Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm
Come in, she said, I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
Recently, I listened to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for the first time, and it was through studying and researching that record that I finally understood the sonata form. It starts with a musical idea that acts as ‘home’, and emotion is created by the distance we get from home – we move further away from it, and things become frightening but also more confident, and then we return to the home idea changed. My first thought after this was of the Heroes’ Journey. It’s gotten a bad rap to the point that I don’t think anybody takes it seriously anymore, but my understanding is that its purpose was to show someone starting in one position, going out into the world, learning things, and then going home and using what they learned. The classic example is Lord of The Rings – the hobbits start as basically children in the Shire, then they go on their epic quest, then they go back to the Shire and lead a whole generation of hobbits into a new Golden Age. The primary flaws of the works emulating the Heroes’ Journey are 1) the hero learns nothing, 2) the hero doesn’t go home and stays in the magical fun land forever, or 3) what the hero learns is trite.
What I thought of from there was the works of Thomas Pynchon. Pull back and look at his bibliography as a whole, and what you have is a writer who took a lifetime to go through that journey. He started in California in the Sixties, and then he spent forty-three years travelling forward and backward in time and space, and then he went home, older and wiser, not wasting any of his time on a digression that would go nowhere and on emotions he’s not 100% invested in and on things that aren’t true. Tolkien went to war and then came home; Pynchon traveled the world his whole life and then went back to his home town.
From there, I thought about Mad Men. Home isn’t just a place on that show, it’s a set of rules. Mad Men lives at home for three seasons then defiantly runs away. At first this is liberating, throwing off shackles that held us back this entire time, but over time we discover that we’re trapped in a different place, and that we can’t go back home ever again. We become a little homesick. We learn how to create home inside us, taking it with us wherever we go. Home becomes an action we create from within; the last shot of Don Draper shows him having finally found his home, and the last scene is him inviting every other person on Earth into it the only way he knows how.
My mind jumped to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, a show that could not be less like Mad Men. The characters are shitty people who actively keep themselves trapped in a shitty situation, but that’s great for us because it’s entertaining. Don’t worry, this isn’t about to turn into ‘are we bad people for finding joy in five people torturing themselves for our entertainment for over a decade?’. What I’m actually thinking is that, for the viewer, home on Always Sunny is a very small, very limited area that allows in one new toy to play with every day. If Thomas Pynchon is a small-town kid who went out into the world and, as an old man, chose to come home, Always Sunny stayed in the same small town its whole life. Traditionally, that’s something people are made fun of for. Always Sunny makes it work because it’s always expanding its worldview, one idea at a time.
Then I find myself thinking of Cowboy Bebop, where home definitely isn’t a place at all. There’s the ship the characters travel on, of course, but that’s home in its most purely functional sense, a place where we eat and sleep. It’s something we have for the same reason we have a toilet. I suppose it’s the reverse of Mad Men and opposite of Always Sunny, in that we’re happily detached from any one location at first, only to find ourselves continuously coming back to the same place to rest our heads, and we develop a sentimentality over that place. Thomas Pynchon came home to retire, and Cowboy Bebop goes home at the end of the day to get some sleep. But the true sense of home, in the same sense I mean for all these other stories, is when we’re out bounty hunting – when we’re getting into martial arts fights and space battles and junk like that. To Cowboy Bebop, home is what you’re good at.
There’s a mirror to this whole mentality in the stories where our physical home is somewhere we’re trapped, a bad situation we’re forced to make the best of, and usually these stories suggest making the people around us our ‘home’. This is the theme so many workplace-based sitcoms end up finding their way to; M*A*S*H is the granddaddy of them all, a show about people trying to hold onto their humanity in the shadow of industralised killing, the one in which it makes the most sense that a ragtag family would develop. At the other end of the brutality scale is Community, a show that made this kind of home its reason for being, right down to the title. Not only is a community college less awful than a war, a big part of the show’s arc was Jeff’s attitude towards Greendale shifting from disgust to love. Somewhere in the middle of M*A*S*H and Community is Scrubs, where the doctors know their work in Sacred Heart is important and they know it’s exhausting and tedious; they make an active choice to get up and go to work every day (a choice nobody on M*A*S*H can make), but they never romanticise the place the way Greendale students can.
Home is somewhere necessary, even if every person defines it differently. Home is somewhere stable. Home is somewhere when even when it’s not something you directly control, you know you’re safe. Home serves the same purpose as a dream – a place to put together the information of the day, and to decide where to go next. Home is a temporary reprieve from the consequences of your actions; a place you have to violate to lose. Home is something you build to suit your particular needs. Home is an extension of the self. Home is somewhere you come and go from as you please. Home is the centre around which the rest of your world revolves. Home is the safe space that lets you go somewhere terrifying.