In the days since the world changed, I find myself turning increasingly to apocalypse stories.
Yes, there’s always room for a good comedy (see my recent entry on Derry Girls). But too few comedies, too few stories of everyday life, have sufficient gravitas to be tolerable given current circumstances. Reading a Barbara Pym novel recently, for instance, I lost patience with the characters’ dramatics over minor problems—who to organize the jumble sale, whether to volunteer to sew drapes for new neighbours. Faced with the end of our own world, such domestic troubles seem unbearably unproblematic.
Apocalypse stories, on the other hand, feel recognizable. I’ve turned to them again and again in the last month, reading Midnight at Chernobyl, (re)watching World War Z, The Day after Tomorrow, and Mad Max: Fury Road. All of these stories, about worlds turned, sometimes unexpectedly, upside down resonate. Even when they’re not well-told (looking at you, Day after Tomorrow), these are stories we can locate ourselves in.
Fury Road reminds us of other possibilities and invites us to imagine them: ways of being that enable us to thrive and make it possible for us, like the women, to find healing.I watched Fury Road the first time on a weekend early in November 2016. Now, with my city under a stay-at-home order and COVID-19 deaths climbing, I returned to it last month. Much more than an extended car chase, Fury Road tells a story that rings true for those of us living through the apocalypse and teaches us, often through its female characters, of the courage, mercy, and hope it takes to survive.
The first few minutes of the film establish the stakes. Existing “in this wasteland,” as described in voiceover, Max is “reduced to a single instinct: survive.” Carried off by Immortan Joe’s war party, against the backdrop of a hostile desert and a flaming sunset, Max is held in the dark tunnels of the citadel as fodder for oil disputes.
Our own bewilderment is an echo of Max’s; the sudden dangers of coronavirus, a shadow of Fury Road. Those riding the pandemic out in the relative comfort of our own homes must not imagine that doing so is somehow the equivalent of being trapped in the tunnels of Immortan Joe’s Citadel, far underground.
Yet there is an echo. From its opening scenes, Fury Road tells the story of people caught up in the apocalypse, as we are. It is a story about people who are trying to survive, as we also are. While thankfully COVID-19 comes with fewer explosions than Fury Road, watching the film offers a chance to make sense of the experience of our worlds falling apart.
The characters’ anger echoes our own. Yet at the same time, their compassion invites us to consider not only how we survive but also how we thrive. One key scene comes when Nux, one of the war boys, sneaks onto the rig, surprising Furiosa and Immortan Joe’s wives (yes, plural). Furiosa lunges at Nux with a knife, pressing it up against his throat in her anger.
The Splendid Angharad, Joe’s favorite wife, intervenes. “He’s just a kid,” she says, “at the end of his half-life.”
Yet moments later, Angharad has Nux hanging half out of the speeding war rig and, along with her fellow wives, is shouting at him. Angry, they describe Immortan Joe’s abuses, his misuse of humanity, over Nux’s deluded protests:
The Splendid Angharad: That’s why we have his logo seared on our back! “Breeding stock”! “Battle fodder”!
Nux: No, I am awaited!
Capable: You’re an old man’s battle fodder, killing everyone and everything!
Nux: We’re not to blame!
The Splendid Angharad: Then who killed the world?
With that, Angharad shoves Nux out of the rig, leaving him stranded on the sand.
Who killed the world? is a revealing question. Set against Angharad’s fury over Joe’s attempt to assert ownership, the brands he has “seared on the backs” of wives and war boys alike, the question gestures toward the malicious, human responsibility for the apocalypse. All that is happening to them has its roots in power mongering, the willingness to “kill everyone and everything” that characterized the nuclear holocaust as surely as it characterizes Joe. Angharad’s question gives voice to a mighty anger not only at Joe but also at the abuses of power that made the destruction of the world possible—a cascading series of disasters, which in turn made possible both the wasteland Angharad inhabits and her ownership by Joe.
Yet in asking this question, Angharad claims her autonomy. Recognizing Joe’s power as murderous and illegitimate, as she recognizes the murderous act of killing the world, Angharad asserts free will, seeking out a better world where she, along with the women traveling with her, may thrive.
Who killed the world? names our own anger, too. As deaths rise, and rise still more, thanks to widespread systemic failure and the abuse of power at local, state, and federal levels, we too need to know “who killed the world,” who is responsible for the exponential growth of the disease that has in turn led to spiking unemployment, the highest death rate in the world, and interminable uncertainty about the future. Fury Road cannot answer these questions, but it can affirm them. Like Fury Road, our own apocalypse has its roots in human failure. In asserting a need to hold leaders to account, we take the first steps toward (re)building a world that ensures all human beings have room to thrive.
Indeed, the anger Angharad expresses is grounded in compassion, a vision of a better world. That Angharad speaks up for Nux is intriguing. Clearly, she cares little for him; after all, she pushes him out of the fast-moving rig. Yet in sparing a boy “at the end of his half-life,” Angharad acts in contrast with Immortan Joe, who uses up human beings for his own purposes; and she prevents Furiosa from doing the same. “No unnecessary killing,” Angharad insists; “we agreed!” That this was prearranged, as part of the women’s flight from the Citadel in search of a Green Place, implies that what the women seek is a new way of being that does not kill the world but nourishes it, and those who inhabit it.
Apocalypse, as Kaitlyn Schiess reminded us in her recent article on Contagion, is an unveiling, an exposure of the “metalled ways,” to borrow from T. S. Eliot, that characterize the broken world we inhabit. Yet those structures are not ultimately immutable, and Angharad’s mercy invites us to consider how our own actions may—even amidst the pandemic—remain courageous and humane. Though we inhabit a world turned upside down, we may still act “right side up” toward each other, finding ways to share grace and hope and to ensure that even now, we are building a world in which our fellow human beings thrive.
If apocalypse stories resonate and point the way forward, they offer us something we have not yet experienced: the hope of resolution. Every apocalypse film comes to an end. World War Z ends with survivors turning on their radios, calling out across the empty world to each other. The Day after Tomorrow ends with survivors climbing to the top of New York’s tallest buildings, amidst a bright sunrise, awaiting rescue by helicopter. This moment, the moment when the people who lived through the apocalypse find themselves blinking in the sun, is the moment we wait for now.
At the end of Fury Road, Furiosa and the surviving women return to the Citadel where they are raised to its leadership, replacing the warlord with a belief in the worth and autonomy of human beings. Crowds gather below the Citadel, and those inside, long under Joe’s thumb themselves, open the fountains and let water pour out from deep within the earth onto the parched crowds below. For the community, it is a moment of rebirth.
We are not yet to this place in our apocalypse, this pandemic. As Sam Gamgee, one of Tolkien’s hobbits, would put it, we are at the place where many of us would prefer to close the book, turn away from the grim awfulness of the story. Closing our own book, however, is impossible; it must be lived.
Who knows how this chapter in our collective story will end? It may well end more like Dr. Strangelove, with preventable, utter disaster. Yet Fury Road reminds us of other possibilities and invites us to imagine them: ways of being that enable us to thrive and make it possible for us, like the women, to find healing.
Hope, in feminist rhetorical theory, is not groundless optimism but the willingness to imagine and work toward new ways of being, (re)making the places where we dwell into a “landscape inhabitable by human beings” (The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin). In this light, what stories like Fury Road do is give us hope, by reminding us that the worst outcomes are not inevitable and urging us to work and to pray for their realization.
Crucially, however, the hope of Fury Road is not achieved through sheer grit and determination. Rather, it is an ending achieved through shared risks and sacrifice—the wives’ sacrifice, Nux’s, Furiosa’s. Even Max sacrifices—the distrustful loner giving his own blood to save Furiosa’s life. Whatever victory the characters achieve is possible only through mutual aid and grace.
For many of us, the pandemic has made imagining a better future very difficult indeed. Fury Road makes room for our confusion and anger; the hope it offers is not cheap hope. Yet in bringing its own apocalypse story to an end, Fury Road lets us (rooted as we are in time) have a glimpse of coming renewal, of rebirth. In locating that renewal, at least in part, outside of individual willpower, Fury Road makes it possible for us to wait.
Our hope, the film reminds us, is pinned neither on human leaders nor on our power to imagine new worlds into being. Woven from the web of shared human experience, hope is more mysterious still, unsought grace amid the hardship. Whatever cause we find for anger, resistance, and work, as we travel to our own Green Place (a road we take over the whole course of our lives), we find also a still, small voice, whispering to us of hope.