Hate-Watching and Bailing Out

The other day, I saw an article on The Mary Sue titled "In Defense of Liking What You Like: Stop Trying to Make “Hate-Watch” Happen", which struck a chord in part because -- in case you missed my review of Daredevil Season 1 -- I've done my share of hate-watching. I admit I went into Daredevil skeptical, and it didn't exactly upend my reservations; I've long-since tired of grim, violent hero stories that dress themselves in anti-hero clothing. But it's not the only thing I've deigned to hate-watch. I love-watched the Doctor Who revival series long before I hate-watched it, and then bailed out. I love-watched Game of Thrones for three seasons before I hate watched it for most of one more, and then bailed out. God help me, I'm watching all seven seasons of Star Trek: Voyager right now (I'll finish season 5 in the next week or so) -- though in this case, I'm not sure whether I'm watching it or hate-watching it.

Suffice it to say, though: I subscribe to the school of hate-watch. At the same time, I'm really sympathetic to the point Sundi Rose-Holt is making over on The Mary Sue. There is a brand of unfortunate hate-watch that is supported by a culture of shame, where the "hate" part of being an audience member is an illusion we maintain to avoid the scorn of those around us, so that when Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You" comes on the radio, we scoff publicly at the puerile, inelegant lyrics, when really, on the inside, I think it's catchy and I admire what seems to me a kind of brilliantly straightforward, unselfconscious refusal of love-song poetics in favor of a surprising linguistic honesty. There. I said it. It's a good song. And maybe this kind of shame-based hate-watch is the dominant form, and for that I am wholeheartedly in Rose-Holt's corner. We're adults, damn it. We don't have to play these games. Like what you like.

But, I will still support the value of the hate-watch. Jump the cut to find out why.

There's a point in Rose-Holt's article where she makes a distinction between hate-watching something and watching something with critical distance. The idea that you can enjoy something and still think it has problems -- even deep or irreconcilable ones -- is oddly difficult for a lot of people to get a hold of. When, so many years ago, James Baldwin said, "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually," he said it in defense of this kind of critical distance, and you can still see today the kind of reactive absolutism he was defending himself against, the kind of Why-Do-You-Hate-America hair-pulling that inevitably follows any honest critique of the country. And, you know, I actually do enjoy things more when I feel free to criticize them, though it can sound like I don't like them because I tend to be so critical.

But I also, obviously, criticize things I think are bad, and that I don't enjoy. I don't enjoy Daredevil. I won't watch its forthcoming seasons, barring some major and unforeseen changes. I don't enjoy Game of Thrones anymore, and I have stopped watching. I don't enjoy Doctor Who anymore, and I have stopped watching that as well. But: I did watch all of these well after the point that I was not getting any joy out of them because I did not enjoy them, and I will watch other things for the same reason. For me, the hate-watch is a process of gathering enough information to thoroughly understand my hate before bailing out. The fact that I bailed out of all of the above is important. I subjected myself to them enthusiastically past the point where they brought me joy, but not without end.

The thing is, they don't need to bring me joy to bring me something. I get a lot of value -- as an artist, but also, I think, as a viewer, and as a person -- out of knowing why I hate things, but once I have a clear understanding of the problem, the value income dries up and I can bail out.

I made my case against Daredevil. When Matt Murdock resolved the season's conflict by simply beating the crap out of a dude, it gave me the last piece of evidence I needed to conclude my hate-watch trial. I don't need or want to watch season 2 because I don't see how it can enrich my understanding of what the show stands for.

When Doctor Who came back on the air, it gave me something I wanted desperately. I got a hero who solved the universe's problems by talking at them, and by running away, and by listening to his friends and not, as a rule, by punching them. When he acted inhumanely, it was because he's not human, and because he was isolated from other people, because his humanity is an ideal maintained through his proximity to actual humans. When Martha leaves, he loses his capacity for mercy because in the literal and figurative senses, his humanity left him. When Donna comes on, her human influence becomes more and more clear as they travel together more and more. If the production values and story ideas were intentionally silly and sometimes downright bad, it was balanced by an attention to detail in character development that frequently astonished me (one of my favorite moments is when Tennant's Doctor, long struggling to maintain a healthy perspective on the limits of his own power, and having just saved the people at the library by virtue of nothing but his reputation, finally snaps and gives into his egotism -- which he does by literally snapping his fingers to exercise a power he had previously called impossible; it's an amazing combination of long-form narrative colliding with visual metaphor, filmed with an appropriately chilling and somber air).

Then, I started hating it. I can even name the moment: A Good Man Goes to War.

I did not realize it at the time, because it's a good episode. For a long time, I thought it was the next episode, Let's Kill Hitler, a truly terrible episode, that started my hate-watch. At the end of A Good Man Goes to War, the Doctor rushes off on a desperate journey to recover his best friends' newborn child. At the start of Let's Kill Hitler, he's given up, and Rory and Amy don't seem to care. By the end of the episode, the baby is an afterthought. This was a huge narrative betrayal. It betrayed all of the characters: Seeing nothing of the Doctor's attempts to recover the child, but having seen him succeed endlessly to complete more desperate tasks over several years of storytelling, his resignation to her loss is mystifying, but not half as mystifying as how little her parents seem to care. Let's Kill Hitler applies a narrative band-aid, implying that Rory and Amy did raise their daughter because time-travel made them childhood friends (though they'd never once mentioned their lifelong friend Mel to that point), but it rings predictably false. From there, the dominoes continue to fall. Repeatedly, betrayals of characterization are covered up with unconvincing time-travel band-aids, more and more the Doctor acts as a blunt instrument who simply destroys all of his enemies, and more and more Amy's motivations, skills, and intelligence vary and reset based on the plot of the week. Eventually, when Matt Smith's Doctor leaves the show by using his regeneration energy as a weapon of mass destruction, I had nothing left, and, finally, I understood that the guy who literally weaponized himself in his final episode first betrayed that inhuman, weaponized approach to problems when he went to war, and not when he met Hitler after all. And seeing Matt Smith's Doctor for the literal death machine that he was, it was hard to take any of his moralizing later about the War Doctor seriously.

My hate-watch was done at that point. I understood, and I was able to be done AND be satisfied.

There's a moment in season 1 of Game of Thrones where Dany is sold to Drogo and he rapes her on their wedding night. It's a rape in the book, too, but it's a weird, gross rape-apology rape thing, where Drogo -- who literally purchased Dany and has no semblance of a relationship with her -- coerces her into sex until she says yes. There's the appearance of consent in that book scene, which disarms a lot of readers in a kind of Lolita-Hotel-Scene way. We're told by the book that by the time they consummate their marriage, Dany wants it. But, I remind you, she was literally sold to him. She is being treated as property and has no choice but to be subjected to his coercion until she says yes. It's a gross scene.

When the show depicted the moment as a brutal, straightforward rape, I thought it was a success of interpretation. They had stripped away all of the weird, gross coercive apologia and boiled the moment down to its honest ugliness. I thought: "I can trust the people making this show because they get it." Add to that thoughtful interpretation some awesome scripting and mind-blowing performances, and, yeah, I loooved that show.

I don't look at that scene the same way anymore. Later in the series, Jon Snow is similarly coerced into sex that he does not want to have, a series of events that ends in an appearance of consent that confuses the reality of the situation (Snow, who has spent hundreds of pages agonizing over his need to maintain his vow of celibacy, is literally maneuvered by Ygritte into the choice to either break that vow or die -- he does not consent; he is coerced). When the show tackled this by making Jon an eager participant and stripping away the coercion, it was, ultimately, my bail-out point (I think I watched a few more episodes out of a misplaced sense of obligation, but I gained nothing by it). It was the point where I finally understood: If the show does not see Snow's rape the same way it sees Dany's, it does not really have a grasp on the problems with sexual violence that I needed it to, and though it was a small moment in the series it was the last piece I needed on a big pile of evidence that the show is too problematic for me, that it does not see the rape of women as a problem in the books that needed to be exposed and considered so much as something that just needed to happen on screen for the sheer entertainment value, which is despicable. My original trust had been misplaced. It's clear now that they did not film Dany's scene as an obvious rape because they were uncomfortable with the implications of the book's treatment, but because they thought rape was just plain more fun to watch than sex. I would not have recognized this had I not continued to watch the show long after I started hating it. I would have continued to give them a kind of credit they had not earned honestly. And I'm glad that I don't have to do that.

So, yes: I will defend the hate-watch. Hate-watching does not need to be a shame-response. It can be instructive, which I value.

Just make sure you have your bail-out points figured out.