Somehow, the 2010s lasted a full seven years before Donald Trump’s dragon energy took over, a period roughly spanning the first Obamacare enrollment on an iPad to the first inappropriate, if consensual, contact with Tom Hanks’ David S. Pumpkins on “SNL.”
In between, we planked, dabbed, podcasted and brewed. We tweeted an Arab Spring, freed Pussy Riot, and shared the next gluten-free doughnut pop-up, consuming “The Hunger Games” as a bedtime story to shake off the shudder of school days past — the bullying and social surveillance now solved by link groups, glee clubs and talking sticks.
So a generation threw its hands in the air to Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” increasingly with partners of the same gender, or no gender, or a new gender — “fluid” being the epochal adjective. Complacence over internet anomie, forever wars and parents’ side hustles passed into something like bliss. We could ignore the comments section under it all, and the old warning — taken up by “The IT Crowd,” “Black Mirror” and “Homeland” — that Big Brother is you, watching, because the omnipresent pocket screen offered so much.
Those years crashed into our current era like a hoverboard approaching light speed, splitting the epistemological gelatin of our eternal now that colors everything that came before.
The decade hinged on two conflicting visions of humanity — and we all share both, to some extent, because more than our nation is deeply divided.
In one view — call it the Tywin Lannister perspective, from “Game of Thrones” — we are biological essences from conception, loosed on a cruel world in natural competition with each other to make a ladder of chaos, a show of our talent, and a claim on the attention of people we know mainly as abstractions. We matter because of where we rank, and our tribe tells us this is everything. All relationships are transactional, so we love the way you lie.
In a second perspective — the Ned Stark one from the same show — we can learn and change, do better in cooperation, and make a community with each person, as our tribes fall away under the common burden of survival — which is to say, morality. We love people for their struggle and for being there, and matter because we need to. “No justice, no peace” is a description, not a threat. All real relationships are unconditional, so we found love in a hopeless place.
This is a view of the world with rules, but one that also shows affection as attention — as Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird learned. “You are seen” was the epochal reassurance. That philosophy — humanism — also emerged as a consensus belief in the culture. Its real-life embodiment changed the national conversation without being here to enjoy it: The posthumous authority of Mister Rogers suggests how a decade can be measured in more than selling.
The other perspective — extremism — was portrayed as exceptional. Its ideology of personal branding and swiping left became synonymous with the anxious villainy of Jimmy McGill, Lord Business, Aaron Burr and Killmonger, even as authoritarian cosplay got real.
By contrast, the belief that people can change, with the help of paternal and maternal heroes — or peers being them for each other — became the basis for our great popular myths: “Friday Night Lights,” “The Walking Dead,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Good Place,” “The Martian,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Temple Grandin,” “Show Me a Hero,” “The Expanse,” “Eighth Grade,” “Community,” “GLOW,” “American Honey,” “Moonlight,” “Zootopia” — even “Schitt’s Creek,” a perfect escapism about joining the people in your neighborhood.
“Game of Thrones” alienated some fans near its end by finally rejecting the populist liberator in its Dragon Queen, whose extremist third way, between Stark and Lannister, was manifest in how she thought goodness was a mutation of believing in herself. The Mother of Dragons had carnage in her only because we all do: She made her fateful choice — to break bad — because she was raised under cruelty, and had just lost an important source of noncontingent devotion and principled guidance.
But her child, Drogon — just as much a product of inheritance — makes his own choice. Fresh from being used as the assault weapon of a mass shooting, he reacts to the discovery of his mother’s murder by turning his wrath not on the killer but on the throne his mom sought. Against the resurgent extremist belief that many of us are monsters, “GOT” acknowledged that monstrous relationships and institutions — dictatorships of work, cults of personality and gaslighting by those selling themselves out — are what teach us to do harm. Love and limits change everything.
This was a brave stance in a decade that began with one kind of father figure in the White House and ended with another, particularly after the Harvey Weinstein allegations stirred a new social-media solidarity among those who had been made to doubt the real harm done to them — the sinking feeling behind “Get Out” and “Unbelievable.”
It was an era of unbreakable females, from Melissa McCarthy to Lizzo, even as “informed consent” laws passed around the country, raising the specter of a real-life “Handmaid’s Tale.” But feminism widened rather than narrowed in defense of autonomy. Led largely by women, humanist mass movements stood up against police violence toward blacks — and then extremist policies toward Muslims, trans people and immigrants.
Climate change became the real Night King, and Greta Thunberg our Arya Stark. With the grudging authority of a mutiny leader, the 16-year-old told the U.N. in 2019: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
This was a call to responsibility for the family of humanity. It was also a demand that we parent ourselves, tell the real story of what has happened, and assume the mantle of leadership — a million years away from the ice bucket challenge. It was a form of Fred Rogers’ acceptance in an age of existential awakening. Because the alternative would be to give up on ourselves, and we’re not done with this world yet, either.
Peter Steward Scholtes is a Minneapolis-based writer and teacher.