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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