It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Just the fucking worst.
No one who writes a retrospective or makes a memoir of this universally and undisputedly worst year in living memory- nay, all of American history – will claim it was otherwise. There will be disagreement among the various accounts as to the specific source of the greatest grief. Most will point to the Wuhan Virus, a pestilent plague to be sure, though I hold with those who find its ancillary effects to be far worse: the fear and irrationality that spread with even greater virality than the virus; the pretense for the Fifty Petty Tyrants to infringe upon the individual liberties of their citizenry, a lesson learned in this real crisis which they will apply to manufactured crises in the future; the dispelling of the illusion among modern Americans that they like their ancestors possessed the moral courage to cast off oppression; the needless and endless shutdowns that killed off a year of our lives and many of the best businesses and bars and restaurants; and the looming economic depression, already worsened by the increased inflation that will come from trillions in wasteful spending.
Nor were unrelated events any less portentous of the coming civilizational collapse. As in the days of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, vandal hordes roamed unchecked. Indeed, worse than Rome, for whereas the ancients merely lacked the military might to beat back the barbarians, those whom we entrusted to uphold the laws gave implicit permission to the hordes to burn buildings, mar monuments, steal from storefronts, and much more. And perhaps worse than the pandemic in the long term is the continued capitulation of our culture and government to the new Evil Empire, which will only worsen with the incoming administration.
All of which is to qualify what follows. Whatever else happened in the last year in my personal affairs – all the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful – it all stood in the shadow of that hideous strength.
Professionally, 2020 saw me transition quietly from writing for Wisecrack to writing for Today I Found Out. My analysis of Jungian psychology, esoteric tarot, and moral philosophy in Persona 5 – a video I had pitched in my initial job interview – finally debuted this January. It was my final video for the site, though I had pitched some ideas immediately afterwards, and still reserve the right to float potential scripts to the channel. Writing for Today I Found Out has been vastly different from working for Wisecrack. Whereas the later I sent out my résumé on a lark on Christmas Eve and had a video interview by Boxing Day, with the former I was competing against over five hundred other applicants in a many months-long hiring process entirely over email. An even greater contrast comes from the fact that my scripts for Wisecrack were heavily edited, one even being cut down to a quarter of its original length. Contra Today I Found Out, with Simon reading my scripts as written verbatim (excepting the time in which he mistook the word “Geat” for “great,” which Beowulf was a well, but nevertheless altered the point I was attempting to illustrate).
My output for the trivia channel has so far consisted of an exploration of the origin of Superman’s power of flight, an analysis of the Anglo-Saxon sources which Tolkien cribbed and how their incorporation made sense of his goal to write a mythology for England, and (currently in production as of this writing) an account of the final fates of the members of the Fellowship of the Ring in the Fourth Age. I’m currently penning a piece pertaining to the development of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The first Tolkien video was one of my most meticulously researched writings, a veritable piece of scholarship, of which I’m particularly proud. Simon, however, was less enthusiastic, bemoaning on a podcast as to how boring and pedantic he found it – unbeknownst to me when I pitched it, he hates fantasy fiercely. It was otherwise well-received all around.
Most of my writing this year has been fiction, prolific but unpublishable, as it’s been entirely in the service of the campaign I’m currently serving as Dungeon Master for in Dungeons & Dragons, a hobby I picked up during and due to the shutdowns, and which has proven a much needed outlet for my creativity and imagination. My only other writing has been two pieces of poetry, one about the Rota Fortuna and the other about the recent conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
Personally, 2020 has been bereft of the Adventures™ which will one day make up the chapters of my memoir, to be titled “So I’m at the bar…” Only two incidents even come close to earning the moniker of “misadventures,” both in Brooklyn, coincidentally. The first, in February, started with a descent into a dank, dark dungeon that dared to call itself a club, filled with fog and flashing strobe lights and thundering techno music, and populated entirely bears in assless chaps. After escaping from that nearly literal hellhole (neither I nor the friend who suggested it had any idea what the place was), the night improved considerably, and lasted long into the morning, finally leaving the last afterparty (on a boat) at ten in the morning. The bout of alcohol poisoning that resulted from drinking for twelve hours straight convinced me to add the first and so far only entry on my Murtaugh List of shit I’m too old to do anymore.
Several months later after Ragnarök was already underway I sojourned back to Brooklyn with the brother of a friend to hit up a backyard speakeasy. It was there that I learned the unique loneliness that comes in a crowded place but being the only even remotely attractive individual therein. There is indeed ugliness for which there is no alibi.
Romantically, 2020 ought to have hit me far harder than it had, especially given that my access to my usual haunts of college dives and sophisticated speakeasies alike was precluded for nine and a half months. Indeed, the year started off on an ominous note, with my longtime girlfriend of five months breaking things off on January 3rd. The disappointment was definitely cushioned by the fact that she took me out to the top steakhouse in the state to buy me dinner as she dumped me. Ladies, take note: that’s how you let a man down easy.
The rest of January I was in a relationship with a woman fourteen years my junior who, at the tender age of twenty, was unfortunately unable to be served alcohol whenever we went to a bar. For the first few weeks of February I was briefly unattached, though that resulted in by far the best Valentine’s Day of my life, as I was transported seemingly back in time to the really Roaring ‘20s for a taste of the surprisingly tasteful art of burlesque. Shortly thereafter I became involved with a lovely Irish lassie who knew not the ravages of time nor gravity. We were together for a bit before the fateful Ides of March and two months afterwards, and even if she did leave me for a lesser man (aren’t they all?), I’m thankful to have had companionship during the first few weeks of the apocalypse.
Following that I made a mistake. As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool gets back with an ex. And I was foolish, though thankfully I did not linger long in my folly. Definitely one of my stranger separations, and almost certainly the only time in human history that a misunderstanding over Philosophical Zombies led to a breakup. I failed to learn a lesson, and when a different dame with whom I’d been on-again off-again texted me out of the blue, it led to the infamous incident in which, to my horrified and sudden shock, she dropped a fifty megaton N-bomb on Blackthorne. Which I wish I could say was my last crazy ex story of 2020, but being 2020, of course it wasn’t. I discovered just a few weeks ago that the inevitable had happened finally: I’ve been Taylor Swifted. The only woman whom I’ve ever truly ‘dumped’ released her third single on iTunes and Spotify, and I’m not so vain, but the lyrics to at least one if not two of the songs are probably about me.
But the year is ending far better than it went, with the gorgeous gal that I’m currently courting blissfully oblivious to the obvious fact that she’s far out of my league. So please, nobody wake her up to the fact that she’s too good for me.
My reading throughout 2020 was nothing short of voracious. I tackled twenty-five books in full. The best read of the year was the first, an anthology by the inimitable Catherynne M. Valente titled “The Future is Blue,” featuring the purplest prose I’ve ever perused. I’m circling back to where I began, currently in the middle of a novel of hers called “The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John.” I finally got around to reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in anticipation of what proved to be a terrible HBO adaptation. Much more rewarding was the bounty of books by Isaac Asimov, beginning with the Foundation series and doubling back around to his Robot novels.
My non-fiction reading entailed primarily Tolkien related works, including The Book of Lost Tales Part 2, Sauron Defeated, and Tom Shippey’s classics The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. They were read primarily for pleasure, but served as excellent sources to cite for my videos.
Though 2020 was indubitably the worst yet in American history generally, it was nevertheless the best year in the history of video games, eclipsing even 2007. Following heaps of well-deserved accolades at the 2019 Game Awards, the previously under-the-radar Disco Elysium came to the attention of myself and many others. Playing it in January was nothing short of a religious experience. The imaginative depth of its worldbuilding is unrivalled in its medium, with a wholly unique history, religion, and metaphysics, as slowly revealed through a gritty yet giddy noir detective tale.
The first truly 2020 release I played was March’s metroidvania Ori and the Will of the Wisps, a sequel to 2015’s Blind Forest that is every bit its equal, combining impeccable platforming, painterly art direction, and a Pixar-esque narrative that is hauntingly sublime. After that came Final Fantasy VII Remake, a mess of contradictions, the most striking of which was how well the graphics were modernized but how poorly the gameplay played. The inferiority of real time to turned-based combat in Japanese Role Playing Games was proven by the subsequent game on my calendar, Persona 5 Royale, the definitive version of one of my favorite games of all time. Nevertheless, the fact that Final Fantasy is by far the worst game I played this year speaks to the general high caliber of recent works in the medium, especially since Remake was well worth playing in spite of a few flaws. Both Final Fantasy and Persona 5 Royal came out at a particularly provident point in time, especially the latter, with a hundred and fifty hour social simulator being the perfect panacea for the isolation during the height of the shutdowns.
Next came The Last of Us, played in preparation for the imminent release of what would prove my personal Game of the Year (considering Royal is more of an expansion pack than new release): The Last of Us Part II. The character of Abby was understandably controversial. She worked well as a vehicle to see the same events as Ellie experienced but from the opposite perspective, though where Abby’s storyline became divergent or tangential it lost both its purpose and its pathos, becoming propaganda for the woke ideology of the workers at Naughty Dog. Despite this singular flaw, the bespoke level design and elaborate animations are a constant testament to the raw skill of the studio, and Ellie’s flashback to the museum is the most moving moment in the medium since Mordin died singing “Scientist Salarian.”
Ghost of Tsushima continued Sony’s hot streak, delivering a stylish samurai simulator. Dueling ronin in cinematic showdowns proved particularly thrilling, but equally enjoyable was meditating by a scenic overlook to contemplatively compose a haiku. After Ghost I dipped my toes into Crusader Kings III, a surprisingly accessible strategy game that I’ve recently come back to after Assassins Creed Valhalla, gaining newfound appreciation for many of the historical characters appearing in both titles. Crystal Dynamic’s Avengers followed, a definite disappointment compared to Insomniac’s Spider-man, and hopefully the death kneel of games-as-a-disservice. Hot on its heels was Hades, a rogue-lite head and shoulders above all others, and continuing proof that Supergiant is the best developer hands down, having never made a game shy of perfection.
Watchdogs: Legion was the only game I’ve started without finishing this year, though it evidence the raw processing power of my shiny new PC, packed with Intel’s most powerful processor, a terabyte-sized solid state drive, 32 gigabytes of RAM, and – best of all – NVIDIA’s GeForce RTX 3080!
My most recent completion is Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, a hundred and fifty hour romp across 10th Century England, as well as parts of Norway, America, Jötunheimr, and the eponymous Valhalla, bringing to life the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and cultures that I’d read about so extensively in my research for the Tolkien script. Between Valhalla and Odyssey before it, Assassin’s Creed has quietly become one of the best franchises in gaming, finally fully exploiting its core conceit of combining interesting historical periods and places with a fascinating forerunner mythology. Ubisoft’s other recent release, Immortals: Fenyx Rising, is my current on-the-go game, at which I’m slowly chipping away.
I’ve purchased but yet to play Spider-man: Miles Morales and Call of Duty: Black Ops: Cold War, wanting to experience them on the PlayStation 5 I‘ve yet to be able to get a hold of. CyberPunk 2077 for PS4 I refunded, waiting for the first major expansion pack before I purchase it again on PC in the hope that the many bugs are finally patched out by then.
Television in 2020 thankfully continued the recent Renaissance we’ve been blessed with these past few years. The sophomore efforts of The Boys was a cutting critique of the cynical façade of corporations’ – especially media monopolies’ – performative Wokism, though it did wrongly place the locus of American cultural dysfunction in the culturally-powerless far-right fringe, an illiberal and wrongheaded movement, to be sure, but a strange scapegoat given its small size and political impotence, especially relative to the aforementioned vandal hordes laying siege to our cities. None of which made the superpowered slugfests any less enjoyable. Season Two of The Mandalorian was fan service in the best possible way, with memorable moments like the Krayt Dragon, Ralph McQuarrie’s Ice Spiders, and the final moments of the finale overshadowing the poor casting of an already terrible character (Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano) and the disappointing debut of Tython in live action looking exactly like southern California. Rick and Morty’s fourth season gave us the best episode of the series, Never Ricking Morty, a.k.a. the one with the story train, which I can’t imagine the series ever topping. Like Harmon’s previous “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode of Community, it’s a rare perfect twenty-two minutes of television. South Park’s “Pandemic Special” is proof positive that Stone and Parker’s unique voice of sanity is sorely missed at the hour it’s most needed.
The state of the film industry is almost too tragic to talk about, both for the needless and indefinite delays, the shuttering of cinemas, the move to day-and-date streaming, and worse of all Hollywood’s continued collaboration with a genocidal regime. But I’d be remiss if I failed to sing the praises of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a testament to why the theater experience is indispensable, the only truly proper way to appreciate the art of cinema, as different from streaming as seeing a masterpiece in a gallery versus a .jpeg of an image of the same sculpture. Moreover, of the many movies about time-travel, it is the most serious take on the topic, sticking strictly to the science in a way Interstellar had previously promised but ultimately failed to deliver on. It presents, in not so many words, a Minkowski manifold of four-dimensional spacetime whose geometry allows for (and actually includes in this instance) closed timelike curves. Combined with the ever-thrilling spy-fi genre and Nolan’s perfect plotting and pacing, it’s by far the best movie of the year.
Sonic the Hedgehog was not nearly as bad as it could have been based on that initial teaser trailer, but it was at its most interesting on Mobius for the first five minutes of the film, followed the majority of its runtime on earth in a script written primarily for children more familiar with Fortnite than those of us who grew up playing the Sonic games. Birds of Prey proved to be a made-for-tv movie that was made for theaters, with the only redeeming qualities the performances of the ever excellent Ewan McGregor and the unexpectedly true thespian Margot Robbie.
Wonder Woman 1984 was neither the successful sequel fans were anticipating nor as bad as the backlash would have one believe. The first half worked well to imbue every scene with a sense of wonderment, especially through the eyes of Steve Trevor, who gives the man-out-of-time performance that was all too abbreviated for Captain America. Like the original, it’s also an excellent period piece, albeit striking a very different tone than the trenches of World War One. Where it falls apart is in its overly saccharine ending, betraying the fundamentally misanthropic message of the first film that posited the thesis that human beings are essentially evil absent some sort of divine intervention. Having Diana appeal to human decency in the sequel is definitely discordant.
Dropping on the same day was the vastly superior Soul, in the upper echelon of Pixar’s reputable catalogue. I actively disdain jazz, and yet films like La La Land, Whiplash, and now Soul are among my favorite movies. Moreover, it offers a modern and unique take on the afterlife that pulls more from The Good Place than recycling Virgil, Dante, and Milton – classics, to be sure, but in whose shadow Soul would have inevitably stood small. And it smartly steers clear of the clichéd ending it seemed to be setting up of having Joe’s spark be teaching, instead ultimately being a critique of any and all forms of monomania. In that way it is something of the anti-Whiplash, though just as skillfully made despite their diametrically opposite arguments.
While writing this retrospective, I read an article dubbing 2020 the “annus horribilis.” A fitting moniker, to be sure, though perhaps an understatement. 2020 was apocalyptic. Certainly in the colloquial sense that the term has taken on. Between a deadly disease, the loss of liberty, violent vandal hordes, economic downturn and depression, and civilizational collapse, it certainly looked like what the End Times have long been imagined as, sans only nuclear war and/or the Second Coming of Christ. But it was also apocalyptic in the original sense of the term, revealing (terrible) truths about ourselves: we are not “one nation,” let alone “under God” anymore; given the choice between “liberty or death,” Patrick Henry has too few ideological heirs; and contra Tolkien, history will not be the “long defeat” – defeat is coming more quickly than any of us would have predicted.