HBO’s Confederate is done already

Their planned alternate history series about the hypothetical outcome of the South winning the Civil War ought, rightly, to be dead right now. Ta-Nehisi Coates kills it.

For while the Confederacy, as a political entity, was certainly defeated, and chattel slavery outlawed, the racist hierarchy which Lee and Davis sought to erect, lives on. It had to. The terms of the white South’s defeat were gentle. Having inaugurated a war which killed more Americans than all other American wars combined, the Confederacy’s leaders were back in the country’s political leadership within a decade. Within two, they had effectively retaken control of the South.

Knowing this, we do not have to wait to point out that comparisons between Confederate and The Man in the High Castle are fatuous. Nazi Germany was also defeated. But while its surviving leadership was put on trial before the world, not one author of the Confederacy was convicted of treason. Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremberg. Confederate General John B. Gordon became a senator. Germany has spent the decades since World War II in national penance for Nazi crimes. America spent the decades after the Civil War transforming Confederate crimes into virtues. It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.

The symbols point to something Confederate’s creators don’t seem to understand—the war is over for them, not for us. At this very hour, black people all across the South are still fighting the battle which they joined during Reconstruction—securing equal access to the ballot—and resisting a president whose resemblance to Andrew Johnson is uncanny. Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you, when your grandmother is not in danger of losing her vote, when the terrorist attack on Charleston evokes honest sympathy, but inspires no direct fear. And so we need not wait to note that Confederate’s interest in Civil War history is biased, that it is premised on a simplistic view of white Southern defeat, instead of the more complicated morass we have all around us.

The whole essay is salvo after salvo of argument blowing apart every reason offered to make this show. It’s the rhetorical version of Pickett’s Charge — Benioff and Weiss have made an unwise and doomed sally, and there stands Coates with the intellectual heavy artillery demolishing their futile assault.

I’m just afraid the victory will be as irrelevant as the Civil War itself — to win a victory that gets thrown away in the aftermath. The series will probably get made, because there is money to be made. At least I can say that I’ll refuse to watch it.


  1. shadow says

    Cut my cable long ago — only have the ‘net now as spouse streams Japanese shows over it.

  2. lakitha tolbert says

    I think a lot of people have made the choice notto watch it. What effect that will have on HBO I’m unsure. Will it affect anything at all? Will they shorten its airtime? Or cancel it after one season?

  3. says

    Unfortunately, it will have an audience: the white people who fly confederate flags now, or who want to smirk over black slave’s tits.

  4. lotharloo says

    I don’t have high hopes but it is a mistake to categorically deny that no interesting series could be made on this premise. Coates viewpoint is also an entirely American viewpoint with all the issues attached with it.

    For example, consider this. Right now, there is an army of barely paid, over-worked people who continue to create goods for the consumption of American, or European people. It is not technically slavery but it is probably as close to slavery as it can get. Some people care and some brands try to make an effort of avoiding such unethical treatments but for the most part it is tolerated. Potentially, the HBO show could be about something like this. About the miserable lives of slaves, cruelty of their masters, and the comfortable lives of “liberal white” people who claim to be aghast by slavery but nonetheless continue to purchase the products of slavery.

  5. robro says

    Coates actually suggests the alternate reality series. The South did win in a way. What if they had truly lost? If the leaders and supporters of the war had been treated even remotely like Nazi leaders (which was not reserved for just the German fascists)? If the de facto slavery of blacks, Jim Crow, and segregation had never been instituted?

    I would take a nit-picky exception to this:

    At this very hour, black people all across the South are still fighting the battle which they joined during Reconstruction

    Blacks joined the struggle against slavery long before the Civil War. They joined in significant numbers when they were able to join the Union army. The role of black recruits in manning Union lines is often unrecognized, not to mention taking part in the backbreaking work of day-to-day warfare and the lethal environment of living in the field.

    Every story is rife with myth, the facts difficult to suss out. The Civil War is no different.

  6. vucodlak says

    It’s also worth noting that the Nazis in the United States largely escaped consequences after WWII, and continue to have a great deal of political influence.

  7. unclefrogy says

    it is also true that a persons Nazi past was over looked regardless of its nature if they could be used against the soviets in the cold war which followed closely on WWII.
    if the series was made centered on a anti slavery revolution it might be notable but if history is pro-log they will center the story one the struggle for power and sex and violence.
    uncle frogy

  8. Raryn says

    I have to disagree with all of the criticism before the first trailer, before the first stills are out. That is, I fall into the camp Coates criticizes as “reserve judgement”.

    The possibility of the Confederacy winning the civil war is a long-standing staple in the genre of alternative history, with probably dozens of examples. Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory series comes to immediate mind, and as it went on it drew direct parallels of the confederacy to Nazi Germany. I’m sure the subject has been done in insensitive ways in the past (Turtledove being the only example I’ve personally read as it isn’t my usual genre of choice), but it can certainly be done in a reasonable fashion.

    To simply see the *topic* and state that it should be something forbidden to be shown on television strikes me as close-minded at the least. We have no clue whatsoever how HBO and their producers are going to treat the subjects of slavery, racism, white supremicism, or any of the other potential ills. They could portray the modern confederacy as an ostracized police state on par with North Korea, the remainder of the world decrying the evils of slavery and working to stop it. Or they could portray it as paradise on earth for its (White) citizens with manservants and sex slaves galore (which would be reprehensible). Or anything in between. I think it’s entirely possible it ends up being closer to the former than the latter, but I can honestly say I don’t know. I’ll wait for the pilot.

  9. says

    I’m not too sure the families of the estimated 12,000 slave labourers and 9,000 Londoners murdered by Wernher von Braun would agree that the Nazis were punished for their crimes.

    Still, there is an obvious difference between the ways the two are generally portrayed. Nazis in movies are bad guys, pure and simple, whereas there’s a regrettable tendency for the Southerners to be portrayed as gallant and noble. Even movies which bother to deal at all with slavery tend to focus on a “good, kind” slave owner.

  10. DanDare says

    So WW1 would play out very differently. Subsequent history would likely bear no resemblance to known history. Would the scientific advances be less likely? You can’t isolate the impact of such a change.

  11. colinday says


    Well, von Braun was “punished” by being sent to the US to build rockets.

  12. Little Boots says

    Ta Nehisi is the best, I do wonder if this could work on some level. Make it actually real, and actually modern. Show the Trumpistas what they are actually talking about.

  13. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    The North won the war, but lost the war.

    The United States of America is losing the Cold War of Southern Treason rather badly at this point.

  14. imback says

    Harshly ironic that the one who condemns everyone else as “close-minded at the least” is the one who claims to “reserve judgment”.

  15. kevskos says

    I have come to the opinion that the US made a grave mistake by not giving a fair trail to and hanging most of the political and military leaders of the Southern traitors.

  16. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    If it isn’t Man in the High Castle style “alt history”. Then uh uh nope not gonna watch.
    Only truly paranoiac conspiracy theorists think MITHC is pro-Nazi.

  17. mudpuddles says

    @ robro, #5

    Blacks joined the struggle against slavery long before the Civil War. They joined in significant numbers when they were able to join the Union army.

    I’m sure its unintended, but that sounds an awful lot like “white people were the first to start trying to save black people, and black people joined at a later date”. Black people struggled against slavery from the very first moment that black slavery started, as in: “Strange man, get your fucking hands off us, we will not get into those chains or onto your boat,” and all the bloody resistance which ensued on African soil and continued decade after decade for centuries. The resistance did not stop when they got to the US, though it usually took other forms. Honestly, white people joined the struggle a little later.

    @ raryn, #8

    The possibility of the Confederacy winning the civil war is a long-standing staple in the genre of alternative history, with probably dozens of examples.


    To simply see the *topic* and state that it should be something forbidden to be shown on television strikes me as close-minded at the least.

    If you are criticising Coates, then I think maybe you’ve not read his article very thoroughly. He is stating exactly what you state, that this has been done over and over. He is also not saying it is forbidden, rather he is saying that the premise as outlined by Weiss and Benioff so far is both unoriginal and inherently skewed to a white perspective (e.g. it is specifically about the “white” South winning, not about “the South” as a whole), and going on their recent form in portraying issues of slavery, he reserves judgement as to whether this is in any way a worthwhile exercise, or whether it is just another addition to the genre of poorly done revisionism.

  18. jimmyfromdelaware says

    You folks make good points and I am on your side. But what about freedom of speech? You guys sound like a bunch of old white dudes bitching about the “hippity hopitus” and how horribly offensive it is.

  19. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    anyone remember the “blockbuster” Glory (1989)?
    HBO would do better by expanding that into a long running series. With a chapter following Pickett’s “rationalization” for his charge at Gettysburg. in other words, stay historical, literally, not fabricated “alternative history” to illustrate how stuck so many are in the past, denying the present and avoiding the future.
    Then again, there is value in reshaping commentary (aka criticism) so as to show people what they are really advocating by waving those war banners and throwing people of color in jail for little more than”being p.o.c”, that one can not just pluck out single aspects of history one wants to honor while ignoring all the rest.
    It is a dangerous sword edge to illustrate fully what would happen given people’s current attitudes [NB to be explicit, illustrate the end result of racist attitudes becoming the literal norm] Not quite able to achieve the level of Lord of the Rings clearly be not an advocate of Sauron running Mordor properly that Gandalf was trying to overthrow the valid benefactor of the orcs. if only.

  20. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re myself@18:

    Lord of the Rings clearly [] not an advocate of Sauron running Mordor properly that Gandalf was trying to overthrow the valid benefactor of the orcs. if only.

    *lightbulb* off to my agent to sell the concept to HBO for their next epic fantasy to follow GoT: altLOTR

  21. says

    Spike Lee had a movie that was set up as a kind of History lesson in an America where the Confederacy won the war. It was in 2004. I saw it and it was not a flattering portrayal of Confederate values at all.

    So although I have no idea if these HBO producers can pull off an anti confederate view of a modern America where slavery won the war, its not impossible.

    But my take on this is that considering the sad state that America is in now with the current administration, how could an administration more overtly racist be entertaining? To put it another way, I thought Roots was one of the best TV series I ever saw, but no way can I ever watch that again. Its just too disturbing. I can’t imagine watching a series on such a subject that was ongoing.

    Spike Lee’s movie relied on comedy, irony, sarcasm and parody. That might work for 90 minutes but I doubt for a series.

  22. sundiver says

    SO many rants this kind of bullshit triggers with me. I was born and raised in “The South” and one surprise I got when I moved to the Great White North was people lecturing ME about the “Noble Cause” or whatever, the exact same flapdoodle about how the war “wasn’t about slavery” I heard down south. I gave the idiots the same answer I gave the southerners, read the constitutions of the Confederate states and please note where they explicitly state that preserving slavery is one the main reasons they were revolting (in more ways than one). Then get back to me. They usually don’t. Another thing, it has long been my opinion that before the Emancipation Proclamation, the South’s odds of winning were low. Afterwards they were doomed.

  23. says

    Last night we went to Dairy Queen for dip cones, and someone was there with a General Lee car. They parked it in the adjoining lot with lots of space around it, and lots of people were admiring it and taking pictures. It must have been a huge project to get all the details right, including the Confederate flag on the roof. My wife asked them if the horn played Dixie, and the owner gave a thumbs-up.

    We’re in Illinois, which Google informs me is often the subject of a query as to whether it was Union or Confederate. A quarter of a million soldiers were in the war against the Confederacy, and nearly thirty-five thousand of them died. But you can get all kinds of light-hearted strokes at Dairy Queen for celebrating it with a TV show artifact.

    Dukes Of Hazard helped normalize the Confederate flag in Northern white society. Even if Confederate is one giant cautionary tale, it’s going to wind up reinforcing the attitudes of a lot of good ‘ol boys.

  24. says

    I was always under the impression the thing which led to the downfall of the US South was the same thing which led to the eventual downfall of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the USSR – namely, poor logistics. Fewer resources, committed inappropriately, fighting against a much better armed, better resourced and better organised opponent. At which point, defeat really does become inevitable, because you’re relying very strongly on the other side being stupid (which they aren’t, by definition, because see “better armed, better resourced, better organised”).

    Or in other words, in order to get their alternative history to work, they’re going to need to start a lot further back than just the beginning of the US Civil War.