It’s Starting to Crash Down

It’s Starting to Crash Down


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Eliza Morse, Netflix © 2021

Nana Mensah as Yaz in The Chair

You’re reading a recap of Episode 4 of the Netflix series The Chair with the writers Alison Kinney, Grace Lavery, Dan Sinykin, and Rebecca Wanzo. Find our other episode recaps here.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca: A couple of exchanges in this episode hit me hard. One was the moment when a student tells Ji-Yoon, a woman-of-color faculty member, what the experiences are like for women-of-color faculty. I was struck by what felt like an unnecessarily adversarial exchange between people who totally agree. The irony is that Ji-Yoon wants Yaz to be promoted — even more so than the students do — not only because Yaz is a friend but because she is clearly the future of the department. I also deeply felt the moment when Yaz calls Ji-Yoon out for capitulating to pressure from the administration. Yaz is right, but Ji-Yoon, with her beautiful description of the glass cliff, is also right that she is being squeezed from all directions.

Grace: I was struck by that scene, too. Everything the students tell Ji-Yoon is true, both in the world of the show and in the real world. But there’s a sense that the students shouldn’t be saying it, or that their militancy in support of the employment and retention of faculty of color seems naïve to Ji-Yoon and, by extension, to the show’s implied ideal viewer.

You’re right, Rebecca, to say that Yaz is the future — not just of the department but of the profession. But The Chair seems reluctant to contemplate what the future might look like, beyond the replacement of one cult of personality with another. We are told that Yaz is an excellent mentor to students of color, but we don’t get to see that mentorship. Elliot conceives of his career in terms of naked political ambition — “bestrid[ing] the world like a colossus.” Yaz likewise says that Elliot used to “rule the profession.” It’s a missed opportunity to depict the satisfactions of mentoring junior scholars. If one is only able to conceive of the humanities in terms of power — whether measured by number of followers or by institutional clout — then of course one is only able to see the emergence of younger scholars as a harbinger of one’s own senescence.

Rebecca: Grace, I agree, the way Ji-Yoon talked about Yaz’s Twitter following instead of her actual scholarship was troubling. On the power question — what relationships exist outside power, particularly within institutions? On that front, can we chat about that depiction of the faculty wife, who gave up her career to be the primary caregiver?

Dan: Yes! Elliot’s wife invites us to see the longer history of academia’s structural misogyny: She was denied tenure because she didn’t produce a book, and she didn’t produce a book because she was raising children. Elliot says she was the best they had and that he should have fought for her. What he doesn’t say is that he should’ve helped raise the kids, that he should have shared the burden at the expense of slowing his own professional trajectory. Most painful in this scene is how Elliot uses his wife’s denial of tenure as a reason to criticize Yaz, failing to recognize that supporting Yaz could be part of the same struggle as supporting his wife. But even here, the show refuses to make demons of its faculty characters: This dialogue takes place as his wife convinces him to wear adult diapers to bed, bringing home his obsolescence even as it asks us, again, to find room to sympathize with him.

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We rounded up four scholars to chat about the show’s portrayal of academe, and they did not hold back. Read the recaps:

This is also the episode where we start to see everything crashing around Ji-Yoon. In addition to the moments Rebecca noted, there’s Lila telling a reporter that Ji-Yoon “gave [her] an earful about not talking to anyone about this,” which we know will be spun badly. There’s Bill finding Ji-Yoon in his office, taking his notes to give to David Duchovny. And there’s the end of the episode, with the dean watching as Ji-Yoon and Bill, who’s not supposed to be on campus, drive off together.

This episode is structured by two chases: Joan after the student badmouthing her online, and Bill after Ju Ju.

Grace: Two chases, Dan, and two replacements: Elliot by Yaz, and Bill by Duchovny. The latter is vulgarity, clout-chasing, and the defeat of faculty governance. But the former is optimism, the politics of care, and a kind of cheerful political awareness. Yet we have to acknowledge that the substantial distinction between these two positions is flimsier than their relentless moralization would suggest. Duchovny’s books might be terrible (I’m sure they are), but have we established that principle diegetically? Meanwhile, is the Hamilton-ization of Moby-Dick really a progressive move?

Alison: The Moby-Dick shenanigans were a good time! I found myself smiling and looking forward to the semester as I watched that scene. I saw the presentations not as the end goal of students’ learning, but as evidence of the joy that will propel them toward bigger projects and even richer readings. The joyousness in Yaz’s section is generative, enabling students to create new ideas and readings; we see students engaging critically with the text and the words being spoken in class. The show is (deliberately? or accidentally?) showing that the students are often closer readers than anybody (except Yaz) is giving them credit for.

Grace: I’m equally confused, but rather more cheered, by the anal-eroticism thematic: Joan has a fine “rear end” but still thinks that a student would be outraged by being told that, in Chaucer, “some poor schmuck asks a woman for a kiss and ends up making out with her butthole.” There’s something especially cringy — and in the context of a bizarre stalking sequence, potentially predatory — about a medievalist attempting to shock students by confronting them with the earthiness of the pre-modern. But this is just the latest installment in a series of strange jokes in which the show frames Joan as the agent of a chaotic sexual energy: giving some guy a hand-job when she got tenure; speaking crudely of the Title IX officer’s “fanny”; puzzling about why someone would think about her while trying not “to cum in [his] girlfriend.” The result is that Joan’s subplot becomes The Chair’s primary vehicle for the libidinal attachments whose absence from the main plots renders institutional reproduction so cynical, paranoid, and empty. Which is to say I object less than I would expect myself to.

Rebecca: It was stalkerish and cringy, and seems to suggest that the students applauding here would have a masochistic experience in the classroom. (And I have more thoughts about that, but this is The Chronicle …)

Alison: I was also struck by this exchange between Joan and the students. Why is Joan’s big speech on Chaucer all about sex? Because the show can’t imagine that students could be excited about Chaucer without concentrating on “The Miller’s Tale”? If so, that makes me sad. I want to see Joan shouting about everything in Chaucer: language and wordplay and filth and jokes and intertextual connections — all of it.

Grace: I’m a little sad about having such an aversive reaction to The Chair, because there’s genuinely so much I admire about the people who made it. Sandra Oh is brilliant, charming, and utterly charismatic. She wrings some sexual charisma out of Duplass too, which can’t have been easy. Holland Taylor’s outfits look super-cozy. I admire Amanda Peet, whom I’ve always thought of as a straight Lake Bell. (I know, I know.) But there’s something here that I find so dispiriting. Sigh.

Rebecca: To my surprise, I actually like it quite a bit. I predict most people will be like you, Grace. Which may go back to the question of who it is for. If it’s just for chairs, that’s a pretty small population! It’s rare for anyone to love a media representation of their profession — and in this case, we have to be a joke (because the show is a sitcom, although it may verge on dramedy at times). But I recognize enough in the series that I am open to being seduced by it.



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