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My 21 favorite things I wrote in 2020

Another year over; a new one just begun

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Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 28 2020

31 min read

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Another year is ending, and if you are of the writing persuasion, then you most assuredly know that all writers are required by the first amendment to the US Constitution to “publifhe a lift of the content they are proudeft of in the year prior.”

Most of us do this on Twitter, but what do I have this newsletter for if not to post links to my favorite things I’ve written?? Forthwith, in publication order, here are my favorite pieces I wrote in 2020. (And yes, this is almost the same opening as last year’s list. I’m lazy!)

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Culture in the 2010s was obsessed with finding community — and building walls, Vox, Dec. 31, 2019

Okay, okay, okay, okay. Okay. So. Yes. This was technically published in 2019, but in last year’s roundup, I said that I was sad I couldn’t include it. And I’m still really proud of it, so here it is: an attempt to summarize the grand themes of 2010s pop culture via a handful of representative works! This has some of my favorite critical writing I’ve ever done.

For many years leading up to the 2010s, the stories Americans were most drawn to were frequently about one brave person fighting against the system, stories of a Chosen One, stories of the only guy who could get the job done. We live in the long shadow of ’70s and ’80s pop culture — the shadow of dark antiheroes and destined saviors. And our world has reflected the stories we’ve told.


But in the 2010s, pop culture’s storytelling focus began to shift. We still have antiheroes. And we still have chosen ones. But the stories that mattered most — even the biggest popcorn extravaganzas of them all — were so often about what it meant to see your community erode from under you, to realize you lived in an oppressive place, and to find strength in numbers. In 1977, Star Wars suggested that any one person could be the Chosen One; in 2017, The Last Jedi declared that no chosen ones were coming to save us. We were just going to have to save the world ourselves. Doing so would require relearning how to build trust and hope in an age that seemed designed to grind us down.


“The real challenge for any of us is to have the experience of scarcity or a fear of having been burned before and still go into the next interaction with the next person expecting the best from them and not expecting your experience to be repeated,” says Anais Mitchell, writer of the musical Hadestown. “Whether or not we’re fucked, we still have to try. We still have to try as though things could change. To live any other way is not living.”


My wife and I did an interview about a TV show. It changed how we thought about our marriage. Vox, Jan. 13

One of my favorite shows of 2019 was Showtime’s Couple’s Therapy. Libby and I went to interview Dr. Orna Guralnik, the therapist from the series, when we were in New York in fall 2019. The idea was that we would write competing pieces about the experience, to see how we interpreted it differently. That fell by the wayside, but I still got this piece out of the whole experience.

Libby and I have been married for 16 years. We got married before we even finished college, because everybody we knew thought maybe it would be a good idea, and we didn’t see a compelling reason not to. It ended up being a bad idea, even though we’ve stayed together. We weren’t yet adults. One of us was clearing out a brain hampered by depression. The other wasn’t yet the person she needed to be. We grew together, but codependently.

We’ve navigated life together extremely well — Libby is my favorite person alive and the first person I want to tell about my day — but part of understanding each other means she sees me as a woman named Emily and not, specifically, as a trans woman, moving through a deeply transphobic society. And I see her as Libby, not as a person struggling with depression and anxiety in a world weighted toward the neurotypical.


The moment when Guralnik zeroed in on this quality in our relationship and started asking us questions was so fleeting that I didn’t realize what had happened until I read the interview transcript. Libby and I were talking to Guralnik about the idea of paying attention to the person who isn’t speaking. Much of our society is predisposed to pay attention to the speaker when it should be paying attention to the listener, and directing our attention to the listener is the work of more progressive politics. Who is being affected by what is being said? What actions must be taken to give them a voice?


The Assimilationist, or: On the unexpected cost of passing as a trans woman, Vox, Feb. 12

Late last year, “the discourse” turned its eye to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s hairstyling expenses. (Believe it or not, women’s haircare costs more than men’s!) In the course of that discussion, I tweeted something about how surprised I was at how much more expensive it was to be a woman. Vox editor Alanna Okun saw that tweet, and the resulting piece was this.

Our goal as trans people should be to normalize all of these identities and in so doing push back against an unfairly limiting gender binary that hurts cis men and women, too. That binary imprisons all of us within a limited set of ideas of who we can be and what we are capable of, and many of the rules that govern it are arbitrary and invented by a society built by cis men for the benefit of cis men.


Okay. I agree with all of the above. But I also love to be a traditionally feminine woman. Womanhood and women in general just make more sense to me than anything else I’ve ever tried. (My attempts at male bonding over the years glistened with flop sweat.) The gender binary makes me feel more like me. I want to eliminate it. I also want to hang on to some of it. It feels like I just got here.


Life During Wartime, Episodes, March 16

Sometimes I go back and reread this newsletter from March to remind myself of just how strange and eerie the early days of the pandemic truly were.

My wife pulls a plastic bag meant to hold vegetables out of a dispenser and wraps it around the handle of the cart she pushes. I had to wait patiently for that cart out in the parking lot, stalking a shopper taking her groceries to her SUV, swiping the cart before anybody else could get it. I have never seen this Ralph’s this full, not even the time I came here the day before Thanksgiving.

It does not seem likely the plastic bag around the cart handle will save us. If we are going to get sick, my wife says, we are going to get sick. It is just one of those things that happens when you live in a major city. We are lucky to be young enough that we will likely survive if we get ill. Still we stay home from that moment on, locking ourselves away from the world, as so many of our friends — and basically none of our parents — have done.

But there’s a Christmas Eve giddiness to this store, too. Everything is about to change. We are about to go on holiday from reality, from work, from our lives. Everything we care about is going to be put on ice and stored away, and maybe when we come back to it (in May, or June, or…..) we will still care. Or maybe we won’t. What is about to happen is an interregnum. I am not scared because I am not looking at it too closely. When I start to get scared is when I reach out to friends to make sure they are not getting scared.


But it’s when I can’t get chicken that it hits me that this is real. Something is ending, and something new is beginning. We wrap a plastic bag around that something new, whatever it may be, and we hang on.


Beyond Dungeons & Dragons: A guide to the vast, exciting world of tabletop RPGs, Vox, April 3

Early in quarantine, I made it a mission to come up with ways to get people involved in my favorite hobbies, ones that could be undertaken from the safety of one’s home. This article on tabletop RPGs was, I think, my best effort in this vein.

RPGs have moved beyond their typical audience, to say the least. I’m frequently surprised to learn that a friend I never would have expected to be into D&D is playing in a campaign with other friends, often thanks to the magic of video conferencing software. After all, the game allows players to use a system of rules to tell a story together, rolling dice to resolve conflicts and playing out scenes that take place between their characters. And what’s more fun than telling a story with your friends?


But so much of the chatter about Dungeons & Dragons and the tabletop RPG boom has obscured a very real issue that potential players might face: Many RPGs have a steep learning curve, and the medium itself isn’t always the most user-friendly. Dungeons & Dragons is a fun game, but to get the most out of it, you need to have at least a few people at the table who really know what they’re doing and understand the rulebook backwards and forwards. That level of preparation often intimidates newcomers.


Quibi — the new short-form streaming service for your phone — explained, Vox, April 6

One of the things I’m asked to do all the time at Vox is explain things. So it went with Quibi, wherein half the people I worked with asked me to explain what I (accurately!) predicted would be a non-event. I ended up with something kind of angry, but people seemed to respond to it.

My point is that the reason Quibi has been covered so heavily has little to do with its ideas (which are paltry) or its programming (which is bad) or its business model (which is basically the same as every other streaming business model). The reason Quibi has been covered so heavily is that a lot of money has been sunk into it, and the people who started the service have previously made lots of money doing other things. Therefore, it must be important, because a capitalist society assigns value in terms of dollars.

I am aware that I am part of the problem. Look how many words I’ve written about Quibi, a service I clearly don’t like. That’s because I know there will be Quibi ads everywhere, and I know that enough people will say, “What’s Quibi?” and click on this article to find the answer. That’s the way the system works.

But it’s also a system that is so frequently hijacked by money as to have become functionally meaningless. In a world where news and entertainment moved at a rate slower than hyperspeed, I might have found a way to write about Quibi six months from now, after it had some time to settle in and become a part of some people’s lives. But in this world, the window of attention for Quibi is right now, and so here is this article. And in six months, some other new streaming service will come along.


How to bake bread, Vox, May 19

I spent so long working on this piece on bread baking and the pandemic that it kind of slipped past the point where we were all doing sourdough starters. Still, I’ve seen this piece cited by a number of people as doing a good job of explaining the whole bread thing.

Yeast is a happy accident. It is all around you, all the time. It’s on the surfaces you touch every day. It’s on the packages you get delivered and on the skin of those you come in contact with. It’s in the air. You can also buy it in the supermarket (sometimes).

But the road from “all around you, all the time” to supermarket shelves encompasses most of human history. Somehow, we coaxed an invisible creature out of the world around us and into our food. In its naturally occurring form, yeast is a single-celled fungus that pops up everywhere. If you’ve seen the sourdough starters that have bubbled and risen throughout social media feeds, you’re seeing natural yeast at work, gnawing on water and flour and giving off carbon dioxide that causes that mixture to grow.


In contrast, the yeast you can buy on store shelves is a dried-out version of one naturally occurring fungus that is specifically cultivated to provide faster rises in bread dough. Despite what you may have heard from sourdough starter partisans, neither method is necessarily better than the other. In his essential 2012 text, Flour Water Salt Yeast (a book I bought in late March when I realized baking was going to be a thing I did a lot of going forward), Ken Forkish writes, “I often prefer to add small amounts of commercial yeast to my levain bread doughs to get the best of both worlds: bread that has wine-like complexity and acidity as well as a light texture in the crumb.”

It’s not necessary to have yeast to make good bread, but just hearing the word probably makes you think of a warm loaf, fresh out of the oven. And because we’re humans, and because humans eat a lot of bread, that might make you think of sustenance, of wholeness, of life. Yeast isn’t magic, but it is life. It’s literally alive, feeding and growing and making things delicious.

And yet as I put on a mask to head outside for my weekly trip to the grocery store, it’s hard to remember that yeast is all around us. There are other things in the air, on the surfaces I touch, on the packages I get delivered, and on the skin of those I come in contact with. The air itself seems poised between life and death. So I bake bread.


Mrs. America tells a story of conservative politics using a progressive framework. It’s terrific. Vox, May 21

I didn’t do a lot of traditional TV criticism this year, but I really liked this piece, on the ways that FX’s Mrs. America upended our expectations for how a story about an underdog striking back against the system should be told.

We know how storytelling works: We are being set up to see Schlafly as someone who’s had enough of the system as it exists and fights to change it. But Schlafly doesn’t fight to change the world; she fights to preserve it exactly as it is. She looks at the indignities she suffers and sees that the easiest way to attain the power she wants is to give the men who hold on to that power what they want. It’s a brilliant trick, one that essentially traps the viewer inside of Schlafly’s rationalizations, and I’m not surprised it left some nauseated.

In its second and third episodes — centered on Steinem and Chisholm, respectively — the series broadens its portrayal of the feminist movement, which is where the show stakes its claim for being more than just Schlafly propaganda. Indeed, as the series draws to its close, it argues that her deal-brokering with the devils she knows (including tacit approval for involving the Klan at one point) was no better than becoming the devil herself.

But, the series also argues, America is primed to prefer a movement that is doing something seemingly big and important, especially if it can reinforce preexisting prejudices. Compared to fractious infighting, a powerful, solidarity-driven movement that argues forthrightly for strong, clearly articulated principles will almost always win. And if Schlafly understands that, why don’t her feminist counterparts on the left?


A trans Christian minister came out in a sermon. Now, she’s bracing for what comes next. Vox, June 26

This profile of Junia Joplin, a Baptist minister who came out as trans, is maybe the single best thing I wrote for Vox this year. If you haven’t read it, please do so. I’m really proud of it.

When she was 11, at a Christian summer camp, on an island, in the middle of a lake in upstate New York, Junia Joplin — June to her friends — realized two things: She wanted to be a minister, and she wanted to be a girl.

She realized she wanted to be a minister because, well, it was a church camp. But she knew she wanted to be a girl because girls were separated on the other side of the island. And June knew, on some subconscious level, she was on the wrong side of that island.

“There wasn’t a day when I was 11 that God said, ‘Oh, hey, June, by the way, there’s something I want you to do,’” she says. “It’s less like a Post-It note that shows up on your door one day and more like this transmission that you keep turning the dials on for the rest of your life. That’s also the way I think about gender. So many of us can say that they had inklings [about their gender] at 4 or 5, 6 years old. ... Some of us it’s not as clear. It’s a lot more faint. But it’s always there.”


“Usually, trans women are side characters,” Vox, July 12

Seeing Eve Lindley playing a romantic lead in AMC’s Dispatches from Elsewhere made me deeply, deeply happy. That I got to profile her — and even spend time with her back in February, before the world fell apart — was a real honor.

Dispatches From Elsewhere is just the 12th role Lindley has ever played on camera. That she’s playing a romantic lead is impressive in and of itself; that she brings so much presence and spark to the show is even more striking. Her role as the romantic female lead of a miniseries about four people drawn into a mysterious, surreal game playing out on the streets of Philadelphia could have felt undercooked, but she brings the character to vibrant life.


And Lindley’s presence on Dispatches From Elsewhere is hugely significant. Though her character, Simone, is not the series’ protagonist (that honor goes to Peter, played by Segel, who created the show and wrote and directed several episodes), she is his primary love interest. And because both Lindley and Simone are trans, she’s making history by default.


“Usually, trans women are side characters. I was a funny character actress, and I never had to think about being pretty on camera or being intimate on camera or kissing on camera,” she says. “It’s weird. I’ve never kissed on camera before. [I asked Jason] ‘What do we do? Do we just do it?’ And Jason was, like, ‘What?’ He’s kissed every A-list actress under the sun! Okay. Great. This is wonderful. No pressure.”


Taylor Swift is the millennial Bruce Springsteen, Vox, July 31

WELL SHE IS.

Both musicians love songs about a kind of white Americana that’s never really existed but that the central characters of which feel compelled to chase anyway. They use those songs to tell stories about those people and the places they live. They’re terrifically good at wordplay. Both are fascinated by the ways that adolescence and memories of adolescence continue to have incredible power for adults. Both are amazing at crafting bridges that take already good songs to another level. And both write songs featuring fictional people whose lives are sketched in via tiny, intimate details that stand in for their whole selves.

For example: The opening lines to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (“The screen door slams / Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch / as the radio plays”) tell you everything about that woman and the man observing her.

Similarly, the opening lines of Swift’s “All Too Well” (“I walked through the door with you, the air was cold / but something ‘bout it felt like home somehow and I / left my scarf there at your sister’s house / and you still got it in your drawer even now”) tell you everything about this doomed relationship and the nostalgia both people involved in it still feel, compressed into a tiny little stanza.


Wheel of Fortune, Episodes, Aug. 31

I am so happy that I get to write some weird shit in this newsletter from time to time, but I was surprised by this short story that poured out of me in about three hours one night. I keep meaning to revise it and send it somewhere else for publication, but something about it feels a little pure to me in this unedited state. Maybe I’ll let it stay as is.

Esther had always wanted to see Lake Itasca, so they went to see Lake Itasca.

“From tiny acorns grow giant oaks!” she had said when they hatched their road trip plan. She was impersonating Mr. Glendenning, who was fond of tracing the Mississippi up and up and up from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico all the way back to where it began, in the humble waters of Lake Itasca, in a nondescript corner of northern Minnesota. Esther grasped, in a way Caitlin could never understand, that there was a lake, and there was a river, and there was a sea. Esther knew she lived at the headwaters of some greater self, and she kept searching the banks of the lake for divots in which she might assert herself and spill downhill toward whatever ocean awaited her.

Esther could make fun of Mr. Glendenning because it would never occur to her that she wasn’t a mighty oak. Both girls knew that Mr. Glendenning was an example of a bum acorn, laying on a forest floor, never to reach its true potential. Esther was all potential, and Caitlin liked sitting in her shade. By the time Caitlin realized she had totally misunderstood her friend, it would be too late.


I am an artistic genius, and my medium is custom-designed plaques, Episodes, Sept. 28

This might be the funniest thing I’ve ever written, and you heathens didn’t appreciate it. (By the way, I made a new plaque tonight.)

So I was upset that I hadn’t been submitted for consideration for a Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t know why I felt this was important, beyond the fact that I think I should be submitted for all prizes, and I think most of the conversations I have should be about how I’m great.

My friend Eliza asked me, “Well, what do you get if you win the Pulitzer Prize?”

“Money,” I said. “And a plaque. But I’ve won a plaque before. I won a South Dakota Newspaper Award in 1999, and I got a plaque for that. I still have it somewhere.”

“I’ve never won a plaque,” Eliza said wistfully. And then the madness began.


How Fox News molds reality into a serialized TV drama, Vox, Oct. 8

I had been sitting on some version of this piece for ages, until the presidential debates inspired me to finally publish it. I’m so glad to finally have it out in the world, where I can link to it.

Somewhere in the middle of last week’s presidential debate — you may remember there was a news cycle before President Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19 — I realized that to anyone who doesn’t subsist on a steady diet of right-wing news, a lot of what Trump said must have been incoherent nonsense. The president spent the entire evening firing off a jumble of talking points that seemed to have no center other than a very basic grievance with the way the world was mistreating his base.

Trump’s debate prep seemed to have consisted of watching a bunch of Fox News, which honestly wouldn’t be that different from how he seems to spend his time normally. But his performance further underlined, on a national stage, how central Fox News is to the Republican Party in the 21st century. It’s a really curious relationship, one that has seemed to become even more unavoidable since August, when the Republican National Convention lineup was so swamped by speakers best known to Fox News viewers that this very website ran occasional guides to who those speakers were, to inform those who aren’t avid fans of the network.

To watch Fox News at any given time is to step out of this reality and into another one entirely, where President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis has been the most important news story in the country since last Friday, but only because it shows that the coronavirus isn’t that big of a deal.


This animated miniseries perfectly captures the loneliness of autumn, Vox, Oct. 19

We started our “One Good Thing” series at Vox early in quarantine, as a way to recommend ways to keep yourself occupied. Then it became a way for me to do some sneakily personal critical writing, as with this meditation on Over the Garden Wall.

I grew up on a hog farm in rural South Dakota. It wasn’t quite the middle of nowhere — it was situated along a major highway — but it was close. The sounds of semis barreling by in the middle of the night had a ghostly quality, passing us by between other lands.

The worst times were when my family would get home late from some function or another, and I would have to wander out into the dark, flashlight in hand, to make sure the pigs’ water containers were working properly. (Pigs, with their muddy noses, often clogged up the pipes with that mud, so the containers had to have the mud scraped out of them twice daily to keep them working their best.)

On fall evenings, with a chill settling in, the handful of trees between the hog lots and my house stood like roadmaps to some other world, lit up by the moon. I would conjure things that might live among the trees, ghosts or Sasquatch or other monsters that could haunt my farm and my childhood. But the trees didn’t hide monsters in their shadows. They just hid the house I grew up in.


Fall TV is here, Covid-19 and all, Vox, Nov. 2

A big question I got all year was “when will we run out of TV?” and this article attempted to answer why we… didn’t. At least not really. I don’t always love reporting, but I think the reporting here really wound up working.

Are the new guidelines and protocols working? Sort of. Maybe. The NBC series Chicago Med had to shut down for two weeks due to a Covid-19 outbreak, for instance. But the people I’ve talked to say that, so far, precautions have slowed things down but mostly become a fact of on-set life.


“Everything ran incredibly smoothly once we finally got [on set] and realized that all of the protocols had been adhered to as best as they could be,” says Noah Huntley, who stars in the CW’s sci-fi drama Pandora, which recently finished filming its second season in Bulgaria. (Though some shows have started filming in countries with lower infection rates, Pandora has always filmed in Bulgaria.) “We’re all dealing with the unknown and trusting that in the face of the unknown, people are going to take care of your safety and best interests.”

In a similar fashion to many American workplaces right now, TV sets are also rife with masks and other personal protective equipment, particularly for the actors who could grind a show to a complete standstill if they are exposed to or contract Covid-19 and have to quarantine or isolate for two weeks (or longer).


TV absolutely has to get rid of “election night,” Vox, Nov. 5

One thing I often dread doing is coming up with takes on the news as filtered through television. I think the pieces I write are often really good; coming up with them is sometimes like pulling teeth. This piece came to me quite easily on election night, and I found that it flowed freely.

“What are we doing?” Stephen Colbert kept asking his producer as his 2020 election special on Showtime wound its way toward a chaotic conclusion.

In 2016, the late-night host’s live election special had felt a little like a wake for America as Colbert attempted to cope in real time with a country that had voted by a slim majority to elect Donald Trump as its commander in chief. It was surprisingly electrifying television. His 2020 special — which aired while America waited for votes to be counted, with no immediate end in sight — was much less electrifying.

Colbert was already filming in the midst of a pandemic, a performer who’s at his best when he has other people to play off of interacting only with a handful of people in the studio (most notably his wife, sitting off to his side) and then a variety of guests beamed in via videoconferencing software. Though he’s gotten very good at doing his show without a live audience laughing for every joke, the rhythms of an episode of late-night TV produced with Covid-19 safety protocols in place will always feel a little awkward.

But a newly revealed and even bigger challenge is that the era of live late-night election specials has largely been confined to the Obama and Trump administrations. The results of both Obama elections were known or almost certain by the time those specials launched in the 11 pm hour on the East Coast, and the 2016 election was clearly tilting toward Trump (if not over yet) by the time Colbert’s special aired. In 2020, the fact that results were going to be delayed — something that all of America had been conditioned to expect — didn’t really matter. The show had to go on because that’s what shows like this do.


My two days watching Newsmax, the network waging war on Fox News from the right, Vox, Nov. 12

Then there was the time I sat down and watched a bunch of ultra-conservative TV seemingly designed to shatter the Trump coalition. Newsmax was alternately terrifying and surreal, and I’m glad I spent time checking it out.

On Newsmax, the 2020 election is still undecided. To hear Newsmax tell it, not only has President-elect Joe Biden not definitively clinched the presidency, but incumbent Donald Trump is quite close to having victory in the bag.

The 24-hour news network that aims to run to Fox News’s right does something subtle to make it seem as though Trump has all but won. Along the bottom of the screen, it perpetually runs an election results tracker. When close Senate races pop up in the tracker, the Democratic candidate, highlighted within a blue box, appears on the left when they won — just as you’d expect when keeping track of scores: We traditionally list the winner of something first.

But when the results of the major battleground states pop up, Trump is always listed first, even when he’s trailing behind Joe Biden, sometimes by a huge margin. This is true when the network shows the current tally in Michigan, where Biden leads Trump by about 150,000 votes, and where other major outlets named Biden the winner several days ago. It’s true even when the network shows the results in the national popular vote, where Biden leads Trump by more than 5 million votes.

Newsmax reports up-to-date vote totals. It doesn’t overtly suggest that Trump is leading in the states he has clearly lost, even in terms of percentage of the total vote. But by always listing Trump first, the network creates the perception that Trump is in control of this race, even when you look more closely at the raw numbers. He’s gonna win this thing! Just you wait!


“To a Nunnery,” Arden, season 2, episode 10, Nov. 30

One of the things I’m proudest of working on ever is the second season of Arden, which was released this year. In particular, this episode, co-written with my wife, Libby Hill, was a way for us to examine a lot of the complicated feelings we have around my transition, then filter them into the mouths of two people who are both like us and not like us at all. And we got to do one of my favorite things, which is mount tension until it feels like it’s going to snap. The performances by Libby Woodbridge and Saoirse Ó Súilleabháin in this episode leave me in awe at how good they are.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/episode/7GpoQIDQYklqISKWqGjKjy

The Lost Year, Vox, Dec. 16

I think this ongoing series of conversations with people about the year that was is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my writing career. You can catch up with the full series here, and I highly recommend you read this one about a pig and this one about a trans woman grappling with her identity in quarantine. But my introductory essay was pretty neat, too.

The Death card doesn’t mean literal death, except when it does. Typically, it represents an ending, which also implies a new beginning. Something has changed, or something will change. You just don’t know what yet. Unless you do. Tarot’s funny that way.

The “actual” meaning of the Death card is something you learn when you study tarot, but it’s also something that has slipped beyond the world of tarot lore and into the mainstream consciousness. The TV Tropes page for tarot motifs reveals dozens of mentions of the Death card, most of which involve characters who learn that it foretells “change” or “an ending” instead of literal death.

Usually, the Death card features some sort of skeletal figure; the most famous version shows a skeleton in a suit of armor astride a horse. A king kneels before him, because, well, Death is the great leveler. My favorite version, from a tarot deck known as the Brady Tarot, features a human skull with plants sprouting from the eye sockets. Beneath it, the skull of a prehistoric animal rests below the earth, trapped in a giant, all-devouring maw lined with teeth. The saber-toothed cats are gone; humanity will be too someday. Everything changes. Everything is temporary.


I’ve drawn the Death card quite a bit in 2020. And I’ve frequently drawn it reversed, which is to say upside down. Not every tarot reader finds added meaning in reversed cards, but I often do. Typically, a reversed card is interpreted as the mirror image of itself — not precisely a direct opposite, but not not an opposite either. I tend to read Death reversed as stasis, an unwillingness to change, an unwillingness to accept that things end.

Most recently, I drew the card when thinking about this very essay. The question I asked as the starting point for my tarot spread was, more or less, “2020: What’s up with that?” And when I arrived at the slot reserved for “hopes and fears” — because usually our hopes and our fears are closely intertwined — I drew Death reversed. What I feared most was also what I hoped for most: that once this terrible year is over, nothing will have changed.


A Christmas Carol, explained by a 5-year-old, Vox, Dec. 24

Few things I write at Vox have the passionate fanbase of my “critic-at-large/critic-at-small” series, in which I chat about pop culture with Eliza, my boss’s daughter, who is also my best friend who is 5. Doing these articles is almost always a delight, and I hope to do many more in 2021.

Eliza, what did you see as the chief adaptation choices made by these two specials?


Eliza: The Muppet Christmas Carol looked like Sesame Street, and Mickey’s Christmas Carol was a cartoon. The Spirit of Yet to Come in Mickey’s Christmas Carol had eyes [in its hood]. The Muppet Christmas Carol one didn’t have eyes and was gray with lines. The Mickey’s Christmas Carol one was brown. Plus, when the Mickey’s Christmas Carol spirit threw Scrooge in fire, he said, “SCROOOOOOOOOGE!” and the other one was way more quiet.


Oh! I was going to ask something about Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Why did the Spirit of the Future drop Donald Duck, who was playing Scrooge, in fire?


Emily: [desperately trying not to explain hell to a child] Well, uh, it was to show he had been bad. And if he stayed bad, he would go and get burned up.


Eliza: [looking very concerned] Oh.


Emily: But that’s only if you’re bad. [disconcertingly long pause] He was pretty bad. Wait. Donald Duck doesn’t play Scrooge in Mickey’s Christmas Carol! He plays Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.


Eliza: No, that’s a smaller girl duck.


Emily: All right.


And there’s so much more stuff I wrote this year — even beyond that which is publicly available! But until you can read all of the other things I’ve written, please, please, please check out my Vox archives here, the archives of this very newsletter here, and the complete run of Arden so far here.

I look forward to seeing all of you back here in 2021. I’m so grateful, every day, for the faithful readers I’ve had across my year. I am truly humbled and promise to keep doing my all to make sure you get interesting stuff to read.

To the future.

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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