When we're moved by a silly TV show
On good TV, what this newsletter should be called, Devs, and the meaning of life (lol)
FFS. So I decide to launch a newsletter yesterday, I toy with a number of things I could call it, settle on “Down the Rabbit Hole”, and then this happens over at the New York Times:
Pfft! (look, I’ve listened and the podcast is really, really good).
I suppose I’ll keep Down The Rabbit Hole for now because it’s what I think best describes the sort of work I do.
I toyed with Farrier’s Distractions - you know, the idea that we all need distractions in our lives from the background hum of anxiety we all feel right now. Or maybe I just shorten it and make it Farrier’s Hole. Or, like the street in London, Farrier’s Passage.
Too much? Jemaine Clement thinks so (the second season of his excellent TV show What We Do In The Shadows is out now, btw).
Anyway, let me know what you think. I’m open to suggestions, friends.
As for how often I do this newsletter, I am figuring that out myself. I think it’ll be a few times a week - so I guess these first two have been an example of what they will look like.
I don’t want you to feel like I’m spamming you.
I think it’s easy to view films and TV (or Netflix or whatever it’s called now) as mindless escapism. And it can be that, and I love it. Count me in for some Would I Like to You? anytime.
But then you get The Leftovers and Bojack Horseman and Six Feet Under and they are so, so much more than mindless escapism. They hit you with big emotions and big ideas and sometimes you’re forced to think about life in a different way.
And what hit me like a freight train (or like Schrödinger's cat) this month has been Devs. It’s the first series from writer and director Alex Garland - the man who made Ex Machina and Annihilation, and penned booked like The Beach and screenplays like Sunshine.
Now it’s potentially a bit annoying for me to tell you about it, because depending on where you are in the world, you may find it hard to find it. I know in America it’s on Hulu, and in New Zealand you can get it on Neon. Look, I like to think you can find a way to watch it because it’s really fucking good.
I don’t want to do any giant spoilers here, but at its most basic it’s a show that takes on technology like quantum computing, and the philosophical idea of determinism. That is to say, there is no such thing as free will. Everything we do, we do because something happened that caused us to do the thing we just did.
The show pulls a number of tricks that draws the viewer in - playing with characters and story tropes in some really inventive ways. Plus it looks great. And the score!
But for me, it was the way that the show cleverly presents ideas of free will, the divine, and what it means to be alive that had me hooked. Being made to wait a week for an episode (there are eight, the season finale aired a few days ago) made it feel like an event. It also gave you time to digest what had gone on, and come up with theories for what might happen next week. It made for a similar viewing experience to Watchmen and True Detective.
Overall, the show presents you with an alternate explanation for the way the world works. They aren’t new ideas, as this excellent essay explores, but they’re ideas that will perhaps make you reassess the way you view the universe and your place in it.
I think it resonated with me because while I’m a real dummy when it comes to philosophy and science, I feel deep in my bones that our perception of reality is probably way, way off. Our own importance, the rules that govern what we do, and who’s in charge. We’ve got no fucking clue.
I suppose it echoes my thoughts on religious belief. While I’m happy for people to believe what they believe (well, except for the Nazi stuff), I almost find it a little arrogant if anyone tells me they have it all figured out, down to the fine details like what god is the right god. You know, what god deserves the capital G. What, you think you have the brain capacity and are special enough to have that all figured out and call dibs on it? Wow.
It’s like that old, well-used example, however it goes: That the universe to us is what a highway is to an ant.
I mean, that ant has it’s own stuff going on, from its an anatomy to its complex social structure in the anthill - but it can’t even conceive of what that highway is 50 metres away, or what those things are driving on it. Heck, it probably doesn’t even clock it exists.
And here’s the problem when you talk or write about a show like Devs. Or any of Garland’s other work.
You sound like a stoner kid in college.
So sue me.
But with that in mind, one particular part of this show really got me.
See, for years I’ve had this thing that happens to me. In the haze of waking up, I would suddenly, without any attempt to think about anything in particular, be hit with perfect clarity and understanding that one day I was going to die and that would be eternal blackness forever. That there would be a true end to all things.
No afterlife, no soul departing, no nothing. Consciousness goes to black, immediately. That is it, definitely, forever, no other option.
This wasn't an intellectual thought, but a complete realisation in my bones and psyche that it would all end, and that there would be nothing more, ever. I would liken it to the opposite of a religious experience where you witness the wonder of eternal life or something.
And don't just go “that's existential dread you idiot!”. I know what that is.
This feeling is like that, but 1000 times more intense and real. Like the true burden of a conscious, self-aware mind made true.
It feels fucking awful, and every time it happens, I hate it very much.
I get it once every few months. It's made me avoid naps, but it will hit me sometimes, without warning, when I wake up in the morning. Or if a noise wakes me up at night. During that groggy, shocked moment.
If I try to replicate this thought or feeling while fully awake, but I never can. There are other thoughts there to placate that realisation of the absolute certainly of “forever death”, from “Oh I might go eat a yummy breakfast” or “I need to check my Instagram!”.
Anyway, I've tried to explain this feeling a few times to others, but have not found anyone with a similar experience (plus, it's downer small talk).
Then in Devs, one of the main characters just suddenly went into this monologue... about what I felt.
And it was so, so clear, and resonated so much, I googled it - and it's a fucking poem.
So here is the poem.
It feels so nice to read this sentiment in a much more artful way to how I could ever express it: This absolute knowledge I have that life is temporary, and death is terrifying and forever.
Talk soon, friends.
And please - let me know the shows or films (or books, or plays!) that have shifted your thoughts on reality, even if just for a second.
BY PHILIP LARKIN
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.