RIP Steven Furst, Babylon 5’s Vir Cotto

Let’s face it, science fiction television tends to attract some different actors than your traditional, bigger budget shows. Most of the budget on sci-fi shows will go to the special effects and keeping the damned thing afloat while it hemorrhages viewers. So it goes.

Yet, Babylon 5, with its limited budget and its mostly character actors that had zero real profile in Hollywood, put forth some amazing performances and really helped the characters to not just come to life, but to become some of the most memorable in the realm of science fiction.

One such actor was Steven Furst, whom has passed away. The man behind the modest, anxious and uncomfortable Vir Cotto was able to take a character that was simply an underling and make him feel like so much more. His struggles, his growth, the little bits of confidence or those rare moments when he chose to defy Londo or his people to do what he felt was right. Now what they told him was right, but what he had felt was the right thing to do.

The character popped and while the character grew into a more dynamic person, you couldn’t help but feel that Furst’s dedication to the role, his mannerisms, speech and vision for what Vir should be helped to drive that character.

So no, Vir didn’t have epic story arcs like Londo, Sinclair, Sheridan, Delenn or G’Kar, but if he wasn’t one of the most memorable parts of the show then I’ll be damned. Vir wasn’t a powerful man, he wasn’t the epic hero, but he was a guy that did his best for those around him and persevered to become the change that he wanted in the world, and Steven Furst helped to make that magical.

 

Former K-1 and GLORY Star Gokhan Saki Signs with the UFC

(note: not the standard fare for my site, but LiverKick is being worked on right now and this was too big not to talk about)

After months of speculation as to the future of former GLORY Light Heavyweight Champion Gokhan Saki, a strange Facebook post from Saki where he talked about signing his retirement papers from kickboxing to get out of his GLORY contract, to the cryptic statements on social media, there is finally an answer as to the future of “The Rebel.” That future is not in the kickboxing ring, but instead in the UFC Octagon. Weird, right?

Saki, 0-1 in MMA, has signed an exclusive contract with the UFC with no official debut date set yet, but his sights set on the September 2nd UFC event in Rotterdam. The timing and place all seem to make sense, but if it happens is another story altogether.

The former K-1 and GLORY star has notably been absent since his last fight in 2015, with there being a lot of talk of struggles with a knee surgery, recovery, weight-cutting and then contractual situations all keeping him from the ring. Of late he has been vocal about his disdain for GLORY Heavyweight Champion Rico Verhoeven, with there being talk of a possible showdown between the two only for it to never materialize.

This is a rather heavy blow for the world of kickboxing, with Saki one of the last remaining stars from the K-1 World Grand Prix era of kickboxing who had just found a comfortable place at light heavyweight.

If you’ve been following his social media drama of late, there was talk of Saki’s Instagram being “hacked” and a countdown was appearing meant to “expose” Saki to the world. It was phrased in a way to make it seem like he was the victim of a malicious cyber attack but was sort of hard to believe. It all led to a video of Saki in a cage wearing a GLORY shirt before taking it off to expose a shirt with the UFC logo.

Truly a showman and that’s one of the many reasons why kickboxing will miss him.

O.J. Simpson and Donald Trump; or, How We Never Learned Our Lesson

When it comes to the convergence of popular culture and politics, there is no need to look further than the previous few years. America believed that an unqualified real estate mogul and reality television star was fit to be the President of the United States. That decision was based upon the sea of red hats with small, white block text, slogans, outbursts and high drama that played off of the emotions of his intended audience. The pageantry was able to blind people to what many have perceived as the sad reality; which would be that Donald Trump is a guy who inherited money and power, meaning that he is and always will be out-of-touch with the people that he pandered to. Yet, he appealed to their baser instincts, sold the con to them and here we are, in an age of uncertainty while his followers continue to spout off catchphrases and formulate theories about his opposition.

Somewhere along the line I made the fateful decision that I would watch American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson on Netflix. I’m not entirely certain why, but it was simply one of those knee jerk decisions one tends to make while mindlessly browsing on Netflix for some background noise. While I remember a lot about the OJ fiasco, including the trial, the pop culture fallout and OJ’s subsequent legal problems and jailing, but I never found much of a reason to revisit it, even this FX series that many have heaped praise on. Still, I turned it on, expecting it to be campy, ridiculous and something I’d turn off before the credits rolled on the first episode.

Instead I’ve found myself reliving the trial and the fanfare, all while aghast at the shocking parallels to our modern predicament that I was finding. The loose threads began to intertwine and form a tapestry that was impossible for me to not marvel at with each passing episode; The OJ Simpson trial and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign were hilariously similar.

Before you say it, yes, there are very, very obvious differences. The defense was able to weave a tale around a racist detective with a serious history of abuses, outbursts and violence against black people, this all happening after the LA riots over the Rodney King beating by the LAPD. To say that LA was a powderkeg in the 90’s would be an understatement, in fact, many were concerned about racial tensions reaching a head with the OJ case. But stick with me here.

The OJ Simpson trial was in 1995 and we haven’t learned a goddamned thing about the allure of celebrity or how hucksters can appeal to our raw, emotional sides to get us to react strongly to their narratives. OJ Simpson’s “Dream Team” was able to construct narratives of conspiracy, racial bias and everything else all without refuting or disproving the mountain of evidence that was collected to prove that OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

The prosecutors had assembled what was a logical case against Simpsons; one that felt like a “slam dunk” only for it to fall apart due to their “side” having a few bad apples involved all while the opposition spinning yarns to set doubt into the minds of the jury and the public, enough so that what was most likely a murderer walked free.

Does any of this sound familiar yet? Because it should. All of this because of the public’s distrust and frustration with a system that they found to be unfair while someone was able to take advantage of these emotions by painting their opposition as corrupt, uncaring and incapable of being fair or objective. This is exactly what the Trump campaign did to win the election, that’s why it should feel familiar.

Let’s look at the similarities.

The blinding allure of celebrity.

While no one can be certain if good ole’ Bob Kardashian really was the reluctant good guy like he was portrayed in the FX series, or if he somehow actually had the prescience to lecture his children on the perils of celebrity without virtue or that his family name would live on in part thanks to a rapper named Ray J’s junk is up for debate, but the rather ham-fisted attempt to look at the concept of celebrity makes an interesting point here. OJ’s main argument for his innocence was that he was OJ and that people loved him. He was OJ, he couldn’t have done that, right? It didn’t matter how much evidence there was, he was rich, powerful, well-known and beloved.

Donald Trump’s name alone speaks to people. Trump has his real estate ventures (even the ones that he simply licenses his name to), his steaks, his goofy hair, his lines of clothing or products only found in SkyMall and yes, his time on “The Apprentice,” catchphrase and all. This is a man who had been in millions of American homes for years, hammering in his gauche sense of class into the working class’s collective minds. I mean, this was the Miss USA pageant guy, this guy knew how to make investments, am I right?

Most of us look to Trump and see a lot of bluster and not much substance, but we also weren’t his target audience, either. His target audience knows his name, knows his brand and have stayed in his hotels, they bought his dumb hats, they repeat his catchphrases and consider him to be a successful businessman, even if he wasn’t. He’s said that he’s helped people, so of course he has, right? It’s a face that you can trust, just like OJ’s. OJ was in Lethal Weapon, he wasn’t a bad guy. Trump was at Wrestlemania, he can’t be a bad sport.

The champion of a disenfranchised people.

The show went out of its way early on to point out that OJ was a hero in the black community, but perhaps not as much before the trial as he was after, even if that was brief. OJ made a name for himself and left everyone behind, not looking back because he had made it on his own merits, everyone else would need to drag themselves up like he did. The defense was able to make him a more sympathetic figure all around, endearing him to the black communities that didn’t hold him up as a hero as one of their champions.

Much in the same vein, Donald Trump has never been the hero to the working class. Literally a man who spent his life in a gilded tower looking down upon everyone else, stories of his stingy interactions with the common people plagued him throughout his campaign. Still, he persisted to push that he was for them, even if history told a different story. Trump went from a New York elite billionaire to the hero of the disenfranchised white person almost overnight thanks, in part, to his campaign targeting these people and playing off of their very real fears and insecurities when it comes to job opportunities, healthcare costs and boogeymen ruining their lives.

So while the media found it offensive that he’d retweet white supremacists and not disavow support from David Duke, the disenfranchised white voters began to see someone who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty with these people, even if he claimed not to agree with them 100%.

An emotional plea.

Perhaps the most effective parts of OJ’s defense were the emotional pleas and grandstands that his legal team, headed up by Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro, were able to make. Playing off of his appeal to the disenfranchised and taking full advantage of his recognizable, heroic facade they were able to plant the seeds of doubt that a man as beloved as OJ Simpson could have committed a grisly murder. The signs were there, the evidence was there, but wouldn’t it make sense if a white cop who hated black folks wanted to see a prominent black man get taken down a notch?

The showmanship of the trial has been legendary, including the memorable moment where OJ Simpson was tasked with slipping on the famous bloody gloves only for him to put on a show, struggling with them and keeping his fingers spread out to act like the gloves didn’t fit him. “If it does not fit, you must acquit,” Cochran repeated in a refrain at the jury during his closing arguments. That moment has lived on far beyond the trial itself and will perhaps be studied for years to come as either ridiculous or brilliance (perhaps both) by legal scholars.

But they knew what they were doing. They appealed to a sympathetic audience that the LAPD was crooked and racist, that the system was rigged against black people and presented evidence that was at times compelling. Trump’s team, masterminded by white nationalist Steve Bannon and whatever the hell Reince Priebus is, made similar pleas to their audience. Telling people who perhaps didn’t fully believe in the concept of “white genocide” but hadn’t ruled it out yet that Mexicans coming over the border were rapists, job thieves and “bad hombres,” well, they were compelled to agree. Instead of being seen as a crazy, racist old man, they saw him rallying against the perception of “PC culture” that parts of the media had been hardening them against. You know the types, the ones who have been regaled with stories of participation trophies, Tinder and “safe spaces” running rampant (note: they aren’t) keeping them from having the America that THEY wanted. Those damned “social justice warriors” won’t let them call a spade a spade anymore, but Donald Trump, well, he was speaking his mind.

That apparently meant pushing nationalist agendas, painting entire swaths of Muslims and Mexicans as awful people who would look to undermine this great nation. If Johnnie’s refrain of “If it does not fit, you must acquit” won over the jury, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” spoke to people grieving over the loss of industry to nations paying pennies on the dollar to their workforce while corporate fatcats counted their profits while these people slipped further into opiate-dulled despair.

A white woman serving as “the man” while her sane counterpart falls to pieces.

It can also be noted that in both the OJ Simpson trial and the 2016 presidential election the opposition was a woman. While that may seem like a minor point, the realities that women face are still much different than that of a man. Marcia Clark’s personal life, wardrobe and hair choices became a matter of national attention, taking the LA prosecutor’s role and brushing it aside to judge her as a woman.

Much in the same vein, Hillary Clinton faced a lot of strange blowback because she was a woman. Perhaps Democratic Clinton die-hards pushed too hard against the disenfranchised Bernie supporters with concerns about her as misogynists (although, clearly, some were), but there was a lot of grief that went her way about everything from her pants suits to her “creepy grandma smile” became a matter of debate. Hillary represented the system that people didn’t trust in this election, much like Marcia Clark played the role of having to sidestep racist cop allegations (which were pretty much true in the case of Furhman) while the defense built an entire case around the LAPD being racist, with her as a stand-in for that organization.

As an aside, you could make the case of Christopher Darden playing the role of Bernie Sanders during this whole debacle; him being the loveable loser who sympathizes with the points of the other side, but still feels a moral obligation to see them thwarted.

A belief in the system turns a slam dunk into a failure.

A scene in the show during the jury selection procedure saw Marcia Clark talk about believing in justice, the system and the good of the people. Everyone within their department saw the mountains of evidence against OJ and saw the case as rather academic. Who wouldn’t? What they didn’t take into account was a team of lawyers and experts willing to do whatever it took to create narratives that would plant doubt into the minds of the jury to ensure that “reasonable doubt” was there when it came time for them to deliberate. The end result was jarring to most onlookers.

A Hillary Clinton victory seemed in-the-bag to most pundits and, well, the rest of the world. In fact, the lead-up to the election featured talk about how Trump wouldn’t concede to her victory and would fight the election results, not about what he’d do when he won. He whined and droned on about the system being rigged for weeks before that polls that all showed a certain Hillary Clinton victory were proven wrong. The thing is, polls don’t work if the people being polled are too ashamed to admit that they are voting for someone. So while SNL joked about just calling her “President Clinton” already and Trump’s chances looked slim, reality hit most of us pretty hard on election night when Trump broke away with the Electoral College and the numbers just kept coming in as in his favor.

They didn’t account for the emotional pleas, the theater and the catchphrases.

We’ve learned nothing.

To put it plainly; we, as a people, have learned absolutely nothing. Perhaps history will give Trump the same treatment that OJ has received, including him being sued for the wrongful deaths of Ron and Nicole later on and being sentenced to pay millions (which he never did), then OJ fleeing to Florida and laying low until he was arrested for a sports memorabilia assault and sentenced to 33 years in prison. So yeah, OJ probably did it and yeah, OJ wasn’t a good guy like he played on TV.

Will Donald Trump see the same just desserts, or will he somehow escape his four years without being impeached or found to be a criminal that many believe him to be? That remains to be seen.

What’s troubling, though, is that something from twenty years ago can feel this relevant and that people keep making the same mistakes when it comes to the idea of celebrity and trusting the man on television.

Yakuza 0 Is an Unrivaled Lesson in Character Development and Storytelling

When you think about videogames, most of the time character development and storytelling aren’t he first things that come to mind. That isn’t to say that videogames don’t focus on these things, because they do, but they tend to fail due to the compromises made for the medium.

Gamers like games to have a certain level of challenge to them, they like to accomplish something and advance not just a story or a character’s arc, but their own skill and in-game possessions. What this has led to is a rather stagnant world of games where “good guy with a gun” (yes, you can swap it out for good guy with a sword, etc.) is not only the norm, but the only standard to hold games to. If anything, it gets tired after a while.

Where Yakuza 0 varies from the formula might seem insignificant, yet while playing the game all I could think about was how refreshing it was. Sure, it’s from Sega and is essentially Shenmue with a bunch of yakuza tough guys over the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed naivety of Ryo Hazuki, but that doesn’t matter. Yu Suzuki wanted to tell the story of a young man’s coming of age story through a somewhat fantastical journey, while Yakuza doesn’t try to hide the frayed edges of its world.

In a lot of ways, both Kiryu Kazama and Goro Majima, the main protagonists, are kind of boring. Kiryu, especially, is devoid of much outside of his determination and fighting ability. There is more to Majima, but at the same time, they are both strong, talented and resilient fighters who are able to crush any-and-everyone who stands in their respective paths.

That, alongside the repetitive fighting system that provides thrills the first dozen times you perform a cool move, but wears off the next five dozen times, should be instant disqualifiers from this being a great game. Never mind the fact that it’s a barely upscaled PlayStation 3 game re-released on the PlayStation 4 with the main characters getting a texture upgrade. Yet, none of those things matter and it all rests solely on the shoulders of the wide array of side quests and the absolutely stunning writing.

So while Kiryu is your default young yakuza upstart and Majima is your fallen-from-grace yakuza, both have their own unique motivations that drive them forward and are shaped by the characters that they meet along the way.

There isn’t a single character that you encounter in either the game’s main story of the side quests that doesn’t deserve careful attention, which, in a way, is stunning. This game is dense and packed full of content, but nothing about it feels rushed or like there wasn’t careful thought put into it.

Most games and genre-content tend to fall into the same tropes when it comes to creating characters; some are good, some are bad and some are mysteriously in the middle, but not everyone will need to feel real. If a character isn’t pivotal to a plot thread or moving the main story along, who cares, right? Yakuza 0 laughs in the face of that and provides everyone with a compelling backstory, motivations and it makes the world and the inhabitants feel that much more important.

There was not a single enemy that Kiryu or Majima faced that after a knock down, drag out brawl left you walking away thinking that they were just a challenge to overcome. These were people and they were difficult not to feel for. Everyone in the game lives by a code of honor and ethics which can at times be at odds with their goals and aspirations. Those conflicts aren’t ignored, though, just to move the story along, instead they are fully explored and discussed to the point where an enemy can remain and enemy but you, the player, no longer want to see bad things happen to them.

kuze

There are characters like Kuze that seem like they are going to be run-of-the-mill yakuza movie tropes with their back tattoos, their cool shades and their raspy voices, but even the madman Kuze has a reason to do what he does. With every encounter you learn more and more about him, his struggles, why he became a yakuza and how he can desperately want revenge on a character, but if it would harm the family he wouldn’t dare do such a thing.

Everyone is both good and bad, while simultaneously being neither of those. There are a few characters who remain on a certain part of the spectrum, but even then, they are treated differently and almost with reverence for existing outside of this broken system of damaged boys playing like men.  One of my personal favorites would have to be one of the characters that perhaps had the biggest impact on Majima in Nishitani. Nishitani is a fucking madman who reminds me a lot of Tadanobu Asano’s Kakihara in Ichi the Killer, although I’d argue that there is a lot more of Nishitani to care about than there ever was for Kakihara.

nishitani

There are twists and turns throughout the story and yeah, you know that eventually Kiryu and Majima’s stories are going to intertwine with each other, but when they do it is masterful and not forced. Instead of the twists being eye-rolling, they were fun. The ones that you could see coming were usually ones that you didn’t want to believe and the ones that you couldn’t were your deepest fears. That is good storytelling.

So while it’s easy to get lost in the side quests, the cabaret or real estate minigames or a host of the other parts of Yakuza 0 that make it such a fantastic game, it’s the writing and depth that really takes it to the next level.

This game will frustrate you, make you laugh, make you cry and even make you proud at times — all of that because of the story and the characters. While there are many, many games that feature solid writing and storytelling, Yakuza 0 is perhaps one of the best examples of how not to compromise gameplay or storytelling to create a complete package.

Back on the Writing

Perhaps the most difficult part of fatherhood for me has been the time suck that it has been. Sure, it’s probably that we had twins and didn’t just have a singleton. I get that. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to hold back my disdain for the other new parents I see on Twitter and Facebook who are doing normal things with their lives.

I haven’t even seen Rogue One yet. Think about that.

But such is life, I wouldn’t trade my two little guys for anything in the world, even if it is exponentially more difficult to deal with twins. That’s not what I’m here to talk about though. Oh no. Instead, I’m here to talk about something absolutely magnificent that happened somewhere along the way; my kids sleep.

They sleep damnit, even if it isn’t always restful and I have to go in what feels like dozens of times a night (a dozen maybe, in reality) to put a pacifier in and soothe them, they sleep. No longer can I expect the regular disturbances throughout the night where they wake up screaming and need to be picked up, changed, fed, comforted and rocked back to sleep each and every time. This was happening at least once a night for each, always at different times, usually more than once for at least one of the kids. Probably Lennox. Yeah, Lennox.

But the best part about them sleeping is that suddenly I have time to work again. If you know me you know that I’m a workaholic, or at least I became one in the past few years. There wasn’t a day where I wouldn’t wake up, grab something to eat, then head into my office and start working. Occasionally I’d take a few days off here and there, but I am a creature of habit to a fault and this was my daily routine.

Since the kids were born that routine went into the trash. After Uproxx gave their part timers a boot my work time was whittled down to nothing. After Lori went back to work it was essentially I’d steal a few minutes here and there to throw up a post on LiverKick. That’s it. Even something simple as leaving the house and seeing other human beings became painfully difficult. The only time I’d get out would be Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays when I’d take Ichi to the vet to get fluids for his kidney disease. Think about that.

Now, I love my kids beyond how I ever imagined I could love and have greatly enjoyed watching them grow in their seven months of life, but it was starting to take a toll on my mental health. For me, writing was a way to clear my mind, to let off some steam and to keep my sanity. As soon as they were born I lost that and I steadily lost more and more of it until there was nothing left.

This is why the marvel of them sleeping has me so excited. In what has just been a little over a week of them sleeping I’ve gone back and worked on a revision that I’ve been really wanting to get to on what I suppose is my next book. As it turns out, I was incredibly close to being done with it, just needing to bang out 10,000 words, which I was able to do in a week’s time. Now I’m back at the editing stage again and it feels great knowing that I’m making progress in my work once again.

Now all I have to do is keep it up.

On Peaceful Protest, Violence as a Tool and Memes

A projected 3 – 4 million people participated in peaceful protests across the United States, largely comprising and organized by women to protest Trump and the dramatic swing of the pendulum to the right this past election. That makes it the biggest protest in American history and over the next few weeks there is going to be hand-wringing, pontification and high fives over the good it did, the bad it did and how “worthless” it was.

Truth be told, I’m overwhelmed. I’m happy, I’m proud, I’m sad that it was necessary, but at least there was a loud message sent to our country and the world that people aren’t going to simply take all of this sitting down.

The right, specifically the toxic alt-right, believe that their opposition is weak-willed, the gentrified consumer lemmings that do whatever Democratic leaders tell them to do. They’ve adopted what they consider the left’s tactics in normalizing their hate-filled rhetoric and helped to push the guy that they selected as their candidate into office. They don’t actually think that he’s great, but that he’s dumb enough to push their agenda for them.

The racist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic decided to do things the legitimate way; to normalize their behavior, use more refined language and more nuanced approaches to getting their way. Rest assured, their way is still wholesale terrible and all of the above awful things. They just want it to be legislation and they are patient enough to let it be a slow burn, to let lawmakers start off simple and build up to their white, christian utopia.

Over the past two days, while proud of the protests and horrified at what the President has done in his short time in office, one of the biggest news items has been notorious racist and white nationalist Richard Spencer getting decked in the face. Spencer, who created the National Policy Institute and coined the phrase “alt-right,” has worked to normalize strange racist ideals in the past few years, giving white supremacy a new face that comes in a suit, a tie, with an education, vocabulary and agenda that goes through legitimate channels as opposed to burning crosses and lynchings.

Rest assured, that underneath that slick veneer is a rotten person with a rotten agenda. What’s so infuriating about them is that they aren’t burning black churches or crosses, they aren’t even using the old standby racial slurs. They’re wrapping up their prejudices neatly in wrapping paper with a bow on it. But why are they doing this? Because they know it’ll work and they truly believe that the left won’t do anything about it. They know that it works because it was the left’s tactics in the first place. The left works its way through legislation, tries not to advocate for violence and is about a kinder, gentler approach. The left uses language, design and catchphrases to rally people to their causes.

So we have neo nazis without the swastikas doing press, talking about their cute, old french cartoon frog that has become a symbol for their racist agenda and they are flaunting it in everyone’s faces because who is going to do anything about it? If you silence them, you are a hypocrite, if you don’t allow them to tell their side of the story, you are obstructing their free speech. And clearly those pansy liberals would never, ever resort to violence, so yeah, they can stand on a street corner in front of people of color protesting with a smile on their face and talk about their racist agenda in front of television cameras without fear of reprisal.

That’s why that one punch was such a big deal. Clearly nobody wants to advocate violence here, nobody wants to start things down a dark path where escalation is the only end game and nobody is safe to express themselves anymore. The thing is, how can you not be frustrated right now? Hillary Clinton and the Democrats ran a campaign on phrases and concepts like “When they go low, we go high,” as well as the concept of giving Trump enough rope to hang himself. But it didn’t work. It didn’t work at all. The reason why is quite simple, actually; using logical, reasonable tactics against people who don’t care about the rules isn’t a winning tactic. These people are using the left’s own tools against them, but seeing better success because they aren’t doing it out of a place of genuine interest or belief, but out of malice. Racist, xenophobic people that would be called white supremacists during any other era have had their voice heard and through their reach on social media and traditional media to push a version of their message that on the surface doesn’t seem overly offensive. That message, though, is simply a starter kit that excludes a lot of the radical ideals, but leaves those interested with the desire to delve deeper into the ideology. they wan you to ask “the jewish question” and want you to read their incorrect statistics about people of color as being dangerous and a threat to white people and be outraged.

I hope that we don’t see more violence and I hope that things don’t escalate further, but Spencer is not a person to cry over and should be called for what he is; a nazi. Sure, he’s not wearing the uniform, he’s not wearing a swastika or goose-stepping, rifle-in-hand. Instead, this is what we are contending with.

“Hail Trump.”

And he’s getting media attention. A lot of it, but chances are that most people didn’t know who he was before this punch. While the press that he has received should be chilling, it’s not to everybody. That’s what’s scary. You should be scared of these people. They are more than just trolls on Twitter, that racist guy leaving anonymous comments on articles on your favorite news site or your weird, shut-in uncle.

Yeah, violence is bad, but can you really blame people for being frustrated right now? For feeling helpless while watching these figures rise to prominence? That punch sent a message, loud and clear to these people, making it a symbolic gesture of resistance. So while most of us aren’t going to throw a punch, there might always be that one guy that does and he does not give a shit what you think about him, what you think about violence or the nuanced arguments against it. He just wants to cold-cock a nazi.

Because while violence is not always a great solution and Richard Spencer has the right to speak his mind, he’s done so without fear of repercussions and now, perhaps, he’ll think twice about it. The chances of him and his followers using this as a chance to martyr him has already began, but in the internet age something else has happened, something magical and delightful; he’s become a meme. The alt-right that swept up young, disgruntled white boys with their memes has fallen into memedom. He’s become a joke and the people who didn’t know who he was before know who he is now; they know that he’s been up to some stuff and that he’s dangerous. While he has mostly operated in the shadows, he’s public now and he’s the laughing stock of the country.

Because, at the end of the day, remember what this guy represents and what he wants to do. There is a time and a place for moral victories, but moral victories are what led us to where we are today. Eventually someone has to get their hands dirty to ensure that these people don’t grab more power. No, violence isn’t always the answer, for now it has made us openly discuss and acknowledge that these people exist and need to be stopped. It’s time to stop calling them “white nationalists” or any other coded language and just call them what they are; nazis.

So while people are trying to talk about freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the moral high ground, remember that crappy people who represent bad things exist. Make no mistake, these people represent all of the terrible things that you could imagine. Don’t let the faux-intellectualism fool you. Their end game is no different than past hate groups like the KKK, Nazis, Neo Nazis and everyone else in between, they just know how to present it better.

There is a culture war going on and the racists want you to feel bad for them. Personally, I don’t feel bad that a racist got punched in the face while being a racist in public. If you consider that a moral failing, that’s fine with me. You can take the high road all you want, but at some point, someone is going to have to make the difficult decisions and not walk away with a moral victory because all of those big moral “wins” haven’t meant shit for us in a long, long time.

The next few years are going to be difficult, but this weekend has shown that we’re in store for some interesting resistance and some frustrating discussions and arguments that’ll carve out our future.

Fuck Scallops; or, Monsters of Rage and The Death Throes of a Lifetime of Inadequacy

There I sat, all alone in the dark kitchen, at that black-stained round table, sitting in my usual chair facing the wall, tears streaming down my puffy cheeks. The table was cleared, the area surrounding my plate showed concentric circles from where the sponge had scrubbed away the remnants of dinner and the dishwasher was running to the left of me. Gentle thumps and bursts of water were the only noises that could be heard outside of my sniffling and sobbing.

In front of me sat the same white plate with the cornflower blue design on it that was there two hours prior; on it was a collection of small, beige pencil erasers sitting in some form of goop. Scallops they’re called, seafood that was common in the New England area and for some reason my parents ate regularly. To me, they were pencil erasers, tasting like them dipped in ammonia, with a similar texture only with added slime, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t eat them.

“Mom?” I cried, hoping that my meek, tear-soaked voice would carry down the narrow hallway into her bedroom so that she could hear me and free me from my prison. “Can I go to bed now?”

“Not until you clean your goddamned plate,” she snarled back. Some might imply that memories distort with time; that the good ones become sweeter while the darker ones become more ominous and twisted. The vividness of this memory has stuck with me for the entirety of my life, although I’m unable to say exactly what year it was, what month or what day it was. The actual details of that memory are crystal clear.

My father was at work, he worked second shift at a factory that manufactured seals for airplane parts. To this day I’m not exactly sure what that means or why anyone would want these parts from an outside company and not just manufacture them in-house, yet it was what he spent the entirety of his life doing. That meant that he wasn’t home, or if he was, he was passed out after a few drinks on the couch. To say that my memories of my father for the first fifteen years of my life are foggy would be an understatement, I’ve reflected on this many times since I myself became a father; about how I wanted to be there for them no matter what, how I didn’t want to be missing.

Part of what hurt so bad when he was missing was that he was never there to protect us, to see what we were going through. There were plenty of times when it felt like my sister and I needed to be saved, like we needed a rational voice to be an advocate for us in the face of our terror. Sitting there, in that chair, with a plate full of scallops was one of those times.

All of it was a part of an intricate game that unfolded throughout my youth where I was a much-maligned picky eater; a source of frustration and anger that only compounded all of the other parts of an already difficult home life. No child wants to be in trouble, and I didn’t want to displease my parents or make them upset, yet there I was, on almost a nightly basis having these same events unfold. The problem was, this food really wouldn’t go down. The smell, the texture, the taste and everything about them made everything in my body tremble, elevated my anxiety to a different level and made me feel even worse about myself. I’d try to eat, but my body would reject it, my stomach clenching, my throat not letting it past its defenses.

So I tried. I tried because it felt like it was all my fault, like I was a terrible child. I, the one that my mother would openly call her “favorite” in front of my sister, was the problem at dinner time. Throughout my young life I had learned to work around my mother’s idiosyncrasies. Today they’d be categorized — justifiably so — as abuses, but back then everything was squishier, less clear and the age of Reaganomics, MTV and our ignorant Catholic-guilt-ridden New England culture meant that it was all justified.

The young me tried to parse these events, to rationalize them and compartmentalize them into logical obstacles that I needed to simply overcome. Many of these events have been tucked away into the deep recesses of my subconscious, or remain foggy shipwrecks that will never be explored. Perhaps for the better.

Some memories were clear, though, like this one. This was one of the few, along with the time I was in my bedroom, needing to go pee while my mom watched a movie, and knew that she didn’t want to be disturbed after bed. We were to call downstairs and ask permission to go to the bathroom. Somehow, the idea was that children don’t want to sleep and instead just want to pester their parents to the point of insanity. Her answer broke whatever hope that I had left of being safe that night.

“No, hold it.”

But I couldn’t hold it. I had been holding it, sitting there at the edge of my bed, legs crossed and wiggling, writhing with guilt that I had to disturb her. So I had waited, waited for a time when the movie was softer, waited until she had cooled down from her last outburst and found what I thought would be the perfect moment. Instead, “No, hold it.”

So, deeply ashamed of what I had to do, I gathered up a handful of tissues and laid them out on my ugly, mustard yellow carpet, pulled my pants down and peed as neatly as I could on the tissues before balling them up and throwing them in the garbage can in the corner. All throughout this I was crying, an anxious mess that she’d find out and hit me, that she’d call me names or worse.

These weren’t unfounded fears, but from experience. Experience like that time when my sister discovered a spider in the backseat of the car when we were riding somewhere and began to cry. This was too much for my mother to handle. At her wits end, she screamed and shouted for my sister to stop, to cut it out or she’d pull over and leave her on the side of the road. My sister, no older than four or five at the time, continued to cry over her very real fear of spiders and my mother pulled the car off to the side of the road. She jumped out of the car, opened up the door, unbuckled my sister’s safety belt and yanked her by the arm out of the car, dragging her to where the fence was on Strawberry Field Road in Warwick. I kept my head down as the backdoor slammed shut, she got in and drove off. I felt like I was going to explode, gently sobbing to myself, afraid to even sniffle as to see what would happen next. Would I ever see my sister again?

“You can’t leave her,” I cried. “Please, go back.”

She did, eventually, but there was a lesson that had to be learned. None of this seems to compute with her to this day, we don’t talk and haven’t really since 2001. Last I heard, her explanation was ridiculous, along the lines of “I know you were upset that I ‘Smother mothered’ you and all…” A convenient fabrication of something that I can never remember saying that at least can help her live with herself, a lie that helps her get through her day as opposed to actually dealing with why she isn’t a part of my children lives or mine.

But back to that night, where I’m sitting there, at the table, once again a crying, blubbering mess of a chubby boy who was just screamed at for something that I literally had no control over. A lone scallop sat dangling from my fork, impaled on one long prong and looming ominously in front of me. There would be no help, no reprieve or understanding for me, so I did what I had to do and I put it in my mouth. Immediately things felt wrong, the taste hit my tongue and drove my body to recoil, the texture made it nearly impossible to chew without feeling rubbery and there it was, my gag reflex. In a heartbeat I was vomiting a somewhat clear, sticky fluid, it pouring out and burning on the way up like only stomach acid could, splashing onto my plate and all over my would-be dinner.

“Mom,” I grumbled. “I threw up.”

“I don’t fucking care,” she stomped out of her bedroom in her mocassin slippers and nightgown, the way that she stomped when she had truly lost it, those times when violence wasn’t just a threat, but inevitable. The metal heating grates in the hallway clanged and popped while she stomped over, the hallway that just moments earlier had felt immense was all of a sudden far too small to let me prepare. “I’m sick of this shit, and you are going to eat that!”

The blow never came to me, but I winced just the same, her fist slamming down against the table by the white ring that sat just off the center from the time a casserole dish was on the table without a towel underneath and burned straight through the cheap finish. My dish clanked on the table, the puddle of my sticky vomit dancing on the plate along the small, rubber ammonia erasers while the jets of the dishwasher whirled around.

There I sat, crying, shamed, covered in my own vomit and feeling like less-than-dirt, and I sat for hours. She had slammed her door shut hours prior, but I didn’t dare get out of that chair, didn’t dare sneak up to my room because of fear of reprisal. So hours passed before I mustered up the courage to empty my plate into the trash, rinse my plate and slink off to bed. No, this was not the beginning of my complicated relationship with food, but perhaps was the impetus to shut me off from the world for ages to come.

Reading a book about picky eaters has brought this all rushing back to me, reminded me of a lot of these complicated childhood memories of food, inadequacy, the fear, anxiety and violence that came along with them. Imagine that after almost 34 years you read someone saying, finally, “You aren’t crazy, you weren’t crazy, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” It took that long to hear that, to not feel shame that it took me almost 30 years to start eating spinach, or that eating out at new places or at someone else’s house has sent me into panic attacks in the past.

Obviously, the issues in my childhood go deeper than just food, but there are so many memories that are linked with food, spanning throughout most of my life. From the ones with my mother, to my step mother snidely remarking to my sister that she should get some cake now, because her brother was just going to eat the whole thing, all while I was standing right there like I was somehow subhuman garbage. We’ve made our peace and I’m happy to have her in my life now, I appreciate what we’ve gone through together and all that she did to make my father so happy in the final ten years of his life, but things weren’t always easy. These memories stretch into adulthood, even being misunderstood by people that have meant the most to me, forcing me to obscure most of my issues or at least downplay them.

Yet, here I am. Always trying, always evolving, always wanting to do better. I have a much better understanding now, but most importantly, I’m able to say that it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. All of this I want to do not just for me, but for my children as well. There are times when I feel overwhelmed, when I can feel that rage boiling over inside of me, the bile that flowed through my mother’s veins invading mine.

Everyone has that fear of turning into their parents and in my weakest moments, the ones where I snarl at the dogs for barking and waking the kids up, or when I need to leave the room because both kids are screaming crying at what feels like absolutely nothing while I haven’t slept in 32 hours to gather myself and take a few deep breaths I’m afraid. I’m not afraid like I was as a child, but I’m afraid of my children being that child. I’m afraid that what lurked inside of my mother is also inside of me; a monster that nobody wanted but is always laying in wait, triggered by the drop of a hat.

I know that I won’t let it, just like I won’t miss these important parts of their lives, but it’s all there and it’s all real. But just as real is the pride I feel when I see my boys gulp down everything from peaches, pears and bananas to green beans, sweet potatoes and mashed peas. Because that’s what matters, that’s what’s real; wanting to do better for my kids and to make their lives better than mine was. If there comes a time when something repulses them, I’ll understand, just like I’ll try my best to understand other issues that are bound to arise and just like I won’t let that latent rage monster consume me and destroy lives like it tried to destroy mine.

A Playlist For the Apocalypse

So here we are, no longer at the precipice of something awful, but fully immersed in it. No, the world didn’t end and yes, the sun still rises everyday, but we’ve gone backwards.

That sneaking existential dread that many of us felt as this election approached was well-founded. The next few years are going to be interesting, but most importantly, those of us that care need to do more than just be upset. As an artist I’m going to do my damnedest to just create, to make sure that I do my part in contributing towards the positive.

All of this has me listening to music and wanting to share it, so here is my late night playlist of existential dread.

Prince – Avalanche – From One Nite Alone and is one of those times when Prince traded in talking about the physical or spiritual to talk race. The few times when he took the gloves off to discuss race it felt important.

Neurosis – Stones From the Sky – Perhaps one of those songs that helped to best define my 20’s. Neurosis always understood that feeling that something was wrong with the world and how the hell do we cope with it. “You’ve been shown, over and over, don’t you know?”

Neil Young – Rockin’ in the Free World – Do I even need to explain this one?

Kyuss -Whitewater – A lot about what appeals about music to me is the feel. The idea of creating something that through music and lyrics (even without delving into the meaning behind the words) can evoke a strong feeling. This is that.

David Bowie – Man Who Sold the World – Truthfully, I’m not a huge fan of this album. It’s okay, but not his strongest by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, this song feels relevant to now.

Pink Floyd – In the Flesh – Perhaps the easiest connection to Trump is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Not only does Donald want to build a literal wall to keep “Mexican rapists” out, but it’s easy to make parallels between this very personal look into being famous and building up emotional walls to keep everyone from hurting you.

In The Flesh is, well, the culmination of that insanity and shows a lot of the fears that many of us have of what Trump means to people manifesting itself in truly shameful ways. “Are there any queers in the theater tonight? Get them up against the wall.”

Night Terrain – American Dream – Well what the hell, I can be proud of my own stuff here and there, right? Not only am I dashingly handsome, but I can play guitar pretty well. I’m proud of this song and all of the work we put in to make it what it was and say what it said.

maudlin of the Well – Geography – Written through lucid dreams and astral projection, it’s hard not to love maudlin of the Well. Bath is a concept album about giving a kid a bath, but not really. “Your art is like your grin. It delivers me.”

David Bowie – It’s No Game (Part 1) – “To be insulted by these fascists, it’s so degrading.”

I chose part one because part one is still raw and angry, while part two is resigned and subdued.

Seasons Change; or, Neoliberalism, White Nationalism and the Brooding Hero Doldrums

Tracking change in one’s self can be a bit of a stumbling block at times. How can I know when I’ve underwent a change? Is there any sort of clear sign that I’ve changed directions, or is it much more subtle that one day I wake up to find myself unsure of many of the ideas and things that I held dear previously? This is something that I’ve been grappling with on both a personal and professional level of late.

Personally because of the birth of my two boys, professionally because personal growth is linked directly with growth and change as a writer. Not only have I focused on some of the holes in my writing, but story concepts and what I tend to focus and and treat as important has changed drastically. This year has been quite a year for a lot of this change considering that it’s an election year and perhaps one of the oddest, most contentious that I’ve seen in my life thus far. 

Breaking things down to simply “liberal” or “conservative” feels crass to me, because there’s so much more to life than either A or B, and there always has been. When it comes down to it, do I favor one side? Absolutely, but this election in particular feels a lot less about that binary choice and instead an ideological landmine. The one side of the coin represents the resurgence in neoliberalism, which may indeed have some merits and shared concepts with the core of liberalism, but a lot of deviance from the core tenants and things that I surely don’t support. The other represents a whole plethora of things which is almost difficult to unwrap at times.

Voting for one side means letting corporations continue to reign supreme in this the age of Late Capitalism, but it also means continuing important social services, the rights of women, people of color, LGBTQA+ people, religious folk outside of Christians or Jews and many, many other things. On the other hand, it also means that the war machine will have no end in sight and siding with what has proven itself unable to defend off the claims of being “crooked” because, at their core, they are simply working a system that is broken much like many before them, but they know that most of it is shitty.

I can’t even fathom diving into everything about Donald Trump. No, not all Trump supporters are overall-clad hillbillies looking to lynch anyone different from them while waving the Confederate flag and blasting off their guns. At the same time someone like Trump has an appeal to people who feel marginalized and underrepresented, sick of things getting worse (at least for their perception) and who yearn for the days of old, where America was a nation of producers and not simply consumers and servicepeople. It’s the people who watch South Park and see the P.C. Principal and say, “Yeah! Why can’t I say what I want?” and entirely do so without irony or empathy towards other human beings. It’s the people who may not be overtly racist, bigoted or xenophobic, but can’t understand how life is for people other than themselves. We all live in the same country, right? We all have the same opportunities and live under the same laws, right?

At least to me, those are very, very flawed lines of thought and ignore the hardships that people outside of the white, middle class have experienced. If America is to be a great place, it needs to be a place of understanding and opportunity, even if it means that us white guys might find ourselves making concessions and that life might be a bit more difficult. No, I don’t have the same boundless opportunities that my grandfather or even my father had and no, my college education didn’t give me a step up over anyone (even though it was drilled in my head that it would) and that’s okay. The reality is that there are people that are just as smart, driven and talented as myself out there who haven’t been given as fair of a shake as I have; women, people of color, people of different religions or sexual orientation and that’s a bummer.

So while you might be wondering how this diatribe on modern politics links up with my own personal and professional growth, I’m getting there. Like I said before, I’ve got two kids to worry about now and the world is a weird place, which has caused me to do a lot of self-reflection. Part of caring for kids is watching TV. As much as most of us who have kids would like to pretend otherwise, feedings are tedious and not that interesting affairs that involve sitting in one place, holding a bottle and running through mechanical motions. There’s also the fact that after they go to sleep the idea of just how daunting and exhausting the whole thing is creeps up on my subconscious. After re-discovering the soundtrack to the show Cowboy Bebop I decided to repurchase the show in a digital, HD format and watch it again. That show meant a lot to me at one point in my life (or perhaps it was just the soundtrack) and I was wondering if it held up.

It didn’t.

Now wait, before you decide that I’m the worst and that Cowboy Bebop was awesome, hear me out. The whole show is essentially based on the whole idea of the lonesome, stoic hero and his journey of self-discovery, badassdom and his feeeeeeelings. The thing is, in retrospect, it’s not all-that deep and was just a kind of fun show about kung fu, spaceships, guns and dysfunctional people in ridiculous situations. A character like Spike may have appealed to a younger me, a loner me who felt disenfranchised and lost in the world, but for adult me it feels so alien. I have a family now, I have concerns beyond being some sort of complicated man who broods and tries to appear deeper than I really am. The episode where Spike confronts Vicious in the church at one point felt meaningful to me, now it just seemed comical. 

But that song, right? At least I still have Yoko Kanno, I guess.

This kind of reflection can be a bummer, but also enlightening. I’ve been working on diversifying a lot of what I write and trying to not only appeal to broader audiences, but to tell more interesting stories. The book that I’m working on was fun, but sort of derivative. That was kind of the point, but really, it was another story about another loner of a man living in a cruel world with a bone to pick. If Max Rockatansky could take a backseat to Imperator Furiosa to break the doldrums of the silent, cool hero, I could do that in my work as well. That meant taking a lead character that in a lot of ways was built off of the archetype of the Clint Eastwood/Mad Max mold, and shifting focus away from him.

I began the story over 12 years ago and picked it up as a bit of a vacation from my other books, then got wrapped up in it. Along the way I decided to add other characters to share the stage with their point-of-view, but he was still very much the focal point. That all changed when one day I was sitting there, staring at a revision of one of his chapters and said “Why am I focused on him at all?” The truth was, I had no idea. My favorite character wasn’t some heroic badass, it was the female engineer who had a complicated relationship with a rather simple, brutal idiot of a man.

So I decided to scrap his chapters, but keep him as a driving force of the action. He still exists, his badass fights and one-liners are still there, but seen through a different character’s perspective. So while he might be pushing the plot along, the story has morphed from a tale of sordid revenge and nihilistic views on humanity to the strength of a few people to survive the worst of conditions in a cruel, unforgiving world. The thing is, I enjoy this so much more and it has been a paradigm shift of my work of late.

For years the whole male power fantasy has been something for me to deride, but now I’ve finally found a way to write action without getting lost in those concepts. It also shows in what I consume now when it comes to media and art. Books like Daniel Abraham’s “Dagger and Coin” series have become far more interesting to me than the stuff that I used to read. I mean, it’s a book series that yes, features a brooding merc of a man with a complicated past who does heroic stuff, but it’s not his story, instead it’s the story of Cithrin, an orphan girl who was adopted by a banker at a young age who found her own path in a war-torn world through cunning over violence. It’s also very much about a chubby nerd who has a power fantasy, gets that power, but only to those looking from the outside, with him a prisoner in his own sad life and the pawn of the men who stood behind him in the shadows.

That’s the kind of stuff that we need more of, not the brooding hero with the murdered wife and kid being lost in the world. We’ve heard that story before and while it might resonate with a younger male, there’s enough of that for them already.

In a way, it’s very similar to why the new Ghostbusters movie wasn’t some awful affront to good taste that ruined childhoods. In fact, it was a fun movie that poked fun at itself and took a goofy concept that people grew up loving and put its own stamp on it. Sure, it was a remake/reboot in a world with too many of them, but if that movie alone has destroyed your childhood you are far more fragile than the people you jab at for being “SJWs” or whatever.

As much as I love Blade Runner, it was a simplified, overstylized adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep with a ton of the meat of the story cut out in lieu of beautiful, futuristic wide shots and for Harrison Ford to brood. I, Robot became a Will Smith summer blockbuster with zero real understanding of Asimov’s laws of robotics or what made his stories compelling. What I’m saying is; get over it, you aren’t special.

I’m not saying that I am, either, I’m just a guy that chooses to write about it all.

The Low Stakes and Lack of Emotional Connection of Westworld

On this here blog I posted reviews of Westworld episode one and two, with the intent of continuing forward and doing those weekly. The week three review is half-finished and has been sitting there, unfinished for well over a week now and I just watched episode four last night. Newborn twins are tough at times and finding time to watch a show then sit down and blog about it isn’t always easy. Plus, nobody really cares about Westworld in the face of The Walking Dead coming back, which, yeah, I won’t even get into that.

Anyway, what’s the matter with Westworld? We’re four episodes deep and there are fan theories, subreddits and comment sections degrade to obsessing about the minutiae of detail that is buried beneath the surface of this Jonathan Nolan-based show. I’m tossing in brother Nolan’s name because I feel like the work that he and his brother have done is important to understanding Westworld and why it’s just not that engaging.

Westworld isn’t very good. I really want to enjoy it, to find it to be the most awesome thing around and get obsessed with it. The thing is, I’m older now than I was when Christopher Nolan was churning out high-concept movies with big twists and I’ve grown a lot as a writer. This means that things stick out to me more now than they did back then. Where I would’ve been one of those people on an easter egg hunt prior, instead I’m saying, “Okay, but what about the plot? What about the characters?”

Because those are the things that matter. I’ll ask you this; which character do you care about the most now that we are about halfway through season one? Is it Teddy? William? Dolores? Maeve? The Man in Black? Bernard? If your answer is none of the above then we are in agreement. The problem with doing multiple point-of-views in writing is that in the beginning it’ll be difficult for the audience to really latch onto anyone and form an emotional bond with them.

Westworld has eschewed having a main character for having like eight main characters, which wouldn’t usually be a problem, except for that fact that this is the first season and there hasn’t been enough time to form an emotional bond with any of the characters. Maybe Dolores? I’m not sure, because she gets screen time, but in this last episode it felt minimal. Here’s the thing, you can absolutely build a story around an ensemble crew of protagonists, it’s been done before, but without an emotional hook it simply can’t work.

Let’s compare to HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, the show that HBO is desperately hoping Westworld can replace. Game of Thrones follows a ton of characters and we care about just all of them at this point. The thing is, how did we get to this point? The answer is simple; Ned Stark was our anchor in season one.

Think about it for a minute and reflect on that first season and how Ned-centric it really was. The whole first season was about Ned being visited by the King, Ned being named the Hand of the King, Ned moving his family from their ancestral home to King’s Landing to serve his good friend, the King. Much of season one is the Stark family on the road to King’s Landing learning just how shifty and shitty the Lannister’s are, getting a lay of the land on some of the politics involves and growing to see Ned Stark through his own deeds and through the eyes of his children, friends and adversaries. That’s why near the end Ned’s (THIS IS A HUGE SPOILER, OBVIOUSLY) execution is so amazingly jarring; he was our anchor and guide to Westeros, he set out expectations, introduced us to a set of values and endeared the audience to his way of life.

It’d be like if Rick from The Walking Dead died before the end of the first season. Since that first season we’ve all had time to adjust to the lack of Ned, even saw Robb as the replacement Ned that we pulled for only for it to go horribly wrong, all the while the other characters and the world had been firmly established and there was no way that we’d stop reading or watching just because we lost our precious Ned. We had his family still, we had Dany and her dragons, we had the sharp-tongue Tyrian and the conflicted Jaime.

All of this because we were slyly focused on Ned Stark for most of the first book/season. Hell, I think of James SA Corey’s novel series (and now television series) The Expanse and how the first book focused just on two characters; Miller and Holden. Later on it branches out into a whole ton of different characters, including the crew of the Rocinante that have been established throughout the series.

You could make the “slow start” argument with Westworld, as shows like Breaking Bad for sure had a very slow start. In fact, while that show went down as one of the best in history, the entire first season is just a bit, well, whatever. The thing is, Walter White was your established protagonist early on and you were given reasons to care about him; he’s dying, he wants to provide for his family, he’s desperate. While the story moved slowly, there were still emotional hooks to keep the viewer somewhat engaged.

But none of that exists in Westworld. There is an ensemble of characters, but we see such little glimpses of each that their struggles, emotions and quests have no real value. So, the Man in Black wants to solve the puzzle, to find the “end game” of Westworld, but apparently all that we’ve learned about him over four episodes is that he’s sadistic inside of the park and that he’s incredibly wealthy and his company was involved in saving lives. This is all that we know, but the concept of the puzzle that he’s trying to solve is supposed to be the hook.

The Nolans have a history of style-over-substance and the whole, almost comical M. Night Shymlalan-style plot twist that is meant to BLOW YOUR FUCKING MIIIIIIND, MAAAN. That’s fine, plot twists are a real thing, but at a certain point it’s a gimmick. The whole reason that Christopher Nolan’s movies have done as well as they have is not only the MIND-BLOWING TWIST, but also that there is a story built there as well. Inception was all about the mind-fuck of dream-inside-of-a-dream and “what is really real,” but you had some reason to care about Leo’s character and his losses.

The same can be said for the rest of his movies, even Interstellar was based around the relationship of a father and daughter. But what is Westworld’s hook? There is a lot of meta-game sort of stuff buried in there, for sure. Everyone is talking about Dr. Ford’s ability to stop the hosts with a seemingly hidden trigger, debating if his little finger movement was the trigger, if it was a set of words or if it was telepathy. Perhaps there are trigger phrases and perhaps these have caused the androids having awakenings? While that’s great and all, it’s a trail of breadcrumbs that is meant to give deeper meaning to the world while there is absolutely nothing but surface-level stuff in the show.

This is HBO, which means ten episode seasons and we are halfway through. There’s nothing, no stakes, no characters to latch onto, no main story arc that matters. The story that has been established is that the hosts have a consciousness, even if they aren’t supposed to, and that there is inner turmoil within the park’s staff that may or may not be affecting all of this. Writing is not easy, especially when expectations are this high, but this is stuff that could’ve been established within an episode or two, not four.

So while everyone is so focused on finding the secrets of Westworld, they are missing the fact that there isn’t anything else beyond those secrets, just a thin veneer of a show without much going for it, much like Westworld the park, which is just a bunch of androids there for amusement but can’t actually have any impact on the guests whatsoever. Maybe that was what they were going for, but I sincerely doubt they’d invest this much money on a show that was meant to be worthless.

I write things, you read them. Pretty simple.

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