Vagabon - Cold Apartment
I know it's my fault
I gave up on everything
Wednesday, 13 December 2017
It does raise the stakes that Runaways in its television adaptation shows more of the parents, their backstory, how they ended up here, but even more so that it focuses on the relationship these parents have to their children. It muddies the waters a bit in terms of clearly distinguishing between good and evil, between the correct way to move forward and the wrong one. The flashback we see in this episode, of the Pride’s first human sacrifice to Jonah, the first time they even realised that this was what was asked of them, is a reminder of how people start to become complicit in crimes, and guilty not necessarily for what they have done (most of the Pride’s members don’t even know what is going to happen when Leslie Dean guides a disciple of the church into Victor’s pod), but for how they deal with their responsibility after the fact. When they realise that Tina Minoru recorded them, that they will all face the consequences if any of them go public, they decide to keep stum, to continue doing Jonah’s bidding. Faced with their parents’ crime, the kids have a similar choice: they are the only ones who know about this, who will, by the end of the episode, have irrefutable evidence that their parents are killers. What will they do with that evidence? Will they change their own world forever by allowing their parents to go to prison? And, in that regard, does it matter that some of them, like Nico and Chase, are suddenly finding themselves in a situation where their most withholding, distant and cruel parent is reaching out to them for the first time in their life?
It reveals a lot about the characters if they follow absolute moral ideas here, where the wrongness of their parents’ actions overrides any kind of loyalty or love they may feel for their parents, or if they still feel conflicted about all of this. While Nico and Chase struggle, while Alex seems to drive them forward because he had the clearest experience of a trusted parent doing the wrong thing, while Karolina’s rebellion isn’t even necessarily targeted at her mother, but at everything that her former life stood for, while Gert still seems to be so steadfast in her idealism that she doesn’t flinch (which is such a surprising thing – because her parents remain the ones that are most relatable here in their haplessness, they seem to have stumbled into this the most unwillingly, but in the back of my mind I feel like that the show will reveal something about them that will change this very soon) – everyone forgets about Molly. It’s what they always do, because they are 17 and Molly is younger, because regardless of the fact that she is the strongest, nobody ever listens to her. They forget that their parents are her only connection to her parents, that she doesn’t have the luxury of being conflicted about her parents’ motives because they died years ago, and all she probably has left of them are a few memories. Molly hesitates because she knows that the only way to find out about her parents – about their reason for joining the Pride, and the circumstances of their death – is by keeping Catherine Wilder, who has made a promise to talk to her about them, out of prison. So in this episode, as Nico and Alex are gearing up to steal the footage from Tina’s servers, Molly knows that she is running out of time to get to know her lost parents.
This doesn’t occur to anyone, first and foremost because they are all teenagers, and they all have their own dramas to deal with. I think it’s also important to remember that these six kids were separated for such a long time, and are still figuring out how their individual friendships and relationships fit together. I hope they grow closer as a unit at some point as this progresses, but for now, they seem to operate more as precariously connected cells of interpersonal relationships, with very clear break lines between characters who aren’t so tightly connected. This is most obvious, and frustrating, between Gert and Karolina, who have somehow and unwittingly managed to trap themselves in the worst teen show cliché of all: the love triangle, which, in this case, isn’t even truly a triangle. This situation is all the more frustrating because it brings out the worst first of all in Gert, but then, later in the episode, in Karolina as well.
It starts very promisingly with Karolina and Nico, getting ready for the big fundraiser party. They both go into this scene with all of their family baggage: Nico has just surprisingly reconnected with her mother, who explained to her daughter how the Staff of One works (it’s science so incomprehensible and, well, alien, that it might as well be wicca), while Karolina has realised that her entire life, especially her mother’s religious cult, is a complete and absolute sham. In a beautiful throwback to when Karolina told Nico that she didn’t need all that make-up to hide behind in episode one, Karolina is the one who helps prepare Nico for the party, applying her make-up, helping her dress-up. They are open with each other.
Nico: That was weird, like I was trying to make you glow or something.
Karolina: Were you?
Imagine that: Karolina basically asking Nico if she was flirting with her and Nico definitely not categorically denying it. It’s like you can see Karolina’s face light up, like she sees an opening, a possibility that she hadn’t even considered before. What if she can use all this chaos and destruction of the world she thought she knew and finally be open with the girl that she has just realised she’s been in love with this whole time? Because realising you’re gay is twice hard, depending on your circumstances – realising it for herself was hard for Karolina, because of everything she was ever taught about herself, but it’s even harder to share that new part of her with other people, especially those whose judgement she values so much. It’s so scary, because how terrible would it be to be rejected not just for a feeling, but for who she is, as a person? And how much worse would it be to be rejected in that particular situation she is in now, with everything out of balance and no certainty, with everything else changing?
Nico: What I saw you do the other night, it should never make you feel afraid, or ashamed.
Karolina: It’s just; everything in my whole life has been has been for my mom and the church, then I learned what I thought was the ultimate good is somehow part of the worst thing imaginable. What if what I do is connected to that? What does that make me?
Nico: You know who you are. I know who you are. And neither of us is our parents, or the messed up shit they’re doing. Although nothing is more messed up what my mum is doing now. Actually being nice for the first time in years.
Karolina: It’s funny, you were always the rebel one, now you’re fairly close to your mum, I was always the momma’s girl, and now...
Nico: And now what? You’re the rebel?
Karolina: No I’m serious. Gert was right. I was the perfect church girl. I never did anything disobedient, or different, or what I wanted. And now that I know that I’m like a total freak, maybe I’m free. To be who I am. And to be honest who I want to be with.
Imagine being in Karolina’s shoes, having found out not just that her mother is involved in a murder cult, not just that she is gay, and in love with her best friend, but also that her actual superpower – her ability – is sparkling like a literal rainbow? It’s a beautiful power, an awesome one, but also one that is impossible to hide. Once she takes off that bracelet, she has no way of pretending that she is like anyone else on this planet, because she is obviously different. More than that, the particular way in which she is different may fit in with what her mother has been doing this whole time – so maybe there is something wrong with her, something evil inside of her. Nico does the kind and gentle thing here which she can do because she must feel similarly – after all, her mother’s weapon cannot even distinguish between Tina and Nico, and they are much more similar than Nico is comfortable with. She knows exactly what Karolina needs to hear, and it’s so much the right thing to say that Karolina almost comes out to her. I’m convinced she would have been brave, she would have dared it all, if Molly and Gert hadn’t burst in without knocking.
It’s one of many crimes Gert commits against friendship in this episode, but the far worse one is what she does later in the episode. Let’s assume that there is an alternative version of this episode where Karolina managed to be brave without any alcohol fuelling her, where she looks Nico in the eyes and tells her that she loves her – it’s a moment that is stolen from her, a grace she isn’t given (it would have been hers, regardless of Nico’s reaction). Instead Gert, later at the party, takes her aside, but not enough for them to be in private, and asks her point-blank if she is into Nico. She doesn’t sit her down. She doesn’t even express her support except as an afterthought, like saying “I still love you, whoever you are” isn’t the most important thing she can say to her right now. Instead, what she does say, and what Karolina hears, is Gert’s desperation to hear that Karolina isn’t in fact competing for Chase’s affections with her, with, to be clear, Karolina has never ever done. It’s unforgivably unkind of Gert, and a betrayal of all the values she holds so dearly – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t relatable, that people don’t something betray their own values when they are desperately in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate their feelings. There’s a lot at stake for Gert, but at the same time, she of all the characters has a whole ideology about supporting other women, one that doesn’t seem to count for anything when her actual friend Karolina needs her love and support. I find this even more painful considering that Gert knows how much bullying Karolina suffers at school for being a “church girl” – but instead of being supportive of her, she joins in the chorus.
It’s even more painful because the scene felt like the exact opposite of a scene in a different show, one that I always thought was perfectly executed: Hanna and Emily, in the beginning of Pretty Little Liars, are in a similar spot. They were estranged for years and they have recently reconnected over trauma. When Hanna realises that Emily may be gay, she is kind and gentle. She is supportive. She is the greatest friend that Emily could possibly hope for, and this follows her through seasons and seasons of the show. Gert does none of that, she does something incredibly selfish, and for once, because Karolina is in that particular mood, because her entire world is crumbling, Karolina does something cruel back. She doesn’t even do anything as much as finally give in to something, because it’s so easy to do. Chase does have a crush on her. He has been low-key chasing her this whole time. She goes up on the roof with a bottle of vodka, and she wants to be alone, but she never really is alone. It’s a concession. She falls off the ledge and Chase can’t catch her, but she saves herself because it turns out that she isn’t just a glowing rainbow stick – she can also fly. It’s a completely exhilarating moment for her, because as much as she feels different from everyone else for all of these reasons – for being gay, for being in love with her best friend, for sparkling – she can also freaking fly. It’s an overwhelming moment of joy, so much so that when Chase kisses her, she doesn’t bother explaining that he’s read this whole thing completely wrong. Her world is crumbling, and for once she goes for an option that’s easy. The scene doesn’t leave any doubt that she doesn’t particularly feel like kissing him back, that she just doesn’t have it in her to hurt him in that moment. But Molly sees, so inevitably, someone will get hurt.
It fits in so perfectly too that Gert excels in this episode where she is also the worst. She enters the fundraiser with so much apprehension and insecurity (Molly, being the greatest as always, tells her that she looks amazing and is impressing everyone), but then later manages to dazzle not one but two security guards with how smart and funny she is – it’s not what she wants, but it’s also a perfect demonstration of how low self-esteem, or having suffered bullying, can fuck people, and especially teenage girls, over twice: Not just with the embarrassment of the moment, with making an environment hostile, but also the self-doubts that are so hard to shake later on, when they taint any accomplishment and win. Nico tells her to just be herself to distract the security guards, and that’s exactly what she does, and it works like a charm on them. She doesn’t tear herself down, she doesn’t really hesitate because she knows what’s at stake, and she is awesome.
So much more happens. Alex and Nico manage to retrieve the footage from Tina’s office, but not before witnessing Tina having a breakdown there (they don’t know that she is crying because Victor has just revealed that Robert is having an affair with his wife). Tina Minoru has seemed desperate to save her marriage, she has tried to get her daughter back, she has tried to find intimacy with her estranged husband, but everything is falling apart for her too, even now that they’ve made another successful sacrifice and brought back Jonah. Karolina’s dad, after failing to go ultra, is doubting his whole life as well, a beautiful parallel to his daughter, and this is also a reminder that Karolina is the sole member of the Runaways with the luxury of having a parent who isn’t involved in the Pride (except things look fairly dark for Frank Dean, now that Jonah has come back to meet his biological daughter, and his deleted memories of his wife sleeping with Jonah are resurfacing). Most importantly, after revealing that his wife is having an affair and collapsing in front of the entire assembled crowd at the fundraiser, Jonah injects Victor with a mysterious substance (it’s ALIEN, all this magic very involved technology is ALIEN TECHNOLOGY practically indistinguishable from magic), which seems to heal him but also delete the horrifying abusive streak that has terrorised his whole family. If this is an intended side-effect on Jonah’s part, or something else, we will soon find out. And in the end, the fact that none of the other kids ever listen to Molly, or pay her much attention, proves to be their greatest weakness: desperate to get to Catherine before she is arrested, Molly accidentally reveals that she was indeed present when the Pride attempted to sacrifice Destiny.
I still feel like Victor and Tina are the worst, but I did enjoy that little moment when Tina showed Nico how to use the staff and giggled about her daughter’s wish being for her to be quiet. They are similar but not the same.
Gert: Dating is so heteronormative.
It does speak to the show's ability to make all of these characters loveable even when they're at their worst, but oh boy, does Chase not know how to read a situation, or rather, probably every experience he's ever had and everything he's ever been told has led him to completely misinterpret everything Karolina does. Watch her face in the limousine, and while he kisses her. He's going to have a very rude awakening soon.
This is once again hard to write about with spoiling anything, but I do wonder if the show is building up to something here: first there’s Tina telling Nico that “you never really know what is going on in someone’s mind, even someone you love” – a comment that is meant to be about Amy, about knowing why her older daughter killed herself (we know that there’s a good chance she didn’t), but one that could also be an ominous prophecy about things to come for Nico. And then there’s Alex, somehow figuring out the password for Tina’s office, which does seem way too easy.
The Yorkes’ are charming as always, monopolising the food at the fundraiser, but I think if we put the pieces together we’ll find that Dale and Stacey have contributed a fair share to Jonah’s project – Dale is the one who poisons the sacrifices, and he admits to having erased Frank Dean’s memory after he stumbled across his wife and Jonah. These two are more culpable than their quirky exterior gives away. I wouldn’t be too surprised if they were closely involved with the Pride causing Molly’s parents’ accident (which I assume happened in the first place because the Hernandezes were the only ones who wanted to leave the Pride after finding out about its true nature).
Chase: You hear about our parents? They’re having an affair.
Nico: What? My mum and your dad?
Chase: No, my mum and…
Nico: Oh god, and my mum.
Chase: No, my mum and your dad.
Like, Robert seems to passive even to his daughter that this option doesn’t even OCCUR to her. Beautifully played, honestly.
Tuesday, 12 December 2017
Maybe it speaks to something being in the air in 2016 and 2017 that Joachim Trier's Thelma is temporally so close to Julia Ducournau's Raw. They utilise the same mechanism, and their power is derived from the same central twist regarding young women: both Justine's and Thelma's parents aren't so much concerned about the damage that the world will do to their daughters, but about the havoc they will wreak upon the world. This is obviously a complete contrast to the approach overbearing, conservative parents would be expected to take once their daughters leave for lives away from their control, but it speaks to their lack of adaptability that the methods that they choose to deploy are the same. Instead of recognising that the power that they fear so much belongs to their children, rather than controls them, they leave them in ignorance about their own potentials, hoping that the strict rules imbued throughout childhood will hold true even when there is significant physical distance. But anyone would know that this approach is doomed to fail, especially when it comes in direct conflict with lust and love.
Both Raw and Thelma pit a dogmatic, tightly controlled childhood (vegetarianism and conservative Christianity) against two women who discover themselves in a more permissive environment. In both their cases, their parents' dogmas are quite literally utilised to keep them in check - Justine's forced vegetarianism is meant to keep her away from the bloodlust inherent in her family, Thelma's Christianity, as is later revealed, is the parents' way of coping with their daughters ability to bend the universe to her own will. The parents exert control over their children, but the caveat is that this control naturally has to end once their children reach adulthood, and undergo the rites like going off to university, and living their own lives. Thelma makes it quite clear that it is concerned with the specific ways in which society punishes and disciplines women who do not fit into what is expected, when Thelma's research into her own condition - non-epileptic seizures - leads down a rabbit hole of institutionalisation and witch hunts.
This is of course not to say that both Justine's and Thelma's conditions, or powers, aren't horrifying in their awesomeness. Trier slowly reveals the trauma at the heart of this family, beginning the film with an ominous scene of a father taking his young daughter hunting, across a frozen lake, into the woods - a man who, without explanation, points his rifle at his daughter before, apparently, changing his mind. The scene feels like a non-sequitur for a long while, until the film reveals, in flashback, that Thelma used to have a little brother, and that her mother hasn't always been in a wheelchair. The scenes from these realisations to the actual explanations are the most tense ones, like an inevitable catastrophe waiting to happen, yet having already happened in Thelma's past. It's a key that unlocks everything - the man in the woods, considering murdering his daughter who, with a simple nightmare, killed her brother, who caused her mother to try and commit suicide - but then changing his mind, and instead raising her with a furious, dogmatic religion that is meant to keep her away from others, from anything that might cause her to lose control.
The film never condemns Thelma's parents for their actions, if anything, it allows the audience to emphasise with them. Their loss and grief are palpable, as is her mother's inability to love her daughter, or trust her, after. She resents her for causing the loss and drama, even though she was only a young child, with no way of controlling her powers. More than that, the film hints that the family should have seen it coming, should have prepared better but maybe instead chose to only fully embrace the son once he was born (there is no confirmation for this but it seems like whatever Thelma has only affects female members of the family). Thelma's grandmother, who feverishly told stories that sound similar to what is happening to her now, has been locked away in a mental hospital, and erased from the family history.
But none of this - a story about a girl whose powers scare her family so much that they do everything short of killing her to control her, instead of giving her the ability to understand herself - would have the punch and emotional resonance if it weren't for Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Thelma leaves her parents' remote house to study in Oslo, were she starts out as - and the film shows this quite literally, zooming in on her wandering forlornly admits groups of students on campus in birds-eye - a socially inept loner, who cannot figure out the social conventions that come so easily and naturally to her fellow students. In lectures, she sits alone, she doesn't speak to anyone, at night, she walks back to her puritanically furnished (until her parents visit her, and bring a table and chairs) student apartment in a concrete block. Her parents call at the same time every day, requesting detailed reports about her daily activities, including meals, and they keep a close eye on all of her social media activity, in case she befriends anyone they do not approve of. Before we figure out what is truly going on, they seem overbearing and controlling, creating a situation in which it has become impossible for Thelma to fit in with everyone else.
Everything changes when a girl sits down next to her in the library. Nothing happens between them, no word is spoken, but her mere presence, her closeness, causes a severe reaction in Thelma. She suffers a seizure in front of all the other students there, an embarrassment that she carries stoically, as if she never expected not to, at some point, become socially stigmatised.
There seems to be no medical explanation for what happened, but once the two girls meet again - after Anja approaches her in a swimming pool, feeling responsible for the girl she's met under such severe circumstances - it becomes easier to draw a line between Thelma's feelings for her new friend and what happens involuntarily to her body. That first line of interpretation soon starts to feel like a red herring though, or at least a simplification of what Trier is trying to do here - it isn't just deeply repressed feelings that are violently surfacing once Thelma falls in love with Anja. What happens goes far beyond that - animals begin to follow her home, she has vivid dreams that bleed into reality, she moves things with her mind without wanting to. More than that, and this is maybe the central question around which this entire story turns, she seems to be able to compel Anja to do things. Before they truly know each other, because she thinks of her, Anja walks through the night to find her, in spite of never having been told where she lives.
Once Thelma is back under the control of her parents, once terrible things have happened and she gives up on the idea of living an independent life away from them, her father will use this brutally against her. To explain herself, she talks about how they loved each other, and how true their love was, and to counter her, and to regain control over her, he responds that Anja was merely acting out of compulsion, that Thelma can bend the universe and the minds of others to her will, and therefore, no love she will ever experience will be true. At this point in the story, this argument is clearly the ploy of a father justifying to himself what he is planning to do, what his wife has compelled him to do. They are drugging their daughter to keep her in check, they are planning to wipe out their entire family because they have run out of option, in spite of never ever having tried the kindest one - trusting that Thelma, given the option, may be able to control her abilities and not misuse them. In their minds, their little girl has become monstrous, and they have to slay that monster, along with themselves, restore balance. It's a horrible moment in the film when Thelma realises what her parents have planned for her (when she sees that hatred, that decision, in her mother's face).
Is this the central question of the film? If Anja loved Thelma willingly, if she was compelled to love her? If Thelma willed it so that Anja would break up with her boyfriend, and then love her back? I think it would be cynical to follow an argument made by a man whose entire life has been undermined and destroyed by the catastrophic ways in which he has dealt with having Thelma as a daughter. He is gentle and kind at times, but also controlling and calculating in how he treats her, so his interpretation of her life should be seen in that light. Maybe Trier is asking us to go by what we see, which is two women who fall in love intensely and suddenly - Anja seems intrigued by and drawn to Thelma before Thelma exerts any kind of control over her, and Thelma, up until her last moments with her mother in the film, seems to have no direct control over her powers (and previously doesn't have the ability to change anyone's mind about her, she can give subtle commands and compel animals and people to move, but does that mean being able to compel to love, which is so much more than mere movement?). Anja is overwhelmingly gentle and soft with this girl who is so different from anyone else, and she almost immediately makes the decision to share her life with her to the extent of bringing her along to a performance at the Opera, with her mother. She seems genuinely hurt when Thelma panics and draws away because she cannot control her powers when she wants too much.
Anja is central to the film, even though she is absent throughout the second half, and the absence itself becomes the focus point of so many questions. Thelma seems to make her disappear, and this absence remains unexplained until the end, but it triggers her return to her parents. At the same time, the promise of Anja is the promise of having a life beyond this, beyond being drugged by her own father and being told that she will never exist on her own, that her future is mapped out to lead to the hospital room in which she found her long-believed-dead grandmother. In the end, the only way to break free is drastic, but at the same time inevitable once Thelma realises that she is not just fighting for her freedom, but her life. Her father drowns in the lake after believing himself to be on fire, but then the film takes another twist away from what we might have expected from an unsettled and freed Thelma. Instead of killing her mother as well, she gently shows her that there is another way, that now has her awesome powers under enough control to restore her ability to walk.
Instead of taking freedom away, she gives it freely. And she returns to a happy life, a life that appears to be normal from the outside, one where she is loved in return, so that when the camera zooms out - slowly, following the movement from the start - she is no longer alone. There is, of course, the eerie undertone of doubt, the question of free will, one that can maybe be resolved through the idea that any other person exists as a reflection in our own minds (and that the greatest danger is always confusing this reflection with the actual person, who exists autonomously). Or maybe it can be resolved if we assume that there is no true difference between the two in Thelma.
2017, directed by Joachim Trier, starring Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen.
Sunday, 10 December 2017
Spoilers for episodes 1 to 5
There are so many points at which to depart on this journey. From those first five episodes of a show that has been years in the making, based on a beloved comic that started in 2001 (!) and had been on an indefinite hiatus until earlier this year – the best thing is seeing these actors inhabit their characters so perfectly, bringing them to life. I hadn’t read many comic books before Runaways, so the concept of different artists bringing their own interpretation of characters to the table throughout the run was new to me – and in that regard, the television show is just another facet of Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s original story.
This is loosely based on what happens in the first series of books. How closely it will follow will soon be revealed, but it will be hard to write about some characters without keeping in mind where they go in the comics. There are some distinctive differences here, too, some of which are owed to the amount of years that have passed since the first book, some to the requirements of a television show vs. a comic book, some perhaps because the creators wanted to tell their own story. A few of the characters have a very different background, and therefore, motivation – Nico gets a very traumatic backstory with the death of her sister Amy, Karolina’s arc starts in a sect that looks a lot like Scientology except all that wacky ideology will ironically be based in fact here (not that we technically now this yet, but from what we’ve seen, it isn’t exactly a spoiler to say that the Deans are Not From Earth). The most tangible difference in terms of storytelling is the focus on the parents as well as the children – we are given much more of an insight into their activities, if not necessarily, or yet, the motivations behind their actions. This isn’t a surprise, considering how both Savage and Schwartz approached storytelling their previous shows about teenagers.
I’m torn whether this is a particularly good idea, as one of the most moving and immediately captivating things about the books is the way in which these six teenagers are thrown into flight without too many orientation points. They see their parents do something terrible, they realise that everything about their world was a lie, and they leave – it’s quick and breathtaking, disorienting, but at the same time, a lot more eloquent than the slow realisation that the television show allows the characters, along with the difference in perspective, since we see what happens behind the scenes as well. The entire second episode is dedicated to showing the same events of the first from the perspective of the parents, and I’m not sure if that really contributes much to Runaways apart from giving some of the high-profile actors hired to play the parents more to work with. On the other hand, it means that the unlikely opponents – the kids’ parents – are more fleshed out, which sets the stakes much higher.
It is too early to judge, so why not focus on what absolutely works here, which is how the show establishes its main characters and their relationship to each other. There are deeply affecting and memorable moments for all of them in this first half of the season – they are each developed individually – but at the same time, the show brings them all closer as a group as well, a process that feels completely organic in spite of the conflicts that the show doesn’t glaze over. They are all heavily burdened by history even before any of this starts, even before discovering the dark secret of their parents. The glue that used to hold them together wasn’t as much their parents’ connection (one that nobody in their right mind would describe as friendship), but Nico’s sister Amy, whose death tore them apart. They couldn’t find each other anymore after that, and grew apart to the extent that they barely acknowledge each other in the school they still go to together. The process of falling apart has placed them in very distinctive social groups at school. They line up fairly well with the Mean Girls cafeteria scheme of things, but obviously, many of the preconceptions will turn out wrong.
There’s Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), whose mother is leading a cult called “Church of Gibborim” and forcing her daughter into being the face of her church, an identity that seats increasingly uncomfortable with her and makes her the ridicule of all the other kids at school. When Destiny, one of the runaways her mother has picked up to join the church (and to become the unwilling human sacrifice for the Pride, her power-hungry group of wealthy supervillains), talks to her, she asks her about what it is like to rebel, voicing so clearly how desperately she wants to discover the world beyond the confines of her mother’s church. Even before anything else happens, before any of the other shocks rock her world, something is set in motion. One night she breaks out and attends a party, and sees two girls kissing each other – a moment that opens up something inside of her figuratively, and literally once she takes off a bracelet that she has worn her entire life. She transgresses against her mother’s limitations, she is suddenly able to put the pieces of her identity together, or at least start to, and the result is glorious – she turns into an actual, beautiful, glittering rainbow. Considering that this is a show about teenagers, but also one about superpowers of all sorts, this is the perfect translation of the idea that being a teenager is glorious, overwhelming, as the world changes with every new revelation about the self – here, it’s not just Karolina realising that she might like girls, but also, Karolina seeing her true form for the first time (a form that isn’t human). So even before we find out about her mother’s identity, about how the Pride consolidates its power with human sacrifices, there is a sense that she has kept a tight grip on how much of herself Karolina has been able to explore, and now that she has taken the first step, the floodgates open.
It’s also important to remember that this happens before Karolina, Nico, Chase, Gert, Alex and Molly reconnect as friends. They’ve been estranged for years, and it will only be later that night when their shared discovery of their parents’ activities will bond them again. It’s Alex’ doing – Alex who seems most concerned about the importance of their togetherness, who was perhaps second-closest to Nico’s sister Alex, who insists and insists that they must become friends again and go back to who they were before they broke up. He denies the validity of the argument that they were only friends because their parents were, but I think what happens here is all the more powerful because when they reconnect, they are different people, who meet each other after starting to realise all these new things about themselves.
The greatest surprise for me was how quickly Gregg Sulkin manages to capture how very torn Chase Stein is. On the surface, he is a jock, someone who runs with a crowd of bullies who ridicule all of Chase’s former friends. Beneath the surface, his greatest battle is with his over-bearing , violent father Victor Stein, who keeps his wife and son in line with aggression and corporal punishment, who instils so much fear in Chase that he flinches whenever he makes even the slightest mistake. This is a visceral, horrifying portrayal of a kid who has suffered abuse, and is still desperately trying to make his dad proud with his inventions, who is still trying to see the good side to a man who is absolutely abhorrent. In spite of portraying Victor as someone struggling with immense responsibility and sickness, Runaways doesn’t leave any doubt that this man is as despicable abuser. All of these characters are influenced by who their parents are, and the question the show asks is what happens when those people who have shaped them turn out to be evil – but Chase (and Nico) are the ones that have most shaped themselves in opposition to their respective dominant parent. Chase steps in and protects Karolina when she is in danger. He is like a big brother to Molly. When he fails – like in how he treats Gert, he mostly realises soon after. He can’t rely on a superpower, so the ways in which he protects his friends and makes himself strong are through hard work (he is the inventor, in the shadow of his father, but his inventions protect).
If Chase becomes, especially through his relationship with Molly, a sort of father, Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer, perfectly cast) is a more or less unwilling mother. She is an outspoken feminist, trapped in a high school world where most people seem apathetic about politics. Her parents, compared to the other kids’, are not too far off from normal middle-class – the Yorkes aren’t outlandishly rich, and instead came into the Pride as, it appears, upstarts who are grudgingly tolerated especially by the regal and arrogant Tina Minoru. They also appear to be much closer and genuinely caring than the other parents, and have fully adopted Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) into their family after the tragic death of her parents (which is another unexplained foundational trauma here). More than the other parents, the Yorkes’ decision to keep secrets from their two children seems like a genuine attempt to protect them rather than to retain power over them.
Consequently, one of the most beautiful moments in the series so far is Gert singing to Molly to try and calm her after they witness the human sacrifice. Gert, who is struggling with her own demons (like, being in love with Chase, having a lot of misplaced jealousy of Chase’s connection with Karolina, who already rubs her wrong because of how her religion clashes with Gert’s feminism), has to be strong for her adopted sister. Later, she will become even stronger when she realises that her parents have raised a genetically modified dinosaur to protect their daughter, one that listens to every command she gives.
I think there is a parallel between Chase’s arc and Gert’s, one that fits beautifully in with the fact that they are the star-crossed, central romance in the comics (beautifully revived in Rainbow Rowell’s new arc after the hiatus). Chase tries hard to become a better person because he is desperate to be kinder than his father. Gert has to realise at some point that her own actions conflict with her feminism whenever she allows her jealousy to come into her friendship with Karolina, who needs her support. I’m a bit hesitant to judge the shows’ decision to dangle Karolina and Chase like a red herring for now (like, it makes sense from a storytelling perspective that Karolina would cling to some kind of normality to protect herself from all these mind-blowing revelations about herself?)
Speaking of Molly, the strongest among them, which fits in with the fact that she is the youngest, and most frustrated by the fact that nobody ever listens to her. Molly is doomed to constantly have a better grasp of what is going on than everyone else, yet failing to get anyone to listen to her. It fits that her superpower is so dramatic – it’s incredible strength, but one that comes with the high cost of requiring a nap right after using them. It’s a perfect example of how Runaways refuses the usual trappings of superhero shows. All of these kids are exhilarated and completely in awe when they find out about their individual powers/dinosaurs/being able to make those bionic gloves work. They are playful with their powers, experiment with them, the way any person would. This is such a stark contrast to how superpowers either doom or seem to lead to melancholic and lonely existences in other Marvel stories, or how they just tie in with some kind of global conspiracy or military operation in others. These are kids with superpowers, but foremost, they are still teenagers. Molly is giddy with her new power, especially in light of never being taken seriously (and it’s a lovely little moment when Molly is the one who comes up with the idea of covering up her very great change with one that would be more expected of a 14-year old). All these kids react like normal teenagers would when they find out that their parents aren’t infallible (and many of them have always known this anyway, like Chase and Nico, while others, like Karolina and Alex, come to the realisation very reluctantly).
For some of them, their traumas of the past inform how they operate in the present. There’s Chase’s constant fear of his father’s judgement, and Nico Minoru’s (Lyrica Okano) existence in a household where her sister’s death looms large. She has lost the ability to connect with her parents, her mother is cold, distant, incomprehensible, her father is weak. She deeply believes that she is a witch, and tries again and again to awaken her powers – until, ironically, she realises that she is an actual witch, but her powers come from her mother’s staff. As much as she wants to generate them from herself, in the end, she has to take them from the mother she hates so much (and from what we’ve seen so far, Tina is en-par evil with Victor Stein, even though I’d argue that Karolina’s mum is secretly worse than any of them). I wonder why the creators decided to take a different route here (in the comics, the staff of one appears out of Nico’s body, when she is injured, and has very strict rules about how it can be used).
Nico has lived the past years of her life navigating her grief for a sister she loved, navigating what was very likely a lie that was told to her (that her sister killed herself), navigating finding her own identity in all of that. She does so by putting on a costume and calling out everyone around her that she perceives as inauthentic. Her gaze falls first on Karolina, who is hiding so much behind a symbolic costume, and a religion she doesn’t entirely believe in anymore. These two dance around each other, call each other out – but, in a central moment in the fifth episode, their relationship shifts even further when Nico adds another piece to the puzzle of Karolina’s identity. It’s a two-step process, realising she likes girls, then realising she likes her best friend, and a two-punch pain, thinking she cannot share this with anyone and seeing Nico kiss Alex. As much as Gert’s and Chase’s romance drives the plot in the comics, Nico and Karolina’s dance around each other, always narrowly missing each other, is already established as a driving force here, and we’ll see where it goes.
Which leaves Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Felix), who starts everything. He brings all his former friends to his house. He causes the event that helps them find out the identity of their parents. He insists that they must uncover this secret together. He knows exactly which buttons to push for all of them to come to the house again – but in the end, it isn’t nostalgia that connects them, or the shared trauma of losing Amy, or even their shared realisation about their parents. I think their connection goes deeper than that, it is a genuine love for each other that only develops more and more throughout the season. There are the individual connections – Alex and Nico’s evolving romance, Gert’s feelings for Chase which might or might not be reciprocated, Molly and Gert, Molly and Chase, Nico and Karolina, Karolina and Chase – but they truly come together when they go looking for Alex after he is kidnapped, and use their powers together the first time. They trust each other to protect each other. As outlandish as it seems that that staff should grant Nico powers, they never doubt that it will save their lives. Alex himself, for now, doesn’t have powers beyond being very good with computers. As much as he serves as a leader of sorts, he remains unknowable – if anything, his conflict with his father is the most outspoken especially because his connection to him is so deep, because his father is s open about his love for Alex. We will obviously see where the show goes with this – for one, I wish it hadn’t given Geoffrey Wilder that particular backstory, that it would have reconsidered falling into all these clichés about how a black family might have achieved power and wealth. But I think we’re stuck now with needing to find out what Alex will realise about himself in the course of this.
2017-, created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage based on the comics created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, starring Lyrica Okano, Ariela Barer, Virginia Gardner, Rhenzy Feliz, Gregg Sulkin, Allegra Acosta.
Saturday, 9 December 2017
So many things, so horrifyingly hard to keep up with things.
But first of, here's Sean Kelly on Marriage Equality becoming law in Australia:
But while it is easy to become distracted by disillusionment, we shouldn’t always succumb. All of the above is about disenchantment with politics as it is practised in Canberra – and as we head into summer and away from this brutal parliamentary year, we should, briefly at least, try to give our focus in its entirety to the great change that occurred this week in Australia. It is a wonderful change, one that has already brought – and will continue to bring – joy to millions, and the various political frustrations of this week are, in comparison, nothing at all.
The Monthly: Remember This Moment, December 8, 2017
It's a victory that should remain untarnished by the way it was won: the wrongness of the idea that a majority should get to vote on the civil rights of a minority, a campaign of hatred by the no side, protagonists claiming the victory for themselves and patting their own shoulders when all they did was try and appease the homophobic elements in their own party. Malcolm Turnbull doesn't get to claim this as his own - it's all of ours, and not because, but in spite of the current Australian government (and it is not the final hurdle, and anyone who thinks so only reveals their deliberately limited and privileged conception of what this community is).
And none of this should distract from what is happening on Manus. After the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court found the detention centres to be unconstitutional, instead of finding a solution for the people trapped there, Australia left them to their own devices in an increasingly hostile climate.
It’s important to understand that willful negligence has always been a central philosophy in Australia’s offshore detention regime. The nation has outsourced its responsibilities and pitted one marginalised group against another. It is a former coloniser of Papua New Guinea, has weaponised much needed aid, has pressured the PNG government with directions straight from Australian immigration and border force personnel, and failed to deliver many logistical upgrades that they promised Manusians. After over four years of indefinite detention, it’s obvious that the regime’s underlying ideology is an act of neocolonialism.
From the beginning, Australia has stoked the fires between both the local Manusian people and the men unlawfully detained on the island. The refugees have become a symbol of outside meddling, intrusion and danger. And while some locals have tried to assist the men, there have been numerous incidences of violence and tension between the two groups.
Meanjin: Human Rights and Political Wrongs, November 23, 2017
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist, has documented the situation on Manus for the Guardian.
Yemen's former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by former Houthi allies that he only recently broke with in the now three-year old civil war which is a proxy of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led alliance has been fighting Houthi rebels in the country but has failed to make a military breakthrough.
Meanwhile, in the never-ending horror show that is United States politics - I think this year has felt so incomprehensible because as much as all these revelations come together in an emerging story about corruption and incompetence, none of it seems to go anywhere. Every single new revelation on its own feels like it would have ended any previous presidency, and yet, all of these scandals disappear into a black void. It's "party before country", but on a much more massive scale: an entire political party well-aware of how much of its political future is now linked to a ticking time bomb of an administration.
In Alabama, Republicans are backing Roy Moore, who is facing sexual assault allegations against minors.
In Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential elections, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to "telling four lies to the FBI" - and the fact that these are relatively minor charges was widely interpreted as a sign that Flynn had started to cooperate with the investigation. Statements by Donald Trump regarding Flynn's contact with the Russian ambassador are contradicted by Flynn's admission. One of the prosecutors working for Mueller stated that a "a very senior member of the transition team" directed Flynn to make contact with the Russian ambassador. Another revelation is the fact that the transition team seems to have actively undermined US foreign policy.
TIME magazine decided to make the #MeToo movement the Person of the Year, and Donald Trump, who recently boasted he was invited for a photo shoot, is named in the accompanying article as an example of the misogyny that this movement is exposing with every new revelation of sexual misconduct and abuse. The conversation isn't just about the men who have profited from industries that are built on skewed power differentials and male privilege, but also about the very culture that has collaborated and been complicit in allowing these men to thrive regardless of the countless allegations that were, more or less, public knowledge years before 2017 (how long have the rumours about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer been around?). How come this misplaced reverence for cultural figures like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski still outweighs any consideration for the damage they have done?
Anyway, here's Maureen Ryan talking about her favourite television this year. "We can either get to the root of the interlocking problems arising from the rampant abuse of power, and we can make sure that promising creative people are not driven out by predators, toxic bullies and harassers."