how the show has brought us to this point.

The Walking Dead, which just concluded its fifth season, is something of an anomaly.  It’s not entirely surprising that the show succeeded initially; it first hit when the zombie wave was its hottest, and it was based off of an already successful comic book series.  Now, the climate is different, and the show’s tone has evolved quite a bit.  What the show has turned into, and how successful it’s become with the public, defies all explanation.

How so?  Well, consider this: when you remove the zombies from the equation, what is The Walking Dead about, exactly?

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It’s about humanity.  Survival.  Depravity.  It’s an excellently written, deeply depressing,  frequently uncomfortable look at the moral degradation of a small, ragtag group of survivors who are struggling to remain afoot in the aftermath of an apocalypse that has killed almost everyone they know.  The zombies provide the background dressing, sure, but they could just as easily be a nuclear meltdown or an ice age; what the Walking Dead  is really concerned with is people.  It’s about what happens when good people have to make terrible decisions, and the heavy toll that these decisions take upon their consciences.  Nearly all of the characters are suffering from PTSD, and their moral compass is constantly on the verge of crumbling.  It’s hard to watch, because it’s written—and performed—so damn well.

At this point, the series has moved away from its Dawn of the Dead roots and found more in common with Stephen King’s The Stand.  Certain storylines and sequences have even approached the dark intensity of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. 

And right there at the center of the show, we have the one character who carries the biggest burden of all: Rick Grimes.

Now, as a disclaimer, I should state that I’ve only read the first volume of the Walking Dead comic series, titled Days Gone By, so my analysis here is based completely on the TV series.  I don’t know whether my conclusions line up with the character’s arc in the comics, as I’ve avoided reading any spoilers.  Now, moving forward with that in mind…

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Rick Grimes.

There are few television characters who have changed so much since the audience first met them. The only immediate comparison who jumps to mind is Walter White—and that’s not a character anyone wants to be compared to.

When we first met Rick, he was the goody two shoes.  He was the clean cut southern police officer, completely idealistic and devoted to doing the right thing.  He was a bit bottled up and struggled to emote to his wife, but he strove to find good, friendly solutions for every problem.  He was the kind of cop who had probably only drawn his gun a few times, and would be hard-pressed to do so.

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It’s terrifying to watch, in retrospect, how much the traumatic events of The Walking Dead’s five seasons have reshaped the old Rick Grimes.  Since the walkers took over, Rick has faced the betrayal of his childhood best friend, the death of his beloved wife, the supposed (but later refuted) death of his newborn daughter,the violent destruction of multiple places he had thought he could call home, and the horrifyingly grim situation of being locked up by a bunch of human cannibals who wanted to eat him and his adopted family.  Rick has never lost his devotion to protecting his family and friends, but that same devotion has forced him to do a lot of terrible things that the old Rick would’ve been appalled at.

Rick isn’t the same man he once was.  Never has that been more obvious than it was in the final minutes of this last season finale, as Morgan—the man who helped Rick at the beginning, and has been searching the countryside for him—walked into Alexandria just in time to watch Rick perform an execution.

Not that Rick is a bad guy, necessarily.  But he’s not really a good guy, either.

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Rick’s intentions are coming from the right place, certainly.  Unlike the aforementioned Walter White—who masked his selfish, egomaniacal drug lord aspirations with dubious claims about “doing it for his family”—Rick Grimes is a man who is truly, desperately devoted to protecting the people he cares about.  His every waking moment is consumed by his need to protect his loved ones by any means necessary.

But to protect one’s family in the blighted world that The Walking Dead depicts, a man must possess a violent immediacy, quick instincts and cold blood.  Rick has been forced to kill, shoot, maim, cripple and bite out the throat of people who have tried to kill his family.

Because his ideals are still in place, Rick has—so far—managed to keep from completely eroding his moral compass.  His soul, while perhaps smudged and frayed, has not yet been torn apart.  Up to this point, he hasn’t completely tipped over the edge.

But he’s getting close to it.  Damn close.

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He knows that he’s close, and the audience knows it. This underlying tension has made this season of The Walking Dead the best one yet.  Rick is constantly on guard, for good reason, and constantly alert.  But what if at some point, finally, the tension gets the best of him?   When an entire group depends on one man, how long can he keep going before he snaps?

In one of many brilliant moves this season, Rick recently shaved his beard.  On the surface, the reasons are obvious; since the characters have landed in Alexandria, they’ve essentially returned to civilization, and the familiar scene of shaving one’s beard is pretty well-recognized cinematic language for “getting back to oneself.”

But The Walking Dead, largely due to Andrew Lincoln’s excellent performance, deftly inverts this trope.  Though this new clean shaven Rick should look his old self, he doesn’t.  His tense body language, his shifty facial expressions, his gravelly voice…all of it demonstrates a man so far removed from the man he once was that, at this point, he may not even remember that the old Rick even existed.

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When season six arrives, Rick will have a lot of new trials to overcome.  Between connecting to the residents of Alexandria, dealing with this new tribe of “Wolves,” the constant menace of walkers, and the tragically timed reconnection with his old friend Morgan, Rick will be challenged like never before.

But even with all of this external factors at work, the true challenge will be internal.  Rick Grimes has come a long way from his humble beginnings, but he has an even longer road ahead of him.

The True “Hero” of Breaking Bad

Before we begin:

WARNING, THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE BREAKING BAD FINALE.  YOU ARE NOW WARNED!

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 Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what, 60? He’s just gonna break bad?

– Jesse Pinkman

If there’s one thing that last Sunday’s epic Breaking Bad finale, Felina, demonstrated, it was that—from the beginning to the end, from the start to the finish, the plunge to the crash—Breaking Bad was a Greek tragedy about a man named Walter White, as he went from Mr. Chips to Scarface, repressed high school chemistry teacher “Mr. White” to commanding drug kingpin “Heisenberg.”  In the end, Walter’s story finally comes full circle; he returns “back from the dead,” moving through the landscape like a ghost, tying up all of the loose ends that his reign of terror left behind.

But even though Walter has always been our protagonist, our eyes and ears into the New Mexico underworld—he isn’t our hero.  How could he be?  While we might understand Walter’s dilemma, and at times we might even relate to his suffering—the suffering of a brilliant, ambitious scientist who, after being trapped in domestic life for over a decade, breaks out as a terrifying force to be reckoned with—as the last few seasons have gone by, we’ve slowly lost the ability to sympathize with him much anymore.  The Walter White of Breaking Bad’s fifth season has become a reprehensible monster.   A sick, depraved, megalomaniac who long ago sold his soul to Mephistopheles in blue crystals, through countless murders, explosions, catastrophes and finally the poisoning of a child.

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No, by the end, Walt truly has become an irredeemable character.  But even when the narrative of Breaking Bad reaches its lowest point—even as it plunges into the total blackness of immorality that the characters once tried so far to avoid—there’s always been one character who doesn’t quite fall into the abyss.  One character who, through all of his suffering, horrifying mistakes, immoral decisions and brutal hardships, we never quite gave up on.

That character, of course, is Jesse Pinkman.  And it’s the closing of Jesse Pinkman’s story arc that, in many ways, is what makes Breaking Bad’s finale so tremendous, so perfect—because even though Breaking Bad was always the story of Walter White’s corruption, it’s also been the story about the sufferings of a troubled kid who was never given a chance to live.

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When you think of it, he didn’t really have a chance in the early days. Walt said, ‘You either help me cook meth and sell it, or else I’ll turn you in to the DEA.’ So this poor kid, based on a couple of really bad decisions he made early on, has been paying through the nose spiritually and physically and mentally and emotionally.

– Vince Gilligan

Now, don’t get me wrong; Jesse is hardly an angelic character.  For one, he’s a meth dealer.  A meth dealer who, at one point, goes so far as to attend a support group just for the purpose of selling meth to former addicts.  Throughout the course of the series, Jesse does some pretty disgusting, terrible things—but unlike Walt, who continually justifies his actions with excuses about “family,” Jesse actually feels guilt.  He recognizes the horrible things he’s done instead of blaming them on circumstance (or making excuses about family), and he desperately tries to repent for his dirty actions.

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It’s interesting to watch the two characters evolve, side by side.  At the beginning of the series, the audience isn’t given many reasons to like Jesse.  He comes across as a druggie burnout, a loser, a wannabe gangster without many morals, a street kid who probably came from a difficult, abusive family.  The contrast between him and Walt is immediately apparent; Walt, other than his drug dealing ambitions, is very much a “by the book” sort of figure, the kind of guy who, after accidentally hitting a traffic cone, will make a point to get up and put it back in place.

Well, in the pilot, I thought he was just this black-and-white character, this lost kid without any hope, really. But as the scripts were revealed, there were more and more layers that were also revealed for me: He didn’t come from a battered home. He came from a middle-class home with good morals, but I think maybe a little bit too much pressure on him. But when you meet the family, it just really showed that he had a heart. He’s a good kid; he’s just struggling in many different ways. And then obviously throughout the series, he dives deeper into that. He has a huge heart; it just got messed up.

– Aaron Paul

The first time we see that there’s more to Jesse is when we meet his overachieving, proper, middle class family, and see the way they’ve disowned him, rejected him and made him feel like a failure.  And soon, when the masks start to crumble, we see the truth; while Jessie is morally ambiguous in many ways, he is a kid who, when put up against a wall, always tries to do the right thing.  He doesn’t want to kill people, he cares about protecting children, he—other than occasional stints on the dark side—wants to have a better life, but is plagued by the same intense self-loathing, the need to rebel that led him to drugs in the first place.

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Walt, on the other hand, turns out be hardly the paragon of values he initially presents himself as; his ethics exist only on a surface level, largely as a way to conform to society’s boundaries.  Walt is never terribly haunted by the murders he commits.  He develops an exceptional ability to rationalize his crimes, so that, no matter what, he’s always in the right.   Jesse, on the other hand, is tortured by his actions.  He knows what he’s doing wrong, he just doesn’t know how to break away from his seemingly predestined path to failure.

It’s ironic, really, how the initial appearances of these characters deceive us.  Jesse at first appears to be perfectly molded into the drug scene, but in reality, he’s an awkward fit; he’s not someone who is capable of the sort of violence, ambition or ruthlessness that turns a person into a Tuco or a Gus Fring.  He’s actually a fairly harmless and naive jokester, a kid with no hopes in life, a kid who seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd and doesn’t know what else to do.

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Walt, on the other hand, turns out to be a perfect fit.  Beneath the innocent-looking chemistry teacher was always lurking an ambitious overachiever with big dreams, as revealed in the flashback sequence that shows a younger, leather-jacketed Walt and Skylar buying their house.  And when that failed ambition is coupled with a lack of respect, past rejections—namely, the Gray Matter debacle—and the insult known as “lung cancer” is added to his prior injuries, the result is that Walt becomes coldblooded, merciless figure who ruthlessly takes control of New Mexico’s criminal underground, toppling anyone who gets in his way.

While both characters plunge into the dark side, it’s for different reasons.  Walt does it out of ambition, to build an empire, for power.  Jesse’s darkness is caused by guilt—guilt for the death of his girlfriend, the murder of Gail, and so on.  Jesse convinces himself that he’s “the bad guy”—but he never quite accepts this, because he isn’t.  That’s why, even as Walt gets colder and colder, Jesse only gets more and more vulnerable. He’s a good guy, a bright kid with a wounded soul, who just needs the right guidance.

Unfortunately, instead of getting a strong, supportive mentor, he got Heisenberg.

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No, Jesse isn’t innocent.  He’s a criminal—but in the end, he’s also far more of a victim than he is a victimizer.  Unlike Walt, Jesse – after making his first set of mistakes – never really got the chance to build a better life or move on from his past.  He didn’t have a family or career to fall back on. He never had a chance to get out of the business and make something of himself.

And truthfully, in the last few episodes of the series, Jesse receives the exact punishment he feels he deserves for his sins.  He is imprisoned, chained up for at least a year and forced to cook meth for neo-Nazis, with no hope of ever escaping.  Jesse pays a heavy price for his actions.  And that’s why, at the end, Jesse is the one who escapes and can begin again—whereas Walt’s fate in Hell is sealed.

But as Jesse drives away, as he escapes from the cage he’s been trapped in since high school…is there hope?

Jesse is a leader who thinks he’s a follower.

Vince Gilligan

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Jesse’s final fate is, as is the case with many  final episodes, deliberately left vague so that the audience can make up their own mind about what happens.  But it seems to me, that as we see Jason driving away, laughing, tears in his eyes—and after seeing the flashback to him making the box, earlier in the episode—that now, after everything Jesse has been through, he’ll finally get to begin again.

Jesse’s done his time in Hell, but unlike Walt, he refuses to be unalterably corrupted; the fact that Jesse doesn’t kill Walt in the end, like so many of us expected him to, is an amazing revelation.   Also, notice the positioning of the characters in this picture, an image that has been making the rounds on Twitter:

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Breaking Bad is a series that, from the beginning, has used highly cinematic imagery, repetition, color coding and cinematography to convey deeper meanings.  The similarity between these two sequences is not a coincidence – and it’s not a minor callback, either.  Sure, it certainly is there to show how tired and haggard both characters have become—it obviously displays how much pain they’ve been through in the last two years, and how roughly they’ve come out of it.  But there’s far more to it than that—and the placement of the characters in this shot is so brilliantly subtle that I still can’t believe how well done it is.  The sequence shown above, from the final episode, is a deliberate mirror image of the sequence from the first episode, with one hugely important difference:

The characters are reversed.

Consider this.  In the sequence from the pilot episode, we have Walter White coming from the foreground, our side of the TV screen – which is where we are, right?—and then Jesse is standing in the back, at a distance.  Why?  Because at this point, Walter is us.  Walter is the good guy, whereas Jesse is a symbol of the dark, criminal future that Walter is being tempted by.  Jesse is on the wrong side of the tracks, Jesse is a drug dealer, and Walter is walking toward him, joining him.

But now, look again at the shot from Felina, the finale.  Notice something?

This time, Walter is on the dark side.  Walter is the bad guy, Walter is the one facing us, openly displaying the monster he’s become.  And now, Jesse—the former drug dealer, the one we originally thought was the bad guy—well, it turns out that Jesse is now on our side.  He’s us.  And unlike Episode 1’s Walter, who was going into the darkness (which was Jesse), this new Jesse that we see in the finale episode is actually escaping from that darkness (which is Walt).

It’s a fantastic twist, really, as well as a brilliant, morally complex statement; the character we rooted for at the beginning has become the villain, and the “druggie burnout” we initially wrote off turned out to be a flawed-yet-decent human being with a moral compass, values, and everything that we originally thought Walter had.

Jesse is the hero—a tortured, sometimes fragile “hero” who has made some pretty bad mistakes, but has paid the price for them, and wants to redeem himself.  Jesse deserves his escape.  He deserves the new life that he can now create for himself out in Alaska, New Zealand or wherever he chooses – because finally, whatever he does now, it’s his choice. 

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Again, compare this to Walter.  While some reviewers believe that Walter has a redemptive arc in the final episode, I find that reasoning rather flimsy; while Walter certainly does make a few redemptive actions—revealing where Hank’s body is, saving Jesse’s life, etc—he clearly doesn’t actually redeem himself, because he doesn’t have any regrets.  Even at the end of his life, Walter refuses to feel regret.

Really, let’s look at this honestly.  Why does Walter come back?

To tie up loose ends.  To get even.

Sure, he finally admits that his actions throughout the series were for him, not his family—but notice how when he admits this, when he says that being Heisenberg made him feel alive…it’s not that he’s regretting his actions, it’s just that he’s not making stupid excuses for them anymore.  He is a man fully conscious of how terrible he is, but he’s also a man who ceased to care about morality a long time ago.  He cares about his loved ones, sure—Jesse included—but moral values?  Ethics?  Doing the right thing?  Walter doesn’t care about that one bit.

And at the end, the very end, when he goes into the meth lab…instead of being filled with regret or pain, instead of mourning over the many lives he’s ruined, he looks at all of the chemistry equipment affectionately, proudly.  He seems to reminiscence on the empire he built.  He’s proud of what he did, and that’s why, as he dies, he dies with a smile on his face—because in the end, Walter proved to be a man who could never, never admit his own failures, not even to himself.  To Walter, pride was everything.

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Walter White is one of the most powerful characters in TV history, with an absolutely incredible performance by Bryan Cranston and a fantastic writing team behind him.  He’s a character that manages to be both likeable and unlikeable, sympathetic and malicious, protagonist and antagonist.  He’s the reason that Breaking Bad is the series it is, and he’s a character that will live on in TV history forever.  But without Jesse – without the flawed moral compass that Jesse came to provide, as the series went on – the series would not have been the same.  The twisted father/son dynamic between these two characters was by far the most important relationship of the series.

Yes, Walter’s downfall was the backbone of Breaking Bad—but Jesse was Breaking Bad’s heart.

-Nicholas Conley

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Why David Lynch’s “Dumbland” is Smarter than it Looks

I’ll admit, about two minutes into Dumbland—the 2002 web series/”cartoon” by David Lynch—I almost turned it off.

Of course, I was already wary of the series before even starting; it’s a bit difficult to watch something with a ridiculous title like “Dumbland” without at least some trepidation.  I mean, Dumbland?  Seriously?

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However, I’ve always been fascinated by the work of Dumbland creator David Lynch, as I stated in my coffee blog.  From Eraserhead to The Straight Story, Lynch is a remarkably unique filmmaker; his meditative, Dada-influenced approach to films is compellingly absurd, and his work—while often highly uncomfortable to watch—has a way of carving a permanent scar upon the viewer’s subconscious, branding the viewer’s memories in a way that resembles the lingering discomfort we experience after an especially bad nightmare.  In fact, Lynch’s films operate much on the same level as a nightmare; his perverse creations seem laughable at first glance, but the actual experience of watching those creations is inexplicably disturbing.

Though some might resist labeling Lynch’s work as “horror,” Lynch’s twisted sensibilities get right to the essence of what horror is supposed to be.  His films are frightening.  They’re unnerving.  They make the viewer uncomfortable, sometimes for days on end.  While many horror films might give you a couple jump scares, Lynch’s horror is the kind that never leaves you.

As an artist, I admire Lynch.  I admire his approach, his unflinching honesty, his darkly sincere voice.

So despite my apprehensions—and despite my immediate disdain for “Randy,” the unlikable main character—I  gave Dumbland a chance.   I stuck it out.  I stuck it out through all of the coarseness, all of the crude animation, all of the nauseating repetition, all of the (seemingly) exploitative profanity…and in the end, I was surprised to realize that despite its crudity, Dumbland proved to be a highly worthwhile viewing experience.

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Watching Dumbland certainly isn’t enjoyable, but that’s the entire point; Dumbland is a razor-sharp, darkly satirical commentary on the perversity of contemporary suburbia.  It’s a critique of Western culture.  A critique so harsh and so relentlessly vicious that it would make South Park blush—and it gets away with all of this by carefully cloaking itself in the masterful disguise of “just another stupid internet cartoon.”

“It is of course, however, no surprise that most critics –ranging from Lynch cult fans to structuralist cinephiles– totally miss the point of the series’ much necessary raison d’être. While structuralists attack the “crudeness” and alleged “pointlessness” of the series, using the infamous accusation of “weirdness for weirdness’ sake,” supposed Lynch fans simply relish in that alleged “reasonless weirdness,” without care or respect to any sort of real artistry or social commentary. Both camps of critical reception seem to be oblivious to the true brilliance and intensity at work here, and even more oblivious to the message, as well as Lynch’s origins: the Camus-inspired Theatre of the Absurd, the movements of Dada and Anti-Art, and the overall surrealism Lynch is perfecting, following of course in the footsteps of Buñuel and Dali. There is a lot of progression, sincerity, satire, and stark beauty in Lynch’s work –all of which impatiently ignored by critics, under the pretense of “incomprehensibility.””

– David Durnell, Sisyphus and Suburbia: A Contextual Study of David Lynch’s Dumbland

The “perversity of contemporary suburbia” is one of Lynch’s most recurring themes, especially in both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but the quirky filmmaker has never tackled it in quite so scathing a manner as he does here. The setting of Dumbland‘s eight episodes is simple; in the armpit of suburbia there lives a bald, violent, idiotic man named Randy, who seemingly never leaves the confines of his front lawn.  As a result, Randy’s life is hopelessly boring.  He spends most of his time throwing around his son and wife; on the rare instances when “intruders” from the outside world enter Randy’s domain, he responds to them with violence.  The only exception to this is when his “friend” – a character resembling the cowboy from Mulholland Drive – comes over, and the two of them have a “friendly” conversation how much they enjoy hunting and killing things.

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The result of this is that even though Dumbland bombards the audience with a slew of irritating burp, fart and violence jokes – jokes which at first seem characteristic of a bad Adult Swim cartoon – it soon becomes clear that these “jokes” aren’t supposed to be funny.  Once the bleakness of Randy’s world becomes fully visible, Dumbland quickly becomes a terribly depressing, even nauseating series to watch.

Randy is hopelessly stupid.  He possesses no ambition, no drive and no motivation to improve himself. His attraction to violence is so great that, in the absence of victims, he even becomes violent toward himself.  Randy frequently hurts people.  He’s constantly confused, disoriented and angry.  He passively watches his child’s gums bleeding, torments his wife and generally shows little understanding of anything around him.  He abuses everyone near him, and is utterly oblivious to the damage he causes; in the world of Dumbland, it appears that Randy’s behavior  has been tolerated and accepted for so long that he sees nothing wrong with it.

His narcissism is best displayed in the episode “Get the Stick!”, when a nameless man choking on a stick in his mouth suddenly breaks into Randy’s yard.  At the desperate urging of his son, Randy tries to “help” the man – but instead of simply removing the stick or cutting it in half, he instead effectively pulverizes the man into oblivion, at which point the ruined man wanders into the road and is run over.  The only reply to this that Randy can muster up – his barbaric feelings on the horrible murder he’s just committed – is to be irritated, because in his words, “The fucker never even said thank you.”

But Randy, despite his ignorance, isn’t happy with his life; he’s intensely miserable, frustrated and angry, with no outlet to express his feelings other than his frequent acts of violence.  He’s a pathetic man, and the disturbing hopelessness of his character – and his isolation from the world surrounding him – demonstrates what Dumbland is really all about; when a doctor inspects Randy in the third episode, the doctor revealingly diagnoses the sociopathic man as being “perfectly normal.”

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Randy is symbolic of the overall infantilization of society.  He’s the gruesome portrait of a puerile, solipsistic contemporary man; a burping, farting, shallow character, a character who truly believes himself to be the center of the world.  His absurd fate at the end of the series – which is illustrated with Lynch’s usual unflinching eye toward the darker and more bizarre areas of our psyche – brings the series full circle, as Randy’s violent tendencies finally catch up to him.

I don’t believe that David Lynch is a cynic.  The giddy idealism buried within such movies as Blue Velvet is fairly evident, once one looks past the dark surface.  However, I do believe that Lynch is a creator who isn’t afraid to open up the most evil parts of his own mind and display them to the world, which is why much of his work is so uncomfortable; we recognize the truth in it.  Dumbland, despite its cartoony appearance, is possibly one of the darkest works that Lynch has ever created.  It’s certainly not the best introduction to Lynch – for that, I suggest something more like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive – but for those of us who already understand Lynch’s work, Dumbland is an absolute must-see.

-Nicholas Conley

Arrow: The Morality of Vigilantism

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The DC Comics superhero known as Green Arrow has, since his reinvention in 1969, always been a politically charged character.  From the anti-establishment, liberal crusader of the 1970s to the cutthroat vigilante of writer/artist Mike Grell’s 1987 The Longbow Hunters limited series, the best Green Arrow stories have always kept the emerald archer down to earth.  Though he’s often been depicted as a member of the Justice League, Green Arrow is most effective when he’s kept in a more realistic, gritty environment.  Unlike the high-flying superheroics of most comic book stories – or even the freakish theatrics of Batman’s “realistic” Gotham City – the best Green Arrow comics have instead focused on such controversial issues as drug addiction, racism, poverty, rape and human slavery.

As a modern take on the Robin Hood legend, this makes sense; while Green Arrow doesn’t “rob from the rich,” he certainly is a character who is constantly at war with the more corrupt sides of corporate America.  He’s the people’s superhero, an outspoken vigilante who stands up for the little guys.

When written correctly, this can result in a very interesting character study,  because Green Arrow’s alter ego, Oliver Queen, is a man of many, many contradictions.

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Although the arrow-firing vigilante is indeed “the people’s superhero,” the real Oliver Queen is quite the opposite.  In fact, before becoming Green Arrow, Oliver was actually a hard-partying billionaire playboy, a drunken tabloid hog who only found a conscience after being shipwrecked on a remote island for several years – a terrifying experience that ripped him away from all the materialistic trappings of contemporary society.  Understandably, Oliver’s experiences redefined his entire identity.  But even though the post-island Oliver possesses an undeniable streak of heroism , he’s now haunted by many moral dilemmas; he’s a man with remarkably idealistic goals, who often uses questionable techniques to achieve these goals.  Green Arrow – especially when he was written by Mike Grell – is an antihero who doesn’t always conform to the rather straightforward “no guns, no killing” philosophy of characters like Batman.  On the contrary, Oliver has often been depicted as a ruthless vigilante who – if the situation calls for it – will shoot an arrow right into an enemy’s heart.

Now, every writer has their own take on a character; admittedly, many comic book writers have steered away from Grell’s darker depiction of Oliver Queen.  But still, it’s important to recognize that the Longbow Hunters-era Green Arrow was never a bloodthirsty psychopath like Marvel’s the Punisher.  No, Grell’s version of Oliver is a highly conflicted character, a dreamer who is constantly torn between his idealistic, liberal-minded views and the more unforgiving, conservative methods of execution he uses to achieve his goals.  Oliver is a character who you sometimes can’t decide whether to root for or not—and in a television landscape where morally-complicated character dramas like Breaking Bad and Dexter are all the rage, Green Arrow is a character who is so perfectly suited for a serialized TV drama that it’s a wonder it’s taken this long for it to happen.

So, it’s no surprise that Arrow—the CW’s hit TV adaptation of the character, now in its first season–is so effective.

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Arrow is a gritty, down-to-earth, Christopher Nolan-inspired take on Green Arrow’s origins.  Through the use of serialized flashbacks–which run parallel to the main plot line of each episode, ala Highlander and Lost–the series completely recreates the Green Arrow mythos from the ground up.  In Arrow,  we are introduced to Oliver Queen, asshole billionaire playboy from Starling City (“Star City” in the comics, renamed here for seemingly no reason whatsoever), who on one fateful yacht trip with his father, finds himself horrifyingly shipwrecked on a mysterious island for five years.  As the flashbacks slowly reveal, before Oliver’s father  was killed, he left his son with a book—a book full of names, names of all of the corrupt officials, bureaucrats and businessmen in Starling City who are secretly destroying the city from the inside.

When Oliver returns to Starling City at the beginning of the show, he’s a changed man.  The playboy is gone.  Now, Oliver is a trained warrior, a master archer whose only focus in life is to fix his old man’s mistakes by taking out every name in the book his father left him.

Oops...wrong island?

Oops…wrong island?

Arrow has been a big hit for the CW. Really, though, as surprising as Arrow’s popularity might initially seem, it actually makes a lot of sense.  Certainly much of it has to do with the general audience’s hunger for more Nolan-style superheroics now that the Dark Knight trilogy is done – but there’s more to it than that.   The recurring flashbacks to the island – which are coyly reminiscent of Lost, though just different enough to avoid being a rip-off—are certainly a large part of the series’ success, as the two parallel plots running throughout each episode allow the writers to craft a series that is essentially a combination of both The Dark Knight and Lost.   So yes, this aspect alone would seem like a guarantee for success, but Arrow’s appeal is deeper than that; Oliver, as he takes on the more corrupt members of the 1%, is a character who perfectly embodies the frustration, angst and anger of the Occupy Wall Street generation.

But Oliver’s vigilante pursuits aren’t uncomplicated or easy; Arrow refuses to simply be an angry statement against the 1%, as it so easily could be.  Instead, it’s honest enough to ask questions about the wide variety of ethical complexities that Oliver’s costumed identity can’t help but bring to mind.  Let’s not forget, Oliver and his family – who he adores – are themselves part of the upper class.  This aspect points toward the essential quandary that makes Arrow more and more interesting with every episode; as the series progresses, it increasingly shows a willingness to confront an issue that most other superhero movies and TV shows either glaze over or leave behind entirely:

The morality of vigilantism.

Art by Mike Grell.

Art by Mike Grell.

Arrow, though it borrows liberally from all kinds of DC Comics influences, clearly takes its primary inspiration from the 1980s Mike Grell run – hence my earlier focus on Grell’s depiction of the character, as opposed to the depictions of other writers.  Starting with the classic limited series, The Longbow Hunters, Grell presented Oliver Queen as a kind of urban hunter, moving the character’s stories far away from the colorful superhero world; instead of cackling supervillains, mad scientists and alien warmongers, Grell’s Green Arrow faced off against rapists, crime lords and drug dealers.  He lived in a discomfortingly realistic world, taking on real issues—and as opposed to earlier incarnations of the character, who avoided fatalities through the use of an assortment of non-lethal “trick arrows,” Mike Grell’s Oliver Queen killed.

This willingness to commit murder – even if the victims are utter scumbags—is not a small detail.  Most superheroes, even the darker ones like Batman and Daredevil, will maybe send a couple bad guys to the hospital, at worst.  Superheroes usually have a strict policy against killing.

Why?  The reason is simple.  By becoming a vigilante, one is already taking the law into one’s own hands; one is already stating that they have the right to decide who’s right and who’s wrong.  Once the vigilante takes it a step further – once that vigilante decides they have the authority to execute a person, even if that person is evil—it raises a variety of ethical dilemmas.

Green Arrow V2 #58.  Art by Mike Grell.

Green Arrow V2 #58. Art by Mike Grell.

Cleverly, these moral complications weren’t visibly present at the beginning of Arrow’s run.  In the first few episodes, the audience is introduced to Oliver as a man who snaps necks without any remorse.   At the beginning, this seems simple enough; the bad guys get killed because they’re bad guys.  We’ve all seen our fair share of action movies.  How many villains have we seen mowed down by machine guns before?

But as the series progresses, things cease to be so simple.  Because the series doesn’t seem to question Oliver’s methods at the beginning – in fact, it seems to revel in them – this makes it all the more compelling when Oliver’s body count comes back to haunt him later on.  Oliver is forced to question his motives at every turn; he’s continually thrust into situations where it seems no proper moral decision is possible.   What gives him the right to commit murder?  But on the other hand, when he doesn’t kill – when he lets psychopaths like the Huntress or Count Vertigo go free—does that make Oliver responsible for every murder that his villains then go on to commit?

Though it took the show several episodes to completely find its voice, the latter half of season one has been gripping.  In the show’s eighteenth episode – an episode titled Salvation – viewers are presented with a “villain” who calls himself the Savior, a vigilante clearly inspired by Green Arrow’s example.  Evidently, in the past, the Savior’s wife was murdered at gunpoint; since then, he’s taken the questionable path of publicly executing corrupt officials—or anyone else he thinks is ruining the city.  The Savior films these murders, sending the video footage out to every cellphone in the city.

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The Savior believes himself a hero.  So, when Oliver Queen comes in to stop him from executing another victim—a lowlife thief named Roy Harper, a name that should be familiar to fans—the “villain” makes a compelling case; he asks Oliver how the two of them are any different.  Oliver, in his quest to save the city, has murdered people.  Many people.  What right does Oliver have to stop him?  Aren’t they working on the same side?

As the Savior points his gun at Roy, Oliver tries to differentiate between the two of them.  Oliver claims he doesn’t kill in cold blood.  He doesn’t do public executions.  At this point in the series, there is some weight behind Oliver’s comments—Oliver doesn’t murder as easily as he used to. But at the same time, the Green Arrow that we saw at the beginning of the series was in fact a relentless killer, even if he was far more refined and focused than the emotionally-overwhelmed Savior.

This same dilemma pops up with the character of the Huntress, another vigilante who murders casually and openly; it also reflects in the series’ overarching villain, Merlyn—also known as the “Dark Archer”—who seeks to recreate a better, brighter version of Starling City, through a Batman Begins/Ra’s Al Ghul-esque “purification” process that will result in the deaths of millions.

Unfortunately, the so-called Savior doesn’t listen to Oliver’s pleas.  He still attempts to execute Roy—and Oliver responds by shooting an arrow into the man’s heart.  It’s a tense, highly uncomfortable ending that leaves many questions.  There’s no debating that Green Arrow has helped Starling City—but is he really a hero?  What’s the real difference between him and the Savior, other than training and a slightly more active conscience?

Are they any different?

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That’s the complicated dilemma that Arrow ponders, and it’s the dilemma that the writers will probably continue to ask as the series enters its second season.  It’s not an easy question to ask – but it’s an important one, and as long as the series continues to delve deeper and deeper into the morally questionable predicaments that Oliver Queen’s vigilante lifestyle would realistically create, I’ll definitely be along for the ride.

– Nicholas Conley

P.S. to the writers – c’mon, just call him Green Arrow already!  I like the show’s title being Arrow, but avoiding the character’s name within the series itself, especially when instead you’re just calling him “The Hood,” is very silly.  Everyone already knows the name “Green Arrow.”  Just use it!