by Charity Erickson
Eli Roth’s Netflix series Hemlock Grove impressed me with its ambitious scope. It is a pretty straightforward murder-mystery—it follows the investigation into a series of grizzly killings in small-town Pennsylvania. Over time, it becomes an homage to the horror genre (replete with punishing attitudes toward female sexuality, unfortunately), overflowing with allusions to classic literature and film. Ubiquitous symbolism invokes Freud, Lao Tzu, mythic themes, and “the hero’s journey.” There’s also a really sweet vampire-werewolf bromance.
The structure is recursive—there are points of plot and dialogue that do not make sense until you go back after watching the season in its entirety. Because of this, I almost gave up on the show after the first two episodes; I kept feeling like I must have missed something. I don’t know if this structural risk makes the series more entertaining or more frustrating, but it certainly makes it fun fodder for English-major nerdery.
For our purposes, the most interesting character on the show is Dr. Clementine Chasseur, (Battlestar Galactica’s Kandyse McClure.) From the standpoint of nerdery, I can’t help but wonder if “Chasseur” isn’t a wink at Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structural linguistics and semiotics.
And from the standpoint of pop culture and theology, the character proves just as fascinating: Chasseur is an alcoholic ex-Marine who comes to investigate the murders as part of a mysterious monster-hunting order of the Catholic Church. She wears an icon around her neck of St. Jude, “the patron saint of lost causes.” She is a lesbian, repressed, and filled with self-doubt. And she is fond of repeating this desperately sad phrase with vigorous conviction: “God doesn’t want you to be happy. He wants you be strong.”
Every time this line makes an appearance in the series, I cringe at the pain behind it; I have wrestled with this way of seeing God. There was a time when I, too, struggled to make sense of the pervasive, overwhelming unhappiness that weighed on me despite scripture’s characterization of joy as a “fruit of the Spirit,” something that was supposed to naturally develop within a truly Spirit-filled Christian.
And since I believed that God controlled all extant circumstances in the universe, and that the Bible was merely language with no art, I began to believe that it was not within God’s will for me to be happy, and that joy must be something other than what I’d always thought it to be. (I was depressed, actually, and an addict, too; I didn’t know it though. My theology didn’t allow for a good Christian to be afflicted in such a way.)
But this theology that says “God doesn’t want you to be happy” is not really theology at all. It is a coping mechanism. For the dysfunctional Christian without access to more helpful theology, this way of seeing God gives him a sense of control by making his pain understandable, while also giving him permission to wallow in the familiar, “safe” space of his sickness. Instead of seeking rest and grace, he tries to power through, to be “strong.” But this only adds to his burdens. And when he teaches those around him that it is not for the Christian to grasp at happiness, he creates for himself a sick, joyless faith family that confirms his view of God.
Not that Hemlock Grove is saying this in any explicit way. Even after my second time through the series, I can’t quite put together exactly what the show is trying to say through the post-modern narrative play, literary content and institutional critique. Maybe it’s saying something about the way we use scripts—the sayings and stories that we use to conceptualize our reality—and how they can keep us in sickness and suffering, or perhaps worst of all, how they can keep us scared.
Or maybe it’s just a scattered, sophomoric experiment in narrative form from those who have read just enough Derrida to be dangerous.
Charity Erickson and her husband Lance live and work together in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.
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