Fade with the Dawn: “Avalon” Part Three
1 August 2014 8 Comments
“We will take no more chances.” — The Archmage
Written by: Lydia C. Marano
Original Air Date: November 22, 1995
Introduces: Arthur Pendragon, King of the Britons, the Sleeping King, Mother of Dragons, the Greatest Warrior Who Ever Lived
Timeline placement: December 29, 1995 – January 1, 1996 (Earth Time)
TMNT episode I could make a forced comparison to: “City at War” Part Three; “Enter the Dragons”
- Goliath, Angela, and Gabriel are scouting the island in search of the Archmage and his posse when Gabriel hears a disturbance. Goliath sends the two younger gargoyles ahead while he investigates the potential threat. As he investigates, he spots Demona in the distance.
- As Angela and Gabriel watch over the Archmage at the latter’s base of operations, they are ambushed by Macbeth and Demona. Before the two brainwashed baddies can attack, Goliath intercedes, and tries to appeal to the part of their natures not interested in killing random gargoyles, but it doesn’t work. The Archmage appears, gloats for a bit, and then orders his minions to kill the younger gargoyles. Before they can do so, Bronx and Boudicca interfere, buying the gargoyles enough time to retreat.
- As they make their way to the Hollow Hill, Elisa asks the Magus about his deal is with Katharine. He explains that as they grew up, the Princess fell for Tom, leaving him as a third wheel. It would be sad if the Magus weren’t still moping about it decades after the fact. Inside the Hollow Hill, the two deal with a couple of traps–including a couple of disembodied mobile iron armors which I’m only mentioning because they’ll important later, and which are overcome with magic the Magus obtains by tapping into the energies of Avalon itself–before arriving at the altar where the Sleeping King, Arthur Pendragon, lies. Elisa wakes him.
- At Archmage HQ, the Archmage, who has already sent Demona and Macbeth to attack Oberon’s castle, orders the Weird Sisters to the Hollow Hill to dispatch the Sleeping King who unbeknownst to him, isn’t. He, meanwhile, will sit on his ass and wait for Goliath, so that he may
- Inside Oberon’s castle, the good guys are all reunited and have just finished giving King Arthur all the pertinent information about their current situation. Although the legendary king is out of sorts–he’s been awoken ahead of schedule, it seems, and has neither his allies nor his sword Excalibur–he agrees to help.
- Macbeth and Demona are spotted outside the castle, so the goodies once again divide their forces: Goliath and Angela will find and fight the Archmage; the Magus will deal with Weird Sisters; everyone else will fight off the invaders and / or protect the wounded as part of Team Protect the Castle.
- Team Protect the Castle takes on Demona and Macbeth, and aren’t doing too shabbily, thanks in part to the fact that the two baddies’ feel-each-other’s-pain dealie turns out to be a rather huge liability. Realizing that attacking together was not the best idea they’d ever had, Demona runs into the castle to put some distance between her and her bond-mate. Team Protect the Castle follows, leaving King Arthur alone with Macbeth.
- King Arthur fights Macbeth. King Arthur wins.
- The Weird Sisters arrive at the Hollow Hill, only to find the Magus; once again tapping that Avalon
assmagic energy, the sorcerer manages to just barely defend against the sisters’ attacks. As the battle moves inside the hill, the Magus uses his magic on the iron armor from earlier and refashions it into chains, which he uses to bind the sisters together and render them unable to use their magic.
- Demona makes her way into the hall at Oberon’s castle, with Team Protect the Castle on her tail. Elisa taunts her nemesis, which is enough to get the gargoyle to discard her rifle and go to her hand-to-hand. Fight. Struggle. Boring. Eventually, everyone joins in, and the fracas ends when Katharine picks up Demona’s rifle and shoots at the wall behind the gargoyle, causing it to collapse on it.
- Goliath and Angela attack the Archmage, although Angela is taken out of the fight quickly enough. Fight, Goliath, fight. The battle ends when Goliath manages to wrest the Eye of Odin from the Archmage’s forehead.
- Without the Eye of Odin to keep the power of the Grimorum Arcanorum in check, the Archmage is immolated by his own lovely magic, leaving one Phoenix Gate, lightly singed, behind.
- The danger past, the goodies meet up inside the Hollow Hill, where the Magus is on his last legs. The magician lies down on the altar that was previously Arthur’s resting place, and embarks on his own endless sleep. No one is sadder at his passing than Katharine, he being her oldest friend and companion in her quest for redemption.
- At the beach, the various players make their departures. A still unconscious Macbeth and Demona are placed on a skiff and set out towards parts unknown. King Arthur embarks on a quest to explore the new world. The Weird Sisters are set free, and disappear. Finally, Goliath (who now carries the Phoenix Gate and Eye of Odin with him) Elisa and Bronx begin their return trip, with an additional passenger, Angela, who wishes to see the world outside her island home. As the ship floats away from the island of Avalon, Elisa gets some surprising news from Tom: they will most likely not be returning home immediately, as Avalon is not in the habit of sending people where they want to go, but where it feels they need to be. The World Tour begins.
Continuity and Mythology Notes:
- The island of Avalon first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, where it also serves as King Arthur’s final resting place.
- The Children of Oberon’s weakness to iron was first seen in “The Mirror” where Demona traps Puck in iron chains much like the Magus does here.
This episode, frankly, is a hot mess.
Gargoyles has never been at home with combat. While it often does quite well with large-scale battles, the show has proven less adept in fight scenes with individual characters, which have tended to be, at best, serviceable. Thus, perhaps there was no way an episode like this, which focuses on four of those fights and therefore plays precisely to the show’s weaknesses, could have turned out well. And perhaps that would have been forgivable, if the episode weren’t also the conclusion to the show’s biggest arc to date, and if the past two episodes hadn’t promised a battle that would be nothing short of epic.
As both this episode and last argue, Goliath and co. have never faced odds quite like this. The Archmage by himself is, on paper, formidable enough to take on the entire Avalon clan without breaking a sweat via the simple use of the stone sleep spell. By the time you add the Weird Sisters to his side, things begin to look like overkill, to the point where the final two members of the group, Macbeth and Demona, feel kind of pointless as anything other than tacticians (note: they are not used as tacticians). In any case, there they all are, and together, they pose a serious problem to the writers: outmatched as the good guys are, how do they turn things around and win?
Had Buffy existed in 1995, Gargoyles might have been well-served by cribbing a page from its playbook and making the battle against the Archmage intentionally anticlimactic; there is some appeal to the idea of an Archmage who spent a millennium preparing for a battle, only to be felled by a bullet moving faster than he can devise a defense for it. Had Gargoyles been TMNT, a series with a particular fondness for pitting its heroes against forces above their weight class, they might have made use of a Deus Ex Machina, where an outside agent would interfere and defeat the Archmage for Goliath. What Gargoyles does instead is set up the threat, and then spend the back half of the episode undermining that threat.
First, we have Goliath vs. the Archmage. To be fair, the resolution to this battle does not come entirely out of the blue, being a repeat of the one for the battle with Fox!Fox in “Eye of the Beholder”–so it at least has consistency going for it. And yet, that’s partly why it doesn’t work. Fox’s purpose in that episode was mainly thematic; the episode was less about how she was defeated, and entirely about the possibility of losing Fox affected Xanatos, and as such, the manner in which she was dealt with is not terribly important. Here, however, the episode is entirely about how the Archmage is defeated. While there’s nothing stopping the answer to that question from being “the same way Xanatos or Demona or any of the threats would be defeated”, there’s also nothing about it that is particularly satisfying. What is the point, then?
Part two of “Avalon” was all about setting up the Archmage as a threat: a guy with a plan spanning one thousand years, and who had gone as close as godhood as it’s possible to get at this point in the show. In addition to the things we actually see him do, he has access to most, if not all Grimorum Arcanorum spells, which means that he can, at the very least, call upon a rain of arrows; change the appearance of things; turn things into stone; turn someone into a submissive slave; and, if we assume that he has access to spells that have been ripped out from the book, cast the “City of Stone” spell. What’s more, if we assume that all the other things we see him do are also Grimorum Arcanorum spells, it means he can do all of these things without having to verbalize the spells or do anything other than think them. This is seen nowhere in part three, where the most impressive thing we see the Archmage do is freeze the surface of a lake. What’s more, he is actively stupid. For some reason, his initial, quite reasonable plan of waiting until dawn and the number of opponents is exponentially diminished is set aside in favor of one where he attacks while the gargoyles are still a factor. He plays with his food. So lacking is the character that even with all his power, defeating him, in the end, doesn’t require smarts, or tactics, or anything other than brute strength, which raises the question: why was Goliath at all necessary? While not technically cheating, it feels a heck of a lot like it: we were promised a something special, and instead we got your bog-standard western animation villain–Gargoyles’ version of the Demon Shredder, except the Demon Shredder at least had the courtesy to turn into a flipping giant dragon before being dispatched.
The other villains fare no better. The Weird Sisters, who had been introduced as savvy manipulators in ” City of Stone”, suddenly can’t conceive the idea of not attacking the Magus in unison, turning what should have been a one-on-three battle into a one-on-one one (sorry [not sorry]); it’s still the episode’s best fight, and fairly well executed–it’s the one fight that feels like it couldn’t have been done with any set of characters–but it’s not what the episode promised. Meanwhile, Demona and Macbeth, despite being the Archmage’s creatures, display just enough of their idiosyncrasies to rob them of the things that would have made them feel genuinely threatening. Macbeth, seen here, is a far cry from the character we saw in his debut, where he had more weapons than Batman, and although the fact that he is no longer so equipped may, like the lightning gun, be chalked to character evolution, it means that the fight we get here between him and Arthur could have been between Tom and Macbeth, or really any two characters. Despite the episode’s claim that these are formidable fighters–Arthur is allegedly The Best Warrior Who Ever Lived, an assertion that is made and left utterly unexamined–there’s absolutely nothing here to back that claim: the Vamp vs. Raiden fight from Metal Gear Solid 4 this isn’t–it’s not even a Deadwood-style dirty fight (content note: violence, eye-gouging). Demona, meanwhile, follows up on her poor showing in “High Noon” by doing exactly the same thing she did there, and ditching her gun at the first sight of Elisa. Elisa, for her part, is back to being hopeless with a gun, as the last bullet in her clip is spent on what looks to be a warning shot. Just what about Demona makes a warning shot a good idea? In the end, though, there is nothing to make me go “wow” about this fight.
And while I’m on the subject, let me just note just how much I hate the resolution to the Demona battle, specifically, the sickeningly smug and contrived “nobody harms my eggs” line, complete with blatant mugging for the camera. I can understand why the writers want to give Princess Katharine a badass moment, but everything about the way this particular moment is staged feels wrong.
First, it’s important to note how this moment serves to undermine several of the points “Deadly Force” made about guns. When Katharine shoots Demona, she does so arguably knowing less about what she was doing than Broadway did in that episode, since, from what we know, guns were something that did not exist in her mental universe until twenty-four hours ago. Sure, she uses it during drastically different circumstances, and she does so knowing full well what that gun can do in a way Broadway didn’t, but she nevertheless uses the gun without any knowledge of the weapon’s mechanics; it is essentially luck in the form of authorial whim that allows her to succeed at her apparent purpose (assuming that she meant to shoot the wall and not Demona herself). This is not brought up in the episode itself, and what we get instead is a shot that among other things, uses the gun in order to make Katharine seem cooler and more badass, and therefore reinforces the idea that guns make people cooler and more badass.
It is also important to note how the writers apparently felt that Katharine needed a badass moment in the first place, and how that apparently meant that she needed to shoot at someone with a gun: in the end, it feels like a one step forward, one step back deal. Yes, it’s important to show women as being awesome, and doing by showing them winning fights still has value in 1995, particularly since we’re dealing with an older woman. And yet, the fact that this masculine-coded activity is what gets highlighted when they want to argue for her awesomeness, and not, say, her willingness to defy Constantine, or her by all indications bang-up job at the much harder–and feminine-coded–task of raising both an entire brood of gargoyles and Tom, makes this whole exercise somewhat disappointing. It suggests that, whatever successes the writers may have had with characters like Elisa, their conception of a strong female character is still largely tied to their ability to fight.
On a more murky note, this is the first of two times Gargoyles will show a mother who had previously been shown as helpless in the face of a more powerful threat suddenly developing a one-time burst of kickassery when her children are placed in danger. While I’m not sure how I feel about it, the parallel is interesting enough that I’m left wanting to analyze how Gargoyles deals with motherhood.
Going back to the episode in general, the question remains: what could have been done instead? It’s a good question, insofar as it’s one that I’m not sure has a good answer. The easiest thing to do would be to remove Macbeth, Demona, and maybe the Weird Sisters from the equation, and just have part three be about everyone taking on the Archmage. Not only are they superfluous once they give the Archmage his power upgrade items, not having them around would, in theory, allow the Archmage the space to do more impressive stuff and get some bite behind his bark. And yet, doing so means losing much of the arc’s weight, as it is precisely Macbeth, Demona, and the Weird Sisters who have been working its set-up.
And yet, that, again, is part of the problem as well: the set-up here promises something drastically different from what the conclusion attempts to give us, giving everything a feeling of “that’s it?” Is that why the Weird Sisters were manipulating people across a millenium,to play second fiddle to someone way less impressive than them? Is that what the thousand-year plan was for, so that the Archmage could throw around some lightning bolts and fail on phase B of his so-called plan? Is that why Goliath and Elisa and King Arthur were brought to Avalon / awoken, so they could do things that could have easily been done by the people already there?
And the answer is: of course not. The truth is that “Avalon”, in addition to being a story, was designed largely (although not necessarily predominantly) to do two things: change the status quo, and set up future stories. Most of the storytelling decisions make sense in this light; the Archmage, it seems, was just a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. And while mediocre table-setting stories can sometimes be excused–they’re just doing their job of making sure future episodes are awesome–seeing one here, at this moment, in the arc that episodes like “City of Stone” and “High Noon” were setting the table for, is dispiriting, and points to what is probably my biggest disagreement with Gargoyles’ storytelling ethos in season 2: it tends to feel like it’s a series looking forward, instead of focusing on the now. Indeed, after “Avalon”, we’ll enter into the era of the show that arguably most exemplifies that approach: the Avalon World Tour.
- Tip of the hat to Jillian Aversa, whose song “Avalon” provided the titles for this and the previous two Gargoyles-reviews. It can be heard here. The whole CD, “Origins” is worth a listen.
- The episode spends some time developing the Tom / Katharine / Magus love triangle that it had previously hinted at, and I can do nothing but sigh. I really cannot be made to care, and I’m left wishing that they’d played them as a polyamourous trio instead. Sure, that would have meant that the Magus’ death would carry some unfortunate implications–the only such grouping in the show gets punished and turned into a far more conventional one moments after it is introduced– but still, it’d be far more interesting than seeing mopey, can’t-get-over-it-after-having-years-to-get-used to it Magus. Plus, the fact that Katherine essentially raised Tom since he was eight gives their coupling some troublesome undertones.
- However disappointing the way it came about is, I have to admit that the Archmage’s actual death is all kinds of ace.
- After one season and a half, the Grimorum Arcanorum is put out of play, one of the subtler ways this story shakes up the status quo. It won’t be the last time we see it, though, time travel being a thing.
- “Elisa, I thought you understood…” Why, Tom? Why the hell would she understand how Avalon works if you hadn’t bothered to fucking tell her, and she’s never had any reason to consider Avalon rules until a few hours ago? Fuck you.
- While it gets lost in the shuffle, it’s important to note that this is the episode where Goliath kills the villain. While we’ve seen Goliath be okay with doing such a thing in “The Price”, it’s one think to destroy a robot, and another thing entirely to actually show him being responsible for the death of an actual flesh and blood person, even if only incidentally. The fact that this is not discussed is one of the gutsier parts of the episode. Still, it would have been interesting to see what Elisa or Angela would think of that.
- Also lost in the shuffle: the fact that Arthur apparently displays no skepticism about who he is he is allying himself with, despite the fact that he has no idea who they are. Sure, we know Elisa and co. are the good guys, but he doesn’t, and as Xanatos, The Pack and Demona have shown, it is sometimes quite possible to make bad intentions seem good.