With 2020 firmly in our rearview and vaccine availability rising, many of us (ok, me) are finding a renewed interest in the elusive idea of “the future” and “getting it together” after the long, difficult sleepwalk of last year.
The idea of taking charge and seizing one’s destiny always, always makes me think of my favorite show: 30 Rock. The show, which originally aired from 2006–2013, is essentially a sitcom about a New York City comedy writer cycling between “I’m fine the way I am” and “I’m finally going to get it together” in various hysterical permutations. And in one of her more intense pushes to change her life, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) gets tangled in some absurdly mangled lines of Victorian-era British poetry. It just gets weirder from there.
It’s pretty wild that I haven’t written about 30 Rock until now, especially considering that it boasts several killer references to poetry (this will be one of several posts I write about Fey’s masterwork). There’s no time like the present, so here we go. Behold! The splendor of my beginning!
Liz says she’s going to solve the problems of her personal life the same way she solves problems at work but doesn’t really say what that way is.
NBC is the unquestionable queen of the sitcom, and 30 Rock is routinely lauded as one of the smartest shows the network ever produced. Though it may have somewhat less heart than compatriots like Parks & Recreation and The Office, 30 Rock is unmatched in its wit, pacing, and sharp tongue. Because of its investment in language, it’s no surprise, then, that poetry crops up in the mouths of some of its memorable characters.
At the outset of the Season 5 episode “Everything Sunny All the Time Always,” Liz is trying to clean out and renovate the top level of her apartment (she wrangled it away from her upstairs neighbor in the ridiculous Season 4 episode, “Sun Tea”). Jenna (Jane Krakowski) comes over to help (read: watch her) throw out odds and ends, like the Spanish language learning materials Liz never attempted to use, or her unread copy Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret—a new-age book that was very trendy in the mid-aughts and early 2010s—which Jenna gave her as a gift. Everything must go to make way for Liz’s new life.
When discussing her plans with her boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), Liz says she’s going to solve the problems of her personal life the same way she solves problems at work but doesn’t really say what that way is. Instead, she pulls some swatches from her purse and tosses them on Jack’s desk.
“Tile samples,” she says. “First, I redo the bathroom, then, the whole apartment… Then? The world.”
Jack, suitably impressed with Liz’s renewed interest in getting her shit together, gives her one of his neckties as a symbol of his approval (yeah, their relationship is weird). While knotting the tie around her neck, Jack recites (well, paraphrases) the most well-known portion of William Ernest Henley’s 1888 poem, “Invictus,” out of the blue:
LIZ: This is a big moment for me.
JACK: You’re taking control of your destiny. “No matter how strait the gate, or charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
LIZ: That’s from Invictus! Wait, who was the white guy in that?”
The first line of that final stanza of Invictus actually reads “It matters not how strait the gate,” but it’s always a pleasure to hear contextually appropriate poems being recited in contemporary media. But you can be damn sure that Liz—who literally hucks her unread copy of Murder on the Orient Express into the trash once she finds out that there’s a movie of it in a later episode—has seen the 2009 movie and hasn’t read the poem in any other context. This becomes even clearer later on when she tries to remember Jack’s recitation.
There’s an extra-funny easter egg here for those who’ve seen the whole show. When Liz asks about the “white guy” of Invictus, she’s referring to Matt Damon, who played her boyfriend Carol Burnett (pronounced “burn-it,” but yeah, Tina Fey is very, very fond of character names that are face-punchingly punny and weirdly obvious, e.g., Paul L’astnamé, Hazel Wassername, Criss Chros) in seasons 4–5 of 30 Rock. The fourth wall is perilously close to crumbling, here, and a poem is holding the remnants together.
Henley’s inspiring words, written in the midst of what could otherwise have been a crushing realization of the limits of the body and of human life, inspired British readers, in particular, for well over a century.
30 Rock is steeped in this poem: The movie and the poem that gives the movie its title have already been referenced once by this point: a few episodes ago in S05E18, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) names the poem (movie? actor? I don’t think even he is totally sure what he means) as “proof” that he’s in Africa (which he isn’t). “Have you made friends in Africa?” Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) asks. “Oh sure,” Tracy replies. “Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Paul Simon, Invictus…” But now, in the penultimate episode of this season, we get hit with the poem itself.
The extent to which one can control her destiny is one of the central preoccupations of the show. Liz’s “I can have it all!” proclamation is at the core of her character, and the poem that Jack recites seemingly assures her that yes, she is in control of her life and she can have it all. Henley, the poem’s author, penned the poem in 1875 while recovering from a leg amputation. His inspiring words, written in the midst of what could otherwise have been a crushing realization of the limits of the body and of human life, inspired British readers, in particular, for well over a century. A refusal to succumb to the trials that life places before us and a reassertion of the human will, the very phrase “Invictus” conjures up the British “stiff upper lip” philosophy, for better or for worse.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
—William Ernest Henley, “Invictus”
And so, in this moment of taking charge, Jack’s recitation of the poem is very apropos. And so Liz goes about montage-ing her way to a perfect apartment (and by extension, a perfect life). But her machinations are stopped short when she sees a plastic bag caught in the tree outside her apartment window.
“Invictus!” Jack shouts again, fist in the air, when Liz tells him about this latest problem. And when Liz succeeds in getting the bag out of the tree after using a series of increasingly bizarre tactics, she excitedly calls Jack to report her triumph:
LIZ: I did it, Jack. I got the bag. You were right. “No matter how much the gate is strait, or who punishes the scrolls, I am the captain of my holes!” Or whatever. We are in control!
One part of the laugh here comes from the serious misquoting of the poem, and the other part comes from how graphic what Liz actually says is. But hear me out: the phrase “I am the captain of my holes” is a feminist proclamation. Liz is asserting her bodily autonomy as a woman! Does she know she’s doing this? Probably not: She’s mostly a well-meaning but hapless creature who is blind to intersectionality and her own privilege (the show, in many ways, hasn’t aged well). Liz is also intensely squeamish about sex (at least until she meets her soulmate and learns her secret turn-on: stationery).
But the spirit of Henley’s poem persists even as Liz proclaims that she is the captain of her, erm… holes. This is interesting because Henley’s poem is actually of a piece with the Law of Attraction, the pseudoscientific or “woo” idea that we can manifest our goals with our positive thoughts. Though the Law of Attraction can be traced in western thought back to at least the early 1800s, the most famous book about this idea in recent history is none other than… The Secret. Liz dunks on The Secret twice in this episode, first when she finds the copy Jenna gave her with wrapping paper still clinging to it, and again when Liz tells Jack, “Be careful what you wish for: according to The Secret, it’ll come true.”
But it seems that Liz fails to make the connection between the verse she quotes and the book she tosses, and I wouldn’t put it past her elitism. “Invictus” is a Victorian-era poem; The Secret is a self-help book gifted to her by a Florida-born woman who was conceived on a toilet and educated on a houseboat (Jenna). Liz is much more inclined to recognize one as wisdom and the other as stuff and nonsense, but they both essentially posit the same idea: we can control our destinies.
The critical difference between “Invictus” and The Secret is that Henley’s poem reminds us that we are in control of our souls, our inner lives.
One of the show’s central preoccupations throughout its seven seasons is the question of self-empowerment. Is it just masturbation, à la Tyler Durden? Is it even possible? Invictus the film is a distillation of all feel-good flicks about changing your destiny. And because this is likely Liz’s reference point rather than the poem itself, she is stunned when her plastic bag problem ultimately worsens. She cannot, it turns out, control her destiny. She thinks The Secret is bunk, but is shocked when she can’t manifest her perfect apartment. Byt that logic, her difficulties should have come as no surprise. It’s a delightful contradiction.
The parallel storyline of Jack’s quest to rescue his kidnapped wife Avery (Elizbeth Banks) mirrors Liz’s struggle, too, and highlights his own misunderstanding of the wisdom of “Invictus.” Avery is being held captive in North Korea and is forced to serve as a newscaster for the state media there. Jack, high on the spirit of good-old William Ernest Henley, is determined to get her back by himself.
The title of this episode, “Everything Sunny All the Time Always,” is a line recited by Kim Jong-il (played by the impeccable Margaret Cho, who earned an Emmy nomination for the role). During the North Korean news program, Avery throws to the dictator (“disguised” as “Johnny Mountain”) for the weather forecast. Standing in front of a map adorned with nothing but smiling sunshine emoji, the dictator says that the weather is sunny “all the time” and describes North Korea—a country whose government’s human rights record is routinely criticized—as a “beach party.”
Cho’s turn as Kim Jong Il, too, reminds us that just because you say it’s sunny out doesn’t mean it is; just because you insist that you are in control of your life doesn’t mean that a plastic bag isn’t going to come and ruin everything.
The critical difference between “Invictus” and The Secret is that Henley’s poem reminds us that we are in control of our souls, our inner lives. But The Secret argues that we can change our external circumstances through our thoughts. The moral of this episode, if there is such a thing, is that Henley was right, and Byrne just might be wrong. The only measure of control we have is over our feelings and choices, not over our futures or over the world at large.
Whenever I’m trying to reinvent some aspect of my life, I think of 30 Rock, and more specifically, of Liz buying a shitload of plastic storage and then getting hit by a bike messenger, then discovering that the plastic storage melted in a fire that she herself set. While that particular incident feels like a real 2020 moment, in 2021, I’m trying to think about cycles of productivity, work and rest in collaboration, and adaptability.
Plastic bags caught in trees still do make me think about the march of time, but more and more when I read poems like “Invictus,” I’m charmed by how cute we are, humans. We just keep trying. We keep believing. We honestly feel that we can seize control of our lives. And sometimes we can! These are moments to celebrate. But what I love most of all is how human beings refuse to stay down when they’re in the dust (or when sentient carry-alls are taunting them from the branches of a tree). No matter what the outcome, our resilience—our “unconquerable soul[s]”—are our best factory-installed features.
30 Rock is one of my very favorite shows of all time, and I’m looking forward to writing about the other moments of poetry that crop up on the sitcom. Hey, I’ve gotta do something to avoid confronting my eventual death, right? Mortalityyyy!!!!
Have you seen this episode? What do you make of Henley’s poem? Is there a poem that appears in a TV show, movie, song, or somewhere else that you’d like to see appear on PopPoetry? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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