Quick Review: Stranger Things 3

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Stranger Things is starting not to get the 80’s right.

Probably it never did. Nostalgia coasts on dusting off old images, making people say “Hey, remember this!” and that’s only fun if it’s in the brightest possible colors. So much of the charm of Stranger Things lay in seeing boys riding around on bicycles, unattended, just like they used to (What about Elle? She didn’t ride a bike. Max doesn’t either; she’s a sk8er grrl).

But one of the things that occured to me with this new season was how *clean* everything looked. And the fact that I noticed it is suggestive.

Folks, the 80’s were dirty. People didn’t care that much about littering, nor about drunk driving. A street that didn’t have broken beer bottles on the side of it was a street that hadn’t been built.

Also, nobody in the 80’s talked about Soviets as being “enemies of the state”, especially not radical journalists. The 80’s weren’t the 50’s. Yeah, the Cold War was an ongoing thing, but we’d all gotten used to it. We were tired of it and wanted it to be over. Not that we suddenly liked the Soviets or disliked Reagan (whose landslide 1984 re-election took place within the timeline of Season 2), we just settled into it as being normal. If anyone found a nerdy Russian in Indiana who wanted to go to a County Fair, we would have bought him all the cherry slurpees he wanted. The 80’s were the great age of Yakoff Smirnoff. That said, I’m glad the show didn’t make the Russians the secret good guys, which I kind of expected during the first episode.

As for the plot: I liked it better than Season 2, which really felt like Season 1.5. Granted, the bad guy was the same, but the approach of it was different. And creepily so: a monster dissolving it’s mind-controlled victims into puddles of flesh that it then draws into itself. The merely Lovecraft-derived Demogorgons and Demodogs from the previous seasons look almost adorable by comparison. Elle finally became an actual character rather than a victim/plot device, and they nerfed her at the climax to underscore this. And they did something useful with Billy other than make him the new Steve Harrington. On the whole, I’m fine with it.

Let’s hope they stop after Season 4.

HBO’s Chernobyl is Misery Porn, and Therefore Largely Inaccurate

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Entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. By Slawojar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

In retrospect, both of the statements in this headline invite a “duh” response. HBO’s current stock-in-trade is prestige TV series, and it’s been apparent since the second season of True Detective that prestige television is an exercise in miserabilism. Nothing good can happen and everyone of value has to die or lose what they love unless they’ve tacked up enough suffering points (looking at you, Sansa Stark) to trade in for a happy ending. It has become its own set of tropes.
And of course, when real life gets shoved into a TV script, the exercise of creating a narrative for audiences to follow will simplify a lot of the messiness of actual truth. That’s completely understandable and not worth commenting on. But when a show deliberately ramps up the misery, and evades truth to do so, that deserves notice.

There is no good evidence that Chernobyl radiation killed a baby nor that it caused any increase in birth defects.

“We’ve now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,” reported UCLA physician Robert Gale in 1987, and “none of them, at birth, at least, has had any detectable abnormalities.”

Indeed, the only public health impact beyond the deaths of the first responders was 20,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under 18 at the time of the accident.

The United Nations in 2017 concluded that only 25%, 5,000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (paragraphs A-C). In earlier studies, the UN estimated there could be up to 16,000 cases attributable to Chernobyl radiation.

Since thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of just one percent, that means the expected deaths from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl will be 50 to 160 over an 80-year lifespan.

It’s worse than that. Did you know that 80% of the Chernobyl first-responders who suffered from Acute Radiation Syndrome survived? That seems like a really high number, so the link goes to the official report where the numbers are from. You can see for yourself.

Better yet, read this interview with the Soviet general in charge of the containment operation for his take on the show. He’s kind of okay with it, but finds a lot of it baffling, particularly the image of teenage conscripts shooting pets in suburban areas.

Tarakanov: There’s this episode [in the HBO series], it’s is an ugly one. They show this boy, a conscript arriving at the military compound. What comes next is just ridiculous. They give him a uniform and moments later they are teaching him how to shoot animals. I mean, that’s just silly. Nothing even close to that ever happened. This is one serious mistake.

RTD: Are you saying they never executed animals, like they show in the episode?

Tarakanov: No, they did, but never in the residential area. In the residential parts, there were no cows, no dogs – not a single one. The shooting did take place, but it was in the forests, where wild animals still roamed, including deer, as well as cattle that wandered off after the evacuation. But to show this young boy, recently drafted, being given all this equipment straight away [is just absurd].

The way it actually happened was pretty simple. The government issued a decree announcing general mobilization. They were supposed to call in 20,000 reservists, as they were called, from, say, Moscow and elsewhere… Those were all men of conscription age, between 30 and 40, mostly.

To ask the question of why this change was made is to answer it. The emotional impact of seeing a young boy being ordered to shoot animals next to what was a family home is much greater than a 30-year-old man shooting a deer in the forest. We need that emotional impact. We need that gut-punch. That’s why people watch something like Chernobyl, and that’s why HBO makes it.

It’s a high-brow soap-opera, aspiring to be Aeschylus. In the process, actual humans are turned into props, puppets, and beasts. There’s a segment of society that feels its worldview pandered to thereby.

What Came to me Watching Last Week’s Game of Thrones

Anger be now your song, immortal one

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous

that caused the Akaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men– carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

-The Iliad

Below the fold, the climactic scene in the episode, with Black Sabbath in the background. Obviously, *SPOILERS*. This has also been done with AC/DC, and Metallica, but I like this way better. And seriously, this stuff is R-Rated; it’s incredibly violent.

And Now, Idiots Write Stupid Things About Game of Thrones

This post, which is full of SPOILERS, has been inspired by Ace dumping all over the doubleplus goodthinker who’s mad about the ethnicities of the fictional characters who took it in the shorts in the recent battle with the hordes of undead zombies in front of Winterfell.

It’s literally: “Zombie Apocalypse, Immigrants Hardest Hit”

I guess all those pasty wildlings who died at Hardhome don’t count. Whatever.

{Also, if you want to tout the virtues of immigrants, maybe DON’T connect them in people’s minds a violent horde of pseudo-Mongol cavalrymen who love murder and rape.}

Also, I’m thinking of the brainiac who had to mount the soapbox because no one gave Melisandre the “redemption” that Theon Greyjoy got (and of course takes the opportunity to shoehorn in something about Brett Kavanaugh, because he’s the Villain of the Year). This sort of nonsense is largely self-refuting, because in no way has Melisandre been as central to the story as Theon has. His entire arc of fall, punishment, escape, and redemption has been connected to the main plot and a massive fan favorite. Melisandre has always been a character half-off screen, representing forces larger than herself. It was those forces that gave her the power to do dark and terrible things, and those forces that made her the enemy of the Night. Davos watching her collapse into nothing, her race run, her battle won, was not the obvious Stark-forgives-Theon redemption, but it was something deeper. It was a kind of grace.

Not that I’d expect a dim ideologue to understand that, or if she did, acknowledge it. Her purpose is not to consider such nuance, but to blurp out screaming clickbait and turn everything into a reflection of her religion ideology by ham and by fist. So really, these first two aren’t that bad. They’re obvious and predictable and so far off-base from the show they’re ostensibly critiquing that they aren’t even wrong.

No, I’m talking about the rest of you.

The fans.

The ones who, 8 seasons in, are still SURPRISED when this show doesn’t do what you think it will do.

The ones who are mad at the way the Battle of Winterfell turned out, because in your head it was going to go a completely different way. Because in your head, you had it all figured out. Just like you totally saw the execution of Ned Stark, the rebirth of dragons, the Red and Purple Weddings, Tyrion’s Trial, and everything else coming. Yup. So transparent, this show is.

The Game of Thrones subreddit is full of whining salty tears because the WHOLE SEASON IS RUINED NOW. That whole plot was The Plot. That Villain was T*H*E Villain. It was *SO* obvious, you guys.

And yet, it isn’t. And yet, something else is happening.

When the story is over, you can critique structure, methods, character and purpose. But the story is the story. The Night King is dead because that’s the story in the hands of the showrunners. And it’s folly to complain about what happens in the books because a) the show has been deviating from the books for several seasons, and b) the books are unfinished, and likely to remain so for some time. So any expectations built off of the books are doubly irrelevant. The show is speedrunning to its own conclusion.

And of course, reserve the right to be disappointed by that ending when it does come. Reserve the right to critique everything once we have a complete saga. That’s legitimate. What’s not legitimate is confusing the show as it exists with the one you’re imagining in your head.

Not-So-Quick Review: The Man in the High Castle and the Gotcha Problem

I actually finished Season 3 of The Man in the High Castle, which I had been seriously anticipating for a while. People who were also fans told me it was something of a disappointment, and actually a chore to get through. This proved to be right: I watched the season in shortish binges and the whole time found myself wondering why anything was happening. There was a general lack of overarching narrative/conflict, such as Season 2 had. Now that I’ve watched all 10 episodes, I have nothing but questions, and not the cliffhanger kind, that you want answers to. These are the kind of questions that I suspect all have the same answer.

I should also point out that I have a copy but have not read the novel by Phillip K. Dick. I’m thinking I might read it now. It’s long, but I can do it pretty quickly.

So, before I continue, let me just leave a big old banner that says…

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  1. Why did we bring characters back from the point of death just to kill them off gratuitously? Was Joe Blake’s death supposed to mean something? Was breaking him on the wheel and then having Julianna slit his throat supposed to be a commentary on the Reich? Like how there’s really no room to not be a monster in the Reich? Yeah, I kind of knew that. We kind of all knew that. Finding bad guys in the Reich is not a surprise. The whole point of the John Smith character is that he puts a human face above the jackboots.
    But whatever, something had to be done with Joe. But nothing needed to be done with Frank. You could have left Frank dead at the end of last season. For that matter, I don’t know how he was supposed to be alive, hundreds of miles away. And why do that just to kill him off? Was that scene in the desert between him and Kito supposed to underscore Kito’s very Japanese sense of obligation? Again, we already knew that. As for Frank’s narrative this season…
  2. Am I really supposed to believe that the guerrilla art campaign is going to amount to something? Like, I get it, a symbol of hatred. Make the People Woke or whatever. But there’s been a resistance for 20 years. People know this. Their rulers are hateful. People know this. So like…is that it?
  3. Is there a point to John Smith’s promotion to Reichsmarshall of America? Dude’s an SS general when we meet him, the American equivalent of Reinhard Heydrich (and may I just say that Smith besting Heydrich last season to get the key data point necessary to prevent nuclear war was a marvelous high point at the end of last season). And yes, the cloak-and-dagger between him and Rockwell and Hoover (cute historical touches both), proved an interesting plot for the first half of the season. But when it’s over and Smith is now Reichsmarshall, he remains essentially the same, a dude taking orders from Berlin. There’s nothing showing how his duties change, how the political aspects of his job elevate him. He’s still chasing the Man in the High Castle and interviewing suspects. He doesn’t even inherit Rockwell’s goofy baton. So why have that happen at all?
  4. Is Julianna a completely different person now? She is one of those characters who’s all over the map. Last season she was trying to escape, even hobble the Resistance to save Joe Blake; this season she’s killing Blake and leading guerrilla operations to blow up superweapons. Are we planning on having some kind of atonement with the capital-R Resistance? Or are we just going to keep having her do whatever the plot needs her to do so that Surprises can happen?
  5. Are we ever going to get an explanation of how “Moving Between Worlds” works? We saw Trade Minister Decent Guy do it with some joss sticks. Julianna’s sister did it… somehow. Dr. Mengele has a machine that sort of does it through an anomaly, but not well or reliably (yet). And now Julianna can do it by… magic? Electroshock? Guys, this is the premise of the story. If you’re going to have the titular character understand it, can we just do the exposition dump already?

I think the problem lies in two elements: 1) the economic need of TV to fit Content to More Seasons, and 2) the habit of High-Concept dramas to use Gotchas.

As I discussed here, the economics of TV, requires that storylines get stretched out over longer and longer seasons, because successful TV shows need to keep going so they can make their producers money. This is what happened to How I Met Your Mother: a concept and ending that would have worked well enough had the series closed after 6 seasons became completely unbearable after 9. So probably High Castle is in a busywork/stretching phase, giving characters “something to do”.

The other thing is a habit that Prestige Television likes to do to viewers, which is to say, sucker-punching with a sudden development or death. Just when you think you know what’s going on, boom, here’s an assassin or explosion or tap at the shoulder and NOW EVERYTHING’S DIFFERENT WHOAAAA.

Hence, Joe Blake and Franks’ death. Hence, Helen’s abandonment of John Smith in the last episode. Hence, pretty much everything.

Hopefully Season 4 will be better. For now, I’m gonna read the book.