Dystopia, Dissonance, and Reflection: Cells At Work Black and Theme

Cells At Work Black (herein referred to as CAWB) has been caught in an odd tension since it started. On one hand, the body it’s set in is clearly dystopian—it’s an exceptionally crappy place to work (especially in the colon), getting crappier by the day, and it’s made clear that this isn’t something individual cells can change. On the other, the show goes out of its way to provide happy endings that reward the cells for working harder despite the crappy circumstances.

But before I get started, I’d like to take a moment to reply to an obvious response: That the show is written the way it is because that’s just how the body works. I’d like to remind you of episode 11: “Desperation, Gout, and Rebellion”. At first, the gout inflammation was shown to be a result of the immune system acting in ways which damage the body, which is how gout works.

But then, for the emotional climax of the episode, we see AA2153 and a bunch of other cells smashing up the body, explicitly in an attempt to force the higher-ups running the body to pay attention. That is not how gout works; gout doesn’t involve red blood cells and generic (epithelial?) cells breaking stuff.

That was instead an artistic choice that replaced police brutality with protest, letting the episode resolve with a hug and a resolution to continue working like everything’s fine. “Break stuff because it’s clear that the Powers That Be won’t pay attention to anything else” is literally the exact reason violent protests happen. (That, or because police attack peaceful protesters until they fight back.) It is not a concept that applies to nor makes sense in a human body.

So yeah, CAWB goes beyond literally portraying how the body works. That’s fine. It would be boring if it didn’t. But that also means we can talk about what the show is saying.

So. Like I was saying, there’s a tension at the heard of CAWB. Each episode/mini-arc of the show starts with AA2153 encountering some kind of problem that can be traced to the body’s stress and/or unhealthy lifestyle. There is no conceivable way that any of these problems could be meaningfully affected by a single cell working harder, whether you look at the story as a metaphor for the human body or a story about people. Most wouldn’t even be affected by all the cells working harder, because they’re generally rooted in what the body as a whole is doing and not how hard each individual component does its job.

Stories where the protagonists can’t meaningfully affect the world are not bad stories; in fact, most classic works of dystopian fiction make their protagonists powerless in the face of whatever social systems make their world so bleak. That’s why I call the CAWB body dystopian—it’s not just a bad place to live, it’s a place run by systems which ensure it will continue to be a bad place to live.

That said, stories where the protagonists can’t meaningfully affect the world are bleak stories. We don’t call it dystopian fiction because it’s a nice place to live! So the conflicts in this story are resolved by the application of medical aid from outside the body.

To make this feel less deus-ex-machina-ey (because let’s face it, that’s about as deus ex machina as you can get without a sky for the medicine to descend from), AA2153 and the other recurring cells perform some effort which accomplishes some smaller goal. In isolation, that’s a good creative decision—giving your characters achievable goals to strive for within systems too big for them to change is a good way to add stakes to the narrative, whether you’re going to have the world’s problems solved by intervention from outside entities or not. But CAWB, intentionally or not, tries to connect the efforts made by the characters with the body’s improvement.

The last episode had a pretty clear example. Rather than focus on its abstract presentation of CPR, defibrilation, and angioplasty—processes forcing the body into a state where it can survive—we get a scene of AA2153 telling the other red blood cells that they need to be ready to work while a scruffier one argues that they should take a break before the world ends.

Once things started getting better, we see that other cell leaning against a wall while everyone else is ready to rush out and start fixing the body. With that shot and the following scenes of cells on the verge of necrosis, the implication seems to be that the body would have been doomed (or at least in much rougher shape) if the red blood cells had followed Scruffy and not 2153. In short, AA2153’s actions do have an impact on the world…when the plot needs them to, when the story needs some kind of emotional resolution.

But the world never changes, because it’s a dystopia where no one cell’s actions can change anything. This fatalism is emphasized through various plot elements, most obviously the death of AC1677 (the blonde one)—a very small, personal problem (the life of a single cell, one who 2153 had personally saved before), which AA2153 is nevertheless unable to solve. The body is falling apart at the metaphorical seams, and no amount of hard work will prevent that—there aren’t enough workers, or the problems aren’t related to work that can be done, or the work is actively harmful to the body (e.g. hair loss and gout).

And the fact that that last point crops up a couple of times is particularly odd, when you consider how often the series focuses on the value of Hard Work—of Doing Your Job, no matter what. Sure, it’s clear that this attitude is often harmful to the cells themselves, but it’s also made clear that they can pull through it; just look at AA2153, who briefly has a character arc about learning to take the occasional break right before having an arc about how it’s important to keep working even after tragedy saps your life of meaning.

Which culminates in that moment where the story awkwardly goes from portraying gout as the result of an autoimmune response to showing the common cells practically rioting against how the body is treated. The moral of the story? Keep working, for the sake of everyone who died working.

While I’ve been framing the problems I’m criticizing as a result of awkwardly trying to force a story with plots and characters into the dystopian edutainment framework of CAWB. I don’t think that’s untrue, but I don’t think it’s the complete story, either. There’s a separate tension at work here, too.

This is probably as good a time as any to explain why I haven’t been calling it Code Black. Code Black is a term used in some English-speaking hospitals to refer to various bad situations, ranging from hitting its maximum capacity to a bomb threat. (The exact meaning varies by country.) However, the Japanese title doesn’t have the “code” in there, because it’s not referencing “black companies” and not a hospital code.

A black company is…well… an exceptionally crappy place to work, frequently getting crappier by the day, and never something individual employees can change. Specific traits common to black companies include chronic and unpaid overtime, verbal abuse, and threatening employees’ reputations if they quit. It’s the kind of “workplace” that the CAWB body is to its cells, and likely the kind of workplace the body works at. The series is obviously aware that this kind of how devastating it can be to the workers, and acknowledges that overwork is harmful to the individual cells…but also has a protagonist who overworks himself.

AA2153 starts as the purest distillation of a good hard-working prole you could find. He’s hardworking, cheerful, and never lets himself complain. All of those traits take a beating over the course of the story; heck, as mentioned, he has a bit of character development where he learns to take it easy and a brief anti-authoritarian episode.

But at the end of the day, even after learning these lessons, AA2153 is almost never seen actually following those lessons. He doesn’t criticize the authorities; moreover, they only seem to exist to notice things that have been going wrong, not to do anything about them one way or the other. AA2153 doesn’t take time to unwind onscreen after learning to take time to unwind, and he continually encourages others to work harder rather than passing on the Word of Work-Life Balance. And, of course, hard work saves the day—not always in big ways, but almost always in some way, and sometimes also in the big ways.

In some ways, this is worse than just having a workaholic character and not acknowledging the toll that an unadulterated work ethic takes on people. Then, the “message”—that work is always good and never hurts anyone—is so cartoonishly wrong that nobody with the slightest amount of real-world experience could take it seriously. Something like this—which shows the negative side effects of overwork but still frames it as a good thing—carries a much more convincing message. “It’s worth the cost.”

I mean, that’s the scary thing about these movies. It’s always justified. One reason or another, there’s a reason to say “It’s okay. They had to…It’s always worth the cost.” […] [T]hey justify the damage. The casualties, the collateral damage, it’s all worth it because we’re all going to die, and they are protecting us. It’s all okay.

Dan Olsen, “The People vs Clark Kent”

Dan is talking about superhero movies and their messaging via a vis military intervention and militant policing, but the same idea applies here. CAWB is not saying “hard work is good, work is harmless,” but “hard work is necessary”. Doing everything you can to do your job is the best way to make the world better—that’s consistently framed as the solution to problems, or at least the best/only thing AA2153 can do.

Protests won’t accomplish anything; just work. Just work. It’s okay, we have to, it’s worth the cost. And yes, that’s true of the mindless cells in our bodies, but if the series can twist gout into a protest it can let those cells do basic self-care without risking the effing body!

Cells At Work: Original Flavor doesn’t have these problems because that body is fundamentally okay. The body isn’t really utopian, but it isn’t dystopian; it functions, no systems are deteriorating, the cells are healthy and happy. Everyone wants to work hard, but nobody’s suffering for it. Individual cells can affect meaningful change (particularly U-1146 and the other major immune cells, who may single-handedly turn the tide of battle for an entire disease); even if they didn’t, it’s not a world that fundamentally needs to change (aside from undoing the occasional infection). There’s no tension there, because there’s no fatalistic inevitability. There’s no problematic implications, because the dangers of overwork never even come up.

I can’t claim to know why CAWB has these problems. Maybe the author was trying to tell a new CAW story with the darker Black elements, without letting go of enough of Original Flavor’s structure. Maybe they wanted to explore darker themes, but recoiled from their implications. Maybe the author compartmentalized the edutainment separately from the narrative without considering what would happen when the two were put together.

But put together they were, and they don’t fit comfortably. A dystopian world immune to improvement, except when it can be saved by hard work, but hard work literally caused all of these problems to begin with, and while the benefits of self-care are mentioned briefly they’re forgotten almost as quickly. It turns into a tonally-inconsistent parable about how you can fix the world by doing as you’re told as hard as possible, without complaining and without resting more than is absolutely necessary.

I don’t know what I expected. It would be really tough to tell anything like a revolutionary story set in a human body; cells fighting for their own well-being against the demands of the body are usually called cancer, after all. But it feels weird to deliberately invoke these themes, to tap into the social discontent of the modern era—going so far as to work gout into a protest—and then do so little with them.

The Themes of Avengers: Infinity War (and why anyone cares)

Spoilers are going to follow. By now most people interested in seeing Infinity War have seen it at least once, so maybe that isn’t as big of an issue? 

I know many of you looked at the title of this article and sighed or rolled your eyes. Your minds went back to high- and middle-school English classes, where you tried to find justification for some theme that your teacher or some old book says an even older book was about. I understand; I was there! The English curriculum I’m familiar with was terrible at explaining why I should have cared about anything they taught. But then, in college and beyond, I came across a variety of online creators<sup>1</sup> who helped me understand what they were trying to teach. 

To summarize the lessons I have gleaned from these sources as best as I can: Fiction is communication, and themes are what it communicates. Whenever an author tells a story, they end up sharing more than an account of what happened in the story. They also share a worldview associated with that story, and lessons derived from it. If the world is one where the proper authorities are bought off by the bad guys, violence is the only solution, and a happy ending comes to those who take the initiative (and the SMG), this story tells a message about how violence is an effective solution to problems the authorities won’t solve, whether or not that was intentional.<sup>2</sup> This is a theme. 

So with that out of the way, let us examine a major theme in Infinity War. 
Continue reading “The Themes of Avengers: Infinity War (and why anyone cares)”

Black Panther and the Meaning of Fight Scenes

I saw Black Panther recently, and (without getting into the details1) enjoyed most of it but was bothered by some aspects. The former have been discussed to death, which is better than the alternative but leaves me little to talk about. But there is one bothersome aspect which I think is worth talking about. It’s nitpicky, but some nits are worth picking, if only so you can spot when that nit hatches into a louse…erm, a giant louse…or maybe a louse infestation…? 

Let’s just drop the metaphor and get on with it. (Oh, and minor spoilers, but they don’t go far beyond “the hero beats the villain”.) 

  Continue reading “Black Panther and the Meaning of Fight Scenes”

Sid Meier, D&D, and Why TRPGs Are All About Fighting Monsters

Ever since video games got really big, turning into a media industry comparable to literature or theater and rivaling even cinema in its pop culture clout[1], game design has been a popular topic on the Internet. The most notable content creators in the discourse are probably Extra Credits, but there are dozens of other video game fans discussing game design, as well as some industry insiders weighing in (ranging from the GDC vault to Ask A Game Dev on Tumblr). And yet, I’ve never found anyone applying game design to traditional or tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs), such as Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, or Shadowrun. So I decided that I’d fill the void[2] myself.

To begin with, let’s start by explaining what a game is—or, at least, what makes a game engaging as a game rather than an experience[3]. I’ve always been fond of Sid Meier’s definition of a game as a series of interesting decisions. Those choices might be carefully-calculated maneuvers as in Sid Meier’s games, choices based on emotion and gut instinct as in Telltale’s games, semi-reflexive interactions as in rhythm games, or a mixture of two or more as seen in the likes of Dark Souls and Fire Emblem[4]. How well do TRPGs fit this definition?

Continue reading “Sid Meier, D&D, and Why TRPGs Are All About Fighting Monsters”

On the Popularity of the Superhero Genre

Superheroes are pretty popular right now. Many of the biggest movies of the past decade and the most popular current television series are adaptations of Marvel and DC comics, for instance, and various original superhero universes can be found in everything from semi-obscure web novels[1] to one of the most-anticipated animated films of the upcoming year, Incredibles 2. The popularity of the superhero has even bled over into media in other countries, notably in the popular shonen series One Punch Man and My Hero Acadamia (as well as less-well-known ones).

And yet, not long before that, superheroes would have been considered a niche genre at best. That shouldn’t be surprising. Around the time that Hello Dolly’s failure killed off the (non-Disney) movie musical, cinema and media in general have been trending more and more cynical, gritty, and “real”. Superheroes are one of the least cynical and gritty concepts; they’re larger-than-life people who can make things right by beating up some bad guys, while wearing underwear on the outside of their most garish leotards (or, for the women, while wearing gaudy swimsuits). Why have superheroes become so common? I don’t know, but I’m going to take a swing at it. Continue reading “On the Popularity of the Superhero Genre”

Thriving After the End in Wildbow’s Multiverse

After a couple of essays about one of the largest franchises in the modern world, I’m going to write about an author most people have never even heard of. It’s a bit of a shift, but I’ve finally finished Twig and started Ward, and the worldbuilding in the latter work inspired this. And since I’ve so far just been writing about whatever comes to mind, I’m writing about this. Be warned, however, that this essay will contain unavoidable spoilers for all of Wildbow’s completed web serials (Worm, Pact, and Twig), particularly Worm and Twig.

Continue reading “Thriving After the End in Wildbow’s Multiverse”

Poe Dameron and the Lovable Rogue Archetype

The Poe/Holdo subplot of The Last Jedi is one of the most controversial parts of The Last Jedi. Most people I’ve talked to, listened to, or read about disliked the way Luke’s death was handled, liked Rose’s emotional counterweight to Finn, and didn’t know what to think about that scene where Rey was watching a bunch of reflections of herself. (Maybe I need to watch more reviews to get it.) But the Poe/Holdo subplot? A lot of people loved it, a lot of people hated it. It’s not hard to see why; it’s a vicious deconstruction of one of the tropes which our culture holds dearest.

Continue reading “Poe Dameron and the Lovable Rogue Archetype”

My Thoughts on The Last Jedi

I think it’s fair to say that The Last Jedi is…divisive. I’ve tried to avoid reviews so far (I wanted to keep my palette clean until I’d written these thoughts, and I knew I’d want to write them), but the article and video titles I’ve seen make that much clear on their own. So do the TV Tropes entries, which I’ve skimmed in the process of jogging my memory. I’m inclined to agree; there’s a lot I liked about The Last Jedi and a lot I didn’t like. As mentioned, I knew I’d want to write about it by the time I finished watching the movie, so…here we are. I’m writing this, and to my surprise, you’re reading it.

The Force Awakens tries to do a lot of stuff I like, and succeeds at much of it. But it also fails at other parts, and does things that I don’t like, and some things which hardly anyone likes. It’s a film with many fans and many detractors, because it does many good things and many bad things. So I’m going to write down my thoughts on the movie and throw them into the uncaring void of the Internet.

Continue reading “My Thoughts on The Last Jedi”