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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Images Courtesy of AMC and Starz
Faerie Tale Aged Poorly
Once again before starting this article I must once again confess that I do not own Faerie Tale in its original langage. This shouldn’t be a problem for the following article which as more to do with the story than with the style of the book. Nevertheless because of it some names might sounds strange. I apologize for the inconvenience.
There is nothing worse, speaking of books, than getting utterly disappointed by a book that seems written for you. The other day, when I pitched the story of Faerie Tale to my best friend, he asked me playfully “why are all the books you are reading always so you?”. And that is true. On paper, Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale had everything to please me. Folklore, slightly gothic ambiance, horrific set-up, fantasy, a focus on a coming of age story, an entrapment situation… Everything! I even read it in the best mental conditions possible to welcome the story warmly.
And yet as I progressed in the story, an increasing amount of elements irked me. Until the final of the mystery of the ex-owner of the house was reveled. I wasn’t just irked at this point. I was laughing. Laughing because what I was reading was laughingly bad.
In the end if I were to grade Faerie Tale I would give it 5/10 because there were things I really like so it doesn’t deserve to be under average. And I wanted to like this book. Still, after my encounter with the laughingly bad twist I came back on everything that irked me about Faerie Tale. It’s not good and it doesn’t deserve more than the strict average.
But maybe there is more to Faerie Tale. Maybe it isn’t a disappointing book after all. Maybe it simply aged poorly.
The Hastings in Fairy Land
Faerie Tale follows an American family, the Hastings, relocating to the father’s hometownin the 1980’s. The Hastings are five. Phil, the father, is a popular screenplay writer. Gloria, his wife, was a actress without real career who dropped everything to take care of her sons. Gabbie, Phil’s daughter from a first marriage, is a young college student who came to spend the summer with her father. And finally there are the twins Sean and Patrick. The Hastings are rich, in the case of Gabbie crazy rich. Is it important to the plot? Not really. If anything, it makes the Hastings will to endure what is thrown at them weirder. But it allows the initial situation and its mention a lot (A LOT) so I figured I should mention it.
Thanks to their sweet sweet money, the Hastings bought the house and land of an eccentric German who passed away without heir. On the land stands the Hill of the Elven King, a place, which in the local legends, is renowned for hiding the faerie court. Of course, as it turned out, it isn’t a legend and the fairy living there are trapped and want nothing more than to be free. And for that they are more than ready to manipulate the Hastings into helping them (I guess they are also doing all that they are doing because they are fairies and therefore assholes).
After several very severe incidents (Gabbie being nearly rapped, the family cat being gutted, Sean being swapped for a changeling) the Hastings (let’s be perfectly honest Patrick and Phil) helped by some secondary characters (all men) defeat the evil fairie. They also make a pact with the less evil one and the status quo is restored. The world is saved.
Still, the international secret organisation that secretly rules our world makes everyone forget everything about what happened, except for Patrick and Sean. Then, the Hastings are magically manipulated into moving back to California.
Everything for Nothing
Here you already might see one of the issue with Faerie Tale. What was the point of the books? We have five main protagonists and two are virtually unchanged by the 370 pages of development they just undertook. Gabbie has development (and I will come back to it later), but it isn’t linked to the faerie business. So if we exclude the twins, what was the point of the story?
Most of the characters, who weren’t really interesting to begin with, didn’t progress because of it. The villains—who are unnamed, unseen, and whose goal was already reached at the beginning—have already won. It wasn’t scary. It was mildly distracting (I might be harsher with my books that I am with my TV-shows, but it’s like that). And it didn’t have any sort of profound meaning.
So yeah, the plot of the book has its issues already. But that’s not the only problem with Faerie Tale.
Being a story of urban fantasy (rather rural fantasy… please someone stops me) Faerie Tale deals with myths that are real.
Fairies as archetypes
One the things I really liked in Faerie Tale is that the fairies are fairies. They aren’t human and don’t have a human sense of morality. Their essence isn’t the same as ours. And frankly it’s refreshing. Considering the current craze around fairies in YA where the fairies are mainly pseudo medieval humans with powers and a penchant for misogyny, I am delighted to be facing creatures that are really different and troubling.
The fairies in Faerie Tale are archetypes. They play a role and when they have been beaten, another steps into their shoes assuming their role to the point of taking their identity. They are immutable. And they are monsters that are egoist and takes pleasure from human inconvenience and misery. Some of the members of the fairy courts are humans, but they are humans who have suffered the corrupted influence of the fairies for years. They are unhappy, twisted, wrong, etc.
So, Feist did create an interesting fairy court. The only complaint I have is that it is made pretty explicit in the book that the degree of horror inflicted on the Hastings is linked to the will of the fairy to break free. Meaning that if the master plan wasn’t set into motion, the family would just have suffered harmless pranks. None of the pranks they suffer in the book are harmless (except one) and they are all linked to the master plan. Which leads me to believe that this fairy court is super lazy on a daily basis. But that’s just a detail.
One folklore to rule them all?
My main issue with Faerie Tale is the refusal to explain where the fairy court stands in a complex cosmology. I mean the book states that fairies, as conceptualized in Ireland and Germany, exist. Apparently Christianity might be correct too, since Christian prayers are efficient against fairies. But what about other religions that have different folklore traditions (Islam, Judaism)? Are their prayers efficient against fairies, too? Do their folkloric monsters (Djinn, Golem) exist too? The story explains how the fairies were brought to America, but what happened to creatures from the various Native American folklores? Did they ever existed? Or is this a case of ‘Germano-Celtic culture was right all along and every other belief is superstition’?
A good example of that is the presence of White Ladies in Faerie Tale. You see, in France White Ladies are probably one of our most famous folklore creatures. The issue is that they aren’t fairies. They are revenants. They announce death (or they might lead to yours if you see them, it depends on the legend you are considering). The myth is old and persistent. The Louvres and Versailles were and still are known to have their White Lady. The current urban legend of a vanishing hitchhiker has been fed in France by the White Lady mythos (most of these stories in France are about women who warm you about the place they died leading you to your death or avoiding it, it depends).
So when I saw the White Ladies of the books depicted as sexualized fairies in a fashion reminiscent of the Brides of Dracula, you have no idea how disappointed I was. “They suck” was my honest reaction.
To be perfectly honest, the issue I have with Faerie Tale‘s lack of a complex cosmology that refused to acknowledge the diversity of myths might have been enhanced by the fact I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods just after. Still, there is something missing here. And it’s annoying.
If I tell you a story put fairies and a conspiracy theory together, you might answer me that doesn’t sound like a good mix. And you are right. As a general rule, I am not a fan of conspiracy theories. I think they are way of shifting the blame from the actual people responsible for the situation to someone else (sometimes a disadvantaged minority) and preventing systematic changes. I also think that they are often anti-science. If we add to that our current political context of fake news and post-truth, I would find any story cheaply relying on it distasteful.
Unfortunately that’s what Faerie Tale does. The ex-owner of the house was a member of a secret organization using fairy magic to rule the world. The members of this organization are super rich and super powerful and they use all this power to remain secret and keep the fairies from hurting humanity. Wait… Are they the good guys? No, they aren’t because they are still a secret evil organization that rules the world for its own gain and that’s all… They just want to be rich and powerful. They are the GAFA without internet and with pixie dust.
They are uninteresting. They are unoriginal. They don’t add a lot to the story considering that all their influence undoes the story. From a storytelling perspective, they are useless, stereotypical, and dumb. This is the laughably bad distasteful part of Faerie Tale.
Faerie Tale’s characters aren’t unforgettable. Far from it. Every time I sensed something interesting could be done with one of them their potential was utterly wasted. But I will focus on two main issue in this section
Money, money, money
Thank you Faerie Tale for making me feel like Lady Violet Crawley.
Never would I have thought that a book about fairies would talk so much about money. Never would I have thought that characters could talk so much about money without having their story center around it. The Hastings are rich. Gabbie is more or less the equivalent of an heir to the Rockefeller fortune. Despite that they are presented as humble people. I mean, the book tells us they are humble and they do welcome everyone in their home.
But everyone must be ready to hear about how much money they have. Phil explains to a perfect stranger (let’s be honest, he spoke to him twice before this) how much his daughter is rich. They have their own lawyer, their own agent. They can pay a doctor to came to a study specifically for them… But rest assured that they don’t spoil their children and raise them to value real life. They just allow their daughter to drop out from college because she won’t have any problem starting again later. They buy a house on a whim. They postpone their children’s extravagant fancies to teach them rationality. They dropped a promising career because they don’t think the story they were writing was good enough…
You know normal stuff from normal people who aren’t literally made of money. How did they get this money? Well Gabbie inherited it. Phil wrote extremely popular movies fro Hollywood. What are they doing with this money? Phil is doing normal things for an 80’s American: not paying taxes that would finance public universities, public healthcare, etc and indulging in an lifestyle of over-consumption. Gabbie is buying horses and an expensive car (paying for her little brother’s treatment) and not learning how to do anything significant for the companies that create her fortune. Relatable stuff that will definitively make them sympathetic to an average audience.
Sure, it could be forgotten in the narrative. But they talk about money all the time! This is ridiculous. You just want to shake them violently and scream “You are rich idiots without real problems who put their children at risk and need to move out of the bloody estate!”.
This constant mention of the Hastings’s fortune ended up making them despicable in my eyes.
Faerie Tale has a deficiency of female characters. If I had to give a percent of the gender balance of the book, I would say that 65% of the characters are men and 35% are women. To gives you an example, there are four named doctors in this book, the four of them have dialogue, all of them are men. Among the fairies, four of them are women. All of them are sexualized and none of them really have an agency linked to the master plan. The three most important fairies are men. And despite Gabbie having a strong sexual reaction to them, none of them are describe in any way as sexualized as the female fairies are.
Among important female characters, we have Gabbie, Gloria, and Phil’s university mentor. Let’s start with the last. The first thing of importance to note is that I have forgotten her name. But let’s put that aside. this character could be an interesting one. Indeed, having a woman scholar who guided several male characters in their literary/professional progression is pretty progressive. Having men being inspired by a woman’s work and ethic is great. It’s a nice reversion of the “I don’t want to fuck him, I want to be him” trope, and I think it essential for boys and for girls to see it done more often in media. However, your devoted servant would argue that it isn’t that well done here.
Phil’s university mentor has a maternal relationship with both the men she has tutored/is tutoring. She even misses the true calling for one of them: being a dialogist. And of course the person who notices this oversight is… a man. In general, she doesn’t do a lot of mentoring despite the evident respect both her students have for her. A huge missed opportunity.
Now to Gloria. Gloria isn’t a bad character. Once again she had a lot of potential. She is the only one of the adults Hastings that feel there might be something deeply wrong with the estate. She even witnesses a fairie’s activity, which allows her to connect with Patrick after Sean’s disappearance. Clearly, or at least from my point of view, Gloria was built to be the parent who ultimately assists/saves Patrick in his quest to get his brother back. But in the end, it’s Phil who gets the mission of finding his sons. Phil, who never showed any instinct for the supernatural and who had no progression—no real mental progression—linked to it. Why from a narrative perspective is Phil chosen to go and saves his sons? Well I guess it’s because that’s what fathers do, while mothers fall into a hysterical state…
Finally, let’s discuss Gabbie. Gabbie is an 18-year-old woman currently studying in California. We have already discussed Gabbie’s financial situation so we won’t do it any further here. There are a lot of things done properly with Gabbie: a subversion of the spoiled rich girl trope, a good relationship with her step-mother, a positive treatment of the rape attempt she suffers, and a positive depiction of her sexuality. Still, no character infuriates me as much as Gabbie.
Gabbie has two important arcs that are connected: her love story with Jack and her relation with her mother. You see, Gabbie’s mother married Phil young. They had a bad year professionally and Gabbie’s mother also broke with her family, who didn’t approve of her lifestyle (she was disinherited). Then Gabbie was born and her mother changed her profession to journalism, more precisely to be a war reporter. She then decided that her career was more important than her daughter and husband, leading to her leaving Phil and not taking care of Gabbie. Here I must emphasize that Phil also put his career before his daughter and Gabbie was left to her maternal grandmother, who raised her.
Now that her grandmother is dead and she is an adult, Gabbie has bonded with her father but not with her mother. Partially because her mother, too caught up in her career and in her importance for the “American left” (yes, that phrase in the book; take it as you want because I really don’t know what I am supposed to do with it), hasn’t extended any hand for her daughter to grab. Therefore, Gabbie’s arc deals a lot with her coming to terms with her insignificance to her mother.
This is once again an incredibly important narrative to explore. Once again, it’s a gigantic wasted opportunity. The career of Gabbie’s mother is constantly denigrated by the book. Her principals and ideologies are ridiculed when Gabbie learns that her mother is to marry a French millionaire (who is also a pedophile since he hit on Gabbie when she was 15) that she should normally hate if if she wasn’t a total hypocrite. As a consequence, Gabbie has no trouble with and no regret leaving at her mother behind her since she is irredeemable. Indeed, none of the reasons Gabbie’s mother had to abandon her daughter have any sort of value. (Note that Phil, who also left his daughter behind for his career, has to be a decent human being to be allowed back in her life with open arms.)
Therefore Gabbie has no trouble to make the decisions she ends up making. She decides to marry a man she has known for 5 months (her first sexual partner if I might add). He is an aspiring writer being tutored in college by the same tutor as Phil. She also decide to stop her studies for now. Does she have a better idea of who she wants to be as a person, except than being Jack’s wife? No, but I guess it’s okay because she is going to be someone’s wife; what else could she aspire to be? In the end, Gabbie rushes into marriage without knowing who she is, with a man who is a younger version of her father (yes, Jack even admires Phil). She is making exactly the same choices her mother did, but she’ll be fine because she is being a good sport about it, unlike her mother.
I can’t even begin to explain how much I despise this narrative. Even if it hasn’t directly touched me, the idea of coming to term with one’s insignificance to one’s mother is something that has influenced a lot of people I love in my family. I can guarantee you that it’s not fixed by making all the same choices as your mother but not being a total hypocrite about it. People are complex, yes, even people who abandon their children. They can’t be summarized by using two overused cliches, and the impact they had on you can’t be brushed aside by simply reducing them to these overused cliches. Besides, do I have a to explain why I find it distasteful to see a woman bloom in domestic bliss when her mother is vilified and mocked for pursuing a career? No? Great!
The twins, Sean and Patrick, are the saving grace of Faerie Tale. Not only are they the more connected to the fairy court, they have the most interesting progression as characters. More Patrick than Sean but still. Patrick is a shy little boy that ends up finding the courage to save his brother. Sean learns that he can rely on his ‘weaker’ brother and shouldn’t lash out at him because they both have strengths and weaknesses. By teaming up, they save the world, kill the villain, and free their perverted double. And of course for all of that, they are graced by the capacity of remembering what happened.
All in all, the twins’ story is a well-crafted, interesting storyline. I just wish I didn’t have to suffer the rest while reading Faerie Tale.
As you have probably gathered by now, I didn’t really enjoy my read. But while thinking back on Faerie Tale, I came to the realization that I might be part of the problem. Raymond E. Feist is an incredibly popular author. The last time I went to a bookstore, one of his new works was heavily advertised (I mean, as much as a fantasy book can be in France). I don’t doubt that he has great qualities as an author.
A quality he can’t have though is creating a book that pleases the taste of a public that will be born 8 years after its original publication and will only read it 30 years later. Nothing is ever perfect, and age is never tender. Trust me on this, even fine wine that isn’t properly preserved ages poorly. This doesn’t absolve Faerie Tale of its mistakes. But I must be honest.
When it was first published in 1988, Faerie Tale might have been an above average book. It might have introduced a new concept: a sort of gothic horror based on fairy tales taking place in our time and adding an ‘international context’ to it. But everything I saw Faerie Tale trying to do, I have seen done better in other books since then. Time has been cruel to Faerie Tale, and, unfortunately, I paid good money to discover that.
Image Courtesy of Doubleday
Avatar, Spirits, and Spirituality
Here on The Fandomentals we like to talk about Avatar: the Last Airbender (ATLA) and its sequel, Avatar: the Legend of Korra (LoK). But while many of us have talked about the strides the franchise has made in LGBT representation, its portrayal of a mental healing and recovery, complicated family dynamics or deconstruction of the superman narrative, I would instead talk about something that has concerned me ever since I saw the second season of Legend of Korra: spirits. After all these years, it’s time to finally put my concerns into words. And I will unfortunately continue to be the resident malcontent when it comes to the show.
To start with, let me lay down some groundwork and my central thesis. See, there’s two ways that the word “spirituality” is used in the franchise. One is the meaning we associate with it in the real world – concerned with immaterial things rather than material ones, inward-looking, meditative, contemplative. The other is the setting-specific meaning of being connected with the spirits and their world. But here’s the rub – the spirits aren’t actually very spiritual. Why do I say that? Let’s begin…
Avatar: the Last Airbender
Spirits certainly exist in the world the original show portrays, but they only sometimes play any major role – the biggest is perhaps the Book One finale. They’ve got their own worlds, but they also have a rather vague relationship with nature. In “Winter Solstice” we see a spirit named Hei Bai go mad after humans devastated a forest.
Vague it may be, it’s also significant, as we find out during “Siege of the North”. Zhao killing the Moon Spirit causes the moon itself to grow red and waterbending to stop working. If Yue hadn’t become a new Moon Spirit, presumably it would have become even worse from there.
In the same finale we also meet Koh the Face-Stealer, a spirit whose brief appearance nonetheless made him memorable. Just as his name implies, he steals faces, and the only defense is to maintain an entirely neutral, emotionless expression. This is the kind of thing that spirit stories tend to run on, after all – taboos and specific behavior that protect you from malevolent spirits. He was genuinely creepy and threatening in what little we saw of him.
The other spirit who plays a major role is Wan Shi Tong, the cranky owl who runs the spirit library. He accuses humans of always trying to use his knowledge for their own brutal ends. In his defense, Zhao used the library to find out about the Moon Spirit’s physical form, and we know how that ended up.
The Painted Lady only appears very briefly, after the rest of the episode might make us suspect she doesn’t actually exist. Like Hei Bai and the Moon and Ocean spirits, she has a connection to the natural environment, in this case her lake.
The show’s finale involves Aang receiving energy-bending from a Lion-Turtle, but… are they spirits? It’s kind of ambiguous what they are, what they aren’t and what they want. Still, they clearly do have some spiritual connections and they allow Aang to resolve the conflict without compromising his beliefs… even though the way they do it leaves something to be desired.
Spirits are, in general, the more outwardly “magical” element of the world in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Bending is by design rather predictable and we generally know what works and what doesn’t by the time we’ve seen half of the first season. Spirits introduce stranger and more fantastical things with them when they appear, but they’re not particularly central.
Legend of Korra Book One
The first book of the sequel contains no spirits. Amon says that they sent him to bring balance to the world, but he’s lying. So none of them appear or do anything. However, the word “spiritual” crops up frequently, mostly in terms of Korra’s lack of this trait. But why is she lacking in it and why is it a problem?
Well… that’s a good question, actually. “Not spiritual enough” seems to be a catch-all term for Korra’s struggles with airbending, connecting to her past lives, entering the Avatar State and her general combative attitude that focused on fighting and bending rather than the Avatar’s duties as a leader. Basically, every character flaw and struggle the show outlines for her.
Unfortunately, as we know, none of it really goes anywhere. Korra receives her vision from Aang long after it ceases to be useful, her airbending comes to her when Mako is in danger and she connects to her “spiritual side” because she’s depressed. This moment is just the first of many where the word “spiritual” is thrown around without any meaning. She became more “spiritual” in the sense that she got access to all her Avatar powers, but she gained no spirituality in the other sense of the word.
Sadly enough, you can see some ultimately unused plot hooks in this story. Korra receives her first incomplete vision of Yakone’s trial after Amon knocks her out during their “premature” confrontation. She receives her second vision after Tarrlok bloodbends her into unconsciousness and the final, complete one when he holds her hostage. It seems clear that Amon also used bloodbending on her, but subtly and maybe in combination with chi-blocking. Thus opening a way for Korra to figure it out on her own. But that was not to be and instead all the relevant information came from Tarrlok’s exposition dump.
But let’s not dwell on it too much. Instead, let’s move on to the second season, where spirits come to the fore.
Legend of Korra Book Two
And they do so in style, by attacking right in the first episode. The dark spirits prove difficult for even strong benders like Korra, Tonraq, and Tenzin to handle. Non-benders are entirely helpless, even though we saw Sokka best Wan Shi Tong with a heavy book and gravity. This is in keeping with LoK’s treatment of non-benders, really. We also find out there’s some tensions between spirits and humans and that corrupt spirits attack more and more often.
Either way, Korra’s uncle, Chief “I’m not a villain, I swear” Unalaq pacifies the spirit with a waterbending technique. Korra is impressed and wants to learn from him, since she feels she’s not spiritual enough to be the Avatar and a bridge between worlds. Sensible, one might think, and a logical progression. And yet… something doesn’t add up.
It once again comes down to the issue of spirituality and actual spirits. Unalaq complains about how the Southern Water Tribe turned their spirit festival into a festival of commerce. Which sounds plausible on the surface. He’s a crusty old traditionalist, of course he’ll complain about it. But what do the sprits even care? It’s not as if they have any concept of economy. As long as humans don’t go around destroying the environment or infringing on “spiritual” places (not that we know what makes a place qualify as such), they seem to be indifferent. Korra’s father, Tonraq, got on their bad side by doing the latter.
I feel like the show sort of expects us to take it as face value – they call it spiritual, so obviously spirits should care, right? But real-world religions give a reason why the spirits or deities they believe in care about the ceremonies and rituals. Here, we see no such reason.
As I mentioned at the beginning, ATLA got around spirits by being pretty vague about them. They do spirit-y things, they get angry if humans mess around with things they shouldn’t, they have a connection to nature… in the end, they’re not what’s important. But the second season of Legend of Korra puts them front and centre and makes them tangible… well not literally tangible, but much more real and relevant.
It doesn’t exactly get better when it turns out that Unalaq– who is absolutely not a villain, trust him on that– arranged for Tonraq to destroy a spirit-grove in the first place. Later on, it further turns out that he’s working with the spirit of darkness. It’s the two of them together that are responsible for the dark spirits attacking people. Which means… there’s no actual tension between humans and spirits, no crisis of spirituality or anything of the sort. Just two bad guys doing bad guy things.
Or… not exactly. After Unalaq spent many episodes doing various terrible deeds, and competing with Hiroshi for the title of the franchise’s second-worst father, he asks Korra if Avatar Wan had done the right thing when he separated the worlds. So it suddenly becomes a question we’re meant to care about. The relations between spirits and humans become an actual topic rather than just Vaatu being a big evil kite. But this happens right before the finale, so there’s not much time to talk about it.
As we know, Korra agrees. Why? Good question. The decision to keep the portals open gave her agency that the Book One finale had never given her. Her becoming the first Avatar of a new age is also appropriate. But as far as motivations and sense go… well, it has none. Which brings me to the second massive problem with the spirits in the show, and requires me to start at the “Beginnings”.
In the two-parter we see humans and spirits living in the same world. Or rather, humans surviving seemingly thanks to the protection of the Lion-Turtles. Everything beyond the four settlements huddling on their shells is a hostile jungle full of spirits who won’t give them an inch. We see proto-firebenders go out to hunt using their power. Again, the only reason they can do even that is because the Lion-Turtles help them. Why? Like I’ve said a few times already, good question. But one we have no answer for.
When Wan is exiled from his town and ventures into the wilds, he earns the spirits’ trust by not eating a gazelle he encounters. Which… well, I suppose gets us into the whole argument about whether or not it’s moral to eat meat. But still, he had to risk starvation for them to give him a chance? This starts the general trend in which it’s humans who have to put all the effort into harmony between the two species.
We do later see that there was a tribe of proto-airbenders who live in harmony with the spirits. But how? Once again… good question, no answer. There’s really nothing here except a vague feel-good “spirits are great” message.
After Wan accidentally frees Vaatu, he later fuses with Raava permanently to fight him, becoming the first Avatar. He seals Vaatu into a tree and decides to forever separate the world. Which… isn’t a perfect solution, perhaps, but certainly looked better than what was, at best, a perpetual war. At worst, it was spirits oppressing and bullying humans. So why are we supposed to believe that this wasn’t the right choice and that the one Korra made was right?
Aside from the spirits’ behavior, there’s still the major disconnects between them and being “spiritual”. We still don’t really know what it means. Yes, Korra is woefully unequipped to deal with spirits. But that’s just part of her general immaturity and rashness at this stage of her character arc.
Tenzin, her mentor, is however also unable to mediate into the Spirit World. For… some reason. It seems connected to his general psychological turmoil and massive pressure he’s under to live up to his father’s expectations. The Spirit World is governed by human emotion, so I suppose it would make sense.
While the inability to enter the Spirit World this way is yet another failure dropped on the large pile of Tenzin’s issues, his daughter Jinora can do it. Once again, we don’t really know why Tenzin can’t do it, but she can. All we get is that, you guessed it, she’s more spiritual. Except we still don’t know what that means and why being spiritual is even of any concern.
I’m also not entirely sure why only benders seem able to enter the Spirit World through meditation. If we accept that it requires peace of mind, concentration and inner balance, non-benders are as capable of them all as benders are.
When Korra actually enters the Spirit World, it turns out to be a realm where reality is something of a subjective matter. Human emotions affect it, particularly those of the Avatar. It more or less adds up, is visually interesting and makes some intuitive sense. Still, I’m not sure how much it adds up with the spirits’ connection to the environment that we saw in ATLA.
We also see Iroh in the Spirit World, which raises the question of whether human souls end up there after death. We know the Avatar reincarnates into new bodies every time, but what about everyone else? Maybe Iroh was special – “spiritual” enough to transcend into the Spirit World after death.
This kind of exemplifies the problem I’m talking about here. Yes, Iroh was spiritual in ATLA, in the more conventional sense of the word. There were some hints that he’d travelled to the Spirit World, but for the most part his spirituality was very down-to-earth. He told Zuko to look at what’s in front of him and think about what he wants, instead of chasing some lofty destiny someone else had imagined for him.
The wisdom of spirit-Iroh in Legend of Korra feels a lot like platitudes. Light, dark, staying true to yourself and all that. There’s just not much to it. His earthly wisdom and vague mentions of having had dealings with spirits are turned into some sort of deep connection to the spirits. Which allowed him to effectively become one.
What it adds up to is that the season tries to build up to Korra keeping the portal open, but the attempts just don’t work together. We don’t have a clear idea of what the relationship between humans and spirits should be. Korra’s decision feels like a big plunge for no good reason.
Legend of Korra Books Three and Four
The first episodes of Book Three deal with the consequences of the worlds reuniting. Korra spends a lot of time trying to contain the spirit-vines growing in Republic City, with the help of her friends. And the spirits… well, they don’t do a thing about it except yell at Korra, as if Raiko and the press weren’t enough. It seems that, once again, it falls to humans to work for harmony and peace, while the spirits are just going to complain about everything they do.
The spirits themselves take a backseat as Korra has to contend with the Red Lotus, so she never gets the chance to properly solve the problem. Which instead happens off-screen – we find out that in the period between Books Three and Four, while Korra was recovering from the horrific beating she took from the Red Lotus, Republic City integrated the Spirit Wilds. We see no real evidence of the spirits doing anything to help here, but at least they didn’t get in the way, I suppose?
Still, when Korra goes to ask for their help with Kuvira, she gets the cold shoulder. Kuriva is abusing the spirit vines to power her weapon and she’s invading the city where spirits and humans live together. But what do the spirits say? They’re not going to help, since they don’t interfere with human matters. But aren’t spirits and humans supposed to live together now, so there’s no “human matters” and “spirit matters” anymore? The worlds are back together and they’re all in it together, aren’t they?
I feel like it’s pretty common that whenever humans and more supernatural beings are in conflict in stories, the pressure is on humans to do something about and find common ground. The others, in this case spirits, are seemingly allowed to be aloof or outright hostile instead.
And of course it bears mentioning that humans have a lot more to fear from spirits than the other way around. They can hurt humans in many ways, while humans struggle to retaliate or attack. The biggest danger spirits seem to suffer from humans is their tendency to twist and corrupt when around humans who feel strong negative emotions.
To bring it all to the central point, I think the treatment of spirits in the Avatar franchise is one of the cases where a previously vague and ambiguous element gets more attention. Which doesn’t serve it well. Legend of Korra seems to expect us to take a lot at face value. It’s a lot of talk about spirits, spirituality, change and harmony without a whole lot to back it up. I got the distinct impression the show just skips over it all so we don’t have time to think about it too hard.
Images courtesy of Viacom
Suspension of Disbelief, Representation, and You
Suspension of disbelief is a key element for fictional stories to work. This is our willingness to believe something surreal, that goes against logic or reason or the way we know the world works. It’s the act of suppressing our criticism for the sake of enjoyment and immersion, if you will.
We know that a bite from a radioactive spider won’t give people superpowers. We know there isn’t a secret wizarding world right under our noses. We know mechas shouldn’t be piloted by angsty teenagers. Actually, we know mechas aren’t even a thing. Our willing suspension of disbelief is what allows us to ignore all this knowledge and be carried away by the narrative. It’s our brains saying what if.
Speculative fiction in particular wouldn’t work without this, because it plays with elements distant from our reality. There are entirely invented worlds, or technology that humanity is far from developing. We have zombie apocalypses, alien invasions, time travel, alternative realities, monsters, and magic. It’s not that we don’t know those things aren’t real, we just want to see a story in which they are.
Opening our hearts and minds to the universe presented by the creators is our counterpart, as audiences, to allow stories to touch us. We need this to be fully invested in them, and that emotional engagement is when stories matter.
When there’s friction in your fiction
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re willing to accept everything. If the audience’s job is to be open to the impossible, the creator’s job is to make the impossible seem plausible. Stories don’t need to be realistic but they need to be internally consistent in their setting, characters, or plot.
If you establish your fictional society as heavily patriarchal, you cannot expect us to believe that a female character could be sassy without social consequences. When your character is commanding a fleet, that fleet cannot simply show up on the other side of the world a day later. You can’t have a character being stabbed in the guts and dumped into a dirty canal, then soon parkouring around the city and fighting as if nothing has happened. And yes, these are all the same show.
When creators break the rules they set for their stories, our suspension of disbelief breaks as well. Just as it’s not fun to play a game with someone who cheats, it’s hard to be invested in a story when we can’t follow its internal logic. Thus, we’re less engaged and we trust the creator a little less.
What makes or breaks the suspension of disbelief will depend on the audience. A good example is when creators mess with specific knowledge that most people don’t have, but experts in the field will find hard to ignore. It’s simply easier to suspend your disbelief when you don’t know enough about a topic to dispute it.
People also have different levels of tolerance to absurdity and inconsistency. To continue with Game of Thrones example, for us at the Fandomentals the show has defied logic for years, but for a good part of the audience it took a character gumbo and their unlikely quest to raise eyebrows. There’s no right or wrong answer in those cases, since we’re all different. If the story still works for you, then it still works.
It’s worth questioning, however, what breaks our suspension of disbelief and why.
I want to believe
Follow fandom discussion for long enough and you’ll notice that sometimes what breaks suspension of disbelief for audiences is the presence of certain characters in the story, particularly when they belong to socially marginalized groups. Why would the agency or protagonism of these characters bother our immersion more than all the absurds we buy into when consuming fiction?
Cast an actor of color for a period drama and you’ll hear people complaining about “historical accuracy.” Have a mostly female cast in your story and you’ll be accused of being “politically correct.” Write multiple LGBT+ characters and people will cry there’s “too much diversity.” The list could go on, but this diversity happens in real life and it’s actually much more realistic than your typical homogenous cast. Then why you can always count on part of the audience to look at it with incredulity?
In the past I’ve complained about gratuitous sexual violence in stories, especially when used as a shortcut for “gritty historical realism” in fantasy. This complaint is sometimes met with “that’s how it was back then;” people that defend the decision because it supposedly adds realism and credibility to the story. Wait, so you can believe in dragons or ice zombies, but that one rape scene “had to happen” because otherwise “it would have been too unrealistic”? I’m sorry, I just don’t get the metric for realism here.
Perhaps the easiest example for this relative suspension of disbelief would be Mary Sues. There’s a lot of debate on the validity of the term and this deserves its own separate piece, but we can all agree that a Mary Sue is the type of character that forces our suspension of disbelief. So why is this label often used to undermine competent female characters when we would be a lot more forgiving with a male counterpart? Star Wars is a great example of that, because since the release of The Force Awakens audiences have accused Rey of being a Mary Sue. Have you ever seen Luke or Anakin being called Mary Sues? I haven’t, even though their abilities were much more of an asspull than Rey’s. Then why is Rey the one breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief?
Why do those examples threaten our suspension of disbelief? Why is it so hard for us to simply accept these characters as part of the story, to extend them the same open mind we would to others? If we can’t conceive a fictional society that is diverse or accepting, then maybe the problem lies in our imagination.
It would be tempting to say that this happens because people are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. To be fair, that’s true for a good portion of the audience that has these reactions. But I think there’s more to it as well: we’re too used to be sold a single narrative, and we’re too used to buying it.
We have come to naturalize certain actions, or characters, or beliefs. Now, when we find a story that goes against what we internalized, that story hurts our suspension of disbelief. In a way, it’s easier to believe in elements clearly distant from our reality, like hobbits, evil robots, or superheroes, than to go against a social narrative we’ve been taught since a very young age.
Yet we have to do exactly that. When something breaks our suspension of disbelief, we have to ask ourselves why. Why is this, of all things I’m being asked to believe, the thing that bothers me? Does it make sense for this particular setting that this specific group is being oppressed? Is this an interesting story to tell or consume? If I changed the race, gender, orientation, etc. of this character, would they still feel unrealistic? Does my belief belong in the 19th century and should I send it back there?
We may not be responsible for the narratives that are created, but we are responsible for examining how we interact with them. This is key for demanding better stories and for engaging with stories that challenge our world views. Especially when said views are in dire need of being challenged.