Listen, I know how newsletters go: You sign up with the best of intentions, and then they become harder to read as your inbox floods with more than anyone can keep up with. Even the best newsletters can start to pile up, unread, until they become a source of anxiety, like a podcast feed that keeps downloading faster than you can listen. So first, a little housekeeping: This is the greatest newsletter you’ll ever subscribe to, and you need to read it every week. (Thought that would go differently, didn’t you?)
I’ll do my best to make this the most worthwhile and entertaining newsletter possible, at least. Your part is to follow along, share your own experiences and interpretations, or learn alongside me. And if there’s something I’m not reading, watching, or playing that you think I should be, you’d better let me know. That’s what friends are for, and I consider us friends given that you subscribed to this newsletter. It’s a fair assumption that you’re interested in us growing together.
The “together” part is important. I have the big platform every week, but I’m not here to teach much. That’s what the stories and characters are for—whatever or whoever they are. Together, we’ll mine them for gold to better understand ourselves and each other. And that can range anywhere from prestige streaming like Succession, to viral dramas like Squid Game, to popular anime like Jujutsu Kaisen. At minimum, I’ll share some great things I think you should watch—and who knows, some of it might be unexpected.
One of my favorite pop-culture moments from the past five years actually comes courtesy of DuckTales, Disney’s 2017 reboot of the 1980s children’s cartoon. Webby Vanderquack was extremely bubbly and kind, but she didn’t have any friends. She had been raised by an ex-spy who taught her how to fight and survive, but what Webby really wanted was what Dominic Toretto has: a family. When she finally found one, a villain named Magica took them away, and in a climactic battle, Webby fought tooth and nail against Magica to get them back. What was so amazing was Webby’s version of the ultimate insult during their fight, an exclamation that summarized who Webby was as a character.
Webby growled at Magica.
“Oh, someone’s mad,” Magica said. Magica shot an energy beam from her staff at Webby.
Webby slipped past the beam as she charged toward Magica. Webby leapt in the air to make sure it’d hurt more, and punched Magica in the face.
“I just got a family!” Webby said. Right hook. Left hook. Left roundhouse. “I thought I had a best friend in Lena!” Left hook. Right jab. Forward flip kick. Hip check. “But you took that all away!” she yelled at Magica.
Magica had fallen on her back and was crawling backwards away from Webby but recovered by throwing debris in Webby’s eyes. But Webby kept attacking with everything she had.
“You are not—” Webby jumped on Magica’s head. “A—” Webby landed and leaped back in the air. “Nice—” Webby dropkicked Magica’s force field. “Person!”
It was glorious! Webby’s rage summarized into that one sentence, “You are not a nice person.” The disgust in her voice as she said it. The naive expectations she had for people to be good, and the confidence she had that not-good people were worth fighting. Suffice it to say, if you haven’t tried a few episodes of the three-season DuckTales reboot, you’re missing out.
By now, you might realize that this is a less pretentious approach to cultural criticism, analysis, and ethics. We’re in the basement on old sofas, just trying to figure it all out.
If you’re looking for slightly more highbrow, though, let me share the foundation of this newsletter by way of some personal background.
When I was a kid, I lived by faith. I learned the names of all 66 books of the Bible by heart (I still know them, in the way you remember things you memorized at a certain age) and lived by the promise of Acts 16:31, which said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” I was a teenager when I heard my favorite sermon, called “Pascal’s Wager.” It was based on the work of a 17th-century French theologian, mathematician, and philosopher, Blaise Pascal—an intellectual argument for living a Christian life, like the arguments made by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, a book that would become one of my favorites in those days.
The wager went like this: Any rational person should believe in God and act as if he exists. If that person is wrong, their loss is limited; they might live a life with fewer vices and indulgences—arguably a better life anyway—but when they die, they’ll vanish into nothingness. And if that person is right, they stand to win infinite gains through an eternity in heaven. On the other hand, if that same person chose not to believe in God and act as if he doesn’t exist, they might win finite gains from the freedoms of believing in a godless world, but risk infinite loss.
I still think of Pascal’s wager often, but applied specifically to characters where religion isn’t a theme of the story, where the premise of Pascal’s wager wouldn’t apply. Without the stakes of the wager itself—that is, the incentive of heaven and the risk of hell—why does a character want to be good? What does goodness mean to them? And how can that inform what I believe goodness to be without that lesson I was taught from the Bible, to believe and to be saved?
What would be a meaningful wager to your favorite fictional characters? Hell if I know, but I feel Webby has the answer somewhere. And even Succession, Squid Game, and Jujutsu Kaisen. There’s something to be found, there’s gotta be—if only we can dig deep enough.
This is going to be fun. Email me with anything at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter @JordanMCalhoun.