Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Movie Review: North and South Reduex

Okay. I think I didn't articulate my thoughts on North and South Book One well so let me start over.

Ultimately I'm disappointed in the series because up until a certain point almost every major character serves as an allegory for social trends leading up to The Civil War similar to how almost every character in Animal Farm serves as an allegory for social trends and historical figures during the rise of communist Russia. And for a while it works, then the show goes off into left field. Rather than letting the characters continue to be the mouthpieces for the far more interesting drama of THE CIVIL WAR or at least the lead up to it, the show manufactures several micro dramas that that do not serve the original purpose, and in many cases distract from the larger issues.

And to cap it off the reason why this disappoints me is because the social arguments of The Civil War are almost never studied in pop culture. Why would they be? To actually argue the point that slavery is bad intellectually would be difficult because to do it right especially if you want to accurately represent history an actor would have to convincingly argue or at least consider that slavery was okay, and that makes people feel icky.

See, we've checked off "slavery is bad" on our morality check list so we like to think we're somehow better than the guys who hadn't, not realizing that with so many ethical choices that haven't been universally condemned they had to wade through the waters. I'm not saying that to justify anything. I'm saying that to say that we as a society need to do more than create a list of things that are okay and not okay, but try to think about how we come to these decisions. And that is a whole branch of philosophy so let's move on.

Anyway my point before I got lost into arguments about an ethical framework is that both sides of the slavery argument get boiled down to their simplest parts. Abolitionists being turned into bible thumping saints and slaveholders being acolytes of old scratch, ignoring that social/political movements especially ones that end in big ole giant wars are never that simple. And this show came awfully close acurately portraying that because again almost every character serves as an allegory or representative of some aspect of the bouillabaisse that led up to the war.

Because I am a history nut I thought it would be fun to go through most of the major characters in this respect. Warning because this is mostly an analysis there will be massive spoilers.

Orry Main

No character represents the duality of this show more so than Orry Maine. He is the South in North and South there to basically voice the views of the Southern gentry. And when he's doing that I love him. But Mr. Maine has two problems. Madeline who I'll talk about later and values dissonance. At the end of the day Orry's purpose in this story is to defend slavery something that would make most people hate his guts. So the story bends over backwards to make him a hero so he can stay likable. At the beginning it's somewhat subtle, but the more the story goes on the more he winds up in Marty Stu territory. And that's not what I dislike about it. Hell done right I like a Marty Stu. In the course of trying to make him likable he ceases to perform his original function, representing the thoughts and culture of the antebellum South gentry.

He starts doing something find troubling in a lot of historical fiction. He starts acting progressively. An enlightened slave owner. In reality, hey it's reality. But in fiction people who buck society's rules and are not ostracized for it break my suspension of disbelief. Let's think about it the other way round. What if in the present you saw a politician using the N-word every 5 minutes. Would you still think of him as a pillar of the community? Hell no. This is going to sound weird from the guy who hates societal norms but, societal norms do exist. People do judge, which is one of the reasons why social change is slow. When shows and movies do stuff like this it bothers me because it sends the message that all it would take to undo generations of racism and indoctrination is one rebellious spirit. As proven by the United States Armed Forces, shit tons of legislation, and two assassinated presidents (Kennedy and Lincoln) large scale social change is HAAAARD.

Now that that's out of the way let's talk about what they got right. Orry at his heart is a moderate, especially at the start of the story. While he doesn't see anything particularly wrong with that peculiar institution in and of itself he isn't automatically offended when someone criticizes it, until and unless those critics conflate him with slavery. When that happens, to him abolitionists basically become the guys telling him he shouldn't have kids because he likes cigarettes.

To a modern audience that may seem weird but here is what the show forgets. It's supposed to. It's an uncomfortable part of our history that some people felt entitled to be able to be my ancestors within an inch of their lives but damn it that's the way it was.

Anyway as stated he represents the Southern moderates, the guys who, especially early in the debates about slavery, were movable. Why? Mainly because conventional wisdom until about the time of the Mexican war believed that slavery was economically unsustainable especially in comparison to mechanization. Let's face it today one dude and a tractor can do what it would have taken 100 guys back then.

In fact partially because of this truism most of the rest of the world beat America to the punch when it came to emancipation. One question that has perplexed historians is how the hell did that change? Seeing Orry's gradual shift and defensiveness on the position mirrors the same shift most Southerners had. When people attacked slavery they were attacking me and in defending slavery I am defending myself. Is is mindset by the end of it.

George Hazard

Mostly I think George accomplished what he needed to more so than most other characters. He is basically a foil to Orry, showing how different these two parts of the country were becoming, not only on the issue of slavery but generally. Main is a rural farmer while Hazard is a urban manufacturer. Furthermore his friendship and especially his business venture with Orry represents all of the symbioses the two regions had, which is one of the reasons why succession was futile in the first place.

The one problem I do have is that sometimes he can become a little "tell not showy", often giving text book answers on why the civil war happened. Nothing illustrates this more than his discussions regarding the expansion of slavery. It would have been a lot easier to have a Southerner who wanted to move out west and wanted to bring their slaves with them, and gets miffed at the idea that he can't.

Sometimes it makes him feel like a construct rather than a character. As flawed as Orry is he seems like a person more than a walking textbook.

Ned Fisk

He's a minor character, a really minor character, but nothing internally represents what this show could have been better than Ned Fisk. Ned is pissed right the hell of about slavery...because he's broke. See the thing people forget about the abolitionist movement is that it was still the 1800's and very few folks were actually arguing for equal rights. This Ohio tobacco farmer's position on slavery isn't about the plight of the black man, but an unfair advantage it gives certain people that has real consequences for him, his family and his friends, an argument that still gets pulled out in labor circles whenever there are scabs, unpaid internships, illegal immigration, or outsourcing. See slave labor is free labor and fuck cheap labor; there is no competing with free labor. All of this drives down prices and wages so that Fisk here can't even afford the train ticket to school, and he is really sore about it.

It's one of the arguments against slavery that arguably still affects us and yet is almost never talked about.

Madeline La Motte

I have to be honest I am most disappointed with the female characters in the series. The story had the potential to say and do so much with them and it drops the ball at almost every instance. Without a doubt almost everything I don't like about this series can be summarized with Madeline and Virgilia.

When people think about civil rights people always start talking about black rights, MLK, the march on Selma and all of that stuff, but if true human rights are to be achieved and maintained womans' rights are just as important.

The majority of Madeline's arc revolves around her rape and abuse at the hands of her husband, things that like slavery was considered normal at the time. The idea that a woman can be raped by her husband is relatively new, like 1970's new. Her character provides an excellent opportunity to showcase not just the African-American struggle, but the plight of woman. The abolitionist and woman's rights movement were inexorably linked and Madeline especially after her heritage is revealed had the potential to show why both were important.

Instead she serves as mostly the princess Orry saves again and again to keep him from looking like a total douche to the audience, ruining two characters in one blow.

Rather than wanting us to be indignant because she's getting tossed around like a doll the story wants us to feel said because she can't be with the man she loves. Which I feel misses the point. All the more because I seen this plot before. I've seen this plot before done better. God I love HBO. This is basically Trixie's arc.

Drugs? Check. Dependancy issues? Check. Physical abuse? Check. Somewhat better love interest? Check.

The reason why it works better in Deadwood is because Deadwood attempts to get into psychological issues. It's not just that it sucks Trixie is getting beat. It's that Trixie's been beat so long she doesn't know how to deal with anything else.

Elkanah Bent

Bent is interesting. I say that because most of the "dramatic" elements of this show don't work. Most of the antagonists distract from the larger conflict I find more interesting or prove to be hollow shells of what they could be. Bent, at first, is an exception partially because a good deal his antagonism, especially towards Fisk comes from that larger conflict, especially in the West Point scenes. Later on in the series he seems kind of out of place and what I said earlier doesn't apply any longer, but early on he is great. I wish they hadn't have brought him back because after they do, well, he becomes one of those distracting antagonists, with a weird bastard subplot. I liked him better when he was just a Yankee hating racist, entitled military officer. Some people are just assholes. You don't always need to invent an elaborate backstory explaining why. Did it make him more sympathetic? No. Did it make him more interesting? No.

He had his moment, and then he becomes one of the many things the story brings out when it doesn't know what to do with itself.

Charles Main and Billy Hazard

During the lead up to the civil war you could still count the generations since The Revolution on one hand. The show isn't really clear on it but the younger two have a couple of different purposes. When book two comes around it allows the show to have guys in the trenchs and in headquarters, as Orry and George would be relatively old to be foot soldiers. But more importantly they could have and, somewhat do they aren't main characters, show the growing divide between the old traditionalists and new kids on the block that would forge the country after the war. This is the generation that's going to settle the west and literally build New York, hell the rest of America too with steel i-beams and glass. This is another aspect of the show I feel suffers from the dramatic elements. I keep feeling that all of Orry's time angsting over Madeline, could have been spent better developing growing generational gap. We do get one subplot where Charles doesn't understand the difference between a long drawn out duel and drunken fist fight in a bar, but the show doesn't really give that scene any context making it more about Orry than Charles.

Justin La Motte

Not unlike Charles and Billy, I feel that a lot of what the story is missing with LaMotte is context. He mostly serves as out Bowser, the big bad guy Orry has to continually fight to save the princess. And I think that that is somewhat of a waste. When La Motte acts... evil, on a metatextual level he's doing so to a make Orry look better in comparison, and add pathos to the romance of him and Madeline. Two things I think are stupid.

But again I feel the story misses a larger point and opportunity. In that time and place a lot of what La Motte did would not have been considered wrong and moreover would be pretty common. So while we the audience can shake our heads at it, it feels weird to build up an entire story around Orry doing the same.

I'm not saying make Orry a woman beater, but it feels kind of wierd to have Madeline get beat and then in the next scene make out with Orry. Furthermore Justin is wholly defined as his role as Bowser making him more of a walking plot device detracting from an opportunity to talk about real issues. Justin is not a good guy. But human beings are more complicated than that and having him be as one dimensional as he is breaks my suspension of disbelief which is especially bad considering that this is HISTORICAL FICTION.

I could deal with it if he wasn't as as important to the plot as he is, but considering that the show has such a fascination with the Justin, Orry, Madeline love triangle he needs to be a more interesting character. And yes, you can make a sociopathic woman beater compelling.

Virgilia Hazard

Virgillia is complicated. And because of that complexity she is a brilliant character until later in the series. You know what I said about progressive characters. Well early on Virgillia represents how to do them right. Everybody wants her to just shut the hell up half the time. Not only that, but while we the modern audience may agree with her point of view, her point of view is not our point of view. It's subtle but every now and again you get see that she is a little deluded and cares more about upsetting the status quo and sticking it to the man than making the lives of the people she claims to want to help better. She's basically Michael Moore.

I want to agree with her but then every so often she'll do something so incredibly stupid or reprehensible that she makes me want to take the other side. Which sums up the extreme wing of the abolitionist movement she's representing.

Sure sometimes I want to cheer on John Brown, who's body is a moldin' in the grave but when I really stop and think about it the man was kind of insane to try to violently overthrow the United States government.

And this was how her marriage to Grady, a slave, was originally portrayed. She barely knew the guy and was mostly marrying him to make a point to her family, which is something I felt was reprehensible especially considering how Grady's life must have been up to that point, and that for her whim he's being put in a situation where he could be lynched.

Once she hooks up with Grady all that complexity goes out the window. In favor for romance, and once that happens all of the moral ambiguity goes out the window as we the audience are suppose to wholly and completely agree with Virginilia contrary to what made the character so compelling prior. And I can't. There is no evidence that the character evolved. She's exactly the same except the story forgot the implications of her being that way. Knowing how much harm she's doing it's really hard for the story to garner the necessary sympathy when things go wrong that are largely her fault.

Apart from that Virgillia also represents women of the abolitionists movement and the various complexities already mentioned between women's rights and black rights, and working in an organization that still hasn't decided if they're mutually exclusive or not.

Garrison Grady

Considering his introduction is right around when Virgillia started to suck I really wanted to hate Grady. I don't. I'm actually kind of sad we don't see more of him which, highlights a larger problem. Women and Blacks in a period piece about the time when the rights movements for both got started are mostly used to advance other character's arcs. Grady is a good character and is a stand in for black indigence and flatout militancy.

And as a product of America's original sin he's got the right. But I keep feeling as though his character was one of those things that made people feel icky so he get's shot in the episode after his introduction.


When dealing with certain issues like, rape, murder, child abuse or SLAVERY, a certain amount of tact is required, due to the emotions that are still quite present. With Priam I can really see the writers trying and failing at talking about slavery, largely because Priam is our Uncle Tom, and let me be clear I mean that strictly in the literary sense. His portrayal of slavery serves the same point as did Uncle Tom's from Uncle Tom's Cabin.

There is a reason why the phrase "Uncle Tom" exists. We don't like that portrayal.

Okay let me explain. Uncle Tom's Cabin, is a 1852 antislavery novel that I have never read, so I have limited qualification to actually talk about it. But the book had such a profound effect on the abolitionist movement that it's really hard to talk about said movement without mentioning the book. Furthermore the portrayal of slaves and by extension black people in pop culture has largely been effected by this book in ways that continue to this day.

The book tried to paint a sympathetic portrait of the eponymous Uncle Tom, by making him somebody who is so put upon and downright pitiful, that anybody with a shred of decency would agree that he didn't deserve his terrible lot in life as a slave, and more broadly the book guilted the reader into opposing slavery by wagging its finger and saying by condoning slavery they were just as much to blame for said misery.

The problem is that for that portrayal to work Uncle Tom has to remain extremely sympathetic and inoffensive, TO A 1850's WHITE AUDIENCE, making him extremely passive and somewhat conforming to the stereotypes of that age, which is something that to a modern black audience i.e. me is kind of offensive.

And thus is the problem with Priam. The reason why Uncle Tom was that way is because an 1850's audience did not care two shits about the dignity or reality of Black folk, and would start a bonfire for any book that did. They weren't ready for David Walker's appeal, and it came out 20 years earlier. I want to believe, I have to believe that that is not the case for a 1980's audience or else I'm totally screwed.

The dignity of the Klan though is up for grabs.

By the way this why as enamored as I am with the thought of time travel, if we do somehow manage to make Einstein weep, I'm not going to be among the chrononauts.

Maum Sally

Again almost everything this character says or does is actually to progress Madeline's plot, which mostly serves to add pathos to Orry's. This is frustrating because like everybody slaves had different thoughts and opinions based on a diversity of their backgrounds. Maum Sally being a house slave could have been an excellent opportunity to show that diversity. What was life like for her compared to Grady and Priam?

Considering the Civil war as largely about slaves they sure don't get a lot of lines, in a miniseries about that peculiar institution.

Constance Hazard

I'm not qualified to say whether they succeeded with Constance, but I admire what they were trying to do. Prior to the Civil War the U.S. was looked upon as very peculiar to the rest of the world. We were and still are a great big ole bucket of contradictions, contradictions that were still relatively new. She exists to be the mouthpiece for the observations of foreigners who were better in a position to be objective.

All I can say is you should really read Alex de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Frederick Douglass and John Brown

A couple of historical figures show up in this series and I'm torn. I really want a movie about these two, but if that were the case it would break the show. These men are complex and charismatic enough that giving them anything more than a cameo would make me question even more so why the show isn't focusing on the larger conflict and if you really want to know how that feels watch Lincoln in book two, where you end up asking yourself why would anybody care about the love life of Orry when you can watch Robert E. Lee, as close to God on a battlefield as you could get in that age, perform military miracles, and Sherman the man who still makes the South howl marching on Atlanta, or if blood and guts isn't to your liking McClellan, Lincoln's former general run against his boss in the election of 1864 on a peace platform.

That said John Brown was played by Johnny Cash. The man doesn't disappoint, and neither does Robert Guillaume as Frederick Douglass.

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