This Disney show has gone entirely too long a stretch without a violent coup. Oh, and also this week is one of the best episodes in the show.
What we have here is one of the single best episodes the series has to offer. If you’ve been reading along without watching the show, this is one I can unequivocally recommend taking a detour to watch. Not only does it feature especially fluid, detailed animation, but the writing is densely packed enough that I’m tempted to forgo the usual blow by blow in favor of digging straight into the meat of things. But that would hardly be fair to you, dear and patient readers. A compromise, then.
The action kicks off with the reemergence of Macbeth, out of the Weird Sisters’ captivity and dressed to the nines with fancy tech one more. He launches a late night assault on the gargoyles as they head home from patrol, saying something about trophies and hitting Hudson with some kind of mysterious powder before apparently going down in a fiery crash. Unable to make it home, the gargoyles camp out on a rooftop for the day. The next night rolls around with everyone recovered…except for Hudson, still stone and still covered in that strange powder. Fearing their elder statesman has been bespelled, the clan mourns the loss of any answers or cure.
But all is not as it seems, an easy and necessary assumption the minute Xanatos shows his face. The rooftop statue, you see, is an elaborate forgery; meanwhile, the real Hudson is being held in captivity as an unwitting participant in Xanatos’ bid for immortality (both as an ingredient donor for an ancient cauldron concoction and as a guinea pig). It would seem that his impending fatherhood has put Xanatos in mind of the future, and he doesn’t like what there is to see.
While the rest of the gargoyles are kept busy trying to protect “Hudson” from the miraculously alive (spoilers: robot, totally a robot – and for those of you keeping track of “acceptable robot violence” at home, you can definitely see Goliath punch Macbeth’s robo-guts out through his back; plus the eyeball dangling from its socket thing) Macbeth, Hudson rescues his own damn self before he can be dunked into that magical goop. But he’s not interested in destroying the cauldron – as long as he doesn’t have to be involved, he’s content to leave Xanatos to stew. The actual test subject? Owen, who puts his arm into the brew only to come out with a fetching new rock fist. “Whoever bathes in it will live as long as the mountain stone,” y’see.
So, that animation. Seriously, I cannot emphasize enough how pretty it looks. Not just in the flying scenes, which have an extra element of dynamism to them (including finally cashing in the potential threat of “what if they sun came up while someone was flying”), but in the gorgeous detail work which goes a long way to driving the episode home emotionally. Extra animation budget means more facial animation, more attention to things like light and shadow. It means that rather than focusing on the economy of moving the scene forward (big actions, mouth movement), you have small additions like Goliath’s face crumpling when the fake Hudson is destroyed, or Owen giving a smirk in the background when Xanatos is taunting Hudson. It adds an extra layer of lived in reality for the characters, an element of detail that’s necessarily going to be missing a lot of the time when you’re working to produce a lot of episodes on a punishing television schedule. It makes it all the more worth savoring.
Hudson’s melancholy over his age and role in the team has been spotlighted in episodes past, but recently he’s seemed almost at ease with his life (most recently in urging Goliath to pick a second). Returning to that concept of age by throwing him against Xanatos ends up yielding brilliant results, highlighting not just how far Hudson has come in terms of making peace with himself or in what it reveals about Xanatos as a character, but even in the societal divide between them (elders as bearers of hardwon, valuable knowledge versus the capitalist demarcation of usefulness as the ability to work and produce). Meanwhile, though they don’t interact at all this episode we see both Xanatos and Goliath once more showing their similarities, as both ignore their knowledge of how dangerous unknown magic can be in dogged pursuit of their respective goals (Xanatos is totally down for mystery soup, while Goliath is so desperate he brings up Demona like that’s actually a viable option).
It’s an extremely sophisticated character study, full stop, right up there with Batman’s “Heart of Ice,” recent accomplishments like the legendary “I Remember You,” and toe to toe with any primetime drama. The subtext veins around Xanatos’ character are extremely rich here, and Jonathan Frakes wastes not a one of them. As I mentioned (though the show does not), Xanatos is now aware that he’s going to become a father. And his response isn’t worry about material comfort, because he can provide all that no problem, but securing eternal youth for Fox and himself. His haughty line about nothing being outside his ability to change sums the character up nicely…or it did, before we ended up with the Xanatos who plays the grudging ally and sacrifices his goals for his family’s safety. The animation does good work here playing up a lot of sinister grins and flippant gestures, but in some ways it’s like this is a wake for the “old” Xanatos, seeking stasis through immortality in the face of serious, world-shaking personal change.
And, of course, there’s Owen. His dynamic with Xanatos here is equally precarious – we’ve never seen Owen challenged over his competence, not really, and the way that Xanatos does it seems half vented frustration and half the result of some conflict we’ve not been privy to (a reluctance, perhaps, to bring in this dangerous artifact?). Owen’s brief conversation with Hudson (the whole “service is its own reward” thing would be where, in a modern fandom, a million porn fics would break out) is illuminating, but not without a sleight of hand. Hudson is a loyal soldier, it’s true, but he’s long to the point where the reason he serves is no longer about a court or custom but in the name of protecting the small family he’s drawn together for himself.
Owen’s the same – Fox and Xanatos are truly important to him, and so their protection is, indeed, its own reward. In that light, Xanatos’ last line can seem unbelievably cruel and dismissive – an apparent restabilizing of the status quo with no acknowledgement of the very permanent and visible change that’s just occurred. But that subtext goes one, lovely step further: this is the last time Xanatos talks about tampering with supernatural objects. Ever. Not so heartless as all that, it seems.
A small dinghy on a mystical sea. I foresee no problems
Avalon (Part 1)
This episode is described as a triptych – three pictures put next to one another in order to show a progression of some sort (chronological, thematic, what have you). So we’ve got another multi-parter, and a lot more flashbacks incoming.
Another Tuesday, another strange being from myth and legend strolling down the streets of Manhattan. In this case it’s a man in gargoyle-themed armor who quickly gets booked from brandishing a big ol’ sword around, thus bringing the man’s search for gargoyles to Elisa’s attention (her plot sensing powers have grown truly mighty by this point). She springs the guy from the cell by saying she knows his family (I’m going to guess there are many elaborate rumors about Elisa’s connections at this point, not unlike Commander Shepard), and takes him to meet Goliath (and Bronx, who just likes to feel included).
And it turns out that this gentleman is in fact a face from Goliath’s past. Remember that cute kid from the pilot who wanted to be friends with the trio, and his mom was having none of it? Well this is he, his name is Tom, and he’s come to tell Goliath that there’s some great danger coming for the gargoyle eggs that Princess Katherine pledged to care for way back when. That sets the ticking clock running, and with a limited amount of time before sunrise (which, we gather, would destroy Tom’s means of magical travel), only Goliath, Elisa, and Bronx are able to go with Tom on his quest.
It’s a long boat ride once they set out, though, and that leaves plenty of time to fill in the backstory of how Tom’s only aged maybe 40 years in the 1000 that have passed. So back we go to the aftermath of our modern clan being bespelled, with Princess Katherine, the Magus, tiny Tom (knighted, adorably, as guardian of the eggs) and his mother loading the eggs up to flee to the king’s castle (that’d be Katherine’s uncle). They’re welcomed with open arms, though nobody at court really understands or respects the little group’s devotion to those eggs.
He was so sure he’d escape the Disney curse by being on TV.
Everyone knows Disney ignores their TV shows
Unfortunately, coming back to court also means dropping into a whole lot of plotting and literal backstabbing. And the fact that we’ve got a lot of Real(-ish) History going on here means things are going to go down in an inescapably (implicitly) bloody way. And now, to transcribe things in a way that really fits the severity of the situation. Ermagahd, so the king, right? Katherine’s weird uncle? He’s totally got the hots for Fidella, who’s like half his age (gag!). But girl’s got it so bad for Constantine, the poseur dipshit angling for the throne. And meanwhile, he’s not even trying to hide how he has the hots for Katherine(‘s social position) even though she keeps telling him to take a height. So once he gets ditched he’s all “Fidella, babe, I was so wrong we gotta talk to the king.” And she’s all, “about our luuuuuuurve? Oh thank fuck, it’s harder to remember he’s nice when he keeps staring at my chest.” And Constantine is all “yeah but like, let’s do it in private so we don’t hurt his feelings just his kidneys” and the Fidella strolls off to do her part in being complicit in a murder plot. Oh, and tiny Tom has been listening in on all of this, which results in him also having his first mental-scarring-by-regicide later that evening.
What follows is all the usual stuff you’d expect from a violent coup: infighting, bloodshed, political prisoners, all that jazz. Constantine keeps Katherine in line by threatening the gargoyle eggs and demands that she marry him. Katherine insists that other heroes should escape without her for the sake of the eggs, but no one’s having any of that – particularly the Magus, who’s unshakable devotion to Katherine has morphed, post-journey, into something understated but unshakable. They’re adorable, is what I’m saying
Not only does the Magus refuse to leave without Katherine, he’s also got a plan to sneak the whole gang and the eggs out….with a little help from the scorned Fidella. He puts a spell on the eggs to look like old junk and she goes off to feed Constantine sleeping powder, giving them all enough time to get to a boat. Why a boat? So they can head to Avalon, the kingdom of Oberon and the Third Race. And it’s relatively smooth sailing until they run into the Weird Sisters, feeling much like some dreadful leviathan out of Homer. And that’s not the only snag they hit.
One of the rules of entering Avalon is no BYO-Magic, because that’s just the sort Oberon is. Which means the Grimorum can’t go in. BUT they also can’t leave it lying around, since if Constantine found it he could track them to the island. Now it’s Katherine’s turn to insist the Magus stay with them, even if it means going on without his magic. And in the end, it’s Fidella who volunteers to turn back and protect the book – and more surprisingly, Tom’s mother, Mary, agrees to go with her for support (this might be the show’s purest, most unfiltered moment of sisterhood and I love it). Tom is devastated as they part ways, and we fade back to the present just in time to arrive at the fabled Avalon, originally featured in stories of King Arthur. It’s an island out of time where an hour passes for every day in the world outside, explaining away our guide’s age. Though it doesn’t seem to have done much for his sense of understatement, since the episode ends with the “eggs” coming over the ridge of the island – and looking rather more grown than our heroes were expecting.
This is the point when the series shifts into being a full on kitchen sink of myths, legends, and Shakespeare references. Like the other multi-parters, it also introducers concepts and a few major players that will be enormously important as we move into the back half of the series.