Dispatches from Elsewhere S1E5 “Clara” focuses, as you would expect, on Clara (Cecilia Balagot). We finally meet the girl who has been so central to the stories being told by the Elsewhere Society and Jejune Institute—or do we?
Peter, Simone, Janice, and Fredwynn enter the cellar that they came to at the end of S1E4, but there is no flesh and blood Clara therein. What there is instead is a very realistic painting of Clara, and then text written on the wall that can only be seen with the use of a black-light flashlight they find along with a note telling them to turn off the lights so they can see. They later find more of the story on the wall of the bathroom, and then hidden in a knit scarf.
The details of discovery perhaps make the story seem more impressive than it otherwise would be. It was hidden, and they had to follow clues in order to find it. This gives an air of mystery and significance to the whole thing. Unfortunately Dispatches from Elsewhere S1E5 doesn’t do as good of a job of sucking its audience into that sense of mystery and wonder as the preceding episodes did.
Instead, it feels a bit as though we are told that things are wondrous, rather than shown. After all, what does Clara do in the story? Instead of being beaten down by the gloominess of Fishtown, she paints a mural. She inspires the town a bit there, and she and her friends push it forward by forming the Elsewhere Society and doing other things like painting eyeballs on buildings and hanging a number of colorful umbrellas. They also steal some things.
Clearly the idea is to inject color, and thus hope, into the lives of people. Fishtown without Clara’s projects is even shown in black and white to bring the point home. But if the I.D.E.A. is just about painting some murals, that would be a bit of a letdown. I mean, I like Banksy as much as the next guy, but this actually seems to deescalate the story of Dispatches from Elsewhere to some degree. After all, it was just a couple of episodes ago that we were told the I.D.E.A. was technology that would allow one to revisit memories perfectly.
We should perhaps note, then, that the truth of things remains very much in question. Dispatches from Elsewhere S1E5 doesn’t show us Clara in reality. It depicts Clara in the story that our friends read from the wall and such. Thus all of these scenes are tinged with a fantastical sort of feeling. What we are seeing is how someone (probably Peter) would imagine the scenes that are being described. Of course, at the end of the episode, Peter believes that Simone’s discovery about the painting of a mural 20 years ago proves that things are real, but this remains questionable from an objective point of view.
But there are other concerns about what we see in Clara’s story. The mural she paints is beautiful, but what should we think about her just deciding to do this without permission? The same question goes for the other things that the Elsewhere Society does. This raises a question about how we think about graffiti, and while I’m personally a fan and onboard with the argument that no one asks the community whether they want giant ugly advertisements either, there is a question to be thought about here.
The same goes with the ice cream from the truck that crashes. It is treated as though the ice cream is free for the taking because it has been spilled on the street—and surely this is how Clara presents the event in her story—but reality is more complicated than that. Grabbing some ice cream and eating it (as opposed to helping the driver get it back in the truck safely after having an accident) is stealing it. And maybe that’s OK. Maybe we should resist the forces of capitalism and such that control our lives, and these little acts of theft in the name of opening up Elsewhere to people are justified. But that’s at least debatable.
The idea of Elsewhere would seem to be to open people to wonder and hope; to break them out of the acceptance of things like being born in Fishtown, dying in Fishtown, and not wanting to dream in between because waking up would be too much of a bummer. This is a laudable goal, but I’m not sure it’s an end goal. That is, is finding one’s divine nonchalance supposed to be the end of the story, like the Buddhist achievement of nirvana? Or is it just a beginning that could lead one to live in a different way, and perhaps even lead to meaningful social reform?
Either way, it strikes me that there is something questionable about trying to force it on people. For example, when Peter makes everyone using the app of the company he works for suddenly listen to “Good Vibrations,” he and (imaginary) Clara high-five, but doesn’t this ignore how some might feel this to be a true imposition? Peter wants to say that although they offer people a limitless choice of music, consumers nonetheless stick to the same songs rather than expanding their horizons. Certainly there is something to that. And “Good Vibrations” is about the least objectionable song that I can think of to use in this scene. Are there people who hate this song?
Honestly, though, there probably are. There are probably people who heard this as the soundtrack to some kind of trauma, even. Dispatches from Elsewhere S1E5 hits that note quickly as it shows the song cutting in over the playlist at a wake, but the moment is more humorous than anything else.
In other words, you might think that you are injecting a bit of wonder into people’s lives, but what about the people who are potentially annoyed? Peter, Simone, Janice, and Fredwynn have entered into something freely. They’ve become fascinated by it, and so have I. Clara, on the other hand, strikes me as, well…jejune.
Where is the line between what we might call authenticity and naïvete? In her story, Clara is presented with an offer from Octavio that she turns down. It’s easy enough to read this as a resistance to “selling out.” After all, Octavio says that she is giving away what they want to sell, and that thing would seem to be hope.
This disgusts at least what’s left of my ‘90s self, who viewed selling out as just about the worst thing one could do. But is this accurate? Are the problems of the world really attributable to people who start off pure allowing themselves to be corrupted? Isn’t it the case that maybe some of us are rotten from the get-go? And is there anything to the idea of trying to change things from the inside?
Of course the decision is also about not leaving her friends. Not for nothing, there are four of them. And it seems to me that this is more likely to be what Dispatches from Elsewhere ends up being about than anything else: human connection.
S1E5 got me wondering whether, at the end of the day, I’m going to feel more in line with the Elsewhere Society or the Jejune Institute, but this is probably not the point. The point lies in how this has all brought people like Peter, Simone, Janice, and Fredwynn together. It’s in the moment between Simone and Peter towards the end of the episode, and the anger that Janice expresses towards Fredwynn. These characters and their relationships are what’s important.
Is Clara me? I don’t know. Perhaps she is in terms of that longing to break out of the mundane day to day unto death.