An Introduction to the shows on this network including the zombie horror serial HG WORLD, the pulp adventure HIDDEN HARBOR MYSTERIES, fantasy and horror fiction, and podcasts on writing, cosplay, ghost hunting, and more. All on one channel. Like and subscribe for more adventures and check out Jay’s web page – www.jaysmithaudio.com
Narrated by Tracy Hall
Music by Kevin MacLeod.
For about six months, “Lucy” and I had an incredible affair. We would meet and just hang out and that would lead to dinner, clubs, maybe a movie, and we would end up at one of our apartments. Our third date lasted three days and it just felt natural. There was so much laughter and we connected on an emotional and physical level.
To my young, romantic mind, Lucy was perfect. She was a fit five-eight with bright blue-gray eyes and a nest of red curls that spilled over her freckled shoulders. She kept her hair long to hide what she called “open car door” ears. She had a habit of biting gently on her bee-stung bottom lip when she was in thought or being flirty. When her eyes sparkled and she sucked in her lip, it melted the world away.
In the first several weeks we were young and full of passion. She looked at me in a way no one ever had and most nights as we lay in my third-hand double-bed in my shitty apartment, she would whisper how glad she was to find me. As the weeks passed and we spent more time together driving long distances to new and exciting destinations, sitting across from one another in restaurants, I tried to get her to open up, only to have her change the subject to the next great thing we would do.
She worked hard to keep the details of her life secret. In her apartment, which was a lot nicer than mine, she had no family pictures or pictures of herself as a younger girl, nothing to suggest she even had a family. Everything about her apartment was new or bought from a second-hand store, so no heirloom items or old clothes.
Lucy looked so innocent, free of the haunted or brooding phases I often see in friends suffering from post-traumatic stress or abuse, so I wondered what she was keeping from me. When we spoke, she did so with a steely impartiality toward all issues. If something happened in the news or among our – really MY – friends, she tried to understand all sides and then change the subject. At first, this attitude seemed enlightened and I admired her ability to stay above conflict. Her narrative, though, would come with a telling world view where we should embrace the freedom to be what we want in life, to explore and experience everything we could. I admit it was a conceit that only the rich and those unburdened by debt could have. She clearly owned nothing extravagant, but she could afford to fly around the world. While she had no photos of her experiences, she spoke in great detail about the sensory experience of dining alone in a Parisian café or how the smell of petrol hung in the cold air of a garment district in Moscow. Her stories were never far-fetched, always personal. Lucy was never one to stop off at the gift shop for reminders of her travels. She always said that the experience was the point of experience.
I liked to imagine she was the daughter of a very rich family and didn’t want that to influence me or how I treated her. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as though she hid the photos or the clues to her life from me. Those spaces didn’t exist in her world. There were no photos hidden in drawers, no stack of bills from elite boutiques, no interruption from business partners or consultants. She was free anytime and anywhere I chose to reach out to her.
As I fell for her, I wanted more than anything to know who she was beyond the moment. I wanted her to become part of my life, past through to the future. When we talked about my life, I would try to flush out comparisons between my family and hers and when she didn’t take the bait I asked her directly about her family.
Again, she would deflect and go so far as to offer me my heart’s desire as if it were a spontaneous thought crossing her mind at just that moment.
We talked about my grandmother’s recent passing and, after talking in general terms about living through tragedy, she responded to my questions about her own grandparents by suggesting:
“Ever been to the Paris underground and the tunnels full of skulls?”
“That’s an odd segue.”
She smiled, un-phased by my phased-ness. “We could go somewhere she always wanted, you know, as a tribute to her. Where did she always want to go?”
“I have no idea.”
“Then where do you want to go?” This would come with an extra sparkle and Lucy’s warm kisses on my neck leading to something else entirely.
She was always in the moment, as she liked to say, pointed forward to the next exciting thing. She wanted to travel and apparently had the means to do so. She drove a late model Audi and her apartment was in an affluent neighborhood downtown, the kind where young professionals lived to be close to their corporate employers.
She wasn’t about material things or holding on to memories of our good times. I had no problem collecting ticket stubs and little mementos from the places we went as most lovers do, reminder of moments that might get lost in the distractions of regular life. In six months, we skipped class just to check out a museum or a gallery three hours away. She insisted on driving, even if we were on the run for three days straight switching between our bedroom at a B&B in Cape May to a bar and then the beach with little sleep. Pushing the issue, she responded by grabbing me by the crotch and giving me a hand job all while tearing down I-95 well over the speed limit.
This relationship did not escape the notice of my friends who were free with their praise and mock-mockery. To them, she really was out of my league. I was a geek who, while not out of shape, was definitely the product of poor nutrition and a lack of exercise.
I realized that while Lucy always seemed to be among my friends, none of them really knew her. She was quiet in class, whenever she bothered to show up, anyway. She wasn’t close to anyone but me, so my friends asked a lot of questions. I told them what I knew, which was nothing, but that I didn’t care because every moment with her was a new experience.
My friends joked that she was my Sugar Mommy and speculated that maybe she was a Russian spy or had some secret life I wouldn’t approve of. The nights my friends and I could play together were disappearing because I was getting better offers from someone far better looking and willing to sleep with me. I began looking forward to the routine of working, studying, and spending as much time as I could with Lucy.
My Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, she was, with a smile that told me I was loved and wanted in all her moments and in the future. I have to say she trained me to stop asking about her past or anything outside the envelope of “us” – not even including my friends. She didn’t have any that she brought into that bubble and was reluctant to include my friends or our activities.
At first, this was fine. I didn’t notice and my friends were supportive that I had someone to keep me in bed and take me to breakfast, especially someone who carried herself so effortlessly and looked like a model. I was proud, but also happy because though I didn’t know her past or her family, I felt I knew Lucy – and that was enough.
About the fourth month is when things started to change.
It was time for the holidays. I wanted to introduce her to my family and bring her home for Christmas. She had begged off of Thanksgiving feigning sickness and stress over finals. I relented, assuming she wasn’t ready to commit.
I wanted to catch up with old friends and, kinda, show her off. I mean, she was everything a young man dreams of – the kind of perfection that is just a well-maintained illusion for a naïve young man. My friends always had a weekly movie night and regular gaming nights where all friends and their SOs were welcome. Lucy was never interested, pretending she didn’t think she could learn the kind of RPGs I played and wasn’t interested in watching a movie unless she could be sure we could just fall into bed at any time during it.
My friends were overtly problematic. The one time I had friends over to my apartment to play games and watch movies, she sat quietly next to me – not mad or even tense, but just…inert. After the last friend left around two in the morning, she helped clean up in silence. When I asked her about it, she acted as though she had enjoyed herself and my friends but just didn’t feel a part of “that world.” She then began critiquing them subtly based on things they said, calling my one friend Kyle “perverted” for pointing out an attractive woman in a movie and Ben “a bit dull” for his dry wit. It was the last time she agreed to sleep over at my place, insisting we enjoy her quiet (and bigger) home.
Christmas called her bluff. She refused to meet my family and was irritated that I wouldn’t skip out on seeing them, essentially saying I was making her spend Christmas alone. She didn’t hit me with guilt, but disappointment that I didn’t seem to understand that it was natural for just the two of us to be together all the time because “sometimes boys leave their parents and start their own traditions.”
There was no way I was missing family Christmas, so I reluctantly spent Christmas Eve with her at dinner, offered her my relatively modest gift – tickets to a concert she wanted to see. She told me my gift would be waiting when I returned and we parted warmly, but quietly that evening so I could wake up at home with my parents Christmas morning. I missed her at breakfast and my parents were disappointed she couldn’t make it. My brother accused me of making her up, especially since I had no photos of her. But that’s how she was.
“In the moment.”
I was looking for work during the break and this took me away from her many mornings and some afternoons. She filled this time with shopping and going on little day trips that she would tell me about every night at her place. When I told her I was going over to Ben and Kyle’s she seemed confused about why I would choose them over her. I tried to say it wasn’t a choice, but they were my friends. I added that she was always welcome to join, but that wasn’t something she was into. Over time, I pulled away from them, hoping that my dedication and commitment would earn me more insight into her past and why she was so possessive and territorial, though I never put my concerns to her that way.
Toward New Year’s, nights grew tense as she tried very hard to keep me engaged late into the morning, where her sexual appetites seemed insatiable. Her time at the gym made her open to any and all challengers while my long days and less, uh, durable body was put to the test. That’s not to say I was ineffectual in bed. But where she achieved one orgasm, she wanted two and then more until I had no feeling in my thighs or turgor in my girder. Where we used to drift off together in each other’s arms, she would get up and walk out of the bedroom, disappearing for long periods. She might start cleaning, banging dishes around or turn on the TV just loud enough that I could hear it on in the next room. She would come back to bed and sleep with her back to me at the edge of the bed.
The following morning, though, I’d see that bright smile and sparkling eyes as if the previous night hadn’t been awkward at all. On those mornings after a night of awkward tension, she would be the brightest. She made breakfast or insisted we go to some new place to try out a specific dish she’d heard about. It was always about the next big adventure.
So infatuated I grew with her, desperate to bring back that amazing woman who blew my mind, I spent my available cash on her. But she didn’t appreciate material gifts. Practical ones were fine. Concert tickets or things she could experience were what she loved, but when I bought her a framed painting from one of the galleries we visited, she left it in the paper wrapping beside the sofa for weeks. She was all about visiting places, eating new cuisine, and coming home with nothing but memories, not even photos.
This brings us to about month five out of six.
I was coming to the end of my lease on my apartment and had to opportunity to move into the house with Ben and Kyle, which was far less in rent and utilities than I’d been paying. I didn’t think much of it. Lucy wasn’t pushing the idea of moving in together and I wasn’t prepared for that, either. In fact, the nights of tension and the growing urgency to plan our days, weeks, and even months out in advance to lock down our time together was becoming worrisome. I also felt I wasn’t pulling my weight, financially, and didn’t like the constant ribbing from friends about my “sugar mommy” and how Lucy spent money on experiences and nothing much else.
When I told her about it and asked her to come see the place with me, she came closest to anger I’d ever seen. Her face went red and she stared down at the floor of her living room a long time trying to process this information. She shut down for nearly twenty minutes and it began creeping me out. It was odd that she hadn’t deflected the news entirely like she did my questions about her life or family. There was no suggestion on the table about what to do next. She looked like the light had gone out in her soul.
Finally, I sat down next to her and put an arm around her. “What’s the matter, Luce?”
After struggling to find words and stuttering, she said, “Your friend, Kyle, is a rapist.”
She said it so plainly, like it was common knowledge and I had to accept it. He blank expression didn’t change and she kept looking at the floor.
I probably responded with something like “What are you talking about?”
“The last time I was at your place, he cornered me coming out of the bathroom and told me he was going to fuck me one way or another and that’s why I was so uncomfortable around him and your friends. I can’t stand them. The one guy -Ben – judges me and Kyle wants to hurt me.”
Doubtful, but trying to understand the situation, I asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about Kyle that night? Or until now, baby?”
“Because he said that if I told you he’d make it hurt and get me pregnant. He said you wouldn’t do anything about it.” A few beats later, she added, “Because you’re such a bitch.”
This made no sense. Kyle is a weird guy, a geek with an odd sense of humor, but he barely had the courage to look a girl in the eye much less do what she said he did. It wasn’t in his nature. I knew him well and he never so much as expressed more than a “whoah” about a woman’s appearance and under his breath.
But love and trust have a way of deadening common sense. The way she talked and kept looking at the floor made me think she had thrown out the first thing she could to try and plant those seeds of doubt about Kyle. After all, it’s always the quiet ones.
I sat back on the sofa, my hand still caressing her back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Don’t move into that place.” Her voice was pleading, though that expression never changed. I felt like I was talking to Lucy through a radio where my girl was somewhere distant, and this body was just a vessel. She didn’t move.
I said a few things that I can’t remember about bills and the housing market, ending with “My lease is up and I can’t afford another year there if I can’t find work after school ends.”
Lucy turned to me and smiled. She was suddenly back in her bright, easy-going mood, eyes shining at her sudden, brilliant idea. The shift was so quick my heart began to race and I felt suddenly uncomfortable with her. She said, “Move in with me.”
“I don’t think we’re at that point, Luce.”
Her enthusiasm only dimmed slightly. “Why not? Save up your money. Heck, if we don’t have enough room, we can look at a place where you can have an office and maybe get a dog and…”
“Luce! I’m not moving in with you. We’re not there, yet.” I added ‘yet’ as a courtesy, but at that moment, I didn’t want to be with her at all.
The question was a challenge. “Why not?”
The move-in with my friends was the only call. There was no way that I was going to further insulate myself from the world by moving all I was into this small bubble. I loved her, but I knew she didn’t love enough of who I was and what I loved to make me commit. But she deserved a reason and was waiting on it.
“You don’t like my friends,” I said. “I wish I’d known that something had happened with Kyle, but that’s not a factor here. You avoid my family. I don’t know much about you outside your taste in art and food and fun. I don’t know your politics, if you’re religious…hell, I don’t know much about you outside the time we’ve been together. You know a LOT about me. I’ve shared hoping you would share back, you know? I can’t move in with someone I don’t know.”
Her expression did not change. We were back to the vessel broadcasting the voice of someone far, far away. “So you’ll move in with a predator because you’ve known him so many years but not me, the girl you love. The girl who has given all of her time, effort, and love to you and you alone.” She put it out there and let the words linger in our imaginations for a moment, what that really meant to each of us. To her, it was entitlement. To me, it was her true character beginning to show through.
I said her name as though I had something more to say, but it was just an attempt to keep connected to the person I knew who was quickly melting into someone completely different before my eyes. The façade was failing her as her bright expression faded and her posture stiffened.
“Get out,” she said. “Go home and let me alone.”
I left without another word. Realizing that, in the moment of tension, we’d forgotten the Chinese food we brought back for dinner, I took a box and an eggroll from the kitchen pass-through and walked out.
By the time I got down from her apartment on the fourth floor, the rest of the Chinese food was splattered across the sidewalk below her window. I sidestepped it, lost in a funk.
The sudden end to our whirlwind relationship which, to that point was a perfect mix of thrills, new experiences, and mind-expanding sex provided a slap to the face that my friends could not or would not provide. I had a chance to think about who this person was and why I was really with her. Would Kyle really threaten her that way? I was torn between an obligation to believe the woman I cared for, but then the woman I cared for had so many secrets and was a controlling and manipulative person.
My rejection of Lucy’s newfound nature lasted about as long as it took for me to finish my General Tso’s and rice before I wanted to feel that buzz again. All those hints and signs were still encroached by the feeling of being wanted and sharing my time with someone who laughed at my jokes, called my name when she came, loved me when I was weak, who shared MOST of my interests and…
The interests we shared were solitary ones. She didn’t like gaming, which ruled out interaction with my friends. She didn’t like formal dinners or parties which excluded meeting my family and strangers. Everything we did was about doing it either away from people or from places where we might run into people we knew.
I went home, adding that thought to the growing collection of red flags, checked my answering machine to see if she called, and sank into my own couch disappointed and alone to catch up on recordings of Mystery Science Theater I’d been unable to watch while jet-setting it around the Delmarva peninsula.
I woke up around nine the next morning to a call from my friend Ben who, in a near-panic, told me that the police had been to the house and they were asking Kyle about threats he made to. Kyle wasn’t in custody but hiding in his room shaking in terror. I lied and said I had no idea about it, turning it back on him to provide more information.
As he started to talk, there was a loud pounding on my door. I left the phone off the hook and walked to the door. As expected, there were two officers standing on the other side of the peep hole and with a chill spreading from my stomach across my body and an electrical short crossing my brain, I opened the door. I can’t remember what they looked like except they were two tall men with serous expressions. They introduced themselves and didn’t bother to lower their voices to say they were there about a complaint my girlfriend made regarding one of my friends. Rather than have them in my home, I stepped outside and shut the door. At some point we were outside near their patrol car and I was cold because I hadn’t bothered to put on a coat or shoes. This point was made several times by the officers, but I said it was fine. I felt nothing.
I answered their questions best I could that, yes, Kyle and Ben were friends of mine and, no, I wasn’t aware of Kyle making any passes at Lucy. I wasn’t aware that he had groped her in the hallway of his home during one visit but confirmed Lucy claimed he threatened her with sexual violence during a visit to my home. Asked what I did in response to learning it, I shared how she claimed Kyle threatened her if she told me. I added that I didn’t really believe it since it was so out of character for Kyle. Satisfied, they thanked me and gave me a business card.
When I reached Ben again by phone, he said Kyle was crying in his bedroom, terrified he was going to be arrested for something he didn’t do. He was scared to talk to me because he thought I’d be furious with him.
I made a note to visit the house later in the day. I thought about calling Lucy, but I had no idea what to say to her. I was worried about her and I was wondering if there was a side to Kyle I’d never seen in the decade I’d known him. After all, Lucy called the cops and she wouldn’t do that unless there was really something to all this, right? I had to be a supportive boyfriend even though we were having our first “lover’s quarrel” so I drove across town to her apartment, sidestepping the remains of the Chinese food that hadn’t been picked over by the city’s local wildlife.
I had a key and opted to use it instead of knocking. I didn’t see her between the doorway and her open bedroom door on the far side of the living room. I didn’t hear any movement or other sounds in the apartment, so I announced myself.
I closed the door and called for Lucy. Again, there was no answer. She wasn’t home. I left her a note saying I needed to see her to make sure she was okay and I left. The only thing of note in the apartment was that the painting I gave her that she had abandoned in a corner was gone. She didn’t call me that day or the next. She hadn’t seen the note by the time I checked in that night or the following afternoon. At least the note hadn’t moved from under the paperweight I moved to call attention to it on the pass-through. I added a sticky note with Ben’s house number if she wanted to reach me there in case I wasn’t home.
Kyle had regained some of his confidence when he heard back from the officers and told that he was no longer under investigation for lack of any evidence or corroborating statements. They warned him to keep away from Lucy. Kyle seemed to think it wasn’t a threat but a warning but he was too timid to ask any further questions, thrilled to no longer be a suspect of sexual assault.
To distract ourselves, Ben, Kyle, and I talked about living arrangements. We had lunch and killed several hours brewing beer, talking games, and being kids. I missed those days of just hanging with my friends and it reminded me how much time I’d spent alone with Lucy. Her absence bothered me, but Kyle and Ben kept telling me to let her work through things and call me when she was ready to talk.
She didn’t call that day.
I had job interviews the morning of the following day. Because I was in a suit and in the neighborhood, I decided to try stopping by her apartment again.
She had her locks changed.
I responded the only way I could think of at the moment, I put my useless knob and deadbolt keys under the mat and went home.
Stuck between my door and frame was a folded sheet of yellow paper. Excited and nervous, I pulled it from the door and opened it.
“You better hope I am not pregnant.”
Through the dull ache through my body and the ringing in my ears, I had the revelation that Lucy still had a key to my house. I went inside, expecting the worst.
To me, “worst” was an apartment that looked like Keith Moon stayed the night. Instead, worst was going into the house to find all my bed clothes missing. My sheets, comforter, pillows, and bed liner were gone. My closet doors hung open and I noticed gaps on the rack and a few items crumpled on the floor below it. My underwear drawer had been riffled through. The only things missing in my apartment, apparently, were things I wore and things I slept in. Nothing else was touched.
In my head, I heard Ben and Kyle urging me to report it to the cops. Document it. Be smart and protect myself. I went to call them and check for any messages.
My answering machine was gone.
I had collected several romantic messages on the tape. The whole device was gone, the naked phone cable hanging over a square of dustless space on a neglected side table.
After taking note of anything I’d touched, I called 911 and reported a burglary. While she had a key to my house and an open invitation to enter, the things she took were not hers.
I don’t know why I expected the same officers to arrive, but I was surprised when I had to explain the back story about Kyle and Ben to two new cops. I gave permission to search and dust my apartment and stepped out into the cold, better dressed this time, and explained that I hadn’t seen her since the night before she reported Kyle to the police. I showed them the note I found in the door for what it was worth and they both cringed when they read it.
I provided a list of missing items – two shirts, some random underwear, a pair of jeans (maybe), and all my bed clothes. Also, the answering machine. I chose not to mention that the drawer in the bedside table had been pulled out and our play toys and condoms taken. I’d been humiliated enough for one day. Some of that stuff was hers anyway.
One of the officers suggested maybe she took things that she bought me or that she associates with our relationship, like things I wore on dates. The other half-joked that it’s usually the boyfriends who go in and steal their ex-partner’s undergarments.
A few official-looking strangers circulated through my apartment for an hour while I chatted with the officers, leaving as quickly and unceremoniously as they arrived. They marked it as a crime scene and sealed the door with special tape in case they found something in the evidence they collected. They cautioned me that nothing would come of it.
“You don’t seem to know a lot about your girlfriend.”
“She was very private with me. We spent a lot of time doing things. She isn’t big on nostalgia.”
The other officer gave me a look that reminded of Detective Lenny Briscoe on “Law & Order” whenever he thinks a situation can’t get weirder and suddenly does. “You gave us the address for your girlfriend. You sure it’s right?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“We talked to a Michelle Fulbright who is living there. She’s the one who called us about your pal, Kyle. She didn’t want to file a report after we came back and said no one at the house knew a ‘Michelle’ just your girlfriend ‘Lucy’.”
They seemed to be testing me for a response. I have no idea how they took it, but they seemed more sympathetic to me after. One of the officers handed me papers, asking, “Would you take a look at this?”
Here is where my old life just ended. I passed through some weird membrane where reality changed. No longer had I been dating 24-year-old Lucy Falchurch, but 32-year-old Michelle Lucille Fulbright, a divorced mom from Smyrna, Delaware, convicted of embezzling from the construction firm she worked for five years earlier. Her real name was public record. It was on her lease, on her mail, and on her college records – all things that she took pains to keep me from seeing. I never saw so much as an insurance card in her Audi. How she had the means to live as she did wasn’t something I could fathom.
Suddenly, the police looked at me differently, like I was a kind of rube.
“Maybe ‘Falchurch’ is her maiden name? I mean, ‘Lucy’ is her middle name, right?”
It wasn’t. Her maiden name was ‘Corning’, according to the records police had.
Police made an attempt to get my stuff back from ‘Lucy’ but she was very convincing in that she was there but only trying to reach me. She had a key that I provided and offered to let police search her place. She never called herself anything other than “Lucy” which was a natural nickname for someone with that middle name and had no idea how her boyfriend got her surname so confused.
It was one of those cases where police weren’t going to put a lot of effort into a domestic dispute with no bloodletting. I was a dumb ass kid who didn’t know who he was fucking and she was a troubled woman with a litigious past.
Further, Michelle Fulbright had a history of filing reports of sexual harassment and assault, all against people who threatened her security. She had surrendered custody of her daughter and left Delaware after police threatened to jail her over false reports against her ex-husband for stalking and assault.
They advised me to let the property go rather than pursue something that would never make it in front of a judge. Unofficially, they advised that I should just move on so that Kyle and I would be spared accusations of sexual assault and abuse.
I couldn’t get out of that apartment fast enough.
Michelle dropped out of school at the end of the term and moved away.
I moved in with my friends with all new bed stuff, underwear, an alarm system I installed, and a new job to pay for it all. The new year came with just a lingering sense of regret and shame that I missed all the signs and ignored common sense.
A few months passed and things began returning to normal. I spent weekends with Ben, Kyle, and other friends, got promoted at work and started a plan to graduate college and establish a life on my own, and even had some miserable dating experiences that were the result of my paranoia and cynicism.
Sometime in May, I was home doing some chores around the basement, setting out a few kegs that had leaked so I could clean up the floor and walls. Kyle’s car was in the shop, so he had borrowed mine for the day. The basement attached to a garage and I left the garage door open to vent the heavy stink of fermented hops and barley. It wasn’t to cold out for that time of year, so I was able to set up a mop and bucket from the deep sink in the laundry alcove. I was looking for detergent when I heard a car pull up. I didn’t think anything about it, assuming it was Kyle or Ben coming home.
A few minutes later, I was getting ready to put down the chemicals. Someone, one of the guys perhaps, was walking around upstairs in the living area of the house and I was about to call up for some assistance when I looked out through the open garage door and spotted the car.
Of course, the alarm was off because I was home and the garage door was open. Of all days to pick to visit, she picked one when I was alone and security was down. Somehow, she had come into the house and gone up the stairs all while I was standing in an alcove less than five feet from her. I crept up the stairs, not knowing what to expect from her. At the top of the stars I had a view straight down the main hallway from the kitchen into the living room. After waiting in silence for a moment, I watched a small, dark figure cross the living room toward the bedroom hallway.
I called out to the intruder. “Stop. Who’s there?” I knew who it was, but what the hell.
Lucy…Michelle, really… stepped back into the main hallway and looked down it at me. I recognized those beautiful eyes immediately. She had dyed her red hair black and wore dark red lipstick along with some gold jewelry around her neck and wrists. She opened her gray peacoat to reveal a tight black top that provided uplifting support and a pencil skirt that stopped a few inches above her knees. Her outfit was tight enough that I could say she probably wasn’t pregnant. If she were here to share that kind of news, I assumed she would have dressed to emphasize that point instead of looking like she was headed out to some club for the night.
She looked at me like I was an old and dear friend. She held out her arms either to invite me into an embrace or show she wasn’t armed. Either way, I wasn’t trusting her.
“Michelle Fulbright, huh?”
She spoke my name the way she sang it when I walked into her apartment.
Angered by this memory, I growled, “You’re not welcome here. Get out before I call police.”
She stood there, arms falling slowly back to her sides. She stepped down the main hall into the kitchen, eyes scanning the walls and shelves, taking it all in like she was trying to decide if she liked the place, if she might want to stay.
She said my name again, this time, like it was something of great value and looked me over the same way she looked at the furnishings. “Lucy said I’d like you. I think I do.”
With that, I began to understand Michelle a bit more. It was strange that she would look back at anyone, especially an estranged boyfriend and where pain and loss were present. But what does someone like Michelle do when the pain gets too great?
She reinvents herself.
“My name is Melissa. You’re more handsome than Lucy described. I kept telling her she should buy a camera but you know how she is. Never look back, no regrets and…”
“What the hell, man?” I stepped into the kitchen as she approached for the very god reason that it contained many sharp and pointed objects and I needed to put myself between them any my unwanted visitor. The closest phone was behind her in the main hallway or the basement.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that Lucy is gone. She couldn’t move past the guilt. She cut herself up about it.” ‘Melissa’ offered up her arms again and, at close range, I saw the long slices along them from the wrist to toward the inside of the elbow. They were fresh, but old enough to have scarred over. “She told me all about you when we crossed over from heaven, so I’m here to beg your forgiveness so her soul can cross over.”
In my life I have found myself in fear for my life maybe a half-dozen times. That moment I felt I might die from a short-circuiting brain as I failed, over and over, to process this bugfuckery. I was angry, scared, and threatened as this woman stood in my kitchen dressed to kill (maybe), showing me her jagged suicide tracks with the same expression I fell in love with, a face so…normal and ordinary that I couldn’t make all these elements work together without electric shock across my skull. As the room spun around a bit, I found myself offering her a chair at the kitchen table as I fell into another across from her. I guess I thought that if we were both sitting, no one would be punching or stabbing.
She spoke my name again with the same breathy satisfaction as when she settled back into bed with me, satisfied and content. “I am so sorry. I’m not…” He eyes sparkled again, but with welling tears. “I’m not Melissa or Lucy. I’m just me. Same me, different name. Different age, but same person. Same person you loved and loved you. I’m sorry.”
“So you’re making amends by walking into my house unannounced, leading with your suicide story and bad jokes about your mental illness. I hope you just came up with that on the fly because if you gave it thought and consideration and still went with it, I am afraid this will be another day I spend with the police dealing with you.”
“You’re being kind to me. Thank you. Michelle is not someone I like, being. I hate her. I cannot excuse her actions. I cannot forgive her. I can’t escape her. The first time I thought I could was with you. I was in love and so happy. I’m sorry I hurt you.”
She went on to describe “Michelle” in detail, how she was abused as a child and married young. She talked about how she only married because her attempt to ‘come out’ as bisexual to her parents resulted in them threatening to cut off her trust fund if she didn’t find a man. She picked someone who expressed an interest, agreed to marry him, and embarked on a life under contract, without love or respect. She suffered much trying to change to meet the expectations of her husband and family. With She lived with rape perpetrated nightly by her husband, resulting in an unwanted and complicated pregnancy, followed by a nervous breakdown.
One day, when the family was traveling through the Arizona desert on vacation, Michelle said her husband hit her for forgetting something. He did this in public and no one cared. In her mind, everyone seemed to agree she was a bad wife and mother. That night, she walked out of their motel and into the desert where she hoped she would die or find rebirth as the tour guide explained was the supernatural force of the region.
For once, I didn’t have to ask. Michelle was answering all of my questions both about her and Lucy.
She said, “Saying I’m sorry for hurting you isn’t enough. He told me he was sorry for hurting me and then hurt me more. I don’t want to hurt anyone. That’s why Michelle died to become Lucy. And Lucy was so happy…until she hurt you and promised to never hurt you again. Another lie.”
I asked, “Tell me what happened in the desert.”
There was little to share except for memories of hospital stays and legal issues that she didn’t understand. She gave everything up for that feeling of walking away, even her child.
Financially, she was able to live as she wished so long as she didn’t have contact with her parents or other family. It wasn’t vast wealth, but definitely enough to live comfortably and travel.
When she was arrested for taking five thousand dollars from a construction company, she had a money order made out to them before they realized the theft and called for an investigation. She said she did it to feel “something” again. She didn’t need the money.
Michelle had to die for Lucy to try and make a new life for herself. Michelle wandered off into the woods one day and was rescued by Park Rangers. From then on, she was “Lucy.”
She went to school near the Poconos but that didn’t work, so she relocated and started again where she met me.
And the rest you know.
I never met Michelle Fulbright. I don’t know if I’d like her more or less than the troubled Lucy Falchurch. This intruder, this woman across from me in the chair, was both a stranger and the woman who melted into my arms each night when we were together, a woman never haunted by or grieving over anything so long as she could look up and see someone – perhaps not me specifically – but someone who looked at her and not what she had experienced or with scorn and disappointment. She disappeared into a role on a small stage with a cast of two that made life bearable for a short while.
Our story commenced its final scene with Ben returning to the house, seeing the Audi parked out front, and calling police from the neighbor’s home. Fearing bodily harm, a number of cars arrived quietly, and they surrounded the house. Seeing us talking and catching a glimpse of us sitting together holding hands in polite conversation, they entered the house and took her into custody. They didn’t “take her down” but led her away gently. When they spoke, she kept looking at me. When an officer put hands on her shoulder, she looked down and said simply, “Goodbye, Warren.”
As the years went on, I remained a cautious and less romantic person. I married, started a family, and grew old. I can’t say I want for anything. My life has been blessed, even through moments of tragedy and setback. My wife knows about my life with “Lucy” and understands I never really knew her as “Michelle.”
I sometimes think of Michelle. I was told not to look for her or engage her because it may cause her to relapse. I was also promised that I’d be informed if and when she was released from the care facility she walked away from a week before she showed up at my home.
I haven’t asked and they haven’t told. So life is what it is.
At times, the thoughtfulness and insight of YouTube content creators surprises me. I am delighted by channels run by people who share their passions in a way that isn’t empty fan service or sycophancy. As a podcaster and audio dramatist for about ten years, I appreciate the time and effort put into a program that bothers to explain something in depth and in a way that attempts to make a scholarly point while also being entertaining.
I even like some “Let’s Play” creators who add story and commentary to their programming instead of making me feel like a lurker on a Discord server. I really dig Mr. Kravin, John Wolfe, and Pushing Up Roses because of the extra content and that they make the viewer feel like they are part of the experience. Some creators, like Lindsay Ellis provide different perspective to familiar work that help me consider that work through younger and less-CIS-white-male eyes. I also enjoy how many of the better play network hosts work together on shows, share ideas and discuss different points of view.
Talk, Recap, and Discussion channels like Good Bad Flicks, Fanboy Flicks and, especially, Red Letter Media, feature programs that mix wit, expertise, and analysis to what is largely a banal “watch and react” culture, as if the idle opinions of a bunch of dudebros behind microphones holds any value at all behind free marketing to the subject they’re discussing (see: The Nerd Crew parodies by Red Letter Media).
As someone who can no longer play videogames (eyesight, attention span, work) I enjoy keeping up with interesting story-based games or open world strategy games through hosts that add a layer of storytelling and creative visual editing to enhance the experience. Gamers like Welyn and Porgee(mainly for Rust) and TheRunningManZ (Day Z) tell stories within the game that are transformative in nature and entertaining as hell.
The fact that these creatives can monetize their passion and even make it their primary income is astonishing to me. Nice work if you can get it.
[Note: I won’t be linking to any Channel Awesome content because that’s what they want. Even if the two of you reading this want to watch the thing, you can go find it yourselves.]
I came across Channel Awesome back when it was “The Guy With the Glasses” starring Doug Walker as a goofy, shrill movie critic who specialized in older movies (mainly the VHS era). He was appropriately called “The Nostalgia Critic” or “Critic” by his fans and costars. His reviews of Gen-X era films and home video were part Looney-Tunes and part legitimate social and media commentary. Critic’s perspective wasn’t just how the work reflected his taste, but how it reflected society and culture at the time it was produced versus how it could be seen now. He took a historical and philosophical approach to the movies I watched growing up as a Gen-Xer and I found his observations to be well-constructed, thoughtful and funny.
He was like if Daffy Duck fucked Sluggo from the “Nancy” comic strip and the offspring grew up in a mom and pop video store attached to a public library.
Even the early days with Doug in his signature outfit sitting behind a desk talking at a camera for 20 minutes were entertaining because of the content which pulled from a library of pop culture and entertainment knowledge. These were clever observations about bullshit movies that made you think differently about something that was probably heavy rotation in our early lives, secretly shaping our view of the world. It’s good stuff. But I still won’t link you to it.
The history of Doug Walker’s character and channel is an interesting one that I won’t really go into details about here. His well-earned success led to the idea of creating a video streaming network independent of YouTube which was cracking down on copyright violators on behalf of the IP owners and their powerful corporations. He, along with a small band of merry pranksters created a site to host all his videos.
Other artists, attempting to replicate or build on this model back on YouTube, found themselves facing similar copyright challenges and take-downs. Between unfair restrictions and poor understanding of “Title 17” fair use rules for copyright, some creators moved to the short-lived “Blip” service or their own sites. Or they just stopped completely.
“Channel Awesome” was born out of a desire to bring content creators together and provide audiences with reviews on different media from diverse perspectives. Walker’s character and show became the flagship of that new network.
Everything went well, for a while. Walker and his team took care of the web site, scheduled new content, hosted and marketed it, and people got paid. I think.
Once I tracked Walker’s videos to Channel Awesome, I found other shows that benefited from collaboration between creatives. By comparing early episodes of independent series against later episodes that included crossovers between hosts, production values and commentary quality improved dramatically. It was an impressive collective effort to bring intelligent conversations about pop culture to the massive outside the well-orchestrated marketing carny barkers for corporate entertainment media. Eventually, Walker starring in video that he wrote and helped direct, using his fellow creatives as co-stars, foils, and thinly-veiled worshipers of his character. These were experimental film projects, meta-movies about the creators as they orbited Walker’s central character in weird stories with some laughs and certainly a lot of creativity and effort by the collective.
These seemed to be annual projects that increased in complexity and absurdity until the last one I watched – a three and a half hour circle-jerk called “To Boldly Flee” was one of the most self-indulgent, unfunny wastes of talent since Movie 43. It is astonishing that such a movie could be made at all without someone (or a small group of someones) intervening on behalf of sanity. It belittled the supporting cast while elevating the Nostalgia Critic (written by Walker, himself) to a kind of messianic character. But this is a thing that exists that a thoughtful critic of pop culture thought was clever, funny, and desired by people proportionate to the work put into it.
(Full disclosure: Did I watch the whole thing in order to make this a fair and objective statement? No. Channel Awesome deserves 3.5 hours of my free entertainment time about as much as a festival of German scat films. But I have seen enough of it to justify what I’ve written. None of Walker/Channel Awesome’s knock-off Wayans-parodies are so deep and nuanced that I need to see every frame to critique the experience.)
It seemed odd that someone known for skewering lazy writing and filmmaking would go on to make a movie, un-ironically, that embodied all of those things.
At some point, success and vanity outpaced creative commentary. In 2014 and 2015 a number of creatives associated with Channel Awesome left, citing shitty treatment by the management. There were volumes of complaints that pointed to mismanagement, unfair labor practices, stalking, intimidation and bullying, bad faith business practices, and even a case of sexual grooming. I read the complaints and eagerly awaited Channel Awesome’s response, hoping they would get out ahead of it instead of stepping in it.
They not only stepped in it, they chose to dance in the shit by offering a dull, feckless “Sorry you feel that way, guys.”
The channel reinvented itself with a small company of players continuing to do sketch comedy throughout what I felt to be less thoughtful or interesting observations in favor of sight gags, callbacks, and weak humor. It was still some good stuff, but I felt like the scandal had both darkened and diminished the show. I can’t really point a finger on why, but I got a sense that Critic’s reviews took on a growing “Unsubscribe us, will you? Fine, fuck the rest of you disloyal revenue providers.”
After the accusations and (dickless) response, I unsubscribed. There’s this notion of “if you’re wrong, make it right. If you are wronged, set it right” that I think is important if your business brands itself as a band of plucky artists making good in a big, bad world of commercial pop culture. Answering like Sony reporting and addressing a customer data breech is just – sad.
This was not a bad thing because there are DAYS of streaming from Red Letter Media that not only brought my laugh back but burned the hyena-orgasming laughter of Rich Evans into my rotten soul.
Recently, a friend of mine linked me to The Nostalgia Critic’s latest masturbatory epic, a “critique” of the 1982 Alan Parker film, “Pink Floyd’s The Wall” featuring an entire album of song parodies and Slipknot front man Corey Taylor in the role played in the film by Bob Geldof.
RARELY has so much effort gone into something saying so fucking little. Whether it was about the film, or a thinly-disguised commentary on how the mean Internet treated him during the scandal/exodus, Walker comes across without any of the charm or playful humor that made him popular. It’s like he knew this would bring him the kind of attention a petulant child would receive throwing a tantrum at Christmas dinner. He doesn’t care if the attention is a belt to the ass so long as he is the center of attention.
And to pick on Alan Parker’s direction and the narrative of Roger Waters, dismissing it as dumb nostalgia. As if Doug Walker and his dudebro cronies at Channel Awesome could collectively come up with the same live experience and talent Roger Waters possessed at 21 years old much less the matured and cynical arena-packing years his music produced.
Yes, the talent that brought you “TO BOLDLY FLEE” feels he has the creative chops to take on one of the classic rock movies of all time. That’s like Uwe Boll trying to deconstruct Christopher Nolan.
Why does this exist? Well, there’s an album of the songs for sale. That’s a big clue.
Yes, I watched it. Twice. And the first part is a parody, not really a critique. You can’t really call what Walker “sings” as meaningful. His approach has all the integrity of a sad, angry man throwing rocks from the overpass. He uses “When the Tigers Broke Free” as a preamble to his contempt for glorified rock stories that we view through the filter of nostalgia, insisting that movies like this really are not as good as we remember. They are full of emotionally-dishonest but rousing anthems composed by disconnected, rich rock stars who just want to sell records.
In his sad take on “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” he cheapens Pink’s experience as a child in school trying to deal with the death of his father through creativity only to be met with constant derision and correction by the institution by implying that its a song about a kid whining that he has to pay attention in school. Such a profoundly dull understanding of that basic premise disqualifies Walker from any credibility moving forward.
Still, I cringe to think how much time and money went into the uneven special effects lost in attempting to make sense of Walker’s angry rants. The longer I listen, the more I hear him screaming for attention and acknowledgement. “Fuck Roger Waters. You know who has it rough? ME, bitches! ME!”
This is confirmed when the video shifts from being a direct commentary on Waters’ story to commentary on Outrage Culture in social media, a thing that 1) has nothing to do with The Wall and, 2) did not exist when the album or film were made. This is clearly how Walker feels about being abandoned in his identity as a New Media Star, like Pink, but more so. Sure, Pink was driven to madness (mirroring the descent of original Floyd guitarist and singer Syd Barret) but all those mean people who held him and his apostles accountable for their business and technical failings…THAT is the truest form of persecution. All those people who they accepted money and attention from all those years now want ANSWERS?! Accountability? How fucking dare they disrespect their beloved Critic.
Eventually we get to his parody of “The Trial” which – dear sweet Jesus – took me right back to art school with its pretentious and self-absorbed bullshit. It misses the point that Pink is fighting to survive through self-reflection to reject the controlling voices from his life and the resulting conflicts that forced him to withdraw, that wrecked his marriage, that took him far from his original dreams of creating good art. It is the climax of the kind of operatic theme rarely seen in prog rock, an extension of the GENIUS that is Dark Side of the Moon and so many of the layered, symphonic works that band was making long before Doug Walker was a snark in his momma’s eye.
Walker could have taken points from Waters’ story and realized he was the product of his actions but held the power to emerge from them by asserting his own identity and embracing the ART that had been suppressed by the demands of performing and producing and conforming all those years.
If you watch the tolerable parts of “To Boldly Flee” and the events during “In the Flesh” I’m sure you’ll see the qualities that Walker’s character demonstrates as similar to those in the hallucination of Pink’s worst self surrounded by zealous fans willing to do whatever necessary to honor their fascist master. The irony is just delicious.
Painful to watch, I can only hope that this exercise in misguided disrespect against his better results in a moment of clarity, an awareness of the things that caused him to compromise and become a corruption of his earlier, artistic self and a tool of the corporate masters. That seems to be where Walker and his cronies are right now. He’s nowhere near “Beyond the Wall” but stuck in a skipping groove just before the start of “Run Like Hell.”
At the end of it, Doug Walker and perhaps the management of Channel Awesome are content to play the part of that guy at the party who has had too much to drink and wants to bring things down with a whining bitch-rant that he THINKS will be cathartic, but only result in his remaining friends realizing that he’s not worth keeping around anymore.
Clearly, “The Dead Don’t Die” is a film that takes a while to settle, like a meal heavy on red meat, starches, and awkward conversation.
I’ve seen other Jim Jarmusch films, so the tone and the humor are not surprising. “Broken Flowers” was a decent film with some interesting ideas shot in a way that it felt like a documentary. Bill Murray’s understated “old man looks back on his life” role fit the mood and pace. To see that approach in a zombie film, even one supposedly a comedy, was an odd choice.
Spoilers below, because I love you.
Part 1: In which the author recalls “Star Wars” in its pristine state circa 1977
I think it’s important to understand my biases right away.
It’s the day after Christmas 2019 and I’m watching the credits of The Rise of Skywalker flash onto the screen. It’s the end of the nine-chapter “Skywalker saga” that began during the Jimmy Carter administration.
42 years earlier, I remember the thrill of a majestic score and our heroes standing before a grateful Rebellion leading to similar end credits. It was a surprise and an experience that left me energized and excited. This little summer movie called “Star Wars” promised lasers, robots, princesses, evil knights, space ships, and fun. I was 6 years old. It was a glorious time to be alive because NO ONE knew anything about the Star Wars universe. There weren’t even toys to fill in the details about the cool and scary creatures all over the place. I came out of that movie thinking “Death Vatter” was really scary and that I wanted a laser sword like “Luke Skywaters”.
At its core, Star Wars was just a fairy tale in space, unburdened by generations of mythos and expanded universe factoids. There wasn’t even an “Episode IV” tag or the subtitle “A New Hope” because that came later. Everything outside the frame of the film was created in the imagination of the viewer.
Like almost everyone in my second grade class, my wardrobe, lunchbox, school supplies, and bed linens were covered in Star Wars.
Then George Lucas began licensing vehicles and action figures for every character from lead hero to background extra, anything that was on the screen for more than a single frame was pressed into a plastic mold and sold by Kenner. Not only was that a genius move for Lucas, who owned a huge chunk of the merchandising for the IP, but because every child in the civilized world was going to begin the three year journey filling in the vacuum with their own stories, reading and committing the nuggets of Star Wars mythology to memory off the back of a blister pack, toy box, or trading card.
Part 2: In which Star Wars becomes Modern Mythology and Saint Lucas loses his way.
Everything in the Star Wars universe was designed like a Disney property. Everything in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had to have a back-story, a connection to the growing history of a galaxy far, far away. But even then, there were only a few books and comics, a radio show and a newspaper strip to fill in more of the story. According to Lucas, though, these were all unofficial stories. But we ate them up and over 40 years built this impossible wall of expectations and standards for what those 2 1/2 hours of screen time MUST be in order to make a “good” Star Wars movie.
In other words, the movie was never going to be judged by any objective filmmaking or storytelling standards. It was always going to be judged by fans against their own imaginations and the stories kids played out in the sandboxes and playgrounds of their youth. For me, these stories will always be “From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker” because that’s what the chapters were supposed to be. The prequels were ret-conned to set up Luke and Leia’s story and the final trilogy was to pass the Skywalker legacy on to the next generation of Skywalkers and Solos. That’s how it was in the expanded universe until Disney pulled a Star Trek 2009 on continuity.
But that’s cool. Star Wars is at its best when Lucas stepped back and let other creatives build the movies around his basic ideas. The second and third films prove that by building depth of character and story into what was originally a fun, but simple homage to old sci-fi serials. Lucas made a brilliant decision to leave the details to people who write characters like real people and scenes meant to propel the story rather than introduce new toys to sell.
Lucas sold his mythology to Disney after it was clear he couldn’t tell the story he wanted to tell without fans spitting on the plate he prepared for them. He had elevated the importance of his own franchise to the point that he could no longer reach the pedestal fans raised for him. Further, he was unwilling to share creative control of the prequels with others as he had before, which led to effects-heavy messes that further muddied the concepts of The Force, Jedi and Sith ending in the inevitable bummer shoehorning events that don’t make sense when you think of a logical link to A New Hope.
But those films made BILLIONS even before the tie-ins and merchandising.
By this time, we had cartoons, comics, novels, games, and other media that embraced the aesthetic of the franchise and kept people interested, kept the franchise growing into a second and third generation of fans. Even though the films – became sloppy and dumb, fans forgave it all because Star Wars had transcended story and character. The creative input of Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kirshner and Richard Marquand gave these characters a life that aligned with how fans were making them out in their heads and adding details that thrilled the imagination. Relationships and connections between events between films kept fans looking for clues in the official merchandise and interviews. Even now, the universe remains a way of life, a philosophy, and even a religion to some. The Expanded Universe, the novels by Timothy Zahn, in-universe cartoons – canonized by Saint Lucas – allowed the franchise to survive even the dumbest of creative choices on the big screen.
Which brings us to the newest trilogy.
Part 3: In which Disney does what it does best; copy the work of others and poorly. (Featuring Patton Oswalt)
JJ Abrams directed a dumb, but fun movie with The Force Awakens. The film basically told me – an original fan – that everything our heroes did after Endor was a failure.
In a way it was like Patton Oswalt’s bit about George Lucas which I will invite you to enjoy here. (I’ll wait. Swear Words, beware.)
In The Force Awakens, Abrams basically said, “Hey, kids. Did you love it when Luke Skywalker stood up to the Emperor, redeemed his father, and helped restore balance to the Force? Yeah? Well, here’s a movie where he fucked all that up, turned his nephew to the Dark Side, burned down his Jedi Academy and then exiled himself as a new Imperial threat rose to replace the empire, forcing his friends back into a long ‘resistance’ against growing tyranny. Oh, and he shows up at the end, has nothing to say, and looks like total shit.”
“Hey, kids. Did you like it when Leia and Han finally hooked up, fell in love and helped bring down the Empire together on Endor? Yeah? Well, here’s a movie where they split up some time after losing their son to the Dark Side, Han is back to being a pirate and smuggler on the run from other pirates and smugglers and Leia is presiding of a shrinking band of resistance fighters who somehow COMPLETELY MISSED the rise of a new Imperial Order.”
“Hey, kids. Did you love it when the Rebellion struggled, sacrificed, but ultimately prevailed in their battle against a SECOND Death Star bringing a firm end to the Empire once and for all and restoring peace and freedom across the galaxy? YEAH?! Well, HERE is a movie where all that goes to hell and we meet our heroes after they totally miss the rise of a new fascist order, a military fleet to support that order, and a THIRD AND BIGGER MULTI-PLANET KILLER THAT WIPES ALL THOSE VICTORIES OUT – FIGURATIVELY AND LITERALLY.”
“Hey, kids. Did you like Lando Calrissian? Yeah? Well, fuck you.”
And that movie went on to make almost a billion dollars domestically and over TWO billion worldwide. Because, at the expense of our original heroes, we have a trio of new and young heroes who are more interesting to look at and listen to.
And, again, that’s okay. I realize that the original heroes are a little too mature to be sprinting through CGI obstacle courses and Force-leaping across whatever stupid desert planet they’ve written this time, but did Abrams have to “Alien3” the original trilogy to give the new heroes space? I suggest he did not. But in order for him to ape as much of the original film as possible, he had to sideline our heroes somehow. Otherwise, it made no sense how the Republic could have not seen the rise of the First Order or the construction of a planetary weapon.
I accepted the undoing of my childhood heroes and looked for these new kids to restore order and freedom to the galaxy from the space Nazis. Again.
At risk of overthinking things, I would have thought that the destruction of an entire planet would have taken the piss out of at least the financial stability of any galactic menace, but…
The point is that even George Lucas approached the first and prequel trilogies with a “serialized” concept. He may have altered his ideas across the first trilogy after he realized he did actually have a franchise, but that worked out for him. For all its faults, the prequels had a plan and an arc that made -structural- sense and got us from A to C with some internal logic.
This trilogy? It’s a parade of stupid. Yeah, it’s fun. And if that’s all Star Wars was in the eyes of its owners, they wouldn’t put any more thought into the story and structure than that of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But a trilogy is more than just saying “We’re making three films.” It is a conscious choice that the three parts tie together organically in a plan that is set up at the beginning and has contingency plans for things like poor audience response or the death of a leading actor. A trilogy is basically taking a single film’s Three-Act structure and committing them across three films. It’s not an original or unique concept.
Part 4: In which we discuss the Bullshittery of “Subverting Fan Expectations” to obscure a series of awful creative choices
So when the “behind the scenes fantasy” of how The Last Jedi was somehow a creative subversion of expectations by a creative but naughty writer-director, Rian Johnson, I only see the marketing for Disney spinning a critical failure of internal leadership and logical for the franchise. The second film in the trilogy wanted to give audiences a shock the way The Empire Strikes Back left it with a somber feeling at the end, that second act feeling that all is lost except for perhaps a small glimmer of hope.
It may be surprising to know that at one point Empire was regarded as the weakest of the three original films. This was due, in part, to being in 1980 and emerging from the theater not knowing what the hell was going to happen for another three years. So many questions! Much sadness! Many waitings!
Return of the Jedi was a cathartic experience for audiences who immediately praised the film for restoring that same cheery buzz they had for the original. Serialized cliffhangers of the kind Lucas aspired to emulate were great… if the next chapter dropped the following week, but three years was a long time to ask fans to wait for a story to dramatic when there was relatively nothing else out there to keep fans distracted beyond toys and a few board games. Not even a VHS collection to go back and scrutinize every frame for secret meaning! TORTURE!
Now, with the ability to sit through all three movies back to back, we can see the Second Act strength of that middle movie and rightfully consider it to be the strongest when compared to Muppet Aliens and Ewoks.
While Disney would like audiences to believe the tonal shift and darker story of Last Jedi was planned all along, it didn’t seem that way on the screen. While I think it wanted to evoke the uneasy feelings of The Empire Strikes back the way the previous movie aped every possible beat from A New Hope, it felt like a horror writer in a chain story took a look at what the previous writer penned and decided something like “Okay, Dean Koontz, let me show you how Jack Ketchum writes a REAL fucking horror story.”
It felt like…no. It actually undermined “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker” by making our hero a cynical failure and complicit in both the seduction of his nephew to the Dark Side and the rise of a new fascist order in the galaxy so powerful that blowing up their Death Planet (and presumably millions of First Order leaders, troops, and military assets) still leaves them with enough coin and pew-pew to chase the Resistance to near-extinction.
The Last Jedi was not only a darker film in tone, but further devalued the original cast. Han was dead. Luke was a failure who wanted the Jedi to end. Leia was, once again, a glorified Mon Mothma. The plot was a warmed over episode of Battlestar Galactica (“33” from Season 1 of the reboot). The film challenged George Lucas for the largest number of gratuitous aliens in a single scene. It tried to wrestle social commentary at the expense of the main story and those digressions ended up failing so – what was the point? Looking at the arc of our heroes, Finn doesn’t grow or change. He doesn’t even earn the honor of sacrificing himself for the Resistance because Rose does something incredibly stupid to stop him that ends up helping no one. And Luke dies. Oh, and Poe ends up leading dozens of Resistance fighters to their deaths and depleting their military force by disregarding orders only to be punished with a slap on the face.
By the end of the second film, Finn has no more story to tell. Poe is incompetent but still held in esteem by the Resistance for some reason. Rey is told she’s nobody important. Kylo pouts and rages a lot. Luke dies. The Jedi Cathedral burns. And the Resistance is left to fight on its own. It would be cool if there was a glimmer of hope beyond the fact that Rey can lift some rocks and there are some little kids out there who can move mops with their minds.
But that flick went on to make $1.3 BILLION around the world and sold a metric shit-ton of toys.
PART 5: IN WHICH HE FINALLY GETS TO HIS REVIEW OF THE NEW MOVIE.
The Rise of Skywalker is a movie that comes after Disney spent years torturing marketing analysts with figuring out how to write a story that would please three or more generations of Star Wars fans. It had the impossible task of un-fucking the story and presenting a cohesive and satisfying end chapter while insisting it was never fucked in the first place. It also had to be something amazing to end a nine-film epic: the third, third-act’s final battle.
Bringing JJ Abrams back as director and co-writer was a no-brainer. Abrams is a professional bullshit artist who can weave depth and meaning into the dumbest concepts and make audiences believe there is symbolism and complexity in things that are high but invariably empty vessels. He waxes philosophical about Star Wars in a way that inspires fans and validates their emotional investment in the franchise.
The fact that he took Star Trek and turned it into a flashy, dumb version of itself as an unofficial audition reel for directing Star Wars sometime in the future was no problem for fans. He was the perfect returning hero to make the franchise right again – even though nothing was really wrong with it. He’s a fan’s director who insists that he is a fan FIRST and a major Hollywood director…somewhere down the list. In fact, he is P.T. Barnum. He wears the top hat of Steven Spielberg to the audience while waving the cinematic showmanship of Michael Bay. He has the benefit of eight films, countless cartoons, an entire streaming service, and the biggest and most ruthless marketing ever to exist pandering to a culture that has accepted Star Wars as a necessary part of its identity.
George Lucas never intended Star Wars to be Dune or The Lord of the Rings. He never tried to tell fans that that there is a secret meaning to the Jedi texts or some grand unified theory of The Force or that there is a message at the heart of the saga that only the most dedicated of fans can understand. George made movies to advance his sound and FX companies and enrich himself on merchandising. At his height, he aspired to tell good stories with the original trilogy to reward an audience that only got to dig into that universe once every few years, minus a Holiday Special or variety show appearance.
Disney is about wish fulfillment and imagination. It wants people to lose themselves in the experience and then come back to the real world and surround themselves with reminders of that experience. T-shirts. Bottle openers. Diapers. And with Star Wars, that experience is fully-immersive.
SO, Abrams returned and assured everyone that the Skywalker Saga would end as an unquestioned triumph.
The opening crawl says “Fuck it…all this stuff happened and The Emperor is back. In fact, he’s always been around. Somehow, he has built – in secret – a massive fleet of planet-killing Star Destroyers. (AGAIN with the planet killers? Fucking hell, guys.) And now he has tasked Emo Vader to find his crush, Orphan Rey, and bring her to him. Why? Well, if you’ve studied enough from the Abrams School of Rehashing the Plot of Other Films you probably can figure it out. This is, after all, where he has to ape everything possible from Return of the Jedi.
Why Palpatine would warn people he was coming is anyone’s guess. I would have thought he would just send out his ships, park them in orbit, maybe blow up a few to prove his point, and demand Rey pop a squat in front of his throne before he ordered the rest to start popping other systems like zits on a greasy teen’s forehead. But Stars gotta War.
Because spectacle takes priority over common sense, Palpatine has the fleet rise dramatically not from a cloud of ice or a crimson nebula but SOLID ROCK. Hundreds of “Sith”-branded star destroyers rise out of his secret planetary headquarters/stadium/cathedral of hate into an impressive backlit space cloud that not only provides awesome contrast but oxygen and survivable air pressure. Because that’s important later.
Our heroes return from confirming the Emperor’s plans with some key details thanks to a spy whose identity is telegraphed through the entire film. Yes, it’s Hux. No shit. Leave it to a whiny ginger to betray the sexy emo in the bad boy club.
Here is where I think the crew had the most difficult…no. They had the impossible task of making Carrie Fisher into a lead character in this movie. She is not only the leader of the Resistance, but suddenly she’s a Jedi Master training Rey. And the two have conversations that are just a bit more realistic than a Dickie Goodman record.
The Rise of Skywalker is 142-minutes but the story occupies about a half hour. Everything else is a meandering quest, a flashy scavenger hunt with many improbable connections that lead us to new characters who kill the momentum of a story that made a POINT of including not one but several ticking clock elements.
This trilogy, but Skywalker in particular, introduced characters who bring little or nothing to the core tale of Kylo and Rey and their journey of discovery.
And if you came to see Poe or Finn or any of the glorified extras introduced and then abandoned throughout the story, you’ll have to find the cartoon, comic, or Disney+ series that will – okay MAY – tell that story someday, but only if Disney sees people buying their toys and merch.
Maz Kanata? She was supposed to be an important new character in the saga, but by the final movie she is one of about a half-dozen characters in a chorus of exposition. She is there literally to tell the audience about very important and solemn events – but that’s it.
Beaumont Kin? Remember him? No, because he JUST showed up to be the member of the chorus to set up the question for another member to answer. Also, he’s the former Hobbit turned heroin addict who told Desmond that the vessel coming was not Penny’s boat. So that’s how he got that job.
Couldn’t get enough of “Snap” Wexley? Apparently Abrams couldn’t because he’s back to have an awkward scene with Leia and Rose that falls flat. He’s there to be the voice of doubt and despair, setting up the chorus of optimism and heroism.
Lieutenant Connix? Yep, she’s back, too when its time to warn people that ships have arrived or the battle is going south.
Rose Tico? I guess the angry bros were right about her being a useless character because she’s committed to the voice of “moral support when needed”.
Jannah and Zorii Bliss? Strong women of agency who pop in and out of the story like special guest stars from another movie who exit stage right when their role is complete.
By this time, we don’t have much to look forward to with the original heroes. Han and Luke are dead (but, yeah…never really gone). Leia has been reduced to a less emotive version of Mon Mothma.
Even the main characters, aside from the thirty-minute story of Jedi versus Sith and Choice versus Destiny, Good versus Evil, etc., seem like they exist to tease other adventures that will explain why they take up frames in this 2.5 hour movie. Finn’s arc ended at the end of the first movie. Poe’s journey from scoundrel to General wasn’t really earned; it just required the flip of a switch in the story and a quick pep talk from one of the original heroes.
My problem with this is that the characters and their actions were always supposed to INSPIRE the desire to learn more outside the main films, not REQUIRE it. Boba Fett was a cool character who actually did things before he ended up Sarlaac chow.
But I see this as the natural extension of the original trilogy’s three-year story gap where all the fans bought the action figures and scoured the trading cards, comics, and trad mags for clues regarding the cliffhanger ending while filling in the story gaps with head-canon.
Long before selling out to Disney, Lucas recognized that he could capitalize on that gap by creating cartoons and expanded universe materials. By the time The Phantom Menace rolled around, you had characters like Darth Maul who had minimal screen time but leaped off the screen, making people go out and consume all the stories that filled in his backstory. To the casual viewer, however, he’s just a cool stuntman with bitchin’ tats and horns.
Disney recognized this value in the franchise and has stuffed these films with pointless characters that pad the run time and slow down the story, but represent launching points for different target markets.
Star Wars has ALWAYS been about selling toys and merchandise, of course. But the original stories were subtle about it. Even the prequels were careful about making a character or vehicle or place just visually distinct enough to pop out when it appeared in another medium or on a store shelf.
The Rise of Skywalker, even more than the two films before it, represents the first fully-rendered toy and merchandise catalog. Every scene is a commercial, either for an action figure, a spin-off series, or another character fans can identify with and buy up their merch. It is 142 minutes of commercials wrapped around a thirty-minute story we pay $11-20 a head to experience.
But what about the story?!
The Emperor is back. Somehow, he’s always been there and there’s no rhyme or reason to his timing. Supreme Gollum Snoke was a construct of The Emperor because nothing rallies the galactic Aryan elite like a disfigured, twisted weirdo no one has ever heard of before. Why not just create another Palpatine clone who shows up on Endor’s moon unscathed to say, “HA! I am invincible and eternal!”
Instead, he lives in a Sith bunker, withered and wired into machines tended to by short, ugly beings that worship him. They’ve built an entire fleet of plat-killing star destroyers that impressively, but perplexingly RISE FROM UNDERGROUND into a gas cloud that apparently creates air pressure and life-sustaining oxygen (because that’s important later on.)
So Rian Johnson “subverted expectations” by having Supreme Cheesemonster Snoke killed at the end of his movie, elevating Kylo to the throne of the First Order. This was, in hindsight, a good thing because Abrams could step in and make Darth Sidious the puppermaster all along. All nine of these films are, therefore, the result of secret machinations of the dark lord behind the scenes. Bringing Palpatine/Sidious back is logical even if how they did it is not. Tying him to Rey was a smart re-direct of the “you’re nobody” sting of the second film. She WAS born of no one in particular, from a certain point of view (HA!) but she was the GRAND-daughter of the big galactic bad himself. Connecting her to the corrupted son of a Skywalker makes this a great story – noth three films worth of story, but probably the most Lucasian of all the story elements in play here.
The Return of Sidious makes little sense when you think about it for a moment, but the film doesn’t give you a chance to do so. It is pushing you through a winding queue of exhibits and set pieces designed to titillate and distract you from the lack of structure or cohesive storytelling. It is as chaotic as some of the obstacle courses the Falcon and the Resistance fleet take through space. Blink and you’ll miss a new thing, but that’s okay because there will be an entire episode of a cartoon dedicated to that plot thread sooner or later.
Abrams’ undoing of Johnson’s Bullshittery was obvious in most places. Having Luke catch Rey’s lightsaber as she tried to destroy it was a nice callback and Luke’s character seems more himself again. He even says of his conduct in the previous film, “I was wrong” which is nice, except that it doesn’t excuse him benching himself while his sister and friends were picked off by the First Order and nearly obliterated. The Jedi texts being intact was a cheeky pivot on the nihilism of The Force and artificial constructs like Jedi vs. Sith. Abrams restored the original system and that’s good.
Resetting Rose Tico was a bad move. If nothing else, she should have had a heroic death scene. Her treatment in this film validates the criticism of the worst kind of Star Wars fans who harassed and terrorized the actress over the role. In my head canon, she’s captured on the Star Destroyer by an First Order officer who berates her lowly station, paraphrases one of the many racist and sexist message board rants and ends with her outwitting him and jettisoning the officer into space. THEN she could sacrifice herself, touching the pendant she wears to her lips before the reactor core explodes, the star destroyer shuts down and our heroes escape. Love, after all, is how they win, right?
Other random observations:
- Leia’s death was… odd. I’m still not sure why she had to message him across space and time and why it was THAT moment rather than any time in his life. It was good of Harrison Ford to come back and give the boy forgiveness and closure. Yeah, I cried a little at that. I image that was the scene Carrie Fisher was to perform before her death and it would have been lovely to see her appear to her son, forgive him, and give him the strength to reject the dark side, join Rey, and beat the Emperor. It would have been nice for Rey to stand on Tatooine and see not only the spirits of Luke and Leia (the latter of whom never set foot on that planet in the films) but Han and Ben as well representing the extended Skywalker family.
- Richard E. Grant is a delightful boilerplate ‘British Nazi’ character. He’s snarling and dead-eyed, chewing up his small scenes and taking out that simpering ginger Hux once and for all.
- Poe is Han Solo. The backstory is the same, it was just told out of order.
- The Knights of Ren were about as useful and interesting as a dead spider hanging by its own web. I guess we’ll see them on Disney+ someday.
- Warping space and time for the Rey/Kylo conversations was cool. Being able to snatch her beads and have Vader’s mask reveal her location explained how material items can be transported by the Force when the bodies themselves were only projections. It also set up Ben’s redemption fight nicely.
- Horses on the hull of a space ship. Maybe there was a throwaway line to explain how this worked but it was lost in the CGI spectacle or I happened to blink for too long and missed it. But it felt silly in the trailer and context did not improve things.
- Finn and Jannah seemed to have more chemistry than he and Rose. But it’s a shame that Rose wasn’t with him on his mission to blast the command deck. Jannah’s loyalty in the face of death didn’t seem earned, but maybe her experience as a stormtrooper allowed her to understand what Finn was trying to do.
- Speaking of Rose, I disagreed with her character’s “demotion” to the Greek Chorus.
- Understanding that this is a space opera and I should make like MST3K and repeat to myself it is just a show…BUT…if I were in a big space battle to stop a bunch of planet killing spaceships from launching and there is a sudden, devastating energy blast disables all the craft on one side of the battle, I would have ordered all fire down onto the planet as soon as that energy blast ceased. The window was open so ONE ship could have taken out the Emperor right there. Yeah, Rey and Kylo/Ben would have been down there but…y’know…
- Lando’s return was fun. I like that his initial disguise was a nod to the helmet he wore in Return of the Jedi. His reference to his adventures with Luke sounded more fun than the movie I was watching, though.
- Speaking of Lando, what was up with that final scene between him and Jannah? Maybe I’m applying the smooth, younger Lando over the grandfatherly character, but was he hitting on her? Nah. This was probably the set up to her story. Jannah and Lando search for her homeworld and parents. I hope that Finn joins them.
- I hope Poe and Bliss work things out and we get to see her whole face someday.
- I was disappointed that we didn’t get a Baby Yoda or Mandalorian reference given the whore-like nature of Disney to pack every other reference into the narrative. It would have been a way to tease future seasons of a show that is frankly more watchable and fun than the last SIX Star Wars movies.
- C3PO’s sacrifice…sigh. Like Kirk’s death in the shitty reboot of Wrath of Khan, it was negated by weakness of conviction in the story. I would have had Threepio agree that accessing the forbidden language in his memory would not just be a reboot of his systems but punishable by wiping him out altogether. But I would have only agreed to that if Artoo were there to say goodbye.
- The crew must REALLY hate Artoo’s design. He’s just around in these movies when before he was essential to the story. I get that BB-8 is faster and more agile, but Artoo had only as much to do as Leia. Though some of Artoo’s reaction shots seemed more natural.
- Wait, Chewy was ON A DIFFERENT TRANSPORT?! No. There was no other transport. They were all standing in a desert in line of sight of the ship with Chewy in it. I call DOUBLE bullshit. Once for even SUGGESTING Chewbacca died like a bitch and, two, for resolving it like a bitch.
- Poor Chewbacca. It’s just him and the droids now. Well, and Lando if he sticks around. Maybe he’ll help Jannah and Lando in their new animated series when that debuts on whatever basic cable Disney thing exists in the next couple of years.
- And Leia waited until she was DEAD to give Chewy his medal?! What the hell was that about? She’s been carrying it with her since Yavin?? Here I thought he had one but it was given off-camera. Confirming he never got the award he earned alongside Luke and Han was just – a dick move. So, I’m going to add this to my head-canon as such. Sometime after the Battle of Endor, Chewy and Leia got into an argument about what Han would do when forced into some domestic dilemma. Chewy bet his medal that Han would pull through and do as asked while Leia sad he’d find his way out of his responsibility. Chewy lost. That horrible sitcom sketch is better than the implication that Leia waited until her corpse was cooling under a blanket to give Chewbacca a medal. Maybe it was Han’s medal? I don’t know. It was a weird moment.
- And is death really sad if you can talk to our heroes at any dramatically appropriate moment? Shit, Han Solo wasn’t force-sensitive (that I know of from the films) but there he was. Kylo says he’s just a memory, which I guess distinguishes him from a Force Ghost, but it was too personal a moment to be Kylo’s wish fulfillment. Han forgiving his son was a great moment between two great actors. Adam Driver’s vulnerability and pain in that scene was met with unusual paternal warmth from Ford. I totally bought the scene.
So that’s it. Nine films and 42 years. We’ve gone from a small, but brilliantly-executed space opera about a small group of rebels fighting space Nazis to a 142 minutes toy catalog and commercial for an expanded universe. Sitting in a darkened theater or under a massive drive-in screen back then, I never would have imagined that I would be sitting alone, the day after Christmas in 2019 to see the last of the Skywalker Saga and be subject to so much visual and aural input that I was numb, detached from the character and unbelieving of basic human connections and actions within a universe where spaceships jump across the stars. Six year old me might have seen the future eight films as a natural extension of the flash-bang-zoom experience a kid that age craves.
For The Empire Strikes Back, I was nine and so understood the world a little better. It wasn’t always about black and white, but the shades of gray in between were just as important to explore. So that film made sense and showed me how characters could grow and change across stories. I saw the frustration and hopelessness that comes in the long battle and I learned that there is NO happily ever after, even in a fairy tale.
I was 12 when Return of the Jedi played and it was a strong bookend to the saga and time to move on to other stories. The future of the Skywalkers and Solos would continue, but I wasn’t necessarily interested enough to keep up with the growing universe. I had reached an age where knowing all the bit players and aliens in that universe held no value for me or my circle of friends.
By the time the prequels arrived, I had the same interest in them as Patton Oswalt. I don’t care ablout how the stuff I love is made, I just love the stuff I love. Knowing how Anakin Skywaker turned into Darth Vader was dramatically uninteresting to me. The convoluted “ways of the Jedi” were silly and changed based on the needs of the story.
I didn’t even see Episodes 2 or 3 in the theater. I didn’t see The Lask Jedi, either, after coming out of The Force Awakens feeling like I’d been subjected to an infomercial for better stories I wouldn’t get to see and feeling like the heroes of my youth had been disrespected and their stories undone.
As the credits rolled on this last film and some of the audience applauded, I felt empty and indifferent. The Empire, so to speak, has won. Generations of people who don’t care about the films as a source of strong cinematic storytelling but as a touchpoint for their personal experience with the brand will mean another trilogy will emerge soon, offering more confusing plot points, disjointed narratives, contradictions in character and goals, all of which are designed to appeal to a broad audience and get them to tune in to shows and products aimed at their particular market demo.
I no longer possess a sense of wonder about that galaxy far, far away. My heroes are gone, their stories over. The new generation had three films to remind me and engage my need to escape and feel that wonder again.
I’ll find it elsewhere.
Maybe I’m growing more conservative as I age or maybe I’m just tired of “cancel culture” and recreational outrages. I read an article this morning on businessinsider.com that described how the fitness company Peloton lost 1.5 BILLION DOLLARS from market capitalization and 15 percent of its stock value in three days because of an advertisement that people hate.
Now, if you’ve ever seen me, physically, in the meatverse, you know that I had to look up what the hell a “Peloton” was. It turns out they make stationary bikes with tiny televisions on them that allow fitness instructors to yell at you though various routines all while providing helpful data about your progress, calorie consumption, etc. Okay. Pretty simple concept.
I had to find out just what about this ad was so “sexist, tone-deaf, and dystopian” as the article reported.
What the fiery bunghole of Hell could make a commercial “dystopian”??
I watched the ad.
We fade in on an upscale modern home at Christmas. A woman of indeterminate age (could be late twenties to mid-thirties?) is being led into a room by her child, eyes shaded but her smile and body language make her excitement palpable. She removes her hand and beams at what she sees off-camera. Reverse angle to a living room at Christmas. Center of attention is a stationary bike, fully assembled, a smiling husband nearby gazing back at what I assume is his wife. Wife is thrilled.
What follows is a voyeuristic style “selfie” montage depicting moments in the following year, the woman’s struggle to overcome her reluctance to accept the challenge of her new exercise bike, waking up before dawn to make time to ride, the feelings of increased energy and health after months of working out with the bike, shots of the bike’s many features including the video unit featuring trainers.
The focus is the woman’s journey to health, which she recaps at the end of the spot by thanking her husband for a thoughtful Christmas gift, the selfie shots revealed to be a video she recorded for him. They watch snuggling on the couch. Fade out.
The end bit was a little cheesy, but I get what they were going for.
The negative reaction to the spot, according to various news items and commentaries, assumes the husband had selfish and sexist motives for purchasing this gift, as if the spot explicitly states he bought because her already slim and youthful appearance was not enough for him and he demanded she make herself more desirable by busting ass on this new bike. Buying her fitness equipment was akin to buying her a dishwasher or something designed to help her “do her job” as a submissive, domestic trophy wife.
This is where recreational outrage bothers me. It isn’t based on reason or a connection of facts; it is an emotional response that fills gaps in information with assumptions about character, motive, and intent.
CONTEXT is key to understanding these things and, in the four walls of the video screen, I did not connect the dots to the common conclusion. In fact, I saw a woman with a positive attitude and commitment to her own health taking control of it and using this product to achieve her own fitness goals. The way the commercial is shot makes it clear the focus of the pitch is the fitness-conscious woman reporting the benefits of making the commitment, doing the hard work, and riding a Peloton bike.
The disconnect is that the advertisement shoehorns in a separate and distinct message to husbands which clashes with the first and gives the impression that when the husband chooses this gift, he is sending an unhealthy message about the value of a wife in a marriage or a woman in society, when in fact, that’s not the case.
Advertisements, especially commercials, present the viewer with a problem and then introduce a product or service to solve it. The ad takes the viewer through the process.
Let’s say the roles in the commercial were reversed and the wife had given the husband a bike. The husband is already in decent shape. Let’s say he looks like the husband in the commercial. He doesn’t NEED the work, it seems, but the bike is the big gift that year. Most likely, the impression this gives the viewer is one that has been programmed into us from a young age. We see this and the husband thanking his wife for the thoughtful gift that gave him the ability to feel younger, more energetic, less tired and stressed. He did all the work, but he acknowledges it wouldn’t have happened if not for her. The takeaway would have been “Oh, the wife is concerned about her husband’s health. That’s an expensive gift, so she must really want him to be healthy so they can be together for a long, long time.”
This assumption is based largely on traditional gender roles in domestic partnerships.
This feeling is reinforced by the way the commercial presents the information to us. However, I could STILL assert to you that the message of the commercial was that the wife is done with her fat, tired husband and his erectile dysfunction and is giving him one last chance to get it together before she starts banging Rob from her office. Maybe a few men viewing this commercial would have the same feeling.
How do we use context clues to determine what is, if not true, most likely true about the intent of this ad?
The truth is found in the shots, dialogue, acting, and blocking.
Advertisements, especially commercials, present the viewer with a problem and then introduce a product or service to solve it. The ad takes the viewer through the process.
For my non-traditional take on motive in which the roles are reversed to be true, I would have had to shoot the spot with a completely different series of images than the original presented to frame my alleged problem: the wife was not satisfied and the solution was to buy him a bike and make him use it. The sexual images would be explicit because the commercial needs to be specific about what problems they believe the product will solve. At the very least, to tell the story I’m overlaying on the commercial, it would have to establish the following:
- The wife’s dissatisfaction with the husband. (Problem exists!)
- The wife’s increasing satisfaction with the results the bike provides. (Showing how the product solves the problem)
- Less or no attention paid to how the husband feels about the product. (Because it isn’t about him at all.)
- A resolution that includes the wife (aka CUSTOMER) expressing happiness with the results achieved by providing the product. (Problem solved!)
Therefore, I cannot defend my assertion that this is about a dissatisfied wife trying to make her man more of a…well, man. So to, if the Peloton commercial was about solving the husband’s problem, he would have been the focus of the spot and it would have emphasized his growing satisfaction with the results as the “frumpy, tired” housewife went from sweatpants and fried chicken to yoga pants and yogurt ultimately becoming the superficial young, attentive fantasy trophy wife.
But the focus of the spot was the wife and her quest to improve her health through commitment and action made possible by using the product. The spot was also quite responsible in not glossing over the importance of commitment and effort for the tool to be effective.
Further, consider if this was a same-sex couple. How would that make this a sexist or non-sexist advertisement? Life ain’t binary and society is no longer slave to the patriarchy, at least to companies that want to make money on the emerging generation inheriting all the money.
In a holiday commercial, you target the potential customer and the gift-giver, providing both with a reason they should buy the product.
The OTHER message, which I imagine muddied the first and suggested it was sexist, is to men who want to help their partners by showing them how buying a $3000 bike would make her happy, healthy, and grateful. So, men, if she’s looking to get fit but not willing to spend the money on herself – get it for her.
That last bit was a little ham-fisted, but it’s a holiday ad. In a holiday commercial, you target the potential customer and the gift-giver, providing both with a reason they should buy the product.
Our objection to a practical, useful gift like an exercise bike is a manifestation of subliminal application of traditional marital roles causing cognitive dissonance with how we feel consciously the modern world SHOULD be.
So why are so many people inserting assumptions of motive and coming to the conclusion that the husband is a sexist jackhole who just wants his wife to have a tight butt?
That comes down to decades of Madison Avenue shorthand.
Advertising and marketing are responsible for establishing these gender and marital tropes from the time we were put down in front of the glass teat. Commercials (and some stories) create “given” assumptions about people in order to train our brains to fill in gaps that a typical 30-second ad could not. That’s why commercials show you gender and domestic stereotypes like non-threateningly attractive women smiling as they clean their homes that already look like they had been professionally cleaned.
Anger at this spot seems to be the result of the consumer’s brain fulfilling its programming by applying outdated advertising tropes into a story. The framing of the ad suggests the man chose the gift for himself, but even though that’s not the case, our commercial-saturated brains apply the traditional roles to the couple and then our conscious progressive ideas clash with what we’ve come to know is an unhealthy and outdated concept, even though we were the ones assigning roles and motives all along, telling us that the husband made this choice independent of his wife’s input or desires.
Domestic gifts, lingerie, make-up – things that have traditionally suggested women could be more efficient housewives – evoke messages from the old days when advertisements would pitch to men as the Head of Household and usually the person controlling the finances. For decades, it was custom for advertisements to address men directly to suggest that his love could be expressed by providing his wife tools to make her domestic labors less toilsome. Buy her a new vacuum, stove, a new microwave. These ads suggest that not only would she appreciate the thought, but that having new and leading-edge appliances would increase her status among the other housewives in the neighborhood…and the husband’s status by extension.
Give her make-up for she can be more beautiful on your arm, men.
Buy this make-up so you can look prettier, ladies, for your man.
Our objection to a practical, useful gift like an exercise bike is a manifestation of subliminal application of traditional marital roles causing cognitive dissonance with how we feel consciously the modern world SHOULD be. Because we grew up with advertisements telling the male breadwinner of the household that he should make his housewife happy by giving her better tools to ease her domestic workload, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the ONLY POSSIBLE motive this husband gave her a bike is because he is playing that outdated stereotype out in our heads. Of course, it isn’t a tradition symbol of love and devotion. It’s a symbol of something that defines her place in a marriage or her submission to her husband. If you ignore the way the commercial is presented and any alternative context, the only thing left to explain the motive of the husband is how we are wired to watch commercials.
But let’s talk about the message of the commercial in the context of reaching a modern, young married professional couple and men and women as individuals.
A fitness bike isn’t necessarily about fixing something that’s broken but finding a way to keep yourself functioning.
A modern couple represents a partnership where each person is expected to help the other be the best individual they can be, not the best husband or wife in the traditional sense. So maybe – JUST MAYBE – the commercial represents the husband providing his partner with something she wanted but thought spending close to three grand of household money on it to be irresponsible or selfish.
Sometimes a partner has to validate the importance of the other by gifting them with something they would never impose upon the partnership for themselves.
Some women like to exercise. In fact, a lot of them do. It is fun! Women, I understand through my relationships with them in the meatverse, can be very health-conscious and make time to run, bike, lift, dance, or punch Nazis because they both enjoy it and it makes the rest of their lives more enjoyable. They don’t do it for the leering droogs who catcall them on the street or to land a man. They do it to work off stress and depression. They do it to stay on top of all of their responsibilities, to take advantage of opportunities – not because they look “hot” with a toned butt, but because the energy gives them an intellectual and psychological advantage over the beer-swilling, pot-bellied drones of the patriarchy – like me.
People who want or need to stay in shape often don’t have the time or resources to keep active. The gym might be impractical. Biking around the neighborhood might be dangerous. Winter months make outdoor exercise problematic. What some don’t get out of the thirty second commercial is that this wife is busy. In the commercial she mentions coming home after a long day but feeling surprisingly energized after committing to her exercise routine. She may not have TIME to exercise or eat the way she wants to maintain her body and the energy required to live her life and the product provides a way to keep on top of it.
A fitness bike isn’t necessarily about fixing something that’s broken but finding a way to keep yourself functioning. If you have a desk job like I do your actual sedentary time could be more than 18 hours of your entire day when considering commuting, sleep, and sit-down meals.
That’s the woman the ad was targeting.
It has nothing to do with the husband except to slip in the idea that it might be a good gift for him to go ahead and buy. The ad provided women with a problem – health and fitness management – and took them through what that process might look like if they had their product. And left it open to buy it for herself or put it on her list of desired gifts that year.
Advertisements are recognizing that domestic partners are just that. While the real world still includes the old patriarchal ways, it is shifting toward equal partnerships, which makes targeting people for products difficult because we are not a binary society.
It is right to rage against sexist advertisements that declare men should make their wives do something by forcing them to use a product or service or a marketing campaign that shames women into thinking they aren’t good enough unless they measure up to sexy women their husband covet. But there is a market to present health conscious men and women with the products and services that help them and it shouldn’t matter if there’s a glorified extra standing there on Christmas morning to hand it off on-screen and wrap filming after lunch.
Far be it from me to speak for the character in the commercial, but I listened to her and she seemed to speak pretty well for herself.
Let’s talk a little bit about the right tool for the job.
We all get caught up on terminology. So many discussions about firearms get derailed on the subject of nomenclature, what IS or IS NOT an “assault rifle” – so let’s all just be honest with one another for a bit and call it what it is at its core: a tool.
Growing up, I was taught that firearms are tools. Just as there are different tools in the box for different tasks, there are different types of firearms designed for different situations. A handgun can be used for personal protection as it is compact, lightweight, and can deter someone with bad intent as much as kill them. It’s easy to store and secure in the home and precise enough that you can use one in closed quarters without high risk of damage to people or property. There are rifles for hunting and sport that are appropriate when you need to bring down a target at a distance. There are shotguns that make sure you hit whatever is coming up at you at close range.
Then there are arms designed for combat superiority. Someone defined a problem with modern urban combat where it was difficult to sweep a building using a long-barrel weapon like a that pokes around a corner a foot before the soldier, exposing him to the enemy. Someone needed a better combat weapon that was small, light, reliable under variable and hostile conditions (like the desert) and could shoot faster, farther, and be able to interchange parts for different ammunition and even functions. This is how the SIG MCX was originally designed for the military. It is compact, reliable, and powerful. Opinions differ on where the MCX among similar designs, but if you go to the web site, you will read language that gun rights advocates typically avoid. The gun is manufactured to kill lots of people quickly and give the shooter every tactical advantage in a combat situation. This means, in part, building better, faster and more powerful guns than the ones already out there. It has been adopted by the armed forces in six countries.
The Sig MCX is just one example of a weapon of this type.
The military version of the MCX is a weapon made for battle. Marketing for the civilian version, however, calls it a “sporting rifle.”
The civilian version of the MCX was one of the weapons used in the Pulse nightclub massacre. While limited to semi-automatic functionality, the weapon retains its precision, ease of use, flexibility to use different types of ammunition, and reliability. I’ve watched civilians shoot this version of the MCX and it consistently impressed the hell out of shooters, not with its ability to kill people, of course, but with the ability to fire over 100 shots, mag changes included, in less than a minute without overheating the barrel, fumbling with reloads, or extra steps in chambering/firing. Shooters found the short-stroke gas piston system minimized the recoil and helped maintain a consistent pattern of fire without putting a lot of stress on the shooter. Every shooter has their favorite brand and some aren’t fond of the MCX or its variants for whatever reason (they prefer bigger booms, weapons with longer range capability, etc.) but the weapon clearly provides a user-friendly solution for throwing more downrange in a shorter period of time…whatever you’re aiming at.
At the Pulse Nightclub, it worked well enough that 102 people were dead or injured at the end of the assault, 103 if you count the attacker.
(Note: PLEASE don’t go to this post and harass this guy for sharing. He’s not the problem. If anything, he provided me some important information about the weapon.)
This is a tactical necessity when you have to assume that everyone in an unsecured area may be armed. In Dayton, police took down the shooter in less than thirty seconds from when he opened fire. That said, the shooter used the best tool to make sure he could murder or injure 37 people before trained and skilled shooters could take him down. A handgun with eight rounds wouldn’t be the right tool for that kind of work. You need something that makes a bigger boom, holds more ammunition and has the ability to throw crowds into a panic, increasing the potential cover for the shooter to use to his advantage. A crowd might dismiss the pop of a small handgun going off in a loud food court, but no one is going to mistake the booming echo of a .300 AAC round in an enclosed space. In Dayton, it was a “.223 caliber rifle with a 100 round drum magazine.”
And in El Paso, where the motive was clearly in response to the President of the United States’ fearmongering over immigration, the shooter went to a target-rich environment, armed himself with a WASR-10, and just unloaded on them. Literally. There was a man who had no fucks left to give, a motive, an opportunity, and the MEANS to carry out his mass killing. The right tool for the job. In the end, 46 people were killed or injured.
In Las Vegas, the shooter in the 2017 concert massacre chose weapons specifically based on ranged accuracy and chose a defensible position. For ten uncontested minutes, the killer utilized more than a dozen AR-15 rifles equipped with bump stocks that increased his rate of fire to murder people nearly 500 yards away. He used the proper tools for the job and managed to kill 58 people and cause injury (by gunshot or chaos) another 850. In TEN MINUTES. How? The tools he used in combination allowed him to fire 1,100 rounds in ten minutes.
A shooter picks the right weapon for the job. The job? Kill as many people as possible.
The question I’ve never resolved for myself is, if not killing people, what problem does this tool fix? I’ve been told that it’s the perfect weapon for a patriot who will have to protect themselves from tyrants. I’m also told that he Second Amendment of the Constitution makes the question irrelevant. It exists so someone has a right to it. My gun safety instructor tried to demystify firearms by saying,
“A firearm is a tool designed to stop something; a robbery, a rape, a murder. It is designed to stop a person with deadly force and if you ever find yourself in a situation where you choose to aim a firearm at a living person, you must be prepared to stop that person forever.”
So the problem this kind of tool solves is a lack of power over a situation, control over people.
Sometimes, power is an equalizer and sometimes, it is tyranny. Control one person, use a handgun, maybe a shotgun or a rifle. You can probably control a ROOM full of people that way, but if you need to dispose of them quickly before someone ends your life, you go for the weapon the fires fast and hard so, in case you miss or wing someone, there’s another round right behind it.
A man who hates LGBTQ+ people can enter a crowded nightclub and kill dozens before even an armed person could draw and potentially get a clean shot at the shooter.
A man in a Vegas hotel room with a cache of legally obtained firearms can take out dozens of people at a distance with impunity. No good guy with a gun in that situation has the right tool to defend themselves or others from a few hundred yards away.
A kid can walk into a crowded theater, toss a smoke grenade and carry out a massacre of people fleeing the chamber with their backs toward him.
And, yes, it can be used to stop “tyrants” like police, from invading someone’s home which is why police now wear military gear, drive armored vehicles, and deploy weapons designed to counter the firepower of today’s best firearms.
I don’t get why there’s a disconnect here. We build firearms to make sure our soldiers have the best chance in the field of willing the battle. We employ tactics to support that mission, but in the end, it’s the superiority of the weapon that prevails upon the enemy to surrender or die, right? If not the soldier, then the knife. If not the knife, then the rifle. If not the rifle, then the bomb. That’s how it works, right?
As with all weapons, there’s always a “next level” whether it be arms or tactics. So the discussion about how to stop mass killings should always include the weapons used which were designed specifically to be the best tool for that kind of job.
The wave has broken and is about to roll back.
The Walking Dead comic book has ended on a random number. There was no fanfare, no lead up to “Issue #200” and the final story. Just a flash forward to a different world and a phone-in with some of the major characters. I get it. No comic book can last forever and it is astonishing that Robert Kirkman could script as many books as he has while running his own company and helping to produce two Walking Dead series (three if you count Hardwick’s fanshow), games, events, and television movies. Something had to give.
I don’t know if the comic was losing readers or if changes to the show were just making it unrecognizable against the comic’s arc or if the show was closing in on covering the current story arc. I’ll admit I haven’t read it since the introduction of The Whisperers. I stopped when I saw an issue of the book with a cover depicting people fixing roofs. I forget what issue that was but I thought, “Negan’s in prison. Society is blooming again. Good stopping point.” I planned to come back for the trades, but the monthly issues were not holding my interest enough. Characters kept filling pages with cool speeches and familiar conflicts but they were too seldom interrupted by big events. With Negan relegated to Rick’s voice of self-doubt and poised for a face turn in future issues, I moved on to a causal reader.
The Telltale games are fantastic. They represent the core of makes a great zombie survival adventure. It’s all about different people struggling with hard choices, ordinary folks overcoming horrible circumstances and changing because of it. I didn’t need a first person or combat-driven game because that was never a strength of the comic. Where the comic was successful was in creating a company of characters from different backgrounds who are not simple or trope-ridden. Like the game, characters were made to make tough choices in the moment, sometimes that they would regret or that would backfire on them later in life. Taking “first world” people and putting them into a situation of survival that most of the world is better suited to handle is what makes the book and the show great.
Fear the Walking Dead began that way with a fresh look at the Clark family and their struggles to stay together as a family and survive. It was a new location so, no more kudzu-clogged ghost towns and overgrown farmland. We got to see the start of the crisis and see it through the eyes of the uninitiated.
But FTWD has almost completely recast and reimagined itself, with Alicia Clark on hand to remind us, incessantly, that her mom was a bad-ass leader. And given the shift in tone, those reminders are not helping us move on, even with Morgan leading the company now. FTWD has experimented with formats and I was SO on board (no pun intended) with the idea of doing Season 2 on a boat. I expected new locations where they’d scavenge and get involved in new, wacky adventures. But the show turned into an English-language telenovela. The one thing that kept me interested was the struggle of the Clark and Salazar families to reset their moral compass for the post-apocalypse, to see Madison and Travis keep their blended family from losing its collective shit in the face of constant threats and Victor Strand’s smooth version of Dr. Zackary Smith. Even before they wrote Madison off the show, it was struggling with being consistent. When The Vultures arrived in Season 4, the show had established that there are some situations where you have to strike, pre-emptively, to protect one’s self. Despite the ludicrous idea of a slacker version of The Saviors who just wait out the demise of other survivors, it was a clear situation where a proportionate show of force against a clear and present danger wasn’t just a moral imperative but common sense.
The arrival of Morgan and shift to “white hats in a gray world” was not well established and our faith in the newly forming team questioned as one solitary crazy person damn near managed to kill them all because they couldn’t taste antifreeze in their water supply or realize the safety caps on the bottles were broken. Where TWD had its most powerful episodes and the games had their most heart-wrenching moments in having to sacrifice the few to protect the many, that season went out of its way to prove that our heroes aren’t prepared to make such important choices. Morgan’s insistence on not killing Martha the “dirty woman” remained one of the dumbest decisions in the show until someone told the journalist to fly a friggin’ plane hundreds of miles to try and help some strangers they heard on the radio. Further proof of their stupidity was the fact that it was all a cunning ruse by a guy who just wanted his warehouse back without violence. DOH!
To me, the moral of the story from Season 4B was that, despite your best efforts, there are still monsters out there and they will pick off the weak and trusting without any remorse. But Morgan and his team end up like some idealistic and naïve missionaries in the land of the dead saying “Hey! Let’s give things away from this big warehouse that’s not at all hard to find!”
Daniel Salazar is the only character left with the original and, honestly, appropriate mentality of “verify before trust” and the skills to exist in this world. I imagine we haven’t seen much of him because his outlook puts him diametrically opposite Morgan’s ridiculous humanitarian outlook and it would take a LOT of strong writing and storytelling to get those two on a compatible mental wavelength. With Carol, it would only take a page of dialogue with her showing Daniel her collection of throwable cutlery.
FTWD wants to remove the existential dread from a world where those who lasted that long in it did so by coming to terms with that dread, adapting to the toxic world around them, and choosing to live by removing those who might deprive them of that option. These people, some of whom have seen Negan-scale cruelty and evil first hand, still expect reason and logic to govern the actions of people around them.
Meanwhile, The Walking Dead has maintained its foundation because it never got over Negan. For years the mere fact that Negan wasn’t dead drove the major settlements apart. The natural question of how to share resources among starving and under-defended communities becomes the new conflict. When communities open their doors, they unwittingly admit strangers who deal a terrible blow to the fragile sense of safety and prosperity and. The loss of Rick, their symbolic champion and elder statesman, further demoralizes them to the point that they must abandon what they’ve built and risk death crossing enemy territory during a blinding snow storm. While not the same, intimate drama that we enjoyed when Rick and the Atlanta survivors were a small group hiding in a quarry or a prison, it is the natural progression of a society trying to rebuild and an extension of the story arcs of the survivors. While the comics and series have diverged significantly over the seasons, the survivors in each eventually achieved positions of respect and authority. This is another great accomplishment of Kirkman. If you follow the stories of the main characters back to their introductions, all of them have changed and grown significantly and you can almost point to the moments where each character advanced. They earned their places by sacrifice, redemption, heroism, or all of the above. In the comics, it’s Carl Grimes who embodies the greatest growth and accomplishment. In the television show, it is probably Daryl, who goes from petty thug abused by his family to a great leader who reluctantly but earnestly honors Rick by owning that role.
With the cost of keeping the lead actors on board TWD and the terrible stories of FTWD and the end of the comic that started it all, it may be that the franchise may end for a while until another generation can reboot it for the a new audience with a new vision.