How Rent Hits Different in the 2020s

December 26, 10AM, Central Standard Time.

The power generator blew on my block. Without power aside from phone data, I decided to stream Rent because all the musical fans on Twitter were quoting it a couple days ago. (“December 24th, 9PM, Eastern Standard Time…”)

Rent was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway. I fell in love with the musical in a really unusual way. It was part of a recommended reading list and a library that I frequented back in California just so happened to have the Rent libretto aka “The Rent Bible.” This also happened to be the same year that the movie came out. Aside from Wicked and Phantom of the Opera, Rent became one of my first post-Disney musical loves.

I’ll admit that the show is not a perfect one, but I still love most of the music. What I didn’t expect was how the themes of the musical would resonate in a time when everyone started panicking about catching a certain virus and struggling to pay rent. So leave all your jokes about “they should all just get jobs” at the door, thank you very much.

The song “Rent” really hits different in the 2020s with how bizarre everything felt. I also related a lot to Mark and Roger, who were both trying to create something in the midst of all the craziness. The imagery of everyone burning their eviction notices is also very poignant and dazzling.

Something I learned about while I was diving back into my love for Rent was that there was a recent production of Rent in the Hope Mill Theatre (England) and one choice they did as part of their production was that the characters would rarely, if ever, touch each other. It’s not something that can be noticed from the clips. (And sadly, I missed my opportunity to stream it), but given that they were doing this production in 2020, the threat of COVID was looming just as much as the threat of dying from AIDS did back when this musical was originally written.

If there’s anything we can learn from Rent, it’s that nothing is guaranteed, to make the most of the time that we have. Whether it’s the early 90s or the start of the 2020s, people struggle with creating and finding meaningful things and the existential dread of dying from something outside of your control. And in the 2020s, when we’re not sure what the future holds, making the most of each day and measuring our lives by the love we have makes life just a little bit better.

Falcon and The Winter Soldier: Refining Identity and Politics

After the emotional rollercoaster that WandaVision put me through, I went into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier thinking I was signing up for an action-packed buddy comedy. What I got instead was a really good continuation of the Captain America films, complete with politics that felt all too real!

Spoilers!

Politics and Captain America going together is nothing new. The original Captain America comics started out as WWII propaganda and they were published before America officially got involved. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War also had political themes.

Now I usually don’t like political themes or “ripped from the headlines” type of writing. I’ve seen way too many cases of it being done badly. At worst, the characters are basically standing on a soapbox and preaching to the choir. In the case of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, however, the political message is woven in naturally with the show because it connects to Sam Wilson and his character arc.

When we last left Sam Wilson at Avenger’s Endgame, he received Steve’s shield. The problem is that he didn’t feel worthy of it. He never used the shield during that opening mission. So in Episode 1, he gives the shield to the Smithsonian Museum. Not only does Sam have to deal with the looming threat of the Flag Smashers (an organization that appears to be modern-day Robin Hoods), he also has to help out his family with maintaining the family business. I loved that Sam’s family gets introduced in this series in the form of his sister Sarah and his nephews. But the scene at the bank where Sam couldn’t get a loan hit hard. (I know that crowdfunding could’ve dated this series, but many fans were saying that Sam should’ve started a “gofundme.”)

Meanwhile, Bucky is trying to readjust to living in the real world, complete with sessions with a government-appointed therapist. He’s got a list of names written in Steve’s old notebook of people he has to make amends with, but so far, he’s just been getting back at some bad guys he helped put into power. This storyline feels familiar to me for some reason… Some people liked Bucky’s therapist, Dr. Raynor, but TikTok sensation and former Air Force Veteran Nicque Marina pointed out how similar Dr. Raynor acted to VA therapists she used to see. Dr. Raynor was government-appointed and while I liked her in Episode 2, she was pretty abrasive and I’m glad that she didn’t overstay her welcome.

Anyway, Episode 1 basically establishes the character arcs for Sam and Bucky as well as their personal, real-world, real-life struggles. And it ends with introducing a guy who embodies a lot of the stuff that Sam and Bucky lack: privilege and prominence. Hello, John Walker.

John Walker has his share of fans who have sympathized with him a little bit more than he deserves, I think. In my honest opinion, John Walker is a complicated character. Unlike other MCU antagonists, he doesn’t start as an outright villain with charisma. He’s the chosen soldier for the government, perfect on paper but lacking in essentials (like being able to speak more than one language). It’s pretty easy to see John Walker as representing how the world sees the American military, for better and for worse. And while he isn’t a racist character, he’s very privileged. He’s surrounded with Black people who uplifted and supported him: A Black marching band championing him at his old high school, a Black wife, and a Black best friend.

My personal beef with John Walker is his entitlement complex. Yes, the government chose him to be Captain America and he knew that he had a lot to live up to. But he still acted like an entitled, inconsiderate brat in a lot of ways, like thinking he can just ask Sam and Bucky to be his sidekicks when they did all the work. I won’t discredit John Walker’s military accomplishments. It’s implied that he’s in Special Forces (by the green beret he wore in Episode 5). Sam and Bucky dealt with HYDRA agents, went on the run from the government, and fought Thanos’s army twice. John Walker couldn’t hold his own in a fight with the Dora Milaje.

The entitlement issues come to a head in Episode 4. The debate about the super soldier serum gets discussed between Zemo, Bucky, and Sam. Later on, Walker has a similar debate with his partner, Lemar Hoskins aka Battlestar. While Lemar believed the somewhat true statement that the serum would just emphasize whatever strength the user already has, he forgot Erskine’s explanation of how the serum actually worked. And I can’t believe that a guy like him never heard of the idea that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Walker did not get enough comeuppance in the finale, especially given his actions at the end of Episode 4, but to me, him joining up with the ambiguously evil Contessa is exactly what he deserves. He thinks that he’s getting what he wants, but I’m hoping there will be an instance where the Contessa will ask him to do something he doesn’t feel comfortable doing. And if and when he realizes he got in bed with the wrong people, we’ll all point and laugh. For now, I’m just rolling my eyes at how basic and privileged he is. (Quoting Lincoln, dude? Really?)

Walker represents one of the many ideologies brought up in the series. Walker represents the government, white privilege, and extreme entitlement. On the other side of things are the Flag Smashers. On the surface, Karli and her cohorts come off as modern day Robin Hoods. They’re shown trying to redistribute vaccines to refugees. The problem is that the motivations of the group are kind of a mixed message. On the one hand, they want to have a more globalized society, with people being able to find jobs and housing and healthcare no matter where they reside. In essentials, it’s a good idea. But on the other hand, their desires come at the expense of literally half the world that was lost from Thanos’s snap. Karli is a teenager and it’s implied that the serum radicalized her into taking extreme measures. But her own followers were starting to get worried, especially towards the end.

I’m sad that Karli died at the end, but thematically speaking, I wasn’t exactly on the side of the Flag Smashers aside from their ally that spat in John Walker’s face. They represented extreme lawlessness, even with their best intentions.

A third ideology presented in this series came from Zemo, Sharon Carter, and Isaiah Bradley, who all represented various types of cynicism. Zemo’s cynicism is of the Ayn Rand/objectivist variety. He thinks that anyone who takes the serum is a supremacist and he’s not wrong, but Sam was quick to point out that Zemo’s viewpoints are just as extreme. (Side note: While I loved how efficient Zemo was in getting exactly what he wanted and his dorky dance moves, he still creeped me out when he was giving Turkish Delight to kids on the street. Dude broke the Stranger Danger rules from the 90s! Did nobody read CS Lewis?!) Sharon Carter is nihilistic and embraces her new chaotic neutral lifestyle, done with all the stars and stripes. She’s a burned spy and she has every reason to be nihilistic, but her taking advantage of that pardon at the end is opening a whole new Pandora’s Box of trouble! She is scaring me!

Finally, we have Isaiah Bradley, who’s cynicism is more than justified. His story is a mix of the comic Truth: Red, White, and Black and stuff from actual history like the Tuskegee experiments and Henrietta Lacks. This man was put in jail for essentially doing the same thing Steve Rogers did (only his brothers-in-arms ended up dying soon after they were rescued). It’s no wonder he lived a very solitary life with only his grandson for company. Bradley acts as a cautionary tale for both Sam and Bucky. All three of them were veterans who served their government, but were discarded after they were no longer seen as assets. (Side note: I am loving the conversations brought up amongst the veteran community.)

In the midst of all these conflicting ideologies, Sam is set on walking that narrow road, where he can define what the right thing to do is. He sympathized with the Flag Smashers, but cautioned against taking extremes. He understood Isaiah’s pain, but he chose to take a stand instead of falling into despair. I loved watching Sam’s journey throughout the series. I also loved that Sam didn’t get on a soapbox until the very end. For the most part, his actions speak for themselves.

The process of refining involves removing impurities from substances such as iron or silver. To me, Sam refined what being Captain America means and the ideologies behind the shield. His speech at the end really resonated with me because it felt timely and timeless. This series could’ve easily happened about a decade ago (complete with the politics) and it would’ve felt just as realistic because the struggle to find your place in the world and keep the powers in check is one that’s been around for a very long time. And like what Sam said “The only power I have is that I believe… we. Can do. Better.” Sam’s speech to Isaiah is equally relevant as he is defining how he is going to be Captain America. He wants to uphold the history of all the Black people who came before him, Isaiah included. I was so happy that Isaiah got a section of the Captain America exhibit dedicated to him!

My favorite thing about this series as a whole, though, was Sam and Bucky’s dynamic. They started out not exactly being the best of friends, but by the end of the series, Bucky was practically adopted into Sam’s community in Louisiana. Sam helped Bucky realize the difference between avenging and actual atonement. The time they spent fixing Sam Wilson’s family boat and the cookout in the finale will live in my mind rent-free. We do not get enough domestic Avengers!

Overall, I think this series is one that really reflects the politics of the 2020s. While there will sadly be people who won’t understand or refuse to acknowledge the lessons that this series has to teach, it’s gonna open a lot of discussions. And at the very least, it gives us a lot of insight into the struggles military veterans have to deal with and the importance of not going to extremes when it comes to politics or ideologies.

Raya and the Last Dragon: A Matter of Trust

By now, Raya and the Last Dragon has been out in theatres for a while and will be on Disney Plus for free to watch by next month or by June. But I’ll do my best to keep things as spoiler-free as possible.

It goes without saying, but Asian stories, much like Asian cultures, are not a monolith. They do, however, have a different type of story structure and worldbuilding. Certain movie commentators were quick to compare how similar Raya was to Avatar: The Last Airbender and I can see why. When I first watched the trailer, Raya reminded me of Korra because of how she dressed. And if you watched the Honest Trailer, the premise is similar to Avatar in the sense that a world needed to be rebuilt.

What makes Raya unique are the major characters. Raya, in contrast to most Disney protagonists, is cynical. She has trust issues and her character arc centers on her learning how to open up and trust people again. She is both a warrior and a princess. She’s an amazing leader and I cannot wait to cosplay her when conventions are a thing again.

The reason why Raya has trust issues is Namaari from Fang, the main antagonist (aside from the Druun) who has what I call a “shonen rivalry dynamic” with Raya. Shonen rivals are common in anime. Think Deku and Bakugo from My Hero Academia or Goku and Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z or Naruto and Sasuke. The main character of a shonen anime always has a rival who acts as both a foil and an antagonist, but the rival isn’t always necessarily the main villain.

Sisu is an especially fascinating character to me. I don’t usually see “mentor” characters who have a more idealistic mindset. This is just a theory, but I think Sisu might be a child in dragon terms. The way she talks about her fellow dragons reminds me of a young child describing their older siblings. In the trailer, Sisu describes herself as the kid that didn’t contribute much to the group project and it’s established that she doesn’t have any specialized powers aside from being a good swimmer. Whatever other powers she gets in the movie were borrowed from the MacGuffin.

The supporting characters, while not as fleshed out as the main three, feel unique to me as I don’t usually see the comic relief sidekicks contributing to the main action, at least not in typical Disney movies. In fact, the only other instance where the comic relief side characters got involved with the main action was Mulan (the original, not the live-action version). All of them were very enjoyable to watch.

I also love that there are elements of Southeast Asian culture. I could recognize stuff that came from Filipino culture, especially the emphasis on food and gift-giving. (Incidentally, Sisu’s love language is totally gift giving and she’s a great example of how gift giving doesn’t mean spending big, but just the desire to give a gift to someone in the hopes of making them happy.)

Overall verdict:

Do I think this movie is 100% perfect? Heck no! Did I enjoy this movie? Totally! And I think it’s definitely one for the whole family. The moral of this movie is a bit of a mixed message considering real world implications, but it’s one that’s worth discussing. And at the end of the day, I love the idea of a positive, uplifting message in times such as these.

I really hope that there can be some kind of expanded material for this movie, in a similar vein to Tangled, which got its own series. I want to explore the world of Kumandra more because I really liked all the characters and want to spend more time with them.

And if you can’t take my word for it, I’ll share this video from a Filipino historian with a lot more cred:

WandaVision: Come for the Sitcoms, Stay for the Psychology

I was pretty hyped for WandaVision, but unlike most MCU fans, I was mostly looking forward to all the sitcom shenanigans. I grew up with sitcoms ever since I was a kid. I got even more hyped when I heard they filmed the first episode in front of a live studio audience and that there would be sitcom theme songs created by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez (aka the team behind Frozen). What I didn’t expect was that this show would become a study in grief. In my honest opinion, the real villain of this show was a mix of individual and collective trauma and grief, something that is very relevant in the 2020s and if nothing else, for a spoiler-free option, you seriously have to watch this!

For this blog post, I want to give my overall thoughts on the series from beginning to end, with short recap and my thoughts on each episode. I’ll also be ranking the episodes and the theme songs.

Spoilers for WandaVision!

Episode 1: Filmed Before A Live Studio Audience

This episode is a throwback to the days of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Dick Van Dyke was even consulted for his knowledge on sitcom sets, as the main living room and the kitchen are based from his show. The opening to this episode is hilarious, with Wanda being dropped at the door just as Vision phased through.

The entire episode plays the typical “dinner with the boss vs forgotten anniversary” misunderstanding plot very straight, but Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany do an excellent job playing their sitcom roles. Their chemistry is charming and genuine. Bettany is a natural at playing a very awkward office worker. (He reminds me so much of Giles from Buffy, but that might just be me.)

My favorite thing about this episode is how much work was put into filming it. The behind the scenes videos from Marvel’s YouTube channel show the stark difference between the 1950s/1960s color palette and how everything looked in black and white. I especially loved the costumes.

This episode is a great way to establish what the audience is signing up for: a throwback to old sitcoms with an underlying horrific mystery.

Episode 2: Don’t Touch That Dial

This episode is a throwback to Bewitched, but there are also elements of this episode that remind me of The Stepford Wives and Pleasantville. The plot revolves around Wanda and Vision trying to fit in with their respective groups. Wanda is meeting Dottie (played by Emma Caulfield) and the other ladies of Westview at a country club. There, she makes friends with Geraldine, who’s also having trouble fitting in. Meanwhile, Vision joins up with the local Neighborhood Watch and gets into some shenanigans when he gets gum stuck in his insides.

I loved the Pleasantville vibes of bits of red showing up around the episode (the toy helicopter and the blood on Dottie’s hands). Emma Caulfield was excellent in this episode as the Queen Stepford Wife. And overall, this episode was just fun to watch.

Episode 3: Now in Color

The theme song and overall aesthetic of this episode calls to mind The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, which fits the whole pregnancy plotline very well. The theme song is very bouncy and sweet and has a genuine, heartwarming vibe to it.

I’m pretty familiar with magical pregnancies in other shows, so it didn’t surprise me that Wanda’s magic went totally haywire and it was so much fun to watch the chaos. Wanda was honestly lucky that she didn’t have to deal with any actual pregnancy issues aside from contractions and labor pains, but that’s what happens when you go through 9 months in half an hour.

I also loved Geraldine/Monica in this episode. Her character reminded me of Mary Tyler Moore, a single lady working hard for a living. She becomes essential when Wanda goes into labor. The lady deserves a medal for being able to deliver twins without any proper medical training (as far as we know). It’s just sad that she ends up getting thrust out of Westview by the end, but it leads into the next episode.

WandaVision episode 4: Ready, A.I.M., theorize - The Verge

Episode 4: We Interrupt This Program

What this episode lacked in typical sitcom format (like a theme song), it made up for with awesome characters. It also adds a layer to the overall theme of the series. Monica coming back from the “Blip” gives a glimpse of just how chaotic the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame has been for everyone.

This is the first time that I felt like Marvel was reading my mind. I mentioned on various social media platforms that I wanted something that focused on what SWORD was doing. I loved how Jimmy Woo mastered the card trick from Ant-Man and the Wasp. I loved how he and Darcy getting invested in the Wandavision show. The part where the SWORD/FBI agents identify Westview citizens felt very meta. Overall, this episode was great to watch!

Episode 5: On a Very Special Episode

This is when the decades and show references start to blend. The theme song is an 80s power ballad with an intro that’s a mix of Growing Pains, Family Ties, and Full House. The episode’s overall aesthetic is a throwback to 80s sitcoms, with the house reminding me a lot of Roseanne or the set of Who’s the Boss? Another sitcom trope also gets introduced: Wanda’s kids suddenly age up! Twice!

Billy and Tommy are adorable in this episode and I love both sets of child actors. The plot of the episode revolved around Wanda, Billy, and Tommy wanting to take care of a stray puppy that they name Sparky while Vision tries to figure out what’s going on with Westview, realizing that not everything is what it seems to be.

One small way that the decades of this episode blend is shown in Vision’s bit at his computer job: computers at work, email, surfing the internet, and Norm saying “cowabunga” feel a lot more 90s than 80s.

On the SWORD side of things, Monica, Jimmy, and Darcy basically become a trio who have very different opinions from Director Hayward. Their teamwork is excellent. I am siding so much with the fandom: Jimmy Woo and Darcy Lewis deserve to have a spinoff. Thankfully, somebody is already getting to work on pitching an X-Files style show with Jimmy Woo as the star. (Agents of Sword/Atlas, anyone?) Hayward, however, is starting to show his true colors and I seriously didn’t like how he planned to use a missile against Wanda.

Wanda seems to show some signs of progress because she’s starting to talk about her grief, even if it’s just with her kids and dealing with all her uncertainty with Vision. But the chaos has started to close in. Which leads nicely into the next episode…

Episode 6: All-New Halloween Spooktacular!

Welcome to the late 90s and early 2000s! The theme song and the episode’s aesthetic is a full on throwback to Malcolm in the Middle. (Side note: The back of Agatha’s pants with a bedazzled “naughty” is so “Juicy Couture,” I can’t even.) This time, Billy and Tommy are narrating the episode, talking to the 4th wall about their uncle Pietro who came out of nowhere (played by Evan Peters) and worrying about their parents.

I really love the Halloween aesthetic and how adorable the kids were in their costumes. On top of all that, Billy and Tommy get powers! Tommy gets super speed and Billy gets telepathy and some magic-based powers.

Hayward goes full on jerk with an agenda mode and tells Monica, Woo, and Darcy that they’re out, but my favorite trio wasn’t going to go down without a fight! In Westview, Vision starts to explore how far Westview goes and things feel very Truman Show and Twilight Zone with how eerie things get. Even though Vision doesn’t remember anything about what happened before the start of the series, he is still an Avenger at heart!

Unfortunately, Vision trying to leave the Hex and failing forces Wanda to expand the barrier to save him, turning the entire SWORD encampment into a circus. The sad thing is that Darcy was part of the people left behind. Monica and Jimmy are running off to meet with people who will hopefully help them while Hayward goes off to set off another SWORD base.

Episode 7: Breaking the Fourth Wall

This episode that pays tribute to the mockumentary sitcoms of the 2000s and 2010s like The Office and Modern Family. Even the theme song is a good reflection of the aesthetic while also paying tribute to Happy Endings.

Wanda has taken a “quarantine-style staycation” and I’m so glad that she’s self-aware enough to know when to take a mental health day. Unfortunately, she has also sunk into depression, as she flippantly tells her kids that she’s starting to think that life is meaningless. I’m so glad the kids don’t hold what she says against her, but I can’t help but feel for Billy and Tommy.

Darcy and Vision carry on the “B Plot” of escaping the circus and getting back to Wanda. Their comedic timing is excellent. They work really well off of each other. The only downside is that Vision just leaves Darcy stranded instead of them just trying to off-road the truck or Vision flying with Darcy.

In spite of having a frickin tank at her disposal, Monica isn’t able to break through the Hex. So instead, she decides to break through on her own again and gains her Spectrum/Photon powers, which basically means that she is able to see different wavelengths of light amongst other things. She’s also able to find Wanda and tries to talk to her, but unfortunately, Agnes gets in the way.

Once Wanda gets to Agnes’s house, things get really spoilerific. If you don’t want to know anything major, please stop!

So I love Kathryn Hahn as Agnes. She has been excellent at playing the “nosy neighbor” while also making everyone suspicious about how much she really knows. By the end of the episode, it’s revealed that Agnes is actually the witch Agatha Harkness and in true Disney Villain fashion, she closes out the episode with her own theme song. Incidentally, this is the last theme song in the entire series. So kudos, Kathryn Hahn. You are officially a full-on Disney Villain now because you got the last song and it became the most viral sensation of 2021. *applause*

Episode 8: Previously On…

While I loved this episode for giving a lot of insight on Wanda’s past, I would have liked some scenes that checked on Jimmy Woo, Darcy, and Monica, especially since the previous episode had a post-credit scene that showed her running into “Pietro.” The best thing about this episode is that it provides a way for people to try and understand their grief in the form of Wanda just trying to piece past events together. Most therapy sessions start out with understanding childhood trauma (insert Freudian couch joke here).

I loved the part where Wanda watches Malcolm in the Middle with Vision. Watching sitcoms to deal with grief is a legit thing, you know. Friends became really popular after 9/11 because a lot of New Yorkers turned to that show for comfort, since it took place in New York and included shots of the Twin Towers. Best line of this episode: “What is grief, if not love persevering?”

While this episode isn’t as plot-heavy, it’s an emotional ride. I almost cried when Wanda saw Vision’s body in the SWORD base and said “I can’t feel you.” (A call back to Infinity War.) The part where Wanda drives around Westview and her breakdown at the plot of land that Vision bought for her also really hit me in the feels.

Some fun trivia: The episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show that young Wanda watches in her flashback (“It May Look Like a Walnut”) is an episode that parodies The Twilight Zone and sci-fi B-movies. It’s the perfect “easter egg” reference for this show that mixes sitcom and sci-fi horror.

Episode 9: The Series Finale

After all the buildup from the past 8 episodes, the finale of WandaVision was great for setting up what’ll happen in MCU Phase 4. I was overall happy that Wanda and Vision got their own chances to shine, had a bit of a “superhero team up” moment with their kids, and that Wanda was finally called out for how her grief-powered magic affected everyone. Vision’s use of “the ship of Theseus” against White Vision was a very Age of Ultron moment.

My only issue with this episode is a lack of closure. I wanted Darcy to get a proper send-off! I want Jimmy Woo to get made the new leader, maybe retooling SWORD and turning it into ATLAS. Monica Rambeau was also majorly underused in this ep. If she could’ve overtaken “Pietro” that easily and escape, she could’ve done it last episode!

But ultimately, this wasn’t about closure, at least not for the fans. It’s really about Wanda getting some sense of closure and becoming the Scarlet Witch. And she was able to get that, even if it lead to her isolating herself in the mountains, reading the Darkhold.

Grief is the Real Villain

There were two types of grief at play in WandaVision: Individual grief and collective grief.

Wanda, Monica, and Director Hayward all show different ways of coping with individual grief. Wanda goes through the five stages of grief and chooses to isolate herself. Monica’s grief centers on the loss of her mother and trying to figure out her life after being “blipped.” Director Hayward wasn’t blipped, but became authoritarian out of a desire for some sense of control.

The aftermath of the “Blip” and the power of Wanda’s reality-warping hex act as a form of collective grief. Westview was a dying town and people were trying to just get by. In Wanda’s point of view, they all seemed miserable. And while her sitcom reality reformed the structure of the town, it came at the cost of everyone losing their free will and living with Wanda’s nightmares. She was unburdening herself onto a lot of people without their consent. The grief was literally felt by everyone.

The reason I feel like grief is the big bad of the whole show is because grief and the way people try to cope drive the way that everyone acts in this show, especially in the finale.

My overall thoughts

I loved this show. I can see this show being studied in film/communication and psychology classes in terms of how a show comes together as well as how individual and collective grief has to be approached. It was a fun, emotional ride.

4.5 out of 5 due to:

  1. Emma Caulfield being majorly underused. If you’re gonna make her a red herring, have her be more prominent in more episodes. I seriously love her as Dottie and I wanted her in the 80s and the Halloween episodes!
  2. A lack of closure for Jimmy, Darcy, and Monica who became the unexpected breakout stars of this series. MCU, keep reading my mind. I need to see these guys again.

But otherwise, I seriously love this show.

Writing 101: Setting the Scene

A popular way that some people describe lack of scenic description in a story is “white room syndrome.” While I understand the analogy, I want to use my very limited theatre experience to offer a better way to give help for setting a scene.

Imagine, if you will, an empty stage.

An empty stage in a theatre, like this picture of the Globe Theatre in London, has no set. If you ever read Shakespeare plays (as opposed to actually watching them), you might come across dialogue like this:

SIWARD
What wood is this before us?
MENTEITH
The wood of Birnam.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Back in Shakespeare’s day, they didn’t have fancy sets aside from the upper level. As you can see, the only “set” here is very minimal, with no extra stuff on the stage. Depending on the scene, of course, they added things to this stage to help convey the scene in the best way possible. Some theaters use backdrops, for example.

So what does that all mean when it comes to writing? In theater, similar to a novel, most of the time the audience can fill in the blanks for themselves. You don’t have to describe every single detail of everything in the room. Instead, I always imagine the settings of my books as being played out on an empty stage.

If you’re the kind of writer who loves to describe a scene before the action occurs, point out what’s important. The characters can also acknowledge the scene in dialogue, but avoid having them just describe everything around them. Example:

OBERON
How long within this wood intend you stay?

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Other factors, such as weather, could also play a role in the scene, such as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which literally begins with a storm. And yes, the characters in the scene are talking about the storm in the dialogue, but it’s pretty minimal:

ANTONIO: Where is the master, boatswain?

Boatswain: Do you not hear him? You mar our labour: keep your
cabins: you do assist the storm.


GONZALO: Nay, good, be patient.


Boatswain: When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin: silence! trouble us not.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The point is that when it comes to putting description into a scene, imagine a stage with enough props, furniture, and a backdrop that can convey just what is necessary. The first minute of this part from Singin in the Rain is a really good example:

Trust that the reader has enough imagination to create a picture in their minds. I don’t even have that vivid of an imagination myself, but whenever I read novels, I can usually imagine enough to create a movie in my head. So, in the words of Shakespeare, “Screw your courage to the sticking place” and get to writing!

Books I can recommend that do a great job at setting scenes:

  • Pride and Prejudice, especially when Jane Austen describes Pemberley.
  • The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  • Cinder by Marissa Meyer
  • Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
  • Desperate Forest by Cece Louise

The Mandalorian Season 2: What Really Matters

The narrative within The Mandalorian Season 1 was pretty straightforward. Mando’s character arc was to accept his newfound role as the caretaker for Baby Yoda (avoiding the actual name of The Child for spoilers).

In Season 2, however, the character arc isn’t as straightforward. It’s a lot more thematic. The theme for Season 2 is about Mando’s own identity and what it really means to be a Mandalorian.

Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert in all things related to the Star Wars universe. Season 2 of The Mandalorian brought in a lot of characters from Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels and other unexpected characters from the Star Wars films. What I want to focus on is how Mando’s beliefs in the ways of the Mandalore change throughout the season.

Spoilers for The Mandalorian ahead!

In Season 1, Episode 3 (The Sin), we are introduced to the people who rescued Mando as a child and raised him in their particular belief system. Mando’s family taught him to never remove his helmet in front of any living thing and that the Jedi were enemies of the Mandalorians.

In Season 2, Episode 3 (The Heiress), Mando finds out (from the titular Heiress, Bo-Katan) that he was essentially raised in a “cult” as a “Child of the Watch,” a group of zealots who follow what people who were actually from Mandalore would consider outdated beliefs. (The Children of the Watch would be the Star Wars equivalent of Puritans or Christian Crusaders.) Without going too deep into the expanded universe, all I’ll say is that Bo-Katan was originally from Mandalore and her plan is to restore Mandalorian society. She’s a lot more flexible about what rules Mandalorians should adhere to, as she frequently goes around with her helmet off. By the end of the episode, Mando also learns that in contrast to what he was taught, a Mandalorian was friends with a Jedi, as Bo-Katan was friends with Ahsoka Tano. In the following episode (“The Jedi”), Mando is willing to help Ahsoka out with her own agenda

In Season 2, Episode 6 (The Tragedy), Mando discovers that the armor he got from the episode “The Marshal” belongs to none other than Boba Fett. Initially, Mando questions whether or not Boba Fett is a legit Mandalorian. By the end of the episode, however, Mando allows Boba Fett to have his armor back as Boba’s father, Jango, was taken in by the Mandalorians as a foundling. On top of that, Boba and Fennec are willing to help Mando rescue the Child, who was sadly taken by Moff Gideon’s Darktroopers.

The biggest change in Mando’s character arc came in Season 2, Episode 7 “The Believer.” Mando’s former comrade turned “frenemy” Migs Mayfield questioned Mando’s beliefs constantly both in this episode and in the previous season. However, we quickly learn why Mayfield is so skeptical about belief systems in general. As it turns out, former Imperial sharpshooter Mayfield was essentially betrayed by his commanding officer, who left him and his troop to die in a scorched earth operation and didn’t even lose any sleep over the collateral damage.

It was in this episode that Mando is forced to show his face in order for a terminal to give him the code that will help him find Moff Gideon’s ship and, by extension, the Child. Kudos to Pedro Pascal for conveying Mando being so uncertain without his helmet. I also liked that Mando (and Cara who hated Mayfield at the start of the episode) allowed Mayfield to live at the end of the episode.

So what does it all mean?

Throughout The Mandalorian, Season 2, Mando had to figure out what was most important to him. I don’t think he completely abandoned the beliefs he grew up with, but he is learning (much like a lot of people this year) that there is a lot more to the ways of the Mandalore than what he knew growing up. Not everything is as black and white as it used to be, but what Mando held onto is knowing what was most important. That meant making sure he took care of The Child. Everything he did throughout this season was motivated by the desire to raise the Child in the best way possible and find the people who can help The Child learn how to hone his powers.

As amazing as the Season 2 finale was, especially given the fact that Mando finally took off his helmet in front of The Child, we don’t know where Mando’s character arc is gonna go from here. He fulfilled his mission of finding the right people to take care of The Child, but now he’s stuck with the Darksaber and the possibility of fighting Bo-Katan for the right to rule Mandalore. It’s also clear that his heart is broken at having to let The Child go.

My advice to Mando (and for Jon Faverau and Dave Filoni, if they ever read this) is that all you can do when you essentially lose your sense of purpose is to figure out what the next right thing to do is. I hope that in the next season of The Mandalorian, Mando can somehow get his Child back and ride off into the sunset with a Jedi tagging along. But that’s just me.

A Christmas Carol: A Memento Mori Story

A Christmas Carol is a perennial Christmas classic with countless adaptations. What many people overlook, however, is the core moral of the story. It’s not just “be nice to the poor on Christmas,” but a call to action for those who are privileged to examine their consciences and to do what they can to help others year-round because at some point, we’ll die and be judged on our actions as well as what we neglected to do.

In other words, A Christmas Carol is a “Memento Mori” story. If you don’t know what “memento mori” is, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble goes more into it. According to her website:

Memento mori or “remember your death” is a phrase that has been long associated with the practice of remembering the unpredictable and inevitable end of one’s life. The spiritual practice of memento mori and the symbols and sayings associated with it were particularly popular in the medieval church. 

Fun fact: My family and I saw a production of A Christmas Carol in Houston’s Alley Theatre. They really played up the aspect of “Memento Mori” right at the start, with skeletons dressed in fancy clothes dancing around Ebenezer Scrooge’s bed, foreshadowing what’s to come.

All the ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge compel him to examine his conscience, that is his past actions and how he neglects to help those in the present. Let’s dive into this story and see how.

Stave One: Facing Judgment & Punishment

with Jacob Marley

Even though Charles Dickens wasn’t Catholic and had some anti-Catholic sentiments, the imagery of Jacob Marley and the other ghosts calls to mind the souls of Purgatory, at least for me.

Quotes from Stave One to reflect on:

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Similar to the souls in Purgatory, the ghosts in A Christmas Carol can’t really do much to help others on earth aside from intercession. If this is Charles Dickens’s idea of Hell, however, it’s a very good one. All the ghosts are faced with the suffering of humanity and are unable to do anything about it. Sure hits different in 2020, doesn’t it?

Stave Two: The Examination of Conscience

with the Ghost of Christmas Past

Ebenezer Scrooge’s trip down memory lane with the Ghost of Christmas Past is a mix of nostalgia and bittersweet memories, heavy on the bitter. While Scrooge had fond memories of his school days, the memory of his neglectful father and a lack of friends within the boarding school instilled an unhealthy sense of self-preservation in him. However, seeing the memories of his past also prompted Scrooge to think about things he neglected to do in the present, like how he should’ve been kinder to the boy who was singing a carol out in the street or how he keeps his nephew, Fred, at arm’s length even though Fred is the only living memory of his beloved sister.

A similar incident happens when Scrooge is taken to his first job at Fezziwig’s. The Christmas party is lively with dancing and music and merriment. Pay attention to the exchange between the ghost and Scrooge in this memory:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”

“Small!” echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,

“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.

“Nothing particular,” said Scrooge.

“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.

“No,” said Scrooge, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now. That’s all.”

But while Scrooge is feeling pangs in his conscience, small instances of regret, he’s not completely ready to change because the wounds of his past still hurt, as evidence as he relives Belle breaking off their engagement.

Which brings us to our next ghost.

Stave Three: Inactions & Consequences

with the Ghost of Christmas Present

The version of this particular stave shown in A Muppet Christmas Carol is my particular favorite version because the Ghost of Christmas Present is a very heartwarming, joyful spirit. Michael Caine’s Scrooge actually forms a friendship with this ghost.

I also love that in this particular chapter, Scrooge sees how his miserly attitude and lack of compassion are regarded by others in his life, particularly Nephew Fred and the Cratchits.

Of course, there are some things that the Muppet version neglected to show. One particular segment was essentially a tract on Dickens’s part to advocate for a continuation of practices that helped the poor. Scrooge is shown how many people that he regarded as the “surplus population” still do their best to celebrate Christmas in spite of their poverty. My favorite rendition of this comes from this little known animated version:

Fun fact: GK Chesterton (Catholic writer and apologist) was a huge fan of Charles Dickens. In one edition of A Christmas Carol, he wrote an intro to the story that echoes the Ghost of Christmas Present’s call to action and asks the reader to examine themselves.

The answer to anyone who talks about the surplus population is to ask him whether he is the surplus population; or if he is not, how he knows he is not. 

GK Chesterton in his intro to the 1922 edition of A Christmas Carol

As joyful and merry as the Ghost of Christmas Present is, the serious tone he takes on towards the end of his journey with Scrooge is a very sobering moment, especially when Scrooge sees the embodiments of Ignorance and Want. (See the animated version above for a reference.) But Scrooge doesn’t have time to let things sink in because once the clock struck midnight, the next ghost appears.

Stave Four: Facing One’s Death & Legacy with the

Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

This description of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come often calls to mind how death is seen, usually as the Grim Reaper. This Ghost may not appear with a scythe and it’s not a walking skeleton (not even its outstretched hand is skeletal), but in my opinion, the Ghost is definitely an archetype of Death.

The reason why I see the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as representing Death is that when Scrooge explores the future, he sees how the people he’s familiar with (and even people he never really met but people that are affected by his actions) react to his death, namely that nobody really mourned him. Scrooge is in a major state of denial, but it’s because he’s afraid of facing his death. Most people don’t usually want to think about their death, let alone how people might react if and when that day comes.

When Scrooge finally does come face to face with his gravestone, everything finally hits him. The idea of dying alone and unloved and possibly facing an afterlife burdened by chains is all too much.

Michael Caine’s performance is the best version. His remorse feels the most authentic here. He realizes, now, coming face to face with his death, that he has to make the most of his life while he can. The future isn’t certain or guaranteed, but facing his inevitable death compels Scrooge to take action.

That’s essentially what Memento Mori is. Knowing one’s death and knowing that one will face judgment and end up in either Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell compels people to make the most of their lives while they can without going all YOLO.

Stave Five: Scrooge’s Conversion

It’s one thing to have an epiphany to change. It’s another to really take action and live out what one has learned.

When Scrooge returns from his magical mystery journey, he immediately starts making the most of his time by asking a boy on the street (possibly the same boy he turned away earlier) to go by the prize turkey in the poultry shop and return to his house, promising some serious coin for it. (A shilling would be the equivalent of 12 cents and half a crown is 30 cents, which was worth a lot back then.) Once the poultry man arrives, he tells the man to send the turkey to the Cratchits, but stresses him not to tell them who paid for the turkey.

After dressing up, Scrooge donates some money to a group of carolers and makes amends with the gentlemen who were at his office earlier, promising to donate an amount that astounds them with the promise of more donations in the future.

What really cements Scrooge’s conversion is when he makes amends with Fred and his wife. The next day, Scrooge tells Bob Cratchit that he intends to raise the latter’s salary and promises to help the Cratchits to the best of his ability.

But the way the book (and the Muppet version) finishes the story is my favorite part, evidence of Scrooge keeping what he has learned for as long as he lived:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world… and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

folklore and evermore: A Two for One Album Review

Show of hands: Who had “Taylor Swift releases two new albums” on their 2020 bingo card? Cuz I didn’t! I also apologize for not blogging about folklore even though this blog has reviewed her past albums. So before I get into a track by track review of evermore, here are my thoughts on folklore.

Folklore

I was listening to this album on loop throughout the summer. So many tracks made me happy. What I didn’t expect was how often the tracks also helped me during times of anxiety. Overall, this album is warm and comforting. I also highly recommend watching folklore: the long pond studio sessions on Disney Plus or listening to the versions that are on Spotify. There’s an air of intimacy, like you’re in your own personal Secret Session. Taylor said that folklore’s aesthetic is more spring or summer and I’m definitely getting the vibe.

  1. the 1: The album starts off strong with a sweet sounding track. I’m not sure if this track is based on Taylor’s personal experiences or not, but it’s definitely relatable. It’s dedicated to the one that got away and thankfully very fond and not vindictive. The long pond studio session version really plays up the nostalgia. I love the piano track! As far as aesthetic goes, I can imagine swimming around to this track. Fave lyric: “In my defense I have none for digging up the grave another time.”
  2. cardigan: A track that brings to mind late summer or cold summer nights, just as fall is coming in. This was her first and technically only single. I loved the music video for this song as it brought to mind the videos she made before reputation. It’s a lot more fantastical and captures so many fluctuating emotions. The long pond studio version is very similar to the original track, albeit a lot more intimate, recalling chamber music or a really good open mic night performance. Fave track: “When you are young they assume you know nothing.” (Really that whole bridge gets me!)
  3. the last great american dynasty: I feel like this song is a feminist anthem. Even though it tells the story of Rebecca Harkness and how Taylor Swift connected her own life to the previous owner of her house, the song reminded me of Supergirl and Buffy and other female superheroes who are regarded as mad or shameless and most definitely ruined everyone’s lives in the best way possible. I loved dancing around to this track. The long pond studio sessions version is an equally good bop! I keep thinking of Taylor’s 4th of July parties and imagine beach parties with this song in the background. Fave lyric: “I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
  4. exile: This was the track that everyone wished was the second single and for some reason was nominated for a Grammy even though there isn’t any music video for it. I love the story this song tells. Many people point out some similarities between this song and “If This Was a Movie” (from the Fearless deluxe edition) or “The Last Time” (Red album). Personally, I love the long pond studio sessions version and I found myself singing the backing vocals. I’ve definitely felt this song, recalling past relationships. I also love how casually Taylor talks about her and Joe working on this song together, like it’s only natural that he plays piano and writes lyrics. Fave lyric: “Didn’t even hear me out/Never turned things around/I gave so many signs.”
  5. my tears ricochet: Most people agree that this song metaphorically describes Taylor’s fallout with Big Machine Records and Scott Borchetta and I can’t help but agree. I also loved how Taylor explains the story in the long pong studio sessions special, how she sees it applying to how a superhero’s worst enemy was once their best friend. For me, this song reminds me of Kara and Lena’s tumultuous friendship (*sheds Supercorp tears*) or how Clark and Lex went from best friends to enemies on Smallville. The long pond studio version doesn’t have the high notes, but I still love the sadness in her voice. My favorite lyric: “We gather stones, never knowing what they’ll mean. Some to throw, some to make a diamond ring.”
  6. mirrorball: This is one of my top tier fave tracks. At first, I wasn’t sure how much I could really relate to it, but the song got stuck in my head a lot. I found myself listening to it while I went to the beach. I feel like this track is relatable because of how often I have to act in a certain way around people. It’s not easy to socialize and fake nice when you don’t really feel it. The long pond studio version reminds me of a live band playing at prom. Fave line: “Hush. I know they say the end is near. But I’m still on my tallest tiptoes spinning in my highest heels love, shining just for you.”
  7. seven: I love how this song evokes childhood nostalgia. It does sound like someone playing on the swings, especially from how Taylor sings. There’s an underlying sadness that implies a childhood friend dealing with a broken home, but the escapism is very relatable and innocent. The long pond studio version sounds very similar, but I seriously love how the piano comes across. Overall, this track is wonderful. Fave lyric: “Sweet tea in the summer. Cross my heart won’t tell no other.”
  8. august: Another top tier fave that I played on loop for how often that song got stuck in my head. Jack Antonoff, I love you so much for helping make tracks that end up becoming my faves (as I’ll mention later). Even though the song talks about a summer fling, the aspect of unrequited love, wanting someone who doesn’t really love you back, is very relatable. I love how this song sounds in the long pond studio sessions as well. Definitely a beachy track. Fave lyric: “I can see us lost in a memory. August slipped away into a moment in time.”
  9. this is me trying: This is my anxiety anthem. I found myself listening to this whenever I was processing my emotions (which happened a lot this year). Taylor’s story behind this song was one I related to and a lot of people wonder if this tied back to when she implied having an eating disorder in the Miss Americana documentary. This track really hits home for those struggling with addiction or the “genius” and “gifted and talented” kids who have a hard time adjusting to adulthood. The long pond studio session version really emphasis the exhaustion. Fave lyric: “I just wanted you to know that this is me trying. At least I’m trying.”
  10. illicit affairs: It surprised me how sad this song makes me feel. This song deconstructs the relationship an “other woman” can have and how toxic and addicting the relationship can be. I felt all sad because losing your identity in a relationship is an experience I know all to well. The long pond studio session version really evokes the “sad rain” aesthetic from the lyric video. Fave lyric: The whole bridge of this song.
  11. invisible string: Upon first listen, this song was my fave, but I didn’t listen to it as much as I did the other songs. I love how personal this song is to Taylor, like she’s drawing a map of how her life has been and how life seemed to be leading her to Joe even without her knowing. The long pond studio version invokes the summer feeling of flying a kite in a park, especially with the guitar. Fave lyric: “Time, wonderous time. Giving me blues and then purple-pink skies.”
  12. mad woman: Two words best describe this song–”tranquil fury.” This song is essentially how anger can be bottled up without exploding. More than a few of my Swiftie friends online related to this song and I can definitely relate to it, too. I really love the piano of this track, too, and it really comes out in the long pond studio sessions version! Fave lyrics: “Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy/What about that?/And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry”
  13. epiphany: This one was a track I didn’t listen to much, but I love the story behind it and I loved how it sounded in the long pond studio sessions. I love that Taylor and her family did research about her grandfather and connected that trauma to the unprecedented feelings all the front line workers feel in the pandemic. Fave lyrics: “You dream of some epiphany/Just a single glimpse of relief to make sense of what you’ve seen.”
  14. betty: Although august, mirrorball, and this is me trying are my top 3 faves, “betty” has a special place in my heart. It would probably be in my top 5 list for sure. For one thing, I missed “Country Taylor.” I love the harmonica and how it was performed at the ACM awards. (Note: I seriously missed the harmonica in the long pond studio session.) I love the story this song tells and how it reminds me of high school and all the stupid things teenagers do. Fave lyric: The chorus. It gets me every time and I seriously don’t know why.
  15. peace: Another anxiety anthem. I like that with this song, Taylor is making peace with the fact that her life is tumultuous but that the love she has with Joe is stable in the midst of it all. The long pond studio sessions version is such a wonderful rendition. I love the guitar and the constant synthesizer in this track. The lyric video is perfect, as the song does remind me of a soft, distant summer thunderstorm. Fave lyrics: The devil’s in the details, but you got a friend in me/Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?
  16. hoax: This song broke me. It’s not a track I listen to much because the original version is way too emotionally overwhelming for me. I usually only listen to this song when I’m majorly sad. The long pond studio session version is thankfully a lot less emotionally intense, but it’s still such a sad song and I did not want this to be the way that folklore ended. Thankfully…
  17. the lakes: If I were to make a top five fave song list, this would be on it. I loved this track so much and felt so thankful as soon as I heard it. This is the proper way to end this album, capturing the desire to escape. As someone who was obsessed with English lit and poetry, I knew exactly what Taylor was talking about. The long pond studio session version sounds especially intimate and beautiful. Fave lyric: “I want auroras and sad prose. I want to watch wisteria grow over my bare feet cuz I haven’t moved in years.”

Evermore

I know it’s been a few days, but I still can’t believe that Taylor kept making songs even after finishing folklore. I am not gonna entertain rumors that either Taylor has a third album waiting or that this could be her last “new music” album since she’s also re-recording everything she did pre-reputation. I just want to enjoy all the new songs.

Compared to folklore, this album has a lot more upbeat tracks, which I love. It’s overall a happier album than folklore, but it’s hard for me to decide which album I love more. They’re definitely sister albums.

  1. willow: Taylor picked the perfect track as the album opener and lead single. With instrumentals that call to mind “invisible string.” I love the music video, too, as I feel like it captured Taylor Swift’s musical journey, from romantic daydreams to childhood memories to her time “boxed in” as a country artist to her reputation era and returns to the cabin. Incidentally, kudos for making the romantic lead an Asian guy (specifically a Korean who does not look like a K-pop pretty boy). The “witchy” remix is a total bop, too, like mixing this track with “Ready for It” from the reputation album. Fave lyrics: “The more that you say, the less I know. Wherever you stray, I follow.”
  2. champagne problems: This track reminds everyone of the Red era, specifically “All Too Well” (probably because of the piano). It tells the story of a runaway bride and implies she might be mentally ill to some capacity. For me, I feel like this song connects to “Sad, Beautiful, Tragic.” In spite of how bittersweet the song is, I love the piano outro. It’s kinda funny, like Aaron Dessner is just showing off and improvising. Fave lyrics: The first chorus.
  3. gold rush: I loved this song as soon as the beat started playing. Once again, I have to thank Jack Antonoff for producing a track that bops! This song, personally, makes me of those celebrity crushes. One question tho: Is that Eagles tshirt for the football team or the band? I seriously need to know. Aside from that, I seriously love dancing around to this track. Fave lyrics: “What must it be like to grow up that beautiful…My mind turns your life into folklore.”
  4. tis the damn season: What if “august” had a winter holiday fling? You get this song! Some people think this also calls back to “illicit affairs,” except it recalls a happier time. It’s not something you’d typically sing as part of the holiday season, though I can see this being a track for a holiday movie that goes beyond the typical Hallmark movie format. The bridge of this song gets me right in the feels! Fave lyrics: “And the road not taken looks real good now and it always leads back to you and my hometown.”
  5. tolerate it: This is just my opinion, but the story of this song calls to mind a child who identifies as part of the LGBT spectrum and lives with a parent who only “tolerates” their sexuality and doesn’t fully support them emotionally. Other people think this is about Princess Diana and her tumultuous relationship with Prince Charles. There’s definitely a lot of different ways to interpret this song. Some of the lyrics really hit me in the feels, especially “Always taking up too much space or time/You assume I’m fine.” 
  6. no body, no crime: Anyone remember when Taylor Swift guest starred on an episode of CSI? This song reminds me of that time. She essentially wrote a murder ballad, or an episode of Riverdale. Some people, myself included, recall songs like “Before He Cheats” and “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia.” I seriously love the country backtrack, reminiscent of “Should’ve Said No.” There’s already a mashup that mixes this track with “I Did Something Bad.” The chorus was stuck in my head the whole weekend. In short, I am loving “dark country Taylor” and I want more!
  7. happiness: This track is very bittersweet and while a lot of my friends like it, I’m still stewing over how I feel about it. From what the lyric video is invoking, my best guess is that it’s sort of a sequel to “hoax.” I think for me, it calls to mind finding happiness in spite of how messed up this year has been. Fave lyrics: “There’ll be happiness after you, but there was happiness because of you. Both of these things can be true.”
  8. dorothea: The song evokes a lot of nostalgia. Some people think this song links back to “tis the damn season,” as if the latter track is in dorothea’s point of view. I can buy into that theory as being “probable” or plausible, but I’m not 100% certain. Also, for those who don’t know, Tupelo is in Mississippi. It’s where Elvis was born. I definitely like this song a lot. There’s definitely more to this story than the lyrics convey.
  9. coney island: A sad song that kinda reminds me of “Til Summer Comes Around.” I’m not 100% sure, but I think this song links back to “champagne problems” and “august.” The aesthetic, based on the lyric video, reminds me of late November, long after the amusement parks are closed. There are a lot of lyrics that recall previous albums, especially in the bridge. Fave lyrics: “We were like the mall before the internet. It was the one place to be.”
  10. ivy: I have to wonder what inspired this particular song. I’m personally getting “Irish lesbian affair” from the lyrics. The instrumentals recall “invisible string” with a lot of folksy feels, evoking the aesthetic of the end of the winter, when spring is around the corner. It’s a track that I like a lot. Fave lyric: “Your ivy grows and now I’m covered in you.”
  11. cowboy like me: Does this song link back to something from the past? Anyone else hearing the guitar chord progression from “Tim McGraw”? I seriously need a mashup of these two songs like now! It’s crazy how “Tim McGraw” can sound so innocent but this song is anything but. It calls to mind old west romances, telling a story of two con artists that end up falling in love with each other. (The only lyric that doesn’t feel old-time western is the whole airport bar thing.) Fave lyric: “You asked me to dance, but I said ‘Dancin is a dangerous game.'”
  12. long story short: As of now, this is my all time fave track. Even though Taylor covered the narrative of her falling from grace, rebounding in the worst way, and finding real love in the aftermath of it all before, I still love the beat of this song. I wanna dance around to it. I love how happy this feels. I love that she talks to her past self and reassures that everything will be okay. The entire chorus is my fave part, but my favorite lyrics are the ending, which sums up 2020 in a nutshell: “Long story short, it was a bad time/Long story short, I survived.”
  13. marjorie: I feel jealous that Taylor Swift knew so much about her grandparents. The lyric video feels like an actual music video, reminiscent of “The Best Day” with footage of her grandmother. It’s definitely sad knowing that Marjorie never got to see Taylor’s career take off, but she lived such an amazing, fascinating life. And yeah, Taylor looks just like her grandmother. Beauty seriously runs in the family. I also love that she included her grandmother’s vocals. Like, how did she do that?! Fave lyrics: “Never be so kind/You forget to be clever/Never be so clever/You forget to be kind” and “Never be so politе/You forget your power/Nevеr wield such power/You forget to be polite.”
  14. closure: This is the only track that I’m not sure I really like 100%. I get where Taylor is going with this one, but the drum machine and synthesizer really clashes with the piano and Taylor’s singing. It only works with the chorus. It almost sounds robotic.
  15. evermore: I was so worried that the album would end the same way folklore did. What starts out as a song that kinda reminds me of being depressed shifts gears fast when Bon Iver comes in. I feel like by the time the bridge comes in, it’s like recovering from the loss of hope, finding that sense of purpose again. This is a very wintery song. And I like that it’s the closing track for this album, at least for now. I really look forward to hearing the deluxe edition’s tracks. Fave lyrics: “When I was shipwrecked, I thought of you. In the cracks of light, I dreamed of you. It was real enough to get me through.”

Adult Life Ruins Romance!

Tips on Writing Romance Plots and Subplots from a Demisexual

It’s amazing how romantic views can change over time. When I was a teenager, I used to read chick lit and the occasional romance novel. In college and throughout my 20s, Hallmark Channel Original movies were a comforting tradition every holiday season.

But I’m 30 years old now. And a working adult. Recently, I found myself becoming very picky about what I like in romantic comedies, rom-coms, and adult romance stories. Aside from the fact that I work for a living and got introduced to a lot of stuff that comes with adulting, the biggest disclaimer I have is that I am demisexual. Demisexuality is a type of asexuality. The basic definition is that I only develop an intense attraction/desire through strong, emotional connections. I can literally count the number of guys I consider myself in love with on one hand. And they’re all fictional.

Don’t get me wrong. I do find some guys aesthetically pleasing, but the guys I’m attracted to usually have a personality behind them. I feel like I’m the only woman in the entire world who doesn’t feel any attraction to Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Instead, I swoon over Chris Evans, Tom Holland, Matt Ryan from Constantine…you get the idea.

I think my demisexuality combined with a life of actual adulting changed my views on romantic comedies and romance stories as a whole. So with all that out of the way, here are my 5 tips for writing romance stories and romantic subplots, whether you’re writing a romance novel, a contemporary romcom, or a screenplay for a romantic movie/romcom.

1. Make sure the premise and conflict makes sense, plausibly.

There’s only so much suspension of disbelief can allow for, even by guilty pleasure rom-com standards. One of my favorite “guilty pleasure” romcoms had a lot of over-the-top stuff that didn’t make sense, but the premise was grounded on fairy tale archetypes and tropes (true love breaking a spell). So in spite of how ridiculous some of the characters are and some bad editing, I enjoy watching it because the movie still feels like a modern fairy tale.

In contrast, there was this movie that I used to like where the main characters frequented a dog park, but the problem of the conflict was that apparently the dog park would be closing down to break ground for a day spa. One of the characters said that dog parks don’t pay rent, but I immediately thought “Aren’t parks government funded, even dog parks?”

Basically, make sure that the premise and the conflicts of your novel have some semblance of plausibility. This also applies to the interpersonal conflict in the next tip.

2. Hating a person and finding them hot are majorly unmixy things

I literally cannot comprehend how you can intensely hate a person and find them hotter than Hades. There has to be something endearing about the love interest for both the reader and the love interest.

This is coming from the lady who swoons over Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but toxic issues regarding Season 6 aside, I mostly loved Spike from the start. If there’s something I loved about Spike as a whole, it’s that he owns up to what he is and what he does for better or for worse. He’s reckless and impulsive, but there isn’t any pretense to him. He’s a romantic and he’s a bad boy and while he hates his past as William the Bloody Awful Poet, his romantic tendencies still show. He clearly cares for Drusilla and in later seasons, we see him caring for Dawn and for Buffy as much as he is capable of doing without a soul.

What I can’t comprehend is when there’s a standard romance or rom-com and the two protagonists simultaneously hate each other while also wanting to jump each other’s bones. There has to be some kind of common ground here. If you’re gonna do enemies to lovers or some variation on hate-to-love, they need to respect each other about something. I recently read this short romance novella between a writer and a book critic and while it’s hard for me to buy the premise of a critic who’s so scathing over the romance novel genre, I could get behind the idea of the writer using that criticism to fuel her into doing better in her writing.

If the enemies have this sense of challenging each other, if they start out as something along the lines of rivals or frenemies, the hate-to-love becomes a lot more believable because they have something in common aside from being physically attractive.

3. Pretense can only go so far.

This isn’t a criticism against fake dating. When done well, fake dating can make for amazing stories. I literally reviewed a book centered on the premise of fake dating, for crying out loud. What I liked about that book in particular was the two of them finding the truth within the lie of their relationship.

What I mean by pretense is more along the lines of either party in a romantic plot or subplot pretending to be someone they’re not for a long term relationship. I get the initial first date awkwardness, trying to seem cool. But there’s only so long a person can go faking emotions. Unless you’re writing a romance story that involves a genuine sociopath, at some point, the mask is gonna come off, metaphorically.

I am a firm believer in authenticity when it comes to a lot of different things in life. As I have mentioned before, I loved Spike because he owned up to who he was and he was never pretentious about how he felt about anything. I think I developed a bias against men who do nothing but brood and feel guilty all the time because 1) I’m Catholic and I do enough self-guilting already and 2) guys who brood all the time don’t really change and I don’t feel like they’re owning up to whatever conflicting emotions they have.

Pride and Prejudice, one of my favorite novels, has this reputation of being the archetypical hate-to-love story, but in reality, Elizabeth doesn’t really fall for Darcy until she actually sees him for who he really is, where he is most comfortable. And Darcy isn’t worthy of Elizabeth’s love until he comes to terms with his flaws and makes an effort to be a better person, even if it means not having Elizabeth in his life. She doesn’t magically fix him. He changes because of her influence in his life. There’s a huge difference!

Long story short, your characters have to acknowledge the hurt in their hearts, acknowledge their issues, then figure out how to work on healing those wounds. Which leads me to my next tip.

4. Love develops through emotional connection and shared experiences

I love slow burn romances. I love friends-to-lovers. Instalove is a hard sell for me because real love based on big gestures and intense attraction doesn’t really last long in the real world.

There’s a fine line between “shared experiences” and “trauma bonding,” so I advise against putting characters through something that would emotionally scar them for life unless you’re writing dystopia/sci-fi/fantasy, but even then, I advise to proceed with caution and not build the foundation of the romance on something that keeps them in the negative. The kinds of shared experiences I like is when the two people are working together on a project or share in holiday traditions or they go places together.

There also needs to be genuine emotional connection and understanding between the parties involved. By that, I mean that your characters need to be open and vulnerable and genuinely loving to each other at some point. While I realize that it takes time to get to that point, I have seen or heard of way too many “romance” stories where the characters don’t really communicate with each other and spend more time making out and fighting and playing manipulative mind games. (Points to the entire After series.)

Which leads me to the next tip.

5. Manipulation, Mind Games, and Stalking Aren’t Love

While there’s an initial emotional rush towards relationships that are, to quote Taylor Swift “screaming and crying and kissing in the rain,” relationships where people try to manipulate each other and play mind games or do something to trigger some kind of emotional reaction from their partner have major consequences that usually end up with people going to therapy.

There’s no genuine emotional connection when people are playing power games. Love isn’t about dominating or possessing some other person. Why do authors in the YA genre and writers of Netflix romance dramas find that concept so hard to believe?!

Long story short: Writers, stop writing stalking and romances that are founded on emotional abuse. Watch these videos.

In Conclusion

When you’re writing a romance, a rom com, or a romantic subplot, the key theme that ties all my tips together is authenticity. The premise of your story needs to feel real, even when you’re writing outside of the contemporary genre. The people in the story have to own up to who they are and overcome their pretenses.

Authentic love isn’t grounded in manipulation, mind games, or stalking. Real love is about the parties involved being genuinely happy with each other, even if they live in a dystopia. If the parties involved in a relationship of any kind can understand each other and talk their issues out, the relationship becomes all the more endearing because of the vulnerability.

I hope y’all liked these tips. And don’t let me stop you from enjoying your holiday romcoms!

Rent a Boyfriend: Interview with Gloria Chao

This post is an extension of my 15 thoughts on Gloria Chao’s new book Rent A Boyfriend which has been officially released today! If you’re a fan of fake dating, Asian-centric romantic comedies, and young adults in college surviving their sitcom-worthy embarrassing parents, give it a read!

I had the opportunity to ask Gloria Chao some questions about this book. Check out what she has to say!

1.  What inspired you to write this particular book?

RENT A BOYFRIEND is inspired by a real practice that happens in some Asian countries where women sometimes feel so pressured to bring home an acceptable significant other that they turn to hiring a fake boyfriend from the classifieds or a company. I understand this kind of pressure and wanted to write a book that fictionalized this practice and brought it to America. I drew a lot from my own experiences feeling pressured to walk a certain path in life and being set up by my mother.

2.  How familiar are you with the Palo Alto setting? Why did you choose that city as the main setting for the story?

I chose Palo Alto because I wanted a location with a large Asian American population to justify the existence of the boyfriend rental company, Rent for Your ’Rents, which caters to an Asian American clientele. I’m familiar with Palo Alto, so that felt like a natural choice, but of course the fictional community in the book is inspired by many different Asian American communities around the country with which I’ve had lots of personal experience. 

3.  Which character(s) do you relate to the most?

I relate to both Chloe and Drew in different ways. Chloe’s anxiety and her desire to please her parents while somehow walking the path of her choosing are taken from my experience. Drew’s voice, however, is closer to my own. And his backstory of his parents cutting him off for pursuing art is informed by my career switch from dentist to writer. 

4.  You’ve used Chicago as a partial setting for Our Wayward Fate and this novel. Have you ever considered setting an entire story in Chicago?

What a perfect question! I’m currently working on a story that is completely set in my hometown of Chicago! I hope I can share more about this project in the future! I love Chicago so much, and I hope that comes across when I write about it!

5.  What would you say to young adults who are struggling to have a healthy relationship with their parents? (Especially Asian-American young adults)

You are not alone. And it is definitely not easy. There aren’t really any right or wrong answers, only gray and more gray. I’m realizing that the only thing I can control is what I do and how I communicate, which is both fortunate and unfortunate. Hang in there!

6.  A lot of adults are still reading YA. What would you say to Asian-American adults who are reading this book while raising the next generation?

I don’t have kids so I don’t have any advice from experience, but I guess the least we can hope to do is not repeat the mistakes of the previous generation.

7.  Do you think there could be a possible sequel to this particular book? 

I am open to anything! But I personally think I would write a spin-off before I wrote a sequel. There are plenty of other possible Rent for Your ‘Rents stories to explore!

8.  How do you think Chloe and Drew would handle living in our current complicated year? What would they do in quarantine?

Like a lot of us, I think they would be taking it one day at a time. In quarantine, I think there would be plenty of couch-snuggling, watching feel-good movies, and playing board games like Takenoko, Splendor, or Ticket to Ride!