The Troubles with Bronx Stories: “The Hound of Ulster”
17 July 2016 2 Comments
“There’s no heroes anymore. Only villains. And they’ve got us all beat.” — Rory Dugan
Original Air Date: February 6, 1996
Introduces: Rory Dugan / Cú Chullain ; Molly/ the Banshee / Cromm-Cruach; Mr. Dugan
Timeline placement: January 27 – 29, 1996
Location: Ulster, Ireland
TMNT episode I could make a very forced comparison to: N/A
- It is dusk in Ulster, Ireland, and two youths, Molly and Rory, are escaping the police after a night of petty thievery. Rory angsts about his lack of motivation or prospects before the two go on their separate ways. Molly warns Rory of the hound of Ulster.
- As Rory makes his way home, he sees a vision of a giant worm-like thing, which disappears just as quickly as it materialized.
- Both Rory and Molly hear howling. It is Bronx, who has just arrived along with the other world tourists.
- As they attempt to gain their bearings, the world tourists hear moaning, loud enough to hurt. As they attempt to escape, they find themselves crashing into a bog, which quickly draws all of them into its depths. Only Bronx escapes.
- Rory arrives at his house, where his father, Mr. Dugan, is watching TV. Dugan immediately begins berating his son for his inability to live up to his standards. Rory asks his da if he heard howling, and Mr. Dugan suggests that it might have been the hound of Ulster, who is supposed to howl in times of trouble, and then returns to his usual tirade. Tired of the usual argument, Rory leaves again.
- The day passes, and the gargoyles and Elisa awaken to find themselves inside an underground cavern, trapped and dirty but alright. With no other options, they decide to wait for whomever it was has trapped them to present themselves.
- Rory is wandering outdoors, looking for Molly, when he runs into Bronx. He tries to escape the gargoyle beast, and falls down a crevice, losing consciousness in the process.
- Inside the cavern, which is apparently inside a cairn, the world tourists are approached by a phantom presenting as female and identifying themselves as the Banshee. She explains that she knows their provenance—Avalon—and that she wishes them to give her information relating to Oberon and something called the Gathering, which she is expected to attend despite her wishes. The tourists attempt to explain that they have no idea what she’s talk about, but are not believed. The Banshee, angry at not hearing the answers she wishes to hear, begins using her voice to put the hurt on the captives. Helpless, the tourists are saved by howling coming from outside, which distracts the Banshee and causes her to leave.
- Rory is awakened by Bronx, who is at his most dog-like and friendly, and soon wins over the youth and rescues him from the ravine. The gargoyle beast leads the Irish lad to the bog, where Rory sees a vision of the cairn in which the world tourists are held.
- Rory and Bronx are approached by Molly. Bronx doesn’t like Rory’s friend, and not without a good reason, as she’s actually the Banshee. The child of Oberon drops her façade to defend herself from Bronx, and then mesmerizes Rory so that he may follow her without asking questions.
- Hours later, Rory awakens inside his house, confused. He shares his recent experiences with visions with both his father and Molly. The elder Dugan suggests that the place Rory saw may well be Cairn na Chullain, the alleged resting place of the legendary Irish mythical figure Cú Chullain. Rory decides to go there. Molly resolves to join him.
- At Cairn na Chullain, Rory sees a vision of Cú Chullain. Gae Bolga, Chullain’s spear of light, appears before him; upon touching it, he understands: he is Cú Chullain reborn. His appearance changes to that of the hero.
- Having failed to prevent the rebirth of Chullain, Molly reveals her true identity once more and begins her attack on her old foe. Bronx, remembering that this is supposed to be his episode, joins the battle.
- The Banshee adopts the form of Cromm-Cruach the death worm to finish of Chullain. Her trashing is enough to allow an opening into the Cairn to form, allowing the other world tourists a chance to escape and join the battle. As often happens, this more monstrous form is more vulnerable than the first, and so our heroes are eventually able to vanquish Oberon’s child. ‘
- The danger past, Cú Chullain becomes Rory once more, Gae Bolga turning into a simple staff. After some hasty farewells to Bronx, he wonders off to fulfill his destiny.
Mythology and Continuity Notes:
- This is the first mention of the Gathering, an as-of-yet unspecified something involving Avalon, Oberon, and his Children.
- As the gargoyles assert, the world tourists (and the audience) have heard of Oberon in passing, but have never met him.
- The world tourists had last met a Child of Oberon in “Grief”. Molly is their eight, after Puck, the Weird Sisters, Grandmother, Raven, and Anubis.
“The Hound of Ulster” is largely a curiosity, an episode with ambiguous aims strangely executed. It’s interesting not because of the story it tries to tell, but because of the way it attempts to do so.
The focus here is on an Irish youth named Rory, who is afflicted with Zoë Castillo syndrome: unemployed, apparently unemployable, and restless, he spends his days dithering around with his girlfriend Molly, until circumstances reveal to him that he is actually the mythical Irish hero Cú Chullain reborn. And…that’s it, essentially.
We’ve seen this story before: this is yet another tale in the vein of “Heritage” and “Golem”, a superhero origin for a newly introduced character. What makes this odder than its predecessors is the haphazard way the pieces are put together, making for a picture that makes little sense. There’s no coherence to be found here.
Nothing exemplifies this sloppiness more than the episode’s antagonist, the Banshee. While she’s easily the best thing about the episode—she’s entertaining in all her forms, she’s got actual goals and the will to make them happen, and you can tell the animators had fun with her—nothing about the way she acts make sense, feeling baffling, at best, and utterly contradictory at worst.
Take the part where she wishes to avoid the Gathering. She wishes not to take a part of it, and thus she holds the world tourists, whom she believes are Oberon’s agents, captive so that she may confront them. And yet, it’s not at all clear what she hopes to obtain from this confrontation. She mentions wanting information about Oberon’s aims, except that she already seems to know what she wants them to tell her. In one breath she’s “tell me what I want to know”, the next she’s “I have no interest in what you have to say.” And while it’s not clear what her precise plans are, her actions logically correspond to none of them.
Does she want the world tourists to let Oberon know that she’s not going? Then there’s no point in trapping them. Does she wish to actually eliminate the people she believes are Oberon’s emissaries? The peat bog was doing a crackerjack job of that before she went and rescued them. Does she just want to be left alone? Then doing nothing seems like a much better course of action than whatever it is she was doing. In the end, there is only one reason for the confrontation: to let the audience —not even the characters, who will never grow to care about it—know that the Gathering is a thing, and that it will be important.
Even more contrived, however, is the Banshee’s role in Rory’s story, where nothing about her actions is clear. Yes, she wishes to prevent Rory from becoming Cú Chulainn, presumably to remove a potential threat, and yet, it’s not at all clear why he’s a threat in the first place. Sure, the two end up fighting, but that only occurs because Molly has taken it upon herself to be present at the moment when Rory discovers his powers, and attempts to kill him then. There’s no evidence that he wouldn’t have left her to her own devices, had she left him alone—particularly since the Banshee, unlike Raven or Brod, wasn’t presenting a clear and active danger to anyone, from what we could see. Again, it’s not at all clear what her thought process is, making her actions feel inexplicable. Why has she befriended Rory in the first place, knowing what she knows? It would make a certain amount of sense as a way to make things harder for him, making so that he’d be unwilling to attack his girlfriend, and yet this is clearly not the case, as, again, she attacks him as soon as he transforms. Why does she not use the years’ worth of opportunities she’s apparently had to kill Rory, and instead waits until the literal last minute? Sure, the Children of Oberon may not intercede in human affairs and all that, but given that this doesn’t stop her from attempting to Rory in the end, it’s not at all clear why this stopped her earlier.
Now, these are not questions with no good answers. One could, if so inclined, create explanations why the Banshee acts the way she does (actual affection for Rory, for one). However, not only should these questions really have been answered by the episode itself, they also serve to highlight just how much more interesting Molly is than Rory. I want to know more about her thought process, and why she does what she does. That the episode instead focuses on Rory seems misguided.
Not that Rory is himself uninteresting, because he isn’t. His super-hero identity may be boring as hell, but Rory himself is actually quite compelling. The character archetype he represents—mediocre, aimless and unpromising young white man who is still Destined for Great Things—is overused elsewhere (see: Hollywood) but the context here works to make it more interesting than it might usually be.
I’ve recently begun watching Friday Night Lights, a drama that aired from 2006 to 2011 about high school football in small-town Texas. Most of the teenagers in Dillon are potential Rorys: once they graduate from high school, there’s very little in the way of prospects available to them. College is expensive and provides dubious benefits. Even with a degree, jobs in the area are scarce. For many, escape is the only option, which is why football becomes so important for the community as a whole, not only emotionally, but for some, as the only avenue to potential future success. It’s quite compelling, and something a lot of television shows, with their implausibly large apartments and endless lunch breaks, don’t usually deal with. It’s certainly not something children’s cartoons deal with, and so seeing it tackled here makes me happy.
Cú Chulainn, on the other hand, does not make me happy. He is not compelling, and especially not the way he’s presented here, where it’s clear the writers understand that he’s apparently super-cool for some reason, but have forgotten that they need to show us why. Not only do we spend barely any time with him, none of it spent beyond establishing him beyond a stock ancient hero persona, and worse still, the mythological element does nothing to complement Rory’s story. Without even “Heritage’s” token attempt to tie the real world issue to the supernatural, we are left with two incomplete stories that pretend to be one complete story, and given that Rory’s journey is the core of the episode, this means that we have as big a storytelling failure as Gargoyles has had yet. Sure, there may be worse or less entertaining episodes, but none which fail at telling a story at such a fundamental level as this one does.
And what about Bronx? In the end, it’s not really accurate to call “The Hound of Ulster” a spotlight on the beastie; he’s pretty much an afterthought thorough. Sure, he frees himself from the mire that traps his companions, meets up with Rory, and has a bark that unnerves the Banshee for some reason, but one could remove him from the episode without changing much of substance. And that’s the problem with the episode in a nutshell. You can remove Bronx. You can remove the other world tourists, which exist only insofar as they need to learn of the Gathering (not that they’ll ever do anything with this knowledge). You can even remove Cú Chulainn as an actual physical presence and arguably end with a better episode.
As usual, what is perhaps most disappointing about this episode is that Ireland in 1996 is ripe with storytelling possibility. Instead we have yet another episode that desperately lacks focus. It’s becoming a trend.
- Lest I give the impression that nothing positive actually made it to the episode, I have to say the actual confrontation between the Banshee and the world tourists (minus Bronx) is fantastically boarded and animated. Some of her lines about the scent of magic and the like are also cool.
- Something that becomes particularly notable this episode is how often Elisa appears to go on without food. Here, for example, she sinks into the bog shortly after sundown, and awakens just as the sun goes down the next day, and is then trapped until freed once the sun has come down a second time, meaning she spent some forty-eight hours without food or drink without apparent ill effect. She’s tough, our Elisa, especially since she also weathered a banshee attack.
- (This also means that we have no idea what Bronx did that first night.)
- Similarly, the way the timeline works out this episode suggests that Rory, after leaving the house, spent pretty much the entire day outside of it, apparently without rest.