The Blue Comet

The Sopranos

I didn’t watch The Sopranos when it first aired. As a huge, borderline obsessive, West Wing nut I almost felt it was a betrayal to watch any other American TV show. In spite of recommendations from friends I never actively sought it out. Then my illness coincided with the last two or three seasons anyway. Popular culture simply vanished from my life almost overnight. I never even watched the last two and a half seasons of The West Wing until just before returning to work. This was three years after the show finished.

I watched The Sopranos for the first time, on DVD, during the winter of 2018/19. Since then I’ve read this book about it and am starting to itch for a rewatch. I can’t yet see it dethroning the Sorkin seasons of TWW (especially 1 and 2) in my televisual pantheon. However, not only is it a towering achievement, I feel like there are depths I’m yet to discover.

During my first watch, I tried very hard to avoid spoilers and – with a few exceptions – largely succeeded. After each episode, I consulted the exceptional reviews on The AV Club website for any character and thematic notes I may have missed. These pieces, written by Emily Todd VanDerWerff, became an indispensable companion for this first-timer. Some of the insights stuck with me almost as much as the words and images of the show itself. The best example was in VanDerWerff’s review of The Blue Comet.

For those who don’t want to know the result, look away now…

“The worst thing death does”

I’m kidding. I’m not about to spoil the episode for anyone, unless they want to click on the link(s) anyway. But I’m not going to insult your intelligence either. Whether you’ve seen it or not, you know it’s a drama centred on a mob boss, I presume. And you know that films and television covering the subject of the mafia tend to include extreme violence and death. And it wouldn’t be a galloping shock to you if I revealed that the 85th out of 86 episodes includes both.

But it’s what VanDerWerff wrote about death that I found so interesting, and want to examine here in the context of my illness:

“That’s the worst thing death does. It freezes you. Until you die, you are someone who has the potential for change, the potential for betterment, the potential to get even worse. Until you die, you are a person living in a present tense, capable of motion and not stasis. Yet all death is is stasis.

Throughout its final season, The Sopranos argues that to get stuck, to not realise the daily gifts you receive just from being alive, is to be metaphorically dead, to be someone who’s consigned to the past tense and doesn’t even know it. And in some ways that’s even worse… because nobody can help death. It’s coming for all of us. But change is growth. Growth is life. To stop improving, to get stuck in your own rut and not battle back when you must… is to be dead before the gunmen get to you. And not one of us will ever see it coming.”

There’s so much to unpack here, but let’s begin with that opening assertion, that death “freezes you”. It’s self-evident, isn’t it? That it robs you, immediately and irreversibly, of that “potential for change, potential for betterment”. And since my breakdown I have desperately not wanted to be “frozen” in that abject state.

It’s a powerful and unignorable survival instinct that manifests itself in various ways. For example you might imagine your own funeral or the first line of a hypothetical obituary. People saying “such a shame” or “well, he had this this and this going for him and he ended up going mad like his father”. Or writing “mental health issues” before “first person on family to go to university”. And it’s why, in spite of almost indescribable feelings of despair, I never seriously contemplated suicide. Sure, I’ve effectively negated myself in other ways which will be discussed in future posts. But always there was a kernel of belief that one day I might be able to re-create a happy and optimistic person. That I might change. That I might get better.

Mark Twain wrote that:

“the worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.”

That, I’m afraid, sums up the price you pay for battling through the consequences of a severe mental breakdown. The sheer effort of will just to survive and put yourself in a position to thrive again. That’s what a human being who’s chosen not to give up must acquiesce to. People have phenomenal capacity, as Jed Bartlet once said. I marvel at how my family have managed to cope with seeing all this from the outside. But that capacity is not limitless. One of the unspoken difficulties of mental illness is learning how to be comfortable with yourself again. And it takes strength to confront the excruciating loneliness of that process.

In the end, all you’re doing is preserving and conserving that potential for change and betterment. To those who haven’t experienced a mental collapse on this scale, this may not seem like much of a reward. “So, you just get back to where you were and you’re more than a decade older…?” But believe me, you cherish every day. And, more so than before my breakdown, I do “realise the daily gifts you receive just from being alive”.

Frozen in time

But there’s another way of looking at this. The death of a loved one freezes you for them. This was one of the most upsetting aspects of my grandma’s death in 2016. For most of the last ten years of her life, I was ill. Or at the very least uncomfortable with myself. I was also upset that she never saw me as a father, but that’s a whole other ball game. She saw me happy again for maybe 9-12 months. I have to hope this was the image of me that she departed with. Even now, when I have (much rarer) bad days or moments, I resolve to ensure my family at least sees me smiling.

And there’s still another way of addressing this concept. I am frozen in time by friends I no longer see. I’m thinking mainly of our group of six male friends from university undergraduate years. I have met up with one of them (briefly, over lunch) since July 2006. There are no consolations to be taken here, I’m afraid. The last time most of them saw me I was only a few months out of hospital and dealing with the fallout from my breakdown and sectioning. One of them was already bewildered and appalled by some of my speech and actions before the breakdown. Later he was visibly horrified by the state I was in when he visited the hospital.

On our first night out after release he described me as being “at the bottom.” When you self-stigmatise, you read a lot more into words like “bottom” than may have been meant. But it felt like we were coming towards the end of a 13-year friendship, and so it proved. When I met the other guy over lunch, I was three or four stones heavier than he’d ever seen me. So there I am “frozen” for him as a newly fat bastard with mental health problems and a ruined career. That stings because he is, by a distance, the most financially successful of our group of six. And yet he once described me as “the most intelligent man I’ve ever met.”

I came across the first half of the next quote when it was used as a chapter title in Louis de Bernieres’ unforgettable novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin:

“Every parting gives a foretaste of death, every reunion a hint of the resurrection.”

The idea that a long-term parting of the living can “freeze” you in a manner resembling death is something I’m sure both Schopenhauer and de Bernieres appreciated. It also reassures me that, in utilising their metaphor for a broken friendship, I’m not trivialising what VanDerWerff wrote about death. I have no idea if that friendship will ever be resurrected. But as long as I’m alive it’s possible to derive meaning and comfort even from the possibility.

In the end, of course, death is unavoidable. VanDerWerff is writing about the absolute, non-negotiable necessity of avoiding what might be termed a living death. I have to be brutally honest with myself and state that, in certain aspects of my pre-breakdown life, I was one of Shakespeare‘s “cowards who died many times”. But only complete mental disintegration and its aftermath condemned me to something resembling a “living death”.

And there’s no choice but to battle back from that stasis.

The Black Mirror

The creation of former Guardian TV critic and satirical writer Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror probably needs no introduction. Suffice to say it’s a science fiction anthology series usually depicting the fraught consequences of humanity’s relationship with modern technology. My personal favourite episode is still this one, for the most audacious twist I think I’ve ever seen in a stand-alone TV show and the terrifying and wide-ranging implications of the last 15 minutes.

‘San Junipero’

But I’m here to discuss not ‘White Bear’ but the Emmy award winning ‘San Junipero’. Possibly the most acclaimed of all 23 episodes so far, and perhaps the most accessible for non-aficionados. Again, I very much want to avoid spoilers, but in order to convey how this episode links in thematically with the above discussion of ‘The Blue Comet’, I fear they’re unavoidable to some extent. You have been warned.

I re-watched ‘San Junipero’ a couple of days ago, to refresh my memory and ensure I don’t miss anything relevant. For those unfamiliar with the plot, I will start by saying it centres on a romantic lesbian relationship. Brooker, who wrote the script, mentioned in one interview the number of people who expressed surprise at the ability of a heterosexual man to portray two well-rounded and engaging gay characters. I haven’t been successful in finding his exact quote via Google, but his response was basically that, as a human being with emotions and a soul, it really wasn’t that difficult to bring them to life. And this is point one – we’re back to empathy. I too am a heterosexual man, and I found this a remarkably affecting piece of television. The story and theme transcend the central characters’ sexual orientation.

And now, the feared moment when the spoilers become unavoidable. Our central characters, the introverted, awkward Yorkie and the vivacious Kelly, meet via a technological advance known as “immersive nostalgia therapy”. ‘San Junipero’ is a simulated reality, occupied permanently by the younger selves of the deceased and visited on a weekly basis by the younger selves of the elderly, ill or dying. At different points in the episode, both Yorkie and Kelly are presented with the option to ‘pass over’ and live in San Junipero permanently after death. I won’t spoil the episode completely by explaining their respective circumstances or revealing their eventual decision(s).

Heaven is a place on earth?

What you will deduce is that this is a story about a possible afterlife, albeit one created by technology and one which has no link to religious faith. Indeed the emphasis on sexual pleasure in San Junipero (“a party town”), and the idealisation of youth, serve almost to mock the religious conception of life after death.

A second Mark Twain quote comes to mind:

“… the human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys – yet he has left it out of his heaven!… From youth to middle age all men and all women prize copulation above all other pleasures combined, yet… it is not in their heaven; prayer takes its place.”

And yes, it is this song which soundtracks the climax of the episode. Whether it be the hedonism and emotional truth of ‘San Junipero’, or the humanism and self-improvement of Lyra in ‘His Dark Materials’, that Biblical word “heaven” remains synonymous with what we consider to be our idealised state of both life and afterlife.

A life’s work

In H3 I discussed my own failure to build a version of heaven, and how it tormented me to have come so close yet found myself in hell. The source of that torment is awareness of a parallel life, a person you knew you were capable of being but hid from. In ‘San Junipero’, both Yorkie and Kelly are free to choose that parallel life, the one they never experienced first time around (for reasons that will remain unspoiled here). In the absence of “immersive nostalgia therapy”, you and I are not, and so heaven remains forever out of reach.

Sometimes, in my circumstances, that is too much to bear. But you have to persist and continue to believe that a better life is possible, because the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate for long. You can find yourself waking up at 5am and the enormity of what happened hits you all over again. And you go through a relatively painless form of denial, anger and acceptance all over again in a few short minutes, rather than over several excruciatingly painful years.

You are able to sense that parallel life from time to time, to imagine what people you miss might say and do in certain situations. Not to be able to live it is reminiscent of the separation of human and daemon in ‘His Dark Materials’. Or being separated from one’s own soul. Enduring what VanDerWerff (above) called a “living death”. Or, and this may be a “last 5 minutes of the A-Level paper” kind of stretch but here goes anyway, looking into a black mirror. Seeing almost nothing of what you wanted or expected yourself to be, and instead burdened by what was once inconceivable.

I’m conscious that I may be giving the impression that my current state of mind is more fragile than it actually is. But I find it helpful to confront and admit to the darkness, while never succumbing. And it’s even more helpful to avert one’s eyes from the black mirror and focus them on the real prize. Which is, leaving a mark on the world.

For many people, their legacy is their children. I’ve already said that this was a base-level expectation I had from life, and hence it’s now a fundamental reason for feeling like a disappointment. I won’t dwell on that any further, but part of my self-reckoning has been to address the other ways in which I fell short of my values. To address the processes rather than obsess about the ultimate outcome, if you like. You can’t build anything resembling heaven if you don’t do this.

Where the blue comet meets the black mirror

At this point I’m going to zoom in on one particular plot strand in ‘San Junipero’, to illustrate where all this is going. Responding slowly to an obvious sexual opportunity, Yorkie, in her shyness and under-confidence, asks Kelly to “make this easy” for her. Later, Kelly affectionately greets Yorkie with the words “Hello stupid”. There are so many times I have been in this kind of situation and behaved helplessly due to deeply internalised negativity about my own shyness and under-confidence. Indeed someone once said to me “for an intelligent person you can be really stupid”. Over time, the emotional cost of this behaviour has been shattering and its role in my eventual breakdown is indisputable.

But it’s who you are, and who you were. And as I reached the end of my first viewing of ‘San Junipero’ I started crying. Because it suddenly struck me that people love and remember you regardless of your flaws. And a special few of those people might just have been happy to spend their definition of earthly heaven or eternity with you. That’s a legacy in itself. These are “the daily gifts you receive just from being alive”. As the tears came I was saying over and over again “you stupid, stupid man”. Because, before the breakdown, I thought people’s expectations of me would be too high, that they couldn’t forgive my flaws, that I could never be good enough. It wasn’t just that – other factors will come up in other posts. However, while watching Yorkie and Kelly and listening to Belinda Carlisle, this was the killer.

I’m not even sure any of this is especially profound. Some may have had this instilled in them as children. Others may have taken it for granted as common sense. Still others may have gained similar wisdom through a similarly traumatic experience. But in the context of recovery from an episode of mental illness and its consequences, I have found the blue comet and the black mirror inspirational. For the affirmation that you still have agency in shaping your own life, and the belief that it’s possible to salvage a legacy even in your 40s.

Time to embrace the potential for change and for betterment. Don’t stop improving. And don’t stop _________.

Picture (taken 28 October 2019):

  • Top – my laptop screen showing a still from ‘The Blue Comet’; Season 6, Episode 20 (or Season 6B, Episode 8 if you like) of The Sopranos. From my DVD copy. The photo is the closest view of the Blue Comet‘s locomotive and has been chosen to avoid spoilers. However there are of course spoilers in that Wikipedia link.
  • Bottom – draped over my laptop keyboard is my ‘San Junipero’ T-shirt, inspired by Season 3, Episode 4 of Black Mirror. Spoilers in that link too, but just bloody well watch it if you haven’t already and even if you don’t fancy the rest of Black Mirror. Deconstruction news: three other black T-shirts obscure cables and carpet in order to create an entirely black backdrop.

It’s possible that future header pictures in the ‘Head’ section won’t rely on shoe and T-shirt action, but no promises now…

And yes, Sopranos fans, that final sentence was a deliberate choice.

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