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Analysis

A Tale of Two Dead Mothers

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Content Warning: This article discusses death, violence, torture, and attempted rape, as depicted on these shows. Full spoiler warning for all seasons of Black Sails and Into the Badlands.

A couple weeks back I explored the way in which Grimdark settings have a propensity to pile shitty experiences onto the innocent and noble characters in the narrative. One of the examples I used was Veil from Into the Badlands, a character whose suffering culminated in her death at the end of the most recent season. At the time I mentioned the desire to cover her death, and its implications, more in depth, so here I am, and here we are.

What makes Veil’s arc worth discussing in full is her intersectionality. She’s not just a female character, she’s also a woman of color and a mother. She’s also, as I pointed out in my discussion of the daemon ex machina, one of the nicest, most compassionate characters in a dark, dystopian setting and has the strongest moral compass of anyone on Into the Badlands thus far. So, I thought to myself, what better way to bring out the complexities and implications of her narrative than to compare and contrast her with a another mother who may not share all the same intersections, but ended up dying just the same? And what better show to do that with than the Fandomentals’ favorite show about bisexual pirates and dutiful princesses who fight against slavery?

I’m talking, of course, about Eleanor Guthrie from Black Sails.

This is her “I’m not here for your bullshit” face. It comes in very handy.

Watsonian Exploration: How Did it Come to This?

Other than both having functioning uteri, Eleanor and Veil share very little in the way of similar character or personality traits. Eleanor is basically everything Veil isn’t: ruthlessly pragmatic, ambitious, and calculating. She has a complicated relationship with her father, a stronger connection to places than to people, and will change sides on a dime if it benefits her goals. Eleanor thinks primarily in terms of ideological ends and how to get there, and will betray established relationships it if means achieving them.

While her goal for the first three seasons of Black Sails stayed the same—controlling and bringing ‘civilization’ to Nassau—the fourth season sees Eleanor shifting away from Nassau. Her marriage to Woodes Rogers and resulting pregnancy grants her a new perspective on what she wants and what will make her happy. It’s part of a larger pattern within the final season of the show contrasting the desire for ‘life with the one you love’ and ‘the fight for what’s right’. How different characters navigate this clash of ideologies determines their ending and relationships.

Eleanor is one of, if not the, first to choose life with the one she loves. She discovers early on in the season that she’s pregnant with Rogers’s child and begins to act based on her desire to settle down and have a life with him and the baby rather than bring war civilization to Nassau. Yet she does not want to tell him she’s pregnant, which leads to a seeming betrayal of him when she surrenders the fort to the pirates. She even goes so far as to fire on Rogers to get him to stay away in exchange for the Urca cache, and thus a new chance at life away from Nassau.

Believing Eleanor has returned to her ‘pirate ways’ and desperate to retake Nassau to find a way to pay off his debts, Rogers forms a tenuous alliance with the Spanish. The Spanish invade Nassau, and Eleanor must take cover in Mrs. Barlow’s abandoned house with Madi. When Flint and the others leave to chase down stray Spanish soldiers, one of the presumed dead soldiers outside the house attacks. He attempts to rape and/or kill both Eleanor and Madi, and in the ensuing fight, Madi is knocked out, Eleanor receives a wicked gash, and the house is set on fire. Madi eventually makes it out alive (hooray!), but Eleanor dies in Flint’s arms when he returns to check on them.

Eleanor’s death was both entirely unexpected and seemingly random. For many of us here at the Fandomentals who watched the show, it was and still is, the weakest point of the season. While it makes sense at one level because it’s hard to imagine where Eleanor fit into the finale the show was building toward, the suddenness of it was jarring. The show may ostensibly be about Flint and Silver, but Eleanor Guthrie has been, in my view, more of the secondary protagonist than even Silver was, especially in the first two seasons. I fully expected other female characters to die—Max and Anne, to be quite honest—but not Eleanor.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get this.

Thus, from a strictly Watsonian perspective, Eleanor’s death seems almost worse than Veil’s.

Now, before I discuss Veil’s story, I do want to mention that I actually really, really like Into the Badlands as a whole. Other than Veil’s arc, I find it to be a interesting, engaging, and enjoyable show to watch. It’s pretty violence, but it has an old-time kung-fu-esque vibe that prevents it from becoming overly gory or exploitative. There are also some pretty excellent primary female characters, one of whom is queer, and the main protagonist and romantic hero is an Asian man, Sunny. Media may be saturated with dystopian futures or alternate histories, but Into the Badlands offers a unique spin on the concept, and the worldbuilding is expansive and rich, even if it doesn’t stand up completely under close scrutiny.

Season 2 begins with Veil and her infant Henry all but prisoners of Quinn after she saved him from death at the end of S1. Her arc revolves around her attempting to escape the compound in which he holds her while simultaneously failing to treat his brain tumor but lying about it’s seeming progression toward remission. Finally, an escape attempt succeeds, and she seeks shelter with the Widow, who takes in refugees. However the Widow eventually trades her back to Quinn to negotiate an alliance against the other barons, whereupon Quinn forces her to marry him in order to make Veil’s and Sunny’s child his heir.

In the final, climactic battle of the season, Quinn holds her at knifepoint to force Sunny, the protagonist, to surrender baby Henry in exchange for Veil. (Quinn has kind of a creepy obsession with baby Henry, who isn’t even his kid, and it’s weird.) The standoff ends with Veil stabbing Quinn through her own body, killing both of them.

Rather than unexpected, Veil’s death was pretty well foreshadowed in hindsight. Veil also has a conversation with Tilda about how neither of them were willing to kill their abusers. Several times Veil and Baron Quinn discuss the fundamental difference in their characters; Quinn kills without compunction, Veil refused to kill even the man who brutally murdered her parents. Even on her wedding night as that same man attempts to rape her after forcibly marrying her, she struggles to follow through and actually kill him. The one time Veil killed someone was in self defense and, as it did not help her escape, it accomplished nothing. For Veil, killing others is not the answer and does not lead to freedom.

Nothing actually leads to freedom for Veil.

There were several false starts for her death, or at least violence against her, as well. Every time Veil attempted escape or to find some measure of agency in her imprisonment, I expected retribution that never came. Quinn’s building paranoia and thinning patience with Veil’s resistance to his predatory advances frayed to almost the breaking point several times. Quinn threatens baby Henry multiple times to induce Veil to help him. All season long there’s this bubbling tension regarding when Quinn’s finally going to snap and follow through on his threats toward Veil and Henry.

Unlike Eleanor’s story, Veil’s season-long build up is one of constant emotional and psychological suffering sprinkled with threats of violence both sexual and physical. The numerous conversations that highlight her inability to act violently unless under extreme duress, and even then only to protect the ones she loves, foreshadow her eventually being pushed to the point where she would willingly stab herself in order to also kill Quinn and thus protect her son and lover from a violent man. Within a strictly Watsonian exploration, then, at least Veil’s arc makes sense narratively-speaking and was pretty well foreshadowed.

Thematic Resonances: What Does it Mean In the Story?

Both characters fit within the parameters of the daemon ex machina I recently discussed. While not Grimdark or dystopian, the world of Black Sails is quite thoroughly violent and the historical period in which it exists, heavily tinged with sexism, racism, homophobia, and slavery. Eleanor may begin her character arc in S1 in the dark grey shade of moral ambiguity, but season 4 especially sees her attempting to grow beyond her violent past and reform her life.

Choosing love and family over Nassau has special thematic resonance for her given her relationship with her father. For young Eleanor, political and social ambition was a means to gain her father’s respect and approval. In fact, her desperate need for approval and ‘fuck the patriarchy’ resonated so much with me that for a long time, I really disliked her character development in S4. Ruthless, calculating, ambitious women who aren’t judged by the narrative for their choices are hard to come by. Like Claire Underwood, Eleanor Guthrie was a rare example of this character done extremely well.

The shift in character motivations from ‘political ambition’ to ‘settle down and be a wife and mom’ struck me at first glance as a cruel domestication of a powerful female character. All too often marriage and/or children are given to female characters as a way of ‘rounding out’ their happy ending, as if marriage and motherhood are the expected conclusions to a female protagonist’s journey. Doubly so if that female character has displayed independence, ambition, or cunning, traits that would make her more ‘conventionally masculine’ and therefore in need of ‘softening’ with domestic life. Gotta tame those independent-thinking women with babies and a man.

However, the more I think about the theme of the final season, the more I see how Eleanor’s story, while not perfectly executed, fits within that thematic arc. The conceptual struggle between a life of love and a fight for justice permeated the final season. Every primary character had to decide where their lines in the sand were and which ‘side’ of this ideological battle they would choose. Like Flint, Silver, and Madi, Eleanor chooses the person she loves.

Not only does it fit within the thematic whole, it’s a meaningful step for her character arc. That she willingly chooses not just family but to reject the city that represents her political aspirations and her father’s approval is the most significant step toward growth Eleanor Guthrie could possibly evince.

Nevertheless, unlike Flint, Silver, and Madi, Eleanor dies for her choice. She’s the only character who chooses love over the fight for justice who dies, and in a contrived and random manner. The only other primary character from S1 and still alive in S4 to not get a happy ending is Billy Bones, and he was going mad from his thirst for revenge. From a thematic perspective, I’m not quite certain what the takeaway is. Sometimes meaningful choices get you killed? The world is randomly violent?

Moreover, her pregnancy—coincidentally the aspect of her arc I find the least necessary and most exploitative—seems to shift her into the position that Veil has occupied from the beginning. Namely, that of the innocent who suffer most in a shitty world. By the end of Eleanor’s arc, she’s the innocent collateral damage; that she’s also the only one to specifically choose both wife-dom and motherhood prior to this, well…it’s not all that flattering.

Unlike Eleanor, Veil’s death at least has clear thematic resonance. Hers is the culmination of a resistance narrative and a noble sacrifice for her child. I suppose you could call Eleanor’s death a noble sacrifice. She is actively trying to save Madi from the blaze, and it’s a refreshing change to see a white character sacrifice themselves for a character of color rather than the other way around. Still, the suddenness of Eleanor’s death and the obvious levels of plot contrivance involved—that one soldier just happened to survive without anyone noticing or checking to see if he was really dead and then has the strength to overpower two women who are not at all unfamiliar with physical fighting or violence, sure Jan—kind of undermine the meaningfulness there.

And even if Veil’s death does have thematic resonance, it doesn’t actually follow that it’s positive thematic resonance. I’ll talk more about this in the implications sections below, but Veil’s death is the culmination of a season’s worth of suffering physical violence, constant threats, emotional and psychological torture, forced marriage to the man who killed her parents, and his attempted rape of her on their wedding night. She’s granted very little agency and is actively punished for any attempts to exert herself, culminating in her death.

It’s a resistance narrative for sure, but a rather shitty one in terms of the emotional impact on the audience. As Monique Jones put it in her review for Black Girl Nerds, she’s a damsel who doesn’t get rescued.

Like, this is their own marketing for her character.

That’s not all, her story pretty clearly depicts domestic abuse after her forced wedding. Veil’s self-blame in the face of Quinn’s violent outburst; Quinn blaming her for being ‘drawn to men of violence.’ It’s not all that different from Quinn repeatedly telling Lydia she’s in love with him partly because of his dark nature. In fact, Veil’s reactions to Quinn after their marriage put a whole new spin on his relationship with Lydia. Suddenly, we see that this may not have been as mutual a relationship after all. Though it does not justify any of her choices, Lydia is likely just as much a victim of domestic abuse as Veil, especially in such a heavily patriarchal culture.

On the flip side, there’s some unfortunate messaging involved that wasn’t clearly teased out. Veil might not be attracted to Quinn, but Quinn is right that she’s drawn to one man of violence: Sunny. And while we, the audience, know Veil is not attracted to Quinn in any way, Lydia’s confirmation of Quinn’s comment that she loves him because of, not despite, his violence seems to endorse the idea that women are ‘asking for it’ when they get involved with violent and/or abusive men because they find those men attractive. To be clear, I don’t think the show, or the writers, intend this message at all. But it does stand out to me as an unfortunate takeaway based on the story they told with Lydia and Veil as domestic abuse victims.

So what’s the thematic value here? Domestic abuse kills women? Karma is especially bitchy if you’re a compassionate person in a Grimdark world? If you’re a nice person, everything sucks and then you die to save your baby? At least one of the showrunners clearly believes there’s power and thematic resonance to Veil’s sacrifice, but I’m having trouble seeing what it is other than that the one time she actually succeeds in exerting agency kills her.

Veil’s Noble Sacrifice™ also serves as a direct contrast to the metaphorical motherhood of the Widow. A former Baron’s wife turned Baron herself and champion of freeing the cogs from their enslavement, the Widow has no literal children of her own. However, her protégé Tilda calls her ‘mother’ as an honorific, and the show plays with the idea of her being a mother-figure to the cogs who seek shelter with her much like Dany is Mhysa to the slaves of Slavers Bay. (Though at least with the Widow there aren’t any White Savior implications, thank heavens.)

During the course of S2, however, the show systematically breaks this idealized picture of the Widow down while at the same time showcasing how far Veil will go to protect her baby. The Widow ultimately sacrifices Veil and others under her protection to save her female warriors/protégés, called Butterflies. Veil ultimately sacrifices herself to save Henry. While both put themselves in harms way to protect their children, metaphorical or biological, Veil was willing to die for her son. The Widow, on the other hand, betrayed Veil, and Tilda’s expectations of her, to form an alliance with Quinn.

Pretty sure kicking your daughter’s ass and throwing her in jail is the opposite of idealized motherhood.

One could argue the Widow’s choice was for the greater good; she clearly believes so. Yet, I’m hard pressed to not see that the show was intentionally drawing a contrast between these two women. Tilda’s reactions to the Widow evince a breakdown in idealization and a rejection of her as a ‘true’ mother figure; her refusal to call the Widow ‘mother’ after the latter hands over Veil to Quinn says as much. The contrast between the Widow and Veil underscores the theme that, for Into the Badlands, ‘true’ motherhood is self-sacrifice, selflessness, and putting the needs of your child above everyone else’s, even your own.

And that brings me to…

Doylist Implications: Idealized Motherhood, Fridging, and Manpain

Um, so yeah, idealized motherhood is a problem for both of these characters. On Into the Badlands, ‘true’ mothers put their children first and willingly sacrifice themselves for their sake. Veil epitomizes this value, but we see it in Lydia’s life as well.

Quinn’s first wife and the mother to their son Ryder, Lydia puts her own physical and emotional safety at risk to protect and advance Ryder’s interest, even when they clash with her husband’s. In fact, so committed is she to her son that Ryder’s death sets her on a path of revenge against Quinn, who killed Ryder after he usurped Quinn’s barony. She eventually re-aligns with Quinn and assists in Veil’s forced marriage because Lydia still loves him for…reasons, but the point remains that up until Ryder’s death, she consistently chose her son over her husband.

Bear in mind that on the show, Veil and Lydia are the only two main female characters who have biological children. I know three’s a pattern, but we only have two characters to go on for Into the Badlands, and they both fall neatly into the same box: good mothers are selfless and sacrificial.

Thus, the Widow’s position as a mother figure, though without biological children, stands out all the more strongly. Veil’s sacrifice ensures that her child will be loved, protected, and perceive her as a martyr. The Widow’s lack of sacrifice led to the betrayal and disillusionment of her child-figure Tilda. In fact, the Widow almost kills her own ‘child’ to protect herself and her ideals rather than admit she was wrong and seek reconciliation. She is a fallen mother where Veil is an exalted one.

The Widow is neither selfless nor sacrificial. She may kill for her metaphorical children, but she will not die for them. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but the idea seems to be that the Widow fails as a ‘mother’ because she doesn’t know what ‘real’ (i.e., biological) motherhood is. She cannot be a real, idealized mother-figure because she doesn’t have ‘real’ children, only conceptual ones. And that’s just all kinds of fucked up.

Eleanor fits the idealized motherhood trope, though to a significantly lesser degree and without the messy contrast with a less ideal mother-figure to prop her up. Her idealization comes in the form of her willingness to sacrifice herself for Madi and desire to settle down into being no more than a housewife and mother. In fact, it seems less a matter of idealized motherhood on purpose, as Veil’s story seems to be, than it is by accident due to a cluster of narrative choices.

Eleanor attempts to rescue Madi and dies in the process. It’s a noble sacrifice, for sure, but it wasn’t made because of her motherhood or to protect her child, as Veil’s decision was. Her desire to settle down with the man she loved was both meaningful character growth and part of the ideological struggle of the season between a quiet life of love or fighting against the system. Her death was random and contrived rather the pinnacle of motherly sacrifice for the good of her baby.

At the same time, the only reason she chose love over civilizing Nassau was, you guessed it, because she found out she was pregnant. She’s thus an idealized mother by implication. Stemming from her pregnancy, the choice to set aside political ambition and ‘settle down’ with her husband and unborn child places her firmly within the expected gender norms for women and motherhood. A ‘good mother’ puts her child’s needs first. Since Nassau isn’t a safe place to raise a child, Eleanor’s desire to leave it all behind looks very much like it’s done not from character growth (though I know it is) but because that’s what a ‘good mom’ would do. A ‘good mom’ chooses her husband and baby’s health and happiness; a ‘good mom’ gives up political ambition, her job, and desire for recognition to take care of her family.

Even her clothing choices reflect peak conventional femininity in this setting.

Again, I don’t think this was at all intentional. But honestly, that was my first impression of her story. Only upon reflection did I see the thematic fit and character growth evident in her narrative. As I said above, this narrative choice first struck me as a domestication of Eleanor’s ambition and an attempt to force her into a more conventional role where motherhood became the primary force in her decision-making process.

And it still kind of is. Her pregnancy, and thus motherhood, was her guiding motivation, it just wasn’t the proximate cause of her death as it was for Veil.

It’s also worth pointing out that both characters intersect at least somewhat with manpain and the fridging of female characters. Eleanor’s death, and his discovery of her pregnancy, solidifies Rogers’ descent into revenge and despair. Nevertheless, prior to her death, Rogers was already well on his way there. I mean, a guy who would ally with the Spanish to rape and pillage the town he supposedly wants to control in order to pay off his debts isn’t exactly in the peak of clear-headedness.

Like Billy Bones in S4, Woodes Rogers was a bit broken when the season started (or soon thereafter) and the cracks only worsened as the season went on. While contrived, Eleanor’s death didn’t feel like fridging and mainpain to me. Yes, it increases his desire for revenge against the pirates, and he shows remarkable cruelty toward the end of the season. But remember, this is the man who had Blackbeard keel-hauled not once, but three times, and then petulantly shot him in the head when Blackbeard ruined his Moment™ by refusing to die. Eleanor’s death may have solidified his descent into black guilt and his thirst for revenge, but it didn’t precipitate it

Since it is not the proximate cause of his pain and struggle, I have a difficult time calling it manpain or fridging, at least in the traditional sense. Her death affects her husband, of course, but it isn’t about him. It doesn’t make her any less of a female character who didn’t need to die. Or one whose death wasn’t clearly driven by narrative contrivance. Your mileage may vary, but to me, these subtle differences are enough to avoid some pretty problematic storytelling tropes.

Veil’s death, on the other hand, is very much poised to shift Sunny’s character arc moving forward. Showrunner Al Gough has said as much in an interview with Black Girl Nerds writer Monique Jones,

“I think for Sunny, he was left with [Veil’s] last words, which were [to] teach Henry to be good. I think that goes to his larger journey of how is he going to engage in the world? How is he going to make the world around him better and better for his son…He does have something to live for; it is his connection to her. He was part of the problem in this world, and how is this going to propel him to be part of the solution? He had that connection, he had love, they had a baby. He’s taken life and now he’s created life and what [is he] going to do now as a parent in a very dangerous world?”

While mostly avoiding manpain by not giving us a traditional Revenge™ arc, Veil’s death changes something about Sunny’s character and his perspective on the world. Thankfully, it sounds like it will be in a positive direction, but that doesn’t change the facts. Her death is still the primary and proximate cause for Sunny’s behavior and actions. Moreover, the main narrative affect of her death is to undercut Sunny’s journey this season to find a way back to her and rescue her. As Gough said in that same interview,

“[Into the Badlands is] about a man going on this spiritual and emotional journey to be good. So I think that at a point, Sunny will find his redemption.”

A black woman died so Sunny could have an epiphany about the uselessness of violence. It’s Sunny’s story after all, so even if Gough and the other showrunners wanted her to “go out in a strong way” and “get the final death blow on Quinn, even in this case, if it meant taking herself out as well” (also direct quotes), her death is still about Sunny, not herself. Her death = his character growth. Her death = his tragedy. That’s pretty classic fridging.

More Doylist Implications: Suffering and Dying as a Woman of Color

After Sleepy Hollow, killing off the only primary black female character will look bad no matter how meaningful or thematically significant it was (like the Spring Slaughter did for queer women). As Monique Jones put it in her review of the season 2 finale of Into the Badlands,

“[I]t isn’t right that Veil, like too many Black women characters before her in other shows, was once again the sacrifice for the better good. It’s doubly painful in a show like Into the Badlands, which has been praised for its focus on diversity and inclusive writing.”

Killing off the only black female character in an episode where two white women survive—one of whom literally dug her own grave—doesn’t sit well with me. There are other black women on the show, but Veil was the only primary black female character. She was also the protagonist’s love interest. Her death destroys a rare interracial relationship between a black woman and an Asian man. Given Daniel Wu’s (who plays Sunny) desire finally do justice to the romantic tension in Romeo Must Die, killing off the woman of color love interest seems to be the exact opposite of helpful or desirable. It only perpetuates the notion that interracial relationships of this kind are either disgusting, undesirable, or both.

But the problem isn’t just her death. Think back to what I’ve said about her story this season being about suffering physical and psychological torture while failing to achieve personal agency. On a Watsonian level, she suffers because of her relationship to Sunny. As the mother of his child, she suffers due to Quinn’s mania and increasing obsession with Henry as a viable ‘heir’ to replace Ryder. She also suffers because she’s a skilled healer—the only one skilled enough to destroy Quinn’s tumors—and one who takes her oath to ‘do no harm’ seriously by not killing Quinn at the end of S1 when she had a chance.

But recall that she’s a black woman in a subservient position and Quinn a white man in a position of power. A white man with a very heavily stylized ‘sophisticated’ Southern drawl (the only character with this drawl, mind you). Baron Quinn has, more than any other character, been depicted as embodying the Antebellum South. He has plantations; they’re opium rather than cotton, but even that choice seems symbolic given the visual similarity of an opium bulb to a cotton flower. You couldn’t ask for a better negative caricature of pre-Civil War Southern hospitality and sophistication as a mask for violence, oppression, greed, and lust for power and control. Hell, it’s even filmed in south Louisiana.

STOP TOUCHING HER; YOU’RE GROSS.

And then the show used him as a vehicle of torture and violence for a black woman under his control. A black woman accorded very little agency in her own plot. She’s actively punished by the narrative for attempting to break free. All but one of her assertions of agency fails. Every attempt to gain some measure of freedom and/or control results in yet more suffering. She’s quite literally trapped and unable to assert herself in any meaningful way against a character who simultaneously represents both white male privilege and slavery. A character who develops a creepy obsession with and entitlement toward both her, a black woman, and her baby, also a character of color. And then she dies.

Yeah…no thanks.

All the suffering that leads up to Veil’s death robs it of any storytelling power. She’s a damsel who was never rescued. Rather than a moment of triumph, her sacrifice is the culmination of a season’s worth of suffering at the hands of a white male sexual predator, rapist, and slave owner who manipulated, threatened, and imprisoned her. It’s too much. I couldn’t sit through the marriage scene, much less what followed. I was physically sick watching and had to mute it. For a story supposedly about resistance, even internal resistance, it felt more like psychological torture porn.

This is partly because of how exaggerated Quinn’s vileness and lechery was by the end of the season. Was it his tumor, or just his character? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The tumor only existed as the plot demanded and to give him visions of his dead son. His Villain Sue-ness also contributed to the feeling of Veil’s suffering being piled on; the show almost seemed to revel in his utter disgustingness even as he beat impossible odds and magically had all the resources he needed no matter what he was up against.

Looking back, given what’s going on now in Charlottesville and the increased threat of white supremacy and violence against people of color, it’s even worse. Granted, the show could not at all have predicted the turn our society would take during it’s hiatus.

Still, even without current events tingeing it, the narrative has it’s issues. A black woman faced repeated physical, mental, and emotional suffering not to mention psychological torture and attempted rape at the hands of an all-powerful white man. His white wife both looked on and enabled it. Although I do think Lydia redeems herself eventually and is also a victim of abuse, it’s still gross. Everything about it smacks of the historical and current exploitation of black women at the hands of white men and enabled by white women. With such a story, it’s hard to escape the unfortunate and likely entirely unintentional takeaway that the suffering of a black woman is for Drama™.

Conclusion: Two Dead Mothers

Thanks to Black Sails and Into the Badlands, we have two dead mothers. Both are, to one degree or another, defined by their motherhood (this season at least) and it’s idealization. Veil’s arc revolved around protecting her child, and her motherhood functioned as part of a thematic foil for the Widow. By contrast, Eleanor’s shift in perspective may stem from the discovery of her pregnancy, but her story was not employed as a foil the way Veil’s was. In fact, only one other character knows of Eleanor’s pregnancy, so while the audience may know she’s driven by it, none of the other characters do. Rogers misunderstands Eleanor’s choices precisely because she hides the fact of her motherhood.

There’s no misunderstanding Veil, or her motives, by either audience or other characters. At one point or another, every other motivation she had this past season—be it revenge against Quinn or devotion to Sunny—takes a backseat to her mothering instinct. In short, Eleanor is a mother, and that fact affects her choices, but Veil is a mother full stop. The only other defining feature to her narrative this season was her suffering, which has implications both for her as a female character and especially as a woman of color.

Eleanor, on the other hand, spent her season making choices, asserting her agency, and affecting the tide of events. Eleanor faced some scary situations and hard choices, but it was hardly the same level of character and narrative abuse that Veil faced. In fact, the extreme duress Veil suffered throughout the season gives it that much more of an emotional impact, though not in a positive way. It’s a deadly kick to the head after a season’s worth of punches to the chest and gut.

Yet the very randomness and contrived nature of Eleanor’s death on a Watsonian level undermines it’s impact. It feels more like a Plot Twist™ for Drama™ than a meaningful culmination to her character arc. That she’s the only main protagonist to die in the final season, and one that had been present from episode one, only makes her death that much more hollow.

A random Spanish soldier, Eleanor. I’m sorry.

At the same time, because she was an actor with the ability to change the narrative, we feel her absence once she’s gone. At every turn we wonder what Eleanor could have done to affect things, soothe things, stir things up. Her death has an emotional impact on other characters, but the greatest impact on the narrative, to my mind at least, is the loss of a player in the political game. And that signals her independence as a character from her role as mother and wife. We feel her loss in the story arc itself not just in how she affects other characters.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Veil. Moving forward, her lasting impact on Into the Badlands will be in Sunny’s emotional state. Yes, Quinn is dead at her hands, but literally anyone else could have accomplished that action to the same effect.

And, while they both die protecting someone, the meaning is different. Veil dies as a Good Mother Sacrificing Her Life For Her Son. Eleanor dies protecting herself, her unborn baby, and, most significantly, her friend/colleague Madi. Both are sacrifices, yes. Both are acts of agency and self-assertion in the face of violent males. But they’re not the same thing.

One is the culmination of an arc, the other a random tragedy that cuts short an arc. One solidifies her True Motherhood as a foil for another female character, the other is an act of solidarity with another female character unrelated to her motherhood. Eleanor isn’t a Good Mother for defending Madi the way Veil is a Good Mother for defending Henry. And, not to put too fine a point on it, Eleanor dies defending a female character while Veil dies protecting two male characters.

It’s also worth noting that Veil dies after spending the entire season trying to reunite with her lover. They get two seconds of happiness before she’s dead. End of season. Eleanor dies still not having reconciled or reunited with her husband after a seeming betrayal. Your mileage may vary on which feels worse to you as a viewer, but I find Veil’s situation more upsetting. Destroying a happy reunion feels worse than a lack of happy resolution at all, perhaps because it veers so close to narrative sadism.

Despite happening on the heels of a shit ton of gore and violent character deaths at the end of S3 and beginning of S4, Eleanor’s death still manages to avoid being grimdark. That may very well be because of it’s suddenness within the narrative and lack of gore. But I also think it’s because it wasn’t the culmination of a season’s worth of psychological torture porn and threats of violence. Veil’s death feels sadistic because she literally can’t win. No matter what she does, she gets smacked down for it. And her one act of agency that accomplishes anything? It’s her self-sacrificial death. That’s not just dark, that’s basically Game of Thrones levels of ‘what is the point of even trying to be a decent human being?’

At the end of the day, neither of these stories are done perfectly. Both either rely on or play into idealized motherhood in troubling ways and both leave a female character dead who could have had a significant role in the story otherwise. Yet Eleanor’s is done with more sensitivity to potentially negative Doylist implications despite a less than stellar execution. Idealized motherhood defines Veil’s character and her choices. Idealized motherhood in Eleanor’s arc is more a side effect of a weak narrative choice (i.e., she could have come to the same conclusion about leaving Nassau without a pregnancy) coupled with an emphasis on actual character growth and the season’s overarching theme.

As a character of color, Veil’s suffering and death have an even greater negative impact than Eleanor’s death. The story of a black woman unable to get out from under the oppressive control and abuse of a white male coded as a representation of the Antebellum south is pretty awful and not at all what I want to see on my screen. Especially when it culminates in her death and the destruction of her loving relationship with an Asian man, a rare piece of interracial representation for not one, but two marginalized communities. Stories matter and the negative implications of this one far outweigh any emotional or thematic resonance the creators wished to convey.

Plus, when start to tease it apart, what does her death even mean? That the most innocent suffer? This trope needs to die, as it’s usually employed to the detriment of women and people of color. In this case, both. Does her death signify the value of Noble Sacrifice™? Again, why must a black woman suffer for the greater good? And why do we need yet on more story of a Good Mother being self-sacrificing while pitting such an act against a Bad Mother who betrays her ‘daughter’ and is unwilling to die for the ones she loves?

Are we meant to look back and view this act as her sealing her own death warrant?

The ultimate message of Veil’s death seems to be that she should have killed Quinn when she had the chance at the end of S1. Is that what she ‘learned’ this season? That sometimes it’s necessary, even good, to kill somebody rather than have compassion? Is that what we’re meant to take away from this? That compassion only leads to suffering, and it’s better to be a killer than a decent person when your world is shit? Yikes. And Veil had to suffer threats of violence, psychological torture, and a forced marriage to and attempted rape by the man who killed her parents to learn it. Double yikes.

Veil’s story is more well motivated and foreshadowed by the narrative, but that’s about all I can say positively about it. One random, nonsensical, and unmotivated act of violence cannot compete with a season’s worth of physical, emotional, and psychological suffering in terms of sheer what-the-fuckery. For, despite Eleanor’s death being entirely someone else’s choice, the way Black Sails told her story clearly affords her more agency and impact on the narrative overall than Into the Badlands did with Veil. Given the choice between a female character whose ability to act in the narrative in a significant way is cut short by one random act of violence and a female character whose one successful act of agency is to kill herself (and the villain) after a season-long arc of getting shat upon, I know which one I would chose.

Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s stop idealizing motherhood and then killing said idealized mothers with an act of noble sacrifice, okay? Let’s stop killing off female characters of color for Drama™ after a season’s worth of brutalization. Let’s start giving female character roles that don’t revolve around either their motherhood or their suffering and violence at the hands of creepy white males. Let’s start giving female characters of color agency in their own stories; let’s start giving them happy endings with the person they love. Finally, let’s create more healthy, beautiful interracial relationships that don’t end in tragedy, something Black Sails actually did.

I still can’t believe that a happy Maxanne/Jackanne ot3 was endgame.


Images Courtesy of AMC and Starz

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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Analysis

Are We Ready to Admit that Thor: Ragnarok was a Hot Mess?

Kylie

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I didn’t watch Thor: Ragnarok in theaters. Actually, I hadn’t seen anything post-Ultron and was fine being free of the MCU for a few years. Then Black Panther came along and I found it so compelling that it washed away any Marvel fatigue I had been feeling. When the opportunity arose to watch the third Thor movie on an airplane, I hit the play button with genuine excitement.

Going into this, I had heard almost all positive things. I knew there were some similarities to Black Panther in the central themes, I knew Jeremiah gave it a glowing review, and I knew it was supposed to be exceedingly funny.

I was also no stranger to the Thor standalones. I felt his introductory movie was a bit silly, but did what it could with a superhero that well…lends himself to silliness. It’s a Norse god in a contemporary setting, after all. The result was a slightly boisterous fish-out-of-water tale with compact development and a pretty solid foundation on which we could understand his character. Thor 2: Dark World was absolutely odious as an artform, but I loved it anyway, much for the same reason Attack of the Clones is my favorite prequel. It was ironic enjoyment, but if you can’t be enthused by Natalie Portman running around in squeaky rainboots with her Science Machine™, then I can’t help you. Plus, it was Thorested Development.

Was I expecting some gaps in my knowledge given me sleeping on Civil Wars? Yes. Granted, those same gaps existed for Black Panther, and shockingly I was still able to fully understand his father’s death, as well as what Agent Ross meant to T’Challa and what their relationship was like. But I promise, I turned on Thor 3 with all the right intentions, and what I consider to be fairly measured expectations.

I turned it off wondering if I had a fundamental misunderstanding about the concept of a movie.

Two Plots, No Payoff

If I had watched Thor: Ragnarok on VHS in the 90s, I probably would have begun to wonder if someone taped over the entire middle portion with a completely different Thor film. Because it’s not just that there were two major plot threads, it’s that there were two different tones. Hell, there were almost two different genres when you get down to it.

The first is what I have to assume is the “main plot,” since it’s what the movie sets up in the first acts, and closes in the third. This is the story about Asgard’s legacy and reckoning against the threat of Hela, the Goddess of Death.

Thor is told by some demon guy that his dad isn’t at home anymore, so he goes back to Asgard find Loki pretending to be Odin. Then a random wizard tells them both that their dad is in Norway (yes, I know it’s Doctor Strange, but I’m talking about this movie on its own merits). They go there, but Odin is all sad and about to die, which means that his true heir—his firstborn daughter Hela—will escape from the prison he set up for her. You see, she’s the Goddess of Death and had been the leader of Asgard’s armies for Odin when he apparently conquered the Nine Realms, but she became too ambitious for his taste. What, a tenth was a bridge too far for Daddy Imperialist?

Whatever, he dies.

Thor and Loki go to confront the now-released Hela, she breaks Thor’s hammer, they get chased off, she takes over Asgard with the intention of more conquering, most people think she sucks so she raises dead zombies and a giant wolf to fight for her instead, and then Thor and some random friends come back to fight her again. He realizes he can only save his people, but he can’t save Asgard itself from Hela since she’s too powerful. He evacuates everyone, mainly with Heimdall and Loki’s help. Hela stabs Thor’s eye out and Thor levels up his lightning powers, but it’s still not enough to do anything about her, so he summons that demon guy from the beginning to have him destroy Hela…and all of Asgard. But it’s fine; he’s the King because Asgard is a people and not a place. Odin even pops in a vision at some point to tell him that.

This is a fine story. There’s things in it that could be explored, especially Thor reconciling with Odin’s savage, imperialistic legacy. It’s a bit hamstrung by Odin himself pooping out of the narrative entirely after dropping the plot bomb into Thor’s lap (seriously, am I alone in thinking this is one of the least effective death scenes in movie history? Certainly in MCU history?), and it’s a bit formulaic in the sense that the “bad guy” is more the concept of implacable evil.

I personally struggle with the messaging and execution of it. It’s not that coming to terms with the fallibility of your Kingly father and his decisions made while ruling your country is a weak narrative choice. That, you know, was the entirety of Black Panther, and what made it significant was the way in which T’Challa defined his duty on the throne in a way that made sense for himself and the changed context of the world. It was a meaningful shedding of idealization while coming into his own as a ruler.

This movie should have been that for Thor, but his realization about “Asgard is a people” was just sort of beamed into his head by Odin. Literally, Hela was choking him out, and he flashes to a vision of Odin telling him what to think of Asgard as well as his own powers. 

Then, what does that say if it’s Odin’s words Thor’s living by? That he does still respect this guy and want to follow in his footsteps, despite learning that he was a literal conqueror? That even asshole imperialists can have some good points? (Why does this keep happening?) Or was that Odin coming to the realization when he came to Thor, and he had reached this epiphany off-screen in the afterlife? It was like, “Oh hey I didn’t need to do all that conquering, because my duty was to my people and not the glory of this place.” 

It didn’t even seem like Thor came to the conclusion that destroying physical Asgard was a necessary thing given the place’s legacy and bloody history—just given the situation and how there was some lady with a dead army they couldn’t beat. It was a decision made in the heat of battle when the day was lost, but now he’s got his eyepatch and his people and a spaceship, so he’s ready to fill Odin’s shoes. You know…the shoes that we learned shouldn’t have been worn in the first place. Because imperialism. 

Also the requisite, “crazy over-ambitious woman couldn’t listen to her father when to chill with all the killing” complaint. Cate Blanchett saves it a little, but it’s there.

So yes, for all the weighty subjects floated in this plotline, none of them were actually given significant narrative weight, or exploration, or anything really. I suppose Hela’s claim to the throne and history with Asgard made her more of a meaningful threat; she was a monster of Asgard’s making, not to yet again call back to the film that pulled off all these concepts with actual dexterity and significance. But even with that, she was just evil. She didn’t have any nuanced points, or any compelling reason for anyone to follow her. Just that Odin had once been cool with her, but that stopped.

There was also nothing remotely familial or personal about her dynamic with Thor or Loki since she didn’t actually know them or seem to care about their general existence, and her abilities were never well-conveyed to even give the fight might grounding. We may as well have had Mjolnir shooting through multiple portals again.

That’s not to say these things couldn’t have been done or executed well. This was a long movie and whole lot of time to flesh out Hela’s relationship to our protagonist, or Thor’s relationship to his conception of governance and his home, or the Asgardian commoner point of view, or even to seed the demon guy that eventually brought the cataclysm just a wee bit better than the opening joke did.

No, it was far better we spent it with Thor rolling his eyes and debating the semantics of “crown”

It’s just that instead, the movie spent the bulk of its time seemingly uninterested in the main plot. Because there was ~junk planet antics~ to be had.

And yup, there’s plotline #2: Thor is in yet another wacky weekend adventure that he has to get out of! Which I don’t hate as a concept. I will happily pop some corn kernels and plop down with either of the Thor standalones, because they’re somewhat doofy fun. Just don’t stick me in the middle of this thing after setting up something rather serious and weighty. (And maybe don’t set up that serious, weighty thing by having a wizard warp two main characters to Norway.)

As a brief, brief summary, after Hela throws Thor and Loki out of Asgard, he finds himself alone on a junk planet called Sakaar. He’s captured by some lush played by Tessa Thompson who just so happens to be a former Valkyrie, a member of an Asgardian all-female elite warrior group that had fought Hela before her imprisonment. She sells him to Jeff Goldblum, who rules (?) Sakaar. So Thor is enslaved, literally has a controlling device thing in his neck, and is forced to fight in a gladiator ring. The ultimate Sakaar champion he goes up against is…the Hulk, who has somewhat-permanently hulked out. They fight and Jeff Goldblum cheats to let the Hulk win, which isn’t really worth talking about, though it takes up about ten minutes of screentime so it must be important to someone. Oh, and Loki’s there and Jeff Goldblum’s friend because it’s working to his favor at the moment.

After the fight, Thor quasi-escapes to the ship the Hulk arrived on, there’s some recording of Natasha on it that de-Hulks Bruce Banner. At some point Loki forces Valkyrie to see a vision of her past trauma (her fellow soldiers dying to Hela) so she decides she wants to help Thor get back to Asgard, and then everyone escapes Sakaar by inciting a slave uprising and stealing one of Jeff Goldblum’s ships.

I have spent longer than I care to admit trying to figure out how this possibly relates to the rest of the movie. And I should note, Sakaar takes up well over half the runtime, so it’s not like it can be dismissed as this ancillary plot cul de sac necessity to get Thor and Bruce to run into one another. Like, this had to have meant something, right? Was Jeff Goldblum meant to be contrasted with Odin? Was this system of injustice that Thor witnessed supposed to be the reason why he summoned the destruction of Asgard in the end, and the writers simply never felt the need to explicate this in any way?

I can’t get there. Even the very minor twist of “Loki almost betrayed Thor at the end of the Sakaar sequence, but then comes back and saves Asgard” did not need to be rooted in this setting, nor was it even particularly necessary to the overall story or relationship of the brothers. Thor caught onto Loki at the beginning of the movie when he called him out as fake!Odin—we can see he already learned from Dark World. Loki is the God of Mischief, but that doesn’t mean his usage should be God of False Narrative Conflict In A Desperate Attempt To Inject Last Minute Tension. Because that’s a mouth full.

Maybe it’s my own problem that I was waiting to get back to the plot of the movie during every Sakaar scene instead of realizing this is the plot now. It’s just that normally when movies have a lengthy and pointless side-mission, especially one that cannibalizes this percentage of the runtime, they’re not viewed particularly favorably.

But hey, at least Thor wasn’t learning about systemic injustice and the strength of compassion on a casino planet that tied immaculately into the thematic thrust; that would have ruined everything.

Character Arrested Development

I couldn’t help myself with The Last Jedi fandom dialogue shade. But I do think that’s actually somewhat relevant here. Because I don’t really care that ~not enough happened~ overall or that Finn and Rose had a “pointless” (it was really more fruitless, and that was the point) side-mission. What I cared about was that what happened on our screen worked together towards a meaning, and that characters grew as a result of them. The Last Jedi may not have thought through implications perfectly, or executed things in as refreshing or satisfying a way as possible, but it’s exceedingly hard to argue anything was ancillary given how every single damned character had pretty tight and clear growth.

Thor: Ragnarok had barely anything.

If I could be really generous with Thor himself, he accepted the leadership of Asgard in a way he rejected it from the first movie. But also, his dad’s dead, so necessity makes for strange kings, you know? There’s also nothing that occurs within this movie that particularly leads to him wanting to take on that mantle. At best, it’s that he learns his power isn’t derived from his hammer, but controlled through it, though he learns that through Divine Daddy Almost-Death Vision. So he kind of starts off thinking he’s this awesome lightning god, and ends the movie thinking the same thing, but for slightly different reasons and with means that might look different in a fight.

I mean, I guess leveling up is technically character growth…

There’s also Thor abandoning Asgard, but nothing to indicate it has anything to do with him being upset about Odin’s imperialist rule. If that was meant to be the framing, there’s just nothing that occurs onscreen to back it up. Loki complains that Hela is growing stronger every minute she’s in Asgard and Thor repeats Divine Daddy Vision point #2 as justification. Hell, when Hela and Thor meet for their final fight, Thor quotes Odin while sitting on his throne.

It should be noted that Divine Daddy Vision was the final push Thor needs to overcome the antagonist.

Odin (still in Norway, or King’s Cross Station, or something): Asgard is not a place. Never was. This could be Asgard. Asgard is where our people stand. Even now, right now, those people need your help.

Thor: I’m not as strong as you.

Odin: No… You’re stronger.

Does Thor seem like someone who’s having trouble reconciling his father’s legacy, or is it someone who’s still taking advice from the guy, but oh yeah that murdery spree he went on a while ago was unfortunate? And again, what Thor says about Asgard’s destruction has diddly squat to do with its legacy:

“Surtur destroys Asgard, he destroys Hela, so that our people may live. But we need to let him finish the job…”

I had to look up what the prophecy specifically was, since it was told to us by Surtur (the demon) in a very jokey early sequence that Thor didn’t even bother taking seriously, so why were we supposed to have? It’s just that Surtur will lay waste to Thor’s home. No motivation or anything.

My point is, Thor doesn’t really come to any realization about himself, or Asgard, or even Odin. He learns things, he likes Odin’s pithy governance lesson, but he doesn’t contextualize anything for himself or really grow because of it. He just figures out battle odds and gets a haircut. That’s his arc.

There’s the vague character growth that Thor doesn’t let Loki trick him again, again, again, so I can give him that. I don’t believe this is the context it needed to happen in, or that Thor’s way of exposing Loki at the start would have been too little to that thread, but okay. That continued.

Meanwhile, Loki has absolutely become the Game of Thrones Littlefinger of this universe. He instills chaos in his own plans for chaos’s sake (that is his thing), and how convenient that it lines up to plot demands. Thor kind of calls out this character stagnation to him, ironically ignoring his own:

“Oh, dear brother, you’re becoming predictable. I trust you, you betray me. Round and round in circles we go. See, Loki, life is about… It’s about growth. It’s about change. But you seem to just wanna stay the same. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll always be the God of Mischief, but you could be more.”

So I guess it’s a sign of growth that Loki does go back and try to save Asgard with Thor. Even in the very end, Thor mentions how he believes Loki’s presence to be a trick, but Loki is actually there, physically. Maybe he’s…“not so bad.”

Hero shot!

It’s just, this guy’s scripting has been all over the place, and there’s no particular reason to believe his decision is the sign of any lasting change. He teamed up with the prisoners to get out of Sakaar in what’s most easily read as self-preservation, and even when he returned to Asgard, he was calling himself the “savior” and trying to milk his contribution. Maybe, just maybe Loki grew in this movie for the sole reason that he got sad when Thor called him the “God of Mischief.” Because that’s all that would have spurred this. Not the stakes of the situation, not Loki’s own guilt over Odin’s death, and not even Loki wishing he could rectify his poor public image on Asgard. Just, his brother is very disappointed in him.

Yeah, that could be an arc. Though I can’t call it one that’s particularly well-done.

The one that is executed best is probably Valkyrie’s. She’s hiding from her past, clearly both traumatized and guilty over how the fight with Hela turned out. It’s strongly implied someone took a mortal wound for her (no clue how she got away herself), and she’s now got this despicable job where she’s miserable and drinking herself into a stupor. Thor himself showing up clearly affects her and makes her squirm, but it’s not until Loki forces her to relive that trauma that she has a full change of heart.

“Look, I’ve spent years in a haze, trying to forget my past. Sakaar seemed like the best place to drink and forget, and to die one day.

…But I don’t wanna forget. I can’t turn away anymore, so if I’m gonna die, well, it may as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous hag.”

This tracks just fine. Loki’s memory home video powers are convenient, but definitely within the framework, and it makes sense that thinking back to that could instill some sense of duty, or passion in her, especially given that Thor is literally trying to get back to Asgard to save it.

The only issue with this is that it’s completely disconnected from the thematic thrust. This was actually pointed out to me as an anonymous message on social media (I may have been ranting), but doesn’t her arc do the opposite of what this movie purports to do with Asgard and its legacy? She’s been a slaver for years, which isn’t even given the space to be hand-waved—it’s just not addressed. Then she gets all back in touch with being a Valkyrie, and re-donning that great Asgardian armor, and having a resurgence of love for her home where she can talk about how much she hates the prophecy about its destruction and everything.

This is fine in its own right, but didn’t we just find out Asgard has been an imperialist superpower? It’s good that someone with clear PTSD is trying to sort through her trauma and reclaim a sense of identity that she’s tried to dismiss for years, but it simply doesn’t fit with what we learned about Odin, which is what calls forth this entire conflict. If it were some more abstract external threat to Asgard, then sure a kind of “I’ll fight until it’s rubble” attitude would have some impact. But Asgard was built on a whole lot of blood and Odin was an active revisionist who covered up artwork depicting that. It’s an odd choice for her, let’s just leave it at that.

I’m trying to think if anyone else grew through the course of this movie. Heimdall stays as prescient and morally upright as ever. Bruce Banner gets de-Hulked, which is important to the MCU I’m sure, but it’s via a recording of someone not in this film, based on a relationship not in this film, so it’s kind of hard to argue there’s an arc here. It’s more that we learn how the Hulk is comfortable spending his free time. And truthfully without having seen Civil War, I can’t tell you whether his sacrificing of Banner to free the Hulk at the end was character growth, or just situational necessity again.

I guess Skurge has a character arc. He goes from being self-preservationist to finally hitting a breaking point with Hela and sacrificing himself for Asgard. Frankly he’s a delight any time he’s on the screen, so even though it’s admittedly thin and formulaic, I’ll give that all the points.

Really, what my main issue comes down to is that it’s blindingly obvious what character these stakes should have instilled growth in, and that’s Odin. Except he’s dead, so he never has to reconcile with anything. Hela has no relationship to Thor or Loki (she doesn’t even know about them), but she does to Odin, and frankly as the dude that imprisoned her, he’s kind of the one that should be going face-to-face in some capacity. What makes a family drama compelling is the fact that the family has a history together, after all.

Now, in Black Panther it was T’Chaka’s crappy decision that sort of “created” Killmonger, a decision that T’Challa hates and feels is wrong at his core, and cannot rest until it is righted. So it was the protagonist’s father’s actions that created the situation with a family member he didn’t know at all. It worked in that movie, so why not here?

Well, probably because Thor didn’t really react to learning that Odin had conquered the other realms. So it just made an already emptyish dynamic between Hela and Thor feel even weaker, since the one thin thread that connected them—Odin and their feelings about him—were only half-explored. Hela felt rejected by Odin and pissed off about that, while Thor felt…not as powerful as him? Happy to quote him?

Maybe I’d have fewer issues if Odin hadn’t just been like, “I’m in Norway now, so that means I’m dying. Bye and have fun with your sister you never knew about!” It’s just that his death was so unceremonious, that the mess of his damn making felt out of the blue and sort of incidental. Then, we cut back and forth from the Goddess of Death taking over Asgard to Thor trying to ignore how big the Hulk’s penis is. Seriously.

And that brings us to our final problem.

That’s not how jokes work

Humor is subjective. Napoleon Dynamite is so hideously unfunny to me that it used to make me angry.

I will say right now that I don’t know if it was the plane flight, I don’t know if it was my mood, or I don’t know if it’s the underlying type of comedy here, but I did not once crack a smile at Jeff Goldblum in this movie. I’ve liked him as a comedian before, and I’m sure I will again. I did not like him here.

I also did not enjoy Valkyrie’s played-for-laughs alcoholism. That trope is pretty grating to me at this point, and even though they kind of painted it as tragic, they also…didn’t. She was quirky and fun because she could down a bottle before Thor finished talking, and when Thor actually suggested drinking heavily might be bad for her, we were supposed to laugh at her telling him she wasn’t going to stop. It’s nothing against Tessa Thompson’s performance, who frankly stole every scene she was in. But that’s just how I reacted to the character.

I did massively like Taika Waititi as Korg, Karl Urban’s Skurge was wonderful (especially opposite to Kate Blanchett chewing the scenery), and there were times that Thor and the Hulk’s back and forths were amusing. So it’s not like I found nothing funny here. But to be sure, a lot of the comedic thrust didn’t land for me, and if it had, maybe I’d have a very different reaction to this film.

That said, the humor of this movie is really the best praise I hear about it. I’m just not entirely sure why that’s a good thing. I’m all for a boisterous, fun Thor romp, but if that’s what this was supposed to be, then why the hell even introduce Odin’s imperialism in it? Why have Thor’s best friends murdered here?

Levity can be powerful in dramas. There were jokes in Black Panther, not to beat this already dead horse, but it didn’t make for a full tonal clash. When M’Baku said his people are vegetarian, it was a great way to cut the tension of the moment and further characterize him. However, we never cut back and forth from Killmonger murdering Andy Serkis to T’Challa doing something ~wacky~. The more jovial scenes, like Shuri’s lab, were before the plot really picked up, and the humor that took place during serious scenes (the car chase, for instance) was sparing.

The stakes of Thor: Ragnarok are literally the destruction of the world. And also the destruction of Asgard’s connection to the other realms. The central conflict is born out of an imperfect, revisionist colonist ruler who is the protagonist’s dad. How are we supposed to be treating this with any kind of seriousness when the own narrative can’t even manage to give as much focus on Asgardians fleeing to their Helm’s Deep as it does to Thor’s haircut?

All the humor (or attempted humor in my case) managed to do was heavily undercut the dramatic tension. Even if I had been in stitches during Sakaar, it wouldn’t have helped me get more engaged with the central conflict. It just might have made my flight go faster. And if the central conflict was not as interesting to the writers as the jokes, then fine, maybe this isn’t the movie for that. But for god’s sake, don’t float that giant imperialism matzo ball if you’re not going to be able to actually do anything with it. Was it just there for color? Odin’s not perfect, ya know…now here’s the Hulk!

Stuff Happens, Don’t Question It!

It’s no secret if you’ve read any of my previous articles that I’m not the best at enjoying fun, colorful action sequences for the sake of fun, colorful action sequences. That is, unless I know it is pure silliness, like with Thor: Dark World. It’s ironic enjoyment, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less real. If I had gone in with that attitude for Thor: Ragnarok, I think I would have liked the ride.

But frankly, that’s not the attitude anyone seems to be holding about this movie. Maybe it was the counterweight to Civil War that the MCU needed, maybe if I had watched it before Black Panther I’d have a more favorable view…maybe it’s that elevated an experience in theaters. For me, I can only see two half-completed scripts stitched together, resulting in a whole that’s weaker than the sum of its parts. It’s fine to celebrate it as a joyous romp for those that felt joy and romped, but I can’t call it a good movie. A good viewing experience maybe, but not a good narrative.

In other words, it’s a Thor movie. Wow. I guess maybe my expectations had been too high.


Images courtesy of Marvel

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Analysis

Fandom Meme Disease, and What Should We Do With It?

Angelina

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A fandom meme disease is this thing that happens when creators absorb fandom-born memes and integrate them into their work.

(And so, first things first: sorry that for the duration of this article I’ll use “meme” as if this were a legit term.  It is controversial to say the least, but it is shorter to say “meme” than “any idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”.)

I’m not implying that the creators who do this are somehow bad, or that fandom is somehow bad. Moreover, I don’t believe that fandom-creator interaction is bad. What is bad, then? Let me explain how I see it.

Fandom Meme Creation

Any given fandom is, in my opinion, born when some people contact any given media and start using it as a source of inspiration. Not just a purely artistic inspiration; people may be inspired to write meta-analysis, or to engage in discussions, or to wage a flame war against opponents. All this is normal human reaction on something inspirational. Even flame wars are somewhat natural (still wicked, though; human nature can be wicked, too).

And while acting on their inspiration, people deconstruct the original source and use its metaphorical bricks to build their own work, be it a meta, a fic or an art. The result may be perfectly in line with the original, but usually it is not. It resembles the original, that’s true—but as it went through processing in one’s creative imagination it came out a bit different. Thus, fandom meme is born.

There are millions of those floating on the Internet’s vast expanses. Some of them are soon forgotten even by those who first gave life to them. Some are more resilient than others, so they spread and multiply their kind. Those memes become known as fanon. Other fandom memes stay in this gray area between a headcanon and “this weird idea I share with some friends”. Still, all those are memes.

But I digress.

 How The Internet Changed Things

Nowadays the creators have a unique opportunity to exchange views with the fandom. Not that it was not possible before; the letters existed, the fanmail was a really important thing, and the conventions started long before the advent of Internet, but still the scale was different.
What’s more important, the speed was different.
Back then the creator had to wait for quite a time to get a sufficient amount of feedback from, well, fandom. Now a minute past the release there is a ton of articles, metas, fanart, fanfiction—etc. There is fanart and fanfiction about characters who are announced only/had a brief screen moment in trailers or even teasers. There are metas about them, too!

And all this is actually great. But any great thing has a flip side.

In this case, it is this little fact that on average, an interested person is much more exposed to fandom memes than to canon memes. Because the original version is a meme, too—but a meme that is spread and multiplied on much lower rate than fandom memes are. And the thing with memes is, more exposure usually means more absorption.

The sad truth is, creators are interested persons, too.

When Creators Absorb Fandom Memes

Basically what happens is, being constantly exposed to very bustling fandom life, the creators not only have an influence on it, but are influenced by it. This influence may be different.

While there are certainly those who treat fandom memes as a discussion point only, they are not the only ones. Some creators consciously decide to follow a fanon as a means of pandering to their fandom. Other creators use their work to basically say “your fanon is wrong, don’t follow it”. And then there are some creators who genuinely absorb the meme and spread it in good faith. The latter thing is especially typical for multi-author franchises.

Thus it happens that when a next installment is out, it suffers from fandom meme disease.

What Is Not a Fandom Meme Disease?

  • FlanderizationIt shares one notable similarity with fandom meme disease—namely the fact that a character or event becomes increasingly simplified and defined by their/its most obvious trait, and it happens as the franchise or series progresses. But the difference is that the fandom has no part in this creative decision, just some lazy writing. FMD is not a sign of deterioration—it can happen with something that is otherwise pretty good and very much alive and thriving—while Flanderization is usually a red flag signalling that this media is dying.
  • Retcon. It is, again, very similar to FMD in effect (something or someone is no more the one it once was) and timing (also occurs with some new installment), but the key difference is, retcon acknowledges that something has in fact changed, it just asks us to pretend it hasn’t. FMD doesn’t acknowledge any change and acts as if things were always this way.
  • Any other case of real or perceived OOC. It can be a case of fandom meme disease only if the sudden shift in the original is consistent with the fanon or directly opposes it, but contradicts the earlier version.

Notable Victims

fandom meme disease

Not pictired: a badass warrior who overthrew a whole patriarchal system to learn how to fight

Yeah. I really hate what the otherwise pretty good Legend of Korra did with Katara. A decent half of her personality suddenly disappeared in the thin air, leaving us with the fanon Mommy Healer Katara whose only life goal is to care for her child-husband Aang and bear children for him. Sure, that was a widespread enough idea (and pretty sexist, too), but did the creators forget that they themselves wrote her as very proactive and never content with staying away from action?

Not pictured: a traumatised child-soldier, deeply anxious about her underperformance in all things “feminine”, haunted by things she had to do yet always caring and empathetic towards others

I had a tough time picking a poster person for the very…peculiar way in which Game of Thrones treats George R. R. Martin’s characters. The problem is, only some of them suffer from FMD; others are rewritten to fit into D&D’s own narrative.

The thing with Arya (and Sansa; and Sandor) is that sometimes it is not hard to point directly towards those fan discussions that were a basis for the creative decisions turning the original character into something very, very different.

If I could pick an event to illustrate the FMD…Game of Thrones would never disappoint! Do you remember that Robert’s Rebellion was built on lies? That’s the most blatant case of FMD I’ve ever met. It is ripped from fanfiction and wishful-thinking style metas and even the idea that Robert’s Rebellion is all about Rhaegar and Lyanna is pure fandom meme!

fandom meme disease

Not pictured: a tormented soul, devoid of all emotion due to being consumed by Dark Side, a sorry creature that is ever a puppet of his masters

See, this one is tricky. FMD mostly tortured Vader back in the old EU, but I think Kieron Gillen’s comics are not free from its fair share of Over Powerful Unstoppable Cool Awesome Guy Vader We All Adore. He has his good moments when he actually catches the other part of being a Sith, but mostly it is right here. This Vader is really cool, he is fun to watch, he is wisecracking, he is never truly challenged and never has to doubt himself. He beat the ancient dark Jedi without breaking a sweat, for good’s sake. That’s really too much.

The ultimate Manly Man of the franchise—though of course Rogue One gave us an even more blatant example of purest fanon possible on big screen.

And There Are More

I didn’t want to use Hermione Granger from Cursed Child because it may cause misunderstanding, but what about the movies? What about Princess Leia and her sorry fate throughout the old EU? What about loads of characters I don’t know, but you certainly do?

And what about sexism that is suspiciously ever present in any case of fandom meme disease?

Girls and women are pigeonholed by their tomboyish/feminine attitude, with tomboys stripped off all feminine traits, while girly girls devoid of all courage, right to be angry and right to be rational, as those things are associated with masculinity.

All the while “cool” male characters are carefully stripped off any sign of human nature, emotion or just simply weakness. Tell me it happens by pure chance.

So… What Can We Do?

We can talk about it. Raise awareness. Point out the bad tendency of sexist fanons to creep on big screen and on book and comic book pages.

If this exists, it can be beaten, after all.


Images courtesy of HBO, Viacom, Disney

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Gaming

Keeping Kosher In Monster Hunter World

David

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Monster Hunter World is the best selling game in its series, with over 7.5 million units shipped. There are many reasons for this: The game is more accessible for new players, it’s not just on a handheld console anymore, there was actually some marketing push for this game…the list goes on.

However, I personally think one of the reasons the game is so popular is its food eating cutscenes. Before you go on a hunt, you can eat a meal at a canteen that gives you buffs. You’re also treated to an adorable and very tasty looking cutscene of the Palicoes (a cat like race that helps you hunt monsters) making your meal. The details are so lavish and the end product looks so good I couldn’t help thinking about it off and on for weeks. And one question that kept recurring was, “Would any of this food be Kosher?”

Kosher foods, for those of you who may not know, are foods that conform to the Jewish kashrut (dietary law). The word treif describes any food that does not abide by this law. Determining what foods are Kosher or not can get complicated since different groups of animals have different rules. At its most basic though, there are three groups of animals: land, flying, and fish (invertebrates as a rule are treif). Conveniently enough, most monsters in Monster Hunter World could fit under the same categories. We’ll go through each category and examine a few monsters from the game to decide if any (or all) of them can be Kosher.

Before we begin though, I’d like to give major props to one of our editors, Gretchen. Before I wrote this article, I knew next to nothing about what makes a food Kosher or not. Gretchen not only educated me, but did a lot of the heavy lifting, and for that I am grateful.

By Land

The first monster up for discussion is called Uragaan. Uragaan lives mostly in volcanic regions and is identifiable its large chin, its shiny, lustrous golden hide, and the spikes along its back. It consumes mostly bedrock and those large spikes on its back are actually crystals. It produces a sticky, tar like substance on its stomach, which it uses to attach explosive rocks to itself as a means of defense. If someone were to knock down or kill Uragaan, they’d be able to mine the vast mineral wealth on it’s back…but they wouldn’t be able to eat it, as Uragaan isn’t Kosher.

Not Kosher

In order for a land animal to be Kosher, it has to meet three basic requirements. First, it can not be a carnivore or a scavenger. It can not eat meat. Second, it must have a split hoof. Horses aren’t Kosher, but animals like cattle and sheep are. Finally, the animal must chew its cud. Pigs have split hooves, but they don’t chew their cud and thus are not Kosher. Uragaan meets the first rule, but fails with the second and third. As such, Uragaan can never be Kosher.

The next monster up is Kirin. Kirin resembles a unicorn or (more accurately) a Chinese Qilin. It has a single large horn growing out of its head, with a white mane and tail that seem to stand on end from static electricity. It’s body appears to have fur, but those actually are scales. Kirin also seems to crackle with electricity as it walks. Looking at the picture we can see clearly that it has a split hoof. The game doesn’t tell us what it eats or if it chews its cud, but if we extrapolate what it looks like and compare to say, an antelope or a deer (both of which are Kosher) we can safely assume that Kirin is Kosher as well, right? Wrong.

Also Not Kosher

Kirin fails to be Kosher not by the quality of the animal, but by the quality of its behavior. You see, Kirin belongs to a group of monsters called Elder Dragons and these monsters, in addition to being tougher the ordinary monsters, are immune to traps and tranqs unlike other monsters. This presents a problem, as in order for meat be Kosher, the butchering must happen in one swift action using a sharp knife. Shooting the creature with an automatic repeating crossbow is not the way to do it. Kirin, unfortunately, is not Kosher for this reason.

We come now to the last land based monster in this article: The Kelbi. Kelbi, unlike the monsters mentioned thus far, are not aggressive. They are small, and the males are usually green in color while the females and juveniles are blue. Males also have large, prominent horns while female horns are smaller. In-game, Kelbi horns are medicinal, and players make potions out of them. I’m also happy to report that Kelbi might be our first (possibly) Kosher monster.

Kosher! (maybe)

Like Kirin, Kelbi has a split hoof. We also know that Kelbi are herbivores, but it is unknown whether or not Kelbi chew their cud. Extrapolating and comparing them to real world deer and goats though, we can have more confidence that Kelbi are, in fact, Kosher.

By Air

Now we will discuss birds. According to Jewish tradition, animals that fly and are not insects are birds. Thus animals such as bats are ‘birds’ in regards to Kosher rules. The rules for birds themselves are fairly simple. They can’t be predatory or scavengers. This rule immediately rules out the next monster on the list: Rathalos.

Not Kosher

Rathalos is known as the “King of the Sky” and is the male counterpart to Rathian, another flying monster.  Rathalos are bipedal wyverns, primarily red in color, with sharp, poisonous claws that they use to hunt with. In addition to that, they have a flame sac that they use to produce flaming projectiles from, and their long thick tail has a club at the end of it. But as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, no birds of prey can be Kosher.

The next monster on the list is one of the oddest in the game. Pukei-Pukei resembles at first glance a giant chameleon with frog like eyes, wings, and green scales covering its body everywhere except around its wings and neck, where it has feathers. The Pukei-Pukei is an herbivore and it will eat poisonous plants so it can produce a poison to defend itself. Despite all of these peculiar traits, Pukei-Pukei appears to be Kosher.

Kosher! (Surprisingly!)

I was surprised to hear Gretchen tell me this, as I thought there would be no way a monster as weird as Pukei-Pukei could be considered Kosher. But as she laid the case out it began to make more sense. Despite some reptilian traits, Pukei-Pukei has more avian traits, and that classifies it as a creature of the air under the kashrut. As a creature of the air, it has to meat a few specifications. It does not scavenge like a vulture, nor does it hunt like a bird of prey. Thus, Pukei-Pukei meets the requirements.

And By Sea

There aren’t very many sea monsters in Monster Hunter World sadly. Only one of them really seems like it would count. And this one is Jyuratodus. Jyuratodus resembles nothing more than a bipedal coelacanth fish. It has two dorsal fins, two pectoral fins, two pelvic fins, and a long, thick tail that it can use to defend itself. It also covers itself in mud and other ooze, to act as another layer of defense and to possibly keep its gills and scales damp. Fortunately for us, practically the only water based monster in this game is also Kosher.

Kosher, and think of all the sushi.

For a sea animal to be considered Kosher, it must have fins and scales that can be removed. This generally means that the stereotypical fish is allowed, but not animals such as eel, lobster, squid or crab. Jyuratodus, despite its size and aggression does have fins and scales and would be Kosher.

The Hunt Goes On…

So what are we left with from this list? Two monsters that could be considered Kosher, three that are not, and one that might be, if it chews cud. And this is only a small sample of the monsters in the game. Not only that, but Capcom has plans to release more monsters as free DLC over the upcoming months. When the PC version of the game is out, I might revisit this article and expand on it. Until then though, happy hunting and bon appétit!


Images Courtesy of Capcom

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