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Mon-El is Supergirl’s Kryptonite

Kylie

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Not Kara Danvers—the show.

Supergirl is something you hear mentioned a lot around here, and that’s because from the get-go, it has blown many of us away with its unbridled enthusiasm and positive takeaways. While there have been stumbles here and there, Kara’s optimism and staunch refusal to be infantilized, along with a rich cast of supporting characters each battling their own demons, more than earned its top spot on our “best of 2016” list.

It’s therefore with the utmost love and respect that we, Gretchen and Kylie (‘Grylie’ of course), have to discuss a problem with Supergirl’s second season. A major problem, in fact. One that is actively dragging the narrative down and undercutting the show’s otherwise feminist messaging. We’ll give you three guesses who we’re talking about (though you probably only need one). That’s right, this guy:

Meet Mon-El. He’s Kara’s season 2 love interest/recently-turned-boyfriend from the Kryptonian colony of Daxam, the Zeta Beta Tau of the (potentially) Andromeda galaxy. And to be clear, we weren’t opposed to the idea of him at the beginning. In fact, we saw a lot of exciting potential in another alien survivor with superpowers on the show, especially since it put Kara in the role she had always intended to fill with Clark, yet never got the opportunity.

Here’s the story of a man named Mon-El

Like his Kryptonian pod, Mon-El landed in Supergirl with a lot of hype, but without making a huge impact. (He was unconscious during the first two episodes of this season.) Kara almost immediately recognized both his planet of origin (Daxam) and that he was someone of prominence. The Hatfields and McCoys-esque planetary rivalry between Daxam and Krypton set Kara up to challenge her own prejudice.

As befits our girl of steel, once she got over her knee-jerk reaction, she urged Mon-El to use his superpowers to help people. But, for the first few episodes he appeared in, Mon-El wanted to party, lay low, and be generally lazy and privileged. He seemed poised for a ‘learn how to be a hero’ arc with Kara as his mentor, while serving as a potentially interesting foil for The Guardian, a human with no powers who had chosen to keep his own superheroing a secret rather than work as part of a team.

Mon-El’s hesitation made a certain amount of sense early on. He’s the prince of a privileged culture that still uses slaves. He probably hasn’t worked a ‘real job’ in his life, at least by Earth standards. Plus, laying low on a new planet with a foreign culture after realizing you suddenly have increased physical power isn’t a bad idea. He needed to get his feet under him. And depending on what kind of relationship he had with his parents (who are actively looking for him across the galaxy while he lies about being related to them), he may have wanted to keep a low profile. Fair enough.

He also comes from a culture with a lot of baggage, specifically baggage about male privilege and men’s relationship to women. In 2×05, he pawns his work off on Miss Tessmacher and, when confronted by Kara, claims he did so because: “She wanted to please me. On Daxam, when a woman wishes to please a man—”. Yikes. We’ve never been more grateful for Kara interrupting someone.

He also seems to believe altruism (and/or job satisfaction?) = selfishness based on how he responds to Kara’s desire to help people.

“Okay, I may have your powers but I don’t have this, this innate desire to go leaping into trouble. But that doesn’t make me a bad person, all right? You’re no saint, Kara Zor-El! You fly around, rescuing people like you’re just pure of heart. But that is crap. Because you love that attention. You love people loving you. You are not selfless. And you’re no hero.”

Mon-El further projects his own desire to stay out of trouble and the limelight onto her. He encourages her not to be a hero or go ‘looking for trouble’ because he wants to stay ‘safe’ and not get involved. To him, his survival is no more than luck and merits no reflection or compassionate reflex. His privilege gave him a simplistic approach to life, and he prioritizes personal physical safety. Beyond that, he’s content to uphold the status quo, party on, and skip work whenever he feels like it.

And skip HR seminars.

This is a problematic head-space to live in, no question. He’s privileged, entitled, selfish, pleasure-oriented to the detriment of others, and interprets kindness and compassion as acts of self-centeredness. That’s a heck of a lot of societal baggage to unlearn, and it makes sense that he wasn’t ready to jump into being a superhero thirty seconds after he lands on Earth. We appreciate that this gave Kara a chance to face down the way she projected her urge to mentor onto him without taking his desires into account. She gets a chance to apologize and back off, like the respectful person she is. After this, the tone quickly shifted from mentorship to one of potential romance.

But before we dive into that, it’s worth taking a look at his arc as it’s been set up thus far. He’s a privileged white male from a toxic culture with a need to reform his toxic mindset. His arc is ‘douchebag becomes a decent guy’, to put it crassly. Which is…fine, we guess? It’s not a bad story to tell, even if pretty stale at this point. But this season already has an arc concerned with breaking the cycle of violence, overcoming an ingrained toxic environment, and shedding problematic cultural frameworks: M’gann.

If you count Lena’s arc pushing away from her family’s villainy to become her own hero, we actually have two. This is on top of Kara’s ongoing exploration of her own mixed Kryptonian heritage and Alex learning how to make space for herself within a much more positive, but still constrained, familial dynamic. The hints we’ve gotten of Maggie’s backstory seem to imply a similarly troubled family history. We could even include J’onn learning to forgive M’gann and let go of his (very understandable) hatred for his persecutors. Heck, the main plot of the season revolves around an organization that seeks to legalize and enact bigotry and violence against refugees. It’s safe to say that the ‘overcoming toxic ideas about others’ arc is well covered this season.

With that in mind, we feel compelled to ask exactly what Mon-El contributes to this narrative that is not otherwise dealt with by any of the other arcs that touch on this same topic. His own arc does specifically involve sexism and entitlement, but is that enough to justify his inclusion, especially when this aspect gets buried under his role as Kara’s love interest?

And it does get buried. Mon-El’s character development does not follow a linear trajectory once his role shifts from potential mentee to potential love interest. Prior to him canonically expressing romantic interest in Kara (which happens in 2×07), the most negative thing one could say about him was that he was a selfish douchebag, which honestly made sense due to Daxam’s toxic culture.

It’s only after he expresses interest in Kara that the most troubling aspects of his personality manifest: his protective paternalism and repeated failures to listen to or respect Kara’s agency. Episodes 9, 10, 13, and 14 all include at least one example of Kara giving Mon-El point-blank instructions that he just as pointedly ignores. Usually because he believes he knows better than her about what the best thing to do is.

We know.

Whether Supergirl intended his behavior to be read as a result of his upbringing is almost beside the point. Canonically, it’s because he likes her. It’s right there in black and white. He blames being an asshole on his feelings for her.

“I also wanted to say I’m sorry. For acting like an ass. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I have realized that you are my Kryptonite…I mean, my feelings for you. I’ve never felt like this about anyone in my life… I didn’t know that there were this many feelings to even be had. My emotions, I guess they made me kind of crazy.”

How does this explanation make his behavior any better? If anything, it’s worse because it reads as an attempt to romanticize a lack of basic respect for Kara as an individual.

Kara Who?

Speaking of Kara as an individual, there’s a reason why we’ve started off talking about Mon-El’s place in this arc instead of hers. As unhealthy as we find Mon-El’s behavior, he at least has a canonical reason for his interest in Kara. Although he questions her superheroing, he admires it too, and wants to be like her. Though the resulting narrative does look uncomfortably like he only wants to be a hero so he can get in her pants.

But while we’re not thrilled about that, it’s at least a reason that we know exists. Kara? We spent almost half an hour just trying to discern that she likes Mon-El, apart from Alex basically telling her she does.

Seriously. Kara evinces zero perceptible interest in Mon-El prior to 2×12. Kara rejects the very idea that he likes her when Eliza brings it up in 2×08. When he confesses his feelings for her in 2×10, she fails to deny his statement that she doesn’t feel the same way about him (not that she can get a word in edgewise with Mon-El talking at and over her). 2×11 opens with her admitting they’re not a good match and she would never date him.

Kara: And even if I did have time to date someone, I wouldn’t date someone like… Someone who is…

Mon-El: An intergalactic bartender?

Kara: Yes! No. It’s… Because it’s not your job. It’s… It’s the way you are.

“It’s the way you are.” This is what she spit out without thinking, too. How much clearer can Kara be that she’s not interested in him? She basically just said, “It’s not you, oh wait it is you.” So excuse us if we’re more than a little confused when Alex tells Kara, “maybe the reason that you made such big plans with me was so that you didn’t have to think about how you actually feel about him” at the end of this very same episode.

Where is Alex even getting this from? Maybe the reason Kara wanted to spend time with Alex for her ‘Earth Birthday’ is because this is a hugely important day for Kara that she’s always celebrated with her sister? You know, the canonical reason Kara gave Alex at the beginning of the episode.

And yet, this conversation is the basis for Kara’s ‘change of heart’, or ‘realization’ if you want to put it that way, about her supposed feelings for Mon-El. She’s been absolutely clear about her lack of romantic interest in Mon-El up to this point. And no, facial expressions don’t count, though to us Melissa Bonoist came across as consistently confused at best. Just look at how awkward Kara’s physicality is with Mon-El whenever he’s in her space:

 

Romance??

Alex’s assertion that Kara has feelings for Mon-El came completely out of the blue. Kara had only ever said she doesn’t like him that way. To go from “I don’t like you because of the way you are” (2×11) to “I thought you were thoughtless and selfish. And I kept writing you off, and you kept proving me wrong. And it just got me thinking. Maybe I can have it all.” (2×12) makes zero sense. First of all, we’d like to see the receipts for how Mon-El “kept proving me wrong”. From what we can tell, he hasn’t made consistent or lasting change since he first began exhibiting lack of respect for Kara due to his romantic interest.

Secondly, say we accept that somehow Kara is interested in Mon-El despite her never saying so until Alex throws that idea out there. Why does she like him? This is a genuine question we have, as it is nowhere stated in canon other than what Kara says to Mon-El about how he “proves her wrong.” Contrast this with the repeated explanations of and emphasis on her feelings for James Olsen last season.

The most likely possibility we came up with is that she’s attaching herself to Mon-El out of a fear of abandonment. Alex dropped the truth bomb on Kara in 2×02 that Clark abandoned her with the Danvers family, and she’s been resisting that truth ever since. The additional truth about her father’s experimentation with bio-weapons (2×08) only heightened her sense of isolation from her heritage and family.

Plus, Kara’s arc this season has been increasingly focused on her isolation from her friends. James has the Guardian and Winn, Winn has Lyra and the Guardian, Alex has Maggie, J’onn has M’gann. Visually, the frequent shots of Kara alone on screen juxtaposed with characters like Alex being comforted by others cannot be an accident.

But if this is the case, why do we not see this dealt with more specifically? Are we just supposed to assume her desire to date Mon-El stems from her fear of abandonment? Or from her trying to establish a connection with someone, though without any specific statement to that effect? And if so, why have Alex of all people be the one to tell Kara how she really feels? Alex’s relationship with Maggie makes up a significant part of Kara’s isolation arc. Alex has been spending most of the time with her new girlfriend, so where does this sudden insight into Kara’s unspoken interest in Mon-El come from? It almost felt like Alex just wanted that needy, single sister of hers off her hands. Or like she had read the script and knew Kara was going to date Mon-El.

Are we meant to see a misplaced attraction for Clark? This started off as kind of a joke between us, but the longer we thought about it, the more sense it began to make (this is how desperate we are for an explanation, guys). More than once, the narrative draws explicit parallels between Mon-El and Superman; even Mxyzptlk dresses himself up in a parody of Clark’s superman costume when he tries to prove himself a suitable hero partner to Kara. There’s no denying that Kara’s mentorship of Mon-El is the exact dynamic she never got to have with Clark, and that missed opportunity is something we’ve seen her struggle with before.

Also, Kara’s first instinct for a day job for Mon-El is as an intern at CatCo, complete with Clark Kent glasses and journalist outfit. So…does she secretly want to date her cousin? It’s weird to think about and definitely not what the writers intended, but at least it’s *some* kind of reason.

Let’s not do this.

But this wild train of thought brought up an actual issue in Mon-El’s arc: the conflation of hero-ready with boyfriend-ready. The narrative especially conflates Mon-El’s desire to be a superhero with his desire to be Kara’s boyfriend on his side. He only makes the decision to try and become a superhero after realizing he wants to date Kara, and specifically right after seeing her get tazed to protect humans. Because he needs to see her physically suffering to kickstart his hero arc. It’s two clicks away from manpain, really.

On Kara’s side, she perceives Mon-El as being a compatible boyfriend when he begins to progress in his desire to be a hero. It’s not a bad reason to want to date somebody, but not a overly compelling one either, especially given how limited that progress was. Actually, what was his progress? He finds a job that’s a better fit? He improves in their sparring sessions?

It’s particularly strange since at the same time Kara is training Mon-El to be a good boyfriend hero, James Olsen is toiling away in the background as The Guardian completely of his own volition. If all Kara wants is someone to partner with her in her superheroing, the boyfriend she had at the beginning of the season already fit that criteria. And she didn’t have to drag him along kicking and whining either. Granted, James is much squishier, being a human instead of a superpowered alien. Unlike Mon-El, James is physically vulnerable and could get hurt, and not just from the bad guys. Kara can punch a car without flinching; dating a human being would come with potential hazards for them if she got too…amorous.

Which is actually a point in Mon-El’s favor. She can fuck him without danger of hurting him. Unlike Adam or James, Kara need not worry about her powers injuring Mon-El because he’s almost as powerful as she is. We’d actually buy just this if that’s what we got on screen. Kara’s got physical needs. If all she wanted was a fuck buddy she didn’t need to worry about breaking, we’d support her. You get it girl.

But at the end of the day, that’s no more than a honeypot, albeit a reasonable one. After talking around in circles for almost two hours (or was it three?), we had to finally admit that as much as any of these might make some sense, none of these explanations made it onto our screen. And most required us to ignore multiple scenes that’d work against them.

The fact is, in between Kara telling Mon-El she doesn’t want to date him and her telling him she wants to make it work, only two things happen: 1) Alex tells her she likes Mon-El, and 2) Kara learns Mon-El has been drinking club soda lately.

As absurd as that sounds, the scene in 2×11 where she discusses club soda with M’gann is the only physical flash of potential interest from Kara in basically the whole season. She’s sitting at the bar when M’gann comes by and asks her what she wants to drink. Kara tells her she’ll drink what Mon-El is drinking, to which M’gann replies, “he’s been drinking exclusively club soda for the week.” Kara’s “Really?” reads as both surprise and, weirdly, interest. We say “weirdly” because why the heck would his drinking choices make any difference in how she feels about him?

Kylie’s totes profesh timeline to help you visualize the meaningful progression

We suppose it could be an attempt to address his frat boy culture and drinking issues. Club soda is the go-to for non-drinkers at a bar. But Mon-El’s drinking has never been a canonical reason for Kara’s lack of interest. She cites their cultural differences frequently, but never specifically calls him out for his drinking. So why would a change in that behavior specifically trigger a positive response from her? Is it just meant to be a sign that he’s shaping up in a more general sense? If so, Supergirl dropped the ball, since this hasn’t manifested in any other way for Mon-El. Not to mention he’s enjoying a margarita in 2×14 and was more than happy to provide a stressed Winn with a drink in 2×15 since, “Zakarian Ale always takes the edge off.”

Point being, it’s simply impossible to connect M’gann’s line to any sort of growth in Mon-El, even just related to his alcohol consumption. So does Kara really just want to date a dude who drinks club soda too? We suppose those wholesale prices can’t be beat.

Crack theory though it be, it makes more sense than Kara’s explanation that “Every time I put myself out there, it backfires” (2×11). Uh. Footage not found, Kara Danvers. As we recall, you did the breaking up with your two canonical love interests because you wanted to focus on your career and thought you’d be better as friends. Unless maybe it backfired when Adam and James ordered tonic, because she wanted to split a bottle.

We’ll stop.

Seriously though. We understand that relationships can make you feel vulnerable. Putting yourself out there can be hard if you’re afraid it won’t work out. But Kara has never actually given a relationship a chance to get further than first date and first kiss (until now). Her lived experience, as depicted on the show, does not merit the explanation that every relationship “backfires.”

All we’re left with at this point is that Kara likes Mon-El…because Alex tells her she does.

Us too, Kara.

Mon-El who?

It ought to be clear at this point that the writers seem to have invested far more energy into giving Mon-El a backstory to explain his general douchebaggery than they did in giving Kara a reason to even be interested in him. He was shoehorned into her arc to the point where there is no canonical explanation for her interest in him, because her agency didn’t matter as much as him learning how to be a decent human being. She’s became little more than a love interest in her own story.

We might mind this less (though only slightly) were it an actual adaptation of the source material. But Mon-El in the comics has nothing in common with the Mon-El on our screens. We don’t have time to go into details, but you can look it up yourself if you want to understand the various permutations of this character over the years. To be brief, Daxam in the comics is not a misogynistic, slave-holding race of frat boys and privileged partiers. They’re xenophobic and tend toward isolationism, sure, but that’s about it. Mon-El is not the heir to a sexist, toxic culture who learns how to be a decent guy and caring romantic partner in the comics. He’s basically just Superman 2.0.

In short, this is not an adaptation. Mon-El was a blank slate that the Supergirl writers did what they wanted to with, simply using a familiar name to establish him. (Even though the whole “El” thing kind of makes no sense in this context.) To be fair, it’s not the first time they’ve done this. But it does mean that there’s no justification for Mon-El’s arc this season, romantic or otherwise, other than “this is the story they wanted to tell.”

And we actually know they wanted to tell this story and tell it this way. In an interview with Chris Wood (who plays Mon-El) for Sci Fi Magazine’s April 2017 issue, Wood describes how the showrunners wanted Mon-El to have a hero’s journey, and “a good starting point for [Mon-El] is something that is the opposite of a full hero, which is a frat boy and selfish and self-centered.” The rest of the screen shots of the interview make it pretty clear that Mon-El’s arc from frat boy to hero was intentional from the beginning.

What’s more troubling are Wood’s comments regarding how the mentorship and romance aspects of the arc complicate the characters and give Kara “a lot to react to.” Troubling because Wood does not seem to realize how much Mon-El has not just taken up screen time in but taken over Kara’s arc. And ‘complicated’ might be true, but we have other choice words to describe what intertwining the mentorship and romance arcs has done to Kara’s story this season…

So he’s a bit of a fixer-upper

Just to recap here: We have a completely original character that has cannibalized screentime to the point where the series protagonist and titular character doesn’t have much of a discernible arc, and did so through a series of contrivances that have no possible Watsonian explanation outside of a shared Schweppes predilection. And yes, we have to point out that it’s a female lead getting the shaft in favor of this new male character. Though there are more women-led TV shows now than ever, we are not at a point where representation is good enough for this to be ignored.

As we said, we did see potential in Kara being able to fulfill the mentor role she was meant to with Kal-El. The chance to explore Mon-El’s shared trauma with Kara over the destruction of their planets could have been incredibly poignant for both characters, especially if explored alongside the unpacking of Mon-El’s toxic culture.

Further, M’gann’s storyline showed us how breaking through cultural conditioning and the cycle of violence can be incredibly moving and impactful. Given Daxam’s description, Mon-El pushing against his own culture would have inherently required a white male character to come to terms with his own privilege—a potentially powerful story in today’s cultural context. Honestly, the way Daxamites are portrayed is so over the top that Mon-El ran the risk of being a kind of misogynistic strawman for Kara to rip into, which could have easily felt too pandering or heavy-handed. It would have been understandable in Cat’s absence, who was rather famous for dismantling sexist ideas with her long speeches, but we can’t say we’re upset that didn’t happen.

Yet what did happen, as we said, was that the Supergirl writers decided to use Mon-El’s romantic interest in Kara as a catalyst to spur his growth. Similarly, Kara’s romantic interest in Mon-El at least somewhat fueled her desire to mold him into a superhero. The thing is (as Mr. Mxyzptlk of all people pointed out): this didn’t really happen. Instead, given Mon-El’s previous bad behavior, his newer displays of basic decency and minimal competence were framed as acceptable romantic behavior in a partner, and good enough for Kara.

Kara it’s fine! He’s perfectly adequate!

This is why we keep joking about club soda. Even if it was just showing Mon-El’s increased capacity for responsibility, all it really meant was that he managed not to get drunk on the job for a week. That’s it? That’s the bar he needs to clear?

The answer is “yes” because at its core, this is the “fixer-upper” trope. In some ways it should be the 101 example of the fixer-upper trope, unless we want to whip out Belle and Rumple from Once Upon a Time (though even with that, there’s so many scenes of Kara explicitly training Mon-El on how to behave that it might win out). While this does tie back to the show’s conflation of “ready-for-action superhero” and “ready-to-date”, it more closely relates into the uncomfortable gendered implication of Mon-El’s foregrounding over Kara in the first place.

The thing is, the fixer-upper trope is sexist, because it plays out in a specifically gendered way. Its employ forces women to take on a man who’s substandard in some way and put in the work to ensure he becomes a suitable romantic partner. It’s Spike and Buffy, or Marge and Homer. The only genderbent example we can think of is She’s All That, and the “fixing” Rachael Leigh Cook required was to look more fuckable by taking off a pair of glasses. So…kind of hard to call that a feminist masterpiece.

Relationships are work, sure. But this particular dynamic is quite evocative of the Nice Guy™ trope for a similar reason; there is a complete devaluement of a woman’s feelings and emotional needs, not to mention it leaves no space for her to have her own problems. When there’s a Nice Guy™, the woman is supposed to see his value because he’s, well, nice. That’s the bar, and it sets up the demonification of women who rejects any man that clears it.

The fixer-upper trope is similarly rooted in male entitlement to a woman’s affections, though in this case it’s even worse. The woman is required to suffer the man’s bad behavior until she can get him to understand, because the only thing that can motivate a man to change is romantic interest in a woman.

She’s literally dying right here…

There’s just…so many issues with this line of thought, not the least of which being the compulsory heterosexuality. It’s not constructive for men to feel that they’re incapable of reform, or growth, or the ability to strive to be better people without the help of women. It’s sure as hell not constructive for women to feel that they have to put up with bullshit to bring about that growth. In fact, that underlying mentality is what leads to a culture where women are more likely to stay in unhealthy or even abusive relationships. If the man errs, it’s the woman’s fault for not being better at fixing him, just like a cheating man means a wife who failed to satisfy him. A woman who leaves a fixer-upper is “giving up” on the man, when her love could “save” him.

Though we could write ten thousand words on the ways this line of thought pisses us off, nothing sums it up more than an amazingly on-point speech from The L Word—an often times amazingly off-point show, especially as it has aged.

“Oh, fuck off, Mark. It’s not my job to make you a better man and I don’t give a shit if I’ve made you a better man. It’s not a fucking woman’s job to be consumed and invaded and spat out so that some fucking man can evolve.”

Kylie shared this scene in which Jenny Schecter rips into her male roommate, who had violated her privacy and trust in a big way, with Gretchen the day after “Homecoming” aired. Apparently others made this connection to Mon-El as well, enough so that it resonated with over 13,000 people and counting. Because while we concede Mon-El needs fixing due to his cultural baggage, why is it Kara’s job to “fix” Mon-El and not, you know, his own? And why is this being so prioritized in the season’s narrative?

If this were simply in the context of Kara molding Mon-El into a superhero, that would be one thing, but again, the fact that he becomes her boyfriend adds layers to our discomfort. We were treated to multiple scenes of him not listening to her, or flat out undermining her, and yet she still makes the decision to enter into this relationship.

What’s worse is that Mon-El, though not the world’s greatest action hero, didn’t start ignoring what Kara was telling him until after he made it clear in a conversation with Winn and James that he wanted to pursue her romantically. Like we said, he already needed fixing given his inherent entitled approach to life as a Daxamite, but is this how they demonstrate romantic interest? With scene after scene of him refusing to listen to her, the woman he is supposed to care for?

Just as a refresher…

  • Kara tells Mon-El to buzz off; he pesters her instead (2×09)
  • Kara tells Mon-El to ‘keep his mouth shut’ when they meet up at Catco; he immediately starts talking in the elevator (2×09)
  • Kara tells Mon-El to go get the DEO for help; he follows her through the portal without contacting the DEO (2×09)
  • Kara tells Mon-El to protect the cops and let her tackle Livewire’s henchmen; he abandons the cops and they would have died if Guardian hadn’t shown up (2×10)
  • Kara tells Mon-El to let her handle Mxy; he challenges Mxy to a duel to the death instead (2×13)
  • Kara tells Mon-El not to tell the DEO they’re dating; he does after about three seconds (2×14)
  • Kara tells Mon-El to be give her dad the benefit of the doubt and get to know him; he instead makes rude remarks at the family dinner (2×14).
  • In response to ^, Kara demands that Mon-El stop and say something nice; he continues to confront and accuse Jeremiah (2×14).
  • Kara tells Mon-El he needs to learn that what she says matters; he goes to get advice from a male colleague instead of listening to her (2×14)

And okay, let’s say that yes, this is how Daxamites are conditioned to behave in a relationship. But it’s sure as hell not how Kara is. Fixer-upper tropes are terrible, but at least the problems are usually fixed or the issues are subsiding before the woman dates him! Instead, Kara is more or less plunked into this relationship where her needs are dismissed, which is the opposite of shocking since his actions prior to them dating fell into this pattern too. It’s also worth mentioning that she calls him an “arrogant dudebro” four seconds before she goes to kiss him for the first time. Well, first time where neither of them are on drugs. So she is aware of these issues, and seems to want to date him in spite of that.

This is one of our biggest struggles, as you could probably tell, while we searched for some explanation to explain Kara’s interest. At the end of the day, what is it that they’re going for here?

If the Supergirl writers truly believe Mon-El has grown as a result of all his time with Kara, they’re going about showing that growth in an incredibly unusual way. In “Homecoming” (2×14), the first episode where Kara and Mon-El operate as an official couple, Mon-El is more or less at his worst. Heck, he ignores her request for privacy so quickly that it’s framed as a joke in a jump-cut. It actually seems like it’s supposed to be endearing, just like when that gosh darn rascal followed Kara through the portal and jeopardized both their lives.

Given the number of times this happens, Kara willingly entering into a relationship with him is not the most comfortable thing in the world, especially since she realizes when he’s not respecting her and tends to yell at him for it. Her acknowledgement, and we guess dismissal, of his issues are often evocative of a battered girlfriend. We’re not saying that’s what this is. But what we are saying is that as women, each time we watch Mon-El promise to change and Kara forgive him, only for there to be zero lasting impact, it’s a dynamic we’ve seen before. And it’s a dynamic that lessens the impact of Kara standing up for herself each subsequent time, since she looks more and more like a fool for believing it and him.

This was never the case, so why did you think it could work?

This is just…bad. There’s no other word for it.

“Homecoming” is by far the worst offender of the season, especially since the narrative exonerates Mon-El in the end for his dismissal of Kara’s emotional needs. He was right about Jeremiah being compromised, and shame on everyone else, including a goddamn mind-reader, for not seeing it! Then, the final scene of that episode was supposed to demonstrate that Mon-El is a supportive boyfriend because of his willingness to listen to Kara. What’s weird is that this was framed as this huge, momentous thing that he was doing, to the point where it required his narration to confirm that yes, he is going to extend Kara this very basic sign of respect.

“Hey, today was a, a little, I just want to (*sighs*) I’m not I’m not gonna talk. Hmm. Why don’t you…Why don’t you tell me what you need? I’ll listen.”

She is sitting, sobbing on a couch. After her father betrayed her whole family and the DEO. This is not a difficult situation to parse out. Why the fuck did we need to hear him pontificate on how he’s willing to listen while she has to provide a PowerPoint presentation on the basics of comforting someone?

What do you think she needs right now? A fucking tailor??

We’re left simply dumbfounded. Were we supposed to find his line romantic? Coming right on the heels of a scene where Maggie instinctively supported Alex in the way she required with no hesitation? Especially given that despite Kara asserting her need for him to listen to her in very certain terms, he still had to seek out the advice of Winn because he felt he didn’t know what to do? All this scene showed us was that Mon-El needs to be hand-held and validated through the most basic attempts at emotional intimacy with his girlfriend. Wow, what a winner. Sign us up.

It’s been pointed out that in the most recent episode, he seems much more supportive of Kara, responding to her confusion regarding whether or not to post the article on Cadmus with a “do whatever you think is best.” It’s nice he supports her, but could he maybe, we don’t know, ask her what she’s feeling conflicted about? Talk her through her decision-making process? Be a sounding board for pros and cons? Yes, his penchant for undermining and questioning Kara’s decisions troubled us, and we do appreciate positive growth. But he’s swung so far in the other direction that he now just tries to pacify her, and is basically useless as a dialogue partner. In some ways, it’s almost patronizing. Besides, more than anything, it’s too little, too late.

The only feeling this is truly imparting on us is “why?” Why is Kara saddled with this guy? Why is she attracted to him at all? Why did there need to be a romantic component to this relationship in the first place? Why was James Olsen abruptly sidelined for this? Why has this relationship taken over Kara’s arc this season?

Dear Supergirl Writers

We have no answer to these questions, and it’s making justifying Mon-El within this season incredibly difficult. Frankly, Mon-El as a love interest is difficult to justify within this show. From what we we saw prior, it was not the type of program that would allow for these horrible implications about what kind of romantic behavior women should tolerate, or even expect.

Not to mention, Mon-El isn’t the main character here! We could keep going on about the fallacy of his hero’s arc and the horrid implications inherent, but at the end of the day, he is supposed to be a supporting character. So what the hell does his presence in Supergirl do for Kara? If this is about seeing her desire to mentor someone play out, why was the romantic component shoehorned in, and why aren’t we privy to how Kara feels about both him and her new role? Why couldn’t Kara have had this arc with James, given how he is willingly putting himself in danger, just like she wants Mon-El to do? Most importantly of all, why is Kara relegated to playing the babysitter of someone else’s mono-myth on her own damned show?

It’s frustrating to see this play out, it’s frustrating to see how it took the narrative off-track for a good number of episodes, and it’s frustrating to see Kara almost turned into a straw feminist that asserts her wants and expectations of Mon-El repeatedly, only for growth to be back-dialed so that she can run into the same exact issue again. Is the point that she’s supposed to learn a mediocre man really is good enough?

Kara, do you have a source for that?

At this point, we’re really struggling to see how there’s going to be any sort of positive takeaway from this. Oddly, our biggest glimmer of hope came at the end of the last episode, immediately after Kara was fired from her job.

Kara: Reporting is my calling. I help people.

Mon-El: You know who else does? Supergirl.

Kara: You know, it’s just, when I write, I don’t need a yellow sun. It’s just me. Supergirl is what I can do. Kara is who I am. I really loved that job.

Mon-El: Hey. You have so much to offer this world. So don’t let Snapper or anyone else tell you differently. Okay?

Kara: You know something? Maybe being Supergirl and having you is enough.

This exchange did two things: firstly, it established that Mon-El is not very in-tune with who Kara is and what drives her—what makes her feel complete. Her struggle with identity was the beating heart of the first season, and certainly a focus at the start of this one between Clark’s appearance in National City to help her, and her decision to finally become a reporter. It’s entirely possible Mon-El was just being used to give Kara a reason to explicate this distinction to the audience, but it also could mean that the Supergirl writers are aware of the disconnect between the person Kara is and the person she’s currently chosen to be with.

We admit this is a stretch.

However, the second result of this exchange is something we cannot believe is unintentional. Kara musing that maybe being Supergirl and dating Mon-El is “enough” is meant to be challenged. It was said three seconds after she had just explained how fundamental being a reporter was to her sense of purpose, not to mention, we were treated to a scene last season where Cat tackles this exact mentality in Lucy Lane’s behavior.

Unless the entire writing staff sustained head injuries, we staunchly believe that Kara will find that her words do not ring true. Especially since Clark point blank told her that being Kara was as important as being Supergirl (2×01). She needs a human side as well as a superhero side. In a season that began with Kara professing, “Last year was all about figuring out how to be Supergirl, and now it’s time I figure out how to be Kara,” her blasé acceptance of the lack of a fulfilling career is ripe for deconstruction.

But where does that leave Mon-El and the fixer-upper trope? Well, if they’re setting up Kara to have a comeuppance about this scene, it’s possible that will play out on an even bigger level. That there is supposed to be a discomfort in watching Kara put up with so much from Mon-El over and over again, and perhaps this will be tied into her canonically established abandonment issues more explicitly than it has been thus far.

Yes, this doesn’t exactly address why the writers forced this incredibly contrived romance into being without adequate explanation or exploration from Kara’s perspective. Again, we couldn’t come up with a single reason as to why she would date this man that made sense with how everything unfolded. But it’d still be a hell of a lot better than if we’re supposed to seriously view this as an earnest, romantic love story.

Now that’s what we call romantic satisfaction!

Because sorry, it’s not. It is not the job of a woman to date a guy with a million red flags because she feels she can elicit change in his behavior, and it’s certainly not her job to stay to see that through when the guy continues to disappoint or fail to meet her own emotional needs. Men don’t need a woman’s love to grow or strive to become a better person; that’s offensive to men and oppressive to women. It’s for this reason that we feel the “fixer upper” trope needs to die. To see it played straight on Supergirl would be disappointing, to say the least.

But at the same time, this is Supergirl. This is the show that when it’s good, it’s *so damn good*. The show that has subverted a number of sexist tropes before, and no matter what we think of the follow-through so far, has given Kara the narrative space to ask to be respected and listened to by Mon-El. This is at least recognized as a need by the writers if nothing else. Mon-El has been a stumbling block, there’s no question. Any character that pulls a narrative off its track this much would be. The Supergirl writers can potentially be our heroes in the end, taking this opportunity to consciously tear down the idea that fixer-uppers are entitled to our time and efforts.

However, to do that, the writers need to realize there’s a problem. They need to see that on a show that was supposed to be about a woman becoming the hero while struggling with her sense of identity and place in the world, a man is now subbed into that role. A man with no basis in the comics, a man that the audience never asked for, and a man that is not nearly as “reformed” as they currently seem to think he is.

Mon-El is not a hero—he’s Supergirl‘s kryptonite. And the writers need to do something before he irreparably harms the show.


Images courtesy of the CW

Kylie is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals on a mission to slay all the tropes. She has a penchant for complex familial dynamics and is easily pleased when authors include in-depth business details.

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Analysis

Brimstone Is More Grimdark Nonsense Posing As Feminist Empowerment

Antoine

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The road to hell is sometimes paved with good acting but not even Dakota Fanning can save "Brimstone". (Image Credit: Momentum Pictures)
Content warning: article contains discussions of incest, sadism, and torture porn. Spoiler warning for the movie Brimstone.

Brimstone is the latest victim of the Grimdark plague afflicting too many narratives nowadays. To the point that I’ve started accidentally calling the movie “Grimstone” or “Brimdark”. Dakota Fanning is convincing in the lead role of a traumatized, hunted survivor, but no amount of good acting can redeem such an unpleasant, painfully long (nearly 2.5 hours)  and pointlessly sadistic ordeal. Not even Kit Harington’s somewhat brief appearance and sad puppy face is worth it.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Faux-Feminist Tales of Empowerment™

For some reason that still escapes me, the Political Film Society (whatever that is) has nominated Brimstone as “best film on human rights of 2017”. They have praised director-screenwriter Martin Koolhoven for daring to expose the “extreme debasement of women” in a the mid-19th century American West, while making a jaw-dropping political comment,

“Another theme is the depiction of the American West as lawless, hinting that within American culture there is an extraordinary macho strain that continues in family life and politics, what Theodore Adorno called the ‘authoritarian personality,’ which maintains strict discipline at home and votes for those who appear strong enough to break the rules to get things done. Brimstone was released at a time when filmviewers may find resonance in the story with the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency.”

Sure, it’s easy to connect “the rise of Donald Trump” to misogyny (it’s also lazy and simplistic). The problem is that Brimstone is not actually exposing or denouncing it; it’s actively participating in constructing it. Depicting the “extreme debasement of women” (the wording used by the Political Film Society should already give you a clue) in an exploitive, pornified, Grimdark framework reminiscent of Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue is not the way to bring attention to misogyny, rape culture, or violence against women. It brings us back to the old debate of Depiction vs. Endorsement which is actually way older than we might think.

Before diving headfirst into the disturbing, depressing universe of Brimstone, I propose a short trip into the historical origins of the Grimdark subgenre. This topic deserves its own piece, which will be fully fleshed out in the future, but let’s start with a quick overview.

Gothic vs. Grimdark and the Sadean Narrative

Unlike David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D), the infamous (around here) showrunners of Game of Thrones, Brimstone director Martin Koolhoven at least never pretended he was writing a Dramatically Satisfying “Gothic Horror,” though it does contain similar tropes. Indeed, it’s hard not to compare the two. So much so I had to pause while watching Brimstone to check if they shared a screenwriter or ‘creative genius’ in common rather than just Kit Harington and Carice van Houten (they don’t seem to).

As a historian of the French Revolution and the 18th century, it’s also difficult not to see the similarities between the Grimdark narrative to which Benioff, Weiss, and Koolhoven subscribe and Sade’s Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. Especially when the former attempt to root their stories in “historical accuracy” or “historical realism.”

Some of the main themes of the Gothic genre are impossible to separate from the historical era in which it originates. Like most fiction, the eternal battle between Good and Evil is at the forefront. In this case, the concepts most commonly used during the period were those of Virtue and Vice, in which the Apostles of Vice try to tempt, lure or corrupt the Champions of Virtue.

Gothic fiction is further characterized by decay and corruption, which parallel that of the Ancien Régime itself. The old protectors (nobility) and moral guardians (clergy) were the institutions that used to champion Virtue. However, by the 18th century, they are increasingly failing in their duties; they were no longer capable of playing and fulfilling their roles, or deliberately stood against them, leading to the rise of new “Champions of Virtue.” These new heroes will define the 19th century with new struggles. In this period, the revolutionary acts as a substitute for the fallen figure of the “Knight in Shining Armor” and “Protector of the Innocent.”

As a moral and political critique of the Ancien Régime, Gothic fiction shares much in common with epistolary novels of that century, but they both differ from Sade in significant ways. Most importantly, in the former Virtue ultimately triumphs. Sure, it won’t get out of the fight unscathed. Its champion will lose their innocence; they might fall from grace, they may even die, often by sacrificing themselves, but what they represent will endure.

The same holds true of contemporary Gothic fiction. Even the Hannibal series, which seemingly showcases a perfect Sadean villain (he even plays the harpsichord, come on!), is not Sadean itself. Despite the temptation, corruption, and fall of the hero, Virtue still prevails and triumphs (beautifully, I must say).

Will Graham considers to fall literally after his metaphorical Fall from Grace

I’d say, right about here.

As “Love Crime” (the song playing during this moment) says it best, the characters embodying this thematic struggle play an ageless “deadly game”, on which depends the meaning not just of good and evil, but of life and humanity.

This narrative, however, bores a certain type of people who long to see ‘the villains win for a change’, who wish the world was shown as it ‘truly, realistically, accurately is’—from their point of view—in all its gritty darkness and villainy. One of these was the Marquis de Sade (that’s the first and last time I will dignify him of his title and particle).

Over the course of his career, Sade brought forward arguments extremely similar to the usual apologetic discourse excusing the Grimdark turn in storytelling. Like history as the true source of atrocities and the necessity to depict evil in the most horrifying (and graphic) ways to make sure that evil is understood and loathed as such.

In the preface to his 1791 edition of Justine, he bragged about his “originality” in inserting a plot twist that had “undoubtedly” never been done before: letting the villains win and rewarding them in the narrative while the Champions of Virtue remain forever miserable and meet atrocity after atrocity.

“The scheme of this novel (less a novel than one might suppose) is undoubtedly new; the victory gained by Virtue over Vice, the rewarding of good, the punishment of evil, such is the usual scheme in every other work of this type: shouldn’t we be tired of such a hackneyed lesson!”

In other words, it’s boring when the Good Guys win, especially if they don’t face horrific circumstances to make us appreciate their (seemingly vain) struggle.

The 1791 edition pretended to be a moralistic cautionary tale—and a “most sublime” one at that, as he praises it himself—destined to make people, especially women, “love Virtue more” by making her champion “suffer beautifully and sublimely.” Sade’s 1799 re-edition (La Nouvelle Justine) featured even more exploitation, more torture, more rape, and more murder. His intentions had taken a much darker turn.

By 1799, his sarcastic praise of Virtue had vanished. Virtue is now a “ridiculous idol” worshiped by “imbeciles” who fail to realize they will never be rewarded for their good deeds. It’s better to “abandon oneself to Vice than to resist it,” because “Virtue is too weak to fight against Vice” and choosing her side is a sure way to lose. For these reasons, he proclaims he must “courageously dare” to depict crime as it is, “that is, always triumphant and sublime, always happy and fortunate”, while virtue is “always dour and always sad, always pedantic and always miserable.”

Sade was also a troll, both in history and literature. On July 3, 1789, when tensions were already high, he screamed from his cell in the Bastille that prisoners were being butchered and that people needed to come and free him. (It wasn’t true – and the revolutionaries who later stormed the prison were disappointed to find out there were only seven prisoners inside). He also trolled the philosophical themes of the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary politics, parodying them, twisting them, and pushing them to absurd limits.

Sade weaponized irony and ambiguity in a way that wouldn’t seem out of place on 4chan (coughs). His prose is nauseating, yet inevitably boring. Even in the 18th century Shock and Awe got old pretty fast. His style ripped off other pornographic novels of the century, like Thérèse Philosophe (1748), in which porn was intercut with philosophical ramblings. Only for Sade, his blandly described, repetitive “porn” was made of rape, abuse, torture, and murder, while the “philosophy” provided “natural” justifications for these.

In short, Sade created his own Grimdark “satire” of Gothic horror in which he corrupted the roles of the main characters. The protagonist/Champion of Virtue, often an Ingénue (usually female but sometimes male), becomes a Doom Magnet bringing death and disaster everywhere they go. The calamities that befall the protagonist extend to every good person who has the misfortune to cross their path, befriend them, or want to help them. Nothing can save them, not even Providence/God is on their side. Their belief in goodness, honor, and virtuous principles is mocked, and they are punished for holding onto them.

Meanwhile the villain who, as in Gothic fiction, is often a Depraved Aristocrat or a Corrupt Priest or Nun becomes an overpowered Villain Sue, deflects karma, and is rewarded for understanding the ‘truth’ about ‘human nature’. This is the Sadean Narrative.

Sound familiar?

Sade’s excuses and defenses are the same as D&D’s: invoking historical accuracy, realism, human nature, ‘how things really are or were’, etc. But that’s bullshit. It’s a construction. As much as they pride themselves in showing the so-called truth of human nature, Grimdark writers and their apologists neglect whole parts of it, omit them, erase them in order to create, as Adam Roberts puts it, a cynical, nihilistic, ultraviolent world “where nobody is honorable and Might is Right”.

The same can be said of Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone.

Brimstone, or the Misfortunes of Virtue

This 149 minute long movie is divided in four chapters: “Revelation,” “Exodus,” “Genesis,” and “Retribution”. The second and third chapters are out-of-order flashbacks explaining how we got here while the last chapter resumes where we left off in the first.

In the first chapter, we meet Liz (Dakota Fanning), who’s mute. She works as the town’s midwife. She’s happily married with two kids, a stepson and a daughter. Everything is going mostly well. However, her past catches up on her when she meets the town’s new reverend. As we’ll later learn, Liz’s real name is Joanna, and the new reverend she’s terrified of isn’t just a sadistic, hypocritical asshole who’s been chasing her for a while, he’s also her incestuous father. The main purpose of the nonlinear narrative serves to conceal this plot twist (somewhat predictable when you know the genre though YMMV).

The chronological beginning of the story is in “Genesis”, in which young Joanna (Emilia Jones) is 13 years old. On the night Joanna menstruates for the first time, she finds her father, the Evil Reverend (Guy Pearce), whipping her mother, Anna (Carice van Houten), in the barn for not putting out. It’s filmed in a voyeuristic, creepy way that hides behind the excuse of “exposing violence against women” to showcase torture porn. This is one of the many pointlessly graphic whipping scenes featured in the movie, another of which involves a child actress who was less than ten years old at the time of filming (Ivy George, who plays Sam, Joanna/Liz’s daughter).

Anna finds out her husband is creeping on their daughter, because “now she’s a woman” and her mother is not fulfilling “her wifely duties.” Presumably to stop her from telling everyone (I assume because it’s never explained), the Evil Reverend gets her a scold’s bridle. It’s ridiculous but hey, it does provide great imagery for the trailer and for the reviews to denounce the “extreme debasement of women.”

"Brimstone" is about exposing misogyny or something

This is about “human rights” or something.

It doesn’t get any better from there on out.

Goodness Gets You Killed

Get used to this basic rule when watching the movie: each nice person dies horribly. Because goodness gets you killed. Because it’s written that way.

  • Anna, Joanna’s mother who could have protected her – hangs herself.
  • Johnny Sand, who tried to save her – shot with his own gun (through the Reverend).
  • Nice Sex Worker Sally – hanged for murder.
  • Random Mourning Father – shot in a rigged duel he could never have won.
  • Nice Friend Elizabeth – stabbed with her own knife (through the Reverend).
  • Nice Husband Eli – disemboweled (by the Reverend).
  • Protective Teenage Stepson Matthew who tried his best to protect his Stepmom and Half-Sister – shot (by the Reverend).
  • Nice Husband’s Father (and Mathew and Sam’s Grandpa) who was helping Joanna and Sam by hiding them – impaled to a door (by the Reverend).

The anvil needs to be dropped about what kind of world Justine, I mean, Joanna, lives in. It’s a Crapsack World from which there is no escape, as the rest of the movie will painfully remind Joanna (and the viewer) each time a spark of hope shines through.

Soon after the Evil Reverend gets the scold’s bridle for his wife, for example, Joanna asks her mother why she lets him treat her that way, and that she would rather die than live like that. This scene leads directly to Anna wandering off and immediately hanging herself right there in the church while her husband is preaching about how evil women are. Awkward. One of the few (maybe even only) people who could have protected Joanna is now dead.

Similarly, the whole subplot involving Kit Harington is ultimately insignificant and only serves to reinforce the lesson that good deeds will lead you to your grave. He’s a Thief With a Heart of Gold who wanders onto the Evil Reverend’s ranch, and Joanna hides him in the barn until he recovers from his wounds. He’s a Good Guy; he turns her down when she reluctantly offers herself to him. Johnny Sand (let’s just call him that) is the only one to oppose the Evil Reverend when he decides to marry his own daughter. He’s even all backlit with glorious sunlight, like a Prince Charming finally showing up!

Don’t get too excited: he dies.

Just as he’s about to shoot the Evil Reverend, he somehow loses grasp on his own gun —SOMEHOW—and the Reverend shoots him instead. Bye Johnny Sand. You tried. You just couldn’t win in this kind of narrative.

After her “wedding” to her father, Joanna runs away to the desert, where she faints, is found, and is ultimately sold to a brothel, Frank’s Inferno. Most of the women she meets are Mean and Catty and mock the 13 year-old child, except for one Nice Sex Worker named Sally who protects the last shreds of Joanna’s innocence. Needless to say, she meets a dire end; she’s hanged by the sheriff for murdering a man who wanted to rape Joanna. Even though she was just defending herself, as Joanna tearfully insists, Frank reminds her “there are rules,” and Sally knew not to defy them.

Several years later, the now grown-up Joanna (played by Dakota Fanning) witnesses a duel between Frank and a mourning father, who blames the former for his daughter’s death and demands a “fair fight.” Joanna, her friend Elizabeth, and all the other women working at Frank’s Inferno cheer for this unnamed man, an unlikely Champion of Virtue in this Crapsack World. He symbolizes The Good Father None Of Those Women Presumably Had:

“It’s men like you, who think their actions have no consequences, who are making this country turn into what it’s turning to. So, for my daughter’s sake, for every daughter’s sake, I have to kill you.”

Much like Johnny Sand earlier, he dies. The duel was rigged anyway so he could never have won. Cue the sad faces of the women who needed another reminder of the world they live in.

Joanna and Elizabeth (right) in "Brimstone"

Because Virtue Just Can’t Win.

But one of the most over-the-top example of this disturbing ‘theme’ is the murder of Joanna/Liz’s stepson, probably punished because he wanted to become a nice person someday. The scene is utterly ridiculous. There’s a blizzard, you can’t see a thing, and yet the Evil Reverend manages to shoot the kid? Who only got out of the wagon because he accidentally dropped his own riffle? Why did any of this have to happen? Because it provides great imagery, I guess.

Symbolism maybe

Blood on pure white snow? Are they trying to say something?

So, to recap: Joanna/Liz’s life sucks. Anybody who tries to save her, protect her, rescue her, or cares about her dies violently. Narrative Acedia strikes again.

The only decent person who makes it out alive is the doctor who refuses to cut out Joanna’s tongue when she comes up with the illogical plan of taking Elizabeth’s place.

Meanwhile, the Evil Reverend is near unkillable. Cut his throat and let him to drown in his own blood in a room you set on fire? He survives that! (The movie never really explains how, nor stops to ponder how impossible this would be even with the best medical care the 19th century could offer.) Set him on fire? He feels nothing apparently, he even seems to embrace it, either because he made a pact with the devil (which I would be willing to accept at this point) or because he’s a Secret Targ. Who the hell knows? Well, Hell might actually know. Liz/Joanna does shoot him out the window, but she should have made sure he was really dead, because he might be Michael Myers’s ancestor.

Secret Targ or Reverend Myers?

Okay…?

Not only does he have exaggerated physical strength—despite his age and job, I mean, he’s not a soldier, he’s a reverend—and can snipe a kid in a blizzard with a mid-19th century weapon (could this even be done?), he seemingly has magical powers or future technology allowing him to consistently find where Joanna is. Did he microchip her? Does he have a GPS? Just how small is the Old West exactly? How does he keep finding her?

It’s a very small world, mostly because it’s written that way, a way that makes no logical sense whatsoever once you stop and think about it for a minute.

In Which the Movie Falls Apart

Besides torture porn, Brimstone has several problems both in regards to its construction and plot. Mostly that it makes no sense. The nonlinear narrative, which seemed interesting at first, does a very good job at concealing this important fact.

When we first meet Liz, she’s mute because her tongue was cut out. How did this happen?

We learn this in the second chapter, “Exodus”, when Joanna takes her dead friend’s identity. Elizabeth was a Nice Friend, so of course this means something bad would inevitably happen to her. In a scene of very gratuitous violence, Frank cuts off her tongue because she bit a customer’s tongue who was trying to kiss her while she had repeatedly told him not to.

The local doctor checks her up and gives her a book on sign language, which she learns along with Joanna. It’s sweet. Liz wants to run, and finds a Nice Older Man (see where I’m going with this?) who lost his wife and doesn’t care about her past, as long as she can cook and doesn’t mind that he already has a son from a previous union. Liz is very excited, and asks Joanna to come with her, and they can pretend to be sisters. Again, it’s kinda cute.

Joanna and LIz in Brimstone

They are such good friends. Wouldn’t it be just AWFUL if something happened to break them apart?

But of course, this nice ending just cannot be. (BECAUSE IT’S WRITTEN THAT WAY.)

On the very evening they plan to run away, they get the visit of a Very Special Customer who pays every woman in the brothel, and Frank is adamant that no matter what he wants, you give it to him. Guess who it is?

Why, it’s the Evil Reverend of course!

He came to find Joanna and is Very Disappointed by “her life choices”—namely, being sold to a brothel—and decides he has to “punish her”. This sentence is said so many times throughout the movie I’m sure it’s only there for a specific part of the audience to masturbate to. But hey, ‘Human Rights’ amirite?!

Elizabeth hears Joanna’s screams and rushes to save her. As you recall, however, she does not survive the confrontation with the Reverend (she’s too nice), yet he somehow manages to survive both having his throat cut and being set on fire.  And this is where the shaky foundations the movie is built on finally collapse.

Joanna should be free. She thinks her father is dead. (And he should be, even though he’s not.) The brothel is on fire. She could go wherever she wants, do whatever she wants. But, instead of, I don’t know, doing something that doesn’t involve cutting her own tongue out, she decides to take Liz’s place and identity. Since ‘her’ husband-to-be expects a woman without a tongue, she visits the doctor and asks him to cut out her tongue. He can’t bring himself to do it, so she does it herself.

I can’t stress enough how pointless and gratuitous this is, or how this makes no sense in any kind of reality. There was no reason for her to do that. She didn’t have to take Liz’s place. She didn’t have to cut out her tongue. But that wouldn’t be as Dramatically Satisfying, now would it?

The Voiceless, or Missing the Point of Themes and Metaphors

Brimstone completely fails to grasp any actual theme or metaphor present in the story (besides, maybe, the “Symbolic Blood on the Snow” shot, whatever that meant).

The typical excuse of “historical accuracy” to depict “reality” in all its grittiness mysteriously disappears once it comes to one of the main traits of the protagonist: her being mute because she has no tongue. The addition of that disability to the story is never really explored, neither metaphorically nor realistically. Brimstone treats a self-inflicted disability as a Shock and Awe moment, and then erases its meanings from the narrative, much like Jaime Lannister and Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones.

Other than a brief moment with the doctor telling the original Liz how to care for her wound and giving her a book of sign language, and one scene in which Elizabeth teaches Joanna what she learned, the subject is thrown away so fast it almost feels anachronistic. It seems so random and out of place, it’s hard to believe that sign language has a very old, very rich, very interesting history because the movie treats it like a footnote.

"Brimstone": Elizabeth teaches Joanna sign language.

Elizabeth teaches Joanna sign language. Don’t ask me which type it is though, or if the one used is even historically accurate.

Brimstone alsο completely erases any struggle Liz/Joanna might have with her disability while living in the 19th century Old West; it never stresses how dangerous and potentially deadly it would be to cut your own tongue. Which, I might reiterate, was only done to fulfill the plot’s contrived demands. She never has any communication problems. It never actually impacts the narrative. It doesn’t seem to incapacitate her at all. The only reason it happens is so the film can remind us (again) this is a Crapsack World, and she/we just can’t have nice things.

Speaking of the ending, it’s the final cherry on top of the ‘life is crap and good people can’t be happy’ cake. A sheriff from the town where she worked in the brothel drops by, and we learn the original Elizabeth had murdered Frank just before ‘rescuing’ Joanna from the Evil Reverend. As Joanna claimed her identity, she is now guilty of her crime. Conveniently, her daughter (who had been her interpreter) is nowhere to translate for her, but she doesn’t even attempt to explain anything. There’s nothing to explain, really. As the sheriff who comes to arrest her puts it:

“You should’ve changed your name, Liz. How many Elizabeth Brundys you figure there are in this world? And how many of ‘em you figure don’t got no tongue?”

Life sucks.

The sheriff wants to bring her back to the town to hang her and puts her on a boat. In one final act of agency (maybe), Joanna, who is cuffed with heavy chains, decides to throw herself into the river, and drowns. But it’s ok! We see her smiling underwater.

She may be dead, but at least she’s Empowered (TM)!

She may be dead, but at least she’s Empowered!

As this depressing epilogue unfolds, we hear the voice of a narrator, much like we had in the opening of the movie. We realize it was provided by a grown-up Sam. “I remember her well,” she says in the end. “She was a warrior. Always in control.” Well, except from the part where her entire story was controlled by men, including first and foremost by the director-screenwriter.

Life Isn’t Sadistic, The Writer Is

This is a movie that tackles a faux-feminist message yet fails to grasp the meaning in a woman cutting off her own tongue. Martin Koolhoven seemingly has no idea what genre he’s writing, borrowing tropes from Gothic horror, Grimdark edginess, exploitation movies, and slasher films. This would be sad, if he wasn’t so smug, somehow believing he’s the first director-screenwriter to ever tell a Western from ‘a woman’s point of view,’

Koolhoven: So I decided to started (sic) writing one, and then I started thinking, What is it actually that I’m interested in here? Why is it such an interesting genre? There’s this almost boyish quality to it, this adventure and artistic idea of freedom. But then, as I was thinking that, I thought, that’s a very macho approach. It’s only a half-truth because for women, Westerns are not actually about freedom all. I had just read a book called In the Rogue Blood by James Carlos Blake about two brothers, and at some point, the sister runs away and they say, “Okay, what are her options? Either she’s going to marry someone or she’s going to be a prostitute.” And that sort of hit me. I realized that that side of the story is never really told. There’s not a lot of movies about that. Actually, none at all. Then I thought there has to be a movie from that point of view.”

Even if we ignore the many different female-lead Westerns that showcase a great diversity of roles for women, Koolhoven isn’t even the first to tell a story from a sex worker’s perspective; I found a film with four of them.

Though it’s rather simplistically true that, historically, women have more often than not been confined to make a choice between “being a wife or a prostitute,” there were still many ways to navigate and test these limits. Exceptions don’t make the rule, but they still exist. So let’s ignore how there’s a 1993 movie that proves Koolhoven wrong. And the fact that the Old West was a lot queerer than we think.

Nah, let’s just remake Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, set it in the Old West and call it Brimstone. How Bold!

Koolhoven and some interviewers seem to think Brimstone is doing something new, and praise it as “daring” and “provocative”. It’s not. Nothing here is new. This story is old, really old. This has been done already, over and over and over. There are ways to tell the story of a girl then young woman who tries to escape from her abusive father. Brimstone was obviously not the way to do it. Unfortunately, this form of storytelling is in vogue, much like the Grimdark subgenre itself.

At the end of the day, Brimstone is the same old Grimdark exploitation nonsense, the misogynistic, nihilistic, and reductive roots of which go all the way back to Sade. Horror and cruelty do exist, yes, but you can choose how to write about it. You can choose what you show on screen versus what you describe with dialogue. Sometimes “Show, Don’t Tell” doesn’t (shouldn’t) apply. As such, it’s rather easy to tell when the purpose is… well, torture porn.

The existence of evil doesn’t negate the reality of goodness. “Realness” and “historical accuracy” don’t equal “sadistic.” Writers who choose to depict these stories this way and inflict it on us, however, are.


Images courtesy of Momentum Pictures and Sony Pictures Television

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Analysis

Sith Inquisitor’s Journey to Freedom

Angelina

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting the Sith Inquisitor

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

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

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

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

Dealing with the Trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Choices

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

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

Sith Inquisitor

My own perfect cinnamon roll of an Inquisitor

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

Good Is Not Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

 Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

P.S.: And Then They Ruined It…

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

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

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

It is problematic, isn’t it?

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

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


Images courtesy EA Entertainment

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Analysis

Will Has a Women Problem

Michelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like light?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the sarcasm evident?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of this, though, is for her.

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

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

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

Instead of characters, they are caricatures.


Images courtesy of TNT Productions

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