Joss Whedon’s Serenity, a Worthy Companion to Firefly

This is not so much a review as a eulogy. It is often lamented that Firefly was canceled after one incomplete season and it’s a great loss that the project wasn’t seen through to its fruition. In writing this, I’ve come to bury Firefly/Serenity not to praise it but I will lavish some condign praise as I go. It’s sad but the series is dead and gone. In explaining his reasons for deciding not to try a reunion or a remake, Joss Whedon alludes to the ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, a short story in which a man wishes his son back to life only have him come back a shuffling corpse, a grotesque simulacrum of his boy. In attempting any movie, any television series, any story of any kind, there is a risk that it will turn out not to be good. These risks must be dared, and sometimes disappointing outcomes must be borne. Joss Whedon knows this as well as anyone but in this case, something great might be marred, something already accomplished might be undone. In spite of all his anguish and regret, he’s not willing to take that chance.

When Firefly was canceled, there was no ending of any kind, the show simply cut off after a particularly strong episode. All attempts to continue the program on another network failed, leaving only the option to make it into a movie. This movie could provide at least some form of conclusion, but as a movie it stood alone. It couldn’t be merely a conclusion, nor a sequel, but needed to be a complement. New viewers were to see it without any prior acquaintance, and the characters all needed to be reintroduced, the situation set, the story unfolded and resolved within a very short span. This was a tale that was originally to be spun out in fifty to seventy hours, and now it was to be compacted into two. It’s inevitable from this sort of compression that the story might seem patchy, fragmented, and rushed.

The show married science fiction and westerns, not such an outlandish fusion as might be thought. The wild west was only what it was because it was the advance from what was densely populated, ordered, sophisticated, established, into what was empty, new, and improvised. It was the flowing of the old world into the new. The navigation of space is exciting and perilous, much sailing of the oceans centuries ago. Some striking out into the beyond find riches and glory, some meet with calamity and death. Whether it’s voyaging from the east to the west, from Manhattan to Dodge City or California, or from the central planets to the outer rim, the impulse is to flee from the inequities, the unjust laws, the undue influence of wealth and power, to what is unspoiled, free, and open to all regardless of origin or background.

There are dangerous corollaries and consequences to this attractive picture. Every man, no matter how rugged, austere, and unaffected will impart some measure of civilization to the frontier. Unwilling to eat grass like Nebudchadnezzar in his madness, he will herd livestock and plant fields. He may camp under the stars occasionally but he will want some abode, a roof over his head to keep off the rain, walls around him to keep out the wind. There will be other men around, dangerous as he his, and this will lead to fighting. Everybody must sleep, and not even the hardest man wants to live in a Hobbesian state of nature, and so the wildest and most unmanageable will be killed by their fellows. The outlaw and the renegade may be admired, and looked upon, after they’re safely dead, with some touch of unreasonable nostalgia, but their absence is hardly deplored when the pioneer or rancher is exhausted, or sick, or about to start a family. In this process, the frontier is tamed to some degree, and this safety will bring the men the pioneer and frontiersman most detests, the men he’s fled. Bankers, lawyers, and politicians will now flow inexorably from the crowded, orderly, tame megalopolises, and with them come all the trappings of that world. Just like in the west of Larry McMurtry, Gus and Call end up killing all the interesting men for whom they bear a sneaking admiration, and clearing the way for men and institutions they despise. The west is won and afterwards becomes more and more like the east; San Francisco becomes a Pacific coast New York.

Not all the men who flee civilization for a new life will be simply trying to liberate themselves from the nepotism, jobbery, and hypocrisy of civilization. Some will be hardened sociopaths, seeking to evade the most basic constraints of decency and humanity. In a world where everybody is armed and everybody must find his own justice, the meek and the helpless will not flourish. Not all the institutions of civilization are cloying and corrupt, and it is usually the poor and the weak who most need the succor and intercession of the state. To cite another great, and very dark, depiction of the wild west, Deadwood, the frontier was often not romantic or colorful, but horrific and brutal. Here the rich and powerful didn’t need to observe even a semblance of restraint, and they were free to prey on the defenseless, reducing them to little more than slaves.

Not everyone who worked for the Alliance was an assassin or a soldier, and the outer worlds held their dark side. Firefly aired on network television and this alone would have held it back from the barbarisms of Deadwood but Joss Whedon always explored every aspect of a situation, and if given opportunity some of these themes were certain to have emerged. The story simply came to an end before the some of the virtues and benefits of the Alliance were shown, or more men like George Hearst and Al Swearengen came onto the scene.

Despite the inevitable flaws, the movie is much like a longer installment of the television show. One metric of a story’s quality, whether in visual or written form, is the number of absolutely brilliant lines per unit of length. Serenity contains one inspired, hilarious line after another. Other writers can come up with funny, memorable sayings but Joss Whedon’s gems are more frequent and more dazzling. His gift for characterization is frequently and deservedly lauded, and Mal, Inara, Jayne, Zoe, and the rest are so quickly and deftly sketched that it’s sometimes overlooked that their creator was called upon to do so twice.

One gift that Joss Whedon alone seems to possess is to write a group conversation between nearly a half dozen characters speaking nearly at once. Nearly every writer, myself included, can only handle conversations between two characters, much like Newtonian dynamics can only describe and predict the interaction of two bodies. While these other writers might have a large cast of characters, they almost invariably come together in a series of dialogues and if they attempt a group dynamic, it breaks down into binary subsets. Some of the debates and planning sessions that whirled around the library in Buffy can find their counterpart only in the debates and planning sessions that raged around the mess table of the Serenity or on the scene of the massacre at Haven. I concede that this is an extravagant and not inarguable claim, but if anyone can give me a counterexample, I’d be happy to review it.

Keeping Hostages can be Dangerous in Game of Thrones and in the Real World

 

Theon Greyjoy captured Winterfell, the greatest castle of the North, with only twenty men. How did Theon, a man not otherwise notable for his exploits, perform such an amazing feat of arms? Theon was able to decoy the Starks and then seize their seat because, as their former hostage, he knew them so well. He was sure that if he besieged Torren’s Square, the Starks would feel bound to defend their vassals and the bulk of their forces would be dispatched to raise the siege. After scaling the walls of the now nearly undefended Winterfell with grappling hooks, Theon and three others moved to the postern gate turret and killed the oscitant guard Alebelly. Inside the walls and as yet undetected, they opened the main gate for the remainder of their force. Because he was raised in Winterfell and grew up among the Starks, Theon knew exactly how Bran and Rodrik Cassel would react and with this knowledge he could decoy them with the feint on Torren’s Square and penetrate the weakest points in the defenses of the fortress itself.

There have been occasions throughout history when a former hostage who spent his childhood among a fighting force, previously deemed invincible, was able to overcome them because of this experience. Philip, one of the princes of Macedon, was sent to live as a hostage in Thebes as a guarantee of his father’s good behavior. While there, he was instructed in the use of the phalanx by the greatest military leaders in Greece, Epaminondas, Pelopidas, and Pammenes. No other military formation could stand up against the mass of overlapping shields and the bristle of spears that was the phalanx. The Greeks had used it to throw Darius’ army of invasion back into the sea. Another phalanx held the pass at Thermopylae against nearly a hundred times their number of Persians. The Persian army, unable to dislodge the Greeks within the narrow confines of the pass, could only overwhelm the puny force opposing them after circling around and surrounding them. An army of hoplites later destroyed these same invaders at Plataea. A contingent of Greek mercenaries stranded in the heart of the Persian Empire marched through hundreds of miles to reach the sea and freedom, cutting through Persians, Medes, Armenians, Chalybians and innumerable tribesmen as they went.

Philip learned the uses of the phalanx, and upon returning home and ascending the throne, he improved upon them. He lengthened the spear into the sarissa, over twenty feet long and carried by several men so that the points were staggered into rank upon rank. His phalangites were conscripted to serve full-time rather than just part of the year, and they were drilled ceaselessly. Leading this new army he’d created, Philip conquered the Greeks and at Chaeronea he crushed the same Theban’s who’d been his captors and his tutors.

Successful warriors may be figures of dread to strangers or enemies, but a prolonged familiarity will dispel this fear and sense of awe. The often overlooked but observant gaze of the child hostage will take in these warriors as they get drunk, fart, trip, scratch themselves, vomit, squabble, and fall into the countless errors and foibles common to all humans. The hostage will learn to skirt their strengths and attack their weaknesses.

Flavius Aetius, a noble Roman given over as a hostage to the Huns, rode with them, learned to fire the composite bow, became familiar with their method of fighting, and met the nephew of their leader, Attila. Aetius later became general of the Western Roman armies and Attila succeeded to the leadership of the Huns. Attila led his horde against the Eastern Roman Empire again and again, until, their livestock seized, their treasures looted, and their population dwindling, these eastern lands were still incapable of repelling an invader but they were now bereft of anything that could entice one. Turning to the Western Roman Empire, the Huns crossed the Rhine and entered Gaul, sacking Trier, Metz, Cambrai, and Rheims, but bypassing Paris as too small and poor to be bothered with.

It was Aetius who lead the Roman army sent to meet him. The Roman general made an alliance with Theodoric king of the Visigoths and their combined army fought Attila and his Germanic allies at Chalons. The battlefield was flat and empty, perfect for light cavalry but one hill on the left of the Hunnish position was quickly occupied by Visigoth heavy cavalry, and it was a charge from this height that won the battle. Using their speed and mobility, the Huns extricated themselves and retreated into their camp. The encampment was fortified by a ring of wagons but there was no hope of victory or even escape. Faced with defeat but unwilling to be taken alive, Attila ordered a great funeral pyre to be collected, determined to burn himself alive before being captured.

 

Preferring two barbarian nations that were sure to tear at one another, rather than one barbaric power supreme on the European continent and soon to overwhelm the tottering Roman Empire, Aetius now strove to save the Huns from annihilation. Theodoric having been killed during the battle, his son Thorismund was now king and Aetius advised him to rush back to his own capital, representing that his brothers were plotting to seize the crown for themselves. This disingenuous counsel was heeded and Attila was permitted to retreat across the Rhine. For the next two years, he continued to maraud and pillage before dying of an aneurism on his wedding night, much to the alarm of his fearful young bride.

A Defense of Madame du Barry

 

La Comtesse du Barry was neither a countess nor a du Barry. She was born Jeanne Becu in the Province of Champagne in the year 1743, to an unmarried seamstress and domestic maidservant. It is unknown who the father was, and it was likely a mystery to the young mother as well. The Province of Champagne is incidentally also the birthplace of Joan of Arc, but the two women have very little else in common. From the age of seven she was brought up in a convent, and after having left the cloister, she became an apprentice hairstylist, a companion to a wealthy dowager, and then a shop girl at a millinery. It was while she was working at Maison Labille that she was discover by the Comte Jean du Barry.

Du Barry operated a gambling house in Paris, filling its premises with the most beautiful girls in France, a distraction and a compensation for the rich and the titled who could marvel at them and flirt with them as they lost vast sums at cards. These lovely shills were to humor and keep company with the dukes, counts, princes, and magnates who patronized du Barry’s establishment. These meetings quickly went past flirtation and du Barry was the master procurer for the richest and most powerful men in France. As beautiful as his other girls were, Jeanne Becu outstripped them all, and when du Barry saw her he knew he’d made his fortune. She was so sublime in feature, and ravishing in form, that the only fit consort for such a miraculous beauty was the King of France himself. And so, after a few years of polishing and tutelage in du Barry’s household, she was dispatched to Versailles. In that age, the public was free to tramp about Versailles and gape at the enormous palace and its bedizened denizens, and it was no great difficulty to put Jeanne in a place where King Louis’ eye was certain to fall upon her.

Louis XV couldn’t properly be described as a philanderer or a womanizer. At the Parc-aux-Cerfs, he kept a house full of young, beautiful women, not a harem for that would imply a group of permanently abiding concubines, but rather a retreat to which girls were brought and then turned out after a few nights. Louis bedded and then grew bored with women by the hundreds if not thousands and in his satyriasis he more closely resembled Sardanapalus, Caligula, or Egalobalus than any contemporary European monarch.

Jeanne went to Versailles, Louis saw her, and from that moment on his bed and his heart were hers and hers alone. He was intent of bringing Jeanne to court, having her formally presented, and then making her his official mistress. There was one difficulty. None of this could be done without impropriety unless she were married. Du Barry, himself regrettably already married, found a solution in a rusticated older brother who was promptly brought to the capital and married to Jeanne, now the Comtesse du Barry. The nuptials concluded, the bridegroom eventually returns to the country, and Jeanne moves on to Versailles. The court was scandalized, not because the king was sharing his bed with a woman to whom he wasn’t married, but because the official mistress was expected to be of noble birth, and Jeanne was of the lowest extraction, daughter to a woman who washed other people’s clothes.

However much his courtiers and their ladies might be mortified to keep company with a guttersnipe, however much his new Austrian daughter in law Marie Antoinette might be appalled that he lives with a harlot, Louis is happier than he’s been for decades. It’s not only that Jeanne is the only woman alive who can bring him to an erection, she’s also rejuvenated him. He loves the girls, however mean her origins, however unsavory her reputation, however shadowy her past. She’s given a suite in the palace, and nothing that French artistry and craftsmanship can produce is spared in its appointment. The furniture, the chandeliers, the piano in the corner, the clock against the wall, are all masterpieces of the rococo style. A fortune is spent on her toilette, her clothing, her jewelry, rings, necklaces, pins, bracelets tiaras glittering with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Now, more than ever before and ever since, Paris is the fashion center of the world and she is its cynosure.

The cost of all this is ruinous, but the ruin is still years away and it is disease not bankruptcy that puts an end to this insupportable arrangement. The king falls ill, the court physicians fall on him with their clysters and their leeches, and he grows worse. Red blisters appear on his face. Louis XV has smallpox and sixty-four year olds don’t recover from smallpox. Jeanne, at danger to her own life, sits with him and nurses him until nearly the end. Once he knows beyond any hope that he’s about to die, he summons a priest, confesses his sins, renounces his paramour, and receives the Sacrament. Jeanne is exiled from Versailles, and after Louis is dead, a triumphant Marie Antoinette has her shut away in a convent.

Decades pass and the Queen relents, remitting her old enemy’s exile, and Madame du Berry is living in comfortable retirement not far away from Paris at Louveciennes. She is popular with the local peasantry, feting them on the grounds of her estate or under her own roof, succoring them in their sickness and poverty. Outside this quiet setting, things are not well and great events are occurring. The Estates-General is convened, the Bastille is stormed, the King and Queen are made prisoners.

Jeanne has always been a true friend to the House of Bourbon and during the Revolution she becomes a supporter of the emigres abroad. She makes repeated trips to England, meets with exiled nobles and gives them money for their food and shelter. She meets leaders of the Counterrevolution, only in a social capacity but it’s clear where her sympathies lie. Many eyes track her passage and watch her movements and meetings. She sends these donations through her bankers, the Vandenyvers, and while they are not trained as secret agents, their activities lack not only tradecraft but common sense and prudence.

At the instigation of a Jacobin agitator who lusts for her body and her death with equal fervor, she and her bankers are arrested and questioned. Jeanne is very careful to implicate only those who have already been guillotined or are already safely across the English Channel. She is found guilty and sentenced to be guillotined. Back in her cell, she’s overcome with terror, and writes an abject letter, offering to buy her life in exchange for treasures brought away from Versailles and buried on the grounds of Louveciennes. Her jailers accept her offer and her life is saved. Or so she thinks. The letter names the exact locations of the valuables and as soon as she’s dead, her captors can dig them up at their leisure. She’s shocked and outraged when the executioner comes to cut the hair from her neck and bind her hands. Jeanne Becu was taken by tumbril to the Place de la Revolution and beheaded on December 8, 1793.

Historians have not been kind to the memory of Madame du Berry. Most who chronicle the French Revolution abhor and despise her. Contrary to the facts, they claim that she implicated many of her former friends to save her own worthless life. They paint how she went to her end sobbing, begging for mercy and contrast it with the dignity and courage with which her betters faced the same death. They contend that in disgracing the crown and draining the treasury, she helped to bring on the Revolution to which she fell victim.

While she was never a working prostitute, she did sell her body for a life of ease, comfort, and luxury. All the gold, porcelain, crystal, and silver garniture of her apartments, the endless gowns sewn by an army of ateliers, the gilded carriage, the thousands of gemstones that hung in chains around her body or studded everything that surrounded her, the retinue of liveried servants that attended her, were all a drain on the finances of the state that the French nation couldn’t afford. While she enjoyed her exquisite, pampered lifestyle, the poor starved and died. And in the end, she went to her death, whimpering, and blubbering, and screaming as they dragged her to the guillotine.

It’s easy for the historian, in the safety and comfort of his study, to deplore her morals, and to shake his head over the cowardice with which she met her death. Jeanne Becu had no physical courage. She wasn’t brave nor did she ever pretend to be. She spent her life avoiding violence, and when it was in her power, preventing it. She used her influence with the most powerful man in Europe, not to punish or imprison those who libeled her, but to plead for the pardons of men and women about to be executed whose relatives had come to her in their behalf. She was always kind, generous, amiable and merciful.

A fallen Chief Minister to Louis, a man who’d set pamphleteers to call her a drunkard, wretch, whore, filth, to print canards and false stories about her, who’d tried to devise her ruin, is now close to bankruptcy. Having always felt entitled to live like royalty, he has done nothing to curb his spending now that he’s lost his position. Although his means are great, his prodigality is even greater. One of his friends comes to Jeanne and ask that she use her influence with Louis to secure him a pension. She agrees and only after much pleading and many tears, she gains a pension for her former enemy, a man who’s always hated her and will always hate her, even now.

The manner of her death is not dignified but it would only be contemptible if she herself had dealt in violence. As to the charge that she turned the French people against the monarchy, it might be remembered that Kennedy’s dalliance with Marilyn Monroe did more to burnish than to tarnish his legend. There was great tenderness and feeling between Louis and Jeanne, despite the more sordid trappings of their years together, and while we can’t look upon their relationship with admiration, we can view the failings of a man and woman who loved one another with indulgence. Madame du Berry always showed kindness and forgiveness to strangers and enemies, perhaps posterity will do the same for her.

Introduction to My Blog

This will be a preface, an introduction to my blog which will consist of  a series of essays which will eventually and ultimately find their way into print.  I’ve chosen to title this collection ‘Occasional Essays’ because in their conception and execution they will arise from things encountered in real time. In most of my work I exhibit an obsessional need for symmetry. I must always pair, balance, systematize. I recur again and again to the numbers two, three, and four and through them to their products. I don’t know how many of these essays I will write, and not to cast these works into an overall structure, an architectonic is very strange for me. It’s also very liberating. I don’t know how many essays there will be, and although I have a list of subjects, a rather long list, more will come from things I hear and read.

I haven’t written anything read by another human being since I left university, and that was some time ago. Since then I’ve done a great deal of reading and thinking, and at this stage I feel an almost irresistible impulse to inflict my ideas on the world. All the sciences and arts can be divided into those of which I know a little and those of which I know nothing. I flatter myself that I’m a fair judge of prose but I know nothing of poetry. While I do love Milton, I can appreciate Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes only as if they’re prose written in blank verse and much of their beauty is beyond me.

I sense the world more with the ear than the eye and the visual arts don’t communicate to me as they do to many. My commentary will tend toward praising works that are exceptional, and exhorting others to experience them, rather than aspersing those works that fall short. This is only fair to those that created them, given my confessed shortcomings as a critic.  I should warn the reader in advance that every review, breakdown, and analysis will contain spoilers.  If I forget to issue the proper warning at the beginning of the post, I’m sorry but this should serve as a general caution.

For these reasons i’ll mostly concern myself with books, history, and anything that might interest fellow geeks.  if you have any topic that you think merits a blog, feel free to suggest it in the comments.