Joe Biden has claimed that he wants to bring morality back to the Presidency after the ethical abandonment of Donald Trump. He said this frequently on the campaign trail in 2020 and, during a closed-door meeting with civil rights leaders after his election, argued the point loudly.
In 2020, Biden was running against a candidate who could make the point for him simply by virtue of comparison. To his credit, Joe Biden has rolled back several pieces of anti-trans and anti-LGBT legislation imposed during the Trump administration. Perhaps naturally, the social conservative base that Trump was playing to with those policies are attempting to take stock- to find out what they are capable of under the new Presidency.
This, for a morality candidate, could be an opportunity to make good on that claim. Especially since so much of Biden’s political momentum was borrowed from Barack Obama by association. Now that Biden has profited from his comparison to Trump, however, he needs to start thinking how to build on his comparison to Obama.
This also could be a massive opportunity for Biden to validate his claims of being a moral reformer. In 2008, Obama ran and won on a negative comparison to George W. Bush. Repeatedly on the campaign trail, Obama promised to end our Middle Eastern occupation and close the Guantanamo Bay military detention center.
To Biden’s credit, he has recently made overtures toward closing Guantanamo Bay. His current plan for this involves handing over the remaining detainees to foreign governments and transferring whomever remains to American supermax prisons. While this is a relative step in the right direction, it also brings us to the moral crisis of the Democratic Party.
In a word: equivocation. Saying one thing, doing another and pretending that what you did matches or satisfies the original claim. After Obama was elected, America got interpretive about our Middle Eastern occupation. Mainstream news outlets started saying it was a bad idea to leave before establishing a Western-style democracy, which enabled us to set our own receding goal post for withdrawal. Guantanamo disappeared from the talking-head radar almost completely and warrants are issued for Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. The Feds sic’d their thugs on those three for exposing Obama-era military attacks on civilians- including the “double tap”, when a pilot or drone circled back to bomb the emergency first responders.
Even the slaughter of civilians by the American military was somehow whitewashed by upper-middle class faux-leftist popular opinion. Fortunately for Biden, even this could be amenable to reparation. The Icelandic journal Stundin recently ran a story about Sigurdur Thordarson, a key source of the sexual assault charges against Assange, who now admits to fabricating these claims. Moreover, Thordarson was once again given the formal status of a witness against Assange in 2019 by the Department of Justice under the Trump Administration. This was while Thordarson was incarcerated for multiple sexual assaults against minors.
Alexandersson and Jonsson, the authors of the June 26th Stundin article, wrote that American officials updated the indictment against Assange in a London Magistrate Court. The legal entanglement between Assange and Manning could regain lost ground if Assange were guilty of felony-level crimes in Iceland. Kellen S. Dwyer, the deputy of Trump’s Attorney General appointee William Barr, offered Thordarson immunity from any crimes he admitted to in his testimony against Assange. Nor would any such admissions be shared with any other law enforcement agency. Thordarson now admits that he never had any position of standing within WikiLeaks nor was he ever instructed by anyone therein (let alone Assange) to do anything illegal.
With this now being a matter of public record, consider the opportunity that Joe Biden now has. Consider the moral contrast with Trump that got Biden elected- especially with Trump’s open hostility toward the American press. If Biden were to pardon Assange and Snowden and cease any legal machinations against them and Manning, imagine the support he would galvanize. Right now, we exist in an era where Neera Tanden’s confirmation is thrown off because she said mean thingson Twitter and not because she punched a journalist or fantasized out loud about seizing Libya’s oil as compensation for our military presence there. Being mean on the internet is treated like a more serious wrongdoing than actual war crimes. If Biden unconditionally pardoned Manning, Assange and Snowden, he will have set the moral foundation for a withdrawal from our Middle Eastern occupations.
By legitimizing Snowden, Manning and Assange as whistleblowers, he would be elevating the moral seriousness of war crime which would be the ideal set up to a full withdrawal. He would also alleviate some of the anxieties of leftists like myself who fear a return to the equivocation and apathy of the Obama era.
There would be no better way to differentiate himself from his former running mate than to cease the persecution of whistleblowers that Obama initiated. He would be sending a message that his would be a presidency of real change and real hope, instead of those words as kitschy slogans on a red and blue, pseudo-Warhol campaign image.
Joe Biden and the Democratic Party need to ask themselves what they want their legacy to be in the wake of Trump. The American left sees the Democratic Party as opportunistic and dismissive of their values. We feel like we are trapped between war-profiteering cultural reactionaries and manipulators. Leftists in America feel like the Democratic Party keeps claiming to share our values while insisting that they’ll set thought to deed in just a little while. Just a little while has been happening for over a decade.
Obama promised to end the militaristic puppeteering in other countries before he got elected…and afterward, somehow got the comfortable, complacent network TV demographic to embrace the proselytizing of Western democracy. Formerly, the moral justification for the Vietnam War. Biden wrote, in the introduction to Sarah McBride’s autobiography that trans rights are now at the frontlines of the Civil Rights movement. This last Pride month, he had many flowery remarks to share about the urgency to stop violence against trans women. There have already been suicide attempts in the Arkansas Children’s Hospital following the prompt cessation of hormone replacement therapy. Mary Bentley, an Arkansas Republican Representative, recently threw her weight behind a bill that would protect educators who wish to persistently misgender and dead name trans youth.
This is a mental health issue that has long suffered in mainstream opinion. It is difficult to communicate the hardship this inflicts to a cisgendered public. I could unload a ton of personal stories but it wouldn’t advance my point at all. This is an experience that teaches trans people that our feelings and mental health count less than everyone else’s. It is an experience that has taught many of us that, no matter how civil things become, we will never truly belong anywhere.
That is the depth of pain and alienation Biden would be addressing if his White House began an uncompromising reversal of the transgender policies of the Trump era. Many of us, perhaps for the first time, would begin to wonder what it would be like to have a president who was also our president.
If Biden’s claims of enacting a morally bold Administration are sincere, then now is the moment to prove it.
Update, 7/5/21: We have just left our biggest military base in Afghanistan. Credit where credit is due.
Numbers added for ease of navigation. If you want to go straight to my interpretation, scroll down to 5. What comes before that is my analyses of relevant sources and why I make the connections I do.
Marilyn Manson’s Triptych is an important work of postmodern musical storytelling.
“Theater” would have made that sentence less cluttered than “storytelling”, if less firmly defensible. Nonetheless, an argument could be made.
A concept album is not (necessarily) as esoteric or pretentious as the name may sound. Many concept albums are composed of nothing more than consistent lyrical and musical themes. This approach was employed by David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Pink Floyd frequently (though not exclusively).
On the other end of the spectrum are albums that tell a literal story, like Tommy by The Who or the body of work that Emilie Autumn may soon incorporate into an actual work of musical theater (Opheliac, the 4 O’Clock EP and Fight Like A Girl).
Marilyn Manson has frequently voiced his admiration for Bowie and, in particular, Bowie’s early seventies glam-rock material. On our concept album metric, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars are closer to thematic concept albums than narrative concept albums. Yet they contain flourishes of imaginative, fictional events like aliens and global extinction. At the very least, Bowie’s glam trilogy experiments with narrative storytelling without going there in a literal sense.
This is the middle ground where we find Marilyn Manson’s Triptych. This body of work consists of three albums: Holy Wood(In the Shadow of the Valley of Death), Mechanical Animals and Antichrist Superstar. Each one contains distinct lyrical imagery with a small degree of overlap. If we listen to one of them from beginning to end, we will hear about characters like Jack, Omega, Coma White and the Worm. If one confines themselves to the lyrics, these names are usually contextualized as proper nouns.
The context for each phrase remains consistent enough for the proper noun status to be noticeable. At the same time, there is usually enough bluntly obvious or literal subject matter to have a single song make sense on it’s own. In a casual listening, this can convey social commentary with a little bit of word-play. An album-length listening will make the fictional characters and events difficult to not notice, though.
Please don’t think that I mean that the social commentary is a mere “hook” to generate interest with the narrative devices being the “important part.” The simultaneity of the different levels of meaning actually gives the fictional/poetic story the credibility it needs to be accessible and interesting. More so than it would have been if the Triptych was an outright literal story.
This brings us to the “postmodern” part. The simultaneity of the social commentary and the poetic bells and whistles gives them an energy-exchange that is a lot like the exchange between observation and emotion. In fact, the character names and non-literal events usually have an emotional framing. Wormboy on Antichrist Superstar places this dynamic in the foreground.
The object of critique is apparent: vague, simplistic and abstract ideals are used by institutions to control and misdirect. Even the vagueness and the abstraction serve such a purpose: if the ideals of an orthodoxy lack the complexity and detail of lived experience, than lived experience can feel like it is just in the way.
Lyrics like “When you get to Heaven / You will wish you’re in Hell…when will you realize you’re already here” state this plainly, but the lyrics also contain less simple emotional dynamics. The more emotional lyrics also benefit from the successive atmospheric build of the running order of the songs until that point.
Antichrist Superstar is divided into three separate song suites. The second song suite begins with a mysterious, sudden, painful event in the first two songs. The third song in the suite is a visceral, blood-letting reaction to what just happened. Wormboy is the fourth song in the suite, immediately after the blood-letting of Deformography.
Little Horn, Cryptorchid and Deformography can be reasonably interpreted as the emotional low point at that part of the album (before the next low comes in the third suite). So after this visceral trauma, next comes Wormboy.
Early lyrics of the song imply an attempt by the speaker to distance themselves from their own spiraling rage: “So watered down / Your feelings are turned to mud / Love everybody has destroyed the value of / All hate has got me nowhere.” This is also an explicit return to the discussion of binary morality from The Beautiful People. The Beautiful People described alpha-beta, binary ethics as a terrifying and oppressive status quo. Wormboy describes alpha-beta ethics as the source of an inescapable gridlock that offers no satiation and is more trouble than it’s worth.
The succession of different moods within Antichrist Superstar make the emotional attitude of Wormboy more compelling than the speaker’s final, desperate bid for rationality. This furnishes a good example about how the context of the whole album creates different layers of meaning, but the importance of successive “moods” leads us to the reason why the label ‘triptych’ is even appropriate for this body of work.
It also leads us to why I used such a fat, clunky, unappealing word like “postmodern” in the first sentence of this entry. The succession of moods within the Triptych all have a sequential relationship with each other. Different moods that follow a sequential logic, in and of themselves, do not constitute a literal narrative: each one is compelling even without the whole. Yet the sequential order, when experienced from beginning to end, creates the feeling of sequential events or experiences. Events experienced by a single perspective that sequentially lead into other events is one of the defining characteristics of a story.
This is why it is so easy to listen to one of the Triptych albums and get a small, nagging feeling that there is something cinematic just under the surface. Any given song from the Triptych has an accessible emotional center and usually some kind of social commentary. These lucid “hooks” of content then lead deeper into the understated context.
So. The actual word ‘triptych.’ It’s a set of three paintings that, when placed side by side, make up a single panorama. Each third is also, potentially, self-sufficient. If there is a linear, traditional story in this, it fits within three simultaneous and different perspectives.
The word also implies that two of those pieces may fit in to a third. This third would then contain points of departure for the two others. This third, for our purposes, is Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death). Within the story implied by the successive moods subsuming each other, Holy Wood contains two opportunities for a perspective shift.
This is where we get into the role of Manson’s authorial intent. Normally, I hesitate to give authorial intent too much credit. A well-crafted work of art should be comprehensible in and of itself. If it needs a SparkNotes guide to make sense, than that is a failure of the artist. Especially since the designation of ‘Triptych’ implies multiple, simultaneous levels of meaning.
Nonetheless, Manson himself offered a simple guideline during a fan Q&A before the release of Holy Wood(In the Shadow of the Valley of Death). It is not a terribly specific guideline but I think it bears mentioning. After all, the designation of these three albums as a single body of work called the Triptych was coined by Manson himself.
During the Q&A, Manson stated that his Triptych film project would adhere closer to Antichrist Superstar than Holy Wood. Holy Wood was then envisioned to be more of a context source for the film. He also said that the arc of Omega from Mechanical Animals would be part of the story contained within Holy Wood.
If the film would have bore a closer resemblance to the arc of Antichrist Superstar while the album Holy Wood would depict more of a set-up to that story, than we can draw a few conclusions. Manson also stated that, for a linear listening order, Holy Wood would come first, then Mechanical Animals and Antichrist Superstar would mark the ending.
With all this in mind, it makes sense to think that Antichrist Superstar proceeds directly from the end of Holy Wood. Yet popular wisdom among the Marilyn Manson fan community holds that the Holy Wood-Mechanical–Antichrist sequence is literal and canonical. Nick Kushner, who made analyzing the Triptych his archival labor of love on the Nachtkabarett, entertained the idea that Adam (the Holy Wood protagonist) attempted suicide in Count To Six and Die (The Valley). This failed attempt would then lead to the creation of Omega as a psychological alter ego.
I believe Kushner was on to something with this interpretation, but I do not agree with his sequencing of events. Manson’s statement that the appearance of Omega happens within Holy Wood and his remarks on his film idea point to a simpler possibility.
Holy Wood contains four song suites: In The Shadow, The Androgyne, Of Red Earth and The Fallen. If you’ve seen the cover of Mechanical Animals, one of those names will jump out at you.
Both the lyrics and album art of Holy Wood contain numerous Tarot references. Hermetic mysticism has incorporated the Tarot into it’s symbolism and, in the present day, Hermetic mysticism has provided much of the contemporary, popular interpretations of the Tarot. If we’re going to pull back from the actual music (the “text”, as the feller says) we might as well acknowledge that Marilyn Manson has spoken openly about his interest in Hermetic magic.
After Manson contributed voice acting for the video game Area 51, he did a back-and-forth interview with David Duchovny, who also voiced a character in the game. Amidst the spitballing about Jack Parson and the memoir Sex and Rockets and alchemy, Aleister Crowly and his involvement in Hermetic magic came up as a mutual interest. Even if Marilyn Manson was never one for organized religion, there’s still no reason not to incorporate the mythology. The dude made no bones about doing it with Christianity, after all.
A major point of intersection between Hermeticism and the Tarot are the symbology of cups and swords. One is concave and empathic, the other is rational and penetrating. Hermeticism often equates these symbols with femininity and masculinity. More recent pop-culture interpretations of Hermeticism, like Alan Moore’s Promethea comics, emphasize that each person (regardless of sex) contains both of these principles.
If any further evidence was needed to prove the relevance of Hermeticism to the Triptych, consider what Manson named his protagonist: Adam. After Adam Kadmon, a symbol of the Hermetic/Cabalistic ideal of a fully realized individual who is, at the same time, immersed in the collective subconscious of humanity. On a related note, this resembles the symbolic shorthand of classical psychoanalysis, which also pairs rationality with masculinity and the lyrical or chaotic with femininity. Jung, in particular, identified the subconscious with the vaguely feminine label anima.
This all narrows the specificity of the link between the Androgyne song suite and Mechanical Animals. The prominence of the Tarot in Holy Wood make the the cups and swords motifs hard to ignore, along with their gendered symbolism.
The word ‘androgyne’ is basically a portmanteau of the Latin root words for man and woman. A thematic / associative link with the frank gender-bending of the Mechanical Animals era is clearly present. Marilyn Manson is also known for using wordplay in his art, along with fastidious attention to consistency. I think it is fair to assume the associative / thematic link is intentional.
I think that Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis) – the first song in the Androgyne song suite -is the point of departure for Mechanical Animals. This particular song suite also illustrates a core characteristic of the Triptych: the point of view alternates between that of a character’s experience and the perspective of a recalled memory.
More specifically, the Androgyne suite is about the same thing that Mechanical Animals is about.
The name association conveys a category or content match at least. And if the Androgyne song suite is the point of departure for Mechanical Animals, it remains part of the distinct perspective of the HolyWood album. This is why the category / association link is especially important. The link, essentially, stops at that level. The perspective is separate between albums. The Tarot / Hermetic symbolism indicating a confrontation with the subconscious enables the point of departure to exist within the perspective of Holy Wood.
In terms of literal story beats, this becomes far more clear when you compare the point of departure of Mechanical Animals with the point of departure of Antichrist Superstar. The first Antichrist Superstar song suite is called The Hierophant. The most commonly understood meaning of the word “hierophant” is one who interprets obscure secrets or mysteries. There is also the obvious meaning within the Tarot, but I think a plain interpretation of the word is enough to get us started for now.
So the opening four songs on Antichrist Superstar are either an exhibition of a mystery or the testimony of one who interprets it. If my reading of Manson’s intentions regarding the succession of Holy Wood by Antichrist Superstar are accurate, then the song Count To Six and Die (The Valley) must be the transitional moment.
This song may allude to either suicide or execution. The sound effects of the spinning chambers of a revolver and dry clicks suggests Russian Roulette and therefore suicide. Yet some of the lyrics describe things happening at a distance from the speaker:
She’s got her eyes open wide
She’s got the dirt and spit of the world
Her mouth on the metal
The lips of a scared little girl
There’s an angel in the lobby
He’s waiting to put me in line
I won’t ask forgiveness
My faith has run dry
She’s got her Christian prescriptures
And death has crawled in her ear
Like elevator music or songs that she shouldn’t hear
This, to me, sounds more like anticipatory dread. A fear of events that are already in motion and out of the control of the speaker, Adam. Hapless insolubility, in and of itself, can drive someone to suicide. But I also think it is possible that these lyrics describe the bearers of death themselves, if it happens to not be Adam. Either way, a near-death experience seems to be result.
If Antichrist Superstar immediately follows this…than the mystery at the center of the Hierophant song suite becomes clear. Adam is just waking up from what he expected to be his death. His memories of the preceding events (Holy Wood) are probably extremely garbled and- if Adam was in and out of consciousness following Count To Six and Die (The Valley) -those garbled memories are probably filtered through partial dreams as well. I therefore think that the Hierophant song suite depicts this garbled, dream-like set of memories. I think that the first two songs of The Inauguration of the Worm are Adam’s first moments in a fully conscious state.
If the point of departure for one album is a shift in Adam’s consciousness, the other point of departure may be as well.
Here we move closer to my personal interpretation of the story within the Triptych.
Each of the Triptych albums contains an atmospheric shift between the fourth and fifth songs. In Antichrist Superstar, the opening song suite contains the first four songs. The first song suite of Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) also ends after the fourth song.
On Antichrist Superstar, this marks the transition from The Hierophant to Inauguration of the Worm. On Holy Wood, it marks the transition from In The Shadow to The Androgyne. While Mechanical Animals does not have named song suites like the others, this shift between the fourth and fifth songs (Rock Is Dead and Disassociative) is also significant.
Although Mechanical Animals does not have suite names printed on the back or in the booklet, it does contain song suites. Only two of them, though. The track listing of the vinyl release is divided into two distinct halves.
On one half, labeled Alpha, we got: The Great Big White World, Mechanical Animals, Disassociative, The Speed Of Pain, Posthuman, The Last Day On Earth and Coma White.
The other half, labeled Omega, is: The Dope Show, Rock Is Dead, I Want To Disappear, I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me), New Model No. 15, User Friendly and Fundamentally Loathsome.
Track four on the CD version, Rock Is Dead, is succeeded by Disassociative. The CD track listing of Mechanical Animals would have the following perspective shifts between the first five songs: Adam (The Great Big White World), Omega (The Dope Show), Mechanical Animals (Adam), Rock Is Dead (Omega) then Disassociative. The four to five transition then goes from one half to the other.
Adam now gets three songs in a row (Disassociative, The Speed Of Pain and Posthuman). Then five songs for Omega (I Want To Disappear, I Don’t Like The Drugs…, New Model No. 15, User Friendly and Fundamentally Loathsome). The album ends with Adam’s final two songs (The Last Day On Earth and Coma White…to say nothing of the fifteenth video track).
If the point of departure from Holy Wood to Mechanical Animals is a shift in consciousness…what can our frame of reference with the psychological segue between Holy Wood and Antichrist Superstar tell us?
If the two psychological segues are analogous…then maybe the altered state that leads into Mechanical Animals is equally dramatic, if not equally destructive. There is subject matter that Mechanical Animals deals with more than the other two. Dope Show, dope stars, “It’s time for recess, please roll up your sleeves”, “I had a dream last night, Cedar Rapids!”, the pill with the word ‘COMA’ etched into it…need I say more? Drugs. It’s drugs.
Or something? Whatever other dimensions there are to those lyrical themes, they also emphasize a consciousness shift. I know we’re supposed to have the source analysis behind us behind us by now, but there’s an interview where Manson almost- but not quite -offers explication on this. He said that the story of Holy Wood is about “an innocent who is offered forbidden fruit.” This fits, since the altered state that leads into Mechanical Animals is roughly at the beginning of the album.
The garbled, dream-filtered version of HolyWood can indicate a way of interpreting the Mechanical Animals altered state within the centerpiece of Holy Wood. As The Hierophant is the recollection of Holy Wood within Antichrist Superstar, The Androgyne is the recollection of Mechanical Animals within Holy Wood.
Adam wakes up from Mechanical Animals within Holy Wood and wakes up from Holy Wood in Antichrist Superstar. Mechanical Animals, however, has no direct representation of either of the other thirds. From a psychological point of view, this could either indicate suppression or escape.
In an interview with NYROCK in September of 2000, Manson said that the Omega song called Rock Is Dead was a parody of a typical, “rebellious” rock song. Manson also alluded to a parallel song on Holy Wood which I suspect is Disposable Teens. This would make Holy Wood’s opening suite a mirror image of the opening suite of Antichrist Superstar.
In The Shadow is a moment of wakefulness before a vision. The Hierophant is a vision before waking. With this in mind, I think the first four songs on the CD edition of Mechanical Animals are the entry to a lucid dream. During the first glimpse of the dream, both Omega and Adam exist side by side. The following three songs, starting with Disassociative, are the first genuine exertion of will power over the dream. Psychological disassociation is a break from psychological context / continuity, which is often a trauma response. This could give us a way to understand the usage of the space imagery.
Like the real thing, the space metaphors represent a void between worlds, and the space imagery only appears in the songs attributed to Adam. The Speed Of Pain confirms this by description within it’s lyrics, detailing how emotions effect our perception of time. The imagery of falling on a bladed surface from The Reflecting God appears again, this time with the blades being identified as memories. The intermediary state between worlds is then equated with psychological transitions. These psychological images are soon identified with external images like photography and fame in Posthuman.
In these songs and the final two on the album, Adam mourns an inability to make meaningful contact in the external world: milk is devoured, seeds spilled at the feet of children, sad endings planted in gardens to be plucked by their “throats” for no better reason than that they’re pretty.
The isolation of space, to be abstracted between worlds, affords escape but also separation from one’s own internal worlds. One outraces the speed of pain by allowing their memories to recede into the blackness of space, now as separate as different lifetimes (“Yesterday was a million years ago / In all my past lives I played an asshole”).
It is also in the songs of Adam that we learn the most about the white in Coma White. In both philosophical and cosmological terms, the Triptych is set in an amoral universe. Darkness and light are forces of nature, not good and evil.
Light seems to behave a lot like real light and real fire: the light of a dead star is indistinguishable from a real one, rather like photographs. Adam was “a hand grenade that never stopped exploding.” In his first glimpse of the empty landscape of his lucid dream, he imagines himself as “a spaceman / Burnt like a moth in a flame / And the world was so fucking gone.” The white light of Mechanical Animals is implacable and inhumane in it’s hunger. Coma herself, in her own lines in the song Posthuman, says that “all that glitters is cold.” This is true even for Omega: “God is white and unforgiving.”
This imagery remains consistent in the vision of The Androgyne as well: “Angels with needles poke through our eyes” to reveal “the ugly light of the world.” In Diamonds & Pollen, a soundscape reminiscent of Mechanical Animals that was included on one of the Disposable Teens singles, monkeys braid thread with gold needles amid “brilliant sluts and fire worship.”
Another significant connection between The Androgyne and Mechanical Animals is a character glimpsed in the tenth chapter of the Holy Wood novel: President White. In a particularly uncanny and horrific moment, President White simply orders a new daughter after the loss of Coma. Later, there is a coffin salute that mirrors the footage of the child saluting Kennedy’s coffin.
This is a reach, but when I first read that chapter I felt an intuition that this has happened before in the White family. I wondered if both President White’s wife and daughter had been replaced multiple times. I was reminded of the character Jack: between Kinderfeld and the autobiography The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, it’s easy to make a connection to Marilyn Manson’s grandfather, Jack Warner. In Holy Wood, ‘Jack’ as an abbreviation of John F. Kennedy is a more obvious interpretation. As lyrical themes, divorced from any other context, the two ‘Jacks’ can be interpreted as separate.
Within the consistency of the world building, though, the usage of ‘Jack’ suggests that they represent a single character. In a novel or a film, it would make narrative sense to treat the Jack in both Holy Wood and Antichrist Superstar as the same person. In President Dead, a connection is made with the Jack in Cruci-Fiction In Space: “President Dead is clueless and he’s / Caught in a headlight police state / God in his skull is stained glass.” Both the President and Jack have receptacles for heads: one is a wine cup and the other filters incoming light. The latter in particular is reminiscent of Jack Warner, whose moldy basement window was described as stained glass in the memoir.
In President Dead, Adam speculates about this distant antagonist. In Kinderfeld, Adam describes an invasive and unwanted psychological echo of Jack that can seize control whenever it wants and can only be suppressed with pain. It is also just as possible that suppression moves Jack closer to the driver’s seat, though, and the Disintegrator persona could simply be a new expression of him. Whether genuine escape is achieved or if Adam simply becomes an even more voracious Jack is not clear.
Disposable humans that can easily be replaced is echoed elsewhere. In several interviews, Manson described Omega as ersatz. With him being the researcher that he is, I refuse to believe that he doesn’t know any other word for ‘fake.’ So what’s with that one, specifically? It means something offered in place of something else.
If Holy Wood is the strict beginning of the Triptych, then substitutes for family are introduced early: The Love Song introduces the symbolic language of children as bullets, loaded into guns to be aimed and fired by parents. In The Fight Song and Disposable Teens, Adam realizes this for the first time and throws himself into an impulsive battle against the status quo that turns individuals into commodities to be used and discarded (“The death of one is a tragedy / The death of millions is just a statistic”). In so doing, Adam unwittingly walks into his assigned identity as an expendable destructive force (“I wanna thank you mom / I wanna thank you dad / For bringing this fucking world / To a bitter end”). The words Narcissus Narcosis in the next song title communicate a descent into sleep and his internal world of dreams.
This is where we run into the real importance of psychological disassociation. Within Mechanical Animals, Adam alternates between black nothingless between worlds and a fantasy self as Omega, whose only thought is to take and consume as much as possible. Outside of Mechanical Animals, The Androgyne suite tells us that this entire episode is remembered in the worst possible light. Upon awakening during The Nobodies, Adam feels as if he received a cosmic vision telling him that the status quo is airtight and has no possible escape.
If the disassociated dream state after Disposable Teens is the “forbidden fruit” that Manson said was given to an “innocent”, then I think the suite called The Fallen is a calculated, weaponized use of the forbidden fruit. In Coma Black, Adam realizes that the object of his desire is dead and may have been dead for awhile. The placement of the song suggests that his discovery of the death of Coma was somehow a consequence of his second attack. If Coma may have been dead already than the question becomes: did the second, calculated use of the “forbidden fruit” kill Coma or did it simply reveal that she is dead?
From a poetic and musical perspective, the nature of the “forbidden fruit” can be a delicious and rich open-ended question. As is typical in the Triptych, the emotional, social and spiritual inflections are more clear than a literal event or object. This elevates the music to an equal footing with the narrative. The music has to drive it forward. It succeeds, in my opinion, and it’s the reason why the Triptych works as a “cumulative” album rather than musical theater.
From the point of view of a traditional, literal story, though…this just makes the nature of the “forbidden fruit” flatly mysterious. What exactly did Adam encounter during his first, juvenile act of rebellion in Disposable Teens? Was it a mind-altering drug? A weapon? Some sort of omniscience? Something drug-like seems likely to me, but until we actually see the novel or the film, we can’t really know.
There is another a fictional character that I’m surprised is not discussed as frequently as Coma White or Adam: The Hierophant. While this is more defensible than my feeling about President White using and replacing his family like Kleenex…it’s still far from a sure thing.
This is especially murky given the world-building so far. A love story is at the center in the beginning: Adam and Coma seem to exist “literally”, other characters less so.
Even if the usage of the name Jack has various non-literal meanings (Kennedy, Jack Warner, etc.), there is still a fictional point of view named Adam. When this fictional speaker / POV says the name Jack, it is natural to wonder if Adam is discussing memories of a person or is interacting with them in the present.
Or could the existence of Jack be like the existence of Omega or the Disintegrator? I wrote awhile ago that I think the song Kinderfeld describes a mental “echo” of Jack that exists in the mind of Adam. I clearly think that there is room for both. I have also made it clear that I think President White and Jack are the same character, at least on some level.
I’m belaboring all this because, after the brush with death at the end of Holy Wood, we immediately meet someone who is filling the same niche as Jack. This period immediately after the attempt on Adam’s life is also a blend of memories and dreams. Even if the buzzing, mechanical voice at the beginning of Irresponsible Hate Anthemresembles Jack, it must be more of a dream-figure than an actual memory. An amalgam, as the feller says.
The opening song suite on Antichrist Superstar is called The Hierophant. The appearance of a new name suggests a new presence. It follows in my assessment that this new presence is simply the amalgam. The only “new” thing is a combination of dreams and memory. It may possess qualities that Adam remembers from Jack, but what did Adam do before he almost died? He made a last stand through the same means that created the altered state of Mechanical Animals.
Upon awakening, during the Of Red Earth suite, Adam no longer had access to the peaceful isolation of disassociation. The isolation enabled fantasies of becoming the hungry, unstoppable light that Adam once found threatening.
When Adam wakes up, the dissipation of the fantasy leaves the sour taste of complete bullshit, which then curdled into resentment and hatred. The side of Adam that the shouting, militant followers saw during The Fall Of Adam and King Kill 33 probably was not the same side that Adam saw of himself during Mechanical Animals. They saw an Adam whose ideals had been suffocated and replaced by the fury of the vengeful.
If Jack supplied memories for the amalgam, those final moments of righteous fury and despair supplied the dreams. This, I believe, is the ranting demagogue of Adam’s near-death fever dream. In my “reading” of the Triptych, this amalgam is what the suite title “The Hierophant” refers to, both an interpreter of mysteries and a mystery himself.
In the troubled nightmares before consciousness, this amalgam is both unstoppable and seductive. Adam is powerless to do anything but submit, regardless of what the amalgam-being demands of him (Irresponsible Hate Anthem & The Beautiful People).
While submission entails communion with other followers, Adam enjoys a kind of privacy: the emotional bluntness of the herd leaves him no outlet. He is then alone with his emotions and self-knowledge, which has an almost meditative security (Dried Up, Tied and Dead to the World).
This next transition is one of the strongest and most interesting in the Triptych. For a work of art that is so complex and bombastic and colorful, it also contains powerful moments of subtlety. The succession of Tourniquet from Dried Up, Tied and Dead to the World depicts the tension between one’s private thoughts and the memories of others. Memories that impose relationships or other demands from the outside world.
The available chapter of the Holy Wood novel depicts Adam and Coma as lovers separated from one another. For those who have lost someone they love, it feels as though that person continues to exist in your thoughts. It’s been my experience, anyway. Adam had no knowledge of Coma’s death until after the fact. His belief was an impression of her that, for awhile, was alive longer than her body was.
There are some truly complicated emotional dynamics here. Adam’s dream companion, derived from the memory of Coma, is a fellow traveler with Adam across the veil. At this point, Adam is in a delirious stupor and probably believes himself dead. In one way, Adam and Coma achieved the impossible together and escaped death. In another way, Adam is alone with the lifeless remains of his love.
A personal note that may effect my perception of this: I have Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness that disposes one to black and white emotional reactions. To be more specific, black and white emotional responses to how we perceive relationships. These emotions concern our self-image: if anything goes wrong, those of us with BPD are likely to think it is because there is something wrong with ourselves. We have a masochistic tendency to feel like we are either pure evil or nothing. Literally, nothing: we feel either like we don’t exist or that our existence is less real than the existence of others.
Adam seems to have a lot of BPD characteristics. The Mechanical Animals altered state went from pure light to a miserable false promise. This desolation and fury blend with his self-image, like someone with BPD. This “worst possible version” of himself is seen, in the delirious world of his dreams, as a separate person. This personification is a keeper of knowledge that Adam wishes he did not have.
Perhaps the Hierophant amalgam is the keeper of the memories of what literally happened during the events masked by the fever dream. Maybe they are things that only the worst version of himself can claim to know.
This is most definitely a postmodern story. The narrator is far from reliable and what the narrator feels is often more clear than what the narrator describes. It is on this level that one of the more dramatic moments in the Triptych occurs: Adam experiences a depth of masochism at which be begins to identify as the bearer of all evil and the deserving sacrifice: “Make your victim my head.” Adam believes his head is worth more to someone else as a sacrifice than it is to himself. The word choice is also reminiscent of the digression within the available chapter of the Holy Wood, when the narration mentions the Celtic linguistic root of the name “Kennedy”, meaning ‘ugly or wounded head.’
This same metaphorical language is how sacrifice is described in the third and fourth songs of Antichrist Superstar. Adam visualizes himself as a desiccated bundle, held together only by its’ bindings, connecting two souls. As per BPD catastrophising, if it fails to hold together then Adam will blame himself first and exonerate the other. The other who, in the continuity of the story, represents the memory of Coma.
Tied Up, Dried and Dead to the World transitioning to Tourniquet reveals the tension between the binding memories of others and one’s private thoughts. But what is it Adam thinks about in such privacy? Coma. Adam slips the compulsory bonds of all relationships only to treasure a lost relationship in solitude. The BPD tendencies that cause Adam to offer himself as the exonerating blood-payment for all evil also prioritize service to others in utter privacy, in both the privacy of his dream and in the army of brutal followers therein, whose psycholoical flatlines are as good as total privacy.
So. The white of the black and white emotions could compel Adam to think that he and Coma escaped death and therefore accomplished the impossible together. The black in the black and white emotions demands Adam’s total submission to preserve the second, non-physical existence of Coma. This could satisfy Adam’s fantasy of turning back the clock on her death while appeasing blood-price for the emergence of Adam’s worst possible version of himself.
Before moving on: I do not necesessarily believe that Marilyn Manson himself has Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m not a psychiatrist. But those who do have BPD will recognize emotional dynamics within the Triptych that look intimately familiar. It is also equally likely that Manson was writing about a character with BPD tendencies- perhaps, like the Hierophant himself, the character Adam is an amalgam of observation and imagination. I mentioned BPD in the first place because the resemblance is strong, regardless of what the case actually may be.
There is another, less melancholy element in Adam’s fever dream. As one of the Major Arcana of the Tarot, the Hierophant may represent a link to genuine truth or holiness. The Hierophant may also embody a negative inversion of this: not truth but orthodoxy, not wisdom but power, not insight but bigotry.
If this is part of the Hierophant of Adam’s dreams, then this upside-down prophet would have acolytes after his own heart. His clergy would be the privileged and the powerful: The Beautiful People.
Most explicitly in Antichrist Superstar and Holy Wood, the Triptych examines the role of tribalism in human nature. For a stark look at this, compare Irresponsible Hate Anthem and Count To Six and Die (The Valley).
I have not spent a lot of time dwelling on the political levels of meaning within the Triptych because, in general, I think they are accessable enough on the surface. The continuity of the symbolism and storytelling requires it at this point, though.
I am convinced that Antichrist Superstar is as deeply political as Holy Wood. The opening lines of Irresponsible Hate Anthem represent a reductio-ad-absurdum of capitalism. Literally anything can be sold if someone wants to buy it and it is the nature of the “All-American” to sell it. Everything is transitional and transactional. Everything has a price, and death is the ultimate transition and the ultimate transaction. The psychological sublty of the movement between Tied Up, Dried and Dead to the World and Tourniquet has a small appearance here as well: the Hierophant demagogue addresses their victim as if their victimhood is their personal identity. Adam later offers his head, which in Tourniquet is elevated by its’ status as a sacrifice beyond the value that Adam places in it himself.
The reductio-ad-absurdum continues in the second song. The Beautiful People measure the value of something based on whether or not it is available for them to posess or consume. The mindlessness of the frenzy creates the emotional privacy that Adam comes to luxuriate in during songs three and four.
Let us not forget that this visionary dreamscape is happening in the wake of Count To Six and Die (The Valley). The song opens with a loud metallic crash, followed by the rotating chambers of a revolver. Later, there are a few dry clicks, telling us that the Roullette wheel landed on an empty chamber. There is another scenario involving guns that may or may not be loaded, though.
In the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, firing squad executions employed a detail of about six men, some with loaded guns and others with blanks. In On Killing: Learning to kill in war and society by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, a military psychologist, it says that studies in the early twentieth centuy revealed that most soldiers deliberately missed a lot of the time, or “aimed high.” This was because most people are in fact unwilling to kill. This supports a wider claim made by Grossman that a scientific comparison between destructive potential paired with the number of people who did die in World War I and World War II. Those numbers were vast, but the destructive potential of the weapons of the day would have enabled even more deaths if they were used as deliberately and destructively as possible.
Grossman states that this was the reason why a firing squad had five rifles loaded with blanks and only one with real ammunition: the psychological cost of killing is simply too high for most people to accept. The current story beat in the Triptych describes the followers of the Hierophant amalgam, a class of people interested exclusively in what they can own and exploit. The owned and exploited are a second class. A binary class war is as good a display of human tribalism as it gets, short of what we would recognize as “normal” war.
So what does this bring to a possible interpretation of Count To Six and Die (The Valley)? Establishments are self-perpetuating. Capitalist establishments share the economic philosophy of cancer cells: unregulated growth. If an establishment is “too big to fail,” then it needs a way of using humans to do things that a human may or may not want to. The ruling class that maintains this infallibility, therefore, need to be shielded from moral responsibility as much as soldiers in a warzone or a firing squad.
If this historical nuance is any part of our interpretation of the beat between the last song of Holy Wood and the first song of Antichrist Superstar, this consequence-free exploitation is also a luxury enjoyed by the Beautiful People. We would also be remiss if we didn’t consider the possibility that the fever dream before Innauguration of the Worm is a fantasy that protects Adam from what the worst possible version of himself knows. The lyrics in these songs and throughout refer to suppression frequently: “I better better better not say this / Better better better not tell”…”This is what you should fear / You are what you should fear…”
The linguistic pedant in me even wants to consider the construction of the word ‘innauguration.’ It contains the ‘augur’ phoneme, meaning to predict. A ‘hierophant’ is one who deciphers and interprets ancient mysteries.
I’ve actually bent over backwards a little bit to avoid dwelling too much on classical psychoanalytic reading of the Triptych. Sigmund Freud was a bad scientist by any modern standard. I find classical psychoanalysis hard to take seriously. That being said…Antichrist Superstar starts with a vision and moves onto a jarring, traumatic awakening. The suite that depicts the awaking contains a linguistic hint of auguring, or prophecy. There is no getting around the implication: after the vision, the awakening is itself foretold. This suggests a subconscious influence of the vision stretching into waking life. Perhaps this is the influence that is unmasked in the song Kinderfeld, which could bring us full circle to Jack setting the mental mold for the persona called the Disintigrator.
The movement between the fourth and fifth songs on Holy Wood is an outburst followed by introspection. The four to five movement on Antichrist Superstar is introspection followed by an outburst.
However I think the transition between Disposable Teens and Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis) is more aptly mirrored in the first two songs of Innauguration of the Worm: Little Horn and Cryptorchid.
Mirrored most aptly- a mirror image is an opposite-inverse. The outburst comes first: Little Horn is relentlessly driving, almost a single verse with one line for a partial chorus. Cyptorchid is similarly unconventional: one verse followed by an abrupt key change with a single line repeated over and over again.
On the subject of Cryptorchid…under what circumstances might a “worm consume the boy”? There’s probably only one interpretation that comes easily to mind: burial, perhaps murder. We’ve encountered burial and penetration like this before: A Place in the Dirt, with angels carrying needles to reveal the “ugly light of the world”. This also feels like an echo of a short story that Marilyn Manson attempted to publish before his music career took off: a mentally ill, housebound man murders his sister and has sex with her dead body. Later, he is buried alive with his eyes sewn shut. This is an idea that had been in Manson’s mind before he even began actively pursuing music.
Yet Adam, himself, is frequently identified as the Worm throughout Antichrist Superstar. This could mean that Adam is drawing nourishment from the death of his innocence. Oh- the worm does not consume the child, the worm consumes “the boy.” In Kinderfeld, the line “There’s no one left to save ourself” is attributed to The Boy in the printed lyrics. The voice of Jack is unintelligible noise somewhere between a whistle and a machine, as if even the memory of Jack is too horrible to listen closely to.
If The Hierophant is a fever dream, then Little Horn and Cryptorchid are perhaps both a panicked spasm upon awakening and the first remembrance of what just happened. This remembrance is the first, fully-concsious stock-taking of the dream. Deformography is a rageful bloodletting that openly flaunts the black and white emotional mania of BPD: “I’ll lift you up like the sweetest angel / I’ll tear you down like a whore” and at the same time the speaker expresses helplessness in their rage: “I’ll make myself sick just to poison you”. Adam may have woken up from his fever dream but still feels the instinctive submission that he experienced in his dream, under the Hierophant created by his mind. Adam feels as if he can’t act on his own so his only path forward is mutually-assured destruction. Perhaps this overture toward waging a war against himself is an outgrowth of Adam consuming his prior state of being in Cryptorchid.
The world that he naively attempts to reason with (Wormboy) simply drags him back (Mister Superstar, Angel with the Scabbed Wings) to the version of himself that was hidden by his dreams of the Hierophant. This leaves us with the moment of anguished helplessness and self-awareness in Kinderfeld, before the appearance of the Disintigrator in the Triptych’s final movement.
This bears out the possibility of a subconscious influence from the fever dream reaching outward into Adam’s awakening. The auguring bound the Worm as firmly as his own soiled twine until he was forced to look the puppet master of his subconscious in the face and attempt to transcend it.
This brings us to the actual song called Antichrist Superstar, which carries a well-worn theme from earlier: things offered in place of something else, copies, clones, “xeroxes.” If the world wants the illusion of the Hierophant, then Adam will give it to them to secure his own freedom: “I shed my skin to feed the fake…cut the head off / Grows back hard / I am the Hydra / Now you’ll see your star”. Adam has blamed himself for everything he possibly can- now that path is dulled beyond feeling. There is nowhere to go but outward. If the world wants to take their Hierophant from him, then Adam will give it with the unbound masochism of one incapable of feeling pain or anything else. From here until the end, Adam tests the reality of the world he lives in to the point of obliteration. In the process, he fulfills the augury exerted by the Hierophant dream: on track 99, feedback envelopes a mechanical voice saying “When you are suffering, know that I…” and snuffs it out before it can finish it’s sentence. In the hallucinatory rally or concert where the dream of the Hierophant first appears, the sentence is completed: “When you are suffering, know that I have betrayed you.”
As an ending, the cyclical relationship between the Hierophant and the Disintegrator works better in a non-literal way: on uniquely lyrical terms. The Triptych is an innovative exploration of what the album is capable of as a medium, but stays within that format. A further step into musical theater or literal storytelling would lift the central burden off of the music and replace it with plot construction. I believe that music bears the standard best. Like the printed word, the special effects are more to my liking. At least if intimacy with the mind of an audience is a strength that the artist wants to make use of. All artistic mediums succeed when they invoke experiences outside of their medium. Great film and visual art create experiences that are not just visual, great literature creates experiences that go beyond language and great music goes further than sound. I have known Coma and Adam for most of my life as figures in a psychedellic, beautiful and transformative musical epic and I believe Marilyn Manson made the right choice.
1. Inauguration of The Mechanical Christ (TLTOE)
2. The Reflecting God (TLTOE)
3. The Great Big White World (TLTOE)
4. The Love Song
5. Little Horn
7. Disposable Teens
8. Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis)
10. Cruci-Fiction In Space
11. The Beautiful People
End of hypothetical disc 1 and beginning of hypothetical disc 2
Something I’ve always wanted to write about, ever since I experienced the full force of passion that our first love affairs with music inspire in us when we are young, is what distinguishes the album as an artistic medium.
Rather like film and video recording, any collection of recordings or things recorded together is a record. Early experiments in film did not even necessarily regard video recording as even necessarily relatable to narrative storytelling. What we now recognize as modern filmmaking is a hybrid between literature and film, since storytelling is presumed to be the ultimate point. For more on this subject I suggest you google Tania Modleski and cinematic excess. I don’t need to borrow too much from Modleski except that a created structure implicitly reveals its purpose through its design.
Writing and narrative require conceptual coherence since writing is a linguistic medium. Photography and audio recording do not: for something to be photographed or recorded, it need only be visible or audible. A photograph or an audio recording might be artistic or it might serve some other technical or commercial or any other conceivable function. Filmmaking and audio recording are not meant solely for art any more than writing is meant solely for storytelling.
Bringing audio recording to music creates a hybrid in the same way that bringing video recording to literature does. Like any other constructed object, it makes sense to infer intention behind its’ structure. One of my favorite movies is a horror film from 2002 called May. May has long, drawn out non-verbal parts that rely completely on visual storytelling and involve subject matter that is never frankly discussed in the dialogue of the script (this isn’t anything new and I’m sure we can all think of a ton of examples of this; I’m just using May to make a point). For me as a young teenager, the silent, purely visual scenes in May shifted the perspective and character of the film in a way that the script could not: in fact, as an adult it’s obvious that a script is only written to serve a specific function that works equally with the contributions of the actors, director, cinematographer, editor, etc.
The finished product of a photographed script uses the contribution of the writer in concert with every other force at work in front of and behind the camera. The same is true for an album. All art requires a bit of intimacy and exposure on the part of the artist but with films and albums the separation between conception, embodiment and execution is more obvious than something like a novel, which often comes to us resembling nothing more than a naked and singular work in spite of however much editing and re-writing may have happened before publication. Like all rules there are exceptions: my two favorite writers, Victor Hugo and William S. Burroughs, frequently used their writing as a kind of embodiment that would itself “tell” a story rather than use an impersonal and anonymous narrator. This sort of creative device is necessarily more common in modern film and music, however.
I don’t want to make this seem like some kind of big academic look at the album as an art form. I just don’t feel like doing that and it’s more fun to look at specific albums that exemplify the range of what the medium is capable of. I also wanted to nail down some basic ideas that are going to be used later before I get into what I really want to talk about.
Sequential posts to be linked, soon, at the end of this one
The third volume of The Sandman Universe: Lucifer, subtitled The Wild Hunt, draws us closer to one of the more daring threads in the prior installment (The Divine Tragedy).
Within the second volume, there is a memorable scene involving Lucifer, Caliban and the ancient Egyptian pantheon. To gain an audience with the Egyptian dieties, Lucifer must weigh his heart against the feather of truth with Anubis. The scales balance and Lucifer says “My heart is never heavy. I do as I will, and never otherwise.” To which Anubis says “Would that all had it that easy.”
Later, Caliban attempts to follow his father and his own heart cannot balance against truth. Obviously, Caliban has more in common with a lot of us than Lucifer. The majority of us have had to do at least some things against our will, or have been forced to. To many, an entire existence with no involuntary compulsion sounds mythic.
The quality that the society of witches revered within Sycorax was her total refusal to live under the rules of another. Thessaly, who voices most of this, says that she herself would not have been brave enough to refuse both the overtures of the Moon and Lucifer. Thessaly expresses that most people are so desperate for power and safety that they would agree to anything for it. Essentially, it is the coin that is always accepted and Sycorax, in the eyes of Thessaly, has turned her freedom into something so precious that no coin can buy.
Between freedom as a naturally occurring absolute (Lucifer) and freedom as something to be gradually embodied over time (Sycorax), the latter is just easier to relate to. At the end of The Divine Tragedy, Lucifer has begged every pantheon to shelter Sycorax from the eventual wrath of Jehovah and very nearly fails- what eventually happens to her is something she consents to.
If someone spends a lot of time bending over backwards for another person while claiming they only pursue their own ends, it sews tension. One begins to wonder how honest with himself Lucifer is, when he claims he cannot be coerced. This tension is the main dynamic within The Wild Hunt.
It also involves some character details last glimpsed in the original Sandman. Such as Lucifer’s tendency to sew the seeds of violence and disaster within humans without even noticing he is doing it. The crimes of passion or deaths by accident that Lucifer passively engenders have never really been unpacked until now, and even this unpacking can go unnoticed. We see it a lot in these pages (with almost comedic repetition) but it is never commented on directly. The implication is enough, though: the members of the Wild Hunt claim that if the Hunt is not called regularly, that a build-up of bloodlust will accumulate within all sentient beings which then spills over.
The individual identities of the Wild Hunt support this as well: Thirst, the eldest, appeared when the first being to ever kill felt that desire. Thrill and Fear then manifested and, lastly, Honor, the youngest, whose lot it is to make violence permissible. The Wild Hunt is a ceremonial release of primal, destructive energy that once kept the world in balance. Odin was the original leader of the Wild Hunt and was later supplanted by Lucifer. Lucifer, being both famously goal-driven and wed to his own infallibility, whittled the soul of the Hunted God each time she manifested until she appeared to stop. This leaves the Wild Hunt hanging until Odin summons them in our third volume of the new Lucifer comics.
So you have antagonistic characters claiming that, if the ceremonial Hunt does not occur, a deadly reservoir of violence will grow in the universe. Our protagonist, meanwhile, seems to provoke death and destruction without even noticing or caring and they are also the one that effectively “stopped” the Hunt a long time ago. The one who stopped this release now seems to have a knack for randomly provoking release in others.
Lucifer’s long-protected fallibility is also highlighted in the opening pages. The opening narration says he was followed by Mazikeen (a daughter of Lilith, whose face has a living and a dead half) after abandoning Hell and eventually leaves him. Narrator says we wouldn’t quite dare to openly say that Lucifer was hesitating. And then, when words involving Mazikeen are uttered in the ancient Hellenist underworld of Hades, he is relieved. Odin says Lucifer is attempting to thwart the Hunt “for love.” The unspoken fallibility and dependence of Lucifer are a big deal in this story. To go light on the spoilers for once, whether he succeeds in this pursuit is left on the note of a genuine cliff hanger. This current story arc is not complete enough to be evaluated yet, but I really wanna know what happens next.
In a recent interview for the Final Fantasy VII Remake Ultimania Guide, Tetsuya Nomura dropped some huge lore bombs. Among them was the very strong hint that the Whisper bosses at the end are Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo from Advent Children. The descriptions revealed by the assess materia, for all three, state that they are defending their timeline.
Later, the party catches a glimpse of events from Advent Children and Nanaki says “this is what will happen if we fail here today”.
Two paths that fork from the point of departure at the end of FFVIIR are discussed. One openly, the other by implication. Advent Children was a sequel to the original Final Fantasy VII. The path of the original that proceeds into Advent Children is what Nanaki said would happen if they “failed”. The path revealed by implication is what the party embarks on after they appear not to fail.
Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo are protecting the timeline that shaped them as they were in Advent Children. Three of the Whispers at the end are meddlers from outside of the timeline.
What about the giant Whisper Harbinger that looms in the background during that fight? It looks a hell of a lot like Sapphire Weapon. Why would a Weapon be intruding into another timeline?
The planet created the Weapons to defend itself in the event of an existential threat. They were originally created to combat Jenova (according to Ifalna) but so long as Jenova exists in an undead, “viral” state, they can’t go away. The planet will also lash out at any soul that’s been exposed to Jenova as it passes through the Lifestream on its way to its next existence (Geostigma).
It is intuitive to think that a Weapon is attacking another timeline because it poses an existential threat to the planet in its own timeline. Aerith, in her dialogue describing what she knows or has deduced about Sephiroth, says that she thinks that he has good intentions even if his actions are destructive (“he would probably say he would do anything to protect it”, loose paraphrase). Later, after the final boss fight, Sephiroth tells Cloud that he wants him to exist for as long as he himself does.
In the original game, Sephiroth never said or did anything that would suggest he cares about the planet. Nanaki’s remark implied that the timeline of the original FFVII was a worst case scenario, yet in the chronology (which ends with Dirge of Cerberus, if I’m not mistaken) nothing seems to back this up.
If Jenova ever fully corrupted the Lifestream and turned Gaia into a new Meteor, we haven’t seen it yet. Maybe this is a mystery that the Remake series might elucidate in the future.
If Sapphire Weapon is penetrating into a new timeline, it is equally possible that it’s either attacking Jenova or defending the planet in its own timeline. If Jenova ever succeeded in corrupting the Lifestream, though, would the planetary Weapons continue to distinguish between it’s wellbeing and attacking Jenova?
And if the Whispers are pure, spiritual agents of destiny, why do they seem beholden to Sephiroth? Why, at the end of FVIIR, does it seem like both Sephiroth and the Whispers are protecting the same thing?
This theory depends on the ultimate fate of the original timeline. Either Jenova “won” in the end, during some far future event we just haven’t seen, or Jenova was somehow subtly “winning” the whole time. Either way, the Gaia of the original timeline does not seem to exist.
The behavior of the Whisper Harbinger and the three boss Whispers begins to make sense in this situation. Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo have no other existence except for the one that happened in the original timeline. They want to “enforce” the chronology that happened in their own past because it’s the only way to guarantee their existence in a new timeline. Sephiroth, Sephiroth clones and Jenova attempting to shape the events of a separate timeline to conform to their own only makes sense if the world they originated from doesn’t exist any more.
An event like that would also explain why Sephiroth wants to protect Gaia and why Aerith sees him as a threat in spite of that. Jenova is a colony organism that exists by spreading its cells into more bodies. When such a body dies and it’s soul passes into the Lifestream, the essence of Jenova is now mixed up in the planetary transmigration cycle. Jenova exists through “possession”, almost like a demon whose cells can be both spirit and matter. If Jenova “possessed” every body and every soul on Gaia in the original timeline, then the Lifestream itself would be possessed. The Lifestream is the spiritual existence of the planet, so even beings like the Weapons would end up enslaved. (That Sapphire Weapon was originally right next to Sephiroth in the Northern Crater might also be a factor)
If the Gaia in that timeline ceased to exist, though, Jenova would be saddled with a Lifestream with no planet. The existence of both Jenova and Sephiroth would be dependent on that Lifestream, so it makes sense that they would stop at nothing to protect it. If you have a Lifestream with no planet then you would want to find a new one. In a parallel timeline, for instance, within the same planet it came from.
This possibility also clarifies what Nanaki meant when he said “This could very well be her last line of defense, it won’t be easy.” If Jenova would “burn out” a planet while possessing or consuming it, the search for a new planet to move the corrupted Lifestream into would be the last line of defense.
If the Whisper Harbinger actually is a Weapon that (like Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo) originated in a doomed timeline, what about the rest of the Whispers? If the world was destroyed in that timeline and the displaced souls are pushing through to the timeline next door, there’s gotta be more than three. Maybe all visitors from outside your timeline look like Whispers in this fictional world.
I suspect that the Whispers are not agents of destiny but migrating souls desperate to create a timeline that will bring them into existence. That would mean making sure everything happens the same way it did last time. Not a single detail can be out of place because every single detail probably played a role, ala “butterfly effect”. That would also explain things like resurrecting Barret after the Sephiroth clone skewered him- he’s not allowed to die like that because he didn’t the first time around.
This begs another question- the last boss fights in the game imply that Sephiroth and the Whispers are working toward the same end. The whole theory I just unpacked would also support that. However, Sephiroth and Jenova need to shape the neighboring timeline to resemble their own in order to preserve themselves. If the old timeline is recreated in every detail in the new one, though, both universes might end the same way.
The Final Fantasy games are a combination of gaming and story telling and each one has a different emphasis. My favorite FF title that balances good gaming with good storytelling is VI. My favorite for gameplay without attention paid to the story would either be XV or XIII-2. And my favorite for story, regardless of gameplay, is VII.
Nearly every Final Fantasy game has an identical plot, themes and story structuring. Since Final Fantasy uses a balance between gaming and story, the story often does not need to carry all the weight. I believe, though, that Final Fantasy VII is either the most successful version of the classic Final Fantasy story or the most ambitious.
No small part of this is the carefully consistent thematic language that discusses death. Two of the main characters are dead: one of them passes into the holistic network of souls (Lifestream) to preserve its interconnected vitality. the other dead person holds his identity separate and wants to absorb the interconnected whole into himself. And these two dead people are the main characters– as in, they move all of the plot pieces.
There is also the somewhat understated use of historical and mythic references. Final Fantasy VII is a post World War II legend. The upper plates of Midgar look a hell of a lot like romantic, 1940’s, detective movie New York. You start the game blowing up energy “reactors”, massive power sources that can provide indefinitely or destroy all life. The nuke parallels only get stronger from there: the WEAPONs are kaijus. The first kaiju-like movies in the sixties, Godzilla and stuff, were about mutants created by radiation that destroy entire cities.
Then there’s the not-so-understated WWII references: Heidegger is named after Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher that collaborated with the Nazis and had a few of his students sent to concentration camps. Professor Hojo is also clearly modeled after Josef Mengele and the Cetra have an ancestral legend of a place called The Promised Land. The first Cetra victim of Hojo that we see is Aerith, who is one of our two dead main characters.
The first allegorical Jew of the game lays down her life to preserve the dignity and familial (one might say “brotherly”) harmony between all souls.
To whit: the Lifestream borrows from ideas common in Hinduism that also appear in Buddhism. The soul of the individual needs to merge with all other souls and share the totality of its experience for its own good. And then there’s this big fat Jesus thing going on with Aerith. Which is interesting because the Final Fantasy games are usually very critical of both religion and also just power in general. So I don’t think it’s a pro-religion thing, maybe pro-spirituality.
If not pro-spirituality it is at least spiritual-friendly. What clinches the whole spiritual “reading” is the importance of Cloud’s subjectivity in the main plot. When we first meet Cloud, he doesn’t even give his name until he’s asked frankly- he’s just Ex-SOLDIER. Later, Cloud falls into the Lifestream while being locked in his own mind. He is both in the afterlife and trapped inside of his own pain. Another human being, Tifa, bodily enters his mind with him.
Later, the party goes directly into the planet’s core. Given that the Lifestream is every transmigrating soul crisscrossing through the core on their way to their next lives, this is familiar territory for Cloud. The final confrontation with Sephiroth even takes place in Cloud’s mind, after the last boss fight.
Basically, I’ve never played a game that gets plot, mythic themes and characters to work so well together. It sucks you into a discussion of big ideas in a way that’s poetic and exciting…and without getting preachy or taking sides. Or if it is, the side is that nukes and fascism are bad, which I happen to be okay with anyway 😉
Content warning: discussion of pedophilia, sexual abuse in general and sexism.
To say nothing of massive spoilers.
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 😛
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.
As a prose writer it’s easy for me to get attached to my sandbox mentality. When you hit your stride with a story, you luxuriate in your solitary ownership of the process so much that it could potentially spoil you for anything that requires any diversification. Just lately I’ve been skimming the RPG Maker website since I’m way too much of a wuss to actually get a real engine and attempt ground-up game design.
Not that it was ever a terribly good idea to go into game design completely on your own in the first place: in the eighties and nineties, a game we would consider simple by modern standards would be a neck-deep passion project of a small handful of developers. The fact that the Mortal Kombat games were pioneered for 16-bit arcade cabinets by two people may have been uncommon for the time but by today’s standards it’s almost Herculean. Being a total Final Fantasy fan girl, I’ve been following the development of the FFVII Remake and the FFVIII Remaster with bated breath and the developers have said repeatedly that video game development is rapidly reaching par with filmmaking as the most expensive and collaborative of art forms.
This specific comparison has been on my mind lately because I recently finished playing through a game called The Space Between that I first found out about through John Wolf’s YouTube channel. Put simply, The Space Between is completely narrative driven; no puzzles, no combat, no normal video game mechanics of any kind. Your job is simply to move through the linear story through exploration and dialogue. In other words, it’s an interactive short film.
In the last few years (going on decades) this has hardly been unique: we’ve all heard of the TellTale Games along with Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment: interactive video game “films” have pretty much blossomed into their own genre (to say nothing of visual novel games). Most of them, though, typically rely on a combination of polished graphics (whether that’s attempted photo-realism or an emulation of hand-drawn art) and exploiting opportunities to work in more conventional gaming mechanics into the cinematic narrative. Telltale Games produced two Batman games that use elements of stealth, puzzle-solving and beat’em up combat. Life Is Strange relies on puzzles and Vampyr is an action-RPG. These games also typically have ordinary and recognizable situational and narrative cues that give you a pretty clear idea about where things are going.
With films, there are definitely several precedents for auteurs forgoing these expedients: something like Elias Merhige’s Begotten or David Lynch’s InlandEmpire require you to take it in like a painting or a sculpture. These films are almost purely visual with little to no use of narrative craft. When I was in college I encountered a helpful way of describing this in an essay by Tania Modleski about cinematic excess. According to Modleski, cinematic excess is when the visual content overwhelms or outpaces the narrative content. According to this model of filmmaking as visual art and narrative craft, mainstream film is basically a hybrid medium: stories are largely what people are looking for from a mainstream film, making them a combination of literature and graphic art. A “pure” film, with no emphasis on literature, would probably be something like Dali’s Andalusian Dog, since it’s a series of images that are held together by a thematic thread but has no frankly expressed story. Begotten and the films of Kenneth Anger could also be classified as “pure” filmmaking with little to no reliance on literature.
Before I go on, I just want to bottom-line the fact that Modleski’s breakdown is meant to be descriptive and not judgemental: something that uses visual presentation along with a story is, in the most literal sense, a hybrid of literature and graphic art. Even dramatic writing is a sort of hybrid since, along with its visual presentation, drama and theater often have their own academic and artistic partitions. A novelist and a playwright are not interchangeable.
The application to video games should be pretty clear: something like Pong or the very first Mario or Donkey Kong games are good examples of “pure” video games. They have virtually no reliance on story-telling of any kind- all of the content is in the gameplay. No one who has ever enjoyed those games has ever required narrative context for them to make sense.
When video games became more mainstream in the late eighties and early nineties, fictional scenarios were implemented more and more to make them conventionally compelling, since stories are something we all have some familiarity with. It could be argued that this was where the expectation that video games be as “real” as possible emerged. Since then, the majority of popular video games, like popular films, have been literary hybrids according to the Tania Modleski analysis. Clearly, Telltale Games, Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment have become specialists in this hybridization, making it even more frank with their cinematic influence (not that they were the first game developers to be seriously influenced by film, obviously).
I’m bringing all this up because it offers a more streamlined way to talk about the use of narrative devices in video games. Specifically where The Space Between is concerned. If video games have widely adopted literary hybridization with the same success that filmmaking has, then the recent popularity of linear, cinematic video games is a useful point of comparison. Life Is Strange is a hybrid game and The Space Between is definitely, obviously a hybrid game. But even between hybrids (and especially between ones influenced by film) there are degrees of specialization and craft convention.
If, for the sake of argument, we designate subgenres like Metroidvania and Soulsborne as the middle of the spectrum (since they often employ a vast, single map, mostly visual storytelling and a narrative pace that hinges on puzzles, combat and other ordinary gaming mechanics) then The Space Between easily lies closer toward the cinematic end of the spectrum.
Like I said, the story is firmly linear and, as the player, your participation is limited to putting one foot in front of another until the end. What makes playing this game different from watcing someone else play it is that, from a first person perspective, you have a deeper sense of immersion and participation (although your interactions and relationships are dictated by the script). You hear things happening around you based on your movements and locations which gives the impression that your actions matter, that you are tapping on one side and something on the other side is tapping back (very literally in some cases). One of the cooler instances of this involves…snipping sounds.
Lemme back up, and this where we’re gonna go into some spoilers (if you wanna close out of this and experience the game for yourself, I’ll include a download link at the bottom of the entry). Your player character has had a lifelong relationship with someone named Daniel, apparently going back to childhood. Potentially. There are only so many ordinary ways where one ends up in a blanket fort with chairs, talking to someone on the outside. I guess this doesn’t necessarily have to be in childhood. It’s a flashback, at any rate. So Martin (our player character) tells Daniel he doesn’t want him inside with him, but he doesn’t want him to leave either. He asks him to put his hand on the blanket and Martin touches back. Martin then asks if he feels his hand or the blanket. This flashback establishes some basic thematic language and has a few parallel echoes later on. It’s presented as fundamentally important for Martin but the specific nature of his relationship with Daniel is almost never frankly stated. Almost.
During another scene that could potentially be a continuation of the flashback, Martin tells Daniel to get a pair of scissors and cut one hole above and another below. When this flashback(?) ends and we’re back in the present, we’re standing in rows of sheets hung out to dry outside of an apartment building. As you’re passing through the corridors of sheets you hear one snip. A little while later, you hear another. After that, you glimpse a sheet with one hole near the top and one near the bottom. If there was any doubt that was what it sounds like, later on you see a curtain sucked around a human outline with a hole in its face and another between its legs.
Since many of the flashbacks seem to be dropped during conversations with another character named Clara, it’s probable that Martin is actually talking about these events as you, the player, are shown them. This possibility is emphasized even more later on when the momentum near the end picks up, when he says “Clara don’t do this” when eerie events that resemble his connection to Daniel start happening. If Clara is doing anything, the only potential reason the player is given is because of what Martin told her. The fact that the player has been in Martin’s POV during the mid-conversation flashbacks that show his story adds to the sense of participation. Even after the sections where you are basically forced to sit in Martin’s POV and watch him talk, you are put in very ambiguous and tense situations that will not progress until you go where you have to go to trigger the events.
Essentially, you are shown a visceral vulnerability of the player character that may or may not have been vocalized before, then, following this huge, personal surrender, the protagonist loses all sense of control and safety. Fear was overcome to let another person in, and then the fear was justified in spades. You’re not even sure of the exact threat and you will not learn how badly you fucked up until you walk yourself into the worst of it.
Think of the cut-scene in the second BioShock game where your awful ending will not happen until you press a button, and you will press the button because you can’t do anything else. That’s kinda what’s going on.
If The Space Between was a short film, the ending and the momentum that’s built up by Martin’s trust and his subsequent betrayal is where we would get the real payoff of the literary and photographic hybridization. There is even a word from early twentieth century German film that’s easily applicable to this: expressionism. Put simply, an expressionist film is set in a vacuum, establishes its own “rules” in the course of its story and needs no context. David Lynch has probably done more heavy lifting than anyone toward updating and localizing German expressionism for America with films like Ereaserhead, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Those films are not set in a vacuum, but the real world locations that they are set in tend to not inform the internal rules of the “world” any more than a vacuum. Usually, a psychological or emotional continuity takes priority over a literal one. All of the visual cues and character decisions make sense, but only if you accept the subjective dominance of one specific character over all others, since the things that have emotional connotations for them will end up controlling everything else.
If The Space Between was a film, the ending is where Martin’s psychological continuity would start replacing the literal continuity in the foreground. What makes this kind of narrative device different from, say, something like the Pink Floyd film The Wall which is strictly about a character’s internal life, is that The Space Between tries to draw your attention to an objective world that definitely exists but is still invisible.
The game begins with what appears to be a newspaper article about the body of Martin Melanson, a well-known architect, being found in a hollow within a wall. So we have a definite statement of something happening, but everything else is totally subjective. David Lynch has done similar things, such as in Lost Highway when Fred Madsen appears to magically change into Pete Dayton while he’s in prison. Pete is released from prison and the story, through visual cues, seriously begins to look like a separate, parallel event to the Fred Madsen story. What stops the viewer from firmly deciding that Pete Dayton is in a separate story is that he was followed out of prison and is being surveilled by two FBI agents from the Fred Madsen story. The presence of the FBI agents are a constant reminder that, no matter how much this looks like a broken continuity, one thing is still chronologically following the other. Like The Space Between, something is definitely happening in the real world, but the subjective continuity makes it totally invisible.
For film, this is an example of a well-established device that relies completely on the visual cues and the performances of the actors to overwhelm a frankly stated plot. The plot is overwhelmed with a visual and dramatic continuity that still has a thematic relationship with the plot, even while leaving it behind.
As much as I enjoyed The Space Between, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: what makes this different from an interactive film? Does its presentation as a video game actually bring any real hybridization, or is this simply a film via video game?
As previously stated, the orientation of the player in Martin’s first person point of view does much to differentiate the experience from that of watching a film. Dialogue is used often but many of the essential stories told by Martin are shown directly to the player through flashbacks rather than through explication. The next difference may not be a substantial one but The Space Between utilizes the same graphics as early nineties PS1 games which has a few different consequences.
One of them, which is admittedly negotiable, is nostalgia-tinged uncanniness for those of us that grew up with the PS1. It creates the experience of finding something startlingly foreign within something familiar. It also uses some commonplace technological limitations from that era to good effect. Most early PlayStation games used text-based dialogue to save information space and, rather like those very games, The Space Between‘s text dialogue allows the communication between characters to share the foreground with the atmosphere created by the music.
Which is to say, the dialogue happens within a sonic atmosphere rather than interrupting or embodying it like voice acting would. This, both for this game and older games, is a huge gain for the immersion. It’s this immersion that enables the player to be directly in touch with the subjective continuity as it takes over the objective one, making it an effective blending of cinematic trope with classic video game presentation. The first person player experience plays into the success of the expressionist structure.
Now….as cool as I think this game is and as much as I’m enjoying reviewing it, this review was not originally the point of this entry. What I wanted to talk about in the first place were ideas from filmmaking seeping into other mediums. There are a few different reasons for this.
The more selfish ones are, as the opening paragraph states, that I am growing curious about other art forms than the one I’m most accustomed to. So I’m skimming the more, shall we say, vanilla edges of game development. I’ve also had ideas for screenplays that I’ve been seriously excited about in the past but, realistically, filmmaking can be very difficult to get into. Which hasn’t stopped me from roughing out screenplays, but genuine difficulties exist. So perhaps it’s prudent to be aware of other expedients.
Was this what Christoph Frey, the mind behind The Space Between was thinking when he made that game?
I can think of some reasons why it may not have been, such as a wish to simply make an uncanny and dreamlike work of art, but if he was thinking about an alternative to filmmaking, I could hardly blame him. Alejandro Jodorowsky, a renowned filmmaker by any standard, struggled for decades to make a sequel to his 1970 classic El Topo and, recently, has decided that his vision was too pressing to wait any further on the convenience of the film industry. He then turned to an artist he trusted deeply and elected to make the El Topo sequel, called The Sons Of El Topo, into comics. I have read the first hard back English language volume, Cain, and Abel is expected to get a hard back English release later this year.
Being the pragmatic and opportunistic magpie that I am, I always jump at the opportunity to learn more about how my own ideas may benefit from similar adjustments. My recent desire to throw myself into RPG Maker started with a conversation with a friend about making our own video game together. My mind took off but at the time I wasn’t aware how obtainable RPG Maker software is. As I plotted the story out I realized I cared too much about it to let go and so resolved myself to write it as a novel. And then I saw the bad-ass retro SNES and Gameboy-style assets and skins on RPG Maker and now I just don’t know. So the pros and cons of different kinds of artistic hybridization have been on my mind lately, how a story may change from one medium to another. Especially since this particular story of mine is connected to the same world-building project of two different novels I have in the works.
Why not do both the game and the book? Good question, why not indeed. Neil Gaiman did a few different retellings of Neverwhere for different mediums. Butttttt Iiii dunnnoooo…..I like the idea of a creative exchange between different mediums that are all involved in the same project. Such things have their flaws, as the expanded FFXV and Kingdom Hearts universes attest, but…I wanna 😡
And, at least, I think the multi-volume El Topo saga indicates that success might just be obtainable on that front. Several things that had a very specific function in the original film, that worked specifically as cinematic techniques, have been translated to intriguing effect in the comic book continuation.
For example, the cross dressing and the seemingly random fetish imagery. Film, like theater, can get so subjective at times that you wonder if there is meant to be any actual context (I.e. expressionism). El Topo exploited this potential well. The protagonists’ transformation has a lot to do with a female phantom-self, a kind of Jungian anima, that may or may not actually exist. This female reflection is portrayed by an actress but, when she speaks, she has a male voice. Later, in a separate setting, an apparently female character also has a male voice-over when she speaks. Does the female reflection of El Topo exist in the same way that the named characters do? What about the same phenomena appearing casually in a different place?
The comic continuation has made it clear that at least some of these things literally exist: male to female cross dressers do, in fact, seem to be common place. Particularly in the clergy. And that El Topo, post-martyrdom, is venerated by Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims. This could either mean that El Topo has literally synthesized all of these religions into one or that this is a non-literal way of indicating that El Topo is universally revered in the fictional world. It is also now clear that the honey-combs that appeared at El Topos grave were not an illusory symbol but literally appeared as his dying miracle.
Another smaller but cool wrinkle is that the ghost of El Topo and the appearance of his sons are all meticulously drawn to resemble Jodorowsky himself in his performance in the original movie. Cain is identical to the violent pre-apotheosis El Topo and Abel is identical to post-apotheosis El Topo. El Topo’s actual ghost looks simply the way he did at the moment of his death. In the beginning, when El Topo’s final massacre near the end of his life is retold, the artist is very precise is recreating Jodorowsky’s specific facial expressions and it’s freaking beautiful.
The precise nuts and bolts there remain to be seen for English speakers, and my French is a little rusty right now so I don’t know if I’d be up to tackling the older digital versions of the French run. Another thing that has yet to be seen is whether or not the female version of El Topo will be revealed to have a literal existence after El Topo is dead- she was an essential character in the film and I would love to see her again in the comic.
So yeah. I find some of Jodorowsky’s words rather applicable to my current predicament: “There is no failure, only a change of direction”. Closed doors can definitely lead to successes of their own with the right mindset as he himself has made clear.
Link to the Ichio page where Christoph Frey’s The Space Between can be purchased-
Only a few days ago Square Enix dropped what is supposed to be the very last piece of DLC for Final Fantasy XV and it was…well…something. It was something, anyway.
Not altogether bad, but severely flawed in certain ways. Unfortunately, the flaws of this DLC echo many of the flaws in the base game so maybe that shouldn’t count too hard against it. One of the weaknesses echoed here is that it’s just too easy. I get that it’s short and episodic like all the other character chapter DLCs and not meant to last too long, but you can still pack a decent challenge into a small space. Again, though, the base game is almost startlingly easy compared to any other Final Fantasy game I’ve played so far.
I remember when I got to the point where Noctis wakes up in a daemon-covered Eos I was like “oh cool, now we’re starting the second half of the game”. That part does resemble how a lot of Final Fantasy games mark the middle of the story: FFVI is divided between the World of Balance for the first half and the World of Ruin for the second (I’ll try not to dwell on FFXV’s botched references to VI…). The middle of FFVII is marked by the appearance of Meteor in the sky, etc. While this isn’t exactly consistent with the pattern, FFXIII has you get kicked down to Pulse.
Soooo given the established precedents, night-covered daemon-ravaged Eos seriously looks like the second half is about to start. And then you get that notice saying that once you enter Insomnia the final battle is afoot. It was kind of a facepalm moment for me. I had barely been playing the game a few weeks by that point and I was seriously taking my time, trying to absorb as much as I could and do every side-quest I could find.
There were two reasons for this design choice: one of them is that the majority of the content is post-game. The second is that Square Enix was seriously considering a move toward a different business model focusing on MMO’s and mobile apps, with Final Fantasy XV being something of a transitional device. Square evidently planned on developing a ton of DLC for the game, to be released over the next few years, and how that would go would be guided somewhat by player feedback.
So it pretty much was an incomplete game upon its initial release. Maybe some of the super-easy, loosely-structured gameplay in the main storyline was supposed to afford wiggle room for other DLC and update doo-dads. Evidently the unfolding of the central storyline was also supposed to be guided by reactions from fans. The unfolding definitely was, but I guess there’s also room to infer that some of the actual plot details could have been governed by fans as well. The Ignis DLC, with its multiple endings that would impact the story going forward, may have opened up a door for multiple timelines. So who knows what that would have yielded if they hadn’t decided to stop at Episode Ardyn and put the rest of the planned story revelations into an upcoming novel or story collection.
Interestingly, though, out of the fan reactions that made it to the ears of Square Enix, no one had mentioned the super-easy difficulty as a problem. In fact, they thought the part where Noctis is stripped of his powers in Gralea was too hard. Sooo the game started shockingly easy and stayed shockingly easy throughout the exchange between Square and the players. So Episode Ardyn can’t be singled out for that, exactly. And I’m sorry if I seem like I’m spending a lot of time dwelling on a weakness that’s fundamental to the IP itself and not the specific fault of this DLC, but it messes with me. Because it’s so ubiquitous, in almost every facet of FFXV. The Pitioss Dungeon was the one clear exception. Costlemark Tower requires some persistence and grinding but isn’t really hard.
It also reflects badly on how Square Enix has developed other parts of the digital supplements, like the multiplayer expansion. It seems like quotas of monsters to hunt is something that gets plugged in a lot. I mean it’s most of what happens with the multiplayer expansion and the majority of things to do in Episode Ardyn involve wandering around and getting in fights. It’s like they want to do an “open sandbox” design but don’t really have a good idea as to how to flesh out the gameplay in the “open sandbox”. The multiplayer expansion consists entirely of kill quotas and the dungeons that get unlocked post-game from Ezma’s key are just successive subterranean rooms with monsters to kill. If Episode Ardyn was the last DLC for this game, they evidently decided to end with what they did the most of.
The biggest map in the DLC is the city of Insomnia during your raid, with items scattered all over that become visible when you knock out a shield generator, and gimme points for destroying signs and cars and balloons and megaphones along with push-over battles with Insomnia’s military (the Kingsglaive, maybe?). A few decades ago, there was a game called Rampage on the Nintendo 64, where you play as a claymation monster causing random havoc in a city, Godzilla-style. In elementary school there was only one other person in my sixth grade class who was as annoyingly hyper-active as me and we spent a loud, cackling evening once on that game. That was what Episode Ardyn reminded me of. Which is to say I had a little bit of fun. It was easy to the point where I only got KO’d once and it was a simple planning mistake, but I had fun. The music they used for the orgy of destruction also got a smile out of me: it’s this rap-like thing that reminds me of nu-metal, a late-childhood / early teens throwback for me.
But it’s simplistic, and after spending much of FFXV not being challenged at all, it’s just sort of…like…having another bowl of ice cream for dessert, after your ice cream dinner which was smothered with hot fudge, caramel and pieces of Oreo and Heath bar. Ice cream is nice and I pretty much always like ice cream, but there is such a thing as being overloaded on it.
That being said, the story complications weren’t s’bad. It was cool to see Ardyn get pulled out of the Angelguard prison after two millennia of somnolent captivity. By a young Verstael Besithia, no less, when he was young enough to have the features we’d see on the Magitek troops once they started cloning them from him…which is to say a face quite like our lil blonde friend Prompto in the base game. It seemed like a neat, subtle thing to do- seeing Verstael and Ardyn interact with each other was almost like a villainous mirror of Prompto and Noctis (what with Ardyn’s connection to the Caelum family).
Next, we have some follow-up to some other revelations from the prologue anime that got released back in February which set part of the stage of the DLC. When the crystal flashed and gave it’s choice for the throne, there were wing and blade-like shapes flaring out from it that looked like Bahamut. Implying that Bahamut chose Somnis and shafted Ardyn and causing people on YouTube to make theory videos about how Bahamut might be the real villain of FFXV.
Early in the DLC, we get a sort of convoluted reversal of that which I didn’t fully understand. At the end, though, there is a conversation between Bahamut and Ardyn that goes back to supporting the idea of Bahamut orchestrating Ardyn’s journey. Ardyn learns that his death will carry the daemons with it, and when they’re gone, the need for a divine steward (such as the Caelum family) will go away- essentially, that Ardyn and the kings of Lucis will perish together in the end, satisfying his desire for revenge.
Bahamut has a similar talk with Noctis near the end of the base game about accepting his destiny graciously, which creates a really nice parallel that links us back to the brotherly enmity we witnessed between Ardyn and Somnis and the role that destiny played between them. It’s a neat way of characterizing the Caelum family as a group with a light and a dark half that are both equally dependent on each other.
There were still a lot of glaring omissions, though. The Starscourge began with Ifrit’s rebellion and the Starscourge was the whole motivation for Ardyn becoming an Oracle. Late in the game, Bahamut and Ifrit continue to be big players. Has this all been about human proxies in a war between the gods? It’s definitely implied. Prolly not stated to maintain the impression that the human characters are still centrally important, though.
The possibility that the whole plot of FFXV is built around a proxy war between Bahamut and Ifrit also supports the presented narrative of the Caelum family, of it’s light and dark nature that are divided by enmity and united by mutual dependence. Noctis, Ardyn and Luna are all martyrs to a superhuman cause.
While Episode Ardyn may have aptly tied together a bunch of the themes thus far, I also think it supported one of the worst narrative qualities of FFXV. Most Final Fantasy games have a halfway point where the world is in danger and the priorities of every character are either turned on their head or otherwise re-evaluated. FFXV stops at the point where this would have happened- not just in terms of Final Fantasy‘s typical plot structuring, but they also truncate the main character arcs where, in older FF games, they would only just be taking off.
The characters of FFXV are barely required to re-examine or take ownership of themselves. Sure enough, one of our last images in the game is Noctis and Luna holding court in the afterlife. He seems to be sharing a happy ghostly existence with a woman he pined over but has not spoken to since childhood, so evidently the plot requirement that Noctis die has rewarded him for not growing up. All the pathos of tragic love rewarded with total indulgence, culminating in the most saccharine portrayal of tragic love I may have ever seen.
Just on it’s face, this is lazy and possibly repugnant storytelling that glorifies an unrealistic picture of romance. That’s bad enough. Especially with stuff like 13 Reasons Why and the Twilight books fresh in our memories. But it’s worse when so many of the older Final Fantasy stories have done better than that, often with love stories. In VII, Cloud found validation for his sublimated identification with Zach through Aerith, which is a kind of morbid fantasy ideal, but in the end he was nurtured by his friendship with Tifa, whom he had known since childhood. In FFVI, Locke gets wrapped up in a white knight complex over his failure to protect his dead girlfriend, Rachel, and during the World of Ruin segment, he can be found attempting to track down an Esper that he believes can revive the dead, which turns out not to be possible.
Even without keeping our focus on romantic subplots, a lot of similar things happen. FFIX involves the search for a soul, which both Zidane and Vivi have idealized as an unobtainable seal of approval entitling you to your existence, and both of them learn that you don’t need any deeper validation than your own subjectivity and lived experiences. I could go on.
I’m not saying old Final Fantasy games are Shakespeare or anything, but a few of these character arcs show genuine attention to detail and there’s no reason not to give credit where credit is due. And like I said, FFXV breaks the pattern of something that was (at least) admissibly pulled off in a lot of the older FF titles.
Another reason why I’m dwelling on the botched portrayal of tragic love between Noctis and Luna is that, in one of the polls Square Enix took among gamers, many reported that they would have liked to have seen Noctis and Luna get their “happy ending”. None of the fan responses brought up the issue that the relationship was over-romanticized and that it was based on A. a marriage contract between two nations and B. a childhood encounter between the two affianced. There are ways to deal with political marriages in narratively compelling ways, but trying to make the two marriage pawns “true lovers” on the strength of a childhood meeting years ago, and nothing else, is not the way to do it. I also feel like Episode Ardyn was meant to leave wiggle room for the “happy ending” with Bahamut placing Ardyn, fully clothed and with his social standing in Niflheim intact, at Angelguard again. And we hear no mention of the raid on Insomnia with the younger Regis in the base game, so presumably it was purged from the historical record, implying that Bahamut can manipulate time. That’s two DLC’s (counting Episode Ignis) that suggest multiple timelines.
I would maintain that everything I’ve written in this post so far is defensible but I’m about to get into territory that departs from actual sources and is total speculation on my part, or fix-it fic-ing.
What if FFXV actually had a second half after the global disaster, like every other FF game, and Noctis had the chance to make his own choices free of family obligation and unrealistic fantasies?
Who has been at Noctis’ side throughout the whole journey, expresses concern and regard for his emotions, treats him like an equal without pulling any paternal moralizing crap, and has a truly upsetting falling out with him that they bounce back from?
Prompto. You read that right. I think Prompto should be Noctis’ canonical love interest. I’m not saying this trait is always a telltale signs of closeted homosexuality in and of itself, but just think about it: Prompto is really vocal about thinking this or that girl is cute, way more vocal than any other character. The other guys in the brotherhood even rip on him over it, albeit gently. For all of his chauvinistic noisemaking, though, he never does anything chauvinistic, toward a female or anyone else. Prompto even seems to easily make platonic friendships with female characters (Iris and, in his own DLC, Aranea Highwind). You could rebut this by saying no other male character makes any romantic or sexual moves on any female character, but Prompto is the one who sounds off about it. Therefore, it is only in his case that the question is begged. Prompto makes a lot of noise about how straight he is, but when do you ever see him truly bent out of shape over a girl? Who is the only person whom he ever gets bent out of shape over? That would be Noctis.
Another rebuttal could be that Noctis shows no visible signs of being anything other than straight. I think this was a commonly voiced objection when Gotham briefly entertained a ship between Penguin and the Riddler. Viewers would complain that Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler, never frankly expressed attraction for a man. However, a lot of bisexuals can attest to the fact that it’s possible to cling to the illusion that you’re straight, regardless of feelings, if you only ever act on feelings for the opposite sex. This could just as easily be true of Noctis if the writers cared to take it in that direction.
If the game continued past the first glimpse of the World of Ruin, we also may have seen a different and more compelling story about demanding to live in spite of a prophecy requiring you to die. That, as a central theme, would have gone nicely with a new love interest once Luna was ruled out as a possibility. And by new love interest I mean Prompto. C’mon, Square, one unambiguous same-sex couple wouldn’t kill you. They sort of went there with Fang and Vanille in FFXIII, but it wasn’t frankly stated.
Is this me airing a fan-fic thought bubble? Totally, but I think it’s defensible by the standards of fan-fic thought bubbles. If that’s too wonky, then I guess I’m just saying FFXV has a story that’s abruptly short and compares badly to many of the older installments. Boom. Ended on an objectively arguable note.