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
Sansa’s Shithole Siblings Part 1: Family Disunion
Welcome, welcome, welcome, to the penultimate Unabashed Book Snobbery retrospective series. As is fitting of anything penultimate, it will be shocking and titillating.
That’s right, Julie (the combined brain of Julia and Kylie) has returned after a long rest, and is thrilled to be diving back into Game of Thrones season 7, courtesy of genius showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D).
As she’s done for two seasons before, Julie has begun to rewatch the Emmy-caliber masterpiece plotline by plotline, so she can truly appreciate the dramatic satisfaction and thematic significance. Just like Rogue One! Season 7 had many great contenders, from Cheryl stalking around a giant map to Sam slopping soup. However, Julie is going to start things off with what was sure to be everyone’s most empowering plotline: Winterhell 3.0, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Conspiracy.
Julie is still committed to preventing the conflation of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, even though she’s unsure who would be mixing these two up anymore. To ensure that there’s no confusion, she will be using her exceedingly clever nicknames, as she’s done in the past.
This season also vaguely starred:
Full explanations of these nicknames can be found in the world famous Book Snob Glossary. But for now, Julie will take you through exactly what happened in a humorous…
Part 2 of this retrospective will be the more serious analysis, for exceedingly generous definitions of serious.
Patience, Enjoy It, Revenge Can’t Be Taken In Haste
So. Just thinking over the beginning of this plotline has thrown us into an existential crisis.
Hey guys. Remember the ending of last season? You know, when Arya Todd got her revenge by empoweringly slitting Walder Filch’s throat, after baking his sons into pies and feeding them to him? We mean…with the price of meat what it is, when you get it.
Well, turns out a fortnight has passed since then, or at least we think so, since the dialogue is a bit unclear. We know this is the second feast at The Twins within a fortnight, so it’s possible it’s also the day after. But we doubt it. However, regardless of if one or fourteen days have passed, Arya Todd has been posing as Walder Filch the entire time. You see, all his sons are there, and his child-bride, and everyone’s acting like it’s business as usual.
Arya Filch (?) requests that some nice red Arbor Gold be served to the hall full of Frey sons (but not daughters, because she won’t waste wine on women), and launches into one of the weirdest toasts to date under that roof. You see, she’s like, dropping hints that she’s a Stark.
“You’re my family, the men who helped me slaughter the Starks at the Red Wedding. Yes, yes. Cheer. Brave men, all of you. Butchered a woman pregnant with her babe. Cut the throat of a mother of five. Slaughtered your guests after inviting them into your home. But you didn’t slaughter every one of the Starks.”
And as she drops these clues, the Freys begin dropping to the ground. Because that Arbor
Gold Red was poisoned. POISONED!
The Filch child-bride looks reasonably freaked out that everyone she knows is dead now, and even more reasonably freaked out when Arya Todd rips off her Halloween mask to reveal the face of an eighteen-year-old woman. Give or take. “Tell them winter came for House Frey,” she says. Okay. Should she also mention how Arya was posing as Filch and probably shared her bed for two weeks also?
Arya Todd leaves with a Smirk of Empowerment, not a single person there to stop her. For some reason.
Meanwhile, Branbot 1000 seems to be fritzing due to some bad crapware. He’s flashing to the army of the dead (and zombie giants!), while poor, gloveless Meera pulls him all the way to The Wall.
Lord Commander Edd greets them personally, because there’s nothing else he should be doing right now, and Meera tells him who they are. When Edd asks for proof, Branbot finishes his updates and informs Edd that he (Edd) was at the Fist of the First Men and Hardhome. That’s… as legitimate as having a driver’s license. Edd shrugs and says that they should be brought inside. Onion soup all around!
This brings us to Winterhell proper, where Johnny Cardboard is demonstrating why he deserves that crown he randomly got last year. He’s apparently discovered delegation, and instructs everyone to get dragonglass. Wait, has two weeks passed here too? Is it the same day? Brittany’s wig sure looks different.
He also says that they need to bone up on Winterhell’s defenses, since an army of the dead is coming. First order of business: the Wildlings will man The Wall. Beardy loves this idea, and the historical irony inherent in it, and to be honest… we kind of do too.
However, things get contentious when Jonny says everyone is going to be trained to fight—including GIRLS. Lord Glover doesn’t want to put a spear in his granddaughter’s hands (“Hey, how does she feel?” said no one ever), but it’s settled when Lyanna Mormont disparages typically female wartime roles, like provisioning the army. “Who in seven hells needs socks?” she asks, tossing a sassy look to Lord Glover. “Ima fight naked because I’m a feminist!” Everyone is convinced, because Lyanna is the ultimate bellwether lord.
Finally, it’s time to deal with the castles of the KARSTARKS and UMBERS. Lord Royce and his giant breastplate are miffed, so he wants to tear them down brick-by-brick. However Brittany finally speaks up, and points out that demolishing defensive strongholds that stand in between Winterhell and The Wall is really fucking stupid. “Of course they’re going to be manned by our allies,” she says. Reasonable. Giving land and castles as a reward for loyalty is a thing kings tend to do, especially when some lords marched a great distance to bail out an army from a sticky situation. The Northern Lords cheer in agreement.
However, Jonny had a different idea in mind, and completely didn’t run it past Sansa. He wanted to give the castles to the younger generations of KARSTARK and UMBER, because he knows how much their feelings would be hurt if he displaces their families from their ancestral homes. Brittany disagrees, but Jonny doubles down. The Northern Lords cheer in agreement. Brittany rolls her eyes and looks annoyed.
To be clear, they both have points, but neither the narrative nor the characters can seem to decide what they are, and Jonny only ends up being “right” because he spoke last. It’s a theme.
Speaking of thematic consistency, we almost forgot to point out one of the season’s strongest motifs: Wall Spot. It’s Batfinger’s new, designated space. He either is very fond of it, or he lost his teleporter and is permanently stuck there.
Afterwards, Jonny gets mad at Brittany for challenging his decision in front of the Northern Lords. Hey Jonny, it’s almost as if you should have talked to her before the meeting. Specifically so these kinds of things wouldn’t happen.
Brittany points out that good leaders allow themselves to be challenged, and it’s people like Joffrey who don’t.
Jonny: Do you think I’m Joffrey?
Looks like his hurt feelings need to take priority! Brittany soothes his ego, but then says that he has to be smarter than Ned and Robb, who both died for making stupid (but principled) mistakes. Jonny asks if that means he has to listen to her. Oh the horrors!
Brittany then explains that Cheryl is still a huge fucking threat, and they can’t just have Army of the Dead blinders on, or they’ll get creamed.
Jonny: You almost sound as if you admire her.
Does she, Jonny? Is that how you admire people? Does this mean he admires Shogun, cause he never shuts up about that threat.
Meanwhile, Brienne the Brute trains Pod ineffectively, while Tormund continues to creep on her. Haha.
Brittany watches from the gallery above, when Batfinger schmoozes on up. Brittany has NO patience for him today, and asks what he wants in an exasperated tone. When he says his usual Batfinger idiocy, she shuts him down, even outright saying:
“No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish. I’ll assume it was something clever.”
Jeeze. Why is this guy even alive? No really.
Brienne asks Brittany the same thing, but Brittany waves it off, saying that they need his men. It’d be a whole thing to tell the Vale Lords about Lysa’s death. Who has time for that?
An indeterminate temporal relationship to the previous scene later, Arya Todd comes across a group of Lannister soldiers in the woods on horseback and potentially still wearing Walder Filch’s clothes. One of these chaps is singing “Hands of Gold” because he just read A Clash of Kings, and looks an awful lot like a teenage heartthrob. The patriarchy is also on a questionable temporal plane of existence here, since the soldiers don’t question Arya being alone or offer to protect her, but do want to know if she’s old enough to drink wine. William Tecumseh Sherman made it in a toilet; it’s blackberry. Kylie gets unpleasant Manischewitz flashbacks.
“How’s the war?” “War is hell. Have some rabbit and sit down next to Ed Sheeran.”
Maisie Williams Arya Todd seems thrilled and friendly and not at all like some kind of feral animal who has been the victim of brain trauma. Then she “jokes” about how she’s headed to Cheryl’s Landing to kill Cheryl. Everyone laughs and the scene ends. Too bad we never got Ros’s woodtime adventures on her way down to Carol’s Landing.
You should want a détente
Back in Winterhell, Tyrion has sent a raven of great importance to Jonny, asking him to come visit Deadpan because they’re super, super nice, and also they have dragons and an army. Brittany and Jonny discuss this, while observing the co-ed archery classes. Which is probably something that happened anyway. Hawking is a thing, except for poor Tiffany Tarly.
Brittany tells Jonny that this is really stupid and dangerous, and even if Tyrion was a SUPER NICE not-rapist, this is still probably a trap. Davos pipes in with his folksy wisdom to note that fire kills wights, so dragons might be cool, but Tyrion didn’t really have much chill mentioning that army. (Oh yeah! Davos is a thing!)
Speaking of no chill, Arya Todd has arrived at the Inn at the Crossroads, everyone’s favorite hangout for coincidental meetings. She eavesdrops on the world’s most boring conversation about how it’s a good idea to go to Cheryl’s Landing now before war breaks out again, when Hot Pie spots her! She steals a pot pie from his tray, and seems to have forgotten how to use utensils. Hot Pie sit down to talk to his old friend, and she can’t be bothered to make eye contact, because she’s too busy eating like some weird feral creature.
After sharing baking tips, they finally get into politics. Cheryl blew up the sept! Arya already knew this from being Walder Filch, we suppose. Also, this being common knowledge has no social ramifications or implications, right? However NOT common knowledge is that Jonny won the in-verse named “Battle of the Bastards” and is ruling the North as king. There’s no reason anyone would tell Walder Filch that.
Arya is shaken by this news. She tries to pay Hot Pie, still being far colder to him than she was to Ed Sheeran, but he refuses because he’s a mensch. Or thinks she’s pretty. (Or both.) We then get a shot of her debating which way to go: Cheryl’s Landing for more murders, or Winterhell to threaten the murder of her family? Oops. Spoiler.
She turns North.
Speaking of brand new information, Jonny gets a raven from Sam saying that there’s DRAGONGLASS on DRAGONSTONE.
Oh yeah, Stannis told us that already!
Jon is shaken, so he calls another meeting in the Great Hall without bothering to talk things over with his sister. We’re sure there’s no important political decisions being made this time.
You see, Jonny is so desperate to get this DRAGONGLASS that he makes the unilateral decision to go to DRAGONSTONE himself. Literally everyone in the room thinks this is a terrible idea. Even Batfinger is smirking from Wall Spot about how stupid he is.
- Brittany points out this is obviously a trap, and one rather evocative of their own family’s history (riding south for Targaryen rulers doesn’t always end well, yo)
- The Northern Lords say he’s abandoning them
- They point out Robb lost his kingdom by riding south
- Winter is here and they kind of elected Jon on this point
- Jonny’s impassioned speech to counter these points is really beyond Kit Harington as an actor
The gist of what he says is: tough titties—only a king can request dragonglass from a queen. “Send an emissary,” Brittany points out.
No, no, it’s fine, because the North will be in good hands.
Boy this didn’t need to be talked about ahead of time. Everyone in the room kind of nods and accepts this. Brienne looks proud for some reason.
Batfinger is so moved by this decision that he leaves Wall Spot to find Jonny in the crypts, who’s busy saying goodbye to Sean Bean’s statue. Batfinger says (and we’re paraphrasing), “Give Tyrion my best. Your dad and I both loved Cat. Cat underestimated you. You’re the best hope for the North. I’m not your enemy. I love Brittany.”
Jonny gets full of protective paternalism and shoves Batfinger up against a wall. We kind of suspect Batfinger is into it. “Touch my sister, and I’ll kill you myself.” Cool, she’ll love that. She didn’t just ask you to stop protecting her or anything, and we’re sure sexual agency isn’t important to her at all!
Jonny then leaves with the smallest fucking retinue possible for a king, and he and Brittany exchange an awkward wave.
What isn’t something is Arya’s next scene. Wolves surround her and her horsey in the woods. One of them is Nymeria. “Come with me!” Arya says. Nymeria turns and leaves. “That’s not you.” Let’s hope Nymeria watched Season 1 recently and got it, unlike the fandom that assumed it meant the giant fucking direwolf wasn’t, in fact, Nymeria. The end.
No Hugs for Brittany
Back in Winterhell, we see the consequence of Jonny leaving Brittany in charge: shit is actually getting done. Like…shit that really should have been getting done already.
Brittany is running around, organizing winter rations, overseeing winter armoring, and showing us the value of traditionally feminine skills during times of battle preparations. Batfinger keeps trying to get stupid advice in, like how she should be completely paranoid at all times and assume everyone is her enemy. It’s a nice trailer line, but she doesn’t seem to care.
What she does care about is the arrival of her brother, Branbot. Brittany runs down to the gate to greet him with a hug, but robots cannot love.
She then brings him to the heart tree, and in her hyper-ambition casually offers to give him her seat. He’s Father’s legal heir, after all. Bran refuses because he’s the Three Eyed Raven now. Brittany—like all of us—doesn’t know what that means. “It’s difficult to explain.” Okay then. When she presses the matter, he gives her a demonstration of his powers, by speaking about the night she was raped in a lot of detail, with a dispassionate and detached inflection. Fun!
Brittany—like all of us—gets reasonably freaked out and upset, and gets the fuck out of dodge. We’re glad this happened instead of Bran sharing the information about their family he just discovered.
Batfinger is also glad to see Bran again, and decides to just randomly give him that dagger from Season 1. You know, the one the hired assassin tried to use on Bran that quasi-started the War of Five Kings. He then delves into this awkward monologue about how the dagger reminds him of Cat stopping it, and how he’s loyal to Bran, just like Cat? We’re a bit confused, and assume this is a really inept attempt at getting on Bran’s good side, but thankfully Branbot is even less interested in it than we are. “Chaos is a ladder,” he says. What he meant was, “Shut the fuck up.”
Meera then pops in to say goodbye to Bran. He can’t emote, but is like, “Thanks I guess. Crazy times.” She gets pissed at him for this complete underreaction, while he shrugs and tells her that being the Three Eyed Raven makes him not Bran anymore. “You died in that cave!” she says, tearfully leaving.
Hey. Brittany would have totally hugged Meera.
But hold your tits; Arya arrives at Winterhell and demands entrance. “That’s not you,” the guards tell her. Arya points out that she’s going to get in (and her delivery is creepy enough where this is entirely believable). So either they let her in and tell Brittany, and if she’s an imposter then the jig is up, or she’s real and they’d get in trouble for not having told Brittany. The guards find this convincing, but rather than wait for five minutes, Arya decides to recreate her Season 1 scampiness by just fucking off to the crypts.
The guards then have to tell Brittany that they lost someone claiming to be her sister, but Brittany just sighs and is like, “you tried.” Apparently she knew Arya would go to the crypts, and that’s where she finds her. Then we watch five minutes of Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner trying not to giggle as they film a scene with each other for the first time in six years.
For the characters, Brittany tries to hug Arya, who is about as receptive to it as Kylie’s six-month-old niece. Use your arms, Arya. Arya gets funny about Brittany being Lady of Winterhell, but her sister doesn’t seem to care. “I remember how happy [Jonny] was to see me. When he sees you, his heart will probably stop.” That ambitious bitch! Then they allude to the trauma they suffered, before Arya makes another list joke. It just keeps on giving.
Brittany then takes Arya to see Branbot 1000, who’s recharging at the Heart Tree again. He can’t even make it one sentence without being sufficiently weird, so Brittany explains that he has visions. Then Bran confirms that Arya has a murder list. Brittany asks for a little clarification on this, but then Bran just whips out that dagger. “Wait, where did you get this?” Brittany wants to know. However neither Bran nor Arya can seem to care about this obviously weird thing for Batfinger to have given him, which is probably worth digging into. So Brittany asks these futile, but probably important questions, while her robot brother hands her murdery sister a blade.
Arya and Brittany take Bran back to the Winterhell courtyard now that he reached 100%, as Brienne and Pod watch. Pod points out that she completed her mission and will receive 50,000 XP, while Brienne argues that she didn’t really do anything. Yeah, we know.
Later, Arya asks Brienne to train her, and they duel for a few minutes while epic battle music plays. Ramin Djawadi, chill—it’s just a sparring session. Brittany looks concerned at the burned screentime.
Sneak vs. Sneak
Later, Branbot’s plugged into the Heart Tree again (he really needs to disable his background apps; this battery life is ridiculous), and sends some ravens to check out what Shogun is doing. There’s honey bunches of dead people! He then asks the maester to send out ravens, because Jonny totally needs this reminder.
Meanwhile in the Great Hall, the Northern Lords are lonely without their Jonny. They’re also a little confused why he is their king. Afterall, Brittany is here and in front of them! …Yes. This is what we were screaming at the TV screen at the end of last season. Though this seems to be less about any kind of birthright or governing capabilities, as much as it’s like dogs who are confused during their owner’s vacation since someone else is feeding them.
Lord Glover goes as far as to say that he wants her to be the queen, while Royce is all like, “we rode North for you.” This is…a fairly treasonous casual conversation. However Brittany handles it with much aplomb, saying that while she’s flattered, Jonny is their king and that’s the way of it. What an ambitious bitch! She learned from Cheryl, alright. Arya watches with stink eye.
Afterwards, Brittany vents to Arya about how she warned Jonny this would happen. But Arya is too upset to listen because Brittany is sleeping in a bedroom befitting her rank. Also, apparently her solution to this would have been to execute Glover and Royce on the spot. That worked out great for their brother Robb, and he actually had some justification about Karstark.
When Brittany points out how fucking stupid that is, Arya accuses her of wanting the Northern Lords to like her because Jonny might get himself killed and then she’d be running everything. Yeah, this is a reasonable concern when your king sails into what could easily be a trap with only like, five other dudes.
But apparently Glover and Royce keeping their heads is a sign that Brittany may be disloyal to Jonny. That checks out.
Arya is so suspicious that she decides to tail Batfinger, of all people. Like, he’s around Brittany a bunch, but if Arya had checked with her sister she’d see that there wasn’t really too much being entertained there.
Batfinger is the sneakiest sneak though, as has been established in previous seasons, and he can apparently read minds. You see he KNOWS if he gets a copy of a certain raven’s scroll from the hapless maester, then Arya will be sure to be tailing him, and will find it in his bedroom. Then she’ll not question why Batfinger was digging it up, but instead jump straight to blaming Brittany for the downfall of her House.
Which is exactly what she does!
In the next episode, Arya has taken over Brittany’s favorite Observation Spot overlooking the bailey. However, there aren’t any coed archery lessons to look at; only meaningful memories. Maybe everyone is inside with coed sock knitting? Please? We’re very concerned about the soldiers’ feeties.
Brittany senses the opportunity for more bonding (or maybe she’s angling for a hug again, because she still didn’t get one), and goes up next to her. Arya then goes down Ned Stark Memory Lane (a Carol Award category!) in a monologue that’s just a click above Maisie Williams’s acting talents. You see, when she was a girl, Brittany was an asshole who liked to knit and had pretty penmanship. But Arya, because she truly loved their father, wanted to practice archery instead. So she did! And he slowclapped for her. This checks out.
What’s weird is that Brittany is just smiling like, “oh what a nice memory. Touching story, Arya!” But then Arya finishes on the note of, and we QUOTE, “Now he’s dead. Killed by the Lannisters. With your help.” Has she been hanging on on westeros.org boards again?
Brittany is legitimately confused by this, until Arya whips out the letter. Brittany explains the concept for duress, but Arya rejects this because she didn’t have a knife to her throat. Yikes. Brittany then points out that she was, you know, eleven and told that this is what would help their father stay alive. “And you were STUPID enough to believe them!” Which is it, Arya: is it that she was actively trying to betray your father, or that she was a young girl who didn’t understand political intrigue?
Amazingly Robb and Cat managed to wrap their minds around this in about 2 seconds.
Then Arya decides to shame Brittany for wearing societally appropriate clothing to their father’s execution, even though she had thought he was going to be released. As did everyone else there,
Cheryl Carol included. It’s not like she was still betrothed to the King or anything.
Brittany finally gets a little mad at these accusations, pointing out that she’s gone through hell and back for her family, and she’s the only reason they regained any kind of political power at all. Arya, apparently unmoved, tries to compare the size of her PTSD dick to Brittany’s, because this is healthy and sisterly bonding. Arya is convinced Brittany’s letter was the downfall of her house, and mentions how Lyanna Mormont would not have been so weak as to write it. So therefore, if the Northern Lords read it, they’ll think Brittany is a traitor!
To be fair, they probably are that stupid and would have that kind of overreaction to the most innocuous diplomatic letter clearly written under duress ever. Brittany understands that, so she later expresses her worries to Batfinger, since Arya ended the conversation basically saying she was going to “expose” her.
Batfinger pretends he has no clue where Arya got the letter, while Brittany worries about the “wind vane” Northern Lords, since Jon hasn’t even written in weeks, so who knows how they’re feeling about anything right now. Brittany thinks Arya would definitely betray her if she believed (for no reason) that Brittany was willing to betray Jon.
Batfinger’s solution? Lady Brienne. She’d be “honor bound to intercede” because she’s committed to protecting both Stark sisters.
We’re not sure why, but this is greatly distressing to Brittany. We guess because Brienne and Arya bonded with their epic duel, so she’s worried that Brienne would now…cut off her head or something, if Arya asked. That checks out.
But logical leaps aside, when Brittany gets invited to the Great Wight Moot of Incoherence, she insists that Brienne go as an emissary. Also, this is a legitimately good use of an emissary; why would she march her ass to Cheryl’s Landing while Cheryl is ruling? We got the feeling she didn’t enjoy being a political prisoner so much.
Brienne seems very concerned, and suggests leaving Pod behind, but apparently her duel with Arya was so chummy that even he could pose a danger to Brittany at this point. At least, this is what we think is going on, but we can’t be sure. She also may be trying to protect Pod and Brienne from Batfinger’s machinations somehow, or she may be really, really concerned with having a proper emissary to this clearly important meeting that will totally have an actual function in the plot. Whatever her reasons, she basically snaps at Brienne until the Maid of Fail retreats sadly away. Bye bye! Have fun in Cheryl’s Landing!
High on that accomplishment, Brittany then decides to creep around Arya’s room, because she doesn’t want to be left out of the sneaky sneak game. FOMO is real, friends. We suspect she may be trying to locate the letter, but instead she finds a pretty nice leather messenger bag. It’s only $500 from Neiman Marcus and goes great with their battle cardigans (temporarily out of stock).
Inside the messenger bag are some halloween masks that were definitely not purchased at Neiman Marcus. Our guess is Party City.
“Not what you’re looking for.”
No Arya, that’s not what anyone is ever looking for. Unless they’re planning to rob a bank. For the Joker. Brittany, reasonably freaked out, asks her what these are and where she got them. “My faces.” Okay. Arya goes on to explain she got them in Braavos, training to be a Faceless Man. “What does that mean?” Brittany asks. No one knows!
Arya tells her that it means you get hit with a stick any time someone catches you lying. She offers to play this fun game with her sister, the first question being, “How do you feel about Jon being king? Is there someone else you feel should rule the North instead of him?”
We personally feel that this test really should have been calibrated with some dummy questions first, like any good polygraph. Also, Jon is a complete fucking idiot, and Kylie’s cat would be doing a better job ruling the North. So it’s kind of a Catch-22 for Brittany.
She filibusters by asking more about what the hell these faces are and how did Arya get them. Remember that time Branbot confirmed her murder list? Yeah… However, Arya soon puts her fears to rest (except not at all). You see, her murders and masks are feminist statements. Growing up, both she and Brittany wanted to be other people. Brittany wanted to be a queen (what? She was betrothed to Joffrey, so that’s not really being anyone else at all), while Arya wanted to be a knight. But in Weisseroff, little girls don’t get to choose what they are. Except when they do.
With her masks, she can be anyone. Even Brittany, with her title and pretty dresses that Arya isn’t jealous of at all. To prove this point, she points a dagger in her sister’s direction. As one does.
With Brittany almost in tears, Arya twirls the dagger around and hands it to her. Psych! That filled us with warm tinglies.
“None of you knows the truth!”
Good news everyone, winter is actually legitimately here. So is a raven from Jonny, that tells Brittany he bent the knee to Deadpan—pass it on. Boy did Brittany really not know what she was getting into when he asked her to take care of the North for him.
She vents to Batfinger that he didn’t even ask for her opinion. We’re a little mad Batfinger is even around for this, but a) she sent away Brienne who was really her only friend, b) if she vents to any Northern or Vale Lord they’ll probably do something horribly stupid, and c) one of her siblings is a cyborg and the other just threatened to murder her. So frankly, we’d probably be chumming it up with him too.
Batfinger doesn’t seem very surprised by this, especially since he knows what sexual tension there surely is between Jonny and Deadpan. So he just shrugs and casually suggests a coup where Brittany asks the Northern Lords to unname Jon as king. No biggie.
Brittany maybe entertains this (it’s impossible to tell), but pretty much immediately shuts it down because her absolutely crazed sister would most certainly murder her. In fact, she might just murder her anyway. Batfinger decides to ineptly stoke her paranoia more by telling her about a game of his: assume everyone has the worst motives ever, and then see how well that explains their actions.
We can’t believe it’s not confirmation bias! Batfinger would be a really successful YouTuber.
Brittany then tries it out, talking about how Arya is probably there to kill her, and then unearthed her duress letter so that she’d be able to get away with it. But the thing is, this really does explain Arya’s actions well, so the scene ends with Brittany looking distressed, and as if she knows what she needs to do. Because again…her sister is a murderer who threatened her. With more murder. And wearing her face.
This is weighing on Brittany, or perhaps some exhausting off-screen shenanigans are, so we get a scene of her on the battlements with her hood drawn up.
She sighs heavily and asks a random nearby guard to bring her sister to the Great Hall. Shit’s about to go down! Or she’s trying to bait-and-switch the guards too? It’s this kind of ambiguity that makes this show the masterpiece that it is.
In the Great Hall, Bran and Brittany sit at the High Table.
Arya: Are you sure you want to do this?
Brittany: It’s not what I want. It’s what honor demands.
Arya: And what does honor demand?
Brittany: That I defend my family from those who would harm us. That I defend the North from those who would betray us.
Arya: All right, then. Get on with it.
We imagine the Northern Lords are very confused by this exchange. Why do they think they’re there? Do they understand why Arya isn’t at the high table? Does Arya? We think the above conversation was rehearsed, but…are they trying to dramatically satisfy the Lords too?
Anyway, the surprise is that when Brittany says, “you stand accused of murder, you stand accused of treason,” she’s not actually talking to Arya…she’s talking to BATFINGER.
He can’t believe it so much that he peels himself off of Wall Spot and asks for clarification.
“Lady Sansa, forgive me; I’m a bit confused.”
So are we, Batfinger, and this is why you got a Carol nomination for meta-ness.
Brittany then explains his charges, finally telling the Vale Lords that he murdered her Aunt Lysa. Like, literally in front of her. She could have told them this three seasons ago but didn’t, for reasons. And yeah, now that we think about it, Brittany being in the Vale would have made so much more sense for so many reasons. Someone should write a book about that alternate universe.
However, she also starts whipping out some odd charges. Like, how he murdered Jon Arryn, and that time he betrayed Ned. We mean, he did, but how does anyone know that? Batfinger asks this reasonable question. The answer? With spectral evidence, of course!
Branbot 1000 tells the room all about Batfinger holding a dagger to Ned’s throat. We guess they’ve all been told about his role as the Three Eyed Raven and perfectly understand/accept it, since no one really bats an eye. We’re jealous. We also thought it was difficult to explain.
Batfinger then tries to ask why Brittany is doing this, since his love is so pure. She plays the motive game back in his face, also pointing out that his way of expressing love included selling her to her rapist, so sit the fuck down, dude. Then he asks for a defense, which apparently includes begging Lord Royce to take him away and escort him to the Vale. He refuses, probably because he rode north for Brittany, as he already said. Wait. What was Batfinger doing here at all for two seasons then?
“I am a slow learner, it’s true. But I learn.”
Oh fuck you, Benioff and Weiss. You backdialed her characterization and bent the plot into a windsor for her stupid rape/revenge plotline, and have the gall to say it’s because she’s a slow learner?
Arya then slits his throat. We mean, we should point out that he’s literally on his knees begging for his life at this point. But she just slits his throat. Brittany didn’t even pass a sentence; she just thanked him for his service in a kind of sarcastic tone. He falls to the floor and blood goes everywhere. This is why you execute people outside, damnit!
Some time later, Sam shows up and bonds with Branbot. But we don’t want to bore you. It has nothing to do with this plotline. We just think it’s important to note that Branbot is legitimately happier to see him than his sisters, and thinks Sam would be more interested in Jon’s parentage than they apparently are.
Meanwhile, back up at the battlements, Brittany and Arya have their season-wrap-up-bonding-session, exactly like the one Brittany had with Jonny last season. “You did the right thing.” “No you did.” Okay, girls.
Arya points out that Brittany passed the sentence, but she literally didn’t, so we’re not sure what to make of that. Or why they’re calling attention to splitting up the sentence with the sword swinging, when Ned’s whole point was that you can’t escape consequences of decision-making as a liege lord, which is why that role needs to be coupled.
Arya acknowledges that Brittany is Lady of Winterhell now that she’s proven her willingness to kill people…or demonstrated her loyalty to her family by killing people…or something. We’d have thought bringing troops from the Vale to the “Battle of the Bastards” might have accomplished that, or even her murder of Ramsay, but hey. Lady of Winterhell.
Brittany’s touched though, and says Arya’s the strongest person she knows. She totally could have survived the trauma that Brittany experienced.
Also, she still thinks Arya is “strange and annoying.” That’s an interesting way to phrase “murderous and creepy.” Then they both quote Ned talking about lone wolves dying but packs surviving. Awww, sisters.
Finally, Bran has a vision of the Army of the Dead busting through The Wall. The end.
That was…definitely something. However fear not: we will unpack all the meaning and significance in Part 2, coming in a few days. See you then!
Images courtesy of HBO. This piece was co-written by Kylie and Julia. If you liked this, be sure to subscribe to their podcast, Unabashed Book Snobbery, where they will also make the audio accompaniment to their retrospective series available.
Batwoman Isn’t Built For One-Shots Or Fill-Ins
All of that I knew. After Batwoman #11, written by Kate Perkins* and illustrated by a criminally underused Scott Godlewski (Copperhead was great until he stopped doing the art) however, I learned something new. I learned that Kate is just not a character built for one-and-dones or fill-ins. Because that was the single worst Batwoman story I’ve read since that time she got raped by a vampire for like eight issues.
Which, okay, not a super high bar, but it’s still worse than that abysmal hyper-goyish Batwoman “Hanukkah” story from last year’s DC Holiday Special…which was also written by Kate Perkins. She just wanted pie or something. It was bad.
Anyway, the problems Batwoman #11 has are emblematic of how this kind of story just doesn’t work for Kate. And, wouldn’t you know it, there’s even a meta-textual reasoning behind all of it, too! Because of course there is; it’s Kate.
Kate’s continuity has always progressed forward since 2006, having never actually been reset or rebooted. She’s in a weird position that leaves her extremely well-characterized, but also makes it nigh impossible to write her “passably”. That is, mediocre. She’s sort of all-or-nothing just due to her own context.
This is also why cameos for her are either pitch perfect or laughably bad. For example: Kate’s brief appearances in Mother Panic and Red Hood and the Outlaws were excellent (though the latter had a weird art problem where it didn’t match the tone of the script, but that’s minimal), while her extended existence in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey was…abysmal.
More to the point, the fact that Kate has never actually stopped developing (EVEN ANDREYKO KNEW THIS AND HE IS THE WORST) means that any narrative where she’s the focal point in which it’s just “filling dead air” isn’t going to work. And no matter how you look at it, that’s exactly what Batwoman #11 was.
It was a series of beats that were hit by a writer who seems to have a very odd “blueprint” of what a Batwoman story needs to have to be a Batwoman story. Despite the fact that that’s not how any kind of story works, unless it’s supposed to be formulaic by design. Perkins seems to be under the impression that a Batwoman story is the following things:
- Reference Family
- Fuck up
- Relate to Larger Arc, somehow
- Kate blames herself and mopes
In all fairness, this is technically correct from a certain point of view. If I were to explain how to write a Batwoman story, I’d probably tell you make sure her family is somehow involved. Aside from that…you kind of need to understand who Kate is if you’re going to have her mope or blame herself.
Uh. No. That’s the opposite of what Kate does. She doesn’t get distracted like that while working, because that’s the only time things “make sense” for her. Also, that’s not how you soldier. I don’t have an issue with her getting clocked on the head by Pyg (his Grant Morrison Weird Factor justifies quite a bit) but I do have a problem with inverted characterization. Also, hey, uh, you can’t just like drop a huge revelation like Beth used to wear glasses but Kate didn’t on us???
They’re twins. Identical twins. That’s not how this works. We have NEVER seen either of them with glasses before, and also it took me several tries to realize that the one in the pirate costume wasn’t Beth because literally every other flashback we’ve ever seen with those two had Beth be the happy one trying to cheer a mopey Kate up.
That’s sort of an important tonal through-line that Perkins wanted to subvert without realizing how confusing and inconsistent it would be? Or…got them mixed up? Or just didn’t care? I have no idea. Look, this whole issue is just one big hot mess. Julia Pennyworth, an SAS operative who unlike Kate actually is a professional soldier getting captured by Pyg and…being helpless for the entire story after being absent from this book since issue #4 is just really stupid and bad.
Kate’s inner monologue is overwritten to the point where any nuance that may have been there is drilled into the dirt. Her tattoos are, once again, missing, despite those actually being super important, and everything Kate says sounds like someone trying to do a really half-effort impression of how a good writer writes Kate.
She still talks “weird’, but the wrong kind of weird. “Creepazoid” is very much the wrong decade, to put it lightly. And then it just sort of ends, with nothing happening or changing (since it couldn’t because it was a fill-in and that’s still the largest issue) and we’re back exactly where we were so we can slip into another flashback issue next month. Which would have been perfect right after #10, but alas that was not to be. As for why that is, why any of this exists at all, well, it’s pretty simple.
Because, uh, yeah, Perkins is gone now. Bennett is back next month, hopefully forever, but…see, here’s the thing: Bennett is about as busy as a writer in her industry can get without literally dying. Not quite Brian Michael Bendis, but y’know he was just in the hospital for like a month so…probably better that she’s not doing that.
As of this moment, she is/was concurrently writing:
- DC Bombshells
- Animosity: The Rise
- Animosity: Evolution
- Sheena: Queen of the Jungle
- Josie and the Pussycats
- At least three other things we don’t know about/I couldn’t find/I forgot about
Can you guess which one on that list can actually have a fill-in writer? It’s Batwoman and only Batwoman. Ironically, the one thing that absolutely should never have a fill-in was the only one that truly could due to how schedules work with the Big Two.
God, this is just gonna be bad in trade, huh? Ugh. I’d shoot the fail counter up by 52 or something but this isn’t Kate Kane’s fault; she doesn’t choose her writer. If she did, she sure as hell wouldn’t choose Perkins, that much I know for sure.
[*Editor’s Note: The name of the writer for this issue has been corrected from Kelly Perkins to Kate Perkins throughout.]
Images courtesy of DC Comics
Star Trek Voyager Tackles Historical Revisionism
Happy New Year everyone! I hope everyone had a good holiday. Today, I’d like to talk to you about a sci-fi setting near and dear to our hearts: Star…Trek. Specifically, a “message episode” of Star Trek.
A “message episode” of Star Trek is one with a particular moral applicable to modern life. The franchise has made a great deal of these sort of episodes. Many have withstood the test of time and remained good or have morals that still reverberate (Such as the Original Series episode “Day of the Dove”). Some have aged rather poorly or the message was badly told in the first place (As was the case in the Next Generation episode “The Outcast”). For me personally, there is one episode that stands head and shoulders above every other message episode. Star Trek Voyager’s season 4 episode “Living Witness”. Why this one specifically? Not only is it’s message more relevant now than ever and because it is the only one to actually acknowledge what its specific theme is: racism and Historical Revisionism.
The Voyager Encounter
The episode opens in a way that for any other show in the series, would seem like it’s taking place in the Mirror Universe. The lighting is dim on the ship , Captain Janeway is monologuing to an alien visitor about how if diplomacy fails the only answer is overwhelming force, and worst of all…she’s wearing black gloves. During the conversation Janeway reveals that she is making a deal with the alien, who identifies his species as the Vaskan. In exchange for directions to a stable wormhole, Voyager will capture the leader of another race, the Kyrians.
As Janeway walks to the bridge, viewers see more clues that show this isn’t the normal Voyager. Neelix has a console and is wearing a uniform. Captain Janeway refers to the ship as the ‘Warship Voyager’, and the doctor is an android. What’s even worse, the Captain orders the use of Biogenic weapons against civilian targets. Clearly, something is not right here.
Just before the opening titles we see what is actually going on. The Voyager we were watching was a holographic recreation of an event that apparently happened 700 years ago. The curator of the museum (a Kyrian named Quarren) tells the people watching the recreation that “Even today, seven hundred years later, we are still feeling the impact of the Voyager Encounter.”
After the opening credits, we quickly learn through exposition that according to this museum, Voyager attacked and killed the leader of the Kyrians, a man named Tedran. Tedran’s death led to centuries of Kyrian oppression under the Vaskans. In a good line of dialogue, before resuming the simulation and showing Tedran’s death, Quarren gives the visitors a content warning, telling them that this next scene will be disturbing. And it honestly is. Captured after a brief scuffle with fully Borg Seven of Nine simulation, Janeway has him brought before her and the Vaskan ambassador. She then executes him herself.
After the simulation ends, a Vaskan patron confronts Quarren, claiming that the story presented is inaccurate. That the Kyrians are always blaming the Vaskans for their problems. The patron is also quick to point out that he doesn’t have a problem with Kyrians. Some of his friends are Kyrian after all! It’s at this point in the episode, a little over a third of the way into it, that we start to see that theme of racism start to appear. It will remain a background element for a while though, simmering and only really making itself known near the end of the episode.
Later, after the museum closes for the night, Quarren starts working on a new Voyager artifact. He identifies it as some sort of data storage device, possibly Captain Janeway’s personal logs, but can’t seem to access it. As he pokes and prods, he realizes it that it has far too much data for it to be a simple log…and then the Doctor appears. More specifically, the Doctor’s backup.
Immediately fascinated by the Doctor, Quarren begins to question him. An actual member of Voyager’s crew! He could shed so much light on that era of history. He is a literal living witness! The Doctor, for his part, is nonplussed at discovering that it’s over seven hundred years since he was last ‘awake’, and all of his friends are dead. The Doctor becomes even more upset when he discovers he’ll be tried for war crimes. The Doctor protests his innocence claiming (truthfully) that he never created weapons of mass destruction, and that most of the information presented in the museum is inaccurate, distorted, or flat-out wrong. The Doctor demands to see the recreation of the “Voyager Encounter”. After viewing it, the Doctor, incensed, says that somewhere, hopefully on Earth, Captain Janeway is spinning in her grave.
The Doctor then tells Quarren that Tedran, far from being an innocent martyr, actually led an attack on Voyager. Now it’s Quarren’s turn to get angry, accusing the Doctor of lying to protect himself. The Doctor counters by saying that Quarren is also protecting himself…from the truth. The Doctor points out that the simulation paints Kyrians in the best possible light. He ends his thoughts with this line: “Revisionist History…it’s such a comfort”. Enraged, Quarren states flatly that his people were not the aggressors in the war, and that the oppression continues to this day. He then shuts down the Doctor’s program.
This last scene has so much to unpack, so let’s start with the smaller stuff. As you can see, the racial issues aren’t quite front and center yet, but still remain just behind the curtain. Quarren’s anger is seemingly justified at first. How dare this…mass murderer question historical truth! But his actions do not back this up. Earlier he had told the Doctor that synthetic beings had the same rights as organics on his planet. But he still turns the Doctor off while the Doctor was speaking, as if the Doctor were just some sort of toy. And then there’s the Doctor’s line.
Historical Revisionism. It’s a phrase that conjures up images of Holocaust deniers trying to spread their conspiracy theories under the guise of ‘research’. And indeed that can be a downside of Historical Revisionism. Changing events to suit one’s own agenda, or simply viewing the events and seeing what we want to see. However, there is a positive side to Historical Revisionism. Without it, we would still view Andrew Jackson as a war hero, instead of the man who created the Trail of Tears. We would see the Spanish Conquistadors as brave explorers instead of the death knell of an entire civilization.
This sort of Historical Revisionism is hard to do, however. The majority of us don’t like having long held beliefs attacked. Of having things we’ve believed true for years suddenly becoming false. Of hearing “No. You’re wrong”. Put in this context, Quarren shutting down the Doctor becomes far more understandable, if still an awful thing to do.
When we see Quarren again, he’s dictating an entry into his log. He reflects that, perhaps their histories are wrong…after all, they thought the doctor was an android, not a hologram. And if they could be wrong about that, what else could they be wrong about? Coming to this conclusion, he reactivates the Doctor and apologizes, saying that he will not turn off the Doctor’s programming again. Quarren then asks the Doctor if they could recreate what the Doctor claims to have happened. The Doctor agrees, if only to clear Voyager’s good name.
The Doctor’s recreation starts the same way as Quarren’s, with Captain Janeway speaking to a Vaskan ambassador. But instead of plotting genocide, it’s a simple trade negotiation. Voyager will give the Vaskans medical supplies in return for fuel. As the medical supplies are being prepared for shipment, a group of Kyrians, led by Tedran, attack Voyager.
They board the engineering deck, killing three crewmen and taking Seven of Nine hostage. The Kyrians then proceed to a conference room with their hostages. Captain Janeway, The Doctor, and the Vaskan ambassador quickly follow them, with the doctor offering to lead the way since he is immune to phaser fire. They confront Tedran, who accuses Captain Janeway of plotting to destroy his people. Before Janeway can talk him down, the Vaskan ambassador shoot Tedran, killing him.
In a different episode, it might have ended here, with Quarren seeing and accepting the Doctor’s version of what happened. Instead, we finally see the second issue that this episode deals with finally steps out: racism.
Some of my best friends are Kyrian!
Quarren and the Doctor show this version of events to three representatives—two Vaskan and one Kyrian. The Vaskans seem more than to accept this version of what happened. After all, this means that their ancestors weren’t the aggressors. They were simply defending themselves against Kyrian aggression. The Kyrian representative is a much harder sell, first demanding that they arrest the Doctor and then asking what proof he can offer that this really happened.
The Doctor shows them a tricorder that we had previously seen as an exhibit, confirming that this was the same one he used to examine Tedrin. If he can power it up, it’ll show that the shot that killed Tedran came from a Vaskan weapon. The Kyrian representative responds by saying that this doesn’t matter. Tedran was killed on Voyager, a victim of a conspiracy. She calls for the Doctor’s arrest again, only to have one of the Vaskan representatives overrule her. The Kyrian responds bitterly, stating that she’s just the token Kyrian for this commission. Quarren interjects, stating that the issue isn’t about race. The Kyrian representative responds bitterly stating that “It’s always about race” and then accusing the Vaskans of seizing at every opportunity to keep themselves in power. The commission departs, with no real decision reached and leaving Quarren and the Doctor to try and power up the tricorder.
This scene requires more unpacking than even the the doctor’s line about Historical Revisionism. When I was re-watching this episode for this article, I was kind of shocked how bluntly and directly they approached this issue. To my knowledge, there was only one other episode of Star Trek ever to even use the word ‘race’ in this context. And yet, here we are. The other thing that jumped out at me was the delivery of the line by the actresses who played the Kyrian representative: bitter and resigned.
With this exchange, you get a sense of how entrenched the Vaskan oppression of the Kyrians must be. Of how hard they must have struggled to get their version of history accepted. How much harder it was to even get this museum built instead of sugar coating history. And now here comes this hologram, someone they believe to be a mass murderer who is telling them that their people deserved what happened to them. Nevermind the fact that the Doctor isn’t saying this at all, it’s what the Kyrians believe that he is saying. And perhaps worst of all, it’s what the Vaskans believe he’s saying. Finally, they can wash their hands of the guilt. The Kyrians attacked us. We were only defending ourselves. All that oppression was simply the result of your actions. They only accept the story because it makes themselves look good.
That’s not to say that the Kyrians are completely innocent in all this. After all, they want to kill the Doctor for crimes he didn’t commit. To hide the historical truth, and to continue to venerate a man who attacked a third party and killed innocent people. That neither side is exactly innocent comes across just as clearly as the racism does in this scene.
Things don’t really improve after this. Later that night, as the Doctor and Quarren work to try and get the tricorder operational, an angry mob of Vaskans storm the museum. They smash it up, angry that all the ‘history’ they learned was a lie. When I first saw this episode, I sympathized somewhat with the Vaskans. Finding out that not only are your ancestors innocent of the crime they were accused of and that the history were they were portrayed as monsters was a bald faced lie? I would have been angry too.
Now though, I see this mob for what they probably supposed to represent. Racists rioting under the guise of ‘telling the truth’, ignoring the real facts of Kyrian oppression in the present day. It reminds me of the riot in Charlottesville. The next morning, the Doctor and Quarren are picking through the rubble trying to find the tricorder, which was lost in the chaos of the previous night. Quarren tells the doctor that a race riot broke out and two people were killed. Quarren goes on to tell the Doctor that there is talk of another war brewing. The Doctor is horrified by this. He was programmed to do no harm, and now his presence is the catalyst for a planetary war. He tells Quarren that he will deny everything. “Tedran was a martyr for your people, a hero, a symbol of your struggle for freedom. Who am I to wander in seven hundred years later and take that away from you?” The Doctor asks.
Quarren shows now how much he’s changed since the beginning of the episode, angrily saying “History has been abused! We keep blaming each other for what happened in the past.” He then implores the Doctor to help him. As they keep looking through the rubble, the camera pans, and we that this was another simulation, from some point even further in the future. This tour guide tells the group listening that thanks to the Doctor’s testimony, a new dialogue was opened between the Vaskans and the Kyrians. That Quarren died six years later, but he lived long enough to see the beginning of true peace between the two races. The Doctor stayed as Surgical Chancellor of the united races for years before getting a small ship and setting off for Earth, wanting to return home.
Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations
As I mentioned before, this is an incredibly strong message episode of Star Trek, one of the best of Voyager, and one of my personal favorites. Everything in it, from the story to the acting, helps to hammer in the themes and moral that the episode is trying to get across. The moral is timeless, a reminder to not let your personal feelings or cause to get in the way of trying to find the truth. As for the theme of racism? In Star Trek, there is the idea of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”, a celebration of all the variables in the universe. The idea being that we shouldn’t limit or disregard someone because of how they look, their background, or anything.
Living Witness is a reminder to respect that Infinite Diversity, and I can think of no better moral.
Images courtesy of Paramount Television
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