Critiquing Serialized Fiction: or, the Lord Dominator Problem

the bad guy

There’s a difference, ever blurrier with the advent of social media, between being an audience member and being a critic. I don’t mean that in a social stratification sense of one being better than the other, with obviously more high minded and trustworthy opinions. The theoretical leveling of the playing field in terms of media analysis is one of the best things about the internet, allowing a panoply of voices to bring attention to issues that might otherwise be ignored in popular media or to sing the praises of works that were dismissed or overlooked by the mainstream culture of their time.

But there’s a different set of skills involved in talking about a work as a fan, where personal experience and comfort are paramount, and examining it as a critic. One isn’t objective and the other subjective – all reviews and critiques are informed by what the writer finds valuable – but the latter involves a conscious effort to look at the big picture. In other words, there’s a sense that you’re speaking to an audience outside of people who know you and your perspective.

Whether you mean to or not, you’re taking on the position of an authority; so even if only two people read your work, there’s always the possibility that it will wind up speaking to many people, who will then go on to quote it as if you knew what you were talking about. Careful thought is the tradeoff for having your opinion valued by strangers – or at least, that’s the mentality that’s always fueled this particular blog. If longtime readers notice an unusually high ratio of “I” statements running rampant through today’s essay, put it down to the hard-pounded-in knowledge that ultimately all you can do is explain yourself and hope the theory makes sense, rather than handing down mandates to others.

I tend to believe that payoff dictates reaction. This isn’t universally true – particularly when dealing with controversial topics, an audience member would be well within their rights to find an individual step along the way more than they can tolerate, regardless of the eventual payoff. And there’s always the chance that you’ll get all the way to the end and find that the writers weren’t skilled enough to make all their apparent missteps mean something.

As a fan, I might have (for instance) dropped out of Eureka 7 ten episodes in, too bored to weather the assurance that it gets really good around episode 35. That’s valid. Life is short, and we all have to make our choices about what we consume. Likewise, I might hold to my dying breath that The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is a beautiful commentary on women’s agency in storytelling amongst other things, but if someone is too uncomfortable with the nudity or subject matter to reach that end goal, that’s also their prerogative. But I would never write an article about how Eureka 7 handles its themes, any more than I would expect this supposed viewer who dropped out of TWCFM to pen an epic about how it addresses feminism. Because neither of us would know. There are all kinds of ways you can talk about a story in microcosm: the direction, the acting, the particular episodic plot, the handling of one-off characters; but larger ideas will always be poorly served until you see the story laid out as a whole, the way it was conceived (chapters making up a book, episodes making up a season, and so on). And this tends to get lost in the consumption of episodic media.

In some ways it’s a symptom of how we communicate: the internet values immediacy above all else, unless of course you’re checking receipts from something a person did twenty years ago and disregarding any growth they might have had as a person since. But by and large, whatever has the collective’s attention is the alpha and the omega, and then once its time in the spotlight is done the object in question will be left to its devotees.

Often what this tends to mean is that episodes of a TV series, particularly if they have uncertain scheduling (which, particularly for animation, tends to be the frustrating norm), are analyzed as if they stand alone in the same manner as a film. Moreover, people have a lot of time to overlay their own theories, hopes, and desires onto a story that was already written all at once (or in quick succession) and thus is simply unable to pivot quickly in response to audience reactions in the way that “pure” internet content (like a podcast or web series) perhaps could. And all of that, in turn, feeds into the idea of waiting to see the complete roadmap of a series before dissecting it in depth: nothing exists without context, and context informs what kind of story can be told.

so rad

And since this rumination comes about at this particular time (though I’ve touched on it before, in this blog’s most infant year) from a particular topic, we might as well get down to looking at this through a concrete example: Wander Over Yonder is a cartoon by Powerpuff Girls creator Craig McCracken, starring Jack McBrayer and a really dynamite cast and backed by very talented, passionate animators. It has a great deal of sincerity and heart, and I love it a lot. It’s also something of an outlier in the modern landscape of cartoons, aimed at a 6-11 demographic and enforced from on high throughout its first season as a purely episodic series.

Going forward into the second season, the show’s creators struck a bargain with Disney to have four “tent pole” episodes that would shake up the show’s status quo, with all of the episodes between each pole still created to be episodic (and thus aired in any order for reruns). The crew wanted to create more serialized content, but were shut down on the subject by the higher ups. That happens sometimes when you work in mediums that require so much time, money, and energy – there’re a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and outside of working together as their own team the writers and artists will always have to deal with mitigating factors.

In writing that second season, the crew conceived an arc involving a new villain: Lord Dominator, a serious threat often described as practically having “wandered out of a different show” from the one she ended up in. And, for the first “tent pole” and the intervening episodic content, most of the cast isn’t aware she’s female thanks to her armor. In broad strokes, you could say that the three continuity-changing episodes so far go “Dominator is introduced, Lord Hater (the show’s usual immature villain) discovers she’s a girl and gets a crush, Dominator reveals her intent to destroy the galaxy and also shuts down Hater’s attempts at wooing.”

That’s a fairly standard arc, and there’s nothing especially surprising about how it turns out. Of course Hater is the kind of eternal teenager who selfishly considers himself above others, and thus transplants his stereotypical assumption of what “Girl” is onto this person he barely knows. Of course he is rebuffed. And the stakes shift again. The trouble is with the delay between each of those three movements. WOY’s second season premiere, “The Greater Hater,” aired on August 3, 2015. The second tentpole, “The Battle Royale,” aired on October 26, 2015. And the third, “My Fair Hatey,” aired February 29th, 2016. That is an absolute eternity in internet time, during which the intervening episodes (particularly between October and February), because of their mandated need to be episodic, played around with Hater’s failed attempts at wooing without really resolving them.

bot 13

And the internet had a minor meltdown over those four months, used as it was to the structural layout of shows like Gravity Falls or Steven Universe. Were you to follow Story Editor Frank Angones’ blog, you might notice that not a single day went by without a question arriving about the portrayal of Dominator or about Hater’s crush. Which, to a certain extent, makes sense. WOY is a show about winning people over, about finding their inner goodness. One of the show’s main tensions is about Wander relentlessly trying to woo Hater from evil into cuddly galaxy-roaming friendship.

With that as the baseline, alongside the gross prevalence of cultural narratives about women being worn down into finally dating the relentless “nice guy” (as though not taking repeated “no”s for an answer is something we should be rooting for), it makes sense that having a large chunk of episodes where we only see Dominator through Hater’s attempts to woo her (not unlike Wander’s own attempted platonic wooing) might make viewers think that they know where this is headed – and that they don’t like the destination at all. Then there’s the added element of limited time to consume media, combined with increased access to creators via social media: if a show is going in a narrative direction you don’t want to follow, why not ask up front so you can bail if you need to?

But those assumptions miss out on so many finer points: that the creator likely cannot reveal what’s coming, and wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise on something they’ve devoted months of their life to; that the show is structured episodically rather than purely serially, and that a narrative doesn’t always refute a “bad” behavior in the same moment that it is introduced (particularly one with such a unique structure). And lo and behold, the next time what we might as well call a “plot” episode came along, a musical episode no less, Dominator’s solo “I’m the Bad Guy” was an enormous viral hit. It answered the emotional uncertainty that the internet had been fretting about for months, and introduced many new fans to the series in the process. And for those new fans? I’m guessing the “crush” segment of the season will be much more tolerable, because its outcome is a known quantity…the same way it would have been to the writers when they were putting the season together. Viewer anxiety has a way of acting as though shows are not made months in advance, and as though they act completely with impunity in the creative process.

master plan

Now, that’s not to say one should simply sit back and view something passively, and leave it at that. Not at all. For instance, even in the wake of “My Fair Hatey” there are elements of Dominator’s portrayal up to this point that I’m not entirely sure “work”….but they’ll keep. I wouldn’t feel right looking in depth at her capital-c Character until I have the whole of it in front of me. Particularly as a fan, I want to let the crew put on the whole production before beginning to question what is or isn’t effective and why. The rush to be first is never as lasting or high quality as an attempt to be complete, especially once a show is no longer running.

The ugly irony is that as I write this the news has just come out that Disney did this themselves, cutting poor Wander Over Yonder’s run at the throat before the second season had even premiered because of middling premiere numbers and stronger reruns. Always an overlooked gem, it’s never really going to have the chance to grow and flourish in the way the team was surely planning for future seasons. I intend to give it on grand salvo of a sendoff…but only once I’ve seen it all.

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7 comments on “Critiquing Serialized Fiction: or, the Lord Dominator Problem

  1. arbitrary_greay says:

    I’ve had very conflicted feelings this past week over The 100 for the same reason. One of the most popular lesbian characters was killed off, and there was an outpouring of articles about the Bury Your Gays trope, and how irresponsible the creators were, as some viewers were so openly devastated to the point of others posting suicide hotline resources.

    And for a while, I was unsure about it, because the season wasn’t over, and we already knew that the character would be back in a non-physical format later in the season, due to fancams of the finale shoots. How do we know that the storyline stops here?

    But the longer things went on, the more detailed that dribbled from the cast and crews’ end, the less it seemed like the proper resolution will be coming, that the creators understand the issues with how they handled things. And the current backlash has just been so severe and negative, that the immediacy responsibilities do seem to outweigh the “just wait!” justification, in this case.

    Meanwhile, the next episode hasn’t even aired yet.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      Sounds comparable, a bit, to the case of Beverly Katz’ arc in Hannibal: one of those things where there ARE plans, mitigating factors (in that case, the actor’s contract was only for four episodes and so they wanted to use the character in a meaningful way) while still playing into old, harmful tropes – one of those things that a writer kind of has to know they’re playing with going in, though my heart goes out to them and the viewers both in such cases. The backlash must be TERRIFYING, but the viewers’ pains are legitimate too.

  2. Sinclair says:

    It’s more or less besides the point of the essay, but since you brought it up briefly; I always found the way Wander acts towards Hater, or rather the light in which it’s portrayed, kind of uncomfortable. I mean, surely aggressively pursuing a relationship with someone who repeatedly, vehemently rejects said relationship isn’t a good thing, whether it’s romantic or platonic? It’s pretty clear what the creators are going for is that Hater DOES want to be friends with Wander, and that he’d be happier being a good guy than a bad guy, but people make similar argument when the trope is played straight romantically. Something about Wander’s insistence that he knows what’s best for Hater, and that “what’s best for him” involves being Wander’s friend, rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s just a personal hangup.

    It’s great that the creators are avoiding that sort of cliche, sexist storyline with Dominator, but it just feels odd for essentially the same behavior to be held up as good when it’s platonic.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      I feel you in a broad sense – I suppose the difference has to do with a certain element of multiplicity in platonic relationships? When this sort of thing is played romantically it tends to be the character’s one role in the plot, and comes with the assumption that when they “give in” they’ll throw away everything about themselves from before and sort of meld into their romantic partner’s idea of the world (which, gross).
      In a platonic variation (not that there hasn’t been a share of romantic meta on top of the whole affair, neither here nor there), a switch of worldviews would leave the network intact (ridiculous to assume that a romance means you have no friends so on and so forth, but that IS how it’s often written – they have little to nothing outside the romance). If Hater became Wander’s friend he’d still have his own interests and ambitions, plus Peepers and the Watchdogs and all manner of other complex things.
      (That, and Wander is so willing to go along with things Hater is into, so long as it’s not hurting anyone – planning their pseudo-wedding, putting on a rock concert, so on).

      • Sinclair says:

        That’s all quite true, and Wander and Hater are ADORABLE together, especially when it’s played with romantic overtones (my goodness, their wedding though). It’s probably the best way that particular trope (down to a bare-bones level) could be executed, and certainly the best I’ve seen! I guess it really is that the trope itself just rubs me personally the wrong way, no matter how it’s done. Thanks for explaining more! ^^

        • Vrai Kaiser says:

          Honestly I mostly hate the trope like blazes too – there’s just something about Wander’s sincerity (the character and the show) that helps make it palatable, I think.

  3. vilsal says:

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with analyzing or critiquing unfinished serials in principle. I’d imagine people generally start developing their analyses while the series is still unfinished, and in most cases subsequent installments and the ending result more in refinement than complete mental rewrites. There are cases like A Woman Called Fujiko Mine, which intentionally undermines the reading it’s been suggesting to make a point, but even that meta twist only works if you have made that reading or at least recognized it. Besides, such cases are rare. Your analyses of Steven Universe will most likely still be relevant even after the series ends.

    I don’t know the Wander Over Yonder situation beyond your description, so the rest of this post may be remarkably hypocritical, but it sounds less like a case of premature analysis and more premature outrage. Anyone who is that worried over possibly seeing something disagreeable in their fiction would probably be much happier if they stayed away from unfinished series.

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