Counterfactual Criticism

Watchmen, Witch Armies, and Asking TV for More

Are you waiting for a TV show to radicalize? Probably not. I am, though. All the time. I love watching television, if that’s not obvious. But, more than just watching, I love sitting with the expanding and contracting array of options that long series with large casts are constantly generating. Which characters will shift to the center? What details will get pulled into focus? Which plotlines will fade, and which will take over? There are some modes of criticism that offer proscriptive advice, writing workshop-style, about these sorts of options. And there are equally suspect modes of criticism that punish shows for making narrative choices the critic would not have made themselves. I think I’ve probably been guilty of both of these at various times. But there are also modes of criticism that dwell generously in this speculation. It’s not about guessing or second-guessing what comes next; it’s about paying attention to the narrative worlds that a series renders imaginable, and then asking what would happen if the series chose to embrace the most radical of those worlds. Especially in serial format, the labor of a single episode or a string of episodes is to create the condition of possibility for what comes next.  To focus on these conditions—which contain multiple universes of possibility—is not quite to practice a counterfactual criticism, but it is to practice a kind of criticism that sometimes runs counter to the facts.  It’s pretty rare for a television series to both recognize and fully pursue the wildest possible version of itself.

But I’m always on the lookout. For years, with Dear Television, I waited for Mad Men to acknowledge that its world could spin on perfectly fine if it said that Don Draper was no longer its protagonist. I wondered if Big Little Lies grew past its murder and if The Affair grew past its affair.  Those were wishful speculations. But then, sometimes, a show gives you so much, does so many unexpected things, that it gives you license to really truly imagine something that, within the frame of televisual convention, had previously seemed unimaginable.

HBO’s Watchmen did that earlier this year. As the scholars Michael Boyce Gillespie, Kristen Warner, Rebecca Wanzo, and Jonathan W. Gray discuss in their spectacular roundtable on the series, there’s an element of fanfiction to Damon Lindelof’s adaptation that allows Watchmen to thrillingly exceed the narrative boundaries we ordinarily apply to TV. The show, as Gillespie says, was the result of “an elaborate reading process” of its source material and of the history of race in America, as well. And so Lindelof and his writers room could essentially engage with the narrative the way hopeful viewers like me engage with TV series, the way critics dwell in a text’s choices. The writers room could, and did, imagine their most radical version of this story and its characters. Because they were expanding upon and playing with and improvising upon a source text, they could explode it, and, as the scholars put it, “remediate” American history through it. The show didn’t just address white supremacy; it dismantled the existing televisual frameworks available for addressing it. As Warner writes in the roundtable, “Blackness is truly centered here in a way I’d never seen accomplished before.” Watchmen envisioned things that had never been seen, at least not that way, and at least not on HBO.

And, maybe because of that, critics still asked for more. They wanted Watchmen to get all the way to the bottom of its invocation of Frantz Fanon; they wanted it to firmly disavow copaganda; they wanted it to apply the same dismantling gaze it reserved for Jim Crow America to American imperialism in Vietnam. They asked these things, I think, not necessarily because the show failed—though that’s sometimes the framing—but because it created a condition of possibility so outlandishly broad and unusually open, that these sorts of critical engagements seemed suddenly thinkable. And these critics, reading generously, prevailed upon the show’s own generosity with its ideas. Nobody’s writing op-eds in the Washington Post to criticize HBOMax’s Anna Kendrick rom-com anthology Love Life for failing to abolish the police. Anna Kendrick was never going to abolish the police. Watchmen got those critiques because they’re the critiques the show told us it could handle.

It was in this optimistic, counterfactual headspace that I began, this summer, to watch the Freeform television program Motherland: Fort Salem, which is either a scathing indictment of the military industrial complex or a show about how cool it would be if America had a sexy witch army.

Let me tell you about Motherland: Fort Salem.

Motherland: Fort Salem is bonkers. The premise is this: Witches are real. And, sometime around the Salem Witch Trials, this one witch in Massachusetts was on the gallows, and the Puritans were getting ready to hang her, and she was like: “Nope.” So, she unleashed a weapons-grade witch scream—in this universe, witches’ power resides in their vocal cords—and just shredded all the Goodies and Baddies in Salem. After this demonstration of awesome power, the witch and all her witchy friends struck a deal with the colonies. The colonists would leave the witches alone, and, in turn, the witches would use their magic to wage war on the enemies of America. They would create an American witch army, and, across generations, witches’ compulsory service to their nation would shield them from persecution.

But in the present day alternate history of Motherland: Fort Salem, this founding sorcery has accomplished much more than that. The U.S. is a full-on matriarchy and even the map of the states—as seen in the opening credits—is substantially different, for reasons that are never quite fully explained (as are many other things about the nation). We know, from hilarious oil paintings scattered throughout, that the witches won the colonies independence from England, but, other than that, much of the show’s implicitly rich mythology lies beneath the surface. While the present-day of the show is conspicuously post-racial in style, the class system is substantially more pronounced, as are apparently stark regional differences related to it (some of which seem to be tied to indigenous populations). I have never watched a piece of media that had more of an Adapted From the Bestselling YA Novel Series energy despite not actually having been adapted from a YA novel.

If I’m giving you the impression that Motherland: Fort Salem is primarily an exercise in ponderous historical what-ifsmanship, please forgive me for my error. This show is also—sometimes gleefully, sometimes insultingly—very stupid. The dialogue is transcendently awful, especially when the writers are trying to “invent” a vernacular for one of the show’s many thinly outlined subcultures. And its attempts at True Blood-style camp lean awkwardly against the leaden tone of the series. At one point, a small tropical bird arrives at the window of a female witch. The bird carries a delicate scroll. The witch unfurls it. It’s a dick pic. Hand-drawn. The witch is thrilled!

This is the sort of witty little nonsense that could gild a show that already a playful, sophisticated take on gender and sexuality. But this show is not that. Executive produced, as Caroline Framke points out, almost entirely by men, the show has a take on sisterhood that’s about as textured as a shampoo commercial; it has a lesbian protagonist but it also goes out of its way to tell us that witches gain all of their magic power from (exclusively) heterosexual sex; and it can’t conceive of motivations for any of these women aside from fucking (dudes) and fighting (eachother) (you know, like cats).

But. It feels like it has something, deep deep deep inside, to say about the army. By placing the military under the leadership of a witch who’s unnaturally extended her life in order to exercise authoritarian rule for over 300 years; by having both an endangered community of nomadic witches in Asia and a terrorist organization make some really salient points about the misuses of witch magic as a weapon of mass destruction; by showing the witch army commit explicit war crimes on multiple occasions, it can often feel like the show is winding up to something.

The condition of possibility Motherland: Fort Salem has created very clearly includes the possibility the military is bad. From supernatural drone pilots to the violent execution of conscientious objectors to the available (but unstated) critiques of inheritance, bloodline, and carceral feminism, this show has drawn the outlines necessary for its plot to twist toward radical anti-militarism.

But wait, this small bird at my window has a message for me. It reads: Nope. By the end of the first season, the show has driven past exit after exit, bypassed opportunity after opportunity to say what it’s thinking (or what it seems like it maybe could be thinking), and, in the end, we realize that, although the terrorists might actually be well-intentioned, and although almost every character has been exposed as corrupt, the real villains are the descendants of the Puritans who are still trying to persecute the witches. The 300-year-old tyrant is thus justified in living forever, the coup she perpetrates against the president is justified for the familiar military logic that civilians don’t understand what it’s like out here, and the show passes its final opportunity to say out loud what all of these discrete plot developments say in aggregate: the army doesn’t exist because America has enemies; America has the enemies it has because the army exists the way it does.

In a moment defined by urgent and increasingly mainstream calls for the abolition of failed systems and the creation of new, more equitable ways to address everything from crime to public health, it feels weird to engage with a counterfactual fiction so unwilling to consider that sort of structural change. What good is an alternate reality if it doesn’t offer any real alternatives? Why hold unquestioned patriotic allegiance to a witch army a bunch of dudes made up? Watchmen reflected the historical traumas over here on Earth #1, but it changed so much else that it rendered those traumas both recognizable and strange. It destabilized the histories it held onto. Motherland, even and especially because it contains the possibility of a truly radical vision, works to re-stabilize those sorts of histories, make them seem natural and unavoidable. If a 300-year-old supernatural matriarchal democracy still gets bogged down in a twenty-first-century War on Terror, what’s all the witching for? You might want to imagine a different and a better world, but the bird’s at the window, and the bird says, “nope.”

Finally Started // Unbelievable (Netflix)

Merritt Wever’s performance in this show is one of the most gobsmacking things I’ve ever seen. If this entire show were just a supercut of scenes Wever performs in exclusively in her car—from an impromptu Biblical exegesis to a solo radio singalong—it would be the best show of the year. Merritt Wever Hive assemble!

Flagging // Dead to Me (Season 2 / Netflix)

When James Marsden shows up as the identical twin brother of his character from the previous season? Thanks, no thanks.

Finally Finished // Insecure (Season 4 / HBO)

I think this was my favorite season so far—especially the run of solo(ish) standalone episodes in the back half—Issa, Molly, Issa/Lawrence. And I am obsessed with the idea that this show has the potential to produce a perfect quarantine/pandemic season, if and when production ever resumes. The world of the show is so reliant on mobility and contact, but it’s also so good at observing people alone (or alone together) in their apartments. It both can’t exist in our reality and is uniquely good at observing the things that structure our reality. Insecure is never really a ripped-from-the-headlines show, but I wouldn’t mind if they leaned into it a little next go-round.

Recommendations //

At the beginning of the pandemic, I started working on an essay about the long legacy of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad in contemporary kid lit. I talked to a bunch of great writers and illustrators, and the piece finally ran in Slate last month. Also, if you ever have the opportunity to ask a bunch of children’s authors to summarize Frog and Toad stories to you, I suggest you do it.

I am very happy to be watching NBA basketball games again, but the Free Darko gang are very right about all the grubbiness surrounding how those games are even possible right now.

Rijuta Mehta went all out in this takedown of the way Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking hides its politics behind reality TV tropes.

Zeynep Tufekci is always worth reading. This argument for a reset of how we should prioritize pandemic safety measures—and how important ventilation will be going forward—was strangely reassuring in terms of its clarity, even if its implications are worrying for all the students heading back into schools this month.

This, by Osita Nwanevu, is the best thing I’ve read about the free speech debates, and it was published the day before the Harper’s letter—which makes its incisiveness and timeliness all the more astounding. It’s one of the only things I’ve read about this whole thing that feels like it will continue to be read outside of its immediate moment.

One of the other of those being Lili Loofbourow on how people argue on the internet.

And, just to reiterate, this is the best thing I’ve read about HBO’s Watchmen.

This week’s regional food item comes courtesy of Michigan’s own Rachel Banner: FAYGO. Faygo—made in Detroit, distributed primarily in Ohio, Indiana, and Western Pennsylvania—is one of the only sizable soft drink companies I know about that fully embraces “pop,” rather than “soda,” which is its own little regional fracas. The position of this newsletter is that pop, while less-used than soda, is spiritually correct. It’s the Jellicle name of soda. My favorite flavor of Faygo is “REDPOP.”

This week’s recipe has become a staple since we’ve been in the house with wonky access to groceries. I think it’s important that I refer to it with the extremely mortifying name I’ve given it: Brassica Pastica. It’s originally from the Zuni Cafe cookbook, and it’s got lots of ingredients, and the full version is spectacular, but you can do a very serviceable take if you’ve got 1) any pasta, 2) broccoli or cauliflower, capers or anchovies or olives, 3) crushed red pepper, and 4) breadcrumbs. It’s less about what’s in it than it is about how you slice the brocco/cauliflower and how you leave it alone in the pan while it’s caramelizing. Don’t touch it!

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Trust the process,

Phil.