Guilty Pleasures

The very ideas of guilty pleasures is a weird one. I mean, pleasure is subjective. Different people like different things. In the modern world, shouldn’t we be OK with people just saying “I like this”, as long as no-one else gets hurt?

Yet there are pleasures I feel I have to justify. Listening to Taylor Swift. Watching The Ranch. Roleplaying. Things that don’t do any harm but have a particular image around their cultural value.

The very use of the phrase “guilty pleasure” stigmatises these harmless choices. Yet if I don’t start explaining, I feel like I’m going to be judged.

I suppose the solution is to stop worrying about being judged for liking things. But that’s a hard habit to break.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch Ashton Kutcher be a rancher. I know it sounds bad, but the cast are excellent, the show’s got these lovely moments, and – No! No explaining! I love it. Outside of a critical discussion, isn’t that enough?

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – An American Sort of Weird

I love Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently books. His weird stories of an offbeat detective and his surreal methods are my favourite Adams work, even in a world where The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy exists. So I was intrigued to see what happened when the Americans turned it into a TV show.

Turns out they’ve done a decent job. To me, this feels like it gets the surreal tone and crazy connections of the books. Dirk is just as exasperating as you’d expect, though in a less whimsically British way. The adventures might lean a little heavily toward action at times, but they still feel like Dirk’s sort of adventures.

There’s some Americanising here, or perhaps modern-TV-show-ising. It’s not enough for Dirk to just have strange methods. Instead he’s the escaped product of some government-backed scheme that has unleashed a bunch of psychically powered people into the world. I can’t say that feels like a good fit for an Adams story to me, but all the characters coming out of it do. Sure, I’d rather that Dirk was just a man with an unexpected method that works against the odds, but I’ll accept this change in return for the holistic assassin and the crazy guys in the van.

Honestly, I don’t know how well fans are responding to this – I haven’t dared look. But I liked it. Whether you’ve read the books or not, I think it’s worth a look.

The Man in the High Castle: WW2, Identity and Resistance

The Man in the High Castle is a gripping piece of television. It takes the ideas laid out in Phillip K Dick’s book and expands upon them to create something powerful and fascinating. More than this, it’s an exploration of morality and of why the Second World War is still so powerful in all our imaginations.

Why WW2?

The Man in the High Castle is a rarity. It’s an alternate history story that, both in its original novel and in the TV show, has reached beyond that small cultural niche and found a wider audience. Both versions have received popular and critical acclaim.

A huge part of its success lies in the choice of historical settings. The Second World War lies heavy in historical memory. For the generation before mine, it still had a great immediacy. In Europe, they grew up amid the rubble and rebuilding efforts. Across the world, they grew up with the consequences and with the war stories of their parents’ generation. As a result, the war also felt immediate for the generation that followed – my own. It was a modern event that shaped the modern world.

The scale and impact of the war are also factors. The term “World War” is a little misleading, given the number of countries that weren’t involved. But it was still a war on an unprecedented scale in the number of nations and combatants, as well as the sheer destruction. Millions died both in combat and in atrocities against civilians. The political and cultural landscape of entire continents was transformed in the space of a decade.

Perhaps most powerfully, it is a war where the sense of moral right and wrong has lingered. While all sides committed terrible acts and every nation had figures striving for good, a distinction remains. The Nazis and their allies sought to enforce their will upon others through violence. They tried to wipe out entire groups of people because of who they were. The Allies fought against that.

Trying to assert a sense of right and wrong upon history is usually misguided at best. But in this case, nothing has shaken off the sense of being in the right that the Allied nations retain.

Playing into Our Vision of WW2

The Man in the High Castle plays into this collective vision. It uses our understanding of the war and how significant it is. This is an easy shortcut to show us that the alternate world is very different and far darker.

By sticking inside the 20th century, it retains that sense of immediacy. Sure, its 1960s setting is now decades behind us. But it’s still modern enough to feel achingly familiar, painfully so when things are wrong.

Most powerfully, it plays up the moral aspect. The horrifying nature of Nazi moral values is there from the start. Characters have taken part in and borne witness to atrocities. Political murder and oppression are common. Aberrations against what the Nazis consider normal, even those as innocent as ill health, are dangerous.

On the Pacific coast too, continued Japanese militarism creates a menacing state with clear racial distinctions.

Undermining Our Certainties

But what makes The Man in the High Castle so powerful is that it questions and undermines these certainties.

Partly, this is about the significance of the war. Within the story, films of alternate realities create questions about the world the characters live in and by extension our own. If there are many other possible realities, is any one event really so significant? Don’t other events equally shape our lives? If the Axis powers had won, would the war still be the single most significant event, or would others that followed match it?

Most tellingly, The Man in the High Castle challenges our moral certainties.

By dropping the atomic bomb on Washington, it forces us to face the terrible nature of the things the Allies did to win the war. The Nazi leadership may have been villains, but can the other side still be considered heroes after wiping out entire cities?

By showing us sympathetic characters on the German and Japanese sides, it undercuts the image of these regimes as all bad. It reminds us that ordinary people can do terrible things if society leads them that way. The question for anyone watching then becomes “in what ways is society leading me to harm others while seeing myself as right?”

Darkest of all, the story undermines the image of those resisting the Axis powers as good. Resistance fighters do desperate and terrible things in the name of freedom. At times, they become antagonists to the show’s hero. They go so far that it’s hard not question whether anyone is in the right here. There are different degrees of wrong and the Nazis are clearly far more hideous in their values than anyone else. But still, the certainties fade…

No Certainties

The Man in the High Castle uses a powerful part of our historical memory to raise powerful questions. To do right, we have to be able to act. We cannot be frozen by doubt. But we still need those doubts, to be able to see when we might be wrong and to adjust our path.

This is a show that should help us to approach morality more intelligently and to examine the past more critically.

Fortunately, it’s also damn good entertainment of the most chilling kind.

My Favourite Things of 2016

What’s that you say, it’s the end of the year? Time for an inevitable best-of list?

Alright then. Who am I to resist. Below are some of my favourite new things from 2016. Have a read and let me know your favourites in the comments – they’ll give me more to explore next year.

Comic – The Wicked + The Divine

Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillon continue to mesmerise with their story of music gods and potent magic. Part pop culture pastiche, part epic saga, all wonderful to behold, even in a year that saw the Chew finale, this was my favourite comic. McKelvie’s art is richly intoxicating, bringing both the mundane and the otherworldly to vivid life. Gillen’s plotting is strong and his dialogue sharp. They’re one of those creative teams where the whole is greater than the sum of the already great parts.

Music – Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become absolutely addicted to the work of Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit. So when a new album came out this year, I was nervous that the spell might be broken.

There was no need to worry. This is another brooding yet uplifting mix of atmospheric guitars and brooding lyrics. As usual, Frightened Rabbit pick over the pieces of troubled emotional lives against the backdrop of modern Britain. And again, I could listen to this on loop all day and never get bored.

If indie angst isn’t your thing, then there’s always This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, in which Macklemore and Ryan Lewis proved that there’s still plenty more of their quirky hiphop to come. Songs flit between the raunchy, the acerbic, and the deeply heartfelt. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it gets my blood racing.

Film – Arrival

The idea – trying to translate the language of minds utterly unlike our own.

The emotions – loss, bewilderment, hope.

The style – sedately stunning.

The performances – Amy Adams. Such wonderful, wonderful Amy Adams.

In the era of big spectacle sci-fi movies, this was the year’s slick, Hollywood budget think piece, and it is stunning in every sense.

Book – The Tiger and the Wolf

A lot of the books I read this year weren’t new releases. Of those that were, the standout was The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

This is a great fantasy adventure in which a young woman comes of age and must decide where her loyalties lie. The world, initially reminiscent of the European Dark Ages, has a variety and fascination that goes far beyond mud huts and tribal politics. The shape-shifting magic reveals interesting layers and implications as it’s laid out before us. The characters are varied and likable. With two more to come in this series, I’ll definitely be back for more.

TV – The Ranch

This choice has been made on very different grounds from the rest. With so much amazing TV out there, it’s hard to pick one show on grounds of true greatness. The Expanse, with its space adventures and socially grounded noir? The Man in the High Castle, with its reminders of the danger and attraction of fascism and the spell-binding yet subtle performance of Rufus Sewell? Marvel and Netflix’s ongoing stream of top superhero action?

These are all great. I recommend them. But with so much great TV out there, each piece isn’t as distinct and surprising as it once was.

Then there’s The Ranch. In so many ways, this is a perfectly ordinary American sitcom. The performers are good but not being used to the best of their abilities. The jokes are predictable. The emotions are overblown. The direction and camerawork are standard, uninspiring sitcom stuff.

Yet there’s also something surprising about The Ranch. Set in a small community in the heart of rural Republican America, it shows that side of the USA in a way the rest of the world seldom sees. Things we think of as progressive and as conservative get jumbled together by characters who see Hilary Clinton as a figure from nightmare yet keep weed in their vegetable box. The attitudes and actions of the characters, as well as the events of the setting, showed me a side of America that TV producers usually ignore. It took me to a world that was genuinely new to me.

And then there are the characters. Sure, they’re often cliched. Dad’s grumpy, Ashton Kutcher’s stupid, hahaha *sigh*. But they have nuanced emotional lives. They grapple with their thoughts, feelings, and self-perceptions. Because this is a Netlflix show, designed in the expectation that new viewers will start at the beginning, they change over time more than in many sitcoms. For all their dysfunction, these characters provide a healthy model for dealing openly with friends, family, lovers, and ourselves.

Even I’m shocked to find myself typing this, but in among so many far better shows, the one that defined my year in TV was The Ranch. It’s not amazing, but I love it.

Games – Fallout 4

OK, this was from 2015. But I don’t play a lot of computer games, and this was the one for me. The world building of the Fallout series is fantastic and the game environment gives you space to explore that. Its retro-futurist post-apocalyptic wasteland would be a nightmare to live in, but it’s great fun to explore. Combat, puzzle solving, and conversation flow smoothly together. It’s an example of what great story telling computer games do. It has its flaws, the plot and mechanics not quite meshing, but for the most part this is amazing work. I’ve spent days in this game, and I consider that time well spent.

 

So there you go – my top picks of 2016. What have I missed? What am I wrong about? What would you recommend? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

A Golden Age of Television

It’s often said that we live in a golden age of television because of how good the shows are. And sure, that’s true.

All achieved despite this man.
All achieved despite this man.

But I think the most golden thing is the way we view.

Instead of a TV licence, I now have subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime. I can watch Legend of Korra in bed at two in the morning if I want. Instead of waiting for six o’clock on a Thursday to get my weekly episode of Star Trek, I can put it on at a time that suits me. If I have a sick day, I’m not stuck with daytime television or a small collection of DVDs. I can choose from a vast range of viewing.

Streaming instead of schedules gives viewers the choice of what to watch when, instead of putting that choice in the hands of schedulers. At this rate, I’ll be surprised if TV channels as we know them last another generation. And if current trends are anything to go by, that change is going to be a good thing.

Henry VIII Gets Jiggy: Capturing a Real Person in Fiction

I’m endlessly amazed by the different ways that we can see the same person. Whether it’s a friend, a colleague, or a celebrity, we’ll all view them in a slightly different light. That’s particularly obvious when the person is a historical figure, and one significant enough to have been made into fiction.

The Sex Lives of Henry VIII

Take King Henry VIII of England. More specifically, take the intimate life of Henry VIII, a man whose divorce birthed the Church of England and the international Anglican communion. What motivated Henry to get down with a series of eligible ladies is important historically. This isn’t just one man getting jiggy, this is a monarch re-writing the rules of church and state so that…

Well, possibly just so that he could get jiggy.

Check out the embroidery on that guy.
Check out the embroidery on that guy.

Wolf Hall: Powerful Passions

The TV adaptation of Wolf Hall shows Henry as a man driven by fierce romantic passions. Sure, he wants to put his genitals in places he maybe shouldn’t, but the fate of a nation isn’t decided by the fact that the king has wood.

This is Henry as a fierce romantic and man of complex depths. His motives get tangled up in his head, and no-one is going to call his subconscious on its bullshit. His intentions are very personal and emotional, but you couldn’t call them shallow.

Hands up who wants to be where that sword is.
Hands up who wants to be where that sword is.

The Tudors: Horny Henry

Then there’s another recent TV depiction – The Tudors. I’m only a couple of episodes in, but this seems like a very different take on Henry’s bedroom antics. Here he’s a total horn dog. If a pretty lady crosses his path, odds are he’ll be showing her his mighty weapon later. And if she’s not available, he’ll give one of her servants a trip on the royal roller coaster instead.

Yes, there are real emotions at stake here too. But fundamentally, Henry is portrayed as a man driven by his man parts, not his subconscious.

Picture from Henry's Tinder profile, courtesy of Hans Holbein
Swipe left or swipe right? Henry’s profile picture, courtesy of Hans Holbein

How About a Classic Henry?

There are all sorts of other historical interpretations of Henry’s love life. It’s possible to see his marital antics as entirely driven by stately concerns. After all, his lack of a male heir put the country at risk of foreign domination or civil war once he died. You could argue that his was a noble and well-intentioned sex life. Boning for the greater good.

So What?

So what’s the lesson here?

Both as writers and as readers, it’s worth being aware that even very specific areas of a person’s life are open to interpretation. As I discussed in a recent article for Re:Fiction,  it’s worth knowing what the different interpretations are and what they exist for. Wolf Hall Henry is a literary fiction character, designed to explore the depths of the human soul. The Tudors Henry is history for a mass audience, exciting and accessible. Political penis Henry is Henry for patriotic historians, who want to see noble intentions behind the important moments in British history.In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.

In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.

We’ll never understand the whole of Henry, or of anyone else. These are just pieces of who they are.

Do Marvel TV’s Corridors Describe Modern Life?

Marvel and Netflix released a trailer for their Luke Cage show at Comic Con. Unsurprisingly, it looks awesome. With its hip-hop soundtrack, feats of strength and intriguing snippets of dialogue, it fits the tone of these shows while bringing something different. And I don’t just mean the ever-charismatic Mike Colter, who could give Chris Evans a run for his money in the charming superhero stakes.

Premiere of 'Bloodline'

That’s right, I said it – I now have ridiculous man-crushes on two Marvel superhero actors.

Yet there was also something familiar about the trailer. Because, like Daredevil before him, Luke Cage is having a setpiece rumble in a corridor.

luke cage corridor
Why wouldn’t you want to see another picture of Mike Colter?

Do We All Live (and Fight) in Corridors Now?

This got me thinking about corridors as spaces – what they represent both in reality and in TV shows. Aside from being useful in cool fight scenes, that is.

Corridors are places yet also the space between places. They’re part of buildings, destinations in their own right. But they’re also transitional spaces, like the motorway-based cities Warren Ellis discussed in Desolation Jones. They don’t really have identities and functions, like a bedroom or kitchen. They’re spaces we pass through.

And we spend a lot of time in them.

dj freeways

This is how a lot of urban space has become over the past century – something we hurry through on our way to a destination, not a place to linger in and enjoy. For those of us living in cities and towns, corridors are emblematic of the space we live in.

What better space to use in these gritty, urban superhero shows that Marvel and Netflix are creating? The conversations outside Jessica Jones’s office are often hugely important, and they take place in this limbo space, on a journey from one real place to another. When Patsy Walker keeps a visitor in the corridor, she’s keeping him in that city limbo.

He's behind you! Or your door, at least.
He’s behind you!
Or your door, at least.

When Daredevil or Luke Cage fight their way down a corridor, they’re not fighting over their real goal – they’re just trying to get there by the best means they have – violence.

Our Corridor Lives

Going deeper down the rabbit hole of this metaphor, we can see corridors as representing the way we live in the modern western world. Jobs for life, homes for life, even relationships for life, these were common in previous generations. Now they’re all the exception rather than the norm. We are in a constant state of transition.

Everything we do with our lives is now both a journey and a destination, place and transitional space, somewhere and nowhere. Our lives have become corridors.

Like superheroes learning to use their powers, we are in constant transition.

Back Around to Marvel

If ever there was a set of genre shows that explored modern life – especially modern urban life – it’s these Netflix Marvel shows. Jessica Jones is about gendered power and rape, some of the most fiercely argued subjects of the moment. Daredevil explores the corrupting influence of wealth upon the law, and whether justice really can be blind, issues constantly thrown into stark light by news from America. Luke Cage looks likely to take us into the world of criminal gangs and drug trading, a parallel society and economy living parasitically alongside the legitimate one.

And so corridors become the perfect symbol for these shows. A modern transitional space heading towards an uncertain future, both for society and for genre television.

Plus they make for some really, really good fight scenes.

dd corridor

Why is Christianity Always Catholic in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons

Have you noticed how often Christianity equals Catholicism in science fiction and fantasy? Think about it – when was the last time the religious side of the story was represented by a Presbyterian, a Methodist or someone of Eastern Orthodox faith? But look at Daredevil – both in comics and on screen – The Sage of the ExilesThe Sparrow, or many other sf+f works – you’ll see Catholicism all over the shop.

I don’t think it’s because there are more Catholic writers than ones of other denominations in sf+f. After all, Protestantism is bigger both in the UK and the USA, the sources of most of my reading and viewing.

I don’t think it’s because Catholic beliefs are any more interesting to extrapolate from. If I was looking for a faith that does something unusual then I’d turn to the liberal Quakers, with their decisions by consensus, their evolving book of faith and their soothing/eery (depending on your perspective) silent meetings. And if I was looking for something full of angels, demons and holy warfare then I could pick pretty much any old school interpretation of any faith.

I think the reason may be that Catholicism provides a bunch of handy story-telling tools. The focus on sin and guilt creates obvious internal conflict for characters. The confessional provides an excuse for characters to say things out loud that would otherwise remain internal. The heavy use of ostentatious imagery and symbolic ritual creates striking visuals for television, comics and film – Quaker meetings are cool and all, but they usually look like a bunch of ordinary people sitting in a plain room, and much Protestantism looks like Catholicism light.

I’m not saying that the use of Catholicism in sf+f is necessarily shallow – far from it, Julian May built a whole universe around the dissident theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But I don’t think it’s generally chosen for its depth, and the attractions it provides for story-tellers are ones most other Christian denominations can’t match. Much as I’d love to read that Quaker sf story, if I want to then I’ll have to write it myself.

9 Thoughts About Daredevil Season 2

Daredevil_season_2I recently watched the new run of the Netflix/Marvel TV show Daredevil. Better people than I will offer coherent reviews, but I had a lot of thoughts about this show, and wanted to get them out of my system.

While I’ve tried to stay vague about details, there are spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned…

Damn, That’s A Good Punisher

When I heard that Marvel and Netflix were putting the Punisher into the second season of Daredevil I was worried. I understand the appeal of the Punisher, Marvel’s gun-toting vigilante anti-hero, but I didn’t think that his vengeful brutality would work well here. I was very, very wrong.

Punisher is the best thing about this season. The storyline around him explores the morality both of his actions and of Daredevil’s. It’s the most convincing and nuanced exploration of the character I’ve seen, made more powerful by Jon Bernthal’s compelling performance.

Matt Murdock’s an Arsehole

I really can’t emphasise this enough. It seems like we’re meant to like Murdock, aka Daredevil, empathising with his guilt-ridden Catholic ways and his need to take responsibility for everything around him. But the more I watch, the more I find his attitude rotten and egotistical. His constant references to “my city” and his insistence on him being the one to solve everything aren’t the attitude of a man taking reasonable responsibility – they’re the attitude of a man claiming ownership over the people around him. It’s not noble, it’s selfish, and he’d be far more effective if he worked with others. In his own way, he’s as unreasonable as the protagonists of Sons of Anarchy, and as with those characters, I empathise right up to the moment I think about what he’s saying and doing.

I can’t tell whether this is a deliberate move by a very clever show, or a terrible reflection of what is considered appropriate behaviour for a man and a hero. Given the Punisher plotline, I’d be inclined to give the show the benefit of the doubt, but…

Where’s the Villain?

There’s an interesting conversation to be had about who the antagonist of this story is, but one thing’s for sure – there’s no interesting central villain. The Kingpin was a highlight of the first season, turning it from something good to something utterly compelling. Here he’s a bit player, and there’s no equivalent figure to take his place. The Punisher, though well written and performed, is sidelined in the second half of the season, and there’s no other figure as interesting. The eventual villains are dull and passionless. It’s a real shame, as the makers of this show have shown that they can do better.

Karen’s Become Interesting

Karen Page was a problem in the first season, a bit too much the blonde girlfriend / victim. The hints of darker things in her past weren’t enough to avoid the feeling that we were heading into terrible gendered tropes. This season she does better, emerging as a more strongly written and pro-active character, whose failings make her interesting rather than disappointing.

Will Claire Temple Bring the Defenders Together?

This point is wishful thinking on my part, but plausible at this point. Claire Temple, the nurse who helps out superheroes, is currently the strongest connecting thread between DaredevilJessica Jones and, through her existing relationship with the protagonist, possibly the upcoming Luke Cage series. Could she be the one to bring together these heroes and the as-yet-unseen Iron Fist for the eventual Defenders show?

I really hope so. Of all the characters we’ve seen in DD and JJ, Claire is the one I most admire as a person. She’s strong but not obstinate, caring but not a pushover, and Rosario Dawson never puts a foot wrong with her performance. As the person who picks up the pieces of the broken superheroes, and who calls them on their bullshit, Claire would make a wonderful central point and moral compass for the ensemble show.

Costumes and Personhood

Daredevil‘s two seasons have given us origin stories – one for Daredevil, the other for Punisher. In both cases, the character dons their costume at the end of that origin story, symbolising their new status as a superhero.

But I think there’s something else at stake here. In donning a costume they’re marking themselves as separate from the rest of humanity. Such costumes, like medieval full body armour and modern matching military uniforms, dehumanise the wearer, making it psychologically easier for them to perpetrate acts of violence against others, and to have those acts perpetrated against them.

In the context of the MCU’s gritty street hero shows, this feels particularly important. It fits with the moral decline and isolation we see in Daredevil, Electra and the Punisher. When they put on costumes, they set aside their humanity to take up the fight. The fact that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage haven’t done so is fitting, given that they’re more in touch with their humanity and other people.

This may be me reading my own interests into the show, rather than the intention of the show runners, but then stories only become complete in the minds of the audience.

The Terror of Blood Trails

Ever since watching The Untouchables in my youth, wide blood trails left by crawling characters have always filled me with dread. Every time I see them I feel the tension of the scene where assassins come after Sean Connery’s character, which at the time was one of the grittiest, tensest things I’d ever seen. I still think there’s something powerful and horrible about a messy blood trail left by an injured character crawling. Their pain is written across the ground in a way you don’t get with blood spatters. When I saw that in this show, it hit me harder than any other moment of violence.

The Slow Build of the Weird

The creators of Daredevil are being careful in the way they bring in strange and supernatural elements, building them ever so slowly out of the mundane. It’s a technique I’ve noticed in horror, in both David Tallerman and V H Leslie’s stories. It makes the implausible more plausible. It works well here.

Orientalism

One of the unfortunate aspects of Daredevil is that it reflects the west’s longstanding attitude towards Asia, and in particular east Asia, as a land of the exotic and dangerous. This season is rammed full of shallowly written oriental villains, without sympathetic characters of Asian descent on the other side. In isolation this would not be a problem, but in the context of modern culture it perpetuates a trope that’s very troubling when people are pointing with growing fear at Iran, North Korea and China. If, as some people hoped, Iron Fist had been cast as an Asian character, then the MCU’s street character team could have balanced this out. As it is, it left a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

In Conclusion…

Even a flawed Netflix Marvel show is still a superior superhero show. Daredevil isn’t as brilliant as Jessica Jones, but it’s still a good show, worth your time if you like superheroes or gritty drama. I just hope they pull their socks up for the next season, because season two could have been amazing, and instead it became sloppy.

Spartacus: Blood and Tolerance

The Spartacus TV show was never going to be for everyone. It’s a maelstrom of brutal violence, cartoonish gore, nudity, sex and imaginative swearing. Almost anything that could offend a person is here.

Everything except intolerance.

Only one thing is certain with this show - that loincloth won't be staying on for long.
Only one thing is certain with this show – that loincloth won’t be staying on for long.

The world of Spartacus is full of inequality. Class, gender, and wealth all affect people’s chances in lives. It’s the story of slaves and masters, underclasses and overlords. Inequality drives the action.

But you don’t see much of the intolerance that accompanies it in our society. Nobody is judged, either by the producers or by the characters, for their skin colour or sexuality. Gay relationships are treated no differently from straight ones. The cast is mostly white, but the characters never comment on the presence of people of other colours. When race comes up it’s about region of origin – whether someone is a Gaul, a German, a Syrian, a Roman – and even on the lips of the most vicious characters it seldom carries the implication that one group is inferior to another.

I think this ties into a broader moral underpinning of the show, and one that’s surprisingly forward looking for a production that plays to our basest pleasures. Spartacus is very open about sex and violence. We see full frontal nudity, both male and female, displayed with casual ease. We see sex, straight and gay, in a range of different forms, whether it’s about love, fun, power, or something else. We see violence as something horrifying yet strangely fascinating, and are sometimes exposed to the scars it brings, both physical and emotional.

I’m not trying to hold up Spartacus as some shining beacon of modern television. But as I work my way through the fourth and final season it’s providing me with a lot of food for thought, not just insane spectacle. I can’t help thinking that, despite appearances, its heart is in the right place.

If you haven’t watched it already and aren’t put off by gore and nudity, then I totally recommend Spartacus. For folks in the UK, it’s now all on Netflix.