Gritty Ebenezer Scrooge, Blind Jason Momoa, and a tuna named Justice walk into a bar. The room is dimly lit, and the floor is grimy. It would be an understatement to say it is not an inviting spot to sit down and have a drink. But the bar isn’t actually a bar; in fact, it isn’t a real place at all. Plot twist: The bar is the mind of Steven Knight.
Did that anecdote not make any sense to you, arriving at a bizarre and incoherent conclusion that’s both beguiling and a little infuriating? Good. That means you’re in the right mood to dive into the Steven Knight discourse of 2019. Now, if you’re a casual pop culture consumer, you might not know Knight by name, but you should know some of his past work. The screenwriter and occasional director’s had a hand in a surprising number of shows and films since the ’90s, with a résumé that makes him look admirably versatile. Knight cocreated Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, one of the most recognizable and widely syndicated game shows on the planet. He wrote acclaimed movies like Dirty Pretty Things—which landed him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay—and Eastern Promises. Knight also wrote and directed Locke, that (somewhat literal) Tom Hardy vehicle where the actor plays the only character who appears on-screen, doing classic Tom Hardy things—being twitchy, intense, sweaty-looking, weird—in a film where nearly all the action takes place within a BMW. That Knight’s vehicular conceit works so well is, admittedly, quite the flex.
His collaborations with Hardy continued on the small screen with Taboo, that extremely—again, literal—dark FX series Knight created, where Hardy mumbles and broods his way through 1800s England. (It feels weirdly on brand that Tom Hardy might be this guy’s greatest muse; he should direct a Venom sequel.) And perhaps Knight’s biggest small-screen creation was Peaky Blinders: the cult hit about British gangsters who swear and fight and wear silly tweed caps. (Full disclosure: I watched the first two seasons of Peaky Blinders in college, and all I can really remember are the caps, the thicc cockney accents, and several characters saying things like “something something something to the Peaky Fookin’ Blindahs!” before inhaling a lot of whiskey. Apologies if this description offends the Blinders heads out there, but I write this with the utmost respect.)
Anyway, that was the mind of Steven Knight: pulpy and esoteric, but you can kind of understand the appeal. (Also, congrats to our dude for cocreating a famous game show?) But aside from the fifth season of Peaky Blinders, something inexplicable happened to Knight, who, uh, made some choices this year. The projects he released in 2019 had some of his signature flourishes, but they were also examples of spectacular failures in the art of swing-for-the-fences storytelling. As a result, Knight’s quietly had the wildest year in pop culture through a trio of releases—the film Serenity, the Apple TV+ series See, and this month, FX’s reimagining of A Christmas Carol. Each of them were inimitable, terrible, and, frankly, iconic.
Matthew McConaughey is a fisherman named Baker Dill, living on a small island and trapped in a quixotic battle to capture a giant bluefin tuna he dubs Justice. You can practically smell the salty brine on McConaughey’s body; he bathes in the ocean, lives in a shipping container, and is a gigolo to Oscar-nominee Diane Lane when he’s short on cash. On these merits alone, Serenity, which Knight wrote and directed, was primed to be a so-bad-it’s-good movie classic. Yet somehow the film elevates itself in a way that—well, I’ll try my best to explain. (Spoiler alert for a disasterpiece?)
Baker’s ex-wife Karen (Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway; half of her lines are “daddy”) shows up on the island, offering him $10 million if he takes her abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke with a heat check for the ages), out on his boat and leaves him to die at sea. Baker considers this for the sake of his estranged son Patrick, a prophetic computer programmer. But no, sorry, none of this is real; Baker is the avatar of this kid’s dead dad, living inside a fishing-centric video game until the IRL Patrick—whose mom is, sadly, being abused by his stepdad—changes the code in the game so it becomes Grand Theft Trawling. Baker’s killing Frank in the game ultimately inspires Patrick to kill his stepdad. By the way, you can infer why the tuna is called Justice; Frank is dragged to the depths of the ocean holding a fishing line attached to it. Please, see for yourself:
A child murdering a (yes, terrible) man is played as a triumphant moment, and the whole thing is so ridiculous—as the IRL murder intercuts with Jason Clarke’s getting killed by a tuna in a video game—that no amount of exposition can justify it. Certainly, nothing can explain why Patrick created a video game where his dead dad is programmed to keep having sex with Diane Lane. I watched Serenity in January, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. (I do not want to admit how many times I’ve seen it since then.)
Then there’s See, Knight’s latest TV series creation. Among the first batch of Apple TV+ originals, See envisions a postapocalyptic future where most of mankind was wiped out by an unknown virus, and all the survivors and their descendants are blind. While it’s unclear how much time has passed since the inciting incident, it seems nobody passed down rudimentary knowledge of the world. The sun is now called the “godflame,” metal structures are made of “godbone,” having vision is considered heresy, and everyone has resorted to a hunter-gatherer type of existence—except, you know, they’re all blind. Jason Momoa is See’s lead, and his character’s name is Baba Voss, and if you told me that was the name of a third-rate Star Wars character, I would have believed you. Momoa somehow has only the second-silliest name on the show behind Jerlamarel, a mysterious outsider who can see, and fathers twins in Baba Voss’s village who’ll have sight. (It was an inspired choice to call him Jerlamarel, since nobody on See can agree on how to pronounce his name.)
The absurdity of the premise aside, See is a curious misfire because it takes great care breaking down certain functions of a civilization without sight—including the development of a writing system that allows people to communicate from vast distances—but fails to explain, like, how a bunch of blind soldiers can travel the country for several years and somehow find their way back home. There’s stuff that makes no sense at all, like how the clothing of different tribes is color coordinated despite everyone being blind. And then there’s See’s main antagonist, Queen Kane, who has a bunch of followers basically worshipping a hydroelectric dam. The Queen’s version of “praying” is either masturbating or having a servant perform cunnilingus on her—this is not a joke. Her entire arc revolves around being spurned by Jerlamarel and wanting to kill his vision-abled offspring with her army of “Witch Finders” because she’s jealous. This reductive character motivation is, pun not intended, not a great sight.
See can be a dour viewing experience, in what mostly appears like a haphazard attempt to try some prestige-TV-signaling. But, godflame help me, I am weirdly compelled by the show. Beginning in the third episode, Jerlamarel’s children are teenagers—and they basically start shit-talking their village because their biological dad left them books to read and they realize, “Oh, lol, the godflame is a star that warms our solar system, what morons.” It begins to feel like a metacommentary on the show itself, like Knight is openly questioning the stupidity of his own world. There is also a surprising number of stellar action sequences—and while Blind Jason Momoa slicing his way through blind adversaries begins to strain credulity, it’s extremely entertaining for viewers bummed out the actor only got to rip one dude’s mouth open on Game of Thrones. See is the Serenity of 2019 shows: objectively terrible in an undeniably watchable way.
Finally, there is Knight’s gritty, three-hour reimagining of A Christmas Carol, which debuted on FX last week. Really. The short version of explaining Knight’s Christmas Carol is that it appears to exist in the Peaky Blinders Cinematic Universe—everything is bleak, devoid of vibrant colors, and evokes plenty of misery. It’s the kind of setting where Scrooge (as played by Guy Pearce) feels right at home. But things are also quite different in this interpretation of Charles Dickens’s text. For one, everyone’s favorite word is “fuck,” because who doesn’t want their classic Christmas tale to get a little edgy? Our lead is a younger Scrooge—and despite the production’s best efforts to make him unattractive, he has the sharp jawline of Guy Pearce. This might be pop culture’s first (and hopefully last?) Hot Scrooge. (Alternate title for this adaptation: The Young Scrooge.) But giving Scrooge a makeover isn’t Knight’s only concern—there are contemporary updates to the character’s fateful encounter with three spirits that are misguided at best, and unnecessarily problematic at worst.
You see, this is a … #MeToo Scrooge. To pay for operations to save Tiny Tim’s life, Scrooge asks Mary Cratchit if she’ll do whatever he wants, having her stop by his mansion on Christmas day and undress in front of him. It’s truly unsettling, and poor Mary is completely bare from the waist down when Scrooge then orders her to redress and gives her the money. She’s humiliated, but he doesn’t want to have sex with her—Scrooge was merely interested in the “price” of virtuosity and how quickly someone could lose it. (He loves crunching numbers; he is a FiveThirtyEight Scrooge too.) This is, it goes without saying, a seriously messed up and immoral thing to do to anyone—least of all your employee’s wife, who just wants to save her son. It’s such a strange and despicable sight that it defeats the actual point of the story—Scrooge’s redemption—by making him commit an irredeemable act of sexual exploitation rather than being a grumpy bastard. I can’t believe I just used the words “sexual exploitation” to describe A Christmas Carol, but this is what Steven Knight has done to us.
Scrooge’s claiming that he doesn’t deserve redemption at the end of the film isn’t a worthy salve; it’s more like putting a Band-Aid over a gaping stab wound. Knight was so preoccupied with what he could change in A Christmas Carol—we’re led to believe Scrooge was molested as a child by the headmaster at Blackbridge Boarding School and that he was responsible for overseeing a fatal mining accident—that he never stopped to think if he should. Knight has already expressed concern he has “vandalized” Dickens’s historic tale. Like our three Christmas spirits, I’ll let you judge his sins.
The prevailing sentiment behind this trio of programming—other than, obviously, what the fuck?—is simply: Why? What compelled Steven Knight to make three distinct, and distinctly terrible, pieces of pop culture this year? What is going on inside this man’s head? Can he get back to the form that made Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, and Locke? Who asked for any of this? Are there any legal grounds to arrest Steven Knight?
I cannot incept this man, and I cannot read his mind; I can only try to find meaning in the chaos. And I think there’s a way to glean some understanding from Knight’s truly WTF year in storytelling. You can see what he’s trying to accomplish with each project: Serenity combines an attempt at mystery-box storytelling with what Knight calls, um, “sexy fishing noir”; See is intended to be Apple’s answer to Game of Thrones, right down to who the series cast as its lead; FX’s A Christmas Carol is such a blatant extension of a move toward “darker, grittier” reboots that it feels like a parody of itself.
My best guess is Knight was taking a stab at some of Hollywood’s hottest trends—See is far from the only Thrones pastiche out there—hoping to find a replicable hit to the sustained success he’s achieved with Peaky Blinders. Serenity, See, and A Christmas Carol don’t have the typical hallmarks of creative disasters—they were made with handsome production budgets and released through respectable networks and film distributors. It’s just that the ideas behind them were confounding to begin with; it’s like something got lost in translation in all three pieces. Maybe there was a lack of oversight and feedback, or maybe Knight simply became a physical manifestation of the Galaxy Brain meme. It’s the only way I can even begin to explain what the hell happened in Serenity, where Knight is either playing 4D chess while all our basic-ass brains are playing checkers, or, more likely, aimed for something so conceptually ambitious that his intended message got stranded at sea with a tuna named Justice.
There is some part of me that, sexually exploitative and Guy Pearce–looking Scrooge notwithstanding, wants to admire the sheer audacity of Knight’s blasphemous body of work this year. I genuinely prefer watching something that is memorably awful over something mediocre and mundane—and if part of the intent behind these projects were to get people to talk about them, well, I’ve thought about and discussed Serenity nearly as much as The Irishman and Parasite. (Granted, for very different reasons!) Serenity, See, and FX’s A Christmas Carol are the type of flops successful artists rarely have in their career—and for Knight, they happened in such quick succession I really don’t think his 2019 streak is replicable. It’s an unprecedented run of ignominy that’s somehow fallen under the radar.
I’m inclined to confiscate Knight’s laptop and impose a moratorium on writing new screenplays. But I would also take See over a generic network procedural any day of the week, and I earnestly had a more memorable movie-going experience at Serenity than I did watching Captain Marvel. Besides, Steven Knight still, inexplicably, has no shortage of options in his future. He anticipates putting together two more seasons of Peaky Blinders before wrapping up the series, See was renewed by Apple for a second season, and FX is reportedly handing Knight the reigns for other Dickens adaptations. In a way, then, Steven Knight may represent the perfect avatar for 2019, whereby failing upward remains an achievable goal as long as you’re a white dude—and if you’re going to whiff, you might as well do so spectacularly.