I’ll admit I’m a sucker for stories of survival. It could be an individual on an island, like Robinson Crusoe, or Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away, or a group of survivors on an island, like in Lost. It’s all good.
I was even lured in by a new six-part Netflix drama, Keep Breathing, where Melissa Barrera’s New York lawyer Liv Rivera is stranded in the Canadian wilderness, which is like an island inverted: instead of the usual sharply defined limits, she’s stuck in a kind of boundless Eden.
Is it a spoiler to say that Liv makes it? Of course she does. Who would want to watch one of these extended things if the main character dies? Crusoe is rescued after 28 years; Hanks loses a tooth but gets rescued; even most of the Lost characters are rescued (although they do return to the island — whoops, their bad). Plus, the trailer practically promises as much. Get over it.
If Barrera looks familiar, it might be that you saw her as Vanessa in the film version of the musical In the Heights. As a veteran of Mexican telenovelas, this series, with its melodramatic flashbacks and tropes, plays well to her acting experience.
And it’s full of tropes. There’s the bear-in-camp trope. There’s even the trapped-beneath-rock-cave-in trope that every show from Lassie to the Hardy Boys to Lost in Space has probably used at least once, maybe multiple times.
Something to expect early on in any survival story is the wreck that gets things started. These scenes can be terrifying to watch, particularly on the big screen. When the sinking FedEx plane exploded in Cast Away, I think I just about jumped out of my theater seat. And then there’s Lost (brace yourself at about the 0:15 mark in this series trailer):
The crash in Keep Breathing is pretty harrowing too. It’s small scale, with a single-engine plane going down into the tranquil water of a smallish lake. But because it’s so intimate, it’s easier to imagine just how frightening and traumatic this experience would be, even if you walked (or swam) away from it largely unscathed.
Three centuries ago, Daniel Defoe was laying the groundwork for this trope. Crusoe’s ship having foundered in a storm, the crew took to a small boat, which was itself overturned. Here’s his description:
Nothing can describe the Counfusion of Thought which I felt when I sunk into the Water; for tho’ I swam very well, yet I could not deliver my self from the Waves so as to draw Breath…
Sounds very cinematic. Cue howling winds and crashing water, punctuated by occasional sucking gasps from the lone survivor.
Survivors almost always find something that washes up on the beach in the next day or so. Liv finds what appears to be a sonogram that she had with her (I know, what are the odds, right?). Hanks buries, gulp, the body of the FedEx plane’s pilot. Only in Lost do they have a big chunk of the plane and all its stuff parked right there on the beach (I know, what are the odds, right?).
Once again, Defoe was there first. Here’s Crusoe on his missing shipmates:
I never saw them afterwards, or any Sign of them, except three of their Hats, one Cap, and two Shoes that were not Fellows.
I like the title, Keep Breathing, since this has several meanings for the series. Obviously, it means don’t drown (plane, water), as well as do whatever you can to stay alive, but it’s also a rather humorous reference to the relaxation tapes Liv listens to, which are always going on about breathing. Well done. (Lost is a pretty good title too. Those folks were way beyond just lost.)
One of the issues when you have a solo survivor is how to keep the drama going. Do they talk to themselves or what? Defoe eventually introduced Friday, and at last Crusoe had someone to interact with. Tom Hanks puts a face on a volleyball and calls it Wilson to have someone to talk to. In Keep Breathing, Liv talks to the dead (guy from the plane, her father), the long absent (her mother), and the colleague/boyfriend.
This works pretty well. After all, it’s common cinematic fare: talking to someone who isn’t really there is a stand-in for introspection or decision-making, which is hard to depict visually. In a novel, you might use a different convention, one that’s probably no less phony (“She wondered what Douglas would say if he could see her in such trying circumstances…”).
However, I sometimes found these imaginary conversations to be a little distracting, as they made me think of the wonderful, deserted-island scenes with Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man. If you’ve seen that movie, you know what I’m talking about; otherwise, hop to it and track it down — I won’t spoil it for you.
There’s even a little poetry in one conversation. To distract Liv from thinking about dying, the imagined boyfriend recites the first line of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
Nice ironic choice, but Liv interrupts to say she’s more of a “Langston Hughes gal,” then recites a few lines of something. That’s Hughes? he wonders, and she admits it isn’t, but rather from a poem by her father.
So now we know what her father was, an academic and poet. There’s a flashback scene where he’s studying a book, but for all we know he could have been prepping for his taxes.
The boyfriend was right to be suspicious. Here’s the lines and they don’t sound much like Hughes to me either:
Holding you is difficult today.
You feel sharp and jagged.
All shoulder blades and elbows.
How I would love to round your edges.
To make you smooth in my rock tumbler heart.
We also occasionally get glimpses of the “poetry” of the wilderness, the beauty of the trees and the forest floor, the dense canopy, the play of light and shadow.
According to the credits, this series was filmed in British Columbia. But it’s not the gloomy BC of The X-Files, where the woods are always wet, always full of eeriness. No, the weather is surprisingly good. And that makes sense — it’s supposed to be the first week of September, which is a great month weather-wise to be out in the woods just about anywhere in North America. Note that Crusoe was also shipwrecked in September (of 1659).
But it still gets dark, and even before the equinox the nights are long. Yet city dweller Liv doesn’t seem to be, well, bothered about sleeping outside and without any gear. Even Thoreau found the Maine wilderness terrifying.
The point of a survival story is not just the how of survival and the catharsis of rescue, but also the ways that the experience has changed the survivor. These changes can occur slowly over the course of the story or suddenly as a result of crisis or epiphany.
Robinson Crusoe on his island undergoes a religious experience. Defoe spends quite a few pages on this, something that usually gets skipped over in film and TV adaptations, which understandably focus on the story’s action and adventure aspects. With Crusoe, his change of heart is connected to guilt over his seafaring life and how he ignored his father’s plea not to go to sea. In a sense, that decision has led to his current situation.
Modern readers might wonder why Crusoe does not connect a much more recent action with his present state, namely that the fateful voyage he alone survived, marooning him on an uninhabited island, was a trip from Brazil to the coast of Guinea to trade for “Negroes” for his plantation. Yikes.
But what we think of as the abolitionist movement didn’t get started until late in the 18th century. Defoe is writing early in that century about the world of his youth in the 17th century. He lacks the moral framework for thinking any other way.
Crusoe himself was captured by Turkish pirates and enslaved by their captain for two years at the beginning of his narrative, but Defoe does not present his enslavement in moral terms. Slavery was to be avoided, certainly, a condition worth risking your life to escape from, but for Crusoe it’s more a fact of life.
With Liv, we watch her inch ever nearer to closure on the memories of her parents: her mother’s abandonment of Liv as a child, her father’s abandonment by dying. One hopes that if restored once more to civilization, Liv would no longer be so mean to others, so prone to outbursts of temper, but perhaps that’s too much to hope for (cue lawyer joke).
Virginia Woolf was a fan of Defoe’s novels, particularly Moll Flanders and Roxana, and thought Crusoe a masterpiece because of its clear vision and insistence on its own perspective. Her essay on Crusoe was used as the introduction in my Modern Library edition:
It is, we know, the story of a man who is thrown, after many perils and adventures, alone upon a desert island. The mere suggestion—peril and solitude and a desert island—is enough to rouse in us the expectation of some far land on the limits of the world; of the sun rising and the sun setting; of man, isolated from his kind, brooding alone upon the nature of society and the strange ways of men. Before we open the book we have perhaps vaguely sketched out the kind of pleasure we expect it to give us. We read; and we are rudely contradicted on every page. There are no sunsets and no sunrises; there is no solitude and no soul. There is, on the contrary, staring us full in the face nothing but a large earthenware pot.
This brings us to the weakness of Keep Breathing and why it’s not, perhaps, a masterpiece.
As Woolf points out in her essay, Defoe convinces us of Crusoe’s reality by the volume and ordinariness of the details: how to survive, how to make things you’ve never made before, how to make do when you don’t have the right materials, the right ingredients, the right tools. This is exemplified by Crusoe’s unceasing efforts to make earthenware pots for cooking and storage.
Think on this: an old man sitting in his study in London, someone who is not a potter or a farmer or a carpenter, but had been a hosier, somehow came up with this stuff, such that three centuries on, we just assume (or at least I did) that if we followed Crusoe’s descriptions closely enough, we too could grow barley, raise goats, make clothes from their skins, fashion a boat from a log, and fire functional containers from clay dug out of a hillside.
We get bits of this in Keep Breathing. We see Liv start a fire with a pair of glasses, boil water, forage for berries, all the while keeping track of the elapsed days by carving marks on a log (just as Crusoe famously did on his post). But too often this fascinating stuff is interrupted by yet another flashback, often to her childhood, but all too often to the New York law firm where she worked.
There’s a vagueness about the law Liv practiced. The words “timeline” and “motion” are thrown around, but we never see clients or a courtroom. It has to do with “securities,” so not family law, not immigration law, not criminal law, maybe something to do with representing rich guys who game the system. Yawn. This stuff is deadly and it’s possible the screenwriters had no more interest in it than we do and so wrote generic “lawyer” scenes.
But still, this series is not all bad. At the very least, like a lot of modern TV, it looks cinematic. That alone is enough to keep me going. Rewatch the beginning of episode 5, which opens with a closeup of Liv’s face. There’s no longer any sign of makeup, maybe not much hope either. But she’s surviving.
© 10 Franks 2022