Unwound: “The Cage”
13 December 2013 7 Comments
“You’re just the experiment.” — David Xanatos
Written by: Lydia C. Marrano
Original Air Date: November 16, 1995
Introduces: Beth Maza (Physical Presence); Vinnie Grigori (unnamed, 1st intentional, non-retconned appearance)
Timeline placement: December 19, 1995 – December 20
TMNT episode I could make a forced comparison to: “Triceraton Wars”
[Content Note: Suicide, Depression, Ableism]
- Elisa has invited her family over for dinner, during which the conversation turns to the missing Derek Maza. Perhaps not coincidentally, Derek–or Talon, as he now calls himself–has taken a moment to watch over them throughout the window. While he doesn’t linger, he is briefly seen by his sister Beth.
- At the clock tower, Elisa discusses her dilemma with Goliath–how much of her knowledge of Derek’s whereabouts should she share with her family? Goliath informs Elisa his own secret knowledge–that Talon and the other mutates are once again living in the Aerie building.
- Goliath and Elisa go to the castle to visit Derek, but Talon will have none of it; he and fellow male mutates Fang and Claw attack Goliath, and despite Elisa’s best efforts, it is only Maggie Reed–with an assist from the suddenly-appearing Xanatos–who manages to stop the fight. The situation is still far from defused, as accusations begin flying: Elisa blames Xanatos for the mutates’ transformations; Derek accuses Goliath and Sevarius. It is not until Talon mentions Sevarius’ death during the events of “Metamorphosis” that something begins to smell, as Elisa and Goliath both know that he is still alive, and tell Derek as much. He’s not listening, however, so the gargoyle and his human friend elect to leave.
- At Gen-U-Tech, Dr. Anton Sevarius is taking his leave. He waves good-bye to the security guard at the parking garage, approaches his car, and is kidnapped by a flying creature, who doesn’t even grant him the courtesy of keeping his briefcase. Seconds later, Elisa enters the parking lot, only to be told that Sevarius is gone for the night. Meanwhile, a second winged figure watches events unfold from over the rooftops, and is seen by Elisa before disappearing. Also, it starts to rain. This has no story or thematic relevance. Elisa enters the parking lot, and finds Sevarius’ discarded briefcase.
- The mutates are at the castle having dinner when they’re approached by Talon, who announces that Sevarius is alive, and that Goliath must have been in on it, natch. Maggie is skeptical, but convinces no one. What she does do is reveal that she knows where the gargoyles make their home.
- Maggie makes her way to the clock tower, where she is greeted by a gladdened Hudson. His happiness doesn’t last long, however, as he and Bronx are soon attacked by Fang and Claw, who overcome the gargoyles and restrain them. Once the skirmish is done, the mutates explain that what they want is Goliath. Hudson explains that they’ll have to wait, since Goliath wouldn’t be returning to the lair for several days.
- The Trio are returning to the clock tower from a concert–I’m going to say “Hootie and the Blowfish”, because it’s 1995 and the idea amuses me–when they’re attacked by Fang and Claw. After defeating and restraining the two mutates (Hudson, who managed to free himself, has taken care of Maggie). Brooklyn asks why they’ve been attacked, and Maggie relays Talon’s suspicions about Sevarius and Goliath. Brooklyn counter-theorizes that it’s Sevarius and Xanatos who are working together, which Maggie doesn’t believe, leaving them at an impasse. Frustrated, Brooklyn lets them go.
- At Gen-U-Tech, Elisa and the security guard go over the surveillance camera footage of the parking lot, until they manage to identify Sevarius’ kidnapper.
- Xanatos and Owen are theorizing on Sevarius’ kidnapping and Talon’s possible role when the mutate, armed with the knowledge that Sevarius is alive and under Xanatos’ employ, storms into the office and demands answers. Xanatos explains that he’d learned of the geneticist’s not-death some time ago, that said “death” had been planned in collusion with Goliath, that the retro-mutagen sample destroyed that night had been no such thing; since then, he himself had been pressuring Sevarius to come up with an actual cure. Xanatos then asks Talon to release the geneticist, a statement whose implications Talon reject for a very good reason–he’s not the kidnapper. Xanatos turns this new information–and the fortuitous arrival of the Gen-U-Tech Security tape footage depicting Goliath as Sevarius’ kidnapper– to his advantage by “explaining” that the gargoyles and the scientist are still working together, and that given the circumstances, there’s only one place where they could be: Cyberbiotics’ old research facility (a.k.a. The Labyrinth). Talon, upon hearing this, storms out, and takes flight, followed by his just-returning fellow mutates.
- At the Labyrinth, Goliath is hovering (not literally) over Sevarius, watching as the geneticist prepares his anti-mutagen on pain of death. Elisa arrives, and after sizing up the situation, she explains to Goliath the multiple moral, logical, and logistical problems with his plans, the first and foremost being the fact that kidnapping the scientist in order to force him to create a cure is wrong. Goliath, convinced, agrees to release his captive when…
- Talon, backed by the other mutates, arrives at the Labyrinth, murder on his mind. He incapacitates Goliath and Elisa, but before he can kill Sevarius, the geneticist explains that doing so would eliminate their only chance at a cure for their state–in fact, he’s already concocted enough retro-mutagen for one, which he insists Talon take. Derek is beyond caring, however, and the concoction is passed to Maggie, who very much wants it. Sevarius’ continued insistence that Talon deserves it more, however, tips the others off: who takes it first wouldn’t matter if it’s actually a retro-mutagen, but order matters a lot when it’s poison and the one taking it is the one not actually presenting a threat. The theory quickly takes hold among those present except for Maggie.
- Xanatos, along with the Steel Clan, joins the fray. He admits that he’s been stringing the mutates all along, and explains that he’s just there to rescue Sevarius. The bad guys exit, leaving Goliath, Elisa, the Mutates, and the formula–which Sevarius admits could, in fact, be poison–to talk amongst themselves.
- Maggie, still holding Sevarius’ cocktail, announces that she still wants to drink it, arguing that any result–be it death or humanity–would be better than her current situation. A contrite Talon tries to stop her, saying that the risk is too great, and that he needs her, and it is because of her that he manages to be “strong”. Upon hearing this, Maggie acquiesces.
- With that crisis settled, one question remains: just what will the mutates do now? Goliath offers them a place with the Clan, which Talon gives thanks for but rejects. Instead, he says, they’ll form their own clan.
- Some time later, Elisa takes the rest of her family down to the Labyrinth, part of which has been converted into sleeping quarters. She asks them to brace themselves and remember that no matter how drastic the change, Derek is still Derek. She introduces them to Talon, who introduces them to his new family. Hidden behind a curtain, Goliath watches as the Mazas embrace their missing.
- Peter and Diane Maza were last seen in “Her Brother’s Keeper”.
- While this is Beth Maza’s first true appearance, she has previously been mentioned in “Deadly Force”. That episode also featured her on a photo in Elisa’s apartment.
- Similarly, while future episodes will establish that we’ve been seeing Vinnie Grigori since “Awakening: Part Three”, this is the first time the character appears after being properly conceived.
- Derek Maza and Maggie were mutated in “Metamorphosis”.
- Goliath and Elisa last saw Anton Sevarius in “Double Jeopardy”, in a series of events occurring after his “death”.
- The Cyberbiotics research facility where Goliath takes Sevarius was infiltrated by Hudson and Bronx in “Awakening: Part Five”.
As the amount of continuity notes suggests, this is an episode that’s not really meant to stand alone, serving essentially a sequel to “Metamorphosis”. Indeed, the episode includes a whole mess of flashbacks to that earlier episode, and a lot of its beats serving as callbacks.
While there’s a host of very interesting moving parts to this story, there’s an equal number of things which gum up the gears, making for an episode that moves along with less than clockwork precision. Part of it is because, “The Cage”, like “Protection” before it, is an episode that feels compromised by the season’s structure, which forces the single-part episodes to be stand-alones: the mutates return to the Aerie Building after a three month absence without explanation or even a hint about what they’ve been doing in the interim. Goliath and Elisa try to convince Talon that Sevarius is alive, and don’t mention their misadventure atop the oil tanker.
More significantly, the episode’s attempts at misdirection–to make the audience think that Talon, not Goliath, kidnapped Sevarius–has forced the writers structure scenes in incredibly awkward ways in order to maintain the pretense. Playing with the timeline is a technique Weisman will eventually make good use of–the comic book story “The Rock” makes excellent use of it–but here, with no timestamps or a way to deal with television’s real-time storytelling, it results is an episode that feels disjointed, such as when Xanatos and Talon’s conversation is broken into two different scenes by placing three other scenes between them. In story-telling terms, their conversation is a complete unit, with the second scene taking place immediately after the first; in real time, three and a half minutes pass between the moment when we leave the characters and rejoin them, giving the impression that time stopped between scenes. Yes, this ordering achieves the desired purpose of delaying the reveal until the proper moment; however, it also makes it eminently obvious that this is what the writers are trying to do. What’s more, given that the twist is less an actual twist and more of a slow turn, it feels like the writer are spending a whole lot of effort and making the episode worse for the sake of cleverness for cleverness’ sake.
This, however, is less important than the episode’s main issue, which is a thematic one: by its end, it attempts to sell us on the idea of Derek / Talon has somehow turned a corner, despite the fact that nothing in the episode indicates that this is the case.
For the first three quarters of the episode, Derek’s goal is thus: to avenge himself upon the people responsible for his transformation. By the time the episode ends, the only thing that has changed is that he now knows who is truly to blame, and that he’s not in a position to take his revenge right then and there, outgunned as he is by the Steel Clan. There’s no indication that he’s giving up on his goal, only that other concerns have overtaken it on his list of priorities, the way they presumably did so between “Metamorphosis” and the present day. And yet, neither Goliath–who was all “vengeance is never an option” back in “City of Stone”–nor Elisa have anything to say about Talon except “welcome to the clan” / “welcome back to the family”, and by the time we see the mutate again, it does seem like he’s put his vendetta behind him. Something is missing, and yet instead of a resolution, the episode suddenly shifts its focus onto Maggie, and posits that Derek’s feelings for her–which we’re supposed to believe are not something he just realized he had–are enough to get him to change, when they, by definition, have never been enough before.
A similar sort of collective amnesia hangs over Maggie as well, as the show essentially argues that her fundamental problems have been solved by the end of this episode. Part of it, to be sure, is because Maggie doesn’t get a whole lot of focus after this episode, and spending that little time on the same beat as this episode presents the risk of being too much of a downer. However, what they eventually went with was far from the only other solution, and it is in its way equally sub-optimal, and deals in some rather problematic tropes.
If there’s one thing that has defined Maggie Reed in her two appearances, it’s misery. She was miserable when we first meet her as one of New York’s homeless, and she’s miserable after she is forced to live in a body that is not her own. While we know little of her life in Ohio, one could fanwank that she was just as miserable there without textual contradiction.
Could one call this depression? Hard to say–not only is diagnosing fictional characters something that can very easily be problematic—particularly for such a relatively minor character–the whole mutation thing muddies things quite a bit. In any case, we do know that by this episode, the only thing keeping her from killing herself is the hope that she can be returned to normal, and given that having a body that is neither her own or one that allows her to take part in most human interactions is not something she can fix, her hatred towards herself and her life is almost certainly not something that can be solved in a single day.
And yet this is precisely what we see happen, in a way that ties Maggie’s “cure” to a sudden onset of attention by Talon, a guy who, going purely from what we’ve seen, has been dismissive at best towards his cohorts. While this isn’t inherently problematic–Talon giving Maggie a reason not to kill herself this time works perfectly well as a quick fix to a larger problem, and need not be portrayed as a permanent solution– it is also, I feel, something that needed a heck of a lot of follow up, which we don’t get.
It doesn’t help that there’s little to show that Talon is the sort of person who could truly help Maggie. While he’s very easy to empathize with–he’s a person wronged, with no opportunity for reparation—he shows little behavior of merit here, even if one were to ignore the part where he’s out to kill someone purely for the sense of satisfaction he thinks it would bring. On the other hand, like with Professor Honeycutt–TMNT’s version of a person transformed into an Other—the character’s specific circumstances so overshadow his arc that it’s somewhat hard to tell who he’s supposed to be outside of it. Is he an ass because of crappy circumstance, or would he be one no matter what? We won’t get a real indication until “Kingdom”.
Curiously, the same can’t be said about Fang, about whom we know a lot less: he’s a bully, pure and simple. While I’ve never been a fan the character, his role here is interesting, as his connection to Talon nevertheless places him on the side of the misguided angels. We don’t get to see him and Talon interact here, but we’ll eventually see how Derek tolerates him, which makes perfect sense and is yet more evidence that Talon isn’t really cut out to be a caretaker. Yes, I can see how one can be reluctant to cast aside one of the few people in the same boat as oneself; however, in doing nothing until “Kingdom”, Talon places the wellbeing of the oppressors over those of the oppressed, and given the precariousness of their situation, this is deeply problematic.
More telling, though, is the episode’s treatment of Claw. As Greg Weisman notes in his ramble, the mutate’s muteness was less intentional and more an in-show explanation for a real-world circumstance: a way to save money. While this in itself would be neutral–and it’s certainly nice to see someone who continues to be negatively affected by their mutation–the way its executed reveals some rather problematic elements.
Now, we don’t really know anything about Claw, other than the fact that he does not speak. We don’t know who he was, how he’s handling his mutation, whether his disability is indeed mental–heck, we don’t even know if “male” is hir actual gender identity, or alternatively, something the other mutates tacked on based on hir apparent biological sex. If Maggie and Fang managed to learn anything about hir before they were all mutated, they’ve remained mum on the subject. More importantly, we never see any of the other mutates attempting to communicate with hir at anything other than the most basic level, despite there being no evidence that this is the only level of communication that zie can or wishes to have, and the fact that the inability to communicate vocally is in no way connected to a person’s cognitive faculties, as many Deaf people would personally attest. Combined with the fact that we do see hir being shut out of relevant conversations—zie’s given no chance to give his opinion regarding what to do with Sevarius, or really anything—we have considerable evidence of no small amount of ableism in the other mutates’ part, specifically, a consideration that hir disability means zie has no thoughts worth sharing or finding out about. And while that in itself would merely be an interesting character detail—nobody expects Talon or Maggie to be perfect—the episode goes beyond that, by not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with this treatment, and indeed, by treating Claw as a non-agent in hir own story.
If the episode does call somebody out on something, it’s Goliath’s kidnapping of Sevarius. It’s an interesting turn for the character, feels perfectly in character, and the fact that he doesn’t get away with it feels both old fashioned and incredibly refreshing. While “the ends don’t justify the means” served have been a bog-standard theme in super-hero stories of decades past, it is now all too often supplanted by “the ends totally justify the means and torturing people because we feel like it is awesome”–this is an excellent essay on the topic–seeing Goliath easily admit that yup, he screwed up, and that his intentions in no way made his actions wrong, feels nice, and is a point in the episode’s favor.
With the episode’s major characters being what they are, and with Goliath taking it upon himself to experiment with (well-intentioned) villainous behavior, it is up to Elisa and the other Mazas to provide the bright spots for this episode. And thankfully, she delivers.
Gargoyles continued investment in Elisa’s biological family is one of the ways in which the show continues to stand out, and therefore it feels very appropriate to begin an episode that’s all about the Mazas by having them sharing a normal, uneventful, meal. While the scene isn’t fantastic from a technical standpoint, what it says about the show and how it thinks about its characters is heartening.
I mean, it stands to reason: if the show is, to a degree, about family–and one could very easily argue that it is–then the family of its co-star must be involved to some degree. And yet, that they’d show up and play the role they did was nowhere near a certainty. Given a certain type of writer / executive producer / network executive, a scene like the one that opened this episode could have easily been deemed too much for the show’s audience. Too mundane. Too slow. Too girly. Too Black and too Native American. These people would say with the best of intentions that yes, Elisa is super-important, while at the same time arguing that huge parts of her life–not coincidentally that establish her as a person independent from the gargoyles–don’t matter.
And yet, here we are. Elisa cooks for her parents and sister, who has flown in from Arizona. I love that, even though this is our real introduction to Beth, she has clearly always existed; the alternative would have bugged the fuck out of me, just as it bugs me how TMNT suggests that April O’Neil is an only child only for them to spring up her older sister from the comics two seasons later. I love that Peter recognizes his kids’ autonomy to the degree that he does. I don’t love that Diane has no lines; this episode is stuffed with characters, and they couldn’t afford her voice actress, which is a shame.
And then there’s Elisa herself who, while still unable to truly communicate with her brother, otherwise spends this episode acting like a pro, serving as the story’s moral center. Where Goliath sees the ends–Elisa’s happiness–justifying the means she is never less than clear on where the lines are. And that’s very appealing.
In the end, “The Cage” is one of the series’ most interesting episodes. It’s not the best, nor is it even very successful, but it does interesting things with its characters, even if those things are not the things it thinks its doing. For an episode starring some of my least favorite characters, that’s not bad at all.
- Talon, Maggie, and Fang get new designs here, and they all work, to a degree. For some reason, the characters have been adopted outfits reminiscent of super-hero costumes, which are not only to a degree inexplicable, but also play to the character designers’ weaknesses. Talon’s in particular, has an especially over-designed collar. That said, when it comes to their actual bodies, their new designs are a marked improvement, looking distinctive and dignified. Except for Fang. 😛
- Talon’s stride when he enters Xanatos’ office is hilarious and I love it to bits.
- I mentioned in my “Triceraton Wars” essay that I could only recall two instances in children’s western animation in which a character asks to be killed. I had forgotten about this moment, which while not quite the same thing, has the distinction of not being tied to concrete solvable circumstances.
- Although it’s less important in the greater scheme of things idea that everyone knows precisely where the Labyrinth is strikes me as a bit of a cheat. Yes, Goliath should know it exists, and there’s plenty of reason for Elisa to know as well. For everyone to know precisely where it is, and for everyone to independently and correctly come to the conclusion that that’s the only lab Goliath would know about, feels like a couple of steps too far.
- ETA: This episode features a preview of one of my least favorite characters in the series, mopey sad-sack Brooklyn. Yes, you’re single, and gargoyle and mutate women just aren’t into you. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. Fortunately, it’s only a small part of the episode, and nothing compared to what we’ll get in “Clan-Building”….