The Queen’s Gambit has been one of Netflix’s most successful recent shows. The plot is taken from a novel by Walter Tevis, based on the story of Bobby Fischer, the US chess champion who defeated the Soviets at their own game. The Fischer character is made into a young girl who is inspired to learn chess while growing up in an orphanage. Chess is a predominantly male sport. Currently, the highest ranking woman in the chess world is 64th. Thus her quick rise to become world grandmaster is all the more miraculous.
While the show is beautifully made. I particularly enjoyed the colours, featuring orange-green combinations in modernist 1960s interiors. The way chess is turned into a dramatic arena is particularly impressive. But in the end, I agree with Lucy Mangan’s Guardian review that the “virtually frictionless” plot gives it the feeling of a fairytale rather than gripping drama. But the drama ends up the plot loses touch with reality, particularly at the end.
So what is the narrative explanation for Beth Harmon’s magical success? Descending the orphanage basement, she discovers the janitor playing chess alone. Beth is already shown to be mathematically gifted in class, which is something she had inherited from her mother. The orphans are managed with daily doses of tranquilisers, which she saves for bedtime. That night, a chessboard appears on her ceiling with moving pieces. This becomes the space for honing her skills. It appears at the dramatic climax at the end as the source of her magical power.
Narratives often have a fantasy space within them that is disconnected from the real world. but harbours secrets and messages that can be useful in meeting the challenges of the plot. What happens in these dream spaces can explain the reversals that enable a hero to recover from difficulty and achieve victory.
I’m interested in how this kind of space helps us to watch Netflix. The dominant rationale for Netflix watching is the “binge”. Like Uber Eats, it’s a remissive product that tries to absolve viewers of any qualms about their actions.
It’s possible to see the ceiling chessboard as Beth’s Netflix, which she watches at night in her drug-induced torpor. But rather than being a space of oblivion, this experience proves to give her powers that she can use in the contests of the real world. Our suspension of disbelief about the magical rise is aided by the social justice value of a young woman ascending a traditionally male domain.
But in the end, the purpose of Netflix is to make you watch Netflix, just as our dreams at night distract us from the idea of waking up. This ceiling chessboard is like those dreams within a dream, which seem to give the framing dream a feel of reality.
Yes, I watched it. It was my guilty lockdown secret indulgence. But I have no illusion it was anything other than an apparition.
I’d resisted watching the Crown out of republican resentment at the hold the British monarchy has over the Australian nation. Deference to royalty seems the major impediment to Australia taking greater control of its destiny, finding its unique place in the world and a contribution to make to humanity.
But lockdown left me scrambling for quality viewing and I’d admired Olivia Coleman’s acting in Broadchurch. Indeed, the first episodes of series three were rivetting. Coleman’s transformation from a self-deprecating dowdy lower-middle-class mum to a ruler of her nation was alchemical. She brought warm comic humour to the role that humanised the queen without taking away her dignitas.
Indeed, the life of the Windsors reminded me of the family in Years and Years. With all their dysfunction, they still manage to stay together in common witness to a world that is changing all recognisable shape. The viewing family remains the one constant, echoing the implied audience, watching themselves.
The most compelling scenes for me were the cups of tea shared between the Queen and the Prime Ministers. These were awkward encounters involving stiff formalities—with the Queen’s finger hovering over the button that would summon the butler for a swift termination.
The encounter between Elizabeth Windsor and Harold Wilson was brim with comic overtones. An overt anti-elitist, Wilson had to retain his integrity while kowtowing to the monarch. The confidentiality of these conversations makes them particularly delectable for viewers.
In one scene, the Queen confesses to the PM that she felt nothing when visiting a Welsh village that had suffered a terrible mining disaster. He reciprocates by confessing that his working-class style is all affectation: he prefers cigars to a pipe.
The hundreds of cups of tea shared with fourteen Prime Ministers, from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson, may well be filled with these moments of humanity, shared between leaders. But it also implies a space where truths could be spoken, rather than crafted for political value.
I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of “chronotope” developed by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin analysed the particular spaces in literature where plots and characters would be allowed to develop. Certain conversations would occur in these spaces, like the Schwellendialog “dialogue on the threshold” such as at the gates of heaven.
In Australia, we have a similar kind of imaginary space: the pub. “But will it pass the pub test?” is an enduring idiom of Australian politics. Democracy seems to depend as much on these spaces as the formal scene of parliament, perhaps even more.
But the “pub test” in Australia implies a beer-drinking Australian adult male who is sceptical of policy and concerned only with his own interests. Part of a future challenge for an imagined Australian republic is to create a new “chronotype” where were can have the kind of conversation that speaks truth.
Where would that be? Around the campfire, or the smouldering bushfire? Waiting to catch a wave at the beach, or the waiting room of a virus testing tent?
Australia has been increasingly captive to the kind of “retail politics” which sacrifices policy to short-term electoral gain. There’s been little sense of the life of political leaders beyond their calculations. What if Australian Prime Ministers had a regular confessional meeting with a monarch like their British forebears? I’m beginning to wonder if Australia’s own monarch might be a better alternative to an elected president.
Every election in Australia, the figure of Anthony Green appears as a friendly reliable face on the ABC to help us navigate political changes. He is like a classic transitional object which always remains the same, despite the trauma of uncertainty.
Our world is now facing changes far greater than we experience on election night. Thankfully, the ABC has provided another familiar face in Dr Norman Swan, the host of Radio National’s Health Report. As we as answering some of the 1,000s of questions that come through to his Coronacast podcast, he also reflects on the very platform that enables people like him to exist.
The founder of Juice Media was interviewing Norman Swan about the coronavirus when the conversation turned to what this crisis tells us about the importance of trustworthy information. Norman Swan then states that there is nothing special about his own intelligence, what matters is that there was an institution like the ABC who could develop his expertise over the decades: ‘There would be no “me”, if not for the ABC.’
Swan contrasts what would happen if he was working with a commercial network: “If I worked on commercial television they’d have me selling cholesterol-lowering margarine because that’s how they make their money.”
In her Sydney lectures, US sociologist Bonnie Honig spoke about the importance of “public things” in our democracies. These were those shared objects that often have little immediate purpose but offer a taken-for-granted guarantee of connectedness, such as a public park, telephone booths and figures like Big Bird in US public broadcasting. These public things are often threatened by the forces of neoliberalism that would reduce common goods to private interests.
The Australian Broadcasting Association is one of those “public things” that has underpinned Australian democracy. Since its inception in 1929, the ABC has acquired the familiar name of “Aunty”. Like a big family, my generation came together every Sunday evening to watch Molly Meldrum on Countdown help us navigate the wild ride of social change in the late twentieth century.
While the Coronavirus threatens to wreak havoc on our health and economies, it is also the time to reconsider what is valuable to us. Without the lure of holiday cruises and public spectacles, we may be reminded of the support of family, friends and neighbours the underpins our well-being.
At the same time, we may appreciate the figures from the broadcast era that provide a reliable picture of the world. Those columnists and trolls that played with our emotions in social media may now seem like strangers seeking to take advantage of our desires. We seek refuge instead at home with aunty and the uncle Anthony and Norman we’ve learned to rely on over time.
After the first vague news of a terrorist incident, there’s a scramble for answers. “How many people were killed?” is closely followed by “Which side were they on”? Were they Muslim terrorists or Alt-Right fanatics? I must admit to hoping for the latter: the danger of anti-Muslim backlash seems far greater than any anti-white demonstrations.
This anxious wait for an answer is shares the same hook that compels us to watch a streaming mystery series until the end. The “reveal” is the core to our narrative desire. It prompts a yearning for closure that transforms an experience into an event. As Frank Kermode eloquently states in Sense of an Ending, we seek “to make our own human clocks tick in a clockless world.”
In order to keep us watching these series, the mystery must be carefully hidden behind a screen of red herrings. But given the black and white alternatives of terrorism, how does a scriptwriter decide which side of the ledger becomes the truth?
This is particularly problematic in the Bodyguard series. Jed Mecurio’s previous series Line of Duty masterfully revealed the sinister side of police power. The follow-up in 2018 had the highest rating of any show since Doctor Who Christmas Day episode in 2008. Bodyguard’s success has been attributed to its more traditional distribution in weekly episodes rather than a single binge-able batch. Lucy Mangan evokes its Brexit zeitgeist in the Guardian:
The whole thing has been a retro-rush. Weekly, unbingeable episodes parcelled out like old times. Cliffhangers you talked about the next day on Twitter, the gig economy’s water-cooler. An ancient story – soldier fails in noble duty, runs towards danger and atonement, sword aloft – in modern dress captured our imaginations once again.
With a nation gripped by suspense, much hangs on the great reveal at the end.
The hero David Budd is a returned soldier suffering PTSD after his time in Afghanistan. Budd embodies a steely heroism that emerges outside the system. You can find all the plot twists in the Wikipedia page, in search of the perpetrator of violent acts, including the death of a politician that Budd had been guarding.
The culprit is revealed as Nadia Ali, the wife of a bomb-maker who had opened the series as a seemingly innocent woman too scared to set off her suicide vest. Our natural inclination to look beyond the stereotyped villain of the Muslim terrorist added extra narrative value to this eventual conclusion.
Yes, we might think that Muslims have been unfairly stereotyped, but what if they are actually are terrorists? As Nadia says during her confession, “How easy it was. You are all so easy so desperate to want to believe.”
The show attracted much criticism for this turn.
To take a nation on this journey is quite a powerful act. While it is difficult to know with certainty, the conclusion certainly does not counter the suspicion of many towards Muslims.
If the tale was issued as a public statement, it would be open to question. But because the Bodyguard is fiction, it is only accountable to our narrative curiosity, and so justified by the high ratings.
This poses an ethical dilemma for the series genre. Previously, series like X-Files would have self-contained episodes. Now that stories are drawn out over many episodes, we have to defer the answer for much longer. Our suspicions move from character to character, as writers pull various narrative strings.
Is narrative desire more important than the moral verdict? Should scriptwriters be accountable for their plot twists? The anxiety about SPOILER ALERT makes it hard to discuss these decisions openly.
The danger is that we are being seduced by narrative worlds that offer an escape from the real one. As with fake news, we are more interested in the frisson of story than how its unfolding might impact the world outside.
One alternative is to administer the Riz Test, developed from a speech by Riz Ahmed’s 2017 to the House of Commons. According to this text, any of the following would signal Islamaphobia:
Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
Presented as irrationally angry?
Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
This seems laudable. But if we did demand narrative accountability, this would likely make plots more predictable. “It couldn’t be the Muslim because they would then fail the test.”
Thankfully, a second series is planned for Bodyguard. There is the possibility that Nadia’s confession might turn out to be itself a lie. Perhaps that is the virtue of this contemporary Scheherazade to which we are all captive: to forestall moral certainty.
First off, this is not a comprehensive perspective on Iran today. It’s is based on relatively fleeting visits when I get to see the best of the country, evaluating its World Craft Cities. I can’t deny any of the negative news that comes out of Iran, but I can testify to some positive developments that have not been as widely disseminated. It’s all too easy in the West to cast off an Eastern country as primitive and dysfunctional. We inherit a colonial mindset that has worked over centuries to justify the appropriation of land and resources from the rest of the world.
Since the reports on the imprisonment of Australian visitors, my mother had asked me not to travel to Iran. The DFAT travel advisory said, “Reconsider your need to travel”. Indeed, in an age of climate change, I’m always reconsidering whether a plane trip justifies the carbon. But having travelled through Iran a number of times and being so infected with kindness and pride, I felt deep solidarity with their situation. Just as Iranian politics was beginning to relax, the US broke its deal and imposed new financial sanctions. We can toss this aside as Trump whim, but nevertheless, the world follows this lead and further isolates the country. Only negative news gets out.
Why should our relations with a nation be determined by the narrow self-interest of a leader from another country? We should at least keep our eyes open to what is happening there, rather than blindly follow their lead.
Instagram comes to Iran
My previous visits to Iran introduced me to the messaging app Telegram, which at that time was openly accessible. I found it more flexible than others and wished it was more widely used in the West. Since then it has been blocked and most Iranians tend to use WhatsApp. Meanwhile, Instagram has become widely popular. It’s not just about selfies. Most businesses advertise their Instagram handle and people are keen to swap account details on meeting me. This has great promise for connections outside Iran, which Garland is hoping to foster with East West Meet, where individual inside Iran paired with those outside whose accounts they can follow.
Where did Donald Trump go?
I might have missed some in my travels, but the caricatures of Donald Trump that lined the streets a couple of years ago seem to have disappeared. Maybe there is no longer hope of any political change on the global scale. Or maybe people were simply tired of a predictable message. Whatever, live goes on.
The rise of culture
Like many non-Western countries, Iran is championing its unique cultural heritage. This seems to have intensified since my previous visit. I was very impressed with the work of the Iran Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organisation, that had revitalised many crafts through their National Craft City program. This work has been rewarded by now giving cultural heritage its own ministry, a stark contrast to Australia which has recently removed the word “arts” from its departmental titles.
I was lucky to be in Iran during Yalda, which is the celebration of the winter solstice, where people spend all night reading poetry from Hafez and consuming all things red, such as pomegranates. It’s an ancient festival that has roots in the Zoroastrian culture. I was reminded of the Jewish festivals that have evolved to successfully bind a culture over millennia, particularly in hardship.
The next day, I suddenly noted the complete absence of Western shops from the streets. There were certainly no fast-food chains or designer brands. The little discretionary income they have is not being gathered up by US corporations like Netflix or Amazon. They have developed their own versions of these, like the … coffee shop and the ride-sharing Tappsi app.
I was worried that the sanctions might affect their access to medical supplies, but I was told that most of these are now sourced from India, where they are cheaper anyway.
I would like to think that the US betrayal of the nuclear contract might actually have been beneficial for Iran. It has grown in self-reliance and also renewed a focus on its own culture, just as the ban on Huawei has led to the development of Chinese-made components. The economic bullying by the US may indeed back-fire as countries become determine to become independent of such a fickle friend.
This was my first visit to Iran since having travelled to Uzbekistan, which shares many cultural traits with Iran but was administered under the Soviet system. This comparison highlighted the dour nature of Iran, where dancing in public is forbidden and women are not allowed to sing. While it was just as patriarchal at the top, Uzbekistan had a much freer exchange between its people.
I did come across a young girl wrestler in Iran and was told this was a growing trend. So perhaps a new generation will be able to change this.
Iran remains close to my heart. It has its meticulous crafts, unprecedented generosity and vibrant traditions built on layers of mysterious history. Its culture will outlast any economic blockade.
The re-opening of the State Library of Victoria allows us to look with fresh eyes on the violence that is at the foundation of the Western worldview.
Walking up the steps of the State Library of Victoria, you are flanked by two heroic figures. To your right is Joan of Arc, standing proud on her steed. But to the left, is a more pensive looking St George, naked on his horse, plunging a spear into the side of a writhing dragon. While his horse is rearing in horror, St George murders this beautiful creature with a cold classical demeanour.
The spectre of the dragon has defined the nature of heroism in Western mythology. In the canonical Norse saga, “The fire-spewing dragon fully had wasted the fastness of warriors” until Beowulf risks his life to strike the fatal blow. With the future Brexit, we may see the eventual dissolution of the United Kingdom, revealing the blood-red St George Cross that lies at its heart.
The particular English identification with St George occurred around the time of the crusades and the battle against Islam. St George was then a superhero figure of fabled strengths. But the dragon as evil itself has deeper roots in Western culture. It can be traced back to the Semitic religions, such as the Babylonian sea-dragon Tiamat.
Though hopefully, we have moved on from the crusades, the dragon still continues to figure in our moral landscape. The Economist cartoonist KAL regularly represents China as a dragon, threatening tyranny in the region. The image on 14 November this year had Hong Kongers huddled in a boat bearing the word “Freedom”, encircled by a dragon, with the caption “Is it me or are those islands slowly closing in on us…?”
The Chinese threat figured greatly in the development of Australian settlement. Novels such as The Yellow Wave (1895) and the film Australia Calls (1913) conjured the spectre of invasion from the north as a theatre for white Australian manliness. This seems another world to 21st century Australia, where more than half a million Australians are Chinese-born. But attitudes to China itself are turning negative, with a Lowy Institute poll showing that trust in China has dropped 20 points to 32%.
While there may be specific reasons for this, such as heavy-handedness in Hong Kong and Xingjian, there is the danger that we fall back on civilisational fears.
To an extent, China as a nation is, literally, a dragon. It can be found in mosaics as old as 6,000 BC. One hypothesis is that the idea of the dragon came from the discovery of dinosaur bones. In the third century BC, Han Gaozu, the first peasant to take the throne of Emperor, claimed to be fathered by a dragon. Emperors ever after him identified with the dragon as a source of their power and wisdom.
The dragon was more than the singular monarch. There are nine sons of the dragon which ornament a wide range of objects, such as the baimi turtle dragon at the base of columns. Dragons are often depicted with a pearl, representing their place in Buddhism as a symbol of wisdom.
This would make the Chinese dragon seem exceptional. Yet when you look more deeply, you find dragons in almost all cultures, closer to home. The dragon is a key feature of other East Asian cultures such as Korean and Japanese, and is especially important in Vietnam. Elsewhere on the Asian continent, the Hindu Naga snake God is a close relative. Across the Pacific, the Aztecs worshipped the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl and the Maori told stories of Taniwha.
In Australia, the dragon is a key part of our social history. As recognised by the generous support by the Victorian state government to replace the Bendigo dragon and welcomed by the traditional dragon artisans of Hong Kong. But it is our Aboriginal cultures where we can find our dragons. The rainbow serpent shares with most sky dragons a key relationship to rain. It is a key story linking sites across the continent.
In his recent book Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta writes about the rainbow serpent as a universal symbol of energy:
we would see him as a wave, a snake, because he is constantly in motion across systems that are constantly in motion and interwoven throughout everything that is, was and will be. There are infinite variations of him in all shapes and sizes throughout the world—wyrms, dragons, ureus and many different names in different regions, taking the shape of the spirit of those places.
There are signs that our appreciation of the dragon is changing. Despite the tragic end, the identification of a dragon with female power in Game of Thrones resuscitated the figure of the female dragon imagined by the English Romantic poets.
But the dragon today has increasing relevance as a symbol of the greatest threat to our existence. With increasing ferocity, climate change wreaks devastation on our planet through massive bushfires, floods and rising sea levels. Already, concepts like the “methane dragon” help us appreciate the danger by reference back to our primal fears.
But this is a monster that can’t be murdered with a spear, no matter how high-tech it might be. In fact, it is the disdain for nature reflected in dragon-slaying which is part of the problem.
The figure of St George reflects a Western attitude of dominion over nature. Efforts to respond to climate changes are stymied by the presumption that new clever technology will solve the problem. But as we find our world vulnerable to ever more destructive weather, particularly floods, we may begin to appreciate nature, like the dragon, is a powerful force that has ultimate power over us and must be respected.
In my daydreams, I imagine Joan of Arc riding over to St George and knocking him off his horse, rescuing the dragon, and thus saving the world. Will Greta Thunberg be the Joan of Arc for our time?
Arnold, Martin. 2018. Dragon: Fear and Power. Reaktion Books.
Tacon, Paul, and Christopher Chippindale. n.d. “Birth of the Rainbow Serpent in Arnhem Land Rock Art and Oral History.” Archaeology in Oceania. Accessed May 11, 2019.
Wilson, J. Keith. 1990. “Powerful Form and Potent Symbol: The Dragon in Asia.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 77 (8): 286–323.
Yunkaporta, Tyson. 2019. Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Text Publishing.
The BBC series Years and Years offers a tantalising glimpse of the future. While the basic urban fabric of dowdy English streets remains the same, the rate of change accelerates.
The descent of politics to clown-like entertainment continues apace. After his second term, Trump is replaced by Mike Pence. And a stalemate in British politics provides an opening for the maverick Vivienne Rook, who wakes up audiences by offering frank critiques with disarming honesty, dropping the occasional “f” bomb to demonstrate her ordinariness.
Meanwhile, the smart assistant has become to pervade life. While the Alexa-Siri-OK Google entity of “signor” offers boundless knowledge, its real value is to allow the family to share voice calls—to simply to be in each others company. Word can spread between family members when Vivienne Rook is on television for everyone to watch at the same time and share their responses.
The family does come together for an annual birthday of the matriarch in the eternal family home. It’s not an exclusive family. To use an English expression, it’s a bit of a “muddle” with different colours and sexual preferences. It’s certainly not a bastion of purity but is a steadfast unit that somehow seems to survive the turmoil that mounts around it.
What’s noticeable about the technology they inhabit is the absence of email or messaging. The communication is almost entirely in real-time. This seems the opposite of devices today, which seem to reduce opportunities for co-presencing.
So is family the answer? Years and Years certainly turns to the family as the ultimate refuge. It suggests that no matter how terrible the world becomes, we can always have each other.
When the moment of liberation finally occurs at the end, it’s not due to any organised force, such as an insurrection or opposition movement. It happens magically with a kind of national co-presencing through a mass of smartphone cameras that reveal the truth. But the logic of the plot suggests that the public realm has become immune to the truth. There’s no exploration of how this awakening might happen, other than the deus ex machina of the camera.
Like almost every series, the core message is to encourage viewers to watch more series. The family can sit together to chat and respond to what’s happening on the screen, without necessarily engaging in the world around them. You could argue that binge-watching is one of the most powerful roadblocks to concerted action on climate change. Whatever is happening in this world, we can always escape into the fantasy scenarios that inhabit Netflix, opening our front door only to accept Uber Eats. Capitalism eats itself.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the sharp English cleverness and slick production that underpins Years and Years. But I will still go to my local branch meetings for a taste of real change.