“So what’s Hell like? Figure I ought to get ready.”
Thief, 8 Bit Theater
Half a lifetime ago, I swore never to write or draw a comic about turning thirty or being in my thirties, and I have kept this up admirably*. At the moment, what really interests me is turning fifty; a lot of people I care about have entered their fifties in the past few years, and I happen to have taken in a lot of works about people floating around that age around the same time. It was reading Ian Kershaw’s biography of Adolf Hitler that really set serious thought on the topic in motion – when he reached the point that Disqus’s least favourite German turned fifty, Kershaw remarked that Hitler went through the same process of stock-taking that most men in their fifties do, considering what he had achieved and what he had not achieved, except because Hitler was a Jew-hatin’ mass-murderin’ maniac, it was expressed a little differently than most.
*Unless you take the stance, as I do, that anything I write is inherently about being in my thirties by virtue of being written by a guy in his thirties.
Shortly after this, I rewatched Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. A minor point at the start is Kirk having a significant birthday; as a sop to William Shatner’s vanity, exactly which birthday is not revealed, but a simple google search revealed Shatner was fifty-one at time of filming. The film finds Kirk feeling frustrated at his own success, having moved on from captaining the Enterprise to the position of Admiral when it was the process of exploration that excited him, not the day-to-day drudgery of organisation. He takes one more stab at the glory he sought in his thirties only to find two things: he’s not an all-powerful figure who can keep getting away with million-to-one chances, and there are roads he chose not to take that weren’t quite as unattractive as he thought they were.
This ends up leading quite elegantly into Star Trek: The Next Generation. Patrick Stewart was forty-eight when he began portraying Jean-Luc Picard, and while the character is quite different, the principles are much the same as for Kirk – he has walked a very particular path and managed to claw his way into getting exactly what he wanted, only to be given reason to look back and see the paths he chose not to take – to see what his convictions have cost him. After seven seasons, there’s a sense that we have entered a dramatic new era for Picard as a person, where his successes have freed him up to expand his sense of identity, where one plausible future is becoming the one thing he ran away from as a kid.
I would think from this that turning fifty is only a process of being successful, until I remember the existence of Breaking Bad. Walt starts off the story on his fiftieth birthday, and his story is defined by his total bitterness at his (self-perceived) sense of failure. Walt goes through a sense of Becoming normally reserved for men at least fifteen years younger than him, as if something has been unleashed, but his age and life experience end up colouring the story significantly. Unlike many of the young men who idolise him and contrary to what he believes upon receiving his cancer diagnosis, Walt has much to lose – he has his family, of course, but also his larger place in the community, and the more esoteric nature of his soul and morality.
On top of this, he has his skills. If nothing else about the story was different aside from his age (and, by extension, the age of his son) and he were, say, nineteen, this would purely be the story of an unholy talent rocketing straight upward. But he also has decades of experience as a chemist – he studied in a formal context and he practiced professionally. As much as Walt, Breaking Bad, and the critical discourse has observed his personal genius, he’s also simply had experience and raw knowledge informing his intuition.
The other thing about all these men is that they aren’t yet past their prime physically. I was thinking that maybe fifty is your last chance to reinvent yourself, but not only is not that true – you can continue to do so into your sixties, seventies, eighties – it’s not even that all these characters deliberately choose change so much has have it thrust upon them. It’s certainly a point where even the esoteric consequences for your decisions become overwhelming; the truly meaningless decisions have made themselves apparent and the long-term ones are only too clear. I don’t think fifty is old and I don’t think it’s healthy to think of it as such (part of the reason I always hated thirtysomethings complaining about their age was, like, what, you’re barely halfway and you’ve already given up?), but it definitely seems like a point where you inescapably outlive a version of yourself. Even Captain Kirk can’t outrun time.