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It’s perhaps for the best that I’ve missed the social-media bubble surrounding the death of coveted comedian and entertainer Robin Williams. All Watchmen references aside I’d likely be the one dissenting voice to offer, only if provoked:

I didn’t really like Robin Williams as a performer.

Robin Williams

Yet, it would seem, I would have liked him tremendously as a person. A variety of remembrances, from Moises Kaufman (here) to the gaming community (ditto) have spoken out about the warm, generous, less than self-serious actor behind the zany characters. Williams had a “manic” nature few other actors could come close to in performance. His roles, while often played for laughs, reminded me uncomfortably of my father during his most extreme manic episodes of bi-polar disorder. There was little laughter for me in a film like Jumanji. Mostly distress, fear, and the reminder that even the greatest performative high has an uncomfortable edge when it returns home.

The unexpected death of a major star is always fit for cannibalism. It’s almost become rote that everyone respond with an outpouring of emotion, condolences, anecdotes, and probing pieces of journalism about the career, what could have been, and that only now do we fully understand the gravity of what we have lost. I think it’s important to be critical, however, of the way in which we discuss celebrity deaths, and particularly sensitive ones like overdoses and suicides.

Articles like this one by Slate (Here), which still contains (if you scroll properly) part of the original headline “I Bet Robin Williams Knew He Was Loved. Unfortunately, Love Doesn’t Cure Mental Illness”, continue to put me ill at ease. At the time this article was written there’d been no ruling on his death beyond “apparent suicide”, and I was frankly appalled that Slate would run an article which all but signed his death certificate and used the death as a sort of vague spring-board for some woman to write about her own experiences with depression. Not that it isn’t important for people to discuss our experiences, or for us to collectively reflect on the nature of mental illness in the wake of a beloved American actor who struggled with depression, but gosh. Could we wait for an official ruling on his death before we start diagnosing his end goal? How about not assuming you know how someone who just died felt in the days and moments leading up to their death?

My father, the same one who so uncomfortably mirrored Williams at his most manic, also died by hanging himself. It’s been over 500 days since and I still remember both the shock of the moment and the palpable sense of wonder in regards to what he was thinking as he lead up to that final moment and decision to end his life. If I was one of the family members of Robin Williams, his wife or daughter, I would be so frustrated to have random strangers write things like “I Bet Robin Williams Knew He Was Loved”. My only thought in the moment I read that, as another complete stranger to Robin Williams and his life, was “I Don’t Think You Know What the Fuck You’re Talking About”. The experiences and psyche of someone who dies by suicide aren’t some elaborate madlib we can just fill in by assumption and use as fodder to further discussion of our own problems. They deserve sensitivity, caution, and ultimately respect for the fact that when we discuss the death of a well-known celebrity (or heck, anyone) we run the risk of unintentionally doing them a disservice or hurting friends and family who may encounter those materials. Freedom of speech, of course, but also freedom to be sensitive. My father’s suicide was so mind-bogglingly complicated for me, and I can only imagine what it must have been like for the media maelstrom which speculated, often without sensitivity or care for authenticity, honesty, or good taste, on the death of a great comic actor who was also father, friend, and above all human.

The dominant emotion surrounding suicide, for me, was one of confusion and disbelief. How presumptuous and, yes, inappropriate, for writers with little regard or sensitivity to the judgment-laden world of suicide-discussion to offer such complete certainty as to why the man died. For the last week I feel I’ve had the brunt of suicide jammed in my face and, frankly, it rankles when people don’t approach the issue with caution or sensitivity. From the language of “committing”, to seeing that his daughter Zelda Williams had to shut down her social media accounts due to online trolling (Very upsetting) (something I once had to do during my father’s worst episodes while he was alive), to the disturbing moment of seeing “Robin Williams leaked suicide photo” as a major search term on Twitter… it’s bad enough to make you wish life came with a trigger warning.

I’ll never know what lead my father to that choice any more than the rest of us will know what lead Robin Williams to his. The reality is that suicide, and the attempts to understand it, can often lead us into answer-seeking and illogical territory. But as the family member of someone who died that way I can write that the dominant emotion I experienced afterwards was confusion. It still is. I can’t imagine how the Williams family must feel to see thousands, even millions, of strangers speculate on one of life’s most oblique enigmas with such maddening surety. The aftermath of suicide is an exercise in recognizing the limitations of our understanding and sewing up the black-hole of grief which a violent death manifests. I’ve barely discussed Robin Williams with anyone in this past week not because I have nothing to say, but because the shouting match to become most heard, most read, and most authoritative on the matter has become toxic and hurtful to me.

Writing about the dead shouldn’t be an opportunity to self-aggrandize or get easy clicks. At the least, it should be undertaken with the kind of trepidation fitting great people who were, ultimately, real and deserving of respect. Robin Williams will likely always hue too closely to my father for my own comfort, and it saddens me so deeply that their lives of courage and brilliance met with the same tragic end. In death, Robin Williams gets the earnest respect for me he never got in life. I have my father to thank for that, for the great lesson of empathy which has spawned in his wake, and those two men to thank for teaching me so much about what it means to be here.

Here’s another great article dealing with respectfully discussing celebrities and their personal turmoil. The author, Matt Zoller-Seitz, wrote one of the few articles I’ve read about Robin Williams which I felt was conducted respectfully: (http://www.rogerebert.com/mzs/strong-enough-a-note-to-drug-abuse-concern-trolls-concerning-philip-seymour-hoffman)
(http://www.rogerebert.com/mzs/robin-williams-died-2014-63-possible-suicide)

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Actors

(On the end of Breaking Bad)

JON HAMM: Maybe it’s time to get a new job, eh?

BRYAN CRANSTON: Yeah, life.

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The Hound

“I don’t think it’s fair to say the character was incapable of really loving another person. He was: The love just came out strangled and pitiful, camouflaged as something else.”

– Matt Zoller Seitz (via his [spoilerific, obviously] review of the season 4 GoT finale, here: http://www.vulture.com/2014/06/matt-zoller-seitz-game-of-thrones-season-4-finale-review-deaths.html)

The Hound

What a humane sentiment for Sandor Clegane. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we construct people / characters (people who are characters) in broad-strokes. One important component of fiction is its ability to help us develop empathy for those we might other cast-off as beyond “saving”, or understanding. It’s a failing of mine that I sometimes write people off unduly, or construct them wholly out of a few select circumstances they’ve experienced.

Elsewhere, in his quasi-obituary for Philip Seymour Hoffman (link below), MZS remarked on addiction with great empathy and understated thoughtfulness. I think the same reductive construction of those around us creates an environment for labels like “addict” or “victim”, allowing us to read a complex, multi-faceted individual in terms of their (potentially defining, yes) trait. But people are always polysemous, and we would do well to recall this when evaluating those around us. After all, the man I might consider to be “incapable of love” is read by MZS as loving a different way, and sometimes the wrong way. There is a world of difference between these assertions. As multitudinal as a reading of PSH as “weak” for succumbing to his addiction and dying by overdose. We can choose to read that addictive lapse as weak, or choose to view his addictive personality as simply outmatching his capacity to abstain.

A semantic difference, perhaps. But one, as I continue to ponder it, which might help me to treat complexity with more pronounced compassion.

MZS’s PSH article here: (http://www.rogerebert.com/mzs/strong-enough-a-note-to-drug-abuse-concern-trolls-concerning-philip-seymour-hoffman)

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“And then after she died… we just stayed hunkered down. Guess we just froze in place.” – Morgan (Lennie James)

The remarkable thing, I suppose, is that I’m halfway through the first season.

And color me impressed (for the most part). The next big thing in AMC television (a network now firmly establishing itself as the alternative to PPV networks for viewers seeking high-end storytelling) took a big risk by adapting a comic book. About zombies. Yeah, I didn’t think it’d catch on either…

But it’s actually part of this rapidly developing movement where directors seem to be searching out more alternative source material to create new and engaging stories. Adaptation is nothing new, but source material like the Game of Thrones novels, The Walking Dead comics, and even more experimental literature like the forthcoming HBO adaptation of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad suggest things are hardly so straightforward. The rule, then, seems to be that there are no rules. Anything is fair game.

And that certainly works for The Walking Dead. While it’s safe to say that zombies and horror are a kind of cultural phenomena in America (just look at the massive outpouring of support for a series like Paranormal Activity) it tends to be for a showier, more theatrical ghoul. Rarely, too, are zombies made up for TV. It’s too hard to maintain the suspense, too vaudevillian to maintain interest, and too marginalized to pull network dollars.

Until now.  With a short six episode season AMC thrusts audiences into a post-apocalyptic world with definite western overtones, fantastic makeup and costumes, and a pretty gritty moral center. It’s Lord of the Flies via Lost with hints of George A. Romero. Though things take on a Zombielandish hint initially, this is a pretty forthright adaptation. It focuses on the erosion of moral values, the principles of justice, and the extinguishing of humanity in comprising moral situations. And occasionally, in the way great horror narratives do, it raises pertinent questions about the nexus of the human and monstrous in crisis.

Episode 1: Days Gone By

Kudos to the creators for the near-wordless opening sequence. And for deftly integrating the zombies (not to mention the fluid morality) without too much pomp. I felt this was a stunning pilot. The production values are high, the characters are at the very least engaging (and in the case of Rick Grimes rather compelling). Music was a bit obtrusive at times (I’m thinking of the hokey montage with Morgan – who I also liked) and lent things a sort-of hammy feel (part of the reason I usually defer to diegetic music when possible).

Other than that, though, I thought it accomplished a lot. I was initially hesitant, as the suggestion seemed to be that we might take a while to really run into zombies, but in reality they took advantage of the extra twenty minutes (extended pilot) and thrust us into a believable setting which is propulsive in nature. Atlanta looked great zombie-ridden, and the recurring scenes with the zombies (where one reaches out to Rick, for instance) were really compelling. As I said, very impressed. A fun, frenetic, smartly written pilot.

Episode Two: Guts

For the most part, they managed to top that bar with episode two. Trapped in Atlanta, things shift to a containment narrative with the major factor being just how the group will escape a surrounded superstore. Clever maneuvering (and the addition of a side-plotline with Rick’s family) lend things a bit of punch, and the conflicting personalities for the first time suggest the desperation of a post-zombie setting mixed with personal egos and desires. Steven Yeun as Glenn adds nice support, and the community missing from episode one really fills in.

As do some of the cliches. While I found the move to use zombie scent for cloaking bold (and inventive) the rain seemed to appear haphazardly to create drama. To that, the dropped key created a convenient moral complex. It felt like amateur plotting, unfortunately, and detracted from the increasingly realistic world established by the creators.

Episode 3: Tell it to the Frogs

In which I’m underwhelmed. I mean, I like relationships. Really, I do. But this one just slogged through the first 25 minutes on the most pedantic “getting to know you” exposition. Yuck. I liked the western theme of justice and lawmaking in a lawless land, as well as the implication that the father and son from episode one might reappear, but spare me the marital woes and the red-neck husband. I think we need a little more investment before the teleplay authors can pull that (maybe it’d be different if I established them over a monthly comic series) and here it felt totally unearned. Nice cliffhanger, though. I do wonder about that hand…

Summation:

It’s a strong series and I’m eager to finish season one (and check out season two along the way). It’s nice to see the zombie mythos given a mildly believable setting, especially one replete with so many post-apocalyptic touches. More than that, though, it’s the curious dehumanization which accompanies tragedy that really grabbed me. Rick Grimes is an engaging protagonist, smartly written and just for a world crumbling at the seams. I’m eagerly waiting for the chance to follow the rest of his journey and optimistic that the writers will find ways to keep the narrative moving towards larger and more satisfying goals.

If you’re not watching, now you know.

“There’s us – and the dead.” – Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln)

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“We must tear apart the past before we can truly deserve a future.” – Louise
“Exactly! God, that’s beautiful. Who said that?” – Donna
“Hitler.” – Louise
“…Wise.” – Donna

Episode two. Curious.

A big part of what I wanted to see was just how the show navigated the nature of sketch versus structure. It would seem they’ve chosen light structure, but of course that may change as things go on. The episode runs a fairly straightforward plotline for each of the characters (Louise and the man Karen slept with, Karen and her job, Donna searching for new work, Karl getting over Donna… sort of).

In that respect it felt kind of plain. Still funny, but very low-key. I liked the Louise and Karen subplots (I wonder if Karen will end up with the guy at her workplace?) I still think the lady who plays Karen is a really terrific actress. It’s a very distinctive character. Louise isn’t half-bad either, as I think she’s very sympathetic. I do hope they’ll do away with Karl, though… I think the broken boyfriend plot-line will only work for so long. And wasn’t Donna supposed to be getting out there? So much for that. It’s pretty much just Karen.

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