Monday, July 15, 2024

Mentopolis’ Latest Episodes Are Cartoonishly Profound

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The 3rd and 4th episodes of Mentopolis start off frantically, with Elias Hodge plummeting to the ground after presumably having been pushed out the window – or so we think. As we come to discover, this action was a lot more calculated than even The Big Guy’s own parts realized. 

Read the first part of this recap and analysis if you aren’t caught up with Dimension 20’s Mentopolis and need a quick review of the show.

While my prediction came partially true, what our Prefrontal PI’s ended up pursuing was not getting out the truth of the situation out to the people – at least not directly. They prioritize action and expediency, finding the keys to Elias Hodge’s physical body, to make him act without thinking. 

The pressure and urgency of these episodes are heightened by the introduction of a “clock” mechanism, in which Adversity Tokens are halved in value the more severe the situation. Fans of indie games like Blades in The Dark may recognize similar mechanics, which have been made manifest by the immensely detail oriented production team at Dropout.

The cast of mentopolis at the table. From left to right: Siobhan Thompson, Freddie Wong, and Hank Green
Photo by Kate Elliot
Mentopolis And Power

In maintaining the themes of wealth and power Mentopolis introduced into the first two episodes, both A. Tension (Danielle Radford) and Imelda Pulse (Siobhan Thompson) have keys that can prompt action from the Big Guy. 

In a subtle, yet poignant comment on the nature of privilege, Anastasia has to utilize the privilege she’s disavowed so thoroughly to attempt to avoid the destruction of her community – by unfreezing the key from a block of ice. However, it is Imelda Pulse’s old-money parents, beholden to Mentopolis’ systems of power, who report her radical actions to District Attorney M. Bition – who is doing everything in his power to get Elias to follow through with his unethical research.

Their other hopes lie in the four legendary responses: Freeze, Fight, Flight, and their lesser known sibling, Fawn. 

Examining Our Subconscious In Mentopolis

This arc, much like the series as a while, forces the audience to reflect on our own relationships to these various reactions and reconsider their place and value within our internal landscape.

We discover that Fight is an old, retired boxer, Ivana Popov with a deep connection to Conrad Schintz (Alex Song-Xia), along with the other responses. It was Conrad who convinced her to fight back against the childhood bully, which resulted in his facial scar. This negative reaction to embracing the Fight response turned the city against both Conrad and Ivana.

This collective rejection of the fight response mirrors the way our minds exile aspects of ourselves in an attempt to preserve the safety of the whole. However, the players ask Elias (and by extension the audience) to reconsider those parts. In many instances the reactionary fight response is warranted and even needed – such as when one is defenestrated and needs to jump into action to not fall to one’s death. 

Sometimes, you just need to pop off.

Mentopolis' Alex Song-Xia, who plays Conrad Schintz
Photo by Kate Elliot

Later on in Episode 4, we meet the second sibling: Freeze. Freeze has been masquerading under a false identity, Leon Logic, who operates the city from a place of paralyzing anxiety rather than actual logic or rationale. 

Interestingly, he doesn’t have knowledge of the current situation of Elias Hodge. He works, more or less, under the direction of District Attorney M. Bition. He would much rather maintain the status quo, because “making any change at all throws us into the heart of peril.” 

We learn that the reason Freeze masquerades as logic while overseeing Mentopolis’ day-to-day operations is because of his past with Conrad. Like many people who have been punished for choosing the ethical, but confrontational option, Freeze no longer trusts conscience to guide his decisions and keep him safe.

When the players confront Freeze with the reality that they are swinging at a building with the potential for great physical pain, he panics at how many possible choices there are – and how many lead to suffering. 

The support the players offer to Freeze in these moments is one of the most powerful aspects of the series as a whole, though these moments may go overlooked by viewers in the overall scope of the narrative.

Through the way Imelda and Conrad Schintz speak to Freeze, the players emphasize the importance of showing how each of these responses and parts are valuable in their own way. They consistently reinforce that Freeze is a valid response to an overwhelming situation, but in this moment something has to be done. It’s not through aggression or coercion that Freeze is won over, but kindness. 

These moments show not only that lasting internal change is prompted by gentleness and care, but by extending that care to an individual, we can prompt change on a systemic level. After speaking to Conrad, the mayor decides to speak out. He admits his false persona to the citizens of the city, and for the first time is honest with them about the existential danger they’re all facing.

The cast of mentopolis at the table. From left to right: Alex Song-Xia, Danielle Radford, and Mike Trapp
Balancing Darkness and Levity in Mentopolis

It took a moment for episode three to find its footing as the players navigated the metanarrative of operating on two planes of reality at once: the individual and the collective, who himself is an individual. While this season is particularly high concept, the cast really leans into the goofiness of the increasingly cartoonish tone of the season. Don’t mistake my use of the word cartoonish as derogatory though. 

After finding their way into the control center of Elias Hodge’s mind to utilize Ivana’s key, they discover the buzzing thing near Hodge’s groin is a grappling hook. Admittedly, I was a bit turned off by the phallic humor of the previous episode, but this revelation retroactively transforms what felt to this reviewer like gratuitous crude humor into a perfectly in-genre justification. It becomes clear that Elias knew his company was intending on utilizing his research for nefarious purposes. He went into this meeting with his employers knowing he might need to make a drastic choice. Where he got the grappling hook? It’s a noir story, that’s where.

While prompting Elias Hodge into action, the party is confronted by both the Mafia and the Police. Both organizations are hunting down Conrad, who is tragically eager to give himself up. Admittedly their allegiances are a bit difficult to discern – which seems like an intentional choice from the actively anti-fascist production team. 

An interesting note that could easily be dismissed as another throwaway gag from the hedonistic Dan Fuck are his interactions with the police. He’s had multiple performative run ins with police this season, which are more the theater of violence against his underground operation than any actual attempts to stop his work. However, when he absurdly attempted to convince them (in classic Fucks fashion) the feeling Hodge was experiencing wasn’t existential fear, but arousal, this buddy-buddy relationship didn’t save him from real violence

Mentopolis' Freddie Wong, who plays Dan Fucks

What got the police to stop was the reporter holding the police to account. If only that worked in real life.

Regardless, an incredibly high role from Freddie Wong results in the accidental murder of Chief of Police, Chief Tightass. We have yet to see the consequences of this, but again we see an instance where the gravity of the situation is not undercut, but made less jarring, by the absurdity of Dan Fuck’s character choices. 

The slapstick humor seems almost necessary to keep the grimdark nature of the underlying noir narrative from consuming the season – as this season’s true antagonists are quickly evolving from looming threats into active, horrifying presences in the world.

The Villains of Mentopolis

This episode develops the season’s two major antagonists: Mentopolis District Attorney M. Bition and a strange man holding a blinding white key – an eldritch abomination of the keys the protagonists are seeking.

The latter is a physical manifestation of Elias Hodge’s research. Elias Hodge hasn’t just been doing research into mind reading for this company. It’s all but explicitly stated they have been contracted to create a mind control weapon for the US Government. With this realization comes the knowledge that Hodge has been taking a copper supplement, a safeguard to protect himself against having his mind be altered or controlled. It’s unclear how effective those measures will be against this other-wordly foe that has Mentopolis living up to it’s sci-fi horror namesake.

Following in the meta-nature of this season, Green’s The Fix confronts DA Mark Bition and this stranger – just as Hodge confronts his employers. In parallel action, both jump out of the window rather than submit to their unethical intimidation.

Lee Mulligan’s performance as District Attorney M. Bition at the end of Episode 3 provides the other end of the horrifying spectrum of villainy. The terror comes not from the character being someone so willing to destroy his community for power and success, but from the conviction the DA has that what he is doing is for the greater good. 

“We’re close to achieving what we have always dreamed of achieving,” M. Bition says when The Fix (Hank Green) confronts him about the internal conflicts of the city. Regardless of the ethics of his research, doing this work will provide Elias Hodge worth and value in the eyes of his corporate overlords. 

That value, that praise, “would have flooded this place with dopamine and serotonin and endorphins, every good thing under the sun.” The ethical rejection of that work by Imelda Pulse, who M. Bition all but calls a class traitor, “destroyed any chance of pleasure in [Mentopolis].” 

An added layer that elevates this character and Lee Mulligan’s performance is not just the misguided motivations, but the grounded reality that we all contain this ideology within us. We all have been conditioned with a violently ambitious, capitalistic drive to pursue professional success at the expense of ourselves and our communities. 

As acknowledged in a subsequent Adventuring Party talkback episode, this is the insidious genius of Hodge’s mind-control research. It’s a path of least resistance. Rather than having a monster or eternal force come and wrest control from Elias Hodge, the corporation (and at large our capitalistic systems) find the parts of Elias Hodge that already want to suppress his joy and pleasure in favor of productivity.

Mentopolis' Hank Green, who plays The Fix
Final Thoughts on Episodes 3 and 4 of Mentopolis

At its best, this season of Mentopolis shows an unequivocal rejection of the self-flagellation and sacrifice capitalism demands of the individual; joy and pleasure can be sourced from community and collective action. 

Every moment of this show is filled with a child-like joy and wonder from both cast and crew. This is most evident in the nuerodivergently flirtatious scene between an “ebullient” Fix and his bookish foil Pasha N, which the show’s already-quippy caption writers capitalize on. In an exchange of evermore obscure bird factoids, Lee Mulligan and Green are “aroused,” “astounded,” and “titilated by tidbits.” 

The final two installments of this show are sure to round out a season that has been a resounding leap forward the Dimension20 team, both in terms of production and theme.

The next episode of Dimension 20: Mentopolis airs 9/6, while the final episode of the series premiers 9/13, exclusively on Dropout.

Images courtesy of CH Media and Kate Elliot

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