ticking

When I was six, I came sobbing into the computer room where my mother was gaming late at night. I couldn’t sleep, I said, and when she asked why I said it was because of the ticking of the Peter Rabbit clock on the wall — a recent gift from British friends who had since returned home.

clock

One of the unending, little losses that pile up after a parent is gone is that fact that you can’t ask them, as an adult, what thoughts they had that never reached your ears, as a child. How they dealt with things; made sense of them. I have no idea how my mother interpreted this particular outburst internally, but outwardly she was extremely practical about it. First she ordered me back to bed, assuming (not without reason for suspicion) that I was likely grandstanding and making an unnecessary fuss about bedtime. Then when she still heard me sniffling down the hall, she came in, removed the clock, and delivered me into blessed silence.

It wasn’t as though I was sitting there contemplating my own mortality as a six year-old, of course — nor am I particularly given to melodrama when I hear clocks now. But I can hear the ticking of a watch on someone’s hand from all the way across a room. Whether it’s in the middle of a conversation or tolling dolorously from the wrist of someone who has fallen asleep in a chair, that infernal ticking drives me up the wall, similarly to the way people who can’t sit still and have to jog their foot constantly drive me up the wall. Just sit still, for fucksake.

It’s surprising to me, then, how staggered I am by the theme for The Crown, which in its best episodes sweeps in at the end over a series of cuts, imperious and inexorable. Rupert Gregson-Williams* does the score, and like Hans Zimmer’s theme for Interstellar (and for that matter Inception too), there is very much the ticking of the clock about its plunge onward, despite the travails, international and deeply personal, it oversees as it marches towards the end credits.

In the episode Dear Mrs. Kennedy, however, the same theme gives, for once, a constancy and a comfort more terrible, maybe, than when it streams forth unfeeling for those over whom it plays. Because what runs beneath the theme are, yes, vignettes, as before, but here they are all strung together by radio and television coverage of the Kennedy assassination. What runs under the theme, then, are words and images we already know very well, so rather than being tasked with the taking-in of new information we can take a step back — the same step back allowed to Elizabeth, who was not, this time, the primary recipient of the blows the fall during the episode — and let it, well, sweep over us. Sweep us, to some extent, away.

And the fact that this is a comfort, in this episode, is ghastly. But there it is. There should be something inexorable about that onward march of time, to be sure, but typically — both in the final minutes of each episode of The Crown, and in life — the inexorability is a thing to be feared. But here, that push onward serves the same purpose, musically, that religious people saying “this too shall pass” does. How horrific that something so damaging brings such comfort. But then, compared to the damage playing out on radios and televisions round the world at that time…compared to the damage Jackie Kennedy carried as stains, insistently and against the wishes of those who tried to clean her up…it is, perhaps, a lesser blow. A lesser evil.

“That’s the thing about unhappiness,” Elizabeth says to the screen, in answer though to her mother, who has just asked about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage. “All it takes is for something worse to come along for you to realize it was happiness after all.”

sleet

 

*Who was nominated, incidentally, specifically for the score for the Hyde Park Corner episode, the first one which had me crying as I watched it, splicing as it does between the ailing king singing with one daughter (and being urged by her to turn and see the people who love him as he sings past his stammer), and trying to look after the other through speaking with her husband with this, the last of his strength and quite literally his breath, and then fading into the mist…

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“do you make monsters of everyone you admire?”

lookingdown

I’ve almost choked during several episodes of The Crown. This is less than ideal, because I watch it while running increasingly longer distances for my upcoming marathon, with the result that it serves me better, oxygen-wise, not to dwell on each episode upon its finish, lest I become unable to complete my prescribed distance.

But season one’s episode nine, “Assassins,” isn’t something I can avoid dwelling upon. I thought I would be overcome by all the vignettes, in earlier episodes, of Elizabeth with her father. Of the increased easing of his speech problem around her, and the care she takes of him, even as a child. Married to someone whose own parents were rather shit about his stutter, I go into full tail-lashing leopard mode whenever media seeks to portray people with speech problems, and the care they took with this undid me. Not even just with Elizabeth, either, but when Margaret, coaxing him to sing (which, in my experience, does allow the stutter to seep into the background), gestures for him to look around, to the crowd whose presence ought to typically tie his tongue, and keep going…gah. Gah. I wiped furiously at my face in the gym at the time, pretending it was sweat.

But even so, Episode 9 is just…

I don’t suppose there’s any embroidery I can add to it that will make it novel, this fascination with, or at least desire for, guidance, in things there aren’t people left anymore in which to guide me. There’s no new story here. My swooning for the previous episode, focusing on the Queen Mother’s quest for something meaningful in the empty adult life remaining to her after her husband’s demise, was at least as much about longing for an elderly mother capable of such thoughts — melancholy though they were — as it was about guidance.

But this one, with the painting of Churchill. Their conversations, him and Sutherland. The pond. That magnificent cross-cutting at the end, splicing as it does what a relationship is and was and could be, if it survives, and how half that pair (both pairs) sees more in the other than the other will ever see in themselves. What age gives that, and also what it takes away. And then the text, even. That last little thorn. Sharp an unexpected.

I’m being vague because this is an hour of your time worthy of watching, unsullied by  some internet fool’s blow-by-blow.

I am also absurdly smitten with the relationship between Elizabeth and Churchill. I am not old enough yet, or maybe I just don’t know enough people younger than me yet, to have felt…out-seen. By my peers, certainly, by my elders, of course. But I assume — I gather — there is a certain unbalance in feeling to have been known at some deeper level than one anyone desired, by someone whose age says, by common and naive knowledge, that they should not be able to see so deeply. Not yet, and not into you. To see the tangled mess therein, and allow for it, and continue on with that knowledge in your eyes, visible for the observed to become aware of. That’s why Churchill cries.

And it is why he destroys what he does.

pond

the other dumb reason i watch outlander

creditsvalley

Firstly: you’d be a fool not to take in the scenery, be it encompassing the bony spines of Glencoe or the great things done, most recently, for tiny round spectacles perched upon noses. Oh, those spectacles. That nose.

Secondly, though…

Look, I sometimes wonder how long I am allowed to talk about my mother. It only took two months for people at work to forget — to resume complaining about old people “who probably have Alzheimer’s or something, the way they go on” and making baldly awkward comments like “you should call me Mom, then,” when I insist on anything other than the use of my full name, please, because only my mother ever used it, and then only when angry. Not a one of these people have lost anyone, and they’re all 10+ years older than me. Hell, they even have all their grandparents still alive. I understand that they don’t understand. I do. But that then leaves me in the awkward position of being an unwilling ambassador, of sorts, of sorrow. And I have no idea how long my term lasts, or if there has been a vote of no confidence held without my knowledge even, and if everyone then winces when I allude to an unlooked-for position they’d prefer to forget ever existed.

Because, um, my mother is the other reason I continue to watch, and to read, the Outlander series. She used to describe it to me as her guilty pleasure, when I sheepishly slipped the latest Animorphs book into our pile at the the bookstore, long after I thought I should have been beyond such things. “It’s okay, it’s like me with these,” she said, thumping the cover of Drums of Autumn. “As long as you keep up with other things, these are fine.” “But what’s wrong with that? It’s huge,” I said later, outside the store. Whereupon she tried to explain something of the plot, and of time travel and 20th century values adrift in the 18th century, and something of the romantic angle — which I quickly shut down. As in so many other foolish moments I remember now being too young to act upon; skeins of truths offered which I was too busy or disinterested to pursue unravelling at the time, and which I will now never get to recover — my mother’s attachment to the series is something I can no longer ask her about. That information is lost to me.

But I can try and reconstruct it as the show’s success breathes new life into an ever-wider audience, and that’s what I do. Claire’s practicality, her medical reflections at what are sometimes the oddest moments, are very much my mother. She liked Claire, I remember, defending the character staunchly when I, in a ten-year-old’s puritanical streak, lambasted her for taking up with Jamie when she still had her first husband floating around some 200 years later. I can’t remember what my mother said verbatim, but it was something having to do with women not having any power back then, and here was one man willing to respect her as though they did [“-ish,” I might add, as an adult watching a certain episode, but I digress], and what did I expect her to do, just scoff and refuse and end up in a worse situation and anyway as far as she knew she could never go back, etc. etc. Mom was, indeed, a fan of Claire.

And in Season 3, episode 5, I was utterly unprepared for Claire’s farewell to Brianna, her daughter. (Yes, I’ve read Dragonfly in Amber, but I careened through it to get to the reunion, and everything prior to that is something of a blur.) How glad I am that no one watches this show with me. It is so much easier to just let yourself be a snot-covered mess than to try and keep up appearances. Because let me tell, you, there was snot.

kiss

I don’t just mean looks. Bree is frosty; I’ve never liked her. But when her mother lists all the experiences they won’t be able to share when she leaves, all the memories they won’t be able to create…oh, goddammit, I lost it. Bree is, I believe, 20 when Claire leaves. That’s two years younger than me when my mother received her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. You want to feel old? Lose your mother in your fucking 20s, when everyone around you is still stupid enough to roll their eyes and hit Ignore when their mother’s face appears on their ringing phone. Also, be sure to have a conversation with her before she disappears, like the one Bree has here with Claire. Like the one I had with my mother, in a near-empty Panera by a highway, from which my eventual husband drove me home crying, though thankfully I managed to hold it together until after we said goodbye. A goodbye prefaced by her announcement, gentle and only a little sad, that she was happy with the time that she had had, and that she was lucky not to have had regrets, and to be able to see me happy too, before she left. Before she faded away.

You see why that scene with Claire and Brianna was such a clusterfuck for me.

But even after that, in a callback to the lines Claire uses to attempt to describe the horrific feel of the time travel itself, she touches on a bubble of childhood anxiety that I’d forgotten she had. Its source crops up there, a puddle, and she acknowledges — she, self-possessed surgeon and capable woman of the 20th century, acknowledges — that this never really left her, the childhood fear of there not really being anything underneath that gleaming flat surface. That feeling that she might yet fall forever, if she stepped in the puddle. But, the narration and the scene itself continues, she hurries on anyway, leaving her brain behind to deal with that hiccup of fear while her body does what it has to. I don’t recall that from the books, but then I don’t recall my mother as an anxious person at all either — when in fact she was, to the point where they tried to medicate her for it, before the more pressing mental deconstruction demanded their attention. When she told me that, again when I was 22, I was stunned. My mother didn’t dry-wash her hands or call repeatedly or fret vocally or pace or self-medicate or anything that suggested anything might be bothering her. She was always the island of sensible, grounded wit in a sea of garish too-chummy moms, or pinch-mouthed helicopter moms, or whatever they called them back then. That she was anxious — that she was constantly worrying about something, any number of things, at any given time — was a concept utterly foreign to me. I would never have known. And it certainly never rubbed off on me; I think I am the last millennial on the planet without anxiety. I’ve got regrets in spades, man, but I know the oven is off when I leave, and when I close my eyes for the night my sleep is instant and heavy as bricks. I’m good on the anxiety front.

Claire doesn’t share the puddle thing with Bree. She has already left Bree by the time it comes up, and we have no indication that they ever talked about it. But given the way Bree rallies to back Claire up in her really quite moving stab of self-doubt, when she wonders if Jamie will even be interested in her anymore, I like to think that had Claire mentioned the puddle thing Bree would have rallied in the same way. Maybe she wouldn’t have understood, as I didn’t understand when my mother confessed (I guess confessed? she was almost protective, almost embarrassed of this fact?) to a lifetime of stomach-churning worry, but Bree would have wielded the bravado of the very young and the very loving, and tried to make it okay.

I tried. It didn’t work. It doesn’t, generally. But it is important, maybe — I hope — for your effort to have been noted. As far as Claire knows, she’ll never see her daughter again. It should help — I hope it helps — knowing that the last time you did see her, she believed in you, and believed that whatever came your way, you could handle it.

I hope I gave that impression, in that shitty Panera. I hope I looked like I believed in her. Like I thought she could take it. Because the minute she turned away, I was an absolute mess. Maybe she could take it, but I couldn’t.

Can’t. Sometimes. Clearly.

critical role and the tender gift of story

You want to know people care about the stories they tell you.

Even I do. I who take such pleasure in divorcing a text from its context; who resented so much, in school, having to wade through the tales of an author’s real life as backstory to what we read. I don’t want this, I would argue. I don’t care who they were. Like with musicians and live recordings, miring a work of art within its own time and culture trapped it, I thought, from flapping free and extending its reach beyond the narrow confines of the world in which it was produced. “I wasn’t in that world, I’m in this one, and this text is speaking to me NOW!”

Critical Role turns that decades-long prejudice of mine on its head, though. And it’s not as though I haven’t engaged with fiction whose creators are still alive! I’ve stood in line with shining eyes waiting for David Mitchell to sign a book, swallowing the lump in my throat as he bought, with doodles, time for my husband to speak to him through his stutter. I’ve blushed five shades of crimson when Guy Gavriel Kay stumbled onto my post about A Song for Arbonne, and read it. I’m aware that there are living breathing people in the world producing work I admire, and that they want me, us, people everywhere to do so.

But that this started out as a work of love rather than as a career, or a path to one…I don’t know, I guess that’s unfair. I’m not knocking people who pursue artistic projects in the hope of bettering themselves in other fields. But the fact that this artistic came about, like DM Matt Mercer says, as a gift to his players…like “all roleplaying games are”…and then for all of them to be willing to expand the number of people allowed into that world, by such great numbers…it’s generous. It feels generous, and in a way that in one’s adult life one doesn’t often have the luck of encountering.

So many of our interactions, after all, are a bridging of gaps, a drawing closer of hearts and of minds, and then a polite cough and a closed door. There are spaces we reserve only for a handful of people — thoughts or emotions, reactions or experiences we share only with those we love. Or only with a handful of select friends. And whereas childhood is about, or can be about, finding as many people as possible to explore those avenues with, adulthood is realizing how many of those avenues are closed to you. And about learning to take that with good grace.

But here, we are allowed in. Not just as paying spectators, even, but as participants of a kind whose welfare…matters, I guess? I dare you to come to any other conclusion after watching DnD Beyond’s interview with Mercer about the end of the campaign. He attaches a hope to this project, above and beyond any success it may create for himself and the cast. All of the cast’s interviews speak to this — and they are all fantastic — but I point to his because he addresses it the longest. (And to be honest, because his crying is infectious.) It isn’t just a hope that the story pleases people. It’s a hope that…people become better as a result? That people are better to each other and themselves as a result? But such sentiments come from somewhere utterly un-self-righteous. Wishing to better people is an easy slogan to slap on your shitty website or church pamphlet. It’s harder to mean it, on- and off-camera. And yeah, I know, most of the 35k+ people watching (live) aren’t in a position to speak to the truth of that, but it kinda feels like he means it? Like they all do. He says he’s protective of this world, very much so, and for once, someone is saying it not out of a desire for IP infringement protection; the material concerns of lawyers and HR teams. He and they appear to mean it out of love. And out of the wish that good might come of it, bolstered by the knowledge that some good already has.

And that’s so goddamn touching. To be cared for, however tangentially, and to be believed in as a possible agent of good in the world. The number of people willing to believe in you like that drops off drastically as you grow older. It’s absurdly moving to be told otherwise, long past the age when you were supposed to stop wanting it.

critical role : friendship IS magic

What amazes me about Critical Role…the amazement I have yet to find anywhere else…is the choices made in real time in front of you, made without consultation or focus groups, and which choices frequently align with the most emotionally impactful way a scene could play out. I know, I know, this is what, in ideal situations, stories do for us. What live storytelling, which to a certain extent is what tabletop roleplaying is, does for us.

But the ideal and the reality so rarely conincide, and for a whole host of reasons that are tangential to my point. I have hesitated to write about the show — even when I knew it would be a blandly informative info byte, like the fact that the day after the first episode I watched I returned my cable box to my cable provider because I knew I didn’t need TV anymore, if I was now organizing my week around a livestream of a D&D campaign — because it seems, however incorrectly so, not my place. Like it would be rude, intrusive even. Because these people are more…real? I suppose it’s because we watch the team for so long, live (or at least filmed live), and that results in a level of candor, aural and visual, that one rarely receives, even from personalities one follows on social media. Maybe it’s that as I grow older and see the gap close between the person I wanted to be and the person I become, I’m ham-handedly protective of people who seem to be in that same boat with me. I see the chat fly by during streams and think “please no one read it, please don’t let it get anyone down.” It’s the internet and I assume there is nastiness and my fear is that, as it has for so many others, its fever pitch will become too shrill, and fame will become a spotlight to flee. “Please don’t go,” is my refrain, and I suppose I thought that I was helping, by not writing or talking about this group of people whom I very much wish remain doing this for as long as I can.

Hell, maybe it’s that I was accidentally punched in the nose by Darin De Paul and, as I laughingly texted my husband immediately afterward, I shall never wash my nose again.

But decisions that would, in other contexts, be filtered through layer after layer of PR, HR, focus groups, supervisors and supervisors of supervisors, and which likely would get called out and watered down as too mawkish, too sentimental, too this that or the other…they just fucking happen, here, and there is no veto, the emotional dial gets turned up to nine and no big executive (or internet mob-driven) hand is gonna turn it back down on you.

CRITICAL ROLE EPISODE 114 SPOILERS

When Vax unfurls his wings to embrace Keyleth, that is one of those moments. That’s what I was thinking about when I started this post. And also at the 5:03:10 mark, when he…uses a bonus action to look over his shoulder…and he describes what he sees. That’s where I diverge from everyone else I watch things with (barring my husband). That’s where, among peers, as I’m about to cry, someone will quip some inane piece of trivia or roll their eyes about “people pressing buttons” or give me some line about emotional manipulation. That, that level of emotion and my willful embrace of it, not to put too fine a point on it, is why making friends is hard. I want to feel things. And a lot of people my age are deciding they don’t.

So, okay, there’s that.

But in searching for those time stamps I stumbled onto image captures of a moment I missed. Not because I wasn’t watching but because I wasn’t seeing. I knit in front of Critical Role, and I was doing so last night. Not thoughtlessly — I remember where I knit things and what I was doing, and it brings me comfort later, to wrap myself in a shawl and think that when I put those stitches next to each other I was sitting next to someone who, for example, is now dead, and whom I loved. I did this deliberately, you understand — I thought, in the future, I could remember the warmth of these moments spent watching this show, while wrapped in the shawl against the cold.

But because I was knitting, I missed a moment that went mostly unnoticed by the microphones, and thus by me.

When Scanlan burns his ninth level spell to counterspell Vecna — the god-in-the-making, for those of you who don’t watch the show, who has killed multiple family members of the party, in pretty terrible ways — it is an instant and un-nullifyable success. But by choosing to go to that max level, he has lost his chance to use Wish at that tremendous level — and this is why he was hanging onto that spell slot. Because he hoped to use Wish to save Vax, who is doomed to die as soon as Vecna goes down. He died before, but his patron goddess granted him a reprieve, in order to rid the world of Vecna. After that, though, his eyes have to close for good.

And because I wasn’t watching the screen, I didn’t see this:

I just…just…fuck.

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He just wanted to save his friend and now he can’t and he — he who is not typically, on the show at least, the one crying? — is crying and tries to hide it behind his hands, his giant mug, and…as someone who writes freely about tearing up but tries ferociously hard to avoid being caught doing it…for all the reasons mentioned above…I just. Oh god, oh god, oh god. I didn’t see that. There’s a whole whispered conversation you can read on their lips on-screen, the crux of which is:

“I was saving my wish for you.”

* * *

Neither my husband nor I have any friends who watch Critical Role. I got him into it after I read the Polygon article about the show — after I ditched our cable. But I knew he was loving the same things in it I did when he said, apropos of nothing whilst driving to the grocery store, that that kind of squad, having one, was just fucking awesome. He doesn’t know #squadgoals, but that’s exactly what he was talking about. And this is perhaps more moving, even, than the romantic plotlines doomed to crash to an end as a result of this loss. It’s the loss, too, of a friendship.

We’ve theorized on why we can’t get groups like this together. He points out his growing fatigue with the kneejerk, lambasting criticisms currently aflower amongst our generation. I point out my shitty track record at befriending women, leery as I always am of them intuiting that I am bi, lest they high-tail it as they have (three times) in the past. We both acknowledge that we, at least until recently, live in a part of the country where values tend to be a good deal more conservative than our own; and the degree to which your hearts then align, despite your best efforts, is affected.* And that neither of us grew up in cultures where carefree physical affection — hugs, head pats, etc. — was a thing. Mostly, we figure, we are too old. People’s emotional drawbridges are up by their thirties, and they’re not accepting new adventurers to the castles.

door

It may be something else too, though. We may just be too guarded in our affection. There are plenty of people I’d save a Wish for, but it’s easier for them not to know it. Like being seen crying, it can be — it IS — easier to be on someone’s side without them seeing. You can’t get kicked off the team if no one knows you’re there. In my old office I took the seat by the door, and the always-hot teakettle, in case we had an active shooter situation. My boss knew this but let me keep the seat. They were my people, yes, even the assholes. I almost tackled my boss to the ground once when both of us misinterpreted a nail gun as a firearm. Years ago, when our school district sent around pink slips like candy, I penned righteous letters of praise for all of my teachers and mailed them, unsigned, to the principal to try and protect them. Like with crying, it is easier to love people from a safe distance, unseen.

That is what we love most about Critical Role. That the affection isn’t hidden or wrapped up carefully in snark or sarcasm — both more acceptable trappings, today. It’s out there. It’s visible on people’s faces — it’s running down them. It’s like every bullshit JRPG holding up friendship as the ultimate goal of a story, come to life.

And, because it’s real, it’s not bullshit.

*Also, we may be bad at making this matter less.