Trump Legitimizing Corruption & Democrat Incompetence

So yesterday my girlfriend showed me a Huffington Post article (link below) about Trump owning a stake in Sanofi, the French company that makes a consumer-grade version of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that Trump has repeatedly recommended to fight COVID-19.

The consensus among experts is that hydroxychloroquine is in no way effective against Coronavirus. To get other pertinent facts out up front, Trump has three family trusts and each of them has investments in a mutual fund whose largest holding was in Sanofi. This was quoted at length from a New York Times article- the Huffington Post piece also quoted the financial news site MarketWatch which stated that, while the actual value of the shares collectively owned by his three family trusts ranges somewhere between 100$ and 1500$, those same trusts “hold broader European stock-market index funds”, which means that his holdings in Sanofi could make him far more money. The New York Times source also stated that Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary, also has financial ties to Sanofi.

So it looks like the American President is hawking an anti-malarial drug to treat COVID-19 that he stands to profit from. This is the same President that has made billions from arms deals with the Saudis and has openly used his hotel chain to launder bribes from the Saudis as well (to name just one of his documented clients). Aaaand back in January, Trump coordinated the assassination of a high-ranking Iranian general during peace negotiations in Iraq with a drone, which resulted in Iran openly defying the centrifuge stipulation of the 2015 nuclear agreement and taking part in joint military operations with Russia and China. Shortly after that, Trump deployed 3500 troops to the Middle East.

Consider the scope of criminality that is now being openly legitimized by America’s head of state.

If describing this as legitimizing criminality sounds like a lazy or sweeping generalization, what are we to make of the last Democratic debate among prospective Presidential candidates before Super Tuesday? The candidates were told that, because of the high number of people seeking the Democratic nomination, it was entirely possible that none of them would receive enough Primary votes to constitute a majority. In electoral jargon, a majority is over fifty percent of the votes. If no single candidate receives fifty percent of the votes in the Presidential Primary, but one of them still receives more votes than anyone else, the one with the most votes is said to have a plurality.

On that last debate before the Primary, the candidates were asked if they would be satisfied to concede the nomination to a candidate that got a plurality and, if not, would they be okay with the DNC or the super delegates making their own choice. Remember, a plurality is more votes than anyone else even if none of them has over fifty percent. Like, someone has forty percent and everyone else has less than that. That would be a plurality.

Anyway, every candidate except Bernie Sanders said they would defer to the DNC and super delegates in the event of the plurality. Meaning, even if one candidate clearly had more votes than everyone else, every candidate but Sanders would be okay with the DNC and super delegates making their own decision regardless of the votes. In a Democratic debate on national television, every candidate except Sanders frankly stated that the DNC and super delegates should make the final decision even if one of them got more votes than everyone else.

One of those assenting candidates, of course, is now the presumptive nominee. So that person, who told America on national television that their votes do not matter, is now going to ask for those votes in November while running against Trump. This was on national television and none of the big news stations, MSNBC and Fox and the like, could be bothered to comment on it. I mean…is this a unique depth of cynicism? Openly telling voters that their decision does not matter? It seems that way to me. Does this or does it not mean that Trump has moved the Overton window so far in favor of corruption that Americans have completely ceased to care? Like, not even the barest fig-leaf pretense of not being corrupt?

I know, I know, I know: Ailix, you were just talking about how horrible Trump is, with his profiteering off of COVID-19, accepting massive bribes from the number one state sponsor of Jihadi terrorism and galvanizing a military alliance against America? Surely you’re gonna vote blue in November no matter what? Even if the Democratic nominee openly thinks that democracy is bullshit and will happily play ball with anyone rich enough? Who cares if he shielded his son from the law, Ukraine doesn’t extradite to America, just let them make their own call. Ukraine is a sovereign country, they don’t gotta extradite to anywhere they don’t want to, just mind your own business and vote blue. Surely you can’t be impugning the leadership of the Democratic party? Can you, Ailix? Are you seriously gonna split hairs over a little harmless nepotism after a President who openly launders money, commits war crimes and was known to visit Jeffery Epstein’s private jet?

Sorry, normally I don’t get that bitchy. But on top of being corrupt, I’m also impressed by the sheer incompetence of the Democratic party during the last few years: the Mueller report didn’t effect a damn thing and then they decided to roll the impeachment dice on the phone call to Ukraine over Biden’s son. I mean…they seriously ignored all the emolument shit and collaboration with Saudi Arabia and their support for Jihadi guerillas? They ignored so much legally actionable crime in favor of the phone call to Ukraine? I mean, either the Democratic party has the worst leadership ever or they’re deliberately staying out of Trump’s way.

I also have to admit to how naïve I feel just now: doesn’t everyone know that institutions always serve their own interests in the end? On what grounds am I acting like America is now in a uniquely bad place? I’m Native, aren’t I, surely this can’t be news to me? That the country that carved the faces of its leaders on a mountain range that was the most holy location in an indigenous religion might not be perfectly moral? Aren’t you descended from people who eagerly converted to Christianity because of all the horror stories they heard about those that did not?

I never thought I’d live to see a time where I, of all people, turned out to be too hopeful about America’s moral backbone.

https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_5e8c41d7c5b6e1d10a696280

Island Of The Dead by Sopor Aeternus

While I’m significantly late on this it is now time to review Island Of The Dead!

This album was released almost a month ago but, because I’m a purist idiot, I refused to listen to it digitally until I had my hard copy. All of these pictures were taken after letting it sit for three days after it came in the mail. You know, because of the now global pandemic.

Individually numbered….!!!!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

I can’t describe how happy this made me when I finally opened it. The happiness over receiving an individually numbered CD copy also brought my attention to other aspects of the presentation and delivery. I don’t know all the specifics of this, but hard copies of Sopor Aeternus albums tend to only be available through the band and record label’s website around the time the album in question is to be released. I read that Sopor Aeternus worked briefly with John A. Rivers who, in the world of goth music, is a fairly big name, having produced albums for the likes of Dead Can Dance, Love And Rockets, Daniel Ash, etc. As far as I know, I don’t think Sopor has ever come any closer than that to approaching major label representation.

In fact, when I search for Apocalyptic Vision Records online, it seems that Sopor Aeternus and The Ensemble Of Shadows constitute the majority of their output. This goes back to early albums like Ich tote mich…, Todeswunsch and the earliest known version of Es reiten die Toten so schnell, which makes me suspect that Anna-Varney Cantodea herself must have some kind of personal involvement with Apocalyptic Vision Records. Maybe I’m way off base, but if they were working with Sopor Aeternus since the very beginning then I think her personal involvement is likely. If the production and release of Sopor Aeternus music is Anna-Varney’s own personal labor of love, then it makes sense that hard-copies of their work would only be made in proportion to purchases if, perhaps, money needs to be saved for studio time, production costs, studio muscians, etc. So little things, the amount of detail put into the physical object itself…reflect a much more personal and deliberate touch. Which is why a hand-written 878 in front of the /1000 warms my heart.

Now for the actual music and lyricism: there isn’t a specific and obvious genre affiliation like there was with the death metal album Death & Flamingos but modern touches are distinctly present. Songs like Poison, DeathHouse, Saturn Rising and Nightbreed have noticeable new-wave and new-romantic influences. This shift in creative direction happens along with the preservation of the personal, memoir-style lyricism from Death & Flamingos. The lyrics here are very direct and have very personal \ conversational word and sentence construction and the vocal delivery has the same rawness as the previous album. Minotour has a conversational delivery similar to Kinder Des Teufels from Death & Flamingos, You Cannot Make Him Love You from Mitternacht and Something Wicked This Way Comes from Songs from the Inverted Womb.

The closing song, Goodbye, is very lyrically streamlined: when you read the lyrics in the booklet it looks like a personal note between two individuals, like something meant for someone to read. When Anna begins singing, though, the cadence and rhythm of her voice is perfectly musical. The same goes for Mourning, The Void, Saturn Rising and Cold. Mourning struck my as a little challenging at first- I actually didn’t listen to this album all at once, as a single body of work, the first time I heard it. Which will definitely effect the impression of each song. Anna-Varney Cantodea makes albums that are whole, distinct bodies of work, meant to be taken in as a whole. Now it feels like one of the most important songs on the album. Not least of all because of the lyrical stream lining mentioned earlier. The use of verbal repetition is different on this album- in fact, I don’t think lyrical repetition is used quite the same way in anything else by Sopor.

On Mourning, repetition is used in a way comparable to the function served by a chorus in an ordinary rock song, but still gives the rest of the more conversational lyrics room to define the overall tone. The longer instrumental sections also provide necessary atmospheric breathing room for the song to work. As a kind of orienting “center” to the album, this generous use of space is very justified.

Saturn Rising, while just as streamlined overall, is more of an equal split between conversational and conventionally rhythmic lyricism. The alternating slow and fast pacing and the use of electric guitar give the song a recognizable alternative-shoegazey feel. In fact, all of the electric guitar usage on this album reminds me of shoegaze.

The lyrics of Burial Ground are more rhythmic than conversational but retains the shoegaze flavor. Poison, DeathHouse and Nightbreed all riff on shoegaze but go a bit further into the land of straight up gothic rock. On that subject, Nightbreed is particularly satisfying. Very cheeky and angry and contains one of my favorite personalized lyrical bitch-slaps on the album:

I’m not your pal, your aunt or your mother!

You asshole, I’m your FRIEND!

But if all that is too much to ask for,

Then, please…don’t pretend.

If you don’t care to have me

In your busy and happy life,

Then don’t you dare

Say that you love me!

Go and

Tell that shit

to your wife

I love love love how she spits the words “Go and \ tell that shit \ to your wife” ❤

The new familiarity with direct, memoir-style lyricism and rock experimentation on both this album and the last one seems significant. Death & Flamingos and Island Of The Dead both sound more like direct and personal statements from Anna herself, as opposed to Dead Lovers Sarabande or Songs from the Inverted Womb which employed less literal narrative devices. This, in addition to the release of one album a year for three years so far makes these new works seem like an important moment in her artistic career.

After the release of The Spiral Sacrifice in 2018, Anna did an interview with the German LGBT magazine Seigessaule in which she said that The Spiral Sacrifice will “probably” be her last album. This made sense in that interview, as she described the 2018 album- which was in fact a reimagining of her 1997 album The Inexperienced Spiral Traveller -as a journey through time and a stock-taking. This made The Spiral Sacrifice sounded like a grand, finishing statement, to say nothing of the fact that Anna is in her sixties and could hardly be faulted for considering slowing down.

Not only did Anna release new music in 2019 and 2020, but look at the contrast with the 2018 album. The Spiral Sacrifice is almost luxuriously introspective, poetic and slow-paced. I listen to it often while writing or drawing, as I do with Poetica and Ich Tote Mich. The Spiral Sacrifice was constructed with room for the listener’s mind to occupy the material alongside Anna’s presence. In the last two albums, Anna herself dominates all the space and is singing literally about herself in lyrics that make you hear her as both an artist and a private person. So far from being a final album, The Spiral Sacrifice appears to have marked the beginning of a unique chapter in the life of Sopor Aeternus and The Ensemble Of Shadows.

If ever I have the chance to have a hard-copy made of any book I write or video game I design in the future, this is the kind of personal touch I would want to add ^^
This image and the next one both give me a distinct Dead Lovers Sarabande vibe

Anticipating the Final Fantasy VII Remake

Early development pic from Final Fantasy VII Remake’s rendition of the Don Corneo / Wall Market sequence ^^

While I myself have not contracted COVID 19, the pandemic has had consequences for my living situation and my job. For that reason I have been trying to remain optimistic and excited about as many things as I can which is why I am now talking about a video game.

After a long and uncertain development, Final Fantasy VII Remake is hitting the market next month. Ever since the rumors of a remake were validated back in 2014/15, I could see a lot going wrong and a lot going right with this. After the initial confirmation, Square Enix revealed that it worked with some outside developers that had mishandled a lot of material and the project was substantially set back. If it simply remained in development hell forever, I don’t think I would have objected. So much went right with the original and with big budget video games being both collaborative and designed to give investors a return, such a good story is probably a happy accident. I don’t think I would trust a team of corporate writers, however capable or well-intentioned, to understand the finer points of what made the story of the base game so iconic.

Especially considering how certain decisions were made. Test players for the original were shown two versions, one with Barret dying and one with Aerith dying. The responses gave us the result we are all familiar with today. This is further substantiated by data miners who found dialogue for Aerith in the later parts of the game buried in the game’s code. If any mid-nineties gamers stumbled upon this unused data with a Gameshark Pro or anything similar, it no doubt would have lent credence to the contemporary rumors of a secret way to resurrect Aerith.

Which brings us to the edifice that Final Fantasy VII eventually became in the minds of those of us who fell in love with it. The true life of any work of art is what happens to it after it has left the hands of its creator(s) and Final Fantasy VII has had an interesting life. Having discovered FFVII in the year 2000, I remember the GeoCities and Angelfire websites with all the fan theories, lore dumps and fan fiction. The one I remember most fondly was hosted by an individual called Seraphim and had breakdowns of each character’s lore background and some thoughts on what builds were the most advisable for which party member.

As was typical of the fandom at that time, Seraphim included a lengthy explanation of why he believed Aerith could be brought back from the dead and some ways that he suspected it might be done. I don’t remember any mention of the dialogue that data miners would eventually uncover but Seraphim did rely heavily on circumstantial evidence. Much of which was derived from FFVII’s more random and fruitless fetch quests. You know, like finding all the Turtle’s Paradise flyers and buying the house in Costa Del Sol. The house for sale, Seraphim wrote, would be essential for a young couple wanting to make their way together after the threat of Meteor has been dealt with. Like many other gamers of the day, Seraphim also believed that the sick man in Midgar also held a mysterious key to Aerith’s resurrection (“This guy are sick”).

I remember other GeoCities / Angelfire sites from that time. One of them, authored by someone who called themselves Habib, had a far simpler site that existed only to celebrate Sephiroth, his favorite villain. The webpage had a bunch of screenshots of Sephiroth in Nibelheim, looking dramatic with the village burning around him while the song Those Chosen By The Planet played on a loop. For little preteen Ailix, this was fucking epic.

Another late-nineties beauty had a truly ambitious and well-written narrative poem describing the plot of the whole game from Sephiroth’s perspective. This page also contained a small personal bio of the author, stating that Professor Hojo was her soulmate.

As someone who had lived through that era and loved every minute of it, much of my appreciation and understanding of the game was shaped by this early dialogue between fans and the game. One particular fan theory has stayed with me and, in my assessment, was proven to be at least thematically relevant to the later Final Fantasy games.

I first discovered this theory in the writings of our old friend Seraphim, which was that Cloud and Sephiroth were not the real hero and villain of FFVII: this was in fact Aerith and Jenova. This has thematic echoes in Final Fantasy X, XIII and XV. Two of those games have protagonists that don’t survive the main game (I know Tidus is in FFX-2 but I’m sticking to the base games). The other one framed characters as protagonists who neither set the plot in motion nor were able to directly effect it in the end. All three of them wrestled with the angst of pre-determination and the plight of those who witness things happening versus those who make things happen.

In FFXIII, Lightening is propped up as the main character but only Fang and Vanille have the power to effect the mainline story in the end. XV and X examine doomed martyrs and their growing bonds over those they must leave behind. I don’t think it’s reaching too far to trace the emergence of these themes to Aerith.

That Square Enix first hit upon an idea they would explore in later FF titles within FFVII does not necessarily mean that it will (or even should) be treated with reverence in a remake. In general, what works well in one situation might work better in another. If they decide to be too dismissive of the importance of Aerith’s death, though, they will have sacrificed an essential, perhaps even defining aspect of the story of FFVII. This possibility weighs on me because many fans will loudly demand an opportunity to save Aerith’s life and Square Enix has shown an uncritical tendency toward appeasement in the past.

For me, this matters as much as it does because, whether one believes that Aerith and Jenova are the real main characters or not, I believe that Aerith and Sephiroth are mirrors of each other. Somehow, after all these years, I had completely failed to gather this on my own. I’m only aware of it now because I played through the game with one of my best friends a few months ago and she pointed it out. So kudos to you, bestie (It would feel inappropriate doing anything remotely close to naming names).

Aerith and Sephiroth mirroring each other does not get in the way of who you choose to believe are the main characters….but it goes a little smoother if Aerith and Jenova are the hero and villain and Cloud a kind of “narrator”. This lends itself to both a psychoanalytical and a religious reading of the story.

Both readings start with the soul. Let us begin with Freud’s notion of the uncanny. Put simply, Freud believed that the soul was initially conceived as a second self to assuage our fear of death. Kinda like a new car to drive in when the old one breaks down. Later, though, after the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, religion lost much of the credibility it once had in the west. Yet many religious ideas continue to cast long shadows in our minds in spite of us not having any further use for them.

If one continues to believe in a soul after one no longer believes in a supernatural dimension to the world, it is tantamount to a second body killing you and taking your place. Another word for this is a doppelgänger, which according to Freud embodies the essence of the uncanny. Something uncanny looks like it might be alive but probably isn’t: it is a sense of dread over something that’s not alive exhibiting living qualities without a rational explanation.

Cloud wrestles with a doppelgänger. Do I even have to spell this out? In Final Fantasy VII, we see a second version of a familiar flashback with a vague shadow-shape in Cloud’s place. This shadow-shape eventually has a name: Zack Fair. Zack Fair was the last love of Aerith Gainsborough. Cloud’s idealized hero-worship of Sephiroth compelled him to join Shin-Ra, and Zack Fair was the protégée of Sephiroth.

In the game’s beginning, Cloud retells the story of the Nibelheim mission with himself in Zack’s place. Few things can threaten your sense of self like the possibility that you stole the “self” of someone else. The ultimate invalidation is the realization that you are the doppelgänger. When Sephiroth first reveals this to Cloud, he even includes a lie that Cloud is a botched Sephiroth clone. Not only is he a shadow of a real “self”, but he doesn’t even get a number like the other clones.

This visitation from Sephiroth comes after the death of Aerith. Cloud’s love for Aerith enabled him to cling to his identification with Zack. Aerith made Cloud’s fantasy self feel real and Sephiroth brought back the memory of the one who filled the place that Cloud wanted: a memory which made Could feel like his place was taken by a double.

Zack was both a fantasy that Cloud wished to embody and also dead before the mainline story even begins. And both Aerith and Sephiroth choose to die for a mysterious destiny beyond the grave. Aerith made Cloud’s shadow-self a convincing and comforting fantasy and Sephiroth turned the shadow-self into a frightening doppelgänger. Both Aerith and Sephiroth represent appearances of both death and fantasy for Cloud. Each one represents both a fantasy and a threat. Beyond these appearances though (and their importance for Cloud), Aerith and Sephiroth also embrace the reality of death within the world of Final Fantasy VII.

I say reality because both Aerith and Sephiroth go on to effect the plot in a disembodied state. The game treats their existence after death as real and their actions after dying as having consequences. The in-world mystical language offers other interpretations as well: in Cosmo Canyon, Bugenhagen tells the party that all biospheres rely on souls returning to a collective spiritual body (Lifestream) between lives to nurture the whole with their lived experience before moving on to their next earthly form. The holistic cycle of existence hinges on the transience of one’s specific, mortal identity. Death is not personal annihilation so much as a home-coming and a chance to share the growth of your lifetime with all other souls before moving on to the next life. This means that death is the gateway to a greater existence that’s based on interconnectedness.

In contrast, after dropping into the Lifestream \ Mako mixture in the Nibelheim reactor, does Sephiroth let go of his personal identity and move on to another? How many times do you see both Sephiroth clones and psychic representations of Sephiroth after that point? After the planned impact of Meteor, all souls will return to the Lifestream where the Sephiroth\Jenova hybrid will consume them. So far from integrating with the whole, Sephiroth wants to integrate the whole into himself.

During the very end of the game, we learn that there are only seven more days until Meteor strikes Gaia. At this point you can either enjoy the open world or go straight to the final dungeon. During the discussions made after the final raid on Midgar and the descent into the Northern Crater, there is expressed doubt as to whether or not a final confrontation with Sephiroth and Jenova is even really necessary if all rests in the hands of Holy, the force that Aerith summoned during and after her death. This is after Cloud has been forced to confront the lies he told himself, Barret’s admission to taking innocent lives in the bombing of Mako reactors and the proven failure of Shin-Ra’s huge materia bomb. To top it all off, Holy might not even step in. The final step before the ending happens after the loss of moral and psychological direction and the proven failure of a realistic plan. The steps into the final battle are taken after demoralization and in the pursuit of a final desperate hope after literally everything else has proven to be either fake or wrong. Between pushing on after accepting mortality or stalwartly clinging to the importance of your own survival and beliefs, it is clear which side the story sympathizes with.

If we wanted, we could take this into a discussion of different religious traditions that emphasize either the integration of the soul into the greater universal network (Hinduism or Buddhism) or the existence of personal identity after death (Abrahamic religions). On one hand it’s debatable whether the developers of Final Fantasy VII actually wanted to talk about *all that* but on the other…clear parallels are rarely coincidental. During the playthrough with the friend that I mentioned earlier, she even suggested that perhaps the last telepathic conversation that Cloud has with Aerith is meant to resemble the New Testament’s account of Christ’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Before moving too far past all this, I wanted to address the fact that I opened all this by saying that the fan theory that Aerith and Jenova are the real main characters of Final Fantasy VII rather than Cloud and Sephiroth. Especially since I spent so much time talking about what the appearances of death mean to Cloud as expressed by Aerith and Sephiroth. By main characters, I mean the characters who move the plot. Antagonist does something, protagonist responds, etc. One of the more polarizing aspects of the story of Final Fantasy XIII was the revelation that the relationship between Fang and Vanille supports the entire plot and the characters that we initially thought of as protagonists (Lightening & co. ) are mere witnesses.

And clearly the division between the active protagonists and antagonists and those that witness alongside them can dramatically effect what the story is about. If FFXIII’s main character was Fang, it would be a story about interpersonal love triumphing above all. If it were Vanille, it would be about the supreme importance of the greater good. Situating Lightening (and Cloud) as main characters, though, makes FFXIII (and VII) about a clash between free will, determinism and the spectrum of truth claims that our minds use to make sense of the world around us.

Final Fantasy VII is a deeply compelling story about the search for meaning, something most Final Fantasy games touch on at least a little bit. If the function of a character like Aerith or Sephiroth is going to be fundamentally changed because of pressure from fans in the upcoming remake, I hope it is done thoughtfully. Is a lot of what I was just droning about pure fan interpretation and is it bullshit to expect Square Enix to keep up with every little pet conceit of every gamer? Totally. I don’t think Final Fantasy VII Remake will be a complete failure if it doesn’t validate every fan theory and interpretation and I’ve seen a lot that makes me deeply excited to play it. I don’t think anyone who was there for the original wouldn’t be excited to inspect every little inch of every street of Midgar- something that has been teased nonstop.

Speaking of the things that strike me as promising about the remake, I must disagree with a lot of people about the multi-game format. I think this is absolutely the right way to go about remaking such a huge and nuanced game. I would not want to play a remake that is not as meticulous in its recreation as possible so I couldn’t be happier about the current plan with multiple games.

Post script: I didn’t include this earlier when I first brought up Freud because I didn’t think it contributed anything useful to the analysis, but I wanted to make it clear that I was aware of the Oedipal interpretation that is opened up with Zack being an adopted shadow-self of Cloud. In Freud’s understanding of the associative logic of the subconscious, the doppelgänger taps into the Oedipal anxieties compelling the young male to identify with the father and reject the mother. With Cloud’s hero-worship of Sephiroth, it’s clear that Sephiroth is filling the role of a male ideal for an immature and neurotic Cloud to tack his self-image onto. This would make him both a father-figure and a vessel for castration anxiety.

This also has ramifications for Cloud’s relationship with Aerith that I don’t think advance an interpretation of the story in any way that’s interesting. Potentially even misogynist or queer-phobic: you could read the whole Wall Market cross dressing sequence as being sub-textually *about* castration anxiety…which just isn’t any fun, especially since it would associatively pair the whole experience with the flamboyantly gay Wall Market men with a fear of emasculation. Especially for queer Final Fantasy fans like myself who want representation to get better instead of worse.

Dragging all that into an interpretation would be particularly depressing since our last glimpse of the Honey Bee Inn in the new remake just looked so beautiful. It reminded me of the last few dance numbers in the movie Leave It On The Floor (a neat lil movie about gay men and drag queens). Like, I legit expected to hear the Beyoncé song Sweet Dreams playing as Cloud is scooped into that dance ^^

Here is Seraphim’s site for those who are interested

http://elbryan.tripod.com/FinalFantasyVII.html

DC/Vertigo The Dreaming reboot

Yes, they’re still in the sleeves after I read them. They’re just so pretty ^^

Warning: no reservations about spoilers

A continuation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story without Neil Gaiman is both shocking and irresistible at first glance. The original Sandman run along with Sandman: Overture were all authored by Gaiman and were such a meticulous and careful body of work that it barely seems advisable to have anyone else at the helm. Even if the right perceptive and empathic author came along, the original Sandman stories unmistakably bear the stamp of Gaiman’s authorship. They just feel so much like Neil Gaiman stories that another author, however talented or well-intentioned, just wouldn’t be capable of picking up the same thread that I and so many others had lovingly followed.

To say nothing of the fact that there weren’t a whole lot of loose ends that needed tying up. At least, none that really mattered in my opinion, and Gaiman handles implication so deftly that details that were not explicitly played out before the reader are still intelligible.

(Those being things like what exactly was Loki doing, what was going on with the angels, etc)

One day I’m sure I’ll write a big fat text brick about how Gaiman’s run on The Sandman employed empty spaces and implication. That’s not this text brick, though.

So…at least in my assessment, there was no real need for a continuation. If a new story was going to be attempted, it would be about Daniel experiencing a wholly new plot, sequentially distinct from anything that happened earlier.

So I was dubious, but I couldn’t help but be reeled in by the sheer ambition of such an attempt. I also have to admit to simply wanting more of The Sandman after so many years. Overture was a very welcome development but it held no promise of things to come: simply a chance for a new reading of the base story.

As it turns out, this isn’t a Sandman continuation per se, but a reboot of a separate series that was contemporary with it, called The Dreaming. This comic involved Gaiman as a co-writer and consultant and he eventually dropped out of it altogether: it wasn’t turning out to be the sort of long running, elaborative story that he wanted so much as a series of one-off episodic plots. It did not long survive his absence.

This current incarnation of The Dreaming retains the basic concept and little else: as the name tells us, this is a story about the place rather than a specific individual. This time, the premise is being implemented in the (almost) direct aftermath of The Sandman’s ending. If not a Sandman continuation, this is at least a sequel series.

The previous Dreaming comics were driven by characters that played minor roles in the source material and so is this. Now, though, this doesn’t seem to be an adjustment in perspective that simply excludes Dream of The Endless, but a consequence of his actual absence.

The blurbs on the back of the two collected editions currently available state that Dream appears to have abdicated, after the example of Destruction and Lucifer, and that a botched love affair was a factor.

This didn’t inspire my confidence. While The Endless- such as Dream, Death, Destiny, etc. – are eternal beings, they possess distinct, individual identities that can in fact die and be “replaced”. These identities are denoted by a name separate from their function: the Dream that the series was once about is named Morpheus. Del is the personal name of Delirium of The Endless.

The old Sandman story saw the end of Morpheus as a character and a being called Daniel currently occupies the title of Dream of The Endless. Morpheus wrestled with his duties as Dream and his closeness to the inner lives of all sentient beings seemed to engender a growing need for an individual existence. He frequently had problematic romantic relationships with mortals that always ended because he could not bring himself to abandon his duties however much he wanted to.

Morpheus needed something that was psychologically impossible for him which caused him to walk into his own demise, to be replaced by a new incarnation named Daniel.

I have an edition of Sandman: Overture that contains Gaiman’s script and notes wherein he states his belief that Daniel is a fundamentally different character than Morpheus. Gaiman’s notes say that Morpheus would never approach someone in a familiar way or casually lay hands on another person, while Daniel is a warm, approachable presence who is not afraid of touching. This contrast is emphasized in Daniel and Morpheus’s speech balloons: Morpheus’s balloons are black with white letters and Daniel’s are white with black letters (both have wavy boarders).

While Gaiman has not written nearly as much material about Daniel as he has Morpheus, he clearly intended him to be a very different character. We’ve already seen Dream wrestle with his responsibilities and a growing need to be his own person. That was the story of Morpheus, which is now over.

Daniel falling into Morpheus’s rut hardly sounds like the different character Gaiman had in mind, nor is it a strong vouch for the originality of the new writers. Since only two collected editions are currently out, the overall success or failure of this cannot be judged yet. In the meantime, though, we may concern ourselves with how this new Dreaming series handles the setting and the characters that were once at the periphery.

In the first volume, Pathways and Emanations, we spend a lot of time with two older supporting characters: Lucien The Librarian and Mervyn Pumpkinhead. In Dream’s absence, Lucien has assumed temporary leadership of The Dreaming. Since Dream (embodied in Daniel) and The Dreaming have an interconnected existence, separation is catastrophic. The Dreaming is coming apart at the seams and Lucien is at his wits’ end trying to hold it together. Mervyn is also picking up a lot of slack on his own end and both feel abandoned and afraid.

We are also quickly acquainted with some new characters, including a refugee from another world named Dora who was given sanctuary in The Dreaming by Morpheus. She is British, has amnesia and will undergo a monstrous transformation when she’s in the wrong mood. We also meet some beings that are traveling from dream to dream that suddenly plop down roots halfway through the story. By roots I mean a large wooden ship 😛

Along with the structural vulnerability caused by Dream’s absence, there are a number of external pressures. Featureless, mute mannikin-like beings are pouring into The Dreaming in large numbers and an infant divinity, not so different from the Endless, is gestating in a fissure outside of Dream’s fortress.

The being that hatches from the fissure is part of a bigger, mysterious plot thread that simply isn’t finished yet. The faceless manikins, called Soggies by Mervyn, soon reveal an unfortunate weakness. Mervyn Pumpkinhead is in charge of the nuts and bolts of The Dreaming running smoothly, which is also the bedrock that many dreamers and traveling minds interact with. The Soggies get in the way without guidance so Mervyn is tasked with giving them things to do. Mervyn now has a burgeoning staff that is too numerous to govern effectively and too difficult to communicate with. Soon, he starts sounding off about the necessity of strong borders and invasive newcomers upsetting a perfectly good status quo. This goes exactly where it looks like it will.

Neil Gaiman hasn’t always been great at social commentary, but the original Sandman was never this blunt or awkward. It doesn’t compromise the integrity of Pathways and Emanations, but it is an eyesore. Luckily this use of Mervyn ends almost immediately when a new character, a nightmare called Judge Gallows, is introduced.

Nightmares have always been an interesting background detail in the world of The Sandman. In the past, Morpheus seemed to have a special passion for crafting them. They also belong to the species of dream that are actually sentient individuals, like Fiddlers’ Green, Brute, Glob, Cain, Abel, etc. Naturally, some of them are named characters, like the Corinthian and the Borghal Rantipole.

Morpheus appears to be driven by a rough idea while crafting a nightmare but the nightmare might not embody it completely at all times. The Corinthian, described by Morpheus as a “black mirror”, is designed to reflect everything about humanity that it chooses not to accept. However, the Corinthian, upon being recreated after his death, seems to have a patient and arguably benign personality.

As of the end of the Empty Shells book, Judge Gallows does not seem to have had much influence on the story that outlasts his destruction. This is the tricky part of reading things that aren’t finished yet. The real force behind the plot seems to be Dream’s disappearance, the person who accidentally forced him into it and the being that hatched in Daniel’s absence. If Judge Gallows turns out to be more than a bit character, that would be neat.

Mostly though, he seems like keeps the plot moving while the newborn deity gestates and allowing other arcs to develop. He creates a chance for Dora to recover her lost memories through forced closeness with Lucien and the sword of Destruction. This matters because Dora is the protagonist of the next book which gets into the more fundamental plot, regarding what specifically happened with Dream and what specifically is the entity that appeared in his absence.

Which brings us back to the problem of how Daniel is being handled. The Dreaming is ostensibly about the location and the characters that were in the background of The Sandman but it still uses Dream/Daniel to hold it together. Unfortunately, it also brings us back to how Daniel’s behavior looks a lot like Morpheus’s.

The unwelcome sense of repetition isn’t helped much by the prevalence of call-backs, particularly at the World’s End Inn with the different stories with different art styles and lettering. Those visual motifs are only used long enough to establish a plot point but it doesn’t go well with the lack of originality regarding Daniel.

Another possible thematic reason for the Worlds’ End callback is subversion. In the older frame story called Worlds’ End, each story was complete and would take over the foreground for its’ duration. These storytellers tell incomplete stories that cannot seize the foreground because they go in circles while more interesting stuff happens at the same time. This could be an attempt at deconstruction, signaling that the new Dreaming stories will break their consistency with The Sandman. That would be my preference, but as with so many things in these new stories, it’s too early to tell for sure.

The reason that I’m dwelling on what might be tiny details is because things that look like callbacks are rarely done on accident. Their presence alone begs you to wonder why. And the problem with things that occupy your attention that are meant to signal a break in continuity is that you inevitably wonder why not simply…break the continuity in a way that’s plainly visible?

Season of Mists, for example. That book starts in a way that barely resembles any other beginning in The Sandman and it’s simply allowed to speak for itself. I would love to be wrong about these nit-picky little worries but naturally it remains to be seen.

This reminds me of the other details that call back to commonplace motifs from The Sandman. Near the end of Pathways and Emanations, the baku from Japanese mythology that made an appearance in Dream Hunters are brought back. In Empty Shells, Dora uses the baku to sniff for Daniel’s scent trail across worlds. The search leads her to Hell, where a new demon character named Balam leads Dora and Matthew to the very bottom of the cosmos where lies the primordial serpent that surrounds the world. You know, like Jormungand. On their way to the serpent, the panels twist around until you are forced to hold the comic upside down.

Stuff like that was commonplace in The Sandman. Overture made the reader turn the book upside down a few times, used implication to guide unconventional panel progression and even had fold-out pages with events that follow the outside depicted on the inside. What I liked most about the panel experimentation were the ones that implied movement at dramatically significant moments. In Brief Lives (possibly my favorite Sandman book), there is a page that has several thin panels that are mostly empty except grass with more and more flowers in each. These panels show space behind Morpheus and, when they catch up with him, they are so thin that his body is contained in more than one of them. In these, we see that Morpheus’s hands are covered in blood and, as it drips onto the ground, it is turning into flowers.

These innovations all felt organic in the original Sandman and they often snuck up on you. The really imaginative ones were paired with jarring, unusual events and were often used to convey disorientation. The panels slowly turning upside down in Empty Shells is a bit of a one-off. In those first two books, nothing else like that happens- almost as if the script was trying it out to see how it went.

My only other thought concerns another concept first used in The Sandman (in Brief Lives, actually). Destruction tells Dream and Delirium that each of the Endless embodies both their function and it’s opposite. Destruction is also creation, Desire is also hatred and Dream is also reality. The newborn god that appears in the Dreaming- referred to erroneously as a new Endless -initially defines itself as clarity and that nothing hurts worse than to be “solved”.

The crack that this being is forming within is first found by Cain and Abel. Cain pushes his brother into it on a whim and emerges without his stutter- he even fakes the stutter a few times to keep Cain at ease. Cain himself then descends into the fissure to ask the unknown presence what ze did to Abel and if ze can change him back.

Cain introduces himself as the personification of murder itself and the new presence disagrees. Ze tells Cain that jealousy has always been at the heart of his story and reminds him that the sacrifice preferred by God was the livestock blood sacrifice of Abel. Cain was driven to kill Abel when his own sacrifice of vegetables was ignored. When the new presence says that Abel’s “hands were red long before yours” ze’s saying Abel’s murder was an act of both possessiveness and emulation.

The new center of the Dreaming says that it solves things, above all else. This implies that the new creature hatching in the absence of Dream embodies the opposite side of Dream’s coin mentioned by Destruction: reality. This encounter also has deep implications for the function of Cain and Abel within the Dreaming.

Since the beginning of The Sandman, we’ve learned that Cain lives in the House is Mysteries and Abel lives in the House of Secrets. They also hold dominion over those respective things: all mysteries belong to Cain and all secrets belong to Abel. What secrets and mysteries are within this story is touched on in a short piece in Fables and Reflections called The Parliament of Rooks.

Near the end, Abel tells Eve, Matthew and Daniel what rooks are actually doing when they form a circle around a chirping rook and then kill them. It turns out that this is a mystery and therefore belongs to Cain. Cain then kills Abel in the ineffectual and somewhat slap-stick way that he often does. (Cain frequently killed Abel in The Sandman although he never stayed dead- the brothers behaved rather like sitcom characters with Cain randomly killing Abel being a repeating gag).

Mysteries, according to Cain, may not be revealed. Abel, to whom all secrets belong, is less protective. When Abel is asked where ravens end up near the end of The Sandman, he says he doesn’t know because the answer is not a secret. Abel also goes on to ferret out secrets for Judge Gallows when he takes over the Dreaming.

This tells us that secrets may be known but that mysteries may not. The hatchling in The Dreaming embodies clarity, the opposite function that Dream embodies simultaneously with stories, and it is a clarity that abolishes mysteries and, for a while, allows secrets to be exploited.

Secrets and mysteries, it seems, are fundamental to the side of Dream that deals in stories and symbols. Stark clarity, perhaps, has no use for symbols and immediately reduces them to tangible values. This interpretation of Cain and Abel and their role within the Dreaming never occurred to me before reading these new comics and I’ll be interested to see what happens with it later, especially since, by the end of Empty Shells, the hatchling is less of an opposite of Dream than ze initially appeared to be. Especially since a few characters see a ghostly flicker of Cain’s old home, The House of Mysteries, after Abel kills him (and Cain, unlike his brother, seems to actually stay dead). As if Secrets and Mysteries need each other and one half will soon bring back the other.

If the function of Secrets and Mysteries are tied up in the eventual fate of the hatchling, I wonder how that will be impacted by the bombshell at the end of the second book where we learn that the hatchling has a symbiotic relationship with a human on life support in the Fawny Rig manor.

Vigil: The Longest Night- open beta!

As soon as Salt and Sanctuary came out I was smitten. That game captured the 50% of my brain that Bloodborne did not take over. It’s still my favorite game available for the PS Vita, and to date it looks like no follow up is planned (nor has there been any new updates from Ska Studios, the developers).

Recently though, while I was putzing around on a Salt and Sanctuary Facebook group, someone uploaded pics of a new game currently in development called Vigil: The Longest Night. The art style immediately grabbed me, and I love side-scrolling Soulsborne \ Metroidvania hybrids even if…they kinda stumbled over each other as soon as it became clear that there was a market for them.

Like, by the time Blasphemous came out, I had already been seriously hooked by both Salt and Sanctuary and Hollow Knight. Blasphemous was a perfectly good game with great level design, platforming and combat, but I just couldn’t get into it since I’d been neck deep in similar things recently.

What caught my attention about Vigil: The Longest Night though was the enthusiasm it seemed to garner among my fellow S&S fans. My appetite was also freshly whetted by a recent Symphony Of The Night play through so I couldn’t have been more stoked when I got wind of a recent open beta event. Best believe I snatched that shit up ^^

This being a demo of the beta version, I wasn’t surprised to run into a few hiccups, some of which may very well have been the fault of my machine. There was some truly aggravating collision detection with climbable/grabable surfaces. The second biggest annoyance was the lagging, which would get worse whenever I loaded a file immediately after a death and the game would get stuck whenever I got killed by the first boss.

Speaking of, the lagging made that fight unplayable for awhile. Luckily, this demo is generous with exp, enabling you to either brute force it or experiment with unlockable combat upgrades. Which isn’t such a different beginning- it reminded me of the Festering Banquet and the Sodden Knight from Salt and Sanctuary, really.

Personally, my breakthrough with boss one came when I lost patience, tried playing it like Bloodborne and got totally confrontational. As in, keep rolling past them and spam from behind. Which makes me wonder if, when Vigil is finally released, it will be the kind of game that rewards aggressiveness the way Bloodborne did, where attempting to play it safe is the quickest way to die.

After that fight, we get our first taste of familiar Meteoidvania level design. We find a locked door that separates two halves of an area we see separately at first. It was also around this point that I found that the lagging almost completely disappeared when I turned off every graphical bell and whistle in the ‘video’ menu. Which was fortunate for my nerves since that’s when the platforming ramps up…and I don’t think my sanity could survive platforming at that pace.

The art style clearly excels at creating an understated sense of relative depth across different textures and layers of the background and foreground. Up to and including facial features and skin.

As the old woman with the lantern shows us, this game also succeeds at fanciful yet uncanny fluctuations of proportion. One minute I’m reminded of The Nightmare Before Christmas, the next I’m thinking that Leila, as she descends a ladder with a full moon behind her, looks like she leapt out of something like Batman: The Animated Series or a Genndy Tartakovsky creation like Samurai Jack.

Yes I have a flaming magic pike shoved in the back of my neck, what of it?

Not that it doesn’t have its weaknesses here and there. Leila’s face and her faster leg and arm movements and sword-swings often look like PSP graphics. It just messes with my sense of immersion, is all. A single, cohesive art style would be for the best. Imagery with a frank resemblance to CGI should be kept to an absolute minimum except when something is supposed to starkly contrast with everything else.

After turning off all of the graphical options like dynamic trees and saturation and whatnot, the occasional use of CGI-looking imagery meshed a little better but was far from seamless. Leila’s facial profile and cloak still looked a little bit like they came from a PSP, but the tentative steps into 3D made the second boss fight both eerie and gorgeous. The shrieking monstrosity’s girth and arms seem like they’re about to pop through the screen occasionally.

In fact, with all of the graphical enhancements turned off in the pause menu, Vigil: The Longest Night has a very memorable beauty. Faces often have an offbeat look reminiscent of fairly tales. The 2.5D graphics shine the best, though, inside of houses and caverns.

In fact, everything really starts to go uphill very fast near the end of the demo. When you make contact with Maye Village you find that, unlike many other Soulsborne protagonists, Leila is actually well-known in her town and seems to have specific relationships that we get to modestly explore in dialogue. We encounter stories about a young couple and their recent elopement. A suspicious and pedantic professor keeps mentioning the relevance of mythology and then we pass through a small clique of eerie and serious looking women, raving about a “DEITY”. Shortly after that, we’re in an underground cave with this shit going on:

The music that was available on the demo also stood out well. In the menu screen and the opening level area I particularly liked the use of music boxes and oboes. The cemetery music was another highlight. Nice change of pace with the strumming guitar and the keyboard. Both the music and the sound design partake in the general upward swing near the demo’s end.

Other than some glitches that I’m sure will be patched well before the game officially launches, my only real complaint are some awkward English translations that make some of the dialogue in the town of Maye feel a little wooden. And that’s probably gonna see some attention before launch as well. I like how Leila is not a player-insert like protagonists of Dark Souls, S&S and Bloodborne (even the Knight in Hollow Knight is something of a silent enigma that the player can project themselves onto…in spite of having very character-specific lore that stops them from being an “everybug”).

I mean I do appreciate ambiguity in story-telling, especially if it allows other strengths of the given medium to shine through. But we’re all very familiar with Hidetaka Miyazaki’s brand of uncertainty and Leila is just a breath of fresh air. Really, I can’t freaking wait for this game to actually be playable in its entirety.

More on Mr. Robot

Content warning: discussion of pedophilia, sexual abuse in general and sexism.

To say nothing of massive spoilers.

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Evidently I can’t shut up about this 😛

In my last post about this show, I discussed what I believe to be some of Mr. Robot‘s central, overarching themes, mostly regarding its nature as a politically-oriented psychological drama. There are some finer points that I just didn’t get around to, though.

While roughing out what I wanted to write here, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to focus on Mr. Robot‘s discussion of God or masculinity. There is a third possibility, though, that captures both of those topics and relates them back to the show’s main structural feature of an inside and an outside half. That encapsulation is simply power.

In eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes, Elliot returns from his “Word Up Wednesday” dream to find himself hospitalized after a brutal attack in prison. Elliot’s voice-over says “Masters. We all have them. Every relationship is a power struggle. Some of us need to be controlled.”

How often, in Mr. Robot, does this turn out to be true? We might start by thinking of the ones for which it is not. Or at least the ones that don’t obviously look like it.

I actually can’t think of any relationship portrayed in Mr. Robot that has no power dynamics at all. Off the top of my head, I think you could argue that Dominique and Darlene are close to being benign in spite of the power that separates them, as well as Whiterose and her lost lover. (And yes I get that Domlene is not frankly romantic or even sexual beyond a calculated one night stand- we’ll get to all that later)

Are Qwerty and Elliot in a power-free relationship? Which one of them is in charge of whose container? (“Only one thing you can do for a brother in a fish bowl…MOVE ME TO A GODDAMN WINDOW!!”)

Speaking of Elliot and relationships, this is a pretty good time to talk about the scene that tugs on my heartstrings every single time I see it.

Elliot is lying in bed thinking of something Leon told him, about visualizing a world worth fighting for. “How would my fairy tale unfold? Would I finally get close to the ones I deeply care for? See the ones I love achieve true happiness? Make amends to those I’ve unfairly wronged? Maybe this future includes people I never would have dreamt I’d ever get close to. A future that’s not so lonely. Even you would be there.”

While Elliot has conditioned himself to his own toxic isolation and suspicion, he can’t help but yearn for a world with no divisions and unconditional good will. In other words, relationships that are not power struggles.

In fact, the frustration created between his genuine alienation and his misguided solution can be seen in that Mr.Robot, a facet of himself, is constantly attempting to deceive and manipulate him. It can also be seen in Elliot’s professed altruism: whenever he cyber-stalks anyone, psychologically tortures anyone or does things like trick an addict into relapsing, he is always doing it for the common good.

Elliot’s frustration is visible in the warring factions of his mind and his determination to do good even if it means being the 1 to everyone else’s 0. If “(e)very relationship is a power struggle” and everyone has a master, then one must be a master to effect anything, either for good or ill.

Is that every relationship in this show, though? Look at Gideon and his husband. Oh wait never mind- in season one, his husband tells him he loves him and he’s grateful to wake up next to him. In season two, his husband leaves him as soon as Gideon is falsely implicated in the Five/Nine hack.

Darlene and Cisco? I mean, Darlene calls Cisco the love of her life, but most of the time she treats him like a resource that requires a bit of emotional pressure to keep pliable.

I suppose there is Elliot and Shayla. Except Shayla dies when Elliot tries to take on Vera and loses….while Vera is using her as a bargaining chip. Whiterose eventually gets involved with Grant, but Grant is still a Dark Army foot soldier who lays down his life when Whiterose tells him to.

Before Dominique ends up in bed with Darlene, she is investigating Darlene as a possible domestic terrorist and later keeps Darlene’s interrogation footage for spank bank. Also Dominique has several nightmare scenarios spring from internet hookups or blind dates (including a literal nightmare).

If we bring up Tyrell and Joanna Wellick, we might as well get to the point. Not only are all relationships a power struggle in Mr. Robot, but a central aspect of the power play is the ability of one partner to completely ghost the other.

When Joanna first met Tyrell, she told him to fuck a woman with earrings she wanted and to steal them for her. He succeeded, and Joanna knew she wanted him.

Whenever we’re allowed to see Tyrell and Joanna’s domestic life in season one, it appears to be entirely structured around Joanna giving orders and Tyrell obeying them. Tyrell is frustrated when, under Joanna’s direction, he tries and fails to seduce Sharon Knowles, the wife of a professional rival. When he gets his second bite at the apple, he murders Sharon, evidently in the heat of the moment. Joanna, being pregnant, self-induces labor to get Tyrell out of a police interrogation in their home.

After giving birth, she tells Tyrell that he is no longer a man she wants to be married to, and if he wants to remain in “this family”, he will “fix this”. Not only was Joanna’s original plan for sabotage thrown to the wind, but Tyrell now has to solve the problem of a murder investigation over an act he probably can’t even explain to himself. Electing to keep his eye on the ball, he goes back to targeting his professional rivals by collaborating with Mr. Robot on the Five/Nine hack. In the process, his manic loyalty shifts from Joanna to Mr. Robot / Elliot.

Everything about these early exchanges between Joanna and Tyrell permeate all other relationships in the story. Gideon gets dumped as soon as he gets in legal trouble, Ollie hides his black-mail driven sabotage of Allsafe as an extension of his cheating and Vera physically and economically enslaved Shayla.

And Elliot jumped out of a window to avoid his pedophile father. But how does Elliot first explain the event to himself via Mr. Robot in season one? He says his father pushed him out of the window because Elliot told the family he had leukemia against his will. What does Mr. Robot (who is modeled on Elliot’s father) accuse Elliot of before “pushing” him off the boardwalk? Breaking his word. Of not being sufficiently loyal. In this exchange with his own alternate personality, Elliot frames the event as a punishment for his own ethical failure. Elliot, at this point, blames himself for what he feels was a disowning.

The biggest trauma in Elliot’s life has supported tension on two fronts- an inside acceptance that is intolerable and dangerous versus outside abandonment that is suffocating and alienating. The alienation of rejection, in the long run, turns out to be the lesser of two evils and so becomes his state of normalcy.

Therefore, all relationships are power struggles and the world is made of 1’s and 0’s. Sure enough, the relationships between Elliot’s personalities are power plays that echo the same power plays outside of himself.

And on the outside, this theme is no less present. Darlene, when faced with an fsociety gopher that’s on the brink of death, would rather leave him to die than risk the potential exposure of bringing him to the hospital. She says that there are casualties in every war, that the man is a soldier and knew what he was getting into. As for the Dark Army…Elliot says in season three “they didn’t kill us. That tends to be how they deal with disagreements.”

We even get a kind of reductio ad absurdum of this with Whiterose. Literal manipulation of time to make it so everyone survives and is happy, even if they are currently dead, can justify any measure taken in its pursuit. Whiterose embodies the whole principle of using others for the eventual good of all. If literally no one can die in her endgame and anyone currently dead will be alive, then in the mind of Whiterose it is literally impossible to do wrong in the pursuit of her project.

The final three episodes of the series show a full confrontation with this, wherein many other themes converge. And yes, we’re still talking about God, masculinity and power.

When I first saw those final episodes, the whole source of tension for me was whether or not this was simply going to turn out to be exactly what it looked like. Angela and Philip Price are both alive again and appear to be enjoying a rather normal father-daughter relationship. Kinda? Maybe? Normie Elliot says “Your dad sure likes to drink.” And he does seem a little compulsive about it when we see him on camera. And where is Darlene, anyway? Did some Danish person who shall remain nameless get to keep the daughter she adopted out?

But anyway, for me the stakes were higher than whether or not Sam Esmail was going to make a prompt genre change to science fiction in the final episodes. If Whiterose’s machine had turned out to be an unambiguous success, where does that leave everything we saw before hand?

Would it have been a simple fairy tale ending where everyone got what they wanted in the end? If the whole story up until that point wasn’t true anymore, it becomes functionally identical to being a figment of Normie Elliot’s imagination.

(Sorry I can’t resist calling the alternate timeline Elliot “Normie Elliot”. I saw someone online use that name and it just kinda stuck in my head)

What are we to think of a new Elliot with none of the outward signs of the life he once knew? Did the window event not happen? If not, does that mean his father simply continued molesting him forever while Elliot never said or did anything?

That was the real possibility that haunted me as I watched part one of the finale.

When we see part two, when our Elliot is able to see and react to this world, his immediate panic around his father made a world of sense.

In any event, Elliot is now a successful powerhouse at his job and is about to marry Angela, his constant unrequited love. Whiterose has openly transitioned and is a famous philanthropist. No one’s parents died to construct a nuclear-powered gateway between timelines.

The loss that provided motivation for Elliot and Angela to target E Corps is now gone, thanks to the architect behind the project that caused that loss. It seems manifestly clear, for a moment at least, that Whiterose has undone the wrongs that she and E Corps are responsible for.

If not a reductio ad absurdum of the ends justifying the means, this at least epitomizes the idea.

Along with the sucker-punch of momentary uncertainty as to whether or not this is real (if you’re seeing it for the first time), it may also sink in that this idea has been discussed at some length in the third season.

Particularly, through Angela, who goes above and beyond her directives to ensure that stage 2 happens. In spite of Elliot/Mr. Robot’s homicidal idealism, it seems to me that Angela emotes her grief over her lost mother and her desire for justice more clearly than Elliot. Her mother’s death by cancer through the Washington Township power plant is mentioned more than once in her early efforts for the class action lawsuit. Elliot, on the other hand, has mixed emotions about his father and his motivation is largely ideological.

Even if we, the viewers, are never explicitly shown what Angela learned after Whiterose says that she “(doesn’t) want (her) proof” and that she “wants (her) belief”, we are still shown enough. We are shown Angela changing from someone driven by justice for an irreparable wrong to someone who believes that Whiterose is capable of literally fixing anything. Including death. And that Angela believes that no price is too high for Whiterose’s success.

Or at least…believes as much as she can. Or perhaps the psychological state called ‘belief’ can only carry one so far in direct opposition to their senses and logic. After the coordinated bombings, Angela is reduced to a neurotic wreck, rewinding and watching footage of the falling buildings over and over again. She is constantly telling Darlene that “everyone can come back” over and over again, possibly to reassure herself as much as Darlene.

This event happens while Mr. Robot is constantly deceiving Elliot while reassuring him that he is finishing their revolution, that he is doing the hard work that Elliot cannot. Whiterose and Angela are a mistress-slave pair, in which the mistress is given license by her good intentions. The same is true for Mr. Robot and Elliot.

Angela attempts to accept her role to the letter even to the detriment of her sanity, whereas Elliot fights his slave status every step of the way. These two struggles happen while Angela is subtly keeping Elliot in the dark about how Tyrell and Mr. Robot are solving the problem of his daytime subversion at E Corps.

Completing the trio of overburdened subordinates is Tyrell Wellick. Tyrell seems to yearn for a single dominant personality in his life to attach himself to. Late in season one, we see him shift the center of his universe from Joanna to Mr. Robot. As fervent as this transition is, it is not without angst.

He repeatedly says that he and Elliot (meaning Mr. Robot) are destined to be gods together, prompted in part by a misfired bullet which he takes as divine sanction. In fact, Tyrell’s stretch in the cabin and his conversation with Mr. Williams have the flavor of an Old Testament trial of faith. Nonetheless, he still cherishes his family role as a husband to Joanna and a father to their son. He repeatedly reads about her apparent infidelities online and recites a Deuteronomy quote to Irving with a creepy absence of context (“One who has been emasculated by cutting or crushing may not enter the assembly of the Lord.”)

Tyrell very nearly breaks faith with Elliot before being reigned in by Agent Santiago. One may only conjecture on how this might have effected Tyrell’s feelings of sacrifice and predestination toward his collaboration with Mr. Robot, but we can safely assume it added gravity. Continuing with the scenarios that feel like quasi-Biblical tests of faith, Mr. Robot once gave Tyrell a gun to protect his revolution from absolutely anyone, and Tyrell is shocked to find this may even include Mr. Robot’s own host body: Elliot.

Like Abraham poised to kill his own son, Tyrell’s god tests his faith by his ability to take orders sight-unseen and carry them out to perfection. The scene where Tyrell shoots Elliot is also powerful for bringing us back to what the show presents as a central weapon that masters use against slaves: absence.

Here I think we have most of the pertinent information to begin systematically exploring Mr. Robot‘s thematic treatment of power.

If my laundry list of character relationships earlier seemed a little…obsessive, it’s because I find the ubiquity of alienation and power games in this show almost…weirdly pervasive. I began to realize this when Dominique had her nightmare about the internet-hookup turning out to be a Dark Army assassin. I mean, I happen to have BPD, so I personally am not unfamiliar with having abandonment issues up the wazoo and being paranoid; it just seems like it’s either a structural or maybe even a genre choice in Mr. Robot.

The specific genre it reminds me of is a certain kind of film about fascism. A lot of them come from the seventies but the type itself isn’t exclusive to that decade. I’m thinking of The Conformist, Salo: or, the 120 Days of Sodom and Max.

The Conformist is a character study about a man named Marcello, whose life-long avoidance of intimacy due to psychological trauma makes him uniquely suited to be a member of a fascist secret police force in WWII-era Italy. Eventually, Marcello is tasked with assassinating an old mentor of his named Quadri.

Salo is an adaptation of a Marquis De Sade novel, which sets the story, similarly, in WWII-era Italy. It documents the final, objectified and commodified days of a collection of civilians rounded up to be used as sex slaves until their eventual murders. The captors are perpetually frustrated by their inability to derive any satisfaction from their harem. At first their sadism appears to be a sexual experiment but later turns into true fury and desperation as pleasure eludes them, until they are wearing bondage gear and cross-dressing with looks of dark, brooding rage on their faces.

Lastly, Max is a fictional historical drama about a hypothetical meeting between Adolf Hitler and a Jewish art dealer, both of whom harbor trauma from the grisly battle of Ypres during WWI. The two men bond over their shared suffering and slowly develop an awkward yet earnest confidence in each other. Along with their physical and psychological war-time injuries, both men also struggle with alienation in their private lives, particularly how to re-integrate into a society of people with whom they cannot share understanding of the experiences they endured at the hands of the state.

Max Rothman, the fictional Jewish art dealer, has lost an arm and can no longer paint. He goes into art dealing, seduces a woman with an amputee fetish and creates a theatrical, non-linear art installation. Hitler fails to take to Rothman’s post-war pragmatism, feels emasculated by Rothman’s success with the ladies and spirals into a pit of rage wherein he fails to produce art but discovers a gift for propagandist speeches and architecture.

That Mr. Robot has thematic similarities to these films is not surprising. And I’m definitely here for any work of art that intelligently attacks fascism. In the improbable event that these similarities are intentional, I would gladly applaud the ambition of picking up threads commonly used in WWII films.

At any rate, an artist worth their salt knows the conventions and history of their craft and Sam Esmail has acknowledged the influence of Psycho, Taxi Driver and Fight Club. Two of those films have protagonists that are deeply alienated from society and all three involve dark, dangerous explorations of a single character’s mind. Two of those films have characters with psychological personas that function as characters themselves.

However, I was repeatedly reminded of the three WWII films in particular. And the association doesn’t strike me as far-off. All three of those WWII films have male characters that struggle with trauma or neuroses that stop them from connecting with society, all three deal with betrayal against or at the hands of power and all three use the act of seeing or being seen as an essential plot element.

All three films also look at these themes of alienation from power through the lens of male identity, intentionally or not. Rather like Elliot, Marcello was sexually victimized as a child. As an adult, Marcello always feels as if his role as a husband is not as close to his true self as his role as a spy. He even encourages his wife to have an affair for an espionage goal. Rothman’s gradual recovery and Hitler’s failure to thrive are both passively expressed in terms of sexual success or failure. Salo is initially presented as a male sexual fantasy of supreme dominance over the women and men they desire.

This may be a good place to clear something up: when I say that Mr. Robot discusses male identity, I don’t think it’s necessary to consider any evidence outside of the show itself. Not unlike the three WWII films. The show hinges on an inside/outside structure with Elliot representing the inside. With the exception of Tyrell, female characters like Darlene or Dominique are our main viewpoints of the outside.

What’s more is that female characters are often presented according to male anxieties. Joanna Wellick represents the sexually desirable woman who will only pair with the strongest male and Angela, to Elliot, is an object of perpetually unrequited love. Krista, Elliot’s therapist, is a comforting maternal presence in his life that plays to the lack created by his abusive mother. Tyrell and Joanna perhaps represent the most gendered example. After his murder of Sharon Knowles, Tyrell tells Joanna “you pushed me to this” and Joanna tells him “if you want to remain a part of this family, you’ll fix this”.

Typically, these male fears represent either a real or imagined threat of abandonment or rejection. Even Whiterose, as unconventional as she is, represents a kind of threatening absence: the loss of context made possible by the uncertainty of your mind and the minds of others.

I know this attitude is far from universal but in my opinion this does not make Mr. Robot sexist. All it means is that Sam Esmail is a man writing from a man’s point of view. All artists work with what they have and that, in and of itself, is perfectly fine. And anyway, in this specific case, the prominence of a male perspective does not stop Mr. Robot from having compelling, three-dimensional female characters like Whiterose, Darlene and Dominique.

And yes, I realize I have rose-colored glasses when it comes to Whiterose. God I love that character 💕

Many of these male anxieties- an unloving mother, a wife who might leave you if you show weakness and an idealized woman who will never want you -revolve around conditional worthiness. More specifically, the fear of conditional worthiness.

In my previous entry about Mr. Robot, I wrote at some length about how Elliot is the male point of view on the “inside” and Tyrell is the male point of view on the “outside”. Both of these men are tortured by the specter of conditional worthiness and it shows in their behavior.

Elliot holds the whole world at length and will only deal with it through a persona modeled after his father (Mr. Robot). Tyrell is a perfectly submissive male who will do anything to meet the conditions set for his validation. Both men assuage these anxieties through fantasies of active prowess and capability. Tyrell constructs his appearance to either intimidate or seduce and Elliot’s skill as a hacker is the main way he experiences power over others- power that he exercises with or without consent. The fantasy playing over and over again on a loop to occupy Elliot’s submerged true self revolves around an imaginary marriage to Angela.

These gendered characterizations are not reductive though. The division between outside and inside is the central plot device in Mr. Robot and much of Elliot’s arc concerns his struggle for freedom- not just against a corrupt society but the psychological echoes of that society created within him. The show even ends with the retiring of the defensive Mastermind persona and the emergence of the real Elliot.

In other words, Mr. Robot is about escape and transcendence. That Elliot’s master-slave world of 1’s and 0’s is expressed only through Mr. Robot and the Mastermind is cause for optimism. Whiterose, more of a 1 than any other character, cannot stop Elliot’s struggle for freedom even with Elliot’s temporary belief in her absolute power to magic any problem away. The most compelling and irresistible power still cannot destroy context and the wider world.

This is also what makes the show’s discussion of God more than just a few random lines of dialogue. The treatment of God frequently reveals itself to be a symbol of transcendence. Ray, the warden of the prison Elliot lands in during season two, compares the voices in Elliot’s head to the voice of God heard by Moses. The leader of the prison Bible study also mistakes Elliot’s conversations with Mr. Robot for conversations with God.

The show positions E Corps as an unambiguous villainous force and, while the show grows suspicious and critical of fsociety in general, fsociety is never actually vilified by Sam Esmail. E Corps is morally black, fsociety is gray, Elliot is the hero and Mr. Robot is the anti-hero. Mr. Robot has his dark and unsympathetic moments, like Vegeta in early Dragon Ball Z, but by season four he has almost turned completely benign as Elliot grows into a darker character.

Mr. Robot, as a character, explores a moral spectrum and the show always uses E Corps as a villainous foil. These details lend credence to the remarks of Ray and the prison pastor. Ray says that Elliot’s voices could either be an illness or divinity and the show doesn’t contradict this.

The thematic equivalence between God and transcendence is also upheld by the character that mentions God the most: Tyrell. For a man that wants, so badly, to be someone, he is totally unlike anyone. Tyrell wants to serve someone perfectly yet is totally unpredictable. He is obsessed with social-climbing, yet readily joins fsociety at first and later moves on to the Dark Army. Mr. Robot has characters that are frankly LGBT (Whiterose, Dominique, Gideon, etc. ) without pussyfooting around with any “queer coding” nonsense, yet Tyrell’s sexuality defies any obvious classification.

Tyrell yearns for the definition of belonging while defying all definition. His last definite, non-delusory on-screen appearance, nearly resembles an alien abduction. He wanders off into the woods, approaches the source of a strange, repetitive sound, and is bathed in blue light. I mean…presumably, Tyrell just died of a bullet wound out in the woods in season four. No other clear possibility is really provided.

But…since we get so used to Elliot being an unreliable narrator, we get so used to seeing and hearing weird shit that we might not immediately question weird shit that happens outside of Elliot’s mind. So…while Tyrell wandered off with an untreated gunshot wound and probably died for that reason, we cannot actually know. And that same repetitive mystery noise appears in Elliot’s dive into his subconscious in the final episodes. Both God and the character that is most interested in God represent the presence of the genuine outside, beyond anyone’s subjective definition.

This wraps up the majority of thoughts that I couldn’t work into my first Mr. Robot analysis and it’s definitely been a long and winding road. If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Seriously. I know this is probably not my best writing but I just had to get this stuff out of my system. And yes I’m perfectly aware that I probably sounded like Leon on one of his Seinfeld or Fraiser monologues 😛