Oh hai, series low point.
He had to visit the servers on Star Wars day
Shadows of the Past
As promised by the final lines of the last episode, our little boat of travelers is taken not back to Manhattan but to Scotland, to the very cliffside where Goliath’s home once stood. Forced onto land by a nasty storm, the traveling quartet eventually take shelter in the cave where the Arch Mage was supposed to have died all those centuries ago. While he attempts to share some of his clan’s history with Angela, Goliath is in a bad way: hearing whispers and seeing remnants of traumatic events that the place, if not the gargoyle, have laid to rest.
Yes, the first half of this episode is a long stint of Goliath’s PTSD coming home to roost. The writing keeps a light hand, coming back to his established guilt and the last desire for revenge that was taken from him rather than rejected – when the Captain who betrayed the gargoyles and Hakon, the invader who destroyed them, plunged over a cliff and suffered an accidental death. The revisiting of the old castle grounds proves an excellent time to reexamine these topics in light of how far Goliath has come as a character. At the heart of his character has long been the struggle between a mediator’s eye and a propensity toward impassioned, reactionary outbursts, and throwing that hard-won balance into turmoil by conjuring old ghosts opens discussion of how complicated the healing process can be, or if it’s ever truly complete. Keith David breaks out some almost ANGEL OF THE NIGHT caliber angsting here, but there’s genuine heartbreak in how he panics when his memories of Hakon and the Captain begin to blur with the present of Elisa and Angela.
This is a gorgeous episode visually. The wide shots are extremely simple, reducing the characters as much as possible to their most recognizable features. But the saved effort all goes pouring into close shots, with fine animation detail given to Goliath’s inner struggle in particular (though the artists are still clearly figuring out what to do with Angela, whose face shifts fairly frequently from heart-shaped ingénue to Brumblefry Cundersnatch levels of cheekbone intensity). And, as is customary with the show at this point, extra money means a lot of love poured into mood lighting. The sickly greens of the cavern and the borderline-noir shadows out in the storm make the first half of the episode a stunning mood piece. It’s not quite on the level of “The Cage,” but it is noticeably higher caliber than its surrounding episodes.
And the writing ends up being much the same: shining in the little moments, loosely sketched on the big picture. The script eventually comes around, y’see, to decisively saying that Goliath’s hallucinations are caused by the vengeful ghosts of Hakon and the Captain, who’ve lured Goliath into the cave in order to take their revenge. At that point the episode comes down from the potential high pantheon of the show’s best character studies (Xanatos in “The Price” and “Eye of the Beholder,” Demona in “City of Stone,” and so on) to just being a regular episode with some excellent flair. Which is still a fairly high bar, given the overall quality of Gargoyles’ writing, but feels a touch disappointing for the road not taken.
The revenge, y’see, has to do with this old ruin in the depths of the cave which, when activated by the power of Because Plot (there’s some intimation about Goliath’s spirit being broken, but it’s all as vague as it can possibly be) will give Goliath’s life force over to the two ghosts and lead to Goliath taking their place. They very nearly succeed in sending him over the edge into hopelessness only to be thwarted by their attempts to paint Demona as a victim of the massacre. Realizing that these ghosts haven’t done enough fact checking on the wiki, Goliath is able to come back to himself and fight back a bit before the magic starts up anyway.
Because the source of Goliath’s trauma here is ultimately external he’s not really given a resolution (the writing sort of rebounds on an assumption that he’s back to his “dealt with it” state of being, though he still seemed to have some internal Stuff there before), and so the turning point for the episode gets turned over to the Captain. One well timed word about living with Honor (and it is the kind of show wherein you can feel the capital letter) from Goliath leads the Captain to realize that this is his time to atone for his past actions, and he and Hakon have a ghost fight before the magic ruins, sensing the plot is finished, helpfully collapse. And so it becomes another example in a theme that the show has well and truly trod by now: that vengeance doesn’t solve anything, and moving on is the only way to find peace. Not a bad message, mind, just well and truly covered.
The Captain is able to move on because he’s let go of his hate, while Hakon was somehow trapped in a piece of the ruins and does a lot of teeth gnashing about how he has no one to haaaaaaaaaaaate (a rather cringe-inducing button on the episode when the peaceful sunrise rumination that came before it served far better).
Angela’s side eye speaks for us all
Here is the part where I get in considerably over my head. This episode is a serious stumble on the part of the series, well-meaning in its attempts to add diversity to its mythological pantheon and to show non-white cultures to a young audience that might not have seen them before but also seriously, seriously bungled on the execution. Amazingly ball dropped, in fact. But, as I suspect you could gather even if you’ve not heard me say it, I am the pastiest human alive who grew up in a pretty white town. So I can talk to you all day about queer theory, mental illness, and even a bit of classism, but my voice has no place in a discussion of race. But! Because you should definitely still have an informed opinion to read on that subject, check out this writeup on the episode.
Okay, let’s get this over with. So our little boat of travelers is attacked by a sea serpent, and the ensuing fight leads to Elisa getting separated from the group and washing up on the fictional (convenient, hold that thought) Queen Florence Island. The place is pretty barren and deserted, most of its inhabitants having gone to the mainland to look for a better life. The exceptions are Nick, who’s recently returned from Harvard and is at the end of his rope as far as trying to pinpoint the cause of this natural decay, and Grandmother, who’s old and mystical and such.
Meanwhile, Goliath and co. find their way to shore to search for Elisa and are met by Raven, who poses as a gargoyle in order to win their trust and tell them all about how Grandmother is actually an evil sorceress. At the same time, Grandmother has broken Elisa’s fever using The Old Ways and tells Elisa about how a trickster god named Raven is actually ruining everything because Nick won’t spine up and fight the dude on top of an old volcano. Actually, both Raven and Grandmother are Oberon’s children, and they can’t directly make Nick do anything because Fae Rules, and Goliath can’t be the one to fight Raven because the plot says so, and Elisa eventually steps in and convinces Nick to do the volcano fighting thing because dammit, they’ve been here like 12 hours and there’s other stuff to do. And that solves literally everything, from Nick’s personal navigation of modernism versus his relationship to indigenous culture all the way up to Grandmother making all the plants grow back. Having solved the socioeconomic and environmental issues of an entire culture in one day, the gang leaves. It’s not a good episode.
I could tell this episode entirely in screenshots of people
wincing, and it still wouldn’t cover it
Setting aside, as much as I can, the issues in how the Haida culture (an actual Native people indigenous to Canada, on this fictional island, with their folkloric figures being subsumed into a Eurocentric mytholoaaaaaaaaaaah) is portrayed, I can definitely tell you that this thing is structurally broken pretty much from the word go. The pacing’s not great, Nick is a cipher, and it’s juggling two plot threads that would be a lot to handle if we were dealing with concepts we’d previously established, but I mean deeper than that. Because this is an entirely new mythological concept. This show took an entire season introducing singular elements and the characters that make up its Fantasy Kitchen Sink. More importantly, each time a mythic figure has been brought in in the past, they’re part of a personal, one to one story. Macbeth has a whole history, but that’s not all dumped on us in his first appearance. His ties as Scottish, as King; as Hunter and where that tradition comes from/what it means, are developed over half a dozen episodes and solely in relation to Macbeth as an individual. And how he feels about Scotland’s monarchy and about gargoyles and all the other cultural stuff is set within a web of other characters who’ve come from there and have their own views based on shared culture but unique experience. Macbeth is Scottish, but he isn’t Scotland, you feel?
Here, we have a mythic struggle that’s not about Nick at all but about The History of His People vis a vis this battle with Raven (Nick doesn’t matter for shit here, poor guy). So not only does that make Nick poorly drawn as a character, it also means that he has to stand as a singular, reductive representation of what his culture looks like and is expected to look like (Grandmother being Fae, recall), with exactly no leeway to exist as an individual with his own relationship to that culture. Which, again in contrast to the rest of the series, is couched in a real people whose struggles are modern and ongoing, and to reduce that to saying “your life would be awesome if you just did things this one exact way” makes me want to claw my own skin off even as an outside observer. Why would you ever try to approach that in the same way you’d take character from Shakespeare, which were old and fanfic when he initially wrote them and of no bearing on the way individuals after like the 17th century lived their daily lives, and think that was a good idea. Why though.
But Angela though. Angela is clever and fantastic in this episode. Hurray for Angela.