Why is TV awash in afterlives, hells, and purgatories?
There's an unspoken tension between superhero stories and supernatural ones. The former — including its bleak, subversive examples — tends to interrogate power and the difficulty of having it. TV series like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones (and their counterparts in film) like to philosophize about the price of power. It's humbling, exhausting, even demoralizing to be responsible for the world's troubles. Shows that deal with the supernatural tend, in contrast, to wrestle with the experience of powerlessness. They're less about morality or reality or individual responsibility, and more about hitting one's limits hard as a jumping-off point to faith.
We're suddenly awash in shows dealing with the latter.
It may or may not be coincidence that Westworld, Mr. Robot, The OA, Legion, The Leftovers, Twin Peaks, and several other shows are approaching the age-old problem of power from its less dominant end just as America slides into definitive decline. What's certainly the case is that the clarity of superhero shows is absent here. Instead, these are populated by characters whose perspectives we usually can't completely trust as they investigate the unsuspected dimensions of their worlds. Whether they take the form of astral planes or hotels or white rooms or Black Lodges, these alternate realities wrestle the viewer into a kind of sustained, exhausted, provisional acceptance of baffling rules that keep changing until she gives up and surrenders to the flow.
I'm trying not to read too much into this historical moment, but it's hard to avoid speculating about the ways in which this proliferation of TV shows about people embracing the irrational reflects the national mood. Being a superpower is ethically taxing (or should be). Rather than obsessively analyze their own complicity in concrete power structures for which they're responsible, these characters puzzle over how they fit in a system that's much bigger and much less logical than they ever dreamed.
The relief of this should be obvious: What if the real question isn't your greatness but your smallness? Not what you can do but what you can tolerate? What if you're a poor judge of what's real? What if the stakes aren't what you thought they were?
These are the sorts of fantasies that easily slide toward questions of mortality. What if (for example) you can get killed over and over again but keep coming back? True, that isn't exactly a superpower, but what if it starts to approach one? What if your abilities (traditionally understood as something you do) are an accidental function of what's been done to you? Take Mr. Robot. Elliot might have done some alarming things as Mr. Robot, but he doesn't remember doing them, because he was thrown out of a window by his father, which affected his brain function, which absolves him of responsibility. Etc. etc.
We're in a glut of shows about human smallness amid giant unknowns. That leave room for people who believe things and for people who are believed in. Sometimes this takes a messianic turn: Take Westworld, The OA, and The Leftovers: these are all about people dying over and over again and getting resurrected. Other shows are about people not-quite-dying, as in Twin Peaks' Laura and American Gods' Laura and Legion's Oliver. The point is that our TV terrain has radically expanded its scope to include afterlives and astral planes and purgatorial non-Earth dimensions that don't follow real-world rules or real-world constraints and demand leaps of faith.
Some are intergalactic, like Netflix's The OA:
Or the "astral plane" on FX's Legion:
Or whatever this is floating in the middle of nothing on the new Twin Peaks:
Others are amusingly down-to-earth. Starz' American Gods makes a charmingly prosaic point of showing the transition between the earthly and the astral: A character dies in her dingy apartment and climbs up several flights of stairs into this provisional phase of the afterlife, where your heart gets measured against a feather:
The foregoing purgatories are peculiar without being exactly unpleasant. That's not always the case, of course. Some of these other-worldly spaces are horrible, like Stranger Things' Upside-Down:
Some are perplexing, like Mr. Robot's sitcom episode (which reframed Elliot's already-filtered life as he convalesced):
Or the amazing karaoke on The Leftovers:
Some of these interstitial worlds are creepy and amusingly off-putting, like the arm-tree in the new Twin Peaks:
And some aren't legible to us as afterlives at all. An interesting subset of this trend are shows that make us feel a little smarter, a little more in control, at least temporarily. We're permitted to believe that the flaw is in their understanding, as in Maeve's awakening in the lab in Westworld. She thinks it's a kind of afterlife; we "know" it to be "real life":
We're flattered into a similar smug omniscience during Helena's conversation with a scorpion in Orphan Black:
(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)
But those fantasies of narrative dominance don't last long. These characters turn out to know things we don't. Helena, for instance, has quasi-magical abilities that seem to be a function of all that was done to her, from scarring and rape to torture. The same is true for Maeve on Westworld. It turns out she and Dolores might be gaining some (to us) incomprehensible ability from having been killed thousands of times. If Maeve's "apperception" is off the charts, it's not only because she made the techs increase it. There's something about dying over and over that improves or refines or augments you.
In fact, every character who has been forced into powerlessness on these shows seems to gain some other kind of power as a result, particularly when the end result is death. Whether it's Prairie (who is repeatedly murdered in The OA), or Kevin in The Leftovers, or Laura in Twin Peaks, the only rule seems to be that you get something, some sort of compensatory ability, as a result of having horrible things done to you. But these aren't "origin stories" in the usual superheroic sense; rather than radioactive spider bites, they're painful and incremental progressions.
Cinematically, the surprising result is that we see an awful lot of characters engage in "empowering" actions that overtly look like suicide or self-mutilation:
It's funny; in college, I used to privately sneer at the claim — made by several professors — that female characters who did terrible things to themselves in literature were in fact exerting power. It seemed like wishful thinking that endowed the victims of the past with a warped intentionality. The idea seemed to be that if they meant to suffer, then they'd somehow tricked their tormentors and agency was their odd reward.
But that matches what a lot of these shows are doing. In a moment when everyone is feeling powerless and like the rules no longer seem to matter, or apply, suffering has emerged on television as a compelling anchor for stories that otherwise lack stakes. So many quasi-suicidal characters doing apparently suicidal things are actually engaged in a quiet, uncomprehending struggle according to rules they don't quite understand. But it is a struggle. They are not giving up.
Visually, of course, it doesn't quite look like that. Instead of action scenes, we see (to take one small trend) elaborate machines intended to facilitate inter-dimensional travel via quasi-deaths and quasi-resurrections:
The thing about all this interesting equipment is that no one understands why it works or what "safety" means. Even science has become a matter of faith. In Legion, for example, it turns out that Jemaine Clement's character Oliver needs the diving suit, but David can walk through the astral plane unaided. Is that one of his superpowers? Or is it just one of those things, like the white room suddenly losing whatever firewall kept the Demon with the Yellow Eyes out?
This is the other fun aspect of this TV trend: The explosion of mythologies and explanatory systems people develop to account for the incomprehensible:
This obviously links up to larger questions of how causality works in these stories. Was The OA telling the truth, or lying, or is she just unwell? Is Elliot in Mr. Robot a genius or ill or possessed or all three? (You can swap in the same question for David Haller in Legion or Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks). Did Nora actually use the machine in The Leftovers or is the story she told in "The Book of Nora" just that, a story and nothing more?
The point is that these are all faith systems that make rational decision-making and the pursuit of power irrelevant. These are stories that swap in a higher power for the superpower in order to make sense of a reality that doesn't. In lieu of fetishizing the individual's ability to make a difference, as so many superhero stories tend to do — up to and including rewarding the good and punishing evil-doers — the protagonists here limit their aspirations to dipping a toe into existing power currents and trying to channel some the right way. These are forces that were there before them and will be there after them. Even matters of life and death are reduced in size and scope; neither seems to be definitive anymore. People pop in and out depending on the needs of some larger cosmic story.
It's hard to gauge the extent to which rumors of American decline have been exaggerated. What is clear is that we have been narratively preparing ourselves for a new reality where the American superpower isn't one, and where we're ready (at least in our television) to surrender to something much bigger, whatever its dimensions, and whatever its rules.