One of the things that childhood in Florida entails is a working knowledge of the mechanics of hurricanes. The simple version I learned as a kid is almost mundane: the temperature over the ocean rises so much that a pool of warm air rises while cool air replaces it. This accumulation stirs up thunderstorms that cluster around low pressure areas and the earth Coriolis force helps the burgeoning storm system turn. With enough wind and water vapor, the storm builds up, a completely natural phenomenon and completely destructive. Every year, from June to October, hurricane season looms, with the possibility of a super storm falling into your life, leaving it in ruins. There is really only one thing you can do about it: stay inside.
The Netflix Comedy Special Bo Burnhams Within doesn’t specify exactly why he or anyone else was stuck indoors for a year. He does not have to. Every soul on earth has lived through the coronavirus pandemic, and it is obvious that the resulting special – a one-man show in a single room full of dark satirical songs, dark monologues, and dazzling production – exists because of it. But none of Burnham’s jokes or provocations really have anything to do with the ongoing crisis. Instead, it focuses on the overwhelming number of disasters that were in focus well before the United States’ first COVID-19 case. Problems like, in his words, “systematic oppression … income inequality … that other stuff”.
But mostly Within
Within is a stunning work by Depressioncore in which Burnham ponders the indolence of our collective doom. He’s, as he often notes, a white man who wants to do comedy, but what’s the point? Why does all of this matter in a digital world where everything collapses into everything else, where influencer parties, police brutality, medical crowdfunding, and the latest Star Wars prequel meme collide on the same timeline? What has it done to our psyche that we can absorb all of this and scroll on?
The seismic anime by Hideaki Anno Neon Genesis Evangelion contains an idea called Absolute Terror Field or AT Field. It is a metaphysical power that all sentient beings possess, an invisible barrier that separates your ego and sense of self from all others. In the psychology of Evangelion, the pitiful fear of getting known is part of what makes us individuals and forms a literal barrier that holds us together. It is also the force by which the world is doomed: the antagonists of the series, the giant monsters known as Angels, have exceptionally strong AT fields that make them almost indestructible.
The series is about the fight to stop these monsters and the screwed-up way the earth fights them: by putting kids in hybrid machine monsters called EVAs, which are insulated in uterine-like capsules that allow them to to control the EVA units, but also to make Feel everything that the EVAs feel. In the EVA Unit-01, the protagonist Shinji Ikari is alone with his thoughts and it frightens him, even more than the doom outside his capsule. He can try to save the world, but what if he hates himself? The defining picture of Evangelion
Within often shows Bo Burnham in a similar state: curled up on the floor, slumped on a stool, or with his head hanging heavily over the keyboard. His fear is the whole point, and the tragedy of it all is subtly hinted at in various songs: He would probably be isolated and desperate anyway, no pandemic lock necessary. “Look who’s inside,” he muses during a song, and at the worst moment of the special, he talks about a five-year break from performance that began due to panic attacks and deteriorating mental health. It finally seemed to be on the upswing until early 2020 when “the funniest happened”.
Burnham shares this anecdote in the middle of “All Eyes on Me,” possibly the furthest song of the special. There is no clever joke in his lyrics. It’s three parts of mourning for the performance life that he almost regained and lost, and one part of nihilism, served with blue stage lights.
“You say the ocean is rising / How I don’t give a shit? / You say the world is going under / Honey, that has already happened,” goes the bridge of the song flooded with distortions. “Got it? Good. Now go in.”
Nobody is built for this chaotic tide that is part of online life. When the Internet, as Burnham characterizes it in “Welcome to the Internet”, is “always a little bit of everything”, then nihilism becomes a rational reaction. Unsubscribing doesn’t really feel like an option, the internet doesn’t contain everything we legitimately need to know and everyone we want to feel close to. But there’s no clean break, no way to curate the desirable bits out of the mess, at least not without tools that often require a career in online fields to learn about. There are always going to be more terrible things that happen all the time, and most of us hear about these things at a much higher volume than from anyone working to use the internet for activism and meaningful change. As with Shinji in the EVE, the instrument by which we can change things is the source of our torment. Overcoming this dynamic feels like defying the laws of nature.
We talked about hurricanes.
The eye of a hurricane is its most fascinating feature. On dry land, the core of the storm, around which the entire system revolves, is a place of momentary calm. Quiet reigns for an average of 20 to 40 miles, even if the Chaos remains in sight.
And that’s why when I see Robert Bo Burnham in a room that symbolizes the Internet, I think of hurricanes with their calm eyes that can lead one to normal even if the storm destroys everything around them. I’m Burnham’s age, and like him, I grew up in a world where doom should be far away, only to find out in adulthood that it wasn’t. The end is here and we log in every day. We scroll through destruction and tragedy and jokes, all safe inside. And we’ve been doing that for a long time.