The art of being better

Overcoming a major trauma in one’s life makes for great entertainment. Seeing someone pull themselves out of addiction and self abuse is a trope as old as time, and there’s a reason it is still so incredibly common. Someone getting better in the physical sense is captivating, and in some cases relatable.

However, while the journey of recovery can be enthralling and ripe for drama, a lesser explored journey has recently gotten its time to shine. How does one become a better person? How does someone see their past failings and learn to grow from them?

This idea of how to become a good person isn’t new, but it is certainly more difficult to portray that say, an addict coming to terms with their drug abuse. Becoming a better person requires soul searching, a kind of emotional spelunking that is both difficult to portray, and one that runs the risk of being incredibly dry for the audience. But, when done right, the journey can be a rewarding (and oftentimes incredibly frustrating) experience.

For instance, on the tv show Vida, a series about two sisters who re-learn what it means to be family in the wake of their mom’s death, co-lead Lyn has never had to be a good person. The ultimate California millennial, she spends her days drinking green juice and doing yoga, and her nights going out and doing molly. Her life has been a constant retreat from responsibility, and that retreat is halted by the brick wall of her mother’s death. Her reunion with her sister, her polar opposite, Emma, initially brings out her worst tendencies: her vapid selfishness, her emotional immaturity, and her innate ability to do the right thing at the wrong time.

The first season of the series ends with her in a good place with her sister, having taken on some of the responsibilities of running her later mother’s bar, yet her self destructive nature has set in motion a confrontation involving credit card debt for season two.

Lyn’s journey to becoming a better person is one of fits and starts. For every step in the right direction that she takes, she regresses into some of her worst tendencies afterwards. With the major confrontation about her irresponsibility in season two leaving her sister completely detached from the bar and life in general, Lyn steps up in a way that feels monumental for her, and the bare minimum for anyone else.

But this is Lyn’s journey, and her dedication to creating a featured music night at the bar shows a tremendous amount of growth for her, even if it grew out of a low point. Lyn still has a way to go, but she’s far from the self absorbed woman we met in season one.

Another person whose immaturity and growth we’ve been able to witness for over a decade now is Taylor Swift. The release of her new album Lover feels like a course correction following the toxicity of 2017’s Reputation. An exercise in negativity, Reputation showcased everything that had made Swift a lightning rod in the latter part of the 2010’s, including her unwillingness to apologize.

What we get on Lover is a self-reflective Swift. The stability of her personal life allowed her to reflect on what happiness feels like, and it makes for a more enjoyable experience for the listener. The album’s Jack Antonoff produced pop confections are a better showcase Swift’s songwriting talent, as well as her vocal stylings.

While the album is a step up from the last one, it maintains the superficiality of her previous two albums, Reputation and 1989. Swift used to be a singer who wore her heart on heart sleeve, and her early albums served as a personal diary of sorts, for better and for worse. This style of autobiographical songwriting was brought to the mainstream by Swift, and perfected over the course of her first four albums, culminating with the perfect distillation of Swiftian music, 2012’s Red, which is for my money her best album to date.

Red was an album exploring toxic relationships, and how they can consume your life, your head. It’s also the last time that Swift reflected on herself in a meaningful way. It’s fitting, then, that the highlight of Lover is a direct sequel to that album’s title song. In the single “Red,” Swift recalls the passion and fierceness of her love for an ex-boyfriend. The lyrics and chorus recount how their love was vibrant, and destined to come to a burning end, with the chorus stating how “loving him was red.”

In Lover’s album-capper “Daylight,” Swift corrects herself. The song, about how the stability of a healthy relationship can change you completely, serves as a retort to “Red”‘s twisted vision of what true love is, at one point directly responding to its central thesis with “I once believed love would be (Burning red) / But it’s golden.”

For Swift, the growth and maturity has happened with the discovery of what love can be for her. So much of her time in the spotlight has focused on her various relationships, and her unwillingness to divulge tabloid-worthy insights into her current relationship shows that she has grown. Instead, she translates that love, that emotion, into an album about happiness. It’s a refreshing bit of daylight for Swift, and it gives the hope that the best may still be to come.

Unfortunately for many fans, the best isn’t still in the future for the tv series Fleabag, because it capped its story with a perfect season of television. The creation of star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag follows the life of its titular heroine through the ups and downs (primarily downs) of her life in London, dealing with her exasperated family, and bizarre love life. The first season, consisting of just six episodes, worked on the theme of trauma, and how someone can accept the trauma and guilt of something they played a hand in.

The second season, which debuted in May, picks ups some time after the character’s breakdown in the season 1 finale, and what we are treated to is a new Fleabag. She wants to become better, both mentally and generally. A hot priest both fuels this journey, and provides complications along the way. Fleabag explores faith as a means of being “good,” but eventually settles on her own brand of goodness.

Throughout the second season, we see Fleabag growing out of her worst habits, and reestablishing connections with her family, and falling in love with someone (yes, it’s the hot priest, so that one’s complicated.) What we are also privy to is Fleabag’s therapy sessions, where she is confronted with her own outlook on life, and her need to detach herself from her own story through her fourth-wall-breaking narration.

In the end, which I won’t spoil here, what we are left with is a woman who is ready to go on without her audience. One who has grown, a person who has become better. There’s still a long road ahead, but as she walks away from us, we get the distinct feeling that everything will be okay. Becoming a better person often takes the help of others, but at a certain point, it’s something we must do ourselves.