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Toxic Masculinity and Big vs. Aidan: How 'Sex and the City’s' love triangle has aged

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Toxic Masculinity and Big vs. Aidan: How 'Sex and the City’s' love triangle has aged

Ballet flats, low-rise jeans and Cosmopolitans are back in style, so it is the perfect time for all six seasons of “Sex and the City” to stream on Netflix. The HBO series, previously exclusively on Max, premiered April 1 on the streaming service, where a wider subscriber base pulled in first-time viewers and rewatchers who are ready and willing to share their thoughts on social media.

This week, there has been increasing buzz about one of the iconic episodes in the series, when Carrie Bradshaw invites Mr. Big, the ex-boyfriend with whom she cheated on her current boyfriend Aidan, to the latter’s cabin.

I couldn’t help but wonder — does Carrie Bradshaw’s Big versus Aidan love triangle still feel relevant?

When it first premiered in June 1998, “Sex and the City, an adaptation of Candace Bushnell’s newspaper column and book, broke a lot of barriers with its depiction of four single women in their 30s and 40s navigating their friendship and vibrant sex lives in NYC. (It also fell short in a myriad of ways, namely in how incredibly white, heteronormative and privileged the characters were. While some of this changed in Max’s “And Just Like That,” for the purposes of this essay, I’m just focusing on the original series, not the films or subsequent spinoff.)

Since airing, it’s been common parlance to declare people specific archetypes promulgated by the show either via the four main friends — are you a Carrie or a Samantha? — or by the type of love interest one embodies — is he your Mr. Big or your Aidan?

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Sarah Jessica Parker, as Carrie Bradshaw, and John Corbett as Aidan Shaw in an episode from “Sex and the City.”

(HBO)

In particular, when it comes to Carrie’s love interests, both men were pretty flat characters. Big is the stereotypical, wealthy, charming playboy with serious commitment issues who just needs the right woman to come along and “fix” him. Aidan, in contrast, is the stable, Hallmark Christmas movie boyfriend who would love nothing more than to get married and stay home eating fried chicken — but he can skew boring.

The bad boy versus nice guy trope is a staple of mainstream ‘90s rom-coms. Millennials were raised on a diet of toxic, patriarchal relationships on film and TV, where male characters spend the majority of their time treating female characters horrendously, and then redeeming themselves in the final 20 minutes with one grand gesture. We became a generation trained to wait for our Bigs to catch on to their mistakes, come down the street in a shiny limo, and beg forgiveness. If he hasn’t come back and repented, it’s only because it isn’t our last 20 minutes yet.

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But does that trope still work in 2024? I’ve spoken with friends of mine — die-hard Big fans who cheered from our sorority house living room when he showed up at Carrie’s Paris hotel in the 2004 series finale — who are now rewatching the series and wondering why they were so hung up on Mr. Big in the first place. This sentiment has been echoed on social media, with viewers who are rewatching asking if Big has always been this infuriating. Is it just because millennials, now in their 30s and 40s, are at a more stable life stage where we can look back at Big as the walking, talking embodiment of a red flag? Or has society itself shifted away from the Mr. Bigs of the world?

Well, as it turns out, both things can be true.

“In your 20s, your life stage is about searching for identity and collecting experiences. Big was exciting because he was giving Carrie all of these new experiences,” says Israa Nasir, a mental health therapist who treats millennials and Gen Z adults going through life transitions. She says when she first watched the show, she remembers thinking Big was amazing. “But in your 30s and 40s you’re in a different life stage developmentally, you’re more about finding roots. Millennials are rooting down, we’re looking for stability. We can look back at Big and be like ‘Big was a huge red flag, because he couldn’t give her stability, which is required to move through the life stages.’”

This stability versus excitement is a conversation topic in Season 3, Episode 7, called “Drama Queens.” Over brunch, Carrie tells her friends she’s been waking up in the middle of the night sweating because she’s so anxious about the fact that everything with Aidan has been going so well.

“I’m used to the hunt, and this is effortless,” Carrie says. “You’re not getting the stomach flip,” adds Samantha. “Which is really just the fear of losing the guy,” says Miranda, ever the pragmatic one. Carrie admits she’s not used to being with someone who doesn’t do the “ever-seductive withholding dance.” When Miranda says she’s comfortable and safe and happy with Steve, Carrie deadpans, “Are you dating a man or a minivan?” Samantha tells her, “Your relationship is my greatest fear realized.”

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Four women in swimsuits and coverups walk together.

From left, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall, Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon in HBO’s “Sex and the City.”

(Craig Blankenhorn / HBO)

Nasir says that there is a generational difference in how we are engaging with romantic relationships, just by virtue of the world changing and an increase in emotional literacy.

“A 25-year-old current Gen Z person has way more access to self-help content, personal growth, self-awareness, all of those things that help you define yourself and relationships versus a 25-year-old millennial in the mid-2000s who did not really have that,” says Nasir.

“Millennials inherited a very patriarchal system. Many of us are entering the space of self-awareness for the first time whereas Gen Z is already there so their expectations from a relationship are very different.”

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Nasir adds that Gen Zers have changed the gender dynamics of dating. They are much more fluid when it comes to identity and sexuality, they’re more open to polyamory, and they don’t engage in the same debates about who pays, who initiates sex, etc. — themes that are a large part of “Sex and the City’s” plotlines. She says when speaking with her Gen Z patients about relationships, she often thinks about the episode where Miranda bluntly tells two young women that maybe “he’s just not that into you.” It was met with horror when Miranda said that, but Nasir said that kind of factual, upfront, candid conversation is par for the course among the younger generations.

In Nasir’s opinion, society hasn’t replaced patriarchal archetypes, we’ve just added more to the spectrum. And even though there are still a plethora of heteronormative love triangles and television often still adheres to the status quo, nuance has crept in. In Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” she points out that the lead love interest, Paxton, is the popular guy but with a sensitive side. Nasir says she sees more of an emphasis on platonic love, an expansion of what a long-term soulmate relationship can be, as depicted in series like “Grace and Frankie” or “Insecure.” She compares it with how the archetype of the woman on television changed and expanded from the ‘50s to the ‘90s. “From the ‘90s to the 2020s, there are more types of relationships that you see. We continue with every generation to add to the baseline,” Nasir says.

Suzanne Leonard is a professor of race, gender and sexuality studies at Simmons University in Boston. “We’ve been in a long, 20-year process of undoing the allure of Mr. Big,” says Leonard, adding that she doesn’t know whether the storylines on television have changed as much as the viewership has. “Audiences are much more aware of the dangers of toxic masculinity and that doesn’t read as sexy anymore. I think you have more sophisticated feminist viewers.”

“It’s sort of seeing what was actually right in front of us the whole time, but we couldn’t see it,” she adds. Leonard partly attributes this shift in our views of romance, this fatigue around brooding, emotionally unavailable characters, to the post-#MeToo moment. (She even points out that Chris Noth, the actor who played Big, was accused by several women of sexual abuse).

“Male power and male violence has been so sexualized and romanticized, and in the ‘90s and early 2000s, heterosexual women were really encouraged to be attracted to that type,” says Leonard. #MeToo created an awareness and reckoning with toxic masculinity that forced people to realize what society pushed as alluring might in fact be red flags.

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Our emotional vocabulary around these kinds of relationships has also shifted, as therapy-speak infuses our everyday language. Twenty years ago, we didn’t say someone was “toxic” or “gaslighting” or “love bombing.” “It has been able to give us labels to very normal human experiences,” says Nasir. And when you can identify these experiences, you can manage them better by naming them and walking away.

Last week when “Sex and the City” hit Netflix, there was buzz around how Gen Z would react, with some (correct) predictions that the “Carrie is the toxic villain” debate would ramp up as it did when “And Just Like That” aired. “Carrie is the worst human being I have ever seen,” said one first-time watcher. (In contrast, pop star Olivia Rodrigo proudly wore a “Carrie Bradshaw AF” shirt while performing in New York on April 5.)

Right on cue, first-timers began to react to the love triangle storyline on X, formerly Twitter, and TikTok, expressing how upset they were about the Carrie-Big-Aidan triangle. “Now why would Carrie cheat on Aidan with Mr.Big!” tweeted one viewer. “Personally I think Carrie Bradshaw should’ve been court-martialed for inviting Big to Aidan’s cabin,” wrote another.

Then the “Carrie Is Aidan’s Big” discourse began. It’s a debate that felt familiar — was Aidan pathetic for saying he didn’t feel comfortable with her being friends with Big after she had an affair or was he just setting boundaries? When he agreed to get back together with her, should he have wholeheartedly trusted her, and dropped his identity as the victim? Or was Aidan trying to change Carrie into something she wasn’t, and their lifestyles never would have really meshed anyway? And it wasn’t all anti-Big arguments. Did she belong with Big, so they could be toxic together? And there was perhaps the most cutting tweet of all, “Carrie deserved that post-it.”

A man in a suit sits next to a woman in strapless dress.

Did Carrie belong with Big, so they could be toxic together?

(Craig Blankenhorn / HBO)

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Pop culture historian Jennifer Keishin Armstrong wrote the book “Sex and the City and Us,” and says she’s always hated Carrie and Big together. “Mr. Big does not come around in the end; that’s the point of your Mr. Big,” says Armstrong, adding that Carrie shouldn’t end up with either of the two men. She is of the mind that Big was terrible for Carrie, but Carrie was terrible for Aidan.

“Television is trying to reflect real life, but it’s hard to get TV out of your head while you’re living your life. This is part of why Mr. Big and Carrie ending up together upsets me because I think it gives false hope when most relationships like this one do not have a happy ending in real life.” (For what it’s worth, the real Carrie agrees.)

Armstrong says the gold standard on TV is now two people with a real friendship who are also attracted to each other. She sees “The Office’s” Jim and Pam as an influential model of this kind of love.

“I do think relationships have gotten more nuanced than they were in the early 2000s,” she adds. “If we look at the TV side of things, think of ‘Fleabag’, whose entire finale is predicated on a very complex, romantic relationship that doesn’t work out the way we’re hoping in our soul, and it’s beautiful.”

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It’s hard to imagine how groundbreaking it would have been to have Big and Carrie’s last conversation be them acknowledging their love for each other but promising, “It’ll pass.”

In the series finale, Carrie has a final message about how the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself — but this message is undermined by the fact that this is also the moment she looks at her phone, and for the first time in six seasons, we find out Big’s real name.

I propose an alternate, healthier ending for Big and Carrie — and it already exists in canon. It’s in Part 1 of the series finale, when she confronts Big for boomeranging back into her life right when she’s moving on.

“You do this every time,” Carrie tells Big. “Every time! What, do you have some kind of radar: Carrie might be happy. It’s time to sweep in and s— all over it?”

Big tells her he made a mistake and insists “it’s different this time,” but Carrie interrupts him to say she is done.

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“You can drive this down street all you want,” she says, throwing his signature move back in his face. “Because I don’t live here anymore.”

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Movie Reviews

Chhaya Kadam: Earlier my name wouldn’t even be written in film reviews, now I have a Grand Prix winning film at Cannes

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Chhaya Kadam: Earlier my name wouldn’t even be written in film reviews, now I have a Grand Prix winning film at Cannes

This is clearly the year of Chhaya Kadam! After a great run with the actor’s earlier releases, Laapataa Ladies and Madgaon Express, her film All That We Imagine As Light became the first Indian film to win the Grand Prix at the recently concluded 77th Cannes Film Festival. One of her other films, Sister Midnight, was also screened at Directors Fortnight. Talking to us after the Grand Prix ceremony, Kadam exclaims, “It was the first Indian film to be screened at the main competition in 30 years, and we directly won an award! We had a story rooted in our motherland about women like us. For a subject like that to get selected here… I have no words.”

Actor Chhaya Kadam

Acknowledging her great run this year, she says, “People in Cannes also recognised me as Manju Mai (from Laapataa Ladies); they would say, ‘hey Manju Mai, Chhaya Kadam’.”

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Kadam’s tryst with acting began in 2006, then she went on to star in Marathi films such as Fandry (2013), Sairat (2016) and Nude (2018). “Earlier, my struggle was to get work; now it is for good work,” she shares, adding that it doesn’t end there. While she’s enjoying the fame now, there was a time when the actor’s work wasn’t recognised. “Earlier, film reviews would miss out on mentioning my name, even if my character was important. Bura toh bahut lagta tha. But then I thought I should work so hard that people are compelled to mention my name in their reviews,” she ends with a chuckle.

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How do you play a 400-year-old sin eater? Terrifyingly if you're 'Fargo's' Sam Spruell

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How do you play a 400-year-old sin eater? Terrifyingly if you're 'Fargo's' Sam Spruell

Debt is a theme running through Season 5 of “Fargo,” and there was no more terrifying bill collector in Noah Hawley’s latest seriocomic venture into the dark whiteout of the Upper Midwest than Ole Munch. Nor so poignant a creature, either, as portrayed by English actor Sam Spruell. Both the failed hired kidnapper and unlikely rescuer of Juno Temple’s protagonist Dot, the centuries-old sin eater pursues his own peculiar morality, burning malefactors’ eyeballs and demanding pancakes along the way.

Speaking via Zoom from the Hackney, London, home he shares with costume designer Natalie Ward and their 14-year-old son, Spruell looks tan (spray-on, he notes, for his role in the upcoming season of the British heist series “The Gold”) and sounds articulate, a far cry from his ruddy, cryptic “Fargo” apparition. Spruell mostly plays villains; a racist cop in “Small Axe: Mangrove” and “Doctor Who’s” Swarm are recent examples. But as Ole Munch’s season-capping moment demonstrates, Spruell finds the transcendent in the terrifying.

How much of Ole Munch was on the page and what was your creation?

Lots of it was in the script. Noah Hawley was quite clear when I met him who the character was. He started off by saying Ole was 400 or 500 years old, began in Europe, maybe has been in America for 200 to 300 years. He hasn’t spoken for a century. He has an eye-for-an-eye, Old Testament kind of code that he can’t relinquish. If he feels like the scales aren’t balanced between action and recompense … Noah described it as like an itch inside of his skull that he needs to scratch.

That was quite helpful. But what really unlocked the part for me was the sin-eating. Because he was poor and desperate, he was almost forced to eat the sins of the rich. People unable to break their cycle of poverty and crime because they’re not looked after by the rest of society, that was a very strong notion that I could build a character around.

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Sam Spruell plays killer Ole Munch in “Fargo.”

(Michelle Faye/FX Networks)

Ole exudes intimidation. You seem friendly, though.

I suppose some people have access to the ability to play lovers or turn on tears very quickly. My kind of capacity as an actor is darkness — and I’m not a very dark person! I’m reasonably happy, I’ve got a family who have stuck with me, but I can access darkness and intimidation. You never really play it, though; you’re playing someone who’s damaged through the whole series of events in their lives. You think about that, maybe, rather than playing a villain. Or scowling; I worked with Ridley Scott early in my career, who told me, “Just do a little less with your face.” He gave me that note when I was playing a really scary guy in “The Counselor,” and obviously it stuck.

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So many memorable, specific aspects to Ole, like his third (or is it fourth?) person syntax and sibilant voice.

Noah saying that he hadn’t spoken for 100 years was enormously useful. Your ability to form sentences in, maybe, your third language … it doesn’t flow. It’s not fluent, it’s broken, the sounds are malformed, if you like. Once you throw in that he’s got a Norwegian name, you throw in some Scandinavian sounds, so with the voice coach I built it out that way as well.

And he wears a skirt.

It’s so funny. Noah and Carol Case, the costume designer, wanted to make him timeless, but also somebody who was not moved by convention. I was coming to the same conclusion, and weirdly I sent her an email saying, “Maybe he should wear a dress?” Kind of as a joke, kind of a tryout, but Noah had said the same thing to Carol or the other way around. She started sending pictures of kilts, and I felt this was exactly right. It’s got a weird historical thing going on.

A tight black-and-white portrait of British actor Sam Spruell.

“The great thing about ‘Fargo’ is it creates characters with a real interior but who have these physical and eccentric attributes that you can really go for,” actor Sam Spruell says.

(Oliver Mayhall / For The Times)

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There’s so much that’s bizarre about Ole, yet at the very end he’s beaming.

The great thing about “Fargo” is it creates characters with a real interior but who have these physical and eccentric attributes that you can really go for. That’s the joy of it, being allowed to go for something that you’re trying to make naturalistic but is completely unnaturalistic as well. It’s a fine line, but if you feel like you’re onto something and you’re able to achieve it in a scene, there is nothing better as an actor than playing that size a character.

That all comes out in the remarkable final sequence, where only Dot knows that Ole’s come to threaten her cluelessly welcoming family, but ultimately makes him smile — perhaps for the first time — with a Bisquick biscuit.

He’s arrived at her home because of, again, that itch inside of his skull. He set her free from her imprisonment on the ranch, but there was no quid pro quo and he’s troubled by that, so he returns to gather the debt. The understanding that she’s not gonna pay it and that he’s actually got to forget about it runs through that whole scene. But the kindness element is so interesting. In preparation, I had all these boards written in my Calgary apartment: He’s never been touched, he’s never been shown any kindness, never been shown any affection or love. That scene, suddenly, he’s just wrapped up in a family’s love — ever so incrementally, so delicately, that he doesn’t even know it’s happening to him.

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That final act, where she gives him something made with love and he accepts it, is I guess the first step to him having a chance in life.

Is Bisquick a thing in Britain?

It’s not. Bisquick were in touch with my manager in the States because they wanted to gift me a box or something. It was very funny. We haven’t followed up on it yet, but maybe I should get it delivered to my home and have a proper taste of it with my kid.

Speaking of family, how has your mother, Linda Broughton, influenced your craft and career?

She is still an actor; she’s 77. She’s mainly had a life of theater, mine’s been predominantly film and telly, and it’s been a really good conversation between the two of us. We have different approaches but we’re both kind of after the truth. I did an audition tape for the part of Ole Munch, and it was my mum I’m reading the lines with. I feel incredibly lucky to have had her counsel. Hopefully I give her something in return when we talk about how to be better actors.

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Ezra (2024) – Movie Review

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Ezra (2024) – Movie Review

Ezra, 2024.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn.
Starring Bobby Cannavale, William A. Fitzgerald, Robert De Niro, Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg, Rainn Wilson, Tony Goldwyn, Jackson Frazer, Greer Barnes, Tess Goldwyn, Ella Ayberk, Lois Robbins, Alex Plank, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Matilda Lawler, Joe Pacheco, Amy Sheehan, Barzin Akhavan, Donna Vivino, Jacqueline Nwabueze, John Donovan Wilson, Joshua Hinck, Sophie Mulligan, Thomas Duverné, Guillermo Rodriguez, and Jimmy Kimmel.

SYNOPSIS:

Comedian Max co-parents autistic son Ezra with ex-wife Jenna. Faced with crucial decisions about Ezra’s future, Max and Ezra go on a life-changing cross-country road trip.

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Undeniably made with good intentions, Ezra wants to tell a story about a young autistic boy and his father struggling to accept that uniqueness (lamenting that his son will never be “normal”) due to some personal baggage related to his rocky upbringing. Ezra is also a film that consistently gets sidetracked or finds itself telling that story in a broad, mawkish manner with outlandish plot beats that continuously sink the few elements that work. That’s also surprising considering screenwriter Tony Spiridakis (who had been working on the script for roughly 15 years) is basing that father-son relationship on his experience raising an autistic child. Why turn such personal material into… this?

A film about the challenges of parenting an autistic child and ensuring that everything from school to public behavior is going well has enough realistic, stressful drama to be relatable to anyone who has ever been in a similar situation. The dynamic that parents Max (Bobby Cannavale) and Jenna (Rose Byrne) are divorced (the actors are married with children in real life) adds another layer of domestic intrigue.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn, the film seems to have no awareness of when to stop manufacturing more drama or when it begins to feel like piling on for the sake of telling a story that quickly begins to feel false. It becomes less of an earnest look at autistic childhood and more of a far-fetched road trip flick where the logic for certain characters is nonexistent, and the narrative rapidly transitions to do something that could only exist in the movies, something that is counterproductive to why this film was made.

This is frustrating since there are touching flourishes whenever Max interacts with the titular Ezra (William A. Fitzgerald, a delight to watch and autistic). Despite getting expelled from school, Ezra is a kind soul with various stimulation triggers (such as hugs or sensitivity to eating with forks), who often speaks in famous quotes and takes everything literally to such a degree that when he overhears Jenna’s new partner jokingly talking about murdering Max, he frantically runs out of the house to warn his loving father. This leads to Ezra making the choice to run into the middle of the street while scared and avoiding a barking dog on the sidewalk, nearly getting hit by a car, with doctors under the impression that it was a suicide attempt, dealing with the incident by forcing the parents to put the boy into a special needs school and take antipsychotic medication.

That’s only the beginning of this exaggerated story, which then sees Max kidnapping his son from Jenna, believing that she has lost hope in fighting for his rights and is too comfortable listening to professional advice. He doesn’t like that the medication zombifies his son (understandably so) and appears to believe that allowing the boy to go to a special needs school means he is accepting that there is something wrong. Many of his hangups with accepting his son’s autism come from a tumultuous relationship with his father, Stan (Robert De Niro), a former chef who gave up his dreams to provide for Max after his mother left. This grandfather also has trouble acknowledging his grandson’s autism, uncomfortable uttering the term. Both of these men, in a sense, are hiding and running from reality.

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Perhaps a more skilled filmmaking team could make something out of that, but Ezra also has to contend with baffling subplots such as Max’s aspiring standup comedian career and his relative closeness to securing a spot performing for Jimmy Kimmel. There is also a road trip aspect that sees Max heading West with Ezra, coming across several old friends for the sake of convenience. In one sequence, the film makes the case that there will be kids (even girls) who accept Ezra and those who will bully him, doing so in a confused way, unsure if it wants to sanitize itself. It’s also accompanied by sappy music.

At a certain point, Ezra is officially reported as kidnapped with warnings and notices throughout the 24-hour news cycle. Max is aware of this, yet confoundingly still thinks showing up to audition for Jimmy Kimmel will end well. The occasional tender moments between father and son are continuously undercut by this stupidity and overblown narrative decisions. At least it follows suit, ending in a fittingly melodramatic cringe.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=embed/playlist

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