Hoverboy: The Most Racist Superhero Ever

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Like any other country, America has had a complicated history with prejudice. Generally, we view American history in very specific eras of “unenlightened” and “enlightened”, with us in the latter. As with any simplifying of history, this ignores the nuances of race and political relations throughout the years. Nothing is ever black and white. The study of any history always needs to take this into account, which in this case will be comic book history.

One of the most vitriolic interactions our nation has had is with Japan. The moment Japanese immigration became legal, several organizations endeavored to give Japanese-Americans as much shit as possible, including one as petty as the “Anti-Jap Laundry League” which is exactly what it sounds like. This was vastly exacerbated by World War 2 and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. As with any war effort, major media rushed to create war propaganda for the homefront.

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I hope it means the man

This included comic book companies. Characters who previously held no prejudices were now vehicles for Anti-Japanese rhetoric.

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One of the most prominent heroes of this generation was Hoverboy. The character was created by Chicago ad execs Bob Stark and C.L. Nutt in 1937. In short, he was a boy that hovered. Actually, he was a man, so his moniker is a bit of a misnomer. And we haven’t even gotten to the bucket helmet yet, which some claim was either an homage to a cartoon character named “Lil’ Bucketboy” or a reference to the “slop gangs” of the 30’s who competitively ferried various goods in buckets for cash. The only thing the character was noteworthy for was his…leanings. Whereas Superman merely dabbled in prejudice, Hoverboy was a full-on racist, misogynist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual asshole.

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While unpopular at first, during wartime, he got his niche as a “domestic” superhero who fought the Japanese threat in the States in a series called “Yellow Peril”.

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From the very beginning of this particular story, we get one of the most common forms of propaganda: demonization. Though it’s become more of a figurative term, demonization originated in religious scholarship to describe how Christians literally viewed other religious deities as demons. In this case, the literal interpretation is more apropos. The perceived extent of Japanese “foreignness” meant that they were often literally viewed as monstrosities such as this Octo-Man (who sadly isn’t in the actual comic). Representing the Japanese through octupi is a strangely recurring element in WW2 propaganda. The octopus’ could possibly be an attempt to communicate that the Japanese are grasping and greedy.Or maybe the artist saw The Dream of The Fisherman’s Wife and thought they were into that kind of thing.

One would think the focus of Hoverboy’s “heroism” would be a Japanese saboteur or another worthy opponent. Well, it’s not quite that…

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So our hero is actually running down an escapee from an internment camp. If you’re not aware, during WW2, Japanese-Americans were thrown into internment camps without regard to a proven connection to the war. Most of these people were ordinary citizens, so chances are this guy isn’t quite Lex Luthor.

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Hoverboy’s confidence in the threat of the escapee is ludicrous, but remember that these stories were meant for children. Hoverboy – as a then-popular superhero – had enough clout to make these fears seem valid. This propaganda method is often called ‘assertion’: it’s akin to how advertisers often have a celebrity (let’s say Shaquile O’Neal) hawk a shitty product (let’s say Shaq Soda).

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This is where the comic delves into a strangely smart bit of irony. Hoverboy’s correction of the woman attempts to ground this story in “reality” where there is a limit to the evils of the Japanese. It turns Hoverboy into a reasonable authority rather than a racist, bucket-headed loon. Of course he makes sure to remind us that Japanese people would kill a baby if given the chance. Just so we’re clear.

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The end of this issue is baffling. The comic built up the threat of the escapee as a representative of the Japanese as a whole, so to drop it in the penultimate panel seems to be counter-productive as propaganda. Hoverboy ends the story claiming his guilt was irrelevant, meaning that the Japanese don’t even have to commit an actual crime to be worthy of death. A message that macabre begs the question: what is the point of this comic?

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Unsurprisingly, Hoverboy lost much of his popularity after wartime, but then was picked up again in the 1950’s due to the influence of the House of  Un-American Activities Committee (often abbreviated to HUAC). The committee was a government agency responsible for rooting out Communism in American society, particularly involving arts and entertainment. Who better to combat the foreign menace than asian-hunting, black-punching superhero Hoverboy! An animated series was created in 1953  during the ongoing Korean War. One of the plots involved Hoverboy fighting a villainous Julius and Ethel Rosenberg , who are two convicted communist spies executed for treason in real life.

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A re-enactment of their crimes

As you can imagine, the series was as ridiculous as the comic that preceded it. But even through such obvious prejudice, it’s possible that we could be misreading the series’ purpose.

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The cartoon portrays real-life spokesman for American anti-communism – Senator Joe McCarthy – as a mentor figure for Hoverboy. McCarthy was famous for making wild claims about the pervasiveness of communism in American politics and culture, to the point where his very name became associated with “the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence” (definition courtesy of Wikipedia). In other words, “McCarthyism”. While the series at first seems to present McCarthy as an intimidating figure, his behavior seems to shift into being even more ridiculous than Hoverboy himself. In one episode, he reveals that an American scientist was building a robot for the army, but the Russians bribed him to sell it to them. McCarthy is quick to call the scientist a commie, to which Hoverboy questions ” If he were a communist, why would he SELL them the design?“. Flustered, McCarthy tells him there’s no time to explain and then insinuates that Hoverboy is a communist, which shuts him up immediately. As much as the show seems to favor anti-communist rhetoric, it clearly lambastes the authorities behind that rhetoric. In this example, it mocks the idea that ANYONE who questions authority must be a communist.

In addition, Hoverboy spouts advice directly to kids that would be considered horrendously jarring, including warning children that “Anybody could be a commie, even Mom and Dad“. This brings us back to the issue of the comic series: who the fuck would agree to this? Would a child believe a cartoon over their own parents? Would the same child believe that any Japanese person is guilty of death for no apparent reason? It’s possible that this series and the comic that preceded it were never true propaganda at all but extremely subtle satire. 

While it’s easy to dismiss the satirical nature of the Hoverboy franchise, it’s important to remember satire had to be much more underwritten during these periods. The validity of the Japanese Internment was never officially questioned by the American government until the Carter administration in 1980, meaning that for almost half a century, many thought it was reasonable to lock up Japanese citizens without trials during WW2. During the Red Scare of the 50’s, even indirectly challenging American ideals meant you can be excluded from the entertainment industry for being a communist. This meant that the few creators who thought “This is whack!” had to express themselves in as covert a way as possible. And that way was by taking a “refuge in audacity”. If Hoverboy seems like the most racist, anti-communist hero one could imagine, he’d simultaneously appease the superficial censors and hopefully signal to a smarter-than-they-look youth how outmoded these ideas were. He took the occasional racism of mainstream comics (i.e. Superman “slapping japs”) and took it beyond the bounds of reason. Even Hoverboy’s first appearance has a bit of subversion to it; the title of “Fun Comics” is modified into “Somewhat Fun Comics“, telling us there’s something wrong with the story it’s telling.

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I can’t figure out what it is, though…

While the 60’s popularized social protest, the 50’s both intentionally and unintentionally laid the groundwork for upheaval. The 50’s saw the gradual decline (and literal death) of Joe McCarthy, who’s effect on the nation actually soured most of America’s anti-communist and xenophobic passions. For the first time in awhile, Americans began to realize how silly some of their own prejudices are when displayed on such a grand stage. This gave the flower children and collegiates fodder for protest in the following decade. While I’m sure most wouldn’t consider Hoverboy part of the movement that led to the firebrands of the 60’s, hopefully he can stand as an example that while we may judge history, we should never settle for it’s cover.

Most images courtesy of hoverboy.com,internet reviewer Derek The Bard’s review of the cartoon, and comic artist/fellow blogger Ty Templeton

For more posts on comics and history:

Iron Man: Real American Hero

The Lois Lane Effect

Bats In His Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As An Anti-Hero

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Top 5 Bullies in Fiction

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Everyone’s had a bully at some point of their lives. If not, then you probably are / were a bully ( if so: not in the face, please ). Either way, we can all relate to bullying, which is why bullies are so familiar in fiction. The stereotypical bully is bigger than the protagonist, an athlete and most of all, monstrously violent. And yea, many times a bully really is just a brute with a gland disorder, but they are people as well. People who can fuck you up. So i decided to compile a list of some bullies who are particularly noteworthy.

5. Terry Filkins – Drillbit Taylor ( 2008 )

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This school is boring. Watching you freak out amuses me.

Fun Fact: This film was written by Seth Rogen and John Hughes under his pen name “Edmond Dantes” . Yes: “Breakfast Club – Sixteen Candles – Home Alone” John Hughes. This was also the last film he was involved with before his death. The premise: three nerds hire a bodyguard to protect them from two bullies. As a final film it’s…ok. Owen Wilson has his moments but the nerds are fairly trite and nothing else stands out either…except for the main bully, Filkins. Whereas the nerds in the film are a little too generic to be interesting, Filkins’ takes the equally generic bully stereotype to new heights. He begins as a standard bully, stuffing nerds into lockers and whatnot, but then quickly shifts into outright insanity. It turns out that he’s an extremely wealthy emancipated minor, which in the film’s logic means he can get away with destroying a student’s laptop, driving a car through people’s yards, attempting to run over people in broad daylight, and cutting off a man’s arm with a katana ( offscreen, unfortunately ).

Normally I hate the casually violent bully cliche because it’s hard to imagine in a modern school where adults are more reactionary. But the combination of Seth Rogen’s brashness and John Hughes’ 80’s nostalgia makes it more of an homage to the cliche itself. Rather than pretending as if he’s a normal bully, the film portrays Filkins as a violent psychopath who couldn’t and shouldn’t possibly exist in a modern school. His comeuppance at the end of the film is due to him chucking a sword at the nerds in the middle of a partyThis guy is so committed to being a bully that he’ll literally murder someone in front of several witnesses. I don’t care how you feel about bullying, that’s admirable.

4. Alan White – Freaks and Geeks ( 1999 – 2000 )

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” You like Bill Murray? Oh yeah? Bill Murray sucks! “

The stereotype of the bully is so ingrained that few writers actually question it’s validity. Bullies are the jocks. They’re the big men on campus. Everybody likes them, right? More often than not, no. Kids who often become bullies are often just as marginalized as the people they pick on. One of the few bullies to embody this is Alan White from Freaks and Geeks. Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s short lived dramedy series is well known for subverting many high school tropes. The designated geeks’ oppressor Alan is even more odd than they are. Skinny and awkward, the “threat” of Alan is more due to his aggressiveness than his physicality. The pilot of the series builds up to a fight between the geeks and Alan, which amounts to this:

After such a pathetic show, Alan’s bullying became more verbal, throwing out brilliant jabs such as changing the name Sam Weir to Sam Queer. Ah high school. The character gained some depth in the episode Chokin’ and Tokin’. Thinking his allergies aren’t life-threatening, Alan tricks one of the geeks into eating peanuts, leading to him become hospitalized. Whoops. Concerned, Alan visits him in the hospital and has a candid moment while the geek is unconscious ( you can watch the actual clip here )

” I’m sorry. I was just goofing on you. It’s not like you guys were ever nice to me. In the 4th grade i used to think you guys were really cool. I remember when you guys brought a model of the Saturn 5 in for show and tell and I asked if I can shoot off rockets with you and you said no. So i’m supposed to be nice to you? I like comics and sci fi too but you never ask me to hang out. “

We see a great commentary on one of the often overlooked causes of bullying: the cycle of victimhood. Alan, clearly lacking social skills already, perceives the geeks’ probably unintentional dismissals in the past as rejection. Afraid of being vulnerable, he strikes back against them in order to justify his alienation. This blurs the nerd / bully distinction, since it forces us to view the protagonists as part of a culture of abuse. Earlier in the episode, two of the three geeks abandons plans to attend a convention. When one of the other characters in the series, a fellow geek with weight and odor issues, offers himself to go, the geek seems less than excited. Later on, he claims he can no longer go due to an issue at home, but it’s suspect whether or not he’s just blowing him off. Alan’s view of the geeks now has a bit of credence to it; it’s possible that their desire to be insular marginalized him. This scenario highlights the often murky milieu of high school power dynamics.

3. The Tannens – Back To The Future Series ( 1985 – 1990 )

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” Make like a tree and get out of here! “

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Nowhere is that more true than in the Back To The Future trilogy.

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To start, lets look at Biff Tannen: the definitive bully. He hits every single trope: he’s bigger than the protagonist, he’s a jock, he’s popular ( for no apparent reason ), he’s dumb, he extorts favors, he’s a rapist ( ! ), he’s a racist, and most of all, he’s a murderer ( at least in one timeline ) ! Tom Wilson puts in an underrated performance as Biff; he manages to be as funny as he is threatening, vacillating between being just obnoxious and being a physical threat.

Back to the Future 2 ( 1989 )

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He also portrays the settled nature of an older, more sinister Biff well in the second film. Rather than being a negligible schoolyard bully, he becomes a deeply corrupt sadist. This version of Biff is a Mr. Potter-esque figure who’s so evil that it permeates all of Hill Valley, turning it into a dystopia.

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Wilson’s performance as his great- grandson, inventively named “Griff”, is wonderfully uncanny. The implication is that he’s a cyborg, which comes through in his staccato movements and manic pitch. He’s a futuristic fantasy version of the schoolyard bully: Biff was a slow, Archie-style meathead while Griff is a robotic speedfreak.

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The Tannen line stretches back to the Wild West, where Biff’s ancestor was a cowboy ( the closest thing to a bully in that backdrop ). Fittingly, Wilson based his performance on Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? ( 1962 ). Lee Marvin’s titular Liberty Valance begins the film by robbing an honest lawyer ( Jimmy Stewart ) and then beating him savagely just for talking back. Likewise, Buford Tannen has a massive sense of entitlement that makes him think something as minor as a $80 dispute is worth murder. Overall, this family shows that evil is sometimes in the blood.

2. Butch Deloria – Fallout 3 ( 2008 )

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” I could be out there and kicking butt in my own gang and everything. The Tunnel Snakes could ride again! Or, y’know, slither again. Whatever! “

Most media that depicts 1950’s American youth incorporates the gang subculture of ” Greasers “,  a primarily Italian and Hispanic social group associated with hot rods, leather jackets, and their titular greased hair.

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Given Fallout 3 1950’s influences, it was natural for them to draw upon this culture for the Lone Wanderer’s lifelong tormentor. We see this primarily through his design, but also through a deconstruction of the archetype. For example: his obsession with hair makes him want to be a barber, which a career assessment test refers to only as a ” hairdresser ” to his chagrin. Butch is generally characterized as a chump: when his room is infested with giant roaches, Butch enlists the Wanderer to save his mother because he’s terrified of them. You can also beat the shit out of him and his entire gang as a teenager. It’s funny to think that in a post-apocalyptic world where violence becomes a norm, the resident gang-banger is a a bit of a pussy.

In spite of ( and partially due to ) these aspects, i feel as if Butch is a pretty interesting character. As with Alan White, the character is marginalized from the insular vault community. His mother is a promiscuous alcoholic, which led him to be born not knowing his father. This is probably the cause of his asshole behavior. Once the character makes it to the wasteland, he becomes interested in expanding his vault gang, the Tunnel Snakes. Which consists of just him and the wanderer at that point. At least the jackets are pretty cool.

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So why is this guy such a big deal? Well honestly, he isn’t in the canon of the game; he’s statistically the worst partner you can have. His starting weapons are a switchblade ( being a gang-banger and all ) and a 10 mm handgun. Mind you, this is a game where powered armor exists. The only unique thing he offers the player is, I shit you not, free haircuts.

Despite his gameplay shortcomings, i always felt the character had great potential as a foil to the Lone Wanderer. Like the Wanderer, he’s a teenager from the vault without battle experience. He also has a missing dad as well. Whereas the wanderer wants to leave to find his Dad, Butch just wants freedom. If Fallout 3 was more character-driven, he’d probably be the most interesting guy in the game. One of the primary themes of the Fallout series is letting go of the past and looking to the future. That fits in perfectly with Butch and the archetype he draws from: in West Side Story ( 1961 ), the greaser hoods have all been marginalized into their paths by their race and economic backgrounds. Even Fonzie from Happy Days, a heroic greaser, was shown to have redeemed himself from a tragic urban back-story with a missing father and gang connections. Imagine a story that powerful, but with laser guns! And i’m not the only one who thinks the guy has potential; some players have even modded Fallout: New Vegas ( 2010 ) to include the overlooked Butch Deloria. Hopefully, the actual game creators could take note and include the guy in the future of the franchise.

1. Eugene ” Flash ” Thompson – Spider-Man ( 1962 – Present )

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Puny Parker!

In a heroic tale, antagonists elevate a protagonist into heroism. For superheroes, this is mostly accomplished by supervillains. Given that the Spider-Man franchise draws much of it’s appeal from how the fantastic affects the mundane, Peter Parker also got a high school bully. As you can tell from the panel, the initial conflict in their first appearance ( Amazing Fantasy #15 1962 ) was pretty standard: Thompson was a popular and attractive jock and Peter was an unpopular and unattractive bookworm. While now a cliche, it’s important to remember that there weren’t as many bully / nerd stories then, which makes the conflict more specific. Despite being a smart dude, Peter does lack several heroic qualities. In the mundane high school world, the primary qualities he’s lacking are humor, confidence, and sexual charisma.

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Umm...yea. Great comeback.

Umm…yea. Great comeback.

This is something most modern media don’t get about these archetypes: while audiences are often either “nerds” themselves or sympathize with nerds, that doesn’t mean nerdy characters are inherently admirable. This is a problem in media such as The Hard Times of RJ Berger, The Big Bang Theory, and the aforementioned Drillbit Taylor that create one-note nerds who never grow into compelling heroes. In contrast, once Peter Parker’s dangerous and thrilling lifestyle as Spider-Man allows him revisit his conflict with Flash from a competitive position. Peter is able to return Flash’s insults, fluster him with his bravado, and get his girl to make eyes at him.

The Amazing Spider-Man #13 ( 1964 )

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The conflict between the two isn’t always the same in every iteration; several versions portray their relationship more violently. While Flash does threaten Peter, their relationship almost never incorporated violence in the original series. Both Spider-Man film series turn Flash into a psychopath who would beat Peter’s face in for sneezing on him. This of course sets up the inevitable fight where Peter beats his ass and we all cheer. Stan Lee, rather than going for immediate gratification, builds a relationship between the two that remains playfully combative through clever wordplay and one-upmanship. While not witty, Flash’s combination of machismo, deluded confidence, and goofy Steve Ditko-drawn mugging makes him pretty funny.

The Amazing Spider-Man #25 ( 1965 )

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Granted, they have a formal boxing match at one point that turns out exactly as you think it would.

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Slowly, Flash begins to realize that Peter is more admirable than he originally thought.

The Amazing Spider-Man #39 ( 1966 )

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Flash himself became more admirable as well; his obsession with Spidey makes him want to be a hero himself. He later joins the military, loses his legs, becomes an alcoholic, and gains the Venom symbiote. Comics are weird. In a totally not gay way, Flash is sort of like Lois Lane, given his Peter-hate-that-turns-into-respect and admiration of Spidey. A combative yet not-overly-malicious teenager relationship is a hard thing for modern writers to do, which makes all the more impressive how well Stan Lee handles it. Flash challenged Peter, but as a shortsighted rival and not as a sadistic thug. Likewise, rather than backing down or becoming violent, Peter finds the inner strengths he’s always had to measure up. Their mutual growth embodies the constant progression of The Amazing Spider-Man series throughout the decades.

So what have we learned from these characters? Bullying is wrong…except when part of a well crafted story.

To read some more of my pop-culture lists:

10 Underrated Movie Characters That Fans Really Hate

10 Cover Gimmicks That Cheapened Great Characters

10 Stupid Attempts At Rebranding Comic Characters

8 Most Iconic Slasher Movie Death Scenes

10 Thankfully Obscure Spider-Man Villains

The Walking Dead: Thoughts on Mid-Season 4 Finale and The Governor

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Scenario: you’re in a bar when the sexiest woman you’ve ever seen approaches you. Your eyes follow her every curve from top to bottom. She sees your gaze and returns the favor. She smiles. She walks over. A bead of sweat descends from your forehead. She sits. She leans in with a question: “my place or yours?” A response is sputtered out and your body whisks you away to the inevitable bedroom. Clothes lift off. Bodies touch. Repeatedly. And when it seems like you’ll reach ” le petit mort “, she stops abruptly, picks up her clothes, and leaves without a word. You go back to that bar hoping to see her again, but months go by with nary a hint. Eventually, you move on. Then one day, she shows up at the bar again. Your heart skips a beat. She walks over. She sits. She leans in with a question: “wanna finish what we started?”. A response is sputtered out and your body whisks you away to the inevitable bedroom. She then grabs your penis, pumps until you finish, and then wipes it on the sheets. You sit there confused: “was that it?” Her response: “pretty much, but at least there was a climax”

Did that sound satisfying? If it didn’t, now you know how i felt at first about this episode of The Walking Dead. Now i want to start by saying that i’m a big fan of the show and, for the most  part, the creators got their shit together. I especially like the current season and am looking forward to the rest of it. But, i honestly have mixed feelings about this episode.

Obviously, spoilers ahead.

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The last two episodes painted The Governor/Philip Blake/Brian Geraghty/Nick Fury  as a tragic hero who had fundamentally positive goals but carried them out using monstrous means. He recognizes his sins, hence why he relinquishes his title and name in Live Bait. He finds a new family who want him around, which hints towards a chance of redemption. He begins to fall off the slippery slope in Dead Weight when he realizes the threat of an unknown group of survivors and the unwillingness of his new leader to fight dirty. He kills him out of ( what he tells himself is ) pragmatism and then takes reigns as the new leader. Realizing they’re not safe, he concludes that they should take the prison.

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The Governor’s ascension to a Jim Jones figure is hard to believe in the limited timeframe we’ve been given. He’s accepted into the group immediately, gets to be on the zombie task force, and then very unsuspciously requests to take over after the previous two leaders bite it ( or bitten, in Martinez’s case ). This wouldn’t be that ridiculous within the frame of the two previous episodes, considering that Gov is clearly tactically skilled and charismatic. But in the frame of attacking a bunch of people who they’ve NEVER MET BEFORE and could kill them, it gets somewhat silly.The only people to challenge him is Lilly and Tara, when ironically,  they should be the most accepting of his plan given that he takes care of their family ( especially Lilly *nudge*nudge* ). Personally, i thought this scenario could have worked better if Rick and co reacted more aggressively to Gov and Co. Then at least it would make sense contextually why the Gov’s camp could believe that they are “monsters”. Without that, we’re forced to assume that all of these people are desperate and bloodthirsty, which seems hard to believe given their portrayal in the previous two episodes.

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In addition, this mini-arc builds up the Gov to be more sympathetic than he amounts to in the finale. When he captures Michonne and Hershel, he’s unnecessarily accommodating, what with giving them food and all. He even implies he forgives Michonne for killing his daughter, which was one of his driving motives in the third season. So by the end of this episode, i wanted to see a Governor who wasn’t just the same asshole from the third season. When he cuts off Hershel’s head and shoots his surrogate daughter without a thought, I realized that he probably is the same guy after all.

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What bugs me about this ending is that it could have ALREADY HAPPENED. If you literally took this episode and just placed it in the third season, it would make little difference. The evil Gov of this episode fits in fine with his characterization already. Now to be fair, the old showrunner, Frank Darabont, might have had different plans for the governor for this season and Scott Gimple decided to go back and create the past due climax. But here, it just feels underwhelming given how divorced it is from the narrative that built up to it. Everyone wanted Gov to die in the third season, but we didn’t get that satisfaction. This season had barely acknowledged him until five episodes in. You would think that Rick or Daryl might at least have a few offhand worries about the guy in order to remind us of his threat, but he doesn’t even seem to be on the mind of the protagonists besides Michonne. So when he does show up, we get two quick episodes of a narrative arc that really just reiterates the third season, and then we get a fairly rushed attempt to create the conclusion that we never got previously.

While there are legitimate problems with this episode and its predecessors, I would also say that a part of the reason why it might garner a different reaction than previous episodes is due to it’s fairly downbeat conclusion. Before Gov turns Hersh into a Pez dispenser, Rick imparts a speech which ends with “we’ve all done terrible things, but we get to come back. We can all change”. He then drops the title of the episode “we are not too far gone“. This is accompanied by an obvious zoom on Hershel who ( being the show’s Santa Clause ) smiles at the notion. The Gov is also moved by this speech, but not necessarily for the better. A shaky POV shot shows him looking at the sword and then at Rick.

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After a pause, he calls Rick a liar, then beheads the poor guy.

Why this reaction? Point of view shots imply perspective. Seeing through a character’s eyes allows us to see as they do. At this point, The Gov realizes the position he’s in. He’s back to where he didn’t want to be and he knows it. As established, he’s remorseful over his actions in Woodbury and tries to put it behind him. His taking of a fake name reflects the advice of Rick to Carol to “create a new life for yourself…nobody has to know what you’ve done”. He tried so hard to be cordial to his captives because he legitimately wanted to believe he had changed. He constantly asserts that he’s taking care of his family ( who he really does care about ), but why does that have include war with Rick’s group. We know of the threat of the others who killed the neighboring camp, but we never get a clear progression of reasoning that goes from “protect the camp” to “take over the prison”. Upon reflection his actions are undeniable; he’s not helping his camp, he’s destroying someone else’s. Just as a recovering alcoholic has a harmless drink that leads to relapse ( looking at you, Bob Stookey ), his feelings of responsibility has made him relapse into his lust for power. As he chants to himself in Dead Weight, he didn’t even want it in the first place.

As i mentioned in a previous post, the Gov reflects a lot of different characters on the series. Like Hershel, he was in denial about the state of walkers. Like Rick, he tried to be a dictator. He even has shades of this season’s Carol, who resorted to outright murder to protect the group. Seeing some of the Gov’s characterization in the last three episodes reminds us that he’s still a human being, just like those guys. This makes his return to villainy shows just how inescapable the degradation of humanity is for these characters , particularly Rick. Rick begins the season adamantly avoiding leadership and combat by being a farmer, only to be forced back into both. A scene in this season’s second episode Infected shows Rick clearly broken up when forced to sacrifice the pigs he raised in order to distract the zombies.

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Besides his healthy love of bacon, what makes this such a hard moment for Rick is that he realizes that this is a death for both the pigs and him, in a metaphorical sense. Being in charge means doing things others can’t and won’t do. It means making hard choices. And in this world, we all know what that means. The Governor knows this all too well, and avoids it until he’s compelled first by the actual need of the women, and then by the perceived need ( on his part ) of the camp. As is often said “the road to hell is paved in good intentions”. No matter how noble one begins, the world of The Walking Dead will wear them down till they ain’t no more.

This season succeeded in reframing the Governor as a tragic hero. The third season started off with this characterization but arguably turned him into a super-villain at the end. Once the Governor was reduced down to his essence,we see that he turned out to be just like anyone else. He wants a family. And with that, security. This series often asks us to recast the mundane drives we have into a world that refuses to accommodate them. You can’t just have a family in The Walking Dead. You have to fight for it. And eventually, kill for it. How much is too much is a matter of degrees. Rick acknowledges this in his speech, and tries to reason that he, the Governor, no matter what they’ve done haven’t yet reached the point of no return. Beheading Hershel was an act of spite towards the old man and Rick by the Governor. To him, their belief in spiritual rejuvenation is a spit-in-the-face for men who have succumbed to desperation. He too believed that he can be reborn, but realizes that’s not possible. By the end, we are left to wonder if Rick’s right or if they are all “too far gone”.

So what now? Does this put us in a new position? Have we gained anything? I’m not sure, to be honest. Serialized fiction isn’t always the best at producing satisfactory conclusions, whether it be mid or end-season. What we did get was from this episode and the one preceding it was a beautiful character study that was well-acted and directed. The Governor’s second and final fall was expected, but still compelling. It would have been much better if this kind of character could have been around by the end of last season, but at least we got it at some point. So in closing: so long Governor. Hopefully Michonne keeps your eyepatch as a trophy.

vlcsnap-2013-12-03-13h48m02s4For more posts on Walking Dead:

The Walking Dead: The Governor-Well-Intentioned Extremist

Three Forms Of Comedy In Justice League

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In a way, comedy is the art form of the masses. Most people can’t play the cello or perform ballet, but almost everyone can make someone laugh ( hopefully, not during sex ). Not everyone knows why people laugh, however. There are a legion of theories on comedy dating back to Ancient Greece, but for the sake of argument, i’m going to narrow it down to just narrative comedy. Let’s say there are three forms of comedic plots that come out of mainstream media: situational, character-based, and farcical.

To compare and contrast these three forms, i’ll use the animated series Justice League Unlimited as a base. For some background: Justice League Unlimited was a series that ran on Cartoon Network from 2004-2006. It was the culmination of the extensive DC Comics animated universe created by character designer Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, and writer / producer Dwayne McDuffie. Why this series? Because it’s fucking awesome! More importantly, while listening to the DVD commentary for one of the episodes ( yes, people do that sometimes ) i was intrigued by an offhand remark by series lead artist Bruce Timm who noted that, unintentionally, they released three episodes that almost perfectly fit the three forms of comedy around the same time. This is especially funny since JLU is definitely NOT a comedy series ( at least most of the time ). I decided to re-watch those episodes to examine that claim…

1. Situational

I’m pretty sure most of you have heard of the film pitch of “X meets Y“. This is reflective of the “dartboard” approach to screenwriting, where writers literally just combine random ideas in order to create a concept. When done poorly, the results are awful. For example: ” Urban black culture meets Sci-Fi “.

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When done well, it can create hilarious spins on familiar stories. Much of the comedy from Shaun of The Dead ( 2004 ) derives from the fact that the main characters seem to be right out of a lighthearted romance film…yet they’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Hilarity ensues. The film Analyze This ( 1999 ) revolves around a psychiatrist’s relationship with his new patient…who just so happens to be a mob boss. Hilarity ensues.

The central idea  of situational comedy is “humor derived from incongruity” ( and yes, i just made that up ). When things don’t quite match up, they can be funny. The most common form of this is “fish out of water” plots which put easily identifiable character-types in situations they shouldn’t be in. Situational comedy leans mostly on dialogue and chemistry, since the disconnect has to be established by characters interactions. For example the series Frasier builds a lot of its humor from the snobby Crane brothers interacting with their working class father and friends. The biggest threat to this concept is if the initial premise becomes the only joke that can be made. One of the most maligned examples of this trope is “white guy / black guy” films where all of the humor can be summed up quite quickly…

In short, a good situational comedy BUILDS off its incongruity.

The Episode – Kid Stuff ( August 11 2004 )

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The Premise – Mordred, punk-ass son of the sorceress Morgan Le Fay from Arthurian legend, obtains a macguffin known as the “Amulet of First Magic”. The amulet gives Mordred ultimate power, which he uses to get back at his mother and all adults of the world ( which includes the Justice League ) by banishing them into some kind of limbo dimension. Morgan Le Fay, seeking to undo her son’s spell, finds a way to counteract the magic…by turning the League into little lads and lasses! ( i’m sorry )

How does it work? – Interestingly enough, most of the plot is played fairly straight. The situation is portrayed as fairly dire: the entire adult population is stuck in limbo for eternity and their children are left to fend for themselves. Even the heroes themselves attempt to play it straight. I say ‘attempt’ because once they’ve been reduced to ten-year-olds, they fall victim to the realities of how a ten-year-old would act in this situation.

Each character trait of the heroes is modified to a ten-year-old’s sensibility. Green Lantern’s militancy turns into dorkiness. Superman’s nobility turns into farm boy naivete. Wonder Woman’s confidence turns into flirtatiousness. Batman’s grimness turns into smartassness. What’s great about this characterization is that it saves the episode from going to the obvious “spinoff babies” direction by not having all jokes revolve around one note “aww that’s cute” humor. For example, for awhile in the series Wonder Woman has been implied to have an “interest” in Batman, which he seems to ignore because he must be the gayest man in the universe. This comes up in one scene when the heroes decides to pick teams to fight Mordred:

What makes this situation funny is that they’re STILL acting in-character, it’s just that their characters are being viewed through an exaggerated lens. Wonder Woman flirts more openly than usual, Bats is more dismissive than usual, and Supes is more oblivious than usual. Even Lantern’s jokes manages to fit in-story since he alludes to becoming more corny at the beginning of the episode. The plot of Kid Stuff manages to take a humorous AND canonical look at each character’s personality through their childhood selves.

2. Character

Some people are just naturally funny ( *cough* like me *cough* ). These guys are able to enter a room and have everyone laughing without much setup. People like these are producers’ wet dreams, because it means they can bank on a film or television project just by finding these guys. More often than not, character-based comedy draws from comedians, since they can carry shows single-handedly. The 90’s had a whole slew of these types of comedies; Martin, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, just to name a few. Often times, the character ( or characters ) is someone who is outlandish in his or her own right. A perfect film example is the The Nutty Professor ( 1963 ).

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See? I don’t even have to explain to you why that character would elicit laughter. Character comedy doesn’t ALWAYS have to be outlandish to work; characters can just be humorous in a believable way. The protagonists of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia manage to be both despicable, yet relatable. Their flaws are all based in reality: Dennis is a narcissistic guy who peaked in college, Dee is an entitled loser who has delusions of grandeur, Charlie is a slovenly pauper who’s struggled his whole life, Mac is an insecure conservative oblivious to his own hypocrisy, and Frank is Danny Devito. Good character comedy produces likable protagonists that keep us engaged. Bad character comedy creates protagonists who are so removed from reality that it’s difficult to connect with them ( a common criticism of Monk and the aforementioned Martin ).

The episode-The Greatest Story Never Told ( September 11 2004 )

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The premise – Rookie Leaguer Booster Gold is called to join in an epic conflict with the universe’s most powerful wizard…as crowd control. However, during the conflict he uncovers an equally important catastrophe, which he takes on since he’s the only unattended Leaguer. And also because he’s trying to get laid.

How does it work? – First, i’ll explain the origin of Booster Gold to you non-nerds: Michael Jon Carter was a failed football star who became a janitor in the far off future. While working at a superhero museum, he had the brilliant idea to steal several pieces of high end technology ( including a living computer named Skeets who became his sidekick ) and take a one-way trip to the current time in order to become a famous superhero so he can become rich and famous.

That by itself is a hilarious set-up for jokes. It’s like if Criss Angel was a real-life Angel who became a magician to get a free hotel room. Much of the humor of this episode comes from Booster’s superficiality: at one point he gives advice to Martian Manhunter on how he should get himself a catchier name ( which is a solid point ). When the Manhunter tries to get him to realize that being a superhero is about more than just fame, Booster agrees and asks ” How much do you pull in a year, after taxes? “. Now arguably, this is somewhat of a situational plot as well: Booster’s self-serving nature is incongruous in a world of superHEROes who should be the opposite. However, most of the episode focuses on him alone, negating many comparisons with the other Leaguers. Instead, we get a lot of jokes about how much of a loser he is. In addition, there’s great voice acting from actor Tom Everett Scott ( Dead Man On CampusBoiler Room ) as Booster and veteran voice actor Billy West ( STIMPY! ) as Skeets:

3. Farcical

Now, i know some of you have been reading and thinking” Fuck you Rob; comedy isn’t about structure! Comedy is just doing funny things!” First off, don’t curse so much. Second of all, you have a point. Some stories eschew specific plots and characters in favor of “free-form” comedy. This is where we get to ‘farce”, which means “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations”. As you can imagine, farce is easy to do for comedy, because all it requires is something that’s momentarily funny. The issue is the “momentarily” part. Remember when “THIS IS SPARTA!” jokes were funny? Imagine an ENTIRE film based around that?

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Exactly

Farce is probably the easiest form of comedy to fuck up because it requires a body of individual bits of humor to support it. This requires an extensive grasp of “quick comedy” ( one liners, slapstick, etc ). I think this is why older works tended to grasp this comedic form better ( The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Airplane! ) since they had their roots in silly vaudeville acts. The best modern day examples would probably be shows like Family Guy and Adventure Time, which have almost no grip on reality. As with any form of comedy, works don’t have to be ENTIRELY farcical, farce can still exist in degrees. For example, Seinfeld was mostly character and situationally driven, but occasionally incorporated outlandish elements such as the famous “Bubble Boy” who had a heated rivalry with George Costanza.

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One of the best ways to incorporate farce is as a “narrative crescendo”. One of the best examples is the film Tropic Thunder ( 2008 ). It incorporates farcical elements throughout the film, but it isn’t till the film’s climax where ( SPOILER ) a character intercepts an rpg with a TIVO ( END SPOILER ) that it becomes completely divorced from reality. Overall, farce is both the simplest and the trickiest category of comedy.

The Episode – This Little Piggy ( August 28 2004 )

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The Premise – Wonder Woman’s archnemesis, the goddess Circe, turns her into a pig. Batman has to find out how to get her back to normal. No seriously.

How does it work? – How could it not work? This is the craziest idea in the history of the series. First off, making Batman the protagonist allows for every situation to become even funnier because of how serious he is. In the picture above, Batman is caressing a pig tenderly. No more needs to be said. Secondly, the scenario leads to a bevy of of corny-yet-effective pig puns. ( a slaughterhouse worker jumps on Wonder Pig and utters the inevitable “that’ll do, pig” line from Babe [ 1995 ] ). Notably, what i’ve mentioned so far covers only character and situational comedy. So what makes it farcical? Several things. Each scene in the episode has it’s own internal logic that creates either a character comedy or a situational comedy ( or both ) in itself. When Batman loses the Wonder Pig, he has to call a guy called ‘B’wana Beast‘ who has never been mentioned before and looks like this…

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…to track her down. At one point, Batman thinks to venture to the RIVER STYX to question FREAKING MEDUSA about Circe.

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Medusa sounds like Patty and Selma from The Simpsons and tells Batman to ask Circe for her curling iron back. Most ridiculous of all, when a character ponders Circe’s whereabouts, we get a musical number with Circe accompanied by a full band and backup dancers.

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Did she conjure that up? Is she a club regular? None of this is explained, it just happens. This all builds up to a final battle at the same club in which Batman makes a bargain with Circe in order to return Diana to humanity ( or I guess amazon-ity ). What horrible request does Circe make of Batman?

That’s it. That’s all it took to resolve the whole plot. She turned a woman into a pig and fought a huge battle just to ask for that. That, my friends, is farce.

While i wouldn’t call them reflective of the entire series, i would say these episodes reflect what’s so fun about superheroes in general. Each episode highlights how these tales can be vacillate between dramatic AND funny. In addition, they also help to show how humorous writing is almost always smart writing.

Here’s some other funny moments from the series:

For more posts on superheroes:

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Ben Affleck as Batman: Why So Serious?

Superman as Defined By Lex Luthor

The Lois Lane Effect

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

From Comic to TV: Green Arrow as Adapted Into Arrow

Journey of Peter Parker From Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever / Why Spider-Man is a Classic Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

For more posts on televison:

Top 5 Bullies In Fiction

The Walking Dead: The Governor as a Well-Intentioned Extremist

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

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This may surprise you, but slavery is still a pretty hot-button topic in America. Despite being in a “Post-Obama” America, most people still have a hard time taking an objective look at the slave trade that existed roughly between the mid-1700’s till the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. And this is for good reason: we’re still suffering the effects of it. African Americans still lag behind their white peers economically. Culturally, we still deal with many of the hang ups that began in slavery (anti-intellectualism, self-hatred, etc). It often feels as if the chains of slavery have loosened, but not broken.

This is evident in mainstream film as well: most works dealing with the period have to be so weighed down in sentiment that they have a hard time saying something productive. Surprisingly, despite being created when the Civil Rights movement was still very prominent America, Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) is one of the few even-handed portrayals of slavery. For some background, Roots was a miniseries that ran on ABC for six episodes. It was based on a (loosely) historical novel by Haley which follows his direct ancestors from Africa to his present day.

The series was enormously successful, winning 9 Emmys, being nominated for 28 others, and to this day being in the top ten most successful series of all time. What’s so striking about the series to me is that despite mainstream success, it actually makes a subtle and nuanced commentary on slavery. Granted, there’s tasteful sentiment, but along with that we have characters that elucidate aspects of the slave trade.

Of particular note in Roots is the governing structure of slave owners. Any major industry or organization needs varying roles in order to sustain itself. You just can’t have accountants dealing with your legal problems or your human resource manager doing location scouting. This extends to institutions as well. For example, most major religions thrive due to both casual and devoted followers. The zealousness of devotees maintains structure while fair-weather followers allow for numbers. Slavery was supported by both division of labor and sentiment, with those who owned slaves rarely overlapping with those who actually worked with slaves. In Rootsthis is best exemplified by the first slave owner and overseer that we meet, John Reynolds and Ames.

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Reynolds (seen above) is first introduced buying Kunta Kinte (the protagonist for the first three episodes). The first thing we get from the guy is that he depends heavily on his house slave – Fiddler –  since HE’S the one who actually scouts Kunta as a good slave. He’s also kind of smug. On the way back to his plantation, he has Fiddler put new shoes on his horses. When Fiddler rationally asks why the task needs doing in the middle of the road, he states “The beast is property…a wise man always takes care of his horses and his slaves “. What sage wisdom coming from guy lying down while eating an apple.

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Even worse, he leaves Fiddler alone with Kunta on the same road. Fiddler rationally brings to his attention that two unattended slaves could lead to them being viewed as runaways (which would be costly for the slaves and Reynolds). Reynolds’ retort? ” Then i wouldn’t take too much time shoeing that horse if i were you “, followed by a dickish grin.

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The demeanor of Reynolds is very similar to another douchebag superior: Bill Lumbergh in Office Space (1999).

In the Google eBook Reading the Everyday (2005), social historian Joe Moran postulates that Lumbergh’s non-confrontational phrasing (‘Uh, great, yeah, listen, I’m going to have to go ahead and ask you to) “masks the reality of management coercion“. That guy HAS to do what Lumbergh tells him to do, no matter how he phrases it. Office Space‘s satirical tone means that Lumbergh attempts to obscure this are hilariously unenthusiastic, he doesn’t even wait for employees to respond to his cordialities before making his “requests”.

Likewise, Reynolds owns Fiddler, so there’s no need for him to have a dialogue with him. Reynolds is masking the realities of slavery by affecting a paternal tone towards Fiddler. In the horseshoeing scene, Fiddler is making a valid, mature point about the danger for Reynolds’ “property”, but, like an aloof father, he has a casually dismissive reaction. This is similar to how Lumbergh never acknowledges his employees’ desires when giving orders. Granted, whereas Peter from Office Space is merely a beleaguered employee, Fiddler is a slave. In a modern office setting, there are checks and balances to make sure that superiors aren’t callous towards their subordinates. Even simply cursing at an employee can make a labor lawyer’s ear perk up in America. For his own protection, Lumbergh has to at least make some effort to be polite. Slaves had no such protection, so Reynolds could literally have just told Fiddler to shut the fuck up both times he contested him. So why did he engage in shallow banter? I would wager to guess it’s because Reynolds DOESN’T think its shallow. He thinks that their paternal relationship is actually genuine. He really does believe that he “takes care of his horses and slaves“, as he claimed earlier.

Reynolds confirms this perspective later when he has conversation with his family and Ames about slavery.  He incredulously asks Ames if he does not believe in “the natural ability for the white men to dominate the black“. For him, slavery is the natural way of things. Racial hierarchy was a large component of white support for black enslavement. Thinkers of the time such as Frenchman Arthur Gobineau believed that blacks existed at the bottom of the racial totem pole, even if they did have some positive traits. As such, they thought slavery couldn’t be thought of as detrimental. Hell, many thought it was BENEFICIAL for blacks to be enslaved if it meant they can get some positive influence from whites.

What’s intriguing about the character of Reynolds is that the series takes a surprising interest in him as a character outside of being a slaveholder. When he returns home after buying Kunta, we get a family scene that wouldn’t be out of place in The Brady Bunch

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The scene sets up his very charming relationship with his family. He’s not afraid to be silly with his daughters and is affectionate towards his wife, constantly referring to her as “my love”. This image of a idyllic family structure is challenged during Reynolds slavery argument with Ames and his brother. While Reynolds is engaging in the debate about his confidence in white superiority, there are several conspicuous cuts to his brother and his wife looking at each other in a…friendly manner.

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This obvious eye-fucking is not a throwaway moment: it’s later revealed that not only have the two been engaged in an affair, her youngest child is a product of it. What’s important to remember is that this occurs DURING Reynolds’ conversation with Ames (Reynolds is sitting down)

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At any time, Reynolds could’ve just looked over and thought “that looks suspicious”. What’s even worse is that when Reynolds does see them flirt with each other, he states that his brother is a ladies man in an offhand manner. Even when reality stares Reynolds in the face, he’s too fucking stupid to realize it. Years later, after Kunta has already attempted to runaway and has been insubordinate for a decade, Reynolds STILL trusts him to leave the plantation to work for a neighbor. Why? Because Kunta promised he wouldn’t run away, and why would an infinitely-indentured servant with a history of escapes break a promise like that?

As with Calvin Candie and his french fetish in Django Unchained (2013), these aren’t necessary elements of the plot, but it illuminates Reynolds’ worldview. A wealthy, comfortable man like Reynolds doesn’t have to question much about his existence, so he doesn’t. It’s easy for him to have trust in the fidelity of his wife and his slaves, even when a quick spot-check would reveal why he shouldn’t. His feelings dictate his relationships and not logic. Reynolds could be thought of as the “clueless” buffer that made up a good chunk of slave owners, who were more ignorant than malicious. Most cultures believe that they have a degree of superiority to someone, Americans just had the unfortunate benefit of being able to institutionalize that perception. Personally, I had a hard time hating Reynolds when I first saw this series, since he just seemed like a bumbling dad who happened to live during time when you could buy slaves. He actually treats most of the slave characters decently (in comparison to his contemporaries). He’s still a smug jerk, but it once again feels like a product of his sheltered upbringing. Unfortunately, his ignorance (as representative of the country’s at the time) allows for slavery to thrive, as otherwise most would hesitate to be party to the enslavement of those they consider equals.

The thing is, not everyone could have been as ignorant as Reynolds. While slavery has always been a thriving business, the sheer quantity of African-American slavery required more work to maintain as an institution. You needed someone to turn men into slaves. This work needed those who understood the underwriting of slavery and could counterbalance morons like Reynolds. And in Roots, that man is Ames.

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The first mention of Ames establishes him as a foil to Reynolds:  at one point Fiddler reasons that Reynolds’ care is what keeps slaves from running away, but Reynolds corrects him as Ames believes it’s “fear of the whip” that keeps them in line. Fiddler notes that Ames is a very different man then Reynolds.

Part of that difference we see is that he’s much more pragmatic than Reynolds: when Kunta is brought to the plantation, he recognizes that Reynolds shouldn’t entrust him with regular slave duties since he hasn’t been broken in. Whereas Reynolds has a much more fanciful relationship with the slaves due to his naivete, Ames is much more wary of them. What’s funny is that it isn’t due to racism, quite the opposite actually. Ames KNOWS blacks aren’t inherently inferior, which is why he cautions Reynolds during their debate to not underestimate them.

The film gives some backstory to explain Ames’ worldview: before becoming an overseer, he was an indentured servant for 7 years. Despite the common assumption that all slaves were of Afro-origin, there were several colonies that took slaves of Anglo-origin (Virginia, Massachusetts, Barbados, New York, just to name a few). Scotsmen like Ames were particularly easy targets as they were vastly poorer than other Englishmen and thus could be bought and sold without much recourse. Slave owners (and slaves themselves) often treated black slaves BETTER than white ones because they lacked the paternal relationship that whites built up with blacks (which led to the creation of the term ” white trash “). With all this in mind, it makes sense why he states to Reynolds that “slaves aren’t born, they’re made“, which makes his acts in the series all the more cruel.

In case you weren’t aware, Ames is responsible for the series most famous scene, where Kunta Kinte is beaten until he accepts his slave name. The episode builds to this moment earlier on, when Ames himself recognizes why Kunta won’t accept his new name. Reynolds and his brother believe that if Kunta is as smart as Ames says he is, he should be able to learn it, but Ames claims that BECAUSE he’s smart, he won’t accept his name. As a former slave, he recognizes that one of the first steps to becoming an inferior is giving up your identity. Oddly enough, Ames is one of the few characters (without even including other slaves) who recognizes the kind of man Kunta is.

Notice how different his manner of speaking is compared to guys like Reynolds and Lumbergh. Ames makes no attempt to hide “the reality of management coercion” and instead speaks to them with direct brutal assertion. Rather than employing defusing humor like Reynolds (“Then i wouldn’t take too much shoeing that horse if i were you“), he uses hostile innuendo: “If you don’t understand my meaning, i’ve got a dictionary at the butt end of this whip that’ll make my meaning clear .” He also, unlike Reynolds, knows when slaves are fucking with him, not accepting the excuses Fiddler gives for Kunta’s insubordination. Nor does he seem to fall for Kunta’s faux earnestness at the end of the scene (once again, in contrast to the later scene where he pulls the same act on Reynolds). Ames sees Kunta as an equal and therefore knows he has to be broken severely.

Most viewers would probably agree that Ames is one of the most despicable character in the series. That isn’t just due to his torture of Kunta, but also the fact that he’s perfectly aware of what he’s doing. ” Modern wisdom ” dictates that racism, and most  of what results from it, is a result of ignorance. We see here that while ignorance does account for several actors, a sizable amount were just taking advantage of the opportunities of slavery. Working-class whites were able to get jobs that allowed them some power, which wasn’t possible without a slave workforce. The series even acknowledges that Africans themselves were the biggest suppliers of slaves.

For many, slavery was just an economical choice, not a racial one. As Ames himself points out, “was a slave for 7 years and got my freedom, but in 7 years a nigger will still be black.” Blacks couldn’t reintegrate into society, making them the perfect engineered underclass. It just made SENSE to use them as slaves from a fiscal perspective. And as dark as that sounds, that’s how the horrors of black slavery began: with a fiscal decision. Ames represents the opportunistic spirit of slavery, which is what kept it alive for so long. Combined with the fanciful worldview of men like Reynolds’, American slavery became an institution that continues to weigh heavy on America.

For more posts on African American race relations:

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 1: Cornball Brothers

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 2: Black Supermen

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 3: Noble Savages

 

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 1: Cornball Brothers

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In case you didn’t know, I am black. This is shocking, I realize. Nevertheless, as a black man, i have grown up realizing just how coded race is in America. Now obviously i’m not saying that African Americans are the only citizens to experience racial pressures; what i’m trying to say that the community’s racial pressures are more identifying. Model minorities (mostly East and South Asians) are coded as “others” by Americans, but also compete on the world stage at such a high level due to economic and cultural wealth that said distinctions are at least ignored, if not applauded. Non-American Caucasians have a few foreign markers, but still share enough phenotypes and history to become regular ole white people after a generation or two.

African-Americans, on the other hand, lack the cultural history to stand on proudly (given that, for all intents and purposes, our culture begins with slavery), have no international capital, and can’t assimilate nearly as well. As such, African American cultural tropes are “hyper-realized” due to a combination of outside and inner influence, to the point where “blackness” for many people is the only thing that makes African Americans valuable. Stereotypes are enforced because they define us and create an identity. American masculinity exacerbates this, since men have to constantly assert value in order to retain their manhood, which means black men have to constantly assert blackness to retain their black manhood. As such, black men make very extreme figures in media, where they have historically vacillated between often contradictory caricatures.

For most of Western history, “masculinity” was based on a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) model. Paragons of masculinity were defined as the ruling class (royalty, landowners, etc), so just not being WASPy in the Western world meant you were inherently “unmanly”. This is seen in visual depictions of the Irish and East Asians, who were often short, unattractive, and slight.

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This was true as well for African American males. A great example of this are the illustrations of the prominent 1800’s print-makers Currier and Ives, which charted the growth of the nation through their pictorials. Part of the American flavor they depicted were the perceived whimsy of African Americans. Several illustrations focused on the fictional “Darktown”, especially a notably recurring series that features the “Hook And Ladder Corps” responsible for fighting fires. And boy are they great at their jobs!

Drawn by “Knig [sic] & Murphy.” Currier & Ives, 1884

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Notice how one member throws water in a person’s face, another dangles a child over the ground, and two use a hammock to catch a LIVE STOVE which most likely caused the fire in the first place. Firefighting is one of the mostly blatantly manly jobs in the world; you go into burning buildings, chop shit with axes, and save women that tacitly consent to sex with you. These guys manage to take all the piss right out of it with their buffoonery,which is kind of the point.

Calling a black dude a man was inherently contradictory at this point in history: they were ‘boys’. As such, any feat they attempted would be bungled in the same way a child would. Their purported physicality reflected this: blacks had the grace and physique of baby calves. They had lanky limbs that assisted in making their odd movements seem even more exaggerated. Rather than having chiseled or at least plausibly defined bodies, they had overly-rounded faces and either gangly or rotund bodies. In short, there wasn’t much that was “masculine” about black depictions at the time. One of the worst examples has to be the infamous Warner Brothers 1943 Merry Melodies cartoon Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs (yes that’s spelled correctly) that has some of the most grotesquely imagined blacks you’ll ever see.

When black men appeared in narrative media, the best they could hope for was being a benign sidekick meant to emphasize the manliness of a white man, which is seen in works such as Will Eisner’s famous 1940’s comic series The Spirit with Ebony White and,to a lesser extent, the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No with Quarrel.

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If archetypal racial caricatures have paragon saints, most would attribute the pathetic black man stereotype to the eponymous Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.Legree

The novel was an anti-slavery narrative that predated the Civil War. Stowe’s method of communicating the sinfulness of slavery was by portraying African Americans as ideal Christians, which was exemplified by Uncle Tom. Tom is so pacifistic and gentle that he actually forgives the men who beat him to death at the novel’s end. Oddly enough, anyone who reads the novel carefully sees that Tom is actually clearly meant to be a POSITIVE character, who stuck to his morals even in death. He was also a dutiful father and servant who inspired characters of both races to better themselves. The character Jim in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is often considered a slightly more dignified iteration of the character, given that despite having Tom-levels of fealty towards Finn, has enough autonomy to run away from his master and call out Finn on his disrespectful nature.

Unfortunately, most imitations of Tom simplified the character by leaving out his saintliness and only focusing on his passivity and subservience. Pop culture osmosis has turned Tom into a pussy who does what ever a white man tells him to do, leading to his very name becoming an epithet for “weak” black men. Despite a century passing, this is still a prevalent trope, even though it’s transformed somewhat. Characters like Tom, Ebony White, and Quarrel are subservient to whites, but still very much members of African American culture (it’s their only real personality trait, after all) as shown by their speech and mannerisms. Modern “Uncle Toms” are often identified as actually mimicking whites to the point of parody, with the assumption that their personalities are affectations created as a form of cultural subservience.

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This trope is played with in The Boondocks with Tom DuBois, whose mistreatment by pretty much everyone portrays him as the prototypical Uncle Tom and also, in the series’ satirical tone, highlights how exaggerated the cultural prejudice is. He’s wealthy, educated, attractive, fit, honest, and even has a hot wife. Yet, he’s constantly being mistreated by his mostly lower-class neighbors for not being ‘black enough’. 

The shift in the stereotype is strange, but one could presume that it’s an evolution of resentment towards the “black elite”. For slaves, the black elite would have been the house slaves, who’s devotion to white masters has landed them the indentured servant equivalent to a CEO position (just look at the amount of power Steven wields in 2013’s Django Unchained). As blacks have been afforded more opportunities, some can now achieve the success of their once masters, which invariably includes adopting some of their culture as well (pretty much becoming black yuppies).These African Americans become figures of resentment for two primary reasons: 1. they invalidate the culture as a whole by connotating success with whiteness or at least rejection of blackness 2. they often have more money, education, and overall acceptance than their less fortunate kin.  The paragon saint of this version of Uncle Tom is a character who’s been the bane of un-black black men for years: Carlton Banks.

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Carlton Fucking Banks

For the two people who have never seen the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it focuses on a street wise youth from West Philadelphia – born and raised – who moves in with the posh Banks family (I see what they did there). People in the screenwriting biz would call this a “fish out of water” plot: Hilarity ensues because Will is out of place in high society. In order to hammer this conflict home, a comedic foil was needed: Carlton Banks. Carlton was the mirror opposite of Will: he was studious whereas Will was lackadaisical, he was serious whereas Will was flippant and so on. Carlton also served as enough of a contrast to sell us on Will’s “street-ness”. Will Smith was one of the whitest black men in media, narrowly being beaten by Al Roker. His acting credits pre-Fresh Prince consisted of after-school specials. Despite all that, he’s still “streeter” (i.e. blacker) than Carlton, who’s nothing more than a preppy straw-man made for derision. As the show matured, most of the characters’ became more nuanced and realistic, especially Will, and yet Carlton got even goofier, as if to remind us that Will is still supposed to be a cool black guy. This becomes even more evident once Will’s friends Jazz and…that other black guy…become recurring characters, establishing an official in-universe “black culture” for Carlton to be rejected by. Will in one episode directs a poetic jab towards Carlton that sums up his role quite well: “Roses are red / violets are blue / we’re all black / Carlton, what are you?

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Not only is Carlton coded as un-black, his un-blackness marks him as inadequate in every conceivable way. He loses out in every endeavor that black men purportedly succeed in ( sports, humor, sex ). He’s also consistently insufficient in non-stereotypical things as well: Will ends up being a better student than him and his own father tells Will in secret that he feels he has more potential than all of his children, including Carlton. Carlton fails so much because he isn’t street smart, he doesn’t have “swagger”, he overall just isn’t cool (i.e. black) enough. One could say that this is more a function of him being the designated nerd than his blackness, but I would contend that he’s portrayed too negatively for that to fly. Urkel was a laughing stock, but was also the most moral character in Family Matters. Same could be said of Screech from Saved By The Bell. Carlton’s closest analogue, Alex P. Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox) from the 90’s sitcom Family Ties, was also a conservative, short, douchey nerd, but was at least treated as a legitimate person with who regularly displayed strengths. Carlton is not only unmanly and unsuccessful, he’s a snob who’s supposed to suffer misfortune.

This character could be viewed as a deconstruction of the cultural promise that The Cosby Show asserted: while black men like Philip Banks can grow up in black culture, become successful, and reconcile that success with their upbringing, their successors will be detached from said upbringing and be “weaker” because of it (like Carlton). In contrast, Will is a wish fulfillment character who has blackness AND success, further diminishing the already diminutive Carlton. And the audience, whether they realize it or not, love seeing the poor guy diminished. Carlton Banks embodies a very real prejudice in the African American community (and to a lesser extent, America in general) against black men who don’t practice traditional black masculinity.

EDIT: Now to be fair, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air at least had enough self-awareness in later seasons to acknowledge the unfortunate implications of Carlton in this episode

Go here for the other parts of the series: “Black Supermen” and “Noble Savages”

For more posts on Afro Americans in media:

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

Supplementary Viewing/Reading:

Basketball Website “Grantland”‘s article “The Rise of The NBA Nerd” by Wesley Morris: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7346656/the-rise-nba-nerd

For those who don’t get the “cornball” reference, here’s former ESPN commentator Rob Parker’s infamous debate which led to his firing:

A 1930’s animated adaptation (and i use “adaptation” loosely) of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The Walking Dead: The Governor-Well Intentioned Extremist

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Season three of Walking Dead has given us the series’ first real Big Bad,The Governor,who is the de facto leader of Woodbury. His actions so far this season includes slaughtering a military company, keeping his zombie daughter captive, and kind-of-almost raping Maggie. There’s no dispute that he’s quite harsh, but are his means justified considering his ends? He’s running the closest thing to civilization in an apocalyptic scenario, and a damned good one at that considering the contentment of his people. He has the same goals that most of the protagonists share, he’s just a lot more successful at achieving them (well,up until recently). The indictment of Gov Phil by the show and its audience exemplifies the thematic car crash of the whole series,both diegetically and meta-diegetically. Is Walking Dead a dichotomous morality play set in a zombie world or is it an ambiguous look at human decision-making during desperate times? I’m not sure if even the writing team is sure. The Team Rick vs Woodbury dynamic gives us one of the most legible examples of this conflict.

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The Governor’s first appearance in the season establishes his fervor for border control. Upon finding a lone soldier, he quickly ascertains the position of his squad and then proceeds to kill them,along with the aforementioned soldier. The Governor’s reaction is extreme, yet the logical conclusion of the xenophobia shared by the series’ characters. Hershel didn’t even want Team Rick on his property in the second season, and their presence did lead to a death of a family member of his, making his concern justified. And in the current season, Rick was willing to send prisoners out into a hostile world just in case they bore him ill will (which they did).  In a modern, non-apocalyptic scenario, it’s easy to believe that people should assume the best of outsiders. America is the nation that opens its arms to “weak, huddled masses”, after all. In reality, the only reason why you and I can afford such a pleasantry is because we have the backing of an organized government. Despite what border patrols nuts will tell you,the threat of a few nefarious immigrants is minimal compared to any moderately organized police force. In addition,dealing with dissidents is just a matter of how long do you want them to be locked up. Michael Scofields do not abound in the real world. When these systems collapse, neighborliness collapses with it. During Hurricane Katrina, it was tragically common for opportunists to ransack and rob their own neighbors during the confusion. Even outside of natural disasters, third world countries like the Philippines often have smaller insular communities with their own militias in case some shit goes down.  Mind you, these examples are on a small scale, the world of Walking Dead has NO governing bodies whatsoever. A town like Woodbury has to be completely self-sufficient, so the room for error is nil. While yes, the soldier seemed innocuous enough, who could say the same for his squad? It wouldn’t be hard for a bunch of heavily armed and trained soldiers to run a train on a collective like Woodbury. Hell, if Team Rick’s dispute with the prisoners ended differently, the others would have had to make due with a one-legged old man, a child,that idiot T-Dog and those women (fuck feminism; you know they can’t do shit).  With such potential threats, it just doesn’t make sense to take in many outsiders unless you can completely determine the situation, an attitude the Governor seems to subscribe to. This is explains why the Governor reacts the way he does to Michonne: while she is shown to be heroic, her enigmatic nature and quickness to violence makes her a dangerous variable to the tight-knit community. Variables are a no go in such a tenuous civilization.

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The Governor’s extreme decisions are a logical consequence of what the series’ characters have been veering towards throughout the show. Multiple characters have proposed tenets that simultaneously subvert and promote the value of provincial values in the end game scenario that is a zombie apocalypse. Rick wants his preteen son to behave as a man, yet his wife believes that having a burdensome baby is perfectly rational. Dale believes that they shouldn’t take a human life if not necessary, and Rick later stabs his best friend. These problems only exist due to a lack of human resources. If Team Rick had more men,they wouldn’t have to have a child serve as a soldier. If they had a psychiatric facility, Rick could’ve put his buddy in a cell instead of giving him a hillibilly shanking. Without the human resources, there can be no convenient distribution of labor. This means that the same people who want to hold on to their ideas of civilization have to perform extremely uncivilized tasks. It’s a scenario destined for failure. What’s great about having the resources of a town, even a small one like Woodbury, is that only the Governor and his hit squad have to take on the emotional brunt of making hard choices. They create the necessary buffer between the zombie world and the innocent citizenry. Despite most human beings’ reluctance to take another life, all of our world governments have some kind of organized military, implying that there are always those needed to deal with less savory tasks. As stated earlier,the draconian nature of Woodbury’s militia is due to the fact that they still don’t have that many resources. Hard choices need to be made, and the Governor is levying them as best as he can.

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Unfortunately, The Governor has the same sentiments as the other characters from the series as well. Most egregiously, he decided to keep his zombified daughter locked up in a room,seemingly in the hopes that she can be somehow rehabilitated. His delusion is nearly the same as Hershel’s; they both are unable to accept the realities of the virus and assume there will be some kind of rebirth for their loved ones. While many viewers view such a stance as silly, it’s important to remember that most funeral traditions endeavor to obfuscate the finality of death. Christian services often quote biblical verses referencing the rising of the dead to heaven (For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens;2 Corinthians 5:1). In addition,many animistic religions regarded certain animals with reverence because they believed they were reincarnated humans. Ironically, a zombie apocalypse is probably the closest thing to eternal life, as Hershel himself wryly points out. The inability to accept death is not just a religious convention; it’s not uncommon for even  the secular to spout aphorisms like “Aunt Sally exists as long as we remember her”. Hell, many of the irreligious decide to join the God-team for the sake of a funeral anyway. The Governor’s struggle to give up hope on his daughter is a common one. How many people have kept brain-dead family members alive for years just to have them be present? Not to mention the parents of children who are so dangerously mentally ill that they pose a danger to themselves and others. At the very least,the Governor has enough reason to chain up the girl and remove her teeth. He ain’t that dumb. The Governor has his sentiment, but at least manages to keep it hidden away as to cause no harm.

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For a series with as many narrative troubles as Walking Dead, the Governor gives us a useful way to judge the moral conflicts of the series. He shares many of the same sentiments as Team Rick, but is sociopathic enough to distance them for what practically needs to be done. Is it a perfect balance? Fuck no,based on what the outcome has been in the last few episodes. It’s the type of concession that would have to occur in such dire circumstances.

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Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road (2006) explores the same conflict,as a father and son try to survive in a completely blighted landscape. (SPOILERS AHOY) Upon entering a dark silo, the father gives his son two choices of implement: a torch and a gun. The torch,obviously, is a tool to illuminate the dark, whereas the gun has a more bleak use. If the father is ever to die, he has instructed his son to kill himself immediately, so he won’t suffer. The torch and gun motif is carried on throughout the novel: the torch is the last glimmer of life in the dead world they inhabit; it allows them warmth and sight. The gun however, becomes a symbol of inevitability; a reminder that their journey is ultimately futile. When the father does begin to die, he asks the boy to disregard his previous order, which (as most readings suggest) leads to his death anyway due to his choice to stay near his dying father. The ending, where he is found by a family, is often thought to be the last pang of optimism that allows him a brief respite before the end. That’s some sad shit. (SPOILERS END) In life and death scenarios, optimistic conventions such as innocence has to come second to pragmatism in order to survive. At the same time,such pragmatism, as seen in The Road, can sometimes be equally as destructive to our more romantic beliefs. The question is,what constitutes survival for humanity: the continuation of biological processes or beliefs? The protagonists of Walking Dead have yet to arrive at that answer. Even the Governor hasn’t arrived at an answer.

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For more posts on television:

From Comic to TV: Green Arrow as Adapted into “Arrow”