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Tyler Dean

Lovecraft Country: Happy Endings, Discomfort, and Investigating White Privilege

Having just finished the season finale of Lovecraft Country on HBO, I found myself underwhelmed by the last installment (and only the last installment). I should start by saying that Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name is one of my favorite books ever; certainly the best book I read in the decade in which it was published. And despite that high bar, almost without fail, Misha Green’s TV adaptation has been the novel’s superior in many ways—it takes the source material and adds additional nuance, thoughtfulness, and a gut-punch humanity to the book’s relatively dispassionate remove. I can only surmise that, in addition to Misha Green’s (and her cast and crew’s) incredible talent, some of the reason for this brilliance on top of brilliance is that the series was created, written, and directed by a a largely Black creative team and Matt Ruff, though extremely talented and insightful, is a White man.

But this last episode hasn’t sat well with me, and I have been looking both at why that might be, and also at why I might be wrong about it. Spoilers for both Green’s show and Ruff’s novel follow.

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How What We Do in the Shadows Became the Funniest Show on Television

A few weeks ago, comedic actor Fred Willard passed away. He was a personal hero of mine—a brilliant mind who, as numerous obituaries and remembrances pointed out, was a master of playing characters who were both unbelievably dumb and unbelievably earnest in their stupidity. While Willard was, obviously, one in a million, that precise combination of dumb and earnest, when well executed, is one of the mainstays of what I find funny.

That combination is also essentially what fuels the FXX show What We Do in the Shadows, which is about to finish its second season and has been one of the recent delights of my quarantine.

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City of Angels Is a Worthy Successor to Penny Dreadful, With Key Differences

The original Penny Dreadful and its new “spiritual sequel,” Penny Dreadful: City of Angels are fundamentally different projects, at least if the inaugural episode of the latter is any indication. There are definitely some through lines in the series’ obsessions: a macabre fascination with ecstatic religious praxis, a characterization of mankind as essentially venal and corrupt, and a desire to acknowledge the racist history of Anglo and American empire. But otherwise, the shows seem to mostly share a desire to communicate a deep love of the times and places in which they are set. Showrunner John Logan’s devotion to bringing 1891 London to glorious, operatic life seems similarly channeled, here, to the Los Angeles of 1938.

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It’s Time to Reevaluate Penny Dreadful, a Misunderstood Gothic Masterpiece

I will admit that this has been a daunting article to write. Besides the ennui and dread brought on by the Covid-19 outbreak, I also find myself in the position of trying to do justice to what is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite television show ever: Penny Dreadful.

There was a brief shining moment in 2015 when Penny Dreadful, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Game of Thrones, and Hannibal were all on TV at the same time and that exists as my own personal high-water mark for “peak TV.” Those seem like halcyon days right now, and Penny Dreadful, whose “spiritual sequel” City of Angels premieres on April 26th, deserves to be lovingly memorialized. And hey, in these days of social distancing, what better time for a (re)watch of a truly outstanding Victorian Gothic drama (either in preparation for the new series or just because it’s an amazing show)?

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His Dark Materials Season 1: What Worked, and What Needs to Change

In looking back at the first season of His Dark Materials, I am struck by how much of a mixed bag it has been. Like many of you who have been commenting, I found the season lagging and somewhat uninspired in the middle, plagued by pacing issues and sometimes clunkily written. But that said, there were moments of pure sublimity—including one of the best performances of the year and consistently excellent visual design.

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His Dark Materials Rights Some of Its Previous Missteps in the Season Finale

Mrs Coulter’s Magisterium shock troops approach by airship and Stelmaria informs Lord Asriel that it is time.  Lyra is surprised to find that Asriel still doesn’t want her there. He shows remorse when Lyra confronts him about his claim to unclehood, but when they are about to connect meaningfully, Asriel becomes cold and turns away. He rejects Lyra’s alethiometer and reiterates that he never called himself a father. He won’t be one to Lyra now.

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Lyra Earns a New Nickname in His Dark Materials, “The Fight to the Death”

We open on the devastation of Bolvangar and Mrs Coulter’s primal scream. She comes upon Sister Clara in the yard and attacks her, discovering that she doesn’t know where Lyra went.

Lyra finds herself at the bottom of a ravine. Injured but alive and confronted by the bears of Svalbard. She meets a scholar, Jotham Santelia (Asheq Akhtar), in Svalbard’s prison who tells her that Asriel has been released to serve at Iofur’s side and that no one is coming to save her.

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His Dark Materials Fails to Deliver a Much-Needed Update of the Original Books

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my disappointment with some of the continued racist tropes that the His Dark Materials television series inherited from its source novels. Some of the responses seemed to indicate surprise that Pullman’s iconic and beloved series contained any racism whatsoever. I want to be clear and careful here: Pullman’s series contains few to no instances of overt racism like we might find in the works H.P. Lovecraft or Rudyard Kipling. But what His Dark Materials (the book series) does contain and what His Dark Materials (the TV show) has unfortunately continued with are a number of subtle racist and colonialist tropes that the show would have done well to rewrite and rethink.

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The Battle of Bolvangar Rages in His Dark Materials, “The Daemon-Cages”

We open with a procession through the grim Magisterium research laboratory/concentration camp, Bolvangar. Lyra finally sees Roger across the dining hall but can only communicate with him through their daemons. He seems much changed by his imprisonment.

A girl named Bridget McGinn (Eva Jazani) is called away by Dr Cooper and Sister Clara. On the way to Bridget’s intercision—the terrible process by which daemons are spliced from their humans—Sister Clara experiences a sudden flash of what we later learn is her own intercision.

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Broken Families Abound in His Dark Materials’ “The Lost Boy”

This week, we open with Kaisa’s reiteration of the prophecy surrounding Lyra. She is the one who is destined “to end destiny.” But, in another surprising move for book readers, we then get the other half of the prophecy, where a boy will stand beside her. In our reality, we see that boy, Will Parry (Amir Wilson), the son of Lord Boreal’s target John Parry/Stanislaus Grumman.

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His Dark Materials Introduces Iorek, Lee Scoresby, and Pullman’s Scathing Take on Organized Religion

This week, we begin with Lee Scoresby (Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Broadway actor/writer/director, Lin-Manuel Miranda) and his rabbit familiar, Hester (voiced by Cristela and Cars 3 alumna Cristela Alonzo) humming a cowboy tune in their aeronautical balloon. They are searching for their ne’er-do-well friend Iorek, an armored bear. They spot the gyptian fleet below also headed for the village of Trollesund on the shores of Lapland. In the city, Lee is rebuffed by the local law. His reputation has preceded him.

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Childhood and the Burden of Knowledge in His Dark Materials

One of the most compelling themes in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is the way in which he represents childhood as both a sacred time and a space for profound frustration at the complexities of the adult world. It’s one of the most unifying themes across all of children’s literature, and a difficult trick to pull off effectively. It is especially difficult to strike this balance in children’s fantasy, since the magical elements of the world can sometimes serve as deus ex machinae that make the adult world literally less complex. While Pullman’s novels are excellent at giving the reader a limited, childlike perspective on a world that is overwhelmingly complex and adult, the television series, in broadening its perspective, must also account for those complexities. The difference in approach between book series and television series was starkly illuminated in this week’s episode.

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His Dark Materials’ “The Spies” Is an Exposition-Heavy Calm Before the Storm

We open on Lyra, kidnapped by the Gobblers and then immediately rescued by Ben, Tony Costa, and some other gyptian youths. She is taken back to the gyptian gathering on the Thames where many different clans have met to find their children.

Mrs Coulter descends on Jordan College with a squad of Magisterium grunts, intending to put the screws to the Master so that he’ll give up Lyra’s location. She impugns the idea of Scholastic Sanctuary and he tells her that she has failed as Lyra’s guardian. She discovers alethiometer divination guides and vows to destroy the College once she finds the contraband device. He then reveals that Lyra has the alethiometer—another thing she has lost.

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Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter Illuminates the Complex, Patriarchal World of His Dark Materials

One of the great things about superlative children’s literature is its ability to let events unfold from a simplistic, child’s perspective while cluing in older readers to the complexities of an adult world. As an example, look no further than Harry Potter’s Sirius Black, who must seem, to the child reader, the ideal, fun-loving companion to the boy-wizard and, to the adult reader, a troubled man in a state of arrested development who is using Harry to reconnect with his dead school chum.

This balancing act is no easy task. And even the best children’s literature occasionally sacrifices some of the complexity of the adult world in order to keep its narrative centered on a child protagonist’s experience. Such is the case with Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which is additionally burdened by the fact that much of the world is predicated on heavy theological concepts which Lyra understandably is less interested in than the immediate danger she must face while dealing with agents of the Magisterium and Armored Bears.

And while none of that tension makes HDM a less satisfying read, it is true that one of Pullman’s most intriguing characters is left a little thin and unfairly treated by the narrative. I am speaking, of course, of Mrs Coulter, one of the series’ primary antagonists. I should add here that, in discussing Mrs Coulter in this article two things should be noted: First, I have not done a full reread of HDM in about a decade and while I am attempting to catch up while I watch the show and write these articles, some of my sense of the novels may be based on older information and recollections. Second, any discussion of Mrs Coulter that involves the novels will have to involve MAJOR SPOILERS for the books (and presumably the show), so read on at your own peril.

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