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Analysis

The Conflicting Ideas of Mass Effect

Michał

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mass effect

As you have likely heard, Mass Effect: Andromeda is officially over. No more content will be released – no patches, no DLC, no expansions, no sequels. We’ll learn about the fate of the Quarian Ark in a comic or novel…someday.

Those who have followed the game’s troubled release won’t find it surprising. The game has gathered its share of criticism. Whether or not it deserved it… I won’t talk about that. I’m going to scroll back. There were those who disliked that Andromeda leaves the Milky Way, even before we knew more. And I’m going to explain why it was never going to be different.

The Mass Effect franchise stirred up a massive storm of controversy with the endings to Mass Effect 3. But, once again… I’m not going to talk about that just yet. Not only because this dead horse is a barely-recognizable smear at this point, but because I want to dig deeper. First, I want to explain why the trilogy’s fate was determined by the core of Mass Effect 1’s plot.

In Mass Effect 1, we meet Commander Shepard, the legendary leader, first human Spectre and a one-person army. As we chase down Saren, a rogue turian spectre, we find out he’s much more than a treacherous government agent. He’s entered the service of the Reapers.

“We impose order on the chaos of organic evolution.

You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”

The meeting with Saren’s master, Sovereign, is something every fan of the series remembers. Sovereign’s size, presence and its cold, mechanical voice that proclaims the logical inevitability of our annihilation, are all chilling.

We spend the rest of the game trying to prevent Saren from helping Sovereign take over the Citadel and turn it into a Mass Relay that will let other Reapers into the galaxy. At which point they would exterminate all intelligent life, and leave the surviving species to begin the cycle anew.

From the moment we meet Sovereign and discover the truth, Shepard’s mission has a laser-like focus: stop the Reapers. Sure, we’ll do a whole lot of other things, in the timeless tradition of role-playing games. But the driving goal is the same. Commander Shepard has to stop the Reapers. What else can compare to an ancient race of genocidal god-machines?

The Reapers are just one half, though. The other is Shepard themselves. By choosing to continue their story in Mass Effect 2, the writers inextricably bound the story to them. Mass Effect is about Commander Shepard. Everything else feeds into this very narrow narrative. Even when Shepard isn’t fighting the Reapers directly, they’re preparing to do so – like in Mass Effect 2, when they build a team to stop the Collectors from building a Reaper in the heart of the galaxy.

The problems with this setup become painfully apparent in Mass Effect 3, even before the infamous endings. The hero and the villains of the series belong to entirely different genres. Shepard is a space opera hero, who solves problems by being an awesome space marine in their general direction. The Reapers, meanwhile… I hesitate to use the word “Lovecraftian”, because it’s so overused. But they’re certainly a cosmic threat. The scale they operate on is unimaginable; it eclipses any single sentient being, no matter how exceptional.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Mass Effect 3 is an excellent game, before the end. But in retrospect, the discrepancy is clear. The Reapers worked very well when they were a looming, distant threat. Sovereign was a force of nature by itself. In Mass Effect 2, we fought the Reapers’ minions. But in Mass Effect 3, they had to finally come calling. And the game had to reconcile its focus on Shepard’s personal heroic with the threat that had ended countless civilizations before.

And this is where those much-maligned endings come in. I won’t discuss all the ways in which they may have disappointed us. Instead, I will talk about what could possibly have happened next. Which is… well, what could happen next? The galaxy would spend many years rebuilding. How many depends on Shepard’s choices.

Yes, Shepard’s. That is, once again, the clinch. Everything about the original trilogy hinged on Shepard. Their choices shaped the galaxy. That is why people were so mad the original ending seemed to remove them, and why the extended cut expanded on all the consequences.

But I’m going to ignore the actual endings for a while here. My point, after all, is that the departure from the Milky Way was inevitable since the narrative of Commander Shepard against the Reapers emerged. The ending was always going to be some variety of “Commander Shepard defeats the Reapers”. It might not have happened the way it did. Maybe we wouldn’t have learned about the Reapers’ motives, although that would have disappointed many. But it was always going to boil down to this one sentence.

So even if we’d got the dream of many an angry nerd and simply blasted the Reapers to pieces with a big gun, or many big guns, the end result is still the same. A galaxy, rebuilding from a war with the Reapers, that Shepard won.

What does it leave for a future game? Do we stick to Shepard? Even if they’re alive, it would bring the premise of “only Shepard can solve problems” past the point of absurdity – it was getting increasingly shaky already. Do we bring in a new protagonist? A new hero operating in a post-Reaper galaxy would have to try very hard not to feel like a janitor, cleaning up after Shepard. After all, the single largest problem of the galaxy has been solved. Not just a problem – the existential mystery of intelligent life and spacefaring civilization.

That’s a lot of tension it would knock out of a sequel from the start. The biggest victory there was has been achieved, so now we move on to less important things. And that’s without taking Shepard’s choices into account. Each of the endings changes the galaxy in a different way, but again – even if there was only one ending,  “blow up the Reapers”… Shepard still makes choices that shape the galaxy.

This is a consequence of a narrative that relies heavily on making choices, but also the hyper-focus on Shepard. Compare that to Dragon Age. This series has its share of problems, and also falls into the trap of choices – we make crucial decisions, but their impact must be lessened for the sequels to work. This takes the form of retcons (Leliana’s potential death, many epilogues in Origins), everything evening out to the same thing (Hawke’s stance of mages and Templars) or being off-screen (the fate of the Feraldan throne).

But it does one crucial thing differently, and that is multiple protagonists. The Warden disappears, and Hawke only has a minor role in Inquisition. Many people took issue with that, but I think they miss the point. In DA, every protagonist is just one major character in an unfolding drama. This allows for much more flexibility as a franchise. The Warden finished their grand story and moved on to other things, so Hawke could enter the stage and play their part in history. And so on.

Mass Effect falls into similar traps, of course. The fate of the Citadel Council, for example. It comes down to more or less the same thing, except that everyone blames Shepard if the Council died. Some decisions, like killing Wrex or the genophage cure, do profoundly shape Mass Effect 3. But in that game, Shepard also decides the fate of entire species – krogan, quarian and geth. So the typical problem of choice-heavy games is compounded by an intense focus on a single hero.

A Mass Effect 4 taking place in the Milky Way would have strained the writers’ ability to dodge around players’ choices beyond reason. What’s the alternative? Spin-offs and prequels? Possible, but tricky. Prequels are inherently risky. Consumers associate them with cash-grabs and they need to work around us already knowing how it will end.

In Mass Effect’s case, there’s also a fairly small room for them, if we want them to involve humans. Humanity entered the galactic society fairly shortly before the trilogy’s beginning. So either they fit it there, or we can’t play humans. Which a great many fans would welcome, admittedly. So it’s perhaps the most realistic option.

Spin-off stories taking place concurrently are a possibility, but it would be hard for them to escape the reputation of being minor bit-pieces as Shepard takes care of the important business Again, we run into the problem of everything being funneled into Shepard and their war against the Reapers.

Even most of the tie-in novels ultimately feed into that, as Cerberus’ ultimate goal is… uh… actually, what was their goal? Controlling the Reapers, I guess, but it’s kind of hard to tell. Anyway, in the end, Cerberus were Shepard’s enemies (and briefly allies) in the galaxy-spanning drama of trying to deal with the dread Reapers. The one book that doesn’t concern Cerberus instead concerns… Saren.

Once again comparing it to Dragon Age, the fantasy series has an overarching plot and mysteries (which boil down to “ancient elven mages” nine times out of ten, but nevermind), but the tie-in novels and comics are free to concern a whole lot of different things. The Fereldan uprising against Orlais, the Orlesian politics, Grey Wardens…

There’s plenty of space for stories taking place in colonies, crime dramas on the Citadel, or gritty gang wars and vigilante justice of Omega and the Terminus Systems. But are they appropriate for a follow-up series to a trilogy as massive as the original Mass Effect? Particularly after the ending controversy? The need to “top” the previous instalment is strong in this genre. Would EA (even setting aside their cartoon villainy) have consented to releasing such a thing? How would the fans have reacted? Such a story would be inherently niche.

It’s a paradox, I suppose, that Mass Effect created a rich and vibrant space opera setting that we wanted to see more of, and immerse ourselves in – but then it only gave us one perspective on it, and made everything serve that particular perspective. The chances of the original Milky Way setting enduring past Commander Shepard were thus always slim. My favorite Mass Effect game in terms of story is the second one, and it’s no coincidence that it puts the Reapers in the background and actually doesn’t revolve around Shepard sometimes.

The focus on Shepard had its upsides – it allowed the series to form strong emotional bonds with characters, ones that resonate until today. But it left precious little space in the galaxy for anything else. Thus, I feel like Mass Effect 3 was always going to be the last of the franchise as we initially knew it. It was Andromeda or bust. Was it the right choice, to continue the series in a separate galaxy? Maybe it would have been better to let the series rest? That’s not something I feel qualified to answer. But that’s the choice I feel BioWare had.


Images Courtesy of BioWare

Michał is a natural meddler, driven to take fiction apart and see how it works. In The Fandomentals, he examines fantasy and gaming with a critical, and somewhat cranky, eye.

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The Unattainable Beauties of BioWare

David

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Happy week after Valentine’s Day! For those of you in a relationship, I hope you were able to spend time with your loved ones and maybe have a little romance. For those of you who are single, I hope that it wasn’t a terribly bitter or frustrating day. In honor of both these states, I’m going to be writing about Bioware characters. But not romanceable characters, oh no. Enough ink has been spilled about them. No, today, we are going to be talking about the ones who for whatever reason are non-romanceable. In fact, it’s going to be a list of who I consider to be the best non-romanceable characters in Bioware games.

A few ground rules first though. First, this list is completely and totally subjective. If you feel like I’ve missed a character, let me know in the comments. Most of these characters are either from the Mass Effect Series or the Dragon Age series. Those are the games I know the best have have played the most. Finally, I’m only going to list five male and five female characters. I could go on all day if allowed.

So, with that out of the way, let’s start with the guys. And first on that list is…

Black Whirlwind

Right off the bat we get a character who seems to contraindicate my first two points. He’s from Jade Empire and isn’t normally the type of character I’d enjoy. But let me justify his place on my list. First off, he’s just a fun character. Pretty much his entire character is dedicated to fighting things with his axes, drinking, and drinking while fighting with his axes. Second of all, given what we do see of his backstory, he’s fairly sympathetic. He was abused by his father until he was finally to defend himself and killed his father, and then was tossed out by his mother. He fought in the arena until he thought he killed his brother. And finally, his voice. Victor Brandt voices him in the game, and that man could read from the stock exchange and make it sound like he was trying to seduce you.

Nathaniel Howe

I can understand why they chose not to have any love interests in Awakening. A lot of the companions are missable and even if they aren’t, there’s better than 50-50 odds that they would die at the end of the expansion. That doesn’t excuse them from making Nathaniel Howe though. He has a compelling and sympathetic backstory, an interesting perspective on the location and events, and a sardonic sense of humor that lets him either play the straight man or the funny man in conversations. And! He got an easter egg quest in Dragon Age 2. I just wish they had followed through and included him in Dragon Age Inquisition (and gave us the chance to smooch him.)

Teagan Guerrin

Bann Teagan gets a bit of a bad rap now, particularly after Trespasser. Time (and the switch to a new engine) were not kind to him, but I remember a different Teagan. A Teagan that stood up to Loghain. A Teagan that risked his life to defend Redcliffe, and then walked straight into a demon’s clutches to buy your party sometime. From a story perspective, having a female human warden marry (or at least be involved with) an up and coming Bann would make just as much sense politically as marrying her to the new king. And from a purely personal standpoint, I would have loved for him to respond to the “Who is dis women Tegan?” quote by saying “My future wife.”

Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau

Ever since Mass Effect 1, Joker’s presence at the front of the Normandy has been very welcome. Snarky, quick with a quip and a comment about any of your companions, the only fault I have with him was that he was far too quick to abandon the Alliance and hook up with a bunch of racist, human supremacist terrorists in Mass Effect 2. But the fact that he’s loyal specifically to Shepard always melts my heart. I was hoping that in Mass Effect 3 he finally would be a romance option, but alas he was infatuated with EDI. It took a great deal of self control not to sabotage that relationship.

Ser Barris

And here we come to my favorite non-romanceable male character: Ser Derin Barris of the Templar Order. Dude has it all. Good voice and one of the few male PoCs in the series. In addition, he’s everything that a Templar is supposed to be: brave, intelligent, loyal, and willing to defend the weak and the innocent. And yet, after the quest to recruit the Templars, you only see ever see him one more time. The cutscene where he is promoted to Knight-Commander. (A promotion he deserves.) I can only hope that he reappears in Dragon Age 4 as a full romanceable companion.

That covers my five favorite non-romanceable male characters. But what about the ladies? Let’s start with…

Gianna Parasini

Gianna Parasini was one of those characters I didn’t expect to find myself liking as much as I did. When you first meet her in Mass Effect 1, she’s working (undercover) for Novaria’s Internal Affairs. She quickly shows herself not to be completely amoral. Just overworked, overstressed, and tired of being a Yes-Woman to a corrupt executive. When you see her again in Mass Effect 2, she’s much less stressed, and much more willing to joke with Shepard.  She leaves far too soon, leaving a male Shepard with a kiss and a promise to see him around. A promise, unfortunately, left unfulfilled.

Dr. Karin Chakwas

Dr. Chakwas is an interesting addition to this list. She is much older then Shepard. She seems at first to be a poor match. But much like Joker, she offers Shepard a sense of continuity aboard the Normandy. She even mentions that as one of the reasons why she stays aboard the Normandy in all its various incarnations. And, unlike some returning squadmates or even Joker himself at times, her presence aboard the ship never seems forced. Of course Dr. Chakwas will be in the medical bay. Of course she’ll be happy to see you. And of course she’ll be waiting to share a drink with you.

Dr. Lexi T’Perro

Unlike Dr. Chakwas, Dr. Lexi doesn’t really provide much in the way of continuity between different versions of the ship. Instead, she almost provides a mirror for Ryder to see himself and his actions. When she’s first brought aboard as your team’s doctor, she’s nervous. And she channels this nervous energy into annoying practically everyone else on the ship. But as she gets more comfortable with the ship and how things work, she starts to relax a little. Not much, but a little. Add to that her backstory in addition to the fact that she seems to care for the team’s mental health as much as their physical health and you get a character who would be perfect to romance. Shame she’s not an option.

Emily Wong

Emily Wong is one of the most frustrating examples on this list. In Mass Effect 1, she filled the ‘plucky reporter’ archetype so well that I missed being able to speak with her or give her an interview in Mass Effect 2. As the release date for Mass Effect 3 drew closer and rumors of a romanceable reporter on board the Normandy began to swirl, I had hope that it would be Emily.  I was bitterly disappointed. The reporter character on the Normandy was quite weak compared to the strong impression Emily gave in Mass Effect 1. And Emily Wong herself? Unceremoniously killed off in a marketing ploy before the game was released. She deserved better.

Vivienne

Vivienne is a ‘love her or hate her’ type of character. As you can tell by her inclusion on this list, I am in the former camp. Aside from being one of the few women of color companions in the game, Vivienne brings to the table a unique perspective: A mage who fully supports a return to the Circles. Not only that, but she has clear, eloquent arguments to back her up. In addition to that, she has a very striking character design and a wonderful voice actress. Most important of all though is that if her approval of the Inquisitor is high, she seems to genuinely care about them and their well being. I just wish that she didn’t politely shoot you down every time you flirted with her.

So there you have it. My five favorite male and female non-romanceable NPCs from Bioware games. However, there is one person that I have thus far neglected to mention. Or rather, one group of people. That’s right, I’m talking about…

EVERY SINGLE DWARF FROM DRAGON AGE

In Dragon Age: Origins, it was just a bit of trivia. “Hey, did you know that you can’t romance Qunari and dwarf characters?” When Dragon Age 2 came out and we were introduced to Varric, it became a joke. But at least the dwarf fans could still console themselves by remembering that there hadn’t been any Qunari romanceable companions either. By the time of Dragon Age Inquisition and the introduction of Iron Bull and Lead Scout Lace Harding, it’s become one of my main problems with the series.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Why wouldn’t Bioware let us romance Scout Harding, or any other dwarf for that matter? Is it because the animation would look awkward? Too much work? In the end, I can only repeat the refrain so many others have, pining after characters who they couldn’t romance: “Maybe next game.”


Images courtesy of Bioware

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Analysis

Kingdom Come, Representation, And Layers Of Privilege

Barbara

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Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a brand new Czech video game that just came out last week. And ever since its development started, there has been one big controversy connected to it: its almost complete lack of characters of colour.

It isn’t exactly helped by the fact that the chief mind behind the game, Dan Vávra, is right-leaning, and also a bit of an asshole when it comes to responding to these complaints. He doesn’t go far for an insult and refuses to listen to any kind of criticism. Not exactly the kind of person that makes one want to defend him.

So…this is where this article should end, right? A jerk makes a racist game, news at seven.

Well. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Vávra isn’t the only person working in the development. And the most important thing to know about the game in this context is that it’s not a generalized medieval setting. Instead, it takes place in a particular set of villages and towns and the surrounding forests, villages, and towns that exist until today and that aren’t and never have been big or cosmopolitan in any way. A number of events in the game are based on historical events. It isn’t just a story, it the story of Česká Skalice just before the Hussite wars.

In this context, the usual arguments of “there were plenty of people of colour in Europe in the Middle Ages” fall kind of flat. The usual argument of historicity that is pulled for this is frequently false because Western history is whitewashed and contained markedly more people of colour that we like to pretend. But it’s not always false. There actually were parts of the world where only white people lived. And not only are there no particular historical marks of black, brown or Asian people being present in the particular time and place where Kingdom Come takes place, it would also be very unlikely.

Honestly, the most likely place to find a person of colour in the time period would be Sigismund’s armies, and since those play more the role of the antagonist in the game, that’s not exactly ideal. So this is not, in fact, a case of ignoring the real historical presence of black and Middle-Eastern people.

Instead, the first question to ask here is: is it ever legitimate to create all-white media? If we’re depicting a situation where there realistically wouldn’t be any people of colour – not just history, there are still plenty of towns in the world a non-white person has never set foot in – is it all right to make it whiter than new house paint?

On the face of it, the answer should be yes. As long as we’re depicting an actual situation, we’re depicting. And yet. It may be “accurate,” but it might at the same time be unwise in the current climate, where every all-white piece of media contributes to a narrative that is far from inclusive to people of colour.

So the second question: does it even matter? That is, is historical realism such an important goal to achieve?

Most media that supposedly take place in the past play hard and fast with history to make things more convenient for the narrative, so why should the amount of diversity, of all things, be what is kept realistic? It shouldn’t, that is the answer. As long as other things are changed freely, the argument of historicity is irrelevant one way or another.

Kingdom Come, however, is a game that takes great care to be as realistic as possible. The most frequent complaint from players at the moment is the insane difficulty of lockpicking because that isn’t easy in real life either. So does this change anything? Is the argument of historicity valid in such a case? In other words, even in those media that do their best to stay historically faithful, is such an ambition a worthy goal? Is it more important to have something fit history perfectly than to provide representation?

Accusations of rewriting history would naturally follow a negative answer. First, it’s important to point out that it’s no more rewriting than the constant whitewashing, and with a much better intention. But it is true that with a game that boasts of its realism, it presents a problem. It would discredit their claims of historicity if they simply ignored these kinds of facts. You cannot painstakingly reconstruct medieval Skalice and then add random representation from all over the world without becoming a laughing stock. Not the least because this sort of rewriting of history would play down the racism of the past, and that is not an excuse we should be making for ourselves.

Unless we say that media has to abandon goals of high historical realism, then, we have to admit that in certain setting an all-white cast is appropriate. So that brings forth another question: is it legitimate to choose such settings?

And this brings us to the more complicated power dynamics at play when it comes to Kingdom Come.

As I’ve said, Kingdom Come is a Czech game, dealing with events from Czech history. My history. We, as a country, have always played the lovely game of being both oppressors (towards Slovaks, the Jewish and the Romani people, and even Germans after WWII) and oppressed (by the Austrian empire, Nazi Germany, USSR). In the global world of today, we’re far from being the ones in the most desperate situation, but we’re also hardly the top dogs. On the global scale, we’re a minority.

And both our history and our present are mostly white.

Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a good thing. I’m not saying it as a good thing. It massively contributes to the widespread xenophobia in the Czech Republic. But it is what it is. The fact remains that our by far biggest minority are the Romani people, who form about 3% of the population. So every time you tell a Czech story, it is going to be overwhelmingly white.

So should we be allowed to tell our own stories?

Kingdom Come, of course, is not made for the Czech market. It’s distributed globally, and it means it has a global effect, on people who know nothing of our particular context. As an all-white medieval game – which is all most people will take out of it – it perpetuates exactly the image of whitewashed history that we need to rid ourselves of. It becomes part of the problem.

So does this mean, then, that when we want global money, we have to change the image of our own history to avoid exacerbating the global problem of racism? That is problematic as well, especially as making the game for Czech audience only is not a real option. Our ten million people total don’t make for a big enough audience to pay for a game with this kind of budget. It’s another kind of disadvantage global minorities have. It shouldn’t be necessary to pay for it by adjusting our stories.

And even disregarding that, what if we want to show our stories and our world to the rest of the planet? What if we want to share ourselves? We should be able to do that.

Yet…what if what we want to share turns into a white fantasy in others’ hands?

It seems it shouldn’t be such a big deal. Who cares if we change the skin colour of some characters in the story? It’s still going to be a Czech story. But the problem is, it doesn’t quite work that way. After all, that is the “I don’t see colour” argument, only in reverse.

What I’m about to say will sound insanely racist to anyone from a more cosmopolitan country, but when I was little, I didn’t like watching Sesame Street because the multi-ethnic children there were making it so very foreign to me. I saw them and instantly knew it wasn’t my world. Outside of my travel abroad, I spoke to one non-white person total before adulthood. And I live in the capital, the most multicultural part of the country. Whatever it says about us, the truth is that if we populate historical Czech stories with black people, most Czechs will not regard it as their story.

But there is a reason I was specific in this last sentence. There are truly very few black people living in this country even now. You know who is living here, though? The aforementioned Romani. The presence of Romani people in the game would not make any Czech person feel like it was not our story. It would make them angry — because the racism the Romani face in the Czech Republic is something incredibly ugly — but it would not make the game feel foreign. The Romani minority has been here since the Middle Ages, and there are definitely historical records of them being here in large numbers shortly after Kingdom Come takes place. In fact, there are even complaints of there being “more and more” Romani people in our records because of course our racism would be traditional.

We don’t know, of course, if there were any Romani around Skalice, but it was a way to include people of colour that wouldn’t break with general Czech history. It wouldn’t have gone against our own understanding of who has lived here for a long time. And yet they were never mentioned in any of the diversity complaints I have seen. There are also Cumans included in the game, and no one seems to care much either. And that brings me to my last point.

Demanding diversity in Kingdom Come with a particular idea of diversity in mind, the idea that is based on the ethnic composition of the US, is not only American-centric but also offensive to the oppressed minorities of the Czech Republic.  And complaining about such lack of diversity truly does not come across in a way that would endear the author of the complaint to anyone Czech. Especially if the person complaining is white. If a person of colour is offended by so much mayo in their game and would like to feel represented, I can understand that.

But when a white privileged American talks about what sorts of representation a Czech game should contain – particularly with arguments like that Czechia is “just north of Italy” and Italy is by the sea so obviously there’d be plenty of people of colour in here, which is an actual argument someone presented – it suddenly gains whole another tone. Because whiteness is not the only privilege in the world, and while we certainly benefit from it, we do not benefit from the privilege of being American, and anyone from the US telling us how to tell our own stories without knowing anything about us is always, always going to ring a very uncomfortable bell with us.

So yes, making all-white games should be avoided when possible, because it reinforces an uncomfortable narrative. And representation is a good thing, especially representation of those who hardly ever find themselves on screen. Whenever at least a little possible, diversity should be supported. Warhorse Studios really should have included Romani people in their game, just as Czech filmmakers should try casting some in their films. But not all representation fits one muster and demanding medieval Skalice should look like medieval London only makes stories more identical to each other and less interesting. There is more than one kind of diversity.


Images courtesy of Warhorse Studios

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Analysis

Barbara Kean From Housewife to Mobster

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Gotham had a tall order ahead of it at its inception. It had to take some the most iconic characters from the comic page and meld them in a story that takes place before they were iconic. Any prequel adaptation has to grapple with this in one way or another. But Gotham had the unique challenge with Batman’s famous rouges. The origins of so many of his opponents are intertwined with his. Gotham would have to reinvent these characters and their origins. The series has made these characters its own by allowing their development to move away from their comic book counterparts. There is no character with which this is more prevalent in than Barbara Kean.

In the comics, she’s anything but a rival to Batman. She’s the wife of one of Bruce’s closest allies and the mother of one of his sidekicks.  Yet she herself plays but a small role in the narrative. Gotham’s Barbara Kean has made herself a part of the narrative in ways that have seem to have completely change the character we first meet. Gotham has taken a woman destined to be the mother and wife of heroes and made her one of the most prolific members of the Gotham City’s underworld.

We meet Barbara in the pilot engaged to James Gordon, the perfect place to lead to her becoming her comic book counterpart: married to James Gordon and the mother of his children. They’re in a good place in their relationship. As James finds himself confronted with the corruption of Gotham, Barbara becomes a pillar of support for him. She reaffirms his values when he doubts himself. But this can only last for so long. With James fighting against so much of the darkness in Gotham, it was only a matter of time before it got back to Barbara.

Even with the first bit of tension seeping into their relationship, Barbara’s still willing to stand by James. When she learns James’s life is at stake she goes to Carmine Falcone, the king of Gotham’s underground, to beg for his life. But after she’s terrorized by Falcone’s men, her own faith in James is shaken. She’s seen the true dangers in the mission he’s tasked himself with. She can’t share the burden he’s willing to take on.

At first, she falls back into old habits for the comfort and familiarity, drugs, and her ex-girlfriend, Renee Montoya. It doesn’t last with Montoya, and Barbara finds herself in a state of flux. During this time she meets Selina Kyle, who later becomes a close companion. She also meets Jason Skolimski. He becomes an inciting figure of change for her. A serial killer and psychopath, he takes Barbara captive and she almost doesn’t make it out alive.

Her time with him drives her to edge of sanity. Under his influence she kills her parents. She almost kills Lee Thompkins, James’s new girlfriend. The love she has for James becomes an obsession. It doesn’t end well for her with James stopping her. She’s arrested and sentenced to Arkham Asylum. But it ends up putting her in the perfect position for the next wave of her development.

Her stay in the Asylum is short lived. She’s broken out by Theo and Tabitha Galvan, the latter of whom she enters into a romantic relationship with.  It’s through them she’s truly indoctrinated to Gotham’s underground. Barbara’s sanity at this point is shaky at best. Having a girlfriend willing to kidnap her ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend doesn’t help the situation either. Though even when the last remains of her sanity seem all but gone, the compassion she held for James still comes through. Her kidnapping attempt unravels and her escape ends with her falling out a second story window. Before that happens she helps James, giving him the information he needs to take down Theo.

After some time in a coma, she’s released back onto Gotham streets. Though her love for James still borders on unhealthy obsession her pursuits become more personally motivated. She opens a nightclub with Tabitha. It’s successful but she’s gunning for more, namely to get out from under Oswald Cobblepot’s thumb. She’s openly contentious of the Penguin when he all but runs Gotham at this point. Only a few people could have gotten away with this without fatal consequences.

She gathers some powerful allies with the intention of overthrowing Penguin. And it works. She becomes the queen of Gotham, taking over the city’s underground. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived reign when conflict brews among the very allies who helped her take down Penguin, and she ends up dead.

In the true fashion of comic books and their adaptations, Barbara doesn’t say dead for long. After she’s brought back to life she returns ready to take on the city again. Reaching out to Selina and Tabitha, they work together running a weapons racket to rebuild their status. Death seems to have tamed Barbara, she’s more rational with her return. She’s even willing to work under Penguin. If only for a short time until a better opportunity presents itself for her, Tabitha and Selina.

At this point, I think it’s important to note Barbara could have easily fallen into the old stereotypes of the ‘crazy bisexual ex-lover’ or even the ‘villainous queer’. But similar to the way the Carmilla series defies its negative tropes, Gotham’s exploration of these narrative tropes doesn’t feel like it steers into the negative aspects. Gotham also avoids these tropes in a way few other series could. The villains make up a huge portion of series. They are the lungs that breathe life into the series. As much as this series is about Bruce and James growing into the heroes we know they’ll become, it’s also about watching the other characters grow into the villains we know they’ll become.

Barbara earns her place among the villainous elite in Gotham. She’s gone from a mild-mannered Gotham socialite to one of its most conniving criminals.

She’s still a woman capable of deeply caring for someone. But now her way of showing she cares for someone involves fewer words of empathy and more shooting their enemies in the head. She learnt to thrive in a city where so few can even survive. She adapted in ways that not even James has been able to. Her place in the story going forward is still uncertain. The possibility of her and James come back to each other is small but stranger things have happened in this city. Though at this point it seems more likely one of the many colourful adversaries Bruce will face when he truly dons the cowl.

Regardless of where she’s going, watching her get where she is has been a wild and entertaining ride.


Images courtesy of Fox 

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