Hello, take a chair, settle in. Welcome to the best episode. Watch in very nearly realtime as my mask of composure completely disintegrates in the name of Favorite Character Feelings.
Now you know why Magneto wasn’t on X-Men Animated more
The Gathering (Part 1)
We check back in to find Avalon all a-bustle, as the population of the Third Race (including a lot of figures from the World Tour) all stand in line to thank their king for ending the millennium of exile from Avalon. Well, most of them are. The Banshee has to be dragged back literally kicking and screaming, and winds up picking a fight with the conveniently nearby Odin. Oberon is quite indulgently amused by this up until he isn’t, and decides to punish the Banshee by taking her voice until he feels like she’s learned humility. How he will tell this when she cannot speak seems completely arbitrary, which is of course the point. While Oberon had his own moment of clarity and tenderness at the end of “Ill Met By Moonlight,” this episode would kindly like you to remember that he’s also a supremely privileged, childish jackass who won’t tolerate anything less than a 101% approval rating.
And speaking of that, there’s someone who HASN’T listened to Oberon’s curfew call. Well, two someones, but Titania can come and go as she pleases. Puck, though, is a servant, and him deciding he’d just rather not is nothing less than insufferable mutiny. So he borrows Boudicca, the OTHER Inexplicable Gargoyle Dog, and heads through The Mirror to find his ersatz servant.
Elsewhere, another gathering is taking place (you see what they did there). The Xanatos and Renard families have come together to meet young Alexander Fox Renard, an adorable baby redhead who looks just like his mother no matter how everyone in-universe insists on comparing him to Xanatos. It’s a happy occasion for all…except Owen, who’s behaving quite strangely. He rushes off in a panic after hearing that Fox’s mother has gotten remarried, and later warns Xanatos not to leave Anastasia alone with the baby before seeming to vanish.
And his warning was right on the money. Look, you don’t just have Kate Mulgrew in your studio (because they did in fact get somebody from EVERY Star Trek) and then double cast her for no reason – she’s stunning in both roles, by the way, managing some excellent layering of gravitas-as-foreshadowing even when disguised as a mortal. It turns out that Anastasia Renard is indeed Titania, who spent her time on earth studying the “mortal magic” of science. Which….yeah, okay. Sure. It’s a nice way to fit it into the mythos. There she met Halcyon and became mother to Fox. Yes, Fox is half-fae, an amazing revelation that never really gets extensive scrutiny for the rest of the series….that is actually a minor THING with this arc. We’ll come back to that in the next section. I have thoughts.
Titania has come to reclaim her grandson. See, since she kept up her mortal charade for the past 30 odd years, Fox was never trained in magic and is assumed to be functionally a fae dud at this point. Titania doesn’t want the same thing to happen to baby Alex, so she’s come to take the boy back to Avalon for training. Also forever. This does not go over so well with the parents.
But Oberon, who has meanwhile tracked his way to Xanatos’ headquarters and Jedi mind tricked his way into witnessing this whole sordid family drama, is all too happy to provide his newly returned wife with anything she could possibly ask for. All of this is a rather clever twist on a plot element in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Titania and Oberon were initially driven apart by a fight over a mortal child. It pretty much gets all the points for being an excellent stealth Shakespeare reference.
Xanatos’ attempt to fight of the basically all-powerful intruders doesn’t go so well, and the Fae Day Ruiners kindly leave the new parents an hour to say goodbye to their child and begin the lifelong mourning process. Owen has done his part, giving Xanatos some cryptic advice about Oberon’s weaknesses and a premade security protocol….and then he leaves, saying that he can’t be involved in what’s to come. Owen, the ur-example of the loyal right hand, peaces out.
Xanatos. Can you drop the Handsome Political Neutral candid face for TWO SECONDS here
On the other side of the city there is a tender, really well executed reunion happening. Essentially the best possible payoff for the World Tour comes in the form of Keith David’s reverent, joyous reading as he tells the others that there are indeed gargoyles surviving around the world. It’s really nice, and I care very little because all the interesting things are happening across town with the villains I freely admit to always having liked better. I can’t even quite be swayed when Elisa and Goliath have another nice, quiet moment on her balcony, where they acknowledge their feelings and the whole species gap thing that’s keeping them apart. It’s quite tender and reserved, especially for the supposed target audience. And the gargoyles are clued into what’s going down when Titania reveals herself to them, asking them to protect Fox and Xanatos in the coming battle. Goliath refuses, having placed a new value on paternal bonds, and Titania course corrects by telling them to stay out of it. Guess how well that’s gonna go.
But all I can think is OH BOY WE’RE BACK. Xanatos is pretty distressed about Owen leaving, but he boots up the security system anyway and hopes it’ll be enough. What it gets them is a force field that apparently even Oberon can’t penetrate. He begins throwing a MIGHTY KINGLY TANTRUM, putting all the mortals outside the tower to sleep (the episode is surprisingly brutal about showing the effects of this: nobody drives off any cliffs or runs over pedestrians, but there are a LOT of cars crashing into one another and into buildings – it’s a very effective show of Oberon’s dangerous pettiness without actually having to show any death) and growing to the size of the tower itself.
Thus endeth part the first. Since this is a two-parter that leaves this episode to be almost entirely setup – really good setup, well executed, but without a lot to necessarily talk about beyond stuff that happens. These episodes aren’t quite visually on the level as the last two, but things still look quite nice and consistent, and the writing is more than strong enough to make up for a lack of flashy fight scenes.
So some of the facial animations may have…uh, lessened the dire mood here
The Gathering (Part 2)
So I’m tempted to skip over the first ten minutes of this entirely, because there’s so much meat in the back half. That wouldn’t be fair, though; the animators clearly put a lot of time and love into the Giant Oberon Fight. It doesn’t quite match the Avalon hunt for pure creativity as far as twisting the environment in unexpected ways, but there is a solid sense of escalation as every little contribution to the fight whittles away at Oberon’s strength. The twist when he finally shrinks back down and gains control over his emotions is a nice way to keep the action from being endless while also explaining the previous near victory in-character. There is a lot of mildly uncomfortable hammering on about how wrong it is to separate a parent and child, leaving me in the audience to think “uh….there are definitely, totally situations where a child will lead a safer, happier life away from their birth parents,” which is one of those things that happens when you write blanket statements into scripts and then hammer them home really loudly, especially when you have trained your audience to look for nuance. Anyway.
Oberon makes it all the way up to the top of the castle, where Xanatos and his father, Petros, are prepared to make a last stand. It…doesn’t go well. Rather, it goes well enough that things then become very bad very quickly. Petros actually manages to sink an iron grappling hook into Oberon’s chest – like, shoots it right in there, on screen, in a shot I distinctly remember being censored in subsequent airings. How it happened in the first place, we may never know. It’s not enough to be a killing blow, but it does a number on Oberon in the good looks department. He is decidedly not pleased, and it gives the artists a chance to do the “outside matches the inside” thing while the Fae King wipes the floor with our assembled protagonists. Everything seems pretty dire.
And then Owen returns, and things gets so awesome I might not actually have adequate words to describe it to you. Readers, Owen Burnett is Puck in disguise. It’s the best twist. It’s my favorite twist. I’ve been dying to tell you about it for months now, and God is it good. It’s the kind that makes a slam dunk out of the episode in question, and also tracks back to the character’s earliest appearances – so much that I am actually tempted to write a separate essay detailing all of the little tells and character analyses that I couldn’t tell you about before (EXCEEDINGLY tempted). It’s also a fascinating turn in that unlike Titania and Anastasia or even Thailog and Goliath, Owen isn’t double-cast: instead, series backbone Jeff Bennett voices Owen while Brent Spiner gets the hammier moments as Puck. I imagine that has a great deal to do with availability, but it raises interesting questions about Owen as a character with his own identity and self-awareness versus being a mere façade, and where and how those lines might have come to be.
YOUR HONOR, THE DEFENSE RESTS
And my God, does Spiner positively KILL this scene. The entirety of his role here is an expository monologue, intercut with the most beautiful face stomping ever seen by way of magical “visual aids.” Spiner plays it as rebellion, and faux innocence, and joyful triumph at finally being in the open and protecting the family he’s devoted himself to. It’s stupendous. The short of it is that Puck saw Titania in her role of “Anastacia Renard” and got curious, resolving to sneak in and figure out what made these mortals worth hanging around with. Making Owen as an even stiffer mockery of Preston Vogel, he soon got bored serving Halcyon and jumped ship to work for Xanatos and Fox instead. Even more interesting, Puck revealed himself to Xanatos and offered a trade: one wish from Puck, which surely could have granted immortality, or a lifetime of service from Owen. Xanatos chose Owen.
This is the part where I rip off the shreds of any dignity and composure I had left and talk about how much I adore Xanatos, Fox, and Owen as a family unit. Owen is, of course, expected to be loyal. He’s created to be the ideal subordinate, and he fills that role perfectly. But Puck is a trickster by nature, someone who might enjoy games but is ultimately out for himself. We just saw him pulling out all the stops to try and get the Phoenix Gate from Goliath, potentially making a very powerful enemy just to avoid this Gathering. And when he leaves the castle, it seems to be in the same permanent vein – yet Xanatos, knowing his assistant’s identity, still feels betrayed. And even then, he trusts in what Owen left him, despite having nothing but the vaguest hints to go on. This from the character who has six backup plans for his backup plan, and exactly two people he’s willing to trust implicitly.
But Puck does come back, despite knowing there is enormous risk in doing so. He chooses loyalty over self-service for maybe the first time in his existence (certainly he seems to fear Oberon more than anything)…and he pays for it.
The assault on the roof isn’t enough to hold Oberon back, in the end, and the final confrontation moves to Fox’s room. Panicked at the imminent loss of her child, Fox is able to summon a burst of magic that does significant damage to Oberon himself. And that, Goliath argues, is reason to call the whole thing off. If Fox can still use her magic after 30 plus years without training, shouldn’t it be possible for Alex to be trained without being separated for his parents?
It’s an effective logic bomb, with the bonus that Puck can thus stay behind and act as a teacher. And then things get bad. Things get real bad. Oberon doesn’t just grant Puck the right to stay, but banishes him from Avalon, his probable birthplace, for eternity. And because that’s not enough, Puck is then stripped of all his powers, which he’ll have access to only when he is teaching or protecting Alex. Meaning that either Puck will outlive his little family and then be left to wander the mortal world endlessly, alone; or he’s mortal now, and being left to contend with a finality that hasn’t so much as touched him for hundreds, maybe thousands of years of existence. It’s the first time that a well-established character has come through, done the right thing, and suffered a grievous loss because of it. It’s a downright agonizing scene, with Spiner once more nailing his big moment.
It’s also the last time we’re going to hear about the cost of this adventure in any particular detail. So this episode ends with Oberon and Titania departing, the Xanatos family reuniting with their child, and Xanatos swearing a lifedebt to Goliath for his help in this manner. Something something, a child’s love can make you less terrible as a person, maybe we’ll be allies someday. That bit about the life debt is basically the only thing from this episode that’s going to get further expansion from a character perspective. It is such wasted potential that I could scream.
Xanatos’ next appearance that isn’t the series finale (what season 3? What nonsense are you talking?) has to do with his attempts to pay his debt to Goliath, and (now that the writers can play the card openly) trying to use Puck’s magic in a way that works within Oberon’s restrictions. The possibility that Fox might be able to tap into her magic after all these years, becoming even more incredibly awesome than she already was? Not a thing we have time for. The fact that, never mind Goliath agreeing to help out, Puck sacrificed the entirety of his identity to protect Xanatos, Fox, and Alex? Possibly reducing himself to a state of mortal frailty, the thing Xanatos has been fighting against all season? Not a thing we have room to address. And I know there’s a time crunch on the end of the series but do you know how much time we spent in that stupid boat. I do. I recapped all of them. For months. We couldn’t have lost “Heritage” and had a day in the Xanatos house instead, checking in on how they’re privately dealing with this MASSIVE SHAKEUP TO THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND COLLECTIVE SENSE(S) OF SELF? Oh, it kills me, readers. The agony is palpable.
And all of that is part of the general issue that the show started its official shift of Xanatos’ alignment too late. I love the character. I was happy watching him being awful and caring not two figs for anyone outside of his little family (I’ve got a real thing for that trope, I confess). And there’s nothing I love more than a villain redemption plot. But the pacing here doesn’t really work. This is the halfway point of an arc, not the turning point meant to lead into the finale – and it’s all the more thrown out of sync by the bafflingly reductive “Cloud Fathers” from a few weeks back. We’re supposed to be believing Xanatos is changing, but we’re being held at arm’s length far more than we were during his courtship with Fox, or even during “City of Stone.” A shame, that, brilliant potential caught somewhere in the middle without the time to bear itself out.
And there it is. The best plot twist of my childhood.
That’s definitely THE Gargoyles moment. It was the first time a TV show ever made my brains flow out of my ears like warm velveeta. This was The Sixth Sense years before the movie.
I was 11 years old when this episode came out, and I could barely comprehend the idea that an animated show planned this far ahead, and it beat modern masterpieces like Adventure Time and Gravity Falls to the punch by well over a decade.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think this was probably also a very important moment in the development of a lot of today’s new crop of wonderful animators. There was really nothing like it at the time, especially when you go back and find he nuanced clues embedded long earlier (“You’re the tricky one…”)
Bravo, Greg. Don’t ever stop being you… Except, get a third season for Rebels. You can stop being you in that regard.
And thanks for the recaps, Vrai. This was worth waiting for. Always fun to relive your fandom through another. I can’t wait for your Gravity Falls recaps.
IT’S SUCH A GOOD TWIST. GOD I wanna write that dissection. Owen’s the best. I am flagrantly biased and I have no regrets.
You shouldn’t! It IS so good! And not JUST for the shock that two seemingly separate characters are one and the same, but the little story about the offer to Xanatos? That’s some straight up epic, in the mythological sense.
You write it and we’ll read it, Vrai! We all knew you were practically bursting at the seams to talk about this, and we were to hear it. Do it, girl. DO EEEEET.
A separate essay about Owen, Puck and all the details between them? Yes, please!! Because yes, it was one the most brilliant twists in any fictional work that I’ve personally seen.
I think you’ve managed to wrangle into words why I’ve always been so conflicted with the Xanatos change of heart. On the one hand, I’ve always hated it – with fervor. But on the other hand, the idea appeals. If it had been given the proper pacing, as you say, it could have been ridiculously cool. It feels so cheap compared to what it could have been, especially how much care went into establishing the character to begin with and over the course of the show (in most respects).
I know that out there in the ‘verse there is (and has been for a while) a bit of buzz about a Gargoyles film. I generally dislike the idea on principle (I mean, just look at the multiple attempts to do TMNT!) but if Disney did decide to do it and I HAD to pick a storyline to see developed as a film, it would be about Xanatos; getting to see the story Puck describes played out in full (and maybe paralleled with Elisa’s history). Not that they’d ever do it that way and I wouldn’t choose for them to do this just because, though. I’d rather see Gargoyles be left alone, at least in a film-adaptation regard.