Tom Cleary’s Clearly Great Character Arc in The Knick

The Knick is one of my favorite shows for a variety of reasons. I love the acting, the writing, but I love the directing most of all. Helmed by Steven Soderbergh, the Knick was once described by a critic as “the best show you are not watching.” For this week’s essay, I will focus on Tom Cleary’s character arc in the first two seasons of the Knick and how it functions on a narrative level.

When we are first introduced to Tom Cleary, he is waiting in the ambulance bay with his co-worker, cracking dark jokes about the untimely death of the chief surgeon. He works as a paramedic, in practice this often means he is just transporting fresh corpses to the hospital for grisly medical experiments, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in his work. Nonetheless, Chris Sullivan—the same actor who played Taserface in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Benny Hammond in Stranger Things—portrays the character with impressive nuance and I imagine most audiences will understand well how Tom Cleary fits into the cultural milieu of New York at the turn of the 20th century. So inured is he towards violence that he sees nothing wrong asking Sister Harriet, in the almost immediate aftermath of a terrible accident, if nuns often break their vows on account of sexual curiosity. Much to his surprise, she responds by letting him know that “we get curious but then they show us a photograph of your sorry face and we all run right back into the arms of God.” Perhaps to add insult to injury, she also notes that “your ugly mug’s responsible for more girls staying virgins than the chastity belt.”

Cleary takes it all in stride and continues to trade barbs with Sister Harriet during their semi-regular interactions at the Knick hospital. By complete accident, he discovers that Sister Harriet secretly provides abortions to women of all walks of life and derisively refers to her as baby-killer from then on. However, after seeing a woman bleed out after a botched abortion, he changes tack and agrees to help her.

This decision engenders a great deal of risk since abortion is still illegal at this time but Cleary manages to evade the law. Sister Harriet, however, is not so lucky and season 2 begins with her awaiting trial. Cleary fears for her well being and dedicates himself to her legal defense with almost singular obsession. So desperate is Cleary to help her that he even pilfers medical supplies from the hospital in order to help pay for her bail as well as her defense lawyer. He succeeds in getting her the necessary money, though not without some terrible collateral damage, but life outside of prison isn’t much better for Sister Harriet as she ends up in the “care” of some truly awful people. Despite having little in the way of savings, Cleary sends money every week to Sister Harriet, only to discover that the money he has been sending has been getting filched. When it becomes clear that Sister Harriet will suffer terribly if the case proceeds to trial, Cleary even resorts to extortion to ensure that the well-off women who benefitted from Sister Harriet’s medical assistance will come to her aid. His unflagging support proves crucial as Sister Harriet is excommunicated from the church once others discovers that she has helped terminate numerous pregnancies.

Cleary’s actions are often brutish, a prime example being when he knocks a gun-wielding assailant unconscious, but they are understandable also. By the end of season 2, he is one of the most sympathetic characters in all the show and I think a great many audience members feel bad for him when Sister Harriet rejects his proposal. Cleary is nothing if not persistent though and when he visits confessional in his penultimate scene, he confesses to the priest that he intends to marry a woman essentially disowned by the church. Had Cleary’s character arc followed the expected path, this scene could have helped build up more good will for the character. Instead, Soderberg yanks the narrative rug out from underneath the audience and reveals that we never should have rooted for Cleary in the first place.

For most of season 2, the audience is led to believe Sister Harriet was caught simply because her luck ran out. As it turns out, she wasn’t caught so much as she was betrayed. The cops didn’t just discover that she was carrying out illegal abortions—they were informed by Cleary. Moreover, he informs them for the worst possible reason: he wants her willingness to provide abortions to become common knowledge. He knows that a sister would never be allowed to marry but he also knows that Harriet’s fellow sisters equate abortion with murder. Just as he expected, she is unceremoniously expelled from the church after being arrested, even Sister Harriet’s surrogate mother disowns her, and she never discovers his duplicity. As a result, the scene in which she agrees to marry him, the final scene for Sister Harriet and Tom Cleary, is all the more haunting.

Some might find this character arc frustrating—viewers who believed Cleary was a good person or viewers who wanted him to face some kind of reckoning—but I think that’s exactly what makes it work so well on a narrative level. Besides being a great example of the Kuleshov effect, Cleary’s character arc gives viewers some profound questions to ponder. Does the priest who took Cleary’s confession have a moral obligation to share the truth with Sister Harriet, even though it would violate his vows? What if Cleary is never seized by guilt and keeps his duplicity secret from Sister Harriet for decades? What if Sister Harriet never discovers his duplicity at all? They are tough questions to answer and I think Knick fans will ponder them whenever they reflect on the character of Tom Cleary.

Thee first and second season of this show are available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

Review of Pride of Carthage

As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of studies concerning the subject matter of historical novels published in English. If I had to guess, I would say the majority of historical novels deal with either the Roman Empire or WWII. Considering how many books are written on these subjects and how much I read historical fiction, some might assume that I have read a great many novels featuring characters with Latin names or events that took place somewhere between 1933 and 1945. Such an assumption, however, would be wrong. Partially because so much has already been written about these epochs and partially because we learn a great deal about both in school, I used to avoid historical novels dedicated to these topics. I decided to break that rule when I read David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage and I am glad that I did.

While a great many novels have been written about the Second Punic War, Pride of Carthage is one of the few novels I know that is told almost entirely from the perspective of Carthaginian characters. This does offer some advantages in terms of brand differentiation but there is one big downside to telling the story from this point of view: the Carthaginians were the invaders. Generally speaking, the people who initiate wars of aggression are not very sympathetic characters. Whether the story takes place in Winterfell or pre-Columbian North America, creating sympathetic characters is key to capturing reader interest so telling the story from the Carthaginian perspective poses some obvious difficulties.

Durham confronts the challenge with impressive grace and portrays Hannibal Barca in a way that helps readers understand his intelligence and his motivations. Considering Hannibal’s reputation as a genius military strategist, a great many writers probably would have been tempted to use the first chapter to showcase his knowledge of battle tactics. Durham, however, chooses a different tack and uses the first chapter to showcase Hannibal’s genius as a military commander. The scene is not very long but does a great job of showing how Hannibal was able to win the loyalty of common soldiers and why so many soldiers were willing to follow him into such perilous straits.

When it comes to understanding the motivations of this long-dead general, no scene does this better than Imilce’s private conversation with Hannibal. Imilce, his first wife and his ardent supporter, pushes him to explain why he is so keen on war with Rome. His initial answers are rather milquetoast—glory, justice, freedom, and vengeance—and could have come from the likes of Hirohito or Bolivar. The scene gets truly interesting when Imilce presses Hannibal and he confesses he is motivated more by marital pride than martial pride. He promises his wife that “in two years you will be able to look from the balcony of this [room] or any other place you choose and know that all the Mediterranean world is yours to shape. How many men can say that to their wives and mean it?”

This explanation differs markedly from his more public proclamations—at one point in the book, he explains that Carthage needs to take the offense against Rome because Rome will become the undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean otherwise, a rather prescient observation undoubtedly informed by Durham’s knowledge of the Punic wars—but this private admission is the one that truly stands out. To think that something so simple and pure as striving to give a significant other something no one else has can lead to something so ugly as war is both fascinating and horrifying.

Considering the book is about Hannibal Barca, no reader should be surprised that large-scale battles play a large role in the story. Personally, I like the descriptions of the Fabian campaign, the Battle of Cannae, and the Battle of Zama best but the answer will probably differ from reader to reader. To be fair, there are probably some readers who won’t enjoy these scenes at all but the political intrigue and the narrative arcs are more than enough to carry the story along. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Mediterranean history, albeit mainly from the African perspective as opposed to the European perspective, or to anyone interested in military fiction.

The novel is available on Amazon and in most libraries.

Review of Apocalypto film

I first saw Apocalypto in high school and enjoyed my first viewing immensely. I had little to go off when it came to assessing the accuracy of the movie but I found the actions sequences very entertaining and enjoyed the fast-paced, straightforward narrative. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about Mesoamerican history and I understand much better the problematic elements of the movie. The movie suggests the post-Classic Mayans carried out human sacrifice on a scale completely incongruous with the academic consensus and that people who lived in the hinterland had yet to transition to an agricultural lifestyle but did have to worry about getting raided by distant city-states. In reality, the Mayan people had been practicing agriculture for centuries by this point and warfare was carried out by major polities against other polities, not tiny villages buried deep in the jungle. For that matter, the idea that villagers would practice a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and maintain no connection to any sort of major metropolis contradicts a great deal of what we know about the Yucatan Peninsula in the early 1500s. As someone who takes a great interest in history, especially history related to the European colonization of the Americas, these inaccuracies are troubling to say the least.

Nonetheless, when it comes to assessing the quality of the movie, it is important to note that Apocalypto is a rather unique movie. After all, the box office is not exactly overwhelmed with movies set in pre-colonial North America, let alone movies filmed entirely in maya t’aan. I don’t think this should make audiences necessarily forgiving of the many inaccuracies included in the film but I think it does put them in context. At the end of the day, movie studios are profit-seeking organizations and the movie was intended for a general audience, not academics that specialize in Post-Classic Mayan history. To be fair, the many inaccuracies of Apocalypto could be attributable to shoddy scholarship but I think it stands to reason that some can be attributed to studio executives believing it would be alright to compromise the historicity of the movie for the sake of narrative cohesion.

I think it is also important to note that the movie does not claim to be based on a true story. This simple proclamation can generate understandable interest from audiences and helped power the financial success of movies like 12 Years a Slave and Apollo 13. If promotional material for the movie had featured language like this, the movie’s casual approach to history would be far more troubling in my opinion. Putting aside matters of historical accuracy, Apocalypto has many standout scenes. The scene where the village gathers to hear the story about the hole in Man has to be one of the better parables put to film and contains some incredibly rich symbolism. Audiences more interested in action than lengthy parables will also find plenty to enjoy in Apocalypto. The second half of the movie functions largely as an extended chase sequence but, owing to careful build-up beforehand and thoughtful pacing, never feels tiring. Some of the scenes in the movie are disturbingly bloody but even movie-viewers who tend to avoid the macabre will be able to appreciate the stunning photography in the movie.

Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Apocalypto. The movie took an approach to history too casual for my tastes but I appreciate that the movie explores a time and place largely ignored in film. Additionally, I appreciate that the movie worked well on a narrative level and that it gave performers from traditionally under-represented groups the chance to showcase their talents for a wide audience. I would not suggest the movie to anyone looking for an accurate depiction of life in pre-Hispanic Mexico but I think movie-viewers who enjoy straightforward stories and long chase sequences can find a lot to enjoy in Apocalypto.

Food and history

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to visit Mexico to do some research related to my historical series, the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, and some close friends from high school were kind enough to join me. As someone who very much appreciates a good meal, I usually make a point to research the local eateries anytime I travel somewhere new but I was much less diligent about doing so on this trip. In some respects, it felt unnecessary considering so many friends who had already told me exactly where I should eat while in Mexico. One friend, Mariana, was even kind enough to provide a nine page itinerary on what to do and where to eat while visiting Mexico City. The suggestions were great and Mexico City was a blast. However, it was not the only city we spent time in during our trip. After about a week in Mexico City, we set off for Veracruz.

Getting to Veracruz was no problem but navigating the food scene was much more difficult. None of us had researched the Veracruz food scene in great depth and most of the restaurant suggestions we had been given were specific to CDMX. We had a great time while in Veracruz, though it might be wrong for to speak on behalf of my friend who suffered some epic food poisoning while there, but the restaurants seemed a little lacking compared to the ones we visited in Mexico City. That changed once we found the Moctezuma restaurant.

The Moctezuma restaurant was not a restaurant any of us had heard of prior to visiting Veracruz. Truth be told, we almost walked past the restaurant. However, owing to the name and the restaurant’s eye-catching mural, we decided to check the place out despite knowing very little about it. I’m glad we did as the Moctezuma restaurant treated us to a dining experience that we will remember fondly for many years to come.

While I am definitely not a professional food critic or a world-class chef, I’m also no stranger to good food. I grew up in a household that put a premium on home cooking and my mother’s culinary skills made her a neighborhood legend. Moreover, spending time in cities like Beijing, Accra, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC has only deepened my respect for good food. The food we had at Moctezuma restaurant wasn’t merely good though it was great. Just thinking about our meal is enough to make my mouth water and I will be sure to visit the restaurant next time I am in Veracruz.

The chefs at Moctezuma restaurant should be commended for their intimate knowledge of gastronomy but I think they should also be commended for their skills as “food authors.” Traditionally, authors have been storytellers who employ the written word to relate some sort of narrative but Moctezuma restaurant provides a powerful example of how this is not always the case. A meal can tell a story just as much as a Shakespearean sonnet can, sometimes more so, and the food at Moctezuma restaurant tells a fascinating story deeply rooted in Mexican history.

When the Spanish invaded Mexico in 1519, they brought with them beasts of labor, deadly diseases, and cultural traditions dating back centuries. The Spaniards had every intention of establishing themselves as the dominant power in Mesoamerica and they were very successful in many regards. These days, there are a lot more Christ worshippers in Mexico than there are Huitzilopochtli worshippers. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think the Spanish succeeded in remaking Mexico in their image and their imperial ambitions were often thwarted by Amerindians who actively fought attempts at cultural erasure. This resistance manifested itself in many different forms and evidence of it can be found in almost every dish at Moctezuma restaurant.

Staples of Spanish cuisine like beef and pork are served with Mesoamerican staples like chapulites and corn in combinations that showcase an impressive creativity. No one dish can be considered wholly European or Amerindian and the menu speaks to a blending of many unique cultures, a concept that continues to be relevant in modern Mexico. Whether a foodie or a history buff, Moctezuma restaurant has something to offer for everyone and I would highly recommend this restaurant to anyone visiting the Veracruz area.

Review of The Young Jaguar, Book 1 in the Pre-Aztec Trilogy

Truth be told, I cannot remember how I first discovered Zoe Saadia’s work. While she was at one point a traditionally published author, I don’t think I have ever come across her work in a brick and mortar store. Perhaps I found her accidentally or perhaps I found her through Bookbub. No matter the case, I consider myself a big fan and will be sure to read more of her work in the future. Just recently, I finished her pre-Aztec trilogy, which has me reflecting on the first entry in that installment, The Young Jaguar.

To be completely honest, I was not that keen on the book cover and might have passed it up had I seen it in a bookstore. If I had, it would have been a big mistake. The Young Jaguar was one of my favorite reads of 2018 and a great example of historical fiction that educates as it entertains. I have studied Mesoamerican history pretty intensively–I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I have traveled to numerous pre-Hispanic sites in Mexicobut I knew next to nothing about the Tepanecs prior to reading The Young Jaguar.

In all fairness, not that much has been written about the Tepanecs in English. A long time ago, they were one of the most powerful polities in all of Mesoamerica but they were eventually supplanted in power by the Mexica, who established a much more powerful and much longer lasting military confederacy. During the time period that The Young Jaguar is set in, the Tepanecs are at the height of their power and the Mexica are eeking out a miserable existence along the shores of Lake Xochimilco. Most of the Tepanec elite can not be bothered to spare a thought for the weak Mexica people but the antagonist of the novel, Revered Uncle, is practically obsessed with them. He fears the Mexica will one day displace the Tepanecs but he cannot approve any military campaigns against the Mexica since he is a mere advisor. Few agree with his dark predictions but the death of Acolnahuacatl offers a unique opportunity to install a new ruler sympathetic to his own world viewif Revered Uncle is willing to force aside the legitimate heir.

Initially, the protagonist of the novel, Atolli, is inclined to offer his support to Revered Uncle. At this point, he does not understand Revered Uncle’s ultimate goal but he knows he is very fond of Revered Uncle’s daughter. It soon becomes clear, however, that supporting Revered Uncle will put Atolli in direct conflict with his father. His father cares little for politics but has a strong sense of duty that compels him to support the legitimate heir, a man who’d rather make war against distant peoples than confront the threat posed by the Mexica. A Mesoamerican version of Ned Stark, Tecpatl is willing to put his own life at risk to make sure the legitimate heir takes the throne. His foreign-born wife, Sakuna, feels a similar sense of duty, but devotes herself to protecting her family, even if it means making a deal with Revered Uncle that would force her to betray Tecpatl’s trust.

While the complex dynamic of the characters creates for some interesting twists and turns, the great strength of The Young Jaguar is Saadia’s ability to make the reader understand the motivations of the various characters. There may be no better example of this than Revered Uncle. A thuggish schemer, Revered Uncle a penchant for violence matched only by his knowledge of his domestic politics. He is not exactly a sympathetic character but he is definitely a character who understands the threat posed by the Mexica. He genuinely cares about the well-being of the Tepanec nation and like Tecpatl, the heroic War Chief who opposes him at every turn, cares little for material wealth or formal titles. He is as cunning as Tecpatl is naive and he helps makes The Young Jaguar a fascinating read. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Mesoamerican history or to anyone who enjoys fast-paced narratives with complex characters.

This book is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and through Kindle select.

Review of Gunpowder miniseries: lots of flash, not much bang

The 2017 miniseries Gunpowder was headlined by Kit Harrington (better known to most audiences as Jon Snow) and backed by HBO but it hardly seems to have left an impression with most TV viewers. Viewership numbers are not disclosed on TV by the numbers but judging by the figures posted on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, critics were not very impressed with Gunpowder. Having finished the series not too long ago, I can understand the lukewarm reception it received.

Just to be clear, Gunpowder was not a bad show. The pilot is quite entertaining and so is the follow up episode. If the final episode had been stronger, Gunpowder would probably be remembered as a pretty good show. Sadly, the finale failed to live up to the preceding episodes and, considering there were only three episodes in the entire miniseries, this drop in quality had outsize consequences.

The strongest character in the show was Guy Fawkes, both in a literal sense and a figurative sense. He endures brutal, ceaseless torture at the hands of his captors but refuses to divulge the names of his fellow conspirators, even when it is abundantly clear that plot to bring about a “restoration of true religion” has failed miserably. Eventually, his captors tire of torturing him and haul him before a cheering crowd for an execution ceremony that could rival a flowery death in its gore.

Were he a weaker man, Fawkes might have had to endure the unceremonious death that many of his Catholic brethren suffer, but he summons the last of his strength to issue a feral roar and leaps off his hanging post to spare himself a painful ordeal. In life, as well as captivity, his impressive strength is plain to see and he easily bests his fencing opponents in a gripping fight that serves as a highlight of the second episode in the miniseries. From a character standpoint, Guy Fawkes is also one of the strongest in the ensemble and it’s a shame actor Tom Cullen did not get more screen time. That may have meant cutting back on the scenes involving Catesby’s young son, but that probably would have been for the best anyway.

Perhaps the biggest error the show makes is that it passes up the chance to say something important. Religious terrorism is an incredibly important topic when it comes to modern life and almost every major world region is affected by it in some way, shape, or form. Guy Fawkes may not be the Western world’s first religious terrorist but he is certainly an early and interesting example. The pilot does a great job of making it clear to viewers that Catholics suffer brutal persecution in post-Elizabethan England and the motivations of the Gunpowder conspirators are pretty understandable considering the fate of Catholics discovered by law enforcement.

To be fair, there are moments where the show explores the way hardliner policies can contribute to extremism, the conversation between Father Garnet and Sir Wade is a great example of this, but they are few and far between. Instead, a great many scenes are dedicated to the relationship between Catesby and his son, a dynamic that has some importance for the plot but is not interesting enough to merit so much screen time. The show creators, however, seem to disagree and the final scene of the show deals not with the Gunpowder conspirators, or their would-be victims, but Catesby’s son. Had the show just focused more on the major characters and taken more time to explore the interesting questions raised by the Gunpowder plot, the miniseries would have been much stronger.

The value of historical fiction

Historical fiction is a small but growing genre and represents one of the most important ways modern audiences connect with history. David Von Drohle wrote an excellent biography of Lincoln that was purchased by over 2 million readers. Spielberg’s Lincoln grossed over 275 million dollars and was viewed by audiences all around the world. Oscar Schindler helped saved over a 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust but lived in obscurity for most of the 20th century. Not until he became the subject of an Oscar-winning film did he become a household name. Gettysburg has inspired countless academic texts but one of the most popular books ever written on the subject remains Shaara’s Killer Angels. All this begs the question: why?

After all, it’s not like historical fiction authors hold up their writing as the authoritative take on a subject. Flip to the back of any historical novel and you will almost always find some sort of note from the author that mentions the pains they went through to create an accurate story, followed by some sort of addendum regarding the creative licenses they employed. Authors like Hillary Mantel and James Alexander Thom are known for the exhaustive research they incorporate into their stories so it’s worth noting they don’t often turn to other historical novels when conducting research. Instead, they consult primary sources and secondary sources, even traveling to historic locations when possible.

There’s probably a myriad of reasons readers are quicker to pick up a historical novel than a history textbook but one reason stands out: historical fiction is fun. Plenty has been written about Lee and Longstreet but getting to imagine their mental state in the midst of battle or how they might have conversed in private brings them to life in a way that an academic biography cannot. A historical novel should never be used as the be-all-end-all take on a specific era or event, but it has undeniable value when it comes to nurturing an interest in history. After all, emotion is an important part of how we remember events and historical fiction is nothing if not an exploration of the emotions and actions of people from previous centuries.

Works like Gone With the Wind and Braveheart have given historical fiction a bad name when it comes to accuracy, but it’s difficult to argue that modern authors like Andrew Rowen don’t place a premium on research. Historical fiction does not lack for detractors and critics, but fans and authors have done a great job of elevating this genre to new heights. I hope the genre continues to grow and the plethora of great works in historical fiction should be a comfort to anyone interested in studying the past.