Amazon Studios’ Z: The Beginning of Everything wants to be an insightful biopic series of the most famous couple of the roaring twenties. Instead, it betrays how little our culture has learned from the era.
Zelda Sayres is a wild teenager if there ever was one. Flying right in the face of traditional values (in today as well as the ’20s), she runs from boy to boy, drinking gin with soldiers, dancing with them all, flirting with them all, and kissing every one of them that will let her. As she tells the single virtuous man that makes a brief appearance in the series, “I wait for no man.”
Eventually, she does find someone she might be willing to go steady with. He’s yet another soldier, a Lieutenant named Francis Scott Fitzgerald. But far from identifying with the army, he tells her “I’m going to be a famous writer someday.” In pursuing his writing while working a “real job” in the army, he brings an air of respectability, and even says that he likes her distant, authoritarian father. As their relationship becomes more and more passionate and (later) more and more serious, it looks as though this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
But in reality, it’s anything but.
The problem in this show is not that it has undertaken to study the dysfunctional and tumultuous marriage of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Certainly, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from them, and examples we will want desperately to avoid. The problem is that in its portrayal, it wants us to believe that Zelda is a victim of a bad marriage, rather than just the other half of a pairing of selfish people.
Scott’s selfishness is a little bit more subtle, and reveals itself in other ways – the way he throws a drunken party after their wedding with his college buddies, uses Zelda’s writing to bolster his own, and flaunts his newfound wealth after his first book becomes a smash hit. But Zelda’s selfishness is obvious and at the forefront, and the tone of the story never seems willing to condemn it.
Another review I read stated that the story is “too much in love with its lead.” I would agree, and think that’s a large part of the problem. The opening scene of the pilot episode shows her skinny dipping with her friends (a scene which pushes the TV-14 rating for that episode, in my opinion), and having fun dancing, which is contrasted with the harsh judgmental nature of her father, who is, ironically, a judge. The conclusion? He is a grumpy old man who is not letting his daughter enjoy her youth. Later on, when Scott and Zelda are married without waiting for Zelda’s sister to arrive, her selfishness in that moment is glossed over to show how Scott’s drunken party is taking an emotional toll on Zelda.
The overall effect is that the writers seem to want us to feel sorry for Zelda because she isn’t getting everything she always wanted. But in effect, she is only living for what she wants. It’s hard to feel sorry for a character who is unremittingly selfish. Yet, we’re expected to root for her because she’s the lead, she’s funny, and she’s attractive. The lattermost of those is a particular focus of the show, as it once even breaks out of the TV-14 rating for a TV-MA episode, solely for the sake of showing explicit nudity as Scott and Zelda consummate their marriage.
In the end, whatever lessons the show might have for us to learn implicitly are crowded out by an overzealous justification of Zelda, and expecting us to look with disdain on Scott. Certainly Scott’s behavior is inexcusable, but there’s something of a double standard in the show’s tone which is hard to excuse. Rather than becoming a criticism of the shallow era of the 1920s (which, ironically, is best explored in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby), the series functions as a sort of apologetic for people in that era, so long as that person happens to be a talented and alluring young woman.
You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. – James 4:2-3