Tag Archives: melodrama

Morality at Home and Morality at Work: Guilt and Repentance on The Good Wife

I admit to being a latecomer to The Good Wife.  I only began watching it a few weeks ago, succumbing to various recommendations, but I am all caught up and felt I had to write something about it. The Good Wife fills a space recently vacated by the original Law and Order by entertainingly and critically using “ripped from the headlines” episodic storytelling that is grounded in characters who exist in the tension between idealism and practicality.  But unlike Law and Order, The Good Wife revels in its melodramatic serial elements.  It recalls 19th century novels, particularly Austen and Dickens in a few ways: the constant presence of public scrutiny, the romantic tension between Alicia and Will (and especially the missed connection represented by the “lost” voicemail from the end of the first season, reminiscent of the miscommunications that undergird the romantic novels), and, perhaps most interestingly, the kind of semi-Victorian attention to guilt.  Guilt is not shame in this conceptualization, though they are linked.  I’m using guilt here to play not only on the legal elements of the show but also to confine the affect to the specific sphere of the Florrick family.  While Peter and Alicia might feel shame (or at least portray themselves in public as ashamed as required by the political machine) as a result of the press and public attention to Peter’s affair, guilt within the Florrick family is a little more slippery.

The reference to morality at home and morality at work in the title of this post is lifted from the second-season episode “Wrongful Termination.”  Michael J. Fox’s character, Louis Canning, an in-court antagonist to Alicia, describes her as feeling guilty about what she does in her job, particularly the moral compromises required of her as a high-powered lawyer.  He advocates moral compartmentalization while much of Alicia’s character arc over the two seasons occurs in the space between her (and others’) idea of herself as a moral person and the moral pragmatism required of her as both a lawyer and a politician’s wife.  And yet, as Suzanne Leonard wrote for Flow, Alicia is often afforded a degree of privacy that somewhat obscures the question of her morality.  She is shaped by the political world around her and is mostly reactive to it.  Attention to her morality (and her guilt) is elliptical.

Giving Angela Landsbury a run for her money in the category of playing hateful, manipulative, political matriarchs

Jackie Florrick: She may look harmless, but she can out-maneuver Eli Gold (while being less charming).

If Alicia does, as Canning claims, go home and feel guilty about her work, it seems in direct contrast to Peter and his mother, Jackie.  The show executes a fairly masterful work of sleight-of-hand in its jump from the initial press conference where Peter resigns from his post as State Attorney and admits to his adultery to six months later when Peter is in jail and Alicia has started her job.  It keeps the viewer from seeing his apologies, from seeing his expressions of guilt.  By the time the action of the series really begins, it’s six months later and any apologies seem rote instead of earnest.  Jackie tells Peter in “Boom,” “You are a good man. You want to blame yourself. But you apologized. You apologized again, and again. Anybody who wants another apology from you only wants you to be weak. So stop this. Stop this now. My son will not be made weak.”  It’s a moment that she is pitting herself against Alicia and her requirements and reminders of Peter’s guilt.

Apologies are easy; repentance is hard, and it’s repentance that Alicia seems to want.  Repentance requires acknowledgement of guilt from within then earnest attempts to atone; it requires humility and acknowledgement of one’s own weakness.  Jackie thinks only in terms of public scrutiny: Peter apologized publicly and went through the motions of a repentant politician, but–and this may be due to Chris Noth’s performance and intertextual persona–Peter never seemed all that guilty at home, particularly in his relationship with Alicia.  He accepted her requirements for his return home, including sleeping in separate rooms, but he often framed his self-reform in terms of never committing the same sin again.  This is a key element in religious repentance, yes, but it elides over the deeper issues in his personality and in their marriage that led to his affairs.  He goes through the steps of repentance, especially as mandated by Christianity, but I never got the sense that Peter feels guilty.  And Jackie serves as an absolving force, pushing Peter away from feelings of guilt and casting Alicia’s desire to see his guilt as completely ludicrous and cruel.  Jackie even sets herself against the possibility of Peter’s movement toward guilt and atonement when she tells the pastor from whom Peter seeks spiritual guidance, “You just say ‘God’ and you think you can make people feel bad about themselves. . . . You don’t know my son. This is a phase. You are a phase” (“Running”).  But I never saw Peter feeling bad about himself, in deference to neither God nor Alicia.

What's the verdict: Guilty or Not Guilty?

While Peter’s relationship with Pastor Isaiah folds into his political ambitions and maneuvering–it helps him shore up the black vote and provides a place for him to surreptitiously meet with political operatives during his house arrest–it is still a viable avenue toward atonement, especially with Alicia if it can help him to display guilt.  However, as the politics of his race for State Attorney heat up and the political benefits of the pastor fall by the wayside, Isaiah is essentially dismissed as spiritual advisor.  This occurs as Peter continues to cover-up an affair from his past that Alicia does not know about.  The cover-up and betrayal push Alicia over the edge, and she moves Peter out of the house.  Guilt would have Peter disclose all his past sins in order to seek atonement and Alicia’s forgiveness.  Such simultaneity is not coincidental, and I’m very interested to see how Peter is characterized next season regarding his affairs, his guilt, and his either continued or halted (and ostensibly completed) path of attempted redemption.  And I’m interested to see where Alicia’s morality goes and how her possible turning away from guilt could be liberating instead of morally isolating.  After the final betrayal, she is hardened but also perhaps more herself, and as she insists to Jackie, “I am this way.  Your son made me this way” (“In Sickness”).

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Is Glee (still) a melodrama?

 

"Why are we outside?" "Because Yentl sang this while outside." (no gaps here!)

 

A few weeks ago, my TV Theory and Criticism class watched Glee‘s second season premiere alongside two episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful in anticipation of a discussion of soap operas.  Instead of drawing comparisons between the two, the contrasts appeared more starkly than I had anticipated.  While the soaps made extensive use of dialogue and plot gaps, emphasizing reaction shots to convey emotions and plot progression, Glee seemed to be saying everything.  The soap opera may be the example par excellence of television melodrama, but Glee seems to be moving away from the elements of melodrama that made the first season (on a whole) interesting.

After last week’s Glee, with its explicit discussions of religion and atheism, it seems nothing was left unsaid.  On popular television, explicit religion is often reserved for didactic religious television such as 7th Heaven and Touched By An Angel.  There are exceptions, of course.  Battlestar Galactica perpetually dealt with explicit questions of faith and belief and atheism, but the degree of displacement afforded by science-fiction (particularly on BSG where monotheism was defamiliarized through its association with the Cylons) presents explicit religion as if it were implicit, requiring similar interpretive reading strategies.  As Horace Newcomb writes in “Religion on Television,” “Producers avoid the specifics of belief, the words of faith, and concrete images of the transcendent like the plague.  Such specificity could cost them audience.  In the meantime, we are given the deeply, powerfully embedded notions of the good that must come from  . . . somewhere.”

Religion, like may topics deemed too polemic for broadcast, often goes unsaid, conveyed instead through costuming or set dressing (i.e. a cross necklace or a menorah in the background in a TV apartment).  As with melodrama, there exists a “feeling that there is always more to tell than can be said” (Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury.”).  If melodrama corresponds with “a sublimation of dramatic conflict into decor, color, gesture, and composition of the frame,” as Thomas Elsaesser argues in “Tales of Sound and Fury,” then is Glee (still) a melodrama?

 

Finn, praying to Grilled Cheesus

 

Though one episode isn’t really enough to make a case either way, “Grilled Cheesus” is an exemplar of the trend seen thus far in Glee‘s second season: the text is consuming the subtext.  In Glee the subtext that would often be sublimated in melodrama often finds expression (though through some displacement still) in the musical sequences.  Last season, such sequences were mixed in their presentation: variation between integrated musical numbers (with the characters taking the stage or self-consciously performing the songs) and fantasy sequences (see: “Like A Virgin,” “Keep Me Hanging On”) with many songs sliding between the two modes of address.  This season, however, even the fantasy sequences are explained: in the Brittany Spears episode all of the fantasy songs resulted from a dentist’s disbursement of nitrous oxide.  And “Grilled Cheesus” is the first fully integrated musical episode of the show, according to Amanda Ann Klein at AntennaGlee is clearly moving away from the sublimation of action or emotion into fantasy song sequences.

Something is lost in the movement away from melodrama’s mode of expression, but in the instance of “Grilled Cheesus” and its primary subject matter: religion and atheism, perhaps it was necessary.  The episode pushed at the boundaries of explicit religion and–more uniquely–explicit atheism presented earnestly on television.  Kurt, as the voice of atheism for the show, needs to be explicit and steadfast in his non-belief to provide balance with the explicit beliefs of his Christian and Jewish peers.  Glee has always been somewhat socially didactic, calling for tolerance explicitly and implicitly, but “Grilled Cheesus” foregrounded that strain to confront the controversial topic of atheism.

 

Mercedes tries to comfort Kurt through the power of song (and God)

 

To a degree, this subject’s avoidance of subtext and sublimation worked.  Most clearly, it worked when it was exploring the limits of how people offer comfort.  Mercedes, Rachel, Quinn, and Finn cannot conceptualize offerings of comfort outside of their religions.  Mercedes, as Kurt’s closest friend, has the most trouble.  First, she sings “I Look To You,” saying that it’s about looking to God in times of darkness, and even tells Kurt after he rebuffs her attempt at religious comfort, “I feel like I don’t know how to be around you anymore.”  Mercedes connects with Kurt on many levels of friendship and understanding, but she never really sees how Kurt can find any comfort outside of God and religion.  Kurt’s continued resistance to religious forms of comfort and Mercedes repeated explicitly religious attempts  would not work a well as they do in creating tension if one or both were sublimated.

However, the erosion of subtext on Glee also makes the show less engaging for me as an active viewer.  I find less gaps in both narrative and character development to fill with my imagination or interpretation.  Like the choice of “Losing My Religion” and “One of Us,” the episode seemed much more literal than figurative, flattening out the story, songs, and characters.

I don’t know if Glee will continue to eat its own subtext or if, as is its wont, it will be consistent in its inconsistency, but I want to close with a comparison of one of the last scenes of “Grilled Cheesus” with one of the last scenes of Supernatural‘s “Swan Song.”  In both scenes, a two-person family unit is brought back from the brink by the phrase,  “I’m right here; I’m not going anywhere/going to leave you.”  Kurt tells his comatose father, Burt, this after saying that he loves him and that he believes in him.  In Supernatural, however, Dean tells this to his Lucifer-possessed brother, Sam, without saying anything else.  The phrase is not the punctuation to a sentiment; it is imbued with the sentiment through the sublimation of brotherly love into banal expression, presence, and most importantly an object, the family Impala.  Both scenes argue for humanism if not over then before religion, yet it is the horror show that expresses it through the melodramatic mode, not the supposed melodrama, Glee.

“I’m not alright, but neither are you”: Fetishized Objects and Melodrama on Supernatural

Thursday night, I found myself in the unusual position of trying to explain to someone why seeing a Supernatural character (Dean) throw away a necklace emotionally wrecked me. I had trouble articulating all the symbolic meanings in that one act, particularly the complex emotional construction that had imbued the amulet over the last five seasons. Being an aca-fan, I figured I’d turn my consternation into analysis: Why is this one object so powerful and how did it get that way?  What is going on within the text to so fetishize (not the Freudian psycho-sexual use of the term) this amulet?  It’s gone beyond symbolism to have a power–relational though it is–within itself.  Are there other objects that operate similarly on the show?

Season one Dean (with amulet): so happy, so long ago

First, the scene itself.  In the foreground is Castiel, the angel who is helping Sam (background) and Dean (midground) fight the apocalypse.  Earlier in the season, Dean had loaned Castiel his amulet because it was supposed to aid in Cas’ quest to find God (who through the angel Joshua just told the boys God’s not going to intervene).

The last thirty seconds of that clip (and the episode) are entirely wordless.  The moment is so emotional that it moves beyond words.  It emphasizes the melodramatic mode that has increasingly become a part of the series.  As Thomas Elsaesser writes in “Tales of Sound and Fury,” in melodrama there is often “the feeling that there is always more to tell than can be said” (Film Genre Reader III 377).  Melodrama–be it as a genre or mode–tends to sublimate that which cannot be said (usually complex emotions or emotional complexes) into mise-en-scene: music, lighting, framing, decor, etc.  In this scene, the music, the cuts from Dean’s back and hand to Sam’s face in close up highlight the significance of the act, but only regular viewers would be able to read the various powers and emotions the amulet holds as fetish for their brotherly bond.

The amulet itself is an aspect of costume design for Dean since the pilot but whose origin wasn’t explained until the third season, in Christmas flashbacks:

This scene explains why Dean has never taken off the amulet in the 50+ episodes to this point: it’s a fetish for Sam’s love and trust for him that by his wearing it becomes an active pact of brotherly trust.  The Winchester brothers live transient lifestyles with very few permanent objects in their lives, so the amulet’s ever-presence gives it more authority in this show and its context than it could have in another context.

Sam keeps their covenant alive by wearing the amulet while Dean is dead (the four months between seasons 3 and 4), implying that the bond symbolized by the amulet is reciprocal.  It’s not just Sam’s trust in Dean that give it power for Dean; Sam wears it as a reminder, remnant, and seed of his brotherly bond, continuing even after Dean is dead. When Sam gives it back to Dean, it recalls the earlier, original scene of giving which heightens the power of the amulet-as-fetish.  Both brothers inscribed their bond into it by wearing it.

Sam wears it to maintain the bond while Dean's dead

Dean reclaims the amulet, reinscribing it as a fetish for their bond

Sam gave Dean the amulet when they were children; Dean wore it constantly for 16 years until he died; then Sam wore it during Dean’s time in Hell.  Dean reclaims it upon his raising from perdition, and wears it faithfully even through what he perceives as Sam’s betrayals and selfish actions, until he reluctantly gives it to Castiel to help him find God (and he warns Castiel explicitly not to lose it).  Yet when he gets the amulet back from Cas, he doesn’t put it on, doesn’t even put it among his things.  Instead, he lets Castiel call it worthless and implicitly agrees by dropping it in the rubbish bin, slowly, performing this act in front of Sam, because of Sam, for Sam’s benefit.  He understands the power of the fetish as much as he understands the power of his denial of the fetish.

There is, however, some precedent for this act.  Dean is positioned as a character that strongly identifies a few key objects with the few people he loves.  In episode 3.10 “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” Dean faces his dark double in his dreamworld:

Dark Dean: I mean after all, you got nothing outside of Sam. You are nothing. You’re as mindless and obedient as an attack dog.

Dean: That’s not true.

DD: No? What are the things you want? What are you things you dream? Your car? That’s Dad’s. Your favorite leather jacket? Dad’s. Your music? Dad’s. Do you even have an original thought? All there is is watch out for Sammy! Look out for your little brother, boy! You can still hear your dad’s voice in your head, clear as a bell.

Dean’s esteem issues fill entire worlds of fan discussion, but the car is perhaps the most key piece of evidence for my argument.  The 1967 Chevy Impala is often said to be the third main character of the show and the only permanent home the boys have had.  So in 3.02 “Everybody Loves a Clown,” when Dean attacks the Impala with a crowbar, it’s another incidence of emotions bursting into the melodramatic mode by Dean’s desecration and denial of a key emotional/relational fetish.

In this scene, we can perhaps see hope regarding the final seconds of “Dark Side of the Moon” and the disavowal of the amulet.  Though Dean destroys part of the Impala as he is trying to reclaim it after an accident, the next episode sees the car back in full force as both a means of conveyance and a fetish for the Winchester home.

Metallicar, the third Winchester

Dean is still broken, but he knows that using the fetish to express his anger is not the end of the fetish’s power.  Similarly, though Dean discards the amulet-fetish in his depression and disappointment, from the look on Sam’s face and the ceremony of Dean’s action we know that the power of the fetish still exists, ready to be reclaimed and repaired, likely in a scene with more to tell than can be said.