Wheel of Fortune Is Sorry It Included Slaves in “Southern Charm Week”

The producers of Wheel of Fortune have issued an apology after a episode in the game show’s “Southern Charm Week” depicted hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White in front of an old-fashioned plantation manor attended by two black women in antebellum dresses whom social media users promptly identified as slaves.

Executive producer Henry Friedman told Entertainment Weekly that the show “regret[s] the use of this background image” and will replace it in future broadcasts. Eentertainment Weekly further reports, via an unnamed source, that the image in question was filmed at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, for a 2005 Wheel episode taped in New Orleans, and a representative from Oak Alley Plantation told the New York Daily News that the women in question were “tour guides” in period dress but were not specifically portraying slaves.

It seems clear that Wheel’s error was an oversight rather than a conscious distortion, but the real question is why images of a plantation house were included in a week devoted to “Southern charm” in the first place. The women in the show’s backgrounds might not have been officially portraying slaves, but the splendid mansion in front of which they were standing, once the centerpiece of a sugarcane plantation built in the 1830s, would not exist without slave labor. It tends to spoil the mood when one brings it up, which is no doubt why the pages on Oak Alley Plantation’s website devoted to its “family legacy” don’t so much as include the word slave, and Wheel of Fortune’s perpetuation of that comforting myth would have been appalling whether it accidentally put black women on screen or not.

Seth Rogen and Stephen Colbert Show Us the Best Way to Troll Donald Trump Jr.

Seth Rogen is no stranger to ruffling the feathers of those in power—see 2014’s The Interview and the ensuing threat to national security—so it’s not really a surprise when he told Stephen Colbert on Monday’s Late Show that he’s been trolling the president’s son for months.

Rogen told Colbert about how, a couple of months ago, he noticed that Donald Trump Jr. followed him on Twitter and immediately started quietly direct-messaging him, presumably as an act of service to the country, and because trolling the president’s son will never not be a fun thing to do.

“Hey man! It’s Seth. Your father is trying to discredit our media, collude with Russia, and destroy the environment,” reads one of the three DMs Rogen has sent. “It would be super cool of you to be like ‘yo, dad, why don’t you stop all this and go back to being just a guy on TV.’ The majority of the world would be pretty psyched. Thanks!!” Trump Jr., for whatever reason, hasn’t responded.

As it turns out, Trump Jr. also follows Colbert on Twitter, so Colbert decided to join in on the fun and shoot off a DM to the president’s son himself, asking him why he hasn’t responded to Rogen’s messages and if he’d be interested in getting high with Seth and him. Rogen, in turn, sent off another DM to Trump Jr., asking him to advise his father to quit.

Rogen seems to take a small ounce of joy over being able to troll Trump Jr. by sliding into his DMs. However, as the internet found out over the weekend, one person Rogen will not be DMing any time soon is comedy legend Rob Schneider.

Studio Investigation Says No Evidence of Sexual Misconduct on Bachelor in Paradise Set

Reality shows thrive on shocking plot twists, and here’s a big one: Bachelor in Paradise is back on.

Filming of the season was shut down earlier this month and the cast sent home after reports of sexual misconduct on the set began to surface. Reports ranged from a third-party complaint filed by a producer who was witness to a “raunchy” swimming-pool hookup to the far more serious charge that Corinne Olympios had been plied with alcohol to the point of losing consciousness, and fellow contestant DeMario Jackson sexually assaulted an unconscious Olympios while the cameras continued to roll. Olympios did not speak on the record, but anonymous sources close to her told publications she was too drunk to remember what happened, let alone to have given her consent, and an anonymous crew member gave the Daily Mail a detailed account in which Olympios “appeared to be unconscious.”

Regardless of how the allegations shook out, one thing seemed certain: Bachelor in Paradise was over. The specter of sexual assault had undermined the show’s underlying promise of freewheeling sex to the extent that it would make enjoying future episodes all but impossible. As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci wrote, “A premise that depends on a total break from the reality of romance may crumble when viewers finally get a glimpse behind the scenes.”

Warner Bros. apparently disagrees. A statement released today reads, in part:

[…] Our internal investigation, conducted with the assistance of an outside law firm, has now been completed. Out of respect for the privacy interests of those involved, we do not intend to release the videotape of the incident. We can say, however, that the tape does not support any charge of misconduct by a cast member. Nor does the tape show, contrary to many press reports, that the safety of any cast member was ever in jeopardy. Production on this season of
Bachelor in Paradise will be resuming, and we plan to implement certain changes to the show’s policies and procedures to enhance and further ensure the safety and security of all participants.

Jackson and Olympios are not as yet commenting on whether they will be returning with the rest of the cast—although at least in Olympios’ case, it would seem extremely unlikely. Whether Bachelor in Paradise’s audience will return also remains up in the air.

Hip-Hop Pays Tribute to Prodigy of Mobb Deep, Dead at 42

The rapper Prodigy, who was one half of the iconic New York hip-hop duo Mobb Deep, has died at the age of 42. According to a statement released by Mobb Deep’s publicist, “Prodigy was hospitalized a few days ago in Vegas after a Mobb Deep performance for complications caused by a sickle cell anemia crisis. As most of his fans know, Prodigy battled the disease since birth. The exact causes of death have yet to be determined.”

Prodigy was one of the best rappers to ever do it, and some of hip-hop’s biggest names took to social media to pay their respects.

Trevor Noah Can’t Joke About the Philando Castile Verdict

A lot happened over the weekend, and, on Monday night, Trevor Noah tried his best to make jokes about it all: poking fun at Trump trying to roll back everything Obama did—“[Trump’s presidency] is a series of control-Zs, punctuated by golf weekends”—Trump invoking a miserably bad Spanish accent to pronounce Spanish words during a speech in Miami, and Trump’s surrogates not being able to get straight whether the president is under investigation during their Sunday morning show appearances.

But there was nothing funny about the Philando Castile verdict, and Noah didn’t try to go for laughs. “How does a black person not get shot in America?” Noah asked. “The bar is always moving. The goal post is always shifting. There’s a different thing to explain why the person got shot. Oh, the person was wearing a hoodie. Oh, the person was running away from the police. Oh, no, the person was going toward the police. Oh, no, the person was running around at night … But at some point you realize there’s no real answer.”

Noah delivered this part of his monologue in a calm but somber tone—a tone that we have seen before from him. It’s the same one he’s employed each time he’s covered an unjust act of police violence on a black life. It’s the same tone he used when talking about Terrence Crutcher, the Chicago police, and Alton Sterling. He doesn’t scream at the camera, sigh with exhausted frustration, or repeatedly jam his pen into his desk as his predecessor might have. Noah is composed, measured, and restrained. It’s emotionally affecting television, and it somehow still manages to effectively convey frustration

Noah went on to point out how the NRA, an organization that claims to seek to protect the rights and lives of legal gun owners in America, has been silent on Castile’s death, the circumstances of which involved a legal gun owner being shot seven times at close range with his girlfriend and her daughter in the car after, upon reaching for his ID, he informed the officer that he was a legal gun owner and was armed. You’d expect that NRA leaderswould lose their “goddamned minds” over this. Too bad, Noah said, the organization’s mission doesn’t seem to extend to black people.

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller Fired From the Han Solo Star Wars Movie Midshoot

Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writing and directing team behind 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, have been fired from the Han Solo Star Wars spinoff film they were directing, Variety reports. The film has been shooting since February but still has several weeks remaining; reshoots are already scheduled for later this summer.

According to Variety, Lord and Miller clashed with producer Kathleen Kennedy and co-writer and executive producer Lawrence Kasdan. The duo wanted more freedom than Kennedy was willing to give them, and after months of fighting, Kennedy fired them. “Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are talented filmmakers who have assembled an incredible cast and crew, but it’s become clear that we had different creative visions on this film, and we’ve decided to part ways,” she said in a statement.

Lord and Miller were equally conciliatory in their statement. “Unfortunately, our vision and process weren’t aligned with our partners on this project,” they said. “We normally aren’t fans of the phrase ‘creative differences’ but for once this cliché is true. We are really proud of the amazing and world-class work of our cast and crew.”

It’s unclear who will be brought in to direct the film or how credit will be divided, since Lord and Miller were in the middle of shooting when they left the project. Deadline suggests that Ron Howard is currently the top choice, although Lawrence Kasdan’s name has also been floated.

The film stars Alden Ehrenreich as a young Han Solo and features Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, and Woody Harrelson. According to Disney, it will open on May 25, 2018, no matter who directs.

Seth Meyers Analyzes Georgia’s Special Election Without Knowing Who Won

Cable news talking heads are in the business of stringing stock phrases together until it’s time for another Goldline ad, so much so that it doesn’t much matter what’s actually happened: The strategists and consultants on the news circuit will say more or less the same thing. Seth Meyers took that fact to its logical conclusion Tuesday night, taking advantage of his late-afternoon show time to pre-tape election analysis of Tuesday’s special election in Georgia (Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff) before knowing who’d won.

With the help of “Democratic strategist Ben Holland,” Meyers examined the meaning of the election under the assumption Ossoff had won, then re-analyzed the outcome assuming Handel was the victor. First, Holland gives the maximal spin the Democratic Party would have used in victory:

Seth, it is not an overstatement to say that the political world was turned on its head tonight. We always thought this election was the epicenter of the current political moment, and we knew we would win it. Anything short of victory would have been a disappointment.

Then Holland offers the take that’s already being floated by pundits now that Handel’s won:

Seth, we always knew this was going to be a long shot. The fact that Jon Ossoff was even competitive is a major win for the Democratic party. I think the media and pundits placed
way more attention on this election than those of us here on the ground.

It’s a great little flowchart of partisan political analysis in 2017, where the news is always good, the party is always winning, and policy outcomes matter not at all.

The Beguiled

From its opening image of morning sunlight filtering through trees draped in Spanish moss, Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature film The Beguiled aggressively establishes a mood of ethereal Southernness. An on-screen title places the setting in rural Virginia, one year before the end of the Civil War. A stately, cream-white plantation mansion with massive Ionic columns—the same Louisiana location used for parts of the shoot of Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade—stands near-deserted close by that moss-hung forest, where a little girl gathering wild mushrooms (Oona Laurence) happens upon a badly wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell).

Good Christian that she is, the child helps the man back to the near-abandoned plantation where a strict schoolmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), is attempting to run a proper boarding school for young ladies with the aid of the frustrated and restless teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). The eldest of the group, Alicia (Elle Fanning), is a boy-crazy teenager who flirts openly with the handsome man in their midst, who turns out to be a silver-tongued Irish mercenary named John McBurney. The other pupils, all preteens, hold a wide array of attitudes toward the injured intruder, from reflexive anti-Yankee suspicion to budding puppy love. As Miss Martha nurses the sick man back to health, keeping his presence a secret from the Confederate troops who regularly patrol the area, sexual tensions and sororal rivalries bring the already-tense hothouse atmosphere to a rolling boil.

The Beguiled is based on a 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel that was adapted into a 1971 film by Don Siegel with Clint Eastwood in the role of the Union soldier. That movie had a slightly tawdry, Penthouse-letter quality, focusing on the Eastwood character’s status as captive stud. What drew Coppola to the property, she’s said in interviews, was the chance to explore the story from the female characters’ point of view—like her debut film The Virgin Suicides, this one takes place in a house full of isolated, sexually repressed young women—as well as the opportunity to explore what she has called a “very exotic … romantic and dark setting.”

But at least one important element of “darkness” has been excised from the story entirely. In both the book and Siegel’s adaptation, the wounded Union soldier was cared for primarily by an enslaved black woman (played in the 1971 film by Mae Mercer). In the novel, Edwina, the teacher character here played by Dunst, was a teenager of mixed race who hid the fact of her partially black ancestry from the rest of the household. Coppola’s script acknowledges and dismisses the existence of slavery in a single early line: “The slaves left,” the youngest girl informs the wounded man as she walks him back to the mansion. How long ago, we wonder, and under what circumstances? Where did they go? What has the adjustment process been like for these privileged young ladies who until recently had all their domestic chores performed for them by captives forced to provide free labor under the constant threat of violence?

Coppola has defended the omission of both characters of color by explaining that she was interested in exploring gender politics rather than racial ones—a claim seemingly designed to make intersectional activists everywhere smack their raced and gendered hands against their foreheads. There’s no need, of course, for every film set in the Civil War–era South to focus exclusively on the power dynamics between masters and enslaved people. But to eliminate this element from the story—to effectively run plantation life in 1864 through the bleach cycle—not only places The Beguiled in a space outside history; it drains the plot of much of its potential stakes.

The competition among the women for McBurney’s attention and approval provides tension and humor for the gauzily atmospheric, if slow-moving, first hour. (The Beguiled runs only 93 minutes, but those minutes pass with the stifling leisure of a July afternoon on a Georgia porch.) After a grisly plot twist threatens to throw the household into a state of atavism, the film enters an overfamiliar zone of Southern Gothic melodrama, all bloodstained lace nightgowns, falsely gay dinner parties, and fevered confessions of repressed desire.

The Beguiled is a triumph of lighting, cinematography, art direction, and costume design, shot on 35 mm film in natural light or candlelight, with the young girls in their faded 1860s gowns looking like so many pastel-wrapped bonbons. The cast, especially Kidman, Dunst, and Farrell, hits their notes of longing, suspicion, and revenge with precision, and even the Southern accents are consistent and understated rather than broad and campy. The whole production is elegant and tasteful to a fault, even when, in the second half, the revolvers and hacksaws come out.

Sofia Coppola won the best director prize at Cannes for The Beguiled, becoming only the second woman to do so in that festival’s history. From an aesthetic and technical perspective, her achievement is laudable, but there’s something underfurnished about this movie, a lack of historical, intellectual, and thematic richness. For all its elaborate design and carefully calibrated mood, it comes down to the tale of a randy fox in an impeccably preserved Greek Revival henhouse.

What Really Happens After Societal Collapse

The new apocalyptic horror film It Comes at Night dwells, like so many bits and pieces of pop culture lately, on what happens when a society disintegrates. “Preppers are crazy people and they’re kooky,” writer-director Trey Edward Shults told Slate’s Jeffrey Bloomer earlier this month, “but then once you start hearing that economic collapse is not insane, then you start thinking about what people do when things fall apart, and how primal that gets, and what you need to do to protect that, and that started to fascinate me.”

Most of the apocalyptic movies, books, and TV shows I’ve consumed have, like Night, taken an extremely dim view of human nature. Prepper fictions assume that weak “takers” will try to mooch off of better-prepared “makers” in the wake of the flu or an electromagnetic pulse, and that the makers will need to terminate the takers with extreme prejudice. Even more literary apocalypses feature chained-up human livestock in basements and infants on spits. I had to finally stop following The Walking Dead, once one of my favorite shows, because I couldn’t stand to watch the baseball bat scene. “There’s no trust in [the show’s] world, no kindness, unless it’s exhibited by some soft-hearted fool who’s about to end up as walker chow,” my colleague Sam Adams wrote after that episode aired.

But a commenter on Slate’s review of It Comes At Night declared himself untroubled, even mildly irked, by the darkness of this film and its kin. “I get a little bit annoyed by the constant ‘hell is other people’ themes of US post-apocalyptic movies, because it’s pretty well known what happens when society collapses, and it’s not dog-eat-dog every-man-for-himself, it’s society-rebuilding. Pretty much instantly,” the commenter wrote. “We know this because society has collapsed thousands of times, on smaller and bigger scales. What always happens is that the survivors regroup, organize, and rebuild.”

Can this ray of sunshine be trusted? I’d love to believe it can be. I asked Scott Knowles, a historian of disaster, what historians and sociologists who study collapses and disasters have to say. His answer: It depends. “We help, and also we don’t,” Knowles said in an email to me. Over the years, academic researchers have gone back and forth on the question. “This whole area of work really got going in the Cold War when defense planners wanted to model post-[nuclear] attack scenarios,” Knowles wrote. The Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University (which has since moved to the University of Delaware) “did the work over years to model community response, and they pushed back strongly on the idea of social collapse—they found instead too much of the opposite—people converge on a disaster scene!”

In a 1961 paper (unpublished until 1996), sociologist Charles Fritz laid out the case for this “contrary perspective” that disasters and other majorly stressful events don’t necessarily result in social breakdown and trauma. Fritz, who had begun his observations of disasters while stationed in Britain during the Blitz, reported that during that time he saw “a nation of gloriously happy people, enjoying life to the fullest, exhibiting a sense of gaiety and love of life that was truly remarkable,” with Britons reaching beyond class distinctions, sharing supplies, and talking to people they had never spoken with before. Marshaling sociological and historical evidence, Fritz recounts example after example of people pulling together in the middle of tragedy: black and white police and militia members uniting to maintain order during the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1878; enemies forgetting old quarrels during the German bombing of Krakow in World War II; community members reporting strengthened personal relationships with neighbors after the White County, Arkansas, tornado of 1952.

Since Fritz’s work in the middle of the 20th century, other researchers have tried to fill in the blanks, looking at disasters big and small in various countries across the world. “In general,” Knowles wrote, “there is an agreement that people are pro-social” (in other words, they will try to form alliances with each other and help out, just as the commenter argues). “But of course, that has limits based on the perception of government care and assistance, the actions of law enforcement, wealth of the community, stability of communities and families, and age.” Rebecca Solnit, in her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, described the deeply contradictory, and not entirely negative, effect that disasters have on communities: “In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over, there are deaths and losses. Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound.”

Scholar Ilan Kelman runs a site called Disaster Diplomacy that collects case studies, trying to determine why some disasters lead to greater cooperation between groups and others don’t. In one post, Kelman explains how the United States and Cuba negotiated (mostly failed) offers of mutual aid after hurricanes throughout the 2000s. “Disaster-related activities can catalyze diplomacy, but are unlikely to create diplomacy” where none existed before, Kelman wrote. If two parties—countries, or groups inside countries—have been talking about extending mutual aid and friendship already, help is likely forthcoming. If they haven’t—according to the case studies Kelman and others have gathered—it might not be. During a big and ongoing collapse, like the one climate change (or an international pandemic) is likely to be, people’s actions will be increasingly difficult to predict, because so many countries will be involved.

People are not the same everywhere and across time. I know this argument doesn’t make excellent fodder for horror films. But there are fictions that approach the imagination of disaster carefully, without assuming that “humanity” is a constant across situations, and that scarcity will always end in war. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s new climate change book New York: 2140, most of the city is submerged by rising sea levels, but new organizational structures also spring up to allocate the resources that remain. This is not an idealized future—people go hungry, and predatory capitalists profit—but it’s not dystopian either. Characters form alliances and friendships, fight for one another, and share what they have.

As Robinson said in a 2015 interview about dark visions of climate disasters: “There’s another scenario where we get hold of our technologies, our social systems and our sense of law and justice and we make a kind of utopia—a positive future where we’re sustainable over the long haul. We could live on Earth in a permaculture that’s beautiful. From this moment in history, both scenarios are completely conceivable.”

I hope he’s right.

In Its Season 3 Finale, Better Call Saul Reached the Point of No Return

My go-to term for describing the languorous pace of Better Call Saul has been slow burn, but after the third-season finale, which aired Monday night, any reference to fire now seems in poor taste. “Lantern” ended with Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) sending a gas lantern crashing to the floor of his partially demolished house, followed by a long shot of the flames beginning to spread, and though Saul co-creator Vince Gilligan has a bad history of unintentionally ambiguous season-ending deaths, the interviews that Gilligan’s co-creator, Peter Gould, has done in the episode’s aftermath make it seem clear that Chuck perishes in the fire.

In retrospect, I should have known Chuck’s story was nearing its end when McKean told me in a recent interview that he doesn’t like to know what’s coming next for his character, but in this case he already knew “everything” about what happened to him. When we were talking, nine episodes into the season but long after McKean had finished filming, Chuck was already dead. Of course, warning signs are always easy to see in retrospect. Only a few episodes earlier, Chuck’s prospects seemed to be on the rise; his brother, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), might have handed him a defeat in court, but Chuck’s humiliation on the witness stand had the happy byproduct of freeing him from the psychosomatic “condition” that rendered him excruciatingly sensitive to electricity. The lights were back on in his house, and he could make it through a meeting without requiring everyone in the room to get rid of their cellphones. But Jimmy’s further machinations also cost Chuck his law career, a blow struck not in the name of self-preservation but out of spite; with Chuck’s mental illness on the record, the insurance costs for his law firm spiked, and he was forced out by his partner and former protégé. The law was all Chuck had, and then he didn’t have it anymore.

“Lantern” began with a touching flashback to Chuck and Jimmy’s childhood, with the older brother reading his younger brother a story during a backyard campout. The confines of a tent kept them close, and the (retrospectively ominous) glow of a lantern provided both light and warmth. But much of the episode broke down into a series of two-person conversations in which characters were pushed to the edges of the frame, facing each other but rarely in the same shot or on the same page. Jimmy reached out to Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who very nearly worked herself into an early grave when she blacked out on the way to a client meeting and drove her car off the road. She’d vowed to devote herself solely to a single client, but with Jimmy’s law license suspended for a year, Kim took his money woes on herself—seeing through his unconvincing insistence that he’d make it through somehow—and nearly died in the process. Too bad the logo Jimmy designed for their joint office, a combination of the W in her last name and the M in his, took on the shape of a perilously plummeting sales chart. Giving up that office was one of Jimmy’s most noble gestures, and it frees Kim to put some time into healing herself, but you can see the panic beneath Jimmy’s bravado. He needs money to care for the person he loves, and in the universe of Breaking Bad, that can be an excuse for almost anything.

Better Call Saul is a slow-motion car crash of a series; we know that Jimmy McGill’s road leads to Saul Goodman’s strip-mall office and eventually to a Cinnabon in Omaha. And it’s precisely because we know where Jimmy, and the show’s ever-swelling cast of Breaking Bad regulars, end up that Better Call Saul can take its time. (It may be a better show than Breaking Bad in some ways, but it also couldn’t sustain its deliberate pace without it.) Breaking Bad whisked through Walter White’s meth-making procedures with snappy montages, but Better Call Saul lingers on every step as Mike (Jonathan Banks) takes apart his car looking for a tracking device, or, in the finale, as an increasingly desperate Chuck destroys his house searching for a phantom electrical source. First go the circuit breakers, then the light bulbs and the plugged-in appliances; then he’s ripping holes in the walls as if he’s searching for the tell-tale heart. Chuck is unable to come to terms with the fact that his mind, the finely honed legal instrument in which he’s placed so much pride, has betrayed him.

Chuck’s house, unfortunately, isn’t the only thing he destroys on his way out. His last conversation with Jimmy is a heartbreaker, and if it is their very last, you can imagine it haunting Jimmy for the rest of his days. (It reminds me of the horror movie The Vanishing, in which a couple’s rest-stop spat takes on cataclysmic importance when she is abducted before they can reconcile.) Jimmy’s come to apologize, although not without caveats, but Chuck rebuffs him, not because he doesn’t want his apology but because he doesn’t care. “Why have regrets at all?” he asks. Chuck is Better Call Saul’s preeminent apostle of the idea that people don’t change, and in Jimmy’s case, that means once a crook, always a crook. Jimmy, Chuck tells him, will hurt people, because that’s what he does—although what Chuck really means is that caring about, or trusting, anyone only opens the door to anguish. Once again, Chuck and Jimmy are isolated in the frame, and when Chuck reaches out his arms to his brother, it’s only to grab him by the shoulders and tell him, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the truth is, you’ve never mattered much to me.” It’s the worst thing he could possibly say to Jimmy, and even if Jimmy, on some level, suspects that Chuck is just saying it to hurt him, the icy intent with which Chuck strikes out at him cuts just as deep nonetheless.

We see Chuck’s wrecked face after he sends Jimmy packing: He may leave the space in his therapist-assigned journal for recording his emotional state empty, but we know his attempt to wound Jimmy wounds him as well. Jimmy won’t share that knowledge, but he’ll find out that Chuck was pushed out of the firm he founded, and he’ll almost certainly come to feel that Chuck’s death was his fault. Chuck was Jimmy’s antagonist, but he was also someone Jimmy wanted to please, to show that he could be good. Now, the only person holding Jimmy to any kind of moral standard is Kim, and the logic of the show demands that she has to go as well. Jimmy McGill will become Saul Goodman, and Saul Goodman will someday become Cinnabon Gene, but for his new life to start, the old one has to burn down first.

A Damon Lindelof Watchmen Series Is in the Works at HBO

Just weeks after finishing The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof is reportedly at work on another project for HBO: a new adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen comics.

According to Deadline, the project is “very premature in the early deal-making phase,” but considering that even Watchmen fans are fairly cool on Zack Snyder’s 2009 feature-film adaptation, another take on the subject matter, especially by someone less invested in the myths the series was created to overturn, is most welcome. Although Snyder himself was involved in an earlier attempt to turn Watchmen into an HBO series, Variety reports that this version is officially Snyder-free.

More than 30 years after Watchmen’s initial run, its influence on contemporary comic-book culture is still hard to overstate. Not only did the series, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, set the template for the gritty sensibility that still governs most comic-book movie franchises, but it was part of a wave of comics, also including Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Hernandez brothers’ Love & Rockets, that made comic books permanently safe for self-respecting adults to read without risking the opprobrium of their high-minded peers. Now that the same thing has happened for series television, a meeting of the mediums seems only fair.

A Segment on an Offensive Band Name Shows How The Daily Show Has Become a Voice for People of Color

Trevor Noah’s Daily Show is at its best when it leans on its fieldpieces from its senior correspondents, and, on Tuesday night, Ronny Chieng’s piece on a racially-charged Supreme Court case was proof of that.

In Chieng’s segment, he sits down with the Oregon-based Asian-American rock band who, in an effort to reclaim an anti-Asian slur, named themselves The Slants, and became the subjects of an eight-year long court battle that just recently wrapped up with a Supreme Court case—Matal v. Tam—that ruled in the band’s favor. As Noah points out in the preface to Chieng’s segment, the SCOTUS ruling could mean that Washington’s NFL team could retain their offensive name.

Matal v. Tam was brought about by The Slants’ frontman, Simon Tam, after the band was denied a trademark application on their name by the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. Tam explained to Chieng that the PTO claimed that the band couldn’t use “The Slants” because it could be seen as derogatory towards Asians. When the issue was brought to the courts, the patent office’s labyrinthine argument was that the band was “too Asian” to use the name, and that anyone could register “The Slants” as long as they aren’t Asian.

“[The court] said our race provides the context for [the name] being a racial slur,” Tam explained to Chieng.

“So, by protecting you guys against racial discrimination, they’ve actually discriminated against you racially,” Chieng said, trying to break down the court’s core argument. “How the hell does that make any sense?”

Chieng went on to point out that “The Slants” wasn’t even the most offensive name the band could’ve come up with, and suggested a couple of alternative names they could have used, like the Ching and Chong Sing-a-Longs, Gook Face Killas, Wok and Rollers, and Vanilla Rice.

Chieng’s fieldpiece is well-packaged, light on its feet, and pokes fun at Asian stereotypes. At one part of the segment while Chieng is delivering a standup with the band in the background, the camera focuses on every other person in the shot except for Chieng, in a spoof the “all Asians look alike” stereotype. “Can you not tell us apart? The fuck?” Chieng asks.

The piece is another well-produced and funny Daily Show investigation for the consistently funny Chieng who, in the past, has covered things like Jesse Watters’ racist O’Reilly Factor Chinatown segment, America’s voting machines, and selfie culture.

Say what you want about Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, but it has managed to take an institution that was once considered to be the least diverse in late night to being one that, on a good number of nights, offers a much-needed perspective on stories affecting minority communities.

In the New Trailer for Game of Thrones Season 7, the Lone Wolf Dies, but the Pack Survives

The penultimate season of Game of Thrones is drawing nearer, and the battle is heating up. The second trailer for Season 7 shows the forces gathering for the ultimate showdown and incorporates a warning that if Westeros’ various factions fail to get on the same side, the Night King and his armies might prove victorious.

“Don’t fight in the North, or in the South,” warns Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) as Sansa (Sophie Turner) walks away from what looks like Winterfell’s godswood. “Fight every battle, everywhere, always.”

It’s followed by shots of characters—Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Arya Stark—turning or moving toward the camera, as if to face what’s coming, while Littlefinger himself lurks in the shadows. Swords are sharpened, gates are raised, dragons fly—in other words, shit is about to go down.

We close with a warning from Sansa, as a group of warriors form an outward-facing circle: “When the snows fall, and the white wind blows, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”

The trailer doesn’t offer much in the way of revelations, but hey, it’s more exciting than watching ice melt.

Game of Thrones’ new season starts July 16.

*Correction, June 21, 2017: This post originally misspelled character Daenerys Targaryen’s first and last names.

Read more Slate coverage of Game of Thrones.

The Infamous

In the pantheon of 1990s East Coast hip-hop, Mobb Deep never became quite the household name that Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, or the Wu-Tang Clan did, but when it came to artistry and influence, the Queens duo stood shoulder-to-shoulder with all of them. Tuesday, one half of Mobb Deep, the rapper born Albert Johnson but known to the world as Prodigy, died in Las Vegas at the age of 42. (The precise cause of death is unknown at the time of this writing, but he had recently been hospitalized for complications from sickle cell anemia, a disease he had fought since birth.) He lived a life marked by pain and complexity that saw him become one of the great songwriters of his era.

Prodigy and Havoc (born Kejuan Muchita) formed Mobb Deep before they were old enough to drive, springing from the same Queensbridge Houses that birthed the Juice Crew and Nas himself. During the mid-1990s, when New York City reclaimed its birthright as the center of the hip-hop universe, Mobb Deep brought an unprecedented sort of psychological verisimilitude to hardcore rap, crafting music that was cinematic in its ambition, its scope, its vividness of feeling. Havoc handled the lion’s share of production, whereas Prodigy was responsible for many—though certainly not all—of the duo’s most memorable verses. Unlike other influential MC partnerships that functioned as a sort of yin-and-yang—Chuck and Flav, Dre and Snoop, Tip and Phife, Ghostface and Raekwon—Prodigy and Havoc seemed to share a brain, their tracks often feeling more like seamless collaborations than parrying back-and-forths. But Prodigy was Mobb Deep’s lyrical mastermind, the architect of a vocal and verbal style that had no real comparison among his contemporaries. He eschewed the party-starting charisma of Biggie and the verbose showmanship of Nas for a terse, impressionistic style, full of rhymed aphorisms that were drenched in evocation and implication, all delivered in a matter-of-fact but imposing bravado.

Mobb Deep’s catalog boasts a wealth of greatness, but anyone looking for a diving-in point should start with 1995’s The Infamous, the group’s sophomore LP, which is one of the best albums of the 1990s and one of the very best hip-hop albums ever made. The Infamous is 22 years old and still sounds like something from another world, simultaneously cutting-edge and ancient, like spending an hour in a haunted house. Assembled from creaky and austere jazz and R&B samples dropped over bludgeoning drum loops, Mobb Deep’s music was undeniably violent, although in a vastly different mode than the SoCal gangsta rap of the early 1990s, to say nothing of the bang-them-shits-with-a-spiked-fuckin’-bat antics of Prodigy and Havoc’s crosstown colleagues. In Prodigy’s lyrics violence existed in a perpetual dialectic, the line between defense and aggression constantly shifting and straddled. Mobb Deep’s singular triumph was their ability to make songs about violence that doubled as songs about fear, a groundbreaking (and frankly, brave) concession for a hardcore rap group to make.

Take the opening lines of “Survival of the Fittest,” the third track off The Infamous: “There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from/ You could run, but you can’t hide forever/ From these streets that we done took/ You’re walking with your head down, scared to look.” This is dense and dazzling writing, from the oblique syntax of the first line, to the indeterminacy of the “you” in the second (is this the generic you or direct address?), which is then seemingly resolved by the “we” in the third line. But then the fourth line switches it up again, fear projected upon the listener while the vividness of the description suggests the speaker protests too much, as does the musical backdrop—a logy, lachrymose sample of the opening notes of Al Cohn and the Barry Harris Trio’s “Skylark.” This suspicion is confirmed later in the same verse with the searing couplet, “New York got a n—a depressed/ so I wear a slug-proof underneath my Guess,” a bracing invocation of depression as a sort of euphemistic catch-all for terror, anger, and hopelessness, all wrought by a fundamental and iterative violence.

Fear is also the subject of The Infamous’ most famous track, “Shook Ones Pt. II,” which is also the most famous track in Mobb Deep’s catalogue. “Shook Ones Pt. II” is a perfect recording, and for my money the most compelling and sophisticated exploration of fear in all of hip-hop, if not all of music. The song’s backdrop, constructed by Havoc, is a masterpiece of spartan seduction, cobbled together from little more than a chilling instrumental shriek plucked from the middle of Quincy Jones’ “Kitten with a Bent Frame,” a drum part looped from the opening seconds of the Daly-Wilson Big Band’s “Dirty Feet,” and most centrally, a detuned and chopped-to-death sample of Herbie Hancock’s “Jessica” that’s so twisting in its complexity that it took 16 years for a worldwide community of sample-sleuths to decipher it.

There’s not a single false step in “Shook Ones Pt. II,” from the song’s opening dedication (“to all the killers and the hundred-dollar billers”) to the final bars of Havoc’s closing verse, which include the incredible line “as long as I’m alive/ I’mma live illegal,” the rare hip-hop lyric that looks as cool on the page as it sounds on the record. But Prodigy is the star of the show, his opening verse sliding between aggressive menace (“rock you in the face/ stab your brain with your nose bone”) and chilly resignation (“when things get for real/ my warm heart turns cold/another n—a deceased/ another story gets told”). Even seemingly tossed-off asides at the end of lines drip with implication: “Cowards like you just get their whole body laced up/with bullet holes and such.” And such. Or, a few bars later: “So I can get my mind off these yellow-backed n—as/ why they still alive? I don’t know, go figure.” And of course a litany of aphorisms that have circulated endlessly throughout rap over the years, through samples and allusions: “I’m only 19, but my mind is old,” “gettin’ closer to God in a tight situation,” “ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks.”

The legacy of “Shook Ones Pt. II” is staggering: More than 20 years after its release, it’s come to reside as arguably the most powerful aural synecdoche of hardcore authenticity in the hip-hop genre. The climactic battle sequence at the end of 8 Mile features Eminem’s Rabbit humiliating Papa Doc over the “Shook Ones” beat, proving his bona fides within the narrative of the film; in 2013, Kendrick Lamar bodied Drake over the song’s strains in a show-stopping freestyle at the BET Hip-Hop Awards.

Legacies built on claims to authenticity are complicated, confused, and often burdensome things, though, and Mobb Deep’s was no exception. For starters, Prodigy and Havoc themselves weren’t exactly central-casting gangsters: Both attended New York’s prestigious High School of Art and Design, a school whose alumni include Calvin Klein, Amy Heckerling, Fab Five Freddy, and Marc Jacobs. And the literalist fantasies that Mobb Deep’s fans sometimes (mis)took from their music may have obscured some of the very real pain behind it. In a 2013 interview, Prodigy spoke about the anger in his music being an artistic release for the anger he felt toward his body and the disease that often ravaged it throughout his life.

Mobb Deep made a lot of excellent music after The Infamous—the follow-up, 1996’s Hell on Earth, is nearly as great as its predecessor, while 1999’s Murda Muzik became their first (and only) platinum album, and in 2014 the group released The Infamous Mobb Deep, a double album made up of one disc of new material and one disc of outtakes and unreleased tracks from the original Infamous sessions. In 2007, Prodigy collaborated with the Alchemist to release Return of the Mac, the best work he’d done in years, but the renaissance was derailed when he was sentenced to three years in prison on a weapons charge. During his time away, he undertook writing an acclaimed autobiography as well as a striking six-page letter to Esquire writer Stephen Marche that proved his ferocious intellect was unhindered by his incarceration. He was an artist of rare and unusual dimensions, and he’s gone far too soon. Listening today to “Survival of the Fittest,” only the title rings hollow.

A New Study Finds—Surprise!—That Hollywood Diversity Pays Off

As it turns out, movie audiences like it when movies have diverse casts and tell diverse stories. Who would’ve thunk it?

According to a Los Angeles Times report, a study conducted by Creative Artists Agency CAA found that movies with diverse casts consistently earn more money than movies whose casts aren’t as diverse.

CAA examined 413 theatrical films released from January 2014 through December 2016, detailing cast ethnicity for the top 10 billed actors per movie, a total of 2,800 people. They found that for the top 10 grossing movies in 2016, 47% of the opening weekend audience (and 45% in 2015) were people of color. Moreover, seven of the 10 highest-grossing movies from 2016 (and four from 2015’s top 10) delivered opening weekend audiences that were more than 50% non-white.

From there, the study notes that at every budget level, a film with a cast that is at least 30% non-white — CAA’s definition of a “truly diverse” film — outperforms a release that is not truly diverse in opening weekend box office. And on the audience side of things, the average opening weekend for a film that has a “truly diverse” audience, pegged at 38% to 70% non-white, is $31 million versus $12 million for films with non-diverse audiences.

The numbers suggest a more diverse cast brings a more diverse audience, which brings in more money.

Another interesting tidbit from the study is that, castingwise, horror films and fantasy films are the least diverse, while comedies and thrillers are the most diverse. White audiences, according the study, prefer drama and romance; black audiences lean towardsbiopics and thrillers; Hispanics toward horror and animation; and Asians toward animation and fantasy.

It’s nice to have some numbers to back up what many people have known all along: Diverse audiences like it when diversity is reflected on screen. If this study has done anything, it’s to put the importance of diversity in terms—i.e., those involving dollar signs—that Hollywood is more willing to listen to.

CAA’s study is a nice piece of supportive evidence to justify why diverse casting should be an imperative for the movie industry. But economic studies shouldn’t be the only argument for Hollywood to start giving us more diverse casts and more diverse stories. “Diversity pays” shouldn’t be the argument for why historically marginalized communities should be represented in film. “Diversity matters” should.

If Hollywood can let Matt Damon maintain his star wattage and industry leverage after so graciously saving the Chinese people in this year’s flop The Great Wall, then surely Hollywood can afford John Cho to be in a box office bomb or two and have those films not serve as referendums for his and other Asian movie stars’ box-office worth.

It’s great that diversity pays, but even if it didn’t, it would still be consequential. And for the love of God, let’s please get John Cho in more summer blockbusters.

No, Gal Gadot Was Not Ridiculously Underpaid for Wonder Woman

The internet was outraged on Tuesday (as it so often is) over reports that Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot had earned just a tiny fraction of what her male counterparts earned for their own breakout superhero roles. A story on Elle’s website compared Gadot’s base salary of $300,000 for her first superhero standalone with an alleged $14 million earned by Henry Cavill in 2013 for Man of Steel. Had the comparison been accurate, it would certainly have been worthy of outrage, another egregious example of gender imbalance in Hollywood—but the story was incredibly misleading, as actual reporting quickly showed.

Here’s what we can reasonably assume to be true: Gadot did sign a three-picture deal with Warner Bros. for Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman, and the upcoming Justice League movie, with a $300,000 base salary per film. As Kyle Buchanan over at Vulture points out, that’s pretty consistent with the salaries of other superheroes just starting out, including Chris Evans, who made a similar amount for the first Captain America movie.

Gadot’s reported $300,000 paycheck alone probably wouldn’t have caused such a stir, except that the Elle post used it as an example of the gender pay gap in Hollywood by comparing Gadot’s salary to the $14 million Henry Cavill earned for Man of Steel. (Never mind for a moment that that $14 million figure is already incredibly dubious, since it seems to originate from a Forbes article that uses some pretty unreliable sourcing.) Even assuming that number does correctly reflect how much Cavill received for the film overall, there’s no way it refers to Cavill’s base salary alone. Vulture asserts that Cavill, like Gadot, earned a six-figure paycheck for his superhero debut, and a source “with knowledge of studio negotiations on franchise films” told Vanity Fair something similar, adding that it would be “insane” for the studio have paid Cavill that much for a single movie upfront.

So where did that mythical $14 million come from? As Vanity Fair’s source explains, “Entry-level actors in franchise films are paid an initial rate. As a franchise takes off, they stand to make more money.” Actors starting out in major franchises stand to make most of their money based on the film’s box office success—which means that Gadot is also likely to be on the receiving end of some substantial bonus checks, considering the film is close to grossing $600 million worldwide at the box office.

While the pay gap in Hollywood is a very real problem, it’s not the villain in this particular story. The real test will come when Gadot negotiates her contract for the Wonder Woman sequel, which is already underway, but she already has quite a foundation to demand that she be paid what she deserves—and an internet ready to be prematurely outraged if she doesn’t.

Chadwick Boseman Plays a Badass Supreme Court Justice in the Trailer for Marshall

The first trailer for Marshall was released Wednesday, and it looks like the most badass cinematic portrayal of a Supreme Court justice since that Steven Segal movie where Linda Thorson gets taken hostage. As Thurgood Marshall, Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman drinks, smokes, punches, and struts his way through the trailer like he’s playing a private eye, not the man who won Brown v. Board of Education and went on to become the first black Supreme Court justice. The trick is that the film focuses on a case early in Marshall’s career, before he’d been weighted down with the gravitas of a civil rights icon.

The case in question was the defense of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a butler and chauffer who was accused in 1940 of kidnapping and raping his employer, Bridgeport, Connecticut, socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). The details were a lot tawdrier than school desegregation, and so the tone looks more like a legal thriller than the kind of sepia-toned hagiography giants like Marshall usually get. That’s all to the good, as long as no one’s trying to set up a Supreme Court Cinematic Universe. The film was directed by Reginald Hudlin, the writer and director behind House Party, and written by father and son screenwriting team Michael and Jacob Koskoff. Marshall will be kicking ass, taking names, and establishing binding legal precedents on Oct. 13.

“It Broke Me”: Trevor Noah Looks at the Philando Castile Dashcam Footage

The Daily Show took a break from comedy on Wednesday for a segment in which Trevor Noah talked frankly about the newly released dashcam footage of the killing of Philando Castile. Noah had already addressed the verdict in a similarly joke-free bit on Monday night, but that was before he saw the horrifying footage of police officer Jeronimo Yanez unloading seven shots into Castile’s car. “It broke me,” Noah says bluntly. He was particularly moved by the final moments of the film, in which the 4-year-old daughter of Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, is hustled out of the car after witnessing Castile’s shooting.

But Noah’s keenest, saddest insight comes not from the new dashcam footage but from the video Reynolds broadcast immediately after the shooting. He zeroes in on the language she used, even in the chaos of a police shooting:

“You shot four bullets into him,
sir.” It’s fucking mindblowing that Diamond Reynolds has just seen her boyfriend shot in front of her—she still has the presence of mind to be deferential to the policeman. In that moment, the cop has panicked, but clearly black people never forget
their training. Still in that moment the black person is saying
sir. “I respect you,
sir. I understand what I need to do,
sir.” The same thing Philando Castile did.

As Slate’s Austin Elias-de Jesus pointed out when Noah talked about the verdict earlier in the week, the host consistently uses this somber, measured tone when discussing police violence against black people. Take a step back and think about that for a minute: The host of a topical comedy show has had to develop a consistent editorial voice for stories about black people being killed by their own government. There’s nothing funny about it.

The Author of Satirical Trump Novel Pussy on Why We Live in “Obscene Times”

“Donald Trump is a carrot-face without feelings.” I wish I could claim ownership of this blunt depiction of our 45th president, but that honor belongs to Booker Prize–winning author and essayist Howard Jacobson. He recently shared that opinion, along with many others, while we talked about Pussy, his stinging new satire about the current leader of the free world.

Pussy describes the ascent to power of the vain, short-tempered Prince Fracassus within the walled Republic of Urbs-Ludus. The second son of the country’s leader, the Grand Duke of Origen, Fracassus becomes the heir presumptive due to his father’s dismissal of his older brother, Jago. Over the course of the novel, Fracassus evolves from a “pugnacious, self- involved and boastful child, not much attentive to the world around him and used to getting his own way” to an older, testier version of the same narcissistic child. All the while, he lives inside the Palace of the Golden Gates, with the family name towering over the entrance of the ziggurat, a dozen floors higher than its nearest competitor.

Jacobson started writing Pussy the morning after the presidential election. He finished it in a matter of weeks. “I felt this ire rising within me,” he recalls. “I needed to get it out of my system.” The title came first—a reference to the Access Hollywood recording of Trump and Billy Bush trading “locker room talk” on a bus. When Jacobson first heard the tape, he thought it the sad ramblings of an inept, desperate, and lonely man. But as he wrote the book, the title took on a dual meaning, defining Fracassus as a weak and insecure figure. How he came to be that way says less about him and more about the new-money class and the reckless capitalism in which people build casinos and high-rises for play.

Borrowing a page from one of his heroes, Jonathan Swift, Jacobson’s twisted fairy tale turns to the make-believe to create a more universal story. “A fairy tale makes it nowhere in particular, everywhere in general,” Jacobson explains—not that you’ll have any trouble recognizing the caricatures of Putin, Hillary Clinton, and Trump’s cronies that fill his pages. It’s clearly Trump on the book’s cover and throughout the book—an animated man-baby, running in a diaper while holding a scantily clad female doll.

While Jacobson doesn’t hold back from throwing haymakers at Trump, he’s after bigger game. It’s the idea of Trump that he wants to unravel. How did we get to this sad chapter in our history? “I wanted to look at the follies of human nature and how Trump is the lightning rod for all of our stupidities,” he says. “When something is awry in the real world, you must attack it with derision.”

In Jacobson’s mind, Trump and the recent Brexit debacle come from what he calls the current “era of the unlikely,” a far cry from the Age of Enlightenment. In the Era of the Unlikely, people don’t seek to discover the truth as much as they want to believe what they’re told. Jacobson suspects its roots come from a general boredom and a Russian-roulette mentality circulating through the population. “People today seem to get high on things with unexpected results,” he says. “They’re disappointed when there aren’t surprises”—Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum, to name two shining examples. Jacobson wonders if this perversion indeed affects how people vote and whether it robs everyone of the ability to be gracious in victory—knowing deep down they won something they shouldn’t have and feeling anxious about the decisions they made. “People can’t tell you why they vote for something,” he says, “but they can mouth off phrases about ‘blasting the establishment’ and ‘draining the swamp.’ ” It reminds Jacobson of Europe in the 1930s, when Hitler and Mussolini courted popularity with crocodile tears for the economic plight of their respective country’s citizens. “Nothing makes a better dictator than sincerity.”

Jacobson blames much of the current political madness on the decline of language. “Words hold the key to imagination and the ability to describe the world around us. Words get you out of your worst thoughts, take away bigotry, and when needed, provide an escape route.” In his eyes, Trump’s narrow vocabulary, his apparent antipathy to reading anything longer than a single-page summary, is key to his character. “Every writer sees in Trump the antithesis to himself: zero language, zero words, and zero books, which limits thought. Much as he wants to build a border wall, he’s already walled in by the few words he knows.” That Trump loves Twitter, with its 140-character limits, makes perfect sense. “Whereas you come to judgements slowly, with Twitter you use the few words you know to hurl an opinion out anytime you want, no matter how ugly it is.”

According to Jacobson, the idea of a populist president like Trump has been prophesized in America for more than a century by authors such as Melville and Twain. He points to an early-20th-century quote from H.L. Mencken: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

As far outside the realm of normalcy as Trump pushed this recent election cycle, he could have never succeeded without the help of the GOP. In Pussy, Jacobson’s version of Trump aligns with the Ordinary People’s Party in “a marriage of converging interests made in political-convenience heaven.” Back in our world, Jacobson believes that the GOP, in supporting Trump, must now grin and take it for the president. It makes him think of an idea that he wished he’d have put in the book. “I can see all of these Republicans acting like dogs, rolling on their backs and showing their bellies so Fracassus can stroke them. Swift would have done something like that. It’s an obscene image, but then again, we’re living in obscene times.”

Why So Many TV Shows Are Talking About the N-Word Right Now

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

On tonight’s episode of NBC’s The Carmichael Show, the Carmichael family goes to an upscale restaurant owned by a white friend of Jerrod’s to celebrate his mother, Cynthia’s, birthday. When they arrive, Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael, the co-creator and star of the series) thanks his friend, who responds, “Anything for you my nigga, you know that.” Jerrod doesn’t skip a beat, but his entire family views it as a racial slur.

A more heated exchange takes place between friends in the fifth episode of Netflix’s Dear White People. The star of the episode, Reggie (Marque Richardson) responds very differently when his white friend, Addison, raps along to Future’s “Trap Niggas” at a party and says the N-word in the lyrics. Calmly, Reggie asks his friend not to repeat it, but Addison becomes defensive and doesn’t respect Reggie’s point of view: that a white person should never utter the word.

Jerrod and Reggie represent the opposing sides of a debate within the black community about who’s allowed to use the N-word, an issue that reverberated on the national stage recently when Bill Maher used it in a tone-deaf joke, referring to himself as a “house nigger” on his HBO talk show. In the following week’s episode, he was schooled by guests Ice Cube, pundit Symone D. Sanders, and author Michael Eric Dyson about the pain the epithet evokes.

It’s a conversation that’s been popping up on scripted TV more and more, as the medium’s exponential growth has made room for more diverse voices in front of and behind the camera. Nearly two years ago, ABC’s Black-ish aired an episode about the Johnson family’s reaction to their youngest son (Miles Brown) getting suspended from school for using the N-word while singing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” in a talent competition; also in the episode, Dre (Anthony Anderson) is stunned to learn that his eldest daughter’s white classmates use the word in text conversations with her. Last fall, Atlanta dealt with the question of boundaries in its pilot when a white character appropriating black culture feels comfortable using the slur in front of Earn (Donald Glover), but not in front of an older janitor or Earn’s rapper cousin. And in the eighth episode of Netflix’s 1970s-set The Get Down, released this year, a jerky, white frat boy uses the epithet and another racial slur to insult the show’s protagonist, Zeke (Justice Smith).

On Dear White People, the incident at the party escalates, a fight breaks out, and Reggie winds up with a cop’s gun pointed at his head. “There was a lot of discussion about the tone and the transition of the show and, ‘Are we saying something that hasn’t been said already?’,” said show creator Justin Simien. When he originally explained the story for the Reggie episode to Netflix—and noted that he wanted to spend the rest of the season exploring “the reality of being black and having that be fatal in this country”—the executives hesitated, even though the streaming giant has a reputation for allowing producers unprecedented creative freedom. “There was a lot of convincing and a lot of versions of it that had to come into place to make everybody feel comfortable with what we’re doing, but once we had the story fleshed out and once we had the script, everybody got it,” he continued. “This is something that’s being talked about all the time, so for us, as artists, not to talk about it would feel irresponsible. We are in an age where television is willing to take more risks. A lot of us are having an opportunity, for perhaps the first time in our lives, to put in our art what we have been talking about in private for a long time.”

The TV boom has coincided with the country’s tense and divisive political climate, which Simien believes has only helped storytellers like him. “I think the post-racial veneer is completely gone,” he said. “Every few years, America has to come to terms that it is still deeply racist. The fact that racism can be blatant now because of our president has helped, ironically, because people see the conversation needs to happen. What I am seeing amongst my liberal friends, especially, white, male, straight friends who never had to consider these things before, is that they are getting it now.”

Because there is no consensus in the black community about the use of the word by black people among themselves or in mixed company—let alone the use of the word by non-black people—the topic is ripe for the kind of multigenerational and contextual analysis used on shows like Black-ish. The Carmichaels take a similar approach in tonight’s episode, “Cynthia’s Birthday.” While on Black-ish, creator Kenya Barris bleeped the word every time it was used (“The bleep in a weird way makes you hear it even louder,” he told Vulture in an interview at the time), on The Carmichael Show, there is no barrier between the word and the audience—it is used six times in three distinct ways. NBC would only allow the full use of the word if a unique point of view was presented in the episode, according to showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel.

“It’s our instinct to go directly into the fire,” said co-creator Ari Katcher, who co-wrote the episode with Carmichael. “You want to be direct as possible because in life you don’t have to deal with someone almost saying the word. You deal with what happens when somebody says the word. Jerrod and I talked a lot about the different points of view. His is, if we can’t control people saying it, we can only control our reaction to the word, so if we’re going to be hurt by it, we’re just giving them a weapon to be used on us whenever they want. That’s legitimate, but I also see the other point of view—this is a word that represents everything bad that happened to the black community, it’s meant to be said in hate, and we should react accordingly.”

Carmichael, like his namesake character, believes that the more the word is used by everyone, the less power it has. The comedian was not available for an interview, but as a recent guest on Norman Lear’s podcast All of the Above, he explained why he sees no point to attempting to ban it. “People think it’s stopping hatred,” he said. “It doesn’t stop hatred, and it doesn’t stop painful language. What it does is preserve a word and make it more dangerous. If it’s free, if we free the word, then perhaps it will be less dangerous and you won’t feel the need to fight the person who says it.”

In the episode, Jerrod’s girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West), asks him, “How can you be so nonchalant about that word? It has such a history of hate. It’s the last word that so many black people heard as they were hung from trees.” He retorts: “I don’t think the problem in that scenario is the word—it’s the hanging. If you ask me, the black community gets way too caught up on that word. It’s just a distraction. We should focus on things that matter, like voter suppression.”

During the course of his daily life and in his stand-up, Carmichael, 30, freely uses the word. That means if you work with him, you’re going to hear it. So Sanchez-Witzel says she finds it necessary to warn prospective job candidates so they are not caught off guard. “He does use it as a term of familiarity, and sometimes I think he uses it to get a rise out of people,” she said. “That’s who he is and what his brand of comedy is. He is somebody who challenges people, period, about everything, and so this is one topic that he certainly challenged the writers room about a lot. Even with everyone knowing this about Jerrod, it’s not comfortable. It just isn’t. It never should be a comfortable word for people. Nobody in the writer’s room will just use it, but he will.”

Like Anthony Anderson’s character on Black-ish, Barris, 42, told Vulture he uses the word, too, but not usually in front of people who aren’t black. “I came from the generation where we took it and made it our tribal call, our brotherhood, our global patch of saying we’ve been through this together,” he said.

Simien, 34, prefers not to use the word in his personal life, but sees it as necessary to his art. “White people didn’t exist before the 17th century as a race class in this country,” he said. “The invention of the nigger was the alternative to white. It represented everyone that was dark-skinned and from Africa. They were subhuman. That word is not just a hard word or a negative word. It has a direct link to systemic racism in this country, so it is a hard word for me to hear. As an artist, I think it’s important to use it because I have to reflect people and how they speak and because I want to talk about the word. But it’s not an easy word to use and it always hits me some kind of way no matter who says it.”

On The Carmichael Show, when Maxine herself ends up using the word to angrily defend the family, everyone agrees her way of expressing it is more hateful than the white friend’s version. “I think that’s the true thing about harsh words,” Katcher said. “A lot of times, you look at this as black and white or what’s right or wrong. But what it comes down to is intention. Did it feel wrong? Which is a hard thing to quantify.”

Ultimately, the Carmichael writers wanted to use the N-word to explore the rules and limitations that cultures impose on themselves. “In all our stories we’re presenting discussions that we find interesting and that don’t end with an answer,” Sanchez-Witzel said. “There is no answer as to who can use the word.”

To attempt to set strict rules around the use of the word flies in the face of freedom of speech, Simien agrees. But he still can’t ignore the pain he feels when he hears white people laughing in a theater at scenes of Jamie Foxx repeatedly being called the slur in Django Unchained, or when it casually spilled out of Maher’s mouth. “It was so obvious that Bill was uninformed about all sorts of histories in the way he used the word,” Simien said. “It’s just hard for me to imagine that a white person who intimately understands the history of the word would use it so flippantly. And that’s exactly why it being such a charged word is important right now. So many people, black or white, have the luxury of never considering the origin of the word and the origins of slavery.”

When he’s been in Reggie’s shoes in his own life, Simien says he’s usually at a loss as to how to react. “I certainly have had friends who use it around me in either an ironic way or to be funny and it’s always very awkward because these are people I love very much, and in the meta sense, they’re like, ‘well, why can’t we use every word in the human language?’,” Simien said. “There have been times I’ve been silent; there are times I’ve been complicit; and there are times when I’ve had an argument about it. But it has absolutely come up in my life a lot, and I think any black person who hangs out with all kinds of groups of people is going to experience that many times. What transpired in this country toward people of color and black people in particular is so horrible, it breaks my heart. I can’t separate the word from its history, especially when the country refuses to deal with that history in a straightforward way.”

On his show, Simien used the N-word to explore racism as a system instead of an attitude. Even though the white men who argue with Reggie are not racist, their defensiveness leads them to unwittingly support the system of racism.

“For me it wasn’t so much about the rules, like can you or can’t you, it was more about what happens when you,” he said. “That story was really important to me because this is the thing that comes up all the time in pop culture. We all listen to this music, we all watch the same comedians, and we watch the same TV shows. Logically, why aren’t we allowed to say the word? To me, that’s beside the point. What’s more interesting is, what are the systems that made this word so powerful in the first place, and do they still exist, and are they still in the undercurrents of our lives? I would say from my own experience, they certainly are.”

Tonight’s Carmichael episode ends with a surprise N-word utterance from the birthday girl herself, who has been arguing against anyone using the slur for the entire episode. The moment is shocking from the character’s perspective, but it’s Loretta Devine’s colloquial delivery that makes the joke soar. Even Katcher, who co-wrote it, was floored. “It had a lot of power,” he said. “Hearing it is a little more jarring than you’d expect. It was an interesting acting choice she made.” The audience on tape night laughed so loudly, producers had to lower the volume of the reaction in editing. And as soon as you are finished laughing, you can’t help but wonder if you should be laughing.

See also: The Carmichael Show Is More Confident In Its Third Season