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Silent Hill 2 And How Toxic Masculinity Dooms Us All

Brion

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(Naturally, spoilers for Silent Hill 2 abound).

Silent Hill 2 holds a slightly odd place in video game history. Never a wildly popular game, it is often overlooked in the modern pop culture. Yet among those who remember it, Silent Hill 2 is regarded as the finest example of survival horror in gaming. Some go as far to call it the best game ever made.

What sets it apart most of all in a medium often derided for its story-telling chops is the intelligence, subtlety, and maturity in which it conducts itself. It refrains from heavy handed moralizing. It trusts the player to pay attention to its symbolism.

On the surface this is a solid little ghost story. Dig a little deeper and you will find among the most damning critiques of toxic masculinity around. Not too bad for a game that was released in 2001.

 

A Letter from Silent Heaven

James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife, Mary.

 

“In my restless dreams, I see that town.

Silent Hill.

You promised me you’d take me there again someday.

But you never did.

Well, I’m alone there now…

In our ‘special place’…

Waiting for you…”

 

Unfortunately for all concerned, Mary has been dead for three years.

Understandably confused, James decides to believe the letter is genuine (the first in a list of increasingly poor decisions). He returns to Silent Hill, a secluded resort town, hoping to find Mary. Instead he finds an eldritch nightmare filled with hideous twitching monsters.

The first game in the series followed a similar structure, with protagonist Harry Mason searching for his missing daughter in the fog-swept town. Silent Hill 2 presents itself as a retread of the first game. The graphics are better, the acting a little more off kilter, but for the most part we appear to playing a standard perfunctory sequel.

That changes when we find out how Mary died.

 

When Masculinity Goes Bad

Toxic Masculinity is the basic concept of linking the male gender with violence. It is the notion that to be a ‘Real Man’, one must be aggressive, unemotional, and sexually dominant. Such an attitude helps to (consciously or not) reinforce a patriarchal society and is naturally extremely harmful to woman.

Yet men who cannot attain this ‘ideal’ (I am using that word as sarcastically as possible) also become victims of it. They are routinely mocked, shunned and declared to be ‘Not Real Men’.

If the tenants of toxic masculinity are to be followed, then only a man could ever possibly be the hero of a story. There are six principal characters in Silent Hill 2 (seven if we count Pyramid Head, who we will discuss later). Four of these six are female, so they will be set aside for the moment.

That leaves Eddie Dombrowski as James’ only competition for the role of hero. Now Eddie most certainly does not fit the toxic ideal of the ‘Real Man’; He is cowardly, overweight, dim-witted and a constant victim of bullying (we will discuss that later too). In contrast, James is a tall, blonde, white, and even faintly handsome man. Of course this man must be our hero.

The problem is that James is spectacularly unfit to be a hero.

sh2-james

Okay, maybe ‘faintly handsome’ is being a little generous

 

James’ Unheroics

Here is a short list of idiotic decisions that reveal James to be the least competent hero ever devised.

  • Upon encountering a monster infested town, his first thought does not involve escape.
  • He makes no attempt to help the people he encounters escape from said monster infested town and consistently abandons them.
  • James does not even role up his sleeve before sticking his arm down a toilet.
  • He yells at a little girl mere seconds after promising not to yell at her.
  • He is then easily fooled by the same eight year old girl and locked by her in a room.
  • Upon hearing a madman with a gun announce that he will murder anyone who makes fun of him ever again, James asks the gunman “Have you gone nuts?”
  • He jumps into a bottomless pit. Several times.
  • He fails to save the same damsel in distress on three separate occasions.

We can thusly agree that no one in their right minds would ever cast James Sunderland as a hero.

That last reason deserves particular examination. Said damsel in distress in Maria, a flirtatious and revealingly dressed woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife. In fact, they have exactly the same face. And the same voice. And James meets her in the exact spot he had expected to find Mary.

Yeah, the reality James is perceiving might not be entirely on the level.

 

Monsters, More Monsters and Mary

sh2-nurse

Silent Hill does not have the most friendly of medical professionals.

The three most common monsters James encounters are called Lying Figures, Mannequins and Nurses. The Lying Figures are vaguely feminine shapes that appear to be confined in a strait jacket and attack by vomiting. The Mannequins are essentially two bottom halves of mannequins stuck together. The nurses (despite resembling zombies) are dressed in mini-skirts and have exposed cleavage.

Noticing the trend? Each monster is female in shape. Each monster is either associated with disease, is overtly sexualised, or both. James spends the bulk of the game slaughtering these creatures, either beating them with blunt objects or shooting them.

This is probably a good time to mention that James murdered his wife.

We are told from the game’s outset that Mary died of “that damned disease” three years ago. It is revealed in the game’s closing stages that while Mary did indeed contract a terminal illness three years ago, she actually died relatively recently. And James murdered her.

Notice I keep saying murdered. Some would argue that he smothered Mary with a pillow to end her suffering. James himself makes that case. With this in mind, should I not call this act euthanasia? No, for one crucial reason.

James did not ask Mary if she wanted this to happen. While he did hear her say that she wanted to die, he also heard her say the opposite. James made the decision without her consent. He robbed her of any agency over her own death. He did not consult, he did not think, he just acted.

You know, like how a ‘Real Man’ is supposed to act.

 

Sexual Symbolism

Once the manner of Mary’s death is revealed, it becomes pretty clear that nothing we have witnessed in the game is actually happening in the strictest sense of the word. Rather than just being a death zone, Silent Hill appears to be somewhere that draws people who seek to punish themselves and reflects back upon them their own misdeeds. Laura, the aforementioned little girl, wanders through the town as if nothing were odd. Being a child and thus having nothing to make her feel guilty, she sees Silent Hill as a normal town.

All that James encounters are the thoughts he brought with him. This is particularly disturbing when we remember that all the monsters were female. Not just female, but females robbed of agency and literally objectified. The Lying Figure cannot use it arms to defend itself. The Mannequins are comprised of long legs and nothing else. The Nurses can barely walk in their skimpy outfits.

These are the monster James invents. It seems he can only relate to woman as literal sex objects.

The implication is obvious. James spent years in a state of sexual frustration because of his wife’s illness. He felt immensely guilty over these feelings, and they end up being added to the list of things for which he seeks punishment. However, James is single now after all, and one could easily interpret his slaughtering of the feminine monsters as relieving himself of all that pent up frustration.

Which brings us back to Maria. James creates in his head a woman that is Mary come again, only this time sexier and utterly devoted to his needs. Finally, he gets everything he told himself he wanted.

Only he doesn’t. Maria calls him out when he tries to abandon her. She begs James to protect her, telling him that it is his job. Worse, he is forced to watch her die over and over, utterly powerless to intervene. Maria may have been born to fulfil James’ fantasies, but she lives to remind him his is failing to be a ‘Real Man’.

See, James is not just an enforcer of toxic masculinity. He is also one of its victims.

 

Real Men

As I said earlier, Eddie is as far from the ideal of the ‘Real Man’ as one can get. Because of this ‘failure’ (again huge amounts of sarcasm), Eddie has been mercilessly bullied for his entire life. This eventually led him to a snap, kill a dog, shoot one of his tormenters in the leg and flee to Silent Hill.

In a perfect world, Eddie would be able to recover from his childhood traumas (and also atone for his reaction). Unfortunately, Eddie does not live in a perfect world, he lives in a patriarchal one. He reasons that if he is doomed to be tormented by ‘Real Men’, he should respond with the one tenant of toxic masculinity that is not beyond him: Violence.

Eddie is reduced to the crazed gunman mentioned earlier. He evens tries to murder James, but is instead murdered in kind. Notice that when it came time for a real person to die, none of the monsters end up being responsible, again reinforcing the idea that the monsters are all in the mind.

James and Eddie fail comprehensively to be ‘Real Men’. Neither are built to be heroes. To those who believe in toxic masculinity, there can be no greater sin. It is no wonder these two men desire punishment so badly.

However, there is one man (if he truly is a man) that perfectly lives up to the ideal of the ‘Real Man’. His name is Pyramid Head, the iconic monster with the impossibly large and heavy knife he drags behind him (both an obvious Freudian symbol and something more complex, which we’ll get to in a moment).

The very image of a 'Real Man'

The very image of a ‘Real Man’

Let us quickly run through the tenants of toxic masculinity. Is Pyramid Head aggressive? Well he is constantly trying to murder James, so aggression is clearly no issue. Is Pyramid Head unemotional? His entire head is confined in an expressionless helmet, robbing him of any trace of humanity.

Is he sexually dominant? In his first two scenes he appears to be doing something to the other monsters, something many people have interpreted as sexual assault. Add to that the fact that he is the one who keeps murdering Maria and you get the perfect combination of everything that defines a ‘Real Man’.

Pyramid Head is the ultimate representation of toxic masculinity. And unlike in a certain HBO fantasy show I might mention, we are not supposed to relate to him. We are supposed to hate and fear Pyramid Head, because Pyramid Head is truly a monster.

And he exists to punish James.

 

Suffering and Punishment

“I was weak. That’s why I needed you… needed someone to punish me for my sins…”

So says James in a rare moment of insight. The Pyramid Heads (there are now two, possibly because James has at this point killed two people, Mary and Eddie) have just killed Maria for the third time and now seek to kill James. The world’s most incompetent hero miraculously triumphs against the seemingly invincible beasts, not because of any action on his part, but because the Pyramid Heads commit suicide.

James wins because he is no longer in denial about himself. He knows now that he murdered Mary. He knows now that he is not the hero. Pyramid Head, his great tormenter, ends itself now that James is at last coming to terms with his actions.

Let us back up and talk about his weapon, the Great Knife. Pyramid Head drags it around in the first third of the game, even using it to knock James off a building. Yet every time he kills Maria, he uses a spear. Why not his Great Knife?

The Great Knife symbolises the great weight of James’ guilt. His guilt over murdering his wife, his guilt over failing to be a ‘Real Man’. It is the most deadly weapon in the game, but it also weighs down the user. James can even end up in possession of the knife in the latter stages. It is fitting that the symbol of James’ guilt can only be used to hurt him, and used by him to hurt others.

Another thing that needs mentioning is that Pyramid Head is the same height as James, and makes the same grunts when swinging the Great Knife. It makes you wonder whose face hides behind that mask…

 

Her White Knight

Angela, pictured here in happier times

Angela, pictured here in happier times

Why have I made such a big deal out of the Great Knife symbolising guilt? Because weaponised guilt is another insidious form that toxic masculinity can take, and there is one main character I have yet to talk about.

Angela is the first character James encounters in Silent Hill 2. From the outset it is clear she is troubled by some great trauma in her past. (Said trauma is just about the darkest thing in the game, and while I believe the game handles the issue well, I do not feel qualified to address it properly and will thus be avoiding it as best I can).

Her second encounter with James finds her holding a knife and staring at herself in a mirror. The third finds her cowering from a hideous monster she calls “Daddy” (which means exactly what you think it means).

James convinces Angela to give him the knife. He defeats the monster that was tormenting her. Yet Angela does not thank him. She grows angrier with him every time they meet. Then we get to their final encounter, after James has remembered Mary’s murder at his hands, and we get this speech from Angela.

“Or maybe… you think you can save me. Will you love me…? Take care of me…? Heal all my pain…? Hmph… That’s what I thought.”

It always comes back to James trying to be a hero. In this instance he is trying to find redemption, to absolve his guilt over murdering a woman by saving another. Here is the clearest instance of James’ weaponised guilt, trying to use violence to put the world to right.

And Angela sees right through him. By reducing yet another woman to an object in his redemption quest, he is still blind to the lesson that Maria’s deaths should be teaching him. He cannot fix things by following the same rules that led him to murder Mary. Angela (and by proxy the game itself) will not let James off the hook for trying to white knight his way to absolution. At long last, James finally begins to come to terms with the fact that there is no way for him to fix things.

Mary is gone.

 

Many Endings

Yet coming to terms is not the same thing as forgiveness. There are many ending to James’ story, and only one can be considered a happy conclusion. (I will not be discussing the ‘Rebirth’ ending, as it did not appear in the original version of the game, nor the two joke endings).

The ‘Leave’ ending is considered by many to be the good ending. James is able to live with his murders, if not quite forgive himself, and leaves Silent Hill with Laura in tow. He acknowledges his toxic attitudes were wrong, abandons them and walks away to a better life.

The ‘In Water’ ending is rather less happy, but perhaps more thematically appropriate for a horror story. James ultimately cannot cope with his crimes and commits suicide by driving his car into the lake. He acknowledges that his toxic attitudes were wrong, but is unable to escape from them and dies another victim of a patriarchal world.

The ‘Maria’ ending is perhaps the darkest of the three. James refuses to accept his crimes and latches onto Maria as a solution (who is definitely not real, I should point out, in case that was not clear from her constant Lazarus act). As they leave together Maria coughs, indicating that she too will soon succumb to the same disease as Mary. James may be refusing to acknowledge that his toxic attitudes were wrong, but Silent Hill refuses to let him off the hook.

The point I am desperately trying to hammer home here is that Silent Hill 2 is interested in critiquing toxic masculinity, not just wallowing in it. The consequences of the mind-set are laid bare: Mary dies, Eddie dies, Maria dies repeatedly and in one ending even James dies.

It also goes out of its way to emphasise that there is another way. Compassion is the virtue James lacked when Mary was ill, but (going off the implication that he adopts Laura in the ‘Leave’ ending) it is a virtue that his learning of helps save him. James escapes Silent Hill not through unemotional violence, but by abandoning it as an option.

Or he fails to learn a lesson and is doomed to repeat the same hellish journey again. This is, after all, a horror story.

This is honestly preferable to the 'Maria' ending in my book

This is honestly preferable to the ‘Maria’ ending in my book

 

Conclusion

Silent Hill 2 is a fiendishly complicated game. I could easily write another few thousand words on its mechanics, its voice acting and the means by which you decide the game’s end.

Whenever I do think about the game, I usually fixate on two things. Firstly, I love that James Sunderland utterly fails to be the hero of his story. The game never really presents him in a heroic way; only the oversaturation of certain genre tropes could ever lead you to assume he will save the day.

Secondly, I always fixate on the sheer force of guilt one must feel to literally put themselves through Hell. The fact that this guilt is born from James’ actions informed by toxic masculinity reminds me that while video games can so often stumble when addressing social and gender issues, there are examples where the execution is near flawless.


All images courtesy of Konami.

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Sansa’s Shithole Siblings Part 1: Family Disunion

Kylie

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Welcome, welcome, welcome, to the penultimate Unabashed Book Snobbery retrospective series. As is fitting of anything penultimate, it will be shocking and titillating.

That’s right, Julie (the combined brain of Julia and Kylie) has returned after a long rest, and is thrilled to be diving back into Game of Thrones season 7, courtesy of genius showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D).

As she’s done for two seasons before, Julie has begun to rewatch the Emmy-caliber masterpiece plotline by plotline, so she can truly appreciate the dramatic satisfaction and thematic significance. Just like Rogue One! Season 7 had many great contenders, from Cheryl stalking around a giant map to Sam slopping soup. However, Julie is going to start things off with what was sure to be everyone’s most empowering plotline: Winterhell 3.0, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Conspiracy.

The Players

Julie is still committed to preventing the conflation of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, even though she’s unsure who would be mixing these two up anymore. To ensure that there’s no confusion, she will be using her exceedingly clever nicknames, as she’s done in the past.

This season also vaguely starred:

Full explanations of these nicknames can be found in the world famous Book Snob Glossary. But for now, Julie will take you through exactly what happened in a humorous…

Part 2 of this retrospective will be the more serious analysis, for exceedingly generous definitions of serious.

Patience, Enjoy It, Revenge Can’t Be Taken In Haste

So. Just thinking over the beginning of this plotline has thrown us into an existential crisis.

Hey guys. Remember the ending of last season? You know, when Arya Todd got her revenge by empoweringly slitting Walder Filch’s throat, after baking his sons into pies and feeding them to him? We mean…with the price of meat what it is, when you get it.

Well, turns out a fortnight has passed since then, or at least we think so, since the dialogue is a bit unclear. We know this is the second feast at The Twins within a fortnight, so it’s possible it’s also the day after. But we doubt it. However, regardless of if one or fourteen days have passed, Arya Todd has been posing as Walder Filch the entire time. You see, all his sons are there, and his child-bride, and everyone’s acting like it’s business as usual.

Arya Filch (?) requests that some nice red Arbor Gold be served to the hall full of Frey sons (but not daughters, because she won’t waste wine on women), and launches into one of the weirdest toasts to date under that roof. You see, she’s like, dropping hints that she’s a Stark.

“You’re my family, the men who helped me slaughter the Starks at the Red Wedding. Yes, yes. Cheer. Brave men, all of you. Butchered a woman pregnant with her babe. Cut the throat of a mother of five. Slaughtered your guests after inviting them into your home. But you didn’t slaughter every one of the Starks.”

And as she drops these clues, the Freys begin dropping to the ground. Because that Arbor Gold Red was poisoned. POISONED!

The Filch child-bride looks reasonably freaked out that everyone she knows is dead now, and even more reasonably freaked out when Arya Todd rips off her Halloween mask to reveal the face of an eighteen-year-old woman. Give or take. “Tell them winter came for House Frey,” she says. Okay. Should she also mention how Arya was posing as Filch and probably shared her bed for two weeks also?

“Um. I have a few questions.”

Arya Todd leaves with a Smirk of Empowerment, not a single person there to stop her. For some reason.

Meanwhile, Branbot 1000 seems to be fritzing due to some bad crapware. He’s flashing to the army of the dead (and zombie giants!), while poor, gloveless Meera pulls him all the way to The Wall.

Lord Commander Edd greets them personally, because there’s nothing else he should be doing right now, and Meera tells him who they are. When Edd asks for proof, Branbot finishes his updates and informs Edd that he (Edd) was at the Fist of the First Men and Hardhome. That’s… as legitimate as having a driver’s license. Edd shrugs and says that they should be brought inside. Onion soup all around!

This brings us to Winterhell proper, where Johnny Cardboard is demonstrating why he deserves that crown he randomly got last year. He’s apparently discovered delegation, and instructs everyone to get dragonglass. Wait, has two weeks passed here too? Is it the same day? Brittany’s wig sure looks different.

He also says that they need to bone up on Winterhell’s defenses, since an army of the dead is coming. First order of business: the Wildlings will man The Wall. Beardy loves this idea, and the historical irony inherent in it, and to be honest… we kind of do too.

However, things get contentious when Jonny says everyone is going to be trained to fight—including GIRLS. Lord Glover doesn’t want to put a spear in his granddaughter’s hands (“Hey, how does she feel?” said no one ever), but it’s settled when Lyanna Mormont disparages typically female wartime roles, like provisioning the army. “Who in seven hells needs socks?” she asks, tossing a sassy look to Lord Glover. “Ima fight naked because I’m a feminist!” Everyone is convinced, because Lyanna is the ultimate bellwether lord.

Knitting is lame. We’re going to have empowered, naked soldiers!

Finally, it’s time to deal with the castles of the KARSTARKS and UMBERS. Lord Royce and his giant breastplate are miffed, so he wants to tear them down brick-by-brick. However Brittany finally speaks up, and points out that demolishing defensive strongholds that stand in between Winterhell and The Wall is really fucking stupid. “Of course they’re going to be manned by our allies,” she says. Reasonable. Giving land and castles as a reward for loyalty is a thing kings tend to do, especially when some lords marched a great distance to bail out an army from a sticky situation. The Northern Lords cheer in agreement.

However, Jonny had a different idea in mind, and completely didn’t run it past Sansa. He wanted to give the castles to the younger generations of KARSTARK and UMBER, because he knows how much their feelings would be hurt if he displaces their families from their ancestral homes. Brittany disagrees, but Jonny doubles down. The Northern Lords cheer in agreement. Brittany rolls her eyes and looks annoyed.

To be clear, they both have points, but neither the narrative nor the characters can seem to decide what they are, and Jonny only ends up being “right” because he spoke last. It’s a theme.

Speaking of thematic consistency, we almost forgot to point out one of the season’s strongest motifs: Wall Spot. It’s Batfinger’s new, designated space. He either is very fond of it, or he lost his teleporter and is permanently stuck there.

Afterwards, Jonny gets mad at Brittany for challenging his decision in front of the Northern Lords. Hey Jonny, it’s almost as if you should have talked to her before the meeting. Specifically so these kinds of things wouldn’t happen.

Brittany points out that good leaders allow themselves to be challenged, and it’s people like Joffrey who don’t.

Jonny: Do you think I’m Joffrey?

Looks like his hurt feelings need to take priority! Brittany soothes his ego, but then says that he has to be smarter than Ned and Robb, who both died for making stupid (but principled) mistakes. Jonny asks if that means he has to listen to her. Oh the horrors!

Yeah, babe, it might just be a lost cause.

Brittany then explains that Cheryl is still a huge fucking threat, and they can’t just have Army of the Dead blinders on, or they’ll get creamed.

Jonny: You almost sound as if you admire her.

Does she, Jonny? Is that how you admire people? Does this mean he admires Shogun, cause he never shuts up about that threat.

Meanwhile, Brienne the Brute trains Pod ineffectively, while Tormund continues to creep on her. Haha.

Brittany watches from the gallery above, when Batfinger schmoozes on up. Brittany has NO patience for him today, and asks what he wants in an exasperated tone. When he says his usual Batfinger idiocy, she shuts him down, even outright saying:

“No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish. I’ll assume it was something clever.”

Jeeze. Why is this guy even alive? No really.

Brienne asks Brittany the same thing, but Brittany waves it off, saying that they need his men. It’d be a whole thing to tell the Vale Lords about Lysa’s death. Who has time for that?

He’s not *that* annoying…

An indeterminate temporal relationship to the previous scene later, Arya Todd comes across a group of Lannister soldiers in the woods on horseback and potentially still wearing Walder Filch’s clothes. One of these chaps is singing “Hands of Gold” because he just read A Clash of Kings, and looks an awful lot like a teenage heartthrob. The patriarchy is also on a questionable temporal plane of existence here, since the soldiers don’t question Arya being alone or offer to protect her, but do want to know if she’s old enough to drink wine. William Tecumseh Sherman made it in a toilet; it’s blackberry. Kylie gets unpleasant Manischewitz flashbacks.

“How’s the war?” “War is hell. Have some rabbit and sit down next to Ed Sheeran.” Maisie Williams Arya Todd seems thrilled and friendly and not at all like some kind of feral animal who has been the victim of brain trauma. Then she “jokes” about how she’s headed to Cheryl’s Landing to kill Cheryl. Everyone laughs and the scene ends. Too bad we never got Ros’s woodtime adventures on her way down to Carol’s Landing.

Us too.

You should want a détente

Back in Winterhell, Tyrion has sent a raven of great importance to Jonny, asking him to come visit Deadpan because they’re super, super nice, and also they have dragons and an army. Brittany and Jonny discuss this, while observing the co-ed archery classes. Which is probably something that happened anyway. Hawking is a thing, except for poor Tiffany Tarly.

Brittany tells Jonny that this is really stupid and dangerous, and even if Tyrion was a SUPER NICE not-rapist, this is still probably a trap. Davos pipes in with his folksy wisdom to note that fire kills wights, so dragons might be cool, but Tyrion didn’t really have much chill mentioning that army. (Oh yeah! Davos is a thing!)

Speaking of no chill, Arya Todd has arrived at the Inn at the Crossroads, everyone’s favorite hangout for coincidental meetings. She eavesdrops on the world’s most boring conversation about how it’s a good idea to go to Cheryl’s Landing now before war breaks out again, when Hot Pie spots her! She steals a pot pie from his tray, and seems to have forgotten how to use utensils. Hot Pie sit down to talk to his old friend, and she can’t be bothered to make eye contact, because she’s too busy eating like some weird feral creature.

“Um, not to be ‘that guy’ but I do have work to do…”

After sharing baking tips, they finally get into politics. Cheryl blew up the sept! Arya already knew this from being Walder Filch, we suppose. Also, this being common knowledge has no social ramifications or implications, right? However NOT common knowledge is that Jonny won the in-verse named “Battle of the Bastards” and is ruling the North as king. There’s no reason anyone would tell Walder Filch that.

Arya is shaken by this news. She tries to pay Hot Pie, still being far colder to him than she was to Ed Sheeran, but he refuses because he’s a mensch. Or thinks she’s pretty. (Or both.) We then get a shot of her debating which way to go: Cheryl’s Landing for more murders, or Winterhell to threaten the murder of her family? Oops. Spoiler.

She turns North.

Speaking of brand new information, Jonny gets a raven from Sam saying that there’s DRAGONGLASS on DRAGONSTONE.

Oh yeah, Stannis told us that already!

Jon is shaken, so he calls another meeting in the Great Hall without bothering to talk things over with his sister. We’re sure there’s no important political decisions being made this time.

You see, Jonny is so desperate to get this DRAGONGLASS that he makes the unilateral decision to go to DRAGONSTONE himself. Literally everyone in the room thinks this is a terrible idea. Even Batfinger is smirking from Wall Spot about how stupid he is.

Anyway:

  1. Brittany points out this is obviously a trap, and one rather evocative of their own family’s history (riding south for Targaryen rulers doesn’t always end well, yo)
  2. The Northern Lords say he’s abandoning them
  3. They point out Robb lost his kingdom by riding south
  4. Winter is here and they kind of elected Jon on this point
  5. Jonny’s impassioned speech to counter these points is really beyond Kit Harington as an actor

The gist of what he says is: tough titties—only a king can request dragonglass from a queen. “Send an emissary,” Brittany points out.

Think of your poor, sockless soldiers!

No, no, it’s fine, because the North will be in good hands.

Brittany: Whose?

Jonny: Yours.

Boy this didn’t need to be talked about ahead of time. Everyone in the room kind of nods and accepts this. Brienne looks proud for some reason.

Batfinger is so moved by this decision that he leaves Wall Spot to find Jonny in the crypts, who’s busy saying goodbye to Sean Bean’s statue. Batfinger says (and we’re paraphrasing), “Give Tyrion my best. Your dad and I both loved Cat. Cat underestimated you. You’re the best hope for the North. I’m not your enemy. I love Brittany.”

Jonny gets full of protective paternalism and shoves Batfinger up against a wall. We kind of suspect Batfinger is into it. “Touch my sister, and I’ll kill you myself.” Cool, she’ll love that. She didn’t just ask you to stop protecting her or anything, and we’re sure sexual agency isn’t important to her at all!

Jonny then leaves with the smallest fucking retinue possible for a king, and he and Brittany exchange an awkward wave.

“Heyyyy brother”

This is…something.

What isn’t something is Arya’s next scene. Wolves surround her and her horsey in the woods. One of them is Nymeria. “Come with me!” Arya says. Nymeria turns and leaves. “That’s not you.” Let’s hope Nymeria watched Season 1 recently and got it, unlike the fandom that assumed it meant the giant fucking direwolf wasn’t, in fact, Nymeria. The end.

No Hugs for Brittany

Back in Winterhell, we see the consequence of Jonny leaving Brittany in charge: shit is actually getting done. Like…shit that really should have been getting done already.

Brittany is running around, organizing winter rations, overseeing winter armoring, and showing us the value of traditionally feminine skills during times of battle preparations. Batfinger keeps trying to get stupid advice in, like how she should be completely paranoid at all times and assume everyone is her enemy. It’s a nice trailer line, but she doesn’t seem to care.

What she does care about is the arrival of her brother, Branbot. Brittany runs down to the gate to greet him with a hug, but robots cannot love.

She then brings him to the heart tree, and in her hyper-ambition casually offers to give him her seat. He’s Father’s legal heir, after all. Bran refuses because he’s the Three Eyed Raven now. Brittany—like all of us—doesn’t know what that means. “It’s difficult to explain.” Okay then. When she presses the matter, he gives her a demonstration of his powers, by speaking about the night she was raped in a lot of detail, with a dispassionate and detached inflection. Fun!

Brittany—like all of us—gets reasonably freaked out and upset, and gets the fuck out of dodge. We’re glad this happened instead of Bran sharing the information about their family he just discovered.

Batfinger is also glad to see Bran again, and decides to just randomly give him that dagger from Season 1. You know, the one the hired assassin tried to use on Bran that quasi-started the War of Five Kings. He then delves into this awkward monologue about how the dagger reminds him of Cat stopping it, and how he’s loyal to Bran, just like Cat? We’re a bit confused, and assume this is a really inept attempt at getting on Bran’s good side, but thankfully Branbot is even less interested in it than we are. “Chaos is a ladder,” he says. What he meant was, “Shut the fuck up.”  

But he seemed so engaged

Meera then pops in to say goodbye to Bran. He can’t emote, but is like, “Thanks I guess. Crazy times.” She gets pissed at him for this complete underreaction, while he shrugs and tells her that being the Three Eyed Raven makes him not Bran anymore. “You died in that cave!” she says, tearfully leaving.

Hey. Brittany would have totally hugged Meera.

But hold your tits; Arya arrives at Winterhell and demands entrance. “That’s not you,” the guards tell her. Arya points out that she’s going to get in (and her delivery is creepy enough where this is entirely believable). So either they let her in and tell Brittany, and if she’s an imposter then the jig is up, or she’s real and they’d get in trouble for not having told Brittany. The guards find this convincing, but rather than wait for five minutes, Arya decides to recreate her Season 1 scampiness by just fucking off to the crypts.

The guards then have to tell Brittany that they lost someone claiming to be her sister, but Brittany just sighs and is like, “you tried.” Apparently she knew Arya would go to the crypts, and that’s where she finds her. Then we watch five minutes of Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner trying not to giggle as they film a scene with each other for the first time in six years.

LYLAS!

For the characters, Brittany tries to hug Arya, who is about as receptive to it as Kylie’s six-month-old niece. Use your arms, Arya. Arya gets funny about Brittany being Lady of Winterhell, but her sister doesn’t seem to care. “I remember how happy [Jonny] was to see me. When he sees you, his heart will probably stop.” That ambitious bitch! Then they allude to the trauma they suffered, before Arya makes another list joke. It just keeps on giving.

Brittany then takes Arya to see Branbot 1000, who’s recharging at the Heart Tree again. He can’t even make it one sentence without being sufficiently weird, so Brittany explains that he has visions. Then Bran confirms that Arya has a murder list. Brittany asks for a little clarification on this, but then Bran just whips out that dagger. “Wait, where did you get this?” Brittany wants to know. However neither Bran nor Arya can seem to care about this obviously weird thing for Batfinger to have given him, which is probably worth digging into. So Brittany asks these futile, but probably important questions, while her robot brother hands her murdery sister a blade.

“Can we just fucking focus for like, three seconds?”

Arya and Brittany take Bran back to the Winterhell courtyard now that he reached 100%, as Brienne and Pod watch. Pod points out that she completed her mission and will receive 50,000 XP, while Brienne argues that she didn’t really do anything. Yeah, we know.

Later, Arya asks Brienne to train her, and they duel for a few minutes while epic battle music plays. Ramin Djawadi, chill—it’s just a sparring session. Brittany looks concerned at the burned screentime.

Sneak vs. Sneak

Later, Branbot’s plugged into the Heart Tree again (he really needs to disable his background apps; this battery life is ridiculous), and sends some ravens to check out what Shogun is doing. There’s honey bunches of dead people! He then asks the maester to send out ravens, because Jonny totally needs this reminder.

Meanwhile in the Great Hall, the Northern Lords are lonely without their Jonny. They’re also a little confused why he is their king. Afterall, Brittany is here and in front of them! …Yes. This is what we were screaming at the TV screen at the end of last season. Though this seems to be less about any kind of birthright or governing capabilities, as much as it’s like dogs who are confused during their owner’s vacation since someone else is feeding them.

Lord Glover goes as far as to say that he wants her to be the queen, while Royce is all like, “we rode North for you.” This is…a fairly treasonous casual conversation. However Brittany handles it with much aplomb, saying that while she’s flattered, Jonny is their king and that’s the way of it. What an ambitious bitch! She learned from Cheryl, alright. Arya watches with stink eye.

Afterwards, Brittany vents to Arya about how she warned Jonny this would happen. But Arya is too upset to listen because Brittany is sleeping in a bedroom befitting her rank. Also, apparently her solution to this would have been to execute Glover and Royce on the spot. That worked out great for their brother Robb, and he actually had some justification about Karstark.

When Brittany points out how fucking stupid that is, Arya accuses her of wanting the Northern Lords to like her because Jonny might get himself killed and then she’d be running everything. Yeah, this is a reasonable concern when your king sails into what could easily be a trap with only like, five other dudes.

But apparently Glover and Royce keeping their heads is a sign that Brittany may be disloyal to Jonny. That checks out.

Traitor!

Arya is so suspicious that she decides to tail Batfinger, of all people. Like, he’s around Brittany a bunch, but if Arya had checked with her sister she’d see that there wasn’t really too much being entertained there.

Batfinger is the sneakiest sneak though, as has been established in previous seasons, and he can apparently read minds. You see he KNOWS if he gets a copy of a certain raven’s scroll from the hapless maester, then Arya will be sure to be tailing him, and will find it in his bedroom. Then she’ll not question why Batfinger was digging it up, but instead jump straight to blaming Brittany for the downfall of her House.

Which is exactly what she does!

In the next episode, Arya has taken over Brittany’s favorite Observation Spot overlooking the bailey. However, there aren’t any coed archery lessons to look at; only meaningful memories. Maybe everyone is inside with coed sock knitting? Please? We’re very concerned about the soldiers’ feeties.

Brittany senses the opportunity for more bonding (or maybe she’s angling for a hug again, because she still didn’t get one), and goes up next to her. Arya then goes down Ned Stark Memory Lane (a Carol Award category!) in a monologue that’s just a click above Maisie Williams’s acting talents. You see, when she was a girl, Brittany was an asshole who liked to knit and had pretty penmanship. But Arya, because she truly loved their father, wanted to practice archery instead. So she did! And he slowclapped for her. This checks out.

“And he clapped JUST LIKE THIS”

What’s weird is that Brittany is just smiling like, “oh what a nice memory. Touching story, Arya!” But then Arya finishes on the note of, and we QUOTE, “Now he’s dead. Killed by the Lannisters. With your help.” Has she been hanging on on westeros.org boards again?

Brittany is legitimately confused by this, until Arya whips out the letter. Brittany explains the concept for duress, but Arya rejects this because she didn’t have a knife to her throat. Yikes. Brittany then points out that she was, you know, eleven and told that this is what would help their father stay alive. “And you were STUPID enough to believe them!” Which is it, Arya: is it that she was actively trying to betray your father, or that she was a young girl who didn’t understand political intrigue?

Amazingly Robb and Cat managed to wrap their minds around this in about 2 seconds.

They literally didn’t even need to read it to know what was up.

Then Arya decides to shame Brittany for wearing societally appropriate clothing to their father’s execution, even though she had thought he was going to be released. As did everyone else there, Cheryl Carol included. It’s not like she was still betrothed to the King or anything.

Brittany finally gets a little mad at these accusations, pointing out that she’s gone through hell and back for her family, and she’s the only reason they regained any kind of political power at all. Arya, apparently unmoved, tries to compare the size of her PTSD dick to Brittany’s, because this is healthy and sisterly bonding. Arya is convinced Brittany’s letter was the downfall of her house, and mentions how Lyanna Mormont would not have been so weak as to write it. So therefore, if the Northern Lords read it, they’ll think Brittany is a traitor!

To be fair, they probably are that stupid and would have that kind of overreaction to the most innocuous diplomatic letter clearly written under duress ever. Brittany understands that, so she later expresses her worries to Batfinger, since Arya ended the conversation basically saying she was going to “expose” her.

Batfinger pretends he has no clue where Arya got the letter, while Brittany worries about the “wind vane” Northern Lords, since Jon hasn’t even written in weeks, so who knows how they’re feeling about anything right now. Brittany thinks Arya would definitely betray her if she believed (for no reason) that Brittany was willing to betray Jon.

“‘Reclaim your ancestral home,’ they said. ‘It’ll be dramatically satisfying,’ they said.”

Batfinger’s solution? Lady Brienne. She’d be “honor bound to intercede” because she’s committed to protecting both Stark sisters.

We’re not sure why, but this is greatly distressing to Brittany. We guess because Brienne and Arya bonded with their epic duel, so she’s worried that Brienne would now…cut off her head or something, if Arya asked. That checks out.

But logical leaps aside, when Brittany gets invited to the Great Wight Moot of Incoherence, she insists that Brienne go as an emissary. Also, this is a legitimately good use of an emissary; why would she march her ass to Cheryl’s Landing while Cheryl is ruling? We got the feeling she didn’t enjoy being a political prisoner so much.

“Brienne, how too exciting, just when I need it. Brienne, such elegant writing, so chic you hardly can read it.”

Brienne seems very concerned, and suggests leaving Pod behind, but apparently her duel with Arya was so chummy that even he could pose a danger to Brittany at this point. At least, this is what we think is going on, but we can’t be sure. She also may be trying to protect Pod and Brienne from Batfinger’s machinations somehow, or she may be really, really concerned with having a proper emissary to this clearly important meeting that will totally have an actual function in the plot. Whatever her reasons, she basically snaps at Brienne until the Maid of Fail retreats sadly away. Bye bye! Have fun in Cheryl’s Landing!

High on that accomplishment, Brittany then decides to creep around Arya’s room, because she doesn’t want to be left out of the sneaky sneak game. FOMO is real, friends. We suspect she may be trying to locate the letter, but instead she finds a pretty nice leather messenger bag. It’s only $500 from Neiman Marcus and goes great with their battle cardigans (temporarily out of stock).

Inside the messenger bag are some halloween masks that were definitely not purchased at Neiman Marcus. Our guess is Party City.

A Carol Award winner!

“Not what you’re looking for.”

No Arya, that’s not what anyone is ever looking for. Unless they’re planning to rob a bank. For the Joker. Brittany, reasonably freaked out, asks her what these are and where she got them. “My faces.” Okay. Arya goes on to explain she got them in Braavos, training to be a Faceless Man. “What does that mean?” Brittany asks. No one knows!

Arya tells her that it means you get hit with a stick any time someone catches you lying. She offers to play this fun game with her sister, the first question being, “How do you feel about Jon being king? Is there someone else you feel should rule the North instead of him?”

We personally feel that this test really should have been calibrated with some dummy questions first, like any good polygraph. Also, Jon is a complete fucking idiot, and Kylie’s cat would be doing a better job ruling the North. So it’s kind of a Catch-22 for Brittany.

She filibusters by asking more about what the hell these faces are and how did Arya get them. Remember that time Branbot confirmed her murder list? Yeah… However, Arya soon puts her fears to rest (except not at all). You see, her murders and masks are feminist statements. Growing up, both she and Brittany wanted to be other people. Brittany wanted to be a queen (what? She was betrothed to Joffrey, so that’s not really being anyone else at all), while Arya wanted to be a knight. But in Weisseroff, little girls don’t get to choose what they are. Except when they do.

With her masks, she can be anyone. Even Brittany, with her title and pretty dresses that Arya isn’t jealous of at all. To prove this point, she points a dagger in her sister’s direction. As one does.

TFW your sister threatens to cut off your face and wear it.

With Brittany almost in tears, Arya twirls the dagger around and hands it to her. Psych! That filled us with warm tinglies.

“None of you knows the truth!”

Good news everyone, winter is actually legitimately here. So is a raven from Jonny, that tells Brittany he bent the knee to Deadpan—pass it on. Boy did Brittany really not know what she was getting into when he asked her to take care of the North for him.

She vents to Batfinger that he didn’t even ask for her opinion. We’re a little mad Batfinger is even around for this, but a) she sent away Brienne who was really her only friend, b) if she vents to any Northern or Vale Lord they’ll probably do something horribly stupid, and c) one of her siblings is a cyborg and the other just threatened to murder her. So frankly, we’d probably be chumming it up with him too.

“I wonder if the Maester is down to hang”

Batfinger doesn’t seem very surprised by this, especially since he knows what sexual tension there surely is between Jonny and Deadpan. So he just shrugs and casually suggests a coup where Brittany asks the Northern Lords to unname Jon as king. No biggie.

Brittany maybe entertains this (it’s impossible to tell), but pretty much immediately shuts it down because her absolutely crazed sister would most certainly murder her. In fact, she might just murder her anyway. Batfinger decides to ineptly stoke her paranoia more by telling her about a game of his: assume everyone has the worst motives ever, and then see how well that explains their actions.

We can’t believe it’s not confirmation bias! Batfinger would be a really successful YouTuber.

Brittany then tries it out, talking about how Arya is probably there to kill her, and then unearthed her duress letter so that she’d be able to get away with it. But the thing is, this really does explain Arya’s actions well, so the scene ends with Brittany looking distressed, and as if she knows what she needs to do. Because again…her sister is a murderer who threatened her. With more murder. And wearing her face.

This is weighing on Brittany, or perhaps some exhausting off-screen shenanigans are, so we get a scene of her on the battlements with her hood drawn up.

TFW you just came out of the HGTV department.

She sighs heavily and asks a random nearby guard to bring her sister to the Great Hall. Shit’s about to go down! Or she’s trying to bait-and-switch the guards too? It’s this kind of ambiguity that makes this show the masterpiece that it is.

In the Great Hall, Bran and Brittany sit at the High Table.

Arya: Are you sure you want to do this?

Brittany: It’s not what I want. It’s what honor demands.

Arya: And what does honor demand?

Brittany: That I defend my family from those who would harm us. That I defend the North from those who would betray us.

Arya: All right, then. Get on with it.

We imagine the Northern Lords are very confused by this exchange. Why do they think they’re there? Do they understand why Arya isn’t at the high table? Does Arya? We think the above conversation was rehearsed, but…are they trying to dramatically satisfy the Lords too?

Anyway, the surprise is that when Brittany says, “you stand accused of murder, you stand accused of treason,” she’s not actually talking to Arya…she’s talking to BATFINGER.

He can’t believe it so much that he peels himself off of Wall Spot and asks for clarification.

“Lady Sansa, forgive me; I’m a bit confused.”

So are we, Batfinger, and this is why you got a Carol nomination for meta-ness.

Brittany then explains his charges, finally telling the Vale Lords that he murdered her Aunt Lysa. Like, literally in front of her. She could have told them this three seasons ago but didn’t, for reasons. And yeah, now that we think about it, Brittany being in the Vale would have made so much more sense for so many reasons. Someone should write a book about that alternate universe.

However, she also starts whipping out some odd charges. Like, how he murdered Jon Arryn, and that time he betrayed Ned. We mean, he did, but how does anyone know that? Batfinger asks this reasonable question. The answer? With spectral evidence, of course!

Branbot 1000 tells the room all about Batfinger holding a dagger to Ned’s throat. We guess they’ve all been told about his role as the Three Eyed Raven and perfectly understand/accept it, since no one really bats an eye. We’re jealous. We also thought it was difficult to explain.

Batfinger then tries to ask why Brittany is doing this, since his love is so pure. She plays the motive game back in his face, also pointing out that his way of expressing love included selling her to her rapist, so sit the fuck down, dude. Then he asks for a defense, which apparently includes begging Lord Royce to take him away and escort him to the Vale. He refuses, probably because he rode north for Brittany, as he already said. Wait. What was Batfinger doing here at all for two seasons then?

“I am a slow learner, it’s true. But I learn.”

Oh fuck you, Benioff and Weiss. You backdialed her characterization and bent the plot into a windsor for her stupid rape/revenge plotline, and have the gall to say it’s because she’s a slow learner?

Arya then slits his throat. We mean, we should point out that he’s literally on his knees begging for his life at this point. But she just slits his throat. Brittany didn’t even pass a sentence; she just thanked him for his service in a kind of sarcastic tone. He falls to the floor and blood goes everywhere. This is why you execute people outside, damnit!

 

Honor!

Some time later, Sam shows up and bonds with Branbot. But we don’t want to bore you. It has nothing to do with this plotline. We just think it’s important to note that Branbot is legitimately happier to see him than his sisters, and thinks Sam would be more interested in Jon’s parentage than they apparently are.

Meanwhile, back up at the battlements, Brittany and Arya have their season-wrap-up-bonding-session, exactly like the one Brittany had with Jonny last season. “You did the right thing.” “No you did.” Okay, girls.

Arya points out that Brittany passed the sentence, but she literally didn’t, so we’re not sure what to make of that. Or why they’re calling attention to splitting up the sentence with the sword swinging, when Ned’s whole point was that you can’t escape consequences of decision-making as a liege lord, which is why that role needs to be coupled.

Arya acknowledges that Brittany is Lady of Winterhell now that she’s proven her willingness to kill people…or demonstrated her loyalty to her family by killing people…or something. We’d have thought bringing troops from the Vale to the “Battle of the Bastards” might have accomplished that, or even her murder of Ramsay, but hey. Lady of Winterhell.

Brittany’s touched though, and says Arya’s the strongest person she knows. She totally could have survived the trauma that Brittany experienced.

Also, she still thinks Arya is “strange and annoying.” That’s an interesting way to phrase “murderous and creepy.” Then they both quote Ned talking about lone wolves dying but packs surviving. Awww, sisters.

Finally, Bran has a vision of the Army of the Dead busting through The Wall. The end.

That was…definitely something. However fear not: we will unpack all the meaning and significance in Part 2, coming in a few days. See you then!


Images courtesy of HBO. This piece was co-written by Kylie and Julia. If you liked this, be sure to subscribe to their podcast, Unabashed Book Snobbery, where they will also make the audio accompaniment to their retrospective series available.

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Analysis

Batwoman Isn’t Built For One-Shots Or Fill-Ins

Griffin

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[Danny Elfman Theme DOES NOT Play]

Wow. Just…wow. Okay, I was already keenly aware that any solo outing for Kate needed a very strong writer to actually work. Someone who did the homework, and understood that you can’t just throw her at things and expect it all to make sense later. That’s all a given, considering how atypical a character Kate Kane became. She’s not idealized. She’s not an icon, or an immovable concept.

All of that I knew. After Batwoman #11, written by Kate Perkins* and illustrated by a criminally underused Scott Godlewski (Copperhead was great until he stopped doing the art) however, I learned something new. I learned that Kate is just not a character built for one-and-dones or fill-ins. Because that was the single worst Batwoman story I’ve read since that time she got raped by a vampire for like eight issues.

Pictured: someone who can write Kate. Not pictured: that time she got raped by a vampire for eight issues

Which, okay, not a super high bar, but it’s still worse than that abysmal hyper-goyish Batwoman “Hanukkah” story from last year’s DC Holiday Special…which was also written by Kate Perkins. She just wanted pie or something. It was bad.

Anyway, the problems Batwoman #11 has are emblematic of how this kind of story just doesn’t work for Kate. And, wouldn’t you know it, there’s even a meta-textual reasoning behind all of it, too! Because of course there is; it’s Kate.

Kate’s continuity has always progressed forward since 2006, having never actually been reset or rebooted. She’s in a weird position that leaves her extremely well-characterized, but also makes it nigh impossible to write her “passably”. That is, mediocre. She’s sort of all-or-nothing just due to her own context.

This is also why cameos for her are either pitch perfect or laughably bad. For example: Kate’s brief appearances in Mother Panic and Red Hood and the Outlaws were excellent (though the latter had a weird art problem where it didn’t match the tone of the script, but that’s minimal), while her extended existence in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey was…abysmal.

More to the point, the fact that Kate has never actually stopped developing (EVEN ANDREYKO KNEW THIS AND HE IS THE WORST) means that any narrative where she’s the focal point in which it’s just “filling dead air” isn’t going to work. And no matter how you look at it, that’s exactly what Batwoman #11 was.

It was a series of beats that were hit by a writer who seems to have a very odd “blueprint” of what a Batwoman story needs to have to be a Batwoman story. Despite the fact that that’s not how any kind of story works, unless it’s supposed to be formulaic by design. Perkins seems to be under the impression that a Batwoman story is the following things:

  1. Reference Family
  2. Fuck up
  3. Relate to Larger Arc, somehow
  4. Kate blames herself and mopes

In all fairness, this is technically correct from a certain point of view. If I were to explain how to write a Batwoman story, I’d probably tell you make sure her family is somehow involved. Aside from that…you kind of need to understand who Kate is if you’re going to have her mope or blame herself.

You have literally never done this.

Uh. No. That’s the opposite of what Kate does. She doesn’t get distracted like that while working, because that’s the only time things “make sense” for her. Also, that’s not how you soldier. I don’t have an issue with her getting clocked on the head by Pyg (his Grant Morrison Weird Factor justifies quite a bit) but I do have a problem with inverted characterization. Also, hey, uh, you can’t just like drop a huge revelation like Beth used to wear glasses but Kate didn’t on us???

They’re twins. Identical twins. That’s not how this works. We have NEVER seen either of them with glasses before, and also it took me several tries to realize that the one in the pirate costume wasn’t Beth because literally every other flashback we’ve ever seen with those two had Beth be the happy one trying to cheer a mopey Kate up.

That’s sort of an important tonal through-line that Perkins wanted to subvert without realizing how confusing and inconsistent it would be? Or…got them mixed up? Or just didn’t care? I have no idea. Look, this whole issue is just one big hot mess. Julia Pennyworth, an SAS operative who unlike Kate actually is a professional soldier getting captured by Pyg and…being helpless for the entire story after being absent from this book since issue #4 is just really stupid and bad.

Kate’s inner monologue is overwritten to the point where any nuance that may have been there is drilled into the dirt. Her tattoos are, once again, missing, despite those actually being super important, and everything Kate says sounds like someone trying to do a really half-effort impression of how a good writer writes Kate.

What even is this

She still talks “weird’, but the wrong kind of weird. “Creepazoid” is very much the wrong decade, to put it lightly. And then it just sort of ends, with nothing happening or changing (since it couldn’t because it was a fill-in and that’s still the largest issue) and we’re back exactly where we were so we can slip into another flashback issue next month. Which would have been perfect right after #10, but alas that was not to be. As for why that is, why any of this exists at all, well, it’s pretty simple.

Because, uh, yeah, Perkins is gone now. Bennett is back next month, hopefully forever, but…see, here’s the thing: Bennett is about as busy as a writer in her industry can get without literally dying. Not quite Brian Michael Bendis, but y’know he was just in the hospital for like a month so…probably better that she’s not doing that.

As of this moment, she is/was concurrently writing:

  • Batwoman
  • DC Bombshells
  • Animosity
  • Animosity: The Rise
  • Animosity: Evolution
  • Sheena: Queen of the Jungle
  • InSexts
  • Josie and the Pussycats
  • At least three other things we don’t know about/I couldn’t find/I forgot about

Can you guess which one on that list can actually have a fill-in writer? It’s Batwoman and only Batwoman. Ironically, the one thing that absolutely should never have a fill-in was the only one that truly could due to how schedules work with the Big Two.

God, this is just gonna be bad in trade, huh? Ugh. I’d shoot the fail counter up by 52 or something but this isn’t Kate Kane’s fault; she doesn’t choose her writer. If she did, she sure as hell wouldn’t choose Perkins, that much I know for sure.


[*Editor’s Note: The name of the writer for this issue has been corrected from Kelly Perkins to Kate Perkins throughout.]

Images courtesy of DC Comics

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Analysis

Star Trek Voyager Tackles Historical Revisionism

David

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Happy New Year everyone! I hope everyone had a good holiday. Today, I’d like to talk to you about a sci-fi setting near and dear to our hearts: Star…Trek. Specifically, a “message episode” of Star Trek.

A “message episode” of Star Trek is one with a particular moral applicable to modern life. The franchise has made a great deal of these sort of episodes. Many have withstood the test of time and remained good or have morals that still reverberate (Such as the Original Series episode “Day of the Dove”). Some have aged rather poorly or the message was badly told in the first place (As was the case in the Next Generation episode “The Outcast”). For me personally, there is one episode that stands head and shoulders above every other message episode. Star Trek Voyager’s season 4 episode “Living Witness”. Why this one specifically? Not only is it’s message more relevant now than ever and because it is the only one to actually acknowledge what its specific theme is: racism and Historical Revisionism.

   The Voyager Encounter

The episode opens in a way that for any other show in the series, would seem like it’s taking place in the Mirror Universe. The lighting is dim on the ship , Captain Janeway is monologuing to an alien visitor about how if diplomacy fails the only answer is overwhelming force, and worst of all…she’s wearing black gloves. During the conversation Janeway reveals that she is making a deal with the alien, who identifies his species as the Vaskan. In exchange for directions to a stable wormhole, Voyager will capture the leader of another race, the Kyrians.

As Janeway walks to the bridge, viewers see more clues that show this isn’t the normal Voyager. Neelix has a console and is wearing a uniform. Captain Janeway refers to the ship as the ‘Warship Voyager’, and the doctor is an android. What’s even worse, the Captain orders the use of Biogenic weapons against civilian targets. Clearly, something is not right here.

Just before the opening titles we see what is actually going on. The Voyager we were watching was a holographic recreation of an event that apparently happened 700 years ago. The curator of the museum (a Kyrian named Quarren) tells the people watching the recreation that “Even today, seven hundred years later, we are still feeling the impact of the Voyager Encounter.”

After the opening credits, we quickly learn through exposition that according to this museum, Voyager attacked and killed the leader of the Kyrians, a man named Tedran. Tedran’s death led to centuries of Kyrian oppression under the Vaskans. In a good line of dialogue, before resuming the simulation and showing Tedran’s death, Quarren gives the visitors a content warning, telling them that this next scene will be disturbing. And it honestly is. Captured after a brief scuffle with fully Borg Seven of Nine simulation, Janeway has him brought before her and the Vaskan ambassador. She then executes him herself.

Tedran’s murder…according to the simulation.

After the simulation ends, a Vaskan patron confronts Quarren, claiming that the story presented is inaccurate. That the Kyrians are always blaming the Vaskans for their problems. The patron is also quick to point out that he doesn’t have a problem with Kyrians. Some of his friends are Kyrian after all! It’s at this point in the episode, a little over a third of the way into it, that we start to see that theme of racism start to appear. It will remain a background element for a while though, simmering and only really making itself known near the end of the episode.

Later, after the museum closes for the night, Quarren starts working on a new Voyager artifact. He identifies it as some sort of data storage device, possibly Captain Janeway’s personal logs, but can’t seem to access it. As he pokes and prods, he realizes it that it has far too much data for it to be a simple log…and then the Doctor appears. More specifically, the Doctor’s backup.

Immediately fascinated by the Doctor, Quarren begins to question him. An actual member of Voyager’s crew! He could shed so much light on that era of history. He is a literal living witness! The Doctor, for his part, is nonplussed at discovering that it’s over seven hundred years since he was last ‘awake’, and all of his friends are dead. The Doctor becomes even more upset when he discovers he’ll be tried for war crimes. The Doctor protests his innocence claiming (truthfully) that he never created weapons of mass destruction, and that most of the information presented in the museum is inaccurate, distorted, or flat-out wrong. The Doctor demands to see the recreation of the “Voyager Encounter”. After viewing it, the Doctor, incensed, says that somewhere, hopefully on Earth, Captain Janeway is spinning in her grave.

The Doctor then tells Quarren that Tedran, far from being an innocent martyr, actually led an attack on Voyager. Now it’s Quarren’s turn to get angry, accusing the Doctor of lying to protect himself. The Doctor counters by saying that Quarren is also protecting himself…from the truth. The Doctor points out that the simulation paints Kyrians in the best possible light. He ends his thoughts with this line: “Revisionist History…it’s such a comfort”. Enraged, Quarren states flatly that his people were not the aggressors in the war, and that the oppression continues to this day. He then shuts down the Doctor’s program.

Revising Revisionism

This last scene has so much to unpack, so let’s start with the smaller stuff. As you can see, the racial issues aren’t quite front and center yet, but still remain just behind the curtain. Quarren’s anger is seemingly justified at first. How dare this…mass murderer question historical truth! But his actions do not back this up. Earlier he had told the Doctor that synthetic beings had the same rights as organics on his planet. But he still turns the Doctor off while the Doctor was speaking, as if the Doctor were just some sort of toy. And then there’s the Doctor’s line.

Historical Revisionism. It’s a phrase that conjures up images of Holocaust deniers trying to spread their conspiracy theories under the guise of ‘research’. And indeed that can be a downside of Historical Revisionism. Changing events to suit one’s own agenda, or simply viewing the events and seeing what we want to see. However, there is a positive side to Historical Revisionism. Without it, we would still view Andrew Jackson as a war hero, instead of the man who created the Trail of Tears. We would see the Spanish Conquistadors as brave explorers instead of the death knell of an entire civilization.

This sort of Historical Revisionism is hard to do, however. The majority of us don’t like having long held beliefs attacked. Of having things we’ve believed true for years suddenly becoming false. Of hearing “No. You’re wrong”. Put in this context, Quarren shutting down the Doctor becomes far more understandable, if still an awful thing to do.

When we see Quarren again, he’s dictating an entry into his log. He reflects that, perhaps their histories are wrong…after all, they thought the doctor was an android, not a hologram. And if they could be wrong about that, what else could they be wrong about? Coming to this conclusion, he reactivates the Doctor and apologizes, saying that he will not turn off the Doctor’s programming again. Quarren then asks the Doctor if they could recreate what the Doctor claims to have happened. The Doctor agrees, if only to clear Voyager’s good name.

The Doctor’s recreation starts the same way as Quarren’s, with Captain Janeway speaking to a Vaskan ambassador. But instead of plotting genocide, it’s a simple trade negotiation. Voyager will give the Vaskans medical supplies in return for fuel. As the medical supplies are being prepared for shipment, a group of Kyrians, led by Tedran, attack Voyager.

They board the engineering deck, killing three crewmen and taking Seven of Nine hostage. The Kyrians then proceed to a conference room with their hostages. Captain Janeway, The Doctor, and the Vaskan ambassador quickly follow them, with the doctor offering to lead the way since he is immune to phaser fire. They confront Tedran, who accuses Captain Janeway of plotting to destroy his people. Before Janeway can talk him down, the Vaskan ambassador shoot Tedran, killing him.

Tedran’s real killer.

In a different episode, it might have ended here, with Quarren seeing and accepting the Doctor’s version of what happened. Instead, we finally see the second issue that this episode deals with finally steps out: racism.

Some of my best friends are Kyrian!

Quarren and the Doctor show this version of events to three representatives—two Vaskan and one Kyrian. The Vaskans seem more than to accept this version of what happened. After all, this means that their ancestors weren’t the aggressors. They were simply defending themselves against Kyrian aggression. The Kyrian representative is a much harder sell, first demanding that they arrest the Doctor and then asking what proof he can offer that this really happened.

The Doctor shows them a tricorder that we had previously seen as an exhibit, confirming that this was the same one he used to examine Tedrin. If he can power it up, it’ll show that the shot that killed Tedran came from a Vaskan weapon. The Kyrian representative responds by saying that this doesn’t matter. Tedran was killed on Voyager, a victim of a conspiracy. She calls for the Doctor’s arrest again, only to have one of the Vaskan representatives overrule her. The Kyrian responds bitterly, stating that she’s just the token Kyrian for this commission. Quarren interjects, stating that the issue isn’t about race. The Kyrian representative responds bitterly stating that “It’s always about race” and then accusing the Vaskans of seizing at every opportunity to keep themselves in power. The commission departs, with no real decision reached and leaving Quarren and the Doctor to try and power up the tricorder.

This scene requires more unpacking than even the the doctor’s line about Historical  Revisionism. When I was re-watching this episode for this article, I was kind of shocked how bluntly and directly they approached this issue. To my knowledge, there was only one other episode of Star Trek ever to even use the word ‘race’  in this context. And yet, here we are. The other thing that jumped out at me was the delivery of the line by the actresses who played the Kyrian representative: bitter and resigned.

With this exchange, you get a sense of how entrenched the Vaskan oppression of the Kyrians must be. Of how hard they must have struggled to get their version of history accepted. How much harder it was to even get this museum built instead of sugar coating history. And now here comes this hologram, someone they believe to be a mass murderer who is telling them that their people deserved what happened to them. Nevermind the fact that the Doctor isn’t saying this at all, it’s what the Kyrians believe that he is saying. And perhaps worst of all, it’s what the Vaskans believe he’s saying. Finally, they can wash their hands of the guilt. The Kyrians attacked us. We were only defending ourselves. All that oppression was simply the result of your actions. They only accept the story because it makes themselves look good.

That’s not to say that the Kyrians are completely innocent in all this. After all, they want to kill the Doctor for crimes he didn’t commit. To hide the historical truth, and to continue to venerate a man who attacked a third party and killed innocent people. That neither side is exactly innocent comes across just as clearly as the racism does in this scene.

Things don’t really improve after this. Later that night, as the Doctor and Quarren work to try and get the tricorder operational, an angry mob of Vaskans storm the museum. They smash it up, angry that all the ‘history’ they learned was a lie. When I first saw this episode, I sympathized somewhat with the Vaskans. Finding out that not only are your ancestors innocent of the crime they were accused of and that the history were they were portrayed as monsters was a bald faced lie? I would have been angry too.

Now though, I see this mob for what they probably supposed to represent. Racists rioting under the guise of ‘telling the truth’, ignoring the real facts of Kyrian oppression in the present day. It reminds me of the riot in Charlottesville. The next morning, the Doctor and Quarren are picking through the rubble trying to find the tricorder, which was lost in the chaos of the previous night. Quarren tells the doctor that a race riot broke out and two people were killed. Quarren goes on to tell the Doctor that there is talk of another war brewing. The Doctor is horrified by this. He was programmed to do no harm, and now his presence is the catalyst for a planetary war. He tells Quarren that he will deny everything. “Tedran was a martyr for your people, a hero, a symbol of your struggle for freedom. Who am I to wander in seven hundred years later and take that away from you?” The Doctor asks.

The Doctor’s crisis of faith.

Quarren shows now how much he’s changed since the beginning of the episode, angrily saying “History has been abused! We keep blaming each other for what happened in the past.” He then implores the Doctor to help him. As they keep looking through the rubble, the camera pans, and we that this was another simulation, from some point even further in the future. This tour guide tells the group listening that thanks to the Doctor’s testimony, a new dialogue was opened between the Vaskans and the Kyrians. That Quarren died six years later, but he lived long enough to see the beginning of true peace between the two races. The Doctor stayed as Surgical Chancellor of the united races for years before getting a small ship and setting off for Earth, wanting to return home.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

As I mentioned before, this is an incredibly strong message episode of Star Trek, one of the best of Voyager, and one of my personal favorites. Everything in it, from the story to the acting, helps to hammer in the themes and moral that the episode is trying to get across. The moral is timeless, a reminder to not let your personal feelings or cause to get in the way of trying to find the truth. As for the theme of racism? In Star Trek, there is the idea of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”, a celebration of all the variables in the universe. The idea being that we shouldn’t limit or disregard someone because of how they look, their background, or anything.

Living Witness is a reminder to respect that Infinite Diversity, and I can think of no better moral.


Images courtesy of Paramount Television

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