And now, the Recurring Villain Roundup.
The animators fell really hard for fancy angles this week
There’re more upshots than Citizen Kane and panty anime combined
This episode might frustrate me more than any other leg of the World Tour, because it’s both overstuffed with interesting concepts and halfbaked in trying to weave them together. It’s all the potential of the World Tour and the weaknesses of its execution exemplified.
The year is 1580. Prague is being nonspecifically terrorized (hold that thought), and in order to protect the people Rabbi Judah Loew created a golem. When the city was safe the golem was deactivated, and the spell that powered it was lost for hundreds of years. In the present, Loew’s descendant Max has been chosen (also hold that thought) to wake the golem in order to protect Prague against nonspecifically evil gangster Thomas Brod.
The Tourists (oh my does that phrase have wincey implications for at least half these episodes) have wound up in this because Renard is also here. Remember Renard? He and Goliath had a long polemic about taking responsibility for one’s actions and having integrity? Yeah, fuck that he’s stealing the golem now. His body has apparently taken quite the turn for the worse, and he’s found a spell that will transfer his soul into the golem’s body. Goliath talks him down eventually with one of those patented My God, What Have You Become speeches, and pretty much everyone else is so much window dressing (there is a shot wherein Goliath and Angela glide off to do battle and Bronx just kinda starts strolling down the walls of the tower in no visible hurry, and it sums his role up pretty succinctly). And aaaaaaaaaaall of that happens in twenty minutes.
Like all Gargoyles flashbacks that have chosen unusually specific timestamps, this episode is in reference to a very specific myth: in this case, “The Golem of Prague.” Which, even with the fairly light amount of research I did, is really interesting, and at least partially seems to intersect with actual history. Even if the golem is folkloric, Rabbi Loew is still a historic figure of enormous import – his writings were among the first to address Kabballah in a manner designed to make it understandable for a common reader. Circa 1580, the people of Prague’s Jewish ghetto were besieged by discrimination, violence, and specifically a persistent rumor that some Christians were real eager to prove about blood rituals. And they were gruesomely set on this.
One account describes a slaughterhouse owner who was indebted to a well-known Jewish man, Reb Mordchi Meisel. So the owner dug up a Christian child who’d died of unrelated causes, cut their throat and wrapped their body in a tallit, put the body inside of a slaughtered pig, and intended to plant this horrific murder-racism turducken in Meisel’s home. As the legend then goes, the man was intercepted and thwarted by the golem, a creation of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Loew to protect the Jewish people from such attacks. In this context, the reason the golem was eventually deactivated (after the King gave a decree forbidding accusations of “blood rituals” against the Jews) is because bringing it to life in the first place involved speaking God’s true name and was, after a fashion, a usurping of God’s position as creator – making it very much a case of a dire strategy (and if I’ve misrepresented anything there are any scholars who would like to correct me on any of this, please do. Learning is good for the soul, after all).
Knowing all of that, it’s hard not to feel like the stakes have been gutted from this episode. Even if the writers wanted to avoid the specifically religious connotations, there’s no real sense that there is a great cost to waking this golem (there are also versions of the story where it goes mad if not deactivated on the Sabbath) – the whole “the spell was lost” thing is a toothless bit of handwaving. Hell, even Brod himself doesn’t read as a threat to Prague because his actual function in the episode is acting as deliveryman for Renard. There is an interesting conflict here that would fit well with the show’s themes of self-sacrifice and consequences, but it’s at least two drafts removed from the episode as it exists.
Yeah, I forgot to pay the electric bill one time too
Meanwhile, Renard’s story is much closer to working…except that there’s a whole episode that we weren’t shown. I don’t mean “one exists that didn’t make it to air.” I mean, “this is far too big a jump for the character, and we shouldn’t be asked to care about it without seeing the intermediary stage.” The actual end result is quite poignant: Renard’s physical ailments are an established part of his character, and his fear of death feels immediate where Xanatos’ is still nebulous and existential. I buy that he would become this desperate. But considering where we left him and how his friendship with Goliath was formed, it feels like a huge cheat not to have had the chance to see him slipping. It shows the writerly strings as opposed to feeling like the gradual decline of a fully rounded character.
And one more thing. Max says that he “was chosen” to raise the golem, which has to do with his blood ties to the original Rabbi Loew. This issue of heredity continues to be dumb, if less eye gouging than it was in “Heritage.” Loew’s position in the original story was because he was a learned man and highly respected leader – because he had knowledge and the power to help his people, he created the golem. There’s no trace in any of it that being related to him would be required for picking up the torch. It would have been unbelievably easy to make Max unrelated, or even just to frame it that he, a scholar himself, chose rather than being chosen.
The choice to break from the past whilst still carrying its memory is an enormous part of Gargoyles’ early episodes: Goliath abandons the castle because it’s actually Manhattan and its people he wants to protect; Fox rejects her father’s company in the name of making her own way in the world; Derek creates a new family for himself, accepting that he will never be human again while retaining love for his human family. They’re all affected by their past circumstances but aren’t beholden to them, and it’s always been the characters who are strangled by the past who wind up the worse for it (see: Macbeth and Demona). With that in mind these episodes feel thematically incongruous, not even like a conscious shift so much as just a stumbling into left field.
And yet, the gargoyle who’s worn the same outfit for centuries picked a
far, far less tacky dress than Fox
In keeping with “the best World Tour episodes are, ironically, the ones that have least to do with their set dressing,” this episode is technically set in Paris but as well be in just about any cosmopolitan city. There’s a tiny bit of landmark drooling and we get to hear Martine Sirtis put on a French accent (absence always makes my heart explodingly fonder for her voice work as Demona – she and Frakes remain the consistent Bests in Show), but otherwise it’s a whole lotta nothing. Even the “city of love” concept that inspired the episode’s themes is just that – inspiration. But I’m quibbling on what is quite the solid episode (I’m never sure if I’m just biased heavily toward character studies of my two favorite villains or if the writers are also, but here we are). Here we go.
While sightseeing around the city because apparently she’s evolved past her need to sleep, Elisa spies Macbeth and Demona in a lover’s embrace on the street. And I was sad for a minute, because I always found their partnership a lot more compelling than Goliath and Demona were ever allowed to be, and this has hoax painted on it in bright neon letters. Sure enough, Goliath tails Demona back to her hideout and finds that she’s now business partners and paramours with Thailog. Since Demona and Macbeth were memory wiped of everything from “City of Stone” through “Avalon” (also resetting their character development grumble and such), Demona’s human form has been an effective disguise for wooing Macbeth in preparation to fleece him out of his fortunes. They can’t kill him on account of that whole curse thing, but there are dungeons for that.
Meanwhile, Angela overhears that Goliath and Demona were once in love and puts two and two together to make six, concluding that Demona must be her mother. She has a very obliging sense of conservation of narrative detail, that Angela. She also has very little to do but steadily leak combat competence in both of these episodes. Well, and she’s also increasingly at odds with Goliath because she wants to think of him as her father rather than as a sort of community mentor. Which has a lot of interesting ideological baggage on both sides, as I mentioned last week, but is ultimately moot given how small the existing pool of gargoyles is anyway. Ah well.
I had no idea Macbeth was a fan of the Midnight Cowboy
Thailog’s laughing all the way to the bank during all of this, by the by. See, his plan was to carry out the initial con with Demona and then let her and Macbeth kill each other off, leaving him with riches enough to stand toe to toe with Xanatos. This episode marks why he’s one of my least favorite antagonists in the show. Setting aside spam can Sevarius and the minor mooks, Gargoyles’ recurring antagonists have all had something they want to protect, whether in the form of family or ideals. Even at their lowest, there’s a sense of compelling tragedy about them.
Thailog is a great watch as a spanner in the plot mechanics, essentially taking over for Xanatos in the role, but he’s also completely self-interested. You know you’ve created a real bastard when even Demona is pitiable for being caught in his sociopathic orbit (yeah yeah, call me a sap – when a character shows absolute, naked devotion to someone who doesn’t feel an ounce of caring for them, it goes right to your analyst’s heart every time).
We’re gonna be sailing into the New Year and beyond on this tour, readers. Stay strong.