Issue #187: Evil's moving target

This week, the semester rages on, current events demand our attention and indignity, and the holiday weekend has afforded me little respite. Using some of the screenshotting and clipping techniques I’ve developed for my class lectures, I supplemented this week’s brief writeup about Evil (2019) with some video footage. I use Filmora X to do the clipping. It’s a pretty convenient program, even if it cost me some dough.

There’s also the buried lede of Tarantino’s new Once Upon a Time in Hollywood novel, which I reference below. Dwight Garner writes for the NYT, “If it were written better, it’d be written worse. It’s a mass-market paperback that reeks of mass-market paperbacks.” I tend to agree. It’s a funny experiment in Tarantino pretending to be Cliff Booth and doing film criticism in his voice.

The End of Organized Play in Magic: the Gathering

What do you do when the balance sheets say it's time to shutter what you love? It's been a long and uncertain journey for pro Magic: the Gathering players. I say this having watched most of the journey from the sidelines, my brief foray into professional Magic having been a relatively successful couple of years in high school. But in the wake of Wizards of the Coast elimination of the Magic Pro League (a failed experiment that replaced the flawed-but-now-looking-great Pro/Planeswalker Points system that existed before it) with no meaningful announcement regarding what the highest levels of Magic play will look like, it seems that something, at least, is coming to an end.

For (former) Magic pros, the repeated line from WOTC has been that high level Magic will not be designed to support someone's livelihood.

One might argue, in defense of the very idea of change, that Magic players derived too much benefit from their pro status. Platinum Pros were paid appearance fees and sometimes had their travel covered by WOTC. The Magic Pro League consolidated those benefits, offering lucrative streaming and tournament-participation contracts to a smaller number of top players. They were salaried, with the expectation that playing Magic was their full time job and that simply streaming their tournament preparation and practice would be enough to create personalities and narratives WOTC could hang their hat on when tournament time came around.

None of this came to pass. And if you run the numbers, it makes sense. It's a huge expenditure of funds to have an aspirational echelon of top players who sell, not Magic product, but Magic the lifestyle. These guys (emphatically, guys, the MPL and subsequently created 'Rivals League' only had five competitors who were not men) were the Magic playing ideal. They were motivators to go out to your local game store, buy some packs, be involved in the game in some way. But many competitive gamers survive on the razor thin margins of tournament wins and streaming revenue. Team memberships and sponsorships often subsidize this uncertainty, but plenty of highly competitive games, such as Super Smash Bros. Melee, are entirely community funded. Nintendo is not subsidizing the tournaments for a twenty year old game.

Likewise, as more and more players get involved in non-competitive formats like the 100-card singleton gameplay of Commander, it makes less and less financial sense to support professionals who aren't even interested in the format. The future of Magic is Jimmy Wong, not Luis Scott-Vargas, at least according to Wizards' logic. In the meetings and discussions we're not privy to, it seems like the financials bear this out. Commander players buy Wizards' overpriced 'Collector's Boosters' and direct-to-consumer Secret Layer product. In other words, Magic's highest margin products are sold almost exclusively to Commander players. On the face of things, it does make sense to put the greatest investment to fostering the players who will produce the greatest profits for your company.

Still. That doesn't make this change any easier for the many who aspired to play Magic at the highest level, those who actually did it, and those who just liked watching it. Among Magic gaming communities, the attitude toward pro players is exceptionally divided. It would be hard to find a playgroup or region without one apocryphal story of bad pro behavior. For some segment of the player base, Magic pro is synonymous with self-absorbed asshole. That means there are some who are happy with the changes so far, despite the uncertainty, and will be happiest when there is no meaningful professional play in Magic. But even those who are more agnostic toward the ideas of pros and professional play ask in aggressive terms why so many are so invested in it. "Why do you care about something you'll probably never do?" they ask. Can you imagine the absurdity of asking such a question to fans of the NBA, NFL, or Premiere League? The constant frustration for enthusiastic spectators of pro play is how often we are asked to make an apology for it — even by 'fellow' Magic players. Enough is enough. So what if it’s far from the profit-generating machine of other professional sports or even 'esports'? It’s Wizards' prerogative whether to support it or not, but that doesn't change the fact that the loss of support is a loss.

Hell, I may be too much of an enthusiastic spectator, and too much of a 'spike' who tries to model my play after the best of the best, but I maintain this is a mistake. They've run the numbers and done the market research. There's nothing that can be disputed about the obvious fact that supporting pro play is expensive and that the yields are difficult to discern, especially as the priorities of the player base that spends the most money diverge far from the pros and pro-aspiring. But I think it matters whether or not a game in which people compete has some mechanism to determine who is the best player with some degree of legitimacy. And I think without that, the withering effect on the community will be felt — and perhaps even somewhere on WOTC's balance sheets.

Nothing is certain, so perhaps the payouts Wizards will offer will be enough to sustain a different kind of pro dream. Sure, no salaries and no appearance fees. There's something to be said for doing away with those things. If the money is there, we will always have people who dedicate their lives to be the best and believe that their skill can ultimately pay their bills. But as dedicated Magic players have to shift their attention away from actually playing and pursue other revenue streams, the loss becomes even more palpable. And fans of pro play shouldn't have to explain it. There's something to be said for spectating, too, even if it may not be to everyone's taste. In many ways, it is Wizards who have repeatedly failed to find a way to make Magic compelling to watch. It's a challenge, but it's not insurmountable. After all, there are streamers who make a living playing it. Regardless, they'll certainly be continuing to thread that needle as long as tournaments are still being streamed. And if the number of broadcast Magic events ever drops to zero... well, then pro play will really be dead.

Supernatural Ambiguity in Evil

The profound bizarreness of Robert and Michelle King's Evil (2019) cannot be overstated. The Kings' move from the realpolitik inflected soap opera of The Good _____ (Wife in 2009, running until 2016, and Fight starting in 2017 and still running today) to supernatural mystery is unexpected to say the least, and the overwrought melodrama of their previous work would have made it impossible to predict the prestige-aspiring Evil, although the general incompetence of the duo is evident wherever one might choose to look. Trading on the good press of Mindhunter at the time, the early promos ran like a Fincher redux. Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) sits across from Orson LeRoux (Darren Pettie), a serial killer who claims to be possessed by the devil. In her eventual role as an assessor for the Catholic Church, along with protagonists David Acosta (Mike Colter) and Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), what Bouchard uncovers is a conspiracy involving some thin analogues for 4chan and r/thedonald that motivated LeRoux to kill — all motivated by another forensic psychologist, Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson). Evil's penchant for bringing in 'ripped from the headlines' explanations for occult phenomenon is the only holdover from The Good Wife and The Good Fight.

But, with those explanations, the Kings seem intent on leaving their characters in the dark regarding the source of what they investigate even as they suggest to the audience a supernatural explanation. More often than not, Kristen, David, and Ben end up endorsing the secular explanation. This structure of horror, introducing ambiguity about whether something is supernatural or not, is generally more interesting and unsettling for viewers. Take, for instance, Quentin Tarantino's description of Rosemary's Baby (1968) in his recent novel-adaptation, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2021):

Nothing, until the film's final moment, confirms Rosemary's sinister suspicions. Polanski never gives the audience a glimpse of anything that can be labeled supernatural. All of Rosemary's "evidence" of the sinister conspiracy she feels is taking place against her is anecdotal and circumstantial. Since we care for Rosemary and we're watching a horror movie, most audiences take her investigative gaze at face value.

But instead of the elderly couple down the hall being the leaders of a coven of sinister Satanists, and instead of her husband selling his soul and the soul of his unborn child to the devil, maybe it would be equally likely, and frankly more probable, that Rosemary is suffering from acute paranoia brought on by postpartum depression?

Now, true, at the climax it is revealed that, yes indeed, the Castevets and their friends have perpetrated a conspiracy against Rosemary. But the actual existence of Satan himself is still ambiguous. Who's to say the Castevets and company aren't just a bunch of fucking lunatics? If at the end they all yelled, Hail, Pan! as opposed to Hail, Satan! would you question the validity of their belief? (58-59)

If the block quotation seems a little long, you'll have to forgive me. After all, say what you will about Polanski, or Tarantino, but this description of the ambiguity in Rosemary's Baby that extends even to shows like Evil is crucially important. For the Kings, the dynamic is reversed. Rosemary was suspicious, but if there is a supernatural underbelly to society in Evil, Kristen and Ben are profoundly ignorant of it (David, a priest-in-training, is the sole believer in the trio).

Take, for instant, the recent season two episode "S is for Silence." In it, Kristen, Ben, and David visit a silent monastery that supposedly houses an ancient demon. If even one word is spoken within its walls, according to the monks, the demon will be unleashed. Hence the silence.

The episode repeatedly emphasizes the monks' retrograde views and sexism, so of course it is Kristen who breaks the silence with a "boo." In the proceeding scene, it's unclear what has been unleashed. Is it a demon that has been imprisoned for 130 years, or something else?

By the episode's conclusion, Ben has come up with another explanation for what is plaguing the monastery residents. Not the signifier, but the botfly.

If this kind of ambiguity is a strength on the episode-to-episode level, it begins to lose its luster as one zooms out and examines the treadmill that Evil's overarching narrative has become. There is very little progress and development of the plot, and the changes in the characters seem mostly tuned to be explained by further plot developments rather than the result of character development we actually see on screen. Evil resembles the dime-priced pulp novels from which it also draws some inspiration in this way. The Kings, soap opera directors through and through, don't have even the slightest vision for how the story might coalesce. They don't even understand how to create an arc across a couple of episodes or throughout a season. The approach they take to Evil, while instructive in thinking about how to present horror and supernatural plot elements, is an example of too much of a good thing.

One of the show's most persistent flaws is the inability to answer questions while introducing new ones. While the first season did end with a particularly emphatic conclusion — one aspect of which seems to have been resolved in the middle of the second season — there's little reason to follow many of the show's many threads from one episode to the next. If there's anything to be said for this approach, it's that our confusion as viewers mirrors all of the supernatural activity the show's protagonists seem to miss. But this is hardly a refined social commentary or interesting aesthetic experience. For the moment, Evil coasts precariously on the strength of its cast and its high production values. Much like the uncertainty about whether the cause of each weekly caper is supernatural or not, audiences can look back on a season and contemplate Schrodinger's plot.

Weekly Reading List — Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi writes on the status of America today, it’s ‘civilizing mission,’ and what may come. — Elly Vintiadis offers an overview of the history of women in philosophy and how the discipline as a whole has been structured by various forms of misogyny.

Wisecrack, a youtube channel I like in spite of myself, has put together an installment of their long running flagship series addressing the entirety of the Neon Genesis Evangelion series, similar to the approach I took a couple weeks ago. What initially seems like a schematic reading of the series contra Kierkegaard gives way to something a little more interesting.

Until next time.