(This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and some pretty violent images)
It was around the time I had finished burning unarmed doctors to death without hesitation. These two people were of no threat to me. I could have very easily run past them without consequence. This idea never occurred to me until after they were dead. As I ran out of the room, I realized at last the implications of what I had just done and I was forced to call my morality into question.
Video games are the most exciting story-telling medium because of their ability to involve the player. While a book, movie or TV show must needs keep you at arm’s length, a game invites you to be an active part in its story. You become far more likely to emphasize with the protagonist because you, in a sense, are the protagonist.
Best of all is when a video game can make you complicit. This is something The Last of Us accomplishes ruthlessly. This game leads you down the garden path with its familiar tropes and trappings, only to pull the rug from beneath your feet. It was a shock to discover that I was not the hero. It was even more shocking that it took me burning two unarmed doctors to death before I figured that out.
A Dying Species
The bulk of The Last of Us takes place twenty years after society collapsed. Infectious fungal spores began turning people into monstrous ‘clickers’, zombies in all but name. Military forces control the last few cities standing, and a rebellion against their authoritarian rule is being fought by a group called the Fireflies.
So far, so generic. The setting of The Last of Us is hardly unique, mainly serving as a backdrop for the story to take place. The story needed an apocalypse, so the writer’s cooked up an apocalypse. The important point to take away is that humanity is on its last legs and no salvation is in sight.
Enter Ellie (Ashley Johnson). A teenager born into this hellish world, she discovers that she alone is immune to the infection. Fate makes it so an ageing smuggler named Joel (Troy Baker) is tasked with taking her across the country. There they hope to find a group of medically proficient Fireflies who will create a vaccine based on Ellie’s immunity.
Everything is set up for a very typical kind of story. Brave white man is tasked with defending a young girl, finding redemption and ultimately saving the world. Everyone has seen a dozen movies like this and played a dozen games with exactly this set-up. One assumes Joel must be the hero. After all, he is going to save the world, right?
(I promise this is my last subheading featuring a variation on the word ‘death’).
Before we get to meet Ellie, we spend a good ninety minutes in Joel’s company. It is through his eyes we see the collapse of society in 2013. It is through his eyes we first experience the hellish existence that is 2033. He proves himself cynical, ferocious and utterly determined to survive. Notice that these descriptions do not exactly make Joel sound like much of a hero. One would probably figure out where this was going much sooner if his daughter did not immediately die.
Joel’s daughter Sarah is killed on the night of the outbreak in 2013. Ironically, she is not killed by a clicker, but rather by a young soldier ordered to enforce a quarantine. This is part of a recurring theme that it is humans who are the most terrifying monsters of all (a theme reinforced, accidentally or not, by humans being much harder to fight than clickers). It is a pretty sophomoric point, but important for where Joel’s story will go.
Sarah’s death is absolutely heart-breaking. The player is tasked with protecting her from the very outset, only to have control ripped away from them at the most crucial moment. Never again, we are asked to vow to ourselves. Never again will we let our virtual daughter die. By the time we meet Ellie we are fully prepared to do anything to keep her from harm.
Which leads me to a very important point, one that serves as the crux of my interpretation of both this game and (weirdly enough) Life is Strange: Being prepared to do literally anything to protect the people you love is the sign of a bad person.
Before I go any further, I need to talk about a certain issue that plagues a lot of video game story-telling. Ludonarrative dissonance is a term in reference to a conflict between gameplay and story-telling. If you were playing a game where the main character is established as being a pacifist, but you end up spending the bulk of the game running around murdering people, you would be experiencing some ludonarrative dissonance.
One game series commonly held up as an example is Uncharted, which is also a product of Naughty Dog, the same developer who made The Last of Us. Its main character, Nathan Drake, is supposed to be a lovable wise-cracking rogue. He is essentially presented as what would happen if you cast Nathan Fillion as Indiana Jones.
And in Uncharted 2, the best game in the series, he kills 1,000 people. Remorselessly.
There is no good explanation for this in-universe. There is no suggestion that Drake is secretly a monstrous killing machine. We are clearly supposed to think of him as an easy-going hero, yet he murders so very many people without a second thought. The only possible explanation is that the Drake of the story and the Drake of the gameplay are two different people, the purest example of ludonarrative dissonance.
When Naughty Dog began to make The Last of Us, I suspect this criticism of Uncharted was fresh in their minds. I think they intended to do the opposite of what they had done in the past. The Joel of the story and the Joel of the gameplay are the same person. Once you accept that idea, a whole new perspective on the game begins coming to light.
Last Man Standing
How exactly did Joel survive the apocalypse for twenty years? No one ever expressly states it, but the implication that he has a very shady past by the time he meets Ellie is hammered home repeatedly.
For example, after Joel and Ellie are ambushed while driving, Ellie asks him how he knew the supposedly injured man begging for help was actually faking so that he and his group could steal their car. Joel’s answer?
Joel: “I’ve been on both sides.”
Lovely implications there. Now how about this exchange between his younger brother Tommy and him about their time together surviving in a big city.
Tommy: “I got nothing but nightmares from those years.”
Joel: “You survived because of me.”
Tommy: “It wasn’t worth it.”
Or this one with his smuggling partner Tess (and possible lover) about their history when she sees a possibility for redemption.
Tess: “Guess what, we’re shitty people Joel, it’s been that way for a long time.”
Joel: “No, we are survivors.”
Survival is Joel’s main priority. Survival is the be all and end all. It is the cause he falls back on when questioned about his actions. It is his sole justification for his frequently horrifying actions. This is where the absence of ludonarrative dissonance really starts to hammer the horror home. Every time Joel mercilessly beats someone to death, the game is not pretending he is a charming rogue. Rather, it is clearly demonstrating what form ‘surviving’ has taken for Joel.
After an horrific injury puts Joel out of commission, Ellie briefly becomes the player character. While hunting a deer she crosses paths with David (Nolan North). He offers to provide her with the anti-biotics she needs to safe Joel’s life. He comes across as a reasonable person, charming even, a small bastion of decency in a nightmarish world. David and Ellie even prove to be as good a fighting team as her and Joel.
However, is slowly transpires that David is perhaps the worst person who has ever existed. He is literally all the worst things a person can be: A murderer, a pedophile, a cannibal and a rapist. This is a man who ultimately prioritizes stalking Ellie with a hunting knife rather than escaping the building they are in as it slowly burns to the ground.
Okay, so David is the worst. Why am I bothering to bring him up? Again, I want to reinforce how charming he initially appears to be. That the very worst human being in the game initially appears to be the nicest. The lesson here is clear; Ellie was taken in by a man who claimed to have her best interests at heart and was ultimately forced to kill him with his own knife.
Which serves to make us wonder whether or not there are any other violent men around who claim to have Ellie’s best interest at heart. David is not a foil to Joel, but rather a slightly darker reflection of him. Ironically enough, while Joel is a better person than David, he will end up committing a worse act than anything David could ever have comprehended.
Finally it is time to talk about the doctors I murdered.
Ellie: “After all we’ve been through.
Everything that I’ve done.
It can’t be for nothing.”
Joel has killed a lot of people. He has engaged in some very questionable actions to survive. He even resorted to torturing David’s men while trying to find Ellie. It is no accident that David’s men end up fleeing from him when they see him coming. To them he is a crazy men determined to kill them all. Are they wrong?
The only possible justification for any of this (and I am not saying I agree, I am just saying it is the only argument that I will not dismiss outright) is that Joel had to do these things because he is trying to save the world. Everything he did was to protect Ellie so that they could reach the Fireflies and a vaccine could be created. Surely we must forgive Joel his violence if the result is the salvation of humanity?
The above quote suggests that is Ellie’s view on the whole thing. The idea that they are going to save the world is the only thing that keeps her going after her traumatic ordeal with David. Reaching the end of this journey will make the entire thing worth it.
And they do finally make it to the Fireflies. And Ellie’s immunity really can be turned into a vaccine. Hurray and huzzah, the world has been saved! There is just one small problem. The fungus that turns people into clickers grows on the brain. To extract the cure will mean cutting open Ellie’s brain.
Ellie has to die for the world to be saved.
Joel begins the game by losing a daughter. He spends the majority of the game slowly coming to think of Ellie as his daughter. He has gone to extremes to protect her from harm. Joel has decided, just like the player did as he cradled Sarah’s corpse in his arms, that he would do literally anything to protect the one he loves most.
In this case, that means dooming the entire human race. And Joel does not even blink.
As Joel tortures a Firefly soldier for information, consider how many times he has relied on torture in the past. As Joel relentlessly slaughters every last Firefly in his way, consider that maybe David’s men were right to flee from this crazed murderer. As Joel stabs a doctor with his own scalpel, consider that he has just murdered someone who was essentially humanities last hope.
I did not consider any of this on my first play through. Too caught up in the moment perhaps, too determined to finish the game, too desperate to save Ellie. I turned to the two unarmed doctors cowering in the corner and lit them on fire with my flamethrower. I did not even blink. In that moment, I had become Joel.
Afterwards, as I watched Joel execute an unarmed black woman, I felt hollow. All sense of achievement was gone. Joel had doomed humanity and I had helped him do it. Worst of all, I had wanted him to do it. I prioritised protecting Ellie over everything else. I felt like a monster.
The game was not finished with me yet.
The final scene begins with us once again controlling Ellie. Given that we do nothing but walk for a couple minutes and climb a ledge, why does the game bother giving us back control? The aim is to imply distance in the relationship between Joel and Ellie, a distance that Joel is solely responsible for creating.
See, Joel did not tell Ellie what really happened at the hospital. Instead, he told her that there were dozens more people immune like her, that a cure was impossible and that there was no point in sticking around. He does mention the massacre he precipitated. He lies to her, and she knows that’s what he is doing.
So as we walk in Ellie shoes, we feel uncomfortable in Joel’s presence for the first time. He starts talking about how he and Sarah used to take hikes, just like he and Ellie are doing at that moment. He says that Sarah and Ellie would have been great friends had they ever met. Joel has very clearly decided Ellie is the replacement daughter that the world owes him and he is doing very little to hide that fact.
Ellie tries to explain what their journey has done to her, and Joel talks about the only thing he knows how to talk about.
Joel: “I’ve struggled for a long time with surviving. No matter what… you keep finding something to fight for. Now, I know that’s not what you want to hear right now, but it’s…”
Ellie: “Swear to me. Swear to me that everything you said about the fireflies is true.”
Joel: “I Swear.”
Ellie: [after a long pause] “Okay.”
When given a last chance to come clean, Joel chooses to lie. Ellie knows he’s lying, knows she’s trapped with this murderous lunatic who has doomed the entire species. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be evident now.
Joel was not the hero of this story. He was the villain.
Intent & Interpretations
On the other hand, I might be wrong.
No one ever says that in a critique, do they? Look, I am pretty sure my interpretation of the game is solid, though I acknowledge I might be overlooking or underplaying some details. When I worry that I might be wrong, my concern is that Naughty Dog did not intend to tell the story that I think they ultimately ended up telling.
My motivation to write this whole thing was the announcement of The Last of Us Part II, a direct sequel to the game that will once again star Ellie and Joel. Straight away this was cause for concern, given that both of their stories have already definitely and definitively ended. Even worse is the implication of the trailer that the sequel will be about Ellie seeking revenge for something. I hope they surprise me, but right now it feels like we will get one of those by the numbers sequels that mainly serves to cheapen the memory of the original.
It is entirely possible that the writers of this game intended for Joel to be an anti-hero. These are the same developers who accidentally made Nathan Drake a mass murderer after all. If that was their intent, then the visual of a white man executing a black woman takes on a whole host of horrible implications. I can only hope they intended said visual to inspire horror, rather than some kind of triumph.
Maybe I just want to believe that they were trying to tell a complicated story that played with player character bias. I do believe that was the intent, but the sheer amount of people who view the game so very differently to me gives me reason for concern.
The Last of Us is not a perfect game (ironically Naughty Dog have struck perfection once before, with Crash Team Racing, the best game ever made). A perfect game is not a term I use lightly; Silent Hill 2 and Undertale are perhaps the only others I would bestow the accolade upon.
Despite all the accolades it received upon release (not to mention my fondness for it), this is not a particularly ground-breaking game either. Its gameplay is a very strong version of an unoriginal third-person template. It avoids experimentalism at every turn. It does still star an angry white man who kills lots of people.
However, a work of art can be both flawed and perfunctory, yet still reach classic status. The Last of Us tells a simple story very, very well. Its pacing is almost without comparison. Its emotional moments hit hard.
Running beneath it all is a very subtle critique of the often casual relationship between video games and violence. This critique is masked by a trope enforced expectation that protecting Ellie will be Joel’s redemption. We are trained to expect Joel to get better as the story progresses. Instead fate putting him into a parental situation again marks the last break in his psyche.
Joel wakes up in 2033 a bad man and finishes the game a violent lunatic. Too often we are allowed to act like lunatics and still see ourselves as the hero. There is an absence of triumph in The Last of Us. There never was an opportunity to save the day, because we were never this story’s hero. Instead, we were trapped playing the villain.
All images courtesy of Naughty Dog.
Crazy Ex Girlfriend is Masterfully Deconstructing its Core
Here at The Fandomentals, it’s not hard to tell when we begin to fall in love with a show. You may recall the windfall of Black Sails articles surrounding its series finale, our rather overzealous coverage of Supergirl a year ago, or the way Steven Universe creeps into every podcast we record. We dig in and frenetically try to explain exactly the reasons why you should be so enthused as well.
Then there’s shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, where I find myself unable to say anything at all, since it’s more or less perfect.
I know what I’m setting myself up for when I say this, because I’ve felt the let-down quite keenly many times before. That’s part of why I’ve been so hesitant to write anything at all. The other part is that I truly feel my explanations won’t do anything justice; watch it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Is Rebecca Bunch’s character the answer to my prayers for jewish women in media? Absolutely. Do we all need Paula Proctors in our life? You bet we do. Is this finally the bridge between musical theater, sitcoms, and dramatic TV? Without a doubt. Hell, it’s a show whose entire premise involves calling attention to the tropes and storytelling conventions we bemoan, and then digging in and flipping them on their heads. All of this I could easily write dissertation-length papers on, while feeling that none of it is adequately explaining what is so great here.
So it’s only now that Crazy Ex Girlfriend is tackling one of the most important issues in our society, and doing it with a remarkably skillful hand, that I’m forcing myself to write out my thoughts. Because honestly? It’s a shondeh if I don’t at least try to spread the love at this point.
As a warning, there will be spoilers for major plot beats through the most recent episode, 3×06 “Josh is Irrelevant.” Which sure, may be a weird way to convince people into watching something, but as I’ve articulated a few times…knowing what’s coming and what a show explores actually makes me more prone to dig into it. If you disagree, let me just leave you with this before you bow out: the “crazy” in the title of the show is exactly why I didn’t watch it for a couple of years. And boy was that a mistake, because it is so intentional, and exactly what’s being explored now in one of the most nuanced and validating ways possible.
Yup, showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna are tackling mental health navigation and stigmatization. In the most recent episode, Rebecca Bunch receives a formal diagnosis (and even sings a song about getting one), and it’s made clear that all two and a half seasons were leading to this moment—not because of the diagnosis as an end in itself, but as a means to equip our character with the tools and understanding that empower her to push for a healthier state of mind. It is a show about a mentally ill woman lacking in traditional heroic qualities (dare I say antihero?). Yet instead of reveling in her moral greyness and watching her “oh my god” dissent, we are encouraged to actively empathize with her, and root for her to find balance. Because at its core, this show takes on a more positive view of humanity. We’re all just…trying to do okay with what we have, even if our weaknesses and anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt ourselves and those around us.
If that sounds interesting to you, watch the show. But for real now, explicit spoilers from here on out.
Rebecca Bunch was always meant to be a challenging character to the viewer. She makes an impulsive decision in the pilot episode to move to West Covina and pursue an old flame. Convinced this will make her instantly a happier person, she gleefully dumps her medicine down her garbage disposal (we’re unsure specifically what she took, though we do know anti-anxieties were in the mix) while whistling a merry tune. It’s clear this isn’t the healthiest thing you can do and she’s romanticizing the situation (and hilariously, the location as well).
At the same time, it’s also made clear that Rebecca truly was in an unhappy state in New York City, and her methods of coping through heavy medication and excessive work only fed into that. By midway through the first season, Rebecca tries to seek out a therapist to get new drugs, only to be told that she might actually need to explore her issues.
Rebecca: Those are the meds I was on in New York.
Dr. Akopian: Oh, my God. How did your body react to all this medication? You must not have been able to feel a thing.
Rebecca: Exactly. Numb as they come. So scribble scribble on your pizzle pad.
Dr. Akopian: Rebecca, your doctor in New York is a quack. He gave you a Band-Aid, not a cure. My method would be to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on inside your mind. And then we can discuss the appropriate medications.
Rebecca: So that’s great, but I need to be better by Monday.
The driving story continues to be about Rebecca’s quest for her fairy tale romance—a narrative that lives in her mind but not reality. Each romcom trope is broken down, from “unlikely suitor she actually falls for” (he turns out to be a fucking mess and leaves to be able to deal with his own issues in a healthy manner), to “the perfect prince who was always meant to be” (they both approach the relationship merely wanting to be in a relationship, without actually having a stable grasp on what they both need/want in life), to even the “screw men, we’ll just have a fun girl group and that’s enough” (Josh has a new girlfriend they need to stalk!).
However, it is always in the forefront that Rebecca is actively spinning the happenings in her life to fit whatever story she wants, all while resisting the core of what’s at her unhappiness.
Paula: Just let both of them go.
Rebecca: I don’t know who I am without them. I know that’s pathetic. I know it’s pathetic, but it’s true. Who am I supposed to be now?
Paula: Honey, be yourself.
Rebecca: What?! Who? No! Ew. Ugh! Who wants to be that?!
This becomes the most obvious when she enters into a relationship with Josh, but is not magically happier about everything. Rebecca very nearly has a breakthrough with Dr. Akopian to this point, only to be interrupted by Josh’s wedding proposal. Then from there, we get a tale as old as time: Rebecca stops feeling magical feelings about Josh, freaks out and kisses her boss in an elevator, freaks out from that and pushes their wedding date up to two weeks from that day, and then after not sleeping and going in full bridezilla mode, gets left at the altar because Josh begins to feel that he doesn’t truly know Rebecca. We also learn that Rebecca had previously wanted to marry another man in her past (Robert, a former professor of hers), but upon being broken up with by him, burned down his apartment and then was committed to a psychiatric institution for a time.
This is where Season 3 picks up, and in truth, I was very nervous about the Robert reveal. “Oh, so she really is ‘crazy’? That’s the point?” No. the point is that Rebecca is a troubled character who hasn’t received the help she’s needed. She has characteristics we all can relate to, from her self-deprecating thoughts to her struggle to feel ‘normal,’ even if we wouldn’t have necessarily made the same choices she did.
Season 3 shows her in crisis mode. Instead of confronting her insecurities, she lashes out at her friends, and even returns home to stay with her mother for a bit, despite their history with Naomi’s selfish and often inappropriate or harmful behavior. However, when her mom sneaks her anti-anxieties (out of fear of Rebecca wanting to commit suicide), Rebecca feels as though she has no one she can count on anymore, especially since she thinks she alienated everyone else. At the end of 3×05, Rebecca tries to commit suicide on a plane by taking a bottle full of anti-anxiety meds one a time, before telling the flight attendant that she needs help.
Other media has tried to depict suicide before, but it is so often done in a way that’s meant to shock, or even (distressingly) in a way that almost romanticizes the behavior. Hell, Life is Strange actually makes a student’s suicide a playable level, where if you’re just observant enough, you can stop it (for points!). Crazy Ex Girlfriend walked the impossible line of depicting the suicide attempt in a realistic manner—it was easy to track Rebecca’s feeling of hopelessness and isolation—without any sort of glamorization. She was in a rough, unhealthy state, and the audience was encouraged to root for that to change.
Better yet, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna made themselves available on Twitter immediately afterwards. That, in addition to a suicide helpline message which appeared on the screen following the episode, demonstrated that they were being as thoughtful as possible when approaching such a potentially triggering subject. It was difficult to watch, no question. But shying away from these topics doesn’t give equip us with the tools to handle them. We’ve praised Jessica Jones for starkly examining rape and rape apology; Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a show that should receive similar acclaim, particularly given how usual portrayals of suicide and mental health tend towards victim blaming.
Even that aspect was highlighted in the newest episode; Rebecca continually apologizes for the “hassle” she’s caused, and how bad she feels that everyone’s normal routine has been interrupted since like…her friends want to make sure she’s okay. It’s just so true-to-life. Too often our media has something *happen* to a character, and then it disappears an episode later. Rebecca’s deeply-felt self-loathing and general unworthiness isn’t gone just because her stomach was pumped, however. And that kind of consistency is important. Life doesn’t make narrative sense, so even though there’s a clear story that’s being told, it’s told in way that feels refreshingly familiar. Because it mirrors life.
Add to this the diagnosis. Rachel Bloom has talked openly about her own mental health numerous times. She also said this last week:
It’s clear this was written from a place of understanding, and with an attempt to be as validating and healing as possible. Rebecca sings a boisterous song about getting a diagnosis that will be her golden ticket to happiness (she’ll finally fit in somewhere), which amazingly captures the awareness of stigmatization alongside the often unreasonable weight people attached to their diagnoses. I just say this as a woman with OCD and general anxiety disorder, and I don’t want to speak for everyone ‘neurodivergent’, for lack of a better umbrella term. But in my opinion, the episode’s greatest strength was the way in which both of Rebecca’s doctors talked about her diagnosis. It’s not an identity, nor is it a fix; it’s a tool of understanding behavior, and one that can help guide treatment in a way that makes the most sense for her.
At the same time, Rebecca possesses the traits which define Borderline Personality Disorder. This was something I’ve said (mostly to Julia) for a long time, and something I’ve been scared for the show to tackle. I have intimate experience with this disorder, and without sugarcoating anything, some hurt as well. I have never seen proper depiction of it before this show, and I never in a million years thought it would actually be labeled, then fully described in a way that’s so accessible to an uninformed audience.
“A person with BPD is essentially a person that has difficulty regulating their emotions. Someone that lacks the protective emotional skin to feel comfortable in the world.”
It’s clear that Rebecca’s world is one that’s scary to be in. She never feels she fits, she has a terror of abandonment, and her impulsive actions that she does in order to control situations or feel accepted (be it breaking into Josh’s house to delete an embarrassing text, rushing to a wedding because she had a moment of doubt, or even sleeping with her ex’s dad because he was the only person being nice to her) have outcomes that usually result in more unhappiness. To be able to know that she’s not alone in this struggle is validating.
Though of course, and again realistically, the show doesn’t make the BPD simple or straightforward. Rebecca immediately Googles BPD and hates what she reads: that treatment can be lifelong, that there’s no “cure”, and even that 10% of people with BPD do kill themselves. She pushes against this diagnosis, even telling Dr. Akopian that she was bullied by the other doctor into agreeing with him on it, until Akopian whips out the DSM and goes through the checklist to see if Rebecca matches the criteria. Every point applies, and the show brilliantly provides flashbacks as these are read off. Rebecca sinks into despair, calling herself “certifiably crazy,”
Like…yeah. This is it. This is what happens. I was watching, half wanting to cry because of how easy it is to feel for Rebecca in that moment, and half wanting to laugh because finally what I’ve seen and experienced (second-handedly)—what I’ve even questioned and doubted—is on my screen for the first time, ever. We talk a lot about why fiction and representation matters, yet it’s almost unthinkable that the diagnostic process has been rarely been shown on our screens. Certainly not in this much detail.
The episode does end on a hopeful note, with Rebecca saying that she doesn’t want to ever feel like she did on the plane again. She goes to a group therapy, and gets a book to read afterwards. It’s not the end, nor was it ever meant to be. But it’s the means of getting her to a healthy place, and in that process, we see a lot of our own realities, from the hilarious to the uncomfortable.
That’s the story that matters, and that’s the story that was always being told. We’re just finally at the place where the characters see it too.
Images courtesy of the CW
A Bride’s Story is the Women’s Story You Were Waiting For
A Bride’s Story is a manga by Kaoru Mori (also responsible for Emma). Started in 2008, the series is still running and counts 9 volumes. It takes place in 19th century central Asia and follows several characters in their daily lives. The story is mainly focused on women of the region, but there is also the point of view Henry Smith, an English researcher. Anything else notable? Oh, I just remembered: it is really good.
Talking about a really good manga series could be enough on its own. But you know what’s even better? It is focused on women and their lives. Different women, with different lives, their work, their achievements, their pains. And it is written in a total love of all women. A good manga series, written by a woman about women? What else could we be asking for?
The Story of A Bride’s Story:
I am starting to not like this choice of title very much. But anyway, the manga opens on Amir and Karluk’s wedding. Amir is twenty whereas her husband is twelve (don’t worry there is no weird sexual content between the two). It is not the only thing that separates them. Karluk comes from a mainly sedentary village. Amir’s tribe still has a pretty nomadic way of life. Both spouses are pretty different so the first chapters of the manga follow their adaptation to each other (and to her in-laws in the case of Amir). The presence of Smith also allows the point of view of an outsider into the family.
The story then expands to other members of the family, friends, and neighbors, as well as people Smith will meet during his travels. Yet the story isn’t all over the place. We follow their lives and emotional development. And when Kaoru Mori focuses on one character she takes the time to tell their story. Even if she has to leave aside other characters for some time. But this is not a problem, as it is crystal clear she loves all her characters and will do them justice in time.
A Bride’s Story is going to focus on every aspect of the characters’ lives. There is high drama(military attack of one family on another) but also daily life (learning how to sew, finding your vocation).
In short A Bride’s Story is a really good read. But it is not the only thing that draws you in the narrative.
Art so gorgeous it sucks you in the story:
Another strings to Kaoru Mori’s bow which help you being completely absorbed in her world is that…
Which, considering the time we spend speaking about craftsmanship, is important. Having a visual representation worthy of the script is only doing it justice. If you don’t want to travel to central Asia to discover their handicraft after reading A Bride’s Story you are a liar, and that’s all there is to it. The characters and the details are insanely comprehensive. But we are also given amazing and dynamic action scenes.
This incredible art and interesting story combine to give us a narrative uplifting women at every turn.
An Hymn to women’s lives:
A Bride’s Story focuses, as its name clearly spells out, on brides. Sometimes young brides, sometimes bride-to-be, sometimes widows, but always women facing married life. And no it is not reductive. During the 19th century, marriage was (and still is in some cultures) one of the main events of a woman’s life. It was a literal change of family, of environment, and the real beginning of her adult life. So focusing around this event is not reductive. Quite the contrary. It reminds us that, as long as she is a good person, every woman’s life is worth telling.
Kaoru Mori spends a lot of time on women’s daily activity. Sewing of course (if the manga doesn’t give you a mighty need to start sewing you are a liar), but also cooking, taking care of the herd etc. Everything is worth the author’s attention, and ours. Do you know why? Because it is important work done with care. And this ask for our interest and respect.
Another thing which is incredibly well done in A Bride’s Story is the relationship between this women. They are supportive of each other. There is a mother-in-law ready to sacrifice herself to save her daughter-in-law. When Amir learns that she should go back to her family to marry another man because all the brides they have sent are dead (killed by their husband) she is not only crying because she is terrified. She is crying because she knew both of this girls and is devastated by their death. And the person reassuring her and saying that she is « not going anywhere » is her husband’s grandmother.
There are as many positive women relationship in there as there is stars in the sky. And not always just filial relationship. But also mentorship, friendship and emh…
And the icing on the cake is that every single one of these women is different from the others.
No wrong way of being a woman:
Truly it is refreshing to read about women helping each other. It is even better when they are allowed to be different. Because let’s be real, often in fiction women are created to oppose each other. The “good” kind of woman opposing the “wrong” kind of women. Just look at The White Queen and The White Princess, in which motherhood is glorified and “good” women are rewarded with it whereas “bad” women, women having a “man’s” ambition, became sterile and loveless.
Well, in A Bride’s Story we have traditionally feminine women who are soft gentle and love sewing. We have unconventional women who like to hunt and ride but are still good at feminine tasks (but let’s be real Amir is an amazement in universe too) and others which are not. We also have what other media often depicts as “failing” women, but are just unsure of who they are.
In short, Kaoru Mori is standing on her mountain screaming “They are all my daughters and I love them all!”. And trust me ,it feels good to be, as a reader, welcomed into this story.
To the surprise of no one, I heartily recommend reading A Bride’s Story. As a first manga, if it is your first, it might be putting the bar a bit high for future dives into the medium. But there are worse problems to have. Just to add to all I’ve said above, we also have good and interesting siblings relationships (my passion), making this manga almost without fault. It is worth a try. It really is.
All images courtesy of Yen Press.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Excels Because It Knows Its History
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a phenomenal game. It has an inordinate amount to say about racism, anti semitism, the cycle of abuse, ableism, eugenics, homophobia, fat shaming, PTSD, war, violence, and just about everything else under the sun. And developer MachineGames does all of that with this wonderfully strange combination of hyper-meticulous tact, high production values, and auteur confidence. Of course, none of that would have been possible if the setting surrounding the narrative didn’t work, and holy shit does it ever.
The newest iterations of the Wolfenstein franchise take place in an alternate 1960—leading into ‘61 for the second game—where the Nazis won the war. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a game framed around the “how” of the world. How did the Nazis win? How do they keep their conquered states in check? How have things changed in this reality? How do we stop them from gaining more power? How do we fight back against a near global, yet also interplanetary, regime?
Throughout the game, you come across newspaper clippings and records (The Beatles sort of still exist) that fill the gaps between 1946 and 1960. The result is a fully realized world that isn’t just a horrifying coat of paint over reality; it’s how things would have happened…with a few super-science-y liberties thrown in because why wouldn’t the Nazis a moon base or fire breathing robot dogs? And, of course, the greatest twist of all: the Nazis’ inexplicable sci-fi advancement, the whole reason they won the war, was built on the backs of stolen technology from a secret society of Jewish science wizards. There’s even a sequence where the protagonist, William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, breaks into a high security compound and finds ancient schematics written in Hebrew, which he knows how to read.
We also knew, in broad strokes, what had happened to the other parts of the world. America had surrendered completely after Manhattan was obliterated by an atomic bomb, mirroring the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis had yet to conquer the vast majority of Africa, as organized resistance was proving far more effective than they were willing to recognize. London was kept in line by a skyscraper-sized robot called the London Monitor, which you get to blow up.
Wolfenstein: The New Order took place almost entirely in western Europe (with a brief sojourn to the moon, of course) and exploring how the one region of the world that was, at one time, actually conquered by the Nazis, ended up being just familiar enough to what it was back then to what it became in their alternate history. It’s this foundation, this deep uprooting and deconstruction of history, that allows its sequel, The New Colossus, to head straight into the United States. We were shown what was comfortably familiar to us, so it was time to show what was uncomfortably familiar.
An America subjugated and ruled by the Nazis.
Enemy Of The State Of Affairs
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a game about “why”. Why do we fight against oppression when society around us punishes those who do? Why do we push back against systemic hatred, even when it has no bearing on us? Why does a man like William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the perfect aesthetic poster boy for Aryan supremacy, reject those who would treat him like a king?
Why has America submitted to Nazi rule? The short answer is: giant airship. The long answer? Well, that one’s not so complicated.
Relatively early in the game, you meet up with a New York City resistance cell lead by a black woman named Grace, a survivor of the Manhattan bombing. In fact, all but one of her members are black with the exception of her partner Super Spesh. Their character designs explicitly invoke imagery of the Black Panthers and the overall Black Power movement.
The first game had you run around helping the Kreisau Circle, the Berlin-based Nazi resistance group that eventually cut the head off the Nazi war machine and stopping them from developing new weapons. This cell was lead by Caroline Decker, a paraplegic veteran. But, in the opening of this game, Caroline is executed by the main antagonist, Frau Engel, leaving a gaping hole in leadership that Grace fits perfectly. Who better to represent a 1960s violent uprising of the oppressed than a black woman in America?
She even goes so far as to move into Caroline’s old cabin in their captured Super U-Boat. From the start of the narrative, Wolfenstein is showing us that America is very different from a conquered Europe. For one, the English language is being banned, hearkening back to that old adage of “If the Nazis won, we’d all be speaking German”.
The largest among the differences though is that, just as Grace says above, America never stopped fighting the Nazis. The military did, yes, and the vast majority of the white population, including a South-governed KKK, but the fact that there is a dedicated anti-gravity airship, the Ausmerzer, whose sole role is to travel the country and crush resistance factions for the past decade tells us in no uncertain terms that the hold the Nazis have over America isn’t as ironclad as they believe it to be.
Even if they are able to put on one hell of a show.
We find newspaper clippings within the game describing resistance cells crushed by the Ausmerzer, and there’s even a moment during a trip to Roswell where you’re recognized (you’re the Reich’s most wanted, after all) by a local resident who, in a terrified act of defiance, whispers that he believes in what you’re doing when just seconds prior he was selling newspaper propaganda with glee.
The cap to this, however, is the final scene of the final mission of the game where you ambush Frau Engel’s live appearance on a talk show. You sneak through the bleachers and into the rafters, noting that every single person in the audience is a cardboard cutout. The show may be being broadcasted to every living room in the world, but it stands to reason that if people aren’t going to the live show…they’re not buying into the lies.
America is being crushed under the heel of the Nazis, yes, but it has yet to be crushed. Good people are still out there in the world, but they’ve forgotten how to resist. Those who were already filled with hate jumped on board, the minority, while everyone else is either putting their head in the sand or just trying to survive.
On the other side of the table, though, is how white America perceives the Nazis. I’ve already mentioned that the KKK controls the south, but it goes a whole lot deeper than that. Slavery has been legalized once more, and auctions are the talk of the town. We find out that, in true Nazi form, they rounded up the country’s degenerates—Jews, queer folk and people of color—and either purged them or sent them off to die in New Orleans…which is now a massive ghetto, Escape from New York style.
And if you “named names”, you were rewarded with what those same people left behind. Land rights, mansions, savings; everything they owned was either seized by the state or given as a gift to those who betrayed their friends and neighbors. This is not something we discover on a broad scale; it’s personal to B.J.
He visits his childhood home after nuking Area 52 (it wasn’t aliens, just ancient Jewish Techno Wizard secrets) and finds his abusive father, Rip, waiting for him, having heard he was in the area and assumed he’d come around. Rip, as we learned from flashbacks, was physically and emotionally abusive to both his son and his wife Zofia, a Jewish Polish immigrant. That, and he was a hardcore White Supremacist, having only married Zofia because he believed her father would be a business asset. He bemoans that no one knows what it is like to suffer as he does, thinking that everyone is trying to steal everything from the White Man.
In short, he represents everything that B.J. has spent his entire adult life fighting against.
When asked what happened to his mother, Rip admits that he sold her out to the Nazis and they took her away. The confrontation ends with B.J. killing his father after he presses a shotgun to his son’s forehead, but through their entire conversation he’d been on the phone with the Nazis. He’d sold out his son, too.
That’s the state of the world in Wolfenstein, and in The New Colossus you blow it the fuck up.
Terror-Billy Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass
While the game’s marketing may have been pointing towards a parallel with the American Revolution as for how the country ousts the Nazis, I posit that the historical context is far more evocative of our 1960s.
Grace’s existence and design are already evidence of this, but it’s the rest of the resistance that makes this all the more clear. The second big group you recruit, aptly enough from the New Orleans ghetto itself, is lead by a man named Horton. He organizes a group of communists, socialists and anarchists who you’d think wouldn’t fit in with Grace and her people. These are the people that dodged the draft, even if they did push the concept of equal rights earlier than most. Horton even flat out cites their attempted push for a civil rights movement in an argument with B.J.
Of course, there’s a key difference between refusing to fight on foreign soil in a war that benefits the military industrial complex and what’s happening to them now. Horton’s group draws upon sentiment from both the end of the Great War and the counterculture movements of the 1960s.
Again, many of them were draft dodging pacifists, but that goes right out the window when it comes to Nazis. It’s one thing to refuse to fight a foreign enemy on foreign lands when victory would have only spread what you’re rebelling against. It’s quite another to sit by and accept fascism in the very country that allowed, though not always encouraged, you to believe what you saw in your heart as just.
It’s at the end of the game, however, in the ending cinematic, that this entire idea solidifies. That this historical context isn’t an accident, and the frankly unbelievable amount of homework MachineGames must have done paid off in spades. Mere moments after B.J. kills Frau Engel on live television, Grace and Horton speak directly into the cameras and ignite a violent revolution. The Kreisau Circle may be organized like a guerilla military operation, but the American people aren’t. They don’t need to be.
It’s an angry, raw, improvised and imperfect call to arms, but that’s what makes it perfect. Violent uprisings don’t start with eloquence or deep debating over the justification to fight against those who oppress you. They start with whatever you’ve got on hand. The Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots and the general counterculture protests that dominated the 60s are clear influences on Wolfenstein’s depiction of “retaking America”. Seriously, if it didn’t sink in already, they blast a heavy metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over the end credits coupled with imagery of violent rioting and uprisings across the nation.
Wolfenstein does not attempt to hold a mirror to our world today, even if it does so inadvertently. It tries to make us look back, so that we remember how to keep moving forward. It’s message is clear because it knows what it’s talking about, no matter how over-the-top the presentation:
Equality is not a debate; it’s a right. Those without it won’t stop until they have it, because for them it’s literally “Fight, or Die”. So the best thing you can do, if you’ve already got it, is to pick them up with you. And if you don’t? If you keep trying to push others down? It’s gonna get bloody, just like it always does, and chances are it won’t be them who’s dying.
Images courtesy of MachineGames
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