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Episodes: Downfall


Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 11 2017

6 min read



Buried in the middle of Lindsay Ellis's terrific dissection of the musical Rent is a particularly trenchant observation for this particular moment in time. (If you don't watch everything Ellis makes, you should. She's brilliant.)

Ellis talks about how hard it is to create Broadway shows that truly challenge the ruling class, because the people who keep Broadway alive are the people with enough money to be part of the ruling class. (Yes, yes, you are probably not part of the ruling class, random person who could afford a $25 ticket from the TKTS booth, but we're talking about people who see several shows per year, not one or two on a vacation.) She points, in particular, to Les Miserables, Rent, and Hamilton as three shows that pretend to be about revolution but are actually not about challenging those in power at all.

What makes Rent so odious to her, while Hamilton and Les Mis skate by, is that Rent was specifically about that moment in time, and it more or less shrugged its shoulders about the AIDS crisis and all manner of things. At least Hamilton and Les Mis are about the distant past, thus allowing the ruling class to identify with some former underclass striving for freedom without realizing all of the ways they create oppression merely by existing. Saying, "Yes, the American Revolution was good," isn't exactly a hard political stance to take.

Ellis is correct, insofar as this goes. There have been occasional shows on Broadway that attempt to really push back against those with the most power -- Hair comes to mind -- but they tend to be co-opted or, somehow worse, turned into shows where the underclass is a bunch of zoo animals. (Again, the reception to Hair comes to mind.) And this is also not to say that, say, Hamilton doesn't have an element of subversion to it, especially when it comes to its casting choices. It's at least trying to point out the need for social reordering when the underclass is so devastated, which is more than, like, Cats will do for you. (Actually, maybe Cats is the story of feline revolution?)

Ellis points to Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed as a way that theater can force its audience to confront the vast power imbalances at work in any society. But, uh, Theatre of the Oppressed isn't exactly setting up shop just off Times Square.

And Ellis's larger point remains: It's awfully hard to make popular art that truly challenges those in power, even in a society with free speech.


The hardest thing to accept in life is the thought that you might make things slightly worse just by being alive. You didn't ask to be born. None of us did. We're all here through no fault of our own.

But accepting that you make things slightly worse just by being alive is one of the great struggles of being alive. You will let people down, and hurt people, and prop up horrible systems you didn't invent but don't have any incentive to change. I do all of this, too, because it's part of being alive and human.

So how do you get people to realize that without haranguing them? How do you effect change, when change requires getting someone to see they are not at the center of the story, but only one of many?


Art is how we're supposed to do this, I suppose. But art is rarely up to the challenge. Film puts me in someone else's shoes most consistently, but I also know lots of people who just let it glance off of them like a stone bouncing across water. Novels do this beautifully, but, again, you have to open yourself up to them. It's too easy to resist them if you put up your guard.

And TV? Forget about it. TV eventually normalizes everything and everyone. (I love TV.)

I've been thinking, though, about an artform that does this sneakily because it gets around your defenses: gaming.

Granted, gaming doesn't tackle these questions as often as it might. But I've been toying around with the tabletop role-playing game Downfall, by Caroline Hobbs, and really finding it an interesting way to tackle these questions. The theme of the game is the end of a society, which can be as fantastical or as mundane as you want. All that needs to happen is that it ends because of an unforeseen tragic flaw, usually closely related to something that it greatly values about itself.

Three players each play a hero (who is trying to change the tragic flaw), an antagonist (who is trying to perpetuate the tragic flaw), and a normal citizen (who is so enmeshed in the system that she can't always see what's wrong with it). And every couple of turns, players trade off roles, so they play every single side of this equation -- the vehicle of change, the resistance to change, and the blinkered perspective we all wear at one point or another.

On the one hand, it's just a fun time. On the other, it's a really trenchant look at the ways that society can't seem to stop more and more deeply entrenching some of its worst tendencies. We all become comfortable with them, to the point where we can't always see them. By literally becoming these people, you're forced to examine the places in your life where you are, respectively, a hero, a villain, and the status quo.

It actually took me a little bit to see what Hobbs was up to -- and, granted, getting people to play a tabletop game is always a big ask. But the more that gaming takes center stage (especially in the form of video games), and the more artistically ambitious it becomes, the more hope I have that it might be a potent way for artists to continue to poke at the knottiest, darkest problems of power and privilege at the heart of our world.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more or less (usually less) if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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