The Case for Unsubtle Subtext


Subtlety is wonderful. Subtlety in storytelling, when done well, results in a story that you can experience over and over again while each time pulling away new and different things. It adds layers and depth and creates a gift that keeps on giving. That’s cool. You know what else is cool? Shouting your message from the rooftops.

I have a lot of pet peeves when it comes to film snobs. At the top of the list are the people who refer to just about every single thing they dislike about a film as a “plot hole,” because they simply do not know what a plot nor a hole is, apparently. I’m not talking about those people, though, at least not in this post. This post is about those people who love to proclaim that they “get it” every time a story hints at its underlying theme. People who act like a slight nod here or there is a story rubbing its subtext into their face. Imagine someone reading a George Orwell novel and shouting “ugh, I get it!” after every goddamn page. We get it: you get it.

And even if the subtext were being rubbed in your face, so what? Subtext doesn’t have to be subtle. It just has to be underlying, so it lies under the main plot. It’s not a secret, it’s just less loud than the primary story. Sometimes the meaning of a story is so delicately placed, so hard to reach, that critics argue over whether or not it exists at all. And sometimes it’s the end of THE DEPARTED and a literal rat shows up. And there’s Neo spreading his arms out Jesus-style as he dies in THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS. And there’s SUNSHINE, where the crewmembers of the spaceship Icarus are pretty obsessed with the sun. Ooh! Don’t forget INTERSTELLAR, where Matt Damon represents the fallibility of humans as a character named Dr. Mann, the leader of the Lazarus mission who gets “resurrected” from cryo-sleep.

Scorsese, Boyle, Nolan, and the Wachowski Sisters are all terrific filmmakers who know what they’re doing. These are deliberate choices, and they’re not necessarily less or more effective than other, more subtle ways of conveying subtextual meaning. The filmmakers decided that these were the choices that best suited their films and the stories they were telling.

The aim of the storyteller isn’t to disguise the subtext beyond recognition, anyway. It’s the opposite, in fact. The storyteller needs to communicate that subtext, ideally in a way that will reach most of the audience. Years ago I listened to the commentary track on DOGMA. There’s a scene where Azrael turns on the air conditioning and, to display this visually, Kevin Smith cut to a ribbon that was being blown around by the air. Smith said something to the effect of treating your audience as if it’s full of idiots. As mean-spirited as that sounds (I think he was quoting someone else), it’s actually good, thoughtful advice. What if the person watching the movie is a stone cold bonehead? Don’t they deserve to enjoy the story, subtext and all? We all come from different walks of life, with different experiences and different educations. What’s obvious to some might be completely lost on others. Clear subtext is accessible subtext. Think about that the next time you roll your eyes at subtext that doesn’t adhere to your preferred level of subtlety.


The People Need Negan


I have a love/hate relationship with THE WALKING DEAD. It tends to drag, a lot. Characters tend to die before they can complete any sort of arc, or they live long enough to complete their arc and just spin in circles aimlessly, like a plane missing a wing. The show lacks direction. But enough about that. Let’s talk about Negan.

Negan should be dead. It feels like Negan should be dead. My guess is that the producers are so enamored with Jeffrey Dean Morgan – and by god, they should be – that they’re keeping him around a lot longer than the story dictates. I haven’t read the comics, at least not far enough into them to know his fate. And I’m also behind two or three episodes of the show, so maybe he is dead. But where I am currently, he’s still kicking and he’s by far the most interesting part of the show.

If they’re going to keep Negan around, they really need to play up his status as an anti-hero. Yeah, Negan’s an anti-hero. He beats good people to death with a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat, but he does so in an attempt to keep the other people in line so he can keep them alive. Does he keep them alive just so they can serve him? I don’t think so. He definitely likes being served. Who doesn’t? Ezekiel is a good guy, and he has people call him King.

The Saviors are the post-apocalyptic versions of the gang that forces the corner bodega to pay protection money, except that in this instance, that bodega is actually in legit need of protection. So yes, you pay them, but they will protect you. And I think that second part matters to Negan. In a recent episode he said to Rick, and I’m am absolutely paraphrasing because I have the memory of a goldfish: “Get with the program so people stop dying. That shit sticks with you.”

The implications of this are important. This suggests that not only has Negan lost people, but that he’s remorseful enough to carry it around with him. It also suggests that Negan may have one day been like Rick, and that, likewise, Rick may one day turn into Negan. Two sides of the same coin.

He’s a self-serving maniac, but even Batman likes his symbol splashed across the night sky for all to see. It doesn’t make him any less of a hero. And Negan can get away with a lot more than hubris and keep his anti-hero status intact. He and his Saviors keep (most) people alive and that is an indisputable fact. Recently he’s been arguing with his subordinates in favor of keeping people alive, when it would be much more beneficial to his operation to simply wipe the problem out, and yet he insists on maintain his twisted form of protection. Is demanding some sort of payment really that big of a transgression? I don’t think so. What about introducing himself through brutal murder? Yeah, that’s horrific, but what if – and admittedly this is a huge, messed-up what if – but what if experience has taught him that this is the only way to keep people in line and therefore keep them safe? This seems like a good time to remind everyone that an anti-hero doesn’t have to be a good guy.

Negan made a comment about the Hilltop and other communities being safe “until they met Rick Grimes.” He’s not wrong. Rick, with the noblest of intentions, brings death with him wherever he goes. Could Negan want to kill Rick in an effort to save Rick’s own people?