Blue cheese was my favorite dressing when I was growing up, until I found out the “blue” was mold. There were streaks of decay in my favorite food! It was almost enough to make me stop eating it. But it was so good I couldn’t resist, and eventually I realized that I didn’t like blue cheese despite the mold, but because of it. The characteristic blue cheese tang came from the mold. The decay threaded throughout the cheese was part of the perfection.
My course of study in college gave the Roman Empire a lot of attention. In the (oh gods) twenty years since then, I’ve forgotten most of it. But one of the details that sticks with me to this day is that the brief period of time considered to be the peak of that great, long-lived civilization was already marked by the characteristics that would lead to its decline.
I was reminded of all this when I watched episode 5 “Iron Ceiling,” of the awesome, wonderful, amazing, delightful new TV show Agent Carter. I could write a blog post on each of the elements of that show that make it my favorite since Firefly, but for now I’ll try to stick to the point. In that episode, Carter finally gets to show her most misogynist coworker what she’s made of, and starts to get a little of the respect in peacetime that she earned during the war. After four episodes of English stoicism, the actress Hayley Atwell is fabulous at subtly displaying her excitement to be back in the field and her joy at being treated like an equal without breaking character.
The only thing more memorable than the way her face lit up at being invited out for drinks with the guys was the look on Agent Sousa’s face as she left. He’s not huge yet, but Enver Gjokaj might be the best actor alive today. I don’t know if Joss Whedon-loyalty would have gotten me through the underwhelming Dollhouse, but I watched every episode just to see what Gjokaj would do with his various roles.
The look on his face at the end of that episode haunted me for days. We know that Sousa is secretly in love in Carter, but in this episode he becomes convinced that she is a double agent (which she sort of is). He hasn’t outed her yet, but we know he won’t nurse his heartbreak for long before he does the right thing and unmasks the spy. Carter’s story has just peaked, but the triumph is already contaminated with her downfall. (Or her next challenge if they get a second season please please please).
That is how stories work. Humans yearn for unaldulterated triumphs. We want the camera to freeze and the credits to roll while the hero is still being triumphantly carried on shoulders away from the scene of action. But storytelling always has an “and then.” Even if the credits roll, even if the page closes with THE END all in caps, the viewer/reader knows that stories never end. Inigo’s wound opens, Humperdinck gets untied and comes after them, Buttercup’s horse throws a shoe. Well-written stories are marbled with the tang of what comes next.
PS: I know I use more movie and TV examples even though I’m supposed to be a book person. I think it’s because they are more streamlined, and because the odds are much better than people will get the references. Because really, who besides me has read Jonica’s Island?
(Actually, I have a story about that. I met a girl named Jonica in a youth hostel once…)