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S-Town: the mystery at the heart of this cult podcast is not the one you think

The story of John B. McLemore and a small town in Alabama is wonderfully strange - and totally unnerving. 

In the pre-credits sequence of the first instalment of S-Town, producer and presenter Brian Reed tells us about the difficulty of fixing an antique clock – one so old that no plans exist for it, leaving its repairer dependent on the dents or scratches left by previous work or lost machinery.

“I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening,” Reed tells us:

You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that’ll likely take you nowhere, and all you’ve got is these vague witness marks that might not even mean what you think they mean. At every moment along the way you have to decide if you’re wasting your time. Or not.

Anyway. I only learned about all this because years ago an antique clock restorer contacted me, John B. McLemore, and asked me to help him solve a murder...

It’s an incredibly clever introduction. Because the new podcast, all seven chapters of which were released simultaneously last week, comes from the same people as 2014’s runaway hit, Serial – and at first hearing, Reed’s opening lines suggest we’re in for another true crime drama.

But that’s not what S-Town is at all. Those witness marks don’t mean what you think they mean.

******

It’s impossible to talk about what S-Town is actually doing without spoiling its two big twists, both of which come in episode two – so in a moment, I’m going to do just that. If you don’t want to know what they are, close the window now, and come back when you’ve finished listening.

Just so you don’t see them accidentally, here’s a map of Bibb County Alabama, home to Woodstock, the S-Town – a R-rated abbreviation of “Shit Town” – that John B. McLemore loved and hates so much:

Okay, so those twists. The smaller is that there was no murder: Reed spends the first chapter and a half of the podcast investigating a crime that never, in fact, took place. By that point, though, the murder already feels pretty incidental, and it’s clear that the real story is about other things.

One of them is Shit Town itself. Woodstock is a rural southern community of the sort that rarely gets more than the most cursory attention. It’s a place where a local business goes by the name K3 Lumber, and its owner laughingly declines the opportunity to deny that it’s a reference to the Klan; the sort of place where a young guy is happy to talk on the record to a New York radio producer about the time he thought he’d beaten some guy to death, but, luckily, it turned out he hadn’t. I don’t know where you are as you’re reading these words, but the odds are it’s not somewhere like Woodstock.

The other point of the story is John B. McLemore himself: a gay, intellectual horologist who doesn’t quite seem to fit in Alabama, a 48-year-old man who hates his town and everything it stands for yet has always refused to move out.

We’re just getting used to him being our guide to this alien world – he may be convinced that civilisation is on the verge of collapse, but he is, ostensibly, a liberal – when the second twist comes. At the close of chapter 2, Reed receives a call telling him that McLemore has killed himself. There are five episodes left, there’s no crime to solve, and we’re now immersed in this alien world without a guide.

The episodes following McLemore’s death are packed with incident: his funeral, and the feud over his property which follows, which makes it as far as the courts; an exploration of his past and his sexuality; some discussion of the various, terrifyingly real apocalyptic events which he saw coming down the track towards humanity.

But the podcast isn’t exactly about any of those things, and none of them really get resolved. The argument about McLemore’s legacy is still ongoing; the stuff about the past still speculative. The apocalypse, while looming, has yet to take place.

Yet despite this almost complete lack of denouement, the whole thing feels like a more compelling and satisfying story than I’ve encountered, in any medium, in a long time.

***

It’s several days since I finished listening to S-Town and I’m still not exactly sure how to explain or describe it. It’s not just that it isn’t like Serial: it doesn’t really conform to any of the conventions of serial storytelling that I’m used to.

Whenever I’ve tried to explain to anyone what it’s about and why someone should give it a go, I’ve struggled, and fallen back on, “Oh just listen. Trust me.” That’s obviously not enough here, though, so I’m going to try to distil its appeal.

Part of it, I think, is the world it explores. Woodstock is exactly the sort of proverbial southern shithole that most other Americans look down on, and which most self-respecting Europeans would be terrified of. The police are mildly corrupt; the people are hugely racist. Last year Donald Trump won Bibb County by 77  per cent to 21.4, and I’m genuinely surprised to find that Hillary did that well. This place is exactly what you think it is.

Except, S-Town reminds us that it’s not just what we think it is: time and again, it shows us a stereotype, then reveals a human being. John’s friend Tyler is the kind of redneck who genuinely sees locking someone in a shed and threatening to cut their fingers off as a legitimate way of settling a dispute. He’s also one of the most kind and loving and sympathetic characters in the whole thing, and once the feud about John’s legacy kicks off we find ourselves desperately rooting for the guy.

The other half of that feud is a money-grabbing McLemore cousins, who swoops in from Florida the moment she scents a legacy. Except it turns out she’s not really like that either, and suddenly we don’t know how we want this thing to turn out. S-Town is like one of those huge Victorian social novels or, more recently, J.K.Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy: one of those books that constantly persuades us to sympathise with people we might otherwise dismiss.

The other part of S-Town’s appeal is a literary one, too: the various conceits it uses to illuminate character and theme. The idea of horology, that’s there at the start, runs throughout. So do ideas of place, and family, and legacy, and the sheer fragility of human existence. The result is like a novel – not a thriller, like Serial was, but something altogether deeper, more literary and more haunting. It may be significant that it comes in “chapters”, rather than “episodes”.

There’s been some debate about whether S-Town should ever have been made at all. The murder it begins with may not have been real; but the suicide at its heart was, and many of its central characters are still walking around. Some have argued that repackaging real lives as entertainment may be crossing some line.

But the media does that all the time: as news, as reality TV, as other podcasts. At least S-Town turns those lives into something truly new and original. John B. McLemore is still dead; but now, he gets to be art, too.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.