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WARNING: Spoilers for a 23-year-old movie follow.
This fellow with the big brain is Brett.
Flock of Seagulls haircut here is Roger.
Brett and Roger have made the exceedingly unwise decision to steal a briefcase that belongs to an LA crime lord named Marcellus Wallace. Here's Marcellus.
This is Brett and Roger’s friend. His name is Marvin.
Marvin has recognized what a bad idea it was to cross Marcellus, so, in exchange for his life, Marvin has agreed to open the door when Jules Winnfield knocks.
And this is Jules Winnfield.
Jules kills people for Marcellus, his boss, accompanied by his partner, Vincent. Vincent considers himself a man of the world, well-attuned to the little differences. Here’s Vincent.
Jules has killed many, many, many people in his life. Jules is a bad motherfucker. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask his wallet.
Jules just had a close shave. He had just finished eating the last Big Kahuna burgers of Brad and Roger's recently shortened lives, had just finished drinking the last of their refreshing Sprite, when Fourth Guy showed up. This is Fourth Guy.
Jules and Vincent weren’t expecting Fourth Guy.
Fourth Guy is a friend of the other three: Brett, Roger, and Marvin. When Jules and Vincent murdered his friends, you might say it made him afraid that his streak of days lived was about to come to an end. Which filled him with an irresistible desire to shoot them with his enormous gun.
Fourth Guy made a big mistake, though. He missed.
So now he’s dead.
But logically speaking, Fourth shouldn’t have missed, and Jules knows it. Fourth shot at a range of mere feet, and his gun was enormous. For him to have missed is not just unlikely, it’s so close to impossible that it is either a miracle, or it may as well be one. Jules can’t ignore the fact that, while he is alive, he should be dead.
It’s popped his bubble.
As a result, Jules can’t live in the same way he has previously. He’s decided this close call is his divine warning, is, in fact, God’s commentary about the life he’s living. Furthermore, he’s already experienced another close call, immediately on the heels of the first. You see, as the survivors were all driving away, Vincent accidentally shot Marvin in the face. Disposing of the body turned into a very ticklish operation. Here’s just a taste:
Luckily, Jules and Vincent got the car cleaned and disposed of. Now they're having breakfast and arguing some more. First, they disagree about whether or not it is right to eat pig (a filthy animal that roots in shit); and, next, about Jules’s perspective on the morning’s events. Jules has determined he will retire from the criminal life. What will he do next? He doesn’t know. He’ll ‘walk the earth.’ He’ll help people.
You know. Like Kane in Kung Fu.
Vincent thinks Jules is foolish. He thinks Jules is giving up power and wealth and a favorable position and even his worth as a person. From Vincent’s point of view, Jules, by opting out of the system in which he finds himself, is choosing to become a bum.
The way I would put it is this: Jules has decided to become art, and Vincent, who still believes that life is something you must earn, is incapable of appreciating this decision.
It’s not hard to understand Vincent’s bemusement. For a hitman to choose to become art would make little sense to another hitman. There is likely no more pure expression of the idea that we do not all belong to each other, or that life is something that must be earned, or that violence redeems, or that profit is moral virtue, than to become a hitman. Killing people for money is a natural end point of these lies, when aggregated.
Incidentally, because PULP FICTION is a story presented out of chronological order, we already know something about what is going to happen to Vincent after breakfast. Tonight, Vincent will experience yet another close shave, this time because Marcellus’s wife, Mia, while in Vincent’s company, will nearly die of a heroin overdose. Thereafter, Vincent will continue to work for Marcellus, and, as a result, he’ll still be around to meet Butch. Here’s Butch.
Butch, unlike Fourth Man, will not miss.
That might have been Jules. But Jules won’t be around by then to catch the bullet. Thus, the movie has already provided commentary on whether Vincent was right, or Jules was.
And now we come to the great climax of the movie. The movie’s final scene begins, as its opening scene suddenly interrupts Jules and Vincent’s breakfast. Some setup is needed, in order to explain.
Here are Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.
Ugh. Pet names. Let's call them by their real ones. She's Yolanda. We don't know his real name. Let's just call him what Jules will call him, given he's British. Let's call him Ringo.
Ringo and Yolanda are in love. They’re also small-time criminals. In the movie’s very first scene, we see them decided to rob the diner’s patrons of their purses and wallets. We haven’t seen them since, but now, as they reappear, we now realize that, unluckily for them, one of those patrons is noted bad motherfucker Jules Winnfield. Jules doesn’t make trouble, until Ringo makes the exceedingly unwise decision to try to divest Jules of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase. Jules easily overpowers Ringo, and…
Well hell. Let’s watch:
There are stories of heroism, stories of overcoming overwhelming adversity through struggle. It's a story about whether or not the hero is going to beat the villain.
And then there are tales of repentance and redemption, stories of realization that your cause is not just. Stories of redemption are stories where the hero's struggle is the attempt to reconcile dreams of a better self with the realized reality of a worse self. It's a story about whether the villain is going to become a hero or not.
Jules has realized which story is his story. He thought it was the first, but it’s the second. As a result, he knows many things that had previously been hidden from him.
He knows he has to change. He has to give life to those who have, by the strictures of his own memorized Biblical words, earned death.
He knows it has to cost him something. So he empties his Bad Mother Fucker wallet and gives Ringo the cash.
He knows he has to manage his partner, who is so offended at the idea of those who have clearly earned death instead being given wealth (which is, for a hit man, moral virtue), that he promises to kill them simply for the breach of his value system. And so Jules insists—rather impolitely—that his partner do no harm.
Jules knows he needs to tell the truth. He can’t lie to Ringo about who either of them are anymore, even if it might make them both feel better.
He knows that, in order to preserve life, he needs to endanger himself. (Keep the gun on me, Yolanda, let’s all be Fonzies.) And he knows that the moment will come when somebody will have to put down the gun. And he knows that, because he is the one with the advantage, because he is strong and they are not, because they are frightened and he is brave, that 'somebody' will need to be him.
Finally, he lets them go. He has purchased for them the opportunity to do as he has done, and has given them a different story about themselves. They, too, have been the tyranny of evil men. They were certainly that to the rest of the diner’s patrons. It is only in the presence of Jules that they became the weak.
“I’m giving it to you so I don’t have to kill you,” says Jules. In a hitman’s world (much as in an everyday American’s) money is interchangeable with moral virtue. Jules is giving Ringo and Yolanda his moral virtue, and, in so doing, divesting himself of that particular lie, while giving them a chance to try to be the shepherd themselves. Will they take that chance? We don’t know. That’s not up to Jules, and it’s not up to us. It’s up to them.
Incidentally, this is why PULP FICTION’s anti-chronological narrative structure works as more than just a clever puzzle, and why the film remains a classic while most of the pretenders that followed, which aped its style but not its substance, are forgotten. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino situates as its climax the precise moment that one of its characters decides, through direct action, to change. It’s at this moment that the movie coalesces into something thematically coherent, and then, immediately, it ends.
PULP FICTION is about a universe in which people are trapped in our old familiar lies. Believing the lies puts them in situations, again and again, which might be taken as warnings for those with eyes to see it. Again and again, its characters fail to heed those warnings, until finally, at last, one of them does. He’s a man who, though irreligious, memorizes scripture and doesn’t respect an animal that eats its own shit. Or, as the Bible puts it in a verse Jules never memorized, “as a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.”
Jules is going to change. He's going to give up the rewards and power of his position, because sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but he’ll never eat the filthy motherfucker again.
Jules has been one thing, and it was an evil thing, an unbecoming identity for human art. He was the tyranny of evil men, telling himself a story about how he was the shepherd.
Now he’s a new thing. He’s a man who’s wants to be the shepherd, telling himself a story about how he has been the tyranny of evil men but can become something better, by divesting himself of his own advantage and by speaking the truth about himself and others.
The miracle isn’t that God stopped the bullets. The miracle is that something changed in Jules’s heart.
Jules believed in the priority of order. Now he believes in the priority of justice.
Jules Winnfield was a hitman. Acting on the orders of a man more wealthy and ruthless and powerful than himself, he killed people in exchange for money. Professionally, he represented the most perfect embodiment of our nation’s great lies as you can imagine. Now, he has realized that the order under which he has chosen to live leads only to death—death not only for others, but for himself. Jules is going to try to be the shepherd. He doesn’t know what that might mean, or what modifications will be demanded to his life or his wealth, or what any the other consequences of that might be. He only knows he intends to try. The trying is what matters. The geographical destination is literally uninteresting to him, because he already know the destination he is seeking for his spirit.
His compass will set his course. His course will determine his destination. He'll know he's arrived, because once he's there, there he will be.
But it’s impossible to even try to be the shepherd without first recognizing you have been the tyranny of evil men.
And you can’t recognize that you are the tyranny of evil men until you stop looking into a mirror that won’t let you see yourself.
You have to realize which story is your story. You'd thought it was the first, but it's the second.
You have to pop your bubble, get out of it, and stay out.
You have to tell a new story about yourself.
You’ll have to impart your moral virtue on those who seem to have earned death according to whatever scriptures you've memorized from whatever book. It’s going to cost you something. You're going to have to manage the offense of your partners still doomed to their own bubbles. And it may even involve endangering yourself.
If you can’t do that, you’ll remain in the lie. Remaining in the lie will have dire consequences eventually. When you live in a world where life is something you have to earn, eventually, you’ll earn death. Eventually, you’ll meet Butch.
Please allow me to stretch the metaphor past OSHA-approved safety protocols.
I think the election of Donald Trump is the moment that America collectively shot Marvin in the face. Now some of us are in the backseat, listening to Vincent complain about being scolded for the mess he made, wondering how the fuck we got put on brain detail.
We aren’t being very polite to our nation's Vincents about it right now. We are some mushroom-cloud laying motherfuckers. This is putting Vincent’s in the red, and he’s warning us about it. It's dangerous to run a race car in the red, the Vincents tell us. They seems to think that the very fact that they are angry should afford them some sort of special consideration.
But the Vincents aren't right. And we aren’t wrong. And the car is still an absolute mess. We’re trying to clean it before it ends in inescapable consequence. Eventually, if we survive, we are going to take back control of our government from those would fill our national automobile with gore.
Or, perhaps I should tell it this way. Someday, if we're lucky, we'll be Jules, and they will be Yolanda and Ringo.
At some point, we're going to to have to take back control of a government that would rob America's diner. At that point, we will reach a moment where we are facing them again. Some will be friends and peers, still clinging to a comforting lie and a self-defeating power, still ready to argue in favor of an unjust order that will eventually inevitably consume them. Others will be desperate people who have only known thievery of whoever they can find weaker than themselves, who have recently threatened us with pain and death, over whom we will once again be holding power.
We will need to have a new story to tell them, as politely as it is appropriate, with as much civility as we have power and privilege to demonstrate.
It will involve giving life to those who might have seemed, under old lies, to have earned death.
It’s going to cost us something.
It may involve personal physical endangerment.
It will involve managing the offense of our partners.
It’s absolutely going to involve insisting on the truth.
And somebody is going to have to put down some kind of 'gun' in order to end it. And, it seems clear, that somebody is going to have to be whichever of us possess strength and bravery enough to not shoot.
And before we can do any of this, we will need to find the beginning of our new story, which is one of repentance. We must understand and admit that those of us who worked for injustice are the weak. And we, who made ourselves comfortable with that injustice, are the tyranny of evil men.
By ‘we’ I mean the United States generally; and specifically I mean that all the things I happen to be—white, Christian, male, straight, cis-gendered, married with children, able-bodied, employed and employable, property-owning, government-issued ID having, well-traveled, upwardly mobile—have been the tyranny of evil men.
This will sound to many as if white Christian het-cis married able-bodied etc. males are being attacked. As if we were being singled out for special condemnation. The truth is, we have already long been singled out—but for preference. Are we bad? Not a bit. We’re good. We’re art. But in the great ethical competition between various good things, we’ve been inappropriately elevated to a station far above justice, and have, as a result, become tyranny. Now we have to descend to our proper place, with all the other art.
Listen to me, my fellow people of privilege. This isn't an attack. It’s salvation.
If the answers frighten you, fellow Vincents, you might ask why the questions are scary.
Being tyranny is bad even for the tyrant, for the very simple reason that it is unhealthy to live in a tyrannical system. It is damaging for me to profit from a tyrannical system that denies that humans are art, because it traps me in a world that denies that I myself am a unique and irreplaceable expression of something that would not otherwise exist, carrying unsurpassable worth for no other reason than that I am.
If I’m a tyrant, I’ll have to find my worth some other way.
I have not been the tyranny of evil men because I inhabit the categories I inhabit, but because our society has decided that these categories are not only good, but best, that these categories should be the default things, the most important things, even the only things. Because other categories that people might inhabit have, as a result, been deemed presumed theft, or presumed moral deficiency, as having not earned life, as having earned death instead.
As a result of that, life has been made invisibly and inevitably much easier for me than for others (which is not the same as saying my life is easy), and much more difficult for others. Over the years, justice has changed that metric somewhat. Not perfectly, but somewhat. Those of us who fit these preferred categories are now subject to criticism, we are occasionally subject to protest, we are even, ever so occasionally, subject to consequence. As I've put it before, we used to have the only voice; now we merely have the only microphone. We used to have the train all to ourselves, and now we have to content ourselves with merely being able to sit in the first class car without having our ticket checked at every stop.
There are many who resent these modifications toward justice, resent these corrections that have been made in our nation’s founding imbalances.
It has to be said, in decades and centuries past, the imbalance was far greater.
There are those who want to make that imbalance great again. As great as they can make it.
You can even buy the hat.
This imbalance, this preference, this prioritization, this default setting, is tyranny. We must be honest. It is the tyranny of evil men.
We are the tyranny of evil men.
I am the tyranny of evil men. I have supported a status quo captured by a spirit that intends genocide and slavery.
But I’m trying, Ringo.
I’m trying, real hard, to be the shepherd.
2. THE GREAT DIVIDE
6. THE KNIFE AND THE TRAIN
7. OUR FAVORITE FLAVOR
8. CHANGE THE LOCKS
9. THE LOWEST RUNG
10. BOTH SIDES
11. I’M TRYING, RINGO
12. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED