Mr. Robot just ended

Last month, one of my favorite TV dramas ended in a way that begs you to look back on the rest of the series. In general, I don’t care about spoilers but we can at least describe the nature of the question without them: Mr. Robot is either an introspective story informed by society or a social story informed by introspection. The series finale seconds the first assessment but it’s not that simple.

Now we’re gonna get into spoilers. The plot of Mr. Robot is supported largely by protagonist Elliot Alderson’s many psychological personas. I’m not well-read on the subject of dissociative identity disorder so I can’t assess how accurately the show portrays it, but Mr. Robot at least give us consistent rules to pay attention to.

One rule that is so basic that it’s easy to lose sight of is that the walls that separate Elliot’s personas are shapes by the ordinary boundaries of his mind. The ordinary boundaries that delineate the ordinary world- such as Elliot’s assessment of probability.

After our first encounter with the persona called Mr. Robot, Elliot’s narration is saying things like ‘I’m crazy, that didn’t just happen’…and sure enough, Elliot is more ready to treat Mr. Robot as an actual person than as a persona of himself. The expectation that Mr. Robot is actually his father even stops him from considering that he’s not “real”. When he’s in prison during season 2, the “lie” that he’s recovering at his mom’s house serves to isolate Mr. Robot just as much as the enforced sobriety. Within the fantastical or delusory world, Elliot even claims to be attempting sobriety specifically to isolate and “starve” Mr. Robot.

Speaking of the role that subjective believability plays in Elliot’s navigation of his nesting-doll psyche, season 2 brings something else to the foreground that was only observable in passing in the first season. This is the story’s structural division between an outside half and an inside half.

Season 2 is largely divided between an arc about Elliot and an arc about literally everyone else. The Elliot arc contains the revelation that he he has been in prison the whole season and everything else he’s encountered in his fantasy has a tangible analogue in the real world. Leon, apparently, is the detail that changes the least when the rug is taken out from under the viewer. Away from Elliot, Darlene and the rest of F Society are engaged in things that are absolutely real. Presenting these two different arcs side by side makes us feel a great psychological distance between Elliot and Darlene in addition to the physical and legal ones.

This distance is definitely present in the first season, if comparatively understated. Elliot dominates the foreground and the episodes about his withdrawal and the revelation of Mr. Robot being an alternate personality make us wonder about the world outside of the limiting subjectivity of our main character. In season 1, Elliot’s nearly exclusive dominance of the foreground makes us wonder anxiously about our separation from the “real” world.

In other words, the reveal that we are only seeing one, very subjective side of the story makes us wonder about the rest of it. Through it’s absence. Season 2 actually gives us the comparison between Elliot’s subjectivity and the reality of everything else though.

Season 2 does something else with the mom-to-prison switch, though, that’s so understated that it’s easy to miss in the shock of the change. We are being shown a meeting between Elliot’s sense of probability and the things he would rather not believe about himself. Probability deals in averages and in season 2 we are confronted with Elliot’s loss of the state of predictable “normalcy” that keeps his self-image intact.

In season 1, Elliot spends the first few episodes waffling on whether or not he wants to join F Society. After a confrontation with Mr. Robot that leaves him with the feeling of having made a “clean break”, Elliot vows to live a “bug free” life, get a girlfriend and be the most normal normie in all Seven Kingdoms and the Riverlands. There is a part of Elliot that thrives on stability, that needs it more than anything.

This vulnerable need to keep his head down is his main barrier in season 1 and it’s the wound that needs healing in season 2. This need for stability and safety is also mixed up with his belief in his anonymity and computer competence though.

This psychological meeting between probability and belief is exemplified pointedly in Elliot’s arrest. We learn later that the machinations of the Dark Army helped things go smoothly here, but right now let’s talk about why he was arrested. It wasn’t for slapping the basket with all the financial eggs out of the hands of E Corp. And the thing that got him arrested was definitely not the act of a criminal mastermind. Elliot simply got busted taking part in his most fundamental vice: cyber-stalking.

This practice is so engrained in Elliot’s life early on that he has lost the ability to think critically about it. The casual boundary-breaking mentality that his stalking conditions within him also has long-ranging consequences throughout the series. For now, though, we need only concern ourselves with two of its attributes: it insulates Elliot from the outside world (enabling him to maintain his stability) and allows him to feel power over others. He may choose to target pedophiles and other wrongdoers in order to keep his conscious on his own side, but power is power. Power is simply power especially when the person wielding it only has to bear the scrutiny of themselves.

So Elliot Alderson’s cyber-stalking allows him to feel power over others while continuing to remain in his isolated bubble of static predictability. It allows him to maintain his isolation while fulfilling fantasies of closeness that his isolation engenders.

It enables him to lick his wounds without actually solving the real problem of his loneliness. It also empowers his feeling of competence as a hacker and a programmer which has been the guiding passion of his life. Elliot’s feelings of competence- if not supremacy -as a hacker are how he crosses boundaries in solitude as well as the agent of separation that protects his solitude from his own boundary-crossing. He does this, after all, from a computer in his apartment.

The isolation that Elliot depends on as a voyeur also enables him to assume the moral mask of a vigilante and a Good Samaritan. It is also no accident that our perspective, as viewers, functions as a lens through which Elliot watches himself (this also turns out to be a big deal at the very end of the story). Consider how associative positioning of events early on shapes our ability to overlook or forgive Elliot’s voyeurism.

The first instance of it involves exposing the owner of a Tor-protected pedophile hub to the police. If anyone deserves to be locked up, it’s that person. This can allow the viewer to accept at face value Elliot’s claims of altruism later on, such as when he illegally obtains private information about his therapist and her boyfriend. The fact that this boyfriend is cheating on his wife could also ease the viewer into siding with Elliot…and he rescues a dog from a bad owner through blackmail.

Aaaand then after that he bluntly tells his therapist that he knows what kind of porn she likes. At the point he blurts that out, though, we have already seen Elliot “hack” a number of people. On one hand, the sequence of events is shaped by Elliot’s self-image. On the other, someone telling you bluntly what kind of porn you like is creepy no matter what.

And it is the cyber-stalking and bullying he carried out on his therapist’s boyfriend that gets him in prison in season 2. And the arrest only happens after we’ve had several episodes of Elliot assuring us that everything is under control and he is attempting to shed himself of Mr. Robot in the best way he can. In other words, Elliot was shown in no uncertain terms that he is not the untouchable, all-seeing hacker god he thinks he is…and he only gradually admits it to us after a brutal attack in prison makes it hard for him to keep up the illusion.

And when he does admit it, he admits it to his therapist who was forgiving enough to treat him in prison. She is the one he can relax around enough to be truly honest with, but only if he protects himself from the knowledge that he was busted because of his violation of her and her boyfriend’s boundaries.

He relies on the separation for his peace of mind and his esteem in his own eyes. And that separation is tied up with his belief in his ability to run circles around anyone with a computer. His confidence and his feeling of safety are wrapped up in the same skill which lets him down when he gets arrested. His belief in his superiority as a hacker was tied up in the isolation he depended on, making its refutation a clash between what he believes is possible and what he needs to believe.

Other than the importance of the arrest in Elliot’s psychological fracturing, it has a few other functions as well. Elliot taking his competence for granted and getting busted over it makes him more relatable. Not every protagonist can or should be Goku. And in a psychological thriller like Mr. Robot, flawed characters orient the audience’s point of empathy within the fragile world of the genre.

It also builds on a detail of Elliot’s characterization that may at times be eclipsed by his vulnerability: that he is truly talented but cannot accomplish much on his own. Darlene says so often in the middle of the final season. Elliot is too easily hemmed in by his need for protective barriers. And personas such as The Mastermind or Mr. Robot need other people to motivate them. With the right help, though, Elliot is the man behind the Five/Nine hack.

How these collaborations usually go also connect the events of the season finale with the status quo of the series. It is not uncommon for Elliot to be in the dark within his own cohort while his alternate personas pull the real strings. Plot points often hinge on Mr. Robot or an unseen separate persona hiding something from Elliot, or Elliot’s own efforts to hide things from Mr. Robot. The Elliot that we know as our main character is often playing catch up with himself.

I say “the Elliot that we know as our main character” because (finale spoiler coming immediately) he is not the “real” Elliot. “Real” meaning the mind that “hosts” the different personas. In fact, we only begin to meet the “host” in the last two episodes.

The Elliot that we spend most of our time with is a persona called The Mastermind who specializes in networking between personas. His function is to exist between different personas and between all personas and the “host”.

In a way, all personas who are not The Mastermind or the host are specialized actors. They exist to act in specialized ways. The Mastermind connects the acting personas and can at times stabilize them.

So when someone like Tyrell or a group like F Society are collaborating with Elliot, they are almost always collaborating with Mr. Robot. And Mr. Robot can…at least a little bit…be described as a suffocating protector. He keeps Elliot in the dark and acts against him because he thinks it is for Elliot’s own good. Mr. Robot is so deeply defined by the function of protecting Elliot that he will shelter him to his detriment.

lol…”define”…”function”…sorry I’ll stop 😛

The Mastermind, who exists between personas and between the persona group and the host, does the same thing. The Mastermind is so determined to protect the host that he has walled off the host in his own subconscious. The overzealous isolation turns into frank malice when The Mastermind attempts to literally murder the host in the second to last episode and assume Elliot’s identity permanently.

So The Mastermind and Mr. Robot echo each other’s behavior patterns. The layers of Elliot’s hacker collaboration can be thought of as concentric circles. To bring Elliot into F Society is to bring in Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot is the outermost circle. Mr. Robot networks with The Mastermind and, uh, tries too hard to protect him. The Mastermind is the intermediate circle and could be said to share that space with all the other alternate personas who are not in “the driver’s seat”. The Mastermind connects everyone and tries too hard to protect the host.

Oh and there’s Elliot’s cyber-stalking which he justifies to himself as altruistic but is actually a toxic way of seeking connection with others. There are two layers of personas that try too hard to take care of Elliot within himself and Elliot tries too hard to care for everyone around him.

I realize I’ve taken us far afield of the topic of how Elliot’s grasp of probability and what he can’t bring himself to admit either prevents or allows contact between personas. Or even how the role believability plays can be a little meta…considering how the “friend” The Mastermind refers to may be the host. While the word “friend” constantly seems to refer to the viewer.

I don’t know how much attention to pay to the whole “meta” dimension of the show…but considering the contrast between the plots of the first and last stories, it’s a little hard to ignore. Especially given how the beginning and ending handle the appearance of probability.

I mean…the ending plot at first gives you the idea that Whiterose actually managed to combine the current timeline with an alternate timeline. And then brings everything back through Elliot’s willingness to believe in Whiterose. Instead of Elliot’s subjectivity taking the rug out from under us, Elliot’s subjectivity brings us back to normal.

Because the final plot line involves Elliot’s willingness to believe in the success of Whiterose’s time-manipulation technology. Depending on the disposition of the viewer, you may or may not find the possibility of Whiterose literally manipulating time patently absurd. A lot of viewers probably did, anyway. It would have been a hard jump toward science fiction in a show that is largely social and psychological. At the very end. So we’re not joining Elliot on his ride so much as we’re watching him go on his own ride.

Which firmly contrasts with the first plot point to ever push the boundaries of probability in this show: Elliot encountering F Society through his unwillingness to remove the rootkit he finds at Allsafe. He simply walls it off and makes it inaccessible to anyone but him.

And a mysterious stranger reaches out because this mysterious stranger knows to say just enough to reveal that he knows Elliot didn’t delete the rootkit without incriminating himself. Because he just knows Elliot that well. When this mysterious stranger, Mr. Robot, turns out to be an alternative personality within Elliot, it actually makes the initial meeting make more sense.

And yet, the revelation that Mr. Robot doesn’t physically exist is something of a gut-punch the first time you see it. Because, before that point, it seems at least distantly possible that the stranger knows enough about cyber-security protocol to gauge the amount of time it would take a tech of a given skill level to find the rootkit. Or a tech of a very specific skill level, if they had their eye on Elliot. It at least seems vaguely possible. But improbable enough to make you feel silly for even considering it.

So that moment is a balancing act of credulity. The very end, with the final confrontation with Whiterose and everything that happens afterward, is not a balancing act. For most of us, this seems like exactly the kind of thing Elliot would fabricate with the right stimulation and misdirection.

Not that I was totally averse to the idea of the show going science fiction. I don’t know how it would have worked but if Sam Esmail had some special genre-changing Ace up his sleeve I would have been there for it.

In the end, though, you can’t fault Mr. Robot for going back to its main subject matter. Most of it, anyway. Mr. Robot is either a psychological story informed by politics or a political story informed by psychology and I still stand by that assessment.

By ending the show with a deep dive into Elliot’s mind, Sam Esmail is emphasizing that Elliot’s psychological journey has always been the central plot. Yet there has been too much exploration of objectivity versus subjectivity and political subtext to just accept that Mr. Robot is a psychological drama and nothing else.

The final season shows us three pointed reminders of the importance of outside before it’s final epic descent through the inside. And again, it often has to do with dividing the plot of individual episodes between Elliot and Darlene.

In the episode with Elliot and Tyrell in the woods, the whole second half of the plot revolves around Darlene feeling used and abandoned by her notoriously erratic brother. If ever she was going to give up on Elliot, it would be then.

It was also Darlene who told Elliot that their father didn’t push him out of the window: he told her to hide in the closet, threatened his father with a baseball bat, and then jumped out of the window on his own.

Later, we find out why he felt compelled to do this, and it’s probably the darkest moment in the whole story. After that particular episode I had to take a break and play FFVII on my Vita to calm down. Like, Mr. Robot came as close as it could possibly get to being too dark for me to watch.

And right before the last revelatory episodes, we see Darlene on the verge of eloping with Dominique after she and Elliot complete their hack on the Deus Group. We are given the smallest taste of an ending that simply leaves Elliot after the Deus Group hack, of trailing off into the “outside” that has always contrasted against Elliot’s “inside”.

Through Darlene, we have glimpses of “outside” and the freedom it represents, freedom that goes hand in hand with the harsh objectivity Elliot avoids. And this objectivity is not even harsh by necessity: Darlene joyously deposits large sums of money in the bank accounts of random, ordinary people.

The end-game of F Society was never about a destructive solipsist lashing out: it had a genuine egalitarian goal and was meant to be a real attack on those who have taken their supremacy for granted. As Elliot puts it, “those who play god without permission.”

If, however, Elliot’s arc is our main plot (as the ending firmly states), Mr. Robot is not simply a psychological drama. Or rather, it is a psychological drama about how the outside world can subtly, insidiously convince us to use the language of a corrupt system to speak to ourselves. It is a psychological drama about society.

Naturally, this is on display the most in how Elliot speaks to himself through his different personas. And like I’ve been droning about ad nauseam, the dynamics between Elliot and those personas are tied up in his experience of probability.

The key thematic function served by Mr. Robot‘s discussion of probability is stated plainly in the first season. Christa asks Elliot in an early episode what’s bothering him. In his head he trots out a few examples, including Steve Jobs’ mainstreaming of child labor in tech production and several other large social problems.

This, like a lot of things in Mr. Robot, is easy to overlook. Put simply, we live in a world where the true gravity of many problems is almost indistinguishable from paranoid catastrophising.

If I may be a little personal and hyperbolic with an example: Donald Trump recently assassinated an Iranian general named Qasem Soleimani during a peace talk in Iraq. Jane Arraf, am NPR journalist, tweeted that the Prime Minister of Iraq was asked by Trump to host peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This was the event that Soleimani was attending when he was killed by an American drone. Turns out, his presence in Iraq was a violation of a travel ban that was being imposed on him and by violating it he was putting himself in harms way.

To summarize: Donald Trump asked the Prime Minister of Iraq to invite general Soleimani to his country, in violation of Soleimani’s travel ban, where Trump then gave the order for the drone killing. Subsequently, Russia, China and Iran have begun joint military operations and Iran has decided to ignore the centrifuge stipulation of the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Trump far-sightedly planned an assassination that has galvanized three countries against us and a nuclear confrontation may not be as far off as we would like to believe.

End of nutty off-topic digression. Three paragraphs ain’t that bad, is it? 😛

But that’s what I mean about real world events barely having a discernible difference from neurotic catastrophising. How do you not freak out about that? And how credible do you feel when you’re freaking out? Oh yeah and we might only have a few decades of time left (optimistically) before the biosphere starts to go seriously tits up.

If you don’t feel close to the edge then you’re not paying attention. Problem is, real world events can be dangerously enabling for our worst psychological tendencies. Deadly complication can easily tempt us into escapist simplicity. Most conspiracy theories involve some sort of global shadow government because believing that there is a single evil monolith is more comforting than believing that the world is rudderless and may end on accident.

And yeah, I do think Mr. Robot deals with the psychological risk of paying attention. Elliot Alderson is not stupid, but an alternative persona within him is still able to temporarily convince him that his psychiatric meds are driving him crazy. And in the end his willingness to believe in Whiterose’s time manipulation enables him to confront his true self.

If there is a treacherous resemblance between what objectively happens and our worst possible imaginings, and this resemblance is what gives the outside/inside dynamic of Mr. Robot it’s gravity, then it’s worth examining the characters that represent this “outside” to us.

While the story uses Darlene for this often, her function within the plot is more of a link between outside and inside rather than someone who is “of” the outside.

So what characters contrast the most with the bottomless subjective immersion we experience through Elliot? You might be tempted to say Whiterose. I think this is a mistake since she seems to be every bit as involved in her own solipsistic world as Elliot is in his own. She is simply a different “inside” than Elliot.

If Whiterose, for all of her plot-based opposition, resembles Elliot too much to contrast against his subjective immersion, then who does contrast?

I would go with Tyrell Wellick and Irving. Obviously, Tyrell contrasts with Elliot on the surface: Elliot is anxious, dresses for comfort and tries not to be noticed. Tyrell projects confidence, dresses to impress or intimidate others and is desperate to be noticed, and the contrasts only get stronger from there.

Although the surface presentation of those two characters is only the beginning, it is still worth paying attention to. Elliot and Whiterose work narratively as opponents because they are so much alike that they clash. Think of Holmes and Moriarty or Batman and the Joker. The similarities between Elliot and Whiterose make them ideal adversaries.

Tyrell is the inverse of this: he has almost nothing in common with Elliot and works well in the story as Elliot’s ally.

So- our first look at Tyrell is as a visiting suit who initially confuses and alienates Elliot and from there we have the eerie, unexpected job offer.

When do we first see him without Elliot, though? He is getting ready to go out and seems to be avoiding giving his wife details whenever possible. He goes on to seduce a man he knows from work in order to get a promotion.

Much later, Joanna Wellick tells another character when she fell in love with Tyrell. When they met, she told him she wanted a necklace that another woman was wearing. Tyrell then seduced that woman and stole her necklace for Joanna while they were having sex.

Joanna fell in love with Tyrell because he always, without fail, will make anything happen that she needs. In this same fashion, Joanna contrives to sew the seeds of psychological manipulation within the family of E Corp’s CTO. One move is getting her husband to seduce the CTO’s wife. Instead he murders her. This causes him to unravel and Joanna later tells him “If you want to be part of this family, you’ll fix this.” Which prompts Tyrell’s full tilt defection to F Society, where he ends up under Elliot’s influence.

Elliot is so alienated that he has layers of alternate personalities to deal with the outside world for him. Tyrell is so defined by his relationships that he is completely and utterly slavish. Interestingly, all he wants is to serve others, either Joanna or Elliot, but he still manages to be the most unpredictable character other than Elliot himself. Mr. Robot even nicknames him Looney Toons.

So Tyrell strongly contrasts against Elliot’s struggle with his isolation. He also constantly defies any and all easy labeling. All Tyrell wants is to be someone, but he is totally unlike anyone. He is presented as an early villain and turns out to be a loose cannon supporting character. In the beginning, he is portrayed in a way that could easily be construed as a closeted gay man but later appears to be sexually fluid. This show has frankly queer characters but none that defy categorization like Tyrell does.

What really secures Tyrell’s standing as the anti-Elliot, though, are the events of the third and fourth season. In 2, it is strongly implied that Tyrell is dead and in the trunk of a parked car. Elliot receives a mysterious phone call from him, but with the reveal that Elliot has been in prison, it’s entirely possible that the phone call was a delusion. If the early season 2 interactions with Tyrell are a figment of Elliot’s imagination, it looks more probable that Tyrell is dead.

When Tyrell is shown definitively to be alive later in season 2, we are shown a longer version of his first meeting with Mr. Robot. Our first glimpse of this meeting was from Elliot’s perspective, which means we saw Christian Slater embodying the Mr. Robot persona with details missing. Now, from Tyrell’s, we see the entire exchange without omissions, along with Rami Malek portraying Elliot.

Now, with the chronology shifts, the flashbacks and all that, it’s easy to get confused about the order of events. Since we see all of Mr. Robot’s first meeting with Tyrell for the first time with a different actor playing the same role, it may be tempting to think that this is a later scene rather than an earlier one. If you think this is an entirely new scene, then Mr. Robot’s word choices seem creepily familiar: “You’ve spent so much time looking at what’s in front of you that you’ve forgotten what’s above you: God.”

If this is a new scene, how the fuck would Mr. Robot be aware of the words Elliot spoke to Joanna during one of his last conversations with her? (“You’ve spent so much time…God.”) If this is a new scene, then Mr. Robot appears to know something that he cannot possibly know. Which could lead you to think that Tyrell is still dead and this whole scene is imaginary.

But it’s not a new scene. This is the full version of an old one. Which means that when Tyrell made the comment about God to Joanna, he was repeating what Mr. Robot told him. Through chronologically deceptive framing, we are shown the conversation in a way that gives it the appearance of surprising depth that Tyrell himself perceived.

Through the illusion of Mr. Robot knowing something he can’t possibly know, the viewer is made to feel the same sense of an uncanny, almost supernatural event that Tyrell feels.

So not only does Tyrell shift away from his earlier villainous appearance and obsess over others to the same extent that Elliot avoids others, but he even threatens to buck the structure of a show that purports to be all about Elliot and his internal drama. He tempts the viewer to overlook the chronology and entertain the idea of abandoning the psychological thriller assessment in favor of something closer to science fiction.

On every level, Tyrell Wellick embodies the outside and uncertainty in proportion to Elliot’s inside and certainty. He nearly does this to a fault. In Tyrell’s final episode in season 4, Elliot and Tyrell appear to be lost in the woods where they keep encountering a strange, repetitive noise out in the distance. During Tyrell’s death scene, he encounters the source of the sound which is never actually seen. It simply gets louder as it bathes Tyrell in blue light. And we are never told what it is. The next time we hear that sound, it’s during one of the long delusory segments of the final episodes.

Tyrell can’t even leave the story like a normal character, he has to disappear into a genuine, mysterious void. And this is in a show where we’ve seen layers of subjective delusion unpeeled to see the objective truth. Yet Tyrell’s disappearance, during a part of the story that’s not supposed to be “in Elliot’s head”, makes you wonder if the apparent reality is simply another layer to be peeled back.

Tyrell seems to disappear into an “outside” that is never addressed again, except for a subtle nod in the finale. The unexplained nature of his ultimate fate is another opportunity for the viewer to latch onto the more otherworldly possibilities, such as the science fiction genre-shift everyone was either anticipating or dreading.

This “outside” is never made any less mysterious either. When Dominique DiPierro runs into Irving pushing his book during her brief elopement with Darlene, he seems to have nothing but good feelings and good memories of her and no mention is made of his apparent death earlier. This almost seems like an Elliot-style hallucination even though Elliot is almost completely absent from that episode.

While Irving may serve as a visual and thematic cue representing the “outside” (similarly to Tyrell), I feel like Darlene and Dominique are the real lenses of the “outside” in that episode. Is the world outside a bottomless pit of random that could be every bit as destructive and destabilizing as the worst products of your imagination? Absolutely. Perhaps our own Jungian “shadow-selves” are in some way derived from the world outside.

Bottomless chaos, though, also means bottomless potential, perhaps even bottomless freedom. The “Domlene” episode stands out for its potential optimism as much as it does for Elliot’s absence.

Sooo while that might not be all there is to unpack about Mr. Robot, it’s what makes its social commentary resonate with me. There’s a lot I wanted to mention that my analysis hasn’t enabled me to comment on, though. I mean, I’m nearing the end of this long ass post and I’m realizing I haven’t sufficiently gushed over Whiterose.

Whiterose is an amazing character. I mean queer villains are over-done, but we’re also living in the culture that says that DC has the best villains. And when people say DC has the best villains, they mean Batman. In this current social climate, people root for and identify with villains as much as heroes. I mean, in a show like Gotham (speaking of B.D. Wong) villains are who you are spending the majority of your time with.

With that in mind, I freaking love Whiterose and I love her back-and-forth with Elliot. The episode where she and Elliot meet for the first time is probably my favorite character introduction in recent history. “Every hacker has her fixation. You hack people, I hack time.” Love that shit.

Also, with all of the Back to the Future references, I kept equating Whiterose with Doc Brown in my head. More then once, I visualized an Epic Rap Battle episode between Whiterose and Rick Sanchez with Doc Brown crashing it halfway through.

The assassination of Qasem Soleimani via American drone

Sooo as a lot of you are probably aware, an Iranian general named Qasem Soleimani was recently killed with an American drone. At the time Soleimani was assassinated, he was attending a peace talk with Saudi Arabian representatives hosted by the Prime Minister of Iraq.

An NPR journalist named Jane Arraf tweeted that this peace talk was actually initiated by Trump in an exchange with the Iraqi Prime Minister. Later, the American media ascertained that Soleimani had a travel ban imposed on him that prevented him from entering Iraq: his presence at the peace negotiation was therefore a violation of the ban.

So it’s possible that Donald Trump not only orchestrated the event at which Soleimani was killed, but indirectly caused him to violate his travel ban and place himself beyond the reach of legal and military protection.

When I learned about this nuance I had this huge depth of “what the fuck” going on in my head.

To keep my reaction somewhat concise: I think the American public has underestimated Donald Trump. Specifically, they have overlooked the difference between lacking wisdom and possessing base cunning. I don’t necessarily think this level of planning is terribly sophisticated, but it does show a little bit of thoughtful calculation. In addition to the obvious moral bankruptcy. Donald Trump lacking wisdom or morality should not cause anyone to think he is not dangerous. At the very least, this reveals a depth of malevolence that goes beyond ordinary self-interest.

My level of shocked incredulity also for awhile made me forget something both terrible and obvious: Trump never made any secret of his disposition. He said over and over again, prior to his election in 2016, that he wanted to “go after” the “families” of terrorists. In essence, making it clear that he is prepared to kill civilians in the Middle East. He even crassly expressed support for police brutality during a Bill O’Reilly interview. He never gave us any reason to expect anything else from him.

I also felt like an idiot because we’ve all known that warhawks in Washington have been jonesing for a war with Iran. But I’ve been assuming that they would seize an opportunity to go to war with Iran if one presented itself. I was too naive to consider the possibility that they would actually orchestrate it on their own. And this brazenly. I mean, if Trump wasn’t suggesting the peace talk to get Soleimani to violate his travel ban so he could kill him then why did he suggest it?

Think I’m catastrophising? Let’s consider the arguments to the contrary: Mike Pence has since stated that the White House has intelligence that Soleimani was involved in 9/11 and he therefore needed to die. When pressed for clarification, Pence said that the information they received suggested that it was possible that troops trained by Soleimani may have fought against America during the 2003 Iraq invasion. You know, that thing that occurred after 9/11 and later proved itself pointless when it was made clear that Saddam never co-operated with the 9/11 hijackers. So no, the information Pence was referring to does not hold water or even any relevance.

Oh hey, while we’re on the subject, do you know where the majority of the 9/11 hijackers came from and were radicalized? Saudi Arabia. You know. The country that Trump has made multi-billion dollar weapon deals with. The country that executed an American journalist and had nothing but co-operation from Trump. That is the country the hijackers were from.

Not to sell short the bottomless loss and mourning that’s bound to ensue from these events, but I wanna talk about my personal reaction. For me this is the latest in a series of “what the fuck” moments. The one before this was learning that we might, optimistically, have maybe a few decades before the real consequences of climate change start ramping up. That has been my highest political priority ever since then. Now, in my dark moments, I wonder if homo sap will even last long enough to die from floods and hurricanes before we vaporize ourselves.

Oh yeah, and Iran is now participating in joint military operations with Russia and China. Iran is also now ignoring the centrifuge stipulation of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Sooooo I….don’t want this to mean that we’re walking right up to the brink of annihilation…but….but….but…but…

What if we never sufficiently internalize the possibility of our shared extinction until the moments before which it is inevitable? This is the price of avoiding the possibility of death and catastrophe. Death is scary and it’s therefore tempting to act like it doesn’t exist.

The problem with such indulgences is that they can add up to cumulative disasters. I remember after Trump got elected a lot of friends on social media were saying things like “Your world won’t end, this doesn’t have to be a disaster, we just have to ride it out.” If every bad political decision is an innocent mistake then what do you do with a million innocent mistakes? Are we always gonna say “we’ll do better tomorrow” up until the point where there is no tomorrow?

I want these thoughts to be mistaken so badly. I would like nothing more than to be proven wrong on this in the long run.

Text-aware TV reboots (Watchmen & Hannibal)

Warning: casual disregard for spoilers, as usual 😛

For the last few months a close friend of mine has been showing me Hannibal, which he describes as his favorite TV series. I read the Thomas Harris books Hannibal, Silence of The Lambs and Hannibal Rising as a teenager and, in the second and third season, a very interesting relationship with the texts of those works is established.

It may also be helpful to mention that, when the first three seasons of Hannibal were shot, the creative team did not have access to the rights for Clarice Starling or much of the Silence of The Lambs material.

So, going into Hannibal, it has every appearance of being a prequel. After all, the story is before Will Graham’s capture of the title character. However, the writing of the show demonstrates an awareness of Clarice Starling as being a moral, logical opposite equal to Hannibal Lecter’s amorality and freedom from logic. This is present in Silence of The Lambs but it is at the center in the novel Hannibal. The novel is structured as a collision between the separate worlds of Clarice and Hannibal. And this alleged prequel show takes its name from that book.

Hannibal the TV show puts separation and conflict between subjectivity and objective reality in the foreground. In the first two seasons in particular, there are moments that seriously tempt you to wonder what is objectively going on and and what is an imaginative, non-literal construct.

Late in the first season, Will Graham has a drug-addled exchange with Abigail Hobbs and then there’s a slam cut to Will being somewhere else. What the cut was meant to imply was that Will blacked out and can’t remember what happened. What it at first looked like, though, is Will waking up from a dream. Then there’s a cut back to Abigail talking to Hannibal. At first, it looks like the show is cutting back to the dream Will just woke up from where stuff is still going on even though he’s awake.

In all fairness, what the cut is meant to signify (doubling back in the timeline before Will’s blackout) is not at all obvious. This might look like careless editing, but the dialogue and other sequences are so tightly written that I can’t get around thinking that the occasional blurred meanings are probably nothing short of deliberate. The line is especially easy to blur given the frequent usage of dreams and hallucinations.

Near the end of the second season, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the impression that Hannibal is a prequel. Mason and Margot Verger appear at this point, characters originally from the novel Hannibal who only enter the chronology of the books at the later stage.

The appearance of these characters, in and of itself, does not necessarily call anything into doubt. We’ve already met other characters from later in the chronology, like Frederick Chilton. But many of the events from the ending of the novel Hannibal happen, with dialogue from both the novel and the film.

Hannibal is taken to be fed to Mason’s pigs and he makes the same remark about how one of his handlers must smell “almost as bad” as his dead brother. Later, Will and Hannibal recreate a well-known exchange that he originally had with Clarice: “Given the chance, you’d deny me my life? Wouldn’t you?” “No, just your freedom.” Honestly, when Hannibal was rescued from the pigs, I was expecting Will to say “Do right and you’ll get out of this alive,” with Hannibal’s reply: “Spoken like a true Protestant.” They didn’t use that dialogue, but it would have worked.

So there is enough of Clarice’s transplanted dialogue in Will’s mouth, combined with the conversational cat and mouse with Hannibal, to make Will Graham look like a substitute for Clarice Starling. With the Clarice dialogue from the books and the movies, he seems almost like a literal gender flipped re-interpretation of Clarice like Freddie Lounds and Alana Bloom (both males in the source material).

This whole topic of which character is channeling Clarice Starling is exacerbated even more when we see Hannibal fleeing on a plane in the company of Dr. Du Maurier, which seriously mirrors Hannibal eloping with Clarice at the end of the book.

So. The broken sequence of events tells us that Hannibal the TV show is less of a prequel and more of a ground-up re-imagining of the whole story. Clarice Starling getting split in half between Will and Du Maurier goes smoothly with the idea of a radical re-telling as well. Another word commonly used recently for this kind of re-telling is a reboot.

Lately I have also been watching the new Watchmen adaptation from HBO. Although Damon Lindelof, the producer and writer, has insisted that his version of Watchmen is not a reboot, it beats a lot of reboots at their own game.

One way that both Watchmen and Hannibal achieve this is through writing that clearly reflects a thoughtful reading and exchange with the source material. In fact, you could almost argue for the possibility that both of those shows contain a version of the original text within themselves.

Lindelof’s Watchmen definitely does, but you could also make a case for the same thing occurring in Hannibal. Dialogue from the novels are constantly used and the re-arranged chronology reflects a careful awareness of those novels.

Many of the events of the show are re-organized content from the books; the main innovation that Hannibal brings is the frank discussion of subjectivity versus objectivity. It dwells on tension between perception and forensic analysis- if you wanted to go full lit-crit, you could say that it’s about seeing or, perhaps, reading.

The relationship with the source material in Lindelof’s Watchmen, though, is far more lucid. As someone who absolutely adores the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this delighted me. Watchmen the graphic novel is all about language and how belief, popular wisdom and the idea of documented fact is explored. In other words, how language and perception shape reality.

There are multiple texts-within-texts, many of which are placed between chapters. There are excerpts from Hollis Mason’s memoir, psychiatric medical documents relating to Rorschach, in-world academic papers, in-world interviews and a whole other in-world comic. The intertextual nature of the world building is emphasized even more with how Rorschach is originally positioned as a narrator and how the reader comes to doubt his reliability. In fact, his narrations are nothing but excerpts from his journal, another in-world text.

One way that Damon Lindelof’s adaptation preserves this literary device- while simultaneously connecting that device to the show’s relationship with the graphic novel -is an in-world TV series called American Hero Story.

American Hero Story is, quite simply, a representation of the graphic novel within the TV show. For example, only very few people in the graphic novel knew about the romance between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, almost no one. In the new adaptation, it is frankly spelled out in American Hero Story. This strongly suggests that the average person in the world of the TV show knows about this. In another episode, a young FBI agent with a passion for the history of the Minutemen, casually relates the story of Laurie Juspeczyk’s parentage. The reveal of the identity of Laurie’s father was a huge dramatic event in the book but, like the relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, is common knowledge in the world of the TV show.

This all adds up to tell us that the average person, in the TV show’s fictional universe, knows everything that a real-life reader of the graphic novel would. So the events of American Hero Story function as a representative of the original graphic novel within the show…and that graphic novel had multiple in-world documents within itself. Yo dawg… 😛

There are other more understated, thematic bells and whistles, such as Hooded Justice being inspired, in part, by a Superman comic. Then there are more overt reminders of the present of the TV show being inspired by its past, the comic. There is a white supremacist terrorist network inspired by the words and example of Rorschach. They are not just inspired by his publicized actions- they actually quote from his journal, which itself constitutes text from the original comic.

Between the manifested legacy of Rorschach embodied by the Seventh Kalvary and the portrayal in the graphic novel, though, there are fascinating gray areas. For example, the character called Looking Glass. He wears a reflective mask which no other character equates with the Rorschach mask and he regularly pulls up the lower half to talk and eat, something readers of Watchmen the comic will instantly recognize as typical of Rorschach.

However, there is no reason why the characters in the TV show would know that. They have American Hero Story and Rorschach’s journal is circulated among white nationalists, but there is no reason why that particular mannerism of his would be known of.

Meaning that, while the world of the TV adaptation knows the general plot points of the original, we also see reflections of things they shouldn’t know about. Rorschach probably never wrote about his unshaven mouth and love of canned beans in his journal, after all. So there is one level of intertextual exchange- the popular wisdom of the TV show’s world -and something less meta, a connection that characters know nothing of, but the writers and viewers are.

There are more explicable examples of the gap between text and reader as well. We get a glimpse of a scene from American Hero Story where Hooded Justice is outed as queer and forced to remove his mask, revealing a white actor. Later, the viewer learns that Hooded Justice was originally a black man.

Then there is the use of the colors black and white as a thematic device. In the racial sense as well as the abstract sense. This immediately reminded me of the graphic novel’s chapter called Fearful Symmetry, which made frequent use of panels with alternating color patterns. The character Sister Night says, early on, that if any bit of yolk is allowed into egg whites, the whites are ruined. She even tells her son, Topher, that people like to fill the world with all kinds of fake colors but she and him both know that the only colors are black and white.

This kind of dialogue smacks of Rorschach, which I found ironic. When the first trailers dropped, we saw a brief glimpse of Sister Night in a police station saying she has a guy in her trunk. The casual police brutality, combined with what looked like a face paint domino mask, made me wonder if this was a re-imagining of The Comedian. Then in the TV show, we receive more visual cues equating her with Nite Owl. The riffs on Fearful Symmetry continue in the episode when we see the original Hooded Justice receive face paint around his eyes and nose bridge to make it look like he’s white under the hood.

I guess one question this begs is…what exactly does this kind of sensitivity to the text add? The biggest gain I can think of is more reverence for the source material and more freedom to explore one’s own interpretation of it. You can do more while acknowledging the authority of the originals than you can with a straightforward, note-for-note adaptation.

And by reverence I mean…acknowledgement of the influence while maintaining a respectful distance. The original ideas are present and influential, but still have a distinct degree of separation from the derivative product allowing for interpretive freedom. If the reader or the viewer can perceive the influence of the original while understanding that the current interpretation is not a literal,word-for-word recreation, more room for imagination opens up. You could almost call it a more frank display of the dialogue between the original text and its readers.

Earthworm Jim Special Edition!

Two days ago I played a Sega CD for the first time as well as the definitive version of one of my favorite games from my childhood: Earthworm Jim.

This is a game that I played so often that I basically have the progression route for a whole play through etched in the muscle memory of my hands. The only other games that I might have a similar intimacy with are Mega Man 3, Sonic 2 and maybe the first Tomb Raider game. That last one is a real maybe but I wouldn’t rule it out. Final Fantasy VII may be my favorite video game period but that came into my life at a much later time.

Even with that deep level of nostalgia and rote memorization, though, there is still so much to be delighted by. Not to say nostalgia still isn’t mixed up in it though 0.0

For one, consider the era it came out in. It was the early nineties and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were just ramping up. I remember Nickelodeon being turned on a lot in my home and my parents liked it more than I did. You see, I was probably around four years old, and almost everything on that channel terrified me. I remember an episode of Rugrats that had a freaky as hell dream sequence.

My mom was also a big fan of The Ren & Stimpy Show and the niche it carved out for itself. People these days seem to call it toilet humor. When I look back on things like the episode where Ren had cavities, I’m more tempted to call it comedic body horror.

Whatever it was, though, it caught on and we got things like Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Eek The Cat, Cow and Chicken and Space Goofs. And Little Kid Ailix liked every single one of them more than Ren & Stimpy. Cow and Chicken was probably my favorite. Maybe you could lump in Ed Edd n Eddy if you cared to. That hooked me also.

Considering that Earthworm Jim dropped in the early nineties and its blend of juvenile humor and absurdity, I think it’s fair to say that it was part of the same general trend. Earthworm Jim also may have had more personality than all of them, though.

I mean, who else remembers Boogerman? Nonstop toilets, nonstop boogers, nonstop monsters made of literal crap, it just played out the whole toilet humor gimmick to death. I was in elementary school back then and that game was somehow really popular with my peers. But it was a lifeless golem made of pandering gimmicky bullshit. I mean I’m being way more articulate than Little Kid Ailix was, but Little Kid Ailix knew that Boogerman was built on two or three gags being cycled over and over again. It was a distillation of all of the laziest tendencies of the Ren & Stimpy derivatives.

Don’t get me wrong, Earthworm Jim was totally one of those derivatives as well, but it was more than that. In fact, the gross out jokes were kind of the smallest part of the whole equation. There were other gags to, but even those gags were just one part of the whole.

(Is it just me or do the loading screens in the special edition look like the title screens from shows that were part of the What A Cartoon block from Cartoon Network?)

I mean, the For Pete’s Sake level, for example. That clearly relies on a big versus small gag. Jim is big and Jim is protecting Pete who is small. If Pete get’s hurt, Pete turns into a giant red bulldog monster with throbbing veins, clutches Jim in his teeth and drags him back a few obstacles behind where he was. It’s a classic gag, sorta reminiscent of Looney Toons, really.

But look at all the other details that the game gets you to take for granted. What planet are you on and why can you see space? Why does this seem to be the only level that gives you a sense of having just come from the interstellar race with Psycrow that you do between every level?

The music also adds something. It adds something during every second of the game, because Tommy Tallarico is an angel sent to Earth to make beautiful beautiful music. But in For Pete’s Sake the music is restrained, which lets everything else go to the foreground. But still has this droning, rhythmic, science fiction quality.

Oh, and this tonal balance that happens between the normal gag stuff, cuteness and eerie atmosphere? It shifts dramatically in the second to last level, Intestinal Distress. The level is weirdly minimal, save for the appearance of being inside of someone’s digestive tract. And the music is…well…horror movie music. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. Sure enough, the last level is called Buttville.

During one of my early play throughs, I remember the growing realization that the final boss and villain of the game, Queen Slug For A Butt, is bodily connected to Buttville. As in, you are actually inside her and your progression to the exit- AKA her asshole -triggers the final boss fight. Little Kid Ailix was like “is this…seriously what it looks like????”

That, needless to say, goes beyond “toilet humor” and is truly weird. And the music in this level. The track commonly known as Falling, in a different context, could actually create a feeling of vertigo and dread. I almost wanna say it reminds me of falling into Hell. Certain puns come to mind, like “the belly of the beast”.

Actually, at the age I was when I first played this, it hooked my imagination. I’ve always written stories, almost compulsively, and Little Kid Ailix was set on a kick of designing stories set inside of bodies.

Anyway, on the special edition for the Sega CD, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the soundtrack is so crisp and perfect that the music alone could fully justify it. It’s just that good. If you’ve played the SNES or Gameboy Advance ports and thought they were markedly inferior to the Sega original, then the Sega CD sound quality makes them absolute garbage by comparison. Maybe it was re-recorded- I don’t know just now. I do know that the Sega CD was capable of CD quality sound so it wouldn’t surprise me.

And while I love how smooth the muscle memory of my endless play throughs can make things, my heart was instantly warmed to find out how many of the levels are expanded. In the part of New Junk City where Jim is suddenly without his suit, he announces “I’m nude!” with a Southern drawl.

Did Jim have a Southern accent in the WB cartoon series? I don’t think he did. But the “Ahm noood” combined with his “woah Nelly!” from the original makes me think he was meant to be Southern in the game. Could that be why there’s a loading screen with him *snickers* loading stuff into a truck bed? It also seems consistent with the banjo music that plays when you race against Psycrow. And yes, banjos are a commonly recognized hallmark of Earthworm Jim music. Banjos, science fictiony electronic beats, parodies of music from nineteen-thirties Disney cartoons and industrial rock. And it all fits into the same atmospheric whole. Did I mention the composer, Tommy Tallarico, is a freaking gift?

So I was wrapping up the Psycrow race after What The Heck? when this shit happened

I blink and I’m like “What the fuck is this shit??”

This shit wasn’t in the original game. After tooling around for a minute, I notice the music for this new level has creepy, empty wind sounds and dry wooden creaks, like a plank dangling from its nail off of a crappy cobbled-together fort. And what is that pink thing? It’s kind of like…a dinosaur? I guess? Are those nostrils or its eye sockets? They’re empty so I wanna go with nostrils. Please let them be nostrils.

So you inch up to it, it starts to stalk you, it speeds up and…and…what the fuck are those sounds it’s making? It sounds crazed and hungry, but what are the actual noises? Hoots? Grunts? Gibbers? All of the above?

Whatever this nightmare fuel is, you gotta deal with it throughout the whole level. In fact there are a few puzzles built around getting the pink, sightless, hooting crazy fucker to crash into things to remove barriers or step on levers to launch you into the air.

What delighted me more than all that, though, was that this new level, called Big Bruty, required me to use all of the same problem solving strategies I used as a seven year old. It re-connected me with Little Kid Ailix’s feeling of having solved a few puzzles, got a game over but still eager to press on in spite of the frustration. This bizarre little curve ball of a level actually made me feel a lot of things that I haven’t felt for a long, long time.

It was a very pleasant night of gaming with my amazing girlfriend, in other words. And a lovely way to get re-acquainted with a gleeful part of my childhood. Now I kinda wanna see if that graphic novel the original devs are working on is in any way obtainable

(Eat your heart out, Doug Funnie, someone did the black and white pencil intro better then you! 😀 )

El Camino!

The Breaking Bad movie El Camino debuted last night and it was refreshing to see more of what Jesse Pinkman alone brought to the Vince Gilligan mythos.

In my “reading” (and according to many other people) Jesse was the emotional and pro-social point of empathy in a defensive and calculating fictional world. After Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, moving to a more humane protagonist is a good decision.

This is given dimension by how a plot is typically set up to guide or provoke a character arc. One way to do this is through opposition. Walter White and Saul Goodman have important connections with other people that put them at odds with their negative character arcs….which paradoxically send them on their negative arcs.

Walter starts to cook meth for the benefit of his family and later becomes “the one who knocks”. Saul Goodman / Jimmy McGill turns his life around and gets a law degree to win the approval of his brother and later reconciles his reinvented self with his previous knack for petty crime. Vince Gilligan characters tend to start out enmeshed with others and end being isolated from them. Jesse Pinkman in El Camino experiences this formula from the opposite end.

Jesse is deeply connected to his friends, lovers and mentors and is on a path toward personal freedom while growing more deeply enmeshed with the world around him. I’m pretty sure me and most of the people watching the movie on launch day kept thinking that Jesse should run his ass off and never go back to any place where anyone would find him.

Instead he seeks out the few old connections he could go back to. He even touches base with his parents and the story’s final confrontation involves a welder that was hired by Jesse’s captors. Speaking of Jesse’s captivity, memories of Todd, possibly the member of the Neo-Nazi gang that Jesse despised the most, provide a pivotal plot point. In fact, two of his most important connections whom we know to be dead, Jane Margolis and Walter White, make appearances in rather emotional flashbacks near the end.

Jesse’s film ending with him both alone and more connected also opens the door for the first happy ending I ever saw in a Vince Gilligan story and it’s nicely convincing.

Also, as usual, the Breaking Bad creative team is great at creating a sense of place. Two of my favorite movies (which I still find difficult to watch at times) are Mysterious Skin and Boys Don’t Cry and, as someone who grew up in a low-income area in the early nineties, I was pleasantly surprised by how much those two films would get right with their set design or shooting locations. El Camino doesn’t tug on my nostalgia to the same degree but the Breaking Bad team nonetheless has delicious attention to detail, especially in the end at Kandy’s Welding.

I was watching this with my SO and during the shootout she told me that the welder has a holster that’s not meant to be drawn from quickly. It would have been a lil cooler if they took advantage of that but I liked the ending anyway. Like I said, the happy ending is a very welcome change in the Breaking Bad fictional universe. And it has a cool closing credits song ^^

Halloween Quiz re: Thinking Moon!

1. What is your favourite Halloween Movie?

Thaaat….is a toughie. Both my dad and one of my best friends like to watch Interview With The Vampire on most Halloweens so that instantly earns points. Hellraiser 2 is also a contender.

WAIT WAIT WAIT- there is only one acceptable answer at this point in my life- Over The Garden Wall!!!!!!!!!!!

2. How much do you enjoy Halloween on a scale of 1-10?

10!

3. What is your fondest Halloween memory?

Being in a haunted house for two years in a row with my best friend from high school. During the first year, I was a disemboweled corpse on an operating table and I had to lay in cold wetness all night to keep my organs looking realistically gory. The second year I was Jason and my best friend was Norman Bates in his mother’s dress.

Soooo….I was a mother whose serial killer alter ego was her son and my best friend was a son whose serial killer alter ego was his mother. Some kind of minds think alike, anyway ^^

4. Have you always been a Halloween lover?

Sure have 😀

5. How do you get into the Halloween spirit?

Just feeling the warmth of the sun combined with some cool breeze really does it for me. I also might drink some pumpkin spice deliciousness and play Silent Hill 2. Or maybe Strawberry Cubes! ❤️

6. What are your favourite Halloween decorations?

Fake body parts!

They also used to high key scare the shit out of me as a kid 0_0

7. What are your favourite Halloween / fall scents?

Petrichor! 😊

I also had this boyfriend a long time ago who smoked and briefly got me into smoking. I quit a long time ago, though. And it was around October. Soo I also associate the smell of menthol cigarettes with Halloween and I rather like it. Call me crazy 😛

8. Vampires or Zombies?

Vampires, easily

9. What is your weird/odd fear?

The undead have always freaked me out. Which is weird because I’ve been a total vampire fan girl since I was a preteen. But yeah, in media, ghosts and zombies can freak me out.

In real life…hm….the feeling of being watched.

10. What are you going as this Halloween?

Hmm…..either Jenova from Final Fantasy VII or a gender-flipped Riddler 😃

11. Do you believe in ghosts?

Short answer is yes

Little Samson

Today I was treated to a chance to play a special NES rarity called Little Samson. Why this game didn’t blow up into a franchise is beyond me since it has got to be one of the most well-designed NES games I’ve ever played.

I feel like I should qualify this a little: by “well-designed” I mean neatly designed. Neatness is not the only measure of good design. The early Mega Man games, for example, do not take the time to carefully and systematically flesh-out concepts in a way that lets you easily build on one after another. Sequential concept elaboration is simply a design convention and there are other possible approaches.

As I was playing Little Samson with my significant other (whose video game library is gloriously encyclopedic) I had a thought that captured the nature of this distinction: if you want something with teeth right now, put in Mega Man 3 and start with either the Shadow Man or the Gemini Man stage. And yes, while most Mega Man games have a “rock paper scissors” affinity pattern that usually leaves a rather sequential path to quick victory, you have the choice of starting in one of several different levels.

Most people my age though, who didn’t have the benefit of guides back in the early nineties, relied heavily on trial and error. Which meant you would deduce things in a stage you were in no way prepared for and apply them to the platforming in other stages. Eventually these deductions would get you acclimated enough to the platforming and general level design that the easiest possible stage to beat through platforming alone would become apparent.

A less clunky way of putting this is that Mega Man games typically have non-linear design, which places a greater emphasis on trial and error and deduction. Little Samson, meanwhile, has a linear design.

The teeth come eventually, though. The opening stages are little more than obstacle courses that teach you the rudiments of handling the four player characters. These basically function as a tutorial that shows you the basic uses for each playable character’s specialized abilities.

So rather than confronting you directly with multiple layers of difficulty, like Mega Man, the ways to approach different obstacles are broken down for you in the beginning. It is up to you to determine where and how to use these strategies. Later, when the “real campaign” starts, you will normally find that the following stages will accommodate one of the player characters more than the others. This is the period bracketed between the first and second boss fights.

While the second fight is pretty hard, you may begin to be a little dismayed at what appears to be a flaw in the neatness of the design: the dragon pc will get you most of the way through the first two bosses. Which could tempt you to think that the dragon might be the all-purpose boss-killer.

Boss number three will immediately disabuse you of this, to say nothing of the third stage levels requiring more pc rotation than anything beforehand, with the dragon and the mouse being the most useful for the platforming and the golem being useful for some annoyingly persistent enemies. And for nothing else: the golem can barely platform at all. Then you fight a boss that’s unapproachable for any pc except the mouse with two hit points.

The third stage and the third boss are also a great opportunity to address how original this game looks. In fact, I don’t know of any other NES game that looks quite like it. Your main pc, Little Samson himself, reminds me of the child version of Son Goku from Dragon Ball. The sorcerer in the opening cut-scene also reminded me of Dalton from Chrono Trigger. What do Chrono Trigger and Dragon Ball have in common? Akira Toriyama!

(Now I’m kinda torn…does he look more like Dalton or Piccolo…?)

Turns out, the art was done by someone named Yuko Nakamura, for whom I can find no other credits. Which is unfortunate because there are some delightfully wild style variations.

The figures in the palace at the beginning, with their robes and headdresses, look almost Babylonian. Rather like your Toriyama-esque main character, there are some sprites that have a cutesy chibi vibe, like the bubble-breathing diosaurs. The pink dragon pc also reminds me of Icarus, the dragon Gohan adopted in Dragon Ball Z: The Tree Of Might and the different villainous sorcerers all sort of look like Piccolo. The second boss looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a Giger-style xenomorph. A later boss transforms into a huge dragon that takes up most of the screen. Later levels have large purple cartoon hands reaching out of the ground along with stone corridors with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Against any expectation the prior levels and creatures may have furnished, the third stage either looks like an alien planet or some sort of cutesy Mordor. Big’ol starscape in the background with vanishing platforms that either look like chemicals or energy with glowing heads that shoot projectiles. And when the long vertical wall platforms become more common you really tend to rely on the mouse pc.

So you’re doing precise platforming while you’re dodging energy projectiles with a mouse with a standard HP limit of two hits. With the same mouse, you also have to win a boss fight with a sorcerer made of floating demonic skulls with lil bombs like the kind Samus Aran drops with her morph ball. On an alien planet. I did say the teeth come eventually.

Which is another interesting gameplay elaboration. All pcs have different max HP limits. My SO and I were utilizing a quick-save feature that wasn’t in the original game (don’t ask ’cause I ain’t telling :p ). So the quick save may have made this seem like more of a feature than it was meant to be, but I noticed that I was trying to anticipate future pc rotations.

If I noticed that I was relying a lot on the mouse with two HP, for example, I would collect as many HP buffing power-ups as I could so my mouse wouldn’t be a one hit kill. I really started hoarding the HP buffs in stage two when I realized the blue bastard boss fight is best approached with the dragon and therefore needed that pc to have a higher max HP than is standard.

This feature also holds true for other power-ups as well. Every pc has its own unique health bar which means they all need to be healed individually. This calculation is deepened by the fact that you don’t simply lose the pc and keep playing with others when they hit zero: you die if you reach zero in any form. So you need to be thinking of which pc will receive what power-up when you find it.

The music also changes based on what pc you’re using which, at times, can be a lil bit annoying. Which is too bad since the music is pretty good in general.

From the opening tutorials, you learn that the golem, mouse and dragon are the most specialized playable characters with Little Samson being “a jack of all trades, master of nothing”. It’s normal to use Samson early in a stage while you’re assessing which specialization(s) will suit the stage best. Which means you spend a lot of time listening to Samson’s music, and that can be pretty grating. I really prefer a full immersion experience with music and sound and everything happening when it’s supposed to, but while I was playing the third stage I actually muted the game.

That was kind of a disappointing time for that to set in since so many design choices really come together beautifully in the third stage. Not that it’s anything more than an annoyance. If it gets to you that much you can just switch characters. And anyway the final level has its own music regardless of which pc you choose.

Speaking of the last level, Little Samson has a final boss fight that will make you hopelessly dependent on your ability to memorize jumping patterns with the character with the least HP because they happen to deal the most damage (unless you’ve collected buffs). In a few different puzzles and situations you can rotate transformations for alternate dodging and attacking but not this time.

(THIS fucker X_X)

On the other hand. It is also possible to use different characters as meat shields and adroitly switch back to the mouse in time to spam with your morph ball bombs. That’s what my SO did after I spent several minutes fixating on jumping, which actually worked like a dream.

(Then we got a nice lil cliffhanger going on post-credits with this guy flashing on his throne after the four sorcerers wink out of existence)

After we beat the game, my partner showed me a bunch of images to use in this blog as well as some footage of our play through. On one recording we could hear my voice saying “this is simultaneously one of the cutest, weirdest and hardest things I’ve ever played.”

Which is an assessment that I stand by. The difficulty is pitch perfect, it plays fair and it combines a handful of influences from Mega Man to Mario while having a character that’s all it’s own. I remember, when I played the third Mario game, I was in disbelief that it was actually available for the NES- it looked like it should be a SNES game. Little Samson‘s graphics are nearly at the same level of sophistication, especially with cool little gimmicks here and there like rotating sprites. I’m gonna be jonesing on how cool this is for awhile and I’m still surprised that this game didn’t pick up the momentum that it should have (yeah I know it was released just as the SNES was getting off the ground but it’s not fair D: )