House of Cards: Of saints and stories

My birthday is October 4th, which is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.  I’m not a Catholic, but my father is, at least sometimes, and the talismanic nature of saints have always interested me.  Among other things, St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals.

A few weeks ago, I was in Rome on a brief weekend holiday while in Europe for my day job.  Rome, however, was a research trip for a writing project, and I anticipated being tightly focused on documenting things once remembered about the city in preparation for a project that is set mostly in Rome and Southern Italy. To a certain extent, I was successful.  But I was also distracted by the things that always distract me in Italy: Great food that is surprisingly often gluten-free, and the gloomy, less visited churches that are barely even footnotes on the tourist maps.

One of the things the eclecticism of my religious upbringing (if you missed it: Dad changed religions a lot, my mom is Jewish, and my childhood was a sea of hippie oddities) is actually really helpful for is pulling apart pop-culture.  And so sitting in a church so blackened with soot that the interior was nothing but ominous, I started turning over House of Cards‘s Francis Underwood — his name, his faith, and the structural function of each in the narrative both of the show and his own life — over in my head.

And I came back, in that dark church, constantly to saints.

Because Francis Underwood is, absolutely, also a patron saint of animals.  When we first meet him, he puts a dog out of his misery, with his bare hands, and doing what is possibly the right thing has never seemed quite so unsettling.  It’s one of the great moments in scripted media ever.  It jumps off the screen, because of how spectacularly it jumps off the page.

But the motif of animals, blood and murder, certainly doesn’t end there.  Not with the way Francis makes a bloody x by swiping his finger across a newspaper photo of a rival after eating ribs, and not when there is so much discussion of in S2 of who is whose dog .The hacker Gavin Orsay, goes to his knees and barks to both show he understands and loathes his place, while businessman Xander Feng is essentially held hostage in what becomes a slow death by politics not-unlike the slow, illegal, bleed supposedly performed on the pigs served at Freddy’s BBQ.  Everyone is an animal in House of Cards. As one of the key promotional lines of S2 constantly reminded us: Hunt or be hunted.

The thing is, there are a lot of saints named Francis. St. Francis de Sales, for example, is the patron saint of writers and journalists.  Our Frank Underwood puts some of those out of their misery too, doesn’t he?  And his victory at the end of S2 is won, quite significantly, by his writing a letter to the president on a typewriter that bears his other name, Underwood.

It should be unsurprising.  After all, Frank Underwood says in S1, “I pray to myself for myself.”  It is perhaps one of the most shocking moments of the show thus far, at least in a nation that places so much value on religiosity both in politics and pop culture. This statement of Frank’s, however, is, I believe, less atheistic than it first appears and more gnostic or Thelemic in nature.  If it reads as a rejection of, as opposed to a oneness with a god, it does so largely because we’re supposed to consider Frank Underwood a very bad man.

While he is no villain I ever wish to be, and I view his schemes as a constantly cautionary tale (never come up with a plot that is dependent on the other parties involved doing what you think they are going to do; people will always surprise you and you’re never going to be as smart as you think you are), I find a great deal about Frank, and his wife Claire, profound and useful to me as I navigate my own relationship with the world.

Frank’s moment in the church, and his saints names, remind me, in spite of all his sins, the we each carry within us remarkable power, terrifying resilience, and peculiar affinities that allow us, if we’re paying any sort of attention, to write the story of our own lives through the living of them.  These possessions of Frank’s also suggest tantalizing clues as how the series may progress through S3 and perhaps beyond.

Because without House of Cards morphing into a totalitarian horrorscape, Frank does not have much more to achieve.  Other than reelection as president, he now can only fall. But as a saint of animals and writers, and as his own god who writes himself into being (praying to himself for himself), he must necessarily also write his own fall and achieve it too as a victory.

To that end, I would suggest keeping your eyes on Claire.  Frank is in so many ways her mentor and in so many ways she is surpassing him.  It is my very strong suspicion is that Frank’s final victory can only be his own written and wished for demise at her well-trained hands.

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American Horror Story: Wounds as weapons

Sometimes, I feel like the loneliest person in fandom.  When Tumblr asks Who in the Glee cast would you most like to have lunch with? I always say Ryan Murphy.  That’s not just about avoiding the awkward about cute boys and the intensity of various fandom factions.  I really, really am a huge Ryan Murhy fan, which is a little bit like being a Russel T. Davies fan if you watch British TV — people wonder what’s wrong with you, even as they’re all watching the guy’s show(s).

Being a Ryan Murphy fan and being someone who struggles with the horror genre is, however, particularly frustrating right now.  Because he’s definitely doing some of his most intellectually interesting and uncomfortably confronting work on American Horror Story.  The problem is, I can barely watch it. Not because it’s gory, but because his imagination brings my deepest, darkest intrusive thoughts to visual life with far too much regularity.

I still haven’t, despite strong personal interest, watched AHS: Asylum because of the degree to which medicalized punishment for Otherness is pretty much the one narrative place I don’t quite have the endurance to go.  Mainly, because even if it didn’t happen like that, it still really happened.  It still does.

AHS: Coven, which I am watching, is by Murphy’s own admission, a campier, funnier show.  But it’s still horrifying — and again, not for the gore. This is particularly clear in the way it showcases a litany of female focused horrors: self-injury, deceitful competition between women, the non-metaphorical links between sex and death, the false redemption fame and objectification are meant to promise us.

At its heart, of course, all of Murphy’s work is, arguably, about trauma survivors.  It is as clear in Gabourey Sibide’s Queenie on AHS as it is in Chris Colfer’s Kurt Hummel on Glee.  It’s hardly surprising.  After all, Murphy is also working on bringing The Normal Heart to HBO.  Because while marginalized people are always, arguably, trauma survivors, the tight generational bond some of us share because of queerness and AIDS and activism is particularly illustrative.  It is one of the other things that often makes me feel lonely in fandom; I burst into tears every time I see the All My Friends Are Dead dinosaur, and yet when I try to talk about these experiences I often get the message — from myself as well as others — that I shouldn’t.

Weirdly, however, Murphy’s obsession with trauma and its transformative nature may be something he most clearly articulated during the nearly unwatchable, often annoying, and now cancelled reality TV show The Glee Project, in which contestants competed for a role on the FOX show.  With the exception of Alex Newell, the most interesting performers didn’t win (I’m looking at you, Charlie Lubeck).  But in the sea of all that, one interesting thing Murphy always seemed to ask the contestants, over and over again, was What is your wound?

Most often, this generated people talking about the things in their lives and the reception of their identities and experiences that most hurt.  It led to more than a few Tumblr conversations where people tried to identify and craft elevator pitches for their own wounds.

But last night, when I watched Queenie slash her own throat and dip her hand in a glass of acid to inflict the wounds produced on others, I finally understood.  When Ryan Murphy asks his potential actors What is your wound? what he means is How are you going to kill me?

Vikings: Death, faith, and politics… also, threesomes

Last night, Patty and I, as a chaser to Game of Thrones, finished History’s first dramatic series, the 9-episode Vikings.  By turns exceptional, terrible, and delightfully baffling, it was worth our time far more than I anticipated. And even if it probably taught us nothing reasonable factual about Vikings (more on that later), a fictional series with a few fact-like tidbits on Vikings strikes me as far preferable to many of History’s “non-fiction” offerings: Aliens, for example, did not build the pyramids (despite a t-shirt Patty owns that illustrates this concept with the note teach the controversy).

Below are nine great reasons to watch Vikings that highlight all the ways in which its first season is filled with great responses to our current pop-culture moment.

1. Vikings is smart enough to make its central drama not just about family, but about many different types of families.  Romantic love, sibling rivalry, parent-child, and chosen family narratives in multiple forms thread through all nine episodes, guaranteeing something familiar and emotionally engaging for pretty much any viewer.

2. Vikings goes out of its way to show joy even in desperate, difficult, and violent times.  This is why so many people are watching it after Game of Thrones where joy seems merely a concept outgrown or a feeling vengeance occasionally briefly evokes.  (Look, I love Game of Thones, but its name is Despair).

3. Vikings gets that sex is part of who people and cultures are.  Mostly, it avoids falling into the sexposition trap HBO’s programming is often chided for, and instead integrates sex into the narrative as consistently but passingly as food, except when someone’s sexual choices becomes a major plot point.  But often sex is just sex and it’s talked about like the weather.

That said, can anyone tell me what was up with all the threesomes? I’m not being snarky. I’m just trying to figure out if the multiple offers (some declined not) of threesomes and moresomes were supposed to tell us something about Viking sexuality or represented the results of market research regarding fandom in general and Tumblr in particular.  The prevalance of F/M/M moments particularly generates this question, considering that History historically has a much larger male audience than female audience.  Who did they think was watching this?

4. Vikings has great female characters.  From political cunning to battlefield skill to domestic excellence these women are all accomplished in radically different ways. The desire to have it all is clear in many of them, and the fact that that’s not easy is just as present.  They’re heroes and villains and, most importantly, almost never plot devices. If you have a thing for political power couples, this is your show.  And while rape is present in the plot, we also see rape averted, punished, and addressed as a community concern.

5. Speaking of fighting, the fight choreography on Vikings benefits from being well-done and relatively realistic (fight choreography never truly realistic, because in order for it to be visible, people have to take wide swings so you can see it — in a real conflict that gets people killed).  Fighting styles and weapon choices tell us things about characters on Vikings, and the ways in which women fight acknowledge that geometry is all, but if you get into a bad corner, size and strength can and do matter.

6. Since we’re talking about fighting, let’s also talk about death.  Vikings is obsessed with death, and does a fantastic job of presenting a culture that has a completely attitude about death than our own.  It does this three-dimensionally, through diverse situations (death from sickness, the desire to die in battle, the religious use of human sacrifice) and a lot of fantastic acting that allows the characters to exhibit sorrow and fear even in the face of deaths both revered and glorious.  The way Vikings handles death is one of the most harrowing, interesting, and moving things I’ve seen on TV this year, and worth it for that alone.

7. All the death content means we get lots of material on faith as well.  This could have been full of annoying Christianity vs. paganism cliches. Instead it’s murky and complex all the way around.  People question their faith constantly and are seen taking refuge in it as often for truth belief as for community and the comfort of habit.  This is an accessibly, and appropriately, modern worldview that makes the characters deeply relatable.

8. At its heart Vikings is about ambition and its consequences.  It offers no firm answers, but suggests that ambition is both a disease and a gift that can neither be eradicated or refused. This isn’t just compelling, but freeing. Because while the ambition feels familiar, odds are you aren’t losing sleep over not having raided England yet this season.

9. Finally, Vikings is populated by characters with widely varying types of intelligence, not all of whom are as skilled as estimating their abilities as they think. This allows the audience to do work, characters to fail believably, and everyone to be treated to Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok’s delightfully sly grin.

Vikings is certainly imperfect.  While the acting from most of the leads is exceptional, some of the actors in minor roles are unable to conquer the show’s often clunky dialogue.  Historical (and I’ve been told geographical) accuracy, while better than “aliens built the pyramids,” is deeply dubious.  Some episodes are intentionally strangely paced (e.g., episode 8, “Sacrifice”), and the show’s choices around illustrating the language differences and communications difficulties between the Vikings and the English are nearly impossible to divine the rationale behind, despite being central to one of the show’s plot devices.

That said, it’s only nine episodes, which is a perfect bite-sized introduction to a surprisingly thoughtful, yet strangely produced, basic cable curiosity that largely gets by on charisma, momentum, and ambition alone.

Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It

Queers-Cover-web-194x300I’m really happy to finally get to post about Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It, edited by Sigrid Ellis (Chicks Dig Comics) and Michael Damian Thomas (Apex Magazine). It’s being released on June 4, 2013, already seems to have great buzz, and has one of my essays in it.

While the stuff I write is always personal on some level, my piece in this volume touches on a lot of things I tend not to talk about in public (yes, those exist) — including being Sicilian, wanting to be a boy, and the age of AIDS — because they’re just too difficult, too close, and too specific in my day-to-day life.

The through time and space nature of the Whoniverse, however, and Jack Harkness’s long-life on 20th century Earth have meant, however, that I couldn’t get away with contributing to this volume without telling my story in ways I’m a lot less practiced at, which is an opportunity I’m incredibly grateful for.

I think this volume is going to be incredible. It contains work from a lot of people I know, and a lot of people I know of, and I’m super excited to get my hands on it.

You can pre-order it at Amazon and other major booksellers, and it will also be available for early purchase at Wiscon.

Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012

978-0-7864-6549-1This snuck up on me because it’s been such a long process but Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012 is finally shipping from McFarland. I have a piece in it on “Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of Media, Public Relations and Marketing in the New Doctor Who,” which, because of the time lines involved in academic publishing, covers the ninth and tenth Doctors, most of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The whole collection is full of really awesome stuff from fans who are also academics/academics who are also fans, and I’m really excited to finally get to read it. While I wait breathlessly for my contributors copy, you can order it from McFarland’s website at the link above.

Glee: Deconstructing Moulin Rouge

When I first heard that Glee was going to do a Moulin Rouge episode, I was ecstatic. Moulin Rouge is a film that has had a tremendous impact on me; once upon a time I even took a month out of my life to run away to acting school in Sydney. As such, I’m always interested in both its themes and how its stylistic construction continues to move through the culture.

Of course, my enthusiasm was tempered when it became clear we would be getting a general tribute to the movie musical on Glee instead. However, having just watched “Boys (and Girls) on Film,” I am struck by just how closely id adheres to the themes of Moulin Rouge without retelling its story or offering any direct one-to-one character correlations.

Glee achieves this thematic resonance in part because it extends out significantly from this episode, appearing first in episode 4.08 (“Thanksgiving”) when Marley collapses on stage in a torrent of confetti. This echos Satine’s final collapse in Moulin Rouge and is truthful to the structure of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Cinema (RCC) in that RCC stories always begin with the end. In keeping with this Glee’s tribute to Moulin Rouge begins in 4.08 with a reflection of the end of the film.

But Marley, of course, hasn’t collapsed from consumption on Glee. Yet, the reference to Satine’s end is still clear. Because Marley has collapsed because of what she will not allow herself to consume (food) and what she is consumed with (fear that she will wind up like her mother), thanks to the gaslighting Kitty provides as one of the clear parallels to Satine’s rival, Nini Legs-in-the-Air.

Similarly, another key element of Moulin Rouge has only been foreshadowed in “Boys (and Girls) on Film,” yet spoilers tell us that Brody isn’t a drug dealer, but a sex worker, as is Satine and essentially at the denizens of the Moulin Rouge in Luhrmann’s film. That Satine desperately wants to be “a real actress” and engages in prostitution because of her engagement with art is echoed in the fact that Brody is the first NYADA student Rachel meets. His association with the aspiration to being “a real actor” is absolute and that is why it has been unavoidable that he gets this particular sex work narrative (which is hardly Glee‘s first). This is compounded by his history with Cassandra — the power differences and his multiple uses to his employers are as essential to Brody’s role in the story as they are to the women of the Moulin Rouge.

The bulk of the deconstructed Moulin Rouge content, however, does fall within “Boys (and Girls) on Film.” Characters constantly remind each other of what happens next in multiple films to determine their next courses of action, just as Christian writes and explains his future love story with Satine through the musical they have connived to have him create for the Duke and Harold Zidler.

Also in keeping with the themes of Moulin Rouge is “Shout!” which is reminiscent of our introduction to the Moulin Rouge in “Because We Can.” They’re both seemingly positive activity songs that don’t advance the narrative but lead us into the chaotic world of the action. Just as that number in Moulin Rouge has movement on multiple levels, “Shout!” also puts people crawling on the floor and climbing on furniture. Additionally, with the number being led by Blaine, who Glee codes as feminine, and Brittany, who Glee codes as masculine, much of the gender variance which is present throughout Moulin Rouge, and particularly in “Because We Can,” is also alluded to here.

Other key elements to Moulin Rouge are evidenced in Artie’s function as director; the commune-like nature of the ever more populated New York loft (where Santana also has a Nini Legs-in-the-Air function, but is equally the older woman who prepares Satine for her performances and serves as her dresser); repeated issues around sexual consent and assault (which have appeared most explicitly around Blaine recently, but are present all over the narrative on a nearly constant basis); Glee‘s intra- and extradiegetic pop-culture borrowing, and the central questions of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.

And that’s all before we touch the two key numbers from the film that actually appear in the episode — the “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” / “Material Girl” mash-up (in which the line about Harold Zidler remains and Unique gets to be an explicitly sexual being) and “Come What May,” which visually references the “Elephant Love Medley” in its set and the first iteration of “Come What May” in its physical choreography.

Of course, several key pieces of the Moulin Rouge story and narrative remain missing, at least for the moment. These include Christian’s anguish in “El Tango de Roxanne,” Harold Zidler’s “The Show Must Go On,” and the final reprise of “Come What May” which features not just a wedding, but a gun.

It seems likely that “Against All Odds” in 4.17 (“Guilty Pleasures”) will serve the Blaine anguish purpose that slots in to the “El Tango de Roxanne” place. A reprise of “Come What May” for Kurt and Blaine’s eventual reunion seems a given, especially with the themes of spiritual marriage that Glee has underscored even more heavily than Moulin Rouge. But before that happens (and it may not even happen this season), we’ll certainly see a gun in 4.18 (“Shooting Star”). Meanwhile, any stand in for “The Show Must Go On” is virtually unnecessary in light of the obstacles the glee club deals with on a nearly constant basis.

Since the Kurt and Blaine break up, I’ve been reminding people that, as Leonard Cohen sings, “Love is not a victory march.” Additionally, Glee is not a love story. At least not that type of love story, which is easy to forget when you watch the show for one or more of its romances. But even as the romances seem to drive the plot forward and seem to be the central narrative, the fact is that neither Glee nor Moulin Rouge are actually, centrally, about romantic/sexual dyads.

Rather, both Glee and Moulin Rouge are about friends who make art together for fun, and for profit, and to survive, and because they are incapable, by their very natures, of not doing so. In both properties, creative acts are used as a proxy for sex and communication, while sex and communication inspire other creative acts. This feedback loop is incestuous, is an erotic drama-based pleasure, and is about loyalty and love and creative family.

Thus, the romances we think are the central story — whether Christian and Satine or Kurt and Blaine or Rachel and Finn — actually happen because of the magical space created by the community-driven narratives. That both properties also have emphasized in their supplemental material the creative family aspects of their production processes (is it any wonder that Glee‘s 500th song came in this episode?) should also not be overlooked.

Through its dialogue with Moulin Rouge in this episode and in this season, Glee has arguably never been clearer about what it is, where it’s going, and just how much it doesn’t want to let any of us watch it for merely a single strand of its many many diamonds.

Glee: Tune in to FY Glee Podcast, Episode 2 (“Women of Glee”)

There’s a new podcast in town and while I’m at Gallifrey One this weekend, the fandom streams will be crossing as I take part in a podcast on the too-often-over-looked in my corner of the fandom women of Glee. This time everyone who is participating actually likes the show more or less too!

We’ll be going live at 1pm EST on February 16th, and recordings and transcripts will be available after the fact. For more information on how to tune in, who the other panelists are, and how to ask questions in advance, please go here.

Edited to add: An archive version of this podcast is now available on YouTube.