Everything Has Its Time: “The Price”
7 March 2014 7 Comments
“Death and old age have their price…and it’s too expensive for me” — David Xanatos
“A price is something you get. A cost is something you lose.”—Cordelia Naismith, Shards of Honor
Written by: Michael Reaves
Original Air Date: October 12, 1995
Introduces: The Cauldron of Life
Timeline placement: December 22, 1995 – December 23
TMNT episode I could make a forced comparison to: N/A
[Content Note: Suicide, Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Euthanasia]
[Spoilers Note: This post contains spoilers for the episode “The Gathering”]
- The winged members of the Manhattan Clan flying home for the night when they’re attacked by Macbeth, who is riding a hovering platform and wants the gargoyles as “trophies”. Battle ensues, one that lasts until Goliath, seeing that Macbeth is about to shoot his clanmates, throws a flagpole at the former king’s vehicle, piercing it and causing it crash and explode with its passenger still aboard. With day fast approaching, the gargoyles decide to forgo returning to the Clock Tower, instead choosing a nearby rooftop to sleep on.
- Night falls, and the gargoyles wake up from their stone sleep, as they do every night. Except not, as Hudson remains in his stone state. The clan determines that this condition is the result of a magic powder Macbeth had used on the old gargoyle with the night before, and since Macbeth himself is now street pizza, they decide that they’ll will search his castle for anything that might help restore their comrade, leaving Brooklyn and Broadway to stand guard over Hudson.
- Unbeknownst to the clan, Hudson is not under a spell, or even at the rooftop, instead, he is inside a cell at Castle Wyvern, a prisoner of Xanatos and Owen. Xanatos explains that they’re working on a spell for immortality, and since it requires both a gargoyle’s stone skin and a test subject, they want Hudson to provide both. They take the first item with ease, but the magic water will take “a night and a day” before it will be ready. Until then, Hudson will remain prisoner, while his clan, misled by the replica Xanatos had constructed, will remain oblivious and unable to help him. As the two humans leave, Hudson asks Owen just what he stands to gain from this. “Service is its own reward,” Owen answers.
- After a fruitless visit to Macbeth’s, Lexington and Goliath head to Elisa’s to enlist her help finding the only other person they know who might be able to cure Hudson: Demona. Although not at all sure about this course of action, Elisa agrees to do so, and asks to come with the gargoyles to Hudson’s sleeping place.
- At Castle Wyvern, Hudson asks Xanatos why he chose him specifically, out of the various gargoyles in the clan as his prisoner / test subject. It develops into a discussion which allows Hudson to conclude, that despite his insistence to the contrary, Xanatos is terrified of growing old and dying. As the gargoyle is once again left unsupervised, he picks up one of the slabs of his discarded stone skin, one with a particularly sharp edge.
- During Goliath and Lexington’s absence, Brooklyn and Broadway are attacked by a very much alive Macbeth, who, thanks in part to the gargoyles’ reluctance to kill him again, manages to keep them at bay until dawn. While Brooklyn manages to touch down safely, Broadway ends up turning to stone midflight, and it its only the just-arriving Elisa who manages to save him, by shooting down a crate of Persian carpets and using those to break his fall.
- Day. Owen gives Xanatos a report on Macbeth’s activities throughout the night, and how he successfully kept the gargoyles distracted. Pleased, Xanatos tells Owen that, given how much effectively and loyally Macbeth has been serving him of late–even “dying” once–Owen shouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself being replaced by the former king.
- The gargoyles awaken, somewhat surprised to find themselves alive after being at Macbeth’s mercy for the entire day. Fearing for Hudson’s life–they’d lost sight of him after leading Macbeth away from the body the previous night–they return to him and find Macbeth, ready for round three. This time, the gargoyles are unsuccessful in protecting their fallen comrade, as Macbeth eventually ends up shooting the Hudson statue, shattering it.
- At Castle Wyvern, Xanatos lets Hudson out of his cage in order to force him into the cauldron. Hudson tries to dissuade the billionaire from carrying out his price by noting that immortality comes with a steep price–one that he himself has felt to a degree, being old and alive a thousand years after his time. Xanatos responds that the alternative also carries a price, one which he is not prepared to pay.
- Enraged to the point of murder, Goliath punches through Macbeth’s chest, only to find–*CLANG!*–he’s a robot.
- Hudson is about to be dunked into the cauldron when the gargoyle, using the piece of stone skin he’d picked up as a knife, frees himself from the Steel Clan gargoyle holding him. Xanatos, rather than attempt to fight a battle he won’t win, lets the gargoyle go. Hudson, rather than destroying the Cauldron of Life housing the brew and thus foil Xanatos’ plan, elects to just leave, with a word of advice: immortality is not about living forever, but about what one leaves behind.
- The gargoyles are having an impromptu wake at the site of Hudson’s “demise” when the real gargoyle makes his appearance. He tells his overjoyed companions that he’ll explain what happened once they return home; before they set off, he picks up the face of his shattered “body” as a keepsake.
- At Castle Wyvern, Xanatos is glibly comments on his disappointment at not being able to test the spell, when Owen dunks his forearm into the Cauldron; in accordance with the terms of the spell, it turns to stone. Xanatos, unconcerned, thanks Owen.
Continuity and Mythology Notes:
- This episode was based on the Gargoyles comic book story “Stone Cold”, by Lee Nordling.
- Xanatos first dabbled with life-extending sorcery, or thought he did, in “City of Stone“.
- Macbeth was last seen in “High Noon“, where he and Demona were shown to be under the Weird Sisters’ thrall.
- Hudson brings up Macbeth and Demona as examples of people he knows are immortal. The reason for their immortality was explained in “City of Stone”.
Change is in the wind for Gargoyles, as the series gears up for a drastic changes in the status quo with “Avalon”. Before we get that, though, we have this doozy of an episode, my favorite single one of the television series, one where everything comes together in ways that appeal to me. It focuses on some my favorite characters. It’s got some of, if not the best animation in the series. And it tells us some important things about one of our main characters.
We’ve seen Xanatos vie for immortality before–that’s the whole reason he was attempting the alleged “steal one minute of life from everyone spell” in “City of Stone”. Here, however, is where we’re first told his reasoning, and frankly, I can’t help but sympathize. Growing old? Is fucking terrifying.
I’m quite close to my grandparents on my mother’s side, a side effect of living just down the street from them for twenty years. For a time, I was especially close to my grandfather; working with him and my mother at their law office, as their office receptionist / secretary / assistant.
That’s where it began, with questions about just what exactly we were working on at any given time. Then, he forgot how to get home from the office while on the road, and given how I wasn’t sure of how to get from A to B either (cars are basically nap-pods for me) a regular afternoon suddenly became nerve-wracking for five minutes. Now, he needs to be reminded that yes, he is currently at his house, the one he has lived in for over forty years. My grandmother is being run ragged taken care of him; her children and I try to pick up some of the slack, but it’s never enough.
If that’s the future then yeah, I’m going to fight it with every tool in my arsenal. And if being forever healthy isn’t a realistic option, dying before it actually threatens my very identity always is.
(Note: I’m an atheist, and don’t believe that any sort of afterlife exists. Given how Xanatos is portrayed here, it would not be a stretch to infer that he is one as well–that or someone with no confidence that his eventual outcome would be a favorable one. Discuss.)
Now, the desire to be immortal is almost invariably played as a villain trait, and the choice to do so is often done without explanation: the writers just expect the audience to understand why it’s a bad thing, even when it’s actually a) morally neutral, and b) an extension of the human desire not to die–you know, one of the primary impulses that has led to society as we know it today. Usually this is obfuscated by the fact that people who want immortality also tend to be the sort of people who will hurt other people (which is something that immortality almost always seems to require) which frees writers from having to deal with the matter with any nuance.
Gargoyles, however, treats the matter a bit differently: while wanting not to die is still presented as a villainous trait–it’s Xanatos who wants it, and Hudson’s argument is given the weight of truth–two important things help it stand out. First, the episode allows Xanatos to make his argument, which is important it itself. Second, it allows his argument a measure of validation by having the gargoyle’s arguments be of the “yes, and…” variety. “Growing old sucks and I don’t want to do it”, is Xanatos’ argument; Hudson’s response is “yes, and so is living forever, from what I gather from my and others’ experience”. He isn’t, strictly speaking, invalidating Xanatos’ experiences of beliefs in his ability to handle immortality; he’s saying, it’s more complicated than that, but if you want it, there it is. It’s an actual debate.
Thirdly, there’s the fact that Xanatos doesn’t actually get to be immortal by the end of the episode. While his failure is consistent with the series ethos that there are no easy solutions to hard problems, it also speaks to a certain lack of confidence in the episode’s argument. After all, if immortality is horrible, why not have Xanatos realize the folly of immortality for himself? After all, it’s not like it would change much, in the larger scheme of the series. Potential answer: the creators to a degree, lacked confidence in the idea that immortality would actually be painful for him.
While Xanatos and Hudson dominate the episode, “The Price” is not, strictly speaking, about them; the story begins with them thinking one thing, and don’t really change over the course of the episode, and while the revelation that Xanatos wants to be immortal is important, it’s also not exactly surprising, given “City of Stone”. What really gives this story its weight is its window into the relationship between Xanatos and Owen, and it is in exploring this relationship that the episode’s more interesting themes come to light.
Now, Owen Burnett has been around from the beginning, and one can make a good argument for him being considered part of the series’ core cast. Still, the series hasn’t really spent too much time trying to flesh him out. While one could argue that that’s A-O.K., since the role doesn’t demand much nuance to be intriguing, Gargoyles was never one to miss an opportunity to develop its recurring cast, so an episode like this was probably overdue. What’s particularly interesting is that instead of taking the character’s usual interactions and saying something about them, the episode pretty much establishes an entirely new dynamic to deconstruct.
If one could describe Xanatos and Owen’s relationship up until this episode, it’d would probably be “professional, mutually satisfying”. Owen knows how Xanatos thinks, and therefore can often act competently without requiring micromanagement. Xanatos knows what Owen can do, and therefore is often happy to stand back and let him do his work. When Owen fails at a given task, Xanatos has no problem remaining sanguine: he knows that Owen did his best, and that going all “the beatings will continue until morale improves” on his ass will achieve nothing. However, the key words here are “until this episode”. Here, the relationship is considerably frostier, with Xanatos making the sort of passive-aggressive jabs that would seem more natural with the Shredder and Krang in the original TMNT toon. While one could make the argument that this presents no narrative problem, and that we’ve seen before doesn’t necessarily present an accurate sample of their actual relationship–after all, we’ve only been made privy to a tiny fraction of their years-long relationship—this is not a terribly satisfying explanation, and would mean that we’ve been subjected to what is essentially a narrative cheat. Another hypothesis is necessary, particularly since their “off” behavior directly leads to the episode’s resolution. Unfortunately, this episode doesn’t really give us anything to work with, and it’s not until “The Gathering”–Owen’s next focus episode—that we’re once again given the opportunity to analyze this relationship.
So Ben is Glory Owen is Puck and as it turns out, there’s one big, important thing that we haven’t been told about his relationship with Xanatos: it’s all an act. Owen is, in reality, the character closest to the “god” end of the power scale we’ve seen in the series so far, and is actually slumming as “Owen Burnett” because he finds it fun and allows him to interact with interesting people. Xanatos, who as a fellow trickster is himself a fan of performances, is perfectly aware of this, and is all too happy to keep the ruse going as long as it allows him access to the ever-efficient Owen.
When Owen dips his arm into the Cauldron of Life, after an episode in which his effectiveness and loyalty have been continuously placed into question by both Xanatos and Hudson, he is not in fact risking death or disability—he can, when he so wishes, revert his arm back to its fleshy state without problem. When Xanatos is making jabs at Owen’s expense, it is not because he is seriously considering replacing him. They’re play-acting, as they’ve always done.
Still, even if the Puck revelation gives us a “what”–they’re performing as normal–it does little to answer “why”, as in “why is the relationship they’re performing changing”? Isn’t breaking character a no-no? And yet, that appears to be what they’re doing, especially at the end with Xanatos’ lack of concern for Owen’s self-inflicted disability. Yes, it makes sense for Xanatos not to really care if he knows that Owen is Puck. And yet, that’s not part of the act: Xanatos the character would care about Owen –note his concern in “City of Stone”–so why not here?
Another matter to consider: even if Owen were simply Owen, and his sacrifice genuine, there would have been no need for him to act in that manner. Even as everyone in the episode acts as if Xanatos has no viable test subject without Hudson, that is simply not the case. There’s absolutely nothing stopping Xanatos from finding another Maggie from Ohio and simply forcing them into the drink (and the fact that Hudson should know this, and still allows Xanatos to keep the drink, is the biggest problem with the episode) so why is Xanatos giving Owen the dramatic opening for a “sacrifice”? In the end, it has the effect of making their relationship seem less like improv and more like a scripted drama, one with some rather striking BSDM undertones.
So, any ideas?
- While the use of a Macbeth stand-in isn’t terribly eyebrow-raising–he’s the one established antagonist who can plausibly take on the gargoyles, can be replicated with existing technology, and whose actions don’t immediately cast suspicion on Xanatos—it is only in the context of an episode that’s all about performances that his appearance makes thematic sense. In an episode with an ever so slightly out of character Xanatos, an ever so slightly out of character Macbeth who turns out to be not Macbeth fits in quite well.
- Speaking of performances, this episode marks the return of the falsely concerned Xanatos, both on an explicit sense (he acts as if he’s making Hudson a favor even as he plans to use him as a test subject without his consent) and in more subtle way. While he tells Hudson that he’ll be free to go if the immortality bath works, this is almost certainly a lie; after all, how would Xanatos test for immortality? The effects on Owen are visible and immediate, but this is mere narrative convenience: there’s no reason to think that would ever be the case, had it worked as intended, or that any adverse effects would be immediately apparent. And yet, this is never explicitly treated as a possibility.
- While the animation in this episode is a beaut, this is also one of those episodes in which you can clearly see the gargoyles hovering.
- In this episode Elisa gets to shoot her gun and hit her target in a way that achieves her purpose. This excites me more than I can properly explain.
- However, seeing the return of the tower laser canons–officially the stupidest weapon in the world (yes, even more than swordchucks)–is the opposite of exciting. Unfortunately, we’re not done with them just yet.