Star Wars and the Road to Nihilism

We’re going to talk about The Simpsons in a moment. But not yet.

Also, be warned that this post does contain spoilers for both The Simpsons and The Last Jedi.

Now that you’re intrigued by the notion of a cartoon series nearly a quarter century old tying in to a sci-fi franchise approaching twice that age, let’s turn to talk about The Last Jedi and why Disney decided to stop making Star Wars movies and start making Spinning You Wheels in Space.

I’m not going to lie. I really enjoyed watching The Last Jedi, more than I actually expected to based on the last two films in the franchise. It’s got some really fun and exciting ideas packed into it and the film hits a bunch of really high notes during its two hour plus run time. But it has a lot of really bad moments, too, and those can easily ruin the experience for viewers. But my biggest problem is that the nature of the Star Wars franchise has veered off course. For all his flaws, George Lucas kept his eyes firmly one idea – he wanted to tell a story about the fall and redemption of a man. The theme of seeking redemption runs all throughout the first six episodes of the Star Wars saga. Qui-gon seeks to redeem an aging order of Jedi when he brings in Anakin as fresh blood. Jango Fett seeks redemption for a life of violence when he asks the cloners to make him a son. Leia seeks to redeem the altruism locked away in the selfish heart of Han Solo. R2-D2 seeks to redeem C-3PO from his own cowardice and myopic worldview. And, of course, Obi-Wan and Luke seek to redeem Anakin from Darth Vader.

The Last Jedi, in contrast, seeks to destroy the franchise. By its own admission.

Throughout The Last Jedi there’s a theme of destroying your attachment to the past to move forward. There is a time and place for this lesson but Rian Johnson has transformed this from a conditional step to be entered into with extreme caution into a necessary step for every aspect of life. In point of fact, the movie takes it so far that it endorses book burning as a good thing. Sure, when Yoda burns the tree the Jedi texts weren’t there – we find out later Rei had taken them. But Luke sure thought they were. And this book burning is supposed to be the good thing that triggers his final character evolution and his appearance at the climax.

Rian Johnson has fallen into the classic postmodern trap we discussed when talking about – you guessed it – The Simpsons.

A quick refresher if you don’t want to go back and read the full post. Postmodernism breaks down and subverts the metanarratives that define a cultural landscape, in this case the Star Wars franchise. The problem with it is that it doesn’t set any limits on what must be broken down and subverted, and thus when it finishes with all the other metanarratives in the cultural landscape it inevitably starts subverting itself. We see this in The Simpsons with its origin as a satire of the existing sitcom formula and its eventual self-destruction beginning in the episode “The Principle and the Pauper” when a well understood character and his all-important relationship with his mother was destroyed for the sake of a throw away gag. This slow decline has continued from that episode until today.

The Last Jedi marks the beginning of this kind of subversive decline in Star Wars. While there’s nothing wrong with subverting expectations – it’s the basis for humor, for example – it has to be done with purpose. As an end goal it serves very poorly and tends to result in bland, uninteresting stories that (ironically) all feel the same. Ask any Simpsons fan. But maybe you’re not convinced. You may be thinking, what things were so subversive in The Last Jedi?

I’m glad you asked.

The most significant sign of subversion in the story is Luke himself. We were expecting a sage and a teacher, one with the skills he honed in years of battle and the wisdom of decades of Force mastery. Luke barely teaches anything and wisdom left him long ago. The endless force for optimism, the man who recovered from losing his surrogate parents and his mentor in one week, who confronted Vader twice and learned to accept the fate of his father, who faced despair and in it found he had a sister, who could run the Death Star trench and remain humble – that Luke Skywalker is subverted into a man who screws up once in training a boy and runs away for the rest of his life, who can’t look past the flaws of the Jedi Order, who can no longer put together any kind of meaningful vision for the future and so seeks to take all he’s ever stood for to the grave. He can’t even decide if he should be the last Jedi or not. Yes, there are hints he might be turning up to tutor the Force sensitive slave kids on the planet with Casino Blando but that actually makes it worse – the subversion is already set up to be subverted again.

Luke isn’t the only thing subverted in The Last Jedi though. The story also introduces the very first incompetent commander for the heroes in the form of Vice Admiral Holdo. Now this particular subversion actually has a lot of potential. The Star Wars movies have never spotlighted a truly incompetent heroic leader before – at least, not one that didn’t bumble through by dumb luck like Jar Jar. Holdo flips the script. Her bad leadership causes growing discontent among her staff and results in their taking actions that waste time and resources not to mention triggers a mutiny. Pretty poor command performance. But she heroically sacrifices herself to ensure the rest of the group gets away and redeems her failures in a noble death.

Except not. See, nothing about the script suggests we’re supposed to see Holdo as incompetent. Instead, Poe’s actions are presented as silly and irrational, as if it makes total sense to sit on a ship in the middle of the least exciting chase in Star Wars history and wait on some kind of miracle save to materialize. We shouldn’t expect script writers to have a flawless grasp on military strategy but some research into leadership isn’t unreasonable. The full details could fill a book – and have! – but suffice it to say that leaders who share the details of their plans with followers tend to get better results than those who keep secrets and Holdo’s decision to withhold details from Poe thus makes no sense. Plus, Poe had the respect of the Alliance – you can’t lead a mutiny if you’re not respected by your peers – and would be the natural candidate to carry on the plan if something happened to Holdo. The fact that she doesn’t seem to have made any allowance for something happening to her before they reach their goal is another major moment of incompetence but, again, we’re not meant to see it as such. Instead, we get a lesson about trusting dear Leader. Leaders who expect blind trust in their dictates from followers aren’t leading military operations, they’re leading messianic death cults, which is exactly what Holdo’s gamble proves to be. The Last Jedi has unironically subverted good leadership with Jim Jones and that isn’t even the worst subversion in the film.

That honor belongs to Finn’s aborted self-sacrifice at the end of the film. The build-up to this moment is very well done and emotional and, in fact, if it hadn’t been interrupted I feel it would have been the moment in the movie people talked about whenever it came up. But instead Rose crashes into Finn’s speeder and nearly kills him trying to make sure he stays alive, then delivers a confused speech about how they need to fight for things they love rather than things they hate. This is the most blatant subversion of the film, replacing the heroic self-sacrifice we expect with a confused and meaningless rescue.

And it’s this last subversion that really proves that Johnson had nowhere to go with all his subversions, he just wanted to subvert. See, when subversion is done with a purpose the subversion makes sense, as in the hypothetical arc I gave Holdo just a moment ago. She makes bad decisions but still finds heroism at the end. A peerless war hero is replaced with a failed but still noble commander. (This idea is at the core of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Valiant”, see that for more details.) But the subversion of Finn’s sacrifice is muddled and incoherent.

Why would Rose “save” Finn only to put him in a situation where they should have been killed mere seconds later? They were still under the First Order’s guns. If self-sacrifice is so foolish after all, why was Holdo’s sacrifice portrayed as noble? And how was Finn not fighting for the things he loved in the form of his friends among the rebels? He already fought and killed the things he hated when he tangled with Phasma earlier on the flagship. Rose didn’t seem to object to it then.

These aren’t the only cases of subversion in the film but they are definitely the most prominent and most clearly indicative of how confused this script is. They deconstruct the heroes, leadership and heart of the original films and replace it with purple haired messiahs and book burning puppets bent on destroying the past so they can replace it with muddled platitudes they clearly haven’t thought through. Some of these ideas are actually pretty good. I loved it when Luke said that the notion of the Jedi equaling hope for the galaxy was arrogant. But even these good ideas have the legs cut out from under them by a failure to think them through. After all – Luke’s so worried about the Jedi causing evil in the universe by their existence, but the idea that letting the Jedi die out equaling an end to those evils is equally arrogant. Disappointment all around, it seems.

It’s not that the film wasn’t fun. For all the cracks forming in the franchise’s foundation is hasn’t collapsed yet. But while I enjoyed The Last Jedi the whole time I could hear the franchise collapsing. No, none of the old films were perfect. But they told a tale about how, no matter how bad things looked, some good could be found and built into a new day. But now Disney asks us to put all that aside and trust blindly that, once they’ve burned away everything, bad and good, they’re make something new.

Well, frankly my faith in the Mouse is not strong enough to trust that Kool Aid and I’m not that interested in stories that prefer scorched earth over redemption either. Star Wars isn’t beyond saving but the path it’s on leads to very dark places. Just as any fan of The Simpsons.

2017 wasn’t a great year for scifi fans but it did mark the 50th anniversary of one of the genre’s landmark shows – a high point in the genre that could use revisiting. So come back next week and join me as we start a look at Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future.

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Postmodernism, Metanarratives and The Simpsons

A while back, when I wrote about creativity, I made a passing mention to postmodernism, a philosophy that had, and still has, a huge impact on the cultural landscape of the last fifty years or so. I thought it might be a good idea, at some point, to put out a few words on what postmodernism is, how it’s shaped culture and what seems to be happening to it today. Since it is such a big part of our media today understanding exactly what it is and what it’s doing, and how we can take advantage of it to make our own stories better.

Let’s start with the basics. Postmodernism is a philosophy that specializes in breaking down and analyzing metanarratives. What is a metanarrative? In short, Joseph Campbell.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces is the magnum opus of a writer and mythologist named Joseph Campbell and in it he describes the narrative arc of the typical mythological hero and what that narrative arc means symbolically. This foundational narrative arc, the hero myth, is a basic metanarrative. I’m not planning on running through how the hero myth works in general, that’s outside the scope of our discussion (but more on it in a few weeks). What’s important is that this metanarrative embodies a certain idea, namely that going out of what’s familiar, struggling and overcoming, then returning to make your home a better place is an admirable way of life, something that people – and in it’s original codification, men in particular – should aspire to do.

The catch to postmodernism is that it doesn’t stop with breaking down metanarratives. Another component of postmodernism is that it interprets them as deliberately benefiting those that tell them at the expense of others and then tries to dismiss them using irony, satire or other methods that trivialize them. In the case of the hero myth postmodernism would likely characterize it as an attempt to prop up some kind of masculine hegemony by idealizing the man who goes out and overcomes obstacles as the heroes of society.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was common for heavily plot driven TV shows to introduce some kind of conspiracy theory that sought to spin cover stories for events and hide their true meaning from the public. The X-Files and Heroes both did this, for example, as did The Golden Compass in YA literature. These are classic postmodern devices. The people who set up these conspiracies hide the truth from the rest of the world so they can manipulate the public to their advantage.

While this idea that everyone is using you is one of the biggest appeals of postmodernism; stories where that’s the basic premise quickly boil down to a trite “be yourself” and end with the protagonist leaving whatever group he conformed with before and quickly conforming to whatever group he joins up with. Hardly the stuff of greatness. Instead, we must look someplace surprising for the greatest triumph of postmodern media.

We need to take a few minutes to discuss The Simpsons.

I’m not an expert on this show. I’ve watched maybe two full episodes and caught parts of others. Much of what I’m going to say is lacking in nuance. But I think I’ve got the core of the idea and it does seem to carry a lot of postmodernism in it.

The late 1980s and 1990s featured a lot of really wholesome sitcoms with a narrow focus on single families and the things that happened to them. The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Full House and Home Improvement were all examples of this basic mold: Reasonably well off family, educated and caring father present in the home, loving mother struggling to find a balance among all the things pulling her home in different directions, kids about average in school and dipping in and out of trouble as the plot demands. The metanarrative says that these families were the kinds of people you might know or even want to be like and ultimately, while it might not always be pleasant, it was more good than bad and you could make it work if you tried. The Simpsons… didn’t try.

Homer is stupid and uninvested in his family… until it looks like they might fall apart, then he puts in just enough effort to maintain the status quo. Marge keeps the family above water by being the voice of morality but said morality is never based on anything stronger than Marge herself. When she has breakdowns or is otherwise absent her regulating effect on the family vanishes. Bart rebels against authority but never learns or accomplishes anything by it. Lisa overachives but never finds satisfaction through it. The Simpsons family is the perfect rejection of the family sitcom metanarrative – watching The Simpsons is funny (arguably, I don’t find it laugh out loud funny and for me that’s the litmus test) but it’s not anything people really want to emulate. Or even have around them in real life. Rather than pushing postimodernism The Simpsons just is postmodern.

A lot of people loved The Simpsons in the early days of the show. Unfortunately almost everyone agrees that it has now “jumped the shark” or lost the spark that made it what it was. How this happened is interesting, as it’s a case study in why postmodernism doesn’t work as a way of life or creativity, even if what it does can be useful.

The Simpsons was a classic case of postmodernism. It deconstructed the prevailing metanarrative of happy, functional families in funny situations and gave us a new, fresh take on a dysfunctional but (debateably) funny family that was funny partly because of how it contradicted the prevailing metanarrative. After five or six years the entertainment landscape shifted and The Simpsons began to loose relevance. More shows were mimicking the way The Simpsons lampooned the old media landscape and the founding writers were beginning to run out of ideas to satirize the old sitcom formula with. Ultimately Family Guy would come along in 1999 and satirize The Simpsons by taking their format and stuffing it full off pop culture references and painfully drawn out gags that went nowhere to poke fun at the overly complicated and often absurdist gags The Simpsons relied on. The Simpsons had gone from deconstructing the metanarrative to being the metanarrative and new shows were deconstructing it in turn.

The Simpsons was breaking down before the first epsidoe of Family Guy. The inherent weaknesses of postmodernism came to full force in an episode of the eigth season called “The Principal and the Pauper”, in which the principle of the local elementary school, a well established character, had all his backstory thrown out the window when it was revealed the real principal had died in the Vietnam war and his identity was stolen by an army buddy. This is classic postmodernism – what you think is true is a façade manipulated by someone else for their own convenience and must be broken down so you can put your own façade in place. This not only happened with the Principal’s character but the show itself – by this point the original writing team was gone and new writers were asserting their own vision for the show with no regard to what others had done before.

Eventually Family Guy would eat The Simpsons alive, overtaking that show in the ratings and building a new formula that The Simpsons would mimick until the two shows inevitably crossed over because they had become indistinguishable from one another.

Postmodernism does something very useful for a writer. It teaches you how to break down the elements of a story and really understand what they are doing. But it also teaches you to view these story elements and their thematic import as inherently suspicious. Once idetified and broken down metanarratives must be replaced because they can only come to exist because those that created them were seeking to bend them to their own advantage. But a study of postmodern storytelling shows the fallacy in that thought – postmodernists build metanarratives of their own, as often as not without meaning to do so. This leads to a wild orgy of deconstruction and reconstruction that often winds up chasing its own tail until the stories become indistinguishable from one antoher and, very frequently, lacking nuance, depth or anything interesting at all, really.

We see this in the lifecycle of The Simpsons and how it intersected with other shows like Family Guy. We see it in the incredible slump of Marvel Comics as its books have leaned more and more on postmodern, deconstructionist characters and storytelling. We see it to a lesser extent in modern art and music, where rules of pleasing visuals and sounds are largely rebuilt over and over again instead of carefully passed on to the next generation.

The sitcoms of the 80s, while capable of great entertainment, were stuck in a rut and The Simpsons attempting to break out of that mold was a worthy goal. By the same token deconstructing metanarratives has a lot of value for the author and it can help you make stories fresh and relevant again. But when you do, consider that, once you know how that metanarrative works, it might be worth keeping in place so you can make it work like a well oiled machine rather than replacing it.