Thursday, June 20, 2013

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x08 - "I, Robot... You, Jane"

Hey, Miss Calendar!
Tease Giles and be awesome?
All in a day's work.


Last time, on Buffy, I didn't have have much to say, about the introduction of Buffy's major love interest and the reveal that he is, in fact, a vampire.  This time on Buffy, Willow unwittingly cyber-dates an ancient demon that's been uploaded into a computer and chats with teenagers so they'll do his evil bidding - and somehow, I have a lot to talk about.  File under: things I did not expect.

Of course, what's great about "I, Robot... You, Jane" is not the plot.  The entire premise is pretty laughable from start to finish, especially with all the 1997 computer technology on display.  Willow couldn't be online, her phone wasn't busy!  The computer demon could reach anywhere connected to a modem!  That webcam!  That laptop!  But it's not really about the technology, or the premise, or the plot.  It's about what all of those things mean.  The execution on these concepts finds an interesting debate about technology, an allegory about unhealthy love, and still keeps its characters at the foundation of the heightened plot they're enacting.

Obviously, the debate about books vs. computers is meant to be at the forefront of the episode's discussion.  It shakes out in the interactions between Giles, who is firmly in Camp Printed Word, and the computer programming teacher Jenny Calendar, who embraces the benefit of the inevitable digital revolution.  This friction between traditional and progressive houses the main theme of the episode, and creates a timely debate not so much about books and computers but about knowledge, information, and change - which makes it actually quite timeless.  It's easy to forget, after all, that books - and the widespread production of them - were once considered technology.  No coincidence, then, that the flashback showing Moloch the Love Demon's original entrapment was set in 1418 Italy, thirty-two years before the invention of the printing press in the western world.  (China was well on this shit about four hundred years earlier.)

When Johann Gutenberg invented the European-access movable type printing press in 1450, he also gave way to a revolution in communication.  The ability to print material en masse brought information to a wider spread of people, simply because the production of a book took less time, and could therefore ensure a larger effect.  Before this bit of technology, the communication of knowledge was restricted, as the production of books was tedious and time-consuming.  Hand-copied illuminated manuscripts were a painstakingly slow endeavor, usually completed by monks, and therefore written in High Latin.  This was also a barrier to knowledge at the time - if you didn't speak church Latin, you didn't have access to that information.  It's why Dante's The Divine Comedy (ca. 1320) was such a big deal; he used an amalgamation of colloquial Italian dialects to reach more people.  In making his work more accessible to the masses, he helped bring information to the larger culture, instead of making knowledge contingent on the reader making education gains beyond their opportunity and means.

So, with this history lesson in mind, it's beyond delightful that Jenny Calendar sasses Giles for his library-centric view of knowledge, and advocates for digital information in that it's much more easily spread to those less privileged than well-off white dudes.  After all, isn't the advent of the internet breaking down the same barriers in communication and knowledge that the printing press did in 1450?  The limitations of information spread are less of an issue, as are the geographic barriers separating social and cultural lines.  Obviously, the machine that facilitates this access is not free, but computers are more and more commonplace, and places like libraries are offering use of them for free, to those who may not be able to afford one in their home.

In delineating Miss Calendar's and Giles' idealogical differences this way, "I, Robot... You, Jane" doesn't really take a side in the debate.  When taking the premise at face value - Willow cyber dates a dude who turns out to be bad for her - it'd be awfully easy to jump to a conclusion along the lines of "the internet is evil."  But the episode doesn't even come close to putting forth this basic reaction, simply because books and computers are treated as more or less the same, when it all comes down to it.  Giles gets in his romantic view of book smells, sure, but Moloch came from a book before he went on the internet, so in terms of villainy, we're 1-1 on technology-gone-evil.  Plus, Jenny Calendar's role as a modern techno-pagan is just so cool that the audience can't really help but immediately fall in love with her.  Follow suit, Giles!  She's just like you, except digital.  It's the books-vs-computers debate manifested in human form: they're made of the same stuff, they just use different means.

No, "I, Robot... You, Jane" never condemns the pervasiveness of the internet, but it does warn against something much less newfangled, and much more threatening: the dangers of unhealthy love.  Willow's interactions with Malcolm are not icky because she doesn't know what he looks like, or because he could be lying to her - they're icky because they bear all the hallmarks of emotional manipulation and unhealthy investment.  They're slyly infused with a level of absolutism, and designed to prey on the unempowered.  The promise of Moloch is repeated three times: I can give you everything.  All I want is your love.  The idea that love is a trade and not a benediction speaks volumes.  Not only that, but it's pancaked into vague absolutes - if you love me, you can have everything.  Whatever you want, you can have - only if you love me. 

What's unsettling is that this interpretation of love isn't all that unfamiliar in popular love narratives - especially with teenagers.  Willow's initial description of Malcolm is an insidious giveaway of this sweeping, flat love: "He's romantic, and we agree on everything."  Are these the only necessarily qualifiers for a partner?  We agree on everything runs a neat parallel to I can give you everything if you love me.  Agreeing on everything is hardly a reasonable standard for long-lasting relationships, and implies some level of self-sacrifice to make the partner happy, which can therefore be twisted as a sign of romantic devotion.  I love you so much, I have all the same opinions as you.  Then, the recipient of that gesture owes you big, because you've erased your own identity to replace it with the "love" that benefits them.  That's the payment that Moloch requires, as he turns on both Dave and Willow when they rethink their devotion.  "But I love you.  You are mine."  In other words, you are owed to me because I gave myself to you.

It's creepy, right?  Absolutes and payment and possession wrapped up in generous words that make the recipient feel special.  "You know me better than anyone.  I can't believe how comfortable you make me feel."  It's hard especially for Willow not to respond to that.  "I, Robot... You, Jane" is very smart about keeping their characters' insecurities at the surface, so the audience can both understand why they might get wrapped up in a bad situation, and still feel empathetic to them.  How heartbreaking is Willow's admission that boys don't really chase her, and she's probably not Malcolm's ideal?  (Again with the expectation that love hinges on being perceived as perfect to your partner!)  It makes so much sense that Willow, with her low sense of romantic self-worth, would engage with blind and strings-attached promises of love and connection.  

Xander too demonstrates an interesting (albeit sidecar) display of low-self worth in "I, Robot... You, Jane," as he claims wanting to go to the Bronze to make fun of people who don't talk to him.  Xander's manifests a bit differently than Willow's, though.  Willow's low self-worth makes her vulnerable, gullible even, as she often embodies the "damsel in distress" role in the Buffyverse.  Her disempowerment puts her at risk, and eventually drives her towards witchcraft - which alleviates the issue, since she's damseled far less frequently after that point.  Xander, however, wields his disenfranchised status as both a shield and a weapon.  Self-deprecating to the point of self-loathing, Xander uses humor to keep people from preying on his vulnerabilities, and has no problem dropping a mean comment against others to balance the perceived injustice.  This point of view also hints at Xander being incredibly self-centric, as he's focused mostly on his own suffering at the hands of others.  After all, he reacts to Willow's love interest by saying: "Everyone deserts me."

Anyways, this episode isn't about Xander's insecurities - it's about Willow's.  And naturally, when it comes time for Moloch to be fought off, Willow is allowed an empowered chance to swing a punch at him - or a fire extinguisher, as it were.  What's notable about the moment, though, is that Willow only gets a hit at Moloch when he's a threat to Buffy.  This is also true for the greater episode narrative; Willow only becomes suspicious of Malcolm when he tries to turn Willow on Buffy.  On the one hand, it's great that the general message is that Willow doesn't allow for unhealthy love to isolate her from her loved ones; she still puts Buffy before Malcolm.  But on the flip side of this is the sad realization: Willow also puts Buffy above herself.  She's instigated to fight back only when it's protection over Buffy, which is both endearing and slightly tragic.  Any way you interpret it, though, whether good or bad, it's very telling about Willow's level of self-worth, and the value she places on her association with Buffy, who she sees as a pillar of strength, coolness, and looks.

So, you didn't expect to get all that out of an episode about a lovelorn Windows '97 cyber demon, did you?  Me neither.  But Buffy has a way of mining human interest out of stories about the supernatural, and that point of strength is what keeps it enshrined as one of my favorite TV shows.  "I, Robot... You, Jane" may be laughable in its premise and plot, but the execution of character, theme, and social commentary is pretty stellar.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Orphan Black, Motherhood, and Humanity

The television series Orphan Black is about a lot of things: nature vs. nurture, science vs. religion, the concepts of identity, humanity, belonging, and individualism.  In that this is a story of a woman's quest to understand her existence as one of a group of genetic duplicates, it makes a certain amount of sense for these ideas to be explored.  However, Orphan Black also pays careful and close attention to one other fundamental meditation on life and birth: motherhood itself. To call it “attention” would actually be an understatement; Orphan Black not only populates its universe with devoted mothers and daughters, it almost sanctifies the construct, by placing it at emotional center.  This world, in which science and religion cannot be trusted, devotes itself to only one holy truth: motherhood.

Let’s start with the very first moments of the show.  We meet three people in a very brief amount of time: Sarah, and a mother and daughter on the train.  It’s the tiniest moment, to show a mom’s reproach of Sarah swearing in front of her daughter, but it communicates so much.  We assume Sarah’s not a mother, because she doesn’t behave like a mother might in front of children.  And we quickly learn that she is on the run.  Her decisions in the first episode are extreme, impulsive yet calculated.  She drinks soap!  She drinks soap as a method of escape!  She is in survival mode, backed into a corner, and reacting out of defense.  We don’t know this woman’s compass, because she’s not centered on it.  That is, until, we learn that Sarah in fact is a mother, and that seemingly incongruent identity is almost the only thing that defines her.

By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that Kira is designed to be Sarah’s compass, beating heart, and soul-tethered motivator.  More than running away, Sarah wants to have a life with Kira; Sarah wants to be a mother.  She prizes her motherhood over all else, even if it’s a role that might terrify her, or not quite seem to fit her.  So, every decision Sarah makes over the course of 10 episodes is both informed and directed by her relationship with Kira.  It’s everything.  She begins a character intent on running away, and becomes a character who stands and protects.  As she eventually tells Paul: "I don't do run."

Orphan Black takes this principle of Sarah’s protection of Kira, and uses it to codify motherhood on the show.  ‘Motherhood’ and ‘protection’ are practically synonymous, and are wielded together as the backbone to several characters and their actions.  They’re utilized as a motivating force not only for Sarah, but also for Mrs. S., Siobhán, Kira’s primary caretaker at story’s beginning and Sarah’s foster mother herself.  Mrs. S. is clearly defined as a mother of deep and enduring devotion.  She took in foster children in England, until it became imperative, as she was told, that she hide young Sarah further from her birth environment.  When that happened, Mrs. S. basically sacrificed, blindly, her entire livelihood for Sarah’s benefit, and moved them, with Felix, to Canada.  Currently, she protects Kira from Sarah herself, as Sarah skipped out for 10 months, and also from the potentially violent threat of Sarah’s clone associations.  Orphan Black makes it very clear that Mrs. S. is fundamental to the nurture and safety of her children, none of whom were born to her biologically.

In that Sarah was raised by a foster parent, the narrative comes with the built-in idea that there’s a duality of motherhood, tapping into the show’s theme of nature vs. nurture.  There’s Sarah’s birth mother, and there’s the woman who raised Sarah.  We actually get the chance to meet Sarah’s birth mother, Amelia, a woman who carried two babies for a couple before realizing she was being paid by scientists to incubate an experiment.  In an act of blind protection, she gave both babies over to higher institutions that might keep them safe from harm: one to the church, and one to the state.  The most important decision that this woman makes is framed entirely by her motivation of motherly sacrifice.  In this way, the concept of nature vs. nurture doesn’t quite fit the dichotomy between Amelia and Siobhán; they both contribute to the nurture of the children in their care.  Because of this, both mothers are held in high regard, as Orphan Black never ventures any stance in the definition of a “real” mother.  A mother is simply someone who cares for a child, and both Amelia and Siobhán qualify.

Not to go all T.Lo on your asses, but notice that these are the first and last appearances of Alison in Season 1.  In the first, she is actively fighting, and wearing a very saturate pink.  In the last, she is surrendering, and wearing a much less saturate pink.  The intensity of the color, like the fight, is drained out of her.

A third key character is defined strongly by fierce protection over her brood: Alison Hendrix, Sarah’s seeming foil.  Alison’s identity as a mother is wrapped up neatly in her original stereotype: “soccer mom.”  She is initially an obstacle for Sarah, as she attacks any perceived threat to her pack (her children, her family, her clone sisters).  Not one to sit idly when her family might be at risk, Alison’s protection almost always manifests in violence (often to hilarious and disturbing ends).  She demanded Beth teach her how to shoot a gun so she could keep her family safe; she maces and tasers Vic when he mistakenly harasses her; she tortures her own husband under suspicion that he might be monitoring her.  Alison goes to any length to protect her family, and at season’s end, she shows exactly that by signing away her identity for the sake of her family’s safety.  She says it herself early on: "My bottom line is my children can't know their mother is a freak."  Alison’s actions are almost always extreme, but we understand because the show codes her using motherhood as a motivating force, as it does with Sarah, Mrs. S., and Amelia.

But Orphan Black wields motherhood even beyond its role as a motivating force.  Motherhood is also defined as a connecting force.  Obviously, it connects the actual mothers with their own daughters.  But it’s more than this; it also connects mothers to other mothers, and mothers to non-mothers simply through an overwhelming plea for empathy.  Every ally that surrounds Sarah and Kira is devoted by virtue of Sarah’s devotion, whether mother or not.  Felix is practically a parent to Kira.  Paul risks his personal safety to keep Sarah safe.  Delphine keeps the knowledge of Kira hidden from Dr. Leekie.  Cosima blows up at the possibility that Delphine could have turned over the information.   Kira, as a child, a daughter, is at the center of a clutch of individuals ensuring no enemy breaks the line and threatens her security.

Of course, there are three other key figures in Kira’s protection, and all three are developed as core dynamics of season 1, entirely founded on the motherly connection.  The first is, naturally, Sarah and Mrs. S., as their rift is healed slowly with the understanding that they both put Kira as top priority.  Mrs. S. offers up as much information to Sarah as she knows about her identity, and Sarah refuses to lie to Mrs. S. about her involvement with the police, choosing to wait for the right time to introduce her foster mother into the fold.  After all, she’s already one of Kira’s sworn protectors; may as well give her all the information.  By the end of season 1, Sarah and Mrs. S.’s relationship is one of the more emotionally affecting, even though the narrative hints at Mrs. S. possibly being involved with Sarah’s creation.  Hopefully the writers choose to shade this association with mitigating circumstances, keeping Mrs. S. in her role as devoted mother and still fleshing her out as morally complicated.

The second key relationship connected by motherhood is one of the least likely: Sarah with Alison.  They may not be all that similar, but they are constructed on one very fundamental principle: protect the family, at all costs.  It is this idea that creates a bond between Sarah and Alison, that pushes them individually towards one another, and that serves as the backdrop for them to ally themselves to each other.  The story can be told in three simple steps: Sarah chooses to return Alison’s money, her ticket to freedom, to do right by Kira.  Then, Alison steps up to impersonate Sarah in front of Kira, and even goes further to earn Sarah the chance to reconnect with Kira.  And then, Sarah steps up in return, not so much by torturing Donnie for Alison, but for defending her to him when he lashes out at her.  It’s important to note, too, that Donnie’s attack of Alison is framed entirely by her femininity; he accuses her of “irrational nonsense,” then tells her to get her “frazzled, PMS shit together.”  The fact that Sarah immediately shuts that down and defends Alison specifically for her role as mother to the family is glorious, and a shining example of where this show centers its values.  Motherhood is sacred, and synonymous with protection.  The end.

The final crucial relationship bound by motherhood is actually the least likely, considering the murder and kidnap attempts: Sarah with Helena.  Sarah and Helena both feel a unique connection to one another which is explained with the knowledge that they shared a womb.  Thus, the concept of motherhood tethers them to one another biologically, and even extends further to Helena’s relationship with Kira.  Sarah and Kira become a fixation for Helena, as she was raised in the absence of motherly love.  She can’t go through with kidnapping Kira, choosing instead to disobey at the risk of personal abuse.  She treats the little girl almost as a sacred being, and this actually becomes a motivating force for Helena as well.  For better or for worse, both Sarah and Kira are connected to Helena through the idea of motherhood, and through Amelia herself.  Helena’s compass becomes directly tied to Sarah and Kira, and their relationship to her.

Thus, of the four main clones, Sarah and Alison are both understood individually in the narrative by their roles as mothers, as both a motivating force and connecting force between them.  Helena is also closely related to this concept, as she is motivated by her relationship with Sarah and Kira, and tethered to them both by the same token.  But Helena also exists, structurally, in conjunction with Cosima in their roles representing the institutions that Sarah and Alison, as mothers, often have to protect their families against.  The first, of course, is religion, personified by Helena.  And the second is science, personified by Cosima.

Religion and science are the closest things this show has to real villains, and Orphan Black smartly treats them not as inherently good or bad, but twisted to be good or bad based entirely on the human wielding the power of conviction.  It’s important to note that while Helena and Cosima represent their higher concepts, neither of them fall absolutely under that category.  Instead, they both are under threat of manipulation by the actual villains: Tomas, and Dr. Leekie, respectively.  Tomas holds power over Helena through contempt and abuse, disguised as protection and love.  Dr. Leekie uses Delphine, under the guise of protection and love, to gain access to Cosima.

What do these two villains, wielding a false promise of love, have in common?  Both represent larger social institutions, and both are aged white men of high standing.  This is no coincidence, because both science and religion are built with the power structure of patriarchy.  Orphan Black goes out of its way to find intentional similarities between the two seemingly juxtaposed constructs surrounding our heroines, and results in a narrative structure that reveals an underlying gender paradigm reinforcing the story.

Stick with me for a moment: many monotheistic religions, including Christianity, are founded on the principle that a god, a masculine entity, has the power to give life - something biologically feminine.  Similarly, the nature of Orphan Black’s science, “neolution,” hinges on the idea that nature can be defied to create a self-directed evolution.  In very basic terms, this is “womb envy” and “the God Complex,” respectively.  These concepts also tie in directly to the cloning project that gave life to Sarah, Alison, Cosima, and Helena.  Both principles, spawned from science and religion, tether strongly to the masculine creation of life through “unnatural” means, proving capability - and power - greater than the supposed “sacred feminine" nature.

This specific choice creates a heavily gendered construct throughout the entirety of Orphan Black.  In choosing for their legion of clones to be women, and putting them at the hands of two patriarchies, the show is making a hard statement not only about the challenges of empowering the feminine in a masculine society, but also about the fundamental role of femininity in humanity.  After all, every clone struggles to assert herself as a “real” person, an individual human.  Sarah boldly declares, “there’s only one of me,” despite her genetic duplicates.  Alison, after purporting herself to be a horrible person, follows it up with a tragic, “I’m not even a real person.”  Helena’s entire worldview is constructed on the idea that the clones aren’t human at all, simply perversions of science.  Cosima’s research even results in the disheartening realization that the clones are identifiable by an ID tag, a series of numbers and letters.  The easiest way to revoke someone’s humanity is to reduce them to a number, and the reveal is gutwrenching.  These women are all technically property, designed to exist in this world only as the spoils of ownership.  Nothing about their identity, their humanity, their individualism, is truly their own.  The shadow of the patriarchy strives to deny them that, to monopolize the creation of life and stamp out the humanity resultant of it.

But Orphan Black denounces the idea that these women could be anything but human, as they stand together at the center of the story, protecting their daughters, their families, the sacred feminine in themselves and others.  It’s denounced by the virtue that we see every clone character in a full range of emotions, each demonstrating her own spectrum of varied characteristics and behaviors despite being genetically indistinguishable.  And it's denounced because of the emphasis placed on the the sacred humanizing power of motherhood that motivates and connects its female heroes.  The implication is that humanity is femininity.  In a world created by Father God and run by white men with god complexes, that's huge.  In effect, this show could be summarized with one simple description: mothers and daughters fighting against a patriarchy that aims to control their bodies.

So while Orphan Black delves into the scientific, religious, and philosophical implications of cloning as thematic explorations, there is only one emotional core to the show: the role of motherhood.  It is a motivating force, a connecting force, held sacred and synonymous with protection, femininity, and humanity itself.  It burgeons through characters, between characters, and in the overall construction of the show’s conflicts.  Orphan Black is about nature, nurture, DNA, birth, and life: so why wouldn't it also be, at its core, about mothers, women, and femininity?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x07 - "Angel"

Hey, Salty Goodness.
When it comes to Angel's looks,
Cordy's got it right.


Okay, so I'm officially BACK with Buffy, She Bloggo, and... I wish I'd left off with another episode other than "Angel."  It's not that I don't like "Angel" (or Angel, for that matter) -- I just... it's all about a Buffy love interest and teen romance feelings, and that's rarely what I find most interesting about any narrative.  More still, "Angel" brings the Master and the Anointed One to the villainous forefront again, which basically feels like a whole lot of wasted screentime (especially knowing how underwhelmingly their opposition plays out).  It's really Darla who does anything of value to create external conflict in the episode, which helps to bring out the real issues in a Buffy-Angel romance.

In fact, "Angel" effectively manifests an idea that isn't quite so overt until later episodes: feelings are bad.  Feelings are complicated!  Relationships will never be easy on a Joss Whedon show, and "Angel" demonstrates the stirrings of that truth.  Where "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date" showed the difficulty for Buffy to have a normal dating life, "Angel" really solidifies the idea that feelings are pretty much nothing but trouble for these characters in their heightened supernatural circumstances.  Or rather, it signals to the audience that the big sources of conflict will always be tangled up with complicated emotions.

For example: Buffy's feelings for Angel complicate her duty to stake him, and she shoulders the guilt about Joyce's bite.  Angel's feelings for Buffy complicate his ability to protect her from a distance.  And, notably, Darla's feelings for Angel complicate her evil plan, as she's not anticipating that he's going to, well, stake her.  "Angel" also serves up clear reminders that Willow's feelings for Xander and Xander's feelings for Buffy are still simmering beneath the surface, bound to have negative consequences.  Feelings, feelings everywhere!  And they're all doomed.

Speaking of doomed, "Angel" also reveals that Angel is a 240-year-old vampire cursed by gypsies to have his soul intact, left to turmoil between his desire to hunt and his will to keep humanity.  Obviously, this is setup for a huge source of conflict, for Angel himself, as well as Buffy's relationship with him.  Since they have gooey doomed feelings for one another, this can't end well.  Like Willow said - think of the kids!  So, naturally, by the end of the episode, Angel endures a burning cross on his chest, simply because he gets to be close to Buffy.  And the question stands: will they get closer yet, or will the inherent complications in their roles as vampire and Slayer keep them apart?  After all, "Angel" finds Buffy and Angel both making out and physically sparring.  It's not gonna be simple.

Of course, Buffy represents, to Angel, another dichotomy.  It's not just Slayer vs. vampire, it's human vs. demon.  Angel is trapped between worlds; he walks like a man, but he isn't one.  It's a smart device to introduce Darla as an important figure from Angel's past, as she represents his vampire self trying to pull him back from the light.  (Or burn him with it, as it were.)  The core conflict for Angel is on full display in this episode, and it will fuel his existence as long as he's cursed.  Will he stand by his human soul or his demon impulses?  And so, "Angel" externalizes that conflict as Buffy and Darla face off, blonde v. blonde, human v. demon, two women pulling Angel in opposite directions.  But it has to be Angel that stakes Darla, thereby signalling to Buffy and the audience that he's made his choice.  It's Buffy, it's light, it's humanity.  Now kiss!

Something that's jarring about "Angel," having watched the complete series, is the fact that Darla uses guns to go after Buffy.  We don't often see guns on Buffy; the weaponry tends to trade in stakes and crossbows and the occasional hacking device.  Guns don't quite fit in on a supernatural show, and when guns are used, it's done so with an underscore on this point.  Yet Darla uses two guns with seemingly endless ammunition, intending to blow Buffy to pieces and claim Angel as her own again.  Honestly, I don't read too much into it, as "Angel" is still early in the series and the show is still defining its rules and boundaries.  Hell, the episode kills Darla off before she's made completely useful in the narrative, and (spoiler alert) they have to bring her back for story fodder on Angel.  (The series, not the character.  Or episode.  This is confusing.)  So the use of guns appears to be a glitch in the pattern, since the pattern hasn't even been established yet.

To be honest, "Angel" plays now as a somewhat dull episode, thanks to hindsight.  It sets up a lot of future conflict with Angel's backstory, and continues the season 1 arc with the Master and the Anointed, but since we know where these things go, it's not quite entertaining enough to be of rewatching interest.  But it's an important episode in showing the early stirrings of how emotions will always complicate on this show, and further demonstrating that things aren't going to be easy for the inevitable feelings that will happen in a supernatural narrative.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

H.G. Wells, "Instinct," and Embracing the Painful Truth

Last night’s Warehouse 13 saw the re-re-re-introduction of H.G. Wells, the long-suffering character boomeranged in and out of the show’s narrative for three seasons now.   So of course, she also seems to be gone again.  This shouldn’t really be surprising, but it’s still mildly frustrating that the Warehouse writers have never quite gotten H.G.’s story together onscreen.  Trying to piece together the offered fragments of this woman’s past, present, and future is, fittingly, a maddening riddle.  Last night’s episode did little more to solve the puzzle.

Last we saw H.G. Wells, she was running off with an astrolabe to protect the inhabitants of the Warehouse, instructed to isolate herself and keep the others safe.  This was a convenient way to remove her from the narrative, and so H.G. whisked away on her own adventure.  But as it turns out, this adventure has led her to Boone, Wisconsin, where she has a job as a forensic scientist and is playing house with a single dad and his precocious 8-year-old daughter.  It’s a little like watching a dog walking on its hind legs, intentionally so, and yet it’s what H.G. still chooses - or is left with? - at episode’s end.

The concept for H.G. escaping from the Warehouse Life (™) isn’t a bad one.  I’ve long loved the show’s dedication to the idea that it’s inevitably painful to devote one’s life to the Warehouse.  Lives are lost, hearts are broken, relationships complicated, estranged, and cut short.  With endless wonder comes the risk of living in a world of pain.  Artie’s back story with MacPherson illustrates this, as does the history of Jack and Rebecca.  It’s also demonstrated notably with Myka and H.G. herself, as she betrayed her trust and tried to destroy the world.  Committing to the Warehouse involves accepting the inevitability that you will hurt, and be hurt.  H.G. Wells, having been on both sides of that Janus coin, knows better than anyone.

So it makes sense, conceptually, for H.G. Wells to abandon the Warehouse and assemble a life for herself in 2013.  And of course, it makes even more sense that the life she creates involves caring for a precocious little girl not unlike her dearest Christina.  But the real question that Warehouse 13 leaves unanswered is this: is that truly where H.G. Wells, genius, inventor, agent, scientist, belongs?

It’s a difficult question to tackle, and unfortunately, “Instinct” doesn’t quite turn over all the rocks on this path.  H.G. delivers as much expositional and explanatory dialogue as possible, and Myka pushes but ultimately retreats.  “Instinct” feels distinctly dissatisfying because it never forces H.G. Wells to reassess her choices; it just blows holes in her charade and leaves her to pick up the pieces.  It never demands that H.G. Wells ask the question “Is this really where I belong?” until the damn car is driving away, and we get a hint of uncertainty on her face.  And of course, she bows out from the narrative again.

She’s not the first person to step away from Warehouse duties in the wake of emotional turbulence.  Myka’s arc for two seasons was about bringing her to the brink of that Warehouse-specific emotional upheaval.  The writers purposefully developed the skeptic into a believer, until believing in H.G. undoes her faith and drives her from her home.  Mired in shame, disappointment, and emotional exhaustion, Myka steps back.  But she is a central character on the show, and defined heavily by her sense of duty, so ultimately she returns to the Warehouse.  It is indeed where she belongs.  And it bears stating that she only does this after H.G. reminds her who she really is, a conversation that is just as much about absolving past sins as it is a reiteration of Myka’s truth.

So this question must be asked of H.G. at some point.  Where does she belong?  For the audience, it’s difficult to see her anywhere but involved in the activities of the Warehouse.  Paralleling H.G.’s part in redirecting Myka back to the Warehouse, Myka insists that this life in Wisconsin is not who she is.  After all, H.G. said herself that Myka knows her better than anyone, and Myka can’t not believe in H.G., after all this.  She has too much invested in her.

But “Instinct” raises a compelling question in the idea that maybe H.G. would be completely happy to hide in a fantasy.  After all, the beating heart behind H.G. Wells is not a sense of duty, like it is in Myka.  H.G. Wells is driven by the love for her daughter.  For all that we identify H.G. Wells as a genius, inventor, agent, scientist - the show has given enough evidence to support the idea that H.G. herself identifies primarily as a mother.  Christina’s mother.  But she hasn’t been Christina’s mother for over 100 years, so what is she supposed to do now?  Find a new Christina, and live happily - if simply - until death finally takes her?

It’s difficult to embrace this, however, considering how all-wrong it seems for H.G. to be playing house in Wisconsin.  Doubly damning is the B-story inclusion of Claudia’s line, “I smell apples.”  If there’s one piece of evidence to overturn Helena’s identification of mother and support her belonging at the Warehouse, it’s the echoing of that line, which signifies when the Warehouse takes a special liking to an agent.  So far as we know, it’s only happened to H.G., and now Claudia.  Even Myka, whose truth is at the Warehouse, has never smelled apples (that we know).  Are we really meant to believe H.G. when she says she truly feels like she belongs for the first time in a century?  The Warehouse may choose H.G., but H.G. chooses Christina, and her own personal fantasy.  

Of course, H.G.’s existence is evidence to the idea that one can be genius, inventor, agent, scientist, and mother.  But it’s not even really about that.  Helena’s story isn’t about choosing the Warehouse versus her identity as a mother.  It’s about grief.  H.G.’s story has always, always, always been about grief, and her inability to grieve properly.  Running away to Wisconsin falls right behind “starting another Ice Age” in the long line of ill-devised H.G. Wells coping methods.  So even though H.G.’s truth may be Christina, her story is about grieving her.  Does that mean that H.G. belongs at the Warehouse?  Probably, if she’s meant to face those emotions and work through them.  She has to step forward.  The nature of the show demands it.  Myka did, when she returned to her post and embraced the inevitability of imperfection and pain.  Artie did, when he emerged from the recesses of his own mind to brave the grief and shame of what he did to Leena.  And now H.G. herself must finally stop running from her burdensome past and step into the pain of loss and guilt.

But “Instinct” didn’t force H.G. to do that.  And if she lingers in Wisconsin forever, she’ll be the show’s ultimate tragic figure, a woman choosing to wander the desert with a friendly face instead of moving deliberately forward in a painful world of endless wonder.  It's entirely possible, given H.G.'s come-and-go treatment, and considering the willingness of the writers to truncate supporting characters' development (RIP Leena), that H.G. Wells may never come home to the Warehouse.  But if they want to finish Helena’s story, as they’ve finished Myka’s, at some point she must return to the narrative and embrace the truth.  It may not be her truth - her truth was taken from her in 1899.  But the truth is that H.G. can’t get that back, and the closest to home she’ll have is at the Warehouse.  She smelled apples, after all.
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