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When you find your ramblings about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child from two years ago…

Note: This review is based on a preview performance of the play.

Five hours is the longest you can travel back in time without causing irrevocable damage. Remember that. And then revel in the narrative mastery Harry Potter and the Cursed Child managed to pull off despite messing with more than a decade of meticulously-beloved literary canon. Or maybe it was because of the challenging of this fact that the play works so well? The Cursed Child went back more than five minutes, repeatedly, and it was in those character-driven time travel machinations that The Cursed Child found its soul.

Written by Jack Thorne from a story created by Thorne, J.K. Rowling, and the play’s director John Tiffany, The Cursed Child isn’t just another money-grabbing reboot, reimagining, or remake to add to the ever-growing list. I mean, yes, it has and will make heaps of money. But it is more than that: it is a legitimately interesting, challenging, and rewarding addition to the Harry Potter fable.

The Cursed Child begins where Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows left off: with that divisive epilogue. It is similarly cringe-worthy here, though it does an admirable job in launching a story of fathers and sons, of legacies and free will, of regret and the ever-constant way the human brain fights against the inevitability and finality of death.

Though Harry Potter may be the character on the marquee, it is Albus Potter who really drives the action of the play and, in that respect, who is our protagonist. Albus is measured against Harry and found wanting for not being a Gryffindor and for not being a good Quidditch player, but for everyone who has read the books, we know that Albus is incredibly like Harry the person vs. Harry the hero. (Even if Harry claims Albus is more like Ginny.)

Albus is incredibly loyal to his friends, he wants to do what is right, and he hates the legacy that has been thrust upon him. Interestingly, in many ways, Harry acts as his antagonist, the man against whom he is always being measured against. The man who will do anything to keep his son safe, but who will not listen to him long enough to understand what that might mean.

Scorpius Malfoy is Albus’ right-hand man and, in the performance I saw, the play’s scene-stealer. (Though, really, this entire cast is incredibly impressive.) Like his best (and only) friend, Scorpius, too, lives in the shadow of his father — both his actual father and the Dark Lord everyone seems to think he might have spawned from. “Have you met Scorpius?” Albus quips exasperatedly at one point to his father who thinks Scorpius is a bad influence on his son, so ludicrous is it to think that sweet, nerdy, loyal do-gooder Scorpius could be the son of the Dark Lord.

Unlike Albus, however, Scorpius lets the whispers and the assumptions and the expectations mostly slide off his back. Yes, it weighs him down, it makes him sad, but that sadness rarely turns into anger — at least not at the people who don’t matter to him. Scorpius only cares about a few people and, when those people disappoint him, he makes it known. In what is perhaps my favorite part of the two-part performance, Scorpius calls out Albus for his selfishness.

While Albus has been desperately trying to change the past to prove to himself, his father, and that world that he is worthy of being The Great Harry Potter’s son (or, if he cannot prove that, to prove that his father is unworthy of being The Great Harry Potter), Scorpius has been quietly hoping that, maybe, in one of these altered timelines, his mother might be alive. And, yes, he has to tell Albus that this is something he has been hoping for because Albus doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to figure it out himself.

In a rare moment of earnest anger, Scorpius compares Albus’ charmed lot in life to his own. Paired with the reminder-glimpses we have been getting into Harry’s own pre-Hogwarts childhood, which consisted of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the Dursleys, Scorpius’ reprimand of Albus is doubly satisfying. This moment not only gives Scorpius some added emotional depth and complexity, but it also demonstrates the play’s self-awareness and willingness to critique its own characters.

Like the Harry Potter books, The Cursed Child isn’t trying to create straight-forward hero characters. Yes, the books especially are a version of The Chosen One trope, but they aren’t afraid to make Harry unlikable or wrong. The same is true of this new installment. As Jamie Parker, Harry Potter himself, said in a recent Time Out article:

‘Okay,’ he says, slowly, ‘trying to find an answer to your earlier question, Harry is formerly a very, very famous teenage boy who’s been known alternatively as The Chosen One and The Boy Who Lived, this overtly messianic figure. But he’s never claimed or pretended to be a hero, he never coveted the extraordinary circumstances he was born into, he’s just an ordinary guy who’s tried to do the best he can.

‘Having had this extraordinary rite of passage so early in life, picking up the story 20 years later a lot of his chickens are going to come home to roost – as I think a lot of people find in their forties. When the next generation come along and they’re parents themselves, they have to reckon their internal accounts with the relationships they’ve built. We’re not giving anything away in the plot to say that the relationship between Albus and Harry is a large part of the meal that we’re giving people. But there’s a hell of a lot to it besides that.’

Like Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On before it, The Cursed Child calls into question the entire Chosen One trope by challenged the in-world certainty of magical prophecies. The climactic turn of the play comes when Scorpius informs Delphi that prophecies can be broken.

The Cursed Child doesn’t dismiss what the characters accomplished in the original, but gives them new, character-driven obstacles to overcome and lessons to learn. Which is to say that Harry hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned over the course of seven books, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have lessons to learn and you better believe that those lessons spring from the same character traits (and character flaws) that Harry exhibited in the books.

Better than that, The Cursed Child delves into why Harry is the way he is more than the books ever did. Perhaps it is the abstract nature of the theater form, but the short, meditative explorations of Harry early childhood through the dreams he is having are heartbreaking and fascinating and give his character, how acts as a quasi-antagonist for the middle part of the play, a human context. It might seem silly to think that this context is necessary. After all, haven’t we spent seven books with this character, yes? Yes. But this is a new story and, even so, in those old stories, Harry was not always the most knowable character. Sure, he was the character we were the closest to perspective-wise, but he was unknowable in the way that we are somewhat unknowable to ourselves.

We are the space that is left when everything else has been observed. We are the thing we are inside of, but therefore cannot see the shape of. This is the first time we have been able to see the shape of Harry in this way, and it is the kind of context that can only come with adulthood. The kind of context I never thought to dream The Cursed Child would allow itself to have.

Harry Styles’ tour has come to an end. It ended not with a bang, but with the 24-year-old former One Directioner refusing to end his final song, Kiwi, instead playing it three times in succession without stopping for breath. At one point, he sprinted down the middle aisle of the Los Angeles Forum without security to sing a few verses on the “B” stage, unwilling to let go of the magic of this tour, not without giving himself and the 17,500 people dancing and screaming and giving themselves over to this moment one last sparkly hurrah.

I know all of this because I  was watching the livestream via Periscope a few thousand miles away, at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Me and 13,000 other people. Don’t tell me girls and women don’t know what the hell they’re talking about when they choose someone to stan who espouses kindness, self-acceptance, and inclusiveness as primary values. Who thanks everyone in attendance for trusting him enough to show up, who makes a special effort to recognize the fans sitting behind the stage, and who, rather than belittling his boy band past, celebrates it.

We’re living in a time of rigid gender expectations that contribute to a system of global patriarchy and misogyny that is damaging to everyone, wherever you may fall on the gender spectrum. The pain strict gender norms cause comes in so many flavors. We’re starting to get better at talking about how women, girls, and non-conforming folks suffer under sexism and other gender-based forms of intolerance, hate, and oppression, but we still especially suck at talking about the ways in which men and boys suffer, too.

Enter Harry Styles, the sweet fairy prince of emotional vulnerability, gender fluidity, and unironic enthusiasm. Harry Styles may look like a Disney prince, but his appeal is much more complicated than the teen heartthrob identity lazy cultural critics, of both the professional and amateur variety, would suggest.

Celebrity persona is kind of like a group project: The human behind the celebrity may be the group leader, but the construction of their persona is collaborative. The same is true for Harry Styles. He is his own man and, from all accounts, that man is kind, compassionate, feminist, subversive, silly, sweet. He is a rocker who makes a speech about empowerment, acceptance, and being whoever you want to be at the beginning of every one of his concerts. He is a musician who dances and prances around his stage with a pride flag at all of his concerts. During his brief period of interactions with the nearby audience members, he often seeks out pregnant women and babies to talk to and comment upon. If Harry is our Harry Styles Persona group leader, then he is leading us in the direction of babies, flowers, and sparkly suits.

A few weeks ago, I attended Harry Styles Summer Camp (as I’ve taken to calling it), which is to say I attended three concerts in five days. I traveled to two cities (Boston and New York), arguably drank too much, and gave myself over to pure, unabashed enthusiasm and joy.

The thing about being in a space with 19,000 other people who are, for the most part, able to express fervent enthusiasm for a thing they unironically love, is it forces you to face your own stoicism. I am someone who, intellectually, supports unabashed sentimentality, teen fangirling, and unironic passions. I just still have a long way to go before I accept it in myself. Maybe it’s my New England-flavored Irish Catholicism. Maybe it’s a partially self-imposed effort to fit into a masculine system of stoicism and “rationality” in order to be taken seriously in a world that prioritizes these things. Maybe it’s just my shyness or my control issues. Whatever it is, I suck at letting go and letting myself feel things in public spaces. This is partially why, when I fall in love with stories, I want to experience them by myself for the first time. I don’t want my experience to be mediated through my observations of and taking into account of another person. When I am with other people, I can’t help but think about how they’re reacting—to the thing, to each other, to me: What does it say about them? What does it say about me? What does it say about society? OMG, just shut up, brain, and sing along to “Anna”!

My first Harry Styles concert, on Monday in Boston’s TD Garden, I attended with my sister (and companion in all things fangirl), my friend Delia (new to the Harry Styles fandom, but open and enthusiastic), and my next-door neighbor and friend Sinead (the youngest of our crew by about a decade). I had never been to a concert like this before—not only one so geared towards female fans, but one this enormous. It was hypnotic and powerful and the energy in that room took my breath away in the moments I let myself feel it. But there were only so many of those moments on a Monday night when my anxiety was creeping up and I was letting external bullshit judgments about what is proper for a 30-year-old woman or any “self-respecting” person to creep in. In other words, internalized misogyny is real, y’all. (But you probably already knew that.)

My second concert fell on Thursday night in NYC’s Madison Square Garden. I had bought the ticket two days prior, desperate to recapture some of that ephemeral magic I tasted, though never truly let myself indulge in on Monday. For this performance, I would be on the floor, though further away from the stage. Reader, I got quite drunk. Blame it on the fact that I didn’t eat much that day or that I got to the bar far earlier than everyone else as I vagabonded in from Massachusetts and didn’t have anywhere else to go in the city while I waited to meet up with my friends.

Whatever the explanation, I don’t remember this concert very clearly, but it was surely the most in-the-moment I got. I’m not sure if it counts because I was drunk and don’t remember it well, but I do remember some things: the camaraderie I built with the stranger-friends around me (hey, new Instagram buddies!); the energy of being quite literally in the center of 19,000 screaming fans; and the delirious letting go I felt as I sang along with the songs, even though I am ridiculously bad with song lyrics, even ones belonging to my favorite, most listened-to songs.

When I showed up at the bar to meet my friends for the Friday night performance, I was tired, hungover, and a little overwhelmed. I was also mad at myself for having gotten so drunk the night before. I felt like I had wasted my money. Sage, my aptly-named, concert-going companion for that final night, talked me down from my self-deprecation. There’s no wrong way to experience a Harry Styles concert, she said. You are getting to have different Harry Styles concert experiences each time, and that is wonderful.

The third performance ended up being my favorite. I wore a flower crown in my braided hair, my sister’s “Gender is Over… If You Want It” jersey shirt (since, I have purchased my own and it was a great decision), and, halfway through the concert, I let myself go. I stopped worrying about getting all of the lyrics right or the pressure of having a good time. I stopped trying to capture The Perfect Harry Styles Concert Experience and just let it happen. I actually started listening to the affirmations Harry Styles works into his concert routine. You are all fabulous. You are all special. I wouldn’t be here without you. I love you each and every one of you.

For the first two-and-a-half performances, I didn’t let myself hear any of this. Not only is there a cynicism in me and in society that kept me from listening or had me internally rolling my eyes at the boldness of it all, but, because that cynicism is inside of us all. It whispers: You don’t deserve this. You’re not worth love unless you are perfect, unless you are quiet, unless you are thin and pretty and young. Harry Styles calls bullshit on all of this: “‘My job for the next hour and a little bit is to entertain you and I’m gonna do my very best. Your job is to sing, dance, do whatever it is that makes you happiest in the world. Please feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room.”

It’s a good thing Harry Styles is stubbornly insistent with his affirmations. He will keep telling his fans that they are worth it just by being themselves for however long it takes for us to hear it and understand it and let it sink into our self-deprecating bones.

Once I started believing that I deserved to be there, that I deserved to be there as I was, naturally, rather than some highly maintained, “perfected” version of myself, I started enjoying myself so much more. This joyful enthusiasm wasn’t just for the other people who were there; it was for me, too. So thanks for that, Harry Styles.