‘The River’ and the Unknowability of the Amazon

I ended up quite liking The River, ABC’s delightful piece of horror movie cheese about a reality show crew stuck on a boat in the Amazon searching for a vanished television star, which ended its first, and likely only, season last night. But I think that might be because I finally decided to read it as a show about a bunch of irritating white people (and one endearing gay, black cameraman, who informed his coworkers that his sexual orientation hadn’t come up on their trip because “I don’t go clubbing when I’m running away from ghosts.”) who got what was coming to them because they treated the Amazon as a mysterious place and ignored reasonable knowledge about the place that was available to them.

That’s really the core of the show: the main characters in The River treat the Amazon basin as a dark, mysterious place that can be made comprehensible by Western explorers who will approach it rationally. Rather than a place populated by, you know, actual people, it’s full of mysterious tribesmen, ghost ships, and cures for diseases that have a nasty tendency to zombiefy scientists if proper treatment protocols aren’t observed. Dr. Emmet Cole got himself in trouble in the first place when he strayed from his rational principles and started believing there was something mystical out there. That conviction lead him to take insane risks that endangered the life of his crew and his long-term friends, and also lead Cole into sin. His decision to abandon Jonas to a state in between life and death is reprehensible, the kind of thing that people who don’t happen to be pursuing wacky vision quests are relatively certain they’d never do.

But the truth is, for all the crew of the Magus are convinced that they can use logic and deduction to find Emmet, they’re awfully incurious people, by both the standards of Western rationality and beyond it. Maybe it wouldn’t serve the interests of the show to have them interrogate what in God’s name Emmet is doing in a giant chrysalis. But that seems like it might be a fairly relevant question to try to answer before he and Lincoln get to work on their mess of a relationship or he and Tess get all lovey-dovey again (if it were me, no matter how much I loved my missing husband, I would want to know what’s up there before I let him get near my lady bits).

And it’s deeply frustrating that, despite the fact that Jahel Valenzuela tends to be right about almost all the misfortunes that befall the Magus, and to have the power to summon resurrecting goddesses to boot, no one ever seems to have sat her down and done a comprehensive download on her knowledge of religion, folklore, biology, etc. The show’s getting somewhere in its critique of Western know-it-allism with scenes of scientists dissecting the native people of the region and keeping them in specimen tanks. But it’s not quite getting a central point. Emmet Cole might have had a better sense of a country that’s only Undiscovered to him and his ilk, and the scientists in that creepy lab might have increased the world’s store of knowledge more if they relied a little less on their own sense of their abilities, and tried a bit harder to talk to and learn from the people around them.