Parenthood Changes How We See Art
Plus: A parenting classic assigned!
Spoilers for the first season of The Last of Us will be near the top of this newsletter; feel free to scroll down past the image of a cordyceps, I’ll try to keep all the specific plot points above that.
The season finale of The Last of Us—HBO’s hit zombie drama about how, in the fungus-blasted apocalypse, humanity remains humanity’s biggest problem—posed a moral quandary. Joel (Pedro Pascal) has delivered Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to the Fireflies out west. They believe that Ellie’s body holds the cure for the cordyceps infection. This is the whole reason Joel has brought Ellie across the country, braving human raiders and infected monsters alike. This is their chance to save humanity.
One slight hiccup: To access the cure, they’ll have to cut out Ellie’s brain.
Oh, one other mild issue here: This isn’t really a cure, it’s just something that will maybe stop cordyceps from attacking humans. A cordyceps blindness spray, if you will.
Oh, yeah, I guess we should also mention that there’s no actual evidence any of this will work.
When Joel finds out about the plan, he reacts reasonably: by killing nearly every single person in that hospital and taking Ellie away from there.
At least, I found it to be a reasonable response. It is, certainly, the response most thematically resonant with the rest of the series. In almost every episode, one message is hammered home again and again: We can’t save the world, but we can try to save those closest to us, and if we fail to save them, we have failed, period.
This is the literally-stated-out-loud point of the third episode that everyone lost their minds over, in which Bill (Nick Offerman) finds meaning and purpose in his life through living with and protecting Frank (Murray Bartlett) in his survivalist compound. In his suicide note, Bill tells Joel that the only thing that matters is protecting those around him (something Joel has, notably, failed to do in the episode prior). It is also the tragic lesson at the end of the fifth episode, when Henry (Lamar Johnson) is forced to kill his infected brother, Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard); Henry literally cannot live with his failure, killing himself.
From the point of view of a parent, this is one of those moral conundrums that’s not really complicated at all: You don’t let your daughter (even a surrogate, even one you haven’t known that long) die, even if it maybe (and it’s very much a maybe) means losing a chance to save the world. You don’t even let her make that choice. You don’t give her the option. There are certain things children simply aren’t able to consent to. Sexual relationships, tattoos, medical procedures that include the removal of important organs like, uh, their brains. That sort of thing.
I was not at all surprised, then, when the game’s creator and the series co-showrunner Neil Druckmann said in the companion podcast that when they tested the game, those who didn’t have kids were evenly split on Joel’s murderous response. Fifty-fifty, some thought he was a villain, some sympathized with him. Those who had kids?
“A hundred percent with zero exceptions they agreed with Joel,” Druckmann said. “Zero exceptions.”
All of which is a long way of saying that having kids radically changes how you perceive art. It’s just a fundamental thing, one that’s kind of hard to explain. I’ve written about it a bit before here, but it’s one of these things that I’ve come to understand so innately and so viscerally that I kind of wish Rotten Tomatoes allowed readers to filter for reviews from parents and reviews from non-parents. This isn’t to say that parents have a “better” perspective or that the childless have a “worse” perspective. All I’m saying is that this very basic fact of life really does change perception.
And criticism is, on a primal level, about the critic’s perception.
Make sure to swing by Across the Movie Aisle for our bonus episode this week about Oscars fashion. Pulling back the curtain a bit: I’m putting together this email on a Thursday from a hotel in Reno and the episode isn’t live yet. But if you become a paying Bulwark+ member, you’ll automatically get the bonus episodes, they’ll show up right in your podcast feed. It’s great! Sign up now!
No review this week because I’m traveling. I’m sorry! Just take the time to get excited for John Wick 4 next week.
Producer Jon Landau told Bill Hunt at Digital Bits that 4K versions of True Lies, The Abyss, Titanic, and Avatar are coming out before the end of this year. I’ll believe it when I see it!
The Entertainment Strategy Guy cites a great podcast while making the argument that we really need more transparency on streaming ratings.
Ben Affleck always gives an interesting interview. He’s a thoughtful guy.
New Tarantino coming soon! The title, supposedly? The Movie Critic. Film Twitter will melt down into a pile of goo.
I remain curious to see how much longer mask mandates for SAG productions can keep going.
Super Mario Bros. is likely to open to $100 million. Maybe more. Going to be a huge hit. You know why? Because there hasn’t been a kids movie out in nearly four months.
Assigned Viewing: Interstellar (Paramount+)
I’ve written about this before, but I saw Interstellar twice in theaters. The first time was before I found out my wife was pregnant. The second time was a couple of months later, after I had found out. The first time I liked the movie, though I found it a bit slow. The second time I was absolutely wrecked by it. Don’t leave Murph, Coop! Don’t leave her!!
This is the parenthood difference.
Damn straight. As a mother, I am a grizzly bear mama on steroids. Totally understood what Joel did.
Before I had children, many issues were simply academic thought problems. Having children totally changes issues from academic exercises to visceral and moral questions.