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Analysis

The Unique Yet Familiar Journey in Breath of the Wild

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Warning: Major Spoilers for Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild!

On March 3rd of this year, a brand new Legend of Zelda (LoZ) title was released out into the *ahem*… wild. This most recent visit to the beloved Hyrule universe entitled Breath of the Wild (you see what I did in that first sentence?) promised to add more depth, more freedom, and more gameplay than any LoZ game that preceded it.

Being the type of person known for prolonging his own happiness, I didn’t end up picking up the game until halfway through the summer…but at last…I have completed it on my own time. Amidst upwards of a hundred hours of gameplay that I sunk into Breath of the Wild’s completion, amidst the countless shrines unlocked, Korok seeds uncovered, mountains climbed, towers erected, weapons found and puzzles solved, at the heart of all this open-world goodness lays the true reason I, and so many others return to Hyrule: to experience the intimate story of Link’s Hero’s Journey.

The Call to Action/ Supernatural Aid

The journey begins with Link, the Hero of Time, awakening from one of the most epic naps in videogame history: a one-hundred-year slumber. “Open your eyes Link,” a soft, mellifluous voice from an unknown source calls him to action, and Link crawls out of a vat in the same way one might drag themselves to their Friday morning “Ethics” course after a night of binge-drinking. Irony is great.

Anyway enough about my early twenties. Link soon receives his supernatural aid: his smartphone -errr- his Sheikah Slate to which I absolutely didn’t immediately  peruse Amazon for a replica Iphone case. So it’s not with a ferry this time around with whom we navigate the world, but with modern technological advances. Great, as if our hero wasn’t gauche enough, he’s just gonna have his head buried in his phone for this entire adventure! Damn Millennials.

Who needs Navi? I’ll just set my text tone to “HEY! LISTEN!” and hope the Princess is into hipsters…

Themes and Characteristics

Link, aside from being a walking “Intro to Stoicism” course, also has amnesia. In Breath of Wild this vital character trait, or rather, character flaw  is taken full advantage of from both a gaming and story arc prospective. He awakens, he is lost and unaware of his surroundings, he receives his Sheikah Slate, then he wanders out into a sprawling field without knowing where, or even who the hell he is. It’s now up to you the player to discover it for him.

This amnesiac flaw works on a Meta level as well, of course. For, what I’m assuming to be most players of this game, this is not our first time in Hyrule, but a reintroduction. Like Link, we are plunged into a world that we are told should be familiar to us, but, in sheer scale alone, this Hyrule is like nothing we’ve ever experienced before. It’s dangling nostalgia over our heads in such an astonishing way without wholly relying on it, because recurrence and nostalgia have actually become part of the setting and canon itself:

You remember Hyrule right? You’ve been to all the locations, you’ve defeated Ganon in the past, haven’t you? And this Princess said to be containing the evil within the castle…you remember her too right? Well, somewhere in this vast, unending version of Hyrule, you might just reconnect with all that … but good luck getting there.

This could be considered to some as a crutch, a way to recycle old material, but that’s a necessary hurdle for anyone to jump over when their product is storytelling. Yes, they often recycle the same cast of major characters and often return to Hyrule, but what LoZ does so much better than most other franchises bent on continuing their consumable narratives, is use these characters as tools to explore different themes within said characters, and use their setting to aid in a unique story. In Majora’s Mask they explore chaos and grief in the land of Termina.

In Twilight Princess, A Link To The Past, and A Link Between Worlds they explore the duality. Ocarina of Time explores the effects of becoming an adult with two different time periods of Hyrule. So the purpose of, say, the hundred-year time skip in Breath of the Wild is to connect you to the past within Breath of the Wild’s story, not to make cheap references and not-so-subtle connections to other titles the way so many reboots nowadays rely so heavily upon. With LoZ, it has always been the themes and the character journeys to come first.

There are two strong themes that come to mind when speaking of just the setting itself: Freedom and choice. With Hyrule’s new sense of sprawling open-endedness, unique only to Breath of the Wild, it is vital for Link to explore, to get lost, to discover and uncover every secret in every corner of Hyrule. This childlike thirst for adventure is a rather important character quality that will in turn help Link overcome his amnesiac character flaw. Now if only he had someone to point him in the right freaking direction…

The Threshold Guardian, The Sage, and The Prophecy

The first character you run into as Link is an old man by a fire. He just happens to know like a ton of Hyrule history, which is rather helpful, and he reveals himself to be the ghost of King Rhoam, Zelda’s father, and then gives Link a paraglider to fulfill his role as the Threshold Guardian.

Rhoam’s gift gives Link the key to leaving his “home” and fulfill his destiny. Link then traverses to Kakariko village to find Impa, the sage who tells him of a prophecy.

There is a princess (Zelda) with a sacred power and her appointed knight (Link), chosen by a sword that seals the darkness, as well as four Divine Beasts piloted by four champions that will help defeat the great evil.  A hundred years ago upon Ganon’s return, they failed. Ganon seized control over the divine beasts and turned them against the peoples of Hyrule, killed the champions and laid waste to the Kingdom. Damn.

Impa, fulfilling her role as the sage has a very important message for Link, but since Link has lost his memory, she isn’t sure you are ready to hear what happened. This pattern follows Link around the entire story. Legend tells of a hero that would return, and people recognize the Sheikah Slate but refuse to believe that Link is Link. So let’s add inferiority complex to our amnesiac identity crisis. So far so good.

“I’ve been waiting one-hundred years to deliver the princess’ message… HOWEVERif you are to hear them, you must be prepared to risk your life as well…not a memory to your name yet you are as intent as ever to charge forward with only courage and justice on your side.”-Impa

Temptations

Through travel, and uncovering places in Hyrule, your lack of memory plagueing you throughout the journey begins to reveal itself. It’s not by accident that Link’s struggle for autonomy, for agency and for understanding one’s destiny is in direct parallel with the character arc of Zelda.

You discover that Zelda has torn feelings towards her appointed knight. He is a living embodiment of her own limitations. She knows that she is capable of great things, and she is determined to access her sealing powers and fulfill her destiny to defeat Ganon all by herself.

“I thought I made it clear that I’m not in need of an escort… I, the person in question am fine, regardless of the king’s orders.” -Zelda

Though she longs to be given independence, she is constantly being undermined and over protected, causing her to make rash, or even careless decisions; or as Daruk, the Goron’s champion puts it,

“She has a strong personality–so strong she can’t quite see the range for the peaks.”

Zelda, our tragic princess is so concerned with getting all the details about the divine beasts correctly and  proving her capability, that she neglects discovering her sacred power. By avoiding her destiny, she bears the responsibility of Hyrule’s destruction.

Before the Calamity however, Zelda is at one point impressed, envious even, of Link’s dedication and devotion to his path. But she projects her complex struggle onto Link concerning her own path. A question that makes Link ponder: How can any of us be sure? This temptation could lead to his straying away from his destiny.

“I see now why you would be the chosen one. What if one day you realized you weren’t meant to be a fighter? Yet the only thing people ever said was that you were born into a family of the royal guard, and so no matter what you thought, you HAD to become a knight? If that was the only thing you were ever told, I wonder then, would you have chosen a different path?”

So here is Zelda’s tragic downfall: her fears and anxieties about having her path laid out for her. She sees how determined and sure Link is of his path, and this bothers her because she wonders if she would be someone entirely different were she given the choice.

“My hope is that you’ll allow me to contribute here in whatever way I can”

she says to her father on the ramparts of Hyrule castle. She wants to help with the guardians and the divine beasts, with all the extensive knowledge she possesses on the subject, but her father forbids it until she finishes her training on how to seal Ganon away. Her father is aware of how the people see him as a failure, that he would allow for Ganon to return to the realm unchecked, and he won’t allow for the same fate to befall his daughter.

Challenges

Your destiny to save Zelda soon becomes much more meaningful once you discover the memory of when she saves you. Her power is unlocked only when Link’s life is most at risk. But how is it that past Link is so sure of his destiny? How is it that he understands his power so confidently? This is where the time loop plays out so nicely, because it is upon the death and resurrection of the hero, where Zelda saves Link and our story begins that she finally realizes hers and your destinies are directly *umm* LINKED. In order to stop Ganon, her role is that she must save you from making the same mistakes she made. She must make sure that you remember who you are, that you remember to save her as well. She cannot defeat this evil on her own, and neither can you.

This is where the roles of  the divine beasts come fully into play; they are the challenges of which Link must overcome. Only upon defeating Ganon’s monsters can he begin his transformation into the hero he was always meant to be: a hero that unites the peoples of Hyrule and exhibits the best qualities of the champions, the friends he surrounds himself with.

Revali of the Rito clan is your competitive rival. He’s the most talented archer in Hyrule, but he’s cocky and pig-headed and Windblight Ganon defeats him. But upon freeing Revali’s spirit, he grants you a gift: Revali’s Gale.

Gale. noun. a very strong wind OR a burst of sound, especially laughter.

So although Revali’s cockiness was his downfall, what comes out of it is a character quality that Link can possess, and if he can control the Gale, he can use it to his strength. This is likewise for all the champions. Daruk of the Goron’s gives Link the gift of protection, despite the fact that Breath of the Wild focuses so heavily on overprotection having negative effects on characters like Zelda and Yunobo in the Goron story. Urbosa of the Gerudo gives Link the gift of her fury and Mipha of the Zoras gives Link her grace. Again, these qualities when taken to extremes are what led to the champion’s downfall, but with their help, Link can learn to control these spirits, to balance these qualities and grow into the hero he was before the Calamity.

We are the company we keep, after all. Or in my case “kept,” seeing as how you’re all dead. Boy am I lonely.

When finally he frees all four spirits and gains control of the divine beasts, he is ready to face the hero’s atonement by reconciling his past, the champions’ pasts, Zelda’s past and most importantly, the relationship he had with her. He does this when gaining control of the Master Sword and finally facing Ganon and freeing Zelda. When he finally frees her, they face the Calamity together and rid Hyrule of evil just as the prophecy was foretold, returning Hyrule to a time of peace.

In Conclusion

Breath of the Wild gave us so much of what we love about the Zelda experience, but with its sandbox twist it became an entirely unique world of uncovered secrets and vast exploration. We the player (new to Hyrule or returning) experience our love for adventure, for mystery, for Hyrule, for Zelda, through the lens of Link’s Hero’s Journey as he rediscovers himself, his relationships, and the destiny that awaits him in one giant time loop. Link’s journey is so satisfying because, at the end of it all, it’s a selfless one. The game has never just been about Link; otherwise it would be called “Link: the Hero of Time and Time Again.” It’s not.

It’s called Legend of Zelda. It’s about a hero learning the secrets of the world in order to uncover the secrets of himself. Only when he does this can he give himself wholly to the light, to the resistance of evil, to Zelda in order to aid her in completing a destiny of her very own. It’s a story that, if told well can be heard again and again and again and have the same inspiring effect every time. A story of devotion and finding one’s purpose in a world where we are told over and over again by authority what that purpose is, but have very little idea about how to achieve it. Only through our journey, through the bonds we form with others, through the lessons we learn from the ones we love the most, can we be free to remember what that purpose ultimately is.

Zelda: Do you really remember me? Me: *sobbing* YESSS, God yes!! I’ll always remember you!


Images Courtesy of Nintendo

Colin spends his time either writing or being anxious that he should be writing right now and isn't. He's a huge Tolkien fan and he values a strong cup of tea. If you see him at a party, he's probably isolated himself after either quoting too much David Foster Wallace, or too harshly deconstructing someone's favorite film.

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Analysis

Sith Inquisitor’s Journey to Freedom

Angelina

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Minor spoilers for the Sith Inquisitor class quest chain; minor spoilers for the Knights of the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne DLCs

It is a great part of RPG experience, and even a greater part of RPG enjoyment, to like your character.  And by “RPG” I mean any RPG whatsoever, from LARP to tabletop to video game. Which is only natural, as you can’t really relate to the character you don’t like. And what is RPG if not relating to a character so that you can share its fictional experience?

Which, mind you, doesn’t mean that person should be likable. More like, they should be interesting. An interesting piece of shit, after all, has a much bigger chance to win over your emotions than a bland, shallow Stainless Hero. Like, when you watch The Thief and The Cobbler (the recobbled cut, of course, not that abomination), you sympathize with the first much more than the latter. What a perfect role model he is! But I digress.

When I first set out to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was highly unsure if I really wanted to do so. I’ve always had problems with video games in the sense that they don’t actually let you create your character. You get a not-so-wide variety of characters and must choose one to try to empathize with. This makes every game a hit-or-miss case for me: either it’s love at the first sight, or it’s “who are those people and why should I have anything to do with them.”

Sith Academy; a gloomy place, isn’t it?

Meeting the Sith Inquisitor

I confess, I made my initial character choice based on my desire to shoot lightning. I thought it would compensate for the lack of emotional involvement I expected. Luckily, I was mistaken!

The story was captivating right from the start because it had questions to ask. And those questions were directed to me, a player. It was me who had to answer them for myself. It was me who had to choose for myself. Because my course of action depended not on what were my plot goals and neither on my gameplay preferences. It depended on my opinion on certain problems.

Basically, you start in a very unprivileged position, that of a slave. An alien slave, if you really want to experience this story in its full power. You finish in a rather privileged position, that of a Dark Council member. On the surface this seems like a typical rags-to-riches story. However, the action/adventure story is only a minor part of the experience. The main part is the inner path—looking back to your past to create your own future and, more importantly, your future self.

In a nutshell, it is a story exploring how you deal with the trauma from past abuse: do you internalize the point of view of the abuser or the abused? As a survivor myself, I can only praise the way this narrative was given and framed in-game.

Dealing with the Trauma

So, you are a slave. You spend half your Prologue experiencing constant verbal and physical abuse from your sort-of teacher. He wants to get rid of you so that a free, Sith Pureblood candidate will win the golden ticket. But justice is served, and the ticket is finally yours. You are no more a slave, but a Sith—a person in the position of power above all non-Sith. What do you do now? And more importantly, how do you do it?

The game has a Light/Dark Side system in it. Before it was totally remade (broken, I’d rather say) it worked like Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect games: you choose one of two alternatives, you get certain amount of Side points, you become more attuned with a certain side of the Force. Or sometimes there is a neutral way, that’s neither. It doesn’t give you any points, but still is important in this storyline.

Your first encounter with Dark vs. Light presents a very typical kill the baby/save the baby dilemma: you can torture a witness to extract the criminal’s name, or you can talk to him and exchange help for information. A very easy choice, is it not? The next encounter is the one that gets under your skin.

It is with the evil mentor who wanted to kill you, who humiliated you, who was your abuser. You can scorn him now that you are free and a Sith in service of a Lord far above your former teacher’s station. You have every reason to hate this man, you have to wish to humiliate him in return. The first option is to threaten him, and while taking it would be extremely understandable, it is not a neutral option–it’s Dark Side. It is still playing along the rules of the system: might is right; you now have both, he has neither.

The Light Side option is to thank him, to break those unholy rules. You may not forget it, and you may be quite bitter later on about your early experience. You may never actually forgive him. Yet you refuse petty revenge, you refuse the power play. Because evil can’t mend or undo another evil.

I swear, something in my heart trembled when that rat of a man smiled to my character in return and thanked him. Because at last I saw the real Dark vs Light narrative, where Light begets more light–and Dark begets more dark.

Thus I understood that I really want to experience that story up to the end.

How can it be Dark Side? It’s fairly innocent… or is it?

Your Choices

While both versions of the Sith Inquisitor’s class story present him dealing with his trauma, I could never get myself to try the Dark one. It was really, really dark; the story of a person broken and driven to the edges of sanity, who would never let anyone have anything that person was once denied. I really couldn’t help pity the creature that person would eventually become. It’s not that this story is exactly bad, but I think it is somewhat toxic and too much in line with “being tortured makes you evil” narrative. Not exactly the trope that is in any way helpful for abuse survivors.

The Neutral path—what you tread if you don’t follow any consistent course of action—was less devastating on the personal level. It is more of a quest for identit-y than anything else. Your character does eventually give in to the darker side of their nature, but also eventually does something truly and genuinely good and selfless. In the end they receive the name Occulus, for being a mystery to everyone , including themselves. Because they really don’t know themselves. After all, the Sith Inquisitor is presumed to be very young; somewhere in their early twenties.

Sith Inquisitor

My own perfect cinnamon roll of an Inquisitor

I really loved the third option, the Light Side. It is a path of empathy, a path of true freedom. It is also the path most difficult both for your character and for you as a player, for it consciously sets you against certain old tropes and easy decisions.

Good Is Not Easy

Many games try to “convince” you to do right thing by making good choices less hard than bad ones. In general, this game is no exception; if you were to take the Dark route as a Jedi Knight, it would require more time and work from you than the opposite. But on this route it’s the other way around. Being a good person here is not—just as in real life—easy. It is hard.

I can’t describe Light!Sith Inquisitor as anything but a Suffering Empath. Having experienced much trauma in the past, this Sith Inquisitor struggles their best to shield others from the same trauma, even when it doesn’t benefit themselves. Even when it means direct harm to themselves.

For example, their power is based on that of the restless spirits they’ve bound to their soul. Letting those spirits go means the Sith Inquisitor goes back to the start, where they are fairly ordinary a Sith and no match for the truly mighty ones. It means a real threat to their life or, at the very least, their well-being. But because it is right, they fulfill their promise and let the spirits go and find peace.

In another instance, they encounter a racist, foul-mouthed, self-infatuated prick, and they don’t kill him. They choose this because that abominable creature is someone else’s loved person. and your own (both player’s and character’s) desire to punish him cannot be given a higher priority than someone else’s love and anxiety.

This route is hard, because it requires additional quests and lines of dialogue. It is hard, because sometimes you really want to teach someone the hard way, to vent your own (player’s) disgust and rage, to punish the bad guys. But as long as you remember the “two wrongs don’t make right” rule, you can really enjoy that story.

Well, “enjoy” is not exactly the right word, but you get it.

When they spoke of finally knowing true freedom (in being released to the Afterlife) I really cried from happyness

True Freedom

This story is about real freedom; that is, spiritual freedom.

One of the easiest paths to achieve your goals in Star Wars universe is by using Mind Trick. You simply make the other person do and think what you wish them to. It is often used as, well, an easy and harmless workaround. It is often marked as a Light Side option in the Jedi class stories (the Dark option being to fight).

But on this route it is never a offer as a good option—usually neutral, but sometimes even bad. Because, y’know, it’s about freedom. What is more abusive, after all, than to deny a person that person’s free will?

I cannot fathom an action more free of will, of an agency more openly expressed, than denying a whole system of oppression while being raised as a part of it. But the Sith Inquisitor does just that.

Every time they eschew their own in favor of someone else’s, they deny that system. Every time they refuse to acquire more power because it would others more dearly, they deny that system. Every time they choose to respect the free will of the others, even if it means problems for themselves, they deny that system.

 Conclusion

What I really wanted to do, right from the beginning, was to thank the author.

Rebecca Harwick created a fascinating story that works perfectly for a genre that requires deep emotional connection with your character. RPG is about living other lives, those we can never experience IRL but those still having an impact on us and our life. We all know that stories matter, and I think we need more stories like that.

And it is a highly satisfying story. You really feel it by the end, that peace and glory that come with being righteous.

Personally, it helped me deal with my own trauma and helped me sort out things and realize that some options are not really an option—that giving in to the abuser’s point of view would really keep me stuck in that trauma forever.

That, while trying to be a good person is often hard, it’s worth it.

P.S.: And Then They Ruined It…

When you experience something that great, you want more of it, do you? Well, I wanted. So I went on to playing DLCs that are supposed to cover the later life of the same hero.

Sadly, the story-line there was clearly written as a continuation of the Jedi Knight’s class story, and any difference in dialogue was purely cosmetic. This actually came out bad for many classes, but the Sith Inquisitor suffers not only plot-and-logic-wise, but also thematically and, I daresay, problematically.
You see, it is generally okay if a privileged golden boy of a Jedi, who was always treated as someone special and a Chosen One, gets a lecture from those still above him about him not being special and his real role being a mere gear in a much greater machine. It serves him right and it even has some thematic significance. I am, of course, referring to the Jedi Knight—the supposed Anakin-done-right hero, the most obviously coded as male and most irritatingly problematic in and of himself.

This kind of lecture is certainly not okay when delivered by two uber-privileged guys (a Jedi Grandmaster and a Head of the Dark Council) to a former slave. They tell this slave to be nothing more than a cogwheel, that freedom is overrated and that they need to subjugate themselves to someone or something greater. They directly say, “you are weak because you fight for your freedom, become a willing slave (to the Force, but still) and you’ll be strong.”

It is problematic, isn’t it?

It really ruined the thing for me. The narrative that was centered around freedom, around acquiring it, understanding it and using it right…it was thrown away in favor of a rather lazy “we all are slaves of the Fate” plot device. And that’s only when we talk themes and not slavery per se, and the narrative completely forgetting about it.

My only solace is, it was written by another person.


Images courtesy EA Entertainment

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Analysis

Will Has a Women Problem

Michelle

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Love him or hate him, you have to admit William Shakespeare wrote some of literature’s most iconic women. Queens such as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Titania; tragic heroines like Cordelia, Juliet, and Ophelia; the outspoken self-advocates Beatrice, Katherina and Paulina. While only some of Shakespeare’s women wield legitimate, authoritative power, all of them are powerful figures on stage: women of devastating conviction, integrity, and passion At a time in history where women had few legal rights—and couldn’t legally appear on a stage—Shakespeare’s women stood as monuments to women’s potential and women’s reality.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Will, TNT’s ten-episode period drama, does its women a disservice. This is not to say that Will’s women are bad characters. On the contrary, Alice Burbage, Anne Hathaway/Shakespeare, Emilia Bassano and Apelina are powerful, bringing some of the most poignant emotional experiences to the show. Unfortunately, those performances don’t happen for the sake of their own characters’ individual growth. Frustratingly, Will’s women instead end up as tried-and-true tools shaping men’s destinies.

As Will’s love interest, Alice Burbage is the woman most affected by Will’s underlying misogyny (although she’s not the most insidious example). From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing,” when she leans out of her window, breasts just short of dropping out of her bodice, Alice is set up as a sexual object for Will’s attention. But it is her brilliance and dedication to the theater that draw Will to her as a lover and intellectual soulmate.

Alice is an “educated woman,” her learning much more advanced than the supposed average early modern daughter or housewife (who actually had to have a decent bit of learning in order to maintain the household, but suspension of disbelief and all that). She can read and write well enough to provide clean copies of scripts for the actors of her father’s theater, and has enough business savvy to help her family with the theater business.

Alice’s intelligence doesn’t exist for herself, though. Rather, it exists for Will. A blossoming-playwright with no experience, Will is a really terrible addition to the Theatre. He has talent with words but little else; he barely understands how theaters and theater-going works. For Will, there is only “the art,” which finally bites him in episode 3, “The Two Gentlemen.” No one will buy Will’s newest play, a complicated piece of poetry with nothing to appeal to an audience. Once he admits Alice is right and he needs her help, though, Alice gives Will access to all the plays in her father’s repertoire and then helps him hit upon the then-not-so-novel idea of stealing the overarching idea.

Once that’s in hand—with Alice guiding him in the selection and the theft—Alice helps him write.

“To him she must be like day, like night, like light. Like light.”

“Like light?”

Even when Alice is asleep, her presence is the thing that spurs Will to continue to write, his eyes fixated on her as he writes passionate speeches for Sylvia. When James discovers them in the morning, it’s Alice’s fury and insistent on its quality—quality she oversaw—that gets it performed.

Alice does the same for Henry VI pt 2. After encouraging Will to write the histories out of order, she gives Will the title for the play:

“Henry VI: The Rise of the Dauphin Menace. When I was reading the histories, I discovered the Dauphin, Charles II, joined forces with Joan of Arc.” (Episode 6)

The pair of them function like this for most of the season: Will comes to Alice with the seeds of a play, the words that are his signature, and Alice provides the necessary structure to see the play succeed and Will’s star rise. She coins the term“prequel” for Henry VI pt 2, decides on the overall plot of that same play, and, perhaps most importantly, suggests Will humanize Richard in Richard III, making his actions more horrific by highlighting the humanity still lurking in the monster. Without that crucial character change, the endgame against Topcliffe would have failed.

Alice, however, never receives recognition for her significant, life-altering contributions. Will, of course, praises her genius and recognizes that without her, his writing stagnates. But he makes no effort to inform her father, mother, brother or any of the company about her crucial contributions to the plays that have made them and him, so popular. Instead, he sits proud and preening over the work she improved, enjoying her labors and her love until he is forced to end their relationship.

This is perhaps why Alice switches intellectual loyalties—Father Southwell gives her credit. The more entwined Alice becomes in his Catholic plot, the more Southwell praises her devotion and willingness to endanger herself. Southwell, however, is no better than Will, using Alice’s brilliance, grief, and determination to further his cause. As his newest convert, Alice is best suited for smuggling messages since she is thus far unknown to any of Topcliffe’s informants; moreover, her connections to the theater, frequented by one of the Queen’s advisers, give Southwell noble connections he needs to deliver his manifesto to the Queen. Alice, then, is Southwell’s newest and best instrument in his Catholic war. She’s also the one he loses most quickly.

In the end, everyone loses Alice; her destiny finally to leave the world she loved and desired in the hands of a man she can’t stop loving. Her suffering at Topcliffe’s hands encourages the company to perform Richard III (thus altering the torturer’s destiny) and cements Will’s undying love for her—none of which she can share. Instead, Alice must go, freeing herself and Shakespeare from a love she now knows could never be and no longer wants. It is only through that pain, apparently, that Will can go on to right the greatest love story: Romeo and Juliet, where his “bright angel” will shine again.

Alice is just one woman robbed of a life or dream for men’s sake. Another, set up against Alice, is Anne Hathaway. Never one to get a fair treatment in adaptations, Anne is everything Alice isn’t: an obstacle to his art and an intellectual inferior. From her opening line, Anne is portrayed as shrewish and incapable of seeing Will’s greatness: “Who will want a play by William Shakespeare?” (“The Play’s the Thing”). Anne is incapable of seeing Will’s art, and clouds his genius with mundane concerns like the survival of his family.

Is the sarcasm evident?

Anne’s demotion to a tool of Will’s destiny is briefer than Alice’s but just as unfair because she deserves better, from both Will and Will. However, her dire situation is never taken seriously. When Anne brings Will’s children to London to visit him, and  learns about his affair with Alice, her hurt is shown as unjustified. Alice understands Will in a way Anne simply can’t; how dare Anne reject Will for something as simple as a connection with an intellectual equal?

Moreover, when Anne finally admits to Will her situation in Stratford, he cannot fully recognize or accept her pain or the fear that fuels her inability to believe in him. Living as a servant to his parents, with the threat of homelessness and beggardom, Anne physically can’t believe in his dream because a dream can’t help them now. It can’t provide them food or shelter. It can’t give them a livelihood and future. The money Will makes as a writer isn’t enough to ensure her and her children’s safety if they are forced out by his family and his father’s poor business practices. But Will sees her insistence that he take responsibility for them, that he look after them as he promised to, as manipulative and cruel.

All of this is heartbreaking because Anne loves, or at least loved, Will, and at some point, Will loved her. At the tavern, after she’s accepted by the company even after her fumbles, Anne and Will dance, smile and laugh. As they walk home and speak of the early days of their relationship, there is genuine warmth and affection in the shared memories. But domesticity chafes Will. It suffocates him in a way Anne is able to—and has to—endure, and he can no longer return the love she still extends to him. At his distress over Topcliffe’s threats against his family and Southwell’s inability to understand his situation, Anne reaches out to him,

“Yet you do not talk of your struggles with me. I am here to listen and to ease your burdens, as a wife should. If you would share with me.”

For her pains—for her labor, emotional and physical—all she gets in return is Will insistence he can’t, and won’t, share with her.

“I cannot speak of what’s inside of me. That is why I write.”

But Anne can’t read. Will’s writing—his plays, his dreams—is an impassable barrier between them, one which Will doesn’t bother to pull down and which Anne eventually accepts.

That’s Anne’s destiny: acceptance of being not even second best. “It’s not about the girl,” Anne tells him in episode 6, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” as she piles their children in a carriage bound for Stratford. Anne is Alice’s inferior, but more than that, Anne is not theater. She is not the escape, the support and the adoration Will craves and now enjoys in the London theater. Anne is just the mother of his children, a burden to his art. Although it clearly pains her to realize it, she has to step aside; her only purpose left in his life is, as she says, “to leave you free to be who you wish to be” and fade quietly into a lonely life, awaiting money and the occasional letter.

Anne’s grieved blessing and disappearance are required. No longer a figure in Will’s life or thoughts—she’s referenced not even a handful of times after her departure and is never seen again—Anne no longer obstructs his art or his destiny. With this freedom, Will is able to put his pen and his talent to bringing the Theatre up and tearing Topcliffe down with one of his most powerful plays. He can take the first steps into the fame that will follow him for centuries.

Alice and Anne’s roles as destiny-tools are specific: they shape Will, and to a lesser extent Topcliffe and Southwell, into who they are meant to be. Emilia Bassano and Apelina don’t operate in quite the same way. Although they also, indirectly, affect Will’s destiny, their characters exist as more generalized comments on the role of women in Will’s narrative world.

At her first appearance in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Emilia Bassano seems to be a noble woman. Alice, however, breaks that illusion. She reveals that Emilia is Lord Hunsdon’s newest mistress—replacing the one from episode one—and although she was once nobility, she’s fallen on hard times. The daughter of a Venetian musician and “impoverished Moroccan royalty,” Emilia has taken up residence with Lord Hunsdon as a companion skilled in conversation and poetry.

She has absolutely no illusions about her purpose and position. “Thou art sorely misguided,” she tells Will in episode seven, “What Dreams May Come,” “None of this is mine. It belongs to Lord Hunsdon, just as I do.” Emilia is property, dressed up in the finest the Queen’s advisor and cousin can offer but with the knowledge that she is no longer her own. Emilia is a thing now, a thing as pretty as her dresses and jewelry, but expected to perform certain duties and services or suffer unspoken consequences.

Her status as high-class property affords Emilia some freedom, but nearly all of it is used to serve others, most often as facilitator. She puts Will in touch with Lord Fortuscue, whose commission for A Midsummer Night’s Dream saves the Theatre from closing. She overhears Lord Hunsdon’s conversations and then shares important details about Topcliffe’s promotion and Alice’s increasing role in Southwell’s plot with Will. But Emilia also provides what she can, especially when Will rescues Alice from Topcliffe’s clutches. She opens Lord Hunsdon’s house to them and gives them access to her own personal physician, even knowing the danger it puts her in.

As Emilia said, nothing she owns is hers. If Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen cousin and–until the last episode–Topcliffe supporter, learns of her aiding and harboring Catholics plotting against him, her life could be in danger. But no one ever addresses or acknowledges this. Emilia is not important enough for fear. Convenient when she is needed, shelved when she is not, the precariousness of her situation—a situation Will brings her into with a well-written sonnet—is never given serious consideration by anyone.

Nor is Apelina’s, although she is confronted with the danger of her choices almost daily. Her situation, in many ways, mimics Emilia’s: they’re both owned, although by different classes of people. Emilia is a nobleman’s mistress, Apelina a peasant sex worker. Apelina has a nearby brother to consider while Emilia is separated from apparently all she’s ever known (but never seems bothered by that fact). However, the most important difference between these two women is that Apelina is given no identity within the narrative.

From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing” to her death in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Apelina has no personal identity or discernible history apart from “motherless whore,” “dirt-some punk,” and Presto’s sister. Her name is never even mentioned in the show; it only ever appears in the ending credits, a brief half-second flash near the end of the cast list. Without an identity, Apelina occupies the lowest space for women in Will: a complete and total object, to be used, cast aside, and then briefly mourned, if she’s lucky.

She is somewhat “lucky,” in that regard. Her brother Presto is clearly devoted to her, or at least to the idea of her being free. He takes up thieving to pay for her freedom and tortures himself with every day she suffers under Doll’s thumb. Apelina shares that love, and fully verbalizes it when Doll tries to sell Presto to Topcliffe. She helps him escape and undergoes torture to keep him safe. When Presto is caught and agrees to prostitution, she tries to make it as easy as she can for him, giving him alcohol to ease the pain and offering him a compartmentalization technique that has always helped her.

None of this, though, is for her.

Everything Apelina does is as Presto’s sister; everything she does, and says, and is, is for Presto’s growth. Presto needs to suffer, needs to steal from the Theatre and then feel the intense grief and pain to move him into position for Will’s final endgame. But unlike Alice’s case, it is a private grief. No one apart from Presto and Will ever know about Apelina and her role, and even they speak of it only in passing.

In a way, it makes sense that the women in this period drama are so suppressed. Will focuses on the downside of pursuing dreams: the things lost when dreams become obsessions and are followed without any sort of consideration for the lives affected. Yet, Will never took the opportunity to explore the women’s dreams. Alice could have been shown learning that she would never inherit the Theatre and then working to change that reality. Anne could have turned her attention to a different destiny than the happy, stable marriage she once desired. Emilia could have looked for ways to restore her status, or to bring unmentioned family to her side. We could have seen Apelina dreaming of a life of freedom, a home for herself and her brother.

But Will doesn’t care about women’s dreams and women’s destinies; there are dozens of women in Will, named and unnamed alike, and none of them exceed Alice’s crucial instrumentality or Apelina’s limited use. Even Queen Elizabeth I is only referenced, never seen. Will’s world is a man’s world, and male destinies, desires, and hopes are the only ones that matter. Women—their needs, their livelihood, their lives, their bodies—are considered only so far as they work to further or hinder men’s destinies. They are tools, sharpened for use and discarded when no longer needed.

Instead of characters, they are caricatures.


Images courtesy of TNT Productions

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Analysis

The Source deals with Feminism and Intersectionality

Annedey

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A common criticism of feminism is that, as it exists today, it tends to forget the most vulnerable of women, i.e., those that are not wealthy, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical, or straight. The response to this has been to draw increasing attention to the principle of intersectionality, that is how one oppression interacts with and complicates others (if you are non-white, neurodivergent, and also LGBTQ+, for example). Similarly, intersectionality seeks to investigate how privilege might interact with oppression (if you are a woman but also white, or if you are a POC but also rich, etc).

Despite the fact that intersectionality has become a common tools of analysis in the social sciences, cultural productions haven’t kept up. Sure, we talk more and more about oppressed demographics, but typically one at the time. We don’t want to strain a muscle, I guess.

And it’s true that even if lately we’ve saw an increase in feminist productions, they tend to primarily cater to one, maybe two demographics (when they actually manage to be feminist at all and not just an exercise in faux-feminism, but that’s another problem). And those demographics aren’t always intersectional.

That maybe why The Source, a feminist movie focused on poor Arab women in a country who suffered colonization, strikes me as special in today’s cultural landscape.

The Source or The Women’s Source

The Source is a 2011 French movie (original title La Source des Femmes literally The Women’s Source) that presented at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. Radu Mihaileanu wrote and directed it, taking inspiration from the classical play Lysistrata and from an actual women’s revolt in Turkey.

The story follows a community of women in a tiny village, nowadays in an unnamed muslim country that used to be a colony. In this village, it is the tradition that women bring the water to their family. The source is, and has always been, at the top of a mountain.

Not exactly an easy way of doing things.

One day, one woman falls while coming down and miscarries. For Leila, who has herself miscarried under such conditions, it is too much. She organizes a strike to persuade the men to do something to bring the water directly to the village. This strike is of a special kind, though; it is a love strike. With time the strike unleashes a debate way larger than the access to water, namely, on the condition of women vis-a-vis traditions.

The movie is supposed to be a dramatic-comedy, and you will laugh yes, but way less than you might have anticipated. And, if you plan a light evening of good fun, I recommend you postpone watching this movie.

So before we move on to the themes, it’s worth summarizing the main characters:

  • Leila– clearly the main protagonist, she didn’t grow in the village but came to live there when she married. She is not completely accepted there.
  • Vieux Fusils– (literally Old Riffle), among the elders of the village, she supports Leila in her idea immediately. Married when she was a child to a violent man, now that she is a widow recognized for her wisdom.
  • Loubna/Esmeralda– teenage sister-in-law of Leila. Madly in love with a boy from another village and has decided to marry only for love. Fan of a telenovelas and therefore nicknamed Esmeralda by the other women.
  • Rachida– Leila’s mother-in-law. Hostile to Leila and her strike.
  • Sami– Leila’s husband and teacher at the local school. In favor of the strike, but maybe more in favor of a peaceful village.

There are of course a lot of other characters, in favor of or against the strike, but these are the most important to the story.

A Feminine Feminist Revolution

The way Leila and the other women decide to lead their ‘revolution’ might at first appear artificial and even a tad insulting. Is a woman’s only influence on the world through her sexuality? But the fact is that this women don’t have the choice. To have water in the village the government must pay for important construction works, and for this to happen you have to face the AdministrationTM. And the administration has a directive to do nothing if not absolutely necessary, which typically means having time, connections, money, and education.

No woman in this village has all of that. Not even the entire group of women can gather all of those things. To tell the truth, the men don’t have them either. Their lot is better than that of women, but in front of a disinterested government they are as powerless as the women are. To gain what they want, the entire village must work together.

The women don’t want to penalize the village. The want the men to realize that they are suffering for nothing, and that if they love and value them they should help them do something about the condition of the water supply.

“Your hearts are dry and thorny like this well.”

They do not reject femininity for the sake of it. But they reject thousand-year-old traditions that are outdated or were wrong to begin with. For example, going up the mountain to carry back water when running water could be installed. But as I previously said, the debate about water brings other questions, like that of the relation between men and women. The husbands think it is their right to sleep with their wife, so due to the strike, eventually practices such as marital rape and child marriage are also denounced.

There is something that grabbed my attention about The Source. In Lysistrata, one of the inspirations behind the movie, the title character (whose name literally means ‘Army Disbander’) wants to stop a war by not sleeping with men and making the other women do the same.

Yes you want to be her.

And there is this conversation in The Source:

Hussein (Leila’s father-in-law): Don’t belittle men. My grand-father and my father waged war on the colons and on our neighbors. In order to defend our tribe, our village, our family, and to defend our source of water. During those times women and children stayed at home, sheltered. A lot of us died. Men hunted (…). You realized it was never easy

Leila: They were all warriors.

Hussein: Valiant warriors of great courage (…). We never asked you to do our work in our place. It is for your protection and it is the tradition. The cycle of life. (…) But with the drought there is no more work.

Leila: And no more war.

The Source talks about changes in the society. How the men fell out of employment and how, if they could, they would follow the traditional role they were assigned but they can’t. And the answer given is that maybe it is for the best. Maybe we are best without the violence that exist in the traditional roles of men.

When men have it bad women have it worse

Now on to other subjects tackled by the movie that fit into the idea of intersectionality. Women suffer in this village because they are women, but also because the majority of the village suffers too. If girls barely go to school, boys don’t have a possibility to achieve their dreams either. Women don’t have it bad, per se, they have it worse.

The village is isolated. The climate has changed and agriculture has became impossible. The people in the village as a whole are stuck in there, without a chance to access a better life. The women in the village are stuck in homes they didn’t choose without a chance to access a better life. Worse, the little they have—food, respect, a roof above their head, their children—can be taken from them at any moment if they step out of line

And they are people who don’t want things to change. Some men abuse their wives at their will and use the bad situation to do virtually nothing with their lives. The government doesn’t want change either. It is shown as corrupt and not in any hurry to do anything to better the lives of its citizens. That’s why it doesn’t want to help this village. Because if it does listen to the demand of the women, the most fragile demographic of their country, they might have to listen to other oppressed voices.

A parenthesis on western ‘humanitarian’ tourists

The Source is nearly free of western, white characters. The only ones in it are humanitarian tourists, and oh boy is it glorious! If you are not aware there is currently a backlash against a certain type of humanitarian work. The one that is way more performative than effective and reeks of neo-colonialism. When rich young people pay to have ‘humanitarian’ trips and do to work they are untrained for (but I guess are naturally experts at through the sheer power of whiteness), in order to discover the Real Meaning of LifeTM and add a line to their CV. Just a new rebranding of the good old White Savior.

Well our westerners are those humanitarians. Well I guess they are not that bad because they bring money and don’t receive or offer life lessons. But seeing clueless Europeans watching a show made for them (to show gratitude) while the tensions of the village unfold in front of them is so nice. They can’t understand it, since they don’t speak Arabic, but long story short, The Source makes a point explaining that you can’t be the hero of people you don’t understand.

Of Hope and Love

Gloriously, the movie never becomes nihilistic. Sure, there is despair in our world. There is apathy, oppression, violence, and people who will stand for it. But it doesn’t mean that all hope in mankind must be forsaken. There is love in this world, and love conquers all.

That’s what Loubna’s story represents. Everything is possible when you believe in love, even when the object of your love is proven to be disappointing. Because as long as you believe in the idea of love you can muster the courage to move forward, and maybe find someone more worthy of your love. Like Leila did.

To truly love and be loved you must be worthy of this love, and eventually both Sami and Leila are.

Yes.

It is also important to love your neighbor, as Vieux Fussil does. She might not have children of her own but she takes care of every young women in the village because they need love and support. Because to turn into the best version of yourself, you need love. Love is like water, it brings life.

And that’s what the women ultimately bring to the village: Love and Life.

Conclusion

The Source isn’t a perfect movie; it has its flaws. It is probably a bit too theatrical, but it is inspired by a play after all. It’s a bit Manichean too, though while not stigmatizing Islam. (The fact that the imam refuses to move against the women because he has been convinced by them is touching.) But it is important to remember that the movie is a fable. It was never intended to be a realistic social movie.

It’s a tale about women and their emancipation. It’s a tale about change and its benefits, and it’s a tale about love. It’s different, and in the end, it’s enjoyable to watch. So I would say that The Source did its job fairly well.


Images Courtesy of EuropaCorp

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