The Stone Gryphon: “M.I.A.”

“We thought you’d died with Griff! Is he here?  Is he with you?”  Leo

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Written by: Robert Cohen

Original Air Date: December 21, 1995

Introduces: Griff, Una, Leo

Timeline placement: 1940; January 23 – 24, 1996

Location:  London, England

TMNT episode I could make a very forced comparison to: “Timing is Everything”

 

The Beats:

  • The streets of the Soho area of London, England are under assault by  a gang made up of Bebop and Rocksteady’s prettier, more racist British cousins. One of their victims escapes into “Into the Mystic”, a magic-themed shop which, according to its clientele, has some eccentric, mask-wearing proprietors.  The escapee asks the shop owners to do something about the criminals outside, and they tell him, plainly, that it’s not their job, and that since it takes place outside their store, it’s not their concern.
  • The world tourists arrive in London, near a statue celebrating the pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) which, curiously, includes the figures of the two gargoyles who are popularly believed to have helped them during the London Blitz.  Curiouser still, Goliath is one of the two.
  • A nearby cab driver gives Elisa some context about the statue and suggests that if she wishes to learn more, she should visit the magic shop in Soho, since gargoyles and the like are just the sort of stuff they deal with.  Elisa asks the cabbie to take her there, and the gargoyles follow.
  • Elisa, now outside the magic shop, is accosted by Bebop, Rocksteady, and their gang.  She and the other arriving world tourists make short work of the hoodlums, and in the process cause enough of a ruckus to draw the attention of the store’s proprietors, who step outside.
  • Somehow, the shop owners, who introduce themselves as Leo and Una and whom are positively identified by Angela as gargoyles, actually know Goliath, and by name.  They’re none to happy about seeing him, either, after he’d disappeared with their clanmate Griff in 1940.  They’d believed both gargoyles dead, but now, since Goliath is clearly alive and cannot account for Griff, they conclude that he let their friend die and flew away in order to escape the consequences.  Goliath, meanwhile, has no idea what they’re talking about, as he has never met Leo, Una, or Griff before, and certainly wasn’t doing anything in 1940, let alone spending time in London.
  • Inside the shop, Leo and Una’s anger, and Goliath’s frustration and bemusement reach a breaking point. Una casts as spell knocking the world tourists unconscious.
  • When Goliath wakes up, Una informs him that they’ve taken his comrades and relocated them, the intention being to leave him wondering about their fate for the rest of his days.  Goliath has other ideas, and uses the Phoenix Gate to travel back to the past to investigate just what it is actually happened to Griff.
  • The year 1940. Goliath arrives in the London skies, where he is almost immediately saved by Griff from crashing into an RAF plane.  After quick introductions, Griff decides to take his new friend to a familiar Soho store.  There, Goliath meets Una and Leo again for the first time.
  • Inside the store, Goliath is offered tea while everyone discusses the war, and what, exactly, gargoyles should do about it.  Leo and Una are all for letting it pass them by, if at all possible; Griff believes its their duty to help the Allies out in whatever way possible. Goliath remains cautiously neutral.
  • The city-wide alarm is activated; Nazi fighters are attacking.  Griff heads out to help fight them, and Goliath follows in order to protect him.
  • Outside, Griff and Goliath help the RAF take out incoming Nazi fighters, and to rescue downed pilots.  They do this semi-publicly, and are seen by the British pilots, who see gargoyles as gremlins, the fantastic airplane-sabotaging creatures that had become part of wartime popular culture.
  • As the night wears on, Goliath comes to realize that there is no end to the amount of threats Griff faces,  that spending all his energies to protect him is a losing proposition, and that time travel rules mean that if he was told Griff didn’t return to his clanmates that night, it’s because Griff won’t return to his clanmates that night.   If he wants to save Griff, then he has to think of something else.  As all this realizing is going on, a downed Nazi plane heads right towards them, and Goliath decides to evade it by taking himself, and Griff, back to the future.
  • Back in 1996, Leo and Una are questioning their prisoners, trapped in chains in the shop basement, which provides the impetus for Leo to begin questioning their own motives.  After decades, he vocalizes what he has always feared, that he and Una haven’t actually been mad at Goliath, but at themselves for staying behind while they left, and while that may well have been the right decision, it’s one whose consequences they’re going to have to acknowledge and deal with. They apologize to, and free, Elisa, Angela, and Bronx.
  • Goliath reenters the shop with Griff.  Many happy tears and hugs.
  • Now reunited, Una, Leo, and Griff now decide to take on Soho crime as a clan.

Mythology and Continuity Notes:

  • Goliath first dealt with time travel and the Phoenix Gate in “Vows”.
  • Goliath has been in possession of the Phoenix Gate since the Archmage’s death in “Avalon” Part Three.

—-

This post is named after of my favorite things ever, a series of The Chronicle of Narnia fanfics by Ruth Stewart chronicling how the books’ various protagonists attempt to use what they’ve learned in Narnia on Earth. Like Narnia proper, it is set in the context of World War II; unlike Narnia, it uses it to its utmost advantage, exploring things like economics, espionage, sexism, sexuality, race, prejudice, international relations, politics, warfare, diplomacy, paleontology and biology, all from a perspective embodying Christianity at its best.  It is magnificent, and although unfinished, it is worth everyone’s time.

What does any of that have to do with this episode of Gargoyles? Not a whole lot, admittedly, aside from sharing a setting and the fact that “M.I.A.” features a literal stone gryphon.  Still, if I can’t use those parallels to justify a tangent plugging something I really like, then really, this blog has no purpose.

Oh, and this episode of Gargoyles, like Stewart’s The Stone Griffin, is fantasticthe first truly great episode since the World Tour began.

This episode, is first, and foremost, efficient.  Where “Golem” was overwhelmed by having to sell five million different viewpoints, this episode manages to introduce three new characters and sketch them enough to make them feel weighty and memorable, revisit time travel as a concept, deal with survivor’s guilt, explore World War II London, shift the status quo of the series, and give us some fantastically staged and animated action.

Of the gargoyle clans introduced during the World Tour, the London clan is by far the best executed. Part of the reason why this is the case undoubtedly has to do with the fact that they’re European and tied to the present day, making them the most like the creators of the lot.   Part of it, however, is because their emotional arc is one that both resonates easily and can be dealt with in twenty-two minutes. Leo and Una have lost someone, they don’t know how, and their long-term attempts to deal with it are suddenly derailed by Goliath’s arrival and his (justified) refusal to provide any closure. All of this makes them the most sympathetic antagonists we’ve gotten in the series so far. Additionally, their turnaround, while quick, doesn’t feel hasty, thanks in large part to the episode’s time travel element; while their change of heart comes in the space of a few minutes, it also comes after Leo and Una have had almost half a century to reflect on things.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition here, between a story that is at its core very personal, and World War II, which is as large in scale as something can get.  Fortunately “M.I.A.” works well in both scales.  Alongside the gargoyle drama, we also get quite a bit about the larger conflict: not only do we have some awesomely animated dogfighting, we have nods to rationing, the practice of keeping the city dark at night (although I have the impression that this was practiced as a matter of course, and not just when an attack was imminent; the latter) and, in general, just enough to make the conflict feel specific.  Sure, the level of detail is in no way comparable to what you’d get in a 100,000-word work, but for a twenty-two minute episode that also has other things to do, it’s plenty. What’s more, a lot of it is non-verbal.  There’s a level of trust in the audience here that isn’t apparent in other episodes, and it really helps keep the episode moving.

And then there’s the look of it all. I’m not at all sure how the producers went about assigning episodes to the various animation houses, but in this case, it works out beautifully, resulting in the most beautiful episode since “The Price”.  Additionally, it is also the best showcase for the way animation and direction can make or break an episode. Under different circumstances, the episode’s big set piecegargoyles vs. Nazis!could have felt as lifeless and artificial as those in “City at War”, particularly since, like there, the creators were not permitted to show or imply the deaths of any of the combatants. However, thanks to Walt Disney Animation Japan’s stellar work, the episode’s snapshot of the London Blitz manages to feel honest, weighty, and exciting.  It might just be the best battle sequence in the series. On the character design front, it’s worth noting that all three English gargoyles look great, and even extras like the shop patron or the gang members are full of character.

More than any episode so far, “M.I.A.” is the best display of what the Gargoyles creators were going for when the envisioned the World Tour. While I’ve been hard on this particular era of Gargoyleswith good reason, I feelit’s hard to watch this episode and not come out convinced that spending sixteen episodes following the world tourists as they travel around the world is an absolutely fantastic idea.  And heck, if all sixteen had been as good as this one, there would be little reason to complain.

Random Thoughts:

  • While the episode wasn’t able to fully portray the realities of war, it has no problem identifying Nazis by name and using their imagery, which is something Western Animation has not always been able to do.
  • The episode indicates that the person who is attacked at the beginning and the end of the episode is being targeted for racial reasons, which is an interesting nuance.  As is, the character is darker-skinned than the typical white-coded character, but not in a way to make it clear just what his ethnicity is supposed to be.  He might be southern European like Xanatos, he might be Indian or Roma, or Middle Eastern, or Southeast Asian.  In any case, Bebop and Rocksteady feel that his presence makes Britain less pure, which is a solid reminder of the way racism and xenophobia are by no means a problem existing only in this side of the Atlantic.
  • As mentioned, there’s an oblique reference this episode to the rationing that took place in Britain during and after the war, which is also a recurring element in “The Stone Gryphon”, to the point that, when I watched Griff smash his cup of tea against the floor of the story during this latest rewatch, I was all, “What the fuck, Griff? There is rationing going on.”
  • Readers of the Gargoyles comic books know that the three gargoyles here form just a small percentage of what is actually a much larger clan.  As retcons go, it largely works: sure, there’s nothing in this episode to indicate the existence of other gargoyles in the clan, but their existence doesn’t contradict anything set up in this episode, either.  It does make the emotional beats feel somewhat weirder, thoughnot enough to make the story less effective, but enough to raise eyebrows.
  • This episode features what is, I believe, the series’ only use of verbal thought balloons, as we get to hear Goliath think about using the Phoenix Gate before he does it so that his actions don’t come out of nowhere.
  • I have undeveloped thoughts about the way Una is treated as the more angry and irrational of the two gargoyles, while Leo is the more rational and the one who first decides that what they’re doing is wrong. Demona features in these thoughts.
  • On that note, it is heavily implied and later confirmed by word of god that Una was in love with Griff.  Just putting that out there, since I didn’t mention it elsewhere.
  • As Greg Weisman mentions in his ramble, gremlins were the subject of several projects by author, RAF pilot, and spy Roald Dahl. Dahl is himself the subject of the book The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, which, aside from being a damn good book, is also one of the major sources of inspiration for one of the stories in The Stone Gryphon. Connections!
  • Also mentioned in the ramble is the fact that one of the RAF pilots featured in the episode, Douglas Bader, is an actual person.  Wiki link.
  • In case you’d like to read the original The Stone Gryphon seriesand I once again stress that you really, really should, whether or not you’re a fan of Narniahere is a link.
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5 Responses to The Stone Gryphon: “M.I.A.”

  1. Loudo says:

    Seven reviews in two months… Excellent work, Ian. ^.^
    (It’s funny because I just rewatched this episode a few days ago. A friend of mine who is a big fan of Doctor Who was showing me some episodes of that series and I in turn showed him this episode of Gargoyles.)

    I love this episode too. I think this episode is probably the most faithful representation of a non-American setting. I am guessing that the first victim of the street thugs in the episode was Pakistani or Indian. They are very significant minorities in England.

    Considering the episode deals with World War II and Nazism, and that the lesson that Una and Leo learn at the end of the episode is that “Human problems become gargoyle problems” (i.e. they lost Griff because of their inaction), I can’t help but feel that there is some kind of parallelism to American non-interventionism during the first part of WW2.

  2. Ian says:

    Happy new year, Loudo! : )

    Yeah, I’m pretty damn proud of being able to post on a semi-consistent schedule again, even if it doesn’t last. : )

    By parallelism, do you mean something intentional (if extremely oblique) or just something that can be drawn from the text even if it wasn’t there intentionally? Either way, it’s an interesting observation, even if I’m not sure how far one can take it. I tend to feel that Leo and Una weren’t wrong to make the choice they did–a point the episode argues, and makes things far more interesting than if it had made them just be wrong–whereas American non-interventionism–and more specifically their lack of urgency when it came to the opportunity to do anything to deal with the oppression brought upon by the Axis powers–was. That said, Griff isn’t wrong either.

  3. Loudo says:

    I get the impression that it might have directly inspired the theme of the episode, whether consciously or not.
    However, while I personally agree that Leo and Una weren’t wrong in their choice, I don’t feel like this is a point the episode makes. No character ever blames Leo and Una for not helping in the war, that’s true, but Leo and Una’s non-interventionism also extends to not helping people against street thugs just outside their shop (something that, it is established, would be extremely trivial for gargoyles to deal with), and the episode explicitly links these two behaviors together (at the end of the episode, Leo and Una come to terms with their guilt and they decide to start helping the neighborhood). This frames Leo and Una’s actions pretty negatively IMHO.

    (I do realize that Leo and Una would have a pretty solid reason not to get involved: keeping the secret about their race. However, considering the other times gargoyles get involved in this very episode are very consequence-free…)

  4. Vrai Kaiser says:

    OH MAN UNA THOUGH. You are so right – I think if I stopped to linger over every instance of “women are irrational/emotional and men are logical/stoic” I would begin to weep and never stop (I love a lot of Gargoyles’ female characters, but they fell into their own special little writing pits. Like watching a Moffat-run show sometimes).

  5. Ian says:

    Loudo:

    Point. You’re right that there’s good reasons why Una and Leo might not want to get involved stopping crime in Soho, particularly since, unlike the Manhattan Clan, they’re semi-public figures tied and dependent on a specific location. Any revenge-minded person who wishes to screw them over just needs to set fire to their store during the day time–or heck, even during the night time–and eff them up but good. Still, as you say, that’s just as good a reason not to go off crime-fighting at the end of the episode, and yet there they are.

    Vrai Kaiser:

    It’s not even as if it’s super-consistent through the series. Like, with the Hunters, it’s Jason and Jon who trade around “irrational / emotional”, while Robyn is cold and calculating; with the Pack, it’s distributed more or less evenly; Derek / Talon and Maggie are both emotional in different ways. Elisa has never threatened to drive a car off a cliff, while characters like Angela or Desdemona could stand to be more emotional than they are portrayed as being. And yet, the way Una is written still feels very gendered, and I’m not sure why. Like, the special little writing pits are there, but they’re not all in the same place, so they’re harder to identify and deal with.

    Thinking about it, then, I think my discomfort in this specific case has something to do with the way that, with Una, her actions and thoughts are specifically tied up with her feelings for Griff. My thoughts aren’t much more developed than that, though.

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