Content Warning: This article discusses abuse, both real and as mentioned in the MCU films. Also, spoiler warnings for Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War came out a little bit ago, and wow, was that a big movie. A lot happened in there. I’m not going to lie, I am a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and really enjoy the franchise. It’s not perfect, of course. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say all of their movies are good, let alone great. More than a few are mediocre, and one of them is on the short list of movies I loathe and actively avoid watching. Their handling of social issues has been…problematic at best. They’re working on it, but still, it’s not perfect. And given that Infinity War is in many ways a celebration of the first ten years of the MCU, it is a microcosm of those issues.
By and large I enjoyed it enough to have seen it three times so far. I wouldn’t say it got deeper with each rewatch the way Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did, but it didn’t get worse either. And there is quite a bit to talk about. I could talk about why the ending didn’t bother me, since though I know almost everyone who died will come back. I could talk about the deaths themselves—which I found the most meaningful, or which was the most sad. I could talk about how Nebula should be the one to kill Thanos, but that it will most likely be Tony. I could talk about why I am okay with Peter Quill freaking out on Titan…okay, actually probably not; I don’t think I could do that in more than five hundred words.
…Or I could talk about abusive parents. Fun.
So, yeah, this is an article analyzing the way that the MCU portrays abusive parents, specifically Thanos, who somehow manages to find a way to encapsulate three different forms of abusive parenting. The Neapolitan ice cream of abusive parents if you will. We will not be talking about the many, many other bad dads in the MCU, or the comparative lack of bad moms. That’s a whole other discussion that we don’t have time for.
The Children of Thanos and Neglect
Alright, this is the weakest and most tenuous comparison, I admit. But I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss, at least briefly, the four children of Thanos introduced in Infinity War. They are, from left to right in the picture above, Corvus Glaive, Proxima Midnight, Ebony Maw, and Cull Obsidian. And yes, they’re pretty bad characters on screen, with little backstory and not much in the way of given motivation. One could, and I would, make the argument not every villain needs to be deep, especially enforcers like this, but the quality of them as characters is not the focus of this section.
Instead, I want to discuss how they relate to Thanos’s truly bad parenting skills. And yes, unlike Nebula and Gamora we don’t know explicitly that Thanos raised these four from childhood. However, they call themselves his children, and Proxima even refers to him as ‘Father’ in their one scene with him. It’s also true that they only have one scene with Thanos, and only Ebony Maw mentions him explicitly very much. Probably. Cull Obsidian doesn’t speak English, so maybe he’s just singing Thanos’s praises the whole time—who knows.
Regardless, Thanos doesn’t seem to care about his four loyal children very much. All four die by the end of the movie, and yet Thanos only comments on one of their deaths. Even the one he does acknowledge, Ebony Maw, is brushed aside fairly quickly. He seems unhappy that it happened, but saying that it made him sad feels like an overstatement. His reaction certainly pales in comparison to his reaction to Gamora’s death (We’ll get to that, I promise. I have thoughts).
Now, let’s be clear, at least some of this is entirely due to the flaws in the setup of Infinity War and the fact that these four were never introduced beforehand. I don’t think the Russo brothers or the writers spent a whole lot of time thinking about these four. It is entirely possible that Thanos had a very warm relationship with them that we never saw and he was just too emotionally exhausted to react. But I kind of doubt it. These four call themselves his children, call him father, and he appears to not care in the slightest. Given where the final fight (if you can call it a fight) takes place, he most certainly had to have seen Corvus’s body, and he does not comment on it. He does not even pause.
So, yes, calling his behavior toward them neglect is a weak connection to make, largely due to the weaknesses of Infinity War, but it is something and I wanted to point it out. Now, let’s move on to more meaty subjects.
Nebula and Malicious Abuse
Oh Nebula. My precious blue and purple baby of rage. How I love her. Seriously, it made me inordinately happy to see her on the poster for Infinity War, and her survival was the one true bright spot of the end of that movie. Fortunately for all of us (or at least for me and my article), Nebula’s connection to the subject of Thanos and parental abuse is much, much stronger than that of her previously mentioned siblings. It quite frankly defines her as a character. Just about every decision she makes in every movie she appears in ties into her relationship with Thanos.
First, and most powerfully, is how her relationship with her ‘father’ ties into her body. Unlike Gamora, we don’t get a flashback of how and why Thanos took her in. So, we don’t know exactly what Nebula looked like before. That random purple streak in the middle of her face could be natural. But that metal you see ringing her eye, the plate on the top of her head, and her left arm? All decidedly not something she was born with. And that’s just what we see in this picture. There’s a scene in Infinity War in which her prosthetics are broken up into segments, and there’s less flesh there than there is in Anakin. Hell, from the looks of thing about half of her brain is missing!
The thing is those prosthetics, as far as we can tell, are not the result of some tragic accident, nor were they necessitated by her being maimed in combat. Nebula is likely a very unreliable narrator, but from what she says, every single one of her robot bits was placed in her by Thanos as punishment for losing fights against Gamora. Her word choice makes it a little hard to tell if Thanos ripped the pieces of her out personally or just had someone else do it, but either way, this was her adoptive father causing that pain. To add insult to very literal injury, Gamora is a cyborg too. It’s stated quite explicitly in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie that Gamora has cybernetic implants that help make her stronger and more durable. But if you look at the differences in the two’s appearances, Gamora’s are either drastically less extensive, or Thanos spent more money on making sure his favorite daughter would look like herself. Possibly both.
Probably both, in fact. While the exact amount that the work on Nebula cost is never stated in the films, she makes it quite clear that she is in pain every moment of every day. She is occasionally seen doing her own maintenance work on herself, and the robotic arm she got from Thanos (the most powerful being in the galaxy who has his own army and fleet of ships) is remarkably similar looking to the arm she got from the Ravagers, a small pirate group with no discernible need for a robotic arm, which means it was likely stolen cargo. Maybe I’m reading to much into things, but it feels rather a lot like Nebula’s parts are durable, but cheap and uncomfortable.
And then there’s her relationship with Gamora. The relationship between Nebula and Gamora is made quite clear: the two were taken by Thanos at roughly the same time and pitted against each other in the name of training. They definitely knew about the other four ‘children’—Nebula references the existence of other siblings in the first Guardians movie—but their relationship with them is never discussed.
Nebula and Gamora’s relationship, on the other hand, is discussed, a lot. In the first movie, it mostly just comes off as sibling rivalry. Though there is a telling scene in which Ronan and Nebula are sitting on an asteroid talking to Thanos in person, and Thanos specifically addresses Ronan, who he disdains. By contrast, he acknowledges Gamora, calling her his ‘favorite daughter’ (in fact, he considers alienating Gamora as big of an issue as Ronan failing to retrieve an Infinity Stone), but does not even look at Nebula.
Still, the meat of their relationship issues are in Vol. 2. And not just in the obvious ways, like their two solo conversations in the second and third acts.
It should be noted that, about halfway into Vol 2, Nebula gives a speech, detailing her plans. It really just boils down to wanting to get every weapon in the galaxy and use them to kill Thanos. As noted above, she’s in a lot of pain all the time, so it makes sense. However, it should also be noted that the minute Nebula gets a ship, the first thing she does is take that ship, track down Gamora, and try desperately to kill her. And not just with the ship’s guns; she purposefully crashes her ship, utterly destroying it and stranding herself on a strange planet, for a shot at her sister.
This isn’t an unrealistic decision. I don’t just mean that it’s consistent with Nebula’s character, although it is. This is actually a something that happens in homes with abusive parents and more than one child. Intellectually Nebula knows that Thanos is to blame for her suffering, but emotionally that’s hard to work on. There’s a tendency for younger children who are victims of abuse to put the blame on older siblings or another parent who failed to stop the abuse. Especially given that much of Nebula’s pain comes from being punished for not being deemed as good as Gamora. That’s a hard thing to live with. And no, it’s not fair to put that on a child, but the mind isn’t always logical, especially when dealing with pain. By the end of the movie, Nebula does manage to overcome her issues with Gamora and the two even make up. It is notable that only once she has made peace with her sister does Nebula go after Thanos himself.
Which brings us finally to Nebula’s actual relationship with her father. As has been surmised, it was not a healthy one. Hell, even by the standards of Thanos’s relationships with his adopted children it’s unhealthy. Gamora’s attempt to murder Thanos is brushed aside. And I don’t mean just by the narrative; Thanos seems rather unconcerned that his favorite daughter tried to kill him. Nebula though? The immediate response is torture, turning her into a rather horrifying piece of forced perspective art, highlighting just how much of her body has been replaced with mechanical bits.
To top that off, in the climatic battle on Titan, Nebula arrives by crashing her ship into Thanos (something tells me that Thanos never taught her how to park) and then confronts him. She tells Thanos that he should have killed her, to which he responds quite nastily that ‘it would have been a waste of parts’; then he proceeds to thrash her.
We will likely never see flashbacks to Nebula’s childhood. I mean, maybe she’ll get shown if they decide to put more Gamora flashbacks in Avengers 4, but that’s about it. So we probably won’t know if Thanos always treated Nebula like this or if it happened later on in her life. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Thanos took in a child and abused her actively and malevolently until she became a pain riddled, anger-filled mess. Even if Nebula manages to make peace with this, even if killing Thanos brings her some level of comfort, she is unlikely to ever fully recover and become totally healthy. And unlike her four siblings that we already spoke of, Nebula probably knows this, which may be the most tragic aspect of all.
Gamora and Non-malicious Abuse
Now we finally get to the most controversial relationship of the set, Gamora and Thanos. And yes, you read that heading right: non-malicious abuse. Yes, I believe that is a thing. Please, hear me out.
I am the child of abusive parents. My parents were both physically and emotionally abusive, though far more emotionally than physically. My dad never broke any bones or anything, mostly just shoving, slapping, and punching. I lived through abuse, and while I don’t pretend to speak for all abuse victims, I know what speaks to me and my experiences. While I do feel that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is one of the best depictions of the varied aftermath of abusive parents outside of films specifically about that, I must confess that Gamora’s story in Infinity War spoke to me more.
First off, there is Gamora’s behavior itself. Much has been said of a certain scene, roughly an hour into the movie, where Thanos tricks Gamora into thinking that she’s managed to kill him. As Gamora watches her abusive adoptive father bleed out, she sinks to her knees and starts sobbing. Not lightly either…full on ugly bawling. I’ve seen some people claim that this undermines Gamora’s abuse—that she should be happy, that she’s never shown this much emotion after killing anyone else, which means that the movie is trying to make it seem like Thanos wasn’t such a bad father.
For me personally, I don’t agree. Again, I’m not speaking for every survivor, just myself. I am twenty-three years old. I know that my parents were abusive. One of my most distinct memories from my childhood is my dad slapping me so hard I fell down and slid along the hardwood floor, because I lied and said I had stolen some of his special crackers to try to keep my siblings from getting in trouble. I know beyond a doubt that my relationship with my parents is unhealthy. And yet, whenever I end up arguing with my parents, even if they never shout, I will start crying. I can’t help it, the knowledge that I’m upsetting my parents is still that painful. I can’t even imagine the pain I’d feel if I was put in a situation where I had to kill one of my parents.
To me, Gamora’s sobbing is out of relief, but also out of pain. And that is okay. People are allowed to feel more than one emotion towards the same thing. It’s natural. Emotions are complex. From my perspective, Gamora sobbing after stabbing her father in both the throat and the heart does not undermine the fact that she is the victim of extensive abuse. Nor does the movie portray her as being forgiving or sympathetic of Thanos at any point. He is a bad person, his parenting methods were abusive, and she knows it. Again, not every survivor of abusive parents will feel this way. Your mileage may vary even among those for whom this is their lived experience. Still, I thought it important to offer an alternative perspective given what I’ve seen around the internet.
Then there is the second scene, and arguably the more controversial one. It’s the one at the very end of the second act with Thanos and Gamora on the top of a mountain with the Red Skull. (Yes, he’s there, no it’s not Hugo Weaving, and no it’s not important to this article.) Thanos learns that in order to obtain one of the Infinity Stones he must sacrifice that which he loves most. Immediately pain, brief denial, and sorrow dominate his face, and he begins to cry as he realizes what this means. Thanos has set himself on a path, convinced himself that it is the universe’s only chance at survival, and that stopping would be a moral failure on his part.
So he takes Gamora and throws her off of a cliff, killing her and retrieving the Soul Stone. Then, throughout the rest of the movie he expresses pain and regret at his actions, stating that while he achieved his goal, it cost him everything. The movie portrays his sadness and love for Gamora as genuine. If it hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have gotten the Stone.
This has upset a lot of people, for a number of reasons. Namely, that by playing Thanos’s love for Gamora as genuine, and his sorrow as genuine, the movie is undercutting his abuse. That by making him feel real love for Gamora they’re trying to make him seem like not so bad a dad.
Even with my experience, I cannot more strongly disagree. The way they portrayed Thanos in this movie struck a deeper cord with me than Allison Janney in I, Tonya, Mo’Nique in Precious, or just about any other abusive parent I’ve seen in media. That’s specifically because of the fact that Thanos is portrayed as having loved Gamora.
Media has a tendency to show abusive parents in a very particular way. Regardless of whether the abuse is physical or emotional or both, the abuser is depicted as being actively malicious and hateful. Sometimes angry, sometimes calmly cruel, and sometimes petty; the point is that the abuser is almost always depicted as hating their victims, or at best being a sociopath who feels nothing for their victim.
The way we depict abusers is important. Depictions help shape how we think of ourselves and our situations. And the overwhelming tendency for media to focus on physical abuse above emotional abuse is a problem. It can lead to children believing that only physical abuse is abuse, or even that only certain physical attacks count as abuse. But there’s another issue, and that is depicting all abusers as malicious. And no, I’m not talking about the need to show victims forgiving their abusers. That is garbage and not depiction I’m interested in.
What I mean is that not all abusers know that they’re abusers. This is something that many LGBT+ people with religious parents have experienced…including me. Maybe I’ve been thoroughly brainwashed or gaslit, but I fully and thoroughly believe that my parents do love me. The emotional abuse was, in their minds, attempts to make me a better person, as fucked up as that admittedly is. They thought they were helping to ensure that I wouldn’t ruin my life by coming out as trans, and that I wouldn’t be punished for all eternity after I died.
It took me years to realize how toxic my relationship with my parents is, and a part of that is because of how media shows abusive parents. Often times, media is how we learn what abuse is. Our parents aren’t going to tell us they’re abusive, and if we don’t realize what’s happening we won’t ask because everyone just assumes that their parents are normal until we see otherwise.
I don’t believe that the text of Infinity War ever attempts to downplay the fact that Thanos is an abusive parent. Yes, he genuinely loves Gamora. But never does the movie suggest that this love is reciprocated. Gamora declares that what Thanos feels for her is not love. She openly rejects food and tells him that she hates him after he’s kidnapped her. She blames him for everything she hates about herself. His statements that he is responsible for everything good about her are never validated or agreed with. Gamora defies him at every turn. She knows that he is abusive, and regardless of what he thinks, she is seeking to end her relationship with him.
But, I believe that showing that Thanos has an entirely different perspective on their relationship, and that he truly believes that he is benevolent is an important thing for them to show. For all of the many flaws demonstrated by Infinity War’s plot, I personally applaud and thank it for this aspect. It struck a chord with me and even if other victims see it differently, I found it valuable.
Images courtesy of Marvel
Crazy Ex Girlfriend through a Sondheim Lens
Full spoilers for all 3 seasons of Crazy Ex Girlfriend.
I don’t make my love for Crazy Ex Girlfriend a secret. It’s essentially media wish-fulfillment for me: a musical dramedy with an loudly jewish female protagonist that seeks to deconstruct tropes and storytelling conventions about how women are typically written, served alongside mental health positivity and an optimistic take on humanity. It’s clever, it’s meaningful, it’s unapologetic, and I cannot express how relieved I am that it’s renewed for a 4th and final season—the season that was always planned as its end-point.
So it’s with great chagrin that I’ve got a bit of a “but” to add here. Because while all this is true, I struggled a little with Season 3. It’s not that I found it any less pointed or intelligent, but I did feel that structurally there were issues. Something seemed like it was missing…just some kind of absent je ne sais quoi that the first two seasons possessed. Then there were also some story beats that suddenly appeared, rather than the usual meticulous seeding and build-up to which I grew accustomed.
This isn’t to say I disliked Season 3, because I found a ton of value in it. But I did feel that there was a little bit of prioritization of themes at the cost of a cohesive story. Paula suddenly being the “office bitch”, Heather impulsively agreeing to be Darryl’s surrogate after criticizing Rebecca for the exact same thing… The best example is probably in the finale, where Rebecca pleads “guilty.” In all these cases it’s clear what the writers are going for; Rebecca is being very literally haunted by her past, since you can’t just skate with no repercussions, even you personally take a step towards healing. She wants to atone for all the messed up stuff she’s done, hence her pleading “responsible” initially.
Except she’s an amazing lawyer who surely understands that she isn’t actually guilty of attempted second-degree murder, which is what the charge was. Sure, it’s important to not plead “insanity,” but “innocent” was a perfectly viable option! Pleading guilty, while thematically satisfying and good in a character arc, pushes the scene out of the realm of believability. Even Paula, who was obviously moved by that, probably would have known that there’s a way to repair their relationship that doesn’t involve admitting to a literal murder charge. And yes, the writers seem to know this wasn’t a rational decision on Rebecca part, but it still stretches characterization further than seems advisable.
I guess I’m lucky that all this was only a mild disappointment, but it’s for that reason that I haven’t really written anything on Season 3 as a whole yet. I think my solution was to wait and see the 4th season, because I do still have incredible faith in showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna to close out this narrative in a satisfying and meaningful way. I simply contented myself to let a vaguely outlined piece on the structural issues of Season 3 sit in a Google Doc, where I never touched it. The one time I tried, I ended up writing about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s command of diegesis is the model modern musicals should take, because it marries our gritty media realism trend to the dreamlike qualities of musical theater.
And now I realize that was my mistake all along: I shouldn’t have been analyzing Crazy Ex Girlfriend through the lens I use for most TV and movies…I need a musical lens. Specifically, I needed to view Season 3 through the eyes of Stephen Sondheim musicals.
Entering the world of the hat
Before you accuse me of it, yes, picking Sondheim specifically is mostly self-serving. But I have also spent a fair amount of time tracking down interviews and podcasts with Rachel Bloom (she never gives the same exact answer twice—it’s kind of incredible), and can confirm her love of the man too. She’s said her ideal Broadway role would be Dot from Sunday in the Park with George or Squeaky Fromme from Assassins, the latter of which happens to be her favorite musical, too. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Crazy Ex Girlfriend as an art form may have been influenced to some degree by the works of Stephen Sondheim.
Let’s talk about those works briefly, though. Sondheim’s musicals are diverse in subject matter, takeaways, and central themes. However, that’s not to say there aren’t commonalities, or that his style is malleable. While what he’s ‘known for’ often gets boiled down to lyrical cleverness by critics, a stronger feature of his music is that he writes with actors in mind. Emotional queues are almost embedded into his songs. It doesn’t matter what poor sap is singing “Franklin Shephard, Inc.”…the strength of the phrasing and flow lends itself to the breakdown in a way that is always going to be convincing.
Then, I can’t state this any better than Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters, but Sondheim consistently has lyrical depth. His songs are gut-punches usually, but layered gut-punches at that.
His melodies are a bit unconventional, in that you’re unlikely to be able to sing his songs the first go-around. Contrast that to Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, who can generally write tunes you’re able to pick up by the final verse. Of course there’s exceptions, but if you want an at-home experiment, see how well you follow the melody of this versus this.
You can tell just from interviews that Sondheim is a perfectionist, a horrible overthinker, and permanently never fully satisfied with the end result. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, he spells it out on the page in a way that bridges aspirational and concerning.
His neuroses are not incredibly dissimilar to Rebecca Bunch as a protagonist. It’s perhaps for that reason that the themes he tends to like exploring are shockingly relevant to the show. I don’t think it’s constructive to give you a laundry list of all of them, but typical features of Sondheim musicals include family strife, ambivalent views on love and relationships, obsession (of self, others, or ways obsessive behavior unfolds), and disillusionment.
Otherwise known as Crazy Ex Girlfriend Season 3.
Reaching through the world of the hat like a window
When I first began thinking about the last season through a Sondheimian lens, it was thanks to a song added to Merrily We Roll Along after its unsuccessful first broadway outing:
“So, old friends, now it’s time to start growing up. Taking charge, seeing things as they are. Facing facts, not escaping them; still with dreams, just reshaping them. Growing up.”
It often annoys me when stories are described as “coming-of-age” tales for adult characters. For instance, the dialogue surrounding Kylo Ren complete with The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson saying he was transitioning from “adolescence to adulthood” was particularly grating, since it felt a little like robbing him of his agency as a fully grown man who is also a fascist and makes these messed up choices on his own accord.
At the same time, Crazy Ex Girlfriend is very much about Rebecca Bunch coming into her own as an adult—coming to understand her identity specifically by shedding her childish idealization of romance and fairy tales. Hell, she takes responsibility for herself for really the first time at the end of Season 3. But the thing is, as Sondheim eloquently puts it, “Growing up, understanding that growing never ends.”
This is something hammered again and again by the show. We need look no further than Darryl or Paula to see that they’ve more than delivered on definitive adults who still are pushed towards betterment and maturity. Darryl is impulsive and too lead by his feelings, and he learns not to go to the extreme with his ideas while still acting on his wants. Paula meets Rebecca when she’s in a complete rut, discovers the absence in her life due to her lack of risk taking, and pursues her law degree. Rebecca herself is never treated like an adolescent free of agency; any infantilization that occurs is of her own doing (see: the introductory song in Season 2), and ultimately to her detriment.
It’s for this reason I thought about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend perfectly meshes with Merrily We Roll Along, at least in its second act (which happens first chronologically). Rebecca is the Joe, with her idealized dreams that come crashing down. However “Growing Up” reaches a drastically conclusion for her; where Joe allows himself to be swayed/seduced by Gussie that leads him towards an empty path—one where he shirks responsibility and commitment to his friends—Rebecca rejects Nathaniel and prioritizes absolution from Paula instead. The choice offered was nearly the same, yet the choosing leads to wildly different, and more uplifting outcomes (ironically as she’s facing years in prison).
Where this analogy falls apart is that the tragedy of Merrily We Roll Along is in the backwards timeline of the play; we see our main cast get happier, and freer, and full of hope knowing that things end up with the bitter end of their friendship. Crazy Ex Girlfriend is the would-be the opposite experience, where we see our central character in a healthier place, even if it may be a bit more of a serious and adult place. Rebecca was never *happy* to begin with, so much as she’d delude herself. In fact, part of the reason she’s so drawn to Josh is that he’s happy to get to that level with her.
Disillusionment itself, along with the theme of taking responsibility, is something straight out of Assassins. The entire musical serves as a deconstruction and break-down of the American dream through the eyes of history’s presidential assassins (would-be and successful). However in each of their cases, there’s a reason they did it…something blame. They did it to make their friends listen, or because they were told they’d be ambassador to France. Obviously Rebecca is a far more stable person than a murderer, but we do see a similar determination to rationalize her behavior, particularly in Season 1. If she does bad things (like literal stalking) in the name of love, it’s okay, right?
Of course, she’s a good guy whereas the assassins are, you know…assassins, which is why she rejects the mutual conclusion that they come to in “Another National Anthem.” She wasn’t just screwed by the system, or romantic rivals, or even her mental illness. She is fully responsible for what she does, and those actions have influence on others.
It’s actually a collective responsibility, as she’s been aided over the years, mostly by Paula. Rebecca taking the out Nathaniel offered would have impacted Paula most of all, sending the strong message that there’s no need to ever own up to your shit if you can justify it well enough. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault, right? I mean, she was given those beans; they persuaded her to trade away her cow for beans. And without those beans there’d have been no stalk to get up to the giants in the first place!
Except like in Into the Woods, placing the blame and passing the buck gets rejected. No one is alone in the sense that responsibility is never individualistic. Rebecca owning up to her past is the first step in healing the circle around her. “Fight for their mistakes, everybody makes…one another’s terrible mistakes.”
In some ways, that’s the note I expected Crazy Ex Girlfriend to end on. Yet there’s a Season 4, and more story to be told. If Into the Woods is the direction, then I suppose it ends with a group number to the same effect. Yet we have other Sondheim options into which we can delve.
I should quickly point out that while A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is parodic in a way Crazy Ex Girlfriend is, the comparison for that particular musical ends there. And Rebecca had her Sweeney Todd revenge story as a Scary Scary Sexy Lady, so we can probably rule those out. And unless she becomes the Mayor of West Covina or spends the entirety of Season 4 bemoaning the loss of spoken Yiddish among jewish populations in the US, I’m quite certain we can rule out Anyone Can Whistle and Pacific Overtures too.
What does that leave us with? Well, there’s Follies, where Sondheim holds neurotic self-indulgence under a lens. There’s also a love trapezoid of doom, which was carefully picked apart in Season 2. Oh and the musical numbers within the show are pastiches. The influence this had on Crazy Ex Girlfriend almost slams you over the head, particularly when it boils down to two couples discovering unpleasant truths about their pasts and presents. The collapse of innocence isn’t something that’s going to be hand-waved by this show, though I have to imagine the ending may be slightly more uplifting. There is a self-consciousness to the show that mirrors the attitude of Sunday in the Park with George, but given how wildly different the demons are that Sondheim was working out to the type of bubbly, expressive character Rebecca is, it’s hard to draw many parallels. And I have to assume time-travel is off the table.
Which leaves us with the two incredibly relationship-focused musicals: A Little Night Music and Company. Where the former is concerned, the ending isn’t incredibly. In fact, the musical itself isn’t incredibly deep, though the score certainly is. Sondheim originally didn’t even want to write it after reading Hugh Wheeler’s book he was to use (a friend talked him into it since he was given free rein on the music). Basically, a bunch of people realize who they’re actually in love with and commit to each other in the end.
This…could happen. But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t find it odd. It’s not that I don’t understand shipping Rebecca and Josh or Nathaniel, but it would just seem so uncharacteristically cliched if the end spot was “ho hum we’re all happy now because love.” Rebecca is certainly deserving of love, and her very visceral fear of intimacy is distressing; I’m hoping she comes to a healthy place with that. And that could necessitate her ending up with someone. But the tone of that would, I’m guessing, be worlds different from say, the tone of Henrik and Anne running off.
However, it’s Company that I believe offers the best solution. This is a concept musical of Sondheim’s that loosely follows a commitment-phobic man in his 30s struggling to understand relationships. Bobby learns a lot from his married friends, and ultimately comes to a place where he realizes he’s open to love and all the messiness it entails…as much of a pain as it is. He goes from bemoaning convincing a woman to stay longer than just a night, to being okay with a very safe and deluded idea of marriage, to being willing to have emotionally vulnerability in a relationship.
Rebecca Bunch is almost the exact opposite of Bobby. She comes in willing to crowd someone with love (and wanting to be crowded herself) to the point where she romanticizes her not-so-bright former crush and West Covina, California. It’s her obsession in the way it’s Bobby’s phobia. Yet I think there’s a way for those two character arcs to converge. In fact, Bobby’s “Marry Me a Little” ambivalent fantasy is not dissimilar to the idealized outcomes Rebecca imagined in a marriage with Josh.
“And then, in a wonderful way Everything in the past will just fall away My daddy will love me And my mommy will love me And Josh will love me and then I’ll never have problems again.”
In both cases, neither of them had the concept of a sustainable relationship really understood…just what they’d get out of it. Then they both kept growing.
Rebecca obviously doesn’t need a “Being Alive” moment in that she’s never needed convincing to open herself to love. But she does need to open herself to vulnerability. If she finds someone, it’s someone she has to recognize is as frightened as she is of being alive, and that’s okay. Because it’s not about love curing everything, but about healthy relationships that allow you to grow individually.
“Somebody make me come through, I’ll always be there.”
This is the spot that Rebecca seems destined to reach. She’s a good person, right? Well there’s nothing more to that point than taking healthy approaches towards relationships, romantic and platonic alike. She deserves both and shouldn’t fear either, but instead must learn to trust in herself to be okay getting there.
Which is exactly what Season 3 set up.
Images courtesy of The CW
The Antagonists Are Back in Sorceress of Darshiva
In my last article I said that there weren’t concrete antagonists in Demon Lord of Karanda. Well, this book solves that problem, providing antagonists in spades. Sorceress of Darshiva, published in 1989, is the penultimate book of the Mallorean. It also brings a sense of danger and threat from our actual antagonists rather than secondary ones. Yes, Zandramas actually shows up in this novel. And as more than just a shadow at that, and it’s everything the series needed. Eddings also does some fascinating stuff with un-rooting the Angarak people from the systems introduced by Torak. Overall, Sorceress of Darshiva is one of my favorite novels in the whole series, and for good reason.
Spoilers for all of Sorceress of Darshiva, and all of David Eddings’s previous books.
Sorceress of Darshiva starts with our protagonists following Zandramas to Melcene. Melcene is a series of islands that house the commercial trading center of the east, and Silk is very at home there. Belgarath, Garion, and Beldin meet Senji, a clubfoot alchemist. He accidentally discovered sorcery in an attempt to turn lead to gold. Senji has one of the three original copies of the Ashabine Oracles. It’s a McGuffin that they’ve been chasing for two books now, and the payoff is excellent, and will be discussed in depth below. Senji also tells them that Cthrag Sardius was kept at the University for a number of decades.
After the meeting with Senji, the company finds out that Zandramas brought Baron Otrath with her when she left Melcena. He’s a cousin of Zakath’s, and Zandramas plans to use him as the Angarak king for the prophecy. We also see several POV changes in this period. Queen Porenn calls a meeting of the Alorn council upon receiving news of what happened in Mallorea. The Council decides to fake an alliance with Urgit to bring some of Zakath’s attention off of Darshiva and his attempt to location Garion and company.
Eventually, Zakath recaptures Garion and company traveling through Darshiva, on their way to Kell. Cyradis persuades him to join them, and they continue on their way to Kell. Zandramas fights with the ghost of Poledra, Belgarath’s wife. Durnik smashes two demon lords and is officially a disciple of Aldur. At the very end of the book, Garion picks up she-wolf and her cub. Belgarath and Beldin remember that Grolim’s can’t enter Kell and that the location of the Place Which Is No More is in Kell. They deduce that they are finally ahead of Zandramas, and the book ends.
Torak, the Dragon God of Angarak
The novel begins with a prologue from a Melcene history book. It details the foundation of the Melcene nation and how it fused with the Mallorean Empire. Considering that it provides a summary of those nations since the beginning of the world, it obviously mentions the now dead god. It’s been discussed before about how it’s the systems that Torak set up that are evil, not the people in those systems. This prologue shows that in effect. The historians describe Mallorea and Melcena as almost a utopia before Torak shows up before Vo Mimbre.
“A reign of terror descended upon Mallorea. … In one stroke, Torak’s disciples overturned millennia of military and bureaucratic rule and returned absolute dominion to the Grolims.” (p. 6).
This moment shows most clearly how it’s the systems that Torak set up that Garion and company despise. The forced conversion, which parallels a Western view of the totalitarian communism of the USSR. Generational indoctrination is a powerful thing, and it happened at Torak’s behest. The god who wears a mask made of iron and cracked the world.
But Torak also shows up outside ancient history. When Garion finally finds a copy of the Ashabine Oracles, he discovers that Torak directly addresses him. Belgarath calls it Torak’s one moment of sanity. It tells Garion that “what is foretold in these pages is an abomination. Do not let it come to pass.” (p. 95). Torak admits that his side winning is an abomination and tells his would-be killer to stop it. Then, later, he destroys it. It’s the willful self delusion that forms the central critique of the Soviet Union. That it broadcast the idea of the communist ideal while being otherwise.
Zandramas, the Child of Dark
In addition to the dead Child of Dark, we see the current Child of Dark as well. They’re both antagonists, and they both have the same place in the prophecy, but this book makes them distinct. It does this by exploring Zandramas’s history and by actually giving us two glimpses into her point of view.
In Zandramas’s point of view, we see constellations rise beneath her skin. Zandramas attributes this to the Dark Prophecy exerting more of it’s power over her. We can see that she’s terrified. These moments also allow us to see Geran, the emotional center of this, for the first time since the first book. We see that Zandramas makes sure he’s taken care of, but doesn’t want him inconveniencing her. She leaves his care to Naradas and another priestess.
Zandramas’s terror and her overall plan, as discovered by her history, make her distinct from Torak. She began life as a priestess of Torak, working under Naradas. Then, after Torak died, the Dark Spirit took control of her, and she ran wild for years. When she returned to the temple, she charmed everyone into working for her. She preached that a New God would come and she would be his bride.
Torak always wanted to be the center of everything. Kal Torak literally means king and god. He dominated Angarak and demanded human sacrifice, but he wasn’t ever loved. Garion won because of that. Zandramas learned from the Dark Prophecy’s mistakes. She doesn’t want to be a god, she just wants to be the power behind the throne, both secular and spiritual. This corresponds to the transitional period of communism, where the USSR traded with capitalist countries before it collapsed.
Cthrag Sardius, the Sardion
Juxtaposed against the human motivations of our other antagonists, we see the Sardion. This book solidifies what the Sardion is. In essence, it’s the evil counterpart of the Orb of Aldur. The two stones were originally one stone, but they were divided and now they war against each other.
But, unlike the Orb of Aldur, a band of ‘savages’ found the Sardion and their generations polished it, like Aldur polished the Orb. Eventually the Melcene Empire collected it for their library, and it stayed there for millennia. Then, when the Battle of Vo Mimbre happened on the other side of the world, a historian stole it. His ship sank, and the Sardion with it. Cyradis told everyone that the Sardion is in the Place Which Is No More, where the final meeting will take place.
But the real horror of Cthrag Sardius lies in what it will do to Geran. One of the requirements for the final meeting is a sacrifice. In this case, it’s a person who will hold both the Orb of Aldur and the Sardion in their hands. With the both of them they’ll have unlimited power to reshape the world. The new god of Angarak will either heal the world, or destroy it utterly. Zandramas wants Geran to destroy the world and make it in the image of the Dark Prophecy.
It is that image, Geran with both stones in his hands, that so terrified Torak. That is why Garion might have to kill his only son. The idea of the world falling to communism routinely terrified people during the Cold War. They taught their children to glorify America, as the anti-communist utopia instead. Geran’s eventual fate takes that and twists it in a way that horrifies the characters and the readers.
The Final Un-Rooting of Systemic Evil
One of the subplots in Sorceress of Darshiva is how Urgit manages to finally reject and exile Agachak. He lays down the law, and Cthol Murgos transitions to one where the church’s, and Torak’s, lingering influence diminishes. Previously, Urgit’s advisors, including Agachak and his father’s generals, ruled his behavior. Now, after some advice from Garion, he’s managed to root them out. Agachak goes to the absolutely stupid Gethel of Thull, and convinces him to join him in Mallorea. But it’s still a victory for Urgit and for the light. It’s the proactive nature of someone who won’t be controlled again, and who won’t allow his country to be controlled either.
Urgit also has a victory in his pseudo-alliance with the Alorns. While on the Alorn side, it is purely a diversion for Zakath, on Urgit’s side it’s something more genuine. He wants peace with his ancestral enemies, and he’s taking steps to secure it and to step further away from the dark.
Zakath’s transition to the light also takes place in this book as well. Once he recaptures Garion and the rest, Zakath originally wants to send them to Mal Zeth. With Cyradis’s command, that changes. Cyradis reveals that Zakath is the Empty One, another figure of prophecy on the side of the light. After a few moments of internal conflict, Zakath agrees to go with them. Immediately afterwards, it’s like a personality transplant. Zakath, Emperor of Mallorea, had been grim and shied away from doing violence himself. Zakath, friend of Garion, can only be described as Arendish. Laughing at everything, getting into every possible fight, and with some other indefinable Arendish quality to him. He’s acting like someone from the ‘civilized West’ rather than someone from Angarak, and that speaks to this unrooting.
The un-rooting of Torak’s influence also plays out on sacred grounds as well. While Garion and company travel through Peldane and Darshiva, they see many different temples. All the masks above the temples, that once showed Torak’s face, are now blank. Urvon and Zandramas fight all through Peldane and Darshiva over who the new god will be, but this change says more than that. It’s a preparation for a new god, either Urvon, Geran, or whoever Garion chooses.
It’s not only the people preparing for a new god, the possibility of the new gods are also preparing. Before their capture by Zakath, the company winds up in an abandoned farmhouse for shelter. An old Grolim comes to them, and offers them food and hospitality. He talks about how he heard the voice of the new god, and now he decorates the altar with flowers and repents everything he did for Torak. He believes that the Light god prepared him to be its first disciple. A Grolim, someone inside the power structure determined as evil, repenting and being a driving force for good is new, and excellent for the philosophy of the work.
The current existing Prophecy makes an appearance shortly after the Grolim disappears and says all of this. He then goes on to say, “when Destiny is reunited, there should be a new voice. … Millions of years of enmity between us have warped our perceptions a bit … I’m not suited to deal with a united universe. I’ve got too many old grudges. The new voice can start out fresh without any preconceptions.” (p. 146). Those grudges and preconceptions are exactly why Eddings is being so careful to change the perception of the Angaraks by characters and readers alike. To accept the fictional and actual antagonists as people.
In 1989, Eddings published Sorceress of Darshiva and the Berlin Wall fell. That symbolic fall prophesied the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There’s no mistake in the fact that he combines the final moments of un-rooting with preparations for a future afterwards. This book focuses heavily on the antagonists, yes, but it also finalizes that change in the people previously stigmatized by their association with them. That Torak’s moment of sanity, Zandramas’s fear, Zakath’s acceptance, and Agachak’s banishment all occur in the same book is important.
It signals all of that preparation for the future. By showing the quasi-human nature of our antagonists, except the Sardion, it makes the readers more likely to accept their followers as people with hearts and souls. By un-rooting the enemies turned allies from the systems that made them enemies, it does the same thing. That this all happens the year the Berlin Wall fell is hyper significant. It’s a symbolic gesture, yes, but symbols and stories mean things. Who better to know that than an English teacher with a predisposition for archetypes? Eddings may not have realized that he was writing a metaphor for the Cold War, but it’s there in his symbols and his philosophy nonetheless, especially here, and especially now.
Image Courtesy of Del Rey Books
Dr. Strange May Be A Truly Cult Movie
Watching Dr Strange was a truly strange experience for me. I sat before the screen expecting two hours of mindless fun as I watch a self-absorbed jerk become something like a decent guy. You know, this ever-present and ever-satisfying “break the haughty” narrative. A safe bet, not too harsh on the haughty (it’s MCU, after all), but harsh enough we cheer him getting his comeuppance. What it turned into, was two hours of flashbacks as I watched a haughty jerk being broken and brainwashed into a cult.
Probably I wouldn’t react that badly if this experience was not something from my personal past. Things I saw at the screen were excruciatingly familiar. I couldn’t help rooting for the jerk, because I knew all too well what it is, feeling that you are nobody, that the world is crumbling around you—and then being handed something like a power over it.
And while I am sure that it was nowhere near authorial intent, I couldn’t help wondering how many people—impressionable, vulnerable people—would buy into the narrative and turn to some secret knowledge to cope with their illnesses or insecurities. After all, Kamar Taj, both in appearance and in teaching, is very far from fantasyland. You can find dozens of wannabe Ancient Ones just around the corner, waiting for easy prey.
Yeah, sounds very purple, but let me show you why am I so agitated.
What Is a Cult?
A cult—also a totalitarian cult, toxic cult or destructive cult—is a religious or posing as a religious organisation which teachings and practice are designed to achieve and execute total control over its members’ life and death. Not quite a lucid definition, and that’s why the thin line between a cult and a new religious movement is so thin. The subject is controversial, the “cult” word is thrown around as a slur and generally only time we can safely use the definition is, while talking fiction or the cults that 100% exposed themselves as such via some drastic action. Mass suicide or terrorist attack, usually, and sometimes both.
But still there is a list (several lists, but they mostly talk the same things in different wording) of traits that may alarm you that the group is most probably toxic. Let me show how astonishingly well Kamar Taj fits the criteria. Then I’ll try to demonstrate how typical dr Strange’s situation actually is and what usual manipulative tactics were employed to guarantee his loyalty. I’ll use the list provided by M. Kuzmin in his thesis.
1. A Teaching that Rationalises and Encourages Control and Manipulation
They don’t just brainwash—they do it for the greater good and to prevent lesser ones from slipping on the path to salvation. Or something like that. It is prime trait of a toxic cult; a pity it is not easy to see it through, as the real teaching is not revealed until a person is considered “ready” (read: is totally broken).
Through the movie we hear Mordu describing his own path into Kamar Taj. He tells how he went there to get weapons and training sufficient to fight his foes and was promised to get those. Then he was made to go through usual training routine until he understood that his past—name included—was nothing and Kamar Taj was everything and he is destined to be its adherent. Though he recognises manipulation, he not only completely justifies it, but also expresses hope such would be dr Strange’s fate, too.
And indeed, no one in the Kamar Taj is anywhere near ashamed of stringing along a desperate disabled person with promises of healing all the while basically training him as a cannon fodder for future battles.
2. The Leader, Regarded as an Absolute Unquestionable Authority
While there are some cults that have group leadership, this figure is almost inevitable when we talk about the cult, as they are built around them. The guru may proclaim themselves a literal god (or God), as Shoko Asahara or Maria Devi Christ did, or a prophet, as Jim Jones. They can even settle for indefinite “possessor of the knowledge”, as Marshall Applewhite. No matter what they chose, entire existence of the cult depends on their very person and something only they know or can do.
Does Kamar Taj have such a person? Oh, certainly. The Ancient One is just that; an absolute, infallible guru who is right even when she is actually wrong, and whose actions are not for the lesser minds to judge. She wields absolute authority over her acolytes and can make them fight using real weapons or even leave for dead on a whim. All the while the very idea that she may be wrong is a heresy for the loyal Kamar Taj members, and a sign something is “unwell” with the person in question.
3. The Teaching Changes When Situation Changes, But It Is Never Acknowledged
They promised us the world’s end and it didn’t come? Oh, you see, it was not the real end. It was never about something like that. Or better: yesterday they taught absolute monogamy, but now the guru is caught cheating. So, as the guru is never wrong…
Well, we have an entire plot point, no less, dedicated to this exact rule of cult. So, the entire Kamar Taj had existed for ages on a premise that Dark Energy is bad and corrupting and everything Dark Dimension is vile. But lo! The guru used dark energy to sustain her all those innumerable years! She must be a crank, then? A liar, who forbid her loyal acolytes the thing she had been doing all along?
Nah. No way, You see, the rules exist to break them and cheat, and if you think the rules that you were manipulated to accept as a final truth matter, you are our next bad guy.
Or was it an instance of the next cult rule?
4. Each Subsequent Hierarchical Level Is Granted a Different Version of “Truth”
Basically this is the most glaring distinction between a religion, whatever new, and a cult. You join a religion, and you know what does it teach and what do you subscribe to. If it was one god, three goddesses and a ritual cup of tea every three hours when not asleep, that’s it all along. With a cult, you join for a god, three goddesses and a cup of tea, but then learn that it’s not tea but actually vodka, and when you progress in the ranks you may learn that there is one goddess and no god at all, and then – that gods are nothing, only guru matters. And then something.
The teaching of Kamar Taj does change from rank to rank, too. You come to them because they are healers and martial artists. If you are fit for them, you learn about astral and the source code of the Universe. Next level, and you learn the purpose of Kamar Taj is to protect Earth from a certain other dimension and you have to obey strict rules unless you would harm our world. Even next level, and the rules matter nothing and result is all. And then something.
To save time and space let me not delve into other very fitting criteria—like having a teaching that combines syncretic religion with pseudo-science, that justifies and even encourages violence towards critics and ex-members of the cult, that encourages active service in “do whatever you are told” way… Kamar Taj is already cult-like enough.
But nothing proves it as well as main character’s story. Just look for yourself.
Cult Brainwashing 101
So, we have a man in his late thirties/mid-forties, the age of crisis. This man suffers an accident and is now disabled. As his only profession requires the very ability he’s lost, he searches for rehabilitation and encounters a rumour of miraculous healer. Desperate, he goes for it and gradually becomes an active member of a group that presents itself as Earth’s only hope and secret guardians. He never heals and is never able to go back to work. Also, he leaves the world forever, going on to live on the group’s premises.
Huh, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But it can get worse.
Our hero roams the world in search of the healer, until he encounters a group of thugs. Those thugs beat him violently and destroy the last memento of his previous life: his wristwatch. Only then a member of the group intervenes and quickly saves the day. He waits, because he was told to wait. Because apparently our hero needs…something. Do you know what? He needs to lose everything and to be on his utmost vulnerable when presented with the cult teaching—and to be thankful for help. While not too common, the tactic is widely employed irl. It ensures bigger susceptibility of the adherent-to-be through combination of humiliation and gratitude.
Also, the very exhaustion he suffers because Kamar Taj remains hidden from him is quite helpful, too. Exhausted people are not quite able to think critically, as analysis and logic require much energy and all energy they have goes to sustaining them alive and upright.
And Then Some
Moving on, our hero is presented with some mumbo-jumbo and then graced with a very, VERY acid vision. While here it’s magical in nature, it would be literal acid irl. Secretly feeding newcomers with hallucinogens is a very, very common tactic of those cults that emphasise and promise secret knowledge and spiritual experience. Bright, wild hallucinations make people believe that they were granted visions and have some supernatural power in them.
So, our hero’s weakened mind is bombarded with mumbo-jumbo, followed by acid visions “proving” the mumbo-jumbo is actually true. Nice. But not perfect. To add a final touch, our hero is cast away and left on the street with nothing but his clothes, broken watch and a promise of miraculous healing. He has nowhere to go but to the c… Kamar Taj. But the Ancient One knows her manipulation 101 and makes him yell, beg, despair. He has to wish for acceptance with all his heart, to see no other way. He must beg, because nothing is as effective as humiliation.
Except for a death threat, of course. Being humiliated AND left in a mortal peril is much better. Do I need to remind our hero is subjected to it?
Conclusion (Or Lack Thereof)
My goal was not to imply the authors of the movie did all that on purpose. Never would I even dream of such a thing.
What I actually think is, that the authors used the same tropes the real-life cults use in recruiting new members and promoting their teaching. Those tropes are widely popular in popular culture—which is actually the very reason the cults use them. Familiarity is quite important when encountering something new. Things already at least seemingly familiar attract much more trust and attention than completely new ones.
Combined with several instances of what I consider authorial tone-deafness, this lead to a load of unfortunate implications. As with Thanos, the end result is horrifying idea no author would’ve supported as it is, but accidentally promoted.