Home Again: “Shadows of the Past”
10 December 2014 14 Comments
“This place is full of bad memories.” — Elisa Maza Written by: Michael Reaves and Brynne Chandler Reaves Original Air Date: November 23, 1995 Introduces: N/A Timeline placement: January 1 – 2, 1996 (Earth Time) TMNT episode I could make a forced comparison to: “The Darkness Within” Content Note: Police Brutality, Rape, Racism, Ferguson
- The world tourists navigate through a storm to their first destination, which is not Manhattan but Scotland–specifically, the cliffs near Castle Wyvern where Demona spent the day of the massacre. While there’s some disappointment, there’s also the feeling that this is not a total loss, since Goliath now gets to show Elisa and Angela where he grew up.
- Goliath takes the tourists to the site of Castle Wyvern, where all that remains is the entrance to the rookery, everything else having been taken to Manhattan. As they approach the site, Goliath, for an instant, sees the castle as it once stood.
- Bronx howls. Goliath hears Demona’s voice calling his name, which briefly paralyzes him.
- Goliath leads everyone to a nearby cave so they can seek refuge from the elements. It is the cave where the Archmage met what was thought to be his end, and where the vikings camped before the massacre. He gives the two women a brief account of the events of that night, of Hakon and the captain’s fates, and how his actions had been made in spite of his desire for revenge. As he tells this tell, he begins hearing voices dating back to that night.
- Angela finds a set of carving on the cave walls. As Goliath takes a look, he sees the carving change shape and come to life, but only for a second. He is asked what is wrong, but dismisses his vision as “old fears”.
- With the storm dying, the World Tourists decide to exit the cave. As they do so, Goliath sees Hakon and the captain standing before him, laughing. He attacks them, without realizing that the people he is assaulting are actually Angela and Elisa. It is not until Bronx attacks Goliath that the spell is (temporarily) broken.
- The voices and visions prove too much for Goliath, who runs back into the cave. Unbeknownst to him, two floating specters of light, resembling wills-o’-the-wisp, observe the fleeing gargoyle.
- Elisa, Angela, and Bronx follow the retreating Goliath. All four arrive at the fissure where the Archmage did not meet his end. A vision of Hakon floating towards him causes Goliath and fall in, despite the best efforts of his loved ones.
- Despite the long odds of Goliath surviving the fall, Elisa, Angela, and Bronx decide to climb down after him.
- At the bottom of the pit, Goliath discovers a man-made structure, its walls inscribed with runes. As he approaches, the two wills-o’-the-wisp talk to each other with the voices of Hakon and the captain of the guard: whatever they are, they are not figments of Goliath’s imagination.
- A number of runes in the structure light up and grow purple. The ground shakes. Rocks fall and join together to form stone gargoyle shapes, belonging to Goliath’s dead comrades. Level of “Can’t Deal”: 100%.
- The stone gargoyles attack Goliath, angry at his inability to save them. As they do so, more runes begin glowing.
- After having some fun possessing stone bodies and taking out some aggression on Goliath, Hakon and the Captain, the two wills-o’-the-wisp, decide execute their coup-de-grace, before Goliath is too weakened to serve their purposes. They cause yet more rocks to come together into one final form: Demona.
- Goliath, realizing that he cannot possibly be battling his former mate’s ghost, concludes that he has not taken leave of his senses, and that his kin have not risen up against him. Some intelligence is manipulating events–intelligence that happened to get a rather crucial detail wrong. The truth now revealed, the various stone gargoyles crumble, leaving only the wills-o’-the-wisp, who take on their former selves.
- Hakon and the captain explain their situation and their plan: their spirits have been alive and incorporeal since the massacre, and their hope is to use the cave’s magic to drain Goliath’s life force, giving the two ghosts enough energy to become corporeal again and leaving Goliath as a spirit himself.
- As Goliath begins losing substance, he protests, saying they themselves, not he, was responsible for their deaths. Hakon doesn’t care. After becoming corporeal enough to actually hit Goliath, he begins attacking the gargoyle. The captain is not nearly so gleeful.
- Almost entirely a ghost, Goliath makes one final appeal to the captain: what about honor? This is enough to convince the guard; deciding that his conscience cannot take his complicity in the death of yet another gargoyle, he attacks Hakon, taking him into the epicenter of the magical energies, breaking the connection and causing the structure to collapse.
- Angela, Elisa, and Bronx join Goliath just in time to see the of the battle. They ask who the two men were, to which Goliath replies that one was an enemy, and one a friend.
- The ghost of the captain appears once more, and thanks Goliath for allowing him to overcome his hatred and therefore giving him an opportunity to pass on into the afterlife. He disappears for the final time.
- The world tourists exit the cave and greet the day, leaving the bad memories behind. Still inside the cave is Hakon, now alone and stuck inside a fallen rock.
Mythology and Continuity Notes:
- Hakon and the captain of the guard died in “Awakening” Part Two. Castle Wyvern was relocated to Manhattan in that same episode.
- The cave in question has been featured in “Awakening” Parts One and Two, “Long Way to Morning“, and “Avalon” Part Two.
- The logistics of the world tourists’ journey, moving forward, is that they have an adventure, return to Avalon, restock if necessary, and then set off again to their new destination.
If I had my way, this would have been the series’ version of “Reflections“–a bunch of stories about pre-Massacre Castle Wyvern, as told by Goliath to Angela as they visit her ancestral homeland (and Goliath’s actual homeland). Done well, it would have made for a nice breather, shown a side to the Gargoyles-verse we don’t see enough of, and given us an idea of how Goliath’s time as a citizen of the 20th century has changed his view of the 10th. Instead we get a rather weird story that while well-executed–it helps that the Japan team is back on animation duty here, giving the various sequences the necessary “oomph”–never quite managed to convince me of its relevance, feeling merely like an excuse to bring back characters that didn’t need bringing back as part of a dubious redemption arc.
Redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness are major themes in Gargoyles, and ones the series explores with some frequency; note that the last occasion prior to this one was…”Avalon”, which is in large part the story of Katherine and the Magus’ redemptions. Heck, Greg Weisman would eventually develop an entire spin-off based on the concept with Bad Guys. As the theme is explored again and again, an argument begins taking shape: redemption is always possible, even after death. In the captain’s last scene, the series connects his new fate with his decision to rescue Goliath. He’s not moving on because the magic keeping his spirit earthbound is broken–Hakon is still around, after all—rather, he appears to get to move on because he’s balanced the scales. He’s erased the red from his ledger he accrued from his role in the massacre, and gained Goliath’s forgiveness in the process.
Now, several things bother me about this. The captain of the guard, let’s not forget, was an accomplice not only to the deaths of most of the Wyvern clan, but also of untold numbers of his men, and of the suffering, if not deaths, of the people who’d entrusted their safety to him. No matter what his intentions, the effects of his actions were terrible enough that anyone who decided to hate him forever for them would be more than justified in doing so. What’s more, his big gesture consisted of abandoning, at the last minute, his plan to steal Goliath’s life energy, which hardly speaks highly of him. It all seems a bit too easy, and far less ambiguous than it probably should be, what with Hakon’s fate being rather explicit and the whole adventure occurring due to Avalon’s coded-as-benign machinations.
In the end, I’m really left wishing the episode had not ended with Goliath essentially forgiving the captain. It feels on-character enough–Goliath is a forgiving dude, as we’ve seen perhaps most prominently in “Vows”. That the show has gone in this direction is not at all unexpected–forgiveness, self-sacrifice, being the better person are all things that tend to be seen as part of the ideal good person package (see: Jesus Christ as popularly envisioned, Superman) so it’s no surprise to see our protagonists exhibiting them. What’s more, given the context surrounding gargoyles’ existence, it makes perfect sense for the character to act in this manner, in some contexts–but I’ll get to that in a moment. The problem lies in that, in making the series’ two protagonists, who both belong to marginalized groups, into the sort of people who tend to choose to Be The Better Person, the series glosses over the roles privilege plays into the whole thing. Being the better person is something Superman and Popular Western White Jesus get to be. People in oppressed groups–such as Goliath, and especially Elisa–don’t have that choice: they have to always be the better person as a matter of pure survival, and that goes largely unacknowledged in Gargoyles.
One of the ways systemic oppression manifests is in being far more unforgiving of the oppressed, considering their mistakes or errors worse and more punishable than the same mistakes when made by a more privileged person. “Stand your ground”, a law which protected George Zimmerman when he murdered Trayvon Martin, did not protect Marissa Alexander when she fired a warning shot to scare off her abusive husband. The standard practice of those seeking to defend murders like Trayvon’s or Michael Brown’s is to strip mine the victims’ pasts for any sign of objectionable behavior and use what they find to claim that those actions justify their deaths. Whatever the problems with Anita Sarkeesian’s videos are supposed to be, they are apparently enough to justify, for some, the death threats and unceasing waves of abuse she receives. In Gargoyles, Elisa keeping secrets is enough to justify making her fear for her life. Being oppressed means having no margin for error, which is a problem when doing what one does or simply living is so often considered an error.
What’s more, while forgiveness is, in theory, a gift–something that is never owed, and is given freely and without obligation–oppressed peoples are nevertheless expected to be much more forgiving than their more privileged counterparts would be, and to be prepared to let anything from microagressions to systematic injustice go without comment, treating them as bugs in the system rather than features. Note, for example, how the script for campus rape apologism involves moaning that the victims, in coming forward, are ruining the lives of their attackers. Note how the “ideal” response to murders like Martin or Brown’s is to carry on as usual. The standard oppressor’s reply when people note that something is wrong with the status quo? “Get over it”.
Conversely, the more privilege one has, the easier it is to both deny forgiveness and be forgiven. Racists, contra Jesus Christ, get apoplectic at the idea of “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants of color whose sole crime is often risking everything for a chance at a better life. White policemen frequently get away with abusing or murdering black people; whatever crimes they might have committed by doing so are apparently perfectly forgivable. Being the better person or turning the other cheek is not something that concerns these people–almost as it the benefit brought about it were nil. And yet, “be the better person” is what is demanded of the oppressed, even when it undermines their right to self-care or safety. Anger is constantly invalidated: angry white women are hysterical, angry black men are thugs, angry black women are ignored and caricatured. And yet, it was Stonewall Riots that began the gay rights movement, and progress made in the twentieth century was not arrived at by being polite. Make anger against the rules, and you can keep an oppressive system in place forever, which is why so much energy is spent trying justify the claim that people who push back against oppressors and attackers are just as bad as the people doing the oppressing and attacking in the first place.
Given this context, it makes perfect sense for Goliath and Elisa to be predisposed to accept the “be the better person” argument. Even if gargoyles didn’t tend to see communal living in relatively small spaces–a lifestyle that requires avoiding long-term strife in order to be viable–as a biological imperative, the fact that their continued existence depends on more privileged humans deciding not to kill them in their sleep means that they should be more than familiar with conciliatory attitudes as a survival mechanism. Elisa, meanwhile, is a Black Native American woman, meaning that she is at the center of several axes of oppression which she would more than likely be intimately familiar with. This means that in most circumstances, their attitude could be considered legitimate self-defense. And yet, consider the circumstances at the end of this episode. The captain is dead, for real–his feelings are no longer a consideration. There are no self-preservation reasons why Goliath shouldn’t be able to say whatever it is he felt about one of the people responsible for the death of his people. What’s more, being grateful for the captain’s actions in saving his life does not preclude him from still being pissed about the original betrayal. And yet, even here, the narrative does not allow Goliath to be angry, despite just having been emotionally tortured by the same man he is now calling friend. It doesn’t even allow him the opportunity to be conflicted, really.
It raises the question: if not here, when can he be justifiably angry? When does his anger get shown to be a good thing, rather than a sign that he’s wrong and about to make a mistake? While Gargoyles obviously wants us to be on the good guys’ side, the series’ continued invalidation of Goliath and Elisa and Derek and Lexington’s anger, and its continued trend of having the good guys forgive anyone who shows the slightest hint of contrition (and some who don’t) is problematic, especially in light of the fact that, when we last left the series in 2009, it was in the process of planting the seeds for the gargoyles’ own civil rights movement. That struggle obviously matters to Weisman, and if that story ever actually gets told, then these are things that need to be considered. Gargoyles need to be able to be angry at humans, and to decide that gargoyle care is worth more than human comfort, and to question whether humans deserve gargoyle protection at all. It doesn’t have to be Goliath who does these things, but it has to be someone; Demona cannot be the face of gargoyle anger. And the show needs to show that that unforgiving anger is a valid reaction in the face of a world where gargoyles can expect to be shot at by strangers on any given night (yes, yes, #notallhumans, I know). To show these emotions as not being valid is utterly incompatible with the story that Weisman is trying to tell, and to show being the better person as the only acceptable path forward is incompatible with history, and incredibly privileged.
Now, Greg Weisman is not the person he was in the mid-nineties, nor is he the person he was in 2008. Given how his understanding of social justice issues has changed since Gargoyles was first produced, there’s every possibility that the next chapter of their story will do a better job with these issues than the 1995 version did. Here’s hoping. Until then, though, we still have to deal with the pretty problematic stories that are out, including next episode’s.
- This episode begins what is commonly known as the Gargoyles World Tour, as the series essentially changes its premise, turning into a walking the Earth series starring Goliath, Elisa, Angela and Bronx. It’s an incredibly gutsy and ambitious move–especially in 1995–and it is unfortunately one that I feel didn’t really work on TV; it’s really one of those things that’s easiest to appreciate in retrospect. Still, there is lots to appreciate about it, and I’ll be talking about what those things are soonish.
- The ongoing sub-sub-subplot about the caves is one of my favorite long-running threads in Gargoyles, because it’s not only intriguing, but it’s also something we don’t get a chance to revisit terribly often.
- It’s just occurred to me…doesn’t Xanatos own the land Castle Wyvern is on? If so, it would have been interested to see that acknowledged in some form. Does he own the caves?
- It’s always summer in Avalon, Angela claims, suggesting that there is no such thing as a growing season, and perhaps, no farming, which in turn suggests that mere subsistence is not a concern. It also suggests a somewhat limited diet. This is interesting.
- Anti-Tom Comment for the day: I so want to believe that the first thing that Elisa did upon returning to Avalon after this episode was to punch Tom for that whole “I thought you understood” bullshit. Unfortunately, that never happens: apparently, neglecting to mention that going to Avalon means possibly never returning home, and therefore denying Goliath, Elisa and Bronx the opportunity to give informed consent, is easily forgivable.