Over the Edge, Over Again

In defense of the end of the world

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) | Disney

Let’s begin at the end.

This will at least ensure that uncertainty isn’t the conduit to a future but rather proof that one exists at all. Let this be something to cling to.

Two men stand on a dock. Neither has to say anything, really, here at the end of things; so much has been said already. The first man though, cocks his head and offers up: “Take what you can.”

The second—already smirking, always somehow smirking—finishes the formulation: “Give nothing back.”

They put their fists up, bash them together. They go their separate ways.

Miles out to sea, a pirate ship with black sails cuts across the surf. There’s another man there, and he feeds a peanut to his beloved undead monkey—some things do go on after they end. Maybe he’s also chasing a means after an end. It seems remarkably hopeful to want more time in a cruel world, even if it feels like greed at first blush. He corrals his crew: “There’s more than one way to live forever, gents,” and he unfurls a mess of charts, “I give you the Fountain of Youth!”

In the center of the map, where the “X” marking the spot should be, is just a hole. 

We cut back to the second man we just saw on the dock, still smiling, now bobbing in a slim dinghy. He takes something from his coat, and before it’s even in view, we know it’s the cut-out center of those mangled charts. It’s the key to life after the end. He spins the concentric circles that make up this weird map and out comes his compass, which never points North but instead leads the wielder to what they want most in the world. After a detour to the rum bottle, the compass and charts point out to open ocean. Captain Jack Sparrow has a heading. He coos a few lines of a pirate shanty and sails straight off the map. 

As much as I wish it was, this isn’t the last image in this story. One conflict of personally investing in mass culture is remembering that manufacturing forces (especially in this country, especially in this era of story-making) frequently have little regard for any endgame that isn’t maximal profit. Stories aren’t done when they happen on an impossibly perfect image that encapsulates all the horrors and joys of being alive and facing death and choosing to try and live anyway. And stories certainly aren’t done when they suggest the unknown. Stories are over when they’re wrung out, usually after they’re bone dry. They expire when the profit dries up. To quote the villain in this story, “it’s just good business.”

And Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is slippery to uphold as indicative of anything other than the most money a movie could cost (to that point in history) in service of making the most money a movie could make (to that point in history). Pointing towards blockbuster objects of late capitalism as indicative of a future’s location or locution should be cause for concern. At worst, that kind of essayistic gesture comes close to suggesting that mass and massive production might provide a design for living. At best, it smacks of a writer whose main point while examining popular culture is “look at me look at me look at how clever I am.”

I am not clever but I do love Pirates of the Caribbean. I know these splaying, heaving films won’t rescue us from this most current apocalypse, but I do think they indicate something aching and almost unsayable about the way we live and move and die in this world. I think take what you can/give nothing back is a necessary rephrasing of all for one/one for all. I think it’s how we get out beyond the end.

Back to the beginning, if only to see how we get where we go.

At World’s End opens at the end of all things knowable, or at least all things worth knowing. The first three images in the film are a noose, the flag of the East India Trading Company, and shackled feet. Amid this public execution of hundreds of bodies, a voice announces that a state of emergency has been declared in this franchise’s formerly sunny Caribbean setting. Martial law is invoked.

The voice goes on, as line after line of bodies fall and swing from the gallows: “Right to habeas corpus: suspended. Right to legal counsel: suspended. Right to a verdict by a jury of peers: suspended.”1

Sometimes I think about the Disney executive charged with checking in on the dailies, seeing that this is how the most expensive movie in the world would begin, all semblance of civilization eroding into the endless and endlessly-expanding market. It’s an unusually honest condemnation, for this or any company. In a not-far-off future, Disney would find a way to commodify wokeness itself, emptying fortunes into massive gestures of performative progressiveness (Avengers: Endgame) while vilifying actual revolution of Black bodies (Black Panther), celebrating girl-boss militarism (Captain Marvel), and doubling down on American exceptionalism (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Something got rearranged in the space between rebel stories and how they got into the world. As usual with regards to these stories and scales, it was just good business.

To look at Gore Verbinski’s Pirates trilogy (released between 2003 and 2007, right before Iron Man, right before DisneyMarvelInc. blockbusting became an inevitability in the market) is a startling experience in how incomprehension, grief, and love can reshape the world. Among all the shards and splinters, these films are nothing less than a cannonball inquiry into who gets to decide how the world looks. 

To be sure: the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise began as an effort to transform a physical Disney property into a filmic one. And the risk of fishing for conscience in commodity, or art peeking through the fabric of merchandising, remains treacherous. But to recall these films in 2020, the year that eschatological tang seems brighter than ever, a shocking if schlocky elegance of politics emerges.

Because The Curse of the Black Pearl manages to literalize—in its damned skeleton crew—imperialism as a living rot: the gold that curses Barbossa and his men is, after all, originally stolen by Cortés from the Aztecs. The colonizing body doesn’t die, it just keeps pillaging. If, as Edward Said writes, imperialism depends on cultural artifacts preparing “the idea of having an empire” to seem reasonable and realistic, unavoidable in fact, watching Will and Jack escape the gallows at the end of the film is thrilling in no small part because it means nothing is inevitable, least of all historically dominant systems of bondage that engineer genocide. 

Dead Man’s Chest, the first of two sequels immediately bankrolled by Disney in light of the first film’s surprising success, could have retreated from these incisive if inelegant ballasts. It was an opportunity to take advantage of a successful property and streamline it for maximum production and profitability, like the company would come to do with it’s never-ending Marvel Cinematic Universe or the newest panoply of Star Wars media. The story of The Curse of the Black Pearl was over: Barbossa is shot by Jack, the curse is ended, the heroes escape. Here was an opportunity to do exactly what Disney would do with the more recent Pirates sequels (2011’s On Stranger Tides and 2017’s Dead Men Tell No Tales), mostly empty gestures of fanservice and recycled imagery that were guaranteed an audience.

Instead, Dead Man’s Chest blows it all up. Retroactively turning The Curse of the Black Pearl into the first section of a trilogy, it seizes on incidental artifacts from that film (Jack’s compass, Will’s lost father, Elizabeth’s agency) and turns them into vital plot and thematic points in an overarching epic. And this epic’s franchise villains turn out to be Lord Cutler Beckett and the East India Trading Company, a real-life capitalist-crazy entity that played an integral part in expanding Britain’s colonial empire, especially in their deployment of a historically-large private army. If living at the end of the world in 2020 is a reminder that empires are always doubling down,2 Dead Man’s Chest follows suit in upping the ante. And what felt like a submerged thread of revolution in the first film gives way to what this story comes to be about: which authorities shake and shape the world.

Because judging solely from the first film, the world of Pirates of the Caribbean has seemed mostly tenable, even benign. These are outlaw stories where the pluck and nobility and wit of pirates are rewarded with true love’s kiss, escape from certain doom, and a bottle of rum. There is an inherent goodness to the relationship between the romantic (mostly in a Byronic sense but not not in a Harlequin sense) and the world as is.

The introduction of Beckett and his army early in Dead Man’s Chest is the first crack in that romance: their introduction literally interrupts the long-longed-for wedding of Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner. Under the strain of an oppressing capitalist occupation, Elizabeth and Will spend the rest of the film turning themselves over, questioning how their love might exist both in scope of their other ambitions (something as monumental as liberating a long-suffering family member, something as small and vital as having a crush on somebody else) and under a system increasingly encouraged to pit people against each other in service of its own goals and profits.

Dead Man’s Chest mainly pits our heroes against the tentacle-bearded Davy Jones and his immortally-gooey crew of the Flying Dutchman. This is because watching a band of pirates fight another band of pirates composed of steely CG décollages of human flesh/all the sea’s creatures, is an awesome sight. 

This isn’t necessarily the film evading head-on engagement with the political landscape it’s sketched. Gore Verbinski’s cinema (this trilogy, the kinetic springs and slapsticks of Mouse Hunt, the moveable statics of The Ring remake) is one that thrives in the physics of the world. The collision of practical effects and digital wizardry is the purest extension of Verbinski understanding that the way a world works (its systems, its governances, the motivations and attachments of all its denizens) is best reflected in how you render it, physically, cartographically. 

And boy does it fly here: Dead Man’s Chest shoots the shift and strain of living in the world straight through elaborately-conceived set piece after elaborately-conceived set piece, none better than a late sequence where Jack and Will and Norrington all trade parries atop a mill wheel freely rolling across the landscape. This is the most spectacularly-choreographed sword fight in modern film history. It’s also a perfect stand-in for where the story’s found itself: men trying to do the right thing forced into combat with comrades because they think that’s the only way their individual goals can be met. 

They’re fighting over the literal heart of Davy Jones, which is buried in a chest on an island; whoever owns the heart controls Jones’ terror crew. Whoever owns the heart, then, has command over who gets to sail the sea and how. Jack wants it to call off the Kraken, which has been sicced on him by Jones as punishment for an old debt. Will wants it because his father’s imprisoned on the Dutchman, and he could leverage it to free him. Norrington, the Commodore who suffered a complete collapse of career and rank after allowing Will and Jack to escape at the conclusion of The Curse of the Black Pearl, smells a shot at redemption. And so, in the chaos, he steals the heart. And so Cutler Beckett gains control over the way the map of the world gets drawn.

Having Davy Jones be the villain of this second chapter wasn’t shirking the political implications of Dead Man’s Chest. It was there to show who’s actually pulling the strings. No body—not even the legendarily terrifying and immortal Davy Jones—is immune to the corruptive and corrosive influence of capitalism. 

It’s how the world ends, which is how At World’s End begins. Beckett and the largest privatized army on the sea are eradicating the pirates that might interfere with the trade market that’s just been monopolized. Worse yet, Beckett controls the definition of piracy, relegating any unsavory bodies to that label and exterminating them. This is one version of how the world might look,3 and Beckett is recklessly shaving off the margins and edges. As he warns Jones when the Dutchman’s captain briefly resists authority: “This is no longer your world, Jones. The immaterial has become immaterial.”

That’s the world our characters swim in. And when I wondered why I had a seemingly unknowable desire to rewatch these movies, I realized: that’s the same world we find for ourselves every time we wake up in August 2020. Every morning begins in grief, as we read about the hundreds of deaths that we’re unable to find any explanation for aside from a general lack of interest in intervention on the part of a flailing American empire. Empires know which bodies will suffer the most, and it’s not the Becketts among them.

Sometimes that grief is psychic, connected to the uncertainty surrounding practically everything in our day. While an uncaring American empire doubles down on the reopening of markets and business as the surest sign of normalcy, we’re left to work and die or starve and die, with no notion of when it will be okay to hug and hold the people we love again. Often, though, it’s a literal grief over mourning itself.4

Let’s return to the end, so we can act beyond it. Let’s remember that grief is a way to move forward.

At World’s End is a nearly three-hour chef’s kiss of incomprehension, of barraging plot twists and bombast, of ships splintering amid maelstroms and bodies dissipating into clouds of crabs. After an early and spectacular sequence set in Singapore (which introduces the global ability piracy has to effect change), it literally sails a back-from-the-dead Barbossa and Elizabeth and Will and Gibbs over the edge of the world, past the barrier of life and death. They rescue the now-deceased(ish) Jack, who leapt into the mouth of the Kraken a film earlier to save his friends. They consolidate their forces at Shipwreck Cove, a bastion of all the world’s pirates and also Keith Richards, to combat the East India Trading Company’s punitive monopoly. All for one isn’t an economic marker, it’s what comes before one for all.

The linguistic liquidity of that old Musketeers cry (multiple things can be held in one thing; one body can become collective) is catalyzed by the act of transformation; nothing inevitable actually is. And so At World’s End crystallizes the notion that piracy is a legitimate illegitimacy to be leveraged against illegitimate legitimate authority. You do not have to accept the world the way they say it looks. Strength lies in malleability and anyone can be a pirate, or become one. Remember: Will Turner quit his day job to become a pirate! Elizabeth Swann becomes a Pirate Lord because she’s in the right room at the right time! At World’s End is especially invested in including every kind of body in its collective: when the Brethren Court convenes near the film’s climax, it includes in its global ranks bodies of all races, genders, and ages. Piracy is the plastic identity we’re all already a part of, the dissolution of barriers that can dissolve barriers.

Piracy imagines an always-alternative. It’s Jack who decodes the moveable map’s puzzle after he’s rescued from Davy Jones’ Locker. Languishing on the seas between death and life, about to be trapped for eternity there, it’s Jack who reads over the edge, over again as directions for how to literally reorganize a world. You have to literally turn it upside down. Beckett gambles that his world is inevitable, that even pirates have prices: “Advise your brethren: you can fight in which case all of you will die, or you can not fight in which case only most of you will die.”

But to watch the collective effort of At World’s End’s heroes alongside footage of the bravest people I’ve ever seen hurling their bodies against the hateful police in protest of broken systems is to remember that “take what you can” refers to that which has been denied you. And “give nothing back” is nothing less than the demand to advance the effort of all our brethren into a future on our terms. If you can see through the storm and war that end the movie, you might see the people you love fighting by your side. If you can squint through the cynicism of everything uncertain, you can begin to see how the end of the world might lead to something better. 

The world—the new one—is only worth fighting for if we remember why we’re fighting. Because grief means you have loved and lost. Because love is the ultimate inoculation against imperialism. Like any immunizing agent, there’s part of the virus inside the cure: imperialism is the possessing maw by which territories subsume others for profit. Love is its inverse, a possession that sets other bodies free: You are mine and I am yours and we are now free to build a new thing from these parts. Love is roundly unprofitable and staunchly illogical, the prioritizing of another’s needs over your own. Its malleability, the way it can fold and unfold around all the brittle systems that oppose liberation, isn’t just the conduit to a future but proof that we’re always inventing one, in embraces.

Because the marriage of Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner—performed by Hector Barbossa aboard the deck of the Flying Dutchman as two ships careen over the maelstrom at the end of the world—is the most loving gesture I’ve ever seen. “I don’t know if now is the best time,” Elizabeth says when Will brings it up. “Now may be the only time,” Will offers. 

And so Elizabeth and Will kiss, and that kiss, that camera spin: it’s the whole world stopping and shattering amid splashes and splinters. It’s undiluted love, the kind that liberates a body and sends it into millions of shivers before bringing it back down, like the rain. It’s the kind you fight for.

And then Will dies, stabbed through by Davy Jones, this hulking and scared creature of love lost. If the story behind Jones’ villainy—his great and passionate love of the sea goddess, Calypso; his resentment when she scorns his affections; his turn away from the immortal task she charged him with and into monstrousness—seems haphazard and undercooked, it’s just like any number of the love stories we might know. And to witness Will’s life disappear under Jones’ blade, a body could be forgiven for losing hope.

I think that’s why this end, the one I watch when I watch At World’s End in or out of quarantine or any time, breaks me up. Elizabeth and Will’s romance is the heat under all the sweaty soot and digital spray of these films, the engine of something purely good under the unmooring shifts of world under the duress of capitalism. Discard all other idols, I think, watching these two tiptoe and shove their way towards that wedding scene aboard the Dutchman; love is the only thing worth clinging to and hauling into the new world.

Sometimes I think, there had to be another way to end it all. There had to be room to allow these eternally doomed lovers to finally come together, to build a New World that’s more than just the name imperialism has for the land it stole from the people already living there. There has to be room for a world realized in love.

But as Will lies dying, he stabs the heart of Davy Jones, tossed to him by Jack, who wanted nothing more than to stab the heart himself and earn immortality. But Will stabs it, and Jones is vanquished into the abyss, and Will’s father, liberated from bondage because of this sequence of sacrifices, says, “this ship has a purpose again.” That purpose, the original purpose of the ghostly Flying Dutchman, is the ferrying of lost souls to a place of repose. It’s the crossing of the known and the unknown into something like peace, something like the way waves are always in motion but seas seem still. That purpose, the one Will works towards after death, is the management of grief in the world he left behind. After his end, he helps shepherd the thoughts of the grieving into something like memory, something like stories. This is the purpose Will Turner brings his destiny to. This is the world of love.

It breaks my heart that Elizabeth is left to land in all this. Elizabeth, who’s transformed from distressing damsel in the first film to the actor of the trilogy’s most compelling and murky moral action (tying Jack to the mast to save her crew after flirting with him for most of Dead Man’s Chest) to a full-fledged Pirate King in full Crispin’s Day mode hanging from the rigging of the Black Pearl at the end of the world. This arc of transformation isn’t there in sole pursuit of Will as some extension of his destiny, or to serve any notion of love as subservience to another. Lindsey Romain articulates that love best: “Romance is a natural part of life. In fact, one may argue, it’s a symbol of the most important thing there is in this world: love. In the end, Elizabeth hangs up her pirate hat for love. And it doesn’t disrupt her agency or erase her accomplishments.” 

Heartbreak is grief, which is a way we move beyond our ends. It is heartbreaking to watch Elizabeth stand on the beach as Will walks into the surf, where he’ll bring his dumb nobility to the unutterable process of easing the dead into whatever comes after life, in memories and in songs. I can’t help but think how this work is necessarily informed by the love from and of Elizabeth, who like any lover in any love story teaches their partner the complicated and also matter-of-fact process of care, which is the process that splits grief and joy. Their romance—and so the core of this trilogy—is left to flux. But flux is the place of change. A new world waits, a dissolution from hope into real apparition (a child, then, is a sign of a future.) 

And of course, nothing happens before they seep into that island together after the battle at the end of the world. Properly married on the deck of a ghost ship, alone for the first time since they shared that kiss in The Curse of the Black Pearl, they’re left to themselves and the hot of the sand. Nothing happens until that final shot before Will’s departure, as he pulls on a boot. “I’m gonna need the other one.” She flexes her leg in it and stares him down like something still willing to fight for the love of her life. And he kisses the full of her leg and she closes her eyes, smiles. What a love. What a way. 

Maybe the world is just tiny pieces of everyone in it. Maybe grief is love leaving the body. Maybe love—like matter—cannot be destroyed, and just escapes sometimes, and pools in different places.

Let the world break. See it splinter. Any articulation of yearning for the way things were is always to be discarded. We can do better than that. We can write something new. 

Cling to fight. Cling to love. Cling to the matter between those things, which is each other. Use all those forces to undo the noose and gallow and shackle of imperialism of all things. 

To live after the end of the world is to take what you can and give nothing back. It’s to denounce the pessimistic realism of historic oppression at every turn, to fight for what you don’t see yet but what you can imagine. It’s the fight for who you don’t yet, too. Through the strange tides of everything uncertain is the glimmer of a moveable map that means anything possible

There’s a glimmer reflected in shattering into a genuinely reimagined world. Fill the fractures with shatters. Build a body together.

Who gets to decide what the world looks like?

We get to decide what the world looks like.

  1. “On June 2, 2020 the New York Legal Aid Society sought a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of prisoners who had been held in excess of 24 hours, estimated at over 200 people. New York Supreme Court Justice James Burke ruled that the coronavirus and the mass protests were a valid reason to hold prisoners in excess of 24 hours stating, ‘This writ is denied. All writs are denied—Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan.’” (New York State Bar Association)
  2. “John Sandweg, the former acting director of ICE, who also served as general counsel for the [Department of Homeland Security], said Donald Trump was using the agency as his own ‘goon squad’ by sending federal law enforcement agents to Oregon’s biggest city and vowing to send more to other cities around the country, including Chicago and Albuquerque.” (The Guardian)
  3. “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries. And this booty is shared between two or three powerful plunderers armed to the teeth, who are drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty.” (V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism)
  4. “In some situations, many people have become sick with COVID-19 after attending a funeral service. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in communities, changes need to be made to the way funerals, visitations, and memorials to the deceased are held.” (Center For Disease Control)