She-Ra, Cooper, Draper, Pryce

Watching She-Ra With My Daughter and Mad Men With My Friends

Five years ago last week, Mad Men ended. At that time, I’d been recapping the show for several years with my pals at Dear Television, and I was on deck for the finale, but we’d just moved from St. Louis to Baton Rouge for the year, and we had neither a TV nor internet in our house yet. I nimbly avoided spoilers overnight, and, the following morning, drove to the LSU campus, downloaded the episode in the lobby of a random building, drove back home and watched it on the floor with our dog. There was a light thunderstorm. I missed last week’s anniversary, but, even so, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the experience of waiting for a show to end. I’ve been thinking about it because my 4-year-old Maeve is consciously experiencing it now for the first time. Right around the time of the Mad Men-tennial, Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power uploaded its fifth and final season.

Nominally, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a reboot of the He-Man and She-Ra series of the 80s, which were themselves essentially advertorials for Mattel toys. (The shows were based on the pre-existing line of action figures.) The new She-Ra, developed by comics artist Noelle Stevenson, owes a lot of its mythology to those shows, but it feels, strangely, as if it’s its own source material. Stevenson’s She-Ra is about a young orphan named Adora, raised alongside her best friend Catra to be a soldier within an army called, ominously, the Evil Horde. Somewhat belatedly, Adora realizes that she’s been working for the bad guys all along and chooses to leave the Horde—and Catra—to join a group of resistance fighters called the Princess Alliance. She also, not incidentally, discovers a magical sword that turns her into a sort of superhero called She-Ra makes a bunch of new best friends and meets a wise-cracking rainbow unicorn Pegasus and goes to prom.

Anyway, the new She-Ra is great. It’s funny, the art direction and character design are loud and brilliant, and, not for nothing, it’s invested in representing LGBTQ characters in ways that don’t seem merely “plastic,” but rather integral to the show’s world-building. The insights She-Ra has about self and love and community don’t really make a lot of sense without an imaginative ecosystem that sustains and understands lots of different identities and gender presentations. I know that there are no winners in the streaming wars, but Netflix has to be leading in the Children’s Animated Series with Strong Female Leads category. Between She-Ra, Hilda, and Spirit: Riding Free, I am substantially more engrossed in the TV series Netflix makes for little kids than I am in, for instance, whatever in the holy hell HBO’s Run is supposed to be.

And so is Maeve. She loves She-Ra, though it isn’t necessarily her favorite show. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic ended recently, too, and she’s exponentially more invested in binge-ing that, but because there are over two-hundred episodes, and it’s a sort of case-of-the-week show with no real over-arching serialized narrative, the loop can just keep going and going. Once you start Friendship is Magic, there’s no real beginning or end; it’s hard to notice where you ever are.

She’ll notice—she has noticed—that She-Ra is coming to an end. One of her favorite shows, one of her favorite worlds, is stopping. For me, this sort of thing comes with a lot of anticipation but also melancholy. I loved Mad Men when it was on for its sheer density. There was so much visual detail to notice, there were so many different ways to watch, and I was sad that that world would stop generating itself week after week for me. But I also loved it—anticipated it, didn’t want it to end—because it’s the show I wrote about with my friends. The end of Mad Men meant that I wouldn’t be staying up all night on Sundays, creating un-navigably long email chains about what had happened. I would have to start writing and talking again as if everyone I wrote or spoke to hadn’t all just watched the same episode of TV the previous night. So, the end of that show meant also the end of the part of my life—however remote—that was built around it.

Maeve won’t experience the end of She-Ra that way. Or at least she won’t do so consciously. For those of us who didn’t grow up in the streaming era, there’s a sense of finality to these things. Whether it’s Game of Thrones permanently altering your Sunday night plans or Lost declaring it had given you all the answers it would give, so stop trying to figure it out—the ends of these things produced shifts in our mundane temporalities. Time was different after a finale.

For her, this show only ever existed in an ether of endless content. It only ever existed to be rewatched and looped. Its narrative progressed in a linear way, but the show itself didn’t so much move forward as expand. I’ll experience the end of She-Ra more than she will, in this conventional way, because I have a generationally different sense of what a TV show ending means. But I’ll also experience it differently because there are only going to be so many more shows that are shows that we watch, she and I, just us together.

If you can imagine, the intimacy between parent and child watching a show together is greater even than that of bloggers blogging. I’ll only watch this show end for the first time with her once; she’ll see it again and again, in different contexts, with different people. And she’ll do it each time as a different person herself, one shaped, even if only a little bit, by the experience of that first ending. She doesn’t know this part yet, and I won’t spoil it for her.

So, are there any actual similarities between the ends of Mad Men and She-Ra? Not especially. Or, rather, it doesn’t seem like there will be. I could cite all the betrayals and reconciliations, the shows’ mutual interest in getting-the-band-back-together, the way Don Draper and She-Ra are both sort of gravitational objects who don’t even fully understand the source of their own power, the way both shows feature a wise-cracking rainbow unicorn pegasus—but the truth is I don’t know because we haven’t finished She-Ra yet. Maeve blitzed through the first four episodes of the final season, but we’ve gotten distracted by other things, by the nice weather, by old musicals.

I asked her what she wanted to happen at the end of the series. Her responses were, in order: “I want the princesses to get their powers back,” and “I want Catra to become friends with the princesses.” I suspect both will happen, and, frankly, so does she. That’s the way things are for most of the things she watches. Friendship is magic, and all that.

[Editor’s note: We haven’t watched the finale, but, as a resident of the internet, I have been inadvertently spoiled on the ending. So, well done, Team Catradora!]

But I’m enjoying the fact that we’re stretching it out. And, despite my wistfulness, I’m enjoying the fact that she’ll likely just want to start over again from the beginning after whatever happens happens. I know the feeling. Alison Herman recently reported on the apparent rewatch-fueled rise in Mad Men’s pandemic streaming stats. But I was already rewatching Mad Men, thank you very much; I’m always rewatching.

In the second season of that show, Don Draper is talking to the guys who want to tear down Penn Station in order to build Madison Square Garden. There are lots of protests, and even some folks in the agency are resistant to destroying a New York City icon. Don says, “let's…say that change is neither good nor bad, it simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy, a tantrum that says ‘I want it the way it was,’ or a dance that says, ‘Look, something new!’” He’s kind of wrong, of course, but not entirely. We lose a lot of things, good and bad, small and big. I’m conscious, in this moment, of having lost, or being in the process of losing, a beloved way of experiencing a piece of art. I’m looking ahead at the eventual loss of these fun and weird parenting days, of Maeve’s childhood. But she, radiantly, does not experience any of this as a loss. She-Ra, even in its final moments, represents a world that now exists that didn’t before. Its end doesn’t mean it’s over, it means it’s finally here, complete. She’s four. There’s lots of tantrums and dancing regardless. This one’s a dance for now—who am I to say it’s something else?

Finally Started // The Great (Hulu)

I’m torn on this one. After two episodes, I think I like it. Elle Fanning is quite good, the show’s generally pretty light on its feet, and I love a good party scene. But I’m finding myself wishing it had been more content to be a just-slightly-irreverent regular period piece rather than the half-cocked aesthetic it’s seemingly settled upon here. I loved The Favourite, and Marie Antoinette is a masterpiece. The Great feels a little stuck between those films, noticing their creative anachronisms, but a little bit unsure of how to make them really work.

Flagging // The Plot Against America

I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We’ll get there.

Finally Finished // Little Women (Gerwig, 2019)

Have you heard about this movie? Little Women? Because of the aforementioned 4-year-old and her not-aforementioned 11-month-old sister, we don’t scamper out to too many movies, even ones so deeply appealing as this. So I’ve just floated for all these months, suspended in the knowledge that Greta Gerwig adapted Little Women, she intercut it into two timelines, and apparently it didn’t win any Oscars because people were confused by it? I thought it was wonderful, and the narrative sandwich was just stunning to watch. It’s a little New Wavey twist, but it’s borne from such a sharp reading of the novel’s paired scenes. Plus, because so much of the plot machination becomes implicit in the cuts between the timelines, it frees up so much more space to give various characters grace notes they wouldn’t otherwise have, to give us time with the sisters just being sisters together, and to get each of Meg and Jo and Beth and Amy alone for longer. And also: Florence Pugh is an absolute star. Holy smokes.

Recommendations //

It’s no surprise that it’s good, but I was happy to finally be able to read Sarah Blackwood on “The Marmee Problem” in Gerwig’s Little Women.

If you’re a long-time Netflix and Phil reader, you’ll know of my love for Jon Klassen’s “Hat Trilogy” of picture books. Over the past few months, this little puppet theater has been staging and filming whimsical adaptations of all three books, and the shows are up on YouTube now for free.

I really liked E. Alex Jung’s profile of the amazing Hong Chau—she of Watchmen. I love it when actors talk about craft in interviews like these, and Chau is fascinating about her many fascinating choices.

My friend Phoebe Danziger is a doctor in Michigan, and this small prose poem about trees and lungs and leaving your children to care for sick people is a really miraculous piece of writing.

I’ve been reading Carmen Boullosa’s madcap historical novel Texas, The Great Theft, and I don’t want to say too much. Just get it and start reading and let this thing singe your eyebrows off.

If you, like me, inhaled all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels in high school and then abruptly stopped ever even thinking about him for some reason you can’t really explain, Aaron Bady and Gerry Canavan have made a podcast for you!

In other new pod news, I want to recommend Time to Say Goodbye, a newsletter and podcast hosted by journalists Jay Caspian Kang and E. Tammy Kim, and historian Andy Liu. It’s about “the coronavirus, Asia, geopolitics, and Asian Americans,” and it’s insightful and informative and intermittently funny, and really the only thing I’ve wanted to listen to about any of this.

This week’s regional food item is the Philly Roast Pork sandwich. Philly is, of course, famous for cheesesteaks, but this is the thing right here. My preference in the East was a Roast Pork at Dinic’s, but I recently made a pretty ok facsimile of it at home. The real Roast Pork is a slow-roasted shoulder topped with garlicky broccoli rabe, sharp provolone cheese, and horseradish or hot peppers on a hoagie roll. We settled for a tenderloin, but the real problem had been finding broccoli rabe—the greatest of the brassicas—out here in St. Louis. Luckily, we’ve been doing curbside pick-up at a restaurant supplier that can intermittently get rarities like rabe or, like, five pounds of shishito peppers.

And, for this week’s recipe, you might think you know about porridge, but I bet you don’t.

Anyways, if you like City Chicken so far, please forward it to your friends or post this letter somewhere people you like will see it. Subscribing happens here, I’m on twitter dot com here, and I respond to every response I get, so please feel free to get in touch! I’ve already heard lots of laments about the—surprise!—demise of McGinnis Sisters Special Food store in Pittsburgh and received loads of suggestions for future regional food items. I see you, Detroit.

For the honor of Grayskull,

Phil.