Sunday, 10 December 2017

Runaways

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 clich├ęs 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.

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