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Legion: 3 lessons the superhero genre can learn from FX’s standout thriller
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

For starters, be a little more stylish…

Spoiler: This article deals with the plot of the entire season of Legion and touches on what happened in its season finale.

Legion’s season finale marks the end of one of the most challenging — and best — superhero shows in recent memory.

In a genre cluttered with shows that bleed into one another, Legion stood out emphatically. Looking at any given scene from Legion, it would be impossible to mistake it for any other show.

That doesn’t mean that Legion is a perfect show — the finale feels a bit like letdown compared with the revelation that was episode seven — but it’s definitely fresher and more thrilling than any other superhero offering this year. For that reason, here are some lessons the genre could stand to learn from Legion.

1) Be stylish

The most striking thing about Legion is how the series looks.

A lot of superhero shows look the same, a quality that can be at least partially attributed to corporate cohesion. Marvel’s Netflix properties — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage — all take place in the same city, and those shows tend to all play with the same aesthetic, the same settings (Marvel’s Netflix shows love a good hallway scene), and similar colors.

 Netflix/Marvel

The CW’s Flash and Arrow have a similar stylistic relationship, which is understandable to a point: Since these shows share the same universe, they should look similar. Though I’m still not convinced you can use the “shared universe” reasoning to justify no variation when it comes to camera angles and the types of shots used.

Though it takes place in the X-Men universe, Legion doesn’t share its onscreen universe with any other superhero property, giving it the freedom to be itself. The show freely plays not only with color — as evident in the first few episodes set at Clockwork Psychiatric Hospital and the ’70s tracksuits therein — but also with space and composition.

With Legion, there’s a strong sense of intentionality to the way the story and characters are presented visually. Like this shot of David (Dan Stevens) and Syd (Rachel Keller):

 FX/Legion

Syd’s powers mean she can’t be touched (the blue hue where she’s sitting gets at that coldness), but she loves David. In this scene, the two have their designated spaces — denoted by the color — but he’s breaching that barrier. The shot tells its own story while simultaneously enhancing the story the series is telling.

This happens again with Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder). These two characters “share” the same body, are the same person, but are have two completely different personalities — he’s into science and gadgets, while she’s a no-nonsense fighter. So it’s appropriate, and smart, that this shot feels like looking at two separate images that, like Cary and Kerry, are the inverse of one another:

 FX/Legion

Legion also plays with space and the rule of thirds — not unlike Mr. Robot. In the scene where David allows Melanie (Jean Smart) and Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) to go inside his head and delve into his memories, David is pushed into the right corner, at the edge of the frame:

 FX/Legion

The positioning gets across David’s isolation and suspicion of these strangers. The window’s beams divide the room, but they also add to this feeling that David feels trapped and sequestered.

It’s clear throughout the first season that Legion is deliberately weaving its themes into its visual style. There’s planning and thought behind the way each scene is composed and the way the camera is positioned. I can’t think of a single superhero show or movie that wouldn’t benefit from being this conscious of its visuals.

2) Don’t be afraid to get weird

 FX/Legion

Late in the season, Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny Busker performs a strange, hump-filled dance routine to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It’s as screwy as it is frightening, since she’s been revealed as the embodiment of a parasitic demon mutant known as the Shadow King and is traipsing around David’s jagged, broken memories. It’s Fosse meets Freddy Krueger, somehow taking place in the X-Men universe.

What’s so striking about the scene is that it’s unlike any other villain reveal in the superhero genre, which usually involve flashy superpowers and explosions; this grand unveiling is more like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s also a stark departure from how Plaza’s character is depicted in the comic books:

 The Shadow King in Marvel comic books/Marvel

Legion could have easily fallen back on a literal translation of the comic books, busting its budget on giant special effects. But that would have made it just like every other Marvel property out there.

I’m not saying every Marvel villain should be weird for weirdness’s sake and eschew the dazzle of Marvel magic every time out. But Legion possesses an understanding and interpretation of the show’s villain and source material that’s true to the story it wants to tell. That’s what truly matters, and what allows Legion to swing for the fences.

Legion doesn’t have a grand fight scene, and perhaps it’s not as exciting as shows like Daredevil, but it stands out for being brave enough to be strange. And it never has to stand in the shadow of a show like Daredevil (see: Iron Fist), because it’s confident in its own skin.

3) Trust your audience

The first six episodes of Legion do not make a lick of sense. It’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s fake, and it’s unclear what decade it all takes place in (there are tablets, but also everyone is in retro track suits). Figuring out if what we’re seeing is in David’s head or a real place is hard, and we’re constantly left guessing. Time folds in on itself, because the story isn’t presented in a linear fashion. Around episode four, I almost gave up.

But it was totally worth it. I think.

Not having a grasp on what was happening is what made the Shadow King reveal in episode seven work. Everything unlocks, inviting you to go back into the previous episodes to see what you were missing. This wouldn’t be possible if the show held viewers’ hands and guided us through every detail.

I can’t help but contrast Legion’s insistence on leaving us in the dark with a scene from the first episode of Iron Fist, where the head of security confronts Danny Rand after a brief fight earlier in the episode. Danny exclaims, “Hey, you’re that security guard from earlier!” as if we’d somehow forgotten what’s happened in the last 20 minutes. There is none of that in Legion, which makes no apologies if you missed what just happened.

At the end of Legion’s first season, I’m not even sure what the Eye’s power is. But the payoff in episode seven wouldn’t have been as great or satisfying if the show hadn’t trusted us to keep up.

Vox Sentences: Brexit, stage one
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Vox Sentences is your daily digest for what's happening in the world, curated by Dara Lind and Dylan Matthews. Sign up for the Vox Sentences newsletter, delivered straight to your inbox Monday through Friday, or view the Vox Sentences archive for past editions.

“There can be no turning back”; anti-abortion activists behind Planned Parenthood videos face 15 felony charges; Dems may sacrifice the filibuster over Gorsuch.


Brexit begins

The Prime Minster Of the United Kingdom Theresa May Signs Article 50 Photo by Christopher Furlong - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Theresa May signs the official letter invoking Article 50.
  • The UK officially initiated the Brexit process by invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon (one of the governing documents of the European Union) today. [Reuters / Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper]
  • In Brussels shortly after noon, British Envoy to the EU Tim Barrow hand-delivered a six-page letter from Prime Minister Theresa May to EU Council President Donald Tusk. Moments after its delivery, May told UK lawmakers, “There can be no turning back.” [New York Times / Stephen Castle]
  • The letter struck a firm but cordial tone: “We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe — and we want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent.” It also suggested seven principles to prioritize in the negotiation process, such as, “We should engage with one another constructively and respectfully, in a spirit of sincere cooperation,” and, “We should work together to minimize disruption and give as much certainty as possible.” [Washington Post / Brexit letter full text]
  • Negotiations between the UK and the EU must be completed within two years from when the EU is notified. The immediate next step will come from Tusk, who has promised to “present the draft #Brexit guidelines” to the remaining members of the EU. [New York Times / Jasmine C. Lee]
  • Yesterday, the Scottish Parliament voted to seek another referendum on independence from the UK, aiming for a vote by early 2019 — which would have Scotland potentially leaving Britain as Britain is still negotiating its own departure from the EU. May has encouraged Scotland to wait on its referendum, but Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has pointed out that in Scotland, most voters wanted to stay in the EU last summer, and the country is being removed from the bloc against its will. [Washington Post / Karla Adam]
  • Sinn Féin is pushing for a vote in Northern Ireland over uniting with the rest of the island in order to remain in the EU; Northern Ireland also voted against Brexit last summer. But widespread Protestant opposition to even a referendum about Irish unification probably makes that idea a nonstarter. [Wall Street Journal / Jason Douglas]
  • Meanwhile, some companies are already reacting to presumed rules changes post-Brexit. JPMorgan, for instance, is reportedly scouting new offices in Europe because its current setup — which is centered in London with the ability to maintain European clients and branches outside the UK — will be less viable post-Brexit. [Wall Street Journal / Max Colchester]
  • And the bigger economic questions loom: Will the UK be able to negotiate the free trade agreement May has said she wants, or will it end up negotiating from a weaker position, with more to lose than the rest of the EU in these negotiations? [Wall Street Journal / Wiktor Szary, Colleen McEnaney, Jovi Juan]
  • In an immediate blow to May’s ambitions, Germany’s Angela Merkel said that the future of the UK-EU relationship cannot be determined simultaneously with the terms of Brexit. Leave must happen, and “only when this question is dealt with can we — hopefully soon after — begin talking about our future relationship.” [Guardian / Daniel Boffey, Jon Henley]
  • May’s letter also met sharp criticism because it hinted at the possibility that the UK would decrease security cooperation with Europe if it was unsatisfied with the trade deal reached in negotiations. [Washington Post / Karla Adam]
  • On the bright side: Some theorize that watching Brexit and the early days of the Trump administration play out has pushed European countries like France away from far-right parties that had previously been growing in influence. Exhibit one: pro-European French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, who polls predict will handily defeat far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in the election’s second round. [New York Times / Steven Erlanger]

15 felony charges for two anti-abortion activists

Pro-Life Activist David Daleiden Appears In Court Over Planned Parenthood Video Sting Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images
David Daleiden is one of two anti-abortion activists facing 15 felony charges.
  • Late Tuesday night, news broke that the two anti-abortion activists who secretly recorded and edited videos of Planned Parenthood officials in an attempt to discredit the group have been charged with 15 felony counts of violating the privacy of health care providers. [Washington Post / Samantha Schmidt]
  • A quick refresher on the case: Two activists with the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress pretended to represent a company that buys fetal tissue for researchers. The group then heavily edited their secretly recorded footage — discussing the purchase of fetal tissue and body parts with Planned Parenthood officials, taken over the course of three years — and released five videos in July of 2015 that suggested that Planned Parenthood makes money by selling aborted fetuses. [Vox / Sarah Kliff]
  • To be clear: Planned Parenthood does not make money by selling aborted fetuses. [NPR / Danielle Kurtzleben]
  • The fallout from the videos nearly led to a government shutdown as hardline conservatives demanded the defunding of Planned Parenthood. [Politico / Seung Min Kim]
  • As state-level investigations proved no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood, the two anti-abortion activists behind the videos, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, were indicted by a grand jury in Houston in January 2016 for “tampering with a governmental record” and a misdemeanor count having to do with selling body parts. [New York Times / Manny Fernandez]
  • But charges were eventually dropped due to a technicality — Texas law has a time limit for grand jury decisions, and the decision to investigate Daleiden and Merritt came after that limit. [BuzzFeed / Dan Vergano]
  • The 15 new charges were filed by California prosecutors and cover 14 occasions when Daleiden and Merritt filmed officials without their permission in the state of California, plus a 15th charge for criminal conspiracy to invade privacy. [Washington Post / Samantha Schmidt]
  • On Wednesday, a federal appeals court issued a ruling blocking the Center for Medical Progress from releasing new videos made at meetings of the National Abortion Federation, which represents abortion providers that aren’t part of Planned Parenthood. A judge from the Ninth Circuit Court who reviewed the tapes found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Meanwhile, NAF has said that releasing the videos could put its members in danger of reprisal. [New York Times / Associated Press]
  • The escalating charges and ruling against the Center for Medical Progress don’t only ruin the credibility of the organization — Republican lawmakers have been citing the group’s work for years now, and the imbroglio makes them look pretty bad too. [Huffington Post / Laura Bassett]

Senate drama looms next week over Gorsuch

Schumer Calls On 'Dark Money' Group To Reveal Donors Supporting Gorsuch Nomination Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on Monday, April 3, and his full Senate vote will be on Friday, April 7, before Congress goes on a two-week recess. [CNN / Ted Barrett, Ashley Killough]
  • After Gorsuch’s purposely noncommittal committee hearing last week, Democrats were left without concrete statements upon which to object to Gorsuch’s nomination apart from politics. But his conservative rulings and Republicans’ obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination for the same seat are reason enough for most of them to come out against. [New York Times / Matt Flegenheimer, Adam Liptak, Charlie Savage, Carl Hulse]
  • As of today, only two Democrats seem likely to vote in favor of Gorsuch’s nomination, and 37 are likely to vote no. With all 52 Republicans likely to vote yes, that puts Gorsuch at 54 votes — six short of the 60-vote majority needed to overcome the filibuster without a rules change. [Decision Desk HQ / Brandon Finnigan]
  • The two Democrats likely to vote yes are both facing competitive midterm races in states Trump won — Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). [Bloomberg / Albert R. Hunt]
  • It looks increasingly likely that the filibuster against Gorsuch will succeed, resulting in Republicans eliminating the filibuster for the Supreme Court, leaving the Senate with the ability to confirm Gorsuch with a simple majority of 51 votes — which Republicans alone can almost certainly reach. [Washington Post / Paul Kane]
  • One wild card: If some Republicans refuse to “go nuclear” and end the filibuster rule. Susan Collins appears to be the only one hesitating about the rule change; three Republicans would need to defect for it to fail. [CNN / Ted Barrett and Ashley Killough]

Miscellaneous

  • The philosophical implications of getting totally owned on Twitter. [NYT / Amanda Hess]
  • New Jersey, Ohio, and Alabama are adopting Finland's "baby box" system, in which new mothers receive infant clothing, blankets, and a box that doubles as a crib. [NPR / Maureen Pao]
  • On the radical communist, free love–promoting Oneida sect, cults, and the threat they pose to the underpinnings of liberal society. [Catapult / Ellen Wayland-Smith]
  • How Escape From New York explains the way Donald Trump thinks about cities. [MTV / Ezekiel Kweku]
  • How Person of Interest anticipated the Snowden scandal more than a year ahead of time, and became the most essential cultural depiction of debates over surveillance and artificial intelligence. [New Yorker / Joshua Rothman]

Verbatim

  • “Last summer, after some intense lobbying of my wife, I did something radical: I installed several cameras in my living room and dining room to record everything we did at home for posterity. In other words, I created a reality show in my house.” [NYT / Farhad Manjoo]
  • “Not only associations with a militaristic outlook (such as veteran clubs) positively predict Nazi Party entry, but also those with a clearly civic agenda (eg animal breeders, chess clubs, and choirs).” [Journal of Political Economy / Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer, Hans-Joachim Voth]
  • “In short, no one is ever going to get a tattoo of Tom Perriello’s hairline on her tuches.” [FiveThirtyEight / Clare Malone]
  • “Migration does more to reduce global poverty and inequality than any other factor.” [FT / Branko Milanovic]
  • “This is like a car salesman calling over the manager for a high-five because a customer said he’d talk to his wife and come back.” [Deadspin / Albert Burneko]

Watch this:

Look in the margins of medieval books and you'll find an unusual theme: knights versus snails. [Vox / Phil Edwards]


Read More

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I taught my 5th-graders how to spot fake news. Now they won’t stop fact-checking me.

Trump is launching a commission to deal with the deadliest drug crisis in US history
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is set to head the panel to study the opioid epidemic and recommend policy changes.

President Donald Trump wants to do something about the opioid epidemic. It’s just not clear what, exactly, he’ll do.

Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order to deal with the opioid epidemic. It doesn’t take any specific actions against the epidemic. But it creates a commission, to be headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, that will decide what can be done.

The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis will focus on putting together a report, due in the fall, on the opioid crisis and potential solutions to it. The commission will identify existing federal funding for the epidemic, locate places that have limited drug treatment options, review opioid addiction prevention strategies, and make recommendations to the president to improve the federal response to addiction and the opioid crisis.

Christie will work with other people designated by the president to the commission, although the final draft of the order does not specify who those people will be. The commission, which will be administrated by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is expected to put out a preliminary report within three months and a final report by October.

Christie is a natural pick for the commission, due to his support for Trump since the 2016 campaign and strong advocacy in the opioid epidemic. Christie has long spoken about treating addiction as primarily a public health problem instead of a criminal justice issue. And he’s dedicated his past year as governor in large part to confronting the epidemic, recently signing a law that restricts opioid painkiller prescriptions. (One of Christie’s friends struggled with addiction, which seems to have pushed him to take on the epidemic in a compassionate, serious way.)

Whatever comes of the commission, it is long overdue. The opioid epidemic has led to the biggest drug overdose crisis in US history, with more than 560,000 people — more than the entire population of Atlanta — dying from drug overdoses between 1999 and 2015. The Obama administration and Congress previously took some steps to try to combat the crisis, but experts have long argued that there’s a desperate need for more.

Trump talked a lot about opioids on the campaign trail, but he’s yet to release a specific plan

Trump acknowledged the horrors of the opioid epidemic on the campaign trail, calling it a “tragedy” and laying out some policy ideas for stopping the drug crisis.

Most of Trump’s talk has focused on tougher border security measures, including his wall, to stop the flow of illegal narcotics into the US. But experts widely argue that such measures would fall far short of dealing with the epidemic, not least because most opioid overdose deaths are linked to painkillers that are legally prescribed and obtained — sometimes through a black market — within the US.

Trump has signaled other policies, including making drug treatment more accessible. But he’s offered few specifics on how he would accomplish that, typically promising to “spend the money” on drug treatment without many more details. (Although he did vow to raise the cap on how many patients doctors can prescribe to buprenorphine, an opioid used to let people with opioid use disorders manage their addiction more easily and in a much safer fashion.)

More spending on addiction treatment is desperately needed: According to 2014 federal data, at least 89 percent of people who met the definition for a drug abuse disorder didn’t get treatment. Patients with drug abuse disorders also often complain of weeks- or months-long waiting periods for care. (Even Prince, a wealthy superstar musician, couldn’t access care quickly enough — and died as a result.)

This is why the Obama administration took some steps to provide more treatment options, such as unlocking more than $100 million in funding for drug treatment in 2016. And it’s why Congress in late 2016 approved $1 billion over two years for drug treatment to combat the opioid epidemic.

President Donald Trump and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Trump’s policy proposals to this point, however, have not done anything to fill this gap. His recent budget plan wouldn’t increase funding for drug treatment above what Congress already approved. In fact, Trump has proposed $100 million in cuts to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s mental health block grants, which could ultimately impact some addiction services.

Trump also has not yet nominated a permanent director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, who is commonly referred to as the nation’s “drug czar.” This office is meant to coordinate all of the nation’s anti-drug spending, bringing together the many federal agencies that tackle drugs through a variety of criminal justice, national defense, and public health programs. But without a permanent head of the office, the nation’s future drug strategy remains unclear.

There are similar vacancies in other agencies that deal with drug addiction, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford, praised Christie’s appointment to the commission. But he argued that Trump should prioritize filling old positions over establishing a new commission. “We have multiple positions in government that can do all these things already,” he said. “Instead, a new layer of government is being created with no infrastructure or historical memory.”

To this end, Humphreys argued, much of what Trump is tasking the commission to do was already done by the surgeon general’s 2016 addiction report. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel with another planning and evaluation process,” Humphreys said, “just pick up [the surgeon general’s] report and act on it.”

There’s a reason for the sense of urgency: With tens of thousands of people dying from drug overdoses every year for the past few years, there’s a need to take action quickly. And it’s not really a mystery what needs to be done — with experts saying the problem comes down to lose access to opioid painkillers and too few drug treatment options. So to start yet another months-long investigative process seems like a slow reaction to an urgent crisis.

Still, the president’s commission presents an opportunity for Trump to reverse course on this issue and potentially direct policies and funds to dealing with the opioid epidemic in a more serious manner. Whether it will actually live up to that potential remains to be seen. But tens of thousands of lives may depend on it.

The opioid epidemic, explained

In 2015, more Americans died of drug overdoses than any other year on record — more than 52,000 deaths in just one year. That’s higher than the more than 38,000 who died in car crashes, the more than 36,000 who died from gun violence, and the more than 43,000 who died due to HIV/AIDS during that epidemic's peak in 1995.

This latest drug epidemic, however, is not solely about illegal drugs. It began, in fact, with a legal drug.

Back in the 1990s, doctors were persuaded to treat pain as a serious medical issue. There's a good reason for that: About one in three Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine.

Pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this concern. Through a big marketing campaign, they got doctors to prescribe products like OxyContin and Percocet in droves — even though the evidence for opioids treating long-term, chronic pain is very weak (despite their effectiveness for short-term, acute pain), while the evidence that opioids cause harm in the long term is very strong.

So painkillers proliferated, landing in the hands of not just patients but also teens rummaging through their parents’ medicine cabinets, other family members and friends of patients, and the black market.

As a result, opioid overdose deaths trended up — sometimes involving opioids alone, other times involving drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines (typically prescribed to relieve anxiety). By 2015, opioid overdose deaths totaled more than 33,000 — close to two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths.

Seeing the rise in opioid misuse and deaths, officials have cracked down on prescriptions painkillers. Law enforcement, for instance, threatened doctors with incarceration and the loss of their medical licenses if they prescribed the drugs unscrupulously.

Ideally, doctors should still be able to get painkillers to patients who truly need them — after, for example, evaluating whether the patient has a history of drug addiction. But doctors, who weren’t conducting even such basic checks, are now being told to give more thought to their prescriptions.

Yet many people who lost access to painkillers are still addicted. So some who could no longer obtain prescribed painkillers turned to cheaper, more potent opioids: heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that's often manufactured illegally for nonmedical uses.

Not all painkiller users went this way, and not all opioid users started with painkillers. But statistics suggest many did: A 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry found many painkiller users were moving on to heroin, and a 2015 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who are addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.

So other types of opioid overdoses, excluding painkillers, also rose.

That doesn't mean cracking down on painkillers was a mistake. It appeared to slow the rise in painkiller deaths, and it may have prevented doctors from prescribing the drugs to new generations of people with drug use disorders.

But the likely solution is to get opioid users into treatment. So federal and state officials have pushed for more treatment funding, including medication-assisted treatment like methadone and Suboxone.

Some states, like Louisiana and Indiana, have taken a “tough on crime” approach that focuses on incarcerating drug traffickers. But the incarceration approach has been around for decades — and it hasn’t stopped massive drug epidemics like the current opioid crisis.

Trump’s new commission offers a chance to establish more funding, coordination, and guidance behind these mixed federal and state efforts. Now the country will have to wait over the next few months to see what, exactly, the commission produces.

For more on the opioid epidemic, read Vox’s in-depth explainer and visual explainer.

The federal coal leasing program is ripping off taxpayers. Zinke just canceled plans to reform it.
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

The new interior secretary gets started on Trump’s dirty work.

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about Donald Trump’s decision, as part of his executive order on energy and climate change, to lift the moratorium on the leasing of coal on federal land. I made a simple point: The moratorium itself is not that big a deal, since coal companies haven’t exactly been clamoring for new leases lately. The big deal is the broad, comprehensive review of the coal leasing program launched in 2015 by Sally Jewell, who was at the time interior secretary under President Obama.

The review, not the moratorium, will shape the future of federal coal policy, I said, so keep your eye on the review.

Well, as of this afternoon, we have an update: The review has been scrapped. So much for that!

Zinke’s justifications for canceling the review are ... dubious

In a press briefing Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke clarified that he would abandon the review process — the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS — deeming it “expensive and unnecessary.”

It is difficult to exaggerate how demonstrably incorrect that judgment is, based on the Department of Interior’s own past statements and reports. (If you want the full background on the program and its flaws, read Brad Plumer’s explainer.)

How is Zinke justifying it? I asked DOI for some clarity on the review, and this is what press secretary Heather Swift told me:

The PEIS is over. In 2013, both the [Office of Inspector General] and the [Government Accountability Office] audited BLM's coal leasing program. Between The OIG and GAO there were 21 recommendations made to improve transparency in the leasing program to ensure that the American taxpayer was receiving a fair return from the coal program. BLM has addressed all 21 recommendations and works closely with the Office of Valuation Services to ensure that bonus bids are calculated appropriately. In addition, the Federal Royalty Policy Committee has been reestablished.

This is worth briefly unpacking.

In 2013, both OIG and GAO did separate audits of the coal leasing program. Their focus was narrow, solely on BLM valuation and auctioning procedures. BLM says, though it has offered no proof, that it addressed all those recommendations. (Note that “addressed” is different from “implemented.”)

But both OIG and GAO, along with numerous critics inside and outside government, made clear that those procedural tweaks were the tip of the iceberg — that the program suffered from far deeper flaws, including a near-total absence of competitive bidding, transparency, or clear procedures for balancing the demands of various environmental laws.

Last year, concluding the first phase of the PEIS, DOI came out with a massive scoping report that detailed the history of the leasing program and its many problems. It noted the OIG/GAO recommendations and BLM’s procedural tweaks in response, and then said this:

Many stakeholders expressed concerns that BLM’s corrective actions, while helpful, were insufficient to rectify fundamental weaknesses in the program. To further explore these concerns, Secretary Jewell and the BLM hosted a series of listening sessions in March 2015 across the country to hear from the public their views on what, if any, reforms were seen as needed to the Federal coal program.

It was those listening sessions and the hundreds of thousands of comments received there — the overwhelming majority of which were critical of the program — that led Jewell to establish the PEIS (and the moratorium) in the first place.

“The OIG and GAO were valuable reports on how to make the leasing system do a better job within the existing leasing structure,” says Dan Bucks, a former Montana director of revenue who has testified to Congress on the flaws in the leasing program, “whereas the coal PEIS was aimed at remodeling and rebuilding the structure itself.”

The idea that the former is a substitute for the latter, which DOI seems to be claiming, is not credible.

The PEIS was a transparent process. The committee that’s replacing it will be a black box.

Similarly, the idea that a reestablished Federal Royalty Policy Committee is an adequate substitute for the PEIS does not hold up to even cursory scrutiny.

The committee will have a much narrower charter, focusing on royalty payments alone, not reform of the overall program. It will have 28 members, appointed by Zinke, which leaves open the possibility (or, given the administration’s record, near certainty) that it will be packed with representatives from fossil fuel industries who see their mission as reducing costs to private companies, not increasing revenue for taxpayers.

Most of all, the committee will be a black box, its deliberations hidden from the public, so there will be no way to know why it reaches the decisions it reaches. This is in contrast to the lengthy, open, and transparent PEIS process.

This is the worst-case scenario for the federal coal leasing program

In short, this looks like the worst-case scenario for the federal coal leasing program. It will go forward using procedures and pricing that have been clearly identified as inadequate, ripping off taxpayers, subsidizing the profits of coal executives, and working against national climate policy. Comprehensive reform is out the window, replaced by a politically appointed board that will set prices behind closed doors.

The hope that any corner of sane climate policy will escape Trump’s wrecking ball is looking rather forlorn.


Addendum: The lawsuits have already begun

A coalition of environmental groups, along with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, announced on Wednesday they were suing DOI over the lifting of the moratorium.

“The Tribe is likely to bear the brunt of the decision to resume coal leasing,” the press release says. “Approximately 426 million tons of coal encompassed by the program are located near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation at the Decker and Spring Creek mines in Montana.”

The lawsuit has a simple premise: a) the law says that major decisions by federal agencies have to undergo National Environmental Policy Act review; b) the decision to lift the moratorium is major, it did not undergo a NEPA review, and therefore it is unlawful. (You can read the complaint here.)

There’s no telling how this suit will turn out. But one thing’s for sure: There are going to be dozens and dozens of such lawsuits filed in coming years. Trump’s executive order — vague, over-broad, and legally dubious — guarantees it.

The real reason there won’t be questions about LGBTQ people in the 2020 census
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Simply put: It’s not mandated by law.

The US Census Bureau probably isn’t the first federal agency you’d pin for a scandal.

Yet that’s exactly what appeared to happen on Tuesday, when the Census Bureau sent a report to Congress suggesting that the 2020 census will include sexual orientation and gender identity, only to later put out a correction noting that sexual orientation and gender identity will not be included in the decennial census or the supplemental American Community Surveys.

LGBTQ groups were furious, saying that the Trump administration had “erased” LGBTQ people from the biggest national survey.

On Wednesday, the Census Bureau tried to clarify what happened. As it noted, the Census Bureau has never included sexual orientation or gender identity in these surveys — not even under President Barack Obama, who was a close ally to LGBTQ people.

According to the bureau, the problem is that under the law, there’s just no mandate to collect census data on LGBTQ people. “In order for a subject to be included, there must be a clear statutory or regulatory need for data collection,” US Census Bureau Director John Thompson, who was appointed by Obama, wrote in a blog post.

So the census collects data on race, gender, age, relationship, and homeowner status because it’s mandated by laws or regulations — which is why we do know from the census, at least, how many households are headed by same-sex couples. And many of those categories are required by laws and regulations because they’re part of certain social or political programs, “from providing apportionment and redistricting data as part of our representative democracy, to helping distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds annually,” Thompson wrote.

But sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t required under these rules. So after reviewing requests to include sexual orientation and gender identity “to determine if there was a legislative mandate to collect this data,” Thompson wrote, the bureau “concluded there was no federal data need to change the planned census and ACS subjects.”

Meghan Maury, criminal and economic justice director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, took issue with Thompson’s claims. She emailed a statement, citing a previous federal report:

[H]is blog is misleading when it states the standard for inclusion of subjects in the American Community Survey (ACS). The blog states that there must be a “statutory or regulatory mandate” in order for questions to be included. Although many of the included questions are mandatory or required under federal law, a number of questions are included based on programmatic need — “the data are needed for program planning, implementation, or evaluation and there is no explicit mandate or requirements.” …

At the very least, we call on the Census Bureau to apply the same standard to inclusion of questions on sexual orientation and gender identity as it does to other questions on the ACS. There is a clear programmatic need for these questions, as laid out by federal agencies in the process mentioned by the Bureau.

The bureau’s decision is surely a disappointment for LGBTQ advocates, who have been arguing for years that the census should include sexual orientation or gender identity. This data could no doubt be very useful for researchers: Not only could it be used to gauge just how many LGBTQ people live in the US, but it could be matched with other survey data to get a better idea of LGBTQ people’s outcomes, from health to criminal justice. After all, it’s going to be hard to solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem exactly is.

Yet the Trump administration has taken steps to exclude LGBTQ people from federal surveys. Recently, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services moved to exclude sexual orientation from a national health survey of older Americans.

But according to the Census Bureau, the issue with the census and the American Community Surveys ultimately comes down to Congress — particularly the fact that Congress has never asked the bureau to collect this data as part of its federal surveys. If that’s the case (and some LGBTQ advocates dispute this), the fundamental problem is the law.


Update: Added comments from the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Washington won’t decide Obamacare’s future this year. Topeka will.
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Obamacare isn’t shrinking. It’s actually expanding.

If you want to keep up with the future of Obamacare, you'd be better served following the news from Topeka, Kansas, than the news out of Washington.

This is not a joke! My favorite news publications right now are the Kansas City Star and the Lawrence Journal-World. Both are covering the twists and turns of the state's Medicaid expansion battle. That, and not the Washington debate over Obamacare repeal, is the key health policy fight to watch right now.

Republican efforts on Obamacare repeal are stalled. There is no plan that can get enough support to move through Congress. Chris Jacobs, writing at the Federalist, has an especially good synopsis of why this problem seems intractable. He writes that there are "fundamental disagreements within the Republican party and the conservative movement about Obamacare." Namely:

On the one hand, the conservative wing of the party has focused on repealing Obamacare and lowering health costs — namely, the premiums that have risen substantially under the law. By contrast, moderates and centrists remain focused on its replacement and ensuring that those who benefited from the law continue to have coverage under the new regime.

In the AHCA, Republicans tried to split the difference — and pleased no one. There is a lot of talk about "wanting" to move forward on repeal and replace. There is not a path to get there.

Meanwhile, the Medicaid efforts are more active than ever before. Nineteen states still aren't participating in Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. Now that Obamacare appears to be here to stay, efforts are underway in several states — either in the legislature, among governors, or spearheaded by community groups — to join in and bring coverage to their low-income residents.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe explained the thinking behind efforts like this: "Year after year, they [Virginia Republicans] have put out false excuses for not expanding. The latest one that I always heard was that the law would be repealed. Now we have heard from the president of the United States himself that it’s not going to be repealed."

Medicaid is a hugely important way Obamacare expands insurance. The expansion of that public program is responsible for most of the coverage gains under the Affordable Care Act.

In 2015, CBO estimated that an average of 14 million people annually would gain coverage through that provision over the next decade. But in early 2016, the agency revised its numbers significantly upward, estimating that 18 million would enroll in coverage each year.

There is actual, real policymaking happening in the states! Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback now has a Medicaid expansion bill, approved Tuesday by the state legislature, sitting on his desk. He has 10 days to decide whether to veto or sign it — and the expectation is he will veto. The big question is whether a few more Kansas legislators will sign onto the expansion bill, giving it a veto-proof majority.

The Kansas City Star published an editorial this morning titled, "Please, Governor Brownback — sign the Medicaid expansion bill."

Meanwhile, Maine is preparing for a ballot initiative in November on Medicaid expansion. It looks like Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, is signaling an openness to expansion, although his statements admittedly aren't very clear. A spokesperson told Vox, "the governor is exploring a variety of solutions that bring Georgians greater flexibility and access to care. No specific proposals have been decided upon, but he will continue working with members of the General Assembly to evaluate all options.”

Vox's Dylan Matthews and Jacob Gardenswartz, doing hero's work, reached out to elected officials in 18 states that have not expanded Medicaid to get a sense of where the debate currently stands. I strongly suggest reading it! Despite all the fuss over Congress, I'm pretty convinced the most important health policy stories will happen in the states in 2018 — both in the Obamacare marketplaces the states run and how they manage this very big Medicaid decision.

Chart of the Day

 Commonwealth Fund

Obamacare's cost-sharing subsidies significantly reduce how much poor Americans pay for coverage. They're also at risk. Low-income Obamacare enrollees get subsidies to reduce their deductibles and co-payments, as you can see in the chart above from the Commonwealth Fund. Someone who earns $17,000 gets financial help from the government to bring her deductible down from $3,500 to $125.

But that might all be about to change. As Nick Bagley writes, there is an important lawsuit pending over these subsidies. And it's up to the Trump administration whether or not to defend them. Read Nick's in-depth explainer on this lawsuit, which he argues could "blow up" the Obamacare marketplaces.

Kliff's Notes

With research help from Caitlin Davis.

  • "Price defends NIH cuts, leaves door open to Obamacare changes": "Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price told a House subcommittee this morning that he's OK with President Trump's proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health, because they might help the federal government get 'a bigger bang for our buck.' And he promised to 'uphold the law' on Obamacare, but insisted that 'the current law has harmed many individuals' and said he'll look for ways to let insurers provide cheaper coverage." — David Nather, Axios
  • "LePage considers starting Maine health insurance plan to replace Affordable Care Act": "'We are just going to withdraw the state and just go do our own thing,' LePage said. 'The federal government obviously is broken so they are not going to stand in the way. They can’t get anything done.' The governor did not provide details on how he would create a state health insurance system, but suggested it could be modeled on the state’s workers’ compensation insurance system or a law he and the Republican-controlled Legislature had enacted before the ACA launched in 2013." — Scott Thistle, the Portland Press-Herald
  • "How Republicans’ obsession with tax cuts for the rich drove their health care plan over a cliff": "The AHCA suggests that Republican elites remain unified (if not completely) around one goal: tax cuts for the rich. The problem for them is that this goal is shared by few outside their donor class. It is also at odds with another of their core priorities: cutting back the American welfare state. Republicans hoped to replay the productive initial pushes of the past two presidents to preside over unified government: President George W. Bush oversaw significant tax cuts, and President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act." — Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Vox
The convenient scapegoat of gerrymandering
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Gerrymandering frequently, and wrongly, gets the blame for government dysfunction.

Gerrymandering is back in the news and being blamed for all sorts of ills, from distorting representation to creating government dysfunction. Barack Obama is even considering devoting his political talents to addressing the evils of redistricting. But in fact, much of this concern is overstated and misguided.

In a recent PostEverything post, David Daley argued that gerrymandering is responsible for Congress’s intransigent Freedom Caucus, which instigated a government shutdown a few years ago and helped scuttle the American Health Care Act last week:

The 40 members of the Freedom Caucus represent such safe Republican districts that the only threat they fear is a primary challenge from a conservative further to their right. Republican redistricting guaranteed the GOP a near-lock on the House after the 2010 Census — but it also created a nearly ungovernable caucus. They gerrymandered themselves into this predicament.

[...]

In 2016, fewer than three dozen of the 435 House seats were considered competitive. Trump’s tweets might move the stock price of Fortune 500 corporations, but they can’t influence politicians that secure. Nothing can. This is how gerrymandering distorts democracy. When district lines are drawn to elect only members of one party, a different kind of politician gets sent to Washington.

Daley is correct that the Freedom Caucus members emanate from highly Republican districts that are unlikely to elect a Democrat, or even a moderate Republican, for the foreseeable future. Members representing such districts know that compromising with Democrats, even if good for the country, is anathema to their voters and toxic to their careers. This undoubtedly makes governing the country harder.

But to ascribe this situation to gerrymandering is to miss much larger issues about polarization. As several political science studies have shown, polarization is occurring regardless of redistricting. What’s more, even competitive districts are producing pretty polarized legislators.

To take just one example, look at the presidential voting patterns by congressional district between 2012 and 2016. No redistricting occurred between those two elections. Yet the districts polarized. Districts that voted for Obama in 2012 voted about 0.5 percent more for Clinton in 2016, while those that voted for Romney voted about 1.5 percent more for Trump.

The table below divides up congressional districts by their votes for president across the two elections. The number of competitive districts (as determined by those in which the presidential candidates’ two-party votes were within 10 points of each other) dropped from 86 to 74. Meanwhile, the number of severely uncompetitive districts (those in which one party’s presidential candidate won by more than 40 points) grew from 85 to 118.

Redistricting had nothing to do with this. This is more a function of districts polarizing by other means, including voters sorting themselves ideologically. In particular, as David Wasserman noted a few years ago, the urban/rural divide is becoming more partisan and more prominent in American politics.

This tends to have a deleterious effect on Democratic representation. The most ideologically lopsided districts are more likely to be Democratic than Republican today. This means that Democratic districts are more likely to have “wasted” votes, defined as votes above a simple majority of the district. Maxine Waters got 76 percent of the vote in her district in 2016, but she really only needed the votes that got her to 50 percent. The rest might have been useful to other Democrats in close House races, but that didn’t happen due to the compression of Democratic voters in urban districts.

To think of another example, here’s Colorado’s first congressional district, represented for the past two decades by Democrat Diana DeGette. That district contains the entirety of Denver plus a few neighboring suburbs. Given its urban character, the district is unsurprisingly heavily Democratic — DeGette won with 68 percent of the vote last year. That’s simply who lives in Denver.

Is this gerrymandering? That depends on your point of view. If gerrymandering means the creation of any noncompetitive district, then sure, that describes Colorado’s First District. (It also describes Wyoming.) But that district also constitutes an identifiable community. You could make it more competitive by excluding some urban voters from it and including some from more distant rural communities, but then you’d be breaking apart the community. Denver would not be picking its own representative in Congress. Is that better? Arguably, that would be the gerrymander — stitching together unrelated communities and breaking apart urban representation for the sake of some other political goal.

As Jonathan Ladd has written, gerrymandering is not a very useful concept in itself. Redistricting is just a process that weighs competing values, including but not limited to compactness, competitiveness, preserving communities of interest, and racial representation. If representing particular communities and geographical areas is important, then the resulting districts will likely include many that aren’t competitive. There’s nothing villainous about this; people are just more likely than they used to be to live near people who vote like they do.

One final point: As suggested above, polarization is occurring more between redistrictings than during them. But beyond that, not every redistricting is designed to increase polarization. When a state draws new plans that make every district safer for its incumbent, that can marginally increase polarization. A state legislature may choose such a plan when it has divided partisan control or when it is controlled by a different party than the governor. It’s easy to pass such a plan because it makes all the politicians happy.

But states under one-party control don’t necessarily choose such a plan. Their approach is often to increase the number of seats held by the majority party. To do that, they’ll often spread out majority party voters among several districts to make those districts more competitive. This undermines polarization. It often makes districts more competitive.

The bottom line is that efforts to substantially change redistricting aren’t likely to do much to either mitigate polarization or improve Democrats’ electoral fortunes. There may be other ways to do both, but focusing on redistricting reform is likely to be a large waste of time and effort.

(Thanks to Christina Wolbrecht and William Adler for some links and ideas.)

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.

Buffy might be leaving Netflix in April, but you can still nostalgia-binge it. Here’s how.
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Friday, March 10, is the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And exactly three weeks later — Friday, March 31 — is reportedly the last day Buffy and its spinoff Angel will be available to stream on Netflix.

I know: You just got hit with all of the nostalgic binge-watch-inducing content the internet could throw at you, and now this? How dare they?

To be clear, it’s not entirely certain that Buffy will leave Netflix at the end of March. What we know for sure is that Netflix’s current license to stream Buffy in the US is about to expire, and the company hasn’t yet announced any plans to renew it. That doesn’t mean it won’t renew their license before the month is out — but Netflix has dropped Buffy from its streaming platforms in other countries, so it’s not out of the question, either.

Fortunately, there are other ways for you to relive all of the quips, heartbreak, and unfortunate ’90s fashion. Here’s how you can keep watching Buffy if it leaves Netflix:

  • Every episode of both Buffy and Angel is available to stream on Hulu, if you have a subscription.
  • Digital downloads are available for purchase on both Amazon and iTunes.
  • And if you’re a fan of having hard copy, the complete DVD boxset is well worth buying: there are multiple — and excellent — episode commentaries from showrunner Joss Whedon and other writers, and in-depth interviews galore.

Go forth and binge.

Every episode of Buffy, ranked, in honor of its 20th anniversary
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Exactly 20 years ago today, a little-watched network called the WB premiered a midseason replacement show based on a 1992 movie that flopped at the box office. That show would go on to become one of the most beloved and revolutionary TV shows of all time, one that would shape the way we talked and thought about the medium for years to come, and help establish the golden age of television.

But back on March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just that scrappy little show about a cheerleader in SoCal who was destined to hunt and slay vampires, demons, and other assorted creatures of darkness. It was a weirdly high-concept premise designed first and foremost to restore agency to the archetypal blond girl who dies in horror movies. But over the next seven seasons, it became clear that Buffy, as helmed by showrunner Joss Whedon, also lent itself to uniquely emotional explorations of the demons of adolescence.

Other teen soaps of the era could talk about being so ignored you feel invisible, or being worried that after you sleep with your boyfriend he won’t respect you anymore. Only Buffy could give those anxieties the apocalyptic stakes every teenager knows they deserve.

So in honor of Buffy’s 20th anniversary, we’ve ranked its 144 episodes from worst to best. We looked at what made the show great and at what it never exactly figured out how to handle, at the themes it elevated to art and the ones it poked at a couple of times and then abandoned.

Of course there were disputes. How do you choose between a brilliant formal experiment like “Hush,” with its 20 minutes of dialogue-free action, and an episode like “The Gift,” which does nothing formally unusual but advances the themes and characters Buffy is built on really, really well? Is season six brilliantly dark or willfully bleak? And which of Buffy’s boyfriends is best?

We argued, kvetched, and agonized through several rounds of voting to bring you a complete and definitive ranking. Let’s get to it.

We all know a bad episode of Buffy is better than a lot of other TV. These are still some pretty bad episodes!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Down goes Parker.

144. “Beer Bad” (season 4, episode 5)

It speaks volumes about the quality of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that the episode almost universally agreed to be the worst of the series still manages to boast some sharp dialogue, physical and verbal humor, and even a dang Emmy nomination (for Makeup and Hairstyling). Still, let us not gloss over the bad, which, as this show goes, is very bad: We get yet another episode of Buffy moping over terrible Parker, the introduction of the odious she-werewolf Veruca, and a very silly, very preachy story about the awfulness of college students drinking beer (oh, the horror). — Tanya Pai

143. “Where the Wild Things Are” (season 4, episode 18)

Also known as the episode where Buffy and Riley have sex for 45 minutes. There’s also a fun Xander/Anya subplot that deals with them struggling to define their relationship outside of sex (they realize they really like each other, aw!), and you get to hear Giles sing, all of which is just barely enough to keep this episode from the bottom slot. That’s how bad the rest of it is. — Constance Grady

142. “I, Robot … You, Jane” (season 1, episode 8)

The internet is possessed by a demon robot, and wow are we in 1997. “I, Robot” is the first episode to really spotlight Willow, and she’s such a lovely and complex character that saddling her with this piece of ’90s low kitsch is a bit of a letdown. On the plus side, it also introduces us to Jenny Calendar. — CG

141. “Doublemeat Palace” (season 6, episode 12)

In which Buffy takes a job at a fast-food restaurant where something nefarious may or may not be going on. Buffy’s frustration at her inability to hold down a real career has shades of season two’s “What’s My Line,” and there’s an appealingly bleak idea here about true evil being the unceasing grind of day-to-day existence. But as this is Buffy, there are… also demons. Some funny and even poignant moments don’t keep “Doublemeat Palace” from being one of the show’s sillier installments. — TP

We’ve got a lot of overly literal and unhelpful metaphors here, folks

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Bye, Riley!

140. “Inca Mummy Girl” (season 2, episode 4)

Buffy’s intense, operatic season two has arguably the best season-long arc of the entire series, and is leaps and bounds ahead of the charming but limited season one. But it did take a while for season two to outgrow season one’s reliance on fun-but-dumb monsters of the week, and “Inca Mummy Girl’s” Inca … mummy … girl (look, there just aren’t a lot of ways to describe her) is one of the dumbest and the least fun. The episode still has a few redeeming moments, though: There’s the introduction of Oz, and Jonathan’s first appearance on the series proper after he showed up in the unaired pilot. — CG

139. “Go Fish” (season 2, episode 20)

To be honest, some of that dumb-but-fun stuff stuck around into very late season two. “Go Fish” is oddly placed: It’s a silly little piece of nothing about how steroids are bad that seems designed mostly to get Xander into a Speedo, but it shows up right between the heartbreaking ghost story of “I Only Have Eyes for You” and the two-part season finale’s box set of clinical depression. On the one hand, it gives viewers a bit of breathing room and a chance to emotionally heal as they prepare themselves for the rigors that lie ahead in “Becoming, Parts 1 and 2.” On the other hand, it sure does kill the momentum. — CG

138. “Empty Places” (season 7, episode 19)

Say this for season seven: It has a message, and it sticks to it. But that’s also one of the season’s biggest weaknesses. It picks a theme (Buffy’s giving too many inspirational speeches! She’s acting like a general instead of a friend! She needs to be less isolated!) and pounds away at it unvaryingly, which gives most of the episodes a disconcerting sameness. “Empty Places” in theory takes that theme to its climax, but the execution is off. The only thing that distinguishes this iteration of the theme from its earlier counterparts is that here, Buffy’s friends all gang up on her and throw her out of her own house. Which is thematically consistent, sure, but … c’mon, dude, it’s her house. — CG

137. “Gone” (season 6, episode 11)

One of the biggest problems of season six is its attempt to be simultaneously slapstick and silly (the Trio) and unremittingly dark and grim (everything else). Rarely are those two themes so poorly integrated as they are in “Gone,” in which Buffy, recovering from the apparent rock bottom of “Smashed”/“Wrecked,” goes on a series of wacky invisible adventures and also deals with her suicidal impulses. But this episode also gives us Warren grandly proclaiming, “We are your archnemesises … ises!” and that’s worth the price of admission. — CG

136. “Bad Eggs” (season 2, episode 12)

Most of “Bad Eggs” is straightforward and serviceable-enough horror. As a health class project, the kids have to carry around eggs to practice being parents; the eggs turn out to contain baby monsters that hatch and possess them, and it’s all goofy and forgettable in the way early Buffy tends toward. But it’s also an interesting prelude to what’s to come in “Surprise”/“Innocence,” one of TV’s most thoughtful and heartbreaking explorations of teen sex. Here, as Buffy and Angel make out in graveyards and Xander and Cordelia snark between kisses in utility closets, sex is silly and campy, but very much on the horizon. — CG

135. “Reptile Boy” (season 2, episode 5)

“Reptile Boy” is a bit of a learning episode for Buffy. The monster of the week is a silly, slightly overliteral phallic symbol, with the whole storyline functioning as a glib, slightly overliteral metaphor for fraternity date rape. But in the fledgling Buffy/Angel storyline, you can see the show working out exactly how it’s going to integrate its episodic stories with its serial plots and reach the balance it would perfect in seasons three and five. It hasn’t quite nailed it yet here, but it’s getting there. — CG

134. “Killed by Death” (season 2, episode 18)

There are a lot of season two episodes that feel like leftovers from season one, but “Killed by Death” actually is a season one leftover. It was written for a goofy, campy point in the series’ run, and then lightly revised for the darker second half of season two through the addition (most likely by Whedon) of a few scenes of Xander and Angel facing off at the hospital where a feverish Buffy is recovering. That’s probably why those scenes feel exponentially stronger than the rest of the episode — but the rest of the episode is still perfectly fun TV. Plus, Der Kindestod and his extendable eyeball stalks are genuinely creepy. — CG

133. “Into the Woods” (season 5, episode 10)

Riley is few people’s favorite Buffy love interest*, and this tonally odd episode is his swan song. Riley spent most of season five deconstructing toxic masculinity: His macho military identity meant he couldn’t deal with a girlfriend who was stronger than he was, and he could tell Buffy wasn’t madly in love with him, and all of the ensuing insecurities sent him spiraling into a vampire brothel/crack house metaphor. But “Into the Woods” discards that darkness in its conclusion, which sees Buffy racing toward Riley’s departing helicopter as Xander monologues about how Riley is the pure, innocent, and selfless love of Buffy’s life. It’s a weird bit of framing that doesn’t quite fit the rest of the story season five was telling about Riley. — CG

*Possible exceptions include Todd VanDerWerff and Julie Bogen of this very article, but they didn’t volunteer to write about this episode, so they can’t like him that much.

132. “Teacher’s Pet” (season 1, episode 4)

By 1997, the student/teacher love affair was already a well-worn teen soap trope, and “Teacher’s Pet’s” twist of having the teacher be a literal predator is only mildly clever. But in the show’s fourth episode, the core Scooby dynamics have really started to gel: The scene where Giles corrals the kids into researching the two monsters decapitating and shredding their way through Sunnydale (“Fork Guy doesn’t do heads,” Buffy notes) hits all the classic beats the researching scenes will hit throughout the rest of the show’s run. This is also the first episode to really show off the Buffy/Angel chemistry that will drive much of the next season, with the two flirting between foreboding warnings over Angel’s leather jacket. — CG

131. “All the Way” (season 6, episode 6)

“All the Way” is easily the weakest of Buffy’s semiannual Halloween episodes (there’s one in every even-numbered season). It spends a lot of time on Dawn and her teen angst — which is certainly understandable under the circumstances but also one of the least-developed arcs of season six — and it wastes a pre–Joan of Arcadia Amber Tamblyn. But the scenes of the Magic Box celebrating Halloween are fun, and Xander’s spontaneous declaration that “I’m gonna marry that girl” while he watches Anya do her dance of capitalist superiority is one of that relationship’s most sweetly romantic moments. — CG

And here we have some episodes that advance boring plot lines

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Dark magic Willow is kind of a bummer.

130. “Bring on the Night” (season 7, episode 10)

You know how when you think of any given episode of season seven, you can be pretty sure Buffy made an inspiring speech and Spike sat sadly in the basement and the Potentials were irritating, but you’re not really sure if anything else happened from week to week? Here’s where that starts. (The first third of season seven is actually pretty solid, which is easy to forget given what a slog the middle section is.) Not coincidentally, the interminable sameness begins with the introduction of the Potentials, who are an interesting thematic addition to the show in theory, but in practice take up a whole lot of dramatic space without adding much. — CG

129. “The I in Team” (season 4, episode 13)

Season four contains some of the best standalone episodes of Buffy’s run, but it has easily the weakest overall arc. And “The I in Team” is an arc-heavy episode: It’s the one where Buffy joins the Initiative but then Professor Walsh decides to kill her for vague, Oedipal complex–related reasons. As Whedon admits in his season four DVD interviews, the issue with the Initiative and Adam as Big Bads is that no one in the main cast has an emotional connection to them except for Riley. And as Whedon has not directly said, but most fans can agree, Riley is not a compelling enough character to drive a whole season’s worth of plot on his own. — CG

128. “Goodbye, Iowa” (season 4, episode 14)

And here’s where Adam kills Professor Walsh and takes over as the season’s Big Bad, while Riley grieves for his mentor and goes into withdrawal from his Initiative-supplied “vitamins.” Riley is mostly inoffensive, but as a character, he serves the show better as a supporting player than as a central figure who is integral to the story. It’s not a coincidence that season four’s best episodes mostly keep Riley to the side and let Buffy and her concerns drive the story instead. — CG

127. “Wrecked” (season 6, episode 10)

The sixth season is one of Buffy’s most polarizing, in large part because of the events of “Wrecked” and its partner episode, “Smashed,” where Buffy and Spike finally have house-destroying sex and the “Willow is a magic junkie” storyline really kicks off. Of the two, “Wrecked” is noticeably weaker, mostly because it spends so much time on scenes of a spaced-out Willow in a magic crack house. Willow’s growing infatuation with the power that magic brings her is compelling on its own, but the drug metaphor is clumsy. It lacks the elegance and nuance of this show’s metaphorical storytelling at its best, and it flattens Willow’s characterization instead of enriching it. — CG

126. “Get It Done” (season 7, episode 15)

“Get It Done” gives us the origin story for the First Slayer: She was created by the first Watchers Council, who endued her with a demonic essence so that she could fight vampires for them. It’s an interesting wrinkle to the Slayer mythology that will pay off beautifully in “Chosen,” but a) this episode suffers from the dread season seven sameness, and b) it’s kind of weird that the origin story for the Slayer power that the show treats as empowering and beautiful comes with so much rape imagery, no? — CG

125. “Sleeper” (season 7, episode 8)

“Sleeper” does a lot of heavy lifting on Spike’s season seven redemption arc, and it’s, you know, fine. Spike has been programmed by the as-yet-unnamed First Evil to kill people without realizing it, and this is where he figures it out, as Aimee Mann plays the Bronze. (Shoutout to Aimee Mann, who is the lone Buffy musical guest to get her own spoken dialogue: “Man, I hate playing vampire towns.”) The First is most compelling as a villain when it gets a chance to prey on our heroes’ psychological weaknesses, which is why it’s so effective in “Conversations With Dead People.” But at this point in the series, we don’t yet know why it’s able to affect Spike the way it does; that won’t be clear until “Lies My Parents Told Me.” And without that extra layer, “Sleeper” never rises above the level of “functional and mostly inoffensive.” — CG

124. “Smashed” (season 6, episode 14)

In contrast to “Sleeper,” “Smashed” does its thing in the most polarizing manner possible. There’s Buffy and Spike’s violent smackdown/foreplay, which depending on your point of view is either sexy or horrifically violent and disturbing (or both). There’s Willow and Amy going on their magic spree at the Bronze, in a move that is either intriguingly morally ambiguous or kind of silly and unpleasant to watch. Buffy embraces the grimdark a lot in its sixth season, but “Smashed” and “Wrecked” walk right up to the line of too much — and for some fans, they mark the point where the show tipped over. — CG

123. “First Date” (season 7, episode 14)

Traditionally on Buffy, there’s a major twist right around this point in the season: Angel loses his soul, or Faith kills a guy, or Buffy and Spike have sex. Season seven eschews that structure, which is partly why it feels so monotonous, but this quiet episode has its charms. It brings back a little of the Scooby camaraderie that made the early seasons so fun: There’s Willow and Xander sweetly teasing Buffy about how Principal Wood is way too young to be her type, and Anya struggling fruitlessly for someone to talk to about how jealous she is of Xander’s date with Special Guest Star Ashanti — who, as stunt-casted celebrities goes, does not embarrass herself. — CG

122. “Living Conditions” (season 4, episode 2)

“Living Conditions” is a mostly uninspired episode, which is unfortunate, because it comes at a vulnerable point in season four, when the show is still hashing out what its tone will be in the post–high school era. The jokes about Buffy’s demon roommate are serviceable but a little on the lazy side (She’s into Cher — she must be evil!), and there’s no compelling subplot to compensate. — CG

121. “Never Leave Me” (season 7, episode 9)

Andrew doesn’t always work as a character — he can be one-note — but he injects some much-needed levity into season seven here. It’s less what he does himself than what he brings out in the main cast: First, there’s his confrontation with Willow (“I am a very powerful she-witch! Or ‘witch,’ as is more accurate.”), and then there’s Xander and Anya’s good cop/bad cop routine, which is a sheer joy to watch. — CG

These episodes aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty charming

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Presenting Xander and Harmony’s battle to the death.

120. “Older and Far Away” (season 6, episode 14)

The intense misery and pain of season six can get a little claustrophobic, and boy does “Older and Far Away” lean into that, with all of the main cast trapped in Buffy’s house at her birthday party. There are fun moments — Tara gently teasing Spike over his affair with Buffy is lovely — but the main feeling this episode leaves you with is exhaustion. — CG

119. “Beauty and the Beasts” (season 3, episode 4)

The fact that this is season three’s first appearance on this list says a lot about how consistently good season three is. Sure, the monster of the week here is a little bit ham-fisted: it’s a Jekyll and Hyde metaphor about how abusive relationships are bad — not the best thing episode writer Marti Noxon ever did. But the rest of the episode does a fantastic job of balancing the episodic stuff with the Willow/Oz and Buffy/Angel stuff, and continuing to explore Buffy’s grief and guilt over having killed Angel last season. It’s just a shame it takes until season seven for Buffy to try talking to a therapist again after Mr. Platt dies, because lord knows that poor girl needed one. — CG

118. “Some Assembly Required” (season 2, episode 2)

“Some Assembly Required” is a solid entry into the goofy/campy/silly stretch of early Buffy, in this case with a dead football player turned Frankenstein’s monster who wants to make Cordelia his bride. It’s nothing earth-shaking, but it does see Giles and Jenny on their first date, and it lays some groundwork for Xander and Cordelia’s relationship later in the season. — CG

117. “As You Were” (season 6, episode 15)

Now this is a good use of Riley: less focus on his pain and internal psychological struggles, more focus on the healthy normalcy that he represents for Buffy and her own ambivalence thereto. Season six has been wallowing in its own misery for a while when Riley returns, but his sunny all-American presence reminds Buffy of who she used to be and who she thinks she would like to be again. Like much of season six, the execution is not exactly subtle or nuanced, but the idea is solid, and it’s a relief to have a little light in the show after episode on episode of bleakness and pain. — CG

116. “The Initiative” (season 4, episode 7)

As plot-heavy season four episodes go, “The Initiative” isn’t too shabby. It has a kind of slapstick charm to it: There’s the newly escaped and bechipped Spike trying to bite Willow, only to suffer from some performance issues; there’s Xander and Harmony’s slow-motion slap fight. And then there’s the stuff with the Initiative itself, which is pretty much par for the boring military course. — CG

115. “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” (season 1, episode 5)

Season one spent a lot of time talking about how Buffy’s slaying adversely affected her desire for a normal life, but episode five is one of the first times it really shows us what that looks like. Buffy desperately wants to go on a date with an unmemorable boy (he reads poetry, so he’s deep), but first she has to cancel to handle a prophecy, and then she has to take him to the morgue for a little unscheduled slayage. And even though the boy is into her whole scene — he’s an adrenaline junkie — she has to dump him to protect him. It’s the kind of sweet, wistful little story that Buffy first cut its teeth on while it was still figuring out how to go mythic and grand. — CG

114. “Wild at Heart” (season 4, episode 6)

Oh, this one hurts. This is the episode where Oz cheats on Willow, then kills a girl, and then finally decides to leave town, all of which means that we spend a lot of time watching Willow cry. Reader: There is nothing more painful than watching Willow cry. Oz’s character motivations are a little fuzzy — the writers threw together his arc on the fly after Seth Green asked to be released from his contract, and it shows — but the emotional core is solid. — CG

113. “The Puppet Show” (season 1, episode 9)

“The Puppet Show” is a weird, weird episode. It’s mostly built around Sid the talking dummy, who’s possessed by a demon hunter. He spends the first half of the episode skittering around creepily, and then in the second half he turns out to be secretly heroic and gets a poignant death scene. It’s goofy and fun and not quite coherent, and always leaves me feeling a little like the newly introduced Principal Snyder: “I don’t get it. Is it avant-garde?”

Also of note: Buffy’s first and only tag scene, which sees the Scoobies doing the world’s worst staged reading of Oedipus and makes me howl with laughter every time. — CG

112. “Nightmares” (season 1, episode 10)

“Nightmares” takes a classic nightmares-come-true premise and lurches around wildly in its execution. Some of it is fine but uninspired — Willow has stage fright, Xander’s afraid of clowns, Buffy misses a test — but at its best, “Nightmares” locks in on the specific yet universal adolescent fears that makes Buffy such a classic. In particular, there’s Buffy’s nightmare vision of her rarely seen father, who kindly and reasonably tells her she’s the reason for her parents’ divorce — because “You’re sullen and rude, and you’re not nearly as bright as I thought you were going to be.” Buffy’s quiet devastation in response is a stunner. — CG

111. “Welcome to the Hellmouth” (season 1, episode 1)

Here’s where it all begins. “Welcome to the Hellmouth” has to lay the groundwork for Buffy’s winding, convoluted mythology and introduce its main cast, and it more or less manages: It’s a little awkward here and there but mostly just fun. And the opening scene, with Darla playing a meek little schoolgirl before she turns on her prey, shows you exactly how funny and scary and subversive Buffy will turn out to be. — CG

The show is trying some things here. Maybe not entirely succeeding, but trying!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Buffy and Spike do battle in the background, while Principal Wood does boring paperwork.

110. “The Killer in Me” (season 7, episode 13)

Many of season seven’s most significant missteps involve one of two things: trying to find atonement for Willow in the wake of her dark choices at the end of season six, and her new girlfriend, Kennedy, who’s not a terribly interesting character. Here’s an episode where those two things collide, when Kennedy and Willow kiss — and Willow transforms into Warren, the man who killed her last girlfriend. There’s something interesting here about living with guilt from past relationships, but it could have used another draft. — Todd VanDerWerff

109. “Listening to Fear” (season 5, episode 9)

Buffy visits X-Files territory in an uneasy mashup of metaphorical fantasy horror and genuine extraterrestrials. This is the weakest point of the generally impeccable “Buffy’s mom gets cancer” story arc. (Hey, X-Files had a generally impeccable cancer arc, too!) But it gets points for the creepy design of the alien, and the way it seems to feed off the horror and pain of Joyce’s condition. — TV

108. “Out of My Mind” (season 5, episode 4)

Buffy sure tried a lot of things to get fans to warm to Riley Finn, the man who deserved better (from fans, not from Buffy; he was a jerk to her). One of those things was pairing him with Spike for an unlikely team-up episode in which Spike hijacks Riley’s visit to the doctor to have his chip removed. (Surprise! It doesn’t work.) Buffy struggled to know what to do with both Riley and the Initiative once it course-corrected midway through season four. This episode feels like an offshoot of that problem. But at this point in the series’ run, James Marsters could do no wrong as Spike. This episode gets points for that. — TV

107. “Him” (season 7, episode 6)

“Him” isn’t all that great on character exploration, since half the main cast spends the episode under a mind-altering love spell, but it is enormously fun. Every so often, out of nowhere, I’ll think of that shot of Spike silently tackling a bazooka-wielding Buffy in the background, as an oblivious Principal Wood does paperwork in the foreground, and it never fails to make me laugh. — CG

106. “Hell’s Bells” (season 6, episode 16)

In which Xander and Anya break up, because no one can ever be happy in the Buffyverse. (Except Willow and Kennedy, of all people. Kennedy.) The episode handles the breakup well enough — that final shot of Anya sitting heartbroken in her wedding gown and saying, “I’m just so tired of crying,” is killer — but after a season filled pain and grief, in which Xander and Anya’s engagement was a frequent bright spot, adding another breakup to the pile feels almost willfully mean-spirited. — CG

105. “Flooded” (season 6, episode 5)

“Flooded” introduces us to the Trio, allegedly created by the writers in order to make season six sprightlier and less depressing than season five. That move didn’t quite work out as planned, and “Flooded” is a perfect example of why: The Trio and their to-do list (“miniature Fort Knox, conjure fake IDs”) are fun, but Buffy is still caught in her near-catatonic depression, and Willow’s so high on her own power that she casually threatens Giles. Season six will spend the rest of its run struggling to integrate those two tones, and it will only fitfully succeed. — CG

104. “Entropy” (season 6, episode 18)

“Entropy” is a rare season six respite, a calm between the bleakness of the “Smashed”/“Wrecked” era and the horror of “Seeing Red” and all that follows. Sure, it’s sorrowful — the A-plot is Anya trying desperately to wreak vengeance on Xander after being jilted in “Hell’s Bells” — but it doesn’t indulge in that “the world is a miserable place filled with nothing but despair” vibe that much of the rest of the season succumbs to. There’s humor and solace in Anya’s thirst for revenge (“I really don’t think he could feel any worse than he already does.” “Let’s test that theory!”), and there’s tenderness in Willow and Tara’s reunion. Of course, we all know where that’s about to lead … — CG

103. “Two to Go” (season 6, episode 21)

The first half of season six’s two-part finale is perhaps placed a little low here — because Vox’s panel was too harsh on season six in general, if you ask this humble writer. But “Two to Go” genuinely suffers from being placed next to the even better second hour, “Grave,” and it really is hard to watch the Buffy gang chase after longtime compatriot Willow, who’s taken a turn toward the murderous in the midst of grief. The ending shot of this episode — Giles in the door of the magic shop, looking the most badass he would ever look — is a keeper. — TV

102. “Doomed” (season 4, episode 11)

There’s nothing outwardly wrong with this episode — all of the pieces are in the right place, and the central idea of going back to your old high school after you’ve gone off to college and realizing things have changed, man, is a good one for the show to take on. (Buffy’s high school, of course, is in ruins.) But “Doomed” never does much with that idea, and it’s clear the writers are struggling to pull together one of the show’s more difficult seasons. Going back to high school only underlines what a struggle sending Buffy to college was. — TV

101. “Real Me” (season 5, episode 2)

In which we get to know Dawn Summers, the Scrappy Doo of Buffy. As a little sister, I am a Dawn apologist, but her first few episodes are a hard learning curve: Most of her material was originally developed with the understanding that the character would be around 11 years old, before the casting of 14-year-old Michelle Trachtenberg. As a result, Dawn comes off as a little more bratty and hard to deal with than she might have been otherwise. But her presence will anchor season five’s major arcs. And season five — which unites season two’s operatic story arcs with season three’s consistency — is one of Buffy’s three unimpeachable seasons. — CG

Honestly, these are all pretty solid, and we’re not even halfway through the list

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Buffy and Angel enjoy the unusual California snow.

100. “Amends” (season 3, episode 10)

Angel-centric episodes tend toward melodrama — something it took Angel the series a little while to figure out how to deal with — and “Amends,” with its tearful clifftop climax, definitely leans toward the overwrought end of the spectrum. But as a way of dealing with the trauma of season two, it’s cathartic, and it remains one of the most effective uses of the First Evil, way before it became a major Big Bad. — CG

99. “The Harvest” (season 1, episode 2)

It’s hard to remember now, 20 years later, exactly how shocking it was when Xander and Willow’s pal Jesse died just two episodes into the show. He looked like a main character, or at least like he could become a major villain; it seemed as though he would be a huge part of the show. And then he died, and not because Xander screwed up his courage and found his inner hero, but because someone accidentally pushed him while they ran by. That moment, plus the shot of vamped-out Darla swinging her arms as she skips toward the Bronze, goes a long way toward defining Buffy’s tone from very early on. — CG

98. “Choices” (season 3, episode 19)

As this hour comes in the middle of what might be the most consistent stretch of Buffy episodes ever, it’s perhaps a bit underrated. But still: Putting a lot of emphasis on the characters’ college choices is a bit of false drama, simply because we know that if the show is to continue, they’ll all end up at the same school. And yet “Choices” neatly underlines one of season three’s biggest themes: Because she must be the Slayer, Buffy doesn’t have the options many of her friends do. — TV

97. “Lessons” (season 7, episode 1)

In its final season, Buffy tries to go full circle and head back to high school. The execution of that story arc will be lumpy, to say the least, but in the season seven premiere, it feels fresh and exciting: The gang is going to go back and slay the demons of adolescence as adults. And the coda scene of the First flashing through all the show’s Big Bads in reverse order is a wonderfully foreboding moment. — CG

96. “The Yoko Factor” (season 4, episode 20)

Every so often, Buffy would be like, “Hey, audience, do you remember that Spike is a villainous, treacherous killer?” and the audience would be like, “LOL, no!” Then the show would try to remind viewers that Spike was not to be trusted. That’s the conceit of this episode, in which season four’s Big Bad, Adam, tries to get Spike to turn the Scooby Gang against each other. It doesn’t really work, and the episode flails trying to make it work. At this point, though, Buffy could do these “time to fight the main villain” episodes in its sleep, and “Yoko” uses that momentum to its advantage. — TV

95. “The Freshman” (season 4, episode 1)

In general, Buffy was better at finales than premieres, and this introduction to college life for the series now mostly plays out as the show introducing a bunch of plot lines it would abandon roughly half a season later. (Buffy continued going to college until midway through season five, but viewers saw less and less of it.) Still, it’s fun to watch this as a sort of alternate-history version of the show that actually aired — one where the series had just as much fun playing with metaphorical demon college as it did metaphorical demon high school. — TV

94. “Normal Again” (season 6, episode 17)

Somewhat appropriately, the most divisive Buffy episode — one that some love and some hate — winds up somewhere in the middle of our ranking. Buffy keeps waking up in a mental institution, where she comes to believe she’s hallucinated the rest of the show that we’ve seen and must kill her friends in order to escape the hallucination. One of the show’s darkest metaphors (for Buffy’s malaise and depression at this point in the run) and a gut-punch ending make this one brilliant, but tough, tough, tough to watch. — TV

93. “Shadow” (season 5, episode 8)

Could Buffy turn cancer — one of the most monstrous of diseases — into fodder for its storytelling? It could, and it would! In this episode, Buffy learns that her mother, Joyce, has cancer and worries about how to break the news to Dawn. (Dawn didn’t even exist a few months ago, Buffy. She can probably handle it.) This is not the height of one of the show’s best storylines, but it’s impressive for how it balances a bunch of complicated tones. — TV

92. “Triangle” (season 5, episode 11)

Jane Espenson, who wrote “Triangle,” is one of the most reliable comic voices in the Buffy writers’ room, and this episode is just about what you’d expect from her: quick-paced, quick-witted, and lots of fun. The tic of Buffy repeatedly weeping at the idea of Xander and Anya breaking up gets old quickly, but Anya and Willow teaming up against Olaf the troll is a terrific use of an underexplored dynamic, and Olaf’s caps-lock rants (“PUNY RECEPTACLE!” he yells at a dumpster) are a solid comedic gag. — CG

91. “Dirty Girls” (season 7, episode 18)

Reportedly, the Buffy writers struggled with how to give a human face to the First Evil — which is just what it sounds like — and send season seven off on an appropriately big climax. The face they settled on was Nathan Fillion’s, because Joss Whedon’s Firefly had just been canceled, and he really liked working with Fillion. Still, as creepy preacher Caleb, Fillion is appropriately terrifying. This is solid setup for what turned out to be a fitful final stretch of episodes. — TV

Here’s where things get a little polarizing

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Oz is a werewolf? Oz is a werewolf!

90. “Help” (season 7, episode 4)

“Help” is one of the most solid of season seven’s high school–themed episodes. Buffy struggles to save a girl from the kind of demon-worshiping cult she defeated about a thousand times in high school, and succeeds — but the girl dies anyway, because now that Buffy’s an adult, high school isn’t quite the most dangerous thing in the world anymore. It’s a nice, moody revisiting of the themes that early Buffy explored so well. — CG

89. “When She Was Bad” (season 2, episode 1)

Is there a metaphor in the season two opener about how teen girls sometimes act like total nightmares because of the pervasive, unarticulated trauma of, well, being a teen girl? Maybe. Is the main thing you remember from this episode that it’s the one where Buffy does the cruel and rather nonsensical dance of seduction with Xander that shows up in the opening credits? Almost certainly. — TP

88. “Villains” (season 6, episode 20)

Though Willow’s relationship with magic is clearly a metaphor for addiction, “Villains” serves as morbid wish-fulfillment of the character reaching her true potential as a witch. Willow is blinded by grief after losing Tara to Warren’s stray bullet, and no longer morally tethered by her late lover’s voice of reason. The result: a true force of nature hell-bent on destruction. While it’s satisfying in a “damn, she’s amazing” kind of way, it’s also familiar to anyone who’s experienced unexpected loss. Willow’s sorrow is palpable, powerful, and, most importantly, believable. By episode’s end, it looks as if two more characters are dead (and at least once actually is) purely as a byproduct of Willow’s unbridled rage, and leaves the audience wrestling with a confusing combination of awe, anguish, and anticipation. Sure, it’s scary, but it’s also impressive. — Julie Bogen

87. “Phases” (season 2, episode 15)

After the horror and pain of “Surprise”/“Innocence,” “Phases” is a lighter, sweeter variation on the “my boyfriend’s a hellbeast, what do I do” story. It helps that it’s a showcase for Oz, the chillest werewolf ever to were: His nonchalant, “Is Jordy a werewolf? Uh-huh. And how long has that been going on? Uh-huh,” encapsulates his character perfectly. — CG

86. “Gingerbread” (season 3, episode 11)

“Gingerbread” is another Jane Espenson episode, one that shows off both her strengths and her weaknesses. Espenson episodes are disproportionately likely to introduce a new character detail with little grace, and “Gingerbread” is especially weak on that front. This episode posits the idea that Willow isn’t close with her mom, and while you could infer as much from the fact that Mrs. Rosenberg has never come up before in three seasons, Willow’s out-of-the-blue, “God, your mom would actually take the time to do that with you?” to Buffy makes no sense in a universe where Willow is Buffy’s best friend and knows what her relationship with her mom looks like. But no other writer can make comedic dialogue sparkle quite like Espenson can. “We need to save Buffy from Hansel and Gretel” could only come from her. — CG

85. “Tough Love” (season 5, episode 19)

“Tough Love” features the first time we see Willow’s magic turn her eyes black, when she turns on Glory in a fury after Glory melts Tara’s brain. It’s an early prelude to the Dark Willow arc of season six; a less amoral, more cathartic version, but one that lays the groundwork for the flayings to come. When Alyson Hannigan screams, “I owe you pain,” you get an inkling that Willow is capable of more than we used to give her credit for. — CG

84. “Life Serial” (season 6, episode 5)

Season six is the Buffy season most rich with metaphor. However, those metaphors are all about trying to figure out how to transition from being a child to being an adult, which is nobody’s idea of a good time. Hence this episode, which is maybe more clever than genuinely good, but boy, is it clever! Buffy has her abilities tested both by a drooping bank account and three feisty nerds who want to see just what she’s capable of, mostly because they can. A rare funny episode in a dour season. — TV

83. “No Place Like Home” (season 5, episode 5)

Season five is Buffy’s best (obviously, that’s just my opinion, but you know it’s right), and that’s because it keeps layering stuff on top of its story, but all of that stuff neatly services the season’s central theme of families both blood and chosen. A great case in point is this episode, in which Buffy learns the strange, angry woman who keeps causing problems around Sunnydale is a god intent on finding a magical Key — who just happens to be Buffy’s sister, Dawn. — TV

82. “Seeing Red” (season 6, episode 19)

Few Buffy episodes are as hotly debated as this one, which contains some of the show’s most powerful discussions of power and who has it, right alongside the biggest death of season six, one that proved the breaking point for many fans. Tara, Willow’s sweetly lovable girlfriend, is killed when shot by a stray bullet. The series wasn’t entirely prepared to deal with the implications of telling this particular story, but it’s also hard to deny the raw power of this episode. — TV

81. “The Dark Age” (season 2, episode 8)

Wouldn’t you like to know more about Giles’s past as “the Ripper”? Buffy teased out his darker, younger self plenty of times but never delved into that past entirely. (A long-teased BBC spinoff about the character never materialized.) This is one of the episodes that most toys with the idea of Giles having a super-cool, super-dark hidden backstory, and its conclusion neatly foreshadows the rest of Angel’s arc in season two. — TV

Middle-of-the-road Buffy is pretty good TV

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
A Very Buffy Intervention.

80. “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” (season 1, episode 11)

One of the earliest examples of Buffy making someone’s figurative demons literal, this episode makes a neglected girl disappear, leaving her to wreak havoc on the school at will. It’s on the nose but, thanks to some canny voiceover work from Clea Duvall as the invisible girl, surprisingly affecting in the end. — Caroline Framke

79. “Family” (season 5, episode six)

This Tara-centric standalone is maybe the weakest episode of Buffy that was both written and directed by Joss Whedon, but that doesn’t keep it from being incredibly sweet and warm-hearted. (It’s a high standard, after all.) It nicely cements Tara’s place in the Scooby Gang while acknowledging that the character remains underdeveloped — and it features a blonde, pre-fame Amy Adams. — CG

78. “Lies My Parents Told Me” (season 7, episode 17)

As season seven lurches fitfully toward some kind of momentum in its final third, we at last get a little bit of payoff on Spike’s raging Oedipal complex and on how the First is manipulating him. It’s long-overdue character work, and it fits nicely into Wood’s expanding backstory and the legend of his mother, Nikki Wood (my personal favorite of the past Slayers). The fact that Giles and Buffy’s parent-child relationship is also fraught by now isn’t exactly fun to watch, but it’s compelling, and it keeps the shock of “Empty Places” from coming entirely out of nowhere. — CG

77. “Witch” (season 1, episode 3)

“Witch” is the first genuine monster-of-the-week episode, and a bit of a proof of concept. It’s the episode that demonstrates Buffy’s high school–era mission: to take the demons of adolescence — in this case, an abusive mother trying to live vicariously through her daughter — and literalize them into demons that can be killed. And while this episode doesn’t accomplish that mission with the nuance the show will later develop, it’s at least doing so with heart and charm. — CG

76. “Showtime” (season 7, episode 11)

“Showtime” features one of Buffy’s strongest inspirational speeches, delivered mid-Thunderdome-style beatdown on a Turok-Han. It’s a solid action set piece that goes a long way toward relieving the monotony of mid-season seven, and Buffy’s telepathic conversation with Willow and Xander helps recenter the show’s focus on their friendship in the middle of a season of growing distance. — CG

75. “Revelations” (season 3, episode 7)

There’s a scene in “Revelations” that’s just the Scoobies arguing (they just found out that Angel is back and Buffy didn’t tell them), and it’s one of my favorite scenes in the show’s run: Everyone cares about each other, everyone’s extremely upset, and everyone’s a little bit right. It’s a lovely, graceful exploration of character dynamics in a way only Buffy can quite pull off. Plus, this episode features the first Faith/Buffy fight, and that’s always a great well to draw from. — CG

74. “Buffy vs. Dracula” (season 5, episode 1)

This episode has a bit of a bad reputation for wasting Buffy’s one encounter with the most famous vampire of all time. But it’s a crackerjack, very funny hour about Buffy meeting the most famous vampire of all time and finding herself and her friends drawn into his web, even as she rolls her eyes at the whole thing. The episode is now perhaps better remembered for its final reveal — Buffy’s brand new sister — but it’s an enjoyably lighthearted kickoff to an ambitious season of TV. — TV

73. “The Pack” (season 1, episode 6)

This episode is so stupid, but in that early Buffy way where it all kinda works regardless. Xander and his pals are infected by a demon while, uh, visiting a hyena exhibit at the zoo, and they start to act more and more like awful teenage bros. It’s all dumb, metaphorical fun, and the last sentence of Wikipedia’s capsule summary of the episode perfectly sums up its “Whatever! It’s fun!” attitude: “Xander and his pack grow more and more feral until Buffy, Giles, and Willow reverse the spell.” — TV

72. “Ted” (season 2, episode 11)

Remember Alan from Friends, that boyfriend of Monica’s whom the gang was crazy about but Monica herself didn’t really like? Ted is like that, but much more sinister, and Buffy is the only one who realizes it. It’s creepy and frustrating and unacceptable (especially once the slapping starts), and for most people whose parents have divorced, it’s basically validation that all new potential partners are evil intruders who will hurt your loved ones. Maybe don’t go through life believing that, but you can indulge it for approximately 40 minutes. — JB

71. “Helpless” (season 3, episode 12)

The hard-liners of the Watchers Council were always a little much, but their interference in “Helpless” — in which they get Giles to dull Buffy’s strength so she can undergo a fun new Slayer test — is no exception. Add in a whole mess of subplots involving Buffy pining after her dad and Angel doing some of his most self-indulgent moping, and “Helpless” loses some of the spark it could’ve had by making Buffy fend for herself without her powers for the first time since before the show began. But the episode ends on a touching note when Giles gets fired from the Council for being too much like a father to Buffy, a charge he can’t — and doesn’t want to — deny. — CF

We’re getting into a solid groove now

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Monster Giles gives chase.

70. “The Harsh Light of Day” (season 4, episode 3)

“The Harsh Light of Day” is the first season four episode to capture the easy chemistry Buffy’s core cast perfected over its previous three seasons. Where “Freshman” and “Living Conditions” felt jittery and out of place, “The Harsh Light of Day” has settled into a groove. It’s helped enormously by the addition of Spike, who brings in a jolt of energy and helps fill the hole Cordelia’s departure to Angel left in the cast. Hey, someone has to tell the Scoobies how dumb their plans are. — CG

69. “Beneath You” (season 7, episode 2)

Speaking of Spike! “Beneath You” is the newly ensouled Spike’s big showcase, and while it’s a mixed bag overall — the show has absolutely no idea how to handle the fact that soulless Spike tried to rape Buffy — James Marsters is always a compelling screen presence, and the final tableau of Spike draping himself over the cross is deeply evocative. — CG

68. “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” (season 2, episode 16)

Love spells seem a lot creepier in 2017 than they did in 1998, don’t they? Ethical questions aside, “Bewitched” is a marvel of tonal balancing: The Xander A-plot is slapstick and funny with a core of heartbreak, and the subplot of Angel musing on the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for Buffy keeps the menace and subtle horror of the season’s central plot running through the background. — CG

67. “Pangs” (season 4, episode 8)

Buffy takes the “main character suddenly possessed by manic need for perfect holiday” trope and raises it a rather uncomfortable story about a Native American vengeance demon, which dances around discussing America’s ugly legacy of genocide but never actually comes to any conclusions. Still, there are some funny moments (“You made it a bear!”) and the enjoyable runner of Angel being back in town and revealing himself to all the Scoobies but Buffy is capped off by the tiny, perfect clink of Buffy’s fork falling on her plate that plays over the final credits, as the ex-boyfriend-shaped cat finally comes out of the bag. — TP

66. “A New Man” (season 4, episode 12)

Giles-centric episodes are generally some of my favorites, and “A New Man,” which sees our favorite tweedy former librarian being turned into a Fyarl demon courtesy of mischievous evildoer Ethan Rayne, may be the most laugh-out-loud funny. The episode is rather light on stakes (we know Buffy isn’t actually going to kill Demon Giles) but heavy on hilarity — Giles chasing Professor Walsh down the street only gets better with every repeat viewing, and everything about his scenes with Spike is gold. Plus, it’s a nice reminder — to the viewers as well as the show — of Giles’s steel bond with Buffy, and just how important to the team Giles continues to be, gainfully employed or not. — TP

65. “Potential” (season 7, episode 12)

Dawn was always a tough character for Buffy to deal with. Yes, season five was built entirely around her, but the show’s final two seasons could never figure out how to balance her teenage self against the increasingly adult stories swirling around the other characters. This is perhaps the finest post–season five Dawn hour, as she hopes, deeply, that she might be a Slayer, only to slowly realize that’s not the case. There were some stories — like living up to an impressive older sibling — Buffy could only tell via Dawn, and it’s a pity it didn’t get to more of them. — TV

64. “Same Time, Same Place” (season 7, episode 3)

Buffy was always good at consequences, and this episode — in which Willow returns to Sunnydale after turning evil and nearly destroying the world at the end of season six — neatly layers in just how terrified Willow’s friends are, both of her and of the idea that she might turn toward evil again. Season seven’s first third is a little underrated, and the delicate character work in this episode is a good indication of just how well the Buffy writers understood the show by this point. — TV

63. “Spiral” (season 5, episode 20)

On top of everything else season five tosses at her, Buffy has to deal with medieval knights. In and of itself, this episode could have felt too over-the-top or silly. But c’mon! It’s Buffy against knights! — TV

62. “End of Days” (season 7, episode 21)

Is that scythe Buffy finds, plus the bonus information from a mysterious, never-before-mentioned mystical lady in a mysterious, never-before-mentioned mausoleum, just a bit of a deus ex machina? Sure is! Is it really cool-looking regardless? Sure is! “End of Days” also features one of the show’s best Buffy/Faith scenes, as the foils and rivals finally reach a kind of peace with each other. “Thank god we’re hot chicks with superpowers,” says Faith. “Takes the edge off,” Buffy agrees. — CG

61. “Touched” (season 7, episode 20)

Buffy’s spent most of season seven isolated and cold, so it’s an enormous relief to see her let her guard down at last in “Touched.” Her long, intimate talk with Spike is a sweetly touching culmination of their troubled and tumultuous relationship, and it’s incredibly cathartic to see the girl finally take a nap for once. — CG

Wow, this is a dark cluster

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Kendra, we hardly knew ye.

60. “Dead Things” (season 6, episode 13)

“Dead Things” has the dubious honor of being the bleakest episode of Buffy ever made. It’s the episode where the nerd misogyny of the Trio crosses from pathetic and silly into threatening and appalling, with Warren mind-controlling his ex-girlfriend into becoming his sex slave. And it’s the episode where Buffy finds out that she didn’t come back wrong, that she’s having rough and violent sex with Spike because she wants to, not because she’s fundamentally changed as a person. It’s dark, is what I’m saying, so thank god for Tara, the one consistent source of warmth in season six. Until, well, you know. — CG

59. “Bargaining, Part 2” (season 6, episode 2)

“Bargaining, Part 2” is where Buffy’s writing staff really starts to take advantage of the laxer standards and practices department of its new network, UPN: The violence is more graphic and bloodier than it ever was on the WB, and the villains are tossing around rape threats. It takes a little while for the show to balance its new ability to go as dark and gritty as it would like to with the heightened, polished tone it established in its first five seasons, and it isn’t quite there yet. But all the same, the new darkness of the tone allows for killer moments like Buffy, having just clawed her way out of her own coffin, watching her robot double get dismembered right before her eyes. — CG

58. “The Weight of the World” (season 5, episode 21)

“The Weight of the World” is mostly just moving the pieces into place for “The Gift,” but it does so with a fair amount of artistry. Willow’s trip into Buffy’s subconscious leads to some haunting moments; in particular, Buffy’s nonchalant, “This is all I'm here for. It's what I am,” as she imagines smothering Dawn, which informs her character development well into the next season. Now, do we suspect there could be any kind of link between Ben and Glory? — CG

57. “Bargaining, Part 1” (season 6, episode 1)

The first half of “Bargaining” is designed to help bridge the gap between benevolent end-of-season-five Willow and the Dark Willow we’ll see at the end of season six: She still means well here, and all she wants to do is get her best friend back, but she’s also killing baby deer and vomiting up snakes which is, you know, ominous. It’s a solid setup for the moral ambiguity that season six wants to explore, even if the rest of the season isn’t able to manage that exploration with quite the nuance that “Bargaining” promises. — CG

56. “Anne” (season 3, episode 1)

“Anne” is mostly a functional season premiere that cleans up some of the horror of season two, but three things elevate it. First, it brings back Chanterelle of season two’s “Lie to Me,” establishing the continuation of one of the Buffyverse’s loveliest background character arcs. (Chanterelle/Lily/Anne will finish up her arc over on Angel in a sweet collection of episodes.) Second, it’s functional by the standards of the stunningly consistent season three, meaning that everything is a smooth, well-oiled machine: The story beats are well-balanced, the tone is assured, and the central cast knows exactly how to do what it’s doing. Third and finally, Buffy’s cheesy, “You want to see my impression of Gandhi? [Smash] You know, if he was really pissed off,” is my personal favorite of her dumb Slayer quips. — CG

55. “What’s My Line? Part 1” (season 2, episode 9)

In a different world, where Buffy never became a heartbreakingly dark exploration of adolescence and power and heroism and addiction, maybe instead it spent seven seasons making pleasantly goofy and charming action-filled mini movies like the “What’s My Line?” two-parter. And in that other world, Buffy might not be one of the best TV shows ever made, but it’s still solidly entertaining. The core ensemble is so well defined at this point that it’s just fun to watch them go: There’s Willow freaking out about her frog fear and meeting Oz at last; there’s Buffy and Angel having mild angst over their potential future together; there’s Xander worrying over his career possibilities (“When you look at me, do you think prison guard?”). It’s not transcendent, but it’s fun. — CG

54. “What’s My Line? Part 2” (season 2, episode 10)

“What’s My Line’s” second half brings us Kendra and her Jamaican-Irish accent. As played by the ageless Bianca Lawson, dutiful and studious Kendra is an illuminating foil for Buffy and her more anarchic slaying style. Season three will discard Kendra to make way for Faith as a more lasting foil for Buffy, but “What’s My Line” establishes the pattern that leads to Faith, which means it’s the source of one of Buffy’s richest recurring plot lines. — CG

53. “Grave” (season 6, episode 22)

“Grave” is the only Buffy season finale not written and directed by Joss Whedon, and it shows a little: Its pacing isn’t perfect, feeling overstuffed in some places and rushed in others, and there are occasional moments of sentimentality (Buffy telling Dawn she wants to show her the world) that don’t quite feel earned. But the episode’s climax, with Xander talking Willow down from her apocalyptic rage, works perfectly: The unquestioning friendship between those two is one of the most stable relationships in all of Buffy, and you feel every moment of that rich history when Xander starts in on his yellow crayon speech and Willow begins to cry. — CG

52. “Primeval” (season 4, episode 21)

“Primeval” has the thankless job of winding up the Initiative plot line, and it manages to do so in a satisfying way by not even pretending to care about the Initiative. The focus of this episode is all on our core four Scoobies and their relationship; the Initiative is just there to give them something to punch. And after seeing them slowly drift apart over the course of season four, it’s immensely fun to watch them merge together into a single unstoppable force. — CG

51. “Blood Ties” (season 5, episode 13)

Buffy fans like to give Dawn crap for her whining and her signature “Get out, get out, GET OUT!” which, yes, does premiere in this episode. But “Blood Ties” is an effective use of Dawn’s angst. It’s warranted, for one thing, with Dawn finally realizing that her past didn’t really exist and that she was created by monks. And for another thing, it helps deepen season five’s thematic focus on family, both born and created. Plus, it continues the proud tradition of giving Buffy a terrible birthday every single season. — CG

From this point on, every episode is pretty stellar

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Two Xanders for the price of one.

50. “Faith, Hope, and Trick” (season 3, episode 3)

The first two episodes of season three mostly served to clean up season two. Now Faith is here, and things can really get started. Faith is a vital character in the extended Buffyverse who functions in much the same way that Spike does: She’s Buffy’s foil in the same way that Spike is Angel’s foil, and as a consequence, she and Buffy alternately love and hate each other and are too close to each other to work it out — which also describes the Spike-Angel dynamic. So Spike gets most of his character development over on Buffy and only transfers to Angel after his character arc is mostly complete, and Faith will end up completing the bulk of her arc on Angel and only come back to Buffy for her redemption tour.

But all that lies ahead. In “Faith, Hope, and Trick,” all that’s clear is that Faith is a bolt of energy, and she’s prepared to get Buffy to do things she would never normally do. — CG

49. “New Moon Rising” (season 4, episode 19)

When “New Moon Rising” aired in the spring of 2000, there was an immediate uproar. Willow and Tara barely touched onscreen, but everyone knew what it meant when Tara blew out that candle and the screen went black: They were going to kiss. And maybe more! Outraged conservative viewers demanded an apology, and Whedon sarcastically obliged, assuring Buffy message board readers, “I'm going to take it back, and from now on, Willow will no longer be a Jew." (She stayed Jewish.) Willow and Tara’s love story wasn’t perfect — they were almost never allowed to kiss onscreen, and in its ending, their arc played dangerously into the dead lesbian/evil lesbian trope — but it deserves credit for coming so early, when there were vanishingly few examples of happy and healthy same-sex relationships on television. — CG

48. “Crush” (season 5, episode 14)

“Crush” is the payoff for the story established in “Fool for Love,” and if it isn’t quite so perfectly crafted as its forerunner, well, what is? It’s still smart and funny and spooky, with a gut punch of an ending. The moment when Spike realizes Buffy has disinvited him from her house is a perfect, melancholy echo of season two’s “Sorry, Angel. Changed the locks.” — CG

47. “Dead Man’s Party” (season 3, episode 2)

This is another one of those Buffy episodes with a fantastic argument, like “Revelations,” but this time the argument is the set piece of the episode. It always hurts when the Scoobies fight, but it’s also always fantastic television: The characters are so well-defined that you can see each point of view clearly, and you get why each character firmly believes themselves to be correct. Bonus points for Giles’s “‘Do you like my mask? Isn’t it pretty? It raises the dead.’ Americans!” — CG

46. “Halloween” (season 2, episode 6)

The first of Buffy’s semiannual Halloween episodes inaugurates the tradition in terrifically fun style. Giles’s old pal Ethan Rayne, in his first appearance of several, casts a spell that turns everyone into their Halloween costumes (well, except Cordelia) — giving us Ren Faire Buffy, commando Xander, and, most importantly, ghost Willow, who helpfully retains her memory but gains the ability to walk through walls. She’s instrumental in saving the day, and ends up taking huge strides toward shedding the shrinking violet persona she had during the show’s early going. — TP

45. “I Only Have Eyes for You” (season 2, episode 19)

Sunnydale High is being haunted by the ghost of teenage James and his former teacher/lover, and their spirits possess whoever happens to be at hand, forcing unwitting strangers to play out a doomed romance that ends in murder-suicide. The smart, moving twist, as penned by Marti Noxon, is that when Buffy and Angel (excuse me, Angelus) end up possessed, the gender roles are reversed, with Buffy consumed by the guilt and self-loathing James feels for killing the person he loved. It’s an unexpected, effective window into Buffy’s psyche in the aftermath of Angel’s transformation, and while James’s spirit eventually makes peace with his actions, the episode shows Buffy still has a long way to go toward forgiving herself for her part in Angel losing his soul. — TP

44. “Enemies” (season 3, episode 17)

Via an elaborate ruse orchestrated by Buffy and Angel (with an assist from a demon for whom Giles once played matchmaker), it finally comes out that Faith has been working for the Mayor. The eventual reveal of the Buffy/Angel play-acting is well done, and the fallout for their relationship is believable, but the scheme doesn’t really hold together upon contemplation — meaning “Enemies” relies a bit more on TV-writing trickery than the truly great Buffy episodes do. — TP

43. “Homecoming” (season 3, episode 5)

Buffy, in a late attempt to reclaim some of the high school experiences she’s lost due to slaying duties, wages an all-out war with Cordelia over the title of homecoming queen. Naturally, they end up as the prize kills in “Slayerfest ’98,” thanks to both Mr. Trick and their friends’ well-meaning meddling. Homecoming introduces Xander and Willow’s inevitable, ill-advised romantic dalliance, which reverberates throughout the season. It also, by dint of neither Buffy nor Cordelia winning the crown, underlines that Cordelia — a key player in Buffy as well as, eventually, Angel — is just as much a misfit as the rest of the Scooby gang, try as she might to deny it. — TP

42. “Checkpoint” (season 5, episode 12)

This is the episode that sees the now-irrelevant Watchers Council come to Sunnydale to try to bully Buffy into taking them back. She’s having none of it, of course, and there are few moments in television history quite as satisfying as the one in which Buffy flings her sword into the wall next to a posturing Watcher’s head, murmuring, “I’m fairly certain I said no interruptions.” — CG

41. “The Replacement” (season 5, episode 3)

Life immediately after high school was not kind to Xander: He spent most of season four camped out in his parents’ damp and grimy basement, drifting from dead-end job to dead-end job and getting increasingly bitter about the bright futures his friends seemed to have. In “The Replacement,” when he’s split into two — one Xander is competent, one is not — he at last gets to see that he can have his own bright future, try as he might to sabotage it (cough “Hell’s Bells” cough). It’s a fun episode that puts his character arc back on track and leads us to the solid, dependable Xander who will save the day at the end of season six. — CG

Honestly, these are all classics

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Buffy’s cross necklace leaves a mark on Angel’s vampire skin.

40. “School Hard” (season 2, episode 3)

Spike wasn’t supposed to be a permanent fixture in the Buffyverse, but watching his very first episode as Sunnydale’s swaggering new villain makes it easy to understand why the show wanted to keep him around. “School Hard” is incredibly fun, letting James Marsters luxuriate in every ounce of snark Spike has as he and Buffy play cat and mouse around Sunnydale High during a parent-teacher night gone bad. It also introduces more of his and Angel’s fraught backstory, setting up years of top-notch broody glaring. — CF

39. “Angel” (season 1, episode 7)

“Angel” is a bit of a season two practice run: Buffy is at first infatuated with Angel, but then she finds out about his dark past, and in a long, tense sequence, it looks as though she’ll have to kill him. And it all works so well here that you can see why season two would revisit and expand on the storyline. No one would ever accuse young David Boreanaz of being a great actor (good job on Bones, though, dude!), but he and Sarah Michelle Gellar have chemistry compelling enough to keep the audience feeling every bit of their pain. — CG

38. “This Year’s Girl” (season 4, episode 15)

“This Year’s Girl” and its sequel, “Who Are You,” arrive right after a string of dull Initiative-focused episodes like a breath of fresh air. Thank god for Faith, who livens up every story she enters. The first half of this two-parter isn’t quite the tour de force of “Who Are You,” but it still brings out all the confused, unhappy facets of Buffy’s psyche that only Faith can. It highlights again just why the Initiative, which means almost nothing to Buffy, makes for such a poor villain, while Faith is such a great one. — CG

37. “Prophecy Girl” (season 1, episode 12)

Season one’s finale is the first truly great episode of Buffy, mostly because of the scene where an anguished Buffy, having overheard that her death is prophesied for the next night, starts screaming at Giles. When Buffy’s voice cracks as she says, “Giles, I’m 16 years old. I don’t want to die,” the show moves out of its goofy camp mode and into tragic horror, in the kind of tonal transition it would perfect over the next season. — CG

36. “Earshot” (season 3, episode 18)

Buffy is infected with the blood of a demon, which makes her telepathic, leading to, among other revelations, the fact that her mom and Giles had sex on the hood of a police car (twice) and exactly what thoughts lurk behind Oz’s imperturbable exterior. (Spoiler: They’re way existential.) But mostly her newfound ability serves to set up a mystery of who plans to murder a bunch of her fellow students, which leads to a rather heartbreaking conversation between her and Jonathan about the fundamental loneliness and pain of human existence. This episode’s airing was famously delayed after the shooting at Columbine High School; but despite its heavy subject matter and rather clumsy misdirection around the true nature of the threat, for most of its runtime “Earshot” remains on the lighter side of things. — TP

35. “Storyteller” (season 7, episode 16)

Why did the Scooby Gang keep around the genuinely horrible Andrew, after he was part of the trio that killed Tara and made Buffy’s life hell in season six? Even Andrew doesn’t seem to know, which makes this bittersweet reflection on his life all the more powerful. Buffy, in its later seasons, was very interested in the way that stories shift based on who’s telling them, and this Andrew-narrated hour is perhaps the pinnacle of that approach. It also has one of the best endings of a show that’s great at ending episodes. — TV

34. “The Zeppo” (season 3, episode 13)

Though Xander’s been an integral part of Team Buffy from day one, he’s also the only one who’s just a regular guy: not blessed with supernatural abilities or extraordinary brain power, and often largely used to provide either comic relief or judginess. But this episode, which sees him sidelined by his friends as they try to stop yet another impending apocalypse, is truly Xander-centric: Isolated from the gang, he falls in with a bad (read: dead) crowd, has a, uh, romantic encounter with Faith, and eventually averts an apocalypse of his own. Subverting the typical Buffy structure, “The Zeppo” shows the others’ battle only in flashes, and in the end Xander chooses not to tell them about the disaster he stared down. But the episode reminds us that he charges into battle beside his friends time and again not because he’s gifted, or tasked by some higher power, but because he chooses to. Which is, in some ways, even more noble. — TP

33. “I Was Made to Love You” (season 5, episode 15)

“I Was Made to Love You” is almost always overshadowed by the circumstances around it. It introduces Warren, one of the show’s most loathsome villains; it was originally supposed to star Britney Spears as Warren’s robot girlfriend; and of course there’s that ending, which doubles as the opening scene of “The Body.” But taken on its own, “I Was Made to Love You” is a well-crafted comedic exploration of one of the themes season six will take a darker look at: insidious, nearly invisible nerd misogyny. — CG

32. “After Life” (season 6, episode 3)

This episode neatly, elegantly lays out the trauma that season six will spend the next 19 episodes trying to unpack. It will do so with mixed results, but here, when Buffy stands in the frigid-looking sunlight and flatly tells Spike that she was in heaven when she was dead, you feel every bit of her numb anguish. — CG

31. “Intervention” (season 5, episode 18)

“Intervention” is an hour of almost pure silliness between the grief of “The Body” and the escalation to war over the four episodes that follow it. It’s a welcome respite: Buffy’s vision quest keeps the larger plot moving, while back in Sunnydale, the Buffybot is a creepy, funny delight. Her files on Buffy’s friends are particularly fun: Anya’s notes that she loves money (“How is your money?” Buffybot duly asks a touched Anya), while Willow’s says, “Gay: 1999–present.” — CG

This is such a good show, you guys

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
He’s gonna play something off the new album!

30. “Superstar” (season 4, episode 17)

Until now, Jonathan has spent the show lurking quietly in the background: He’s the guy the Inca mummy girl almost kills, the guy who pees in the pool to get back at the swim team for bullying him, the guy Cordelia takes out on a date to get over her creepy demon-worshiping frat guy. That paid off beautifully in season three’s “Earshot,” but in “Superstar,” it all reverses so that the entire universe revolves around Jonathan — including, hilariously, the opening credits. It’s a fantastic payoff to a recurring gag, and, incidentally, it introduces another: This is the first episode to mention both the world without shrimp and the world with nothing but shrimp. — CG

29. “Forever” (season 5, episode 17)

“Forever” is a quieter, slightly less devastating and more cathartic exploration of the grief “The Body” delved into. Where “The Body” is painfully realistic and features almost no monsters at all, “Forever” returns to Buffy’s roots and uses a supernatural metaphor for Buffy and Dawn’s mourning: Dawn wants to resurrect Joyce, and while Buffy is working desperately to get Dawn to accept her grief, she can’t help but want her mother back, too. — CG

28. “Lie to Me” (season 2, episode 7)

In this episode, Buffy proves that it can be fantastic even when it’s not working to advance the major season-long plots. “Lie to Me” is the first of the great one-offs, beginning the tradition that would eventually lead to formal experiments like “Hush” and “Once More With Feeling.” Of course, this early on in the show, nothing quite so avant-garde is happening. Instead, “Lie to Me” is just a beautifully executed version of a standard episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Roswell’s Jason Behr offering a nuanced performance as Ford, Buffy’s morally ambiguous old friend. And the last scene, with Giles sweetly lying to Buffy about the simplicity of life, is a lovely, poignant moment that captures one of the themes of season two: Growing up is about realizing the bad guys are sometimes people you love. — CG

27. “Consequences” (season 3, episode 15)

And sometimes, the bad guys are people who remind you of yourself. “Consequences” is when Faith decides to go dark, and she does it with great style. But before she offers to work for the Mayor, she reminds Buffy of just how easily Buffy could do the same, of how much she enjoys killing, of how much fun she would find it to just slip gently over the edge. “It was good, wasn’t it, the sex and violence?” Faith says, and Buffy slaps her face. — CG

26. “Bad Girls” (season 3, episode 14)

For all she went through in her high school years, Buffy rarely rebelled like a high school girl who’d been through several literal apocalypses might — until “Bad Girls.” With Faith embracing the role of Buffy’s Evil Twin Slayer counterpart, this episode lets Buffy embrace the wild streak inherent in being a teen with superpowers, as she and Faith go slaying and dancing whenever the hell they feel like it. And for being an episode that both introduces Wesley at his stodgiest and ends with Faith accidentally stabbing a human man in the heart — an event that immediately sends shockwaves throughout the show — “Bad Girls” is a significant episode executed with serious balancing skills. — CF

25. “Selfless” (season 7, episode 5)

“Selfless” is the only episode of Buffy to focus on Anya, and it’s such a terrific episode that it suggests the show should have gone back to her more often. We get to see her origin story with the troll Olaf, shot in the style of a bad foreign film from the ’70s; her time gleefully wreaking vengeance and starting the Russian Revolution of 1905 (not the big one, the dress rehearsal); and her blissful happiness with Xander circa “Once More, With Feeling.” All the way through, “Selfless” maintains the humor that makes Anya such a reliably fun character (I always get a kick out of Olaf telling her that she has narrow hips, “like those of a Baltic woman from a slightly more arid region”), but it also develops a thesis about who Anya is and what she needs: She’s always based her identity on those around her, and she needs to figure out who she is on her own. It’s a smart new angle on a character we already know well, and it will pay off beautifully in “Chosen.” — CG

24. “Lovers Walk” (season 3, episode 8)

Some long-gestating romantic complications come to a head in devastating fashion here, courtesy of Spike, who’s back in town moping over Drusilla. Once he realizes Willow can cook up a love spell for him, he kidnaps her and Xander, leaving Oz and Cordelia to search for their respective partners and Buffy and Angel to fight off the vamps who come looking for Spike. By episode’s end, in true Whedonesque fashion, everyone is utterly miserable: Oz and Cordelia walk in on Willow and Xander kissing, Cordelia ends up badly injured, and Buffy realizes she and Angel truly can’t be friends. It dissolves all the core romantic relationships of the show — and sets up the eventual return of Spike, cured of his lovesickness through his yen for violence and back to his old, evil self. — TP

23. “Fear, Itself” (season 4, episode 4)

Where Buffy’s first Halloween episode turned all our characters into what they wanted to see themselves as, the second one puts them face to face with their deepest fears. There are some great visuals, both creepy (in the haunted frat house) and hilarious (the perfect duo of bunny-costumed Anya and chainsaw-wielding Giles), plus a glimpse at the still-mysterious commandos we later come to know as Initiative soldiers. But it’s the hilarious climax — the demon Gachnar coming into being, only to reveal himself as itty-bitty and easily stompable — that makes this my favorite Buffy Halloween episode of the whole bunch. — TP

22. “The Prom” (season 3, episode 20)

Before the big season-ending two-parter comes this lower-stakes episode, full of lovely moments between the core characters. Xander quietly buys Cordelia her dream gown, Oz and Willow continue to be diminutive and adorable, and despite breaking up with Buffy early in the episode, Angel shows up at the prom to give her a “fairy-tale moment.” But all that pales in comparison to the moment when all of Buffy’s classmates gather to watch Jonathan present her with the Class Protector award. It’s a beautiful scene that sees our heroine get some much-deserved recognition for the horrors she regularly endures to keep them alive — and smartly sets up the awareness and camaraderie among the student body that makes the season’s big finish possible. — TP

21. “Band Candy” (season 3, episode 6)

As much as we understand on an intellectual level that our parents and elders were once just as young as we are, it can be hard to truly internalize. “Band Candy” makes hay from this idea by having all of Sunnydale’s adults devolve into feckless, rather stoned-seeming teenagers thanks to some cursed chocolate — Joyce Summers and Giles included. In true Buffy form, the candy-induced chaos is a distraction to allow the Mayor’s cronies to steal babies to feed to a giant snake demon, but it’s also a fun showcase for some of the older actors and a wry commentary on just how much responsibility the teenage Buffy shoulders on a regular basis — even if her mom still doesn’t think she should be allowed to drive a car. — TP

These 10 episodes are all so good, and they’re not even the best ones

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Willow should hang out with herself more often.

20. “Fool for Love” (season 5, episode 7)

At their worst, Buffy’s flashback episodes are a minefield of shoddy wigs and terrible accents. At their best, they’re “Fool for Love.” As Buffy reels from a routine stakeout almost going fatally wrong, she finds an unlikely sympathizer in Spike, who lifts the veil on some of his most painful memories as he talks her through an existential crisis — or is he just deepening it? Marsters’s natural theatricality gets plenty of room to stretch between the meek man Spike was before becoming a vampire and the sneering cynic he became after. His final monologue, delivered directly to the camera in between the past and present, is one of the series’ best. And even though Buffy doesn’t want to hear it at the time, his insistence that “death is [her] art” is about to become one of the show’s most revealing themes. — CF

19. “Something Blue” (season 4, episode 9)

The hilarious “Something Blue” takes Willow’s misery over Oz leaving and turns it into some bonkers “what if?” wish fulfillment. Willow’s attempts to heal her broken heart with magic go horribly awry when her spell instead compels everyone to take her literally, making Xander an actual demon magnet and Buffy and Spike a happily engaged couple prone to sloppy public makeouts. But the sneak MVP of this episode (and most, if we’re being honest) is Giles, who spends the episode going slowly blind and reaching peak ornery Brit. But everyone in the cast is aces in “Something Blue,” one of the most purely fun episodes Buffy ever did. — CF

18. “Who Are You” (season 4, episode 16)

If anyone ever tries to tell you that Sarah Michelle Gellar isn’t a sharp actor, show them “Who Are You.” After Buffy and Faith switch bodies, Gellar spends most of the episode channeling Eliza Dushku’s performance without mimicking it entirely, loosening up Buffy’s usual body language and letting her smile relax into a confident smirk. The scene in which Faith-as-Buffy stares down Spike and breathes, “I could ride you at a gallop until your legs buckled and your eyes rolled up,” has such intense electricity that it’d be unsurprising to learn it was the moment the show decided to give in to the obvious chemistry between Gellar and Marsters for real. But “Who Are You” also leans into Buffy’s skill at turning on a dime, allowing Faith’s core loneliness to creep in and make her question everything just when it seemed like she was ready to turn an irredeemable corner. — CF

17. “Chosen” (season 7, episode 21)

There are so many things that make the series finale of Buffy worth talking about — the final arc of our heroine’s relationship with Spike, the loss of our beloved Anya, the return of Angel, the vanquishing of Caleb, the swift kick in the shin that Dawn gives to her older sister after Buffy tries to send her somewhere safe. But the thing that really gets me is the speech Buffy gives the Potentials about what it means to be Chosen. It’s a callback to the show’s roots, a reminder that vanquishing your demons (literally or figuratively) requires commitment, courage, strength, and, above all else, teamwork.

This is especially poignant as it finally reconciles Buffy’s oft-referenced loneliness and emotional Slayer burden with her longtime desire for companionship. It’s also a powerful moment to witness as a woman — Buffy slamming the historical decisions of men in favor of giving women the opportunities they should have been entitled to all along — and softens the blow of saying goodbye to our favorite Scoobies with a reminder to embrace our inner warrior with a little help from our friends. — JB

16. “Surprise” (season 2, episode 13)

“Surprise” is the last episode of Buffy before it becomes a different show. Up until this point, it’s been a smart, charming, and sharply written but also goofy and campy take on adolescence and its demons. After “Innocence,” it’s an immortal piece of television. “Surprise” is the episode that gets it there, and it does so with aplomb. There’s an almost palpable sense of foreboding hanging over everything, starting with Buffy’s recurring nightmares about Drusilla and continuing through Jenny Calendar’s mysterious murmurings about her secret identity. It’s an episode that promises everything is about to change, and while a lot of TV makes that promise, Buffy actually delivers. — CG

15. “Conversations With Dead People” (season 7, episode 7)

“Conversations With Dead People” is a haunting, memorable episode not only because of the, uh, conversations with dead people, but also because the use of individual vignettes sets the scene for each character to have their own breakthrough of sorts, spurred on by a strange, often ghostly, visitation. Dawn fearlessly faces down what she believes to be a demon keeping her mother away; Willow’s response to Cassie’s suggestion of suicide is rage instead of self-pity and consideration; Buffy opens up to vampire Holden for a frank conversation about her emotional needs before killing him. And, though the plot is only moved forward via the murder of Jonathan, there is a clear statement being made about the evenly matched forces of good and evil, and the kind of resolve it will take for one to defeat the other. — JB

14. “Becoming, Part 1” (season 2, episode 21)

“Becoming’s” first half is a beautiful marriage of theme and plot mechanics. For the second part’s climax to be as heartbreaking as it is, the audience has to remember that Angel used to be relatively likable before he lost his soul. And luckily, flashbacks to Angel’s long life (both ensouled and otherwise) fit into this episode’s theme, which is the big moments that, as Whistler says in voiceover, “set the course of who you’re gonna be.” Buffy is about to face one of her biggest moments, and the choices she makes will reverberate throughout the rest of the show. — CG

13. “Doppelgangland” (season 3, episode 16)

What can be said about “Dopplegangland” other than: FORESHADOWING, FORESHADOWING, FORESHADOWING. Watching Willow wrestle with an alternate-reality version of herself is even better when you know what’s to come in later seasons (“Hands! Hands!”), and it would be an understatement to say that Alyson Hannigan shines in both roles. We also get our first look at Anya since she lost her powers — impatient and frustrated and unable to even order a beer — which is endearing even though she nearly sabotages the gang’s plan to save the day. — JB

12. “Passion” (season 2, episode 17)

“Passion” was the first episode of Buffy I ever saw. (Yes, I was confused.) It’s also the episode that makes it clear the transformation that occurred in “Innocence” is permanent: Angel really did go evil, and bad things really are going to happen on this show, and they won’t always be reversible. But they will lead to beautiful, heartbreaking moments of catharsis, like Buffy and Giles breaking down together in front of the burned-out factory while Buffy sobs, “I can’t do this without you.” — CG

11. Tabula Rasa (season 6, episode 08)

Come for the memory loss, stay for the loan shark pun. “Tabula Rasa” is a masterpiece of humor and grief as Willow’s botched and ill-advised amnesia spell pauses the inevitable fallout from “Once More, With Feeling.” It’s a sweet episode with some much-needed laughs — offering up comic relief in the form of bumbling and chaos. But when the spell is broken, Willow is forced to face the consequences of her betrayal, Buffy grapples with her feelings about Spike, and Giles departs to the tune of “Goodbye to You.” The last three minutes are nothing short of agony. — JB

The very best episodes of Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Hello, sir.

10. “The Wish” (season 3, episode 9)

Plunging a show into a parallel universe is bold. Plunging a show into a parallel universe in which everyone we love dies by the end of the episode is some next-level trolling, and it’s entirely Buffy’s level of commitment that lets the show pull this off. When Cordelia makes the mistake of wishing that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale in proximity of a vengeance demon — Anya, in her first episode — we get to see exactly how bleak that scenario would’ve been with a terrifying vampire-ridden dystopia that’s preparing to turn humans into blood juice boxes. It might be a bit hyperbolic, but everything from Vampire Willow playing with Angel as her “puppy” to the episode’s desperate showdown between Giles and Anya is just too gripping for us to care. — CF

9. Graduation Day, Part 2” (season 3, episode 22)

Is there anything better than a triumphant battle scene? Or a scene where the student body prevails over the tyranny of adults? The answer is no. And “Graduation Day, Part 2” has both. In a plan that relies too heavily on Xander’s military memories — remember that time he turned into GI Joe on Halloween? Yeah, the memories are from that — the student body successfully takes down the Mayor and saves the world. The moment where the students strip off their graduation robes to reveal an armory of weapons, accompanied by battle music, is one of the greatest moments in teen TV history. Please disregard the horrible CGI in favor of savoring the moment when Principal Snyder gets eaten. — JB

8. “Graduation Day, Part 1” (season 2, episode 21)

Part two has the big cathartic moment of the whole school coming together against the Mayor, but part one has the Buffy/Faith fight, and that just barely gives it the edge. Buffy and Faith have been mirroring each other all season — gleefully in “Bad Girls,” with trepidation in “Enemies” — and when it finally comes to a head, the release of tension is astonishing. Buffy’s not just fighting for Angel’s life here — she’s puzzling out her own identity between punches. — CG

7. “Restless” (season 4, episode 22)

An episode of TV that boils down to “it was all a dream!” sounds like a terrible idea on its face, which makes what Whedon did with “Restless” all the more impressive. Though almost the entire episode takes place inside the Scoobies’ heads — each trying to outrun the spirit of the First Slayer, though they don’t know it —“Restless” takes care to make each dream unique to the dreamer. It’s meandering and random and significant all at once, exactly as dreams are. And even though it ends on a somber note, with Buffy facing down the First Slayer and all the death she’s wrought, “Restless” also, crucially, manages to be very funny. Years and countless viewings later, I still don’t know what I love more: Giles and Spike on swings in matching tweed suits, the Cheese Man, or Buffy spitting fire in Willow’s hilariously inaccurate Death of a Salesman dream. (Just kidding, it’s obviously the Cheese Man.) — CF

6. “Innocence” (season 2, episode 14)

Buffy made better episodes than “Innocence,” but it never made a more important one. After Buffy and Angel have sex for the first time, she awakens to discover he’s ditched her — then discovers that he’s no longer strictly himself. His moment of happiness cast his soul aside and turned him into the dark, murderous vampire Angelus. If Buffy’s going to survive, she’ll have to nurse her grief and kill her former boyfriend. It’s one of the most famous plot twists in TV history, and everything about this hour of television is Buffy operating at peak capacity for the very first time. — TV

5. “The Gift” (season 5, episode 22)

There are so many great Buffy quotes, but there’s perhaps no single one worth turning to more than the final words she offers to her little sister in this tremendous season five finale (the show’s 100th episode): “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.” Then she turns, runs, and leaps from a giant tower into a magical vortex in order to save the world. The final shot: her gravestone. How were they gonna get out of this one? — TV

4. “Becoming, Part 2” (season 2, episode 22)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20th Century Fox
Bye, Angel!

Has there ever been a television tragedy quite so earned as the one at the end of “Becoming, Part 2”? We see every single moment that leads to it: Willow’s desire to learn magic leading her to try the soul-restoring spell on her own, Xander’s hatred of Angel and belief that he should pay for his crimes stopping him from telling Buffy about the spell, Giles’s love for Jenny tricking him into giving up the information Angel needs to start his ritual before Buffy can stop him. It’s all firmly rooted in character, which is what makes each moment lead to the next with such terrible inevitability — and yet it’s still difficult to believe that it will actually happen, that Buffy isn’t going to pull some brilliant idea out of her back pocket just in the nick of time, that she is actually going to kill her boyfriend. When it does happen, it’s devastating. — CG

3. “Hush” (season 4, episode 10)

It’s more of a given now that TV shows will eventually break with their own format for the fun of it, but that was far from inevitable when “Hush” briefly made Buffy half silent movie, half straight horror. The Gentlemen — floating skeletons in crisp suits — are exceedingly polite, extremely terrifying villains. When they steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale, they force everyone to change how they live and fight, resulting in both frightening and hilarious scenes that have rightfully gone down as some of Buffy’s most ingenious moments. — CF

2. “The Body” (season 5, episode 16)

Seen through one lens, “The Body” is one of the 10 or 20 finest episodes of television ever made in America. Whedon wrote and directed, lending the hour of Joyce’s death an austere reverence unusual on American TV. He strips out the music, the quippy dialogue, and the monsters as metaphor, in order to do a rumination on the nature of death, and it works. On the other hand, this could never be the finest hour of Buffy simply because it’s not really an hour of Buffy. It’s a tiny art film, starring the Buffy characters, dropped into the middle of the show. It’s wondrous, but the best episode has to be... — TV

1. “Once More, with Feeling” (season 6, episode 7)

Could it be anything else? The highpoint of season six — and the show — is this audacious musical episode, filled with completely original tunes that are genuinely memorable. It’s a beautiful companion piece to “Hush,” an episode about what happens when you can’t figure out how to tell others your deepest secrets, because it’s an episode about what happens when you can’t stop telling others your deepest secrets. From great dialogue to big heroic moments to tap-dancing demons, literally everything Buffy the Vampire Slayer did well is present in this one episode of television, which also contains the objectively perfect lyrical couplet: “When I get so worn and wrinkly / that I look like David Brinkley.” If you’ve never seen this episode before now, get to Netflix. If you have, get to Netflix anyway. It must be seen again. — TV

It’s official: Ivanka Trump will be a White House staffer
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Ivanka Trump’s power behind the scenes in the White House is now really, truly official. The president’s daughter, who already had a West Wing Office, a security clearance, and a government-issued phone, will become an unpaid government employee with the title of special assistant to the president, according to the New York Times.

That title is a shift from her earlier plans, which would have given her the office and the clearance without the official status. As a White House employee, even an unpaid one, Trump, like her husband, Jared Kushner, will have to abide by federal ethics regulations.

Her appointment is pure nepotism: There is nothing on her résumé that suggests Ivanka Trump is qualified, by any traditional definition of the term, to advise the president of the United States. But for President Donald Trump she has two qualities that likely outweigh any others — she’s a Trump, and she’s going to be loyal to him.

Ivanka Trump, who is 35 and has a bachelor’s degree in business, is best known for running a relatively small apparel line branded with her name, for appearing on The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice alongside her father, and for writing a memoir/career advice book, The Trump Card.

By all accounts, she was a capable lieutenant to her father at the Trump Organization, where she oversaw global expansion and the development of the president’s hotel in Washington, DC’s Old Post Office building. Still, this is not the type of résumé most White House jobs are built on. She’ll have access to well-guarded information about national security, and, according to Politico, her portfolio of issues won’t be confined to the family policy she spent most of her campaign trail time discussing.

Ivanka Trump’s role, her lawyer told Politico, is to be her father’s “eyes and ears” in the White House. In an administration that spent its first two months riven by very public leaks and infighting, Trump has apparently decided, as he did in his business career, that his own children are the only people he can really trust.

Nepotism is illegal — but the Trump administration has decided it doesn’t apply to the White House

Giving Ivanka Trump a West Wing office might be nepotism. But it’s not illegal nepotism. The Justice Department ruled that federal anti-nepotism laws don’t apply to the president’s choice of White House advisers. The day Trump was inaugurated, the Justice Department determined that it would be legal for him to appoint Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and Ivanka Trump’s husband.

“A President wanting a relative's advice on governmental matters therefore has a choice: to seek that advice on an unofficial, ad hoc basis without conferring the status and imposing the responsibilities that accompany formal White House positions,” the Justice Department’s Daniel Koffsky, a deputy assistant attorney general, wrote, “or to appoint his relative to the White House under title 3 and subject him to substantial restrictions against conflicts of interest.”

In other words: Trump is going to get advice from his relatives anyway, so he might as well get it in a role that puts some ethical restrictions around what they can do.

Congress passed a federal anti-nepotism law in the 1960s. Before that, the only unusual thing about an appointment like Trump’s would be that she was the president’s daughter — not the president’s brother or the president’s son.

John F. Kennedy made his brother Robert attorney general and put his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, in charge of the Peace Corps. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son worked in the White House as an assistant staff secretary. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son James served as secretary of the president, an important coordinating job akin to the modern position of chief of staff. (In an episode with additional resonance for Trump watchers, James Roosevelt was also accused of profiting personally from his father’s presidency and had to publish his tax returns to prove he had not.)

Then in 1967, a federal anti-nepotism law reforming the Post Office prohibited executive branch officials from appointing their relatives to jobs in the agencies they oversee. Legal experts disagree on whether the law applies to the president and to jobs in the White House. But some presidents have decided to play it safe: When President Bill Clinton tapped Hillary Clinton to oversee his health care overhaul, he put her in charge of a task force rather than giving her an official White House job.

Today, Kushner and Ivanka Trump have already disclosed information about their finances and divested from some stocks as part of Kushner’s White House role, according to Politico. As an official White House employee, she’ll also be bound by regulations on financial disclosures and conflicts of interest.

Is Ivanka Trump’s new job a win for the “Democrats” in the White House?

Since the campaign, Ivanka Trump has assiduously cultivated an image as the voice of moderation, even liberalism, whispering in her father’s ear. It reached its pinnacle when she told the Republican National Convention that her father believed in affordable child care and equal pay for equal work — issues that a Republican president had never put at the center of his campaign.

That influence had limits: Trump has not made child care the center of his legislative agenda. Still, for the observers and pundits who constantly scan for a “pivot,” a sign that Trump is moving away from his most extreme positions and rhetoric, there will be a temptation to interpret Ivanka Trump’s West Wing office as the latest sign of moderation. Kushner, as well as fellow New Yorkers Gary Cohn and Dina Powell, former Goldman Sachs executives, are seen as the moderate voices in the Trump administration; according to the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, their rivals have taken to calling them “the Democrats.”

The narrative of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner nudging the president to the center can be overblown. But Kushner, Trump, and their allies have leaked to reporters a counterfactual history of how much more extreme Trump’s decisions would have been if they weren’t there to put on the brakes.

According to media reports, Kushner and Trump pushed for an executive order on climate to be less critical of the Paris climate deal. Another report has them successfully derailing another executive order that would have made it easier for businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Ivanka Trump, according to reports, persuaded her father to embrace the less bellicose tone he employed in his speech to a joint session of Congress, rather than the bleak imagery from his inaugural address. She attended a play about welcoming immigrants with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The image of Kushner and Ivanka Trump as the (relatively) progressive adults in the room is so enduring that for the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency, political observers even held them responsible for the presidents’ tweets. A slew of speculative articles suggested the president tended to send his most zany tweets on Friday nights and Saturdays because Trump and Kushner, who are Orthodox Jews, were observing Shabbat and weren’t there to stop him.

Rabbis, including the rabbi who oversaw Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism, finally debunked this interpretation: Nothing is stopping Kushner and his wife from talking about the president’s tweets, even during the religious observance, they told Politico.

More broadly, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner might be winning occasional battles. But if their goal is to shape President Trump’s administration into one that actively fights climate change and protects the rights of LGBTQ people, they’re losing the war.

The Trump administration is trying to eliminate the federal government’s ability to oppose climate change through its budget. It abolished protections for transgender students in K-12 schools. If Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner truly felt these were morally monstrous decisions, they could resign.

Instead, they’ve been able to have their cake and eat it too: participating in the administration that set these policy moves in motion, while making themselves the stars of a narrative about the people who tried to stand up to them.

The right way to think about this move isn’t ideological — it’s that Trump only trusts his family

The most likely explanation for Ivanka’s new office and security clearance, though, isn’t that Trump is beefing up the moderate faction within his administration. It’s that despite his claims to hire the “best people,” the only people Trump ever really trusts are those related to him by blood or marriage.

It’s easy to understand why Trump might feel like he needs “eyes and ears,” the role Ivanka is supposed to play, in the West Wing. Usually an incoming presidential administration is at least somewhat united by a common purpose, and doesn’t degenerate into public kvetching and backstabbing until it’s suffered some setbacks. Trump’s administration got there in less than a week.

The White House and federal agencies have both a below-average number of employees and an above-average number of factions, all of whom apparently spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone to reporters leaking unflattering details about one another. The situation is so bad that several meetings meant to crack down on leaking have immediately been reported in full by the media after details about the anti-leaking meetings were leaked.

“Hire the best people,” Donald Trump wrote in his 2007 book Think Big and Kick Ass, “and don’t trust them.” Trump’s definition of the “best people” is idiosyncratic at best. But in business and throughout the campaign, he leans on his family to an unusual degree. Trump’s three grown children — Eric, Donald Jr., and Ivanka — are in their 30s and 40s, but they all work for their father. When he stepped away from the day-to-day operations of his company to serve as president, Donald Trump put Eric and Donald Jr. in charge.

Another president who wants a loyal lieutenant in the West Wing might pick a longtime colleague or even a friend, as Barack Obama did with Valerie Jarrett. Trump has relatively few of those tight, nonfamilial connections. What he does have is his family.

Harlots is what would happen if The Sopranos and Gossip Girl had filthy, complicated sex
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Hulu’s Harlots is a surprisingly addictive new drama about 18th-century brothel turf wars

I wasn’t planning to write about Harlots. But then I ended up watching two episodes in a row and found myself thinking things like, “I’d rather work in the rowdy cathouse than the stuffy gold-leaf brothel,” and, “I could definitely run a smoother virginity auction than that fiasco at the opera,” so here we are.

Hulu’s new 18th-century period drama — produced in conjunction with the UK’s ITV — tells the story of the ongoing turf war between two London brothels. Madam of the people Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is constantly battling powdered bawd to the stars Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) for power and prestige, and each is armed with her own stable of teen girls corseted within an inch of their lives to please the drooling men who pass through their doors.

Margaret’s “boarding house” is the aforementioned rowdy cathouse, set up in a colorful but crumbling Covent Garden building filled with girls whose greatest asset just might be their quick-witted sass. Her elder daughter Charlotte (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay) is reluctantly parlaying her lifelong expertise into a permanent mistress position for a sniveling aristocrat (Fleabag’s Hugh Skinner, perfectly cast). Her younger daughter Lucy (Eloise Smyth) is the reluctant subject of the aforementioned virginity auction, a Hail Mary attempt to save Margaret’s house from a devastating fine.

Over at Lydia Quigley’s stately Soho home, wan girls entertain the upper crust with tea and refined conversation before luring them into frantic sex, sneaking secrets all the while. When Margaret’s spunkiest girl, Emily Lacey (a very game Holli Dempsey), defects to Quigley’s, it becomes especially obvious that it’s not nearly as much fun to spend time in Soho as in Covent Garden. (For the viewers, anyway — I obviously can’t speak to the men who frequent it; they seem pretty happy either way).

The series was inspired in part by Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, a real 18th-century document that was, essentially, an indexed burn book for the London prostitutes of the day. No one’s sure exactly who wrote it, but most agree it was probably a gossipy dude.

Several times while watching Harlots, though, I realized with a little thrill how obvious it was that this series was created and produced by women. Even when Moira Buffini and Alison Newman’s series trips on its own aspirations, it’s always making a point to explore the complex politics inherent in buying and selling women’s bodies to get ahead.

Harlots has more ambitions than it has room to explore, but what it does well is undeniably entertaining

 Hulu
Samantha Morton as determined madam Margaret Wells.

I assumed when I started the first episode of Harlots that I was in for a largely forgettable hour, as the show’s been largely packaged and sold as a soapy exploration of catfights set to a cheekily modern soundtrack (a once-novel approach that’s become staler with every pale imitation since Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette).

But to my surprise, Harlots appears determined to delve into thornier issues of consent, sexual slavery, and the desperate measures women had (and have) to take in order to advance in the world — or even just to sidestep the sporadic demands of powerful men.

Both Quigley and Margaret are, in their own ways, hard-line pragmatists. They both know that having money is just about the only way a woman can guarantee her own independence, and both are willing to do whatever it takes to secure it. But there’s one crucial difference festering between them, namely the nature of how Margaret first came to be under Quigley’s employ years and years ago — when Margaret was just 10 years old. Quigley insists she “took her in” from a mother who sold Margaret for a pair of shoes; Margaret insists that she, a child at the time, was kidnapped.

So, yeah, Quigley tends to get more of a villain edit. But as becomes obvious by the end of the second episode, Margaret learned some of her most effective tricks from Quigley, and has a messy legacy all her own. Their back-and-forth mind games make for some of Harlots’ most gripping scenes, not least because Morton and Manville give their roles their defiant, eyebrow-arching all.

Outside the two brothels, however, Harlots finds itself on much less stable (and less interesting) ground. Brown Findlay and Skinner are both fantastic actors for their parts, but they get lost in a repetitive subplot that sees Charlotte getting drunk and bored while her clingy master screams about fidelity. The series’ tentative jabs at exploring race relations in Georgian England are unfortunately surface-level, at best. And in the grand tradition of sharply funny sidekicks passed over for blander heroines like Lucy, every moment Emily Lacey’s onscreen is another moment I remembered that she isn’t onscreen all the other moments, and what a damn shame that is.

But in spite of its flaws, Harlots is far more addictive and even thoughtful than I initially gave it credit for. It doesn’t shy away from its characters’ more morally horrifying choices, nor the devastating circumstances that led them there. If Harlots keeps this momentum going, it could be a wickedly fun take on the usual macho battle of wills that plagues the TV drama genre. If it doesn’t, it could deflate quicker than the puffed-up male egos begging for validation under Margaret and Quigley’s hard-won roofs.

The series premiere of Harlots is now available to stream on Hulu, with new episodes to be released every Wednesday.

A new poll on Trump’s “wiretapping” shows how easily he can spread misinformation
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Three psychological reasons Trump’s falsehoods stick with followers.

A CBS poll out today finds that 47 percent of Americans — and a full 74 percent of Republicans surveyed — believe it’s “likely” or “somewhat likely” that President Donald Trump’s offices were wiretapped during the 2016 presidential campaign.

There is of course no credible evidence that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. As Vox has outlined, both “the heads of the FBI and NSA categorically denied President Donald Trump’s tweets claiming that President Barack Obama ordered the US intelligence community to wiretap Trump Tower.”

But these latest poll findings are a reminder of an uncomfortable truth about people: They generally don’t base their opinions on a careful analysis of evidence. And it’s not because they are “stupid” or willfully ignorant. It’s because our brains aren’t great at rationally analyzing facts, especially in fractured, ideologically polarized times.

This frustrating trend of people thinking in terms of what supports their party, rather than facts, keeps showing up. Trump voters were more likely to say Trump had a larger turnout at his inauguration than Obama, despite obvious differences in the photos that demonstrated otherwise.

It infects liberals too. When Gallup polled Americans the week before and the week after the presidential election, Democrats and Republicans flipped their perceptions of the economy. Nothing had actually changed about the economy. What changed was which team was winning.

One of the key reasons is an idea called “politically motivated reasoning” — it’s the idea that our brains have something of an immune system for uncomfortable thoughts. We use our intelligence to protect the groups we belong to first, and reason objectively second. (Read more about politically motivated reasoning here.)

But that’s not all.

It’s extremely easy to get people to accept a lie

Recently I had a conversation with Roddy Roediger, one of the nation’s foremost experts on learning and memory. In his experiments, he shows how even small suggestions from others can push us to remember whole scenes and experiences differently.

And overall, there are three key principles that make a piece of false information more believable.

1) Plausibility — or at least the perception of plausibility.

It’s plausible that Obama — or some arm of the federal government — wiretapped Trump. An ongoing story during the Obama presidency centered on the revelations of the Edward Snowden documents that showed the government has hugely powerful capabilities for mass surveillance.

Roediger has demonstrated the power of plausibility in a simple experiment. After walking a study participant through a kitchen, a different participant (secretly working for Roediger) suggests they recall seeing a toaster on the counter. Toasters plausibly exist in kitchens. But in this case, there was no toaster.

“We tested the real subjects later and we even told them, ‘Look, the person you were working with made a bunch of mistakes, so really just rely your own personal memory for the scene’ — they still recalled the toaster,” Roediger explains.

So given that Trump’s assertion seems plausible, and Republicans are probably likely to consider him a credible source, the “wiretapping” claim sticks.

2) Suggestions and innuendo can be just as convincing as assertions.

Trump doesn’t need to directly endorse an idea or conspiracy to spread acceptance of a lie. He can lead people to a conclusion simply by suggesting it.

“It's like what lawyers try to do in court for their prosecutors or defendants,” Roediger says. “You tell a very powerful story that leads to a certain conclusion, although you never state [that conclusion].”

In the lab, Roediger will show people sentences like, “The karate champion hit the cinderblock," or, "The baby stayed awake all night."

“You test people the next day, and you say: ‘The karate champion broke the cinderblock,’ or, ‘The baby cried all night,’” he says. “They'll accept those sentences as being yes, that's what I heard you say yesterday.”

(In the case of wiretapping, Trump made the claim directly in a series of tweets, à la “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” But some of his mistruths have been subtler. Consider when he alleged a connection between Ted Cruz’s father and the JFK assassination. He never directly said Rafael Cruz was in a conspiracy, but he questioned what the older Cruz “was ... doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death.”)

3) The more we engage with the lie, the more we misremember.

There’s another reason so many may believe in the wiretapping claim: It’s been in the news a lot. And that amplifies its power.

“When you see a news report that repeats the misinformation and then tries to correct it — you might have people remembering the misinformation because it's really surprising and interesting, and not remembering the correction,“ he says.

The act of retrieving a memory and talking about it with friends makes it all the more sticky. “If I remember an event poorly and you seem to remember it really well, well, I'll update my memory using what you're saying, and that's very adaptive,” Roediger says. “But if you happen to get it all wrong, I'll update my memory with the wrong stuff too.”

On the extreme end, this leads to odd scenarios where entire groups of people have a memory of an event that never happened (check out this fascinating story about a group of people who remember seeing a movie that never existed).

Altogether, it’s easier than ever before to create false memories shared by entire groups of people. Misinformation is everywhere — outright fake stories get shared by thousands — and online social networks help spread and reinforce it. It’s amazing we can still agree on anything at all.

Further reading: understanding human psychology in the age of Trump

Donald Trump believes the solution to the opioid crisis is talk
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

A top drug policy expert fears his plan is “an empty gesture.”

President Donald Trump will soon sign an executive order to tackle what he’s called the “total epidemic” of opioid abuse and addiction. The main objective of the order is to create a commission that’s tasked with publishing a report on what to do about America’s deadliest drug crisis ever.

The administration’s decision to prioritize this urgent public health issue is promising. But drug policy experts are already calling the commission a meaningless step in the battle against the opioid problem, particularly since Trump wants to cut funding for opioid treatment. And the desperate need for better treatment is just one of the things we already have a lot of expert advice and scientific evidence on — more than enough to take concrete action right now.

The commission will be led by Chris Christie, and include Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, yet many of the key anti-drug positions in government — the “drug czar,” the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — haven’t even been filled, and are absent from this panel.

“It’s bizarre to create a new entity outside of government to dig into things that have already been dug into, to not use the expertise you have, and not have the commission report to the president,” said Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford. At best, this is a redundant exercise that may bring some political attention to opioids. At worst, Humphreys said, it’s an “empty gesture.”

The opioid problem is not “untalked about”

We know the epidemic of opioid abuse is one of the most pressing public health challenges in the United States today. In 2015, there were 52,000 overdose deaths — more than 30,000 linked to opioids, which is the most of any other year on record. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, drug overdoses now kill more people than car crashes, gun violence, and HIV/AIDS.

“Opioid abuse has become a crippling problem throughout the United States,” Trump said today. “And I think it’s almost untalked [sic] about compared to the severity that we’re witnessing.”

But it’s actually not “untalked about.” There have been many, many reports about how to address the opioid problem. Most recently, the nonpartisan office of the Surgeon General came out with a report that included clear, evidence-based suggestions about what steps need to be taken.

The long and short of it is that America must double down on treatment options for addicts, and make sure insurers cover those benefits. As the Surgeon General’s report stated, “Substance use disorder treatment in the United States remains largely segregated from the rest of health care and serves only a fraction of those in need of treatment.” Only 10 percent of people with an addiction of any kind get treatment, and more than 40 percent also have a mental health condition, yet fewer than half get treatment.

Others, including the American Medical Association Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse, have called for the urgent need to address this “treatment gap.”

So we already have reports. We already have opioid task forces. We already have reams of expert advice.

We also have at least three government agencies that deal with drug problems — the White House Office for National Drug Control Policy (colloquially referred to as the nation’s “drug czar”), which coordinates America’s anti-drug spending; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which administers the block grant for addiction treatment in the US.

Trump hasn’t filled the key appointments in these agencies, which are all crucial to combatting the addiction problem. That’s not to mention the fact that the Surgeon General is not a political appointee; he’s still in his office and could be tapped for advice. Instead, Trump is coming out with this commission … to create another report.

The only thing about the commission that makes sense to Humphreys is the appointment of Chris Christie, who will lead the effort. With his progressive policies around opioids in New Jersey, and his personal stake in the epidemic after watching a close friend battle addiction, Christie is probably the single best person in the GOP to tackle drug policy.

Still, though, the commission seemed almost designed to not have much of an impact, Humphreys said. In addition to the dearth of experts from government in the mix, there have been reports that the group will report to Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner instead of the president himself. (The commission is part of the White House Office of American Innovation, chaired by Kushner.)

“In Washington, that’s death,” said Humphreys. “When you put somebody down in the bureaucracy in charge, that signals [people] don’t need to put much effort in.”

The Trump administration has meanwhile been subtly sabotaging the fight against opioids with funding cuts

The Trump administration has actually been moving in the opposite direction of what experts say is needed to curb the epidemic of opioid abuse. As Vox’s Lopez wrote, “[Trump’s] recent budget plan wouldn’t increase funding for drug treatment above what Congress already approved. In fact, Trump has proposed $100 million in cuts to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s mental health block grants, which could ultimately impact some addiction services.”

Painkiller addiction disproportionately affects low-income Americans, many of whom rely on Medicaid to get their health care.

The Obama administration made treatment for mental health and addiction an essential health benefit through the Affordable Care Act. One of the most useful things Trump could do is expand Medicaid in every state and continue to ensure coverage of opioid treatment.

Yet, the Obamacare replacement plan the GOP was trying to push through Congress last week would have cut funding Medicaid expansion, pushing people off their health care — and their addiction treatment. The GOP was also talking about getting rid of the essential health benefit requirement, which would drop addiction treatment from the health services insurers must cover.

If this administration wants to have an impact on the epidemic, it would expand Medicaid in every state, it would increase funding for drug treatment, and it would spend the billion dollars allocated to the opioid problem through the 21st Century Cures Act. How to solve the opioid crisis isn’t a mystery. We know what to do. We don’t need more expert opinion. We need action.

The myth of the 70,000-page federal tax code
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

The US tax code is definitely complicated at points, so it’s no wonder that the claim that it is 70,000 pages long has become a widely cited factoid, most recently in messaging from Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, the committee that’s leading the Republican effort to simplify and reform income taxes:

The only problem with this claim is that it’s clearly false. As of 2014, the tax code was only about 2,600 pages long. The claim that it’s 70,000 pages is based on including tens of thousands of pages about the tax code that a reasonable person would never think of as being part of the tax code itself. More to the point, there’s literally nothing the Ways and Means committee could do to reduce the 70,000-page figure. They’re being hugely misleading here.

The best explanation of this issue comes from my friend Andrew Grossman, a tax attorney at the Joint Committee on Taxation who debunked the 70,000 claim in Slate three years ago. He deals with the tax code all day every day, so he knows whereof he speaks on this matter. The internal revenue code, as published by companies like Thomson Reuters and CCH, takes up a little over 4,000 pages. The last page of the 2016 Thomson Reuters edition is 4,132. But the page numbers also jump suddenly from 527 to 1,001, and the code includes all past tax statutes, not just current laws. When you take that into account, the current code is only around 2,600 pages.

The 70,000 number adds to that IRS regulations and revenue rulings (~6,350 more pages) and, most importantly, caselaw covering court proceedings surrounding the tax code. CCH puts out a publication called the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter that includes the statutory code, all the regulations and revenue rulings, and all this annotated caselaw, and compiles it into one 70,000-page resource.

"Calling [the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter] the tax code is like calling the Constitution the length of the collected Supreme Court cases on constitutional law—or like calling the alphabet the length of the dictionary,” Grossman writes. As an example, Grossman mentions code section 7402, "Jurisdiction of District Courts," the statutory text of which is only half a page long. But the Tax Reporter includes 191 pages of editorial commentary and annotated court cases on the section. It effectively increases the apparent size of this section of the tax code 382-fold.

The Tax Foundation, which has promoted the 70,000-page figure, responded to Grossman’s article by arguing that professional tax lawyers need to know all the regulations and case law included in the Tax Reporter, which is true enough. But that has basically nothing to do with how the figure is used by actual politicians.

Look back at the Ways and Means tweet, above. The Ways and Means Committee and its chair, Kevin Brady, only have control over the statutory size of the tax code — those 2,600-odd pages (2,652 to be exact, per the Tax Foundation). It doesn’t control the precise length of the regulations that the IRS promulgates to implement that code, and it certainly doesn’t control the size of the collected caselaw.

Just as importantly, any tax simplification measures the Committee takes will not reduce the 70,000-page figure. This is clear if you examine the Tax Foundation’s chart of Tax Reporter length:

CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter Size Tax Foundation / Joseph Henchman

You’ll note that at no point does the size shrink. Indeed, the rate of increase actually grew after the 1986 tax simplification reforms. And when you understand what the Tax Reporter actually is, that makes total sense. It includes all past tax statutes and all caselaw. It definitionally has to grow with the progression of time. Congress could enact a new one-page statutory tax code and the Tax Reporter would keep growing, and would probably grow faster as more and more cases hit the courts and individuals and corporations struggle to make sense of the new, dramatically different law.

There’s definitely something to be said for tax simplification, at least as relates to deductions and credits. The fewer tax breaks, the easier it is to do what the UK, Japan, and Germany do and eliminate tax returns for most people, and do everything through the withholding process. That’d make millions of people’s lives easier.

But House Republicans want you to believe they can make that 70,000-page figure smaller, and they just can’t.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a lushly shot movie about resisting Nazi cruelty
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Jessica Chastain stars alongside a host of zoo animals in an adaptation of the bestselling book.

Both a lush historical tale and a real-life fable, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an account of Warsaw during the Nazi occupation that makes a strong case for a simple truth: inhuman brutality can only be counteracted by steady compassion and kindness.

Based on the nonfiction book by naturalist Diane Ackerman — which in turn draws on the journals of Antonina Żabińska, played by Jessica Chastain in the film — The Zookeeper’s Wife has a lot in common with conventional Hollywood World War II dramas, but is elevated by the simple novelty of adding animals. Most of the film is literally set in a zoo, which houses creatures great and small: buffalo, rabbits, elephants, a tiger, a camel that trots around, and a lot more.

The animals are the backdrop to the movie’s theme that all creatures deserve dignity and respect, and that humans can be both the kindest and the cruelest animals of them all. It contrasts steady love and constant empathy with the sort of deformed character that would lead men to pen up and eventually exterminate millions of humans simply for being Jewish. Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider; McFarland, USA), The Zookeeper’s Wife is a simple plea for compassion, beautifully told.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on a true story that spans World War II in Warsaw

It’s 1939, and Antonina lives with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and their young son on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo, where Jan serves as head zoologist. And while Jan is in charge, it’s clear to everyone (including him) that Antonina is the gifted one, able to calm the animals and seemingly commune with them all, no matter the species.

Johan Heldenbergh in The Zookeeper’s Wife Focus Features
Johan Heldenbergh in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Nobody knows the war is about to break out, but Hitler’s star is rising, as is the star of his chief zoologist, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). At a party, Heck tells the story of having to kill an animal that was acting aggressively, and Antonina winces — a small exchange that tells you almost everything you need to know about what’s to come.

Which is, of course, the war. Once Nazi forces arrive to occupy Poland, the Jewish inhabitants are slowly marginalized — first made to wear identification marks, then herded into an overcrowded ghetto, and, eventually, sent to their deaths in concentration camps.

Jan and Antonina are horrified, and know that something must be done. They begin to contemplate how to take care of their friends and neighbors, starting out tentatively at first — having a friend stay with them — and then more boldly.

When the bombing raids start, the zoo takes hits, as does its animals. Heck takes the prize stock — the cheetahs and tigers and elephants — to Germany for “safekeeping,” which seems at first to Antonina to be a compassionate gesture. But as the war wears on, she starts to understand Heck’s true nature, his capacity for empathy seeming to melt away while the situation for animals and humans alike grows more dire. Antonina and Jan, meanwhile, keep fighting covertly for years for their Jewish neighbors in the only ways they can. But anything could go wrong at any time.

In The Zookeeper’s Wife, brutality toward humans is a slippery slope

The Zookeeper’s Wife has the sweep of an epic, covering the period from before the war to after it with grace, and Chastain is magnetic at its center. Visually sumptuous and unabashedly romantic, the film likely idealizes the period a bit — it’s hard to imagine a character like Antonina maintaining a simple but gorgeous wardrobe, and even the war-desolated zoo is beautiful — but it makes a strong contrast with the desolation and dinginess of the city outside the zoo’s walls. (It’s a little strange to hear the actors speaking in English with Polish and German accents, but excusable given its target market.)

Jessica Chastain, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas, and Timothy Radford in The Zookeeper's Wife  Focus Features
Jessica Chastain, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas, and Timothy Radford in The Zookeeper's Wife.

Part of the film’s sustained interest is the tension that’s always at the heart of films about those working to resist the cruelty of the Nazi regime: Will they get caught, or not? Every footstep and surprise could spell disaster. The courageous main characters, risking their lives for virtual strangers are ordinary heroes — and it’s even more heartening to remember that heroes like them were all over Europe during the war.

The Zookeeper’s Wife also benefits from its central metaphor, which seems to write itself. The Nazis did their hideous work of oppressing, then exterminating Jews by making of them something less than human — something more like animals. They methodically changed the way they conceived of a whole nation of people and gradually allowed themselves, and their collaborators, to think of the Jews as something different, something other, something expendable, some thing. History shows: Most people have trouble treating a fellow human barbarically, but if you can trick yourself into thinking they’re not really like you, it gets a lot easier.

Jan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife Focus Features
Jan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

To this point, the film sets up a sharp visual contrast between the dirty, crowded, frightening ghetto into which the Jews are forced and the relatively clean and open zoo in which the animals live. When animals are permitted a more comfortable home than humans, what does that mean about a culture?

But as the war continues, both the animals and the Jews experience more senseless cruelty at the hands of the soldiers (and, eventually, Dr. Heck). The Zookeeper’s Wife paints the moral slope as a slippery, gradual thing that anyone’s capable of sliding down.

The deep love between Jan and Antonina, and their steadfast efforts to help their neighbors — so recently made to feel like animals by the Nazis — to regain their dignity through not just safe haven but empathy makes for a beautiful film (if not a terribly morally complex one). The Zookeeper’s Wife is a simple historical tale that serves as both a fresh reminder of the ease with which we dehumanize one another and the kind of care that honors life.

The Zookeeper’s Wife opens in theaters on March 31.

The controversial deal is off: a Chinese company won’t be investing in Kushner Companies
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Earlier in March, reports revealed that a real estate company owned by the family of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser in the White House, was on the brink of signing a staggeringly lucrative deal with a Chinese company with murky ties to the Chinese government.

Now, just a week after Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to the White House expressing dismay over the array of conflicts of interest that the transaction posed, the deal has been called off.

As CNN reports, Kushner Companies says that it “mutually agreed” to end talks with Anbang, an insurance giant in China that’s been aggressively buying high-profile properties in the US for years. Kushner Companies made no mention of ethics concerns, and neither the White House nor Anbang have yet made comments on the collapse of the deal.

But it’s certainly plausible that the deal was called off because it could’ve ended up being politically costly for the Trump administration at a time when its policy agenda is faring poorly. There were a number of red flags surrounding the transaction that led government ethics experts to say the deal could have been a particularly flagrant instance of the Trump administration’s continued refusal to use safeguards to ensure that its members — including the president himself — do not exploit their power for private financial gain.

The terms of the deal were pretty sweet for Kushner Companies

According to a Bloomberg report published earlier in March, Kushner Companies was set to receive $400 million in a deal in which Anbang would’ve invested in the Kushner Companies’ flagship Manhattan office tower at 666 Fifth Ave. The deal valued their office building at $2.85 billion, which made it the highest valuation of a single Manhattan building ever. Kushner sold his stake in the building to his family before entering the White House.

There were many different components to the massive $4 billion transaction, but the terms of the deal were clearly a home run for Kushner Companies. The expensive Fifth Avenue property has struggled a great deal since the financial crisis, and Anbang’s investment would’ve provided the company with a cash payout and an equity stake in a new partnership.

There were two other elements of the deal that were particularly eye-catching. First, the lenders financing the project were not known.

The other striking detail was that the deal paid off almost all of a $250 million mortgage that Kushner Companies took out for the building. “According to the deal documents, the Kushners will settle the debt for just $50 million,” Bloomberg reported.

That was one-fifth of the original value of the loan. Bloomberg reported that some real estate experts considered the deal “unusually favorable” for the Kushners.

Anbang is tightly connected to the Chinese government

Anbang, a Beijing-based company with more than $250 billion in assets, is notoriously opaque. But we do know that Anbang, like many major businesses in China, is steeped in ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

Its owner, Wu Xiaohui, was able to secure a set of difficult-to-obtain licenses when he created the company in 2004, in an industry mainly populated by government-owned enterprises. He’s married to the granddaughter of Deng Xiaoping, the former iconic leader of China who helped oversee major reforms to the country’s economy in the 1980s.

Anbang also has business ties to Wen Yunsong, the son of former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, as well as Chen Xiaolu, a former army officer whose father was a major figure in China’s Communist Revolution.

So how serious are these connections? Serious enough that after Anbang bought the Waldorf Astoria in New York, it caused Barack Obama to break with a presidential tradition dating back to Herbert Hoover in which the president stays at the Waldorf during the annual UN General Assembly. Fearing possible espionage, in 2015 he declined to stay at the premier luxury hotel and stayed at one just a block away instead.

Kushner isn’t too far from the money either

Kushner doesn’t have an ownership stake in 666 Fifth Ave. — he sold it to a family trust upon entering the White House as an adviser to the president. Kushner Companies has declined to say who exactly controls it, but his mother and siblings are beneficiaries of the trust. It’s unclear if Kushner plans to go back into real estate when he leaves Washington.

Lawrence Noble, the general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, said during an interview after the initial report of the emerging deal that, given the reported facts, there wasn’t any evidence that federal ethics rules were being broken.

“The core ethics rule of matters affecting personal financial interest would not seem to apply if [Kushner] has totally divested himself of his financial interests in the building,” he told me. “And there are other rules involving using non-public information for someone’s financial benefit, but it doesn’t appear it would apply at this point in this situation.”

But Noble cautioned that the principles of government ethics were being threatened by the deal.

“One of the classic things that you see in cases dealing with corruption is where people try to influence a government official by financially benefiting their family,” he said. “That often goes on because directly benefiting a government official may be too obvious and may be illegal.”

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for the watchdog group Public Citizen, noted in an interview when the deal was first reported that it could’ve influenced how Kushner deals with China going forward.

“The fact that the most prominent company involved [in the deal] is a Chinese one with its own murky links to the Chinese government raises questions on how this could impact everything from currency manipulation to espionage to the One China policy,” she says.

Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have both been working on US-China policy in the Trump administration. Beijing has taken measures to circumvent the typical diplomatic protocols of working through the State Department and has courted both of them directly. One of the main policy issues in Kushner’s portfolio is trade, an issue of paramount importance to China in light of Trump’s threats to slap huge punitive tariffs on Chinese goods, an act that could rip a hole in China’s economy.

It’s impossible to say if the terms of the deal that Anbang had struck with Kushner’s family business were in any way politically motivated — if it was a favor with an expectation that it would be reciprocated or a bid for some kind of access. Or maybe it was none of those things. But that in and of itself was an issue.

“Even confidence in the best decisions is going to be questioned even by the appearance of potential conflicts of interests,” Noble says. “You end up debating things you shouldn’t have to debate.”

Trump's executive order is a gift to coal executives. It won’t do anything for coal miners.
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Don’t expect any new coal production or jobs.

UPDATE March 29, 1:40 p.m.: According to a press briefing with Interior Secretary Zinke, the formal review of the federal coal leasing program launched by the previous administration has in fact been scrapped (contrary to what the post below anticipated). It is still unclear what exactly this means, but it is a much more significant change than the lifting of the moratorium. Stay tuned.


In January 2016, the Department of Interior placed a temporary moratorium on the leasing of federal land to private companies for the purposes of coal mining.

Today, President Trump signed an executive order that, among other things, reversed that moratorium.

Will it matter? Eh. Not really.

The resumption of federal coal leasing won’t boost short-term coal production. It won’t slow, much less halt, the ongoing decline in coal mining jobs, or affect the price of electricity. It will do nothing for the coal miners to whom Trump has so vigorously pandered. All it may do is subsidize the future profits of a few coal company executives.

Like much of Trump’s record so far, it is almost comically plutocratic policy smeared with a thick sheen of populist rhetoric.

To understand why this particular aspect of Trump’s new EO is such a nothingburger, let’s get some context.

There’s a moratorium because the federal coal leasing program is under review

DOI placed a moratorium on new coal leases last year because it was launching the first comprehensive review of the federal coal leasing program in three decades.

It was clear to all concerned that the result of the review would be higher prices for leased land. It would be silly to allow coal companies to race to buy up a bunch of artificially cheap leases before the review concludes. Thus the moratorium.

The coal leasing program is a big deal because roughly 40 percent of coal produced in the US comes from federal land. The government leases tracts of public land — primarily, but not exclusively, in the Powder River Basin, in Montana and Wyoming — to coal companies, which mine it and sell the coal at a profit.

powder river basin
The Powder River Basin.

For years, critics — including the government’s own General Accountability Office and the Interior inspector general — have been saying that the leasing program is outdated, poorly run, and a bum deal for taxpayers. (If you want the full scoop, read Brad Plumer’s backgrounder, or this report from the Center for American Progress.)

The short version is: Leases are often sold at auctions with only one bidder, at ludicrously below-market prices, and do not take into account the leased coal’s environmental impacts, including its impact on climate change.

By selling its coal at bargain-basement prices, the US public is effectively subsidizing coal companies — to the tune of, according to one study, $28.9 billion over the past 30 years.

And that’s just the difference between leasing prices and average market prices. It’s to say nothing of what the leasing price would be if the impacts of the coal’s carbon emissions were taken into account.

Subsidizing coal companies to mine coal has been, to say the least, at odds with US environmental policy, which seeks to reduce air local pollutants and greenhouse gases. Coal is a serial offender on both counts.

sally jewell (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)
Sally Jewell, illustrating coal’s decline with hand gestures.

Last year, in response to such criticisms, then–Interior Secretary Sally Jewell launched a formal, comprehensive review of the program — a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), to be specific. You can read about it here.

The full PEIS is expected to take three years. At this point, DOI is roughly a year into it. This past January, with the help of hundreds of thousands of public comments, it released a report, which diagnosed the problems with the leasing program and laid out a road map for the reform process.

The report detailed “the need for modernization” aimed at “ensuring a fair return to Americans for the sale of their public coal resources, assessing the structure and efficiency of the coal program in light of current market conditions, and considering impacts on communities and the environment including climate change.”

It also identified a number of reforms that would be taken “in the near future,” including increased transparency and adjusted rates.

Anyway, the review process is ongoing. While it is ongoing, the DOI had resolved not to issue any new leases, because “it would not be responsible to continue to issue new leases under outdated rules and processes.”

That’s the moratorium Trump just lifted.

Neither the moratorium nor lifting the moratorium matters much to coal production

DOI was confident that the pause on new leases would have no impact on production, prices, or power reliability. “Based on current production levels,” the agency wrote last year, “coal companies now have approximately 20 years of recoverable coal reserves under lease on federal lands.”

And 20 years of reserves hadn’t proven sufficient, the moratorium also contained provisions allowing for “emergency” exceptions for any mine that ran short.

Production won’t increase after the moratorium because the moratorium wasn’t really holding any back. Now that it’s lifted, “the small number of pending leases held up by the moratorium will likely move forward after BLM completes their environmental reviews,” says Dan Bucks, former Montana director of revenue, but they “are too few and too modest in coal volume to have any lasting market significance.”

Gillette, Wyoming open strip mine. (Wikipedia)
A coal mine in Gillette, Wyoming.

The amount of land leased to coal companies has been steadily declining for years. Due to coal’s recent battering, the DOI reports that many current lease applications “are on hold at the companies’ request due to reductions in market demand for coal.”

In short, it’s unlikely much new land was going to be leased in the next several years, no matter what DOI’s policy.

Now, however, there’s a window of opportunity for coal companies. Lifting the moratorium, says Jayni Foley Hein of the Institute for Policy Integrity, “will allow new lease sales to go forward using the same outdated minimum bids, rental rates, and stagnant royalty rates that have been used for decades.”

It’s a sweetheart deal, and it will only last until the PEIS is done. After that, leasing will get more expensive. This perverse incentive “could result in the coal industry proposing a significant number of new leases,” says Bucks, “largely to secure unjustified subsidies for future coal reserves.”

Coal companies may hedge their bets by buying up leases while they’re cheap. But they’ll just sit on those leases until they need them. It won’t result in any new productions or jobs, just a nice bit of future pocket padding for coal execs.

The real issue is the review of the leasing program

The issue of lasting significance is not the moratorium but the PEIS process itself — whether the reforms that Jewell put into motion will be carried forward by new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Serious leasing reform could substantially reduce US carbon emissions. (If the US took its long-term carbon targets seriously, it would leave all the coal in the ground.) Any foreseeable reform wouldn’t be enough to make up for the loss of the Clean Power Plan, but it would make a dent. It might be the only carbon-reduction policy Trump hasn’t gone after directly yet.

coal (Shutterstock)
Nom nom.

Yet. Thus far, no official statements have been made on the PEIS. Zinke has said some vaguely supportive (if also confusing) things about the review (he wants to make coal leases less like “junk bonds” and more like “AA bonds”), but other than that, there’s little indication where the review process will go under the new administration. “He’d have a good reason” to go forward with the review, “considering that two-thirds of Americans support reforms to the federal coal program,” says Nicole Gentile of the Center for American Progress, “but I’m not sure we have much insight on what he meant.”

The steep budget cuts that Trump intends for DOI (10 percent, reportedly) do not bode well for any of its internal initiatives, but Zinke has said he will fight those cuts. As always with this bunch, who knows?

It is revealing that Trump wants to resume a program the government itself says is ripping off taxpayers. But it’s ultimately a sideshow.

The PEIS is the prize. It could define the government’s approach to coal on federal land for another 30 years, determining whether generations of taxpayers are fairly compensated for the value — and the mounting long-term costs — of the coal on their shared land.

One of the few bright spots in Trump’s budget blueprint was bogus
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Trump’s budget claimed to add $500 million to fight the opioid epidemic. It turns out it doesn’t.

One of the silver linings in President Donald Trump’s first budget blueprint was the supposed addition of $500 million in fiscal year 2018 to fight the opioid epidemic. Finally, it seemed, Trump was living up to his promise to “expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted.”

We now know, however, that Trump’s budget blueprint line on opioids was misleading — and Trump is not, in fact, proposing an increase in drug treatment spending above funding that already exists.

The budget blueprint promised “a $500 million increase above 2016 enacted levels to expand opioid misuse prevention efforts and to increase access to treatment and recovery services to help Americans who are misusing opioids get the help they need.”

It turns out that the $500 million referenced in this line is actually funding that was already approved by Congress and President Barack Obama — not Trump — late last year in the 21st Century Cures Act. That law added $1 billion for drug treatment over two years — $500 million in the current fiscal year (2017) and $500 million in the next fiscal year (2018). Trump played no role in this additional funding.

Asked by US Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) about this, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price confirmed that’s the case. “I think the $500 million is the $500 million from the Cures Act,” Price said. “Yes, ma’am.”

I previously asked Trump administration officials if this was the case, but I got no straight answers. Now we have confirmation — an indication that Trump really may not do much more on one of the biggest public health crises facing America today, even as drug overdoses now kill more people annually than cars or guns.

So far, Trump is all talk, no action on opioids and drug treatment

The news is telling: It suggests that despite Trump’s promises on the campaign trail, he won’t, based on his planned budget and other actions, spend more on drug treatment to deal with the opioid crisis.

But there’s a case to be made for more spending. According to 2014 federal data, at least 89 percent of people who met the definition for a drug abuse disorder didn’t get treatment. Patients with drug use disorders also often complain of weeks- or months-long waiting periods for care. (Even Prince, a rich superstar musician, couldn’t access care quickly enough — and died as a result.) More spending could help alleviate these gaps.

Trump on Wednesday rolled out a commission, headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, that may in part evaluate whether some federal funding streams could be redirected to address the crisis. But it remains unclear whether the commission will actually do, well, anything. It will put out a preliminary report in three months and a final one in the fall with its findings, and it will then be up to the Trump administration to decide whether to put those recommendations into effect.

What we do know is that Trump’s budget won’t increase drug treatment spending. We also know Trump has proposed $100 million in cuts to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s mental health block grants, which could ultimately impact some addiction services. And we know the health care reform bills that Trump has supported could cut as many as 2.8 million people with drug use disorders from their health insurance.

This is the reality of Trump’s policy on opioid epidemic: a lot of talk, but so far very little, even negative, action — as tens of thousands of people die of overdoses every year.

For more on the opioid epidemic, read Vox’s in-depth explainer and visual explainer.

President Trump's executive order on "energy independence," annotated by an environmental law expert
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

This executive order is designed to do two key things: first, to undo the Obama administration’s significant achievements in climate policy — appealing to the minority of Americans who share President Trump’s view that climate change is a “hoax” and agree with his budget chief’s pronouncement that it is a “waste of your money.” And second, to prop up the oil, gas, and coal industries at the expense of not only climate change mitigation but also clean air, water, and land, and wildlife and natural resources.

Some of the highlights from the order include:

• Revoking several Obama executive orders and memos related to his signature climate action plan

• Instructing all agencies to initiate the process of identifying and rescinding any rules or policies implementing the climate action plan

• Instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to begin the process of unraveling the Clean Power Plan, which set standards for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants

• Instructing the Department of Interior to begin the process of unraveling commonsense rules for oil and gas extraction on federal land, including national parks

• Lifting a moratorium on new coal leasing on federal lands (existing leases were not affected) while the government assessed environmental and economic issues associated with the leasing program

Notably missing from the order is any mention of the United States’ commitment under the Paris climate agreement to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. But there’s no doubt that Trump’s insistent denial of climate change will make it much harder to keep our commitment, and represents a major setback for keeping global temperatures away from a catastrophic tipping point.

Also missing from the order is any connection to job creation, beyond the rhetorical. Well before the Obama climate action plan, market forces had already dealt a serious blow to coal’s economic prospects. Natural gas’s low prices enabled it to become a direct competitor of coal in the electric sector, and the two now directly compete. To the extent that Trump’s executive order eases regulation on the extraction of natural gas, he has only pressed these market forces harder against coal.

It is well within the executive power to depart from prior administrations’ policy preferences. But in implementing those policy changes, agencies must provide reasonable explanations for the changes that are consistent with their “enabling statutes” and missions. Climate change presents a particularly sticky problem in this regard, because it is backed by an overwhelming scientific consensus. Expect this executive order to be a rallying cry for the upcoming Earth Day and March for Science protests, and count on numerous legal challenges.

(Emily Hammond is a professor of law at the George Washington University specializing in energy law, environmental law, and administrative law. Below is the full text of the executive order, with her annotations.)

74% of Republicans think it's at least "somewhat likely" Trump Tower was wiretapped
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Here’s a startling and depressing statistic: 74 percent of Republican voters think it’s at least “somewhat likely” that Donald Trump’s offices were wiretapped during the campaign — a conspiracy theory that has been conclusively shot down by the leaders of Trump’s own party and by the heads of both the FBI and the National Security Agency.

That suggests the Trump administration’s strategy of refusing to back away from the unfounded assertion may be paying off, at least with his GOP base, and at least for the moment. It also suggests House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes’s efforts to deflect attention away from Trump by making unfounded allegations of his own could be working politically, despite what they’re doing to the lawmaker’s own credibility.

The findings come in a new CBS News poll that found just 13 percent of Republicans accept the US intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump, compared with 40 percent of Democrats. The divide is even more striking when it comes to Trump’s allegation that President Obama ordered the FBI to tap his phones during the campaign:

Those numbers should be troubling, regardless of one’s party affiliation. Trump has had a rocky few months in office, but it’s understandable how many conservatives would still find much to like in his stated commitment to pursuing some form of tax reform and in his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Neither will be easy, but wins on both are well within the realm of the possible.

Russia is a different story. An array of Trump aides are known to have lied about their contacts with Moscow, and the entire US intelligence community — literally every part of it — believes Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and timed the release of specific troves of emails to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump. The GOP used to be a party that boasted about its support of law enforcement and its staunch opposition to Russia. Trump is somehow managing to change all that.

Trump isn’t the only one trying to hide his campaign’s ties to Russia

In fairness, Trump is getting valuable help from the person charged with leading the congressional investigation into Russia’s election meddling: Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chair.

As I wrote this morning, the seven-term GOP lawmaker — and member of the Trump transition team — is at the center of a widening scandal over whether he has been collaborating with the White House to shield Trump from the continuing political fallout over the president’s wiretapping allegations.

The Nunes controversy began last Wednesday, when he used a pair of press conferences to announce that he’d seen intelligence reports showing that US spies “incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition,” including the president himself as well as others who now work in the administration.

Nunes later said he met with an unnamed source at the White House complex who gave him classified information purportedly validating some of Trump’s claims. (To be clear: It doesn’t.)

Nunes has steadily refused to detail the information or identify his source. The fact that he met that unnamed person at the White House complex raises the real possibility that the source was a member of the administration. In other words, Nunes may have used information he received from the Trump White House itself to publicly try to deflect blame from Trump.

None of that has changed the fact that the congressman’s deliberately vague and murky explanations of exactly what he’s seen — and where he’s gotten it — may have helped Trump persuade at least part of the American public that the president’s wiretapping allegations have some validity (again, they don’t).

In the immediate aftermath of Nunes’s disclosures, Trump said the comments left him feeling “somewhat” vindicated, while the Republican Congressional Committee sent a list-building email with the subject line “Confirmed: Obama spied on Trump.”

Nunes said no such thing, and his comments did no such thing. But that may not matter for many GOP voters. In the current environment, real news gets dismissed as fake news, fake news gets accepted as fact, and we wind up with an unfounded conspiracy theory being accepted by three-quarters of Republican voters. All that and we’re not even to April yet.

What the Republican online privacy bill means for you
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

The new Republican Congress hasn’t gotten much done in its first three months, but one thing it has accomplished is rolling back internet privacy regulations passed in the waning days of the Obama administration.

The regulations, if they had gone into effect, would have prohibited internet service providers from selling information about your online activities to advertisers. But yesterday the House of Representatives blocked the move. Companion legislation has already passed the Senate, and President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill.

That has sparked a backlash from Democrats and many privacy advocates. Michael Copps, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, called the bill a “perversion of what the internet was supposed to be.” And many ordinary internet users wondered what they should do to protect their online privacy.

The good news is that nothing is going to change right away. The Obama regulations weren’t scheduled to take effect until later this year, so the Republican bill simply preserves the status quo, which allows ISPs to sell customer data to advertisers. And while the law currently allows ISPs to do this, most aren’t currently doing it.

What the bill does do, however, is open the door for ISPs to sell customer data to advertisers in the future. Which means that customers who don’t want their ISPs sharing this kind of information with advertising networks are going to have to do some extra work to opt out of any programs their ISPs eventually put into place.

It won’t be easy for customers to protect their privacy

TimeWarner Cable Company's Customers Suffer Nationwide Internet Service Outage Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin has the most thorough explanation of the Republican bill and the Obama regulations it blocks. A key point he makes is that all the major ISPs have promised that if they start selling customers’ private data to advertisers, they’ll give customers a chance to opt out.

So if you don’t want to participate in a program like this, you’ll need to keep an eye out for announcements by your ISP.

The problem is that it’s not clear where a program like this might be announced and what customers might have to do to get themselves excluded. It’s possible customers will get an email announcing the change, but it’s also possible ISPs will simply post a notice in an obscure corner of their websites, where most customers won’t notice. We also don’t know when any particular ISP might announce a program like this. So if you’re worried, there might not be a better option than periodically checking your ISP’s website or setting up a Google News alert for your ISP’s name and privacy.

This, of course, is exactly what ISPs were counting on when they lobbied for this change. In theory, there shouldn’t be much difference between the opt-in regime established by the Obama administration and the opt-out regime advocated by Republican lawmakers. But most customers have better things to do with their lives than constantly monitor their ISPs’ privacy policies. So in practice, an opt-out regime means that almost everyone winds up participating without their knowledge, while an opt-in regime will mean that hardly anyone participates.

There’s also a fair amount of bad advice floating around the internet about how customers can protect themselves. For example, some people have suggested that people regularly delete the search histories in their web browsers. But that won’t do any good because this isn’t where ISPs get information about customer browsing history. Rather, they would keep their own records as customers browsed around the web and store it on servers owned by the ISP — servers customers don’t have any direct access to.

One step customers can take is to use a virtual private network (VPN), a product that uses encryption to “tunnel” out of your own ISP’s network, giving your ISP no information about your browsing history.

This isn’t a perfect solution, however. Good VPNs generally cost money, they take some effort to set up, and they will slightly degrade the speed of your internet connection. Also, while your ISP won’t be able to gather information about your browsing history, your VPN provider will — so you’d still need to check to make sure your VPN provider has strong privacy policies, and that those policies don’t change over time.

ISPs would likely take some steps to protect customer privacy

Senate Judiciary Committee Hears Testimony From FCC Leaders On Proposed FCC Privacy Rules Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
FCC Chair Ajit Pai.

There also seems to be some confusion about how these ISP data-sharing plans would work in practice. One crowdfunding campaign, for example, is trying to raise $1 million to buy the browsing history of Republican officeholders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Paul Ryan, and FCC Chair Ajit Pai. It’s a funny gimmick, but no ISP is currently selling this kind of raw data on individual subscribers. And it’s unlikely they ever will.

What ISPs are likely to do is to build profiles of customers based on their browsing history — whether customers visit sites related to travel, baseball, gun rights, LGBTQ issues, and so forth. Then, they’ll help advertisers target ads at people in particular demographic groups — say 40-something gun-rights enthusiasts. In most ad-targeting programs, no human being is ever given access to the raw data about any particular user’s browsing histories.

This is similar to what Google, Facebook, and the major ad networks do already. You might have noticed that if you visit a commercial site but don’t buy anything there, you’ll subsequently see ads for that site pop up on a wide variety of other sites you visit. That happens because ad networks use cookies to track your movement across the web.

Many of the privacy advocates who oppose ISP data sharing also oppose this kind of tracking by ad networks and technology companies. But most find ISP tracking extra creepy because ISPs have access to all of your browsing data, not just data from sites that choose to share with a particular ad network. Disabling cookies or installing an ad blocker can prevent tracking by conventional ad networks, but it won’t prevent tracking if it’s done with help from your ISP.

This, of course, is why many privacy advocates believe that legal protections for privacy are more effective than self-help by individual internet users. It’s possible for users to protect themselves with exotic tools like VPNs, but most users aren’t going to bother to do so. The advantage of a national privacy regulation is that customers get privacy by default, and ISPs have to explicitly ask them before they start sharing private data with third parties.

Gov. Chris Christie passed one of the most aggressive laws to combat the opioid epidemic
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

And President Trump is tapping him to lead a commission on the epidemic.

President Trump will soon sign an executive order that creates a commission to tackle the opioid epidemic and has reportedly put New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in charge of it.

Christie is a strong choice, given that just this February, he signed into law one of the nation’s most comprehensive laws to combat the growing opioid and heroin crisis.

New Jersey’s law reduces the supply of drugs that patients getting their first opioid prescription can obtain from 30 days to five days, which as research has shown plays a huge role in whether a person gets hooked. It also will require doctors to talk to patients about how addictive the drugs are. For addicts whose doctors have recommended treatment, the law also mandates that insurers offer 180 days of coverage without preauthorization.

“We’re starting to treat substance abuse like the chronic disease that it is,” Cynthia Reilly, the director of Pew Charitable Trusts' substance use prevention and treatment program, said of New Jersey’s law. “We don’t treat someone for diabetes for a few weeks and then expect them to be cured and stop treatment.”

New Jersey’s legislation is part of a larger national trend of states getting tougher on opioid prescriptions

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that since 1999, 165,000 people have died from overdoses linked to prescription opioid abuse and that as many as 40 Americans die each day.

And since much of the problem is due to too many opioids being prescribed and sold, the agency issued a set of guidelines last March that recommended prescribers limit initial opioid prescriptions to seven days or less. Massachusetts became the first state to enact the CDC’s guidelines, passing a law that restricted opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply.

Eight other states in the Northeast (including New Jersey) have followed suit and passed their own legislation, as you can see in the map below. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) mandated a seven-day restriction on opioid prescriptions through executive order.

Map showing which states have passed legislation to limit opioid prescriptions to 7 days or less.

Normally, public health is politically polarizing. But Republicans and Democrats are united on curtailing opioid abuse.

Of the 10 states with prescription limits, six are led by a Republican governor and four by a Democratic governor. What’s more, in a state like Massachusetts, where the governor is Republican and the state legislature is majority Democrat, they achieved not just consensus but unanimous consensus.

This kind of widespread bipartisanship support isn’t a given in public health. But the opioid problem has emerged as one of the very few health issues members of both parties are rallying around these days.

In early 2014, researchers polled US adults on their thoughts about opioid abuse. They wanted to know if Americans thought it was a serious issue and which, if any, policy solutions they supported to combat it.

Chart showing that Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to know someone addicted to opioids

It turned out that Americans on both sides of the political aisle thought opioid abuse was a serious problem, and of 16 possible policy solutions — ranging from stricter regulation of pharmaceutical companies to expanded Medicaid benefits — there was bipartisan support for all but two proposals.

The reason? People from both parties are equally likely to have known someone who has abused prescription painkillers.

Map showing substance use deaths and mental health deaths in the US in 2014

The sobering reality, according to Robert Blendon, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health who has studied public opinion around opioids, is that the opioid epidemic is so widespread in the US that it cuts across demographics, class divisions, and even political parties.

And even though certain areas of the country are harder hit than others (as you can see in the map above), researchers found that Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to consider opioid addiction to be a serious problem in their state.

The opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic, explained
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

US doctors wanted to treat pain as a serious medical problem. But when pharmaceutical companies pushed opioid painkillers with a misleading marketing campaign, they started a drug crisis.

In 2015, more Americans died of drug overdoses than any other year on record: more than 52,000 deaths in just one year. That's far more than the more than 38,000 who died in car crashes, the more than 36,000 who died due to gun violence, and the more than 43,000 who died due to HIV/AIDS during that epidemic's peak in 1995.

But this latest drug epidemic is not driven primarily by illicit drugs. It began with a legal drug: opioid painkillers.

Back in the 1990s, doctors agreed — and many still do — that America has a serious pain problem: Tens of millions of Americans experienced debilitating pain, and it was left untreated. So they looked for a solution — and, fueled by a misleading marketing push from pharmaceutical companies, landed on opioid painkillers, widely known by brand names such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin. The drugs proliferated.

But this led to unintended, devastating results. Prescription painkiller misuse went up, and overdose deaths linked to the drugs did as well. Then, as policymakers and doctors took notice of widespread painkiller misuse, they pulled back access to the drugs. But federal data shows many of these drug users didn't just quit the drugs altogether — some instead moved to a lower-cost, more potent opioid, heroin, and some are reportedly moving to the even stronger synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

As a result, more than 33,000 deadly drug overdoses in 2015 — almost two-thirds of drug overdoses that year — involved some type of opioid.

It's a big public health crisis. Surprisingly, some policymakers are treating it as a public health crisis: Whereas previous drug epidemics focused on harsh tactics typical of the war on drugs (like increased prison sentences for drug possession), the current crisis is fueling calls for more access to treatment and other public health programs.

The response shows how America's drug policies are changing. But to understand how the changes relate to the opioid epidemic, it's important to start from the beginning, with how the current drug crisis began.

A misleading marketing campaign from drug companies led to the epidemic

America has a pain problem. About 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine. This might seem like an excessive number — roughly one-third of all Americans — but it includes everyone in the chronic pain spectrum, from the silent sufferer who deals with constant back pain to the patient who can no longer move because the pain all over her body is just too much.

There isn't a single medication that will relieve all pain for all patients. But there was a huge push in the 1990s and 2000s — from drug companies in particular, the federal government's flawed "Pain as the Fifth Vital Sign" campaign, and pharmaceutical-backed advocacy efforts — that doctors do something about pain.

As Keith Humphreys, drug policy expert at Stanford University, explained, the evidence on whether opioid painkillers can even treat chronic pain is weak at best, but it's clear that prolonged use can result in very bad risks and complications.

But pharmaceutical companies saw an opportunity for profit, and they marketed opioids to doctors as a safer, more effective way to treat pain than other medications on the market.

The result: Drug companies made a lot of money as people got addicted and died.

Pharmaceutical companies' claims of safety and efficacy were, of course, inaccurate. And Purdue Pharma, producer of the opioid OxyContin, later paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for its false claims. Opioid painkillers carry a significant risk of addiction and overdose, especially for long-term users who build up a tolerance of the high and use more and more of the drug without building as much resistance for the respiratory effects that lead to overdose.

But many doctors, under pressure to treat pain more seriously, bought into the messaging from those decades and prescribed a ridiculous amount of painkillers to patients. In 2012, US physicians wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers — enough to give a bottle of pills to every adult in the country. And these pills don't just end up in patients' hands, instead proliferating to black markets, getting shared among friends and family, landing in the hands of teens who rummaged through parents' medicine cabinets, and so on.

As state and federal governments became aware of the problem, they began going after doctors and pharmacists who provided painkillers too leniently, threatening them with incarceration and the loss of their medical licenses. In 2014, the Drug Enforcement Administration reclassified some opioid painkillers from Schedule 3 to the more restrictive Schedule 2, limiting access for both patients and doctors.

Ideally, doctors should still be able to provide painkillers to the patients who really need them — after, for example, evaluating whether the patient has a history of drug addiction. But doctors who weren't conducting even such basic checks are now being told — not just through the crackdown, but by health care organizations and public education campaigns — to give more thought to their prescriptions.

Doctors don't always have to resort to opioids to treat pain as a serious medical issue. There are alternatives, such as special exercises, physical therapy, surgeries, and lifestyle changes. There's also some evidence for medical marijuana, which studies have shown to be effective at treating chronic pain and averting opioid deaths. And in some cases, some people suffering from pain may just have to find ways to live with it, because the risks of opioids simply outweigh the benefits — especially since, again, there's no good evidence that opioids can effectively treat chronic pain.

"If you tried all of that and none of it worked, what we're left with is learning to live with pain," Anna Lembke, a Stanford psychiatrist and author of Drug Dealer, MDtold me. "How can we create a lifestyle that you're comfortable with while knowing that you’re not going to be able to get rid of the pain? That becomes a spiritual, existential question for a lot of people — a very profound one that takes a lot of thoughts and efforts to have questions about. It's not something you can do in five minutes."

Despite increased awareness and the crackdown, there are still signs of some doctors doing a lot of overprescribing. A 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that a small minority of prescribers are responsible for most opioid prescriptions, although there's a lot of variation from state to state. For example, the top 1 percent of prescribers wrote one in four opioid prescriptions in Delaware in 2013, while the top 1 percent of prescribers wrote one in eight such prescriptions in Maine.

Still, the crackdown has slowed the rise in painkiller overdose deaths. But it also likely led to an increase in other kinds of opioid deaths.

Painkiller deaths have plateaued, but heroin and fentanyl have skyrocketed

When opioid users couldn't fulfill their cravings with painkillers, many turned to an opioid that is, despite its status as an illegal substance, cheaper and more accessible than the legal medicine: heroin. And increasingly, there's evidence that people are turning to yet another drug: fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that's often manufactured illegally for non-medical uses.

The data tells the story: As opioid painkiller overdose deaths plateaued around 16,000 to 17,000 starting in 2011, heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths skyrocketed. In 2015, heroin and non-methadone synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, were linked to nearly 13,000 and nearly 10,000 overdose deaths, respectively.

Though all heroin users didn't necessarily start with painkillers, it's the transition from painkillers to heroin and fentanyl, experts say, that led to much of the dramatic spike in heroin and fentanyl deaths.

Studies back this up: A 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry found many painkiller users were moving on to heroin, and a 2015 CDC analysis found people who are addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.

Heroin is even deadlier than opioid painkillers; it's far more potent, and more addictive. So even if a small number of painkiller users moved on to heroin, it would still, on a per-person basis, lead to far more deaths.

That's even more true for fentanyl, which is even more potent — and deadlier — than heroin and becoming more widespread as drug users seek out alternatives to painkillers.

What's worse, opioid users tend to mix the drugs with other substances — like alcohol and cocaine — that exacerbate the risk of an overdose. A 2003 study found roughly half of heroin-related deaths involved alcohol, and the CDC found that 31 percent of prescription painkiller–linked overdose deaths in 2011 were also linked to benzodiazepines, a legal anti-anxiety drug.

So as people used painkillers and moved on to heroin and fentanyl, they continued using all these other substances that made their risk of overdose much, much higher — and it's showing in the numbers as heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths spike.

That doesn't mean cracking down on painkillers was a mistake. It appeared to slow the rising number of painkiller deaths, and it may have prevented doctors from prescribing the drugs — or letting them proliferate — to new generations of people who'd develop drug use disorders. So the crackdown did lead to more heroin deaths, but it will hopefully prevent future populations of drug users, who could have suffered even more overdose deaths.

That's why, though they knew it could lead to a temporary spike in heroin use, state and federal agencies came down on painkillers.

The rise in heroin deaths wasn't unexpected

The results of a government crackdown on opioid painkiller prescriptions were long a concern in medical circles and among drug policy experts, who warned it could lead to a rise in heroin use.

"We always were concerned about heroin," Kevin Sabet, a former senior drug policy official for the Obama administration, told the Huffington Post in 2015. "We were always cognizant of the push-down, pop-up problem. But we weren't about to let these pill mills flourish in the name of worrying about something that hadn't happened yet. … When crooks are putting on white coats and handing out pills like candy, how could we expect a responsible administration not to act?"

The unintended consequence is a very typical result of governments' anti-drug efforts. It's called the balloon effect: When the government cracks down on one source of supply for drugs, people don't just stop using. Instead, they find another source — and the cycle continues.

The balloon effect has been observed not just with the crackdown on opioid painkillers, but with anti-drug efforts in Latin American countries. After the governments there cracked down on the illicit drug trade in the 1990s and 2000s, it simply shifted to other parts of Central and South America. This effect is one of the primary reasons the war on drugs has failed to significantly curtail drug trafficking.

As Sabet acknowledged, the government knew this was a possibility with opioids. But the feds still thought it was worth cutting off the supply of painkillers to prevent doctors and pharmacists from creating even more generations of problematic painkiller users.

But this didn't deal with all existing opioid users, who are now dying by the tens of thousands each year. To deal with that, policymakers are resorting to a mix of policies — some "tough on crime," others focused on public health programs.

The opioid epidemic has led to more emphasis on public health programs

Federal and state governments have, particularly since the 1970s, tended to respond to drug epidemics with "tough on crime" measures.

President Richard Nixon launched the modern war on drugs in 1971 in part as a response to the heroin epidemic of the time, which Nixon characterized as a "deadly poison in the American life stream." And President Ronald Reagan massively increased drug penalties in the 1980s as part of a response to the crack cocaine epidemic.

Drug policy experts widely agree that the "tough on crime" policies were too harsh and largely ineffective. Although these policies were meant to inflate the price of heroin, the drug's cost actually plummeted by more than 90 percent from 1981 to 2007. Illicit drug use, meanwhile, rose through the 2000s. And the mere existence of the current heroin crisis shows how ineffective these policies are — since they couldn't prevent a full-blown epidemic.

Nonetheless, some lawmakers are doubling down on "tough on crime" policies in an attempt to deal with the opioid epidemic. Some states, for example, are charging drug dealers and suppliers with murder if the drug leads to a deadly overdose. In conservative states, like Louisiana and Indiana, officials have actually increased punishments for heroin dealing.

But in many other states, the opioid epidemic is inviting a very different approach: one focused on public health. Dozens of states have pulled back their harsh drug laws over the past several years. Michael Botticelli, the nation's drug czar under the Obama administration and essentially the leader of the war on drugs at the time, said in 2015 that "we can't arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people."

Race and class may play a role in the softer approach. Unlike the heroin epidemic of the 1960s and 1970s and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, the current epidemic isn't a problem left to mostly urban, low-income, and black areas; the places reporting the biggest struggles with opioids — particularly in West Virginia and New Hampshire — tend to be rural and suburban, white, and middle class.

Budget concerns likely play a role, too. Faced with growing prison costs and the failure of the drug war to significantly curtail drug addiction, states have cut back on old "tough on drugs" tactics by, for example, pushing low-level offenders to specialized drug courts that attempt to put drug users in treatment and rehabilitation instead of jail and prison. (Although this approach has been heavily criticized.)

These are policy changes that should, at least in theory, benefit anyone with a drug problem who would have been doomed to prison in the past. But people with opioid use disorders will be among the first to claim the results of reform due to the ongoing epidemic.

Whatever the cause, the public health approach is in line with both public and expert opinion. Polls show that most Americans prefer treating drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. And many experts, including the International Narcotics Control Board, have asked for a greater focus on public health policies to curtail demand for drugs.

The public health responses emphasize treatment and prevention

In the places that have responded to the opioid epidemic through a public health approach, policymakers have focused on boosting access to harm reduction policies and drug treatment.

Some jurisdictions have embraced harm reduction strategies: They acknowledge that some people will always use drugs, but there are steps policymakers can take to stop that drug use from turning deadly. Various state legislatures controlled by Democrats and Republicans have, for example, passed laws allowing police and even private individuals to carry naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses. Others have tried clean-needle exchanges, which let drug users obtain clean needles if they trade in dirty ones — to avoid the risk of HIV or hepatitis infection.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers are giving more attention to drug treatment.

The federal government, for one, has stepped up general spending on treatment and prevention programs over the past few years. The Obama administration dedicated $2.5 million in 2015 to fight heroin use. The Department of Health and Human Services also unlocked more than $100 million for drug treatment in 2016. And Congress in late 2016 approved $1 billion over two years to combat the opioid epidemic.

"The main distinction with this plan is the general acknowledgment that substance use is a public health issue," White House drug czar Michael Botticelli told me in 2014, speaking to his office's budget. "We can't arrest our way out of the problem, and we really need to focus our attention on proven public health strategies to make a significant difference as it relates to drug use and consequences to that in the United States."

A drug user prepares heroin.

Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This is all trying to address a serious gap in health care: According to 2014 federal data, at least 89 percent of people who meet the definition for a drug use disorder don't get treatment. (If anything, that's likely an underestimate: Federal household surveys leave out incarcerated and homeless individuals, who are more likely to have serious, untreated drug problems.)

There are many reasons for this gap, including stigma against drug users and addiction treatment. But one key factor is that there simply aren't enough treatment options and programs out there — so often people with drug use disorders have to wait weeks or months just to get into care.

One big concern: boosting access to medication-assisted treatments for addiction like methadone and Suboxone, opioids that when taken as prescribed can supplant someone's painkiller or heroin use without a similar risk of misuse or overdose. Decades of research have deemed these drugs effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and World Health Organization acknowledge their medical value.

So different levels of government have put more resources toward treatment and prevention programs.

That doesn't mean that the old "tough on crime" approach is totally gone. The federal government and many states still impose long prison sentences for heroin-related crimes, including possession.

But it is remarkable that the current epidemic hasn't led to a response focused solely on the criminal justice system, as previous drug crises have. For drug policy reformers, it's a small step forward — a sign that drug policies are potentially shifting to a less punitive approach overall.

How the opioid epidemic became America’s worst drug crisis ever, in 15 maps and charts
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than HIV/AIDS did at its peak. These maps and charts tell the story.

America is in the middle of its deadliest drug crisis ever.

With all the other news going on, it can be easy to lose track of this fact. But it’s true: In 2015, more than 52,000 people died of drug overdoses, nearly two-thirds of which were linked to opioids like Percocet, OxyContin, heroin, and fentanyl. That’s more drug overdose deaths than any other period in US history — even more than past heroin epidemics, the crack epidemic, or the recent meth epidemic. And the preliminary data we have from 2016 suggests that the epidemic may have gotten worse since 2015.

This situation did not develop overnight, but it has quickly become one of the biggest public health crises facing America. To understand how and why, I’ve put together a series of maps and charts that show the key elements of the epidemic — from its start through legal painkillers prescribed in droves by doctors to the recent rise of the highly potent opioid fentanyl.

1) Drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined

To understand just how bad the opioid epidemic has gotten, consider these statistics: Drug overdoses in 2015 were linked to more deaths than car crashes or guns, and in fact killed more people than car crashes and gun homicides combined. Drug overdoses in 2015 also killed more people in the US than HIV/AIDS did during its peak in 1995. So just as HIV/AIDS lives in the American mind as a horrible epidemic, the current opioid epidemic should too.

2) Drug, painkiller, heroin, and other opioid overdose deaths are still on the rise

It took years of increasing deaths to get to this point, but the opioid epidemic has only gotten worse over time. The result is horrifying: Between 1999 and 2015, more than 560,000 people in the US died to drug overdoses — a death toll larger than the entire population of Atlanta.

The epidemic has by and large been caused by the rise in opioid overdose deaths. First, opioid painkiller overdoses began to rise, as doctors began to fill out a record number of prescriptions for the drugs in an attempt to treat patients’ pain conditions. Then, people hooked on painkillers began to move over to heroin as they or their sources of drugs lost their prescriptions. And recently, more people have begun moving to fentanyl, an opioid that’s even more potent and cheaper than heroin. The result is a deadly epidemic that so far shows no signs of slowing down.

3) Opioid overdoses are one reason US life expectancy declined for the first time in decades

A chart of US life expectancy.

In 2015, US life expectancy dropped for the first time in decades. There are many causes behind the drop, including rising rates of diabetes, obesity, and suicide. But a big reason for the decrease was the rise in alcohol poisonings and drug overdoses.

4) The epidemic is much worse in some states than others

Not every state in America has been equally impacted by the opioid epidemic. States like West Virginia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Ohio have been hit particularly hard, suffering far more deaths than even their neighbors on an annual basis. And the epidemic has generally been concentrated along the Rust Belt and New England — due in large part, it seems, to the enormous number of painkiller prescriptions that doctors doled out in those areas.

5) By and large, the drug overdose epidemic has hit white Americans the hardest

Chart showing that white Americans have disproportionately died from drugs in the last 16 years, but that might be changing given spikes in 2014 for black and Hispanic Americans

The drug overdose epidemic hasn’t hit people of all racial groups equally either, with white Americans suffering far more overdose deaths than their black and Latino peers. As the chart above shows, this is a shift from before the 2000s, when past drug crises tended to hit black, urban communities much harder.

One reason for the disparity may, ironically, be racism against nonwhite Americans. Studies show that doctors are more reluctant to prescribe painkillers to minorities, because doctors mistakenly believe that minority patients feel less pain or are more likely to misuse and sell the drugs. In a perverse way, this shielded minority patients from the tsunami of opioid painkiller prescriptions that got white Americans hooked on opioids and led to a wave of deadly overdoses.

6) Americans consume more opioids than any other country

Chart showing that Americans by and far consume more opioids than the rest of the world.

This is perhaps the most important chart to understand why America in particular is suffering from the epidemic: Simply put, the US consumes far more opioid painkillers than any other country in the world. When a country collectively consumes more of a deadly, addictive drug, it’s obviously going to have more deaths as a result of those drugs.

7) In some states, doctors have filled out more painkiller prescriptions than there are people

Some states have more painkiller prescriptions than people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

So why do Americans consume so many opioids? In short, it’s because doctors have prescribed a lot of them. Starting in the 1980s and ’90s, doctors were under pressure to take pain more seriously. There was some good reason for that: About 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine. So doctors — under pressure from drug companies, medical organizations, government agencies, and pain patient advocates — resorted to opioids.

The result: In 2012, US physicians wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers — enough to give a bottle of pills to every adult in the country. And these pills didn’t just end up in patients’ hands; they also proliferated to black markets, were shared among friends and family, landed in the hands of teens who rummaged through parents’ medicine cabinets, and so on.

8) Drug companies have made a lot of money from opioids

As opioid painkiller sales increased, more people got addicted — and died. Annual Review of Public Health

One of the undeniable contributors to the opioid epidemic is drug companies. Seeing the demand for doctors to take pain more seriously, drug companies pitched newer products like OxyContin as the big medical solution. The marketing was extremely misleading, often presenting these drugs as safer and more effective than other painkillers and opioids on the market — when these drugs were in fact extremely addictive and dangerous.

Ultimately, some drug companies would pay for their misleading marketing. Purdue Pharma, producer of OxyContin, in 2007 paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for its false claims. And Purdue and other opioid producers remain in legal battles over the drugs to this day.

9) At the same time, Americans report greater levels of pain

Chart showing that the number of Americans reporting chronic pain has increased from 1998 to 2010.

Despite the increase in painkiller prescriptions, studies show that Americans generally report higher levels of chronic pain than they did before the epidemic started.

This gets to a crucial point in the opioid epidemic: Despite drug companies’ marketing, opioid painkillers aren’t an effective treatment for chronic pain. There’s simply no good scientific evidence that painkillers can actually treat long-term pain as patients grow tolerant of the painkilling effects, but there’s plenty of evidence that prolonged use can result in very bad complications, including a higher risk of addiction, overdose, and death.

Yet painkillers, due to how they work, can actually trick patients into believing that the drugs are effective for chronic pain. As Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke, author of Drug Dealer, MD, recently explained:

It’s absolutely true that if you were to get opioids for your pain, it would be like a magical cure for about a month or maybe two. But after a while, there’s a very high likelihood that they would stop working. And then you would have two problems: You would have your pain, and you would be dependent on this drug and experience painful withdrawal if you try to get off [opioids].

So after prolonged use, some patients who try to stop taking opioids will feel a sudden surge of pain. They’ll likely think the pain they’re feeling is their chronic pain coming back in full force now that the painkillers are gone. In reality, the opioids have likely stopped working on the original chronic pain due to tolerance, and the surge of pain is an entirely new pain from drug dependence withdrawal. Only by slowly weaning themselves off opioids can they permanently stop this new withdrawal-induced pain.

There’s also evidence that opioids can make pain worse. Opioids might make people more sensitive to pain. They might weaken the bones.

And they might get people to behave in ways that expose them to greater injury, which of course would lead to far more pain. Lembke gave an example of someone popping extra pills to let them do more yard work: “If you take additional opioids, you can’t hear the signals from your body about what you shouldn’t be doing, and then maybe you’re going to do some long-term damage above what’s already been done.”

10) Painkillers are often prescribed for long periods of time, even though there’s no evidence they effectively treat chronic pain

Chart showing that the number of days an opioid is prescribed matters for curtailing continued use

Despite the lack of evidence for opioids’ effectiveness in treating chronic pain, doctors have resorted to prescribing the opioids to patients for exorbitant periods of time. (I can’t even count the number of people, from friends to family to colleagues, who have told me that a doctor prescribed extra weeks of pills “just to be safe.”)

This, it turns out, is extremely dangerous: A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that the risk of dependency increases dramatically for each day someone is prescribed opioids. Overly long prescriptions, then, contribute to the cycle of addiction, overdose, and death that’s spread across the US in the past few years.

Yet if opioids aren’t the answer to chronic pain, what is? There are alternative treatments, although these can involve more work (and money) than just taking a pill — such as physical therapy, massage, and acupuncture. More exotic but less tested ideas include medical marijuana and kratom.

But the reality is that, at some level, some patients struggling with chronic pain may just have to learn to live with the pain. This may sound cruel, but it’s something that’s asked of patients dealing with other chronic conditions when medicine just has no good answers. For example, a patient with heart disease might be told that she needs to eat less or adjust her activity level — potentially ruining her interests or hobbies — to avoid a heart attack as she becomes older.

“You can’t use the pills to extend your limits. You have to accept that there’s some things you just won’t be able to do anymore,” Lembke told me. “People are very resistant to that idea. I think that speaks to some of the core hope for at least Americans that they should really be able to keep doing what they were doing in their 20s, and that somehow a doctor should be able to fix them and make that happen, instead of accepting that maybe that’s something that they just can’t do anymore.”

11) States are now cracking down on opioid prescriptions

Map showing which states have passed legislation to limit opioid prescriptions to 7 days or less.

As the problem with opioid painkillers continues, different levels of government and regulatory bodies have taken steps to restrict their use. Some states, for example, have limited how long opioid painkillers can be prescribed. The idea is simple: After years of letting these painkillers run amok and kill tens of thousands of people, doctors need to be told to take a much more conservative approach to dangerous drugs.

12) Heroin is very cheap, making it an easy alternative for painkillers

As governments and regulators cracked down on painkillers, however, many people addicted to the drugs didn’t just stop using. Many instead resorted to another opioid to fill their habit: heroin. A 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry found many painkiller users were moving on to heroin, and a 2015 CDC analysis found people who are addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin. Not all painkiller users went this way, and not all heroin users started with painkillers, but painkiller use played a big role in leading more people to heroin.

The main reason for this: Heroin is extremely cheap in the black market, despite law enforcement efforts for decades to push up the price of drugs by cracking down on the illicit supply. In fact, over the past few decades, the price of heroin in the US has dramatically dropped — to the point that it’s not only cheaper than opioid painkillers sold in the black market, but frequently even candy bars.

But heroin is also more potent and, therefore, deadlier than opioid painkillers. So even though not every painkiller user went to heroin, just enough did to cause the big spike in heroin overdose deaths that America has seen over the past few years.

That doesn't mean cracking down on painkillers was a mistake. It appeared to slow the rising number of painkiller deaths, and may have prevented doctors from prescribing the drugs — or letting them proliferate — to new generations of people who’d develop drug use disorders. So the crackdown did lead to more heroin deaths, but it will hopefully prevent future populations of drug users, who could have suffered even more overdose deaths.

13) Fentanyl has become a growing problem as well

As if the rise in heroin deaths wasn’t bad enough, over the past few years there has been evidence of another opioid that’s even more potent than heroin leading to more drug overdose deaths: fentanyl. Sometimes drug users purposely seek out this drug. But often it’s laced in other substances, like heroin and cocaine, without the users knowing it, leading to an overdose.

The fact that the efforts to crack down on the supply of opioid painkillers has only led people to even more dangerous drugs hints at another lesson from the epidemic: Just cutting access to opioids isn’t enough. As long as people are addicted, they’re going to try to find ways to satisfy that addiction, even if it means using more dangerous drugs.

So while cutting access to opioids might in the long term stop the creation of new generations of people with drug use disorders, in the shorter term the country needs to devise solutions for how to get people to stop using drugs and how to make their drug use less deadly and dangerous. That’s where drug treatment, including medication-assisted treatment that replaces dangerous opioid use with safer opioids like buprenorphine, and harm reduction efforts, such as clean needle exchanges, can help.

14) Anti-anxiety drugs are involved in more overdoses as well

A chart shows the rise in benzodiazepine overdose deaths. National Institute on Drug Abuse

Opioid painkillers aren’t the only legal drug that’s killing more people. Federal data shows that benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, are also increasingly involved in overdose deaths.

This speaks to another aspect of the drug overdose epidemic: It’s not always just one drug killing people. Very often, people use multiple drugs, from painkillers to cocaine to alcohol. This is especially bad because different drugs can heighten other drugs’ risk of overdose. Alcohol and benzodiazepines, for instance, are known to compound the overdose risk of opioids.

The data speaks to this: Most benzodiazepine overdoses have involved opioids in the past few years, as the chart above shows. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously found that 31 percent of opioid painkiller overdose deaths in 2011 were also linked to benzodiazepines.

15) Most people who meet the definition for a drug use disorder don’t get treatment

While drug treatment may be the true solution to the opioid epidemic, the reality is it remains inaccessible to a lot of people. According to 2014 federal data, at least 89 percent of people who met the definition for having a drug use disorder didn’t get treatment. And that’s likely an underestimate: Federal household surveys leave out incarcerated and homeless individuals, who are more likely to have serious, untreated drug problems.

The reasons why vary. People might not have insurance to pay for drug treatment. If they do have insurance, their plans may not fully cover drug treatment. And even if their plans do cover drug treatment, there might not be enough space in treatment facilities to take them, leading to weeks- or months-long waiting periods for care.

In general, all of this suggests that the country as a whole needs to put more resources toward making drug treatment options more widespread, accessible, and affordable. So far, Congress has taken some steps to that end, including a recent $1 billion boost in drug treatment funding over two years. But as so many people with drug use disorders struggle to get into treatment and the opioid epidemic continues, the call will likely grow for more action.

Cats are natural-born performers. Just ask the director of the documentary Kedi.
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Then again, “we have hours of footage of cats licking themselves,” says director Ceyda Torun on our podcast.

The best movie of 2017 so far — if you ask me — is director Ceyda Torun’s lovely documentary Kedi, which follows the lives of several street cats in Istanbul.

Some have to scrap to stay alive, while others have developed a friendly co-existence with the locals. But all are fascinating characters and provide Torun a window into the people of Istanbul and the city’s rich history. (You can read my rave review of the film here.)

And yet mounting a documentary about cats — who might not seem to be natural-born actors in the way that, say, dogs are — might seem tricky. Sure, a cat might do something cute for the length of an internet video. But for a whole movie?

Thus, when I spoke to Torun for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I made sure to ask how her subjects felt about being filmed — which is to say if they were at least somewhat aware of the camera’s presence, or could tell it was a new addition to their relationship with the director.

Torun told me that not only were the cats aware of the camera’s presence, but some of them actually seemed to hit beats and know just what she was looking for, like a human actor might.

I found that they became aware of the camera in a very similar way that they became aware of another person. It was almost like the lens was like a giant eye to them. They could see their own reflection in it, but it was almost as if they understood that they were being filmed, and they seemed to have appreciated it.

There are many shots in the film, where you say, “Wow, how did they get that shot?” Honestly, a lot of times, cats did it for us. There’s a cat that’s on the ledge of a roof toward the end of the film, the sun is setting behind him. He walks the ledge, sits down right in front of the sunset, looks our direction, kind of blinks knowingly. Behind the camera, our jaws had dropped open. We were like, “Wow. I can’t believe he just did that!” Then we were, like, “Could you do it again?” [Laughs.] And he would go around the ledge and do it again. It was a very interesting experience.

But if they didn’t want to be filmed, they were very clear from the very beginning. They would run away, and that was the end of that.

But making Kedi wasn’t all cats taking lazy strolls along rooftops in front of the setting sun. Filming cats in Istanbul required relying on assistance from the people whose homes those cats might drift through, and it also required thinking like a cat — which meant figuring out ways to move vertically as well as horizontally.

Torun explains:

We couldn’t set up cameras in certain strategic places and hope [cats] would pass by. … It was literally endless possibilities of where cats could be.

So the only way we could achieve it was if we were at least two cameras following a cat and really imposing ourselves on people and relying on people to say, “Oh, the ginger tabby’s back.” We were in a small van, we were very mobile, and we would dart across the city and film whatever she’d be doing. …

In this particular film, the biggest challenges were, the cats wanted to also come and sit on our laps a lot and be petted a lot. ... So there were times often that we’d get in perfect frame, perfect shot, and then the cat would start walking and sit on the camera or start rubbing her face on the camera rig or start licking herself. [Groans.] We have hours of footage of cats licking themselves.

Now, obviously, the rooftop cat sitting in the sun wasn’t consciously aware of what it was doing. More likely, it was just being a cat, looking for the perfect spot to lay in to capture the last rays of the warm sun. But there’s still something evocative about the idea of a cat, looking for its best light, making sure its director is capturing it just so.

For much, much more on Kedi, street cats, and Istanbul, check out the latest episode of I Think You’re Interesting. And if you like this one, there are plenty of other great installments in the archives. More episodes are available on iTunes and Android apps.

The creators of The Flintstones comic on bringing existential dread to Bedrock
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

DC Comics made the Flintstones sad. These geniuses are the culprits. 

The most emotionally devastating comic book in recent memory features a man coming to grips with his obsolescence, questioning humanity’s squandering nature and gross consumerism, and coping with the scars of war.

His name is Fred Flintstone.

Created by writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh, The Flintstones is obsessed with the human frailty that permeates the colorful, funny, Yaba-daba-doo Time Bedrock that many of us grew up with. It uses Bedrock’s first family and Hanna-Barbera’s gag-filled prehistoric vision to tell a basic truth about human nature: that a civilization’s first steps to survival involves someone else’s doom.

It’s all heavy stuff, and given the recent trend of cartoons and comic books going dark and grimy, the Flintstones’ existential crisis could easily be a gimmick in the hands of anyone but Russell and Pugh. The two imbue the comic with a stunning thoughtfulness and humanity that makes this melancholy swerve work for the modern Stone Age family. The Flintstones is a comic that aches and breathes, and that seeks to give us clarity about our own lives.

Pugh and Russell’s run is being released as a collected volume this week, and I recently got the chance to talk to the two about the creative process, the book’s rare glimmers of happiness, and how they determined that best approach to a cartoon known for its prehistoric puns was inescapable existentialism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Abad-Santos

Mark, I read in another interview about your intense dislike for Flintstones vitamins. Did you make this book so sad because you hated the Flintstones vitamins so much?

Mark Russell

 Pugh/DC Comics

No, I didn't even really take into account when writing the book, believe it or not. I did have to take advantage of the opportunity of writing a Flintstones comic to make a jab at Flintstones vitamins, which you might have seen in issue 2, when Fred looks directly at the reader and he says, "Vitamin pills are a scam."

Alex Abad-Santos

You said they tasted like batteries.

Mark Russell

I found it very gratifying to put that in Flintstones comics. Yeah, basically what you're paying for is expensive urine.

Alex Abad-Santos

On a more serious note, one of the reoccurring themes of the comic is wanting to feel significant in a world where you're terminally insignificant. How did you guys realize that was the theme that you wanted to go with the Flintstones?

Mark Russell

As a writer, I feel like I don't choose what I'm going to write about so much as it chooses me. I write about the things that bother me, and one of the things that bothers me is how we're continually dehumanized by the minutia and the pettiness of the world around us. So that's something I didn't really set out to make a comic about, but it's something that sort of imbues the comic that I'm writing, because it's something that weighs on me.

Steve Pugh

Visually, it was kind of up to me to back Mark up in that approach. Probably the best visual representation of that is Fred himself. He's a huge man, huge barrel-chested ex-army guy, who 20 years earlier could take anything that the world threw at him. But now that world is moving on, his physical strength and his power is almost meaningless in the new situation in which he finds himself. Civilization is now sort of edging him to the side, because all the things that made him able to cope with the world are the things that are making him not part of it any more.

 Pugh/DC Comics

Mark Russell

I think that one of the fundamental features of civilization is that it tends to reduce people to their economic functions, and that's something I think is more clear with the animal appliances, that even their names are just what their function is in the house, like “Lamp” and “Coatrack” and “Bowling Ball.” Those are the only names they know each other by, and it's basically just because when you're living in an interconnected societal economy, that's how people tend to see you and what you therefore are usually reduced to — your economic function.

Alex Abad-Santos

Another theme of the book is the consequence of consumerism. At first, you’re like, "Oh wow, this turtle's so cute, because he's holding ice cream," and then after Fred and Wilma go to the mall and they start buying the power goat lawnmower, you start realizing these animals have emotions too, and they just kind of get tossed off.

Mark Russell

I think that consumerism, basically what it is is a cute dystopia. I think that most dystopias you see in literature are gray and dark and usually very conformist. The United States, and I think in most industrial countries, we don't recognize ourselves as dystopias because we're colorful, we're marketed to, things are bright and shiny. Our dystopia looks more like a Taco Bell than a concentration camp.

Alex Abad-Santos

How is that reflected in The Flintstones’ art?

Steve Pugh

It's something I learned as I went through the book, how to pitch especially the animal appliances, how cartoony to make them and how realistic to make them in different circumstances, and enable them to be able to emote enough to empathize with them.

And as far as the human characters go, it was important that they sort of not realize what they're doing to these animals. These are good people doing bad things to other living creatures, but they don't get it yet. If somebody kind of took them aside and explained what they were doing, they'd be horrified. But because the society they're working in doesn't perceive these values, they're completely oblivious to the chaos they're causing.

Alex Abad-Santos

That comes through in Issue #3, with the aliens Spring Breaking in Bedrock, this whole idea that the aliens are treating Bedrock’s civilians the way Bedrock’s finest treated the people who came before them.

Mark Russell

I think it's one of the themes of The Flintstones overall, that every civilization we see is built on somebody who was murdered or kicked out of the land they were occupying. There's this uncomfortable family history to every country, every civilization on Earth. As we become more civilized we pride ourselves on being more ethical people, but the old things, like imperialism and conquest, take on different forms. They don't really go away. Instead of actually militarily occupying the land and kicking out the occupants, we simply go there on spring break and trash the place.

Alex Abad-Santos

Fred's a war veteran in this series, and it seems everyone has their own sort of damage. Does that tie back to the concept of our “uncomfortable” family history?

Mark Russell

I wanted to do something with the Water Buffaloes [the organization Fred and Barney belong to], but in the old 1960s cartoon, the Water Buffaloes were just sort of a gentleman's club — you know, like the Rotary or the Lions — and it didn't really feel very relevant to me. What did feel relevant was a lot of vets returning home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how we really haven't created anything for them to come back to. So that to me felt like a much more relevant use of the Water Buffaloes than going back and sort of visiting this Mad Men-era social club for gentlemen who just want to get away from the wives for a few hours.

 Pugh/DC Comics

Alex Abad-Santos

In one of the issues, Fred and Barney’s friend — a Water Buffalo down on his luck — actually is excited at the idea of getting back to war again.

Mark Russell

Yeah, again, it's about them having been reduced to this role that they play, as opposed to being celebrated or given appreciation for just being the human beings that they are.

Steve Pugh

Mark came up with the cool conceits way before I was brought on board, and when I read the script about the Water Buffaloes being veterans, it was one of those ideas that's obvious once somebody's thought of it. You see it on the page and you think, "Of course, that's beautiful, that's perfect," but it took Mark to think of it, and it works really, really well. It's a little pin in the map that you can hang a lot of the other stuff around.

Alex Abad-Santos

Steve, when Mark tells you that he wants to take the Water Buffaloes in this direction, what’s your thought process? How do you tackle that idea?

Steve Pugh

Mark doesn't put in a huge amount of visual data. He lets me kind of run with the ball. What I have to do is read the dialogue, read the characters, and then build things to support that. I call them gags. They're not gags, but these set pieces. It's implicit in the way these characters are relating to each other, so I can tell roughly the age and the demeanor and the body language of these characters just from what they're saying, almost, and for the most part we've managed to stay in sync. I haven't made too many errors, I hope, or he hasn't mentioned if I have.

Alex Abad-Santos

I'm not a visual person, I can’t draw, so it's hard for me to think about things spatially or know where to even start visually. But when you said “body language” — that clicked.

Steve Pugh

Some artists really, really want everything on the page, almost like an Alan Moore-full description of the situation. I'm fine with that not being there. The main thing for me is I understand the motivation of the characters. If I know what they're feeling about a situation, then everything else is fine. But sometimes you get a script where it's not really obvious if the character's happy or sad or indifferent about what's happening to them, and then it's a nightmare, because a lot of what I do is based on body language and facial expression. But it's never a problem with Mark's scripts. They always have the meat of the character in there.

Mark Russell

Sometimes I'll send a script off and the artwork will come back different than what I envisioned, but it's always better than what I had imagined, so I've learned to give Steve as little direction as possible and let him surprise me with what he comes up with.

Steve Pugh

Great lesson. Write that down, Alex.

Alex Abad-Santos

The comic’s also deeply skeptical of nightly news and journalism. Where does that come from? Is that a dig at how we present stories over time?

Mark Russell

It's about trying to figure out what people are going to watch and give it to them, as opposed to actually thinking about stories — and you know, it's a very human thing. We all do it. We're more about getting the interest of other people than we are about thinking deeply about the actual problems.

The problem is that we're always chasing other people's approval. In a lot of ways in life we're playing a game of Family Feud, where we're trying to guess the most popular answers as opposed to the correct ones. That's sort of the cardinal sin that Bedrock News makes, and where journalism goes wrong, is they're trying to figure out what people want to hear as opposed to telling them actual facts or the truth about problems in Bedrock.

Alex Abad-Santos

The book also has a skeptical and perhaps grim view of religion and morality.

Mark Russell

I don't think it's a grim view of religion. I think they're just — it's trial and error. They're trying to figure out what people need from religion, and the bottom line is we all approach the universe incomplete and with different holes inside of us that need filling by spirituality. And so they're going through a period of trial and error where they're trying to figure out what's going to serve people's spiritual needs.

It doesn't diminish the efforts to try to find something that people can latch onto that makes them feel connected to the universe, by virtue of them getting it wrong once in a while. It's just that this is what happens. We get it wrong, and we're trying to figure out what other people need. The problems that institutions have is trying to present an institutional solution to what is basically a personal need.

 Pugh/DC Comics

Steve Pugh

There is also the aspect that you brought in of the two forces at play in Bedrock, where you've got the science guy and you've got the religion guy, and they're both trying to win over the crowd. They're both trying to find their way, and they're both relatively honest about what they believe. The science guy doesn't really know what's going on, but he's really trying to find out, and the religious guy, he's really trying to find his way. You know, he wants people to be good. He wants people to care about each other.

There's no intent to ridicule science or religion as bad things, but where they are in the story in Bedrock, in prehistoric times, they're really out of their depth. They're just finding their way on the start of their journeys.

Alex Abad-Santos

Maybe I’m leaning on the words grim and skeptical too much. But there's definitely an idea in the book that you should be questioning what you’re presented.

Mark Russell

I think in the end what we're saying is that everybody's really just guessing. It doesn't mean they're bad people if they get it wrong, but they're ultimately guessing. The fact that there's an authority, whether it's in the church or science or in politics, telling you something doesn't absolve you of the duty of thinking for yourself.

Alex Abad-Santos

The book has often been described as melancholy, but in a lot of interviews I've read with you guys you always say something to the effect of, "There are funny and joyful parts in it.” So what is the most joyful part in The Flintstones?

Mark Russell

I think for me, I really like the friendship between Bowling Ball and Vacuum Cleaner.

Alex Abad-Santos

That they both live in a dark closet?

 Pugh/DC Comics

Mark Russell

Yeah, they're basically domestic appliances that don't have a lot to look forward to in life, but they find each other. They find great solace in their relationship, and I think that's ultimately what we all do. Everything we have that's worth having ultimately comes from other people.

Steve Pugh

I like Pebbles and Bam-Bam goofing around, but I do … Hmm. I know they're in there, because I remember going, "Oh, that's nice."

Mark Russell

I think the relationship between Fred and Wilma is also very positive and genuinely loving, and is a good sort of humanizing part of the story.

Alex Abad-Santos

What about the gay couple, Adam and Steve? I feel like you guys were sitting on that one for a little bit, and in Fred and Wilma’s marriage issue it feels like you both got to say, "Yes! We get to make this joke."

Steve Pugh

There's a little thing when they meet Fred in the street, I think one of them's like ruffling his hair or something. I really enjoyed that. Yeah, you're right, that was joyful. It was a really nice moment, you know, between friends who've known each other a long time, and genuine affection between people.

 Pugh/DC Comics

Alex Abad-Santos

The flashback when you figure out what Adam and Steve mean to Fred is kind of a big deal, too. You think that it's just the obvious joke, and then it goes a bit deeper and it pays off.

Steve Pugh

That whole marriage issue was lovely. I mean, there were some terrible moments in it, but there were real nice people having nice things. Well, let me think, did nice things happen to them? I'm looking it up as I'm talking. Yeah, that was fun. That was joyful. I know it sounds weird, but you forget this [certain parts of the comic book], because this has been like a year between, a whole year for us. Why don't we do director's commentary for each issue?

Alex Abad-Santos

You should.

Mark Russell

I'm fine with that.

Steve Pugh

We can put it out as a series.

Mark Russell

Sitting in the dark, eating sandwiches while reading our comics.

Steve Pugh

Yeah, the guy who did the Battlestar Galactica TV series did that. He just sat on the sofa, watching his own TV show, drinking a glass of whiskey, talking about it. Sounded all right.

Mark Russell

That's a good gig.

Steve Pugh

Sorry [for getting sidetracked]. Thanks for taking an interest in us. It means a lot. We were surprised how much people cared about our book, and it's great.

Alex Abad-Santos

Why are you surprised? It's a great book.

Steve Pugh

Good books don't always get attention.

Alex Abad-Santos

A lot of my friends who are into comic books, they always tell me, "Oh man, you have to read The Flintstones." And I'm like, "I know. I'm reading The Flintstones, but it makes me really sad," and they're like, "I know, I'm sad too."

Mark Russell

It acknowledges the shared, sad humanity between you.

The Flintstones Vol. 1 will be available in comic book stores on March 22 and all bookstores on March 28.

The bizarre lawsuit that could still blow up the ACA insurance markets
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

With the collapse of the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Trump is stuck implementing a law he detests. He has predicted that “ObamaCare will explode,” and in his frustration he will be sorely tempted to do everything in his power to make that prediction come true.

He may have his chance. A pending court case, House v. Price (née House v. Burwell and so much turns on the name change), has given the administration a bomb it could use to blow up insurance markets across the country. At stake is the legality of the payments the federal government makes to insurance companies to help cover the medical expenses of low-income people.

Destroying those markets, however, carries huge political risks. Trump’s full-throated support for a reckless replacement bill has convinced millions of Americans that he’s intent on taking away their insurance. If their insurance does go away, they’ll probably blame him. It’s his presidency, and his problem.

By moving to defuse House v. Price, the Trump administration could signal that it means to make the best of Obamacare. At the same time, however, the case may represent the last best chance to rip the statute up from the roots. Skittish insurers are watching closely to see what the administration will do. Time is short: Insurers will have to decide very soon whether they want to participate on Obamacare’s exchanges in 2018.

The administration thus faces a stark choice, and its approach to the litigation could shape the future of health reform.

The House claimed certain governmental payments to insurance companies were unconstitutional

House v. Price was conceived in July 2014, when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to sue the Obama administration. The House accused it of making billions of dollars in illegal “cost-sharing” payments to insurance companies.

The Affordable Care Act provides two kinds of subsidies to help low- and middle-income people pay for insurance on the exchanges. Premium subsidies defray the cost of premiums for people making less than four times the poverty level. For those who make even less than that, cost-sharing reductions help cover the costs of deductibles and other out-of-pocket spending.

Although they serve similar goals, the two subsidies function in different ways. The premium subsidies are refundable tax credits that go to individuals: They are administered through the tax code. For cost-sharing reductions, the ACA requires insurers to cut their lowest-income customers a break on their out-of-pocket spending; the statute says the federal government will reimburse insurers for doing so.

Here’s the catch. The Constitution says that “[n]o Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Under the persnickety rules governing appropriations law, it’s not enough for a statute to order the government to make a payment. Congress must adopt a law that specifically appropriates the money to make that payment. And while the Affordable Care Act does link the premium subsidies to an existing appropriation, it’s silent about the cost-sharing reductions.

In the view of House Republicans, that rendered the reimbursements illegal.

The lawsuit was largely unprecedented, yet it managed to gain traction

At first, their lawsuit, filed in November 2014, was viewed as a political stunt. Fights over the appropriations power have never been hashed out in federal court, and for good reason: This is the kind of dispute that the political branches are supposed to work out between themselves, using the tools the Constitution has assigned to them. And Congress has lots of tools to bring the president to heel. It can pass new laws. It can launch investigations. It can bargain over other administration objectives. It can even move to impeach. At times, some of these options may not be politically feasible. But that just means Congress won’t use its power, not that it lacks the power to respond to executive infractions.

That’s why Congress has never been found to have standing to sue the president over a question pertaining to appropriations. Otherwise, lots of disputes that should be resolved by our elected representatives would be decided by cloistered judges with lifetime appointments — which isn’t healthy for a democracy.

On the merits, however, the House of Representatives had a point.

The Obama administration spotted the appropriations problem before the exchanges went live, and it went to Congress to ask for the cost-sharing money. Caught up in anti-Obamacare fever, however, Congress refused. That put the Obama administration in a bind. Either it could find some legal justification for making the payments or it could concede that Republicans were right — and watch the exchanges fall apart as insurers withdrew for lack of reimbursement.

Unsurprisingly, the administration opted to mount a legal defense. It argued that the appropriation for the premium subsidies could do double duty as an appropriation for the cost-sharing reductions. Both types of subsidies serve the same purpose: helping people afford insurance coverage. So in the administration’s view, Congress must have intended the same appropriation to serve for both.

One small catch: the House had identified a genuine problem, and the Obama administration had no good answer

This was a terrible argument, as I argued at the time. Before the Affordable Care Act was enacted, an existing, permanent appropriation gave the IRS the power to issue tax refunds. (That’s why it can cut you a refund check when your employer withholds more taxes than you owe.) When Congress passed Obamacare, it said the permanent appropriation for tax refunds would also cover premium subsidies — which are, after all, tax credits.

The Obama administration was therefore arguing that a permanent appropriation governing tax refunds allowed it to make the cost-sharing payments. But why? The cost-sharing reductions aren’t tax credits. They’re straight-up payments to insurance companies. It’s an enormous stretch to read an appropriation that governs refunds for individual taxpayers as also covering payments to insurers.

Nonetheless, most observers expected the House’s lawsuit to be dismissed on standing grounds. The House, however, got lucky. It drew a district court judge who was sympathetic to its argument that unless the court intervened, President Obama could keep flouting the Constitution with impunity.

And so the court ruled that the House had standing. Six months later, in May 2016, the court issued a second opinion on the merits: It held that the cost-sharing payments were unconstitutional and ordered the payments stopped.

Had the district court’s injunction taken immediate effect, it would have created havoc in the insurance markets. But in issuing its decision, the district court stayed its injunction — it put it on pause — to allow the government to appeal.

The results of a certain presidential election changed the legal calculus

Shortly after the Obama administration filed its opening brief to the appeals court, however, Donald J. Trump won the presidential election. With the appointment of Tom Price to run the Department of Health and Human Services, succeeding Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the tenor of the case changed significantly (as did its name). It’s been languishing ever since.

The House of Representatives asked for the appeals court to put the case on hold, arguing that health care policy was likely to change significantly in the new administration. The appeals court agreed to do so, and ordered status reports every 90 days. The next one is due on May 22.

Republican legislators had big plans for the cost-sharing subsidies: They wanted to eliminate them altogether by 2020. Most observers think, however, that Congress would have funded the cost-sharing payments during the brief transition period.

But we know how those plans turned out.

Now House v. Price offers a back door to undoing Obamacare’s exchanges.

To destabilize the ACA insurance markets, all the administration would have to do is dismiss its appeal and stop fighting the case. At that point, the district court’s injunction — its order to stop making the illegal cost-reimbursement payments —would spring into effect.

Faced with enormous financial losses, many insurers would flee the market. Recall that the Affordable Care Act would still require insurers to cut their low-income enrollees a break — it’s just that insurers wouldn’t get reimbursed. The only way to make the numbers work would be to jack up premiums on everyone. In that scenario, the Urban Institute estimates that premiums would rise, on average, by $1,040, and that hundreds of thousands of people would lose coverage.

The Trump administration’s vexing choice

The Trump administration may well decide that’s too politically risky. If so, the conventional wisdom is that the House of Representatives and the administration could cut some kind of deal to keep the cost-sharing payments flowing.

But that may be trickier to pull off than most people think.

The most straightforward fix would be for Congress to appropriate the damn money. That’s probably a nonstarter, given how many Freedom Caucus members would cry foul at funding Obamacare. Nor is it clear whether the Republican leadership is willing or able to broker a deal with Democrats.

If Congress won’t appropriate the money, the House and the Trump administration could try to bury the hatchet and settle the case. They might say, in effect, “We’ve agreed between ourselves to drop the lawsuit and that we’re better off without the district court’s injunction.” Now that the case is on appeal, however, it’s not so easy as that. The Supreme Court has said that appeals courts can’t overturn district court orders when parties settle their cases, even if both parties ask nicely.

So to get out from under the district court’s injunction, the parties may have to go back to the district court. But the court can modify its prior order only if there’s been a “significant change either in factual conditions or in law.”

Does Trump’s election qualify as such a “significant change … in factual conditions”? Perhaps. Certainly it would be strange to keep an injunction in place when no one on either side of the legal fight wanted it anymore. Judges don’t usually ask too many questions when opposing parties agree about something.

But still, there’s something fishy about the asking the court to vacate the injunction — and allowing the payments to proceed. Both the district court and the House of Representatives still believe (correctly, in my view) that it’s unconstitutional for the executive branch to keep making the cost-sharing payments. The Trump administration’s lawyers likely share that assessment. (Until recently, those same lawyers were raging about Obama’s lawlessness.)

The only reason to vacate the injunction, then, is because it’d be awfully convenient to keep making the cost-sharing payments — even though the judiciary, the executive, and the legislature all think those payments are unconstitutional. The judge might well balk. Indeed, she might be offended at the effort to enlist the federal courts in an unconstitutional scheme.

The best option might be to just stall. But will the courts go for it?

So what’s likely to happen? I expect the parties will ask the appeals court to keep the case on hold indefinitely. That may work, at least for a time. The cost-sharing payments would keep flowing, and the appropriations fight would recede into the background.

But the appeals court may not have infinite patience for that gambit. It’s one thing to pause an appeal while Congress or the executive branch considers its options after a change in administration. It’s another thing to keep a case on ice because President Trump wants to keep making unconstitutional payments.

Of greater concern, the case’s very existence makes insurers nervous. Until its resolution, House v. Price hangs over the individual market like the sword of Damocles, giving a mercurial president the power to destabilize the exchanges with the stroke of a pen. Will insurers want to sell coverage in such a vulnerable market? Unless Congress appropriates the money, that’s far from clear — even if officials at Health and Human Services do their best to soothe insurers’ jangled nerves. At a minimum, insurers will hike their premiums to compensate for the systematic risk.

All of which underscores the folly of allowing the House of Representatives to bring this lawsuit in the first place. House v. Burwell was once a rallying cry for conservatives. Now House v. Price may become an albatross around Republicans’ necks.

Meanwhile, the health insurance of millions of Americans hangs in the balance.

Nicholas Bagley is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, and a contributor to The Incidental Economist. Find him on Twitter @nicholas_bagley.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

Study: social media bubbles might not be making us more polarized after all
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Don’t log off yet.

After Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory, lots of people wondered how, exactly, this had all happened. One possible solution, it seemed, was that everyone was trapped in an information bubble of their own making — numerous articles alleged that self-segregated social media feeds had become an echo chamber for people’s own thoughts and beliefs. The theory was popular, even if empirical evidence was scant.

Now a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research argues the opposite. Looking at nine measures of polarization across different age groups, the researchers found that increases in polarization over 16 years were the greatest among people least likely to use the internet and social media. Polarization has increase the most among voters 75 and older, the group least likely to use the internet.

“These facts,” write authors Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse M. Shapiro, “argue against the hypothesis that the internet is a primary driver of rising political polarization.”

The researchers chose nine metrics of polarization that other studies have used in the past. Some looked at polarization in voting patterns and ideology, like the percentage of straight-ticket voters for presidential and House races in each election, or how people’s party affiliation predicted their views on a series of issues. They also looked at measures of perceived polarization, like how warmly or coldly supporters of each party felt about people in the other party.

Rise in polarization by age group.

They then compared these measures of polarization within three age groups — voters 18 to 39, 65 or older, and 75 or older. In eight of the nine metrics they examined, polarization increased the most among those who were least likely to use the internet and social media, those 65 or older and 75 or older.

Similarly, they examined measures of polarization by predicted internet access, which they calculated by looking at age in conjunction with other demographic factors such as race, education, and geography. Again, the researchers found that those with the least likelihood of being online experienced the highest rate of polarization.

Rise in polarization by predicted internet access.

“We don’t take this evidence in any way to mean that what’s happening with social media is not important or that we shouldn’t worry about if people are increasingly finding themselves in filter bubbles,” says Gentzkow, a professor of economics at Stanford and one of the researchers behind the study. “But just that this evidence argues against [social media] being quantitatively the main force behind these trends that we see.”

Of course, the paper’s authors are open to the idea that indirect effects not picked up by the study could be having an effect on polarization. Perhaps social media has been having an effect on younger individuals, and then they in turn polarize older voters by talking with them or electing more polarized politicians. But were that the case, Gentzkow says, we’d likely see that these indirect effects would have less of an impact on polarizing older voters than social media would on younger ones, a finding not supported by the data.

“My best guess as to what’s going on is simply that although digital technologies may be playing a role, they’re not the driving force,” he added.

To Gentzkow, the rise in polarization is less a problem of “easy culprits” like fake news on social media, and more a result of deeper divisions within American society. Addressing filter bubbles on social media is important, but it doesn’t address the root cause of polarization.

“The realities of inequality, of the way the workforce is changing, of the way gains to technological changes are being distributed across different groups … there’s deeper things going on,” Gentzkow says. “I think public policy needs to address those deeper problems if we’re going to make progress.”

Vox's pop culture musts: make room in your schedule for drag queens and Big Little Lies
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Also: S-Town, The Idiot, and Fire at Sea.

Between movies, books, music, comics, podcasts, and the ever-growing glut of TV, there’s a lot of pop culture out there.

It can be a lot to keep up with. So we here at Vox Culture — where our current obsessions include the wealthy Monterey housewives of HBO’s Big Little Lies, a new Southern Gothic podcast from the folks behind Serial, and an excellent new YA novel — have a few suggestions for how to make the best use of your pop culture-consuming time.

Here are some items you should really consider adding to your pop culture diet this week.

Big Little Lies episode six, “Burning Love”

We’ve been reveling in HBO’s star-studded Big Little Lies miniseries and its focus on the damaged, brittle lives of Monterey, California’s wealthiest women. At times the show is a bit pulpy, especially when it delves into the mommy wars taking place at Otter Bay elementary, or the murder at its center. But in its later installments the show has morphed into a serious, gripping drama that touches on a range of subjects, including domestic abuse and the challenges of parenthood.

There are only seven episodes, and the show is streaming on HBO Go; I highly recommend catching up before the finale, which airs this Sunday, April 2. In particular, I’ll be shocked if this past Sunday’s penultimate hour, “Burning Love,” doesn’t win Nicole Kidman an Emmy for her performance as Celeste, a woman who has to face some difficult truths about the man and the monster she married. — Alex Abad-Santos

Oscar-nominated documentary Fire at Sea

Over the past few years, hundreds of African and Middle Eastern migrants have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa every week. In Fire at Sea, which is now on Netflix, documentarian Gianfranco Rosi shows what life looks like for the island's residents and the rescue crews, cutting between scenes of daily life on the island (where it focuses on a young boy who is mostly interested in his slingshots and spaghetti) and the people who help receive and treat migrants.

Beautifully shot and highly lauded — the film was Italy's official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film Category at the Oscars — Fire at Sea is a deeply humane exploration of the human cost of the crisis, and how people live in the midst of it. — Alissa Wilkinson

Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

This debut novel from New Yorker writer Elif Batuman is tricky and playful. It’s also intimidatingly erudite, but you don’t need to be on a first-name basis with all of the great Russian novelists to get Batuman’s pitch-perfect evocation of what it was like to start college at the dawn of the email era. Her heroine Selin starts her freshman year at the exact moment that it becomes terrifyingly possible to stalk your crush across the wilds of the internet, to read and reread email threads for every possible shade of nuance and double meaning. The results are cringingly funny and charming. — Constance Grady

Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give

This New York Times bestseller is the buzziest YA novel of the spring, and it lives up to the hype. The most prominent of a wave of YA books reacting to the police shootings of unarmed black men, The Hate U Give centers on Starr, a 16-year-old black girl who sees her best friend shot by a cop in front of her. It’s a smart, sweet, warm-hearted book that handles its heavy subject matter with aplomb. — CG

Bear by Marian Engel, and its attendant commentary

When Bear came out in 1976, it won Canada’s Governor General’s Award, which is more or less the Canadian equivalent of the National Book Award. It’s assigned in Canadian high schools. It’s a part of the Canadian literary canon. It is also, to be clear, a book about a woman fucking a bear.

Check out a few excerpts on Tumblr, and then mosey over to New Republic editor Jeet Heer’s Twitter essay on Canadian literature’s preoccupation with humans having sex with nature. Hint: It has to do with the history of Canadian settlement and racial anxieties. — CG

RuPaul’s Drag Race, season nine

One of the most entertaining and straight-up smartest reality shows on TV returned on March 24 for another season full of witty queens. The premiere itself was a little underwhelming, but that’s mostly because guest judge Lady Gaga — somehow just now making her first appearance on Drag Race — took up so much oxygen. But we still got glimpses of how brilliantly fun this series can be, with drag queens like Nina BoNina Brown (who entered the workroom as a stunning mouse) and Shea Coulée (who strutted down the runway with a hot dog atop her majestic head) showing everyone how it’s done. — Caroline Framke

S-Town

Produced by the team behind Serial and destined to be one of the most talked-about podcasts of the year, the much-anticipated S-Town was vaguely billed, before its debut, as a real-life small-town murder mystery. It’s not; instead, it’s an intimate, strange, often-upsetting close read of the life of one man and his curmudgeonly battle to improve the town he lives in — a fight which ultimately becomes a battle within himself. The full story is challenging, beautiful, and sure to be controversial; its seven episodes (which were released simultaneously on March 28) are worthy of a binge.

(A note of warning: Part of S-Town’s story deals with mental illness, and the podcast ultimately explores themes that may be difficult for some listeners.) — Aja Romano

With Trumpcare dead and Obama gone, progressives are putting Medicare for All back on the table
March 29th, 2017, 09:15 PM

Inside the renewed left-wing push for single-payer.

Single-payer health care appears to be experiencing a surge in popularity among Democrats in Congress.

During the last two years of Barack Obama's presidency, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) could only find 62 other House Democrats willing to co-sponsor his single-payer health care proposal — which would expand Medicare to cover every American.

But just two months into the new Congress, Conyers's team has already signed up 78 co-sponsors for the exact same single-payer bill. More are expected to come on board in the next two weeks. At this point in the last Congress, only 48 Democratic House members had signed on to the bill.

"During Obama's term, Democrats were uncomfortable with anything that might look like something other than full-throated support of the Affordable Care Act, and they didn't want to do anything that might undermine the president," said Dan Riffle, Conyers's senior legislative assistant, in an interview. "But many members who weren't on the bill, who have had their phones ringing off the hook, are now expressing interest. It's percolating from the ground up."

Several House Democrats see the same thing happening. "There's more of an appetite for an alternative now," Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a sponsor of Conyers's bill, told me. "Democrats have a new confidence to push for a single-payer system. The momentum is building."

Added Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) in an interview: "There is a discussion now that didn't exist a few years ago about how to achieve universal coverage for people."

Of course, Conyers’s single-payer Medicare for All bill is dead on arrival with the Republicans who currently control Congress. But left-wing activists and progressives on the Hill say they’ve made getting the Democratic Party to support a single-payer health care system one of their key priorities — both because they believe it will help the party present a more persuasive alternative to Republicans in the next election, and to lay the legislative groundwork for what they'll enact once they retake the majority.

Since Obamacare’s passage, congressional Democrats have focused on defending Obamacare from the GOP’s ongoing assault. But with Republicans’ health care overhaul collapsing last week, and with Obama leaving office, Democrats are freer than they’ve been in years to pursue a dramatically new direction. The party’s progressive wing is trying to seize on single-payer as that solution.

Some Senate Democrats resist backing single-payer

Senate Democrats Call For Increased Gov't Transparency And Accountability Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Sen. Ben Cardin, left, has praise for Obamacare’s “more centrist approach.”

After Speaker Paul Ryan’s House health care bill imploded, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced over the weekend he’d be launching a new Medicare for All initiative. Like Conyers’s bill, it will suggest allowing every American to enroll in Medicare — a massive new entitlement program likely to be paid for by a new payroll tax, mirroring a similar push Sanders made during the presidential primary. (Read Vox’s Sarah Kliff for a policy explainer on how a single-payer system could work.)

An aide to Sanders said that his bill wouldn’t be released for weeks, but that the senator’s staff is receiving surprisingly positive feedback from other Democratic senators. “We’re seeing much more interest now in the Medicare for All legislation,” an aide to Sanders’s office said. “I think people are looking for bolder approaches now.”

But while Sanders and progressive Democrats clamor for a more aggressive approach, nine Senate Democrats in separate interviews expressed skepticism about the need to go that far, that quickly.

Some pointed to the Affordable Care Act as a better model for Democratic health care policy. “[The ACA] is a more centrist approach. And it gives us a better chance for a broader coalition in support. That’s why President Obama chose that course,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a Democratic moderate, told me.

Cardin added that he wasn’t persuaded by left-wing criticisms that single-payer was necessary in part because Obamacare hadn’t done enough to bring down the number of Americans who were uninsured.

“Even if you do single-payer, you’re never going to get to 100 percent,” Cardin said, speaking of uninsured rate, which is currently at a record low of below 9 percent. “There’s gonna be qualifications for undocumented to get covered, people who are in transition and in and out. So you’ll always run to some degree of uninsured.”

The hesitation about single-payer is particularly clear at the party’s leadership level. Asked at the Capitol on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wouldn’t say one way or another if he thought the Democratic Party should embrace single-payer, only noting that he would review Sanders’s legislation once it was ready. In the House, neither Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi nor Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has officially co-sponsored Conyers’s bill, though Pelosi did tell the Washington Post’s David Weigel that she’s supported single-payer “since before you were born.”

Another prominent Democrat, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), also wouldn’t get behind a single-payer health care system, instead calling it “one of those options that must be considered” in an email to Vox. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was openly critical, arguing “it’s important that we keep options open for people who rely on health care.” (Some single-payer plans would get rid of private insurance in favor of government-run care almost entirely.)

Most preferred to duck the question altogether, and concentrate on defending Americans who are covered under Obamacare, as Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) put it.

“Eighty-five percent of the conversation on health care will be about Donald Trump’s push to repeal the bill,” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), one of the caucus’s most progressive members, in an interview. “To the extent that there’s not unanimity in the Democratic caucus what to do theoretically — five or 10 years down the line — is not nearly as important as what Donald Trump is going to do to the health care system right now.”

Meanwhile, only a handful of Democratic senators — including Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — have publicly embraced single-payer. In an interview, progressive Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also called himself a “supporter of single-payer” — though, he hastened to add, “I can’t speak for the caucus.”

Why left-wing activists are pushing for a DOA health care bill

Bernie Sanders, Activists Rally Against SEC Chairman Nominee Jay Clayton Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The ambivalence and ambiguity of Democrats’ attitude toward single-payer is exactly what some left-wing advocates want to bring to an end. Over the past week, a progressive advocacy group called Justice Democrats, formed after the election, has called the offices of all 119 House Democrats who have not signed on to Conyers’s bill and demanded they do so.

Single-payer enjoys popular support. Gallup found last year that close to 60 percent of the public wants a federally run health care system, and Kaiser polling this March shows more than 66 percent support single-payer. Among Democrats, that number is closer to 81 percent.

“This is Democrats expressing their will in one direction and then party leaders and incumbents going in a different direction. We want to highlight that. The idea is to move these people,” says Corbin Trent, communications director for Justice Democrats, in an interview.

On social media, Justice Democrats have been blasting out a list with the names of every House Democrat who hasn’t signed on to Conyers’s bill. The group is printing 5,000 petitions to deliver to the Washington offices of House Democrats opposing the bill. And they say they’re prepared to back primary candidates against Democratic House and Senate members who do not fall in line behind single-payer.

“We are trying to let them know that the people are watching. And that they want them to fight,” Trent says.

Other left-wing groups are also leading the charge. “The big problem with Obamacare is that it was a Republican idea,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for the left-wing advocacy group Democracy for America. “Having the Democratic Party talk of Medicare for All means it’s doing more than just defending Obamacare. And that’s important because it allows you to recognize the real deficiencies of Obamacare.”

House progressives were also unpersuaded by the argument that the party shouldn’t be articulating a proactive agenda, because they also had to defend the current improvements under Obamacare.

“If Reagan and Goldwater had thought that way, there'd never be a conservative revolution. If Paul Ryan had thought that way, we would never have the conservatism we have today,” Rep. Khanna said.

“Insurance companies have been making a racket of profits over the last couple of years, and the only way to help really contain costs and address Americans’ frustrations is to have Medicare for All.”

But not all of Khanna’s colleagues are willing to go that far. Over the weekend, the Post’s Weigel attended a town hall in Rhode Island at which liberal activists demanded that their representatives push for expanded health coverage.

“We have to look harder at a single-payer system,” Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) told them, according to Weigel.

But back at the Capitol, Langevin hadn’t signed on to Conyers’s bill. In a statement, his spokesperson would only say he would “not be cosponsoring” the bill “at this time.” Single-payer, Langevin said in the statement, was just “one of many mechanisms” worth considering to improve American health care.