#12 // Hilda and the Sixth Extinction
Maybe a week ago, before we took Maeve to see Mary Poppins Returns for her very first ever movie in a theater, somebody (I can’t find the tweet, I’m sorry, I looked) tweeted something like: Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins was great because she was just a touch scary, but Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins is great because she’s just a touch sad. That seems really right to me, and a testament to Blunt’s performance, that, like the transcendent Andrews, she can hold and jostle and turn this strange role with the requisite care and skill and recklessness. I don’t have a single second of time available for nostalgic complaints about how derivative or “cold” the new film is. I have a three-year-old daughter, and her face goes electric for two different Mary Poppinses, and that tells me that that’s exactly how many of them there are in the world.
Anyway, that phantom tweet about Mary Poppins made me think, in this end-of-the-year-year-end-list season, of the piece of media that was genuinely my favorite this year: Hilda.
Like most everything I see most days, Hilda is a children’s cartoon show on Netflix. It’s based on a series of graphic novels by Luke Pearson, who’s also the show’s creator. It’s about a girl named Hilda who lives in a fictional, fantastical Scandinavian country. In the first few episodes, she and her mum, who live in a cabin in the wilderness, are chased out of their home by the invisible, teeny-tiny, deeply bureaucratic elves whose land they have unwittingly colonized and to whom they are also, unwittingly, catastrophic existential threats. Hilda is both a precocious child and a natural disaster. And the show about her, like many of the best pieces of media and literature for kids, is a touch scary and a touch sad.
As a result of the conflicts that ensue once Hilda realizes she’s trampling daily on thousands of little creatures (involving stacks upon stacks of miniature paperwork, the vexing neutrality of a small wooden man, and the love-sickness of a forlorn giant) Hilda and mother move from the country to Trolberg, a nearby walled city. But the city is no less wild and wooly than the woods themselves, turns out. And it’s in the right-angled, funny, free-associational urban landscape that the show really picks up its pace and plays with its most interesting ideas. It’s got large-scale fantasy world-building, but also the practical lessons of message-oriented series like Daniel Tiger or Doc McStuffins. So, despite being built on top of an elaborate, vibrantly alive, slightly twee, faux-Norse mythology, it’s also a pretty decent show about growing up in the city.
What I love about it, though, is that both of those aspects are scalable. Sometimes the folklore valences mean that Hilda’s friend learns she should clean her room because it’s been haunted by a ghost who recently decided to stop doing it for her. And sometimes Hilda has a hard time chasing a malevolent nightmare spirit down the street because she’s a little bit afraid of bicycles. Hilda’s life is precarious for whimsical, supernatural reasons, and it is, of course, not the experience of every child to be able to move freely through the gates of a walled city, but in its small—impossibly small—ways, Hilda does something unusual and good. It unveils a magical unseen world, not as a spectacle to objectified and marveled at, but as an ecosystem and a set of new populations to care for, to seek peace with, to understand.
So it’s about friendship and fear and bullies, but it’s about those things by way of rogue meteorologists and ravenous trolls and talking ravens and ancient lonely giants and homeless house spirits and ghost wrestling and a giant hound and a gossipy rat king and sinister teen girls who literally control the nightmares of adolescent boys. Where I find its productive confusion of large and small scales, realistic kid pedagogy and speculative fiction, most compelling is in its approach to the natural world.
Hilda’s just barely an environmental parable inasmuch as it’s not really a parable at all. It’s about a world where very bad things can and do happen, where Hilda is often in actual danger, where optimism and skill and strength are the core of this young girl’s being, but they are also, frequently, not nearly enough in the face of an unforgiving and delicate natural world and an obstinate and corrosive man-made one. Magic doesn’t absolve, and Hilda is not escapist. Its magic only figures the almost unimaginable scope of our responsibility to things we cannot see.
Hilda is, in ways that are not terribly allegorical, about coming to terms with the possibility that even the most heroic characters are often the villains of somebody else’s story. Hilda is a children’s show, specifically aimed at empowering young girls. But its prevailing message isn’t just of strength for its own sake but, rather, the strength that can be found in refusing to be complicit with structures of power and harm. Sometimes that’s about cliques and hurt feelings, but sometimes it’s about environmental collapse. The cold open of the first episode begins with Hilda sketching a stone troll—who will only come to life and, theoretically, become a threat when the sun goes down. To make sure she scrams before it wakes up, she ties a bell to its nose. When the troll inevitably awakens, it pursues Hilda all the way to her home. What she realizes, to her great surprise, is that the troll doesn’t want to eat her. It just wants the bell off its nose. She removes the offending bell, and the troll saunters off, exasperated and relieved.
Hilda understands, ultimately, that she’s as capable of saving the world as she is of hurting it. (This is, for what it’s worth, also a significant part of Netflix’s also-excellent reboot of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.) And the show, to its extraordinary credit, doesn’t neatly resolve that problem or render it a natural or inevitable one. Hilda did not live in harmony with nature even and especially when she and her mum lived in it, and her move to the city makes that perfectly clear. When a not-insignificant number of supporting characters are over a thousand years old and made of wood and stone, it’s hard not to place childhood anxieties on a geological timescale. Hilda’s youth is relative. All people are young people; all of us dropped into melodramas that outdate us by millennia; all of us newcomers who might just as easily go unnoticed by the earth as destroy it.
So here is where I would ordinarily offer my year-end lists. Regrettably, though, I have to admit I haven’t watched enough adult TV this year to feel comfortable writing an authoritative list. I loved these shows, in no particular order:
The Great British Baking Show
The Good Fight
Here then, also, are a few other things I loved in various categories:
“Especially Heinous” / Carmen Maria Machado
This is the novella at the center of Her Body and Other Parties that you’ve heard about because it’s a long list of fictionalized episode descriptions for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I’m singling it out not because the rest of Machado’s collection isn’t extraordinary—it is!—but because this is just one of the most thrilling, surprising, weird, moving pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s part Mariska Hargitay fan-fic, part Henry James ghost story, part McSweeneys-esque listicle satire, part TV criticism, part Angela Carter homage. It’s unbelievable. Everything you’ve heard about it is true. Including the stuff I just said.
Memes I Forgot to Participate In:
1. Nothing that's wrong with the novel has ever been television's fault.
2. Five films: Disney's Robin Hood, The 25th Hour, Jeanne Dielman, Moonstruck, The Big Chill
Saint Louis / Kehinde Wiley / Saint Louis Art Museum
Wiley came to St. Louis, and to Ferguson, to street-cast his new portrait series. The canvases are enormous and epic, and their depth is jaw-dropping. (I took two sections of my American Visual Culture class to see them this fall.) The Saint Louis Art Museum, like all the museums in Forest Park, is free, and so is this exhibit. It’s tucked, conspicuously, into the abstractions of the museum’s modern art wing, but its roots extend deep into the museum’s main building, where you can seek out each of the classical European paintings upon which Wiley based his new ones. And, of course, those roots travel north to the sites of violence and movement that became so nationally visible in 2014. There’s mourning and solidity in these images, and the decorative vines that surround them look alive. They feel like the museum is built around them.
I don’t need to be that guy who says more things about the #1 Pitchfork album, but I do have these two things to say:
1. I know when they are coming, but I have not yet been unsurprised by any of the many moments on Mitski’s Be The Cowboy when her voice quickly slides away from itself or breaks or goes on a run. It’s remarkable.
2. “Nobody” is a genuinely great song, and it is that because, not in spite of, its debt to The Cardigans’ “Lovefool.” Don’t @ me.
Noname / Room 25
Jeff Tweedy / WARM
Robyn / Honey
Teyana Taylor / K.T.S.E.
The best thing I ate this year is the beef and cheese pide at Balkan Treat Box in St. Louis. (Sidenote: This city has two separate free monthly food magazines. Isn’t that strange?) The best food I made this year is an old favorite, recently resurrected for Christmas: the Cooks Illustrated Baked Ziti.
Cookies: A Basketball Podcast
This—by Ben Detrick, Andrew Kuo, and Jordan Redaelli—is my favorite thing to listen to every week. Giannis can't shoot threes. Don't trade Ben Simmons. Anthony Davis is a stat hunter.
I saw an embarrassingly small number of first-run features this year. I’ll say this: I was late to Dee Rees’ Mudbound, but it is a special film, and I am ashamed it took me this long to watch it. This is a small thing to say about a very very big movie, but the sound design is just gutting. Wood and mud and truck doors slamming shut. It’s a visceral, haunting film.
I’ll also say this: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a cover version of a Robert Bresson movie. It’s been rightly praised for its performances and its visual boldness, but I haven’t seen one critic mention how profoundly silly it is. I mean that as a compliment. Schrader must know, even though I don’t think he’s ever said it, that the key to the sort of spiritual film he’s always been proselytizing about is the straight-forward representation of ridiculous things. I guess it shares that with Mary Poppins Returns.