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FILM ANALYSIS, Film Content & Controversies, Other

Where You Belong & the Folly of Regret

Left: Q has present day Captain Picard examine the life choices that led to the latter’s now presumed demise. Right: I would rather die as the man I was than live the life I just saw.

As my life has evolved since I started Express Elevator to Hell (EEH) almost 10 years ago, so has my analytical study of my favorite extracurricular passion, cinephilia. I have long used film studies to counterbalance my professional scientific career and give perspective to my personal life. That is one thing that has not changed since this blog’s inception or before; I still love filmmaking and the positive, wholistic effects it has had on my personality, relationships, and understanding of the world around me. If nothing else, I believe my cinephilia has made me a more interesting person, and this blog — from its dreariest of origins to its more mature, balanced perspective of today — has helped me self-actualize that part of my persona. 

To say I see myself as a different person than I was a decade ago, however, would be putting it mildly. EEH formed when, and to some extent began as a result of my young adult self hitting rock bottom in the early 2010s. In hindsight, much of my former animosity to others and depressed self-loathing remains evident in earlier blog essays written at the time; that bitter, dejected, vitriolic temperament as both cinephile and person was connected to even older social anxieties I had as a teenager, and resulted in shameful behavior I regret to this day.

And that, my friends, is my word for the day: Regret. I regret my adolescent timidity and even more so my angry, aggressive overcompensation as a young adult. That emotional disposition is part of why, I suspect, I have always gravitated toward characters that were defined to a large extent by their brooding discontent or psychological wounds, why I identified with the Batman(s), Lieutenant Ripleys, Luke Skywalkers, and John Wicks of storytelling over their prettier, shinier, “cleaner cut” alternatives. Those characters always felt like they had a history to them, one with which they had never made peace. They had regrets, and that’s what made them interesting to me.

Two somewhat recent filmic experiences reminded me of the complicated relationship I have with personal regret: My first full rewatches of the influential yet infamous Game of Thrones (2011-2019; GoT) & the often beloved, periodically corny Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994; TNG). Let us discuss one episode from each of these great shows, the former of which I first viewed as a young adult before, during, and after the start of EEH, and the latter I first enjoyed long ago as a little kid. My favorite self-contained story of TNG, “Tapestry” (Season 6, Episode 15), begins with a mortally wounded Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart), our series lead, ushered into sickbay due to an unspecified emergency related to his use of an “artificial heart” — no doubt a commonplace science-fiction medical device in the show’s 24th century.

I’m starting to see now — I have had an effect here, but not the one I intended. Vengeance won’t change the past, mine or anyone else’s… The city’s angry and scarred, like me. Our scars can destroy us even after the physical wounds have healed. But if we survive them, they can give us the power to endure and the strength to fight.

Upon “death,” Captain Picard enters what appears to be the afterlife and reencounters his series-long “frenemy,” Q (John de Lancie). Q at this point in the series had started his transition from the sinister, more straightforward antagonist he was in the show’s pilot into the sort of amorphous, enigmatic wildcard he would become by the show’s end, a recurring character arc that was defined by his relationship with Picard. In this episode, Q offers the supposedly deceased Captain the chance to change elements of his past that led to a previous severe injury in his more rebellious, brash youth; that injury resulted in his heart-replacement surgery, which, in turn, culminated in his inevitable death at the beginning of that episode.

Tapestry provides the most extensive analysis of Picard’s rougher youth in the Star Trek franchise, and its flashback-oriented parable structure is reminiscent of films like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or the various cinematic adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). Q transports Picard back to the crucial moment in his life before he and two friends brawl with three trash-talking Nausicaans in a dingy spaceport pub; with his older, wiser future consciousness in his flashback self, Picard makes multiple key decisions that alter his relationships with his colleagues and avoid the tragic injury of the original incident… but with a cost.

Q then flashforwards Picard to the same present day as his previous “death,” an alternative timeline a la Back to the Future II (1989), and Picard’s future has indeed changed. Instead of a lifetime of ambition that resulted in his captaincy aboard the Starfleet flagship, Picard’s safer, less risky 2nd chance at life finds himself as a lieutenant (junior grade), taking orders from many of the same mid-level officers who had previously served under him in the original timeline. Picard is aghast at how other crewmembers now see him as passive, forgettable, and diminutive, and thereafter confronts Q about the consequences of his altered past:

Jean-Luc Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person; that man is bereft of passion… and imagination! That is not who I am.

Q: Au contraire, he’s the person you wanted to be, one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth, one who was less like me. The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did not fight the Nausicaan, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face-to-face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be.

So, his life never came into focus; he drifted for much of his career with no plan or agenda, going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away-team on Milika III to save the ambassador, or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed, and no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe, and he never, ever got noticed by anyone.

In similar fashion, one of the few major characters arcs I thought GoT finished with aplomb was that of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), a storyline I enjoyed even more upon rewatching the epic fantasy series. Even a cursory summation of that complex, controversial show and its massive narrative scope are beyond the word count of this essay, but suffice it to say that Allen’s supporting role displayed one of the bitterest, most tragic, most sympathetic, and yet most deserved trauma of any character I’ve seen in a long-running television show, limited series, or feature-film. His archetypal yet unforgettable fall from grace was built atop regrets even Jean-Luc could never fathom, and far worse than the lowest points of my depression; yet, even his character redeemed himself in the end, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing conclusion to GoT’s near decade-long pop cultural phenomenon.

It’s not my place to forgive you for all of it, but what I can forgive, I do. You don’t have to choose: You’re a Greyjoy and you’re a Stark.

In many ways, Allen’s portrayal of Greyjoy represents the best of GoT: A complicated, morally gray figure trying and failing to outgrow a conflicted identity that was a function of medieval warfare, bad luck, loyalties torn between his blood (House Greyjoy) and adoptive (House Stark) families, and many, many bad decisions. Even he found absolution in the end when he finally committed to following his instincts despite all the horrific, often fantastical events around him. In the last sequences with his character, Theon tries to articulate his past mistakes for the final time to his adopted younger brother, fellow nobleman Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), before their childhood home is besieged in a great battle. Brandon cuts him off, reminding Theon that all the choices he made, including the bad ones, brought him to where he needed to be in that moment.

All these characters, from Greyjoy to Picard to Batman to Skywalker, had regrets that helped make them into the final versions of themselves, perhaps the best versions of themselves, because no meaningful life is built without them. I don’t mean to say I am at total peace with my past — I may never be — but I do wholeheartedly take the good parts of my past with the bad, including my regrets, because they’re intertwined. To erase my regrets would mean also losing the things of which I’m proud, and all the good that has transpired since; it would “unravel the tapestry of my life.” Or, as Brandon Stark put it, “Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong — home.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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