Over last week’s holiday, after the Thanksgiving turkey had been eaten and the Christmas tree had been decorated, I tackled the weekend’s work: at least ten loads of clean laundry, piled high in baskets; Christmas lists; and the coming week’s dinners.
While folding, list-making, and cooking, I probably should have listened to Marie Kondo’s new book, Kurashi at Home: How to Organize Your Space and Achieve Your Ideal Life. Neither my ideal space nor my ideal life should involve quite so many mountain-high laundry baskets, one would think.
But, instead of being that productive, my laundry-folding, Christmas list-making, and dinner-fixing marathon involved rewatching two of my favorite fictional shows from 2021: HBO’s Mare of Eastown and Netflix’s The Chair.
Mare of Eastown
Mare of Eastown is a murder mystery set in a hard-scrabble, multiracial, culturally Catholic and downwardly mobile suburb of my native Philadelphia. Once tight-knit, the fictional Eastown is now decidedly dysfunctional, full of single parents, shuttered businesses, and drug addiction.
Mare is the forty-three-year-old white (Irish-American) detective tasked with solving the murder. She was a local hero in her youth, when she sunk a championship-winning basketball shot, and she continues to be a local hero as a police detective that restores kidnapped girls to their desperate families. But as her late son’s suicide, his girlfriend’s drug addiction, and her college-bound daughter’s departure from Eastown make perfectly clear, there will be no one coming to receive the baton labeled “community stalwart” from Mare’s outstretched hand when the time comes.
The Chair is about the political and organizational turmoil of an academic department in my undergraduate and graduate discipline of English literature. The fictional Pembroke University, where this department is housed, is the prototypical second-tier university, which has sunken into irrelevance and decay, even as (or perhaps because?) it tries ferociously to remain relevant, with shrinking enrollments looming.
Ji-Yoon is the forty-six-year-old Asian (Korean-American) professor tasked with leading the English department. Once a rising star in her field, Ji-Yoon assumes the mantle of department chair—the first woman and first person of color in the role—and everything promptly falls down around her ears. There are students protesting the allegedly Nazi sympathies of a faculty member in an imbecilic and facile way that is today equally the stuff of satire and of reality. There is an older female faculty member justly outraged that she never got her due from the academy; a dispute over pedagogy that implicates age, race, and gender; and, overshadowing it all, the financial precariousness of the department and the university.
Meanwhile, there is precious little textual analysis going on at Ji-Yoon’s Pembroke, because the written word—the erstwhile religion of a liberal arts department—is like the Catholic Church of Mare’s Eastown: undeniably omnipresent, yet fundamentally impotent.
Divisions, or Similarities?
Suffice it to say that Mare and Ji-Yoon would be unlikely to know each other in real life.
Yet, watching the two shows back to back, I noticed that they are essentially part of the same story. It is a story of the deep divisions between different classes, religions, and races of Americans today; and yet also a story of hope predicated on the similarities that lie underneath those divisions.
Mare and Ji-Yoon are differently contextualized iterations of the same character: a generation X woman coping with the decay of the institutions that the baby boomers left behind, and struggling to figure out where she and those coming after her fit into a world for which she has no coordinates, even as she helps to shape that world.
Of course, the uncanny similarities between Mare and Ji-Yoon, and between Eastown and Pembroke, are predicated specifically on their ostensibly unbridgeable differences. That is, those that didn’t attend college and those whose livelihoods depend on having gone to graduate school inhabit increasingly separate slices of the world. Real-life Mares and real-life Ji-Yoons never get a chance to realize how much they actually have in common.
So, a real-life Mare could be forgiven for feeling entirely disdainful of the goings-on at Pembroke. Who has time to worry about whether a woman of color holds the departmental chair when—living among people that look at each other eye-to-eye rather than through the lens of some theory and the distance of some sociological tome—there are people of every color and background whose lives are hanging by a thread?
And a real-life Ji-Yoon could also be forgiven for feeling equally disdainful of the goings-on in Eastown. It would, after all, be easier to respect such fierce pride in family and community if it were not so obvious (at least to anyone who’s not feeling particularly romantic) that the only things binding these people together in the 2020’s are nostalgia for their fast-receding history and belligerence in the face of how those at Pembroke University (perhaps especially those that, like Ji-Yoon, were not themselves handed anything on a silver platter) tend to see them.
My Church and My Academy
I am 35 years old, half a generation younger than the fictional Mare and Ji-Yoon. I grew up in Philadelphia and its suburbs, and I am a Catholic. I am also a collegiate instructor with advanced degrees in English and Education.
As I came of age in the mid-2000’s, the institutions that more than any others were responsible for the circumstances of my own life—post-WWII era Philadelphia Catholicism and the elite post-WWII academy—rotted from the top down.
The Church bled parishioners and its schools bled students—partly because of its deep and pervasive cover-up of clergy that sexually abused children, and partly because of its sheer laziness and inertia. Meanwhile, the academy grew bloated with administrators and club-med facilities for increasing numbers of decreasingly literate and numerate students; codified its commitment to superficial leftism at the expense of rigorous intellectual engagement; and conveniently forgot that “higher education” should have something to do with, well, education.
Yes, I believe in both the power of great literature and the truth of my Catholic faith. But (my own individual friends and mentors in both the academy and the Church, and many good individuals like them, notwithstanding), I have long understood that the institutional academy and the institutional Church are, broadly speaking, impediments to my beliefs rather than constitutive of them.
By the time I defended my dissertation (2016), by the time my children were baptized (2015, 2017, 2021)—I knew that I was engaging with an American academy and an American Church that had forfeited nearly all their moral authority, as well as the internal and external legitimacy that came with it.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, I watched and re-watched both Mare of Eastown and The Chair through the lens of preemptively jaded nostalgia.
Mare, Ji-Yoon, and Models of Hope
To my surprise, my recognition of how alike the fictional Mare and Ji-Yoon are, for all their surface-level differences, mitigated my nostalgia and evoked my hopefulness.
Each show ends not with despair for all that has been lost, nor with forced optimism for all that could yet be, but with measured gratitude for all that each woman is right now—as a professional, as a friend, as a mother—who in fact does, all evidence to the contrary for most of each show, transcend and grow past her circumstances.
Each show is a tribute to the individual personhood, the unique contributions and potential, of each solitary human being.
And each finale is an ode to lighting a single candle rather than cursing the darkness. Mare discovers that she is strong enough to support her dearest friend through the loss of her son, even as she mourns her own. Ji-Yoon walks away from the departmental chair, choosing to be true to herself by an internal metric that surpasses outward accolades.
As such, each of these shows is profoundly counter-cultural, in a moment where we want to reduce people to a set of characteristics, positions, or achievements.
Mare isn’t actually “Mare of Eastown.” She’s Mare, and in the words of her daughter, “Eastown is better because [she’s] there” (just as anywhere would be). And Ji-Yoon isn’t ultimately “The Chair.” She’s an exceptional teacher, a faithful friend, and a loving mother (whose adopted Latina daughter understands her native Korean after all).
So each series, though evocative about a place, is more fundamentally about a person. And as each story ends, it is clear that each woman’s flexible fortitude will serve her well beyond her current circumstances.
Mare and Ji-Yoon—like all of us, if we realize the eternal significance of our shared humanity and the ephemeral smallness of our place and time—adapt and live on.