Nia Frome

The Swerve (2021)

6 minutes | English Español Italiano Svenska | Art & Propaganda The Crew

There’s a common trope in media where it’s revealed, most often near the end of the story (but sometimes right off the bat), that trying too hard to do good makes you evil. Game of Thrones, HBO’s Watchmen, The Hunger Games, and many other shows, movies, and games all have endings that seem to come out of nowhere, as if they’re imposed from without rather than obeying the story’s inner logic.

Any pop culture artifact is compelling to the extent that it taps into our real desire for change, justice, virtue, freedom, resolution, etc. But it can never go all the way down this road, it can’t consummate this desire, because that would be too threatening to the reigning social order. The very principle of free speech has shown symptoms of this same hysteria since its inception. John Stuart Mill, father of enlightened liberalism and one of the early advocates of free speech, explicitly warned against extending it to socialists:

An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard. [1]

Why do stories that may start out so promising and suggestive seem to always turn to crap towards the very end? Because any consistent working-out of problems tends towards communism. Such a consistent working-out has to be sabotaged, thwarted; to do that, the principle of consistency itself has to be chucked overboard. A counter-revolutionary ending has to be passed off as a happy ending, meaning whoever represents the revolution must turn out to be a villain, no matter how implausible or visibly tacked-on this characterization is. Erik Killmonger, Daenerys Targaryen, Alma Coin, and Lady Trieu all break bad sort of inexplicably, punishing the viewer for supporting the power-claim of someone with good politics. The message is unequivocal: “Having good politics doesn’t make you fit to rule! Having no politics does! The restoration of the status quo is the best we can hope for.”

These stories cynically wring emotional identification out of the viewer by giving them a taste of communism, and then when they no longer need that emotional buy-in — because the show’s wrapping up — they insult the viewer for falling for it to begin with. Inglourious Basterds “gets us to share those fantasies [of killing Hitler] and then it starts calling the fantasies into question. … [Tarantino] hates us for liking his movies the way we do; he hates us because he can so easily bring us round to enjoying the sight of people being gathered into a closed space so that they can be exterminated.” [2] Christian Thorne is wrong to see this as a peculiar quirk of Tarantino’s: hating your audience is endemic to mass media.

This hatred and condescension is just a more specific case of the general form of liberal wisdom. Namely: the truth is always whatever conclusion you reach after you get over your youthful radicalism. Artists ostentatiously signal maturity and seriousness by condemning radicalism. This gesture is as obligatory and reflexive as making the sign of the cross when you walk into a church. No matter what interesting ideas you start out with (and there really are a whole lot of interesting ideas in my estimation), you must always end on a note of fidelity to the status quo. And this distorts the whole story, especially towards its end. Expectations (that is, the way the audience was hoping this would go) must always be “subverted” (that is, denied in conformity with overriding structural imperatives) to remind the audience that they can’t ever get what they want (that is, communism).

Who are showrunners accountable to at the end of a successful franchise? Certainly not the viewers, whose semi-conscious revolutionary desires fueled the thing’s success. Since the show is already a hit, it doesn’t need to end in a satisfying way to get people to fill seats. Showrunners are accountable only to future investors, who need to be reassured that the showrunners are a good investment. They find themselves obliged to engage in performative treachery as a way of virtue signaling to hypothetical moneymen. As Black Sails and Marx’s Inferno show, treachery is the founding sin of capitalism, and all major productions have to ritualistically reenact this gesture if they’re ever going to find their way into the big leagues. They demonstrate their value to power through a loyalty oath that gets woven into the script: “I made arrangements to ensure that when we leave here, it is with compromises in place that will diffuse any threat of widespread rebellion.” [3]

The swerve, capitalism’s yanking the football away at the last second, is comically predictable. It goes far beyond media: capitalism is a neverending practical joke, a sudden but inevitable betrayal that can’t stop repeating itself, worming its way into the substance of everyday life, making it ever stupider and more self-defeating (what Marx called real subsumption). But we shouldn’t blame each other for still making a run at Lucy’s football — like religion, mass media is both an expression of and a protest against real suffering. We may fall for the trick, but our steps get a little bit faster every time. It remains to be seen what a full working-through of the problem of communism would look like. Fortunately, we’ll never get it out of our heads (or off our screens) until we solve it.

[1] Shirley Galloway, 1993. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty: Only for the Exceptional Few. [web] 

[2] Christian Thorne, 2011. Tarantino, Nazis, and Movies That Can Kill You — Part 2. [web] 

[3] Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg, Black Sails. 04x10 — XXXVIII.