Blog PostsDoes South Park Have Anything New to Say?

One of the few images I could find that’s approved for Creative Commons usage

Once upon a time, I was a big fan of this show. Reruns of South Park and the first season of Scrubs got me through my first year of college. Finding two other shows with such stark tonal differences would be a challenge, but they both offered me a strange sense of comfort during a difficult and confusing year. JD, Elliot, and Turk struggled as first-year interns in a way that reflected my own struggles as a college freshman, and I related to their various pains and heartbreaks. The show often had a sad, reflective tone, which made its overall optimistic and hopeful outlook feel earned and grounded in reality.

South Park was for my pessimistic moods, when I couldn’t stop thinking about all the bad things happening in the world and felt hopeless for humanity. South Park was cynicism, even nihilism, in cartoon form, and watching it confirmed all my negative feelings. “Everything sucks and people are hypocrites,” the show seemed to say, “so why not laugh about it?”

And I did laugh. I laughed when the show took human failings and brought them to their most extreme conclusions (Cartman creates a hate group inspired by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). I laughed when the show directed scathing commentary against institutions that deserved it (Father Maxi turns out to be the only Roman Catholic priest in the world who’s not abusing children). I laughed whenever the show refused to sanitize childhood and was honest about the fact that kids can sometimes be mean and self-interested.

And, once in a while, the show appeared to have a soul. It was sympathetic to Britney Spears during her mental breakdown while other media delighted in her pain. It had us feel for Wendy when she Photoshopped her portrait, succumbing to unrealistic beauty standards for women and girls. It realized that Butters was their best character, stopped treating him like a punching bag in every episode, and let him get a win sometimes.

Above all, I loved their indictment of hypocrites.

I don’t remember exactly when I became aware that Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s underlying philosophy is that everyone’s a hypocrite, and people are only pretending to care about larger issues to make themselves feel good. I know it was a gradual awareness that happened around the same time I started to understand that “ironic” sexism and racism was just plain sexism and racism.

When I became more interested in media analysis, I started paying closer attention to the people Parker and Stone targeted in their comedy. The targets weren’t just the powerful and corrupt. They attacked transgender people – and even though they walked back some of their commentary several seasons letter, they doubled down on their ignorance in a recent episode that J.K. Rowling probably plays on repeat. They made entire episodes around shaming famous women they deemed unacceptable (such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Hillary Clinton, Paris Hilton).

But even these hateful moments didn’t have the kind of lasting negative impact as the show’s most consistent message: caring about things is stupid and both sides are just as bad. People who don’t care about the environment are no worse than the people who are smug over caring about the environment. And, yeah, okay, we were wrong about climate change and we’re sorry about that, but we might have taken it seriously years ago if Al Gore hadn’t been so obnoxious.

Then I heard the show was having a “pandemic special.”

In spite of myself, my curiosity was piqued. Could a show long past its prime find new relevance in an unprecedented situation? Would they somehow manage to both-sides a pandemic?

So I watched with a question in mind: Does this show have anything new to say, yes or no?

And wouldn’t you know? I can see both sides.

“The Pandemic Special” was not kind to the police as individuals or an institution. The cops were all too eager to get their hands back on military-grade weapons. They shot the only Black student in the fourth-grade classroom when two white kids were fighting. They shot and killed a kid playing in the snow who didn’t “stand down.”

But the portrayal of police violence didn’t come across as a searing indictment of a corrupt institution. It felt like a series of moments for stoners to laugh and say, “Man, that’s fucked up,” move on, and not think about it again. You’re encouraged to see the cops as hypocrites but not spare a thought for the people they harmed. We don’t even see Token again after cops shoot him. He’s not allowed a reaction to his traumatic experience.

Why is that important in such an over-the-top episode? Because they do allow emotional moments for Stan, Butters, and even Cartman. Unsurprisingly, those moments are the best parts of the episode. Cartman’s musical theater number about the joys of social distancing for a misanthrope is perfectly in character for him. Butters’ rant about his delayed trip to Build-a-Bear is funny, endearing, and sad all at once. And we get to see Stan, frequently the voice of reason in a world of chaos, have an emotional breakdown over the never-ending bleakness of a life under quarantine.

I have mixed thoughts about the Trump satire in the form of Mr. Garrison. Garrison’s blatant admission that he doesn’t care how many people die of COVID-19, that he actively wants the pandemic to continue, is an accurate portrayal of the president’s malice. Yet there’s still something lacking from the joke. Part of that isn’t South Park’s fault; Trump is so over-the-top that he makes cartoon villains seem subtle in comparison. But the focus on his narcissism and hatred feels like too little, too late from the people responsible for “Douche vs. Turd.”

“The Pandemic Special” refers to Randy Marsh’s discounted weed from Tegridy Farms, and he and other characters debate whether this sale is something we need right now. The meta-commentary, of course, is whether or not we need episodes like “The Pandemic Special.” Is it helpful for our entertainment to focus on the pandemic and find humor in a dark situation? Or are we better off going to entertainment for distraction and getting a break from all this sadness?

The choice is personal. I’ve opted for distraction in the form of Schitt’s Creek and What We Do in the Shadows. The first is a hopeful and optimistic show that’s sweet without being saccharine; it’s like a hug in TV form. The second is pure absurdity with no other agenda than to be ridiculous and funny.

But there’s a place for the kind of comedy that addresses the pandemic head-on. There’s value in experiencing catharsis through laughter. Maybe I will seek forms of comedy that vent our collective frustrations with this world.

I don’t think that form of comedy will be South Park.

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Blog PostsThe Five Stages of Grieving Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States / Public domain

1. Denial

No. No. NO. A THOUSAND TIMES NO. MAN FALLING OFF CLIFF GOING “NOOOOOOOOO!”

Not now. Not her. Not after everything else that’s happened this year. Not with COVID, the country being on fire, and the wide range of indignities and suffering we’ve had to contend with Every. Damn. Day.

She’s fought cancer before and won. She got knocked down, she got up again, and she never let it keep her down. It was almost a joke. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg goes to hospital because of signs of cancer…and Leo and Virgo and Gemini! SIKE! BEAT YOU AGAIN!” She beat it back so many times that it would never kill her. She was going to last for years. Betty White’s ten years older and she’s still kicking around!

This is an extended prank. She’ll pop up out of hiding in a few days and go “GINSBURRRRRRN!” She really said that, right? It wasn’t a Kate McKinnon joke? Come on. She has more lives than Mario. She can bop her head against a brick and collect more coins.

2. Anger

All you had to do was vote for Hillary Clinton.

You KNEW the Supreme Court was on the ballot. You KNEW Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in her mid-eighties (and that Stephen Breyer is in his late seventies – has anyone checked in on him lately? Assigned him a 24-hour doctor and defibrillator just in case?) All you had to do was fill in the bubble next to her name.

But you were too good to vote for Hillary Clinton because you were saving yourself for your one true love Bernie Sanders, and when he didn’t win you drunk-dialed Jill Stein and she texted back “New phone, who dis?”

Some of you same purity progressives make fun of fundamentalist Christians for their “stupid” support of Trump. Newsflash: they’re not stupid. They’re calculating. They know Trump will give them the anti-choice judges they want, and they vote accordingly.

They know how politics work. You don’t. Congratulations on being less astute than the anti-intellectual, religion-before-science voting bloc.  

Also, those of you saving your anger for Ruth Bader Ginsburg for not retiring earlier and being clairvoyant can go dunk your heads in the toilet.  

3. Bargaining

Okay. There are 41 days until the election. There are some potentially swayable Republican Senators who might not want to risk their reelection chances on rushing on replacing RBG with a conservative justice.

If Murkowski is a no on voting before the election, if Romney’s “yes” on allowing a vote doesn’t necessarily mean a “yes” on confirming the actual nominee, if Susan Collins’ Concern Level is at a level of Very, and the pH of water is 7, and two trains are leaving from different cities at the same time but one is travelling at 55 mph and the other is travelling at 65 mph, and the one at 55 mph is a runaway trolley heading towards five people tied to the track and you can let it run them over or pull the lever and have it go on the side track to run over one person, can pregnant people still have rights over their own bodies?

4. Depression

Break out the vodka. Break out the ice cream. Pour the vodka over the ice cream and sob into the world’s saddest smoothie bowl.

This is it, isn’t it? This is the final proof we needed that the Fates are against us and have used their magic to transform 2020 from an arbitrary marker of time into a malevolent physical force of nature that wants to destroy us all.

We were all Mr. Burns in “Homer at the Bat,” laughing at the idea of misfortunes befalling NINE ringers of his softball team, only to have eight of those nine ringers end up in deep trouble. We might as well brace ourselves for the possibility of Sonia Sotomayor being sucked into a vortex, or Elana Kagan somehow get terminally ill from a stubbed toe. Yes, people can die from stubbed toes now. It’s 2020. The normal rules no longer apply.

5. Acceptance

Acceptance. That peaceful moment when you come to terms with things you cannot change.

I’ll let you know when I reach it.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is a stab in the gut and the wound is still bleeding. Every day, I fear another development that might overturn or undermine this brilliant woman’s legacy. I run through the first four stages of grief several times. I pause and grieve the fact that we can’t just grieve, that we can’t honor her with a toast and celebration of our life without worrying what’s going to happen to us without her.

An 87-year-old woman dying after a long, fulfilling, accomplished life should not be a tragedy. Not compared to the number of preventable deaths from COVID-19, the wildfires and hurricanes wreaking havoc across our land and sea, the unrelenting abuse of immigrants at the border, and the police murders of George Floyd and so many other Black people. Even now, hours after I started writing this piece, a Kentucky grand jury indicted the officer who killed Breonna Taylor for endangering Taylor’s neighbors, in what feels like a deliberate slap in the face to her memory, her family, all Black Americans, and the very concept of justice.

No, Ginsburg’s death in of itself is not comparable to those tragedies. But after years of watching autocrats rise to power in the United States and beyond, her grit and determination and presence on the court reminded us that we had some powerful people who cared about us.

When the world is overrun with villains, we can’t afford to lose one of the good guys.

So what do we do now?

I want to say something about living by RBG’s example and carrying on her good work. I want to say something inspiring about the smallest actions having the power to make the world a better place.

I want to take a tired old platitude and make it feel real.

It doesn’t feel real right now.

But maybe it will tomorrow.

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Blog PostsWriting About Writing

Writing. It’s my favorite thing to do and I hate it.

I don’t think there’s anything that makes me feel more complete than finishing a piece that I’m really proud of. But how often do I feel proud of something? How often do I finish something?

I’m not even fully concentrating right now. I’m searching through my iTunes library for the perfect classical music to listen to while I work, pretending I’m going to pick anything other than Bach. I’m trying to find the perfect position for my back in this desk chair. I’m feeling the breeze of the perfect weather through my window and wishing I were outside, hating the pandemic for forcing me into a situation where I have to actively seek Outside Time.

Outside Time used to come naturally in my day-to-day life. I experienced it en route to and from work, walking to the train instead of taking the bus to enjoy that extra dose of Vitamin D. Now I have to plan for it. I need to set aside time to go outdoors and…do what, exactly? Sit and read? Go for a walk? Treat it as a leisure activity and do nothing productive with it? What right have I to exist without producing something?

I could write a piece about that: the pressure to feel productive even when we feel like the world is ending.  Some online publications might be interested in the topic. Stick “the pandemic” or “COVID-19” at the end of any pitch and an editor might read it.

But that means I have to find a place to pitch it, write a pitch, figure out what my audience is, figure out how to style the piece – is it an essay? A humor piece? A rant? A screed? A plea? And I’ll have to write it and rewrite it until the idea is no longer enjoyable for me and I’ve come to hate my own creation…and, by extension, myself.

Is this the life I want to live? Do I want to put myself through these cycles of insecurity? Haven’t I suffered enough with my mental health issues? Haven’t I earned the right to put down my pen? (A metaphorical pen. I mostly type.)

But if I go a few days without writing, I feel empty.

There’s nothing that brings me more satisfaction than finding the right words to convey my idea, my characters, my deepest desires. I can scroll through my blog and find posts from ten years ago that make me cringe, where I tried too hard to be funny, too hard to ape the style of other bloggers as I struggled to find my voice. But I can also find pieces that hold up well. I can find reviews and essays and satirical pieces that are well-expressed, or moving, or funny, or sometimes all of the above.

I try to remember that all writers feel this way. No one is proud of their work all the time. No one should be proud of their work all the time. We all make mistakes and good final drafts don’t happen without shitty first drafts.

I’d wager that most writers are unsatisfied with their work most of the time.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Writers’ workshops should be recovering writer support groups. “Hi, I’m Theresa.” “Hi, Theresa.” “It’s been twenty days since I last jotted down an idea in my notebook.”

That could be a piece in of itself. But then I have to find where to pitch it, write the pitch, find the right style, and I’ll have to write it and rewrite it until the idea is no longer enjoyable for me and I’ve come to hate my own creation…and by extension, myself.

Why do I put myself through this?

And yet, even as I’m questioning myself and lamenting this, I’m googling the search term “productive pandemic” to see who else has written about the internalized pressure to achieve creative peaks while hundreds and thousands of people around the world are dying.

I’m even wondering if this piece, this unedited rambling of my disordered mind, can be a piece I pitch somewhere, or post on my blog.

Because when I look back at the above paragraphs…for a first draft, it’s not bad.

(Okay, that’s a half-truth. This is the second draft. Most of the words are the same, but the “Outside Time” reflection is new. In the first draft, I went on a different tangent and wrote a different idea. I changed it for this draft because I might want to pitch that other idea, and I don’t want to give the game away in this piece.)

Anyway. These paragraphs I’m writing now, this half-stream-of-consciousness, half-confession, isn’t bad. If I share this, I can connect with other writers feeling the same way.

But then I have to find where to pitch it, write the pitch, find the right style, and I’ll have to write it and rewrite it until the idea is no longer enjoyable for me and I’ve come to hate my own creation…and by extension, myself.

Vicious cycle, rinse, repeat.

Always repeat, because I will keep going.

I may stop for awhile. I may bury my head in the latest book I’ve borrowed from the library, written by my favorite author, Better Than-Me, and ignore the calls from my characters to return to them and tell their stories. I may turn my phone on silent or block them for a few days, a week, a month…but I will always come back.

Does this sound hopeful? Does this sound like determination? Right now, it feels like grim acceptance of a Sisyphean fate.

I can’t NOT write, even if no one reads my work but me.

But if I can cut down on my periods of inner torment, shut out the self-doubt, hush the well-meaning soldiers in my mind that encourage me to quit so I don’t put myself through pain…

If I can spend more time writing than feeling bad about not writing, or not writing well enough…that would be great. That would be swell. That would be…

Oh, spite. Oh, hell. I can’t find the perfect sentence to end this piece and that’s going to bother me for the rest of the week.

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Novels, Fiction & SillinessJane’s Memorial

Sometimes comedy gives us an opportunity to explore painful experiences, such as the loss of a friend. Please “Jane’s Memorial,” my sketch that was part of Magnet Theater’s tri-annual Ringers show.

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Novels, Fiction & SillinessMy Presidential Platform, As Prepared By My Seventh-Grade Self

Readers, after much consideration, I have decided to run for President of the United States. I know I have many competitors in this wide field, but I offer a unique level of preparedness that no other candidate – not even Elizabeth “I have a plan for that” Warren – can offer: I wrote my presidential platform when I was twelve.

While looking through my old documents during a visit to my parents’ house, my husband found an essay I wrote for my seventh grade English class, “If I Were Earth Leader.” He thought it was funny, but I found it inspiring. I realized that I’ve had what it takes to be Commander-in-Chief all along.

Feeling skeptical? See if you can find anything to disagree with in this comprehensive platform:

“If I Were Earth Leader”
by Theresa Basile
Period 7
November 2, 1996

If I ruled the earth, what would I do?

First of all, this is just a fantasy that triggers my mind. I would NEVER be elected earth leader since I am only twelve years old. I also don’t know if I would WANT to be Earth leader anyway. It’s too big of a responsibility. I know I would get more money than I could handle by being Earth leader, because you need money to support all of the countries. How would I get the money, I’m not sure. But that doesn’t matter, since this is just a fantasy.

But let’s just say I DID run for Earth leader, and let’s just say I won, and let’s just say I had a bunch of bodyguards to protect me from all the sickos in the world. What would I do first?

First of all, I would send a hundred truckloads of food to all of the countries that have a lot of poor people. No, scratch that. I would send one hundred truckloads of food to every single country, period.

Then I would invent a huge vacuum to suck up all of the pollution, including water pollution, and ship it off to Jupiter where the enormous amount of gravity would crush it up.

After that, I’d hire scientists to find cures for cancer, diabetes, insomnia, AIDS, and other incurable diseases.

Then I would arrest every single criminal in the world and send them to special hospitals. The criminals who committed minor crimes would take classes on how to stop committing crimes. Homicidal maniacs and terrorists would be injected with chemicals that wouldn’t hurt them, but make them stop killing people.

What would I do next?

Whatever I wanted!

I would live in a twenty-acre mansion, but I wouldn’t cut down any trees to build it. All of my relatives would live with me. I would have a huge computer and type up stories and play games.

I would watch Monty Python videos and read whenever I wanted. I would live in Italy, because I would like to be near the Sistine Chapel. My parents went to Italy, and they loved it. I would visit the U.S. all the time. I would also go to Cooperstown for summer vacation, and Florida for winter vacation. I would visit England, Germany, and France, and go all over Europe.

I would pass a law allowing kids over ten to vote. I am outraged that I can’t vote for President because I am only twelve. I know about political issues and I would be a liberal Democrat, IF I COULD VOTE. Other kids might feel this way, too.

I would meet the cast of The Simpsons, and eat lunch with Emma Thompson and Robin Williams. I would meet movie actors and actresses.

I would invent a huge time machine and travel to 1865 and 1939. I would stop John Wilkes Booth from killing Lincoln, and Hitler from killing all the people in World War II.

By now, you probably think I’m crazy. How can a twelve-year-old girl, who lives in New York until the age of nine and moved to New Jersey, rule the world? Impossible!

Anything’s possible.

And don’t you forget it!”

As you can see, my first priority has always been to address hunger and food insecurity on an international scale. I was forward-thinking on climate change from a young age. I supported aggressive medical research to cure disease, and I believed in criminal rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism. In terms of international relations, I have always supported a strong relationship with the European Union.

At this point, you might be saying, “Her policy positions are great, but I’m not sure she’s electable.” It’s true that Republicans will undoubtedly label me as a “New York liberal,” and that could affect my chances in the Midwest. But I expect that young voters will turn out in record numbers when they see my support for a 10-year-old voting age. I’ve also been very family-oriented all my life, a quality that might sway some independent voters.

And, as you can see, I’m good at holding babies:

Not my running mate.

In conclusion, I hope you consider voting for me in 2020. I will not accept donations from large corporations (except for The Walt Disney Company in exchange for a free subscription to their streaming service). You can send me campaign donations through Venmo, and I pledge only to use that money to pay for improv classes that will help me on the debate stage.

Get TB in 2020!

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ArticlesSin and Justice in Spicy Witch Productions’ Seventh Season

“Measure for Measure”
Photo credit: Phoebe Brooks

(This review was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on May 17, 2019.)

What is sin? This is a question that Spicy Witch Productions explores with their two plays in repertory, an “audacious cut” of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and the premiere of The Virtuous Fall of the Girls of Our Lady of Sorrows by playwright in residence Gina Femia. The first is set in present-day Vienna, the second is set in post-9/11 New York, and both take place in worlds where expectations for women are contradictory and designed for them to fail.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s famous “problem plays.” Minnie, a main character in The Virtuous Fallplayed by Renita Lewis, writes a sequel to Measure for Measure in lieu of writing a final paper for English class, sending all of the characters (save thevirtuous Isabella) to Hell to appease the administration in her strict Catholic school. Spicy Witch’s production of Measure for Measure, meanwhile, modernizes several aspects of the text, turning the kind Duke into Chief Justice Vincentia (Mia Canter) who wears a Ruth Bader Ginsburg-esque collar, Claudio (Stephen Zuccaro) into a disgraced but decent Senator, and Isabella (Pearl Shin) into an intern at a women’s health care provider.

Both of these adaptations take liberties with the original text in a purposefully feminist manner to fix the problems in the problem play. What could be a gimmick in the hands of less thoughtful directors than Phoebe Brooks (Measure) and Blayze Teicher (Virtuous Fall) is instead a powerful statement. While any adaptation of a Shakespeare play must honor the language, as this cast ably does, one of the best moments in Measure involves Isabella silently contemplating the portrait of a different Supreme Court justice who shares a disturbing resemblance with the predatory Angelo (Blake Kelton Prentiss).

The characters in both Measure for Measure and The Virtuous Fall discuss the concept of sin – what is sin, who gets to decide what sin is, and what is a just punishment for those who commit sin. The narratives of both plays progress differently but reach a similar conclusion that breaking the law, whether it is the law of the land or the law of the Catholic Church, is not the same as doing something evil. A moving speech from Imogene (Alia Guidry) in The Virtuous Fall rejects the premise that she is inherently sinful for being gay. (Her name is also similar to another Shakespeare heroine, Cymbeline’s Imogen, who was wrongfully accused of adultery.)

Where the plays differ is in their portrayal of morality’s gatekeepers. Measure’s Angelo is the worst kind of hypocrite, setting different standards for himself than for others, abusing his power, and enjoying seeing others in pain. The Virtuous Fall’s Sister Ignatius (Mia Canter) is a more sympathetic figure; even when she’s wrong, her advice comes from a sincere desire to help her students avoid eternal punishment. This is a woman who has made many personal sacrifices to be in a place where she can counsel others; she needs to believe what she’s saying is right.

The cast is strong in both productions, easily adapting to Shakespeare’s language in Measure and convincingly playing high school students in The Virtuous Fall. All of the performers hinted at the rich inner lives of their characters, showing the subtext behind the text. The biggest standout is Pearl Shin; her dual performance of the strong-willed Isabella and the naive Mathilda made me forget I was watching the same actor on back-to-back nights.

Of the two shows, The Virtuous Fall is the stronger production partially by virtue of being longer. Measure for Measure’s 90-minute cut, while impressive in the way it edited the story into the essentials, it left little room for its best moments to breathe despite the strength of the cast. I don’t think anyone in the audience would have minded spending twenty more minutes with those characters. Both productions, however, are important contributions to the conversation about how the world treats female and nonbinary sexes and genders as inherently sinful.

Measure for Measure and The Virtuous Fall are playing in repertory at The Flea Theater.

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Blog PostsThe Unearned Heel Turn in “Game of Thrones”

Courtesy: HBO

When you follow a story for a long period of time, it can be difficult to separate expectations from reality. Game of Thrones is a story with over twenty years of buildup if the books are taken into consideration, and almost a decade of buildup for the fans who only watched the show. With so many characters and storylines that fell by the wayside, there was no way for the showrunners to deliver a conclusion that would satisfy all or most of the audience.

A perfect ending was impossible. A strong ending was still within reach if the showrunners stayed true to the characters and followed the rules established in the fictional world. Going into the last season of Game of Thrones, I prepared myself for the probability of a conclusion that would honor the story it had followed, regardless of whether or not it was my preferred ending.

Instead, we got a penultimate episode that destroyed years’ worth of credibility and made me nostalgic for the How I Met Your Mother finale, all because the showrunners forced an unearned heel turn for one of the show’s most beloved characters.

Daenerys Targaryen is a messianic leader with delusions of grandeur who feels entitled to the Iron Throne because of her family’s legacy. Thanks to the stories she’s heard from Viserys in her childhood, she expects Westeros to roll out the welcome carpet the second she arrives at King’s Landing. She’s ruthless, does not forgive easily, and calls on her dragons to burn her enemies to a crisp when they betray her. She doesn’t blink when Drogo puts a crown of molten gold on her brother’s head, doesn’t flinch when she locks Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Doreah in a vault to starve to death, and serves swift justice to the slaveowners in the cities of Essos. Her advisers often have to talk her out of administering brutal punishment.

Daenerys is also a principled leader who abhors and abolishes slavery in a world where many people, including her closest advisers, see it as a necessary evil. When merchants nail their slaves to crosses, taunting her with their dead bodies, she forces herself to look into the face of every human sacrificed on her behalf so she never forgets them. She makes the Ironborn promise to end their pillaging and raping before she accepts them as allies. Her tendencies lean towards brutal punishment, but she often listens to her advisers and moderates her decisions based on their guidance.

“Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss the coin into the air and the world holds its breath,” goes the old saying in the Seven Kingdoms. Targaryens are either gentle and kind (Rhaegar) or cruel and insane (Aerys). Daenerys was compelling because she didn’t fall neatly into either category. Her capacity for cruelty and kindness, for selfishness and selflessness, were equal. She gave into her destructive tendencies as often as she pulled back from them.

The most recent episode, “The Bells,” made the final decision on Daenerys’s coin toss. She was another evil Targaryen, the Mad Queen father’s daughter that Tyrion and Varys had learned to fear. She abandoned her principles and murdered thousands of innocent citizens even after receiving an unconditional surrender from the city she invaded, brought to the brink of insanity after losing several loved ones in a very short period of time.

On some level, this action makes sense. George R.R. Martin has made it clear that he’s no monarchist, and the books support his thesis that there’s no such thing as a “good” ruler. Anyone who wants the power of an uncontested monarch will eventually be corrupted by that power even if their original intentions were as pure as snow, especially if they prioritize their personal ambitions over the common good, or have lost their closest ties to humanity in the people they loved most.

The glaring flaw in Daenerys’s arc is that she lost the people she loved because she temporarily put her personal ambitions on hold for the common good.

Dany, like most other characters on the show, was a climate change White Walker skeptic in the seventh season. She wasn’t willing to sacrifice any of her people or resources to fight a problem she didn’t believe existed. Even when she started to understand that the White Walkers posed a real threat, she refused to help until Jon Snow bent the knee.

This changed when Jon traveled to fight the White Walkers (in a very ill-conceived plan that only worked because the writers said it had to). When she realized the true threat of the danger, she took her dragons and rode to save Jon and the other fighters in his mission.

In the process, she lost a dragon. Her heart was broken; her dragons were the children she would never have. Despite her grief, she changed her plans, decided to postpone her fight with Cersei, and instead teamed up with Jon to fight the common enemy in the White Walkers.

This led to a chain of events where the White Walkers were defeated, but Daenerys lost a second dragon, her closest adviser Jorah Mormont, and her closest friend Missandei, none of which would have happened if she had stuck to her original plan of fighting Cersei directly.

In short, Daenerys was punished and turned into a villain because she did what heroes do – temporarily prioritized the greater good before her own ambitions. If she had ignored Jon and flown directly to King’s Landing with all three dragons, she could have roasted Cersei to a crisp without touching the common people, and then flown back in time to help in the Battle of Winterfell.

After all, time and continuity don’t follow the many rules in Game of Thrones. Trips that once took months take five minutes, dragons are foiled by a scorpion bow in one episode and indestructible in the next, and the White Walkers are the most existential threat to all humankind but can be wiped out completely with one well-timed stab from Arya Stark.

And Daenerys can roast innocent people after losing her loved ones, even though she lost her loved ones by trying to help innocent people.

Some fans think this criticism is unfair and like to quote Ramsay Bolton: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” But most fans upset with this direction weren’t expecting a happily ever after. We only wanted the story to make sense.

There was enough groundwork in A Song of Ice and Fire to eventually turn Daenerys into a tyrant if that’s the story George R.R. Martin wanted to tell. I could see Daenerys ascend the Iron Throne with the intention of being a fair and wise ruler, only to eventually become corrupted with power and turn into the same tyrant she had always criticized. Heck, I would have welcomed an even more pessimistic ending where the White Walkers won and destroyed all life on the planet as a chilling message about human pettiness and arrogance.

Instead, we got a conclusion for Daenerys that seems like a culmination of mixed messages. It was wrong of her to use Mirri Maz Duur to cheat Drogo’s death and save his life (even though it was okay for the Night’s Watch to resurrect Jon Snow). It was wrong of her to roast the Tarlys (because Tyrion and Varys are shocked, SHOCKED, that the dragon queen they chose to follow would…use her dragons). It was wrong of her to distrust Tyrion (even though Tyrion proved himself untrustworthy many times).

Come to think of it, the dragon queen’s arc is perfect in its way. Crushed under impossible-to-reach standards, doomed no matter what choice she makes, is a perfect metaphor for being a woman with power in this world.

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Blog PostsWhat Comes Next on Game of Thrones?

Courtesy HBO

The long-awaited Battle of Winterfell in Games of Thrones has come and gone. There was less bloodshed than expected, fans everywhere lost money in their “which characters are going to die?” pools, and a powerful musical score almost made up for the lighting budget being provided entirely by Melisandre. (I’m not actually sure she’s union, come to think of it.)

Reactions to the episode have been mixed. Some people loved it. Some thought it was a big mess. I felt the same way I do about many “big” episodes of Games of Thrones: having ALL THE FEELS while it’s happening, and realizing the next day, “Wait. That didn’t make any sense!”

The biggest complaint about the episode, aside from the inability to see much of the action, was that the hyped-up Big Bad was defeated too easily. They expected the battle between the living and the dead to be the climax of the series, not an inconvenience the North had to take care of before fighting Cersei. After all, Al Gore Jon Snow has been sounding the alarm bell for years that all these petty battles are meaningless, that climate change the White Walkers are the real problem facing humanity.

I see a lot of storytelling potential for NOT ending the series with the White Walkers. The last three episodes could be great if the show addresses the question, “We stopped the end of the world – now what kind of world do we want to live in?”

At the same time, I understand why critics and fans are disappointed and confused, wondering, “What was the point of the Night King and the White Walkers if they were going to be defeated so easily?”

I keep going back to what Bran and Sam realized at the end of the seventh season: Robert’s Rebellion was based on a lie.  At the time, their conclusion seemed incredibly sad and ironic. One of the few love marriages in Westeros led to pointless bloodshed and the destruction of several noble houses. Almost every conflict between every family traces directly back to the series of events that destroyed almost all of the Targaryens and put Robert Baratheon on the Iron Throne.

After the relatively quick defeat of the undead armies at the Battle of Winterfell, though, I wonder if the show is trying to tell us a different story – that the tragedy of the Rhaegar/Lyanna love affair, Robert’s Rebellion, and everything that came after was necessary to prevent a much bigger tragedy from taking place.

Imagine a world where little Aegon Targaryen was able to live in King’s Landing as the trueborn son of Rhaegar and Lyanna. He’s given all the privileges entitled to a young prince and heir to the throne. He grows up wealthy, loved, and with few cares in the world.

But then he’s not Jon Snow, bastard of Winterfell, who joins the Night’s Watch and goes beyond the wall, and bridges the divide between the Night’s Watch and the wildlings.

Jon Snow, more than any other character on the show (except Bran), sees the world from multiple angles – as a bastard of a highborn house that has a front seat at all of the politicking happening between families, yet never allowed to participate due to his illegitimate status. He’s more educated than most of those at the Night’s Watch, and definitely different from the wildlings he joins as an undercover agent. He was an outsider in every group he became a part of, but he was able to turn that into an advantage, as people from each group warmed up to him and trusted him.

If Jon had raised as Aegon Targaryen instead of Jon Snow, there might not have been anyone to sound the constant alarm bells about the danger of the White Walkers. The White Walkers would have remained a superstition until it was too late, and the Night King might have led his army through Westeros and destroyed all of life before anyone could come up with a defense.

What if Jon is “The Prince That Was Promised” because he’s the Paul Revere/Sybil Ludington of Westeros?

And he’s not the only character who seems fated to be a part of this successful stand against the dead. If Bran had never spied on Cersei and Jaime’s tryst in the towers of Winterfell, Jaime wouldn’t have pushed him, he would have lost the use of the lower half of his body, and he never would have become the Three-Eyed Raven with his own unique perspective that guided the fighters.

Finally, we have Arya Stark, Night Kingslayer, who needed to lose most of her family, travel to different lands, to become the assassin she is, because only a sneaky assassin could get close enough to the Night King in the first place.

If the real lesson of the series is “This tragedy had to happen to prevent the ending of ALL of life,” Game of Thrones will have a fatalistic, Battlestar Galactica feel. “All this has happened before and will happen again.” I’m not sure that’s the ending we’re going to get, or if it’s the best ending for this story, but it will at least be a fitting ending to a saga filled with prophecies, time travel, and perhaps most importantly, humans growing stronger after suffering through tragedy.

But, if this IS the ending we’re getting, I struggle to see where Daenerys fits in, as her Dothraki, Unsullied, and dragons were largely useless in the battle with the dead. I’ll be disappointed if she becomes a mad ruler like her father or Cersei, and I’ll also be disappointed if this war of the roses just concludes with another Targaryen on the Iron Throne.

We have three episodes left to see what will happen. In the middle of this uncertainty, I’ll conclude with the words of Hamilton’s King George:

What comes next?/You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own/AWESOME, WOW!
Do you have a clue what happens now?
Oceans rise/Empires fall
It’s much harder when it’s all your call
All alone, across the sea
When your people say they hate you
Don’t come crawling back to me.
You’re on your own…

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ArticlesA Review of Strange Sun Theater’s “Wickedest Woman”

Photo credit: Braddon Lee Murphy

(This piece was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on January 22, 2019.)

A modern audience that sees the world premiere of Wickedest Woman during its run at the WP Theater will know abortion as a controversial topic. The morality of the medical procedure is frequently contested as states introduce laws to restrict access to abortion.

This narrative would be familiar to the real Ann Lohman, aka “Madame Restell,” the midwife and abortionist whose life story is told in this electrifying new play by Jessica Bashline. Lohman lived through a time where abortion was legal until it wasn’t, and would likely look at the years between Roe v. Wade to a 2019 Supreme Court dominated by conservative justices with a sense of knowing dread.

While abortion remains a hot topic of debate in modern America, there is no “both-sidesing” of the issue in the narrative of Wickedest Woman. Every character, save for an unseen mob at Madame Restell’s door, and a proselytizing district attorney at her trial, treat it as a fact of life that some women will want or need to terminate their pregnancies as naturally as other women will want to give birth to and raise children. Ann herself remains confident in the morality of her actions, but is not immune to the toll that anti-abortion rhetoric takes on her business and personal safety.

As the protagonist, Jessica O’Hara Baker gives a fierce, intense performance that carries the show. She’s electrifying to watch, and her presence is missed in the few moments she’s offstage for a costume change. She’s aided by a strong, gender-bending supporting cast that steps fluidly in and out of the multiple characters they play, most memorably Evan Daves and Luke Zimmerman as two women in different stages of their pregnancies who need Ann’s help. The minute they begin to tell their stories, their pain and vulnerability shines through, and any socialized instinct to guffaw at the sight of a man dressed as a woman immediately dies.

The production is thoughtfully directed by Melissa Crespo whose team uses subtle music and lighting cues to transition between set changes and the different periods of Ann Lohman’s life. There were a few minor hiccups (a cue missed here, a line flub there) in the opening night performance, but nothing that diminished the enthusiasm of a very engaged audience. Wickedest Woman is a play worth braving the cold weather for, to see the story of an exceptional woman whose modern relevance is, at once, depressing and inspiring.

Wickedest Woman is playing at WP Theater at 2162 Broadway through February 2nd. 

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ArticlesReview: “Life x3,” the Universe, and Everything

Photo credit: Hunter Canning

(This piece was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on November 30, 2018.)

In the new production of Yasmina Reza’s Life x3 by the New Light Theater Project, the host of a disastrous dinner party (Henri) laments the insignificance of human beings and their personal lives in comparison to the universe. One of his guests (Ines) counters that human beings and their personal lives are what make the universe interesting, asking, “Where would the universe be without us?”

This question hangs in the balance throughout the production as we see three versions of the same evening play out. A married couple, Henri and Sonia (James Patrick Nelson and Claire Curtis-Ward), are visited by their dinner guests Hubert and Ines (Dominic Comperatore and Leah Curney) a night earlier than expected. They scramble to entertain them with leftover snacks, a seemingly endless supply of wine, and tense conversation that turns too honest, too quickly.

Some elements of the dinner party – particularly the mood of Henri and Sonia’s unseen, offstage six-year-old – is different in each version of the evening, as ephemeral as the temperament of a real child. Other dynamics between the characters, such as Ines’s frustration with her husband’s disrespect, remains the same in each version, but manifests differently each time. The differences lie not with the characters’ relationships and their myriad attractions or resentments, but with how polite they choose to be in expressing these emotions.

The various dramas play out in a stylishly cold living room against a backdrop of a curtain of stars, the set design highlighting the debate started by Henri and Ines that becomes one of the main questions of the play – arehumans insignificant compared to the universe, or do humans add significance to the universe?

The entertaining nature of the production seems to prove Ines right. The character interactions are fascinating to watch as their personalities bounce off of each other, manifesting in different ways depending on the external factors of the night. The cast is uniformly strong, and James Patrick Nelson has the hardest job, as Henri changes the most in each version but still needs to feel like the same person, and he’s more than up to the challenge.

Each version of the night leaves us at the edge of our seats, wondering how and if everything will fall apart. The drama is helped along by the music composed by Janet Bentley, best described as tense elevator music, highlighting the absurd banality of the situation and the characters’ boiling resentments. Version three, the most polite one, feels lighter in a forced way, as if luring us into a false sense of security and waiting for another ball to drop with a version four that never comes.

Ines asserts that humans add poetry to the universe, but if poetry is four unhappy people forcing themselves to be polite before reaching their breaking point, then maybe Henri is the one with his finger on the ball, and these people imagining that their petty dramas have meaning are the ones fooling themselves. Regardless of who is right (and their is evidence to support both of their points of view), Life x3 is a thrilling way to spend an evening.

Life x3 is playing through December 8th at Urban Stages, 259 W 30th Street.

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