Another terrific one from Stephanie Phillips:
“Should we do it? Are you up for it?” my husband asked from his couch cushion. I shrugged, considering, from mine. Finally I answered. “Sure. I can handle it.” He grabbed the remote and queued up our Netflix-sponsored episode of The Walking Dead, season three. Also known as The Season with the Governor. Also known as sixteen of the most hard-to-stomach hours of television I’ve ever seen.
I remember when entertainment wasn’t this difficult—and I don’t know which has changed more, it or me. Before we had our son, I could watch anything. Horror movies? I always contributed to those first-place opening weekends at the box office. Suspense? Count me in! Serial killers with a sense of justice? It is on. The grimmer, bloodier, or more macabre, the better.
Then I got pregnant and my uterus informed my heart that the rules, they were about to change. Sitting in front of American Horror Story, my belly stretching nearly to the TV, I regretted to inform my husband that this first season would be my last.
But the entertainment industry didn’t get my memo, and hopelessness appears to be its currency these days. Across the board, from the worlds of literature to television to film, dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds abound; gore rules the screen; characters look…nasty. (insert photo of Rick Grimes or a zombie?) The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, Keeping Up with the Kardashians—we’ve given in to the darker side of life.
It feels like winter is always coming.
My appraisal carries its own bias: our family is coming out of a months-long season of difficulty—our own winter—kicked off by a miscarriage, continued by job loss, and punctuated with a grand finale of spinal surgery and a rough recovery for our two-year-old. So my personal lens is less than rose-colored. But you’d almost think that would make me a prime candidate for consumption of this latest brand of grim; in fact, I remember thinking, as my husband and I binged on zombies over New Year’s Eve, that it should feel good to remember that life could be worse. But schadenfreude hasn’t seemed to do the trick in changing my palate; if anything, the brutality on screen these days is less escapism for me and more a reminder of how painful our own world—the real one—can be. And I’ve had trouble not turning my head away.
Yet there’s an undeniable attraction to these stories. When we decided to watch the pilot of The Walking Dead, I told my husband I’d give it five minutes. Two minutes later, we were hooked. It was the most riveting hour of TV I’d ever seen. Yay! I thought. I can watch TV like a grown-up again! I had gotten to the point where I viewed Dexter through the cracks in my fingers and the only remnant of my involvement with American Horror Story was reading Entertainment Weekly’s recaps. No longer would I have to close myself off from an entire section of pop culture! We pushed ahead, devouring House of Cards (not overtly apocalyptic, but set in D.C., so maybe worse? And possibly a scarier place than The Hunger Games’s Capitol) and starting Game of Thrones. Finally, I could participate in the national conversations that mattered.
Then the Governor showed up.
And I realized that the scariest thing about these stories isn’t the zombies or the White Walkers—it’s the element of humanity that is revealed in the direst of conditions. It’s the no-holds-barred take on what happens to people who feel they have nothing left to lose, whether they’re climbing a ladder of power to the presidency, fighting for their lives in an arena, or stabbing their own potential future in the brain. What does it say about our society that this is the mass-consumed form of entertainment we obsess over in this cultural moment? Is this our way of avoiding reality—or dealing with it? Are we becoming escapists or warriors?
I don’t ask these questions because I have an answer. I ask them because I feel that the predominance of these violent settings and dystopian worlds means something significant—I’m just not sure what. I think there’s something about a world in which little hope remains that reveals who people really are—both the characters in that world, and the people watching it unfold. There is a difference between positive thinking and true hope, and hope that survives—in the form of seeking to survive—in a world overrun with zombies and death is arguably more hard-fought and beautiful than hope in meeting The One after a series of comically bad dates. There are times when I expect Rick Grimes to turn to Michonne and Carl and echo the character of Melvin Udall: “What if this is as good as it gets?” I know he won’t, though, not only because that would be inappropriately hilarious but because the answer is obvious: he doesn’t believe this is as good as it gets. Otherwise, he wouldn’t still be here. After all, there’s plenty of ammo lying around.
Maybe there’s something of all of us reflected in that. Maybe there’s something deeper than the blood and guts and brutality. Maybe hope is stronger than defeat.
So I’ll push forward with season 4 of The Walking Dead, and I’ll keep watching Game of Thrones, and I’ll buy my ticket for the next Hunger Games. These stories seem to be worth telling and watching, and besides, I’ve devised a system. The husband calls it my palate cleanser: one hour of tough stuff, followed by a thirty-minute wit-fest like The Mindy Project. Because sometimes we all need our entrée of hope to be served with a comically bad date on the side.