The scariest thing on television

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If you’ve decided to cancel HBO now that Game of Thrones is finished, let me suggest you wait long enough to watch all of the network’s terrifying miniseries, Chernobyl. It is, hands down, the best, and most frightening, show I’ve watched on TV in a very long time.

Thirty-three years ago, on April 26, 1986, the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the Ukrainian city of Pripyat exploded, releasing catastrophic amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. An exclusion zone spreading 19 miles in all directions from the ruined reactor site has been deemed unsafe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years.

Because the disaster and its effects were so unbelievable, show creator Craig Mazin has said it was essential for the show to be as historically accurate as possible:

If I have a choice between going for something that sounds dramatic or something that sounds less dramatic, I actually try to opt for less because I think what is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need extra.

Believe it or not, this is the restrained version of what actually happened because believe it or not, there are some accounts where it gets even worse.

Some of those who would know best, who lived through that era of Soviet life, have hailed the show for its remarkable realism.

Chernobyl is a simultaneously horrifying, inspiring, and infuriating chronicle of the catastrophe and the Soviet government’s response. As National Review puts it:

The show is not fun to watch, unless you take a certain grim satisfaction in watching Soviet Union officials squirm in their seats, so terrified of the consequences of telling the truth that they assent to brazen lies that will lead to the painful deaths of hundreds and perhaps thousands of their countrymen.

Chernobyl  is horrifying in showing the effects of acute radiation poisoning, burns, and runaway nuclear energy seeming to scorch the very sky. It is inspiring in depicting the extraordinary heroism of first-responders, medical staff, miners, scientists, and officials brave enough to force their superiors to face a reality they were desperately trying to ignore.

And it is infuriating in laying bare the cravenness of those bureaucrats and leaders unwilling to acknowledge, even actively deny, facts they deemed politically or professionally dangerous. It is this last point which makes Chernobyl especially relevant to our times. Back to National Review:

But it’s worth keeping in mind that shameless dishonesty in order to avoid embarrassment is a human trait, not just a Socialist one. In almost any governmental system on earth, those running the system can blur their sense of their personal interest and the national interest.

A bad leader will prioritize his image above all else and see every issue through that lens. A bad leader will deny the seriousness of threats because speaking honestly about an emerging danger would require admitting being wrong earlier. A bad leader will insist that a failing solution is really working. When challenged, those types of leaders focus on finding scapegoats instead of solutions.

Or, as venerable horror author Stephen King tweeted yesterday:

Winter was a MacGuffin

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Really, after all this time, is that all we get?

Obligatory spoiler warning — I’m about the talk about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. Quit reading now if you haven’t seen it and intend to catch it later.

The White Walkers, and the dire warning that “Winter is coming” have been a constant of the both the novels, and the HBO production since the literal beginning. It was the looming existential threat that put the worldly machinations of noble houses and their quests for power into perspective.

The Night King, as leader of the White Walkers and reanimator of the legions of the dead, was the very embodiment of that fatal, destined winter. Until he wasn’t.

Thanks to Arya’s mad ninja assassin skills and her trusty, well-travelled Valyrian-steel dagger, the Night King and the existential annihilation he represented was gone without so much as a whisper of explanation of his nature, motivation, or purpose. After driving the plot for seven seasons (and five novels and counting), the Night King and his minions are ushered off the stage, destined to be forgotten in the final scramble for the Iron Throne.

Frankly, I found it all deeply unsatisfying. Which is when I realized that the Night King was no more than a MacGuffin. In fiction, a MacGuffin (a term coined, depending on whom you believe, by famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock), is a plot device — an object, goal, or other motivator — that protagonists pursue but with little or no narrative explanation itself.

As the team over at Slate remarks, this captures the Night King perfectly:

[O]ther than Bran’s little monologue last episode about destroying human memory, I never really understood what the Night King’s motivation or backstory was. Yes, he was created by the Children of the Forest for … some reason, but I feel like his villain arc was a very icy one note.

That’s because his villain arc was peripheral to the real plot. Instead, like any good MacGuffin, the point of the Night King and his permanent winter was not about the Night King and his permanent winter at all. His role was to drive the other characters, shaping their motivations and actions.

The team at The Atlantic understood this as well, and were less enthusiastic about it:

The White Walkers were a means to unite ice and fire—Jon and Daenerys—and build an alliance in the North in order to sort out all the lingering conflict in the South. They served no plot purpose other than to threaten to bring about the apocalypse, and the only thing more boring, story-wise, than defeating the Night King would have been letting him win and cover the world in mute zombies.

In this the Night King joins other famous examples of film MacGuffins, the shiny briefcase in Ronin, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon in the classic film of the same name. In each of these examples, the nature of the MacGuffin is immaterial to the actual plot of the story.

For me that’s kind of a drag. I really did want to know more about the Night King (Just like I really, really wanted to know what was in that shiny briefcase in Ronin. It still annoys me that Robert De Niro’s character keeps the secret to himself at the end.)

Still, I guess it makes sense. George R.R. Martin has made blowing up the tropes of heroic fantasy a central element of this series. So dumping the supernatural army of the undead, whose main point seems to have been to take most of Daenerys’ army and dragons away, yanks the story out of traditional swords-and-sorcery territory and re-anchors it once and for all in the down-and-dirty politics and intrigue of dynastic succession.

Fine. But I’m still going to miss the Night King.

Farewell … We hardly knew ye.

‘Two voices, perfectly paired’

(Credit: Austin City Limits)
(Credit: Austin City Limits)

 

It has been a pretty grim couple of weeks, in a pretty grim season of what’s been a pretty grim year or two. And this blog has been a grim read of late.

All the more reason to roll into the weekend with something to lighten the load the little. The Milk Carton Kids, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, as NPR music critic Bob Boilen puts it,

… sing with harmonies steeped in the great duos of days gone by, like The Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel.

Fellow NPR music writer Stephen Thompson elaborates:

The history of folk and pop music is littered with gorgeous intertwined voices: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, The JayhawksMark Olsonand Gary Louris, and many others have found their own delicate blend of chemistry and charisma. The Milk Carton Kids‘ Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale operate in those pairs’ rich tradition, singing sweet but intricate songs of melancholy when they’re not dishing playful banter between songs.

Ryan and Pattengale get a lot done with subtle gestures — their ballads, like “Michigan” and “Stealing Romance” here, have a way of smoothing over many of their moving parts — but there’s real sophistication.

If you’ve not heard the Milk Carton Kids before, click on the video below to hear them perform one of my favorite songs, “Michigan,” recorded live at Austin City Limits.

If you like what you heard, you can click here for a live recording of their set at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival. The duo are currently touring in support of a new album, this time backed by a full band to support their evolving sound and creative growth:

It helps that, while their influences haven’t gotten lost, Ryan and Pattengale have long since acquired a willingness to stretch out creatively. Take the Joe Henry-produced All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do, whose centerpiece (“One More for the Road”) spans more than 10 minutes as the pair reflect on a desire to prolong a doomed relationship just a little bit longer. Even for a song about lingering, it takes its time — with the help of a full band, a welcome addition — and gathers emotional heft along the way. …

Together, they’ve written a batch of wearily delicate (and, in the case of the rambling and rootsy “Big Time,” zingy) songs about major transitions — both personally and, in “Mourning in America,” politically. But the darkness that seeps in is leavened, as always, by the sun-dappled beauty of two voices, perfectly paired.

Check them out if they come through your neck of the woods.

 

A man among hyenas

Yussuf Mume Saleh and the hyenas. (Credit: Jessica Beshir)
Yussuf Mume Saleh and the hyenas. (Credit: Jessica Beshir)

 

For more than 35 years, Yussuf Mume Saleh has walked out from the walls that surround the ancient Ethiopian city of Harar for a nightly, solitary ritual of communion between man and beast.

Filmmaker Jessica Beshir has now made a beautiful short documentary, Hairat, that captures the relationship between Saleh and the spotted hyenas that he has spent a lifetime with. The Atlantic has more:

For Jessica Beshir, a filmmaker who grew up in Harar, visions of Saleh and the delicately-cultivated bond he shares with these wild—and often dangerous—animals are embedded in her childhood nostalgia. “It was like going to see a magical play,” Beshir told The Atlantic in a recent interview. “I was hypnotized by the relationship between these uncanny lovers.”

Years later, Beshir decided to track down Harar and capture Saleh’s otherworldly ritual with the predators on film. Her short documentary, Hairat, shot in haunting black and white, depicts Saleh dangling meat scraps into the darkness. Like gods from the underworld, the hyenas emerge and accept Saleh’s offerings. It’s a rarely seen communion with the natural world, captured in cinematic poetry.

“One night, on my way to film Abba Yussuf, I met a young poet, Elias Shagiz Adonay Tesfaye, who spoke to me about love and heartbreak,” Beshir said. As the filmmaker and the poet zigzagged the labyrinth of the walled city, Tesfaye began reciting his poetry. “The dichotomy of love and fear informed the film’s rhythm and black-and-white aesthetics,” Beshir said.

In an interview before the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Beshir explained that she wanted her documentary to “feel like a poem.” She has more than succeeded. Take a few minutes and see for yourself.