Media That Moved Me: Stories Within Stories

This year, our cadre of Quill To Live writers decided to do individual posts in a “Media That Moved Us” series. The only rule: no books! We have plenty of those! Instead, we want to ruminate on the things we watched, played, and experienced that made an impact on us. 

When I thought about the things that defined my 2022 media consumption, a theme bubbled to the surface. Every story had layers. These were stories within stories. Stories about stories. 

During 2022, I devoured new content at a rapid clip, seeking new content over the tried-and-true comfort watches. I think, in part, this was a direct result of my improving mental health. 2020 and 2021 were particularly trying times for me. Though I’m still doing a lot of work to maintain a good mental headspace, 2022 marked a significant improvement, priming me to seek out new experiences instead of nestling into the comfort of the familiar. 

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with a comfort show, game, book, etc. I still have ‘em! The only way to find new ones is to find new ones. And that’s what I did this year. 

Netflix’s The Sandman Episode 6: “The Sound Of Her Wings”

2022: The Year of The Sandman. At least, for me it was. I read (and reviewed) almost all of the Sandman graphic novels in preparation for the show. I watched the series. I anxiously awaited news of a season 2 alongside other fans. 

Netflix’s entire Sandman series, in my opinion, offers a solid adaptation of the source material. It’s fun, there’s a bit of camp, and it ponders the nature of stories and their impact on us. Nowhere in the series is this more true than “The Sound of Her Wings,” a one-hour episode split between two related stories. 

The first half follows Dream as he accompanies his sister, Death, to a handful of appointments. We get glimpses into life and the myriad ways in which it can come to a close: peaceful passing at old age, terrible accidents, and gone-too-soon tragedies. Throughout the episode, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death greets those passing like an old friend. 

I hesitate to philosophize further. Instead, I’ll say simply that this portion of the episode is moving and emotional and heart-wrenching. And Death, acting like an old friend, leads us to the episode’s second half. 

Hob Gadling, fed up with death, refuses to die. He lives hundreds of years, meeting his pal Morpheus every century at the same bar. I desperately hoped Netflix would adapt this story from the comics, and by extension, I hoped they would do it justice. And boy, did they. 

I have friends who are distant geographically. There’s distance in the time between calls or conversations. But when we pick up the phone, it’s as if we see each other every day. Morpheus and Hob Gadling remind us that friendships can take many forms, can span long stretches of land or time, and can be meaningful in the many shapes they take. 

Before I move on, I want to give an honorable mention to “Calliope,” part of the 11th Sandman episode released after the first ten premiered. It’s yet another exquisite look at stories and the people who create them, though with a less uplifting tinge. 

Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course

Cuphead was already my all-time favorite game. That’s it. The end. Story over. 

Then Studio MDHR released the long-awaited and playfully named DLC: The Delicious Last Course. In it, Cuphead and Mugman head to a new island and seek to find a magical cookie to restore Miss Chalice to life. 

It’s still my favorite game, and the DLC cemented its position atop my all-time list. 

Everything about Cuphead is immaculate. The hand-drawn animation, responsive gameplay, and the dynamic boss battles all create a cohesive experience. Every minute detail is thought-out and executed with a degree of prowess and precision that most triple-A studios wouldn’t bother to think about. They’d just release a game unfinished and “fix” it later. Not Studio MDHR. They took the time and released a finished product. 

All fine and dandy, sure. But Cuphead earns its place in my heart because I first played it with my wife. It was the very beginning of our shared video game journey. I threw her to the proverbial wolves as a complete noob. “We’re playing Cuphead,” I said. And play it, we did. Our playthrough taught her about a million video game lessons. My favorite: “don’t move unless you have to” (specifically in a game like Cuphead that requires careful dodging in a bullet-hell environment). 

Cuphead led to playthroughs of countless other co-op platforming games. Playing The Delicious Last Course was both a window to the past, in which we struggled to fight through the game’s vicious bosses, and a glimpse into our growth. She beat some of the bosses in their final phase all by herself after I had died, unrevivable. Amazing as that was, it’s still really satisfying when she turns to me and says “You gotta be Chalice for this one,” knowing I’ll be able to beat a tough boss. 

The Delicious Last Course proved a perfect epilogue to our Cuphead journey, and I’m grateful for the shared experience it granted us. All that, and it’s just one helluva game. 

Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal

Oof. Take the cringe of Nathan For You and multiply it tenfold. Seriously. 

In The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder ostensibly sets out to allow everyday people the chance to “rehearse” for big life events. Episode one sees a trivia buff preparing for a conversation with his longtime teammate, in which he plans to tell her the truth about his education (he lied about his degree years ago to appease his trivia team). 

Episode two introduces Angela, a woman who wishes to rehearse for motherhood. 

To tell you anything beyond the beginning of episode two would spoil the chaotic story that follows. 

Leave it to Nathan Fielder to deconstruct the nature of reality TV and the exploitation made possible by a producer with a camera crew and virtually unlimited budget. The Rehearsal plunges into a world of unlimited story layers, and we get to see Fielder on full display instead of his awkward anti-social Nathan For You host persona. 

The Rehearsal made me think, cringe, and laugh at least thrice per episode. It also forced me to think deeply about some of the content we thoughtlessly consume. I’m still gonna watch my reality shows. But I’ll sure as hell think more about what the experience means to the contestants on those shows, signing a contract in search of the “experience of a lifetime” or a shot at their fifteen minutes. 

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On

You might remember Marcel the Shell as a YouTube sensation the brainchild of Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate. You might have brushed Marcel off as a one-time viral hit relegated to nostalgic obscurity. 

But the adorable Shell’s story continues, 12 years after the original video debuted. A24’s Marcel The Shell With Shoes On advances Marcel’s story in a 90-minute mockumentary that explores viral fame, longing, and the importance of family. If any story can make the case for extrapolating a minutes-long YouTube video into a feature-length story worth your time, this is it. 

My wife and I watched Marcel The Shell With Shoes On at the Music Box theater in Chicago. We were both fans of the original video. The entire theater guffawed throughout, and dead silence ensued during the movie’s sadder moments. 

In an age of nostalgia bait, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On could’ve been a ploy. An easy cash-grab and merch tie-in opportunity. But it wasn’t that. It’s a continuation of a story that began 12 years ago, sharing important messages and delivering laughs in equal measure. 

The Finale Of Our D&D Campaign

I’m stretching the definition of “media” here, but I’m hoping you’ll forgive me. 

I met QTL site founder Andrew through my friend Will (who wrote for the site way back when). Through Will’s kindness in introducing me to Andrew, I then met Alex, a current contributor, and Sean, another former writer for the site. 

Months after I joined the site, the fellas asked if I wanted to join them in their new D&D campaign. A wide-eyed fantasy fan, I said yes. 

Three and a half years later, the people who started as virtual strangers had become some of my best friends. We united in person (the first time I met Alex in the flesh, a joyous occasion) at my place in Chicago for a 17-hour stretch of D&D across two days, bringing our years-long adventures in Ravnica to a close. 

The entire weekend was laced with joy and camaraderie. We reveled in the shared experience Andrew had heralded for us. We remembered our favorite quotes and moments from the campaign. I don’t know about the other guys, but those memories sparked self-reflection. I was a fundamentally different person when we began our campaign, unrecognizable compared to the person I become over the course of those 3.5 years. I love all those guys, and they contributed to my personal growth in no small way. Here we are, all smiles before the 17 hours of dungeoneering began:

I hope you found media that moved you in some way this year. If you did, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. In the meantime, wishing you happy holidays and an amazing New Year!

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