Going to Graceland

There’s no way to justify the leap I’m about to make here, so I’ll just get right to it: two of my favorite songs in the world are “Going to Georgia” by The Mountain Goats, from 1994, and “Graceland Too” by Phoebe Bridgers, from 2020—and I think they’re about the same people. Or more accurately, “Graceland Too” takes the things about “Going to Georgia” that are broken, and loves them, and fixes them.

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The Last of Us Part II, part 1: The Internet Sucks Ass

I’m so mad about the response to this game. Some recent history: The Last of Us Part II was delayed and delayed (and delayed?) and finally released this June 19th. Somewhere after some but not all of those delays, Naughty Dog (the development company) had its servers hacked, resulting in the leak of cutscenes giving away major plot elements. How about a page break before we start spoiling everything?

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Westworld: Season 3 — a review?

Well, that kinda sucked.

My reaction to prestige HBO series’ final seasons keeps being “Why did that have to get packed into one season?”, which bothers me for a number of reasons. First, do I really want more Game of Thrones, if the Game of Thrones I got made me so miserable? Why would I trust someone who made me watch Westworld Season 3 to instead make me watch Westworld seasons 3a, 3b, and 3c? Short answer, because I’m a masochist. Second, why can’t I just say that a season is bad, instead of trying to imagine a world where it was better?

Also, yes, this was the final season of Westworld, because I’m done watching it. As should you be.

Let’s try to recap this series in 3 sentences.

  • Season 1:  Dolores is conscious, and Old William is Young William is the owner of the park.
  • Season 2: The park existed to recreate human consciousness, but that project never worked, and now Dolores has escaped with the resulting data to destroy the human world.
  • Season 3: The world was run by a new omniscient AI, Rehoboam, but it could only predict humans, so Dolores could destroy it because she’s not a human, and she did but she needed help from a human who was Jesse Pinkman, and now humanity is going to destroy itself, and Hale-Dolores is making new hosts to take over the world which is still going to be destroyed, and also Jesse Pinkman is in charge of some “revolution” which has already ended, I guess? and everyone in the world knows what their future will… ok I think I’ve made my point here.

Instead, let me try to list all of the atomic plot concepts that were introduced and then discarded in this season:

  1. Hosts set loose in the human world
  2. Copies of Dolores interacting with each other and with their new bodies
  3. Hosts body-snatching real humans
  4. Omniscient predictive AI
  5. Ownership of said AI being its engineers or their capitalist funders
  6. Crime for hire
  7. Humans’ awareness of high-likelihood predictions of their future
  8. Reprogramming humans with false memories
  9. Icing thousands of non-compliant humans
  10. Certain human-generated apocalypse in ~200 years.

I got to ten massive ideas without even trying, and without discussing any of the relationships between pairs or sets of those ideas, like the hosts’ decisions about their morality with respect to these various actors. Can’t you imagine spending a compelling season of television on just one or two of those ideas? How about the first two: Westworld season 3 is about Dolores getting her footing in the human world, and her selves deciding who or what they are. Doesn’t that sound better than what we got? It’s crazy to realize that we actually… skipped that. By the time we see Dolores in season 3 she already knows that there’s an omniscient AI that rules human affairs and has decided to destroy it. Hale-Dolores has her subplot about self-harming into discovering love for her family, but all the other Doloreis are… fine. Wouldn’t it have been worthwhile to follow her/them in those discoveries and decisions?

One reason why I think I take this critical approach is that it lets me skip so much else – characterization, cinematography, soundtrack… 

Some of those might have been good, some were definitely bad, but you can just look at a storyboard for this season—not even a storyboard, a bulleted outline—and realize that it could not possibly work inside 10 hour-long episodes, no matter how good or bad those executional choices ended up being. 

As I said: that kinda sucked.

Decameron III

Pack it in, the coronavirus is done, this is the peak:

…Hang on, I’m just now hearing that apparently the “coronavirus” is actually a disease and not a justification for generating a bunch of high-grade YouTube/Twitter content. Um… we didn’t know that until the last 24 seconds.

Well, here’s a bunch of other good stuff:

This whole concert thing happened:

Ok this next one starts in a cringy place, but it never gets that bad, and also it’s Susan Egan (the original Megara!) singing the 24th-best song Disney ever recorded:

And then a tangent… the channel that hosts that last video is amazing in general, and in particular is home to Nerdy Spice’s all-time favorite YouTube video:

But the reason this is still Decameron content is that the isolation prompted the editor to cut and release another take of Jeremy Jordan performing the same song earlier that day, which isn’t really better? But it’s at least the same, which is to say great, so it’s ok to watch it right after that last one:

No one’s judging.

Let’s cut back to that Twitter thread:

And yes, I buried the lede:

Decameron II

So many things are happening while the world ends!

Billie Joe Armstrong covered “I Think We’re Alone Now” (do you get it?):

No but actually do you get it?

Ben Gibbard wrote a whole Death Cab-ish song about the quarantine:

Sir Patrick Stewart really needs to stay inside for all our sakes, and has set himself up for at least 154 days of isolation by starting a Sonnet A Day series on Twitter… and yes hearing him read Shakespeare absolutely counts as art:

Speaking of that new Ben Gibbard song: he premiered it on this stream:

That stream was the fourth (!) of nine (!!) sets, so far (!!!), in which he’s been playing DCFC material old and new, Postal Service, and covers, most especially on the all-covers stream on March 23rd:

This link goes straight to the Phoebe Bridgers cover because it’s important.

You can look in the comments of each video for set-lists that link directly to each song, in some cases supplied by the band itself (for example).

Some guy made this amazing chilled-out cover of “Going to Georgia”, accompanied by at least 3 copies of himself:

Decameron I

It seems that one thing that will come out of the Covid quarantines is a new flourishing of cloistered art. No word yet on a new theory of gravitation. Here’s a wonderful instance – John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats recording new music into his storied Panasonic… but also broadcasting the recording session live on Facebook:

For The Snakes

Breaking news from 1625!

Somehow this story was both so exciting that it literally made the hair on my neck stand up when I heard it, and also the most unimportant thing I’ve seen on Twitter since… ok since the meme 3 posts above it, Twitter is basically all garbage.

Conveniently, this story also has the property that if you care at all about it, you already know all about it, so this post is even more irrelevant than the Twitter meme two posts above that other one. BUT I DON’T CARE THIS IS AMAZING:

Claire Bourne recently published an article on marginalia in a particular First Folio copy of Shakespeare’s plays, held in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944. The notes drew her attention by being especially sensitive to the nuances of Shakespeare’s language, extending to the point of proposing emendations to words, and more poetic reorderings of key phrases.

One reader, looking at the photos in her article, noticed a similarity of the author’s handwriting to that of one John Milton. I’m sorry, I stuttered:


Like I said, if you found that reveal at all exciting, you already knew. Sorry everyone else. There’s definitely further research to be done to confirm that this handwriting is actually (or very likely) Milton’s, but so far no serious objections to the theory have been raised.

The number of Ph.D. theses, books, articles, everythings that are about to be written about this text boggles the mind. There’s probably at least 50 years of work in understanding how Milton’s reading of Shakespeare affects our understanding of both Milton’s work, and Shakespeare’s. (Or there would be 50 years of work if the U.S. higher education system wasn’t going to collapse before then… but that’s a story for another time. )

For now – Milton! Milton’s notes on Shakespeare! Milton’s revisions to Shakespeare! I can’t wait to read more.

Alternate headlines:

  • “The kind of news we needed 350 years ago”
  • Britain’s Got Talent – 1630 Edition
  • … ok this bit didn’t go as far as I thought it would sue me

“Handmaid’s Tale” is good sometimes

I’m aware that this isn’t the hottest possible take, given that Alexis Bledel already won an Emmy for her role in the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale—but her performance in Season 3 Episode 2, “Mary and Martha”, was incredibly acute and powerful. Too many (ok, yes, fine, not enough) rewatchings of Gilmore Girls have contributed to making this more surprising for me than it perhaps should be, but, wow:

The entire emotional arc of the episode is carried by the camera lingering on the tension and anticipated grief and implied, learned suffering that she carries in her face. One loooong shot after another, unrelieved by overbearing soundtrack or the other devices prestige TV uses when it can’t trust its actors to carry their weight, she builds up the self-doubt and uncertainty that stand in the way of an otherwise obvious denouement, one which probably seemed like a foregone conclusion at the end of the previous season.

Her performance lets do the show do what it does at its best, imbuing completely banal interactions with painfully expressive weight, letting an overhead shot of a car blocking traffic become a heart-breaking emblem of connection.

I cried, ok? The car made me cry.

Three Billboards Roundtable


For the first half of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, I thought for sure it was a Good movie with a capital G. The humor is dry and pitch-black, the performances (especially by Frances McDormand) are fiercely committed, and the narrative feels substantial and morally ambiguous. McDormand plays Mildred, a grieving and rage-filled woman who rents three billboards to call out the beloved police chief (Woody Harrelson) for failing to find her daughter’s killer. Mildred is sympathetic, not only because she has a dead child and an abusive ex-husband, but because she’s a well-rounded Nasty Woman at a time when we really need one. And yet we don’t entirely root for her, mostly because Harrelson’s Willoughby is terminally ill and appears to be a genuinely decent person–maybe the only one in the film.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have certain flaws from the start. Director Martin McDonagh clearly has a “special strong woman” problem: aside from Mildred, every woman in the film is dehumanized, uncharacterized, and/or treated as the butt of the joke. Mildred’s ex’s girlfriend (Samara Weaving) is very young, very pretty, and very stupid. A hapless secretary (also very young, pretty, and stupid) serves almost no function except to get punched in the face. Willoughby’s wife (Abbie Cornish) is at least twenty years his junior and not particularly three-dimensional. (This age difference is not addressed in any way, presumably since everyone should just be used to seeing 55-year-old men act opposite 35-year-old women by now.) The lone black woman is a cipher without any motivations outside helping Mildred. Mildred’s daughter is a bratty teenager who is raped to death before the movie begins.

Three Billboards also immediately has some race issues; there are no main characters of color, and the script establishes the character of Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted cop who lives with his mother, by casually mentioning his torture of a black man, without ever showing the tortured man on screen or even giving him a name. It’s cold comfort that Dixon was clearly being set up as a villain (more on that later) when a white writer is using violence against black bodies for the sake of “edgy” characterization without bothering to humanize any actual black people.

And then there’s the lazy “midget” humor at the expense of Peter Dinklage, which is pretty self-explanatory. It’s like McDonagh was trying to be politically incorrect, like he was just ticking off the boxes of every “ism” he could think of.

But still, I was ready to like this movie for the remarkable character work alone. And one scene in the middle even gave me hope that the movie was reaching for greater things: Mildred is in the police station, and when she calls Dixon out for “n***er-torturing” (even the sympathetic characters use the n-word in this movie, which–again–might have been defensible in the name of “realism” if the movie were at all interested in the black experience), he goes on an incoherent rant that goes something like, “you can’t say that anymore, now it’s people-of-color torturing.” I thought this was a brilliant indictment of ignorant racists who don’t understand the point of “political correctness,” an interpretation that was apparently confirmed by Willoughby’s incisive and damning statement to Mildred: “If you got rid of every cop with slightly homophobic or racist leanings, you wouldn’t have any officers left.”

Hot damn, I thought. Is this Oscar-baity movie about the struggles of the white working class in flyover country–which should be a Trumpian’s wet dream–indicting America’s police as systemically racist? Is the script using Willoughby’s character to point out that even decent people can enable everything terrible in this world? Putting aside the sexism and ableism, does this movie have something to say about race? Is this actually going to be a Great movie with a capital G?

Spoiler: no. No, it’s not.

Shortly after that scene, the movie takes a hard left turn for the worse: Willoughby, rather than die slowly of his illness, commits suicide and exits the film early. It’s a neat narrative trick, but unfortunately, it also unravels the moral ambiguity of the whole affair. Now, Mildred’s only option for antagonist is Dixon, and he’s not morally ambiguous at all. He’s portrayed as a disgusting, card-carrying homophobe and racist, one whose only sympathetic quality is his inability to understand when people are making fun of him. The only person who believes in him is Willoughby, which by all evidence seems like naïveté more than anything else. And once Willoughby is gone, Dixon goes on a terrifying violent rampage in which he beats an innocent man, throws him out a window, punches his young secretary in the face for good measure, and then beats the innocent man while he’s down (and potentially, um, dying). It’s horrifying to watch, but also exhilarating, because all you can think is, “Okay. This script gets it. There’s no coming back from that.”

But as it turns out, there is. I had very high hopes when Willoughby’s replacement, a dignified, no-nonsense black man named Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), immediately fires Dixon. I assumed that Abercrombie would play a large role in the plot, that he would sympathize with the injustice Mildred faced in a way that even Willoughby couldn’t. But instead, he all but disappears, and the movie shifts focus to Dixon, its least rounded character. Dixon, mere days after throwing poor Red out a window, magically has a change of heart after reading a letter from Willoughby that once again insists Dixon has “a good heart” (based on… something? Daddy issues? White male solidarity?). He works his ass off to solve Mildred’s case, all the while knowing that she most likely set him on fire. He doesn’t solve the case, but he makes such a concerted effort, even Abercrombie congratulates him. The man who begins the movie fresh off torturing a black man ends the movie forgiven by a convenient black guy substitute.

Some will argue that the script isn’t insensitive, it simply has “nuance,” and that it’s necessary to humanize Dixon’s character for the sake of good writing. I would actually agree with the latter point; very few real people resemble cartoon villains, and it’s always valuable to understand where a character is coming from. I would have appreciated a few scenes that help the audience understand why Dixon is the way that he is–he was rejected by his father, he’s emotionally dependent on and abused by his mother, etc, etc. Understanding his motivations is enough to humanize him, and the script could have accomplished this without asking us to ride along for his redemption arc, without asking us to forgive him even a little bit, without asking us to take his perspective in the last act at the expense of all others, even Mildred.

For the record, I’m a firm believer in the possibility of redemption. But even if a violent bigot is theoretically capable of redemption, it wouldn’t happen in the span of a few days and a freak arson incident. Dixon’s arc is, at best, a white liberal fantasy of redemption for racism (written without ever speaking to a black person, seemingly), and at worst a Trumpian wet dream about all those racist, violent cops being “good at heart.” Even if it’s true (because God only knows who’s “good at heart” or what that even means when you’ve done so much harm to the world), does it matter? And is that the story that should be told, especially right now?

That was rhetorical, but feel free to answer if you’d like, Keets…


I’m definitely willing to argue this story should be told, and right now is the best time, but I’m not at all sure it’s a story of redemption. My read of the film is that it is meant to be explicitly political, and that its numerous representational infelicities (I very much agree with all of the points you made there) are specifically intended to make the medicine go down smoother for the intended audience: white Trumpist middle-Americans.

Three Billboards presents an America entirely without justice, and I think that’s pretty much the entire point. The titular billboards are exactly a demand for justice, and we spend the entire movie waiting for that particular act of justice: retribution for the brutal murder of Mildred’s daughter.

I don’t think it’s an accident at all that the mechanism of Dixon’s redemption arc is supposed to be his providing that justice—he thinks he’s sacrificing his dignity to get evidence the soldier was the murderer—and that he fails in the attempt: DNA evidence and the soldier’s service record prove he couldn’t have committed the murder (at least of Mildred’s daughter). Once again: Dixon fails to complete the act that he clearly thinks will act as his penance, that will prove he’s a good cop and good person after all. Having failed, is he really redeemed?

That one, I think, is to be left as a question. As you point out, the film establishes early on and very clearly that Dixon has been and continues to be awful, and prepares him as the key antagonist. He tortured a black man in the jail before we meet him, and on-screen he almost kills the billboard-owner, Red Welby, in his rage at Willoughby’s suicide. Even worse, the replacement sheriff, Abercrombie, fails to provide the justice Dixon so richly deserves, inexplicably choosing to stop at just firing him after the assault, when he clearly belongs in jail. It’s left to Mildred, in the end, to deliver punishment, but even she does so by accident, having tried to make sure the police station was empty before firebombing it.

Dixon has a sincere and permanent (at least through the end of the film) change of heart in the sheriff’s office that night, brought on by Willoughby’s suicide note. Immediately thereafter he is literally burned alive and left permanently disfigured, which along many dimensions is harsher punishment than our justice system would ever subject him to for his numerous crimes. So: Dixon has been harshly and somewhat miraculously punished, and equally miraculously has been rehabilitated from his brutal inclinations. Isn’t this justice?

I think the film argues it isn’t, and does so by making every other part of the plot and subplots various examples of injustice. Willoughby is clearly an honorable man, and is publicly shamed for not solving an unsolvable case; he is a good father and husband and is taken from his family at an incredibly young age by (mostly) cancer. His wife is present and supportive, and is denied an opportunity to say goodbye by his suicide. There is, of course, the main plot, in which the murderers of Mildred’s daughter are never found or punished. Red Welby is brutally beaten by Dixon, and receives no compensation whatsoever. Denise, Mildred’s co-worker, is arrested and held on a trumped-up drug charge only to put pressure on Mildred. James (Peter Dinklage) supports Mildred consistently, to the point of fabricating an alibi for her, and in return receives only ridicule. No character in the film receives a moment of justice, ever, and this must force us to realize that even Dixon’s arc, which has the shape of justice, is only a parody of it.

Dixon was punished and rehabilitated, but there wasn’t justice—we feel that even if Mildred has chosen to forgive him, we can’t, and more to the point, the victims of his crimes (Red, the unnamed black man tortured in his cell, doubtless many others before the movie begins) have not been given satisfaction for the way they were treated. He tries to make a grand gesture by at least making justice possible for Mildred and her daughter, and fails at that.

The reason why what Dixon went through wasn’t justice, and why he doesn’t merit our absolution, is that the State (or the Polity, to be more broad) never judged him and found him guilty. Judgment is the ingredient missing from his punishment and rehabilitation, and its absence is also the through-tune in the injustices of every other subplot in the film. Without the active judgment and intervention of a just State, all that can exist is a chaotic sequence of revenges and assaults, some deserved, some not, and none of which does anything but provoke more chaos.

This, I think, is the film’s political agenda: to present America as a country without justice, particularly in how it treats its citizens of color, and the citizens of the countries touched by its wars. It aims to present in Dixon and the other deputies inescapable evidence that being an officer of the law doesn’t make you an instrument of justice, and in Willoughby and Abercrombie an illustration that a law system that tolerates the injustice of individuals can become systemically unjust. The fact that black characters are entirely marginal and mostly voiceless isn’t great, but their persistent presence on the margins of the film is meant to remind the target audience that the injustice suffered by Mildred, the tough-talking, white, and highly sympathetic lead, is only one example of the injustices tolerated by the system we live in.


I stand by all of my earlier points, but I do think that your argument about the philosophical underpinnings of the film–which point towards nihilism and randomness–is its best defense. For all its faults, the movie does a pitch-perfect job of bringing the viewer into its world, which is full of good people who suffer, bad people who get away with murder, and the morally ambiguous Mildred, who achieves catharsis but still not justice. I buy all of that, but only to a point. I think that’s why I enjoyed the movie so much while I was watching it, but didn’t think it held up once I left the theater. The film only works if you are engrossed in its warped, nihilistic logic.

I could actually believe that McDonagh’s intent was to portray a world without justice, especially for women and people of color. I could also accept the argument that Dixon’s arc isn’t one of redemption in the actual text of the film (although it feels like one just by virtue of taking his perspective so heavily, which remains super problematic), since that last scene is so morally ambiguous. But I just don’t trust that McDonagh had creative control over the bulk of his Trumpian-friendly decisions, or that he actively viewed them as concessions; if his play The Cripple of Inishmaan is any indication, ableist and otherwise politically incorrect humor is just sort of his jam.

I intellectually understand the value of the bait-and-switch for Trump country–even if catering to them at all strikes me as a very ethically ambiguous decision in itself. But I think there is a way to humanize oppressed people for the intended audience without playing into their bigotry. It’s a very thin tightrope walk, but my counterexample would be Friday Night Lights. FNL showed a genuine love for a very conservative region and culture (I get tears in my eyes every time Riggins says “Texas Forever,” and I’ve never even been to Texas), but was still wholeheartedly interested in the black and female experience–at times even more than the white male experience. There are women and POC playing huge roles from the start, and by the time you get to the fifth season, you realize that the writers have pulled a bait-and-switch: drawing viewers in with football and white guys and then locating the heart of the show primarily in female and POC characters like Tami and Vince. The only way to humanize oppressed peoples is to actually show their humanity, which is why I thought there was such a missed opportunity in Abercrombie.

I liked this movie. I thought the black humor struck an absolutely brilliant tone (when it wasn’t at the expense of POC or disabled people), and that the feeling of impotent anger in the writing really speaks to our time in a visceral way. But as long as we’re talking about its cultural context, if Three Billboards wins Best Picture over a film like Get Out, which portrayed violence against black bodies in a brilliantly humanizing way, would feel like adding insult to injury.


Completely agree—this is not the Best Picture of the year.

Quite simply, making a movie about systemic injustice in 2017, and making it about poor(ish) white folks, isn’t and can’t be right or good or Best. It can only be political, and so I think the value you assign to the film depends entirely on your sense of the urgency and efficacy of its political message.

To me, a straight white man possessed of every form of privilege scientists have so far discovered names for, this message does seem urgent, and at least potentially efficacious, which makes me think it’s fair to call Three Billboards a great movie for this moment, but not the Best one. The comparison to Get Out is incredibly apt, because one (of many) spectacular achievement of that film is to take a sociopolitical context as its raw material and fashion out of it a self-justifyingly dramatic narrative. Get Out makes the political personal, and thereby timeless, while Three Billboards makes the personal political, and therefore momentary.

There is a fair amount of existential despair packed into my calling Three Billboards a great movie: I believed in the political speech of FNL at the time, around 2010 and the few years after. Then, the most urgent political message seemed to be creating empathy and identification with the experiences of women and people of color in a society still structurally biased against them, even as the forms of lip-service towards marginalized communities became ever more elaborate. Today, in a society with a suddenly-discovered willingness to accept and applaud outright racism in public speech and policy, it seems much more urgent to get the point across that in the phrase “person-of-color torturing”, the real problem isn’t with the first word but the second.

All of which to say that I hope the moment in which the content of Three Billboards seems at all necessary or even justifiable rapidly passes us by. But also that Frances McDormand gets to make another award speech on Sunday, because those are fun.

Everything new is old again

The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel written by Margaret Atwood, is a devastating and sui generis entry in the annals of dystopia, which stands alongside 1984 and Brave New World in the originality of its exploration of the psychology of a totalitarian society. The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV show being serialized on Hulu, is not.

The show so far is wonderfully acted, both from expected quarters (Elisabeth Moss) and… less-expected (Yvonne Strakovsky, Alexis Bledel). The direction is excellent, and the action is genuinely moving and traumatic. The third episode’s scene of a riot, filmed in slow motion, set to a vaporously slow cover of “Heart of Glass,” was truly haunting.

For all that, though, the show has lost the heart of what made the novel so brutal and revelatory.

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