I Would Have Preferred the Goth Chick: “Grief”
15 January 2016 4 Comments
“Death is always pointless. That is the point.” — Anubis
Written by: Brynne Chandler Reaves and Michael Reaves
Original Air Date: December 28, 1995
Introduces: The emir, Anubis
Timeline placement: January 25 – 26, 1996
Location: Giza, Egypt
TMNT episode I could make a very forced comparison to: N/A
- Giza region, Egypt. Inside the Sphinx, the Pack—minus one Dingo—is preparing things for their current boss, the emir, who is working on one of Xanatos’ immortality projects, the summoning of the Death God Anubis.
- The world tourists arrive just next door to the Sphinx, and spot Coyote flying towards the structure. They decide to follow.
- The emir begins the ritual to summon Anubis when he and The Pack are spotted by the tourists. He tells his underlings to deal with the intruders while he completes the ritual.
- The Pack defeats the tourists and chainthem to pillars, from which they are in position to watch all the hot ritual action.
- The emir manages to complete the ritual, and makes his demand: that Anubis return his son to life. Anubis is all “Uh, no. That’s not what I’m about, dude. By the way, brah, you know that if you keep me here, people are going to be born and not die, and pretty soon the whole world is going to end out out of wack, you know?” but in Tony Jay’s voice.
- The Pack is sent away, but they, suspicious of the emir’s ability to carry out Xanatos’ wishes, decide to send someone back to stealthily keep watch over him. Jackal volunteers, and returns to the main hall to watch as the emir, frustrated at the death god’s inability to be properly threatened, decides that he will cast a spell to make himself an avatar of Anubis, which will allow him to
master all four elementshave power over life and death. Goliath, upon hearing this, attempts to free himself, in the process almost bringing down the building around them.
- Angry, the emir recalls the Pack and orders them to take the tourists elsewhere and kill them. Left alone (but for Jackal, who is still hiding and watching events unfold) he completes the spell; before Anubis’ spirit can be transferred to him, however, Jackal knocks the emir out and takes his place, meaning Jackal the cyborg has now been empowered by the spirit of the Jackal god.
- The world tourists escape death and the Pack and return to the main hall just in time to see the empowered Jackal. Drunk on power and high on life and death, Jackal² takes everyone down with ease, and lets the emir—the only person he hasn’t aged or de-eaged to helplessness—watch as he proceeds to send beams of instant death throughout Egypt.
- Horrified at what is happening and spurred by Goliath and his and Angela’s efforts to stop Jackal, the emir looks towards the Scroll of Ra—which allowed him to cast the first spell and can allow him to cast it again—as the one thing that may help him stop Jackal!Jackal. The new Avatar notices the attempt against him and moves to attack the emir, but he is too slow: the emir reads the spell, causing Anubis’ spirit to pass on to him.
- Now possessing both Jackal’s power and understanding, the emir determines that he cannot bring his son back; what he can do is restore everything Jackal!Jackal harmed, and so he restores everyone in the Sphinx to their proper ages. This re-channeling of energies begins bringing the temple down around them, and the emir, deciding that the power of the Jackal god is one that nobody should have access to, completes the job. As he destroys the structures supporting the temple, the tourists escape, leaving The Pack and the emir behind to meet their fates, be it survival, death, or the afterlife.
Mythology and Continuity Notes:
- Although a new character, the emir has previously been referenced in the episodes “The Edge” and “Double Jeopardy”.
- The Pack was last seen in “Upgrade”, when they got a variety of biological or cybernetic “upgrades”.
After an episode non-tangentially focused on grief and survivor’s guilt, we get…another episode focused on grief and survivor’s guilt. In another show, this could be seen as a sign of repetitiveness and a lack of ideas. In Gargoyles, where death and survival are mayor themes, it just means it’s Tuesday. While it’s not as good an episode as “M.I.A.”, it’s quite good, albeit in a way that leaves me quite conflicted.
In contrast to several World Tour episodes so far, which have found themselves with far too much to cover in the little time they have, “Grief” feels as if it has too much time on its hands; by the time it hits the ten-minute mark, it has largely said all it has to say. The rest of the episode is spent setting up Jackal!Jackal, who, while great feels like a singular case of reverse character development, as it turns out that those layers of wanton cruelty and homicidal impulses were all just covering up even more layers of wanton cruelty and genocidal impulses (also, a genuinely surprising interest in jackals). While his and The Pack’s presence prevents the episode from feeling like “M.I.A.” redux, and the various details in the execution are rather fantastic, it nevertheless feels like important stuff was glossed over so the episode could focus on the Pack and be a proper Gargoyles episode. It leaves me feeling that the episode could have delved more deeply into its themes, even when I’m fairly sure that doing so would have resulted in a worse, less efficient episode.
The episode—and most of my thoughts about it—center on the emir, who has precisely one feature of note: his son has died, and his (sigh…) grief has led him to seek extreme measures for solace. Whereas Leo and Una’s grief was largely fed by their lack of knowledge and the suspicion that the tragedy could have been prevented if only they’d acted differently, the emir’s is caused by the feeling it is something that should not have happened: it was, in his words, pointless and unfair and cruel.
While Anubis’ arguments as to why this is not the case may be familiar to some—although probably not the show’s intended target audience, which grants them a solid measure of novelty—the interactions between they and the emir are particularly interest in light of the latter’s religion, or lack thereof. In an episode featuring a god of death and an examination of what death means, it should very much be a factor, and if it isn’t, it’s worth exploring why.
Now, Gargoyles is far from alone in avoiding discussion of religion, and Disney far from the only company working to make sure its works refrain from exploring the topic (TMNT, to mention the most relevant and immediate example, has never, to my knowledge, made reference to a creator in any animated incarnation). However, while one can usually accept that religion, like sex or the drug trade, still exist in the margins of these stories even if they’re not mentioned, “Grief”, given its subject matter almost demands that it be given its due, so its absence is notable and glaring.
Complicating things further is the fact that, well, this episode isn’t shying away from religion entirely, and cannot—not when there’s a big honking god taking up the screen and being played by Scar. Why can Egyptian (or Norse, or West African) gods be discussed and featured, but not the god of Islam or the god of Christianity, or the god of Judaism? I know the answer, and find it eminently unsatisfying, particularly since the story we get here, while a good one without the religious element, has the potential to become a much more compelling one once faith is taken into account.
Once you start thinking of the story with the emir as religious—as someone who believes (or believed) in a very specific god and an afterlife—the context for this story becomes really interesting. A man loses his son. He, for his own reasons, does not find comfort in the idea that he will ascend into heaven, or finds it hard to believe this is the case. His only source of solace is found in a blasphemous proposition, which requires him to consider, or maybe accept, that other gods besides his own may exist, and to have faith that they will grant him a boon when his own god has not. As he grows closer, he believes, to recovering his son, he also grows farther away from his capital-G God, which tears away strips from his soul. Then, once he meets Anubis, he does not ask about an after life. Why is this the case? The answers are various, and interesting.
(Heck, even if we assume that the emir expressed his faith in a secular manner or was even agnostic, or atheist, how does that belief hold up against a god of death? That too, would have been interesting to explore, but doing so would, again, require bringing up faith.)
Tackle religion, and suddenly, the guy has actual dimensions; instead, we get someone who on paper is barely a sketch. He lost his son? Get in line. For a guy with such a specific look, he ends up feeling incredibly generic.
Now, “emir”, as a word, has connotations. If one is knowledgeable about the Arab world and its various nations’ histories’, then it may suggest something quite specific; if somebody isn’t knowledgeable, it might just suggest that the person is Middle Eastern-ish. Either way, it suggests that he is almost certainly Muslim, which in turn may suggest the questions and story paths suggested above. Here, however “emir” means nothing. The title has meanings and history and context and connotations, and none of them come through on the screen. He could be anyone, but he’s an emir, because an emir was mentioned in a throwaway line in season 1 and the episode presented a good opportunity to have someone from the region in the role of grieving father. Why him, though? Why choose an emir, when nothing in the episode makes use of his particular role, and indeed, emirs were not a thing in the Republic of Egypt in the mid-nineties? It all comes across as randomly choosing an Arab word and building from there, rather than an actual attempt to represent a culture or people.
On one hand, there’s an argument to be made that making the emir utterly generic is actually a positive, when it comes to representing people from Arab countries. The guy who’s lost his son and is now angry at death itself could be anyone, so why not someone from that region? You could do much worse than taking a Middle Eastern character and portraying them exactly as one would a white dude from say, Iowa. Except…that’s not quite what the episode is doing. Were that the case, the episode wouldn’t reduce the emir’s identity to his title, or dress him up in robes, both which have the effect of denoting him as something other than an everyman—when Xanatos does his immortality rituals, he does them in a suit.
And so we have a character that is portrayed as being other, with that otherness consisting of nothing but otherness itself. Unlike Max Lowe (“Golem“) who gains a lot of specificity from Jewish culture and history (even if that culture isn’t named within the story itself) the emir’s context means nothing, other than adding a sense of the exotic. As glad as I am that the episode isn’t centered on a white dude—which could have easily been done without changing an iota of the script except for the references to the title “emir”—it feels like an extremely dubious approach to the only Arab character in the cartoon, and one that makes him something of an outlier among other world tour characters.
Ironically, though, this emptiness may be responsible for the episode working as much as it does. The emir has everything he needs to be able to move the story forward—it helps to have Tony Shalhoub infusing him with gravitas despite having very little to work with—and it’s possible that fleshing out his character more could have ended up turning this episode into another “Golem”. And yet, while I’m glad “Grief” is as enjoyable as it is, sometimes I’m left wishing it had taken more risks, even if they’d ended up not working out.
- Greg Weisman mentions in his ramble for the episode that the creative team missed an in-retrospect obvious opportunity to play around with the rules of the episode, by having the scene where the Pack is ordered to kill the gargoyles result in them attempting to do so before realizing that they can’t succeed because nobody can die while Anubis is hostage. While I’m not sure his logic bears out—he suggests that not being able to die means they couldn’t be harmed, while I think it just means that they could be decapitated and still not die—it would have been a super-interesting thing to see play out.
- This episode establishes canonically that gargoyles age at half the rate of humans, which actually means that gargoyles have double the lifespan of humans, while aging at the same rate while awake. I think. It’s used to “explain” how Goliath and Angela still had energy to fight Jackal!Jackal even after being aged up, but it just raises even more questions and is not at all satisfying.
- Angela refers to the Sphinx as the world’s biggest gargoyle. I don’t see the resemblance, and the comparison bugs me. More on this when we get to “Bushido”.
- Anubis holds a weird place in Gargoyles‘ cosmology. I don’t remember at the moment if he’s one of the Children of Avalon, but his position and power, if we take him at his word, would seem to indicate that that is not the case, particularly when you consider the spells associated with him are different from what we’ve seen—not Latin like the Grimorum spells or in English rhyme like the Children of Avalon spells, or in Ancient Egyptian, which would have also been logical. What’s more, that spell references an entire pantheon, further complicating things.
- Note: the Sphinx isn’t actually destroyed by the end of the episode. The emir just destroys the internal structure without destroying the shell.