Neo-France’s weather has an excellent sense of dramatic timing.
Episode Specifics: Albert rushes to tell everyone of Madame Danglar’s collapse, inadvertently drinking the poisoned water meant for Valentine and collapsing. As he recovers, the Count tells him of the poison and intimates that the Villeforts might well be in danger in the future. Rushing to the Villefort estate in hopes of presenting disaster, Maximillien, Franz, and Albert are too late to prevent Valentine from being poisoned – and the Count, who was able to brew a cure for Albert, is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, Villefort hires a spy to dig up information on the Count’s past, and Franz overhears the name “Gankutsuou,” stoking his suspicions of the Count’s untrustworthy nature.
I doubt it will surprise you to hear that the visit to the villa is a great deal shorter as Dumas wrote it. Everyone goes to the one non-renovated room together and the Count tells them that he was shocked, JUST SHOCKED, to find the skeleton of an infant when he was planting his trees out in the gardens; and gee, what’s the penalty for infanticide in France these days? Beheading, right? It’s totally beheading. And then everyone goes home, suitably frightened or enamored with the Count’s new wealthy friend. Since the anime adds Albert being poisoned (more on that down below there) it needs to spend longer at the villa, and takes the time to weave in the furthering of the Max/Valentine plot – which did cut out the gross pressuring guilt trips but also kind of cheated by having them get to know one another completely offscreen – and Franz starting down the research rabbit hole about Gankutusuou (ironically, around this point book!Albert says he’s gotten a letter from Franz talking about how much he misses the Count’s presence in Rome; dumb, all of them).
It gives more time to subtly hint at various goings on rather than info-dumping everyone’s backstory all at once (a pitfall of the original novel being serialized). At this point in the book we’re privy to Andrea’s entire deal, from how he grew up to how he came into his social position. Every one of these characters becomes filtered through their usefulness to the Count’s grand plan – the decision to have him recede into the background as a mysterious antagonist does wonders not only for his own fearsome charm but in allowing his victims to have their own inner lives.
The poisoning scene is one of the great moments in the series, full of literal sturm und drang with its conveniently moody thunderstorm and roaring strings. The sense of draining inevitability, personified in the deliberate focus on Noirtier’s helplessness as he understands but is powerless to act on Valentine’s behalf is a perfect encapsulation of both the feeling of the audience and a microcosm of the entire cast. Each of them a second too late, a little too unknowledgeable to play a game of equals with the Count.
Incidentally, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out if the Count’s dialogue at the gravesite was an allusion to some literary work – no dice. Although the phrase “anathema” does have a strong historical tie to Jewish scripture (and was thusly coopted in Christian writings that came after). Particularly relevant: “It may be concluded that the rabbinical Anathema, in its developments, was designed to conserve the morality of the community. In the hands of the teachers of the Law it was applied with scrupulous care, to protect the community against offenders.”
Villefort can hardly be said to be a scrupulous judge, but he is nonetheless effectively sole arbiter of the Law in this neo-France. Andrea is an innocent when he’s cast out – but there’s not much time wasted in establishing that he’s heartless and cruel even beyond the Count (in this very quote, even). And there is kinship there: Edmond Dantes himself was cast out by this hand of the Law under the excuse that he was a terrible danger to the community, though he didn’t know it nor have anyway to fight against it.
Character Spotlight: This section feels a bit out of place this episode, with the structure of the script highlighting many small movements among various groups and conspiracies rather than highlighting one character in specific. I might as well say here, then, that I was struck by a sense of tragedy in Victoria Danglars this time around that surprised me. While there’s an additional segment in the book where Danglars confronts her with the knowledge of her child and claims that her first husband committed suicide because of her affair with Villefort, so on and so forth because we have to have a reason to be okay with the Count ruining EVERYONE’S lives, the anime takes a gentler approach. Both in general (Danglars fretting over her safety, when he did not give two fucks in the novel), and as far as her characterization.
The script spares no punches in showing us that Villefort is a vicious, remorseless man in this episode, above and beyond what we’ve seen of either Morcerf or Danglars to this point. He is, the show takes care to underline, the ruthless and unpredictable one. It’s no stretch at all to see him as the one who insisted on not just adopting out but burying the child; certainly Victoria’s grief and guilt nearly twenty years on can suggest an unwilling complicity. And from there she marries a man who can give her all she wants for as far as material possessions; a man who seems to show some degree of affection for her, and yet wouldn’t hesitate to give away what she values without giving her any say (there’s something ever so slightly deeper in her outrage over that horse, I think).
And while the book’s version of the character has had many lovers, the anime focuses more or less exclusively on Debray and one other person. There’s a sense of a woman who wants to feel flattered and valued emotionally, because the material comforts didn’t manage to quiet her loneliness and guilt. She can’t be said to be a good person – she’s also complicit in Eugenie’s neglect and unhappiness, and in some ways she’s as greedy as her husband – but as with all the women in this story, she’s done what she felt she had to in order to survive ultimately being subject to the men in her life.
Courtly Intrigue Update: STRAP IN, THERE’S A LOT THIS WEEK. So Victoria Danglars had an affair with Villefort (during her first marriage, but before she became a Danglars), and they had a child whom they buried at birth. That child was rescued (by Bertuccio, though the anime doesn’t mention this), and raised to adulthood, where he has reappeared as Andrea Cavalcanti, a supposed noble and newfound friend of the Count’s (you would not be surprised to learn that this is a totally fake family, but it’s cool because the Count has offered them SO MUCH MONEY).
Mme. Villefort has twice attempted to poison Valentine, the second time successfully, so that her son would inherit the family fortune. And Franz is still extremely in love with Albert. So much. It hurts. In case the agony left your hearts for even a few seconds. And last but not least, as Villefort contracts his spy we get a glimpse of Peppino, letting us know that he and the gang are still in the Count’s employ.
Adaptation Corner: Almost fifty years before Gankutsuou was made, someone else decided that it would be a great idea to make COMC IN SPAAAAAAACE. In 1957, Alfred Bester wrote The Stars My Destination, a sci-fi retelling of the story. Well, a loose retelling. We’re more in “inspired by” territory than the close hewing that Gankutsuou aimed for. There’s a man who was marooned for many years (IN SPACE) and swears vengeance after a ship passes by, sees him, and leaves him to rot. He proceeds to wreck the lives of many a person around him, eventually getting into a scenario that I suppose I can’t call 2001: A Space Odyssey or Slaughterhouse Five inspired, since it predates both of them.
Bester’s work was pretty important to the developments of sci-fi in the late 20th century – he made really heavy use of psychics and ESP in his stories, as well as the idea of teleportation (which is a pretty big plot point in TSMD). He also laid out the groundwork for “cyberpunk” so that a few decades later Blade Runner could run away with it and indelibly affect everything that came after (yeah yeah, Dark City, I know). Which is actually an even more fitting comparison, now that I think about it; because like the main character in Blade Runner, TSMD’s protagonist is a rapist. Oh sci-fi, for a genre ostensibly about looking to the future, you have an absolutely disgusting track record with marginalized groups.
As an adaptation of Dumas’ novel, it’s a little hit or miss. The broad concept of a man left to his death and then remaking himself as a gentleman to seek revenge is there (though Bester was also influenced by news of a shipwreck that happened at the time), and there’s a loose Mercedes analogue and arguably a Haydee (who is the rape victim; that’s fun). Most interestingly, it shares a point of commonality with Gankutsuou that, now that I think about it, might actually be an homage. TSMD’s protagonist is, at one point, forcibly tattooed on his face. While he’s eventually able to hide the marks, they reappear whenever he begins losing control of his emotions. Clever nod, right there.
Themes: So, let’s talk about that sickbed scene (in which, I must briefly add, I am in love with the dramatic lighting: the sickly greens cast only outside the earthy warmth of the sickroom, the passionate red of Franz’s conviction). There’s about four levels of recursion going on here at various points, starting with the most obvious point of subtext and working back. There’s no need for the script to hammer home yet again that Franz harbors unrequited love for Albert – if you’ve made it this far into the series without realizing it, you’ve failed Visual Storytelling 101 and should probably go home. What’s valuable about bringing it back up here is that this is the first time it’s really been brought up in the context of society. Neo-France doesn’t believe in marriage equality, it seems, which is part of the reason why Franz is so quiet about how he feels: he’s been shown to be a pragmatist above all, and why burden Albert with his feelings when nothing could ever come of it?
In seeing Franz encourage Maximillien, we’re privy to the shared romantic notions that Franz has in common with Albert; and more than that, his desire to see someone else become happy even if the whole of society is against it. Maybe, on some level, he’s trying to prove that it could really happen.
But no shot in animation is accidental, so we have to question why exactly the reaction shots during Franz’s speech change halfway through. When he says “you can’t just fall out of love,” the camera is lingering on the Count; who, though he was the one to give Mme. Villefort the poison, nonetheless tells Albert of the plot and gives him the chance to intervene. Who seems to be dealing, quite genuinely, with a circumstance he didn’t foresee – Albert’s near death (though of course he had an antidote prepared, no doubt in case the poison were to be turned against him).
This is a rare moment of softness for the Count. He reveals the poisoning plot, no doubt knowing Valentine is the target – though I imagine it likely has more to do with the knowledge that Maximillien, child of one of Edmond’s few stalwart defenders, loves Valentine than actual care for the daughter of his hated nemesis; and while saving Albert is a practical move as far as the Count’s longterm goals, the many shots focused on the man’s troubled face suggest a deeper struggle. Earlier on we saw the Count struggle against Gankutsuou, something that only happens when he begins to waver in his pursuit of vengeance. And later, in the garden, he withdraws from Mme. Villefort’s advances with that same withdrawn, almost disgusted look on his face.
He’s beginning to feel genuine human emotions again, at his own peril (a fact acknowledged where he refers to the subject of revenge as, simultaneously, an object of affection): a willingness to let someone “escape” his plan for vengeance; and some level of genuine affection for his primary pawn and his closest confidantes, though he hides and denies it well. There’s a palpable struggle beginning to brew between the Count and his vengeance, though it’s not yet time for the scales to tip.