2022 Film in Review

Broker, maybe my favorite scene of the year.

A spoiler-free look at general trends, the films and performances of the year, and the film that best represents our cultural moment.

The greatest accomplishment of The Fabelmans, a film I liked that moved me much more than I expected, is the convincing presentation of truisms – clichés, even – about film. It looks us in the eye with a straight face and tells us movies are magic. They’re more real sometimes than the physical world around us. Film, as an artistic medium, can change lives, change cultures. And they can also “just” thrill and enchant, “simply” astound and delight. Spielberg would know, having over decades enchanted millions with awesome spectacle while also reaching through to the heart of what moves us.

This holistic, sincere view of film is pleasantly reflected in this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards, as well as in the greater 2022 canon. It’s pointless to say there’s something for everyone because hundreds of films come out every year; of course there is something for everyone. What’s notable instead, for me, is how many films were for anyone. My personal tastes – as you’ll find below – skew towards the arty and subtle, but with only a few exceptions the best and most acclaimed films this year were movies I’d recommend without a second thought. There are films that lean heavily toward wonder and spectacle or nuance and detail, but many, many films manage to gratify all our movie-consuming parts – our head, heart, eyes, ears, even our loins.

I have enough evidence from this year in film not to be worried about the state of movies. Yeah, things are changing and trends are emerging, and not all of them are good from my perspective. But film is always changing, and changing rapidly. It’s one of the world’s newest art forms, and in much the same way flight has advanced incalculably since Kitty Hawk, so too have motion pictures. But film is also stable; the core elements are still necessary for success. And there are still artists – more than ever – committed to telling all kinds of stories, of expressing all kinds of ideas, through that medium. What does give me anxiety is the public’s capacity to sit still for two hours and concentrate on one thing, but that is for another essay.

You’ll find a few different things below: a few general trends I’ve noticed, my top ten films of the year, my favorite performances of the year, and my film of the year (the film that best represents this year). Please read on. If doing so convinces you to watch even one film you wouldn’t have otherwise, I’ll be satisfied.

Are good action movies a thing now?

Action movies are well-represented both on my top ten and the Best Picture nominees. Action films are generally judged according to the conventions of their genre, but this year presented a number of films that transcend the genre. This is encouraging for me as someone who has complicated feelings about violence in film, and as someone who would like to Trojan Horse some great movies into big box office and streaming numbers. If we can continue each year to get a handful of big-budget action movies with great writing and performances built on powerful ideas, that will be for everyone’s good.

Writing matters.

Babylon is nominated for several technical awards but not Best Picture because of bad writing. Women Talking is nominated for Best Picture despite not being nominated for not much else because of good writing. Technologically, the greatest achievement of the year is Avatar: The Way of Water, but it’s not going to win Best Picture because the writing is just fine. In short, the year showed once again that writing is one of the most distinguishing factors in film. Surprising no one, I love this aspect of film, and I love the diversity of writing styles that are receiving attention and acclaim. Writing, like all aspects of film, continues to evolve, but it also remains remarkably stable. It remains one of the few aspects upon which a film’s entire success can ultimately hinge.

We all just want to love and be loved.

It is sometimes possible to identify some sort of thesis emerging from a year of film, and this is what I’m going with for 2022. Maybe that’s too easy, as so much art for so long has focused on different forms of love and longing, but I think this year it was especially striking. Here’s an incomplete list of 2022 films that are, fundamentally, about human connection: The Banshees of Inisherin, Petite Maman, Aftersun, The Whale, Women Talking, Tár, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Bardo, The Worst Person in the World, The Quiet Girl, The Fabelmans. Each of these films is about other things, too, but at their core they are full of love and longing, an intense, usually mournful cry to be seen and understood and to go through life with other people, even just one other person. I don’t think this is a coincidence. It’s part of our reckoning with the pandemic, with our social media addiction, our increasing political polarization, our segregated cities, our climate in crisis, our democracy weakening. Information is more available than ever, but the truth remains elusive. What is the simplest, most basic human response? Hold onto the ones you love, and never let them go. And what, then, is perhaps the most basic, most visceral fear? That we might fail to hold onto them, or that we will never get the chance – to love and lose, or never love at all.

Top Films of 2022 (kinda best + kinda favorite = Top)

OLI: Broker, The Fabelmans, the last 30 minutes of Top Gun: Maverick, Worst Person in the World, The Stranger

10. The Woman King. One of the most surprising films of the year, The Woman King is totally engrossing. As the best sword-and-sandal films do, it operates well at the political and personal level, being as much about the journey of its heroes as it is the stakes of the warring peoples. The characters are three-dimensional and rendered in fantastic performances, the action sequences are harrowing and thrilling, and the world created is entirely convincing. It feels like an authentic period piece, but with a modern sensibility and swagger that props up some of the key moments and themes. Do you like Braveheart? Gladiator? You’ll like The Woman King.

9. The Banshees of Inisherin. The risk run with black comedies / tragicomedies is leaving out any heart and sincerity. So too with satire. But Banshees evades both traps. The premise is as overt as the commentary, being a film about a ridiculous row between two former friends and the violent conflicts that have divided Irish people for hundreds of years. Maybe in less capable hands this becomes a plodding political allegory or a basic far-fetched comedy, but the sincerity of McDonough’s off-beat writing style and the commitment from the actors makes it a cutting (pun not-intend #iykyk) study of the absurdity of conflict, the randomness of human interaction, and the tragedy of a life without love. If you’ve ever lost a close friend for reasons you don’t fully understand, you’ll know how true to the mark this absurd movie actually is. And it’s not much of a step to see how the pettiness of our personal interactions balloons into larger political rivalries. And what’s more ridiculous, really? Hating people we know, or hating people we don’t?

8. RRR. This movie kicks ass. It’s not often a film earns a three hour runtime, but RRR absolutely does, using all that runtime to tell a complex and compelling story, construct iconic characters, and revel in set pieces both musical and violent (and sometimes both). It is cleverly subversive, especially for a movie that turns it up to 11 at every opportunity (except for there being no sex, but there are so many shockingly hot people in this movie that I think it checks that box too). This is kind of what we go to the movies for, isn’t it? To see a thrilling story, to see things we’ve never seen before, to be inspired, to be moved, to see thinly-veiled homoeroticsm swaggering about in sweaty masculinity? So, yeah – it rocks.

7. EO. This movie’s ass kicks. Get it? Because it’s, you know, about a donkey? I’ll show myself out. No, but seriously, this movie also kicks ass, just in a totally different way from RRR. It’s understated and meditative and beautiful, and I kinda wish I had [redacted #iykyk] before watching it for maximum impressionistic vibes. It’s clever to use a donkey – an animal we often use for insulting comparisons, despite the fact they’re really just hard-working ugly cute horses – as a way to show how stupid, stubborn, and animalistic humans can be. EO, the donkey, is so strikingly human, but also so refreshingly not human. He is bothered by cruelty, and seeks love, and desires freedom, but he holds no prejudices, is so unbounded by rules and decorum, eschews culture and norms, has no sense of time or obligation. The takeway for me is double-edged: EO is so much like us. And we are so unlike him. EO also has some of my favorite shots from the year

6. Nope. I’m baffled by this film’s exclusion from the Oscars. Jordan Peele is, in his third feature film, becoming more nuanced in his societal critiques but also more over-the-top in his spectacle. His symbolism continues to operate at multiple levels, and he is already one of our most capable creators of iconic images. Think about how many shots and scenes from Get Out are part of our popular film lexicon – he’s doing that again in Nope, even if it didn’t have the same cultural impact as Get Out. Perhaps it’s not a horror movie, but there are some horrifying moments that are very effective. Also effective are Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer – more on them soon.

5. Petite Maman. Maybe this is me being a little extra, but I legitimately love this film from Céline Sciamma. As in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma does so much with so little, but whereas that film rested on the performances of two grown women, this one rests on two young girls. The film is so sweet, so aching, so lovely. Portrait feels like there was some small part of Sciamma that said to herself, “I’m going to make a great film.” And she did – it’s one of the best films ever made, easily in my personal Top 10. Petite Maman feels like she said, “I’m going to make a movie I like.” Not every great movie has to set out to be the best thing ever. Sometimes they can just be good on their own terms. When a master filmmaker does that, it’s refreshing and gratifying.

Okay, we’re into the top four, which are on their own level.

4. Aftersun. Speaking of doing the most with the least. This film is so poignant in its ordinariness. It’s a family drama about divorce, coming-of-age, and the love between father and daughter without anything especially dramatic happening. What could be more ordinary and yet more profound than your daughter holding up a video camera and asking “What did you want to be when you grew up?” To be that father faced with that innocent question, to be that daughter not understanding why he can’t answer. (Also, shout-out to 90’s and 00’s dads who spent all their family outings and vacations with a video camera). Aftersun is as tender as it is mournful, and it is a joy to see a film that finds the beauty and the weight in the everyday.

3. Women Talking. Okay, yes, the film is basically just, well, women talking. And yes, that talking often takes the shape of long speeches. But I was totally absorbed in this film from start to finish. The writing builds the complexity of this debate – to leave, to do nothing, to stay and fight – that the women in this male-dominated religious sect have throughout the film. These are the conversations behind the simplicity of “he said, she said,” the thorny terrain women must navigate simply by being women in a world where men are given inherent power and privilege. The ensemble cast performance is astonishing, and the tone and mood of the visuals are so consistent and beautiful in their austerity. Women Talking is necessary cinema.

2. Tár. More to come on this film in later sections, but for now: this is a masterpiece on every level. Many viewers have categorized it as a tough sit, and while I see where they’re coming from I don’t at all agree. This is the film from the year that you have to watch on a relaxed evening with the lights turned down and a glass of wine. Put your phone away and turn the volume up a little. It’s breathtaking.

1. Everything Everywhere All at Once. Can we all please quit overthinking this? Can we please stop pretending we’re tired of this movie’s inevitability? This is one of the greatest films ever made, and we should celebrate it every chance we get. I really mean that – this is easily the best film of the year, and it is an all-time great film. There are very few films that can ever boast this range of action, heart, humor, and big ideas. Fitting that a film about the multi-verse should hold so many truths all at once. Many of us are tired of multiverse content, but it feels so fresh, so well thought out in this film that it doesn’t bother me. It may end up being a sort of final word on the subject – how could anyone do it better? Yes, it’s chaotic and disorienting and an all-out assault on the senses, but it is all anchored by some of the simplest, most fundamental aspects of drama. This is a story of a mother’s love for her daughter. And then it is so, so much more on top of that. The Daniels were insane to try to put so much into one movie, but their gambit paid off. This is a singular accomplishment.

Performances of the Year (in no particular order)

Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once). It was time for Michelle Yeoh to really have her moment, and it’s a shame this performance comes in the same year as Cate Blanchett in Tár. She is asked to do a lot as she is essentially playing many variations of one character while still maintaining the core of the Evelyn we meet at the beginning of the film. Changed as she is by the end, we know it’s the same person we met two and half hours earlier. Michelle Yeoh been an icon – this just solidifies her legend status.

Cate Blanchett (Tár). In her first scene, a long medium shot of Lydia waiting off stage to begin her public appearance, Cate Blanchett shows us who this person is while hardly saying a word. The performance never relents – everything she does, everything she says, all of it is a perfect embodiment of this character, captivating and intimidating and beautiful. Blanchette is one of the most recognizable actors in the world and start to finish this is Lydia Tár. True genius.

Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer (Nope). The brother and sister at the center of Nope are opposites in a lot of ways, and while Kaluuya is the star, the film – like the characters’ horse-handling business – doesn’t work without Palmer’s exuberance, humor, and overall cool. Kaluuya is doing Kaluuya things. For my money, he took the Best Actor Alive title with Judas and the Black Messiah, and he’s done nothing to lose it here. In Judas, his charisma was at a 10/10, but in Nope, his character is completely and totally lacking in charisma. He’s just a quiet, regular guy, but through his performance Kaluuya channels that subdued temperament into the kind of cool that has marked many great Western characters (and this film essentially turns into a Western as he becomes an Eastwood-like hero).

Everyone in The Woman King (especially Viola Davis Lashana Lynch). Speaking of best actors alive. I had no idea this was a role Viola Davis could play, and oh my goodness does she play it. It’s everything Russell Crowe does in Gladiator, and there’s this one moment where one of her comrades throws her a weapon that I actually think might be a subtle nod to that part in Gladiator where Maximus gets on the horse and Juba throws him a sword…but also it’s just cool when people throw each other weapons. Lashana Lynch is a revelation. The supporting cast is great, but her very physical performance, from the subtle facial expressions to the athletic fight scenes, is special. Lots of epic films with large casts struggle to make us really connect with the supporting characters. One scene with Lashana Lynch and I was 100% team Izogie.

Everyone in Women Talking (but especially Rooney Mara, Sheila McCarthy, and Kate Hallett). The movie just doesn’t stand a chance without great performances, and these three – representing three different generations of the colony’s women – are the best in my eyes.

Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr (RRR). Both men exhibit acting chops, but this is really about the astounding physicality of their performances. It’s like if Keanu Reeves also sang and danced in the John Wick movies. Their chemistry together is also pure joy, and they are both, so, so very hot.

Mark Rylance (The Outfit). This is a pretty neat thriller and I definitely recommend it, but it’s probably B-movie fodder without Mark Rylance being in his bag start to finish. The acting overall in this film is a little suspect – I think partially due to writing and direction – but Rylance carries every scene even without having a lot to work with. I’d like to see this movie recast with A-list performers all around him to see what his performance would look like then, but it might not actually be that different. He hits all the right notes and doesn’t miss a beat.

All the donkeys (EO and Banshees of Inisherin). Every once in a while an animal is so good in a movie you swear they’re really truly acting. Shout out to all the donkeys who brought EO and Jenny to life. And also the donkey in Triangle of Sadness, who really didn’t deserve to die like that. Rich people are the worst.

Colin Farrell (Banshess of Inisherin). All four of the nominated actors (and the donkey (and the dog)) in this film are excellent – really excellent. But Farrell’s performance is my favorite. Some of his lines in this scene are just perfection. Actually this scene is a good showcase for all four actors. Farrell is convincing as a character who is pretty dumb and pathetic, but is also, at his core, nice. Some movie stars play an everyman and it doesn’t quite work – Farrell has mastered it, and he’s doing it again here.

Renate Reinsve (Worst Person in the World). You’ll spend the first ten or fifteen minutes being like “Okay, that’s actually Dakota Johnson, right?” But make no mistake, Reinsve is not just the Norwegian version of an American starlet. She’s one of the best young actresses in the world, someone who owns every single scene, who you just want to watch. I said in 2020 I was buying all the Manon Clavel. I’m doing the same for Renate Reinsve. Please let this be just the first of many high-profile performances. She’s electric.

So, what is the film of 2022?

I enjoy selecting “the film of the year” by considering which of the year’s most excellent films best represents this cultural moment in America (I chose Mank in 2020).

The obvious choice might, again, be Everything Everywhere All at Once, but I think that is both a little too broad and a little too narrow. Broad, because how can a movie about everything be specific to one year, and narrow because in general it seems older audiences don’t respond to the film quite the same way. I think most Millennials think their parents spend too much time on their phones, but even if they are it is not usually the same sort of dizzying engagement with thousands of channels of content that characterizes the way Millennials and Zoomers/Gen Yeet interact with their devices.

Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I’m not picking EEAaO, though there’s a strong case for it.

The film of the year is Tár. Yep, a film about the world’s foremost conductor of classical music is the film that captures the cultural moment of 2022.

Lydia Tár is a regular person. An impossibly beautiful, supremely talented person, but a regular person. When we meet her, she has already ascended to the top of her art and profession. She is in a place where she now – because of her talent and hard work and accomplishments – has power and control. She controls the musicians as they play, her baton giving her control over time itself. She can choose which musicians to hire, which colleagues to fire, and who gets the big solo. She has a dedicated assistant who will do everything for her, including edit her Wikipedia page for the most up-to-date information on her accomplishments. She keeps up her health by ordering salads, going for long runs, and constantly sanitizing her hands. She threatens the child who bullies her daughter, and is clearly the one in control in her relationship.

Power corrupts, of course. Lydia abuses that power, sometimes to devastating consequences. And so her power and control begins to unravel.

Lydia is not so much a cautionary tale as she is a reflection of human nature. But it’s more than that; not only are we like Lydia, we want to be.

Professionally speaking, from good honest blue collar jobs to corporate white collar workplaces to “purely” artistic endeavors, we are all conditioned to gain more power and control. Ours is a society built on the basic idea that you can and should advance yourself through hard work, and the higher you climb you are afforded more power and control and – crucially – less accountability, regardless of increasing responsibility. The film is, then, a critique of capitalist society, but it goes a step further to include pursuits we (and when I say we I especially mean liberal people who read The New Yorker and maybe create art of their own) would like to consider exempt from capitalist impulse. Classical music is one of the most beautiful things humanity has ever created, and even it is not free to operate for its own beautiful sake. It too is a rat race. And time and again, we find those who have risen to the top of any profession – athletes, business people, politicians – are so susceptible to abusing that power.

America in 2022 has intensified our pursuits of power and control. No matter who is in the White House, the basic message of the opposition is that they are taking away our freedom (read: power and control). That’s really it. When someone has a bumper sticker that says “Let’s Go Brandon” or even just “Fuck Joe Biden” (let’s hear it for the party of family values) it seems to have very little to do with specific policies; rather, it’s a general sentiment that we can’t live life the way we want to because this person – these people – are stopping us. And of course sometimes those people are in fact stopping us. No matter who we elect, they aren’t ever actually doing all that we want them to. Because that would be hard, and now that they’re in control they don’t have to do hard things if they don’t want to.

Our collective response to the powers-that-be, then, is to find some other way to find power and control, both professionally and personally.. Start a business or a podcast. Get a tattoo or a piercing. Subscribe to the services you want, watch your shows when you want to watch them. Hover over your child as you send them to school. Wear a gun under your coat. Take that gun into a school. Our lives are increasingly tailored to suit our control in every possible way.

Post-pandemic, aren’t we – like Lydia – all a little more maniacal about our health? Aren’t we all a little more conscious of the way time is ticking away? When a new relationship is just a swipe away, how likely are we – really – to cede any control to our partners?

In this cultural moment when we are increasingly desperate for power and control, maybe we can understand better than ever how we might act if we actually got what we wanted. If you rose to the very height of your profession, might you sleep with whoever you wanted? And if in so doing you crossed some lines, made some mistakes, really deeply hurt some people, might you be a little indignant when people came asking questions?

Again, it’s not just that we are all Lydia Tár – it’s that we want to be.

And yet. I believe Lydia is trying at times to be a good person. I believe she is trying to bring beauty into the world. What a weighty place to be, where what you love to do is beautiful, and in your pursuit of that beauty you do very ugly things. When has that ever been more relatable than now?

The film of 2022 is Tár.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


Good Stories from Galadriel to Galilee to Grandpa

Soni Alcorn-Hender

*minor spoilers*

“Schemes and plots are the same thing.” Story and plot are not.

Story is how we make sense of life. Plot is the illusion we can know where it is going.

Plot is what happens when you try to plan your life. Story is what happens when you live it.

It is unnecessary, but perhaps unavoidable, to put the first season of House of the Dragon (the “prequel” series to Game of Thrones) and the first season of Rings of Power (the “prequel” series to The Lord of the Rings) in conversation with one another. Despite the obvious nature of the connection, it’s a conversation rich with potential so long as it’s defined by juxtaposition rather than opposition. How they are alike and how they are different are compelling in equal measure, and the comparison is one that yields implications for each text and applications well beyond them.

In other words: yeah I’m gonna talk about the dragons and the elves, but also yeah I’m gonna be an English major about it, and I’m going to go far off trail (but hopefully not alone). Whose blog did you think you were reading?

Both series took on a certain set of burdens of storytelling by being prequels to beloved works based on existing source material. In each case, the source material is hardly comprehensive. One is based on an in-universe history text compiled by one scholar based on numerous differing accounts across hundreds of years, and the other grows out of brief summaries of thousands of years of legends dancing around copyright law. Despite the many gaps to fill in, both series will culminate in key, well-known events in their respective worlds – The Dance of Dragons and The Last Alliance. And, beyond that, each must build a suitable foundation for their respective “original” texts.

Ah, surely then each show must be carefully, meticulously plotted in order to hit all the key points in grand narrative arcs, getting our characters from place to place and event to event so they get where they need to go, all while maintaining suspense when the fate of so many of these characters is already known. Neither show could succeed without a writers room filled with charts and visualizers like the Always Sunny meme or a Mike’s Mic recap. All the millions (billions?) spent on each show would be for naught without some sure-handed plotting.

Or, well, maybe not.

House inherits from Game of Thrones the imperatives of plot. The rewards of good plotting and the devastation of bad plotting has hardly ever been more clear than in the original series. As its successor, House is obliged to steer straight into the complexities of personal and political rivalries in a world that is also governed by legends, prophecies, and magic. Just as Thrones built to the epic arrivals of Daenerys and the Night King to the Realm, House must build to the climactic Targaryen Civil War.

It’s turned out to be about the least interesting aspect of the show. It’s not that the twists and turns of the story aren’t interesting, it’s that it doesn’t really seem to matter what they’re building towards in a macro sense. We know there’s a major civil war on the horizon, a key historical era in the long arc of the Targaryen story in Westeros that goes from major event to major event: Aegon’s Conquest, The Blackfyre Rebellions, The Great Councils, The Dance of Dragons, Robert’s Rebellion. Ostensibly, everything in House is meant to build up to and support those capital letter happenings.

Yet, despite the show’s clear commitment to those events, those destinations in the long arc of its fantasy world and the world of prestige TV, they don’t matter so much as the moments, the scenes, and the images that make up each episode. Okay there’s a conflict in the Stepstones no one in universe or at home cares about, and sure there’s a civil war with a bunch of dragons on the way, and, alright, I guess the Targaryens are holding onto some prophecy that connects this story in a very unsubtle way to Thrones, but I’m actually more interested in the complicated character of Viserys I Targaryen (brought to life by a stunning performance by Paddy Consadyn) and his relationships with his daughter, his teenaged wife, his plotting advisors, and his reckless younger brother. I’m interested in the fracture between Alicent and Rhaenyra, and the burdens they bear as young women in a world built on sexism.

It’s these things, and many more, which make the show compelling, and some of the best moments in each episode are when a scene or conversation is given room – much more than is normal even on Thrones – to meander to and froe. Yes, these scenes are, in their own way, building towards something Big, but the weight of that Big thing isn’t felt. These scenes can just be for what they are in the moment without us fixating on where they’re going.

Some of the biggest problems for the series, actually, are when the need to eventually reach the Big event results in massive time jumps and time compression. The only reason a show that has built up such interesting characters and compelling conflicts would suddenly jump years ahead between episodes is to serve the purpose of reaching some fixed endpoint, and this creates a jarring effect that always requires a certain amount of reset and suspension of disbelief.

This is, in retrospect, precisely when Thrones started to unravel. Thrones was at its best when we were squarely in the midst of the chaos of The War of the Five Kings. Once it was clear everything was building to this cataclysmic arrival of Winter and the Night King (and Daenerys), the show started to fall apart. The true genius in the plotting of Thrones was when what seemed like the logical endpoint of a storyline was suddenly subverted, and we realized that the endpoint we did reach was what we should have seen coming along (The Red Wedding is the best example of this).

In short, House is really good in spite of its insistence on being a part of a larger arc. It wants all the pieces to fit together, but is never so good as when we can examine each piece and fit them together as they may.

Rings of Power has taken up the challenges of plot with both hands in an effort to meet the expectations of modern streaming audiences. There is an imperative to reach the major events in the legendarium that we already know something about, while also supplying the show with mysteries that take time to unravel, thus building tension and stoking discussion.

It’s a noble attempt that did not succeed in its first season. The show committed to multiple mystery boxes, and leaned on them far too much for dramatic effect. The big events in the show feel forced at times, based on reasoning that seems flimsy or silly or arbitrary. And some of the big moments we’ve had a pretty good idea about for most of the season, even as the series seems committed to making these revelations the source of the excitement, the reason for coming back.

And it doesn’t matter. The show’s good. And I say that as someone who has some major problems with some aspects of it.

Why and how the characters move from place to place doesn’t matter so much because these characters are fantastic and portrayed by some astonishing performances. They inhabit breathtaking settings and are accompanied by a beautiful score. Nowhere is all this more clear than in the Khazad-dûm storyline. The particulars of the plot are a little silly, while being a compression of the timeline and a clear means to getting to certain predetermined events. But Durin IV and Elrond are terrific – two of the standout characters and performances in the show. Khazad-dûm looks amazing. The Dwarven culture feels so fully realized, helped immensely by the character and performance of Durin’s wife, Disa. These scenes overflow with themes of friendship, love, and the weight of legacy. They depict the wonder and depth of Tolkien’s world. They are funny, heartbreaking, and totally immersive. It doesn’t really matter that the reason for Elrond being there is – for the moment – nonsense and we all know that eventually we’ll delve too greedily and Khazad-dûm will fall.

Basically, Rings is at its worst when it’s trying to adhere to the expectations of an exciting, tense, binge-worthy series. This might at times make the show seem almost boring. If we’re judging it on early Thrones or late Breaking Bad or Season 4 of The Wire, maybe it does lack a certain amount of excitement. But you could also say the same thing about large portions of Tolkien’s original works. There are millions of us who can’t get enough Tolkien, but I think most of us are aware that his works are not page-turners in the same way Stephen King’s or Gillian Flynn’s are. For instance, he is notorious for spoiling major aspects of his works in the first chapter. But that’s because the suspense of who lives and who dies, or what actually ends up happening, wasn’t his chief means of entertaining. And as much as his works are filled with Big events, those events are not so all-important, so supreme that every little detail has to contribute to setting them up.

Rings wants to be a cleverly-plotted series where each episode builds suspense leading towards big moments. It’s not particularly good at this. And that’s okay. The finale demonstrated this pretty clearly, as the two big mystery boxes finally opened. Even though we had pretty much figured them both out, the way in which they opened was compelling – in fact, I think they were some of the best moments of the season (recall that we all knew in Thrones that R+L=J, but the reveal was no less thrilling for it). The ins and outs of the story, the little details here and there, don’t always add up in Rings, but it winds up at the right answer much of the time anyway.

So what’s the point of posting for the first time in nine months, other than providing defense and praise for two flawed but impressive first seasons of new streaming?

We gotta stop worrying so much about plots and just let things be.

We find ourselves conflating story and narrative with connecting the dots. Drama becomes the grand flight from endpoint to endpoint made up of careful steps along the way. This is not inherently problematic, but it becomes so when we decide we know where those endpoints are. We decide we’ve mapped it out and have an idea of what this story is supposed to be, of where the characters are supposed to go, about what sort of thing is going to eventually happen. From this point of view, every piece along the way matters, and everything in the journey should be acting in service of this trajectory.

The canons of narrative art do put some unique strictures on television/streaming, but I don’t think we need to be so committed to making this view of story one of them. Other forms of art can do extremely well without them. Many of my favorite authors (like Per Petterson, Sally Rooney, and Amy Mrotek), are largely uninterested with plot, and so too are most of my favorite filmmakers (such as Hirokazu Koreeda, Jia Zhang-Ke, and Kelly Reichardt). Your mileage may vary, of course, and you may prefer tightly-plotted stories in both art forms, but a review of award-winning (and popular, for that matter) literature and film will return many examples of stories unbeholden to the same types of expectations we place on television/streaming.

We can, and should, be more permissive of series that don’t thread the plotting needles, both those that intentionally flout the rules, and those that try and fail.

But we can go further than this.

I’m speaking for myself, but I’ll use we: I think we’re always trying to make the stories in our lives all pieces of something more meaningful, while deriving too much meaning from what sense we can make and experiencing too much anguish when we can’t fit the pieces together.

I know for me this comes in part from my Christian worldview, both the one I was raised in and the one it has evolved into. I’m sure it’s the same for millions of others. There’s this imperative to make everything fit into God’s Plan, established in the Bible and the grand narrative arc it lays out. Most Christians depend upon the notion that there is a God who is in control and has a Plan. It gives them hope and helps them make sense of things that are too awful or confusing otherwise. I have neither the time nor the interest in diving into the notion of God’s Plan here; for now I just want to suggest that our instinct to contextualize anything into the Plan has some negative effects.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as my church has been exploring the Gospel of John, which has led me to listen to it myself a number of times. We’re in the fourth chapter, and so far I have been particularly moved by the sermon on the wedding where Jesus turns water into wine and the series of sermons on Jesus’ encounter at the well with the Samaritan woman. The pastors have approached these texts with special attention placed on the historical and cultural context of the stories to gain a greater appreciation of what Jesus does, while also emphasizing the humanity in Jesus’ actions.

It’s not that this is the first time I’ve heard sermons on these passages or heard a pastor approach a text this way – not at all. But I’ve been particularly struck this time around by how much can be gleaned from each story about the nature of Jesus and what it means for his followers when each story can – more or less – be scrubbed from the larger surrounding narrative. Notably, both are only found in John’s Gospel, the last of the four Gospels to be written. The wedding at Cana is Jesus’ first miracle, but it doesn’t fit with a lot of the other recorded miracles; he doesn’t heal anyone, or go toe-to-toe with demons, or dunk on Pharisees, or make declarations about his ability to forgive sins. He just helps out a couple in an embarrassing predicament. John could’ve told the story of Jesus’ ministry and proclaimed the Good News without it. And the Samaritan woman? It’s basically a side quest where Jesus breaks the Billy Graham Rule.

These stories have so, so much to teach us, but I fear that Christians might sometimes miss these things that don’t fit so neatly into the Bible’s main plot and the biggest narrative arcs. To varying degrees, Christians cleave to God’s Plan and their convictions of who God is, and this informs how they make meaning out of the stories of their lives.

It’s not just Christians, of course, and even Christians seeks to make meaning out of things outside their religious templates. “We” are “all” managing this tendency. But, again, I’ll try just to speak for myself here.

I have been working on allowing my life just to be. I have often found myself viewing the events and conditions of my life as fundamentally connected to what has happened and what may happen. My past – failures, success, all of it – informs how I understand the present, and guides how I predict what will happen in the future. And that future – my hopes, fears, and expectations – dictates the consequences of the present even as it unfolds. So if something bad happens – maybe I have a bad day, or I fail at something – I might see that as canceling out the good days that came before it or the things I’ve succeeded at, and looking ahead I might decide that this means that I will continue to have these kinds of days, or will continue to fail in the same way.

There’s a lot wrong with thinking this way. I’m presuming to have a clear understanding of my past and my future, and because I feel I understand those things, then I delude myself into thinking I have more control over the unfolding present than I really do. I’m also setting up standards and expectations that shouldn’t be there, as I believe I should always repeat my past successes and avoid my past failures, and that everything I do should be in service to the idealized future I have in mind.

Basically, this tendency is to always put the little details of my life into their proper place in the larger story, one that I want to have some control over. Everything ends up holding some greater significance for the part it plays in the meaning I’m trying to make.

I’m trying to unlearn this, and I’m making progress. I hope to get to a place where I can let things just be, a place where I can better regulate how and when I bring the past and future to bear on the present. With sober-minded reflection, it is good and right and helpful to consider the big pictures, but in the moment, things just are. Es muss sein.

In the time I’ve been working on this post, my grandfather – my father’s father – fell into a wakeless sleep, and a few days later passed beyond the circles of the world. I’m going to finish this post writing about him, because I really think he understood all of this as well as anyone I have known. He was, like so many people in my family, a pastor, and he believed in God’s Plan, but when I think back on the things he said, I think he figured out how to let things be without forcing them into a plot he could pretend to have figured out.

My grandfather was a storyteller, whether he was preaching, recounting the story of Good Friday from multiple characters’ perspectives, or just having a conversation with anyone that lasted any more than a few minutes. He’d recall his serious illness he had in high school, and how the first time he walked in weeks was to the Thanksgiving table. He’d tell you about his special relationship with two brothers, both baseball prodigies. He’d show you the bent nail hanging on his wall and ask you to try to unbend it; his friend Norman bent it that way when they were in high school.

He told the stories to you even if he’d told you before. I’ve heard about the baseball brothers four or five times, the Thanksgiving table about that many times too. It was an inside joke among the family, something he did we could roll our eyes at, the kind of thing you allow the elderly to do because they’ve earned it.

He experienced his fair share of grief, from his own complicated upbringing to the death of his wife and granddaughter in two tragic accidents two decades apart. He would tell stories about them, too. The same stories, sometimes, over and over again.

One time we were visiting him, and my grandmother – my mother’s mother – was with us. Grandpa was talking about one of those taken too soon, and saying how much he missed her and wished he had more time with her.

My grandma is a straight shooter with a faith so strong I wish I had a mere fraction of it. She likes to present questions with answers grown out of experience, sound logic, and the Truth. And so sometimes she uses truisms, which can be handy ammunition when calling it like it is. And she has needed this to cope with her own loss. She lost a teenage daughter in an accident. Years later, her sister and brother-in-law were murdered by their son. She has buried two husbands after years as caretaker.

“We don’t know why, but God had a good reason for letting it happen,” she said.

It’s the sort of thing one Christian says, and then another Christian nods and says, “Yes, that’s right.” I may have even nodded when she said it.

But my grandfather didn’t say anything. He didn’t even really acknowledge what she had said, and I knew he had heard her. 

The conversation moved on, but my thoughts dwelt on that moment. If Grandpa was always talking to people about the ones he lost, he was probably hearing responses like that all the time. Didn’t he tell stories – about his wife, or about his granddaughter, or about Norman, or about Pontius Pilate – to be able to return to the same pleasant, or cathartic, or humorous template? Why would someone who tells so many stories react that way to such a common way of audience response?

I’ve thought about it a lot, and I believe that my grandfather lived through the telling, and indeed the retelling, of stories. He would remember something important, or funny, or strange, then perfect the way of telling it, and then tell it. And in telling it, he lived it, he submerged himself in the feeling he was chasing, and he brought you with. It wasn’t about finding answers.

Perhaps privately I thought Yes Grandpa I know about Pilate/Norman/my grandma/my cousin, and though he wouldn’t ever say it I imagine him exclaiming “Yes! That’s the point! I want you to know about it, and I want you to think about it not just once, but again, and again, and remember. You don’t have to learn – you just have to remember.”

He didn’t talk about the hard things looking for answers, easy or complicated, and I think that’s why he didn’t acknowledge what my grandmother said. The point was in the telling. I’m not at all saying my grandmother’s response was wrong. It just wasn’t how he chose to arrange the pieces of his life.

Now I wish I could listen to his memories of people like my grandmother and cousin again, keeping them alive in mine.

Finally, I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again, because it might be the most important thing my grandfather ever said to me, and it’s the greatest proof that he understood everything I’ve just been kicking around for the last 3700 words.

We didn’t talk often on the phone, something I’m regretting now. But a couple years ago, I got a call from him out of the blue. I mentioned I was unsure about why some of the things in my life were going the way they were.

“But God has his reasons, and I’m just waiting to learn what they are,” I said.

“Yes, well,” he said, in his slow way of beginning a sentence that builds momentum for his carefully crafted phrase, “Sometimes we never do.”

Sometimes we never do.

That was enough for him. I’m trying to make it enough for me.

I will keep telling stories all my life, Grandpa. And you will be in some of them. I’ll make sure they remember you.

Namárië, Grandpa.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


Total Eclipse of the Son

Little details in familiar stories can make a big difference. Consider the story of Paul’s conversion.

Caravaggio stays undefeated.

I’ve read or heard the story of Saul/Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-19) many, many times, but noticed something new this time that I’ve been thinking about.

The voice of Jesus tells Saul, “But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul, now blind, goes to the city and waits. And waits. And waits. “For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”

I’ve never had a Damascus Road experience, but I’m pretty sure if I did I would expect things to start happening pretty quickly. I would not expect to wait three days in the dark.

But God waits three days before giving Ananias his vision to go find Saul at a house on Straight Street. That’s assuming, of course, that Ananias went right there. I have this somewhat irreverent habit of turning Bible stories into dark comedies, so I imagine Ananias waking up three days later like “I feel like I’m forgetting something,” or spending multiple days wandering around Damascus saying “Straight Street? They’re ALL straight!” But let’s assume Ananias is both punctual and well-oriented. So it wasn’t his “fault” for the time lapse. It was God’s. It would have been no thing at all for God to arrange for Ananias to meet Saul right as he entered the city.

(While this is the first time I’ve noticed this detail, I have noticed Straight Street, and it has always bothered me. It sounds like what a ten-year-old does when they’re trying to write a fantasy novel and they have to make up a name for a street. I say this as a former novel-attempting ten-year-old.)

So why did God make Saul wait? It was so agonizing for Saul that he neither ate nor drank, and I wonder if he found himself questioning whether or not he had really heard a voice at all. Imagine being newly-blind, unsure if the voice you heard was the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and unsure if you would hear that voice again.

There is one potential answer in the text: God tells Ananias, after Ananias objects to God in a pantheon “I’m going to tell God how to do God’s job” moment, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Perhaps Paul’s three days of no food or drink (which would have, by the way, almost killed him) was the beginning of this school of hard knocks. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Paul lists his hardships in 2 Corinthians 11, where it’s clear that this suffering was a lifelong deal. I think God would’ve gotten the point across without the three days of blindness. It’s a little reckless of me to parse the language, not knowing Biblical Greek (maybe my brother can help me out), but I wonder, too, if Luke would’ve recorded God’s words as “I myself am showing him how much he must suffer,” rather than the future tense, “I myself will.”

So if we don’t know what the point of making Saul wait was, I’ll suggest three things we can learn from this.

It was part of the conversion process. Our shorthand reference to Saul’s conversion is The Damascus Road, but the conversion is hardly done en route to Damascus. When Ananias finds Saul, Ananias lays his hands on Saul, filling him with the Holy Spirit and triggering the major WTF “something like scales fell from his eyes.” Saul’s sight is restored, and he declares his faith through the sacrament of baptism. Conversion for Saul wasn’t, it seems, done in an instant.

We often imagine and recount our lives as series of life-changing moments, perhaps nowhere more so than religion, faith, and spirituality. But the Bible, full as it is of holy shit moments, reminds readers again and again that God is in the still small voice, the gleanings of grain, the holding of hands. Perhaps we will, at some point in our lives, have a Big Moment, or receive a Sign, or witness a Miracle, but those things are means – not ends.

Saul’s humanity acts within God’s sovereignty. There’s a little detail, a little clue, at the end of this story that helps illustrate my point here. “Then [Saul] got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Saul regained his strength after taking some food, which happened after he was baptized, which happened after the scale things, which happened after he was filled with the Holy Spirit. So, what, does the packaging for powered Holy Spirit have a disclaimer “Does not restore strength”? He was filled with the Holy Spirit, which is, mind you, literally God, and he was still hungry?? Apparently. Maybe this is Luke being a skeptical physician and making sure to include this detail because surely the Holy Spirit is low-cal and low-carb, and, well, he’d be right. We don’t live on bread alone…but we still need bread. This is not to say God can’t grant humans superhuman abilities at times – there’s that Samson fella, and Jesus fasted for 40 days and still beat Satan in a rap battle – but it appears that God works in humans through our humanity. We see this in Saul’s physical need for food, but I think also in his spiritual metamorphosis.

Perhaps Saul needed the three days to do some soul-searching, find himself, and whatever other somewhat useful cliché applies. He needed three days to think of the people he had arrested, to remember Stephen’s face as he was stoned to death, to reexamine all his vast knowledge of the scriptures to see if he had missed the point. I imagine these sorts of things are all he really thought about – I don’t get the impression he was into sports or sex or fine dining. Maybe tents. He might’ve thought about tents. Whatever it was, he had plenty of time to think and to feel without hearing the Voice. Perhaps in Saul’s own human agony, his ruminations, his meditations, his heart was being prepared to accept Jesus as Lord.

I am not getting into a free will debate today, but I do think that we might be, at times, a little too rigid in our notions of God’s irresistibility. God might not zap people into belief without their consent so much as set up events around them to make sure they get to God, kinda like how Bart-Eye engineered Harry Potter’s victory in the Triwizard Tournament, yah know? Maybe God doesn’t just go around shooting people with Cupid arrows to make them fall in love with God. Maybe God at work in the world and in our hearts looks surprisingly human sometimes.

Saul had to search for God in God’s absence. After his supernatural encounter with the voice of Jesus, Saul would have suddenly felt God’s absence in those three dark days. By day three, he might’ve wondered how long he was going to have to wait before hearing or feeling God so acutely again. Based on his letters, it’s clear that for much of his life he felt a very strong connection to God, and probably received divine revelation more often than just about anyone in the history of the Church, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he writes that after a divine encounter, he received a “thorn…in the flesh,” and while debate abounds about what this was, it’s clear that, for a time, he was held at arm’s length from God, suddenly unable to access visions and revelations from the Lord. Though he appealed to the Lord three times to have this thorn taken away from him, God would not. I would guess that, during his three days of blindness, Saul repeatedly reached out to the God of his people – the Jewish people – and to the voice that identified itself as Jesus, begging for revelation.

Feeling God’s absence – though God is never really absent – is part of faith. Examples abound in the Bible and in Christian history, the most famous example probably being Teresa of Calcutta. God made Saul go three days in the dark, and if that could happen to Saul, it could happen to us. And that’s okay. We should continue to seek God, even in the grief – the agony – that can come when not feeling God like we once did. It’s the lesson of Holy Saturday, and while the hope of Easter Sunday should, ultimately, be the rock on which we stand, life is maybe more often than not more like that Saturday of uncertainty. It is often a dream deferred, a birth overdue, a sleepless night. One day, if our eschatology is true, we’ll be totally satisfied by God every moment of every day. We’re not there yet. We can’t be.

I came to the above conclusions because I thought a little more about a verse I’ve read a dozen times but hadn’t – until now – really thought about. So my final thought here is that rereading is a good thing to do, and not just with the Bible (but, of course, especially with the Bible). Works of great complexity (which are sometimes also works of great length) reward rereading as readers find something new each time through – sometimes because a text can resonate differently depending when in life we read it. I reread The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion about once a year for just such reasons – I will not ever cease to find new things. I’ve read every book of the Bible at least once, and there are some passages that are so familiar that sometimes I roll my eyes at reading or hearing them again. But there’s always something more, and experiences like I just had reading Acts 9 remind me of this. Those scales continue to fall from my eyes and I’m drawn towards the Lord who sometimes seems so distant.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria