Corporate Social Irresponsibility: Models of Ethical Whitewashing and Stolen Valor

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WWE Superstars posing with Nestlé products and employees to publicise the new partnership between the two corporations. Credit: Nestlé

As someone who has worked the majority of his life in the charity sector, I have both been encouraged to work with the Private Sector, and have always watched with interest how many businesses exploit their relationships with charities to shirk their ethical responsibilities or mask their otherwise questionable activities.  Everyone has different ethical standards and personal missions, but for me, the strongest one has always been against the Nestlé corporation. It is Nestlé who, again, have got my blood boiling, and whose new charitable partnership with WWE called the ‘Nestlé Waters Challenge’ was the final catalyst for an article which has been stewing for some time.

In a now infamous tweet from 2015, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer, Stephanie McMahon admiringly quoted Twitter co-founder Biz Stone from an interview with WWE’s Michael Cole in which he said ‘Philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands are going to win.’ This of course laid bare the rationale for any charitable work WWE engages in, and it engages in a lot. Now it’s important not to be so over-zealous in your in your analysis of these activities that you denounce meaningful charity work like Make-a-Wish, which all of the wrestlers seem to enjoy, or even the positive elements of the shadier partnerships they are involved with, but knowing that WWE’s charity work is a branding decision as opposed to a moral one certainly puts it in a different light. Of course, this strategy of Corporate Social Responsibility is by no means unique to WWE, and is indeed the norm for big corporations, but as WWE is a brand I have dedicated a lot of time to, and is one which is now engaging in unconscionable practices, they will be the focus for the most part here.

In retrospect, while I have been snide about many of WWE’s corporate practices in the past, it is only now – far too late – that I have started to be appropriately disturbed by them. They have always been bad, but between emerging partnerships and announcements regarding them seemingly snowballing recently, they are now verging on cartoon baddie status.

Tackling cancer is obviously a very worthwhile cause, but where good causes are, there will always be some unscrupulous people willing to profit from a cottage industry, and in charity terms, unfortunately, ‘cancer awareness’ has become the most bloated cottage industry going with Susan G. Komen being a poster-child of the worst of it. ‘Komen’ have been accused of about every bad thing a charity can be accused of, from marketing products and policies which are linked with causing cancer, to backing industries they receive donations from, to ‘Pinkwashing’ – focusing more on selling merchandise than actually trying to cure cancer, while keeping much of the profits for themselves. Despite this, possibly because more respectable charities won’t go near wrasslin’, WWE chose to partner with Komen to get skin in the charity awareness game, promote the charity, and enable them to do more damage. The best you can say for WWE is that they were ignorant of the dark side of Komen, didn’t care to consider it, and went ahead as a business decision, not caring about the ethics of it.

I have written extensively about my cynicism regarding the merits of the armed forces, and my nausea with celebrating them too much. That said, I understand that it is natural and sincere for many people to want to celebrate them, that there isn’t anything terrible about corporations like WWE doing so, and that often it is the troops that are the real victims of the military-inductrial complex. What is terrible, however, is the money which changes hands when corporations celebrate the military, and the fealty that is required in return. WWE is by no means alone in this; the NFL is just as bad if not worse, taking vast sums of taxpayer money to promote the US military. While veterans are spat out of the military to lives of PTSD, financial struggles, and problems to re-integrate in to life without the military once they have served their purpose, the military has an insatiable appetite for recruits. The US military is desperate for bodies, and it drives them to recruit youngsters, play to false notions of patriotism, and use the platforms of major corporations to spread propaganda for them. So corporations like the NFL and WWE promote the importance of the military, the apparent ‘freedom’ they secure, and also programmes like Hire Heroes, which helps gets veterans in to work. Again, I won’t pretend that Hire Heroes is a bad thing, but what it is, is a shoddy clean-up effort, a tacit admission of guilt and of the problem at hand, and a solution that amounts to a drop in the ocean that they hope will absolve them in the public eye. It’s the equivalent of burning someone’s house down, buying them a sleeping bag, and expecting a thanks. What makes support of these military-linked charity partnerships so uncomfortable is the blatancy of the quid pro quo. The military pay corporations like WWE to promote them and absolve them of their sins.

This theme is repeated with WWE’s new Nestlé partnership.

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WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and COO Triple H posing with Saudi despot Mohammed Bin Salman. Credit: Forbes

But before I get to that, there is another WWE business decision which doesn’t really count as corportate social responsibility, but has thematic links, and that’s the elephant in the room: WWE’s ongoing contract with the Saudi Arabian royal family. There are much better explanations of the crimes of Mohammed Bin Salman and the Saudi monarchy elsewhere, but in short, the ruthless evil of a state which is bombing and starving their poorer Yemeni neighbours and brutally murders critical journalists is an evil which is impossible to defend. What Saudi Arabia would like to do, however, is have you forget about it, and they have some ideas for how to do that. One is to pay WWE outlandish amounts of money to put on a series of stadium-sized house shows there to contribute to a cultural whitewashing of the oppressive state and to add a (thin) veil of cultural progressivism to the rulers there. There’s talk of letting the women wrestle over there in the name of ‘progress’, but that hasn’t materialised yet, and increasingly, this seems a hollow carrot dangled above the WWE superstars who make the trips there to make the whole thing seem less greasy. That said, there are some superstars – Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, and more, who are conscientiously objecting, but it should be many more. WWE are so ashamed of what they are doing that they don’t even refer to the country the shows are in when they promote their broadcasts on the WWE Network, and they should be ashamed. Unfortunately, they are not ashamed enough to hand back the cash. Again, their partnership is a straight exchange of money for good PR, but there isn’t even any hint of charitable activity this time.

When WWE entered in to this disgusting arrangement, that should have been enough for me to stop watching, but to my shame, it wasn’t. It has taken until now for me to speak out (for what that’s worth), but when I saw that WWE were entering in to a PR clean up campaign with Nestlé, that was the equivalent of a punch in the stomach to me. To be extremely clear: Nestlé are evil. Nestlé has caused the death and hardship of millions. Nestle is everything that is wrong with corporations. It is a company which owns and operates a huge amount of brands to engage with, from foods, to hygiene products, and are very hard to avoid consuming, but I have been trying my best to for years now after learning about their practices. Again, many more have written better and in more depth than I will, but if you can think of any unethical corporate practice, Nestlé have done it with incredulity. Most famously, their promotion of their baby milk formulas in developing countries where poor sanitation made the process lethal to many babies, and their bribing of doctors there to push their products on mothers is perhaps their most infamous scandal, killing as it did, babies. That is just the tip of the iceberg though, and again, please seek out detail in more depth, but Nestlé have also practiced child labour and trafficking in their chocolate production in the Ivory Coast; systemic pollution; forcing famine-stricken Ethiopia to pay them a ‘debt’ of $6 million; promoting mis-labeled products as ‘healthy’ when they are not; and of course, good old fashioned price fixing and tax avoidance. What led us here though is another of their major scandals: their bottled water business practices.

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Credit: Rachael Romero and the Inkworks Press Archive

There are so many rotten layers to this it is almost hard to follow. Two days ago, WWE announced they were ‘teaming up’ with Nestlé for their ‘Nestlé Waters Challenge’, a ‘campaign’ which aims to get people to choose healthy options and choose water. Fair enough. But wait, Nestlé are the ones selling you water. In fact for them it’s a multi-billion dollar business. And wait, not only are Nestlé selling you the water, but more accurately, they are selling you back water which they have effectively stolen from the public. The Nestlé water business model is a simple one: they pay next to nothing to monopolise what should be public water with the promise of jobs and economic benefits in return (but which rarely materialise), and then sell the public back their own water in a Nestlé branded bottle. They have outwardly said that they don’t believe access to water is a human right, and they practice what they preach, repeating this model in whatever vulnerable communities they can find with water springs. They do it all over the world: in Nigeria, in Pakistan, and in Michigan. In Michigan, the state where Flint is and which hasn’t had safe drinking water in years, Nestlé hog the only safe water around, and sell it to the desperate residents. In this context, Nestlé encouraging you to ‘choose water’ is transparently disgusting, and WWE providing a friendly platform for them to do so, is equally as bad.

Again, WWE is helping whitewash the crimes of an rotten organisation, helping characterise Nestlé as the friendly corporation which wants the best for you and your health while they steal your water behind your back. WWE are again, for money and exposure, aiding and abetting Nestlé’s evil, and are again using a charitable promotion as the very thinly veiled vehicle to do so.

I may write soon about my current hiatus from watching wrestling, but this relationship with Nestlé may make my hiatus permanent, at least for WWE.

The idea for this article has been bouncing around in my head for some time now and from a slightly different angle from the arguments above, so I will move away from the WWE microcosm of the problem now to talk about some other phenomena.

As discussed earlier, a big driver for corporations to do charitable work is pure PR, which is really a form of marketing themselves as a kind company who you should want to give your hard-earned money to. ‘Pinkwashing’ was discussed earlier, but perhaps the cause which has become most linked with this, to the point of parody, is LGBT Pride. Pretty much every organisation, and every product going, displays the rainbow during Pride month. There are positives to this of course. Seeing people engage with that throughout the month helps remove stigma and make people feel more accepted, or more able to be themselves, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. It is important though that you don’t mistake the gestures of brands as friendliness. If there was no money in it, far fewer would bother to do it. Selling a pride version of your product is still selling your product, and the financial benefits of this are inconsistent at best. If a company says they will give a certain proportion of profits to an LGBT charity, they still take a share, and even if they give all profits charity (which is a rarity), it’s a tax write off for them which gets you in their place of business. In the grand scheme of things, this is not the most egregious form of corporate social responsibility, but it is nevertheless to be wary of, and audited when you consider engaging.

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A positive action, but also an infamous example of what might be considered ‘Pridewashing’. Credit: Pinknews

There is another element to this kind of corporate social responsibility, where companies sell a product and donate some of their takings, and it’s that it’s not really them donating the money, is it? At best, they are curating your donation. They decide who that money goes to, not you, and what’s worse, they get the credit and good PR for their ‘donation’, not you, the customer. This is what I mean by the slightly tongue-in-cheek use of the term ‘stolen valour’ – that the power and presence of large corporations allow for them to undertake seemingly charitable endeavours, profit from it, and take the credit for the money flowing from their customers with them as a middle man. Think of whenever you go in to a McDonalds or a KFC. There are always little boxes for your change that goes towards their charitable foundations. Aside from the same old story of fast food companies ‘investing’ in healthy food programmes by way of apology for serving addictive and unhealthy food to children, those customer donations go some way towards funding their charitable endeavours. Now i’m not naive enough to think that the change from your Big Mac alone funds these causes, but it certainly subsidizes them. Now again, the work of the Ronald McDonald house, for example, is good and valuable, but they are there with your support, while McDonald’s gets to pat themselves on the back and get forgiven for their promotion of unhealthy foods.

There has also been another recent trend within Corporate Social Responsibility which is even more transparent as sheer marketing – the ‘engage to be good’ model, if you will. I first saw this with an infamous charity tweet (though not so infamous that I can properly remember it or find it online) along the lines of ‘1 like = 1 meal for a hungry child’. While donating a meal for such little effort seems like a nice gesture, the tone of the tweet betrayed the intent – i.e. you were being held hostage, and the company will only give the hungry kid a meal if you engage with them. It was roundly lambasted at the time, but amazingly, not enough to kill the trend. Just last week, the makers of the film Aladdin started a twitter campaign whereby Disney would donate $5 for every public post including the hashtag #FriendLikeMe. Cool right? Yeah, except #FriendLikeMe refers to a song in Aladdin and is accompanied by a custom emoji of Aladdin whenever posted. Twitter users were literally being asked to help promote the film in return for a donation to Make-a-Wish. Disney would in fact only make the donation if  you first promoted their film. Now of course, there will be benefits as a result of this campaign, but we mustn’t treat this as a selfless act. It is blatant emotional manipulation for profit, and unfortunately, it is a trend that we are just used to now.

So why does this matter? In cases like #FriendLikeMe, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much – its the least we can expect from corporations; that every good deed comes with a price, but that it doesn’t really harm anyone. Even if that’s true, I think it’s important to be cognizant of it – be aware of what your engagement with these campaigns do and consider if you really support it. Always remember, as well, that it would be far more effective to just tax these corporations effectively and let the state decide where their money goes, rather than corporations doing a small amount themselves instead and getting a tax write-off for it. In cases like the WWE and their legitimising of Nestlé though, there should be no forgiveness. The top brass of these companies don’t care, but especially in WWE’s case, they have high profile faces that they link to these campaigns, and they might. I think it’s important to let them know the implications of what they are lending their faces to and if they still want to do it. Also, frankly, if you are boycotting Nestlé, it may be time to extend that to it’s partners, like WWE. I’m lucky in that I was already on a self-imposed hiatus, rather than a boycott, but when that hiatus is up, a difficult decision will have to be made. I don’t believe I will ever pay for their Network again though, at least while they are in league with Nestlé.

From the point of view of someone who works for a small charity, I would suggest the following. Firstly, investigate what the corporation is trying to achieve in their charity work – it won’t always be something ethical. Secondly, if you want to support a cause via a corporate campaign, at least look in to where the money is going – it won’t always be to an appropriate place, even if it’s masquerading as a charity. Thirdly, related to that, if you want to support a cause – research it, and choose who you want to support directly – you don’t need a corporation as a middle man, taking a cut for themselves and choosing for you. Finally, and perhaps with some bias – small charities are facing a tough time now, and are always reliant on income. While larger charities do fantastic work, they don’t always need your donation as much as your local, hard-working, coal-face organisation does. Find out what small charities are around you, and if there is one you like, consider offering them your support instead. They will likely never have the pull to benefit significantly from corporate input, but you can always help.

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Game of Thrones and A Song of Toxic Headcanon and Hyper-reaction

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Far from being a fable of heroes or villains, the finale ‘The Iron Throne’ showed what Game of Thrones has always shown – that our leaders are kinda disappointing. We shouldn’t have expected anything else. Credit: HBO

I started thinking about this article between episodes 5 and 6 of the final season of Game of Thrones, and am finishing it after the season finale. Game of Thrones won’t be the only TV show I discuss here, but it will be the main one, and is the one that best exemplifies the phenomena I will be discussing: ‘headcanon’ and hyper-reaction from fans and critics. So for the purpose of clarity, ‘headcanon’ is a term I have seen used to mean fan’s individual understanding of the show they like, and also their view of how it will, or should, end; and by ‘hyper-reaction’ I mean the largely online culture of criticism that is based around a cycle of microscopic viewing, reviewing, previewing, and theorising which manages to be fairly simplistic despite the detail they go in to. It is this recipe of influences which can be so toxic, and which we have seen recently with Game of Thrones.

I do not enjoy fantasy really. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but magical realms of elves and demons and what-have-you has never appealed to me. I think it is because I always enjoy human stories the most and fantasy seems a bit removed from that. Game of Thrones, however, has been a mighty big exception. This show featuring magic, various gods, dragons, and resurrection became one of my favourites ever as soon as Ned Stark’s head left his body. By this time, the reality that this was really a story of personal and political intrigue first, was clear, and the fact that it’s rich setting included such fantasy elements was no longer an issue for me. This slow introduction of fantasy elements is part of what has made the show such a smash hit. Perhaps if the dragons and magic were prominent from the off, I would have been less enamoured, but surely, these elements were introduced as a crucial part of the universe – more pieces on the ever-developing chess board. It was clear that expectations, as well as sentiment, could be thrown away. The game would play out as it would, not as fans expected.

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Ned’s beheading is cited by many as a quintessential Game of Thrones moment that set the scene for the rest of the show. Credit: HBO

I started watching Season 1 in early 2017, between Seasons 6 and 7 and made my way through the show fairly (and increasingly) quickly, until I caught up with the show and everyone else for Season 7. I have therefore consumed the show both as a binge-watcher, and now as an episodic watcher, and these two experiences are different in many ways. Of course watching multiple episodes back to back leaves you with a different experience to waiting a week between episodes, but one specific way I will primarily write about is the ‘quiet time’ between watching episodic shows, the time where all you have is the speculation of yourself and others. A lot has also changed from 2011 to now from the show being a cult hit and there being less of a review/’deep dive’ culture online to now when the show is perhaps the most popular show of all time with countless fans ready to make as many reaction videos, blogs, and tweets about it as possible, either out of love, or good business sense given the traffic the show inevitably brings.

Fandom has never been so intimate, and the intimacy comes in cycles. Unfortunately, the cycle itself and the online output it encourages is almost exclusively harmful to enjoyment of the show.

I am as culpable and vulnerable to it as anyone else. Here is my unofficial Game of Thrones schedule for this season:

1) Watch Episode > 2) Tweet reactions > 3) Listen to multiple reviews of episode > 4) Listen to multiple previews of the next episode > 5) Watch next episode > 6) Repeat.

Mix in to all of this conjecture, predictions, and discussions with others about the overall narrative journey of the show, and thoughts about how it will end, and it becomes all consuming. It becomes something almost apart from the show. This seems to be the case for many people too. People have their own individual view of both how they would like the show to behave and end, of how individual characters should behave and end their story, and how the show and characters will behave and end. This is all independent of the episodes already in the can and waiting to be televised. Viewers are obsessed with all facets of the show, and, like Littlefinger himself, imagined multiple different directions for the show at different times – some they like, and some they don’t. This is what is meant by ‘headcanon’: an imagined version of the show that exists only in the fans mind (and hopes). There is a degree of personal and even emotional investment involved with headcanon. Game of Thrones has done an excellent job of creating several characters we care about or are interested in, that we think we understand and can predict, but this creates expectations for fans that the show cannot possibly cater to singularly.

Most Game of Thrones characters are, and are celebrated as, morally complicated and hard to predict, but in a culture where predictions are prevalent, people will still do it. They perhaps want to believe they understand the show closely, and even know how it should, and will, end. So when it doesn’t happen in a way they like, something feels amiss, or even missing. I’m perhaps playing pop-psychologist a bit here, but they may even feel their fandom is invalidated. This is where people get defensive, and where at least part of the problem lies.

Let’s take a couple of examples which are being talked about a lot currently:

1) Daenerys becoming the ‘Mad Queen’. Daenerys has had an interesting character journey, from abused sister to powerful Queen in waiting, the ‘Breaker of Chains’, to now, where she has become a murderous tyrant. Criticism has been multiple and emotional, claiming that her turn to ‘mad queen’ has come out of nowhere and doesn’t fit the rest of her ‘arc’* given how much she spoke of breaking chains and wheels of power. It is certainly a disappointment if you admired her, that much is certain, but what it isn’t is unexpected or unearned**. If you view Dany in broad strokes, then yes, the progression seems nonsensical. But remember, the characters in this show all show what George RR Martin calls ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’ – they are morally complex, and situationally torn characters, and as such, can be powerfully human, even in their inhumanity. Look at Daenerys in more detail, and it is clear that violence and strength are always tools near to her. She has incinerated multiple people who she believes has done wrong or got in between her and the Iron Throne, she talks of burning cities to the ground and using ‘fire and blood’, has crucified scores of people, and her advisors are there explicitly to try to curb what are the more vengeful and violent aspects of her Targaryen bloodline. Throughout the eight seasons, it has been made explicit that as much as Daenerys may speak in purple poetry about being a liberator, her primary ambition is the throne, and the possibility of her using violence has always been just below the surface. My personal reading of her is that when she was conquering lands away from Westeros with relative ease, and was receiving the love of the people, she was happy to imagine herself the revolutionary, and maybe even believe it, but when challenged significantly, and when unable to inspire that same love, she was more than happy to choose fear over love if it meant reaching the throne. Even further, when the common people of Westeros didn’t immediately rally to her cause, that was all the excuse she needed to follow her father’s example and ‘burn them all’. None of this is inconsistent. How many times have we seen coups from people claiming to bring some sort of ‘change’ only for them to become tyrants? How many times do we see politicians support both humanitarian aid as well as military interventionism? Bad people rarely think they are bad, and in Dany’s case, I think she has convinced herself that getting the Throne, and the steps she has taken to do so, are absolutely necessary to her cause. The degree to which she will actually break chains or wheels is in doubt though when it’s compared to her wielding power.

Is this a pleasant direction? Absolutely not, but does it make sense? Does it fit? Absolutely. People were shocked and stunned to see the grisly images of her fire bombing of civilians, but that doesn’t make the story bad, it makes it affecting. There seems to be some confusion in this differentiation. Viewers of Game of Thrones should know now to expect a pleasant show with clear saviours or heroes, and getting upset when they don’t get it is astounding to me. Many viewers pictured Dany liberating Kings Landing either with or without Jon Snow by her side, they imagined a peaceful transition of power and a life of happiness and freedom for all. That is rarely the case in real life, let alone this universe, and if you expected that, you were watching the wrong show.

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Perhaps the defining image of the season, and the most divisive. Dany’s fall was foreshadowed, but not enough for some. Credit: HBO

2) Jamie Lannister comforting Cersei as they both died. Jamie Lannister is perhaps the most morally ambiguous character on the show. In the early seasons, he is an infuriating, incestuous golden boy and (attempted) child killer, as well as a ‘Kingslayer’. He’s about as hateful as it gets aside perhaps from his son Joffrey and, later, Ramsay Bolton. But a funny thing happens as the episodes and seasons go on. We spend more time with him as a captive. He loses his hand, explains that he killed the king to save the lives of civilians from a bloodthirsty tyrant, knights Ser Brienne of Tarth, and generally seems to have good intentions. He becomes so close to Brienne that fans started to imagine them together – something that comes to pass in season 8 before he suddenly leaves for Kings Landing to be with his sister/soulmate Cersei. It is true that the rehabilitation of Jamie is remarkable from hated to almost revered, and when Jamie chose being with Cersei over being with Brienne, some fans presumed he must be going to kill her himself. Prophecies and presumed neat narrative arcs drove this belief, but when Jamie instead held Cersei as they died, rather than killing her himself, the consternation was powerful. Fans saw it as the ‘destruction’ of one of the show’s most powerful ‘arcs’. Again, in broad strokes, this makes sense, but in finer detail, and with nuance of reflection, it seems unfair.

There are two things that are certain about Jamie: 1) is that he was indelibly linked to Cersei and had a deep love for her, even when she drove him away, and 2) He was never an uncomplicated good person. Even during his redemption ‘arc’ he was killing relatives, supporting a tyranical regime, forcing himself on his sister, and threatening great acts of violence. If he knew a person, he would generally fight for them, but otherwise, he had no qualms about his actions. I was surprised when he left Brienne in Winterfell, and disappointed in how he did it, but again, I didn’t feel it was particularly out of character. His bond to Cersei, and love for her was so strong, that she would always be a consideration for him, and I believe that once he heard Cersei was about to be in a war, whatever happened, he knew her had to be there, either to stop her from doing anything evil, to save her is needed, or yes, possibly to kill her himself depending on how the situation unfolded. When he makes it Kings Landing, his aim becomes to convince Cersei to stand down and surrender – whether he would run away with her or go back to Brienne is an open question. As events unfold though, he reaches her with the walls crumbling around them and himself mortally wounded. The time for surrender has already passed, so they try to escape, and when escape is impossible, they comfort each other. Whether he quite believes it in the same way he once did, he repeats to her an old refrain that ‘nothing else matters’ and dies as he once told Bronn he wished to – in the arms of a person he loves. None of this means he doesn’t also love Brienne (in a different, less complicated way), and there was also no reason for him to kill or confront her. These were obviously desperate moments for them, and every action and reaction of his made total sense.

*I wanted to add an aside about the term ‘arc’ because I swear I have heard it 1000 times during this season from fans and critics alike. For a show where characters can obviously develop and change, people’s tolerance for this seems to have totally disappeared. I have heard the phrase ‘destroyed their arc’ countless times, and it goes to show how people now understand the show – they have predetermined expectations for every character, and if the destination isn’t the same as they have imagined, or changes course from what they understand, they read it as the breaking of this holy structure of the ‘arc’ – not even imagining that change and development can be part of a larger journey. Maybe Jaimie’s journey isn’t so simple as arsehole golden boy to loved up honourable knight because he isn’t either. People, in fact, are rarely so simple – they can fall back in to old habits, do irrational things, and have special bonds with people even if they are bad people. Jamie’s ‘arc’ isn’t a simple redemption story but the story of a person who has been torn his whole life between honor and immorality, depending on the situation, and who, in the end, reverts not to type, but to Cersei, the one constant in his life. Is it something I was happy about? Not really, but was I surprised that Jamie was drawn to Cersei? Absolutely not. This unthinking use of the word ‘arc’ has not only started to sound like fingernails on a chalk board to me, but is used recklessly and unthinkingly. I think what people mean by it is the journey to change for a character which is gradual but definite, and which they have personally perceived. No character in this show does, or should, however, develop like that. Narrative isn’t simply about change – its how people act or change when they do, and why. It’s not always some clean A to B journey, and yet many of the most prevalent criticisms continue to treat it as such.

** The second term I have taken aside is ‘earned’. Critical fans have been saying of these plots and others that certain moments were not ‘earned’. What they mean by this, I think is, something happening which they didn’t see coming and which they think is at odds with what they understand of a character. That nothing they have seen previously has hinted at a certain action. Not only does this term scream entitlement and arrogance, but it is also incredibly simplistic, asserting that every action or twist must have the ingredients carefully laid out before it. There are times where that is satisfying, of course, but that cannot be the only way to execute drama. Again, as with humans, sometimes actions can come from nowhere obvious, we can be surprised by others or by ourselves when confronted by difficult choices or situations. I would argue that plenty of the shocking moments in this show and others weren’t ‘earned’ in the way some use it, but were still effective. What is more, perhaps such surprises aren’t going against a character, but are instead adding to it. Perhaps your pre-determined feelings for a character are actually constraining the story as well as your enjoyment of it.

Now, despite my righteous typing, I can’t help but feel a little odd about defending such a juggernaught franchise so passionately. So, even-though, on balance, I love the show, I will discuss a few recent aspects of the show I have been disappointed in.

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Arya’s interaction with this white horse seemed silly and didn’t lead to anything. No one said the season was perfect. Credit: HBO

  1. While I defended the way Jamie gravitated to Cersei and dies with her, one element I was disappointed in was how he left Ser Brienne. As easily as I believe his continuing love for Cersei, I also believe in his different kind of love for Brienne. Their scene together in an pool in an earlier season is one of the most emotive scenes in the show and that as well as the rest of their time together sells their bond well. So when they finally spent the night together post-Long Night, it made sense. Their real feelings mixed with the post-battle energy makes that completely believable. However, him leaving her the next morning felt a bit flippant, even if it wasn’t. To sleep with Brienne then leave her feels cold in a way that doesn’t fit him I think, and seemed to rob this hugely honourable character of some of her dignity. The same story without the sex would have been better I feel. While Brienne eventually found herself in a strong position as the first female head of the King’s Guard and so wasn’t defined by Jamie, it would have been nice to have seen a bit more from her rather than her dutifully updating his pages in the Book of Brothers.
  2. With regards specifically to everything up until the finale, and especially to do with the Battle of Winterfell, while I presume Bran was doing a lot more than was shown, it feels like his role until the finale was less memorable than it felt it would be before the season. He seemed like he was going to be a crucial chess piece in everything, and even if he is, that hasn’t really been shown. Some mystery is necessary, but not even knowing basically anything about his role in the grand scheme of killing the Night King is a bit much. Obviously more is revealed when he assumes the throne, and with regards to that, there is some interesting mystery – i.e. did he know/intend to be King, and will that be a good thing or the protection of a status quo?
  3. The closing scenes of episode 5, with Arya escaping King’s Landing were a little over the top for me. Her escape cut alongside The Hound’s final defining battle was a nice bit of storytelling given their connection, but once it was over, her being seemingly the only survivor of the attack, completely alone save for a white horse to help her escape felt like gilding the lily. This is especially the case now episode 6 has aired, and it became clear that not only was Arya not going anywhere, but the horse was never seen again. What, did she just go up the street? It’s really a small thing, but this may have been the most egregious moment of the season.
  4. The way The Hound spoke to Sansa about her rape bothered me. I should stipulate that I don’t share the common criticism of this scene that it wrongly attributes Sansa’s maturation to her rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. I think that was always a short-sighted and a simplistic reading of the scene where I saw it as a moment for Sansa to show that probably the worst thing that ever happened to her would not be something that would define her. This is also Sophie Turner’s reading of the scene according to a recent interview. Naturally, it was part of a series of tragedies, which also included her experiences with Cersei and Littlefinger, that helped shape her view of the world from innocence to experience, but it was never portrayed as something ‘beneficial’ to her. What I did find troubling, however, was the way The Hound spoke to her about it, about her being ‘blooded’ violently. I thought it was needlessly raw and harsh, even for a character like the Hound, and I don’t think it achieved anything really.
  5. Most importantly, the one thing which I think has unquestionably somewhat damaged the show, and which I think the vast majority of people agree on is that even if the events make sense and are entertaining, they seemed to happen in a rushed fashion, without much of the quiet time or breathing space which allows for extra development and contemplation. While I am still enjoying the show, I would enjoy it even more with this extra storytelling time, watching people on their journeys to their battles and making plans; and in the case of those who claim to ‘hate’ the show, that might have been enough to improve their experience. This was especially the case with Daenerys’ short reign in the final season. While the writers and actors portrayed her tunnel-vision for power and delusion that she was doing ‘good’ well, I would have liked more time to see her in the triumphal aftermath of her sacking of the city. I think this would have built more tension with regards to the fate of both her and Jon, and the lack of this did take away a little from an excellent conclusion for them.

One caveat I would add to this is that it makes sense that at a time of climactic wars that the action becomes quicker and more packed together than at times of intrigue or relative peace. A show should be able to change pace at times. Nonetheless, it is still undoubtable that this show and the last two seasons needed more episodes and more time left for contemplation. This part made a great show a little weaker.

YT Criticism

There is plenty of simple and dismissive clickbaity content on places like Youtube. Credit: Youtube and these channels.

While these aspects of the show left me cold, it is important to see them in the context of the wider show. If they lower an episode’s stature from ‘masterpiece’ to a more tempered ‘excellent’, that is fine, it’s the ability to properly critique. Unfortunately, in a world where the ‘hottest takes’ and most eye-catching thumbnails, released to the public the quickest grab the attention, and clicks, this kind of nuance is not encouraged in online criticism especially. Saying that you enjoyed Game of Thrones except for a a few moments or plot points is probably a more accurate, but less attractive read in a place where binary reactions are the most common currency. So you see videos with titles like ‘Game of Thrones rant’ or ‘Why Game of Thrones sucks now’ and so on and so on, and people watch, and these criticisms become more widespread. In some cases I believe this leads to something of a self-fulfilling prophesy that the writing will be bad or the ending unsatisfying before the final episode has even aired. If you create a framework of negativity, it’s hard to see the show in a more nuanced and truly critical light.

This is especially infuriating when criticisms feature calling the writers of the story ‘stupid’, ‘nonsensical’, or ‘lazy’, like these professional screenwriters are clueless iconoclasts while these amateurs could just write it perfectly themselves. I’m all for democratizing writing and criticism, but these criticisms rarely come with viable or interesting alternatives, and indeed, usually when they do suggest something, it’s dull, without nuance, or has similar problems to what they have complained about. Again, there’s no need to over-defend these writers, and they aren’t flawless, but I think if people consider what they would do instead of what was written, it would show them the delicate balance it entails and maybe temper some of the nonsense I have outlined.

It must be said that when there is such a groundswell of opinion, there may be something to it, and that the greatness of the writing is undermined by the fact that it couldn’t convince the fans that what it showed was better than their headcanon. That said though, I really worry that the (sometimes financial, in the case of Youtubers and other critics) encouragement of this obsessive prediction/breakdown/review culture is becoming more influential. The media we are consuming is being swarmed by multitudes of opinions that really clouds the experience. Yes, I am aware you can avoid all of this, but it can be difficult to if you’re genuinely interested. Ultimately, this is not an attempt to convince disappointed fans that they are wrong or anything like that, and even if I don’t understand it, if you don’t like the show, then fair enough.

An extra effect of this is that there are a lot of mediocre shows that end up getting lauded almost by flying under the radar of this same criticism. Rather than being adventurous or subversive, they play it down the middle, do it well, and so don’t leave themselves up to much specific criticism. In the context of hyper-reaction described above, something mildly pleasing and inoffensive can have it’s quality inflated simply by virtue of not rattling any cages. Any show that can do this consistently may be able to get enough momentum to encourage the opposite reaction from fans and critics. The other side of the negative clickbait coin is a trend towards overly-complimentary content, describing safe, decent shows as ‘masterpieces’.

stranger-things-westworld

Shows like Stranger Things and Westworld play simple tunes and get lauded for it. Credit: GoldDerby, HBO, Netflix

There are many, many examples of this, but the two most prominent are other recent smash-hits which have been received far more positively than Game of Thrones: Stranger Things and Westworld.

Stranger Things is a visually entertaining show featuring talented cute child actors playing a story which is not only pretty shallow ‘monster of the week’ fayre, but even worse, effectively repeats the same story in it’s second series. It dines out on there being a big audience for 80’s nostalgia, and this mixed with the other elements has made it very appealing to a large audience. In terms of the depth or layers of story, it can’t compare with a show like Game of Thrones, for all it’s faults. In fact, nothing is special about it at all, but nevertheless, it is lauded as a great show.

If you’ve ever read a ‘philosophy for beginners’ book or taken a beginners philosophy class, or even if you haven’t, you will be familiar with the major themes of Westworld. Part of my lack of reaction to Westworld is that it is fundamentally not a human story, it is about, almost exclusively, robots and artificial intelligence. This is, admittedly, a personal bias, and even though a story featuring artificial life forms can meaningfully reflect on human life, this show does not. Again, it is interesting visually, and certainly not poorly made or acted while trying to elucidate on the nature of consciousness, self-determination, and sentience. Critics and online reactors fall over themselves to laud this aspect of the show like that’s anything, frankly speaking, original, interesting, or particularly intellectual. It relies very heavily on countless timelines and the fact that anyone could end up being revealed as a robot, or ‘host’. When you do this, no action really has impactful consequences because any action can always be overturned with a plot twist. The risks and the stakes are low. It tells the story in it’s stylised way, while still effectively playing it down the middle, and again, this can be enough to establish it as a quality show.

When anything is hyper-criticised – in this case, TV shows – and any perceived inconsistency is treated so unforgivingly as ‘bad writing’ or ‘stupid’, it limits the parameters of ‘successful’ television, and  discourages shows which genuinely experiment and explore the human condition and complicated human stories. People act like characters are algorithms who would only act in certain specific ways and would always act logically, and if they don’t behave within these parameters it ‘doesn’t make sense’, is ‘stupid’ or ‘bad writing’, or heaven forfend ‘BETRAYS THEIR ARC’. I’m not saying these people are always wrong when they raise talking points like this, but that their approach to criticism and review is fundamentally flawed. When you hold characters, and plotlines, to higher standards of consistency than you do real people and real life, you are heading for problems. Sometimes people do weird, stupid, or out of character things; sometimes they learn and change, and sometimes terrible or unexpected things happen to you. If a TV show can show this in a realistic way, that is something to be treasured, and I believe that Game of Thrones is a show that regularly does that.

Dresden

Dresden, in the aftermath of the Allied Forces. Credit: Business Insider

If you think Dany the liberator burning King’s Landing to the ground is unrealistic, look in to the history of the Dresden bombings the sequence is largely based upon. Game of Thrones is an anti-war show, and for a fantasy show featuring dragons and the un-dead, it is one of the most accurate portrayals of the evils and madness of war you will ever see on television.

Similarly, with Jon, in the context of the finale, people seem confused about why Jon needed to be revived and/or discovered to be a Targaryen and/or why he didn’t end up on the throne as the ‘rightful’ king, because they don’t feel his ending was appropriate given these plot directions. In answer to the first question, I suggest that his being the one to kill Dany was fairly significant and justifies his resurrection having meaning. As for the second question about his heritage, their contention seems to be that the tension this created with Dany didn’t come to pass because she seemed keen to rule with him during their final scene. This is another simplistic reading – even lovesick Jon Snow could see that this was her way of neutralising the threat he posed by making him complicit, and that no one could control her expansionism. It was the basis for much of the paranoia she had towards him, and what’s more, it is a good example of how the show doesn’t treat every ‘arc’ as some clean journey of destiny. Just because Jon was a Targaryan, it doesn’t mean him on the throne is the only plausible result, and in fact, given that a Stark ends up assuming the throne anyway, it probably was a hindrance to that outcome. Answering the final question is easier. Jon never wanted to be King, and what’s more, the Greyjoys, Unsullied and probably more didn’t want him as King due to what he did to Dany. What’s even more is that the different houses decided that a monarch should be chosen, not a role that should be simply inherited, so his claim by inheritance meant nothing anyway.

As Tyrion, and others in the show, have said, a good compromise is when no one is really happy. I think this is a line emblematic of the show’s message. War is terrible and corrupting and our leaders are disappointing and corrupted. Yes, Westeros progressed from a monarchy to an oligarchy, but a democracy is some way off; and yes the existential threats to life are gone, but will life be better for everyone. Time will tell. In many ways though, it’s more of the same. Again, this is disappointing, but then again, look around you. How many radical progressives hold any power? Society craves the status quo. If you expected a revolution, you’ll be disappointed, but in a world where Theresa May is about to be replaced by another flaccid Tory or an impeached Trump would be replaced by Mike Pence, can you really call that disappointment unrealistic?

Ultimately though, who cares? As I said earlier, I know I don’t need to seek out the opinion of others about the shows I like, and I’d go further to admit that it is strange to continually listen to the opinions of people online that I don’t agree with. That said, it is perhaps the curse of the invested fan. I enjoy listening to people discuss the things I like, and in this case, it has become habit. Aside from that, it worries me that the general discourse around shows is becoming increasingly influenced by hyper-reaction and is even bleeding in to mainstream criticism, and ultimately in to the consciousness of the screenwriters themselves. I just hope that writers don’t start to write shows with this kind of criticism in mind because it will just lead to more mediocrity which people will laud at the time but won’t ultimately have much of an impact. As with everything, I would rather we have art which tries to do something special, and doesn’t necessarily please everyone than art that is successful by playing it safe and relying on crowd-pleasing tropes and aesthetics.

Pattergeddon: Scottish Exceptionalism and North Britishness

Still Game

Still Game, like other popular Scottish comedies, relies on funny words, swears, and stereotypes. Credit: BBC

February has seen the launch of the new BBC Scotland television station, and in order to send it on it’s way, some staple Scottish hits with the first episode of the new (and latest) series of Still Game, and a Burnistoun special. I have been planning an article about popular Scottish humour for a while, but these shows especially have been the catalyst for me actually starting. Now as a so far failed comedy writer, far be it for me to just criticise these shows for not being funny, though my personal opinion is that they are not; instead, this article exists to explore their comedic style and characteristics, as well as why they might be popular, and indeed, the further implications of this. The more I have thought about it, the most popular Scottish comedies carry with them a provincialism which caricatures not only Scotland, but Scotland’s poor. Even further, the packaging of ‘patter’ from comedians and its fans both contributes to a cultural North Britishness which simultaneously is aggressively Scottish as well as paper-thin in depth and style. The commercialisation of ‘patter’ is just one of many areas where Scots succumb to an exceptionalism which has some merit, but also leads to a cultural complacency, be it in our history of innovation, our progressive self-image, or our cultural output, and these are areas that this article will also explore.

It is worth laying some ground-work before getting in to the meat of this. Firstly, this article really is much less ‘op-ed’ and more just raising questions about trends I have felt. I am not super confident in my assertations here, but just confident enough to start the discussion which will follow. It is also worth explaining my own understanding of ‘North Britishness’. North Britishness as a phenomenon peaked in the lifetime of Walter Scott, with Scott very much a driver of the trend. It is the framing of Scotland as a proud, unique, and exceptional place, but one that is so within the Union of Great Britain. It is a philosophy which treads the line of both celebrating Scotland and what makes it unique, while in doing so, placing it very much as a smaller province within the greater Union. Characteristic of North Britishness is a vigorous, almost gaudy expression of ‘Scottishness’ best exemplified in the promoted aesthetics of tartan, kilts, bagpipes and the like. Proud but ‘other’ and unthreatening.

It is this gaudy packaging of Scottishness that I am interested in here. Something has always bothered me about the patter in shows like Still Game and Burnistoun, and until recently, I thought it was just that is actually isn’t that funny and that Scottish people seemed to enjoy our own humour a bit much, but in the context of North Britishness, I see another reason to feel uncomfortable about it. Shows like this are exporting a view of Scotland which actually doesn’t represent us and actually goes some way to strengthen stereotypes about ourselves.

Before I write this, I want to make it clear, that there have been, and still are, a lot of great Scottish comedians who don’t adhere to the styles I will talk about and are very creative in terms of comedy. That said, when it comes to at least the more popular Scottish comedies I will discuss, I think 90% of Scottish comedy is not joke based, but instead saying basically normal things in slang or a mad accent with swears to furnish it and people laughing because it’s familar to them.

Let’s look at some examples from the shows mentioned at the start, Still Game and Burnistoun. In the painful first episode of the new series of Still Game, Winston becomes a viral hit after he is filmed taking down a bag snatcher with his false leg and shouting ‘shut it tadger!’ As he gets less and less famous, he goes to an event where he is lambasted, the crowd getting laughs for calling him ‘shite’, calling him a ‘patter thief’ and an ‘old shagger’ before he hits back with a rhyme that culminates in him calling the crowd ‘cunts’. The premise is wafer thin, but is held up simply by the swearing and the Scottish dialects. The joke is the dialect in action. The show simply isn’t funny; it’s lazy and ill-conceived, and without the crutch of the funny talking, it would have absolutely nothing. Burnistoun also does this, and if anything, more egregiously. While Still Game has at least established characters people like over the years when it was a better show, Burnistoun is sketches, and though it as the occasional hit, it is mostly more of the same funny Scottish sweary talking. Their colour chart sketch is almost exclusively this while they have another where there are just two characters who can’t stop saying ‘up the road!’ and another one in a game show setting where they are just saying ‘tottie scone’ in a variety of ways.

These kind of jokes are everywhere and have travelled down through the lexicon. Look at any Facebook or Twitter page with a name like ‘Scottish patter’ and you’ll see reams and reams of this repetitive material. People saying stuff in a funny slang or sweary way, and followers replying with how amazing Scottish patter is. Now again, don’t get me wrong – i’m not the joke police. If people enjoy these shows and these pages, then i’m happy for them, but I think it verges on embarrassing. Probably the last thing comedy should aim to do is refrain from laughing at yourself, but I don’t think this is what these comedies do, at least not generally. Instead they display a cartoon Scottishness – a modern version of a shortbread tin. Scottish people playing Scottish for the Scottish – and the British. The dialect, the accent, the culture is played for laughs and also have a following across the UK, and in fact, when you think of crossover comedy shows, every Scottish one – Even Limmy’s Show, which was more sophisticated in places – falls in to the same patterns regularly. There’s nothing wrong, with silly, broad comedy, but when this is the vast majority of what a country produces, and pats itself on the back for, there is a trend. This is where ‘North Britishness’ comes in.

As I have previously said, these shows are aggressively Scottish, consistently mentioning Scotland or more specific place names in a way which is almost jarring at times. In this latest Still Game episode, for example, Winston is known as ‘Scotland’s Angry Grandpa’ and is told that ‘Scotland thanks you’. Scotland, and other more specific places therein are routinely listed as settings in a way that is out of the ordinary for most comedies. Scotland is at the forefront, but it is weak performance of Scotland – the equivalent of the Royal Mile draped in Saltires – almost like it is for the tourists. Scots and Brits alike holidaying in a caricature. Comedy has no obligation to display Scotland in a certain way, but to me, it has started to feel like the Scottishness is the joke. The comedy being produced for the BBC may be aggressively Scottish, but it does not go beyond being a provincial product to be added to the UK comedy lexicon.

An even more troubling characteristic of this comedy is the Scotland it lampoons. The vast majority of the premises or sketches are set in deprived areas, with ned characters playing up to those stereotypes – even if the joke doesn’t demand it. There is one sketch in the Burnistoun show which is a poorly executed version of a half-decent premise, a gameshow where someone who is drunk has to get in to bed and not get caught out as drunk. For some reason it is set in the ‘Burnistoun high flats’ eventhough that has no bearing on the joke. The sketch doesn’t need a setting so why do the writers feel compelled to link a drunk guy with high flats – a kind of housing normally associated with social housing? Throughout Still Game and Burnistoun especially, there are an inordinate amount of neddish characters. For some reason, the creators find poverty and poor people to be inherently funny. The writers are all from poorer areas of the North of Glasgow, so they can’t be accused of simple elitism, but the portrayal of caricatures of poverty is still troubling, especially as it could be interpreted as people who ‘got out’ going on to mock the communities they came from.

Scottish people understandably hold some of these shows dear. Still Game during it’s conception was a show that afforded it’s characters some dignity as well as some laughs, even if the dignity and the laughs have fallen away; Burnistoun has, among the mediocrity, some stronger sketches; Bob Servant, Independent was underappreciated genius which bucked the trend a little; and Limmy’s Show, despite displaying some of this performative Scottishness, did often contain unique and funny sketches. This, for many Scots, in enough to laud Scottish humour as something exceptional, but while we still dine out on the legacy of Billy Connolly, our current crop usually fall short, and sell an idea of Scotland which also sells the country short. The new BBC Scotland channel has an opportunity to show more diverse and frankly, more dynamic comedy rather than the regular motions the shows mentioned have been going through. I hope to see Scottish comedy where Scotland is an ingredient, not the joke itself.

The Last Jedi: Good, Bad, but Not Much Grey

Rey

Rey was great in the TLJ but there was still someting … darker missing from her story. Credit: Inverse.com, Disney

I have a bit of a weird relationship with the Star Wars franchise. I watched the prequels first, and then watched the original trilogy. It was only with The Force Awakens when I marathon’d the whole thing that I really started to enjoy it with any passion. That leaves me in a place where I enjoy the films, but i’m not defensive about it. This Thursday was the first time I’ve wanted to see a Star Wars film the night it came out, and imagining a sort of cultural magic to seeing ‘the new Star Wars film’ on it’s first day, I decided I was going to do so. Walking out, that magic had dissipated though. This was a good, fun film, with some excellent premises, but not one that did a lot with them.

One thing that has untied all reviews, both good and bad, is that this movie has somehow taken Star Wars in a ‘bold, new direction’ is one that baffles me. It’s more light vs dark, Empire vs Resistance, and people being tempted or knocked to either the light or the dark. An eternal struggle indeed, and well-suited to a franchise knocking out a movie per year. I think what people are referring to is Luke not being a babyface hero and Kylo being conflicted in his darkness. Maybe it feels different, but I didn’t see anything materially different about the fabric of this film when compared to the others. The battle between good and evil is not something I am upset about, and is important to my favourite parts of the film, but depending on what happens in the third film, I think they pulled back from some interesting genuine development to the universe in favour of essentially keeping the whole thing ticking over til the next movie.

I don’t know how cynical I am about that. I completely understand that Disney will want to milk this cash cow for a much as it’s worth, and longevity in that sense is achieved by making the least appreciable progress possible with each film. At the same time though, it’s clear that a lot of love and attention go in to these films, and that the production of them aren’t purely mechanical. I don’t think they would be successful if they were made with that mindset.

That all said, there were aspects of this film that I loved, aspects I didn’t really like or understand, and aspects I liked but feel left some great moments on the table, depending on what happens in the next installment. Of course, i’ll talk about them now.

Rey and Kylo

The parallel journeys of Rey and Kylo was perhaps the most successful aspect of the film. Credit: Den of Geek, Disney

I’m going to first discuss, in the interest of positivity, my favourite part of the film based on a really well-realised premise, and that is the conflict and relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. It’s so hard to create a heroic character with really well-defined motivations, and in Rey, someone who was essentially orphaned through negligent parents who has found a purpose in this intergalactic moral war though she is still at a fragile place within it. I could buy both that she would choose the light, but the film does a great job in making it believable that she could find meeting in this somehow kindred spirit of Kylo Ren and go dark. Kylo was similarly let down by a mentor figure and so it’s easy, as it always is with villains, to see how they became as they are.

One of the best established conceits in the film was this connection fostered between the two, both wanting to bring the other to ‘their side’, both predicting they would do so, and both apparently demonstrably doing it, only for the whole thing to fall apart because neither had really changed. There was a red herring of an almost clichéd heroic coming together devastatingly undermined by a logical crashing to earth. I believed Kylo was turning good, imagined how great and different it would be if Rey went dark (more on that later), and was genuinely shocked by the revelation that their intentions had mirrored each other enough to fight together for a short time, only to realise that they weren’t, indeed, on the same side, all flirtation and hope dissipated.

Spectacular. That, to me, was the crucial conceit of the film. Not the only good thing about it, but the bit that made it work at it’s best.

Another aspect of the film I liked was more thematic, and it seems a subtle theme in that I haven’t really heard anyone talk about it much, and that is nihilism in the face of this universe. The best avatar for this is a character I liked a lot – DJ. Before getting to his ‘place in all this’, I would just like to say, not that it’s important, that I was of the opinion that he was the character they were looking for and he just lost his distinctive pin in some sort of gambling caper. Regardless, they found DJ, and his approach to the whole thing interested me. From the get go, he realised how the battles of light and dark would never end and that for some people who aren’t somehow a fated protaganist/antagonist of the battle, you just have to make the best of it. For him, his approach is that he’ll risk his life to help you as long as it suits him. He isn’t two-dimensional, he’s touched enough by the meaning of Rose’s trinket to give it back to her, especially seen as he gets to loot a ship anyway, but ultimately, he puts himself first because he realises that his actions won’t really affect anything. He knows that the war is between a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side, but that both weren’t as clear-cut as we may seem, as was shown through his revelation about both sides buying weapons from arms-traders. His betrayal hurt and was certainly a surprise in the moment, but at the same time, he just looked after himself. They were caught anyway and so he cut himself a deal. He’s a heel for doing it and he knows it, but he doesn’t believe that anything can change, so ultimately, he doesn’t care. Maybe it’s just me, but I completely understood and to an extent, admired what he did. I didn’t need quite such a pronounced stutter though.

Luke

The doubts and indifference shown by DJ and Luke Skywalker at points were part of an understated nihilistic theme which I enjoyed and would have liked to have seen more of. Credit: Digital Spy, Disney.

Luke Skywalker had some matching sentiments too, at least in the early going. In the original films, I basically thought Luke was a well-meaning milquetoast hero but here, with the benefit of actually experiencing the ups and downs of war, Luke wanted no part of it and realised how flawed the Jedi were. Ultimately, he will always side with light over dark, but he too has realised that the dark will never be stopped, and dejected, he took himself out of the fight. Even when he came back to fight on the side of the Resistance, it’s not that he’s changed his opinion about the Jedi, but more because he decides it’s the right thing to do based partly on his own history. There is a realism to this thematic approach which otherwise gets lost within the size and weight of the general Star Wars universe by the end of the movie, but it was one of my main takeaways coming out of it, and something I want to see more of going forward.

Another character I really enjoyed was Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo. This was perhaps one of the film’s best set-ups of a journey for the viewer. I think I was probably in the majority watching her apparently bring the whole Resistance drifting slowly to a whimpering end with frustration and wanting Poe, who was the only person with the plan it seemed, to take over. There are fair questions about why she couldn’t just tell him what they were doing, etc, but I think it was worth ironing over that for the power of the reveal that she was indeed sacrificing herself and her reputation for the ultimate safety and future of the resistance. By the time she had smashed herself at light-speed through Snoke’s ship, the most successful 180-turn of a character in such a short amount of time was complete. The quiet, slow-moving scenes of her actions were met with a palpable awe in the audience and were some of the most engaging and arresting in the whole film.

Speaking of arresting scenes, I would be remiss to not mention how beautiful some of this film was. I’ve seen a lot of people praising the battle/fight scenes. To me, if i’m honest, a lot of the battle scenes in Star Wars merge together for me. It’s all impressive, but nothing ever stands out. There were some beautiful parts in this film though, and i’ll highlight the two that stuck with me most. First, Rey in the dark side cave, reflected in a an endless time-lag. It was like a purgatory, and the sort of place that you can well imagine would make someone question themselves and their existence. A cool scene that genuinely seemed like it was happening in a unique, significant place. Secondly, the aesthetics of the planet Crait were stunning, even if it was just so other-worldly and different. Red dust shooting up over a white surface was a beautiful combination and I can say no more or less than I just loved who it looked.

The final positive point I will talk about is the Force and Luke’s explanation of it. His begrudged training of Rey was cool, but it was his expanation of what the Force actually is that appealed to me. Until now, it’s been hard to define – it seemed like something you could inherit in someway, a kind of honed skill which only few can wield. In some ways, that is true, but this film goes a long way to democratizing it. Yes it’s mainly an elite who get the chance to use it, but ultimately, it is just an element within life, keeping order, as real and invisible as gravity, but something that can be tapped in to and utilised if someone has patience and training enough, and something which really brings a balance to the universe. It is neither for good or bad, in fact, it almost ensures balance between the two. In that context, it is even more clear that no one side – the light or the dark – will ultimately ‘win’, but the explanation of it was a really satisfying one to help understand the universe. This isn’t always something Star Wars bothers with.

Flying Leia

Instantly meme-worthy, Princess Leia seemingly flies to safety in the middle of space. Credit: Disney

Now to start piling on the negative i’m afraid – speaking of the Force, that is where things also started going downhill. I don’t particularly care about the lore of the Force and certainly don’t have a problem with writers adding to that at times. There are two instances in this film that stand out as … not great though. The innocuous one is the already infamous ‘flying Leia’ scene. We know Jedis and people who are tuned in to the force can defy gravity somewhat and she’s in zero gravity anyway so who knows anyway; the problem was how ridiculous it looked. The explanation of the force as this democratic force of nature that can be tapped in to with great patience, skill, and concentration was a little undermined by the way this was shot, which reduced it to look more like a shitty Superman/Mary Poppins scene. What I felt was genuinely a bit of a leap though was the new feature of being able to see people before you through the Force. To be fair, this was central to two fairly important conceits of the film: Rey and Kylo’s Skype-like conversations, and Luke’s tricking of Kylo during the end battle. So I must admit, I don’t know how you achieve these key moments without the feature, but it doesn’t change the fact that it kinda stuck out to me as a convenient shoe in – more a fix of convenience than a tweak. I think to boil down why it stuck out so much, I thought a few times while watching: “Why has no-one ever done this before in a film?” The problem is the feature is so fundamental to the lore of the Force that it seems weird that the likes of Darth Vader or Luke (until now) or Yoda or Obi Wan (i.e. some of the real masters of the Force) wouldn’t use it if they had it. The Force is the equivalent of nano-machines in Metal Gear Solid, it can be used to fill in holes of logic or storytelling. When someone is needed to do something new, the Force can do it. That’s OK in itself, but I suppose here, this deployment of it seemed more nakedly utilitarian than other times.

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Snoke went from larger than life to cut in half with a hand motion he should have seen coming. We never knew ye. Credit: Disney

The real driver of this conceit was Snoke, and that brings me to the next point, one that seems to be shared by many. A disclaimer here: I don’t have any particular love for Snoke so i’m not sad he’s dead or anything. That said, in The Force Awakens, there is no doubt he was set up as significant to the whole universe at that point. What he turned out to be – a stepping stone for Kylo to coup détatch his top half from his bottom – was again, useful overall, but it did seem to leave something on the table. I don’t have a problem with Kylo killing Snoke, but it happened after we had seen Snoke only briefly and in a much less powerful light than in T.F.A. To use wrestling terms, even if Snoke is there to put Kylo over, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell his story. The more powerful he is, the more it adds to the perception of Kylo’s power when he kills him, and while his pre-death moments are impressive, I feel everything would have benefited from more work being shown with regards to Snoke – what did he want, where did he come from, how did he choose Kylo etc; I don’t even need loads of depth, just enough to make it a more meaningful shock than just a shock. If I had my druthers, this would happen in the next film. I know this may have been asking a lot, but just more of this and less of, say … side-quests that don’t really affect much.

Speaking of which, I cared so little about the Finn and Rose side-quest to find a hacker to open a door which neither succeeded or mattered. I don’t mind setting up expectations and then subverting them but this didn’t even really add any value to the film while taking up quite the chunk of running time. I mentioned before how I liked what DJ had to add and I like the idea of exploring Finn as more of a mercenary with himself and Rey in mind (even if that’s not the endgame) but that was lost among the weird buddy/love story between Finn and Rose. Rose wasn’t badly played and I am glad to see an Asian-American actress in such a role. I just had so little interest in the role itself that it kinda ruined it. Finn and Rey are always asking after each other but Rose is kinda inserted in to it all and not for the better. The one moment Finn is going to do anything of consequence (martyring himself to big battering canon) she stops him in a way that doesn’t make sense for her established character. She wouldn’t let him leave because her sister died for the Resistance but when he’s about to do something to help it, she stops him because she suddenly loves him. We’ll see if he even reciprocates, I guess, but after all of that, we see him and Rey just once together. I’m not necessarily ‘shipping’ them for chrissakes, characters are more than that, but they obviously care very much about each other and their reunion didn’t feel that impactful, undermined instead by a character I personally could have done without from a story I could have done without.

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Rey and Kylo were so close, but so far away from joining forces in one of the best bits of the film. Great as it was, there was potential for them, together, to form something more interesting than they did apart. Credit: Disney

I’ve talked about what I could have done without, but here’s something I could have done with. The trailer seemed to hint at Rey being truly tempted to the dark side, and to be fair, the film does play lip service to this at times, but as soon as Kylo shows his true (dark) colours and she outright rejects it, and it’s clear that there her understandable questions about her ‘place in all this’ were never the same as a true temptation to the dark side. I’d heard a lot beforehand of ‘grey Jedi’ and it sounded like a great direction for the movies to go in at some point. As I mentioned, I loved the scene where they briefly fight together only to realise they are still on different sides; and while I never believed Rey was going dark, I did like they idea that their new-found connection led to some sort of new grey faction within the overall fight. I’m not sure exactly how that would look like – perhaps an anti Empire/Jedi Council/Princess faction who reject elitist ways and take a genuinely populist stance. That is something a better writer more knowledgeable about the universe could come up with. I was extremely excited when I saw the possibility of something like that because, to be honest, the fight has gotten a bit stale. This plays in to the ultimate impression I had of the film too, but the battle between light and dark doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, quite literally at this point. It’s like a big long argument where you can’t even remember why you’re fighting – you just are. To go back to wrestling terms, it’s 50/50 booking: sometimes the Empire is dominant, sometimes the Resistance seems to be turning the tables, but I never really buy in to any jeopardy for either side. I enjoy this battle, but maybe adding some genuinely differently-motivated actors to the story/universe wouldn’t hurt at all and would more likely prolong the franchise further in a positive direction.

The franchise, but especially this film, is really lazy about defining what the fight is actually about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious that the Empire and Sith are evil – we’ve seen them blowing up planets and killing innocents, but mostly the film relies on us more or less just knowing that the bad guys are bad just because. It is a battle largely between elites and we rarely see how ordinary people are affected, and in this film we didn’t even have any state atrocities or anything, it was just team red vs team blue and we like team blue because they seem nicer and we know them. Going back to the nihilism, DJ is the closest thing to a common person without bias we meet, and he ultimately supports the Resistance, but he knows the morality of it all isn’t black and white. It would be nice to see a bit more of that rather than wondering about it as a viewer. This is where the Grey Jedi could come in I suppose. Basically, I genuinely support the Resistance and it’s clear I should do so. I just don’t really know what i’m supporting. Maybe a few films down the line the Resistance could overcome the Empire, take over, and we could see what they would do with it. That could be interesting.

I have a feeling it wouldn’t be likely though. Despite the second half of this article, the first half rings true. I did enjoy much of this film, and had a good time seeing the action and the effects and the characters we like, and that is worth something. If you asked me how it moved the overall plot along though, i’d be hard pushed to take up a lot of your time. The plot of the film is almost comically spinning its’ wheels. The Resistance are ‘on a string’, running, being caught, running again, being caught again, running, being caught again, and escaping. We lost Luke (though you’re never really lost in Star Wars), Snoke died but what did he ever do anyway, and the same for Captain Phasma, Holdo died but we never really knew her anyway. If JJ Abrams so wished, he could recycle the first scenes of this film almost exactly in the next film and it would make sense. That betrays a lack of story development. It’s clear why this is the case too. Disney want to milk every drop of money out of this as possible and so they need to make as many films as possible, and so they need to progress the overall story as little as possible. That is what happened here.

This to me was good, but also just kind of another Star Wars film. It promised a bold new direction, but pulled back from most of it to give people what they like and are used to, though with some wonderful scenes in for sure. This isn’t some unforgivable sin, but it will always have a limited impact on me, personally. That is basically all I can say. Lots of people love the film and I am happy to see that, but for me, as fun as it is, it is in danger of diminishing returns.

The Connecticut Raiders: Will WWE’s Diversification Create a Stylistic Suppression?

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The unveiling of the locked-in talent for WWE’s UK tournament. Credit to Wrestlezone

The influx of diverse, international talent to WWE that has accelerated over the past year is in many ways a positive shift for wrestling from a top-down perspective. WWE being the undisputed mainstream leader in professional wrestling while making a Cruiserweight show and upcoming tournaments for women’s and British wrestling jewels in their Network crown gives those divisions arguably more significance and recognition than ever before. Something strange has happened with the Cruiserweights though – following the acclaim of the Crusierweight Classic and the excitement for the impending division on RAW, interest in the division has decreased rapidly. This could be due to lacklustre booking, but there it was perhaps the opening salvo of a more insidious trend from WWE; one of humouring, appropriating, and watering down styles to the detriment of everyone involved.

This entire article should be prefaced with a very clear determination: the introduction of the Cruiserweight Classic, 205 Live, and the Upcoming Women’s and UK tournaments provide a huge upgrade on the previous slew of secondary programming that was available in Superstars and Main Event. These were shows which featured great talent, but due to them just being extra shows full of under-carders, they felt like insignificant drains on time.

These new demographic-based platforms are certainly not the same kind of afterthought. They feature self-contained feuds, challenges, and championships which instantly gives the action more gravitas (whether you enjoy the booking, however, is another matter). The problem is that that this gravitas doesn’t carry over to their main roster appearances. The Cruiserweights are instead brought out as a sideshow act with little opportunity to establish a character to the RAW audience or even to talk to them. They get their own ropes, and their own scripted platitudes from the commentators. This setup, strange as it is, could gain momentum if the action matched the speed and unique style of the Cruiserweight Classic, but instead their appearances on RAW feel like a watered-down version of the CWC style, mixed with the classic WWE style of wrestling, and so, save for a few highspots, the action doesn’t even particularly stand out. Imagine it this way: how damaging would a WWE ‘Lucha Classic’ in which they hired the likes of Pentagon Jr, El Dragon Azteca Jr, Fenix, Drago, and King Cuerno, and then had them all wrestle like Alberto Del Rio? I loved Del Rio at times, but that being popularised as Lucha would be a troubling prospect, and I fear that something similar is happening with the cruiserweights.

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The Cruiserweights have ‘arrived’ on the main roster, but they seem like outsiders. Credit: WWE

As it stands, the Cruiserweights are barely in the same ‘Universe’ as the main roster guys. Kalisto and Neville have gotten involved, but they seem to have to trade in their main roster credentials to do so. There doesn’t seem to be any prospect of Cruiserweights getting involved in another championship picture, and so it’s hard to place where they stand in the universe. With the purple ropes and the arms-length treatment of the Cruiserweights, they are simply portrayed as a less significant sideshow who can’t live up to the hype that was built for them.

What is more concerning in the case of the upcoming UK show as well as the cruiserweights is that, there is some degree of appropriation and softening of the styles involved. I’m a fan of the WWE style generally, but I also value the diverse range of styles around the world, and while even WWE could never, and probably aren’t even trying to, subsume the styles, the influx of talent to them and the incorporation of their style in to the WWE style will affect at least the perception of the different styles among audiences. I think it’s clear, so far, that the Cruiserweights haven’t been replicating some of the feats they had on the indy circuit, and while it remains to be seen with regards to the UK tournament, it will be interesting to see if they will be able to fully showcase the stiff, technical style of the UK when they start making weekly shows. WWE rightly loves to remember this fondly in the likes of William Regal and Fit Finlay, but if the UK division goes the same way as the Cruiserweight is currently going, it will amount to a sad appropriation – and conservatism – of the style.

The reality of WWE stealthily raiding talent from federations around the world is nothing new, but it seems to certainly have accelerated in the last year or two. Of course, WWE are well within their rights to source this talent, and in many ways as mentioned before, it is good for wrestling generally as it broadens WWE’s stylistic output and provides beloved indy wrestlers with well-deserved financial and career opportunities, it does simultaneously deplete the more accessible talent that local indy fans can enjoy, and as in the case of the UK tournament, not always for noble reasons. WWE reportedly only pulled the trigger on that project in response to them being unhappy with the prospect of ITV’s World of Sport reboot being shown on a more visible platform than WWE’s regular programming here in the UK. Of course that still wouldn’t make a dent in the WWE’s profits or success, but they are so predatory that they simply won’t allow it, leading them to the move of signing wrestlers to their upcoming tournament, and even – reportedly – no-compete clauses with televised competitors, regardless of whether they ever appear for WWE.

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Glasgow and the UK lost the ‘Best in the Universe’ when WWE signed Nikki Storm, Credit: ICW

As a native of Glasgow, I’m lucky enough to have internationally-respected ICW on my doorstep, and while I’m excited for the futures of the likes of ICW alums Nikki Cross and Big Damo, and am excited about the opportunities new talent will get at the indy level to replace them, the sheer aggression of WWE’s recent programming moves are concerning, and it’s because of the apparent shift in motivation. It seems to be less about creating a diverse roster that will appeal to a more international audience, and increasingly about creating content and protecting their business model. I don’t get the feeling that any of the new cruiserweights can really break out beyond their division, and I feel even less confident about the upcoming UK division which seems to have been set up with an arbitrary aggression rather than a plan to make stars. WWE is already achingly overexposed, but the only shows that matter, and are really treated like they matter, are RAW, Smackdown and NXT.

In the case of the upcoming Women’s tournament, I have fewer concerns, actually, with regards to how significant the participants will feel after it’s finished. WWE is signing female talent left, right, and centre, and seems keen to take women’s wrestling more seriously, even if they don’t always succeed. Cynically however, part of the reason the participants in this event may be safer points to the very problem they are addressing: that they are being treated like a niche product in themselves compared to the other niches they are exploring, which are all subsets of male wrestling styles. My one concern is  relatively small because it represents a gigantic improvement from the days of the Attitude Era, but again, with WWE having the biggest platform, they will subconsciously redefining what women’s wrestling is to the mainstream audience. Bayley and Sasha in Brooklyn is my personal female wrestling nirvana (one of my wrestling nirvanas regardless of gender, in fact), but while, with some, it’s a controversial proposition, there are some incredible female wrestlers doing incredible work with men – thinking especially of the work of Lucha Underground. The power of that work will not be diminished and inter-gender wrestling will continue to exist around the world, but as women’s wrestling becomes more prominent and significant in WWE, and what they do or don’t becomes more impactful, it could be that those paying attention to it see the women wrestlers as elite, but then see a normalised version of them tagging out of challenges with men. That not only limits their art and the stories they can tell, but in my opinion, provides a mixed message for the young boys and girls who are watching.

I desperately want to be proven wrong in my concerns about the new shows and influx of new talent, but until these new initiatives start to feel like they really constitute part of the significant future if the company, it will continue to produce great matches by great wrestlers that feel like they are limited in the impact they can have due to their presentation. As I have said previously, the impact of this may be small as alternative wrestling seems only to be growing worldwide, but it will certainly be interesting to see whether WWE’s demographically-based broadening of their umbrella has the effect of similar conquerors: water down and incorporate.

Lucha Underground, WWE and the Importance of Quiet Time

Introductory Note: I am a very big fan of Lucha Underground, the unique presentations it’s given us, and what they are broadly trying to do. I also know that given the near universal acclaim for the federation, aspects of this article could come across as contrarian. Frankly, maybe it is, but that comes from a high standard I have held Lucha Underground to since the first season.

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The explosive finish to Pentagon Jr’s central role in Lucha Underground’s first season. The quiet time between this and the start of season 2 allowed for Pentagon to become even more infamous and made his return to the Temple in season 2 even more anticipated. Credit: cagesideseats.com

As a person who has been interested in writing for a long time as well as enjoying various narrative driven forms of entertainment, I have recently been thinking about pacing, and more specifically, the importance of ‘quiet time’ after re-watching the excellent Super Bunnyhop video on the topic with regards to video games. Naturally, I soon began thinking about quiet time in relation to wrestling, and that will be the main focus of this article. WWE doesn’t – and takes a degree of pride in not – allow any real quiet time while Lucha Underground, split as it is in to seasons, does, but with mixed results.

Though i’m aware there are other federations – Chikara, for instance – who present their wrestling in series, the only one I’ve personally consumed in consecutive order is Lucha Underground. In a period where television ‘box-sets’ are probably the most revered form of visual entertainment, Lucha Undergorund has fit in with that trend by having long episodic seasons with respective ‘Ultima Luchas’ serving as season finalés; and for me as a wrestling fan, this was a new and welcome world. From a starting position of being just another new wrestling product, Lucha Underground used episodes with logical arcs within a unique, pulpy, and somewhat supernatural universe populated by a couple of handfulls of determined, fleshed-out characters to become arguably the most respected wrestling project in the world. This ride culminated in Ultima Lucha, an event where stories were paid off or evolved via fantastic, high-octane matches. Then it dis something almost unheard of in wrestling when the heat is white hot – it pressed pause:

Not only was it objectively beautiful television, but it actively invited you to rest – the phrasing of that tweet saying “Good night.” is no mistake. Series 2 of Lucha Underground didn’t appear for nearly 6 months, and in that time, there was nothing else to do but to reflect on what we had seen, and look forward to a new series. During the series, I loved the wrestling and many of the characters, but it was in the intervening months and discussions with fellow fans that the beauty of it came to it’s highest clarity. I longed for Pentagon Jr and fell in love with his theme music, playing it on endless repeat, I argued the case for LU’s unflinching inter-gender matches, and I wondered at how far LU could go with the signing of possibly the greatest Luchadors ever (and among the greatest pro wrestlers ever, period). I also realised that beyond their matches being great, Lucha Underground was actually built on marquee matches that totally reinvigorated established gimmick matches such as the casket match and the ironman match almost like a calling card, while also providing a strong structure for the first season’s arc. I rooted for the wrestlers and promotion to return, and when it did, it did so with a huge amount of good will and currency to keep trying new things.

That is the essence of the benefits of ‘quiet time’ – when you are enjoying something, it having the ability to pause or slow down provides you with the opportunity to reflect either actively or passively, on what the story is, or what you are enjoying  about it or not. The Super Bunnyhop video of course uses the excellent example of narrative video games, but it applies to any form of narrative-driven entertainment. It’s why ‘special events’ in wrestling usually have a less consequential match or two, sometimes with comic relief, between a marquee match and the main event; you can reflect on the marquee match and get it out of your system, take a breath, and be ready for the main event. It’s also why fantasy booking is so prevelent between wrestling fans (and indeed, outside of wrestling under different auspices). It’s because when you are enjoying a storyline or a wrestlers work (such as, recently, The Miz’s Talking Smack promo), you become extra engaged and become keen to join the journey being presented. On the other hand of course, it rears it’s head when fans aren’t enjoying the product. Wrestling engenders loyalty – for it’s sins it embraces fans in to a dysfunctional family, and when you love something like that, you want it to be better. So when the show fades to black, and you’re angry about Cena or Reigns winning (or whatever your preference is), many people thing ‘it would be so much better if…’, and you get to live that fantasy out, if even in your head. Outside of wrestling, quiet time is why season premieres and finales are so significant – they are preceded by or followed by it, which in itself marks it as significant, and provides fans with that crucial time for reflection.

When you’re having your mind blown by a fresh, innovative and exciting federation filled with brutal, high flying, and emotionally charged action set in a supernatural temple, the weekly episode of Monday Night RAW started to really struggle to grab your attention. I have said to many people in private that, for it’s sins, I think WWE ultimately does the best overall job of presenting high quality, compelling wrestling (WrestleMania 30, for instance); however it goes through waves of staleness, sometimes feeling like it’s spinning wheels until WrestleMania season. While some of that can be righteously blamed on lacklustre writing and a business model which clearly favours pouring resources and creativity in to it’s January – April programme, it is notable that WWE programming never stops. Less than 24 hours after the end of each year’s WrestleMania, which is one of the few places where stories are ever conclusively wrapped up, WWE and it’s fans are right back in the saddle for the annual, crazy, Post-Mania RAW. After 4 months of intense build to an insane spectacle though – post-Mania RAW aside – the WWE noticeably slows down, seemingly mailing in a month or two of wrestling.

In a sense, this period is a still a form of quiet time by virtue of how noticeably slower and less explosive it is, but there is still no real opportunity to reflect because the wrestlers you’ve just watched make history are off doing something else and there are new stories to focus on. Not only are the writers and general production notably a gear or two lower in the period, but many of the wrestler clearly are too – still working hard of course and having some cool moments, but taking a natural step back following WrestleMania. At a time when WWE seems to suffer from injury bouts with a degree of regularity, the wrestlers seem to be in need of down time physically as well as mentally, and this has been something I’ve supported for a long time, despite the fact that WWE’s business acumen means that such a move is hugely unlikely.

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HHH’s return from injury in 2002 came with much emotion and fanfare, despite the fact that he was a top heel before his injury. Credit: WWE

The brand split complicates this somewhat as they work on a different calendar, but speaking broadly, I think a ‘Good night.’ moment – admittedly with a much more sports-like, explosive tone – at the end of a WrestleMania could help create a more focused and efficient product. Can you imagine how hyped pretty much everyone would be for the first Monday Night RAW following a 2-month layover? Rested wrestlers, writers who have had time to plan stories in advance and fans who have missed seeing their favourite wrestlers and have missed regular accessible wrestling while reflecting on what happened at a historic WrestleMania event; all of this points to not only ratings and a better product, but a more beloved product. A microcosm of this that does currently occur in WWE is when wrestlers return from long injury layoffs or just time away from the show. Regardless of whether wrestlers are heels or faces, their returns are nearly uniformally – though partly depending on their standing beforehand.- met with huge pops. ‘Returns’ often feature among my favourite wrestling narrative moments, and I think the reason is that it represents an instant change to the landscape (see:’Universe) and usually reinvigorates the show.

On a bigger scale, where everyone essentially returns, the ‘season premieres’ of RAW would be huge cultural events in the wrestling world and maybe beyond. To extend the concept somewhat, I think that with a ‘mid-season finale/re-premiere’ after Survivor Series, for instance, and taking one or two PPVs out of the calendar, I think the pacing of the WWE calendar would be much more effective at facilitating exciting, interesting storytelling and programming more consistently.

Now, to return to Lucha Underground’s Temple, I’m going to, on face value, contradict a lot of what I just argued.

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Joey Ryan was a big coup for Lucha Underground’s second season, and while entertaining, his role on the show was part of a (so far) poorly defined sub-plot that didn’t really amount to anything. Credit: Lucha Underground

Well, not really, but I would like to take some time to critique a slow downturn in quality from Lucha Underground from that Ultima Lucha high-point and do so while cautioning that ‘quiet time’ alone isn’t an automatic benefit for storytellers. Specifically, while the period was great for the fans, the writers and showrunners got ever so slightly out of their groove. The limited roster of carefully drawn characters was populated by quite a few more characters who seemingly received slightly less attention each. Taya entered the Temple and became a well-drawn, easily established character following her match with (they call him) Cage, but compared to that, characters like Daga, PJ Black, Kobra Moon, Maripoza and more seemed directionless and – relatively – unimportant. Of course, as the number of characters grew, the share for each, and for each story’s quiet time, lessened. Matches always came thick and fast in Lucha Underground but initially there was a more manageable array of characters that meant each one could be reflected on.

While the addition of Rey Mysterio, the king of luchadors, made sense, the influx of indie talent untimately damaged the series. My impression of the second series was that it took a long time to get any sort of momentum and shortly after, it was time for Ultima Lucha Dos. The mainstay gimmick matches of Aztec Warfare and Grave(r) Consequences remained, but didn’t seem to add anything fresh like they did in series one. Finally, the impact of Ultima Lucha Dos seemed diminished as the tight booking of season 1 seemed to fade away with Black Lotus’s long awaited debut being interfered in, Pentagon’s journey to the top being spoiled, and the whole thing being spread over 3 ostensibly normal episodes to allow for it all. It felt less special and less impactful, and getting back to the concept of quiet time, I think that if there wasn’t such a long layover, the showrunners wouldn’t have added so much padding to the production and season 2 would have been executed with much more satisfaction. The quiet time could have, and maybe should have been used to help improve the show even more from season 1, but in reality i’m afraid that the devil made work for their idle hands.

Marty the Moth brandishes a missile - this was how 'WMD's were used in this great match which was spoiled by empty aesthetics.

Marty the Moth brandishes a missile – this was how ‘WMD’s were used in this great match which was spoiled by empty aesthetics.

The matches happen at the same rate as always, but you may not see some characters for a few weeks – but instead of that providing quiet time to reflect, memories of their character and purpose are almost saved over with recency bias for other people you have seen more recently. These cracks have really started to show now that season 3 has begun. Roughly the same amount of talent remains, but everything seems more rushed and less well designed. For me, a great example was the WMD match. As ever, the wrestlers ‘left it all out there’ – objectively, it was a great match with a great finish, but it seemed like much more than ever before, the story elements were skin deep. Marty the Moth had suggested he was ‘done’ with Killshot, but it seems LU bookers liked the idea of an army themed match and so we had WMD. The fantasy universe of LU means it can give it’s gimmicks more (or ‘graver’) consequences. Speaking of Grave Consequences, we know no one really died, but the incredible presentation based on the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ and Konnan never being seen again in the aftermath really gave that match mythic status. With ‘WMD’ how do you live up to that? Wrestlers use guns as melee weapons, which is insane, they use 20th C-looking weapons crates which seem at best, as dangerous as other surfaces, and at worst, flimsy. Worse was Matt Striker who just seemed to take it as an opportunity to throw in as many ill-judged war puns as possible, including some incredibly ill-thought-out comments about Syrian refugees and Melissa Santos being potential ‘spoils of war’. This was a great match spoiled – for me – by the empty aesthetics of it that couldn’t live up to the WMD moniker.  It would have been saved to a large degree by calling it something like a ‘Warzone’ match which would set the scene without clipping it’s wings. That is down to the talented by bloated roster not being able to fit in to a 1 hour-per episode season and writers rushing to fit too much in to each episode and not being able to dedicate as much effort to their marquee matches living up to their excellent track record of previous marquee matches.

That seems a lot more scathing than the show – which I still very much enjoyed at times – deserves, but as I say, the stellar work of season 1 raised it’s standards for me. Shortly after the end of Ultima Lucha Dos, it was revealed that Lucha Underground would be back after just over 1 month. Suddenly, it started to seem that Lucha Underground was maybe being rushed through, and the welcome breath that the break between season allowed before seemed to be lacking. Knowing how far Lucha Underground is now taoed in advance, and that large parts of seasons 2 and 3 were taped back to back, it’s clear that while there is still a (much shorter) break between seasons, it is no longer part of the creative process of the show. The break feels like just that, a pause, and not a deliberate point of reflection for the viewer that gives us time to miss the show; and while the diminishing return I have found with Lucha Underground is a slow one, I already personally feel that the lack of quiet time between Lucha Underground seasons has hurt the quality of season 3 which feels like it’s just picking up where the second series finished rather than creating new and interesting story arcs. That may not even be accurate, but the lack of quiet time to stop and smell the roses has masked whatever identity the third season has so far.

Lucha Underground season 1 was perhaps the most successful and noteworthy wrestling achievement, at least in terms of quality, in recent wrestling history, and seasons 2 and what has begun of 3 are certainly still loaded with great, brutal, innovative matches – I just hope it can reclaim some of the attention to detail and efficiency it once had, and continue to be a treat.

 

Media, Steam, and Our Vast Flat Culture

Steam

Months ago, I started a new post on mourning culture springing up from the deaths of the likes of David Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood, et al; it was to be a somewhat self-righteous, but I think ultimately valid piece about how it symbolised the way our current culture ingests it’s media and it’s, if you will, Neon Idols. I could never move past a certain point each time a new death occurred, and I think it’s because it felt needlessly judgmental and went against my more libertarian side of live and letting live, even if it’s dumb. I like and think plenty of dumb things after all. Now though, I was thinking again about the writing blockage I have been suffering which extended to my comedy writing and art and I think it’s because I haven’t been able to put this article in to words as opposed to a sort of cotton wool disturbance in my head. I was thinking about another part of the article, and I realised that the celebrity death cottage industry is just a small part of our whole culture which, as Alan Moore says, is turning to steam.

As Alan Moore says in his psychedelic philosodoc, The Mindscape of Alan Moore:

“As I understand the theory of period information doubling, this states that if we take one period of human information as being the time between the invention of the first hand axe, say around 50,000 BC and 1 AD, then this is one period of human information and we can measure it by how many human inventions we came up with during that time. Then we see how long it takes for us to have twice as many inventions. This means that human information has doubled. As it turns out, after the first 50,000-year period, the second period is about 1500 years, say around the time of the Renaissance. By then we have twice as much information. To double again, human information took a couple of hundred years. The period speeds up—between 1960 and 1970, human information doubled. As I understand it, at the last count human information was doubling around every 18 months. Further to this, there is a point sometime around 2015 where human information is doubling every thousandth of a second. This means that in each thousandth of a second we will have accumulated more information than we have in the entire previous history of the world. At this point I believe that all bets are off. I cannot imagine the kind of culture that might exist after such a flashpoint of knowledge. I believe that our culture would probably move into a completely different state, would move past the boiling point, from a fluid culture to a culture of steam… I think the world is purely a construction of ideas, and not just the physical structures, but the mental structures, the ideologies that we’ve erected, that is what I would call the world. Our political structures, philosophical structures, ideological frameworks, economies. These are actually imaginary things, and yet that is the framework that we have built our entire world upon. It strikes me that a strong enough wave of information could completely overturn and destroy all of that. A sudden realization that would change our entire perspective upon who we are and how we exist. History is a heat, it is the heat of accumulated information and accumulated complexity. As our culture progresses, we find that we gather more and more information and that we slowly start to move almost from a fluid to a vaporous state, as we approach the ultimate complexity of a social boiling point. I believe that our culture is turning to steam.”

It’s long but it’s worth quoting in it’s entirety. The History as heat + fluid culture = steam is a bit of a laboured metaphor in some ways, but it has always struck me as disturbingly accurate. The only alteration I would make, which is important to this article is that the heat of the metaphor doesn’t just come from our history of accumulated experience, but also the sheer pervasiveness of our media outlets – ‘outlets’ not being restricted to the mainstream media, but any outlet for a person to broadcast to the world. The egalité of how people can make and produce media (as I am right now, of course) is of course a great progression for personal expression, but the consequences for our culture are serious.

Steam Pepper

Probably the most iconic album cover of all time. How many current album covers can you picture? Credit: The Beatles

The internet is perhaps out greatest invention and far from being a Luddite, I love it and the possibilities it offers. But for our culture, it is like a comfortable bed we lie in for so long that we can’t stand properly any more. I mentioned having some Libertarian views earlier, and that’s true, though the whole ‘free market’ idea has struck me as fatally flawed (I’ll see you later for the Libertarian post); saying that, while the root of it seems dreadful to me, I do have something of a longing for the way the pre-internet free market helped define our culture. As a self-proclaimed music nerd during my teens, I would sometimes think to myself that music was terrible ‘these days’ and would never produce icons like The Beatles, Rolling Stones etc again – meaning artists that were undoubtedly the biggest in the world and unavoidable in popular culture at all levels. It turns out, I believe, that I was right about that, but not for the reason I thought at the time. As a teen, I thought it was because the music of the time was just shit, but now I realise it’s something else – it’s that with the onset of the internet, there is a place for everything to thrive, and what is mainstream is easier to completely ignore. Where previously, the charts dictated what was popular, like a giant pyramid with only a few vaunted icons at it’s peak, music now exists in a much more level, near infinite plane where anything can exist or even thrive in it’s own area, but nothing will truly stand out as representing our culture. Where music used to at least loosely shift in stylistic periods, reflective of our culture, now all music exists at once – there are dozens of genres of music and countless sub-genres of each, and each with it’s own specialised realms online. Artists like Taylor Swift and One Direction are still incredibly popular, but their longevity is stilted by the fact that the music industry supports endless artists and types of music, and there are a great many people who totally ignore them in place of their own musical interest. That, again, is great, people can find what they like and an in-built community is waiting to embrace them, each little sub-genre as extensive as the entire music business at any given time in the 20th Century. The only problem is, when there is no truly dominant culture, there is nothing to define us, nothing to react to, and nothing to rebel against. Punk was a rebellion, grunge was a rebellion, but if The Sex Pistols or Nirvana were to appear these days, they would find a following on the internet, they would tour and do well, but they wouldn’t challenge anything, even if they wanted to – they would just merge with the rest of the steam.

If you imagine pre-internet culture as a pyramid, unfair but clearly definable in a roughly controlled space, then our current culture is that of a vast, flat surface – more is there, but it can’t be truly grasped at once. Everything has it’s place, but it’s impact will always be temporary and vaporous. Some things will go ‘viral’ and will catch people’s attention in a way where it will be arbitrarily related to life in various ways, fading quickly and surviving only and at most as memes, the meanings of which will ultimately be lost eventually. It is egalité to it’s a-logical end where everything has a place but the place is the same for everyone and everything. It is from this realization that I started writing about celebrity deaths. There are so many online column inches and so many hours of dead TV time that whenever anyone dies it’s always an unqualified tragedy, because that is how we talk about death and there is space to be filled. Memories are cleansed, #RIP’s are typed, and the essence of the person is lost either in simplified degradation or ill-deserved plaudits. All deaths are the same and are discussed the same way, whitewashing dark histories or recent irrelevance and overestimating importance for those that didn’t earn it in life, simultaneously, as the ever-expanding arena of the internet and 24-hour news media invites reactions. That sounds callous, but it’s true that some lives had more impact than others, and as meaningless as mourning is, I struggle with the reality that whenever a celebrity dies, they are mourned almost by protocol – a tweet, a blog, some time on the news, maybe, depending on the cycle, and then on to the next death. This new mourning is just another framework we have created, and though doubtlessly sincere in the main, it has become an evolved routine demanded by the way we consume and regurgitate information.

Steam Pray

All we have are hashtags, and why do they ask us to pray? Credit: quotesgram.com

Never before has it been so quick and easy to access news and the fallout of news. Within hours of people’s last breaths there are reams of speculation, tributes (short, easy to read tributes) and in some cases, leaks of emergency recordings of the morbid discoveries. Imagine then, the (still well intentioned) almost necessary levels of uniformity in the aftermath of a disaster or terrorist attack, when the victim’s aren’t famous and there’s little to be said about them individually. Understandably, reactions are of shock and sorrow as well as the ever present ‘Pray for…’ hashtag. #PrayForParis, #PrayForBrussels, #PrayForNice. We pray for victims, or cities, or countries, or at least say we do, after the attacks, as if it is useful. We hashtag as if satisfying a check-mark, maybe alter profile pictures with national flags, until we update it with another cause or tragedy. People are sincere in their fear and sadness, but the prevailing ways to express that are very limiting, in terms of space, and expectations. The news is 24/7, available in all formats, and something must be said. News outlets ponder why such attacks happen, and then broadcast politicians explaining that those responsible hate x’s way of life. Prayers, sadness and fear, again and again. As with everything else, it is vast, pervasive, and without depth, millions of people doing a bare minimum. Steam is a routine of massacre and counter massacre, and the thoughtful, meaningful reactions to them just suffer from numbed diminishing returns, swept up by the gutter press for clicks and influence simply because that is what their medium, and their business, has evolved to demand.

Arguments used to happen in physical arenas – marches, stages, pubs, parliament, etc., and still do. The difference now is, for better or worse, that no argument prevails. Whether you’re point of view is moral, mainstream, radical, or dangerous, there is a place for you to have and share your opinion without true critique. If you’re a socialist, a feminist, a meninist, a fascist, a pacifist, a Eurosceptic, a racist, a libertarian, a conservative, a liberal, or a moderate, there is a selection of websites, hashtags and movements, some more taboo than others, for you to share your beliefs and have them supported with confirmation bias. Everyone is a silent majority, typing very loudly somewhere in our vast, flat culture but rarely penetrating consensus. For every action or event there is a flacid routine of action, reaction, reaction to the reaction, and ultimately a meme that will soon be forgotten in the next cycle. While this sounds critical – and I am certainly lamenting it to a degree – I reiterate that it’s neither good or bad, it’s an amoral part of human evolution that has affected our culture. While I lament how part of that affect is making our culture more of an indistinct vapour, it is absolutely great that people have more ways to express themselves.

Our culture encourages and celebrates routine and labels, but renders them near meaningless in practice by ruthlessly partitioning to the n’th degree creating more frameworks that are simply imagined constructs which represent us exhaustively; so exhaustively that the representation serves to highlight our differences as much as our variety. I preface this section by saying that I neither judge anyone or expect anything of anyone’s sexuality; it’s not my business, and frankly, I don’t care. I say that because again, this will sound like a criticism when that isn’t intended, it is merely a recognition of another way our identity has been spread as wide and thin as the spaces and opportunities for us to express ourselves have. It is generally seen, and understandably so, as progressive that people can define their sexuality however they want – people identify themselves in a multitude of ways from heterosexual, to homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, demisexual, polyamorous, and several more distinctions beyond. It is fantastic that people can identify themselves more clearly an comfortably than ever before, and as with political identities, there are more and more places to find people with similar identities, thanks to the various places people can present themselves. There is however something about all of these labels that seems strange to me. Sexuality seems to be more outwardly fluid than ever before, but it also appears that there is something of a burden for people whose sexuality is more fluid to identify themselves. It is this fluidity that has created so many more sexual labels, while trying to label something like sexuality seems increasingly to be restrictive folly. Complex sexualities are nothing new, but the labelling of them is, relatively speaking. I speak purely for myself here and certainly from a point of privilege, but my view of identity, tolerance, and harmony has always been that the labels, and the consequential expectations that come along with it, are confining, no matter how exhaustively they are tailored and created. You should be able to desire someone, and express that desire without having to justify it to a sexuality based on the other person’s various identities. That’s just my view though, and people like to – and should, if they so wish – label themselves, so it will likely never happen, and there will always be a place, in our ever vaporous culture to express yourself.

Steam news 24

The news cycle both on TV and off, is endless and all-pervasive while barely telling us anything credit: edelman.com

On the surface, this expanded capacity for expression would be good for our consumption of news, but in reality, the overload of information we suffer from has led to a neutering of the news cycle. A consistent theme of 2016 has been that it’s been ‘crazy’ with the amount of celebrity deaths, disasters and tragedies, and it’s appeared as if every day brings another earth-shattering headline. Whether the stories behind them are particularly new or unusual – I imagine that at least to some extent, they are not – is an issue for another article, but what I personally believe is that the space with which to present news has actually made it less nuanced. News and current affairs has become just another cottage industry, presenting ‘content’ as quickly as it can – all news is breaking news, and all breaking news must be reacted to; if not, the other providers will win. But when the news cycle has to stay so fresh, where people expect the pundits who help shape their insight, the news becomes a limp, background propaganda which serves only those at the top of media and political empires. What’s embarrassing is that it’s probably not part of some great plan, it’s just the free marketeers and career politicians doing their job, doing very well out it, regardless of how it affects the populous.

The last month or so has brought with it huge sea-changes to British and international politics – just naming the more significant ones, the UK voted to leave the European Union, the government and opposition have held simultaneous leadership contests, there is a new Prime Minister, an official report has found that an entire war was undertaken on a false premise and the former Prime Minister behind it was at least somewhat complicit in manipulating the country to action, there have been two well reported terrorist attacks in Europe, there is a small-scale but significant race war occurring in the United States as it chooses a new President (who may turn out to be a crazy racist businessman who has starred in a marquee match at a WrestleMania), there was failed coup attempt in Turkey, and the UK committed to a multi-multi-billion pound nuclear weapons programme. Many of these have occurred on the same or consecutive days, and while they have been treated with due reverence, there is another feeling of routine to the news cycle. Report-Opinions-Counterpoints-Repeat. There’s nothing wrong with that of course except for, again, the sheer amount of space both with 24-hour news and 24-hour alternative media and social media for that cycle to take place in. Everything is examined from every possible angle, but only for a short time; dominant reactions emerge and are reported too by every mainstream news source which more or less falls in line with the other. There is no time to properly react, and endless reactions to be had, and so before the impact of one event can be digested, another event has taken place, and so on, and so on, ad nauseum. Reactions are presented from across the political spectrum, often featuring extreme minority views as strongly as any other, to the point where even the most straight-laced reporting struggles to present a cohesive story. The reaction is as important as the event, the reactions are often vastly inconsistent, and no one really knows what to make of it all.

The recent reporting of ‘Brexit’ is a good example of this. The nuts and bolts of the story are incredibly complicated and multi-faceted and neither the mainstream media with it’s attention defecit nor the social media reaction with it’s lack of credible, unbiased knowledge were equipped to consume and pull together a purposeful understanding of the story. What is easy to consume and readily available though are the opinions of specialist sects and interested parties, and so complicated an issue is it that there were near endless opinions offered related to trade, immigration, the economy, Scottish independence, the UK’s relationship with America, the downfall of  a swathe of political leaders, including the sitting Prime Minister, that no one really knew what Brexit meant – all that was left was shock. Brexit is an especially complicated issue, but it is a microcosm of the whole news cycle – complicated issues being analysed to the n’th degree but without satisfaction until the story becomes quite literally senseless. Many people say they have become numb to the news as they have been swept away with significant and often tragic news, and as the information – and opinion as information – is churned out, always with a place to be churned out to, it becomes impossible to process. Adam Curtis refers to this phenomena from a different angle as ‘oh dearism’ – we pray for Paris, we wonder what Brexit will mean, we witness a new Prime Minister with little fan fare, we say ‘oh dear’ and we move on because something else has happened and has been reported and reacted to already. There is more news, but it’s less distinct. The news cycle churns and the steam builds.

To be belligerent with the keyword, the steam we live in is not morally good or morally bad, it is just a side effect of our evolution creating and storing more information, and there is no practical way to stop or slow it. Our culture is spread thin and indistinct, and as the population and sources of information expand, it will only get worse. That sounds scary and defeatist, but remember that life can be as simple as doing what you enjoy, and there is meaning in that. Watch TV, play sports, write about wrestling – most of it will get lost in the steam once you’re gone, but who cares if it makes you happy, even just for a while? To quote George Carlin, when you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show, but it’s up to you how much you engage with it all.