Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing The Fade Out 12, originally released January 6th, 2016.
But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
George Orwell, 1984
Drew: I remember reading these words for the first time in high school and thinking they expressed the bleakest sentiment I could imagine. To me, Winston’s deep, sincere submission to Big Brother represented the darkness of Orwell’s cynicism far more than anything O’Brien threatens him with. In my mind, Winston’s pretense of submission in the first two books was preferable to the effective lobotomized state the novel ends with, but that’s only because his secret life held relatable pleasures. What if, instead, his secret life was filled only with turmoil and guilt? What if choosing to submit was worse than having it thrust upon you? This is the reality Charlie finds himself in at the end of The Fade Out 12, an ending that might actually be bleaker than that of 1984.
Now, suggesting that Charlie chooses to submit might seem like an overstatement, especially after writer Ed Brubaker certainly makes it clear that Charlie doesn’t have a ton of options, but there is one other option that comes up twice, but Charlie consciously chooses the alternative. That option, of course, is death.
After discovering that he can’t even exact ill-advised revenge against Drake Miller, Charlie is cast adrift, forced to confront the fact that he doesn’t know what comes next — that he never knows what comes next. It’s in this directionless state that Charlie contemplates suicide, but he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. Is it a will to live or simply cowardice that keeps him from doing the deed? Charlie later adds that, in order to protect Melba, he can’t just “run,” and it seems like killing himself might not be much better.
Still, when Charlie is eventually confronted by Brodsky, all he can do is offer himself up.
He’s still resigned to death, even if he can’t find the strength to do it himself. Of course, Brodsky has no interest in killing Charlie — he already has one dead screenwriter to worry about — or, at least not so long as Charlie is willing to accept his place within the system he finds himself in. Charlie is willing — and, after identifying the demons that kept him from writing, able — to play his part, but is racked with guilt over the deaths of Gil and Valeria.
What makes that guilt particularly bitter is that it’s not just about his role in covering up their deaths or the fact that he has to keep these secrets even from Melba, but that Gil and Valeria died for making the choice he couldn’t. If the toxic mix of the studio system and the FBI’s communist hunt had a “submit or perish” policy, Gil and Valeria both opted for perish. Obviously, neither one consciously chose death, but they both died refusing to simply accept the rules that trapped them — Valeria for not kowtowing to Drake Miller’s power, and Gil for not accepting that the studio could get away with covering it up. In choosing to submit where they didn’t, Charlie is effectively nullifying the causes they died for. Charlie may accept the coverup of Gil’s death as necessary to protect Melba and the kids, but there’s no way Gil would have — and that’s even without shutting up about exposing Val’s murder.
If Charlie has any of these principles left, he’s too neutered to act on them. Heck, even his discomfort in sleeping with Melba is undermined by the fact that he did it, and seems to be living at her place only to facilitate doing it again. Or maybe he’s there just to facilitate this lovely callback to issue 1:
Actually, Spencer, there are a few bits about that ending that I’m not totally sure what to make of. I tend to see Charlie’s submission as a form of cowardice — that he’s simply unwilling to die for his cause — which makes his newfound ability to write a bit perplexing. I’m almost inclined to read some metacommentary into what Brubaker thinks is necessary to writing, but I’m honestly not sure what he got back. Was it rules governing his life? Was it perspective? Why is it that he can imagine what happens next now in a way that he couldn’t before? I’m at a bit of a loss, so I’m curious to see what you think about it.
Spencer: That’s a good question you ask, Drew. The answer is never really clear within the text itself, but I do think I have a theory. Let’s take a look Charlie’s thoughts as he tries to concoct a plan to dispose of Gil’s body.
You’ll probably have to enlarge that photo to read the narration, but the gist is that Charlie is imagining every bad thing that could happen to Melba if he tries to run or tell the truth about Gil’s death. This looks suspiciously like Charlie imagining what happens next — something he supposedly can’t do anymore — and I’d imagine it’s a rather accurate assessment at that.
So if this is the turning point where Charlie regains his writing skill, there’s still the question of why it happens. Again, I feel like the answers can be found on these pages. Charlie and Gil only gave their plans the most halfhearted attention when they were trying to solve Valeria’s murder, but Melba’s safety being on the line seems to spark some actual forethought from Charlie. I’m curious whether that’s because of Charlie’s own feelings for Melba or because of his wanting to protect the family of the friend he got killed, but either way, something changes in Charlie here. It’s subtle, and not explicitly linked to Charlie’s writing, but I could easily accept this as an explanation.
The other option — also supported by the pages I just posted, to an extent — is that Charlie can now imagine what happens next (and thus write again) because he has a better understanding of the way the world works. This isn’t a Charlie who can foolishly hope for “justice” anymore — this is a Charlie who’s learned his “place” in the world, and who understands the full extent of the power various institutions (be they the Studio, the FBI, or the police) have over society. As depressing as that is, it may’ve just been the structure he needed to construct stories again.
(There’s also the option that Charlie never really “lost” the ability to write as much as he was too scared and guilty to try after the war/betraying Gil, but without Gil he no longer had that option, and learned to write again because his back was against a wall. I’m not really sure how I feel about that one, though.)
Anyway Drew, you’re right to point out how bleak this conclusion is, especially for Charlie. One point I found interesting comes near the very end of the issue, where the narration mentions Brodsky speaking of how similar he and Charlie are because they both understand the world. It got me thinking, and there are some frightening similarities between the two, yet they also face their lots in life with far different attitudes.
Brodsky doesn’t look all that pleased about the way things turned out either — both Valeria’s death and his inability to kill Drake Miller for it are points of annoyance to him. Yet, where Charlie’s drowning in guilt and sadness, Brodsky brushes everything off and just accepts it as the way things are. So what’s the difference between these two? Both understand how the world works, at least in relation to their studio, and neither have full control of what they can and can’t do, but Charlie seems to have morals that make him feel guilt because of what he’s unable to do, whereas Brodsky has none. Brodsky stands for nothing, willing to hurt and kill people simply because the studio tells him to, and willing to cover up crimes he’s personally upset about, again, because that’s just what his role is. He’s content because he’s embraced the system that oppressed him — Charlie seems too principled to do that, but again, as Drew pointed out, he’s also too cowardly to take a stand (even if it would be pointless) or kill himself or even quit his job and start life anew (do we think the studio would have Charlie killed if he did so?), so of course he’s miserable. Charlie has knowledge of how badly the world is screwing him over, but absolutely no power to do anything about it.
That’s likely a familiar feeling to many of us. One of the most powerful aspects of period pieces is that they remind us of how much things have changed as the years’ve progressed, but also of how much has stayed the same. While the common people nowadays have much greater knowledge of the lengths powerful institutions are willing to go to to cover their own butts, there still seems to be little we can actually do about it. The internet is a whole new avenue that can be used by anyone to make our voices heard in a way Charlie never could’ve, but it’s still a dangerous gamble — just look at Edward Snowden, who’s living in exile for bringing the government’s crimes to light (and who would probably be dead by now if he wasn’t so notoriously well-known).
The Fade Out offers little in the way of solutions for dealing with this — in fact, Charlie and Gil’s fates almost seem to be advising against fighting the system — but I don’t really think it’s necessary for the issue to try, and it wouldn’t fit with this story’s noir stylings either. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of the sins of our past so that we can learn not to repeat them in the future, and while The Fade Out is a gorgeously rendered, intricately plotted noir mystery with an immensely satisfying ending, it’s also one helluva reminder of our country’s dark past, and the value of that can never be overlooked.
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