If you are new to S-Town, turn away now before I’m held accountable for any spoilers! I don’t normally write “reviews” or anything of the sort, on anything…ever, but this podcast was so captivating that I was compelled to write an open discussion, on all aspects of this production: the story, the narrator, the themes, the mystery, and even the logo and website design for this podcast! I couldn’t have been more intrigued from the start.
The Story & The Mystery:
(A few paragraphs of this synopsis were paraphrased on Rebecca Nicholson’s review and can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/apr/03/s-town-review-its-hard-to-recall-a-more-touching-devastating-podcast-serial-john-b-mclemore-brian-reed)
S-Town, abbreviated for “Shit Town,” is produced by the same creators of Serial and This American Life. S-Town is about a man named John B McLemore, an articulate and at times crass man, who writes to Brian Reed, co-producer of This American Life, asking Brian to investigate an alleged murder that seems to have been “covered up” by the Authorities in his hometown in Bibb County, Alabama, or “Shit Town,” as John put it.
What starts out as a “Whodunnit,” crime-solving story, evolves into an unexpected journey gathered around the life of John McLemore himself. A year after John writes to Brian, the two connect through various phone calls. Finally, many months after their frequent calls, Brian agrees to meet John in Shit Town, Alabama (officially known as Woodstock) for further investigation.
John takes him on a tour of his home, where he has built a maze so complex he gets lost in it himself! John tells Brian that he memorized the coordinates of his property, which he explains, will be the “only maze you will find in Google Maps, in Bibb County.” The way Brian explains this Labyrinth is pretty remarkable, and extremely… well- memorizing. He paints his listeners a picture of lush hedges soon to reach maturity and flower beds of every color you could conjure. I did a quick Google Search and this is what I presume to be John’s maze.
John is charismatic, chatty, intellectual and largely misanthropic. At many times, he is outright pessimistic and depressing; he seems to despise the town he feels he didn’t do enough to escape and will go on rants about the town’s corruption.–pause here– When I would listen to John complain about Shit Town, I was sad for him, but then impatient and annoyed. I couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t leave the town if he hated it so much. I learned that Shit Town, though awful to John, was Home nonetheless, and has been Home to him all his life. I chalked it up to, “He couldn’t leave because a part of him didn’t want to leave.”
John is a horologist –Horology is the scientific study of time. Specifically, horology involves the measurement of time and the making of clocks. He was renowned for his clock-making skills, not just in Alabama, but far beyond the southern states and in the UK. He is a voracious reader. He is kind, he is cruel, angry and resigned. He sounds paranoid, at times, playful, and others, depressed. Later, there’s a hypothesis as to why, though like much in this story, it is never quite resolved, which is sort of the beauty that this podcast offers. You’re sort of left with your own resolve, your own thoughts on how this story ends, if there is even an ending.
At the end of the second episode, Brian learns that John has taken his own life. It’s devastating. Brian’s distress at the loss of the man who had become his friend is stark and upsetting. It’s a rift in the expected narrative and a genuine shock to us as listeners. This was supposed to be about the police officer accused of sexually assaulting women, or the cover-up of a murder by a rich man’s son, some real life version of True Detective. But John’s death sets the stories of S-Town on a wider stage, and asks bigger questions, and turns this into a deep exploration of empathy and understanding. John’s life, which he seems to say has been stuck in this Shit Town, turns out to be so rich that unpacking it over seven episodes can only begin to do it justice. It might, one hopes, make its listeners consider the untold stories behind more people than John B McLemore at least, according to Rebecca Nicholson, who reviewed this podcast.
I was moved after listening to all 7 chapters of this podcast. I felt for John, and was saddened by the news of his suicide, but also found myself relieved when I concluded that he had methodically calculated when his life was “fulfilled,” according to his Manifesto on how much time one has to “Live a Meaningful Life.” By the end of the first Episode, I knew that John was clinically depressed, but by the time Chapter 7 had unraveled, I arrived at a separate thought entirely. Yes, John was clinically depressed, but I think he was depressed because he had been poisoned by Mercury, which can cause sudden death, illnesses, nausea, depression, bipolar disorder, mood swings, and Gingivitis. Mercury exposure was very common amongst Hatters and Clock Makers in the 1800s, hence the coined term, Mad Hatter’s Disease. Many Clock Makers in the 1800s practiced the art of Fire Gilding- the process in which Mercury and Gold are mixed together to create a smooth, Golden metallic finish on the surface of many clocks. Nobody in this day and age is known to Fire Guild anymore because of its obvious health hazards. Nobody, except John McLemore, who apparently did this to many clocks in his lifetime, and without any masks, suits or other forms of safety precaution. So, you see where this leads… right? yes, his suicide (at least that’s what I think).
Narrator & Themes:
Brian Reed couldn’t have been a more perfect and well suited Narrator for this podcast. I often found myself impressed with his ability to share John’s story, even well after John’s life. I think it was also partly due to Brian’s ability to interact with the characters in this story with out bias, or judgement, and maybe his ability to befriend such a character as John himself.
Rebecca writes that ‘S-Town is particularly good at navigating subtleties and grey areas. In a digital age that rewards polemics, it stands out even more in its refusal to judge anyone, instead presenting people in all their contradictory messiness, including John himself. We meet racists, we meet thieves, we hear about violence and abuse and loss. These things can be hard to hear, but everyone involved is treated as a person. At times, the most trivial of anecdotes can unravel into something unbearably poignant, such as John’s embrace of Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain, which he comes to call “the grief manual”.’ I would agree.
I was dealt with discomfort whenever John crassly identified himself as a Queer, who could never disclose that openly in Woodstock because “that kinda thing would get ya killed,” or when a few of John’s friends casually referred to Black people by the N-Word. I was fascinated by my own surprise to discover that John was a sheer genius, despite my own preconceived ideas of him based on his background, social class, and dare I say, his Southern Twang, or according to John, “Redneck” accent. I’m found guilty, kneeling at the whims of my own racial stereotypes. Me–a pacific islander, Asian-American Woman, so often looking at the world through the lens of a minority, indeed found guilty viewing John the way the World so often viewed me.
The Logo, a tribute to John B. McLemore:
After everything I’ve already discussed in this blog post, it may seem silly of me to bring up my fascination for this Podcast’s website design, but I’ll do it anyways. The website design was so intricately created, and paid homage to John, the mad scientist, the eccentric horologist, and the friend we didn’t expect to connect with as listeners.
The Roses-frequently discussed as favorite parts of John’s property
The Labyrinth-another one of John’s creations, where he would spend many nights wandering and pondering Climate Change, and the future of Bibb County
The Gears- symbolizing John’s “purpose” for so many years, the Gears represent measurements of time, the study of clocks, and John’s fascination with creating a meaningful life with the time that he had so obsessively calculated, as well as the admiration of the gears themselves.
Thank you, Brian Reed, for an amazing podcast. I feel like someone whose favorite Netflix series just officially ended. To some extent that’s exactly what happened.
Thoughts? Discussion? Reply below!