Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Mythic Quest 2x06 Review: “Backstory!” (Writing and Re-writing Our Narratives) [Contributor: Jenn]


“Backstory!”
Original Airdate: June 4, 2021

I used to hold my writing tightly, convinced that anyone who critiqued it didn’t like or understand my work — worse, I believed they didn’t understand me. But the older I’ve got and the more red lines through copy, scribbled margin notes from professors, and track changes in Google Docs, the more I’ve realized that being a writer means holding my work loosely. (It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve been an editor more in the past few years and know that edits aren’t personal; they’re meant to make a work better!)

C.W. Longbottom — or Carl as we’ll know him in “Backstory!” — is an aspiring science-fiction writer who’s working as a copy editor in the 1970s. But even though Carl is passionate about writing and crafting worlds, it doesn’t mean he has what it takes to be a science-fiction writer. How do you grapple with the fact that no matter how many times you write and rewrite something, it doesn’t get better?

WRITE WITHOUT FEAR, EDIT WITHOUT MERCY

(I used to have a notebook with that phrase on the front, FYI.)

Mythic Quest has such a stellar ensemble, and F. Murray Abraham is incredible in the role of C.W., but we don’t really know much about him until “Backstory!” We know he won a Nebula award, and we know that he’s essentially an alcoholic who lives at the office. But what this standalone flashback episode does well is give us not just a sense of who Carl was, but who C.W. is. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the thing I love the most about Mythic Quest is that they’re unafraid to present characters with flaws. The point of “Backstory!” is not for us to agree with C.W. or even sympathize with him; the point is essentially to remind us that everyone has a backstory that forms who they become. In order to understand C.W., we need to know Carl. And while you feel for him by the end of the episode, you also desperately want him to learn and understand the places where he is being selfish, stubborn, and wrong. It is a tight balance to walk to ask the audience to understand, care about, and also disagree with a character but Mythic Quest is the show I trust most on television at this moment to get it right.

So the plot is essentially this: Carl is working as a copy editor at a sci-fi magazine with aspiring writers A.E. Goldsmith (a charming, delightful, driven young woman) and Paul Cromwell (who loves writing and forms a romantic relationship with A.E.). The three young editors dream of becoming a new sci-fi unstoppable trio and quickly band together. They swap their stories in the hopes that their editor will maybe publish them in the magazine someday. A.E.’s story is essentially great without any major changes. Paul’s story requires rewrites and edits, but he’s incredibly excited by the prospect of changes. When it’s Carl’s turn for feedback, however, the pair is hesitant. Carl insists that he welcomes feedback and constructive criticism, but when A.E. and Paul try to point out the holes in his plot, he becomes defensive.

I think it was actually quite genius on the show’s part to present three different kinds of writers. You will always encounter people whose work needs little editing (though everyone gets edited eventually) on a first draft, those who need to rewrite but are actually invigorated by the possibility of reworking the story, and those who take criticism personally. We all know those writers — unfortunately some of them work in television and have flocked to Twitter over the last few years. We then watch as Carl, A.E., and Paul work on their stories. Carl keeps writing but his story doesn’t seem to get any better the more he works on it. Paul’s moves in small increments, but it’s revealed later that while he enjoys writing, he does struggle with it. He’s the person who might write as a hobby but never get published.

A.E., meanwhile, gets her story published by their magazine and it sparks jealousy and competition in Carl. If he’s writing but not getting published, what’s the point? If he’s writing and it never sees the light of day, is he even a writer? These are the kinds of things writers grapple with. And yes, the jealousy and competition is such a pain point — but it’s something we need to unpack. Have you ever been in a relationship where for the most part, you both are supportive and kind to one another. But then maybe you have success and it sparks a cycle of “one-upmanship”? Suddenly, every time you mention your success, a friend has to counter with something that THEY did. I used to have close friendships where it felt like as long as we were on equal footing, the relationship was stable. As long as I maintained the same level of success as they did, we were fine. But when I began to soar, they couldn’t handle it. They became petty and jealous.

That’s what happens to Carl. As soon as A.E. begins to soar and even Paul seems to be making progress, Carl stops seeing the group as being on equal footing. Suddenly, everything is a competition. And in Carl’s mind, it’s a competition that he’s losing. So he refuses to go out and celebrate A.E.’s win with her and Paul, opting to feverishly work on his story which ends up becoming a novella. When Carl presents the piece to A.E. to submit to their editor, she promises to show him.

But then, through her own admission, she doesn’t. She read Carl’s novella, you see, and it turns out that it’s got all the problems of his short story — it’s just longer. When Carl hears this, he lashes out. He doesn’t see A.E. as his friend or comrade anymore; he sees her as the person who dashed his dream. Is that the truth? Of course not. A.E. may not have made the best choice in the moment, but she admitted what she did and owned up to it. She didn’t want Carl to be embarrassed, and in that moment we as the audience realize that there’s no coming back from this moment. Carl lashes out at A.E., claiming she only got published because she’s a woman not because she’s talented. The two square off and Carl storms out. 

It’s a low point for Carl, honestly, and it’s painful to watch. You don’t want to see people be awful to well-meaning individuals, but it’s important for us to know that Carl’s ego is what stops him from being a great writer. He could be talented if he was willing to let go of the original vision he had for his piece and try to figure out what the actual story is. But he’s adamant that his ideas are right and that no one else understands his vision. It’s the classic tortured genius martyrdom that we all know but hate to see — the man who believes he’s misunderstood because he’s too smart for everyone else. 

But good writers don’t need “yes” people; good writers need people who are willing to tell them hard truths and edit a piece to make it the best that it can be. Carl can’t see the forest for the trees — he can’t see what his work could be because all he’s able to see is what it currently is, which is what he always wants it to be. He believes that he deserves success because he’s good at what he does and wants it badly. That, unfortunately, coupled with his stubbornness and unwillingness to change is his downfall.

CRISIS OF BELIEF AND ART

Carl’s low point happens when he gets feedback on his manuscript from an acclaimed writer, Isaac Asimov, and the entire thing is rewritten. But then later, Carl notices the note that was sent with the revised manuscript essentially telling Carl to do with it what he wants — it’s HIS story. Carl takes the opportunity to lift the entire Asimov-penned new novella and promote it as his own. We’ll learn at the end of the episode that this is the book that wins C.W. a Nebula award. Only A.E., who confronts him at the ceremony, knows that the novella couldn’t have been C.W.’s own work. She subtly challenges him to admit it, but he doesn’t. He holds onto the pride that was awarded to him: he won a prestigious award. He’s a success. He’s a writer.

The smile doesn’t falter in the flashback, but we realize that this is the beginning of an identity crisis for C.W. that plays out into present-day Mythic Quest storylines where C.W. admits he hasn’t been able to write a video game story that makes people emotional or finish his series of books. The tragedy here is that if Carl had just learned to accept feedback rather than hold onto his ego, he could have maybe been a great writer. But the looming fear of what would happen if he never got better or successful as a writer was too powerful. Can you imagine how hard it is to pursue one thing for your whole life, have one true ambition, and then discover you’re not good at it? It’s gut-wrenching and I know people who’ve had to endure those crises of belief because the path they wanted to take wasn’t the one they were best at.

But there’s a spark in Carl that we see and it echoes into the final scene of the episode. At his lowest point, Carl walks through the city in the rain and stops at a storefront where the game Pong is playing on a television. Carl is enamored by the game and becomes visibly emotional at the simplicity of it and how profound it is at the same time. He’s literally glimpsing into the future and he cannot contain his joy about it. At the end of the episode, we see the moment Ian and Poppy meet C.W. and ask him to be part of Mythic Quest. When Ian mentions video games, C.W. flashes back to the moment he saw Pong and the emotion he felt; in that moment, he gets emotional in front of Ian and Poppy too. 

“Backstory!” is such an important episode; not only does it introduce us to C.W.’s past, but it also really highlights some significant themes about creativity, art, ego, and writing. These themes continue to echo into the present-day Mythic Quest stories and I’m excited to see where they’ll take us next!

Notes and quotes:

  • Young C.W., played by Josh Brener, was so perfectly cast. Everything he did from the way that Carl enunciates to small mannerisms and facial expressions was in line with how F. Murray Abraham plays C.W. without being a caricature of him. And Shelly Hennig as A.E. was just so dynamic and wonderful. I wanted more of her.
  • Rob McElhenney did such an amazing job directing this episode. Every shot was so cinematic, and the reflection of Pong in C.W.’s eyes was just so beautiful and poignant. Truly this team does not get enough credit for the work they do in this show week after week. It’s award-worthy, truly.
  • “Apologies. Iowa.”
  • “Start throwing punches or else I’m gonna lose respect for you.”
  • Flashback!Poppy is hilarious.
  • That final scene with adult C.W. remembering Pong got me misty-eyed, I can’t lie.

What did you think of this episode? Sound off in the comments below!

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