Warning: Spoilers for the film Midsommar, the video game Night in the Woods, the book Pleasantville, the third season of Twin Peaks, and the musical Hadestown follow.
It’s when Dani discovers she can speak the language that she realizes she’s home.
Dani is the protagonist of the 2019 folk horror film Midsommar. She’s left the tatters of her life in America to join her boyfriend Christian and his buddies in far northern Sweden, as they research European midsummer rituals. Back home, Dani’s family has died in a horrific murder-suicide carried out by her sister. But in northern Sweden, even in the darkest night, there is a glow somewhere in the east.
In folk horror, the protagonist often travels to a rural community in the middle of nowhere, realizing upon arrival that the people who live there keep the old ways, the pagan ways, the ways that involve human sacrifice. Usually, the protagonist is marked as the final offering when it is too late to run. He cannot run. Instead, he dies.
Dani can’t run, but as Christian’s pals are picked off one by one by the practitioners of this strange, ancient religion, she is drawn into their community. Soon, it’s just Dani and her boyfriend left, and where he feels increasingly isolated and alone, she comes to understand the magic of belonging. That’s when she realizes she can speak the local language without having had to learn it. Because she’s home.
The script depicts Dani’s sudden ability to speak this language not as her abruptly learning Swedish but as her taking up some other tongue entirely (which it describes as “gobbledigook”). It’s like she’s remembering something long forgotten, and the others in the village understand her perfectly. We rarely hear Dani speak English after this point, roughly three-quarters of the way into the film, and not at all in its final 10 minutes, in which a fiery sacrifice is made. She lost the place she once belonged, then went into the wilderness and found a new home sprouting up around her, out of the weeds.
She is not the one who burns to death at the end of the movie.
The pop culture of the 2010s longed for something that had been lost — a shared language, a shared myth, a shared community. American arts and culture was driven all decade by an attempt to return to a place that no longer existed, from the biggest works (Game of Thrones) to the smallest (Midsommar was a pretty big hit for an indie horror movie, but it was still an indie horror movie).
Our old communities had been forever changed, sometimes shattered. The American small town, the cozy neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name, the workplace where nobody is ever laid off — which is to say, the settings where so much American pop culture took place in the past — increasingly felt like mirages. Too many people were guarding what was ours from an increasingly nebulous “them.” What might grow out of the ruins remained unspecified.
“The search for community” is a pretty broad theme, and losing home and finding it again is one of the oldest stories we tell about ourselves. But stories about community in the 2010s reflected not just a desire for human connection but an understanding that pop culture’s older depictions of American community too often contained troubling blind spots. The communities in many of these stories were for some people and not for others. So how might we build something better?
That question is not new, but in the 2010s, it felt fresh and vital. 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.”
1) Midsommar, toxic catharsis, and finding home among a death cult
When I ask Midsommar writer and director Ari Aster how he thinks his film relates to the theme of seeking community, he mentions an idea that has consumed and set fire to much of the world in the 2010s: tribalism. Midsommar isn’t just about finding oneself amid a community that embraces you; it’s about how you have to lose yourself in the midst of that embrace, too. Every community is full of individuals. But each individual sacrifices some part of their self to exist in their community. So it goes with Dani.
“I love catharsis, and I love the idea of toxic catharsis,” Aster tells me over coffee one day. Dani finds the new family she longs for in the woods, but it’s a family she can only truly join by ordering the murder of her boyfriend. It’s a happy ending — so long as you don’t think about Christian’s point of view. “Movies are very good at exaltation and big symphonic gestures. And the question, if you’re telling any story, is: Are you working toward catharsis or not?”
It’s the tricky balancing act between exaltation and toxicity that makes Midsommar work as well as it does, and that makes it such a potent example of our longing for and suspicion of community in the 2010s. Dani is trapped in a horrible, codependent relationship with Christian, but the way she ends things involves sacrificing him to her murderous new family, known as the Harga. She leaves one damaged relationship to enter a new one that asks her, the daughter of murdered parents, to become a murderer herself.
Midsommar makes clear that the world Dani is walking into reflects some of the worst tendencies of white Western society. The first characters to die in the film are people of color, and there are creeping elements of white supremacy blurring the edges of the story. In his director’s cut, Aster makes this link explicit via a shot that reveals one character reading a scholarly text about how the Harga’s runic language formed the basis of some Nazi symbolism.
If you want to claw your way back into the past, back into a community where you are accepted and loved without question, you may find yourself lying down beside some of the absolute worst that humanity has to offer.
It is no coincidence that so many of the 2010s’ best horror movies, from Cabin in the Woods to Ready or Not to The Witch to Midsommar, set their action in and around death cults, which in trying to maintain the old ways only wind up accelerating the end of the world. Their stories served to heighten the decade’s political climate, but honestly, only barely.
And yet it’s impossible to watch Midsommar and not understand Dani’s choice to join this particular death cult. When she’s with Christian and his friends, her concerns are often brushed aside, and even though she recently lost her entire family, it’s obvious that her boyfriend views their relationship as a burden. Among the Harga, she finds people who welcome her into their innermost circles.
In the film’s most iconic shot, Dani finds herself surrounded by other women instead of Christian and his all-male friend group. The women begin breathing and howling with her, helping her express her pain, taking some of it and distributing it among the many. To join a community — any community, no matter how deleterious it may be — is to find people who can bear your burdens as their own. It’s a redistribution of pain, and without access to that redistribution, what is hard and horrific can be almost too much to bear.
But it’s not immediately clear that Aster views what happens to Dani as positively as she does. She’s found people who understand her, but Dani, so desperately seeking connection, can’t quite seem to see their worst acts clearly. Where will she end up after living among them for a year? For five years? For a lifetime?
“Trauma can often utterly transform a person and not necessarily for the better. For me, [my first film, Hereditary] was very much about how we can often worship the disasters in our life. That’s what I hope people feel, even if it’s on strictly a gut level and they don’t get that far into articulating whatever that feeling is,” Aster says. “And with Midsommar, I was really going for an increasingly ambivalent tone, finding catharsis that feels tethered to something not quite real. But something that’s infectious.”
2) The internet and the atomization of digital community
The odds are good that if you read Vox.com regularly, you probably consume most of your culture online, a shift that has happened gradually over the last 10 years. And if you had asked me 10 years ago whether that shift would build stronger communities around the culture I love, I would have said yes. Instead, the opposite seems to have happened. I feel more isolated online than ever, and I don’t know anybody who feels more connected to other people now than they did 10 years ago. So I asked Kat Lo, a researcher who studies online communities, why that might be.
Lo has a purse that she loves. She puts it on the table to show it to me while we chat. It has reflective, almost metallic sides, studded with triangular patches that shimmer and appear to change colors when the light hits them. She bought the purse after seeing a Facebook ad and thinking, “cute purse.” But then she noticed the same purse on the arms of a few acquaintances. And then she started to see it out in the wild. Eventually, she started to realize that the other people who were carrying the purse were vaguely similar to her, people she describes as “manic pixie dream girls but into artsy, nerdy stuff.”
Lo doesn’t know that anyone she sees carrying this purse is someone she might have lots in common with, but it sure seems possible. Facebook’s advertising algorithm seems to have created a would-be community out of thin air, comprised of people who might all buy the same purse. From there, it can extrapolate that they might like the same other things, from pop culture to beauty products.
Lo’s research has primarily focused on the way social media has broken apart some notion people once had about how the online space was supposed to work and replaced it with something else. But it’s not just how we think about the internet that’s changed. Lo would argue that social networks and their algorithms have changed our understanding of ourselves.
Imagine, if you can, an online community in the year 2010. It’s probably a forum or a chat room. There are walls — moderators of some sort — but those walls are porous because anybody can enter and hang out, so long as they follow the rules. Posts appear in chronological order. It is a digital space, a virtual space, but it is a space.
Facebook’s algorithm has always been a part of its news feed, introduced in 2006, but in the 2010s, it ramped up its use of machine learning to try to highlight the posts it thought you would be most interested in. Posts would no longer appear in anything even close to chronological order; instead, they’d appear in the order the algorithm decided you should see them in. Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit followed Facebook’s lead, and soon, algorithms were everywhere, dictating what so many of our online experiences looked like. Lo and other researchers have pointed to the introduction of the algorithmic news feed as a kind of collapse of old internet communities, one that gave way to new ones with no real boundaries or context, no real sense of time.
Everything is happening all at once in an algorithmically generated feed. A photo I posted yesterday might suddenly pop up in your feed today. You might go on Twitter to primarily talk to friends, but you never know when something you say will suddenly be stripped out of its original context and placed in a new one where you have no real control.
That’s why online communities can be so hard to understand. If communities are defined in some sense by their boundaries, online communities have only the flimsiest of boundaries. This often leads to the members of various social networks having to police themselves via endless waves of mob justice. It’s an inefficient punishment, even when the crime is heinous. But it’s really the way these spaces are built to operate.
Lo is seeing a reversion. Increasingly, people turn to social networks to be performative. You’re funnier on Twitter, and your life looks more beautiful on Instagram. But in a group text with your friends, (or with friends on Slack or in a private Facebook group or … or … or …), you can be more real.
But we will never be free of the algorithms. And they can’t help but subtly change how we think about communities. One primary function of community is to help us understand that there are human beings other than us. We start with our families, then expand to our peers, and so on and so on. Being part of a diverse community of humans is a great way to learn we’re not the only people who exist.
But when an algorithm is delivering only what it thinks you want, that accomplishes the opposite. The algorithm subtly erases community. It makes it so you are the only person who feels real.
So how do we get back to a world where everybody feels real? The answer lies in art, but it also might lie in politics.
3) Night in the Woods, the death of small towns, and the rise of artistic leftism
For much of American pop culture history, the definition of community has revolved around a small town — a place where everybody knows you, and you know everybody, and emotional experiences both good and bad are shared.
But in the 2010s, making art about the American small town required grappling with the idea that few American small towns are as vibrant now as they were even 20 years ago. (Even the mostly sunny and optimistic Parks and Recreation took place in a town where many of the citizens didn’t seem to mind if the whole enterprise went to hell.)
The 2017 video game Night in the Woods at first seems to be about the ways the American dream fell apart. And in some ways, it is. But it’s also about how the structures that supported the American dream were systematically dismantled by 40 years of unchecked capitalism and neoliberal political policies. It is, in other words, one of the decade’s most notable artistic representations of an important political movement: the rise of leftism.
Night in the Woods is set in the fictional town of Possum Springs where everybody is a bipedal animal person. The town has fallen on hard times in the years since the coal mine closed, and the game’s protagonist, Mae, returns to wander around and listen in on people’s conversations, slowly piecing together the tangled web of relationships between Possum Springs’s residents.
Co-designers Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry’s script features dialogue trees that begin as snippets, as conversations Mae might stumble upon and overhear. But the longer the game progresses, the more Mae (and the player controlling her) comes to understand how the townspeople might benefit from turning to each other to survive the world as it is now, not blindly trying to restore some earlier order. The player eventually learns that Mae feels disassociated from herself and others. She is isolated from community and desensitized to the concerns of the people around her. The game’s purpose is to help her find her purpose, her place in this dying town.
(Important note: In the summer of 2019, game designer Zoe Quinn and several other women who remained anonymous accused Night in the Woods’s co-designer and composer Alec Holowka of abuse. Benson and Hockenberry swiftly cut ties with Howolka, who later died by suicide.)
Mae’s purported goal is to find a friend who disappeared, but as Night in the Woods progresses, figuring out what happened to her friend becomes almost secondary to larger questions about various characters’ relationships. In the world of the game, solutions both personal and political are reached by undertaking collective action. (It’s even strikingly pro-union, considering the gaming industry that has yet to unionize.)
This is where the game’s leftist tendencies come in: Night in the Woods is about how solutions to our biggest problems will come from all of us banding together, not a brave, bold individual. It’s not quite socialism as storytelling, but it’s close. Talking to people about a common cause can shift the problem of the algorithm. No longer does it seem like you are the only real person. Suddenly, everybody else’s stories matter, too.
Like Midsommar, Night in the Woods eventually involves a death cult that longs to restore the past through arcane ritual. But once the cult’s plot is foiled, Mae and her friends find solace in each other, not in saving the day. Their relationships show how big things — even political movements that could change the face of the planet — might start to grow. At its most basic level, that’s what politics is: a conversation between two people about what might make a better world.
Yet a longing for long-gone community was not solely the provenance of the American left. Not by a long shot.
4) Fox News, and transforming America into a gated community with an ultra-strict homeowners association
On the evening of Wednesday, August 8, 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham accidentally laid bare the network’s operating principle in a segment vaguely pegged to the out-of-nowhere stardom of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at the time had recently won a shocking Democratic primary victory in New York and would soon win a seat in the US House of Representatives.
“The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like,” Ingraham said.
Fox News may not seem like a natural fit for an article about pop culture in the 2010s. But make no mistake: It is almost more of a cultural product than a journalistic one. And the story it sells to its audience is another one about longing for community — but the community in question is the US, and the story Fox News tells is that the US is being warped beyond recognition. If other stories look at what might grow among the ruins, Fox News focuses on how to put the puzzle pieces back together as they once were.
The network’s greatest strength isn’t just its captive audience; it’s the way that audience (including President Donald Trump) is held captive. The network creates technically proficient, seriously entertaining TV that feeds its audience’s central belief that something has gone very wrong.
“Aesthetically, one thing that was underappreciated about Fox News from the beginning was how much it focused on entertainment value,” James Poniewozik tells me. Poniewozik is the TV critic for the New York Times and author of the new book Audience of One, about Donald Trump’s unique relationship with television. “Fox wasn’t just more ideological than CNN. It was more exciting. It was more amped up and on a sugar rush. The graphics were more animated. The anchors were more intense.”
Fox News isn’t just an information source to lots of people: It’s television. It’s what they watch from morning to night, and even as the network has endured a surprising amount of turmoil in the 2010s (the departure of founder Roger Ailes under a cloud of sexual harassment accusations, the firing of longtime figurehead Bill O’Reilly), its position in the media firmament has remained roughly steady.
That steadiness may be thanks to how Fox News bears many of the hallmarks of 2010s TV storytelling. Poniewozik mentions the high-gloss candy-coated presentation. But the way Fox News delivers the top stories of the moment is also hyper-serialized, in a way that forces you to watch night after night. Tune in on any given evening and you’ll witness its most popular hosts (who have included everyone from Ingraham to Sean Hannity to Glenn Beck) building complicated mythologies, tangled webs of leftist conspiracies that are changing some dimly remembered world where everything was better than it is in the hedonistic present.
It would be one thing if Fox News were making addictive, hard-to-escape television to more or less report the news. But the central premise of Fox News — especially in primetime — is to treat America as a giant gated community with a homeowners association whose rules seem to shift on a whim but always prioritize the idea that if you are older and whiter and more rural, America is trying to push you out in favor of some nebulous “other.”
“It’s a mild form of replacement theory. It’s the idea that you used to be the main thing in America and now other people are encroaching on that and you have to think about the fact that there are other people in the world who are different from you or else somebody will try to make you feel bad about it,” Poniewozik says. “It shouldn’t be that way. It didn’t used to be that way. Why do you have to accommodate yourself to that?”
Communities often build walls that establish their boundaries. In the best communities, those walls are at least somewhat porous — when I spoke with her about this topic, the great cultural critic Soraya Nadia McDonald likened them to the walls of biological cells, which can let in nutrients and push out toxins. But it’s easy to grow so used to the idea of a wall that it becomes all you see. The community becomes its boundaries and is defined more by those who are locked outside by them.
5) Pleasantville, and how the human desire for community manifests differently for artists of color
The longing for community might seem a universal one, but there’s a specific group of artists whose engagement with this theme often evinced considerable skepticism: artists of color.
Pop culture made by people of color certainly engaged with themes of community in the 2010s. But it tended to present the idea of American community as a cautionary tale. An obvious example is Jordan Peele’s Get Out, in which whatever social advancement is offered to black Americans is a literal lie, crafted by white people who want to control and own their bodies. Get Out functions as a warning from one black artist to others in his community: Be careful what you’ll give up to get ahead.
Perhaps an even better example of this kind of warning is Attica Locke’s 2015 crime novel Pleasantville, her second featuring lawyer hero Jay Porter. (It has nothing to do with the 1998 movie of the same name.) As Pleasantville begins, the titular neighborhood — a very real, historically black neighborhood in Houston — is home to both Jay’s latest massive court case (against a corporation spreading pollution) and the third in a string of unsolved murders of teenage black girls. The two events provide a window into a community where change is happening too swiftly for some. Even the name Pleasantville suggests a nostalgia for some bygone place that no one can get back to. And yet what would that nostalgia be for?
“Almost any socio-political nostalgia for anything in the past is problematic for black people. For what time period would I be truly nostalgic? I may have romantic feelings about the Harlem Renaissance, but the community of artists who created all that brilliant art and literature did so against the backdrop of oppression,” Locke tells me via email.
Locke sets her novel in 1996, during a contentious (and fictional) mayoral election, at a time when increased immigration by Latinos was changing the face of Pleasantville. When one of her villains is revealed to be a titan of Houston’s black community, his motivations — keep Pleasantville as it always was and preserve existing power structures, even if those power structures will mean forever playing second-class citizen to white Houston — seem suspiciously similar to those of the Harga in Midsommar. If what prevents Pleasantville from ever changing involves a little murder, well, what’s a little murder?
Locke grants the fondest memories of an earlier Pleasantville to a Latino character, someone who sees how black residents of the neighborhood aren’t always happy about the ways it is diversifying. He points to Pleasantville’s long history playing host to black celebrities like Louis Armstrong in the days of segregation:
You could stay in a cramped boardinghouse somewhere, or Houston’s finest Negroes would open their doors for you in Pleasantville. All-night whist games, good scotch, bathtub gin if that was your thing, blues on the hi-fi. It was a party, what I understand. … But now with the old guard dying off … and young black folks with a little change in their pockets picking neighborhoods that would have been closed to them a couple of decades ago … Pleasantville is gone, at least the way it was.
Pleasantville takes on the idea of a world where the rich and powerful are manipulating those with less money and power to maintain the status quo. But it’s easy enough to see a deep, quiet longing in the way characters in Pleasantville speak about a Pleasantville that is slowly but surely being irreparably changed into something else. Something in America broke in the last 40 years, and we first saw the evidence in little towns and neighborhoods. And now, it’s trickling upward.
“Writing the book only confirmed beliefs I already had about the fundamental contradiction inherent in black folks’ experience of segregation, which is the irony that segregated black communities were often thriving, self-sustaining, and most importantly safe communities for us, and yet the system that created the need for these segregated communities had to be abolished,” Locke says.
The withering of Pleasantville is treated almost as a melancholy necessity in Locke’s novel. But it isn’t hard to find 2010s pop culture works where the longing for some community in the past hamstrung the present. Maybe even fatally.
6) Twin Peaks: The Return, and the suffocating crush of nostalgia
When Twin Peaks returned in 2017 for what felt like a miraculous third season, it had been off the air for more than 25 years (having last aired in 1991). It could have been excused for simply repeating its old tricks, after the first two seasons ended up influencing a huge number of TV shows that came after it.
Instead, it created something new and different, an 18-episode series that directly confronted the toxicity inherent in American nostalgia for a haphazardly whitewashed past. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the signature artistic achievement of the 2010s, which is not something you can always say about the third season of a cult TV show, much less one that was produced more than two decades after the show’s debut.
The people of Twin Peaks’s titular town remain more or less where they were in the show’s first two seasons. There have been changes here and there. The psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby, for instance, now hosts a webcast under the name Dr. Amp, a persona that wouldn’t feel that out of place on Fox News. (At one point, he bellows, “The fucks are at it again!” without specifying which fucks.) The characters who were teens in the show’s original run now have teens and 20-somethings of their own. Time moves forward, glacially.
But Twin Peaks stands at the edge of something dark and old, hidden out in the woods. It’s an age-old conflict — though not between “good” and “evil” exactly. Instead, it’s closer to “connection” versus “dissolution.” We want community, but the more we seek it by looking back to the past, the more we spin into oblivion in the present.
Twin Peaks: The Return underlines this notion magnificently. The point of any revival series is to revel in nostalgia, to bring back a TV show people loved and let them spend a few more hours surrounded by its charms. But Twin Peaks pushes back against fans’ desires at almost every turn. Instead of serving up easy nostalgia, it sends the characters searching for a place that made them happier in the past, then deprives them of it over and over again. The more that life in Twin Peaks stays the same, the scarier it gets.
It’s all but impossible to provide a simple summary of what happens in The Return (if only because I don’t wholly understand all of it), but it thoroughly captured the longing that some Americans feel for a return to a simpler past. It’s easy to see why we might be lured back in by Twin Peaks’s rustic beauty. The town is not lacking in charm. Long-delayed romances blossom. Nostalgia for mid-20th century America is often indulged.
But The Return pinpoints an idea that’s been at the heart of Twin Peaks creator David Lynch’s work for his entire career: Nostalgia for what we thought we knew as children is always glossing over the more complicated realities of the past, no matter how old you are now. In its eighth episode — a detour to 1950s America in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the series reveals that detonating the atomic bomb unleashed a primal evil into the world. We are all living on borrowed time.
In the finale, Agent Dale Cooper, ever the series’s stalwart hero, seems to successfully reset the timeline so that Laura Palmer’s murder (which kicked off the whole series) never happened. But it’s like both he and a woman he’s traveling with, who looks very much like Laura, can sense that something is wrong. They need to get home, but Cooper’s actions have erased home entirely. Whatever Twin Peaks meant to us before is gone forever, and there’s no point in trying to go back. Indeed, the sequence heavily implies that neither Cooper nor Laura are Cooper or Laura anymore, even if they have some primal desire to revisit their once home.
More than any other project of the 2010s, Twin Peaks: The Return came up when I talked to artists and critics about what had inspired them. Ari Aster went so far as to say, “The last moment of Twin Peaks: The Return is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen.”
In that last scene, altered-Cooper and altered-Laura finally make it back to Twin Peaks. They stop outside the house where Laura grew up and suffered before her death. Now, as another woman with a different lifetime, she looks up at the house some version of her once called home.
And then, in the series’s concluding shot, having found she literally cannot go home again, the woman once known as Laura Palmer screams.
7) Hadestown, and why we build the wall
At this point, our collective pop culture longing for community might seem a requiem, a sad story about a world we once had that was torn apart by technology, economic forces, and other systems beyond our control. It has the feeling of a Greek tragedy — the gods themselves are against us.
So it makes sense that if there’s an answer to how to pull everything back together, it would draw heavily on the Greeks.
On some base level, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice — which we’ve been telling over and over again for more than 2,000 years — is a story about moving between two communities. The two are in love. But tragedy strikes when Eurydice is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies. She descends into the underworld, leaving the community of the living for the community of the dead. Orpheus pursues her and convinces Hades to let her go, to let her return to the land of the living. They trudge back aboveground, on one condition: Orpheus must not look back to see if she is following him. At the last possible moment, he does. She is whisked away back to Hades, walled off from him forever.
In Hadestown, the Broadway musical written by Anais Mitchell (and based on her 2010 concept album), this story is set in a jazz club in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The world above ground is broken, the seasons out of joint thanks to the absence of the gods. (It’s a world where, one character says, “The harvest dies and people starve/ Oceans rise and overflow,” which might sound familiar.) The underworld of Hadestown is a bureaucratic capitalist nightmare, neon-drenched and dehumanizing, where humans literally forget their names and individuality in service of a great machine. Hadestown understands that everything is broken, but it sees the brokenness as a chance to start over, to cultivate and nurture something new.
Hadestown has existed essentially throughout the entirety of the 2010s in some form or another. (Mitchell’s initial inspiration actually came from the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush.) As such, you can read nearly every major sociopolitical story of the 2010s into it. You can read the Me Too movement into it. You can read runaway capitalism into it. You can read climate change into it. You can read the election of Donald Trump into it via the song “Why Do We Build the Wall.” But that song has always been part of the show. Hadestown has stayed the same, but it’s become different by the world changing around it.
“We were quite lucky that the show was already conceived in basic DNA form before Trump was the nominee, even much less the president. So what really changed actually was not any type of storytelling that we were doing but how the audience received it. At New York Theater Workshop [in 2016], when we sang ‘Wall,’ Trump was moving toward being the presumptive nominee. But he was still to most of our audiences a joke. So there was some sort of a satirical edge,” says Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin. “And by the time we came to Broadway [in 2019], you could feel people’s blood in the theater run cold, because we’d moved beyond satire.”
Hadestown is about the need for community, Chavkin and Mitchell both tell me, but also about the ways that scarcity drives us apart. In a world where there isn’t enough, why would you ever give anything to someone else? Orpheus longs for a world where everyone is cared for; Eurydice just wants something to eat.
I’ve seen Hadestown twice now (once in the balcony, on my own dime, and once in the floor section with a press ticket), and Chavkin’s direction accomplishes something profound. It creates two shows in one: the Orpheus show and the Eurydice show.
The Orpheus show plays primarily for those on the floor, and its images are overwhelming, the choreography sends surges of performers toward and away from you. Orpheus’s voice rises above this mass. This version of the show is designed to inspire you, person who can afford a floor ticket to a Broadway show, to imagine the possibilities of a better world Orpheus speaks to. “You have the money to change this,” this version of the show says. “Why aren’t you?”
Up in the balcony, where the Eurydice show plays, the girl’s fear of scarcity is a lot more noticeable. In the balcony, it’s so much easier to see how all-encompassing the systems the characters are trapped in have become, because the patterns in Chavkin’s blocking of the actors are more clear from above. “What are you afraid of losing?” this version of the show asks. “And what systems are imprisoning you because of that?”
“The one thing that felt really clear to me working on Hadestown,” Mitchell says, “is that you put that wall up and then you are trapped behind it. Yes. You are safer. But you pay a price for that safety.”
Hadestown is about the way communities break down thanks to those who build walls. It dramatizes this concept late in act one, when the jazz club set where most of the action has taken place literally breaks apart to reveal a great wall of light behind it, an electric hell. And then, at the end, as the world inches toward being a little bit better, the set comes back together. The story resets. We are where we started, but we know a little more. We can try again.
Hadestown has such power because with every day, we come closer to living in its broken, apocalyptic reality. And yet the show ends with hopefulness, in spite of everything. Orpheus condemns Eurydice to Hadestown again, because that is what he does. It’s what he always does, in every telling of this story. But small details change around the edges. Spring returns to the world above. There is a wall. But maybe a door, too.
There’s a metaphor popular among internet self-help types: the oxygen mask that drops from the ceiling of a plane in an emergency. Anyone who’s taken a flight will recall that you are instructed to put on your mask first, then help anybody who needs assistance. You can’t take care of others until you’ve taken care of yourself.
Something Rachel Chavkin said to me brought this metaphor to mind. She’s working on a new show that involves polyrhythm, when two or more different rhythms play at once. This can result in cacophony, multiple voices competing for attention. Or it can result in something beautiful, a tapestry of sound.
“One of the things that Jerome [Allis, who is in the new show] says is, ‘I am reliant on your autonomy.’ How polyrhythm works is that if you are playing, you need someone else to listen to you, but not to listen to you so much that they fall onto your beat,” Chavkin says.
I’ve been thinking about that idea — “I am reliant on your autonomy” — since I first heard it. It is so easy to believe in your own autonomy and so difficult to have faith in the autonomy of others. The 2010s have given us so many examples of those who form communities of the few, and neglect to build doors for anybody else to get inside.
But maybe we are starting to recognize the lie. The power of our stories about community is the power of realizing that even if the communities we had are broken, we still need to believe that we are more than just ourselves. A girl might find a new language and a new home. A town battered by hard times might revive itself. A place once shattered might be reformed.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Just because the work of changing the world is difficult doesn’t mean it is not worth doing, or not worth doing together. Just because you’ve secured your own oxygen mask doesn’t mean you are not obligated to turn to your left and your right and see if anybody else needs help. They are reliant on your autonomy, and you are reliant on theirs.
We told stories about community in the 2010s because we longed for a place we had lost, a place that might never have been real to begin with. But we also told those stories because we wanted to believe something better might take its place. We told stories about community in the 2010s because a lot of our greatest artists thought that maybe the way to survive whatever comes next was to reach out to each other. And we told stories about community because we knew they were a path to the world we dream about, despite the one we live in now, at least as Orpheus would have it. Your dreams might be very different from mine, but it seemed, often, like they were dreams scattered on the same winds.
Stories are prophecies, a kind of attempt to show us the world as it could be. Not all prophecies come true, but when enough of them cluster, they point to something. These stories say that you are not just yourself. You are the sum of everybody around you, too, and that is at once scary and maybe a little off-putting. But it’s also comforting, isn’t it? It’s comforting to know that no matter where we’re going, whether the plane is about to crash or about to land, we’re all going together.
Special thanks to the people who spoke with me about the ideas in this piece: Ari Aster, Rachel Chavkin, Kat Lo, Attica Locke, Soraya Nadia McDonald, Anais Mitchell, and James Poniewozik.