The Young Pope is Both Sillier and Deeper Than You Heard

How did a television show that featured a pope dressing in medieval garb while “I’m Sexy and I Know It” played in the background end with me sobbing at the beauty and hope of it all? This series combined giddy camp (the fictional Pope Pius XIII infamously looses a kangaroo in the Vatican gardens and often tests his spiritual powers by commanding it to jump) with heartbreaking humanity (the selfsame pope struggles throughout the series with his pain at being abandoned and orphaned by his parents at age nine).  Perhaps most beautifully, The Young Pope insists that both the giddiness and the heartbreak are necessary to tell a story about humans and their relationship to God.

This is a show about hypocrisy without condemning that hypocrisy.  Our titular pope is a tyrant, determined to return the Catholic Church to an isolationist stronghold that needs no one while simultaneously desperate for the approval of his spiritual father and mother.  One of the arguably few “good” men in the show is a cardinal who participates in a graphic threesome (this is an HBO show), and the unarguably best “good” man is a self-confessed alcoholic homosexual.  On the other hand, our worst men are never allowed to be fully villainized.  The Secretary of State, though a political weasel, genuinely cares for the Church.  Even the most odious of characters, a cardinal accused of pedophilia, is humanized in a way that does not condone his sins but demands our compassion all the same.

A running theme in the show is the fear that the pope does not, in fact, believe in God.  This is a fear that he himself admits to, but it is not meant to lead to mockery or scorn.  Instead, it asks viewers to consider questions of doubt and faith, saints and sinners, and whether God smiles upon us at all.  Faith is messy, and that is something our pope learns when his commitment to law without mercy has devastating consequences.  It is only when he accepts the mystery of faith that he is able to let go of his past and find peace at long last.

The Young Pope is a beautifully evocative and highly stylized ten-episode series, full of symbolism that is equal parts cheesy and stunning.  The acting is incomparable, and the whole thing is a work of art, inspiring emotion long before thoughts can be ordered.  It is a show of contradictions, offering its audience a unique opportunity to step into the mystery of life, of doubt, of faith.

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Ranking Toby Stephens’ Work

When I was a teenager and checking out every Josh Hartnett movie from Blockbuster, I thought my obsessive celebrity love would be something I would outgrow.  Yet here I am over a decade later, watching as many things with Toby Stephens in them as possible.  For (probably only my own) your enjoyment, a ranking of everything I’ve seen Toby Stephens in!

1. Black Sails

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This is the show that brought Stephens’ genius to my awareness (and through my inability to shut up – to many other people’s awareness as well).  As James McGraw turned Captain Flint, Stephens is electric.  He is the personification of “hurt people hurt people,” and throughout four seasons we see him wrestle with the trauma of his past while he steps all over people in pursuit of a better world.  He is my sweet murderous baby, and there is no contradiction.

Watch on Starz or Hulu

(If you want to read my episode reviews and essays, head on over to my separate Black Sails website.)

2. Mangal Pandey: The Rising

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One of the great joys of searching movies by actors is that you wind up finding treasures that would otherwise have eluded you.  Such is the case with Mangal Pandey, a Bollywood movie about the British empire/comany’s influence in India and the uprising against them.  Stephens is a Scottish officer who befriends Mangal and questions his allegiance when Mangal rebels.  It’s glorious, and I’m so glad my obsession led me to such a beautiful film.

Watch on YouTube

(make sure you use Closed Captioning for English subtitles)

3. And Then There Were None

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This is a deliciously moody adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery, and while it is FULL of excellent British actors, my eyes were only on Toby Stephens (okay, and Aiden Turner).  His increasingly anxious and paranoid Dr. Armstrong is a delight, and the scene in which the final four have a cocaine-fueled party?  MY FAVORITE.

4. Jane Eyre

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As an adult, I know that Mr. Rochester is all shades of sketch, but he plays right into my “sassy authoritative man who would die for you” fantasy, so Teenage Tricia is very gratified to see Stephens playing one of her longest lasting fictional crushes.

5.  Vexed

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God bless Twitter for letting me know that this comedy police procedural starring Toby Stephens is now available on Netflix.  Unlike everything else on this list, Vexed is Toby at his silliest.  It’s pure British comedy, which is sometimes painful and other time hilarious.  Toby’s character is a lazy asshole who is still somehow charming (perhaps I am blinded by his Toby-ness), and the crimes are very much secondary to the interpersonal conflict and humor between him and his amazing partner Kate.  Just how I like it.

Watch on Netflix

6. Die Another Day

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This movie is TERRIBLE, but Stephens is a wonderfully sneer-y villain that would have defeated Bond if I’d had my way.  I mean, I can’t stress how bad this movie is – horrible action sequences, 90s filming techniques, painful innuendos, everywhere sexism – but I also cannot stress how gratifying it was to see Stephens running around sword fighting in a white tank top with suspenders.


 

*TO BE UPDATED AS I CONTINUE TO WATCH TOBY STEPHENS’ FILMS*

Recommendations welcome!

What I Read | SUMMER 2017

Favorite Books of the Summer

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The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Saenz is one of my all time favorite authors, so I was not surprised when I fell in love with his new book.  It’s about growing and discovering who you are and coming to terms with your dark side by accepting others.  I really admired that Saenz side-stepped the romance detours that I anticipated and instead wrote a book entirely about family.

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The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker

A historical fantasy novel that explore the culture of early 1900s New York immigrants through the experiences of a Jewish golem and Syrian jinni.  It’s incredibly well written, and our central characters reveal the beautiful balance between caution and passion, and how they need each other.

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

This is a VERY fun story with excellent dialogue and rich teenagers traveling around historical Europe with pirates! highwaymen! alchemy!  In the midst of the madcap adventure fun, the book seriously deals with the historical consequences of sexuality, race, and illness.

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The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

Longtime fan of Gidwitz’s irreverent yet earnest tone (he wrote the excellent A Tale Dark and Grimm series), this book took his talent to a new level.  In a Canterbury Tales-esque setup, he creates a medieval children’s story that is ultimately a treatise on the theology of suffering.  Incredible.

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Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Written from the perspective of a genderfluid teenager, this book seriously challenged my habit of categorizing humans, refusing to give any indication of Riley’s biological sex throughout.  Genderfluidity is something I know little about, and I was so grateful to step into the journey of Riley’s bullying, safe spaces, and self-acceptance.

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Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson

An excellent celebrity culture journalist, Peterson dives into the stories of numerous “unruly women” in society today, from Serena Williams to Nicki Minaj to Hillary Clinton. It’s very well researched and ultimately empowering, encouraging readers to be unruly themselves in pursuit of societal change.

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No Baggage by Clara Bensen

This book is exactly my kind of pretentious – two well-off people meet on OK Cupid and a month later, they’re traveling Europe without a schedule.  It’s a relationship + travel + mental illness memoir, which are pretty much three of my favorite things.

Other Summer Books

  • Caraval by Stephanie Garber (6/10)
  • Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (6/10)
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (5/10)
  • Small Victories by Anne Lamott (8/10)
  • The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig (6/10)
  • Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers (8/10)
  • A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (7/10)
  • The Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan (7/10)
  • Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott (8/10)
  • Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner (8/10)
  • The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli (8/10)
  • Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny (7/10)
  • And We’re Off by Dana Schwartz (7/10)
  • 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson (7/10)
  • Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne by David Gaider (5/10)
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (8/10)
  • Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones (7/10)
  • The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg (7/10)
  • The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (7/10)
  • Chemistry by Weike Wang (6/10)
  • SkyBreaker by Kenneth Oppel (9/10)
  • Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (4/10)
  • The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones (7/10)
  • The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu (8/10)
  • The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile (7/10)
  • The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard (9/10)
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (8/10)
  • When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman (8/10)

 

Podcast Recommendation List | PART 4

It’s been almost a year since I last recommended podcasts that I love, so let’s do this again!

FathomsDeep-Logo1| Fathoms Deep

As reported elsewhere, I am currently obsessed with the absolutely amazing (four seasons and finished) television show Black Sails.  Run by two women who understand how important it is to overanalyze every character, line, and scene, this podcast became so popular with its episode reviews that the hosts were able to interview actors and actresses from the show!  If you love Black Sails, this is the podcast for you.  If you don’t love Black Sails, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?  Go watch it immediately!

170x170bb2| The Kind Rewind

A husband and wife duo rewatch awesome 90s and 00s television shows, and since their tastes align with mine, I’m recommending it!  Each 45-minute(ish) podcast episode covers three television episodes, so the pace is fast and mostly designed to make you say, “Yeah, that WAS awesome!”  So far they’ve covered season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and they just started watching Firefly!

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 9.22.54 PM3| Slate’s Dear Prudence

Mallory Ortberg won me over with The Toast, so when I heard she had an advice podcast, I was in.  With rotating guests, she answers written-in questions about all sorts of topics while regularly reminding her listeners that we’re nosy for wanting to listen in on other peoples’ dirt.  Which is very true, so keep the episodes coming!

uploads_2F1489438262024-854z1cbidexe1unj-67d64498cb7e5c5ca56e495c53d040ea_2FBytheBook_FINAL4| By the Book

I am about equal parts intrigued by and skeptical of self-help books, and this podcast indulges both impulses with two hosts with very different approaches to the self-help books they read, test, and report on for two weeks.  So far I’ve mostly been interested in how they report on the books they didn’t like, though I did fall hard for The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up after they described the joy of a gigantic material purge.

typology_1600px5| Typology

For anyone who is mourning the end of The Road Back to You, never fear!  Ian Morgan Cron continues its same format, interviewing someone with a different enneagram type each episode, helping us to learn more about ourselves and others via personality types.

 


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

More Black Sails Feelings!

Did I honestly say that I wouldn’t write more about Black Sails after watching the final series of the show?  Don’t listen to that idiot from three days ago, she was delusional to think that there wouldn’t be More Feelings to share at the end of it all.

Less than 24 hours after spending a week devouring 38 hour-long episodes, I have a thesis statement for the show:  Oppressed people groups are easily villainized, because the only options they have to claim their freedom are so often monstrous.  The pirate world we are shown – full of orphans, criminals, lower class men and women, queer men and women, and slaves – all just want to get away from the civilization that abused them.  But the only way they can escape is with money, and the only way they can get money is by stealing it.  And when “civilization” tries to remind them of their place at the bottom of the world, well, there just might be some bloodshed.

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This also leads to one of my absolute favorite parts of this show:  it tells the story of history through the eyes of the oppressed.  In the 1700s, if you were queer, you either married someone of the opposite sex and pretended you weren’t, or you were put in an insane asylum, or you were hung.  In the 1700s, if you were an African in the New World, you were kidnapped and chained and forced to work for men and women who wanted to avoid the cost of hiring laborers.  In the 1700s, if you were crippled, you were consigned to begging or relying on the care of your family.

But in the pirate world of Nassau?  Queer men and women can be business moguls and pirate captains.  African slaves can be princesses and revolutionary leaders.  Crippled men can be pirate kings.  And working together, they might just threaten to topple the regime that ostracized, shamed, and punished them.

I found this fanvid that perfectly summarizes the beauty of Black Sails.  While “We live in a beautiful world” is hauntingly sung, we see all the moments of pain and violence that our beloved characters go through.  That contradiction is the core of the show – that horrors must be endured, or even perpetrated, but all in the desperate hope that there is a beautiful world of possibilities and freedom worth fighting for.

I still cannot believe that a Pirate Show chose to make THIS a central premise of their story.  Oh my word, Black Sails went so far beyond any of my expectations.  If anyone reading this does decide to start watching, please know that season 1 is the equivalent of an M&M: tasty, but whatever.  Seasons 2-4 are a 64-oz chocolate bar that will change your world.

Even though I had to watch a lot of it through my fingers…wow.  What an astoundingly lovely television series.

 

Help, I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up | A BLACK SAILS REC

I have spent the last week watching the first three seasons (28 episodes) of Black Sails, an impossibly compelling television show that could easily have been just a blood and boobs pirate tale, but instead chose to let its action-packed historical adventure be the foundation upon which discussions of race, gender, sexuality, storytelling, and the nature of mankind could unfold.

I’m obsessed.

I have not interacted with a single person this week and not mentioned the fact that I am watching Black Sails.  I successfully converted one friend and stayed up until 2:00 a.m. so that I could text with her while she finished binge-watching the entire first season in one day.  I harassed strangers on Twitter so that I could engage with other obsessive fans.  Every hour I could not watch the show, I had earbuds in listening to a podcast that analyzes the nuances of each episode so that I could relive past stories while ingesting new ones.

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We Get It, You Like Black Sails – But WHY?

This is a show that understands storytelling, which is good, since one of its central themes is the power that a well-told story can wield (like the stories that circulate around pirate captains, transforming and growing so mythical that ships surrender without a fight for fear of a name).  This is an intentionally slow-building story that gives us rich characters with myriad motivations who must form and reform political alliances in order to survive and maybe even create a better world.

I cannot summarize the show better than the essay that initially interested me, so here is an introduction to the plot (I recommend reading the whole thing, because they are better writers than me):

Flint [the main character] is violent, charismatic, and obsessively driven to ~save the pirate town of Nassau in the Bahamas. Nassau is run by a merchant’s daughter named Eleanor Guthrie, and she & Flint want the town to remain independent from the British Empire. To do this, they plan to steal an infamous haul of Spanish treasure, the Urca Gold. Other lead characters include real historical pirates like Anne Bonny and Calico Jack, plus Long John Silver and others from Treasure Island, and new fictional characters like Max, who begins her role as a sex worker, and later becomes a political fixer.

Black Sails is ultimately about the struggle over “civilization,” which the British Empire attempts to assert over Nassau and the pirates through slavery, capitalism, and the violent rule of law. The main characters all have different visions of how they can escape this fate through theft, violence, or manipulation. It’s wonderfully well-written from a structural and characterization POV. A perfect balance of machiavellian politics, queer romance, and sea battles.

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All the Characters are Flawed and Lovely – Except for You, Dufresne

When we are introduced to our central character, Captain Flint, he is sullen, ruthless, weak, and about to be deposed.  And YET, there is never any doubt that this show means for us to love him, despite any and all of the horrible things he will do.  His backstory isn’t revealed until the second season, and the agonizing wait to discover just what is driving him to mania results in a beautiful payoff that has an equally long denouement.  He is a tragic hero par excellence, and I felt his emotions so deeply that when someone vaguely complimented him I actually burst into tears.

There are so many other wonderful characters, from self-admittedly selfish and clever John Silver (yes, this IS in fact a prequel to Treasure Island) to brutally noble Captain Charles Vane to ambitious businesswoman Eleanor Guthrie to empathetic and brilliant Max to the best pirate couple Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny.  It physically pains me to stop the list there, but these are arguably our central characters, and everyone else will be a delight for you to discover.

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Other Reasons to Watch

  • Captain James Flint – I have only put silly pictures of him here because it is nice to see some version of humor at his tragic expense, but mostly because I LOVE HIM VERY MUCH.  Toby Stephens gives a phenomenal performance, and there were multiple times that I either pumped my fists in the air at his triumphs or literally clapped my hands in delight when he launched into one of his world-shakingly charismatic speeches.
  • The ships and the sea and beautiful way they are portrayed – I’m ready to go!
  • The various relationships displayed, from toxic to uplifting and everything in between.  I have never before watched a threesome develop and thought, “Wow, this is the healthiest relationship on television.”
  • Powerful women!  It would be so easy to let a Pirate Show revolve entirely around men, but the showrunners of Black Sails remind viewers that, oh hey, women totally exist too.  Whether its giving dignity and ambition to prostitutes at the Nassau brothel, allowing a woman to go toe-to-toe with the pirates and tradesmen, or letting us wonder at the mystery of a silent and deadly pirate queen, this show makes sure it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.  None of these women feel anachronistic.  Instead, the ambition they are allowed to pursue is indicative of the freedom Nassau offers from the tyranny of “civilization.”
  • The tyranny of “civilization”!  We know pirates are murderous thieves, but Black Sails repeatedly forces its viewers to ask if they are actually any worse than British forces that enslave, bribe, and torture.  It is a gorgeously thought out theme that takes us through an emotional roller coaster (the last two episodes of season 2 are especially brutal in this respect and I want to rewatch them fifty times), forcing us to consider uncomfortable philosophical questions.
  • A thoughtful and empowering story of escaped slaves – although admittedly, I found the treatment of African characters severely wanting in the first season, we are slowly introduced to their world until in season 3 we are literally treated to pirates and escaped slaves teaming up and respecting and defending each other and IT IS BEAUTIFUL.

[A single forewarning:  at the top, I did say that Black Sails rises above being just a blood and boobs tale, but there is still a lot of blood and boobs.  If explicit violence and sex is not your thing, you may need to let this Stunning Gift pass you by.]

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Raise the Sails, Moving Onward

These are my feelings after three seasons, and I still have the final season – ten more episodes – to go.  From scanning the Internet with half-closed eyes, I gather that the series ends beautifully and intentionally, so I doubt I’ll feel less in love with it when it’s over.  Though I suppose I might find more things to love!

However, I intend for this to be my one and only rec post, because I don’t think I can say anything else with massively spoiling something.

Enjoy Black Sails, and I’m sorry for all the emotional devastation that I have introduced to you!

Netflix Rec | 13 REASONS WHY

I heard a lot about 13 Reasons Why before I actually sat down to watch it, both positive and negative.  I read the book when it was published in 2007, and I remember liking it and feeling impacted by it.  Ten years later, though, I couldn’t remember enough of the details to decide whether the story glorified suicide or not.  Now that I’ve binged all thirteen episodes, I feel sure that, despite those few people who will misunderstand its message, this show is incredibly necessary.

13 Reasons Why is the story of a young woman who commits suicide after years of objectification, bullying, and rape.  She leaves behind cassette tapes that are passed among thirteen people who she blames for her action.  Sensationalistic?  A little.  But the series refuses to take a simplistic viewpoint, allowing characters to argue about whether or not it was their responsibility to help Hannah Baker.  Some think she wouldn’t have killed herself if they could have done more, and others believe it was simply her bad decision.

What complicates matters is that we get to see below the surface of every person that Hannah blames for her suicide.  The series does a phenomenal job of finding the deeper motivations for each character.  With one possible exception, we see that the bullies were also bullied, that home lives encouraged or tolerated violent behavior, that each teenager is doing their best to survive the hell that is high school in the technological age.  With this perspective, this Netflix series reveals the true villain of the story:  not Hannah or the people she blames, but the culture in which she lives.

In the end, there’s no use arguing about whether she should have been stronger or if her friends and family should have done something more to reach her.  What’s worth talking about is the cruel hierarchy of high school and how violence, assault, and looking the other way create a climate that some young women and men find impossible to endure.

This is not an easy show to watch, which, according to the “Beyond the Reasons” episode by showrunners at the end of the series, was very much intentional.  Viewers are asked to endure scenes of rape and suicide, scenes that are not gratuitous but are also almost unbearable to watch.  But by doing so, issues that are normally glossed over demand our attention, and hopefully, will inspire preventative actions so that similar scenes will never occur again.

[For more detailed reviews, I suggest you read two very well-written posts:  one positive and one negative.]