This Will Kill: History Channel's "Forged in Fire" and American economic anxiety

Few things are as satisfying as a slow-motion shot of a bladed weapon cutting through a hanging pig carcass—the scccclk sound that comes as steel carves through flesh.

This revelation comes via "Forged in Fire," History Channel's competitive reality show in which bladesmiths try to make the sharpest and strongest dagger, hunting knife, sword, or some other cutting weapon.

Much of the show is dedicated to how these dudes—and it's almost all dudes—take steel, sometimes with the added gimmick of it being a piece of cable or a tool, like a wrench, or yanked from a busted-up old car, heat it in the forge, and hammer, press, and grind the glowing-red metal into a razor-sharp tool—all in several hours spread over two rounds.

While this is all happening, hunky-bro host Wil Willis solicits commentary from the panel of judges, all experts related to bladesmithing and/or weaponry, to explain a certain technique or tut-tut when someone has fallen woefully behind.

But the best part comes when the judges test the strength of these weapons and weapons-in-progress by bashing the shit out of them against wood, ice, or some other material, and the edge by slicing meat hunks, large fish, pigs, sandbags, bamboo, and just about anything else that can be cut. When not shot in slow motion, these scenes are accompanied by generic-sounding metal guitar. Shit is getting sliced, rock the fuck on.

It really gets wild during the kill test, when the blades are used to whack and stab a ballistics dummy, drawing a gush of colored goo. Judge Doug Marcaida, "an edged weapon combat specialist who also designs some of the world's deadliest blades," according to History, will tell successful contestants, with a smile and audible satisfaction, "This will keel." So many contestants revere Marcaida, and they get pretty pumped whenever they hear him say that magic phrase about a weapon they've made.

A common gripe with History Channel is that the programming lacks, well, history, but this is remedied in the final challenge, when the two remaining smiths are tasked with returning to their home forges to recreate a centuries-old battle weapon, the history and design of which Willis describes. To get through to the kids, Willis will also cite a video game a weapon is used in when applicable. The "Assassin's Creed" series seems like a popular example.

As with so many other contest-based reality shows, "Forged in Fire" sets the easy—and easy to fall for—traps of cutting to commercials just as the drama is heightening. The quick cut in the midst of a tense moment suddenly makes the viewer care enough to sit through a break to find out if a guy will be able to finish the handle on his bowie knife with only 10 minutes left on the clock. And the hour-long episodes, often stacked in consecutive blocks late at night, are easily digestible, meaning you'll look up after knocking out a few and realize it's 1 a.m. (This may or may not happen to me a lot.)

What fascinates me most about the show, beyond the idea that there's enough working bladesmiths in the United States for this to be in its fourth season (though some have been recycled as "fan favorites"), is that "Forged in Fire" simultaneously attempts to occupy a space for both millennials and boomers.

The former is often said to care more for things that are handmade by artisans. There's no better example of this than a smith dripping sweat as he works his hunk of metal in the blazing-hot forge and then hammers it against an anvil just so. "Forged in Fire" rewards original design and execution, and it elevates what was maybe once thought of as a dying or dead trade, feeding young people's desire for "authenticity" over mass-produced sameness.

But really, it feels more like an appeal to the former, an embodiment of Frank Sobotka's "we used to make shit in this country" speech in Season Two of "The Wire." It's a callback to our country's height as an industrial powerhouse, when red-blooded American men could make a good living using their hands, and so much of what we bought proudly said "Made in the U.S.A." The decline of all this is the "economic anxiety" mindset that pundits have wrongly said led us to "Make America Great Again." (Says Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College, in a widely cited study, "...the evidence from the 2016 election is very clear that attitudes about blacks, immigrants, and Muslims were a key component of Trump's appeal.")

Whether you choose to ascribe that as the reason for Trump or not, there's no doubt that de-industrialization and a widening wage gap have left many people behind in the name of the global economy and cheaper crap. And as techies keep pushing for a future where our machines will do more of the work for us, there are hard questions to be answered about what will become of all those industrial, blue-collar jobs that still remain.

In light of all that, there's some comfort in seeing that there are still people out there making shit the old-fashioned way, and to see the fruits of their labor successfully cut through a dead animal hanging from a hook.

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